Monday, December 12, 2016

The Kingdom of Speech

I just read a strange book on linguistics called The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe, published August 2016. I don't recall buying it, it must have been a $1 Kindle special or something.

I describe it as strange for several reasons. Wolfe's writing style is cynical, even flippant. His writing reminds me of one of the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader series, "Plunges into History" (2001). For example in describing Charles Darwin's response to the letter from Alfred Wallace (in which Wallace introduces his "survival of the fittest" theory of the origin of species which Darwin had been musing about for 20 years but never published or even written down) as "freaking out" (Wolfe does apologize for the anachronism).

Wolfe frequently wanders off in tangents. He "surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon..." an academic from Rice University upon which he wonders for half a page on how the Rice football team is doing and wanders from there to a discussion on concussions in the NHL.

The whole point of the long chapter on Darwin and Wallace seems to be merely to introduce the concept of the "flycatcher", a rather derogatory term for science field men, as opposed to the wealthy Gentleman Scientists like Darwin and Sir Charles Lyell. Because Wallace was considered a mere flycatcher, Wolfe argues, he was not given due recognition for his insights.

Wolfe next attacks Noam Chomsky, undoubtedly the most influential linguist of the 20th century. Chomsky's biggest asset, according to Wolfe, is his charisma. He compares him to Joseph Smith of the Mormons, the Buddha, Ron Hubbard and several other leaders of religious cults, and then for his youthful success to Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Chomsky and his followers deplore fieldwork, becoming "air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts."

Wolfe's biggest problems with Chomsky, other than his unprecedented domination of a field of study, was two of his theories - the Language Organ and Universal Grammar. The language organ theory developed and promoted by Chomsky argues that humans are born with a built in ability for language complete with what he called a "Universal Grammar" - basic syntax and structure, and the 6,000+ languages spoken around the world are mere variations of this. One of these structures is recursion, the ability to put thoughts inside of thoughts inside of thoughts. I use recursion in my own writing a lot (probably too much?) and have done so long before I even knew there was a name for it. Recursion, according to Chomsky (according to Wolfe), is what separates language from communication among other animals.

Wolfe also criticizes Chomsky for his political writings and activism, but that seems to me to be irrelevant to the case at hand. I have a copy of Chomsky's short book "9-11" on American foreign policy that makes sense to me.

The flycatcher term reappears in the chapter on Dan Everett and his 30 year study of the Piraha, a small tribe deep in the Amazon jungle. The Piraha have a very simple culture and a correspondingly simple language. Their only significant artifacts are bows and arrows. Their housing is little more than temporary shelters of branches and leaves. They have no leader, no class structure, no religion, no music. Their language likewise is simple - they use only 3 vowels and 8 consonants. They have no words for yesterday or tomorrow (only "today" and "other day") so have no concept of history or future. There is in fact only one tense, the present. They have no names for colors. They have no names for numbers, not even one and two, just a vague concept of a little and a lot. The simplicity of the language however does not make it easy to learn, and is described by Everett (the only outsider to become fluent in the language) as the most difficult language in the world with "highly esoteric constructions in grammar, including meaningful glottal stops and shifts in tone, plus a version consisting solely of bird sounds and fool their prey while out hunting." However one thing the Piraha language did not have is recursions. Every sentence is simple and straightforward. Everett believed he was experiencing a civilization preserved virtually unchanged for thousands of years and that the Piraha represented an early stage of human culture and language.

Everett published an article in Current Anthropology August-October 2005 describing the Piraha and arguing that, contrary to Chomskyan theory, the Piraha's grammar comes from their culture, not from any preexisting mental template. In 2008 Everett published a book aimed at the public about the Piraha which he called "Don't Sleep - There Are Snakes". The title comes from the Piraha's typical "good-night" greeting. (It's on my wish list!)

The Current Anthropology article, according to Wolfe, struck the Chomsky universal grammar with a "OOOF!--right into the solar plexus!...". Wolfe explicitly compares Everett with Wallace: "Everett struck them as a born-again Alfred Russel Wallace, the clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers."

