Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Generally a sentence can be negative or positive depending on what one actually wants to express. Thus if I’m asked whether I think that John’s new hobby – say climbing – is a good idea, I can say It’s not a good idea; conversely, if I do think it is a good idea, I can remove the negation not to make the sentence positive and say It’s a good idea. Both sentences are perfectly acceptable in this context.

From such an example, we might therefore conclude that any sentence can be made positive by removing the relevant negative word – most often not – from the sentence. But if that is the case, why is the non-negative response I like it one bit not acceptable, odd when its negative counterpart I don’t like it one bit is perfectly acceptable and natural?

This contrast has to do with the expression one bit: notice that if it is removed, then both negative and positive responses are perfectly fine: I could respond I don’t like it or, if I do like it, I (do) like it.

It seems that there is something special about the phrase one bit: it wants to be in a negative sentence. But why? It turns out that this question is a very big puzzle, not only for English grammar but for the grammar of most (all?) languages. For instance in French, the expression bouger/lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’ must appear in a negative sentence. Thus if I know that John wanted to help with your house move and I ask you how it went, you could say Il n’a pas levé le petit doigt `lit. He didn’t lift the small finger’ if he didn’t help at all, but I could not say Il a levé le petit doigt lit. ‘He lifted the small finger’ even if he did help to some extent.

Expressions like lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’, one bit, care/give a damn, own a red cent are said to be polarity sensitive: they only really make sense if used in negative sentences. But this in itself is not the most interesting property.

What is much more interesting is why they have this property. There is a lot of research on this question in theoretical linguistics. The proposals are quite technical but they all start from the observation that most expressions that need to be in a negative context to be acceptable are expressions of minimal degrees and measures. For instance, a finger or le petit doigt `the small finger’ is the smallest body part one can lift to do something, a drop (in the expression I didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday) is the smallest observable quantity of vodka, etc.

Regine Eckardt, who has worked on this topic, formulates the following intuition: ‘speakers know that in the context of drinking, an event of drinking a drop can never occur on its own – even though a lot of drops usually will be consumed after a drinking of some larger quantity.’ (Eckardt 2006, p. 158). However the intuition goes, the occurrence of this expression in a negative sentence is acceptable because it denies the existence of events that consist of just drinking one drop.

What this means is that if Mary drank a small glass of vodka yesterday, although it is technically true to say She drank a drop of vodka (since the glass contains many drops) it would not be very informative, certainly not as informative as saying the equally true She drank a glass of vodka.

However imagine now that Mary didn’t drink any alcohol at all yesterday. In this context, I would be telling the truth if I said either one of the following sentences: Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka or Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka. But now it is much more informative to say the latter. To see this consider the following: saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka could describe a situation in which Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday but she still drank some vodka, maybe just a spoonful. If however I say Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka then this can only describe a situation where Mary didn’t drink a glass or even a little bit of vodka. In other words, saying Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday is more informative than saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday because the former sentence describes a very precise situation whereas the latter is a lot less specific as to what it describes (i.e. it could be uttered in a situation in which Mary drank a spoonful of vodka or maybe a cocktail that contains 2ml of vodka, etc)

By using expressions of minimal degrees/measures in negative environments, the sentences become a lot more informative. This, it seems, is part of the reason why languages like English have changed such that these words are now only usable in negative sentences.

What’s the good of ‘would of’?

What’s the good of ‘would of’?

As schoolteachers the English-speaking world over know well, the use of of instead of have after modal verbs like would, should and must is a very common feature in the writing of children (and many adults). Some take this an omen of the demise of the English language,  and would perhaps agree with Fowler’s colourful assertion in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) that “of shares with another word of the same length, as, the evil glory of being accessory to more crimes against grammar than any other” (though admittedly this use of of has been hanging around for a while without doing any apparent harm: this study finds one example as early as 1773, and another almost half a century later in a letter of the poet Keats).

According to the usual explanation, this is nothing more than a spelling mistake. Following ‘would’, ‘could’ etc., the verb have is usually pronounced in a reduced form as [əv], usually spelt would’ve, must’ve, and so on. It can even be reduced further to [ə], as in shoulda, woulda, coulda. This kind of phonetic reduction is a normal part of grammaticalisation, the process by which grammatical markers evolve out of full words. Given the famous unreliability of English spelling, and the fact that these reduced forms of have sound identical to reduced forms of the preposition of (as in a cuppa tea), writers can be forgiven for mistakenly inferring the following rule:

‘what you hear/say as [əv] or [ə], write as of’.

