Category Archives: Linguistics

What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

via What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ.

One of the English B topics we do is language diversity. The book we use has several articles arguing that English may or may not retain its crown as, more or less, a global language. Mandarin is often touted as a possible successor, but I remain sceptical because China has none of the cultural clout globally that America does. At most, Mandarin may become a lingua franca among nations with less reputable regimes which are nominally cosy with China.

However, I’m less interested in this particular debate than I am in what Dr McWhorter has written in his article for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s start with my lead above.

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

Two thousand years ago, Germanic was a Sprachbund (which to all intents and purposes is pretty much any language with a minimal amount of dialectal variation). When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in AD455, they were still speaking dialects of West Germ­anic, and wouldn’t be speaking Old English until sometime in the 7th century at the very earliest. Even then, the Anglo-Saxons could still have returned to the mainland Europe and have conversed with their continental cousins. St Boniface was the West Saxon who took Christianity to the German parts of the Frankish Empire in the middle of the 8th century (wikipedia).

Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects.

Five noun cases? Try four; and in the masculine and neuter, the nom­in­at­ive and accusative had merged. And if German has such a complex grammar, how on Earth do the Germans manage to acquire it at all? What about the Lithuanians, who have twice as many noun cases, or the Finns who have about four times as many? How do the Hungarians and Turks cope with all that agglutination? What about all those languages with noun incorporation?

As for the Vikings, they did have a lexical impact on English (e.g., leg, egg, skirt, they, their, them, though), but changes to English grammar came from within the language. The inflectional system of English was dying throughout the Old English period. Unlike Old High German and Old Saxon, Old English had reduced the present plural endings of the verb to -aþ, which was, in origin, the 3rd per­s­on ending.

The same applies to the effect of French on English. The lexicon may have been irrevocably altered, but the morphology and gram­mar of the language remained native. Whatever the source of continuous verb forms in Modern English (a feature which is not shared by any other continental European language), it cannot be Old Norse or Old French.1

Mandarin, Persian, Indonesian and other languages went through similar processes and are therefore much less “cluttered” than a normal language is.

A “normal language”? Does this mean that Mandarin, Persian, and Indonesian are all abnormal?

Even if much of the article is sound, it is statements such as these which undermine any pretension which McWhorter might have to academic rigour or merit.


1. Icelandic also has continuous verb forms, and such constructions can also be found in Italian, but have a much more limited scope. One possible areal feature of European origin in British English is the range of the perfect, which is wider than it is in American.

I agnize that it’s antique vocabulary


[07.09.14. I originally posted this as part of a larger entry on the 3rd of February 2007, but decided to extract it from that and make it a se­par­ate entry.]


We read Othello when I was at school. 6th form, if I remember rightly. I remember that no one, apart from me, had the faintest idea about the function of the grave accent in the edition we used so that the meter got mangled at times. Most of the time was spent reading the play out loud, but I don’t remember much about the meaning of the English or the themes. I think I regarded Iago as an interesting character because he was completely without scruples in his quest to destroy Othello.

There is one linguistic thing I learnt from Othello, and that is the verb “agnize” which, not surprisingly, I thought might’ve been some variant of “agonise”, but it actually means “recognise; acknowledge”. It’s only used once in the whole play in

I do agnize
A natural and prompt alacrity
I find in hardness and do undertake
These present wars against the Ottomites.
(Act I, Scene iii)

I don’t know whether it’s ever had any airtime beyond this single instance. A search of Renaissance Editions [dead link removed] yields only two examples – the one above and the following from John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays.

I hate to correct and agnize my selfe, and can never endure but grudgingly to review and repolish what once hath escaped my pen. (Book 3, Chapter IX: Of Vanitie)

Robert Southwell (1561-1595) uses it in the following stanza from New Heaven, New War.

The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your King a mortal wight,
His borrow’d weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies;
That is your bliss above the skies.

From the Twenty Fifth Book of Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso we have

13. Now when the youth from danger quite was freed,
And all that sought his death away were fled,
He thanks the author of this worthy deed,
And thanketh her that had him thither led
Then, when of helpe he stood in greatest need,
When otherwise he doubtlesse had bin dead,
And executed like a malefactor,
Agnizing him his Lord and benefactor.

I don’t know why I happen to remember agnize. I’ve never used it myself since it’s obsolete for a start and I’d forgotten what it meant until I checked the meaning on

I wonder how much longer it’s going to take before someone agnizes that Shakespeare’s English needs to be translated to facilitate the comprehension of his works. The content may have meaning for us, but much of the language doesn’t.

Now, some homework. Yes, that means you lot. Find other instances of agnize from English lit. When was it last rarely used?

