Guess That Phonology

Here’s a phonology problem for you with a lesson to learn from it. What language is this?

Unknown Language on Google Drive

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Disyllabicity is the Answer

Mandarin Chinese is a monosyllabic language, right? Analytic; tones; 21 initials, 3 medials, 2 nucleuses, 4 codas. Not a lot of options. Yet there’s even a few gaps in those possibilities! That leaves 1,668 possible syllables. (That’s 417 different sets of segments before tone.) So where does Mandarin get all its words? How do people even talk about anything in such a mathematically opposed language, you might ask.

The answer is you’re wrong!

Mandarin is not a monosyllabic language! That would be ridiculous given its phonotactical constraints. Only a language with very heavy syllables via consonant clusters would be able to be strictly monosyllabic analytic.

Mandarin is primarily disyllabic.

So now if we do the math, we find that 1668 monosyllabic words become 2,782,224 disyllabic words. (A simple permutation: 16682). Add the monosyllabic words back in and you get 2,783,892 possible words. That sounds like quite enough for a proper language. The highest claims for the size of the English lexicon are about a million, so 2.7 is plenty to have the same sized language. (They do use way more of their possibilities because their phonology is so constrained.) But—disyllabic words are not the end of Mandarin’s lexical possibilities. There are tri- and quadrisyllabic words, many combing di- and/or monosyllabic words, which tend to cover more specific or technical terms. This means that Mandarin has more than enough possibilities for people to not be confused with choosing between 50 monosyllabic homophones all day long, as the perception of Chinese tends to be. “It’s so complicated!” the quivering language learner yelps. “Chinese is the hardest language to learn”, an astute phylogenist submits.

It seems though that the hardest part is getting around language hearsay and realizing that of course Mandarin speakers get along just fine with all the phonological tools they have at their disposal—and there are plenty of words in their language, if you just tune into the music of it.

Octopuses!

It’s been settled.

The plural of octopus is not octopi.

Octopus is from Greek, not from Latin. The Greek word is oktopous [ok.to.pus]. It was used in Greco-Latinate scientific language, so somewhere along the way people just thought it was all Latin and we should all speak it.

The plural in Greek is oktopodes [ok.to.po.des]. Who’s gonna use that?

Goes to show that digging in old dictionaries for foreign plurals as the “true” form is the work of wizards and alchemists—it’s chasing a fantasy. You can’t make it real in this world, as fun as it may be in the imaginary. Also goes to show how hypocritical and unsustainable it is to pretensiously hold on to archaic forms of language and require them of everyone around you or else you’ll debase and slander their intelligence.

Always nice to see Dictionary.com promote something of linguistic worth.

Conversational Backdrop of a Word

Think about all of the cultural training that goes behind a word.

When we use a word like fish, it now contains, for most speakers, all of the knowledge gained by biology, and thus no longer contains whales as it used to.

So the knowledge and perception of a culture is imbued in a name when it is taught to a person. Words are never learned absent from context, usually in multiple contexts, and often with some sort of education involved.

“This is a mushroom. It’s a fungus. Funguses look like plants but they’re more closely related to animals. They’re different because of the tough material they’re made out of and they’re colonial organisms.”

That’s not what someone living non-modernly in a jungle would pass onto a child when explaining the name ‘mushroom’, but it is a part of our enculturation in modern societies. (Not that the former couldn’t read about it on Wikipedia with their Google Blimp connected iPad. The future is now.)

So we don’t all learn the exact same thing with a word, and we can’t come up with a perfect, exculsivizing description of a word, but the definitions we learn overlap enough for understanding and to facilitate easy learning of facts or meanings we haven’t learned before. It is having this functional basis in common that allows us to communicate imprecisely, while at the same time highly functionally.

Every content word has a conversation behind it. A story. Cultural information that was exchanged to pass on that word.

The causal chain of a word is mimetic, steeped in knowledge of the world, which is used to create the conception of the word. As knowledge changes, the definitions of the “same” word change.

Is the Word ‘Tangerine’ Racist?

Upon discovering that the word tangerine means ‘inhabitant of Tangier (Tanger in the Romance langauges, Ṭanjah /t̪ʕandʒa/ in Arabic)’, and that the term was used to refer to Sub-Saharan soldiers and slaves in Al Andalus as well as the fruit, it occured to me that the term might be racist, similar to the name nigger toes for Brazil nuts. (Sorry to type that out! But I’m just doing linguistics here.)

Luckily, that’s not the case. It turns out they are native to the area around Tangier, Morocco. (And it was originally an adjective, as tangerine orange.) So they are called ‘of Tangier’ because they were actually imported from there, not because of any racist connection between some appearance of the fruit and a misguided unappreciation of human diversity.

