Monday, 31 March 2008

on the purpose of grammar

While reading some new Language Log posts on this guy named Kilpatrick, I came up with some lines of thought I'd like to run through.

1. Planned economics != socialism. In this case, it's planned linguistics. But of course I am picky on this because I call myself a libertarian socialist.

2. One ought to be careful about prematurely assigning "purposes" to grammar. It seems to me for example, many elements of universal grammar arise because of the common structure to the way we think (without a need for an explicit Chomskyian "module" and all its parameter-setting). The language universal for languages to use prepositions (as opposed to postpositions) for SVO word order may arise not because it's easier to understand, but just how we tend to be guided by existing mental structure when we create words.

3. We ought not to confuse "pain" with necessity. Speakers of pidgin English tend to be mostly comprehensible, if not totally so, save that alarm bells go off in our ears, declaring, "this isn't right!" Some language pedants are observant enough to notice the alarm bells do go off. Yet trying to rationalise the presence of the alarm bells as, "oh, grammar is important for clear communication," is a bit like saying, "oh, the inflammation and irritation associated with peanut consumption is biologically necessary to keep my body free of nutritional decadence." (Yes, I am allergic to peanuts.) The allergy may have developed for a reason, but note that G6PD deficiency (which yes, I also have) confers a protection against malaria. As an allergy may develop for purposes of immunity, not nutrition, aversion to non-standard grammar may have developed for purposes other than fostering clear communication. (A wild guess would be to foster an aversion to outsiders, which might have been useful for telling different groups apart, back in our hunter-gatherer days for example.)

4. Language contains many fascinating features and patterns, many of which might be unrelated to clear communication. These make it very interesting to study, but simply because these are very salient features of language doesn't mean these features are required for effective communication (as I have hinted above and will develop below).

5. Grammar may be a "crytographic" measure to check the integrity of the message. This can occur in two contexts.

6. In the first one, you might be communicating across an unreliable medium (such is the nature of speech, in which one phoneme might be confused for another), so features of grammar help rule out ambiguous messages. I noticed that until I got into Bizet's Carmen fairly recently, I had never really picked up on the French lyrics. Opera is an extreme example because the sound formants at high notes are especially distorted from the ones in speech, which results in a higher number of confused phonemes, but it will be good for illustrating my point. Until I actually realised that the townspeople people in Habanera were actually saying something ("prends garde à toi!"), I thought they were a background chorus, because all I heard previously (in various cultural contexts, like the part where the film plays Carmen when Hitler goes on his campaign trail in the film Hitler: the Rise of Evil") were the vowel sounds: honn har a hah!. Notably, when I didn't realise it was speech (as opposed to an "effects" chorus), many portions of the linguistic part of my brain remained unactivated, such that all the consonants (which also happened to be all plosives, which have the lowest audibility compared to the other consonants like sibilants, liquids, nasals, etc.) sounded like /h/. (This sort of makes interesting sense, because plosives have an "aspirated" [h] element to them, even somewhat for voiced consonants like /g/.)

Note that in spectrographs, it's often hard to tell the different kinds of plosives apart! Indeed, unless our linguistic portion of our brain is switched on, the normal auditory portion of our brain (and it is sensitive enough to pick up the nuances of music!) can't tell them apart. In this case, the patterns of language help with clear communication, but it wasn't so much about making semantics clear directly as ruling out message possibilities that didn't comply with the rules, as "improbable to have been sent". Note that it's been shown with the McGurk effect, where patterns from usual visual cues like the shape of the lips of the mouth have an influence upon perception. Why would it exist? Given that many consonants have quite fine distinctions (note that we are often unable to differentiate between many languages' exotic consonants if we haven't learnt them explicitly), it seems likely that it exists as part of an integrity check, confirming that a /g/ is in fact, /g/, and not a /b/, or a /d/, by ruling them out.

