Phonology 101: Consonants, or “Let’s Make a Sandwich”

Well, well. Here we are again. Back for more Phonology 101. Today, we’re finally going to start putting names to faces, or, uh, sounds. That’s right, it’s time to talk about consonants!

Phones (as we learned to call speech sounds last time—catch up here) can be broadly divided into consonants and vowels.1 As you probably know, words can be divided up into syllables. A quick and dirty way to separate vowels and consonants is that vowels form the nucleus, i.e. the middle, of a syllable, and consonants are the sounds that go around the outside.2 If syllables were sandwiches, consonants would be the bread and condiments and the pickles and the lettuce and all that good stuff you put around the meat, i.e. the vowels.

But really, the main distinguishing characteristic of a consonant is that the flow of air through the vocal tract is impeded in some way. The nature of the impediment is called the manner of articulation.3 Together with place of articulation and voicing (which we discussed in part one of Phono 101—here), the manner of articulation is one of the three major defining characteristics of a consonant.

If you’ve been studying up on your IPA, the manner of articulation is listed in the left column of the pulmonic consonants chart:

IPA Chart,, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Today, I’m going to go over several types of consonants, which will cover the bulk of the chart. The consonants I won’t cover are trills and taps (which you can see on the chart above), and clicks, implosives, and ejectives (which are listed elsewhere on the complete IPA chart, viewable here). These are much rarer in the world’s languages and, wouldn’t you know it, a bit trickier to grapple with. The sounds I will cover are all present in English, and that’s where I’ll be pulling my examples from. This is not because English is somehow more exemplary than other languages, but I’m writing in English, so I assume you, my trusty reader, have at least some familiarity with its sounds.

Our first type of consonant is called a plosive or a stop (the terms are interchangeable). (Ideally, I would say stops are wheat bread or mayonnaise or some other sandwich-making component, but this is a shaky metaphor that I’m afraid will quickly fall apart if spread too far.4) In these sounds, the airflow is completely blocked somewhere along the vocal tract and then released. The sound is stopped, then explodes outwards. (Most of the consonants have helpful names like that. Thankfully, we linguists don’t always use fancy Latin terms for things.) For example, when producing [b], both lips come together and part, stopping and releasing the flow of air. When producing [t], the closure is made by placing the tongue along the alveolar ridge. (I asked you before to try saying different sounds to get a feel for the places of articulation. You should definitely try that again today, this time paying attention to the manner of articulation. Go on. You know you want to.)

Another type of consonant is the fricative. Here, the flow of air is highly restricted but not completely cut off. These sounds tend to buzz or hiss, and the name of the game here is friction. Excellent examples are [v] (a voiced labiodental fricative) and [s] (a voiceless alveolar fricative). Fricatives are fun because you can drag them out as long as you want as long as you’ve got enough breath support.

Now sometimes, occasionally, when a stop and a fricative really love each other, those two crazy kids get together and form an affricate. An affricate is a stop followed in such close sequence by a fricative, they overlap to create what sounds like one phone. English has a couple of these. The first and last sounds in church (/t͡ʃ/) and judge (/d͡ʒ/) are affricates. There’s some debate over whether affricates should be treated as one sound or as a sequence of two.

Stops, fricatives, and affricates can, generally, be either voiced or voiceless. Due to how they’re produced, this isn’t necessarily true for some of the other types of consonants.

Some of those perpetually voiced sound are known as approximants. In these sounds, the airway is restricted, but the air passes around the sides of the tongue or passes through the narrowed areas without the friction characteristic of fricatives. This category includes sounds like [l], [ɹ], and [w]. “Approximants” is actually kind of a catch-all term for some of the most complicated consonants to produce, and they can be broken up into several subcategories. We’re not going to dive into those right now; I don’t want to make your head hurt more than I have to.

In all of these sounds (stops, fricatives, affricates, and approximants), the air passes through the oral cavity. For some sounds, the velum is lowered, allowing the sound to pass through the nasal cavity, like in [m] and [n]. This one’s easy: these sounds are called nasals.

