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Author: Erich Round

The linguistic archaeology of feet

The linguistic archaeology of feet

There’s been excitement recently about evidence that humans had set foot in the Americas as much as 22,500 years ago, pushing back the previous best estimate by almost ten thousand years. And by ‘set foot’, I mean literally. The tell-tale new evidence comes to us in the form of imprints left by human feet in a particularly well-preserved mudflat in New Mexico. So far, the humans themselves have not been uncovered by archaeologists, but their characteristic mark upon the mud has endured.

When linguists peer into the past, we also will occasionally use the imprints, left by something which has otherwise been lost, to infer its presence long ago — all of which brings us to the topic of feet, and not the kind that you’d use to walk across a mudflat, but the literal English word ‘feet’, which itself contains a wonderful imprint of a long-lost vowel.

Our story begins with the fact that in English, the word ‘feet’ is a little odd. It’s a plural that doesn’t end in ‘s’. As any child will tell you, you can’t get away with saying ‘foots’ for the plural of ‘foot’ for very long before someone bigger than you corrects it to ‘feet’. However, given that most English nouns do use an ‘s’ plural, it’s entirely sensible to ask why ‘feet’ is different. (Of course, ‘feet’ isn’t absolutely unique: English contains a select club of other, similar plurals like ‘geese’ and ‘teeth’, to which we’ll return in a minute.)

The tale of ‘feet’ begins around two millennia ago, when it was in fact a regular plural word. In proto-Germanic, the singular form would have been ‘fōt-s’ (pronounced approximately as fohts, where ‘ō’ is a long ‘o’ sound) and its corresponding plural ‘fōt-iz’, constructed with a simple plural suffix ‘-iz’. Over the following centuries, the sounds at the end of the plural form were worn away and eventually lost, as often happens during language change. However, before the suffix disappeared entirely, the ‘i’ vowel in it left its imprint on the ‘ō’ vowel, changing it to ‘ȫ’, which is to say ‘fōtiz’ became ‘fōti’ then ‘fȫti’ then ‘fȫt’ which by Old English had become ‘fēt’ and is now ‘feet’. In the meantime, the singular form ‘fōts’, which contained no ‘i’ vowel, changed very little indeed: it lost its suffix ‘-s’, becoming ‘fōt’ and then modern English ‘foot’. A similar story lies behind the plurals ‘geese’ and ‘teeth’: an original suffixal vowel ‘i’ changed ‘ō’ into ‘ȫ’, before disappearing, then ‘ȫ’ became ‘ē’.

You might say that the ‘i’ vowel left its imprint upon original ‘ō’ in the form of the altered vowel ‘ȫ’. One tool which linguistic archaeologists put to good use, is our knowledge of the characteristic imprints that one sound can leave upon another. In the case of the long-lost ‘i’ vowel, the imprint even has a name, umlaut. Historical umlaut is also what lies behind plurals like ‘mice’ and ‘men’.

Armed with the background knowledge that lost ‘i’ vowels changed ‘ō’ into ‘ȫ’, and in doing so gave rise to modern English alternations between ‘oo’ and ‘ee’, we can now go fossicking through the vocabulary for more lost ‘i’ vowels. Another suffix that was lost over the centuries was a causative suffix, which related nouns to verbs, such as ‘blood’ to ‘bleed’, or ‘food’ to ‘feed’: as you’ll have guessed, the verbs once contained a now-lost ‘i’. In some cases, pairs of sibling words such as these have grown apart over time. For instance, if you were to decide someone’s fate (or their ‘doom’) then you’d be judging them (or ‘deeming’ them), though as you can see, I had to produce a fairly contrived context to highlight the relatedness of ‘doom’ and ‘deem’.

Umlaut caused by a now-lost ‘i’ also crops up in several nouns ending in ‘-th’: compare not only ‘strong’ with ‘strength’, ‘long’ with ‘length’, or ‘broad’ with ‘breadth’, but also ‘hale’ with ‘health’ and ‘foul’ with ‘filth’.

feet made filthy by umlaut!

