As at this stage there was not a generally accepted spelling system, confusion increased as the pronunciation of words slowly changed. In some cases there was a clear discrepancy between the written and the spoken word, as certain letters inserted in it were not pronounced, as in ‘debt’ /det/ – in this case it is due to its Latin etymology, debitum, dubitare -or ‘gh’ in ‘light’. Many scholars thought that English spelling was arbitrary, as its written form even varied from one writer to another. Sir John Cheke, for instance, doubled long vowels; ‘taak, haat, maad, mijn, thijn’ = ‘take, hate, made, mine, thine’. Richard Stanyhurst wrote ‘thee’ for ‘the’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘mee’, ‘neere’, etc. Also it is not clear to which extent is the writing indebted to the writer or to the printer, since most printers took advantage of the variability of English spelling to ‘justify’ a line.

Even in excerpts written by just one author we can come across different spellings for the same word, as in the case of the pamphlets written by Greene, where we find ‘coney’, ‘cony’, ‘conny’, ‘conye’, ‘conie’, ‘connie’, ‘coni’, ‘cuny’, ‘cunny’ and cunnie’.

As a result, there were several attempts to draw up rules;

  • in 1568, Thomas Smith increases the alphabet to 34 letters and marked the long vowels in his work “Dialogue concerning the correct and emended writing of the English language”.

  • In 1569 and 1570, John Hart in his works “An Orthographie” and “A method or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English”, he makes special characters for -dh, -sh and -th.


  • In 1580 there is an attempt at establishing a phonetic reform devised by William Bullokar in his “Booke at large for the amendment of orthographie for English speech”, in which he profits by mistakes made by Smith and Hart in the aforementioned works and invents few special characters but introduces the use of accents, apostrophes and hooks above and below the letters.

  • Later, in 1634, Charles Butler substitutes an inverted apostrophe for final e’s and a special character for -th, with scarce success in his work “The English grammar, or the institution of letters, syllables and woords in the English tung”.

  • Mulcaster clearly perceives all of the previous attempts as a waste in his work “Elemmentarie”, the most important treatise on English spelling in the 16th century and his virtue is moderation, being willing to compromise between the ideal and the practical. If the differences between one sound and another were too subtle, it was inevitable to use one letter for different sounds, which for him was not worse than using the same word in different senses. Also, since pronunciation changes constantly, he could not adhere to the proposals by the phonetic reformers. For him, popular approval was the final authority. Thus, he would get rid of superfluous letters (putt, grubb, ledd), would not omit necessary ones (fetch, catch), allowed double consonants only when they belong to separate syllables (wit.ting) and ended words in -ss as -sse (glasse), otherwise final -e indicating long preceding vowels (made-mad, stripe-strip) among other suggestions. He wrote “General Table”, a book with the recommended spelling for 7,000 words.

  • Ben Jonson drew from Mulcaster -as he acknowledged in the preface of his “Dictionary” in 1755, and finally established a solid basis for modern English spelling by 1650.

Word formation in English

Morphology is the branch that deals with the internal structure of words, whose structure are mainly modified by means of two phenomena: INFLECTION and DERIVATION.

  • Inflection: interacts with syntax. In English there are just a few examples left such as the genitive ‘s, but it’s almost inexistent in Present day English. In Old English inflection was quite rich.

  • Derivation: the introduction of new elements in the vocabulary leads to the creation of new words. It’s the most dynamic mechanism in word formation.

UM_pc012_A79-041_008_0007_005_0001 - Example of Elizabeth trance automatic writing

L.R. Trask pointed out the importance of other mechanisms involved in word-formation:

  • COMPOUNDING: the combination of two terms create a new term. One of the members usually qualifies (qualifier) the other (head). For example football, blackbird, greenhouse.

  • CONVERSION or ZERO DERIVATION: moving one word from a lexical category to another with no affixation or modificaion. Drink>verb>>noun

  • CLIPPING: reducing a word to a shorter form: telephone, brassiere, gymnasium > phone, bra, gym. It shouldn’t be mixed up with abbreviation. We don’t call it clipping until it has become a regular conventional word.

