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 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.

 

Entree

Entree

One of the peculiar habits that strikes a foreign visitor to a restaurant in the US (alongside heaps of ice in your drink and the sneaky habit of leaving sales tax off the price) is that menus typically list main course dishes as ‘entrees’. But ‘entrée’  is a French word that means something like ‘entry’ or ‘entrance’, so shouldn’t it be the same thing as appetizer or hors-d’oeuvre or starter? It seems like some fundamental misunderstanding of the term, like the rectangular chocolate ‘croissants’ shamelessly marketed outside of France.

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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.”

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

‘How cool is that?’ in German, literally ‘how horny is that then?’

One reason why translation is so difficult – and why computer translations are sometimes unreliable – is that languages are more than just different lists of names for the same universal inventory of concepts. There is rarely a perfect one-to-one equivalence between expressions in different languages: the French word mouton corresponds sometimes to English sheep, and at other times to the animal’s meat, where English uses a separate word lamb or mutton.

This was one of the great insights of Ferdinand de Saussure, arguably the father of modern linguistics. It applies not only in the domain of lexical semantics (word meaning), but also to the categories which languages organise their grammars around. In English, we systematically use a different form of nouns and verbs depending on whether we are referring to a single entity or multiple entities. The way we express this distinction varies: sometimes we make the plural by adding a suffix to the singular (as with hands, oxen), sometimes we change the vowel (foot/feet) and occasionally we don’t mark the distinction on a noun at all, as with sheep (despite the best efforts of this change.org petition to change the singular to ‘shoop’). Still, we can often tell whether someone is talking about one or more sheep by the form of the agreeing verb: compare ‘the sheep are chasing a ball’ to ‘the sheep is chasing a ball’.

Some languages make more fine-grained number distinctions. The English word sheep could be translated as ovca, ovci or ovce in Slovenian, depending on whether you’re talking about one, two, or three or more animals, respectively. Linguists call this extra category between singular and plural the dual. The difference between dual and plural doesn’t show up just in nouns, but also in adjectives and verbs which agree with nouns. So to translate the sentence ‘the beautiful sheep are chasing a ball’, you need to ascertain whether there are two or more sheep, not just to translate sheep, but also beautiful and chase.

Lepi ovci lovita žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball
Lepe ovce lovijo žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball

According to some, having a dual number makes Slovenian especially suited for lovers (could this explain the Slovenian tourist board’s decision to title their latest campaign I feel sLOVEnia?). But putting such speculations aside, it’s hard to see what the point of a dual could be. We rarely need to specify whether we are talking about two or more than two entities, and on the rare occasions we do need to make this information explicit, we can easily do so by using the numeral two.

This might be part of the reason why many languages, including English, have lost the dual number. Both English and Slovenian ultimately inherited their dual from Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of many of the languages of Europe and India. Proto-Indo-European made a distinction between dual and plural number in its nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, but most of the modern languages descended from it have abandoned this three-way system in favour of a simpler opposition between singular and plural. Today, the dual survives only in two Indo-European languages, Slovenian and Sorbian, both from the Slavic subfamily.

In English the loss of the dual was a slow process, taking place over thousands of years. By the time the predecessor of English had split off from the other Germanic languages, the plural had replaced the dual everywhere except the first and second-person pronouns we and you, and verbs which agreed with them. By the earliest written English texts, it had lost the dual forms of verbs altogether, but still retained distinct pronouns for ‘we two’ and ‘you two’. By the 15th century, these were replaced by the plural forms, bringing the dual’s final demise.

Grammatical categories do not always disappear without a trace – in some languages the dual has left clues of its earlier existence, even though no functional distinction between dual and plural remains. Like English, German lost its dual, but in some Southern German dialects the dual pronoun enk (cognate with Old English inc, ‘to you two’) has survi­ved instead of the old plural form. In modern dialects of Arabic, plural forms of nouns have generally replaced duals, except in a few words mostly referring to things that usually exist in pairs, like idēn ‘hands’, where the old dual form has survived as the new plural instead. Other languages show vestiges of the dual only in certain syntactic environments. For example, Scottish Gaelic has preserved old dual forms of certain nouns only after the numeral ‘two’: compare aon chas ‘one foot’, dà chois ‘two feet’, trì casan ‘three feet’, casan ‘feet’.

Although duals seem to be on the way out in Indo-European languages, it isn’t hard to find healthy examples in other language families (despite what the Slovenian tourist board might say). Some languages have even more complicated number systems: Larike, one of the languages spoken in Indonesia, has a trial in addition to a dual, which is used for talking about exactly three items. And Lihir, one of the many languages of Papua New Guinea, has a paucal number in addition to both dual and trial, which refers to more than three but not many items. This system of five number categories (singular/dual/trial/paucal/plural) is one of the largest so far discovered. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum are languages which don’t make any number distinction in nouns, like English sheep.