An introduction to linguistics

Discuss various aspects of natural language.

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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#21  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 10, 2012 5:46 pm

Even in English, nonpulmonic airstreams are used in at least one recurrent sound. This sound is considered somewhat paralinguistic, as its never used in forming words, it's only used by itself and as a kind of marker of disapproval.

"tsk"/"tut" is actually a dental click. Another click is used in English (and many European languages) to get a horse moving. So clicks are not entirely unique to some south and central African languages - it's their use as actual linguistic sounds in those languages that is unique.

Sounds that aren't part of any word in a language, yet appear in isolation for a variety of small tasks are not unusual at all in languages either - northern varieties of Scandinavian (as if normal Scandinavian isn't northern enough) often have an ingressive fricative that is used to express agreement with what someone just said. Clicks can be found around the world as isolated sounds used to express an array of things wordlessly, varying from disapproval, a signal to get going, a way of expressing that you find the food pleasing, etc.

Clicks, unlike all consonants I've mentioned this far, don't get their air stream from the lungs. They use a rather cool trick: there's closure at two places - mostly a velar, k-like closure in the back of the mouth and a closure somewhere ahead of it. The velar closure is retracted so that the volume of the enclosed space is increased - the pressure between the closures is reduced. The other closure is opened and air streams in to fill the enclosed space, causing turbulence.

Clicks as linguistic sounds only can be found in Khoisan languages and a number of Bantu languages that probably have borrowed their clicks from neighbouring Khoisan languages, and in one language/ritual register in Australia, Damin. Damin is weird for a number of reasons, leading many scholars to conclude it's been intentionally constructed by tribal elders*. How clicks come about is actually an open question among historical linguists.

I've included a short bit on Damin in this spoiler here, but it's not important per se:
[Reveal] Spoiler: Damin
* Damin was a (or two) language(s) for initiates - men that fulfill certain requirements were permitted to learn it in their teenage years; I've forgotten a fair share of the cultural details about Damin, the linguistics of it is much more interesting. Damin basically has the same grammar as the language spoken by the rest of the tribes (Yangkaal and Lardil), it's just a lexical substitution, mostly, where Damin lexemes may correspond to several Yangkaal or Lardil lexemes. Another quirk in it, though, that kind of indicates it might not be a naturally evolved language is its lack of a distinction between third and second person - essentially, "you" and "he/she/it" are conflated into one non-first person. This is not known from any other language. Now, presenting a hypothesis that a language isn't natural would seem rather daring and unacademic, but the relevant tribe also basically says that Damin was made up by the tribes elders way back, so ...


Apparently, one click in !Xóõ (spoken in Botswana) has a pulmonic ingressive nasal airstream going at the same time as the click is made, so essentially there's two air streams going on at the same time, one originating in the mouth, the other through expansion of the lungs.

Turns out clicks are kind of efficient sounds: with very little effort, it's easy to make many very distinctive sounds. This is one reason why some click languages have crazily large inventories of distinct sounds. On the other hand, it seems as though it is difficult for a language to acquire them naturally, which is why almost all languages that have them today are related or have been strongly influenced by languages that already had them.

Another trick that pops up to get other air streams than pulmonic ones is to close the glottis and retract or "eject" it - retracting it increases the size of the cavity above it, reducing pressure and causing an ingressive air stream, the other causes an increased pressure and thus an egressive air stream. These kinds of sounds appear in various languages in both Americas, in the Caucasus, parts of Africa. These sometimes combine to some extent with pulmonic air streams, to give us voiced ejective consonants. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implosive_consonant contain some audio samples.

Consonants, in one sense, are easy to describe: you point at a part of the roof of the mouth, you point at a corresponding part in the lower part of the mouth, you specify some manner of articulation and bingo. Vowels live in a less discrete space.

Most vowels, cross-linguistically are voiced. The vocal cords vibrate during production. No or extremely little turbulence is caused by the articulators. The different vowels' sounds are shaped by how the oral cavity is shaped during production - where the tightest spot is, the length of the tube, etc. There's obviously some possible kind of absolute points to this: the most open configuration we can get at reasonable enough effort, and the greatest closure that doesn't beget any friction. In both cases, we can obtain different lengths of the tube as well, the maximum and minimum (reasonable) lengths behind the maximum closure.

We make a trapezoid with these four points as their corners. (Sometimes, linguists use a triangle instead, depending a bit on the language in question, but the more general case is undoubtedly the trapezoid)

Something like
Code: Select all
i            u
               
             
               
      a     ɒ

The symbols in that trapezoid are IPA symbols, not English letters. [ i ] corresponds pretty well to <ee> in creep, eek, etc. [u] corresponds fairly well to <oo> in woo, [a] is present in <stack> in many dialects of English, and ɒ in Boston, hot, or park in some dialects of English. Now, there's a reason why many languages do in fact have distinct vowels that correspond to at least three of the corners of this trapezoid - to maximize the audible difference between available vowels. Usually, though, reproducing an exact spot in the trapezoid isn't necessary, different languages split up the vowel space in different ways. So some continuous area of the trapezoid ~centered at the two upper corners and some area around the bottom is a very common three-way vowel system, among others shared by Arabic, Quechua, Inuktitut and a bunch of other languages.

