Fun Etymology Tuesday – Elf

How’s life, faithful readers? If you’ve been paying attention the past few months, you’ll have noticed a pattern in what we publish each week on Tuesday.
That’s right: it’s Fun Etymology time!

Today, we want to talk about hidden words.
Sometimes words hide inside other words, camouflaging their forms so that you have to know where to look to find them.
Such words are like the fairies of old: mischevious and adept at hiding from the mortals’ prying eyes. One such word is today’s word: “elf”.

Readers of Tolkien (and of fantasy in general) will surely be familiar with the image of the Nordic Elf, the elf as imagined by the people of ancient Scandinavia: beautiful, ethereal, and dangerous in some subtle way. In English and Celtic folklore, however, elves were a different beast altogether: short, ugly, and terribly mischevious if not even malicious.

The word “elf” goes back a long time: it comes unchanged from Old English, and has cousins in many other Germanic languages (such as German “Alp” and Old Norse “alfr”). Ultimately, it can be traced back to Proto-Germanic *albiz, but beyond that its origins are mysterious. One hypothesis is that it could come from Proto-Indo-European “*albho-“, meaning “white”.

Where does this word hide, you ask? Well, if any of you is called Alfred, Alvin, or (less likely) Eldridge, it’s right in your name!
In the Middle Ages, people believed that fairies and elves lay hidden around the world ready to snatch children and waylay adults, and had a fearful respect for such creatures. Many names still used today contain the word “elf”.
The three names I’ve just cited, for example, come from Old English “Ælfræd”, meaning “Elf-counsel”, “Ælfwine”, meaning “Elf-friend”, and “Ælfric”, meaning “Elf-ruler”, respectively.

Who knows what other mischevious words hide within our names? Can you find out?

The Scots Leid – The Scots Language

I am very excited to share this post with you, and have been looking forward to it since the dawn of the HLC. Why? This post marks the first part of a mini-series which will tell you the story of the Scots language, its historical and present day status and linguistic elements, while introducing concepts such as language standardisation and the idea of “debased English”. For now, let’s start with a general overview of what Scots is and where it came from. As any essay-boosting student would, I will start with a quote:

“Up until the end of the 18th century largely the entire Scottish population spoke Gaelic […] During the 19th century the English language further dominated the area. It was the language of the church and schools. Essentially all contacts outside of the villages was in English.”

The quote above comes from a language sciences textbook by a Swedish author1 (the translation is my own). I’m gonna leave it with you for now, and by the end of this post it will hopefully become clear why the statements above are not only problematic, but also plainly wrong!

So, what do we mean when we talk about the Scots language? When hearing the name, some assume it’s another name for Scottish Gaelic (usually pronounced Gallic) , others that it’s a name for the variety spoken in Scotland which is “essentially English” with some lexical differences. As I will probably write about Scots again outside of this blog series (I may be a one-trick pony), I figured it was appropriate to outline as simple as possible (it’s not in any way simple) what the Scots language is, isn’t, and what it has been. I am not going to give any absolute answers, because they can be somewhat political, but will try to keep this series nice and diplomatic, and highly linguistic2.

How far back to begin? I think it is best for everyone if I leave pre-Celtic out of this. I can even do without outlining what we know of the Picts, right? I think we should start in the Dark Ages, when the Gaels, also called the Scotti, migrated to Scotland from Ireland. This people and their language, an ancestor variety to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, dominated Scotland for quite some time. In the Middle Ages, there was a shift to a variety referred to as Inglis, deriving from Northumbrian Old English. Inglis was not called so for very long, but soon became Scottis (in the early 16th century) and finally Scots. Scots became the common language of the Scottish lowlands (and northern islands, but slightly later), while Gaelic remained the language of the highlands.

Map of Scotland, 1595. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland3.

The shift from Gaelic to Inglis/Scots began in the Scottish burghs established in Southern Scotland in the 12th century (hint: Edin-burgh). These burghs became  melting pots for various languages, and the main contributors were locally spoken Northumbrian/Anglian (i.e. varieties of Old-Middle English), Northumbrian/Anglian from south of the English border, Anglo-Norman, Gaelic, Scandinavianised English from the previous Danelaw area, and Flemish spoken by merchants from the continent. All of these lovely ingredients came together to form the tasty casserole we call Older Scots. Now, Scots periodisation is not a done deal, and I will tactfully avoid the issue by referring to everything Scots between 1100 and 1700 as Older Scots. I’ll have to refer you to the footnotes4 for more information about this, we need to stay on the ball.

