Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!


1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?

Early Germanic Dialects: Old Norse

While on the subject of Scandinavian people who move around a lot, let’s talk Vikings!
Actually, we have to look a bit further back first: to the Age of Migrations (the first phase of which is considered to be roughly between the years 300 and 500 CE, and the second between 500 and 700 CE). During the first phase, many Germanic tribes migrated from their homeland in the north (hence the Age of Migration), but the ancestors of the speakers of Old Norse stayed fairly close to home.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around quite a bit within that area: the Danes moved out of the south of Sweden, to Zealand and the Jutland peninsula, while the Swedes stayed put and expanded their territory to central Sweden and Götland through… well, somewhat hostile efforts. What eventually became the royal house of Norway came from Sweden to the Oslo region, as reported by the Old Norse genealogical poem Ynglingatal.

However, while a lot was going on in the frozen north of the world, the world went on much as per usual – until around the mid-eighth century when the rest of the world had a… probably somewhat unpleasant surprise. We’ve reached the Viking Age.

I won’t linger too much on the Vikings; most of you probably know quite a bit about them anyway. What you may not know is that the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Vikings actually focused their attentions quite differently.

When you do think about Vikings, it is quite likely you might be thinking of the Norwegian or Danish Vikings. These are the ones that came to Britain and Ireland, and they must have been an unpleasant surprise indeed.

The first we hear (read) about the Danish Vikings is this:

Her nom Beorhtric cyning Offan dohtor Eadburge ⁊ on his dagum cuomon ærest .iii. scipu ⁊ þa se gerefa þærto rad ⁊ hie wolde drifan to þæs cynginges tune þy he nyste hwæt hie wæron ⁊ hiene mon ofslog þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra monna þe Angelcynnes lond gesohton.

Which was translated by J.A. Giles in 1914 as:

This year king Bertric took to wife Eadburga, king Offa’s daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen, out of Hæretha-land [Denmark]. And then the reve [sheriff] rode to the place, and would have driven them to the king’s town, because he knew not who they were: and they there slew him. These were the first ships of Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation.
(The bold font here is, of course, our addition.)

This was written in the year 789, and it was but the first of many ‘visits’ that the Scandinavian Vikings paid England. And, of course, it didn’t stop there. In 793, Norwegian Vikings were most likely responsible for sacking the Lindisfarne monastery in northeast of England; this event may be considered to be start of the ‘true’ Viking Age.

While we all enjoy a bit of historic tidbits on the Vikings, I think we might often forget how truly terrifying these people were to those that were attacked. Some may even have believed that the Viking incursion was the fulfilment of Jeremiah 1.14: “The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land”.

To put it short and sweet: the Vikings were terrifying. Of course, they continued to plague England for a long time, and one could even (a bit weakly) argue that the Anglo-Norman Invasion was, at least partly, a Scandinavian one; the duchy of Normandy in France, of which William the Conqueror was the duke, was created by Danish Vikings, and France had actually conceded the region to the Danes in 911. Of course, by the time of the invasion in 1066, the Normans were more French than Danish, but the ancestral relationship was still recognised.

Unlike the Danes and Norwegians, the Swedish Vikings mostly left England alone and instead focused their attentions on establishing profitable trading towns on the Baltic. They seem to have been somewhat less aggressive in their travels – though don’t mistake that to mean that they weren’t aggressive at all – and could perhaps be described as piratical merchants who traded with people as far away as Constantinople and Arabia. Their principal trading routes, however, lay in what is now Russia, and some even claim that the Swedish Vikings, under the name Rus, were the founders of some major cities, such as Novgorod and Kiev (though whether this is true is somewhat unclear).

But let’s also not forget that the Vikings were more than pirates: they were great explorers. They discovered the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and ‘Vinland’ (nowadays, we know – or strongly believe – this to be some part of North America).

Anyway, eventually, the Vikings became christianized and, thanks to the conversion, the excesses of the Viking Age were moderated and eventually came to an end. With Christianity came also something else extremely important: the introduction of the pen.

Old Norse, as Orrin W. Robinson puts it, “is unique among the Germanic languages in the volume and richness of its literature” , which of course also gives us a rich insight into the language itself. I won’t be taking you through the literary genres of Old Norse here but they are certainly worth a look! Instead, I’ll do the same thing as I did with Gothic and take you through some of the features of Old Norse that make it unique (or almost) and distinctive in comparison to the other Germanic languages.

