Early Germanic Dialects: The Gothic language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From Omniglot)

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

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

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

Old High GermanGothic
manodmenoþ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you then!

References

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

Other resources we’ve used for this post are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Chaos? Nah, just a vowel shift

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I!  Oh hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

 

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

1

Gosh, English pronunciation can be really tricky at times, can’t it? Interested in knowing why?

Well, of course you are! Let’s dive into it together!

As the excerpt above clearly shows, English spelling is often considered a bit ’off’, poorly corresponding to the written word. That’s true, it often doesn’t. But why is that?

Well, while it is not the only reason behind this tricky correspondence between the spoken and written word, today’s topic does explain a lot: the ‘Great’ English Vowel Shift (let’s stick to calling it the GVS from now on) came along and messed things up quite a bit.

Some of you will probably have heard about the GVS before; it was a significant sound change that occurred primarily during the Middle Ages. This sound change affected the long vowels of Middle English, causing them to shift like so:

 

2

Great, so… we done here? You now know everything there is to know about the GVS, right?

Nah, not really.

First, the GVS is actually considered by a lot of linguists to be a process of at least two phases3:

The first phase is considered to have lasted up until approximately the year 1500. During this phase, the long high Middle English vowels /i:/ and /u:/, pronounced similar to the vowels in Modern English meet [mi:t] and lute [lu:t], diphthongised and eventually became the modern English diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/, the pronunciations you find in mice [maɪs] and mouse [maʊs]. The vowels immediately below them, that is /e:/ and /o:/4, raised one position, falling into the slots previously held by /i:/ and /u:/.

In the second phase, often considered to have been active between the late 16th to mid-17th centuries, the remaining vowels, that is /ᴐ:, a:, ɛ:/, raised one position in height.

What we eventually wind up with is a system of vowels completely changed from its predecessor.

Now, why would that happen?

As with a good number of things in historical linguistics, we don’t exactly know. However, there are two leading hypotheses out there.

The first is the so-called push-chain theory, which was introduced by the great German philologer Karl Luick as early as 1896. Luick argued that the GVS must have been initiated by the movement of the lower vowels /e:/ and /o:/. The two vowels, for some mysterious reason of their own, started to move toward the high vowels /i:/ and /u:/. As they drew nearer, /i:/ and /u:/ started panicking because, it is sometimes argued, they couldn’t raise any higher and remain vowels (instead becoming yucky consonants, bläch).

Well, can’t have that, can we? In pure desperation, /i:/ and /u:/ look for a way out. And they find one—move in (or out, if you will). So, that is precisely what they do, they move in: they become diphthongs, lower and, suddenly, Middle English /i:/ and /u:/ become modern English /əɪ/ and /əʊ/, eventually becoming /aɪ/ and /aʊ/. Tadaa, we have the first steps to a modern English vowel system.

Luick’s hypothesis is actually quite elegant in a way because it successfully explains the lack of diphthongisation of /u:/ in the northern dialects of British English. In these dialects, the vowel /o:/ had previously fronted, becoming /ø:/. The northern dialects therefore didn’t have a vowel /o:/ to push /u:/ out of its place, and the diphthongisation never happened there (pretty neat, huh?).

The second of our hypotheses, the drag-chain theory, was introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1909. Now, Jespersen argued that it was equally likely that the diphthongisation of the high vowels initiated the shift. Basically, Jespersen’s reasoning was like this:

The high vowels, i.e. /i:, u:/, shifted and became diphthongs. That left a ‘gap’ in the vowel system. Horrified, the lower vowels scrambled to move up the ladder to fill the gaps. All of the sudden, Middle English /a:/ became early Modern English /ɛ:/, Middle English /ɛ:/ became early Modern English /e:/ and so on (the back vowels tagged along, too), and so, harmony was restored.

Now, the (to me, at least) flaw of this hypothesis is that it doesn’t account for the non-diphthongisation of northern /u:/, but then again, Luick’s hypothesis claiming that the high vowels couldn’t raise any higher has been noted to be somewhat limited—the high vowels could have done several other things to avoid becoming consonants5. But that’s a different discussion.

Regardless of which of these hypotheses you want to consider more likely, this is the ‘Great’ English Vowel Shift: a huuuuge chain shift that took centuries to complete and affected all long vowels of Middle English. That’s a pretty big deal.

Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with spelling, right? Well, you see, the thing is that English spelling started to become standardized during the ongoing GVS. What this means is that we have a bunch of words where the written form corresponds to a pronunciation that is centuries old. So, basically, meet and meat, both pronounced [mi:t] in British English, are spelled differently because, when those high and mighty people speaking Middle English decided that there was a correct way to spell those words, they did have distinct pronunciations!

So, next time you get annoyed by having to look up how you spell something, just stop and consider that you’re actually spelling the word the way it was pronounced about 600 years ago. Pretty cool, huh?

 

 

 

 

Oh, oh! I almost forgot! Have you been asking yourself why I keep using ‘’ around ‘Great’? No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway!

The ‘Great’ was introduced by Jespersen and, frankly, while the GVS did indeed have a huge effect on the English language, vowel shifts happen all the time. So, take the ‘Great’ with a pinch of salt and a shot of tequila and we might get on the right track of things.

 

 

 

 

Side notes

1.   There is nothing to say that either of these hypotheses is an accurate description on the initial process of the GVS. Long before I took my first bumbling steps into academia (actually, about a year before I was even born), Donka Minkova and Robert Stockwell noted that it may just be the desire to see a systematic aspect of language and discount its random quirks. So, don’t take it too seriously.

2.     If you’d like to read more about the GVS and other hypotheses, please take a look at Gjertrud Flermoen Stenbrenden’s dissertation work The Chronology and regional spread of long-vowel changes in English from 2010. It’s a really interesting read and introduces a lot more on the subject than I could possibly cover here.

Sources

1 This is an excerpt of the excellent poem The Chaos by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité (Netherlands, 1870-1946). Translated by Pete Zakel.

2 This is one of the common ways to depict the GVS, a similar one can be found in most textbooks on the subject. See, for example, Historical Linguistics by Theodora Bynon (1977: 82)

3 See for example The Cambridge History of the English Language (2008) in which Roger Lass writes about this division into two phases. A similar explanation can be found in most textbooks on linguistics that deal, in some way, with historical linguistics (though I really recommend reading Lass’ explanation if you wish to know more about this).

4 Really, I would like to give you examples of these sounds, but I can’t. They’ve basically disappeared from modern English, though they can, most likely, be found in some dialects of English today. Examples can be found of /e:/ in some variants of Scottish English, for example in mate [me:t], but other than that, I can’t seem to find enough examples. If you do find them, though, please let us know! We would love to know more!

5 See, for example the critique by Charles Jones in A History of English Phonology (1989).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are they all going?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there were two brothers who very much enjoyed stories. They travelled their country looking for folk tales, each one darker and grimmer than the last… There was no happily ever after in sight and, though their stories have changed much since, the original tales are still found out there for those brave enough to seek them…

Prepare yourselves, my dears, because this… this is the story of the brothers Grimm.

*

Or not! Actually, it is the story of one of the brothers: Jacob Grimm. And it won’t be grim in the least but full of fun linguistic facts!

Today, we’ll be talking about what is known as the First Germanic Sound Shift, Rask’s Rule or, most commonly, Grimm’s Law.

Riccardo touched upon this topic in last week’s post on the comparative method, a method that was pretty much born with this particular observation. The first to notice the correspondence that would eventually become Grimm’s Law was Friedrich Schlegel, a German philologist, in 1806. Rasmus Rask, a Danish philologist, extended the ‘rule’ to to other PIE languages in 1818 and, eventually, Grimm included German in his book Deutsche Grammatik, published in 1822.

Now, they noticed a regular sound change that affected certain Proto-Indo-European (PIE) consonants. They also noticed that this particular sound change only affected the Germanic languages, e.g. German, Dutch, English, Swedish, etc.

But what is it?

Well, Grimm’s Law describes how certain PIE consonants developed in Proto-Germanic, particularly early Germanic stops and fricatives. Now, you might want to refresh your memory on phonological terminology before continuing, but there can be said to be three parts of the chain shift that is Grimm’s law:

  1. PIE voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives
  2. PIE voiced stops became voiceless stops
  3. PIE voiced aspirated stops became voiced stops or fricatives.

