Der, das, die….. I give up!

Welcome back to the HLC!

Did you enjoy last week’s book review? We sure did, so we understand that you’re now occupied with your very own copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, but just in case you do find some time: remember that we promised you a discussion on grammatical and natural gender systems in our post on gender-neutral pronouns two weeks ago? Well, we always keep our promises! Before getting deep into that particular discussion though, let’s first establish something about what we mean when we say gender.

When talking about gender in linguistic study, we’re often talking about a category of inflection. Inflection, in turn, is the modification of a word to express grammatical categories – like gender (but also tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, and mood – let’s not go there right now). The grammatical category gender includes three subcategories (or classes), typically described as masculine, feminine and neuter. A language that uses grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily need to use all three however: in Swedish, for example, you find only two: common (which includes both masculine and feminine, which have merged together to become one) and neuter. Anyway, in a language which inflects for gender, i.e. a language that uses a grammatical gender system, every single noun must belong to one of the gender classes of that language (though a few, a very few, may belong to more than one class). The grammatical category is thus reflected in the behaviour of the words that belong to the subcategory, or the article which belongs to that subcategory. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Let’s use an example. In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each noun in the German language belongs to one of these genders but it is not necessarily the same as the expected gender of the referent. For example, ‘Mädchen’, meaning ‘girl’ in German, is a grammatically neuter, not feminine. While you can’t see that on the noun itself, when taking definite form Mädchen always occurs with the article das, which is the neuter definite article in German, while ‘Junge’, meaning ‘boy’, always occurs with the masculine article der (but then, so does ‘table’).

In a grammatical gender system, the gender of the noun itself is thus not always readily evident. This has often lead people, even those whose job it is to study language, to assume that the gender is arbitrarily assigned and native speakers simply remember it, noun by noun. However, do you know how many nouns the, for example, German language has? We don’t, but we bet you that it’s quite a lot. Yet, native speakers rarely make a mistake when it comes to using the right gender. Is it probable, or even the least bit likely, that a native speaker simply ‘remembers’ the correct gender of all these nouns?

Nah, not really. But how does it work then? Well, like many other things, we don’t know exactly! Corbett has suggested a number of factors that play in when it comes to gender assignment. Among these, we find meaning and form to be the most important ones. Form can further be divided into two types: morphological and phonological. If a language doesn’t assign gender on the basis of these criteria, the gender of a noun might also be based on mythological association, concept association, or marking of important property.

Woof, that got complicated real fast, right? Let’s sum it up by saying that there are really three main ways by which a noun gets its gender: based on (1) semantic criteria – the meaning of the noun decides its gender; (2) morphological criteria – the form of the noun decides its gender; and (3) so-called lexical criteria – the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender, sometimes due to historical reasons.

Now that we know that, we can move on to natural gender systems.

In a natural gender system, a noun is ascribed to the gender that would be expected based on the word itself. That is, a woman is female, a man is male. On the basis of that, you might expect one of the languages to use natural gender to be English, which of course is true. Unlike most of the Germanic languages, English has shrugged off the yoke of grammatical gender (which is just one of the ‘oddities’ of the English language), but it certainly isn’t the only one! As we’ve already said: in Swedish, for example, you’ll find only two genders: common and neuter; in Dutch, there can be either three or two genders depending on geographical area and speaker!

It might be easy to think that a language that uses grammatical gender cannot have natural gender, or the other way around if you prefer. That, however, is not quite true: the two aren’t mutually exclusive! Spanish, for example, uses a grammatical gender system, yet adjectives and nouns are sometimes inflected for natural gender, that is: el pequeño niño the little boy’ but la pequeña niña ‘the little girl’!  

As you can clearly see, grammatical and natural gender is not an easy thing to explain!

via GIPHY

We’ve made an honest attempt at trying to explain these two topics in a way that (hopefully) makes sense to you! If you want to read more about this, though, we suggest our primary source for this post:

Corbett, Greville G. 2012 [1991]. Gender. Online ed. Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166119

If you want to check out other accounts, you might enjoy Jenny Audring’s section on Gender in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, found here.

