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!


Have you ever looked up a word in the dictionary, and next to the word itself there was a bunch of regular letters mixed with weird ones (such as an upside down e or a lambda)? That system of graphemes is what linguists call the IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA contains hundreds of symbols, thousands if you count possible diacritic modifications.

Why do we use a system with so many symbols if we can express all the sounds in English with the letters we already use? There are several reasons:

  • Our alphabet does not have a 1:1 sound to symbol ratio
  • Our alphabet cannot not adequately represent all possible human sounds (like clicks in Xhosa etc)
  • Using the Latin script puts users of other writing systems at a steep disadvantage
  • When we use IPA, we have an easier time transcribing previously unwritten languages
  • When investigating a language using the IPA, we aren't required to learn the language's writing system
Those are just a few perks the IPA affords us. In any linguistics textbook you browse through, you are bound to see the IPA scattered throughout; it is an integral means for us to express our findings effectively. 

Additionally, here is the website of the organization that standardizes the IPA:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What's a dialect and what's an accent?

There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about what a dialect is and what an accent is, so I'll spend a little time clearing that up as best I can.

Dialect - a variety of a language that is characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers.

(a la wikipedia)

Everyone speaks in one dialect or another (actually, people make use of several dialects depending on company). Dialects include accents and local usages (think y'all or chav or hizzle); they are more general ways of speaking that a speech community shares.

Accent is a manner of pronunciation of a language

(also from wikipedia)

Just as everyone speaks in one or more dialects, everyone has an accent. There isn't an English speaker that is 'accentless'. The people on the news are either speaking in a west coast accent, or are using something called received pronunciation (or Broadcast English). They usually have been trained to speak this way because it is thought those dialects are the ones most easily understood by the public at large.

Here's a map of America from a phonological perspective:

Individually, we all have an idiolect. An idiolect is a specific person's own unique way of speaking (their word choice, preferred grammar patterns etc). In linguistics, we tend to avoid studying the idiolect because the data is only useful for that one person and it's also very difficult to determine the specifics of an idiolect.

So, hopefully you can see a tiered system of the Dialect, Accent, and Idiolect. This is one of the ways human language is so layered, that variation occurs in association with huge social groups right down to the individual.

Rosetta Stone: right method, wrong time

By now everyone has seen an advertisement or two for Rosetta Stone, the leading language software out there today. I've gotten the chance to play with three or four of the languages at varying levels of difficulty, enough to form an educated opinion. As a user, I found it intuitive, fun, and visually appealing. The speech recognition software is pretty awesome (although you could basically watermelon your way through the Russian stuff), and most of Rosetta's competitors can't hold a candle to that. But as a linguist, I have a few negative comments.

The operating philosophy of Rosetta Stone is that the best way to learn a language is the way children learn them; immersion using basic sentences and sparse grammar instructions. It seems miraculous, doesn't it, how children learn to speak fluently by the age of six or so without any real help from their environment other than exposure time. Children are the best language learners out there, so they should be our models, right?

Dead wrong. Children learn languages so easily because of the primary language acquisition process, and there is a time limit to it; adults will not soak in complex grammar (grammar is your biggest hurdle) patterns in the same way children do and while learning as an academic subject is boring, awkward, and difficult for many, it's ultimately our best option. We have to tailor our programs not just to what works best theoretically, but what works best practically and for the targeted demographic.

And the idea of teaching examples without grammar works well for some languages. Swahili, for example, isn't grammatically complicated. Someone could learn Swahili as an adult without too many grammar woes. Highly inflected languages, however, are not so easily learned (or acquired) by native speakers of analytic languages like English; we need that grammar background to understand the underlying mechanisms that make sentences work. We have more language 'settings' to change in our minds when languages are more different, and that requires more intensive study (and dedication).

So, as an end result of Rosetta Stone, you will be able to parrot very basic sentences that express minimal abstract thought. A middle-aged language learner wanting to pick up Chinese before they set sail for Hong Kong so they can order in a restaurant or ask for directions may think that's all he needs: basic sentences to say basic things. But unfortunately, languages don't keep simple topics simple grammatically. In fact, since we use them everyday, verbs like "to be", "to know", "to eat", or "to have" are very often the most difficult and irregular.

Verdict: Rosetta Stone is a very cool, very expensive toy. Whether or not NASA uses it is of no interest to me; that doesn't speak to it's effectiveness, only to how much money NASA is willing to spend on bullshit.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Descriptive v. Prescriptive

There are two sorts of language nerd in the world; those that would like to tell everyone else in the world how to use language, and those who would seek to describe the way language is used. For the most part, linguists are the latter. We think that native speakers of a language should be free to speak in whatever way that makes sense. This freedom is what keeps a language useful and fluid, it's what gives speakers ownership over their language, and it's what, quite frankly, is easiest to do.

Ever wondered why your English teacher told you that you couldn't split an infinitive (to go, to run, to kill etc)? It's because Latin (which English did not come from, more on that later) does not have split infinitives. Why? Because Latin infinitives are only one word!

