Early Germanic Dialects: The Gothic language

friaþwa usbeisneiga ist, sels ist:
friaþwa ni aljanoþ;
friaþwa ni flauteiþ, ni ufblesada,

Recognise that? No? What if I told you that a (somewhat modified) version of this exact thing is very popular to quote during wedding ceremonies (in fact, my husband and I had it read during ours). Still nothing? How about this:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Yes? Marvellous! This is 1 Corinthians 13:4, though nowadays, we usually say ‘love’ rather than ‘charity’ (yes, even the Bible changes throughout the centuries). But what is that weird little language we started out with? Well, that’s Gothic, our topic of the week!

Being the only East Germanic language (that we know of), it differs a bit from the rest of the Germanic languages, and in this post, I hope to highlight some of these differences and tell you a bit about the history of the language and the people who spoke it.

Let’s start there actually. Sit back, have a nice cup of tea, and let me tell you the story of the Goths.

Though less famous than the Vikings, the Goths also hailed from a Scandinavian country, the native country of half the HLC actually: Sweden! We see their influence in the names of two mainland counties: Västergötland, Östergötland, and the island Gotland! The mainland appears to be the most likely point of origin, though by the time we are first told something about the Goths, Roman and Greek sources place them along the Vistula River during the first and second century. The sixth-century historian Jordanes says that they originally came from across the sea, though, which would point to the Swedish mainland.

Why, exactly, they decided to move away from Sweden is a bit unclear, but it is sometimes suggested that it was due to population pressure. Regardless, we know that around the year A.D. 170, the Goths settled between the Don and Dniester Rivers (an area north of the Black Sea).

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Scandinavian people who moved around a lot, the Goths were a warlike people and, now, they were at the borders of the Roman Empire. Don’t think they didn’t do anything about that—in fact, they managed to force the Romans to abandon the province of Dacia, in present-day Romania, around the year 270.

From around the time of Dacia, the Goths split into two groups, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, and they pretty much became separate, independent groups thereafter. The Ostrogoths continued to consolidate power, while the Visigoths were moving around on the edges of the Roman Empire, sometimes fighting together with their Roman allies, and sometimes fighting against them.

The Visigoths eventually became Christianized, largely thanks to the Gothic bishop Wulfila, one of the most famous Goths in history thanks to his tireless efforts to convert the Goths and also for one of the results of those efforts: the Gothic Bible. I actually talked about this in my post on Proto-Germanic as well, but what I didn’t say is that the Gothic Bible is a marvellous witness to a very different language. In fact, it is one of the major sources of our knowledge of the Gothic language and it was written primarily by Wulfila—or at least it is attributed to him. In order to translate the Bible into Gothic, though, Wulfila first had to pretty much invent a Gothic alphabet! Until this point, the Goths had written primarily in runes, like many other of the Germanic tribes, but Wulfila’s alphabet was based on the Greek one, though some Latin and Runic symbols can be seen as well:

(From Omniglot)

The two letters without any information under them were adopted for their numeric value only  and supposedly borrowed from the Greek alphabet, according to Ancient Scripts (though, I’ll admit I’m somewhat confounded myself about ᛏ, as it closely resembles the rune Tyr or Tiwaz, and so I’m more inclined to see a runic origin for this letter. That’s just a personal opinion though, and I’m not familiar enough with the ancient Greek, or the Gothic, alphabet to say anything further on the subject).

Anyway, the Gothic Bible—or the Wulfila Bible as it is sometimes called—became a primary source for our knowledge of the Gothic language. On that note, let’s look at some of the features that distinguish Gothic from the other Germanic languages!

First, let’s look at a rather characteristic feature: a large number of words in Gothic show  long [eː] where most other Germanic languages show an [aː] or [oː]. The Gothic vowel is assumed to come from Proto-Germanic, probably with the phonetic value [æː]. For example:

Old High GermanGothic
manodmenoþ

So if you’re looking at a text and you keep seeing <e>, where you would expect an <a> or <o>, you might be looking at Gothic. But that’s hardly enough to be sure, so let’s look at some other features!

