If the title to this blog post didn’t make you want to punch something or, at the very least, cringe slightly, you have a stronger constitution then me … and if you noticed the mistake in the previous clause, you’ll probably appreciate this post. But, before I get onto the listing bit, which we on the internet so love, I want to
say write type a few things to let you see where I’m coming from.
Language fascinates me. The way languages evolve is something which I’m particularly interested in. Unfortunately, this creates a problem for me; you see, language evolution happens in a similar way to biological evolution: through mistakes. Just as errors in the process of copying DNA can turn a dinosaur into a chicken, so too, errors in language acquisition can turn Latin into French.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but the cumulative effects of generations upon generations of mistakes is one of the main reasons that we can’t makes heads or tails of something like Beowulf.
So why is that a problem? Well, mistakes – particularly in language – can be very annoying. My theory is that it’s related to the uncanny valley effect: a minor difference in something as familiar as your native tongue gets your brain all riled up.
No-one gets annoyed that the French say souder instead of solder – who ever really expects to understand the French? – but when another English speaker drops¹ the l, it’ll at least make you sit up and think, “hang on…” if not actually annoy you.
Your brain’s happily following along, everything’s obeying the rules you know and love, nice and predictable as the brain likes it, then you hit a linguistic speed bump and your brain resets to its default mode: KILL. CRUSH. DESTROY.
Note: I don’t have a problem with linguistic innovation which enriches the language and makes communication easier and/or more fun. What I dislike is errors which confuse meanings and generally make communication harder. So, without further ado², let the list begin.
¹ If your accent does drop the l, read that as “pronounces the l” instead. Also, stop dropping the l. They put it in there for a reason. What are you, French? Jeez.
² Apart from that note above this one. And this note.
5. Saying could care less instead of couldn’t care less
Why it’s annoying:
You’re saying the opposite of what you mean.
I know, I’m not the first to complain about this and I’m sure I won’t be the last, but please, just stop doing it.
Why it’s OK:
If you say this wrong, it’s probably because you grew up with it. Just as in phrases like “at sixes and sevens” or “beat you to the punch”, you likely just internalised it as an idiomatic expression with a set meaning, never looking at what the literal meaning of the phrase was.
Why it’s really not OK:
The moment someone explains to you that “could care less” means that you do care, not that you don’t care, which is what you meant to say, you should instantly stop saying it.
If everyone just stops making the mistake, it will go away. If you keep on saying it wrong, you’ll teach it to your kids wrong and they’ll teach it to their kids wrong and before we know it the whole world will have gone to hell in a hand basket. And the logistics of finding a hand basket big enough to fit the entire world within are bad enough without even getting into the non-existence of hell.
4. Thinking then and than are the same word
Why it’s annoying:
Then and than are not the same word.
Do I really need to explain this? Saying “I’d prefer to have my legs cut off than my head,” is perfectly reasonable. Given the choice between either losing my legs or losing my head, I would rather the one which doesn’t kill me. If I said that “I’d prefer to have my legs cut off then my head,” on the other hand, the best interpretation would be that I want my legs cut off first, then I want my head to be cut off after.
Than is used in comparisons. Then is used when you’re talking about when or in what order something happens.
God. Damn. It.
Why it’s OK:
Firstly, it’s an understandable mistake. It’s a lot like the common mix-up with effect and affect. In speech, both words tend to be unstressed and reduced to /ðən/, making them homophones.
Not only that, but Shakespeare did it. In fact, then and than once were both the same word. They both evolved from Old English þanne, meaning “then”, “when” or “because”. The comparative meaning probably evolved from something along the lines of “A is bigger, then B”, as in A comes first in bigness, then B follows it.
Why it’s really not OK:
You know what? Just because Shakespeare did something, doesn’t make it alright for you to do it. Shakespeare lived in the sixteenth century; he probably shat in a bucket then tipped it out his window. Now, I don’t know where you live, but it’s almost certainly not alright for you to do that.