Let’s get going!

First, let’s look at some consonants.

Like Gothic, Old Norse underwent sharpening. There’s a bit of a difference in comparison to Gothic, though. As you may recall, in Gothic, the medial consonant clusters jj and ww in Proto-Germanic became ddj and ggw respectively, while in Old Norse, they both became gg clusters followed by j or v respectively. So, you’ll find consonant clusters like tveggja ‘of two’ and hoggva ‘strike’.

Unlike Gothic, Old Norse underwent rhotacism, meaning that it turned Proto-Germanic z to r, and also underwent a process known as gemination. Gemination means that if the consonants g or k were preceded by a short vowel, they doubled. So, we find Old Norse leggja ‘lay’ but Gothic lagjan.

Old Norse also had a number of ‘assimilatory’ phenomena, meaning that one sound becomes like (or identical) to an adjacent sound. These are:

[ht] becomes [tt]: Gothic þûhta ‘seemed’ corresponds Old Norse þotti

[nþ] becomes [nn]: Gothic finpan ‘find’ corresponds Old Norse finna

[ŋk] becomes [kk]: Gothic drincan ‘drink’ corresponds Old Norse drekka

[lþ] becomes [ll]: Gothic gulþ corresponds Old Norse gull

As a group, these are highly distinctive features of Old Norse.

That’s enough of consonants, I think, but let’s also have a brief look at the vowels. As you may recall, Old Norse has undergone umlaut. Actually, Old Norse underwent three varieties of umlaut: a-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut. I won’t be going through the details of umlaut here, but check out this post if you want to know more!

There are two more particularly interesting features of the Old Norse language that I’ll mention here – I’d keep going, but you’ll get sick of me.

First, the Proto-Germanic ending *-az, which was used for both masculine a-stem nouns and most strong masculine adjectives, has been preserved in Old Norse as –r. In Old Norse, you therefore find forms like armr for ‘arm’ and goðr for ‘good’.

Second, and this is a biggy: the definite article in Old Norse (in English, ‘the’) is regularly added to the end of nouns as a suffix rather than as a separated word before them. In Old High German, you find der hamar but in Old Norse, it’s expressed like this: hamarinn.

Of course, the Vikings (and their predecessors) also made use of runes, but I won’t get into that here. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out our previous post on runes.

Gosh, that was quite a bit, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t get too sick of me, but it is the historic stage of my own native language after all, so I suppose I was bound to keep talking too long.

Until we meet again, dear friends, I hope you enjoyed this post on Old Norse and please join us next week as we welcome guest blogger Sarah van Eyndhoven, PhD student in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, here at the HLC!


As before, our source for this post is Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives – a really excellent resource if you’re looking for an excellent overview of the Early Germanic Dialects. His quote above is taken from page 61 of this book.

The Old English text quoted here is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We’ve taken the quote from here and the translation from here. (While it is from 789, the listing will tell you 787.)


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!


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.

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!


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!

Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indo-European Noun Cases

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

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


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

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

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

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

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

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

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

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

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


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

Let’s get Laut! 2

Welcome back, fearless blog readers!

If you remember last week’s post, or if you speak English at all, you’ll remember that sometimes English words can behave… bizarrely.

Last time, we explored the reason why some plurals (like mice or geese) can be totally out of control. Today, it’s time to look at their far more complicated cousins, the so-called “irregular” past tense verbs. These are really part of a wider Germanic phenomenon called strong verbs, but their roots sink much, much further in the past. If you’re a native English speaker, maybe you’ve wondered from time to time why some verbs change so drastically in their past tenses; if you are or have been an English learner, you probably remember memorising those frustrating tables in school.

But why? Why are they like this? Why can’t they just be like everyone else?

Remember the two German siblings we introduced last week?

No, not the fairy tale ones. The anthropomorphised linguistic abstraction ones.

They look pretty good for having no discernible physical form at all. Also they like Spätzle and Bratvwürst. Yummy!

We already thoroughly acquainted you with umlaut, and today we’re going to introduce his big sister, ablaut.

Hold on tight, this is going to be a wild ride!

The humble e

If you thought umlaut was old, get a load of this: his older sister ablaut goes back to Proto-Indo-European!

