Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why I Disappeared

Since law school applications and the last semester of college have taken me by storm, I haven't had the time to do a blog.

Hopefully, though, once I start law school I will share with the class and maybe get some revenue in the process. Papa needs a new pair of glasses (not to mention an entirely new wardrobe).

Saturday, September 25, 2010

French influence on English

Hey everyone, I'm sorry that I haven't written anything in a week or so; school and LSAT prep is taking up a lot of my free time. Hopefully this week will be a little calmer. It's always been a mystery to me why all of my professors choose the same week for their tests.


Anyway, I'm going to talk a little bit about how French has influenced English's vocabulary and grammar.

In most English classes they'll tell you that English was 'born' in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings. In a sense, that's true. During that time, William of Normandy decided that, since he'd conquered his neighbor, it would be a good idea to stamp out their language and replace it with French. He killed a bunch of people and replaced them with French speakers in the hopes that it would catch on. But he made a crucial error: he killed the wrong people.

See, if he really wanted to kill the English language, he should have killed the common people (the uneducated). Instead, he substituted English elite for French elite. There were more commoners than their were French speakers, so English won out.

Yet it didn't conquer French unchanged. Previous to 1066, English was a more inflected language than it is currently. Inflection is the modification of a word in order to express different grammatical categories (say, how we change she to her or he to him, or how we make plurals), and English was rife with it; remnants of that old system are apparent in how we pluralize ox (oxen), child (children), or sometimes brother (brethren). But when French came to Britain, the words English speakers were picking up were more difficult to inflect; they didn't behave in the way native English words did. This most likely contributed (but didn't cause) to English's transformation into an analytic language, or a language that relies on word order to express sentence meaning.

Have you ever wondered why pigs are called swine and their meat is called pork? Why we raise cows and kill them for their beef? Why birds become poultry? It's because pork, beef, and poultry are words that come from French and swine, cow, and bird are Anglo-Saxon; the Brits were raising the animals and the French were eating them, so it's only natural the animal gets an Anglo-Saxon name and the meat is French sounding. Additionally, we picked up words like fantastic and magnificent from the French as they were describing things in their famously flowery way. Even more, a huge chunk of our words that are Latin in origin actually made their way to us through French.

So, whether or not English speakers like the French, they can't help but sound just a little like them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Misconceptions about the English language #1

As a person who is engrossed in language study everyday, I get some strange questions. More often, though, I hear some really strange statements. It's hard to correct people's misconceptions about language (especially their own language) in public; it's a douche thing to do, really. So I'll get on my soapbox and vent a bit, and hopefully along the way I'll give you all some new ways to think about the English language. I plan on making this a series, maybe pointing out a couple of things a week.

First, let's talk dirty about pronouns. Grammarians have been griping about how English speakers (commoners, as they see it) fail to use the proper pronoun when speaking of a person of an unspecified gender. To them, he stands as the default pronoun. Example:

Jim: Hey, do you want to go eat Mexican tonight?
Erica: Well, I would, but I told a friend we would hang later...
Jim: Oh, tell ___ that ____ is welcome to come along!

Grammarians would have you say "tell him that he is welcome". But do people use that? Hell no, it comes off as sexist and stuffy; in most cases, we use they. Some people use he or she (or even worse, s/he in writing), but the majority of people find that far too awkward.

Well, turns out, we've always used "they" (and by always, I mean since about the fourteenth century). Here's the bad part: guess what sexist, pig-headed piece of crap came up with this rule...

A woman! In fact, Anne Fisher, the first female grammarian.

Next on our list is the idea that English "comes from" Latin. FALSE. Actually, Latin and English are in different language families entirely (although they are both Indo-European languages). We do have a very large repertoire of words in our language that are Latin in origin (we acquired many through French... more on that tomorrow), but where your words come from does not determine your language family. English is a West Germanic language, and our grammar is far more similar to languages of the Germanic ilk than it is to the so called Romance languages.

Now, about accents. Have you ever wondered how or when Americans lost their English accents? I've met a couple of Brits who've either told me it's a shame we Americans don't talk like the British anymore, or that Americans speak a kind of English that really isn't English. Both are misguided because, in reality, Americans never talked like the British of today do. Why? Because, when the American colonies started up, the British accents were very different than they are currently; Americans we're isolated from the rest of the English-speaking world, so they retained much of the eighteenth century features longer than their European cohorts . We've actually been changing in different directions for quite some time now, but for a while there the American public spoke more like eighteenth century England than the contemporary England did!

That's it for now. Until tomorrow, when I'll talk about French's very unique influence of English.

PS: A book about the quirks and history of the English language written for the layperson that I highly recommend people pick up is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, which has quickly become a field favorite. It's easy to read, well-informed, and one of the reasons I became a linguist.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why didn't Esperanto ever catch on?

Esperanto, the most famous and widely spoken auxiliary (or constructed) language in the world, has for over a century been popular amongst a very small but global subculture. Speakers and proponents of Esperanto say that it's simplicity and universality could allow speakers of two unrelated languages to speak to one another on equal footing; instead of a French speaker learning German to speak to a German speaker (while the German speaker can enjoy a state of linguistic superiority and speak in his native tongue), they both could learn Esperanto in very little time and then speak as equals.

