Remember, remember

Remember, remember

A lot of the work that linguists do involves taking a language as it is spoken at a particular time, finding generalizations about how it operates, and coming up with abstractions to make sense of them. In English, for example, we identify a category of ‘number’ (with possible values ‘singular’ and ‘plural’); and we do that because in many ways the relationship between cat and cats is the same as that between mouse and mice, man and men, and so on, meaning that it would be useful to treat all of these pairings as specific examples of a more general phenomenon. We can then make the further generalization that whatever this linguistic concept of ‘number’ really is, it is not only relevant to nouns but also to verbs, and to some other items too – because English speakers all know that this cat scratches whereas these cats scratch, and you can’t have any other combination like *these cat scratch.

A black cat wearing bat wings for Halloween
This bat scratches

Once you start looking, you discover layer upon layer of generalizations like these, and you need more and more abstractions in order to take care of them all. This all gives rise to a view of language as a kind of machine built out of abstract principles, all coexisting at the same time inside a speaker’s head. On that basis, we can ask questions like: are there any principles that all languages use? Does having pattern X always go along with having pattern Y? Are there any generalizations that you can easily come up with, but that turn out not to be found anywhere? What does all this tell us about human psychology?

But that is not the only approach to language we could take. While we can point to a general principle of English to explain what is wrong with these cat, there is no similar principle explaining why we refer to the meowing, purring, scratching creature as a cat in the first place. The word cat has nothing feline about it, and the fact that we use that sequence of sounds – rather than e.g. tac – is not based on some higher-level truth that applies for all English speakers right now: instead, the ‘explanation’ is rooted in the fact that this is the word we happened to inherit from earlier generations of speakers.

Portrait photo of General Burnside, featuring his famous sideburns
General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881)

So studying the etymology of individual words serves as a good reminder that as well as an abstract, principled system residing in human minds, every language is also a contingent historical artefact, shaped by the peoples and cultures of the past.1 Nothing makes this more obvious than the continued existence of ordinary vocabulary items that commemorate individuals from centuries gone by – often without modern-day speakers even knowing it. In English, sandwiches are named after the Earl of Sandwich, wellingtons are named after the Duke of Wellington, and cardigans are named after the Earl of Cardigan; and the parallelism here says something about the locus of cultural influence in Georgian and Victorian Britain. More cryptically, sideburns owe their name to a General Burnside of the US Army, justly famed for his facial hair; algorithms celebrate the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi; and Duns Scotus, although a towering figure of medieval philosophy, now lives on in the word dunce popularized by his academic opponents.2

But which historical figure has had the greatest success of all in getting his name woven into the fabric of modern English? I reckon that, against all the odds, it could well be this Guy.

A close up of the face of Guy Fawkes, labelled Guido Fawkes, from a depiction of several conspirators together

While all English speakers are familiar with the word guy as an informal word corresponding to man, probably not that many know that it can be traced back to a historical figure from 400 years ago who, in a modern context, would be called a religious terrorist. Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators in the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of November 1605: with the aim of installing a Catholic monarchy, they planned to assassinate England’s Protestant king, James I, by blowing up Parliament with him inside. Fawkes was not one of the leaders of the conspiracy, but he was the one caught red-handed with the gunpowder; as a result, one cultural legacy of the plot’s failure is the celebration every 5th November (principally in the UK) of Guy Fawkes Night, which commonly involves letting off fireworks and setting a bonfire on which a crude effigy of Fawkes was traditionally burnt.

But how did the name of one specific Guy, for a while the most detested man in the English-speaking world, end up becoming a ubiquitous informal term applying to any man? The crucial factor is the effigy. It is unsurprising that this came to be called a Guy, ‘in honour’ of the man himself; but by the 19th century, the word was also being used to refer to actual men who dressed badly enough to earn the same label, in the way one might jokingly liken someone to a scarecrow (one British woman writing home from Madras in 1836 commented: ‘The gentlemen are all ‘rigged Tropical’,… grisly Guys some of them turn out!’). It is not a big step from there to using guy as a humorous and, eventually, just a colloquial word for men in general.3

Procession of a Guy (1864)

And of course the story does not stop there. While a guy is still almost always a man, for many speakers the plural guys can now refer to people in general, especially as a term of address. The idea that a word with such unambiguously masculine origins could ever be treated as gender-neutral has been something of a talking point in recent years, as in this article from The Atlantic about the rights and wrongs of greeting women with a friendly ‘hey guys’; but the fact that it is debated at all shows that it is happening. In fact, there is good reason to think that in some varieties of English, you-guys is being adopted as a plural form of the personal pronoun you: one piece of evidence is the existence of special possessive forms like your-guys’s, a distinctively plural version of your.

It is interesting to notice that the rise of non-standard you-guys, not unlike y’all and youse, goes some way towards ‘fixing’ an anomaly within modern English as a system: almost all nouns, and all other personal pronouns, have distinct singular and plural forms, whereas the standard language currently has the same form you doing double duty as both singular and plural. Any one of these plural versions of you might eventually win out, further strengthening the (already pretty reliable) generalization that English singulars and plurals are formally distinct. This just goes to show that the two ways of looking at language – as a synchronic system, and as a historical object – need to complement each other if we really want to understand what is going on. At the same time, it is fun to think of linguists of the distant future researching the poorly attested Ancient English language of the twenty-second century, and wondering where the mysterious personal pronoun yugaiz came from. Would anyone who didn’t know the facts dare to suggest that the second syllable of this gender-neutral plural pronoun came from the given name of a singular male criminal, executed many centuries before?

  1. For example, cat itself seems to be traceable back to an ancient language of North Africa, reflecting the fact that cats were household animals among the Egyptians for millennia before they became popular mousers in Europe. []
  2. Of course, it is no accident that all of these examples feature men. Relatively few women in history have had the opportunity to turn into items of English vocabulary; in fact, fictional female characters – largely from classical mythology – have had much greater success, giving us e.g. calypso, rhea and Europe. []
  3. A similar thing also happened to the word joker in the 19th century, though it didn’t get as far as guy: that suggests that sentences containing guy would once have had the same ring to them as Who’s this joker?; and then some joker turns up and says… []
Who are the Germans?

Who are the Germans?

You may be familiar with the fact that the Germans refer to themselves as Deutsch and their country as Deutschland, and we find this term also in most other Germanic languages, such as Dutch Duits or Swedish Tysk, as well as Italian Tedesco. However, there are many other names in other parts of Europe. The French and Spaniards call them Allemand/Alemán, as do the Welsh with Almaenaidd; the various Slavic languages share a different term again, seen in e.g. Polish Niemiec or Russian Nemets. In the Baltic the Lithuanians and Latvians have their own terms not seen anywhere else (Vokietis and Vācijis respectively), while in Finland and Estonia they call them Saksi. We could also add some assorted forms from smaller languages, such as Miksas from Old Prussian, an extinct sister language to Lithuanian and Latvian.

