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

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shockingly similar, don’t you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week!

Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

Ah, nouns. Classically defined as “people, places, and things,”1 these little (and sometimes not so little) words can carry a lot of meaning, encompassing everything from cats to triskaidekaphobia2. Pair them with verbs (those things you do), and you’ve really got something.

In English, there’s a comforting solidity to nouns. Not like verbs, that throw on endings and even, le gasp, change vowels like they’re trying on hats. Nouns, now—nouns are dependable.

Or so you thought. When you change the form of a verb to reflect who’s doing what and when, that’s called conjugation. Here’s the bombshell: nouns can do that, too. It’s called declension.

In some languages, the form of the noun changes to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, a noun may have one form when it’s the subject of a sentence but have a different form when it’s the object. (As a refresher: in ‘Rebekah wants haggis’, ‘Rebekah’ is the subject, and ‘haggis’ is the object.) These noun forms are called cases. Adjectives, pronouns, participles, numerals, and demonstratives (this or that) can also decline. Declension occurs in languages like, oh, English. Or Spanish. (Just a little bit.)

In English and Spanish, the presence of cases is most evident in their pronouns:

English Spanish
subject he él
direct object him lo
indirect object him le
possessive his/hisn su/suyo
reflexive himself se

(Hisn is a dialectal form like mine for the third person.)

For regular nouns, English only distinguishes between singular and plural and between possessive and non-possessive. Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural and declines for grammatical gender (e.g. the adjective blanco will become feminine blanca when describing la tortuga blanca ‘the white turtle’). The diversity of their pronoun forms3 is a remnant of their parent languages, Old English and Latin respectively. These older languages had full, healthy case systems that affected all their nouns. They in turn inherited their noun cases from a common ancestor, namely Indo-European (IE).

The Indo-European Noun Cases

Based on the structure of its surviving daughters, linguists have determined that Proto Indo-European had eight noun cases:

case role example in an English sentence
nominative subject amīcus ‘boy’/puella ‘girl’ (Lat) The boy plays.
accusative direct object amīcum/puellam He loves the girl.
dative indirect object amīcō/puellae He gives the girl a flower.
ablative movement away from amīcō/puellā She runs from the boy.
genitive possessive amīcī/puellae The boy’s tears
vocative addressee amīce/puella Boy, where art thou?
locative physical or temporal location domī ‘at home (Lat) She stays at home.
instrumental by means of which something is done þȳ stāne ‘with a stone’ (OE) He raps on her window with a stone.

 

This is a rather simplified representation of the situation. The actual distinctions and usages of the cases vary from language to language, particularly because very few IE languages utilize all eight cases (like Sanskrit does). It’s the nature of languages to change, and cases have a propensity to merge, a process called syncretism4. It’s like when you’re working on a group project, and half the group doesn’t show up, leaving the kids who want a good grade to pull double duty and fulfill the delinquents’ obligations as well as their own. For example, in Old English, the dative case fills some of the same uses as the ablative case in Latin because Old English doesn’t have an ablative.

The case of noun cases shook out a little differently across the Indo-European language family. As previously mentioned, Sanskrit has eight cases. Latin has seven. Old English has five. Icelandic and German have four (although German doesn’t show it on nouns so much as on articles and adjectives). And languages like English and Spanish don’t so much have cases anymore as much as they have pictures of their old case-infused relatives hanging on their walls.

A college classmate of mine once stated rather authoritatively that the reason the modern Romance languages have generally done away with cases is because it’s too hard to decline all those Latin nouns in your head. To be fair, Latin has five different groups of nouns (called declensions), all with their own endings for Latin’s seven cases. And it is true that many modern IE languages employ far fewer cases than their ancestors, if any at all. But the idea that cases are too hard for our brains to manage in everyday speech? Hogwash. Russian, another IE language that is very much alive and kicking, has six cases. Our friend Finnish (of Uralic descent) has fifteen. (You should also take from the example of Finnish that noun cases are not unique to the Indo-European languages.)

We’ve discussed before (repeatedly) that one language isn’t really harder than any other; they’re just different. The human brain is well equipped to utilize any of them it can get its neurons on. If our homo sapien super computers couldn’t handle a given linguistic structure, it wouldn’t develop. Easy as pie.

