Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there were two brothers who very much enjoyed stories. They travelled their country looking for folk tales, each one darker and grimmer than the last… There was no happily ever after in sight and, though their stories have changed much since, the original tales are still found out there for those brave enough to seek them…

Prepare yourselves, my dears, because this… this is the story of the brothers Grimm.

*

Or not! Actually, it is the story of one of the brothers: Jacob Grimm. And it won’t be grim in the least but full of fun linguistic facts!

Today, we’ll be talking about what is known as the First Germanic Sound Shift, Rask’s Rule or, most commonly, Grimm’s Law.

Riccardo touched upon this topic in last week’s post on the comparative method, a method that was pretty much born with this particular observation. The first to notice the correspondence that would eventually become Grimm’s Law was Friedrich Schlegel, a German philologist, in 1806. Rasmus Rask, a Danish philologist, extended the ‘rule’ to to other PIE languages in 1818 and, eventually, Grimm included German in his book Deutsche Grammatik, published in 1822.

Now, they noticed a regular sound change that affected certain Proto-Indo-European (PIE) consonants. They also noticed that this particular sound change only affected the Germanic languages, e.g. German, Dutch, English, Swedish, etc.

But what is it?

Well, Grimm’s Law describes how certain PIE consonants developed in Proto-Germanic, particularly early Germanic stops and fricatives. Now, you might want to refresh your memory on phonological terminology before continuing, but there can be said to be three parts of the chain shift that is Grimm’s law:

  1. PIE voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives
  2. PIE voiced stops became voiceless stops
  3. PIE voiced aspirated stops became voiced stops or fricatives.

That might be a bit abstract but it basically works like this:

PIE PGmc¹ PIE PGmc PIE PGmc
p > f b > p bh > b
t > θ d > t dh > d
k > x g > k gh > g
> > ghʷ >

 

Consider these words in Latin, English and Swedish and compare them to their PIE root:

 

PIE² Latin English Swedish
*ped- pēs foot fot
*dwo- duo two två
*genu- genū knee³ knä

Now, why would English and Swedish have <f>, <t> and <k> where PIE and Latin have <p>, <d> and <g>?

Well, because English and Swedish, being Germanic languages, underwent Grimm’s Law and thus changed the PIE sound */p/, */d/ and */g/ to /f/, /t/ and /k/ respectively. Latin, on the other hand, is an Italic language and didn’t undergo this change, thus keeping the sounds of PIE (or at least approximately, though exactly how close these sounds are is a bit difficult to say with certainty).  

Why would this happen, you might wonder? What would make one sound shift to become another sound?

Well, we don’t really know exactly how it started or why. It might be what is called a ‘pull chain’, meaning that one sound shifts, leading to a ‘gap’ in the phonological values of the language. As a result, another sound shifts to fill that gap and a third sound shifts to fit the gap of the second one and so on and so forth.

But, it is also possible that it worked the other way around, meaning that one sound started to shift and basically pushed another sound out of its place, thereby leading to a chain shift. This is called a push chain.

But as to how such a chain started? Well, that part is still kind of shrouded in mystery. Perhaps two sounds became too similar to each other and became difficult to distinguish from each other, forcing a shift? We might never know.

What we do know, however, is that Grimm’s Law did affect all Germanic languages, leading to a distinction between that language family and its PIE-derived sisters.

But there are also a good number of exceptions from this rule. For example:

Why does PIE *bʰréh₂tēr (“brother”) become Proto-Germanic *brōþēr but PIE *ph₂tḗr (“father”) became Proto-Germanic *fadēr?

In ‘brother’, the development follows Grimm’s Law, i.e.  t > þ, but in ‘father’ it does not. Instead of the, by Grimm’s law, expected development, i.e. t > þ, the Proto-Germanic word developed t > d. Why is that?

Well, cue Karl Verner; a Danish linguist who in 1875 formulated what is now known as Verner’s Law, an addition, if you will, to Grimm’s Law. Verner’s Law explains such occurrences as ‘father’, showing that voiceless fricatives, e.g. *f, *s, *þ, when immediately following an unstressed syllable in the same word, underwent voicing and becomes fricatives, e.g. *β, *z,*ð

Now, you might be thinking that this is all very interesting but why is it important? ‘cause I can pretty much promise you, that if there is anything the budding historical linguist is aware of, it is Grimm’s Law.

Well, while it is fascinating in its own right, its discovery showed us something much greater than we had ever thought possible before: that sound change is a regular phenomenon, not a random process affecting only some words.

This discovery not only set historical phonology apart as its own field of study but also means that we can predict and understand phonological developments, a discovery that cleared the field for the comparative method.

And without the comparative method, of course, our field of inquiry would be so much poorer as we would largely be unable to properly understand the relationship between languages and the historical developments of those languages.

And wouldn’t we all be a lot poorer for that lack of understanding?

So, next time you watch Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, remember that Jacob Grimm not only provided you with these stories but helped design the most used, and important, method in historical linguistics to this day. Not a bad contribution, right?

Join us next week when our awesome magician Riccardo is back! This time, he’ll be talking about the magic of umlaut and ablaut, so if you’ve ever wondered why it’s ‘mouse’ but ‘mice’ but not ‘house’ and ‘hice’ you definitely don’t want to miss it.

 

Notes and sources

¹ PGmc is a common abbreviation for Proto-Germanic

² All the PIE roots can be found by a simple google search. These are taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary found here: https://www.etymonline.com/. Have fun!

³ Remember now that while the <k> in modern English ‘knee’ is silent today, it was pronounced in earlier stages of English.

*The little pic is from http://tentcampinghq.com/camping-articles/how-to-tell-scary-campfire-stories-2/

**For those who wants to know more about Grimm’s Law, most (if not all) introductory textbooks on linguistics deals with the subject at least a little bit. This particular illustration is from Millward, C.M. A Biography of the English Language.  Ft. Worth: Harcourt, 1996. Pg. 63 but a similar one can be found in pretty much any textbook. Particularly recommended is Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics (3rd ed., 2012) which deals with most things historical linguisticky with great attention to detail and plenty of examples (so it’s recommended generally, not only for this particular sound change). 

The Dark Arts: How We Know What We Know

If you’ve been following us at the HLC, and especially our Fun Etymologies every Tuesday, you will have noticed that we often reference old languages: the Old English of Beowulf[1], the Latin of Cicero and Seneca, the Ancient Greek of Homer, and in the future (spoiler alert!), even the Classical Chinese of Confucius, the Babylonian of Hammurabi, or the Egyptian of Ramses. These languages all have extensive written records, which allows us to know them pretty much as if they were still spoken today, with maybe a few little doubts here and there for the older ones[2].

