Mapping Linguistic Phylogeny to Politics

In a recent article covered in Nature in Societes Evolve in Steps, Tom Currie of UCL, and others, like Russel Gray of Auckland, use quantitative analysis of the Polynesian language group to plot socioanthropological movement and power hierarchies in Polynesia. This is based off of previous work, available here, which I saw presented at the Language as an Evolutionary System conference last July. The article claims that political complexity can be determined using linguistic evidence in Polynesia, along with various migration theories and archaeological evidence.

I have my doubts. The talk that was given by Russel Gray suggested that there were still various theories about the migratory patterns of the Polynesians – in particular, where they started from. What his work did was to use massive supercomputers to narrow down all of the possibilities, by using lexicons and charting their similarities. The most probable were then recorded, and their statistical probability indicated what was probably the course of action. This, however, is where the ability for guessing ends. Remember, this is massive quantificational statistics. If one has a 70% probability chance of one language being the root of another, that isn’t to say that that language is the root, much less that the organisation of one determines the organisation of another. (On a related note that I won’t go into, I have my doubts about this sort of quantificational study, as well. For one, the lexicons that were worked with were done in post-hoc standardised orthography, and as such didn’t really suggest the actual phonetic detail, a point raised by one of the audience members (I believe it was Pullum). For two, the interconnectivity of the Polynesian languages by no means means that one languages proportional derivational split means anything. (If that makes sense.))

The article in Nature, short as it is, does thankfully manage to cast doubt on the research which suggests that is possible.”

“So the only question would be ‘are languages a good way to work out relationships between societies?’” In general, Diamond says, languages do fit the bill.
Unfortunately, how is never stated. But a few arguments are raised (as I’ve said):
  • Quantitative analyses have never traditionally been used by anthropologists or sociologists in this fashion.
  • The geopolitical situation of such a wide area means that statements cannot be made with certainty, given the likelihood of different sorts of movements and political fall out, such as fractionation, which occur generally in such contexts.
  • The mapping of political evolution to linguistic phylogeny is not clear cut.

I’ve already stated the issues I have with the general use of these structures, anyway: phonetic detail, orthographic convention which is applied after the gathering of data, and statistical relevance to linguistic phylogeny. But let us also compare the history of the Polynesian Islands (something I won’t pretend to be an expert in, but I’m certainly better placed to talk about it than most, having read more than a little on the subject.) To sum it up shortly: some islands were at war with only other island groups, some islands remained historically neutral to other’s blood feuds, there was a very good knowledge of where, across thousands of miles, other archipelagos and chains resided, there was travel between them, not always for warfare, there was considerable movement that was occasionally residual and long-standing, and not mere trading, and there were languages that could be thousands of miles apart and not mutually incomprehensible. As well, some islands had different political hierarchies than others, even when within spitting distance of each other. Finally, the historical political evidence that we have is often poorly recorded, and political hierarchisation is not something which is easily traced back archaeologically in an essentially stone-age society (as far as I am aware, and here I may be wrong. The article does substantiate many of its claims with archaeological evidence, which is a major point for it.).

But let’s look closer: what are they actually trying to say? Merely that political organisation and hierarchies rise and fall in complexity in steps instead of in jumps. They argue that this is a held notion, but that it hasn’t been backed up by quantitative analyses. The actual article states, clearly, that “recently, phylogenetic trees showing the historical relationships between these societies have been inferred using basic vocabulary data, by applying the same techniques that biologists use with genetic data to infer the shared ancestry of a species.” Ok, that’s fine– wait. No, I’m not sure I agree with that statement. Biologists use genes to chart the movement of species, ancestry, sister-species and the like, sure. But they don’t use those genes to mark how a particular tribe of bonobo followed one leader versus another, and it would be ridiculous to do so. But this may be a poor analogy.

