The International Phonetic Alphabet

Like a lot of academics and professionals, we linguists are swimming in a creamy alphabet soup of shorthand jargon and abbreviations. One of our favorites (that is, one of the most used) is IPA. No, we’re not all holed up brewing India pales ales and waiting for the next convention of the International Polka Association (although, some of us might be—I really can’t speak for everyone). To us, IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet.

As Lisa explained last week, phonetics and phonology concern themselves with the sounds of speech. English writing uses 26 letters. So, does English have 26 sounds? Think about the letter A for a minute. It makes different sounds in call and cat and came, but it would be a very odd day of autocorrect indeed before a native English speaker would use anything other than the letter A to spell these words. This certainly isn’t the only letter multitasking its little heart out.

Let’s not venture into the world of spelling and orthography just yet (Sabina will get to that in a couple weeks). Today, we’re just concerned with pronunciation. Sometimes, it would be really convenient to unambiguously write down how a word’s pronounced. For instance, what are dictionary makers supposed to do with all these letters that work too many jobs? Most dictionaries have established their own guidelines for how they’ll represent pronunciations, and the whole mess is a lot easier now when we can go online, push a button, and hear a sound clip. Things weren’t so easy back at the dawn of linguistics. There were no conventions and no sound recordings, so the 19th-century pioneers of phonology had to make up their own rules for documenting speech. And boy, did they ever. Often individually. Then, in the 1880s, some teachers got together to establish a standard international alphabet for teaching phonetics. (Teaching phonetics is what Henry Higgins does in My Fair Lady. Like other fields in linguistics, modern phonetics is much less concerned with telling people what to do and much more concerned with observing what they do already. This is sounding familiar. Have we harped on this before?) The International Phonetic Association and its masterwork, the International Phonetic Alphabet, were born.

Naturally, the IPA has been updated and improved over the years as scholarship has advanced, but the basic idea remains the same: a standard notation for the languages of the world wherein there is only one sound assigned to every symbol, and there is a symbol for every sound, and symbol-to-sound correspondences are universal and uniform no matter the language being transcribed. And, voila:

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.

I know, right? I get goosebumps, too.

Some of you may be asking the obvious question: But why, though? Dictionaries get along just fine appropriating various symbols to show simple pronunciations, and why do you need a notation that can transcribe any language when most languages already have their own writing system? Shouldn’t they just write down pronunciations in their own way?

Well first, universal systems are incredibly useful and important for scholarship. Just like math or physics, the principles of linguistics are the same no matter where you are or what you’re analyzing. Can you imagine how slow and inconvenient it would be if you had to learn two different ways to write numbers for algebra and geometry? Like, in algebra you write “3,” but in geometry three is always written as “@.” That would be silly. With IPA, linguists have a consistent way to discuss the sound systems of every language. We can even look at languages we don’t speak. I might not know cyrillic, but I can still read scholarly articles about the pronunciation of Russian because I have IPA.

Second, the proprietary methods many dictionaries adopt for noting pronunciation lack precision. It’s all well and good to say we’re going to use E for e as in pen, but I can tell you right now, different dialects of English pronounce the vowel in that word very differently. Dictionary codes like this are useful, but in a limited way. Linguists have established unambiguous ways of defining which sounds they mean regardless of accent or language. You may have noticed the symbols on the IPA chart are organized into tables and diagrams. Each sound, and each corresponding symbol, is carefully defined by the position of the mouth and the actions of the vocal cords and lungs at the time of production, among other features.1 Even when studying sounds their own language doesn’t have or sounds they themselves have trouble producing, a linguist can know exactly what they’re dealing with.

Third, documentation alone isn’t enough, either written or recorded. Even with high quality sound recordings that allow us to preserve and revisit utterances and language varieties as much as our little hearts desire, IPA is still a useful, regularly used tool. It enables layers of analysis from the basic, underlying target pronunciation of a word to detailed transcriptions of exactly how a word was produced by a specific speaker a specific time they uttered it. Furthermore, a notation like IPA facilitates written scholarship. Imagine how cumbersome it would be if every article and book about phonetics had to include a CD or a collection of sound files because there was no convenient way for the author to write down their findings.

All this talk of anatomy and utterances and transcription is getting closer to what phonologists and phoneticians actually do. I’ll be back in a few weeks to start you on a crash course in Phonology 101. I promise all those made-up-looking words on the IPA chart actually serve a purpose.

All in all, IPA is pretty invaluable to linguists. Our jobs would be a lot harder and our field couldn’t have come so far without it. But we’re not selfish about it. Us linguists, we like to share. Many singers and choral directors find IPA useful, too. You can see the benefit to everyone in a large choir pronouncing the words they’re singing the same way—the music’s prettier that way! For the casual user, IPA can be a helpful thing to know when you’re learning how to pronounce another language. Yes, maybe I’m biased, but I just want to wrap the IPA up and hand it out to everyone I meet: linguists’ gift to the world. I mean, you’re welcome. No? Oh, okay.

Next week, Riccardo will be back to talk about types of languages.

Footnotes & Bibliography

1As a point of interest, the blank spots in the pulmonic consonants table are sounds that are unattested in the known languages of the world. The greyed out areas are sounds that are thought to be unproducible.

Official website of The International Phonetic Association

 

Too much linguistics, too little time

Hello, it’s me, Lisa, again. I just couldn’t stay away! This week, I have been given the challenging task of outlining the subfields of linguistics1. The most common responses I get when I tell people I study linguistics are variations of “What is that?” and  “What can you do with that?”. This leads me to explain extremely broadly what linguistics is (eh, er, uhm, the science of languages? Like, how they work and where they come from…. But I don’t actually learn a language! I just study them. One language or lots of them. Sort of.), and then I describe various professions you can have from studying linguistics. What all of those professions have in common is that I can do none of them, since they are related to subfields of linguistics that I haven’t specialised in (looking at you forensic and applied linguistics). My own specialties, historical linguistics and syntax, lead to nothing but long days in the library and crippling student debt, but let’s not dwell on that.

