Science is the Sh*t: The Epic Journey of a Word and Its Kin

No, really — science is shit, etymologically speaking.  But we’ll get to that later.

Partial click-bait titles aside, consider this blog post the spiritual successor to my “Language Tint My World” entry from spring 2016.  In that post, I described my humble beginnings as curious schoolboy and my transmutation to bona-fide linguist; here, I present a more specific fascination: the word.

Shove It Up Your Arsenal

Words are funny.  Some prove highly resistant to transformation and hardly change at all in a millennium, while others seem to change at the drop of a hat.  Humans, armed literally to the teeth with imperfect diction and hearing, have taken their word-ingots to the forge and have beaten the forms of those most malleable, sometimes leaving them so altered that they would no longer be recognisable in pronunciation or spelling to a speaker of the same language mere centuries prior.

Here are but a few mild processes by which a word may change:

Misdivision – The difference between “an ice cube” and “a nice cube.”  This is the faulty separation, or “mis-dividing,” of two words next to each other.  A few modern English words lost an N several centuries ago to the preceding indefinite article a.

“a napron” ⇒ “an apron”
“a nadder” ⇒ “an adder”

Works the other way, too.

“an ewte” ⇒ “a newt”
“an eke*-name” ⇒ “a nickname”

*Eke, here, is an archaic English word for “an increase, augmentation.”  Therefore, a nickname is literally an “additional name.”

These misdivisions, of course, occurred in the Middle and Early Modern periods of English.  Want a more recent example?  Look no further than “a whole nother.”


“an ice cube” vs. “a nice cube”

Misdivision sometimes will manifest itself not in a word’s spelling, but rather in its pronunciation.  Here are a couple modern examples I’ve observed:

Painstaking (meaning one “took pains” to accomplish something) is often pronounced “pain-staking.”  I don’t know what it means to “stake pain,” but a word separation more faithful to the intended meaning of the compound would be “pains-taking.”  Say them both.  “Pains-taking.”  “Pain-staking.”  They should and do sound different.

Each other, in casual speech, sounds more like “ee-chother.”  Very subtle difference, but a particularly careful speaker will make sure the /ch/ sound is attached to the first word and not to the second.

Metathesis – Sometimes we jumble the intermediate sounds of a word.

The Anglo-Saxons had a word for a beaked, winged creature: bridd.  Over time, the R and the following vowel switched places, so now we spell and pronounce it bird.

The same people had a couple variants of the verb meaning “to call for an answer; enquire of somebody.”  They were ascian [AHS-kyahn*] and axian [AHK-syahn].  (We know this verb today as ask.)  The /s/ and /k/ sounds were pronounced in either order.  Both verbs survived into Middle English as asken and axen, and Chaucer used both.  Until around Shakespeare’s time, to “ask a question” and to “ax a question” were equally appropriate.  (Such a construction would not have been formed back then, but you get my point.)

*In Anglo-Saxon phonology, S followed by C represents the /sh/ sound, as in the word scip (“ship”), so the verb ascian should have yielded Middle English ashen, but the Old English form was altered by the Scandinavian cognate, hardening the C, hence the metathetic X variant axian.  Remember that the /x/ sound is really the consonant cluster /ks/.

Syncope – Sometimes called syncopation.  Because music has a monopoly on most of the latter’s meanings, though, I prefer the original Greek.  Anyway.

Syncope is the disappearance of an unstressed syllable in a word.  It is usually the second of what should™ be a trisyllabic word.  Some examples (and I got a million of ’em!):

  • family ⇒ “FAM-lee”
  • different ⇒ “DIFF-rint”
  • chocolate ⇒ “CHAWK-lit”
  • opera ⇒ “OP-ruh”

In British English, medicine is often “med-sin” and library is often “lie-bree.”

Sometimes, syncope yields new words.  This is where it gets fun — at least for me.  Here:

  • courtesy ⇒ curtsey
  • fantasy ⇒ fancy
  • jettison ⇒ jetsam

Back-formations – When we derive a new word (usually a different part of speech) from the original.

A prime example is donate.  This is a relatively new contrivance.  The noun donation existed in English far longer than the convenient verb we designed after it.  I guess people grew tired of saying “make a donation” all the time.  That’s all well and good.

Here’s where the process becomes problematic — sometimes we create unnecessary or superfluous back-formations.

The verb that has traditionally corresponded to conversation is converse.  But now we have “conversate” for some reason.

Many of the readers who are thinking, “Well, *I* don’t say ‘conversate’” are about to be caught with their pants down — what verb corresponds to obligation?

Oblige is the traditional verb form, not “obligate.”  “Obligate” was born of the same ignorance that spawned the abomination “conversate.”  They are equally hideous to my ears.  You can denounce the use of “conversate” all you wish, but you had better not let me catch you saying “obligate.”

Some quick examples of back-formations not from -ation words:

  • statistic from statistics
  • couth from uncouth
  • diplomat from diplomatic
  • sleepwalk from sleepwalking
  • injure from injury
  • greed from greedy (the original noun form was greediness)

Parasitic Letters – New sounds sometimes latch on to other sounds in the same word.

Empty didn’t always have a P in it.  But say the word as if there were no P.  “Emty.”  Hard NOT to say it without one, huh?  Our lips close to form the /m/ consonant before immediately hitting that /t/ plosive, so it’s only natural that a brief “puh” sneaks in there.  It was in the Middle English period that scribes began writing the word with a P.  This is an example of euphonic alteration — when the spelling of a word changes to become more sonically pleasing.

More recent examples of both processes include yep/yup and nope.  These affirmative and negative word variants come from clipped pronunciations of yeah and no, typically given as very quick, one-word responses.  A subtle P latches on to the end of each word as the lips abruptly shut.  An even more recent example is welp, a curt variant of well, as used interjectorily to introduce a clause (e.g. “Well, would you look at that.”).  Welp is the same word, but its abbreviated vowel length conveys an even greater tone of surprise or vexation, as in the sentence, “Welp, there go my plans to relax tonight!

But English words aren’t the only ones susceptible to these processes; we can see their mark on Latin words as well.  To form a noun from the verb assumere (“to take up,” and origin of English assume), let’s add the suffix -tionem.

One would think that assum(ere)tionem = “assumtionem.”  But note the M and T next to each other.

The compound was actually written A-S-S-U-M-P-T-I-O-N-E-M.  With a P.  Meaning that ancient Romans must have fallen prey to the same “parasitic P” that infected the English word empty.

Don’t feel guilty for making an assumption; just make sure you don’t “assumpt” anything.

Associative Alteration – Changing a word to make it conform to an unrelated word.  More examples that you probably won’t bother to read:

  • perform – From Anglo-French parformer, alteration of Old French parfo(u)rnir.  The second element fornir is related to the word furnish but was changed by association with the word forme.
  • admiral – From Arabic amir-al or amir-ar-rahl.  The D was added possibly by influence of Latin admirabilis (“admirable”).
  • island – Very old English word that never had an S in it until scribes stuck one in there to make it cosmetically similar to the Latin-derived and unrelated isle.

