Month: April 2016

Language Tint My World

The pedant prescribes, but the linguist describes.

To many of my friends, the terms grammar nazi and Joseph are synonymous.  While the title grammar nazi, ignoring its obvious potentially offensive historical implications, is a somewhat accurate description of my M.O. in social gatherings, it fails to encapsulate all facets of my linguist persona.  In other words, it is a term that incompletely describes my relationship with language.  Grammar is but one stud on the leather-clad body of my cruel and domineering, yet sweetly rewarding, lifelong mistress known as Language.

While it’s true that I die a little inside when people grammatically mutilate their sentences and that I am wont to correct the perpetrators, I’ve reeled it in a bit.  I pick my battles nowadays; I reserve my breath for only the most repulsive concoctions of wording.  It used to be a compulsive urge, but I’ve finally learnt to control it.  (Now I mostly just judge people internally.)

Here’s what I can’t control: pretty much everything else linguistic.

You know how every person has his own “area” – a lens through which he views the world?  For example, a classically trained musician might listen to a tune and instantly be able to break down all its elements, including metre, key, chord structure, form and timbre.  Or, a geologist might go for a hike and be able to identify all the rocks and minerals in an outcropping.  Or, a seasoned ballet dancer might walk down the street and point out those with good posture and those with poor posture.  These people don’t have to think about it; their disciplines are permanent tints that affect the way they interpret their surroundings.

For me, that discipline is language, as you should have surmised.  Language has governed my thought as long as I can remember.  Consider this blog post a sort of coming-of-age tale, but one that is far less relatable and one that probably should not be adapted to the screen.

The Enquiring Mind

Let’s begin with my native tongue, English.

Now, say what you will about it, but I will die on the hill that English is a beautiful, rich and just language — if slightly misunderstood — with a riveting history well worth studying.  We’ll find as I recount my character-defining moments that this conclusion I’ve drawn is merely a symptom of the fondness I harbour for all matters of language.

I had been noticing peculiarities in English since early gradeschool.  One item that comes to mind is the difference in pronunciation of the word the, depending on whether the next word begins with a consonant or a vowel.  I was a child of six or seven years noting, during class story time, that we say “thuh dog,” but “thee end.”  Before vowels, the takes the long /e/ sound instead of the reduced vowel known as a schwa.  Of course, the other students didn’t give a rat’s ass when I pointed out this dichotomy, and, if I recall correctly, the teacher didn’t really care, either.

This isn’t to say that my peers weren’t noticing oddities like I was, but what separated me from the rest was my insatiable thirst to discover why.  “That’s just the way it is” was never good enough an answer for me.

Why do we pronounce that word differently there?  Why is that word spelt that way?  I needed to understand the reasons for our language’s weirdness.

Another game-changer occurred while I was doing an English assignment in third or fourth grade.  The homework didn’t take me long to complete, but I continued to sit at our dining room table for a minute or two because there was a “Try this!” kind of blurb at the bottom of the worksheet.  I trust you’ll forgive me if I can’t recite verbatim something from so long ago, but it went something like this: “Make the hard /g/ sound – what other letter does it sound like?

After many seconds of repeated guttural utterances that, to the unknowing observer might have appeared to be a serious verbal tick or a stroke, the young learner realised that “guh-guh-guh-guh” was sounding more and more like the /k/ sound.  But why?  How could that be?

Of course, there is a linguistic explanation, but in the early twenty-aughts, when readily accessible home internet was still in its infancy, little Joey didn’t exactly have the wherewithal to explore this matter further, and he had to live with the upsetting quandary that G and K were the same person.

This revelation was the seed that would sprout a decade later the blossom of phonetic research.  I now understand that hard /g/ and /k/ are virtually the same consonant.  They share a place of articulation (where the sound is made) and manner of articulation (how the sound is made).  Namely, they both are velar plosive consonants, the first element meaning the back of the tongue presses against the soft palate (a.k.a. the velum); the second meaning air is blocked off before being released all at once, resulting in an “explosion” of air, hence the term plosive (sometimes called a stop).  Hard /g/ and /k/ are identical in both the placement of the tongue and in the way the air is summoned.