Linguistics is a minefield of subdisciplines. To set the scene, look at this very confusing mind-map I made:

Now ignore that mind-map because it does you no good. It’s highly subjective and inconclusive.  However, it does demonstrate how although these subfields are distinct, they end up intersecting quite a lot. At some point in their career, linguists need to use knowledge from several areas, no matter what their specialty. To not wear you out completely, I’m focusing here on the core areas of linguistics: Phonetics and phonology (PhonPhon for short2), syntax,  morphology, and semantics. I will also briefly talk about Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics3.

Right, let’s do this.

Phonetics and Phonology

Let’s start with the most recognisable and fundamental component of spoken language: sounds!

The phonetics part of phonetics and phonology is kind of the natural sciences, physics and biology, of linguistics. In phonetics, we describe speech production by analysing sound waves, vocal fold vibrations and the position of the anatomical elements of the mouth and throat. We use cool latinate terms, like alveolar and labiodental, to formally describe sounds, like voiced alveolar fricative (= the sound /z/ in zoo). The known possible sounds speakers can produce in the languages of the world are described by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which Rebekah will tell you all about next week4.

The phonology part of phonetics and phonology concerns itself with how these phonetic sounds organise into systems and how they’re used in languages. In a way, phonetics gives the material for phonology to build a language’s sound rule system. Phonology figures out, for example, what sounds can go together and what syllables are possible. All humans with a well-functioning vocal apparatus are able to produce the same sounds, yet different languages have different sound inventories; for example, English has a sound /θ/, the sound spelled <th> as in thing, while Swedish does not. Phonology maps these inventories and explains the rules and mechanisms behind them, looking both within one language and comparatively between languages.

Speaking of Rebekah, she summarised the difference between Phonetics and Phonology far more eloquently than I could so I’ll quote her: “Phonetics is the concrete, physical manifestation of speech sounds, and phonology is kind of the abstract side of it, how we conceptualize and store those sounds in our mind.”

Syntax (and morphology, you can come too)

Begin where I are doing to syntax explained?

Why this madness!, you may exclaim, post reading the above sentence. That, friends, is what it looks like to break syntax rules; the sentence above has a weird word order and the wrong inflections on the verbs. The same sentence obeying the rules would be: Where do I begin to explain syntax?

Syntax is one of my favourite things in the world, up there with cats and OLW Cheez Doodles. The syntax of a language is the rule system which organises word-like elements into clause structures based on the grammatical information that comes with each element. In plain English: Syntax creates sentences that look and sound right to us. This doesn’t only affect word order, but also agreement patterns (syntax rules make sure we say I sing, she sings and not I sings, she sing), and how we express semantic roles5. Syntax is kind of like the maths of linguistics; it involves a lot of problem solving and neat solutions with the aim of being as universal and objective as possible. The rules of syntax are not sensitive to prescriptive norms – the syntax of a language is a product of the language people actually produce and not what they should produce.

Morphology is, roughly, the study of word-formation. Morphology takes the smallest units of meaningful information (morphemes), puts them together if necessary, and gives them to syntax so that syntax can do its thing (much like how phonetics provides material for phonology, morphology provides material for syntax). A morpheme can be an independent word, like the preposition in, but it can also be the -ed at the end of waited, telling us that the event happened in the past. This is contrasting phonology, which deals with units which are not necessarily informative; the ‘ed’ in Edinburgh is a phonological unit, a syllable, but it gives us no grammatical information and is therefore not a morpheme. Languages can have very different types of morphological systems. English tends to separate informative units into multiple words, whereas languages like Swahili can express whole sentences in one word. Riccardo will discuss this in more detail in a few weeks.

Semantics (with a pinch of pragmatics)

Semantics is the study of meaning (she said, vaguely). When phonetics and phonology has taken care of the sounds and morphology and syntax have created phrases and sentences from those sounds, semantics takes over to make sense of it all – what does a word mean and what does a sentence mean and how does that interact with and/or influence the way we think? Let’s attempt an elevator pitch for semantics: Semantics discusses the relationship between words, phrases and sentences, and the meanings they denote; it concerns itself with the relationship between linguistic elements and the world in which they exist. (Have you got a headache yet?).

If phonetics is the physics/biology of linguistics and syntax is the maths, Semantics is the philosophy of linguistics, both theoretical and formal. In my three years of studying semantics, we went from discussing whether a sentence like The King of France is bald is true or false (considering there is no king of France in the real world), to translating phrases and words into logical denotation ( andVP = λP[λQ[λx[P(x) ∧ Q(x)]]] ), to discussing universal patterns in linguistics where semantics and syntax meet and the different methods languages use to adhere to these patterns, for example how Mandarin counts “uncountable” nouns.

Pragmatics follows semantics in that it is also a study of meaning, but pragmatics concerns the way we interpret utterances. It is much more concerned with discourse, language in actual use and language subtexts. For example, pragmatics can describe the mechanisms involved when we interpret the sentence ‘it’s cold in here’ to mean ‘can you close the window?’.

Sociolinguistics and historical linguistics

Sociolinguistics has given me about 80% of my worthy dinner table conversations about linguistics. It is the study of the way language interacts with society, identity, communities and other social aspects of our world, and it also includes the study of geographical dialects (dialectology). Sociolinguistics is essentially the study of language variation and change within the above areas, both at a specific point in time (synchronically) and across a period of time (diachronically); my post last week, as well as Riccardo’s and Sabina’s posts in the weeks before, dealt with issues relevant for sociolinguistics.

When studying the HLC’s speciality historical linguistics, which involves the historical variation and change of language(s), we often need to consider sociolinguistics as a factor in why a certain historical language change has taken place or why we see a variation in the linguistic phenomenon we’re investigating. We also often need to consider several other fields of linguistics in order to understand a phenomenon, which can play out something like this:

  • Is this strange spelling variation found in this 16th century letter because it was pronounced differently (phonetics, phonology), and if so, was it because of a dialectal difference (sociolinguistics)? Or, does this spelling actually indicate a different function of the word (morphology, semantics)?
  • What caused this strange word order change starting in the 14th century? Did it start within the syntax itself, triggered by an earlier different change, or did it arise from a method of trying to focus the reader’s attention on something specific in the clause (information structure, pragmatics)? Did that word order arise because this language was in contact with speakers of another language which had that word order (sociolinguistics, typology)?