An aerial shot of the meeting of the Rhine and Mosel rivers at Koblenz
The Deutsches Eck, or ‘German corner’, in Koblenz

Now, it is not unusual for inhabitants of a country to refer to themselves and their country with a different form from that used by outsiders (when was the last time you called China Zhongguo or India Bharat?). What is particularly notable about the German case, however, is the diversity even among its immediate neighbours. Contrast e.g. France, where everyone uses some form of derivative of Latin Francia (after the Germanic tribe the Franks), though the Greeks still call it Gallia after the Roman province of Gaul. Similarly, most call Spain some form derived from Hispania and Italy one from Italia. So, this diversity in names for the Germans requires some explanation.

Whence this plethora of terms? A consideration of history leads us to our answer. Recall that the modern country of Germany is a relatively recent creation, only being officially united in the mid 19th century by Otto von Bismarck. While there was a political entity that occupied the area in the form of the Holy Roman Empire it was only a relatively loose collection of small states, and prior to that the area was inhabited by a number of distinct Germanic-speaking peoples.

As a result, some of these names derive from the individual groups or tribes which lived in part of the area: so in the Western Romance and Brittonic Celtic languages the name of the Alemanni tribe was applied to the Germans as a whole. The same process occurred in the northeast with the Baltic Finns and the Saxons: not only were the Saxons the nearest group, but also, due to a combination of the Hanseatic League controlling trade through the Baltic and the anti-pagan crusading of the Teutonic Knights (another Deutsch-relative, see below), many Saxons came to settle in the Eastern Baltic, with some of their descendants still living in Estonia and Latvia today. Some small varieties show different groups again: some of the smaller Germanic varieties use a form derived from Prussian, after the state which ended up uniting the German peoples.

English takes a slightly different approach, deriving the term Germans from the Latin name of the region; Germania. This term included two Roman provinces covering much of modern-day Belgium, Switzerland, parts of eastern France and the Rhineland in modern Germany, as well as applying to the larger swathe of barbarian territories further east. Interestingly, several languages use this term to refer to Germany the country despite using a different term to refer to the Germans: Italian and Russian are the most notable examples.

We find a different source again with the Slavic Nemets terms. There is again some dispute in origin, but the general consensus is that it derives from a Slavic root *němъ meaning ‘mute’, itself of contested origin. The meaning likely was not ‘mute’ necessarily, but rather simply denoted that these groups were not Slavic-speaking. This puts in a similar group to the word ‘barbarian’ in fact, which derives from a Greek word meaning ‘those who go bar-bar/talk incomprehensibly’. Similar origins to do with ‘talking’ are likely behind the Baltic Vok-/Vāc-/Miks- forms as well.

Finally, what of German ‘Deutsch’? Well, as is the case with many endonyms it is a relatively simple and self-referential etymology. It ultimately derives from an Indo-European root *tewteh2 meaning simply ‘people’, which shows up also in e.g. Irish túath with the same meaning. This form may also be the source of Romance forms such as Spanish todo or French tout meaning ‘everyone/everything’. This root even survives in Slavic, in Russian giving the form čužoj, meaning ‘foreign, alien’. This ended up as Germanic *þeudō, which through an adjective formation *þiudiskaz meaning something like ‘of the people’ ultimately leads to the modern German form. This form also gives Latin Teutones, a likely Celtic or Germanic tribe which lived in the North German region and was encountered by the Romans early in their expansion northwards.

So, as with many other terms, such as the aubergine words which have been discussed here before, the differences between languages are reflective of a complex history. In this case the wide array of disparate terms of different etymologies reflects the complex history of the entity involved, specifically the absence of a country that even called itself ‘Germany’ until the modern era, as well as the extent to which different groups of ethnic Germans have moved about in Europe.

Is twote the past of tweet?

Is twote the past of tweet?

Have you ever encountered the form twote as a past tense of the verb to tweet? It is something of a meme on Twitter, and a live example of analogy (and its mysteries). However surprising the form may sound if you have never encountered it, it has been the prescribed one for a long time:

Ten years later, the question popped up among a linguisty Twitter crowd, where a poll again elected twote as the correct form:

It is clear that this unusual form replacing tweeted is some sort of form, but why specifically twote? I saw here and there a reference to the verb to yeet, a slang verb very popular on the internet and meaning more or less “to throw”. Rather than a regular form yeeted, the past for to yeet is often taken to be yote. The choice of an irregular form is probably meant to produce a comedic effect.

This, precisely, is analogical production: creating a new form (twote) by extending a contrast seen in other words (yeet/yote). Analogy is a central topic in my research. I have been trying to answer questions such as: How do we decide what form to use ? How difficult is it to guess? How does this contribute to language change?

But first, have you answered the poll?

What is the past tense of “to tweet”?

To investigate further why we would say twote rather than tweeted, I took out my PhD software (Qumin). Based on 6064 examples of English verbs1, I asked Qumin to produce and rank possible past forms of tweet2. To do so, it read through examples to construct analogical rules (I call them patterns), then evaluated the probability of each rule among the words which sound like tweet.

Qumin found four options3: tweeted (/twiːtɪd/), by analogy with 32 similar words, such as greet/greeted; twet (/twɛt/), by analogy with words like meet/met; tweet (/twiːt/) by analogy with words like beat/beat, finally twote (/twəˑʊt/), by analogy with yeet. Figure 1 provides their ranking (in ascending order) according to Qumin, with the associated probabilities.

Twote 0.028 < tweet 0.056 < twet 0.056 < tweeted 0.86
Figure 1. Qumin’s ranking of the probability for potential past forms of to tweet

As we can see, Qumin finds twote to be the least likely solution. This is a reasonable position overall (indeed, tweeted is the regular form), so why would both the official Twitter account and many Twitter users (including several linguists) prefer twote to tweeted?

But Qumin has no idea what is cool, a factor which makes yeet/yote (already a slang word, used on the internet) a particularly appealing choice. Moreover, Qumin has no access to semantic similarity, which could also play a role. Verbs that have similar meanings can be preferred as support for the analogy. In the current case, both speak/spoke and write/wrote have similar pasts to twote, which might help make it sound acceptable. Some speakers seem to be aware of these factors, as seen in the tweet above.

What about usage?

Are most speakers aware of the variant twote and using it? Before concluding that the model is mistaken, we need to observe what speakers actually use. Indeed, only usage truly determines “what is the past of tweet”. For this, I turn to (automatically) sifting through Twitter data.

Speakers must choose between tweeted or twote: what a dilemna !

A few problems: first, the form “tweet” is also a noun, and identical to the present tense of the verb. Second, “twet” is attested (sometimes as “twett”), but mostly as a synonym for the noun “tweet” (often in a playful “lolcat” style), or as a present verbal form, with a few exceptions, usually of a meta nature (see tweets below). I couldn’t find a way to automatically distinguish these from past forms while also managing within the Twitter API limits. Thus, I left out both from the search entirely. This leaves only our two main contestants.


