Tag Archives: language change

All grammar is universal

But some is less universal than other(s).

I assume that Language Log will probably pick up the story Language universality idea tested with biology method from the BBC and, no doubt, have much wiser things to say about it than me. However, it’s awhile since I had a tale for the languages and linguistics section, and when I see Universal Grammar (UG) questioned, I’m a little curious.

UG is the idea that the brain has some kind of structure which is configured when we acquire one or more languages as children. It’s been central to the theory of grammar for about 50 years or so, and how linguists describe language (all right, phonology since that’s my background) has changed from SPE with its linear rules, to non-linear phonology (with rules), to principles and parameters, to Optimality Theory. But UG remains the underlying assumption in all of this.

The boys on Language Log don’t tend to have much regard for BBC science reporting, and since I have little or no knowledge about evolutionary biology, I can’t really assess the research from that perspective.

Early in the article I read

The results suggest that features shared across language families evolved independently in each lineage.

I’m not exactly certain how I should interpret this. For one thing, although it’s possible to identify the members of the Indo-European language family, I’m not aware of there being much certainty with respect to the interrelationships among the different sub-families. Each branch seems to be largely independent of every other branch.1 I assume that that’s because Indo-European was overlaid on different substrates.

The authors say cultural evolution, not the brain, drives language development.

This seems to be straying into sociolinguistics. I don’t disagree that some language change is driven by the society in which a language is spoken. An obvious one is, for example, prestige-driven changes, whether these are overt or covert. There’s probably a large amount of language change which has been purely ephemeral. Some changes are à la mode one moment and passé the next.2

“We show that each of these language families evolves according to its own set of rules, not according to a universal set of rules,” Dr Dunn explained.

The set of rules is particular to a language, but is drawn from UG. In other words, this is looking at language change from the wrong direction. When a child acquires a grammar, it formulates its own version of that grammar. By and large, it agrees with everyone else’s, but there are always parts that are different. For example, which and witch are homophones in my idiolect, but I’ve encountered people for whom they’re a minimal pair, and I know my parents distinguish the two (although the initial semi-vowel of which does not seem especially distinctive in their speech). Why didn’t I acquire this feature? I don’t know, but its absence is an aspect of language change in my own speech. Possibly, my brain filtered out the marked segment. In addition, I can see no cultural dimension to this change.

Whatever I was doing, it had nothing to do with UG, which is a mental framework and not some guiding principle for how languages ought to develop.

I am also a little sceptical about the particular focus of the paper, which was adpositions and their relationship to clause order. As a general principle, right-headed languages such as English have prepositions and VO clause structure, and left-headed languages have postpositions and OV clause structure. There are exceptions because in English, for instance, adjectives are pre-head modifiers (e.g. the fat cat) unless they’re modified themselves (e.g. the cat fat on cream). Here the BBC article is a little hazy on the exact details.

Steven Pinker, whose book The Language Instinct I’m reading at the moment, is left to say, “Er, well, maybe.”

Overall, paint me sceptical about this. Some parts appear to be nothing more than things that we already knew (i.e., the sociolinguistics of language change), while other parts seem (deliberate italics what with the English verb lacking the sceptical mood) to misunderstand grammar (namely, UG).


Since I wrote that, I’ve found that Language Log does have an entry about this story (Word-order “universals” are lineage-specific?), which points readers to a summary of the original article here. I remain sceptical on two counts. One is that I can’t recall seeing any claims about the setting of the VO or OV parameter in a language unquestionably determining the settings for other parts of phrase structure, but I may be quite wrong about this. The other is that the tendency to harmonise the headedness of phrases would not seem to have anything to do with UG per se because, I would hypothesise, UG is platform neutral. In other words, headedness may be a consequence of processing efficiency or the inclination of the mind to observe patterns or even a little of both. Strictly idle speculation on my part, of course.

It’s also worth noting that languages have their quirks which cannot be related to UG. For example, the English vowel system appears to have been going around in circles since some time in the Middle English period. Low and mid vowels are raised; high vowels are diphthongised. The big change to the vowel system was the well-known Great Vowel Shift, and English seems to have got onto this vocalic conveyor belt as a result. This is not a UG thing, nor determined by UG, but the resulting structures can be accommodated by UG. Why the English vowel system apparently behaves like this, I don’t know, but I think it stands outside of UG myself.


