A couple weeks ago, we talked about a process called reduplication, which is when languages double syllables or words to various effect. As with most morphological and phonological processes, there’s a flipside to this coin. (Languages can be a bit like tired, hangry toddlers: indecisive, inconsistent, contrary, and completely beyond being reasoned with.) Sometimes, instead of leaning in to the singsongedness of repeated syllables, languages decide that two syllables are just too similar, and one of them must be eradicated. We call this phenomenon haplology.

I may jest about languages arbitrarily adding or removing syllables, but haplology is actually an elegant remedy for words that may otherwise be cumbersome to pronounce. Consider a few homespun English adverbs: The most common way to form an adverb in English is to add -ly to the end of an adjective. In most cases, this is nothing to bat an eye at. ‘Warm’ becomes ‘warmly’, ‘happy’ becomes ‘happily’, ‘treacherous’ becomes ‘treacherously’. But what about words that already end in [l]? ‘Gentle’ and ‘humble’ become…’gentlely’ and ‘humblely’? Naw. Maybe back in Middle English, but for modern speakers, these adverbs have been streamlined to ‘gently’ and ‘humbly’. They’ve undergone haplology.

There are just some sounds that don’t roll gently off the tongue in quick succession. Another example from English is the pronunciation of ‘February’. Some dialects still carefully pronounce each written sound as in /ˈfɛb.ɹuˌɛɹi/, but that’s a lot of [ɹ]s all piled together. Some dialects have solved the crisis by dissimilation, producing something more akin to /ˈfɛb.juˌɛ(ə)ɹi/. Some UK dialects, though, have solved the problem with haplology instead, resulting in a pronunciation of /ˈfɛb.ɹi/.

A Basque example also shows the elimination of excessive Rs. The word for ‘cider’ comes from ‘sagar’ (apple) + ‘ardo’ (wine). Instead of the compound becoming ‘sagarrardo’, the syllables are simplified, and the result is ‘sagardo’.

Lest you begin to think haplology only happens to liquids like [l] and [ɹ], look at Latin ‘nutrix’ (nurse). It comes from ‘nutrio’ (suckle, predecessor of English ‘nourish’ and ‘nutrition’) + ‘-trix’ (a suffix that formed a female agent noun, like how Amelia Earhart was an aviatrix). The resulting ‘nutritrix’ lost one of its <tri>s—thus, ‘nutrix’.

It has always been a source of great amusement to me (and other linguists—we’re a whimsical lot) that the term ‘haplology’ itself has the potential to undergo haplology, thereby becoming ‘haplogy’. Although this has not actually occurred, haplology is out there, watching over our languages, making some tricky words just a little easier to pronounce.

Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!


1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?

What’s with WH?

In many varieties of English, a W is a W. In these varieties, W sounds like [w] like in ‘wise’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘wowza’ (unless it’s at the end like in ‘draw’ or ‘stow’, in which case it’s quiet as a mouse.)

However, in Scottish, Irish, New Zealand, and certain American dialects, wh-words are pronounced a little different. In words like ‘which’ and ‘whale’, the H makes the W kind of…H-y.

Why is that? Why are those words even spelled with an H to begin with? As with many questions about the bitter rivalry between English pronunciation and English spelling, we have to look to the distant past…

Or, you know, the fairly old past—the Old English-y one. Old English inherited from Indo-European (with a few twists and turns through Grimm’s Law) a sound we linguists like to call a voiceless labiovelar approximant1. In IPA, [ʍ]. That’s fancy language-people talk for a kind of voiceless W. In OE, this sound was spelled ‘hw’. ‘Which’ was ‘hwilc’ and ‘whale’ was ‘hwæl’. Perhaps the real poster child for this phenomenon is the first word of Beowulf: Hwæt! (ModE ‘what’)

During the Middle English period, the spelling of this sound was flipped to our modern ‘wh’, most likely due to the influence of French scribes who came to England with the Normans. It was also sometime during this period that some dialects began to see a merger between the pronunciation of ‘wh’ and plain old ‘w’. For a while, the merger was seen as uncouth, and educated speakers deliberately maintained the [ʍ] pronunciation of ‘wh’. Now, we find more dialects than not where the merger is complete and both spellings are pronounced [w]. But as mentioned before, there are several varieties of English where the original [ʍ] is hanging in there.