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

Now, a robust system of noun cases (and verb conjugation) in a language can affect more than just the morphology. Because so much important information is embedded in the words themselves, word order is less important and more flexible than in languages like Modern English.

In Old English, ‘Se hlāford lufaþ þā frōwe’ and ‘Þā frōwe lufaþ se hlāford’ both mean ‘The lord loves the lady.’ In Modern English, ‘The lord loves the lady’ and ‘The lady loves the lord’ have very different meanings (although, for the sake of romance, one hopes that both statements are equally true). To say ‘The lady loves the lord’ in Old English, you would decline the nouns differently and say ‘Sēo frōwe lufaþ þone hlāford.’ (Maybe this wasn’t the best example as there aren’t noticeably distinct ending on the verbs, but you can see the difference in case in the demonstratives.) This is not to say that Old English doesn’t have rules about word order, but it’s less crucial than in today’s English.

Languages that rely on declension and conjugation (both types of inflection) to convey meaning are called synthetic languages. Languages that rely more on word order are called analytic. These distinctions are not binary but rather are a matter of degree.

So, there you have it. (It being a brief rundown on noun cases.) As parts of speech go, nouns are pretty straightforward. But like a duck paddling on water, nature’s got a lot of beautiful stuff going on underneath the surface.

Notes

1 Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock.
2 A fear of the number 13.
3 Pronouns generally resist change (the stubborn things), hence the moderate survival of cases where they were generally lost throughout the rest of the language.
4 This phenomenon is propelled by things like sound change. If the endings for two cases start to sound identical, it becomes hard to distinguish them as separate forms.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter G

It’s time for the HLC with our very special guest, Proto-Germanic! Yaaay!

Ah, English spelling. That prickly, convoluted briar patch that, like an obscure Lewis Carroll poem, often falls just a little too shy of making sense. Or does it?

It wasn’t always like this. English spelling actually used to be pretty phonetic. People would just write down what they heard or said.1 Then, the printing press was introduced. Books and pamphlets began to be mass produced, literacy levels rose, and spelling began to be standardized. At the same time, English continued to move through some fairly dramatic shifts in pronunciation. The language moved on as the spellings froze.

Throughout the years, people have occasionally called for reforms in English spelling. Like that time in the early 20th century when Andrew Carnegie, Melvil Dewey, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, et. al. colluded to “improve” some of the more confusing orthographic practices of English. Personally, this linguist is glad such efforts have by and large failed.

Sure, you could look at English spellings and tear at your hair at the monumental insanity of it all. But I like to think of our spellings more as fossils preserving the dinosaur footprints of earlier pronunciations. Granted, sometimes the footprints are from five different species, all overlapping, and there’s, like, a leaf thrown in.

Where are they all going?!

Let’s take, for example, the letter <g>2 and its many possible pronunciations.

First on the menu is the classic [g], a sturdy stop found in words like grow, good gravy, and GIF. This dish originates in the Proto-Germanic (PGmc) voiced velar fricative /ɣ/3. (Refresh your memory on our phonological mumbo-jumbo here.) This velar fricative had a bit of an identity crisis during Old English (OE)4, spurred on by hanging out with sounds all over the mouth.

“But what we found out is that each one of us is a front vowel…and a back vowel…and a palatal approximant…an affricate…and a voiced velar stop…Does that answer your question?”

Around front vowels (such bad influences—triggering umlaut wasn’t enough for them?), it became [j], as in year, from OE ġēar. Between back vowels (the big bullies), it became [w], as in to draw, from OE dragan5. At the end of words, it lost its voicing and became [x] (the sound in loch), as in our own dear Edinburgh (whose pronunciation has since changed again). Ah, but before back vowels, and when backed up by sonorants like [ɹ], it held its ground a little better and became our trusty [g].

As you may have noticed, a lot of the sounds that came from /ɣ/ are no longer spelled with <g>. Alas. We’ll come back to how Edinburgh wound up with an <h> in a minute.