1. It’s obvious, though, that certain groups of families do have a shared inheritance. The obvious one is the division between the centum and satem languages, the latter sharing at least one round of palatalisation. However, the satem languages were presumably a collection of dialects at the time, which would eventually become Indic, Iranian, Armenian and other language groups.

2. Examples from English (if these are not myths) are the treatment of high-mid and low-mid vowels in London English in the 17th (?) century, and the reappearance of the velar nasal in the -ing ending which, allegedly, was a consequence of the vulgar mob aping the quality who then (so I’ve read somewhere) are supposed to have reverted to the -in’ form.

(Cross-posted from Green Bamboo LJ.)

In forme of speche is chaunge

Would the five-hundred year rule have applied?

We were reading an excerpt from Robinson Crusoe in class this morning, which included an exercise in converting early 18th century English into contemporary English. One of the quotations, which come from near the start of the novel, was “crying everyone according to his usual note”.

I thought it was interesting for two reasons (and perhaps a third, although that’s a matter of editing). One is the use of “everyone”, which seems to be on the border between being a full-blown pronoun and simply a compounding of “every one”. It looks appositional to me, but I’m wondering whether this is an instance of a phenomenon which I’ve read about elsewhere in which some languages (e.g. Italian) tend to place indefinite subjects after the verb. Defoe only uses “everyone” a few times and only on this occasion in this particular construction.

However, some (most?) texts have “every one”, and most appear to have “crying, and every one according to his usual note”, but the text we’re using omits the conjunction. So it seems that I might’ve stumbled across some (incautious) editing, but I’m sure that our text lacked “and” at that point. [Later: checked the text; it does have “and”, but I think it does readers a disservice by treating “every one” as a single word.]

The other point was the use of “his” where we would have “their”, and a few zealots might have “its”, which prompted me to write a note on the board about the development of “its” in English, and how it took some time for the form to become established. I’ve read somewhere that Shakespeare used “it” for “its” on at least one occasion, although I’ve never been sure whether that’s a claim which can be substantiated.

But in turn, this had me recalling Chaucer’s famous line from Troilus and Criseyde about the mutability of language, which then made me wonder about my five-hundred-year rule. That is, the form of a language more than five hundred years ago is no longer fully comprehensible because the grammar and lexicon have undergone sufficient changes to render a lot of it meaningless. To me, for example, late Middle English looks like Modern English with brain damage, and Shakespeare is already largely incomprehensible, not because the plays were mostly in verse, but because the language is almost five hundred years old.

That had me wondering whether anyone in Chaucer’s day could’ve understood the Old English of the second half of the 9th century at all, or the effects of the Norman Conquest on the English lexicon, as well as the simplification of the inflectional system had so cut the English language off from its past that the older form of the language really was foreign. Mind you, I also have a theory that English didn’t exist as a truly separate linguistic entity from its Continental cousins until the Middle English period.



How many hornets?

I’ve just looked at the cover of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and wondered whether the apostrophe, which is an orthographic marker of the genitive, is in the wrong place, being to the left of the inflection, indicating a single hornet, instead of the right, indicating a whole nest of them.

The Swedish title is Luftslottet som Sprängdes which seems to mean something like “The castles in the air which got destroyed”, which is no doubt a reference to the illusion of the decency of Sweden and its government. (Recent reports about immigrants in Sweden being targeted by gunmen seem to continue that demolition.)



In forme of land is chaunge, too.

香榭路 seems to be under complete redevelopment, although no one’s being stopped from using the street as a thoroughfare in spite of its resemblance to a building site with fencing at either end and gateposts (though no gates). The trees at this end have been heavily pruned and, I assume, are going to be removed. They’ll probably be replaced, but whether anyone has the wit to have the pavement run inside the line of trees rather than down the middle is for future revelation. In addition, the car park has been completely ripped up and some large holes dug in it. Anyone using the street is, however, deterred from falling into the holes by a line of small cones. Yes, it’s safety first in the imperium sericum.

