Gender neutral pronouns – yay or nay?

‘Gender-neutral pronouns, do they exist?’ you might be saying to yourself at home, in front of whatever device you’re reading this on.

Well, yes. Of course they do. In many languages. In English, you have two: it and one. However, it isn’t really used to describe a person, right? Kinda disrespectful since it traditionally is used on a non-human entity – tables, chairs, pets (and, admittingly, some even dislike the use of it for pets, present writer included), etc. You could use one but it doesn’t really work in certain constructions and might seem a bit formal, wouldn’t you say?

Now, though we could make a list of languages that do have gender-neutral pronouns referring to human beings, that requires us to get into a discussion on grammatical versus natural gender. We don’t want to do that just yet (you’ll have to wait for two weeks! The horror!), and so, we will focus on the Germanic languages, in which it is quite uncommon. As far as we know, only one of the Germanic languages has a recognised, widely used, gender neutral third person pronoun: Swedish!

A couple of years back (and I’m now talking from personal experience since I am Swedish and remember this quite well), around 2010 to be specific, a new pronoun started to make its way into books, magazines and newspaper articles: hen, a pronoun used when the gender of the person is unknown or if it is not relevant or desired to specify the gender of the person. (The gendered pronouns in Swedish are han, ‘he’, and hon, ‘she’)

The pronoun raised a massive debate, and a good number of jokes, both in Sweden and abroad. The main objections to it, in Sweden, seemed to be that it was not necessary, nor desired. However, despite a rather massive resistance, this little word stuck around – and how it grew! In 2014, the language periodical Språktidningen concluded that hen had grown from occurring once for every 13,000 uses of han/hon in 2011, to occuring once for every 300 hon/han in 2013. That’s a pretty massive upswing and in 2014, hen was included in Svenska Akademiens Ordlista – pretty much the Swedish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Where does this idea of hen come from, you might wonder? Well, it certainly wasn’t a new idea: it had been proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun in 1966 and then again in 1994 but it didn’t stick – perhaps because we weren’t ready for it. While we could do a long section on gender equality, I think we’ll stick with the linguistic side of things and, in this, the addition of hen is a big thing! You see, pronouns are often considered an integral part of the grammar of a language and they rarely change – or, as the linguists say, they are a closed word class.

Think of language like an onion with multiple layers: when you peel an onion, the first couple of layers are going to be bendy and soft, right? You can twist them this way or that and it’s fine. This is the ‘open class’ vocabulary of the language, the parts of language that can easily change: we might borrow from other languages, some words might fall into disuse or completely change their meaning, etc.

However, the closer to the ‘core’ of the onion you get, the stiffer the layer. Try twisting one of the inner layers of an onion and it is more likely to break into bits in your hand than bend. This is the grammar of the language, and it is here, in this stiff, unyielding part that you’ll find pronouns (remember how we said that the borrowing of they, them and their was so fascinating because of the integral part pronouns play in a language’s grammar?)

So, adding, changing, removing… All of these things tend to be (very) uncommon in the pronoun-category of a language. In Swedish, the pronoun han (he) goes all the way back to Proto-Norse, spoken around the 2nd to 8th centuries, and hon (she) goes all the way back to Proto-Germanic! During all this time, the pronouns remained pretty much the same in Swedish (spelling changed a little bit – han used to be spelt hann, for example).

The word hen itself is often referred to as a Swedish equivalent of the Finnish pronoun hän, which is also a gender-neutral pronoun. In Swedish, the word can have a different meaning too (though very few people know it since it is pretty much extinct), equivalent to the Swedish word brynsten, meaning ‘whetstone’ (you can see why most people wouldn’t know it?).

Why are we going on and on about these pronouns you might ask? Well, it was really to lead us here: you see, like we’ve said, pronouns rarely change. Generally speaking, we don’t add to them, we don’t change them, we don’t ‘delete’ one. Yet, Swedish did exactly that: it added one – and what makes this addition all the more remarkable is that this was a deliberate addition to the language! And in terms of language development and change, that is spectacular.

Can you imagine? About 2500 years of, pretty much, unchanged pronouns and then, in 2010, Swedes deliberately decided to add one – and the Swedish language, eventually, came to include yet another pronoun! In case you were ever in doubt, this is rather clear evidence that the speakers control what a language includes, not the other way around (thus kind of putting the whole idea of ‘there is a right way to use language’ on rather thin ice, wouldn’t you say?). Isn’t that just amazing?

There has been debate on whether other Germanic languages will follow suit, though that has not really happened (yet).

Tell us what you think – gender-neutral pronouns: yay or nay?

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.

 

It’s all Greek to me!

 

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

Lessons I learned from Latin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all depends on your point of view

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

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

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

The moral of the story

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

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

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

So enjoy the amazing diversity of human languages, people!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Scots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Present-Day Scots

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

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

Exhibit A:

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

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

Exhibit B:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doric Scots, contrasted with English.

Some more examples of Scots words.

 

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

Bye!

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phonaesthetics, or “The Phrenology of Language”

 

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: phonaesthetics

Let me explain why:

A bit of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen,

Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier

Mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva

[…]

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

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

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul

Ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul

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

So why is phonaesthetics “wrong”?

