Further Learning: A History of Language – Part VI – “Colors”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education after school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

Since I’ve mostly moved on from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, I’ve been reading from his other book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English and from the new-to-me podcast, my current favorite, Lingthusiasm! Information in this post will primarily be from these sources, unless otherwise stated. Also Wikipedia. I’m human, okay?

And, as always, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction!

Colors

Today we’re talking about color names!!!

I’ve always loved colors and their names. I’m sure you could find an old notebook of mine when I was a kid with colors in some kind of categorization. I remember, while in the 5th or 6th grade, I would go to my sister’s basketball games, and because ugh, sports, I would spend my time charting how many of each color Skittles came in the packet I’d buy at the concession stand — you know, instead of watching the game. I had pages and pages of this information from at least two years of games. I did that for no reason other than my own curiosity. (If I remember correctly, the tropical flavored Skittles had more pinks in each packet than any other color. You’re welcome for that incredibly useless fact.)

Anyway, I also went into graphic design and I’ve always been interested in art. One of my favorite classes in design school was color theory. So, color has always just been a part of my life. But color names are what’s really interesting to me. And I’ve recently learned some incredible things that I want to share about color!

Basic Color Terms

English has eleven basic color terms. Black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. We have a large range of basic color names. Other languages have a varied number of color terms, some less and a few have more.

From the work of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, they proposed that different cultures’ languages have different amounts of color terms. All cultures have at least “black” and “white,” a set ranging from dark/cool to light/warm, but if they were to have a third, it’s pretty much always red. The rest follow in stages like this:

Stage I: black & white
Stage II: red
Stage III: yellow or green
Stage IV: yellow and green
Stage V: blue
Stage VI: brown
Stage VII: purple, pink, orange, or gray

The more complex a language is, the more main color terms they have. And, it is specifically in this order. So a language might have words for the colors black, white, yellow, green, and blue but not specific names for brown, purple, pink, orange, or gray. This language would be in Stage V.

Many other languages are Stage VII along with English, including the Romance languages, Arabic, Chinese, and the Iroquoian language spoken by Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, and many others. A few languages go one step further and have twelve color terms, like Italian, Hebrew, and Russian, that distinguishes between light blue (azure) and blue. English doesn’t do the same with blue, but we do that with red and pink—which is technically just light red. I also read in an article by Chelsea Wald, that Korean, interestingly, separates yellow-green (yeondu) and green (chorok) in two different terms, unlike other languages.

There are languages like the Yele language spoken in Papa New Guinea that only has basic color terms for black , white, and red—this language is in Stage II. Languages that don’t have as many main color terms may still have words to describe the other colors, but they are words meaning other objects that they use to describe that color. Like, in Yele, they have a word to describe an orange color, the word for “tree sap,” as they do for yellow and green, the words meaning “ripe banana” and “unripe banana.” Vox did an interesting, and visually beautiful, video about all of this here:

Interestingly, I’d watched that video a few years ago when it first came out and forgot entirely about it. I relearned about the Berlin-Kay stages during an episode of Lingthusiasm I recently listened to. I don’t know why I forgot about it, but both times I was equally interested.

Blue/Green

Many languages don’t separate blue and green into separate words. This if often referred to as “grue.” To those language speakers, blue and green are just different tones of the same color. This, I could understand, especially after reading in that same article by Wald, that a Brazilian language called Karajá has four basic color terms (which would put them at Stage III) but lumps yellow, blue, and green all as one color. At first, I was shocked…and then I realized that if we looked at those colors as related, the link between yellow and blue being green, and that many languages look at warm/cool first, it makes complete sense. Yellow is just a warm green and blue is just a cool green. There just isn’t a word for those different greens in that language, just like we don’t have a basic word for light blue but we have one for light red (pink).

Because the stages work in the way that they do, speakers of languages that don’t make a distinction between blue and green, won’t move on to having words for brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray until they do. It would be easy, without the separation of blue and green, to see that pink is just light red, orange is just a shade of red or yellow, brown is just a darker shade of the same, purple could go either way into red or blue depending on the shade, and gray is just a light or dark color.

A while ago, before I was even interested in this, there was a long article I read about how this blue/green distinction caused speakers of those languages without a distinct blue to not notice blue. Basically, it said that if there wasn’t a word for blue in the language, those people couldn’t see blue. This is hotly debated as being false with many explanations to the “evidence” of this. You can read up about this topic here.

