Archive for Linguistic history

Led astray by the corpus of memory: a response to Hendrik Hertzberg

The following is a guest post by Ammon Shea, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary's Reading Program and formerly a consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.


Hendrik Hertzberg has made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker web site ("Nobody Said That Then!") about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters' utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest.

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Mechanisms for gradual language change

A few years ago, I wrote about a presentation by Bridget Jankowski on the trend towards increasing use of 's as opposed to of, in phrases like "the government's responsibility" vs. "the responsibility of the government". My post was "The genitive of lifeless things", 10/11/2009, and the slides from her talk are here.

I was reminded of this recently, while looking at usage changes in State of the Union messages over the centuries.  Apostrophe-s has seen a recent radical increase in SOTU frequency, reflecting in amplified form a more gradual increase in the English language as a whole. Such gradual, long-term trends are a puzzle: why and how do linguistic changes keep going for several centuries in the same direction, as they often do? You could ask the same question about other cultural changes, I guess, but for linguistic features that are preserved in the written form of a language with a textual history, like English, we have quantitative evidence over hundreds of years.

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x-elements

The American Dialect Society chose because as its Word Of The Year, and thereby provoked an argument, here and elsewhere, about parts of speech. Most dictionaries and grammars see words like for, in, since, etc. as variously prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions, or particles, depending on how they're used. Geoff Pullum argues that they're all always prepositions, just used in different ways. (See "Because syntax", 1/5/2014, and "The promiscuity of prepositions", 1/8/2014, for some of Geoff's reasons.)

It's worth pointing out that the complex patterning of these words in contemporary English is the outcome of an even more complex historical process.

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Sentence diagramming

This is a guest post by Dick Hudson, who has promised a later submission about his experience helping to organize the re-introduction of grammatical analysis in the British school curriculum. This post gives some of his reflections on the pre-history of the grammarless state that he played a role in changing.

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Okie uptalk

Several times over the past few years, I've speculated that American "uptalk", stereotypically associated with Californian "Valley Girls" in the 1980s, might in fact have originated with the characteristically rising intonational patterns of northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, by way of the Scots-Irish immigrants who migrated to California in the 1930s Dust Bowl exodus.  For example,

It seems plausible to me that "uptalk" in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia represents the spread (or in some cases just the observation) of a pattern that's been normal in some regional varieties of English for a thousand years or more, originally representing the results of contact with Celtic and/or Scandinavian languages. In the U.S., the history might involve the people of Scots-Irish background who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl era in the 1930s, who formed a substantial part of the ethnic background of the "valley girl" stereotype.

There's a fair amount of evidence out there about how the "Okies" talked — so for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ I thought I'd take a first look, starting with Alan Lomax's 1940 interview with Woody Guthrie, in which Woody reminisces about his boyhood in Okemah, Oklahoma.

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Edenics

Hezy Laing, "Examining Edenics, the Theory That English (and Every Other Language) Came From Hebrew", The Tablet 10/31/2013:

What if one day, instead of speaking hundreds of different languages, all of humanity suddenly began speaking the exact same language? More incredibly—what if we already do? A new movement called “Edenics” makes the claim that modern day English is simply a derivative of biblical Hebrew. In fact, the proponents of this theory say that all human languages are simply offshoots of Hebrew and claim to have thousands of examples to back them up.

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Linguistic change on a short time scale

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American Passivity

This is an illustrative Breakfast Experiment™ for my course at the LSA Institute (on "Corpus-Based Linguistic Research"). It starts from an earlier LL post, "When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/4/2006, where I observed that Winston Churchill, often cited as a model of forceful eloquence, used the passive voice for 30-50% of his verbs  in various passages from his 1899 memoir The River War — several times the rate noted in statistical usage studies from the 1960s and later.

So I thought I'd do a quick historical survey of passive-voice rates, as a example of what can be done with Mark Davies' COHA corpus.

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Potosi miners' language

My roommate here at the LSA Institute is Pieter Muysken, and one of the many things that I've learned from him is that for 450 years or more, miners in Potosí (in what's now Bolivia) have communicated among themselves in a mixed language spoken only by mine-workers in connection with mining operations. Since the existing scholarly literature seems to contain just a few scattered references to this interesting phenomenon, I asked Pieter some questions about it, and I reproduce his answers below.