Aierma appears to have been mothballed, and again, only posterity knows whether that’ll be a supermarket again. No sign that the place was going to be refurbished.

The houses down at the other end of the street have almost all gone, and a digger has been in creating a huge heap of dirt for no apparent reason. On the other side of the street the Jiulong Hotel has been gutted, although I’m not sure whether they’re going to demolish the building or it’s being stripped to the absolute bones.

[A few days later (06.11.10). 香榭路 has now been completely cut off apart from access at this end for the shops on the west side of the street and access to the flats behind them; and a break where the street which runs along the south side of the school intersects with 香榭路. The rest seems to have been cut off to cars, although pedestrians, electric bike jockeys, and cyclists can still get through. (Added while I was editing the formatting of this entry after it, the formatting, mysteriously vanished.)]

In other construction news, the bridge which was built to these two new buildings east of my place doesn’t just have coloured lights. No, for the amusement of the local spectators, it also squirts jets of water. Someone seems to have had the idea of combining a bridge and a fountain. Still don’t know what the new buildings are going to house, and the work over there has yet to be completed.

Will the Quill is Dracula

He should be dead, but he keeps coming back.

Shakespeare suffers slings and arrows of SATS fortune. It’s been awhile since I saw a story like this in The Guardian. Obviously RSC profits are down and they need their major donors – schools – to return to the fold and fill their coffers again.

Jacqui O’Hanlon, the RSC’s director of education, said: “School managers will not release teachers for a day’s training because Shakespeare is no longer seen as a priority. If that’s the message being given to teachers and the message pervading schools, what impact is that going to have on the wider entitlement young people have to engage with Shakespeare?”

Shakespeare never was a priority, but because he’s been raised to semi-divine status, it’s heretical if anyone doesn’t think the sun shines out of his arse. And what’s all this about “the wider entitlement young people have to engage with Shakespeare”? What entitlement? Is it part of the con­sti­t­ut­ion? What utter nonsense.

Barry Sheerman MP, the committee chairman who raised the issue at a hearing this week, said: “It’s quite chilling if schools don’t want students to go and see Shakespeare if it’s not examined.” Government edicts on the curriculum were reminiscent of “Soviet Russia” and teachers were “too frightened” to complain in case they weren’t promoted, he said.

And how many of Shakespeare’s plays have you seen, Baz? In how many of them could you understand every word regardless of changes to the English lexicon over the past 400 years? How is it chilling if Shakespeare is neither seen nor heard nor examined? Oh, I see. You’re not really as bothered about Shakespeare as you are about chucking a few rocks at the government. What exactly do government edicts on the curriculum really have to do with Shakespeare? The agèd demi-god is being recruited for financial purposes by the RSC and political purposes by some Commons sub-committee chairman.

As I’ve said before, I think it would be rather a good thing if someone finally admitted that Shakespeare is largely incomprehensible to modern audiences and that it’s time to pick on some other antique, but more recent author as the focus of the literary world’s idolatry. Of course, there’s already someone to fill that role – Jane Austen. She’s two centuries old, a literary idol, being an author whom no one is allowed to dislike, and her English is at least generally comprehensible; but her limp satire on the painful social habits of the age won’t appeal to most boys, which would entail a specially edited volume for them. Thus, a revised opening to Pride and Prejudice:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a sniper rifle must be going to frag some Strogg.
However little known the accuracy or skillz of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the Makron’s minions, that he is considered as the rightful target of some one or other of the soulless mechanical puppets of Stroggos.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that the Strogg base is let at last?”

Now the boys are reading and they don’t even notice the subtle and insidious love story between a member of the GDF (Elizabeth Bennet; “Enemy infantry spotted!”) and a putrefying Strogg trooper (Mr Darcy; “I require stroyent!”). Whenever one of the Bennet girls captures a husband, she can say, “Spawn host created”.

Once again, I call for Shakespeare to be pulled down from his pedestal. School children can thank me later by buying my edited-for-boys version of Pride and Prejudice when it’s published. It’s also about time the RSC stopped thinking that it had some right to anything but an audience of fanboys; and it’s also about time it stopped trying to make people feel guilty for not worshipping Will the Quill.

How many more centuries will this continue?

Not so Modern English.