After this rather lengthy intro, we now arrive at the core of what I want to be known by the end of this post: Scots was a historically distinct variety, spoken in the Scottish lowlands, which was used for all functions and purposes for several centuries; it was the language of literature, parliament, legal texts etc., etc. Essentially, Scots and English were two distinct varieties, and recognised as such! It was not until the late 16th century that things started to change. First, strike one, during the Scottish Reformation (1540) the bible was only available in English, making English the language of religion. Then, strike two, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of Scotland and England after the death of Elizabeth I – this event is called the Union of the Crowns (1603) – which made English the language of the royal court.

King James the VI of Scotland and I of England and Scotland.5

The third strike came in 1707, the Union of Parliaments, when Scotland became part of the United Kingdom and thus English became the language of parliament. By this time, Scots lost its status as a language for formal use, and essentially became degraded, in the public view, to a vernacular, “uneducated” dialect used by the working class and rural populations. The final blow came with the Education Act of 1872, which required only English to be spoken and taught in schools6.  

Does this mean that Scots is gone? Of course not, but the status of Scots as a language is a complicated issue. To properly explain what present-day Scots is we would need to dive back into the debate of what constitutes a language. In recent decades, Scots has received a lot of attention and activism; many Scots speakers want to see their variety receiving official language status, they want justification for the marginalisation of their language and some seek standardisation of Scots. What complicates this matter is that spoken Scots is used by different people from different geographical areas and demographic groups, without a unifying standard variety for several centuries, so it has become a highly mixed variety with very different dialects and sociolects under its spectra. If we were to attempt standardisation, would the urban Glasgow speech “win”, or the rural Aberdeenshire Scots? Or, would we construct a standard like what was done with Basque? Further, it has become increasingly difficult to determine where Scots ends and Scottish English (i.e. English with a Scottish accent) begins, especially since most speakers mix their speech with elements from both varieties and change their speech depending on context.

We can now establish that the quote from the Swedish textbook is problematic mainly because (i). Gaelic was not the language of all of Scotland before 1700, and (ii). It’s controversial to claim that Gaelic was overtaken by English, rather than Scots (and that this happened as late as the 19th century). Finally, I recommend all to visit the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website for more information about Scots literary history in particular, and to get a better idea of what Scots looks and sounds like (the whole website is in Scots). I have tried very hard to not make this too lengthy and too specific, and I hope I did not lose any essential details in the process. While this post was mostly meant as a general overview of the history and terminology surrounding Scots, the next post in the series will be dedicated to the linguistic distinctions between Scots and English.

To be continued.


1I will leave this author anonymous – it is not my place to shame anyone, this person cited someone else and this may not be their area of expertise.

2I want to give a huge shout out and many thanks to the people teaching the Scots courses at the University of Edinburgh who taught me all of this stuff: Dr Rhona Alcorn, Dr Joanna Kopaczyk, Dr Warren Maguire and Dr Benjamin Molineaux. Anything uncited is credited to their lectures, I owe it all to them!

3Accessed at:
Copyright terms:

4A.J. Aitken (i.e. the forefather of modern Scots linguistics, one might say (and this one does say)) is responsible for the traditional periodisation used. However, Joanna Kopazcyk makes very good points regarding why this periodisation is not ideal, and I’ll refer you to her article for those arguments:
Kopaczyk, J. (2013). Rethinking the traditional periodisation of the scots language. In R. M. Millar and J. Cruickshank (Eds.), After the Storm: Papers from the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster. University of Aberdeen.

5Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery:

6This act, of course, also had severe effects for Scottish Gaelic.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Wizengamot

Salvete, amici!

It’s Tuesday, and you know what that means: Fun Etymology time!

