Ladies and gents, welcome back to the HLC!

We had a talk the other day and you know what we realised?

We talk a lot about Proto-Germanic but we’ve never really talked about Proto-Germanic, have we?

We’re sorry, let’s make it right! Today, we’ll take a closer look at this mother of the Germanic languages (though it will be brief glance, I’m afraid: it is an entire language after all)!

As you might remember, a proto-language is a language that has never actually been attested. Instead, such a language has been reconstructed through the comparative method. This means that nothing from Proto-Germanic actually survives the long centuries since it was spoken but we still know quite a bit about the language itself (isn’t the comparative method awesome?!)

One of the things that we can say that we know with reasonable confidence is that Proto-Germanic was spoken in and around Denmark, probably no earlier than ca 500 B.C.

Eventually, it developed into three different branches: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic. We’ll talk more about these branches, and the early Germanic dialects, a bit more later on, but let’s focus on Proto-Germanic for now.

Proto-Germanic developed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which you probably already knew, and one of the unique features that separates the Germanic languages from the, for example, Italic ones, is a sound change that we’ve spoken about earlier: Grimm’s Law!

As a reminder, Grimm’s Law is a sound change that changed some consonantal sounds into other consonantal sounds: for example, p became f so Latin pater is English father.

Grimm’s Law was completed at some point during the Proto-Germanic period, something that we may be relatively confident about because the other PIE-languages don’t have it (so it must have happened after Proto-Germanic ‘broke away’ from the other PIE-languages) but all the Germanic languages do (so it must have happened before the Germanic dialects grew apart).

We also find a good number of other sound changes that we’ve already talked about, like ablaut and umlaut. As you may remember, ablaut is the regular vowel variation that you find in forms like sing, sang, sung, and umlaut, a sound change in which one vowel changes to become more similar to a following (or preceding) vowel.

We won’t say too much about the ablaut of Proto-Germanic, because frankly it gets complicated real fast, but it retained the ablaut system of PIE in the strong verb classes (and if you really want to know about ablaut in Proto-Germanic, check out Don Ringe’s excellent account referenced below), which is why you do find vowel alternation in, for example, English (or German: gewinnen, gewann, gewonnen, meaning win, won, won or Swedish vinna, vann, vunnit, also meaning win, won, won).

We will spend a moment on umlaut thought, because something quite significant happened before the early Germanic dialects ‘separated’: i-mutation (or i-umlaut).

You’ve heard about this sound change here at the HLC before (check it out) but in case you forgot (I mean, it was quite a while ago), i-mutation is the reason why you get examples like foot – feet, mouse – mice, but not house – hice!

I-mutation is so called because one vowel raised due to a following /i/ or /j/ sound in the next syllable. These syllables were then lost, making the sound change kinda hard to immediately recognise. Let’s take foot – feet as an example.

So, the Proto-Germanic form for foot was something like *fōts. No /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable there, so *fōts became Eng. foot, Dutch voet, Ger. Fuß, Swe/Nor fot, Dan. fod, and so on.

But! The Proto-Germanic plural was *fōtiz! The vowel ō then changed, becoming closer to the i, a process we might call assimilation. Having done so (or at least been enough underway), the -iz ending was lost and, suddenly, we have a word that doesn’t really look any different from *fōts but with an already changing (or changed) vowel. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it always changes to an e/ee as in English feet. In Swedish, it became ö (fötter) for example and in German ße.

Right, enough phonology. Let’s take a look at morphology too, while we’re at it.

Proto-Germanic inflected for 6 cases: vocative, nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and instrumental; 3 genders: masculine, feminine and neuter; 3 numbers: singular, dual, and plural and 3 moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative.

Woof, that’s quite a bit. Of all these things though, there really is only one thing that we haven’t said anything about before (though we’ll tell you more about case in the future too): the number dual. You all recognise, I assume, the singular and the plural but what, exactly, is the dual?

Well, it is precisely what you would expect: a form that refers to exactly two entities, no more, no less. The dual was a surviving number-category from PIE but came to be shown only in the first- and second-person pronouns in Proto-Germanic before eventually dwindling away entirely in the daughters of Proto-Germanic (though they retain it for a while in pronouns).

So, now, you have just a little bit of an understanding of Proto-Germanic (though it is very brief, of course)! This will be really useful for the coming weeks here at the HLC as we’ll be taking a bit of a closer look at the early Germanic dialects, their common ground and their differences!

Welcome back then!


An excellent resource is:

Ringe, Don. 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

which we have consulted for this post. It’s quite advanced, however, and you might find yourself just a bit overwhelmed of the sheer number of detailed descriptions in it. Bear with it though, it really is quite amazing!

We’ve also consulted

Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives. London: Routledge

which doesn’t talk that much about Proto-Germanic itself but is a great resource for the early Germanic dialects (we should know: taking the course with the same name two years ago, this was the course book).

and briefly

Barber, Charles. 2000. The English language: A historical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

regarding the dual number.