Over decades of meticulous work, linguists have uncovered much about how languages around the world change over time, though much more still remains to be accounted for. One of the many lingering questions is what the conditions are, which favour the continued survival of idiosyncratic word forms like ‘feet’, long after they have lost their regularity. We know that many irregular words, such as the Old English plural ‘bēc’ for ‘books’ (corresponding to singular ‘bōc’), get removed over time, yet others persist for millennia. It’s an ongoing task for linguists to understand why some footprints remain while others get washed away.

A whole nother story

A whole nother story

Words do some truly inventive things when they change, and change they always do. Some switch their sounds around, like when hros became hors, nowadays spelt with an extra e as horse. Some lose their sense of having an internal composition, like when wāl-hros ‘whale-horse’ became walrus. Some cave in to peer pressure and change their looks to conform with others, including one of my favourite cases in English, when under the influence of similarly-meaning words probably, possibly, plausibly which all end in -bly, we get supposably, which is how in some varieties of modern English you can say ‘supposedly’. One the of truly odd things that words do though, is to start stealing sounds from their neighbours.

A famous case in English is an apron, which used to be a napron, until the n got snaffled by the a. It goes the other way too. A newt was originally an ewt. Of course, in Middle English when this n-theivery was underway, there were a few more words complicit in the heist, for example my napron also became mine apron, and your napron became yourn apron, since at that stage in English, words like my/mine, your/yourn worked like a/an. So, ever wondered why the nickname for Edward is Ned? As in mine Ed, ourn Ed? Got it? Speaking of which, nickname was originally ekename and was also involved in a swindling of n from the previous word (the eke-, which is related to eke in ‘eke out a living’, meant an addition or supplement, so mine ekename was my additional name).

It’s not only in English that words have indulged in this shifty business. In late Latin, the word originally borrowed from Greek apotheca would have been l’aboteca, which you may recognise today as Italian la bottega, Spanish la bodega or French and English boutique. In Danish, the plural pronoun meaning ‘you’ is I, related to English ye, but in closely related Swedish it’s ni with an extra n. Where did it get it? Theft. The corresponding plural verbs used to end in -en, like haven i ‘have you?’, and you can see what happened next. In fact, the same game played out a thousand years earlier with singular ‘you’ in several West Germanic languages, except this time it was the verb that kept a piece of the pronoun, when phrases like habēs thū ‘have you?’ became habēst thū, which you might recognise as English havest thou.

How does all this shifting of sounds between words come about? To get an idea, try saying quickly: ‘an apron, a napron, an apron’, and you’ll already have a sense of how this is possible. Unlike on the printed page, words in spoken language stream forth in a smooth and almost seamless flow, and the human brain performs some impressively deft reverse-engineering to slice that stream back up into words. In fact, picking out the individual words in speech is one of the first monumental intellectual tasks we embark on as infants, even before we start learning what the words mean. Recent research suggests that we may even begin this process from within the womb, where we get pre-season access to language courtesy of the muffled rhythms of speech that seep in to us from outside.

Now, you may well wonder how anyone, let alone an infant, can slice up a speech stream into individual words without knowing any of the meanings. Good question. It would appear that the brain operates like a finely tuned statistical inference machine, storing and calculating the relative frequencies at which sounds follow one another, and from this it can begin to pinpoint where the word boundaries are located, since at those boundaries, it is much less predictable what sounds will come next. The trick, then, is that word boundaries are zones of unpredictability, irrespective of their meanings. Of course, we might ask next, why is it that the sounds are so predictable inside the words? One of the reasons for that has to do with what linguists term ‘phonology’: the fascinating way in which sound sequences themselves are intricately structured and highly non-random within the words of human languages, but I’m afraid that for now, that’s a whole nother story.