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Spec Tech: Linguistic Quirkiness

August 26, 2010

I suppose I should start my first post as a member of the Spec Tech faculty with a brief introduction. I’m a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Oregon, and should be finishing my dissertation at some point — in the future, most likely.  I’m also a writer of various things, both speculatively fictional and non. Most notably, I’m co-blogging with Tracy Canfield at Alien Tongues, a site that examines linguistics in speculative fiction. My interests, in both fiction and life, tend toward the uncommon and weird; so, too, does my linguistics research, which focuses on Native languages of North America, especially the Pacific Northwest. These are some of the coolest, funkiest, awesomest languages in the world, and I’ll try to bring that perspective to my posts here, pointing out languages that do things you’ve probably never considered.

In the spirit of weird, I thought I’d start with a bit of quirkiness that shows up in languages all over the world: the more common a word is, the more irregular and weird it’s likely to be. There are a number of categories of words that do this kind of thing, but let’s start with pronouns. If we consider English as an example, we can see that the pronouns are the only part of the language which still has different cases: I for subjects, me for objects, my for possessors. Nouns get an ‘s for possessives, but the distinction between subject and object is completely gone.

Paul Frommer did an excellent job of this with the pronouns of Na’vi.  Although the language is almost entirely regular (and thus easy for the actors/fandom to learn), it has a few quirks in just the right places.  The first-person pronoun “I”, for example, is oe (pronounced, roughly, as “way”; that is to say, as a single syllable).  The addition of case-marking, however, yields forms like oel, now pronounced “OH-well”, with the stress shifted to the first vowel.  There are a few other quirks in the pronouns as, too, with some vowels changing from /a/ to /e/ and others disappearing entirely in some contexts. These quirks give Na’vi the feel of a “real” language, one actually spoken by people (or Na’vi, which means people; so whatever, same thing).

In addition to pronouns, common verbs also tend to show funky irregularities. Consider the English verb to be, which has a number of forms: am, are, is, was, were, being, been. The last two look like they come from the word be, but the rest are what linguists call “suppletive” — historically, they’re from entirely different words. It’s also worth noting that nothing nearly this irregular shows up elsewhere in English — go, another common verb, has the suppletive past form went, but that’s about it.* Sometimes, the suppletive forms show up in principled locations; in North America, for example, a number of languages have one verb root for singular forms (I, you, he/she/it) and distinct suppletive form for the plurals (we/y’all/they).

Greetings are another place where we see words develop idiosyncrasies over time, again due to their constant use.  English goodbye, for example, started off its life as “God be with you.”

Another, similar quirk often shows up with lists of things, or words that otherwise occur together, where it’s called “analogical leveling.” For whatever reason, process of listing things does strange things to the human brain.  So strange, in fact, that the members of common lists will actually change their form and pronunciation to match the words around them better. Ever wonder what that silent /r/ in February is doing there?  Well, it used to be pronounced, but the /r/ was lost by analogy with January.  Similarly with Wednesday, which lost it’s extra syllable** by analogy with Tuesday and Thursday.

Analogical leveling is also quite common with numbers. If we traced the history of the English word for the number 4, we’d expect it to be pronounced /whour/; we get the /f/ of four by analogy with the following five. The reverse happened in Latin (and thus the other Romance languages): the initial sound of 5 was replaced by the initial sound of 4; thus Latin quattuaor and quinque.

So, why care about these quirky irregularities, besides that they’re great for small talk at parties? Well, if you’re making a language of your own, it’s worth keeping some quirkiness in the back of your mind. When I look at conlangs, one of the things that immediately stands is that most have no irregularities (Na’vi being a noted and notable exception). If you want to make your language feel real, the product of actual beings communicating, you might consider mussing up a few of the more things — it’ll give your language a lot more depth.

*The so-called “strong verbs”, like swim/swam/swum are not, strictly speaking, irregular. Their history, and the process that creates forms like this, called “ablaut”, is worth of a post of its own.

**I hope I’m not the only one who has to say “Wed-ness-day” in my head every time I write it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2010 7:30 pm

    Nice post! I really like your point about making sure to include some irregularities in one’s conlang. Good reminder. Thanks!
    And, you are *not* the only person to say “Wed-ness-day” in your head every time you write that word.

    • Chris Doty permalink
      August 27, 2010 5:51 am

      I’m glad I’m not alone in that🙂

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