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Month: December 2023

Correlation between food, jaw evolution, and language

By Joana Atanasova

It takes a minor inconvenience to appreciate something we take for granted, I’ll tell you that. In this case I am talking about a sin of gluttony — burning one’s tongue on hot food. Now, we’ve all been in the situation where one’s food has been so tasty looking, but boiling hot, that one cannot resist to bite into, even though one knows good and well it’s going to burn one’s mouth. Of course, once that happens, one finds it hard to speak for the rest of the day as a result of one’s sinful acts, and when one’s a linguist, one starts to wonder if perhaps food had something to do with how we speak today? Coincidentally I had just stumbled upon a very interesting article about this which fuelled up my curiousity even more.

Let’s start with going back way into Palaeolithic times when giant birds were everywhere, other sabre-tooth animals still existed, and humans ate mainly for survival. You can imagine their diets consisted of very, very unprocessed foods — raw or barely cooked meats, nuts, seeds, and whatever else they could forage, gather or farm. Unprocessed foods tend to be harder to chew, I’m not even going to comment on their taste qualities, but hey, they didn’t know any better at the time. This difficulty with chewing that ancient man experienced, required a sturdier, harder bite. Now, it wasn’t an underbite as we had already evolved from that, but it was an edge-to-edge bite — surprisingly it’s a leftover genetic mutation in some modern humans (myself included) that luckily is cured with a quick dentist or orthodontist’s visit. The edge-to-edge bite allowed for a much harder and stronger bite, while protecting the teeth, however it doesn’t allow for some sounds to be made — like the f’s and the v’s.

F’s and v’s, also called ‘labiodental’ sounds, are, as you may have already suspected, sounds that we make when our top set of teeth make contact with our lower lip. You can imagine that an edge-to-edge bite can’t physically produce these sounds, or at least it would take a lot of effort to produce them. Humans had to evolve an overbite in order to be able to produce these sounds with ease, so how did we do that? It’s a very simple and logical reason — food. The development of farming created more possibilities for food to be processed in different ways — cultivated wheat started being ground into flour, meat started to be cooked as humans actually had time to play with things aside from survival like cooking when living inside a safe environment, as farms were surrounded by walls, and the people received some protection from wild animals, enemies, and the elements. More processing meant less biting, chewing, and gnawing — meat cooked until coming off the bone, yoghurt, bread, different mashed things, less chewing meant less jaw straining, and less need for a strong and powerful bite. All this resulted in evolution striking once again and giving us the overbite that we know and love today (a recent study published by sicence.org has confirmed this theory and explores in depth and in a very academic fashion, so you can read the paper for free on their website further if you’re interested). The overbite, on the other hand, gave us brand new sounds to work with!

It’s interesting to think about what language might have sounded like before the introduction of these new sounds, in general in previous issues I’ve explored what language might have sounded like for our prehistoric ancestors, but these new foundings put proto languages into perspective, and also explain language development such as the switch from the Proto-Indo-European ‘patēr’ to Old English ‘faeder’ about 1500 years ago.

Naturally genetic mutations happen in our days, so why haven’t we discovered new sounds just yet? The answer is quite simple — nowadays when science is widely available for everybody, we just aren’t allowing language to change in that way as we have dentists, orthodontists, speech therapists — all these professional make sure that our jaws, teeth, lips are healthy, in line, and able to produce all the sounds we need to speak properly, so even if there is a type of diversion, it’s up to them to fix it. But what about when genes are in line, but there are other factors involved?

Let’s explore a phenomenon in the Mursi tribe people of Ethiopia, Africa. The Mursi are known for an extreme body modification amongst their women — the stretching of the lower lip using a wooden or clay plate. I’m sure at some point you’ve seen a photo on National Geographic as it is a true phenomenon of the human body with some plates reaching 12cm in diameter! This practice exists since as far as anyone can remember and it is said that it’s a sign of the woman’s bravery and fertility, though some hypotheses claim that the practice was picked up to disfigure their women so that slave traders had no interest in them, but nothing has be theorized to my knowledge. You can imagine that it has a lot to do with how their language sounds like as it renders the lower lip completely unusable for half the population. In return the language has evolved so that labiodentals and labials aren’t used at all, for the exception of ‘b’ and ‘m’ sounds in some places, and the reason behind it is that if they existed, the communication would be horrifying if not nonexistent, especially since Mursi has no written form.

