Tag Archives: English

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


What’s English?

This was first published on The Editors’ Weekly.

Here’s a quick quiz. Tell me which of the following are English and which aren’t. For each one, say why it is or isn’t English and, if it’s not English, what it is.

  1. There’s no place to plug your car in in the parkade.
  2. A wha dat dey dem people deh nyam ih smell sweet.
  3. He was found to have contraband in the boot and under the bonnet, so he is in gaol.
  4. Breid is a staple fuid prepared by bakin a daich o floor an watter.
  5. That pom’s running around like a chook with its head cut off.
  6. Biiolojii esa saiens, daa studehs lief, plant a’ anamal.
  7. Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.
  8. I might have the odd poutine, but mostly I don’t pig out.
  9. Tell me, what is one to do yaar? They are like that only.
  10. Ðā ġeseah ðæt wīf ðæt ðæt trēow wæs gōd tō etenne.
  11. If yall are fixin to go, I might could leave early.
  12. One coffee regular. All set?
  13. I damn tired den langgar the car lor. Dun know oreddy lah!

Wasn’t that fun? As you may have guessed, all of the above are versions of English from different places (and in one case a different time). But of course they’re not equally acceptable in all contexts, and some are sometimes treated as different languages now. I’m willing to bet that several of them were more than a little hard to understand, and most of them seemed somehow “wrong” to you. So let’s look at what they are and what they mean.

  1. Albertan: There’s no place to plug in the block heater on your car engine in the parking garage.
  2. Jamaican (patois; from Chat Jamaican by J.J. Thomas): What are those people eating? It smells sweet.
  3. British: He was found to have contraband in the trunk and under the hood, so he is in jail.
  4. Scots (from http://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breid): Bread is a staple food prepared by baking a dough of flour and water.
  5. Australian: That British person is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
  6. Pitkern and Norfuk (Pitcairn and Norfolk; descendants of the crew of the Bounty; from http://pih.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biiolojii): Biology is a science that studies life, both plant and animal.
  7. Medical jargon: Viagra® should not be prescribed to people with high blood pressure.
  8. Canadian: I might have the occasional dish of French fries with cheese and gravy, but mostly I don’t eat to excess.
  9. Indian English: Tell me, what can one do, man? They are just like that.
  10. Old English (Anglo-Saxon; from http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/fall.html): Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.
  11. Southern US English: If you [plural] are getting ready to go, I just might be able to leave early.
  12. New England English: One coffee with cream and sugar. Is that everything?
  13. Singlish (Singapore English; from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlish): I was really tired, which is why I crashed into the other car. I don’t know any more about it!

There is not one “right” English. English is a language complex. All languages have different levels and tones and different usages for different contexts, but English, due to its spread, has much more variation than many. Within their own systems, all of the above are perfectly grammatical. Obviously, most of them would only be acceptable in a conversational tone directed to a specific audience, but to that audience, they would sound entirely natural.

And that’s the take-home. What sounds natural to you, and what sounds natural to the audience you’re editing for, in the context of your document? Are you sure? The Albertan sentence sounds perfectly normal to me, but there are many Canadians who would scratch their heads at it…

7 languages that are like fusion cuisine

We tend to think of languages as easily organized into trees of descent: proto-Germanic split into proto-North Germanic, proto-East Germanic, and proto-West Germanic; proto-West Germanic split into various German and Netherland dialects; one of those dialects became English, another Dutch, et cetera. But sometimes languages take a bit from here and a bit from there. It’s like having nasi goreng made with couscous and kielbasa: fusion cuisine! My latest article for TheWeek.com is about seven fun languages that really mix it up. It’s been given the title

How languages are like food


English’s foreign plurals

The monetary unit of Swaziland is the lilangeni. English speakers are helpfully reminded that the plural is emalangeni: one lilangeni, two emalangeni.

But why?

I don’t mean “Why does SiSwati, the language of the Swaziland, pluralize that way?” That’s easy: as with other Bantu languages, its nouns are in different classes, identified by prefixes, and plurals are a different class from singulars. No, I mean “Why do we feel obliged to use the SiSwati plural when we’re speaking English?”