Egyptians might have had a bit TOO great of  a passion for writing, if you catch my drift

But occasionally, you’ve seen us reference much, much older languages: one in particular stands out, and it’s called Proto-Indo-European (often shortened to PIE). If you’ve read our post on language families, you’re probably wearily familiar with it by now. However, here’s the problem: the language is 10,000 years old! And writing was invented “just” 5,000 years ago, nowhere near where PIE was spoken.So, you may be asking, how the heck do we know what that language looked like, or if it even existed at all? And what do all those asterisks (as in *ekwom or *wlna) I see on the Fun Etymologies each week mean? Well, buckle up, dear readers, because the HLC will finally reveal it all: the dark magic that makes Historical Linguistics work. It’s time to take a look at…

The Comparative Method of Linguistic Reconstruction

“Linguistic history is basically the darkest of the dark arts, the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries.”

-Cola Minis, 1952

If we historical linguists had to go only by written records, we would be wading in shallow waters indeed: the oldest known written language, Sumerian, is only just about 5,000 years old.

The oldest joke we know of is in Sumerian. It’s a fart joke. Humanity never changes.

Wait, “only just”?? Well, consider that modern humans are at least 300,000 years old, and that some theories put the origins of language closer to a million years ago. You could fit the whole of history from the Sumerians to us 200 times in that and still have time to spare!

So, while writing is usually thought of as one of the oldest things we have, it is actually a pretty recent invention in the grand scheme of things. For centuries, it was just taken for granted that language just appeared out of nowhere a few millennia in the past, usually as a gift from some god or other: in Chinese mythology, the invention of language was attributed to an ancient god-king named Fuxi (approximately pronounced “foo-shee”), while in Europe it was pretty much considered obvious that ancient Hebrew was the first language of humankind, and that the proliferation of languages in the world was explained by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

Imagine your surprise when the guy who was supposed to pass you the trowel suddenly started speaking Vietnamese

This (and pretty much everything else) changed during the 18th century, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. During this age of bold exploration (and less savoury things done to the people found in the newly “discovered” regions), scholars started to notice something curious: wholly different languages presented interesting similarities with one another and, crucially, could be grouped together based on these similarities. If all the different languages of Earth had truly been created out of nothing on the same day, you would not expect to see such patterns at all.

In what is widely considered to be the founding document of historical linguistics, Sir William Jones, an English scholar living in India in 1786, writes:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists […]”

That source is, of course, PIE. But, again, how can we guess what that language sounded like? People at the time were too busy herding sheep and domesticating horses to worry about paltry stuff like writing.

Enter Jacob Grimm[3] and his Danish colleague Rasmus Rask. They noticed that the similarities between their native German and Danish languages, and other close languages (what we call the Germanic family today), were not only evident, but predictable: if you know how a certain word sounds in one language, you can predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy how its equivalent (or cognate) sounds in another. But their truly revolutionary discovery was that if you carefully compared these changes, you could make an educated guess as to what the sounds and grammar of their common ancestor language were. That’s because the changes that happen to a language over time are mostly regular and predictable. Think how lucky that is! If sounds in a language changed on a random basis, we would have no way of even guessing what any language before Sumerian looked like!

More like HANDSOME and Gretel, amirite?

This was the birth of the comparative method of linguistic reconstruction (simply known as “the comparative method” to friends), the heart of historical linguistics and probably the linguistic equivalent of Newton’s laws of motion or Darwin’s theory of evolution when it comes to world-changing power.

Here, in brief, is how it works:

How the magic happens

So, do we just look at a couple of different languages and guess what their ancestor looked like? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A lot more, in fact.

Not to rain on everyone’s parade before we even begin, but the comparative method is a long, difficult and extremely tedious process, which involves comparing thousands upon thousands of items and keeping reams of notes that would make the Burj Khalifa look like a molehill if stacked on top of each other.

The Burj Khalifa, for reference

What you need to do to reconstruct your very own proto-language is this:

  1. Take a sample of languages you’re reasonably sure are related, the larger the better. The more languages you have in your sample, the more accurate your reconstruction will be, since you might find out features which only a few languages (or even only one!) have retained, but which have disappeared in the others.
  2. Find out which sounds correspond to which in each language. If you do this with a Romance language and a Germanic one, you’ll find that Germanic “f” sounds pretty reliably correspond to Romance “p” sounds, for example (for instance, in the cognate couple padre and father). When you find a correspondance, it usually means that there is an ancestral sound underlying it.
  3. Reconstruct the ancestral sound. This is the trickiest part: there are a few rules which we linguists follow to get an accurate reconstruction. For example, if most languages in a sample have one sound rather than another, it’s more probable that that is the ancestral sound. Another criterion is that certain sound changes usually happen more frequently than others cross-linguistically (across many languages), and are therefore more probable . For example, /p/ becoming /f/ is far more likely than /f/ becoming /p/, for reasons I won’t get into here. That means that in our padre/father pair above, it’s more likely that “p” is the ancestral sound (and it is! The PIE root is *ph2tér[4]) Finally, between two proposed ancestral sounds, the one whose evolution requires the least number of steps is usually the more likely one.
  4. Check that your result is plausible. Is it in accordance with what is generally known about the phonetics and phonology of the language family you’re studying? Does it present some very bizarre or unlikely sounds or phonotactics? Be sure to account for all instances of borrowing, coincidences and scary German-named stuff like Sprachbunds[5]. If you’ve done all that, congratulations! You have an educated guess of what some proto-language might have sounded like! Now submit it to a few journals and see it taken down by three different people, together with your self-esteem.[6]But how do we know this process works? What if we’re just inventing a language which just so happens to look similar to all the languages we have in our sample, but which has nothing to do with what any hypothetical ancestor language of theirs would have looked like?

Well, the first linguists asked these very same questions, and did a simple experiment, which you can do at home yourself[7]: they took many of the modern Romance languages, pooled them together, and tried the method on them. The result was a very good approximation of Vulgar Latin.

Well, it works up to a certain point. See, while the comparative method is powerful, it has its limits. Notice how in the paragraph above I specified that it yielded a very good approximation of Vulgar Latin. You see, sometimes some features of a language get lost in all of its descendants, and there’s no way for us linguists to know they even existed! One example of this is the final consonant sounds in Classical Latin (for example, the -us and -um endings, as in “lupus” and “curriculum”), which were lost in all the modern Romance languages, and are therefore very difficult to reconstruct[8]. What this means is that the further back in time you go the less precise your guess becomes, until you’re at a level of guesswork so high it’s effectively indistinguishable from pulling random sounds out of a bag (i.e. utterly useless). That’s why, to our eternal disappointment, we can’t use the comparative method to go back indefinitely in the history of language[9].

When you use the comparative method, you must always keep in mind that what you end up with is not 100% mathematical truth, but just an approximation, sometimes a very crude one. That’s what all the asterisks are for: in historical linguistics, an asterisk before a word basically means that the word is reconstructed, and that it should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt[10].

The End

And so, now you know how we historical linguists work our spells of time travel and find out what the languages of bronze age people sounded like. It’s tedious work, and very frustrating, but the results are well worth the suffering and the toxic-level intake of caffeine necessary to carry it out. The beauty of all this is that it doesn’t only work with sounds: it has been applied to morphology as well, and in recent years we’ve finally been getting the knack of how to apply it to syntax as well! Isn’t that exciting?

It certainly is for us.

Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll dive into the law that started it all: Grimm’s law!