On the one hand we have a simple, yet complex in its execution historical reason as to how language evolved and gave us new sounds, and on the other hand we have a language evolving around cultural practices. One thing, however, that we can all be sure of as we see it every day, is that language can evolve if we let it. Should we and how it would evolve are completely different questions. The world is getting progressively more global, as long as you have a mobile device or laptop you can freely communicate with everybody, even now you can find frankenwords in everyday informal speech in almost every language, that will make any teacher wrinkle their eyebrows in visible distaste.

German with English cognates

Cognates are words of common origin. German “Hand” and English “hand”, for instance.
These are obviously the same word. But sometimes cognates are not so obvious. Languages
change over time. “humbug” used to be very offensive, the same way “bullshit” is now, but
now “humbug” just sounds quaint and silly. The English word “land” in German is “Land”.
German capitilises nouns. If you have taken even 5 minutes to look at German you would
know that English speakers can’t understand German without training. If English and
German have so many words in common, then why can’t English speakers understand
German if they haven’t specifically learned it?

Because languages change over time. Let’s go back in time 2000 years to Scandanavia.
There live there a people we now call the Germanic people. Over the following centuries
they migrated south into central Europe. As people move around they take their language
with them. As people speak the language changes as people pronounce things differently,
interpret things differently, use words differently and create new words. The migration
started around the start of the first century AD. Two centuries into the migration speakers
of the language of the Germanic tribes would probably still understand people from other
parts of the Germanic realm.

The divergence of the original Germanic language first into dialects and then eventually
into separate languages took centuries. But it was a gradual process with no hard lines. If
you look at a colour spectrum, when does blue turn into green? Eventually it’s clear that the
colour is no longer blue, but at what point? People probably wouldn’t even agree. Same
with languages. At what point would Germanic tribes people say that the people in another
area of the Germanic speaking realm spoke another language. People probably remarked
that the people “over there” spoke weirdly and eventually they would have just said “Saxon”
or “Norse” or some other name associated with the people.

So about five centuries after the migration the Germanic languages were largely separate.
If you spoke one of the languages you probably wouldn’t understand the others without

practise or training. And they diverged more over time. But not change is absolute or
binary. It’s a slow shift. Eventually those languages that we now call Old Norse and Old
Saxon spawned their own languages. All modern Germanic languages like English, German,
Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic (among a few others) are descended from
these older languages which are themselves descended from the original language of the
Germanic tribes.

All these languages are either more similar or less similar to other Germanic languages
depending on where they developed. Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are close to each
other. Dutch and German are close to each other, and English and Frisian used to be very
close to each other (but then William the Conqueror took over England and English
borrowed a lot of French words, but thats a story for another time). Like orange being close
to red and purple being close to blue while still being recognised as different colours, same
with languages. Its all a matter of degree.

Let’s go back to the beginning where I talked about modern English and modern German.
Despite being separated by 2000 years, there are some words that are still remarkably
similar, such as “fish” / “Fisch”, “hound” / “Hund”, “winter” / “Winter”, “summer” / “Sommer”.
So to recap, all modern Germanic languages are descended from the language spoken by
the Germanic tribes that was spoken in Scandanavia. It started to diverge during the
Germanic migrations and were effectively separate languages by 500 AD. Words like “fish” /
“Fisch” are called cognate because they are descended from the same original word.

The words for fish are still recognisable, but cognates are not always recognisable. Consider
for instance the words “sad” and the German word “satt”. The German word means “full”
(the opposite of hungry). This is because the original meaning was “satisfied” and came to
mean “satisfied because you have eaten food until you are food”. But in English it came to
mean “full” as in “the cart is full”. Once it meant “full” (in the sense of loaded up, like a
cart) it started to gain the sense of “heavy” because a full cart is heavy. And then the
meaning took another shift when it became associated with emotions.

