Tag Archives: morphology

Assimilation by the mutants

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the blog of Editors Toronto.

Every so often, someone asks, “If it’s one foot and two feet, and one tooth and two teeth, why isn’t it one book and two beek? If we have louse and lice, and mouse and mice, why not house and hice? If more than one goose is geese, why isn’t more than one moose meese?”

The answer is that the feet, teeth, lice, mice, and geese have been assimilated by mutants. And there’s more, so much more. It involves men and women; it involves our food. If you tell the tale, you too have been assimilated; if you try to heal, you find that the mutants have taken over even there. You cannot escape the strength of the mutants—nor their filth. The only thing you can take consolation in is that it was much worse a thousand years ago.

What are these mutants? Mutated forms of words, subject to i-mutation. A form of assimilation also called umlaut. You recognize that term, umlaut? It is sometimes used to refer to the two dots over ü and ö and ä (and a few other letters if you’re dealing with the names of heavy metal bands). But originally—and still—it refers to what those dots signify: a vowel pushing up and forward in the direction of the i sound (not as in Modern English “long i” but as in what i stands for nearly everywhere else, the sounds it makes in machine and prison).

Why does the vowel push up? Is it an uprising, a prison break? No: it is an assimilation. Welcome to the machine. Here is how it works: a word has a vowel that is low or back in the mouth (or both), and then—just on the other side of a consonant—it gets a suffix with a vowel that is high in the front of the mouth (i, generally, though ü could do it too). And that i in the suffix, that secret agent for the mutants, exerts a mysterious force on the vowel that was already there in the root. The root vowel wants to be more like that i. It moves towards it.

It’s not really such a mysterious force, actually. It’s just economy of effort. (“Laziness” is what your grandma probably called it.) If your tongue is going to have to be up there anyway, why not get there a little sooner? If you think about it, you’ll realize we do this all the time with all sorts of letters. For example, we move the n in think back to the same place as the k.

So where is the suffix-causing mutation in all these words: feet, teeth, geese, and so on? It’s long gone now. We lost many suffixes over time. But a long time ago, they were there. And the vowels moved towards them. And then moved some more. There was fót (foot), plural fóti, which moved the o forwards to assimilate and become fœti. Then it lost the i—and the agent of assimilation disappeared! And, over time, the œ unrounded and became a long e. And then the Great Vowel Shift occurred and long e moved up and became just like the old long i. The imitation of the lost i was complete. The mutation took over. It did not affect the singular, but there is danger in numbers: where there are two or more, the mutation takes over. Footfeetgoosegeesetoothteethman, menbook,beek.

Only not beek. But in the past it was! Yes, in Old English, a millennium ago, book pluralized the same way: bóc (the form of the word at that time) became béc. But between then and now, it regularized to books. Many other words that had this mutation also regularized. The mutation is curable, you see. It has to be taught at each new generation, in fact: all those parents saying, “It’s not foots. It’s feet.” (There was never hice, though; it wasn’t in the noun class that the mutant agents infiltrated. And moose was taken in the 1600s from a North American language, so it missed the mutant plague altogether.)

But wait! There’s more. Plural nouns are not the only things subject to i-mutation. Think about strength, length, and filth: they’re formed from strong, long, and foul (yes, foul, which in Old English was fúl). How does –th cause this assimilation mutation? (For clarity, I’m using th in place of the old runic-derived character þ that was actually used.) It was once, a long time ago, –ithu. So strongithu became strengithu, which became strength when the provocative agent i disappeared (and so did u).

There’s even more. Some verbs formed from nouns or adjectives, and the verb ending had—you guessed it—an in it that disappeared once it had done its job. So fóda (food) plus the –ian suffix became fédan (feed). The same thing gave us tell from talefill from fulldeem from doom, and even heal—originally hælan—from hál, the source of modern hale and whole. Causative verbs could also be formed from the past tenses of other verbs: for instance, drincan (drink), past tense dranc, got this mutating agent on it to make it drencan (drench). It’s even where we got lay from lie…but the difference between the past-tense læg and the causative lecgan disappeared over time and they merged as lay.