So how did they judge that political systems flow this way? “By mapping data about the characteristics of societies onto the tips of these trees, we can use phylogenetic comparative methods to make inferences about what societies were like in the past and how they have changed over time.” (801) So, they took present-day analyses of the political systems, hard-coded them into the tips of the languages, and then saw if the political systems fell out naturally? I’m not sure this is how it works. Again, the mapping of language onto political systems isn’t clear (I feel like I’m repeating myself here.) Secondly, though, languages are resistant to political organisation. When a society changes from an acephalous group to a simple chiefdom, one doesn’t expect that the pronoun usage or the word for kava would change. And this seems  to be what is being suggested, here. Finally, the geographical distribution of their data doesn’t reflect the region as well as it could, as it comes from a single projected language group: New Guinea appears to have only four languages, for one. And what about bilingualism?

Here I’ll stop. I welcome any comments that anyone has. I’m probably going to be reading more into the research behind this test, as it is the first of it’s kind, and very interesting, especially as I am not an anthropologist. If it produces results which are in line with the general consensus, then I hope that it continues to shed light on more information. My problem is I want to know which is shedding light on which, here, and exactly where is the line where the darkness begins to actually be an issue.



Nature News:

  • Currie, T. E., Greenhill, S. J., Gray, R. D., Hasegawa, T. & Mace, R. Nature 467, 801-804 (2010). | Article
  • Gray, R. D., Drummond, A. J. & Greenhill, S. J. Science 323, 479-483 (2009). | Article
  • Posted in Linguistics Musing | Leave a comment

    Nøp and Abinadaima

    Last Wednesday, a few people who had attended my talk the previous week got together with me in a pub in order to create a language in one night. Around eight of us were present, and we came up with two separate languages. Or, at least, we came up with something. Here I’ll present those two languages, or what we managed to get of them.


    This wasn’t actually the name of the language. I don’t think we ever came up with one. Nøp means cat. This language was messed up, probably because it was the first conlang most of the participants had worked on. Here’s the phonetics chart. It has some weird features. No alveolar anything, but post-alveolar affricates, as well as retroflex consonants. Uvular consonants, but no velar ones. Bilabial fricatives. All the clicks. I repeat, all the clicks.

    That wasn’t even the worst part. We had a bit of trouble dealing with sounds that people couldn’t pronounce, but the main issue was the vowels. Three vowels were initially decided on: y, ø, and œ. If you know your vowel chart, those are three rounded vowels, of varying height. All of them are in the front of the mouth and very difficult for English speakers to say. No human language has anything even remotely like this vowel set – if any language has three vowels, they are always i, a, and u. But perhaps that was the point – to make a ridiculous language, in which laughter would be the main background noise.

    How would these be arranged? Initially, the maximal syllable construction was Nasal-vowel-consonant. That’s fairly weird. Some other interesting things we decided: Stress was regular, but on the penultimate syllable. Plural marking was marked by voicing the final consonant. If there was no final consonant, you would add a stop that would assimilate in place to the following word-initial nasal consonant.

    Of course, that was just the start. I had come armed with the Swadesh list, which generally has some useful words which are good for initial language creation (louse not being one of them.) I was also armed with this list of things a conlang should have, from the Rejistanian conlang blog. So, going on from there, we decided that Nøp would have SOV marking. (I think? It might have been OSV.) And so, since those languages generally have case marking, we decided to have case marking.

    But not just any case marking! No, the case marker would be a click infix. This would go between the vowel and the final consonant of the penultimate syllable, and would be have the reduplicated vowel following it, as well. And it would also mark the article. Thus nøp ‘cat’ became nø|øp ‘the cat’ (subject), or nø|øb ‘the cats’ (subject.) We decided that the diminutive infix «lø» (retroflex l) and «mø» would also go there. Oh, and adjectives would agree, and follow the nouns they modify. Some examples: nø|ø mø|øl ‘the big mom’, nø|øb mø|øl ‘the big mothers’.

