A Diversity of Dialects

The Great Vowel Shift
Spring Fundraiser 2012, Day Six

So here we are at Day 6 already in our quarterly fund-raising effort. Just one more post from Dymphna, and one from me for the wrap-up, and then these annoying interruptions will be over until the dog days of summer.

We’ve seen a number of Widows’ Mites this bleg: a lot of people giving a modest amount each. Perhaps it’s a sign that times are lean. In any case, it’s gratifying that people are willing to stretch their budgets to help out.

Our theme this quarter is Diversity, as you probably already noticed. My tack has been to take a look at various kinds of diversity that I actually enjoy celebrating — as opposed to the orthodox diversity I’m supposed to celebrate, but which never leaves me in a very celebratory mood.

Tonight I’ll celebrate a topic close to my heart: the diversity of dialects and languages. For almost fifty years one of my main hobbies has been etymology and linguistics. Since I’m a Eurocentric white guy, the Indo-European languages remain my chosen specialty. Starting from the English language and tracking back through the history of words leads one through most of the languages of Europe, plus some in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. There are a few oddball tongues in Europe, such as Basque, Estonian, Hungarian, and Finnish — the last dubbed “Klingon” by Vlad — but the others are all cousins to English, and their family relationship to my native tongue is discernable to varying degrees.

Tip jarWhen you start tracking down the origins of any given word, in most cases you will eventually find yourself back in Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed hypothetical mother tongue of the entire family. The funny thing is that a lot of the diversity disappears at that point. Of necessity, many words are cognate with one another and derive from a common ancestor, since the size of the vocabulary of our steppe-dwelling ancestors was only a tiny fraction of ours.

For example, a huge constellation of words common to most Indo-European languages is derived from a single root in the ancestral tongue beginning with sta-. The sense of the original had something to do with having a fixed position and being permanent. Derivative words include stand, stay, stead, stop, staunch, state, stable, steady, stalwart, stanchion, staple, stable, and many others. So much diversity from a single source!

Then there’s the interesting topic of sound changes in English, such as the Great Vowel Shift, which is shown in the diagram at the top of this post. It took place from the 15th through the 17th century, and helps explain some of the perplexing inconsistencies of modern English spelling.

Consonantal shifts also follow certain patterns, with b, p, pf, f, v, and w being interchangeable under certain sets of rules across different languages and dialects. S, t, and d behave in a similar fashion.

There is a strange correspondence between s and h in certain languages. To an English-speaker the relationship makes no sense, yet one sees it frequently. Consider Greek roots such as hex (six), hept (seven), hyper (above), and hypo (below), and compare them with their Latin cousins sex, sept, super, and sub. In the Indian subcontinent we see the same phenomenon at work in Hindi (the language) and Sind (the province), which derive from the same place name.

For a fascinating series of cognates, look at various words meaning “water” (or compound words built from the same root). The list includes wet, water, wasser, vand, eau, agua, aqua, hydro, vodka, and whiskey, just to name a handful. All related, and yet so different.

So many other linguistic examples have stuffed themselves into my head over the decades. Stuff! There’s another sta- word…

I could go on, but bedtime looms.

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Yesterday’s donors checked in from these linguistically diverse places:

Stateside: California, Florida, Minnesota, New York, N. Carolina, and Pennsylvania

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK

Thank you all very much. See you tomorrow — or rather, later today…

The tip jar in the text above is just for decoration. To donate, click the tin cup on our sidebar, or the donate button. If you prefer a monthly subscription, click the “subscribe” button.

14 thoughts on “A Diversity of Dialects

  1. How did different accents originate? When English speaking people went to America or Australia, for instance, they already had some sort of English accent. Why have those not been preserved, and why do the new accents correspond with the new political areas, rather than having occurrences of say Australian type accents in some American states, or American type accents in some parts of Australia?
    The areas of new settlement were still in touch with England, which retained cultural prestige, so one would expect them to try to retain similar accents. Was it just the influence of backwoods yahoos gradually coming to the fore?
    In the other hand, I have been told that the change occurred in England and that the American accent is closer to how 18th c. English people spoke.

  2. FYI: /h/ and /s/ correspondence also in Japanese. For example: Tanaka san (standard) vs Tanaka han (Osaka, Kyoto, etc.)

  3. I must ask Baron, have you ever looked at Tolkein’s Elvish languages? Finnish and Welsh were, I believe, the languages they were based on.

  4. LAW Wells —

    Yes, I’ve heard that about Tolkien. He was said to be fascinated with Suomi.

    The names associated with the Riders of Rohan seem to be loosely derived from Old English. And I found Celtic derivatives in some of the other place names.

    I’ve heard that the tongue of the orcs is supposed to resemble Turkish, but I have no idea if that’s true.

  5. The great vowel shift didn’t make it all the way north, I believe.

    Which is why the English call a certain milk-bearing farm animal a cow.

    Instead of a coo.

    (I used to work at a dairy, and we called the product “coo juice”.)

