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Sat Aug 30, 2014, 01:46 PM

vestiges of gender and case in English

Old English = Old German was highly inflected; Modern German less so; Modern English still less so. But some vestiges remain. Gender is evident in pairs of words like actor/actress, prince/princess, governor/governess.

Most plural nouns are distinguishable from the singular, and some are irregular (man/men, ox/oxen, mouse/mice). The rule for most plurals in English is to add an /S/ sound and to write " s " after the singular form.

The /S/ sound in English (usually written with an apostrophe) or German (without an apostrophe) can also indicate possession; this is a vestige of the genitive case.

Personal pronouns in Contemporary English are still inflected: I, my, mine, me, we, our, ours, us, etc. But we have lost the second-person singular forms, which survived into Early Modern English, e.g., thou, thy, thine, thee. We recognize these archaic forms in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And let's not forget the line: "Hast thou slain the jabberwock?"

What will the future bring? Will the planetary language become even less inflected than it is now?

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Arrow 10 replies Author Time Post
Reply vestiges of gender and case in English (Original post)
Lionel Mandrake Aug 2014 OP
Manifestor_of_Light Aug 2014 #1
Lionel Mandrake Aug 2014 #2
Manifestor_of_Light Aug 2014 #3
Lionel Mandrake Aug 2014 #4
Igel Aug 2014 #5
Lionel Mandrake Aug 2014 #7
Igel Aug 2014 #6
Starboard Tack Sep 2014 #8
Odin2005 Nov 2014 #10
Odin2005 Nov 2014 #9

Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sat Aug 30, 2014, 04:37 PM

1. People don't know about inflected verbs.

They think ALL verbs just put "-ed" on the end. This bugs me. The vowel changes.

The other day on a stand-up comedy show on TV, the guy said "Sticked" instead of "stuck". I have also heard "grinded" on TV instead of "ground".

They don't know about sleep-slept, keep-kept, choose-chose, leap-leapt, eat--ate-have eaten.

When I was in school we learned about "helper verbs" like has, have and had. Past perfect tenses are too difficult for these people, I guess.

And I'm no English major. I'm convinced that 90 percent of the population can't write with proper grammar and spelling.

And people who think "niggardly" means having to do with African-Americans. I knew a judge in St. Louis who lost her job over that.

I saw Bill Maher correct some stupid rock star, on his old show on ABC in the 90s, who insisted it had to do with black people.

And recently, we saw a man fired from an English language school for saying "homophones".

The bosses were quoted as saying "ESL students don't need to learn homophones". Excuse me? There, they're and their? Your and you're?


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Response to Manifestor_of_Light (Reply #1)

Sat Aug 30, 2014, 07:45 PM

2. Yes, bad spelling and bad grammar are ubiquitous.

Even on college campuses, anyone in doubt need only pick up a copy of the student newspaper.

Typically a college freshman is required to pass an English test and take remedial classes if he/she fails. Same for math, but that's a whole 'nother story.

Small children often put "-ed" at the end of a strong verb, like "I eated a cookie". If nearby adults speak correct English, the children will eventually learn which verbs need a vowel change.

Some verbs can form the simple past tense in more than one way, like dreamt/dreamed or hung/hanged. ("hanged" is archaic but occurs in legalese: "hanged by the neck until dead".)

What was wrong yesterday is sometimes correct today, and what is wrong today may become correct tomorrow. As a dinosaur, I cringe when I hear "this data" in place of "these data", "different than" in place of "different from", or "I'm like" in place of "I said".

To me, "shall" often denotes obligation, and "will" often denotes volition. That's why "shall I open the door?" does not mean the same thing as "will I open the door?" Youngsters will cringe at either statement; I would cringe only at the latter statement, which sounds like a demand for a prediction. "Shall", "will", and other modals are also helper verbs, like "be" and "have", but with different syntax.

American grammar and spelling are different from British grammar and spelling. After all, we are divided by a common language.

Spelling bees depend on the preconception that there is one and only one correct way to spell a given word. This is widely believed to be true for most English words, although the "correct" spelling may depend on your geographical location.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Reply #2)

Sat Aug 30, 2014, 08:22 PM

3. Yes, hanged and hung are two different words.

People get hanged and other things are hung up.

People don't know about Latin plurals. I took 2 years of Latin in high school. Medicine is about 80 percent Greek and 20 percent Latin. Law is either Latin or Old French. "Mortgage" is Old French for "death grip" which is appropriate.

It's amazing how kids in law school will mangle "res ipsa loquitur" which means "The thing speaks for itself".

Criterion-singular, criteria-plural. Same with medium, datum, media, data.