    And there was more. We decided later that verbs all begin with vowels, nuons with nasals. Adjectives began with bilabial fricatives. The irrealis mood was indicated with an «h» infix. And that’s around where my notes stop making sense. But here’s one final example of the most unpronouncable conlang ever:

    nø|ø Bømø|øl nø|øp ø|øløm øbama. mother-def-acc big-def-acc cat-indef-nom big-indef-nom eat. ‘The big cat eats the big mother.’

    Or something of that sort. It all got a bit confusing towards the end.


    This language was as much a reaction to the other one as it was its own language. The desire was for a language that was actually possible to speak. So, things were done a bit differently, which was probably a good thing.

    The phonology was a bit more restrained. It was actually very small. The language kind of mirrored Hawaiian (and Pirahã), to be honest. It had: b, m, d, n, g, ng (velar nasal), x (glottal stop), s, h, j (glide), w. And that was it, on that level. It had four vowels: i, a, u, and schwa (mid e). Much, much more realistic. The maximal syllable construction was CVC. Any identical vowels next to each other had a corresponding glide put in. Stress was on the first syllable.

    What was really cool? It had words! Ngawa meant hello. (Side-note: I’m having issues with IPA on wordpress. Help would be appreciated.) The name is the autonym (self-name) for the language, coming from abi ‘the’, nadai ‘corner’ and ma ‘this’. Abinadaima pretty much just means “this corner”. Somewhere, along the way, ‘of the pub’ got lost. You’ll note that the definite article is used in conjunction with a demonstrative deictic marker. This isn’t peculiar to Abinadaima, but actually reflects some other languages, including Welsh. Welsh influenced the creation a bit, actually, seeing as how one of us spoke it.

    The plural was done by duplicating the first syllable. Nouns always started with a consonant (and verbs vowels), so this wasn’t exactly a problem. Adjectives also had to start with a consonant: if they were derived from a verb, an initial m was added on, to mean the active participle: oga ‘eat’ became moga ‘eating.’ Another bit of derivational morphology occurred in making a noun out of an adjective: one would replace the initial stop with the corresponding nasal. So, da ‘big’ became na ‘bigness’, gu ‘small’ became gnu ‘smallness’, and bi ‘stupid’ became mi ‘stupidity.’ A more interesting example is gawa ‘friendly’, which became ngawa ‘peace, hello’.

    The pronouns were fun. Nga ‘I’, wa ‘you’, and mabi ‘he/she/it’ (derived from abi the). The plurals: nganga ‘we (exclusive)’, which means that it did not apply to who you were speaking to: “we did this, you didn’t.” Wawanga ‘we (inclusive)’ included the listener. Wawa meant ‘ya’ll,’ or the second person plural.

    There was of course no copula. Who needs a copula? However, the word e was the existential verb.

    Here is the exhaustive list of nouns not already mentioned:

    • gad: n. cat
    • hoxin: n. rain
    • muw: n. man
    • bay: n. woman
    • xam: n. fish
    • haxid: n. spear
    • asu: v. to love
    • onaha: v. to fly
    • anek: v. to kill
    • ugad: v. to want
    • si: prep. of

    We decided these by having one person in our remaining circle of four suggest a word to create for the following person. It worked pretty well. You’ll notice si ‘of’ – we decided early on that this was an isolating language. And here are our two examples:

    • w’asu nga.
    • you(obj.)-love (contracted) I
    • I love you.

    And the second example, which shows the the participle modal construction.

    • masu wa si ugad nga.
    • loving you of want I.
    • I want to love you. (also: I want your loving…)

    And that’s it. I think this one went much better than the first. The entire occasion was really rather fun, and think this highlights the fact that conlanging can be brought more into the public sphere, if people few it as a fun hobby that can involve a community, instead of a lonesome, nerdy activity. And since ngawa also means goodbye…: Ngawa.