  1. P.S. Remember that Fun Etymology we did on the word “bear”? Yeah, “Beowulf” is another of those non-god-angering Germanic taboo names for bear! It literally means “bee-wolf”.
  2. Or even some big ones: we know very little about how Egyptian vowels were pronounced and where to put them in words, for example.
  3. Yes, the same guy who wrote the fairy tale books, together with his brother.
  4. I won’t explain the “h2” thing, because that opens a whole other can of worms we haven’t time to dive into here.
  5. We’ll talk about these in a future post.
  6. This doesn’t always happen. Usually.
  7. And it doesn’t involve any explosives or dangerous substances, only long, sleepless nights and the potential for soul-crushing boredom. Hooray!
  8. I don’t say “impossible”, because in some cases a sound lost in all descendant languages can be reconstructed thanks to its influence on neighbouring sounds, or (as in the case of Latin) by comparing with different branches of the family. But this is, like, super advanced über-linguistics.
  9. Which would instantly solve a lot of problems, believe me.
  10. Historical linguistics is an exception here. In most other fields of linguistics, the asterisk means “whatever follows is grammatically impossible”.

That’s just bad English!

Hi there!

If you’ve read my mini-series about Scots (here are parts 1 and 2) you are probably more aware of this particular language, its history and its complicated present-day status than before. With these facts in mind, wouldn’t you find it un-intuitive to think of Scots as “Bad English”? In this post, I want to, in a rather bohemian way, explore the problematic idea of Bad English. That is, I want to challenge the often constraining idea of what is correct and what is deviating; once again, we will see that this has very much to do with politics and power1.

We have seen that Scots clearly has a distinct history and development, and that it once was a fully-functioning language used for all purposes – it was, arguably, an autonomous variety. However, during the anglicisation of Scots (read more about it here) English became a prestigious variety associated with power and status, and thus became the target language to which many adapted Scots. This led to a shift in the general perception of Scots’ autonomy, and today many are more likely to perceive Scots as a dialect of English – that is, perceive Scots as heteronomous to English. This means that instead of viewing Scots features, such as the ones presented in my last post, as proper language features, many would see them as (at best) quirky features or (at worst) bastardisations of English2.

As an example of how shifting heteronomy can be, back in the days when the south of (present-day) Sweden belonged to Denmark, the Scanian dialect was considered a dialect of Danish. When Scania (Skåne) became part of Sweden, it took less than 100 years for this dialect to become referred to as a dialect of Swedish in documents from the time. It’s quite unlikely that Scanian changed much in itself during that time. Rather, what had changed was which language had power over it. That is, which language it was perceived as targeting.

When we really get into it, determining what is Bad English gets more and more blurry, just like what I demonstrated for the distinction between language and dialect way back. There are  several dialectal features which are technically “ungrammatical” but used so categorically in some dialects that calling them Bad English just doesn’t sit right. One such example is the use of was instead of were in, for example, Yorkshire: “You was there when it happened”. What we can establish is that Bad English is usually whatever diverts from (the current version of) Standard English, and this brings us to how such a standard is defined – more on this in a future post.

Scots is, unsurprisingly, not the only variety affected by the idea of Bad English. As Sabina recently taught us, a creole is the result of a pidgin (i.e. a mix of two or more languages to ease communication between speakers) gaining native speakers3. This means that a child can be born with a creole as their first language. Further to this, creoles, just like older languages, tend to have distinct grammatical rules and vocabularies. Despite this, many will describe for example Jamaican Creole as “broken English” – I’m sure this is not unfamiliar to anyone reading. This can again be explained by power and prestige: English, being the language of colonisers, was the prestigious target, just like it became for Scots during the anglicisation, and so these creoles have a hard time losing the image of being heteronomous to English even long after the nations where they are spoken have gained independence.

In the United States, there is a lect which linguists call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes called Ebonics. As the name suggests, it is mainly spoken by African-Americans, and most of us would be able to recognise it from various American media. This variety is another which is often misunderstood as Bad English, when in fact it carries many similarities to a creole: during the slave trade era, many of the slaves arriving in America would have had different first languages, and likely developed a pidgin to communicate both amongst themselves and with their masters. From there, we can assume that an early version of AAVE would have developed as a creole which is largely based on English vocabulary. In fact, AAVE shares grammatical features with other English-based creoles, such as using be instead of are (as in “these bitches be crazy”, to use a offensively stereotypical expression). If the AAVE speakers were not living in an English-speaking nation, maybe their variety would have continued to develop as an independent creole like those in, for example, the Caribbean nations?

Besides, what is considered standard in a language often change over time. A feature which is often used to represent “dumb” speech is double negation: “I didn’t do nothing!”. The prescriptivist smartass would smirk at such expressions and say that two negations cancel each other out, and using double negations is widely considered Bad English4. However, did you know that using double negation was for a long time the standard way of expressing negation in English? It was actually used by the upper classes until it reached commoner speech, and thus became less prestigious5. This is another example of how language change also affects our perception of what is right and proper – and as Sabina showed us a while ago, language changes will often be met with scepticism and prescriptivist backlash.

What the examples I’ve presented show us is that less prestigious varieties are not necessarily in the wrong, just because they deviate from a standard that they don’t necessarily “belong to” anyway. It can also be argued that, in many cases, classing a variety as a “bad” version of the language in power is just another way of maintaining a superiority over the people who speak that variety. The perception of heteronomy can be a crutch even for linguists when studying particular varieties; this may be a reason why Scots grammar is relatively under-researched still. When we shake off these very deep-rooted ideas, we may find interesting patterns and developments in varieties which can tell us even more about our history, and language development at large. Hopefully, this post will have created some more language bohemians out there, and more tolerance for Bad English.

Footnotes

1While this post focuses on English, this can be applied to many prestigious languages and in particular those involved in colonisation or invasions (e.g. French, Dutch, Spanish, Arabic, etc.)

2Within Scots itself there are also ideas of what is “good” and what is “bad”: Urban Glaswegian speech is an example of what some would call ‘bad Scots’. Prestige is a factor here too – is not surprising that it’s the speech of the lower classes that receive the “bad” stamp.

3 Not all creoles are English-based, of course. Here is a list of some of the more known creoles and where they derive from.

4There are other languages which do fine with double negation as their standard, without causing any meaning issues – most of you may be familiar with French ne…pas.

5Credit goes to Sabina for providing this example!

So you’re a linguist…

“…how many languages do you speak?”

Every linguist on the planet knows and dreads this question, known simply as The Question™. The fact that it’s the first question most people ask when hearing of a linguist’s occupation certainly doesn’t help.

Right now you’re probably thinking “Give me a break, Riccardo. It’s quite a natural question to ask when you learn someone works with languages, isn’t it?”

Well, yes. Yes it is a very natural question. The problem is that it springs from a very common misunderstanding of a linguist’s job, and, to make things worse, it’s one of the most difficult questions to answer for a linguist.

Let me explain in a bit more detail what I mean.

Dammit Jim, I’m a linguist, not a linguist!