Everett was immediately attacked by Chomsky's minions (my word - I'm surprised Wolfe didn't think of it) and accused him among other things of being a shameless liar and making claims no one will bother to check. Everett one-upped this claim by inviting a New Yorker magazine writer John Colapinto and linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch to visit the Piraha and see for themselves. Colapinto's story, published in April 2007, became instantly popular and Wolfe imagines Chomsky fuming
"...the New Yorker called him Dan, not Daniel L. the magazine's eyes he was an instant folk hero...Little Dan standing up to daunting Dictator Chomsky."
Another thing that sticks out in Wolfe's book is his thumbing his nose at what he considers "political correctness". In referring to the various groups being studied by linguistic field workers he writes "...among more breeds of na--er...indigenous peoples..." He must have thought this joke rather clever and funny for he repeats it five or six times throughout the book. Another time he refers to "the Inuit (the new "politically correct" name for Eskimos) at the North Pole...". To me, all Wolfe is doing here is proudly displaying his own ignorance.

Wolfe then goes on to relate several incidences from Everett's book: rushing his wife Keren who was dying of fever to a hospital upriver; and warding off an attack of Piraha men under the influence of cachaca, the local alcoholic beverage. To what purpose? I can only assume to make his readers want to read Everett's book. It adds nothing to the theme of his own book that I can see.

In the final chapter  Wolfe rambles on about the various directions that linguistics are moving in but ends with Everett's theory that language is a cultural tool, an artifact if you will, that man has made himself to represent things. Language is the ultimate form of mnemonics. Wolfe ends with his own personal revelation that speech was the first artifact and was essential for the creation of all the rest that have followed.

If you are still with me here, I'm going to share my own inexpert opinions on the theories discussed in this book.

Universal Grammar and the Language Organ - I believe there is something to this but it's not as hard wired as some portray it. The human brain is wired to learn language at an early age but the lexicon (list of words) and grammar that they learn varies considerably among the 6,000+ languages still spoken today. Words and grammar are artifacts in that they have been created by the people who spoke the language before, and are slowly changed, in ways fairly well understood, by the people who are speaking them now. But language itself is not an artifact. We are not all born with the ability to make pottery or weave textiles - we have to learn those and not everyone does. But everyone learns a language. We will never know, but it is possible and quite likely that all languages have a common ancestor.

The Piraha - From what we know of human migration, the ancestors of peoples in the Amazon jungle came from Asia some time in the last 10-20 thousand years. These ancestors had a well developed culture and language. I believe the simplicity of the Piraha culture and language is an example of regression rather than an early stage of development. For whatever reasons - isolation, catastrophic loss of elders, etc, they lost much of their ancestors' culture and language. Like fish who live in dark caves lose their sight. They didn't need to count so lost the ability to do so. Every day is much the same so no need to remember history or plan for the future. Interestingly the only artifact they retained is the bow and arrows, a rather sophisticated hunting tool important for survival. Had this culture been discovered in the Kalahari in a branch of the San people, there would be a stronger argument for this being a truly primitive (early stage of development) example of culture and language, but even then I believe regression would have played a significant role.

Other than display his gross ignorance, Tom Wolfe accomplished little in the writing of this book. He did generate some discussion on the topic, which I suppose always does some good. He makes a few valid points - that the domination of a field of study by an individual stifles progress; that Wallace didn't get the recognition he deserved; and that field workers are as important as office theorizers in advancing knowledge.

There are many critiques of this book. I wrote this before reading any of them to provide my own unbiased impressions. If you would like to see what other, more knowledgeable writers have to say, you can find some links here:
The Kingdom of Speech [Wikipedia]
The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe - a bonfire of facts reeking of vanity [Book of the Day]
Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom of Speech Takes Aim at Darwin and Chomsky [New York Times]
His white suit unsullied by research Tom Wolfe tries to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. [by Jerry Coyne, Washington Post]

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Skunked Terms

Are you confused by amused and bemused?

If so you're not alone. Bemused is one of those words whose meaning is shifting. Nonplussed is another. So is decimated of which I have previously written (somewhere I think - can't find it now).

