All posts by Steve the vagabond

Hi, I created Silly Linguistics. If you like life on the silly side, you have found just the right place

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 🙂
https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/dictionary/bae-watch-the-ascent-of-a-new-pet-name/

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

The words “man”, “woman”, “male” and “female”

By Yacine Ahtaitay

Why does woman have ‘man’ in it and female has the word ‘male’ in it?

I find it hysterical when people incorrectly assume the origins of words. What’s even more hysterical is when you find out that you are one of them. That’s what happened to me when I came across the etymology of the words male, female, man, and woman. Sometimes we manipulate the words and make adjustments to them so they fit our assumption. Wait until you read about the etymology of the words that I’ve just mentioned. This phenomenon is fairly common and it actually has its own name: folk etymology. Extreme cases of this include people that demands that the word history be renamed her-story.

Let’s see what else we’ve got! The word Goodbye was actually “Godbye”, contraction of the phrase “God be with ye”. but people incorrectly assumed that Goodbye is just another greeting phrase like “good morning” or “good night” and so they changed it, tacitly of course, to goodbye, mindless of the fact that bye has no meaning of its own.

Now let’s do away with the folk etymology of the words man vs woman and male vs female. To many, the word man carries stigma; you shouldn’t use man to refer to human, that’s sexist. To others, both words should be dismissed because even human has man in it. Same thing for mankind and humankind. The nonsense doesn’t stop here. They went so far as to complain why does woman have ‘man’ in it and female has the word ‘male’ in it? But seriously..why?

Man derives from Proto-Germanic and it meant literally “person”, that is, it could refer to both man and woman. Woman, on the other hand, derives from wifman. What was used to refer to man with today’s sense of the word is wer or werman. You can see this in the word werewolf (literally man-wolf).

Wifman, in the course of language development, lost the “f” and became wimman until it reached us as woman. Werman, didn’t just lose the “r”, like what happened with the “f” in wifmen. Following the Norman conquest, the whole “wer” was gone, and it became man, and it gradually narrowed down to refer to male men only.

According to Wikipedia:

“The spelling of woman in English has progressed over the past millennium from wīfmann[1] to wīmmann to wumman, and finally, the modern spelling woman.[2] In Old English,wīfmann meant “female human”, whereas wēr meant “male human”. Mann or monn had a gender-neutral meaning of “human”, corresponding to Modern English “person” or “someone”; however, subsequent to the Norman Conquest, man began to be used more in reference to “male human”, and by the late 13th century had begun to eclipse usage of the older term wēr.[3] The medial labial consonants “f” and “m” in wīfmann coalesced into the modern form “woman”, while the initial element, which meant “female”, underwent semantic narrowing to the sense of a married woman (“wife”). It is a popular misconception that the term “woman” is etymologically connected with “womb”, which is from a separate Old English word, wambe meaning “stomach” (of male or female).” Man kept its definition as “person” until the 20th century.

Let’s now settle down to handle “human” and “male”. “Human” derives from the Latin humanus and has nothing to do with the word “man”. “Male” is from Latin masculus (“male”), which was then shortened to masle in Old French, Old french dropped the “s” and it finally became “male”. “Female” is also from French, but from femelle (“woman”), from the Latin diminutive of femina; it never had any connection, etymologically speaking, to “male”.

Still, although there are no etymological relationships between these words and what people purport them to indicate, it’s amazing how our minds find patterns, and link them to what’s going on in the world. Oscar Tay from Quora writes that “sometimes speakers fail to see a word’s origin and end up with etymological flotsam. “Cranberry” is an example of this: it comes from the Low German kraanbere, literally “crane-berry”. When English borrowed it, speakers correctly recognized that bere meant “berry”, but not that kraan meant “crane”, so they anglicized kraan to “cran” and ended up with “cranberry”, where “cran” doesn’t mean anything but is needed to make the word work.” Word bits that have no meaning of themselves like *-bye in “goodbye” and *cran- in “cranberry” are called, ironically enough, “cranberry morphemes”.