So what is my favorite color, you ask? Hilariously…it’s grue. I mean, blue/green. Often known as teal or turquoise, sometimes other names depending on the shade. Specifically, I like the shades “peacock blue” and “mint.” I used to only like blue, but the greener side has been growing on me and now I just like blue-green shades.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • Orange is named after the fruit, as orange is a less common color in nature — or at least for a singular item. Carrots came in many colors before orange carrots were the main carrot, so the citrus fruit became the official color’s name. Probably, I assume, as people used it to explain the type of orange they were describing, it became the color’s name. Like, if someone said, “That’s a beautiful shirt, it’s a beautiful color — like salmon.” Now we have salmon the color and salmon the fish.
  • And speaking of orange, I learned on my new favorite podcast Lingthusiasm (there episode about color, which is where I was inspired for this post and got much information for it) that the term “redhead” uses red instead of orange, which is much closer to the color redhead actually are, because red was the closest color to describe red hair at the time — this was pre-orange.
  • I already mentioned orange, but also pink comes from an object, a flower family called “pinks.” Black’s etymology comes from a word meaning “burnt” and white comes from a word meaning “bright.” Green’s etymology has the same root as the words “grow and “grass.”

All the colors of the rainbow…

I talked a lot about color names and I literally barely scratched the surface. I could go in-depth about English’s color words alone. That’s all for now!

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Further Learning: A History of Language – Part V – “What’s Up With English? (III)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education after school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

It’s time to talk more about how weird English is again! I’ve been reading from the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English and listening to the podcast Lingthusiasm. Information in this post will primarily be from these sources, unless otherwise stated. Most of this particular post is from Wikipedia, (wo)man’s best informational friend. (I realize some things on Wiki can be wrong. Take all knowledge with a grain of salt. Not just in this post, but also in life.)

And, as always, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction!

What’s Up With English? (III)

Did you know that English-speaking countries are really the only ones that have spelling bees? That’s how fucking dumb (and wonderful) our language is. It’s become a competition for us, knowing how to spell our own language.

That’s it. That’s the post.

…Okay, obviously not.

Today I wanted to talk about LETTERS!!! We’re going to discuss the alphabet and where our letters came from.

I briefly discussed in another post about how our numerals (1, 2, 3…etc.) came from the Arabic numerals. We didn’t have symbols for our numbers, we just used the Roman Numerals (I, II, III…etc.) that came so nicely with our letter system. Europeans adopted the Arabic numerals from Arabic-speakers in North Africa (who, in turn, had adopted these numerals as Hindu-numerals, because they’d originated in India.) I believe they were so quickly adopted, especially with the invention of the printing press, because it was a lot easier to print 1634 instead of MDCXXXIV.

So if we received our numerals from Arabic, where did our letters come from?

The First English Alphabet

Well, as I said with Roman Numerals, our letters are actually from the Latin alphabet. Which is why, if you go to Rome, the letters carved into the stone on the front of the Pantheon look so familiar, even if you don’t know Latin. But that wasn’t the first alphabet that English, as a distinct language from other Germanic languages, had.

English — or I should said, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) — was first written in a completely different alphabet. It was first written in Anglo-Saxon runes, which looked like this:

Rad, right? Not like the “r” rune called “rad” above…I mean like, rad “cool”…you get it.

Anyway, it wasn’t until Christianity came in to England, bringing the Latin alphabet along with it, that it slowly overtook. Then there was that unimportant, kind of forgettable time of the conquest of 1066, the Normans taking over with Anglo-Norman (Old French), and it disappeared all together shortly after.  We have remnants of these runes, like “wynn” which was used for the /w/ sound, which was later used with two Us (uu) in the Latin alphabet as a digraph and this is where we got “double-u” from. (A digraph is two letters together to create one sound, like (th) or (sh).

So, if we then had the Latin alphabet to write with, which was only made up of capital or majuscule letters, why do we have lower case or miniscule letters, too?

To my understanding, over time, when writing with a pen, these letters became much more round and simple. Eventually, it caught on to being normal practice as it was much easier to read words in the miniscule style. They kept important words, like nouns, with a capital, but eventually this dropped off to just proper nouns (although, in German, they still capitalize nouns) and the first letter in a sentence more recently. There’s also some debate about this, that lower-case letters might have existed alongside the original Latin alphabet with all capitals, but were never used together until later. I’m not an expert, so I literally have no idea which is true.