In fact, the larger part of these Old English i-mutants was neutralized by mergers. Remember that Great Vowel Shift I mentioned? In many cases, vowels and diphthongs that were different in Old English ended up sounding—and even being spelled—the same in Modern English. Our old noun léoht (light) and mutant verb líehtan, and thurst (thirst) and thyrstan, and weorc (work) and wyrcan—and oh, so many more—have come back together. Others (like beek) were lost due to regularization, and still others were lost because we just don’t use those words anymore—no frófor and fréfran, meaning “comfort,” noun and verb, respectively. But for the most part, the mutants that were formed by phonology were neutralized by phonology; the power that created them destroyed them. And no new mutants are being created…well, not of this kind, anyway.

This article was copy edited by Savanna Scott Leslie.

Infixes? Absofreakinglutely… not.

The tools of linguistics are like a fancy set of lock-picking tools, different ones suited to different locks. Some locks are hard to pick and linguists try a few different tools, proclaiming varying amounts of success in the effort. Sometimes you may want to conclude that a new tool is needed. One case that’s given a lot of fun in the attempt is the case of words such as abso-freaking-lutely. What, exactly, is taking place, morphosyntactically? Or is morphosyntax even the right way to look at it?

Well, here’s what I think, in my latest article for The Week:

Why linguists freak out about ‘absofreakinglutely’

They don’t even really know what to call it

Are you a fan of its?

Sometimes editors (and others) wonder what the difference is between, say, “He’s not a fan of Cher” and “He’s not a fan of Cher’s.” Is there a distinction? Is it equally important in all instances?

There is a distinction: it’s between possession and association. In some cases it’s the same thing; in others, quite different. “A picture of Mr. Goldfine” is not a picture belonging to Mr. Goldfine but a picture depicting him; “A picture of Mr. Goldfine’s” is a picture belonging to him. (“Mr. Goldfine’s picture” can mean either because we use the “possessive” for both possession and association.)

When you talk about fandom, there is again the possible distinction between association and possession, but in that case it really refers to the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. “A fan of Cher’s” is the same as “a fan of Cher” but in the “Cher’s” case it gives a sense of there being a collection of fans belong to Cher, as opposed to it being simply an attitude on the part of the fan.

It also follows that because running in the rain is a kind of action, not an entity that can possess, “A fan of running in the rain’s” is odd.

English pronouns are more archaic than the rest of English; they preserve case distinctions that have been lost everywhere else, mainly because they’re so entrenched and we used them automatically by habit and without analysis. In cases such as this, a distinction can be made with them when there is a real distinction to be made: “A picture of him”; “A picture of his.” In instances where the distinction is not a significant one, we may hew to the older construction, which in this case uses the genitive because that was the case governed by this construction: “A fan of his” may seem more natural than “A fan of him” (though this will vary from speaker to speaker). (Languages that have full and productive cases systems for nouns tend to use different cases after different prepositions and depending on context; German and Latin are two languages that do this. Old English was another.) Note, however, that the association/possession distinction still matters: “I am not a fan of it” is fine; “I am not a fan of its” is probably not.

Badly broken words: the podcast

My article on words that are badly broken has been converted (in shortened form) to a podcast. Give it a listen if you want – it’s at theweek.com/article/index/264020/5-words-that-are-badly-broken.

Words that didn’t break at the glue line

My latest article for TheWeek.com is about words that were put together one way and then broken apart another way. They’re words you know, too…

10 words that are badly broken


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 slick trick for quick locution:

Will a quick phonetic tickle make you chuckle, quickly cackle,
or electrify your hackles so you heckle like a grackle?
Is your prickle frankly fickle – first you truckle, slackly buckle,
then in instant trick you stickle and commence to crack your knuckle?
We expect you not to suckle at a freckle on the deckle,
but we’d like to lightly tickle you till you elect to keckle,
so we’ll tackle you and rackle you and fix your cracks with spackle
so you’d crick your neck to ruckle with a sickle at your shackle,
then we’ll peckle like a puckle, first a trickle, next it’s mickle,
knocking like some ickle cockle: click and crackle, crickle, rickle.
And just when the focal vocal’s quackled you until you huckle,
we project you will effect a yucking racket like a yuckle.