Other languages again divide the available space in different ways, but generally the corners are assigned to some sounds. There's some universals as to how the space tends to be divided, and there's some additional things one can do with it - many languages in Europe distinguish vowels depending on whether the vowel is rounded or not. (Generally, back vowels always tend to be rounded, and a distinction based on rounding most often only happens for front vowels.) Some languages distinguish vowels depending on whether there's a nasal air stream as well. There's a bunch of other possible distinctions too.

For some reason, Germanic languages have had a tendency for rich vowel inventories - dividing the vowel space relatively finely, and distinguishing front rounded from front unrounded vowels. English has lost that particular distinction (as has Yiddish and some other western Germanic dialects), but in general they retain rich vowel systems anyway. You will find literature written by people who don't know what they're talking of that says English has five vowels. If the book is about typography, you can accept it as an informed statement (although the symbol y often enough does duty as a vowel to warrant being called one as well). If it's about anything even slightly more linguistic and not related to written language specifically, it's dead wrong.

Now, I've already kind of made a point of it being quite difficult to exactly reproduce a configuration of the mouth - so languages don't have words that correspond to series of exact configurations of mouths, they permit some variety. This might be a good place to introduce the idea of phonemes and allophones for that exact reason. A phoneme is a set of sounds that are perceived as functionally the same, e.g. two words cannot be distinguished by them. These sets are language specific - the fact that English doesn't distinguish kh from k doesn't prevent other languages from considering them distinct. Consider the two words grave and crave. These are very similar, in fact there's only one sound distinguishing them from one another. /g/ and /k/. [khreIv] vs. [kreIv], though, are not considered distinct - we write both as /kreIv/, although the latter may sound slightly off to most speakers of English - the lack of aspiration (belated onset of voicing, and a slight puff of air on the k) cannot distinguish two words from each other - although in some dialects of English, it seems aspirationless [k] is more likely to be parsed as belonging to /g/. For the vowels, a phoneme is basically a stretch of vowel space. Any sound produced anywhere in it will be perceived as the same vowel by a speaker of that language. Consider the vowels in English <beat> and <bit>, you cannot use the same distinction to get two different words in Finnish - they'd be parsed as one word. In contrast, in many dialects of English, the distinction between Finnish / i/ and / i:/would be lost, as most English dialects no longer distinguish length. (note, ":" is used to mark length.) Likewise, Swedish wouldn't contrast the vowel in beat from the one in bit, but English wouldn't permit minimal pairs for all of Swedish /y/, /u/ and /u/, such as this elegant triplet: <mur>, <myr>, <mor>. (Notice: due to historical sound changes, Swedish orthography mostly encodes sounds as follows: <u> = /u/, <y> = /y/, <o> = /u/, although <o> sometimes also encodes what IPA transliterates as /o/).

For convenience, phoneticians have divided up the vowel space along the edges into several roughly equally large steps, and placed "reference vowels" on those spots. There's nothing really special about these reference vowels, except they're a convenient reference point, and it's a fine enough system that it suffices to describe most actual vowel systems in use to sufficient accuracy. There's diacritics for these reference vowels that specify if it's to be opened or closed, retracted or fronted, etc, from its usual place, if we're doing a very strict analysis.

English divides the front edge of the trapezoid into three distinct vowel qualities, i, ɛ and æ. beet, bet, bat. These are called tense vowels for some reason.
Slightly closer to the middle of the trapezoid you get "lax" vowels, ɪ and ɜː. In the middle column you get a central ə pretty much in the middle of the trapezoid and an open ɐ, for historical reasons often transliterated ʌ (a symbol that in the IPA normally goes further back and is more closed). In the back you get, from top to bottom, u, ɔ, ɑ, and slightly closer to the center you get ʊ and ɒ. The reference vowels are phones - they're rather specific sounds. Now, languages can pretty much arbitrarily split up the vowel space, and there's no reason that some language's /o/ or /u/ shouldn't cover multiple reference vowels. In languages with few vowels, the vowels will have large areas of vowel space. This is one reason that Arabic names, despite Arabic only distinguishing i, a and u, often are transliterated with e and o, e.g. Usama / Osama bin Ladin/Laden. Surrounding sounds may affect where there realization goes in the available space, and different dialects may also pick slightly different realizations. To Arabic orthography, there's no difference between e and i; this may sound like Arabs are dumb or stupid and can't distinguish things that obviously are different - but English doesn't distinguish [kh] from [k] - and even has a rule that basically says where a /k/ is to be realized as [k] and where as a [kh], whereas distinguishing them is very natural to every Hindi speaker.

Diphthongs are vowels whose articulation involves movement. Usually, it's sufficient just to specify some kind of direction and rough place of movement, as the exact starting and stopping-points are not that important. English has many of these.