So…English has morphed from one set of languages, changed three times in three major ways, and even changed alphabets. No wonder it’s so difficult to spell.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • I’ve never been one of those people to harp to harshly about literally being used incorrectly. I have in the passed, but I’m above that now. It’s called growth. And knowledge. Because, guess what? Like all of our language, things change and keep changing. Literally is actually a word meant to be used specifically and only when its use is pertaining to the alphabet. That’s why it has the same root as other words like letter and literature. So unless you’re literally talking about the alphabet, literally, you’re still using it wrong. So use it wrong all you like! Nothing matters! We’re all going to die and English will sound different from what it does today. It’s fine! I promise!
  • Just like the runic letter “wynn” became the W, our fun friend “thorn”, or þ, became the (th) sound for a bit. You know what blew my mind while researching for this post? The term “ye olde” is a mistake. The y was the, now unused, letter  þ, but it looked so much like a “y” in old text that it was mistaken for one. It was the. THE olde. So your bookshop, bar, or tattoo is incorrect. I, personally, think this is hilarious.
  • So a digraph is when two letters are used to make a single sound, but a ligature is the actual mushed up letters to create a single symbol, like æ. The “and” symbol, &, the ampersand, is actually a ligature of the Latin word Et, which means and.
  • And, my favorite tweet that has kept me up at night: the alphabet is in no particular order. It’s random. But we alphabetize a lot of things in that order. But it doesn’t actually mean anything. Goodnight!

Good luck sleeping after that!

So, that’s a very, very simplified, amateur explanation of why we write with our current alphabet and where it came from.  That’s all for now!

Further Learning: A History of Language – Part IV – “What’s Up With English? (II)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education after school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

It’s time to talk more about how weird English is! And I’m not alone in thinking that it’s a nutty language. Everything I’ve read agrees. It’s nuts. Since I’ve mostly moved on from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, I’ve been reading from his other book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.

What’s Up With English? (II)

As I’ve stated, English is not a neat and tidy kind of language. There are many strange words, strange rules, and far too many exceptions to those rules. It’s a mashed up, much-influenced, difficult to understand language. Even I, a native speaker of English, struggle with basic rules and the understanding of words.

I do wonder if this is a universal experience? Do others find that English is a strange, difficult language to understand or learn? Or is it a common experience to find ones own language rather difficult? I’m not sure about any of that.

But I do know that there’s one way to figure out if English really is that weird. And that’s by looking at it’s family.

And guess what? It turns out, if you look at the entire sub-family of the Indo-European languages known as the Germanic Languages…English is definitely the black sheep.

English is the Germanic Oddball

Let’s talk about the weirdo of the Germanic languages. If you look at the same sentence in several of the Germanic Languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Icelandic, and others), they appear to be very close in structure and word similarity. The one that jumps out as different is English.

An example:

German: Wo ist meine Tochter?
Dutch: Waar is mijn dochter?
Swedish: Var är min dotter?
Icelandic: Hvar er dóttir mín?
English: Where is my daughter?

For the most part, this sentence isn’t too bad. You can see the similar words, the structure is fairly the same with all. But it’s still real evident that English is much different than the others.

Here’s another example that shows it even more:

German: Können wir etwas Gemüse kaufen?
Dutch: Kunnen we wat groenten kopen?
Swedish: Kan vi köpa några grönsaker?
Icelandic: Getum við keypt grænmeti?
English: Can we buy some vegetables?

I mean…English barely looks even similar. You can see the connections and similarities between the other languages easily, even when the structure of the sentence and the words appear switched around. But with English? They barely look related at all.

Why is English so different? In the previous post about English, I talked about the influences on English because of several factors (the Vikings invading, the French taking over, and the general Latin makeover that was given by scholars) and these are some of the main reasons English is so different.

We know these languages are all connected by tracing back to earlier language groups and finding similarities. Take the word daughter, like above. In the others, we have Tochter, dochter, dotter, and dottir, which we know came from the Proto-Germanic word, daukhtrô. These are all similar to English’s daughter. (Side note: the ‘gh’ sound was once a ‘k’ sound, which is why the word “eight” is spelled the way it is, even though it comes from the Latin octo. So with the ‘gh’ it is still similar to German’s Tochter and Dutch’s dochter, even if it’s no longer said with the same sound.)

But what about English words that are completely different from the others? Well, we have those influences to thank. For example, in German, Dutch, Swedish, and Icelandic, there’s Eingang, ingang, ingång, and innganga. In English, instead of the similar Old English ingang, we have the word entrance, from French. And because of all those influences on our language, it looks much different from its cousins.