I extracted as many recent tweets containing tweeted or twote as Twitter would let me — around 300 000 tweets twotten between the 26th of August and the 3rd of September. 186777 tweets remained after refining the search4. Of these, less than 5000 contain twote:

There were more than 180000 occurences of tweeted and less than 5000 of twote in the past few days.
Counts of tweets containing either of two possible pasts for the verb “to tweet” in the past few days on twitter (mentions excluded).

As you can see, the tweeted bar completely dwarfs the other one. However amusing and fitting twote may be, and despite @Twitter’s prescription (but conforming with Qumin’s prediction), the regular past form is by far the most used, even on the platform itself, which lends itself to playful and impactful statements. This easily closes this particular English Past Tense Debate. If only it were always this simple!

  1. The English verb data I used includes only the present and past tenses, and is derived from the CELEX 2 dataset, as used in my PhD dissertation and manually supplemented by the forms for “yeet”. The CELEX2 dataset is commercial, and I can not distribute it. []
  2. The code I used for this blog post is available here, but not the dataset itself. Note that for scientific reasons I won’t discuss here, this software works on sounds, not orthography. []
  3. One last possibility has been ignored by this polite software, a form which follows the pattern of sit/sat. I see it used from time to time for its comic effect, but it does not seem at all frequent enough to be a real contestant (and I do not recommend searching this keyword on Twitter). []
  4. Since there has been a lot of discussion on the correct form, I exclude all clear cases of mentions. I count as mentions any occurrences wrapped in quotations, co-occurring with alternate forms, mentioning past tense, or with a hashtag. Moreover, with the forms in –ed, it is likely that the past participle would be identical, but for twote, the past participle could well be twotten. To reduce the bias due to the presence of more past participles in the usage of tweeted, I also exclude all contexts where the word is preceded by the auxiliary forms has, have, had, is, are, was, were, possibly separated by an adverb. []
History on the Ground

History on the Ground

Linguists spend most of the year stuck to the computer monitor: analyzing data, reading, or writing papers. But the time comes when we have to roll up our sleeves and find our sense of adventure. Personally, this is my favorite time of the year! Going on a linguistic field trip often involves living in a local community and immersing yourself in a completely different culture. You learn so much about the customs, traditions, beliefs… And, of course, you learn a lot about the language.

A sunny day, with a number of houses amongst trees on a hillside.
South-Eastern Serbia, one of our fieldwork destinations

Linguistic field trips are essential for researchers who work with poorly documented languages. We prepare questionnaires, design experiments, and go to the local community to collect data that we need for our research. Here, at SMG, we do fieldwork a lot. You can get a glimpse of this fascinating part of a linguist’s life in some of the previous posts. Check out, for example, this beautiful piece on Archi, this account of cultural and language diversity in the South Pacific, and the most recent post about intricate ways to express respect in  Vanuatu.

However, there seems to be a limitation. What should you do if you study the history of some phenomenon? If you are not only interested in how the system is now, but also in how it was before? We cannot jump into a time machine and reemerge in the 15th-century world to run our questionnaires there. So surely historical texts and comparative grammars are the only way to go, and fieldwork is not useful here… Or is it? Well, it turns out that a field trip can be very helpful for extrapolating historical data, but only if you are lucky with the location. Fortunately, I am!

A low-lying pile of stones on a roadside with a line of hills in the background
My lucky place

In the project “Declining case: Inflectional loss in progress”, my colleagues and I study dialects of Serbian and Bulgarian. These two languages have been posing linguists a headache for more than a century already. Although they are quite closely related and are spoken side by side, they have a lot of significant differences in the grammatical structure. To name some, (1) Bulgarian has articles (like English a and the), while Serbian does not, (2) Serbian uses infinitives, while Bulgarian does not, and (3) Serbian nouns have a fully-fledged morphological case system, while Bulgarian nouns do not inflect for case at all. People still argue about the exact reasons for this, but there is a general consensus that Bulgarian has undergone certain changes because it is located in the so-called Balkan linguistic area. A cool thing is that there is no sharp border between the innovative grammatical system of Bulgarian and the conservative system of Serbian. Rather, in the geographical zone on both sides of the Serbian-Bulgarian border, we see a variety of intermediate systems.

A map of eastern Serbia and Western Bulgaria, with an area of hatching straddling the border between the two countries

Let us see how it works on the example of the case inflection, which we study in our project. Cases are used in some languages to mark grammatical relations, such as subject or object. Serbian does it in this way, while Bulgarian uses prepositions instead. Take a look at this table, where the word ‘Cyprus’ appears in different contexts. See how in Serbian this word changes the ending depending on the context and in Bulgarian it keeps the same form? Just like in English!

Serbian Bulgarian Translation
vole Kipar xaresvat Kipâr ‘They like Cyprus’
stanovništvo Kipra naselenieto na Kipâr ‘The population of Cyprus’
pomažu Kipru pomagat na Kipâr ‘They help Cyprus’
upravljaju Kiprom upravljat Kipâr ‘They govern in Cyprus’

Overall, Serbian has six cases, while Bulgarian uses one general case form. So, what do we see in the transitional zone? Well, depending on where exactly we look, we find different systems. For example, in a more western part of the transitional area, we can meet a system where they use three cases, while in a more eastern part we can find a two-case system.

Serbian Transitional system 1 Transitional system 2 Bulgarian
Case 1 Case 1 Case 1 No case
Case 2 Case 2 Case 2
Case 3 Case 3
Case 4
Case 5
Case 6

What does it mean? It looks like standard Bulgarian at some point in its development lost its case marking on nouns completely, while the dialects in the transitional zone underwent this change to a smaller degree. The further west we move, the less this change affected the dialect. This situation created an unprecedented opportunity for us. We can go to different places in the transitional zone, compare their systems to each other, and use this comparison to create a historical model of the loss of case. We do not need a time machine, we have the different stages of this process living side by side today!

This summer, for example, I went to the municipality of Brus, which is located in Southern Serbia. There I witnessed the initial stages of case decline. People in Brus still use all six cases, but sometimes replace one with another, or insert a preposition in phrases where standard Serbian would not have it. While interviewing people, I learned about some fascinating traditions in this area. For example, one of the oldest customs at the wedding is to put an apple at the highest point in the backyard, and the groom has to hit the apple with a gun.  If he fails to do so, he is not going to get his bride!

An apple hanging by a thread from the bough of a tree.

Apparently, in earlier times, a wedding would last for several days and involve all sorts of rituals. Unfortunately, most of them are lost now. It would be so nice to see how a wedding was celebrated then! But for this, I am afraid, we do need a time machine.