That’s the whole grocery list, so let’s get back to our tenuous sandwich analogy. Some sandwiches/syllables are simple—just two pieces of bread and a slice of roast beef, like cat. Some have mayonnaise and tomatoes and cheese and all sorts of other fixings, like strength (the linguistic term is consonant clusters). Some sandwiches/syllables are open-faced, like do. No matter how you serve it up, put all the ingredients together and you wind up with something delicious.

In two weeks, I’ll be back to finish off Phonology 101 with an exploration of that phonemic delicatessen, vowels. Next week, Riccardo will be here to bend your mind on the subject of linguistic prejudice and a little something called phonaesthetics.


1Finally! Something intuitive, am I right?
2There are a couple consonants that occasionally blur this line, but contrary to what you might expect, none of them are represented by the letter Y.
3Technically, vowels also have a manner of articulation, but it’s the same for all vowels. Manner of articulation isn’t really important for vowels, but it’s crucial for consonants.
4Get it? “Spread”? I’m sorry.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


“the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that the language you speak determines how you think”


So says the fictive linguist Louise Banks (ably played by Amy Adams) in the sci-fi flick ‘Arrival’ (2016). The movie’s plot relies rather heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the principle of linguistic relativity, so heavily in fact that the entire plot would be undone without it.

But what is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, really? Before digging into why ‘Arrival’ may have gotten it a bit… well, off, a word of caution: If you haven’t seen the movie (and intend to do so), go ahead and do that before reading the rest of this post because there will be SPOILERS!!!

Now that you have been duly warned, let’s get going.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, in a way, what Louise Banks describes: it is in part a hypothesis claiming that language determines the way you think. This idea is called linguistic determinism and is actually only one half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Commonly known as the “strong” version of Sapir-Whorf, linguistic determinism holds that language limits and determines cognitive categories, thereby limiting our worldview to that which can be described in the words of whatever language we speak. Our worldview, and our way of thinking, is thus determined by our language.

That sounds pretty technical, so let’s use the example provided by ‘Arrival’:

The movie’s plot revolves around aliens coming to earth, speaking a language that is completely unknown to mankind. To try to figure out what they want, the movie linguist is called in. She manages to figure out their language pretty quickly (of course), realising that they think of time in a non-linear way.

This is quite a concept for a human to grasp since our idea of time is very linear. In western societies, we commonly think of time as a timeline going from left to right, as below.


Let’s say that we are currently at point C of our timeline. We can probably all agree that, as humans, we cannot go back in time to point A, right? However, in ‘Arrival’, we are given the impression that the reason we can’t do that is because our language doesn’t let us think about time in a non-linear way. That is, because our language doesn’t allow us, we can’t go back in time. Sounds a bit wonky, doesn’t it?

Well, you might be somewhat unsurprised to hear that this “strong” version has been discredited in linguistics for quite some time now and, for most modern-day linguists, it is a bit silly. Yet, we can’t claim that language doesn’t influence our way of thinking, can we?

Consider the many bi/multilinguals who has stated that they feel kinda like a different person when speaking their second language. If you’ve never met one, we bilinguals at the HLC agree that we could vouch for that fact.

Why would they feel that way, if language doesn’t affect our way of thinking? Well, of course, language does affect our way of thinking, it just doesn’t determine it. This is the ‘weak’ version of Sapir-Whorf, also known as linguistic relativism.

The weak version may be somewhat more palatable to you (and us): it holds that language influence our way of thinking but does not determine it. Think about it: if someone were to point out a rainbow to you and you had no word for the color red, you would still be able to perceive that that color was different from the others.

If someone were to discover a brand-new color (somewhat mind-boggling, I know, but just consider that), you would be able to explain that this is a color for which you have no word but you would still be able to see it just fine.

That might be the most clear distinction between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism: the former would claim that you wouldn’t be able to perceive the color while the latter would say that you’ll see it just fine, you just don’t have a word for it.

So, while ‘Arrival’ was (at least in my opinion) a pleasant waste of time, when it comes to the linguistics of it, I’d just like to say:

(Oh, and on a side note, the name of the hypothesis (i.e. Sapir-Whorf), is actually quite misleading since Sapir and Whorf never did a collaborate effort to formalise the hypothesis)

Tune in for more linguistic stuff next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the phonology of consonants (trust me, you have a treat coming)!