Gothic also underwent a change called sharpening. While this change is also found in Old Norse, it is otherwise fairly unique to Gothic. What it means is that some instances of <gg> represent a long [gg] sound, rather than [ŋg], which we would expect in English. These sharpened sounds always show up before the consonant <w> and represent a development from Proto-Germanic <ww>. The sharpening also happens in the Proto-Germanic sequence <jj>, which becomes <ddj> in Gothic. For example:

Old High GermanGothicEnglish
(gi)triuwitriggws 'true'
zweiiotwaddje'of two'

The last of the distinctive phonological features we’ll look at is a process called rhotacism. Rhotacism is a change, which affected all the Germanic languages except Gothic, in which the Proto-Germanic z became r. What this means is that if you find a <z> where you would otherwise expect an <r>, it is starting to become very likely that you’re looking at Gothic.

Aside from phonological features, Gothic also has a couple of other distinctive features. Specifically, I want to say a little something about the verbs of Gothic, as Gothic makes use of a process that is not used in the other Germanic languages. Traditionally, the strong verb conjugation in Germanic languages is said to have seven subclasses. I won’t go through this in detail because it quickly gets a bit complicated, but the first six use some kind of vowel alternation to show tense (e.g. PDE sing-sang-sung). This is also true for the seventh subclass in most Germanic languages. But not in Gothic.

Instead, Gothic uses something known as reduplication. What this means is that the past tense of the verbs in the seventh subclass is formed by repeating the first consonant, or consonant cluster, and adding <ai> after it – that is,  háit- (meaning to call, name, order, command, invite) becomes, in its past tense, haihait!

So, if you were to study a text without knowing what language you’re looking at and you keep seeing these features—well, then, you can be quite sure that you’re looking at Gothic (also, if you were to happen to stumble across something, please tell us because we can really never have enough textual evidence… Please?).

That’s just a little bit about Gothic! I hope you enjoyed this little trip, and do check in with us again next week when we’ll continue our journey through the early Germanic dialects by taking a look at Old Norse!

See you then!

References

This post relies primarily on Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives. The examples used here come from this excellent resource, as well as a lot of the information.

Other resources we’ve used for this post are:

The Wulfila Project – where you can find the Gothic text of Corinthians quoted above.
The Oxford English Dictionary
The English-Old Norse Dictionary, compiled by Ross G. Arthur (2002)
Ancient Scripts – an online resource, used here for the Gothic alphabet
Glossary from Joseph Wright’s Grammar of the Gothic Language
Omniglot – where you can find some more information on the Gothic alphabet

Aesces to ashes

I teach fifth-grade Latin, and recently we were discussing the pronunciation of the Latin digraph and diphthong <ae>. One of my bright young scholars asked if the Latin letter was written with “one of those connected a-e thingies.”

My Anglo-Saxonist heart soared. That “connected a-e thingy” is <æ>, a symbol called by the Anglo-Saxons aesc, like an ash tree. With the adoption of the Latin alphabet, <æ> inherited all the rights and responsibilities of ᚫ, a rune of the same name in the Old English fuþorc. It was pronounced [æ]1, like in, well, ‘ash’.

My Latin class and I had to plow ahead with the nominative plural, but in the back of my mind, I kept mulling it over: Where did my beloved aesc come from, and why isn’t it all over the Classic Latin texts I read?

As with so many questions linguistic, the answer lies in human laziness. Since man started putting pen to paper (stylus to papyrus, wax, clay, &c.2), we’ve been conjoining letters to cut corners and save time and space. Cursive is one thing, but typographic ligatures are little clumps of two or three letters written as a single symbol. An example of a well-known ligature that grew up to be a letter in its own right is <w>, which as the name implies, began life as a double <u>.

There are copious examples of ligatures dating all the way back to Sumerian, but we’re investigating <æ>, and for that we have to look to medieval scribes. It’s as simple as you might imagine: Whether for speed or aesthetics, medieval scribes took <a> and <e> and wrote them as one. In Latin, it made no nevermind whether you used the ligature or wrote <ae>.3 In fact, as Latin pronunciation changed throughout the Middle Ages, the spelling was sometimes reduced to merely <e>. (Thus, we modernly tend to write “medieval” rather than “mediæval”.)

Old English wasn’t the only language to promote this particular ligature to a letter. Today, it can still be found in languages like Icelandic and Norwegian.

In Modern English, aesc has been relegated to the status of relic. It gets trotted out when calligraphers and designers want to make something look fancy or antiquated, but otherwise, it’s just some letter that we used to know.4

Notes

1 It becomes fairly obvious where linguists found the symbol to represent this sound in IPA.
2 I would just like to share that the ampersand or “and sign” (&) began life as a ligature of <et>. “Et” is “and” in Latin. I can’t even.
3 As far as Classical Latin goes, the Romans themselves and modern editors use distinct <ae> much more often than not.
4 Alas for me! I suppose I’ll just have to stick to doodling aesc in various margins.