Careful who you climb a tree near: Respect and taboo in Vanuatu

Careful who you climb a tree near: Respect and taboo in Vanuatu

One humid afternoon, during breadfruit season in North Ambrym, my language teacher, Isaiah, and I were on the lookout for some ripe breadfruit to roast for lunch. Our path led past his nephew, George’s, house. Isaiah saw some ripe breadfruit in the tree next to where George was sitting on his veranda. Isaiah wanted to get the breadfruit, but said that because George was there, he couldn’t, and we would have to find some others instead. I asked if it was George’s breadfruit tree, and that’s why he didn’t want to take it when George was around. Isaiah said no; rather, the problem was if we went up the tree when George was underneath, then he would have to pay a small fine to George. Over a lunch of roasted and pounded breadfruit called wuwu, Isaiah explained further. It was to do with respect and taboo.

Respect in language takes many forms. There is the tu/vous distinction in French, where tu is the informal form of ‘you (singular)’ and is used with friends and those younger than you, whereas vous ‘you (plural)’ is formal and is used with those elder or senior than you and for people you don’t know. Similar distinctions are found with the German du/Sie. English doesn’t have a grammatical distinction in politeness like this, but uses different sentence structures to express politeness: compare pass me the salt please with could you please pass me the salt, or the even more polite would you be so kind as to pass me the salt please.

Now let’s get back to eating that heavy sticky coconut-cream-slathered wuwu with Isaiah. He told me that you must respect certain members of your extended family by showing physical politeness. Respect is translated as tengnean in the language of North Ambrym. The people who you must respect are your taboo family, described by the verb gorrne. Respect for your taboo family on Ambrym is realised in different ways – through physical restrictions and through language. The family members who command the most respect are your sister’s son or your husband’s brother.

The physical restrictions with a taboo relative include:

  • You can’t eat in front of them
  • You can’t joke with them
  • You can’t climb over them, or be physically higher than them
  • You can’t sleep in front of them
  • You can’t enter their house

But what about restrictions on language? The normal translation of ‘hello’ in North Ambrym would be neng le, which literally means ‘you there’, using neng, the singular form of ‘you’. But you are not allowed to say this to your taboo relatives. Instead, you must say gōmōro le using the dual form of ‘you’, meaning ‘you two there’, even though you are addressing one person. This is similar to French or German mentioned earlier. However, North Ambrym, like many Oceanic languages, not only has singular and dual, but also paucal, meaning ‘a few’, and plural pronouns. Of these possibilities, the dual is used for respect, not the plural as in French or German.

Respect is not confined to pronouns such as ‘you’; people also have to avoid using certain words in front of their taboo relatives. For example, if your sister’s son came, and you invited him to sit down and have some food, you would have to avoid certain verbs, such as taa ‘sit’ or ngene ‘eat’. You would use lingi ‘put’ instead of ‘sit’ and tewene ‘make’ instead of ‘eat’ so the whole sentence would be rephrased as ‘you-two come and put your-dual-self here and make the food’.

You must also avoid certain words concerning body parts, specifically words relating to parts of the head. Normally when talking about body parts in North Ambrym you would use a bound noun – a type of noun which specifies who owns the body part – so the word for ‘tooth’ would be lowo-n ‘his/her tooth’, lowo-m ‘your tooth’, or lowo-ng ‘my tooth’. The end of the noun (-n/-m/-ng in this example) indicates whose tooth it is. But these words are not allowed when talking in front of your taboo relatives. Instead, you could use a free form of the noun, such as leo ‘tooth’.

Another avoidance strategy is to change a verb to a noun using a special nominalising prefix a- that appears on the beginning of the word and turns it into a noun. The verb itself is also reduplicated. For example, the verb ta ‘cut’ can be turned into a noun atata ‘tooth’ (literally ‘thing for cutting’).

Finally, a more idiomatic expression could be used; in this case, tooth is replaced by which literally translates as ‘limpet shell (traditionally used as a vegetable grater)’ or teye ‘clam shell/axe’ as a way of avoiding the bound form for ‘tooth’.

Here’s a handy table to help you get your head (or just head!) around avoiding the bound forms.

Bound Free Nominalisation Idiomatic
rralnye-n ‘his, her ear’ teleng ‘ear’ arorongta ‘thing for listening, headphones’ harrlengleng ‘listening’
lowon ‘his, her tooth’ leo ‘tooth’ atata ‘thing for cutting’ ‘limpet shell (used as a grater)’

teye ‘clam shell, axe’

metan ‘his, her eye’  marr ‘eye’ ateter ‘thing for seeing, glasses’ hal ‘road, path’

glas ‘glasses’

guhun ‘his, her nose’  kuu ‘nose’ akunuknuu ‘thing for smelling’
woulun ‘his, her hair’ wovyul ‘hair’ ōrr ge mre ‘place which is above’

As time passes, so do traditions, and the older generations mourn the loss of respecting their taboo relatives. They complain that younger generations now joke with their taboo relatives or put their arms around them. This art of speaking is being lost and the physical taboos are being eroded. However, this change is not new and has been going on for several generations. Some of the more extreme forms of respect are almost out of living memory. One of the village elders, Ephraim, recounted a memory of seeing how his grandmother, Mataran, displayed respect when returning from the garden, with her vegetables one day. When she approached her home, she saw that one of her husband’s brothers was there. She came close, then crawled the rest of the way past her husband’s brother with her basket of vegetables over her shoulder, until she was in her doorway before standing up again.

So the next time you are in Vanuatu, take care when climbing trees and make sure you know which of your relatives are nearby!

The Story of Aubergine

The Story of Aubergine

As the University of Surrey’s foremost (and indeed only) blog about languages and how they change, MORPH is enjoyed by literally dozens of avid readers from all over the world. But so far these multitudes have not received an answer to the one big linguistic question besetting modern society. Namely, what on earth is going on with the name of the plant that British English calls the aubergine, but that in other times and places has been called eggplant, melongene, brown-jolly, mad-apple, and so much more? Where do all these weird names come from?

I think the time has finally come to put everyone’s mind at rest. Aubergines may not seem particularly eggy, melonish, jolly or mad, but lots of the apparently diverse and whimsical terms for them used in English and other languages are actually connected – and in trying to understand how, we can get some insight about how vocabulary spreads and develops over time. It turns out that one powerful impulse behind language change is the fact that speakers like to ‘make sense’ of things that do not inherently make sense. What do I mean by that? Stay tuned to find out.

Long purple aubergine

To get one not-so-linguistic point out of the way first, there is no real mystery about eggplant (the word generally used in the US and some other English-speaking countries, dating back to the 18th century), which is not linked to anything else I am talking about here. It is hard to imagine mistaking the large, purple fruit in the photo above for any kind of egg, but that is not the only kind of aubergine in existence. There are cultivars with a much more oval shape, and even ones with white rather than purple skin: pictures like this, showing an imposter alongside some real eggs, make it obvious how the word eggplant was able to catch on.