The secondary curriculum is under review and I see that Shakespeare has been duly trotted out (Shakespeare and algebra are a must for all pupils, schools told). I was just wondering how much longer it’s going to take before Shakespeare is dropped as part of the English curriculum because someone dares to acknowledge that his English is largely unintelligible to speakers of present-day English (now and in the future). How many school children actually understand what Billy the Bard wrote? How many have to use study guides to understand the plays and sonnets?

I like to think that I have a good, but far from thorough historical vocab­ulary. I have a certain awareness that words from 16th and 17th centuries don’t have their modern senses. In some cases, the word still has the same sense it had in Middle English; in others, the word might’ve entered the language from Latin and would, not surprisingly, still have its Latin sense.

When I watch a play by Shakespeare, even I find that large chunks of the dialogue are unintelligible. It’s not because it’s verse, but because the English of the late 16th and early 17th centuries is too different from the modern idiom. I remember reading the Rape of Lucrece many years ago and having to rely on the notes to understand most of it; and I’m certain my knowledge of non-modern vocabulary was much better then than it is now.


But not too full.

Every so often, I learn something about English that I never knew before. Usually, it’s something about a word or words such as the -c- for nouns and -s- for verbs thing (thus, practice (n) ~ practise (vb); prophecy (n) ~ prophesy (vb) etc.). That’s one I didn’t learn of until I was in my twenties. Again, I was in my twenties when I found out that the phrase “even although” wasn’t actually written as a single word.

Then there are those words which I know, but rarely use and may not use them correctly because I don’t really know what they mean. In this category used to fall the word “compunction” which roughly means “prick of conscience”, but which I think I took to mean something like “compulsion”.

Today’s word kind of falls into this last category. Language Log has a story The Queen’s English (I thought she was a bit German, actually [And once again the comedy ever ends. –ed.]) which is about the use of the word “fulsome” in the film The Queen. I know of the word, although it belongs to that set of words in English which I’d regard as obsolete. If “gay” hadn’t acquired other meanings, it’d merely be some quaint word used by elderly dowagers trapped in 1933. I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “fulsome” myself either in speech or writing. If you were to ask me what it meant, I’d say “generous” and add that it has positive connotations.

Apparently, this is not so.

Apparently – and here’s the part I never knew – “fulsome” has anything but positive connotations. It’s meant to mean “offensively flattering or insincere”. How, therefore, do I come to see it in such a positive light? The word is clearly dying. If I were to use it, then it’d probably be in the clichéd phrase “fulsome praise” where, I think, the positive connotations of “praise” coupled with “full” have perhaps generated the sense I understand. I can think of no instance where I’d have any reason to assume that “fulsome” had a negative sense unless I knew that it was being used to damn someone with faint praise. “Fulsome” may not quite be dead in English, but I’d guess that for most speakers it has the same sense that it has for me.

I also wonder whether this is one of those instances where speakers of American English have retained a usage that has dropped off the radar of British English. (06.08.14. Wouldn’t surprise me because as I’ve said else­where, American is a museum.)

Anyway, it just goes to prove that even native speakers can learn something new about their languages, although I’m not about to dust “fulsome” off and start using it either in its current sense or, for certain, in its obsolete one.

A couple of thoughts on language change

Perception and production.

Back in the 50s, distinctive features were based on perception, not production. They included such features as [±strident] and the coolest feature ever, [±mellow]. Phonology became just a little less cool with the loss of the latter. I guess the reason for the switch to distinctive features based on production is that processes such as assimilation depend on the producer, not the perceiver.

However, when I was having a shower before, I began to wonder whether the abandonment of features based on perception was altogether a good idea. Sound change depends on how learners of a language perceive sounds. For the most part, they’ll acquire the same sounds, but there may be one or two changes. To the first person I worked with in China, the words whine and wine; what and watt; which and witch etc. were minimal pairs. On the other hand, I make no such distinction. My pronunciation of wh- and w- is identical. In other words, if my parents make such a distinction [06.08.14. They do, but it’s very, very slight], I failed to perceive it as I ac­quired English.