To summarise, phonetics and phonology gives us sounds and organises them. The sounds become morphemes which are put into the syntax. The syntactic output is then interpreted through semantics and pragmatics. Finally, the external context in which this all takes place and is interpreted is dealt with by sociolinguistics. Makes sense?

There is so much more to say about each of these subfields; it’s hard to do any of them justice in such a brief format! However, the point of this post was to give you a foundation to stand on when we go into these topics more in-depth in the future. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to know more about, you can always comment or email, or have a look at some of the literature I mention in the footnotes. Next week, Rebekah will give us some background on the IPA – one of the most important tools for any linguist. Thanks for reading!

Footnotes

 

1I had to bring out the whole arsenal of introductory textbooks to use as inspiration for this post. Titles include but are not limited to: Beginning Linguistics by Laurie Bauer; A Practical introduction to Phonetics by J.C. Catford; A Historical Syntax of English by Bettelou Los; What is Morphology? By Mark Aronoff and Kristen Fudeman; Meaning: A slim guide to Semantics by Paul Elborne; Pragmatics by Yan Huang; and Introducing Sociolinguistics by Miriam Meyerhoff. I also consulted old lecture notes from my undergraduate studies at the University of York.

2This is of course not an official term, just a nickname used by students.

3We’ll hopefully get back to some of the others another time. For now, if you are interested, a description of most of the subfields is available from a quick google search of each of the names you find in the mind map.

4If you want a sneak peek, you can play around with this interactive IPA chart where clicking a sound on the chart will give you its pronunciation.

5This is more visible in languages that have an active case system. English has lost case on all proper nouns, but we can still see the remains of the English case system on pronouns (hehimhis).

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”

Hello HLC readers! I’m Lisa, I’m a Swede (this kind, not this kind, and hopefully never this kind) but I live in Scotland, and I’m here to talk to you about the differences between languages and dialects. Now, the title of this post, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”, should have made everything clear, so that will be my contribution for today.

Joking!

I’m so not done. The title quote was made popular by the sociolinguist, and Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich (in Yiddish, with Roman letters: a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot)1. This particular quote has been passed down to me on average once per each course I’ve taken in my four years of studying linguistics, which either tells you 1. Linguists are in serious need of new content, or 2. This is probably important for budding linguists to discuss. Both might be true in some cases, but most of the time 2 is the correct answer. We will need to tread carefully, and I don’t intend to make any political statements, but simply to shine some light on the complexity of the matter which, in fact, is often highly political. One final disclaimer: This is a really difficult topic to summarise. Bear with me.

For some of you reading, the question of what is and isn’t a language is probably something you haven’t thought about a lot. Some of you may think that the distinction is clear-cut; a language is distinct, it’s not similar to or dependent on anything else, and a dialect isn’t. You may even say that dialects are clearly sub-languages, because of the very way we phrase “dialects of a language” to imply that dialects belong to a language and not vice versa. Further, dialects are mutually intelligible (i.e. speakers of different dialects of one language can understand each other), which is not the case with languages. This is not exactly wrong, it’s just overly simplified.

First of all, if mutual intelligibility is a dialect criterion then my native Swedish could arguably be a Scandinavian dialect rather than a proper language – I, like most Swedes, understand Norwegian very well, and to some extent Danish, if spoken slowly (I’m currently working on my spoken Danish comprehension by watching both the Bridge and the Killing… My crime vocabulary is looking pretty solid by now). However, a lot of Swedes would not be thrilled to be told that their language is a dialect, and it does feel counter-intuitive to call it one.

On the other hand, there are agreed-upon dialects that are not mutually intelligible. Why are the dialects of, for example, Italian still called dialects, despite speakers of, for example, Emilian and Sicilian not being able to understand each other2 , while Norwegian and Swedish are officially agreed upon to be different languages? Also, what makes people call Catalan a dialect of Spanish (Don’t shoot the messenger!), or Cantonese a dialect of Chinese? Can you see a pattern forming? I’ll spell it out: The term language is most often, but not always, awarded to those “dialects” that have, or have had, official language status in a country, i.e. the dialect of those in power. The term dialect, or lect, is sometimes used neutrally in linguistics to cover both official languages and dialects, but there is  another term which is also used that I like more: variety. Variety is less socio-politically charged, and I use it all the time to avoid having to make a language/dialect distinction when I talk about linguistics.

There are, however, exceptions to the ‘official language’-criterion. If we go back to Spain, for example, no one would argue that Basque is a dialect of Spanish because Basque looks and sounds nothing like Spanish at all (or maybe some would argue this, but could we all agree that this is an unusual opinion?). So, there must be an element of likeness, or similarity, involved. Preferably the variety in question would be a part of the same language family3  – this could be why no one argues the language status of indigenous varieties, like Sami varieties in northern Scandinavia or the various native American varieties like Navajo and Cree.

My take on the issue is this: What people choose to call a language is largely based on four criteria:

  1. Is this variety an official language of a country?
  2. Is the variety distinct in terms of likeness to the official language of that region? Recall what was said above about indigenous languages.
  3. Is this variety considered an example of how that variety should be spoken, i.e. a standard variety, that also has sub-varieties (dialects) that diverge from that standard? An example: British English has a standard, sometimes called BBC English, or RP, but also a plethora of quirky dialects like Geordie, Scouse, Scottish English, Brummie, etc., all still considered to be English.
  4. Does it have an army and a navy?
  5. I jest.
  6. The real number 4: Is the variety standardised? Can we study it with the help of grammars and lexicons? Is it taught in schools? (Language standardisation is a whole topic of its own, which we will come back to in a later post.)