Well, Herr Hirschmann, was talken Sie about?

Those old neologisms in full.

cpo has just released Telemann, Grand Concertos for Mixed Instruments Vol. 1 performed by La Stagione Frankfurt. It came with a complete pdf booklet, which is fairly remarkable because most of my cpo albums have never come with any additional information (the cpo website does fill in some of the missing details, though). This booklet is a strangely large file, weighing in at 62Mb for a mere sixteen pages.

As I said above, the cpo website includes some information about each album. The translations from German to English appear to have been done by machine, perhaps with some post-production editing. The English is often a little odd – grammatical, but with German styling.

The few pdf booklets I have for cpo albums also employ the same slightly pompous, bombastic style, but the quality of the translations appears to be better. However, in the booklet which came with Grand Concertos, we have

Along with the motoric ‘perpetuum mobile’ of the Presto the pendulum again swings toward Italy.

I looked at “motoric” and wondered whether this was some adjective with which I was unfamiliar. My Concise OED didn’t have it, and looking up the German motorisch on line left me no more enlightened. However, according to the OED on my Kindle, the word is usually spelt “motorik”, which is used in music to mean “marked by a repetitive beat suggestive of mechanized action or movement”.

The other adjective of which Herr Hirschmann seems fond, “motivic”, was also new to me, but the meaning was immediately transparent.

Language is descended from monkeys

[20.08.14. This was originally part of an entry I posted on the 5th of January 2008.]

That’s right, Mr Garrison.

In his entry Everyone should study linguistics, languagehat makes some observations about Robin J. Soward’s article Why Everyone Should Study Lingustics in the minnesota review. Structuralism isn’t dead if only because the terminology and concepts still survive in linguistics and, I believe, still get used in the field; but who would actually use structuralism as a linguistic theory these days? The French?

Chomskyism needs to join [Marx and Freud] on the dustheap ASAP, so linguists can get back to what they do best, studying actual languages instead of their theoretical constructs.

The language should be the horse and the theory the cart, but I’ve noticed in my time that the cart is often a square peg being hammered into a round hole.1 Most of the peg fits, but the corners don’t. You can ignore the corners or you can acknowledge them, but put them in a corner by themselves.

At the same time, it depends on what your intentions are. (It’s a who’s-your-audience issue.) If you’re describing a language for specialists and non-specialists alike, you won’t be discussing it in terms of a theory, although it’ll still be impossible for the linguist not to intrude in the description (like any author in any work; Richard Steadman-Jones’s Colonialism and Grammatical Representation [ISBN 978-1-4051-6132-9] discusses an instance of this). If, on the other hand, you’re testing a theory, the theory is the primary focus. The problem with theories is that they can be a little mesmerising. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought that a theory has resulted in a mis-analysis / misunderstanding of the data.

But that’s theory at the micro level. At the macro level, I’m reasonably convinced that the grammars of the world’s languages are all formed by flicking the right switches and pulling the right levers of Universal Grammar (UG). Do we really have the faintest idea of the reality of UG and the grammars of individual languages beyond describing the output of native speakers? I don’t think so. We know there are certain universals in languages, although their implementation varies from language2 to language. We know their are strong tendencies which look like universals to begin with, but then get disproved as new data comes to light. Nonetheless, these are features, universal or otherwise, which are observable across a range of languages which are not necessarily related to each other. How can such similarities be explained unless the human mind is a fairly uniform entity with some sort of uniform capacity for language?

Of course, it’s a little paradoxical that everyone’s grammars are really their own grammars. By and large, my grammar and that of much of the English-speaking world agrees on what is grammatical and what isn’t. There won’t be 100% agreement between any two people. When I was acquiring English, I was merely flicking the switches and pulling the levers as I saw fit. In other words, any dealings we have with any language are going to end up being how an observer sees a particular linguistic phenomenon (which gets back to the author being part of the opus). The description may be adequate, but what’s happening inside my head is another matter.3

1. Worst mixed metaphor evah. –ed.
2. Bugger! Bugger! Bugger! I’m sick of typing “langauge”.
3. I think I’m probably kidding myself if I think any of this is all that clever. I’m off to buy some DVDs, something I should’ve gone to do about an hour and a half ago.

One of them

[20.08.14. This post was extracted from an entry I originally wrote on the 24th of September 2009. Richard Hogg was one of the professors in the English Department at Manchester when I was doing my PhD there.]

Or one of us?

Language Log has picked up on Richard Hogg’s untimely death and has a link to his obit. in The Guardian. I note

One class project involved recording voice samples and playing them to unsuspecting outsiders, who were asked to assess the speaker’s person­ality.