My example so far has been mainly phonological, not morphological -- but it can be extended there too. Consider a sentence like, "I'm right here at the bedside." If you heard the /m/ intact, then you know you can rule out the verb for writing because it would be an ungrammatical sentence. Many pedants are asinine when it comes to, "Oh! But you must recognise the fine distinctions between this verb and that verb!" But it doesn't have to be that way at all. When pedants are thinking about confusions in meaning, they might be on your backs on how "blame X on Y" is 'confused usage'. But they might never think that a sentence like, "I'm but a rock by the wayside" could pose a problem. How do you know for example, that you didn't really hear, "I put a rock by the wayside?" /p/ and /b/ are both bilabial plosives, save that one is unvoiced and semi-strongly aspirated while the other is simply voiced. They are phonetically similar.

But ah! Because of the presence of the copula (as the phoneme /m/) you know it cannot have involved the action of putting. What if you didn't pick up on the /m/? Ah, but you might pick up on the numerous other linguistic patterns too, from other sentences, or suprasegmental features like stress. In this case, the presence of rules is sort of like a linguistic version of an md5 hash or a cyclic redundancy check: for a message to have integrity (i.e. you are sure you're hearing the right message), rules might develop to develop information redundancy in case one portion of a message gets obscured. In language, this redundancy is stored in grammar, and can then be part of grammar's purpose. In fact, we rely on these rules so automatically that we don't realise how frequently we rely on a variety of cues to comprehend language.

In the case where we hear ungrammatical pidgin sentences, the "jarring" effect might come from the fact that our minds have automatically ruled out every possibility, and yet, our conscious mind knowing there is a message there, must "override" the automatic processes, declaring that, "yes, there is actually a valid message here." (This is where it would be pertinent to discuss Freudian theories about repression and the subconscious, but I will refrain from it.) Note for example cases where non-native English speakers might use a syllable-timed rhythm and put the primary stress on the wrong syllable -- or perhaps a more pertinent case for Singaporeans, where a Western-born teacher tries to use Singlish and fails miserably because he didn't realise how important tone was. If you inflect "lah" wrongly (excluding question inflections, which would be even more awkward), it's not like you've affected the meaning or you've made yourself unclear -- it just sounds weird. What does it tell us? The speaker is an outsider. This leads me to my seventh point.

7. In the second type of integrity check, grammar may exist for security purposes. Suppose you are competing with a nearby tribe. Maybe it's even Neanderthal! Before they invented military codes, it might have been advantageous to come up with grammar in language. It would be a sort of shibboleth: firstly, it obscures information from the enemy. (It might be hard to comprehend a simple enemy sentence like, "we will attack them at dawn," if you have no idea what their locative or accusative cases are.) Secondly, the enemy can't "pose" among you very easily if he uses sentences that don't comply with your rules. Perhaps this would have been sufficient cause for our genome to code for "alarm bells" whenever one heard an ungrammatical sentence. Now in the modern day globalised-world, it's just a pain in the you-know-what, but it could have been critical in the evolution of our species.

8. Drawing from such a need, a reason for constant language change might be a need to change the code constantly. Note that in real life, implementing a code change is a real pain. In language, you rely on spontaneous order, and how magical it is! I am also reminded of the Tower of Babel story -- perhaps grammar was invented to divide up the human population and set them into disassociating nations.

9. Pragmatics and ease of organisation. Stuff influencing the development of grammar might not only be comprehension, but the efficiency in storing information. Creating a system with elaborate patterns increases processing time, but decreases the space and memorisation required to use the signs required for language. If messages must be of finite length, and yet the signs in them must be capable of representing an infinite number of thoughts, the tradeoff for more processing time might be attractive. It is recognised through many recorded incidents that strict Skinner behaviouralism fails to fully explain language acquisition, and hence the attractiveness of Chomskyian nativism. I like Chomsky's UG theory somewhat (though I think that the idea of explicit modules and parameters is an overly elaborate explanation for a much more subtler reason for UG), but this can be noted in the way children can recognise productive inflections and create them for words they might have never heard of before. In more powerful examples, they can synthesise their own grammars and creoles and create regular systems where pidgin-using migrant parents might not. My point here is to point out that the development of grammar might also have arisen out of a convenient way to acquire language, as opposed to comprehension.