English has its share of strange, purely historic spellings, but this isn’t one of them. Your [ʍ] dropping friend isn’t mispronouncing ‘white’ or being pedantic; they’re just kicking it old school.


1This sound is sometimes traditionally/erroneously called a labiovelar fricative.

Ferdinand de Saussure – Patron Saint of May, 2019

Our patron saint of linguistics for May is Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857, d. 1913), a Swiss linguist considered one of the fathers of modern linguistics.

As a student, Saussure studied Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and even Celtic. In 1878, at the age of 21, he published a Dissertation on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages. In his work on Proto Indo-European, he proposed the existence of missing phonemes in PIE not accounted for by reconstructions through the comparative method. He was proven right 50 years later when Hittite was deciphered.

As impressive as his work as a student was, and as much as he himself focused on historical linguistics (which in most senses was the focus of the whole field at the time), Saussure’s legacy lies in ideas he presented through his later lectures. Throughout his career, he lectured on IE, Sanskrit, and even some of the Germanic languages. Then, in 1907, he offered his first Course of General Linguistics, a class he offered only three times between 1907 and 1911. After Saussure’s death, some of his students published a book based on notes from his lectures.

This book, entitled Course in General Linguistics, contains the theories that became the foundation for structural linguistics, wherein language is collected and its elements classified at different levels. Saussure distinguished between an abstract level of language and actual speech. He proposed that the relationship between a signifier (like a word) and what it signified was arbitrary. His ideas on the relationships between the elements of language opened up the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. He put forth theories about dialects and language change based on geography. What’s more, he said it was just as important to study language synchronically, ie as a complete system at a point in time, as it was to look at diachronic, or historic, developments. (His analogy here was that it’s one thing to look at the history of chess and another to understand the rules at a given time.)

Pardon the wall of text. In essence, Saussure revolutionarily encouraged the synchronic study of languages and paved the way for some of the most fundamental disciplines within the field—no linguist escapes undergrad without studying such basic subjects as phonology and syntax.

In the past hundred years, there have been many strides within linguistics. New theories and schools of thought have arisen, and Saussure’s status has diminished, but his influence is never gone. Just try to find an introductory text today that doesn’t mention the arbitrary relation between sign and meaning!

Aesces to ashes

I teach fifth-grade Latin, and recently we were discussing the pronunciation of the Latin digraph and diphthong <ae>. One of my bright young scholars asked if the Latin letter was written with “one of those connected a-e thingies.”

My Anglo-Saxonist heart soared. That “connected a-e thingy” is <æ>, a symbol called by the Anglo-Saxons aesc, like an ash tree. With the adoption of the Latin alphabet, <æ> inherited all the rights and responsibilities of ᚫ, a rune of the same name in the Old English fuþorc. It was pronounced [æ]1, like in, well, ‘ash’.

My Latin class and I had to plow ahead with the nominative plural, but in the back of my mind, I kept mulling it over: Where did my beloved aesc come from, and why isn’t it all over the Classic Latin texts I read?

As with so many questions linguistic, the answer lies in human laziness. Since man started putting pen to paper (stylus to papyrus, wax, clay, &c.2), we’ve been conjoining letters to cut corners and save time and space. Cursive is one thing, but typographic ligatures are little clumps of two or three letters written as a single symbol. An example of a well-known ligature that grew up to be a letter in its own right is <w>, which as the name implies, began life as a double <u>.

There are copious examples of ligatures dating all the way back to Sumerian, but we’re investigating <æ>, and for that we have to look to medieval scribes. It’s as simple as you might imagine: Whether for speed or aesthetics, medieval scribes took <a> and <e> and wrote them as one. In Latin, it made no nevermind whether you used the ligature or wrote <ae>.3 In fact, as Latin pronunciation changed throughout the Middle Ages, the spelling was sometimes reduced to merely <e>. (Thus, we modernly tend to write “medieval” rather than “mediæval”.)