We can see that the term language is strongly connected to the status a variety has in a nation, it is a term that is awarded or given. When we attempt linguistic distinctions between languages and dialects, things get confusing really quickly. Is differing syntax, for example word order differences, more distinguishing than differing vocabulary? Norwegian and Danish have largely similar vocabularies, but very distinct pronunciations, so how does that factor in when we determine whether they are distinct languages or dialects of one variety? How much is the mutual intelligibility due to close contact, rather than actual similarities4 – do I understand Norwegian well because I grew up a couple of hours from the border to Norway, or because Norwegian and Swedish are so similar?

It is also relevant to talk about the historical perspective (after all this is is the Historical Linguist Channel). To throwback to Rebekah’s post last week, we know that English has changed a lot since the Anglo-Saxon times. We all tend to agree that Latin is one language distinct from Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, but we also know that these languages all originate from Latin. What about English then? Old English and Present Day English look different enough that we could happily call them distinct languages, but what about Early Modern English? When do we say a variety has diverged enough from its parent language to be considered a language in its own right? Is my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt, a part of my immediate or extended family? Well, that often depends on my relationship to my great-aunt, which brings us back to the subjectivity of the question.

The point I’m trying to make with these confused ramblings is that the term language cannot be defined linguistically, but is a wholly social and political term. The people of Montenegro generally refuse to recognise their variety’s similarity to Serbian, despite the varieties being largely indistinguishable – they speak Montenegrin. Knowing the history of the region though, we might be able to see where the Montenegrians are coming from, why it feels important for them to distinguish themselves as a people through their language5 . When we discuss what a language is, it’s important to keep in mind what the term means for the people who use it. Our language is tightly connected to our sense of identity; this is one reason why we’re so reluctant to see it changing or being used in a way we perceive as wrong (throwback to Sabina’s and Riccardo’s posts). The term dialect is somehow seen as inferior to language, and thus the terminology becomes a much larger issue than any linguistic definitions we can make.

Related to this issue are topics like standardisation (mentioned above), minority languages, and the idea of debased English. The latter two are also upcoming topics. In future posts, I will be addressing a variety that is my special interest, Scots 6, which is particularly affected by the issues discussed here. Scots is a Germanic variety spoken in Scotland, which is closely related to English but is still distinct from English (much like Swedish and Norwegian). First, however, I will be back next week to outline the main disciplines that fall under the umbrella of linguistics.

Footnotes

1He didn’t utter the quote first though, but an auditor in one of his lectures said it to him. I recommend reading about the situation on Wikipedia.

2Ask Riccardo about this issue and your evening entertainment is sorted.

3“Language family” is the name given to a group of languages which share an ancestor. We will dedicate more time to this topic at a later point. Meanwhile, you may admire this beautiful Indo-European and Uralic family tree.

4These and other questions are addressed by linguistic typologists, who try to map the languages of the world, categorise them and determine their relatedness.

5This fact was brought to my attention by a student from Montenegro during the course Scots and Scottish English, taught by Dr. Warren Maguire at the University of Edinburgh. A lot of the discussions we had in that course have provided background for the arguments and questions presented here.

6The Angus Macintosh Centre for Historical Linguistics have made brilliant videos explaining the history of Scots, in both Scots and English. I strongly recommend watching these!

Old English ain’t Shakespeare (feat. Dinosaurs)

Yes, hello. Rebekah, 26, American. I can hardly contain myself, so let’s just get straight to it:

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite things was the part of the dictionary where it tells you the history of the word. “And Latin bos begat Old French boef, and Old French boef begat English beef.”1 (Okay, that’s not how they phrase it. Also, this area of study is called etymology.) Then, my senior year in high school, while I was applying to colleges, I learned you could actually major in that. Somehow, I had never heard of linguistics before.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to linguistics than just where words come from. There’s how the words fit together to form sentences, and there’s the 7,000+ languages in the world and how they’re alike and how they’re not, and there’s all these crazy sounds our mouths can make to combine in a billion different ways and become human speech.

I was taking a class on the history of English when I had my eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room, have-we-met-before, do-you-think-this-is-destiny moment. I was doing the assigned reading on Old English, and it was all about Saxons and the Danelaw and Alfred the Great and scops, and something about it all reverberated in the marrow of my bones. It was like hearing a song I’d forgotten a long time ago. A thousand-odd years of history collapsed in on itself, and I could feel the blood of my Anglo-Saxon forebears humming through me. (Too much? Too much. Moving on.)

It was only when I went to share this indescribable feeling with everyone I met that I realized I had a problem. The conversation went like this:

Me: I love Old English! *heart eyes, preparing to gush*
Them: Oh, that’s cool. So you like Shakespeare?
Me: *wilting and dying inside*

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Shakespeare. But here’s a super cool linguistic fun fact: Shakespeare’s language, and the language of the King James Bible, and the language of all those other historic sources inspiring your friendly local Renaissance festival players, that’s a little something we linguists like to call “Early Modern English.”

The periods of English

Let’s talk about dinosaurs. Everybody loves dinosaurs, right? Between the chicken nuggets, the tee shirts, and movies like The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, most people know the names of at least two or three, and they probably have a favorite. (Mine’s triceratops, if you’re wondering.)

Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic Era, a 186-million-year period of geological time further subdivided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods.2 I’m about to painfully rewrite your childhood, so sorry in advance. Littlefoot, lovable hero of The Land Before Time, was either a brontosaurus or an apatosaurus. These titanic, long-necked herbivores lived in the Late Jurassic. Cera, Littlefoot’s triceratops best friend, would have lived during the Late Cretaceous—some 77 million years later. As long-distance, time-traveling romances go, it’s arguably a little more problematic than The Lake House. Not least because dinosaurs didn’t have mailboxes.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great, Rebekah. That’s just great. Friendship over. Before I delete your number, what does this have to do with linguistics? Are you trying to tell me dinosaurs spoke English?”