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

Not this beholder.
Image copyright: Wizards of the Coast

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

Welcome to phonaesthetic hell.

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

Then the Nazis came.

Nazis: always ruining everything.

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

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

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

And read some Goethe, you’ll like it.

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

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

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

 

“the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that the language you speak determines how you think”

 

So says the fictive linguist Louise Banks (ably played by Amy Adams) in the sci-fi flick ‘Arrival’ (2016). The movie’s plot relies rather heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the principle of linguistic relativity, so heavily in fact that the entire plot would be undone without it.

But what is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, really? Before digging into why ‘Arrival’ may have gotten it a bit… well, off, a word of caution: If you haven’t seen the movie (and intend to do so), go ahead and do that before reading the rest of this post because there will be SPOILERS!!!


Now that you have been duly warned, let’s get going.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, in a way, what Louise Banks describes: it is in part a hypothesis claiming that language determines the way you think. This idea is called linguistic determinism and is actually only one half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Commonly known as the “strong” version of Sapir-Whorf, linguistic determinism holds that language limits and determines cognitive categories, thereby limiting our worldview to that which can be described in the words of whatever language we speak. Our worldview, and our way of thinking, is thus determined by our language.

That sounds pretty technical, so let’s use the example provided by ‘Arrival’:

The movie’s plot revolves around aliens coming to earth, speaking a language that is completely unknown to mankind. To try to figure out what they want, the movie linguist is called in. She manages to figure out their language pretty quickly (of course), realising that they think of time in a non-linear way.

This is quite a concept for a human to grasp since our idea of time is very linear. In western societies, we commonly think of time as a timeline going from left to right, as below.


 

Let’s say that we are currently at point C of our timeline. We can probably all agree that, as humans, we cannot go back in time to point A, right? However, in ‘Arrival’, we are given the impression that the reason we can’t do that is because our language doesn’t let us think about time in a non-linear way. That is, because our language doesn’t allow us, we can’t go back in time. Sounds a bit wonky, doesn’t it?

Well, you might be somewhat unsurprised to hear that this “strong” version has been discredited in linguistics for quite some time now and, for most modern-day linguists, it is a bit silly. Yet, we can’t claim that language doesn’t influence our way of thinking, can we?

Consider the many bi/multilinguals who has stated that they feel kinda like a different person when speaking their second language. If you’ve never met one, we bilinguals at the HLC agree that we could vouch for that fact.

Why would they feel that way, if language doesn’t affect our way of thinking? Well, of course, language does affect our way of thinking, it just doesn’t determine it. This is the ‘weak’ version of Sapir-Whorf, also known as linguistic relativism.

The weak version may be somewhat more palatable to you (and us): it holds that language influence our way of thinking but does not determine it. Think about it: if someone were to point out a rainbow to you and you had no word for the color red, you would still be able to perceive that that color was different from the others.

If someone were to discover a brand-new color (somewhat mind-boggling, I know, but just consider that), you would be able to explain that this is a color for which you have no word but you would still be able to see it just fine.

That might be the most clear distinction between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism: the former would claim that you wouldn’t be able to perceive the color while the latter would say that you’ll see it just fine, you just don’t have a word for it.

So, while ‘Arrival’ was (at least in my opinion) a pleasant waste of time, when it comes to the linguistics of it, I’d just like to say:


(Oh, and on a side note, the name of the hypothesis (i.e. Sapir-Whorf), is actually quite misleading since Sapir and Whorf never did a collaborate effort to formalise the hypothesis)

Tune in for more linguistic stuff next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the phonology of consonants (trust me, you have a treat coming)!

 

The Scots Leid – The Scots Language

I am very excited to share this post with you, and have been looking forward to it since the dawn of the HLC. Why? This post marks the first part of a mini-series which will tell you the story of the Scots language, its historical and present day status and linguistic elements, while introducing concepts such as language standardisation and the idea of “debased English”. For now, let’s start with a general overview of what Scots is and where it came from. As any essay-boosting student would, I will start with a quote:

“Up until the end of the 18th century largely the entire Scottish population spoke Gaelic […] During the 19th century the English language further dominated the area. It was the language of the church and schools. Essentially all contacts outside of the villages was in English.”

The quote above comes from a language sciences textbook by a Swedish author1 (the translation is my own). I’m gonna leave it with you for now, and by the end of this post it will hopefully become clear why the statements above are not only problematic, but also plainly wrong!

So, what do we mean when we talk about the Scots language? When hearing the name, some assume it’s another name for Scottish Gaelic (usually pronounced Gallic) , others that it’s a name for the variety spoken in Scotland which is “essentially English” with some lexical differences. As I will probably write about Scots again outside of this blog series (I may be a one-trick pony), I figured it was appropriate to outline as simple as possible (it’s not in any way simple) what the Scots language is, isn’t, and what it has been. I am not going to give any absolute answers, because they can be somewhat political, but will try to keep this series nice and diplomatic, and highly linguistic2.