“Pend”-House Magazine

Now that the dense stuff is out of the way, let me regale you with less-dense stuff!

Words can change in sound and appearance, but what truly enthralls me is to examine how they change in meaning over time.

This process is referred to as sense evolution or sense shift, and I will use both terms throughout this blog post.

How often does one use spearhead to refer to the “tip of a spear?”  Of course, that is its original, literal meaning.  But its more common meaning of “anything leading an attack, operation or undertaking” is a figurative understanding of the word.  And it’s often used in the verb form, as in the sentence, “She spearheaded the initiative to help ex-convicts rejoin society.”  We’ll return to this principle in a bit.  In the meantime, however, I want you to take a gander at the picture below:


This image of a scale is absolutely critical in understanding this next part.  Keep it in your mind for the next few paragraphs.  There’s a family I’d like for you to meet.  I present to you the Pends.

In this household live pendantpensivepensionpound (unit of measurement and money), ponder and all the -pend verbs you can think of (impendsuspendexpend/spend, etc.), plus others.

They aren’t what you’d call an idyllic, classic American nuclear family, though.  There are no parents or children living there — only cousins — and you’ll hardly ever see any two of them in the same place at the same time.  They’re a family that’s as large and extended as it is dissociated.  But they’re all blood — this much is certain.

All the words listed in the “Pend” family are united via the notion of hanging and weighing.

Their origin, the Latin verb pendere, means “to hang.”  And that’s how things were weighed.  On scales like the one depicted above.  What did the ancients weigh?  Why, money, of course!

This is what we call the ground sense.  The ground sense of a word is its initial, primitive idea.  The base from which all other meanings are derived.  The ground sense of all the “Pend” words is hanging and weighing; this is the universal sense felt, no matter how faintly, amongst all of them.

pendant is a hanging ornament.  Something suspended is hanging in the air.  Your impending doom is hanging over you.

A pound of weight and a pound of money, if we go back enough centuries, are one and the same in England.

Pensionsexpenses and spendings all are things being paid out, a sense conferred by the notion of weighing money.

Word senses generally shift from the literal to the figurative, as I demonstrated with spearhead earlier.  We connect the contemplative meanings of pensive and ponder to the hanging and monetary meanings of the other words by using the scale as a metaphor for thought.  When one is pensive or pondering, he is taking the time to “WEIGH things out,” thus, “consider.”

I know — I’ve got goosebumps, too.  But wait — it gets even better.

What if I told you that this sort of sense shift can occur in parallel between two completely unrelated word groups from two separate languages?

The Latin verb capere carried meanings of “grab, seize, take hold, catch” and is the root of many French-derived English words such as captive and capture.

The same verb exists in Italian, albeit with an evolved meaning.  Capere in Italian means “to understand.”  Many Americans are familiar with the second-person-singular conjugation, “Capisci?” or rather, “Capeesh?

How does such a physical, forceful verb take on a more intellectual meaning?

That’s right, class!  Through figurative use!

When one understands something, he “grasps” it.

Latin/Italian capere and English grasp underwent the same literal-to-figurative sense evolution.  Their initial “grabby” meaning is physical, but a figurative meaning of “to get a hold of mentally; comprehend” emerged over time in both words independently.

You TAKE my meaning?
You CATCH my drift?
You GET what I’m saying?

Here’s another pair of unrelated words that enjoyed remarkably similar sense evolutions.

Latin causa (“judicial process, lawsuit, case”)
Proto-Germanic* thengan (“appointed time”) – ancestor of English thing

*Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed, theoretical common language of all the Germanic tribes that was spoken several millennia ago when they all lived in relative proximity to one another before splitting off and developing what would eventually become the modern Germanic tongues of German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, etc.

Many of the Germanic languages held on to this word — thengan.  In most cases, it came to mean “meeting, public assembly, council,” which more closely resembles in meaning the Latin causa.  Then it shifted to mean “that which is DISCUSSED at a public assembly,” hence “matter.”  From “matter,” it shifted again to refer to various nouns like “entity,” “body,” “being,” “act,” “deed” and “event.”  Today, in many Germanic languages, the word means simply what we would call “a thing.”


The building for “Althing,” the parliament of Iceland.  The second element of the name keeps the original sense of “public assembly.”

This sense shift was mirrored in the Romance languages.  The descendants of causa, which bore judiciary and public assembly meanings, include the French chose and Spanish/Italian cosa, all of which likewise now mean “thing.”

One more pair to demonstrate a parallel sense development:

English friend
Latin amicus (“friend”)

Friend comes from the Anglo-Saxon word freond, which is a noun derivative of the verb freogan, meaning “to love.”

Amicus is related to the Latin verb amare, meaning — can you guess? — “to love.”  Anyone who’s taken a course in a Romance language should recognise amicus as the ancestor of the Italian amico, Spanish amigo and French ami — “friend.”

(Those especially keen might recognise it as the source of English words like amicable, amiable and amity.)

But here’s a Latin-based English word that gives me an internal chuckle every time I see it: enemy.

Hard to tell from looking at it now, but that word is the descendant of the Latin inimicus, which entered English via the Old French inimi.  Let’s break down the original Latin word and see just how ridiculous it is.

inimicusin- (“not”) + amicus (“friend”)

Therefore, enemy literally means “not friend.”  Real imaginative, Romans.  That’s right up there with fireplace for least-inspired words.

What A Load Of Crap

Sometimes our prejudices keep us from seeing the truth.  Two words that look nothing alike and with completely separate meanings still could be related etymologically.

Science is the word of academia.  It encompasses the virtues of observation, concentration and patience.  It is the embodiment of pure, humble intellect.

Shit is…well…none of those things, really.  I suppose one could argue that patience is required for — actually, no, never mind.

These two words have nothing in common (save for their starting letter).

…Or do they?

Rewind, say, seven millennia or so.  Before there was any Latin.  Before Greek.  Before any of the Germanic languages.

Linguists have reconstructed what is known as Proto-Indo-European (henceforth written as PIE), another theoretical parent tongue.  This would have been the common language of the earliest settlers of the Eurasian landmass.  As this first group of people began to disperse (over the course of several millennia), they developed their own dialects — e.g. Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Slavic, etc.  And, of course, each of these became a language family in its own right.


The PIE root for “to cut, split, divide, separate” is skei-.  This root, like many other PIE words linguists have reconstructed, was the progenitor of numerous nouns and verbs still in use in the extant Indo-European languages.

The prehistoric word served as the base for a couple Proto-Germanic verbs.  They are skaithan and skit-.  Both these verbs remained more or less faithful to the literal sense of “separating.”  Skaithan yielded English shed (as a snake does to its old skin or a tree to its leaves) and German/Dutch scheiden.