But if it’s just a spelling mistake, this use of ‘of’ is surprisingly common in respectable literature. The examples below (from this blog post documenting the phenomenon) are typical:

‘If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years younger.’ (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)

Couldn’t you of – oh, he was ignorant in his speech – couldn’t you of prevented it?’ (Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black)

Clearly neither these authors nor their editors make careless errors. They consciously use ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in these examples for stylistic effect. This is typically found in dialogue to imply something about the speaker, be it positive (i.e. they’re authentic and unpretentious) or negative (they are illiterate or unsophisticated).


These examples look like ‘eye dialect’: the use of nonstandard spellings that correspond to a standard pronunciation, and so seem ‘dialecty’ to the eye but not the ear. This is often seen in news headlines, like the Sun newspaper’s famous proclamation “it’s the Sun wot won it!” announcing the surprise victory of the conservatives in the 1992 general election. But what about sentences like the following from the British National Corpus?

“If we’d of accepted it would of meant we would have to of sold every stick of furniture because the rooms were not large enough”

The BNC is intended as a neutral record of the English language in the late 20th century, containing 100 million words of carefully transcribed and spellchecked text. As such, we expect it to have minimal errors, and there is certainly no reason it should contain eye dialect. As Geoffrey Sampson explains in this article:

“I had taken the of spelling to represent a simple orthographic confusion… I took this to imply that cases like could of should be corrected to could’ve; but two researchers with whom I discussed the issue on separate occasions felt that this was inappropriate – one, with a language-teaching background, protested vigorously that could of should be retained because, for the speakers, the word ‘really is’ of rather than have.”

In other words, some speakers have not just reinterpreted the rules of English spelling, but the rules of English grammar itself. As a result, they understand expressions like should’ve been and must’ve gone as instances of a construction containing the preposition of instead of the verb have:

Modal verb (e.g. must, would…) + of + past participle (e.g. had, been, driven…)

One way of testing this theory is to look at pronunciation. Of can receive a full pronunciation [ɒv] (with the same vowel as in hot) when it occurs at the end of a sentence, for example ‘what are you dreaming of?’. So if the word ‘really is’ of for some speakers, we ought to hear [ɒv] in utterances where of/have appears at the end, such as the sentence below. To my mind’s ear, this pronunciation sounds okay, and I think I even use it sometimes (although intuition isn’t always a reliable guide to your own speech).

I didn’t think I left the door open, but I must of.

The examples below from the Audio BNC, both from the same speaker, are transcribed as of but clearly pronounced as [ə] or [əv]. In the second example, of appears to be at the end of the utterance, where we might expect to hear [ɒv], although the amount of background noise makes it hard to tell for sure.

 “Should of done it last night when it was empty then” (audio) (pronounced [ə], i.e. shoulda)

(phone rings) “Should of.” (audio) (pronounced [əv], i.e. should’ve)

When carefully interpreted, writing can also be a source of clues on how speakers make sense of their language. If writing have as of is just a linguistically meaningless spelling mistake, why do we never see spellings like pint’ve beer or a man’ve his word? (Though we do, occasionally, see sort’ve or kind’ve). This otherwise puzzling asymmetry is explained if the spelling of in should of etc. is supported by a genuine linguistic change, at least for some speakers. Furthermore, have only gets spelt of when it follows a modal verb, but never in sentences like the dogs have been fed, although the pronunciation [əv] is just as acceptable here as in the dogs must have been fed (and in both cases have can be written ‘ve).

If this nonstandard spelling reflects a real linguistic variant (as this paper argues), this is quite a departure from the usual role of a preposition like of, which is typically followed by a noun rather than a verb. The preposition to is a partial exception, because while it is followed by a noun in sentences like we went to the party, it can also be followed by a verb in sentences like we like to party. But with to, the verb must appear in its basic infinitive form (party) rather than the past participle (we must’ve partied too hard), making it a bit different from modal of, if such a thing exists.

