Friday, October 19, 2012

Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism - a Modern Debate

I previously wrote about this debate in my April 2 post "Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in the 18th Century". This post brings the debate up to the 21st century.

A friend sent me this link to a debate between two modern linguists in the New York Times "Room for Debate" section from September 27, 2012.

On the side of the Prescriptivists is Bryan A. Garner, the founder of LawProse, the author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage” and the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary. Representing the Descriptivists is Robert Lane Greene, an international correspondent for The Economist, and the author of “You Are What You Speak.” You may remember Greene from my "Grammar Mistakes that Aren't" post on May 20 of this year in which I refer to his book.

These two appear to be moderates within their chosen stance, and are able to appreciate the other's position even while disagreeing with it. Green quotes Garner calling himself a "descriptive prescriber" and later writes that he considers himself a “prescriptive descriptivist”. Greene further balances his descriptivism by quoting from his own writing:
“There is a set of standard conventions everyone needs for formal writing and speaking. Except under unusual circumstances, you should use the grammar and vocabulary of standard written English for these purposes.”
I found this entire discussion interesting ("fascinating" would be a bit of a stretch) and hope you will too. I'm pleased to see that the debate has matured since the 18th century and the two sides - or at least these two writers - are drawing closer together. But don't misunderstand me - there's plenty of sparring and poking at the other's position. Even their concessions can be back-handed - Garner writes:
...descriptivists have moderated the indefensible positions they once took. The linguists have switched their position — without, of course, acknowledging that this is what they’ve done.
Then Green counters with
I hereby promise, as you ask, to “stop demonizing all prescriptivists and start acknowledging that the reputable ones have always tried to base their guidance on sound descriptions.”
And on it goes...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Malapropisms, Mondegreens & Spoonerisms

Let’s have some fun with English. This post will deal with three types of English mistakes which can be humorous.

Malapropisms are, in my opinion, the funniest. They occur when the speaker substitutes a similar sounding word for the one intended, sometimes resulting in quite a different meaning. The word malapropos means “inappropriate”. The term malapropism comes from an 18th century English play in which a character named Mrs. Malaprop frequently, and hilariously, used words that weren’t quite what she meant. Shakespeare made good use of malapropisms both to inject humor and to show a character’s ignorance. Archie Bunker in the TV show “All in the Family” was famous for his malapropisms like “a woman doctor is only good for women’s problems, like your groinocology”. Most of us have an acquaintance that practices malapropisms frequently; we have to stifle our snickers and then secretly write them down before we forget them.

Malapropisms commonly occur when the speaker is using a figurative expression that they don’t quite understand, and think that any word will do that sounds similar. An example I heard recently was “chopping at the bit”. If you have ever worked with horses, riding or driving, you will know that when a horse is anxious to get going he will chew energetically at the bit in his mouth, thus “chomping at the bit”. My daughter-in-law was telling someone a year or two ago that her daughter was starting to develop a bad habit, but she “nicked it in the butt”. She’s not a gardener.

Technical terms, especially medical, that people are unfamiliar with are often substituted with similar sounding words that sound more familiar. In my health food store I frequently have elderly gentlemen confide in me that they need something to help with their prostrate. I recently heard someone talk about his digestive track. If he had a case of diarrhea I suppose his food might speed through his digestive tract as if it was a racetrack.

Often, though, it is plain carelessness that causes the substitution. I overheard a mother of two young children telling a friend that her kids went to “vocation bible school” last week. While she might wish them to eventually go into the ministry, age 6 or 8 is a bit young for serious training in a profession. For any unfamiliar with the concept, what she meant was “Vacation Bible School” which some churches hold for a week during the summer holidays to entertain young children and teach them biblical principles.

There is a subset of malapropisms, called Eggcorns (named for the example of egg corns for acorns), where the substituted word makes sense, even if the meaning is changed, while malapropisms do not have to make sense. Most of the examples given above could fit in the eggcorn category.

Mondegreens are similar to malapropisms. They result from the mishearing (rather than misremembering or misunderstanding) of a word or phrase from a song or poem. The name comes from a line in an old Scottish poem which an American writer, Sylvia Wright, misheard as a child:
Ye highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.
What she heard in the last line was “…and Lady Mondegreen”.

Mondegreens commonly occur with phrases whose language is antiquated or of a foreign dialect, as in the founding example. Two great sources are the King James translation of the bible and old hymns. These have the advantage (for Mondegreen genesis that is) of having difficult concepts expressed with unfamiliar words but readily accessible to young children.

