The Tastes of a Language

Languages–like the living organisms that generate them–change over time.  Some like to refer to languages as either “alive” or “dead” and to anthropomorphize them in various ways–and there is a case to be made for this kind of thing at times…

However, rather than analogize a language to a living organism, I would instead make an argument that a language is more like a cuisine… it is a sum, within a particular culture, of many different kinds of elements that are combined to produce something that is both consumed and produced by members of the culture and that has meaning for them..

It is also something that is central to the identity of the culture itself–it represents one of the major ways that any particular group of very social water monkeys develop their own particular identity and patterns.

Like a cuisine, languages are constantly changing, but there are also boundaries for them.  Now, some people like to fixate on the boundaries–to define a particular cuisine at one point in time–and to declare that this particular agglomeration of recipes, meals, etc..–that is the REAL GERMAN cuisine for all of time.

This kind of activity does have a kind of clear utility.  Having a repertoire of core elements that form a locus within a culture and are recognized as such by people–that can help create connections between people and further cooperation and bonding.  With food, this means you know what you are going to get when you order certain dishes–which can be very comforting–and this happens quite often at particular feast or holy days.  With language, you have the fundamental core of what is considered “proper language” that is used in the culture to further communication in the most broad and efficient fashion possible.

However, one should note that trying to create permanence in such boundaries is likely to be a fools errand. In reality, many boundaries that are often seen as “definitional” are better understood as a snapshot of an ongoing and multi-layered process that never really ends…..

Within a cuisine, one just has to watch the changing of foods between the generations to see how this occurs.  I could note that my grandparents NEVER would have eaten spaghetti (that was Italian! not American!) or Pizza, much less Mexican or Chinese or Indian food…

Within our language, this is also clearly true.. Words and phrases come into and out of fashion, and even grammar rules change (albeit more slowly) over time.  In this process, some things grow and expand, and others shrivel and disappear.

Liver and Onions meet Methinks and the Instrumental Case.

Obviously, there are many who care less about the boundaries and are more interested in trying new things.. co-opting words or recipes from other groups.. or recombining different words or foods together in new ways–and trying to produce innovations..

Sometimes these innovations work–and over time they become part of what is considered the main body of the language(to google) or cuisine (Spaghetti)–other times–they are a flash in the pan and disappear.

Along these lines, we also have great cooks of a language.. some of whom are excellent at reproducing the well-known linguistic meals–and others who create whole new tastes with combinations of writing that reshape everyone’s entire perspective not only on what can actually be said or read–but also how they then perceive the world around them.

Languages change… and are changed…

Now.. what this whole rambling intro was all about was to set up an observation that I made while teaching myself how to parse/decipher Old English.  This language–ancestor to the language I’m writing in now–was far different from what I’m putting down in this blog–not only in the words it used, but also in the grammar and even in the sounds that it employed.  In many ways, it is far more like modern German in terms of its vocabulary and grammar, even if it is far more like the Low German (plattdeutsch) that is fairly different from the High German that is standard today.

In any case–what caught my eye was the differing distribution of initial sounds in the Old English writings I was reading.  As any reader of this blog will know–I have a thing for counting–and so I’ve done a bit of research to figure out just how Old English words differed from Modern English in terms of what sounds words started off with.  Basically–I wanted to know what particular sounds were “productive” for words in each language–especially for starting a word…

With some research–I tracked down dictionaries–both for Old English and relatively Modern English (Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary) –that allowed me to get a rough count of the words that began with each letter.  From there–I did a bit more work to separate out certain different sounds–for example, sh is a different sound than s in modern English.. just as, in Old English, the G sound is different than GY (a voiced velar fricative that is like making the sound “g”–but letting the air rush past continuously like you would do for an “s”–and it basically sounds like the sound of a “g” and “y” right after each other..).  Then I did the math on everything..

The results are in these two images.  Rather than just give numbers–I created visualizations, whereby the letter size corresponds to the relative abundance of that sound at the start of a word.
Here’s what Old English looks like when you do all of this:

As you can pretty much see.. the most common sounds to start off Old English words are (in order) : F, H, S, W, GY, B, and U.  Together, these 7 starting sounds/letters actually make up more than half of the Old English words in the dictionary I found.

Now.. this information alone doesn’t mean much unless you compare it to something, and thus, here is the Modern English breakdown (of many more words!)
In comparison, one can see a lot of changes in the sounds that are most commonly used to start words.  In modern English, the most common sounds (in order) are: S C P A D I and R.  Altogether, these 7 sounds/letters also make up a bit more than 50% of the starting sounds for Modern English words.

Comparing the two lists–it is immediately clear that besides the S sound, the two languages have no other “major” sounds/letters in common.   In fact, places 1 through 7 in Old English show up in 12th (F), 14th(H), 1st(S), 18th(W), doesn’t exist (GY), 8th(B), and 9th(U) places in Modern English.

In reverse, the most common sounds today would have been ranked (out of 24 sounds/letters)– 3rd(S), 12th(C), 23rd(P), 8th(A), 17th(D), 22nd(I), and 21st(R).

Obviously, something major changed in our language such that 3 of the 4 least common letters to start words back around 1000AD–namely I, R and P, became 3 of the most common starting sounds in Modern English.

As it stands, I know what that something was.  It was the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, which brought a tremendous number of Latin and French terms into the language, and Latin has great numbers of words in each of those three letters–as well as many terms starting with C and A to boot… Obviously.. more words came in later during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.. but this was the start of the process…

Thus, with regard to English, the phonetic taste of the language was altered by an invasion of speakers whose whole phonetic cuisine was flavored by sounds that were very, very different than what had been spoken (and would continue to be spoken by the commoners) up to that point.. and it is from this huge linguistic cataclysm/smorgasbord that I would wager that many, if not most, of our spelling issues in modern English come from…

Anyway, if there is a final message here–it is that you should taste your language often and completely–but then go and taste others so that you can not only find new flavors, but so that you can better appreciate your own.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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1 Response to The Tastes of a Language

  1. signature103 says:


    Nothing is more important than to taste other languages in order to appreciate your own. This is something monolingual speakers can least understand. They are fish in water without knowing there is something beyond water.

    Nice post. Thank you

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