Monday, November 30, 2009

Ergative Languages

Languages such as English are classified as nominative-accusative or simply accusative languages. However, a number of languages are classified as ergative-absolutive or simply ergative languages. Ergative languages are very different from accusative languages.

In accusative languages the subject of a transitive verb and intransitive verb are the same. The object of a transitive verb is different and is thus marked differently. This is illustrated by the sentences "He knows her" and "He is sleeping". In the sentence "She met him yesterday", the object "him" is marked differently from the subject "He".

In ergative languages the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are the same. It is the subject of a transitive verb which is marked differently. In an ergative language, the subject of the sentences "He knows her" and "He is sleeping" are different. In the sentence "He is sleeping", the subject "He" is marked the same as the object in the sentence "She met him yesterday". However, the subject in a sentence such as "He knows her" is marked differently.

The subject of an intransitive verb can be analyzed as a patient or experiencer. In contrast, the subject of a transitive verb is an agent. In ergative languages, the patient is marked the same as the object.

The subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are referred to as the absolutive in an ergative language. The subject of a transitive verb is referred to as the ergative. In an accusative language, the subject of a transitive and intransitive verb is referred to as the nominative and the object of a transitive verb is referred to as the accusative.

In an accusative language such as English, the agent and the experiencer are marked the same and the object is different. In an ergative language such as Basque, the experiencer and the object are marked the same and the agent is different.

How would English look if it were an ergative language? Let us take the examples "He knows her", "He is sleeping" and "He met her yesterday" to exemplify. The subject of "He is sleeping" and the object of "He met her yesterday" would be marked the same. However, the subject of "He met her yesterday" would be marked differently.

If English were a hypothetical ergative language, the previous examples would look as follows:

He is sleeping.
*Him met she yesterday.
*Him knows she.

The asterisk is used to mark an ungrammatical sentence. In the examples we notice that the subject of the intransitive in "He is sleeping" is the same as the object of the transitive in "Him met she yesterday". In these examples, the subject of the intransitive and the object of the transitive are both subject pronouns.

Ergative languages are very different from accusative languages. Basque and Georgian are two of the world's ergative languages. In ergative languages, the distinction between subject and object of accusative languages is not made. Rather, the distinction is between agent and patient which is also known as agent and experiencer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Nasal Vowels of French

The French language can be distinguished from many other languages by its nasal vowels. Languages such as English also have nasal vowels but they are followed by nasal consonants. French, however, has fully nasalized vowels which are not followed by nasals.

French has four nasal vowels. They are the low mid front unrounded, low mid front rounded, low mid back rounded and low back rounded nasal vowels. In a number of dialects, the low mid front rounded nasal vowel has disappeared in favour of the low mid front unrounded nasal. This is not surprising because the low mid front rounded vowel is far more marked than the unrounded one.

The low mid front unrounded nasal vowel occurs in a number of words. These include vin (wine), singe (monkey) and faim (hunger).

The low mid front rounded nasal vowel is less common than the low mid front unrounded. It occurs in words such as parfum (perfume), un (one) and lundi (Monday).

The low mid back rounded nasal vowel occurs in many words such as bon (good), son (sound) and long(long). The oral counterpart occurs in words such as beau (beautiful) and faux (false) but is in fact articulated with a higher tongue position than its nasal counterpart.

The low back unrounded nasal vowel also occurs in a number of words. They include an (year), blanc (white) and sans (without).

The nasal vowels are an important feature of the French sound system. Many languages such as English have nasal vowels which occur before a nasal, but French has fully nasalized vowels which occur without a following tautosyllabic nasal. The low mid front rounded nasal vowel has been replaced by its unrounded counterpart in a number of dialects. In this case, they have only three nasal vowels instead of four.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Numbers in Welsh

The Welsh language is a Celtic language primarily spoken in Wales. In Wales, the highest percentage of Welsh speakers is found in the northwest. The population of Wales is bilingual in Welsh and English.

The Welsh numbers from one to ten reveal that the Welsh language is rather different from English. As in English, the pronunciation is often rather distinct from the orthography The Welsh numbers from one to ten are: un, dai, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech, saith, wyth, naw, deg.