That might be a bit abstract but it basically works like this:

PIE PGmc¹ PIE PGmc PIE PGmc
p > f b > p bh > b
t > θ d > t dh > d
k > x g > k gh > g
> > ghʷ >

 

Consider these words in Latin, English and Swedish and compare them to their PIE root:

 

PIE² Latin English Swedish
*ped- pēs foot fot
*dwo- duo two två
*genu- genū knee³ knä

Now, why would English and Swedish have <f>, <t> and <k> where PIE and Latin have <p>, <d> and <g>?

Well, because English and Swedish, being Germanic languages, underwent Grimm’s Law and thus changed the PIE sound */p/, */d/ and */g/ to /f/, /t/ and /k/ respectively. Latin, on the other hand, is an Italic language and didn’t undergo this change, thus keeping the sounds of PIE (or at least approximately, though exactly how close these sounds are is a bit difficult to say with certainty).  

Why would this happen, you might wonder? What would make one sound shift to become another sound?

Well, we don’t really know exactly how it started or why. It might be what is called a ‘pull chain’, meaning that one sound shifts, leading to a ‘gap’ in the phonological values of the language. As a result, another sound shifts to fill that gap and a third sound shifts to fit the gap of the second one and so on and so forth.

But, it is also possible that it worked the other way around, meaning that one sound started to shift and basically pushed another sound out of its place, thereby leading to a chain shift. This is called a push chain.

But as to how such a chain started? Well, that part is still kind of shrouded in mystery. Perhaps two sounds became too similar to each other and became difficult to distinguish from each other, forcing a shift? We might never know.

What we do know, however, is that Grimm’s Law did affect all Germanic languages, leading to a distinction between that language family and its PIE-derived sisters.

But there are also a good number of exceptions from this rule. For example:

Why does PIE *bʰréh₂tēr (“brother”) become Proto-Germanic *brōþēr but PIE *ph₂tḗr (“father”) became Proto-Germanic *fadēr?

In ‘brother’, the development follows Grimm’s Law, i.e.  t > þ, but in ‘father’ it does not. Instead of the, by Grimm’s law, expected development, i.e. t > þ, the Proto-Germanic word developed t > d. Why is that?

Well, cue Karl Verner; a Danish linguist who in 1875 formulated what is now known as Verner’s Law, an addition, if you will, to Grimm’s Law. Verner’s Law explains such occurrences as ‘father’, showing that voiceless fricatives, e.g. *f, *s, *þ, when immediately following an unstressed syllable in the same word, underwent voicing and becomes fricatives, e.g. *β, *z,*ð

Now, you might be thinking that this is all very interesting but why is it important? ‘cause I can pretty much promise you, that if there is anything the budding historical linguist is aware of, it is Grimm’s Law.

Well, while it is fascinating in its own right, its discovery showed us something much greater than we had ever thought possible before: that sound change is a regular phenomenon, not a random process affecting only some words.

This discovery not only set historical phonology apart as its own field of study but also means that we can predict and understand phonological developments, a discovery that cleared the field for the comparative method.

And without the comparative method, of course, our field of inquiry would be so much poorer as we would largely be unable to properly understand the relationship between languages and the historical developments of those languages.

And wouldn’t we all be a lot poorer for that lack of understanding?

So, next time you watch Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, remember that Jacob Grimm not only provided you with these stories but helped design the most used, and important, method in historical linguistics to this day. Not a bad contribution, right?

Join us next week when our awesome magician Riccardo is back! This time, he’ll be talking about the magic of umlaut and ablaut, so if you’ve ever wondered why it’s ‘mouse’ but ‘mice’ but not ‘house’ and ‘hice’ you definitely don’t want to miss it.

 

Notes and sources

¹ PGmc is a common abbreviation for Proto-Germanic

² All the PIE roots can be found by a simple google search. These are taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary found here: https://www.etymonline.com/. Have fun!

³ Remember now that while the <k> in modern English ‘knee’ is silent today, it was pronounced in earlier stages of English.

*The little pic is from http://tentcampinghq.com/camping-articles/how-to-tell-scary-campfire-stories-2/

**For those who wants to know more about Grimm’s Law, most (if not all) introductory textbooks on linguistics deals with the subject at least a little bit. This particular illustration is from Millward, C.M. A Biography of the English Language.  Ft. Worth: Harcourt, 1996. Pg. 63 but a similar one can be found in pretty much any textbook. Particularly recommended is Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics (3rd ed., 2012) which deals with most things historical linguisticky with great attention to detail and plenty of examples (so it’s recommended generally, not only for this particular sound change). 