Questions, thoughts, amazingly inspired outbursts? Let us know!

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3

Notes

1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.

The plural with a singular referent?

Hallo to our lovely followers and friends!

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone left their keys at the reception.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shockingly similar, don’t you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week!

Lies your English teacher told you – Second language edition

Hi there! Remember how we go on and on about prescriptivism, and how these weird language norms are stressed in classrooms despite them having no basis in how we actually speak?
Well, language attitudes and norms do not only affect native English speakers, but also interferes with the way English is taught as a second language.

If you’ve read my posts about Standardisation and Bad English, you will be familiar with the idea that some varieties of English are perceived to be better than others – standard British English is usually considered particularly desirable. When I started learning English, 15-20 years ago (gulp!), it was still the norm in Swedish schools to teach this variety. This lead to some interesting prescriptive teaching: Being brought up in Sweden, where foreign-language tv and films are subtitled rather than dubbed, we primary-schoolers were already quite proficient in American English lexicon and expressions. However, we were taught that some of the things we had learned were not correct, for example that we should say flat instead of apartment or trousers instead of pants (although, we did not know yet that the latter meant underwear in British English). We were given these British words not to use as an alternative, but to use instead of the American words we already had a comfortable grasp of. This even stretched to pronunciations; instead of pronouncing the weekdays in the, for us, intuitive way, ending with a diphthong, as in Monday (/mʌnd/), we were told to use the, now quite archaic, RP pronunciation Mondi’ (‘mʌndi’).

Image source.

Some other things taught could be plainly wrong. A friend from Germany was told to not use constructions like “I’ll give you the book” but always use the construction with a preposition “I’ll give the book to you”. This is, of course, bonkers: the first construction is a double object construction, perfectly grammatical and frequently used in English! In fact, double object constructions have been a feature of English going back to the time when nouns still had cases and could go just about anywhere in the sentence.

Another friend from Hong Kong (where English is actually an official language and many are bilingual), recalls being told in English class that you must not use the expression ‘long time no see’ as it is “Chinglish” and therefore not proper. Of course this expression is well established in English, even if its origin is likely to be a mapping of English words onto some Chinese variety1:

好久 = long time
不 = no
见 = see1

This example shows some of the problematic attitudes towards post-colonial English varieties, and how these attitudes can even be internalised by the speakers themselves; the fact that this expression has its origins in Chinese overshadows how fixed the expression is in standard English, so much so that this English teacher wanted their students to distance themselves from it. In general, post-colonial English varieties such as Chinese or Indian English do not have the same status as, for example, British or Australian English, and this is often due to mere ignorance: linguistic innovations in such varieties are often seen as imperfections, features of foreign accents, because many do not understand that they are spoken as a first language.

Image source.

Even if American English is much more accepted in Swedish schools today, the idea that one form of English is more appropriate to be taught still remains. Sure, there is a point in teaching one style of English when it comes to formal writing, but this is a much later stage in most people’s English education. Teaching English-learning children that certain forms of English are wrong, despite that they’ve heard them being used and already have acquired them, might affect their confidence in speaking English – and may have more severe confidence effects for those who speak a post-colonial English variety as a first language. As always, prescriptivism disallows variation, and thus makes languages way more boring.

Footnotes

1The expression first appears in American English.

2Thanks Riccardo for providing the Mandarin translation! The mapping works on Cantonese as well, and it is unclear which language is the origin.

Don’t never use no double negatives

Multiple negation? I ain’t never heard nothing about that!

“Two negatives make a positive,” your friend may primly reply to such a statement. Even if you’re not exactly fond of math, you surely remember enough to acknowledge the wisdom and veracity of such sound logic.

But the funny thing about languages? They have a logic all their own, and it doesn’t always play by the same rules as our conscious minds.

Take, for example, this phenomenon of the double negative. Like the other formal, prescriptive rules we’ve been exploring with this series, the distaste for double negatives is relatively new to English.