She wants to quickly run to the store.

She wants to run to the store quickly.

Both of the above sentences make sense. They are equally 'correct'.

Your teacher probably also told you to never start a sentence with a conjunction. And I just did, and you knew exactly what I meant. My proverbial tongue is sticking out.

What about that pesky contraction "ain't"? You might have been raised hearing the expression, "Ain't ain't a word!" but it totally is. In fact, 'ain't' is old as dirt and twice as common. If native speakers use it and understand it, it's a word folks.

We as linguists want to make sense of the way people actually use language, not attempt to warp people's usage to suit our fancy. We do fieldwork, we withhold judgement on 'slang' and 'colloquialisms', and we have confidence that languages work without our help. Instead of controlling them, we want to know what makes seemingly unregulated chaos serve us so efficiently as speakers.

There are some uses to the perspective approach but, more often than not, the prescriptive approach to language (think grammar nazis) is complete CRAP.

So in summary, linguists describe how language is used. We do not prescribe how it should be used.

Is linguistics a science?

Science is a very muddy word in the English language. When the layperson talks about science in everyday conversation, they are most often referencing the collected products of scientific inquiry (knowing what animal cells look like, the periodic table, the germ theory etc). People who consider themselves scientists, however, are more interested in determining whether or not an area of study makes use of the scientific method when arriving at conclusions.

Any linguist who has been around for the past sixty years or so will profess to you that linguistics is, indeed, a science. But not so fast.

That isn't exactly true. Yes, there are areas in linguistics that use the scientific method, but not all data we've collected is scientific and some sub-disciplines in linguistics use the scientific method less exclusively than others. The reality is that linguistics is better described as a social, or soft, science. Some parts are rather methodically proven and stringent in terms of what sort of data they accept, while others are, well, are more like mushy sciences. Historical linguistics is such a sub-discipline (it uses the comparative method); unsurprisingly, historical linguistics is falling more and more out of favor in American universities. Phonetics, on the other hand, is a good example of a sub-discipline that is rooted in science. 

Is this a fault of linguistics, that it is not perfectly scientific? I'd argue that it isn't. Rather, linguistics is a soft science because its subject of study is highly variable and layered; while linguistics may study something more directly observable than what psychology is interested in, they share a similar problem. People just don't lend themselves to absolutes, and neither does their method of communication. Despite all this, we should be keenly aware of what is and isn't scientific when looking at linguistics.

What the hell is linguistics, anyway?

Hello, my name's Tyler and I've been looking for a hobby lately so, instead of crocheting or smoking crack, I figured I'd give some interested people out there short introductions to all sorts of different language-related topics in a writing style that's easy to understand. If you have a question you've wanted answered about languages or linguistics but don't want bullshit academic language, leave a comment and I'll use it as the basis for a future post.

First off, let's look at the wiki definition of linguistics:

"Linguistics is the scientific study of natural language."

For our purposes right now, that's a pretty damn good definition. Unlike some fields, linguistics is an overarching area of study that encompasses a vast array of topics but, in many cases, linguistics serves as an aide to a separate, more specified field; because of the versatility,  linguistics can be a tricky thing to pin down. There is an old commercial by 3M that says, "We don't make the products you buy, we make the products you buy better." I think that's a nifty way of describing what linguistics can do, as well. Linguists can do anything from help develop good translation machines to get someone out of jail to make a killer ad campaign.

At it's very core, linguistics studies Language. We as linguists don't study language like schoolchildren do; we don't give a shit about spelling rules, the 'right' or 'wrong' way to say any given thing, or all of those seemingly random rules English class bequeathed you. Instead, we are interested in how people really use Language (the human capacity to speak any given language), look for its source, study the differences between and underlying unity of the world languages et cetera. Our study is a thorough one, tackling the subject in all its aspects. We study things like:

  • Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech production and perception
  • Phonology, the study of sounds as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker's mind that distinguish meaning
  • Morphology, the study of internal structures of words and how they can be modified
  • Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
  • Semantics, the study of the meaning of words and fixed word combinations, and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences
  • Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used in communicative acts, and the role played by context and non-linguistic knowledge in the transmission of meaning
  • Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in texts

PS: Those definitions above from Wikipedia are terrifyingly academic and vague, but no worries;  I'll explain each of them in a clearer manner in the coming weeks.

There are tons of other areas of linguistics that supplement other non-linguistics fields (like criminal justice or history), and I'll get to them in later posts. Right now, though, it is important to distinguish linguistics as a discipline from other studies such as language learning (second language acquisition) or the non-empirical study of a specific language (literature or English programs in college and high school). When someone is studying another language like French, Spanish, Russian, or Xhosa that doesn't mean they are a linguist, and the same goes for someone who studies literature as an art form. Many linguists do these sorts of things on their own, but that isn't what makes them linguists.

In the next post, I'll address the issue of whether or not linguistics is a science and talk a little bit about the approach we take when looking at language use.