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”.

Phonology 101: Vowels

And so we come at last to vowels, the final stop on this journey we call Phonology 101. So far, we’ve talked about the vocal tract (here), phonemes (here), and consonants (here). There’s also a post on the International Phonetic Alphabet (here).

As far as human speech sounds go, I feel like consonants are pretty straightforward. Sure, some are harder to produce than others, but you can point to a relatively clear place of articulation that’s easy to feel when you produce the sound yourself. When you produce [m], your lips are together. When you produce [t], your tongue touches right behind your teeth. Vowels are…squishier.

Let’s start with the easy part: all vowels are, by nature, voiced.1 Like consonants, vowels can be either oral or nasal, depending on whether the velum is raised or lowered (see if you can tell the difference between the vowels in mat /mæt/ and man /mæn/). Vowels can also be rounded or unrounded; this describes the shape of the lips during production.

Now, we need one more thing, one more feature, something similar to the consonants’ place of articulation, to distinguish each vowel from all the others. That magic feature is the position of the tongue within the vowel space. Well, it’s actually two features: height (or closeness, as you’ll see on the IPA chart) and backness.

IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Vowel height is kind of what it sounds like: how high (close) or low (open) in the mouth the tongue is. Backness refers to which part of the tongue is providing the pertinent interaction with the height variable—the back (closest to the throat), front, or center.

When talking about vowels, it’s good to keep in mind that as far as words meaning “middle” are concerned, “central” refers to the horizontal feature and “mid” refers to the vertical.

So, why do I say vowels are kind of squishy? In consonants, the tongue hits specific points along the roof of the mouth. In vowels, the tongue is interacting with empty air—a much less precise target to hit thousands and millions of times while speaking. In fact, phoneticians call our phonemes target vowels.

But what’s all this talk without some examples?

In cheese /t͡ʃiːz/, we find the high, front, unrounded vowel. The front of the tongue is high in the mouth, and the lips, rather than pursed, are pulled back into something resembling a smile (as many a subject of a painfully posed photograph can attest).

In choose /t͡ʃuːz/, the tongue is again high, but this vowel is back and rounded.

A few more:

The vowel in chess /t͡ʃɛs/ is low-mid front unrounded.
The vowel in Chaz /t͡ʃæz/ is low front unrounded.
The first vowel in Chaucer /t͡ʃɔːsəɹ/ is low-mid back unrounded.

You get the picture.

I’d like to point out a couple funny things you may have noticed in my phonemic transcriptions of these words.

First, I used /i/ to represent what native English speakers commonly think of as the E sound. The symbols used in IPA are a mix of letters and specialized characters. In the case of the vowels, the commonly familiar letters correspond to the so-called Continental vowels, i.e. they represent the sounds they spell in most European languages. English is the misfit here. The spellings we use for vowels are mismatched to the way they’re treated in other languages. There’s a very good reason for this, but that exciting story will have to keep for another day. As for /e/, this is used in IPA for what we English speakers think of as the A sound.

Next, the keen-eyed will have noticed that when I transcribed cheese, I didn’t just use /i/. There’s two funny dots after it that look like a colon. This symbol indicates that the vowel is long. American schoolchildren learn that the difference between Pete and pet is that the first has a long E and the second has a short E. This is not what I mean. For a phonologist, that sense of “long” and “short” is erroneous (and in fact, those two words have completely different vowels). Rather, this symbol means that the vowel is held for a longer length of time; it indicates duration. In some languages, vowel length is phonemic, i.e. it differentiates one word from another. Heck, it used to be phonemic in English way back in the day. You don’t have to worry about whether your vowels are long or short in Modern English. That’s one of those allophonic2 features that just kind of happens.

Last, there’s a second vowel in Chaucer that I haven’t mentioned yet, represented by a flipped-around lowercase E: /ə/. A lot of these symbols I’m using are probably new and unfamiliar, so you may not have noticed it hiding there, but this disoriented little letter is special. It’s name is schwa. It represents a mid central unrounded vowel, which is to say it represents a relaxed, mushy, indiscriminate vowel sound. It’s often found in unstressed syllables, and it can be an allophone of a lot of other vowels when you’re not going out of your way to enunciate every word. It never really satisfies the phonemic requirement of separating one word from another, but it’s an important little sound nonetheless, this lazy vowel. Plus, schwa is fun to say.