Aside from that, we’ve used the excellent online resource and, yes, we’ll admit it, Wikipedia (oh, the horror!), for the Proto-Germanic forms that we discussed here.

American English – The language of Shakespeare?

Hello my dear Anglophones!

I’m going to create some generic internet banter for you:

Person 1
– Look here at the differences between American English and British English, crazy stuff! (with the addition of some image or list)

Person 2
– *Something along the lines of*:

Person 3
– *Something along the lines of*:

Person 4, referring to the ‘u’-spellings in British English (colour, favour, etc.):

Then, usually, person 5 comes along with something like:

Person 5, let’s call them Taylor, has read somewhere that the American English accent shares more features with English as it was spoken in the 17th century, when America was settled by the British, and therefore argues that American English is more purely English than British English is. Taylor’s British friend, Leslie, may also join the conversation with something like “America retained the language we gave them, and we changed ours.”1

In this post, I will try to unpack this argument:
Is American English really a preserved Early Modern English accent?2

Firstly, however, I want to stress that one big flaw to this argument is that American English being more similar to an older version of English doesn’t mean it’s any better or purer than another English variety – languages change and evolve organically and inevitably. (We have written several posts on the subject of prescriptivism, resistance to language change, and the idea that some varieties are better than others, for example here, here and here.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the matter at hand. The main argument for why American English would be more like an early form of English is that it is modelled on the language of the first English-speaking settlers, which in the 17th century would be Early Modern English (EModE, i.e., the language of Shakespeare). In fact, there is some truth in that features of EModE are found in American English, while they’ve changed in (Southern) British English, such as:

  • Pronouncing /r/ in coda position, i.e. in words like farm and bar.
    This feature is called rhoticity, if an accent pronounces these /r/’s it is called a rhotic accent.
  • Pronouncing the /a/ in bath the same as the /a/ in trap, rather than pronouncing it like the /a/ in father which is what we usually associate with British English.
  • Using gotten as a past participle, as in “Leslie has gotten carried away with their argumentation”.
  • Some vocabulary, such as fall (meaning autumn), or mad (meaning angry).
  • The <u>-less spelling of color-like words.

So far Taylor does seem to have a strong case, but, of course, things are never this simple. Famously, immigration to America did not stop after the 17th century (shocker, I know), and as the British English language continued to evolve, newer versions of that language will have reached the shores of America as spoken by hundreds of thousands of British settlers. Furthermore, great numbers of English-speaking migrants were from Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of the British islands which did not speak the version of British English which we associate with the Queen and BBC (we call this accent RP, for Received Pronunciation). Even though the RP accent remained prestigious for some time in America, waves of speakers of other English varieties would soon have outnumbered the few who still aimed to retain this way of speaking. Finally, of course: Taylor not only (seemingly) assumes here that British English is one uniform variety, but also that American English would have no variation – a crucial flaw especially when we talk about phonetics and phonology.

If we look at rhoticity, for example, English accents from Ireland, Scotland and the South-West of England are traditionally rhotic. Some of these accents also traditionally pronounce the /a/ in bath and trap the same. Where settlers from these regions arrived in great numbers, the speech in those regions would have naturally shifted towards the accents of the majority of speakers. Furthermore, there are accents of American English that are not traditionally rhotic, like the New England accent, and various other accents across the East and South-East, such as in New York, Virginia and Georgia. This is to do with which accents were spoken by the larger numbers of settlers there; e.g., large numbers of settlers from the South-East of England, where the accents are non-rhotic, would have impacted the speech of these regions.

Finally, while the /a/ in bath and trap is pronounced the same in American English, it is not the same vowel as is used for these words in, for example, Northern British English. You see, American English went through its very own sound changes, one of these is the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which affected such vowels as the mentioned /a/ so that it became pronounced more ‘ey-a’ in words such as man, bath, have, and so on. Also, let’s not forget that American English also carries influences from all the other languages that have played a part, to a lesser or larger extent, in settling the North American continent from Early Modern times until today, including but not limited to: French, Italian, Spanish, German, Slavic languages, Chinese, Yiddish, Arabic, Scandinavian languages, and Native American languages.

In sum, while American English has some retention of features from EModE which have changed in British English, the flaws of Taylor’s, and Leslie’s, argument are many:

  • Older isn’t necessarily better
  • Large numbers of English speakers of various dialects migrated to America during centuries after the original settlers, their speech making up the beautiful blend we find today’s American English accents.
  • British English was not the only language involved in the making of American English!
  • British English is varied, some accents still retain the features which are said to be evidence of American English being more “original”, such as rhoticity and pronouncing the /a/ in ‘trap’ and ‘bath’ the same. American English is also varied, and the most dominant input variety in different regions can still be heard in the regional American accents, such as the lack of rhoticity in some Eastern and Southern dialects.
    In sum: Let’s not assume that a language is uniform.
  • American English underwent their very own changes, which makes it just as innovative as British English.
  • No living language is static, Leslie, so your argument that American English never changed is severely flawed.

