Category Archives: Linguistic Musings

Making sense of words that don’t exist

Some days ago I had a sensation in my eyes which I referred to as ziepen (tweaking) when I told a (German) friend. She got what I meant even though she didn’t actually know the word and it would not normally be used in this way. I wondered:

How did I come up with ‘ziepen’ if it wasn’t meant to be used in such a context?

Ziepen describes ‘the brief pain through pulling of hair’. The meaning of ‘brief pulling pain’ can probably be transferred easily, e.g. in my situation to my eye.

How did she know what the word meant for me, i.e. what kind of sensation I was trying to describe, without actually knowing it?

New words are often deduced from words with similar meanings, giving them a similar sound pattern, which belongs to the study of phonesthemic patterns. A phonestheme is a sound (sequence) that suggests a certain meaning and has the tendency to show up in neologisms. Phonesthemes are often initial, but can also be final or even medial. The remainder of the word may not itself be a morpheme. (Waugh, 1994) Some examples:

  • fl– (often expresses movement): flick, fly, flip, flourish, flee, flop…
  • sn– (found in nose-related words): sniff, snore, snot, sneer, sneeze…

The German cluster zw (cf. tw in English) is generally related to the number two: zwei (two), zwischen (between), Zwilling (twin)… However, there are several exceptions, e.g. zwirbeln (twirl) and zucken (twitch). Although these don’t carry the specific meaning (two), they do seem to be somewhat semantically related.

Studies have shown that when asked to invent/interpret new words, participants look at phonesthemes in their language to follow a predictive pattern. This could explain why my friend was able to tell what I meant without actually knowing the word: She might have associated ziepen with zucken which describes a brief, usually involuntary movement.

In general, how do we agree on words for particular sensations while we can’t tell what they feel like for anyone else, and how do we learn them?

When we learn new words we understand their meanings by, for example, being pointed at the ‘thing’ or the ‘action’ they (nouns and verbs) describe. When it comes to internal experiences like perception it all gets a lot fussier.

How do you know that the pain I experience is actually painful? This touches upon linguistics, philosophy and biology. All our knowledge comes in through our senses which are subjective and unreliable (as revealed by the many ways in which they can be manipulated and deceived, e.g. hallucinations and optical illusions) and truth is defined by language which is more of an agreement than an objective state.

Pears (1971) explains that an empiricist view on sensations involves accepting that the general meaning of e.g. ‘pain’ involves two aspects: 1) the set of teaching links 2) the inner reference (private sensation). Only a primitive empiricist would think it only involves the latter – a language only about private sensation would be unteachable. He says that “our language of sensations is not really teachable, and we do not ever really communicate about such matters” (p.158). So, while we can ‘teach’ nouns and verbs that can be pointed at in the world, we cannot teach words that have their meaning lying within ourselves. We all live in our own worlds, we can never know for sure about other people’s sensations, so I guess instead of being ‘taught’ we can only infer such information from cues: When I bleed, I’m hurt and I’m in pain. So when you bleed, you are probably experiencing pain too.
Yet it is to note that pain comes in a whole lot of different forms, as you may notice when you see your doctor and try to find words to explain what’s hurting you. That’s where neologisms and phonesthemic patterns might come handy…

It is incredible how we manage to communicate things we don’t have words for, by using common words or inventing new ones. Life is miraculously mysterious and mysteriously miraculous!


  • Oxford handbook of Wittgenstein (2011). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pears, D. (1971). Wittgenstein. London: Fontana.
  • Waugh, L. (1994). Degrees of Iconicity in the Lexicon. Journal of Pragmatics, 22(1), 55-70.


Correctly speaking, Gin ‘n Tonic. While most people probably know that the ‘n stands for ‘and’, eggcornishly it could also stand for ‘in’, after all, the gin end up in the tonic water, right!?

Now, when I heard the drink’s name for the first time, I thought it was ‘Gin a’ tonic’. Well, connected speech and perception (and maybe even ‘nativisation’ in my case, i.e. making it sound more like ‘the perfect drink for me’ (note my name)) can do wonderful things to word sequences, in this case even clarify that the connective is and, and not either and or in… 😉

(Urban Dictionary for ‘ginatonic’: This state of being is induced by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and becoming non-responsive to any external stimulus…)

{[(<‘«/...,.!? - ;»’>)]}

Apostrophes, brackets, colons, commas, dashes, ellipses, exclamation marks, full stops, guillemets, hyphens, question marks, quotation marks, semicolons, slashes. In brief: Punctuation.

