Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin Pumpkin…

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Happy Halloween!

In tribute to the holiday (my favorite), here’s a smidge of spooky linguistics. Ever play that game where you repeat some word so many times it starts to lose its meaning? That’s actually a thing, called semantic satiation.

Semantic satiation is a psychological phenomenon where a person temporarily loses the meaning of the repeated word and perceives only nonsensical sounds. It can happen via reading as well as at the verbal/aural level. The term was coined by psychology professor Leon Jakobovits James in his 1962 dissertation[1]. His and later research shows that word repetition activates peripheral sensorimotor and central neural activity repeatedly in the cortex (activity corresponding with the meaning of a particular expression), which in turn causes reactive inhibition. Consequently, the strength of activity for each new repetition diminishes. More recent semantic verification studies have confirmed that this satiation legitimately falls under semantic memory, and is not just a byproduct of exhaustion of pre-semantic sensory/perceptual processes (for example, the acoustic system).[2]

That’s all well and good, but how is it spooky? In answer I say, see this movie – Pontypool.

In case you don’t have time to view it right this minute, my non-spoiler summary:

“Pontypool” is a low-budget psychological thriller that I found delightfully horrifying. The premise revolves around a virus that is infecting people in a small, remote Canadian town. The virus spreads…through language. When people hear an infected word, they begin repeating it until their entire speech grows garbled, they turn insane and zombie-like, and finally start attacking others in gory fashion.

I highly recommend leaving the office early today to go watch the film. Or to go trick-or-treating. Or something. Since everyone knows that all work and no play…

 

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[1] “Effects of repeated stimulation on cognitive aspects of behavior: some experiments on the phenomenon of semantic satiation”
[2] See “Introduction – Recent Studies” in “On the Locus of the Semantic Satiation Effect: Evidence from Event-Related Brain Potentials”

*Photo attributions: The Shining painting; Droste effect tv

I heart hangry bagel droids (or: How new words form)

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You’re probably familiar with the old adage “the only thing that’s constant is change.” Still, so many people tend to think about language as a relatively fixed affair. I’ve said it before (and will inevitably say it again): all living languages change all the time, and at all levels – phonological (sounds!), morphological (word-bits!), lexical (words!), syntactic (clauses!), and semantic (meaning!).

Historical linguistics (also known as diachronic linguistics) is the study of how and why languages change over time. In this post I’m going to discuss categories of change at the morphological and lexical levels – how new words come into being. In the future, I’ll explore semantic and perhaps phonological change.

Without further ado, here are the main mechanisms of word formation. Almost all examples are for English, but these formation types apply to other languages as well. (NOTE: Processes are not mutually exclusive. It is quite possible for a word to undergo multiple processes simultaneously, or one on the heels of another.)

  1. Derivation

New words are born by adding affixes to existing words. Affixes are bound[1] morphemes that can be prefixes, suffixes, and even (for certain languages, although not really for English) infixes and circumfixes. Derivation is a very common process cross-linguistically.

Zero derivation (also known as conversion) is a special case where a new word, with a new word class (part of speech) is created from an existing word of a different class, without any change in form.

Examples:
(Derivation) hater [hate + -er], truthiness [truth + -i (-y) + -ness], deglobalization [de- + globalization], hipsterdom [hipster + -dom]

(Zero derivation) heart as verb, as in “I heart coffee” [heart as noun]; friend as verb, as in “he friended me on Facebook” [friend as noun]; green as noun, in the golf lawn sense [green as adjective]; down as verb, as in “Hector downed a beer” [down as preposition]

  1. Back-formation

This process creates a new word through the removal of true or incorrectly assumed affixes. It’s kind of the opposite of derivation. This one is easier to explain through examples:

New word

Derived from older word

Analysis

donate, automate, resurrect

(verbs)

donation, automation, resurrection

(nouns)

The nouns were borrowed into English first from Latin. The verbs were back-formed later by discarding the -ion suffix, which speakers did through analogy with other Latinate verb and (-ion) noun pairs that already existed in English.

pea

pease

The older form was initially a mass noun (like water or sand), but was reanalyzed as plural. People then dropped the “plural” -s(e) to form the “singular” count noun pea.

beg, edit, hawk

(verbs)

beggar, editor, hawker

(nouns)

Speakers mistook the -ar, -or, and ­-er on the ends of these nouns (respectively) for the agentive suffix (that did/does exist in English), and removed it to form corresponding verbs.

lime-a-rita, mango-rita

appletini, kiwini

margarita

martini

Actually examples of folk etymology, which is related to back-formation. Here, speakers incorrectly assumed that -rita in margarita and –(t)ini in martini were separate morphemes (indicating the class of cocktail). Under that assumption, they switched out the rest of the word and substituted it with morphemes indicating new twists/ingredients.

  1. Blending

Also known as portmanteaus. Blends are produced by combining two or more words, where parts of one or both words are deleted.

Examples: smog [smoke + fog], brunch [breakfast + lunch], infomercial [information + commercial], bromance [bro + romance], hangry [hungry + angry], clopen [close + open][2]

  1. Borrowing

Also known as loan words. These are expressions taken from other languages. Pronunciation is usually altered to fit the phonological rules of the borrowing language.

Examples: algebra [from Arabic], ménage à trois [from French], whisky [from Scots Gaelic or Irish], bagel [from Yiddish], doppelgänger [from German], karaoke [from Japanese]

  1. Coinage

Words can be created outright to fit some purpose. Many of these are initially product names.

Examples: Xerox, Kleenex, Jell-O, Google, zipper, Frisbee

  1. Compounding

Two or more words join together to form a compound. Frequently the joining words are nouns, but they can belong to different parts of speech, including verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc. Compounds can be separated by spaces, by hyphens, or glued to each other with nothing intervening.