Now I will add my notes about the pronunciation.

un (the u sounds like the i of "radio")
dai (the ai sounds like the y of "my")
tri (the r is trilled)
pedwar (the r is trilled)
pump (the i sounds like the i of "it")
chwech (the ch is a velar fricative as in "Loch Ness" and the e sounds like the ay in "say")
saith (the ai sounds like the y of "my" and the th is a voiceless interdental fricative)
wyth (the wy sounds like the oy of "boy" and the th is voiceless)
naw (the aw sounds like the ow of "cow")
deg (the e sounds like the ay in "say")

The Welsh language is a language that is no longer as widely-spoken in Wales as it once was. This is due to the dominance of English. However, it is a source of Welsh pride and very much remains part of the Welsh culture and identity. An analysis of the Welsh numbers from one to ten indicates that many are relatively distinct from English.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Decisive Victory in Chess

I recently won a chess game at letsplaychess.com against Ruach, an opponent from the United Kingdom. He played white and I played black. In this game, I used a deadly check to force his resignation. Here are the moves of the game along with my commentary:

1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bc4 e6

I play e6 so that the white bishop cannot target f7.

4. d3 Qc7
5. Ng5 e6

White's fifth move is bad. The knight is unsupported on g5. I decide to attack the white knight so that white is forced to retreat it.

6. Nf3 Bd6
7. g3 Nge7

White's seventh move serves little purpose. Developing a piece such as the knight on b8 is more sensible.

8. g4 f6

White moves his pawn to g4 in two moves when he can done so in one. This is a loss of time. I play f6 to counter his pawn attack.

9. h4 b6

White begins a pawn attack while I prepare to fianchetto my light-squared bishop.

10. Nc3 a6
11. d4 cxd

My eleventh move is the first capture of the game.

12. Nxd4 Bb7
13. Nxc6 Bxc6
14. f3 Bg3+

I check white's king to take the initiative and prevent the option of castling.

15. Ke2 b5

With my latest move I gain more space.

16. Bd3 Kf7

I move my king forward to connect my rooks. I decide not to castle because black has the potential to launch a strong attack on both wings.

17. g5 Be5
18. gxf gxf

Now the g-file is open.

19. Qf1 Ng6

I position my knight closer to white's king. It can now check white on f5 if white does not move his king.

20. Qg2 Rag8

My rook is now on the same file as the white queen.

21. a4 Nf4+

My check prepares a discovered attack on the white queen by my rook.

22. Bxf4 0-1

White captures my knight and then resigns. I can play Rxg7+, a devastating move which captures the queen and puts the king in check at the same time.

In this king white begins a premature pawn attack because his king is too exposed. He also makes moves which have no clear purpose and end up losing him time. He fails to see that my check on his king leads to a discovered attack on his queen. This forces his quick resignation.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Semantics of Containment

The semantics of containment can be well illustrated by the spatial preposition "in". This preposition has a number of similar but distinct meanings in languages. Examples from English can be given to illustrate.

In the following phrases the preposition "in" has a distinct meaning in each case:

a) the bird in the field
b) the bird in the tree
c) the toy in the box
d) the fruit in the bowl
e) the muscles in his foot
f) the desk in the corner
g) the water in the vase
h) the crack in the vase

In example (a) the bird may be standing or walking in the field but it may also be flying as many as several metres over the field. From the phrase it is not clear. In example (b) the bird may be inside a hole in the tree trunk but may also be sitting on a branch. In this case it is inside our projection of the shape of the tree.

In example (c) the toy is probably completely contained by the box. In example (d), however, the fruit may be entirely inside the bowl or may be on top of a pile of fruit in the fruit so that it protrudes from the top edge of the bowl.

Example (e) could just as easily be expressed with the phrase "the muscles of his foot". The muscles in his foot are where they are expected to be because they are an essential part of the foot. It is an example of inalienable possession.

In example (f) the desk is located in one part of the room. The phrase "in the corner" is more specific than "in the room".