These -ckle words don’t all have a common morpheme. Many of them have the -le frequentative suffix, but others share the ending just by coincidence. There is no -ckle morpheme. Some of the words may be less familiar, so here are some quick definitions: a grackle is an annoying noisy bird; to truckle is to submit; a deckle edge is a rough edge to a page (a deckle is actually a frame for making paper); to keckle is to chuckle; a rackle is a chain; to ruckle is to rattle; to peckle is to make a lot of little pecks; a puckle is a bogeyman; ickle is a play-childish way to say “little”; to crickle is to make a series of thin, sharp sounds, and to rickle is to make a rattling sound; to quackle is to choke; to huckle is to bend the body; a yuckle is a kind of woodpecker.


Well, maybe it’s time I snuck in another pocket screed. Today’s will be “why ‘that’s not a word’ is a senseless assertion.” And maybe if I snuck in a bit of linguistic terminology as well… it’s ablaut time.

Let’s start with that ablaut thingy. What is ablaut? It’s a term (pronounced like “ab lout”) linguistics has taken from German to refer to what’s happening in word sets such as shrink, shrank, shrunken, or sing, sang, sung, or drive and drove, or any other set of words where an inflectional change causes the main vowel to move back in the mouth – in particular “strong” verbs.

Now, the thing about “strong” verbs is that, supposedly, they’re not making new ones. New verbs have to get the -ed past tense and past participle endings, supposedly. It would be sloppy and irregular and so on if some verb that didn’t have the “strong” blue blood in its veins were to take on the airs of ablaut.

The problem being that people, goshdarnit, don’t seem to approach language in a purely schematic, consistent way. Things are often done by analogy. And some things begin as “mistakes” but take root. There are quite a lot of fully accepted words and expressions now in use that have come about through “mistakes,” reanalysis, et cetera. And of course there are some that are still resisted vigorously in spite of being in common use for more than a century. One such is snuck.

It’s quite a sensible ablaut alternation, isn’t it? Sneak–snuck, as self-evident as, say, dive–dove. Alas, it was not always thus; the original (and still used, especially outside of North America) past tense of sneak was sneaked. Somehow snuck just snuck in there (like dove – the same people who oppose snuck oppose dove as the past of dive, for the same reason: it’s not an original strong verb).

It’s not as though the ablaut words we have have all kept their original vowels from the beginning, either. Drove would then be drave, for instance. But snuck is a pure interloper! It’s like having one of those people trying to get into your country club. They’re just not our sort. They don’t belong, you see. Why, snuck is not a word!

Well, yes it is. First of all, a word is any unitary lexical item that is used with proper effect to communicate a particular sense. In other words, if I say it as a word, and you understand it as a word, it’s a word for us. And if it’s in general circulation in a given language and used by many people, and those speakers of that language who hear it generally understand it, it’s a word in that language. Doesn’t matter if it’s not in your dictionary; dictionaries are like field guides, not legislation. Birdwatchers don’t say “That can’t be a bird; it’s not in my book,” they say “My book is missing that one.” That’s how it is with dictionaries too. And if you’re arguing against something being a word, it’s surely because you’ve heard it used as a word (otherwise why bother arguing?), so you’re already wrong from the start.

And anyway, snuck is in the dictionary. So there. It’s been in use in American English since at least the late 1800s, and it’s made its way into all sorts of dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sure, it’s comparatively informal. But the verb sneak isn’t exactly high-flown. And there’s use for informal words. Especially ones that have a suitable mouthfeel and sound, like snuck does. Let’s face it: sneaking is a generally negatively toned act, or at least a rascally one. It’s something done in such a way as to evade detection. There is a certain underhandedness and lack of dignity to it. Under what circumstance could you even think of saying “The Pope snuck into the room”? (Or “The Pope sneaked into the room”?)