Back in Old and Middle English (roughly AD 1000-1450), English wasn’t particularly fussed about multiple elements of negation in a sentence. If anything, they were used for emphasis, to drive home the negation. This trick of negatives supporting each other (rather than canceling each other out) is called negative concord. Far from being frowned upon, some languages crave it. Spanish, for example, regularly crams several negation words into a single sentence without a second thought:

¡No toques nada!
‘Don’t touch anything!’

This isn’t merely the preferred method of negation. In languages like Spanish and French, negative concord isn’t for emphasis; it’s mandatory. That’s just how they express negation.

The idea that two negatives grammatically make a positive in English was first recorded in the 1700s along with most of the other prescriptive rules. Unlike the other rules, there is some evidence to suggest that negative concord was naturally beginning to disappear in mainstream varieties of English even before the early grammarians codified the rule. This really isn’t too surprising. Languages like to change, and among the other moving parts they scramble around, they commonly go through phases of double negation (we linguists know this as Jespersen’s Cycle).

Math has naught to do with language, but it’s certainly true that in our Modern English, double negatives have the potential to leave a lot of ambiguity. Do they cancel? Do they intensify each other? It’s all about that context. This is one rule that might be here to stay1 (at least in formal English).

Notes
1 At least for now!

A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with

Lies your English teacher told you: You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Hello and welcome to the third episode in our ongoing series on stuff about the English language people in positions of authority misled you into thinking was true! Last time, Lisa showed us why it is perfectly fine (and in some cases, even preferable!) to split an infinitive.

Today, I will tackle a “rule” that’s every bit as well-known as it is routinely disregarded: “you can’t end a sentence with a preposition”.

This rule is interesting, as far as prescriptive rules go, in that its is hardly ever observed in practice. We all end sentences with prepositions, and it’s no use denying it. But don’t worry: the grammar police will not come busting down your door just yet. The reason we do it is because it’s perfectly natural in English, and in many cases even unavoidable!

The process of ending sentences with prepositions is technically known as preposition stranding, or P-stranding, and it is fairly common amongst Germanic languages.

This phenomenon is due to something we in the biz call wh- movement. Let me explain quickly what it is.

When you turn a statement into a question, you unconsciously perform a series of operations that transform that statement. In the case of wh- questions (what?, who?, when? etc.), the steps you follow are these:

  1. Take the statement.
    The boy ate the apple.
  2. Turn the part you want to question into a wh- word.
    The boy ate what?
  3. Move the wh- word to the beginning of the sentence.
    What the boy ate?
  4. For a series of hellishly complicated reasons I won’t go into here, transform the verb into it’s do-supported form (i.e. with “do”).
    What the boy did eat?
  5. Invert the subject and the verb.
    What did the boy eat?

And Bob’s your uncle! Pretty insane that you do this all the time and don’t even realise it, huh?

The process is basically the same for relative clauses (i.e. “The apple (which) the boy ate”), except without steps 4 and 5 (because it’s not a question), and with an extra step where you copy the “questioned” part to the start of the sentence before turning it into the wh- word. So:

  1. The boy ate the apple.
  2. The apple the boy ate the apple.
  3. The apple the boy ate which.
  4. The apple which the boy ate.

What interests us is what happens when this process takes place in a sentence where the moved object (or constituent, to use the proper lingo) is preceded by a preposition.

  1. The boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  2. The girl the boy went to the cinema with the girl.
  3. The girl the boy went to the cinema with who(m).

And here we hit the point of contention. What should be done on step 4? Until the 18th century, the answer was easy: the most natural option was to move the wh- word and leave the preposition where it is. Stranded, if you like.

  1. The girl who(m) the boy went to the cinema with.

The same applied to questions (“Who(m) did the boy go to the cinema with?”). However, there was a second option, in which the wh- word dragged the preposition along with itself to the start of the sentence or clause, so that step 4 would look like

  1. The girl with who(m) the boy went to the cinema.

This particular construction is technically known as pied-piping, from the German fairy tale “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, where a magic piper freed the city of troublesome mice by playing his flute and mesmerising them into following him out. He applied the same procedure later to kidnap all the city’s children to punish the inhabitants for their ingratitude. Talk about overreacting.