We still talk about a “heavy heart” to this day. Once the word “sad” had come to mean
“heavy” then it was obvious to just say “sad heart”. This phrase became so popular that
people eventually stopped saying “sad heart” and started just saying “sad”. And that is how
the word “sad” is related to a word in German meaning you have eaten enough food.
Linguists call this “semantic shift”. Semantics deal with the meanings of words. “Semantic
shift” means a meaning changes over time.

So sometimes cognates can mean the same thing as with “land” and “Land” and sometimes
cognates can mean something very different like “sad” and “satt”. And sometimes cognates
can mean something similar but not exactly the same as with English “lust” and German
“Lust”. It can be used in a sexual sense in German but it has more a sense of energy or
desire than purely a sexual desire. Now that I have explained all this you can appreciate
this silly thing I wrote a while ago where I took a Wikipedia article about German written in
German and replaced all the German words with their English cognates.

You see, I decided it was a very funny thing to do and I knew my linguistic nerd friends
would understand the concept. But now I am a writer and I wanted to give proper context
for this very nerdy thing that I wrote. I hope you enjoy.

Here follows the original thing I wrote

An article about the German language in German replaced with English cognates. If a
cognate doesn’t exist, I tried to create one that is as close to what the real one would be if
it existed

Dutch Speech

The dutch speech beteewise dutch offcurted Dt., Dtsch., is a West Germanic Speech. Ye
speechroom umfetch Dutchland, Eastern Empire, the German Swiss, Lightstone,
Littlecastle, East Belgium, South Tirol, that Else Sazo and Lutheringen sowhy North
Sleswich. Outerthem is she a minihoodspeech in any european and outer-european lands to
byspell in Romania and South Africa, sowhy national speech in african Namibia.

The standard speech, that standard dutch, set sik out standard variants the roof speech
tosame. The dutch speechroom bestand orspringlike alone out an fulltale fan high dutch
and nether dutch mouth arts, the innerhalf the continental west germanic dialect
continuums mid-one-other bind sind.

The Germanistics is the academic discipline of ghostwitship the the dutch speech and dutch
speechish literature and your historical and againstwart forms erforced, documented and
middled.

The article translated into English

The German Language or German shortened to Dt., Dtsch., is a West Germanic language.

Its usage area includes Germany, Austria, German Switzerland, Liechenstenstein,
Luxembourg, East Belgium, Southern Tirol, Alsace and Lorraine as well as North Schleswig.
Besides this, it is a minority language in a few european and outside european countries,
such as Romanian and South Africa, as well as a national language in african Namibia.

The standard language, Standard German, consists of standard varities of the common
German lingua francas brought together. The german usage area consisted originally of only
a multitude of High German and Low German dialects, which are themselves connected by
being part of the continental west germanic dialect continuum.

Germanistics is the academic discipline in the Humanities where the german language and
german language literature in its current and historical forms is researched, documented
and disseminated.

A look at English Words with Scottish Gaelic origin

By C.S. Sharpe

Ah, English, a language which is approximately 80-90% a mish-mash of other languages in
origin. A language where a third of words are French despite the average Englishman being
horrified at the idea of speaking French!

I jest of course but my point is that English is a language that has evolved from many origin
points, and one of these points of origin that I feel is often overlooked is the Scottish Gaelic
language. Over the years, the Highland and Islands brogue has allowed many words to enter
the Anglic lexicon, so today I would like to share a few words with you lovely readers that you
may or may not know comes from the Highlands of Alba (the Gaelic word for Scotland)!

Bard – The word bard first appears in English in 1400s Scotland with the term meaning a
“Vagabond Minstrel or Poet” it comes from the proto-Celtic Bardos which in turn comes from
ancient Greek and Latin influence to do with singing birds.

A bard was a professional poet engaged to compose for his lord in mediaeval Gaelic and
Welsh society. The bard would write a satire if the employer did not pay the required amount.
It became a disparaging name for an itinerant musician in 16th-century Scotland, but it was
later romanticised by Sir Walter Scott and was retroactively used to characterise poets like
William Shakespeare.

In our modern era, the bard has become synonymous with fantasy, and roleplaying games
like Dungeons and Dragons.

