Linguistic Family Tree

Because I love art as much as I love languages, discovering the work of artists who take language as their subject is almost always a pleasure. This week a beautiful linguistic family tree cought my eye from a graphic artist who has an online comic called Stand Still Stay Silent. It’s a representation of the Indo-European and Uralic family tree. I can’t entirely vouch for the accurancy of the whole thing but the bits I know best look pretty good.

linguistic family tree




I was recently trying to explain to the ever-present Frenchman in my life why writing “a whole nother story” was not a mistake on my part. No, I had not made a typing error, and no, ‘nother’ should not be written with an apostrophe before it as the ‘a’ had not disappeared, it had merely reappeared in front of the ‘whole’, and no, “another whole story” just wouldn’t mean the same thing.

I couldn’t think of the linguistic term for this phenomenon (‘an other’ >> ‘another’ >> ‘a nother’) so I searched around and disocvered the wonders of ‘rebracketing’ (or metanalysis or misdivision). Essentially rebracketing appears when pronunciation leads people to misunderstand where the parting between words occurs, and so the orange fruit which came from the Arab ‘narandj’ (still ‘naranja’ in Spanish) became ‘an orange’ when it firmly settle into the English language in the 14th century after transforming from ‘une norenge’ to ‘une orenge’ across the channel.

Other such examples are the transformations of Medieval words like ‘a napperon’, ‘a nuncle’, and ‘a nadder’, but rebracketing can go the other way too, with the best known examples being ‘a nickname’, ‘a notch’ and ‘a newt’, which were originally ‘an eke-name’, ‘an otch’ and ‘an ewt’. This, of course, can all happen far more frequently when a good part of the population is illiterate and the writing system is barely codified. Although that’s not to say that someday ‘nother’ might not enter the dictionary as an entirely seperate term.

Rebracketing can also happen in more complex cases, like when you misunderstand a whole phrase and interpret it differently as often happens when listening to songs. In ‘The Power of Babel’, John McWorther recalls how his mother always misheard a Church hymn as a girl, singing “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”, all the while imagining a visually impaired children’s book character. And I’m sure we can all sympathise having at some point mis-sung our favourite band’s lyrics at the top of our lungs, blind to the nonsensical nature of what we were saying.

There are multiple other examples: Stark-raving > Star-craving, Let alone > Little lone, Prima donna > Pre-madonna. And if you tell someone to “Polish it behind the door”, be careful that they don’t think you’re saying that Polly….

Word of the Week: Yo!

Think ‘yo!’ comes from a recent development in African-American vernacular? Think again. A multifaceted syllable bursting with history, there’s more to ‘yo!’ than meets the eye.

Some claim that the interjection was introduced into African-American culture through Basic Training in the US military during Vietnam or perhaps even WWII. “Yo!” would in this case be the equivalent of the response “Yes” or “Present”, perhaps altered for ease of enunciation in a very loud military voice.

Two decades ago however, a New York Times article claimed to trace it back to Italian immigrants in Philadelphia in the 1930s. ‘Yo!’ would be a shortened version of ‘guaglione’ (‘young man’ in Neapolitan), which made the shift through an approximate pronunciation of guahl-YO-nay>guahl-YO> whal-YO>Yo!.

Chapman’s dictionary of American slang dates ‘yo!’ to an exclamatory greeting used in the mid-19th century, but  the  word  is  attested  as  a  sailor’s  or  huntsman’s utterance since c.1420. That’s right, ‘yo!’ was possibly being used to get someone’s attention back when Middle English was being spoken.

Some sources (notably wiktionary) claim that ‘yo!’ might also be related to Io! in Latin, which also appears in Ancient Greek as ἰώ (iō, “oh!”), and was used as an exclamation of joy or triumph. But here we would perhaps be taking things a little too far. As an interjection which rolls so easily off the tongue, it is very possible that ‘yo!’ has been reinvented through the centuries and millennia.