So there's no reason to think that the way one language divides vowel space or consonant space is more natural than the way another language does with the caveat that the corners of vowel space are somewhat special - but the sounds associated with the corners also will have a bit of a range inwards of the trapezoid. For consonant space, a few similar restrictions do tend to be in place: consonants with similar features can be part of one phoneme. What is to be considered similar features varies a bit - can be place or manner of articulation, can be acoustic properties (so in some languages, velar and labial fricatives, for instance, can be allophones of the same phoneme). One common source of allophones are slight secondary articulations, but what in one language is considered an allophonic variation can be a source of a phoneme in another. There may be simple rules governing when to render a consonant so as to have different properties - front vowels pull /k/ forward in English, back vowels keep it where it usually is, back rounded vowels tend to cause a slight lip-rounding, so basically cool is something like [khwu:ɫ], but phonemically /ku:l/, while kill is more like /kɪl// but narrowly transscribed is [c̠ɪɫ] or [k̟ɪɫ] - in the previous version, c is a palatal stop, the diacritic marks that is slightly retracted, the k a velar stop, and the diacritic marks slight advancing - both come pretty close to the same spot. l vs. ɫ in English is determined by whether the l appears before or after vowels, basically. This is also a distinction that in some languages is contrastive, you could have words like ɫip vs. lip or buɫ vs bul. In English, this is not possible, although it can help in figuring out where a word boundary is. Where there's rules like this (or even just random variation), this is called allophonic variation. Phones that can appear as audible realizations of some phoneme are called allophones. This is a natural thing, and pretty much every "functional sound" has such variations. In English, the most obvious ones are the aspiration of voiceless stops in word-initial position, the velarization of l in post-vocalic positions, in British English the realization of t as a glottal stop in some positions, and in American English the realization of t and d intervocalically as a tap instead of a stop. (This is also in part a merger - t and d are not really audibly distinguished in that position in these dialects, and the reason some people hear them as distinctive probably has to do with literacy - the brain expects a correlation to what they're used to from reading. If English was not a written language and someone set out to create an orthography, intervocalic t and d in American English would probably use the same symbol, because they're essentially the same sound. In many varieties, at least.)

c sometimes being /s/ and sometimes being /k/ is not allophonic variation though, as English does not have a phoneme correlating to the letter c. It's an orthographic quirk, whereby a letter sometimes represents one phoneme, sometimes another. The involved phonemes follow their normal rules of allophonic realization.

I feel like I might not have been the most clear here on some things - these are concepts I've sort of known and handled for thirteen years, explaining something like that so it makes sense and isn't misunderstood can be difficult.

The standard symbols used internationally for phonetic transcriptions can be found here - it organizes the sounds along place and manner of articulation, contains diacritics for various secondary articulations, etc. Other phonetic alphabets exist for specific uses, such as the Americanist Phonetic Alphabet, a Slavicist PA and the Uralicist PA. Now, in many languages the IPA symbol closest to some important allophone of some phoneme is often used to transcribe that particular phoneme in some texts, but what symbols are used with what phoneme is often influenced a lot by tradition and orthography. In a more cross-linguistic treatment, a more IPA-based transcription scheme is often selected.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#22  Postby Wiðercora » Apr 10, 2012 7:49 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
Wiðercora wrote:History of language was my favourite topic when I studied English Language at A-Level.


How much did you learn about the more general case, i.e. methodology and how it's applicable to pretty much every language? How much of it was just the history of English?


Just English. Mostly looked at Early Modern English through to contemporary English.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#23  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 14, 2012 3:29 pm

HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS I

There's a few different ways by which languages change over time. Words and set phrases change meaning, sounds in words are changed, and grammar is reanalyzed, acquires new building blocks and loses old ones.

I will start out looking a bit sound change, some of the driving forces and some of the results, as this tends to be the most regular part of linguistic change over time.

Now, it's quite usual that sounds affect sounds in their vicinity, in part because the mouth is a bunch of muscles and bones and teeth where the previous positions of everything may spill over a bit into the next position of things. I never explained all the secondary articulations and different things we can mark by diacritics when doing a narrow (phonetic) transcription of speech sounds. I will explain the ones I take as examples whenever they turn up.

- some examples of sound changes that have occured in different languages -
One very common sound change is that consonants between vowels get voiced - vowels are almost always voiced, and stopping the phonation for a fraction of a second might easily seem somewhat superfluous or even difficult to time right or a needless effort or whatever. So we get changes like Latin to Spanish vita → vida, lupa → loba, caeca → ciega (all of which are taken from Wikipedia's article on lenition, fyi), although these later have gone even further and the voiced stop has turned into a fricative.

Fortition - the removal of voicing and various other changes also can happen, and both conditional and unconditional varieties of it happen. An unconditional change happens everywhere to the sounds involved, a conditional one happens where some surrounding factors are satisfied.

One sound change that often happens is that g > dʒ and k > tʃ. This is even more common in front of front vowels (and sometimes, it's also happened after front vowels), so a word like /gin/ > /dʒin/ (English) or /kil/ > /tʃil/ (In Eastern Swedish, that is. In Swedish they speak in Sweden, this became some kind of variety of [ɕ] or such, although the exact pronunciation of the fricative there is under dispute... ). In both of these languages, in addition, /sk/ before front vowels have been turned into /ʃ/, c.f. proto-Germanic *skurtijon and modern English shirt. Funny enough, Scandinavian and English did this sk>ʃ change at different times, and in the time after English did it, English also borrowed skirt from Norse - which originally was the very same word. Nearly all /sk/ before front vowels in English are of Norse origin. And nearly all of these have turned into ʃ or similar in Scandinavian dialects (although dialects that have conserved the sk exist, as well as ones that have had different changes resulting in [ʃtʃ] or [stʃ] or [sts] or [stɕ]).

That change is rather obvious, front vowels pull back consonants forwards, and along the way the manner of articulation slightly changes. One might assume that the /i/ in part acquires more closure or whatever, and this is in part the cause of the ʃ/s/ç (postalveolar|alveolar|palatal) fricative.

