Celtic designs on a stone sphere, evoking Old Irish culture. Image from FreeImages.com

Sengoidelc : Old Irish (and More Besides)

I stumbled across a rather special book this week. It’s David Stifter’s very thorough introduction to Old Irish, Sengoidelc, pleasingly still in print, and approaching its 20th birthday.

I sought it out first and foremost as a language-learning gap-filling exercise. I’ve spent some time with Scottish Gaelic, and a bit (well, a lot) less with Irish. Exploring Old Irish seemed like a good way to get to know their common history, especially given how helpful etymological pathfinding can be with multiple language projects. I’ve also come across satisfying snippets of Old Irish writing, like the brilliantly feline Pangur Bán, and hoped it might open the door to similar treats.

Old Irish – and the Rest

What I didn’t expect from an Old Irish primer was the wealth of detail about Proto-Indo-European. It makes sense, of course; for linguists studying PIE, Old Irish is an important source of evidence from a relatively less well-known ancient descendant – at least compared to, say, Greek and Latin. But it’s positively packed with background info on PIE parts of speech, and their development into the Celtic branch. All in all, it’s a fantastically erudite book written in a disarmingly friendly tone, helped along by some very cute cartoons of sheep.

The author even provides plenty of comparative examples in German. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given his connection to the University of Vienna. But the additional language gives a further handle on potentially difficult concepts for those who know a little. It’s the ultimate in triangulation (and you know I love that).

If your language interests intersect in the same way, Sengoidelc is heartily recommended. I’m just annoyed I didn’t find it sooner!

The Black Country flag. Black Country English has undergone the processes of language change just as any other variety has.

Language Change – Up Close and Personal

The constant churn of language change is an ever-present backdrop for every speaker and learner of a language. Sounds change, words come and go, phraseology shifts. What was common parlance a century ago can be a complete archaism today.

But the classic textbook examples – napron, methinks, thou art and such like – can often seem  a bit dry, distant and theoretical on the page. It’s rarely that we see it up close and personal, not just in our first languages, but in our particular varieties of them. We’re used to thinking of traditional dialects as timeless, apart from Standard English; somehow they were always just so.

It made a nice change, then, to notice real-time language change in my own family vernacular of late. I’ve been conducting a piece of research into Black Country dialect, which has turned up all sorts of fascinating texts. And some of the forms in there had me boggling at how our local speech has altered in the last 150 years or so.

Vocabulary items, as you’d expect, drop in and out regularly over the course time. That doesn’t stop them being surprising when they pop up, though. My searches turned up things I’ve never heard a West Midlander say in my life. But there they are, in black and white, as examples of typical Black Country speech in newspaper articles both pillorying and honouring the dialect over time.

Welly Enough

My first ooh – I’ve never come across that before!  is the word welly for nearly. Take this lovely example from the story “How Leyvi Crafts Got Rid O’ The Mice“, which appeared in an edition of the popular “Tom Brown’s Black Country annual” in 1889. The narrator, bemoaning the stench from a bottle of poison, exclaims:

“The smell on it’s welly enough to kill a christian, let aloon a mouse!”

And then there’s the sign-off from a humorous letter to the editor in dialect, from the 1890s. After speaking his piece, the writer rounds off:

“well mr Editer i’n sed welly all as i wanted”

So what became of the welly? I’ve asked our resident Black Country expert (aka John, my stepdad), and he hasn’t a clue either.

Bear in mind that sometimes the word remains, but its form is different. Who knew, for example, that Black Country had an Old English -en plural for fleas, just like oxen? As one commentator in 1892 writes:

“…the Black Country mother may be heard to declare that ‘her babby has been peffled all o’er wi’ fleen.'”

I know. Not a nice image.

Better Nor That…

And then there are constructions that have changed a fair bit, too. I grew up around some very broad and proud speakers of Black Country English, who nonetheless formed comparisons as in Standard English: “better than that“, for example. Switch that out for nor, and you end up with the kind of phrase you’d more likely hear in the early 20th Century:

“…yow oughten to ha’ known better nor that…”

One of the most unusual lost phrases I’ve come across yet is the use of without as unless. It was nestling in a local yarn published in 1906:

“I dow know, without yow goo to Dr. Brown’s…”

Again, it’s lost on my family when I press them (no doubt ever nearing their limits of patience) for clarification. A hundred years can do a lot to a language.

