Modern English as an archaic dialect

October 22, 2013

Voltaire is said to have described etymology as a science in which vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little. The line’s provenance is questionable, but the point holds. Over time, vowels shift and so do consonants: words may transform radically. If people are around in a few centuries’ time, we won’t just be using lots of new words: we’ll be using old words that sound different.

I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction, despite the genre’s reliance on time travel and future scenarios. But I came across an example last weekend in the Ursula K. Le Guin–edited Nebula Award Stories of 1975. Joe Haldeman’s story ‘End Game’ is a futuristic military drama that refers briefly, on a few occasions, to phonetic change and to language change more generally:

(1) Language, for one thing, was no small problem. English had evolved considerably in 450 years; soldiers had to learn twenty-first century English as a sort of lingua franca with which to communicate with their officers, some of whom might be “old” enough to be their nine-times-great-grandfathers. Of course, they only used this language when talking to their officers, or mocking them, so they got out of practice with it.

(2) Most of the other officers played chess, but they could usually beat me – whenever I won it gave me the feeling I was being humoured. And word games were difficult because my language was an archaic dialect that they had trouble manipulating. And I lacked the time and talent to master “modern” English.

(3) He said a word whose vowel had changed over the centuries, but whose meaning was clear.

No dialogue or descriptions provide any details of the form to which English had changed in four and a half centuries, but that may be just as well, as it leaves it to our imagination and avoids suggesting something a linguist might object to. It’s nice to see the subject addressed at all, and so explicitly; the sociolinguistic reference to mockery is an especially good touch.


The mamas & the papas in babies’ babbling

January 2, 2012

Babbling is a key stage in language acquisition. We can see where it fits into the overall progression in the following “very rough” table taken from Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics:

 Language stage  Beginning age
 Crying  Birth
 Cooing  6 weeks
 Babbling  6 months
 Intonation patterns  8 months
 1-word utterances  1 year
 2-word utterances  18 months
 Word inflections  2 years
 Questions, negatives  2¼ years
 Rare or complex constructions  5 years
 Mature speech  10 years

After the cooing or gurgling phase from which it develops, babbling has a distinctly speech-like quality because it features “sounds that are chopped up rhythmically by oral articulations into syllable-like sequences”, as Mark Liberman describes it.

The sounds most associated with babbling are mama, papa, dada, nana and slight variations thereon — as for example in the well-known video of twin babies repeating dada (and dadadadada, etc.) to each other.

This is true of a great many languages from different language families and parts of the world. The remarkable correspondence can be seen in a list included in Larry Trask’s “Where do mama/papa words come from?”, about which more below:

Read the rest of this entry »


And the vowel was made flesh

October 14, 2010

Neanderthals have been the subject of a lot of attention and research in recent years, some of which has focused on their capacity for speech. What their capabilities were in this regard remains an open question, one I’m not going to get into here, but I would like to share a related item.*

The following quote is from a letter by J. Fremlen titled “The Demese ef the Ne’enderthels: Wes Lengege e Fecter?” It was published in Science magazine in February 1975, in response (I think) to the idea that Neanderthals’ anatomy restricted their vowel sounds and that this in turn imposed significant constraints on their vocal range:

…et seems emprebeble theth ther speech wes enedeqwete bekes ef the leck ef the three vewels seggested. the kemplexete ef speech depends en the kensenents, net en the vewels, es ken be seen frem the generel kemprehensebelete ef thes letter.

Most internet users are familiar with the text that begins: “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy…” (see the discussion at Language Hat), but the uni-vowel text above is comparatively obscure. Rewritten with correct vowels: “…it seems improbable that their speech was inadequate because of the lack of the three vowels suggested. The complexity of speech depends on the consonants, not on the vowels, as can be seen from the general comprehensibility of this letter.”

The greater weight of consonants in speech is reflected in their relative stability. Tremendous shifts in vowel sounds have occurred, most notably during the Great Vowel Shift of the 15C–18C; there’s also much vowel-sound variety between contemporary dialects. Simeon Potter, in Our Language, used anatomical metaphors to convey the relative stabilities of the two main speech sound categories:

Consonants are, in general, the more permanent elements in a language: they are, as it were, the skeleton. Vowels and diphthongs are, so to speak, the flesh and blood.

And, as we’ve seen, vowels can emerge not just from flesh and blood but from silicone, plaster, metal, and sheer ingenuity.

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* First encountered in an endnote in Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind.


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