Category Archives: Language

Overly Detailed Facts about the Welsh Word for corgi

As a reader of this blog, you need to know that 1) I wrote a dissertation on Celtic mutations and 2) I own a Welsh corgi (see below). His name is Owain Glyndwr Alan Jackson Cooperlee Corgi McCay Pyatt (or Glyndwr for short). Over the years, I have become aware of the meaning of the word corgi and some related words that linguists, Indo-Europeanists, Celticists and corgïsts may appreciate. The rest of you may want to move on.

extremely fluffy corgi with paws pushed out

Corgi is a Compound

Most corgi owners are aware that corgi is from Welsh and literally means ‘dwarf dog’ (cor ‘dwarf’ + ci ‘dog’), a reference to the short legs. In fact corgis literally have dwarfism in their legs which is why you have to be careful how much they bound about, especially as they get older.

You may have noticed that although corgis are a type of ci ‘dog’, they are not a *corci. The ci ‘dog’ element undergoes the Welsh soft mutation changing c /k/ to g /g/. How Welsh!

Corgis have an /n/-Stem plural option

The most common plural of corgi is corgwn /korgun/ which basically incorporates the plural cŵn /ku:n/ ‘dogs’ (note that Welsh w is always the vowel /u/ when not with another vowel). The plural shows that the Welsh dog word is actually related to Latin canis, French chien and even English hound. The root also appears in part of the name for yoga downward dog which is a svanasana (śvan- + asana, lit. a ‘dog asana’). What about the Celtic language Old Irish? The word for dog in Old Irish is , but in other case forms it is con-, a common name element in Irish.

But…Welsh plurals are not always regular. The singular corgi can also be plural corgïaid, at least according to the Geriadur Prifysgol Cymru. Because you can’t pin a corgi down.

Don’t Forget the Ladies

Female corgis have their own Welsh words too. The word for a female dog (or “bitch”) in Welsh is gast, and sure enough you can own a corgast or a coriast. Or if you object to the term “bitch”, you can have a corgïes /korgiɛs/ where -es is a generic feminine ending. By the way, this ending makes me an Americanes “American woman”.


I have determined that corgine should be used to indicate the high state of being a corgi. Not that being an ordinary canine is a bad thing, but not all English speakers understand the specialness of being a dog. We should not forget that legends tells us that corgis were ridden by fairies but given to humans in gratitude to a human who fixed a carriage (and other dog breeds have similar origins I assume).

In any case, the adjectival form of corgi is corgïaidd /korgiajð/ (not to be confused with the alternate plural corgïaid /korgiajd/. The dd is “soft th” or /ð/ in Welsh.

Other Little Things

The prefix cor can be found in other Welsh words notable corgoed ‘dwarf tree’ and coriarll ‘viscount’ or literally ‘little earl’. The Welsh are very productive and clever compoundists.

One Could Use Singular They, You Know

A question that I am sometimes asked as a linguist is why English can’t adopt a gender neutral pronoun alongside he, she and it. The irony is that English actually already has two options available, but they are rarely mentioned as being acceptable alternatives.

Singular Impersonal They

Any linguist worth their while will tell you that colloquial English widely uses singular impersonal they as common substitute for an unspecified person of any gender. This version of they shows singular agreement as can be seen in the examples below.

  • “A football player with a head injury must be cleared by a doctor before they can return to the game.”
  • “A person who doesn’t watch the news has only themself to blame if they are caught in the rain without an umbrella.”
  • “A person can’t help their birth” (Vanity Fair, William Thackery, 1848)
  • “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, 1594)

The examples, which include Thackery and Shakespeare, show that this construction has been in the language for many centuries, yet few advocate its use in Modern English.

Impersonal One

Another classic impersonal pronoun is one as in “One must be careful to watch the news on a regular basis.” (Thanks Linguistics Girl for this Reminder). And yet one rarely sees this pronoun mentioned.

I believe there are some reasons why these pronouns are often forgotten, but I will address that more next week.

What is Language Diversity?