How has your local speech changed in the last century or so? Let us know in the comments!

Pop linguistics books

Pop Linguistics Books for Prep or Pleasure

I fulfilled a long-time promise to myself in 2020. I went back to university to do the linguistics masters I never had the chance to do years ago. It’s been a journey (and still is!).

That said, as a long-time language nerd, I wasn’t going in completely blind. Like most linguaphiles, I love reading about languages, as well as learning them. Over the years, I’ve happened across a few pop linguistics titles that prepared the ground (little did I know then) for my return to uni. They’re accessible, fun reads, and nobody needs a formal linguistics background to enjoy them. Just a healthy interest will do. And whether or not you plan to take the same step as I did, they’ll all get you thinking about how languages work, and change, in whole new ways.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite pop ling books.

Dying Words

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans is an Australian linguist specialising in endangered languages. Dying Words is first and foremost his empassioned cry to recognise the value of every language to the library of human knowledge. 

To drive the point home, he builds his arguments on solid research and extensive field experience; his expertise on Australian languages is worth the price of the book alone.

But it’s all written so accessibly, with each technical term or methodological aspect so carefully explained, that the book doubles as a kind of gentle introduction to historical linguistics. Linguistics primer gold.

The Unfolding of Language

Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher - one of my top recommended linguistics books

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

This book is pretty special to me. It was the one that first got me thinking language change is cool!

In it, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher tells the most fascinating stories about how words and grammar develop. The most lasting insight from this, for me, was that of the great churn of language change. It’s truly never-ending, as the results of yesterday’s changes provide the material for tomorrow’s. It’s quite the revelation how French has iterated and iterated from Latin hodie (today) to aujourd’hui – tautologically, on the day of this day.

If you like this one, it’s also worth checking out his Through the Language Glass.

The First Word

Christine Kenneally

Author Christine Kenneally takes perhaps the most speculative of linguistics topics – the evolution of language – and provides an exciting and compelling tour of scholarship in the field. A trained linguist herself, she now works as a journalist, and the combination of the two makes this a compelling pleasure to read. Even if you find the concept of language evolution too woolly and conjectural, the book is fantastic for simply prompting thoughts on what language is.

The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

Despite being the only book on this list by a non-linguist (at least professionally), the author of The Adventure of English is nonetheless a sharp tool and very well informed – of course, none other than the legendary broadcaster and cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg. His book on the history of the English language, and the emergence of many different global Englishes, made a decent splash in the right circles, in any case. I’ve seen it recommended as pre-reading for a few different English linguistics courses, including a former Open Uni module. As you’d expect from a broadcast journalist, it’s pacy and entertaining – so much so that you might well finish it in a couple of sittings.

Books for Prep or Pleasure

So there you go – a handful of tips for some light linguistics reading. That goes for anyone interested in the field, whether for personal interest or uni prep. Also note that there’s not a Language Instinct in sight, although I do love that one, too. It’s just a bit too obvious as it remains ubiquitously recommended here, there and everywhere!

None of these are really academic texts, of course. Most are written in that chipper, journalistic style familiar from that close cousin to the field, pop science. But for that reason, they’re all a bit of a joy to read. I hope you enjoy them too.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Just for the sake of completion: my (now very battered) copy of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

 

Waves crash against rocks. Over time, contact creates change. Image by FreeImages.com

That’ll Leave A Mark! Language Contact and Change

When languages brush up against each other, they tend to leave a mark. With tongues jostling for existence within the same space, language contact situations serve up some fascinating examples of cross-pollenation.

It’s something that you keep spotting as a Gaelic learner, for example. With clockwork regularity, you come across word-for-word calques, or loan translations, lifted straight from English. You cuir air an telebhisean (put on the television). You cuir dheth co-dhùnadh (put off a decision). And I’ve even seen how you can cuir suas le cudeigein (put up with someone).

