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

Where do words come from?

When you are very small you hear the words “dog”, “cat”, “house”, “car”, “mom”, “dad” and just assume that it has always been like that.

As you get older you encounter new words like “selfie”, “defriend”, “doxx”, “bae”, “bling” and you might initially recoil. “What the hell is going on?! Back in my day we had proper words like cat and dog, not this ‘selfie’ nonsense”. I hate to break it to you, but words are coming into the language all the time and they always have.

Even words are seemingly commonplace as “lifestyle” only started being used in the modern sense in the 60s.

Other words have been around longer though, much longer. The word “house” dates back to the language of the Germanic tribes. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. It was spoken during the bronze age a few millenia ago. The word probably goes back even further.

But where did the word originally come from? Where did any word actually come from? Surely at some point there was no need for the word “house” so the word didn’t exist back then. As our ancestors moved out of caves and moved into the savannah or forest they would eventually have needed a word to describe the thing that provided them shelter.

The further we go back in time the harder it is to find written evidence of words. Languages unfortunately do not leave fossils so we have to make educated guesses. Some suggest it might come from a much older word “(s)kew-” which meant to cover or hide. The “s” fell away and the “k” became an h. We can see the link between “house” and “casa”.

There is a much older language than even the language of the Germanic tribes and linguists call this language Proto Indo European. It is called this because the languages descended from it are spread all over Europe, the Middle East and even parts of India.

The people who spoke this language were called the Indo Europeans and it is generally believed they lived in the Pontic Steppes somewhere in the region of modern day Ukraine. Some of the Indo Europeans moved north and crossed the Baltic Sea, settling in Scandanavia. They would become the Germanic peoples.

Other Indo Europeans moved south and west and ended up in the Italian peninsula. Some of these people would go on to found Rome and spread Latin to large numbers of people all over Europe. In the languages of the Italian peninsula, and in other languages descended from the language of the Indo Europeans, the “k” sound never changed, so we have “casa” in modern Spanish.

The real answer to the question of where words come from is that they come from every place imaginable. The simple every day word “cat” could have come from a Nubian word “kaddîska”, an Arabic word qitta, or even a Northern Sami word gađfe which means a female short tailed weasel. If the Northern Sami etymology is true then it is just another example of semantic shift which means that the word changed meaning over time because of associations.

Semantic shift is a very common way for words to emerge. The English word “hound” is cognate (shares a common ancestor with) German “Hund”. In the 1300s in England the word “hound” was used as the general word for dogs. The word “dog” at the time referred to a specific kind of dog. One theory is that this type of dog was so common that when people talked about what type of dog they had, the word “dog” came up most of the time.

The word eventually became linked with the overall class and stopped meaning a specific type of dog. In an ironic twist, the word “hound” now means a type of dog, so “hound” and “dog” have completely switched meanings.

Another interesting semantic shift is the word “gay”. It started out in Proto Germanic as ganhuz meaning sudden. It came to mean “impetuous” in the language of the Goths, and eventually ended up in Old Occitan as “gai” meaning “lively”. The meaning shifted again later and ended up in French meaning “joyful, merry”. Stereotypes about homosexual people led to people using the word “gay” to describe them. Over time the meaning of “homosexual” came to dominate the use of the word and now the meaning of “lively” is long forgotten.

The word might be in the process of shifting again. Due to societal opinions about homosexuality, it picked up a negative sense and young people started using the word “gay” to mean anything bad. Amongst these people the word is not used to mean “homosexual” at all and is used to describe all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sexuality. If you asked the people who use it in this sense what the word means they might genuinely reply that it just means bad and to them there is no association to homosexuality at all.

Societal forces can produce a lot of new words and a lot of new meanings to words. Semantic shift can often be so complete that the original meaning is lost entirely. The “ejaculate” used to mean “to say suddenly” and it began to be used to refer to the male orgasm. Now that meaning dominates the sense of the word and its original meaning is all but forgotten.

Sex is an area of the human experience that has produced tons and tons of new expressions. Did you know that “intercourse” was once a perfectly normal word you could use at a fancy dinner party?

Just look at this quote from a Jane Austen novel

“They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required”

Wow! Society really was different back then!

