August 2007 Archives

Björk Icelandic Name Mini Lesson


Once upon a time someone mentioned an Icelandic linguist with a last name of something like "Sigurðsdóttir", then said he wasn't sure if "it was a man or a woman".

If only this person had known the secret of Icelandic family names...namely that they switch gender depending on the gender of the person.

Most of seen lot's of names like English "Johnson" or Scandinavian "Sigurðsson" and you may have realized that once upon a time they meant "John's son" and "Sigurd's son". Now imagine if you were a woman... wouldn't it have been "John's daughter"?

The answer in Iceland is ...yes. Hence "Sigurdsdóttir" is actually "Sigurd's daughter" (with "dóttir" being a cognate with English "daughter." So with many Icelandic names, you can tell the gender of the person -"-son" is usually a man and "dóttir" is usually a woman.

Probably the most famous Icelandic woman is the singer-songwriter Björk. And yes her last name is a -"dóttir" (Guðmundsdóttir). Just some other notes.

1) Many Icelandic "last names" are refer strictly to the father's (or mother's) first name.
In Icelandic, my name would be Elizabeth Davidsdóttir, while my father would be David Warrensson. Icelanders do have the option of using a single family name, but many use either the "Patronymic" (father's name) or "matrionymic" (mother's name)

2) Apparently native Icelanders prefer to be addressed by their first name...even Prime Ministers. Hence Björk (unlike Madonna or Donovan) is following normal naming procedure by using just her first name...I suspect that it's also very convenient for many English speaking fans as well.

3) These names include the possessive/genitive -s. Thus "Guðmundsdóttir" is an exact cognate with English "Guðmund's dóttir". The name looks exotic, but contains direct cognates English vocabulary and grammar. I think it's fascinating how something familiar can appear exotic with just a few changes in spelling and usage.

Just to wrap things up, Icelandic is not the only language in which last names change depending on the gender of the person. Other languages with similar patterns include Irish, Middle Welsh, Russian and Czech.

* Iceland Ministry of Justice Icelandic Surnames
* Wikipedia Icelandic Name

English Pronunciation Guides


If you are interested in learning the IPA phonetic transcription system and understanding how it is used to transcribe English, I would recommend these. They show the symbols and have sound files.

For Australian/New Zealand (no sound files, but excellent description)

Still Contemplating Tones & Genes


A few months ago, I was remarking that I was dubious about the purported connection between geneses and tone language. However a new overview from Scientific American may convince me...just a little more.

In this version of the hypothesis, the innovation is LOSS OF TONE, not the use of tone. That is, the new genes, which are in the European and Eurasian populations, are making more likely that tone will be lost. This actually makes a little more sense historically. Despite the fact that Westerners consider tone to be fairly "exotic", it's actually pretty common around the world EXCEPT for Europe/the Middle East. Also, there are some indications that certain types of pitch accent markings have been lost over the centuries in several Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit.

If tone had been the innovation the genes would have been spreading from Africa to Asia bypassing India and the Middle East. This pretty much disputes modern thinking on how populations spread through the Old World.

Having said that, I still wonder how this genetic difference really affects phonology. I suspect there are many speakers of Central Asian non-tonal languages who theoretically have the right tone genes.

I also wonder if non-tonality is just an areal (regional) feature. If tones are the norm, and non-tones are the exception, then what you really need to explain is the lack of tone in Europe/Middle East/North Africa!

Beyond tone, languages in Europe and the Middle East often share similar features including distinctions such as grammatical gender in nouns (i.e. masc/feminine nouns). A regional account might explain why Central Asian speakers from Mongolia and Manchuria are still toneless despite being next to China. Historically, the language family may have also been influenced by also being next door to the Middle East.

A regional account would predict that tones could spread from Southeast Asia into Northern India such as in the case of Punjabi.

I'm also concerned that the other "exotic" phonological features don't have genetic cues. They didn't even find a genetic marker for CLICKS which is pretty much only used in Southern Africa (although again by different language families).

Is the use and development of tone so different from other phonological features...or do we in the West only think it is?

East Asian Pronunciation Guide


Just ran into a Web site called the Asian Pacific Islanders
Name Pronunciation Guide
from Susan Kullmann. Originally developed at Cal Poly Pomona, the site features lots of typical names from Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese), Cambodian, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino and Indonesian with spoken versions

Which language should I study?


One of the questions linguists are often asked is which language should a student study for "job prospects."

My answer is that you pick the language you like, and it will more than likely be a good choice, especially at the high school level.

Truthfully your choice of languages, especially in high school, are often limited to major world languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic. Any of these languages are widely spoken and have a key global market or industrial manufacturing base. There's money to be made from any of these languages.