10. We ought not to be so quick to accept arbitrariness of sign as an axiom. My tenth and last point -- phonetic signs in language are often referred to as arbitrary -- e.g. outside of their association they have no real correlation with their meaning. But I think it would be rather hasty to call this an axiom. There are many words which I suspect have a degree of correlation with their sound. It just so happens for example, that "hostile," "harsh" and "hiss" are well --- harsh sounding. Of course, one must issue the caveat that it may sound harsh to us because the semantic association with the sounds of the words developed *after* we learnt the sign, but at the same time, I must also issue a counter-caveat that just simply because the patterns following the correlation between sound and sign are too complex to be analysed so far doesn't mean they don't exist -- there might be just so many rules and interferences, and so forth. The debate over the origin of language, which as of yet we have no convincing mainstream explanative theory for, and how the first words originated, perhaps tells us we should not be quick to dismiss current signs as arbitrary, for they might just have a very complex development.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

minimal pair

Compared to other companies, McDonald's "I'm loving it" ad campaign is only tolerable, though I must say they are heading in the right direction when their ads endorse you wearing that second-hand shirt. To be thrifty is a "cool" thing, today anyway. The ad in particular that I wish to comment about (and which I have come so long-windedly to say) concerns that part where someone knocks on a girl's door. When it opens, immediately, a rapper starts belting out several (impressive) lines in Spanish. The girl acts all confused, and her friends helping her move into her house stop, half out of curious shock. The boy next to the rapper then appends his own line, greeting his girlfriend. At first, it might seem that the rap didn't suit the girl's tastes. However the girl says, "I asked you to bring me a wrap, not a rap!" The boyfriend smiles cheekily and reveals that he has that too. Cue McDonald's plugging in their chicken mustard wraps or whatever, and happy youths plonked down on the couch eating.

The part that gets my attention linguistically is not the pun, but rather the different stresses on "wrap" and "rap". Under the traditional analysis of the English dialects, nearly all dialects treat both of them as homophones, save true mavericks like Scots (and not just Scottish English!). In linguistic speak, it is generally said that for the sheer majority of English dialects, there is no minimal pair to distinguish both of the words phonemically. Because we can distinguish "but" from "putt", for example -- there is a minimal pair distinguishing /b/ and /p/ (specifically, regarding voicing/aspiration). In contrast, according to the mainstream analysis of the English dialects, there usually is no minimal pair for /wr/ and /r/.

In the commercial, one can rule out suprasegmental stress, e.g. "I asked you to bring me A, not B," and stressing the A. If we had another example that went, "I asked you to bring me flour, not a flower!" the stress might even be placed on the second item, rather than the first. Furthermore, on second analysis, the girl does more than just to merely stress the word "wrap", she seems to employ extra secondary articulation, if not use a different consonant altogether.

This seems to imply that perhaps there is some distinction, even in the common dialects, considering that we can find this distinction in a McDonald's commercial. Yes, part of an ad campaign that McDonald's spends tens of millions of dollars on in order to get a rather simplistic observation of the youth demographic, while ironically seeming to support thriftiness. Anyway, the basic question to ask is, do the standard dialects (General American, Londoner, even "Singaporean Standard English" etc.) make a distinction, however fine, between, /wr/ and /r/?

In Old English, the distinction was by lip rounding. For example, "right" and "write" would be distinguished by the fact that in the first word, the consonant /r/ would be pronounced with the lips relatively relaxed, while the /wr/ of "write" would be articulated with the lips tensed in a circle (rounded). This distinction however, does not seem to be the distinction today. (This ignores the other distinction in Old English that would have been made between "right" and "write" -- the presence of the velar fricative in "right" [hence the H] and the absence of it in "write". But we're not talking about that, yo.)