Her name literally means “sound gradation” in German, and she was given a name by none other than our old friend Jacob Grimm.

He (and other linguists during his time) noticed that in some Germanic verbs vowels alternated according to a predictable set of patterns. You might know these patterns as the so-called “irregular” verbs of English, such as swim/swam/swum.

Such patterns exist in all Germanic languages, but our linguist friends noticed that similar phenomena could be seen in other Indo-European languages, and not only in verbs. Ancient Greek, for example, exhibits similar patterns in nouns as well as verbs, and ancient Indian grammarians such as Panini had noticed it happening in Sanskrit millennia before, giving the different vowel grades fancy names such as guna and vrddhi.

From this evidence, our fearless heroes deduced that this system of vowel changes must go much further in the past than the birth of Germanic languages.

Today’s leading hypothesis is that all these changes spark from the same little source: the humble PIE vowel /e/.

This little vowel was PIE’s most important vowel. In fact, according to some theories, it might even have been its only vowel at some very early stage! How did the other vowels come about? Well, /a/ probably originated from a neighbouring consonant’s effect on /e/, while /i/ and /u/ probably arose out of the semivowels /j/ and /w/ respectively. The vowel /o/, on the other hand, came about because of ablaut.

You see, PIE /e/ was pronounced (or not pronounced, see below) in various, different ways depending on its position and the position of the main stress in the word. We call these different ways of pronouncing this most basic of vowels grades. Unfortunately, nobody has ever been able to figure out why this happened exactly, but we’re working on it, we promise.

In total, there were three basic grades and two lengthened grades. Let’s take a look at these changes using various forms of the PIE word *ph2ter-, ‘father’, as examples.[1] In these, the acute accent (é) indicates stress.

The three basic grades were the e-grade, which occurred when the stress was on the concerned vowel, as in

*ph2térm̥ (“father”, accusative)[2]

The o-grade, which turned the /e/ into /o/, and occurred when the stress came before the vowel, as in

*n̥péh2torm̥ (“fatherless”, accusative)[3]

And the zero-grade, where the /e/ just disappeared, which occured when the stress came after the vowel, as in

*ph2trés (“father’s”, genitive)

When the e- and o-grades were found in the last syllable of a word, they became long vowels, giving rise to the lengthened grades (a line on the vowel, called a macron, indicates length), as in

*ph2tḗr (“father”, nominative)


*n̥péh2tōr (“fatherless”, nominative)

Thousands of years of sound change in English have erased the effects of ablaut in nouns, but they can be seen in Ancient Greek. Using our examples above, here’s how they evolved in the language of Socrates:

*ph2térm̥ > patéra

*n̥péh2torm̥ > apátora

*ph2trés > patrós

*ph2tḗr > patḗr

*n̥péh2tōr > apátōr

Pretty similar, aren’t they?

This system of changes also applied to verbs, and, believe it or not, in early PIE all verbs behaved like the English irregular verbs! What a nightmare, eh?

Don’t commiserate the poor Indo-Europeans, though. At the time, these changes were perfectly predictable and regular.

Ten thousand years of sound change tend to wreck even the most clockwork-like of systems, however, and by the time Proto-Germanic made its entrance on the stage, the simple e/o/nothing system of Indo-European had been scrambled into a complex mess of vowels.

Proto-Germanic strong verbs are divided into seven classes, depending on the path that humble PIE /e/ took in its evolution into all the vowels we know and love today.

The… messy evolution of vowels in English certainly didn’t help, and while today these seven classes of verbs still technically exist, they’re very hard to tell apart. The strong verbs of English have become for all intents and purposes irregular, which is what they’re called in school grammars everywhere.

What about regular verbs (also called weak verbs) then? Well, some of them were once strong verbs which became weak somewhere along their history (such as show/showed, which was once show/shew), but most of them were not originally verbs at all! Proto-Germanic weak verbs come from other words (mostly nouns) which got turned into verbs through derivation.

So here’s the plot twist: irregular verbs are not rebels at all! They’re old fogeys, shaking their heads and tutting at the young and hip regular verbs staring at their mobile phones all day.

You millennials are so lazy. Back in MY day we took the trouble of changing our vowels in our past tenses!

Life is full of surprises.