Actually, the word back then just meant “conversation”. It comes from Latin “intercursus” which meant “mingled with”. Its current meaning comes from a euphemism. Sex was sometimes called “sexual intercourse” as it was the mingling and connection between two people during sex. This euphemism was probably super useful and over time the “sexual” part was dropped and now there is only one association people have when they hear the word “intercourse”.

Some words come about just because of the sound of them. The word “poo” came out probably because that is the sound someone might make when they encounter something horrible.

All words have associations. Just think about the word “justice”. It conjures in your mind such things as stability, things in their right place, order, equality and equity. These are the things we associate with the practise of law and justice. We want to live in a stable society, for things to be in the right place, for things to be fair. It comes ultimately from Latin iūs which meant a law, right or duty.

Duty in itself does not mean equality or order. It is just something that needs to be done. But when you tie that up into a system of hearing disputes, the innate human desire for things to be handled correctly and for bad people to be punished and good people to be saved from bad people, this new word can start gathering all sorts of now associations.

These new associations can create new possibilities. The word is the root of the trees and its associations are the branches and leaves. A particular association might bud as an acorn, drop to the ground and create something completely new. So now we have the word “justification” which is an explanation for why something is “just”. Without the word “justice” and “just” the word “justification” never would have sprouted.

Its common in English nowadays to just talk of emailing someone. The word “email” started as a shortening of “electronic mail” but it has since taken on a life of its own. People don’t think “I will electronically mail you something this evening”. That concept is contained in the word “email”.

What new concepts, inventions and ideas will require new words or new associations to words in the common decades?

Before Facebook you could “befriend” someone, but people would never talk about “friending” someone. Or “defriending” for that matter. As the human experience changes, all the languages of the world find ways to express the new world they find themselves in. It is one of the things that makes writing about language so fun.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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There story of “us” in the Germanic languages

There story of “us” in the Germanic languages

There is a change that happened in some West Germanic languages that has obscured the relation between a whole set of words. I would like to explore that change and reveal a connection you might not know about.

All modern Germanic languages (English being one of them) are descended from a language spoken by the Germanic tribes in the Bronze Age. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. They were spread out across southern Sweden, Denmark and southern Norway. Over time they migrated south into central Europe. Some went east and their language changed over time eventually becoming Gothic.

Those that stayed in central Europe became Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch and Belgians. Some of the Germanic tribes left central Europe for the British isles and they were the ancestors of the English. Those that stayed in Scandanavia eventually became the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Faroe islanders.

As the Germanic peoples spread out they took their Germanic language with them and it changes bit by bit over time. Linguistics groups the Germanic languages into three major branches: West Germanic of central Europe and the British isles, East Germanic of eastern Europe and North Germanic of northern Europe, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

People learn language on their mother’s knees and from their peers. They pick it up around them. They eventually settle on some kind of baseline which they use to communicate with others. They probably hear variations and just get used to range of expression of their language.

What this means is that people often don’t notice changes happening under their noses. People speak how they speak and generally everyone gets along just fine. Maybe someone will make a joke about how “people over there” speak or something like that and life goes on. Those little differences can grow over time and make what were once mutually intelligible (which means both sides can understand each other) forms of speech eventually utterly different and totally non understandable to people from other groups.

English is one of the more divergent Germanic languages thanks to being separated by a sea from the mainland (which makes migration more difficult and slows down the spread of new forms of speech) and due to the fact that after the Germanic tribes arrived in Britain they were then invaded again by Vikings who by then spoke a bit differently from the tribes who originally moved over to Britain and by the Normans who spoke a different language entirely. Some of the changes in English did happen in other Germanic languages and we can still find those connections today.

Think about the letters “t” and “p”. “t” is pronounced at the front of the mouth just behind the teeth. “p” is pronounced by putting your lips together opening them suddenly along with a breath of air. All sounds are made with the mouth. But there are some sounds that include another part of your body which allows you to change the sound slightly. The nose and its air pathways are connected to the mouth and the pathways can be opened or closed to change the sound.