She must’ve partied too hard

Whether or not we’re convinced by the modal-of theory, it’s remarkable how often we make idiosyncratic analyses of the language we hear spoken around us. Sometimes these are corrected by exposure to the written language: I remember as a young child having my spelling corrected from storbry to strawberry, which led to a small epiphany for me, as that was the first time I realised the word had anything to do with either straw or berry. But many more examples slip under the radar. When these new analyses lead to permanent changes in spelling or pronunciation we sometimes call them folk etymology, as when the Spanish word cucaracha was misheard by English speakers as containing the words cock and roach, and became cockroach (you can read more about folk etymology in earlier posts by Briana and Matthew).

Meanwhile, if any readers can find clear evidence of modal of with the full pronunciation as  [ɒv], please comment below! I’m quite sure I’ve heard it, but solid evidence has proven surprisingly elusive…

No we [kæn]

No we [kæn]

If something bad happened to someone you hold in contempt, would you give a fig, a shit or a flying f**k? While figs might be a luxury food item in Britain, their historical status as something that is valueless or contemptible puts them on the same level as crap, iotas and rats’ asses for the purposes of caring.

In English, we have a wide range of tools for expressing apathy. But we don’t always agree on how to express it, and even use seemingly opposite affirmative and negative sentences to express very similar concepts.  Consider the confusing distinction between ‘I couldn’t care less’ vs. ‘I could care less’ which are used in identical contexts by British and American speakers of English to mean pretty much the same thing. This mind-boggling pattern makes sense when we realise that those cold-hearted people who couldn’t care less have a care-factor of zero, while the others don’t care much, but could do so even less, if necessary.

Putting aside such oddities, negation is normally crucial to interpreting a sentence – words like ‘not’ determine whether the rest of the sentence is affirmative or negative (i.e. whether you’re claiming it is true or false). Accordingly, languages tend to mark negation clearly, sometimes in more than once place within a sentence. One of the world’s most robust languages in this respect is Bierebo, an Austronesian language spoken in Vanuatu, where no less than three words for expressing negation are required at once (Budd 2010: 518):

Mara   a-sa-yal              re         manu  dupwa  pwel.
NEGl   3PL.S-eat-find   NEG2  bird     ANA      NEG3
‘They didn’t get to eat the bird.’

While marking negation three times might seem a little inefficient, this pales in comparison to the problems that arise when you don’t clearly indicate it all. We only have to turn to English to see this at work, where the distinction between Received Pronunciation can [kæn] and can’t [kɑ:nt] is frequently imperceptible in American varieties where final /t/ is not released, resulting in [kæn] or [kən] in both affirmative and negative contexts.

You might think that once a word or affix or sound that indicates negation has been removed from a word, there isn’t anywhere else to go. But some Dravidian languages spoken in India really push the boat out in this respect. Instead of adding some sort of negative word or affix to an affirmative sentence to signal negation, the tense affix (past –tt or future -pp) is taken away, as shown by the contrast between literary Tamil affirmatives and negatives.

pati-tt-ēn                    pati-pp-ēn                  patiy-ēn
‘I learned’                  ‘I will learn.’               ‘I do/did/will not learn.’

This is highly unusual from a linguistic point of view, and it’s tempting to think that languages avoid this type of negation because it is difficult to learn or doesn’t make sense design-wise. But historical records show similar patterns have been attested across Dravidian languages for centuries. This demonstrates that inflection patterns of this kind can be highly sustainable when they come about – so we might be stuck with the can/can’t collapse for a while to come.

On prodigal loanwords

On prodigal loanwords

Most people at some point in their life will have heard someone remark on how their language X (where X is any language) is getting corrupted by other languages and generally “losing its X-ness”. Today I would like to focus on one aspect of the so-called corruption of languages by other languages — lexical borrowings – and show that it’s perhaps not that bad.

European French (at least the French advertised by the Académie Française) is certainly a language about which its speakers worry, so much so that there is even an institution in charge of deciding what is French and what is not (see Helen’s earlier post). A number of English-looking/sounding words now commonly used in spoken French have indeed been taken from English, but English first took them from French!

For instance, the word flirter ‘to court someone’ is obviously adapted from English to flirt and it has the same meaning in both languages. But the English word is the adaptation of the French word fleurette in the expression conter fleurette! The expression conter fleurette is no longer used (casually) in spoken French.

