January 2008 Archives

Urban Founding Date Time Lag or What do Founding Dates Mean?


Many cities have "official" founding dates like 1797 for Baltimore, 1237 for Berlin, 332 BC for Alexandria Egypt and 753 BC for Rome (some sources give April 21, 753 BC as the date). Yet archaeologists keep finding evidence of human settlements before these dates (sometimes well before these dates).

Today it was Berlin (see Berlin dig finds city older than thought), earlier it was Rome (see Tomb dating from 10th century B.C. found in Caesar's Forum) and even Alexandria (Ancient Alexandria Older than We Thought?).

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to see a pattern. Clearly the founding dates aren't initial settlement, but dates when it gets founded as a political entity (or gets rededicated as a capital). For instance, 1797 is the date when Baltimore incorporated itself as a city - there had actually been multiple settlements at the head of the Patapsco River almost a century before that (which is how Baltimore got to host the Continental Congress in the Revolutionary War even though it didn't exist yet).

I'm glad that archaeologists are figuring out that founding dates don't mean initial settlement, but I'm intrigued that we continue to be "shocked" by this. The older cities are merely following a pattern found even in North American cities. If you do live in the U.S. and Canada, look up the founding date of your local municipality some time - chances are there were European settlers in the area at least a few years before an actual incorporation date. Apparently the founding date time lag is a time-honored tradition.

In case you were wondering, the Pilgrims were not the first people from England to visit New England. The native tribes had been contact with English traders before 1620, which is how Squanto (or Tisquantum) was able to learn enough English to communicate with the settlers. He actually sailed with John Smith of Pocahontas legend  (OK I really didn't know that before today).

New Anglo-Spanish - the Case of the Torrrtilla and the Quezadilla


One of the fun things about "contact language studies" is being able to observe some incorrect generalizations that Language A may have about Language B. In this case I'm talking about English (U.S. & U.K) and Spanish. English speakers, especially those in North America, are generally familiar with some Spanish words, but occasionally we still goof up. Sometimes we over-trill the /r/ in tortilla and sometimes we may blank out on a Spanish spelling convention and pronounce quesadilla with a /z/.

Over Trilling the "r" in tortilla

You may have seen the recent Dairy Queen ad announcing a new food product with corn tortillas. It stars a pair of floating red lips standing before a mirror practicing his best Spanish trill. As represented in English orthography


The Anglophone lips are of course practicing the notorious Spanish trill, spelled as "rr" in Spanish and transcribed as simply [r] (IPA) or sometimes [r̃] (r with tilde on top). If only he knew...there is no trill in tortilla. He could have used a much shorter "r" and been more accurate. ¡Qué tormento!

Spanish actually has two types of r's. The trill [r] which is fairly long and complex and a simpler tap or "single r"; this is transcribed as [ɾ]. And Spanish speakers do distinguish both as in the famous minimal pair perro [per̃o] 'dog' vs. pero [peɾo] 'but'.

Interestingly though, the trill can only appear in to phonetic environments. One is between vowels perro [per̃o] 'dog' as in and the other is at the beginning of words where ONLY the trill appears. In other words, if a Spanish word begins with r, it will be a trill as in ratón [r̃aton] 'rat'.

When the /r/ is before a consonant as in tortilla, it is ALWAYS A TAP, so tortilla is not *[tor̃tija] torrtilla but [toɾtija] with "single r". The DQ Lips is making a decent Spanish trill, but doing it at the wrong time...Ooops.

Poor English speakers though, we only have one /r/ (and it's neither a trill or a flap but the approximant [ɹ]). If we hear every /r/ word beginning with a trill, we naturally assume EVERY /r/ is a trill, unless we are told otherwise in Spanish class.

The interesting question is ... did the ad writer remember this factoid from Spanish class or not? What do you think?

Aug 13 2009 - Taco Grrande

Weird Al also over trills in the parody Taco Grande /tako gr̃ande/ sung to the tune of Rico Suave by one-hit wonder Gerardo. I get the feeling though that Weird Al is doing this deliberately and knows the actual Spanish pronunciation of "grande" with just the flap.

Why the /z/ in quesadilla?

Recently British food chef Nigella Lawson was demonstrating some easy-to-prepare Mexican (or TexMex) recipes including the quesadilla which in Spanish is [kesadija] with an /s/. Furthermore, quesadilla is also pronounced with an /s/ in every TacoBell and ChiChi's restaurant I've ever been to.

American speakers rarely screw up Spanish "s" because "s" is actually [s]...so I was surprised and intrigued that Nigella said [kezadija] with a [z]. Where did that come from?

I decided that there were two factors here. One is that American speakers do get more "authentic" exposure to Spanish than in Britain both because of a relatively large group of Latin immigrants and because of our border with Mexico. Britain and Spain, on the other hand, have not had nearly the same amount of contact. Therefore, I think American speakers a little more familiar with Spanish phonology overall even if we do trip up now and again.

I think the second error was that Nigella is more familiar with Italian spelling than Spanish. Italian and Spanish are sister languages and many words look very similar...but there are some gotchas. One of them is that single "s" in Italian is usually /z/ as in Milanese [milaneze], but /s/ in Spanish. So if quesa- had been an Italian root, it really would have been [keza]. Interestingly, she did remember that "ll" is usually [j] (or "y") and not double l as it would be in Italian.

When to use Archaic Registers?


I'm testing my new blog, and so will add an entry talking about the role of archaic registers in English. For us, the oldest form of the language which most speakers can readily interpret is Early Modern English (the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible).

Normally archaic registers are used in formal settings such as a legal procedure or a religious ceremony (and some non-religious ceremonies). But people, being people also use them in other situations, but the question is how "productive" are they? That is, how fluent are modern speakers with these constructions?

As you might expect, the answer is fluent, but not always accurate. For instance I saw a gravy ad with Puritan/Quaker characters in which the husband proclaimed "Thou doth make good gravy?" Alas, it should probably have been "Thou dost make good gravy". Modern speakers know that both doth and dost are archaic, but aren't usually sure which form matches with what agreement/tense. I wouldn't either except that I am a grammar geek.

But actually the example that came to me this morning was from the Roswell TV show during an incident when one of the main characters (working as a security guard) participated in a vending machine theft of the office Snapple. Specifically, the group took bottles from the boxes without paying for them (and even took cases home), and then were fired (oops). Naturally the character (Michael's) girlfriend (Maria) gets mad and reprimands him:

Michael: We all got fired [for stealing the Snapple].

Maria: Wait. You got the whole department fired?

Michael: Whose side are you on? I didn't get everybody fired. We all drank of the Snapple.

Maria: Wait, "drank of the Snapple." When did we get on Biblical terrain here?

The question is why the "Biblical" (archaic) register? My guess is that Michael has gone into defense attorney mode and thus has defaulted to his idea of legalese. Theoretically you wouldn't predict someone arguing with his girlfriend would have access to a second register - after all Michael is probably fairly stressed and that often inhibits language production. But, as most people who have been in bad arguments know, that prediction does not hold up. You CAN access additional registers even in the heat of the moment.