Esperanto has very simple grammar; the endings of syntactic categories (parts of speech) are all uniform, so things like conjugating and making plurals are easy to do. The writing system uses a modified Latin script (familiar to much of the world), and the pronunciation is regular. Furthermore, a great amount of world literature has been translated into Esperanto and conventions are held worldwide to unite speakers.

But, honestly, very few people know about Esperanto and even fewer speak it. Schools are afraid to teach children a 'pretend' language, and since there is no notable country that has Esperanto as an official language, going abroad isn't a viable option (expect maybe using Esperanto to speak with someone you are visiting one on one). Not only that, but the claim that Esperanto is regular and easy for everyone to learn is false advertising; people used to tonal languages, non-SVO word order, people who have a different consonant/vowel inventory, and people unfamiliar with the sources for Esperanto's word base won't have a particularly easy time picking up the language. In fact, there are far more languages in the world that are dissimilar to Esperanto than those that are similar. And, as time goes on, more and more exceptions are emerging in Esperanto (so one of its main selling points is in a state of degradation).

What would happen if a language like Esperanto did catch on? Dialects. As soon as people had the ability to speak Esperanto in everyday exchanges, they would begin to make it their own and create local variations. Unless some particularly militant prescriptivists took over, we would have multiple Esperantos in a century or less; when no foreign people are around and you're just with friends, there's no reason to speak in a universal way.

The ambition is a good one: unite people and speak as equals. The reality is, though, that artificial languages are unpopular and will remain unpopular. And even if people did pick them up, they would change them so quickly there's almost no point.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Voynich Manuscript

I got a question last night about the Voynich manuscript, so I'll tell you what I think about it. But first, here's the wiki to the manuscript; if you're unfamiliar with what the manuscript is, then you might want to read that first:

So there are a few people out there that are said to have written the manuscript and, out of all the contenders, I find it easier to believe that Edward Kelley is the author. Why? Because he's been attributed to a constructed (or received, as living occultists would prefer me to label it) language before, Enochian. While things like word repetition are not prevalent in the Enochian texts, the average word length appears to be around the same.

Kelley was also infamous for forgery and counterfeiting, and had knowledge of the classical languages; his familiarity with Greek could be an explanation for the text's variations in grapheme usage (the variations are more extreme in the manuscript than in Greek, but that's to be expected). His chaotic life and wanderings could also be reason as to why the writing styles of sets A and B are so different.

Frankly, I'm not an expert on cryptography (the field that this really pertains to). The most I can speak to is the language used in the text, and since it is as of yet undeciphered, there isn't much to go off of. I find the likelihood of the text being of Asiatic origin minimal; the author would have to have had verbal exposure to the source language (which means travel Old World style), and if the author was of such learned status and gained the level of fluency required to create the manuscript, they most likely would have been able to/been interested in writing the language as it's native speakers did. When researchers are making the Asiatic connection, they may be over-extrapolating; with as many languages out in the world as there are, any given text is bound to resemble a few of them in a couple of aspects. It's very bold of someone to say that they cannot recognize any graphemes or words in a text and then in the same breath say the text can be assigned to a extant language.

So, essentially, I'm saying (as a reasonably informed non-expert) that the Voynich manuscript is most likely a hoax created to turn a profit for either Kelley or Dee and the text may or may not mean anything. If it did mean something, we will probably need a gloss of some sort provided by the author to ascertain the meaning; determining the parameters of a language that you cannot dissect phonologically, morphologically, or syntactically is a tall order.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Descriptive linguistics and the written word

When in an English class, they usually place a special emphasis on spelling and punctuation; writing is the cornerstone of pedagogical language instruction. In linguistics, however, this is absolutely not the case. We study writing systems and spelling conventions to understand historical connections (using a corpus) and to determine possible pronunciations, but the written word is not terribly interesting to us, and here's why:

  • Speech appears to be universal to all human beings capable of producing and hearing it, while there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
  • Speech evolved before human beings invented writing;
  • People learn to speak and process spoken languages more easily and much earlier than writing

There are, on the other hand, orthographers who study written systems specifically. Orthography, though, is a rather unpopular subset of linguistics currently; most research is going into things like syntax and language acquisition and less focus is being put on things that are more philological in nature.

In short, I don't pay attention to how people write all that much as a linguist. Ultimately writing is a data-poor fossil of how people wish they could speak. We want data about the type of communication that happens on a split-second basis outside the realm of the grammarian's conventions.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A quick thanks

Hey guys, I'd just like to pop in and say thanks for all of the support and feedback I've been getting; this is my first real blogging experiment, and I appreciate the time people are taking out of their day to read about something I'm deeply interested in. For the longest time, I've looked for a creative outlet and this really satisfies that need thus far.

If there's anything you'd like to hear about here, let me know! My ambition is to be one of those blogs that you pop in on everyday or so and get a small boost in your day for visiting.

Until tomorrow!