If We Had Kept Anglo-Saxon Month Names

After reading about the curious history of the word February and learning that some old guys really into Latin are the ones that made our months so hard to say (it’s always those guys), I thought I would look up what the names of our months would look like if those übernerds hadn’t inserted their massive quill pens into the natural course of spoken language. Not that I have anything against our months, that’s just how it happened, but I was curious what it might sound like if history had gone a different way.

So these are the months in Old English. You can click the link for their meanings and more info. They’re in the same order as our current calendar.
Æfterragēola
Solmōnaþ
Hrēþmōnaþ
Eastermōnaþ
Þrimilcemōnaþ
Ærralīþa, Midsumormōnaþ, Sēremōnaþ
Þrilīþa
Mædmōnaþ, Æfteralīþa
Weodmōnaþ, Hærfestmōnaþ
Winterfylleth
Blōtmōnaþ
Ærragēola

When we adjust for 1700 years of sound change we get the following. I assumed we’d drop the ‑month, as we’re OK to say May and June and Rethmonth and Soilmonth sound too hard to say in Modern English. If you disagree then tack the reduced pronunciation [mənt̪] on the end where necessary.
Afteryule
Soil
Reth
Easter
Threemilk
Erelithe*
Threelithe
Afterlithe**
Weed
Winterfull
Blot
Ereyule

*Midsummer, Sear
**Meadow
(For these I went with the option that created the most symmetry, cf. the -ember endings in a third of our months.)

We would start to pronounce some of these a little more contracted over time, but of course we would keep spelling them the same way (just like February and Wednesday).

[æf.tɚ.jʟ̩]
[sɔi.ʟ̩]
[ɹɛθ]
[i.stɚ]
[θɹi.mʟ̩k]
[eɚ.lɪθ]
[θɹiɫɪθ] ambisyllabic
[æf.tɚ.ɪθ]
[wid]
[wɪɾ̃ɚ.fʟ̩]
[blɑt]
[eɚ.jʟ̩]

It sounds so weird to say, “Last Weed I went to Chicago”, but that’s what we’d do. The same way we don’t think about soldiers when we talk about the month March, we wouldn’t be thinking about gardening. (We would be thinking about marijuana legalization! OK, jk. But if you said, “Last Weed I went to Seattle”, it might trigger people to start the puns. Although maybe we wouldn’t have the slang term weed if that was the name of a month. It might have sent us after slang terms that are less talked about. (You say the names of months a lot more than you talk about grass.))

We might still call the holiday Easter, or we’d vary it by saying Easterfest or Eastermas, or might veer to calling it Pasch [pæʃ] or just Passover. Saying, “Is Easter in Easter or Reth this year?” could get confusing, but I guess that hasn’t stopped us before.

And lastly, here’s my take on the idea behind each of the month names:
Æfterragēola get through winter
Solmōnaþ mud
Hrēþmōnaþ goddess
Eastermōnaþ goddess
Þrimilcemōnaþ the cows make a lot of milk now
Ærralīþa easy weather, Midsumormōnaþ partay, Sēremōnaþ omg it’s f-ing hot and my skin is burning off cause I’m from England
Þrilīþa that other month
Mædmōnaþ flowers, Æfteralīþa that was a crazy party or winter is coming
Weodmōnaþ ah my aching back, Hærfestmōnaþ food
Winterfylleth winter is coming
Blōtmōnaþ gods save us
Ærragēola get through winter

Finally Some Good Reasons for Learning

I came across this article that actually gives some good reasons for the benefits of learning another language other than vague promises of discovering new semantic frontiers. (Which may happen here and there, but it’s only subtle, the difference between saying gabion and wire baskets filled with rock and stone.) This is, of course, aside from the obvious functional/pragmatic benefit of needing to communicate with someone. These are finally good reasons in the realm of geographically isolated, monolingual Americans doing it as a hobby.

Why It Makes More Sense Than You Know to Learn a Second Language

The first one is the weakest reason, but I like how he says “communicate more clearly” instead of “use proper grammar”. Not sure if it does that, but at least he avoided sounding prescriptivist. Self-awareness of your native language is really only marginally useful, though it is awfully entertaining. Not knowing the linguistics of your own language won’t prevent you from communicating or creating art with it.

The rest are about studies that have found cognitive benefits to bilingualism. I haven’t looked at them, and this is Huffington Post, but the summaries seem sound.

And all around more substantive than the usual pontificating on foreign tongues and other Whorfian things.