I watched a youtube video where a guy said "one of the criterias"

I noticed that the British keep in the double letters from Greek as in paedophile and gynaecologist. Mount Aetna. I wonder if anyone over here spells it that way or if the Aetna Insurance company has quit using the connected letters?

Thanks for the tip about shall and will. I don't think I ever heard the term modal with respect to grammar. I know about modes in music (different scales) but that's different. I think in the law, "shall" is compulsory.

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Response to Manifestor_of_Light (Reply #3)

Sat Aug 30, 2014, 09:03 PM

4. Modals are a special type of verb.

They are also called modal auxiliary verbs.

Except for "must", they come in pairs, like "will/would". "would" is arguably the past tense of "will", and similarly for the other pairs. As far as I know, modals occur only in Germanic languages.

You can read more about them in


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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Reply #4)

Sun Aug 31, 2014, 11:36 AM

5. No "arguably."

You can watch the rise of modals in English if you survey old texts and actually jot down data. This has been done. Numerous times. And oft published. What's varied over time isn't the data but the analysis hung onto the data. There's a huge literature on actualization that often delves into English modality.

You also get tense agreement in English out of the rise of the modals. "I knew they would go" = "I knew they were wanting to go", the last bit of which was interpreted as future. Same for may/might (might = past tense of may), can/could. Tense concord creates hell for English language learners--why do you sudden screw with the verb instead of saying, "I knew they will go." Every other language I know just uses "will": "Sabia que iran", savait qu'ils iront, ja znal, chto poidut, vedel jsem ze pojdut, etc. (Span/French/Russian/Czech, the same's true for Serbian, Italian, Polish ... but I only really know Romance and Slavic).

Modals are common. Slavic--also Indoeuropean--winds up with some forms based on esti 'be' or imeti 'have' or even khocheti 'want'. Bg shchu 'I want' is one way of saying "I will." Ukrainian has two imperfective futures, otrymatyme 'he will receive' and 'bude trymaty' "he will receive", but they mean slightly different things (Ukr, like other Slavic languages, distinguishes broadly between verbs that are perfective and have outcomes and imperfectives where no outcome is claimed, which is different from saying there is no outcome). One's more dependent on what he wants and does, the other has a bit more of a modal flavor (look up deontic and epistemic). Notice I've just shifted what "modal" means a bit, from simple tense/aspect marker to modality in the sense of "should" or "ought". (Which are, of course, the past tenses of "shall" and "owe" ... "must" didn't have a good past tense, and that's a nice instance of suppletion.)

Modals are often transient. They're on the way from highly inflected languages (which tend not to have them because they have other ways of saying the same thing) and isolating languages, if anybody still uses that term, which have no morphology. Tibetan vs Chinese, for instance.

Modals are often unnecessary. The future tense is a funny sort of beast. A lot of languages don't have it, a lot didn't have it--at least as far as a formally identifiable thing. You infer it. Like in English; before what, 1100 AD or so English didn't have a clear future tense. You used periphrasis to, well, work around the idea.

Modality is also broader than in English. Check out "evidentials" for fun. In German, evidentiality can be shown by a tense shift; Bulgarian has something like that, where you deny responsibility for something's truth value by shifting it one "tense" back in time. Some nothern South American languages have truly astonishingly complex evidentials, stipulating whether you know something because you heard it, saw it, was told it ... If you include this under "modality" then you probably want to peel off some tense/aspect markers as "auxiliaries" to keep your analysis focused.

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Response to Igel (Reply #5)

Sun Aug 31, 2014, 01:02 PM

7. I would argue a few points, including "arguably".

Syntactically it's clear that "would" is the past tense of "will", and similarly for the other pairs of modals. Historically, it's clear that "would" was the past tense of "will", etc. But semantically, the meaning of "I would like to eat now" is in the present, not the past.

Modals in English and German are similar, except that in German they have infinitives and participles. English "I must" corresponds to German "ich musste", which is the past tense of "ich muss". This suggests that English "must" should be considered past tense.

Wie sagt man auf Deutsch: "I knew they would go"? (I'm wondering how similar the English and German versions are.)

Syntactically English has no future tense. Future meaning in English is always expressed paraphrastically: I'm going to eat, I will eat, I'm about to eat, etc.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sun Aug 31, 2014, 12:24 PM

6. Grammatical categories come and grammatical categories go.

Proto-Germanic wasn't so highly inflected. It had a lot of inflection, but it's a piker on the world scene.

For this you need the long view.