As appealing as it is to imagine all our favorite dinosaurs living together as one big happy family, 186 million years is a long time for everything to stay the same. Likewise, as easy as it is to think that English is English, always has been and always will be, languages grow and evolve, too. (Sabina talked about this a little last week.) No matter how different they became, though, from the time they emerged in the Late Triassic until they disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs were still dinosaurs. It’s kind of the same with languages.

A lot of the dinosaur species people are most familiar with—triceratops, hadrosaurs, velociraptors, and Tyrannosaurus rex, to name a few—lived during the last period, the Cretaceous (yep, Jurassic Park is a bit of a misnomer). This was the period of greatest dinosaur diversity. The latest period of English is called Modern English, and it’s the one you’re probably most familiar with. It started in roughly the late 1400s and runs up to the present. This, too, is a period of impressive diversity, with distinct varieties of English spoken around the world, from Australia to Canada, from India to England, and everywhere in between. As far as literature goes, a lot of the famous English-language works considered part of the Western canon were written during this time, including the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and many others. There are also contemporary works like those of Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Dr. Seuss—all those books, magazines, and newspapers filling up your local library (if you happen to live in an English-speaking country).

Of course, no matter how awesome it would be to see a rap battle between Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, even the casual reader will flag their writing as seeming like not quite the same language. As mentioned earlier, Modern English can be separated into Early and Late, with the divide being marked at about 1800. Period distinctions like this are the result of shifts in grammar, pronunciation, and word stock throughout the language, though the specific dates often coincide with historical events that had a widespread impact on culture. (Like the mass extinction events that separate the different periods of the Mesozoic Era. But somewhat less catastrophic.) In the case of Modern English, the starting point is often cited as 1476, the year William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. The ability to mass produce written materials would have a profound effect on literacy and the dissemination of linguistic features. In 1776, the American colonies declared independence from England. Some consider the American Revolution the start of Late Modern English and a period of globalization for the language, as over the following decades the British continued to spread their language, colonizing places like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India.

As useful as dates like these can be for roughly marking linguistic time, languages unfortunately don’t work like that. The line between one stage of English and another isn’t as clear cut as turning over a page of your Gregorian calendar on January 1st and magically finding yourself in a new year. Linguistic shockwaves and subtle nudges take time to spread. A great example of this is Middle English.

On our timeline, Middle English is our Jurassic period. During the Jurassic, dinosaurs began to flourish. They hadn’t yet reached the height of diversity of the Cretaceous, but there are still some Jurassic species everybody recognizes, like the stegosaurus or aforementioned sauropods like the brontosaurus. There’s at least one big Middle English name you’ll recognize, too: Geoffrey Chaucer. If you’ve read just one work that predates the Modern English period, I’d bet good money it was some portion of Chaucer’s seminal Canterbury Tales. See? You knew there was English older than Shakespeare’s, even if you didn’t know you knew it. The Canterbury Tales begins:

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;3

It might look a little odd and incomprehensible, but with just a little elbow grease, most people can puzzle Chaucer out. (It helps to read it out loud.)

Chaucer died in 1400, and his language was that of the latter end of Middle English. Works from Early Middle English are rare, but one very important one is the Peterborough Chronicle, a historical record periodically updated with the important events of each year up to 1154. It only takes a little squinting to recognize Chaucer’s language as an earlier form of English, but the Peterborough Chronicle starts to look like it was written in a different language entirely. If Chaucer was writing in a kind of pre-Shakespeare, the Peterborough Chronicle was written in a kind of post-Anglo-Saxon, two ends of a transitionary continuum. Due to the nature of the Peterborough Chronicle itself, we can watch the language gradually change in the time between entries.

And so, we come at last to true Old English. The Triassic period, I guess? (Look, I can only push this metaphor so far.) The transition from Old to Middle English is traditionally marked by the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. William the Conqueror became William I, and he repopulated the court and the clergy with French-speaking Normans. The sovereignty of French men, French culture, and the French language had a profound effect on English, explaining the rather Romance sound of the language today. Strip that influence away, go back to England between AD 500 and AD 1000, and you’ll find the very Germanic origins of the language we call English. The most famous of all the surviving Old English works is the epic poem Beowulf. It begins like this:

Hwæt we Gar-Dene     in geardagum,
þeodcyninga     þrym gefrunon,
hu þa æþelingas     ellen fremedon.4

It reads something along the lines of:

Lo, we of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,
learned by inquiry of the kings of the people,
how those princes did valor.

This was the language of the Germanic tribes who migrated to Britain and displaced the Celts, the peoples who would become the Anglo-Saxons. The Beowulf poem began as part of an oral tradition and was later written down. In style and content, it’s somewhat like the Norse Eddas, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the Anglo-Saxons shared a Germanic heritage with the Vikings and continued to have contact with them after settling Britain (both friendly and not so friendly). Old English manuscripts show a people transitioning from paganism to Christianity, a warlike people with an awful lot of synonyms for “sword” and “kill,” but also a cultured people with a sophisticated poetic meter and a penchant for alliteration. Shakespeare was a long way down the road.

Back to the future

The story of English is far from over. It’s still being written all around us. As I said, language is in constant flux, and it can be hard to know when to say, “Hang on a second. I think we’ve stumbled into a new stage of English!” Linguists today are even starting to distinguish the most current English, the one we’re speaking right now (and tweeting at each other and scribbling down on post-it notes and dropping in beats in epic rap battles), with the appellation Present Day English, leaving Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest a little farther in the past.

Don’t think this phenomenon is unique to English. Other languages have gone through some incredible changes, too. Old French boef eventually became French boeuf, and really, French is just grown up Latin, just like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and all the other Romance languages. (Language families are a subject for another day.) And language, all language, is going to go right on changing as our cultures and our communication needs go right on changing. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, “Language finds a way.”

Next week with Lisa: As hard as it is to say when a language has entered a new stage of its evolution, one of the most complicated questions facing linguists is the problem of where to draw the distinction between a language and a dialect. What makes something a separate language rather than just a variety of another? When do we say a dialect has diverged enough from its parent language to be considered a language in its own right?