Phonology 101: Phonemes, aka phonology’s little superheroes

Welcome back to Phonology 101! Last time, we talked about the vocal tract and two major features of speech sounds, namely place of articulation and voicing (catch up here). Today, we’re going to stop using the word “sound” in favor of some more precise terms: phone, phoneme, and allophone. You may also find it useful to catch up on IPA (here); I’ll be introducing some important notation, and moving forward, I’ll be using IPA more and more.

Individual speech sounds are called phones. In talking about speech production, we keep distinguishing between phonetics (the concrete/physical) and phonology (the abstract/mental). Phones exist on the phonetic plane. Our mental representations of the sounds in our language are called phonemes. If your brain was a computer running a language program, phonemes would be all the sound files. As mentioned previously, the International Phonetic Alphabet is the standard for transcribing phones and phonemes. When using IPA, brackets put around the symbols indicate whether phonetic or phonological data is being represented. Phones go in square brackets (e.g. [a]), and phonemes go between slashes (/a/). On both levels, this notation can be used for individual sounds, complete words, or even phrases and longer utterances.

More technically, a phoneme is “a minimal contrastive sound unit of a language.”1 What that means is, phonemes cannot be broken down into smaller units, and switching a single phoneme for another can make the difference between one word and another. To determine the phonemes of a language, linguists look for something called minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of words that differ in pronunciation by a single phone. An example of a minimal pair is mine /maɪn/ and kine /kaɪn/,2 which demonstrates that /m/ and /k/ are phonemes in English. As you can guess, minimal pairs have a tendency to rhyme, but the differing sounds don’t need to be at the beginning of words. They can also come at the end, as in mine /maɪn/ and might /maɪt/, or in the middle, as in can /kæn/ and kin /kɪn/.3 (These examples also nicely illustrate the point we keep emphasizing about how separate spelling and pronunciation actually are.)

Now, the thing about phonemes is, the sound we think we’re producing isn’t always technically the sound that comes out. Based on where it is in a word or the sounds surrounding it, a single phoneme might be pronounced in several ways. The physical manifestations of a phoneme are called allophones. Some phonemes might have only one allophone, while others might have several. Some allophones might be associated with more than one phoneme. I’ve had several teachers who explained it like this: Sometimes Superman is Superman, and sometimes Superman is Clark Kent. Sometimes, he’s even Kal-El. How he appears depends on the environment he’s in, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same guy. A linguistic example: In my dialect, I pronounce rot as [ɹɑt], but rotten is [ɹɑ.ʔən]. (Like generic phones, allophones go in brackets.) My “t” sound in rotten is something called a glottal stop. Even though it’s a different phone, my brain says the middle sound in rotten is the phoneme /t/ (an alveolar stop). This comes out when I enunciate it and it sounds more like [ɹɑ.tən]. [ʔ] is an allophone of /t/. (As we haven’t really talked about any specific sounds yet, I’ve tried to pick examples that would be kind of intuitive for most speakers. Even so, it was hard to avoid using some sounds and symbols that may be making you go, “Huh?” Here’s an interactive IPA chart with sound clips if you’d like to hear what I’m talking about.)

Some allophones are pretty obvious to spot, but others are more subtle. In ram [ɹæ̃m] the vowel takes on a nasal quality not present in rat [ɹæt] through the influence of the following nasal consonant /m/. This is how allophones tend to come about. In actual speech, no sound is produced in a vacuum. In the interest of ease of articulation, our mouths carry over features from previous sounds or, as in the case of ram, anticipate upcoming sounds. This process is highly predictable and regular. A phoneme will consistently produce the same allophone in a given environment.

Okay, so what? This is all well and good for linguists who just want to Know, but does it have any impact on your life? Well actually, yes. Every language variety has its own phoneme inventory. Phonemes in one language may only be allophones in another (or may be missing entirely). When we pick up a language as children, our boxed set of language features includes a list of sounds we consider phonemes. As we grow up, this internal phoneme inventory solidifies and becomes very hard to alter. This explains why people have an accent when they learn a second language—they’re unconsciously using their native phonemes.

Our phoneme inventories don’t just influence the way we pronounce words. They also filter how we process what we hear. In my dialect, I pronounce merry, marry, and Mary the same. In some dialects here in the United States, these words contain three different vowels and therefore have three distinct pronunciations. I’ve studied phonology long enough that I can carefully reproduce these pronunciations (when I remember which vowel goes with which word), but I still can’t hear the different when a native speaker of this dialect produces these words. For me, all these vowels get lumped into the same phoneme, so that’s how I hear them.