My aunt, who had two older sisters named Eva and Frances, thought the line of a hymn “Jesus loves even me” was “Jesus loves Eva and me”. (I’m not sure what she thought Jesus had against Frances). My older brother once thought the last line of Psalm 23 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” meant that he would be stalked by Shirley and two other girls that he didn’t know. A classic example quoted in the Wikipedia article is a line from a Fanny Crosby hymn “Gladly the cross I’ll bear” misheard as “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”.

Children can create mondegreens even from familiar songs and words. A good example is Olive, the mean reindeer in the song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. You know, the one who “used to laugh and call him names”. [I don’t know who first originated this mondegreen but it's been made into a book (1997) and an animated movie (1999)].

The third type of amusing English error, Spoonerisms, is quite different from the first two. It occurs when parts of words are interchanged, sort of a verbal dyslexia. Its name comes from Rev. William Archibald Spooner of New College, Oxford, who was famous for these slips of the tongue. Apparently students would flock to his lectures hoping to experience one of these first-hand. One attributed to Spooner that is often quoted today is the question “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”

Spoonerisms are not as common as malapropisms or mondegreens. The only one I know of personally (and it’s second hand) was related to my plant ecology class by Dr. Stan Rowe at U of Saskatchewan. A colleague had shared with Dr Rowe his excitement at discovering a group of large stones known in geomorphology as erratic blocks (erratic because they had been transported by glaciers far from their origin, and block because of their large size). The way it came out was “…we came over a hill and there before our eyes was a whole field of erotic blacks.”

Please share examples of any of these that you have heard, either as a comment below or directly to me in an email to

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Literally" drives me crazy

The misuse of "literally" drives me crazy. Well, figuratively that is. I haven't had to see a psychiatrist (or even a psychologist) about it and haven't yet had to take one of my herbal/vitamin stress formula tabs because of it. But it is annoying, frustrating and downright irritating (but not aggravating which means to make an existing condition worse, as in "typing long blog posts aggravates my carpal tunnel syndrome", and which is often misused for irritating which means, figuratively, to do to your mind what a mosquito bite does to your skin - but I digress...).

The point I'm making here is that literally means "according to the exact meaning of a word". So if you hear that a friend "literally died laughing" you should make plans to attend the funeral.

Literally is apparently a favorite pet peeve of a large number of people. Chris Bucholz chose literally as #1 of 7 "grammar errors that aren't" in a post on his blog. After explaining that literally is often used to mean just the opposite - that a gross exaggeration is implied and expected to be understood - he goes on to defend it as a natural change in word meaning. He's a brave man, but makes several good points. One point is historical use by famous authors for which he refers his readers to another good article on literally in the e-zine Slate. The other is that, though it may (figuratively) grate on our nerves, we are forced to admit that in nearly all cases we do know what they mean. Chris hastens to assure us that he is by no means condoning this misuse of literally, which as he puts it is "...a weak, even cliched way of emphasizing something...", he is just advocating a bit more tolerance. 

There is even a blog, called "Literally, A Web Log", devoted exclusively to the abuse of the word literally. The authors Patrick Fitzgerald and Amber Rhea list three categories of uses for the word:


Incorrect usage of “literally”. For example, “I literally dropped dead when I heard the news”.


Using “literally” when it is not needed. For example, “I literally lost hundreds of dollars in Vegas”.


A particularly good example of using “literally”. For example, “I literally bought the farm” to mean an exchange of money (not a loss of life).

The authors and readers post examples from news and other media of the use and misuse of literally. The website has 22 links to other websites on the subject. In 2009 the authors moved to a Facebook page where they continue to document misuses of literally

The Slate article - "The Word We Love to Hate - Literally" - is more scholarly and well researched. The history of the change in meaning is carefully documented. Towards the end of the 17th century "literally" was being used to emphasize true statements by writers, including Alexander Pope and Jane Austen. One hundred years later, by the end of the 18th century, "literally" was being used to emphasize statements which were figurative or metaphorical in nature. Authors guilty of this grammatical sin include: Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, James Fenimore Cooper, William M. Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Henry David Thoreau. Surprisingly it wasn't until the early 20th century that grammarians began to protest the misuse of the word. The article goes on to explain that literally has become just another contranym - a word with two opposite meanings - like cleave (to separate / to stick together) or scan (to read thoroughly / to skim quickly). 

So why does the misuse of literally stick in our craw (figuratively), when we overlook equally misused words like aggravate and scan? I don't really know. One of the reasons could be the feeling of self-satisfaction we experience when we know something someone else doesn't - like the actual meaning of the word "literally". Our feigned indignation may be merely our way of pointing out to others (and ourselves) how superior we are. In fact I suspect this is behind most grammarian sticklerism.

