Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Paul Ogden, one of the editors of the Good Word series, responded to my etymology of the word amorous and we engaged in an e-conversation I thought might interest the readers of this blog. Here it is.

Interesting etymology. Something similar happened in Hebrew and some of the other Semitic languages. The Hebrew word for mother is emm, the Aramaic word is immah, and the Arabic word is umm.

The liturgical word amen, which at its core means “confirmation, support”, is derived from the words for “mother”. Another derivation from amen is oman, Hebrew for “artist”, from the days when artists made faithful representations of what they saw. A slew of additional Hebrew words that mean loyalty, trust, reliability and so forth are in turn derived from amen.

I replied:

Fascinating. Mother and father started out the same way. Ma and pa are usually the first two “words” settled on by an infant in referring to its parents. So to these utterances were added the suffix marking members of a family: ma-ter and pa-ter. Compare brother and sister, which started out with the same suffix and—voila—the words for “mother” (mater) and “father” (pater).

Paul replied:

But there’s more:

Av is Hebrew for father. Abba is Aramaic for father. Ab is Arabic for father. I know that P and B are considered pretty much the same in historical linguistics, so we’re not too far here from papa, pappas, and the like. [The only difference between [p] and [b] is that we vibrate our vocal cords when pronouncing the latter. –RB] The noun abbot, referring to the Christian religious authority, comes from Aramaic abba.

The word abu that you sometimes see as an element in Arab male names means “father of”, e.g., Mohammed Abbas is sometimes referred to as Abu Mazen, meaning he has a son, probably his firstborn, named Mazen.

The Fate of English Plurals

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Jan Miele sent me the following note today:

I’ve just this MOMENT received an email with this subject line: “Hurry, there’s only a few hours left to pick your offer.” Shouldn’t this read instead as: “Hurry, there are only a few hours left to pick your offer.”

I’m seeing this sort of thing all the time now! What’s up with that?

My response was as follows:

If you are a linguist, read Lorimor, H., Bock, J. K., Zalkind, E., Sheyman, A., & Beard, R. 2008. “Agreement and attraction in Russian.” Language and Cognitive Processes 23, 769-799, and the works on English listed in the references by Kay Bock. She thinks there is some change in the grammar of English taking place, whereby agreement marks the last word in the subject noun phrase, for example “a group of girls have arrived” instead of “a group of girls has arrived”.

I disagree with my former student. I think that English is losing the category ‘plural agreement’ in verbs and there is no consistency or pattern in verbal agreement. The tendency for the verb to agree with the final noun in a noun phrase is just a logical speech error in the transition. Bock’s position doesn’t make sense grammatically; it would defeat the purpose of agreement, which is to show the head of a subject noun phrase.

Your example confirms my position, since there is no noun phrase involved here. Actually, I’ve heard the example you sent so often, I sometimes catch myself making the same mistake, if it is a mistake in a transitional stage of development.

A Small Menu

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I received this interesting note from Jean Perry this morning:

“I recently read in Barbara Ehrenrich’s book Dancing in the Streets, about public festivals, that menu peuple meant ‘simple people’. I couldn’t find the connection between menu as in ‘list’ and menu as in ‘simple’. Can you help me with this?”

This is a Middle French usage that came over when English borrowed the word. French menu then meant “unimportant” or “small”, because menu came to Old French from classical Latin minutus “minúte”. The earliest written evidence in Middle French was les menus = le menu peuple “the small, unimportant people”, plural of la gent menude “the small, unimportant person”. The usage of menu in this sense is now considered archaic.

Labov “Dialect Diversity in America”

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Review of William Labov’s Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press)


I. What the Book is About.  It has been brought to my attention that my pseudonym has been taken in vain by another respected scholar in his recent monograph, Dialect Diversity in America, by  William Labov. Labov quoted this blog:

“Regional accents are dying out…the original dialects in this country were the results of the accents of various immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They all landed on the east coast, which is why all accents are currently located in the east. However, as they migrated to the west, all these accents merged into one, so there are no distinctive regional dialects west or north of southern Ohio (maybe southern Illinois and a bit in northern Minnesota).”