There be language change afoot–but why?

We’ve written about several big, historic sound changes, like umlaut and Grimm’s Law. But why does pronunciation have to change at all? Why can’t it just stay the same forever? Surely, that would be easier for everyone (especially us historical linguists trying to reconstruct speech from a time before sound recording).

Without diving in too deep today, let’s look at two of the big forces playing tug-o’-war with our phonemes (and the rest of our language): good, old-fashioned laziness and the need to be understood.

I called the first force laziness, but perhaps a kinder appellation would be “conservation of energy.” Unless you live by yourself in a cottage deep in some leafy forest somewhere, you probably regularly do a fair amount of communication (yes, even you introverts). Speech1 is a repetitive motion, and like other repetitive motions (e.g. signing your name), we unconsciously streamline it as it sinks deeper and deeper into our muscle memory. ‘Cannot’ in most instances becomes ‘can’t’; the <tt> in ‘button’ becomes [ʔ] instead of [t].2

This tendency to expend the least amount of effort in language production is called ease of articulation. This is what leads to phenomena like umlaut: it’s easier to pronounce consecutive vowels in the same area of the mouth, so back vowels are pulled forward after front vowels (e.g. Proto-Germanic *mūsiz “mice” becomes OE *mȳs). Similarly, vowels in unstressed syllables tend to relax into schwa. Why enunciate every sound when you don’t really have to? (Except sometimes you do have to.)

Ease of articulation is one thing, but on the other hand, language can’t allow itself to devolve into a mushy, mumbly mess. That would be self-defeating. When your whole purpose in life is to communicate messages, by gum! you’ve got to make sure you can effectively communicate a message. If things become too similar, a language finds ways to self correct, to dissimilate. Dissimilation is a process whereby two linguistic elements that are confusingly alike are pulled back apart to a reasonable, comprehensible distance. Take, for example, the OE pronouns “he” and hēo “she”. Linguists aren’t exactly sure which specific sound change stepped in to shift  hēo to she, but I think we can all agree that it’s easier to tell who’s who with more distinct pronouns. Or in another case, we find the word pilgrim ultimately comes from Latin peregrinus “foreigner, traveler”. In Latin words with far too many /r/s, one of them commonly became an /l/ over time to unmuddy the waters.

Though they seem almost like an uptight, mothering older sister (dissimilation) and her carefree, lackadaisical little brother (ease of articulation), these two processes work in tandem as much as they work against each other. You could almost say they bring balance to the Force. (But you could also say that languages are wild, organic things that refuse to be tied down. It’s not you, it’s them. And as you may have guessed, ease of articulation and dissimilation aren’t the only suspects complicating this situation. We’ll get there.)

Notes

1 It’s something we haven’t brought to the forefront in a while, but I’d like to remind you that when we talk about “speech,” we could just as well be talking about signing. Sign languages function much like spoken languages.
2 Depending on your dialect.

Proto-Germanic

Ladies and gents, welcome back to the HLC!

We had a talk the other day and you know what we realised?

We talk a lot about Proto-Germanic but we’ve never really talked about Proto-Germanic, have we?

We’re sorry, let’s make it right! Today, we’ll take a closer look at this mother of the Germanic languages (though it will be brief glance, I’m afraid: it is an entire language after all)!

As you might remember, a proto-language is a language that has never actually been attested. Instead, such a language has been reconstructed through the comparative method. This means that nothing from Proto-Germanic actually survives the long centuries since it was spoken but we still know quite a bit about the language itself (isn’t the comparative method awesome?!)

One of the things that we can say that we know with reasonable confidence is that Proto-Germanic was spoken in and around Denmark, probably no earlier than ca 500 B.C.

Eventually, it developed into three different branches: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic. We’ll talk more about these branches, and the early Germanic dialects, a bit more later on, but let’s focus on Proto-Germanic for now.

Proto-Germanic developed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which you probably already knew, and one of the unique features that separates the Germanic languages from the, for example, Italic ones, is a sound change that we’ve spoken about earlier: Grimm’s Law!

As a reminder, Grimm’s Law is a sound change that changed some consonantal sounds into other consonantal sounds: for example, p became f so Latin pater is English father.

Grimm’s Law was completed at some point during the Proto-Germanic period, something that we may be relatively confident about because the other PIE-languages don’t have it (so it must have happened after Proto-Germanic ‘broke away’ from the other PIE-languages) but all the Germanic languages do (so it must have happened before the Germanic dialects grew apart).