Before I became interested in linguistics, I always thought there was some sort of fine distinction between "night" and "nite" (I later learned the distinction was more than subtle during Old English), "sign" and "sine", etc. The presence of silent "g" in words always made me tense my lips more -- a half-conscious strategy used to distinguish homophones while reading as a child. This however is artificial, as the distinction is inspired by writing, and usually is not noticeable soundwise in speech, save to the speaker making the distinction. "Wrap" and "rap" perhaps is the exception, a distinction inspired first by spelling but perhaps has since entered speech. Because today's /r/ tends to be rounded or labialised anyway, regardless of whether a /w/ precedes it, a distinction between /wr/ and /r/ is subtle to make. But that doesn't mean it isn't there. /wr/ can be distinguished from /r/ by rounding the lips even further. Distinguishing three levels of rounding is rare, but not impossible -- it for example occurs in Swedish.

One thing to note while viewing the IP chart of consonants is that the English native speakers can choose from two different realisations of R. Even now I realise that I may articulate the word "realise" itself a labialised consonant, but considerably less labialised than in the word "writing", for example. There's the alveolar approximant, and there's the retroflex approximant. The retroflex approximant supposedly occurs in some American English dialects only, but it is my suspicion that many English speakers, even non-American ones, may "push" their alveolar approximant R's back towards the retroflex position when they aRe tRying to stRess the R-ness of something. (The retroflex position is the area immediately somewhat behind the "alveolar ridge" itself behind the gums and teeth, but in front of the palate.) You know the Beijing Mandarin speakers with their R's (shir arh) -- one of the distinctions, besides the centralisation of some of their front vowels, is the use of the retroflex R over the alveolar R that Singaporeans tend to use more often.

So my argument after all these paragraphs is this, and perhaps an interesting tidbit of a question for linguistic fanatics like me to look into: do native English speakers -- or at least a significant lot of them -- make a phonetic, if not phonemic distinction, between /wr/ and /r/? How is this articulated? My own suspicion is that it is a mix of both even further labialisation as well as the use of the retroflex approximant over the alveolar.'

Don't try saying that I'm reading too much into a McDonald's commercial. This be linguistics we be talkin' bout here, 'yo.

(edited and reposted from my personal blog)

Friday, 10 August 2007

it woyz only oy hopeless foyncy, it poyssed loyke oyn oygust doy

By themselves, /ɑ / and /a/ (both open vowels, one in the back in the mouth and one in the front) don't sound that different. I mean, say "haha" but in the back of your mouth, as far back as possible. Doesn't sound much different does it? Sure people whose English dialects use the first vowel prominently sound like they have something in their mouth. Moy foyther oylways used to get up oyt foyr ay-emme.

No offence intended to the diverse English speakers out there: the only dialects I speak naturally are Singlish and rhotic New Englandic. I mean, from a relative point of view, people who use the "back-A" to replace phonemes where I would use /a/ and sometimes /ɔ/ (cot) do indeed sound like they have something in their mouth, preventing them from opening their mouth fully. Whereas in contrast, they may (subconsciously) view me as speaking lazily. And for the Southerners, who love to diphthongise what I would normally leave as a monophthong, it seems to me (as a perception I can't control) like they can't close their mouth enough, what with all those vowel glides!

These are the sorts of perceptions and prejudices people do not consciously exert, but it sort of cannot be ignored. As long as we don't really believe that Southern twangers speaking with their mouth hanging open (or for RP speakers who think that my tongue can't move properly to make the appropriate distinctions), etc. etc. no harm done. And plus, it makes a fascinating psycholinguistics area of study.

So anyway, compared to /u/ (sue) and /i/ (see), /e/ (say) and /o/ (tote), etc. /ɑ / and /a/ don't seem that different. There is a noticeable difference, naturally. But compare (for English speakers) if someone said "I've got the flea" versus "I've got the flu", there would be an immediate change in perception of difference, compared to contrasting, say, papa said in the front of the mouth and in the back of the mouth.

Phonetics has some explanations for this. You might point out for example, that /i/ and /e/ are unrounded, while /u/ and /o/ are rounded. (As an explanation to the others, this means the lips are tensed to produce a circular shape; one could guess that our lips are flexible for the purpose of rounding vowels, in the same way chimps do.)