But if I hear one more person use literally for figuratively, I may scream. Literally. So plug your ears!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Plural Apostrophe

I ended the last post with my observation that  all changes to language are fine and acceptable – except for the ones I don’t like. This provides a useful introduction to discuss some of my own pet language peeves. 

I'll start with my favorite "love to hate" punctuation error, the  "plural apostrophe". In England it is sometimes called the "greengrocer's apostrophe" from the habit of grocery store managers (or at least their sign-writers) who write signs like "Cucumber's $1.00" and "Banana's $1.50/lb".

The rule is so simple ("apostrophe-s" is used to show possessive) that I simply can't understand how so many people get the idea that all plurals ending in "s" need an apostrophe. Richard Lederer and John Shore in the apostrophe chapter of Comma Sense discuss the misuse of apostrophes in house signs and mailboxes. Mailboxes commonly have people's names like "The Smith's" and "William's". The second example is doubly in error because, since the mailbox presumably belongs to a family with surname Williams, the apostrophe, which shouldn't be there to start with, is in the wrong place. But at least Williams looks like a plural word. Some go beyond the plural apostrophe and feel that no word ending in "s" should be allowed to go apostrophe-less. To continue the mailbox example, we sometimes even get "Jone's". Aaaarrrrgggghhh!!!

Now here's an interesting example of my own: 
a) I am going to Smiths.
b) I am going to Smiths'.
c) I am going to Smith's.

This sentence leaves out some words that are implied or meant to be understood. Each of these sentences could be correct, depending on the words left out. Here are the full sentences with explanations:
a) I am going to visit the Smiths. (a family with surname Smith)
b) I am going to the Smiths' house. (the house belongs to a family named Smith)
c) I am going to Smith's house. (the house belongs to a guy named or nicknamed Smith)

To give the plural apostrophe writers a bit of a break, there are examples when an apostrophe-s  is used to show plural. However, these situations are extremely rare and can't have spawned the ubiquitous plural apostrophes (can they?). Anyway, here they are:
- the plural of letters and numbers: "Mind your p's and q's" and "How many 3's are in your phone number?" Apostrophes, however, are not needed for the plural of dates or acronyms e.g. 1900s and DVDs.
- the plural of some short words like do. Dos, I suppose, could be confused with DOS (and I'm old enough to remember using it before Windows) so do's it is.

There is another excuse we could give for plural apostrophe writers. According to Lynne Truss, prior to the 19th century apostrophes were used, quite correctly, to show the plural of foreign words ending in a vowel. She gives the examples of words like folio's, pasta's and - yes - banana's. However I doubt that the average grocery store owner knows this fact. Hey, I own a health food store and I didn't know this before.

The confusion between the words its and it's is such a common problem that it's only right to give this error its own paragraph. Here the apostrophe is used only for the contraction of "it is". The possessive pronoun its does not need an apostrophe any more than the other possessive personal pronouns like his, hers, ours, yours and theirs. Simple, right? Now to confuse you again, the possessive of indefinite pronouns like anyone and everybody do require an apostrophe: "It's anyone's guess why everybody's use of the apostrophe is so mixed up".

I invite you to share in the comments some humorous examples of the misuse of apostrophes that you have observed.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grammar Mistakes That Aren’t

I’ve just nicely started reading a new language book and want to share some thoughts from it. Robert Lane Greene is a writer who lives in New York. Greene is a regular correspondent for The Economist and has published in The New York Times and many other well established periodicals so is well acquainted with modern English usage yet is no fan of prescriptionism. In his 2011 book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, Greene “pokes gentle fun” at linguistic sticklers.

As Greene learned new languages (he speaks nine last count) he began to question English grammar rules. If Danes can end sentences with a preposition, why can’t the English?

Here are some quotes from the Preface:

I think flexibility, humility, and multilingualism should take the place of sticklerism, arrogance, and nationalism when we think about language.

Language isn’t just rules and words, but communication.

Greene warns about journalists or other writers who, because they know how to use language well, think they can write about language without doing their research. He compares this to a top athlete thinking he is a physiologist. Greene devotes several pages to humorist author Bill Bryson’s “facts” about English and other languages that, in fact, just aren’t so.

Greene then takes umbrage with language sticklers, focusing on Lynne Truss in particular. The rally cry of her best-selling book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” (2003) is “Stickler’s unite!”. Greene argues that her “fury on the decline of English punctuation and those who hasten it” is greatly “out of proportion to the crime”. As an example he quotes her pronouncement that those who misplace apostrophes “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” Greene doesn’t seem to get her use of the British hyperbole. Later Truss demonstrates her appreciation of the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) for standardizing Western punctuation by “absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies”. Perhaps Greene missed reading the Publisher’s Note to the American edition which ends “Please enjoy this narrative history of punctuation as it was meant to be enjoyed, bone-dry humour and cultural references intact…”

Getting back to my post title, there are two types of “grammar mistakes that aren’t”. One type occurs when the critic misunderstands or misapplies grammar rules himself. An example might be saying that the sentence “Send a copy to Joe and me” should be “Send a copy to Joe and I”. The first sentence is correct; the “and I” rule applies to the subject not the object of a sentence. Such incorrect corrections can be either ignored or dealt with satisfactorily by reference to the actual rule.