English has been conspiratorially moving from inflected to uninflected. If you look at the strong verbs, they've been petering out. Yeah, some verbs like "ride/rided" have gone strong in historical times, "ride/rode". Others only did so dialectally (so I'm a dive/dove speaking, while most others are dive/dived).

The past participle's ("I have ridden" is also giving way to the preterite. So a lot of people are confused when it comes to the forms to say for "I went" vs. "I have gone." That's the trend in English--we've replaced a lot of strong or irregular past participles with the preterite. Had one student do a project where she surveyed students for past part. usage in a variety of sentences and contexts, and in some cases she had 4 or 5 variants. She hadn't noticed them before.

English has hit roadbumps. Most irregularities were regularities. So "sleep/slept" used to be perfectly regular. That <ee> was a long /e/, the <e> in 'slept' was short. Otherwise they had the same quality. Come the Great Vowel Shift and loss of length, suddenly it's irregular. We're gradually fixing this: light/lighted~lit, leap/leaped~lept, dream/dreamed~dreamt. But you can't say "sleep/sleeped~slept." Perhaps in 100 years.

A conspiracy in linguistics is where it looks like language has a goal, is telic. In fact a lot of small, little changes just let that impression happen. So English has moved from reasonably inflected in 1000 BC (when it was Common Germanic) to the present. It'll probably continue to lose inflection. Syntax rules, morphology drools.

The long view, however, is a bit murkier. Indo-European is reconstructed. When you reconstruct, you lose detail, you lose clarity. Irregularities are levelled out by the process of reconstruction. Historical change destroys data, and what's destroyed we can't know. Irregularities tend to be both lost and also introduced--that makes it possible to reconstruct an early new irregularity farther back than it should belong and to utterly miss an irregularity that was completely lost.

Late PIE was inflected and had all those strong verbs, funky ways of relating nouns to verbs, verb forms that were nouns and ways of making nouns into verbs. Early PIE, however, almost certainly lacked most inflections. That's when ablaut--vowel changes--ruled, and so you didn't need all those case endings and all that morphology. It's also very likely that tone wasn't lexical, a property of the word that was often predictable or redundant, but bore meaning, much more like Chinese or Vietnamese. Check out Jay Friedman's dissertation (UCLA, probably late '90s) and other works like that.

This grammaticalization, where there's a cline from fully meaningful words (once upon a time called "autosemantic," having their own meaning) to bleached words (where much of the meaning is lost) to grammatical markers (like auxiliaries) to clitics to suffixes to nothing. This certainly works for IE languages. And for Georgian. Harder to show for other languages without a lot of historical work. I've seen dribs and drabs of this but haven't been paying close attention.

Modals in English show the first two steps--full words to bleached words. Auxiliaries show the first three steps: full verbs to bleached words to free-standing grammatical markers and even clitics. (Our auxiliaries are typically stressless and cliticize to some other word. Judith Klavans did a good job classifying clitics, look up her work, even if it is from the '70s or '80s.)

People balk at the next step: auxiliaries to suffixes. If English had a different sort of clitic it would be easier to grasp. Our clitics lean left, "I've read". If they went the other way, "I v'read" you could see how auxiliary --> clitic --> suffix is a snap. In French the argument's been made that pronouns are clitics and turning into a new conjugational system: "j'li, tuli, illi, nulison, vulize, illiz". Makes Native American agglutinative languages seem completely reasonable, what with object and subject incorporation.

Lithuanian has a rich prefix system for forming verbs. Like "read, re-read, misread", but with more prefixes--through, around, for a while ... We like to think they're all single words, but the word for "no" intrudes. "I misread" would be okay, but instead of "I no misread" you have to say "I mis-no-read." Instead of "I no reread" it's "I re-no-read." You speak the language, and this seems perfectly natural. These prefixes, like the word 'ne' "no", were clitics. They still sort of act like clitics.

Take Latin to Spanish, a typical example, and the future tense. The usual story is something like "Latin had a nifty inflected plural and a nifty inflected perfect." The future had a tense marker -i-, the perfect had what? -av-? (Me, Latin, not a good mix.) When sound change made the endings less clear, more shaky, speakers used "have". This happened the same way in English for the perfect. "I have read the book", a perfect, started out as something like "I have the book read", a resultative; in French you still get agreement with past participles. Or you could say "I have to read the book", in Romance languages that involved putting the "have" verb *after* the main verb. If 'have' is before the verb, it's past; if 'have' is after the verb, it's future.

It's really obvious that's the case in Portuguese. Look at the future and past perfect conjugations there. You can--must, actually--put pronouns *between* the verb and tense markers in the Portuguese future. Those future tense endings were clitics, like the pronouns. And they probably still are clitics in Portuguese, even if they're bound suffixes in the other Romance languages (at least the ones I'm familiar with).

