Learn Northern Sami with Steve the vagabond Part 4

There are three kinds of verbs in Northern Sami: vowel
stem verbs, consonant stem verbs and contracted

Vowel stems are the only verbs that use
consonant gradation

Vowel stem verbs always have an even number of
syllables and end on -at, -it, or -ut.

Consonant stem verbs have an odd number of

Contracted verbs end on -át, -et or -ot and have two

juhkat is a vowel stem verb. This is because it has an
even number of syllables: juh-kat

háhkat is a vowel stem verb because it has two
syllables: háh-kat

sohaldahttit means to bend down

sojaldahttit is a vowel stem verb because it has four
syllables: so-jal-dah-ttit

Get complete lessons for Northern Sami at Steve the vagabond on Patreon

What do the words “not” and “wight” have in common?

If you have been watching Game of Thrones, then you would have heard the word “wight”. In literature this word is used to refer to some kind of supernatural entity, whether it is a ghost or even a god. Sometimes it can also be used to refer to some kind of monster. In previous centuries the word “wight” was used to refer to a living creature, but was mostly used for people. Game of Thrones combined these two to to name the monstrous undead controlled by the White Walkers (not the Wight Walkers, yes, a bit confusing).

What does this have to do with “not”? Well, in an even older version of English called Old English, the word “wight” was “wiht” and it refered not just to people, and creatures, but to anything that you didn’t have a specific name for, exactly how we use the word “thing” in Modern English.

“not” comes from a compound word in Old English “nāwiht” which was literally “not anything”. This eventually became Middle English not, noght and naht. From here we got “not”, “nought” and “nawt”.

So a word meaning a thing has gone all the way from being very general, to a word that is obscure enough that you might not have even realised that the creatures in Game of Thrones are called “wights”. At first I thought they were just called “whites” after the “White Walkers”. It’s really funny how some words change so much over time but others, like “not”, hardly change at all

What’s the weirdest way of delivering information that still sounds like language and what can we learn from it?

We live and breathe language. We take it so for granted that we often don’t realise how amazing it is. Even someone who spends most of their time with language, like me, can still be surprised by things that language does.

When I was growing up, language seemed very straight forward, almost boring.

If I wanted an apple, I could just say “I want an apple”. But as I grew up I began to realise how much is actually packed into this.

Each word is refering to a specific idea that is in the collective understanding of the speech community you are in.

“I” refers to the person speaking. But it doesn’t really. It actually refers to the core of the person, the ego (in the psychologist sense). You can say something like “I want it, but my brain is saying no”. This sentence makes sense because we instinctively understand that there is a difference between someone’s consciousness, and their brain which is the biological part of them that runs their body. If “I” and “brain” were synonymous, then using “I” and “brain” in the same sentence would make no sense.

For instance, “The sky is full of clouds but the atmosphere is not”. This sentences makes no sense because “sky” and “atmosphere” refer to the same thing.

The point I want to make here is that language is symbolic. It is not a direct medium of exchange. It merely points to common points of reference and people, for the most part, understand the message you are trying to send.

We, as humans, guess what the speaker is trying to communicate whenever they use words. Sometimes that fails, and misunderstanding and arguments ensue, but in every day life these attempts at communication normally succeed because they are using common points of reference. People talk about the weather, their lives and the comings and goings.

It’s not actually the words that carry the meaning. People carry the meaning in their minds and the words just point to those meanings. These conversations are successful because people are connecting to commonly held meanings.

A turning point in my understanding of language was realising that words are merely symbolic. I was watching Star Trek with a friend and we were watching the German version to improve our German. We had on the subtitles in English just to give us a bit of a boost. Knowing what they were saying helped us understand the German.

I realised it was because the German and the English were both trying to communicate the same thing. The intended message existed in the head of the writer of the episode of Star Trek, and German and English are just two different ways of communicating that message.

At the beginning I started with a question about delivering information. Well, maybe now you see the problem. How do you deliver information if the language is merely a pointer towards an intended meaning and not a holder of meaning itself?