Ironically the original meaning of both bemused and nonplussed is "perplexed", "bewildered" or "confused". Both words have since taken on different meanings which sorely perplexes those of us who actually know what the words are supposed to mean. Bemused is now often used to mean "slightly amused" and nonplussed to mean "unfazed". Methinks that it's the people giving them the new meanings that are confused.

How can such new and different meanings arise? Too easily, I'm afraid. People hear words they don't know and - instead of looking them up - guess their meanings based on context and in many cases by the meaning of similar sounding words (e.g. bemused, amused). Then they start using their newly acquired word in conversation and their equally ignorant (in the literal sense of the word) friends pick up the intended meaning from context, and away it goes. Spreading like cancer.

Thanks to my wife Donna for finding this 2008 article by Ben Zimmer: in

Bryan Garner in his book "Garner's Modern American Usage" defines these as "skunked terms" and describes two groups of their users. Group 1 maintains the traditional meaning while Group 2 adopts the modern usage.

Zimmer asks his readers which group they fall in - traditional or modern - or both. He then suggests that when clarity is important the best strategy is to avoid these terms altogether.

But as one of his readers points out in a comment, if Group 1 (who knows the original meaning) avoids using the skunked terms, then Group 2 wins by default, and the meaning will shift. Only if Group 1 sticks to their guns and (to mix a few metaphors) with constant vigilance maintains the right [meaning], can the word survive in it's original sense. At some point the battle is lost (as I fear it is for decimate) and there is no turning back.

I have a foot in both camps. On one hand (to mix anatomical metaphors) I understand that language changes, and that this is neither good or bad in itself; on the other hand it grates on the nerves to see it happen.

Unlike the Queen, "We are all bemused!"

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Can't believe it's been a year since my last post.

Wanted to share this link that was in this week's Word a Day weekly compendium. (if you aren't getting Word-A-Day see

"8 pronunciation errors that made the English language what it is today" (the Guardian 11 March 2014)

The article discusses 8 different types of pronunciation errors that have changed our language.
1. rebracketing - eg "a norange" to "an orange"
2. metathesis - sound swapping eg waps to wasp, aks to ask (and in some dialects, back to aks)
3. syncope - dropping pronunciation of letters eg krism's for Christmas, Woden's Day to Wednesday to "wensday"
4. epenthesis - inserting sounds that aren't there (to make it easier to pronounce) eg empty (originally emty) or "hampster" for hamster
5. velarisation - L after a vowel changing to a W eg walk, talk to wawk and tawk
6. affrication - changing ty before a vowel to tch eg tune from "tyune" to "tchune"
7. folk etymology - changing a new word to one that makes sense (sort of) in our familiar language eg crawfish from French √©crevisse (which has nothing to do with fish)
8. spelling pronunciation - saying it like it looks eg pronouncing the L in balm; sometimes this reverses syncope but often puts a letter in that wasn't there in the first place

Some of these mispronunciations became the norm before the spelling was standardized, others after. We know about the former only through the work of word historians (who knew bird used to be brid?). The latter contribute to the confusion of English spelling. Note in #4 the first example empty changed before the spelling was standardized, hamster afterwards; the second example in #3, Wednesday, changed both before and after.

I like this statement in paragraph 4:  "Error is the engine of language change, and today's mistake could be tomorrow's vigorously defended norm." 

Friday, March 22, 2013

English Celticisms – the “Dummy Do” and “Obsessive Progressive”

Last time I discussed the influence of the Norse settlers on English during the period between Old English and Middle English and how it filtered down from the north to become standard English. About the same time, perhaps beginning a few centuries earlier, there was a Celtic influence that began in the south and filtered northward.

This Celtic influence is much more significant than the handful of words that I wrote about in the August 2011 post “Celtic Vestigia”, but is only now beginning to be generally recognized. 

Professor John McWhorter in Lecture 4 of Myths. Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage (Great Courses 2012) describes three Celtic influences that appear in modern English. Two relate to sentence structure, the third is a vestigial counting system.