The second type, a few of which Greene tackles in his book, are grammar rules that shouldn’t be. Greene lists three bases for grammar rules:
·         clarity – does it make the meaning clearer?
·         literary tradition – is it used (or not) by great English writers, past and present?
·         purity – is it native to English or adopted from another language?

I would argue that only the first is essential. Just because Milton or Shakespeare broke a grammar rule doesn’t make it obsolete. And a rule borrowed from another language, if it makes English easier and clearer, should be welcomed. Some grammar rules, however, fail all three. Here are some examples:

Ending a sentence with a preposition
This is a natural sentence structure. We all do it. But according to a grammar rule, we shouldn’t. (We aren’t supposed to start a sentence with “but” either; I’ll get to that in a minute). So where did the rule prohibiting this particular sentence structure come from? (Now doesn’t that sound better than “from where did the rule… come?)  Blame a 17th century poet, John Dryden, who liked to compose in Latin and then translate into English. Because one can’t end a Latin sentence with a preposition, Dryden stipulated that one shouldn’t in English either. His arbitrary rule was adopted by the writers of the first English grammar books in the 18th century and continues to influence writers to this day.

Double Negatives
Robert Lowth, who I discussed in my post of April 2, proclaimed that two negatives cancel each other. Thus “He don’t know nothing” must mean that he does know something rather than emphasizing his ignorance. While this rule has some basis in mathematical logic (-2 x -3 = +6) there is no reason that it has to apply to English. The use of double negatives for emphasis is common in certain dialects and everyday speech both historically (Chaucer and Shakespeare used it) and currently. Some languages like Spanish and Russian require the negative pronoun with a negative verb.

Split infinitives
The rule banning the insertion of words between the “to” and the rest of the verb in the infinitive tense is more modern, appearing in an anonymous article in 1834. The rule was adopted by grammarians and quickly became official. It likely originated from Latin and Greek where it is impossible because the infinitive form is one word. It completely fails the clarity test and has a long list of respected authors who ignore it – both historically (before the rule was invented) and afterwards (witness Star Trek’s “to boldly go...”). George Bernard Shaw verbally attacked an editor of a newspaper who had corrected his split infinitives calling him, among many other names, “a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot…” and suggested he be replaced by an intelligent Newfoundland dog. Ironically, Shaw’s character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion shows a complete intolerance of nonstandard speech when he tells Eliza Doolittle “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live.”

The attitude towards these (and other) rules is changing. Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) in his 1926 book A Dictionary of Modern English Usage encouraged readers to ignore rules that didn’t make sense or which caused ambiguity. He freely gave license to split infinitives, to end sentences with prepositions, to begin sentences with “and” or “but”, and to use “none” with a plural verb (e.g. “none of us are going”).

I agree that the first and third rule described above can be safely ignored. On the use of double negatives I’m not so sure. While the rule could have gone either way (that two negatives cancel or reinforce each other), one or the other should be standard. The use of double negatives was already in decline when Lowth’s rule was written, he just finished it off. For clarity sake, I would reserve a reinforcing double negative for dialogue in a dialect where it would not be unexpected (did you catch my double negative where the intent is to cancel?). One tip is the word “ain’t”; if someone says “she ain’t never comin' back” there’s no use waiting up for her.

Fowler’s rather liberal English usage book was published in England which one would expect to be the bastion of prescriptionism. Meanwhile in freedom-loving America William Strunck Jr. and E.B. White published, in 1959  The Elements of Style, commonly referred to as “Strunk and White”. This book is full of picky little rules, many of which are quite arbitrary like Strunk’s ban on beginning a sentence with “however”. White added “hopefully” to the sentence-beginning ban list as in “Hopefully, I’ll do better tomorrow”. Greene argues that in this usage “hopefully” is a “sentence adverb”, and gives another example “Honestly, he’s a liar”. In Greene’s example, “honestly” obviously does not describe the person being talked about but modifies the rest of the sentence. If “honestly” is acceptable in this structure, why shouldn’t “hopefully” be?