This week, we’re getting a little literary. J. K. Rowling snuck a lot of clever things into the Harry Potter books. One of those is the word “Wizengamot.” In the books, the Wizengamot is the wizards’ highest court of law and parliament. The name is a blending of “wizard” and the Old English word “witenagemot,” meaning “meeting of the wise men.” Like the wizarding equivalent, the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot was a governing council that advised the king.

“Witenagemot” breaks down into two words. “Witena” comes from “wita,” meaning “wise man.” “Gemot” means “meeting or council.” It also appeared without the prefix as “mot,” which is the source of our Modern English word “moot” (meaning “debatable or irrelevant”). The modern sense of the word comes from a Renaissance usage by law students to refer to a discussion of hypothetical law cases, hence “debatable.” (Anyone who’s sat through a pointless meeting or a discussion that’s gone on way too long and circled back around can guess how that morphed into “irrelevant.”)

Speaking of literature, Old English “mot” is also the source of Tolkien’s Entmoot, literally “meeting of the Ents.”

Books, am I right?

Speaking in Tongues: a Brief History of Conlanging




Up until now, we at the HLC have mainly written about languages that evolved naturally out in the vast and scary place we call the real world, descending from parent languages, which descended from even older parent languages, which presumably descended from the grunts and shrieks our simian ancestors used to brag to each other about their poo-flinging prowess.

However, not all languages have evolved naturally. Some, believe it or not, have been partly or wholly created out of whole cloth by people such as hobbyists, writers, philosophers or logicians. These are called artificial languages, or conlangs (short for constructed languages), and they go waaaaay back.

Now you might be objecting: “but aren’t all languages human-created?”

Well, yes, they are. But there’s a difference between natural languages (or natlangs) and conlangs: while natural languages evolve more or less spontaneously over a span of millennia through their use in a wide community, conlangs are wholly and deliberately manufactured (and sometimes evolved) by one or more people over the course of months, or at most decades.

No hominid sat at a table (or a rock formation resembling a table) in prehistoric times and deliberately decided to create a communication system which went beyond simple mating calls and poo-flinging calls; language evolved naturally out of whatever was before it through means that are still not very clear.

Or maybe they did, and we’re all speaking the descendants of some genius hominid’s conlang. Who knows?

2. The First Age of Conlangs: 12th to 17th Centuries

Anyway, nobody knows how far back the history of language invention goes, but it’s pretty probable that the first such artificial languages were created for religious or ritual purposes, to have a secret language only the priests knew with which they could communicate with the gods. Why do we think that? Because the first artificial language ever passed down to us is just such a language: it was called Lingua Ignota, and was invented in the 12th century by St. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess and Christian mystic. Very little of her creation has trickled down through the centuries, but we know that she used this language to pray and to talk to the other nuns in her abbey. Her being the first known conlanger, as well as an actual Catholic Saint, earned her the moniker of Patron Saint of Conlanging.

Other mystical or magical conlangs came into existence during the 15th and 17th centuries, such as Enochian, created by the famous English occultist John Dee, who claimed it was the language of the angels. Very few actual complete conlangs have reached us from this very early period, and no one actually knows whether St. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota truly was the first conlang or, as it’s more likely, others existed before hers which simply didn’t survive the ages.

3. The Second Age of Conlangs: 18th to 19th Centuries

The second chapter in the history of conlanging began in the 18th century, when a guy named John Wilkins published his book entitled Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. In this book, he proposed a language which would divide all of human thought in discrete categories, each represented by a different sound, which could be combined to form words. His ultimate goal was to create a maximally efficient and understandable language which could be used to communicate with all of humankind. It was the first auxiliary language, or auxlang, a conlang whose noble goal is facilitating communication between different cultures, as well as being culturally and linguistically neutral. In an era of unceasing nationalistic struggle, these utopic goals attracted the attention of numerous scholars of the Age of Enlightenment.

His efforts didn’t lead to much, but his ideas exploded in the 19th century, giving birth to what can only be called an auxiliary language craze, which saw the creation of numerous languages aimed at facilitating communication between different cultures, such as Volapük (a strange mishmash of various European languages), Solresol (a language meant to be sung or played on an instrument as well as spoken), and what is arguably the most famous conlang of all, Esperanto, created by Polish optician L. Zamenhof in 1887, and which holds the distinction of being the only conlang so far to have acquired native speakers. Esperanto spawned innumerable variants and imitators, some of which are still being created today.