We also find a good number of other sound changes that we’ve already talked about, like ablaut and umlaut. As you may remember, ablaut is the regular vowel variation that you find in forms like sing, sang, sung, and umlaut, a sound change in which one vowel changes to become more similar to a following (or preceding) vowel.

We won’t say too much about the ablaut of Proto-Germanic, because frankly it gets complicated real fast, but it retained the ablaut system of PIE in the strong verb classes (and if you really want to know about ablaut in Proto-Germanic, check out Don Ringe’s excellent account referenced below), which is why you do find vowel alternation in, for example, English (or German: gewinnen, gewann, gewonnen, meaning win, won, won or Swedish vinna, vann, vunnit, also meaning win, won, won).

We will spend a moment on umlaut thought, because something quite significant happened before the early Germanic dialects ‘separated’: i-mutation (or i-umlaut).

You’ve heard about this sound change here at the HLC before (check it out) but in case you forgot (I mean, it was quite a while ago), i-mutation is the reason why you get examples like foot – feet, mouse – mice, but not house – hice!

I-mutation is so called because one vowel raised due to a following /i/ or /j/ sound in the next syllable. These syllables were then lost, making the sound change kinda hard to immediately recognise. Let’s take foot – feet as an example.

So, the Proto-Germanic form for foot was something like *fōts. No /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable there, so *fōts became Eng. foot, Dutch voet, Ger. Fuß, Swe/Nor fot, Dan. fod, and so on.

But! The Proto-Germanic plural was *fōtiz! The vowel ō then changed, becoming closer to the i, a process we might call assimilation. Having done so (or at least been enough underway), the -iz ending was lost and, suddenly, we have a word that doesn’t really look any different from *fōts but with an already changing (or changed) vowel. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it always changes to an e/ee as in English feet. In Swedish, it became ö (fötter) for example and in German ße.

Right, enough phonology. Let’s take a look at morphology too, while we’re at it.

Proto-Germanic inflected for 6 cases: vocative, nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and instrumental; 3 genders: masculine, feminine and neuter; 3 numbers: singular, dual, and plural and 3 moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative.

Woof, that’s quite a bit. Of all these things though, there really is only one thing that we haven’t said anything about before (though we’ll tell you more about case in the future too): the number dual. You all recognise, I assume, the singular and the plural but what, exactly, is the dual?

Well, it is precisely what you would expect: a form that refers to exactly two entities, no more, no less. The dual was a surviving number-category from PIE but came to be shown only in the first- and second-person pronouns in Proto-Germanic before eventually dwindling away entirely in the daughters of Proto-Germanic (though they retain it for a while in pronouns).

So, now, you have just a little bit of an understanding of Proto-Germanic (though it is very brief, of course)! This will be really useful for the coming weeks here at the HLC as we’ll be taking a bit of a closer look at the early Germanic dialects, their common ground and their differences!

Welcome back then!

References

An excellent resource is:

Ringe, Don. 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

which we have consulted for this post. It’s quite advanced, however, and you might find yourself just a bit overwhelmed of the sheer number of detailed descriptions in it. Bear with it though, it really is quite amazing!

We’ve also consulted

Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives. London: Routledge

which doesn’t talk that much about Proto-Germanic itself but is a great resource for the early Germanic dialects (we should know: taking the course with the same name two years ago, this was the course book).

and briefly

Barber, Charles. 2000. The English language: A historical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

regarding the dual number.


Aside from that, we’ve used the excellent online resource etymonline.com and, yes, we’ll admit it, Wikipedia (oh, the horror!), for the Proto-Germanic forms that we discussed here.

American English – The language of Shakespeare?

Hello my dear Anglophones!

I’m going to create some generic internet banter for you:

Person 1
– Look here at the differences between American English and British English, crazy stuff! (with the addition of some image or list)


Person 2
– *Something along the lines of*:

Person 3
– *Something along the lines of*:

Person 4, referring to the ‘u’-spellings in British English (colour, favour, etc.):

Then, usually, person 5 comes along with something like:

Person 5, let’s call them Taylor, has read somewhere that the American English accent shares more features with English as it was spoken in the 17th century, when America was settled by the British, and therefore argues that American English is more purely English than British English is. Taylor’s British friend, Leslie, may also join the conversation with something like “America retained the language we gave them, and we changed ours.”1

In this post, I will try to unpack this argument:
Is American English really a preserved Early Modern English accent?2