His remark to this quotation was, “This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong.”  The popularity of this opinion makes Labov’s task especially difficult, since the opinion is popular among professional linguists like Mr. Labov and myself.

I will proceed as follows. I will describe his monograph chapter by chapter and then remind us of what he omitted.

Chapter 1 About Language and Language Change. This chapter explains the common knowledge of how dialects emerge when some speakers of a language split away from the main body of speakers of a given language and that language continues to develop, but along different paths. Eventually, these two dialects become so different that mutual comprehensibility is lost, at which point we say that they have become different languages. We should expect that when dialect areas reintegrate, differences in dialectal characteristics disappear, but Labov claims that this is not happening in the US. In fact, dialectal differences are growing and spreading.

Chapter 2 A Hidden Consensus. This chapter explains how we know the suffix -ing is only pronounced -in’ in informal situations. He admits that this phenomenon is not strictly American; it has existed in all dialect areas for at least 1000 years. But he makes the point, well known by linguists, that there are not only regional dialects but social ones as well.

Chapter 3 Hidden Diversity. Having spent the first two chapters explaining the obvious and irrelevant, Labov begins this chapter by telling the reader that only phonological diversity will be considered, not morphological, syntactic, semantic, or lexical. So, Labov will be writing only about accents, not dialects. Dialects comprise differences in all aspects of grammar.

He them proceeds to quote some studies done in the 60s and  70s of the pronunciation of words, selected on the basis of known accent differences, recorded with Philadelphia, Chicago, and Birmingham. Recorded passages with accents were played in isolation to subjects in the same cities except the one they lived in. In isolation the subjects listening to each word recognized about 5% of them. When conjoined with one other word the percentage rose to around 30-40%. When the words were then repeated in complete sentences, the percentage rose to 90%.

Labov does not mention that linguistic sounds are relative to one another. We have no difficulty understanding people speaking with different foreign accents, even if they are using only native sounds. The ear has no trouble making the adjustment in seconds. So, Labov doesn’t even make the case that accents interfere with comprehensibility. Incomprehensibility, which leads dialects to become fully fledged languages, comes only with morphological, syntactic, semantic and lexical differences.

He then moves on to explain the major point of the book: Northern Cities Shift (NCS). NCS involves a circular shift of five sounds involving such those formerly heard only in the northeast, such as the pronunciation of bat moving bet, and bet to bit. He uses this shift, which has moved west across the northern tier of states, to prove that dialectal differences are increasing.

He fails to note that as this dialectal “difference” as it moved westward, must have obliterated all the dialectal differences in its path, proving my point, too, that dialectal, even accentual differences, are disappearing.

Chapter 4 The Growing Divergence of Black and White English. Amazingly, after claiming in Chapter 2 that only phonological features of “dialects” will be considered, this chapter deals almost exclusively with morphological differences.

Labov discusses the following features of Black English (or AAVE, African American Vernacular English, as he calls it):

1. Loss of r at the end of syllables;

2. Use of present tense with an infinitive (He can goes out)

3. HAD as a simple past based on one study in Springville, Texas;

4. BE as marker of habitual past (Imperfective Progressive: He be good);

5. BEEN as a remote present perfect

6. BE DONE as a remote present perfect

7. Omission of -s possessive: My mom room

8. Omission of -s present tense: She hit me when I come into her room.

Notice that only one of these topics involve phonology: the omission of R at the end of syllables. This is a universal trait of all English dialects, including the one  spoken by the Queen of England. Neither the Cambridge British nor the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciations ever include an R at the end of syllables.

On the loss of verbal S (He see me), the possessive S (my mom room) and the copula (he good), Labov reports a 1983 work by Baugh: “The majority of speakers, those who had very little contact with whites, show 78% absence of the possessive [‘s], 72% for verbal /s/, and 52% for the copula. In contrast, the African Americans with high rates of contact with whites . . . show very low rates of -s absence . . . .”