What distinguishes a /g/ from a /k/, however, is voicing.  A voiced consonant is one that is produced with the vocal cords vibrating; conversely, a voiceless consonant is one without such vibration.  The vocal cords vibrate when making the /g/ sound, but not the /k/ sound.  Other voiced-voiceless pairs in English include B/P, D/T, V/F and Z/S.  An effective way to witness the distinction yourself is to alternate between Z and S (or V and F), as it’s a single stream of air.  Note that your mouth doesn’t need to move at all; all you’re doing is “activating” your vocal chords as if you’re turning a light switch on and off.  Voice [ON] for Z, voice [OFF] for S.  If you place a finger over your throat, you should feel vibration when you’re making the /z/ sound, but not /s/.

Back to my origin story.

When I was in middle school, my music teacher (who was also the choir instructor) introduced me to diphthongs.  A diphthong is two vowels put together to form one, as in that in the word time, which is really a combination of “ah” and “ee.”  In choral music*, when singing a diphthong lasting several beats, one holds the first sound nearly the entire duration before sticking the second at the very end.  Through learning vowel etiquette in song, I became familiar with the various “double-vowels” in English.  My teacher taught me that:

  • “ah” + “ee” = the long /i/ sound, as in time
  • “ah” + “oo” = the “ow” sound, as in ground
  • “eh” + “ee” = the long /a/ sound, as in face

*A choir singing the word time over several beats might sound like “taaaaaaaaah-eem.”

Another middle school teacher of mine, this one of the science variety, inadvertently awakened my propensity for breaking down words when he began a lesson by saying that the word disease is literally “dis-ease.”  This one blew my mind.  Just look at how much sense that word makes now!  An illness, or disease, literally puts the body into a state of “dis-ease.”

Before long, I was cracking word codes by my own initiative.  I deciphered the word alphabet when I saw the word alpha contained within it.  I thought, “Wait, that’s a Greek letter… and an “alphabet” is a list of letters… maybe the second element is ALSO a Greek letter… ‘-bet’? … Oh – ‘beta.'”  Indeed, those clever ancient Greeks named their letter system after their first two letters, “alpha” and “beta.”  “Alpha-beta.”  Alphabet.

Reverse-engineering words like disease and alphabet proved to be my first steps into the discipline of etymology, which is the study of word origins and how words evolve.  The sparks of a great journey toward enlightenment had been struck from the flint of curiosity.

Fostering the Flame

Electing to take French over Spanish was, in retrospect, one of the best decisions I made in gradeschool.  My comprehension of English language history might be far less than it is now otherwise.  Any English speaker who has studied French will tell you just how lexically similar the two languages are.  English shares more vocabulary with French than with any other Romance language.  And there’s a reason for that.  But eighth grade Joseph wrongly assumed that all these cognates like accepter and le table and excellent were in English first and that French borrowed them.

This highly erroneous assumption would be rectified some years later, after I used a word that I did not know does not exist in English.  I was commenting on how something was “inceived,” or how it began.  An inception is, after all, a beginning.  My mother promptly told me that “inceive” is not a word.  I was incredulous of this claim and decided to look up the word online to prove her wrong.  To my alarm, inceive was not showing up in any web dictionaries.

“Did you mean conceive?” mocked the search engines.  No, I couldn’t have meant conceive.  Conceive means something different, obviously.

I’m the kind of guy who was always adept at recognising patterns, whether they be mathematical or linguistic.  And, by this point in my life, I had become already quite familiar with prefix and suffix patterns in English.  The act of “re-ceiving” is reception, the act of “de-ceiving” is deception, the act of “per-ceiving” is perception and the act of “con-ceiving” is conception, so it stands to reason that inception, which I KNEW is a word, is the act of “in-ceiving.”

But, apparently, inceive was not a word.  So, I turned to Google.   I demanded answers.

Finally, some links I found shed some light on this problem.  Receivedeceiveperceive and conceive and their respective noun forms are Latin-derived words that entered English via various forms of French during the Middle English period, which lasted roughly from 1100-1500.  Inception came along a little later, toward the end of the period, directly from Latin, so its hypothetical verb form inceive never made it into our language.

One must also consider that the other “ceive” words didn’t have any certain equivalents in English with which to compete.  Inceive would not have been able to oust the native word beginnan (ancestor of begin), which was in common use – not to mention commence, a French borrowing already in the language.  English does have the verb incept, but it doesn’t carry any meanings of “beginning” or “starting.”

