Sunday, May 25, 2008

Finding the Proto-Form

Related languages have a number of words which are similar to one another. In the branch of linguistics known as historical linguistics, the proto-form is defined as the word from which similar words were derived. Determining the proto-form often involves a great deal of speculation because of the lack of written records. However, common phonological processes such as weakening (lenition), strengthening (fortition), assimilation, syllable structure and neutralization are useful for determining the proto-form of similar words.

Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are three similar languages which are very useful for determining proto-forms. Here is a list of ten words in these languages which are rather similar:

Danish efter Norwegian etter Swedish efter (after)
Danish kage Norwegian kake Swedish kaka (cake)
Danish ti Norwegian ti Swedish tio (ten)
Danish syg Norwegian syk Swedish sjuk (sick)
Danish hvad Norwegian hva Swedish vad (what)
Danish skib Norwegian skip Swedish skepp (ship)
Danish gade Norwegian gate Swedish gata (street)
Danish mave Norwegian mage Swedish mage (stomach)
Danish hvid Norwegian hvit Swedish vit (white)
Danish peber Norwegian pepper Swedish peppar (pepper)

The proto-form from which similar words are derived is marked with an asterisk as follows: *.
An arrow is used to show the resulting form. For example, to show that the French word "quatre" is derived from the Latin "quattuor", we can write it in this manner: *quattuor ---> quatre.

Now we can consider the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish words. The word "after" is the same in Danish and Swedish. On this basis alone, we may follow the rule of majority rules and choose the one present in two out of three languages. However, we also have natural development to suggest that the Norwegian form "etter" is the result of an assimilation process. Thus we can determine the protoform. It is *efter.

The word "cake" is different in all three languages. We can suggest that the proto-form is *kaka.
Vowel weakening changes the word-final "a" to "e" and voicing changes the "k" to "g".

The proto-form of "ten" is *tio. Word-final vowel deletion derives "ti".

The word "sick" is different in all three languages. The proto-form is *syk. Palatalization changes *syk to "sjyk" in Swedish and vowel retraction changes "sjyk" to "sjuk". In Danish, the plural adjective "syge" exists. Thus we can postulate intervocalic voicing to change the "k" to "g" and then word-final vowel deletion.

The proto-form of "what" is *hvad. Word-final consonant deletion derives the Norwegian word "hva" and consonant cluster simplication derives the Swedish word "vad".

The proto-form of "ship" is *skip. Voicing derives the Danish plural "skibe" (ships) and the singular "skib". As for Swedish, a vowel change derives "e" and the double "p" merely indicates that the vowel is short.

The proto-form of "street" is *gata. Word-final vowel weakening derives the Norwegian word "gate" and the additional rule of intervocalic voicing derives the Danish word "gade".

The proto-form of "stomach" is *mage. Majority rules applies because this is the form in two out of three languages. Natural development is also in evidence because the change from "g" to "v", from a plosive to a fricative, is an example of weakening.

The proto-form of "white" is *hvit. Danish has the adjective plural "hvide". Thus, "hvid" is derived as a result of intervocalic voicing and apocope, word-final vowel deletion. The Swedish word "vit" is the result of consonant cluster simplification.

The proto-form of "pepper" is *peppar. The Norwegian word "pepper" is the result of vowel weakening. The Danish word "peber" is the result of voicing and if the word "pebber" ever existed, we can apply degemination to derive "peber".

The proto-form is not always an existing form of a language. For example, the word "week" is "uge" in Danish, "uke" in Norwegian and "vecka" in Swedish. It appears that the proto-form is neither of these forms. By considering other languages such as English, Dutch and German, we can begin to determine the proto-form. English and Dutch have "week" and German has "Woche" for "week". It thus appears that the initial segment is a "w". It may be that the proto-form of "week" in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish is *weka. Strenghtening can change *weka to "ueka" in Danish and Norwegian. Vowel deletion changes "ueka" to "uka". Voicing then derives "uga" in Danish and word-final vowel weakening derives "uge". In Norwegian, "uka" changes to "uke" as a result of word-final vowel weakening. In Swedish, *weka changes to "veka" as a result of a phonological process which changes the labiovelar glide to a voiced labiodental fricative. Then gemination, a process needed to maintain the short "e", derives the form "vecka". However, this analysis may not be accurate. It involves a considerable amount of speculation, but this is what historical linguists do.

Languages which are closely-related to one another such as Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are very good for determining proto-forms. With less similar languages, the process of finding the proto-form is considerably more difficult.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

my latest poem

In this post I'll share my latest poem which I wrote recently. It's titled "Magnolias".


Through temperate and tropical spheres,
Magnolias welcome warmth of spring.
Golden light from distant sun nears
And crowns their sun celestial king.

Large flowers of every colour stand,
Supported by leaves of dark green.
Welcomed with joy in every land,
They take their place in each spring scene.

