Early Germanic Dialects – Let’s get going!

Willkommen zurück, everyone! (I have no idea if you would actually say that in German but we’ll stick to it!)

You might remember that we, three weeks ago, kicked off a new little series by introducing you a little bit to Proto-Germanic? Well, this series is called Early Germanic Dialects (coincidentally, this is also the name of a course on this particular topic that we took during our studies), and in it, we will be introducing you a little bit to – you guessed it – the early Germanic dialects!

Before we study those, though, we need to talk to you a bit about the relationship of these dialects. We’re sure you remember that we’ve talked quite a lot about the concept of ‘families’ of languages (Germanic, Italic, Finno-Ugric, etc.). Today, we’ll look closer at the Germanic language family!

So, of course you know by now that the Germanic languages are languages that comes from Proto-Germanic (which, in turn, hails from Proto-Indo-European). What you may not know (or at least we haven’t outright told you) is that the Germanic language family is also divided into different branches, three in total. These are: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic.

East Germanic, unfortunately, had only one known descendent and that language has gone extinct: Gothic. We know that Gothic once existed and we have a pretty good idea about what it looked like because of a few surviving texts. One of the most recognised of these is the so-called Codex Argenteus, a beautiful 6th century manuscript which contains a 4th century gothic translation of the Bible. Known most commonly as the Silver Bible or the Silver Book, the manuscript is an impressive sight: its thin vellum pages are stained a regal purple, the script and illuminations are made in silver and gold with an ornate jewelled binding. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there, but truly, it’s quite remarkable. If you ever find yourself in Stockholm, Sweden, make a bit of a detour and see it IRL at the University of Uppsala, its current home.

Anyway, back to linguistics. So, Gothic is the only descendent of East Germanic, meaning, of course, that there are currently no living descendents of East Germanic. That is not the case for the other two branches though. Let’s look at North Germanic first.

The North Germanic branch of the tree are the languages that come from Old Norse, meaning, of course, the Viking languages!

Kidding (kind of). The languages that comes from Old Norse are Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. These languages share a couple of features which are not found in most of the East and West Germanic languages, such as u-umlaut (though you may see u-umlaut in other Germanic languages, such as Old English, too, but it is commonly more limited than the u-umlaut found in Old Norse and not to be confused with the ‘umlauted’ vowel Ü in German).
You’ve heard us talk about umlaut before, quite a bit actually, but we’ve primarily focused on i-umlaut. U-umlaut works in a very similar fashion: when a /u/ or a /w/ followed in the next syllable, stressed vowels were rounded so instead of milk, as in English, you get mjòlk (Icelandic), mjölk (Swedish), for example. Of course, there are important differences within these languages too, but we’ll get there in due time.

Now, the West Germanic branch is a bit bigger than East and North. This branch consists of all languages that comes from Anglo-Frisian, that is Old English and Old Frisian, and the languages that comes from Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic), that is Old High German, which eventually produced German and Yiddish, as well as all languages that comes from Old Low German, also known as Old Saxon and Old Dutch, which eventually became Low German, Dutch and Afrikaans.

Let’s put that in a tree for you:

This makes it a bit easier to visualize, of course, but this way of representing things have shown to be somewhat problematic. As you may notice, for example, it gives you no indication of timeline, and of course, all of the language changes that makes West Germanic different from North or East Germanic didn’t happen at the same time. Consider the tree, if you will, an extremely simplified visualization of a very complex relationship.  

This post has aimed to give you some insight into the relationship of the Germanic languages, but we will end on another note of caution: this relationship is far from uncontroversial. For example, there are some features shared by the Anglo-Frisian languages and the North Germanic languages but not by the Proto-German languages, and there are some features shared by Old High German and Gothic that set them apart from the other languages – some have even gone so far as to claim that English is a North Germanic language, not a West Germanic one.  This, of course, indicates a closer relationship than what is readily evident by the traditional tree that you see here.

So, keep this with you, always: don’t accept the tree as the unequivocal truth, because really, it’s not.  

via GIPHY

References

Our primary reference for this post is:

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

If you would like to know more about the Silver Bible, check it out at the University of Uppsala

And if you would like to know more about the claim that English is actually a North Germanic language, check out Emonds and Faarlund’s book English: The language of the Vikings, published in 2014. Fair warning though: the hypothesis has been questioned by many voices in the historical linguistic community and we suggest you also check out a couple of reviews on the book to get an understanding of both schools of thought. We will not be discussing our personal thoughts on this topic here, but if you want to know more and discuss it with us, just send us an email or ask us a question on Facebook or Twitter.