Today I saw another article from a biologist throwing their hat into the linguistics ring. In this case it was geneticist Sarah Tishkoff who implies in the Christian Science Monitor that because humans in Africa are more genetically diverse, the languages must be too.

Tishkoff argues that “There’s just been a lot of time for cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, genetic diversity to accumulate in Africa.” At first glance this would make sense, but the reality has been that languages can easily spread independently of the gene pool. For instance, most people of African descent in the U.S. actually speak a Germanic language (i.e. English). In all of the Americas, most people of African descent speak a European language (English, Spanish, Portuguese or French or a creole based on one of these languages).

So…I will say that I (and probably linguist Salikoko Mufwene who is quoted in the article) would dispute Tioshkoff’s premise. In fact, the Christian Science Monitor mentions that the trick is “how you define diversity.”

Greenberg Index

One measure is the “Greenberg Index” which measures how the probability that any two speakers will “have a different mother tongue.” In Papua New Guinea, the number is 99% and Cameroon, the number is 97%. These are impressive figures, but they don’t measure how distinct the languages are.

In this scenario speaking Italian vs. Spanish (relatively closely related) is given the same weight as speaking Spanish vs. Basque (completely unrelated). Italy, France and Spain are European countries with more linguistic diversity than we may initially realize, but the majority languages in question are descended from Latin. This happened because most of Western Europe was within the Roman Empire, but this means that almost all pre-Roman languages in the Western Empire have been lost. The pre-Roman languages that have survived in Western Europe have been Basque and some Celtic languages. Germanic and Finnic also survived this era.

As it turns out most languages in Cameroon are all in just two language families – Niger Congo and Afro-Asiatic. So, although there are lot of languages, they are generally related. In fact, the vast majority of the Afro-Asiatic languages in Cameroon are Chadic > Biu-Mandara languages, which is a very specific group. I am by no means an Chadic expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are as close as Spanish and Italian. Similarly, the Niger-Congo languages of Cameroon are generally in the Atlantic branch and many (169) are in the Bantoid branch. Again these languages may be close.

Language Relatedness

If we are going to truly compare linguistic diversity to genetic diversity, then we DO need to factor in how many language families are being used in a specific area. Language family represents a “line of evolution” for a proto language. The more language families in an area, the more proto languages are represented. In that respect, Africa is not especially diverse in comparison to some areas such as the Americas. If language spread were tied exclusively with genetics, then we would expect Africa to have the largest number of language families, but that is not what happens.

One interesting comparison is counting isolates (languages with no known relatives). These represent proto-languages that is not currently widespread. According to Lyle Campbell (University of Hawaii), there are about 10 isolates in Africa (vs. one in Europe), but 20 in North America, six in Mexico and 55 in South America. That’s a lot of leftover languages in the Americas. Similarly, an overview of indigenous Mexican languages shows they can be grouped into seven families (vs. seven in Cameroon). The issue is that most indigenous languages in Mexico may have smaller populations than Cameroon for political reasons.

The irony here is that the Americas are more diverse in terms of language families than Africa even though it was settled much later (and as expected has less genetic diversity than Africa). Whatever the explanation, we need to be very careful how we model the spread and evolution of language vs genetics.

Illegal “Meads” and Other Linguistic Lessons from “Almighty Johnson’s”

A show I’ve been enjoying in recent month’s is the New Zealand import Almighty Johnson’s, the saga of family whose members acquire the powers and behaviors of a Nordic god when he or she reaches 21. Hey…it could happen.

FYI – My fellow Americans who missed Seasons 1-2 on SyFy may be able to catch up on all 3 seasons on Netflix or the DVD Box set. You should be warned that these modern Nordic gods frolic and act just as they did in the sagas.

Linguistic Lessons

Here in central PA, I’m not overly exposed to New Zealand English as it is spoken in New Zealand, so this show has been an education on some facets of New Zealand English I thought I would share.

“Shoot Through”

If you decide to pick your things, take off for the hills and abandon family responsibilities, you are going to “shoot through”. This happens when the Johnson’s mother shoots through to become a tree after her eldest son turns 21. This almost happens again when surfer grandpa Johnson (with immortality) impregnates his 20-something girlfriend.