White’s inflexibility on the many rules in their book seems at odds with his beautiful quote on language change that I use in my blog heading. I suppose it illustrates the idea that language is very personal: “all changes to language are fine and acceptable – except for the ones I don’t like”.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in the 18th Century

There are two opposing philosophies in the history of linguistics which can be summed up as prescriptivism and descriptivism. Should linguists write how the language ought to be spoken or written, or just record how, in fact, it is spoken or written?

The science of modern linguistics has come firmly down on the descriptive side. They realize that it is not only futile but fruitless to try to prevent a language from changing or to convert all dialects to a standard. But it was not always so.

During the Renaissance (16th and 17th centuries) the “correct” spelling and pronunciation of English words became an important class distinction differentiating between those of refined upper class from the “vulgar” masses. Significantly, it was during this time that the meaning of the word vulgar changed from simply “of the people” (eg Vulgar Latin) to its modern sense of crudeness and inferiority.

During the centuries to follow, linguists would fall into either of the two extremes. Robert Lowth (1710-1787) was a strong prescriptivist; Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) more of a descriptivist. Lowth wrote several books on English grammar in order to “teach what is right”. What he decided was “right” was based largely on his study of Latin. For example, it was Lowth who gave us the rule that sentences should not end with a preposition (now what did he have to do that for?).

Priestly on the other hand was an empirical scientist and understood the importance of observation (as well as a grammarian, he helped discover oxygen and founded Unitarianism in England and later in the United States). His book on grammar, published about the same time as Lowth’s, was based not on Latin principles but on “…a collection of observations on the structure of it…” Priestly had his personal grammatical biases too, however. Like most scientists of his day he had a strong attraction to the idea of simplicity and applied this to English grammar. While keeping English grammar rules simple is a noble objective, he also applied it to the vocabulary and strove to pare English down to its English roots. He particularly disliked what he called “Gallicisms”, that is words recently adopted from French. Priestly’s philosophy on language is summed up in this quote: “I think it not only unsuitable to the genius of a free nation but in itself ill-calculated to reform and fix a language”.

Another linguist of the 18th century, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) started as a prescriptivist and then converted to a descriptivist. Johnson is most famous for his 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, the significance of which I shall devote a later post to (sorry Lowth!). In his proposal for the dictionary to his patron Lord Chesterfield, written in 1747, Johnson describes his goal to bring rule and order to the English language. He compares himself to Caesar about to invade Britain, and expresses the hope that “…though I should not complete the conquest, I shall at least discover the coast, civilize part of the inhabitants, and make it easy for some other adventurer to proceed farther, to reduce them wholly to subjection, and settle them under laws.” He continues to explain “This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary, a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” Johnson was proposing to single handedly reform the entire English language with his dictionary which he estimated would take him three years to complete.

Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755, 8 years after the proposal. During this time his goals had shifted. In the preface to the dictionary, Johnson uses much different analogies to describe his work. He had come to recognize that language was continuously subject to change and that the goal of the lexicographer was “to register the language” rather than to fix it. Reforming a language would be like “trying to rope in a river”. He compared the immensity of this task to a story from Greek mythology: “ persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.”

But of course Johnson’s 1755 dictionary did in fact serve to “fix” the English language by the very act of recording it. For 150 years until the publishing of the first Oxford English Dictionary, it was the standard reference in both the schools and the home for spelling, pronunciation and definition. In it he codified the spelling reforms made by grammarians during the previous two centuries. In Lecture 21 of The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition [The Great Courses, 2008], Professor Seth Lerer describes the dictionary as “an arbiter of language and a guide to life”.

I maintain there is a place for both prescriptivism and descriptivism in English. In the short term, elementary and high schools must teach students the standard rules of the language – spelling, grammar and punctuation. This is essential for clear, unambiguous communication, not only with one’s neighbor but with speakers of the language around the world. However I also believe that grammarian authorities (whoever they be) need to be more willing to accept natural changes to the language. A case in point is who and whom, discussed in my post of 11 Sept 2011.

Let me finish with a quote from page 20 of Lynne Truss’ delightful book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. She is writing about punctuation but I submit that her argument applies equally to spelling and grammar.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an oversensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Proto-Indo-European Homeland Puzzle

The Indo-European Language Family

Indo-European was the first language family to be identified. This discovery, and the beginning of modern linguistics, can be dated to February 2, 1786 at a gathering of scientists and other interested men. Sir William Jones, speaking at the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, made this astounding statement:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

Jones later added Persian and Celtic as likely members of this family of languages.

Jones was uniquely qualified to make this discovery. His parental language was Welsh; he was taught English at school; he learned classical Greek and Latin in university where he studied law; he wrote the first English grammar of the Persian language (which earned him a reputation as one of the most respected linguists in Europe); and when appointed a judge in India at age 37 set out to learn the Sanskrit language to better understand local laws. Thus by age 40 Jones was familiar with a language in 6 (out of a total of 12) different Indo-European language branches.