Ultimately, though, the great auxiliary language experiment did not succeed. Unfortunately, the very concept of an auxiliary language presents some insurmountable difficulties which make its successful application all but impossible.

Another kind of conlang which originated in this period was the engineered language, or engelang. Engelangs are conlangs created by linguists or philosophers with the goal of exploring aspects of language or human thought, sort of like “linguistic labs”, so to speak. Some of the most famous engelangs include Lojban, whose goal is creating a language which obeys the rules of formal logic; Ithkuil, a monument of engelanging created by John Quijada, whose goal was creating a language which could convey the most information with the greatest degree of clarity and economy of space (it has 92 cases!!); and Toki Pona, created by Sonja Lang, a cuddly language which tries to encapsulate human thought in just 120 words.

4. The Golden Age of Conlangs: mid-20th Century to Present

The third and ongoing chapter in the history of language invention began in the 20th century, with the rise of artistic languages, or artlangs. For the first time in history, conlangs were created with no particular goal in mind, but as a means of artistic expression. The most famous creator of such languages was English linguist and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, the Mozart of conlanging, who I hope needs no introduction. He started conlanging as a child, and called creating artificial languages his “secret vice”. His conlanging work is monumental: he created multiple languages, which he then artificially evolved to create numerous language families, each comprised of a dozen languages or so. This magnificent handiwork is so complex that there are actual linguists specialising in the study of his languages, and scholarly periodicals published regularly about them.

Another famous artistic language is Klingon, created for the Star Trek television series by Mark Okrand, probably the second best known conlang after Esperanto.

But it’s with the premiere of the TV series and cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones in 2011, which prominently features conlangs created by professional conlanger David J. Peterson, that the conlanging world truly exploded. Where once conlangers were numbered in the dozens, now they are hundreds, with forums and Facebook groups dedicated to this peculiar hobby.

This explosion of interest, together with the publication of conlanging manuals and the spread of conlanging websites on the Internet, has given the current period the name of Golden Age of Conlanging.

So, boys and girls, this is the history of conlanging. Unlike the history of natural language, this is a history of human invention and ingenuity.

Maybe the next chapter of the history of conlanging could be written by some of you guys.

Stay tuned for next week, when the astonishing Lisa will bring tae ye the historie o the Scots Leid.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Bear

Hail and well met!

It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for our usual appointment with etymologies and fun!

Today’s word is one of the most interesting words in all European languages: “bear”.
I bet you’ve never thought about “bear” as a particularly interesting word, but I assure you that by the end of this post you’ll think differently.

In Europe, the original Indo-European root for “bear”, *rtko, survived in the Romance and Greek languages (as the descendants of Latin “ursus” and Greek “arktos”, respectively) as well as some of the Celtic branch, but was completely lost in the Germanic and Slavic branches. Why? Because the bear was a sacred animal to the Germanic and Slavic people, and uttering its true name was considered an affront to the gods, so workarounds were devised to refer to the bear without offending the powers.
The solution the Germanic people came up with was calling the bear “the Brown One”, and that’s where the modern word “bear” comes from: the Indo-European root *bher-, from which also comes the word “brown”.
Russians call the bear “the Honey Thief”, “medved'”.

As for the original name of the bear? It came back into English through Greek as the word “Arctic”, the place where bears are, and Antarctic, the place away from where the bears are.
That’s right: which of the two poles of Earth you are in is defined by whether or not there are bears in it.

Pretty interesting, is it not?

Is English a Romance language? On language families and relationships

Today, I’m going to talk about language families! When I say this, I believe that most of you will have, on some level, an intuitive hunch about what I mean. If we were to compare a couple of common words found in, for example, Spanish and Italian, we would find that they are often very similar or, in some cases, even identical. Take a look:

Spanish Italian English translation
vivir vivere live
boca bocca mouth
tu you

Similarly, if we were to look at Swedish, Danish and Norwegian:

Swedish Danish Norwegian English translation
leva leve leve live
mun mund munn mouth
du du du you

You see the similarities? Now, why is that, you might wonder. Well, because they are related!