At any rate, although language is full of sexism, male, female, man, and woman are innocent little words made victims by mindless folk etymology. Next time you come across people who are still confused about this matter, educate them and help them clear the confusion.

Share if you think the article deserves. Looking forward to seeing you in my next post. Until then, stay frosty.

In defence of descriptivism

If we view language as a living organism, then change is just part of that. The development of limbs in our ancestors could hardly be considered a mistake. It was merely a development.

Using “literally” as an intensifier is merely a development. The word “awesome” used to mean “filled with awe”. It clearly doesn’t meant that anymore. In a much earlier stage of English, the equivalent of “hound” meant “dog”. The meaning changed over time.

Language viewed from the descriptivist point of view doesn’t treat these changes as mistakes, only changes. Was it a mistake that English dropped conjugation or the second person plural? No, it just changed.

If you are thinking to yourself, “But these people are saying something weird and different and it goes against convention. Look at what the dictionary says!”

All language is convention. We use the word “dog” because that is the word everyone uses. For some reason people started refering to the hairy four legged creature as a dog and now everyone does.

Now when you say that language is change, some people misinterpret this to mean that anything goes. That is not how it works. Language is convention. If I started chinging ill my A’s into I’s then my writing will be going igiinst convention ind will confuse ind innoy people. Of course, you can still read it and understand it because the change is not large.

But to use language effectively, you have to be aware of current convention and abide by it to make sure that you are understood and don’t confuse people. You can’t start calling a computer a dog and expect people will understand what you are trying to say.

But these conventions are very loose. Much looser than a lot of people would like. Is it “colour” or “color”? Depends where you are. Is “aint” a word? It is in many places and in others it isn’t used much, if at all.

Can you use “literally” as an intensifier? Well, this question is besides the point. People DO use “literally” as an intensifier. Ignoring that reality is like refusing to believe that birds exist.

You can argue that it robs us of a word which means “this is totally and 100% true” but there are ways of communicating this such as “I was no tired that I simply couldn’t move from the couch” or “I was so hungry I would have actually eaten anything that was put in front of me”.

I really don’t understand the vitriol people through at this different use of “literally”. If you really do care about language, then spend your energy on useful things, like helping people write more clearly and expressively. If you just want to scream at the fact that the world is changing, then go ahead. People havebeen lamenting change since time immemorial. But here we are, speaking dialectal Proto Indo European and everything is going pretty alright.

German vs Swedish

High German (Standard German) is a West Germanic language and Swedish is a North Germanic language. Despite being in different branches, they have a lot of similarities due to strong influence from the Hanseatic League which spoke a language closely related to High German called Low German (also called Low Saxon)

High German – Swedish
verändern – förändra
verbieten – förbjuda
versuchen – försöka
verbessern – förbättra
versammeln – församla
verhindern – förhindra
verloren – förlora
verursachen – förorsaka

What if William the Conqueror never existed?

What if William the Conqueror never existed?

William the Conqueror, as he was later known, is famous for invading England in 1066 and setting up a dynasty that has lasted until today. He came from Normandy which was French speaking and so the Normans brought a lot of French to England. 1066 is commonly regarded as the end of the Old English period and the beginning of the Middle English period. French became the dominant language after 1066 and English became merely the language of the peasants. It wasn’t until 1200 that English start reemerging as a written language.

Here is an alternate scenario.

Normandy was founded by Rollo, a Viking from Scandanavia. He was given lands in northern France in exchange for fealty to the French king. The problem at the time was Viking raids. Rollo, by training an army of Normans, was able to fend of the Viking raids and strengthen France’s position. Normandy, due to it being so close to England, was often a refuge for English nobles.

Edward the confessor was king of England from 1042 to 1066. His successor was Harold Godwinson. Harold was the son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdottir, sister-in-law of King Cnut the Great. Harold had connections all over England. He served as Earl of Hereford in 1058 and when he became king in 1066, he appointed his son Sweyn as Earl of Herford.