Firstly, however, I want to stress that one big flaw to this argument is that American English being more similar to an older version of English doesn’t mean it’s any better or purer than another English variety – languages change and evolve organically and inevitably. (We have written several posts on the subject of prescriptivism, resistance to language change, and the idea that some varieties are better than others, for example here, here and here.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the matter at hand. The main argument for why American English would be more like an early form of English is that it is modelled on the language of the first English-speaking settlers, which in the 17th century would be Early Modern English (EModE, i.e., the language of Shakespeare). In fact, there is some truth in that features of EModE are found in American English, while they’ve changed in (Southern) British English, such as:

  • Pronouncing /r/ in coda position, i.e. in words like farm and bar.
    This feature is called rhoticity, if an accent pronounces these /r/’s it is called a rhotic accent.
  • Pronouncing the /a/ in bath the same as the /a/ in trap, rather than pronouncing it like the /a/ in father which is what we usually associate with British English.
  • Using gotten as a past participle, as in “Leslie has gotten carried away with their argumentation”.
  • Some vocabulary, such as fall (meaning autumn), or mad (meaning angry).
  • The <u>-less spelling of color-like words.

So far Taylor does seem to have a strong case, but, of course, things are never this simple. Famously, immigration to America did not stop after the 17th century (shocker, I know), and as the British English language continued to evolve, newer versions of that language will have reached the shores of America as spoken by hundreds of thousands of British settlers. Furthermore, great numbers of English-speaking migrants were from Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of the British islands which did not speak the version of British English which we associate with the Queen and BBC (we call this accent RP, for Received Pronunciation). Even though the RP accent remained prestigious for some time in America, waves of speakers of other English varieties would soon have outnumbered the few who still aimed to retain this way of speaking. Finally, of course: Taylor not only (seemingly) assumes here that British English is one uniform variety, but also that American English would have no variation – a crucial flaw especially when we talk about phonetics and phonology.

If we look at rhoticity, for example, English accents from Ireland, Scotland and the South-West of England are traditionally rhotic. Some of these accents also traditionally pronounce the /a/ in bath and trap the same. Where settlers from these regions arrived in great numbers, the speech in those regions would have naturally shifted towards the accents of the majority of speakers. Furthermore, there are accents of American English that are not traditionally rhotic, like the New England accent, and various other accents across the East and South-East, such as in New York, Virginia and Georgia. This is to do with which accents were spoken by the larger numbers of settlers there; e.g., large numbers of settlers from the South-East of England, where the accents are non-rhotic, would have impacted the speech of these regions.

Finally, while the /a/ in bath and trap is pronounced the same in American English, it is not the same vowel as is used for these words in, for example, Northern British English. You see, American English went through its very own sound changes, one of these is the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which affected such vowels as the mentioned /a/ so that it became pronounced more ‘ey-a’ in words such as man, bath, have, and so on. Also, let’s not forget that American English also carries influences from all the other languages that have played a part, to a lesser or larger extent, in settling the North American continent from Early Modern times until today, including but not limited to: French, Italian, Spanish, German, Slavic languages, Chinese, Yiddish, Arabic, Scandinavian languages, and Native American languages.

In sum, while American English has some retention of features from EModE which have changed in British English, the flaws of Taylor’s, and Leslie’s, argument are many:

  • Older isn’t necessarily better
  • Large numbers of English speakers of various dialects migrated to America during centuries after the original settlers, their speech making up the beautiful blend we find today’s American English accents.
  • British English was not the only language involved in the making of American English!
  • British English is varied, some accents still retain the features which are said to be evidence of American English being more “original”, such as rhoticity and pronouncing the /a/ in ‘trap’ and ‘bath’ the same. American English is also varied, and the most dominant input variety in different regions can still be heard in the regional American accents, such as the lack of rhoticity in some Eastern and Southern dialects.
    In sum: Let’s not assume that a language is uniform.
  • American English underwent their very own changes, which makes it just as innovative as British English.
  • No living language is static, Leslie, so your argument that American English never changed is severely flawed.

So the next time you encounter some Taylors or Leslies online, you’ll know what to say! And, of course, let’s not forget what the speakers of both British and American English have in common in these discussions – for example, forgetting that these are not the only types of English in the world.


More on this in a future blog post!

Footnotes
1This is actually a direct quote from this forum thread, read at your own risk: https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/1818966/is-american-english-in-fact-closer-to-true-english-than-british-english

2A lot of the material used for this post is based on Dr. Claire Cowie’s material for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.


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.