Also, I’m sure there’s a bunch of other reasons those sentences, and the languages themselves, look so different. But those are the ones I know for sure.

So what else is English doing so different?

Well, do and -ing is what it’s doing.

English speakers use the words do and did and does a lot. And we’re kind of the only ones who use these words that regularly? To my understanding, many languages don’t even have equivalent words. We have a so many ways to say, “I didn’t write” or “I did write” or “Did you write?” But other languages don’t have the same “did” in those sentences. In French, they’re simply, J’ai écrit to mean “I wrote” instead of “I did write” (which is obviously the same meaning in English, only there isn’t a distinction between them in French) and Avez-vous écrit? means “Have you written?” instead of “did you write.” There’s no equivalent sentence of “did you write?” because they just don’t say it that way. We have two different ways of saying it, but because “do” and “did” are more of an English thing. We say it in more than one way: one is more formal, “Have you written?” and one less formal, “Did you write?”

Within the same example, English tends to use the ending –ing in the present tense. If asked what you are doing, in English you’d say, “I’m writing” but in French you’d say, J’écris which means “I write.” Of course, French has a more specific sentence if needed to say “I am currently writing” is Je suis en train d’écrire.

You know what language does like doing the whole –ing thing? Celtic languages. Do you know was spoken around the area of and islands of England? Celtic languages. Did you know that most linguists think that English just…coincidentally does the same thing? And we didn’t get it from the Celts? They believe that all the Celts were completely wiped out during the invasion and it is impossible that they influenced the language. It makes no sense, but it’s true. It makes the most sense that, as McWhorter puts it, “While the Vikings were mangling English, Welsh and Cornish people were seasoning it.”

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • Recently, I saw a tweet on Twitter by @JohnRossBowie that said, “People who learn English as a second language are fucking superheroes could you imagine looking at the word ‘yacht’ […] and not just giving up” which immediately made me laugh and then think, where in the hell did yacht come from? So I googled it and it turns out, it’s from the Dutch word jaghte, from jaghtschip which means “fast pirate ship” from jag(h)t meaning ‘hunting’ and schip meaning ‘ship.’ Honestly, they’re SUPERHEROES. I didn’t know that! I just accepted “yacht” as a weird ass word and moved on with my life never even thinking about it. I mean, I’m not rich, so the word yacht rarely arises in my vocab, but still.
  • Speaking of the ‘gh’ sound switching from a ‘k’ sound, have you ever wondered why the names of the months are way they are? Octo-ber should be the eighth month, but it’s the tenth. And in turn, Sept-ember, Nov-ember, and Dec-ember should be the seventh, ninth, and tenth months. Well, you can blame the Romans changing it all up and moving them down to make room for January and February, previously just “winter”, and beginning the year there instead of continuing to begin the year in March like before. Also, they changed the fifth and sixth months, Quintilis and Sixilis into July and August (named after Julius and Augustus).
  • In Old English, the word for man was guma and the word for woman was cwēn, which is where we got the word queen. Which is awesome. However, because the -n was an object ending, it often turned into guman…which isn’t the origin of the word human? At all?? Human is from homo in Latin and later humaine in French, but I AM UNCONVINCED that there wasn’t a tiny influence somewhere in England??? It’s just too close to be a coincidence??? I’ll do more research and get back to it. Probably. If I remember. It’s probably just a coincidence. But still.
  • Because of those influences from the Viking invasion, French take over, and Latin lovin’ scholars, many of the words we have have synonyms at various levels of classiness (as I said about the English-derived pig versus the French-derived pork in the previous post about English). There’s two versions of begin, the mundane “start” and “begin” from Old English and “commence” from French. We also have a triple threat from each influence in increasing levels of formality: from the Anglo-Saxon ask; the French-derived question; to the Latin interrogate. This makes a lot of sense with the above examples of “Have you written?” being more formal than “Did you write?”

Black Sheep of the Germanics to (Second) Most Spoken Language in the World

English may be the weird cousin of all the Germanic Languages, but it did become the second most spoken language in the world today. Probably for a lot of terrible reasons. I mean, definitely for a lot of terrible reasons. I think we’ll get into colonization soon.

And as always, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction! So long for now!

Further Learning: A History of Language – Part III – “Dialects, Pidgins, & Creoles”

Dialects, Pidgins, & Creoles

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education outside of school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

Now, the topics of dialects, pidgins, and creoles are a little hard to understand, and I’m still learning about each more in depth right now, so this post is just going to cover the briefest explanations of each.

