WARNING: This article contains strong language. Words traditionally used to degrade specific groups, or considered shocking or blasphemous are not intended to offend, and are used only in an academic and journalistic context in order to inform and educate.
A taboo refers to an implicit prohibition on something contrary to social norms, incest, for example. In the context of spoken language however, taboos are words or topics typically considered inappropriate for polite discourse. The etymology is rooted in the Tongan tapu and Fijian tabu. When James Cook visited Tonga, he commented that Tongans used the word to refer to anything that was ‘forbidden to be made use of’. Such was nature of these taboos that mere mention of them could be a grave violation of unwritten social codes.
Yet today, unlike other social taboos which would quickly see an individual become an anathema, swear words are ubiquitous. Only five percent of British adults can go about their daily routine without being exposed to expletives, while nine in ten admit to using them personally. They are about half as common as first person pronouns, making up between 0.5 and 0.7% of the average individual’s speech.
Despite their pervasiveness, they are almost absent from writing. Notwithstanding quoted speech in fiction or media, authors and academics rarely make use of these words. Unfortunately, this means relatively few studies on profanity exist, despite much evidence suggesting profanity is as old as language itself. Perhaps not surprising given the difficulty of discussing them without inducing either amusement or offense.
It is intriguing however that these words can be so offensive at all. Much as money is essentially just paper that we have collectively decided to ascribe arbitrary and inordinate value to, so too are swear words powerful by virtue of the reverence we collectively show them.
There are of course some features which unite swear words. Phonoaesthetic clusters are groups of words with a similar meaning as well as similar phonology. For example, English words related to light, reflectivity and luminosity make disproportionate use of the gl consonant cluster: glisten, glitter, gleam, gloss, glaze etc. Here a combination of etymology, and the tendency of phonoaesthemes to inspire neologisms (new words) are at play.
Similarly, words like fuck, prick and cock make use of the ck consonant cluster, and expletives often have intensely stressed syllables. The euphemistic expression ‘four-letter word’ exists due to the frequency of profane words with this number of letters, appearing at a rate twice as high as typical among all English words. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie made clever use of these phonological similarities in a sketch satirising the BBC’s restrictions on strong language, creating words like prunk, cloff, fusk and shote.
Yet both banknotes and passports are essentially just paper embedded with security features. One allows access into foreign countries and one can be exchanged for groceries. Both are issued by authority of the state, but they are distinctly different. Similarly, fuck and muck, and cunt and hunt share similar phonemes, are the same length, and are Germanic in origin, but evoke entirely different feelings and emotions.
Particularly in English, which will often have pairs of words of similar meaning, one with Germanic roots the other with Latin, similarities are more likely to stem from etymology than any endeavour to be onomatopoeic or vulgar. Indeed, no word is (nor can be) innately profane, and profanity is culturally relative.
In Harry Potter, calling Voldemort ‘he-who-must-not-be-named’ or ‘you-know-who’ is so ingrained into wizarding psyche that even after his (apparent) death Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge cannot bring himself to speak his name to the muggle Prime Minister. Here an entirely made up word has become taboo through association with a dark wizard, yet as Dumbledore says, ‘fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.’
Interestingly, profanity in human language is thought to have first arisen due to the belief that words have an almost magical power about them, and the belief that their misuse would attract misfortune to the speaker. In the Second Wizarding War this was precisely the case. A spell, coincidentally called the taboo curse, was used to track those people who would dare to speak Voldemort’s name, and death eaters would flock to them.
Some words, notably those considered blasphemous, are still considered by some groups to attract the attention of higher powers. Ancient Jews revered the name of God so greatly that it could only be spoken by the priests inside of the temple. Similarly many Italians believed the expression porco dio (God [is a] pig) to be offensive enough to warrant divine retribution.
Despite this, most swear words and profane expressions in western cultures today are not believed to inspire condemnation from an external force. Rather, they can be categorised into distinct albeit somewhat arbritary categories: those used to express emphatic emotion, those used cathartically, idiomatic cursing, and those words intended to abuse or degrade.
Among these, only abusive or degrading profanity is considered almost universally taboo. Prince Andrew’s remark ‘that really is the nigger in the woodpile’ was criticised widely by all media outlets, whereas Boris Johnson’s alleged outburst ‘fuck business’ was defended by some commenters. Unlike other curses, slurs derive their power from the desire of one person to belittle and dehumanise another.
