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Category: Number

Remember, remember

Remember, remember

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

A black cat wearing bat wings for Halloween
This bat scratches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procession of a Guy (1864)

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

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

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

A plurality of plurals

Of all the world’s languages, English is the most widely learnt by adults. Although Mandarin Chinese has the highest number of speakers overall, owing to the huge size of China’s population, second-language speakers of English outnumber those of Mandarin more than three times.

Considering that the majority of English speakers learn the language in adulthood, when our brains have lost much of their early plasticity, it’s just as well that some aspects of English grammar are pretty simple compared to other languages. Take for example the way we express the plural. With only a small number of exceptions, we make plurals by adding a suffix –s to the singular. The pronunciation differs depending on the last sound of the word it attaches to – compare the ‘z’ sound at the end of dogs to the ‘s’ sound at the end of cats, and the ‘iz’ at the end of horses – but it varies in a consistently predictable way, which makes it easy to guess the plural of an English noun, even if you’ve never heard it before.

That’s not the case in every language. Learners of Greek, for example, have to remember about seven common ways of making plurals. Sometimes knowing the final sounds of a noun and its gender make it possible to predict the plural, but  other times learners simply have to memorise what kind of plural a noun has: for example pateras ‘father’ and loukoumas ‘doughnut’ both have masculine gender and singulars ending in –as, but in Standard Greek their plurals are pateres and loukoumathes respectively.

This is similar to how English used to work. Old English had three very common plural suffixes, -as, -an and –a, as well as a number of less common types of plural (some of these survive marginally in a few high-frequency words, including vowel alternations like tooth~teeth and zero-plurals like deer). The modern –s plural descends from the suffix –as, which originally was used only for a certain group of masculine nouns like stān, ‘stone’ (English lost gender in nouns, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post).

How did the -s plural overtake these competitors to become so overwhelmingly predominant in English? Partly it was because of changes to the sounds of Old English as it evolved into Middle English. Unstressed vowels in the last syllables of words, which included most of the suffixes which expressed the gender, number and case of nouns, coalesced into a single indistinct vowel known as ‘schwa’ (written <ə>, and pronounced like the ‘uh’ sound at the beginning of annoying). Moreover, final –m came to be pronounced identically to –n. This caused confusion between singulars and plurals: for example, Old English guman ‘to a man’ and gumum ‘to men’ both came to be pronounced as gumən in Middle English. It also caused confusion between two of the most common noun classes, the Old English an-plurals and the a-plurals. As a result they merged into a single class, with -e in the singular and -en in the plural.

This left Middle English with two main types of plural, one with –en and one with –(e)s. Although a couple of the former type remain to this day (oxen and children), the suffix –es was gradually generalised until it applied to almost all nouns, starting in the North of England and gradually moving South.

A similar kind of mass generalisation of a single strategy for expressing a grammatical distinction is often seen in the final stages of language death, as a community of speakers transition from a minority to a majority language as their mother tongue. Nancy Dorian has spent almost 50 years documenting the dying East Sutherland dialect of Scots Gaelic as it is supplanted by English in three remote fishing villages in the Scottish highlands. In one study the Gaelic speakers were divided into fluent speakers and ‘semi-speakers’, who used English as their first language and Gaelic as a second language. Dorian found that the semi-speakers tended to overgeneralise the plural suffix –an, applying it to words for which fluent speakers would have used one of another ten inherited strategies for expressing plural number, such as changing the final consonant of the word (e.g. phũ:nth ‘pound’, phũnčh ‘pounds’), or altering its vowel (e.g. makh ‘son’, mikh ‘sons’).

But why should the last throes of a dying language bear any resemblance to the evolution of a thriving language like English? A possible link lies in second language acquisition by adults. At the same time as these changes were taking place, English was undergoing intense contact with Scandinavian settlers who spoke Old Norse. During the same period English shows many signs of Old Norse influence. In addition to many very common words like take and skirt (which originally had a meaning identical to its native English cognate shirt), English borrowed several grammatical features of Scandinavian languages, such as the suffix –s seen in third person singular present verbs like ‘she blogs’ (the inherited suffix ended in –th, as in ‘she bloggeth’), and the pronouns they, their and them, which replaced earlier hīe, heora and heom. Like the extension of the plural in –s, these innovations appeared earliest in Northern dialects of English, where settlements of Old Norse speakers were concentrated, and gradually percolated South during the 11th to 15th centuries.