Similarly, ti (especially if the i is relatively weak and part of a diphthong or hiatus (i.e. two vowels forming a sequence with no consonant between), the t tends to be slightly retracted and the i turned more consonanty, giving cç or tʃ or even just ʃ or ç. English orthography carries traces of this: all -tion word have gone all the way to -ʃən due to reduction of the vowel as well.

A less obvious change that is fairly well attested around Europe and elsewhere is the following:
ku > pu
ko > po

k and p are fairly far apart, so what's up with that? /p/ is obtained by closing the lips together during the air-stream, /k/ is obtained by closure at the soft palate. Now [u] and [o], which are present in very many languages, are rounded vowels. This rounding easily spreads to surrounding consonants, so although we perceive these as /ku/ or /ko/, what's really happening tends to be more like [kwu] and [kwo]. This rounding is a labial coarticulation, w marks on a consonant that it's pronounced with rounded lips. Turns out [kw] is articulatorily and acoustically somewhat similar to p, and at some point the speakers start confusing them or misproducing them often enough that what previously was /k/~[kw] now becomes /p/~[kw] (somewhat home-made notation - it marks that they start perceiving kw as an allophone of /p/, rather than as an allophone of /k/; so the other route this can go by if we assume a maximally simplistic model is mispronounciation and mishearing, in which case [kw] is replaced by [ p ] for whatever reason - that is, they genuinely don't reassign where [kw belongs, they replace it throughout.)

Another change that can happen to secondary articulations is that they become independent sounds: kw can become [kw]/[kv], tj can become [tj] or [cj] or tʃ. j marks patalization - a secondary articulation where there's extra closure along the back of the tongue/palate. In many Slavic languages, palatalized consonants and non-palatalized form distinct series, so pj vs. p, rj vs. r, tj vs. t are heard as distinct sounds and can distinguish two words. Spanish <ll> in some dialects is lj, and ñ is nj, but in many varieties, the l-part has been lost and the j-like part has turned into an actual j instead. Likewise, in some dialects of English, Polish and some south Slavic languages, lɣ - a velarized ( a similar secondary articulation, with quite a distinct acoustic effect) l, has lost its l-part and turned into more of a vowel or a w (which, despite being bilabial often has a velarized component in most languages that has it). Oftentimes in languages with a palatalized series, the non-palatalized sounds are slighty velarized to increase acoustic difference between them.

This [kw] > [p] change has happened in some Celtic languages, so you have mab / mac as a pair of cognate between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic (even though that division of the Celtic languages apparently is under some dispute, the Q-Celtic are the ones that retain a k-like pronounciation, and the P-Celtic the ones that turn kw into p, and gw into b; later sound changes may do things to p/b or kw/gw too, so that's why it's mab vs. mac, not map vs. mac.) [kw] can of course also lose its labialization, or keep it unchanged for a good while.

Another sound change that might be a reasonable example is z → r, which occured pretty consistently in the Scandinavian languages (to the point that they actually lack z now), c.f. English bit<->bits from Old English bita<->bitaz (or somesuch), Swe. bit<->bitar. Scandinavian has had pretty much the same plural morpheme as English -s on some nouns, bitar has been something along the lines of bitaz there as well. But this has consistently changed into r all over the place. Similarly, we get cognate verbs such as was vs. var. English has had a bit more restrictive rhotacism, c.f. was, *were* - where the s has been intervocalic, and therefore voiced, whereas it probably wasn't voiced in was at the time the rhotacism took place. Likewise, intervocalic s in Latin turned to r, and this also was conserved in the morphology: flos - florem, genus-generis ...

A thing with sound changes is that sometimes, the conditions that cause them are only present in some forms of a word. Here, a grammatically conditioned kind of change sometimes comes into action. Analogy finds patterns and strengthens them. This can cause the new sound to turn up in forms that shouldn't have obtained them by regular sound change. Or it can erase the new sound from forms where it should have turned up. Or it can even insert it into new words - c.f. how some strong verbs in modern English haven't historically been strong, and how some nouns with vowel changes didn't have them historically. Originally, forms like mouse > mice, man > men originate with sound changes. The factor that caused them has since been omitted, but we've learned these forms like they are, and so use them as such.

Important things here are:
- sound changes tend to be regular -
I.e. if we have a change where intervocalic voiceless stops are voiced, you won't find individual exceptions (unless such an exception comes about by analogy or such). Most of the time, you won't have "the sound change happens in these words, but not in these". This is just a rule of thumb, though, as we can find exceptions, and even pretty weird ones. Grammatically conditioned exceptions seem to be somewhat common, e.g. why Russian -ogo/-yego has turned into -ovo/-yevo if they're part of the masculine genitive suffix, but not otherwise. The neogrammarians of the late 19th and early 20th century rejected even grammatically conditioned sound changes, and attempted to find phonetic justification for all sound changes they accepted. This is probably a misguidedly strong stance, but there's good justifications for at least trying to assume maximally predictable and mechanistic changes. There's some very good results obtained this way as well, although it seems clear today that some changes cannot be assumed to have been entirely regular.

Basically, you could have a simple piece of deterministic software go through a list of words (and for most changes, the piece of software should even be ignorant of what part of speech the sequences of sound are part of), and apply the change whenever the right conditions are satisfied. Sometimes, the conditions may be fairly complex though. Latin rhotacism of s apparently was blocked by the presence of a rhotic in the word, yet there was a further rule that could unblock the blockage.