Their fragrant flowers are colourful-
Pink, purple, green, yellow and white.
Their beauty leaves viewers joyful,
Royal plants of visual delight.

Magnolias stay united to spring,
Surviving winter's bitter cold.
At their birth birds in sweet song ring
As spring life begins to unfold.

Here are some notes about my poem. In the first stanza I mention the temperate and tropical spheres in which magnolias grow to emphasize that they are found in all corners of the world. I contrast the distance of the sun with the nearness of spring and warmer temperatures. I also compare the sun in the sky to a king whose rays have dominion over the world of magnolias.

The second stanza recalls that magnolias are large and multicoloured. The final verse of this stanza personifies them to highlight their connection to spring.

In the third stanza the different colours of magnolias are mentioned. The final verse describes them as royal plants because they are often called the aristocrats of the plant world.

The final verse serves to personify magnolias who announce by their presence that spring has arrived. This is expressed as a birth which signifies new life. Also, with the coming of spring, birds sing and more flowers begin to bloom.

My poem is organized in four stanzas of four verses. The rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh and each verse consists of eight syllables. I hope you enjoyed it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

morphological analysis of Hungarian possessive suffixes

Unlike many languages, Hungarian has possessive suffixes. Instead of using two words to say "my car", Hungarian uses only one: auto'm. The word "auto'" means "car" and the suffix -m means "my". When the noun ends in a consonant, a linking vowel is required. The word "kertem" means "my garden". The word "kert" has a front vowel, so a front vowel is required in the suffix. However, if the noun consists of back vowels, a back vowel is required instead. This is illustrated by the word "ablakom" which means "my window". It consists of "ablak" (window) and the possessive suffix -om.

It is convenient to analyze the vowel of the possessive suffix as a linking vowel. The reason is that this eliminates the need to specify which vowel is underlying. With this analysis, it is sufficient to say that a front vowel is required with front vowel roots and a back vowel with back vowel roots.

In addition to possessive suffixes, Hungarian also has infixes. An infix is a morpheme which is placed between morphemes. For example, the Hungarian word for "my car" is "auto'm". This consists of the morpheme "auto" (car) followed by the possessive suffix -m. The Hungarian word for "my cars" is "auto'im". The -i- is an example of an infix. It is placed between the morpheme "auto'" and the morpheme -m. The English phrase "my cars" can be analyzed morphologically as my + car + s. In Hungarian this identical phrase is structured as follows: car + s + my. The two languages clearly use very different structures.

With nouns which end in a consonant, the linking vowel precedes the infix and the possessive suffix follows it. The word for "my cars" is "auto'im" and the word for "my houses" is "ha'zaim".
The linking vowel is necessary to preserve the syllable structure of "my house". In Hungarian this is "ha'zam" which is ha'z (house) + (a)m (my). The bracket serves to indicate that this is a linking vowel. By inserting this vowel, the word preserves a CV structure in the final syllable. The word "ha'zam" has the syllable structure CVC.VC. If it were not present, the word would have the syllable structure CVCC which is not possible in Hungarian.

In the case of "ha'zaim" (my houses), the linking vowel is not needed to preserve the syllable structure. Without the linking vowel, the result would be "ha'zim" which is an acceptable syllable structure in Hungarian. However, the linking vowel of the possessive suffix attached to the singular noun is preserved in the plural. The result is the syllable structure CV.CV.VC.

One may ask why "my houses" is "ha'zaim" rather than "ha'ziam". If it were "ha'ziam, the possessive suffix -am from "my house" would remain intact. However, there is a good explanation for "ha'zaim". With such a construction, it is clear that the noun is a plural. With a construction such as "haziam", the word could be interpreted as a singular noun plus the possessive suffix -am.

Another explanation can also be provided. With the structure "ha'zaim", the word for "my houses" has the same ending as the word for "my cars", "auto'im". Thus, the same sound sequence is preserved. The word "ha'zaim" can be analyzed as a word which consists of a root, a linking vowel, infix and possessive suffix. The use of a bracket is useful for indicating the linking vowel. The word "ha'zaim" can thus be shown as follows: ha'z + (a) + i + m.

The Hungarian language makes use of possessive suffixes. With roots that end in a consonant, a linking vowel is added to possessive suffixes which consist of a consonant. For forming the plural, i.e., "my cars", the infix -i' is used. Whether the noun ends in a vowel or a consonant, the structure which means my + plural noun such as "my cars" and "my houses" always ends with the sound sequence "im".

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Translation and Interpretation

The field of translation and interpretation can be very challenging. Interpreters and translators need to ensure that their words are easily understood and that they convey the meaning of the original language. Besides the words of the original language, they must also concern themselves with the proper level of formality, politeness and emphasis.