There are a few more things to bear in mind about vowels. First, very few of the vowels we produce in English are pure, single sounds. Much like the consonantal affricates, sometimes two vowels get produced in such close sequence they act like a single sound. For vowels, these are called diphthongs. You can hear diphthongs in words like chase /t͡ʃeɪs/ and chai /t͡ʃaɪ/ (or the names of the letters A and I).

Second, vowels tend to vary a lot more from dialect to dialect than consonants do. You can look at all the varieties of English across the world, from Canada to New Zealand, and draft almost identical lists of consonants for all of them. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a linguist to tell that they all use (sometimes drastically) different sets of vowels.

Several times throughout this series, I’ve encouraged you to stop and to try producing some of these sounds. This is especially useful if you’d like to get a handle on vowels. Say some. Just roll sound around in your mouth. Make random, vowel-ish noises. I can give you clinical definitions of consonants. Vowels you’ve got to feel.

This is the end of Phonology 101, but if you’ve fallen in love with the science of speech production and sounds the way I have, don’t you fret. Phonology has a starring role in some of the most exciting stories English has to offer, and you can bet we’ll be bringing them your way. For now, you Scots lovers better hold onto your hats. Lisa’s back next week to help us understand some of the differences between English and Scots.

Notes

1As a point of curiosity, some languages, like Japanese, occasionally have voiceless vowels in specific contexts. But, this is a rarity. Like how hand sanitizer claims to kill 99.9% of germs.
2I know this is a blog, and we’re kind of asking a lot by asking you to remember all this terminology. Your cheat sheet for phonemes and allophones is right this way.

Phonology 101: Consonants, or “Let’s Make a Sandwich”

Well, well. Here we are again. Back for more Phonology 101. Today, we’re finally going to start putting names to faces, or, uh, sounds. That’s right, it’s time to talk about consonants!

Phones (as we learned to call speech sounds last time—catch up here) can be broadly divided into consonants and vowels.1 As you probably know, words can be divided up into syllables. A quick and dirty way to separate vowels and consonants is that vowels form the nucleus, i.e. the middle, of a syllable, and consonants are the sounds that go around the outside.2 If syllables were sandwiches, consonants would be the bread and condiments and the pickles and the lettuce and all that good stuff you put around the meat, i.e. the vowels.

But really, the main distinguishing characteristic of a consonant is that the flow of air through the vocal tract is impeded in some way. The nature of the impediment is called the manner of articulation.3 Together with place of articulation and voicing (which we discussed in part one of Phono 101—here), the manner of articulation is one of the three major defining characteristics of a consonant.

If you’ve been studying up on your IPA, the manner of articulation is listed in the left column of the pulmonic consonants chart:

IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Today, I’m going to go over several types of consonants, which will cover the bulk of the chart. The consonants I won’t cover are trills and taps (which you can see on the chart above), and clicks, implosives, and ejectives (which are listed elsewhere on the complete IPA chart, viewable here). These are much rarer in the world’s languages and, wouldn’t you know it, a bit trickier to grapple with. The sounds I will cover are all present in English, and that’s where I’ll be pulling my examples from. This is not because English is somehow more exemplary than other languages, but I’m writing in English, so I assume you, my trusty reader, have at least some familiarity with its sounds.

Our first type of consonant is called a plosive or a stop (the terms are interchangeable). (Ideally, I would say stops are wheat bread or mayonnaise or some other sandwich-making component, but this is a shaky metaphor that I’m afraid will quickly fall apart if spread too far.4) In these sounds, the airflow is completely blocked somewhere along the vocal tract and then released. The sound is stopped, then explodes outwards. (Most of the consonants have helpful names like that. Thankfully, we linguists don’t always use fancy Latin terms for things.) For example, when producing [b], both lips come together and part, stopping and releasing the flow of air. When producing [t], the closure is made by placing the tongue along the alveolar ridge. (I asked you before to try saying different sounds to get a feel for the places of articulation. You should definitely try that again today, this time paying attention to the manner of articulation. Go on. You know you want to.)