It’s possible that English grammar was simplified in some respects as a consequence of what the linguist Peter Trudgill has memorably called “the lousy language-learning abilities of the human adult”. Research on second-language acquisition confirms what many of us might suspect from everyday experience, that adult learners struggle with inflection (the expression of grammatical categories like ‘plural’ within words) and prefer overgeneralising a few rules rather than learning many different ways of doing the same thing. In this respect, Old Norse speakers in Medieval England would have found themselves in a similar situation to semi-speakers of East Sutherland Gaelic – when confronted with a number of different ways of expressing plural number, it is hard to remember for each noun which kind of plural it has, but simple to apply a single rule for all nouns. After all, much of the complexity of languages is unnecessary for communication: we can still understand children when they make mistakes like foots or bringed.


The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

‘How cool is that?’ in German, literally ‘how horny is that then?’

One reason why translation is so difficult – and why computer translations are sometimes unreliable – is that languages are more than just different lists of names for the same universal inventory of concepts. There is rarely a perfect one-to-one equivalence between expressions in different languages: the French word mouton corresponds sometimes to English sheep, and at other times to the animal’s meat, where English uses a separate word lamb or mutton.

This was one of the great insights of Ferdinand de Saussure, arguably the father of modern linguistics. It applies not only in the domain of lexical semantics (word meaning), but also to the categories which languages organise their grammars around. In English, we systematically use a different form of nouns and verbs depending on whether we are referring to a single entity or multiple entities. The way we express this distinction varies: sometimes we make the plural by adding a suffix to the singular (as with hands, oxen), sometimes we change the vowel (foot/feet) and occasionally we don’t mark the distinction on a noun at all, as with sheep (despite the best efforts of this petition to change the singular to ‘shoop’). Still, we can often tell whether someone is talking about one or more sheep by the form of the agreeing verb: compare ‘the sheep are chasing a ball’ to ‘the sheep is chasing a ball’.

Some languages make more fine-grained number distinctions. The English word sheep could be translated as ovca, ovci or ovce in Slovenian, depending on whether you’re talking about one, two, or three or more animals, respectively. Linguists call this extra category between singular and plural the dual. The difference between dual and plural doesn’t show up just in nouns, but also in adjectives and verbs which agree with nouns. So to translate the sentence ‘the beautiful sheep are chasing a ball’, you need to ascertain whether there are two or more sheep, not just to translate sheep, but also beautiful and chase.

Lepi ovci lovita žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball
Lepe ovce lovijo žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball

According to some, having a dual number makes Slovenian especially suited for lovers (could this explain the Slovenian tourist board’s decision to title their latest campaign I feel sLOVEnia?). But putting such speculations aside, it’s hard to see what the point of a dual could be. We rarely need to specify whether we are talking about two or more than two entities, and on the rare occasions we do need to make this information explicit, we can easily do so by using the numeral two.

This might be part of the reason why many languages, including English, have lost the dual number. Both English and Slovenian ultimately inherited their dual from Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of many of the languages of Europe and India. Proto-Indo-European made a distinction between dual and plural number in its nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, but most of the modern languages descended from it have abandoned this three-way system in favour of a simpler opposition between singular and plural. Today, the dual survives only in two Indo-European languages, Slovenian and Sorbian, both from the Slavic subfamily.

In English the loss of the dual was a slow process, taking place over thousands of years. By the time the predecessor of English had split off from the other Germanic languages, the plural had replaced the dual everywhere except the first and second-person pronouns we and you, and verbs which agreed with them. By the earliest written English texts, it had lost the dual forms of verbs altogether, but still retained distinct pronouns for ‘we two’ and ‘you two’. By the 15th century, these were replaced by the plural forms, bringing the dual’s final demise.

Grammatical categories do not always disappear without a trace – in some languages the dual has left clues of its earlier existence, even though no functional distinction between dual and plural remains. Like English, German lost its dual, but in some Southern German dialects the dual pronoun enk (cognate with Old English inc, ‘to you two’) has survi­ved instead of the old plural form. In modern dialects of Arabic, plural forms of nouns have generally replaced duals, except in a few words mostly referring to things that usually exist in pairs, like idēn ‘hands’, where the old dual form has survived as the new plural instead. Other languages show vestiges of the dual only in certain syntactic environments. For example, Scottish Gaelic has preserved old dual forms of certain nouns only after the numeral ‘two’: compare aon chas ‘one foot’, dà chois ‘two feet’, trì casan ‘three feet’, casan ‘feet’.

Although duals seem to be on the way out in Indo-European languages, it isn’t hard to find healthy examples in other language families (despite what the Slovenian tourist board might say). Some languages have even more complicated number systems: Larike, one of the languages spoken in Indonesia, has a trial in addition to a dual, which is used for talking about exactly three items. And Lihir, one of the many languages of Papua New Guinea, has a paucal number in addition to both dual and trial, which refers to more than three but not many items. This system of five number categories (singular/dual/trial/paucal/plural) is one of the largest so far discovered. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum are languages which don’t make any number distinction in nouns, like English sheep.