How do we know when? The story behind the word “sciatica”

How do we know when? The story behind the word “sciatica”

My right arm has been bothering me lately. The nerve has become inflamed by a pinching at the neck, creating a far from desirable situation. When trying to explain the condition to a friend, I compared it to sciatica, but of the arm. I am not here to bore you with my ills, however, but to tell you a story precisely about that word, sciatica. You may wonder what is so special about it. It is true that it has a weird spelling with sc, just like science, and that it sounds a little bit like a fancy word, having come directly from Latin and retaining that funny vowel a at the end which not many words in English have. But more than that, the word sciatica gives us a crucial clue about changes which have transformed the way the English language sounds.

English is a funny language. Of all the European languages, it has changed the most in the last thousand years, and this is particularly apparent in its vowels. In the early Middle Ages, starting perhaps sometime in the mid-14th century, the lower classes in England started changing the way they pronounced the long vowels they had inherited from earlier generations. Some have even claimed that the upper class at the time, whose ability to use French had started to peter out in the 15th century, felt that one way they could make themselves stand out from the middle classes was by changing their way of speaking a bit. To do this, they took up the ‘bad’ habits of the lower classes and started pronouncing things the way the lower classes would. But in adopting the pronunciation of the lower classes, they also made it sound ‘refined’ to the ears of the middle classes, so that the middle classes also started to adopt the new pronunciation… and so the mess started.

Pairs of words like file and feel, or wide and weed, have identical consonants, differing purely in their vowels. They are also spelled differently: file and wide are written with <i…e>, while feel and weed are written with <ee>. The tricky part comes when you want to tell another person in writing how these words are pronounced. To do that one normally makes a comparison with other familiar words – for example, you could tell them ‘feel rhymes with meal’ –  but what do you do if the other person doesn’t speak English? In order to solve this problem, linguists in the late 19th century invented a special alphabet called the ‘International Phonetic Alphabet’ or ‘IPA’, in which each character corresponds to a single sound, and every possible sound is represented by a unique character. The idea was that this could function as a universal spelling system that anyone could use to record and communicate the sounds of different languages without any ambiguity or confusion. For file and wide, the Oxford English Dictionary website now gives two transcriptions in IPA, one in a standardised British and the other in standardised American: Brit. /fʌɪl/ & /wʌɪd/ (US /faɪl/ & /waɪd/). For feel and weed, we have Brit. /fiːl/ & /wiːd/ (US /fil/ & /wid/). So, in spelling, <i…e> represents /ʌɪ/ (or /aɪ/) and <ee> represents /iː/ (or /i/). But why is this so?

The answer lies in the spelling itself, which is a tricky thing, as we all know, and took many centuries to be fixed the way it is now. English spelling is a good example of a writing system where a given letter does not always correspond to one particular sound. There is no rule from which you can work out that wifi is pronounced as /wʌɪfʌɪ/ (or /waɪfaɪ/) – you know it simply because you have heard it pronounced and seen it written <wifi>. This is not obvious to other people whose native language is not English: as a native Spanish speaker, when I first saw the word wifi written somewhere, the first pronunciation that came to my mind was /wifi/ (like ‘weefee’) but not /wʌɪfʌɪ/.

Contemporary English spelling very much reflects the way people pronounced things at the end of the Middle Ages. So words like file and wide were pronounced with the vowel represented in IPA as <iː>, which today can be heard in words like feel and weed. At that time, the letter <i> (along with its variant <y>) represented the sound /iː/. The words feel and weed, on the other hand, were pronounced with the vowel represented in IPA by <eː>, sounding something like the words fell and wed, but a little longer. Most of the words that in the English of the Middle Ages were pronounced with the long vowels /iː/ and /eː/ are now pronounced with the diphthong /ʌɪ/ (or /aɪ/) and the vowel /iː/ (or /i/), respectively. These changes were part of a massive overhaul of the English vowel system known as the ‘Great Vowel Shift’, so-called because it affected all long vowels – of which there were quite a few – and it took centuries to complete. Some even claim that it’s still taking place. But if we fail to update our spelling as pronunciation changes, how can we tell when this shift happened? That is when the word sciatica comes in.

