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Category: historical linguistics

The linguistic archaeology of feet

The linguistic archaeology of feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

feet made filthy by umlaut!

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

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.

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Generally a sentence can be negative or positive depending on what one actually wants to express. Thus if I’m asked whether I think that John’s new hobby – say climbing – is a good idea, I can say It’s not a good idea; conversely, if I do think it is a good idea, I can remove the negation not to make the sentence positive and say It’s a good idea. Both sentences are perfectly acceptable in this context.

From such an example, we might therefore conclude that any sentence can be made positive by removing the relevant negative word – most often not – from the sentence. But if that is the case, why is the non-negative response I like it one bit not acceptable, odd when its negative counterpart I don’t like it one bit is perfectly acceptable and natural?

This contrast has to do with the expression one bit: notice that if it is removed, then both negative and positive responses are perfectly fine: I could respond I don’t like it or, if I do like it, I (do) like it.

It seems that there is something special about the phrase one bit: it wants to be in a negative sentence. But why? It turns out that this question is a very big puzzle, not only for English grammar but for the grammar of most (all?) languages. For instance in French, the expression bouger/lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’ must appear in a negative sentence. Thus if I know that John wanted to help with your house move and I ask you how it went, you could say Il n’a pas levé le petit doigt `lit. He didn’t lift the small finger’ if he didn’t help at all, but I could not say Il a levé le petit doigt lit. ‘He lifted the small finger’ even if he did help to some extent.

Expressions like lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’, one bit, care/give a damn, own a red cent are said to be polarity sensitive: they only really make sense if used in negative sentences. But this in itself is not the most interesting property.

What is much more interesting is why they have this property. There is a lot of research on this question in theoretical linguistics. The proposals are quite technical but they all start from the observation that most expressions that need to be in a negative context to be acceptable are expressions of minimal degrees and measures. For instance, a finger or le petit doigt `the small finger’ is the smallest body part one can lift to do something, a drop (in the expression I didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday) is the smallest observable quantity of vodka, etc.

Regine Eckardt, who has worked on this topic, formulates the following intuition: ‘speakers know that in the context of drinking, an event of drinking a drop can never occur on its own – even though a lot of drops usually will be consumed after a drinking of some larger quantity.’ (Eckardt 2006, p. 158). However the intuition goes, the occurrence of this expression in a negative sentence is acceptable because it denies the existence of events that consist of just drinking one drop.

What this means is that if Mary drank a small glass of vodka yesterday, although it is technically true to say She drank a drop of vodka (since the glass contains many drops) it would not be very informative, certainly not as informative as saying the equally true She drank a glass of vodka.

However imagine now that Mary didn’t drink any alcohol at all yesterday. In this context, I would be telling the truth if I said either one of the following sentences: Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka or Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka. But now it is much more informative to say the latter. To see this consider the following: saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka could describe a situation in which Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday but she still drank some vodka, maybe just a spoonful. If however I say Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka then this can only describe a situation where Mary didn’t drink a glass or even a little bit of vodka. In other words, saying Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday is more informative than saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday because the former sentence describes a very precise situation whereas the latter is a lot less specific as to what it describes (i.e. it could be uttered in a situation in which Mary drank a spoonful of vodka or maybe a cocktail that contains 2ml of vodka, etc)

By using expressions of minimal degrees/measures in negative environments, the sentences become a lot more informative. This, it seems, is part of the reason why languages like English have changed such that these words are now only usable in negative sentences.

Adventures in Historical Linguistics

Adventures in Historical Linguistics

While linguistics do not cut the same kind of glamorous profile in fiction as, say, international espionage or organized crime, it does pop up now and again. Even historical linguistics. Having stumbled across a couple older examples recently (thus, historical fictional historical linguistics), I commend them to our readers as an alternative to the cheap thrills that might otherwise tempt them.