- sound changes are opaque to speakers -
A sound change can't depend on things that were present in a word prior to a previous sound change. You can't have a sound change that says "voiced stops that originate with previously unvoiced stops that were voiced during the intervocalic voicing now turn into voiced fricatives, whereas other voiced stops remain stops". Sound change has no memory.

This too has some exceptions. Different dialects go through slightly different sound changes, and a word we find in a language that seems not to have adhered to an expected change may have been borrowed from some dialect that never had the change, or vice versa, a word with unexpected changes in it can have gone a similar route. (I leave talking about what a dialect even is to a later stage, the concept of dialects is of minor interest for this topic.)

- sound changes generally are acoustically or articulatorily motivated -
But chains of sound changes can obscure such relations, as the next sound change moves it further down the chain. The strangest regular correspondence I know of is Armenian erk, from Proto-Indoeuropean *dw. What we perceive as acoustically similar might be language-specific, though: in a language with very few consonants, a lot of the available space for consonant variations might sound similar to other consonants because the speakers are not used to spotting minute acoustic differences.

- sound changes can merge sounds, move individual sounds in a word from one phoneme to another or create new sounds -
If we know a language has had a sound change that turns voiceless consonants intervocalically into voiced consonants, and we have a word "aba", we can't know if this was apa or aba before the sound change unless we have some other evidence of it - a dialect that hasn't had the sound change, some inflected forms that don't have it, a written source that predates it (and is in a reasonably pronunciation-like spelling), a conservative orthography (although this is not necessarily accurate either), recordings, or other more indirect proof. A sound change can fully merge two sounds that previously were considered distinct in all positions.

- sometimes, sound changes cause chains of changes -
This is especially common with vowels; one vowel phoneme migrates a bit in the vowel trapezoid, and another vowel moves away from it not to be confused with it (and possibly another moves slightly into the space it left behind as well), and a chain of changes like these pull each other around the trapezoid's surface. The same does happen with consonants as well; often, similar changes happen to similar sounds. So e.g. dental/alveolar consonants followed by front vowels easily all get a palatal coarticulation. Since we want maximally different sounds AND maximally few different manners of producing them, we'll usually end up with some kind of compromise.

- sound changes can also entirely drop sounds out of words-
The most radical example I've heard of is complete drop of all non-stressed syllables. English and many other languages have weaker examples of this. Have you ever wondered where all silent vowels at the end of any number of English words come from? They've been there, they've been lost. Likewise, /h/ has been lost in some dialects of English in many positions. In fact, all varieties of English has had some extent of h-dropping, as the pronoun it originally was "hit". Conversely, hypercorrection has caused h to be added to words that never had it under the assumption that it was restored. Hypercorrection will be described more carefully later.

The sound changes given above are only a small set - sometimes, even the opposite change occurs, and these are far, far from all known sound changes - and there's probably way more possible changes around. (Sometimes, sounds come from nowhere as well - Spanish for instance, has inserted vowels ex nihilo into words that begin with certain clusters, c.f. Italian scuola, Spanish escuela.)

With these basic ideas we have some basic footing in it, although far from enough. Next time, I'll look at semantic changes and grammar changes, and then I'll look at Indo-European and the Uralic languages, how we know the IE languages are related, how we know the Uralic ones are related, and other similar things.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#24  Postby katja z » Apr 14, 2012 6:44 pm

Just bookmarking for now, still catching up. Great idea for a thread Zwaarddijk, and great job so far! :thumbup:

May I just suggest you somehow highlight key concepts in your posts as you introduce them, to make them easier to navigate?

I'd also like to add another reading suggestion for anyone interested in these things: Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (eds.). This is not a systematic introduction to linguistics, rather the focus is on certain common misconceptions and these are taken as a starting point for presenting some basics.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#25  Postby don't get me started » Apr 15, 2012 8:25 am

I'll second that suggestion Katja z.
'Language Myths' is a great introduction to some key concepts that have been discussed on the forum: Myth 4: French is a logical language. Myth 11: Italian is beautiful, German is ugly. Myth 14: Double negatives are illogical, Myth 18: Some languages are spoken more quickly than others, and my favorite, myth 12: Bad Grammar is slovenly.

Good job so far Zwaarddijk.
Language is just...well, interesting, isn't it?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#26  Postby Wiðercora » Apr 15, 2012 9:01 am

I think I read that book last summer, or the summer before. It's very good.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#27  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 15, 2012 12:32 pm

A more detailed list of sound changes, just for reference. This isn't really an "installment", this is more like a badly written appendix.

One thing may be worth noting, though: these don't only happen as historical processes, but any one of them also occurs randomly in speech all the time. When some specific change starts relatively systematically happening in some context, the language is likely to change along that line.

assimilation: the features of one sound change and adopt features of nearby sounds. This is very common in morphophonological contexts, c.f. English leaf - leaves, where historically, f at the end of a word has been less surrounded by voiced sounds, but while the second e still was pronounced, it suddenly was surrounded by voiced sounds on both sides, and thus assimilated the voicing from them. In languages with vowel harmony, one could kind of claim some kind of distant assimilation, whereby e.g. in Finnish, a word such as
katto gets the adessive case ending -lla (katolla), while as kivi gets -llä (kivellä). In fact, in Finnish there's three sets of vowels, {i,e}, {y,ö,ä} and {u,o,a}, the latter two of which force assimilation throughout the word: you find very few words in Finnish that aren't compounds and have vowels from both of those sets (i and e are neutral, although if no sounds are present from the two other sets, the word defaults to the yöä-set). Very similar situations occur in Hungarian, Turkish, Mongolian, and any number of languages around the world. The diachronic origin of this kind of situation is probably very strong vowel assimilation. This sound change tends to be fairly regular.