I played a part in that once. One of the students in Richard’s class asked me to read a fairy tale which she then played to some factory workers somewhere in Manchester, who, without being able to see me, got my details utterly wrong. I ended up being a bit older than I was at the time; a lot richer; and politically so not me that I’d have to become a totally different person to fit the listeners’ ideas about who I was.

While I’m over on Language Log, I see there’s also a story called Monks and civilians. While I would typically use the word “civilian” to mean “someone who is not in the military”, I know that it has popped up in The Sopranos to mean something like “someone who is not involved in organised crime”; and I think it also occurred in one of the Godfather films where it meant the same. I’d assume that David Chase or whoever wrote that episode probably got it from The Godfather. In other words, it’s easy to see how the sense can go from the particular (“non-military”) to the general (“not a member of our group”).

Actually, I remember the dreadful Liz Hurley (yeah, I know a lot of you will be saying, “Who?”) used the word to mean “someone who wasn’t in show biz. or modelling” years back. In other words, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

Probably the word “civilian” in the stories about Burma is being used to contrast the people who are neither monks nor in the military. From the perspective of two defined groups, these people would be civilians in both the more recent sense of the word and the standard one.

A collective of bats

Batman, Bat Collective.

[18.08.14. I extracted this post from an older one which I wrote back in 2008.]

I’ve commented ad nauseam on the fairly frequent visits I get for certain topics which were merely mentioned in passing, or not mentioned at all, but used an unfortunate combination of words which then acted like catnip. Now a new one has suddenly appeared from over the horizon. I note that I’ve had several visitors of late who, I guess, want to know the collective noun for a group of bats. They’ve all ended up on my entry A flock of bats? which I posted in June 2006, but which supplied no answer. The terms such visitors are looking for are “colony” or (apparently) “camp”.

But is that necessarily right?

The point is that I wasn’t thinking about the static colony, but rather the bats as they flit around in the air. On the other hand, although bats live together, they appear to hunt as individuals. Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes; but because bats aren’t birds, they don’t flock. [Such impeccable logic. –ed.] I’d guess that bats probably have to be fairly solitary fliers because of their use of echo location to find their prey. If you had a hundred bats all together sending out high frequency pulses, they’d probably never catch anything because of the confusion of sounds.

It’s not unusual to see a couple of bats, but it appears to take higher concentrations of insects to attract greater numbers of them.

Mangled archaisms


[17.08.14. I originally posted this as part of a larger entry on the 26th of February 2006, but decided to extract it from that and make it a separate entry. I have dealt with the topic of archaic English more fully else­where.]

English as she was never spoke.

This one comes from Icewind Dale II by Black Isle Studios (now defunct). It appears that High Priestess Lysara must’ve been a bit drunk or stoned or both when she tried her hand at a little pseudo-archaic English.

  • Hath thee met…? Nay, thou surely would hath no breath upon entering her presence.
  • Cathin…?! Oria…?! Hast thou abandoned me? … I hath failed Thee, yet still Thee beckons me…

Most people won’t have the faintest clue what’s wrong with that little lot, so let’s have a closer look, shall we?

“Hath thee met…?” Is obviously meant to be “Hast thou met…?” I could also read the original as “Has she met thee…?”, but that doesn’t fit the context. Thou is 2nd person singular nominative; thee is 2nd person singular oblique (i.e., the complement of verbs and prepositions). Compare I and me. Hath is 3rd person singular present. In current English, we use has. Hast is the archaic 2nd person singular present form which thou wouldst use with thou, if thou didst still use it.

“Nay, thou surely would hath no breath…” For a start, it should be wouldst, but that’s nothing compared with hath for have. I’d write “Nay, surely wouldst thou have no breath…” with inversion of subject and verb after the adverb.

“Hast thou abandoned me?” Actually, it’s grammatical, but wrong number because the phrase refers back to Cathin and Oria. It should be “Have ye/you abandoned me?”

“I hath failed Thee, yet still Thee beckons me…” If this was a car crash, then the wreckage would have been mangled into a few more dimensions than the usual three. Lysara is now addressing the goddess Auril. She ought to be saying, “I have failed Thee; yet thou dost beckon me still…” The second clause might be read “He/she still beckons me to You” or “He/she still beckons You to me”, neither of which fits the context.

Many a mickle makes a muckle

Or a muck up.