  • BLENDING: combination of compounding and clipping. Abbreviated forms of two terms combined into a single word: motel, heliport, Eurovision, brunch.

  • BACK-FORMATION: need of speakers to maximize existing strategies in an economic and convenient way. The suffix -er is added to verbs to denote the agent that performs the action (lover, singer). At different points English borrowed from Latin: sculptor, actor, editor. From Norman French: lecher, burglar. All these end up in what seems to be a phonetic variant of -er and are reinterpreted as one of their compounds: verb + agent indicator, and after accepting the noun, they start using the 1st morpheme as a verb.

  • REANALYSIS: using similar mechanisms to those of back-formation but more complex. Notion is similar to analogy. It’s necessary step previous to analogical development. Trask uses the following example to illustrate reanalysis: bikini = piece of clothing in two parts. Originally, Bikini was related to an atoll where the earliest nuclear bomb tests took place; thus, the meaning it confers to the piece of clothing is that it is supposed to have huge impact compared to bathing suits; as in English the prefix bi- = two, when a new bathing suit involving only the bottom part of the bikini was launched, it was called monokini, as bi in bikini was re-analysed as bi = two.

  • FOLK ETYMOLOGY: speakers give a transparent meaning to a word with a dark structure. For instance: bridegroom = in ancient times [guma = man + bryd = bride] = brydguma = brideman. When guma disappeared, the origin of bridegroom became obscure. Then, speakers associated it with groom = servant. Today groom = somebody who works with horses.

  • INITIALISM: reduction of a phrase or name to a few letters (usually the first one) of the principal words. When the letters are spoken one by one. As in FBI, BBC.

  • ACRONYMS: reduction of a phrase or name to its initial letters, but pronouncing it as a new word: RADAR, NATO.

(From Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable).

The Fagus Line

Beech (Fagus Sylvatica Lynnaeus) is a species of beautiful, deciduous tree, with a smooth, greyish bark, native to certain parts of Europe -with a warmer climate-, Asia and North America. Its leaves are loosely toothed and hairy in spring, and the tree bears both male and female flowers on the same specimen; the small ones are unisexual, the female flowers bloom in pairs, and the male ones are anemophilous aments (cylindrical clusters of very tiny flowers). Flowers are produced in spring, once the leaves have already appeared. Its fruits (beechnuts) are edible and have a high tannin content. In the autumn, if you are trekking in the forest, it is easy to see the brown dried beechnuts on the ground. We call this tree haya in Spain, and the fruits are known as hayucos.

The name of the tree (Latin fagus) is of Indo-European origin, and played an important role in early debates on the geographical origins of the Indo-European people. And that is the aspect of beech trees that interests me today.

Fagus Sylvatica Lynnaeus

(Photo of my own three little Fagus Sylvatica splitting my garden in two areas 🙂 )

Within Europe, the common beech is restricted to central Europe, and it is not native east of Poland and Ukraine. The two main branches of Indo-European fall in either side of the line drawn by the imaginary line from Scandinavia to Greece -the Fagus line-, which splits Europe in two. Those two branches are known as the Centum group -the name comes from the word for “one hundred” in Latin- and the Satem group -from “one hundred” in Avestan-. The Centum group, West of the Fagus line, comprises Hellenic -although Greek φηγός, from the same root, was transferred to the oak tree (e.g. Odyssey & Iliad) as a result of the absence of beech trees in Greece– Italic, Germanic and Celtic. The Satem group comprises Indian, Iranian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic and Albanian.

The Fagus line theory depends on the existence of beech trees in the area as evidence by the vocabulary. For instance, in the Centum area, there are no ancient work for elephant, camel, lion, tiger or bamboo, but there are terms for freezing cold, oak, beech, pine, birch, willow, bear, wolf, otter, beaver, polecat and bee.