While language is symbolic, we can use that mechanism to point to certain things which we can then define more precisely. “1 metre” points to the concept a metre and includes a count of 1. While “1 metre” is symbolic, it points to a very real thing.

Language can be used to point to general things like “animal” or to something like the mathematical constant of pi.

People throughout the centuries have thought about language and wondered if we could make language specific at a fundamental level.

Many have tried and the results were mostly failures. One language tried to organise the world into categories. The first letter was the major category, like animals, objects, ideas. The second letter was the subgroup like invertebrates, vertebrates.

The problem is that if you give each category a letter, sometimes a word could come out at xdfokjg. On the page this might be useful if you have already memorised the categorisation scheme, but it is not pronouncable. The creators of this language tried to get around this by shifting consonants around but ultimately that defeats the purpose.

There are other languages like Lojban that build logic directly into the language. This means that it is impossible to be ambiguous in Lojban. You know exactly what each part of the sentence is doing.

But people aren’t robots and no one would ever be able to use this efficiently because the human brain is just not set up to think like that.

So let’s look at another attempt at creating a language that tries to get around the ambiguity of natural languages (those that developed naturally over time in the real world).

It is renowned amongst language geeks as being the language with one of the most complex grammars. The language seeks to allow efficient yet precise expression of complex ideas.

Here is a sentence in Ithkuil

Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx

Translated into English this is

On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point

Itkuil packs a lot into a small space. John Quijada, the creator of this language, says the language was not intended to be used in everyday conversation but rather used for fields where precision and clear expression were needed.

Let’s look back at the original question. Well, Ithkuil certainly sounds very weird. You can hear a sample at this link

Does it deliver information? Certainly

But I still come away from Ithkuil feeling a bit funny. If you are a native English speaker, you would have more luck becoming a native speaker of Navajo or Ainu than you are of becoming a native speaker of Ithkuil.

The language simplies goes against the way natural languages work. The more I look into natural languages the more I realise how much they are a reflection of who we all are as humans. We react to the world around us and come up with words to describe our surroundings. We of amble around in our lives without knowing exactly where we are going. Natural languages seem to follow this pattern.

They are messy, ambiguous and full of exceptions.

But they are useful. They allow us to communicate ideas with those around us, and thanks to technology, with the rest of the world. The world has changed beyond recognition since the dawn of language roughly 50 000 years ago, but I can be fairly certain that one of the first languages would also be a communication system extremely similar in function and operation to our modern languages.

People 50 000 years ago talked about birds, animals and fruits. Now we talk about countries, politicians, internet videos, smartphones and blogs. But then as we do now, we are talking about them with language. This remarkable system may be messy and amibiguous sometimes, but it is flexible and able to adapt to the changing world and changing requirements of modern life.

While a world where everyone spoke Ithkuil might be interesting, I wouldn’t give up my native language for the world.

What “yes” and “no” can tell us about how people think

Sometimes the simplest words can actually turn out to not be simple at all. We only see them as simple because we use them every day, but we don’t realise all the complexity that is involved.

There is something humans do quite effortlessly, which is work with commonly held ideas without even realising they are doing it. Language is one such example. People learn words from hearing them around and they then use those words because they know they have meaning to people they meet in the day. There is an idea amongst a lot of people that language is taught only in the classroom.

Language is taught first on your mother’s knee and then in the playground. Language is all around us. We are so immersed in it that we often don’t even thinking about it, a bit like nothing really looking at the screen of the PC or cellphone you are reading this on, but rather the words, stories and pictures displayed on it. The screen is a mechanism for transmitting messages, whether they are written, or through pictures.

Now language is much the same. Language is not just the thing you find in Shakespeare or Chaucer. It is the “lol”, “y u no?” and “YAASSS” you see on the internet, the “I had to go to the doctor today”, the “Four score and seven years ago”‍ and everything in between. It reflects the kaleidoscope of human experience. Language is culture, through and through. To try and take culture out of language is like trying to take hydrogen out of water. Taking culture out of language would leave you with nothing but dead words of little significance.