It’s not normal, you know. It’s not normal for languages, when they borrow words from other languages, to borrow the morphology: the different forms for plurals, possessives, etc., and the different conjugations for verbs.

It’s not even normal for English to do that. We don’t borrow conjugations when we borrow verbs: we don’t say “They massacreront them!” instead of “They will massacre them!” We don’t borrow possessives when we borrow nouns: we don’t say “The radiorum length” instead of “The radiuses’ length” – oh, sorry, that should be “The radii’s length.” Right?

Because sometimes – just sometimes – when we borrow a noun we also borrow the plural form. This is especially true with newer borrowings and with borrowings in specialized areas (science, food, the arts). We’re not very consistent about it, so it can sneak up on you, like so many other ambush rules we have in English.

And there are so many borrowed plural forms – because there are so many plural forms to borrow. Read 9 confusing ways to pluralize words (by me) on TheWeek.com for details on ways and reasons.

But if we’re going to talk about pluralizing things the way we always have in English, there’s one other issue: we haven’t always pluralized using –s in English

Nope. In fact, a thousand years ago, when English nouns had three genders, only the masculine ones got –s (actually –as), and not all of those did either. Other ways of showing the plural were to add –u, –a, –e, or –n, or change the vowel, or do nothing. English has changed a whole lot since then. Noun and verb forms have gotten much, much simpler – thanks to interaction with speakers of other languages, especially Norse and French. You can really thank the French for the fact that we use –s/–es on most words now for the plural.

But since that’s what we do now, should we do it with all new words we steal, I mean borrow? Well, it’ll sure make life easier if we can settle on octopuses. But it might just sound kind of wrong and blah if we order paninos and look at graffitos on the wall. And it would be less fun if we couldn’t jokingly say to a bartender, “I’ll have a martinus. No, not martini – I only want one.” It’s the eternal struggle of English: do you want it easy, or do you want it fun?

A Word Taster’s Companion: Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

Today: the fourth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades (and nuclear warfare). Well, there’s somewhere else it counts: phonemes.

As I explained in “The world speaks in harmony,” phonemes are target sounds that we get variously close to. To put it another way, they’re the sounds we think we’re saying.

Say Yeah really slowly, moving your tongue down and lowering your jaw gradually and smoothly. You have just moved quite smoothly through sounds with no sharp border between them, but though you can hear that, you will probably have a sense more of fading from one distinct sound to another than of moving through sounds that are not quite one or the other. This is because you unlearned all those intermediate sounds when you were first learning English, and you learned targets – phonemes – that you’re matching what you hear and say to.

Different languages have different sets of phonemes, and may draw different boundaries between the same phonemes. Think of your mouth as a big lot of land divided by fences into smaller parts. Everyone has the same size and shape of lot, but different languages put the fences in different places. If you’re learning a different language, you have to learn new sound boundaries. For example, our vowels in beat and bit are fixed in our minds as two different sounds, but they register as the same phoneme to speakers of Spanish, Russian, and quite a few other languages. They don’t have the fence between those two sounds that we have.

The same goes with consonants. For instance, several South Asian languages have a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops. We make both kinds of sounds in English, but most of us don’t even notice – consciously – that we do. Put your hand just a short distance in front of your mouth. Say spit (don’t spit it, say it). Now say pit. Did you feel a puff of air on the p in pit? We aspirate /p/ when it’s the first consonant in a word but not when it’s the second – in other words, as linguists would write it, the phoneme /p/ is realized as the phones [p] and [ph] in different contexts. In Hindi and Thai, both versions of the sound are used in the same contexts and they’re considered as different as, for instance, b and p. On the other hand, in some languages, such as Spanish, /p/ is never aspirated – one of the factors that make a Spanish accent sound different from a standard Anglophone one.

Of course, there are different accents within a language, too. English has a large number of dialects, each with its own accent. Not everyone can learn to produce the accent of a different dialect, but most of us can get used to hearing the sounds done differently. Try saying (or imagining) the sentence “That’s a rather good bit of tea” in as many accents as you can imitate: east coast US, southern US, upper-crust British, working-class British, versions of Scottish and Irish, whatever else you want to try. Some sounds will vary quite a bit – compare them word by word. And yet somehow, because you know what the targets are in those accents for those phonemes in those contexts, you can understand it.

There are some snags, of course. If we hear rather in another accent there aren’t any other words it could be mistaken for – if a South African sounds like he’s saying “retha” we can mentally adjust the targets to fit it to the expected phonemes without wondering if he was saying something else. But when there are other things the word could sound like, confusion may ensue. A woman named Anne from Buffalo may risk having her name written down as Ian by someone from elsewhere hearing it over the phone. For that matter, if the sound is too different from what we expect, we may not recognize it even if there aren’t alternatives. One time when I was working in a bookstore a British bloke asked for the “hudda” section. At first I couldn’t at all understand what he wanted. He was looking for the horror section, as it turned out.

There is also the issue that we don’t all have exactly the same set of phonemes, even among English speakers. Get people from different places in Canada, the US, and England to say cot, caught, court, and you will find that most Canadians say the first two the same, most Brits (the r-dropping ones at least) say the last two the same, and many Americans say all three differently. Canadian English has merged the two vowel phonemes we hear in cot and caught. The Brits use the same vowel phoneme for caught as for court, and in court the r is dropped.

By the way, the vowel Canadians and Americans use in court is different from the one in cot, but most Canadians and many Americans may think of it as the same vowel – the same phoneme, in other words. The key is that that sound is only used before /r/, and the other one is never used before /r/. They’re in what’s called complementary distribution, which doesn’t mean they’re being handed out for free (though they are). Since they’re different sounds but are thought of as the same sounds, they’re what are called allophones of the same phoneme.

By now you should have a clear sense that phonemes often have different allophones that we may not realize are different. And yet somehow we maintain those differences. You can even have an allophone difference in one dialect that other dialects don’t have, and the speakers of the dialect with the difference may not notice that there’s a difference – and yet still maintain the difference.

For one example, most Canadians say the vowel in ice a little higher than the one in eyes, while few other English speakers do the same, and even though Canadians think of the sounds as the same and may not be consciously aware of the difference, it nonetheless persists. Many Canadians also say the vowel in out different from the one in loud. As with eyes/ice, it’s because the consonant after is voiceless in one case and voiced in another. (I’ll get to consonants soon enough, don’t worry.) But that out vowel that sounds the same as the loud vowel to Canadians trespasses on the territory of a different phoneme for Americans: the vowel in loot. This is why Canadians can say out and hear out while Americans hear the same thing and hear it as oot: for them, it’s on a different phoneme’s turf – it’s on the other side of the fence.

It gets even better, though: we actually make an at least slightly different sound each time we say a given phoneme, even in the same word repeated. Linguists draw diagrams showing the entire area in which a phoneme is made at different times by a speaker or by speakers of a specific dialect, with dots on them like holes on a dart board. But we are still able to match the sounds to what they’re intended to be. (This is helped by the fact that the fences aren’t really so much fences as fuzzy boundaries – what you hear a sound as is affected by what sound you expect to hear.)

It’s like having hand grenades going off in your mouth. They may not hit their targets right on, but they get close enough.

Next: The vowel circle

Hyphe-nation? Hyphen-ation?

Several years ago I was working on a newsletter that had French and English versions. Our client contact spoke English but was a native Francophone. She complained that the hyphenation in the English was wrong.

Now, I was laying this newsletter out in InDesign, using its automatic hyphenation. It has a thorough hyphenation dictionary. I am a very, very fluent native Anglophone. I knew the hyphenation was right. But she was quite certain that it was not.

What did she think was wrong with it? Well, you see, it’s this: not everyone who speaks English realizes it, but we, like the French and speakers of many other languages, will as a habit say a consonant at the beginning of a syllable rather than at the end of the previous one if we can. For instance, we actually say the word breaking as [bɹe kɪŋ] (like “bray king”). Of course, there are some consonant pairs we won’t put together at the start of a syllable; we don’t say “da-mnation,” for example. Now, as it happens, in French, hyphenation occurs between syllables as they are actually said. By this rule, you would hyphenate at brea-king. That’s what she wanted

Does that look a little off? Would you say it should be break-ing? You’d be right.