metathesis: switches the order of sounds. Sometimes for no obvious reason whatsoever, sometimes to make articulation easier. The much maligned "nucular" is a result of metathesis, but so is the form "ask" - which language-historically originally was the now much maligned form "aks". The Biblical Hebrew hitpael-forms undergo regular metathesis if the first consonant of the verb stem are of one certain class, and the last consonant of the prefix goes after:

hitpa'el from pa'al, but hishtamer from shamar - note how we'd expect the form *hitshamer, but the regular metathesis switches them around.
This seems to be a sound change that needn't regularly affect every instance of a sequence of sounds, but in the case of Hebrew given above, it was fairly regular.

dissimilation: the opposite of assimilation. Why we'd change sounds so that two neighbouring sounds have fewer sounds in common isn't obvious - some claim it's to avoid sounding like we're stuttering, there may be reasons to do with increasing the distinctiveness of a word or whatever. But anyways, examples include modern Swedish nyckel from *lyckel, Czech sloboda from proto-slavic *sveboda (avoiding two fricatives in sequence), Spanish nombre from Latin nomine - avoiding a long series of nasal consonants. This is a sound change that generally is not regular.

haplology: the removal of repeated segments. Haplology is an example of exactly that kind of repeated segment, btw, and if it were to undergo haplology, we'd have haplogy instead. England is the result of haplology on "Engla land". This might not necessarily be regular either.

syncope: the loss of some sound inside a word. A good English example is didn't or doesn't, from did not and does not. Another example is lady from hlaf-dige. (although there, other changes as well have occured). This is a fairly regular one.

epenthesis: the introduction of a sound to smooth transition between two sounds or for some other reason. Examples include earlier Spanish nomre > nombre and English linking <r>. Often the sound may have some feature in common with at least one of the sounds, sometimes even with both. Vowels can also be inserted, and in fact early East Slavic inserted vowels to break up every cluster of consonants. English has this morphophonologically present in pretty much every noun whose singular form ends in s - bass - basses; vase, vases; race, races; ... house, houses; ... This is fairly regular.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#28  Postby katja z » Apr 15, 2012 12:58 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
One thing may be worth noting, though: these don't only happen as historical processes, but any one of them also occurs randomly in speech all the time. When some specific change starts relatively systematically happening in some context, the language is likely to change along that line.


I think the analogy with biological evolution is a useful one. Think of language as of a population. It isn't uniform - there is a certain degree of variation of speech produced by different groups of speakers, different speakers and even by the same speaker at different points and in different situations. Some mutations get fixed in the population, by selection or by drift. Some only get fixed in part of the population, and so language varieties diverge. The historical process is thus grounded in variation that exists at any point in time.

Re epenthesis, I'm not sure the English a/an is such a good example; if I remember correctly, it comes from a weak form of the numeral one, where the n has disappeared except when immediately followed by a vowel. I suppose you could argue that synchronically, it functions the way you've described. Still, if we're talking language change, then this is a different case than, say, the development of Fr. trembler from Lat. tremulare.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#29  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 15, 2012 1:13 pm

katja z wrote:
Zwaarddijk wrote:
One thing may be worth noting, though: these don't only happen as historical processes, but any one of them also occurs randomly in speech all the time. When some specific change starts relatively systematically happening in some context, the language is likely to change along that line.


I think the analogy with biological evolution is a useful one. Think of language as of a population. It isn't uniform - there is a certain degree of variation of speech produced by different groups of speakers, different speakers and even by the same speaker at different points and in different situations. Some mutations get fixed in the population, by selection or by drift. Some only get fixed in part of the population, and so language varieties diverge. The historical process is thus grounded in variation that exists at any point in time.

Re epenthesis, I'm not sure the English a/an is such a good example; if I remember correctly, it comes from a weak form of the numeral one, where the n has disappeared except when immediately followed by a vowel. I suppose you could argue that synchronically, it functions the way you've described. Still, if we're talking language change, then this is a different case than, say, the development of Fr. trembler from Lat. tremulare.

Good points there. I think your post may be a sufficient note regarding analogy to evolution, though. Analogies to evolution do have some benefits: pretty much everyone here has an ok understanding of evolution, and it's an easy way of thinking about things once you have that down. Analogies to evolution likewise have some problems: there's quite a few misunderstandings about evolution around as well, and it's easy to get the wrong idea about, say, what the evolutionary pressures are that operate on language, etc.

Even though biologists have abandoned the idea of evolution as an ascension towards higher forms, this idea still is something we easily are mislead into thinking about when evolution is brought in as an analogy, and that's a thing I want to avoid.

What I currently strive to do, really, is just establish the basic concepts - once I've gotten through these basic ideas, I suspect a nice short ~case study (English) would be a good idea.

