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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. []
Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

Recently, a friend of mine received an email saying that because of their hard work in difficult circumstances this year, he and his colleagues would all be “gifted” a few extra days off over Christmas. And the other day I saw someone else wondering on Facebook: ‘when did the word “given” cease to exist, and why is everything “gifted” now?’ So with the festive season fast approaching, it seems like a good time to ask: is there really something funny going on with the word gift?

Once you gift it a bit of thought, I don’t think I am gifting anything away by pointing out that the verb to give is still very much with us. But the rise of a rival verb to gift, in some contexts where you’d expect to give, has been receiving attention for a while now: in recent years it has been discussed on National Public Radio in the US (The Season of Gifting) and in The Atlantic magazine (‘Gift’ is Not a Verb). Whether or not it bothers you personally, you may well have noticed the trend. The existence of gift as a noun is just a mundane fact of life, but apparently the corresponding verb gets people talking.

Gifted children

Now, nobody would be surprised to learn that English changes over time, or even that it has pairs of words that mean more or less the same thing… how much difference is there between liberty and freedom, or between little and small? And in fact, synonyms have an important role to play in language change. If we look back and notice that one expression has been replaced by another – a historical change in the vocabulary, as when the Shakespearian anon gave way to at once – then there must have been an intervening period when they were both around with pretty much the same meaning, and people had a choice of which one to use.

Does that mean that we do now find ourselves in the very early stages of a long historical process which will eventually result in to gift replacing to give altogether? If that’s the case, in a few generations’ time people will be saying things like ‘Never gift up!’ or ‘Could you gift me a hand?’.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t gift a damn

But whatever happens in the future, that clearly isn’t the situation now. So if English often provides multiple ways of saying the same thing, why have people taken the coexistence of to give and to gift as something to get worked up about – and can linguistics shed any light on what is going on here?

One thing that makes this specific pairing stand out is that the two words are just so similar. Gift is obviously connected with give in the first place: that makes it easy to wonder why anyone would bother to avoid the obvious word, only to pick an almost identical one. Another factor (as the title of The Atlantic article makes clear) is the idea that gift is really a noun, and so people shouldn’t go around using it as a verb.

But if we take a broader view, it turns out that what is happening with to gift is not out of the ordinary. Instead, it fits neatly with some things that linguists have already noticed about English and about language change more generally. For one thing, English is very good at ‘using nouns as verbs’ – which is why we can hammer (verb) with a hammer (noun), fish (verb) for fish (noun), and so on. So a verb gift, meaning ‘give as a gift’, goes well with what the language already does. What often happens is that when a new verb of this kind starts to take off, not all speakers are happy about it, but after a while it gains acceptance. For example, the twentieth century saw complaints about verbs-from-nouns such as to host, to access or to showcase, but they grate less on people nowadays.

You could even try hammering with a fish!

Ultimately, the ability to create words like this is just an ‘accidental’ fact about English, which also has various other ways of making verbs from nouns – for example, turning X into ‘X-ify’ (person-ify, object-ify) or ‘be-X’ (be-friend, be-witch). The bigger question may be: as we already have the verb give, why would anyone bother to make a verb gift in the first place, and why would it ever catch on? It might seem that by definition, a gift is something you give, so inventing a term meaning ‘give as a gift’ is pointless.

But that is not how things really are. Gifts are given, but that doesn’t mean that everything that can be given counts as a gift: a traffic warden might give you a parking ticket and in return you might give him a piece of your mind, but the noun gift doesn’t cover either of those things. Among other restrictions on its use, it is generally associated with positive feelings: if you give something as a gift, it is usually something tangible that you expect to be warmly received, and that carries over into the verb to gift itself.

This subtle difference between to give and to gift explains why for the moment it is impossible to gift someone a sidelong glance, or lots of extra work to do. But apparently it is becoming possible to gift an employee some time off, even though that is not a physical present that can be handed over and unwrapped. Evidently, the writer just felt like using a verb that sounded a bit more interesting and positive than to give, and the ‘warmly received’ part of the meaning was enough to outweigh the lack of any tangible object involved.

