Thursday, 9 June 2016

Stop! Grammar time. Past participles

You all know what a past participle is, even if you don't know that that is what it's called. For many English verbs, it ends in -ed, like walked and talked and chewed gum.  Any neologisms, or verbified nouns, will take -ed as the past participle form.

There's another large set of verbs that taken -en, like eaten and taken and given or variants on the theme, like blown, drawn and sewn. And some more that end in -t, like bent and gilt and kept and meant.

And then, because this is the English language we're talking about, there a whole heap of irregular verbs that do a whole heap of weird shit. Some of it is because, at heart, English is a Germanic language, and so we still have some strong verbs, where the past tense is marked by changing the vowel sound, like sing → sung; bind bound; fly → flown; hold → held, and win → won

There are some English verbs that used to be strong, but have gradually become weak, like laugh → laught/laughen (now laughed), and work → wrought (now worked). Note that 'wrought' is the past participle of work, not wreak.

There are the 'ought' verbs, like seek → sought, think → thought, and fight → fought. By the way there is absolutely no excuse for mixing up bought and brought. If you buy something, you bought it, but if you bring something, you brought it.

Finally, there's suppletion, where two different Old English verbs get mooshed into one. The two classic examples are go/went and be/was. We still see 'went' in 'wend', as in, 'to wend one's way home along the winding road'. For both of those, the past participles are semi-regular: go → gone, and be → been. But the past participle of clothe can be clad or clothed, coming respectively from two similar, but nevertheless distinct, OE verbs

Where there are two endings, the Americans tend to go for the more regular (the -ed) version, while the Brits stick with the irregular one. So gilded vs gilt, spoiled vs spoilt, dreamed vs dreamt. Sometimes, a verb might have two or more alternatives, with different nuances or usages like swollen and swelled, pleaded and pled, and hanged and hung (note that, in general, a picture is hung, a person is hanged).

All of which is a very long winded way of making you understand why I was so chuffed with a recent discovery. The Latin verb adolesco means "I grow up", so an 'adolescent' is one who is growing up. The past participle of adolesco is adultus, whence 'adult', or one who has grown up.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Language is a many gendered thing

English has largely given up on grammatical genders. Boats are still mostly feminine ('May God bless her and all who sail in her'), as are countries (return to the motherland). But tables and books and floors are genderless. On the other hand, if you learn any other PIE language, you need to come to grips with gender. (And if you're learning Latin, as I am, not only do you need gender, but also declension.)

I'm going to go with the bold assumption that you, my dear reader, have had at least some exposure to another PIE language, even if it was just a couple of years of German in primary school, or a crash course in Italian before travelling there, and that you therefore have some concept of grammatical gender. (If you haven't, you could read this.)

You therefore know that if you want to write the green balloon in French, then you not only need to know the word for 'balloon', but you also need to know the gender of the word, so you can use the correctly gendered version of 'the' and 'green'. In French, 'balloon' is masculine, so 'the' and 'green' must also be masculine: le ballon vert.

Calvin & Hobbes 26 Feb 14 (?)

So what relation does the grammatical gender bear to the natural gender? And when and why did English drop grammatical gender, and what are the implications?

Saturday, 19 March 2016

You and you (and God)

One of the 'fun' things about learning another language is dealing with the peculiarities of our own. Like how a simple subject-verb expression like "je danse" (French) or "[yo] bailo" (Spanish) or "[ego] ballo" (Latin) has three, yep, three English translations: I dance, I am dancing, I do dance. Native English speakers know intuitively which form to use, and that the ones with the auxiliary verbs (am, do) are more often used with negative expressions (I'm not dancing, I don't dance), and the differences between them.

One of the few places where the English language has a marked deficiency of equivalences is in the second person pronoun "you". One constantly has to write "you (s.)" or "you (pl.)" or worse still "y'all" or the more Australian (if less grammatically correct) "youse". It wasn't always like this.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The quick and the dead

"There are two types of pedestrians: the quick and the dead."

Or so says the blackboard on the side of the pub I drive past on my way to work. Like similar phrases about gunslingers, it plays on the changed meaning of the word "quick".

Well, I'm alive, so yeah.

Shakespeare was the first to use the phrase "the quick and the dead", in Hamlet. (Ophelia, despite being a suicide, is to receive a proper Christian burial.) It was subsequently picked up in the King James version (KJV) of the Bible, which has ensured its ongoing familiarity.*

In both cases, it relies on an (even then) archaic meaning of the word "quick" meaning "living" or "alive". It's etymology can be traced through proto-Germanic and back to proto-Indo-European words meaning "lively" or "alive". In Latin, the same PIE root is evident is "vivere", and in turn to the Spanish viva or the English survive and vivacious. Over time, "quick" changed from "aliveness" to "liveliness", and thence to the sense of "fast", or "moving with speed".

However, in addition to the phrase "the quick and the dead", the concept lives on in "the quickening", the expression still used for when a baby is first felt to move in its mother's womb, that is, when it is considered to have come to life.

*Yes, Shakespeare pre-dates the KJV: Shakespeare is Elizabethan; King James was her successor

Rather heavily plagiarised from
Wikipedia, and Common Errors, and 

Wednesday, 24 February 2016


I was listening to chapter 10 of the very excellent "The History of the Alphabet" and learned lots of stuff that made me go "hunh", which I thought I'd share with you.

Firstly, I'll remind you that our Latin alphabet came from the Etruscans, who got it from the Greeks, who got it from the Phoenicians, who got it from the Ancient Egyptians who used it to represent the language of the Semitic-speaking workers in Egypt. Got that?

The Phoenicians didn't have much truck with vowels, but did have a bunch of other sounds that we don't have in the PIE languages. The Greeks on the other hand, did have vowels, so used two of the sound-symbols they wouldn't otherwise use as vowels. These were 'alep (used for the /a/ sound) and 'eyn (used for the /o/ sound).

Initially, the Greeks used just the one symbol, of a circle, to represent the /o/ sound, both long and short. (In fact, many other alphabets also use a circle to represent this sound, possibly because of the shape the mouth makes when producing it.). Short-o is the sound in /hot/ or /body/; long-o is the sound in /hope/ or /bone/.
Omicron, upper and lower case (Wikipedia)

Then at some point around 660BCE, and no-one knows quite why, the Greeks introduced a second symbol to represent the long-o, leaving the original symbol to handle only the short-o.
Omega, upper and lower case (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Quote marks for emphasis

Now y'all know that quote marks around a word or phrase often indicate supposed, alleged or so-called.

Peter's "mates" left him in the park to die.
I sacked the "experts" and did it myself.

(Note: don't use quote marks as well as the words supposed, alleged or so-called - that's tautologising. For example: don't say Peter's so-called "mates" left him in the park to die.)

This means using quote marks for emphasis can convey quite the opposite meaning to that which is intended. (All pics pilfered from the net.)

Reference "Grammar Rules: Writing with Military Precision" by Craig Shrives (2011)

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Indo-European language family tree

Here is a gorgeous graphic for the Indo-European language family:

From this Business Insider link, which links to Hive Mill from whence you can order the poster.