Secondly, if you’re going to use their having once been the same word as an excuse for being wrong now, I’ll ask that you use the same logic throughout the language and stop distinguishing between can and know, which both come from the same Proto-Indo-European root: *ǵneh₃-.
3. Using lay when you mean lie
Why it’s annoying:
OK, I understand this; it’s an easy enough mistake to make and we’ve all probably done it before. But if you’re writing a book, an article, a song or anything like that, do a little proof reading first. Please.
I’m looking at you, Bruno Mars.
You don’t “just wanna lay in your bed.” Assuming you’re not a god-damn hen, you wanna lie in your bed, you…stupid…fuck. I actually kinda like that song too, but every time it gets to that line, I want to find you and shoot you in your stupid can’t-speak-proper-English face.
OK, fine. Maybe that’s an overreaction. Pop-stars aren’t supposed to be the smartest people around, I know, but it would be nice if they could put a little effort into speaking the language. I mean, come on. Think of all the kids listening to this song on the radio and getting it into their heads that lie and lay are interchangeable. They are not.
Why it’s OK:
If someone’s just speaking casually, this is the kind of error that can be easily overlooked. It’s a funny quirk of the language that lay happens to be both the past tense of lie and a verb all on its own and it’s easy to see how you can mix them up every now and then in the heat of a conversation.
Why it’s really not OK:
It kind of is OK, but only – and I cannot stress this enough – only in casual conversation. It is not OK in any medium where you have a chance to go back and correct your glaring errors, like in a song, where it’s NOT FUCKING OK, BRUNO MARS, YOU DICK.
And speaking of annoying mistakes that pop artists make…
2. Using gotta when you mean got a
Why it’s annoying:
Gotta is a fine word. When you’ve gotta contract got to, it’s the go to; nothing beats it. But that is what it’s for: contracting got to. It’s not a substitute for got a. That’s not even a contraction. It’s exactly the same if you say it and the only thing you’re doing typing it is swapping the space with a t.
There is nothing more convenient about using gotta instead of got a and it’s just plain wrong. Sorry; this post wasn’t meant to be about insulting pop artists, but Black Eyed Peas (I don’t know your individual names and don’t care to find out), all of you deserve to die for that song.
Why it’s OK:
It’s not OK. It’s not ever OK.
Why it’s really not OK:
Will.i.am. I lied. I know his name. What an arsehole. What a stupid, fucking, fail-at-English, piece of shit. Fuck you, will.i.am. (I don’t even know if he’s the one who wrote it, but he almost certainly had a say and he just strikes me as an arsehole. What kind of person sues someone over the phrase “I am”? An arsehole. Also that iPhone camera thing… what? You have no association with photography or cameras, will.i.am; you’re lucky anyone even calls you a musician. Oh, and do I even have to mention the name? And really, who actually likes the Black Eyed Peas? Like, what kind of person would call themselves a Black Eyed Peas fan? They’re not terrible or anything, but they haven’t released a single song I would choose to listen to since “Where is the Love?”. I know, 12 year olds will buy whatever they hear on the radio, but who decided to play that shit on the radio to begin with? Why are you even still reading this? I’ve gone so far off topic, I don’t even know what I’m writing about any more.)
1. Writing of when you mean have
Why it’s annoying:
Why it’s OK:
IT’S NOT OK!!!!!!!!
Why it’s really not OK:
The Selling Point
On paper, the Asus made Google Nexus 7 is a lovely piece of hardware. 2GB of RAM, a 1920×1200 pixel display with a stunning 323 pixels per inch, and of course a 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. All this for $339 (AUD) really does pack a punch.
So where could this deal go wrong?
User reports of erratic touchscreen issues are widespread and it is clear that it is not something that effects just a few devices. Google stated it released a fix for the issues in a JSS15Q update. This “fix” certainly didn’t fix my Nexus 7. In fact, some people from the lengthy Google thread stated that the JSS15Q/J triggered the bug for them.
When users are not holding the device, the touch screen registers two touches as three, four or five; or worse, registers one as two! There have also been reports of phantom touches, swipes and freezes.