There is an exception though, Tocharian -belonging to the Centum group, as fragmentary texts have been found in West China. Nomads? Immigrants? A flawed theory?


(Tocharian writing, so beautiful!)

Language and colonialism

The history of Europe, together with historiographical documents produced here, has been shaped by colonial interests. These colonial interests are the result of the ideology of imperialism, which assumes the right to settle, exploit the resources and attempt to rule the native inhabitants, mostly to fit Europe’s interests -and then to try and brush the consequences under the carpet by shunning the immigrants-.


It was after the World War II that Britain lost interest in settlement, although the indigenous populations kept on being ruled by a European minority of small colonial elites, once the natives were dispossessed. India and Pakistan gained their independence from western rule in 1947, while the African colonies did in the 1960s. The process of recovering sovereignty and freedom from foreign rule is known as decolonisation, and was prompted to a large extent -in the case of the former British colonies- by the loss of power suffered by Britain after the disastrous WWII. After that, they pursued control without settlement.

The loose cultural and political denomination Commonwealth, which supposedly grouped together a number of countries with a common history of colonialism, and shared -imposed- history and language, is very well described by Shirley Chew: “a paradox sits at the heart of the Commonwealth -described as a free association of equal and mutually cooperating nations, it is drawn together by a shared history of colonial exploitation and dependence.”


Furthermore, colonisation is perpetuated in the mind of people and in the tissue of society by the idea of the “lower rank” of the colonised, systematically implanted by the coloniser. Once they persuade a generation to internalise their imposed values, these assumptions get easily passed on to the next generation. Thus, language proves to be the most effective of weapons for the never-ending process of colonisation, as “it carries culture, values by which we perceive our place in the world” (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o). It does not passively reflect reality, but it builds its own. We can better see it in Brian Friel’s play “Translations”; in an Irish village there is a school were all the characters in the play share a common space and exchange their views. However, they are not allowed to speak Irish in this school. Some are even convinced that the old language is a barrier to progress, while others just want to learn English in order to flee to the USA. Two English men arrive with a mission; one is an arrogant and distant cartographer, the other, a worker of the toponymic department and an ortographer who seems friendly and is interested in learning the native language. Their mission is to Anglicise the place-names -and also to cunningly “redistribute” the land. The topographical names hide traditional stories which would be utterly lost after the original names are replaced and standardised.

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins started their major development in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a consequence of European imperialism.

Pidginization is the process of simplification and hybridization of two or more languages that have come into contact. Should there be only two, there would exist a relation of dominance of one over the other, based mainly on power.

Usually, pidgin serves a limited and specific purpose such as trade. The mechanism of its creation is a progressive hybridization of words from a language ordered according to the syntax of the oher. Grammar gets simplified so as to facilitate communication and acquisition of pidgin by its users, who keep using their native language.

pidgin colored bumper sticker

Although not every pidgin becomes a creole, some pidgins are used for centuries and eventually evolve through means of a process known as creolization: the language which was previously used for purposeful communication is acquired now as a mother tongue by the new generation and have to meet the demand for all kinds of communicative needs and purposes, expanding and becoming more complex in its grammatical structure and its phonology. It may even become an official language as it happened in Papua New Guinea. Some pidgins, after undergoing the process of creolization have gained a status of language in their own right. Kishwahili, Hawaiian Creole English, or Haitian Creole -with five million speakers- are some of them.

What kind of a bilingual speaker are you?

In the net and the translation market places, we can find lots of people who claim to be native, bilingual or multilingual. But what exactly does this imply? Are they using the terms properly? When can an individual be considered as bilingual? And, which kind of bilingual?

A bilingual individual has some knowledge of two or more languages but, does this person need to be equally proficient in both languages in writing and speaking skills? Let’s see some theories about the phenomenon.


According to Weinreich (1953) there are three subtypes of bilingualism:

*Coordinate Bilingualism: languages are learned in different conditions and separate contexts (home, school) and meanings from both languages are stored separately in the mind.

*Compound Bilingualism: both languages are learned in the same context and meanings from both languages are intertwined in the mind (child learning both languages at home).