Claymore – Keeping with the Dungeons and Dragons theme; those of you who consume
fantasy will be familiar with the claymore, a large two-handed sword. The term claymore is an
anglicisation of the Gaelic claidheamh mór meaning a “big/great sword”. During the 18th
century in Scotland and Northern England, the term claymore was initially used to describe
basket-hilted swords (early modern swords with a basket-shaped guard that protects the
hand). The large Highland claidheamh mór was in use as far back as the 1400s and was the
pride of many a Highland Scot clan.

Pet – A very common English word pet meaning actually comes of Gaelic origin would you
believe it. From peata in Gaelic possibly from the French petit meaning “small”. Peata meant
a domesticated or tamed animal kept as a favourite.”

Slogan – The word slogan defined as a short and striking or memorable phrase used in advertising is
derived from slogorn which was an Anglicisation of the Scottish Gaelic and Irish sluagh-
ghairm (sluagh “army”, “host” + gairm “cry”). A war cry if you will.

Bog – An area of wet muddy ground that is too soft to support a heavy body is from bog (related to
boglach swamp), from Old Irish bocc in the 14th century.

How Corpora Changed Linguistics

Oscar Torres

A long time ago in a German forest far, far away, two brothers who by chance happened to share the surname “Grimm” noticed something odd. They had roamed far and wide their Northern European, homelands and even a bit further to collect stories. Although they were surprised with how some stories were so similar –they did study Germanic and Norse cultures, after all—one of these brothers who we’ll call Jacob (or Jakie for friends) noticed a strange pattern.

The old chap realized that every time a German word finished with the strong S sound, like in “Fuß”, that same word would have a T in Swedish (“fot”) and English (“foot”). And this would happen with other consonants as well, discovering correspondences with German fricatives (sounds like the F or S where the air only slightly comes out) and Swedish or English plosives (sounds where there’s a hard stop and air gets expelled forcefully, like P or T).

The interesting thing about it was that he could only notice it because he had inadvertently made a comparative corpus of folklore in Germanic languages and spent enough time reading and writing them down to notice it. Today, we’ll be talking about why collections of texts like the Brothers Grimm’s are key to our modern understanding of linguistics and will only continue to grow in importance.

  • So, what exactly is a corpus?

A corpus (“corpora” in plural) is essentially a bunch of specifically selected text samples, be it written or spoken, that linguists use to study patterns or test theories. They’re not exactly new, as historical linguistics has used collections of manuscripts to understand how languages arrived at their current state since the dawn of time, noting little changes in spelling over centuries. However, the understanding that we have of them nowadays has only existed since the 1960s, coinciding with the rise of computers, the internet, and statistical analysis.

In the olden days, linguists like our dear Jakie had to research using the traditional “horizontal” or “line-by-line” reading. This meant long, arduous hours comparing and making a tally of each time he noticed that a German P matched with a Swedish F. With statistical software, however, linguists during the 60s and 70s could read “vertically” to find patterns.

 Imagine a spreadsheet with thousands of samples of text in each row, and all they had to do to find hundreds of matches was pressing a button and the program would “align” every instance of the word “apple” in the different languages to see that Eastern Germanic languages would spell it something like “affel” or “apfel” and Western Germanic languages would have something like “apel” or “apple”. Jakie sure would have loved to have this back in the 19th Century.

Corpora are often used to compare languages, but they can also be used to track the changes in a language as they occur by taking recordings every year, to help create standardized guides for learners of a language by finding the most common (or “normative”) vocabulary, and so much more.

  • The corpus revolution

Let’s say we are a group of linguists prior to the 1960s who want to test a theory. Let’s say that all adverbs in English can be made with an adjective and the termination “-ly”. If we have enough funding, we could probably buy a couple dozen general or purpose-specific dictionaries and study them long and hard over the course of a few months to test our theory. We might reach a conclusion, but we wouldn’t have nearly enough real-world data to conclude that we are actually in the right without statistically significant evidence.

But what if we have access to computers that we can just spill all the data into and have it churn out results? Obviously, it would be quite a bit more efficient in terms of time and money. Add the fact that soon after PCs arrived the internet made corpora not only easier to work with, but also easier to access and compile, now that large databases and digitized versions of documents and texts were available to a previously unimaginable extent.