The other Germanic verb skit- manifested itself in English as shit (dialect shite preserves the Old English vowel), in German as scheissen and in Dutch as schijten.  All these verbs came to mean “defecate” on the notion of excrement being SEPARATED from the body.

PIE skei- was present in Latin words as well.  It was used to form the important verb scire, meaning “to know.”  But how could the verb for splitting or separating something mean that?

*cue angelic choir* FIGURATIVE SENSE SHIFT!

To “know” is to “separate one thing from another; distinguish.”  The Roman verb became a metaphorical separation, whereas the Germanic verbs remained literal separations.

The noun derived from scire was scientia, meaning “a knowing; knowledge.”  This is the obvious origin of the English science and all the Romance cognates.

(Bonus: The Greek verb skhizein (“to split”) comes from the same PIE root and is the origin of the English word schism.)

To recap:

PIE skei- ⇒ Proto-Germanic skit- ⇒ English shit

PIE skei- ⇒ Latin scire “to know” ⇒ Latin scientia “knowledge” ⇒ English science

Therefore, science and shit are distant cousins.


Carry On My Way-“Word” Son

What a journey some words have!  Sometimes they need to make pilgrimages across vast lands over great stretches of time to find themselves.  It may take centuries for some words to settle at long last on one primary sense.

Nice is one of these “journey words.”  (Not a technical term — just something I call them.)  Nice was a Middle English borrowing from French, which in turn was an evolved form of the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware.”  The Latin is an adjectival compound of the prefix ne- (“not”) and scire — yeah, that verb we JUST covered — meaning “to know.”  It literally means “not-knowing.”  (And, yes, that makes it related to shit as well.)

In French and when it entered English, it wasn’t too far-removed from the Latin, carrying meanings of “foolish, stupid, senseless, silly.”  The sense development in English is remarkable, having shifted across “simple,” then to “petty, fine, minute, (a sense preserved in nicety)” to “childlike,” to “delicate,” to “agreeable, pleasant,” to “kind, thoughtful.”  The Oxford English Dictionary says this about the word:

“In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.”

The adjective slight originally meant “smooth, sleek,” then moved to “slim, slender,” to “feeble, not strong, inferior,” hence “not good,” before resting on “small in amount.”  The German cognate schlecht followed a similar path, moving from “smooth, plain, simple” eventually to “bad, mean, base.”

Words can weaken and strengthen over time as well as narrow or broaden.  The Old English yfel (Modern English evil) was the go-to adjective for anything negative or displeasing.  The Anglo-Saxons used “evil” where we would use badcruelunskillful and defective; the sense of “morally wicked” also was in Old English, but it did not become the main one till the 18th century.  Slay, like its Germanic cognates, originally meant “beat, strike.”  The English form, however, strengthened to “kill, destroy, especially with a weapon” later on.

Starve comes from Old English steorfan, meaning “to die.”  Its main modern meaning is specified and weakened: “to be in the process of perishing from hunger or suffering severely from it.”  German cognate sterben still means “to die.”

The Old English noun deor (ancestor of deer) meant “animal.”  Today, it refers to a specific, antlered animal, while the Dutch and German cognates (dier and Tier) retain the broader sense.  Linguists reason that the word narrowed to mean this creature in particular because that which we now call a “deer” was the favoured beast of the chase.

The verb try has assumed various meanings in the past few centuries.  In Middle English, it was restricted to the legal sense of “put on trial,” but it has since expanded to “put to test” and “attempt to do” and “put forth effort.”

A word’s journey might take it so far that it ends up a complete 180° from its initial meaning.  Moot, from Old English gemot, was the noun form of the verb meet.  Much like thing, a moot was an assembly where matters were discussed.  A “moot point,” therefore, was that which was “up for discussion or debate.”  The modern opposite meaning of “not debatable; not worth discussing; impertinent; irrelevant” must go to show how effective those meetings were.

Before Our Very Eyes

Sense evolution and sound changes are not a purely historical study.  If you squint hard enough, you will take notice of the more recent changes occurring in words.

Mad, for most of its history in the English language, meant primarily “insane,” but its newer meaning of “angry” has eclipsed the former in common use.  Madman and maddening retain the traditional sense.

Oblivious did not mean “unaware” until the 19th century; before then, it meant “forgetful.”

Only a purist or a pedant (like me) might insist that words like these can mean only what they did originally.  But that reasoning is flawed; nobody is going to call his dim-witted coworker a “nice” man to mean he is a simpleton.  Similarly, most people don’t use decimate to mean “remove one tenth of,” as the ancient Romans did.

The hard truth about sense evolution is that, when a word acquires a new primary sense, the older one often falls into disuse, sometimes earning the label “archaic” or, more absolute, “obsolete,” at which point that particular sense is no longer understood by the common people.  The old sense of obliviousness or oblivion, perhaps fittingly, may well be on their way to “the state of being forgotten.”

(Some old senses end up getting fossilised in idiomatic expressions.  One such lucky specimen is large, in the sense of “free from restraint.”  This sense is obsolete, except in the phrase at large, as in the sentence, “The murderer is still at large.“)

Take a moment sometime to listen to the way we use our words to convey specific shades of meaning.  Soon and anon both originally meant “at once; immediately; without hesitation.”  Because of human procrastinative nature, however, they relaxed to a more lenient “shortly; in a little while.”  Can you detect a similar shift with now?  When we say that something needs to be done “now,” is there implied leeway?  Maybe a few moments?  How might your response differ if you were asked to do something “RIGHT now?”

In a similar vein, literally has shifted so much in popular use that speakers and writers may find it necessary to precede it with the word quite in order to express that something ought to be taken truly “literally,” that is, “precisely as worded.”

In merely the last century, the syllabic stress of harass and harassment has shifted from the first to the second.  Second-syllable stress for those words has recently become the primary pronunciation, at least in American English.  There are some, though (including me), who still prefer the traditional stress pattern.

The Internet is a trove of examples of linguistic shift in action.  In this new era of instant communication and self-broadcast, we find that words, abbreviations, phrases and slang come into existence and develop in the online world at a rate unseen in the natural world.  They obey the same linguistic evolution principles as their real-life counterparts, but their changes occur at a rapid, observable rate.  I believe that they have a place in academic scrutiny.  A few terms for thought:

  • LOL – “Laughing Out Loud.”  Possibly the best-known — and it is certainly one of the earliest — product of shorthand in online communication.  Originally meaning that the person behind the keyboard is actually laughing; has been used at least as early as the new millennium to indicate that something is mildly humorous, even if no actual laughter occurs.  Now often used as filler or placed at the end of a serious message to soften its impact, as in, “Car broke down today, lol.”  Phonetic pronunciation “loll” or “lawl” is not uncommon.
  • Netflix and chill – It did not take long for this once-innocuous phrase meaning “to watch programmes on Netflix in a low-stress environment, usually with another person,” to acquire a “wink, wink” undertone.  Users on websites like Twitter pounced on this sort of Internet inside-joke and accelerated the phrase’s development to imply sexual interaction between the participants — with or without the Netflix.
  • RIP – “Rest In Peace.”  Popular in online video gaming culture, this solemn real-life initialism has been hijacked by the Internet.  The phonetic “rip” pronunciation in online gaming was facetious at first but quickly became the standard.  Originally used as an interjection for when a player dies in a video game; meaning has expanded to refer to the end or destruction of any non-human thing or institution; then applied to anything unfortunate, whether in a game or in real life.