In the linguistic world, related languages are languages that have so much in common that we cannot claim that it is merely due to extensive contact and/or borrowing. These languages, we say, are so similar that there can be no other reasonable explanation than that they descend from a common source: a mother language, as it were. In the case of Spanish and Italian, the mother is Latin, while in the case of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, the language is Old Norse.

Now, it would be convenient if it stopped there, wouldn’t it? But, of course, it doesn’t. Like any family, the mother also has a mother and other relatives, like siblings and cousins. Old Norse, for example, has its own sisters: Old High German, Old Frisian, Old English, etc., which all share the same mother: Proto-Germanic. This is the Germanic language family.

Spanish and Italian also have sisters: French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc., and their common mother is Latin. This is the Romance language family, deriving from Vulgar Latin. But, of course, Latin has its own sisters, for example Umbrian and Oscan, and together with its sisters, Latin forms the Italic language family.

Does it feel a bit confusing? Well, that’s understandable and I’m going to kick it up a notch by adding that the Italic language family, with languages like Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic language family, with languages like Swedish and Danish, actually have the same mother: Proto-Indo-European (or just Indo-European).

The mother in this case is veeeery old, and we actually don’t have any kind of evidence of how it looked! Indo-European is a reconstructed language, more commonly known as a proto-language (as you may have noticed, we call the mother of the Germanic family Proto-Germanic, meaning that it is also a reconstructed language). It has never been heard, never been recorded and no one speaks it. Then how the heck do we know anything about it, right? Well, that has to do with something called the comparative method, which we’ll explain in another post.  

Like human families, language families can be represented in the form of a family tree:*

Clear? Well, hate to tell you this, but this is an extremely simplified version using only examples from these two subfamilies. The “real” Indo-European language family tree looks somewhat more like this:1

You’re kinda hating me right now, aren’t you?

As you can see by the tree above, some languages that you might never expect are actually related. Let’s take as an example Standardised Hindi and German. Here are some common words in both languages:

German Hindi English translation
Mädchen लड़की (ladakee) girl
Hallo नमस्ते (namaste) hello
Hunger भूख (bhookh) hunger

Looking at these words, it is unlikely that you would draw the conclusion that the two languages are related. Looking at the language tree, however, you can see that linguists have concluded they are. Now, you’re probably staring at your screen going “whaaaat?” but, indeed, they are both descendants of Indo-European and are therefore related.

While Indo-European is clearly a large group of languages, it is not the only one (or even the largest). Looking a bit closer at the Indo-European language family, you will notice that languages such as Mandarin and Finnish are not included. These belong to other families, in this case the Sino-Tibetan and Finno-Ugric (or Uralic, depending on your definition) language families respectively.

All in all, there are approximately 130 language families in the world today. Some are related, some are not, just like we are. The largest family is the Niger-Congo language family, having (as recorded in 2009) 1,532 languages belonging to it. (Indo-European comes in a poor 4th place with approximately 439 languages.)2

So, looking at languages is kinda like looking at your own family tree: every mother will have a mother (or father, if you want, but traditionally, linguists call them mothers and daughters). Some branches will have siblings, cousins, second cousins and so on. Some will look nothing like their relatives (or, well, little anyway) and some will be strikingly similar. That’s just the way families work, right?

So, now, we’ve reached a point where I can answer the question in the title: Is English a Romance language?

While this is a much-debated question (do a google search and see for yourself), the simple answer is: no, it’s not. At least, not to a linguist. Now, you might be sitting at home, getting more and more confused because a lot of English vocabulary can be traced back to Latin (the word ‘vocabulary’ being one of those words, actually).

But when linguists say that a language is a Romance language, we are referring to the relationship illustrated in the tree structure, i.e. the language has Latin as its mother. English, then, despite having borrowed a substantial part of its vocabulary from Latin (and later from the Latin language French), it is not in itself a daughter of Latin. English is a daughter of Proto-Germanic, thus, it is a Germanic language.

However, Latin and Proto-Germanic are both daughters of Indo-European. Latin and English are therefore clearly related, but the relationship is more like that of a beloved aunt rather than a mother (if, you know, the beloved aunt refused to recognise you as a person unless you imitated her).

At the end of the day, languages are like any other family: some relationships are strong, some are weak, some are close, some are not.