The likely interpretation of phrase (g) is that most of the vase is filled with water but it may also mean that only a small fraction of the vase is filled with water. In phrase (h) it is clear that the crack refers to the surface of the vase. Phrases (g) and (h) refer to different types of containment.

The preposition "in" is commonly used to refer to types of containment. Though the meaning may initially seem very clear, a close anaylsis reveals that many types of containment can be expressed. These types of containment often have very distinct meanings across languages.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Flanders Fields

"In Flanders Fields" is one of the most famous poems written during World War I and certainly the most famous Canadian poem. It was written by John McCrae. Here is the text of this poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Each verse consists of eight syllables. The lone exceptions are the final verses of the second and third stanzas which have only four syllables. The rhyme scheme of the poem is a,a,b,b,a,a,a,b,c a,a,b,b,a,c. The first two verses of each stanza begin with a,a. The stress pattern of the poem is weak, strong. The verses consist of four feet in which the second syllable of each foot is stressed. Thus the poem is in iambic tetrameter with the exception of two verses which are in iambic dimeter.

"In Flanders Fields" is a powerful poem which reminds us of the sacrifices made in war. The poppy which is red may symbolize the blood shed in the struggle for peace. The sweet song of the larks in the sky provides a strong contrast to the sound of guns heard on the battlefield.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rhyme in Word Pairs of Languages

In many languages certain word pairs exhibit rhyme. This is particularly true in word pairs that are frequently used and express a relationship of direction and distance. The use of rhyme may be to emphasize the relation of the words to one another.

The adverbs "here" and "there" both relate to location but differ in distance. In many languages these words rhyme, end in the same consonant or begin with the same consonant. The latter is not an example of rhyme but is an example of alliteration. In the case of the same consonant ending but different vowels there is consonance. Here is a list for comparison:

English: here, there
Dutch: hier, daar
Danish: her, der
Norwegian: her, der
Swedish: ha:r, da:r
Spanish: aqui, ahi'/alli'
Finnish: ta:a:lla:, siella:
Hungarian: itt, ott
Japanese: koko, soko
Korean: yogi, kogi

The next list is for the demonstrative pronouns "this" and "that". In many languages this word pair also rhymes or has the same initial sound.

English: this, that
Dutch: dit, dat
Spanish: esto, eso
Portuguese: isto, isso
Italian: questo, quello
Finnish: ta:ma:, tuo
Hungarian: ez, az
Japanese: kore, sore
Korean: igo, chogo

The final list is for the directions "left and right".

English: left, right
German: links, rechts
Dutch: links, rechts
Danish: venstre, ho/jre
Norwegian: venstre, ho/yre
Swedish: va:nster, ho:ger
Spanish: izquierda, derecha
Portuguese: izquerda, direita
French: gauche, droite
Italian: sinistra, destra

In word pairs such as "here/there" and "this/that" many languages exhibit rhyme, alliteration and consonance. These sound similarities appear to be too great to be merely a coincidence. The sound similarities of these word pairs likely reflect the semantic similarity of the word pairs.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Northern Cities Vowel Shift

The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is a phenomenon in the vowel pattern of much of the United States. This shift has not spread to Canada. It was documented by the American linguist William Labov. It is strongest in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Since these are cities of the northeastern and midwestern United States, the phenomenon has been called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

The most notable vowel change in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift concerns the pronunciation of the low back unrounded vowel of words such as "father", "far" and "box". The low back unrounded vowel has shifted so that it is pronounced as either a central low central unrounded or even low front unrounded vowel. Thus the word "fox" sounds similar to the word "fax" to General American speakers.

The low front unrounded vowel raises so that it is pronounced as a lower mid front unrounded lax vowel as in the word "pet". Thus the word "bat" sounds similar to "bet" to General American speakers.

The mid front unrounded lax vowel retracts so that it is pronounced as a central mid unrounded vowel similar to the schwa. The result of this is words such as "pet" and "tell" have a more retracted pronunciation than in General American.