Pronounce the word “think” and stop just before you get to “k”. Listen to the sound you make. That is a nasal sound. You create vibrations with your voice box and then push that sound through your nose forming the “n” sound we hear in “think”. There is another nasal sound in English which is the sound at the end of “thin”. It is slightly different to the “n” sound in “think”. The sound in “think” is the same as the “ng” in “sing”.

In the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) it is given the symbol “ŋ” and is called a velar nasal. Velar means the back part of the tongue is raised up against the soft palate also known as the velum. The “nasal” part of the name means that sound is passed through the nose.

The “n” in “thin” is not a velar nasal, but actually an alveolar nasal because it is produced in the alveolar ridge which is the part of the mouth just behind the teeth. As you can see, the “n” is not so much a distinct sound, but merely a way to indicate what word is being pronounced and people just know that “think” is pronounced with a velar nasal (the “ng” sound) and not the “plain n” sound. Pronouncing it as “thin” then a “k” sounds completely wrong.

Ok, now that we know about the different Germanic languages and how they developed, and we know about nasal sounds, we can look at the matter at hand.

Let’s look at the words “tooth” and the word “tand” (from Swedish). They both mean the same thing. But you will notice an “n” in the Swedish word but no “n” in the English word. How did the English lose the “n”? They lost them through a process called “nasalisation”. This is where a vowel is pronounced through the nose and mouth instead of just the mouth.

Modern English doesn’t have nasalisation so the easiest way to explain it is to imagine looking at a cake. You might say “mmmmm”. Put your finger under your nose and feel the gentle flow of air as you make that sound. Think back to the “n” in “think”. Notice how air goes through your nose. Now imagine pronouncing a vowel while pushing air through your nose like you do with “mmm” and “think”.

This is what happens with French “cinq”. You pronounce the vowel as you would any vowel, but you pass air through your nose which changes the sound. When you pass air through your nose while pronouncing a vowel, we say that you pronounce that vowel with nasalisation.

So, long ago, some group of Germanic speakers started nasalising the vowel before an “n”. So /uns/ become /ũːs/ (the slashes represent International Phonetic Alphabet notation, the tilde on the vowel represent nasalisation and the colon after the “u” represent a long vowel). The vowel got lengthened so that it took the same amount of time to say as the previous /un/ and it was nasalised.

Why was the vowel nasalised? Well, people often started speaking in a way that is easier for them. Think about the word “bottle”. If you live in USA, you probably actually say “boddle” without realising this. This is because “boddle” is a bit easier to say than “bottle”. So sounds change in a way that makes speech more fluent and words easier to say.

/uns/ has three sounds in it: /u/ (which is pronounced like a longer version of the “oo” in “good”, /n/ (which is pronounced like the “n” in “net”) and /s/ (which is pronounced like the “s” in “sit). Pronounce /uns/ slowly for yourself and notice how your tongue moves around your mouth as you pronounce it. It has to be in one position for /u/ then another for /n/ and then another for /s/.

Since we are already using our nose for /n/, why don’t we just combine the nose sound with the vowel and drop the “n” because it’s not needed anymore as we have found a way to include the /u/, a nasal sound and the /s/ in only two sounds instead of three. A massive saving of time and effort! Speakers are always looking for easier ways to pronounce things. Minimising effort is one of the many ways languages change over time. So our final sound is /ũːs/ (which is a nasal vowel plus “s”.

The final piece to the puzzle is that groups of speakers are separated and changes don’t spread to all speakers. So once /uns/ became /ũːs/ and people got used to it, they just decided to stop nasalising it altogether because that was even easier and since everyone understood what /us/ means it just stuck. The word just slowly changed from one form to the next to the next and no one really noticed or cared, they just went along with it. /us/ (without the nasalisation) is two steps removed from /uns/ (no nasalisation and no /n/) which means it is slowly drifting away from the original word.

If this word went through more changes it could eventually become completely unrecognisable. But as long as the speakers of the language were speaking amongst themselves they could all keep up to date with the changes and still understand each other. So over time the language would diverge from its cousins but each group could still understand their peers even if they couldn’t understand their cousins.