I’ve been reading primarily from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, but I have several books in line to learn from. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.

What are dialects? What are pidgins? What are creoles?

Dialects

Commonly confused with a synonym for accent, dialects are actually just…different versions of the same language. For example, American English (which can be further subdivided into other dialects) and British English (which can be further subdivided) are two different languages that overlap, having both come from Modern English. We can, for the most part, understand each other. They’re both in the larger family of “English.” Another example is Italian, as there are many regions of Italy that are all different dialects of “Italian” and are not the same as the unified, more formal and official Italian that one would learn in an Italian class. But these dialects aren’t just different forms of Italian, they’re all derived from Vulgar Latin (like in an earlier post, French derived from Latin in the region of France) but all in different ways depending on the region they were in. These dialects are all part of the same family of Italian, but are different in ways that it’s possible that a person in one region of Italy could understand another person from a region close to theirs, but might not be able to understand someone from a region further away.


https://rickzullo.com/italian-dialects/

Pidgins

Not the bird. That’s pigeon. A pidgin is a simplified version of languages in order for two or more different-speaking groups can communicate on a regular basis but don’t necessarily need to fully learn each other’s language. An example of this in The Power of Babel is in the 1800s, Russians would bring timber to Norway and in order to communicate with each other, they together formed an informal language, a mix of words from each language, in order to get by. This mix was around 50/50 in words, because they had an equal position with trading and met halfway. Most pidgins are formed, however, where a dominating group’s vocabulary makes up the bulk of the words.

Creoles

A creole is basically what happens when a pidgin evolves. Like a Pokemon. It becomes not just a simplified in-between language created to be able to communicate, it becomes a complex, fully-formed language that is spoken as a native language by a group of people, often times this is the children of those who spoke the pidgin regularly. The creole with the largest number of speakers is Haitian Creole, a combination of African languages and Romance languages, specifically French.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • Languages often borrow words not just from different dialects, but from different times! The Norman conquered England and brought their specific dialect of French with them. This is why, for instance, we have the word “castle” from the Norman castel, rather than the Parisian French dialect word which was chastel. We later adopted the word “chateau” which came from chastel. This also happened with Japanese borrowing from (Mandarin) Chinese, sometimes the same word at different times to after centuries of evolution, to become two different words with a similar meaning.
  • In the United States, there is influence of English on Spanish-speakers from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Often called “Spanglish,” some words are intermixed like saying brekas for “brakes” instead of the original Spanish word frenos.
  • Remember that Russian and Norwegian pidgin I mentioned earlier? Well, it’s called Russenorsk, but to its speakers, they refer to it as Moja pa tvoja, which roughly means “Me in yours.”

Again, not the bird

A quick recap! Dialects are not different accents, but small subdivisions within a main language family. Pidgins are not birds, but simple fusions of languages of two or more groups of people, used in order to communicate without having to learn each other’s whole languages. And creoles are pidgins evolved into a full-fledged, complex language and spoken by a group as their native tongue.

So! This was a very simplified, probably mostly wrong explanation of what the heck dialects, pidgins, and creoles are! Again, I’m still learning and they are very complex concepts to grasp. I mean, there’s literally like 100 pages in The Power of Babel about them alone. It’s a lot.

And of course, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction! So long for now!

Further Learning: A History of Language – Part II – “What’s Up With English? (I)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education outside of school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

This post will probably be one of several about English specifically. I expect I’ll be learning more, especially in the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter and The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, as I’m fascinated with the weirdness of English, so I’m definitely going to want to know more and talk about more!

I’ve been reading primarily from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, but I have several books in line to learn from. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.

What’s Up with English? (I)

English is weird. I’m sure other languages are weird, too. But English, my native language, sometimes just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve always wanted to know why certain words are the way they are. Like, why is “bologna” pronounced bel-OWN-ee? Why is “colonel” pronounced k-ERN-al? Or should I be asking why they’re spelled that way? There are so many more things that I want to know about English and I’m on a mission to learn as much as I can about all the weird spellings, rules, and history of it.