Today, you are as likely to hear ‘yo!’ in the lyrics of an east-coast rapper as you are to hear the word coming from the mouth of a president, like when George W. Bush greeted his long-term friend and Prime Minister of the UK with a friendly  “Yo, Blair, what are you doing?” at the G8 summit in 2006… This became the butt of many jokes, and the the title of a book: “Yo, Blair!” by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

The World Until Yesterday

diamondI have mentioned him before, but he merits a post to himself. Although not a linguist (but covering multiple other academic fields), Jared Diamond’s latest book is worth reading for many reasons, one of which is his ‘Speaking in Many Tongues’ chapter on language variation and evolution. In ‘The World Until Yesterday’, Diamond traces past societal (and present tribal) customs, covering themes like conflict, child rearing, religion, language and health, suggesting lessons that can be learnt from them and applied to our large, industrial societies.

Concerning language, Diamond covers such fascinating questions as: why do some areas of the world harbour very few and others a great many different languages? how does climate, latitude, biological productivity, ecological diversity and tribal lifestyle affect language density and diversity? what role do political organisation, historical events and state expansion have to play?

Through his examination of various tribal groups all over the world, Diamond shows us that multilingualism has always been the norm rather than the exception, and covers some of the benefits of bilingualism I spoke of before. Finally, he goes into the issue of language death, explaining how, with the development of modern societies, many languages are disappearing, and argues for their protection and preservation.

Spell It Out

spell-it-outDavid Crystal, possibly my favourite linguist, has been at it again. He has been promoting his new book by stirring public opinion with his seemingly brash and nonchalant views on language change. Orthography to be precise. You see, unlike most laymen who are appalled at the idea of internet culture influencing ye auld English spelling, Crystal is a mere content observer of such phenomena as the disappearing ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ and ‘p’ in ‘receipt’.

He has been monitoring the internet by means of Google searches for a while now and has observed a distinct increase in the number of hits appearing which include such linguistic anomalies. When we don’t pronounce a letter in a word anymore, we tend to forget that is was there in the first place and little by little alter its spelling. This has been going on since writing began of course, but somehow when we observe the change happening within our own lifetimes it becomes sacrilege. Surely the way we were taught to spell in primary school was God’s Law and that all those red pen marks over our essays ingrained into us the importance of getting it right?

What has the world come to when leading authorities on language like Crystal or Oxford English Professor Simon Horobin begin telling us that it’s really not such a big deal whether it’s spelled ‘they’re’, ‘their’ or ‘there’? After all, it’s all pronounced the same and we get meaning from context. Such brazen views expounded at the Hay Festival this year incited relatively important reactions from the media considering that we are talking about a festival of literature and ideas, not Glastonbury. The Telegraph even did a reader poll in reaction to Professor Horobin’s statements, and an astounding 93.27% of those who replied did so to affirm that Grammar Does Matter.

A more interesting poll would perhaps have been to find out whether people even think that the ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ or in ‘where’ is even pronounced these days. There are still some quite divided on the issue as it turns out.

Txt tlk

I haven’t quite decided whether ‘txt tlk’ will remain classifies under the ‘youth speech’ category or whether it merits one of its own, in any case there is probably much to be said about it. We tend to forget that text messaging was almost an afterthought for mobile phone manufacturers in the 90s who never thought people would bother to write out messages when they could call, yet the medium has revolutionised not only social interaction but language too.

Remember the days when each text cost 10p and every word had to be carefully thought out so as not to go over the designated letter limit and take your communication into the pricey 20p bracket ? Those constraints were surely the first push towards the elimination of vowels and the reduction of phrases to the bare first-letter essentials. Today those restrictions have been blown away; digital communication is instantaneous, limitless and practically free.

Yet text language has continued to evolve. You thought ‘LOL’ just meant ‘laughing out loud’? You must be getting old. And how about ‘slash’? Something you do with a knife? Or the verbal equivalent of one of these – / ? Not quite. Luckily for you there are serious academics studying this stuff, like Anne Curzan at the University of Michigan whose snappy article on the new use of ‘slash’ you can read here. Language is indeed evolving, and whether you like it or not, however hard you attempt to shove it into a time-freezer, it will continue evolving with the new generation.

As it so happens, the new generation is texting a lot, and they are finding ways of translating elements of human interaction imperceptible across long distances (body language, empathy, glances, blushes…) into text speech. And I’m not just talking about emoticons. Here is John McWhorter explaining it all, from how ‘lol’ has become a pragmatic particle signaling empathy, to how ‘slash’ is used as a ‘new information marker’ or topic-changer. He also shows you why you should stop moaning about all this and get with the lingo if you want to hang with the cool kids.