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sci.lang FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

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Archive-name: sci-lang-faq
Version: 2.29
Last-modified: 3 Mar 2002
Last-posted: 20 Jun 2002

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
Except where noted, written by Michael Covington (
Maintained by Mark Rosenfelder (

      The Web version of this FAQ can be found at:
	 (The most up-to-date FAQ will always be the Web version.)

      Changes this month: Added a question on etymology.

NOTE: This FAQ file doesn't cover everything!  Many good books and many 
      important ideas are left unmentioned.  All readers should be aware 
      that linguistics is a young science and that linguists rarely agree 
      100% on anything.

DISTRIBUTION: This file may be freely distributed electronically, or 
      as handouts in linguistics classes.  Please retain the author
      attributions and addresses, and this paragraph.  Before using it 
      in print, please contact the authors.

 1. What is sci.lang for?
 2. What is linguistics?
 3. Does linguistics tell people how to speak or write properly?
 4. What are some good books about linguistics?
 5. How did language originate?
 6. What is known about prehistoric language?
 7. What do those asterisks mean?
 8. How are present-day languages related?
 9. Why do Hebrew and Yiddish [etc.] look alike if they aren't related?
10. How do linguists decide that languages are related?
11. What is Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar all about?
12. What is a dialect?  (Relation between dialects and languages.)
13. Are all languages equally complex, or are some more primitive than others?
14. What about artificial languages, such as Esperanto?          
15. What are some stories and novels that involve linguistics?
16. What about those Eskimo words for snow? (and other myths about language)
17. Where can I get an electronic IPA font (or other electronic resources)?
18. How do I subscribe to the LINGUIST list?
19. How can I represent phonetic symbols in ASCII?
20. Is English a creole?
21. How do you look up a word in a Chinese or Japanese dictionary?
22. What about Nostratic and Proto-World?
23. What are phonemes and why's it so hard to lose a foreign accent? 
24. How likely are chance resemblances between languages?
25. How are tone languages sung?
26. Why are there so many words for Germany?
27. Why do both English and French have plurals in -s? 
28. How did genders and cases develop in IE? 
29. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
30. Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex?
31. Where did (some word or phrase) come from?
1. What is sci.lang for?

Discussion of the scientific or historical study of human language(s).
Note the "sci." prefix.  The main concern here is with _facts_ and
theories accounting for them.

For advice on English usage, see alt.usage.english or misc.writing.
For casual chatter about other languages see soc.culture.<whatever>.
Discussion of or in Greek or Latin is available in sci.classics.
The sci.lang.translation newsgroup focusses on translation and issues of 
  concern to translators and interpreters.
The newsgroup focusses on natural language processing
  by computers.

Like all "sci." newsgroups, sci.lang is not meant to substitute for
a dictionary or even a college library.  If the answer to your question
can be looked up easily, then do so rather than using the net.
If you don't have a library, then ask away, but explain your situation.
2. What is linguistics?

  The scientific study of human language, including:
     Phonetics (physical nature of speech)
     Phonology (use of sounds in language)
     Morphology (word formation)
     Syntax (sentence structure)
     Semantics (meaning of words & how they combine into sentences)
     Pragmatics (effect of situation on language use)

  Or, carving it up another way:
     Theoretical linguistics (pure and simple: how languages work)
     Historical linguistics (how languages got to be the way they are)
     Sociolinguistics (language and the structure of society)
     Psycholinguistics (how language is implemented in the brain)
     Applied linguistics (teaching, translation, etc.)
     Computational linguistics (computer processing of human language)

  Some linguists also study sign languages, non-verbal communication,
  animal communication, and other topics besides spoken language.
3. Does linguistics tell people how to speak or write properly?

No.  Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive.
Linguistics can often supply facts which help people arrive at a
recommendation or value judgement, but the recommendation or value
judgement is not part of linguistic science itself.
4. What are some good books about linguistics?

(These are cited by title and author only. Full ordering information
can be obtained from BOOKS IN PRINT, available at most bookstores and
at even the smallest public libraries.)

  CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LANGUAGE, by David Crystal (1987) is a good place 
     to start if you are new to this field.
  LANGUAGE, by Edward Sapir (1921), is a readable survey of linguistics 
     that is still worthwhile despite its age.
  Some good surveys of linguistics:
     An Introduction to Language - Fromkin and Rodman (1974)
     The Social Art - Ronald Macaulay (1995)
     The Language Web - Jean Aitchison 
     Language: The Basics - R.L. Trask (1996)
  AN INTRODUCTION TO LANGUAGE, by Fromkin and Rodman (1974), is one of the 
     best intro linguistics survey texts.  There are many others.
  THE WORLD'S MAJOR LANGUAGES, edited by Bernard Comrie (1987) contains
     meaty descriptions of fifty languages.
     surveys everything and has good sketches of some languages Comrie skips. 
  CAMBRIDGE TEXTBOOKS IN LINGUISTICS (a series) consists of good,
     modestly priced introductions to all the areas of linguistics.
  Any encyclopedia will give you basic information about widely studied
     languages, alphabets, etc.
5. How did language originate?

Nobody knows.  Very little evidence is available.
See however D. Bickerton, LANGUAGE AND SPECIES (1990).
6. What is known about prehistoric language?

Quite a lot, if by "prehistoric" you'll settle for maybe 2000 years
before the development of writing.  (Language is many thousands of years
older than that.)

Languages of the past can be recovered by comparative reconstruction
from their descendants.  The comparative method relies mainly on
pronunciation, which changes very slowly and in highly systematic
ways.  If you apply it to French, Spanish, and Italian, you 
reconstruct late colloquial Latin with a high degree of accuracy;
this and similar tests show us that the method works.

Also, if you use the comparative method on unrelated languages,
you get nothing. So comparative reconstruction is a test of whether 
languages are related (to a discernible degree).

The ancient languages Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and several others form 
a group known as "Indo-European."  Comparative reconstruction from 
them gives a language called Proto-Indo-European which was spoken 
around 2500 B.C.  Many Indo-European words can be reconstructed with 
considerable confidence (e.g., *ekwos 'horse').  The grammar was 
similar to Homeric Greek or Vedic Sanskrit.  Similar reconstructions are
available for some other language families, though none has been as 
thoroughly reconstructed as Indo-European.
7. What do those asterisks mean?

Attached to a word, either of 2 things.
An unattested, reconstructed word (such as Indo-European *ekwos);
or an ungrammatical sentence (such as *Himself saw me).

(In a generative rule, such as AP -> Adj (AP)*, it indicates that
an element may be repeated zero or more times.)
8. How are present-day languages related?
                                                           [--Scott DeLancey]

This is an INCOMPLETE list of some of the world's language families.  More
detailed classifications can be found in Voegelin and Voegelin, CLASSIFICATION
WORLD'S LANGUAGES (1987).  (Note: Ruhlen's classification recognizes a 
number of higher-order groups which most linguists regard as speculative).

A language family is a group of languages that have been proven to have
descended from a common ancestral language.  Branches of families likewise
represent groups of languages with a more recent common ancestor.  For 
example, English, Dutch, and German have a common ancestor which we label
Proto-West-Germanic, and thus belong to the West Germanic branch of Germanic.
Icelandic and Norwegian are descended from Proto-North Germanic, a separate 
branch of Germanic.  All the Germanic languages have a common ancestor, 
Proto-Germanic; farther back, this ancestor was descended from Proto-Indo-
European, as were the ancestors of the Italic, Slavic, and other branches.