How far back to begin? I think it is best for everyone if I leave pre-Celtic out of this. I can even do without outlining what we know of the Picts, right? I think we should start in the Dark Ages, when the Gaels, also called the Scotti, migrated to Scotland from Ireland. This people and their language, an ancestor variety to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, dominated Scotland for quite some time. In the Middle Ages, there was a shift to a variety referred to as Inglis, deriving from Northumbrian Old English. Inglis was not called so for very long, but soon became Scottis (in the early 16th century) and finally Scots. Scots became the common language of the Scottish lowlands (and northern islands, but slightly later), while Gaelic remained the language of the highlands.

Map of Scotland, 1595. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland3.

The shift from Gaelic to Inglis/Scots began in the Scottish burghs established in Southern Scotland in the 12th century (hint: Edin-burgh). These burghs became  melting pots for various languages, and the main contributors were locally spoken Northumbrian/Anglian (i.e. varieties of Old-Middle English), Northumbrian/Anglian from south of the English border, Anglo-Norman, Gaelic, Scandinavianised English from the previous Danelaw area, and Flemish spoken by merchants from the continent. All of these lovely ingredients came together to form the tasty casserole we call Older Scots. Now, Scots periodisation is not a done deal, and I will tactfully avoid the issue by referring to everything Scots between 1100 and 1700 as Older Scots. I’ll have to refer you to the footnotes4 for more information about this, we need to stay on the ball.

After this rather lengthy intro, we now arrive at the core of what I want to be known by the end of this post: Scots was a historically distinct variety, spoken in the Scottish lowlands, which was used for all functions and purposes for several centuries; it was the language of literature, parliament, legal texts etc., etc. Essentially, Scots and English were two distinct varieties, and recognised as such! It was not until the late 16th century that things started to change. First, strike one, during the Scottish Reformation (1540) the bible was only available in English, making English the language of religion. Then, strike two, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of Scotland and England after the death of Elizabeth I – this event is called the Union of the Crowns (1603) – which made English the language of the royal court.

King James the VI of Scotland and I of England and Scotland.5

The third strike came in 1707, the Union of Parliaments, when Scotland became part of the United Kingdom and thus English became the language of parliament. By this time, Scots lost its status as a language for formal use, and essentially became degraded, in the public view, to a vernacular, “uneducated” dialect used by the working class and rural populations. The final blow came with the Education Act of 1872, which required only English to be spoken and taught in schools6.  

Does this mean that Scots is gone? Of course not, but the status of Scots as a language is a complicated issue. To properly explain what present-day Scots is we would need to dive back into the debate of what constitutes a language. In recent decades, Scots has received a lot of attention and activism; many Scots speakers want to see their variety receiving official language status, they want justification for the marginalisation of their language and some seek standardisation of Scots. What complicates this matter is that spoken Scots is used by different people from different geographical areas and demographic groups, without a unifying standard variety for several centuries, so it has become a highly mixed variety with very different dialects and sociolects under its spectra. If we were to attempt standardisation, would the urban Glasgow speech “win”, or the rural Aberdeenshire Scots? Or, would we construct a standard like what was done with Basque? Further, it has become increasingly difficult to determine where Scots ends and Scottish English (i.e. English with a Scottish accent) begins, especially since most speakers mix their speech with elements from both varieties and change their speech depending on context.

We can now establish that the quote from the Swedish textbook is problematic mainly because (i). Gaelic was not the language of all of Scotland before 1700, and (ii). It’s controversial to claim that Gaelic was overtaken by English, rather than Scots (and that this happened as late as the 19th century). Finally, I recommend all to visit the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website for more information about Scots literary history in particular, and to get a better idea of what Scots looks and sounds like (the whole website is in Scots). I have tried very hard to not make this too lengthy and too specific, and I hope I did not lose any essential details in the process. While this post was mostly meant as a general overview of the history and terminology surrounding Scots, the next post in the series will be dedicated to the linguistic distinctions between Scots and English.

To be continued.

Footnotes

1I will leave this author anonymous – it is not my place to shame anyone, this person cited someone else and this may not be their area of expertise.

2I want to give a huge shout out and many thanks to the people teaching the Scots courses at the University of Edinburgh who taught me all of this stuff: Dr Rhona Alcorn, Dr Joanna Kopaczyk, Dr Warren Maguire and Dr Benjamin Molineaux. Anything uncited is credited to their lectures, I owe it all to them!

3Accessed at: http://maps.nls.uk/index.html
Copyright terms: http://maps.nls.uk/copyright.html

4A.J. Aitken (i.e. the forefather of modern Scots linguistics, one might say (and this one does say)) is responsible for the traditional periodisation used. However, Joanna Kopazcyk makes very good points regarding why this periodisation is not ideal, and I’ll refer you to her article for those arguments:
Kopaczyk, J. (2013). Rethinking the traditional periodisation of the scots language. In R. M. Millar and J. Cruickshank (Eds.), After the Storm: Papers from the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster. University of Aberdeen.

5Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/use-this-image.php?mkey=mw03416

6This act, of course, also had severe effects for Scottish Gaelic.