Endangered Languages, Sociolinguistics

Sami language on Swedish state television

Swedes are often quick to judge Americans and Australians for the way the indigenous cultures and languages are disappearing – but we often forget how we have treated the Sami. “Sami” is an official Swedish minority language nowadays – though “Sami” is a common term for several smaller, quite independent language varieties. The Sami language(s) is a Finno-Ugric language – this means that it is very different from almost all other languages spoken in Europe. But then again, the Finno-Ugric languages have lived in close contact with Indo-European languages for a long time, and there has been lots of language contacts.

Both the Swedish and English wikipedia entries about Sami are quite good!

Swedish state television has a short segment about the fact that several courses in Sami is being presently taught in Sweden:

Here’s a good English speaking short segment (5 minutes) about the history of the Sami language:

etymology, Semantics

Where did our color names come from?


Did you know that brun ‘brown’ once also covered the lila ‘purple’ color area? And that even further back it also meant ‘shining’. That lila ‘purple’ and rosa ‘pink’ are named after or possibly gave name to flowers (Syringa and Rose respectively). That orange ‘orange’ comes (via German) from French, meaning ‘gold’?. That turkos ‘turquois’ comes from the French expression pierre turquoise (stones from Turkey – the stones of this color found there and used for jewellry). That the term blå ‘blue’ once also covered more svart ‘black’ color nuances. That grön ‘green’ is probably derived from ‘vegetation-color’. And that it’s highly likely that there was no unique name for the rosa ‘pink’ color region back in Viking terms – it was just considered a red color.

Oh, I’d love to make a much longer post about this, but as it is I’m just going to post some brief research notes on the origin of Swedish color terms.
Svart    ’black’    Proto-Germanic, possibly also connected to Latin sordes ’dirt’?
Vit    ’white’    Traceable to Indo-European
Röd    ’red’    Traceable to Indo-European
Grön    ’green’    Traceable to Germanic, from ’grow’ > ’grow-colored’? From color of vegetation?
Blå    ’blue’    Traceable to Germanic ’blue, black’ > ’blue’
Gul    ’yellow’    Traceable to PIE, g̑hel- ‘, ‘yellow, bright color’, Possibly yellow-green? Also found in Sanskrit, Greek.
Orange    ’orange’    First attested 1640. < German < French or ’gold’
Turkos    ’turquoise’    First attested 1538, < French pierre turquoise
Brun    ’brown’    Traceable to Indo-European: ’brown, shining’
Lila    ’purple’    First attestted in 1805, < French, name of the Syringa flower
Grå    ’grey’    Traceable to Germanic
Rosa    ’pink’    First attested 1773, < Romance language (French?). Gave name to, or got form, Rose flower.


Making swearing illegal…

Most Swedes have clued in on the fact that sometimes, but not always, swearing in American tv-programs is replaced with a beep. The difference has to do with if the tv-program is on cable or not, and when it is shown. The reason is moralistic – swearing is seen as immoral and degenerative, so the Federal Communications Commission decided that a certain number of words were off limits.

There are actually positive effects of swearing – among other things it can relieve pain. But it is not a property of the swear words themselves, which is why the FCC ban seems so silly. Rather, the effect of swear words lies in their controversial and schocking nature, and this is an effect that deteriorates. In the image below you can see several British swear words from 2006 (BBC study: Delete Expletives?) and how Brits ranked them for severity. But by now, six years later, it is likely that the list has changed.


American linguistics professor John McWhorter (who is most known for his work on creoles) writes an article for CNN about a recent town hall decision in Massachusetts to ban swearing there. He concludes that: “alternate word we would quite possibly use for “stuff”? And a lot? What our great-grandparents considered profanity is, for us, merely colorful. We teach our kids not to use it — but are hardly surprised that they start doing so later.”

So what is a swear word can change quickly – but the law is explicitly designed not to move quickly. You cannot control swearing by banning specific words. You would have to ban something like “general displays of excessive anger” – but I think we can all see how such a law can be misused.

Professor McWhorter also relates a friends story about the “N-word”, which, for those Swedes who haven’t deciphered it yet, is “Nigger”. “Nigger” is seen as incredibly offensive in the US, and must not be used by non-black people, since it is seen as a symbol of extreme oppression*. Yet it is often heard spoken or sung by black people in popular culture, and can then be interpreted as meaning “fellow” or “guy”. At some point in time, this taboo will probably go away, but for now people are sometimes a little unsure how to act. McWhorter says: “a friend of mine, white, recently told me that her boys are attending a mostly black public school and making a lot of friends — but also picking up their way of using the N-word as a marker of fellowship. So, let’s fine them $20 for embracing diversity?”


This situation is not unique for the US at all – many language communities have similar rules about words that can only be uttered by specific people.


“Congratulations is” or “congratulations are”?

I watched the reality show Masterchef, and Gordon Ramsey said “I believe congratulations IS in order”. He’s British.

If you google this, it seems that “Congratulations are in order” is the far most common way of saying this (i.e treating the noun as a plural, rather than a singular seems to be the standard.)

I think the “congratulations is in order” interpretations come from treating  the noun as a citation:

“I think a ‘CONGRATULATIONS’ is in order”.

In general, citations wreck all kinds of havock to the morphology and syntax of sentences!


Are there true synonyms? “Shore” and “coast”

Huh, never thought about this before – but the difference between the words “shore” and “coast” is pretty cool. Both have to do with the strip of land closest to the sea. You can say:

I can see the shore from here!

I can see the coast from here!

Evans (2009) claims that the former has a predominantly sea-to-land based perspective. You’re likely to say it if you’re on a boat look towards land. The latter has a land-to-sea based perspective. You’re more likely to say it if you’re on land, looking towards the sea.