The word sciatica is now pronounced as /sʌɪˈatᵻkə/ (US /saɪˈædəkə/). Because of the spelling <i> in ‘sci…’, we know that the word would have been pronounced something like /siːˈatika/ (‘see-atica’) when it was introduced in English from Latin by doctors, who at that time still used Latin as the language of exchange in their science. But sciatica is not a very common English word, and does not even sound naturally English. So unless you are a doctor or a very educated person, there is a high chance of getting the spelling wrong. In a letter to her husband John in 1441, Margaret Paston wrote the following about a neighbour: “Elysabet Peverel hath leye seke xv or xvj wekys of þe seyetyka” – “Elisabeth Peverel has lain sick 15 or 16 weeks of the sciatica”. While my sympathies go to Elisabeth Peverel as I write this, the interesting thing here is the way the word sciatica is written by Margaret Paston, as seyetyka. Here the spelling with <ey> tells us a nice story: that the diphthongisation of Medieval /iː/ into something like /eɪ/ had already happened in 1441. Because of that word we know that Margaret Paston, her husband, and poor Elysabet Peverel not only said /seɪˈatikə/ but also /feɪl/, /weɪd/ and /teɪm/, rather than /fi:l/, /wi:d/ and /ti:m/, even if they still wrote them the old way with an <i> as file, wide and time, just as we do nowadays. From this we can also deduce by the laws of sound change that the other long vowels had also started to change their pronunciation, so that these people were already pronouncing feel and weed in the modern way, despite spelling them the old way with an <e>.

This mouthful of a word sciatica is thus the first word in the entire history of English to tell us about the Great Vowel Shift. It is true that its story doesn’t ease the pain that its meaning evokes, but at least it makes it easier to deal with it by entertaining the mind…

 

Guarantee and warranty: two words for the price of one

Guarantee and warranty: two words for the price of one

By and large, languages avoid having multiple words with the same meaning. This makes sense from the point of view of economy: why learn two words when one will do the job?

But occasionally there are exceptions, such as warranty and guarantee. This is one of several synonymous or near-synonymous pairs of words in English conforming to the same pattern – another example is guard and ward. The variants with gu- represent early borrowings from Germanic languages into the Romance languages descended from Latin. At the time these words were borrowed, the sound w had generally developed into v in Romance languages, but it survived after g, in the descendants of a few Latin words like lingua ‘tongue, language’. So when Romance speakers adapted Germanic words to the sounds of their own language, gu was the closest approximation they could find to Germanic w.

This is why French has some words like guerre ‘war’, where gu- corresponds to w- in English (this word may have been borrowed because the inherited Latin word for war, bellum, had become identical to the word for ‘beautiful’). Later, some of the words with gu- were borrowed back into English, which is why we have both borrowed guard and inherited ward. According to one estimate, 28.3% of the vocabulary of English has been borrowed from French (figures derived from actual texts rather than dictionaries come in even higher at around 40%), a debt that we have recently started repaying in earnest with loans like le shopping and le baby-sitting. This is all to the consternation of the Académie française, which aims to protect the French language from such barbarisms, as evidenced by the dire, ne pas dire (‘say, don’t say’) section of the académie‘s website advising Francophones to use homegrown terms like contre-vérité instead of anglicisms like fake news.

By Murraytheb at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3448702

In fact, warranty and guarantee reflect not one but two different waves of borrowing: the first from Norman French, which still retained the w- sound, likely through the influence of Scandinavian languages spoken by the original Viking invaders of Normandy. Multiple layers of borrowing can also be seen in words like castle, from Latin castellum via Norman French, and chateau, borrowed from later French, in which Latin c- had developed a different pronunciation.

Incidentally, Norman French is still continued not only in Normandy but also in the Channel islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Sark. The Anglo-Norman dialect of the island of Alderney died out during World War II, when most of the island’s population was evacuated to the British mainland, although efforts are underway to bring it back.