What would we do without those little symbols that organise our words on paper, that indicate intonation and thus meaning, essential to disambiguate sentences?

Earliest alphabetic writings had no capitalisation, no spaces, no vowels (i.e. today’s Abjad writing system) and very few punctuation. In ancient Greece and Rome, symbols were used to mark where speakers should pause; the longest section (the period) was divided by the ‘period’ pause – hence a ‘period’ mark –, the shortest section (“that which is cut off”) was divided by a ‘comma’.

When the Christian Bible started to be copied and translated (around 400AD), an early punctuation system was developed. Only when printing was introduced in the 15th century however, punctuation became more common and systematic.

Nowadays, punctuation varies across languages, register, and authors may (not) use it for a specific stylistic style.
While punctuation may facilitate comprehension, the lack of it may facilitate ambiguity – which must not be a bad thing at all.

Imagine you had a fight with your boy/girlfriend and you’re mad at them but don’t want to show it; you leave them a note saying ‘Have a good day’ without any punctuation. Many ways to read it:

Have a good day! – you fool
Have a good day… with me? Surprise me with some chocolate and apologise
Have a good day. There’s nothing more to say, just give me time to breathe.

Well, something along those lines. Makes the whole story much more interesting, don’t you think!?

Some readings:

Dale, R. 1991. The role of punctuation in discourse structure. In Proceedings of the AAAI Fall Symposium on Discourse Structure in Natural Language Understanding and Generation, 13 14. USA.

Lee, S. 1995. A syntax and semantics for text grammar. MPhil. Dissertation, Engineering Dept., Cambridge University.


Few consonants and mixed up vowels

Kia ora!

On one of our first days here at the University of Auckland (NZ) we had a Maori welcome: a haka (war dance) and a Maori greeting us in Maori. It more or less sounded like “hakamuto…”, a string of just a few sounds. Indeed, Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language, has only 10 consonants: h, k, m, n, p, r (rolled), t, w, ng (velar nasal), wh (pronounced as f), and 5 vowels (vowel length is phonemic): a, e, i, o. u.

At the end of the 19th century, Maori became a minority language. Fewer people spoke and learnt to speak the language. Only at the end of the 20th century, the dangers of the language loss were recognised and recovery programmes were initiated, and Maori became New Zealand’s second official language in 1987. After a brief revival, however, the language has seen another decline in speakers – only about 9% of the Maori population is fluent in the language (about 4% of the population).

Maori words have their place within Kiwi-English. Many place names have not been translated into English and tell of the landscape’s properties, for example ‘Aotearoa’ means ‘cloud white long’ (land of the long white cloud, the Maori name for New Zealand). More examples can be found here.

Kiwi-English is similar to Australian English. What I notice most is the shift from ‘e’ to ‘i’. Further differences are that the short ‘i’ has centralised towards schwa, and the short ‘a’ sound has moved towards the short ‘e’. I was a bit scared I wouldn’t understand a thing, but I haven’t had any troubles yet.

So much for the linguistic side of down down under. I’ve been here for a week now, lectures start tomorrow, so there’ll be more to tell soon.


(-wait for it-) If you haven’t heard of How I met your mother yet… you’re missing out. I’m not an addict of the series (as some of my friends) but I really enjoy watching it, it’s fun, a wide range of people can relate to the different characters and it even deals with more serious issues such as racism. But the main reason for a linguist to watch it is… the language, of course. Just take this scene – wouldn’t it be awesome if people came up with such an amazing wordplay in everyday life, rather than reading it off a script!?

Jerry: So, Saturday night? Time to cut loose, right? Who wants to split a beer?
Barney: Oh, we’re not drinking here. Tonight, we’re going big. Let’s see, what club should we hit first? There’s club Was, there’s Wrong…
Marshall: Um, those places shut down a long time ago.
Barney: Oh no…
Marshall: Oh No shut down too.
Ted: There’s Where.
Jerry: Where’s Where?
Lily: Where’s where Was was, isn’t it?
Barney: No, Was wasn’t where Where was, Was was where Wrong was, right?
Jerry: Ok…
Ted: Not OK, that place is lame.
Robin: OK is Lame? I thought Lame was a gay bar… or is that wrong?
Marshall: That’s Wrong. That’s not wrong.
Barney: Guys, focus.
Robin: Oh, I like Focus! Let’s go there.
Ted: Where?
Robin: Not Where. Focus!
Lily: I thought Focus was closed.
Barney: No, Was was Closed. Once Was shut down, it re-opened as Closed.
Marshall: So Closed is open.
Robin: No, Closed is closed.