What this description lacks is any number identifying how many speakers had “very little contact with whites”. Or any mention of the effects of the 1952 Brown v Board of Education decision, or the 1964 or 1965 civil rights laws, forced bussing, or affirmative action. Citing a 1983 work to prove a point is too early in the startling process in US education that brought an African American to the presidency.

So does Labov prove that Black English is expanding or splitting up? Although he cites much research based on interviews, he only cites in detail one work not written by him, a work that tracks the usage of had as a marker of the simple past: I had pushed him, where had marks, not the past perfect, but simple past. This usage is reported to have spread throughout the African American community of Springville, Texas. However, notice that a feature already in the dialect only spread within that dialect. It did not lead to an increase in the number of dialects.

Labov explains the expansion of African American English in these terms: “The answer to the question, why are the differences increasing? Is, first and foremost, residential segregation, as reinforced and maintained by institutional racism.” He cites a 1981 study by Hershberg based on a study of segregation between 1850 and 1970. An analysis of historical U.S. Census data by Harvard and Duke scholars, “The End of the Segregated Century”, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (January 2012) shows that racial separation has diminished significantly since the 1960s. That means that more African Americans since the 1970s have had “high rates of contact with whites.”

Chapter 5 – Politics of African American English.  At the center of this chapter is a series of jokes about Ebonics followed by a report on the failure of that movement’s claim that African American English is a foreign language, that courses needed be taught in African American English vernacular. The chapter ends with a description of the research into two commercial products produced by Labov, research which shows them successful.

Again, Labov does not mention the effects of integration, bussing to force the integration of schools, or affirmative action designed to fully integrate colleges and universities.  Did these politically motivated upheavals not affect the dialectal differences between white and black English?  How could Labov discuss the politics of “dialects” without mentioning the major political events that have had a great impact on the two major dialects in the United States? He does not raise this issue because it undermines his thesis.

Chapter 6 – Language Change as Language Politics.   This chapter discusses two phenomena: Canadian Raising in a village in Martha’s Vineyard  and similar the shift of the pronunciation of the diphthong in words like down [aw] to [ew]. Labov admits that two follow up studies found it to be non-existent or “showed signs of recession among the youngest speakers”. I fail to see why this bit of putative evidence was even mentioned in the book. Since, again, Labov only claims that this phenomenon is only spreading, not leading to dialectal distinction, I will omit comment in further detail on this phenomenon.

Chapter 7 – The Political Ideology of the Northern Cities Shift. This chapter returns to the Northern Cities Shift, tying it to the building of the Erie Canal (1817-1875). Without first showing that the Northern Cities Shift had taken place in New York by the time we started building the Erie Canal, Labov declares that it followed the route of that canal.

Labov then goes on to explain “the tendency to superimpose Yankee ideology on the rest of the world” as an explanation why, of all the accents brought in by workers on the Erie Canal, the New York accent prevailed. He then moves into an explanation of “Yankee ideology”, a topic far off subject.

II. What Labov Left Out. Although my claims were anecdotal, most of Labov’s arguments are anecdotal, too, based on interviews with individuals. The anecdotal evidence is so overwhelming as to make a statistical study, were it even possible to base such a study on data collected over the past 30 or so years, moot.

First, I began by noting that ALL my grandnieces and grandnephews, who live in rural North Carolina speak without a trace of even their parents’ mild accent. I have attended baseball games and soccer games they played in and none of their friends, black or white, spoke in the strong Southern dialect I was brought up speaking and hearing in the 40s. Remember, we are talking about rural North Carolina.

The white generation that preceded me used sot and holp as the past tense of sit and help, and et, as it is in Britain today, was the past tense of eat.  The words very and must didn’t exist in the rural North Carolina dialect I spoke. All my relatives and neighbors used mighty where Yankees would use very. I recall the first time I heard must coming from the mouth of a Southerner. Our high school was having career day and had invited a pianist from Fayetteville who had tried his luck in New York. He said, “I must go now; I have another session . . . . ”  I was so struck by the incident, that I remember it to this day, a half century later. Now very and must are commonplace and holp, sot and et are not to be heard because dialects are disappearing.