A daggy blog post

A daggy blog post

One of the most ubiquitously Australian words is the word dag. A word known and loved by basically any Aussie.

Classic daggy dad
Fig. 1 – The classic daggy-dad weekend look

It’s a light-hearted insult referring to someone who is unfashionable or socially awkward, basically a bit of a dork (Fig 1). But like most insults in Australian English it’s also used affectionately as a term of endearment (what does this say about how Australians relate to each other?). Typically in these cases, it is used to convey a sense of regard for the unashamedness of the dag in question – to express the lovable quality of someone who is just oblivious to certain social norms.

Ewww
Fig. 2 – An actual dag.

However, the origins of this this word are anything but loveable. According to the popular story (which appears to be supported by Macquarie Dictionary and The Australian National Dictionary), this usage is derived from the older meaning (attested in 1891) of the word dag to refer to a matted clot of wool and dung that forms around a sheep’s bum (Fig 2). By 1967 something  ‘dirty and unkempt’ could be referred to as daggy and by the 1980s we were using the word for Figure 2 for the unfashionable yet loveable dad in Figure 1.

As an Australian, I am proud of my dagginess and am pleased to know our daggy little word has a pretty gross origin.

 

 

A plurality of plurals

A plurality of plurals

Of all the world’s languages, English is the most widely learnt by adults. Although Mandarin Chinese has the highest number of speakers overall, owing to the huge size of China’s population, second-language speakers of English outnumber those of Mandarin more than three times.

Considering that the majority of English speakers learn the language in adulthood, when our brains have lost much of their early plasticity, it’s just as well that some aspects of English grammar are pretty simple compared to other languages. Take for example the way we express the plural. With only a small number of exceptions, we make plurals by adding a suffix –s to the singular. The pronunciation differs depending on the last sound of the word it attaches to – compare the ‘z’ sound at the end of dogs to the ‘s’ sound at the end of cats, and the ‘iz’ at the end of horses – but it varies in a consistently predictable way, which makes it easy to guess the plural of an English noun, even if you’ve never heard it before.

That’s not the case in every language. Learners of Greek, for example, have to remember about seven common ways of making plurals. Sometimes knowing the final sounds of a noun and its gender make it possible to predict the plural, but  other times learners simply have to memorise what kind of plural a noun has: for example pateras ‘father’ and loukoumas ‘doughnut’ both have masculine gender and singulars ending in –as, but in Standard Greek their plurals are pateres and loukoumathes respectively.

This is similar to how English used to work. Old English had three very common plural suffixes, -as, -an and –a, as well as a number of less common types of plural (some of these survive marginally in a few high-frequency words, including vowel alternations like tooth~teeth and zero-plurals like deer). The modern –s plural descends from the suffix –as, which originally was used only for a certain group of masculine nouns like stān, ‘stone’ (English lost gender in nouns, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post).

How did the -s plural overtake these competitors to become so overwhelmingly predominant in English? Partly it was because of changes to the sounds of Old English as it evolved into Middle English. Unstressed vowels in the last syllables of words, which included most of the suffixes which expressed the gender, number and case of nouns, coalesced into a single indistinct vowel known as ‘schwa’ (written <ə>, and pronounced like the ‘uh’ sound at the beginning of annoying). Moreover, final –m came to be pronounced identically to –n. This caused confusion between singulars and plurals: for example, Old English guman ‘to a man’ and gumum ‘to men’ both came to be pronounced as gumən in Middle English. It also caused confusion between two of the most common noun classes, the Old English an-plurals and the a-plurals. As a result they merged into a single class, with -e in the singular and -en in the plural.

This left Middle English with two main types of plural, one with –en and one with –(e)s. Although a couple of the former type remain to this day (oxen and children), the suffix –es was gradually generalised until it applied to almost all nouns, starting in the North of England and gradually moving South.