And – consider that “coast-to-coast trip” means a trip over land, while “shore-to-shore trip” means a trip over water.


Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How words mean lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10409021.

African languages, Grammar, Tense Mode Aspect

Cool tenses in Bamileke!

So apparantly the language Bamileke-Dschang (a Bantu language spoken in Cameroon) has five relative time references. I ran across this while reading Evans (2009) and got so distracted I had to go find the original article (Hyman 1980):

There are five general distinctions:

proximate (+- a very short time)
same day (+- a few hours)
one day away (+- a day)
some days away (+-2 or more days)
long time away (+- a year or more)

So, it has five past tenses:

just did something
did something earlier today
did something yesterday
did something before yesterday, some days ago
did something a long time ago, e.g. a year or more ago

… and five future tenses

is about to do something
will do something (later today)
will do something (tomorrow)
will do something (after tomorrow, some days from now)
will do something (a long time, e.g. a year or more, from now)

But when these are combined in a sentence with two verbs, the first verb’s tense is relative to the second verb’s tense!

“These sentences have two readings. If the tense of the second clause is interpreted as referring to the present time of the discourse, (5) is read’he said [yesterday] that you will see the child [tomorrow]’ and (6) is read ‘he will say [tomorrow] that you saw the child [yesterday]’. In such a case the F3 and P3 tenses have absolute time reference. In a second reading, however, the tense of the second clause refers to the time represented by the tense of the first clause. In this case the reading of (5) is ~he said [yesterday] that you will see the child [today]’, and that of (6) is ‘he will say [tomorrow] that you saw the child [today]’. In this case, the F3 and P3 tenses have relative time reference.” (Hyman 1980)


Now, Germanic languages can do cool stuff with time too, but not nearly on the same scale. The most advanced we can get is something like “This coming december he will have been three months behind on his rent”.


Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How words mean lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10409021.

Hyman, Larry M. 1980. Relative Time Reference in the Bamileke Tense System. Studies in African Linguistics, vol 11, no 2, August.


Guv’na! The lord’s prayer in Cockney

Me ol’ china plate [=friend] Sigi, showed me”The Bible in Cockney” a few days ago – Cockney is a dialact from East End in London, and Cockney Rhyming slang is a fascinating local dialect and language game, where some words are exchanged for others that rhyme. Read more about it here: http://www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk/


Here’s the lord’s prayer (the main Christian prayer) in Cockney:


‘ello, Dad, up there in good old ‘eaven,
Your name is, well, great and ‘oly,
and we respect you, Guv.
We ‘ope we can all ‘ave a butcher’s at ‘eaven
and be there as soon as possible.
And we want to make you ‘appy, Guv,
and do what you want ‘ere on earth,
just like what you do in ‘eaven.
Guv, please give us some Uncle Fred,
and enough grub and stuff to keep us going today.
And we ‘ope you’ll forgive us when we cock things up,
just like we’re supposed to forgive them who annoy us
and do dodgy stuff to us.
There’s a lot of dodgy people around, Guv;
please don’t let us get tempted to do bad things.
‘elp keep us away from all the nasty, evil stuff
and keep that dodgy Satan away from us,
‘cos you’re much stronger than ‘im.
You’re the Boss, God,
and will be forever, innit?

And for those of us who’ve forgotten most of what we learnt in high school’s Comparative Religion Study classes, here’s an English version for comparison:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial

and deliver us from evil.



The awesomeness that is a continually shifting and evolving sociophysical matrix

Just ran across a great quote about meaning that I wante to share. Might be a bit dense for non-linguists, but, trust me, it’s beautiful.

“(…) the range of symbolic units available to the language user massively underdetermine the range of situations, events, states, relationships, and other interpersonal functions that the language user may potentially seek to use language to express and fullfil. One reason for this is that language users live in a sociophysical matrix that is continually shifting and evolving. No two situations, feelings or relationships, at any given point in time, are exactly alike.” (Evans 2009, 71)



Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How words mean lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10409021.


The history of COWABUNGA!

If you image google COWABUNGA the images you get things like this:

Cowabunga Bart Simpson  Cowabunga turtles

So, surfers and turtles! Explosive, exciting things happening.

I’m not a native speaker of English, but learnt the language mainly through watching tv* – personally I believe much of my vocabulary was formed under the influence of Little House on the Prairie and Star Trek… (-:

I did watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well, and learnt the word COWABUNGA! A word of action, when a turtle would do something (typically a really cool drop kick).

But where does the word come from? John Algeo is an avid word fan and linguist, the author of a lot of books on neologisms (=new words). He’s tracked the word down. Turns out it has nothing to do with surfers or turtle action heroes, but was an expression created for Chief Thunderthud, a Native American character on an American children’s show from the mid 20th century (Algeo 1980). He apparantly used the word to express disappointment. When he was happy, he said “Kawagoopa” instead.

So it’s an imagined Native American greeting! Stereotypical and a bit racit? Sure. Well, at least they knew Native Americans had their own languages, I guess that’s something. Pre-columbus there were around 300 languages in North America. Now there are only about 25 left that aren’t moribound.

*About 1/3 of the programs on the Swedish state tv-channels are English nowadays, and about 4/5 of the programs on smaller channels are in English.

About the blog, Uncategorized


Being a language geek is not strictly required for a PhD position in linguistics, but I find it helps.

The purpose of this blog is to amass all the weird little language trivia that I run across – without me having to actually think too much about analysis, proper academic phrasing or getting a bad rep for publishing low quality linguistic texts about inconsequential stuff. This is just for fun!

My real webpage is here and my department homepage is here.