People often don’t say what they mean, and they do this for a variety of reasons. They may want to soften their words to prevent offending someone. They may want to safe face. They might also just want to cheat someone. Sometimes people are just playing the social game.

One example of this is the following
“Hi. How’s it going?”
“Fine. And you?”
“How’s your leg?”
“It’s not doing well. It’s very painful”

Why did the person respond “fine” if they are in pain? The start of a conversation often follows a formula. The technical term for these types of utterances is “phatic communication”. You can read more about them here


The point is that both people know this formula and it performs a few functions that would otherwise take a lot of words

The conversation would otherwise have gone like this

“Oh, it’s you. I want you to know that I see you and that I want to greet you”
“I want to return the greeting in the same way you gave it to me to show that I want to speak with you”

If the formula isn’t followed then confusion or annoyance can result, such as

“What’s up?”
“The sky”

That’s funny, but it violates the common formula. With a friend it would be amusing, but with a stranger, they might get annoyed.

One interesting example of how social expectations fit into language, in English in particular, is the use of “yes” and “no”.

At face value, they look like quite simple words. One expresses an affirmative, the other a negative. But English does something quite interesting with these words.

Here is a simple question

“Is it raining?”

Let’s make it negative

“Isn’t it raining?”
“Yes it is”

Both questions have the same answer, even though if looked at purely logically they should be opposites. The truth is that English does not treat negative questions as actually negative. The negative expresses an attitude, or expectation

Maybe you were sitting inside all day and just as you head out you ask “Is it raining?”. You ask this to decide if you should get an umbrella or not. It’s winter and the rainy season, but you are not sure if it’s actually raining today, so you ask a simple question.

Let’s say you see someone heading out wearing nothing but a vest and shorts. “Isn’t it raining?” You ask this to communicate the idea that you know that it’s raining and are asking if the other person knows this. You do this because you don’t expect someone to go out in the rain wearing a vest and shorts because it is cold outside.

This is basically short hand of

“I am going out”
“But it is raining outside”
“I don’t care. A little rain is good for me”

So “isn’t it raining?” is a bit like saying “Why would you go outside wearing a vest a shorts when it is raining?”

It can get more complicated though

What if there is a commonly held idea in your area, city or country that chocolate is a delicious snack and that everyone eats it

You could just say, “I don’t like chocolate”. Maybe you would get some raised eyebrows, but otherwise no one intercedes because they are busy or it’s just not important.

Let’s say you do actually like chocolate and your friend says “I don’t like chocolate”

You could respond, “But I do”

People often shorten things, so this would often be shortened to, “What?” or “Huh?” (both with a surprised intonation)

The interesting thing to note here is that the person didn’t respond, “Yes” or “No”, because it would be a bit ambiguous. Are you saying “yes, I agree with you”, “yes, I know you don’t”. People opt for something unambiguous such as a expression of surprise which shows they obviously are of a different opinion.

But what if you actually don’t like chocolate either?

You could reply “I don’t either”. But why don’t we shorten that?

In English people often just shorten this to “no”. Why do they do this? Because they are actually rejecting the commonly held belief in the same that the original person is. They might then add something on just to spice it up a bit now that the stage is set

“I don’t like chocolate”
“No, it’s horrible”

This is a short interaction but a lot is going on. The long version is

“Lot’s of people like chocolate, but I actually don’t like it at all”
“If people were to ask me if I like chocolate, I would say no. I hate it. It’s horrible”

What’s funny about this is that other languages might handle this interaction in a completely different way

German uses “Ja” and “Nein” (yes and no) to affirm or deny the statement itself, not the underlying comment on their opposition to or approval of a commonly held idea.

So it can lead to the humourous situation where the English will be “no” but it is translated as “yes” because in context that is the intended meaning.

And that is part of what makes writing about language so fun 🙂

Why “good”, “better”, “best”?

We have “tall”, “taller”, and “tallest”, “high”, “higher” and “highest”, “big”, “bigger” and “biggest”.

Why do we not have “good”, “gooder” and “goodest”? Or rather, why is it not something like “bet”, “better”, “best”, where “bet” means “good”?