Furthermore reports over Whirlpool and XDA forums are suggesting that there could be quality control issues given the large amount of devices with dead pixels, dust under their screens and GPS issues.
The Nexus 7 2013 was by far the best tablet I have ever used. I want to make that clear. However, if Google wants to retain its customer base to remain loyal and ensure sales keep on a good trajectory – they need to make sure issues like this aren’t happening.
I returned my Nexus 7 for a Note 8 and have not looked back since. Sure, I need to get used too TouchWiz, but at least it is working. My verdict? If you want one of these bad boys, wait it out. Don’t fork out your hard earned bucks just yet.
Just a quick message from me, Michael, explaining why we are running a bit late and plans for a new season. Have a listen if you care to know what is going on in the world of Brain Exchange. Link to MP3 here
Welcome back to Let’s Conlang! Last post, we worked hard on giving our conlang some totally radical consonants, but our language doesn’t have any vowels yet and without vowels a language is just lngg …. so, uhh… yeah. Vowels. Let’s get some of those.
Before we start talking about vowels, I want you to forget everything you know about vowels in English, because English vowels are an absolute mess and generally spelt in the most unintuitive way possible¹. Second, go listen to these vowel samples. It’s not really that important for this post, but it is pretty fun trying to make them sing hot cross buns or something.
Now, in natural languages, vowel systems can range from the very simple (e.g. Arrente, an Australian Aboriginal language with only two vowels) to the very complex (e.g. Danish, which has infinity-million). For our conlang, I think it would be nice to do a goldilocks and go for something in the middle, so let’s get started.
If you went to that link I linked or spent some time looking at the vowel section of your IPA chart, you might have noticed the words close, mid and open along one axis and front, central and back along the other. These are basically describing the position of your tongue when you articulate² the sound.
The first set says how high your tongue goes while you articulate the vowel. For example, /i/ and /u/ are close (or high³) vowels because the tongue is held high or close to the roof of the mouth (depending on which terminology you prefer) when you say them. Similarly, /a/ and /ɑ/ are open (or low³) because the tongue is held low or such that the mouth is more open (hence doctors telling you to “say ah”). And, between the two extremes, we get our mid vowels like /e/ and /o/.
The other axis which decides what a vowel sounds like is that of front-/backness. On this axis, /i/ is front because it’s pronounced with the tongue pushed forward and /u/ is back because it’s pronounced with the tongue pulled back. In English the central vowels are reduced vowels like /ə/ (the unstressed e in cromulent⁴).
As with most matters of phonetics, the best way to quickly understand what’s going on is to try it out. Try saying beat and compare the vowel to that in bet and that in bat. You should notice that your tongue gets progressively lower for each. Now compare beat and boot and you should feel your tongue moving back in your mouth.
OK, enough tonguing; it’s time to give the lips some attention. The third way that vowels can be differentiated is by their rounding. When articulating a rounded vowel, like /u/, the lips are – you guessed it – rounded. And when articulating an unrounded vowel, like /i/, they’re not.
In English, back vowels are rounded and front vowels are unrounded, so we don’t really have to worry about distinguishing vowels only by their rounding, but a lot of languages do make the distinction and, fortunately, it’s one that is quite easy to pick up, even for English speakers.
Right, so that’s enough introduction. Let’s get to picking our vowels. Let’s start with the most common vowel around: /a/⁵. Now, not all varieties of English have this vowel, but in Australian English (my dialect), it’s the vowel in cut. If you’re familiar with Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, German, Polish, Turkish, or pretty much any other language, it’s the sound of the vowel a.
(Note that the English examples in the next few paragraphs are generally approximations. Refer to the vowel samples linked above if you want a more precise idea of what the vowels sound like.)
As you’ll recall from our work with consonants, phonology is all about which differences are going to be meaningful and the most commonly used distinction in vowels is height, so let’s go with that first. We’ve already got an open vowel (/a/), so let’s grab a mid vowel, /e/ (the e in bed), and a close vowel, /i/ (the i in bid), to go along with it. Sweet.