The African American friends of my grandnieces and grandnephews continue to pronounce [th] as [t] and [d], as I did growing up (I am white) and some of their (white) parents still do. But I never hear Ise (I is), nor a you is, we is, they is when I return now.  Whites and blacks drop the R at the end of syllables and substitute -in for -ing, as do people speaking English informally around the world.

But that is the extent of the accentual differences that I hear today back home or here in Pennsylvania. I do not know when I have heard the strong African American accent by anyone interviewed on television. All I have heard for the past ten years are the three characteristics mentioned above. Interviews with African American athletes on the Sports Illustrated web site ( seldom reveal a trace of African American accent beyond the three traits mentioned above.

Geographical separation is required for a dialect (not an accent) to thrive. When dialect D1 is mixed with D2 one is absorbed by the politically dominant one. It is economically advantageous to speak the politically dominant dialect or language. We had courses in standard English that were taught to Southerners and Northerners with a “Brooklyn” accent in the 80s. I haven’t heard of any such courses in the new millennium.

Migration patterns do not involve part of the US English speakers removing themselves geographically from the others. Migration is all internal and is based on economic factors. There has been an intermixture of dialects, rather than separation.

We must never forget the fundamental economic factor influencing the recent development of dialects in the US: you cannot succeed in the US unless you speak economically dominant “standard” English. Everyone, no matter which dialect or language (Spanish, Russian, etc.) you speak, wants to speak and write that dialect.

So Mr. Labov has not made his case with convincing examples or statistics. He offers a few tables of long-term statistics which show the development of pronunciation differences over time, no massive chronological tables which his case requires. The anecdotal evidence, on the other hand, so overwhelmingly favors my position, I personally see no need for long-term statistics, even were they to exist.

Of Peckerwoods and Woodpeckers

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

I received an interesting inquiry from Jeanne Henry. Here is that inquiry and my response.

Peckerwood. That is what our Southern Baptist pastor called us kids when he got angry with us. I just attended a 40-year reunion of the youth church choir and we laughed about Dr. Jimmy Morgan getting mad at us in church and announcing from the pulpit, “You little peckerwoods better shut up!” Of course, that made us giggle and shake the church pews even more. Poor guy.”

“Anyway, what is the history of the word Peckerwood?”

It started out as simply a Southern variant of woodpecker. However, it is not always used that way and has naughty overtones due to a poem kids back in the 20s and 30s once recited:

Woodpecker pecking on the schoolhouse door.
He pecked and he pecked ‘til his pecker got sore.

When my mother heard me or my cousins reciting this rhyme—long before we knew the other meaning of pecker—she became clearly embarrassed and forbade its recitation. Of course, this only egged us on.

Since the word begins with pecker, it has become mildly profane as well as a mild insult. That word is covered up a bit in woodpecker.

Women are Hysterical; Men are Seminal

Monday, May 20th, 2013

I received today an entertaining and enlightening response to our Good Word hysteria from Rebecca Casper of Brigham Young University. I thought it might be of general interest.

“I just caught up on my DGW email. I just read about hysteria and it put me into musing mode. I have long known some of the etymology of that one–but not all. (Thank you).”

“Though I am not a raging feminist, one once pointed out to me the inherent historical unfairness exhibited by the fact that hysteria carries negative connotations, whereas the word seminal does not. Both have a somewhat similar origin in that each was based on a gender sterotype—at least on the surface.”

“Digging deeper we find that seminal and semen both have the common denominator of ‘seed’. Even so, one can still be frustrated that history gave men the noble role of ‘seed carrier’, while women somehow got stuck with a raging demon lost somewhere inside them. ([It’s a]lmost enough to make me into a raging feminist! Ha-ha-ha.)”

“Have a good day.”