  1. That “h2” thing is one of the consonants from which /a/ arose, incidentally.
  2. That dot under the “m” shows that it’s a separate syllable. In PIE, m, n, l, and r could behave like vowels!
  3. Bonus points if you noticed the e-grade in the first syllable!

Let’s Get Laut! (Part 1)

Mouse. Goose. Man. Swim. Drive. Bite.

These are some words students of English everywhere have learned to fear. Why? Because they’re rebel words: they won’t bow to the rules which would make English grammar so much simpler.

“Mouses”? That’s what the system wants, man! Go “mice”!

“Swimmed”? Pshaw! It’s “swam” or death!

Rise, Товарищ, smash the imperialist suffixes!

But why is it like that? Why can’t these words just behave and spare English students all the grief? Why do their vowels have to jump around like rocket-powered rabbits in a carrot field?

Well, turns out they have two very good reasons to do that, and those reasons are two lovely German siblings called umlaut and ablaut.

Aren’t they cute?

Let’s talk about the first of these for a bit.


Umlaut is the younger sibling: he’s just a little over 1000 years old!

His name literally means “sound alteration” in German, and he is a kind of assimilation or vowel harmony that appeared in two out of the three main branches of the Germanic family, leaving poor East Germanic behind.

Lots of sad goths out there.
Photo by Bryan Ledgard

Vowel harmony is a process in which the vowels of a word shift their sound to become more similar to another vowel, bringing all them roughly in the same part of the mouth (and therefore making it simpler to pronounce them in sequence).

In some languages, such as Finnish or Turkish, this process happens all the time, and vowels on suffixes must be “adapted” to the vowels of the word they are to be attached to to be grammatically sound. For example, the vowels “a” and “ö” cannot be together in any native Finnish word: if you want to add an “a” to a word with “ö” sounds, you have to turn it into “ä” first.

Umlaut is a rather more limited form of vowel harmony, because it usually only extends one syllable to the left in languages in which it appears.

In Germanic, it only happened in the past, and only involved the vowels /a/, /u/ and, most importantly, /i/. In this post, we’re going to concentrate on the umlaut involving the vowel /i/, because it’s the one that most influenced modern English.

If Germanic words were American high-schools (or Japanese ones, depending on your tastes in entertainment), then /i/ would have been the cool kid. Everyone wants to be like /i/: he’s smart, athletic and almost sinfully handsome.

Notice me, senpai!

Whenever he’s around, the back vowels /a/, /o/ and /u/ try to look like him, hoping to attract his attention. They never succeed entirely, no-one can be like /i/, but they come as close as they can. Only /e/ remains aloofː he’s a bookish geek, and doesn’t care about these status games.[1] Also, he’s already pretty similar to /i/, because he possesses the thing that makes /i/ so coolː frontness.

In the classroom of the mouth, /i/ and /e/ always sit in the front rows, near the teeth, while /a/, /o/ and /u/ are confined to the back, near the squishy soft palate. Ew.

When /i/ appears, everyone shuffles their desks forward to be near him. However, they can’t be too conspicuous, or they’ll appear desperate. That’s why they only move forwards if they are within one syllable to his left.

Suppose one of these words looks like this:


Here’s /u/, happily minding its own business. But when the word is plural, it looks like thisː


Well look who appeared on the sceneǃ It’s good ol’ /i/, and he’s right in the next syllableǃ /u/ almost panicsː this is his chance to be seen with the cool kidǃ He shuffles his desk forward and becomes /y/.


Time passes, /i/ and /z/ graduate from the school of language change and disappear from the word. /y/ is behind on a few exams and remains where he is.


He’s really important nowː if he moved his desk back and became /uː/ again, the speakers of the school’s language would not be able to tell the plural of the word from the singularǃ

Eventually, through hard study and the unrounding of front vowels in the passage between Old and Middle English, /y/ finally lives the dreamː he becomes /i/ǃ Now he’s the cool kidǃ


He’s hardly finished celebrating when the Great Vowel Shift sweeps the language like a storm, sending vowels flying all over the place. Now the singular form sounds like /maʊs/, and the plural like /maɪs/. Our words have now becomeː

mouse and mice

And that’s how they’ve looked ever sinceǃ To summarise, /u/’s path when near /i/ was /u/ > /y/ > /i/ > /aɪ/.

The other back vowels also had similar pathsː /o/ > /ø/ > /e/ > /i/ gave rise to words such as goose/geese, and /a/ > /æ/ > /ɛ/ gave rise to the word man/men.