Apart from scenes like that, the series has brought quotes into some of my friends’ lives that they could no longer live without 😉 (mostly Barney-phrases)…

And more – find out for yourself! 🙂

therewith I conclude



Hear an’ Ear

Strangely, hear and ear are not cognates. Huh.


“organ of hearing,” O.E. eare “ear,” from P.Gmc. *auzon (cf. O.N. eyra, Dan. øre, O.Fris. are, O.S. ore, M.Du. ore, Du. oor, O.H.G. ora, Ger. Ohr, Goth. auso), from PIE *ous- with a sense of “perception” (cf. Gk. aus, L. auris, Lith. ausis, O.C.S. ucho, O.Ir. au “ear,” Avestan usi “the two ears”). The belief that itching or burning ears means someone is talking about you is mentioned in Pliny’s “Natural History” (77 C.E.). Until at least the 1880s, even some medical men still believed piercing the ear lobes improved one’s eyesight. Meaning “handle of a pitcher” is mid-15c. (but cf. O.E. earde “having a handle”). To be wet behind the ears “naive” is implied from 1914. Phrase walls have ears attested from 1610s. Ear-bash (v.) is Australian slang (1944) for “to talk inordinately” (to someone).


O.E. heran (Anglian), (ge)hieran, hyran (W.Saxon) “to hear, listen (to), obey, follow; accede to, grant; judge,” from P.Gmc. *hausjan (cf. O.N. heyra, O.Fris. hora, Du.horen, Ger. hören, Goth. hausjan), perhaps from PIE *kous- “to hear” (see acoustic). For spelling, see see head (n.); spelling distinction between hear and heredeveloped 1200-1550. O.E. also had the excellent adjective hiersum “ready to hear, obedient,” lit. “hear-some” with suffix from handsome, etc. Hear, hear! (1680s) was originally imperative, used as an exclamation to call attention to a speaker’s words; now a general cheer of approval. Originally it was hear him!

Taken from the dictionary. Fun times, eh?

Brn wrkt

m tryng t prf pnt hr tht ppl wh knw nglsh r prfctl (r s) cpbl f ndrstndng txt wrttn wtht ny vwls. hv lrdy wrttn pst rltng t ths r n rthgrphy (hr). Snc w’r t t tryng t ‘mprv’ nglsh rthgrphy, whch s n f th lst phnmc ns, t s rgbl whthr rthgrph nd phnlgy shld b cmbnd t t lst sm xtnt n ths pst s .g. y s phnlgclly vwl, bt n th bc t s rgrdd s cnsnnt. D t smplcty, wll nt dlt t hr thgh.

Tr, t s qt hrd t ndrstnd shrt wrds tht, thrgh vwl dltn, nd p s sngl cnsnnts nd nly th cntxt mks clr wht s mnt (bt t my stll rmn mbgs), nd sm wrds lk th ndfnt rtcl r cmpltly rdctd. Hwvr lnggs sch s rbc shw tht t s pssbl – nd nglsh lrdy mks s f t n fr xmpl txts.

Wld vwl dltn llw rthgrph t rprsnt nglsh nd ts dlcts bttr? ftr ll, th dffrnc n th prnnctn f vwls s mjr chrctrstc f dlcts nd ccnts. Frthrmr, ths sstm wld shrtn txts lt. Nvrthlss, t lst whn y’r nt sd t t, t tks mch lngr t wrt nd rd.

wll kp ths pst shrt (s t s tkng m whl t tp nd prbbl y w bt t fgr t). hp cld 1) mk y thnk bt nglsh rthgrphy (phnlgy nd th PA), 2) shw hw mzng th hmn brn s n bng bl f dcphrng (hpflly mst f) ths, nd 3) gv y lttl prcrstntn brk frm wrk 😉

(shd hv smply wrttn p ths pst ‘wth vwls’ nd thn dltd thm, nd nt wrttn t strght wtht vwls (=tkng lngr nd pssbly csng (mr) mstks), bt t ws gd brn xrcs!)

Brain workout

I’m trying to proof a point here that people who know English are perfectly (or so) capable of understanding text written without any vowels. I have already written a post relating to this area in orthography (here). Since we’re at it trying to ‘improve’ English orthography, which is one of the least phonemic ones, it is arguable whether orthography and phonology should be combined to at least some extent in this post as e.g. y is phonologically a vowel, but in the Abc it is regarded as consonant. Due to simplicity, I will not delete it here though.