Another change is that the upper mid central unrounded vowel in words such as "but" and "up" is also pronounced with a more retracted pronunciation than in General American. This change is probably the least noticeable of the changes in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

In the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, a circular change affects the low vowels. The low back unrounded vowel becomes a more fronted vowel, either a central or front vowel. The low front vowel raises to become a lower mid front unrounded vowel, the lower mid front unrounded vowel becomes a mid central unrounded vowel and the upper mid central unrounded vowel becomes a more retracted vowel. This change has occurred in the pronunciation of many Americans.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

"Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a title of a famous poem by the American Robert Frost. It is a poem about nature and social responsibility. Here follows the poem.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Each verse consists of eight syllables which can be divided into four feet. Each foot consists of weak stress followed by strong. Thus the poem is written in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme of the poem is a, a, b, a, b, b, c, b, c, c, d, c, d, d, d, d. In the last stanza we do not have the expected d, d, e, d but rather d, d, d, d.

The poem has images of winter. They include the references to the darkest evening of the year, the frozen lake and snow. The horse is surprised to be deep in the woods, far from the village. However, the rider is happy to take a break from his regular life and enjoy the nature all around him. He wishes to remain in the woods longer but acknowledges that he has social responsibilities in the verse "But I have promises to keep".

The poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a powerful poem about nature and duty. The narrator enjoys the tranquillity of the woods and the break which they provide him from his daily life. By reading the poem, one senses that Robert Frost had a very strong attachment to both nature and horses.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Speeds of Spoken Swedish and Danish

Studies in linguistics appear to indicate that the speeds of spoken Swedish and Danish are quite different. Though the two are closely related Germanic languages, they sound rather different in their spoken forms. Also, studies which have compared the speeds of Danish and Swedish speakers suggest that the speed of Danish speakers is 20-30% greater than that of Swedish speakers.

Since Danish and Swedish are closely related languages, particularly in their written forms, this is a remarkable difference. To illustrate the similarity of these languages, here are a few sentences:

I can't see them.
Jag kan inte se dem. (Swedish)
Jeg kan ikke se dem. (Danish)

You have a big house.
Du har ett stort hus. (Swedish)
Du har et stort hus. (Danish)

We travel every summer.
Vi reser varje sommar. (Swedish)
Vi rejser hver sommer. (Danish)

It rained a lot.
Det regnade mycket. (Swedish)
Det regnede meget. (Danish)

She looks happy.
Hon ser lycklig ut. (Swedish)
Hun ser lykkelig ud. (Danish)

Why is the speed of spoken Danish so much greater than that of spoken Swedish? A number of reasons can be given to explain this difference.

Danish has many word-final schwas where Swedish has full vowels. For example, the Swedish word for "four" is "fyra" and the Danish word is "fire". Undoubtedly, the final unstressed "a" in "fyra" has a longer duration than the unstressed "e" in "fire".

Danish does not have long consonants while Swedish does. The Danish word for "sit" is "sidde" but the double "d" is in fact a voiced interdental fricative with a short duration. The Swedish word for "sit", however, is "sitta". The double "t" is a long consonant with a long duration.

Many Danish words have silent letters. For example, the Danish word "bage" means "to bake" but the "g" is silent. In the Swedish counterpart "baka" every letter is pronounced.

Swedish has a pitch accent which Danish lacks. The Swedish word "komma" meaning "to come" has first-syllable stress but high pitch on both the first and second syllables. The pitch on the second syllable is not only high but also relatively long in duration. In contrast, the Danish word "komme" does not have high pitch nor long duration on the second syllable.

Danish often uses vowels with a shorter duration than Swedish does. For example, the word for "you" is "du" in both languages, but the vowels are different. Danish uses the vowel of Spanish and German but Swedish uses a different vowel. It is not a back vowel but rather a central vowel with a relatively long duration.

The Danish "r" vocalizes when it is word-final and preceded by a schwa. For example, the noun "parker" (parks) is pronounced as if it had a word-final "a". This means that the word-final "er" is only one segment. In Swedish, however, the word-final "er" of "parker" (parks) is two segments which results in a longer duration.

Though the Swedish and Danish languages are very similar to one another, the speeds at which they are spoken differ significantly. They have a number of differences in pronunciation which explain this phenomenon.