What did the words that make their plural with regular -s have that set them apart from these? Well, it’s simpleː their plurals didn’t involve /i/. Instead, they had some boring other vowel. Usually /a/.

It’s important to note that this process only took place in native Germanic words. That’s why it’s goose/geese, but not moose/meeseː the word “moose” is not Germanic at allǃ It comes from an Algonquian language of Canada, and therefore never went through the umlaut process.

Finally, many words which once formed their plural through umlaut were later regularised to form it with -s. If this hadn’t happened, the plural of cow would be kye, and the plural of book would be… beech.

A veritable library.

So there you have it: that’s why some words in English have crazy plurals. What about the verbs with the crazy past tenses? Well, you’ll have to wait for a future post, when we’ll examine umlaut’s older sister, ablaut.

In the meantime, stay tuned for next week, when Rebekah will start us on a journey on why English spelling looks so bafflingly insane.

  1. Be like /e/, guys.

The Dark Arts: How We Know What We Know

If you’ve been following us at the HLC, and especially our Fun Etymologies every Tuesday, you will have noticed that we often reference old languages: the Old English of Beowulf[1], the Latin of Cicero and Seneca, the Ancient Greek of Homer, and in the future (spoiler alert!), even the Classical Chinese of Confucius, the Babylonian of Hammurabi, or the Egyptian of Ramses. These languages all have extensive written records, which allows us to know them pretty much as if they were still spoken today, with maybe a few little doubts here and there for the older ones[2].

Egyptians might have had a bit TOO great of  a passion for writing, if you catch my drift

But occasionally, you’ve seen us reference much, much older languages: one in particular stands out, and it’s called Proto-Indo-European (often shortened to PIE). If you’ve read our post on language families, you’re probably wearily familiar with it by now. However, here’s the problem: the language is 10,000 years old! And writing was invented “just” 5,000 years ago, nowhere near where PIE was spoken.So, you may be asking, how the heck do we know what that language looked like, or if it even existed at all? And what do all those asterisks (as in *ekwom or *wlna) I see on the Fun Etymologies each week mean? Well, buckle up, dear readers, because the HLC will finally reveal it all: the dark magic that makes Historical Linguistics work. It’s time to take a look at…

The Comparative Method of Linguistic Reconstruction

“Linguistic history is basically the darkest of the dark arts, the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries.”

-Cola Minis, 1952

If we historical linguists had to go only by written records, we would be wading in shallow waters indeed: the oldest known written language, Sumerian, is only just about 5,000 years old.

The oldest joke we know of is in Sumerian. It’s a fart joke. Humanity never changes.

Wait, “only just”?? Well, consider that modern humans are at least 300,000 years old, and that some theories put the origins of language closer to a million years ago. You could fit the whole of history from the Sumerians to us 200 times in that and still have time to spare!

So, while writing is usually thought of as one of the oldest things we have, it is actually a pretty recent invention in the grand scheme of things. For centuries, it was just taken for granted that language just appeared out of nowhere a few millennia in the past, usually as a gift from some god or other: in Chinese mythology, the invention of language was attributed to an ancient god-king named Fuxi (approximately pronounced “foo-shee”), while in Europe it was pretty much considered obvious that ancient Hebrew was the first language of humankind, and that the proliferation of languages in the world was explained by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

Imagine your surprise when the guy who was supposed to pass you the trowel suddenly started speaking Vietnamese

This (and pretty much everything else) changed during the 18th century, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. During this age of bold exploration (and less savoury things done to the people found in the newly “discovered” regions), scholars started to notice something curious: wholly different languages presented interesting similarities with one another and, crucially, could be grouped together based on these similarities. If all the different languages of Earth had truly been created out of nothing on the same day, you would not expect to see such patterns at all.

In what is widely considered to be the founding document of historical linguistics, Sir William Jones, an English scholar living in India in 1786, writes:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists […]”

That source is, of course, PIE. But, again, how can we guess what that language sounded like? People at the time were too busy herding sheep and domesticating horses to worry about paltry stuff like writing.