What we have here is something linguists call “suppletion”. This is where a word is used so often in a certain context that it takes the place of the original form. The word “good” comes from a Proto Germanic word *gōdaz which is itself from Proto-Indo-European *gʰedʰ- which meant to unite.

Over time the word “good” got associated with a desirable quality and lost its meaning as “unite” and shifted to its modern meaning. Interestingly though, it is related to the word “gather” which is closer to the original Proto Indo European meaning.

Ok, so “good” replaced the original form of the word whose comparative was “better” and superlative was “best”. But what was the original word?

It was “boot”. No, not the thing you wear on your foot. There is actually another word with a completely different origin that ended up being spelled the same as the word for a type of footwear (the word boot comes from French).

This word has fallen almost out of use but it still holds on in a set phrase “to boot” as in “He is a good painter, a great cook to boot”. It comes from Old English bōt which meant “help” or “relief”. It is related to the Old Norse bót (which meant remedy) and German Buße which is a penance or fine.

What originally got me into languages are the cool stories that are sitting all around. We use these words every day and we don’t even realise the weird and wonderful histories many of them have

What do words that start with the letter “p” tell us about English

Languages change over time.

Here is the Lord’s Prayer from the King Jame’s Bible

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

The biggest different between this and modern English is that we no longer use the pronoun “thou” and its other forms “thy”, and “thine”

Here is the start of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, written in 1387

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

This is a bit hard to understand. What does “swich”, “licour” and “engendred” mean?

Here is Beowulf. We don’t know when exactly it was written but probably around 800 AD

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

This is basically another language

I wrote this all to give you an idea of how language changes over time. Even in Beowulf though, we can still see some parts that are connected with modern English. The “þ” in “þæt wæs god cyning” is pronounced like “th” and the line means “that was a good king”. Very similar to Modern English. “funden” means “found”. “we” means “we”, “he” means “he”, “under” means “under” and “him” means “him”.

So language changes but it does not change completely. It carries parts of the past with it and those parts either change a little or a lot. We can see that in our own lives. Some part of our daily experience is similar to how it was years ago, and other things have changed almost beyond recognition.

By looking at older germanic languages linguists can make educated guesses as to what the ancestor language of the Germanic languages looked like. The language that all modern Germanic languages are descended from linguists call Proto Germanic.

Proto Germanic is itself descended from a yet older language called Proto Indo European

Let’s look at the word “father”

It comes from Old English “fæder”, Proto Germanic *fadēr and Proto Indo European *ph₂tḗr (h₂ is type of consonant pronounced at the back of the throat but linguists don’t exactly know what sound it is so it just gets a number).

Latin is part of the Italic group of languages. Languages like Spanish, French and Italian are called Romance languages because they descend from the Romans who spoke Latin. These languages are usually called the Romance languages, but you can also say that they are part of the Italic family of languages which includes languages more distantly related to Spanish and Italian like Oscan and Umbrian.

The word for father in Latin is pater. Here you can see that the h₂ became an “a” but otherwise the word is pretty much unchanged. Why then does English have the word “father” with an “f” at the beginning? This is an example of something called a sound shift. At some point in the evolution of the Germanic language’s ancestor, the Germanic tribes who spoke this off shoot of the original Proto Indo European language started pronouncing “p” as “f”.

There are theories as to why people start pronouncing things differently. One of them is to make words easier to pronounce. Other times though these things just happen. It is a bit like fashion. People start pronouncing things one way and for some reason that change becomes popular.

Now all words that had a p at the beginning are now pronounced with an f at the beginning. Compare the following

English fish and Latin piscis
English foot and Latin pēs
English food and Latin pānis

So if all words in English come from an older form of the language that changed all P’s to F’s, why are there even any words in English that start with P? Because of borrowing and also because some words started with another letter that then changed into a P, but we will get to that

Let’s look at the word “paternal”. It looks a lot like Latin “pater”. That’s because it is descended from a form of that word. In Old French “paternal” meant “of the father” and it got borrowed into English. So we have father from Proto Germanic and paternal from Old French.

