The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

The good people at the Speculative Grammarian, the premier scholarly journal in field of satirical linguistics, sent me a review copy of their book, The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics, and asked me if I could write a review. This is what they said:

“Of course, we think the book is quite funny, though you aren’t necessarily expected to agree. Much of our “Advance Praise” for the book is insulting, non-committal, or backhanded, so we aren’t particularly averse to such comments, especially if they are amusing. In fact, as a special offer to the most desirable reviewers, we’re willing to accept a mildly amusing (including insulting, non-committal, or backhanded) review without you having read any of the book.”

This is my, not entirely serious, review:

The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics book contains 360 pages, some with writing on, some blank, so if you read one page a day it would take almost a year to get through. I don’t have that time to devote to the fine and neglected field of satirical linguistics, so I skimmed through it, reading bits here and there, and looking at the pictures. I even got some of the jokes.

The articles are a selection of the best ones from the Speculative Grammarian website brought together in one place for your convenience, with extra introductions, appendices and other bits. The articles cover all aspects of satirical linguistics from definitions of linguistics (inconclusive) to field linguistics (what to pack, etc), and also linguistic love poetry and a guide to mytholingual creatures. Some articles should be approached with extreme caution only by highly trained stunt linguists. You have been warned!


I learned a new word today – apocope [əˈpɒkəpiː], which is the loss of phonemes from the ends of words, particularly unstressed vowels.

It comes from the Greek word ἀποκόπτω (apokoptein), which means ‘cutting off’ and comes from ἀπό (apo-), ‘away’ and κόπτω (koptein), ‘to cut’.

Apocope is a mechanism which erodes some inflections and other word endings, and creates new ones, when words that were once separate become bound together. It also refers to the process of abbreviating words by dropping their endings.

Here are some examples:
pānis (Latin for bread) > pan(em) (Vulgar Latin)> pan (Spanish), pane (Italian), pain (French), paõ (Portuguese)
– advertisement > advert > ad
– photographh > photo
– credibility > cred
– barbecue > barbie
– fanatic > fan

The term for phonemes being dropped from the beginning of a word is apheresis (/əˈfɛrɨsɪs/), Here are some examples:

– esquire > squire
– knife (/ˈknaɪf/) > /ˈnaɪf/ – the k was pronounced in Middle English
– telephone > phone
– ysbwriel > sbwriel (Welsh for rubbish, litter)
– ysgrifennu > sgrifennu (Welsh for to write), which has become sgwennu in some dialects of Welsh.

When a word loses internal phonemes, the process is known as syncope (/ˈsɪŋkəpiː/). Examples include:

– forecastle > fo’c’s’le
– never > n’er (poetic)
– over > o’er (poetic)

Source: Wikipedia, World Wide Words and

Tlingit revitalisation

I came across an interesting article today about efforts to revitalise Tlingit in Alaska. It mentions how some Tlingit speakers are unwilling to speak their language to their children and grandchildren because they were punished for speaking it when were at school. This resulted in feelings of shame for the Tlingit language and culture which have left deep psychological scars which need to be addressed. The piece suggests that talking about these experiences and feelings can help to overcome them. Many language revitalisation efforts face similar problems.

Another article I found talks about the setting up of a language revitalisation program in Alsaka that was recently launched. A comment on the article suggests that the best way to revitalise a language is for parents and elders to speak to children in their native language while doing every day activities. This is true, however the parents and elders aren’t always willing to do this for the reasons mentioned in the first article.

Linguistic landscape

Last Saturday I went to a study day about the Isle of Man put on by the Centre for North-West Regional Studies at Lancaster University. One of the talks was about the Manx language and used quotes from my dissertation – it was great to be recognised like that, and the speaker was quite surprised when I introduced myself to him afterwards.

As well as touching on the decline and revival of the language, he also looked at the linguistic landscape of Manx – i.e. the ways Manx is appears on signs and on printed material. What he demonstrated was that Manx translations are often smaller than the English ones, and/or in a different font. The most common fonts are in the Irish uncial style, or An Cló Gaelach. This gives the impression that Manx is less important than English, he suggested.

Here are some examples:

Some bilingual Manx signs

There are more examples on Flickr.

He compared the Manx signs with bilingual signs in Wales, on which both languages are usually the same size and font, and with the Welsh usually first.

Some bilingual Welsh signs

He also mentioned that in Quebec the French is usually twice as big as the English, or other language, on signs.

If you live in an area where there are bilingual or multilingual signs, what is the linguistic landscape like?

Spoken language is a special type of music

According to an article I came across yesterday music might be what enables us to acquire language, and spoken language could be thought of as a special type of music.

When acquiring language babies first hear speech as “an intentional and often repetitive vocal performance” and they learn to hear and mimic its emotional and musical components, such as rhythm and pitch, before they start to learn and focus on meaning. Being able to distinguish the different sounds of speech seems to be an essential first step for the acquisition of language. Newborn babies are able to distinguish phonemes of any language they hear, but gradually focus on the language(s) they hear most often.

The researchers also found connections between how the brain processes consonants and how it recognize the timbre of different instruments – both processes that require rapid processing.

These findings lend support to the idea that singing came before speech, as discussed in The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen.

I find that it helps to spend time listening to a language to tune your ears to its sounds, and to mimic those sounds, even though you don’t understand what they mean at first – a bit like a baby. If you spend plenty of time listening to a language, when you learn words and phrases it’s easier because they already sound familiar. I probably heard hundreds of hours of Taiwanese while I was in Taiwan, for example, so it sounds familiar, even though I don’t understand much. If I decided to learn more of it, I would find it easier than a language I haven’t heard so much.