Wrapped up in Gaelic lexemes, look indigenous enough. But those prepositions air (on) and dheth (off) are behaving in ways that they might not have done, say, in Classical Gaelic, which might constrain their use more tightly. In effect, English has imported its own phrasal verb construction, which is now becoming an increasingly acceptable category in contemporary Gaelic, too. There’s syntactic change afoot.

It’s gone the other way often enough in the past, of course. The origins of the English progressive (to be -ing) may well lie with the partical + verbal noun structure of Celtic. And contemporary Hiberno-English has a past tense construction to be after doing, roughly equivalent to the perfect tense, which it appears to have nabbed from Irish.

(Un)mutual Contact

But as you might expect, language change through contact isn’t usually happening equally at any one point in time. Many factors, not least social dominance of one language over the other, can make the  transference very lop-sided.

Contact linguist Myers-Scotton makes sense of this by asking where two languages meet, fundamentally: in the minds of speakers who have to use them both. Locating the process within bilingual speakers, and how they switch between languages, is a neat way to expose the front line of contact induced change. For a start, it allows us to evaluate the status of the two parties squaring off. The ‘base’ tongue is the matrix language, forming the main sentence frames of speech. Into that, embedded language – the outside influence – inserts itself to varying degrees, in the middle of it all.

Sometimes this insertion can come in the form of a single word. Myers-Scotton gives one example from Nairobi Swahili speakers: “ku-appreciate hiyo” (to appreciate it). English, the embedded language, contributes the verb appreciate. But it’s the matrix language, Swahili, giving it a regular infinitival marker ku-.

Elsewhere, larger, deeper syntactic structures can be recruited from the embedded language. The results can drastically alter a language’s syntax; the Balkan Sprachbund is a region where neighbouring languages – from completely separate branches of Indo-European: Albanian, Greek and Slavic – have gradually come to resemble one another grammatically. The most likely driver, again, was the bumping together of different peoples, and the necessary cross-linguistic skills and code-switching that required.

The End of the Road?

For some, this kind of change is the thin end of a wedge that leads to total replacement of the less socially secure language. At some point, the matrix and embedded languages will flip. Social pressure might privilege the outside language for a new generation of speakers, who might start slotting just the odd heritage language word in, here and there, as a cultural nod. A generation on, perhaps even that will peter out.

Is that the fate befalling Gaelic, gradually taking on anglicisms to the point of transformation? Actually, I don’t think that’s the foregone conclusion here. Syntactic convergence doesn’t necessarily spell the end for a language. It can be seen as a strategy to support continued bilingualism, for example; if languages share structures, it’s cognitively less costly to maintain more than one at a time. For sure, borrowed syntax is also a crutch that helps the army of new speakers (thanks to Duolingo et al.) feel a little less lost when getting to grips with Gaelic.

No, death isn’t always the end. Contact outcomes are many, and include paths that lead to sometimes surprising, but very much un-dead extremes. Living proof of that, Media Lengua (literally something like ‘between language’), is the outcome of indigenous Kichwa crashing up against Spanish in Colombia and Eduador. The resulting mixed language preserves Kichwa grammar, but has been almost entirely re-lexified with Spanish vocabulary. Deep breaths, purists: Gaelic is a long way off from that.

Oceans Collide

As with all things linguistic, bilingual speakers are just one part of a complex picture of contact change. But running through the countless evidence as above – anecdotal and otherwise – it’s easy to appreciate why they are a particularly active site. Bilingual speakers are the point at which two tides crash up against each other and the waters mix. A sort of linguistic Grenen, Skagen where oceans collide.

It’s also pause for thought for polyglots. What features do we carry over from one language to another? And if we embed into our target language cultures, do we become agents for change?

The Road to Suppletion

An interesting question popped up in our Gaelic class this week. We’ve been looking at comparatives and superlatives of adjectives lately, and just like good, better, best, Gaelic has a few that don’t conform to the regular paradigm. The word for small is one of them: we have beag (small) and lugha (smaller). A canny classmate asked: where does that mismatched lugha come from? In short: suppletion.

Suppletion is when parts of word patterns get replaced by bits from completely different places. The term derives from Latin supplere, supply, and that’s quite apt – one pattern is supplying another with its own bits and pieces. 