In the past, I’ve observed that Chinese seems to have about half a dozen words for everything, and even quantifiers are no exception. Several compounds of 多 (duō) “many, much; more” were plaguing me this morning, and further investigation, using the Youdao translation service, only seemed to make things worse. The words in question are 繁多 (fánduō) and 众多 (zhòngduō), which both mean “numerous”, and 好多 (hǎoduō) and 许多 (xǔduō) which both mean “many, much”.

My big dictionary says that 繁多 can also mean “various”, and that 众多 also means “many, multitudinous”. It translates 好多 as “a good or great many; a good deal; lots of” and merely adds the meaning “a lot” to 许多.

The problem is that my dictionary doesn’t explain whether these words are written or spoken, formal or informal, or what their range is (i.e., do they modify the same range of things or specific groups of things with some overlap?). On the basis of circumstantial evidence, 繁多 and 众多 may be synonyms because Youdao sends readers from the former to the latter.

Using Youdao to translate phrases doesn’t help, either. I thought the rule in Chinese was that adjectives of two or more syllables usually took 的 when they preceded their noun, but this does odd things to 繁多 and 众多, viz.

繁多的猫 “a cat in a wide range of” vs. 繁多猫 “many cats”
众多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 众多猫 “many cats”

[The Bing translator on my phone gives “a wide variety of cat” and “many cats” for the first two phrases in these pairs. On the other hand, using Youdao to translate “multitudinous cats” gives me 众多的猫. Bing also gives the same translation.]

I wonder whether quantifiers or quantifier-like words don’t take 的, or whether it’s just compounds of 多.

If I reverse the process in Youdao, and translate “numerous cats” into Chinese, I get 许多猫 “many cats” (but Bing gives me 很多猫). Would anything actually get me 繁多猫 or 众多猫 as a translation from English to Chinese? If I try to translate “various cats”, I get 各种各样的猫 (Youdao) or 格式各样的猫 (Bing), which strikes me as being closer to “all manner / sorts / types of cats” in English.

With a mass noun, I get the following:

繁多的黄油 “butter in a wide range of” vs. 繁多黄油 “various butter”
众多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 众多猫 “many butter”

Apart from the third phrase, I don’t know whether the rest are even grammatical in Chinese (regardless of the English translation). Again, reversing the process produces something different, with Youdao and Bing translating “a lot of butter” as 大量的黄油.

What about 好多 and 许多? As the example above showed, these seem to be used sans 的, but I’ll try both sorts of phrases.

好多的猫 “a lot of cat” vs. 好多猫 “a lot of cat”
许多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 许多猫 “many cats”

Reversing the process again, Youdao produces 很多猫 for “a lot of cats” while Bing gives me 多猫. For “many of the cats”, Youdao returns 许多猫, but perhaps Chinese makes no distinction between “many of a whole” (e.g. many cats) and “many of a part” (e.g. many of the cats). Bing translates this phrase as 很多人的猫 and Youdao translates it back into English as “many cats”.

Again, let’s look at what happens when these words are used with mass nouns.

好多的黄油 “a lot of butter” vs. 好多黄油 “a lot of butter”
许多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 许多猫 “a lot of butter”

The results from Youdao are a good deal more uniform. Bing translates 好多黄油 as “quantity of butter” and the rest as “lots of / a lot of butter”. But reversing the process in either Youdao or Bing gets 大量的黄油 again.

What, though, is the generic form for “a lot of / much / many” in Chinese, which could be used under any circumstance? 许多? 多 alone? Some modifier + 多? A perusal of my sources doesn’t answer these questions.

As I said at the outset, Chinese seems to have half a dozen words for everything. The issue, again, is knowing how they are used and what their scope is, but I end this post with no definite answers.

‘King of Gore’ joins T rex family tree | Science | The Guardian

‘King of Gore’ joins T rex family tree | Science | The Guardian.

The King of Gore also highlights ignorance of Classical Greek and word formation among palaeontologists. λύθρον (neuter, which can also be λύθρος [masculine]) has a stem λύθρ(ο)-, the final vowel of which is elided when the following element begins with a vowel. My first thought was that the word was an n-stem, but it is actually a neuter o-stem.

The sole recorded compound is λυθρ-ώδης “defiled with gore”, with the stem vowel duly elided.

The noun ἄναξ “lord, master; king” is an interesting case because it was Ϝάναξ [wanax] at the time The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed. It explains why word-final VC-syllables are sometimes scanned as heavy before a word which otherwise seems to begin with a vowel.

When Homer was composing his poems, the presence of digamma would have resulted in the retention of the stem vowel, and the compound would presumably have ended up as λυθροάναξ in Classical Greek because of this lost consonant. Even if later speakers of Greek were unaware of the digamma, the compound would have been λυθράναξ with the stem vowel of the first element elided, not the initial vowel of the following element.