The word “pen”, as in an animal pen, comes from Proto Germanic *pennō (the start indicates that we haven’t found any texts that were written in Proto Germanic that contain that word but we can guess what the word would have looked like) from Proto Indo European *bend- (because PIE is so much older and reconstructed from other reconstructions we can only be sure about the first part of the word and the dash means that we don’t know what the whole word looked like).

So here “b” in PIE became a “p”

So if we see a “p” in English we know it has taken quite a journey to get here. Either it is from a borrowing or from a word that had a different pronunciation in PIE.

The word “pen” as in “implement to write something with” comes from Old French penne from Latin penna which means “feather”

Let’s look at a few more so you can see some these how words that start with P in English ended up in the modern language

“picture” comes from Old French “picture” from Latin “pictūra” which meant “painting”

“porcelain” comes from Middle French “porcelaine”

“pain” comes from Old French “peine” from Latin “poena” meaning “punishment” or “pain”

And just to prove that languages like being messy
“path” comes from Proto Germanic *paþaz from Proto Indo European *pent-

The “p” did not shift in pronunciation and did not change to an “f”. As I said before sometimes things change because of the whims of the speakers. The same is true of when something doesn’t change. Why did the “p” in “path” remain unchanged? Sometimes these things just happen.

I have wanted to write this article for a while but I did because I knew that this letter P connects so many things together and I was only going to write it when I could bring all those threads together.

Languages are messy and this is just one of the very many ways that languages can change over time. I thought looking at this one letter was a good way to give an overview of this. Thanks for reading 🙂

Could a language change so much that it becomes part of another language family?

Could a language change so much that it becomes part of another language family?

You are born in a certain place and have specific parents. Who your parents are never changes no matter what you do or where you go in life. You could have been born in Australia and move to northern Scandanavia and your parents will still be who they are.

It is like this with languages. English is a Germanic language because it is descended from a language spoken by Germanic tribes. It has taken on many Romance language derived vocabulary, but that doesn’t make it a Romance language anymore than moving to Scandanavia makes you a Scandanavian.

But if you were to have a child in Scandanavia, it would be fair to call your child at least partly Scandanavian. Language is not one thing but changes over time. There is no single point at which Old English became Middle English. It changed gradually. Let’s imagine a language starting in Australia and being brought for some reason to Scandanavia (just to continue the analogy). It would still be regarded as having been born in Australia, but after some time it would be regarded as a Scandanavian language.

Could English change language families? No. But a language spoken in England that took influences from English and French and other languages could be regarded as a Romance language if history were different. And if such a language existed, it would be fair in this alternate worl to call it English.

What would have happened if the English that we know had died out? Imagine an alternate scenario where not only did the Anglo Saxons lose in 1066, but the Normans managed to hold onto their land in England and Normandy.

The beginning of the end of the dominance of French in England was the defeat of Normandy to France. This cut off the Normans in England from Normandy and they eventually assimilated into English society. Over the next decades and centuries English would reemerge, changed, but not forgotten.

What if this hadn’t happened? French would have continued its dominance in England, and English as we know it would have slowly died out. English would be replaced with French, but the French spoken in England would be slightly different to the French spoken in France.

Maybe the French in France would look down on what they called “The bastardised mutterings of those English fools” or something to that effect. They would think of the French spoken in England as bad French, as not the real French. Maybe eventually the English themselves would get tired of this attitude and assert themselves with the attitude that actually the way they spoke was perfectly alright and it was merely the stuck up French who had a problem.

Maybe the English would fight the French for independence and win and to secure their victory they would say to the world, “We are English and we speak English”. But remember, in this alternate scenario, the English we know is gone. So what do we call this Anglo-French spoken in England? Why not just call it English.

This language would probably have a lot of Germanic-English loan words and would probably be pronounced a bit differently or maybe very differently to the French spoken in France. But going back to the original question, it would not be classed as a Germanic language. It would be classed as a Romance language because it descended from French.

This is how a word like “English” could go from refering to a Germanic language to refering to a Romance language. Could a language change families? No, but something connected or associated with it might have a very different story than languages spoken before it.

