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
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.

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?”
“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 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come live on the silly side of life