Small white eggshaped aubergine in an eggbox between two real eggs

Meanwhile, aubergine, which is borrowed from French as you might expect, has a much more complex history, and can be traced back over many centuries, hopping from language to language with minor adjustments along the way. The plant is not native to the US, Britain or France, but to southern or eastern Asia, and investigating the history of the word will eventually take us back in the right geographical direction. Aubergine got into French from the Catalan albergínia, whose first syllable gives us a clue as to where we should look next: as in many al- words in the Iberian peninsula (e.g. Spanish algodón ‘cotton’), it reflects the Arabic definite article. So, along with medieval Spanish alberengena, the Catalan item is from Arabic al-bādhinjān ‘the aubergine’, where only the bādhinjān bit will be relevant from here on. This connection makes sense, because the Arab conquest had such an impact on the history of Iberia. And more generally, we have the Arabs to thank for the spread of aubergine cultivation into the West, and also – indirectly – for this charming illustration in a 14th-century Latin translation of an Arabic health manual:

Illustration featuring three people in front of a stand of aubergine plants
Page from the 14th c. Tacuinum Sanitatis (Vienna), SN2644

But bādhinjān is not Arabic in origin either: it was borrowed into Arabic from its neighbour, Persian. In turn, Persian bādenjān is a borrowing from Sanskrit vātiṅgaṇa… and Sanskrit itself got this from some other language of India, probably belonging to the unrelated Dravidian family. The word for aubergine in Tamil, vaṟutuṇai, is an example of how the word developed inside Dravidian itself.

That is as far back as we are able to trace the word. But the journey has already been quite convoluted. To recap, a Dravidian item was borrowed into Sanskrit, from there into Persian, from there into Arabic, from there into Catalan, from there into French, and from there into English – and in the course of that process, it managed to go from something along the lines of vaṟutuṇai to the very different aubergine, although the individual changes were not drastic at any stage. The whole thing illustrates how developments in language can go with cultural change, in that words sometimes spread together with the things they refer to. In the same way, tea reached Europe via two routes originating in different Chinese dialect zones, and that is what gave rise to the split between ‘tea’-type and ‘chai’-type words in European languages:

[Map created by Wikimedia user Poulpy, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped for use here]
This still leaves a lot of aubergine words unaccounted for. But now that we have played the tape backwards all the way from aubergine back to something-like-vaṟutuṇai, we can run it forwards again, and see what different historical paths we could follow instead. For example, Arabic had an influence all over the Mediterranean, and so it is no surprise to see that about a thousand years ago, versions of bādhinjān start appearing in Greece as well as Iberia. Greek words could not begin with b- at the time, so what we see instead are things like matizanion and melintzana, and melitzana is the Greek for aubergine to this day. There is no good pronunciation-based reason for the Greek word to have ended up beginning with mel-, but what must have happened is that faced with this foreign string of sounds, speakers thought it would be sensible for it to sound more like melanos ‘dark, black’, to match its appearance. That is, they injected a bit of meaning into what was originally just an arbitrary label.

Meanwhile the word turns up in medieval Latin as melongena (giving the antiquated English melongene) and in Italian as melanzana, and a similar thing happened: here mel- has nothing to do with the dark colour of the fruit, but it did remind speakers of the word for ‘apple’, mela. We know this because melanzana was subsequently reinterpreted as the expression mela insana, ‘insane apple’. To produce this interpretation, it must have helped that the aubergine (like the equally suspicious tomato) belongs to the ‘deadly’ nightshade family, whose traditional European representatives are famously toxic. So, again, something that was originally just a word, with no deeper meaning inside, was reimagined so that it ‘made sense’. As a direct translation, English started calling the aubergine a mad-apple in the 1500s.

Parody of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters, reading "You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps"
Poster from a 16th c. aubergine factory

There are many more developments we could trace. For example, I have not talked at all about the branch of this aubergine ‘tree’ that entered the Ottoman Empire and from there spread widely across Europe and Asia. But instead I will return now to the Arab conquest of Iberia. This brought bādhinjān into Portuguese in the form beringela, and then when the Portuguese started making conquests of their own, versions of beringela appeared around the world. Notably, briñjal was borrowed into Gujarati and brinjal into Indian English, meaning that something-like-vaṟutuṇai ultimately came full circle, returning in this heavy disguise to its ancestral home of India. And to end on a particularly happy note, when the same form brinjal reached the Caribbean, English speakers there saw their own opportunity to ‘make sense’ of it – this time by adapting it into brown-jolly.

Brown-jolly is pretty close to the mark in terms of colour, and it is much better marketing than mela insana. But from the linguist’s point of view, they both reinforce a point which has often been made: speakers are always alive to the possibility that the expressions they use are not just arbitrary, but can be analysed, even if that means coming up with new meanings which were not originally there. To illustrate the power of ‘folk etymology’ of this kind, linguists traditionally turn to the word asparagus, reinterpreted in some varieties of English as sparrow-grass. But perhaps it is time for us to give the brown-jolly its moment in the sun.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

How do we talk about time? This may seem a simple question with a simple answer; we are all human, surely we all experience time the same way? That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that all languages organise the time in the same way. This is arguably most apparent when it comes to talking about the days either side of the present day. We all live on earth and so therefore all experience a day-night cycle; all can understand how one day follows after another. However, the words we use to locate events in this cycle can vary wildly in their construction.

Let’s take a look at two languages, Scottish Gaelic and Sylheti, and see how their systems compare with that of English. All three of these languages belong to the same family, Indo-European, so it might be assumed that they show many similarities. And yet each still exhibits significant variation in how they talk about time.

Firstly, Scottish Gaelic. Like English, it distinguishes between ‘yesterday’, ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’. The terms each show a consistent structure with a frozen prefix a(n)- with three morphologically opaque roots; an-dè, an-diugh and a-màireach respectively. Furthermore none of the Gaelic terms has any connection with the normal word for ‘day’, latha/là. Compare English, where yester-day and to-day both feature the word ‘day’, while to-day and to-morrow both feature a frozen prefix to- (historically a demonstrative). Additionally, there are also single terms for ‘last night’ as well as ‘tonight’ with a-raoir and a-nochd respectively, again with no immediately apparent connection with the normal term for ‘night’ oidhche. On the other hand, there is no single term for ‘tomorrow night’ so the compound expression oidhche a-màireach is used instead. There are also additional terms for ‘the day after tomorrow’ and ‘the day before yesterday’, an-earar and a bhòn-dè respectively, while the latter has a counterpart in a bhòn-raoir for ‘the night before last’. English is also reported to have had similar terms in the form of ereyesterday and overmorrow, though these have fallen out of usage in the modern day.

Gaelic is also in another respect slightly more regular than English in how it refers to parts of the day. While in English we have a split between ‘this morning’ and ‘yesterday morning’, Gaelic instead uses madainn an-diugh and madainn an-dè, where the former literally translates to ‘today morning’.