The subgroup of Germanic languages that applied this nasalisation are called the North Sea Germanic group (or Ingvaeonic). The North Sea Germanic group includes English, Scots, Frisian and Low German (also called Low Saxon). The oldest varities of those languages are Old English (which is also the ancestor of Scots), Old Frisian and Old Saxon.

In the original language of the Germanic tribes “tooth” was “tanþs” (with þ representing a “th” sound). The “th” became a “d” in the other Germanic languages but English retained it. So “tooth” and “tand” are actually descended from the same word and in linguistics we say those two words are cognate (from Latin “cognatus” which means “born together”).

We can look at words in English and compare them with words in German and you can see an “n” in German where there is no “n” in English

English “us”, German “uns”
English “tooth”, German “Zahn”
English “other”, German “ander”
English “goose”, German “Gans”
English “five”, German “fünf”
English “soft”, German “sanft”

Languages like to mix though and we can see words in languages outside of the North Sea Germanic group that have lost the “n” even though they weren’t part of this nasalisation process.

The Proto Germanic word for “south” was “sunþraz”. This became “sūþ” in Old English and “sundar” in Old High German. Middle Low German (descended from Old Saxon, a North Sea Germanic language) spoken by the Hanseative League was very influential at the time and their word for “south”, which was “sūden” eventually supplanted the Old High German form.

One of the ways to work out if a word has been borrowed is to look at the form of the word. If the word has an “n” where its cognates in the North Sea Germanic languages don’t have one, then it probably isn’t borrowed. If it lacks an “n” like its cognates in the North Sea Germanic languages, but other Germanic languages have an “n”, then it probably is a borrowing from a North Sea Germanic language.

All modern Germanic languages use a form of the word “south” without an “n” but you can still see the “n” in some place names like Zonderwijk in the Netherlands. Here “Zonder” is an older form of the word “Zuid” which means “south”.

Languages change over time. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. A change in one language might be borrowed into a related language and the two might remain quite similar. Other times a group of languages, like the North Sea Germanic languages might employ one change and run with it.

The loss of “n” before a consonant was so complete in English that the only examples of “n” followed by another consonant are because the words had a different form at the time and only lost a vowel or consonant at a later point bringing it to its current form (like the word “month” which was originally “monaþ”).

I love learning about things like this because it makes me feel more connected to my native language and I realise that English is not as far removed from its brethren as it first appears.

If you would like to support Steve the vagabond, you can check out our Patreon, Spreadshirt store, Steemit page, or Youtube channel. Contributions to our Patreon will allow us to continue to bring cool and interesting languages stories like this one to you. Thanks for reading 🙂

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Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English

Modern English is a rather strange language. It is a basically a train wreck between Anglo Saxon (also known as Old English), Old Norse and Norman French

Here’s an example

I am mad (mad comes from Old English ġemǣdd)

I am angry (angry comes from Old Norse angr)

I am agitated (agitate comes from Latin agitatus)

These words all generally mean the same thing with with some nuance to their meanings.

Old English was an inflectional language. This means that it used inflections on verbs and endings on nouns

Here is the first line of Beowulf (written in roughly 800 AD)

Hwæt, We Gardena in geardagum

In the first line you can already see two words (gardena, and geardagum) that have been modified by endings. Inflectional languages use these endings to mark the role of nouns in a sentence. They mark direct objects, indirect objects and recipients of actions.

Here “Gardena” is the genitive (possessive) form of Gardene. “geardagum” is the dative plural of “gear-dæg” which means “days of yore”.

So this line means “Lo, we spear danes in days of old”. So you can see the language has changed a lot since 800 AD. We no longer use the word “gar” to mean “spear”, but it still remains in the word “garlic” which is literally “spear-leak”. And a construction like “geardagum” is not possible in Modern English because we no longer use endings to denote meanings. Modern English is considered an analytic language because the case system is for all intents and purposes dead, and the language over time found new ways of expressing meaning.

But what is fascinating about the developments of languages over time is that some parts survive on becoming a mark of what once was. Modern humans can’t move their ears, but there are some among us who can wiggle them. Many animals move their ears, such as dogs and cats. They do this to work out where sound is coming from. Humans used to do this but it eventually wasn’t needed. Traits that are useful for survival end up spreading. Those that are detrimental tend to die off. But those that don’t serve a purpose anymore can often just sit around minding their own business and not entirely leaving. So while we don’t need to move our ears anymore, some can still do it as a mark of who we used to be.