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Little doubt it wouldn't

Some time ago, R.I. sent in this quotation from Golf World, 6/3/2013:

Because Irwin is the oldest U.S. Open champion—45 when he defeated Mike Donald in a playoff at Medinah CC in 1990—and won his last PGA Tour event, the 1994 MCI Heritage, when he was 48, there seemed little doubt his skill set wouldn't make him a formidable senior-tour member if he committed to the 50-and-over circuit.

You probably think that this is going to be about misnegation, and the tendency for negative concord to sneak back into standard English after having been chased out a half a millennium ago. That's what I thought too, but along the way to YAMP (Yet Another Misnegation Post) I was waylaid by a curious observation.

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Protesting too much

A guest post from Tony Kroch:


The line "The Lady doth protest too much, me thinks" from Hamlet that Mark Liberman blogged about at the end of last month struck me because it encapsulates in one sentence several significant changes that the English language has undergone. We are lucky that the written record is rich enough to let us see how features we take for granted today developed over time.

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Tabudish and the origins of Mandarin

In the comments to "Shanghainese", a lively discussion on the relationship between the Wu branch of Sinitic languages and early Mandarin has ensued.  Quoting South Coblin,

This reminds me … of something Jerry Norman was wont to say, i.e., that there were three good criteria for identifying Mandarin and deciding how old the family is. These are the concurrent presence of the third person pronoun tā, the negative bù, and the subordinative particle de/di. Jerry called languages of this type “Tabudish”, and he sometimes used this name for them in correspondence with me.

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A far-flung Nostratic colony in the Andes

In "The Inca Connection: A Quechua Word Game", 5/18/2013, Piotr Gąsiorowski compares "a 200-word Swadesh list for Southern Quechua and the Tower of Babel 'Eurasiatic' etymologies", and finds 22 clear matches. He notes that "There are only twenty-two matches because I got bored too soon, but it’s an easy game", and concludes

I think I have already demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Quechua people are a lost Nostratic tribe. Note that the semantic matches are impeccable and the similarity of the words is quite obvious to any open-minded observer. Indeed, the matches are much better than many of those in the LWED. The quality of examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9, in particular, is guaranteed by the fact that they represent statistically certified ultraconserved Eurasiatic vocabulary (Pagel et al. 2013). The famous items ‘mother’, ‘bark’, and ‘worm’ are among them. [...]

But there is more to Quechua than just its Eurasiatic affinities. It seems to be particularly close to Proto-Indo-European. Compare the Quechua numerals pichqa ‘5’ and suqta ‘6’ = PIE *penkʷe, *sweḱs, clearly a common Indo-Quechuan innovation not shared with any other Eurasiatic group. I can’t reveal too much at present, but mark my words: you’ll read about it in Nature one day – or Science, perhaps, or PNAS.

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Ultraconserved words? Really??

On the web site of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the "Early Edition" section, is an article by Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade: "Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia". The authors claim that a set of 23 especially frequent words can be used to establish genetic relationships of languages that go way, way back — too far back for successful application of the standard historical linguistics methodology for establishing language families, the Comparative Method.  The idea is that, once you've determined that these 23 words are super-stable (because they're used so often), you don't need systematic sound/meaning correspondences at all; finding resemblances among these words across several language families is enough to prove that the languages are related, descended with modification from a single parent language (a.k.a. proto-language).

This is the latest of many attempts to get around the unfortunate fact that systematic sound/meaning correspondences in related languages decay so much over time that even if the words survive, they are unrecognizable as cognates (sets of words descended from the same word in the parent language).   This means that word sets that have similar meanings and also sound similar after 15,000 years are unlikely to share those similar sounds as the result of inheritance from a common ancestor; if they were really such ancient cognates, they would almost surely not look much alike at all. (See "Scrabble tips for time travelers", 2/26/2009, for a discussion of some earlier work.)

I'm not qualified to judge Pagel et al.'s statistics, although I remain skeptical of their basic claim that words that haven't been replaced often in a handful of language families with vastly different time depths can be predicted to be super-stable in all language families. But there are problems with their premises in this article, in which their goal is to compare words from seven different language families and to show that, according to their statistics, all seven should be grouped together into a single super-family. I think they have a serious garbage in, garbage out problem.

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New blog on history and philosophy of language sciences

There’s a new blog, “History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences”, edited by James McElvenny at the University of Sydney. I’m the invited author of the third post in it, ‘On the history of the question of whether natural language is “illogical”’, which came out on May 1. For now, new posts are planned weekly. Here’s the blog address: http://hiphilangsci.com.

Let any interested friends know about it, because there is a desire for good discussion of the entries and for interesting new posts.

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