I normally associate the longer ta ta “good bye” with upper crust English, but in New Zealand, it’s been shortened to Ta! and is used by everyone.

Everyone says “Fuck!”

In this U.S. expect to hear lots of bleeps and dead silences as EVERYONE uses the F-bomb multiple times per episode. Wow. This is all the more remarkable to me because the show started at 8:30 PM in New Zealand. WT*?

This show actually flips U.S. censorship conventions on its head – there is lots of cursing and tons of description and PG-13 depictions of sex, but very little actual blood. I have to say I enjoy this more than seeing blood at 8:30 PM.

The Most Important Lesson: The Vowel Shifts

U.S. linguists discuss the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, but the front vowels are shifting drastically in New Zealand English (similar to what is happening in Australia).

I first noticed it when I heard family /fæməli/ as fame-ily [feməli], but most front vowels are shifting up one position in many speakers (sometimes more if there’s a nasal following). A great shifter is actress Rachel Nash (Ingrid). When she proclaimed that she once sold illegal illeagal meds /mɛdz/, I first thought she meant illegal meads [midz]. She and most others also pronounces the character name Axl /æksəl/. as Exl [ɛksəl]. There’s also very ubiquitous /ɛ/ to /e/ shift so that dress /drɛs/ can sound like drace [dres].

Other vowels and diphthongs are affected. Axl pronounces grown [groʊn] as the more split [grɐʉn]. This article from the New Zealand Encyclopedia provides some details.

While this information isn’t new to New Zealanders, I would have to say it’s new to Americans, even American linguists. Like the Northern Cities shift, the New Zealand shift presents neophyte American ears some interesting phonological challenges.

“Next Year” or “January”?

December is the season for celebrating and also for hearty greeting of See you next year!, especially around 11:50 PM on Dec 31. But recently, the next year phrase came up in a conversation at the end of November that made me give a double take. It was one of those language glitches that helped me understand how semantics works.

Context: Testing a New Online Grading Tool

In my job in Teaching and Learning with Technology, we have been testing a new tool (anonymously called “GradeStuff”) and I wanted to know if it would be available in the new LMS (anonymously called “LMS X”)

Our conversation went something like this:

Scene: Office Cubicle in November 2014
Me: It looks like GradeStuff is working. Did we want to integrate it into LMS X?
Boss: Not yet, but we want to investigate it soon. Let’s talk next year
Me Thought Bubble: How is November 2015 “soon”?
Me: So you mean….
Boss: Let’s talk when we get back in January.

In a moment of clarity, I realized that for me and probably most people next year means “12 months from now (± 6 months)”. In other words, a long way off. But in the New Year’s Day tradition, my boss actually meant next calendar year which happened to be mere weeks away.

Which is why all those Dec 31 greetings are just so cute!

Word Crimes & Hip Hop Battles

I confess that my personal challenge to post a linguistically interesting video every week has failed, but I thought I would end on a high note.

Despite the fact that I am not in the “grammar correction” biz, I do think that Weird Al’s recent song “Word Crimes” (based on “Blurred Lines”) makes some legitimate points on clear communication. My personal challenge is to find a way to introduce into the classroom.

Update: Read Language Log

As I suspected, I am not the only linguist who has noticed the song, and there is a thoughtful post by Ben Zimmer on Linguist List about how it could perpetuate linguistic prejudice.

FWIW – I don’t necessarily know if Weird Al means for this song to be a serious tutorial on grammar like Grammar Girl. While I’m sure he is expressing some actual language usage peeves, it’s worth noting that the same album features “Foil” (based on “Royals”) in which he advocates foil as protection from both bacteria and covert government control. In fact, he has one line about “And maybe now you find that people mock you online” that acknowledges the annoyance towards commenters who proof, but do not read or provide other constructive advice.

I do agree with Zimmer that this should NOT be used to teach “grammar” (as does Weird Al probably), but I do think it introduces some of the issues that come up in the sociolinguistics of prescriptive grammar. Zimmer has a list of questions a linguist could ask students.