Efforts to appropriate them exploit the same principle which downgraded the word bastard from the most severe of insults in Shakespeare’s time to one which can be used in jest today – by insisting the underlying insult is neutral or even positive. Queer was appropriated to such a degree that it now forms part of the acronym LGBTQ+, thereby limiting its ability to cause hurt.
Hermione similarly tried to appropriate the slur ‘mudblood’ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, declaring herself a ‘mudblood and proud’. Taking the wizard equivalent of racial epithet and wearing it as a badge of pride, Hermione denies her enemies the one weapon they have to degrade her since she was in all other ways superior.
Other swear words have undergone a similar process but without the active effort of any particular group. By creating idioms like ‘shit hit the fan’ and acronyms like ‘MILF’ and ‘WTF’ the usage of these words has been somewhat normalised. This has made them less offensive, and studies suggest that with the exception of a handful of words such as ‘faggot’ all traditional swear words are becoming less offensive with time. Examining data from Google Book’s Ngram Viewer confirms this:
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Ultimately, as society (hopefully) becomes more tolerant, slurs should continue to fall out of usage. Although ableist and transphobic slurs are becoming more common, this is, with luck, a shortlived trend. At the same time, words concerning scatology and sex will likely become as normalised as hell or damn to the point where they cause little shock. While profanity has always existed, it appears that it may have seen its last century as a powerful force in language.
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Family gatherings often provoke somewhat mixed emotions. The initial pleasantries and accompanying small talk slowly develop into cheerful conversation, only to abruptly die as someone makes a distasteful joke or decides to resurrect a long forgotten feud. In the midst of it all I sometimes wonder who these people are at all. After meeting my fiftieth cousin of the night, I crave a less nebulous and all-encompassing term – a word that describes what exactly my connection to this previously unknown individual is. Such is the struggle of speakers of languages using the Inuit (formerly Eskimo) kinship system.
In linguistics, kinship terminology refers to the words used in a speech community to identify relationships between individuals in a family. Although the categorisation mechanism used in whichever language we happen to speak may appear intuitive, it is really quite arbitrary and intrinsically linked to culture. There is no reason why our mother’s brother’s daughter and father’s sister’s son should both be our cousins other than that European societies have traditionally emphasised the nuclear family as an independent social and economic unit.
There is of course some variation among European languages. Swedish for example distinguishes between maternal and paternal grandparents, while Bulgarian has words to highlight relative age among siblings, yet they are united by a lack of endeavour to differentiate members outside of the nuclear family.
Even more broadly, Hawaiian kinship terminology only distinguishes between sex and generation. Cousins are brothers and sisters, aunts are mothers, and uncles are fathers. This is in fact the most common kinship system, occurring in around a third of societies, although these are typically small.
At the other extreme, the Sudanese kinship system is incredibly descriptive and complex with no two types of relatives sharing the same term. From a single term one can determine an individual’s generation, gender and the nature of their relation to ego (the person to whom all kinship relationships are referred). Although named for the people of present-day South Sudan, this system used to be incredibly common existing even in ancient Anglo-Saxon society.
Intriguingly, despite the world’s great linguistic diversity there appears to be only a handful of systems of kinship terminology. Aside from the aforementioned, there exists also the Crow, Dravidian, Iroquois and Omaha systems. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Although one could envisage many tens of variants of the identified kinship systems, one would simultaneously find it difficult to justify why a language would develop a separate term for a father’s brother, yet no other uncle.
Again, differing kinship terminology is an inherently cultural phenomenon. The Iroquois system for example is hypothesised to distinguish between cross-cousins and parallel-cousins as the former were considered more desirable marriage partners in those societies. Even in the modern world, kinship terminology appears indicative of mentality. Speakers of languages with less descriptive and more classificatory kinship terminology appear to exhibit more concern for individuals in their wider society only demonstrating inordinate altruism to members of the immediate family. The opposite is true of speakers of languages with more descriptive systems who will make great sacrifices for members of the in-group, but show lower levels of concern for outsiders. Whether kinship terminology influences behaviour or is simply a reflection of cultural norms remains a matter of great debate.
Nonetheless, the fact that a social construct as universal and ubiquitous as the family can be defined in such a plethora of different ways challenges our ideas of normality. More than a quick glance in the dictionary, translation often requires careful consideration and a deep cultural understanding.
of the in-group, but show lower levels of concern for outsiders. Whether kinship terminology influences behaviour or is simply a reflection of cultural norms remains a matter of great debate.