This option, while always possible, was seen as rather cumbersome, and therefore dispreferred. Until the 18th century, when a sustained campaign by a number of intellectuals flipped the status of the two constructions in the public consciousness. What happened?

Well, as you might remember from many of our posts about the history of prescriptivism, people in the 18th and 19th century displayed an unhealty obsession over Latin. Since Latin was The Perfect Language™, each and every aspect of the English language that didn’t look like Latin was, of course, wrong and barbaric, and had to be eliminated. I’ll give you one guess as to what Latin didn’t do with its prepositions during wh- movement.

If you guessed “stranding them”, then congratulations! You guessed right.

In Latin (and all the languages which descend from it), only pied-piping is acceptable when applying wh- movement to a sentence with a preposition. Our example sentence in Latin would go like this (cum = with, quā = who(m)):

  1. Puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  2. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum puellā īvit.
  3. Puella puer ad cinematographeum cum quā īvit.
  4. Puella cum quā puer ad cinematographeum īvit.

Needless to say, the prescriptivist scholars twisted themselves into logic pretzels to justify why this should be true of English as well. Some just openly admitted that it was because English should be similar to Latin, others tried to be clever and argued that a “preposition” is called that because it goes before a word (pre- = before + position), and must have thought themselves exceedingly smart, notwithstanding the fact that the word “preposition” comes from Latin, where P-stranding is impossible, so of course they would call it that.

Some got caught in their own circular reasoning and inevitably found sentences in which preposition stranding is obligatory, giving rise to comically frustrated rants like the following, courtesy of one Philip Withers, from 1789:

“It may be said, it is absolutely unavoidable on particular occasions. v.g. The Stock was disposed OF BY private contract. But an elegant writer would rather vary the phrase, or exchange the verb than admit so awkward a concurrence of prepositions.”

A little tip, kids: if someone tells you he would rather avoid or ignore pieces of data that they dislike, or actively tells you to do so, they’re not a scientist. In the case of linguistics, you’ve spotted a prescriptivist! Mark it on your prescriptivist-spotting book and move on.

What of the writers that came before them and regularly stranded prepositions? Robert Lowth (a name you’ll become wearily familiar with by the end of this series) commented that they too were somehow universally speaking bad English, and a guy named John Dryden even went so far as to rewrite some of Shakespeare’s plays to remove some of the unsightly and atrocious “errors” he found in them, preposition stranding included.

Such are the lengths fanatism goes to.

Stay tuned for next time, when Rebekah will explain to you why a negative plus a negative doesn’t necessarily imply a positive.

 

To boldly split what no one should split: The infinitive.

Lies your English teacher told you: “Never split an infinitive!”

To start off this series of lies in the English classroom, Rebekah told us last week about a common misconception regarding vowel length. With this week’s post, I want to show you that similar misconceptions also apply to the level of something as fundamental as word order.

The title paraphrases what is probably one of the most recognisable examples of prescriptive ungrammaticality – taken from the title sequence of the original Star Trek series, the original sentence is: To boldly go where no man has gone before. In this sentence, to is the infinitive marker which “belongs to” the verb go. But lo! Alas! The intimacy of the infinitive marker and verb is boldly hindered by an intervening adverb: boldly! This, dear readers, is thus a clear example of a split infinitive.

Or rather, “To go boldly”1

Usually an infinitive is split with an adverb, as in to boldly go. This is one of the more recognisable prescriptive rules we learn in the classroom, but the fact is that in natural speech, and in writing, we split our infinitives all the time! There are even chapters in syntax textbooks dedicated to explaining how this works in English (it’s not straightforward though, so we’ll stay away from it for now).

In fact, sometimes not splitting the infinitive leads to serious changes in meaning. Consider the examples below, where the infinitive marker is underlined, the verb it belongs to is in bold and the adverb is in italics:

(a) Mary told John calmly to leave the room

(b) Mary told John to leave the room(,) calmly

(c) Mary told John to calmly leave the room

Say I want to construct a sentence which expresses a meaning where Mary, in any manner, calm or aggressive, tells John to leave the room but to do so in a calm manner. My two options to do this without splitting the infinitive is (a) and (b). However, (a) expresses more strongly that Mary was doing the telling in a calm way. (b) is ambiguous in writing, even if we add a comma (although a little less ambiguous without the comma, or what do you think?). The only example which completely unambiguously gives us the meaning of Mary asking John to do the leaving in a calm manner is (c), i.e. the example with the split infinitive.