So we have a word that has the nose-reminiscent /sn/, which also shows up in words like snip, snicker, snake, and sneer, and then we get that “uck”, which can be a very down-to-earth, informal kind of sound in our language: it might be good luck or a big truck or it might be getting stuck trying to buy a duck (yuck), or it might be any of a variety of other more or less louche words ending with the same rhyme.

This is not to say that sneaked lacks any such tones – it has the same onset, and rhymes with leaked and peeked and tweaked and such like – but it’s a higher, thinner sound (I have the sense that snuck is more appropriate to going under a table and sneaked to going in through a narrow gap), and it has a more complex ending, /kt/ rather than /k/.

So why not have a choice? It’s hardly the first time we’ve had two words for something, and just aesthetic and similar connotative matters to distinguish between them. After all, snuck is a word too.


“I celebrate myself;” so says Walt Whitman, beginning Leaves of Grass, “And what I assume you shall assume; / For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.”

Ah, atom to atom: a shape-shifter! A form that can become another form, taking only the barest bits from one to the other. Later in the same, Whitman writes

I am exposed, cut by bitter and angry hail – I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death;
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call BEING.

Ah, she’s alright, morphine… but it is only when it lets up, when one sees again not the peace but the piece, the piece in the puzzle, that we can find being: the concrete bits come together and reality takes shape.

So, too, is it with words: they are made of bits, linguistic pieces, shapes that in many cases can only take real form when combined with other forms. What can you say is -ed, or -y, or -s, or -th by itself? And what of bits that change shape all by themselves – anger to angr, long to leng? What shape shall they assume, and what bits belong to what?

Do I blaspheme against the language, the sanctity of our words? Ah, but one who sees a language as being but one way is a veritable Polyphemus: a name that speaks of many words, but designates one who is but half seeing.

The pheme in blaspheme and Polyphemus, you see, is from Greek phemos “speaking”. But the pheme in morpheme is not. It is not a morpheme, not productively or even historically, even though morphemes undeniably have to do with words and speech.

Morpheme, as it happens, is modelled on phoneme. And what is phoneme? An anglicization of phonema, Greek, “sound”; it refers to a sound that is accepted as being an identifiable sound in a given language. Phonemics is the study of the sounds that languages identify as discrete sounds. Phonetics is its counterpart: the study of actual speech sounds, which are rather more in number. For instance, the /n/ in Banff is not exactly the same sound as the /n/ in Toronto, nor is the /l/ in Calgary just the same as the one in Halifax, but we perceive them as the same sound nonetheless, local variation notwithstanding.

This distinction is the emic/etic distinction: the codified (culture-internal) versus the objectively actual. Dizzying? Emetic? It is relevant. For there are morphemics, but no morphetics – words, and parts of words, have only a culturally determined reality, not any objective form at all. A piece from which a word is made up is called a morphememorph for shape, and eme as we have just said.

So steeped is the morpheme steep plus the morpheme ed; windpipe is a compound made of two morphemes that make whole words unto themselves. And then there are the morphemes that are not functioning separate bits now but historically were bits that made up the words: throttle is from throat (shifted in shape) plus le (a frequentative suffix), but one may not make a similar word now from chest or tweet or what have you plus le. Oh, and as just seen, a morpheme may shift shape all of its own: anger to angr, historically, for instance, but also lose to los plus ed to t to make lost, and crazy to crazi (note the change in pronunciation! pronunciation is primary!) plus ly to make crazily.

Oh, dizzying it is, but not emetic: intoxicating. One may be entranced, set into a reverie, as by the god of dreams, Morpheus, so called because he could take on the shape of any person (why? because he was none other than they, in the mind of the dreamer). And it is after him that morphine was named: the principal alkaloid of opium. Inhale your words, and dream; but it is only when they take solid form that they arise from their slumber, come together as pieces of a puzzle, and are fit to come forth through the windpipe as words.


In the May/June 2010 issue of Canadian Running, coach Kevin Mackinnon writes,

Running on the track doesn’t have to be boring, and it doesn’t have to be lung-bustingly tough. (Yes, I know that lung-bustingly isn’t a word, but it seems like the perfect way to describe that can’t-quite-get-a-breath feeling at the end of a good, hard set.)