But roundedness only accounts for some of it (and why they this rounding distinction occurs in the first place is dealt with in a later point). For example, veux in French (rounded front mid-close vowel) contrasts with vaut (rounded BACK mid-close vowel, or just plain English /o/ [ohhhhh!]), and they sound very different, despite both being unrounded. And the /y/ - /u/ distinction, a distinction that both Mandarin Chinese and French make, distinguishes a rounded close-mid vowel in the front of the mouth versus one in the back. For example, French tu sounds very different from French tout. (Last "t" is silent.) Ask any Frenchman! And if you know Mandarin, you might know the distinction between 努 (/nu/, or pinyin nǔ) and 女 (/ny/, or pinyin nǚ). They sound very distinct from each other, though they both have the same tone and are both rounded close vowels. The thing they differ is in their backness.

So what else accounts for it? If you see the IPA vowel chart, you can see there is a large distance between /u/ (loo) and /i/ (lee). You can fit central vowels of the same height in there, complete with a rounded/unrounded pair. But down below, the central vowel closest to the A's (both back and front) is one step higher in vowel height (the amount the tongue is raised by when pronouncing a vowel) compared to both of them. And there is no room for a rounded/unrounded distinction for that vowel. Making a distinction for features of vowel backness and roundedness gets more difficult and subtle the more open your vowels become.

This is something you can confirm for yourself: when your tongue is high and close to the roof, it can go a lot of places, front, back, wiggle side-to-side. When it is close to the mouth floor (the height where you would pronounce a "low" or an "open" vowel), tongue movement becomes more and more pretty restricted.

This probably why for example, it seems more common for languages to contrast /i/ and /y/ (though English does not do it, German, Mandarin and French does), while I know of few languages that contrast /ɑ / and /a/ as a minimal pair (in fact, I can't name any off the top of my head).

But there is something interesting (and I did not plan on taking so many paragraphs to come to this!) When you nasalise /a/ versus /ɑ/, suddenly, the pronunciation seems very different. In Parisian "street" French for example (and not the "metropolitan French" they teach as an academic standard), vin is pronounced as a nasalised /a/. (The vowel sounds like the one in han, as hanyu pinyin, only don't let the tongue touch your teeth or the roof your mouth while pronouncing the /n/.)

If you were to replace the nasalised /a/ with a nasalised /ɑ/ for example, you get vent (or "vant" as in vante, "boasts", if you discard the /t/ sound). Even if you do not know a scrap of French, it should sound drastically different. Nasalised /ɑ/ is the same vowel found in the imitation posh pronunciation of "lingerie" (which actually should use the nasalised /a/ if you are speaking street French or /ɛ / [bed] if you want to speak "higher class" French).

The history of French nasals is interesting, and they have a tendency to go all over the place. After all, -en- and -an- are merged pair in French, save for certain exceptions where I have heard native speakers pronounce Catalan, Verlan with a nasal /a/ rather than a nasal /ɑ/, etc.
And after you factor in the general Romance sound changes from Vulgar Latin to French (abolere to abolir, etc.), you still have something interesting because why is "-in-" using a nasalised /a/ or /ɛ/, rather than something closer to a nasalised /i/?

Something that has piqued me for some quite some time now, is the concept of formants. Formants take the step forward from to a general theory of phonemes and methods of articulation into sound physics. When you play music on a music player, such as with WinAmp, Windows Media Player, XMMS (or whatever proprietary, open source, etc. software you use), those bars bouncing up and down are formants. When you examine an mp3 or a PCM .wav file, you can see formants to a degree, though not very clearly as you would see them on a formant chart, like the pulsing beat that pops up at regular intervals of say, a song like Black Eyed Peas' Pump It. The car player displaying the "musical bars" at the beginning of the video displays the formants of the song as it plays, selected at the most common frequencies generally most pertinent to music. You can see for example that the first instrument (I am aware that the original musical idea came from from Misirlou) raises at the right a few bars only, before it breaks into the special guitar playing that affects the rest of the bars. By viewing the "musical bars" of a song, you are seeing a sort of a spectrogram (for the end-user) of the song's harmonic frequencies.