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.)

Notes

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.

Did the Southern Hemisphere Englishes develop from Cockney?

Remember two weeks ago, when I said that I’d get back to you about Southern Hemisphere Englishes? Well, I’m following through with this post!1

So, what do I mean by Southern Hemisphere (SH) Englishes? Well, it can be defined more broadly or more narrowly, but for this post I mean varieties of English that are spoken as a first language in the Southern Hemisphere, such as in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, St Helena, and the Falkland Islands. Today, I will focus on the first three varieties on that list: Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English.

Public domain map from https://ian.macky.net/pat/index.html

If you, like me, enjoy listening to accents, imitating them, and trying to figure out their characteristics, you may have noticed that these three SH varieties often sound very similar2. With Australian and New Zealand English, them being geographical neighbours could partly explain this, but this does not work as an explanation for South African English. Also, there is not great dialectal variation within these varieties, relative to, for example, the UK, where you get distinct accents and dialects between two places only a commuter’s distance apart. How can this be?

In my post about American English I went a little bit into how the development of that variety is affected by the linguistic diversity of the input (that is, what English accents and dialects were spoken by settlers), challenging the claim that American English would be a preserved Shakespearean English. The story of the formation of SH Englishes is, unsurprisingly, not so different from this. Once again I want to investigate the idea that a language develops in a straight line from one single older language, and the question of the week is therefore: Is Cockney to blame for the similarities between SH Englishes?

The SH countries in question were colonised by Britain much later than North America was, but in the same century as each other; the 19th century. The nature of their settlement differed slightly, however: Australia was at first a penal colony, New Zealand was initially settled by craftsmen, labourers, and farmers, and in South Africa, which was previously colonised by the Dutch, a deliberate action was made to start British farming communities by sending out 5000 British settlers to start this up (this did not work very well, and the British settlers soon moved into the cities to take on other professions).

Now, let me tell you a little bit about Cockney:

Famous fictional Cockney speaker: Eliza Doolittle, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (perhaps more known from the stage musical adaption My Fair Lady)

Famous non-fictional Cockney speaker: Michael Caine (an actor who, depending on your age, you either know from the movie Alfie, or as Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy)

Famously bad attempts at Cockney: America’s Next Top Model season 4 acting challenge

Cockney is the accent traditionally spoken in London’s West End, which, in the 19th and early 20th century, was one of the more impoverished areas of London. The Southern English accent spoken in the West End developed in a quite distinct way, influenced in part by the culturally diverse population which resided there. If you’re not from Britain, you may recognise Cockney as the accent often used to make fun of/imitate the British. Some notable Cockney features are, for example: pronouncing the diphthong in words like ‘mate’ so that it sounds like the diphthong in ‘might’, dropping word-initial /h/ so that  ‘hello’ becomes ‘ello’, vocalising (= turning into a vowel) the /l/ in certain environments so that ‘milk’ sounds like ‘miwk’, and glottalising the /t/-sound between vowels so that words like ‘glottal’ become something like ‘glo-al’. The cockney accent also had more general South-Eastern English features (and indeed, some of the already mentioned features are also found elsewhere), such as not being rhotic (so that ‘far’ is pronounced ‘fah’), and raising of the ‘e’-vowels to sound more like ‘i’, making ‘better’ sound more like ‘bitter’.

During the 20th century, the rise of the prestigious Received Pronounciation (RP)3 meant that Cockney became more and more seen as vulgar and overall unprestigious. However, Cockney speakers were large in numbers, and, as is often the case in language change, features from Cockney have successively found their way into wider South-Eastern British English and even RP – so much so that the traditional RP known as the Queen’s English sounds much more “common” these days, even when spoken by the Queen herself.