“How could the universe live without your beauty?” “I wonder how sincere he is…”

Other examples of English words borrowed from (parts of) French expressions which then get adapted into French are in (2).

Thus un rosbif is an adaptation into French of roast beef which is itself an adaptation into English of the passive participle of the verb rostir “roast” which later became rôtir in Modern French, and buef “ox/beef” which later became boeuf in the Modern French.

The word un toast comes from English toast with the meaning “piece of toasted bread”. The English word itself was borrowed from tostée, an Old French noun derived from the verb toster which is not used in Modern French. The word pédigré comes from English pedigree but this word is itself adapted from French pied de grue “crane foot”, describing the shape of junctions in genealogical trees.

Pied de grue ‘Crane foot’

Finally, the verb distancer is transitive in Modern French, which means that it requires a direct object: thus the sentence in (a) is good because the verb distancer “distance” has a direct object, the phrase la voiture blanche  “the white car”. By contrast, the construction in (b) is not acceptable (signified by the * symbol) because it lacks an object.

a. La voiture rouge a distancé la voiture blanche.
‘The red car distanced the white car.’
b. *La voiture rouge a distancé.

The (transitive) Modern French verb distancer comes from English to distance which itself is a borrowing from the no-longer-used Old French verb distancer which was uniquely intransitive with the meaning “be far” (that is, in Old French, distancer could only be used in a construction with no direct object).

Another instance is (3): the word tonnelle ‘bower, arbor’ was borrowed into English and became tunnel under the influence of the local pronunciation. The word tunnel was then borrowed by French to refer exclusively to …. wait for it … tunnels. Both words now subsist in French with different meanings.

Une tonnelle ‘a bower’, Un tunnel ‘a tunnel’

Other examples of words that were borrowed into English and ‘came back’ into French with a different meaning are in (4).

The ancestor of tennis is the jeu de paume during which players would say tenez “there you go” as they were about to serve (at that time the final “z” was pronounced [z], it is not in Modern French). This word was adapted into English and became tennis which was then borrowed back into French to refer to the sport jeu de paume evolved into.

Jeu de paume vs. tennis

The Middle French word magasin used to refer to a warehouse, a collection of things. This word was borrowed into English and came to refer to a collection of things on paper. The word magazine was then borrowed back into French with this new meaning.

The history of the word budget also interesting. The word bouge used to mean “bag” and a small bag was therefore bougette (the -ette suffix is used as a diminutive, e.g. fourche “pitchfork” – fourchette “fork”). The word was borrowed into English where its pronunciation was “nativized” and it came to refer to a small bag of money. It was then borrowed back into French with the new meaning of “allocated sum of money”. Finally, ticket was borrowed from English which borrowed it from French estiquet, which referred to a piece of paper where someone’s name was written.

This happens in other languages of course. For instance, Turkish took the word pistakion ‘pistachio’ from (Ancient) Greek which became fistik. (Modern) Greek then borrowed this word back from Turkish which was then spelled phistiki with the meaning ‘pistachio’.

The main lesson I draw from the existence of ‘prodigal loanwords’ is that one’s impressions of language corruption often lack the perspective to actually ground that impression in reality. A French speaker looking at flirter ‘flirt’ may think that this is another sign of the influence of English — and they would be right — without being aware that this is after all a French word fleurette just coming back home.

Do you know other examples of prodigal loanwords? Please, share by commenting on this post!

L’aventure des langues en Occident, Henriette Walter
Honni soit qui mal y pense, Henriette Walter
Jérôme Serme. 1998. Un exemple de résistance à l’innovation lexicale: les “archaïsmes” du français régional, Thèse Lyon II
Javier Herráez Pindado. 2009. Les emprunts aller-retour entre le français et l’anglais dans le sport. Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.

Reindeer = rein + deer?

Reindeer = rein + deer?

In linguists’ jargon, a ‘folk etymology’ refers to a change that brings a word’s form closer to some easily analyzable meaning. A textbook example is the transformation of the word asparagus into sparrowgrass in certain dialects of English.