Person 1: “Ugh, my earbuds are tangled again.”
Person 2: “Rip.”

  • Own, Wreck – Another instance of gaming culture appropriating common words for its own stylistic needs.  In competitive gaming, to say that one has been owned or wrecked (spelling variants include wreck’d and rekt) is to say that one “was utterly dominated or defeated.”  Noun forms wreckage and ownage (and ironically misspelt variant pwnage) are also common.  On a personal note, I am elated that the word rape, as used in this way, is not as pervasive as it was a decade ago.
  • GIF – Image format that has had Internet users arguing over its pronunciation for over two decades.  Once disparaged by know-betters as an ignorant corruption, the “ghif” pronunciation (hard G) is now just as valid as “jif” and is perhaps more prevalent.  Also, I may or may not have written a blog post on it last year.

How “Nice”

Words, whether in the spoken or written form, serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species.  Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly — and also where he showed poetic brilliance.

We are the words we use, in a way.  To study words is to study human thought — and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.

Reminds me of that classic speech from Hamlet:

“…to hold, as t’were, the Oxford English Dictionary up to nature, to show poetry its own coinages, slang its own etymology, and the very speakers and writers of the time their pronunciation and usage…”


Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A Sick Pleasure

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform — each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final T’s, there were some dropped H’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid Theatre Tank Engine to be avoided — the choo-choo.

Prolonged Linguistic Explanation Inbound

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.


General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

Would_you come here for a minute?
Don’t_you see it?

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant; it is just a clipped long /e/ vowel.  (To demonstrate: say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.  /Y/ and long /e/ are produced in the mouth precisely the same way; the only difference is that the latter is held longer.)  When used this way, /y/ has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of gymnastics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a valley through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”


Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you/ya” and “don’t you/ya.”

Wooja come here for a minute?
Doncha see it?

Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But wait — it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, /sh/ and /zh/.  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” — my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule
  • the Z and Y used to be unassimilated (i.e., distinct) in words like measure and vision (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but have merged into /zh/

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOHL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOHL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

So, to recap:

/t/ + /y/ ⇒ /ch/, as in statue
/d/ + /y/ ⇒ /j/, as in soldier
/s/ + /y/ ⇒ /sh/, as in pressure
/z/ + /y/ ⇒ /zh/, as in vision

This phonological shift is called yod-coalescence.  When we palatalise, or bring to the palate, any one of these clusters, the two individual sounds are said to be “coalescing,” yielding a new, single sound.  Yod is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and represents the same sound denoted by the English Y.  Not related to the little, green Jedi master from Star Wars.

Yod-coalescence is responsible for peculiar word pronunciations in dialects that retain the “liquid U” after T and D.  Liquid U is in words like cube and fume — you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/ — not “coob” and “foom.”  In chiefly British and Australian dialects, this brief /y/ sound still prevails in “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  But, as we observed earlier, the palatalisation of the [ty] and [dy] clusters gives us /ch/ and /j/.  So, while an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Aussies might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

And why Sean Connery does not assume things — he “a-shooms” them.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can “re-zhoom” what we were doing.

You get the point.

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the [dy] cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno “JOR-noh,” not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour (“zhoor”).

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Got All That?

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors hit with a wrecking ball every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying instead of the acting behind them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the Railed Passenger Vehicle of the Playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the Thespian Multi-Carriage Machine of Transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

thomas the tank engine

Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Confessions and Repentance of a Cisgender Refuser of “Singular They”

About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun.  Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.

When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.

My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs?  Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.

Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.”  Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.

This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts.  When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species — not men or women specifically.  Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.

With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook.  My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they.  The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy.  My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing — let me be clear on that.

The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state.  But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever.  It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.

Reflection And Potential Solutions

I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause.  I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning.  To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.

The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”

As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered.  I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however.  I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else.  I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that.  It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me.  I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.

Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me.  Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite.  Their primary function is to play substitute for your name — your true identity.  They make sentences im-personal.  But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he.  Maybe I don’t get to make that call.

And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.

Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do.  I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.

I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she).  It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly.  There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide.  Thanks a lot, Great Britain.  The sun never sets on your empire, right?

The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.

So, we come back to they.

Nice Try

Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers.  Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently.  Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

—  Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii

Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:


These are pretty compelling arguments.  One problem, though.  These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.

I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.

In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.”  In his mind, this “someone” could be ANY PERSON — male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever.  Anybody can lose a phone.  The image in his brain is of MULTIPLE PEOPLE, that is, a pool of options, if you will.  Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they.  We do this all the time.

Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor.  (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor — it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.)  Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange.  Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates.  Taylor is real, definite and specified.  Here’s how the exchange might sound:

Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car.  Where are they going?

I think they have to go to work.

In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.”  This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual.  In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.

Furthermore, someone listening to this exchange who is not familiar with Taylor’s pronoun preference would have been baffled by the grammatical inconsistency, having heard the explicit name Taylor.  Had the sentence been, “I saw SOMEONE hop in their car,” nobody would have batted an eye because the pronoun someone evokes the “pool of options” mental image of multiple people I described earlier.  Hearing a singular, definite name changes the logic inside the mind of the listener.

I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish — even when they might do it all the time in conversation anyway.  I know that this is how it works in my mind.  I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.

Not Unheard-Of

But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I — those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system.  These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.

And it has in the past.

The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio.  By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge.  Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio.  This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she.  Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively.  Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” — her represents the survival of the original H-form from Old English (hire).

She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use.  Circumstances demanded it.  And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person.  It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word.  But our best shot is they.

And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.

In Defence Of The Dialect

Every Wednesday at noon, my Uncle Louis and a few others gather at La Roma Pizzeria to dine and speak principally in Italian.  I join them when I can.  There, I go by Giuseppe, and my uncle is Zio Luigi.  Our collective is sometimes called “il gruppo italiano” (“the Italian group”), and one might say that we are one of the final vestiges of social italophony in the Utica-Rome area, a relic of a bygone era in a region that was once marked by widespread and deep Italian heritage and influence.


Anyway, at one of these luncheons, my uncle used a word that garnered confused looks from others at the table.  It was quickly resolved by one of our guests that the word was dialectal and not standard Italian.  This did not come as a shock to my uncle, as he has said time and time again that the Italian dialect that was spoken in his home when he was a boy was a combination of Italian, Spanish and Latin (the linguist in me questions the veracity of this claim), but this is neither here nor there for the purpose of this post.