This marked a major turning point for me and my quest for complete understanding of English.  The inceive mystery ignited a chain reaction of discoveries for me.  Learning that the native English word beginnan resisted being purged from the language made me wonder: just how many native English words didn’t make it?

Most of them, actually.  English lost most of its native vocabulary during the Middle English period, the beginning of which is marked by the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William, duke of Normandy (French territory) conquered England.  For the next several hundred years, the nobility of England would be almost exclusively French-speaking, and their vocabulary would trickle down to the Anglo-Saxon peasants, replacing a great portion of the Old English lexicon until only its most basic words remained.  Compounds such as boc-hus (literally “book-house”) yielded to their Latinic equivalents – in this case, library.  This period of borderline-linguicide resulted in a heavily French-ified English and came to an end after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, at which point the monarchy was restored to a definitively English status instead of French.  But the damage had been done.

Today, we can hear in English echoes of the battles for dominance between words of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) origin and those of Latin origin.  For example, there is hardly any difference in meaning between oversee and supervise.  Super- is a Latin prefix meaning “over, above,” and vise comes from a Latin verb meaning “to see” (think vision).  Likewise, pairs such as aware-cognizant and forbid-prohibit and foretell-predict demonstrate how rampant such redundancies are in the language.

Picked Up Along the Way

Self-education, or should I say self-edification, allowed me to see the error in my naive assumption that English provided the French cognates and not the other way round.  It had broadened my scope from simply grammar nazi to etymologist and, to a lesser extent, socio-linguist.

Also thanks to my insatiable thirst, I have a basic understanding now not only of the English language, but also of the Indo-European language super-family, which includes, but is not limited to, the Indian languages (not Native American), Persian (Farsi), the Hellenic (Greek) languages, the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Bosnian, etc.), the Italic languages (Latin and its descendants), the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Cornish, etc.) and the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Gothic, the Scandinavian languages and, yes, English).

Don’t EVER tell me that English is a Romance language.  I will spend an hour lecturing you on why you’re wrong.  As I explained in the previous section, Latin has had a substantial impact on our language, but English remains Germanic at its core.

It is likely that most of the words you have spoken today come from Anglo-Saxon.  In fact, most of the words in the previous sentence come from Anglo-Saxon.  Ironically, the only words from that sentence that aren’t of Anglo-Saxon origin are Anglo and Saxon, which are the Latin-based renderings of the names of the chief two Germanic tribes that migrated to the island of Britannia after the Roman Empire withdrew.  (Side note: The Angles decided to rename the region “Angle-land.”  We still call it that, actually.  Eng-land.)

I’ve also become fascinated by the kinship between English and its Germanic cousins like German and Dutch.  It’s remarkable how closely these languages’ basic vocabularies resemble each other’s.  The simple English sentence, “What is your name?” would translate to “Wat is jouw naam?” in Dutch.  The Beatles’ single I Want to Hold Your Hand was released in German as Komm, gib mir deine Hand, which any English speaker capable of sound reasoning should be able to figure out literally means, “Come, give me your hand.”  We share other basic terms such as water (German Wasser, Dutch water), hound (German Hund, Dutch hond), house (German Haus, Dutch huis) and numerous simple verbs like to find (German finden, Dutch vinden).

Another noteworthy point (which is of particular interest to me, as I’m an actor) is the sound of Elizabethan English – specifically, the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded when they were first performed.  We don’t have voice recordings from four hundred years ago, obviously, but we know through examining various forms of linguistic evidence a few things about what’s called “Original Pronunciation.”  The coolest part about it is that it probably sounded more like American English than like modern-day English accents.

A friend asked me recently, “When did Americans lose their British accents?”  I responded by saying that the more accurate question would be, “When did Brits lose their American accents?”  When the early Puritan settlers arrived in the New World during the Jacobean period, they brought with them their dialects of English.  (Remember that Shakespeare was alive and well at the time of the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement in 1607.)  While mainland English accents evolved over time, the English spoken in the Americas remained relatively unchanged.  American English can, therefore, be considered “snapshots” of 16th and 17th century English and, by extension, a superior guide to pronouncing Shakespeare.