Indo-European languages are spoken today by over 3 billion people - about half of the world's population - as either a first or second language. These languages are divided into 10 or 12 language branches or subfamilies. See the attached graph (Figure 1.1 of The Horse, The Wheel and Language p.12) which is arranged more or less geographically. English is a member of the Germanic subfamily along with German, Dutch, Frisian, the Scandinavian languages (which includes Icelandic), Yiddish, and Afrikaans. Other languages to note include:
            Tocharian – two extinct languages found in western China, the farthest East branch
            Hittite – a member of the extinct Anatolian branch – the earliest branch to separate
            Romany – the language of the Gypsies of Europe, is a member of the Indic branch showing that they originated in northwest India (not to be confused with Rumanian which is a member of the Latin or Romance language branch)

Source: Figure 1.1 of The Horse, The Wheel and Language p.12

About 6,000 to 5,000 years ago the parent language, called Proto-Indo-European, was spoken by a semi-nomadic tribe of people in the southern Ukraine and Russia. How their language spread and evolved into all of all these languages could be the subject for a future lecture. Today I want to show how historical linguistics and archaeology were combined to solve the puzzle of who the speakers of Proto-Indo-European were, and where and when they lived.
Source: Figure 1.2 of The Horse, The Wheel and Language p.14

The Proto-Indo-European Homeland Puzzle

Since the discovery of the IE language family, the location of the homeland of the original speakers has been claimed by different people to be many different places: India, Pakistan, Syria/Lebanon, the Caucasus Mountains, Turkey, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans and Germany. By the late 20th century linguists only seriously considered two of these – Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the steppes of southern Ukraine and Russia. And as recently as 2000, Calvert Watkins in his essay “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans” which introduces his book The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots stated “Archaeologists have not in fact succeeded in locating the Indo-Europeans.”

Colin Renfrew was a strong supporter of the other serious contender, Anatolia. Renfew's elegant proposal, published in the 1990's, had Proto-Indo-European migrant farmers carry their language along with agriculture from the Middle East to the westernmost part of Europe. But like many elegant theories, this one turned out to be not true. (I was greatly disappointed when linguistics and DNA analysis disproved Thor Heyerdahl's theories of Polynesian origins). There are, as we will see, serious problems with Renfrew's theory.

Before going further, I need to emphasize one point. Proto-Indo-European is a language. It is not a culture, nor is it a genetically-definable population. Language does not necessarily follow cultural boundaries, which can be determined by archaeology. Every first year archaeology student is taught “pots are not people”. But we know that someone must have spoken this language, and they must have lived in a particular place during a particular time. So while looking for the speakers of Proto-Indo-European we need to be careful of this constraint.
Clues from the Language

Since Proto-Indo-European is a language, let's look first at clues to the homeland from the language itself. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots published in 2000 contains 1350 reconstructed root words and several thousand more words based on these roots. These words have been painstakingly reconstructed by comparing similar words (called cognates) from the daughter languages over the more than 200 years since Jones' discovery. What can we learn about the people who spoke this language from their vocabulary?

they knew four seasons with snow in winter
they were not familiar with tropical plants or animals
animals include: wolf, lynx, elk beaver, otter, mouse, fish
birds include: crane, goose, duck, eagle, woodpecker
insects: wasp, hornet, fly, louse, bee, honey (mead)
domestic animals include: dog, cattle, sheep and horse
horses play an important role in the culture
they practiced spinning and weaving of wool
they knew metallurgy - copper
they knew of the wheel and used wagons or carts (weak link in Anatolian)
they knew of boats and oars - words like nav (navigate, navy) and rowing.
gift exchange is an important part of their culture
the guest-host relation was important –  *ghosti is the root of both host and guest (ghost originally meant visitor or guest)
they borrowed words from Proto-Uralic, another Eurasian language family, suggesting that the Proto-Indo-European speakers must have lived close to, and likely traded with, people who spoke Proto-Uralic who then, as now, live in northern Europe and Siberia (Hungarian is a member of this family found in Europe because of recent migration (~900CE).

The seasons and animals indicate a northern location either in or adjacent to a forest. The words for bee and honey place the homeland west of the Ural Mountains as honeybees do not occur east of there.

Clues to Dating Proto-Indo-European

Language can also help place the Proto-Indo-European speakers in time as well as location.

