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We have a magazine all about language and linguistics. We have published 20 issues (all of which you get access to with a subscription) and a new issue is published every month.
Here are some highlights of the Silly Linguistics magazine
Translation and analysis by Rolf Weimar of Iditguovssu (Dawn Light)
Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English
An overview of Northern Sami
History of “-y” in English
An exploration of the past tense of ‘yeet’
When Writing Gets Hard: The Bilingual Problem
Examine the rationale and effectiveness of attempts in the late 17th and 18th century to rectify the English language
What “yes” and “no” can tell us about how people think
How many languages are there?
Proto Language – Reconstruction and vowel Development
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Etymologies of words and origins of phrases demonstrate a very human aspect to language. They show not only how cultures interacted with each other over time, but they also give a deep and sometimes silly insight into the creative processes that lead to a particular set of sounds to mean a particular thing.
As you might be aware, I am Steve3. I have become a Steve this last week, and shall remain a Steve for the foreseeable future. You will frequently see me posting some of these etymologies, and perhaps the ones you have already seen will end up here, and perhaps you will find something new.
What I want to show is how fun and silly languages can be, and not how boring and ‘school subject’-y language learning can sometimes show itself to be, especially in the realm of textbooks that focus entirely on grammar and not on the silly, fun and pure strangeness of the thing. So, without further ado, here are my top etymologies of the week! If you have anything interesting to add about any of these things, or related etymologies, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!
The word ‘slogan’, which has come to mean ‘a short and striking or memorable phrase used in advertising, actually originated from the Irish Gaeilge ‘sluagh-ghairm’. ‘Sluagh’, means ‘army, host’, and ‘gairm’ means ‘cry’. The word first appeared in the English language in the early 1700s, when the anglicised ‘slogon’, from Scottish Gaelic first came into use.
The word ‘Tory’, which is a name used to describe the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom literally means ‘bandit, outlaw, or robber’. It was adapted from the Irish Gaeiilge and ‘tóraidhe’; modern Irish ‘tóraí’; modern Scottish Gaelic ‘tòraidh’. The word in Gaeilge has its etymology in the verb ‘tóir’ which means ‘to pursue’, as outlaws were ‘pursued men’.It was originally used to describe the guerilla armies of the Irish people who were resisting Cromwell’s forces ‘an irish rebel’, but later came to mean almost exactly the opposite.
Have you ever wondered what Easter, rabbits and eggs have in common? I had always thought that Easter was derived from the word ‘Estrogen’, and that it was simply a celebration of fertility. I had it the wrong way round however!
Easter, originates from a European Pagan celebration of the Goddess of Spring, Eostre, who would bring fertility to the land during the spring months. The word ‘estrogen’, came was named after the Goddess of Fertility!
The word window, though seemingly innocuous, has similarly interesting roots. It comes from Old Norse and combines two different concepts together: ‘vindr’, which means ‘wind’, and ‘auga’, which means to see. Although the word in English for ‘window’ comes from Old Norse, the Latin-Origin ‘Vinstre’, of which German found its word for ‘window’ (Fenster) is still apparent in some obscure terms such as my favourite word in the English language ‘defenestrate’, which means ‘to throw someone out of a window’
I like working on weird and wonderful videos. I like to bring into the world things that have never been there before. So I decided that I would translate a trailer of a super hero movie into Proto Germanic. It took a while. Proto languages are reconstructions that were created by linguists and weren’t really designed to be used for conversation or media.
I have already translated the video into Proto Germanic. The next step is to get voices for each of the lines. The video we are going to be doing is the trailer for Avengers Infinity War. Most characters just have one line so it should be easy to put together.
The lines for the video are in Proto Germanic but as an audition I just want you to do Thanos’s original English lines. Once I have gone through all the submissions I will pick people to do the lines for the video. Thank you for helping out and good luck 🙂
In time, you will know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail all the same. Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.
Send submissions to email@example.com
You can use vocaroo.com or you can simply make a recording using software like Audacity.
This question, though at first absurd, can be a great jumping off point for a discussion about language. When does a word become a part of a language? And what is a language anyway? If you went up to someone who didn’t speak Hungarian and said something in Hungarian they wouldn’t understand you. So we can say that your language and Hungarian are different enough that they can be grouped separately. But if you just said the word “sushi” to an English speaker, while not a sentence, it would put the idea of sushi in their mind. Does this make sushi an English word? Could we group English and Japanese together because they share a word for something?
