Figuring out a Language

rogersgeorge on December 9th, 2016

I don’t often let someone else do my work, but that’s basically what this post is. I haven’t (yet) seen the movie Arrival, though several people have recommended it to me because it’s about a linguist figuring out an unknown language. The link below is to an article about hos the linguist did it. It’s kind of a spoiler for me, because it turns out the technique is about exactly how you learn Greek. Look for phoneme patterns. We’d say things like “oi is the sign of the optative,” and “a nasal infix goes with the present tense.”

The first part of the article describes things I (and you other students of inflected languages) already know. Then the article applies it to the language in the movie, which the movie only touches on, apparently, but at least it’s there. Gratifying and interesting even if I now know how the movie works.

Here’s the link:

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Counting with letters

rogersgeorge on May 18th, 2012

The numerals we use were popularized in Europe by Leonardo Fibonacci. We have some evidence (in the form of a date on a sign on a coal mine or something mundane like that) that our numerals were known in Europe before 1202, but Fibonacci generally gets the credit for popularizing them. Here’s a cleaned-up chart of the originals:

They used the number of angles in the figures as a mnemonic

Before that, we had Roman Numerals, of course, but what did we use to count with before the Romans? We used letters.

Before I tell you how that works, I must mention numerology. Numerology is the practice of assigning numerical values to letters, counting up the sum, and looking for interesting patterns in the numbers you get. The most common way nowadays it to assign the values 1 through 26 to the letters of the English alphabet. Numerologists manipulate results pretty much at will; consequently you can prove anything you like with numerology if you work at it. It’s a bunch of hokum. I even figured out how to prove that I, your humble curmudgeon, am the antichrist! Ask me how and I’ll tell you. It’s all very clear, and completely bogus.

Since at least the Greeks and the Hebrews actually did use letters (other groups had a pile of other systems), you can assign a numerical value to a word. When the Greeks were actually counting, they put a mark at the corner of the letter to show that it was being used as a numeral. But they didn’t go from 1 to 26 (okay, 24) in assigning the values. First, here’s a Greek alphabet.

Lowercase letters came later

Numbers, like musical terms and place names, tends to be conservative linguistically, and that leads to a monkey wrench. Between epsilon and zeta, when you’re counting, you have to insert an obsolete letter called a digamma. The digamma looks like a capital F, and it stands for six. Keep counting, and you get to iota standing for ten. Kappa is 20, not eleven. Lambda is 30, and so on, until you get to the next monkey wrench between pi and rho. In goes another obsolete letter, qof, which looks like a lollipop, and it stands for 90. Hence, rho is 100. Sigma is 200, and so on. I don’t know of a letter for 900, and they used a word for a thousand, related to our word myriad. So if you want to say you have 23 sheep, you would use kappa gamma with a mark after the two letters.

Obviously, with a system like this you can assign values to actual Greek words pretty easily. Look up the numerical values and add them up. It’s from this practice that we get the expression “the number of a name.”

And having used that expression, I have to bring up the book of Revelation and the number of the beast. What I described above is how you get to the infamous 666. You have a few problems figuring out who he is, though.

  • It’s easy to get from a word to a number, but hard to get from a number to a word. Try it.
  • What language do you use? Classical Greek? Modern Greek? Hebrew? Latin? Aramaic? Italian? King James English? Whatever language the beast speaks?
  • What name do you use? First name? Title? Whole name? Last name? Maybe his secret name. How about nickname? Or the name his opponents call him?

Obviously it’s going to be hard to figure out who the guy is in advance, and plenty of people have figured out plenty of ways to assign 666 to a lot of famous folks enemies. My recommendation: make it into a party game. Use something like the Greek method on the English alphabet, and assign people their numbers accordingly. Make up some rules, such as the higher your number the more intelligent (or some other desirable characteristic) you are. Perhaps the closer your numbers are, the more compatible, and you can add the number of your pet’s name to bring your numbers closer together. Married people who have the same last name would be very compatible.

The sky’s the limit.


rogersgeorge on March 3rd, 2012

A while back I posted about things professionals generally write that amateurs generally don’t write. Today I turn the tables and point out a few goofs that definitely brand you as an amateur. Most of these are the fault of spoken English. The spoken version of these words is misleading, and if you seldom write, you might write the way these words sound, and get them wrong.