Bad Grammar vs. Bad Writing

One that linguists can ask themselves though is how they could distinguish “bad grammar” from “bad writing”. While some of the diagrams in Weird Al’s songs are ridiculous, I can’t argue with the fact that some expressions like “I could care less” are overused and no longer make literal sense. This is bad writing, regardless of grammar. In fact, many books on writing do warn writers not to become trapped in jargon (good prescriptive grammar, bad writing).

What I think is missing is the idea that a colloquial language speaker CAN be a good writer (or at least use effective rhetorical techniques). For instance, many people worry about the AAVE “verbal skills deficit”, when it is partly a problem of mastering a second dialect. However AAVE speakers can clearly demonstrate verbal proficiency in hip hop lyrics and hip hop battles (spontaneous hip-hop lyric creation) as recreated in the movie 8 Mile.

I would like to see a day when dialect proficiency is really appreciated for what it is (good writing) and that Standard English is another option instead of the ONLY option.

Book Review: An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics

A common prorblem for linguists is that there are many more languages we are interested in than can be reasonably mastered. When I retire and/or win the Megabucks lottery, I will spend my summers taking intensive language courses in exotic locations…but until then, I sometimes have to rely on a linguistic description so I can begin to understand how different languages work, even if I can’t speak a darned word.

One book I have in my collection to do that is Natsuko Tsujimura’s An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics. It fulfills all the requirements I have for this genre.

Reasonable Linguistic Descriptions

The goal of this book is to introduce English-only linguists and linguistic buffs to Japanese data. I will state up front that this book is best appreciated if you have learned the equivalent of LING 101, particularly generative syntax. Having a common framework is important for understanding how the data compares to other languages

Having said that, you don’t need much beyond an introductory level of linguistics. And the coverage of different linguistic field is good. It covers theoretical linguistics (morpho-syntax, semantis and phonology), but also language acquisition and sociolinguistics in terms of dialectal issues, language differences by gender and honorifics. One section I would have liked to see is the history of Japanese, especially since the origin of Japanese is an ongoing debate, but maybe in the third edition.

No Japanese Needed

Tsujimura does an excellent job of introducing Japanese morpho-syntax to people who have had minimal exposure to Japanese. All concepts are explained, and all Japanese examples are translated into English. It was enough for me to explain some Japanese data to my linguistics students, and that’s a good thing. Having sat through some linguistic discussions of languages I don’t know, I know making data comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the language is not easy, so that’s one reason I like this book a lot.

One aspect that a purist might object to is that only Romaji (English transliteration) is used. On the other hand, not knowing Japanese means it’s likely we don’t know the script (unless we happen to know Chinese, which is more commonly taught these days).


Since this is an introductory book, no topic can be fully covered. Fortunately, there is a bibliography and plenty of references that will help get you started learning more.

I still haven’t taken a Japanese class, but I will say that books like these help me learn more about Japanese…which intrigues me to learn more.

Latin Girl Power on Gossip Girl

Having visited relatives and friends in New York (not to mention the Met), I confess that I do get a kick watching some insider NYC references on the night time soap Gossip Girl. I confess though to being curious if any of the more manipulative characters had actually learned anything of academic interest from their expensive private school and Ivy League educations.

To my delight though, one of the fashionistas realized that she might want to think about a career depending on skills and talent rather than influence and dirty tricks. Her choice? To be an editrix of a major fashion magazine. Using her Latin, she realized that she didn’t have to settle for being just an editor (originally the masculine form), but could actually rise to the feminine editrix.

Sadly the feminine -rix suffix has been mostly consigned to ladies in leather (the “dominatrix”), but Latinists also know it from aviatrix (i.e. woman aviators such as Amelia Earhart) and executrix (women who are estate executors). But sometimes an educated woman remembers that -rix and -or were once more co-equal and will reclaim the -rix suffix for her own (sometimes when I have the map in the car, I am the navigatrix.

I like the choice of “editrix” because there is nothing wrong with a talented woman wielding power in her own right in the open.