Nonetheless, the fact that a social construct as universal and ubiquitous as the family can be defined in such a plethora of different ways challenges our ideas of normality. More than a quick glance in the dictionary, translation often requires careful consideration and a deep cultural understanding.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)
Deeming one language appealing to listen to and another abhorrent is something we are all perhaps guilty of. Is there any truth to the claim that some languages are more beautiful than others, or is it all a matter of personal preference?
The rolling hills and sunset skies of Tuscany gave birth to what is perhaps the world’s most beautiful language. That’s a common assertion at least, but can awe-inspiring beauty really inspire a beautiful language too?
Phonoaesthetics is the study of the beauty of words and languages. There are two main theories concerning the attractiveness of various languages. One the one hand, the inherent value hypothesis asserts that some languages are simply more aesthetically pleasing by some innate feature of their phonology or syntax and therefore judged more positively. The imposed norm hypothesis counters with the claim that there is no inherent beauty or value in any language. All evaluation, both positive and negative, it contends, stems from social and cultural factors; not linguistic ones.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V allegedly claimed to speak ‘Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and Italian to [his] horse.’ A born Spaniard, Charles spent most of his time in Toledo and Granada, and showed a level of disdain for German-speaking states despite his role of figurehead of the Holy Roman Empire. It is clear that his supposed assessment of the languages’ supposed aesthetic was at least in part motivated by a sense of cultural superiority, and fittingly the imposed norm hypothesis has historically received most support.
Indeed, it does seem that children, regardless of background, tend to have relatively neutral opinions of foreign languages. Moreover, a 1974 conducted by Giles et al. found no differences in perception of different dialects of Greek by English-speakers, while in Greece the same dialects would have varying levels of prestige and perceived attractiveness. Similarly, Spanish is more likely to be negatively assessed in the United States than in Europe, perhaps because of its associations with migrants from Latin America, particularly Mexico.
Some academics have attributed these findings simply to the mutual intelligibility of various languages i.e. speakers are more likely to perceive a language as attractive if it exhibits patterns similar to their native tongue, or if they encounter it more often. While this has held true at a dialectal level, for example in a study on different varieties of Flemish, it does not appear to be true of different languages. A 2015 study found Swedish speakers’ perception of Danish exhibited a negative correlation with intelligibility: the more they understood the less attractive it sounded.
Reconciling the two is the idea that familiar languages are perceived as more attractive only if they exhibit qualities already regarded as attractive in one’s mother tongue. English-speakers supposedly find Romance languages particularly alluring because they are syllable- as opposed to stress-timed. As the duration of syllables is more even and stress is distributed fairly standardly, these languages more closely resemble English poetry, particularly the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare.
Yet French is consistently ranked as the most attractive language in global opinion polls, regardless of nationality. Xuan Liu and Yi Xu at University College London recently found individuals, irrespective of gender, perceived female voices to be most attractive when they sound ‘breathy’. A further study, again with Yi Xu as lead researcher, found male voices to be most attractive when ‘husky’. An abundance of voiced fricatives, alongside the guttural r and uvular trill, force French speakers to adopt a characteristically breathy or husky voice. Although stereotypes associated with French lifestyle and culture are some of the most pervasive in the world, it is possible that they simply reinforce inherently attractive qualities of the language itself.
Intriguingly, within a language the perceived attractiveness of words often has little to do with meaning, supporting the inherent value hypothesis. Cellar door has been widely touted as one of the loveliest pairs of words in the English language, in spite of the described object lacking any particular allure. J. R. R. Tolkien emphasised that Selador, devoid from those possible connotations is even more beautiful - inherently enchanting and mystical. Yet more recently, a poll of 40,000 English-speakers determined mother to be the most beautiful word in the English language. While phonologically it is pleasing to hear, it must certainly be the case that societal perceptions of motherhood also contributed to this verdict.
Whether or not languages can be innately attractive is a debate which is unlikely to ever be resolved. Major world languages such as Arabic, English, French and Spanish are too familiar to ever be studied objectively. It is impossible to find a large and internationally representative sample of people who have never been exposed to them. Perhaps artificial intelligence could create a perfectly aesthetic language, which no one could have previously heard. Yet such an experiment would face the same accusation as Modern Greek: it is too phonologically similar to Spanish to determine whether listeners internalised opinions of the latter influence their assessment of the former.
As with any form of beauty, linguistic beauty is probably both objective and subjective. Indeed, no preference can be wrong, whether you adore Hebrew or despise Italian. I personally believe Swedish to be incredibly dulcet and melodious, but my opinion is no more or less valid than any other. Since this is not a competition, and there is no prize to be won, may everyone revel in whatever beauty they may find.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)
What does it feel like to translate the words of the Queen or a Prime Minister in front of a live audience? What happens if you make a mistake? How can we convey sayings or proverbs in a target language when an equivalent may not exist? These were just some of the questions that Dr Kevin Lin, one of the most distinguished UK interpreters for English and Chinese, answered at his inaugural lecture at the School of Modern Languages in November, with as much humour as professionalism. As the newly appointed Professor in Practice for Interpreting, his addition to the department is not only an opportunity for translation students to learn about interpreting, but also a significant step in a wider political and linguistic context.
The importance of interpreting in the study of languages remains underestimated. Interpreting, specifically consecutive interpreting, is an invaluable part of business relations and, of course, politics. Despite the ascendancy of English, steadily becoming the lingua franca of international interactions, it still cannot be relied upon for communication in every situation. Especially in the light of events such as Brexit, interpreting and translation studies should receive particular attention and increased focus from universities. Precisely because Britain’s relationship with Europe is about to drastically change, contact and trade with regions outside of it – such as China – could increase in importance and so will the need for interpreters and translators.
As Dr Lin explained, interpreting is something that must be learnt and perfected through thorough study of not only the basic task of translating from one language to another, but also linguistics. There are numerous issues that can arise when translating during a real conversation or conference. For example, the interpreter must overcome several challenges before even beginning to translate, such as failing to hear words or failing to understand them. Although superficially simple, these challenges play a critical role in the tasks of an interpreter. Likewise, there is the problem of implicature, meaning that the interpreter has to not only convey the information conveyed by words, but also their implied meanings. Interpreting thus touches on complex linguistic issues, and during his talk Dr Lin continued to stress the persisting gaps in linguistic and scientific research surrounding interpreting.
What does this appointment now mean for the department? In the UK, only a handful of universities offer interpreting as part of undergraduate degree. More often it is a part of postgraduate study. Durham therefore, is one of a group of prestigious universities that give students the opportunity to explore this fascinating component of translation and language studies. Furthermore, the need for interpreters exists, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but fundamentally because interpreting is a task that cannot, be completed by a machine, at least not effectively. Dr Lin demonstrated throughout his lecture that, as much as interpreting is concerned with languages and linguistic technicalities, human interaction remains an integral part of the discipline – something technology is unable to replace.
It sounds utopian: a world without linguistic borders; where a common language breeds unity instead of division. Unlike traditional lingua francas, international auxiliary languages promise equitable communication between diverse peoples, devoid of the potential problems arising from using the language of a former oppressor. Yet Esperanto, Ido and others have failed to supplant English as the dominant global language. Are they doomed by the very idealism which drove their creation?
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Constructed languages (conlangs) are artificial languages which are designed as opposed to evolving naturally. International auxiliary languages (auxlangs) are a sub-group of conlangs which are designed to facilitate communication between people who do not share a common mother tongue.
Although today they are a rather niche interest, primarily spoken by their devotees in small groups, auxlangs at one point appeared the future of international communication. Esperanto, for example, seemed a legitimate threat to French hegemony when it was proposed as the working language of the League of Nations. Today there are only around 2 million speakers. Although in terms of second language speakers this is quite impressive – there are more L2 speakers of Esperanto than Japanese – it is certainly a dramatic decline in prestige.
Ultimately, France convinced delegates that the world already had a global language in the form of French. English later took up this torch as America became a superpower. How could a new language compete with the economic and political clout of the United States Convincing people to learn a language with little prospect of any tangible benefit is difficult.
Russian achieved dominance in Eastern Europe and Central Asia through aggressive expansion. English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread as a result of colonialism. Examples of languages peacefully and wilfully adopted by large numbers of individuals are few and far between.