Confusing use and used. When you describe something that was the policy in the past but isn’t any more, we say something like “This is the way we used to do it.” Read that aloud, and you’ll notice that you pronounce used to as useto. In English we find it hard to pronounce a voiced and an unvoiced pair like D and T together. (Try it.) The unvoiced T wins. (Yes, linguists, I know they are called  alveolar plosives. They used to be called lingo-dental stop plosives when I was in college.) I recently ran into this in Google+ on a page about weight loss that showed a photo of a svelte guy in some oversized trousers:

Those clothes actually use to fit him perfectly


This isn't the photo from the Google+ page, but it's a pretty good example of weight loss

Confusing suppose and supposed. We use this word when we want to say that we expect something to be a certain way. For example, you guys might hear something like

“You are supposed to put the seat down!”

However, when you are guessing (or being polite), then “suppose” is correct.

“Yes, I suppose I should remember to put it down, Dear.”

The reason for this mistake is similar to the reason I mentioned above for use and used. The last sound in “suppose” all by itself is voiced, like a Z. Add an -ed ending, and we can combine the two voiced sounds, ZD. Try it. Now add the unvoiced T. The ZD combo loses out to the unvoiced T sound that follows.

Confusing of and have. I’ll do the example first, which I found on a pretty good techie site in an article about pay-per-click ads.

Thus, if you had 1,000 people clicking on your $55 per-click ad, it would cost you $55,000 dollars and you’d of sold between 20 and 30 products. Google could quite easily deliver the 1,000 visitors to your site in a matter of hours.

(For you math types: How much would that product have to cost for this guy to break even?)

The guilty party here is our tendency to use contractions. In English you can contract a lot of words, including “have” when it’s used with an auxiliary verb. So “could have sold” can be pronounced (and written, but it’s pretty informal) “could’ve sold,” which sounds a lot like “could of.” If you don’t realize what you’re saying, you could get it wrong.

Even if you’re an amateur, don’t make these mistakes.

Description or prescription?

rogersgeorge on January 5th, 2012

Two schools of thought swim in the seas of linguistics. I call then the describers and the prescribers.

Describers say “This is how people use language.” They make no value judgements about language, and (IMO) consider themselves to be scientists.


Prescribers say “This is how language ought to be used.” Their premise is that if you don’t follow the rules, you will not be understood. I think they consider themselves to be communicators and teachers.


If you follow this site with any regularity, you know that a lot of the material here is prescriptive. Well, I’m a communicator. You need some rules to avoid ambiguity. But there’s a place for the purely descriptive, too, and debates between the two schools are mostly unnecessary; and they tend to concentrate in the boundary where change in language affects the rules. I think the describers tell the prescribers where they will be in the future, and the prescribers hate having to give in to the describers all the time.

I said all that to give you a link to a wonderful describer site. Check it out. It’s called Wordnik, and it’s a huge purely descriptive database (dictionary) of words as they are used now on the internet. No comments about rightness or wrongness. You can look for my own neologism, pretentiousism. I don’t think you’ll find it. Yet.

What is case?

rogersgeorge on November 22nd, 2011

Grammatical case is a subject worth several posts. Perhaps the subject is best approached with a comic first.

The Alt text on the original is "The syntax is strong with this one"

I met the artist for this comic, John Wigger, recently on line, in a hang out on Google+. I had been thinking about doing a series on case, and this strip makes a good place to start. Here’s a link to the comic site, Zombie roomie.

Case is a way of telling you how a word is used in a sentence, usually by changing the letters at the end of the word. Every Indo-European language (far as I know) uses case, but many languages don’t. For example, Hebrew (Semitic language family) doesn’t have case.

My sixth-grade teacher taught us that English had three cases—Subjective, Objective, and Possessive. The guy in the comic is using nominative instead of subjective. (Frankly, I like this better. Nominative is the term used in other languages.) Since I’m giving you vocabulary here, I’ll tell you a few more: Objective is called accusative in other languages, and possessive is called genitive. Other cases exist, but not in English.

In future posts I’ll tell you how to get case correct, and warn you against common ways to get it wrong.

One last item. Why did your parents and teachers always correct you when you said “me and Tom” with “Tom and I”? The only reason to put yourself last is humility. It has nothing to do with grammar.