I wish to bring the spotlight on the old man who provided the proper Italian word for the idea that my uncle was trying to express.  Now, mind you that he is one of the humblest and most gracious and most well-spoken people I have talked with, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.  Because I was aware that he was born in Italy and is a native speaker of Italian, I decided to enquire further about the way the language is spoken in the motherland.  He happily explained to me that Italy is finally united under a common standard tongue after centuries of provincial variation; this matched my admittedly shallow understanding of Italian language history, which comes from two semesters of Elementary Italian in college, informal Internet research and playing Assassin’s Creed.


Our guest authority on the Italian language went on to say that dialects are nowadays rightly reserved for the home.  That these dialects are not correct and should stay private.  This was a touch off-putting.

I couldn’t let that one go.  Using my reasonable linguistic rhetoric (with the caution not to offend the genuinely kind and well-meaning elder), I employed the Socratic method to query him into a corner and expose the fallacy in his notion of Italian dialects.

I asked for his agreement (successfully) with the following:

Italian, like other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, comes from Latin, yes?

And would you say that all these languages are recognised as their own sovereign modes of speech with their own unique rules?  That is, do they all have ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of being spoken?

Then how about twelve hundred years ago?  They’re older forms of the languages — but still distinct from each other, yes?

Let’s go back a couple more centuries.  They aren’t still French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, are they?  No, but would you consider them slightly evolved forms of the regional variants of Vulgar Latin?

So, if they’re just dialects of Latin at that point, are they incorrect forms of that language?

A cheerful smile manifested on the aged man’s thitherto vaguely grave countenance as he said, “I see what you are saying.

A Fundamental Misunderstanding

Dialects seem to carry a feint negative air.  They are unjustly felt as second-rate to what is considered standard in a language.  They are sometimes branded with such demeaning labels as “regionalism” and even “slang.”

Such attitudes are poison and will cloud the judgement of writers, orators and so-called linguists everywhere — and that veritably wise and knowledgeable twenty-one-year-old fresh out of undergraduate school with a BA in English.

I believe that this ill treatment of dialects comes from a flawed perspective on how languages grow and develop.img_0543

Dialects are not to be seen as tree branches stemming from the trunk, the standard; they are better visualised as their own individual trees growing alongside the standard, all from the same patch of earth.

Let’s use English as a template for this concept, as it’s safe to assume that it is the first language of most people who are reading this blog post.

If we examine English in the U.K. as it stands today, we’ll note the innumerable flavours scattered therein.  If we were to time-travel back to the Middle Ages, we would make a similar observation.  This is because there was as much differentiation in the language back then as there is now — or at any other point in history.  (Indeed there wasn’t just one Elizabethan vernacular.)

There were four main dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian and West Saxon.  These, along with the lesser dialects, had been on their own evolutionary courses for quite some time.  They didn’t just spawn out of nowhere.  img_0544They were brought over to Britannia by sundry Germanic tribes — chiefly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes — that left northern Europe.  And they didn’t all arrive at the same time, either; this was a migration of many peoples over the course of centuries, beginning when the Romans vacated the island.  That which we call “Old English” is actually a collection of closely-related languages spoken by different groups of people in relative proximity to one another.

What does all this mean?  It means that the English dialects today are, by and large, continuations of their ancestral mediaeval dialects, each with its own grammar, lexicon and phonology.  And those, in turn, were continuations of related Germanic tongues pre-migration, two-thousand years ago and prior.  They all grew up alongside the one lucky dialect that would become the standard for “English.”  And that’s the very problem with setting a language standard in the first place: to call one dialect the standard is to imply that related dialects are recent offshoots of it — and not separate self-governing entities that are equally ancient.

It pays a certain amount of respect to be specific when referring to the language of a particular region.  In some pockets of Scotland, it might be more appropriate to call their language “Scots” instead of “Scottish English,” despite its obvious strong kinship with Standard English.  Similarly, it is erroneous to call the languages spoken in Lombardy and Veneto “Lombard Italian” and “Venetian Italian.”  Lombard and Venetian are merely two of the many “dialects” that developed independently from one another in the area we now call Italy, but Tuscan (toscano) is the one that would serve as the basis for Standard Italian.  Again, they all have strong linguistic similarity to the standard, but they are better referred to as their own languages.


(Remember that the country of Italy as it exists today has been around only since the late 19th century.  Before the unification, the peninsula was composed of numerous city-states.)

These dialects do not swear fealty to the country that happens to envelop them and are not owned by the country’s most privileged dialect.

Therefore, no, a “dialect” in such a case is not a second-rate version of the language standard; it is a first-rate version of itself.

We’ll Just Make It Our OWN Language, Then

All right, cool, so how about dialects that do branch off the standard?

Let’s suppose that, centuries ago, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Central Europe began to adopt the language of an unspecified German dialect.

Initially, these Jews would be speaking some bastardised version of what was considered standard for the variety of German they were trying to imitate.  It was assuredly German, but with some peculiarities.  They were pronouncing words differently because they were mapping Hebrew phonology onto them, and they were sprinkling Hebrew words here and there as well as re-purposing German words to suit their culture.

There’s no doubt that, at some point, people who spoke this variety of German the “correct” or “proper” way started to view this emerging vernacular disdainfully.  I imagine that they would have said that their German was being butchered.

Nevertheless, it was concluded that this “inferior” Jewish take on their language was here to stay, and so people began calling it a dialect.

In time, this dialect had acquired its own identity, complete with its own rules and conventions.  People finally started to recognise it as its own language.

Today, we call it Yiddish.

This raises an interesting question about the validity of other dialects in other languages.  Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or “ghetto speak,” truly ruining Standard American English?  Or is it merely following its own evolutionary path?

Drawing The Line

Here’s the thing with dialects and languages: the difference is mostly arbitrary.  Given enough time, derivative dialects become their own languages.  Dialects ignore the imaginary lines humans draw and call national boundaries.  Some dialects are so ancient and distinct that they aren’t really what most people consider dialects at all.

Sociolinguist Max Weinreich popularised an apt saying about them:

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

Of Sterling Worth

“Then raise a cup to Warwickshire, 

where fellowship we find.

And though we traverse wide the world,

our hearts remain behind.”



By May of 2015, my mother was growing weary of my unemployed state.  Annoyed, even.  She was living in Oswego at the time and had been strongly urging me to apply to work at the nearby Renaissance festival.  It was a sensible suggestion, as working there would allow me to exercise my community college-acquired basic acting and character techniques, and I would have a place to stay each weekend.  One problem, though.

Thitherto, I had passed my summers participating in “SummerStage” musicals at the Rome Capitol Theatre.  They were great fun and kept me busy in what is otherwise a lazy season of the year for me.  When I’m routinely getting cast in such entertainments, why would I leave my comfort zone and seek employment in a strange place?