    Posted in Conlang, General, Linguistics Musing | 1 Comment

    Lewis and the Hrossa

    Few people know that CS Lewis, as well as being an incredibly famous Christian author and the creator of the Narnia series, created a science fiction trilogy. It was (rumoured) to be a bet with JRR Tolkien to see who could create a space travel, and who a time travel, series. Tolkien created Numenor as a time-travelling atlantean civilisation, while CS Lewis went on to write Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I suggest each of them to all of you, but in particular the first one has some interesting phenomena. What do I mean? You guessed it – constructed languages.

    Unfortunately, Lewis was a philologist in the modern sense of the word, but not a linguist. That having been said, he made a fantastic attempt at making up three similar languages: one for the Hrossa people, who resembled seven-foot bipedal seals, one for the Séroni, who resembled fourteen-foot goblins, and one for the Pfifltrigg, which are more like frogs than anything else. Ransom, the hero, first meets a Hross on Malacandra, or mars. Here, reproduced in full because it’s some beautiful writing, is his first impression of the language.

    “Then something happened which completely altered his state of mind. The creature, which was still steaming and shaking itself on the bank and had obviously not seen him, opened its mouth and began to make noises. This in itself was not remarkable; but a lifetime of linguistics study assured Ransom almost at once that these were articulate noises. The creature was talking. It had language. If you are not yourself a philologist, I am afraid you must take on trust the prodigious emotional consequences of this realisation in Ransom’s mind. A new world he had already seen – but a new, an extra-terrestrial, a non-human language was a different matter. Somehow he had not thought of this in connexion with the sorns; now, it flashed upon him like a revelation. The love of knowledge is a kind of madness. In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, his imagination had leaped over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar. An Introduction to the Malacandrian Language – the Lunar Verb – A Concise Martian-English Dictionary… the titles flitted through his mind. And what might one not discover from the speech of a non-human race? The very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages, might fall into his hands….” (Lewis, pg. 62)

    Now, this is a fairly interesting passage to read, once one considers not only the poetic implications of other sentient beings, but also that Lewis wrote this in 1938. That last line smacks of something incredibly Chomskyan, doesn’t it? But the whole thing still reads like a 20th century philologist. The animal, we learn, is like an otter and a seal mixed together, rather hard and long to explain. It’s first interaction with Ransom is equally amusing:

    “The creature struck itself on the chest and made a noise. Ransom did not at first realise what it meant. Then he saw that it was trying to teach him its name – presumably the name of the species.

    Hross,’ it said, ‘hross, ‘ and flapped itself.

    Hross,’ repeated Ransom, and pointed at it; then ‘Man,’ and struck his own chest.

    Hma-hma-hman,’ imitated the hross.” (Lewis, pg. 64)

    Check that out! This was one of my favourite first brushes with conlangs, ever. And it shows us that Lewis did think of at least one thing – initial h in Malacandrian (which, by the way, means Martian.) However, consider that this is a 7-foot tall stoat. You’d think that it’s vocal patterns and tract would be far different. I wonder if it had a descended larynx? Sadly, we may never know. As far as being intelligible, Ransom is able to learn the language, even though he has the downside of being a Homo sapiens sapiens (homo sapiens hman). However, there are some differences. First, the intonation patterns are different.

    The voices were not disagreeable and the scale seemed adapted to human ears, but the time pattern was meaningless to his sense of rhythm. ” (Lewis, pg. 76)

    And this, sadly, is where the non-human linguistic detail stops. Consider the following words from the language: Séroni, sorn, handramit, hross, eldil, pfifltriggi, hrikki, handra, malacandra, sorn, harandra, harondra, honodraskrud, thulc, hnau, arbol hru, hmaana, hnakra, Hyoi, Hrikki, wondelone, hluntheline, hressni, hnéraki, Oyarsa, Whin, hnakrapunt, hnakrapunti, eldila, Meldilorn.