If sound change is all about how we perceive and interpret sounds, then features based on perception might be relevant in the reanalysis of inputs where an analysis based on production features makes no real sense. I’ve seen this is the historical phonology of French where there are sound changes which are obviously a consequence of how children acquiring early French perceived the sounds their parents made. I’d also argue that certain changes in Welsh are of similar nature.

[06.08.14. I now have access to the sources I was wanting seven years ago when I wrote this.]

On review, I think my observation about perception-based changes in French was wrong. For example, foudre “lightning” from Latin fulgurem has nothing to do with perception in spite of the shift from [g] to [d].

Greek possibly supplies a better example with IE *kw > Gk. t and IE *gw to Gk. d in certain environments.

Similarly, in the development of Welsh, *ps > ch [x] (e.g. *upsel– > uchel “high”) would seem to be a perception-based change. (Although this is possibly the McGurk Effect at work, where we perceive one peripheral con­son­ant, [p] or [k], for another.)

The features of perception would be translated into features of pro­duc­t­ion.

Sound change in Optimality Theory is described as a matter of constraint reranking. Yet would OT be capable of producing a principled analysis of the Greek or Welsh data I mentioned above without resorting to some sleight of hand? Constraints are meant to capture markedness in language (I think; to be honest, much of this has leaked out of my porous brain so I may be talking a bunch of absolute bollocks). Are humans inherently aware of markedness in language as part of UG or is there something else here? Am I innately aware that the unmarked phonation state of obstruents is [-voice] and that sonorants are inherently [+voice]? I have no answer to this question.

A lot of sound change can, no doubt, be described adequately whether perception or production is the basis of the description, but I must first perceive the sound, analyse, and then reproduce it. How I achieve the first step then affects the analysis and thus the production. If the description is based on production alone, I’m really putting the cart before the horse.

That’s so gay

There’s nowt so queer as language.

I haven’t been paying much attention to the furore over Chris Moyles gay remark, but I happened to have a look at the related blog entry on The Guardian which has attracted so much attention.

Until the early 1980s, gay would’ve been marked [+moribund] in my vocab. The popularisation of the meaning “homosexual” gave it a new lease of life.

It wouldn’t have been until South Park was first aired that I would’ve heard the word in the other sense which I’d now regard as common – gay meaning “naff” or “rubbish”. Clearly this was derived from the homosexual sense of gay, and, in the early days, it probably had homophobic overtones.

I remember reading somewhere, online I believe, Language Log, perhaps, about some informal research on the current sense of the word gay. A number of people claimed that the “naff” sense was used in some varieties of English as far back as the 1960s, but the feeling was that this particular sense has probably been popularised by South Park.

Gay = naff has been round long enough for this to be a huge non-issue. There seems to be some belief that this meaning is kind of isolated from the way the rest of us use it because it’s part of the adolescent vocabulary. I was watching South Park when most of today’s adolescents were even that old. In other words, there will be twentysomethings and older who use the term as well.

I don’t know where the Sturm und Drang over this has come from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s coming from people who are, basically, out of touch. Language is notoriously difficult to regulate and the genii is already out of the bottle on this one; out long before Chris Moyles ever got there.

Nor is this especially new. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would sometimes come up with gay-themed humour. I think we had to invent some advertisements in English class when I was in the 4th form. There was one which started, “Are you tired of hoeing the pansies in the garden…” It was a laugh, but it wasn’t seriously aimed at anyone. Besides, when I was at school, no one would’ve admitted to being gay.

Actually, a few years after I’d left school I did hear that the guy who sat next to me in our form room in the 6th form had come out. I’d also heard that he’d got some girl pregnant, and rather suspected that the gay thing was a ploy to avoid that responsibility. I didn’t particularly like him, and his general behaviour didn’t suggest that he was even slightly gay. He may have been confused, or, more likely, clueless. He was certainly crass.

OK, that’s way too much gay-ass crap out of me on this subject.

English as she is not spoke

Hacks and gibberish.

I’m reading an article on The Independent’s website about British forces taking quite a few casualties this month. I read the following (my italics):

In all, 113 British forces have died.

Forces? Shouldn’t it be “military personnel” or “personnel” or some variation on that? I don’t remember the word “force” having a meaning like “member of a military unit”. Is this an Americanism? A militarism?