Tune in next week when Riccardo will delve into another branch of language families: constructed languages.

Notes and sources

*The structure employed here, showing languages as families in family trees, has long been criticized for simply not showing a lot of information like contact-situations, dialect continuums and when the languages were spoken. It has, however, been used to show the beginning student that some languages are related to each other and how they are related in a way that is easy and comprehensible. The Historical Linguist Channel does, however, recognise this criticism and would be happy to discuss it in a separate post or through personal communication.  

1Provided by Ancient History Encyclopedia (Published on 19th of January, 2013).

2Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: (Family index is reached through

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Money & admonish

Guten Tag, mein gutes Volk!

It’s Tuesday and, as usual, it’s time for your weekly dose of Fun Etymology goodness.

If you’ve been following us on our journey so far, you know that words sometimes have the weirdest connections with other words. Today, we bring you another of those bizarre links: the one between “money” and “admonish”.

The word “money” is yet another word coming from the heap of vocabulary dumped on unsuspecting English by the French invaders in the Middle Ages and is directly cognate with modern French “monnaie”. The origin of both words can be found in the original Latin word “moneta” (which survived unchanged in Italian), and it’s the ultimate etymology of this word which is the most interesting part of our story today.

See, in ancient Rome, the official imperial mint was located right across the street from (or perhaps even inside) the city temple to the goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter.
Now, those of you who know your Greco-Roman mythology will know that Jupiter (or Zeus) wasn’t exactly the most faithful husband a woman could wish for.
Perhaps because of her husband’s constant misbehaviour, Juno was known to be a pretty stern and severe goddess, and one of her nicknames in Archaic Latin was “Moneta”, “The Admonisher”, from “monere” “to admonish”. Sound familiar?
In ancient Rome, money was what came out of the Moneta temple, and was therefore called “moneta”, from which came Old French “monoie”, which then gave English the word “money”.

The same verb “monere” (plus the strengthening prefix “ad-“) gave English the word “admonish”, again through French.

Isn’t it amazing how the ancient religion of the Romans still influences the words we use today?

Phonology 101: Let’s Get Physical

We briefly explained phonology and phonetics when we gave a general rundown of some of the major disciplines of linguistics. Phonology has been a big part of linguistics from the beginning, and some of the stories we’re most excited to share with you are all about phonology. Even for some of the other topics we’re going to cover, a basic understand of phonology will be pretty useful. To that end, over the next couple months, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Phonology 101. We will cover some of the basics of how we produce speech, the concept of phonemes and how we distinguish individual sounds, and how consonants and vowels work. For those who aren’t all that excited by this prospect, don’t worry. This series will be interspersed with other topics from my co-conspirators.

You ready? Let’s get started!

A quick recap: When we talk about phonology and phonetics, we’re talking about the sounds of speech. Phonology studies the way our fantastic brain-machines store and organize those sounds and the rules used for spitting them out. Phonetics studies the physical production of sound, including things like acoustics and the way sounds inevitably influence each other when produced in sequence (like when you’re saying a word or phrase). A shorthand way to think about this is that phonology deals in the abstract and phonetics in the concrete.

Whichever side you’re studying, it’s good to know the basics of the vocal tract and all the moving parts in our throats and mouths that work together to produce speech. Even in the abstract, the three main features linguists use to define individual sounds are the place of articulation (i.e. the relevant part of the vocal tract most engaged in producing the sound), the manner of articulation (i.e. the way air is moving through the vocal tract), and voicing.1

We’ll talk more about manner of articulation down the road when we get to consonants. Today, let’s focus on place of articulation and voicing. Let me just apologize in advance for the amount of terminology I’ll be throwing at you today. Just think of it as us inducting you into our secret linguists club.

To talk about place of articulation, we’re going to have to start with a little anatomy lesson:

Side view diagram of the vocal tract.
I know. I’m sorry. There is not a non-horrific way to draw this. Believe me, I’ve tried. Drawing this diagram is a rite of passage all young linguists must undergo.