Bibliography

There are many wonderful works covering the history of English. For specific dates and details mentioned here, I referenced:
Algeo, John & Thomas Pyles. 2005. The origins and development of the English language, 5th edn. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

1Oxford English Dictionary Online

2General information about dinosaurs was found on Wikipedia & from the article “Learn about the different dinosaur periods” at ThoughtCo.

3The prologue to The Canterbury Tales at Bartleby.com

4Mitchell, Bruce & Fred C. Robinson. 2012. A guide to Old English, 8th edn. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

The myth of language decay: Do youths really not know how to speak?

Hi everyone!

My name is Sabina, I’m 28 years old, from rainy Gothenburg, Sweden (unlike Riccardo from sunny Bologna). Why am I here? Well, to talk about linguistics, obviously! Specifically, I’ll be talking about a persistent and prevalent language myth: the myth of language decay.

This is the idea that modern forms of language are somehow steadily getting “worse” in comparison to previous stages of the language. The thought that there was, somewhere, somehow, a “golden age” of the language, after which it became unstructured, uninformative or just plain “bad”. This idea is a form of prescriptivism, as described by Riccardo in last week’s post, and perhaps the most widespread one at that.

You might think that this is not as common a myth as I say, but consider: have you ever heard someone claim that “young people” don’t know how to write? How to talk “properly”? Maybe even how to read? These are, indeed, examples of this myth.

However, is it true? Do young people really not know how to write/speak/read their native tongue? Of course not, they just do it in a different way.

The myth of language decay is intimately connected to the phenomenon known as language change. Now, language change is often described by linguists as a necessary, vital and continuous part of the language’s development and survival. Just imagine if we spoke English the same way as in the Middle Ages, or even as in Shakespeare’s time! English today is certainly different from back then, but it is in no way worse. Think about it, would you really want everyone to speak like Shakespeare did? Or Chaucer? Or perhaps as in Beowulf?

It is interesting to note, however, that the idea of language decay rarely touches the history of the language. Chaucer and Shakespeare lived approximately 200 years apart yet no one really claiming that Chaucer’s English was “bad” in comparison to Shakespeare’s, do they? (As a matter of fact, Chaucer has earned himself the nickname “Father of English literature” so it really can’t be, can it?).

Let’s take a more recent example: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) to George R.R. Martin (1948-). Now, if you sit down and read through the works of these three authors, all of whom have been hailed for their writing skills, you will probably notice a rather distinct difference in not only style, but perhaps also in lexicon and grammar. Yet no one is arguing that Dickens and Tolkien didn’t know how to write, do they?

But guess what? Someone probably did when Tolkien started writing! Someone probably did when Martin started out. Someone probably even said it about Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Brontë, Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc, etc.

In fact, people have been complaining about language “decay” for a long, long time, specifically since the time of Sumerian, a language spoken in the region of Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia. Now, you might be thinking: “Sabina, surely you’re exaggerating things just a bit?”.

I am not.

Sumerian is the first language from which there is surviving written material1 and in 1976, a researcher named Lloyd-Jones2 published a piece of work detailing inscriptions made on clay tablets. Among other things, these contained an agonized complaint made by a senior scribe regarding the junior scribes’ sudden drop in writing ability.

Basically: “Young people can’t write properly!”.

Consider that for a second. People have been complaining about supposed language decay for, literally, as long as we have evidence of written language.

Given this, you can imagine that people tend to have a strong reaction to language “decay”. Consider the case of Jean Aitchison, an Emeritus Professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford. In 1996, Professor Aitchison participated in the BBC Reith Lectures, a series of annual radio lectures given by leading figures of a particular field. Professor Aitchison lectured on the naturalness of language change, stating that there was nothing to worry about.

The result of this? Professor Aitchison received hostile letters to her home. Consider that for just a second: people took the trouble of sitting down, writing a threat, posting it, wait for the post to reach her, just to get their sense of accomplishment.3 That’s a pretty good indication of how strongly some people feel about this.

So, why are we reacting that way?

Well, we spend year upon year, in school, in newspapers, even in social media (with its “grammar Nazi” phenomenon), teaching people that there is a “correct” way of using language. We work hard to achieve this standard. Think of it as learning how to ride a bike. All your life, you’ve been told that you should sit on the bike in a certain way. It’s very uncomfortable, but you work and work and work to apply the right technique. When you’ve finally mastered the skill (and are feeling quite proud of yourself), someone comes along and tells you that you can sit on the bike anyway you want. Risk of you lashing out? Probably at least somewhat high.

But see, the thing is that, when it comes to language, there really is no “correct way”. Take the word “irregardless” for example. Many immediately get this kind of stone-faced expression and thunderously proclaim that there is no such word. But actually, there is. It’s a non-standard dialectal variant, used with a specific meaning and in specific contexts (in this particular case, irregardless is a way to shut a conversation down after already having said “regardless” in those varieties4, isn’t that interesting?).

But people think that there is somehow something “wrong” with this word, and those who use it (or other non-standard forms) will often be judged as speaking “bad English”, throwing more fuel on the fire for the myth of language decay. Especially since the older generations, for example, may retain their ideas about what is “correct” usage, while younger generations may have a different idea about what is “correct” and use the language in a different way.

So, what’s my point with all this? Well, my point is that the moment that a word from a non-standard dialect makes its way into the standard language, it’s going to raise some discussion about the “decay” of the language. This is really particularly true of the younger generations today who actually introduced a whole new form of language into their standard vocabulary: internet and/or texting slang!

This is fascinating! We’re introducing a new form of language! But… When young people start using, I don’t know, “brb”, “afk”, “lol”, etc. in their everyday speech, other people may condemn this as “lazy, uneducated, wrong”, etc., etc. and the myth of language decay rejuvenates.

But the thing is that languages change to match the times in which they exist. It may change due to political readjustments that have occurred or to reflect the different attitudes of the people. And sometimes, we can’t point to anything that made the language change – it simply did. Regardless, the language reflects its time, not a glorified past. And that is a good thing.