Examples: homework, grocery store, mother-of-pearl, first world problem, binge-watch, weaksauce, fake news

  1. Eponyms

These are words that derive from proper nouns – usually people and place names. If a proper noun is used frequently enough and across multiple contexts, it eventually becomes a common noun (or verb or adjective).

Examples: sandwich [after the fourth Earl of Sandwich], gargantuan [after Gargantua, name of the giant in Rabelais’ novels], boycott [after Capt. Charles C. Boycott], mesmerize [a back-formation from mesmerism, in turn after Franz Anton Mesmer], sadism [after the Marquis de Sade]

  1. Reducing

Several types of reducing processes exist.  The main ones are clipping, acronyms, and initialisms.

a. Clipping

New words can be formed by shearing one or more syllables off an existing longer word. Syllables can be removed from the word’s beginning, end, or both.

Examples: fax [facsimile], flu [influenza], droid [android], fridge [refrigerator], blog [weblog]

b. Acronyms

Words are created from the initial letters of several other words. Acronyms are pronounced as regular words (in contrast to initialisms below).

Examples: NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], RAM [random-access memory], FOMO [fear of missing out]

c. Initialisms

Also known as Alphabetisms. Like with acronyms, a word is created from the initial letters of other words, but the resulting term is pronounced by saying each letter. This usually happens when the string of letters is not easily pronounced as a word according to the phonological rules of the language.

Examples: NFL [National Football League], UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], MRI [magnetic resonance imaging], WTF [what the fuck]

  1. Reduplication

Reduplication is one of my favorite phenomena.[3] It’s a process whereby a word or sound is repeated or nearly repeated to form a new word/expression. This is a productive morphological process (meaning, it’s part of the grammar and happens frequently and rather systematically) in many languages – South-East Asian and Austronesian languages particularly (e.g. Malay, Tagalog, Samoan). It’s not an especially productive process in English, although it does still happen.

Examples:
(English) wishy-washy, teensy-weensy, goody-goody, cray-cray, po-po

(Samoan) savali [‘he travels’ – third person singular + verb]; savavali [‘they travel’ – third person plural + verb]

* * * * *

Phew! Since hopefully you can see the light at the end of this long lexical tunnel, I’ll mention that of course languages lose words as well. Diverse factors motivate word loss, but that’s a subject for another post. A few quick examples of words that have fallen out of favor in English:

pell-mell [in a disorderly, reckless, hasty manner]; davenport [couch/sofa – my grandma used to say this]; grass [for marijuana – my mom still says this]; porridge [an oatmeal-like dish boiled in water or milk]; tumbrel [a farmer’s cart for hauling manure]; fain [gladly or willingly]

* * * * *

And now… ADD WORDS TO THE SPREADSHEET – Word shenanigans!

I’ve got almost 200 in there to start us off. If you’re not sure about the process for any particular word, just leave it blank or take a guess. Free bagel droids[4] to all who contribute.

 

[1] Bound meaning they cannot exist on their own, but must be attached to another morpheme.

[2] Describes a shitty situation where one has to work a closing shift followed by an opening shift. We used this term as bartenders, although I’d never seen it in print until recently. It came up in some paperwork I had to sign relating to work week ordinances, and then I saw it here as well.

[3] Some languages even have triplication – where the sound/word is copied twice!

[4] Kidding! These do not exist outside of my head. Sorry.

An upstream battle: Revitalizing Umónhon

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I could spill a lot of ink (well, use a lot of pixels) writing about endangered languages, and the reasons why language revitalization, or at least preservation, is crucial. But I’ll spare you today, dear readers. I will say in summary that linguistic diversity is both culturally/anthropologically important, and significant to the study of human cognition. It’s culturally important because speakers of a particular language have stored within it their traditions, history, social norms, and scientific knowledge (e.g. medicine, botany); when their tongue dies, many key aspects of their cultural identity and world knowledge disappear. It’s important for studying the human cognitive capacity, because the more languages we can examine, the better informed are our conclusions on cross-linguistic universals and differences – conclusions which, in turn, help us understand how the mind works.

Today, instead of a lengthy psycho-socio-historical dissertation, I want to give a short  example of one currently endangered language and the revitalization efforts around it. This language is Umónhon, of the Omaha Tribe in Macy, Nebraska.

Here is a 2015 article in the Omaha World-Herald: Omaha Tribe members trying to revitalize an ‘endangered language’.

Highlights from the article:

  • The Omaha Tribe has more than 7,000 members.
  • Only twelve fluent speakers of Umónhon are left (and none of them are under age 70).
  • Umónhon means “upstream people” or “against the current” (this particular tribe traveled north up the Missouri River). Umónhon morphed into Omaha, the name given to them by white settlers.
  • People of the tribe spoke Umónhon widely until the mid-20th century, when boarding schools began forcing students to speak only English.
  • Recent educational efforts have been difficult. The language barely has a written form; there are no textbooks; funding to develop materials and programs is scarce; and interest and retention among young students is low.
  • While the tribe waits for further funding or help from other tribes, some parents are taking the initiative to teach their children Umónhon.

Since 2015, efforts have ramped up. Last year, the community held a language bootcamp.

And now there’s a new documentary out about the tribe’s language and culture. No info on the film’s release yet, but you can watch the trailer: “The Omaha Speaking”.

The Omaha may never go back to speaking Umónhon as extensively as they once did. Still, these achievements make my language gland tingle with hope.

 

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I hope you’ve got your noses strapped on.

If you’ve ever wondered what a poecilonym is (who hasn’t?), or needed a handy mnemonic for remembering how to spell diarrhea in British English, this video is for you.

It’s educational. It’s funny. It’s dorkery at its best. And you’ll learn more than you (THOUGHT you) ever wanted to know about word similarities:

Homonyms