What the F@%$ – Profanity in Language

By Patience Kelly

Literally, profane means outside the temple, and originally had religious connotations, involving “desecrating what is holy”, and representing blasphemy. In English, most swear words have Germanic roots, and documents of swearing in the Bible go back to as early as 1611. An average person uses profane language anywhere from 0% to 3.4% of our spoken words, outnumbering even our first person pronouns (we, us, our) which is used about 1% of the time. Swearing can help neurologists make a distinction as to whether someone has Alzheimers or frontotemporal dementia and according to some, may help anger management. But those who look at language and psychology can all agree. Cursing is a human universal.

While difficult to define, all profanity offends, with varying levels of offensiveness or severity and brings into question things like free speech and freedom of the press, that is, what exactly can be said on tv or the radio. But arguably, profanity is the most powerful words of all. They have direct lines to emotion, and allow you to express your pain or purposely offend. Perhaps most importantly of all, they prove words have power. Power to be spanked as a child, or chastised as an adult, power to be banned from tv and radio, and of course the power to offend, and be offended. Another theory also states that profanity is actually rarely meaningless

Follow just about any click bait website and you’ll see ‘studies’ that prove swearing means you’re dumber, or swearing means you’re more honest, but in one experiment, research showed that the one thing swearing probably could do was help you endure pain. Students were asked to submerge their hands in freezing water for as long as they could, one group was allowed to use profanity and the other used neutral words, one that they might use to describe something, then the groups were allowed to switch types of words. 73% of the students who swore were able to keep their hands submerged for longer. Around 31 seconds to be exact. The study speculates that swearing may produce endorphins within the body.

New questions have emerged in the digital age, such as whether one can swear through emojis, and this adds to the already somewhat tumultuous world of profanity. What is swearing’s purpose in society? Does swearing have grammar? Do men and women swear differently? And if so, how? The one thing that is definite, is that profanity will continue to be something that is debated, and questioned ad nauseam.

How media sensations changed the way we speak

By Patience Kelly

Art mimics life, and this is no different for linguistics. We talk like people we can relate to, who have similar ideas to us, not necessarily who we see (or hear rather). But, as with most things there are exceptions. Around twenty-two years ago, the movie Clueless hit theatres and changed the way teenage girls shopped, but more importantly introduced and spread what most of us have come to know and love (or hate); the valley girl.

This is a trope that initially seems ditzy, loves shopping, plaid miniskirts and more than anything loves the phrase “as if”. “Oh my GOD!”, “whatever”, “rad”, and of course “clueless” are a few iconic examples of this ‘dialect’. It’s not as though the movie completed invented this way of speaking, but it did help bring it into the main stream in a huge way. Language fads tend to be just that, dying in a very short period of time, but to this day people still use “like” and “all” in ways like this: “She was all, where are you going? And I’m like, to the mall!”

Some linguists even argue that Clueless influenced a vowel shift in California changing “dude” to “dewd”. What’s more is that this is not the only shows to elicit a similar response. Another cult classic TV show (that turned twenty in the last two weeks) called Buffy the Vampire Slayer has huge impacts on the way a huge number of its fans and others speak.

Clueless and Buffy are similar in the way of the blond, seemingly ditzy girl is the heroine, in Clueless, our heroine Claire is shown to be what might be surprisingly smart, and in Buffy, she alone can conquer the forces of darkness. She is the chosen one, a vampire slayer, with super strength, and just so happens to be a cheerleader, at least for one episode.

This series not only introduced slang like “slayage”, “vamps”, “wiggins”, and “big bad” to everyday conversation, but trades on references to pop culture by shifting proper nouns into other parts of speech, like verbs and adjectives like in the Halloween episode of Octover 96 where Xander remarks “Halloween quiet? I figured it would have been a big ole vamp scareapalooza.”

Both Buffy and Clueless use the word ‘much’ in unexpected ways like ‘excuse much’ which tries to convey “excuse (you) much”. Buffy also uses suffixes on any and every word imaginable; “Buffyness”, “kissage”, “glowery”, and “foreheady” are all examples. This is a speech pattern I follow in my own life, shifting just about anything to be an adjective.