Millions, billions, and we’re getting close to trillions of words in a single corpus can be accessed in seconds. These databases kept growing while linguists reached a moment of “crisis” as the previous methods were rendered inadequate to study data at this scale. Previous researchers’ main obstacle was acquiring the amount of data to be able to demonstrate theories or extract conclusions, but researchers in the ‘90s had to develop new methods in all subfields and paradigms in linguistics to adapt to the sheer magnitude of the data. All of this led to changes in the quality criteria for evidence, the emergence of new patterns that had not been thought of previously, the possibility of testing previously assumed theories, and the questioning of the philosophy around knowledge itself.

  • Final word

Linguists who lived and did research as the field changed have collaboratively paved the road for us newcomers in terms of developing tools to work with corpora and syllabuses that include training for them. Not to mention the fact that they had to adapt all their previously existing methods “on the fly” to be able to continue doing research.

The main point I extract from all this is that it is nearly impossible to carry out research in linguistics without a proper training in what corpora are and how they are used. Corpora are a resource that is taken for granted from the perspective of a student who is arriving to the field, and the fact that there is still much more to explore and understand about their possibilities leaves many doors open for a dissertation or thesis.

To conclude, the pioneers from the past century left us with so many questions, and now it’s our turn to answer them. What does it mean to be “right”? How many matches do I need to say that something is significant? In what contexts? When do I stop adding data? What samples can I use that won’t skew my results? These and a long etcetera of questions are issues that we are still dealing with nowadays, and we probably will still deal with for years to come.

Asterix and Obelix – playing with languages

By Giulia Raus

Who doesn’t know Asterix and Obelix, the magic duo that stops the Romans from conquering France – at the time known as Gaul. Through adventures and fights the two help their small village to survive the greedy but silly Romans. The existence of this comic book marked many generations and entertained with its witty jokes and naughty stereotypes of many populations and became an international success.
As a linguist, a translator, and a teacher myself I find this fascinating and I would love to share with you a little insight into the nature of the names used in these books, and how we can play with languages and make them enjoyable to everyone.

My dad used to collect the comic books when I was younger, and we used to read them together. Of course, the comic book used to be in Italian, and each name was translated to make sense in my language. What I found out during my bachelor’s period, studying French culture, is that Albert Uderzo (illustrator) and Robert Goscinny (writer) didn’t name the characters randomly but mixed Latin Greek and French to create a perfect one-word description for each character.

Starting from Asterix, the main character, his name could have a double meaning, from the asterisk (*) used in writing or from the Greek word “aster” meaning “star”. The same for Obelix, which name refers to the “obélisque” punctuation sign that can be associated to the asterisk but also a massive rock that he used to carry on his back. The fascinating world of names doesn’t end here. The first thing that catches our eye is definitely the famous termination in -rix (roi) used to indicate the names of kings such as Vercingétorix, other names terminate in -af always referring to kings or people with power in relation to Olaf the Norwegian king. Each population represented in the comic and then in films has a linguistic trait that represents them and stereotypes them a little. The Egyptians are represented with names often ending in -is such as Numérobis and the Goths (Germans) ending in -ic like Périféric.

These examples come from the French version of the books, but how did translators adapt these clever names into other languages? We must consider that the perception of a foreign language is different from population to population, accents and letters perceived might slightly change and the hidden meaning in each name loses its impact as it hidden meaning may not be picked up by someone from a different culture. Let’s take Italian and English (the other two languages I work with) into account and let’s see how the translators adapted the names.

The desinence of each category didn’t change in Italian or English as the sound works in both languages and it is kind of representative of this particular comic book. We have the Romans represented with names in -us, the Greeks with the ending in -os and British with the ending in -ax. The actual names of each character didn’t change much between the two languages, the fun arrives when English makes his entrance, and the translators have to work on a way to make the jokes understandable and relatable in English.

