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

The story of how the word “stone” came to be

A long time ago, in the Bronze Age, there were a group of people living in Scandanavia. These people would eventually become the Germanic people. The people living then didn’t really have writing. They had runes but they weren’t used much. They were mostly used for ceremonial purposes like on swords or other blades.

The fact that these people didn’t write many things down means that we know very little about their day to day language. They obviously spoke a language, and we can make some very educated guesses as to their language but we have very few things that directly indicate what their language was like. We don’t know what their language was called, so linguists decided to call it Proto Germanic because it is the language all Germanic languages come from.

Continue reading The story of how the word “stone” came to be

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.

Continue reading Where do words come from?

The 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.

Continue reading The story of “us” in the Germanic languages

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

Continue reading Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in 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.

Continue reading How did language first evolve?

Learn Northern Sami with Steve the vagabond Part 4

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

Vowel stems are the only verbs that use
consonant gradation

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

Consonant stem verbs have an odd number of

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

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

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

sohaldahttit means to bend down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”
“How’s your leg?”
“It’s not doing well. It’s very painful”

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

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

The conversation would otherwise have gone like this

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

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

“What’s up?”
“The sky”

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

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

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

Here is a simple question

“Is it raining?”

Let’s make it negative

“Isn’t it raining?”
“Yes it is”

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

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

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

This is basically short hand of

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

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