Even 'exotic languages' like Swahili, Cantonese, Indonesian, Hindi and others which can be found in university courses typically represent powerful regional powers with important markets. Some one has to cover these regions...wouldn't be nice if they actually knew something of what the local people were saying?

So really...pick the one you like or the one from a region you are especially interested in. Part of learning a language, especially for business purposes, is learning the culture. The more attracted you are to a culture/language to begin with, the better your chances for mastery (ah the power of motivation!) And besides, do you want to travel somewhere you don't like just because you learned the language? Or do you want to go somewhere you've always wanted to see? The choice is yours.

What about lesser-known languages?

Maybe someday you will have a chance to learn a language that has always interested you, but wasn't "practical". Maybe an ancient language, a language from your ancestry or a really exotic language spoken by only 10,000 people.

I say you should go for these languages too, even if there are no "direct" economic benefits. First, learning anything about another language/culture expands your horizons. Maybe you learn to be more comfortable reading another script or be better able to hear certain sounds. Maybe you'll just be more comfortable eating properly with your hands...who knows.

Plus, you could get a reputation for being "well-traveled" and that can be handy (although a tool that should always be used with caution).

What I'm trying to say is that picking a language to learn shouldn't just be a matter of mind, but also of the "heart". Sometimes a language is forced upon you (e.g. Spanish for a job or the Peace Corps), but more often than not, you have a choice.

So if you are selecting a language to study - I think the best choice is to look beyond the cold economics and think about your own desires.

When did "Human Rights" Begin?


It's true that "full human rights" is a relatively new concept. That is - the concept that any competent adult has the right to vote and the same basic legal protection as the richest people in the land is relatively recent.

After all, it wasn't until the early 20th century that adult women were considered competent enough to vote. Even the U.S. Founding Fathers really only trusted the state legislators to appoint the U.S. Senator (the direct vote was only fully implemented in 1913 when the 17th Amendment was ratified).

But how did this evolution begin? The British Library starts the process in 1215 with the Magna Carta. This is pretty much what I was taught in my high school civics class as well (although it's crushing to realize the Magna Carta is really guaranteeing the rights of a bunch of angry barons and really says nothing about the general populace).

Does this mean that there was no concept of human rights before 1215? Although our popular notions may date human rights to 1215, the issue has been present for large portions of Western history. Peasant revolts were quite common in the Roman Empire, so the lower classes certainly felt they were owed something more. In fact the Roman government created the office of tribune specifically to mediate disputes between the plebes and the patricians (the aristocracy). The basis of Athenian democracy (and the Roman Senate of the Republic) was to allow "eligible citizens" full participation. Both the Ancient Athenians and the Roman Republic rejected the notion of an absolute monarchy - this is the concept echoed in the Magna Carta. On a side note, Athenian democracy was innovative in allowing any adult non-slave male to vote in the city assembly. In Rome, only designated patricians could participate in the Senate.

In the British Isles, the concept of civil rights was also found in both Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic Wales and Ireland. Before the Norman invasion of 1066, the selection of the next Saxon king had to be ratified by the witengemot Assembly Similar elections were held for Welsh and Irish kings - although the candidate pool was usually pretty limited.

Finally in Irish law, the aristocracy were legally obligated to provide certain provisions to the peoples within their territories including feasts (some with ale, some without). Non-slaves were also guaranteed certain rights in terms of seeking redress, even from the ruling class.

So I would have to say that civil rights were a concept that had been around for a while. The interesting question is - why do we choose the Magna Carta as a starting point? It's pretty much an Anglo-centric quirk. England generally dates the start of English history to the Norman Invasion of 1066. Not only did this bring in a new dynasty from France, but a brand new aristocracy as well. The native Saxon male nobles were pretty much displaced and replaced with French imports, and all the major government institutions replaced.

Events before 1066 are "prehistory" (even if we have documents). The events of 1215 (less than 150 years after the Norman Conquest) is one the first events in the NORMAN ERA where civil rights were successfully asserted. Before that Norman king had much more power, even over his nobility.

Although I begin this blog with a complaint that the Magna Carta wasn't the beginning for Civil Rights, I realize that it actually is a milestone for the English aristocracy. The native Saxons, on the other, hand still had a fair bit to travel...although they did get there eventually. It is a little disconcerting to realize how much history can be written by the winners, even ones from nearly 1000 years ago.

Transcribe with /j/ or /y/?


I'm teaching phonology again, and once again, I am contemplating the issue of which phonetic system to use. It seems like a trivial issue, but it actually gets into some tricky issues.

One of the trickier issues is transcribing the "y" sound of "yes".


Although linguists generally stick to IPA, there is a close variant called American Transcription. Usually, I just teach both (and accept both for credit), but I do like to stick to one variant in my lecture notes if at all possible.

