April 2009 Archives

Banks and Benchs - A Complicated Linguistic Transaction


One for the "You learn something new everyday" file is the origin(s) of the word bank. There are at least two etymologies for the modern word, depending on the meaning (at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

The first is Middle English banke from Old Norse banki meaning 'ridge'. This is the meaning found in embankment, usually a man made earthen mound, and perhaps the bank on the side of a river. This Old Norse word comes from Germanic *bankon which is probably related to Germanic *banki-z 'bench'.

The second etymology is also Germanic but actually came in to English via Late Latin *bancus, via Norman French baunk. In this case, "bank" means "bench", but because the bench is where the money handlers sat in the market, "bank" also came to mean the house of financial transactions in French, Spanish (banco) and Italian.

The bench meaning can be seen in French banquette and uses such as a "bank of oars" (where the rowers sat). Although the French/Spanish roots came from Late Latin *bancus, it seems likely that the Romans borrowed from a Germanic speaking group (i.e. *banki-z) ... which is the 'bench' root.

As for bench - this is the *bank-iz 'bench' root becoming *benkr (an umlauted form), then going some of Anglo-Saxon phonology, specifically the palatalization process where Germanic /k/ becomes /č/ in some contexts. This is similar to the palatalization which resulted in church" (English) versus kirk (Scots).

What we have is not just a "doublet", but a "triplet" where we have one route, *banki-z going through three routes to end up in modern English - the native route, via Latin and via a sister Germanic language (Old Norse).

Besides the trivia factor, there are some lessons to be learned here when reconstructing other languages. One is that roots can bounce back and forth between neighbors, not just between "unrelated" languages like Latin & English, but closer relatives like Old Norse and English. Fortunately, we have the written records and modern language to trace some of these elements, but...

The other lesson is that the native root (bench) is the one which the most sound changes have occurred and now looks the least like the original root. When checking a new group of languages, similar looking words could lead to a common root, but it can just lead to a root which has been borrowed a lot.

Documenting sound changes can help track when roots entered a language, and sometimes the "oldest" words are the ones that sound or look the oddest.

The Three Paths to a Bench or Bank

Tree diagram of Germanic banki-z going through Latin, Old Norse and Saxon (bench)

Teaching in the Wild?


I ran into a great interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe (NOVA/WGBH) about the relative inability of chimps to teach in the same ways humans do. I wrote one entry on my Teaching with Technology blog about some of her observations, but I noticed some other observations that I thought I would mention here.

One comment Saxe made was that human children have two pointing gestures. The first that emerges is children pointing to something they want right now! Apparently many species, including chimpanzees, share this gesture.

The second pointing gesture is when a child points at he or she wants to show to parents for some other reason (e.g. bunny rabbit!). According to Saxe, parents look for this gesture and become excited since it is an early form of interaction. A communicative pointing instinct?

I would want to check to see if most cultures had this gesture (Saxe may have data, but it wouldn't appear in this article), but since all cultures interpret basic facial expressions the same way, it seems plausible to me. In fact this pointing gesture seems to be the quintessential reason why some scholars speculate that language and gestures are related.

The other interesting question is if other species can "teach". It seems clear that humans may be the only primates to have this level of cultural transmission, but what about dolphins, orcas and dogs? A BBC news story commented that dolphins may name themselves while scientists are finding evidence of cultural differences among dolphin and orca pods (e.g. some orcas are "killer whales" who eat meat and other are vegetarian orcas).

Even dogs may show cultural differences as documented in Stanley Coren's How Dogs Think. Coren even discusses that dogs such as Saint Bernard rescue dogs and herder dogs may actually train each other.

We know that dogs and dolphins can be trained to do quite a wide variety of tasks. They have to be pretty darned good learners, especially if they can learn in the homo sapiens educational system.

Two Pronunciation Notes from Indian English


Just some pronunciation notes I observed from speakers from Asia (South Asia and East Asia).

Slumdog Millionaire L

Because the movie features the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", I heard actor Anil Kapoor (the host of the show) speak the word millionaire ... a lot. But of course the pronunciation is in the form of Indian English and struck me as particularly unusual, especially in terms of the /l/

There are only two changes he's making from American/UK English which is [mɪłyəner]. First, he's dropping the /y/ after the /l/ - which is pronounced but not really spelled.

Second, Kapoor doesn't velarize this /l/ as it would be in my version of English. What I mean is that many instances of /l/ after a vowel in American English are "dark l" with the tongue raised in the back. In the "light l", the back of the tongue remains lowered and only the front moves.

American English almost always velarizes /l/ in the ends of syllables (coda position). Because millionaire has a hidden /ly/ cluster (and English words don't begin with /ly/ clusters, you can break up the syllables as [mɪł.yə.ner], hence the /l/ will be velarized. Another case of a hidden /y/ affecting pronunciation patterns even though it is not actually spelled and English speakers probably don't realize it's there - until Ling 100 that is.

So what Kappor is saying is [mɪləner] with plain /l/ and no /y/. Amazing how distinct it was for me.

I should mention that dark l is spreading in U.S. English. It's found in "ambisyllabic" position (between vowels, depending on stress) in words like Philadelphia, Philly, Hilly and others. It's also in word initial position for some speakers (sometimes Tom Brokaw for instance, per discussion on Linguist List). I think it's primarily a Midwestern phenomenon (although others report it's further spread), but even I velarize initial /l/ in "emphatic" pronunciation. At some point "dark l" wil probably just be the way American English pronounces "L".

Double-Up or Develop?

Another Indian English quirk I first heard in college was hearing "double-up" /dʌbəl ʌp/ when the speaker meant to say develop /dəvɛlʌp/. Part of this is due to a difference in stress position - on the first syllable in India and the second syllable in the U.S/U.K.

The other, of course, has to do with the "v". For most English dialects "v" is /v/, a voiced labialdental fricative with upper teeth on lower lip. In many languages though "v" is really bilabial /β/ with just two lips pressed together. To English speakers, this may sound like a /b/ which is the bilabial stop - hence "v" is sounding like "b". In other cases though /β/ may sound like a /w/ which is also bilabial.

It's all phonetically natural, but I admit I have to smile everytime I hear it happen.