Old English wasn’t the only language to promote this particular ligature to a letter. Today, it can still be found in languages like Icelandic and Norwegian.

In Modern English, aesc has been relegated to the status of relic. It gets trotted out when calligraphers and designers want to make something look fancy or antiquated, but otherwise, it’s just some letter that we used to know.4


1 It becomes fairly obvious where linguists found the symbol to represent this sound in IPA.
2 I would just like to share that the ampersand or “and sign” (&) began life as a ligature of <et>. “Et” is “and” in Latin. I can’t even.
3 As far as Classical Latin goes, the Romans themselves and modern editors use distinct <ae> much more often than not.
4 Alas for me! I suppose I’ll just have to stick to doodling aesc in various margins.

There be language change afoot–but why?

We’ve written about several big, historic sound changes, like umlaut and Grimm’s Law. But why does pronunciation have to change at all? Why can’t it just stay the same forever? Surely, that would be easier for everyone (especially us historical linguists trying to reconstruct speech from a time before sound recording).

Without diving in too deep today, let’s look at two of the big forces playing tug-o’-war with our phonemes (and the rest of our language): good, old-fashioned laziness and the need to be understood.

I called the first force laziness, but perhaps a kinder appellation would be “conservation of energy.” Unless you live by yourself in a cottage deep in some leafy forest somewhere, you probably regularly do a fair amount of communication (yes, even you introverts). Speech1 is a repetitive motion, and like other repetitive motions (e.g. signing your name), we unconsciously streamline it as it sinks deeper and deeper into our muscle memory. ‘Cannot’ in most instances becomes ‘can’t’; the <tt> in ‘button’ becomes [ʔ] instead of [t].2

This tendency to expend the least amount of effort in language production is called ease of articulation. This is what leads to phenomena like umlaut: it’s easier to pronounce consecutive vowels in the same area of the mouth, so back vowels are pulled forward after front vowels (e.g. Proto-Germanic *mūsiz “mice” becomes OE *mȳs). Similarly, vowels in unstressed syllables tend to relax into schwa. Why enunciate every sound when you don’t really have to? (Except sometimes you do have to.)

Ease of articulation is one thing, but on the other hand, language can’t allow itself to devolve into a mushy, mumbly mess. That would be self-defeating. When your whole purpose in life is to communicate messages, by gum! you’ve got to make sure you can effectively communicate a message. If things become too similar, a language finds ways to self correct, to dissimilate. Dissimilation is a process whereby two linguistic elements that are confusingly alike are pulled back apart to a reasonable, comprehensible distance. Take, for example, the OE pronouns “he” and hēo “she”. Linguists aren’t exactly sure which specific sound change stepped in to shift  hēo to she, but I think we can all agree that it’s easier to tell who’s who with more distinct pronouns. Or in another case, we find the word pilgrim ultimately comes from Latin peregrinus “foreigner, traveler”. In Latin words with far too many /r/s, one of them commonly became an /l/ over time to unmuddy the waters.

Though they seem almost like an uptight, mothering older sister (dissimilation) and her carefree, lackadaisical little brother (ease of articulation), these two processes work in tandem as much as they work against each other. You could almost say they bring balance to the Force. (But you could also say that languages are wild, organic things that refuse to be tied down. It’s not you, it’s them. And as you may have guessed, ease of articulation and dissimilation aren’t the only suspects complicating this situation. We’ll get there.)


1 It’s something we haven’t brought to the forefront in a while, but I’d like to remind you that when we talk about “speech,” we could just as well be talking about signing. Sign languages function much like spoken languages.
2 Depending on your dialect.

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.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Noon

Philosophical question: Is the Fun Etymology on time if it’s still technically Tuesday for one-fourth of the HLC? Or is it not?

Speaking of time, though, today’s word is ‘noon’.

It’s an iconic, evocative word. You don’t have to be American to recognize the tension of a duel at high noon: the streets tensely still, a saloon door creaking, and a tumbleweed rolling by as the sun blazes down from directly over the worn Stetsons of two coiled gunfighters. And you don’t have to be a hobbit to appreciate a quiet little midday nuncheon.