Agriculture was introduced to Europe between 6700 and 6500 BC while the wheel was not known until 3400 BC and woolen textiles sometime after 4000 BC. For the daughter language families to have similar words for the wheel and wool, they must have separated from Proto-Indo-European after their arrival. This effectively eliminates the Anatolian farmer immigrant theory. Besides, the two or three Anatolian languages were very similar to each other and spoken by only a small number of people in this area, which strongly suggests they are spoken by Indo-European speaking migrants to Anatolia, not by the ancestors of the language.

The domestication of the horse provides additional clues. Horses were hunted for meat by the people of the steppe for millennia before they were domesticated. They were first domesticated sometime after 4800 BC, a thousand years after cattle were introduced to the area. But they were raised for their meat only. During a cool dry period (4200-3800 BC) horses would have an advantage over cattle because they can forage for themselves during the winter. [Pioneer farmers in Saskatchewan like my grandfather often turned their horses loose for the winter to manage for themselves, rounding them up in the spring]. Riding of horses began on the steppes sometime before 3700 BC and had spread to Northern Kazakhstan, the Caucasus Mountains, and into Europe, by 3000 BC.

An important tool used in the dating of horse riding is bit wear on horse molars. The identification of tooth wear caused by bits of metal, bone, rope and rawhide, was pioneered by the author of The Horse, The Wheel and Language – David W. Anthony, and his wife, fellow archaeologist Dorcas Brown. There is an interesting Saskatchewan connection here. One of the experts they contacted was Hilary Clayton who began studying the mechanics of bits in horses’ mouths while working in Philadelphia, and then took a job at the Western Veterinarian College in Saskatoon. Anthony and Brown followed her to Saskatchewan in 1985 and viewed the X-ray videos she had made of horses chewing their bits.

Riding horses provided a significant benefit to herders in the steppes. A man on horseback could manage a herd of cattle or sheep much larger than a man on foot. With the much later advent of wheeled carts, about 3300 BC, the herders could carry with them tents, food and water allowing them to take advantage of the vast areas between the river valleys. This opened up the steppe much as the horse did to the plains of North America 5,000 years later.

Dating the Daughters

Language provides clues to timing in another way. Linguists can date, with more or less certainty, when each of the daughter language branches separated from the mother language. Here is a list of the branches, in the order of separation, with the approximate date (all BC) of separation (from Figure 3.2 The Horse, The Wheel and Language p. 57).

            Anatolian        4200
            Tocharian       3700 - 3300
            Germanic        3300
            Celtic / Italic   3000
            Greek / Armenian 2500
            Balto-Slavic    2500
            Indo-Iranian    2500-2200

Clues from Archaeology – The Kurgan Cultures

With the time line narrowed to the period 4000 to 2000 BC, it's time to look at the archaeological record and see who was living in the likely homelands and how well they fit with the linguistic clues. The archaeology of the Pontic-Caspian steppes was mostly carried out by Soviet scientists and published in Russian. These were not translated into English until the 1990s. Anthony was one of the first western archaeologists to study this work and relate it to the Proto-Indo-European homeland question.

Anthony found a close fit with the western steppe peoples who built huge burial mounds called kurgans. Their culture varied somewhat over the Proto-Indo-European time line and also geographically from place to place within this large area, but their overall cultures were similar, especially compared to the foragers to the north and east and to the sophisticated farming cultures to the west and south. They were semi-nomadic, raising cattle and sheep. Horses were important both for meat and for riding to manage their growing herds. They used wheeled carts. They mined their own ore and made their own tools and weapons of copper, tin and bronze.

Even more compelling is the evidence, from archaeology, of known migrations out of the steppes in the right directions and at the right times to account for the birth of the daughter language families.

1) to the west 4200-3900 (Anatolian)
2) to the east 3700-3300 (Tocharian)
3) to the west - several waves (Germanic, Celtic, Italic)
4) to north (Baltic, Slavic)
5) to the east and south (Iranian, Indic)

I should explain that by migration I do not mean large scale movement of people displacing existing populations along with their culture and language. This may have been the case with the Pre-Tocharians who made a remarkably long migration in one jump to the Altai Mountains 2000 km to the east (equivalent to the journey made by my grandparents from southern Ontario to Saskatchewan, but without the advantage of trains). Most if not all the other migrations were by small groups who, through some combination of trade or intimidation, became rulers of existing populations. They brought with them enough of their culture to be recognized archaeologically; and they brought their language which, for a variety of reasons, was adopted by the others and continued to spread long after they were gone.
Puzzle Solved

While there may be a few objections to his theory not yet satisfactorily answered, Anthony is convinced that the Proto-Indo-European Homeland puzzle has been solved.