A similar kind of mass generalisation of a single strategy for expressing a grammatical distinction is often seen in the final stages of language death, as a community of speakers transition from a minority to a majority language as their mother tongue. Nancy Dorian has spent almost 50 years documenting the dying East Sutherland dialect of Scots Gaelic as it is supplanted by English in three remote fishing villages in the Scottish highlands. In one study the Gaelic speakers were divided into fluent speakers and ‘semi-speakers’, who used English as their first language and Gaelic as a second language. Dorian found that the semi-speakers tended to overgeneralise the plural suffix –an, applying it to words for which fluent speakers would have used one of another ten inherited strategies for expressing plural number, such as changing the final consonant of the word (e.g. phũ:nth ‘pound’, phũnčh ‘pounds’), or altering its vowel (e.g. makh ‘son’, mikh ‘sons’).

But why should the last throes of a dying language bear any resemblance to the evolution of a thriving language like English? A possible link lies in second language acquisition by adults. At the same time as these changes were taking place, English was undergoing intense contact with Scandinavian settlers who spoke Old Norse. During the same period English shows many signs of Old Norse influence. In addition to many very common words like take and skirt (which originally had a meaning identical to its native English cognate shirt), English borrowed several grammatical features of Scandinavian languages, such as the suffix –s seen in third person singular present verbs like ‘she blogs’ (the inherited suffix ended in –th, as in ‘she bloggeth’), and the pronouns they, their and them, which replaced earlier hīe, heora and heom. Like the extension of the plural in –s, these innovations appeared earliest in Northern dialects of English, where settlements of Old Norse speakers were concentrated, and gradually percolated South during the 11th to 15th centuries.

It’s possible that English grammar was simplified in some respects as a consequence of what the linguist Peter Trudgill has memorably called “the lousy language-learning abilities of the human adult”. Research on second-language acquisition confirms what many of us might suspect from everyday experience, that adult learners struggle with inflection (the expression of grammatical categories like ‘plural’ within words) and prefer overgeneralising a few rules rather than learning many different ways of doing the same thing. In this respect, Old Norse speakers in Medieval England would have found themselves in a similar situation to semi-speakers of East Sutherland Gaelic – when confronted with a number of different ways of expressing plural number, it is hard to remember for each noun which kind of plural it has, but simple to apply a single rule for all nouns. After all, much of the complexity of languages is unnecessary for communication: we can still understand children when they make mistakes like foots or bringed.

 

A sorry excuse for Surrey

A sorry excuse for Surrey

It has recently come to my attention that my vowels are weird. This was pointed out to me by a fellow American colleague who declared that, unexpectedly, we do not say Surrey the same way, and that my pronunciation has a “weird” vowel. I’ve already experienced confusion more than once from locals when I utter the word, and it’s enough to make me a little self-conscious.

I was already vaguely aware that Californians do some strange things with vowels. A bit of online digging revealed that as a San Francisco Bay Area native, I can blame my weird vowels on the Northern California vowel shift (outlined by Penny Eckert here). This sound change is what makes the surfer’s (and my) way of saying duuuude so distinctive (the vowel is fronted). My international friends make fun of the way I say “aw, man!”. Here, man for me becomes something like /miyn/. Even I have to admit it sounds pretty funny.

I like to think I am relatively aware of linguistic behavior, but as this experience showed me, we as linguists may not be as well-equipped as we think to recognize our own quirks.

Let me Linguistics that for you…

Let me Linguistics that for you…

In a 2016 twitter poll asking do you feel comfortable using gift as a verb? (ie: “I gifted that sweater to you”), 66% of respondents reported that they found this use ‘icky’. This phenomenon is known by linguists as ‘conversion’ or ‘zero-derivation’, because it involves taking a particular class of word, such as a verb, noun, or an adjective, and deriving another type of word from it without doing anything. This stands in contrast to common-and-garden ‘derivation’, where you convert the class of a word by changing its form somehow. For example, the verb sense becomes a noun sensation, which becomes an adjective sensational, which comes full circle to another verb sensationalise, all by the accumulation of suffixes. (The OED even lists a further derivation sensationalisation – but this sort of style has its own equally vociferous critics, showing you can’t win when it comes to linguistic taste).

