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What slips of the tongue can tell us about language

What slips of the tongue can tell us about language

“The grouchy knight cuddled the rowdy seer’s adorable puppy while devouring lasagne”

This is probably a sentence you’ve never heard – or produced – before. Yet this experience is not novel – everyday, you make utterances you’ve never heard, and understand new ones.

Producing such utterances is not a trivial matter. To do this we have to generate them – that is, decide on the concept to be expressed, encode that into words and structures, then into the sounds that make up our words before sending instructions to our articulatory apparatus to produce the utterance. All within fractions of a second.

Yet, sometimes we make mistakes, and produce things we didn’t intend to do:

Error (The Mistake we Make) Target (What we had intended to say)
heft lemisphere left hemisphere
squoor squeaky floor
a leading list a reading list
gave the goy gave the boy
stough competition stiff/tough competition
she sliced the knife with a salami she sliced the salami with a knife
a hole full of floors a floor full of holes

 

We usually notice these errors when we make them and correct ourselves. But rather than being merely slips of tongue, they are a goldmine of information as they demonstrate breakdowns at various parts in the speech production process.

Some of these errors are lexical selection errors – we select the wrong lexical concept or lemma for the message we’re trying to say. That is, we select the wrong word stored in our brains, we pick the wrong word from our mental dictionary. This can be simply the wrong concept, as in: ‘he’s carrying a bag of cherries’ instead of ‘grapes’. Sometimes, we can combine words together in blends: ‘the competition is getting a little stough’ instead of stiff or tough. Other times, we can exchange words within a sentence, as in ‘she sliced the knife with a salami’, rather than ‘she sliced the salami with a knife’.

We can also make phonological errors, that is, errors in the sound structure of our words:

Exchanges
heft lemisphere left hemisphere
fleaky squoor squeaky floor
cheek and ch[ɔː]se Chalk and cheese
Additions
enjoyding it enjoying it
Deletions
cumsily Clumsily
Anticipations
leading list reading list
Perseverations
gave the goy gave the boy

 

We can look at large data sets, or corpora, to see what kinds of errors are commonly made. We find that these errors are still well-formed in terms of their sound structure, or phonology. 60-90% of errors (depending on the corpus you look at) involve errors with a single sound or segment, and these errors are sensitive to syllable structure. That is, we might swap segments from the same part of the syllable as in exchanges:

face spood < space food

Or we might combine the beginning of one syllable and the end of another:

grool < great + cool

We also like to swap sounds that are similar to each other, so

paid mossible < made possible

is more likely than

two sen pet < two pen set

There are exceptions to these generalisations of course – but they are rare.

Speech errors give us an insight into normal speech production processes. The fact that sound errors occur at all tells us that speech production is a generative process – it is not that we just reproduce fully formed stored sentences, but rather we create each utterance afresh each time. In order to mix or swap two elements, both must be activated at the same point of the production process.

Furthermore, the range of speech across which errors can occur implies that the span of processing is greater than a single word. You might be familiar with spoonerisms, popularised by Dr William Archibald Spooner:

  • You were caught fighting a liar in the quad < You were caught lighting a fire in the quad
  • You have hissed my mystery lectures < You have missed my history lectures
  • You have tasted the whole worm < You have wasted the whole term
  •  
    We must plan more than a word ahead for errors like these to happen.

    There is a much wider array of questions we can ask about speech production than can be answered by speech errors, but certainly they are an entertaining place to start.

    Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

    Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

    Have you ever felt that you needed to nip something in the butt, or had the misfortune to witness a damp squid? And what can Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi and Freddie Mercury tell us about language change?

    Well, if you know Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze”, you surely remember the moment where he interrupts his train of thought with the unexpected request, ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Or perhaps you recall “Living on a Prayer”, where we hear that apparently It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not. And who can forget the revelation, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard?