Another interesting change in usage is shifting adjectives to nouns like; “what’s with the grim?”, “stop with the crazy”, and even “making time go all David Lynch.” Made up compound words like “net girl”, and “perception girl” play with the word form and meaning, and this word play is what makes Buffy truly unique.

These plays on words to create new meaning, new layers, and new jokes add a whole other dimension to the world that is Buffy in both a comedic yet tragic yet dramatic scene and a completely ordinary high school teenager young adult fiction way.

Old English Electricity

By Timothy Patrick Snyder

Old English is a fantastic language.  There is a large selection of literature, with poetry and prose, we have an Old English lexicon that includes several thousand words (although spelling and dialectal variants also take up a decent amount of entries).  There is definitely enough in the lexicon to speak it and compose new literature.  

However, new concepts and inventions could make daily speaking difficult. That’s where neologisms can fill in the lexical gaps.  Some may just be a newly minted meaning to an old word, which is not an uncommon practice in modern languages.  Some may even just require new endings to existing words.  Others maybe be conceptual compounds that combine to make a new meaning. In languages such as Old English, compounding was already common practice, so this can actually feel more authentic.  Although I use from all three of these styles for new Old English words.

Someone might ask why I just use loan words.  That’s a legitimate way to introduce new words. Even the Anglo-Saxons were known to borrow a few words from Latin (like planeta).  It’s true, and one can borrow words, but loanwords lose a bit of the original linguistic flavor.  However I see no reason not to have them, or both a neologisms and loanword.  Some words perhaps should only be loanwords, like some animals or plants, and obviously brand names.

For this article, I’d like to introduce terms related to something we use every day in the modern world but didn’t exist to the Anglo-Saxons, and that’s electricity.   Electricity is a necessary part of our lives and powers our world.  Its usage has lead to millions of new inventions which many of us cannot live without.

I present three terms for electricity, with a fourth as a shortened form of two of them.  The first approach I took to this was to determine the origin of electricity.  The word is rooted in Latin electrum amber, and the new word electricus like amber, was coined by William Gilbert in 1600.  This was then loaned into various languages, including English.  http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=electric&allowed_in_frame=0

With that in mind, I present glærlīcnes electricity and glærlīc electrical, electronic derived from glær amber.  It’s a pretty straightforward neologism.

The next two are compounds which have their own logic.  The first is spearcstrēam electricity, which is a compound of spearca spark and strēam stream, current.  The adjective to match this term would be spearcstrīme electrical, electronic. In the same vein is the word līgetstrēam, which is a mix of līget lightning and strēam stream, yielding the adjective līgetstrīme electrical.  These also can double as meaning electrical current.  This leads to the most obvious short form strēam electricity and strīme electrical, which also corresponds to the German word Strom, which can mean electricity, power, stream, current, etc.

My primary source was the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary, which can be found digitally at http://www.bosworthtoller.com/ .  

Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Hi guys. It’s Rolf Weimar here, creator of Silly Linguistics. I have been working hard on language podcasts, comics and articles. But I would like to expand the language offering on this site. So with that in mind, I put out a call for contributors and I got many responses. Thank you to all who responded.

One person stood above the rest though. They showed enthusiasm and a desire to bring interesting language stuff to a greater audience. I would like to introduce Patience Kelly who will be writing a weekly article for this website. Here is Patience’s article. I hope you enjoy 🙂

Northern Cities Vowel Shift

I’ve lived in Chicago my entire life, and whenever I go anywhere else in the U.S. I always get asked “you’re from Chicago, aren’t you?” If you’ve ever seen a movie like The Blues Brothers or seen that SNL skit about the super fans, you might know why that is. I might not sound exactly as overexaggerated but my ‘Chicago’ is more like ‘ChicAHgo’ and my ‘sausage’ like ‘sAUGHsage’. This may be due to a linguistic phenomenon known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

From Upstate New York through the Midwest and into Minnesota and the Dakotas, what was originally a simple shift of the tongue forward and up moved ‘man’ towards ‘men’ which started a domino effect on the rest of our vowel sounds. ‘Busses’ becomes ‘bosses’ and so on. This goes to show that firstly people’s accents are not as affected by the media as originally thought but also, people in the boundaries of this vowel shift are becoming more distant, linguistically.