We could go on to have a distinction between close-mid and open-mid vowels, like a lot of languages do, but in the interests of making this language easier to speak (and write down), we’ll just stick to the three heights.
Now, let’s use our second axis and make some back vowels: a mid one, /o/ (the o in bod), and a close one, /u/ (the oo in boot (not the u in bud)). You’ll probably notice both of these are rounded. That’s because it’s not just English that likes to round its back vowels; it’s a pretty common feature of most languages.
Now, most languages also tend to just leave rounding to the mid-to-high back vowels, like English does, but that’s a bit boring, so let’s also add ourselves some rounded front vowels, namely /y/ (the rounded version of /i/) and /ø/ (the rounded version of /e/)⁶.
But how the hell do you say those? It’s not as bad as you might think. Just say /i/ and /e/ but with your lips rounded at the same time. If it helps, /y/ is the u in French zut and /ø/ is the eu of sacrebleu.
Cool. We’ve got seven vowels now, but hang on. A language is a system where the sounds are there for a reason, not just because someone threw them in there⁷. Why would we have these rounded front vowels? My solution: palatalisation.
Without going too far off-track, let’s just say that /y/ and /ø/ evolved from historical /u/ and /o/ preceded by a palatal consonant. Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense to you now; we’ll probably get into it in more detail next post.
Next up are long vowels. If you didn’t remember to forget everything you know about English vowels, you might be thinking a long vowel is like the i in bite. That’s not a long vowel; it’s a diphthong. (Be patient. Diphthongs are coming up soon.) You might also think that a long vowel is like the ee in feet. That one is a long vowel, but it’s not a long e, it’s a long i.
All the confusion with English spelling might make long vowels seem complicated, but they’re not really. A long vowel is exactly the same as the short version of that vowel, but you keep saying it for longer. For example, English bit has a short /i/ and English beat has a long /iː/. (Once again, English let’s us down, because the i in bit is actually slightly centralised and lowered to /ɪ/, but let’s ignore that.) The “ː” bit here is what tells you the vowel is long. If you look closely, you’ll see it’s not quite a colon⁸, but if you use a colon instead, everyone will know what you meant.
In our conlang, we could just let every vowel be either short or long, as is the case in Latin, but let’s instead tie vowel length in with stress. We’ll get into stress when we start working on the prosodic features of our language, but for now we’ll just leave it as a vowel is long if it’s in a stressed open syllable and short otherwise.
With both short and long vowels handled, you might think we’re almost ready for diphthongs, but before we get into them, I’m going to jump back a bit to our consonants. Specifically, the approximant consonants which we looked at last post, but couldn’t finish until we’d got our vowels sorted.
Semivowels are basically the consonants that you can make by putting your tongue in the same place that you would for their corresponding vowel. English has two semivowels: /w/ (the w in water, corresponding to /u/) and /j/ (the y in you, corresponding to /i/). These are the two most common semivowels and, since our conlang has both /i/ and /u/, it makes sense that we’ll have /j/ and /w/ too.
You may have noticed that these semivowels correspond to our close vowels and our conlang has another close vowel: /y/. You will be pleased to find out that, indeed, there is a semivocalic version of /y/ and it’s represented in the IPA by /ɥ/ (an upside-down h). To figure out how to say that, just say /j/ but with your lips rounded.
Now, what about the other vowels? Are there semivocalic counterparts to /e/, /ø/, /o/ and /a/? Well…. yes, there are, but most of them don’t occur in many (if any) natural languages. Semivocalic /e̯/ and /o̯/ do occur in Romanian, but being so similar to /j/ and /w/, they are very rare cross-linguistically. It’s a similar story for /ø̯/, which is too similar to /ɥ/. As for /a/, it’s hard to say. It’s possible to have a semivocalic /a̯/, but I’ve not come across any evidence of a natural language using it.
And finally, we reach diphthongs. I love diphthongs, mostly because they give me an excuse to use my favourite ever sequence of sounds: /fθ/⁹. You can also pronounce it “dipthongs”, but what kind of horrible monster would even contemplate such a heinous act?