This isn’t a big deal for a situation like mine, where the phoneme difference is slight and it will be easy for me to figure out what’s being said. The differences between phoneme inventories can get more pronounced4, and interfere more with comprehension, when you’re speaking a second language. For example, in Arabic, [b] and [p] are not distinct phonemes, so it’s hard for a native Arabic speaker to distinguish between English barking and parking.

And this is why we’re wading through all this terminology and technical swampland: Language is a real world phenomenon with real world consequences. As in the Arabic example, phonology can have an effect on actual communication, as can morphology, syntax, semantics, and the other basic disciplines of linguistics. Once we’re done laying the groundwork, we can get to the fun stuff (like, what’s up with English spelling? And how do you pronounce GIF?).

There will be two more posts in the Phonology 101 series (for now). In two weeks, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of consonants, and then in March, we’ll go over vowels. Before we get to that, though, Sabina will be back next week to talk about something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and ask the big questions: Does our language influence how we think?


1Giegerich, Heinz J. 1992. English phonology: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2An archaic plural of cow. I just really wanted to use it.
3Another somewhat archaic word for family and relatives. (But maybe you knew this one.)
4Lol, phonology puns.

The Scots Leid – The Scots Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.


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

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

3Accessed at:
Copyright terms:

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

5Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery:

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

Speaking in Tongues: a Brief History of Conlanging




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is English a Romance language? On language families and relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and sources

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

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

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

Phonology 101: Let’s Get Physical

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

You ready? Let’s get started!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Happy Holidays from the HLC

We here at the Historical Linguist Channel would like to wish you happy holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, or nothing at all this time of year, whether your New Year comes with 1 January or the first new moon, we hope the rest of December treats you right.

We’re going to pause the semi-serious linguistics for a few weeks to spend time with our loved ones. We’ll be back 4 January with Phonology 101 and more, and in the meantime, Fun Etymology Tuesdays will continue uninterrupted over on our Facebook page.

As our gift to you, here’s a topical story from the history of English:

Once upon a time (let’s call it 1536), a poor guy named William Tyndale was executed for heresy after a merry chase across Europe that abruptly came to an end when he was betrayed in Belgium. His crime? Translating the Bible into English.

The charge of heresy was completely silly and unfair for several reasons:

  1. The Bible was already available in most of the other major languages of Europe.
  2. Two years later, King Henry VIII, the very same who had so adamantly insisted that Tyndale be apprehended, authorized an official English translation of the Bible; it drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation, as did the famous translation later commissioned by King James I.
  3. The Bible had been translated into English before, some of it probably translated by King Alfred himself. (That would be Alfred the Great. And he was. Great. At least, I think so (Hi, this is Rebekah).) Of course, this was before-before—before William and his Norman-French clerics and his Norman-French nobles and their beardless Norman culture.1 (I don’t actually have any beef with William the Conqueror. The dude was a beast, and honestly? England was kind of a mess when he showed up. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the Anglo-Saxons were having a grand old time running around translating the Bible and handing it out to everybody long before Henry VIII got all snippy and execution-y just because William Tyndale called him out on the fact that annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t exactly copacetic vis-a-vis scripture.)

Old English glosses and translations of the Bible were mostly based on the Vulgate Latin Bible. Many of the translations were incomplete, but one translated passage tells a little story you may have heard before:


Soþlice2 on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam Casere Augusto
Truly3 in those days happened a command from that Caesar Augustus

þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod.
that all the circle of the world was to be described.

Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino
This census first happened by that governor of Syria Cirinus

and ealle hig eoden and syndrie ferdon on hyra ceastre.
and they all went and separately traveled into their city.

Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth
Then traveled Joseph from Galilee out of that city Nazareth 

on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides seo is genemned Bethleem
into the Judean city of David which is named Bethlehem

forþam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede.
because he was of David’s house and family.

He ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs and wæs geeacnod.
He traveled with Mary who was married to him and was pregnant.