  6. Ah’na ken how we got this accent up here like, bit ye should read some a the text messages gan aboot up in my neck a the woods. Doric’s niver been a written language, bit wie the advent a text messages, folk hiv started usin it, cause it’s so efficiently designed. The vikins came ower oor way ah believe, there’s a bit a Irish gaelic steert in there an a, along wie a bit a french. French – bon. Doric – bonnie. As in that’s a bonnie quine. (By Jove, that young woman is rather pretty!)

  7. The efficiency of doric: the standard greeting is “Fit like?”

    Meaning what is it (life in general) like for you today? Kind of like wie geht’s, how is “it” going? Everything’s cut down though. 7 letters & that’s your lot.

    If you are talking to a male person you know you can sometimes elaborate a little. If for example, I wished to enquire about the state of the Baron’s health, I could say to him: “Fit like ma loon?” Or Dymphna: “Fit like ma quine?”

  8. @Odin’s Raven – I speak with a Devon accent and in other parts of the U.K. I have been mistaken for an American – more than once! Accents in Kent in the South East are to my ears very similar to Australian.

    Verse here that may be amusing…

    When the English tongue we speak,
    Why is break not rhymed with freak?
    Will you tell me why it’s true
    We say sew but likewise Jew?
    Beard sounds not the same as heard,
    Cord is different from word.
    Cow is cow but low is low
    Shoe is never rhymed with foe
    And since pay is rhymed with say
    Why not paid with said I pray?
    And in short it seems to me
    Sounds and letters disagree

  9. An alternative greeting would be: “Foo’s yir doos?”

    The response would be: “Ey peckin”

    (Q: How are your pigeons? A: Still pecking.)

  10. Aye, thon blog, the gates a vienna; the Baron’s the heid bummer ower there, like.

    This would be the logically correct way to assert that Baron Bodissey owns and operates this website.

  11. Sta – “having a fixed position”
    – status

    Funny! Did you know the meaning of ‘sta’ in Norwegian? A person who is ‘sta’ is stubborn.

    ‘stad’/’sted’ – a place, a market, a town
    ‘kjøpstad’ – a place where you can buy ..stuff, back to the Vikings now
    ‘stoff’ – fabric, material
    ‘stut’ – bull
    ‘stole på’ – trust, have confidence in
    ‘stue/stuga’ – house, living-room
    ‘estancia’ – farm (Sp)
    ‘stanca’ – tired (I)
    ‘estar’ – to be (Sp)
    ‘stare’ – to be (I)
    ‘stav’ – stick
    ‘stave’ – to spell

    Just guessing that the Vikings then used sticks as symbols for spelling their words in the Rune writing.

    ‘stamme’ – stem, stutter, tribe
    ‘styre’ – steer
    ‘styrbord’ – starboard
    ‘stjerne’ – star

    ‘stadig’ – even, again and again, steady, ‘stødig’ – steady, ‘stø kurs’ – steady course, ‘stå’ – stand, ‘stanna’ – stop, ‘holde stand’ – stay firm!

    It really is fascinating to look into the languages, their evolution and etymology, even digging one’s way back to Sanskrit.

    Tara = Star, Wife of Lord Brihaspati (Sanskrit)
    ‘tame’ seems to have lost its ‘s’. Anyway, ‘tame’ also describes a permanent state.

    And, yes, it’s obvious that ‘sta’ is the ‘stamme’, basis for a lot of diversity!

  12. @Odin’s Raven:

    There was a greater diversity of English dialects spoken by America’s early settlers than was the case with Australia.

    In America the Irish, Scots and multiple English dialects were mixed to produce the American accent. Thus American English – in common with Irish, Scottish and northern English – universally uses a short letter “a” in words such as “castle”, “last”, “dance” and “transfer”, whereas in southern England today those words are pronounced with a long “a”.

    So in southern England “dance” sounds like “darnce”, although the “r” isn’t sounded as such.

    On the subject of the letter “r”, American English is rhotic, which means that an “r” before a consonant is pronounced, whereas for the same word in most of England today the “r” is not heard, but instead has the effect of lengthening the preceding vowel.

    So, for the name “Bart”, as in Bart Simpson, an American would clearly pronounce the letter “r”, but the English don’t bother contorting their tongues and simply lengthen the preceding “a” to “ah”.

    As such a large proportion of English emigrants to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were from the south of England, and the London area in particular, that accent has dominated. Therefore the modern Australian accent is quite similar to southern English.

    I think you’re right about the American dialect preserving an eighteenth century version of English spoken in England. For example, in modern England we use the word “bucket” whereas, according to the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water. I believe “pale” is used in modern day USA for “bucket”.

  13. I take it you already know
    Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
    Others may stumble, but not you,
    On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
    Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
    To learn of less familiar traps?
    Beware of heard, a dreadful word
    That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
    And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
    For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
    Watch out for meat and great and threat
    (They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
    A moth is not a moth in mother,
    Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
    And here is not a match for there
    Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
    And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
    Just look them up – and goose and choose,
    And cork and work and card and ward,
    And font and front and word and sword,
    And do and go and thwart and cart –
    Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
    A dreadful language? Man alive!
    I’d mastered it when I was five!

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