Optimal Categorisation: How do we categorise the world around us?

Optimal Categorisation: How do we categorise the world around us?

People love to categorise! We do this on a daily basis, consciously and subconsciously. When we are confronted with something new we try and figure out what it is by comparing it to something we already know. Say, for instance, I saw something flying through the air – I may think to myself that the object is a bird, or I may say it is a plane based on my previous experiences of birds and planes. Of course the object may turn out to be something completely new, perhaps even superman!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s Superman!

Our love of classification runs deep in scientific enquiry. Botanists and zoologists classify plants and animals into different taxonomies. Even the humble linguist loves to classify – is this new word a noun or a verb? What about the new word zoodle that was recently added to the Merrriam Webster dctionary? Is it a thing? Or an action? Can I zoodle something or is it something I can pick up and touch? Well apparently zoodle is a noun which means ‘a long, thin strip of zucchini that resembles a string or narrow ribbon of pasta’. To be honest, I love eating zoodles, though until now I never knew what they were called!

The way people classify entities around them has become encoded in the different languages we speak in many different ways. The most obvious example that springs to mind is when we learn a new language, like French or German, we are confronted with a grammatical gender system. French has two genders – Masculine and Feminine. But German has three – Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Other languages can have many more gender distinctions. Fula, a language spoken in west and central Africa, has twenty different gender categories!

So what exactly are grammatical gender systems and how are they realised in different languages? Gender systems categorise nouns into different groups and tend to appear not on the noun itself, but on other elements in the phrase. In German, nouns are split into three different gender categories – masculine, feminine and neuter. The gender of a noun is shown by using different articles (the word ‘the’ or ‘a’) and sometimes by changing the ending of an adjective, but never on the noun itself. Thus the word for ‘the’ in German is either der, die or das depending on whether the noun in the phrase is masculine, feminine or neuter.

(1)        der       Mann
              the       man

(2)        die        Frau
              the       woman

(3)        das       Haus
              the       house

This is called ‘agreement’ as the adjectives and articles must agree with the gender of the noun. In a language with gender, each noun typically can only occur in one gender category.

Not every language has a grammatical gender system, but they are highly pervasive, with around 40% of all languages having such a system. English is quite a poor example when it comes to gender. There is no real gender agreement in English, with the exception of pronouns. We have to say: Bill walked into the grocers. He bought some apples. Where the pronoun he must agree with the gender of the noun that was previously mentioned. English uses he, she and it as the only markers of gender agreement.

Languages behave differently in how they allocate nouns to the different genders, which can be very baffling for language learners! Why in French is chair feminine, la chaise, but in German it is masculine, der Stuhl? How a language allocates nouns to its gender categories can seem somewhat arbitrary – with the exception of the words for women and men, which fall into the feminine and masculine genders being the only semantically obvious choices.

But wait! If you thought the English gender system was dull, think again! A couple of months ago my piano was being restored and when it was being moved back into the lounge the piano movers kept saying: “pull her a little bit more” and “turn her this way”. The movers used the female pronouns to describe the piano. In English, countries, pianos, ships and sometimes even cars use the feminine pronouns.

Grammatical gender isn’t the only way languages classify nouns. Some languages use words called classifiers to categorise nouns. Classifiers are similar to English measure terms, which categorise the noun in terms of its quantity, such as ‘sheet of paper’ vs. ‘pack of paper’ or ‘slice of bread vs. ‘loaf of bread’. Classifiers are found in languages all over the world and are able to categorise nouns depending on the shape, size, quantity or use of the referent, e.g. ‘animal kangaroo’ (alive) vs. ‘meat kangaroo’ (not alive). Classifier systems are very different to gender systems as nouns in a language with classifiers can appear with different classifiers depending on what property of the noun you wish to highlight. There are many different types of classifier systems, but to keep things short I am just going talk about possessive classifiers, which are mainly found in the Oceanic languages, spoken in the South Pacific.

When an item is in your possession we use possessive pronouns in English to say who the item belongs to. For instance if I say ‘my coconut’ – the possessive pronoun is my. In many Oceanic languages a noun can occur with different forms for the word my depending on how the owner intends to use it. For instance the Paamese language, spoken in Vanuatu, has four possessive classifiers and I could use the ‘drinkable’ if I was talking about my coconut that I was going to drink. I would use the ‘edible’ classifier if I was going to eat my coconut. I would use the classifier for ‘land’ if I was talking about the coconut growing in my garden. Finally, I could use the ‘manipulative’ classifier if I was going to use my coconut for some other purpose – perhaps to sit on!

(4)        ani                   mak
              coconut           my.drinkable
              ‘my coconut (that I will drink)’

(5)        ani                   ak
              coconut           my.edible
              ‘my coconut (that I will eat)’

Why do languages have different ways of categorising nouns? How do these systems develop and change over time? Are gender systems easier to learn than classifier systems? Are gender and classifiers completely different systems? Or is there more similarity to them than meets the eye? These are some of the big questions in linguistics and psychology. We are excited to start a new research project at the Surrey Morphology Group, called optimal categorisation: the origin and nature of gender from a psycholinguistic perspective, that seeks to answer these fundamental questions. Over the next three years we will talk more about these fascinating categorisation systems, explain our experimental research methods, introduce the languages and speakers under investigation, and share our findings via this blog. Just look out for the ‘Optimal Categorisation’ headings!

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.)

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.