From a British perspective, Cockney and monocles don’t exactly go hand in hand

Cockney is frequently given credit for the Australian English accent, and this is not an entirely bonkers idea. In a situation such as the settlement of Australia and New Zealand, the number of speakers of a certain variety, i.e. the frequency of certain accent features, has been said to play a greater role than the social prestige of a variety, and the majority of convicts arriving in Australia were Cockney speakers. The interaction between the convicts, and thus the numerical influence of Cockney features over other accents, started already on the ships taking them to Australia, and once there, the speech of the convicts even affected the speech of the penal officers. Thus, Cockney speech features became numerically dominant in Australia and shaped the way English was spoken there.

We know already that the type of settlement was different in New Zealand, so what role did Cockney play there? Well, Cockney speakers in New Zealand were not as many as in Australia, but there were significant numbers of speakers from the South-East of England (about half of the settlers). There were also many settlers from Scotland, and a smaller but relevant number of settlers from Australia (7%)4, in the early days of New Zealand settlement. So, even though Cockney specifically wasn’t spoken by great numbers in New Zealand, those features of Cockney which were also found in other Southern English and (Cockney-influenced) Australian accents spoken in New Zealand had numerical strength among the settlers there. Therefore, these features, such as the high ‘e’ in better, non-rhoticity, and the distinct diphthong in mate, eventually became features of New Zealand English.

Likewise, the British settlers in South Africa were largely from the South-East of England. While the number of settlers was quite small in South Africa, they formed a tight-knit community of English-speakers in a region where many other languages were spoken, Dutch/Afrikaans being only one of them, and largely resisted influence from these other languages. Thus, even though the group of English-speakers in South Africa was small in numbers compared to the rest of the South African population, it was the majority accent within the English-speaking community, i.e. South-Eastern British English, which came to influence the development of South African English.

The numerical strength of individual features, rather than the “whole accent”, is important to understand why some notable cockney characteristics, such as h-dropping and t-glottaling, are missing from all of these SH accents. New Zealand, for example, had plenty of input from other British accents than South-Eastern ones, so pronouncing  /h/ and /t/ was more common among speakers than not doing so. Australia was also subsequently settled by speakers of different English varieties, which we can assume swamped out some of the features more specific to Cockney.

So, can we blame Cockney entirely for the similarities between the different SH varieties? Of course, which I hope to have shown in this post, it is never that simple.

Footnotes
1 The content of this post is again largely credited to material by Dr. Claire Cowie at the University of Edinburgh. I also recommend this video for a general (albeit slightly dated) overview of Cockney and Australian English.
2 Of course, a more trained ear than mine will hear clear differences between them. If you’re not very  familiar with these accents, listen to some samples from the International Dialects of English Archives (IDEA):Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English.
I picked three samples that were similar in that they were all by men in their 20s. There are more samples to listen to on the IDEA site (and many many more accents!).
3 We’ve mentioned RP before, for example here in the context of standardisation.
4 As a reminder, I’m getting these numbers from material put together by Dr. Claire Cowie for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.

Proto-Germanic

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!

References

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 etymonline.com 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!

Footnotes
1This is actually a direct quote from this forum thread, read at your own risk: https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/1818966/is-american-english-in-fact-closer-to-true-english-than-british-english

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!

via GIPHY

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: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166119

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

Notes

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.

Gender neutral pronouns – yay or nay?

‘Gender-neutral pronouns, do they exist?’ you might be saying to yourself at home, in front of whatever device you’re reading this on.

Well, yes. Of course they do. In many languages. In English, you have two: it and one. However, it isn’t really used to describe a person, right? Kinda disrespectful since it traditionally is used on a non-human entity – tables, chairs, pets (and, admittingly, some even dislike the use of it for pets, present writer included), etc. You could use one but it doesn’t really work in certain constructions and might seem a bit formal, wouldn’t you say?

Now, though we could make a list of languages that do have gender-neutral pronouns referring to human beings, that requires us to get into a discussion on grammatical versus natural gender. We don’t want to do that just yet (you’ll have to wait for two weeks! The horror!), and so, we will focus on the Germanic languages, in which it is quite uncommon. As far as we know, only one of the Germanic languages has a recognised, widely used, gender neutral third person pronoun: Swedish!