That Doesn’t Sound Right…
Of course, no one is suggesting English and Japanese are the same language. Both languages are clearly very different. You are probably picturing English and Japanese in your mind and that picture probably has writing on it. Writing though is just a tool and outside of the page and in the real world things get a bit more messy.
So, what is the criteria for saying a word is a part of the language? Does it need to invoke an idea in the receiver’s mind? Ok, well “sushi” clearly fulfills that criteria. But it’s also very clearly a borrowing from Japanese and the pronunciation has only been changed very slightly. Does its clear foreign origin give it away? Would someone reading a menu, coming across the word sushi, jump back in surprise and say “Why are there Japanese words on this menu?” Probably not. They probably just look at the word and understand what it’s refering to.
Sometimes when someone asks a linguist a question they get the answer: “It depends”. Whether a word is considered a part of the language or not depends on a lot of things. It could be considered a “true” member of the new language or it could sit on the outside and only be used when a speaker needs to refer to things that they don’t normally refer to.
There are many examples of words with very specific meanings that were borrowed because they served a purpose. When your language doesn’t have a word for something, people often just borrow the word from the people who do have a word for it. An example is the word “raccoon” which was borrowed from the Powhatan language that was spoken in Virginia. Initially it would probably have seemed like a foreign word. It would have seemed as strange as the new creatures Europeans encountered in the new world.
As Europeans and their descendants spent more time in America, the word and the animal it referred to would have seemed more normal. Now when a character like Rocket Raccoon appears in a movie, no one says to themselves “Why did they name the character using a word from a Native American language?”. “raccoon” is simply what the animal is called in English. It has since become a word in English. How long a word has been in English has a big effect on what native English speakers think is an English word. Words have all sorts of origins, whether it is from older forms of English or from the multitude of languages spoken in the world.
What’s In A Name?
You might be thinking “It’s a word if it’s in the dictionary” but dictionaries are a modern invention. Do words exist simply because they appear in the dictionary? A lot of modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they try to show the language as it is used by people rather than be a place to tell people how they think the language should be.
We can actually go further than just “it depends”. We can say that a word becomes a member of a language once it has settled in and has been accepted by the speakers of a language. But we can actually zoom out and look at things a different way. Let’s imagine a time before books, computers or writing. Let’s imagine a tribal people getting by somewhere in the world. Someone goes hunting and they come across a strange animal. He runs home and says “I saw a creature and he was scratching in the dirt with his hands”.
Later on, when someone wants to say that they also saw a creature like that, they might say “I saw one of those scratching-in-the-dirt animals”. Someone might ask what a “scratching-in-the-dirt” animal is and they would say “It’s got black fur around its eyes, with a larger circle of white fur, but it’s mostly grey” and then the person would connect “scratching-in-the-dirt” with this new animal which you can guess now is actually a raccoon. I used this example because that is actually how the raccoon got its name. The word “raccoon” comes from the phrase “ärähkuněm” in the Powhatan language which means “he scratches with his hands”.
The speakers of this language would at first just think of “ärähkuněm” as a phrase but over time it would be shortened and eventually just turn into a noun. This happens all the time in language. Just look at the phrase “goodbye” which comes from the phrase “God be with ye”. Over time things that are useful settle down into a particular usage and stick like that. But what’s the broader view that I was talking about? Well, let’s think about “ärähkuněm” again. Would speakers of that language think of it as a word? Would they think about spelling or the word on the page? They would probably just think of it as a series of sounds, i.e. “ä” then “r” then “ä” and so on.
They grow up hearing people speak to them, they learn words and grammatical endings and various other things and they use what they have learned to speak to people around them. Anything that their community uses when speaking to one another they would probably just accept as part of their common speech or language. Let’s say visitors from afar come visiting. Maybe this visitors are from Europe. Their speech would sound strange to them and completely unintelligible. Whatever it is they are speaking, it would be very different to their own language. In their own village they would understand what people meant when people used the word for fruit, or animal, or parent, or mother of father and so on. That’s their language. They have an intuition and feeling about what makes their language their language.