One of the reasons The Question™ is so popular amongst laypeople is semantic ambiguity. To our eternal annoyance as academic linguists, the word “linguist” has two different meanings in the English language. The meaning we use on this blog, and the one most people who call themselves “linguists” intend, is “a person engaged in the academic study of human language”. As you’ve probably gathered if you read our blog, this doesn’t necessarily involve the study of any particular language: while there are many linguists which specialise in one language only, many (perhaps even most) specialise in linguistic branches or whole families, and some specialise in particular fields of linguistics, like phonetics or semantics, and work with multiple completely unrelated languages.

Crucially, the job of an academic linguist doesn’t involve learning any of the languages we study, a point which I’ll talk about in more detail in the next section.

Unfortunately, this first meaning of the word “linguist” is not the one the public knows best. Not by a long shot.

The second meaning of “linguist” comes from military jargon, and it’s the one most familiar to laypeople due to its being spread far and wide by films, TV series, books and other popular entertainment media. In the military, a “linguist” is the person tasked with learning the language of the locals during a foreign campaign, with the goal of helping his fellow soldiers interact with them. In short, they’re what in any other field would be called an interpreter. Why the military had to go and rain on our lovely linguistic parade by stealing our name instead of using the proper name for what they do is a mystery, but they’re probably snickering about it as we speak. Regrettably, due to the greater popularity of films and stories set in a military/combative milieu, as opposed to the far superior and more engaging world of academics, with its nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat deadlines and paper-writing all-nighters, the second meaning of the word “linguist” has been cemented in the popular imagination as the primary one, and the rest is history.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hollywood likes to portray their “linguists” as knowing every single language they come into contact with, which has gone a long way towards making The Question™ as popular as it is.

Knowledge is relative, and numbers even more so

If our problem with The Question™ were only a matter of misunderstanding of our job description, it would be no big deal. We’d just list out all the languages we speak and then explain what a linguist actually is to whoever is asking. Problem is, while for a wuggle (non-linguist) listing the languages they know is an easy task, for a linguist it’s absurdly difficult. If you’ve ever exposed a linguist to The Question™, you’ve probably already seen the symptoms of ALLA (Acute Language Listing Anxiety): panicking, profuse sweating, stammering, making of excuses, epistemological asides (“Well, it depends on what you mean by know…”), and existential dread about the possibility of The Followup™ (“So you speak X? Say something in X!”).

What is the reason for this affliction? Well, it all comes down to what I said in the previous section: a linguist might very well study a language, but they are by no means expected to speak it. This gives rise to the apparent paradox of a linguist knowing the grammar of some language extremely well, while not being able to have anything more than the most basic of conversations in it, if even that. Some linguists manage to muscle through the pragmatics of The Question™ and only list the languages they speak fluently (which is what most people are asking, really), but many get stumped by it, because what a linguist means by “knowing a language” is very different from what a wuggle intends.

For example, by a linguist’s conception of “knowing”, I could be said to “know” a couple dozen languages. But before you go all wide-eyed with awe at my intellectual might, know that of those couple dozen I can be said to really speak only five or six. And of those five or six, I’m only really fluent in two, with a decent degree of fluency in a third. To make matters even worse, even the meaning of speaking is vague for a linguist: does “speaking” a language mean I can hold my own in basic conversation, or does it mean I can read a newspaper? Or a novel? Or a treatise on quantum physics?

You see, from a linguistic point of view, “speaking” a language isn’t a binary question: fluency is a spectrum. I can order stuff in a restaurant in German and read some basic texts, but I would never be able to read a novel in it. Do I speak German? I’ve translated an entire comic from Finnish to English for fun with the help of a dictionary, but I wouldn’t be able to talk to a Finnish person in Finnish to save my life. Do I speak Finnish? As you can see, it’s extremely difficult for a linguist to accurately gauge what “speaking” or “knowing” a language actually entails, which is why it takes them an impressively long time to come up with a list, to the puzzlement of wuggles who could list the languages they speak in a heartbeat.

Conversation tactics for wuggles

So, what should you ask a linguist upon meeting them? Well, the safest question is probably a simple “what do you do?”

Us linguists, like most academics, like explaining our jobs very much, and we’d be very happy to have the opportunity to geek out about what we study with an interested person.

Be sure to know when to stop us, though, unless you want to be regaled with a half-hour lecture on the pragmatics of Mixtecan questions.

You’ve been warned.

Is English a creole?

Hi all!

By now, I figure most of you have noticed that when a post shows up at the HLC about the development of the English language in particular, I show up. Today is no exception to the rule (though there will be some in the future)!

Anyway, it’s safe to say that England has been invaded a lot during the last couple of… well, centuries. All this invading and being invaded by non-native people had a tremendous effect on most things English, the English language among them.

This is, of course, nothing new. I’ve previously discussed the question of whether English is a Romance language, but today, we’re going to jump into something different, namely, the question of whether English is a creole.

In order to do that, I’ll first need to say a few words about what a creole actually is, and we’re going to do the basic definition here: a creole is a pidgin with native speakers.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Right, so a pidgin is a form of language that develops between two groups of people who don’t speak the same language but still needed to understand each other for one reason or another.

Typically, in the formation of a pidgin, you have a substrate language and a superstrate language. The substrate is the ‘source’ language. This language is, usually for political reasons, abandoned for the more prestigious superstrate language.

But not completely. Instead, the pidgin becomes a sort of mix, taking characteristics of both the substrate and the superstrate to create a ‘new’ language. A rather distinct characteristic of this new language is that it is typically less grammatically complex than both the sub- and the superstrate language. Another distinct characteristic is that it has no native speakers since it’s in the process of being created by native speakers of two different languages.

But, it can get native speakers. When a new generation is born to pidgin-speaking parents, and the new generation acquires the pidgin as their native tongue, the pidgin ceases to be a pidgin and becomes a creole. So, a creole is a pidgin with native speakers. Typically, a creole becomes more grammatically complex, developing into a new language that is a mix of the two languages that created the pidgin.

But enough of that. Question is: is English a creole?

Well, there are reasons to assume so:

There is a distinct difference between Old English and Middle English, the primary one being a dramatic discrepancy in grammatical complexity, with Middle English being far simpler. As we now know, this is one of the primary features of a pidgin.

There were also politically stronger languages at play during the relevant time periods that just might have affected Old English so much that it was largely abandoned in favour of the other language.

First came the Vikings…

*1

One often thinks about murder and plunder when thinking about the Vikings, but a bunch of them settled in Britain around the 9th century (see Danelaw) and likely had almost daily contact with Old English speakers. This created the perfect environment for borrowing between the two languages.

But see, Old Norse, at least in the Danelaw area, was the politically stronger language. Some people claim that this is the cause of the extreme differences we see when Old English transitions into Middle English.

One of the main arguments for Old Norse as the superstrate is a particular borrowing that stands out. Though English borrowed plenty of words from Old Norse, for example common words like egg, knife, sky, sick, wrong, etc., it also borrowed the third person plural pronouns: they, them, their (compare Swedish de, dem, deras).

This is odd. Why, you ask? Well, pronouns are typically at what we might call the ‘core’ of a language. They are rarely borrowed because they are so ingrained in the language that there is no need to take them from another.

The borrowing of the pronouns from Old Norse implies a deep influence on the English language. Combined with all other things that English borrowed from Old Norse and the grammatical simplification of Middle English, this has led some linguists to claim that English is actually an Old Norse/Old English-based creole.  

We’ll discuss that a bit more in a sec.

After the Vikings, the Brits thought they could, you know, relax, take a deep breath, enjoy a lazy Sunday speaking English…

And then came the French…

*2

Now, here, there’s no doubt that French was the dominant language in Britain for quite some time. The enormous amounts of lexical items that were borrowed from French indicate a period of prolonged, intense contact between the two languages and, again, the grammatical simplification of Middle English in comparison to Old English might be reason enough to claim that Middle English is a creole of Old English and Old French.

And a good number of linguists2 have, indeed, said exactly that. This is known as the Middle English creole hypothesis and it remains a debated topic (though less so than it has been historically).

‘But, Sabina,’ you might ask, ‘I thought you were going to tell me if English is a creole?!’

Well, sorry, but the fact is that I can’t. This one is every linguist (or enthusiast) for themselves. I can’t say that English is not a creole, nor can I say that it is one. What I can say is that I, personally, don’t believe it to be a creole.

And now, I’ll try to tell you why.

It is true that Middle English, and subsequently modern English, is significantly less grammatically complex than Old English. That’s a well-evidenced fact. However, that simplification was already happening before French came into the picture, and even before Old Norse.

In fact, the simplification is often attributed to a reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa (good thing Rebekah covered all of this, isn’t it?) which led to the previously complex paradigms becoming less distinct from each other. Might not have anything to do with language contact at all. Or it might.

The borrowing of Old Norse pronouns is, indeed, unusual, but not unheard of, and studies have shown that the effect of Old Norse on English may not be as significant and widespread as it was believed.

When it comes to French, while an intriguing hypothesis which is well-worth pursuing for leisurely interests, extensive borrowing is not sufficient evidence to claim that a creole has been created. Extensive borrowing occurs all the time among languages in long, intense contact.

*3

Combined with the fact that we have evidence of grammatical simplification before both Old Norse and French came to play a significant role in English, and the trouble we stumble onto when considering the question of when English was ever a pidgin, I personally find both creolization hypotheses unlikely.

However, I encourage you to send us a message and tell us what you think: is English a creole?

Tune in next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the Transatlantic accent!

Sources and references

Most famously Patricia Poussa’s work ‘The evolution of early Standard English: the creolization hypothesis’ (1982).

Most famously Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt “The French lineage of English” (1977). The interested reader may also wish to take a look at Dalton-Puffer’s (1995) interesting discussion on the phenomenon in the chapter ‘Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation’ of Fisiak’s (1995) book Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions

Credits to the creators of the pictures herein used. They have been found on the following pages:

*1: https://quotesgram.com/img/funny-viking-quotes/1373665/

*2 https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f7/6d/3d/f76d3dad4183d34f8d0669a433684df5.jpg

*3 Credits to James Nicoll, no URL offered since the domain has since expired.

It’s all Greek to me!

 

Or, How No Language is Any More (or Less) Difficult than Any Other

Lessons I learned from Latin

How did Latin speakers remember which case a word goes in, and its form, as they spoke? We probably all wondered about this question at some time or another. I remember studying Latin in middle school (it’s mandatory in Italy) and being absolutely baffled at the thought that such a byzantine language could have been spoken fluently at some time in the past as I struggled to learn by heart dozens of declension tables as well as lists of environments which required the presence of some case or another (and even longer lists of exceptions to those lists!). The Romans must have been geniuses with prodigious memories who would probably find Italian a ridiculously simple and unsophisticated language to learn.

Then one day, in high school, I stumbled upon a textbook which used a different method to teach Latin from the one I was used to: it taught it as a living language. No more declension tables, no more long lists of baroque rules, no more grand examples of complicated rhetorical stylings; instead, it had everyday dialogues, going from simpler to more complex, and bite-sized grammar sections. Suddenly, Latin became easy: with the help of a dictionary, I could read and write in it with a reasonable degree of proficiency (which, alas, I’ve largely lost).

Had I become a genius? Did I start seeing my native Italian as a boorish, simplified version of the language of Rome? Absolutely not. All that changed was the way the language had been taught to me. That was the day I learned that no language is any more difficult than any other. Also, everything’s easier when you learn it as a baby, and the Romans spoke Latin since they were born, no declension tables necessary.

Latin is by no means the only language to be considered particularly difficult: we’ve all heard how difficult it is to learn Chinese, with all those ideographs[1] to learn, and with words being so ambiguous and whatnot; or Finnish, which has 15 cases and innumerable verbal inflections. Also, it’s a national pastime for everyone[2] to regard their language as the most complex to learn for foreigners, because that makes you feel oh-so-intelligent.

The idea that some languages are inherently more complex than others is, unsurprisingly, another legacy of the dastardly Victorians and their colonialist obsession with ethnocentric nationalism.

It was, of course, in the interest of Eurocentric racists to paint foreign languages as being either primitively simple and unsophisticated, or bizarrely and unnecessarily complicated (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read our post on phonaesthetics a few weeks ago, where we found out that the same reasoning was applied to how a language sounds.

Those Victorians… never happy until they’ve enslaved, massacred or culturally neutered someone different from them. Bless their little hearts.

Scientists estimate that a greater-than-average amount of moustache-twirling went into the making of this linguistic prejudice

My task today is showing you how this is not really true at all, and how your failure to realise your dream of learning Ahkwesásne Mohawk is more due to a lack of proper learning materials rather than any difficulty inherent in the language itself.

It all depends on your point of view

So, am I saying that all languages are equally simple in all their aspects? Well, no. While all languages are more or less equally complex, how that complexity is distributed changes from language to language. For example, while it is undeniably true that Finnish is far more morphologically complex than English, phonologically speaking English makes it look like toddler babbling.

Amazingly, although complexity might be distributed differently from language to language, overall the different parts balance out to make languages more or less as complex as each other. We don’t really know how this happens: various mechanisms have been proposed, but they all have fatal flaws. It is one of the great mysteries of linguistics.[3]

“But why do I find French so difficult, Riccardo?” you scream through a haze of tears as you once again fail to understand how the past subjunctive is of any use in any language ever. Well, the answer is that how difficult a language is to learn for you depends on your first language. Specifically, the more similar two languages are in their distribution of complexity, the easier it is for speakers of each to learn the other. If the languages are related, then it becomes even easier.[4] So, Mandarin Chinese might well be very difficult to learn for an English speaker, due to its very simple morphology, rigid syntactic structure and tonal phonology; but, say, a Tibetan speaker would find it much easier to learn than English, because the two languages are distantly related, and therefore have similar structure.

The moral of the story

And so, once again, we come to the end of a post having dispelled another widespread linguistic misconception.

Even though these myths might seem rather innocuous, they have real and sometimes very serious consequences. The idea that some languages are more or less complex or difficult to learn than others has, over the centuries, been used to justify nationalist, racist, and xenophobic sentiments which have ultimately resulted in suffering and sometimes even genocide.

What we need to do with languages is learn them, share them, preserve them, and speak them, not pitting them against each other in a competition over which is the best, most “logical”, most difficult or better-sounding one.

So enjoy the amazing diversity of human languages, people!

Stay tuned for next week, when Sabina will answer the old question: is English really three languages stacked upon each other wearing a trenchcoat?

  1. They’re not actually ideographs, they’re logographs, but that’s a topic for another post.
  2. Except for English speakers, who, for various reasons, have convinced themselves that their language is stupid, unsophisticated, illogical and boring. More on this in a future post.
  3. It is important to note that this rule does not apply to pidgins and (young) creoles, due to the way they were formed, as pointed out by John McWhorter (2011). These languages truly are simpler than all others. This, however, does NOT make them any more “primitive” or “less expressive”.
  4. Paradoxically, if two languages are TOO closely related, it becomes slightly more difficult for their speakers to learn the other, because they tend to over-rely on the similarities and end up tripping up on the differences.

A wanty ken wit Scots is (a want ye tae show me)

This post marks the second part of my series on Scots. In the first part, I briefly outlined the history and present-day status of Scots. If you want a quick catch-up on the history but don’t feel like more reading, I recommend this video by the Angus McIntosh Centre – also available in Scots!

Hello, my lads and lassies! (Sorry, will never do that again.)

Today’s post is about the differences between Scots and English. Rather than give you a lengthy list of all the ways in which Scots differs from English, I will give you some examples and point out keys to identifying some of the more recognisable features of Scots – both historically and today. Consider this your handy guide to recognising the Scots language1.

As this is the Historical Linguist Channel, I will begin by showing you how to recognise Scots in older texts. If this is not your cup of tea, keep reading, there is something for you further down.

Historical Scots

As you may remember from my previous post, Older Scots was quite clearly distinct from English2. When we want to determine whether a piece of historical text is Scots, there are certain features we can look for. I’ll give you an example of this, using lines from a 15th century Scots poem, The buke of the Howlat (lit. ‘The book of the Owl)3.

One straightforward way to find the Scots features of this poem is to look at the spelling, and spelling can to some extent also give us clues about Scots pronunciation4. As an example, see the following line:

To luke out on day lycht
To look out on day light

Here, the <gh>5 spelling in light corresponds to <ch> in lycht. This spelling represents the sound that you might recognise from the ending of the word loch, meaning ‘lake’ (you know, where Nessie lives). If you want to be more technical, this is a voiceless velar fricative: [x]. This sound is still used in many varieties of Scots today.

This next example has more Scots features for us to unpack:

“Quhy is my face”, qȝ6 ye fle, “faʃʃonit ʃo foule,
“Why is my face”, quoth (said) the wretch, “shaped (cf. fashioned) so foully,

The strange long ‘s’, <ʃ>, is believed to sometimes represents the iconic Sean Connery pronunciation of /s/7. The first word begins with <quh->, and the correlating English spelling is <wh->; variations of <qu(h)-> are very typical Older Scots spellings, which only started to disappear in the 16th century once there was more influence from English in Scots writing. Then it was gradually replaced by the English <wh->. We are not quite sure whether this spelling also reflects a certain pronunciation, like /kw/8.

Finally, the spelling of certain word endings can also highlight features of Scots grammar. For example, the word faʃʃonit above, ending in <-it>. This is a suffix which marks past participles and adjectives, and its English equivalent is <-ed>, as in ‘I am old-fashioned’. In The buke of the Howlat we also find a typically Scots <-is> ending marking plural, as in foulis (‘fowls’; English plurals are commonly either marked by <-s> or <-es>). Present tense verbs are also marked with the <-is> ending in Older Scots: where we in English would have he sings, Scots has he singis.

Knowing about these historically Scots features helps us understand the relevance of certain features in modern Scots. It can, for example, help us figure out where certain pronunciations or word orders come from. I’ve so far used terminology which hints that some of these features have changed or disappeared. The influence by English over Scots starting in the 16th century, which I mentioned above, is commonly referred to the anglicisation of Scots (read more about the historical context for this in my last post), and it caused some decline of uniquely Scots features – especially in writing. However, as we shall see below, while some features were lost and some changed, Scots is a survivor and the modern language still uses versions of many distinctive features of Older Scots  as well as modern innovations.

Present-Day Scots

In my last post, I explained the complicated status of Scots in modern Scotland, and hinted about how much variation there is between speakers and regions as well as within the speech of one individual. Scots is not as present in formal writing as it was in its heyday, however Wee Windaes and similar sites give good example of what Scots looks like in such contexts – have a look and see how much you can understand, and where Scots differs from what you’re used to reading.

We also find plenty of good examples of modern, colloquial “Scotticisms”9 in writing, mixed  with some English. A good source of this: Scottish twitter! Reader discretion is advised; the following tweet reproductions contain strong language.

Exhibit A:

Note that the c-word is used very lightly in Scotland, sometimes even replaceable with ‘mate’.

The Scots feature I want to pick out specifically from this tweet is negation: Dinny is used where we would expect don’t if it had been written in only English. This is probably one of the most recognisable Present-Day Scots features, and -ny, or -nae, can be added to most auxiliary verbs where English would have n’t: dinny, hasny, cannae, and so on. This tweeter also uses the instead of to in “the jail” – this is something I’ve noticed Scots speakers do a lot, even saying ‘the day’ rather than ‘today’.

Exhibit B:

This tweeter not only puts into words what we all feel sometimes when we think about the state of the world, but also gives us some more excellent examples of Scotticisms. Here, I want to bring attention to the word yersel (‘yourself’), used twice. A typically Scots pronunciation feature is to not pronounce /f/ in words like self, and here we see it reflected in spelling.

Finally, Exhibit C: The iMessage conversation extract below is attached to a tweet by @jordanjonesxo.

Diverting your attention from the foul language, notice how hink is used for ‘think’. This is, as you would expect by now, reflecting a Scots pronunciation: /h/ where English has /θ/.

I haven’t mentioned all of the Scots features in these tweets – I’m sure you’re able to identify some without my help. Other features that we often see in this form of writing is aw where we expect ‘all’ and fae where we expect ‘from’. The former is an example of Scots “l-vocalisation”, meaning that /l/ is not pronounced at the end of words. The latter is simply the Scots word for ‘from’ – fae, ken (‘know’), wee (‘little’), bairn (‘child’) and mind (‘remember’) are only a few examples of Scots words which are very commonly used in Scots speech today even when mixed with English.

If you have seen or read Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, I’m sure you will be familiar with the above as well as other Scotticisms. The extract below is from the sequel, Porno. See how many Scotticisms, or words and spellings you wouldn’t expect from an English text10, you can find yersells! (Pro tip: It helps to read out loud when you’re not sure what’s going on.)

Welsh, Irvine, “Porno”, Published by Jonathan Cape, 2002, p. 350.

Let us know what you found, tell us your favourite Scots word, and ask us any questions about this post – either by commenting here or on Facebook, or by emailing us (adding Lisa to the subject line will lead it straight to me).