For instance, the name Agecanonix in Italian changes to Matusalemix and in English it changes to Geriatrix. In each way the name indicates a very old person which is easy to understand thanks to witty wordplay (geriatric – from the Greek geras – old person) or matusalemix (from the cultural knowledge that mathusalem was a very old man from the Bible’s Old Testament). Ordralfabetix in Italian is Ordinalfabetix and in English becomes Unhygienix – here the meaning changed completely but it still clearly represents the type of character that we are going to see, this one is a fishmonger and the way he sells the fish might not be the healthiest ever seen (unhygienic) in French and Italian his name literally means alphabetical order, which could indicate the way he sells his food or how he selects people that will buy his food.

As you had the chance to see, each name represents the essence of these characters and also the intention of the writer. The main goal of this comic book was in fact to make the romans look ridiculous and dull compared to the mighty villagers of Gaul. Gluteus maximus for instance, shows clearly how the name not only is roman, due to his ending in us, but also that the character is literally named after a butt.

The Eymological Corner

Katarzyna Koźma

Peace

If you have read any of my texts before you have probably noticed that the topic of
each article is inspired by something that is going on in my academic, professional or
personal life. This month’s text is no different. Being European, living so close to the
Ukrainian boarder it is impossible not to follow the news, not to worry about my neighbours,
about tomorrow. That is why, in this issue I am writing about something that Ukraine, and the
world at large, needs desperately right now: peace.

The English word peace, as well as Italian pace, French paix, and Spanish paz can be
traced back to Latin pax, which signified “the absence of war, state of tranquillity”. This in
turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *pag-: the idea of being bound by an agreement or
a treaty. The root *pag-, or *pak-, can be also found in the etymology of words like appease,
pact, pacifier, or pay.

In Slavic languages, the word for peace derives from the Proto-Slavic *mȋrъ, meaning
both peace and world. There are many descendants of this original term: Ukrainian мир,
Russian мир, Croatian mir, Bulgarian мир, and many, many others. Interestingly, the word
for peace and world is the same only in Slavic languages. In Polish, the word mir does exist
but is rather obsolete and used only in literary texts. The contemporary term is pokój, which,
interestingly also has a double meaning: peace and a room. Pokój comes for Proto-Slavic
*pokojь, which originally meant “rest, break from work”. The second meaning is strictly
linked to the first one. Room was seen as a place where you could achieve your inner peace,
and take some rest without being distracted.

Let’s now take a quick look at the word pacifism, meaning “policy of rejecting all
forms of violence and war”. The term, in the social and political sense, first come to be in

  1. Originally a French word, pacifisme, it was coined by a French anti-war writer Émile
    Arnaud. The noun comes from a much older adjective pacifique, or pacific in English. This is
    exactly the same word that we find in the Pacific Ocean. A famous Portuguese sailor and
    explorer called it Mar Pacifico, a peaceful sea, as it was much calmer than anticipated.

Etymology can often teach us more than we can expect. The fact that so many
languages have similar-sounding, cognate words for peace reminds us yet again that there is
more that unites us than separates us. Let’s hope that we will soon see the word living in
peace. At least for a brief moment.

If you want to know more…
…about the motif of peace in music – Imagine by John Lennon. I am not going to be very
original here. I suppose that nearly everyone knows this classic. However, sometimes it is
important to go back to things that we know and appreciate them again. Let’s imagine all the
people / Livin’ life in peace…

…about the motif of peace in art – Peace Poppies, the National Museums Liverpool on
Google Arts & Culture. The motif of peace in art is as old as humanity itself. This time, I
would like to share with you something interesting I found while doing research for this
article. White, silk poppies, that are now part of the National Museums Liverpool collection,
date back to the First World War and were meant to be worn by women who lost their
relatives. Take a look at this beautiful objects, they are well-worth your attention.
…about the history of the peace sign – ‘History of the Symbol’ on the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament website – We have all seen the famous circle with a line and a reversed V
inside. Deemed satanic or fascist by some, the sign can sometimes cause a lot of
controversies. However, the history of the design is clear and much less mysterious. If you
want to learn a little bit more about it take a look at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
website.

If you’d like to read about the etymology of a word or phrase that intrigues, you send it to
magazine@sillylinguistics.com or our twitter (@EtymologicalThe) or Instagram
(the_etymological_corner) accounts! Although we can’t promise that we’ll be able to answer
all questions we can certainly promise that we can give it a go!