This All Fits Neatly
If you could take all the words they know and put it into a box, you would have a box full of words. You could say that that box is for all intents and purposes their language. They would understand any word in that box and would accept any word in that box as one of their own.
What if you showed them something they had never seen before? They would probably use words they already know to describe the new object. What if someone came along and told them what the Europeans called it. Would they accept this as a word in their language? Or would they regard it as foreign and strange? Probably the second one. With enough time and exposure to these new things they might eventually borrow the word and change the pronunciation slightly and start applying grammatical endings to it, thus slowly absorbing it into their language.
That word would eventually find its way into the box. Actually, there is a better analogy. It’s a bit like a soup. Words are the carrots, and parsely and pieces of meat in the soup. This kind of soup is your favourite. It’s your soup. It’s something you are familiar with and you like it. Later people start adding garlic to it. Urgh! You hate garlic but over time you get used to it and even start to like it. It’s still your soup but it is a bit different now.
This really is the true nature of language. It’s a soup. It has bits and pieces from all over the place. Some parts are new additions to the recipe like “selfie”, “unfriend”, “vlog” and “cryptocurrency”. Others are older like “decide”, “royal” and “soldier”. And finally we have words that we can trace all the way back to the original language of the Germanic tribes which English is descended from. These words include “I”, “me”, “you”, “fish”, “hound” and “sheep”.
The truth is that words come and go and there is no hard and fast rule of what makes something a word in a language. So one day a while ago someone from Europe ate sushi for the first time and I decided that their friends back home had to know about it. “I had the most amazing meal today. The locals call it ‘sushi'” they would write. And thus a word that had never before been used in English was used and the course of the language was changed ever so slightly. Never before had an English speaker used a single word to describe what this person was eating, but now they had and a new expression was now possible in English. This has happened in every language around the world.
Humans go out into the world, and eat and drink and try different things. They talk about their experiences and as they talk they influence their language ever so slightly. The language hums and sings with a thousand voices and all of them speak of the experiences of its users. English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Arabic, they are all just ways to communicate with those around us. They are all different in some ways and similar in some ways and they all have something to say about what it means to be human. If you liked this content, be sure to subscribe to our Patreon magazine.
Proto Indo European is the grandfather or great grandfather of English (depending on how you count). This means that we can trace elements of Modern English all the way back to Proto Indo European which was spoken about 4000 BC.
Proto Indo European, like any language, had its own peculiarities. One of them was the “s-mobile” which refers to how the letter “s” sometimes just didn’t stay there in some words but did in others.
The s-mobile is indicated by a bracket around the letter s in words that have been reconstructed in Proto Indo European. We have to reconstruct them because no one wrote Proto Indo European down. We reconstruct words by looking at Modern Indo European languages like English, German, Spanish, Italian, Persian and Hindi and start finding connections between them.
English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and a few others are part of the Germanic group of languages. They all descend from a language linguists call Proto Germanic.
If we don’t have direct evidence that a word existed then we say the word is reconstructed and we apply a star at the beginning. If a document exists that has the word in question in it, we say the word is attested.
The word for “bull” in Proto Indo European is *(s)táwros. Here we can see the star and the brackets. We know that the s was mobile because it appears in some descendant languages but not others.
The word *(s)táwros became “steer” in English, and “Stier” in German, but in Greek, the “s” wasn’t inherited, so we get “tauros”.
So what does this all have to do with spring and frog? Well, they are actually related because they both come from a Proto Indo European word with an s-mobile in it.
One last thing we need to know about to make sense of this. When Proto Indo European developed into Proto Germanic in Scandanavia, the sound “p” became “f”. But this did not affect other descendants of Proto Indo European. So for instance, it is “father” in English but “pater” in Latin.
But here is where things get weird (if s-mobile wasn’t weird enough already!). The sound change (also called a sound shift) of “p” becoming an “f” did not affect words that had the combination “sp”.
So in the Proto Indo European word *(s)preu (which means jump), when the “s” was present, the “p” stayed and turned into the word “spring”, but when the “s” wasn’t present, the “p” became a “f” and the word developed into the word “frog”. So “spring” and “frog” are what linguists called cognate which means they descend from the same source.
And now you can tell people that the frog is named after the fact that it jumps 🙂
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