Daily Archives: February 27, 2013

English’s foreign plurals

The monetary unit of Swaziland is the lilangeni. English speakers are helpfully reminded that the plural is emalangeni: one lilangeni, two emalangeni.

But why?

I don’t mean “Why does SiSwati, the language of the Swaziland, pluralize that way?” That’s easy: as with other Bantu languages, its nouns are in different classes, identified by prefixes, and plurals are a different class from singulars. No, I mean “Why do we feel obliged to use the SiSwati plural when we’re speaking English?”

It’s not normal, you know. It’s not normal for languages, when they borrow words from other languages, to borrow the morphology: the different forms for plurals, possessives, etc., and the different conjugations for verbs.

It’s not even normal for English to do that. We don’t borrow conjugations when we borrow verbs: we don’t say “They massacreront them!” instead of “They will massacre them!” We don’t borrow possessives when we borrow nouns: we don’t say “The radiorum length” instead of “The radiuses’ length” – oh, sorry, that should be “The radii’s length.” Right?

Because sometimes – just sometimes – when we borrow a noun we also borrow the plural form. This is especially true with newer borrowings and with borrowings in specialized areas (science, food, the arts). We’re not very consistent about it, so it can sneak up on you, like so many other ambush rules we have in English.

And there are so many borrowed plural forms – because there are so many plural forms to borrow. Read 9 confusing ways to pluralize words (by me) on TheWeek.com for details on ways and reasons.

But if we’re going to talk about pluralizing things the way we always have in English, there’s one other issue: we haven’t always pluralized using –s in English

Nope. In fact, a thousand years ago, when English nouns had three genders, only the masculine ones got –s (actually –as), and not all of those did either. Other ways of showing the plural were to add –u, –a, –e, or –n, or change the vowel, or do nothing. English has changed a whole lot since then. Noun and verb forms have gotten much, much simpler – thanks to interaction with speakers of other languages, especially Norse and French. You can really thank the French for the fact that we use –s/–es on most words now for the plural.

But since that’s what we do now, should we do it with all new words we steal, I mean borrow? Well, it’ll sure make life easier if we can settle on octopuses. But it might just sound kind of wrong and blah if we order paninos and look at graffitos on the wall. And it would be less fun if we couldn’t jokingly say to a bartender, “I’ll have a martinus. No, not martini – I only want one.” It’s the eternal struggle of English: do you want it easy, or do you want it fun?

A Word Taster’s Companion: Wow! Yay! Glides!

Today: the thirteenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Wow! Yay! Glides!

Glide. Come glide with me. You’ll get the hang of it. In fact, you already have the hang of it. You may never have been on a hang glider, but you have certainly glided smoothly on open air. If you’re flying a hang glider you may say “Wow! Yay!” But any time you say “Wow! Yay!” you’re gliding, no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

A glide is really a high and tight vowel sound serving as a consonant, the open air flowing smoothly but somehow making a consonant. In English, we have two glides: /j/ and /w/, the first sounds in yay and wow. You know (if you’ve been paying attention and have read “The vowel circle”) that the ay in yay and the ow in wow are diphthongs: vowel sounds that involve a movement. These ones in particular move to narrower vowels, [ɪ] and [ʊ]. But you can also hear, especially if you say “wow wow wow wow” and “yay yay yay yay,” or if you hold the opening sound (“wwwwwow” and “yyyyay”) that the opening sounds are pretty much the same as the final sounds of the diphthongs.

Glides illustrate even more clearly than liquids the fact that what is a consonant is often a matter of how it is used and thought of as much as of its characteristics. This is not true of all sounds; /a/ will never be a consonant, and /t/ will never be a vowel. But there is a grey area where consonants and vowels blur together, and the glides are in it (although I think glides sound more blue and yellow than grey).

This is not to say that the glides are absolutely identical with the vowels except for how they’re used. They may or may not be. Say “ye ye ye ye ye woo woo woo woo woo.” Notice how you can tell where the glide stops and the vowel starts. In these words, the glides have to be tighter than the vowels in order to be distinguished from them. Watch how you say ya and you and we and wa. See if they’re as tight.

But now say “ow ow ow ow a wa wa wa wa” and “ay ay ay ay a ya ya ya ya.” Watch how you say them. How closed are the glides? What else are you doing to make the distinction so it doesn’t just sound like “owowowow” and “ayayayayay”?

Glides are voiced. They don’t have to be. But we no longer have phonemic voiceless glides in English. We almost still do: if you want to distinguish which clearly from witch, you may devoice the /w/ – or just say a /h/ before it that spreads the devoicing onto the /w/, which is not quite the same thing. A similar effect can happen in words such as human and humour. Glides are also susceptible to the same devoicing caused by aspiration that affects liquids: try pure twit. Say that slowly, perhaps as if you’re describing someone with great disdain. Listen to the glides: /pjur twɪt/ – the aspiration from the /p/ and /t/ spreads onto the /j/ and /w/ and devoices them.

Glides can also be nasal or non-nasal (oral), just like the vowels they resemble – and, as with those vowels, this variation is allophonic but not phonemic in English. It spreads from a nearby nasal: compare mute (/mjut/) with beauty (/bjuti/). You may find it hard to hear the difference, but it’s there.

What do glides feel like to say? They’re sort of like the yo-yos of the mouth, perhaps in part because yo-yo uses them. The tongue (and, in /w/, the lips) swings in close and then pulls back, like an upside-down bungee jump. These are also things your mouth does while tasting – tasting wine, for instance. A wine taster will have a sip of wine and, holding it in the mouth, inhale on a [w] gesture to aerate it. Then, lips closed, the taster may make a series of [j] gestures ([jajajaja]) with the tongue to swish the taste in the mouth and get it into the nose. When held, glides can have a sense similar to that of nasals: they can express hesitation (“Yyyyyyyeah… wwwwwell…”) or enthusiasm (“Yyyyess! Wwwwwow!”)

Next: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.