Enter Jacob Grimm[3] and his Danish colleague Rasmus Rask. They noticed that the similarities between their native German and Danish languages, and other close languages (what we call the Germanic family today), were not only evident, but predictable: if you know how a certain word sounds in one language, you can predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy how its equivalent (or cognate) sounds in another. But their truly revolutionary discovery was that if you carefully compared these changes, you could make an educated guess as to what the sounds and grammar of their common ancestor language were. That’s because the changes that happen to a language over time are mostly regular and predictable. Think how lucky that is! If sounds in a language changed on a random basis, we would have no way of even guessing what any language before Sumerian looked like!

More like HANDSOME and Gretel, amirite?

This was the birth of the comparative method of linguistic reconstruction (simply known as “the comparative method” to friends), the heart of historical linguistics and probably the linguistic equivalent of Newton’s laws of motion or Darwin’s theory of evolution when it comes to world-changing power.

Here, in brief, is how it works:

How the magic happens

So, do we just look at a couple of different languages and guess what their ancestor looked like? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A lot more, in fact.

Not to rain on everyone’s parade before we even begin, but the comparative method is a long, difficult and extremely tedious process, which involves comparing thousands upon thousands of items and keeping reams of notes that would make the Burj Khalifa look like a molehill if stacked on top of each other.

The Burj Khalifa, for reference

What you need to do to reconstruct your very own proto-language is this:

  1. Take a sample of languages you’re reasonably sure are related, the larger the better. The more languages you have in your sample, the more accurate your reconstruction will be, since you might find out features which only a few languages (or even only one!) have retained, but which have disappeared in the others.
  2. Find out which sounds correspond to which in each language. If you do this with a Romance language and a Germanic one, you’ll find that Germanic “f” sounds pretty reliably correspond to Romance “p” sounds, for example (for instance, in the cognate couple padre and father). When you find a correspondance, it usually means that there is an ancestral sound underlying it.
  3. Reconstruct the ancestral sound. This is the trickiest part: there are a few rules which we linguists follow to get an accurate reconstruction. For example, if most languages in a sample have one sound rather than another, it’s more probable that that is the ancestral sound. Another criterion is that certain sound changes usually happen more frequently than others cross-linguistically (across many languages), and are therefore more probable . For example, /p/ becoming /f/ is far more likely than /f/ becoming /p/, for reasons I won’t get into here. That means that in our padre/father pair above, it’s more likely that “p” is the ancestral sound (and it is! The PIE root is *ph2tér[4]) Finally, between two proposed ancestral sounds, the one whose evolution requires the least number of steps is usually the more likely one.
  4. Check that your result is plausible. Is it in accordance with what is generally known about the phonetics and phonology of the language family you’re studying? Does it present some very bizarre or unlikely sounds or phonotactics? Be sure to account for all instances of borrowing, coincidences and scary German-named stuff like Sprachbunds[5]. If you’ve done all that, congratulations! You have an educated guess of what some proto-language might have sounded like! Now submit it to a few journals and see it taken down by three different people, together with your self-esteem.[6]But how do we know this process works? What if we’re just inventing a language which just so happens to look similar to all the languages we have in our sample, but which has nothing to do with what any hypothetical ancestor language of theirs would have looked like?

Well, the first linguists asked these very same questions, and did a simple experiment, which you can do at home yourself[7]: they took many of the modern Romance languages, pooled them together, and tried the method on them. The result was a very good approximation of Vulgar Latin.

Well, it works up to a certain point. See, while the comparative method is powerful, it has its limits. Notice how in the paragraph above I specified that it yielded a very good approximation of Vulgar Latin. You see, sometimes some features of a language get lost in all of its descendants, and there’s no way for us linguists to know they even existed! One example of this is the final consonant sounds in Classical Latin (for example, the -us and -um endings, as in “lupus” and “curriculum”), which were lost in all the modern Romance languages, and are therefore very difficult to reconstruct[8]. What this means is that the further back in time you go the less precise your guess becomes, until you’re at a level of guesswork so high it’s effectively indistinguishable from pulling random sounds out of a bag (i.e. utterly useless). That’s why, to our eternal disappointment, we can’t use the comparative method to go back indefinitely in the history of language[9].

When you use the comparative method, you must always keep in mind that what you end up with is not 100% mathematical truth, but just an approximation, sometimes a very crude one. That’s what all the asterisks are for: in historical linguistics, an asterisk before a word basically means that the word is reconstructed, and that it should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt[10].