Not all languages are known to be related to each other.  It is possible that 
they are related but the evidence of relationship has been lost; it's also 
possible they arose separately.  It is likely that some of the families 
listed here will eventually turn out to be related to one another.

While low-level close relationships are easy to demonstrate, higher-order 
classification proposals must rely on more problematic evidence and tend to 
be controversial.  Recently linguists such as Joseph Greenberg and Vitalij 
Shevoroshkin have attracted attention both in linguistic circles and in the 
popular press with claims of larger genetic units, such as Nostratic 
(comprising Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Dravidian, and Afroasiatic) or 
Amerind (to include all the languages of the New World except Na-Dene and
Eskimo-Aleut).  Most linguists regard these hypotheses as having a grossly 
insufficient empirical foundation, and argue that comparisons at that depth 
are not possible using available methods of historical linguistics.

This list isn't intended to be exhaustive, even for families like Germanic
and Italic.  Nor is it the last word on what's a "language"; see question 12.

  Note: English is not descended from Latin.
        English is a Germanic language with a lot of Latin vocabulary,
        borrowed from French in the Middle Ages.

      North Germanic:  Icelandic, Norwegian / Swedish / Danish
      East Germanic:  Gothic (extinct)
      West Germanic:  English, Dutch, German, Yiddish
      Osco-Umbrian:  Oscan, Umbrian (extinct languages of Italy)
      Latin and its modern descendants (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, 
         Catalan, Rumanian, French, etc.)
      P-Celtic:  Welsh, Breton, Cornish
      Q-Celtic:  Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx
      Some extinct European languages were also Celtic, notably those of Gaul
    HELLENIC:  Greek (ancient and modern)
    SLAVIC:  Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, etc. 
         (not Rumanian or Albanian)
    BALTIC:  Lithuanian and Latvian
      Indic:  Sanskrit and its modern descendants (Hindi-Urdu, 
         Gypsy (Romany), Bengali, etc.)
      Iranian: Persian (ancient and modern), Pashto (Afghanistan), others
    ALBANIAN:  Albanian
    ARMENIAN:  Armenian
    TOKHARIAN (an extinct language of NW China)
    HITTITE (extinct language of Turkey)

    SEMITIC:  Arabic, Hebrew (not Yiddish; see above), Aramaic, Amharic
      and other languages of Ethiopia
    CHADIC:  languages of northern Africa, e.g. Hausa
    CUSHITIC:  Somali, other languages of eastern Africa
    EGYPTIAN:  Ancient Egyptian
    BERBER:  languages of North Africa

NIGER-KORDOFANIAN:  includes most of the languages of sub-Saharan 
    Africa.  Most of the languages are in the NIGER-CONGO branch; the
    most widely known subgroup of N-C is BANTU (Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, etc.) 

    Finnish, Estonian, Saami (Lapp), Hungarian, and several 
    languages of central Russia

MONGOL:  Mongolian, Buryat, Kalmuck, etc.
TURKIC:  Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, and other languages of Central Asia
TUNGUSIC: Manchu, Juchen, Evenki, Even, Oroch, and other languages of NE Asia

    Some linguists group these three families together as ALTAIC.
    Rather more controversially, some add Korean and Japanese to this group.

    It has been claimed that URALIC and ALTAIC are related (as URAL-ALTAIC),
    but this idea is not widely accepted.

DRAVIDIAN:  languages of southern India, including Tamil, Telugu, etc.

    SINITIC:  Chinese (several "dialects", or arguably distinct languages:
      Mandarin, Wu (Shanghai), Min (Hokkien [Fujian], Taiwanese), 
      Yue (Cantonese), Hakka, Gan, Xiang
    TIBETO-BURMAN: Tibetan, Burmese, various languages of Burma,
      China, India, and Nepal

    MON-KHMER:  Vietnamese, Khmer (Cambodian), and various minority 
      and tribal languages of Southeast Asia
    MUNDA:  tribal languages of eastern India

    Malay-Indonesian, other languages of Indonesia (Javanese, etc.)
    Philippine languages: Tagalog, Ilocano, Bontoc, etc.
    Aboriginal languages of Taiwan (Tsou, etc.)
    Polynesian languages: Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Tahitian, etc.
    Micronesian:  Chamorro (spoken in Guam), Yap, Truk, etc.
    Malagasy (spoken in Madagascar)
  Most of these languages fall in a branch called MALAYO-POLYNESIAN

JAPANESE:  A number of linguists argue that Japanese is ALTAIC; others,
    that it is most closely related to AUSTRONESIAN, or that it represents 
    a mixture of AUSTRONESIAN and ALTAIC elements.

TAI-KADAI:  Thai, Lao, and other languages of southern China and 
    northern Burma.  Possibly related to AUSTRONESIAN.  
    An outdated hypothesis that TAI is part of SINO-TIBETAN is still 
    often found in reference works and introductory texts.

AUSTRALIA:  the Aboriginal languages of Australia are conservatively 
    classified into 26 families, the largest being PAMA-NYUNGAN, consisting
    of about 200 languages originally spoken over 80-90% of Australia.

A large number of language families are found in North and South America.
There are numerous proposals which group these into larger units, some of
which will probably be demonstrated in time.  To date no New World language 
has been proven to be related to any Old World family.  The larger North 
American families include:

ESKIMO-ALEUT:  two Eskimo languages and Aleut.
ATHAPASKAN:  most of the languages of Alaska and northwestern Canada,
    also includes Navajo and Apache.  Eyak (in Alaska) is related to
    Athapaskan; some linguists put these together with Tlingit and Haida
    in a NA-DENE family.
ALGONQUIAN:  most of Canada and the Northeastern U.S., includes
    Cree, Ojibwa, Cheyenne, Blackfoot
IROQUOIAN:  the languages of NY state (Mohawk, Onondaga, etc.) and Cherokee
SIOUAN:  includes Dakota/Lakhota and other languages of the Plains
    and Southeast U.S.
MUSKOGEAN: Choctaw, Alabama, Creek, Mikasuki (Seminole) and other
    languages of the southeast U.S.
UTO-AZTECAN:  a large family in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., 
    includes Nahuatl (Aztec), Hopi, Comanche, Paiute, etc.
SALISH:  languages of Washington and British Columbia
HOKAN:  languages of California and Mexico; a controversial grouping
PENUTIAN:  languages of California and Oregon; also controversial

Work on documentation and classification of South American languages still 
has a long way to go.  Generally recognized families include:

ARAWAKAN, TUCANOAN, TUPI-GUARANI (including Guarani, a national language
of Paraguay), CARIBAN, ANDEAN (including Quechua and Aymara)

LANGUAGE ISOLATES:  A number of languages around the world have never been
successfully shown to be related to any others-- in at least some cases 
because any related languages have long been extinct.  The most famous 
isolate is Basque, spoken in northern Spain and southern France; it is 
apparently a survival from before the Indo-Europeanization of Europe.
9. Why do  Hebrew and Yiddish
           Japanese and Chinese
           Persian and Arabic
   look so much alike if they aren't related?

In each of these cases one language has adopted part or all of the 
writing system of an unrelated language.

(To a Chinese, English and Finnish look alike, because they're written 
in the same alphabet.  Yet they are not historically related.)

An excellent introduction to writing systems is Geoffrey Sampson's
WRITING SYSTEMS (1985).  The authoritative (but expensive) reference
is Daniels and Bright's THE WORLD'S WRITING SYSTEMS (1996), which
discusses every known script.
10. How do linguists decide that languages are related?           [--markrose]

When linguists say that languages are related, they're not just remarking 
on their surface similarity; they're making a technical statement or claim
about their history-- namely, that they can be regularly derived from a 
common parent language.