Although clear in theory, it is not easy to decide whether ‘folk etymology’ is called for in other cases. One which has incited heated coffee-time discussion in our department is the word reindeer. The word comes ultimately from Old Norse hreindyri, composed of hreinn ‘reindeer’ and dyri ‘animal’. In present-day English, some native speakers conceive of the word reindeer as composed of two meaningful parts: rein + deer. This is something which, in the Christian tradition at least, does make a lot of sense. Given that the most prominent role of reindeer in the West is to serve as Santa’s means of transport, an allusion to ‘reins’ is unsurprising. This makes the hypothesis of folk etymology plausible.

When one explores the issue further, however, things are not that clear. The equivalent words in other Germanic languages are often the same (e.g. German Rentier, Dutch rendier, Danish rensdyr etc.) even though the element ren does not refer to the same thing as in English. However, unlike in English, another way of referring to Rudolf is indeed possible in some of these languages that omits the element ‘deer’ altogether: German Ren, Swedish ren, Icelandic hreinn, etc.

Another thing that may be relevant is the fact that the word ‘deer’ has narrowed its meaning in English to refer just to a member of the Cervidae family and not to any living creature. Other Germanic languages have preserved the original meaning ‘animal’ for this word (e.g. German Tier, Swedish djur).

Since reindeer straightforwardly descends from hreindyri, it may seem that, despite the change in the meaning of the component words, we have no reason to believe that the word was altered by folk etymology at any point. However, the story is not that simple. Words that contained the diphthong /ei/ in Old Norse do not always appear with the same vowel in English. Contrast, for example, ‘bait’ [from Norse beita] and ‘hail’ [from heill] with ‘bleak’ [from bleikr] and ‘weak’ [from veikr]). An orthographic reflection of the same fluctuation can be seen in the different pronunciation of the digraph ‘ei’ in words like ‘receive’ and ‘Keith’ vs ‘vein’ and weight’. It is, thus, not impossible that the preexistence of the word rein in (Middle) English tipped the balance towards the current pronunciation of reindeer over an alternative one like “reendeer”. Also, had the word not been analyzed by native speakers as a compound of rein+deer, it is not unthinkable that the vowels may have become shorter in current English (consider the case of breakfast, etymologically descending from break + fast).

So, is folk etymology applicable to reindeer? The dispute rages on. Some of us don’t think that folk etymology is necessary to explain the fate of reindeer. That is, the easiest explanation (in William of Occam’s sense) may be to say that the word was borrowed and merely continued its overall meaning and pronunciation in an unrevolutionary way.

Others are not so sure. The availability of “fake” etymologies like rein+deer (or even rain+deer before widespread literacy) seems “too obvious” for native speakers to ignore. The suspicion of ‘folk etymology’ might be aroused by the presence of a few mild coincidences such as the “right” vowel /ei/ instead of /i:/, the fact that the term was borrowed as reindeer rather than just rein as in some other languages [e.g. Spanish reno] or by the semantic drift of deer exactly towards the kind of animal that a reindeer actually is. These are all factors that seem to conspire towards the analyzability of the word in present-day English but which would have to be put down to coincidence if they just happened for no particular reason and independently of each other. Even if no actual change had been implemented in the pronunciation of reindeer, the morphological-semantic analysis of the word has definitely changed from its source language. Under a laxer definition of what folk etymology actually is, that could on its own suffice to label this a case of folk etymology.

There seems to be, as far as we can see, no easy way out of this murky etymological and philological quagmire that allows us to conclude whether a change in the pronunciation of reindeer happened at some point due to its analyzability. To avoid endless and unproductive discussion one sometimes has to know when to stop arguing, shrug and write a post about the whole thing.

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters

Today I offer links to three international recipes: from Germany we have Kabeljau mit gebratener Blutwurst, Rosenkohl und Lakritzsauce (‘cod with pan-fried blood sausage, brussels sprouts and licorice sauce’), from France Cabillaud à la nage de réglisse (‘cod in licorice sauce’), and from Spain we have Lomo de bacalao en salsa de regaliz con juliana de judias verdes (‘filet of cod in licorice sauce with  julienned green beans’).