Another type of consonant is the fricative. Here, the flow of air is highly restricted but not completely cut off. These sounds tend to buzz or hiss, and the name of the game here is friction. Excellent examples are [v] (a voiced labiodental fricative) and [s] (a voiceless alveolar fricative). Fricatives are fun because you can drag them out as long as you want as long as you’ve got enough breath support.

Now sometimes, occasionally, when a stop and a fricative really love each other, those two crazy kids get together and form an affricate. An affricate is a stop followed in such close sequence by a fricative, they overlap to create what sounds like one phone. English has a couple of these. The first and last sounds in church (/t͡ʃ/) and judge (/d͡ʒ/) are affricates. There’s some debate over whether affricates should be treated as one sound or as a sequence of two.

Stops, fricatives, and affricates can, generally, be either voiced or voiceless. Due to how they’re produced, this isn’t necessarily true for some of the other types of consonants.

Some of those perpetually voiced sound are known as approximants. In these sounds, the airway is restricted, but the air passes around the sides of the tongue or passes through the narrowed areas without the friction characteristic of fricatives. This category includes sounds like [l], [ɹ], and [w]. “Approximants” is actually kind of a catch-all term for some of the most complicated consonants to produce, and they can be broken up into several subcategories. We’re not going to dive into those right now; I don’t want to make your head hurt more than I have to.

In all of these sounds (stops, fricatives, affricates, and approximants), the air passes through the oral cavity. For some sounds, the velum is lowered, allowing the sound to pass through the nasal cavity, like in [m] and [n]. This one’s easy: these sounds are called nasals.

That’s the whole grocery list, so let’s get back to our tenuous sandwich analogy. Some sandwiches/syllables are simple—just two pieces of bread and a slice of roast beef, like cat. Some have mayonnaise and tomatoes and cheese and all sorts of other fixings, like strength (the linguistic term is consonant clusters). Some sandwiches/syllables are open-faced, like do. No matter how you serve it up, put all the ingredients together and you wind up with something delicious.

In two weeks, I’ll be back to finish off Phonology 101 with an exploration of that phonemic delicatessen, vowels. Next week, Riccardo will be here to bend your mind on the subject of linguistic prejudice and a little something called phonaesthetics.

Notes

1Finally! Something intuitive, am I right?
2There are a couple consonants that occasionally blur this line, but contrary to what you might expect, none of them are represented by the letter Y.
3Technically, vowels also have a manner of articulation, but it’s the same for all vowels. Manner of articulation isn’t really important for vowels, but it’s crucial for consonants.
4Get it? “Spread”? I’m sorry.

Phonology 101: Phonemes, aka phonology’s little superheroes

Welcome back to Phonology 101! Last time, we talked about the vocal tract and two major features of speech sounds, namely place of articulation and voicing (catch up here). Today, we’re going to stop using the word “sound” in favor of some more precise terms: phone, phoneme, and allophone. You may also find it useful to catch up on IPA (here); I’ll be introducing some important notation, and moving forward, I’ll be using IPA more and more.

Individual speech sounds are called phones. In talking about speech production, we keep distinguishing between phonetics (the concrete/physical) and phonology (the abstract/mental). Phones exist on the phonetic plane. Our mental representations of the sounds in our language are called phonemes. If your brain was a computer running a language program, phonemes would be all the sound files. As mentioned previously, the International Phonetic Alphabet is the standard for transcribing phones and phonemes. When using IPA, brackets put around the symbols indicate whether phonetic or phonological data is being represented. Phones go in square brackets (e.g. [a]), and phonemes go between slashes (/a/). On both levels, this notation can be used for individual sounds, complete words, or even phrases and longer utterances.

More technically, a phoneme is “a minimal contrastive sound unit of a language.”1 What that means is, phonemes cannot be broken down into smaller units, and switching a single phoneme for another can make the difference between one word and another. To determine the phonemes of a language, linguists look for something called minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of words that differ in pronunciation by a single phone. An example of a minimal pair is mine /maɪn/ and kine /kaɪn/,2 which demonstrates that /m/ and /k/ are phonemes in English. As you can guess, minimal pairs have a tendency to rhyme, but the differing sounds don’t need to be at the beginning of words. They can also come at the end, as in mine /maɪn/ and might /maɪt/, or in the middle, as in can /kæn/ and kin /kɪn/.3 (These examples also nicely illustrate the point we keep emphasizing about how separate spelling and pronunciation actually are.)