Some would call this passive listening, but it isn’t passive – your brain is busily working away trying to make sense of all these strange sounds you’re filling it with and looking for patterns. You can’t learn a language simply by listening – conversational interactions with others are also needed – but I think listening is an important part of the learning process.


I came across an interesting article today about the Wiradjuri language and how it is being revived. In 1981 only three people spoke Wiradjuri and by 2009 no native speakers remained, however since 1988 the language has been revived, thanks particularly to the efforts of Stan Grant Senior, a Wiradjuri elder, who worked with a linguist called Dr John Rudder to produce a Waridjuri dictionary, which was published in 2005.

Currently 10% of the people in the towns of Parkes and Forbes in New South Wales speak Wiradjuri, and increasing numbers are learning it. It is taught in schools and colleges in these town at all levels to children and young people from all backgrounds.

Attitudes to the Waridjuri people, culture and language have been transformed not just among the children, but also among their parents and others in these towns. No longer do the Aboringial children sit at the back of classes being ignored and/or taunted by the other children, no longer are they ashamed of their language. Instead they have developed a strong sense of identity and self-respect, and are doing well in school. Non-Aboriginal children are also learning and enthusiastic about the Waridjuri language and culture.

It’s great to hear about successful language revival like this that has community support and which is helping to bring a community together.

Aramaic revival with help from Sweden

I found an interesting article today about efforts to revive the Aramaic language in Israel. The Syriac variety of Aramaic is used in the Maronite Christian and Syrian Orthodox churches, where prayers are chanted in the language, though few understand them. Only the elderly members of the community still speak the language, which is the case for many other endangered languages. It seems that transmission of the language within families has broken down and in an effort to make up for this, children are taught the language in two schools for a few hours a week on a voluntary basis. This is unlikely to produce many fluent speakings – using the language as a medium of instruction would be a more effective way of doing that – but it’s better than nothing.

There are also Aramaic speaking communities in Sweden, who produce various publications, including a newspaper and children’s books, and also run a television station in Aramaic. The TV station gives the Maronite and Syrian Orthodox communities in Israel opportunities to hear Aramaic being used in non-religious contexts, which encourages them to use the language more.

Dialect, vernacular, patois?

The other I found quite an interesting article about Shanghainese which suggest that’s it has become a bit more popular recently, and is being used for some announcements in public transport and on planes, and that children are allowed to speak it at one school, at least during breaks.

The article says that about 10 million people in Shanghai speak Shanghainese, and then another 10 million don’t. Some of the non-Shanghainese speakers “consider the vernacular pride movement either unnecessary or unwelcome.”, and one woman who has spent most of her life in Shanghai seems to proud that she doesn’t speak Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is variously referred to as a lingua, a dialect, a vernacular and a patois at different points in the article, though not a language.

Though there are slight plenty of Shanghainese speakers, there are apparently relatively few young speakers, which is not a good sign for its future.

By hook or by crook

I went to two talks by David Crystal at Bangor University yesterday – one was entitled “By Hook or by Crook” and the other was on Shakespeare’s English, focusing particularly on original pronunciation (OP) – a reconstruction of the way people spoke in Shakepeare’s day. Both talks were fascinating and full of information and anecdotes.

In the first David explained how he finds interesting linguistics tidbits wherever he goes, and that when he’s at a loose end, he’ll go wandering in search of them. For example, on a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, he also went to Snitterfield, a small village nearby where Shakepeare’s grandfather lived. He discovered that the snitter in Snitterfield comes from snyten, an old word for snipe, from the Old English sníte. So he wondered whether there were any snipe around and asked a local, who said that he’d seen a wisp of snipe recently.

The word wisp caught David’s attention, and this set him thinking about where collective nouns like this come from. He discovered that the first known appearance in writing of a lot of them is in lists compiled in monastries in the medieval period. He thought that the monks might have come up with some of these collective nouns as a game – the sort of thing that still happens.

As he was describing some of the linguistic tangents he pursues, I realised that I often do something similar and write about them here. Although I haven’t written any books yet – David has written over 100.

The second talk gave examples of how some passages in Shakespeare work better in OP. Some rhymes and jokes, for example, only work in OP. He gave lots of examples, which I don’t remember, unfortunately.

Monolingual USA?

The other day I found an interesting article in the New York Times about monolingualism and multilingualism in the USA and elsewhere. There’s a widespread belief that most Americans are monolingual in English, and that elsewhere it’s common for people to know two or more languages. The article asks whether this belief is true.

The question about language in the US census focuses on language use at home and doesn’t ask about use of languages other than English elsewhere, and the writer points out that many Americans who speak foreign languages speak only English at home, so for the purposes of the census they are monoglot English speakers. According to the 2009 census, for example, 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. The aim of the census is not to discover people’s foreign language skills, but to “track immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society and to ascertain what services they need, and in what languages”, so this is understandable.

The writer suggests that a better question would be “Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue?”, which was asked in a survey by the European Commission in 2006 – 56% of those who completed that survey answered yes. So perhaps the assumption that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal and unremarkable in much or the world is not entirely true. There are no reliable figures on this anyway, so it’s impossible to be sure. The conclusion is that Americans may be no more or less multilingual than people in other countries.