Category: Historical linguistics

March 24, 2020

Umlauts, Diaereses, and the New Yorker

Several weeks ago, the satirical viral content site Clickhole posted this article: “Going Rogue: ‘The New Yorker’ Has Announced That They’re Going To Start Putting An Umlaut Over Every Letter ‘O’ And No One Can Stop Them”. I’ve long enjoyed poking at the New Yorker for its distractingly idiosyncratic style,* but I had a couple […]

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Historical linguistics, Style 9 Replies to “Umlauts, Diaereses, and the New Yorker
October 10, 2018

100,000 Words Whose Pronunciations Have Changed

We all know that language changes over time, and one of the major components of language change is sound change. Many of the words we use today are pronounced differently than they were in Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s time. You may have seen articles like this one that list 10 or 15 words whose pronunciations have […]

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Historical linguistics, Phonology 4 Replies to “100,000 Words Whose Pronunciations Have Changed”
January 9, 2018

The Whole Truth

A correspondent named Jitendra Pant recently asked me to elaborate on the etymology of whole: Dear Jonathon, I am wondering why whole has a spelling beginning with ‘w’ and not just ‘hole’. Online checking suggests that ‘hole’ and ‘whole’ did have related origins, but departed around the 15th century, when ‘wh’ was introduced. https://www.etymonline.com/word/whole doesn’t […]

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Historical linguistics One Reply to “The Whole Truth”
June 1, 2017

Cognates, False and Otherwise

A few months ago, I was editing some online German courses, and I came across one of my biggest peeves in discussions of language: false cognates that aren’t. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you’ve probably learned about false cognates at some point. According to most language teachers and even many language textbooks, false […]

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Historical linguistics, Rants 4 Replies to “Cognates, False and Otherwise”
November 15, 2016

Whence Did They Come?

In a recent episode of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, John McWhorter discussed the history of English personal pronouns. Why don’t we use ye or thee and thou anymore? What’s the deal with using they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun? And where do they and she come from? The first half, on the loss of ye […]

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Grammar, Historical linguistics 5 Replies to “Whence Did They Come?”
March 28, 2016

The Taxing Etymology of Ask

A couple of months back, I learned that task arose as a variant of tax, with the /s/ and /k/ metathesized. This change apparently happened in French before the word was borrowed into English. That is, French had the word taxa, which came from Latin, and then the variant form tasca arose and evolved into […]

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Historical linguistics, Phonology 9 Replies to “The Taxing Etymology of Ask
December 1, 2014

Celtic and the History of the English Language

A little while ago a link to this list of 23 maps and charts on language went around on Twitter. It’s full of interesting stuff on linguistic diversity and the genetic relationships among languages, but there was one chart that bothered me: this one on the history of the English language by Sabio Lantz. The […]

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Grammar, Historical linguistics 38 Replies to “Celtic and the History of the English Language”
December 20, 2013

The Pronunciation of Smaug

With the recent release of the new Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, a lot of people have been talking about the pronunciation of the titular dragon’s name. The inclination for English speakers is to pronounce it like smog, but Tolkien made clear in his appendixes to The Lord of the Rings that the combination […]

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Historical linguistics, Phonology 20 Replies to “The Pronunciation of Smaug”
November 23, 2012

Hanged and Hung

The distinction between hanged and hung is one of the odder ones in the language. I remember learning in high school that people are hanged, pictures are hung. There was never any explanation of why it was so; it simply was. It was years before I learned the strange and complicated history of these two […]

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Grammar, Historical linguistics, Semantics, Usage, Words 10 Replies to “Hanged and Hung
February 29, 2012

No Dice

If you’ve ever had to learn a foreign language, you may have struggled to memorize plural forms of nouns. German, for example, has about a half a dozen ways of forming plurals, and it’s a chore to remember which kind of plural each noun takes. English, by comparison, is ridiculously easy. Here’s how it works […]

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Historical linguistics, Usage, Words 28 Replies to “No Dice”
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