But all this is not really that surprising. All that really distinguishes Scottish Gaelic from English in this respect is which time categories are given single indivisible terms rather than compositional expressions; the fundamental organisation of the system is still broadly similar to English. To see a far more radically different system of organising time words, we will now turn to Sylheti, an Indo-Aryan language spoken in north-eastern Bangladesh by around 9-10 million and by perhaps a further 1 million in diaspora, including by most of the British Bangladeshi community.

Here, instead of distinguishing between ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, we instead find a single term xail(ku), contrasting with aiz(ku) meaning ‘today’ (the -ku is a suffix which can optionally appear on a lot of ‘time’ words, such as onku ‘now’ or bianku ‘(this) morning’). The two senses of ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ can be distinguished by combining them with goto ‘past’ and agami ‘future’, but just as commonly instead the distinction is solely marked by whether the verb is in the past or future tense, e.g. xailku ami amar bondu dexsi ‘I saw my friend yesterday’ vs. xailku ami amar bondu dexmu ‘I will see my friend tomorrow’.

This is not an isolated instance in the language, either, but in fact represents a consistent trend. So in the same manner foru can be either ‘the day before yesterday’ or ‘the day after tomorrow’ depending on context and toʃu the same but at one day further removed.

Table of day and night terms in english, Gaelic and Sylheti respectively
Visualising the systems

Nor is Sylheti unique in using this kind of system; it is also found in many parts of New Guinea, for example. Yimas, a language of northern New Guinea, also uses the same term ŋarŋ for both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, urakrŋ for ‘two days removed’ and so on, all the way up to manmaɲcŋ for ‘five days removed’. Once again whether the reference is to the past or future is carried by the choice of tense on the verb, though Yimas has a far more complex system than that seen in Sylheti, for instance distinguishing a near past -na(n) from a more remote past -ntuk~ntut.

Sylheti also has more fine grained distinctions for parts of the day than either English or Scottish Gaelic. For example, if one wishes to say ‘in the morning’ one must decide whether one is talking about the early morning (ʃoxal) or the mid to late morning (bian). Additionally, while forms such as ‘yesterday/tomorrow afternoon’, ‘the night before last/after next’ and ‘yesteray/tomorrow morning’ use compound expressions (xail madan, foru rait and xail bian/ʃoxal respextively), to express ‘this morning/this afternoon/tonight’ the word for the part of the day (perhaps with the oblique suffix -e or a time suffix -ku) is sufficient by itself, for example amra ʃoxale Sylheʈ aisi ‘We arrived in Sylhet this morning’ or ami raitku dua xotram ‘I am praying tonight’ (with rait ‘night’).

This is just one small part of the temporal vocabulary, and only looking at representatives from a single family, and yet already we see great variation in how time is organised and discussed. It is not so much that these groups have fundamentally different conceptions of time, as these languages share a common ancestor and are only separated by a few thousand years. Instead, it is a testament to the fluidity of time itself, resulting in the words used to refer to it easily shifting in meaning and being reorganised over generations.

Of the saintly and sinister: words for the left-handed

Of the saintly and sinister: words for the left-handed

A couple of years ago, when I was still living in North Yorkshire but shortly to be moving further south, I attended a function at one of the final services conducted by my mother (an ordained priest in the Church of England) in a rural parish church. Afterwards, over a goodly spread of finger-food (what in clerical circles is commonly referred to as a bun-fight), I was in conversation with one of my mother’s then parishioners, a local farmer, who was much interested in my studies in linguistics. He tasked me with sourcing the etymology of an unusual local term – cuddy-wifter, which I was told refers to a left-handed person. I’ll propose an etymology of this specific term later, but first let’s have a short discussion of terms for “left hand” across languages.

A close-up of the left hand of a bronze statue. The hand is a polished golden colour, in contrast to the rest of the statue which is a dark brown colour.
Rarely has the left hand been portrayed in such good light

Firstly, it is important to note that many languages do not really make use of such ego-centric terms as “left” or “right” much, if at all. In these languages instead speakers opt for a geocentric system, locating and orienting objects and themselves by their relationship to either the points of the compass or in some cases the landscape. This has been most famously documented in a number of Paman languages of Queensland, Australia. For example, a speaker of Guugu Yimidhirr might refer to their nagaalngurr “east side” or guwaalngurr “west side” rather than to their left or right. Aspects of this conception of space are also found widely in languages across the Pacific and beyond.

And where languages do have a term for “left”, they very frequently differ on what the term should be. Even only looking at the Indo-European family we find a multiplicity of terms: besides English left we find forms as clì or ceàrr in Scottish Gaelic; izquierdo in Spanish; majtë in Albanian; levyj in Russian; chap in Persian: and bau in Sylheti. So many different words, and these languages are all related!

From whence then English left? We can find cognates in nearby parts of West Germanic, such as West Frisian lafter/lofter and Dutch lucht/luft, but none further afield meaning “left”. These forms derive ultimately from a term meaning “palsy, paralysis”, which might perhaps derive from a Proto-Indo-European verb *lewp- “peel, break” which would also through another derivation gives the English verb lop. A similar pattern appears to hold in closely related German links which, though it doesn’t appear directly related and is of somewhat unclear etymology, the Icelandic form linur meaning “weak, feeble” indicates likely a similar semantic development.

On the other end of the scale, terms for the left hand or left-handedness can often end up taking on other meanings. Notably, this has happened twice in English borrowing from two different Romance languages, Latin and French. In the case of the Latin term sinister, it now refers to someone or something that is seen as being shadowing and potentially malicious. In the case of the French term gauche (ultimately derived from the same root as English walk), it instead refers to a lack of fashionability and perhaps a degree of awkwardness.

We can therefore draw two main conclusions from the above. Firstly, the concepts “left” and “right” are not essential to how we as humans conceptualise ourselves and the wider world; many languages do without, and those which have words for them seem to be happy to churn out old forms for new ones (compare e.g. the near-universal agreement on a form deriving from something like *mātēr for “mother” in the various Indo-European languages mentioned above). Secondly, there is a clear tendency for the left hand to carry a negative connotation, either directly due to being the non-dominant hand for most people (as indicated by the various etymologies referring to physical weakness in Germanic) or through some more cultural taboos (as seen by the development of the Romance terms sinister and gauche in English).

What then of cuddy-wifter? Well, the exact origin is not given specifically in any source I could find, but with a bit of digging uncovers the following. The “wifter” part is easier to pin down, as at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary (the pre-eminent source on English etymology) “wift” comes up sometime in the 16th century as a verb meaning something like “to turn aside” or “to drift”, which, going by the pattern set by the above data, seems a reasonable source (at least in part) for a term for “left hand”.