    Wise words from Celine Dion

    If you do remember these lyrics fondly, you are not alone – lots of people are familiar with these exact lines. There is just one problem, of course: none of those songs really say those things. Instead, the lyrics involved are ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky; It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not; and Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. And yet thousands of English speakers the world over have had the experience of listening to “Purple Haze” and the others – and of misunderstanding the words, entirely independently, in exactly the same way.

    Mishearings of this kind are common enough that they have been given a name of their own, mondegreens – a word invented by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a poem containing the following lines:

    For they hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
    And laid him on the green

    and assumed that it listed not one but two victims – the unfortunate Earl himself, and “Lady Mondegreen”, a plausible character who happens not to feature in the real poem.

    Why does this kind of thing happen? One reason has to do with the nature of spoken language. On the page, English sentences come pre-packaged into words, each of which is made up of distinct, easily-identified letters which look pretty much the same every time. But pronounced out loud, they are not like that! Instead, a continuous, mushy stream of noise makes its way into our ears, and it is up to our brains to work out what speech sounds are actually in there, where one word ends and the next one begins (think the-sky versus this-guy), and so on. Obviously this process is not exactly helped when there are rock guitars competing for your attention too.

    Obama’s elf….. don’t wanna be… Obama’s elf… any more…

    But another reason is that we are never ‘just listening’ passively. Instead, behind the scenes, our minds are busy trying to relate what we’re hearing to our existing knowledge – not only our linguistic knowledge, but our general knowledge about the world. For example, the common-sense knowledge that people tend to kiss other people, rather than intangible abstractions like the sky. This is obviously very useful most of the time, but in the “Purple Haze” case it leads us astray, because the more implausible meaning is the one that Jimi Hendrix intended.

    What has this all got to do with language change? Well, the crucial point is that what I’ve just said – interpreting sounds is complicated, and to navigate the process we engage our common sense as well as our knowledge of the language – applies just as well to normal conversation as it does to song lyrics. We don’t always hear things perfectly, and even if we do, we have to square the things we’ve just heard with the things we already knew, which provide a guide for our interpretation but may sometimes take us in the wrong direction.

    So if you hear someone referring to a really disappointing experience as a damp squib, but are not familiar with squib (an old-fashioned word for a firework), what is to stop you thinking that what you really heard was damp squid? A squid is, after all, a very damp creature, and not always something that people are hugely fond of. Similarly, the expression to nip in the bud makes sense if you latch on to the gardening metaphor it is based on – but if you don’t, well, nipping an undesirable thing in the butt does sound like a very effective way of getting rid of it. So, people who think the expressions really are damp squid and nip in the butt have made a mistake along the lines of “kiss this guy”; the difference is that here they may end up using the new versions in their own speech, and thus pass them on to other speakers. And the process doesn’t have to involve whole expressions: individual words are susceptible to it too, for example midriff becoming mid-rift or utmost becoming up-most.

    It’s beautiful, but undeniably damp

    Misinterpreted words and expressions like these, which have some kind of new internal logic of their own, are known as eggcorns. This is because egg-corn is exactly how some English speakers have reinterpreted the word acorn, on the basis that acorns are indeed egg-shaped seeds. And the development of a new eggcorn may not involve any mishearing at all, just reinterpretation of one word as another one that sounds exactly the same. Are you expected to toe the line or to tow the line? Are people given free rein or free reign? In each case the two expressions sound identical, and each brings with it some kind of coherent mental image. For the moment, toe the line and free rein are still considered to be the ‘correct’ versions of these idioms, but perhaps in the future that will no longer be the case.

    As words and expressions are reinterpreted over time, the language changes little by little: in speech and in writing, people pass on their reinterpretations to one another, in a way which may eventually pass right through the language. The underlying factors producing eggcorns are the same as those producing mondegreens. But unlike the lyrics of “Purple Haze”, words and idioms don’t generally have a fixed author and don’t belong to anybody, meaning that if everyone started calling acorns eggcorns, then that just would be the correct word for them: the previous, now meaningless term acorn would be no more than a historical curiosity, and English as a whole would be very slightly different from how it is now.