*Sub-coordinate Bilingualism: implies learning (at home) one of the languages first and the other later, one of them being dominant.

Macnamara (1967) classified bilingual individuals in two subtypes:

*Balanced bilinguals: who have equivalent competence in both (bilingual family and society where both languages have an equal status). It entails a high competence, although the speaker’s command may depending on the domains. The speaker would rarely be equally fluent about all topics in all contexts.

*Dominant bilinguals: their competence in one of the languages surpasses competence in the other, at least in some domains (a child learning one language from each parent, one of the languages being also used at school).


Lambert (1955) establishes that balance or dominance depends on the age of acquisition:

*Childhood Bilingualism: during the child’s cognitive development.

*Adolescent Bilingualism &*Adult Bilingualism: cognitive representation of the world is already completed.“Re-labeling”.

Childhood Bilingualism can be:

* Simultaneous Infant Bilingualism (L2 learned early in infancy, after some development of the acquisition of L1)

*Consecutive linguistic ability: basic linguistic ability in L1 and L2 acquired one right after the other.

Also, according to cultural identification (Hamers and Blanc, 1989), a speaker can be:

*Bi-cultural: identifies him/herself with both cultures. High proficiency does not imply bi-culturalism.

*Mono-cultural: the individual feels culturally identified with just one group.

*Acculturated: migration, implying that the target country will favour L2, can persuade someone to deny the culture related to his/her mother tongue and foster that of the target country. The speaker wish to blend into the new society and culture.

What kind of bilingual are you?

Observer’s Paradox

Yesterday I was sitting in front of my terrapins, watching them. I have a male one and a female one, and they’ve been devoting some of their time to courtship lately. Mainly the male one, as the female specimen looks quite unresponsive to the male’s advances and his display of attentions. They belong to the family Trachemys and, when they reach their sexual maturity, they perform a nuptial dance. Well, the male one does, mostly, although she performs it sometimes, when she’s in the mood, as if she was encouraging him not to lose heart.

As I sat there watching them, my male terrapin, Mafaldo, started dancing as he always does: palms of his little hands facing upwards, and fingers flickering lightly and swiftly producing delicate caresses on the female’s face. In the meantime, the female one, Chupachusa, sat right there, just like me, but without my curiosity or any remarkable prospect at acknowledging the male’s presence: eyes closed, just in case his extremely long fingernails land accidentally in them, legs retracted partially inside her shell. Contrary to her, I thought it was a very interesting event, and I proceeded to record it with my phone: there it goes! the ultra-potent beam of light from the camera instantly thwarted the romantic atmosphere of the moment! Mafaldo lost all concentration and command of his limbs, unwillingly slapping Chupachusa in the face. What a mess! Then, they were both looked at me, accusingly, like saying: “What the hell are you staring at, you voyeur?”

Ashamed, I retreated and turned the camera off, apologetically…

And it all reminded me of Labov’s concept of the Observer’s Paradox when he was studying the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) to position himself against the “legend” which said AAVE was a symptom of verbal deprivation (white centric bigots…). He did this by means of using narrative analysis, that is, studying the interviewee’s verbal behaviour during their narratives of their own personal experience, given that people tend to use vernacular in that case. Apart from reaching the conclusion that AAVE is equally rich and effective as “normative” American English, he came across different responses from the interviewees, which led him to acnowledge the fact that the observed person may change their discourse to a more formal one if the observer seems distant, aloof, belongs to a different social extraction, has a different gender, race, age or speaks a different kind of vernacular. Thus, he had to investigate in order to minimize his impact as an observer.

So, next time I’ll were a shell-like helmet.

The Origin of the English Language II

As you will remember from my previous article on the origin of English, it is a close relative of German, even if Present day English does not bear much resemblance to its “cousin”. We must take into consideration that although both languages had a great part of their vocabulary in common to begin with, in the case of English, only 85% of it survived the Norman invasion – above all basic vocabulary -. Now, let’s see some basic similarities.