A couple of years back (and I’m now talking from personal experience since I am Swedish and remember this quite well), around 2010 to be specific, a new pronoun started to make its way into books, magazines and newspaper articles: hen, a pronoun used when the gender of the person is unknown or if it is not relevant or desired to specify the gender of the person. (The gendered pronouns in Swedish are han, ‘he’, and hon, ‘she’)

The pronoun raised a massive debate, and a good number of jokes, both in Sweden and abroad. The main objections to it, in Sweden, seemed to be that it was not necessary, nor desired. However, despite a rather massive resistance, this little word stuck around – and how it grew! In 2014, the language periodical Språktidningen concluded that hen had grown from occurring once for every 13,000 uses of han/hon in 2011, to occuring once for every 300 hon/han in 2013. That’s a pretty massive upswing and in 2014, hen was included in Svenska Akademiens Ordlista – pretty much the Swedish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Where does this idea of hen come from, you might wonder? Well, it certainly wasn’t a new idea: it had been proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun in 1966 and then again in 1994 but it didn’t stick – perhaps because we weren’t ready for it. While we could do a long section on gender equality, I think we’ll stick with the linguistic side of things and, in this, the addition of hen is a big thing! You see, pronouns are often considered an integral part of the grammar of a language and they rarely change – or, as the linguists say, they are a closed word class.

Think of language like an onion with multiple layers: when you peel an onion, the first couple of layers are going to be bendy and soft, right? You can twist them this way or that and it’s fine. This is the ‘open class’ vocabulary of the language, the parts of language that can easily change: we might borrow from other languages, some words might fall into disuse or completely change their meaning, etc.

However, the closer to the ‘core’ of the onion you get, the stiffer the layer. Try twisting one of the inner layers of an onion and it is more likely to break into bits in your hand than bend. This is the grammar of the language, and it is here, in this stiff, unyielding part that you’ll find pronouns (remember how we said that the borrowing of they, them and their was so fascinating because of the integral part pronouns play in a language’s grammar?)

So, adding, changing, removing… All of these things tend to be (very) uncommon in the pronoun-category of a language. In Swedish, the pronoun han (he) goes all the way back to Proto-Norse, spoken around the 2nd to 8th centuries, and hon (she) goes all the way back to Proto-Germanic! During all this time, the pronouns remained pretty much the same in Swedish (spelling changed a little bit – han used to be spelt hann, for example).

The word hen itself is often referred to as a Swedish equivalent of the Finnish pronoun hän, which is also a gender-neutral pronoun. In Swedish, the word can have a different meaning too (though very few people know it since it is pretty much extinct), equivalent to the Swedish word brynsten, meaning ‘whetstone’ (you can see why most people wouldn’t know it?).

Why are we going on and on about these pronouns you might ask? Well, it was really to lead us here: you see, like we’ve said, pronouns rarely change. Generally speaking, we don’t add to them, we don’t change them, we don’t ‘delete’ one. Yet, Swedish did exactly that: it added one – and what makes this addition all the more remarkable is that this was a deliberate addition to the language! And in terms of language development and change, that is spectacular.

Can you imagine? About 2500 years of, pretty much, unchanged pronouns and then, in 2010, Swedes deliberately decided to add one – and the Swedish language, eventually, came to include yet another pronoun! In case you were ever in doubt, this is rather clear evidence that the speakers control what a language includes, not the other way around (thus kind of putting the whole idea of ‘there is a right way to use language’ on rather thin ice, wouldn’t you say?). Isn’t that just amazing?

There has been debate on whether other Germanic languages will follow suit, though that has not really happened (yet).

Tell us what you think – gender-neutral pronouns: yay or nay?

The plural with a singular referent?

Hallo to our lovely followers and friends!

Today, we’re gonna chat for a bit about the third person plural (?) pronoun ‘they’!

This pronoun appears when the antecedent (in this case, the human entity) of the pronoun is indeterminate, meaning that you simply don’t know if you should use he or she (or it might simply be irrelevant), or, as a more recent addition, when the person you are referring to does not wish to be referred to by their gender.

The latter addition has seen some critique during the last few years, for reasons that we won’t go into here because they have nothing whatsoever to do with language, but the thing is, this pronoun has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for centuries!

Most style guides that we’ve encountered still consider it to be less-than-standard in formal use – even though a study by Baranowski in 2002 (check it out here) showed that they was more likely to be used than the prescribed he (or she for that matter)..

In case you are wondering what we’re talking about, have you ever heard someone say something like:

“Someone left their keys at the reception.”  