But first, there was another sound that came from PGmc /ɣ/. Old English had something going on called gemination. Sometimes, it would take a consonant and double its pronunciation. Like the <kk> in bookkeeper. Bookkeeper is just fun to say, but these long consonants were actually important back in OE. The wheretos and whyfors of gemination are another story, but just like how /ɣ/ became [j], the geminate /ɣɣ/ was pulled forward and dressed in new clothes as the affricate [d͡ʒ], like in bridge and edge, from OE bryċg and eċg.

Gemination didn’t get around much. It was pretty much restricted to the middle of words. When mushy, unstressed endings began to fall off, the leftovers of gemination found themselves at the end of words, but a little nudge was needed before [d͡ʒ] found its way to the prime word-initial position. Later on in Middle English, the language ran around borrowing far more than a cup of sugar from its neighbor across the Channel. As English stuffed its pockets with French vocabulary, it found a few French sounds slipped down in among the lint. One of those was Old French’s own [d͡ʒ], which on the Continent was simplifying to [ʒ]6 (the <s> sound in measure). This [ʒ] sound didn’t exist in English yet. Our forefathers looked at it, said “nope,” and went on pronouncing it [d͡ʒ]. Thus we get words like juice, paving the way for later words like giraffe and GIF.

This is a GIF. Or is it a GIF? I mock you with my scholarly neutrality.

It was only later, after the end of Middle English, that /ʒ/ was added to the English phoneme inventory, retaining its identity in loanwords like garage and prestige. It’s worth noting, however, that these words also have accepted pronunciations with [d͡ʒ].

Alright, so what about the <gh> in Edinburgh? It turns out there’s another sound responsible for the unpaid overtime of the letter <g>. Meet the sound /h/. In Middle English, Anglo-Norman scribes from France introduced a lot of new spellings, including <gh> for /h/. The <h> part of the <gh> digraph was probably a diacritic meant to indicate a fricative sound. Remember that by this time, the old <g> didn’t really represent a fricative anymore. In words like Edinburgh, the [x] from /ɣ/ had merged with the [x] version of /h/, so it is from /h/ that we get our <gh> spellings. Over time, these [h] and [x] pronunciations weakened and disappeared completely, bequeathing us their spelling to baffle future spelling bee contestants. We have them to thank for bright starry nights, the wind blowing in the high boughs of the trees. But before these sounds went, they left us one last piece to complete our <g> puzzle: after back vowels, sometimes [x] was reanalyzed as [f]. We’ve all been there, right? Your parents say something one way, but you completely mishear them and spend the rest of your life pronouncing it a different way. I mean, did you know the line in the Christmas song is actually colly7 birds, not calling birds? Now imagine that on a language-wide scale. I’m glad for the [f]s. They make laughing more fun, although sometimes convincing your phone not to mis-autocorrect these words can be rough. Had enough? Okay, I’ll stop.

The point of all this isn’t really about the spellings. Just look at all these beautiful sound changes! And this barely scratches the surface. A lot of the big sound changes that warrant fancy names seem to be all about vowels, but as <g> can attest, consonants have fun, too.8 Speaking of big, fancy vowel changes, get your tickets now because next week, Sabina’s going to talk about one of the most famous and most dramatically named: the Great English Vowel Shift.

Notes

1 It wasn’t a perfect system, though. Sometimes, a single scribe would spell the same word several different ways in the same document. Was this reflecting variations in utterances? An inability to decide which letter represented which sound? Transmission errors through copying down someone else’s writing? Who knows.
2 As far as the letter itself goes, the Anglo-Saxons actually used a slightly different symbol known as the insular g. The letter we use today was borrowed from the French during Middle English and is known as the Carolingian g.
3 It’s the voiced version of the sound at the end of Scottish loch. It can be heard today in the Dutch pronunciation of wagon.
4 Refresh yourself on the periods of English here.
5 Actually, draw, drag, and draught/draft are cognates. Knowledge, am I right?
6 This is actually one of my favorite phones. I’m a linguist. I’m allowed to have favorite phones.
7 Because they’re black like coal. And my heart.
8 Admittedly debatable and unnecessarily anthropomorphizing, but we’re already in this thing pretty deep.

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.

Happy Holidays from the HLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

See you in January!

Notes

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

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

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

“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.