In the year 2015, the musicals chosen were The Addams Family and Legally Blonde.  I don’t think I need to say any more.

I looked up the festival’s phone number online and proceeded to call it.  I scheduled a job interview for early June.  After I hung up, I noticed on the website a page outlining the responsibilities of the Bless the Mark Players, the paid troupe of actors of the Sterling Renaissance Festival.

Intrigued, I read everything on the webpage.  I hungrily took in every paragraph — every job detail — whilst attempting to construct a fantasy that auditions had not long come and gone.

Weeks later, back in reality, I somehow was deemed fit to work at Sterling and was hired as a gamer —  Master of the “Pyllow Fyghts,” to be precise.  And the Axe Throw for one weekend.

My  distinctive blue hat earned me the moniker “Master Blue Jay.”

As an employee, I had duties not unlike those of the actors; I was required, through maintaining character and dialect, to uphold the illusion that our patrons were in 1585 Warwick, England.  I even got to, on rare occasions, interact with some of the characters who happened by the Pyllow Fyght arena, which I was forbidden to leave throughout the nine-hour work day, save for on lunch break.  The Queen herself and her court even stopped by a few times and generated crowds for me in an area that otherwise received very little traffic.  I know not whether these characters visited me because they sincerely enjoyed interacting with me — or did so out of pity.  What I do know is that their presence meant the world to me on days marked by such a deprivation of human interaction — which was pretty much every day of the 2015 season for me.

There was something else of which I was certain.  I also knew that everything I witnessed during their visits with me — their quirky characters, their visible foibles and virtues, their unspoken inter-character conflicts, their chemistry, their camaraderie — I wanted those.

Can’t Be Choosers

From the beginning of June through the middle of August of this year, I had the impossibly-overstated privilege of being a member of the renamed Wyldewood Players for the Sterling Renaissance Festival’s 40th season.

Cast as the lowest of the low (or so I believed), I was on board as one of three “mud beggars.”  (We all learnt in a styles lesson that, because beggars required a licence from the church, they were technically of station higher than those of the ne’er-do-wells such as highwaymen and pirates, who were outside the law.  Not that anybody in his right mind would bow to a person covered head to toe with mud.)


Pretend it’s chocolate.

So, yeah.  Mud.  I worked in mud.  A lot of it.  We three beggars were responsible for the renowned “mud shows” each weekend.  The whole premise of “Theatre in the Ground” (a clever play on the phrase “theatre in the round”) is that these low-lives have likely heard pieces of well-known stories and perform bastardised re-tellings of them at the town mud pit (don’t ask me why there is a town mud pit), all the while becoming progressively filthy.  The mud show’s description in the festival programme aptly reads, “Classic tales told by idiots in a mud pit.

The tales this season were the classic Dante’s Inferno, which has been a mud show staple for years, and the all-new The Prodigal Son, which I and the other two beggars helped our instructor write.  It’s a great feeling to know that I contributed material to one of the festival’s most lauded attractions.  It was an even better feeling whenever audiences laughed at the stuff I added.  Now, truth be told, I didn’t add a tremendous amount to the script, but I did manage to put in a brilliantly terrible pun.

The mud pit itself (which we affectionately called “Cressida”) was a character of its — *ahem* — her own.  She was high maintenance.  She required watering between every faire weekend (sometimes on the weekends) and constantly accrued twigs and rocks and grass and other undesirables and needed them removed, lest we cut ourselves up lunging into her belly-first.  And don’t even get me started on the wildlife that persistently tried to call her their home and sometimes even made guest appearances in our shows.  Who knew that maintaining a hole filled with mud was so much work?

Enter The Bungalow

I did not live on site.  I was one of five guys staying in a house in Oswego about fifteen minutes away, while the rest of the cast stayed in lofts on the festival grounds.  Our humble urban abode was swiftly dubbed the “Bearded Bungalow,” an alliterative reference to the fur upon all five of our faces.  (That number became four within a week because the actor playing the mayor’s son was mandated to be clean-shaven.)

The actor who came up with the name also took it upon himself to do some complementary illustrating on a piece of plywood, which rested nicely above our doorway.

It was a trade-off, living at the Bungalow.  We didn’t need to worry about getting eaten alive by flies, gnats and mosquitoes like our wood-locked cohorts did.  Got a surprise bowel movement in the middle of the night?  Bathroom’s just down the hall — couldn’t say the same for our friends who had to grab a flashlight and walk hundreds of feet to the privies.  All the other basic amenities (i.e., running water, kitchen, washer and dryer) were also readily accessible for us, and living in the city meant that supply stores (mainly Walmart) and restaurants and bars were either within walking distance or a short drive away.  Leaks were virtually nonexistent.


Feels good, man.

There were real downsides, though.  Living off-site meant waking earlier for rehearsals, and the money that we weren’t spending on insect repellent went toward fuel for our cars, which we exhausted more rapidly because we were always commuting.  And while our castmates could easily run to their lofts on break should they need something at rehearsal, the Bungalow Boys had no such luxury.  We were up that proverbial creek without a paddle if we forgot something in Oswego — like our lunches or extra jackets.  And, yes, you read that correctly — jackets.  The second week of rehearsals in June was so windy and cold that we had people in winter coats and others huddled together under blankets.  As for the less provident (like me)?  Sucks to suck.


Feels bad, man.

The worst part about living off-site, however, was that the festival grounds never really felt like home to me.  Having to drive there always meant that I was eventually going to depart that same day.  I had no dwelling, no sleeping place on site.  Everything felt borrowed.  Foreign, even.  The buildings, trees, lanes, critters and sounds of nature there — our playing area known as Warwick — I didn’t get to live among them.  I merely visited them.  This fact made it difficult for me to establish that vital connection between character and space.

The other worst part was the tangible disconnect from the rest of the cast.  The goings-on on site were often irrelevant to me because of my absence.  I think I missed out on a great deal of bonding in the crucial early days of June.  Of course, our living apart wasn’t as consequential the first few weeks because we were, for the most part, either together rehearsing or sleeping.  But come July and more free time, our segregation was more felt.  This was only exacerbated by the fact that there was no Wi-Fi at the Bungalow and spotty or nonexistent cell phone service on festival grounds, severely limiting communication between the two residences.  We five in Oswego truly felt cut off at times.

(To give you an idea of just how out of the loop I was without web access, I would never have known that Pokémon GO had released had I not been told, and I wasn’t aware until I returned to Rome in mid-August that Harambe had become a meme.)