    So this is how we get from Jimi Hendrix to language change – via mondegreens and eggcorns. Have you spotted any eggcorns in the wild? And how likely do you think they are to catch on and become the new normal?

    How to break an impasse

    How to break an impasse

    Have Brexit negotiations met an impasse (where the first vowel sounds like the vowel in ‘him’), or an impasse where the vowel is like the initial sound in the French word bain /bɛ̃/? Or is it something in between?

    If it is the former, congratulations! This borrowing from French has been successfully integrated into your native phonology, whilst simultaneously making a nod to its orthography.

    If you opt to French-it-up then you have recognised that this word is not an Anglo-Saxon one, and that it should be flagged as such by keeping the pronunciation classic. Or you are French.

    If you are somewhere between these two extremes, you are in good company. This highly topical word has no less than 12 British variants listed in the OED, reflecting various solutions to integrating the nasalized French vowel /ɛ̃/ and stress pattern into English:

    Choosing which pronunciation to use for impasse is both a linguistic and social minefield, with every utterance revealing something about your education and social networks. No pressure then.

    Recent news reports are providing a very rich corpus of data on the pronunciation of this specific word, with many variants being used within the same news report by different speakers, and perhaps even the same speaker.

    For those yet to commit, choosing which to pick may be bewildering. So how do we avoid this impasse? Perhaps unsurprisingly, one tactic speakers use is to avoid using a word they aren’t confident pronouncing altogether. It might be safer to stick to deadlock.

    Watch BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg translate deadlock into German, Spanish and French.

    Ultimately, our cousins across the pond may have some influence in resolving this issue in the long term. The OED lists only two variants for U.S. English, with variation based on stress, not vowel quality, and U.S. variants of words (e.g. schedule, U.S. /skɛdjuːl/ vs U.K. /ˈʃedʒ.uːl/) are widely adopted in the speech of the UK public. But this will not necessarily be the case and the multiple UK variants may continue for some time.

    The impasse goes to show that languages tend to tolerate a whole lot of diversity, even when the world of politics doesn’t.

    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.

    Double trouble treble

    Double trouble treble

    You’ll get in trouble if you drink a tripel, the strong pale ale brewed by the most hipster of monks, the Trappists.

    The Lowlands are the Hoxton of Europe

    Tripels have three times the strength (around 8-10% percent ABV) of the standard table beer historically consumed by the monks themselves. This enkel or ‘single’ beer was traditionally not available outside the cloisters, while the duppel (a double strength dark brown beer made with caramelized beet sugar) was sold to provide income for the monastery. Although the term enkel is no longer in common beer parlance (it is on the cusp of a comeback), duppel and tripel have held their ground. It is generally thought that the tripel takes its name from its threefold strength, but it is also sometimes claimed that it is because it has three times the malt of a regular brew. A quadrupel is VERY strong.

    As we have seen already in this blog when counting sheep in Slovenian and yams in Ngkolumbu, means for the expression of quantities and multiplication are often linguistically fascinating. Not least the doublet treble and triple, which originate from the same etymological source.

    The Latin word triplus ‘threefold, triple’ first entered English via Old French treble. Not satisfied with claiming the space previously occupied by the Old English adjective þrifeald ‘threefold’, it turned up again by the 15th century as the adjective triple.

    This triad of modifiers (threefold, treble and triple) exemplify some of the pathways by which lexical synonymy can come about. The first word was formed through a compounding processes (i.e. the numeral three forming a new word with the multiplicative form –fold), the second entered the language through direct borrowing, and the third through a second wave of borrowing (either from Old French triple or Latin triplus).