For a look at the irregular havoc suppletion can wreak, just see what happened to good in the Germanic languages. Instead of gooder and goodest we have better and best, which don’t bear the Good family resemblance one bit. So where did adoptive better and best come from, then? Well, there seem to have been two synonymous words for good in Proto-Germanic: *gōdaz and *bataz – and for whatever reason, they became mushed together, with the *bataz bits filling in for the comparative and superlative of *gōdaz.

The Road to Suppletion

As with many odd irregularities, it’s the kind of thing that happens to paradigms that are in frequent use. For instance, super-frequent good-better-best has irregular comparatives in the Romance languages too (French bonmieux), as does badworse-worst (Spanish malopeor). The patterns for large and small often get grafted onto too, although that fate hasn’t befallen the English versions (yet). Not so for Gaelic (or Irish, for that matter) with that beag – lugha mix.

The origins of lugha aren’t that obscure, as it turns out, as lugha appears to be cognate with the English word light (as in as a feather). In terms of meaning, it’s pretty close; you can imagine speakers conflating small and light, especially referring to food or other goods. The result is that small – smaller somehow became small – lighter, beag – lugha.

So much for small, then. But what happened to light, if beag had pinched its superlative for itself?

As is often the case, it seems to have simply faded away, just as the non-comparative grade of *bataz has left the Germanic languages. The words for light in Gaelic and Irish are now remodelled versions of ‘un-heavy’aotrom and éadrom respectively (from tromheavy).

The Etymological Rabbit Hole

All in all, tracing the winding etymological of suppletive paradigms paints a fascinating picture of one type of language change. Following up on these hybrid etymologies via resources like Wiktionary can provide some real insight into both how your target language evolved over time, and how it is related to other languages.

The remnants of many a forgotten root lie along the road to suppletion.

A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

A bird's feather: the result of exaptation? Image from freeimages.com

Exaptation : Extreme Language Change

In 1990, linguist Roger Lass transplanted an idea from evolutionary biology to historical linguistics: exaptation.

Exaptation is the repurposing of existing elements for brand new functions. In biology, the classic example is birds’ feathers: originally believed to have developed as heat-retaining insulation, they provided a convenient basis for flight. A lucky accident, if you will. And there are plenty of instances that fit that bill in language change.

Lass’ classic example involves the development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. PIE had a system of alternating vowels (called ablaut) to mark aspect in verb stems. For instance, a present stem might show -e-, while -o- signified perfect and -ø- (zero, or no vowel) was the marker for aorist. Ancient Greek actually preserved that pattern quite well, and Lass gives the examples:

  • Present: lpo (I leave)
  • Perfect: léloipa (I have left)
  • Aorist: élipon (I left)

However, Proto-Germanic did something quite odd. Instead of using it to indicate aspect, it repurposes it to show number in the preterite tense. Look at these examples from Gothic:

  • Present: beitan (to bite)
  • Preterite 1ps: bait
  • Preterite 1pp: bitum

Considering that -a- is the Germanic reflex for PIE -o-, here, we have the same alternation – -e-, -o-, -ø- – but representing something else entirely.

An Idea with Wings?

Cross-discipline metaphors rarely fit exactly like a glove, and it’s clear this isn’t quite like feathers being exapted for flight. For a start, feathers still fulfil both functions: a cosy coat as well as flying apparatus. In general, with exaptation, we’re talking about wholesale transformation of something that had ceased (or was about to cease) to be meaningful any more. Lass called this morphological ‘junk’ initially, but this has been a source of disagreement. Just what is ‘junk’ in a language?

Still, it’s a compelling metaphor, chiefly because it gets the imagination churning. How can things change so drastically in such a short time? What does language look like while it’s changing like this? Does it happen a lot? Can we see it happening now? Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that spawn more questions.

Exaptation hasn’t gained universal acceptance as a theory just yet, some three decades on from Lass’ initial paper. Some say it just boils down to reanalysis, like many similar changes. Others maintain that it’s a very particular direction of reanalysis, so it is unique and worth a place of its own in the textbooks.

Whatever its status, it does throw up some absolutely fascinating examples of extreme change.

You can access Lass’ original 1990 article at this link!