The "y" sound is /y/ in American, but /j/ in IPA (following German spelling convention). In the past, I used /y/ in order not to confuse my students who are generally familiar with English/French/Spanish - all of which spell this sound as "y".

American - yes = /yɛs/ boy = /boy/
IPA - yes = /jɛs/ boy = /boj/

This time I have changed my mind and have moved to /j/. One reason is that all other Penn State classes use IPA. Another is that even the Wikipedia uses /j/. At this point, I'm starting to look a little "backwards" for sticking with American /y/ instead of the more continental /j/.


But I haven't made a complete switch...Following Kentowicz's 1994 textbook Generative Phonology, I still prefer American for some sounds. Some because they show phonological relations more clearly (per Kenstowicz). Others because, quite frankly, it's easier to crank them out on a keyboard.

Some examples
* I use American /ñ/ (as in señor) instead of IPA /ɲ/ for the palatal nasal.

This is because a) it's easy to type /ñ/ (especially on a Mac), b) American students are familiar with the Spanish sound and c) there are too many n's with tails in IPA (ŋ ɲ ɳ). At small point sizes, I think it's easier to spot ñ.

* I use American /ṭ,ḍ,ṇ/ instead of IPA /ʈ,ɖ,ɳ/ for retroflexes.

This one is because a) almost all scholars of language of India (the prime retroflex languages) use the dot underneath b) I can generate these on the Mac extended keyboard and c) I still don't like that IPA retroflex tail visually.

* I use American /ü,ö/ instead of IPA /y,ø/ for front rounded vowels.

Because 1) German spelling uses umlauts and b) it signals "front rounded". It also means I never have to use /y/ in transcriptions - avoiding the whole "What does /y/ mean?" issue.

* I use American /č,ǰ/ instead of IPA /tʃ,dʒ/ for alveolo-palatal affricates

The reason for this one is that even affricates are supposed to be "two sounds", they are generally treated as a special kind of stop in most languages. Interestingly Indic scripts all treat these two sounds as one letter, as does Arabic (and English "j" and Italian "c").

Just to be weird though, I use IPA /ʃ,ʒ/ instead of /š,ž/. This was clearer to many students for some reason, and they are distinct in shape. These IPA symbols are also very common in French linguistics.

I won't claim that this is a perfect solution - after all IPA is becoming more of a universal standard these days than when I was learning linguistics. If nothing else though, I do like to mention the alternates because both were in use for a long time.

A linguist (even me) has to learn to make adjustments for different linguistic documents.

When did I get in league with the Sinn Féin?


There are a few linguists who also dabble in political theory. I am not one of them.

* I'm not going to tell you how to vote.
* I'm not going to complain about one political party manipulating language because all of them do it.
* I'm not going to make a recommendation to parents on bilingual education or Ebonics (although I do have an opinion).

Quite frankly I'm a grammar geek and whatever linguistic policy interests I have are primarily focused on promoting minority languages and foreign language education.

But alas, once you become interested in working with a language, you are forced to wrestle with some annoyingly complex policy issues up to and including terrorism/armed revolt.

So here's my weird Irish language story of how you can associate yourself with "unexpected" allies in the discussion of minority language rights.

How Irish Got Endangered

Irish is a Celtic language spoken in Ireland by no more than about 30,000 speakers. It might be a more "major" language except that it was a British colony for many centuries. Part of this colonization included

* Importing English-speaking settlers, especially in the North into "Plantations".
* Killing or removing the native Irish upper class. The remaining lower classes became unwilling tenants of the new English upper class.
* Penalizing citizens following traditional Roman Catholic practice and favoring Protestantism.
* Dismantling the traditional education system in Irish and replacing it with English only (at one point only open to Protestants).
* Overt prejudice towards traditional Irish culture. This is one reason Irish culture today is still considered to be "quaint" or worse, "backwards" by some people.
* Mismanaging the distribution or food relief during the Great Potato Famine

Needless to say the native Irish speakers were not pleased with British colonial policy and by the early 20th century, there was an armed revolt which succeeded in removing British control from most of Ireland...except the North which was now predominantly Protestant and English speaking.

On a side note - the people of Ireland and the people of Great Britain have rarely had smooth relations. Many centuries earlier, Irish pirates were invading Roman Britain, and in the early Middle Ages, the Irish established colonies in Northern Scotland...which is how Gaelic got to Scotland. English rulers had some justification for being paranoid of the "Irish problem."

Unfortunately, by the time of the revolt, the use of Irish as a language was mostly restricted to rural areas and for speech only. It was NOT considered a language suited to speakers wanting to gain opportunities outside of Ireland. Even though Irish is taught in in schools of the Republic of Ireland today, there are still few active speakers and English remains the dominant language.