As in French and English, sound change erodes the edges of words, esp. the trailing edges. That's where a lot of grammatical markers show up. So we're always, over millennia, adding markers and then destroying them. We lost the subjunctive that way in English--and French is doing the same. (Not that it's just sound change. It gets messy. Sound change may weaken the morphology, speakers find a way to get around the ambiguity, but in so doing the old morphology becomes meaningless and is preserved in fewer and fewer situations. I'm speaking sloppily here.) BTW, my dialect of English, from a little place SE of Baltimore, colloquially preserved the subjunctive. It drives me crazy to hear "It's important that I'm there by 3". One may as well say, "It were important that I've was there by 3."

English will become less and less inflected. Some will be driven by analogy: "Me thinks he is wise" has as an indirect object "me": "He is wise" it-is thought to me. It makes the thinker more of an experiencer and not the originator of the thought. It's precisely "It occurs to me that he is wise." We interpreted "me" as the subject, and replaced it with I because it was before the verb. (English used to be a verb-second language--whatever else is going on in the sentence, the default position of the verb is after the first stressed element.)

Some loss will be from levelling. "I have gone" vs. "I went" will go the way of most past participles, and "I have went" will almost certainly win. I've already seen supposedly educated people defend its use as an alternative "proper" form, and heard English language learners corrected to "I have went" from "I have go-ed."

Right now English is into syntactic change. Maybe because of influence from other languages, maybe it's just internally driven. "Less" versus "fewer" is biting the dust. "Less and less people like Mozart" instead of "Fewer and fewer people like Mozart." "Every student doesn't understand this" is far from "Not every student understands this," but if you're under 20, or I guess 30 these days, there's a good chance they mean the same thing. "Every student doesn't understand this, but most do" is either okay or blithering nonsense, depending on which side of the grammatical change you're on. (Check out "scope of negation." It's a simple change even if it looks like a complicated one.)

Now, excuse me, we are about to start vectors and elementary kinematics in my high school physics class, and my goal for this year is rationalizing all the problem sets into a single format, with primary, alternative, and review sets for each unit. (Be a linguistics grad student; then teach high-school science!)

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Response to Igel (Reply #6)

Mon Sep 1, 2014, 06:57 AM

8. Fascinating stuff, as usual Igel

I have never studied linguistics in any formal way, but have always been fascinated by language and dialect. I'm studying Spanish at present. My French is a little rusty, but passable. I'm fluent in Italian and fairly fluent in Sicilian, though Sicily has some dialects which are literally Greek or Turkish to me.

The second person singular is still found in parts of Britain. I grew up in the north of England, where 2nd person singular was very common, especially outside the major cities. In Accrington, Lancashire, for example, a normal greeting would be "Astabin areet?" (How hast thou been, alright?) And the response would be "Areet err'tye!" (Alright, how art thou [thyself]!)
"Cansta" (Canst thou) was also common.

About modals
You also get tense agreement in English out of the rise of the modals. "I knew they would go" = "I knew they were wanting to go", the last bit of which was interpreted as future. Same for may/might (might = past tense of may), can/could. Tense concord creates hell for English language learners--why do you sudden screw with the verb instead of saying, "I knew they will go." Every other language I know just uses "will": "Sabia que iran", savait qu'ils iront, ja znal, chto poidut, vedel jsem ze pojdut, etc. (Span/French/Russian/Czech, the same's true for Serbian, Italian, Polish ... but I only really know Romance and Slavic).

In Italian, your example "I knew they would go" translates as either "Sapevo che sarebbero andati" (using the conditional perfect) or "Sapevo che andrebbero" (using the past conditional of andare)
"I knew they were wanting to go" translates as "Sapevo che volevano andare" (using volere [to want] as a modal with the infinite "andare" [to go])
Italians never use the preterite tense in speech (except in dialects like Sicilian, which mostly uses the preterite), but they write in the preterite. In spoken Italian, either the past imperfect, or perfect tenses are normally used.

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Response to Starboard Tack (Reply #8)

Thu Nov 13, 2014, 03:29 AM

10. Interesting, merging the Perfect and Preterite seems to be widespread...

...in Western European languages and English seems to be next.

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Response to Igel (Reply #6)

Thu Nov 13, 2014, 03:28 AM

9. We still preserve the Subjunctive in rural NW Minnesota, too!

What I find interesting is that all of the Western European languages have developed a "be-gonna" Future more or less simultaneously. (like Spanish "va a ir"

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