    The language is agglutinative, with suffixes and prefixes. We don’t have any sentences, so this is all that there is to glean from the books. It shows, however, a fairly developed five vowel space, with long or possibly different vowels é and aa. It also has the labiovelar and palatal glides. There are probably the diphthongs /au/ and /oi/ as well. This suggests a fairly human vowel space, which I highly doubt in a seal or otter. See the attached otter skull image for details. Compare with a human skull. Yeah, I don’t think so.

    But, as you might have noticed, most of them are from Hrossa. Some, however, are spoken by the Sorns. They do, indeed, speak differently, as in this dialogue:

    “‘The animal I am is called Man, and therefore the hrossa call me Hmaan. But my own name is Ransom.’

    ‘Man – Ren-soom,’ said the sorn. He noticed that it spoke differently from the hrossa, without any suggestion of their persistent initial H. ” (Lewis, pg. 106)

    Or later, when Ransom talks to a Pfifltrigg:

    “‘I do not understand. They are our great speakers and singers. They have more words and better. No one learns the speech of my people, for what we have to say is said in stone and sun’s blood and stars’milk and all can see them. No one learns the sorn”s speech, for you can change their knowledge into any words and it is still the same. You cannot do that with the songs of the hrossa. Their tongue goes all over Malacandra. I speak it to you because you are a stranger. I would speak it to a sorn. But we have our old tongues at home. You can see it in the names. The sorns have big-sounding names like Augray and Arkal and Belmo and Falmay. The hrossa have furry names like Hnoh and Hnihi and Hyoi and Hlithnahi.’

    ‘The best poetry, then, comes in the roughest speech?’

    ‘Perhaps,’ said the pfifltrigg. ‘As the best pictures are made in the hardest stone. but my people have names like Kalakaperi and Parakataru and Tafalakeruf. I am called Kanakaberaka.’” (Lewis, pg. 133)

    This block of information, I think seals the deal as far as realism goes. Lewis tried hard to make a realistic world, and he almost succeeded. But I don’t know of any language that says things in the sun’s blood (well, technically that’s a suppletive word for gold), or of any language that has the ability to change all of the words but retain the same meaning. At least, however, there are different phonotactic constraints. By the way: note the sorn names. They have interesting vowels, as well, despite the fact that their faces are described as long, and that they probably also have an incredibly elongated neck. It’d be interesting to see how Lewis imagined their language to sound. He describes it at one point as ‘horn like’. Trombones or french horns, I wonder?

    On that note, actually, there used to be a fourth sentient species in Lewis’ Mars, before it was destroyed by Satan (don’t worry, I won’t give more of the plot away.)

    “They did not go in the water swimming or on the ground walking; they glided in the air on broad flat limbs which kept them up. It is said they ere great singer, and in those days the red forests echoed with their music.”  (Lewis, pg. 116)

    I wonder, too, what Lewis imagined his birds spoke. I don’t wonder as much as I imagine, however, flying amongst the trees myself, the Malacandrian wind in my face, and all essay assignments gone the way of all terrestrial woes…


    Lewis, C.S. 1938. Out of the Silent Planet. London: Pan.

    Posted in Conlang, General | 5 Comments

    The Death of Cochin Creole

    Rozario, the last Cochin Speaker

    The article linked above concerns the death of Rozario, the last speaker of Cochin Creole. Cochin Creole was a mixture of Malayalam (Not Malay) and Portuguese, as well as various other unspecified local languages in the area of Kochi. It talks to a large extent about Portuguese verses Malayalam and it’s realisation in the creole, which is a mixture of the two, but not about the other languages. I wonder if any of those languages are dead – if so, this is truly a greater tragedy, as it is the end of not only the creole, but also say the last bastion of a parent language (if that is the term.) Other languages are still spoken in Kochi, according to Wikipedia: “Malayalam is Kerala’s official languageTamilTuluKannada and various Adivasi (Tribal) languages are also spoken by ethnic minorities especially in the south-western region.” Note that Portuguese is no longer in this list. I wonder if all of the speakers switched to the Creole, or if some small minority still exists.