In English verbs, nouns and adjectives all tend to look much the same, which makes it possible to zero-derive by stealth. It wasn’t always this way. Take for example the verb stone, a 12th-century example of the noun-as-verb phenomenon, derived from the noun stone (in its Middle English form stōn). Back then, the infinitive wasn’t simply stōn, but stōnen – the suffix –en was obligatory for all infinitives, and makes it clear that the word is no longer being used as a noun. Or compare the noun fight with the identical verb. In Old English the basic form of the noun was feoht, but there was no corresponding verb form feoht: instead, it was feohteð ‘he fights’, fihtest ‘you fight’, fuhton ‘we/you (pl)/they fought’, feaht ‘I/he/she fought’, or one of many other forms, depending on various grammatical properties such as subject (who is doing the fighting?), number (how many people are fighting?) and mood (is the fighting real, hypothetical, or an instruction?). As Old English evolved into its modern form, most of these inflectional suffixes were lost, encouraging a rise in the number of zero-derivations entering the language.

The laissez-faire attitude of English can be clearly recognised when comparing how languages deal with new words such as the recently-coined verb ‘to google’. Some languages, like Middle English stōnen, merely adapt the company’s name to express the grammatical categories which are important in the language (e.g. German du googlest, ‘you google’, ich habe gegoogelt ‘I googled’), while other languages add extra pieces of word to explicitly flag up the conversion, e.g. Greek γκουγκλίζω or γκουγκλάρω (pronounced ‘googlizo’/‘googlaro’), where the final syllable -o indicates that the subject of the verb is ‘I’, but the -iz- preceding it can’t be attributed any meaning beyond ‘I’m a verb!’.

In English, meanwhile, pretty much anything goes: in addition to verbs which have become nouns, we have numerous nouns becoming verbs (e.g. father, storm), adjectives becoming verbs (round, smooth), adjectives becoming nouns (intellectual), and liberal rules governing compounds, which let us treat nouns as if they were adjectives (stone wall). English has such a devil-may-care attitude to conversion that even whole phrases can become nouns or adjectives: basically, it’s a free-for-all.

This has been going on in English for a very long time, so why do examples like gifting make people feel ‘icky’? Partly it’s because we associate coinages like impact, action and workshop with corporate jargon – although some of these are actually of considerable age (impact was a verb before it became a noun, and it started out life even earlier as an adjective), their use boomed in the decades following the second world war, as management increasingly came to be seen as a scientific discipline. Another objection is that we already have words for verbs like to gift, namely give, which makes gift feel like an overelaborate solution to a non-problem, the linguistic equivalent of bic’s infamous ‘for her’ range of pens.

Nevertheless, zero-derivation can come in handy when a word has acquired a different or narrower meaning than the word it originally derived from. Gift originally referred to an action or instance of giving, in addition to the thing being given, but it now almost exclusively refers to something given for free in a spirit of goodwill. You can give someone a black eye, hepatitis, or the creeps, but it would be the height of irony to call these things gifts. Correspondingly, to gift has a more specific meaning than to give, and is much more concise than to give as a gift, just like texting someone is more concise than sending a text message to them, and friending someone is more concise than adding them as a friend on Facebook.

Frankenstein’s cat

Frankenstein’s cat

At some point a couple centuries back, somebody in North America got the idea to take the perfectly serviceable regular past tense form of dive — namely dived — and turn it into the irregular form dove (like drove).  You can plot its course to ultimate victory in this graph derived from Google Books:

But they didn’t finish the job, because the past participle is still dived: someone who would say She dove into the water would still say She hasn’t dived into the water. So something of a Frankenstein’s monster, grafted together from different parts. I recently stumbled across another such monstrosity. The verb pet — for me at least — has an irregular past tense like let or set, where nothing changes: Yesterday she pet the cat and let it out. But its past participle is a ‘regular’ one with –ed: She hasn’t petted the cat or let it out. So both of them are kind of hybrids, with past tense forms transformed into irregular verbs but past participle forms left to be like regular verbs:

regular verb hybrid verb irregular verb
she thrives
she frets
she dives
she pets
she drives
she lets
she thrived
she fretted
she dove
she pet
she drove
she let
she has thrived
she has fretted
she has dived
she has petted
she has driven
she has let

Which is bizarre: why take perfectly good regular verbs and change them into one-off oddities?