True, it is quite hard to understand short words that, through vowel deletion, end up as single consonants and only the context makes clear what is meant (but it may still remain ambiguous), and some words like the indefinite article are completely eradicated. However languages such as Arabic show that it is possible – and English already makes use of it in for example textese.

Would vowel deletion allow orthography to represent English and its dialects better? After all, the difference in the pronunciation of vowels is a major characteristic of dialects and accents. Furthermore, this system would shorten texts a lot. Nevertheless, at least when you’re not used to it, it takes much longer to write and read.

I will keep this post short (as it is taking me a while to type and probably you a wee bit to figure out). I hope I could 1) make you think about English orthography (phonology and the IPA), 2) show how amazing the human brain is in being able of deciphering (hopefully most of) this, and 3) give you a little procrastination break from work 😉

(I should have simply written up this post ‘with vowels’ and then deleted them, and not written it straight without vowels (=taking longer and possibly causing (more) mistakes), but it was a good brain exercise!)


Making off

I have quite a few Eastern European friends, and sometimes I use English words that they don’t know, and I have to explain them. They are usually the more literary or figurative words, which may not be included in a beginner’s or even intermediate language course. The problem is that many thousands of such words, even if they are quite infrequent, are nevertheless entirely appropriate to use in everyday conversation when called for, and all native speakers know them.

 Because of its peculiar history of having Germanic, French, Latin and sometimes Greek or other strata in the same lexical fields, and because of its worldwide dominance and use in a vast array of fields, it is far from unlikely that English has the largest and richest vocabulary of any language ever known. Royal, regal and kingly stand side by side and are not entirely interchangeable in meaning and ‘feel’, whereas a language such as German has just königlich. Languages such as French and Hindi have two main strata, the native development and then forms based on older, classical versions of themselves (Latin, Sanskrit), but English is unusual in having three such strata, and in having gone from a position of subjugation that it was semi-creolized with French to such a position of prestige that it can dominate and influence with loanwords almost all other languages on the planet, while still retaining its cheery promiscuous ease in taking its pick of words from those languages, from zeitgeist (German) to wiki (Hawai‘ian).

 So if I say ‘dastardly’, ‘ominous’ or ‘cower’ or ‘hold sway’ or ‘teeter’ in conversation with my friends, I suddenly see a look of incomprehension and have to stop to explain, which is sometimes very different. Living with non-native speakers of English is probably good training for being a lexicographer though!

 It is sometimes daunting and depressing when one considers how vast the vocabulary of English is, especially when I try to learn other languages (at the moment Russian fills me with despair…). I am studying Gaelic and know it fairly well, but reading old poetry I sometimes have to look up half the words: the traditional bards had enormous vocabularies, and they lived in a world where everyone was immersed in these words all their lives and knew what they meant. Such richness in Gaelic is fading fast, it is hard to find in any speaker under 60 years old, as the language gives way to English. But if it is any comfort (agus is beag an sòlas a th’ ann dhomhsa—nach eil de dh’eanchainn ann an ceann duine a dh’fhòghnas airson dà chànan beartach taobh ri taobh? — cha jean ee cosney ping dhyt, agh chamoo nee ee coayl ping dhyt), they are replacing Gaelic with a language that probably has the richest and most fertile idiom ever known. (This is not to say Gaelic is inferior; it is still very, very rich: but a language that has millions of speakers all communicating with each other by new-fangled means never dreamed of in other ages, and drawing from so many sources, will inevitably be off the scale as regards fertility and richness of vocabulary). Of course, Anglophones often boast about their language, and claim it is the most expressive on earth: but in certain respects there may be a grain of truth in it. English is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing language to me personally (Gaelic or Welsh would be at the top of the list), and other languages may be more expressive than English in certain contexts—for example, I find Celtic languages much better for poetry than English, because in the latter the Romance and Germanic elements jar with each other in verse unless the author is very careful*—but I nevertheless maintain that English is probably the all-round most expressive and subtle language in existence. The language capacity in all humans is equal, and languages all have equal potential, and a base line of expressiveness that is the same for all languages (probably the level to which children automatically take pidgins when they make them into creoles), but nonetheless it is possible that because of various external circumstances, languages may not actually be equal in all respects.

 (*For example, I love John Donne but still think he would sound much better in Welsh or German, or even French.)