We will report later on the Morph cook-off challenge, once we scare up some participants and tasters. In the meanwhile, take note of what all these recipes have in common: cod and licorice. While I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would think to combine them on a plate, they do share something in common. Not culinarily, but linguistically. Let’s look at the words for these two ingredients as written in the recipes. They’re each vaguely similar across all three languages, but in a way which is hard to put your finger on. The word for ‘cod’ in all three languages has a [k] (or [c] – they’re pronounced the same) and a [b], but the order switches German and French on the one hand, and Spanish on the other. Similarly with ‘licorice’, where the place of [l] and [r] switch between German on the one hand and French and Spanish on the other:

‘cod’ ‘licorice’
German Kabeljau Lakritz
French cabillaud réglisse
Spanish bacalao regaliz

All neatly lined up here for comparison:

‘cod’ ‘licorice’
German k b l r
French c b r l
Spanish b c r l

This looks like an example of metathesis, where two sounds in a word swap places, as in English comfort versus comfortable, where the [t] and [r] switch places in pronunciation if not spelling (for those of us who pronounce the [r] at all, that is).

Metathesis as a gastronomic selling point may need a bit of refinement, but it does make for some curious word histories. The case of ‘licorice’ is fairly clear. It started out as Greek glykyrrhīza ‘sweet root’ and was borrowed into Latin as liquiritia, where it is believed that the first part got slightly mangled because people thought it had something to do with liquor (an example of folk etymology). The Latin word was borrowed into Old High German as lakerize or lekerize, which is where the Modern German word comes from. Meanwhile, in Old French, Latin’s daughter language, the word ended up as licorece, which then made its way into English. It was after this that French made the switch to ricolece, swapping [l] and [r], whose first part again got mangled to réglisse through another bout of folk etymology, because people thought it had something to do with règle ‘ruler’ (since licorice will have been sold in the form of ruler-like bars).

The word ‘cod’ remains something of a mystery. The German and French word were both borrowed from Dutch, first attested (in Latin sources) as cabellauwus, represented in contemporary Dutch as kabeljauw. Spanish bacalao is not attested before 1500, and it is generally agreed that the spread of this word was due to Basque fishermen. But whether kabeljauw morphed into bacalao or vice versa, nobody knows. Equally, it could all be coincidence, and the resemblance between the two words is just chance, a point of view that gains some mild support from the fact that bacalao and its ilk refer to a salted fish, whereas kabeljauw and its cousins refer to the fresh fish. This is how Dutch ends up with two words, kabeljauw and bakkeljauw: the first being its native word, the second borrowed from Portuguese bacalhau in the former Dutch colony of Suriname and transported to the Netherlands with Surinamese immigrants, used to refer to a salted and dried fish (not necessarily cod). I have yet to see both on a menu, let along combined in a single dish, but the search has only started.

(Sources: Etymologisch Woordenboek van het NederlandsEtymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen, Dictionnaire électronique de l’Académie Française.)

Today’s vocabulary, tomorrow’s grammar

Today’s vocabulary, tomorrow’s grammar

If an alien scientist were designing a communication system from scratch, they would probably decide on a single way of conveying grammatical information like whether an event happened in the past, present or future. But this is not the case in human languages, which is a major clue that they are the product of evolution, rather than design. Consider the way tense is expressed in English. To indicate that something happened in the past, we alter the form of the verb (it is cold today, but it was cold yesterday), but to express that something will happen in the future we add the word will. The same type of variation can also be seen across languages: French changes the form of the verb to express future tense (il fera froid demain, ‘it will be cold tomorrow’, vs il fait froid aujourd’hui, ‘it is cold today’).

The future construction using will is a relatively recent development. In the earliest English, there was no grammatical means of expressing future time: present and future sentences had identical verb forms, and any ambiguity was resolved by context. This is also how many modern languages operate. In Finnish huomenna on kylmää ‘it will be cold tomorrow’, the only clue that the sentence refers to a future state of affairs is the word huomenna ‘tomorrow’.

How, then, do languages acquire new grammatical categories like tense? Occasionally they get them from another language. Tok Pisin, a creole language spoken in Papua New Guinea, uses the word bin (from English been) to express past tense, and bai (from English by and by) to express future. More often, though, grammatical words evolve gradually out of native material. The Old English predecessor of will was the verb wyllan, ‘wish, want’, which could be followed by a noun as direct object (in sentences like I want money) as well as another verb (I want to sleep). While the original sense of the verb can still be seen in its German cousin (Ich will schwimmen means ‘I want to swim’, not ‘I will swim’), English will has lost it in all but a few set expressions like say what you will. From there it developed a somewhat altered sense of expressing that the subject intends to perform the action of the verb, or at least, that they do not object to doing so (giving us the modern sense of the adjective ‘willing’). And from there, it became a mere marker of future time: you can now say “I don’t want to do it, but I will anyway” without any contradiction.