What happened to whom (and why)?

What happened to whom (and why)?

Wh- words like which, whom and why get a lot of knickers in a twist, as attested by this oatmeal comic on when to use who vs whom, or the age-old debate about the correct use of which vs that (on which see this blog post by Geoffrey Pullum). But in Old English the wh- words formed a complete and regular system which would have been easy to get the hang of. They were used strictly as interrogative pronouns – words that we use for asking questions like who ate all the pies? – rather than relative pronouns, which give extra information about an item in the sentence (Jane, who ate all the pies, is a prolific blogger) or narrow down the reference of a noun (women who eat pies are prolific bloggers). They developed their modern relative use in Middle English, via reinterpretation of indirect questions – in other words, sentences like she asked who ate all the pies, containing the question who ate all the pies?, served as the template for new sentences like she knew who ate all the pies, where who functions as a relative.

Who ate all the pies? They did.

Originally, the new relative pronoun whom (in its Middle English form hwām) functioned as the dative case form of who, used when the person in question is the indirect object of a verb or after prepositions like for. For direct objects, the accusative form hwone was used instead. So to early Middle English ears, the man for whom I baked a pie would be fine, while the man whom I baked in a pie would be objectionable (on grammatical as well as ethical grounds). Because nouns also had distinct nominative, dative and accusative forms, the wh- words would have posed no special difficulty for speakers. But as English lost distinct case forms for nouns, the pronoun system was also simplified, and the originally dative forms started to replace accusative forms, just as who is now replacing whom. This created a two-way opposition between subject and non-subject which is best preserved in our system of personal pronouns: we say he/she/they baked a pie, but I baked him/her/them (in) a pie.

Thus hwone disappeared the way of hine, the old accusative form of he. Without the support of a fully-functioning case system in the nouns, other case forms of pronouns were reinterpreted. Genitive pronouns like my and his were transformed into possessive adjectives (his pie is equivalent to the pie of him, but you can no longer say things like I thought his to mean ‘I thought of him’). The wh- words also used to have an instrumental case form, hwȳ, meaning ‘by/through what?’, which became an autonomous word why.

Although him and them are still going strong, whom has been experiencing a steady decline. Defenders of ‘whom’ will tell you that the rule for deciding whether to use who or whom is exactly the same as that for he and him, but outside the most formal English, whom is now mainly confined to fixed phrases like ‘to whom it may concern’. For many speakers, though, it has swapped its syntactic function for a sociolinguistic one by becoming merely a ‘posh’ variant of who: in the words of James Harding, creator of the ‘Whom’ Appreciation Society, “those who abandon ‘whom’ too soon will regret it when they next find themselves in need of sounding like a butler.”

Language change across the lifespan

Language change across the lifespan

When I was asked if I could write a blog post, my first thought was “Well, I could do.” And I immediately did an internal double-take, as I had uttered something which, for me, should not be a possible English sentence. My North American English ear ought to reject this sort of orphaned “do” (“I could do”, “I will do”, “I should have done”, where North Americans would just leave it out), which struck me as some sort of diseased outgrowth when I first heard it in Britain some years ago. (For more information, see here.) After many years in the UK I believe I have retained my native pronunciation and native vocabulary — though sometimes just to be polite I stand “in a queue” rather than “on line” (as one does where I come from) — so why should my syntax change, of all things? It’s like I’ve kept up surface appearances (sound and words) but undergone some internal metamorphosis in my syntactic structures. Scary.

I’m certainly not alone in being a dialect contact situation, and watching my own language change in response to that. Is the way that it happened to me part of some general pattern? Or are other people affected differently, say, changing their pronunciation while jealously maintaining their syntax?