(The exact physics of a formant are covered in the Wikipedia article -- it pertains to resonant frequency -- and I will enjoy torturing Mr. Weirich with formants in AP Physics next year. Linguistics is such a brilliant marriage of the humanities and lab science.)

Each human language sound is a combination of formants -- the brain analyses parts of speech (and I literally mean "parts of speech" -- the sound information contained in each articulation, not the stuff they teach you as "verbs", "nouns" and so forth) and breaks them down into their appropriate formants. All the special features of speech can often be found to be raising or lowering specific formants. For example, /i/ really does seem to share something with /u/ -- they sound like they have a higher "pitch" in some sense. That is because although the other formants are different, they have similar formants that correspond to vowel height. /a/ after all sounds less energetic or "high-pitched" than /i/. And /y/ (as in 女), which is basically the same vowel as /i/ except with the lips rounded does sound a bit less "high-pitched" than /i/ because roundedness lowers some formants. There is a basic guideline for some of the more fundamental characteristics of sound production, but I'll be lazy and quote from wiki:

Most often the two first formants, f1 and f2, are enough to disambiguate the vowel. These two formants are primarily determined by the position of the tongue. f1 has a higher frequency when the tongue is lowered, and f2 has a higher frequency when the tongue is forward.

As formants are part of wave physics, there is interference between formants and not each feature corresponds cleanly to one formant (or just one set of formants). For example, a higher vowel height tends to push the F2 formant up too (even though it would still have the same backness between the two), such that if you buy into a direct relationship it would seem that the vowel is more front than it really is. This seems a bit natural -- as your tongue gets higher, it distorts the feature of backness somewhat, since the volume of the space behind the tongue changes too. It is because of formants that vowels can seem like it is "higher" and "lower" than another vowel.

Consider for example, "messed" versus "most". The English "short e" vowel (/ɛ/) seems 'lower' because of its openness, and /o/ seems more "well-defined in pitch" in the most fundamental aspect (the first formant). And yet on another level /ɛ/ seems higher because /o/ sounds "deeper". This is because of the nature of their two formants: /ɛ/ has a lower F1 value (height) but higher F2 and F3 values due to rounding and backness (or lack thereof: after compensating for the raising of F2 that a raised F1 brings) than the other vowel /o/. A formant with a lower value occurs represents a resonance at a lower frequency, and that is why it seems more "fundamental" (hence why /o/ sounds "cleanly" high while /ɛ/ seems "messily high"). Other things you may notice is that vowels next to /r/ sound "lower" on another scale -- this is because it lowers some formants, generally F3, while nasal vowels often raise formants to a very high extent. Which brings us back to French phonological history.

/i/ is a good example of a vowel that is "high" because it seems to resonate so easily: it is one of the vowels with the highest of all formants, as it is both a close (high) and a front vowel. And if you nasalise it, those are some really really really high formants! Ever thought about the piercing ability of the word "sheen"? It is very high, almost annoying if you say it a certain way, the way it cuts into your brain like a high-pitched note. And this is normal speech -- you are not even singing yet. (This in part explains how jingles like Mr Clean Mr Clean can be so catchy since they are actually sung). In English "sheen/clean", the /n/ nasalisation only occurs at the very end of the vowel ... but in French phonology, graphemes like -in (like in voisin) signify the vowel is fully nasalised while the /n/ itself is omitted. I suspect this arrangement was quite unstable and it was so high that lowering the vowel a bit while nasalised didn't appear to compromise too much (there were little minimal pairs in regard to nasal vowels) while making the vowel more aesthetic. So over the years it got lowered to /e/, then /ɛ/, then in street French /a/. Nasalisation also has the effect of appearing to "raise" vowel height by one level due to the entire effect of formant-raising. For example, many people seem to perceive "en avion" as "on aviohn", even though "en" uses a nasalised /ɑ/ rather than nasalised /ɔ/, and "avion" itself uses nasalised /ɔ/ rather than nasalised /o/.