Skip to the IRA

My earliest political memories of Ireland were reports of bombings made by the IRA in Belfast. Although the majority of the population in Northern Ireland remain pro-British, many in the remaining Irish minority were discriminated against, and so rejected British control there as well. Needless to say these attacks have exacerbated tensions between Irish Catholics and Anglo-Protestants.

Now, I'm no fan of British colonial policy, especially as it was implemented in Ireland, but, in my heart, I was felt that the bombings was a losing strategy, especially given the demographic fact that most citizens of Northern Ireland are pro-Britain. Not only are innocent people killed, but it enrages the enemy so much that peace becomes almost impossible. After all, WWI was started because of an ill-timed political assassination.

Unfortunately, the relatively few Irish speakers of Northern Ireland are (obviously) Catholic. Whether or not the majority this community supported the IRA, the Protestants were in no mood to accommodate their Irish neighbors. If your loved one was killed in an IRA attack, the last thing you care about is Irish cultural rights (or any other right).

The bottom line is...I cannot advocate this kind of violence in the name of civil and cultural rights. I especially do not favor bombs which are more likely to target civilians. I am NOT a supporter of the IRA (even though the British government in Ireland needed reform).

As for the Sinn Féin

While these IRA attacks were going on, the pro-Irish political party Sinn Féin, headed by Gerry Adams for 30 years, was working on the political front. By the way Sinn Féin is Irish for "we ourselves."

The delicate question has always been, how closely were the Sinn Féin, and its leader Gerry Adams, working with the IRA? It is clear that there has always been "friendly relations" between Gerry Adams and the IRA. For instance, although Gerry Adams denies being in the IRA, he was invited by the IRA to peace talks in 1972 ( Similarly, there are pictures of Adams acting as pall-bearer for a slain IRA member.

For these reasons and others, the British government has been skeptical of the Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams.

Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, there has been significant progress in brokering and maintaining a peace...and Gerry Adams has been a major force in this. Whatever his IRA connections were (I'm sure we don't know them all), he has been a successful political advocate for the pro-Irish movement.

Irish Rights Today

The Irish language is actually making a certain amount of political progress, even becoming an official language of the European Union. But the battle in Northern Ireland is tougher.

But in late July, 2007, Gerry Adams had taken up the cause, but there is still heavy resistance. At least one reader of the Belfast Telegram still associates language rights with the Troubles.

As for myself, I may be skeptical of Adams' past, but I can't argue with him on this one. Enabling minorities the use of their language is one of the best things a government can do to "calm restive forces." In this day and age, the reality is that most minority language speakers are bilingual - English is in no danger of going extinct anytime soon. But allowing a cultural and literary tradition to survive and grow enriches us all.

I'm also happy that Northern Ireland is starting to move beyond the memories of hate and trying to live with each other as neighbors. There is a greater recognition that Irish is a valuable cultural resource, even for Protestants learners.

But yes, progress still appears to be measured in millimeters.

Do Americans Talk too Much?


My previous post mentioned Mr Thingamajig, the animated American idiom generator who can really talk your ear off. The funniest thing is that he does mimic a stereotype of the endlessly talking American.

Is it a true stereotype? Well, we don't ALL talk as frequently as Mr. Thingamajig, but in comparison to some cultures...we sure do gab a lot.

An American at Breakfast

In fact, since you're here....let me tell you a story.

At one point, I was lucky enough to live in a dorm in Wales with students from Europe and America. I don't actually consider myself a great talker (e.g. I don't do airplane conversations and will use headphones when necessary).

On the other hand, I was trained that if you are eating at the same table with someone you are morally obligated to attempt small talk (it's rude to eat in silence). This applies even at breakfast, especially at a conference.

But when I performed my small talk duties at breaksfast, I noticed my European colleagues would answer, but then get the most delicate of frowns (more like a slight squint). The more questions I asked, the deeper the furrow in the brow. What to do? Apparently the answer was to SHUT UP ALREADY.

I discovered the great truth that many Europeans do not require small talk at breakfast (it is rather early after all). I was off the hook! I could just munch my cereal quietly and absorb the morning vibe. What a treat, but still a little strange. Who knew I could chatter so much in the first place?

A few days later at dinner, I noticed that the conversation lapsed and there was complete silence. Sure enough after about 30 seconds, a fellow U.S. citizen asked another question and conversation began again. I guess you can't keep a good small-talker down.

Learn American Idioms from Mr. Thingamajig


You know that neighbor across the street you meet at the mailbox? He's as sweet as can be and just plain "good people", but boy does he talk a lot.

If you don't know that can meet him at

Click the button doo-hickey for "Mr Thingamajig" and he will tell about how all the brouhaha and shenanigans that can happen in just one morning. It's just chock-full of down-home sayings and idioms you know but had totally forgotten about.

Aren't these new-fangled gadgets gosh darned great?

P.S. I know some foreigners complain that Americans talk too much, but the fact's sort of true.