Let’s deal with the numbers first. In northern England there is a special counting system called sheep-scoring numbers, presumably used originally to count sheep. This system today is found only in children’s games and nursery rhymes. It goes like this for 1-10: aina, peina, para, pedera, pump, ithy, mithy, owera, lavera, dig. The closest known number words to these are Welsh: un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech, saith, with, naw, deg. The system of teen numbering is also similar. Note these are not an exact match, but the 4, 5 & 10 are strikingly similar. So the origin of the sheep-scoring system was not, of course, Welsh but an older British Celtic language that somehow survived down the centuries only in this children’s number game.

As an aside, nursery rhymes are excellent “museums” of old words and phrases which are passed down intact while the language around them changes. “Pease Porridge Hot” is a good example of this. Pease was once the singular of the little green vegetable with peasen the plural. At some point the “n” dropped from the plural making both singular and plural words the same. Then, as the “s” ending of plurals became more common, someone assumed that pease was peas, the plural of pea, and this usage spread.

What McWhorter calls the “meaningless do”, Professor Anne Curzan in Lecture 9 of The Secret Life of Words (Great Courses, 2012) dubs the “dummy do”. Both refer to the English grammatical structure of using do in question and negative sentences. Instead of asking “Smoke you?” as would be normal in most other languages (including Old English), we ask “Do you smoke?” And we reply “I do not smoke” rather than “I smoke not”.

In Celtic languages, do is also used in positive statement sentences, but this is optional in English, used occasionally for emphasis. “Yes, I smoke” or “Yes, I DO smoke. Do you MIND?” More likely you would simply reply, “No, I don’t” or “Yes, I do” in answering a question like that, where the action verb in your reply is understood rather than repeated.

Back in Shakespeare’s day the do form of statements was more common. Hamlet, near the end of his famous soliloquy: “…thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”. And Duncan to Macbeth: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be What thou art promis’d. Yet I do fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness…

Although this structure of using do sounds completely normal to us now, in fact it is very peculiar. The only other languages in the world that use do in this way are the Celtic languages. This use in English was first observed in Cornish English and gradually worked its way north. Cornish, spoken in Cornwall at the south-western tip of England, is one of the three Brittonic Celtic languages. Similarly to the core changes made by Norse speakers discussed last time, such changes to basic sentence structure were likely first made by Celtic (in this case Cornish) speakers who learned English as a second language. Bilingual speakers are more likely to use their native language sentence structure and overlay it with vocabulary from their new language. (I just made that up so would welcome comments from a linguist).

Similarly, the use of the progressive tense (the “ing” form of a verb indicating the action is ongoing) to show the present is another Celticism. This is what McWhorter calls the “obsessive progressive”. We ask “What are you doing?” instead of “What do you?” (in this case the verb do is the main verb, not a “dummy do”). And we answer “I am making dinner” not “I make dinner”. Again this is peculiar to English and the Celtic languages. It could be used in, for example, Spanish or German to emphasize that you are doing something right now, but that would be a rare usage (perhaps if your mother yelled at you “Get doing your homework!” you would reply “I AM doing my homework!”).

In Welsh to say “Mary is singing” it would be “Is Mary in singing”. Celtic languages have the word order VSO where the verb always comes first, so what looks to us like a question is in fact a statement. Notice the extra word “in” before the action word. English used to have this structure too but it was gradually lost with only a trace remaining in a few dialects. “I was on hunting” became “I was a-hunting” and finally “I was hunting”. See my post from October 2011 “A Hunting We Will Go” for more on this ancient grammatical structure. So this could be another Celticism.

Both the “dummy do” and the “obsessive progressive” show up suddenly in Middle English documents, with nary a trace in Old English. Why the sudden change? Two reasons – first there was 150-200 years starting after 1066 when French was the official language and hardly anything was written in English. Changes to the language during this time were not recorded anywhere. Celtic influence could have started as early as the 5th century with the first Saxon-Celtic interaction. If so, why is there no record in Old English documents? Simply because writing at that time did not record how the common people spoke. Writing was used exclusively for church documents and high literature – it would have been unthinkable to record common speech.

