linguistics

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 fixation 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 – If we use some good reasoning, we’ll see that this process is nothing more than the erroneous separation of words in a sentence.  This occurs mainly in pairings of an indefinite article followed by a noun.

“A napron” might become “an apron,” and it did.
“A nadder” might become “an adder,” and it did.

Works the other way, too.

“An ewte” became “a newt.”
“An eke*-name” became “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.”

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“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; ask.”  They were ascian [AHS-kyahn] and axian [AHK-syahn].  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 “ax a question” and to “ask a question” were equally appropriate.  (Those sentences would have been phrased differently back then, but you get my point.)

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 other parts of speech from the original word.

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.”

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 are yep/yupnope and welp.  The affirmative and negative word variants come from clipped pronunciations of yeah and no, typically given as very quick, one-word responses.  Welp is identical to the clause-initial well, 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!”  A subtle P latches on to the end of each word as the lips abruptly shut.

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 assumptionem.  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:

balance20scale

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; everyone is just cousins with one another, 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 meaning.  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.  He “takes” or “catches” the meaning.  And this development occurred in English, as we can plainly see with the verb grasp.  Its first “grabby” meaning is physical, just like the Latin capere.  But a figurative meaning of “to get a hold of mentally; comprehend” emerged over time in both words independently.

Here’s another pair of unrelated words that underwent 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.”

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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 words that took minimal thought to produce.

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.

IMG-1588

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.

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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 retain the broader definition.  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 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 softened to a more lenient “soon; in a little while.”  Can you detect a similar shift with now?  When we say that something needs to be done “now,” is there an implied grace period?  Maybe a few moments?  One might distinguish “now” from “right now,” the latter meaning “absolutely at this moment.”

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, words, abbreviations, acronyms, 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 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.  “Car broke down today, lol.
  • 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 match; 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.”

  • GIF – Image format that has had Internet users arguing over its pronunciation for over two decades.  Once disparaged as an ignorant corruption by programmers, the “ghif” pronunciation (hard G) is now equally valid to (if not predominant over) “jif.”  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…

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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 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.

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

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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.  /Y/ here, in reality, is a clipped long /e/ vowel.  (Say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.)  As such, it 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 “U” 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.”

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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)
  • measure and vision used to take the [zy] pronunciation (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but are now reduced to [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.”

In especially British and Australian dialects, this yod-coalescence (the proper term for the phenomenon I’ve been describing) has led to peculiar pronunciations of words that incorporate the “liquid /u/.”  (Liquid /u/ is in words like cube and fume – you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/.)  Across the pond and down under, this still applies to “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  While an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Brits 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.”

Sean Connery does not assume things; he “a-shooms” them.  Now that we’re done making fun of him, we can “re-zhoom” what we were doing.  You get the point.

So, to recap:

[ty-] —–> [ch]
[dy-] —–> [j]
[sy-] —–> [sh]
[zy-] —–> [zh]

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).

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 laughably hit 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 rather than how they were saying 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.”

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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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(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.

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?

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.”

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 acronym 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 acronym 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 the English language.  Mr. Wilhite’s “JIF” pronunciation is in the clear.

(And don’t tell me that GIF‘s acronymic nature excludes it from word status.  Concepts such as laser and radar, both technically acronyms, 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 acronym 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 acronyms 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 acronymic pronunciation is dependent not on the words within the acronym, 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.

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My Language Fixation

For 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 situations, 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.

Yes, I die a little inside when people grammatically mutilate their sentences, and, yes, I tend to correct these people (both on the internet and in speech), but I’ve dialled it back significantly.  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 respective disciplines are ever-present in their minds and 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.

Let’s begin with my native tongue, English.

Now, English often gets a bad rap for its seemingly arbitrary spellings and word pronunciations, among other things.  It receives disparagement both from people whose first language is not English and from people whose first language is English.  It seems to be the cool thing to do, and the culprits, more often than not, are those from my generation on social media sites like Tumblr.  You need not look any further than this Buzzfeed post to understand what I’m talking about.

The English language, overall, seems to be held in low regard – and too often is ignorance the cause, sadly.  However, rooted in ignorance or not, this zeitgeist of contempt for English is not groundless.  English, as with most languages, has a dynamic and exciting history – a history into which I will try to resist delving too deeply in this post, as it isn’t the only focus here.

Let me put on my hipster glasses for a moment and say that 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 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 this out, 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.  Now, obviously I’m incapable of reciting something from so long ago, but it went something like this: “Say the word think.  Do you hear the G sound that sneaks in there, just before the K?  Try this with other words like sink and pink!”

Needless to say, I tried it, and, lo and behold, it worked.  And I tried it again.  And again and again.  And I went to bed, dwelling on this phenomenon.  It really messed with my head.

Of course, in the early twenty-aughts, when readily accessible home internet was still in its infancy, I didn’t exactly have the wherewithal to explore this matter further, and I had to live with the quandary that words ending in [-ink] contain the [-ing] sound.  Fast forward a decade, and Joseph can rest assured that the G in [-ing] words is not, in fact, a true G sound at all.  In English phonetics, [ng] is used to represent the nasal sound that we automatically produce when we say words ending with [-nk], such as think or rank.

(This also explains why some people “omit” the /g/ in gerunds such as fishing or walking.  If you hear someone say fishin or walkin’, it shouldn’t be considered lazy speech.  Don’t criticise him for leaving out a hard G sound that wasn’t there to begin with.)

Anyway, while the [-ink] problem has since been resolved, back when I was a youngster, it only added fuel to my burning desire to increase my knowledge and understanding of English.

More fuel was subsequently added in eighth grade and early high school, when I was studying French and encountering cognates left and right.  It’s a good thing I chose French over Spanish, for 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 it is to English.  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 discussing how something was “inceived,” or how it began.  My mother promptly told me that “inceive” is not a word.  I was incredulous of this assertion 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 near-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 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 synonyms are in the language.

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

Also thanks to the internet, I have a firm understanding now not only of the English language, but also of the Indo-European language family as a whole, 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 just finished explaining, 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 are of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) origin.  In fact, most of the words in the previous sentence are of Old English origin.  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.  (The Angles decided to rename the region “Angle-land.”  Hmm.  Angle-land…Angland…England?)

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, considering that 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, from studying 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 Elizabethan-Jacobean period, they brought with them their dialects of English.  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 strongly recommend that interested individuals 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.

Does my language fixation 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 which words descend from Old English and which ones do not, I’ve studied sound shifts and word origins and can, as a result, recognise cognates and other relationships where most people cannot.

So, to answer my question, I would say that, yes, it absolutely does.  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, to be frank, 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”

Prefixes:

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 means that it 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.