This is an example of something that happens all the time in language change. Naturally, while a word is still restricted in its use, it is more noticeable and interesting than a word you hear regularly. As a result, sometimes people decide to go for the less common word even where it doesn’t quite belong, to achieve some kind of extra effect… but over time, this process makes the word sound less and less special, until it eventually becomes the new normal. We don’t even need to look far to find this happening precisely to the word ‘gift’ in other languages: French donner ‘give’ is based on don ‘gift’, and it has totally wiped out the normal verb for give that ‘should’ have been inherited from Latin.

So if speakers and writers of English continue to chip away at the restrictions on gift as a verb, maybe one day it really will replace give altogether. Of course, that idea sounds totally outlandish at the moment – but then, I’m sure the ancient Romans would have thought much the same thing. You never know what will happen next: language change truly is the gift that keeps on giving!

Siôn Corn: The bloke who comes down the chimney

Siôn Corn: The bloke who comes down the chimney

It’s December, which means you’ve probably been bombarded with ‘Christmas cheer’ since the beginning of November. Bah humbug I say! And if you’re from down under, I feel really sorry for you having to celebrate twice a year – once in July and then again in December! You may think of me as a bit of a Scrooge spoiling all your fun but…

Speaking of Scrooge, that’s a great instance of personification, how a characteristic of a person gets attached to their name. The name is then used to refer to that characteristic. It happens a lot, just look at the recent phenomenon concerning poor Karen. Something similar happens when common and frequent names get hijacked into standing for the average Joe.

Moving on to Joe, that’s one of the many names in English used for the everyman, as in Joe Bloggs, or Joe Public. Similarly, John or Jane as in John Doe or Jane Doe, a term for an unknown person, especially used in the USA for unidentified cadavers. And in the UK, John Bull is the personification of the nation.

John Bull: the personification of the UK

And let’s not forget Jack, itself a nickname for John. Jack is found in many phrases relating to the everyman, especially in reference to someone of historically low status (hence Jack in a pack of cards being lower than the King or Queen) or in phrases about working in a rural employment, as in lumberjack, or the Australian Jackaroo (or Jillaroo!) for someone learning to work on a sheep or cattle farm. Jack has also been extended to objects that are generally handy and helpful – such as carjack and jackhammer.

This brings us to the title of our post, Siôn Corn, which is the name of Santa Clause in Wales and can be translated as ‘John Stack’ (as in corn simnee ‘chimney stack’) or ‘Chimney Pot John’. Siôn is the Welsh equivalent of the everyman, and is used to mean, the guy, the bloke etc.

Siôn Corn and his Welsh dragon.

The name Siôn is used in many different phrases and is the personification of many personal characteristics.

  • Siôn Barrug ‘Jack Frost’
  • Siôn yr offis ‘personification of laziness’
  • Siôn Chwarae Teg ‘personification of fair play’
  • Siôn o’r wlad ‘itinerant worker’
  • Siôn Cwsg ‘sleepiness, or the sandman’
  • Siôn Ben Tarw ‘John Bull’
  • Look up Siôn at the dictionary of the Welsh language for many more interesting examples
  •  
    As for the use of Siôn Corn denoting the personification of yuletide, the earliest reference comes from the Welsh scholar, poet and songwriter, J. G. Davies in his 1923 Children’s songbook Cerddi Huw Puw:

    The history of Sion Corn is unknown to me any further back than my father’s dialogues with him in the seventies. He was a benevolent spook, living up the chimney in comfortable apartments. He had some mysterious interest in getting children off to bed early, and a more rational habit of making presents at Christmas, as a Welsh Santa Claus. I do not know whether my father found him in Edern, his mother’s home, or invented him. Anyhow, Sion Corn has done untruthful and amiable service for two generations.

    So it seems, before Siôn Corn took on the persona of Father Christmas, he had another job, helping to get children to bed, much like a Siôn Cwsgsandman’. Though, of all the meanings that Siôn connotes, I like Siôn llygad y geiniog ‘miser’ the best. Basically, Siôn can be both Father Christmas and Scrooge at the same time – Siôn really is a Siôn pob crefft ‘a Jack of all trades’.

    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!