Now, the thing about phonemes is, the sound we think we’re producing isn’t always technically the sound that comes out. Based on where it is in a word or the sounds surrounding it, a single phoneme might be pronounced in several ways. The physical manifestations of a phoneme are called allophones. Some phonemes might have only one allophone, while others might have several. Some allophones might be associated with more than one phoneme. I’ve had several teachers who explained it like this: Sometimes Superman is Superman, and sometimes Superman is Clark Kent. Sometimes, he’s even Kal-El. How he appears depends on the environment he’s in, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same guy. A linguistic example: In my dialect, I pronounce rot as [ɹɑt], but rotten is [ɹɑ.ʔən]. (Like generic phones, allophones go in brackets.) My “t” sound in rotten is something called a glottal stop. Even though it’s a different phone, my brain says the middle sound in rotten is the phoneme /t/ (an alveolar stop). This comes out when I enunciate it and it sounds more like [ɹɑ.tən]. [ʔ] is an allophone of /t/. (As we haven’t really talked about any specific sounds yet, I’ve tried to pick examples that would be kind of intuitive for most speakers. Even so, it was hard to avoid using some sounds and symbols that may be making you go, “Huh?” Here’s an interactive IPA chart with sound clips if you’d like to hear what I’m talking about.)

Some allophones are pretty obvious to spot, but others are more subtle. In ram [ɹæ̃m] the vowel takes on a nasal quality not present in rat [ɹæt] through the influence of the following nasal consonant /m/. This is how allophones tend to come about. In actual speech, no sound is produced in a vacuum. In the interest of ease of articulation, our mouths carry over features from previous sounds or, as in the case of ram, anticipate upcoming sounds. This process is highly predictable and regular. A phoneme will consistently produce the same allophone in a given environment.

Okay, so what? This is all well and good for linguists who just want to Know, but does it have any impact on your life? Well actually, yes. Every language variety has its own phoneme inventory. Phonemes in one language may only be allophones in another (or may be missing entirely). When we pick up a language as children, our boxed set of language features includes a list of sounds we consider phonemes. As we grow up, this internal phoneme inventory solidifies and becomes very hard to alter. This explains why people have an accent when they learn a second language—they’re unconsciously using their native phonemes.

Our phoneme inventories don’t just influence the way we pronounce words. They also filter how we process what we hear. In my dialect, I pronounce merry, marry, and Mary the same. In some dialects here in the United States, these words contain three different vowels and therefore have three distinct pronunciations. I’ve studied phonology long enough that I can carefully reproduce these pronunciations (when I remember which vowel goes with which word), but I still can’t hear the different when a native speaker of this dialect produces these words. For me, all these vowels get lumped into the same phoneme, so that’s how I hear them.

This isn’t a big deal for a situation like mine, where the phoneme difference is slight and it will be easy for me to figure out what’s being said. The differences between phoneme inventories can get more pronounced4, and interfere more with comprehension, when you’re speaking a second language. For example, in Arabic, [b] and [p] are not distinct phonemes, so it’s hard for a native Arabic speaker to distinguish between English barking and parking.

And this is why we’re wading through all this terminology and technical swampland: Language is a real world phenomenon with real world consequences. As in the Arabic example, phonology can have an effect on actual communication, as can morphology, syntax, semantics, and the other basic disciplines of linguistics. Once we’re done laying the groundwork, we can get to the fun stuff (like, what’s up with English spelling? And how do you pronounce GIF?).

There will be two more posts in the Phonology 101 series (for now). In two weeks, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of consonants, and then in March, we’ll go over vowels. Before we get to that, though, Sabina will be back next week to talk about something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and ask the big questions: Does our language influence how we think?

Notes

1Giegerich, Heinz J. 1992. English phonology: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2An archaic plural of cow. I just really wanted to use it.
3Another somewhat archaic word for family and relatives. (But maybe you knew this one.)
4Lol, phonology puns.

Phonology 101: Let’s Get Physical

We briefly explained phonology and phonetics when we gave a general rundown of some of the major disciplines of linguistics. Phonology has been a big part of linguistics from the beginning, and some of the stories we’re most excited to share with you are all about phonology. Even for some of the other topics we’re going to cover, a basic understand of phonology will be pretty useful. To that end, over the next couple months, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Phonology 101. We will cover some of the basics of how we produce speech, the concept of phonemes and how we distinguish individual sounds, and how consonants and vowels work. For those who aren’t all that excited by this prospect, don’t worry. This series will be interspersed with other topics from my co-conspirators.