Source: Figure 5.1 of The Horse, The Wheel and Language p.84

I want to finish with a quote from The Horse, The Wheel and Language  p. 464

Understanding the people who lived before us is difficult, particularly the people who lived in the prehistoric tribal past. Archaeology throws a bright light on some aspects of their lives but leaves much in the dark. Historical linguistics can illuminate a few of those dark corners.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Eastern American Dialects – an example of migration and ethno-linguistic frontier formation

In Chapter 6 “The Archaeology of Language” of his book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, David W. Anthony uses the colonization of North America by English speaking people as an example of ethno-linguistic frontiers [1] formed by migration. In many cases the first people to settle a region put their language and cultural stamp on the area which is copied by later migrants. In the Eastern USA example, the language and cultural boundaries coincide almost exactly.

Between about 1620 and 1750 what is now the eastern United States was colonized by four different migration streams from different areas of Britain. These formed distinct ethno-linguistic patterns which are still very much visible today. They are:
  • New England (Yankee) – East Anglia
  • Mid-Atlantic ( Pennsylvania Quaker) – English Midlands
  • Virginia Coast (Royalist Anglican) – Somerset and Wessex
  • Appalachians (“Hillbillies”) – Scotch Irish

New England, centered on Boston, was first settled by the Pilgrims from East Anglia. The Yankee dialect is a variant of the East Anglia dialect and the New England folk culture (church, house, barn and fence types; town organization type; food and dress preference; and religion) is a simplified version of East Anglian folk culture.

The Virginia coast was settled by Anglican royalists escaping anti-royalist sentiments of the English Civil War. These settlers gave Virginia a distinct linguistic and folk culture based on the tobacco plantation.

Similarly Quakers from the North-Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire emigrated to avoid persecution following the Restoration. Most settled in Pennsylvania. Their distinct dialect and folk culture was later added to by German-speaking settlers from Switzerland and southern Germany (Pennsylvania “Dutch”) [2].

The Appalachian dialect was touched on in an earlier post

Migration of other people from Britain, Europe and other countries, and movements of people within the country, all added to or modified the regional dialects of America.  Despite the complexity from these other sources, these original four ethno-linguistic cultures can still be observed. Besides the regional accents and architectural styles of old buildings, Anthony claims that even modern presidential voting patterns can be discerned and traced back to these original folk cultures.

[1] Frontier in this discussion refers to a boundary between two discernable cultures or languages.

[2] There were Dutch settlers in America, centered around New York from which some place names like Harlem, Bronx and Brooklyn originate as well as a few other words like waffle and poppycock (from Dutch pappekak meaning “soft dung”). The Pennsylvania Dutch however were German-speaking people from Switzerland and southern Germany – the Amish, and Mennonites. Here Dutch is an Anglicized form of Deutsch (the German word for German).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Grimm’s Law

In linguistic circles Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) is better known for his discovery of phonetic changes in the development of Proto-Germanic than for his German folk tales.

Jacob was trained as a lawyer but was more interested in history and language – early German literature in particular. He authored many scholarly books including Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache (History of the German Language), Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar), and the monumental Deutsches Wörterbuch (German Dictionary). In 1812 and 1814 he and his younger brother Wilhelm published their collection of old German folk tales as Grimms Märchen (Grimms’ Fairy Tales) Volumes 1 and 2.

Grimm’s Law was first published in the second edition of his German Grammar in 1822. It is considered significant in linguistic science for introducing “…a rigorous methodology to historic linguistic research.” [].

Sometime during the progression from Proto-Indo-European (about 2000 BC) to Proto-Germanic (about 500 BC), certain sound shifts in consonants occurred which were nearly universal (occurring to all words). These changes did not occur in any other PIE daughter languages such as the Proto-Romance language, so are observable with comparisons between English words taken directly from Latin, French or other Romance languages and those from its Germanic roots.

Greatly simplified, the changes are (with examples):

Labials (sounds made with the lips)
p changes to f: ped / foot; pater / father
f changes to b: fund / bottom
b changes to p: labial / lip

Velars (sounds made mid-palate)
k changes to h: canine / hound
h changes to g: host / guest
g changes to k: genuflect / knee

Dentals (sounds made with the tongue and teeth)
t changes to th: triple / three
th changes to d: thyroid / door
d changes to t: duo / two

Note that in all three groups, the changes go full circle, sort of like musical chairs.

Verner’s Law, developed by Danish linguist Karl Verner, explains further changes that occurred later to certain consonants in certain conditions (depending on the accent of the preceding syllable).

These sound changes are evident in all of the modern Germanic languages: German, Frisian, Dutch (and Africaans), Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Luxembourgish, and of course English.

Sound changes like this are common in language history and take several generations, often a few centuries, to complete. A more recent example in English is known as the Great Vowel Shift which occurred between 1400 and 1600 (between Chaucer and Shakespeare). That’s a subject for a future post.