The previous paragraph uses the phrase “service personnel”, so perhaps the hacks (yes, there are two of them) or the sub-editor were trying for a little variation. On the plus side, forces is used correctly in the first part of the article.

In this sense, the British Expeditionary Force which was sent to France at the start of World War II would’ve been a disappointment. One man against the whole of the German army?

Open the vents!

Pope’s head overheats.

I’ve just seen this headline over on Google News UK:

Only in welcoming God can mankind find humanity and peace.

The European world did that some time ago. But look what happened – intolerance; schisms; Crusades; Reformations; Counter Reformations; Northern Ireland; In­tel­lig­ent Design… The party never ends.

The Pope is right, of course, but not in a good way. I am reminded once again of the Borg from Star Trek.

The pain! The pain!

And then there’s this from The Scotsman newspaper (my italics; probably because it depends on how the theme renders quotations).

BRITAIN’S digital music revolution will be increasingly driven by the over-50s as the affluent “silver surfer” generation migrate their music col­lect­ions onto MP3 players, industry experts said today.

I hope that’s a more-or-less direct quote from some semi-literate record company exec and not some sub-editor letting such an abomination pass through without comment.

The correct verb is transfer. Migrate is an intransitive verb, and thus un­gram­matical in this sentence. But I predict that eventually in American English (which is the most likely source of such a usage), all verbs will be used transitively or in­trans­itively without due care and attention, and there will be no passive voice because MS Word tells people not to use it.

A couple of theories about language.

About once every 500 years, the changes in the English language ac­cum­ul­ate to a sufficient degree for the language to enter a new phase. In the early 21st century, we’re at the start of the new phase (not that we can see it, of course, since language change is an on-going process) because it’s 500 years since the start of the Modern English period. The 500 years before that was the Middle English period, and the 500 before that, Old English. Before that, we spoke various dialects of West Germanic and English didn’t exist.

Anyway, that’s my theory.

My other theory is that the Old English period is the period when the in­sular dialects of West Germanic (i.e., those spoken on the damp and fog-bound isle of Britain), became increasingly separate from their Continental cousins. In other words, the English language as a language (and not just a dialect of someone else’s language) didn’t really exist before about AD 1000.

Thinking man’s crumpet from late Antiquity.

I was doing some reading about Hypatia of Alexandria yesterday. I found a reference to her on a website about Epicurus, although she wasn’t an Epicurean. She was born in Alexandria some time in the second half of the 4th century (perhaps between 455 and 470). her father, Theon, was the last director of the museum in Alexandria. She herself was a mathematician and philosopher, and both popular and well-connected. She may have been married, but that’s uncertain.

She was murdered by Christian fanatics in 415. It was rumoured that she was preventing the city’s Prefect, Orestes, from being reconciled with Bishop Cyril. According to Socrates Scholasticus, she was taken to the church of Caesarion, stripped naked, and beaten to death with tiles. Her body was then removed to Cinaron and burnt. Although Socrates was a Christian, his account is basically sympathetic to Hypatia.

John, the Bishop of Nikiu, sensationalised the story somewhat. Hypatia is now a witch, and she was first taken to the church before being dragged through the streets until she died.

Socrates’ account may have been coloured by his attitude towards Cyril, and that may explain why Hypatia’s death has all the hallmarks of Christian martyrdom.

The account in The Suda follows the same sort of line. It mentions her beauty and chastity. It also adds a tale about one besotted admirer whom Hypatia “cured” by waving some used tampons in his face.

The version by the Bishop of Nikiu seems to be aimed at the groundlings. Hypatia is taken to the church before being dragged around the streets until she died. If she’d been murdered in the church, the church would’ve been despoiled by the blood of an unbeliever. It may also be being implied that Hypatia was given the chance to convert.

Hypatia’s death was never avenged. The emperor “was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed” (The Suda). Not long afterwards, Orestes left Alexandria and Cyril had won the day.

No one knows what part Cyril played in Hypatia’s death, but he’s unlikely to have been upset. There had been human rights violations on both sides. According to The Suda, Cyril was jealous of Hypatia’s popularity.

[H]e was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that.

But her death in this version is mere assassination. Well, it is The Suda after all.