Leon Groc’s Le deux mille ans sous la mer (‘2000 years under the sea’), from 1924, starts out with our heroes supervising the construction of a tunnel under the English Channel. They discover a mysterious inscription on a rock face. Fortunately, one of the party is a philologist, and identifies it as Chaldean (i.e. a form of Aramaic)! And a particularly archaic variety at that. This impresses the rest of the party, at least as much as the content of the inscription itself: Impious invaders, you shall not go any further. However, a subsequent mining accident forces them to break through the rock, where they discover a cavern inhabited by race of pale blind people, descendants of Chaldeans (or to be more precise, speakers of Chaldean) who had sought refuge in that cavern from some long-forgotten disaster, only to discover they couldn’t find a way out. The learned philologist applies his practical knowledge of Chaldean in communicating them. I won’t spoil the fun for those of you planning to read it; but it does not go well.

James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder from 1888 features members of a British expedition surveying the South Pacific becoming stranded in an unknown country with – once again – some cave dwellers, who call themselves Kosekin and speak a Semitic language. In the usual fashion of such stories in this period, there is a narrative within a narrative, in this case the manuscript directly relating the adventure, and the commentary of the members of the yacht party who discovered it. While the core narrator (named More) merely recognizes some affinity to Arabic, one of the members of the yacht party just so happens – once again – to have a philological background, which, after a lengthy digression on the comparative method and Grimm’s law, leads him to conclude that the underground race speaks a language descended from Hebrew:

I can give you word after word that More has mentioned which corresponds to a kindred Hebrew word in accordance with ‘Grimm’s Law.’ For instance, Kosekin ‘Op,’ Hebrew ‘Oph;’ Kosekin ‘Athon,’ Hebrew ‘Adon;’ Kosekin ‘Salon,’ Hebrew ‘Shalom.’ They are more like Hebrew than Arabic, just as Anglo-Saxon words are more like Latin or Greek than Sanscrit.

Further proof of the power of historical linguistics in a tight situation comes from  E. Charles Vivian’s City of Wonder (1923). Again in the South Pacific, a group of adventurers is attacked by a strange woman (speaking, of course, a strange language) in charge of a monkey army. Taking stock after having slaughtered the attackers, the narrator asks one of his companions:

“What is the language she used?” I asked.

“The nearest I can tell you, so far, is that it’s a sort of bastard Persian,” he answered. “It’s a dialect built on a Sanskrit foundation—in my youth I studied Sanskrit, for it’s the key to every Aryan language or dialect in the East, and I always meant to come East. I must stuff you two.”

“Stuff us?” Bent asked.

“Fill you up with words that will be useful—it’s astonishing what you can do in a language if you know three or four hundred words in common use. If you hear it and have to make yourself understood in it, the construction of sentences very soon comes to you. That is, if the language is built on an Aryan foundation, as this is.”

It’s that easy! You just need to learn the method.

Back underground, Howard De Vere’s A Trip to the Center of the Earth, first published in New York Boys’ Weekly in 1878, is a story I haven’t been able to track it down yet, but from the description in E.F. Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years, it promises to be one of the high points in early dime novel treatments of historical linguistics. A pair of boys exploring Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave come across an underground world where

pallid underground people speak English of a sort, in which inflections have disappeared and certain alterations have taken place.

What could those certain alterations be? As an added bonus, the story is of culinary interest, as the next sentence of Bleiler’s description goes:

Geophagists, they live on a nourishing clay, access to which is sometimes barred by gigantic spiders of extraordinary venomosity.

Alongside lost race fantasies, futuristic science fiction is another obvious vehicle for literary forays into historical linguistics. Régis Messac’s Quinzinzinzili from 1935 is a particularly interesting variant, being – as far as I know – the only serious fictional treatment of contact linguistics. (Admittedly I haven’t looked elsewhere.) Set in the period after a fictional World War II which everybody in this interwar period seemed to be expecting anyway), its narrator is trapped in a post-apocalyptic world alone with a particularly annoying handful of pre-teens. (And thus probably the most gruesome post-apocalyptic story ever written.) They are largely French speakers, but there are Portuguese speakers and English speakers among them as well. They develop a sort of pidginized French, colored by a spontaneous sound changes such as the nasalization of all vowels, along with curious semantic shifts. The title Quinzinzinzili reflects this all, being their rendition of the second clause in the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (qui es in cœlis ‘who art in Heaven’), used as a name for their inchoate deity. I won’t say any more because I think everybody should read it. Way better than Lord of the Flies, which it preceded and superficially resembles. (And which has no noteworthy linguistic content.)

And if anybody knows a good source for back issues of  New York Boys’ Weekly, our lines are open.