Unless, of course, you would perhaps prefer to remove most -ed past tense endings, especially on strong verbs, and go back to the good old days of ablaut (that is, vowel gradation carrying grammatical information, e.g. sing, sang, sung)? Or perhaps lower all your vowels again and skip the diphthongs? Or perhaps… yeah, you see where I’m going with this.

No? Didn’t think so. In that case, let’s celebrate the changes, both historical and current, without accusing them to somehow make the language worse.

Because, truly, the only difference between changes that made the language into the “glorious standard” of yesteryear and the changes that are happening now, is time.

Tune in to Rebekah’s post next week where she will explain the different periods of English and make it clear why Shakespeare did not write in Old English!

Bibliography

1 Check out the 5 oldest written languages recorded here.

2 Lloyd-Jones, Richard. 1976. “Is writing worse nowadays?”. University of Iowa Spectator. April 1976.
Quoted by Daniels, Harvey. 1983. Famous last words: The American language crisis revisited. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 33.

3Aitchison, Jean. 1997. The Language Web. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

4Check out Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, explaining “irregardless” here.

Introduction to the blog and some words on Descriptivism

Hello everyone! Welcome to our shiny new blog! My name is Riccardo, I’m 25 years old, from Bologna, Italy (homeland of good food and jumping moustached plumbers) and I’m here to talk about linguistics. Well, we all are, really. That’s why we’re the Historical Linguist Channel™!

So, “what is a linguist?” I hear you ask through my finely-honed sense for lingering doubts. Well, a linguist is someone who studies language, duh. What’s that? You want more detail? I can understand that. After all, few academic fields are as misunderstood by the general public as the field of linguistics. People might think that the Earth is flat, or that aspirin turns frogs into handsome, muscular princes (or was it kisses?), but at least they know what an astronomer or a doctor is and what they do. No such luck for linguists, I’m afraid. Misconceptions about what we do and absurdly wrong notions about what we study are rife even within the academic community itself. We’re here to dispel those misconceptions.

In the series of articles that follows, each of us will debunk one myth or misconception which he or she (mostly she) finds particularly pernicious and wants out of the way immediately before we even start regularly updating the blog’s content. In this introductory article, I will explain the most fundamental source of myths and misconceptions about linguistics there is: the difference between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.

But first, let me begin with an unfortunately not-so-exaggerated portrayal of the popular perception of linguists: the Movie Linguist.

Scene: an unexplored Mayan ruin, deep in the jungles of Central America. Three explorers cautiously walk in a dark hallway, torches blazing over their heads. Philip, the dashing young adventurer, leads forward, cutting the vines that grow in the ancient corridors with his machete. He is followed by Beatrice, a beautiful young woman he naturally will end up kissing towards the end of the movie. Trailing behind them is a bespectacled, nervous man, awkwardly trying to hold onto a ream of papers and charts. He is Nigel, the linguist. Suddenly, they break into an enormous room. The group leader raises his torch with a sweeping motion. The music swells: the walls of the chamber are covered with inscriptions.

Philip: My God… look at this.

Beatrice: What is it?

Philip: Look at the inscriptions on the walls.

Beatrice: [gasps] Could it really be…?

Philip: Egyptian hieroglyphs… in a Mayan pyramid!!

Beatrice: But it’s impossible! How could they have arrived here?

Philip: I don’t know. Nigel! You’ve got to see this.

Nigel enters the chamber, and immediately drops his papers in astonishment.

Nigel: I- it’s incredible! The theories of professor McSweeney on cultural cross-pollination were true!

Beatrice: Can you read it?

Nigel: Well, given the nature of the expedition, I was presumably hired for my expertise in Meso-American languages. Fortunately, I am a Linguist™, and that means I can read every language ever spoken by every human being that ever lived.

Nigel kneels next to the closest inscription. He thoughtfully adjusts his glasses.

Nigel: Hmmm… I recognise this. It’s an obscure dialect of Middle Egyptian spoken in a village exactly 7.6 km due East of Thebes in the year 1575 BC. I can tell just by superficially looking at it.

Philip: What does it say?

Nigel: Unfortunately, this dialect is so obscure that it wasn’t covered in the 72 years of back-breaking grad school every linguist must undergo to learn every language ever spoken. I will need time to decipher it.

Beatrice: How much time? This place gives me the creeps.

Nigel: Just a few hours, and I will do it with no help from any dictionary, reference grammar or corpus of similar dialects to which I could compare it. After I decipher it, I will, of course, be able to read, write, and speak it natively with no doubt or hesitation whatsoever.

A skittering sound echoes in one of the hallways.

Philip: Be quick about it. I have a feeling we’re not alone…

In the end, it turns out the inscriptions on the wall warn intruders that an ancient Egyptian god slumbers in the tomb and that he will not be appeased by anything except fat-free, low-calorie double bacon cheeseburgers which taste as delicious as their horribly unhealthy counterparts, which is, of course, a dream far beyond the reach of our puny human science. A thrilling battle with the minions of this god ensues, until the explorers come face-to-face with the burger-hungry divinity himself. They manage to escape his clutches thanks to Nigel, who now speaks the Middle Egyptian dialect so well that he manages to embarrass the god by pointing out that he ended a sentence with a preposition.

Somewhere along the way, Philip and Beatrice kiss.

Our objective here at the Historical Linguist Channel is to bring your image of linguists and linguistics as far as possible from the one I just painted above. Said image is unfortunately very prevalent in the public’s consciousness, a state of affairs which makes linguistics possibly one of the most misunderstood academic disciplines out there.

So, without further ado, I will get into the meat of my own post: the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.

What is descriptivism?

Most people know at least some basic notions about many sciences: most of us know that matter in the universe is made of atoms, that atoms bond together to form molecules, and so on. Most people know about gravity, planets and stars.

Yet, remarkably few people, even amongst so-called “language enthusiasts”, know the most basic fact about linguistics: that it is a descriptive, and not a prescriptive, discipline.