It’s Luke 2, the account of Christ’s birth, in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. A translation of a translation, from Ancient Greek to Latin to Old English. The language tells as much of a story as the words do. For example, they call the world a circle because that’s what they thought it was: a flat disk. In some ways, it’s impossible to separate our language from our culture, or our culture from our language. Our languages convey things that, like music or art, are sometimes a little bit untranslatable (which is how your friendly neighborhood linguists got into a discussion the other day about whether certain Disney songs are better in English or Swedish).

Do you have any Christmas or Hanukkah or Saturnalia (or whatever) stories you’d like to share with us? Any stories or songs that just don’t sound right if you try to translate them? We’d love to hear from you! Comment or send us an email or message in the language of your choice (even if you suspect we don’t speak it).

See you in January!


1There’s a fantastic lecture series available on audiobook called 1066: The Year That Changed Everything if you’re interested in learning more about the Norman Conquest.

2Modern transcriptions of Old English texts usually include diacritics to indicate vowel length and certain consonant pronunciations. I’m going to ask you to cut me a break on leaving these out here because a. It’s Christmas, b. This isn’t a formal publication, and c. The diacritics are, generally, a modern convention not found in the original manuscripts anyway.

3This is my own translation into ModE. Some of the phrasing may sound a little funny because I’ve gone for something between a gloss and a full translation to give you a sense of the original.

Written “language”?

Hi everyone, Sabina here! As the resident nerd of orthography and writing systems, I am here today to talk to you about language. Shocking, I know!

When I say “language”, you might be thinking of spoken language but also, perhaps, of written language. But is “written language” actually language?

Well, yes and no. Written “language”, while sharing a lot with spoken language, is a medium through which we might use language to express ideas, thoughts and emotions, but it is not the language.

The distinction between spoken language and the written medium may sound simple enough, but the two are easily confused simply because they are very closely related. Haven’t you ever heard someone saying, with a frustrated tone, that the English language is soooo weird on the basis of spelling? Well, that’s the orthography, i.e. the rules that govern spelling, punctuation and such things, not the language.

Or perhaps that Chinese is an ideographic1 language? Well, that describes the writing system of the language, not the language (also, Chinese is logographic, but it’s a common misconception according to our resident Chinese expert, Riccardo).

Now, a writing system is a form of communication represented in a visual way. This may be through a system like the Latin alphabet (like I’m using) or the Cyrillic alphabet (like that used in Russia, e.g. алфавит ‘alphabet’) where the symbols represent sounds, or through a logographic system (like that used in Chinese, in which a written character represents a word or a phrase, e.g. 这是一个示例 ‘this is an example’). Basically, it is any way we use letters, shapes, accents and so on to convey meaning on… well, any material really, as long as it is graphically represented.

You with me so far? Great, let’s move into the tricky stuff.

Now, the writing system and the orthography of a language are derivative mediums of spoken language, usually reflecting the spoken language fairly well. However, writing may also go entirely its own way (or at least, it might seem like it).

Consider the English spelling of the word “tough”. Pronounced (in British English) as as [tʌf], it is nevertheless spelt with -gh, not f. (I’ll leave the vowels for now. We’ll offer more insight on vowels later.). So, if a written language is merely a way to express the spoken language: what’s up with that??

Well, this is the Historical Linguist Channel, after all (thought you could sneak by the history, did ya?). Such discrepancies (of which English has plenty) are often possible to explain by studying the history of the language. You see, orthography (especially spelling) is slow to change (like, really slow) and the standardisation of English was done during late Middle English/Early Modern English. English has, of course, changed quite a bit since then, but the written form of English actually still corresponds quite well (we think, at least) to the pronunciation of earlier stages of the spoken language.

While it would be convenient to have an orthography that reproduces the spoken language as exactly as possible, it would be quite difficult to create such a system. For instance, most letters pull a double (or triple or quadruple and so on) act and their pronunciation in a particular word is very dependent on the reader.

Let’s use another Swedish example here: In Swedish, the word for shrimp is ‘räka’. Now, in Gothenburg, where I’m from, this is pronounced something like ‘rää-ka’ with an open vowel ([æ:]), a vowel that, in Swedish, is traditionally associated with the letter <ä> .

