Tag Archives: Linguistics

Where are your manners?

by Maddison Sumner, a second-year student in French and Linguistics at Lady Margaret Hall

Linguistics is not often a subject that you can study before you come to university, but that does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that it isn’t one of the most interesting and fulfilling subjects that you can study. Usually, if you’ve figured out that words and language and the way they work are all things that you’re interested in, you can find lots of online resources that give you some background knowledge that you can bring with you to university should you decide to undertake a degree with some sort of linguistics in it. I am going to show you just one of my favourite parts of linguistics here.

If I asked you: ‘What did you have for breakfast?’, what would you answer? You’d tell me what you had for breakfast this morning, wouldn’t you? Why did you assume that I meant this morning, and not yesterday afternoon? Or the morning of March 8th, 2006? And what if you told me that you really needed some apples, and I said to you ‘there’s a shop around the corner!’ Why would you be annoyed with me if you got to this shop and found out it wasn’t a grocery shop but a shoe shop? It’s because as humans, we have what a linguist named Grice named Conversational Maxims. There are a few, but one of them is basically that we assume everyone we speak to will be relevant with their contribution to the conversation. When I asked you about breakfast, you assumed I was talking about a morning, because we eat breakfast in the morning, and you assumed I was talking about this morning specifically, because that would be relevant – I would have specified if I wanted to know about 2006! The same goes for the shop situation – I wouldn’t have even contributed to the conversation if the shop wasn’t going to be relevant in solving the problem you presented when you told me you needed apples. All of this is a part of linguistics called Pragmatics, which deals with meaning in context. It’s really interesting and fun to research if you’re intrigued – I would suggest looking up the pragmatics of politeness!

As you can see, linguistics isn’t just all about grammar and verb tables (although, if you love grammar and verb tables, there’s plenty of stuff for you to dig into as well!). Linguistics is an incredibly diverse subject and is so fun to study if you take the time to look at it in some detail.

Chilean Spanish: A Surprise and a Delight

by Hector Stinton, a third-year undergraduate in French and Spanish at Keble College

Embalse el Yeso (‘Yeso Dam’) in the Andes.

Chilean Spanish is the most idiosyncratic Hispanic variant, and it’s partly why I applied to work as a teacher in Santiago for my year abroad. Its earliest phonetic influence was from Andalusian conquistadores, who brought to America yeísmo (/y/ and /ll/ pronounced the same) and seseo (soft /c/ and /z/ pronounced as /s/, itself unpronounced word-finally), but it developed into a more distinctive accent with the conversion of /j/ into aspirate /h/ and the elision of /d/ in words like ciudad. Chile’s geo-political isolation made its patois evolve rapidly and hermetically: separated from its neighbours by the Andes and the Atacama until the 19th century, and with relations soured by conflict and suspicion since then, Chileanese became a point of national pride.

A huaso (‘cowboy’) at a rodeo during the Fiestas Patrias in Ñuñoa, Santiago

As in other Latin countries, the diminutive –ito/a is used to express affection and diminish the urgency, directness or importance of something, e.g. making something annoying seem more pleasant, and the voseo (use of vos as a second person singular pronoun instead of tuteo) forms the bottom two of the four grades of formality, below and usted. Interestingly, however, among friends, Chileans prefer the Italianate –ai or –ei ending to the Iberian –as or –es when using in the present tense. More unusual still is the replacement of nuestro ‘our’ with de nosotros, and the rejection of vosotros in favour of ustedes for ‘you plural’.

But above all, Chilean-speak is known for its plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos; look in any Spanish dictionary, and you will see they predominate over all other vernaculars. There are three broad categories: Argentine / Rioplatense / Lunfardo (argot from Buenos Aires and Montevideo) terms carrying either covert prestige or criminal Coa undertones (hacer perro muerto ((literally, ‘to do a dead dog’)) – ‘to dine and dash’); Mapudungun / Quechua loanwords (copihue – Chile’s national flower, huaso – ‘cowboy’); and French / (Swiss-)German / English / Croat loanwords (confort – ‘loo paper’, lumpen – ‘lower class’, cachar – ‘to catch one’s drift’, corbata – ‘tie’). Together, they further enrich the Chilean dialect, which never fails to surprise and delight.