England continued to grow under Harold’s reign. He set up many new defences in the south and the east to fend off Viking attacks. The House of Wessex grew in power over the decades. Meanwhile in Normandy, Rollo’s descendant had continued to build up Normandy. The current Duke of Normandy Robert decided it was best to get along with France and worked to solidify Normandy’s position within the French Kingdom.

Royalty love forging alliances through marriage and Europe’s royal families were full of connections all over the place. In 1206, King Athelstan of Wessex married one of the Duke of Normandy’s daughters. This alliance would cause problems in later decades. King Athelstan never had any sons and after his death Duke Henry pressed his advantage by suggesting that one of his sons take over.

The Witan (Anglo Saxon council) decided that it would be better to keep England in Anglo Saxon hands and gave the Kingship to Egbert, the cousin of King Athelstan. Duke Henry was outraged and went to the King of France for help. King Louis jumped at the chance to get more land. With 6 months, Duke Henry and King Louis launched an invasion into England. It was no easy fight, but the French eventually emerged victorious. King Egbert became the last Anglo Saxon king.

Duke Henry was named King of England and he pledged to always work towards the glory of all French people. All the Anglo Saxon nobility were kicked out and replaced with French nobles. King Henry and King Louis worked together on how best to consolidate their power in England and France. People from Normandy began arriving in England over the next few decades increasing the French influence.

The English language was sidelined and the peasants mocked for speaking English. French was the new language of the country. Relations between England and France continued to develop. A war council was established in 1306 where French people from England and France could best discuss strategies and share resources across the realm. England, with the help of France managed to push further west and north in England, pushing the native English into Wales and Scotland.

By the 1400s, England and France had become so integrated that talk was started about unifying the two countries into a United Kingdom of England and France. This happened a few years later in 1407. The English language had seen a rapid decline since the Anglo Saxon defeat in 1206. Now, less than 10% of people left in England still spoke English, and those that did were bilingual in French. By the 1500s, English was considered extinct in England.

This is merely one scenario. We can’t really know what would have happened. One thing I find fascinating about English history is all the connections between England and France. William the Conqueror attacked England due to a claim he felt he had on the English throne. Even without William the Conqueror, some sort of claim is bound to have been created at some point. Royal marriages connected all sorts of places.

The other thing I wanted to put into this alternate scenario is a small change which I think in our timeline ultimately saved English from the fate it suffered in this alternate scenario. Normandy, while technically under the power of France, never truly was a part of the Kingdom of France. Normandy used its own influence and claims over England, and there was nothing France could do about that.

Eventually France managed to take Normandy over from the Normans, but they never got England. These two things I think in the end saved English. While Normandy controlled England, French influence poured into England and it is during this time period that tons of French words became a part of English.

Just like the death of Gaulish in France, English in England would have eventually been ground down and have disappeared, leaving only loanwords in the new dominant language of the area. This French influence slowed down once Normandy lost to France and that wave of French people coming into England stopped. People in Normandy and people in England had a choice. Stay where they are, or go to the other. They would not be allowed to have land in both Normandy and England.

This made the French in England feel isolated from the French in France and they began marrying English girls and began feeling more English than French. The English girls taught their children English and now the nobles in England started being able to speak English again. Animosities between England and France would remain, some would say, to this day. England invaded France in the 1400s but never held the land for long.

In my alternate scenario, I made one important change. The Normans who founded Normandy decided to throw themselves fully into the French project. Remember, these people were not French. They decided to become French for the promise of land. In our timeline they never full assimilated into the larger French kingdom leading to the split between Normandy and France. In my alternate scenario, I decided to make the Normans much more sympathetic to the French, thus making Normandy a fully integrated part of France.

Without the need for the French to invade Normandy, Normandy never gets cut off and the connection between France and England never goes away. The constant influx of French would have spelled death for English in this timeline.

I know a lot of people day dream about what would have happened if William the Conqueror never existed and that English didn’t get so many French words, but history is complicated and we can never really know what would have happened. I wanted to make a scenario where a few small things changed, and the result is totally different than our timeline.

Thanks for reading 🙂