Diphthongs, from Ancient Greek di- “two” + phthongos “sound”, are literally that: two vowel sounds put together into one super-powered-mutant-vowel-thing! Examples in English are /ai̯/ (the igh in sigh), /au̯/ (the ou in sound) and /ei̯/ (the ey in grey). These are “falling” diphthongs, so called because their second element is less prominent. “Rising” diphthongs such as /i̯a/ also exist, but since we won’t be having any in our conlang, I won’t go into them here.
The above English examples are all also closing diphthongs, so called because they end in a closer vowel than they started with. In addition to these, non-rhotic dialects of English (such as Received Pronunciation or Australian English) have centring diphthongs like /iə̯/ (as in fear) and /uə̯/ (as in pure). Once again, we won’t be having these in our conlang, so I won’t go any further into it.
(Note that the little bump¹⁰ below the vowel indicates that it’s the less prominent element of the diphthong. Another way to show this is by using the symbol for the semivowel for the less prominent element; that’s what I’ll be doing from here on.)
What we will have in our conlang are diphthongs which are both falling and closing; that is, they’ll all end with one of our close vowels. The first three will be the ones starting with /a/: /aj/, /aɥ/ and /aw/. Now, moving up to start on the mid vowels, we’re going to avoid mixing /y/ and /ø/ with the back vowels (because it wouldn’t make sense from the sounds’ histories), so we get: /ew/, /ow/, /ej/, /øj/, /oj/, /eɥ/ and /øɥ/.
So there we go: seven monophthongs (our short vowels) and ten diphthongs. That’s our vowels done and the last of our consonants done too.
And, with that, we can make some nice pretty tables illustrating all of our phonemes:
Next post, we’ll come up with an orthography and start setting out the rules for how these phonemes can be put together to make our language’s words. Stay tuned!
– Ben xoxo
¹ Yes, I’m aware that I’m being somewhat hyperbolic here, but English is certainly one of the least sensibly spelt languages in the world (slightly behind Icelandic). In case you’re interested, the main reason our spelling makes so little sense is that most things are spelt as they were said in the late fifteenth century, so, on the bright side, at least it’s easier to figure out how people spoke during the Wars of the Roses…. I guess.
² Or “say”, if you insist on using confusing technical terminology.
³ A lot of linguists like to avoid using the terms high and low to describe tongue position because they think it will make the low vowels feel bad. Also, it can get confusing when you’ve also got high and low tone going on.
⁴ Note that cromulent can also be pronounced with a syllabic n, instead of the sequence /ən/ and, most of the time, is. But it’s a good word, so whatever. Sue me. (But don’t, ‘cos I have no money.)
⁵ The IPA symbol a can stand for any vowel between front /a/ and central /ä/. The difference isn’t that big and for our conlang, we don’t really care which it is.
⁶ The kind of rounding we’d find on these front rounded vowels would probably be with the lips compressed, rather than the protruded rounding of back vowels, but that’s a minor detail which we needn’t really worry about.
⁷ Which is, technically, a reason, but not a very good one if we’re trying to imitate natural language. Work with me here.
⁸ Although Unicode calls it “modifier letter triangular colon”, it’s clearly actually “two tiny triangles pointing at each other”. There’s also a half-long symbol which looks like this: ˑ. Just one tiny triangle on that one. Yep.
⁹ Another good word for the /fθ/ combination is phenolphthalein, which is even better because it has both in the onset of the same syllable. Just say it with me; phenolphthalein. Beautiful, isn’t it?
¹⁰ Unicode calls it a “combining inverted breve bellow”, but what would Unicode know? It thinks the length sign is a colon. Silly Unicode. (Sorry, Unicode, I still love you, baby.)
In this episode we talk about Evil Corporations, Ragnarok Online II, Farcry 3, The future of technology and all so much more. This is the fifth episode from season two of the extravagant Brain Exchange Podcast. Staring Ben and Michael.
Articles and websites discussed in this episode come from the following: