The sounds of historical English

A couple of weeks ago, I did an “English language time machine” piece for The Week. This week, it’s up as a podcast, for those who prefer to listen:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like


The sound of 2050

The Week is doing a special series on the US in the year 2050. They asked me to write an article on what English will be like then. I obliged. Here it is, with illustrative videos:

What Americans will sound like in 2050


An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.

Tuareg, Touareg

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about a Volkswagen midsize luxury SUV, come a little closer. Closer… closer… [cuffs you on the side of the head]

The wilderness-despoiler mass-marketed by VW, and often heard pronounced like “tour-egg” or “tore-egg,” has taken its name from a Saharan nomadic people. It’s like calling a vehicle Apache or Aztec or Basque or, I dunno, Inuvialuit. Touareg because exotic nomadic desert-dwelling blue-veiled people from near Timbuktu!

Well, I’m not writing about SUVs and I’m not going to dwell on the VW swiponym (swiped name) anymore. My motivation for tasting Touareg – more typically spelled Tuareg in English, and properly said /ˈtwɑ rɛg/ – is an email I got in response to yesterday’s tasting on oud. I had mentioned how Arabic music is very good studying and writing music for me (I didn’t mention, because it was off-topic, that Indian ragas are generally even better for that). Jean Rossner emailed me that she had lately discovered another genre that is similarly good for her: Tuareg desert blues. She mentioned three groups who play it: Tinariwen, Tamikrest, and Etran Finatawa.

This is a kind of music with what I immediately recognize as a modern West African style, with a variety of electric and acoustic instruments. If you want to sort out all the different influences and sources, go right ahead. Anyway, here is some of it to start playing while you read the rest of this tasting – and long thereafter. I’ve found a playlist of 15 videos, and an hour-long concert by Tinariwen; there’s plenty more out there too.

Does it sound like blues to you? It doesn’t make use of the blues hexatonic scale, but the songs may have some bluesiness in the lyrics – I actually don’t know; I don’t speak the language. But there’s a pun involved, to be sure: the Tuareg, especially the men, are – as I mentioned above – known for wearing blue veils on their faces, which can even colour their skin.

Their language, now. The Tuaregs are a Berber people, and their language falls into the Berber family, which is part of the Afro-Asiatic phylum, the same broad family that includes Hausa, Somali, Arabic, and Hebrew. (English is part of the Indo-European phylum; so are French, Albanian, Hindi, Russian… There are four language phyla in Africa, or five if you count the invasive Indo-European.) It is a language more spoken than written, but it is written. It is written multiple ways. There is a Latin-based orthography – actually more than one. There is also Arabic-based orthography. And there is the Tifinagh orthography, their own writing system, long reserved for special purposes (magical formulae, writing on the palm to maintain silence) but sometimes now in broader use.

What is Tifinagh? It is an alphabet that has no particular resemblance in form to any other alphabet you’ll find. It is what one might call very geometric – which is kind of silly, because everything using lines on paper is geometric. But in this case it’s using a lot of simple (easily described) geometric forms: squares, circles, crosses, dots. It couldn’t look less like Arabic script if it tried. Have a look at it on Omniglot:

Where does it come from? It’s not certain, but in any case, it came from there a long time ago. It’s probably descended from Phoenician letter forms – Tifinagh may come from Phoenicia, even if it looks like an Irish place name.

Oh, about that final gh: that’s meant to represent a voiced velar fricative, which in the Latin-based orthography for Tuareg is typically written ɣ. So it’s different from the g on the end of Tuareg. But it’s the same as the gh on Imuhagh, which is what the Tuareg actually call themselves.

So where is this word Tuareg from? We’ve had it borrowed into English since the early 1800s. It’s from a Berber word, possibly even a Tuareg word a bit modified, and seems to refer to one of the areas they live in, a part of Libya. At least it’s not an insulting exonym like Eskimo!

It is also, I think, catchy and attractive. It starts with the crisp, sturdy T and ends with the firm snub-nosed g (polysyllabic words that end in eg are exotic in English, but not ostentatiously so); it has that /ware/ or /uare/ in the middle, which may recall ululation, or the African board game wari, and maybe has a taste of wadi or water; there is a little flavour of the middle of Sahara even. It may play to fantasies of the desert, which pulls a little tug within to ask you who you are. Or not. But I think, anyway, it sounds more sandy and attractive to English audiences than Imuhagh. I can’t guarantee that, of course…


This word is not loud. It’s not just that it’s not loud minus a letter; it’s not just that it’s pronounced /u:d/ (the spelling is a French-influenced one; you can also see it as ud); it’s also that what it names is not unusually loud. It can be somewhat loud or very quiet, but you are unlikely to want to stop your ears due to the loudness of the noise it produces.

What is it? It is not some kind of dictionary (like the OED) nor a long-term contraceptive (that’s an IUD). It’s not an acronym at all. Nor is it a centuries-old colloquial way of saying would (you will see ’ould or ’ud, but not oud). It is, according to the OED, an instrument of the lute family. But if you look at the history, you may wonder whether it would be more sensible to call a lute an instrument of the oud family.

It’s not simply that the oud is the more ancient. It’s that lute comes from Arabic al-ʿūd, ‘the oud’. (Where does ʿūd come from? Well, it’s Arabic for ‘wood’, and the instrument is made of wood – and whatever you use for the strings. Some people think the word in this case may have been borrowed from Persian, but that’s not universally agreed).

There are two general kinds of ouds: Turkish and Arabic; the Arabic kind has several sub-types. The main difference, though, is that the Arabic oud is a bit larger than the Turkish oud.

Of course you can play all sorts of things on an oud; it has enough strings, and enough of a range, that you can really play the music of your choice – especially since there are no frets on it, so you can choose your scale. But it’s associated with the music that is normally played on it: Arabic and Turkish music of various kinds. I happen to like this kind of music quite well, and I think it’s very good for reading or studying or writing to. I ought to know – when I was in grad school at Tufts, I spent a lot of time in their music library listening to CDs from all over the world, and Arabic music was one kind I could count on for getting quite a bit done while enjoying what I was hearing. It is – for me – simultaneously relaxing, enjoyable, and mentally stimulating. Sort of like Arabic or Turkish coffee, but without the shakes. (Now I look at oud and I see a small coffee cup – from above o and the side u – and an oud, d.)

Your results may vary, of course. But here are a couple of performances on the oud, one Arabic and one Turkish. If you like them, there are plenty more:

I have this idea to cross the Aeolian harp with the oud, just so I could call it an oud-wind. But I probably won’t.


This word may seem familiar to linguists – familiar but misspelled. To just about everyone else, it probably looks like some made-up expressive or imitative word. But it does have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not marked “archaic” or “obsolete” (though they may just not have revised the entry recently).

I will explain first why it looks familiar to linguists. There are a few ways in casual conversation to quickly smoke out someone with an education in linguistics. One is to see if they pick up on an oblique reference to Noam Chomsky’s sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” grammatically coherent but semantically incoherent. Another way is with a reference to wugs.

Back in 1958, Jean Berko Gleason was doing some research with small children to determine how they learn language. She showed that young children (but not the very youngest) could apply generalizable morphological rules. A most famous example was this: She showed a picture of a vaguely bird-like thing and said, “This is a WUG.” Then she showed a picture of two of them, and said, “Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two________.” And although the children had never seen the word wugs before, they readily inferred that it would be the plural of wug. Without overt encouragement, they knew how to go forward.

But that is a one-g wug. You know that a one-l lama is a priest while a two-l llama is a beast, so you can imagine that a two-g wugg is not a one-g wug. And indeed it is not. In fact, it’s not even a noun. It’s an intransitive verb.

So what do you suppose it means? It sounds like a wet ball landing in a drain, maybe, or some sodden dipsomaniac being aroused abruptly from snoring: “Huh? Wugg? Wugg you wong?” It has a wave of an onset, nothing abrupt, and a blunter stuck ending, but not a crisp one. The double g could make us think of wiggle or nugget or bugger or any of a fair few other words. It also makes me think a bit of walk.

And, actually, I rather wonder whether walk is related. You see, wugg comes from a southern English dialect word used to call a horse. You may call a pig by shoulting “Soo-eee!” but, at least in some parts, you would call a horse with “Wugg!” And you would likewise use the word to encourage it to go forward. “Wugg, you nag!” It could also be used referentially: “Nothing I could do would make that horse wugg.”

So there that is. A little lexical souvenir, a tiny tin horseshoe for the trinket shelf, bound to gather dust… starting now. Because why would you ever have use for it?

But at least you know about wugs. You still won’t pass for a linguist, though, not with just that. The moment someone asks you for some sib you’ll be lost…

You want to know the good linguist in-group stuff? Wugg now, go on, get learning.

Time to learn about copulation

Some people really screw up their grammar. They do it by trying too hard and by misanalysing what’s going on – they’ve learned a few simple rules and don’t know the fuller facts of language, because no one told them about copulation… or resultatives or substantives.

Well, time to find out. Here’s my latest article for The Week:

What we talk about when we talk about (word) copulation