After Esperanto and Interlingua, Klingon is the most frequently mentioned conlang in Linkedin profiles. Quite how this would improve someone’s employability is unclear, but it does give some indication of the relative popularity of different conlangs in the absence of reliable data from any official body. Dothraki, High Valerian, Quenya and Sindarin also emerge as some of the most spoken conlangs by this metric. It would seem people learn less commonly spoken languages largely out of interest. While this is admirable, it is quite a request to make of eight billion people.
Moreover, one of the core issues that auxlangs attempt to address is perhaps overstated. While there is a certain inequity in people using the language of a former oppressor to communicate, post-colonial literature exemplifies how language can be appropriated to empower rather than subdue.
Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart takes its name from a line in W. B. Yeats poem The Second Coming. In his poem, Yeats attempts to encapsulate the atmosphere of post-war Europe, and presents a world forever changed by the violence thereof. In his choice of title, Achebe draws a parallel between the chaos of war in Europe and chaos caused by colonialism in Africa, and perhaps writing in English makes this parallel more poignant by using the language of the coloniser to tell the story of the colonised.
This is not to say that the emergence of English as a global language is not problematic. It is unfair that many people are forced to learn English to improve their economic situation. Yet a language which cannot be adapted like a natural one is hardly empowering. Auxlangs too often lack the democracy of natural language. Rules concerning grammar, vocabulary and usage are frequently established through diktat. Whereas natural language is the collective product of all speakers, auxlangs often feel as if they are the sole property of another individual.
Perhaps this explains repeated schisms within communities of auxlang speakers. Ido and Interlingua split as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of Esperanto’s development. Each successor attempted to be more accessible and democratic, claiming to be most true to Esperanto’s original ideals. Again and again they were presented with challenges from within.
Strong ideals and a fighting spirit are among the best qualities a person can have. Yet recent British politics has taught us that diverse opinions struggle to coexist under one roof. Auxlangs have many merits. They are easy to learn, accessible and often free to learn. Their creators preach equality, freedom and inclusivity. Yet in attempting to create unity, auxlangs all too often sow the first seeds of division. Perhaps humanity will one day be ready to embrace beautiful ideas, but for now let us remain united in diversity.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)
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In 2014, two British languages, Cornish and Manx, were declared critically endangered. A further two, Guernésiais (Guernsey French) and Jèrriais (Jersey French), are considered severely endangered. Although revival efforts appear to be working to some degree (Cornish was removed from UNESCO’s list of extinct languages in 2010), funding for minority language promotion in Britain is primarily funded by the EU and the British government has not as of yet confirmed whether these programmes will continue.
Even those languages which are less threatened face huge challenges to their revitalisation. In Northern Ireland, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has fought any attempt to increase the status and teaching of the language in the province. In Wales meanwhile, efforts to teach Welsh in schools have resulted in a doubling of young speakers, but widespread discrimination and the reluctance of English people living in Wales to learn the language means it remains a language of the school and home in many regions. The very fact that these are considered ‘success stories’ reflects the dire situation of minority languages in Britain.
Indeed, aside from the aforementioned, it is unlikely many of you reading could name the nine non-English indigenous languages spoken throughout the British Isles today. Too often they are considered quaint relics of earlier times now facing their inevitable fate. Yet extinction is not the natural consequence of some twisted idea of progress; these languages were driven to the brink through historical oppression, stigmatisation and tyrannical English nationalism.
During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries Welsh school children were routinely beaten for speaking their mother tongue, while in Scotland both Scottish Gaelic and Scots (indeed a language as opposed to a dialect) were not considered ‘a suitable medium of education or culture’ even after the Second World War. Today, children educated in the medium of Gaelic outperform their counterparts in English proficiency tests, and Auld Lang Syne has become a popular New Year’s song.
Irish Gaelic has been met with ferocious hostility since the first English conquest, with the 1616 Education Act declaring it ‘one of the chief, principal causes of barbarity and incivility’. Speakers have been mercilessly ridiculed since. Cornish however has faced perhaps the most aggressive attacks of any mainland language and was exterminated through successive English invasions and ‘education programmes’.
Yet how can centuries of discrimination and decline be countered. Looking slightly further afield an intriguing case study can be found in what may be an unlikely candidate: Hebrew. Widely regarded as the only language to have experienced a truly successful revival, going from having no native speakers to over five million.
In Biblical times, Jews spoke a more ancient form of Hebrew, which was the spoken language of Jews for around a millennium. Similarly to British minority languages, Hebrew fell out of common usage against a backdrop of oppression. After the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and subsequent expulsion and exile of Jews from the Middle East by Hadrian, the Jewish diaspora was forced to adopt local languages in order to survive in society.