Please note: The claims made in the previous two paragraphs are a gross simplification and are probably hyperbolic in order to illustrate a point; I would urge interested individuals to seek out more comprehensive articles to understand more thoroughly the finer details of Elizabethan and its relationships with modern English dialects.

What’s most remarkable to me, however, is the notion of a common language that united the Proto-Indo-European settlers thousands and thousands of years ago.  As these groups began to disperse and became separated from each other, the aforementioned sub-families such as Germanic and Slavic and Celtic started to develop.  Indeed, to a linguist like me, English and Welsh and French and German and Russian and Albanian and Greek and Sanskrit are not separate languages, but rather distantly related dialects of the same parent tongue.

Basically, I’m Pretty Great

Does my obsession for language affect the way I interact with the world?  Well, I strive toward impeccable grammar and usage in both speech and writing, I can effortlessly and almost instantaneously dissect a sentence and indicate word origin and I can now recognise cognates and other relationships where most people do not.

So, I would say that, yes, language is that permanent tint, colouring my every perception.  My brain doesn’t take any breaks when it comes to language.  I will analyze just about anything thrown at me.  I’ll notice grammatical errors, of course, but also your word choices and the way you pronounce your words and everything else.  I can’t control it.

And I’m all right with that.

Post-Credits Bonus Section – If You Care

Before ending this post completely, there is something else I wanted to include here.  It’s the idea of “interchangeable Latin roots.”  Remember the receive-deceive-perceive-conceive pattern that I discussed earlier?  It’s the same deal, but greatly expanded.  I wanted to design an Excel-styled chart that illustrates relationships between a bunch of Latin-derived words in English.

On the y-axis, I’ve included Latin-derived verb bases.  On the x-axis, I’ve listed some of the most common Latin prefixes, which can be attached to the verbs to slightly alter their meanings and yield different common English words.

Before you view the chart, here is your handy-dandy reference guide:

Verb bases:

ject – “throw”
spect – “look”
tain – “hold”
mit – “send”
fer – “bear”
port – “bring, carry”
duce – “lead”
sist – “stand firm”
fuse – “pour”
scribe – “write”
tract – “draw”
pend– “hang, weigh”
form – “shape, form”


in- “in, into”
ex– “out (of), from”
re– “back, again, against”
de– “down (from), away”
com– “with, together”
sub– “under, below, beneath”
pro– “forth, forward”
ad– “toward, at”
ob– “to, toward”; sometimes used as intensifier
pre– “before”
trans– “across, beyond”
dis– “apart, away”
ab– “off, away from”
per– “through, thoroughly, utterly”

Any word with the abbreviation obs. (obsolete) attached to it is one that has fallen out of common usage.  While these words are almost never encountered in speech and writing, I feel that they still must be included, as they demonstrate the kind of word construction I’m spotlighting.

One last thing to keep in mind before you examine the graphic is that, for each combination, I tried to find a verb.  If a combination didn’t correspond to any English verb, then I used another part of speech such as noun or adjective if one was available.  One such example is the combination of com- and ject, for which I included the noun conjecture, as the verb conject does not exist in English.

latin roots 2


*Demit has two separate etymologies: one with the de- root and one with the dis- root.
**Note the stress on the first syllable of sufferoffer and differ.  These words were in English longer than others and had more time for their stress patterns to shift.
***While fuse is the base commonly seen in English verbs, the “correct” form would be found, a root preserved in confound.  “Fuse” actually comes from fusus, which is the past participle of fundere, the infinitive of the verb meaning “to pour.”
****While the verb conscribe, meaning “enlist,” is the correct form here, conscript is more common.
*****”You forgot perform!”  Well, as it turns out, the form in this word is actually a corrupted version of the unrelated Old French verb fornir (to furnish), so it doesn’t count.  I was just as surprised as you are.

I hope that this chart was able to help you see relationships in English vocabulary that you may not have noticed before.  If you refer to the guide I created above it, then you can use it to break down each word and discover its literal meaning.  Let’s take transport, for instance.  Trans- (across) + port (bring) = “bring across.”

Or, how about subject?  When somebody is “subjected” to punishment, the person is being “thrown under” punishment.

Or, when an electronic device emits a signal, it’s “sending out” a signal.

Or, finally, when you are attracted to someone, you are (usually quite literally) “drawn toward” that person.