    We don’t just find words competing to express the same meaning, but also parts of words. The –fold element of threefold, tenfold and manifold, and the –plus of triplus, are argued to have developed from the same Proto Indo-European root *pel ‘to fold’. To complicate things even further, the now obsolete treblefold was attested between the 14th and 16th centuries. Words, it seems, like to fight for the same space, and can sometimes be incestuous.

    Since entering English over 500 years ago, triple and treble have staked out different paths, but retained similar meanings in at least some of their manifestations, as explored by Catherine Soanes on the OxfordWords blog. In terms of frequency, triple is the stronger twin (or is it a triplet? quadruplet?), ending up triumphant with around 6 times more occurrences in the Oxford English Corpus.

    But treble has some resilience. Although the official Scrabble board has double and triple word scores, treble word scores are occasionally referred to on the net (albeit erroneously, or in a devil-may-care way), such as in Charlie Brooker’s article on how to cheat at scrabble. I even found a ‘threefold word score’ on a Scrabble knock-off site. Lawyers to the ready!

    This demonstrates that these adjectives really are semantically interchangeable for the most part, even though their distributions are not identical.

    The take home? While not not every monastery sells the same tripel, they will all get you drunk.

    Werewolves

    Werewolves

    Hallowe’en will soon be upon us, so it is only right we turn our attention to monsters. Consider the werewolf. It’s a wolf, sort of, as the name indicates, but what’s a were? The usual assumption is that it’s a leftover of an older word meaning ‘man’ that fell completely out of fashion by the 14th century. As a result we have what looks like a compound word, except that one of the parts doesn’t have any meaning on its own. Perhaps not, but that hasn’t stopped people from squeezing some value out of it nonetheless: if a werewolf is a person who turns into a wolf — or at any rate, part person, part wolf — then a were-bear is a mixture of person and bear, and so on down to were-turtles.

    Actually, people don’t seem to be that literal-minded when it comes to word meanings, if the various were-creatures in circulation are any evidence. The monster from “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is not half-human, half-rabbit, but more just kind of a monster rabbit, with a thicker pelt. (Visually calqued, I suspect, from the not-particularly wolf-like wolfman of the wolfman movies featuring Lon Chaney Jr.)

    And were-fleas, to the extent that they exist, appear to be carriers of lycanthropism rather than human/insect conglomerates. None of this is yet reflected in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry on were– (you need a subscription for that but it’s free if you have a UK public library card!). Give it a few decades more maybe.

    Strangely, words for werewolf in other languages share a propensity for being compounds made up of ‘wolf’ plus some other completely opaque element. The first part of Czech vlkodlak is vlk, which means ‘wolf‘, but dlak on its own is not an independent word. (Not in Czech at any rate, but in the related language Slovenian the equivalent word volkodlak is clearly made up of volk ‘wolf’ and dlaka, which means ‘hair’ or ‘fur’.) And the French werewolf, loup-garou, has the word for ‘wolf’ in it (loup), but garou is not an independent word (other than being an unrelated homonym meaning ‘flax-leaved daphne’). That part seems to have been our very own Germanic word werewolf borrowed at an early date (earliest attestation as garwall from the 12th century). Both of these have, like werewolf, given rise to further monstrous hybrids like Czech prasodlak, from prase ‘pig’, or the French cochon-garou.

    In fact, Czech and French have gone one step further than English. Though I just wrote that dlak and garou were not words, that was being a bit pedantic. Neither of them are listed in the authoritative Academy dictionaries of Czech and French, but nonetheless they do seem to have split off from their host body, rather as happened — if we can be permitted to mix monster metaphors — to the hero of 1959’s “The Manster (a.k.a The Split)”.

    For example, this Czech website tells us about vlkodlaci i jiní dlaci ‘werewolves and other were-creatures’ (dlaci is the plural of dlak), and in French the phrase courir le garou ‘run the garou‘ used, at least, to be in circulation, meaning basically ‘go around at night being a werewolf”. That use in turn apparently spawned a verb garouter, meaning much the same thing. The curse lives on.

