Sunday, August 31, 2008

English plural marker

What is the underlying form of the English plural marker? The plural 's' has three variants: the /s/ in 'cats', the /z/ in 'dogs' and 'pies' and the /Iz/ in 'boxes'. These variants occur in specific environments. The /s/ occurs after voiceless consonants, the /z/ after voiced consonants and vowels, and the /Iz/ variant after consonants and affricates which have greater acoustic noise and turbulence than other consonants. If we take the case of the words 'judges', 'matches', 'wishes' and 'races', we have examples of affricates in the first two words and strident fricatives in the last two.

Many textbooks of linguistics argue that the underlying form of the plural marker in English is /z/. They make this claim on the basis of wider distribution. The voiced alveolar fricative is present not only in /z/ but also in /Iz/. However, is this really correct? First of all, it is debatable as to whether or not we should even claim that there is an underlying form. Do we want to say that at one time in the historical development of English there was only one form and from that form other forms developed? A counterclaim is that each form is contextually dependent and as a result the notion of wider distribution is invalid.

However, if we must choose an underlying form, we can also present many arguments in favour of the allomorph /s/. The first is that in forms such as 'snows' and 'plays', it is true that either a voiceless or voiced alveolar fricative can occur. We have words such as place' and 'race' to prove this. Nevertheless, because the word-final vowel is voiced, we can argue that a voiced fricative could be the result of assimilation. Perhaps the underlying form was once voiceless and later became voiced as the result of an assimilation process.

Other arguments in favour of /s/ as underlying are orthography. If the plural marker had originally been pronounced as a voiced fricative, would this not be reflected in the orthography? Markedness theory also favours /s/. It is well-known that voiceless fricatives are less marked than marked ones and that in word-final position many languages only have voiceless fricatives such as German and Dutch. English, though, is a Germanic language with many voiced fricatives in word-final position as in 'knives', 'boys' and 'dogs'.

Other languages such as Spanish and German have a voiceless fricative in the plural: i.e., Spanish has 'gatos' (cats) and German has Autos (cars). This also provides evidence to suggest that the underlying plura marker could be /s/.

A problem for the claim that the underlying marker is /s/, though, is forms such as 'knives' and 'lives'. The Swedish, Norwegian and Danish words 'kniv' and 'liv' indicate that 'knive' and 'live' may be underlying forms in which the word-final consonant devoiced. If this is the case, /z/ appears to be underlying. But it is also possible that 'lives' and 'knives' are the result of a progressive voicing assimilation, (live + s > live + z; knife + s > knife + z), and the devoicing that resulted in 'life' and 'knife' occurred at a different stage in the development of the English language. This goes against the claim of the Neogrammarians that sound change is always regular, but unfortunately, despite the wishes of many linguists, it does not appear that language is always so simple.

Many linguists claim that the underlying plural allomorph in English is /z/. However, it is also possible to claim that all the allomorphs are contextually dependent and thus occurred simultaneously in their own specific environments. If an underlying form must be chosen, it is also possible to claim that this underlying allomorph should be /s/ and not /z/.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A comparison of the vocabulary of English and Swedish

English and Swedish are related languages. They are both classified as members of the Germanic language family. The similarity between them is reflected in many words: for example, the Swedish words "hus", "nu", "liv", "vi", "oss", "tre", "se", "nummer", "mus" and "fisk" mean "house", "now", "life", "we", "us", "three", "see", "number", "mouse" and "fish".

In certain cases, Swedish words do not appear so similar to English ones but a semantic relationship clearly exists. As a result of this semantic relationship, the connection between the two words can be clearly seen.

For example, the Swedish word "kvinna" means woman. The two words may not appear similar but the word "kvinna" is very similar to the English word "queen" and one of the semantic properties of the word "queen" is +female.

The Swedish "bord" means table. It is very similar to the English word "board". The Swedish word for "chair" is stol which is similar to the English word "stool".

The word "mo:rk" means dark. It is very similar to the English word "murky" as in murky water. Murky water is difficult to see through because it is dark. Again the semantic relationship is clear.

The Swedish word "dyr" means expensive. It is related to the English word "dear" which can mean valued and treasured. Though it is now considered rather archaic, the word "dear" can also be used to mean expensive as in "a dear necklace".

The Swedish word for Christmas is "jul". It is related to the English word "yule" and is in fact pronounced similarly because the Swedish "j" corresponds to the English "y".

The Swedish word "kuvert" may appear unrelated to the word "envelope" but if one thinks of the word "cover", that is exactly what an envelope does. It covers the letter that goes inside it.

Another example is the Swedish word "gul". It means yellow and may appear unrelated. However, the English word "gold" is similar. When the words "gul" and "gold" are compared, the similarity between these two words is evident.

The English and Swedish languages have a number of words which are related to one another. A number of words may appear unrelated to one another upon first glance. However, when viewed from a semantic perspective, the similarity in meaning often becomes evident.