The Adjectival Inflection Question

There is a strange inflectional morphology in Scottish Gaelic called lenition, where word initial consonants are made weaker through the addition of h just behind them when in certain environments. Teach Yourself Gaelic introduces this initially in lesson 1A, and expands on it later. All it has to say in 1A, which is mostly about adjectives, is that adjectives modifying feminine nouns are lenited. So, for instance, take the word beag [BAY uck]. When used with a masculine noun, it appears in its standard form (eg. ‘an cat beag’ or ‘the small cat’) But when used with a feminine noun, the initial sound changes (eg. ‘an iolair bheag’ [VAY uck]). The stop becomes a fricative. Since not all sounds are capable of lenition (vowels aren’t, and in some cases S’s aren’t) there are instances where the sound change doesn’t occur in this environment, but for the most part it’s there. And feminine noun phrases aren’t the only environments that cause it. Direct address of a person leads to lenition, but only if it’s a woman, and the adjective gle [glay] (which means very) causes lenition when it modifies another adjective. Words can be lenited when they are in specific cases or when proceeded by by possessive determiners in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd masculine persons. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern by which I can determine what causes the sound change though. It’s grammatical, not phonological, but the instances don’t seem to have anything in common. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, kind of randomly. Why should masculine nouns lenite in genitive and feminine in nominative? Why not the other way around? I’m really curious as to why the change happens.

You’ll also note that in Scottish Gaelic the adjective follows the noun it’s modifying. I was surprised to learn that that is actually the case in most languages. Twice as many languages use a noun-adjective formation than use the adjective-noun structure found in English. I guess we just like being the underdogs.

That’s really all the linguistically interesting stuff you can pull out of Lesson 1A, which I really think could easily have just been included in Lesson 1, rather than given it’s own super-special section. It was only two pages. But, despite my complaints about formatting and lack of creativity in the text, I’m really glad I switched to this book. While it would be nice to have audio to improve my speaking, I find my ability to read Gaelic has dramatically improved in the past couple of days. I’m retaining the information well and I’m picking it up fast. CSG had you memorize phrases and then told you what they meant, but you still didn’t know what you were saying. The individual words were just as foreign as before you started. By explaining how to formulate any and all sentences, TYG allows me to expand beyond just recitation. I can figure out new words in context and use old words in new places. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I really think that’s a better system.

You can see for yourself the considerable improvement in translation as I stumble through this sections exercises.


Is politeness a cultural advance?

At least, syntactically encoded politeness.

So, I was working on the first section of my Colloquial Scottish textbook, and one of the first lessons involves learning how and when to use formal cases as opposed to informal ones. For instance, if you are speaking to a close friend, you would ask about their health by saying “Ciamar a tha thu?” (How are you?) But if you’re speaking to your professor, you say “Ciamar a tha sibh?” They mean the same thing, one’s just more formal. And a number of words and phrases have a formal and informal version. “Tapadh leibh” and “tapadh leat” both mean thank you, the former is simply more polite.

But that’s nothing new, I speak a bit of German, and the distinction exists there too. “Wie gehen sind Sie?” is the formal version of “Wie gehst du?” (How are you?) And Japanese has formal and informal ways of saying just about everything (though they use suffixes like -san (f) or -chan (i) attached to names rather than pronouns). What struck me as funny was that English doesn’t. So I got curious about how many languages lacked the distinction, it seemed to me it must be pretty rare. Except, according to the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) it isn’t rare at all. 136 Languages have no distinction at all, only 49 make a binary distinction, and a teeny tiny 22 use more distinctions or an entirely different system to differentiate.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. Of those 136 languages lacking a formality case, I recognized maybe nine. English is in there (probably because of our utter abandonment of cases after the Great Vowel Shift) and so is Irish Gaelic. The only other major language that makes the list is Hebrew, the rest are tribal languages and creoles. Things like Lakota, Hawaiian, Zulu, Maori, Egyptian. And the languages that do make a distinction? 90% of them are easily recognized. I could point to the geographic region they’re spoken in, unlike the formal-less group. They all come from well-populated and culturally advanced regions. Not just Indo-European either. Persian and Mandarin and Panjabi make the list. (The lists, by the way, are here if you’re interested. Now you can spot unlikely patterns in statistical data too!)

Now, I’m not saying that politeness develops with sociological advancement. I don’t know that the one causes the other, or vice versa. Probably not. It’s likely that the willingness and ability to bother with special phrasing in order to be nice is a side effect of more leisure time and less energy spent worrying about simply survival. And possibly a necessity as people began speaking to strangers on a more regular basis as cities expanded. But the correlation is really really interesting.