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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (26)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (25)


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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (30)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (35)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)


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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (64)

Linguistic change on a short time scale

Comments (52)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (18)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (45)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (33)