However, my husband, who is from Stockholm, would pronounce the same word as ‘ree-ka’ with a much more closed vowel, perhaps something like [e:]. Yet, using the letter <e> to denote the vowel [æ:] may become an issue because the pronunciation “ree-ka” might actually be nonsensical to a lot of Swedish speakers (there’s actually a really old joke about it, talking about  a person wanting shrimp and the other person doesn’t understand what the first is asking for).

Add to that that there already is a word spelt ‘reka’ in Swedish, a clipped form of ‘rekognosera’ meaning “to explore or investigate”, and you’ll see how spelling shrimp as ‘reka’ might be an issue (especially since the pronunciation is highly dialectal and does not correspond to the pronunciation of other dialects).

There are, of course, a bunch of words that could (and perhaps should) be updated to a more ‘modern’ spelling, but the point of all this is that, while spoken and written language are closely related, we cannot expect the written form to be an exact replica of the spoken language. That being said, it would be naive of us to claim that spoken and written language are completely separate. Of course they’re not. But, at the same time, when we talk about “written language”, we must be aware that that “language” is not actually a language at all, merely a really slow-to-change expression of the spoken language. This does not mean that the study of writing systems and/or orthography is not worthwhile. Quite the opposite, especially for historical linguists whose only resource is written texts.

We cannot, and should not, expect writing to be a trustworthy representative of spoken language, and that’s okay.


1Ideographs are symbols that manage to convey their meaning independent of any particular language, like a big red circle with a line through it to mean “no”.

Morphological Typology, or How Language is Like Ice Cream

Language is like ice cream: it’s delicious, it’s addictive, it’s refreshing, and it comes in an enormous number of varieties.

Did you know that in my native Italy, where modern ice cream was invented, it is customarily divided into three major categories, depending on how much milk it contains?

First of all, there’s sherbet: this is the most ancient kind of ice cream, and it’s basically just flavoured ice. It contains no milk. Then there’s the so-called “frutte” (fruits), which, as the name implies, are exclusively fruit-flavoured, and contain some milk. Finally, there’s the “creme” (creams), such as chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut. These are the true kings of ice cream, and contain the most milk of all.

Believe it or not, language is divided in the exact same way, only with morphological complexity (i.e. how many prefixes, suffixes, and word changes they have) instead of milk: language sherbets with little to no morphological complexity are called isolating languages; language frutte, with a moderate amount of morphological complexity, are called fusional languages; and language creme, with lots of morphological complexity, are called agglutinating languages.

Let’s look at each kind in a bit more detail.

Isolating Languages

Isolating languages are the simplest languages as far as morphology goes (which doesn’t mean they’re “simple” or “easy” languages though!). In a purely isolating language, words never change form: verbs don’t conjugate for tense or mood (as in love – loved), and nouns don’t decline for number or case (as in cow – cows) or anything else.

Now you’re probably thinking: “What a nightmare! How are speakers of these languages supposed to know if there’s more than one of something? Or if something happened in the past or will happen in the future?”

The answer to this question is that they use context, or, when that fails, they “cheat” by using special separate words which carry grammatical meaning, much like English suffixes do.

The classic example of an isolating language is Mandarin Chinese, which is also the language with the largest number of speakers in the world. Let’s look at a Chinese sentence to see how it deals with number and tense:


wǒ sān nián qián chī guo sìshí kuài dàngāo, dùzi téng sǐ la!

I three year before eat PAST forty slice cake, stomach hurt death PERF.EXCL!1

Three years ago I ate forty slices of cake, my stomach killed me!”

See? With the use of clever little words like guo (which basically means ‘past tense’), there’s no need to conjugate the verb! And the fact that we’re talking about more than one slice of cake is fully conveyed by the number “forty”, relieving the noun of the burden of plural suffixes.

Fusional Languages

The middle children of the linguosphere, fusional languages are probably the most familiar to readers of this blog, and that’s because most European languages, English included, are fusional.

Fusional languages have a moderate amount of prefixes and suffixes, such as the un- in unimportant or the -ed in cooked (collectively called affixes), and other morphological tricks up their sleeves, and they particularly like changing the forms of their words without adding stuff to them (à la goose – geese). What they don’t like doing is adding more than one or two extra pieces to their words, which keeps them small and contained.