    Posted in Linguistics Musing | 8 Comments

    Done up and Shaven

    The miners who have been stuck under ground are now finally reaching the surface. Reuters reports:

    “Like wives on the surface who had their hair and nails done for the occasion, the men looked groomed and clean-shaven.”

    This strikes me as odd. Not because I can’t understand it – it’s a comparison between two states of cleanliness, where the wives on the one hand have done up their hair and nails, and the men on the other hand have groomed and shaved. However, to me it seems as though this construction were suggesting that the men had they hair and nails done up, or that the women had shaved. This wouldn’t have occurred if a non-gender specific grooming event had been mentioned, as in, “Like the wives who had dressed up for the occasion, the men looked good.” Somewhere in this construction, the simile is lost. (I’m not sure where: leftward movement of the like clause? Over specificity? Implicit action?)

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    A Gross Discussion

    In the film The Linguists, the two linguists are portrayed as being surprised and fascinated by the counting system in an Indian language they were documenting (probably related to the newly discovered language Koro). It counted in base 12, and then again in base 20 (if I remember correctly.) Thus, 32 was realised as something like ‘twentytwelve’. Because of this highlighted oddity, I was surprised to find, while reading The Ring of Words by Peter Gilliver et. al (as mentioned in the previous post), that English also used to have a base twelve system.

    “In Old English, the next two tens after hound ‘hundred’ were hundendlufontig and hundtwelftig: the hund- was a prefix, which also occurred in hundeahtig ‘eighty’ and hundnigontig ‘ninety’; if we remove the prefix, we get -endlufontig ‘eleventh’ from endlufon or endleofon ‘eleven’ and -twelftig ‘twelfty’. Why did the Anglo-Saxons count up to ‘twelfty’? The answer lies in an ancient system of counting in twelves; much later, at the end of the Middle English period, certain commodoties, such as fish, were counted in ‘hundreds’ that actually contained six score of 120, and this ws knowen as the ‘great hundred’ or ‘long hundred’. (OED: hundred n. and a., sense 3). That this probably goes back to ancient times is shown by the fact in Old Norse 100 was tíu tigir ‘ten tens’, 110 was ellifu tigir ‘eleven tens’ (exactly parallel to eleventy), and 120 was hundra? ‘hundred; . There are even said to be ordinal numerals títugandi and ellifu tugandi ‘tentieth’ and ‘eleventieth’.” (Gilliver, 113)

    It’s a well known fact, as well, that the Gauls count in base twenty. In lieu of this, I’ll probably end up giving less time over to contemplative admiration for odd counting systems, as the decimal base isn’t native to my own language. Another question might be raised, however: how much does it matter that one culture counts in twelves, and another in 17ths? I’m not sure that it does, as I can’t think of any arguments for it. Any help?

    PS. Yes, the term ‘gross’, meaning 144, was part of that counting system.

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    So, I figured I should share this on here at some point. I have an internship with SAIVUS – the Society to Advance Indigenous Languages of the United States. What I’ll be doing is working on iPhone apps (I hope, time willing) for Lakota, an endangered Native American language spoken in the Dakotas. Here’s the introduction to Saivus, which explains our goal a bit further.


    Founded in 2008, SAIVUS (“save us”) provides online course material for Native American languages currently spoken in the United States. “Native Americans” are the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, otherwise known as “American Indians” or “First Nations.” Legally, this term also applies to Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians, who have separate origins but share a similar history.

    Over the next century over half of at least three hundred north Native American languages are expected to die. Language revitalization is a truly massive undertaking, but hopefully we can fulfill a small part of that need. One of the largest obstacles native languages face today is a lack of quality educational materials.