At this point, Hebrew became confined to use as a scriptural language. Throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa Hebrew was still used for prayer and in religious scholarship, but Jews largely spoke the local language alongside some specific to the community such as Yiddish.
Come the 19th century, most Jewish religious leaders considered Hebrew dead, in the same way Cornish was declared extinct in 2010. It was respected as a religious language by many in the Orthodox community, but little more. It had become as Latin was for other Europeans, an extinct tongue used only by fringe academics and for religious ceremony.
Despite these enormous obstacles and resistance even from high profile Jewish leaders, Eliezer Ben Yehuda took it upon himself to revive the Hebrew language seeing it as vital to creating a common identity for international Jewry to coalesce around, and essential in the formation of a nation.
During his school years he had discovered that Biblical Hebrew was occasionally used as an auxiliary language by Jews without a common language between them. This encouraged his belief that Hebrew could become a viable modern spoken language.
In a case of somewhat experimental child rearing, Ben Yehuda decided to raise his son, Ben Zion, in a Hebrew-only household. Perhaps bizarre, given the context of Hebrew as a language only ever learned in Rabbinic schools, but given Ben Yehuda’s ideological conviction, it was a logical progression of his revival attempts. Indeed, today some people raise their children speaking Esperanto, and another man once attempted the same feat with Klingon, though he did fail.
Ben Yehuda’s efforts however were not in vain. Although he went so far as to ban his wife from speaking Russian to their son and aggressively reprimanded her for singing a Russian lullaby to sooth him, Ben Zion’s first word was Abba – daddy. After his son spoke his first words in Hebrew, Ben Yehuda founded a school using Hebrew as a medium of education and created the Hebrew Language Council. He later set up a Hebrew newspaper, and successive generations created new words as the language became a true vernacular for Jews in Palestine.
Yet, the true explosion in its popularity came after the formation of Israel as a state. Jewish immigrants flocked to Israel after the Second World War and lacking a common language rapidly adopted Hebrew as a means of communication. Within a generation, it had become the first language of almost all Jews in the region, only growing in prestige with successive government initiatives.
As the case of Hebrew demonstrates, we lack not the capability to reverse the trend of minority language decline in Britain, but the political and social will. Perhaps we could start by affording all of these languages, not merely Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, official status as has been done in Norway for Sami. Such a small step would afford speakers wide ranging legal rights protections which are currently non-existent, and allow them to demand bilingual education for their children.
The government could also guarantee continued funding for minority languages in a post-Brexit Britain. This is counter to centuries of political attempts to enforce English as the national language of Britain, yet perhaps now is the time to rejoice in the linguistic pluralism of the nation and prove its openness and tolerance.
Tied up in a language is culture and history and any reduction in linguistic diversity is a great loss to us all. Unity will never arise out of division and centuries of linguistic oppression have only served to further divide people, by deeming one language and therefore national identity superior. In the face of great adversity, in the aftermath of the greatest atrocity of European history, Hebrew achieved renewed status. With a government which cultivates a culture of linguistic pluralism, there is no reason these minority languages cannot be brought back from the brink.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)
The name Christmas itself probably needs little etymological explanation – it is, as it would appear, a contraction of Christ and mass. In Old English, Christmas was originally two words: Cristes mæsse, but it has been written as one since at least the fourteenth century. However, since explaining that a holiday commemorating the birth of Christ is, in fact, named after him would probably not make for the most interesting article, let us explore some other Christmas vocabulary.
Bauble is for me an intriguing word; one only ever used this one month of the year. Its etymology is both simple and beautiful coming (rather indirectly) from the Latin bellus meaning pretty. Overtime the word was abbreviated to bel (the same stem of belle in Modern French) and reduplicated into belbel. By the fourteenth century this was corrupted in Old French to baubel and swiftly adopted into English and used to refer to a children’s toy or trinket.
Indeed, it is children’s toys (or presents) that most of us first think of when met with the word Christmas. Present came into Old English from the French mettre en present (to place before) which in turn evolved from the Latin presentia. In all likelihood, this originally referred only to the gifts offered to Jesus after his birth, but later became far wider in scope.
Also from French is the word we use to refer the story of Jesus’ birth: nativity. This stems from the Old French nativité meaning birth, origin, descent or birthday. It is unclear when nativity transitioned from common usage to a purely religious one, but the Old English nativiteð referred to the birth of any individual, not just Christ.