“Well, what if a verb is both past and perfect, or a noun both plural and genitive (possessive)?” I hear you ask. Well, fusional languages have a neat trick to deal with these situations, and that is having a single affix or a word change have more than one meaning.

Now, English is kind of the runt of the litter when it comes to fusional languages, and has some peculiarities which make it somewhat of a bad example to use to explain how they work, so I’ll use my native Italian to show you a fusional language in action:

Se Giovanni facesse quelle stramaledette salsiccie, mangeremmo come dei re.

if Giovanni do-3P.SING.PRES.COND those blasted.PL sausage.PL, eat-2P.PL.PRES.SUBJ like of.the.PL king.PL

If Giovanni were to make those blasted sausages, we would eat like kings.”

Look at those suffixes! The suffix -eremmo in mangeremmo means second person, plural, present and subjunctive2. How’s that for multitasking!?

Agglutinating Languages

Remember two sections ago when you were wondering how isolating languages managed to work with no affixes at all? Well, that laughter you heard coming from the back of the room were the agglutinating languages, mocking our puny fusional lack of affixation.

Agglutinating languages love affixes: the more stuff you can stick to a word, the better. They treat their words like daisy-chains, adding affix upon affix, nevermind how long they end up to be. For agglutinating languages, there’s no need for multitasking in affixes, because you can string as many as you like one after another.

An example of an agglutinating language we can find here in Europe is Finnish, which, as everyone knows, is the native language of Santa Claus, or Joulupukki as he’s known up there.

Let’s have a look at some Finnish:

Kirjastoissammekin on ruskeakarhuja!

book-COLL-PL-INESS-2PL-TOO is brown.bear-PL-PART!

We have brown bears in our libraries too!”

Look at that. Eight words in English, three words in Finnish, isn’t that amazing?

The word kirjastoissammekin alone means “in our libraries too”, and can be neatly taken apart like this: kirja-sto-i-ssa-mme-kin “book-collection-plural-in-our-too”. If you don’t find that neat, then I frankly don’t know how to impress you.

Sometimes, agglutinating languages go mad with power and let their words run amok, gobbling up everything they see, including other words. We call these extreme examples of agglutination polysynthetic languages. These mad scientists can incorporate pieces of words inside other words, giving rise to Frankensteinian monstrosities which can carry the meaning of a whole English sentence on their own. Here’s an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language spoken in Canada:



“I’ll have to go to the airport”

More literally, this über-word could be translated as “I will have to arrive at the place where the big rising things are.”


Now that we’ve reached the end of our brief trip through the three morphological types of language, let me quickly go back to my ice cream metaphor to explain an important point about this classification: just as you can mix and match different kinds of ice cream in your cup, languages rarely fit neatly into these categories. Most languages combine characteristics from at least two of these groups, with one being dominant and the others subordinate. For example, it could be argued that English is a fusional language that’s rapidly moving towards becoming isolating; Mandarin Chinese is mostly isolating, but it has some agglutinating characteristics; and Finnish has been known to stray into fusional behaviour from time to time.

The takeaway from this is that things in the world are rarely clear-cut, and language is no exception.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief (but wild) jaunt through the various ways languages organise their morphology. Next week, it will be Sabina’s turn again, and this time she will answer the pressing question: what is the relationship between language and writing? Are they the same thing? (SPOILER: They’re not.)

See you then!

Glossing Glossary (Gloss-ary? Anyone?)

The following is a list of the abbreviations I’ve used in the glosses for the examples. You can happily and safely skip this if you’re not interested in what the abbreviations mean.

PERF : perfect

EXCL : exclamative

1-2-3P : first/second/third person

SING : singular

PRES : present

COND : conditional

PL : plural

SUBJ : subjunctive

COLL : collective

INESS : inessive (a case in Finnish)

PART : partitive (a case in Finnish)

HAB : habitual

FUT : future


  1. By the way, that cool thing in italics I did with the word-by-word translation is called glossing and we use it a lot in linguistics to explain how sentences work in different languages (don’t worry about the PERF.EXCL thing, it doesn’t concern us).

  2. The subjunctive is what we in linguistics call a mood, which can be very roughly understood as the way of the verb of telling the listener how factual the information you’re giving them is. The subjunctive indicates that the information is hypothetical.