And ultimately, the original question. The slight difference in /a/
and /ɑ/ becomes extremely magnified with nasalisation. Although formants are most usually used for computer applications of linguistics (like making voice recognition programs -- now you have a rough idea on how they work, by analysing formants and identifying phonemes by formants' features) they allow people to scientifically quantify what would have otherwise been a subjective perception. After all, saying that /i/ sounds "higher" than /u/ is vague. High in what way? Formants allow us to quantify this perception.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

uane scowritan in dhe Niow Eeld Englisc

New Old English
Dhe Niow Eeld Englisc

Hiit is sligtliic funniicer. Dhu scirerliik wendt uano tung bi uanem biit heerr, uanem biit dheerr, and ta-da'st! Ce, inst-uaner-strike, semth alst aniowo. Uano tung dhat dhu knowst, becomth saomthiing lik uano fremd tung. Ic trai to wendan wordes in todaysth Engliscanye and insteadst, ic thiink of wordes in dhe Frenc. Butt, moorr tungaskolo laterr.

Hwaii, dhu askst me, makan uano sutc funnic tung? Ic eyam leyarnang dhe Frenc, uano Romansth tung. Tuo oftern hiit semth dhat gwe woorrciip dhe Latin. Histhes words eyarnth bettoorr, and longes wordes dhat nuon canth to understandan semeth to eyarnan bout downst to. So, ic madt dhiso tung foorr faitan foorr dhe englisc.

Saomertimers, dhe Niow Eeld Englisc semth lik dhe Doytcmanc, dhe Cakespeare and dhe Dutce alsttogedherr, dhen dhe Englisc.

Uaner kwik wid. Dhe Niow Eeld Englisc bith noot alst flaulesse foorr spellyan suonwaiz.

seek => i
bit => ii
sh => c
ch => tc
there => dh
meth => th
make => e
ten => ee
duh => er
dinner => err
plus => ao
too => u
good => uu
at => a
papa => aa
wrote => o
father (back A) => oa
wrought => oo
cow => au
Acadi(y)a => y
aggh => x

weeldanyers foorr stoppers:

pop (aspirated) => pp
spy (deaspirated) => p
buy => b

Dher Niow Eeld Engliscst tung diclainth adjectivems.

Uanee makth wordelinkanye (laiik Fr. liaison). Uanee saith "Niow Eeld Englisc" as [Nio.wɛl.deŋlisʃ] in IPAm.

Ce makth "strango and weko" declensionem. Naomes, adjectivems and adverbems diclaineth strangolic if nuon articlem is befoorr dhe naom. Dheyi diclaineth if therr is uon.

uon to uon thusend in dhe Niow Eeld Englisc


morr wiileth comen.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

haute couture

IPA: /ʔot.'ku.tyʁ/

Fr., from feminine of haut (high) + couture (nf.), "sowing, dressmaking", from Vulgar Latin consutura, formed from the supine consutum from Latin consuere, from suere, "to sew", from PIE root *siw-. *sju-, "to sew". English cognate "sew" descends from this PIE root, via Proto-Germanic siwjanan into Old English siwian. Latin -ere verb ending alerts one to the fact that descendant verbs of this PIE root are ablaut verbs, hence, sewn. Sewing may have been an important part of PIE culture, given a direct verb is present (in contrast, PIE had no direct verbs for writing).

Frequently (ab)used as a false cognate of "high culture". Dude, it only means "high dressmaking", but people - I've observed this of Singaporeans especially - mistakenly transfer the association of elitism in the industry to that of society in general. An observed comment on a Singapore blog: "Paris is all about haute couture, the language of love, the monuments...." Paris is all about dressmaking? Really?

"High culture" would be plain haute culture in French. Coincidentally, "culture" is a feminine noun, but that's where the similarities end.

Culture (nf.) [IPA: /'kʌl.tʃɚ/ (Eng.), /kyl.'tyʁ/ (Fr.)] from Latin cultura, "tilling of land". The semantic drift in English is from "maintainence of arable land" (1440) to "personal cultivation and sophistication" (1510) to "lifestyles and customs of civilisations cultivated carefully" (1867). From past participle stem of "colere", "to cultivate, inhabit, guard, grow, practice", which led to senses of "worship, respect" -- compare colonus (colony) and cultus (cult). Colere is from PIE root *qwel-, "to turn around", with descendant words like Latin cyclus (cycle), Sanskrit cakram (cf. Indonesian-Malay cakra, "discus") and Old English hweol, which became modern English wheel. Indeed, cultivation (agriculturally at least) can be thought of as a cycle.