There is such a mark in Modern English and it is right under our noses. They are the pronouns in English. If a language has been analytic for a long time, then its pronouns will probably be entirely uniform. In Mandarin for instance, the pronouns don’t modify to indicate being the subject or an object of the subject. In English however, we still use different forms of the pronouns, even though it has become vestigial, just like moving ears. In analytic languages, word order becomes very important in denoting roles. In Modern English it is the word order that denotes meaning.

In the sentence “The dog bites the man”, “the dog” is the subject and “the man” is the object. If we change the order in the sentence, the meaning changes. For example, “The man bites the dog”. The words are the same, but the order is different. In Modern English, the order is crucial. English losts inflections and case endings along the way, so it came up with a way of dealing with this by making word order strict.

It might seem obvious that the meaning changes when the order changes, but it is not so in some other languages. German, for instance, has a freer word order because of case endings. “The dog bites the man” in German is “Der Hund beißt den Mann”. “Der” is the definite article (“the” in English) for the male gender of nouns and “den” is the accusative article for the male gender of nouns.

Because the role of the noun is marked, we can move the words around and not lose the meaning because we can tell the intended meaning from the article. “Den Mann beißt der Hund”. It still have the same meaning, but now it is has the added nuance of something like “It’s the man that the dog bites”. The words are the same but the order is different. Whereas in English moving the words around changes the meaning, in German moving the words around just changes the nuance.

So what does this have to do with English? Well, it means that since we know what role a word plays in a sentence because of its position, that now means that we don’t actually need to mark case anymore.

Do you understand the following sentences?

“I gave the book to he”
“Me walked to the shop and saw she”
“It was such a nice day that me decided to go for a run and me bumped into they”

You can probably understand that, but it certainly sounds weird. Why do they sound weird? Because we are used to hearing the accusative version (the versions used when the pronon is in object position) of the pronouns when they occur in the object position in the sentence, and the nominative (subject version of the pronoun) when they are in subject position. But pronouns are the only part that still remain of the once complex case system English used to have. English used to mark case, and it had a full conjugation system just like German.

Conjugation in Modern English is also vestigial. The only place it remains is in the third person where we add -s (e.g. He goes) but otherwise the verb doesn’t change in the present tense.

Whether a language is analytic (like Modern English) or inflectional (like Old English) is called linguistic typology. Each typology has its own ways of doing things and they each train their speakers to think in a certain way. In Modern English, we use a lot of extra words to clarify a meaning. “It is the dawning of a new age”. Here “of” links “dawning” and “new age”. In an inflectional language you would probably put an ending on “age” to indicate that the dawning actually belongs to “age”. One thing native speakers don’t do though, is track the case of a word in a sentence. It’s position, and the words around it define the meaning.

I wrote an article a while back talked about why people say “me and my friend” at the beginning of the sentence. I defended that usage by saying that people pick up usage from around them at that usage has become common. But I also mentioned that when more than one noun is used in a subject, people often end up using “me”. I guessed that this was because “me” was actually the base form and it was “I” that was a special situation.

Maybe that was wrong. Maybe it is just a consequence of the breakdown of the case system. Modern English speakers don’t track case, so really, what form a pronoun comes in sometimes is almost random. “Bob and me went to the shop” and “Bob and I went to the shop” mean exactly the same thing, there is not even a nuance difference. The only difference is what people think about the use of “me” in a compound subject in the beginning of the sentence.

It’s obvious to Modern English speakers what form to use when there is one word in the subject and one word in the object. But what happens when there are more than one? Well, people tend to use the accusative form. One of my friends suggested this is simply because we hear “me” more than “I” and so when forced to choose a form, we simply pick the form that is more common. As I explained earlier, case is no longer strictly necessary in Modern English, so “mistakes” like “Me and bob” or “They gave it to Bob and I” don’t impede comprehension, they simply triggered alarm bells in people who have learned how things are “supposed” to work.

I certainly was one of those people who got annoyed with hearing “Bob and I” in the wrong place. But I eventually decided it was more interesting to wonder about why people said things like that, rather than getting upset that they weren’t upholding the standard usage. I put supposed in quotes because the standard is just a construction. Language is always in flux and language is messy. My personal view is that unless what you wrote is a complete impediment to understanding, then I am not going to bother correcting them. There is a place for showing people how the standard works and why, but those discussions should be reserved for the right places, and not in the middle of an argument in the comments of a youtube video, for instance.

Since the system has broken down, it has allowed these words to take on other forms and roles. In a language like German, you actually need to use the right case because its an important part of the system. In Modern English though, those words can and do change forms and those altered forms have started to attract a certain attitude to them.

“Me and my friend” is considered informal and people are advised to use “I” in the subject no matter whatever else is in the subject. Now that these forms are able to be changed out for something else, people have started abandoning the old rules and started creating new ones.

I remember getting highly annoying at the apparent misuse of the word “myself”.

“Who is going to be living in the apartment?”
“It will be John, Greg and myself”

“Myself?! That’s the object position! You need to use “me”!!” I said to myself. “Myself” as I just used it at the end of the sentence, is a reflexive. It is used when a pronoun refers to itself. “I wash myself”, is an example. We don’t say “I wash me”.

But now that the system has broken down, “me” has stopped being a purely functional word and has started getting this aura of informality and childishness about it.

“Who wants ice cream?” a parent might say
“Me! Me! Me!” a child would respond

An adult might respond, “I would like some”

Stuck in this odd situation where people don’t know whether to use “I” or “me”, some have chosen to use an entirely different word. Maybe they are saying “I am sick and tired of this mess, I am just going to use something that is neither so I don’t have to choose”.

Another weird thing that happens is the overuse of the “Bob and I” form (i.e. using a subject form in a compound subject when the old case system would have expected an accusative one). “He gave it to Bob and I”. This usage also used to frustrate me because it was a violation of the very rule that the “Bob and I” form was supposed to fix. People, according to teachers, overused “Bob and me” so they was told, over and over and over again to use “Bob and I”. And now “Bob and I” is everywhere. I have even heard people say “It is Bob and I’s book” which from a linguist point of view is simply fascinating and I love it, but my old grumpy book worm side howled in terror.

“I’s”?! I have never heard of such a thing in my life!

But it all a part of a larger phenomenon. Living languages aren’t perfect. They are messy and ever changing. In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England and changed English forever. I think the English language is still trying to put itself back together. Maybe it will stabilise at some point. But for now we have this glorious, expressive and exciting mess to live with. And me, myself and I couldn’t be happier to explore this wonderful thing we call Modern English 🙂

How did language first evolve?

It is a question that has intrigued us for as long as humanity has been around. Some ancient myths talk about gods bestowing the gift of words upon us. We are fascinated by this very complex thing that we do pretty much effortlessly. It is so effortless for us that we often don’t even realise how amazing it is. I think we, as humans, are always asking questions and trying to understand our world, and language is an essential part of the human experience.

People often wonder what it would be like to have telepathy. Well, no need to wonder. We have it already. We can communicate complex ideas just by making sounds, or as I am doing now, writing them down using a system designed for capturing spoken word on the page. It is no surprise to me that our ancestors must have come up with all sorts of explanations for how it must have come about.

But did it really just pop up out of nowhere? No, that doesn’t seem likely. As much as humanity might have a lofty opinion of its own place in the world, we are just as subject to the forces of nature as any other species. There must be an evolutionary reason for how languages ended up developing. I was watching a video about birds and how they evolved. Every living thing alive evolved from an older form. But looking at modern birds, you realise that if they evolved from older forms then that means that one of those older forms didn’t have wings. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere already having wings. Evolution is a slow process that takes countless generations to end up at the situation we have today.

What is the point of half a wing, this video asked? Why did wings evolve in the first place? What is the use of a few feathers sticking out of your limbs if you can’t fly? Well, it didn’t start out with flying. Early birds used those little feathers to climb up to places that would have been impossible or very difficult to get to otherwise. They used their clawed legs, and their small feathers together to get to safe spots up trees and away from predators.