The shift began being documented in the 50’s in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, and Rochester adding up to about 34 million people. Most of the country has no distinction between words like ‘cot’ and ‘caught’, or ‘don’ and ‘dawn’ but within the northern cities the ‘wha’ sounds of ‘caught’ and ‘dawn’ are clearly audible. This shift seems drastically similar to the one occurring in the 1400-1600’s transforming middle English to modern English.

One theory linguists have offered as to why this shift stops just south of Cleveland and west of Milwaukee is politics. Linguists such as William Labov offer that you’re more likely to speak like people you can relate to, so while southern Illinoisans tend to have a soft southern drawl, Chicagoans follow the Northern Cities Shift possibly because Chicago is in reality a small liberal diaspora within a vast sea of conservatives.

Another speculation made by Lebov suggests that the Erie Canal brought immigrants east drawing different dialects, as well as accents together. Many in the east (places like Rochester and Buffalo) made a huge leap in population on imports of Midwestern wheat and possibly drew pop (pahp) from where soda had previously been and similarity in blacks (city blocks laid out on a grid pattern) in Chicago and Manhattan were conceived of German stonemasonry so followed a similarity in pronunciation.





Language fossils

Something that I think all language enthusiasts encounter very early on is just how many languages there are in the world. But spend more time in the language world, and you will discover that there are even more languages beyond those currently being spoken.

Latin, Ancient Greek, Avestan, Old Norse, Old English, Akkadian, the list goes on. These languages used to be daily languages of countless numbers of people. It would be impossible to learn all the living languages of the world. Adding all the known ancient languages would make the number of possible languages that can be learned even larger.

So, as a language enthusiast grows their awareness of languages in the world, they notice languages similar to theirs, then more distant ones and then ones utterly unlike their own. And then they learn about dead languages such as Old Norse, Akkadian and so on.

But there is yet one more area that a language enthusiast can think about. What about all the languages and even language families that were born, lived and died all without ever being written down. There are roughly 7000 languages spoken in the world today.

There were even more back in the day. Isolation tends to create languages. When people are together, they tend to emulate the speech of those around them. When groups are isolated from one another, they are not hearing the speech of other groups and differences can emerge and flourish. This means that since people moved around much less in centuries and millenia before, we can safely assume there were many many more languages back then.

This is both an exciting and also sad and sobering thought. What mark have these unknown and untold number of languages had on the world? We can only guess. The only thing we can say for sure is that they would have been pronouncable (no doubt after some study) by modern humans. We have not changed much in the last few millenia, evolutionarily speaking.

Picking a random language spoken 10 000 years ago, it would undoubtedly have had nouns and verbs. Adjectives, adverbs and articles are optional. Some languages have more “verby” like adjectives, such as “The sky is blueing” for “The sky is blue”, where “blue” would be a verb.

And that’s about it. So much of what languages do are merely conventions. Even tense, such as future or past tense does not exist in all languages. Some language go completely without articles. Languages are so varied that we have very few things that are common amongst all of them.

Are there any languages that were never written down that we can know something about? Yes, there are. Historical linguistics can teach us about how languages change over time. We can use it to understand how Old English “eom” became Modern English “am”. We can compare how different old Germanic languages said something and then using historical linguistics, we can reconstruct an older form of the language that was not written down.

The reconstructed language from which the older germanic languages come from is called Proto Germanic. The Germanic family is just one of many branches of the larger Indo European family. If we reconstruct the proto language of each branch of Indo European, we can eventually reconstruct the language from which all Indo European languages descend. This language was named Proto Indo European by linguists.

After reconstructing an older form of the language, we can use it to write things in it. August Schleicher, a German linguist, did just that when he translated a story he wrote about a sheep into Proto Indo European. It goes as follows.

Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam.Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat

English translation

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

What is fascinating about this is that Proto Indo European was never written down, and yet we can make some educated guesses as to what it would be like. Others have taken this story and translated into other proto languages and even some old languages that we do have texts for such as Old English.

Here is the first sentence in the reconstructed ancestor of the Germanic languages

Awis, þazmai wullô ne wase, eχwanz gasáχwe, ainan kurun waganan wegandun, anþeran mekelôn burþînun, þridjanôn gumanun berandun.