If you now, after all this reading of Scots, want to get a good example of what it sounds like, here are some links (some repeated from earlier in the post):

The Angus McIntosh Centre’s video on the origin of Scots, in Scots.

Listen to the Buke of the Howlat (to the left on the page).

Doric Scots, contrasted with English.

Some more examples of Scots words.

 

Next week, Riccardo will bust the myth that some languages are just essentially harder to learn than others. Nay!, says we at the HLC.

Bye!

Footnotes

1Bear in mind that some of the features I bring up here are not uniform for all varieties of Scots.

2However, we also want to remember that Scots developed from a variety spoken in the North-East of England, and so some of the features described here can sometimes be found in documents from there as well. As always, we need to bear in mind that the boundaries of a “language” is not determined by national borders – see my previous post on languages and dialects.

3This analysis is based on previous work by Dr. Rhona Alcorn, Daisy Smith, Maddi Morcillo Berrueta and myself for the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website. You can find the complete version here. At Wee Windaes, you can also listen to the poem being read in Scots.

4If you’re particularly interested in mapping sounds to spelling in Scots, I recommend reading about the FITS project.

5This spelling in English used to represent the same [x] sound which is no longer a part of the English phonemic inventory.

6Abbreviations are common in old manuscripts, just imagine writing a whole book by hand! This particular one correlates to some form of ‘quoth’, as seen in the translation.

7The way Sean Connery pronounces his s’s is actually a (mainly Glaswegian) Scots pronunciation feature, which is mostly used by men.
Reference: Stuart-Smith, J., Timmins, C. and Tweedie, F., 2007. ‘Talkin’ Jockney’?: variation and change in Glaswegian accent. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 11(2). 221-260.

8Suggested in: Lass, R. & M. Laing. 2016. Q is for WHAT, WHEN, WHERE: The ’q’ spellings for OE hw-. Folia Linguistica Historica 37, 61–110.

9I believe this term was coined by A.J. Aitken, if I’m not mistaken.

10Not everything here is straightforwardly Scots, rather a representation of Scottish English, but as I’ve repeated many times by now: It’s complicated!

Phonology 101: Vowels

And so we come at last to vowels, the final stop on this journey we call Phonology 101. So far, we’ve talked about the vocal tract (here), phonemes (here), and consonants (here). There’s also a post on the International Phonetic Alphabet (here).

As far as human speech sounds go, I feel like consonants are pretty straightforward. Sure, some are harder to produce than others, but you can point to a relatively clear place of articulation that’s easy to feel when you produce the sound yourself. When you produce [m], your lips are together. When you produce [t], your tongue touches right behind your teeth. Vowels are…squishier.

Let’s start with the easy part: all vowels are, by nature, voiced.1 Like consonants, vowels can be either oral or nasal, depending on whether the velum is raised or lowered (see if you can tell the difference between the vowels in mat /mæt/ and man /mæn/). Vowels can also be rounded or unrounded; this describes the shape of the lips during production.

Now, we need one more thing, one more feature, something similar to the consonants’ place of articulation, to distinguish each vowel from all the others. That magic feature is the position of the tongue within the vowel space. Well, it’s actually two features: height (or closeness, as you’ll see on the IPA chart) and backness.

IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Vowel height is kind of what it sounds like: how high (close) or low (open) in the mouth the tongue is. Backness refers to which part of the tongue is providing the pertinent interaction with the height variable—the back (closest to the throat), front, or center.

When talking about vowels, it’s good to keep in mind that as far as words meaning “middle” are concerned, “central” refers to the horizontal feature and “mid” refers to the vertical.

So, why do I say vowels are kind of squishy? In consonants, the tongue hits specific points along the roof of the mouth. In vowels, the tongue is interacting with empty air—a much less precise target to hit thousands and millions of times while speaking. In fact, phoneticians call our phonemes target vowels.

But what’s all this talk without some examples?

In cheese /t͡ʃiːz/, we find the high, front, unrounded vowel. The front of the tongue is high in the mouth, and the lips, rather than pursed, are pulled back into something resembling a smile (as many a subject of a painfully posed photograph can attest).

In choose /t͡ʃuːz/, the tongue is again high, but this vowel is back and rounded.

A few more:

The vowel in chess /t͡ʃɛs/ is low-mid front unrounded.
The vowel in Chaz /t͡ʃæz/ is low front unrounded.
The first vowel in Chaucer /t͡ʃɔːsəɹ/ is low-mid back unrounded.

You get the picture.

I’d like to point out a couple funny things you may have noticed in my phonemic transcriptions of these words.

First, I used /i/ to represent what native English speakers commonly think of as the E sound. The symbols used in IPA are a mix of letters and specialized characters. In the case of the vowels, the commonly familiar letters correspond to the so-called Continental vowels, i.e. they represent the sounds they spell in most European languages. English is the misfit here. The spellings we use for vowels are mismatched to the way they’re treated in other languages. There’s a very good reason for this, but that exciting story will have to keep for another day. As for /e/, this is used in IPA for what we English speakers think of as the A sound.

Next, the keen-eyed will have noticed that when I transcribed cheese, I didn’t just use /i/. There’s two funny dots after it that look like a colon. This symbol indicates that the vowel is long. American schoolchildren learn that the difference between Pete and pet is that the first has a long E and the second has a short E. This is not what I mean. For a phonologist, that sense of “long” and “short” is erroneous (and in fact, those two words have completely different vowels). Rather, this symbol means that the vowel is held for a longer length of time; it indicates duration. In some languages, vowel length is phonemic, i.e. it differentiates one word from another. Heck, it used to be phonemic in English way back in the day. You don’t have to worry about whether your vowels are long or short in Modern English. That’s one of those allophonic2 features that just kind of happens.

Last, there’s a second vowel in Chaucer that I haven’t mentioned yet, represented by a flipped-around lowercase E: /ə/. A lot of these symbols I’m using are probably new and unfamiliar, so you may not have noticed it hiding there, but this disoriented little letter is special. It’s name is schwa. It represents a mid central unrounded vowel, which is to say it represents a relaxed, mushy, indiscriminate vowel sound. It’s often found in unstressed syllables, and it can be an allophone of a lot of other vowels when you’re not going out of your way to enunciate every word. It never really satisfies the phonemic requirement of separating one word from another, but it’s an important little sound nonetheless, this lazy vowel. Plus, schwa is fun to say.

There are a few more things to bear in mind about vowels. First, very few of the vowels we produce in English are pure, single sounds. Much like the consonantal affricates, sometimes two vowels get produced in such close sequence they act like a single sound. For vowels, these are called diphthongs. You can hear diphthongs in words like chase /t͡ʃeɪs/ and chai /t͡ʃaɪ/ (or the names of the letters A and I).

Second, vowels tend to vary a lot more from dialect to dialect than consonants do. You can look at all the varieties of English across the world, from Canada to New Zealand, and draft almost identical lists of consonants for all of them. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a linguist to tell that they all use (sometimes drastically) different sets of vowels.