This would have been a massive evolutionary advantage. Evolution works through small changes that happen randomly in certain individuals of a species. Those changes that provide an advantage in life are often passed on to future generations. The individuals with bigger feathers and more feathers would have had an advantage and that propelled those feathered individuals forward until their descendants eventually had enough feathers and big enough feathers to allow them to fly.

Now, what does this have to do with language? Well, it shows that evolution can take us, looking back, to unanticipated places, and the development of language is once such occurrence. Those first feathered dinosaurs couldn’t fly, but they could climb trees well, and that would eventually lead to the emergence of such species as eagles, who lead quite different lives to their dinosaur ancestors.

Like flight, language didn’t pop up out of nowhere. And it didn’t emerge fully formed. But then, like in the flight example, what is the use of half a word? Language developed by building on what had come before. Complex language seems to be unique to us, but that doesn’t mean that other species can’t communicate. Dogs bark, yelp and whine. Cats meow, growl and purr. These are all examples of communication.

Our earliest ancestors probably evolved language by taking already existing biological tools like the throat and tongue and using them for another purpose. We know that parrots can mimic language quite well. Humans are not the only ones who can make complex sounds with their own mouths and throats. Birds can make all sorts of sounds and even what could be called music. While parrots may be able to mimic language, their ability with it, even when taught over a number of years is minimal in comparison to even a 3 year old child. So the ability to make sounds was an important part, but it was not the only thing required. The ability to create a wide range of sounds was merely the first step along the long road to language.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we can make some good guesses. In the beginning it was probably quite rudimentary, but as it became a useful tool, like feathers on a dinosaur, it probably became more complex. Before language could have arisen, there are 3 absolutely essential things that were required.

The ability to create a wide range of sounds (only being able to make a “b” sound would probably not be that useful), a social group so you had other members of your species to talk to, and finally, the cognitive abilities to realise that those sounds that your fellow humans were making actually meant something. Babies pick up language almost effortlessly and it really is a marvel at how good they are at doing it. We all pick up our first language just by sitting around other people and listening.

Our ancestors were probably not as good at picking up language, but they probably were able to work out that when a member of their group made one sound it meant something, and another sound it meant something else. All species seem to communicate in one way or another. Many supplement this communication with sound. Wolves, for instance, might howl and other wolves might pick up the howl and howl in return. They are clearly recognising the sound and responding to it.

Dogs too respond to sounds made by other dogs and by us. They can be taught to recognise certain words, which to them are probably just another sound. If wolves and dogs do this, then certainly our ancient ancestors did too. As human cognitive abilities grew, and as our bodies changed over time, two things probably happened: we were able to make more types of sounds than we could before, and we were also able to recognise those sounds in other humans.

Humans seem to want to make themselves stand out and push themselves away from the brutish and chaotic lives of the animals of this world. “We are special. We are clever. We created language solely through our amazing intellect,” some would say. Language was probably neither a solely intellectual creation, nor was it just random. It probably emerged when all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Initially language was probably little more than sounds, but the sounds humans could make were used to make the first words. Maybe the first words were something like “ma”, “tu”, “ak” and so on. But when people started using those sounds in specific situations, they would have gained a certain association and meaning with the other people around them. Even if all they could do was say things like “move”, “danger” or “deer”, it still would have been a very useful thing and it would have been very evolutionary advantageous for anyone who had the right genes to continue on the language journey.

Whatever the genes that we need to produce and understand language are, they were obviously evolutionarily speaking extremely useful and they spread throughout the human population. We have yet to find a single languageless society in the world. All humans are able to use language, no matter the location on Earth, culture or education level. It seems to be rooted in our very DNA. It might be the very thing that allowed us to eventually conquer every part of this amazing world we live on.

Where language went to once it had arrived is a story for another day, but its emergence started a whole new chapter in the story of humanity.

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
verbs.

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
syllables.

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

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
https://www.patreon.com/stevevagabond

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 think about it, a bit like not 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?”
“Fine”
“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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phatic_expression

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?”
“Yes”

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 and 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” or “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 way 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 🙂