In English, short, everyday words like this tend to be part of the language’s core Germanic heritage, but in a surprising twist, this one isn’t. ‘Noon’ ultimately comes from the Latin word ‘nonus’ meaning…’ninth’. ¿Dice qué?

The term ‘non’ was borrowed back in Old English (hence its native-seeming skin) from the Latin phrase ‘nona hora’, meaning the ninth hour of daylight. In both Latin and Old English, the term referred to the hour of 3:00 PM, an important canonical prayer hour (called nones).

Beginning around the 12th century, the sense started to shift towards its current meaning of 12:00 PM. There are several hypotheses for why the meaning changed. It could have been the unreliability of timekeeping in the medieval period, or it could have been due to the dramatic seasonal differences in daylight hours in Northern Europe. It may even have been driven by food in some way: religious fasts traditionally ended at nones, so the time may have inched earlier to end the fasting earlier, or it may have come out of a secular societal shift in the timing of the midday meal. Whatever the reason, it became the ‘noon’ we know by the 14th century.

Whoever said monosyllabic words were boring?

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Second

We’re sneaking this in at the last second, but it’s Tuesday—time for Fun Etymology!

Speaking of, for our second etymology of the year, our word is: ‘second.’

You can play second fiddle, be someone’s second in a duel, or second the motion. All these connotations stem from the sequential idea that the second is the one after the first. Our modern meaning tightly marries ‘second’ to the number 2, but the Latin root ‘secundus’ more broadly means “following, next in time or order”, itself coming from PIE *sekw-, “to follow”.

So why do we say there are 60 seconds in a minute? We borrowed this meaning from Old French ‘seconde’, which comes from Medieval Latin ‘secunda’, a shortened version of ‘secunda pars minuta’ meaning roughly “second diminished part”. (‘Secunda’ here is, of course, just a form of ‘secundus’.) Here’s the logic: the first time you divide an hour by sixty, you get minutes (the ‘prime minute’, the first little part). The second time you divide an hour by sixty, you get seconds (the second little part).

Can you believe this is our second Fun Etymology of 2019? Can you believe this is our second year at the HLC?! Those diminutive parts of an hour sure fly by, don’t they?

Don’t never use no double negatives

Multiple negation? I ain’t never heard nothing about that!

“Two negatives make a positive,” your friend may primly reply to such a statement. Even if you’re not exactly fond of math, you surely remember enough to acknowledge the wisdom and veracity of such sound logic.

But the funny thing about languages? They have a logic all their own, and it doesn’t always play by the same rules as our conscious minds.

Take, for example, this phenomenon of the double negative. Like the other formal, prescriptive rules we’ve been exploring with this series, the distaste for double negatives is relatively new to English.

Back in Old and Middle English (roughly AD 1000-1450), English wasn’t particularly fussed about multiple elements of negation in a sentence. If anything, they were used for emphasis, to drive home the negation. This trick of negatives supporting each other (rather than canceling each other out) is called negative concord. Far from being frowned upon, some languages crave it. Spanish, for example, regularly crams several negation words into a single sentence without a second thought:

¡No toques nada!
‘Don’t touch anything!’

This isn’t merely the preferred method of negation. In languages like Spanish and French, negative concord isn’t for emphasis; it’s mandatory. That’s just how they express negation.

The idea that two negatives grammatically make a positive in English was first recorded in the 1700s along with most of the other prescriptive rules. Unlike the other rules, there is some evidence to suggest that negative concord was naturally beginning to disappear in mainstream varieties of English even before the early grammarians codified the rule. This really isn’t too surprising. Languages like to change, and among the other moving parts they scramble around, they commonly go through phases of double negation (we linguists know this as Jespersen’s Cycle).

Math has naught to do with language, but it’s certainly true that in our Modern English, double negatives have the potential to leave a lot of ambiguity. Do they cancel? Do they intensify each other? It’s all about that context. This is one rule that might be here to stay1 (at least in formal English).

1 At least for now!