The End

And so, now you know how we historical linguists work our spells of time travel and find out what the languages of bronze age people sounded like. It’s tedious work, and very frustrating, but the results are well worth the suffering and the toxic-level intake of caffeine necessary to carry it out. The beauty of all this is that it doesn’t only work with sounds: it has been applied to morphology as well, and in recent years we’ve finally been getting the knack of how to apply it to syntax as well! Isn’t that exciting?

It certainly is for us.

Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll dive into the law that started it all: Grimm’s law!

  1. P.S. Remember that Fun Etymology we did on the word “bear”? Yeah, “Beowulf” is another of those non-god-angering Germanic taboo names for bear! It literally means “bee-wolf”.
  2. Or even some big ones: we know very little about how Egyptian vowels were pronounced and where to put them in words, for example.
  3. Yes, the same guy who wrote the fairy tale books, together with his brother.
  4. I won’t explain the “h2” thing, because that opens a whole other can of worms we haven’t time to dive into here.
  5. We’ll talk about these in a future post.
  6. This doesn’t always happen. Usually.
  7. And it doesn’t involve any explosives or dangerous substances, only long, sleepless nights and the potential for soul-crushing boredom. Hooray!
  8. I don’t say “impossible”, because in some cases a sound lost in all descendant languages can be reconstructed thanks to its influence on neighbouring sounds, or (as in the case of Latin) by comparing with different branches of the family. But this is, like, super advanced über-linguistics.
  9. Which would instantly solve a lot of problems, believe me.
  10. Historical linguistics is an exception here. In most other fields of linguistics, the asterisk means “whatever follows is grammatically impossible”.

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.

Morphological Typology, or How Language is Like Ice Cream

Language is like ice cream: it’s delicious, it’s addictive, it’s refreshing, and it comes in an enormous number of varieties.

Did you know that in my native Italy, where modern ice cream was invented, it is customarily divided into three major categories, depending on how much milk it contains?

First of all, there’s sherbet: this is the most ancient kind of ice cream, and it’s basically just flavoured ice. It contains no milk. Then there’s the so-called “frutte” (fruits), which, as the name implies, are exclusively fruit-flavoured, and contain some milk. Finally, there’s the “creme” (creams), such as chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut. These are the true kings of ice cream, and contain the most milk of all.

Believe it or not, language is divided in the exact same way, only with morphological complexity (i.e. how many prefixes, suffixes, and word changes they have) instead of milk: language sherbets with little to no morphological complexity are called isolating languages; language frutte, with a moderate amount of morphological complexity, are called fusional languages; and language creme, with lots of morphological complexity, are called agglutinating languages.

Let’s look at each kind in a bit more detail.

Isolating Languages

Isolating languages are the simplest languages as far as morphology goes (which doesn’t mean they’re “simple” or “easy” languages though!). In a purely isolating language, words never change form: verbs don’t conjugate for tense or mood (as in love – loved), and nouns don’t decline for number or case (as in cow – cows) or anything else.

Now you’re probably thinking: “What a nightmare! How are speakers of these languages supposed to know if there’s more than one of something? Or if something happened in the past or will happen in the future?”

The answer to this question is that they use context, or, when that fails, they “cheat” by using special separate words which carry grammatical meaning, much like English suffixes do.

The classic example of an isolating language is Mandarin Chinese, which is also the language with the largest number of speakers in the world. Let’s look at a Chinese sentence to see how it deals with number and tense:


wǒ sān nián qián chī guo sìshí kuài dàngāo, dùzi téng sǐ la!

I three year before eat PAST forty slice cake, stomach hurt death PERF.EXCL!1

Three years ago I ate forty slices of cake, my stomach killed me!”

See? With the use of clever little words like guo (which basically means ‘past tense’), there’s no need to conjugate the verb! And the fact that we’re talking about more than one slice of cake is fully conveyed by the number “forty”, relieving the noun of the burden of plural suffixes.

Fusional Languages

The middle children of the linguosphere, fusional languages are probably the most familiar to readers of this blog, and that’s because most European languages, English included, are fusional.

Fusional languages have a moderate amount of prefixes and suffixes, such as the un- in unimportant or the -ed in cooked (collectively called affixes), and other morphological tricks up their sleeves, and they particularly like changing the forms of their words without adding stuff to them (à la goose – geese). What they don’t like doing is adding more than one or two extra pieces to their words, which keeps them small and contained.