Why do people say “me and my friend”?

Short answer: English probably works differently than we think it does

Long answer: People use their native language effortlessly provided they don’t have something physically wrong with their brain or any other sort of mental impairment.

Language is an amazingly complex thing. We have adjectives, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, verbs, conjunctions and all sorts of other things. When children grow up, they just hear the language around them and they just pick it up. How they actually do this is a matter of the most cutting edge research, still, after all these years linguistics have been around.

The way people speak tells us something about not only English itself but also how people think. Let’s look at the sentence “We need to move the meeting from 1pm to 2pm”. This makes perfect sense to us, but it actually reveals something about our cognition.

We view a meeting as an object and that it can be moved. But a meeting actually doesn’t exist physically. It is just an agreement amongst some people to meet at a certain time. Time itself is another concept effortlessly handled by the human mind and language but imagine someone with no concept of time. You couldn’t move a meeting because you couldn’t refer to “later”. You could only refer to “now”.

Another way we can see how language reflects how the mind works is how words carve out their own space. Mend means something slightly different to repair. Hurt means something different to inflict pain. Hound and dog are also different. People use words and those that hear them interpret them and use them to try to understand what other people are saying.

They use their understanding of the word to send their own messages and back and forth words go from person to person. The process is not perfect and no word is fixed in meaning but shifts slightly over time.

This is because people interpret words slightly differently as they hear them and use them differently to other people. Over time these slight differences add up and a word like “silly” which is cognate with German “selig” once meant “blessed”. Word change meaning over time because of people. How meanings change over time gives us an insight into the mercurial workings of the human mind.

Past tense forms of words have also changed over time. “sneaked” used to be the way people made “sneak” into the past tense. Now there is “snuck” because people looked at “stick” and “stuck” and by analogy made “sneak” and “snuck”. These constructions that are constructed by analogy are all over the place. It’s another example of how the human mind processes and uses language.

Language is not immovable, but rather a fluid and ever changing thing. People take in language from around them and instinctively work out the rules of this system they are using. People’s idiosyncratic interpretations of words and structures make small changes in words and structures and language slowly change over time.

Now, what does this have to do with “me and my friend”? Well, by a certain way of looking at things, “me and my friend” even at the beginning of a sentence is perfectly alright. I know what you are thinking, “I was thought that it has to be “my friend and I”” and “No one says “Me went”, so you can’t say “Me and my friend went””. There are lots of ways of analysing language. The people who use these arguments are merely using their own line of reasoning and that is perfectly ok. I am merely showing a different way of looking at things.

I have never liked the demonisation by some people of the construction “me and my friend”. As I have tried to make clear in the first part of my article (and by providing many examples) language is an organic entity invented and changed and kept alive by the minds of people in the world. The sentence “That way of speaking is wrong” when speaking of native speakers is simply absurd to me.

Would people look at a penguin and say “That bird should be able to fly. A flightless bird is just wrong” or “That animal has a trunk. No animal should have a trunk. It is just wrong”. I think most people would say that is a silly thing to say. I think it is because many people in literate societies hold up the written word as the best version of their language and end up disliking divergences from that version of the language.

But only about 200 languages in the world are regularly written out of the about 7000 languages in the world. Language is spoken, words are invented, die out, new constructions come in and old constructions get forgotten. The question should not be “Why do people say “me and my friend”?” but “What does the construction “me and my friend” say about English?”

Even after all these centuries of studying language, there is still so much more to be learned. People pick up language effortlessly and speak it effortlessly, yet it is so remarkably complex. It is a bit like walking. You are never taught to walk, you just walk. You aren’t taught to speak, you just speak. Just being able to do something does not always mean you cognitively know how you do it. So my point is, you can actually speak a language perfectly well and still not know how it actually works.

So let’s get to the question at hand, if “me and my friend” is perfectly valid, even at the beginning of a sentence, what does that tell us about English?

When scientists discover a new type of dinosaur in a dig, they might tell the world “this changes everything we know”. Well, I don’t think this construction in English goes that far, but it does fly in the face of what a lot of us have been taught.