Well, coach, you have one thing pretty much right and one thing pretty much wrong there. I’ll start with the wrong: just because lung-bustingly isn’t in a dictionary you might happen to look in doesn’t mean it’s not a word. (Dictionaries are more like field guides than legislation – though people turn to them for guidance, even the most prescriptivist ones start by observing usage patterns, and they always have to make choices of what words to include and not to include.) You just used it, right? As an isolated lexical unit that is not internally modifiable by syntax (so one word, not several). And I understood it. So, too, no doubt, will everyone else who reads it (provided they understand English). So it’s a word. A nonce word, perhaps, but a word no less.

Not only that, it’s a word constructed from well-known parts by a standard, accepted derivational process. All the bits are ordinary English: lung, a good old English word; bust, a variant of burst, another good old English word; ing, a good old English suffix – actually more than one, but this ing is the one that forms the present participle and adjectives of action (Xing meaning the noun modified does X); and ly, another good old English suffix, also actually more than one, in this case the one that forms an adverb from an adjective. Put all together, they make a word just like heart-stoppingly, heartbreakingly, mind-numbingly, et cetera, all of which most often modify an adjective rather than a verb, and often one in the predicate position, as is the case here (not tough running but be tough). And it’s been used before – Google it and you’ll see.

On the other hand, I think you’re right about its being good at expressing how one feels after doing hard intervals or finishing a 5K race. Aside from the very clear imagery – lungs busting out of the ribcage, perhaps, or just breaking down internally, or bursting like balloons – it has a good sound, too. The stressed vowels are both the same one as you’re probably panting as you finish the run, and for a bit afterward: that deep-chest huh, huuh, hhuuuhhh. The lung also has echoes of lunge as well as perhaps of hunger and lust, and the velar nasal that ng represents is often almost the only consonant one can even articulate in that lung-busted state, and usually just as one attempts to swallow. Bust gives a nice puff of air bursting forth from the mouth. It fairly socks you between the eyes. (And see my tasting note on gangbusters.) And then the word goes back to that ng again. As a bonus, the form of the word suggests you have lungs like a bus and you’re all tingly now. And the rhythm is not the smooth-running rhythm of the middle of a race; it’s the stumble-stop as you cross the tape or pass the end point of your speed interval: dum da-da-dum, a tailless trochee and a dactyl.

In fact, it makes me think of a poem – in this case, one I wrote. It was published in TOK 3, and it’s also on my website, but I’ll include it here for you. Notice how many sounds and images hint at the same thing lung-bustingly communicates.

To the Finish
5k, Toronto Island

hot feet, boardwalk, legs blue sore
four thousand metres of panting so far
a bit of puddle spatter, a taste of salt spray
from hungry waves or the streaming body
running ahead, follow, thirst
now less than a thousand metres to go
boards riffling, crazing the eyes
each step cracking like aching joy
each breath a lust from the stomach
hoo, hoo, HAH, hoo, hoo, HAAH, ho
now nine hundred, now eight hundred
closing on body, white shirt, go past
a blue shirt slips by merely, but no
hold it, keep it, iron and acid
in body and water on boards, don’t slip
and five hundred metres now left
and it darkens below and is harder
and a line and people, shouts
a tree, a tree, another tree, grass
to curl up and lie on, stop, please stop
but hoo, hoo, HAH, ho
just sixty seconds now, less
gain no one else, admit no one more
when like a dream she overtakes you
yearning for the end like a lost baby
like reaching for her child in the taunting waves
nothing to do but follow her pull
go harder than you even can, burning
the greensward underfoot rolling, pitching
there is a space between the trees, and fifty
forty, hoo, HAH, thirty, grass
the banner, the sign, the clock
the time has all leaked out
and there’s just one second more, five metres
the length of three of her in a breath
and she is there, stumble stopped, gasping, coughing up
and you steam and shake and you have both prevailed
and the rest will fall in behind
but she has her metal, her ribbon
her shiny baby, and you have your time
three strides, three lengths of a body
a breath behind, and nothing you can hold