So whenever you use the “dummy do” or “obsessive possessive” sentence structure, you are speaking a remnant of the language of the ancient British Celts. I think this is rather fascinating, don’t you?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Simplification of English - Stage 2, The Viking Settlers

The first written texts of Middle English in the late 12th century show a remarkable simplification from Old English, just a century or two before. Verb and pronoun endings are reduced and simplified. Nouns lost their inflective endings (which indicate whether it was the subject or object of the verb) and relied more on prepositions and word order for meaning. Grammatical gender (nouns, adjectives and pronouns having different forms for male, female and neuter genders) was lost. And a few other simplifying changes that only a linguist could understand and appreciate. See this post by Linguistics Girl for a better explanation of these changes.

Linguists tell us that simplifications of this magnitude occur in a language only when it is learned as adults by a large enough group to influence the language spoken by the natives. It wasn't the Norman French, who were too few in number and mostly kept to themselves, who initiated this change. Rather it was the Norse from Denmark and Norway who had settled in eastern Britain in the late 8th and 9th centuries. This settlement (in contrast to previous Viking raids) was more or less peaceful. They ran businesses or farmed beside their English neighbors and often married English wives.

Because of their integration into English society, the Norse had to learn English. And adults, as you will know if you ever tried, find it difficult to learn another language fluently. Evidently they learned enough to get along and their simplified version of English gradually became the new standard across the country. Historical linguists tell us that these changes began in the northeast and gradually moved south over a period of several centuries.

A story related in Caxton's prologue to his translation of the Book of Eneydos in 1490 illustrates these changes in transition. A merchant ship was stranded in the Thames estuary by calm weather and a few of the men walked to a nearby house and asked the woman there for food. One asked for some "eggys", using the new (Norse) word. The woman didn't understand and said "Sorry I don't speak French", to which the merchant indignantly replied "Neither do I". Another merchant came to the rescue and explained that he was asking for "eyren", the old English word (singular "ey"), which the woman understood. You can read the story in Caxton's words here (page 2 starting line 25). He told the story to illustrate the predicament of English publishers in having to choose a dialect in which to print. It took over 200 years from the 14th to the 16th centuries for the word egg to become standard across England.

Norse also contributed many words to the English vocabulary. The most amazing are the pronouns they, them and their, replacing the Old English equivalents. Borrowing of pronouns is very rare and shows how significant the influence of Norse was on the core of the English language. Other core words include get, both, take, and want. Still other words are sky, skin, knife (and many other sk and kn words) and, as described above, egg. In many cases the Norse word was added, creating a synonym, rather than replacing the English word. Sometimes the adopted word took on a slightly different meaning, such as skirt (Norse) and shirt (English). Note that these words seem very English; they don't seem borrowed at all. Two reasons for this - Norse is another Germanic language so its words are more similar to English words than French or Latin words would be; and they were borrowed so long ago that they have become "Englishified" over time.

So English has two stages of people learning the language as adults and simplifying it in the process. First some people (possibly Semitic-speaking) in northern Europe learning Proto-Germanic (discussed in my previous post), then the Norse settlers in northeast England learning Old English. For them, all we native English speakers should be grateful, and those learning English as a second language even more so.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Simplification of English – Stage 1, Proto-Germanic

While our children were in high school we hosted several European exchange students in our home for whom English was a second, third, or even fourth language. I was surprised when they told me that they considered English an easy language to learn, or at least less complicated than their own (French, Polish, German and Hungarian). What they meant by this was the lack of gender for most nouns and the simplified verb forms, not our beloved illogical English spelling.

John McWhorter, in “Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage” (The Great Courses), explains two quite different stages in the development of English where simplification occurred. The first occurred at the Proto-Germanic stage and therefore affected all the Germanic languages. The second occurred between Old and Middle English. In this post I’ll explore the first.

