Monday, August 30, 2004

Vowel Harmony I – The Trouble with Endings

When creating a language, people (or should I say peoples) often have a really bright idea. To keep it simple, they think, I’ll come up with some little words that clarify what I’m talking about. We call these words particles, and some languages use them with reckless abandon.

The particle plan usually works so well that quicker ways of saying them are created to make speech even better. If you’ve ever said, “See ya later” instead of “See you later” (and you know you have!), you’ll understand where these people are coming from.

Pretty soon, just as surely as we say “can’t” because “cannot” takes too long, particles get run into the words before or after them to make things quicker. If you’ve ever said “see ya” as a two-syllable word (“see-ya!”) instead of as two distinct words (you probably have!), you know what drives these people.

At this point, one of two things can happen. 1) The grammar police can show up and drill into young minds that whether you say “see-ya” or not, you have to write “see you” as separate words. 2) Things can run together so well that by the time the grammar police get there, it’s to drill into young minds that even if it looks like it came from “see you,” you have to write “see-ya” (and not “see-yu,” “see-yuh” or “se-yuh”).

When particles get tacked on the ends of other words, we like to call them endings. (Some people prefer “suffix,” but that’s a bit highfalutin.) Endings are bad news. The problem is, people don’t like to take a long time to say them. So they slur over them.

Once an ending gets slurred, there are two things that can happen. 1) The grammar police can insist it be enunciated correctly. 2) The grammar police can come up with rules for the proper way to slur it.

In Latin, if you wanted to say “I will love,” you’d say amabo. This was ama (love) + b (future marker) + o (“I” form marker). People thought that was too hard, so they said, “amare habeo” (ama – love + re – infinitive marker; habe – have + o – “I” form marker).

By the time the French got done with “amare habeo”, they were saying “aimerai” (aim – love + er – infinitive marker + ai = “I have”). More precisely, they were saying, “j’aimerai” – I will love. Now that they’ve been doing that 1000 years or so, some people think the rule is too rigid or confusing. They just say, “je vais aimer” (I am going to love). One day grammar teachers will designate the proper way to run together what is pronounced “zh’vay zemmay” in rapid speech.

In the Romance languages (and most Indo-European languages), when the grammar police pick endings for verbs, it’s called “conjugation” (Latin for “tie together”). With nouns, it’s called “declension” (like “decline,” because you have to read down the list of endings – I’m not joking on this point!). So basically, by their own admission, Romance language speakers handle endings by sticking stuff together and memorizing the lists. The Turkic languages do it differently. Their grammar police had a different idea. The idea was “vowel harmony.”

What is vowel harmony?

Click here to find out.