    Many native peoples must resort to self-study to learn their own languages for a variety of reasons. Some work menial jobs and have little time and energy for classes. Since the 1950s, groups of American Indians have flocked to major cities looking for work i.e. “urban Indians” where their descendants are isolated from the main speaking body. Sometimes parents intentionally discourage their children from speaking indigenous languages to shelter them from prejudice or teasing. After all, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries American Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking a non-European language.

    SAIVUS was established to provide comprehensive grammar tutorials, word lists, practice exercises and other materials vital to modern language health. Not only are these materials completely cost-free, they can also be printed out and distributed to people without internet access.


    I just thought that some of you might find it interesting. And yes, there’s stuff you can do to help out, if you’re so obliged. Just go here.

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    Must Needs

    On the first day of Syntactic Theory I made the mistake of raising my hand in class and asking about the construction “I must needs go.” I say mistake, not only because ‘needs’ can be parsed as an intensifying adverb according to this blog, which presents a rather different case than the stacked modal construction I was trying to find a legal example for, but also because my reading taste was called into question. And not only by my peers. My lecturer, who shall remain unnamed but writes for Language Log (which pretty much singles him down to one person, really), said that it was clearly an archaic expression, and as such I should read newer books. Later in the class he also mentioned offhand (I’m still not sure how, but it happened) that I was unfortunately addicted to 19th century books. It was rather funny, and I certainly had a chuckle as well.

    But the real problem wasn’t his correct decision that it was an archaism, but the idea that I therefore must be reading old books. I wasn’t referring to an old book. I was referring to A Song of Ice and Fire, the series by George R.R. Martin. It’s a New York Times Bestseller, published over the past ten years, and is so new that the series isn’t even finished yet. Indeed, the series adaptaptation of it hasn’t even hit the screens yet, although it is filming now. (For more:,, and my own site,, about the constructed language created for it.)

    So why is ‘must needs’ in this book at all, that I should notice it? (I counted: it’s used around 15 times in the series.) My guess is that this is a literary throwback to Tolkien, or perhaps all the way back to the greatest user of archaisms and neologisms together, William Morris. And indeed! We find it twice in The Lord of the Rings. Legolas uses it when talking about where to go after Frodo crosses into the Emyn Muil: “Yet we must needs make up our minds without his aid.” Aragorn uses it later: “If a man must needs walk in front of the Black Gate…” I also found it in Phantastes, by George MacDonald, one of the better early fantasy writers: “A vague misgiving crossed my mind when I saw it; but I must needs go closer, and look through a little half-open door,near the opposite end from the cypress.”

    But I was right in my earlier suspicion. In The Roots of the Mountain, by William Morris, I found it not once, nor thrice, by a total of 35 times. So I highly suspect that GRR Martin, writing as he does in a long vein of literary tradition concerning fantasy, put ‘must needs’ in as a sort of reference to earlier writers. It is odd, however, as this is one of the few archaisms that rubs me the wrong way. Almost nothing else does in his otherwise quite modernly written book. But if perhaps anything else does, I’ll be sure to look it up at home before asking about it in class, just in case.

    Posted in Linguistics Musing | 5 Comments

    A Conlang Talk in Edinburgh

    So, here’s the youtube video for the talk I gave at the University of Edinburgh last week on Conlangs. It was a fun talk to give, and I gave it to around 75, but the sound recording is bad for the first 20 minutes or so, so I’ve subtitled it. Should be a good watch. I talk specifically about Na’vi, Dothraki, and Llárriésh.

    Posted in Conlang, Dothraki, General, Llárriésh, Na'vi | Leave a comment

    Dwarf, Dwell, and Dweomerlaik

    I’ve decided to double post my posts on the LangSoc blog here. Also, this mayn’t be about conlanging – but I’ll make sure it’s about language.