As you can see, culture and couture have very different roots. I can see plausible associations, because culturing something -- be it your crops, your personal character or a society -- is comparable to the fine work of sewing a dress; that of creation, of tending and whatnot. But no, they are not actually connected etymologically or semantically.

I suspect that people choose this phrase because rendering it in French, even though one might not actually know the language, sounds more posh or something, while ironically ignoring the direct French cognate la culture. I have a slight trouble with such folks.

Lately I have been reading arguments that attack Singlish because of the very fact that it's not posh or "high culture". They consist of fallacious accusations that generally argue several of these things: Singlish is broken English (despite it being a creole with its own grammar). It is a "problem". It is a "sub-standard" language. It is a "crutch" in some way. It needs to be discouraged from use, suppressed, wiped out.

It is of a basilectal and informal register, I will grant that. Singlish is an intimate language and can be overly familiar at times: it is just like the French would tutoyer their friends and other intimate contacts but vouvoyer strangers and superiors. It does not mean the language used while tutoying is any more inferior -- in fact it can be the other way round due to the intimacy and familiarity.

People who make the accusation that Singlish is inferior have neither real knowledge of linguistics nor the true meaning of culture, especially when they are as bigoted to imply that speaking dialects is "as bad" as speaking Singlish. (Ng Ya Ken, are you telling me the Chinese dialects are "broken Chinese" too? Dude, I hope you know that Cantonese is centuries older than Mandarin itself.) Singaporeans are a resilient lot, and Singlish is so pervasive in the national culture that is unlikely to go soon. The elitist upper class Putains Au Pouvoir ("bitches in power", or PAP) hate this fact. But they will use whatever campaign necessary to try to have Singlish eliminated in twenty, thirty or fifty years time.

As this elitist and superficial "high culture" mentality occurs at the expense of what should be otherwise thriving legitimate national culture, I bear a strong antipathy to such attitudes.

Saturday, 10 March 2007


variants: lugi, rugi
IPA: /'lu.ɡ̊i/, /'

Singlish, meaning "lose out". It bears associations with kiasuism, because the word assumes a comparison with others (the world) although it is intransitive. One lugies if he allows other people to cut in front of him in a queue, for instance.

A Hokkien corruption of Malay rugi, "loss", from Sanskrit roga, "disease, broken", from reconstructed PIE *leug-, "to break, to cause pain", from *leu-, "loosen, separate, cut apart".

/l/ <=> /r/ appears to be a frequent sound change between languages, probably because they are both approximants involving curling the tongue. Sanskrit changed *leug- => rog-, but uncannily the Hokkien corruption from rugi to lugi restores the Sanskrit root closer to the original PIE. Note that the sound also affects the quality of the /g/ - the Hokkien variant voices it considerably less than the Malay.

Coxford asserts rugi as the default, probably for etymological reasons, calling "lugi" the "hardcore beng" pronunciation. However, it seems that lugi is more common on the street, probably because of its similarity to English "lose".

Lose is an actual cognate of this Singlish word. Because of the Hokkien reversal of the Sanskrit sound change, on top of Malay changes to the Sanskrit, lugi is not very different from its 7000-year English cousin. English "lose" is from Old English losian, from los, from reconstructed Proto-Germanic *lausa, from the same PIE root *leu- (see the link at *leu-). "Loss" is from the same root.

Interesting classical cousins of Singlish lugi include Greek -lysis, "to break apart", (e.g. hydrolysis) and Latin lugubris, "sad, mournful", from descendant root *leug- (see link above for *leug-), found in English as lugubrious. Other Sanskrit descendants from *leug- include rujati, "breaks, torments".

Notes: etymology reconstructed from personal research. Time periods for entry into Malay and Singlish respectively would be appreciated, as well as dialect data for widespreadness and demographics of variants.


see lugi