No two languages are identical but the more similar two languages are to one another, the easier it is to translate/interpret from one to another. Many translators and interpreters agree that it is easier to translate and interpret from English to French and vice-versa than it is from English to Russian and vice-versa. The reason is that English and French are more similar to one another than either is one is to Russian. Closely-related languages such as Norwegian and Swedish, Italian and Spanish and Czech and Slovak are much easier to work with than distantly-related languages such as English and Hindi, German and Polish, and Icelandic and Portuguese.

The most difficult material to translate and interpret must be poetry and jokes. Poetry is difficult because literary devices such as rhyme, rhythm and alliteration are often language-specific. Jokes are often difficult to translate because many involve puns which are also language-specific. For example, the pun "Seven days without water makes one week" plays with the word "week" which has the same pronunciation as the word "weak". This pun can mean that seven days comprise one week but also that a person who goes without water for seven days becomes weak. Such a pun only works in English.

Translation and interpretation are challenging because words have multiple meanings. The German philsopher Max Freude once said, "Nur im Zusammenhang des Satzes bedeuten die Wo:rter etwas". This means: "Only in the context of the sentence do the words mean something." The English word "fish" applies to both the live and dead animal, but in Spanish "pez" refers to a live fish and "pescado" to a dead one. The word used depends on the context.

Two techniques which translators and interpreters use are compensation and paraphrase. For example, many languages have a formal and informal second person singular you. English, however, does not. To compensate, translators and interpreters may add a formal title such as "sir" and "madam" to convey politeness or use informal words such as "hi" to convey informality and friendliness. In the case of an expression for which the target language has no equivalent, translators and interpreters may paraphrase. The Portuguese language has the word "saudade" which has no exact English equivalent. It can be paraphrased as the feeling of missing a person who has left.

It is often the case that one language has more specific vocabulary than another. The English word "sibling" has no equivalent in Dutch. Thus, the translator and interpreter would require more information to determine whether to use brother or sister. If they did not have the required information, they could simply use "brother or sister". Interpreters, unlike translators, have the advantage of being able to ask for more specific information on the spot. Translators, however, have the advantage of more time.

Machine translation, though it has greatly improved over the years, still has its problems. A well-known example involves the sentences "Time flies like an arrow" and "Fruit flies like an apple". The two sentences appear to be very similar but are in fact very different. The first one uses the verb "fly" and a simile expressed with the preposition "like". The second one uses the plural noun "flies" and the verb "like". Unfortunately, machine translation cannot account for these types of differences.

The best translators and interpreters require great skill. They know that they must consider much more than the meanings of the words themselves. This involves the level of formality, politeness and context. For those cases in which exact translation is insufficient, two techniques which they may use include compensation and paraphrase.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

the "sp" and "st" of the German Consonant Shift

A number of sound changes occurred during the German Consonant Shift. Among these changes were the syllable initial consonant clusters "sp" and "st". The voiceless alveolar fricative became an alveopalatal voiceless fricative.

These changes did not occur in all varieties of German- they occurred in the variety of German known as High German or Hochdeutsch. In Low German, they did not occur. For example, the words "Strasse" (street) and "Sprache" (language) are pronounced with an alveolar fricative in the areas where Low German (Plattdeutsch) is spoken such as Hamburg. This sound change also did not occur in other languages. For example, the word "street" and the Dutch equivalent "straat" are not pronounced with an alveolpalatal voiceless fricative.

What is the motivation for the sound change of the consonant clusters "st" and "sp"? The process which converted the alveolar voiceless fricative to a voiceless alveopalatal fricative may be called palatalization. Another possible name for the process is weakening because the voiceless alveopalatal fricative has a lower frequency than the voiceless alveolar fricative. However, the weakening process is more common in syllable-final position than in syllable-initial. This type of weakening occurs in European Portuguese as well as in the Portuguese of certain Brazilian speakers, notably in Rio de Janeiro. These speakers pronounce the syllable-final "s" as a voiceless alveopalatal fricative in words such as "seis" (six), "festa" (party) and "dias" (days).

The best term for this sound change may be dissimilation. The reason is that the alveopalatal voiceless fricative is rather different from the voiceless bilabial plosive and voiceless alveolar plosive. The voiceless alveolar fricative, however, is much closer in place of articulation to the two plosives. They can all be classified as +anterior. The voiceless alveopalatal fricative, however, articulated between the alveolar ridge and the palate, is -anterior. Though palatalization, weakening and dissimilation can all be used to refer to this sound change, I cannot find a clear motivation for palatalization nor weakening. For this reason I prefer to use the term dissimilation.

The Germanic Consonant Shift is associated with many sound changes. Among these is the change of the consonant clusters "st" and "sp"in which the initial consonant changed from a voiceless alveolar fricative to a voiceless alveopalatal fricative. Many terms can be used to describe this change such as palatalization, weakening and dissimilation. However, many linguists prefer to describe this as a process of dissimilation because the motivation for other processes is not easily explained.