You ready? Let’s get started!

A quick recap: When we talk about phonology and phonetics, we’re talking about the sounds of speech. Phonology studies the way our fantastic brain-machines store and organize those sounds and the rules used for spitting them out. Phonetics studies the physical production of sound, including things like acoustics and the way sounds inevitably influence each other when produced in sequence (like when you’re saying a word or phrase). A shorthand way to think about this is that phonology deals in the abstract and phonetics in the concrete.

Whichever side you’re studying, it’s good to know the basics of the vocal tract and all the moving parts in our throats and mouths that work together to produce speech. Even in the abstract, the three main features linguists use to define individual sounds are the place of articulation (i.e. the relevant part of the vocal tract most engaged in producing the sound), the manner of articulation (i.e. the way air is moving through the vocal tract), and voicing.1

We’ll talk more about manner of articulation down the road when we get to consonants. Today, let’s focus on place of articulation and voicing. Let me just apologize in advance for the amount of terminology I’ll be throwing at you today. Just think of it as us inducting you into our secret linguists club.

To talk about place of articulation, we’re going to have to start with a little anatomy lesson:

Side view diagram of the vocal tract.
I know. I’m sorry. There is not a non-horrific way to draw this. Believe me, I’ve tried. Drawing this diagram is a rite of passage all young linguists must undergo.

This is a side view of the oral and nasal cavities. The lips, the teeth, and the tongue are, I hope, familiar features of the mouth. If you run your tongue across the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, the bumpy, raised part is the alveolar ridge. Moving towards the throat, the hard part of the roof of your mouth behind the alveolar ridge is the palate, and the soft part behind the palate is the velum. The uvula is the little piece you can see dangling down in the back of the mouth when cartoon characters scream hysterically.

Generally, though not always, the place of articulation is where the flow of air through the mouth is most restricted. We use the Latin terms for the anatomy of the mouth to define place of articulation, so sounds involving the lips are called labial and sounds involving the teeth are called dental.

  • When the both lips come together, like when pronouncing ‘b’, a sound is called bilabial.
  • When the top teeth are against the bottom lip, like when pronouncing ‘v’, a sound is called labiodental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the teeth, like when pronouncing ‘th’, a sound is called dental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge, like when pronouncing ‘d’, a sound is called alveolar.
  • When the front of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge and the front of the palate, like when pronouncing ‘sh’, a sound is called palato-alveolar or post-alveolar.

There are also palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal (referring to the pharynx, the back of the throat), and glottal sounds. You get the idea. Play around with it. Say some random consonants or say words slowly and see if you can’t get a feel for where the sound is “coming from.” (That’s always been one of my favorite parts of phonology: talking to myself and calling it studying.)

So, those are the basic places of articulation. The other feature we’re going to talk about today, voicing, has to do with the position of the vocal folds (colloquially, the vocal cords) and the glottis. This isn’t so much two things as a package deal. The glottis is the empty space between the vocal folds. (I didn’t draw a picture of this because vocal folds are ugly.)

When the vocal folds are drawn together and the glottis is narrowed but not completely closed, the air moving through the vocal tract has less space to pass through. Some sciencey stuff happens and the vocal folds begin to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate in turn, and the result is a voiced sound. When the vocal folds are held apart and the glottis is open, the air passes through the throat largely unhindered, and the result is a voiceless sound. You can try this out, too. Touch the front of your throat in the vicinity of the Adam’s apple and make some sounds. Can you feel the difference? (Hint: try producing ‘b’ and ‘p’. Be careful not to accidentally tack a vowel on the end!)

This may all sound a little complicated, and the terminology can feel like a lot to wade through when you’re first starting out, but don’t you fret. I promise this will all start making a whole lot more sense when we focus in on the consonants and vowels.

Phonology 101 will pick back up in February. Before we get to specific sounds, we’re going to talk about phonemes and how linguists (and our very own brains—yes, yours, too) separate sounds. Next week, Sabina will introduce us to the intricacies of language families (and you thought holidays with your relatives were complicated).

Notes

1This is all still basically true for vowels, but they get a little trickier. We’ll get to that.