Proto-languages are reconstructed using the comparative method.  The 
first stage is to inspect and compare large amounts of vocabulary from the 
languages in question.  Where possible we compare entire _paradigms_ (sets 
of related forms, such as the those of the present active indicative in 
Latin), rather than individual words.

The inspection should yield a set of regular sound correspondences between 
the languages.  By regular, we mean that the same correspondences are 
consistently observed in identical phonetic environments.  Finally, _sound 
changes_ are formulated: language-specific rules which specify how the 
original common form changed in order to produce those observed in each 
descendent language.

Applying the comparative method to the Romance languages, we might find

  'I sense'  Sard /sento/  French /sa~/   Italian /sento/   Spanish /sjEnto/
  'sleep'         /sonnu/         /som/           /sonno/           /suEn^o/

  'hundred'       /kentu/         /sa~/           /tSento/          /sjEnto/
  'five'          /kimbe/         /sE~k/          /tSinkwe/         /sinko/

  'I run'         /kurro/         /kur/           /korro/           /korro/
  'story'         /kontu/         /ko~t@/         /(rak)konto/      /kuEnto/

and hundreds of similar examples.  We see some correspondences--

  (1)        Sard /s/      French /s/     Italian /s/       Spanish /s/
  (2)             /k/             /s/             /tS/              /s/
  (3)             /k/             /k/             /k/               /k/

but they seem to conflict: does Sard /k/ correspond to Spanish /s/ or /k/?
Does French /s/ correspond to Italian /s/ or /tS/?

In fact we will find that the correspondences are regular, once we observe
that (2) is seen before a front vowel (i or e), while (3) is seen in other
environments.  Alternations within paradigms, such as It. /diko/ 'I say' 
vs. /ditSe/ 'says', will help us make and confirm such generalizations.

We may interpret these now-regular correspondences as indicating that an 
initial /s/ in the proto-language has been retained in all four languages, 
and likewise initial /k/ in Sard; but that /k/ changed to /s/ or /tS/ in 
the other languages in the environment of a front vowel.

Actually, this process is iterative.  For instance, at first glance we 
might think that German _haben_ and Latin _habere_ 'have' are obvious 
cognates.  However, after noting the regular correspondence of German h to 
Latin c, we are forced to change our minds, and look to _capere_ 'seize' 
as a better cognate for _haben_.

Thus, similarity of words is only a clue, and perhaps a misleading one.
Linguists conclude languages are related, and thus derive from a common
ancestor, only if they find *regular* sound correspondences between them.

To complicate things, derivations may be obscured by irregular changes,
such as dissimilation, borrowing, or analogical change.  For instance, 
the normal development of Middle English _kyn_ is 'kine', but this word
has been largely replaced by 'cows', formed from 'cow' (ME _cou_) on the 
analogy of word-pairs like stone : stones.  Analogy often serves to reduce 
irregularities in a language (here, an unusual plural).

_Borrowing_ refers to taking words from other languages, as English has
taken 'search' and 'garage' from French, 'paternal' from Latin, 'anger' from 
Old Norse, and 'tomato' from Nahuatl.  How do we know that English doesn't
derive from French or Nahuatl?  The latter case is easy to eliminate: 
regular sound correspondences can't be set up between English and Nahuatl.

But English has borrowed so heavily from French that regular correspondences 
do occur.  Here, however, we find that the French borrowings are thickest in 
government, legal, and military domains; while the basic vocabulary (which 
languages borrow less frequently) is more akin to German.  Paradigmatic 
correspondences like sing/sang/sung vs. singen/sang/gesungen also help show
that the Germanic words are inherited, the French ones borrowed.

If you want more, Theodora Bynon's HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS (1977) is
very good, and not long; R.L. Trask's HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS (1996)
is very readable and covers more recent studies.
TO THEORY AND METHOD (1995) concentrates on the reconstruction process
itself, and assumes some knowledge of linguistics.  On Indo-European,
11. What is Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar all about?

Several things; it really comprises several layers of theory:

(1) The hypothesis that much of the structure of human language is
inborn ("built-in") in the human brain, so that a baby learning to
talk only has to learn the vocabulary and the structural "parameters"
of his native language -- he doesn't have to learn how language works
from scratch.

The main evidence consists of:
   - The fact that babies learn to talk remarkably well from what seems
     to be inadequate exposure to language; it is claimed
     that babies acquire some rules of grammar that they could never
     have "learned" from what is available to them, if the structure of
     language were not partly built-in.
   - The fact that the structure of language on different levels
     (vocabulary, ability to connect words, etc.) can be lost by injury
     to specific areas of the brain.
   - The fact that there are unexpected structural similarities between
     all known languages.
For detailed exposition see Cook, CHOMSKY'S UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR (1988), 

This theory is by no means accepted by all linguists, though many   
would agree that some core part of language is innate.

(2) The hypothesis that to adequately describe the grammar of a human
language, you have to give each sentence at least two different structures, 
called "deep structure" and "surface structure", together with rules
called "transformations" that relate them. 

This is hotly debated.  Some theories of grammar use two levels and
some don't.  Chomsky's original monograph, SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES (1957),
is still well worth reading; this is what it deals with.

(3) Chomsky's name is associated with specific flavors of transformational
grammar.  The model elaborated over the last few years is called GB
(government and binding) theory; however, Chomsky's 1995 book on Minimalism
contains significant departures from earlier work in GB.

(4) Some people think Chomsky is the source of the idea that grammar ought
to be viewed with mathematical precision.  (Thus there are occasional
vehement anti-Chomsky polemics such as THE NEW GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL, which
are really polemics against grammar per se.)

Although Chomsky contributed some valuable techniques, grammarians have
_always_ believed that grammar was a precise, mechanical thing.  They
are highly divided, however, on the nature and function of those mechanisms!
12. What is a dialect?
                                                              [--M.C. + M.R.]
A dialect is any variety of a language spoken by a specific community of
people. Most languages have many dialects.

Everyone speaks a dialect.  In fact everyone speaks an _idiolect_, i.e.,
a personal language.  (Your English language is not quite the same as
my English language, though they are probably very, very close.)

A group of people with very similar idiolects are considered to be
speaking the same dialect.  Some dialects, such as Standard American
English, are taught in schools and used widely around the world.
Others are very localized.  

Localized or uneducated dialects are _not_ merely failed attempts to speak
the standard language.  William Labov and others have demonstrated, for
example, that the speech of inner-city blacks has its own intricate
grammar, quite different in some ways from that of Standard English.

It should be emphasized that linguists do not consider some dialects 
superior to others-- though speakers of the language may do so;
and linguists do study people's attitudes toward language, since 
these have a strong effect on the development of language.

Linguists call varieties of language "dialects" if the speakers can
understand each other and "languages" if they can't.  For example,
Irish English and Southern American English are dialects of English,
but English and German are different languages (though related).

This criterion is not always as easy to apply as it sounds.
Intelligibility may vary with familiarity and interest, or may depend
on the subject.  A more serious problem is the _dialect continuum_: a
chain of dialects such that any two adjoining dialects are mutually
intelligible, but the dialects at the ends are not.  Speakers of
Belgian Dutch, for instance, can't understand Swiss German, but
between them there lies a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects.

Sometimes the use of the terms "language" or "dialect" is politically
motivated.  Norwegian and Danish (being mutually intelligible) are
dialects of the same language, but are considered separate languages
because of their political independence.  By contrast, Mandarin and
Cantonese, which are mutually unintelligible, are often referred to
as "dialects" of Chinese, due to the political and cultural unity of
China, and because they share a common _written_ language.

At this point we usually quote Max Weinreich: "A language is a dialect 
with an army and a navy."

Because of such problems, some linguists reject the mutual
intelligibility criterion; but they do not propose to return to
arguments on political and cultural grounds.  Instead, they prefer
not to speak of dialects and languages at all, but only of different
varieties, with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.
13. Are all languages equally complex, or are some more primitive than others?
                                                              [--M.C. + M.R.]
Before the 1900s many people believed that so-called "primitive 
peoples" would have primitive languages, and that Latin and Greek--
or their own languages-- were inherently superior to other tongues.

In fact, however, there is no correlation between type or complexity of
culture and any measure of language complexity.  Peoples of very simple
material culture, such as the Australian Aborigines, are often found to 
speak very complex languages.

Obviously, the size of the vocabulary and the variety and sophistication of
literary forms will depend on the culture.  The _grammar_ of all languages,
however, tends to be about equally complex-- although the complexity may 
be found in different places.  Latin, for instance, has a much richer
system of inflections than English, but a less complicated syntax.

As David Crystal puts it, "All languages meet the social and psychological
needs of their speakers, are equally deserving of scientific study, and can
provide us with valuable information about human nature and society."

There are only two case of really simple languages:

* _Pidgins_, which result when speakers of different languages come to live 
and work together.  Vocabulary is drawn from one or both languages, and a 
very forgiving grammar devised.  Grammars of pidgins from around the world 
have interesting similarities (e.g. they are likely to use repetition to 
express plurals).  

A pidgin becomes a _creole_ when children acquire it as a native language;
as it evolves to meet the needs of a primary language, its vocabulary and
grammar become much richer.  If a pidgin is used over a long period (for
example, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea), it may similarly develop into a 
more complex language known as an _extended pidgin_.

* _Language death_, what happens when a language falls out of use-- an
alarmingly widespread phenomenon, which has been studied in detail by
linguists.  The process typically takes several generations, and involves
an increasingly simplified grammar and impoverished lexicon.
14. What about artificial languages, such as Esperanto?          [--markrose]

Hundreds of constructed languages have been devised in the last few centuries.
Early proposals, such as those of Lodwick (1647), Wilkins, or Leibniz, were 
attempts to devise an ideal language based on philosophical classification 
of concepts, and used wholly invented words.  Most were too complex to learn,
but one, Jean Francois Sudre's Solresol, achieved some popularity in the last
century; its entire vocabulary was built from the names of the notes of 
the musical scale, and could be sung as well as spoken.

Later the focus shifted to languages based on existing languages, with a 
polyglot (usually European) vocabulary and a simplified grammar, whose purpose
was to facilitate international communication.  Johann Schleyer's Volapu"k 
(1880) was the first to achieve success; its name is based on English 
("world-speech"), and reflects Schleyer's notions of phonetic simplicity.  

It was soon eclipsed by Ludwig Zamenhof's Esperanto (1887), whose grammar 
was simpler and its vocabulary more recognizable.  Esperanto has remained 
the most successful and best-known artificial language, with a million or 
more speakers and a voluminous literature; children of Esperantists have 
even learned it as a native language.

Its relative success hasn't prevented the appearance of new proposals, such
as Ido, Interlingua, Occidental, and Novial.  There have also been attempts
to simplify Latin (Latino Sine Flexione, 1903) and English (Basic English, 
1930) for international use.  The recent Loglan and Lojban, based on 
predicate logic, may represent a revival of a priori language construction.

See also Andrew Large, THE ARTIFICIAL LANGUAGE MOVEMENT (1985); Mario Pei, 
PLANSPRACHEN (in German).  For websites, see the web version of the FAQ.

There is a newsgroup, soc.culture.esperanto, dedicated to Esperanto.  Also 
see alt.language.artificial, dedicated to artificial languages in general.

The ConLang mailing list is devoted to the discussion of constructed and 
artificial languages for general communication; its FAQ is on the web at  To subscribe, 
e-mail a message to consisting of the single
line: subscribe conlang

The AuxLang list is devoted to discussions of the merits and
practicality of particular international auxiliary languages.  To
subscribe, send mail to consisting of the
single line: subscribe auxlang
15. What are some stories and novels that involve linguistics?    [--markrose]

The following list is by no means exhaustive.  It's based on James Myers'
list of books, which was compiled the last time the subject came up on 
sci.lang.  Additions and corrections are welcome; please suggest the
approximate category and give the publication date, if possible.

ALIENS AND LINGUISTS: Language Study and Science Fiction, by Walter Meyers
(1980) contains a general discussion and lists more works.

alien languages

	"Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" in FICCIONES - Jorge Luis Borges (1956)
	40000 IN GEHENNA - C.J. Cherryh (1983)
	BABEL-17 - Samuel R. Delany (1966)
	FLIGHT OF THE DRAGONFLY - Robert L. Forward (1984)
	THE HAUNTED STARS - Edmond Hamilton
	HELLSPARK - Janet Kagan (1988)
	"Not So Certain" - David I. Masson
	"Omnilingual", in FEDERATION - H. Beam Piper
	CONTACT - Carl Sagan (1985)
	PSYCHAOS - E. P. Thompson
	"A Martian Odyssey" in SF HALL OF FAME - Stanley Weinbaum (1934)
	"A Rose for Ecclesiastes" in SF HALL OF FAME - Roger Zelazny (1963)

futuristic varieties of English

	"Barrier" - Anthony Boucher
	A CLOCKWORK ORANGE - Anthony Burgess (1962)
	HELLFLOWER - eluki bes shahar (1991)
	THE INHERITORS - William Golding (1955)
	THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS - Robert Heinlein (1966)
	RIDDLEY WALKER - Russel Hoban (1980)
	1984 - George Orwell (1948)

other invented languages

	NATIVE TONGUE - Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
	"Gulf" in ASSIGNMENT IN ETERNITY - Robert A. Heinlein (1949)
	PALE FIRE - Vladimir Nabokov
	THE KLINGON DICTIONARY - Marc Okrand (1985)
	THE LORD OF THE RINGS - J R R Tolkien (1954-55)
	THE MEMORANDUM - Vaclav Havel (1966)
	THE LANGUAGES OF PAO - Jack Vance (1957)

linguist heroes

        RATES OF EXCHANGE - Malcolm Bradbury 
	DOUBLE NEGATIVE - David Carkeet
	PYGMALION - George Bernard Shaw (1912)
	THE POISON ORACLE - Peter Dickinson (1974)
	HANDS ON - Andrew Rosenheim (1992)
	LEAR'S DAUGHTERS - M. Bradley Kellogg w/ William Rossow (1986)
	THE SPARROW, CHILDREN OF GOD - Mary Doria Russell (1996, 98)

animal language

	WATERSHIP DOWN - Richard Adams (1972)
	TARZAN OF THE APES - Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
	CONGO - Michael Crichton (1980)

use of linguistic theory

	SNOW CRASH - Neal Stephenson (1992)
	GULLIVER'S TRAVELS - Jonathan Swift (1726)
	THE EMBEDDING - Ian Watson (1973)
	Ozark trilogy - Suzette Haden Elgin


	THE TROIKA INCIDENT - James Cooke Brown (1969)   [Loglan]
	ETXEMENDI - Florence Delay  [Chomsky ref]
	TRITON - Samuel Delany [reflections on meaning]
	TONGUES OF THE MOON - Philip Jose Farmer
	DUNE - Frank Herbert (1965)
	THE DISPOSSESSED - Ursula LeGuin (1974)
	LOVE ME TOMORROW - Robert Rimmer (1976)   [Loglan]
16. What about those Eskimo words for snow? (and other myths about language)

For more myths and what's really going on, see LANGUAGE MYTHS (1999), 
edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (no linguistics knowledge needed).