This confusion in meaning, caused by not splitting infinitives, becomes even more apparent depending on what adverbs we use; negation is notorious for altering meaning depending on where we place it. Consider this article title: How not to raise a rapist2. Does the article describe bad methods in raising rapists? If we split the infinitive we get How to not raise a rapist and the meaning is much clearer – we do not want to raise rapists at all, not even using good rapist-raising methods. Based on the contents of the article, I think a split infinitive in the title would have been more appropriate.

So you see, splitting the infinitive is not only commonly done in the English language, but also sometimes actually necessary to truly get our meaning across. Although, even when it’s not necessary for the meaning, as in to boldly go, we do it anyway. Thus, the persistence of anti-infinitive-splitting smells like prescriptivism to me. In fact, this particular classroom lie seems like it’s being slowly accepted for what it is (a lie), and current English language grammars don’t generally object to it. The biggest problem today seems to be that some people feel very strongly about it. The Economist’s style guide phrases the problem eloquently3:

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

We will continue this little series of classroom lies in two weeks. Until then, start to slowly notice split infinitives around you until you start to actually go mad.

Footnotes

I’ve desperately searched the internet for an original source for this comic but, unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. If anyone knows it, do let me know and I will reference appropriately.

This very appropriate example came to my attention through the lecture slides presented by Prof. Nik Gisborne for the course LEL1A at the University of Edinburgh.

This quote is frequently cited in relation to the split infinitive, you can read more about their stance in the matter in this amusing post: https://www.economist.com/johnson/2012/03/30/gotta-split

Lies your English teacher told you: “Long” and “short” vowels

I remember, long ago in elementary school, learning how to spell. “There are five vowels,” our teachers told us, “A, E, I, O, U. And sometimes Y.” (“That’s six!” we saucily retorted. (We were seven.))

“When a vowel is by itself,” our teachers continued,”it’s short, like in pat. When there’s a silent e at the end, the vowel is long, like in pate1.” Then there were a dozen exceptions and addenda (including the fact that A could be five different sounds), but the long and the short of it was, there are long vowels and there are short vowels.

And you know something? There are long and short vowels in English. We actually briefly discussed this before, many moons ago during our introduction to vowels, but I wanted to add a little more detail today.

The first important thing to remember is that writing is not equivalent to the language itself.2 Our spellings are generally standardized now, but they are only representations of words, and they do not dictate how a word actually sounds. Furthermore, English orthography uses five or six symbols to represent more than a dozen different vowel sounds (not exactly an efficient system). In our example above of pat and pate, these words actually contain two distinct vowels pronounced in two different places in the mouth. The same is true of the other “long” and “short” vowel pairings. It’s almost like these sounds ([æ] and [eɪ], in IPA) aren’t really related, they just timeshare a spelling.

In another sense, though, it’s not so incorrect to say that pat has a short A and pate has a long A. To illuminate this claim, we’ll need two ingredients: an understanding of vowel tenseness in English, and an important sound change from the language’s past.

For scholars of English, a more important distinction than vowel length is vowel tenseness. Like the long/short vowel spelling distinction, linguists have identified pairs of vowels that are separated by no more than a little difference in quality. The difference, though, is not a matter of length, but whether the vowel is tense or lax, i.e. whether the muscles in the mouth are more tensed or relaxed in the production of the sound. These pairings are based on the sounds’ locations in the mouth and are therefore a little different than those traditionally associated with the letters. Pate and pet demonstrate a tense-lax pairing, as do peek and pick. The sounds in these pairs are very close together in the mouth, pulled apart by the tenseness, or lack thereof, of their pronunciation.