Several times throughout this series, I’ve encouraged you to stop and to try producing some of these sounds. This is especially useful if you’d like to get a handle on vowels. Say some. Just roll sound around in your mouth. Make random, vowel-ish noises. I can give you clinical definitions of consonants. Vowels you’ve got to feel.

This is the end of Phonology 101, but if you’ve fallen in love with the science of speech production and sounds the way I have, don’t you fret. Phonology has a starring role in some of the most exciting stories English has to offer, and you can bet we’ll be bringing them your way. For now, you Scots lovers better hold onto your hats. Lisa’s back next week to help us understand some of the differences between English and Scots.

Notes

1As a point of curiosity, some languages, like Japanese, occasionally have voiceless vowels in specific contexts. But, this is a rarity. Like how hand sanitizer claims to kill 99.9% of germs.
2I know this is a blog, and we’re kind of asking a lot by asking you to remember all this terminology. Your cheat sheet for phonemes and allophones is right this way.

Phonaesthetics, or “The Phrenology of Language”

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: French is a beautiful, romantic language; Italian sounds like music; Spanish is passionate and primal; Japanese is aggressive; Polish is melancholic; and German is a guttural, ugly, unpronounceable mess (Ha! Tricked you! You couldn’t stop me because I’ve written all of this down way before now. Your cries and frantic gesticulations were for naught.)

We’ve all heard these judgements (and many others) repeated multiple times over the course of our lives; not only in idle conversation, but also in movies, books, comics, and other popular media. There’s even a series of memes dedicated to mocking how German sounds in relation to other European languages:

“Ich liebe dich” is a perfectly fine and non-threatening way of expressing affection towards another human being

What you might not know is that this phenomenon has a technical name in linguistics: phonaesthetics.[1]

Phonaesthetics, in short, is the hypothesis that languages are objectively more or less beautiful or pleasant depending on various parameters, such as vowel to consonant ratio, presence or absence of certain sounds etc., and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a gigantic mountain of male bovine excrement.

Pictured: phonaesthetics

Let me explain why:

A bit of history

Like so many other terrible ideas, phonaesthetics goes way back in human history. In fact, it may have been with us since the very beginning.

The ancient Greeks, for example, deemed their language the most perfect and beautiful and thought all other languages ugly and ungainly. To them, these foreign languages all sounded like strings of unpleasant sounds: a mocking imitation of how they sounded to the Greeks, “barbarbarbar”, is where we got our word “barbarian” from.

In the raging (…ly racist) 19th century, phonaesthetics took off as a way to justify the rampant prejudice white Europeans had against all ethnicities different from their own.

The European elite of the time arbitrarily decided that Latin was the most beautiful language that ever existed, and that the aesthetics of all languages would be measured against it. That’s why Romance languages such as Italian or French, which descended from Latin[2], are still considered particularly beautiful.

Thanks to this convenient measuring stick, European languages were painted as euphonious ( ‘pleasant sounding’), splendid monuments of linguistic accomplishment, while extra-European languages were invariably described as cacophonous (‘unpleasant sounding’), barely understandable masses of noise. This period is when the common prejudice that Arabic is a harsh and unpleasant language arose, a prejudice that is easily dispelled once you hear a mu’adhin chant passages from the Qur’an from the top of a minaret.

Another tool in the racist’s toolbox, very similar to phonaesthetics, and invented right around the turn of the 19th century, was phrenology, or racial-biology, the pseudoscience which alleged to be able to discern a person’s intelligence and personality from the shape of their head. To the surprise of no one, intelligence, grace and other positive characteristics were all associated with the typical form of a European white male skull, while all other shapes indicated shortcomings in various neurological functions. What a pleasant surprise that must have been for the European white male inventors of this technique![3] Phrenology was eventually abandoned and widely condemned, but phonaesthetics, unfortunately, wasn’t, and it’s amazingly prevalent even today.

To see how prevalent this century-old model of linguistic beauty is in popular culture, a very good example are Tolkien’s invented languages. For all their amazing virtues, Tolkien’s novels are not exactly known for featuring particularly nuanced moral actors: the good guys might have some (usually redeemable) flaws, but the bad guys are just bad, period.

Here’s a brief passage in Quenya, the noblest of all Elven languages:

Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen,

Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier

Mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva

[…]

Notice the high vowel-to-consonant ratio, the prevalence of liquid (“l”, “r”), fricative (“s”, “v”) and nasal (“n”, “m”) sounds, all characteristic of Latinate languages.

Now, here’s a passage in the language of the Orcs:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul

Ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul

See any differences? The vowel-to-consonant ratio is almost reversed, and most syllables end with a consonant. Also, notice the rather un-Latinate consonant combinations (“zg”, “thr”), and the predominance of stops (“d”, “g”, “b”, “k”). It is likely that you never thought about what makes Elvish so “beautiful” and “melodious”, and Orcish (or Klingon, for that matter), so harsh and unpleasant: these prejudices are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice they’re present.

So why is phonaesthetics “wrong”?

Well, the reason is actually very simple: beauty is subjective and cannot be scientifically defined. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Not this beholder.
Image copyright: Wizards of the Coast

What one finds “beautiful” is subject to change both in space and in time. If you think German’s relatively low vowel-to-consonant ratio is “harsh”, then you have yet to meet Nuxálk.

Welcome to phonaesthetic hell.

Speaking of German, it is actually a very good example of how these supposedly “objective” and “common sense” criteria of phonetic beauty can change with time, sometimes even abruptly. You see, in the 19th century, German was considered a very beautiful language, on par with Italian or French. A wealth of amazing prose and poetry was written in it: it was probably the main language of Romantic literature. It was also the second language of opera, after Italian, and was routinely described as melodious, elegant and logical.

Then the Nazis came.

Nazis: always ruining everything.

Suddenly, Germans were the bad guys. No longer the pillars of European intellectual culture, their language became painted as harsh, aggressive, unfriendly and cold, and suddenly every Hollywood villain and mad scientist acquired a German accent.

So, what’s the takeaway from this long and rambling rant?

No language is more, or less, beautiful than any other language. All languages have literature, poetry, song and various other ways to beautifully use their sounds for artistic purposes, and the idea that some are better at this than others is a relic from a prejudiced era better left behind. So next time you feel tempted to mock German for how harsh and unpleasant it sounds, stop and think that maybe this is not actually what you think, and that you’ve been programmed by a century of social prejudice into thinking so.

And read some Goethe, you’ll like it.

Stay tuned for next week, when the amazing Rebekah will bring you on the third leg of our lightning trip through Phonphon!

  1. Phonaesthetics also has a different meaning, which is the study of how certain combinations of sounds evoke specific meanings in a given language. Although this form of phonaesthetics has its problems, too, it is not what I’m talking about in this post, so keep that in mind as we go forward.
  2. See our post on language families here.
  3. First the men assumed that the female skull was smaller than the male, and this was obviously a sign of their inferior intelligence. Later, however, they found that the female skull was larger, so they came up with the idea that this meant females were closer to children, and thus the male was still more intelligent! – Lisa

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, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/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.

Notes

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.