 Anyway, to get back to my L2 English-speaking friends. One of them is currently reading The Lord of the Rings (a wonderful book for demonstrating one facet of the greatness of English—Tolkien has a very good grasp of the beauty, subtlety and simplicity of earthy native and low-register or register-neutral English words and expressions. His language is generally not consciously archaic, but neither is it modern: it is timeless, as if the author was trying to capture an element of the genius of English which runs all the way through it synchronically and diachronically). My friend says he learnt the expression ‘make off’ (as in ‘depart’) from LOTR.

 This made me think about this expression and related ones. It is a phrasal verb, another thing that strongly characterizes English (and also German and Gaelic, but not Romance). There are many different types of phrasal verbs in English, including ones formed with prepositions and adverbs, and ones that are separable and inseparable. Incidentally, I have a book called The Oxford Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs, which classifies and lists thousands of such verbs. I found this tome in a small bookshop in another town where it had been sitting so long on a shelf near the sunny window that the red on its spine had been bleached to a sickly pink. After eyeing the book on several visits over several months, I finally could not resist any longer and purchased it. One of the stated aims of the book is to be a guide to L2 learners, since phrasal verbs are one of the trickiest parts of English for foreigners.

‘Make off’ is not very frequent, and has a slightly jaunty air, and may be a tad archaic; though it is often used to mean ‘steal’, as in ‘He made off with the cutlery’. More commonly, one says ‘set off’, or ‘set out’, which are more or less synonymous except that ‘set out’ is more purposeful, and can be used in a non-literal sense: ‘He set out to kill his wife’ can mean either literally that he moved from one place to another in order to kill her, or else figuratively that he had the intention to kill her and began planning how to do it, whereas ‘he set off to kill his wife’ can only have the first meaning. Also note that ‘set about’ means almost the same as ‘set out’ in this non-literal sense, but they are syntactically different in the complement they take: one can say ‘he set about ruining my life’, but not ‘*he set about to ruin my life’; and one can say ‘he set out to ruin my life’ but not ‘*he set out ruining my life’. No wonder it’s confusing!

Much, much more could be said on this topic, but this is enough to show how complicated English is (and all other languages), and what a chore it is to learn all the subtleties. At the end of the day all you can do is keep an ear out for new things, and read, read, read a wide range of text types and look things up in dictionaries, no matter how dull or tiresome that is. However you do it, reading The Lord of the Rings is no bad place to start. I must remember to start reading The Hobbit in German again…



There are numerous terms to divide males and females in different groups in terms of their characteristics, e.g. gentleman, dandy, lad and lady, tomboy/girl, gamine.

When it comes to age classes though the list is exhaustive. Males can be divided into ‘boys’ and ‘men’, the term ‘guys’ somewhat allows the denotation of males in-between, maybe of around 16-25 years. The female ‘equivalents’ for ‘boy’ and ‘man’ are ‘girl’ (“usually a child or adolescent, calling a grown woman a ‘girl’ may be a compliment or insult, sometimes used as an euphemism for virgin”) and ‘woman’ (“adult female”). However, despite ‘guy’ not being completely gender-neutral, there is no such word that can be used for females that are ‘not a girl, not yet a woman’ (sorry if you now have Britney Spears stuck in your head).

Seems this phenomenon isn’t uncommon (at least in Germanic and Romance languages)

  • German: Bub/Junge/Kerl/Typ/Mann vs Mädchen/Frau
  • French: garcon/type/mec/homme vs fille/femme
  • Spanish: chico/tipo/hombre vs chica/mujer

I asked friends what they associated with the words ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. ‘Girl’ was said to rather refer to very young females and ‘woman’ was associated with more mature, experienced and wise females. So calling myself a girl feels wrong because I am no longer a kid in that sense, but referring to myself as a woman doesn’t feel quite right either as I am not that …’wise’ yet ;). But maybe that’s just me? Time for a neologism!? Any suggestions?

For the purpose of this post’s title, why not Wogi (woman+girl) (you get it, right?)…



 dedicated to a good old feminist friend; you know who you are… 🙂

Lisp and Speech Buddies

One of my friends used to have a lisp when she was little. Some of you may not know what a lisp is; it’s a speech disorder (‘sigmatism’) that usually involves people having difficulty producing sibilants and replacing them with interdentals or dentals resulting in unclear speech. Lisps are often down to physiological causes, such as deformations, a large, bruised, or swollen tongue and underbites.

Treatment (speech therapy) can take months or even years. I just came across a relatively recently developed instrument to support speech therapy, the speech buddy: