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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) Maintained by Mark Rosenfelder (email@example.com) The Web version of this FAQ can be found at: http://www.zompist.com/langfaq.html (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. =============================================================================== CONTENTS 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 comp.ai.nat-lang 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. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE LANGUAGES OF THE WORLD by Anatole Lyovin (1997) 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 AND INDEX OF THE WORLD'S LANGUAGES (1977), and M. Ruhlen, A GUIDE TO THE 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. INDO-EUROPEAN GERMANIC North Germanic: Icelandic, Norwegian / Swedish / Danish East Germanic: Gothic (extinct) West Germanic: English, Dutch, German, Yiddish ITALIC Osco-Umbrian: Oscan, Umbrian (extinct languages of Italy) Latin and its modern descendants (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Rumanian, French, etc.) CELTIC 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 INDO-IRANIAN 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) AFRO-ASIATIC 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.) URALIC 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. SINO-TIBETAN 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 AUSTROASIATIC MON-KHMER: Vietnamese, Khmer (Cambodian), and various minority and tribal languages of Southeast Asia MUNDA: tribal languages of eastern India AUSTRONESIAN 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? Distinguish LANGUAGE from WRITING SYSTEM. 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. Anthony Fox's LINGUISTIC RECONSTRUCTION: AN INTRODUCTION TO THEORY AND METHOD (1995) concentrates on the reconstruction process itself, and assumes some knowledge of linguistics. On Indo-European, try Beekes, COMPARATIVE INDO-EUROPEAN LINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION (1995). =============================================================================== 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), Newmeyer, GRAMMATICAL THEORY: ITS LIMITS AND POSSIBILITIES (1983), and Pinker, THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT (1994). 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, ONE LANGUAGE FOR THE WORLD (1958); Detlev Blanke, INTERNATIONALE 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 http://personalweb.sierra.net/~spynx/FAQ/index.html. To subscribe, e-mail a message to firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com 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) INHERIT THE STARS - James P. Hogan "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) WELTGEIST SUPERSTAR - P.M. (1980) 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) THE GAMEPLAYERS OF ZAN - M A Foster "Gulf" in ASSIGNMENT IN ETERNITY - Robert A. Heinlein (1949) ALWAYS COMING HOME - Usrula K. Le Guin PALE FIRE - Vladimir Nabokov THE KLINGON DICTIONARY - Marc Okrand (1985) THE VOID-CAPTAIN'S TALE - Norman Spinrad 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 THE FULL CATASTROPHE - David Carkeet PYGMALION - George Bernard Shaw (1912) THE POISON ORACLE - Peter Dickinson (1974) OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET - C.S. Lewis (1943) 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 YONDER COMES THE OTHER END OF TIME - Suzette Haden Elgin other THE TROIKA INCIDENT - James Cooke Brown (1969) [Loglan] ETXEMENDI - Florence Delay [Chomsky ref] TRITON - Samuel Delany [reflections on meaning] SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD - Diane Duane 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) [--markrose] 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 THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: FACT AND FANTASY, by John DeFrancis (1984). "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 BENEVOLENCE. =============================================================================== 17. Where can I get an electronic IPA font (or other electronic resources)? [--markrose] [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 host ftp.winsite.com 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: linguistics.archive.umich.edu [188.8.131.52] directory: 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. e-mail: Margaret.Swauger@sil.org * University College London also sells these fonts on disk ($32). See: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/fonts.htm * Some IPA fonts for TeX can be found in the CTAN archives ftp.dante.de ctan.tug.org (finger firstname.lastname@example.org for mirrors) ftp.tex.ac.uk in the directories tex-archive/fonts/wsuipa tex-archive/fonts/tsipa tex-archive/fonts/tipa <-- the most recent * The Carnegie-Mellon 100,000-word English dictionary can be retrieved as follows. host: ftp.cs.cmu.edu [184.108.40.206] directory: project/fgdata/dict Retrieve the following files: README cmudict.0.2.Z (compressed) cmulex.0.1.Z (compressed) phoneset.0.1 * WEBSITES related to linguistics or languages are listed in the web version of the FAQ: http://www.zompist.com/lang17.html#Websites * sci.lang (since October 1994) is archived at ftp.cs.cmu.edu /user/ai/pubs/news/sci.lang * 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 email@example.com (Kenneth Hyde). To subscribe, send a message with an empty subject and "subscribe outil-list" as the body of the message to firstname.lastname@example.org. =============================================================================== 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 http://linguistlist.org; 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 http://www.hpl.hp.com/personal/Evan_Kirshenbaum/IPA/ 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 rzd 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. Diacritics: 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? [--markrose] 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 shown in LANGUAGE CONTACT, CREOLIZATION, AND GENETIC LINGUISTICS (1988), 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? [--markrose] 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: http://www.zompist.com/lang21.html) 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? [--markrose] 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 Russian. 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 Shevoroshkin, ed., RECONSTRUCTING LANGUAGES AND CULTURES (1989). 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? [--markrose] 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 phoneme.) 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? [--markrose] 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? [--markrose] 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: http://deall.ohio-state.edu/chan.9/articles/bls13.htm =============================================================================== 26. Why are there so many words for Germany? [--markrose] 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 *theuda. 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 universal. 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 accusative. 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? [--markrose] 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 Sapir. 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 Elgin's THE LANGUAGE IMPERATIVE (2000). =============================================================================== 30. Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex? [--markrose] 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? [--markrose] 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.) OK 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). Usted 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.