The cuddy part is the more problematic element. Cuddy is an affectionate form of Cuthbert, the pre-eminent saint of the North-East of England, and crops up in a number of terms from the region, notably cuddy ducks to refer to the eider ducks said to have been particularly beloved by the saint, as well as the ponies used in the many coal mines of the area, which were referred to simply as cuddies. However, the connection with the saint seems suspect from the off, as there doesn’t appear to be any kind of source which would attest to the saint being left-handed. Certainly, the Venerable Bede, that great chronicler of Anglo-Saxon England, makes no mention of anything of the kind, in contrast to his willingness to comment on much else of the saint’s physical characteristics.

a single eider duck drake floating on the surface of the sea
Can you blame Cuthbert really?

There also exists a sense of “cuddy” meaning “a stupid fellow” which perhaps would tie into the negativity often associated with left-handedness. However, the OED only provides examples from the mid-nineteenth century and appears to derive from the “pony” usage (in a similar manner to the development of ass more broadly in English), which does somewhat problematise this as an etymology. In particular, the structure of cuddy-wifter this would require seems oddly-formed, akin to something like ass-drifter, and the timespan of a century for this form to arise and spread south of the Tees, well outside the coalfield regions where the pit-pony was a fact of life, is probably a bit of a stretch.

Perhaps then we should look elsewhere for a source. Old English appears to provide no obvious sources, so perhaps we should look to Celtic for an origin. And a tantalising hint we find: Welsh chwith “left” or “wrong” and Irish and Scottish Gaelic ciotach “left-handed” or “clumsy” (there’s that negativity again), pointing to a Proto-Celtic *skittos, which to my mind looks like it might have a relationship at some point with English skew, though that is far from proven at this stage. I would propose, then, that this word was borrowed into a northern variety of English (perhaps from Cumbric, the extinct Celtic language of Cumbria) as something like *cwithy~*cuthy, and then later on it was folded into the cuddy form, with no actual direct connection with the saint at all.

So, while admittedly I haven’t been able to come up with a definite answer to that question I was set at that bun-fight a couple of years ago, I can at least tell a story rich in history and culture, revealing much both of the linguistic landscape of Britain and of our historic attitudes towards those who are left-handed.

Word games

Word games

You have very certainly heard about Wordle, the viral word game by powerlanguage, recently bought by the NYT. In the original game, a 5-letter English word is secretly chosen every day, which players attempt to guess in 6 tries. Each guess is answered by colored cues: green for “correct letter in the correct place”, orange for “correct letter in the wrong place”, gray for “incorrect letter”. The concept of wordle is not new, and resembles games such as Jotto, Lingo, and mastermind.

 A sample game of Mastermind.
A sample game of Mastermind.

While some may have been annoyed by the endless stream of three-color square emojis reporting players’ success and inundating social media I have been delighted by the productivity displayed by the many variants: in hello wordl, play an endless number of games; in dordle, quordle, octodle guess several words at once; in squardle, play in two dimensions; in nerdle, guess a mathematical formula; in absurdle, the games does its best to get away from your guesses, etc.

Quordle lets you play 4 games at once
Quordle lets you play 4 games at once

Some derived games transform the game mechanics, but the simplest variation is to switch the vocabulary (have you tried queerdle or lordle of the rings?) or the language. Indeed, wikipedia already references more than 40 wordle language variants. If I believe my social feeds, many linguists have found that they were able to play in languages that they didn’t speak, provided that they had some intuitions of the phonotactics and orthographic sequences. I was however quite disappointed to see that many versions retained the English-centric 1-letter:1-unicode-character, and avoided diacritics altogether, leading to strange impoverished typography — this is the case for example of the French wordle, “le mot”.


The French wordle accepts "meler", but not "melez"
The French wordle accepts “meler”, but not “melez”


While playing variants, I realized that a wordle is only as good as its word list: some games rely on lexicons which contain only citation forms (infinitives for French verbs) and exclude the many others inflected forms, leading to a frustrating game experience. For example, in Le Mot, one can play mêler (or more exactly, meler) “to mix”, but not meles “(you) mix”. It happens that well curated words lists including inflected variant is a Surrey Morphology Group specialty: lexicons and dictionaries are a common product of language documentation, and as its names indicates, researchers at the SMG have a particular focus on morphology. We have been maintaining open inflectional databases since the 90s. After discussion, we agreed collectively to start by producing two wordle-like games, corresponding to the two main lexicons in the SMG databases, respectively the Dictionary of Archi and the Nuer Lexicon.

Nuerdle interface
SMG wordle in Nuer: Nuerdle

The Nuer language, or Thok Nath, is a West Nilotic language spoken by approximately 900,000 to two million people in South Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as in diaspora communities throughout the world. The SMG has created an interactive online dictionary for it. From this lexicon, I have extracted 6218 words, mostly verbs and nouns, with a few other part of speech represented. All targets are taken from this set of words. However, using only the lexicon would risk rejecting a lot of words the speakers might know, even though they are not documented in the lexicon. Thus, I also extracted all of the words from the Nuer translation of the Bible1. This led to a total lexicon of 13476 words2.

Archidle interface
SMG wordle in Archi: Archidle

Archi is a Daghestanian language of the Lezgic group spoken by about 1200 people in Daghestan. At the SMG, we created a dictionary of Archi, with entries in Russian, English, and Nuer (both orthographic and phonetic forms), from which I extracted 3626 words for our wordle puzzle. For now, we do not have any more words for Archi, but we are working on it. In the game, we have ignored the stress diacritics, which might not be intuitive enough for speakers.

Two Nuer Keyboards. On the left, from a mobile app. On the right, our keyboard.
Nuer keyboards: from a mobile app (left), or from our wordle game (right).

In order to create the SMG wordles, I started from the open source code of the re-playable version, hello wordle. In order to keep the game closer to its original, I removed the re-playable function. However, I did keep the option to play a range of word length from 4 to 7 letters. Each day, you can thus play 4 games in each language.  A main challenge was that the Nuer orthography comprises diacritics, which required rewriting large parts of the game, as it previously assumed that each letter could be written with a single character. Another difficulty came from the fact that neither language has a unique, widely used, keyboard layout. For Nuer, we created one based on a mobile keyboard, which we extended to include more diacritics.

Two Cyrillic Keyboards. On the left, standard Russian layout. On the right, our keyboard for Archi.
Cyrillic keyboards: Russian keyboard from a mobile app (left), or Archi keyboard from our wordle game (right).

In both cases, we strove to make the game playable by learners, linguists, and curious people who do not speak Archi or Nuer. For this reason, we made the default word length 4 letters rather than 5, to make the game easier. Moreover, we added short English definitions for all words in our lexicons, with links to their full definitions in our resources. Words in Nuer from the bible are not always present in our Nuer lexicon, and hence, some words in Nuer can appear without translations. Finally, in order to help beginners get started, we provide a few example words of the correct length each day, hidden by default, which can be used to start playing.