Note that ‘someone’ is singular, that is, it refers to one individual. Yet, the following pronoun their is, of course, the standard plural form. Now, even though grammars, handbooks and style guides may have, and some perhaps still do, condemn the use, singular they has a long history in English.

The whole thing started in late Middle English, the OED (sense 2) traces singular they as far back as to 1375, when it was used in the medieval romance The Romance of William of Palerne. One might think that this was informal use, it’s fiction after all, however, it was also used in Wycliffe’s bible:

“Eche on in þer craft ys wijs”, (‘their’ is explained by the Middle English Dictionary (1c. sense (a)) which roughly translates into “Each one in their craft is wise”

And they has been popular ever since: Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Defoe, Byron… all of these well-recognized authors have used singular they. So what’s the problem, right?! Well, as we’ve seen previously on this blog, just because authors that we hail for their craft today used a particular form does not mean that it isn’t fair game for prescriptivism.

The earliest known explicit recommendation to use generic he rather than they is found in A New Grammar by Ann Fisher, published in 1745. Fisher stated that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says”. Nineteenth-century grammarians picked this up and insisted that he was the correct use due to a little something we call number agreement or concord disagreement (that is, she runs, not *she run). Furthermore, these later grammarians also insisted that the alternative “he or she” was clumsy, a practice that became widely adopted for a long time (and, we might add, can still be found in a good number of papers/articles, books, etc. written in formal English). Today, though, the practice to refer to he when you actually mean anyone, is often considered somewhat sexist.

As a result of the (still) ongoing discussion about generic they, and the nowadays inappropriate use of generic he, this has raised some discussions about a gender-neutral pronoun in English and some attempts have been made (the first one as early as in 1792!) but, so far, English lacks one.

Actually, pretty much all Germanic languages do. Except one: Swedish! Tag along with us next time and read more about the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen, a fairly new addition to the Swedish vocabulary but one that is, trust the Swedish speakers of this little blog, gaining influence fast! See you then!

Want to know more? Check out the OED’s brief history of singular ‘they’ here

If you’re interested in anything else in this post, please do check out our sources by following the hyperlinks in the text! If there’s anything else, don’t hesitate to holler!

They, them and their(s) – the non-English pronouns

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

Today, we’re going to make an assertion that you may not like: you know the third person plural pronouns in English, i.e. they, them and their(s)?

Well (you’re gonna hate us): they aren’t English.

Okay, so that may not be exactly true. Let’s say: they weren’t English to begin with.

It’s actually a rather amazing evidence of borrowing – in this case, English borrowed from a little language called Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings.

You might be sitting at home thinking that we’re talking absolute BS right now, pronouns are rarely borrowed from other languages because they are so integral in the language’s grammar, right? (Okay, you might not have known that, but now you do!) Bear with us and let’s have a look at the same pronouns in all modern languages that we know comes from Old Norse: Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish!

EnglishIcelandicDanishNorwegianSwedish
theyþeir/þá/þær/þaudedede
themþeimdemdemdem
their(s)þeirraderesderesderas

Shockingly similar, don’t you think?

Well, perhaps not so shockingly. After all, they all come from the same thing: the Old Norse plural pronouns.

Why, exactly, English decided to borrow these are somewhat lost in the mysteries of time. Old English, of course, already had the plural pronoun hīe, so why borrow?

Well, while we are still not sure exactly how this borrowing took place, Old English and Old Norse were in close contact for centuries in the area of densest viking settlement (the Danelaw), so forms like these were likely borrowed between the two languages to make communication easier. It might also be that the Old English plural pronoun had grown too similar to the singular pronouns (m.), hit (n.) and hēo (f.) in pronunciation that it started to become an issue. Both of these explanations are possible.

What we do know though: English borrowed a lot from Old Norse, probably more than most native-English speakers realize. As a matter of fact, some of the most common words in English are Norse in origin (for example, egg; knife; skirt; eye; sister, and so on). The nordic languages (except for Icelandic) are making up for it though and borrows extensively from English today (in Sweden, we even have commercials at bus stops using English terminology). So don’t feel bad about it, English, buuut…

Tune in next week when we’ll keep going at it with the English pronoun they – is it always a plural pronoun?

Can’t wait? Check out the etymology of they, them and their in the meantime! 

See you next week!