So why then has “me and my friend” been so derided? Because it violates a so-called law where all elements in a subject must be in the nominative case. I say so-called because clearly this law is being violated and it is not out of ignorance. Just like the flightless bird violating the idea that all birds fly, this English construction should not be derided but rather it should lead people to ask, “why is English behaving in this way?”

Should a new species be discovered, scientists would immediately ask, “what can the emergence of this species tell us about their environment and about natural selection?”

In this case “me and my friend” is pointing to some trait of English that is a bit different than languages around it. That construction simply does not appear in other languages. Yet it is popping out of mouths of many English speakers, which following from the animal analogy should tell us that something is going on.

“me and my friend” is what is called a compound subject. The whole construction is considered a subject, but it is made up of a number of nouns. A single noun would just be a subject, but two or more creates a compound subject.

“Ego et rex meus” is a compound subject from Latin meaning “me and my king”, or literally “I and my king”. So in Latin, they clearly follow this rule that all constituents of a compound subject must be in the nominative.

What is this nominative and accusative?

Well, in English we say “I went to the store” but “He gave it to me”. “I” is the nominative form and “me” is the accusative form. When a noun is in subject position, it takes the nominative form and when in object position it should take the object form. So “He saw my friend and me” is fine because “my friend and me” are in object position so they both take the object form.

But if this was the rule then no native speaker would ever say “my friend and me” at the beginning of a sentence. No native speaker EVER says “Me go-ed to store” or “Us is here”. Clearly there are certain patterns that are followed by native speakers when using pronouns. “my friend and me” is an anomaly only if you look at it as an anomaly. It goes against what would appear in another language, but English is not Latin or any other language that would never use the equivalent of “my friend and me”.

When someone knocks on the door, and you ask “Who’s there”, you can reply “Me”. In Swedish though, people say “Det är jag” which literally translated is “It is I”. The fact that people say “me” in response in English tells us that cases behave a bit differently in English.

So why do people say “me and my friend” even at the beginning of a sentence? Because in a compound subject, the role of the compound subject itself (whether it be at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence) does not dictate the forms needed in the actual compound subject.

When looking at a construction used by native speakers we need an explanation that actually comes up with a reason for something happening and doesn’t just dismiss it as a mistake. English treats pronouns differently than other languages. When a subject such as “I” gets a noun or another pronoun added to it, the rules change. “I” becomes “me and my friend”. This compound subject can then be used anywhere in the sentence, such as “He saw me and my friend”.

In my view, this construction is common enough and consistent enough to be considered a proper part of the language and shouldn’t be looked down on. People who look down on this construction are using the standards of other languages which is never the right approach. Each language has its own history and its own ways of doing things.

But I also understand that we don’t understand. By that I mean that we don’t really understand language very well and our attempts to understand it have sometimes created theories that don’t fit 100% with reality. Trying to fully apply the nominative accusative system in the same way it is used in Latin sometimes caused perfectly natural English to be considered a mistake.

When people are taught a certain way it changes their speech patterns and in some cases leads to hyper correction where people say “He say my friend and I” which actually violates the Latin- derived rule many school teachers teach. But again, language is a part of culture and teaching is part of culture too and “my friend and I” is just as much a product of human cognition as “my friend and me” and I won’t spend the rest of this article in turn looking down on “my friend and I” because that would be a bit hypocritical after telling people not to judge.

At the very least I would like to get people to look at speech coming from native speakers with a bit more of a open mind and not to immediately condemn certain forms as wrong. Language is weird and wonderful and the more we can have fun with it rather than making it a chore, the more we can begin to discover what language can really do and what it means to us.

“bae” does not come from “Before All Else”

Let’s talk about acronyms. There is a story going around that “bae” comes from “Before All Else”. There are similar stories like this and all of them are wrong. Here are some of them.

“posh” comes from “Port Out Starboard Home”
“fuck” comes from “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” and so on

The problem with these explanations is that they lack evidence. Some words are derived from acronyms, like laser. And some common internet sayings are acronyms like lol, tmw (that moment when) and imo (in my opinion).