Although I cannot speak for all languages on this particular point of morphology, the principle in Greek was obviously that the root remains intact or, OT-like terms, Root » Stem Vowel.

I can only hope that palaeontologists have some official naming body and that it’s not too late to correct this faux pas.

Splice me main clause, Mr Christian

I think there’s some grammar in there.

I generally avoid teaching grammar,1 which is, in my view, the domain of Chinese English teachers. I do occasionally deal with word formation to test and enhance the vocabulary of students, but I don’t have much to say about the rest. Syntax mostly gets dealt with in feedback on writing tasks, and phonology when students start referring to Scout Finch as Scott.

This year we have a departmental grammar initiative according to which we cover a different aspect of grammar with which students typically have problems. I’m dealing with comma splices, fused sentences, and sentence fragments

Comma splices are sentences which are ended with a comma instead of a full stop. Fused sentences are adjacent sentences which lack any mediating punctuation. Sentence fragments are standalone  phrases or subordinate clauses.2

I trawled the Internet for exercises in these things, but was dismayed to find that many of the exercises for comma splices were little more than a matter of replacing the comma with a full stop, and those for fused sentences were solved by adding a full stop in the right place. A few exercises were a little more sophisticated, requiring students to combine sentences with an appropriate conjunction. By and large, though, this wasn’t a matter of grammar, but, in fact, punctuation.

Punctuation is not part of grammar even if such marks have a system of use. Like writing with which it is associated, it is artificial and doesn’t affect how English grammar is described.

Where native speakers might butcher punctuation, this is not to say that their actual sentences are ungrammatical. The omission of the comma in the previous sentence doesn’t make it ungrammatical; nor does the omission of the full stop; nor the presence of a comma in place of the full stop. The presence or absence of such marks depends on the situation. In the sort of writing my pupils do for me, I insist on the conventions to be correctly applied whether the style of writing is formal or informal. If they were on some online forum, punctuating every sentence with commas, it is of no concern to me.3 In other words, what is appropriate in the context?

In the case of comma splices etc., has punctuation been mistaken for syntactic failings? Possibly not.

I recalled something I had read about the limited scope of use of Chinese words for “and”, and after a little investigation, I found that they can only be used to join NPs.4 Thus the comma splices which occur with depressing regularity in students’ writing may be a consequence of this. While it’s possible to say “The cat and the dog” in Chinese, it’s not possible to say “The cat saw the dog, and the postman saw the cat”. Many of my students would write

The cat saw the dog, the postman saw the cat.
The cat saw the dog. And the postman saw the cat.

The second sentence is probably more advanced than the first in that the student knows that there should be a conjunction there, but still doesn’t understand properly that the two clauses can be joined directly together.5

Thus this would appear to be a matter of syntax, namely the use of “and” in English.

Fused sentences, as described above, are actually quite rare in the writing of Chinese students, but they do write sentences which are fused in that two main verbs occur in the same clause. I ought to keep a running record of these things because I strongly suspect they are Chinglish. Some may be 的 or 得 constructions; quite a lot could probably be fixed with a relative pronoun. This, too, is a matter of syntax.

Sentence fragments, on the other hand, do seem to be a matter of punctuation, the worst of which is the all too frequent abuse of “because”. Where I can understand how differences in Chinese and English grammar can lead to errors in the use of “and”, I find the misuse of “because” puzzling.

There are differences in the use of “because” and 因为. For example, Chinese conjunctions are often in correlative constructions which sometimes spill over into English so that I get “Although…, but…” constructions following 虽然… 可是… constructions in Chinese. However, I can’t recall seeing “Because…, therefore…” (因为… 所以… in Chinese) in any piece of English writing. I wonder whether 因为… 所以… is more common than “[main clause], 因为…” in Chinese, and thus it’s a habit for Chinese students to treat “because” as the start of a new sentence in English regardless of its relationship to any adjacent clause; but I have no definitive explanation for this perpetual and plaguesome error.


  1. By “grammar” I mean the whole system and not just “syntax”.
  2. This may be true in some cases, where the clause appears to be a well-formed sentence in its own right. In other cases, the main clause is adjacent, but the wrong punctuation has been used.
  3. All right, it’d annoy me because it would be a display of ignorance and casual indifference.
  4. Words for “and” in Chinese are 和 (hé), 跟 (gēn; also a preposition), 同 (tóng; used in southern China), and 与 (traditional 與; yǔ; literary). I surmise that these were perhaps all prepositions, which would account for them being restricted to co-ordinating NPs.
  5. It’s also found quite often when “but” is used, and quite probably for the same reason.