Today the story of the nativity is most commonly recited through song (or that most detested beloved tradition of the primary school play). Carol has referred to joyous song in English since the thirteenth century yet originally meant to dance in a ring as in the Old French verb caroler. This perhaps itself evolved from the Latin choraules and Greek khoraules, meaning flute player, as the flute was the traditional instrument of celebratory dance in ancient cultures.
Apart from all this, food is surely one of the favourite aspects of Christmas for many, and yule logs remain a treasured treat. Yule is the word for Christmas in many modern Germanic languages. It is jul in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, jól in Icelandic and Faroese, joulu in Finnish, jõulud in Estonian, juulli in Greenlandic, and yule in Scots (not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic). These cognates may help you to guess its origin. It is rooted in the Old Norse word jol, which became geol in Old English. Although it was originally used to describe a pagan festival which took place around the same time, Northern Europe’s conversion to Christianity saw it become the word for Christmas in every Nordic country, and it was only replaced by Christmas in English in the eleventh century. Interestingly, jol was also adopted into Old French as jolif, implying that the Modern French word joli meaning pretty originally meant festive and jolly.
Merry, the word attached to Christmas in British English to describe its festivity and jolliness stems from Middle English mirie which described pleasant, sweet and enjoyable feelings. This is turn descends from the Proto-Germanic murgijaz which meant short-lived. While it may be depressing to think that a word encapsulating joy and gladness essentially comes from one which describes the ephemeral, let us remember that Christmas has been celebrated for two thousand years now and remains so far into the 23rd century with the Klingon expression for Season’s Greetings being toDwI'ma' qoS yItIvqu' (Our Saviours birthday you-enjoy)
By Linguistics Editor, Michael Hendle.
The Tower of Babel is a biblical account of human arrogance and divine intervention. Yet for a linguist, this narrative is particularly interesting for another reason: it attempts to explain the origin of the world’s many different languages. The Tower of Babel was built by humanity in an attempt to reach heaven, causing God to intervene; making them all speak different languages, inhibiting their communication and thus the continuation of their overambitious project. While this religious narrative offers a rather simplistic explanation of languages as being divine in origin, finding a scientific answer for the question “What is a language?” is a far more complex task.
At its most basic level, one could define a language simply as a means of communication. However, such a basic explanation would necessarily be as vague as a divine one. Animals communicate, while the German writer and forestry expert Peter Wohlleben has even argued that trees can “talk” to each other. Does this mean that we should therefore speak of a “tree language”? It would seem that defining a language simply as a means of conveying information through communication remains insufficient. At the other end of the spectrum, there are claims such as that made by the American poet and existentialist Walt Whitman. He argued that language is the sum of all human experience. This extreme range in definitions remains the central to the issue of definition, and it becomes ever more evident that there is no simple answer to this question, as the never-ending discourse in linguistics also demonstrates.
Another approach involves looking back at history and the evolution of languages. Taking the Indo-European language family as an example, linguists have reconstructed the common ancestor of all its different languages, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). From this presumed origin, various language families such as the Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Slavic or Indo-Iranian branches have evolved, comprising the vast majority of languages spoken today in Europe as well as a significant part of Asia. Although these differ in terms of pronunciation, spelling and are therefore different families, they are all descended from PIE, and exhibit sufficient differences in grammar to allow a distinction between them to be made. Yet what about languages within the same families, yet are mutually intelligible, for example Ukrainian and Belarusian which have an 80 % rate of mutual intelligibility? How can they be classified as distinct languages rather than mere variations of the same language? There are a variety of factors which come into play in this context, ranging from inter-linguistic exchange, such as the borrowing of vocabulary, to the influence of geographical borders or nationalist narratives, which have had an impact on minority languages for example. Likewise, there is the question of how to distinguish a language and a dialect from one another. Naturally this introduces additional complexity to the discussion – complexity that remains far too great for the scope of this article, which only aims to provide an introduction to this topic.
Ultimately, it remains extremely difficult, if not impossible, to offer a precise definition of what constitutes a language. What we can conclude with certainty however, is that language and languages remain at the core of human life and influence every aspect of it. This of course includes the fact that they will never cease to be an object of constant fascination for us linguists.