What does it mean to be a descriptive discipline? As the name suggests, a descriptive discipline concerns itself with observing and describing a phenomenon, making no judgements about it. For a descriptive science, there are no superior or inferior facts. Facts are just facts. A planet that goes around its star once every 365 days is not any better or worse than one which takes, say, 220. As an academic science, linguistics merely concerns itself with studying language in all its forms and variety, without ascribing correctness or value on some forms over others. To a linguist, “I ain’t done nuffin’ copper!” is as good an English sentence as “The crime of which you regretfully accuse me has not taken place by my hand, and I resent the implication, good sir!”

Now, you might be thinking: Riccardo, doesn’t every scientific discipline work that way? To which I answer: yes, yes they do. Linguistics, however, is slightly different from pretty much all other scientific disciplines (with the possible exception of sociology and perhaps a few others) in that, for most of its early history, it was a prescriptive discipline.

A prescriptive discipline is basically just the opposite of what I just described. Prescriptive disciplines judge some forms of what they study to be better or “correct”, and others to be “wrong” or inferior to others. Sound familiar? That’s probably because it’s how most people approach the study of language. Since the dawn of civilisation, language has been seen as something to be tightly controlled, of which one and only one form was the “right” and “correct” one, all others being corruptions that needed to be stamped out. Another very prevalent prescriptive idea is that language is decaying, that young people are befouling the language of their parents, transforming it into a lazy mockery of its former glory, but that’s a story for another post.

Prescriptive linguistics is concerned with formulating and imposing a series of rules that determine which form of a language is correct and which forms are not (in Humean terms, descriptivism is concerned with “is”, prescriptivism is concerned with “ought”. And you thought this wasn’t going to be an exquisitely intellectual blog).

In general, if you ask most people on the street to cite a “rule of grammar” to you, they will come up with a prescriptive rule. We’ve all heard many: “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”, “it’s you and I, not you and me”, “a double negative makes a positive”, the list goes on.

If you ask a linguist, on the other hand, you’ll get descriptive rules, such as “English generally places its modifiers before the head of the phrase” or “English inflects its verbs for both tense and aspect”.

A very useful way to think about the difference between a descriptive and a prescriptive rule is comparing it to the difference between physical laws and traffic laws. A physical law is a fact. It can’t be broken: it simply is. I can no more contravene the law of gravity than I can purposefully will my own heart to beat in rhythm to Beethoven. But I can contravene traffic laws: I am absolutely physically capable of driving against the flow of traffic, of running a red light or not switching on my headlights during poor visibility conditions.

In general, if a rule says that I shouldn’t do something, that means that I am capable of doing it. Even more damningly, if someone felt the need to specify that something should not be done, it means that someone has been doing it. So, completing the analogy, the paradoxical reason you hear your teacher say that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in English is that you CAN end a sentence with a preposition in English. In fact, it is far more common than the so-called “correct” way.

What you will never hear is an English teacher specifically instructing you not to decline an English noun in the locative case. Why? Because English has no locative case. It lost it in its rebellious youth, when it went by the name of Proto-Germanic and it had just split from Indo-European because that’s what all the cool kids were doing. Finnish, which is not an Indo-European language, is a proper hoarder: it has no less than six locative cases.

Academic linguistics is exclusively concerned with the “physical laws” of language, the fundamental rules that determine how each language differs from all others. It takes no interest in offering value-judgements. Which is why a linguist is the last person you should ask about whether something you said is “good grammar” or not, incidentally.

So, are descriptivism and prescriptivism radically and fundamentally opposed?

Well, yes and no.

A limited form of prescriptivism has its uses: since languages are not uniform and vary wildly even over relatively short geographical distances, it is very important for a country to have a standardised form of language taught in school, with regulated forms so that it doesn’t veer too much in any particular direction. This makes communication easy between inhabitants of the country, and allows bureaucratic, governmental and scientific communication to happen with the greatest amount of efficiency.

The problem with prescriptivism is that it is very easily misused. Only a frighteningly short step is needed to go from establishing a standard form of language to ease communication between people in the same nation to defining all varieties of the language which do not correspond to this standard form as debased trash worthy only of stamping out, and any speakers of those varieties as uneducated churls, or worse, traitors and villains. For centuries, some languages (such as Latin) have been touted as “logical”, “superior”, the pinnacle of human thought, while other languages (mainly the languages of indigenous peoples in places conquered by Western colonialists, surprise surprise) were reviled as “primitive”, incapable of complex expression on the level of European languages.

Linguistic discrimination is a woefully widespread and tragically unreported phenomenon which is rife even in what would otherwise be socially progressive countries. In my native Italy, more than 20 local languages are spoken over the whole territory, some as different from Italian as French is. Yet, if you ask most people, even cultured ones, the only language spoken in Italy is Italian (the standardised form based on the language of Florence). All the other local languages are reduced to the status of “dialects”, and often reviled as markers of lack of education or provinciality, and described as less “rich” than Italian, or even as ugly and vulgar. The Italian state doesn’t even recognise them as separate languages.

Even comparatively minor variation is a target for surprisingly virulent hate: one need only think about the droves of people foaming at the mouth just thinking about people speaking English with the intonation pattern known as “uptalk”, characteristic of some urban areas in the USA and Australia.

Be descriptive!

So, what’s the takeaway from this disjointed ramble of mine?

Simple: linguistics is the scientific study of language, and sees all forms of language as equally fascinating and worthy of study and preservation.

In our posts and our podcasts you will never hear us ranting about “bad grammar”, or describe certain languages as superior or inferior to others. Our mission is transmitting to you the wonder and joy that is the immense variety inherent in human language.

Along the trip, you’ll discover languages in which double negatives are not only accepted, but encouraged; in which sentences MUST end with a preposition, when the need arises; languages with a baffling number of cases, baroque verb systems, and grammatical categories you haven’t even heard of.

We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do.

Tune in next Thursday for the next introductory post on the thorny question of language evolution, where Sabina will set the record straight: are youths these days ruining language?

Bibliography

Most introductory linguistics textbooks begin with a section on descriptivism, but if you want something free and online, the introductory section for The Syntax of Natural Language by Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch is thorough and full of examples. You can find it here: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/