To answer those questions, I’ve found out: Bologna is actually Italian, a sausage named after the city in Italy, pronounced boh-LOAN-ya, which probably organically changed to an Americanized, easier pronunciation of buh-LOAN-ee over time. The spelling, for the most part, remained — except for those who changed it, sounding it out to “baloney,” which is also accepted as correct. As for colonel…or coronel…it’s still confusing. Basically, it comes from both French and Italian, and over time we acquired military terms from them, with interchanging spellings and pronunciations (like the word actually being three syllables and both ‘o’s were pronounced to be “col-o-nel” and “cor-o-nel“). And both spellings were used for a while in English. Eventually, we just stuck with the French pronunciation but the Italian spelling remained as a dumb-ass compromise. The second ‘o’ pronunciation was later dropped over time and it was just a weirdly spelled, two-syllable word. You can read about it here.

A Brief History of the English Language

As I said in the last post about language, all languages around the world are connected and derived from a singular (or several similar) language. Over time, with migration and other factors, one language because thousands. An early language to many of the European/Western Asian languages is Indo-European, a language branch that split up into many other branches. One of these branches is the Germanic branch of languages.

What’s part of the Germanic branch? Well, English, German (duh), Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Scots, Frisian, Icelandic, and a few others.

English has a close relation to Frisian, but was heavily influenced by other Germanic languages, Norse, French, and Latin, which is why so many modern words are derived from so many different other languages. There’s even more than just those listed above.

Essentially, there’s four stages of English after the Germanic split from the main Indo-European language. From Proto-Germanic, one of the many languages to come from it, and is the earliest form of English as its own language, is called Old English. This early version of English was spoken in the early Middle Ages (550 – 1066 CE). This is what Beowulf was first written in. During this time, around the year 787, Vikings invaded speaking Old Norse (ancestor of Scandinavian languages) and brought early versions of the words again, get, both, same, skirt, and sky into the language.

After Old English, the language transitioned into what’s called Middle English, spoken from about 1200 – 1450 CE. This is the version of English in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. After the French won against England and took over in 1066, many words from the French invaders remained in the English language just like the Viking’s Old Norse. This is where we received thousands of words like, flower, debt, people, change, wait, chair, tax, music, and beef. And, speaking of “beef,” one of my first introductions into learning about language was from this video by Lindsey Williams, in which she explains why there’s different words for the meat of an animal versus the animals themselves (beef/cow, mutton/sheep, pork/pig) and it blew my mind.

After Middle English came Early Modern English, spoken during the time of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible, from 1500 to 1700 CE. Around this time, is when scholars, as Lindsey Williams in the second video of hers below says, just kind of put letters wherever they wanted for the hell of it. In McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, he calls this the “Latinate” layer, where they were including more Latin derived words.

And that brings us to the latest version of English, Modern English! (Or, Late Modern English? I don’t know, we speak differently than we did in the Early Modern English phase, so I’d assume it should be its own era at this point.) It’s what I’m typing in right now. It’s been spread around the world (sometimes forcibly pushed on people, which ain’t great) and has become one of the most spoken languages in the world.

Will there be another version of English, as it changes and morphs through time? I’m not sure. Again, I’m not an expert. But there’s already so many dialects of Modern English, and it’s safe to say that they’ll continue to change on their own through each generation. It’s very clear that English today is much different from the English spoken just 100 years ago.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • The evolution of the alphabet is WILD. As a graphic designer who knows a bit about typography and letterform, seeing the evolution of how the shapes of our (Latin) alphabet is so cool. It’s so interesting to see the slight and large changes, to see how some letter branches off of each other, like “F” and “Y” having the same origin, and later the “V” splitting into “U” and “W”, is about the greatest thing I’ve ever learned. That’s right up my alley. That’s my jam.
Matt Baker, UsefulCharts.com 
  • And speaking of form, have you ever wondered where the shapes of our numbers came from??? Because I sure never did until I was taught in design school that the origins of our number forms (1, 2, 3, 4…etc.) came from Arabic!
  • Another fun fact I’ve learned, is that “English” words “shampoo” and “bungalow” are from the language of Hindi, one of the main languages spoken in India (also an Indo-European language). I’m sure there are others, but I think it’s interesting that so many words in English aren’t even originally our words, but they become so common, most English speakers don’t even realize it!
  • AND THIS IS MY FAVORITE FACT! I actually threw the book after reading this one. Are you ready? You’re not ready. Unless you already know. But have you ever wondered why there’s “warm” and “warmth,” and “grow” and “growth,” but there’s only “slow” and not “slowth”…well that ain’t true. It’s sloth. Because of the sound and semantic changes from “slowth,” sloth is really now only used in a moral context as one of the capital sins and, of course, the adorable animal.