By Cristina Coellen
Until the latter half of the twentieth century creoles were largely ignored by linguists. At best they were viewed as quaint novelties, and at worst simply ‘bad’ versions of the parent language; often derogatorily named, for example ‘broken English’ or ‘bastard Portuguese.
This contempt persists today. Haitian Creole, the most spoken of all creole languages, only gained official status in Haiti in 1987, and only in the 1990s did the president first speak Haitian Creole publically. Even today, French remains the language of politics, commerce, law and academia in Haiti. More shockingly, Jamaican Patois has never been afforded official status within Jamaica despite being the native language of the majority of Jamaicans. Societal elites still view the creole as inferior and dismiss speakers as uneducated. Recently, a Patois translation of the Gospel of Luke, Jiizas: di Buk We Luuk Rait bout Im, was met with hostility from both academic and religious circles in Jamaica. Yet the fact it was published at all is a sign of the increasing prestige of creoles within their respective communities; fortunately too, for they serve as an absolutely fascinating case study in language evolution, and can teach us much about linguistics as a whole.
Creoles evolve from an ancestral pidgin language. Pidgins, although also languages in their own right, are grammatically and lexically restricted, and used for communication between groups who do not share a common language. Simply, they adopt only the most necessary vocabulary from one or more languages, and simplify their grammar as far as possible. Indeed, the language from which we derive the term lingua franca, Sabir or Mediterranean Lingua Franca, was itself a pidgin language, used primarily for commerce, but not spoken natively by any one group.
Creoles differ from pidgins in that they become the native language of a group of people, and are thereafter expanded and increase in complexity. Whereas pidgins can only be used with a limited sphere such as work or trade, creoles are complex enough to be used for every sphere of life. In recent history, creoles have typically arisen in response to colonialism. A standard creole creation story would be as follows:
Plantation slaves from various different countries need to work together, yet share no common language. In order to communicate, they use very limited vocabulary from the slave master’s language. However, owing to the short time frame they have to learn the language and a lack of any formal education, it is impossible to master the grammar and so a simplified grammar based upon one of the dominant native languages is used. After some time, this language would be expanded until it could be used for more diverse activities such as socialising and worship. The children of speakers of this pidgin would eventually find it more useful than their native tongue, and after some generations it would become the native language of the majority of the population. At this point it would have become a creole and continue to increase in complexity and prestige.
Naturally not all creoles follow this process exactly. Their development is varied, nuanced, and hard to predict, but this simplified history is typical of most. To give an example, Bislama is a creole, and one of the official languages in Vanuatu alongside English and French. Today it is the native language of most urban Vanuatuans, and the primary second language of the remainder of the population. During the 1860s European colonists in Australia, New Calendonia, Fiji and Samoa coerced or kidnapped many Vanuatuans to work as indentured servants on plantations in a process termed as blackbirding. These Vanuatuans came from one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world with around 113 languages in a country of only just over 200,000 people. To cope in this new environment, they needed to develop a common language, and a basic pidgin quickly emerged. This evolved into a full-fledged creole in only a few generations.
The influence of English on Bislama is clear, yet it is also clear that it has become its own language. Phonologically, the soft h in the th sound has been substituted for t in words like ‘tankio’ (‘thank you’), and ch is typically replaced with k as in the case of ‘Krismes’ (‘Christmas’). Comparing the grammars, the relationship is often not as apparent. The past tense and possessive still exist, but are constructed entirely differently to English. ‘Julie i brekem leg blong hem’ means ‘Julie broke her leg’. Bislama does not conjugate verbs to reflect tense, but rather uses the particle ‘I’. The preposition ‘blong’ here is used to express possession rather than the pronouns or apostrophe s used in English. Literally ‘blong hem’, means ‘belonging to her’, and so ‘leg blong hem’ means ‘her leg’.
Bislama is a fascinating example of the standardisation that creoles go through, often incredibly rapidly. In less than two centuries, it has evolved from a rudimentary tool for basic communication to the native language of an entire people group, complex enough to be entirely functional, but standardised enough to be learnable by anyone. It is also one of the few creoles to garner high levels of respect among societal elites. Despite being spoken by a relatively small population, more resources exist to learn Bislama than almost any other creole. This has made it an incredible case study for linguists, and serves as an example for how other creoles can attain prestige in their societies. Given that creoles can teach us so much about languages generally this is an incredibly exciting trend, and one we can only hope continues into the future.
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