You are probably right about a|an. I'll remove that, intrusive r is a sufficient well-known example that even a fully monolingual English reader is likely to have run into it. I prefer at least including English examples of as much as possible, and preferrably examples that are recognized as standard language, to showcase that things people get ridiculed for (nucular, etc) are even part of standard English (ask), and that even the unchanged version (aks) can be source of ridicule. And that changes like these can even turn into regularly recurring things in morphology (leaf-leaves, wife-wives, ...)
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#30  Postby katja z » Apr 15, 2012 1:31 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
Good points there. I think your post may be a sufficient note regarding analogy to evolution, though. Analogies to evolution do have some benefits: pretty much everyone here has an ok understanding of evolution, and it's an easy way of thinking about things once you have that down. Analogies to evolution likewise have some problems: there's quite a few misunderstandings about evolution around as well, and it's easy to get the wrong idea about, say, what the evolutionary pressures are that operate on language, etc.

Even though biologists have abandoned the idea of evolution as an ascension towards higher forms, this idea still is something we easily are mislead into thinking about when evolution is brought in as an analogy, and that's a thing I want to avoid.


Absolutely, and in most contexts I'd be somewhat wary of introducing the analogy (at least not without much longer explanations and caveats). But this being RatSkep, it's safe to assume that most readers don't think of evolution as purpose-driven or "ascending". :smile:

And of course, as with every analogy, you have to know where to stop. I have to say I do find it very helpful.

What I currently strive to do, really, is just establish the basic concepts - once I've gotten through these basic ideas, I suspect a nice short ~case study (English) would be a good idea.

You are probably right about a|an. I'll remove that, intrusive r is a sufficient well-known example that even a fully monolingual English reader is likely to have run into it.


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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#31  Postby Lion IRC » Apr 15, 2012 7:11 pm

Zwaarddijk, I would be interested to hear your thoughts about the rationale - in terms of linguistics - for the use of expletives. How "reasonable" is it to... !X#&!!MF@ ?

Or as a moderator on Undernet #apologetics said to someone recently...

"Wow, you swear a lot. You must really know your topic well."
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#32  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 15, 2012 7:20 pm

Lion IRC wrote:Zwaarddijk, I would be interested to hear your thoughts about the rationale - in terms of linguistics - for the use of expletives. How "reasonable" is it to... !X#&!!MF@[b][/b] ?

Or as a moderator on Undernet #apologetics said to someone recently...

"Wow, you swear a lot. You must really know your topic well."


I can't give an answer in less than five pages for that, but I will probably get to it somewhere just after sociolinguistics.

@LionIRC
Duly note, though, that Paul the Apostle calls things dung as well to make a point about them. If a kid these days says something is shitty, you'd probably find that a rather terribly poor phrasing - is it any less poor when Paul used it to make his argument sound more convincing?:

Yea doubtless, and I count all things [but] loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them [but] dung, that I may win Christ,

ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου δι᾽ ὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα εἶναι ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω - σκύβαλον being "dung, shit, excrement".
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#33  Postby Corneel » Apr 16, 2012 9:49 am

The sound changes given above are only a small set - sometimes, even the opposite change occurs, and these are far, far from all known sound changes - and there's probably way more possible changes around. (Sometimes, sounds come from nowhere as well - Spanish for instance, has inserted vowels ex nihilo into words that begin with certain clusters, c.f. Italian scuola, Spanish escuela.)

Concerning this specific sound change (which we also find in French, but in general they also drop the "s", hence école), could this be caused by a people originally speaking another language (Gaulish for French, Celtiberian for Spanish - both Celtic languages) adopting another language (vulgar Latin in both cases) and imposing some of the speech patterns of their original language on it?
(I once read (old) French being described as Latin mangled by Gaulish throats).
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#34  Postby katja z » Apr 16, 2012 10:07 am

Corneel wrote:
The sound changes given above are only a small set - sometimes, even the opposite change occurs, and these are far, far from all known sound changes - and there's probably way more possible changes around. (Sometimes, sounds come from nowhere as well - Spanish for instance, has inserted vowels ex nihilo into words that begin with certain clusters, c.f. Italian scuola, Spanish escuela.)

Concerning this specific sound change (which we also find in French, but in general they also drop the "s", hence école), could this be caused by a people originally speaking another language (Gaulish for French, Celtiberian for Spanish - both Celtic languages) adopting another language (vulgar Latin in both cases) and imposing some of the speech patterns of their original language on it?
(I once read (old) French being described as Latin mangled by Gaulish throats).


I don't remember the history of this specific development in the Romance languages, but what you're describing goes by the name of substrate (or substratum) interference, in this case because speakers would have retained certain articulation habits (habitudes articulatoires) associated with the old language. Language replacement (non-Latin-speaking communities adopting Latin) certainly played a large role in the history of the Romance languages.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#35  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 16, 2012 4:33 pm

Corneel wrote:
The sound changes given above are only a small set - sometimes, even the opposite change occurs, and these are far, far from all known sound changes - and there's probably way more possible changes around. (Sometimes, sounds come from nowhere as well - Spanish for instance, has inserted vowels ex nihilo into words that begin with certain clusters, c.f. Italian scuola, Spanish escuela.)

Concerning this specific sound change (which we also find in French, but in general they also drop the "s", hence école), could this be caused by a people originally speaking another language (Gaulish for French, Celtiberian for Spanish - both Celtic languages) adopting another language (vulgar Latin in both cases) and imposing some of the speech patterns of their original language on it?
(I once read (old) French being described as Latin mangled by Gaulish throats).