That’s all for now

English is a weird language, but as it’s my native one, of course I’m fond of it. I’m real excited to learn more and will hopefully have a second part specifically about English soon, but until then, my next History of Language post will be about…DIALECTS, PIDGINS, and CREOLES! No, not the bird.


And of course, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction! So long for now!

Further Learning: A History of Language – Part I

Hello! Last year, I posted about wanting to continue to learn about subjects I’m interested in, even though I’m no longer in school. I have over a dozen subjects/topics that I’m extremely interested in and I want to study them in my free time. And, I want to share what I’ve learned here. It’s kind of like a homework assignment, once a month, to summarize what I’ve learned.

One such subject, and what I’m going to be posting about for the next few months, is Language. The history of languages and how they were formed, change, and intertwine is fascinating. I’ve always wanted to know things about English, specifically, like why bologna and colonel are spelled the way they are, why the words ‘effect’ and ‘affect’ aren’t just spelled the same and be homophones, and why there’s so many other languages mixed with ours — like all the French and Latin.

And we’ll get to all that. But first, I want to start way before English even existed. Today we’re going to talk about the origin of language and how it has morphed for centuries, continuously, since from the beginning of speech to today. Okay, that’s a big topic that there’s literally an entire book about it, but I’m just going to give a brief summation of that, plus some other fun facts that I’ve learned, and my thoughts thrown in along the way.

(I’ve been reading primarily from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, but I have several books in line to learn from. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.)

The First Language

So, to begin — every language on our planet originated from a single language. That’s an insanely cool fact that I wasn’t really aware of until recently (for real, this is why I want to do this — I want to learn all the interesting things that high school and college didn’t teach me). We all originated from a single village of early humans that spread throughout the world over thousands of years. With each migration, with each generation, that one language morphed into other languages, and those morphed into other languages. Each one branching off and changing itself.

Now, unfortunately, we don’t know what that first language sounded like. In fact, we don’t know what most of the languages sounded like before a certain time. Most of these pre-history languages weren’t written languages, only spoken. We have no record of them. We can, however, piece things together from more recent times.

There’s a family of languages that is spoken by almost half of the entire world. It’s the Indo-European languages, a family of connected languages that stemmed from a single language. The Indo-European languages include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hindi, German, Persian, Portuguese, and many others. The language these languages branched off from is known as Proto-Indo-European. This language hasn’t ever been recorded, but linguists have pieced together what they can to reconstruct the language from the many similarities between the language families across Europe and West Asia. These languages and language families include: Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic (Greek), Indo-Iranian, and Italic (Romance).

There’s several other language families, like the Afro-Asiatic languages (Northern Africa) and Sino-Tibetan languages (central Asia). There’s many more, all of which overlap and are complicated for me to understand. I assume it’s because they all technically came from the same, there’s a lot of overlap. Everything’s a spectrum, even language.

One of my favorite images is below (illustrated by Minna Sundberg), which shows the branches of many of the Indo-European languages as well as the Uralic languages, and how they’ve branched out. It’s a beautiful illustration and shows how connected many of these languages are, even if they’re further away on the tree than others.

http://mentalfloss.com/article/59665/feast-your-eyes-beautiful-linguistic-family-tree

How Language Changes

So, how does one language morph into thousands?

I’ve always known that the Romance languages (specifically I knew of Italian, French, and Spanish, though there are others) derived from Latin. But I never knew how that was possible, I’d never even thought about what that exactly meant. How could one language be derived from another? I knew that Latin was, for the most part, a “dead” language. It wasn’t used by many people, but it had predated the Romance languages. Then, while reading The Power of Babel, it clicked with this quote and I understood:

“…French is nothing other than Modern Latin: Latin as it changed through several centuries into a new language in the area that would become France. We only happen to be able to juxtapose the two stages in the development of this one language because the advent of writing has preserved Latin for our perusal. When Latin arose, French did no yet exist; without Latin, there would never have been anything that could turn into French–in other words, French is Latin.”

The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, page 18

This blew my mind. These languages, French, Italian, and Spanish are Latin. The generations of people that lived in the general region of France, spoke Latin and over time, as Latin morphed and eroded, it became modern French. This is the same for Italian and Spanish and the others. At what point in this transition was there an equal amount of Latin as there was French? Could this middle “language” — or “Fratin” as John calls it in the book — be understood by a native Latin speaker and a native French speaker? Just like there’s Old English and Middle English, there’s an Old French and Middle French. And just like we are unable to understand most of Old English, I’d assume the same would be for a modern French speaker trying to understand Old French. However, I wonder if one learned both French and Latin, would they be able to understand the ones in the middle?