    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!

    The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language

    The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language

    As is well known, animals on the internet can have very impressive language skills: cats and dogs in particular are famous for their near-complete online mastery of English, and only highly trained professional linguists (including some of us here at SMG) are able to spot the subtle grammatical and orthographic clues that indicate non-human authorship behind some of the world’s favourite motivational statements.

    Recent reports suggest that some of our fellow primates have also learnt to engage in complex discourse: again, the internet offers compelling evidence for this.

    But sadly, out in the real world, animals capable of orating on philosophy are hard to come by (as far as we can tell). Instead, from a human point of view, cats, dogs, gorillas etc. just make various kinds of animal noises.

    Why write about animals and their noises on a linguistics blog? Well, one good answer would be: the exact relationship between the vocalisations made by animals, on one hand, and the phenomenon of human spoken language, on the other, is a fascinating question, of interest within linguistics but far beyond it as well. So a different blog post could have turned now to discuss the semiotic notion of communication in the abstract; or perhaps the biological evolution of language in our species, complete with details about the FOXP2 gene and the descent of the larynx

    But in fact I am going to talk about something a lot less technical-sounding. This post is about what could be called the human versions of animal noises: that is, the noises that English and other languages use in order to talk about them, like meow and woof, baa and moo.

    At this point you may be wondering whether there is much to be gained by sitting around and pondering words like moo. But what I have in mind here is this kind of thing:

    These are good fun, but they also raise a question. If pigs and ducks are wandering around all over the world making pig and duck noises respectively, then how come we humans appear to have such different ideas about what they sound like? Oink cannot really be mistaken for nöff or knor, let alone buu. And the problem is bigger than that: even within a single language, English, frogs can go both croak and ribbit; dogs don’t just go woof, but they also yap and bark. These sound nothing like each other. What is going on? Are we trying to do impressions of animals, only to discover that we are not very good at it?

    Before going any further I should deal with a couple of red herrings (to stick with the zoological theme). For one thing, languages may appear to disagree more than they really do, just because their speakers have settled on different spelling conventions: a French coin doesn’t really sound all that different from an English quack. And sometimes we may not all be talking about the same sound in the first place. Ribbit is a good depiction of the noise a frog makes if it happens to belong to a particular species found in Southern California – but thanks to the cultural influence of Hollywood, ribbit is familiar to English speakers worldwide, even though their own local frogs may sound a lot more croaky. Meanwhile, it is easy to picture the difference between the kind of dog that goes woof and the kind that goes yap.

    But even when we discount this kind of thing, there are still plenty of disagreements remaining, and they pose a puzzle bound up with linguistics. A fundamental feature of human language, famously pointed out by Saussure, is that most words are arbitrary: they have nothing inherently in common with the things they refer to. For example, there is nothing actually green about the sound of the word green – English has just assigned that particular sound sequence to that meaning, and it’s no surprise to find that other languages haven’t chosen the same sounds to do the same job. But right now we are in the broad realm of onomatopoeia, where you might not expect to find arbitrariness like this. After all, unlike the concept of ‘green’, the concept of ‘quack’ is linked to a real noise that can be heard out there in the world: why would languages bother to disagree about it?

     

    First off, it is worth noticing that not all words relating to animal noises work in the same way. Think of cock-a-doodle-doo and crow. Both of these are used in English of the distinctive sound made by a cockerel, and there is something imitative about them both. But there is a difference between them: the first is used to represent the sound itself, whereas the second is the word that English uses to talk about producing it. That is, as English sees it, the way a cock crows is by ‘saying’ cock-a-doodle-doo, and never vice versa. Similarly, the way that a dog barks is by ‘saying’ woof. The representations of the sounds, cock-a-doodle-doo and woof, are practically in quotation marks, as if capturing the animals’ direct speech.