We can find several similarities in lexicon, such as the existence of some words in Present day English and German whose origin can be traced right back to Old English:

OE sprecan / PdG sprechen / PdE speak

OE nū / PdG nur / PdE  now  

OE cū / PdG Kuh / PdE cow 

OE cyning / PrG König/ PdE king

and others whose resemblance to Modern German is patent, while the equivalent terms in Present day English are no longer their descendants:

OE burg / PdG Burg (castle) / PdE fortress

OE beame / PdG Baum / PdE tree

OE þū / PdG du / PdE you

OE oððer / PdG oder / PdE or

OE scīene / PdG schön / PdE beautiful

OE niman / PdG nehmen / PdE take

another similarity which links Old English to Present day German is the prevalence of self-explained compounds:

hydrogen – Wasserstoff (water-stuff), telephone – Fernsprecher (far speaker)

lēohtfæt – lamp-lēoht (lēoht = light, fœt = vessel)

fiellesēocnes – epilepsy (falling sickness)

If we look at its grammar, Old English resembles German more than it does Present day English:  nouns and adjectives have four cases, adjectives have three separate forms, one for each gender, and verb inflection is less elaborate than that in Latin but yet it has distinct endings for person, number, tense and mood, and we can also find a remarkable resemblance since we start studying verb conjugation:

infinitive – bīdan(remain) / present simple, second person singular – bītst, third person singular – bīt(t)

Old English, a synthetic language just like Modern German, contrasts in the most striking manner with Present day English due to the complete absence of inflections in the latter, where this kind of complexity is unnecessary, as it conveys meaning – as an analytic language – through the placing of the words alone, without resorting on inflectional morphemes. As a Germanic language, Old English developed a twofold declension; a strong declension which is used with nouns when they are accompanied by a definite article or similar (demonstrative, possessive pronoun), and a weak declension, used when the noun is preceded by such determinants, which has remained in use in Present day German, whereas in Present day English adjectives bear no inflections at all.

gōd cnæpling- gut Junge

sē gōda cnæpling-der gute Junge







The origin of the English language I

Within the Indo-European family tree, surviving languages show various degrees of similarity due to their common origin, bearing a more or less direct relationship to their geographical distribution. They fall into eleven different groups: Indian, Iranian, Armenian, Hellenic, Albanian, Italic, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Hittite and Tocharian.


Germanic, which antedates the first written records, can be divided into three branches: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

East Germanic comprises languages such as Gothic – which accounts for the first written record of Germanic, in the shape of runes in Scandinavia – Burgundian and Vandalic.

North Germanic, which gave way to Old Norse, or early Scandinavian and from which two branches grow out of dialectal differences; on to the East, developing into Swedish and Danish and the other to the West, developing into Norwegian and Icelandic -the most literary of all, with an important body of heroic literature such as the Elder or Poetic Edda compiled by Snorri Sturluson (12th-13th centuries) -.


Finally, there is West Germanic, to which English belongs, and which separates in High German and Low German due to the operation of the 2nd Sound Shift, by which West Germanic voiceless plosives /p, t, k/ and voiced plosive /d/ changed into other sounds in AD 600 in the southern mountainous Germanic area, but not in the lowlands (North). This phenomenon of unknown origin is often assumed to have its origin in the contact with non-Germanic population due to the migration of foreign tribes into Germanic territory.

Thus, High German is the origin of Rhenish, East Franconian, Bavarian and Alemannic, and Low German divides into Old Saxon (essential constituent of Plattdeutsch), Old Low Franconian (basisfor Dutch and Flemish), Old Frisian and finally, OLD ENGLISH.

map 1

Old English is not entirely uniform, though. It comprises four dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian – each bearing their distinctive features and their common ones -, West Saxon and Kentish. Nearly all Old English literature preserved in manuscripts come from West Saxon, which attained the position of literary standard and was eventually cut short by the Norman invasions, giving way to a standard based on the dialect used in the East Midlands.