On a side note, there was a silver lining to the lack of Wi-Fi where we lived.  For weeks, I was able to enjoy life without being a slave to social media.  Didn’t need to worry about matters and petty drama back in my hometown.  Didn’t need to worry about other obligations and checking my e-mail all the time.  Life was simpler for a little while.  I went for walks around the beautiful port city that is Oswego.  I toured the maritime district and watched the tranquil descent of the warm sun over the horizon.  And evenings without Internet access forced me to come up with another way to occupy my time till I was ready to sleep; upon the suggestion of one of my castmates, I kept a journal.  I have an entry for every single day from mid-June to mid-August chronicling my experiences, my feelings, my awkward moments, everything.


The Queen’s English… Sort Of

We rehearsed all day, six days a week throughout June, resting Saturdays.  A typical day of rehearsal included workshops in character development, imagination, improvisation and language/styles led by various instructors; in the latter half of the month, more focus was brought to street encounters and scripted small group scenarios (e.g., the “Trial and Dunke,” the mud shows, the “Queen’s Duel,” etc.).  We began each day with yoga-inspired physical warmups, followed by vocal warmups, followed by the rehearsal of several period-ish songs from our extensive repertoire, any five of which plus “Auld Lang Syne” we performed at the end of every faire day for the “Final Pub Sing.”

As you might have guessed, the language workshops were my favourite.  It was one of the few times during the rehearsal day I felt knowledgeable and felt like I had some merit as a member of the cast.  It was liberating to be able to take my sweet time forming my sentences, embellishing every detail with fancy, exciting parlance as the Elizabethans did — and to revere each word as if every mundane utterance were the most important statement to pass through my lips.  It was satisfying to speak with such precision and puissance — to say exactly what I mean and to do so with authority.  In essence, I was finally in an environment where I was encouraged to speak as I write and not the other way round.

My sole disappointment with regard to language is that we were not taught Original Pronunciation (OP), the general accent of the Elizabethans and the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded when they were first performed.  (I discussed OP a bit in my blog post from April.)  In lieu of a more historically accurate accent, we were taught three distinct dialects: upper class, which was spoken by the Queen and her court and a couple officials in Warwick and bears great similarity to posh modern-day English accents; country, which is spoken by the working/middle class denizens of Warwick and blends elements of Scottish, Irish and Cornish and is the closest we had to OP; and lower class, which was spoken by the poor, uneducated and vagabonds and resembles Cockney speech.

The rationale for eschewing OP in favour of these three dialects is twofold and understandable: it was 1) to give variety to the speech of characters and to make their stations more apparent and 2) to strike a balance between sounding historically accurate and what the typical American patron believes is a period English accent.  All this being said, however, at least I can say that, despite phonological anachronism, all three dialects employed Elizabethan idiom, that is, vocabulary and phrases and sentence structure that were of the period.  It’s all about making it sound just different enough to be entertaining to the audience without compromising intelligibility.

Do The Thing

Improv kicked my arse.  The lessons I was taught at Sterling often contradicted the purposes of acting games from college, and partaking of the improv exercises was an ordeal and far more stressful than it should have been.  I should have been eager and restless to stand up and participate when a new group was requested.  But I wasn’t.  I felt like every action I did and every sentence I bullshitted was wrong and fucking up the scene for everybody else, especially when I was receiving no reactions from those watching.  Which made me doubt what I said or did, which made me lose confidence in myself and made me distrusting of my scene partners, which then made my choices in future improv work reserved and feeble — and thus creating a vicious circle of poor improvising that saw, at best, meagre improvement in two and a half months.

In retrospect, I believe that my biggest block, at least on faire days, was my prioritisation of language over character and creating entertaining interaction with patrons and other characters.  I probably could have sacrificed sentence perfection just to get a few more damn words and ideas out before I lost the interest of those around me.  I’ll shamelessly give myself some credit, however, and say that I tended to excel with small groups and in simply engaging them in casual conversation.  Too bad these encounters went largely unnoticed.

Despite my shortcomings, I did not walk away from Sterling unequipped.  The single, most important thing to do during improv that I can advise is to listen.  Relax and listen to your scene partner — and trust him.  Other things to keep in mind are letting go of preconceived ideas — if your scene partner (or a patron) makes you an unexpected offer, do not cling to your vision of how the scene should play out and just go with it; do not ask questions unless it provides meaningful information (questions dump responsibility on the other person); do not negate information (if your scene partner says you’re married, then you are married!); make strong, specific assumptions (giving yourself a character helps immensely); remember that not everything needs to be funny; and, finally, stop talking about doing a thing and start doing the thing.


I can’t help but feel also that the job would’ve been easier as a seven-year-old.  I’m only half-joking.  One of the fundamentals of interactive theatre is fierce imagination and spontaneous creativity.  When you endow patrons (give them names and occupations like “Robert the Blacksmith” and assign a relationship between them and your own character), it is not unlike assigning special roles to your parents and siblings and friends when you were a young child playing make-believe.  Our wise director did tell us one day at rehearsal that a lot of what we do at Sterling does not require learning, but unlearning.  Unlearning societally-indoctrinated impediments to our imagination gained during the transition to adulthood.  Much of my education this summer was better described as a reversion to more juvenile tendencies such as speaking before thinking (as opposed to thinking before we speak) and not asking for permission.

A Rocky Start

My character had a troubled upbringing.  Not in his reality, but mine.  Developing the beggar, Peter, was a struggle for me.  I sought to avoid clichés and to bring something a little bit more fascinating to the table.  I ultimately succeeded, but there was a very alarming lack of progress until a few days shy of opening weekend.  Even then, though, I would have to say objectively that Peter, overall, was a weakly designed character within the context of the festival.  There were certainly creative nuances about him, but his richest, most exciting and engrossing aspects I quickly found to be virtually unplayable to an audience.


Behold Peter, the rockiest mendicant in Warwick.  (Photo credit: Andrew Lesny)

Still, many people, castmates and patrons alike, took a liking to Peter, if only for his superficial and behavioural features.  There was something oddly charming about that quiet, leaf-munching, stick-gathering beggar.  I and my mud-brothers were commended frequently for how well our characters contrasted with and complemented each other.  Each beggar was distinct in speech, posture, gait, demeanour and activity, and yet we worked so well together.  Though I did not achieve everything I wanted with my character, at least I can rest with the satisfaction of knowing that nobody else can ever play Peter exactly the way I did.

There’ll Be Another Time

I must confess that I’m getting a little choked up, typing all this.  There are so many more things I could talk about, but this post is long enough as it is (approaching three thousand words upon composition of this paragraph).  Yet, in bringing this post to an end, I feel that I’m finally putting my time at Sterling to rest, despite having left over a month ago.  How fitting that I publish this at the beginning of fall — now that the revels of summer have ended and I must from my dream awake.

I wish I could tell you about all the belly-grippingly hilarious moments from rehearsal.  About all our inside jokes.  About the goofiness of social events like Christmas in July.  About how we would all sing along to “Lost Boy,” “7 Years” and “I’m Gonna Be,” the songs in our warmups playlist every morning.  About how good it felt to see the joy and delight we brought to our patrons displayed upon their visages after a faire day.  About the admirable loyalty of our die-hard “Rennies” and Family/Friends of Faire as they accompanied us on our adventures every weekend.  About the inexpressible magic of performing and getting drenched alongside my boon companions amidst a deluge on the final weekend.