    This gives us something to run with. After all, think about the work that words like crow and bark have to do. As they are verbs, you need to be able to change them according to person (they bark but it barks), tense, and so on. So regardless of their special function of talking about noises, they still have to operate like any other verb, obeying the normal grammar rules of English. Since every language comes with its own grammatical requirements and preferences about how words can be structured and manipulated (that is, its own morphology), this can explain some kinds of disparity across languages. For example, what we onomatopoeically call a cuckoo is a kukushka in Russian, featuring a noun-forming element shka which makes the word easier to deal with grammatically – but also makes it sound very Russian. Maybe it is this kind of integration into each language that makes these words sound less true to life and more varied from one language to another?

    This is a start, but it must be far from the whole story. Animal ‘quotes’ like woof and cock-a-doodle-doo don’t need to interact all that much with English grammar at all. Nonetheless, they are clearly the English versions of the noises we are talking about:

    And as we’ve already seen, the same goes for quack and oink. So even when it looks like we might just be ‘doing impressions’ of non-linguistic sounds, every language has its own way of actually doing those impressions.

    Reassuringly, at least we are not dealing with a situation of total chaos. Across languages, duck noises reliably contain an open a sound, while pig noises reliably don’t. And there is widespread agreement when it comes to some animals: cows always go moo, boo or similar, and sheep are always represented as producing something like meh or beh – this is so predictable that it has even been used as evidence for how certain letters were pronounced in Ancient Greek. So languages are not going out of their way to disagree with each other. But this just sharpens up the question. For obvious biological reasons, humans can never really make all the noises that animals can. But given that people the world over sometimes converge on a more or less uniform representation for a given noise, why doesn’t this always happen?

    In their feline wisdom, the cats of the Czech Republic can give us a clue. Like sheep, cats sound pretty similar in languages across the globe, and in Europe they are especially consistent. In English, they go meow; in German, it is miau; in Russian, myau; and so on. But in Czech, they go mňau (= approximately mnyau), with a mysterious n-sound inside. The reason is that at some point in the history of Czech, a change in pronunciation affected every word containing a sequence my, so that it came out as mny instead. Effectively, for Czech speakers from then on, the option of saying myau like everyone else was simply off the table, because the language no longer allowed it – no matter what their cats sounded like.

    What does this example illustrate? First of all – as well as a morphology, each language has a phonology (sound structure), which constrains its speakers tightly: no language lets people use all the sounds they are physically able to make, and even the available sounds are only allowed to join up in certain combinations. So each language has to come up with a way of dealing with non-linguistic noises which will suit its own idea of what counts as a legitimate syllable. Moo is one thing, but it’s harder to find a language that allows syllables resembling the noise a pig makes… so each language compromises in its own way, resulting in nöff, knor, oink etc., none of which capture the full sonic experience of the real thing.

    And second – things like oink, woof and mňau really must be words in the full sense. They aren’t just a kind of quotation, or an imitation performed off the cuff; instead they belong in a speaker’s mental dictionary of their own language. That is why, in general, they have to abide by the same phonological rules as any other word. And that also explains where the arbitrariness comes in: as with any word, language learners just notice that that is the way their own community expresses a shared concept, and from then on there is no point in reinventing the wheel. You don’t need to try hard to get a duck’s quack exactly right in order to talk about it – as long as other people know what you mean, the word has done its job.

    So what speakers might lose in accuracy this way, they make up for in efficiency, by picking a predetermined word that they know fellow speakers will recognise. Only when you really want to draw attention to a sound is it worth coming up with a new representation of it and ignoring the existing consensus. To create something truly striking, perhaps you need to be a visionary like James Joyce, who wrote the following line of ‘dialogue’ for a cat in Ulysses, giving short shrift to English phonology in the process:

    –Mrkgnao!

     

    What’s the good of ‘would of’?

    What’s the good of ‘would of’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She must’ve partied too hard

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

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

    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.