In English, we have two different ways of hyphenating. In the British style, we aim to break at morpheme boundaries. What that means is that if a word is made up of a root and some prefixes and/or suffixes, you break at the boundary between the parts. So when you have break plus ing you break between them. And when you have hyphen plus ation you break it as hyphen-ation even though you actually say it like hyphe-nation.

We break those two words the same by the American system, but for a different reason. There is another very important fact in English that affects not just how we hyphenate words but how we read them and think of them generally. When you read a word, the quality of the vowel can be affected by the consonants, if any, that come after it – so we break at bus-ing rather than bu-sing – and the quality of a consonant can be affected by the vowels or consonants that come after it, so we will hyphenate Angli-cism rather than Anglic-ism because that c would look like a [k] sound. The American approach aims to make sure that when you read the first part of a word before the line break, you don’t have to rethink it once you see the second part. So it has to look as though it sounds like it actually does sound.

We just don’t write words exactly as they sound. English spelling is so perverse as to be almost ideographic at times. We have to recognize whole syllables or even whole morphemes, like break and breaking (as opposed to bread and breading, for instance – you only know what the vowel sound is when you see the letter after it). This results in some further traditions that couldn’t possibly make any sense from a strictly phonetic perspective.

Take a word like hotter. We actually say it with the /t/ at the beginning of the second syllable. But we have to think of the first syllable as ending with a consonant. If we spelled it as hoter, that would mean the syllables were ho ter, and that would make the o into a “long” o. So we write it with a double t to make it clear that the first syllable is a closed syllable, meaning its vowel is “short” – even though the syllable isn’t actually closed when you say it. It’s how you think you’re saying it that matters. Welcome to the wonderful world of phonemics!

But we also don’t break it as hott-er. As everyone learns in elementary school, we split it between the double letters: hot-ter. Never mind that there is no second [t] sound; that extra t isn’t part of the first syllable. But it’s not that we always break up consonant letters when the second one is unspoken: it’s dumb-er and smack-ing, not dum-ber (which could read as though you say the [b]) and smac-king.

There’s actually a little more to all this even than what I’ve already said. A favourite “gotcha!” in intro linguistics courses is to ask students where the syllable break is in Christmas. Now, we know right away that we don’t actually say a [t] in there. But we also know it’s a compound with a clearly identifiable first part, Christ, and we know that we would never start a syllable with [stm], so not only would we always hyphenate it as Christ-mas, it just makes sense that we must actually be breaking the syllable right before the [m]. Otherwise the i might stand for a different sound, as it would in an open syllable.

But nope! Gotcha, says the professor: the real break is [krɪ sməs] – that is, “Chri-s’mas.”

Except… Try this. Shout “Clover!” emphasizing each syllable, as though to a person hard of hearing and some distance away or in a noisy club. You hear what you do: “Clo! Ver!” OK, now try “Christmas!”

Is it “Chris! Mas!” or is it “Chri! Smas!”? Or is it more like “Chri! ss, Mas!”? Your results may vary, but for at least some people the [s] will fall squarely in the middle, a phenomenon called ambisyllabicity – something not all linguists agree exists. Try some other words such as breaking and dumber and hotter and see where you put the consonant in the middle. The natural tendency is for it to attach to the following syllable, but we think of it as part of the previous syllable, and it affects how we pronounce the word too, so it may not entirely let go of the previous syllable.

In English, we just don’t read one letter at a time. We just can’t! Consider the effect of breaking according to when we actually start saying the next syllable, separating vowels or consonants from the consonants that affect them:









and so on.

How did I resolve the issue with the newsletter? I just turned off hyphenation, which made the right edge of the text more ragged (don’t do it if you have full-justified text, especially in narrow columns) but quite readable and not susceptible to imposition of inappropriate hyphenation standards.