And here is the first sentence in Old English (the more recent ancestor of Modern English)

Ēow, þe ne wull hæfde, seah ēos, ānne hefigne wegn pulliendne, ānne micelne berendne, ānne guman snelle berendne.

“ēow” eventually became “ewe” in Modern English. By looking at the various words for “ewe” in Indo European languages, they were able to reconstruct the Proto Indo European word for “ewe”. But you may be wondering, where did “sheep” come from? It doesn’t look anything like “ewe”. Over time, “ewe” eventually began to take on a meaning of “female sheep”.

Well, this is where those forgotten ancient languages come in. We can dig up a 65 million year old dinosaur and by studying the bones, we can work out some things about the dinosaur. Languages, however, don’t leave fossils. They are a cultural artifact. They are inherited from an older form of their language and change meaning and pronunciation over time. If they are no longer spoken, they simply don’t exist anymore.

It is sad that so many languages died before ever being recorded. But some languages leave a trace in languages that DO survive. The ancestral Germanic language that led over time to the formation of the modern Germanic languages was spoken by people in Scandanavia. Those people had migrated there from the Pontic Steppe, a steppe along the north of the Black Sea, and is the theorised homeland of the ancestors of the Germanic people, the Indo Europeans.

When cultures interact, they often borrow words, and it seems there must have been an indigenous culture living in Scandanavia when the Germanic people arrived in Scandanavia. We can’t know for sure, but one theory is that words that we can’t trace back to Proto Indo European, like “sheep” (there are many others), come from the indigenous people in Scandanavia.

We don’t know whether it was a fusional, inflected or agglutinative language. We don’t know what their word for I, they, love, or happy. But we can be reasonably sure that a few of their words did survive, and so their language was not entirely lost to history and this should give some solace to language enthusiasts out there.

Old English and Proto Germanic translations of Schleicher’s Tale come from http://www.incatena.org/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=37227

Schleicher’s Fable in Proto Germanic

Awiz eχwôz-uχe

Awis, þazmai wullô ne wase, eχwanz gasáχwe, ainan kurun waganan wegandun, anþeran mekelôn burþînun, þridjanôn gumanun berandun. Awiz eχwamiz kwaþe: “Χertôn gaángwjedai mez seχwandi eχwanz gumanun akandun.” Eχwôz kwêdund: “Gaχáusî, awi, χertôn gaángwjedai unsez seχwandumiz: gumô, faþiz awjôn wullôn sez warman westran garwidi; avimiz wullô ne esti.” Þat gaχáusijandz awiz akran þlauχe.


A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses”. The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool”. Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.


South African English

South African English has many accents, even amongst native speakers. There is Cultivated, Common and Broad, roughly equivalent to upper class, middle class and lower class. My accent (I live in Cape Town) is somewhere in the middle.

Diphthongs can often get monophthongised, so that the single vowel is the only thing to tell you what diphthong was meant. Here is a cool example.

/a:/ for /aɪ/ (price)
/ɑː/ for /aʊ/ (mouth)

“That is a file” “That is a /fa:l/”
“That is a foul” “That is a /fɑːl/”

What is semantic shift? (aka, how “gather” and “good” are related)

Semantic shift is when a word changes in meaning over time. When a word becomes associated with something, it can often gets a new meaning by association.

“gather” comes from Proto Germanic *gadurōną which also means “gather” which
is derived from the adverb *gadur. This word mean “together”, “gathered in one place”. *gadur is derived from Proto Indo European *gʰedʰ- which is a word that means “to unite”.

“good” comes from Proto Germanic *godaz, but this word in Proto Germanic is also derived from Proto Indo European *gʰedʰ-, so “gather” and “good” are actually cognate. Being united is a good thing, so over time the equivalent of “united” in Proto Germanic took on a meaning of “good”

Another example of semantic shift is the word “forest”. It comes from Proto Germanic *furhō “pine”. This word developed into the word *forhist in the language of Franks, a Germanic tribe that give France its name. This word eventually made its way into Old French as “forest”, and the French brought it to England. Over time the word that meant “pine” eventually began to be used to refer to the whole forest.