In some dialects of English, like RP or General American, tense vowels (and diphthongs) naturally acquire a longer duration of pronunciation than lax vowels. In short, the tense vowels are long. Therefore, it wouldn’t actually be false to say that pate has a long A and pat has a short A, but the length of the vowels is an incidental feature of English’s phonology and isn’t really the important distinction between the sounds (not for linguists, anyway).

It isn’t always that way in a language, and in fact, it wasn’t always that way in English. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s pertinent, so I’ll cover it again: in some languages, you can take a single vowel (pronounced exactly the same way, in the same place in the mouth), and whether you hold the vowel for a little length of time or for a longer length of time will give you two completely different words. This is when it become important and appropriate to talk about long and short vowels. Indeed, farther back in English, this was important. In Old English, the difference between god (God) and gōd (good) was that the second had a long vowel ([o:] as opposed to [o], for the IPA fluent). In all other respects, the vowel was the same, what many English speakers today would think of as the long O sound.

In a way, these Old English long/short vowel pairings are really what we’re referring to when we talk about long and short vowels in English today (even if we don’t realize it). The historic long vowels were the ones affected by the Great English Vowel Shift, and the results are today’s colloquially “long” vowels. The short vowels have largely remained the same over the years. Maybe in this sense, as well, it’s not so bad to keep on thinking of our modern vowels as long and short. So many other quirky aspects of English are historic relics; why not this, too?

In the end, maybe the modern elementary school myth of long and short vowels isn’t entirely untrue, but there’s certainly a lot more to the story.

Notes

1 This is a delightful, if somewhat archaic, word for the crown of the head. I love language.
2 I imagine some of our longtime readers are fondly shaking their heads at our stubborn insistence on getting this message across. Maybe it’s time we made tee shirts.

One Nation, Many Languages

Lies your geography teacher told you

We all know that each country has one and only one language, right?

In China they speak Chinese, in England they speak English, in Iran they speak Farsi, and each language is neatly contained within the borders of its respective state, immediately switching to another language as soon as these are crossed.

Well, if you’ve been reading our blog, you have probably become rather sceptical of categorical statements like this, and for good reason: it turns out, in fact, that a situation like the one described above is pretty much unheard of. Languages spread across borders, sometimes far into a neighbouring country, and even within the borders of a relatively small state it’s not uncommon to have four or five languages spoken, sometimes even more, and large countries can have hundreds or more.

Then there’s the island of New Guinea, which fits 1,000 languages (more than some continents) in an area slightly bigger than France.

And yet, this transparent lie is what we are all taught in school. Why? Well, you can thank those dastardly Victorians again.

Before the rise of nationalism in the late 18th century, it was common knowledge that languages varied across very short distances, and being multilingual was the rule, not the exception, for most people. Even as a peasant, you spoke the language of your own state and one or two languages from neighbouring countries (which at the time were probably a few miles away, at most). Sure, most larger political entities had lingua francas, such as Latin or a prestige language selected amongst the varieties spoken within the borders (usually the language of the capital), but this was never seen as anything more than a way to facilitate communication.

It was the Victorian obsession with national unity and conformity which slowly transformed all languages different from the arbitrarily chosen “national language” into marks of ignorance, provincialism, and, during the fever pitch reached in the 1930s, even treason; this led to policies of brutal language suppression, which resulted the near-extinction of many of the native languages of Europe.

Why then is this kind of thing still taught in schools? Because, sad to say, things have only become slightly better since those dark times. Most modern countries still accept the “One Nation, One Language” doctrine as a fact of life without giving it a second thought. Some countries still proudly and openly enact policies of language suppression aimed at eliminating any language different from the national standard (je parle à toi, ma belle France…).

Which brings me to our case study: my own Italy.

La bella Italia

Given my tirade above, it should not come as a surprise to you now when I tell you that Italian is not the only language spoken in Italy. Not by a long shot. In fact, by some counts, there are as much as 35! The map below shows their distribution.

What is today known as Standard Italian (or simply Italian) is a rather polished version of the Tuscan language (shown as TO on the map). Why not Central Italian, the language of Rome? For rather complex reasons which have to do with the Renaissance, and which we won’t delve into here, lest this post become a hundred pages long.