Regarding that particular sound change, some varieties of Italian were on the verge of it as well, which apparently has left some fossilized traces (as well as traces in some dialects) - the only example I find is per iscritto. It's quite possible the similar change in some Celtic languages even appeared later, or that it appeared in Spanish and French after the Celtic languages had by and large gone extinct in the relevant areas. Substrates do have such effects at times, of course, and I am not saying this can't be such an effect - however, we should not ascribe all changes of this nature to substrates either. At some point, the Celtic languages had a change that was quite similar, should we assume this too was due to a substrate? If so, should we assume the presence in the previous language also was due to substrate? Where do we end it? Do we assume there's always been a language somewhere that forbids initial sC-type clusters?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#36  Postby Lion IRC » Apr 16, 2012 8:58 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
Lion IRC wrote:Zwaarddijk, I would be interested to hear your thoughts about the rationale - in terms of linguistics - for the use of expletives. How "reasonable" is it to... !X#&!!MF@[b][color=#CC0000][b][/b][/b][/color] ?

Or as a moderator on Undernet #apologetics said to someone recently...

"Wow, you swear a lot. You must really know your topic well."


I can't give an answer in less than five pages for that, but I will probably get to it somewhere just after sociolinguistics.

@LionIRC
Duly note, though, that Paul the Apostle calls things dung as well to make a point about them. If a kid these days says something is shitty, you'd probably find that a rather terribly poor phrasing - is it any less poor when Paul used it to make his argument sound more convincing?:

Yea doubtless, and I count all things [but] loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them [but] dung, that I may win Christ,

ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου δι᾽ ὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα εἶναι ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω - σκύβαλον being "dung, shit, excrement".


He says compared to dung...this is much more important. Thats not an expletive. Thats a functioning noun.
He doesnt say *$!!!#F$! load of dung.

/me wanders off to find a better language professor.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#37  Postby virphen » Apr 16, 2012 9:05 pm

Lion's definition of better of course, in this case being applicable only to someone who says what he wants to hear.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#38  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 16, 2012 9:12 pm

Wow, LionIRC refuses to even think about the similarity of the usage of "dung" to express something bad, and the use of "shit" as an intensifier in general.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#39  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 25, 2012 1:10 pm

A bit busy at present, will resume next week.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#40  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 28, 2012 2:57 pm

Side topic

Stress and prosody
In most languages, there'll be some differences between syllables. Some syllables will be more prominent, for lack of a better word. Depending on language, the difference may be one of duration, volume, manner/intensity of phonation, pitch, articulation, ...

There's several things this does:
1) In some languages, the stress occurs in a regular spot in every word, so you get like Finnish, where it occurs on (almost) every initial syllable, Polish where it occurs on pretty much every final syllable of words, etc. Secondary and even tertiary stresses may also occur. For some reason, stresses tend to repel each other, but this isn't quite absolute. This means that in a word, you seldom get two syllables next to each other where both are stressed.

Anyways, in languages with such regular stress it provides a simple cue as to where a word ends and where another begins.

2) In some languages, where the stress goes can be lexically determined. This also means there can be pairs of words that essentially are the same strings of phonemes, but have distinct stress patterns. In English, this often is used to distinguish noun-verb pairs. In some languages there's very many pairs and even triplets distinguished by stress, and there's no requirement that two words distinguished by it are related. This obviously helps less with determining where one word ends and the next begins, but increases the number of distinct words of the same length. For some reason, regular stress systems tend either to stress initial, final, next-to-final or even the one prior to that syllables; in Latin, the penultima (next to final) is stressed if it is heavy (closed or containing a long vowel or diphthong), otherwise the antepenultima. If the word only has two syllables, the first is stressed.

I've heard of a dictionary that went so far as to list six levels of stress, but I've got doubts that many linguists take that many levels seriously for most languages - the difference between say fourth and fifth levels already probably are so small that which one gets the more stress probably is rather random. With the caveat of course that over enough tries, you'd get a good idea about which one's more likely to take fourth or fifth or sixth, but still - who's going to record a hundred random utterances containing those words and measure them and make stats for it? Even then, in a dictionary-sized thing, to get every instance right you probably need rather big samples - the likelihoods stack against every single word having the samples give the right distribution.

3) In some languages, there's more than one kind of stress - e.g. most varieties of Swedish have grave accent and acute accent. In Swedish, grave accent consists of lowered pitch, acute of raised pitch. The exact contours differ a lot from region to region, and even idiolectal variation can be great.

Intonation vs. tone
There may be some almost universal traits to intonation - e.g. there's a likelihood for questions to be marked by rising intonation, although these aren't fully universal. In tonal languages, pitch is lexically or morphologically determined - that is, either the word itself isn't just a series of syllables, but a series of syllables with pitch as a property of the syllables as well. Chinese is a language most people know is tonal, but it turns out the majority of languages spoken in the world are tonal as well. Very many African, Asian, native American and so on languages are tonal. Europe is the main area where languages generally haven't been tonal.

Tone is about as important a distinguishing feature between words (most of which are monosyllabic) in Chinese, and about as important as the actual vowel quality. The tones in some variety of standard Chinese are high, mid-level rising to high, high-falling and low, but dialectal variety on them seems rather huge. Some languages only distinguish two tones, some as many as five (but never more than four levels, apparently.)

Intonation is not a thing I've thought a lot about or read a lot about, but they're things that can't be omitted entirely.
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