Some Chilenismos

hacer perro muerto – to dine and dash
huaso – cowboy
confort – loo paper
cachar – to catch one’s drift

Feeding time at the fish market in Coquimbo (pelicans, stray dogs, sea lions)

But what’s it really like? Modern Languages and Linguistics

As well as studying a modern language on its own or with another language offered by the faculty here, you have the option to take a degree in one of the six ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with another humanities subject. If you’re interested in how languages work, how they evolve over time, how we acquire them as children and what happens in our brains as we speak and listen, then you ought to seriously consider a degree combining modern languages and linguistics. Here’s the short film made by Oxford University to introduce the subject:

French (Tree) Roots: The Gauls

posted by Simon Kemp

One of the things you can study as a modern linguist at Oxford is linguistics, either within the French course or as a subject in its own right. Linguistics is the analysis of how languages work, and how they change over time. One option in our degree is a  course that traces French right back to its roots, and then examines how it gradually develops over the course of centuries into the language we recognize today. I thought you might like a little taste of this, with a trip back through the mists of time to the earliest peoples to have left their mark on the French language: the Gauls, the Romans and the Franks. First up, the Gauls. gauls_color[1] The Gauls were a Celtic people who settled France some time around 600 BC. They weren’t the first people to arrive in France: the cave paintings at Lascaux were painted fifteen thousand years earlier, and stone tools have been found in the Hérault département that date back one and a half million years. The Gauls came to dominate the culture and language spoken in the territory that would become France, however. Only the Basque language spoken in the far south-west and across the border in northern Spain preserves an echo of the speech of earlier populations. For French, the Gauls are our starting point. While the Gauls may be the ancestors of many modern French people (and many more, raised on the adventures of Asterix and Obelix, would very much like to think so), their language has left much less of an imprint on French than that of the invaders who were to conquer them, the Romans. Latin is the real root of modern French, as we’ll see in a later post, imported into France by the conquerors to be the language of trade and administration, and gradually filtering down to supplant the Gaulish language over the course of six centuries. Gaulish was not entirely wiped out, though: it survives as a language through Breton, one of the family of modern-day Celtic languages that includes Welsh and Gaelic. And if you look carefully you can find a few Celtic remnants scattered in the French spoken today as well.

A map of minority languages spoken in France today. You can find Breton and Basque in the far north-west and south-west respectively.

According to Henriette Walter, there are no more than about seventy words in modern French that are of Gaulish origin. As you might expect, they mostly relate to a simple life of hunting, fishing and farming, and include terms for common animals and plants. Une alouette (a lark), le mouton (sheep), la tanche (tench, the fish) are some of the creatures that still have Gaulish names. La charrue (plough), le soc (ploughshare), la mine (mine), le sillon (furrow), le gobelet (beaker) and le druide (druid) are a few of the surviving words that testify to the Gaulish way of life. There’s also one single part of the body that still has a Gaulish name, which is l’orteil (toe), plus an old-fashioned word for poo, le bran, which survived at least into the last century. Many of the other Gaulish words describe the natural world, such as la dune (dune), la bruyère (heather), le galet (pebble) or la lande (moor). Among these, since we’re talking about roots, a good number are types of tree, including le sapin (fir), le chêne (oak), le bouleau (birch) and l’if (yew). It’s nice to think that yew and oak trees in particular, often the most magnificent and ancient thing you’ll see in a landscape, are also magnificent and ancient in their names if you say them aloud in French. Le chêne and l’if  are words which link the speaker right back to the time of Julius Caesar, and of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix who led the Gauls in revolt against him, and further back to other people who saw these things around them and spoke their names, pronouncing them in a way that may not sound much like the modern names, but which have evolved gradually in an unbroken chain down a hundred generations to us today.

 Oak tree