Even though Italy stopped enforcing its language suppression policies after WWII, it is a sad fact that even the healthiest of Italian languages are today classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO in its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with most of them in the “definitely endangered” category.

The Italian government only recognises a handful of these as separate languages, either because they’re so different it would be ludicrous to claim they’re varieties of Italian (such as Greek, Albanian and various Slavic and Germanic languages spoken in the North), or because of political considerations due to particularly strong separatist tendencies (such as Sardinian or Friulan, spoken in the Sardinia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, respectively). All other languages have no official status, and are generally referred to as “dialects” of Italian, even though some are as different from Italian as French is![1]

Stereotypically, speaking one of these languages is a sign of poor education, sometimes even boorishness: in the popular eye, you’re not speaking a different language, you’re simply speaking Italian wrong.[2]

To see how deep the brainwashing goes: suffice to say that it’s not uncommon, when travelling to areas where these languages are still commonly spoken, to address a local in Italian and receive an answer in the local language. When it becomes clear to them that you don’t understand a word of what they’re saying, the locals are often puzzled and surprised, because they’re sincerely convinced they’re speaking Italian!

To better highlight the differences between Italian and these languages, here’s the same short passage in Italian and in my own regional language, Emilian (Bologna dialect):

Italian

Si bisticciavano un giorno il Vento di Tramontana e il Sole, l’uno pretendendo d’esser più forte dell’altro, quando videro un viaggiatore, che veniva innanzi avvolto nel mantello. I due litiganti convennero allora che si sarebbe ritenuto più forte chi fosse riuscito a far sì che il viaggiatore si togliesse il mantello di dosso.

Emilian

Un dé al Vänt ed såtta e al Såul i tacagnèven, parché ognón l avêva la pretaiśa d èser pió fôrt che cl èter. A un zêrt pónt i vdénn un òmen ch’al vgnêva inànz arvujè int una caparèla. Alåura, pr arsôlver la lît, i cunvgnénn ch’al srêv stè cunsidrè pió fôrt quall ed låur ch’al fóss arivè d åura ed fèr in môd che cl òmen al s cavéss la caparèla d’indòs.

Pretty different, aren’t they?

You can hear the Italian version read aloud here, and here is the Emilian version[3].

Here’s the English version of the same passage for reference:

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveller came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveller take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other.

It is pretty hard to argue that these two are the same language, and yet this is what most people in Italy believe, thinking of Emilian as a distorted or corrupted form of Italian.

Compare this to the situation during the Renaissance, when Emilian was actually a very prestigious language, to the point that Dante himself once wrote an essay defending it from those who would claim the superiority of Latin, calling it the most elegant of the languages of Italy.

Conclusion

Italy is by no means an isolated example, as I’ve already made clear in the first section of this post: wherever you go in the world, you’ll find dozens of languages being suppressed and driven to extinction due to myopic language policies left over from an era of nationalism and intolerance.

The good news is that the situation is improving: in Italy, regional languages are not stigmatised as they once were. In fact, many people take pride in speaking their local language, and steps are being taken to teach it to the youngest generations and preserving them through literature and modern media. However, the damage done in the past is enormous, and it will take an equally enormous effort to restore these languages to the level of health they enjoyed a hundred years ago. For some of them it might very well be too late.

So if you speak a minority language, or know someone who does, take pride in it. Teach it to your children. They’re not “useless”, they’re not marks of poor education, they are languages, as dignified and deep as any national language.

And don’t mind the naysayers: whenever someone tells me Emilian is a language for farmers, incapable of the breadth of expression displayed by Italian, I remind them that when Mozart studied music in Bologna, he spoke Emilian, not Italian; and that when the oldest university in the western world opened its doors in 1088, and for 700 years after that, it was Emilian, not Italian, that was spoken in its halls.

  1. Lisa discussed the tricky question of  what’s a language and what’s a dialect here
  2. The same thing that happens to Scots or AAVE. See here
  3. The passages are taken from a short story used to compare different italian regional languages. All currently recorded versions can be found here.