Over many, many years, after many, many generations, words begin to change. That’s just how language works. There’s a good chance if I were to travel back in time to visit my great-great-great-grandparents, I wouldn’t be able to understand them, even if they did speak “English,” because “English” has changed over time. That’s why we have “Old English” and “Middle English” to reference back to. It was on its way to what we speak today, but it would be in no way intelligible to us English speakers if we were to hear it — spare a few words here and there that sound similar today (but they may have changed in meaning!) And, generations from now, our great-great-great-great-grandchildren probably wouldn’t be able to communicate with us very well. Language is always changing.

Here are some ways that it does:

Sound Change

The way words and sentences are spoken erodes over time. One example John gives is the Latin/French transformation of the word “woman.” In Latin, it was femina and it became femme in French, the first syllable remaining but the rest falling out of use. An English example, is the phrase Did you eat? whittled down to simply a word sounding like Jeet? It’s a simplification that worsens (or I should say, continues) with each generation until the one that is most used comes out on top and becomes official.

Grammar

Many words in English changed case endings over time to simplify. The plural of fox was once foxas, the plural of tunge (tongue) was tungan, the plural of waeter (water) was the same as the singular, and the plural of bōc (book) was bēc. One plural ending took over, after many times, to become the “official” way to pluralize these words: the -s ending. Now we have foxes, tongues, waters, and books. Though, a few remain, like mouse to mice.

Re-bracketing

This is, by far, my favorite way languages change. It’s as beautiful as it is hilarious. I love that, we as humans, just change words because it’s easier to say and we forget, over generations, what it was originally. The best example is the work “nickname.” The word, in early English, was originally ekename (eke meant also, so basically you were saying also-name.) And because we use “an” in front of vowel-fronted words a lot, one would have said “an ekename” which, if you tried to say allowed right now, it would sound a lot like “a nekename.” This is how we, eventually, went from [an] [ekename] to [a] [nickname]. Amazing! This is also how we went from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus, from the Dutch “Saint Mr. Nicholas” [Sant] [Heer] [Niclaes] shortened to Santerclaes, to [Santa] [Claus].

Semantic Change

Now this one is more about how meanings of words and phrases change over time. In early English, hund referred to all dogs and dog (originally dogca) started as a new word for a specifically large, new breed. Eventually, hund became hound and was associated with hunting dogs, and dog became the word for all breeds, gradually over time. Another such time is the changing meaning of the word silly, originally “blessed” in Old English, then changing to mean “innocent” in the 1400s and then “weak” in the 1600s and then “simple” or “ignorant” and then finally meaning “foolish” today.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

• I’ve always wondered why the abbreviation for pound is lb. It never made any sense. So, I decided to look it up, and it turns out that it’s an abbreviation of the word “Libra.” I immediately knew this as the constellation/zodiac with the weighing scales, which made enough sense, but then I learned the word “libre” or “libra” is Latin for a pound (it’s unclear which, or if there’s another word needed, I don’t know Latin so I did my best to search for it).

• Going off of the re-bracketing thing, one other example is the word ‘apron.’ It originates from a word meaning tablecloth or napkin in Old French, nappe, which became naperon in Middle English, which became napron in English. Eventually, a re-bracketing occurred over time, and [a] [napron] became [an] [apron].

• There’s a few languages in Africa in which its speakers use clicking sounds to distinguish certain words. It’s been suggested that it’s more likely the first language ever spoken had these clicks and they eventually fell off over time as language spread, evolved, and became thousands, except for in the the few that still have them, rather than those few languages taking on the click sounds individually.

• The word “goodbye” began as the phrase “God be with you.” Over time it was re-bracketed to “goodbye,” and today, it’s been shortened to simply, “Bye!”

God be with you

Isn’t the history of language nuts? Of course, there’s conflicting information about whether or not there was a first language, or several that evolved separately and merged, but I’m going with what I’m learning, one book and article at a time. Maybe at the end of this, I’ll understand more about all of that. And of course, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information!

Next month, I’m going to be talking about one specific section of language: English. That will likely not be the last on just English, as it’s my native language and the one I’m most interested in to learn why the hell it’s so complicated. And I’m very much looking forward to that!