Compared to the other branches of Indo-European (e.g. Latin, Greek, Celtic, Persian, Sanskrit and Slavic), Proto-Germanic is different in several striking ways. One was the shift in consonants which is known as Grimm’s Law (discussed in an earlier post) where “p” becomes “f”, “k” becomes “h” etc. Another was a significant loss of complexity of verb forms. Where other IE language families have different verb forms for I, we (you & I), we (you, I & others), you (singular), you (plural) and they, PG had only one “we” and had the same verb form for “we”, “you all” and “they”. Verb tenses were also simplified to four (present, past, subjunctive and passive) from six in Indo-European. There were also some internal vowel changes in verb tenses introduced to Proto-Germanic (which I don’t understand so won’t attempt to explain here). Then there is vocabulary – many Germanic words were borrowed early on from the neighboring Indo-European languages of Roman and Celtic, but up to a third of Germanic roots are believed to be of non-Indo-European source.  What was going on here?

This type of language change (significant simplification) is not the normal pattern. In fact it is only seen when a language is learned by a group as adults. Who could these adults be?

First keep in mind that nearly all of the wide distribution of Indo-European languages is the result of imposition of the language on existing inhabitants by an introduced ruling class (either military or mercantile), rather than by mass migration of Indo-European speakers. See my post on the PIE Homeland. It had been proposed by Colin Renfrew (and others) that the Indo-European languages were introduced to Europe along with agriculture by farmers migrating west and north from Anatolia (modern Turkey). It made a nice neat theory but turned out not to be true – agriculture preceded IE languages by several thousand years in Europe. There were therefore, by the time the Indo-European language was advancing up the Danube into northwest Europe, farmers settled there with their own languages, whatever they may have been. It was these people who learned Indo-European as adults and adopted it as their own.

There is some linguistic evidence suggesting that these northwestern European people who learned Indo-European, and made it into Proto-Germanic, spoke a Semitic language (of which Arabic and Hebrew are members). Semitic languages are rich in the internal vowel changes of the kind seen in Proto-Germanic verbs; the fricative consonants “f”, “h”, and “th” introduced to Proto-Germanic as explained in Grimm’s Law are common in Semitic languages, and a few of the non-PIE Germanic roots seem to have a Semitic connection. This Semitic influence theory, promoted by Prof. Theo Vennemann, is quite controversial.

One theory to explain a Semitic influence on Germanic languages has the Phoenicians, a Semitic speaking sea-faring people who are known to have reached Portugal, to have sailed all the way around to north-western Europe – the Netherlands perhaps or even Denmark. This is highly speculative at best, as there is no archaeological evidence and so far to my knowledge no genetic evidence, to support their presence that far north. My theory (and you saw it here first) is that some influence of Semitic languages had accompanied agriculture as it made its way from the middle east to northwestern Europe. One of Bryan Sykes' maternal ancestors of modern Europeans described in his 2001 book " The Seven Daughters of Eve" is Jasmine who originated in the middle east and is associated with the spread of agriculture into Europe. Her genes spread into Europe and it seems quite likely that her language did as well, hundreds of years before the introduction ofGermanic Indo-European languages.

Whoever the first speakers of Proto-Germanic were, we owe them our gratitude for helping to simplify not only English but every other Germanic language spoken today.

The next stage of simplification for English, which occurred during the transition from Old English to Middle English, is credited to, of all people, the Norse Vikings who settled in northern England. But that’s a story for another week.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

new books and Great Courses DVD lectures

I haven't posted anything here for a few months. Hope some of you at least have missed me! Anyway it's not for lack of material. I ordered in December (as a Christmas present for myself) a few new books and 2 more Great Courses lectures. I've been going through the dvds and learning lots of fascinating language trivia I hope to share here in future posts.

I haven't delved very far into the books yet. "Languages of the World - An Introduction" by Asya Pereltsvaig, 2012, is a textbook-like discussion of each of the world's main language families. I expect it will contribute much to a blog I have in mind showing the great variations, in many ways, of the languages of the world.

"Through the Language Glass - Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages" by Guy Deutscher, 2010, argues the controversial idea that the structure and lexicon (vocabulary) of our language affects how we think and view the world. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

The "Myths. Lies and Half-truths of Language Usage" lecture series is by John McWhorter who I enjoyed in "The Story of Human Language" series. There's a lot of repeat information but also much that is new.

The "Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins" is by Anne Curzan, a professor of linguistics at U of Michigan. I'm quite enjoying her lectures which are well organized and interestingly delivered.

Look for more posts in the coming weeks.