   "The Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow."

This story is constantly being repeated, with various numbers given,
despite the fact that it has no basis at all.  No one who repeats this
pseudo-factoid can list the hundreds of words for you, or even cite a 
work that does.  They just heard it somewhere.

The anthropologist Laura Martin has traced the development of this myth
(including the steady growth in the number of words claimed).  Geoffrey
Pullum summarizes her report in THE GREAT ESKIMO VOCABULARY HOAX (1991).

How many words are there really?  Well, the Yup'ik language in particular
has about two dozen roots describing snow or things related to snow.  This
is not particularly significant; English can amass about the same total:
snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, flurry, avalanche, powder, hardpack,
snowball, snowman, and other derivatives.

The Yup'ik total could be greatly expanded by other derived words, since
the Inuit languages can form hundreds of words from a single root.  But
this is true of all words in the language (and indeed of all agglutinative
languages), not just the words for snow.

   "There's a town in Appalachia that speaks pure Elizabethan English."

There isn't.  All languages, everywhere, are constantly changing.  Some
areas speak more conservative dialects, but we know of no case where 
people speak exactly as their ancestors spoke centuries ago.

Of course, ancient languages are sometimes revived; biblical Hebrew has
been revived (with some modifications) in modern Israel; and there's a
village in India in which Sanskrit is being taught as an everyday
language.  But these are conscious revivals of languages which have
otherwise died out in everyday use, not survivals of living languages.

   "Chinese characters directly represent ideas, not spoken words."

Westerners have been taken by this notion for centuries, ever since
missionaries started describing the Chinese writing system.  However, it's
quite false.  Chinese characters represent specific Chinese words.  

(To be precise, almost all characters represent a particular syllable with
a particular meaning; about 10% however represent one syllable of a 
particular two-syllable word.)

The vast majority of characters consist of a _phonetic_ giving the
approximate pronunciation of the word, plus a _signific_ giving a clue to
its meaning (thus distinguishing different syllables having different
meanings).  As an added difficulty, many of the phonetics are no longer
helpful, because of sound changes since the characters were devised, over
2000 years ago.  However, it is estimated that 60% of the phonetics still
give useful information about the character's pronunciation.

To be sure, Japanese (among other languages) uses Chinese characters too,
and it is a very different language from Chinese.  However, we must look
at exactly how the Japanese use the Chinese characters.  Generally they
borrowed both the characters and the words represented; it's rather as if
when we borrowed words like _psychology_ from Greek, we wrote them in the
Greek alphabet.  Native Japanese words are also written using the Chinese
characters for the closest Chinese words: if the Japanese word overlaps
several Chinese words, different characters must be written in different
contexts, according to the meanings in Chinese.

A good demythologizing of common notions about Chinese writing is found in

   "German lost out to English as the US's official language by 1 vote."

This entertaining story is also told of Greek, Latin, and even Hebrew.

There was never any such vote.  Dennis Baron, in THE ENGLISH ONLY QUESTION
(1990), thinks the legend may have originated with a 1795 vote concerning
a proposal to publish federal laws in German as well as English.  At one
point a motion to table discussion (rather than referring the matter back
to committee) was defeated 41-40.  The proposal was eventually defeated. 

   "Sign language isn't really a language."
   "ASL is a gestural version of English."

Sign languages are true languages, with vocabularies of thousands of words,
and grammars as complex and sophisticated as those of any other language,
though with fascinating differences from speech.  If you think they are
merely pantomime, try watching a mathematics lecture, a poetry reading, or
a religious service conducted in Sign, and see how much you understand.

ASL (American Sign Language) is not an invented system like Esperanto; it
developed gradually and naturally among the Deaf.  It has no particular
relation to English; the best demonstration of this is that it is quite
different from British Sign.  Curiously enough, it is most closely related
to French Sign Language, due to the influence of Laurent Clerc, who came
from Paris in 1817 to be the first teacher of the Deaf in the US.

ASL is not to be confused with Signed English, which is a word-for-word
signed equivalent of English.  Deaf people tend to find it tiring, because
its grammar, like that of spoken languages, is linear, while that of ASL is
primarily spatial.

For more on Sign and the Deaf community, see Oliver Sacks' SEEING VOICES
(1989), or Harlan Lane, WHEN THE MIND HEARS (1984) and THE MASK OF 
17. Where can I get an electronic IPA font (or other electronic resources)?
     [Adapted from information posted to sci.lang by Sean Redmond,
     Evan Antworth, Chris Brockett, Roy Cochrun, J"org Knappen, 
     Harlan Messinger, Alex Rudnicky, Enrico Scalas, Mark Kantrowitz.

     If you know of other publicly available (and legal) fonts or 
     other linguistic resources, please e-mail me or post to sci.lang, 
     so they can be listed here.]

* A number of Postscript Type 1 and TrueType fonts (including IPA, Greek,
  Cyrillic, Armenian, etc.) are available by ftp from 

     directory: pub/pc/win3/fonts/truetype

  List (ls) the directory to see what's available.  The files are zipped; 
  a version of unzip is usually available on whatever host you use 
  to ftp with.

  Note: TrueType files can be used under Windows or on the Macintosh.
  I'm not sure if the unzipped files can be inserted directly into the
  Mac's Fonts folder; I ran them through Fontographer first.

* The SIL IPA fonts (also in PostScript Type 1 and TrueType versions)
  are also available by ftp from

     host: []
        Windows version: /msdos/windows/fonts/truetype/sil-ipa12.exe
        Mac version:     /mac/system.extensions/font/type1/silipa1.2.cpt.hqx

* They are also available on diskette for $5.00 plus postage: $2.00 in U.S. 
  or $5.00 outside U.S.  Order from:

     SIL Printing Arts Department
     7500 W. Camp Wisdom Road
     Dallas TX  75236   USA

     tel:    214-709-2495, -2440
     fax:    214-709-3387.

* University College London also sells these fonts on disk ($32).  See:

* Some IPA fonts for TeX can be found in the CTAN archives  (finger for mirrors)

  in the directories

     tex-archive/fonts/tipa     <-- the most recent

* The Carnegie-Mellon 100,000-word English dictionary can be retrieved
  as follows.

     host: []
     directory: project/fgdata/dict

  Retrieve the following files:

     cmudict.0.2.Z (compressed)
     cmulex.0.1.Z (compressed)

* WEBSITES related to linguistics or languages are listed in the web 
  version of the FAQ:

* sci.lang (since October 1994) is archived at

* Kenneth Hyde maintains OUT In Linguistics, a mailing list for
  lesbian/gay/bi folk interested in linguistics.  (Both qualifiers--
  "lgb(-friendly)" and "linguistics"-- are important, please.)  For
  information, e-mail (Kenneth Hyde). To subscribe, send a
  message with an empty subject and "subscribe outil-list" as the body
  of the message to
18. How do I subscribe to the LINGUIST list?

The LINGUIST list is a mailing list dedicated to linguistics; it's more
technical than sci.lang.  The easiest way to read and post to it is on
its website at; you can also use the website
to have postings e-mailed to you.
19. How can I represent phonetic symbols in ASCII?

The following table is a summary of Evan Kirshenbaum's IPA/ASCII schema,
which a number of posters have been using in sci.lang and alt.usage.english.
For more information, see the Web page at

This summary is presented for convenience only, and is not intended to
forestall discussion of alternative systems.

     blb-- -lbd-- --dnt-- --alv-- -rfx- -pla-- --pal--- --vel-- -----uvl-----

nas    m      M       n[      n      n.            n^      N           n"
stp  p b           t[ d[    t d   t. d.        c   J     k g      q    G
frc  F V    f v    T  D     s z   s. z.  S Z   C C<vcd>  x Q      X    g"
apr        r<lbd>     r[      r      r.            j       j<vel>      g"
lat                   l[      l      l.            l^      L
trl  b<trl>                r<trl>                                      r"
flp                           *      *. 
ejc  p`            t[`      t`                 c`        k'
clk  p!            t!       c!                   c!      k!
imp    b`             d`      d`                   J`      g`     q`   G`

     ---- lbv ----   --phr--  ---glt---

nas         n<lbv>                               alv lat frc: s<lat> z<lat>
stp  t<lbv> d<lbv>              ?                    lat flp: *<lat>
frc  w<vls>   w      H H<vcd>   h<?>                 lat clk: l!
apr           w                 h

    ----- unr -----     unr     ----- rnd -----
    fnt   cnt   bck     cnt     fnt   cnt   bck
hgh  i     i"    u-              y     u"    u
smh  I                           I.          U
umd  e   @<umd>  o-    R<umd>    Y           o
mid        @             R             @.
lmd  E     V"    V               W     O"    O
low  &     a     A               &.    a.    A.

      Vowels:     Consonants:            + =   ad hoc diacritic
  ~   nasalized   velarized              [     dental
  :   long                               !     click  
  -   unrounded   syllabic               <H>   pharyngealized
  .   rounded     retroflex              <h>   aspirated
  `               ejective/implosive     <o>   unexploded or voiceless
  ^               palatal                <r>   rhotacized
  ;               palatalized            <w>   labialized
  "   centered    uvular                 <?>   murmured
Other symbols:
  $ %     ad hoc segment
  []      phonetic transcription
  //      phonemic transcription
  #       syllable or word boundary
  space   word/segment separator
  ' ,     primary and secondary stress
  0-9     tones
20. Is English a creole?
The change from Anglo-Saxon to Modern English (loss of gender and of
case inflection, phonological change, acquisition of a huge stock of French
and Latin vocabulary) is certainly dramatic, and has led some sci.lang 
posters, and even some linguists (e.g. Domingue, Bailey & Maroldt, 
Milroy) to the provocative suggestion that English suffered pidginization
or creolization at the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) or the Norse
invasions (from 865), or both.

This hypothesis, as Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman have
rests on an incomplete understanding of creolization and a shaky grasp on 
the history of English.  There is a wide range of language contact 
situations, from casual contact to deep structural interference; English is 
by no means the most striking of these cases.  It looks like a creole only 
if one ignores this range of phenomena and labels any case of moderate 
interference as creolization.

For many of the changes in question, the chronology does not work out.
For instance, the reduction of unstressed vowels to /@/, largely responsible
for the loss of Old English nominal declensions, had taken place *before*
the Conquest, and affected all of England, including areas never settled
by the Norse.  And English did absorb an immense amount of French and
Latin vocabulary, but most of this occurred well *after* the Conquest--
past 1450, two centuries after the nobility ceased to be French-speaking.

Other points to note: 1) most of the simplifications and foreign borrowings
seen in English occurred as well in other Germanic languages, notably
Dutch, Low German, and the Scandinavian languages; 2) a particularly
striking borrowing from Norse, the pronoun 'they', was probably adopted
to avoid what otherwise would have been a merge of 'he/him' with 'they/them';
3) the total number of French-speaking invaders was not more than
50,000, compared to an English-speaking population of over 1.5 million--
nowhere near the proportions that would threaten the normal inheritance
of English.
21. How do you look up a word in a Chinese or Japanese dictionary?

The vast majority of Chinese characters can be divided into two parts, the
radical and the phonetic.  Each part is another, simpler character.  The
_radical_ gives an idea of the meaning-- rather a vague idea, since
traditionally there were only 214 different radicals.  The _phonetic_
identifies the sound, with a bit more precision: generally, all the
characters that share a phonetic rhymed 2000 years ago in Archaic Chinese.

(It's impossible to give examples in ASCII; see the Web page for more:

Characters are arranged in most Chinese dictionaries by radical.  To find
an unknown character, then, you identify the radical, and look up its
section in the dictionary.  The radicals are arranged in order of increasing
complexity.  Each radical's section is ordered by the number of strokes in
the character.  Several characters may have the same number of strokes;
these must simply be scanned till the right one is found.

Sometimes it isn't easy to identify the radical-- it's in an odd position
(e.g. on the bottom or the right rather than the top or left side); or it's
drawn in an abbreviated form; or it's not clear which of several similar
radicals the character is listed under.  It's also important to know the
proper method for counting strokes.

If a character isn't composed of a radical + phonetic, it's usually treated
as one, graphically, for the purposes of dictionary lookup.  For instance,
the character for hao3 'good' is composed of the characters for 'woman' and
'child'-- a _semantic_ compound.  It's simply listed under the 'woman'
radical, although zi3 'child' is not its phonetic.

The People's Republic simplified a number of characters and radicals, and
this changed the number of radicals-- there's 224 in my dictionary, for
instance.  The Japanese have made their own separate simplification.
22. What about Nostratic and Proto-World?
In recent years some some linguists have attempted to reconstruct languages
far older than Indo-European.

*Nostratic*, said to underlie the Indo-European, Kartvelian (South Caucasion), 
Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Uralic, Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo-Aleut 
families, was first proposed by Holger Pedersen in 1903.  More recently
the greater part of work on Nostratic is due to Soviet linguists led by 
Vladislav Illich-Svitych, Aaron Dolgopolsky, and Vitaly Shevoroshkin.

The methodology is the traditional comparative method, and over 600 roots
have been proposed.  Most linguists remain skeptical, believing that chance
processes will have obscured any relationship at this level beyond
reconstruction, or question the accuracy of the derivations (a charge which
makes Nostraticists bristle).   Others simply suspend judgment, especially
since much of the supporting material for Nostratic is available only in

A good overview on Nostratic is Kaiser and Shevoroshkin, "Nostratic", in
the _Annual Review of Anthropology_, 17:309.  Illich-Svitych's original
Russian article (from _Etymologia_, 1965) has been translated in

Joseph Greenberg has proposed a grouping which covers much the same language
areas (omitting Afro-Asiastic and Dravidian, but adding Ainu and Gilyak),
called *Eurasiatic*.  Greenberg's method of _mass comparison_ (which he has
also used to group together almost all Native American languages into one
superfamily, Amerind) basically consists of assembling huge lists of
common words and doing eyeball comparisons.

This methodology has been severely criticized by many historical linguists.
If 'mass comparison' were applied to the Indo-European languages, it would
be bedevilled by false positives (caused by borrowing or chance) and by
specious phonetic or semantic similarites.  Greenberg's methods seem to
linguists to abandon the very methodological severity which has put
Indo-European linguistics on a scientific footing, and distinguished it from
the work of cranks.  Relax the rules enough, and you can derive any language
from any other.

Greenberg replies that the patterns he has found are compelling enough to
justify his methods, and that he is merely following in the footsteps of 
the originators of the comparative method: linguists had to decide that the 
Indo-European languages were related before attempting reconstructions.

The ultimate areal comparison would be *Proto-World*, the hypothetical
ancestor of all human languages.  Greenberg has mentioned Proto-World, but
since he is not much interested in reconstruction, his proposal is not much
more than a statement of the monogenetic theory (a single origin for all
languages).  Most linguists are skeptical that anything could be
reconstructed at this hypothetical time depth.

Greenberg's work on Amerind can be found in LANGUAGE IN THE AMERICAS (1987);
on Eurasiatic, in the forthcoming INDO-EUROPEAN AND ITS CLOSEST RELATIVES:
THE EURASIATIC LANGUAGE FAMILY.  Introductions to the Nostratic and
Proto-World controversies were published in both _The Atlantic_ and
_Scientific American_ in April 1991.  The essays in Lamb and Mitchell, eds.,
SPRUNG FROM SOME COMMON SOURCE (1991), are also relevant.

Loren Petrich maintains an annotated bibliography on Indo-European,
Nostratic, and Proto-World.  I am also indebted to Peter Michalove for
citations used in this entry.
23.  What are phonemes and why's it so hard to lose a foreign accent? 
The sounds (*phones*) humans can make are infinite; there's (almost always) 
a continuum of phones in between any two phones. 

In any one language, however, phones are grouped into 20 to 60 or so discrete 
groups of sounds called *phonemes*. The range of variation for each phoneme 
is discounted by speakers and hearers of the language, who perceive the 
entire range as "the same sound." 

The English phoneme /p/ has two phonetic realizations or *allophones*: 
aspirated [ph] beginning a word and non-aspirated [p] elsewhere. But
since the two types of /p/ never distinguish one word from another, speakers 
of English generally don't even notice the difference. (Linguists
write phonemic transcriptions between /slashes/, and phonetic transcriptions 
in [brackets].) 

If we can find two words with different meaning but only one difference in 
sound between them-- a *minimal pair*-- then we've found distinct phonemes; 
e.g. /p/ and /b/ in English 'pit' and 'bit'. If two sounds never occur in 
the same phonetic environment (e.g. English [p] and [ph])-- if they're in 
*complementary distribution*-- then they're probably allophones of a single 
phoneme.  (I say 'probably' because English [h] and [ng] are also in 
complementary distribution, but linguists balk at assigning them to one

Other languages do not divide up the phonetic space in the same way.  For 
instance, /p/ and /ph/ are separate phonemes in Mandarin Chinese (as in 
/pa1/ 'eight' and /pha1/ 'flower').  And the vowels of 'late' and 'let', 
phonemes in English, are allophones of a single phoneme /e/ in Spanish. 

We're trained from childhood to make the phonetic distinctions our language 
uses to keep its phonemes apart, and to ignore those it doesn't.
Learning to make different distinctions in a foreign language is quite 
difficult-- usually harder than making new sounds our native language lacks 
entirely.  We'll continue to have an accent in the new language so long as 
we hear its sounds through our native language's phonemic filter. 
24. How likely are chance resemblances between languages?
It depends-- to an astonishing degree-- on the amount of phonetic and
semantic leeway you allow for a match.  But in general the answer is 
"Quite likely."

For the sort of comparisons that are often posted to sci.lang, where
perhaps just two consonants match, or nearly match, and the semantic 
matchups are quirky, one can expect literally hundreds of random matches.

For a detailed discussion, see the web version of the FAQ.
25. How are tone languages sung?
It varies.  Tones are basically ignored in Mandarin Chinese songs, 
for instance.  (Does this make them hard to understand?  Often, yes.)
However, Cantonese songs are generally written in such a way as to 
preserve the relative pitch of successive syllables.  E.g. a low tone 
following a high tone will be on a lower note.

For more, see:
26. Why are there so many words for Germany?
Basically, because there were Germans before there was a Germany. Each of 
the Germans' neighbors came up with their own name for them, long before 
there was a German state that people might want to refer to uniformly. 

_German_ is a relatively recent borrowing from Latin _Germanus_, whose origins
are uncertain. It's been referred to Latin _germanus_ 'brotherly', Germanic 
_*geromann-_ 'spear-man', Old Irish _gair_ 'neighbour', etc. 

_Deutsch_ comes from Proto-Germanic _*theudisko-z_ 'of the people', from 
_*theuda_ 'people, nation'; originally it was used to distinguish the speech 
of the people from Latin, the language of scholarship. The English word 
'Dutch' is a derivative, and used to be used for any northern Germanic 
people, later narrowed down to those closest to England; the older usage is 
preserved in 'Pennsylvania Dutch'. 

The word *theuda survived into Middle English as _thede_, but was supplanted 
by Romance borrowings such as 'people' and 'nation'. Non-Germanic cognates 
include Oscan touto, Irish tu:ath, and Lithuanian tauta, all meaning 'people'. 

Italian _tedesco_ is another derivative of *theudisko-z. 

_Teutonic_ derives from a name of an ancient tribe in Jutland, the Teutones; 
if these were a German tribe their name is presumably another derivative of 

French _allemand_ (and Spanish _alema'n_, etc., as well as older English 
_Almain_) derive from a particular tribe of Germans, the Alemanni ('all men'). 

Finnish _saksa_ derives from the name of another tribe, the Saxons. 

Russian _nemets_ is related to _nemoj_ 'dumb, mute'; to the ancient Slavs, not
speaking in an understandable language was as good as not speaking at all.
Hungarian _nemet_ is borrowed from Slavic. 

Latvian _Va:cija_ may derive from a word meaning 'west'. 
27. Why do both English and French have plurals in -s? 
-Miguel Carrasquer Vidal (adapted by markrose)] 

Despite what one might think, these are independent developments. 

The English s-plural comes from the PIE o-stem nominative plural ending *-o:s, 
*-o:s, apparently extended in Germanic to *-o:s-es by addition of the PIE plural
suffix *-es (*-o:s itself comes from *-o-es). This *-o:ses became Proto-Germanic
*-o:ziz or *-o:siz, depending on the accent, which gave the attested forms--
Gothic -o:s, Old English -as, Old Saxon -os, and Old Norse -ar (with the change
to words that were not a-stems, a tendency which has since become nearly

The n-plural of German is generalized from the PIE n-stems (*-on-es --> -en).
It was still present in Old English n-stems, and survives today in a few words
like 'oxen'.

The Romance s-plurals (-as, -os, -es) are derived from the accusative (PIE
*-a:ns, *-ons, *-ens). Old French still had separate nominative and oblique
(accusative/ablative) forms, but in the end, grammatical cases were dropped
completely, and usually only the oblique forms were retained. 

In Italian and Romanian, final -s was phonetically lost, and the plurals are
based on the nominative. The Latin nominative plural, at least in the o- and
a:-stems, was based on PIE *-i, of pronominal origin, not *-es as in most other
IE languages.
28. How did genders and cases develop in IE?
                                                   [--Mikael Thompson]
Early stages of proto-Indo-European (PIE) didn't have feminine gender. This 
is attested in Hittite, the oldest recorded IE language; it had only 
masculine and neuter genders, divided basically between animate and 
inanimate objects. For most noun classes the PIE endings can be reconstructed 
as follows: 
              Animate Inanimate 
   Subject     *-s      *-0 
   Object      *-m      *-0 
For animate nouns, *-s indicated the source of action, *-m the thing acted 
upon; the zero ending indicates no syntactic role. The basic idea is that 
only living things can act upon other things, so only animate nouns could 
take the *-s. 