So the next time you encounter some Taylors or Leslies online, you’ll know what to say! And, of course, let’s not forget what the speakers of both British and American English have in common in these discussions – for example, forgetting that these are not the only types of English in the world.

More on this in a future blog post!

1This is actually a direct quote from this forum thread, read at your own risk:

2A lot of the material used for this post is based on Dr. Claire Cowie’s material for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.

Der, das, die….. I give up!

Welcome back to the HLC!

Did you enjoy last week’s book review? We sure did, so we understand that you’re now occupied with your very own copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, but just in case you do find some time: remember that we promised you a discussion on grammatical and natural gender systems in our post on gender-neutral pronouns two weeks ago? Well, we always keep our promises! Before getting deep into that particular discussion though, let’s first establish something about what we mean when we say gender.

When talking about gender in linguistic study, we’re often talking about a category of inflection. Inflection, in turn, is the modification of a word to express grammatical categories – like gender (but also tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, and mood – let’s not go there right now). The grammatical category gender includes three subcategories (or classes), typically described as masculine, feminine and neuter. A language that uses grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily need to use all three however: in Swedish, for example, you find only two: common (which includes both masculine and feminine, which have merged together to become one) and neuter. Anyway, in a language which inflects for gender, i.e. a language that uses a grammatical gender system, every single noun must belong to one of the gender classes of that language (though a few, a very few, may belong to more than one class). The grammatical category is thus reflected in the behaviour of the words that belong to the subcategory, or the article which belongs to that subcategory. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Let’s use an example. In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each noun in the German language belongs to one of these genders but it is not necessarily the same as the expected gender of the referent. For example, ‘Mädchen’, meaning ‘girl’ in German, is a grammatically neuter, not feminine. While you can’t see that on the noun itself, when taking definite form Mädchen always occurs with the article das, which is the neuter definite article in German, while ‘Junge’, meaning ‘boy’, always occurs with the masculine article der (but then, so does ‘table’).

In a grammatical gender system, the gender of the noun itself is thus not always readily evident. This has often lead people, even those whose job it is to study language, to assume that the gender is arbitrarily assigned and native speakers simply remember it, noun by noun. However, do you know how many nouns the, for example, German language has? We don’t, but we bet you that it’s quite a lot. Yet, native speakers rarely make a mistake when it comes to using the right gender. Is it probable, or even the least bit likely, that a native speaker simply ‘remembers’ the correct gender of all these nouns?

Nah, not really. But how does it work then? Well, like many other things, we don’t know exactly! Corbett has suggested a number of factors that play in when it comes to gender assignment. Among these, we find meaning and form to be the most important ones. Form can further be divided into two types: morphological and phonological. If a language doesn’t assign gender on the basis of these criteria, the gender of a noun might also be based on mythological association, concept association, or marking of important property.

Woof, that got complicated real fast, right? Let’s sum it up by saying that there are really three main ways by which a noun gets its gender: based on (1) semantic criteria – the meaning of the noun decides its gender; (2) morphological criteria – the form of the noun decides its gender; and (3) so-called lexical criteria – the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender, sometimes due to historical reasons.

Now that we know that, we can move on to natural gender systems.

In a natural gender system, a noun is ascribed to the gender that would be expected based on the word itself. That is, a woman is female, a man is male. On the basis of that, you might expect one of the languages to use natural gender to be English, which of course is true. Unlike most of the Germanic languages, English has shrugged off the yoke of grammatical gender (which is just one of the ‘oddities’ of the English language), but it certainly isn’t the only one! As we’ve already said: in Swedish, for example, you’ll find only two genders: common and neuter; in Dutch, there can be either three or two genders depending on geographical area and speaker!

It might be easy to think that a language that uses grammatical gender cannot have natural gender, or the other way around if you prefer. That, however, is not quite true: the two aren’t mutually exclusive! Spanish, for example, uses a grammatical gender system, yet adjectives and nouns are sometimes inflected for natural gender, that is: el pequeño niño the little boy’ but la pequeña niña ‘the little girl’!  

As you can clearly see, grammatical and natural gender is not an easy thing to explain!


We’ve made an honest attempt at trying to explain these two topics in a way that (hopefully) makes sense to you! If you want to read more about this, though, we suggest our primary source for this post:

Corbett, Greville G. 2012 [1991]. Gender. Online ed. Cambridge University Press. doi:

If you want to check out other accounts, you might enjoy Jenny Audring’s section on Gender in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, found here.

Questions, thoughts, amazingly inspired outbursts? Let us know!

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3


1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.