But even if the length of this post weren’t an issue, I’m not sure that I could sufficiently articulate such ideas.  You would think that an entire summer of practicing heightened speech craftsmanship would render me capable in such an endeavour, but the aforementioned items are things to be experienced, rather than recounted.  My words simply would not do them justice.

I thought arriving the 2nd of June was tough.  I was on edge, making sure I had everything before I hopped in my car, all the while dreading living in a strange place with people I had yet to meet.  Wondering what rehearsals would be like.

Packing up the 15th of August was even tougher.  I couldn’t fold a few shirts without having to sit back down on my bed and breaking down in tears.  I kept my weeping private for the sake of my roommates.  It was a hard afternoon for me.

I miss the routine.  The simplicity.  The certainty that I was going to see my friends at rehearsal the next day.

When I started writing this post, I was sure that I wanted to end it with the festival’s parting phrase, “Merry meet, merry part and merry meet again.”  But that makes it sound like it’s going to be a long time before that happens.  I don’t even know whether I’ll be on cast next year; that’s largely out of my control.

So, thank you all for reading this whale of a post.  Thank-you to those of you who made the trip out to Sterling to support me in what may have been a flash in the pan.  And, to my family in Warwick…

See you tomorrow.


GIF vs. JIF, and Why You’re Right Either Way

While my often controversial word pronunciations have been compiled and catalogued (see my first-ever blog post), there is one in particular on which I have been rather reticent.  A certain initialism that many of us Internet-dwellers encounter daily.  A certain image format…

In case you forgot to read the title of this post, I refer to the GIF.

Let’s just get this out of the way now — I say it with a hard G.  And I know I’m correct.  But here’s the cool part — people who say it with a soft G (i.e., the /j/ sound) are also correct!  Crazy, I know.  I will spend the remainder of this post explaining how I arrived at such an outrageous and outlandish conclusion.  Despite my admitted bias, I feel that I have some measure of authority on the matter, given my linguistic background and, more important, my capacity to see both sides of the argument.

The .gif file format was introduced to the world in June 1987 by Steve Wilhite while he was working at CompuServe.  As the engineering lead of the team that invented it, by all rightsjif_ad he was the one to name it.  Wilhite called his creation, of course, the GIF (an initialism for “graphics interchange format”), and its intended pronunciation with a soft G was implied in the tagline, “Choosy developers choose GIF,” a deliberate nod to the familiar slogan of Jif peanut butter.

The previous paragraph outlines the most formidable and compelling argument for the “JIF” pronunciation.  After all, if you coin a new word or phrase — even if you’re not an English teacher — you wouldn’t want people mispronouncing it.  I know *I* wouldn’t.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong* with that sentiment.

*Unless your desired pronunciation is utterly unreasonable, senseless and illogical and does not follow the conventions of English phonetics.  Mr. Wilhite’s “JIF” pronunciation is in the clear.

(And, yes, even though it’s technically an initialism, we absolutely CAN hold GIF to the same guidelines that govern word pronunciation.  Laser and radar, both technically initialisms as well, are well-established in our vernacular and are treated as words.)

Nevertheless, as time went on, more and more English speakers began saying it with an assumed hard G pronunciation.  When this “improper” pronunciation was met with disdain from those who knew better, those in the “GHIF” camp responded by pointing out that the graphics in GIF begins with a hard G, and therefore the initialism should likewise be pronounced with a hard G.

The “ghiffers” remained steadfast in the face of the thorough, well-articulated case from the other side:point taken

B-b-but the creator pronounces it ‘JIF!’

The JIF-sayers had to do better.

The counter-counter-argument from the “jiffers” was that if all initialisms followed that rule, then we would pronounce JPEG “JAY-feg” instead of “JAY-peg,” as the P stands for photographic — or the organisation CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality) with a soft C.  They reason that the pronunciation of an initialism is dependent not on the words within it, but rather on what is most phonetically comfortable.

…Which is precisely the point.  Those who pronounce GIF with a hard G do so because it is the more phonetically comfortable or logical to them.  And the same principle applies to those who pronounce it with a soft G.

And this is where I start to wax linguistic.  This pronunciation dichotomy is reflective of a very tangible rift in the DNA of English phonology.  English, as a language, can be viewed as a hybrid of Common Germanic and Latin, or more specifically, French — or even more specifically, Norman French.  (English is undoubtedly Germanic, yes, but, for the purposes of this post, I am calling it a hybrid.)  These two parent branches, to put it simply, had different takes on the consonant G.  English would spend the next millennium or so trying to figure out how to pronounce this curious letter following its confused childhood.  Does it take after its Germanic mother and use a guttural hard G?  Or does it employ a gentler, fronted soft G preferred by its French stepfather?

Language personification aside, the choice comes down, in reality, to its speakers.  When we read, we see not individual letters, but letter combinations.  For me (and most, if not all GHIF-sayers, I would imagine), when I see “gi-,” I think of words such as give, gift, girl, gill, gild, giggle, gizzard, gimmick, giddy, the prefix giga- and the surname Gilbert.  Those who say “JIF” (including creator Steve Wilhite) might model their pronunciation after words such as gin, gist, giraffe and ginger.

It is no surprise, then, that, of all the hard G words I listed, over half of them assuredly are of Germanic origin (gizzard comes from French, giga- is Greek, giggle is imitative and girl and gimmick are of uncertain origin).  Conversely, three out of the four soft G words I provided entered English via French, while gin (distilled alcohol) is a shortening of geneva, which does come from French as well, but via Dutch.

Whilst hopelessly wading through a cesspool of a website run by JIF-zealots that was dedicated to the “proper” pronunciation of their sacred word, I encountered a beacon of sound thought.  One Erik J. Macki, a like-minded fellow who is evidently well-acquainted with linguistic fundamentals and principles, had posted a comment on the webpage and gave a convincing defence of the hard G pronunciation:

Thank you, Erik.  May your efforts not go unrecognised in the edification of my blog readers.

Therefore, linguistically speaking, using a hard G before the vowel I is as viable and historically supported in English as using a soft G, if not more so.

Look.  I get it.  “JIF” was the original intended pronunciation.  I respect that.  But if years of devotion to the study of linguistics have taught me anything, it is to respect language evolution — even when I don’t like it.  Word spellings, meanings and pronunciations change.  People who say “GHIF” are not wrong or improper; they are merely allowing this natural change to occur.  If I can live with people pronouncing sherbet as “sherbert,” then Steve Wilhite can live with people saying “GHIF.”

Bottom line?  JIF-sayers: stop shaming us for pronouncing GIF with a hard G.  GHIF-sayers: stop being dicks to the JIF-sayers.


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.