Such a system is characteristic of active/stative languages. Other
features of PIE fit in with this observation; for instance, in PIE objects
like fire and water which are inanimate but move seemingly of their own
will have two separate names. In many languages with an active-stative
distinction there are such pairs of words. As this distinction was lost in
IE, different branches retained just one of the words: e.g. English water,
Greek hydor, Hittite watar form one group (from PIE *wed-), while Latin
aqua is from PIE *akwa:-.

The animate nouns are the historical source for the masculine gender, and
the inanimate nouns for the neuter. This is why in all the classic IE
languages the neuter nominative and accusative have identical forms, and
the only basic difference between masculine and neuter nouns is in the

Earlier historical linguists cheerfully reconstructed eight cases for PIE,
on the model of Sanskrit; but the IE languages with many cases are now
considered to be innovative, not conservative. The other cases developed
from postpositions or derivational suffixes.  Luwian, a sister language of
Hittite, for instance, has no genitive, but has an adjective-forming
suffix -assi, as in harmah-assi-s 'of the head'. (This is an adjective,
not a genitive, because it can be declined.) Genitives in other languages
often seem to be developments of cognates to this suffix. 

PIE didn't bother much with specifying plurals, but when it did, it added
an *-s or other endings. The neuter plural in all IE languages is not
descended from this, however-- active/stative languages typically don't
mark plurals for inanimate nouns-- but is instead a collective noun,
treated grammatically as a singular. This collective noun ended in *-a in
the nominative and accusative, and eventually it developed into the
feminine, which in all the old IE languages has the same form in the
nominative singular as does the neuter plural nominative- accusative. It
is also why the Greek neuter plural took a singular verb. 

The reason it is called the feminine, of course, is that nouns indicating
females fell in this gender most of the time. This is puzzling, and
probably we must accept it as a fact whose explanation can't be recovered
from the depths of time.
29. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, language determines the
categories and much of the content of thought. "We dissect nature along
lines laid down by our native languages... We cannot talk at all except by
subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the
[speech community] decrees," said Whorf, in LANGUAGE, THOUGHT, AND REALITY
(1956). "The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large
extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group," said

Both were students of Amerindian languages, and were drawn to this
conclusion by analysis of the grammatical categories and semantic
distinctions found in these languages, fascinatingly different from those
found in European ones. (Neither linguist used the term 'Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis', however; Whorf referred to the 'linguistic relativity
principle'. Moreover, the principle was almost entirely elaborated by
Whorf alone.)

The idea enjoyed a certain vogue in the mid-20th century, not only among linguists but
among anthropologists, psychologists, and science fiction writers.

However, the strong form of the hypothesis is not now widely believed. The
conceptual systems of one language, after all, can be explained and
understood by speakers of another. And grammatical categories do not
really explain cultural systems very well.  Indo-European languages make
gender a grammatical category, and their speakers may be sexist-- but
speakers of Turkish or Chinese, languages without grammatical gender, are
not notably less sexist.

Whorf's analysis of what he called "Standard Average European" languages
is also questionable. E.g. he claims that "the three-tense system of SAE
verbs colors all our thinking about time." Only English doesn't have three
tenses; it has two, past and present; future events are expressed by the
present ("I see him tomorrow"), or by a modal expression, merely one of a
large class of such synthetic expressions. And for that matter, English
distinguishes more like six than three times ("I had gone, I went, I just
arrived, I'm going, I'm about to go, I'll go").

To prove his point, Whorf collected stories of confusions brought about by
language. For instance, a man threw a spent match into what looked like a
pool of water; only there was decomposing waste in the water, and escaping
gas was ignited by the spark-- boom!  But it's not clear that any
*linguistic* act is involved here. The man could think the pool looked
like water without thinking of the word 'water'; and he could fail to
notice the flammable vapors without doing any thinking at all. 

A weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis-- that language influences
without determining our categories of thought-- still seems reasonable,
and is even backed up by some psychological experiments-- e.g. Kay &
Kempton's finding that, in distinguishing color triads, a pair
distinguished by color names can seem more distinct than a pair with the
'same' name which are actually more divergent optically (American
Anthropologist, March 1984).

It should be emphasized that, in their willingness to consider the idea
that non-Western people have languages and worldviews that match the
European's in precision and elegance, Sapir and Whorf were far ahead of
their time.

For a spirited and very readable defense of Whorf, see Suzette Haden
30. Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex?
This question starts with an observation: the classical Indo-European 
languages, such as Latin, Greek, Old English, and Sanskrit, were highly 
inflected, while their modern descendants are not. For instance, French 
nouns have entirely lost the Latin case system, and French verbs have lost 
entire classes of forms, such as the passive voice. 

It's natural to ask: how did the classical languages get so complex in the 
first place? Why are there inflecting languages at all?  Why don't they 
all become isolating, like Chinese? 

The answer is that there are also complicating tendencies in language. 
Habitual idioms can become particles, which can become inflections-- 
a process called grammaticalization. 

For instance, the future and conditional tenses in Romance languages don't 
derive from classical Latin, but the infinitive plus forms of 'to have'. 
French has rather complicated verb clusters (je ne le lui ai pas donne) 
which are perhaps best analyzed as single verbs showing both subject and 
object agreement. 

Another example is the plethora of cases in Finnish, many of which derive 
from postpositions. Roger Lass has pointed out a cycle in Germanic 
languages where perfectives are developed, merge with the imperfect, 
and are developed anew. 

Chinese is not immune from this phenomenon-- Mandarin already has verbal 
particles like perfective le, or nominal particles like the possessive
/adjectivizing de. The diminutive -r even merges with the preceding 
syllable; e.g. dian3 + -r --> diar3 'a bit'.
31. Where did (some word or phrase) come from?
If you get a snarky response to such questions on sci.lang, it's because 
some people think you ought to look in a dictionary first. The American 
Heritage Dictionary traces words back (where possible) to Proto-Indo-European; 
and the massive Oxford English Dictionary, available at most libraries, 
contains not only etymologies but illustrative citations through the centuries. 

When it comes to word and phrase origins, most people's standard of proof 
seems to be "Doesn't violate the laws of physics!" But a plausible story is 
not a proof. The three most important types of evidence in etymology are 
citations, citations, citations. If you have some amusing theory that "the 
whole nine yards" derives from haberdashery, or baseball, or mortuaries, 
you'd better have appropriate examples from those fields in the right 
historical period. 

Anyway, here are brief notes on a few terms that have been asked about 
more than once on sci.lang. (Also see the alt.usage.english FAQ.) 


There's half a dozen explanations for this, but only one correct one, 
demonstrated with hundreds of citations by Allen Walker Read in 1964: 
OK stands for oll korrect, and dates to a fad for humorous mis-abbreviations 
which started in Boston newspapers in 1838. It spread nationwide when 
supporters of Martin Van Buren organized the "OK Club" during the 1840 
presidential campaign (giving the term a double meaning, since Van Buren's 
nickname was Old Kinderhook). 


Some people have wondered if the Spanish formal second person pronoun Usted 
came from the Arabic honorific 'usta:dh. It doesn't; it's a well-attested 
abbreviation of vuestra merced 'your mercy'. There are transitional forms 
such as vuasted, vuesarced, voarced, as well as parallel constructions like 
usia from vuestra sen~oria, ucencia from vuestra excelencia. Compare also
Portuguese vossa merce^ --> vosmece^ --> voce^, as well as Catalan voste 
and Gallego vostede. Finally, note that the abbreviation Usted doesn't appear 
until 130 years after the Moors had been kicked out of Spain. 

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