There is however, no evidence that “bae” came from an acronym. For a word to have come from an acronym, we would need to see some use of it written out in full. Like “That moment when….” or “In my opinion….” which later becomes “tmw…” and “imo….”

We don’t see that here. Another problem with the acronym explanation is that acronym explanations often come way after the term has already been popular. That is, as the saying goes, putting the cart before the horse. For an acronym theory to be valid we need the phrase first. We need to see it in writing and then we need to see it starting to get shortened into an acronym.

Lack of evidence does not in itself kill a theory, but it makes a well evidenced and more likely explanation hold much more weight.

“bae” comes from Black American vernacular. It is derived from “baby” (could also be from “babe”).

There are a few theories of how “bae” come to be and all of them have more evidence than the acronym story.

In Black American Vernacular (also called African American Vernacular English, or AAVE) words can become reduplicated. This means that part of the word gets doubled. So crazy becomes cray-cray, police becomes po-po and babe becomes bae-bae.

Once a word like cray-cray or bae-bae is established, it can change further by dropping the second syllable and become cray and bae respectively.

Another piece of evidence that it comes from the word “babe” is that people also write “bae” as “bay”. In this tweet, we see “bae” written as “bay” “going to breakfast with my family….coming back home to work on my essay for nursing school n going out with my bay later. u?”

If it was an acronym, it would retain its spelling so people can decipher the acronym. An acronym is not useful if you don’t use the same letters each time you use it. The spelling “bay” clearly indicates a pronounciation and connects the spelling to the sound of the first syllable of “babe”.

The word “bae” (or “bay”) was clearly established enough in the dialect of this person for them to use it in a tweet talking to someone else. The tweet talks about going out with someone, so even if you don’t know what “bae” means, you could quickly figure it out as it has a connection with the word “babe” and that way the sentence is written, you can work out that “bae” is a person.

Another piece of evidence is the use of “bae” as a stand in for other meanings of “baby” such as “baby brother”. Check out this tweet “And Max’s bae bro was down with dude from Spic N Spanish. It’s all too much!”

Once the word “bae” started being used as a stand in for “baby” it could have eventually evolved to mean “romantic partner” due to “baby” being used like that and once that happens, the sense of “romantic partner” could have pushed out other meanings.

This happens with a lot of words. “intercourse” used to mean “conversation” or “dealing with people”. “Sexual intercourse” was invented as a euphemism for sex. That euphemism became so popular that to most people “intercourse” just meant sex and the other meanings were lost.

“sad” is another example. It used to mean “heavy”. Eventually someone used “sad” to refer to a “heavy heart” and that meaning dominated all the others until now we only think of bad feelings with the word “sad” and the other meanings are lost.

Timing is also an essential part of finding the most likely origin. If an acronym explanation comes along years and years after the word itself, it is likely to be bogus. From an article by Neal Whitman, I learned that “bae” has been in rap songs since 2005, whereas the acronym explanations came along many years later.

Another explanation is that the second syllable in “baby” could have changed due to a certain speech pattern in American English that changes the “ee” sound at the end of words into “ay” such as “It’s gonna be may” from the Justin Timberlake song or “party” becoming “partay”. So “baby” in turn became “babay”.

There is an even simpler explanation though. “bae” could just come from people removing the last consonant from “babe”.

And all of these explanations have evidence and use linguistics processes that we see happening elsewhere in language and they are all more plausible than the acronym explanation.

This article was a great help in writing this, check it out if you like 🙂

The word “explode”

Semantic shift is the phenomenon where words change meaning over time. English has borrowed a lot of words from Latin. One of them is the word “explode”. It originally came from Latin explodere which meant “drive out by clapping” and was used to refer to performers being driven off stage by noise.

The Latin word is made of the prefix “ex” meaning out and “plaudere” which means to clap. It changed from its original Latin meaning to mean “drive out with violence or sudden noise” in English and then to “go off with a loud noise”. It then eventually evolved to mean “bursting with a destructive force” which was first recorded in 1882

Come live on the silly side of life