This drift from lexical to grammatical meaning is known as grammaticalisation. As the meaning of a word gets reduced in this way, its form often gets reduced too. Words undergoing grammaticalisation tend to gradually get shorter and fuse with adjacent words, just as I will can be reduced to I‘ll. A close parallel exists in in the Greek verb thélō, which still survives in its original sense ‘want’, but has also developed into a reduced form, tha, which precedes the verb as a marker of future tense. Another future construction in English, going to, can be reduced to gonna only when it’s used as a future marker (you can say I’m gonna go to France, but not *I’m gonna France). This phonetic reduction and fusion can eventually lead to the kind of grammatical marking within words that we saw with French fera, which has arisen through the gradual fusion of earlier  ferre habet ‘it has to bear’.

Words meaning ‘want’ or ‘wish’ are a common source of future tense markers cross-linguistically. This is no coincidence: if someone wants to perform an action, you can often be reasonably confident that the action will actually take place. For speakers of a language lacking an established convention for expressing future tense, using a word for ‘want’ is a clever way of exploiting this inference. Over the course of many repetitions, the construction eventually gets reinterpreted as a grammatical marker by children learning the language. For similar reasons, another common source of future tense markers is words expressing obligation on the part of the subject. We can see this in Basque, where behar ‘need’ has developed an additional use as a marker of the immediate future:

ikusi    behar   dut

see       need     aux

‘I need to see’/ ‘I am about to see’

This is also the origin of the English future with shall. This started life as Old English sceal, ‘owe (e.g. money)’. From there it developed a more general sense of obligation, best translated by should (itself originally the past tense of shall) or must, as in thou shalt not kill. Eventually, like will, it came to be used as a neutral way of indicating future time.

But how do we know whether to use will or shall, if both indicate future tense? According to a curious rule of prescriptive grammar, you should use shall in the first person (with ‘I’ or ‘we’), and will otherwise, unless you are being particularly emphatic, in which case the rule is reversed (which is why the fairy godmother tells Cindarella ‘you shall go to the ball!’). The dangers of deviating from this rule are illustrated by an old story in which a Frenchman, ignorant of the distinction between will and shall, proclaimed “I will drown; nobody shall save me!”. His English companions, misunderstanding his cry as a declaration of suicidal intent, offered no aid.

This rule was originally codified by Bishop John Wallis in 1653, and repeated with increasing consensus by grammarians throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, it doesn’t appear to reflect the way the words were actually used at any point in time. For a long time shall and will competed on fairly equal terms – shall substantially outnumbers will in Shakespeare, for example – but now shall has given way almost entirely to will, especially in American English, with the exception of deliberative questions like shall we dance? You can see below how will has gradually displaced shall over the last few centuries, mitigated only slightly by the effect of the prescriptive rule, which is perhaps responsible for the slight resurgence of shall in the 1st person from approximately 1830-1920:

Until the eventual victory of will in the late 18th century, these charts (from this study) actually show the reverse of what Wallis’s rule would predict: will is preferred in the 1st person and shall in the 2nd , while the two are more or less equally popular in the 3rd person. Perhaps this can be explained by the different origins of the two futures. At the time when will still retained an echo of its earlier meaning ‘want’, we might expect it to be more frequent with ‘I’, because the speaker is in the best position to know what he or she wants to do. Likewise, when shall still carried a shade of its original meaning ‘ought’, we might expect it to be most frequent with ‘you’, because a word expressing obligation is particularly useful for trying to influence the action of the person you are speaking to. Wallis’ rule may have been an attempt to be extra-polite: someone who is constantly giving orders and asserting their own will comes across as a bit strident at best. Hence the advice to use shall (which never had any connotations of ‘want’) in the first person, and will (without any implication of ‘ought’) in the second, to avoid any risk of being mistaken for such a character, unless you actually want to imply volition or obligation.

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,

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 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.