    The problems with blogging as an undergraduate are manifold. Most of the issues derive from the fear of being wrong, which I never seem to have acquired. After that, the knowledge that, as an undergraduate, I know nothing. A third problem would also have to be that even if I found something which I thought was a possibility, I have no way of knowing how to follow up on evidence without extensive testing, not being familiar with the quick and easy research and analysis so common of, say, those on Language Log. They don’t normally give an account of how much effort they put into each article, there. But in Mark Liberman’s case, at least, I suspect around an hour. For me, it would probably take a few turns of the sun to publish his weekly amount of posts.

    I bring this up because I’ve been reading from The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, a book by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. Somewhere in the middle of the book they managed to completely answer a question I had at one time considered for my thesis. The question I had raised required an examination of the works of William Morris, Lord Dunsany, (early) J.R.R. Tolkien, E.F Eddings, George Macdonald, and their contemporaries, to identify whether the writing style they use is consistent, and whether it was prevalent at the time, or was an invented archaic form of English used to deepen the historical/mythical context of their work. This would have particularly looked at archaic lexical items, but also at sentence structures and some morphology, like -eth. Unfortunately, this entire book seems to have done that for me. I was right in my suspicions: William Morris, in particular, seems to love archaic english, as well as neo-archaic-logisms. (A matter of terminology: being an undergraduate, I don’t even know what words to use half o the time. Alas.) For all who are interested, I highly suggest the book.

    But that question was answered, and fully. This happening occurs more often than not, which is another reason being an undergraduate blogger, or for that matter linguist, is difficult. I often don’t know what has or has not been done.

    Here’s a question of I thought of while reading the book that I think might be a good research question. The problem is that I am unable to phrase it beyond a simple “perhaps this is because of this.” And this may be what this blog, as opposed to Language Log, which gives answers, may be reduced to.

    So, “relatively few of the many Old English words beginning with dw- survive in modern English (dwarf of course being one.) It is notable that several obsolete ones had similar meanings, such as the OED’s dwale n.1 terror, delusion; deceit, fraud), dwale n.3 (stupefying drink, deadly nightshade), dwalm v. (to swoon), and dwele v. (to go astray, to swoon.)” (Gilliver, 109)

    I did some searching in my OED. Dwalm is also a noun, a fainting spell. Dway-berry is a berry of the Nightshade plant (which seems to suggest some sort of kinship with dwale). Dwble and dwang are two obsolete Scottish terms, the first an alternative of ‘double’ and the second an architecture term. Dwelth is an error, delusion. Dweomercræft and -lyk are two more which are common only in Tolkien, currently, meaning magic art, sorcery. Dwer is obsolete for bower. The list goes on, but it barely spans two pages.

    Cognates of dwell, dwarf, and dwindle are the only ones with active modern usage. Dwile might be, as an alternative for mop – it’s used as late as 1927 according to the OED. Dwine, on the other hand, a synonym for dwindle, appears to be used by Sir Arthur Scott, but doesn’t seem to have survived past that. Scott is notorious for introducing archaic forms into his writing, many of which we retain: hostel is one such word. I suspect that dwine isn’t common because dwindle could also be used.

    When one looks at any entry beginning with tw- however, there are hundreds. And so, the question is: is this a diachronic example of a shift in phonotactic constraints, disallowing a voiced alveolar stop onset followed by labiovelar approximant? I don’t know. I’m left sitting on the couch musing like a 15 year old English Literature student (not that I have anything against them, as a whole, merely that I wasn’t very scientific when I was one.) Various diagnostics might be run to find out the history and evolution of phonotactic constraints, such as simulations, examples of failed borrowings into english of other dw- words, or a search at the shift from old dw- germanic roots to, say, tw-. If anyone has any other suggestions, do let me know. It could also just be a ridiculously small category of words, as would probably happen to some combination, at some point. But I’m not entirely convinced that the paucity is due to arbitrary reasons.

    And until I find out, since I can’t do anything else, I’ll just keep blogging.

    Posted in Linguistics Musing | 1 Comment