The Origin of ‘Aryan’

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

Lena Åseth raises an interesting question I’ll bet many of the readers of this blog would be interested in. It has to do with the first word in the name of a racist organization called “The Aryan Brotherhood”.

“I need your expertise on the word aryan. Where does this word come from, and is it still in use? I know that it was used during the Nazi-war, under Hitler, but it’s a bit older than that, right?”

—Lena Åseth, Oslo, Norway

Although the word is still around, it is now used only in its racist sense. It comes from the Sanskrit word arya “noble, of a good, high-ranking family”. The word originally referred to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, but the inherent elitism of the word’s etymology led to its demise as a technical term.

The word was then picked up by the Nazis, who thought the Indo-Europeans must have been a race of exclusively white people (excluding Jews, of course). They attached this word to that mythical race. The elitism of the word’s etymology aligned itself quite nicely with the new meaning.

Most intellectuals now use Indo-European, while police departments and laymen use the more nearly descriptive term Caucasian, in referring to the original sense of Aryan. The Indo-Europeans, of course, did not originate in the Caucasus, but in an area now occupied by eastern Poland, Ukraine, and southern Russia. So, even this term is misleading.

An Urban Legend Blasted to Smithereens

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

I received the following e-mail recently:

“Your origin of the word smithereens I believe is in error as is also the different one shown at Wickipedia. When I was taking physics at school in the 1930’s, I was taught that early in the nineteenth century a physicist by the name of Smith thought he had discovered the smallest possible particle, which he called the ‘smithereen’, which I think proved to be the molecule.”

Forgive the delay in responding; we have been unusually busy since the first of the year and just completed a difficult job that took us from the first of the year until last week to complete.

The first problem your theory faces is that for it to work, the physicist would have had to have been named “Smithers”. That would require but a minor change in your theory. However, the history of your explanation presents a greater problem.

In point of fact, molecules were being discussed by Descartes already in the seventeenth century, so the report that someone named Smith (or Smithers) discovered the smallest particle in the nineteenth century does not fit the historical facts. The word molecule was available in French since at least the early seventeenth century. The first published instance of the word in English traces back to 1674, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m afraid the story you picked up in your physics class is just another urban legend introduced by a dilettante etymologist in the past. The general rule to follow is this: if the etymology is obvious, it is probably an urban legend. Words change very rapidly over time and are seldom subject to simple analysis.

OED: On English Borrowing

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries, bringing the total to 180,976. Subtracting the archaic words leaves us with about 133,826 current words.

Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter, adjectives, and about a seventh, verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

Only 25% of the words in the English language are of native origin. Here is a list of the languages from which most of the remainder were borrowed from.

  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%

Of course, the OED, like all dictionaries, is just a sampling of the English lexical treasure, chosen by the editorial staff. As I have shown elsewere, the words of a language cannot be counted. However, the percentages are telling testimony of the English obsession with borrowing. (Source: the OED itself, of course.)

Kissin’ Kin

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Nicholas King wrote a few days ago:

“I associate the word kin with the phrase ‘kith and kin’. Which leads me to ask two follow up questions:

  1. Whence the word kith?
  2. Might the German word for child, Kind, be a linguistic relative?”

Actually, the two are only accidentally similar. Kith is related to German kennen “be acquainted with”, and originally meant “knowledge, things known”. It survives disguised in two forms in English today, can and uncouth. I think there may be isolated Scottish dialects where they still say “I ken you” for “I know you”. It is also related to know and the -gnos- of Latin cognosco, etc. So kith originally referred to acquaintances, someone you know.

Kin, on the other hand, comes from the same source as gen- “give birth, create” found in words like generation, generate and, by the way, gynecology from Greek gyne “woman”. (Get the connection?) In German it popped up as Kind “child”.

When kith vanished from the English language, the phrase “kith and kin” remained. Since English speakers no longer knew the meaning of kith, they substituted a word they did know and which made some sense: kissin’ kin. Only a lithp separates the two words. This process is known as folk etymology about which I have written elsewhere.