“Well, what if a verb is both past and perfect, or a noun both plural and genitive (possessive)?” I hear you ask. Well, fusional languages have a neat trick to deal with these situations, and that is having a single affix or a word change have more than one meaning.

Now, English is kind of the runt of the litter when it comes to fusional languages, and has some peculiarities which make it somewhat of a bad example to use to explain how they work, so I’ll use my native Italian to show you a fusional language in action:

Se Giovanni facesse quelle stramaledette salsiccie, mangeremmo come dei re.

if Giovanni do-3P.SING.PRES.COND those blasted.PL sausage.PL, eat-2P.PL.PRES.SUBJ like of.the.PL king.PL

If Giovanni were to make those blasted sausages, we would eat like kings.”

Look at those suffixes! The suffix -eremmo in mangeremmo means second person, plural, present and subjunctive2. How’s that for multitasking!?

Agglutinating Languages

Remember two sections ago when you were wondering how isolating languages managed to work with no affixes at all? Well, that laughter you heard coming from the back of the room were the agglutinating languages, mocking our puny fusional lack of affixation.

Agglutinating languages love affixes: the more stuff you can stick to a word, the better. They treat their words like daisy-chains, adding affix upon affix, nevermind how long they end up to be. For agglutinating languages, there’s no need for multitasking in affixes, because you can string as many as you like one after another.

An example of an agglutinating language we can find here in Europe is Finnish, which, as everyone knows, is the native language of Santa Claus, or Joulupukki as he’s known up there.

Let’s have a look at some Finnish:

Kirjastoissammekin on ruskeakarhuja!

book-COLL-PL-INESS-2PL-TOO is brown.bear-PL-PART!

We have brown bears in our libraries too!”

Look at that. Eight words in English, three words in Finnish, isn’t that amazing?

The word kirjastoissammekin alone means “in our libraries too”, and can be neatly taken apart like this: kirja-sto-i-ssa-mme-kin “book-collection-plural-in-our-too”. If you don’t find that neat, then I frankly don’t know how to impress you.

Sometimes, agglutinating languages go mad with power and let their words run amok, gobbling up everything they see, including other words. We call these extreme examples of agglutination polysynthetic languages. These mad scientists can incorporate pieces of words inside other words, giving rise to Frankensteinian monstrosities which can carry the meaning of a whole English sentence on their own. Here’s an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language spoken in Canada:



“I’ll have to go to the airport”

More literally, this über-word could be translated as “I will have to arrive at the place where the big rising things are.”


Now that we’ve reached the end of our brief trip through the three morphological types of language, let me quickly go back to my ice cream metaphor to explain an important point about this classification: just as you can mix and match different kinds of ice cream in your cup, languages rarely fit neatly into these categories. Most languages combine characteristics from at least two of these groups, with one being dominant and the others subordinate. For example, it could be argued that English is a fusional language that’s rapidly moving towards becoming isolating; Mandarin Chinese is mostly isolating, but it has some agglutinating characteristics; and Finnish has been known to stray into fusional behaviour from time to time.

The takeaway from this is that things in the world are rarely clear-cut, and language is no exception.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief (but wild) jaunt through the various ways languages organise their morphology. Next week, it will be Sabina’s turn again, and this time she will answer the pressing question: what is the relationship between language and writing? Are they the same thing? (SPOILER: They’re not.)

See you then!

Glossing Glossary (Gloss-ary? Anyone?)

The following is a list of the abbreviations I’ve used in the glosses for the examples. You can happily and safely skip this if you’re not interested in what the abbreviations mean.

PERF : perfect

EXCL : exclamative

1-2-3P : first/second/third person

SING : singular

PRES : present

COND : conditional

PL : plural

SUBJ : subjunctive

COLL : collective

INESS : inessive (a case in Finnish)

PART : partitive (a case in Finnish)

HAB : habitual

FUT : future


  1. By the way, that cool thing in italics I did with the word-by-word translation is called glossing and we use it a lot in linguistics to explain how sentences work in different languages (don’t worry about the PERF.EXCL thing, it doesn’t concern us).

  2. The subjunctive is what we in linguistics call a mood, which can be very roughly understood as the way of the verb of telling the listener how factual the information you’re giving them is. The subjunctive indicates that the information is hypothetical.