This is a side view of the oral and nasal cavities. The lips, the teeth, and the tongue are, I hope, familiar features of the mouth. If you run your tongue across the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, the bumpy, raised part is the alveolar ridge. Moving towards the throat, the hard part of the roof of your mouth behind the alveolar ridge is the palate, and the soft part behind the palate is the velum. The uvula is the little piece you can see dangling down in the back of the mouth when cartoon characters scream hysterically.

Generally, though not always, the place of articulation is where the flow of air through the mouth is most restricted. We use the Latin terms for the anatomy of the mouth to define place of articulation, so sounds involving the lips are called labial and sounds involving the teeth are called dental.

  • When the both lips come together, like when pronouncing ‘b’, a sound is called bilabial.
  • When the top teeth are against the bottom lip, like when pronouncing ‘v’, a sound is called labiodental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the teeth, like when pronouncing ‘th’, a sound is called dental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge, like when pronouncing ‘d’, a sound is called alveolar.
  • When the front of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge and the front of the palate, like when pronouncing ‘sh’, a sound is called palato-alveolar or post-alveolar.

There are also palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal (referring to the pharynx, the back of the throat), and glottal sounds. You get the idea. Play around with it. Say some random consonants or say words slowly and see if you can’t get a feel for where the sound is “coming from.” (That’s always been one of my favorite parts of phonology: talking to myself and calling it studying.)

So, those are the basic places of articulation. The other feature we’re going to talk about today, voicing, has to do with the position of the vocal folds (colloquially, the vocal cords) and the glottis. This isn’t so much two things as a package deal. The glottis is the empty space between the vocal folds. (I didn’t draw a picture of this because vocal folds are ugly.)

When the vocal folds are drawn together and the glottis is narrowed but not completely closed, the air moving through the vocal tract has less space to pass through. Some sciencey stuff happens and the vocal folds begin to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate in turn, and the result is a voiced sound. When the vocal folds are held apart and the glottis is open, the air passes through the throat largely unhindered, and the result is a voiceless sound. You can try this out, too. Touch the front of your throat in the vicinity of the Adam’s apple and make some sounds. Can you feel the difference? (Hint: try producing ‘b’ and ‘p’. Be careful not to accidentally tack a vowel on the end!)

This may all sound a little complicated, and the terminology can feel like a lot to wade through when you’re first starting out, but don’t you fret. I promise this will all start making a whole lot more sense when we focus in on the consonants and vowels.

Phonology 101 will pick back up in February. Before we get to specific sounds, we’re going to talk about phonemes and how linguists (and our very own brains—yes, yours, too) separate sounds. Next week, Sabina will introduce us to the intricacies of language families (and you thought holidays with your relatives were complicated).


1This is all still basically true for vowels, but they get a little trickier. We’ll get to that.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Guinea pig

¡Hola, pueblo de Facebook!

Happy new year!

Time moves inexorably forwards for all of us, and though it might seem that seven days be a long time, they’re but one flap of a beetle’s wings in the vast incomprehensible hugeness of time.
And so, here we are again with another Tuesday and yet another Fun Etymology!
This week’s word (or better, compound) is “guinea pig”!

Guinea pigs are medium-sized rodents native of the Andes in South America. They’re unique amongst rodents in being herbivores (whereas most other rodents are omnivores), and in having in common with humans the inability to create their own vitamin C. They’re also some of the cuddliest and cutest critters out there.
Reading this description, a couple of things probably occurred to you: guinea pigs are not pigs, and they don’t come from Guinea. Why the deuce (to borrow a very Victorian expression) are they called guinea pigs then?

The answer is: nobody knows for sure! Many hypotheses have been proposed, but none is entirely satisfactory. Some think they’re called that because they arrived in England on ships which came from South America via Guinea, so-called Guinea-men; others think it’s because they resemble the young of the breed of pig known as Guinea hog (they don’t); others still think it’s because of English people mishearing “Guyana” as “Guinea” (problem is they don’t come from Guyana either, though it’s a better approximation than Guinea, that’s for sure).
As for “pig”, it’s probably because of the squealing noises they make and the fact that they tend to become very fat.

Their original name in Quechua, the language once spoken in the Inca empire, is “quwi” (often spelled “cuy”). Perhaps we should just start calling them that.

To conclude this post, we’ll leave you with a photo of admin Riccardo’s own two little furry monsters.

See you around!