Ri̱et: "word" in Nuer
A word played in Nuerdle, with translation in the margin

Besides learning the languages, scouring the dictionary, or using the words given as hints daily, how can you get better at the Nuer or Archi wordle ? It helps to pay attention to the frequency of each letters, and try to play words with frequent letters, in order to reduce the pool of potential words quickly. For the English wordle, some have calculated the optimal starting word. Rather than risk spoiling the game, I provide below the relative frequencies of each of the 5 most frequent letters, for each position (1 to 7) in Nuerdle and Archidle words. This should give an idea of frequent letters at each position. The colors are assigned according to overall frequency in the lexicon, with light greens more frequent than dark blues. Each bar represents the frequencies of the five most frequent letters in a word position (from 1 to 7), ignoring the other, less frequent letters. Each stacked colored bar’s height, between two white lines, represents the letter’s frequency: eg. in Nuer, a word in our lexicon starts with k around 10% of the time, and with around 12% of the time. If there is some interest, a future blog post could explore further the frequent sequences and letter patterns in either languages.

Frequency of each character in Nuer words in our lexicon, per positon
Frequency of each character in Archi words in our lexicon, per positon

Finally, since this is a morphology blog, I would like to draw your attention to the interesting way in which English acquired a new -dle suffix. The original game is called wordle, a combination of the creator’s last name Wardle, and of word. As the game became viral, the apparent suffix has come to mean “game in the wordle family” (or maybe “online guessing game”). Interestingly, even though the most obvious decomposition of wordle seems to be word+le, the productive suffix is -dle, not -le. Could this be because the family resemblance in the new words is more obvious by keeping more common material ? Isn’t analogy mysterious? In any cases, after hesitating with ri̱etle (from ri̱et “word”+le, in Nuer) and č’atle (from č’at, “word” in Archi), we settled instead on calling our games Archidle and Nuerdle.


  1. excluding words starting with a capital, in order to avoid proper names. []
  2. If you want to suggest missing Nuer words, the Nuer lexicon has a module for suggestions ! []
Seasonal thoughts

Seasonal thoughts

As spring slowly but surely begins to announce itself with snowdrops, primroses and daffodils, we may ask how much variation there is in the concept of the seasons from one language to another. As Encyclopedia Britannica informs us, “the seasons—winter, spring, summer, and autumn—are commonly regarded in the Northern Hemisphere as beginning respectively on the winter solstice, December 21 or 22; on the vernal equinox, March 20 or 21; on the summer solstice, June 21 or 22; and on the autumnal equinox, September 22 or 23. In the Southern Hemisphere, summer and winter are reversed, as are spring and fall”.

Many languages spoken in Eurasia conform to this division into four seasons. But what other options are there? Leaving aside jokes about places where a single season lasts all year round (Russia: white winter and green winter; Quebec: beginning of winter, end of winter, beginning of next winter; New York: almost summer, summer, still summer, Christmas…), there are languages which really do distinguish between two seasons only: the dry season and the rainy season. Indonesian is like this, having musim hujan ‘rainy season’ and musim kemarau ‘dry season’. In Mandinka (a Mande language spoken in Guinea, northern Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and the Gambia) the seasons are sàmaa ‘rainy season’ and tìlikandi ‘dry season’. In Wolof (Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, The Gambia, Mali and other countries) the seasons are nawɛt ‘rainy season’ and nɔɔr ‘dry season’. Rainy seasons stretch roughly from June to October, while dry seasons take up the rest of the year. Two-season languages are generally spoken close to the equator.

Three-season languages also exist. In Ancient Egypt the year was divided into three seasons: Inundation, when the Nile overflowed the agricultural land; Going Forth, the time of planting when the Nile returned to its bed; and Deficiency, the time of low water and harvest. In some varieties of Turkish there are three seasons only: kış ‘winter’, bahar ‘spring’ and yaz ‘summer’, although other speakers use a four season system: kış ‘winter’, ilkbahar ‘spring’, yaz ‘summer’ and sonbahar ‘autumn’, where bahar can also be used to designate an unspecified intermediate season.

Finally, there are languages which have more than four seasons. For example, in Hindi (an Indo-European language spoken in northern India), six seasons are distinguished: vasant ritu ‘spring season’ (March-April), greeshm ritu ‘summer season’ (May-June), varsha ritu ‘rainy season’ (July – August), sharad ritu ‘autumn season’ (September-October-mid November), hemmat ritu ‘pre-winter season’ (November-December) and sheet ritu ‘winter season’ (January-February).

In Polish, besides wiosna ‘spring’, lato ‘summer’, jesień ‘autumn’ and zima ‘winter’ there are the words przedwiośnie (‘before spring’) and przedzimie (‘before winter’). Interestingly, some Polish speakers say that the latter word is now obsolete while the former is used widely. In Russian, there is a word предзимье (predzim’ye) ‘before winter’, but no other words to designate such ‘in-between’ seasons.

But having different number of seasons from the ‘standard’ is not the only possible way for languages to stand out. Have a look at this linguistic puzzle: it was originally composed (in Russian) by Irina Chesnokova for use at the Moscow Linguistics Olympiad, and it recently appeared in a collection of the best Olympiad puzzles (Традиционная Олимпиада по лингвистике. 49 лучших задач. [The Traditional Linguistics Olympiad. 49 problems], Moscow, 2020).

It is all about how the Manx language refers to various kinds of time period. Problem. Manx is a language belonging to the Celtic branch of Indo-European, spoken by about 1800 people on the Isle of Man. Consider these phrases in Manx and their unordered English translations:

1.     Jerrey Geuree A. June
2.     mean oie B. January
3.     Toshiaght Souree C. midnight
4.     oie gyn cadley D. February
5.     Jerrey Souree E. July
6.     cadley geuree F. winter sleep (hibernation)
7.     Toshiaght Arree G. May
8.     Mean Souree H. sleepless night


  1. Match the Manx phrase (1-8) with the corresponding English translation (A-H)
  2. Translate into English: Mean Fouyir, gyn jerrey
  3. Translate into Manx: April, October

As is rightly emphasized on the website of the  International Linguistics Olympiad – which, incidentally, is going to be held on the Isle of Man this year, “no prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners”. For those who want to try and solve the problem for themselves, I will give the solution below, underneath a picture of a hellebore, the first flower to open in our garden at the end of winter:


Solution to the problem.

In the middle column I give the literal translations, and in the right column are the actual equivalents of the names of the months:

Jerrey geuree end of winter January
mean oie middle of the night
Toshiaght Souree beginning of summer May
oie gyn cadley sleepless night
Jerrey Souree end of summer July
cadley geuree winter sleep (hibernation)
Toshiaght Arree beginning of spring February
Mean Souree middle of summer June
Mean Fouyir middle of autumn September
gyn jerrey endless
Jerrey Arree end of spring April
Jerrey Fouyir end of autumn October

As we can see, the crucial point in solving of the problem is to realise that the seasons in Manx do not match up with the seasons in English: in Manx, January counts as the end of winter, not the middle, September is the middle of autumn, not the beginning, and so on.