One of the ways that the world is sucking right now is the migrant crisis in Europe. As I write this (in April 2016), there are tens of thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. Many of these people cross from Turkey to Greece by boat, and many go from North Africa to Italy by ship. Tragically high numbers of these sink; in April of last year, five vessels sank, with a death toll of about 1,200 people.
The other day I was listening to the news on the radio. It was yet another story about the refugee crisis. The word aufrage kept coming up, but I couldn’t find it in my dictionary. Un aufrage, I kept hearing. Looking up similar stories on line solved the mystery: it was not un aufrage, but un naufrage–a capsizing or shipwreck. I had “segmented” (as linguists say) the n of naufrage as part of a separate word, coming up with un aufrage.
This isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. One of the surprises for students in introductory linguistics classes is that in speech, there are no breaks between words–if I showed you a spectrogram (a sort of recording of a sound wave) of a sentence, you would see a continuous sound. “Segmenting” that stream of speech into smaller units is something that humans do–it’s not something that’s there in the acoustics.
Occasionally speakers of a language will, over time and as a community, “reanalyze” words in a way that changes the segmentation, and eventually the pronunciation. The word uncle is a word that has undergone this process. A variant of the word in English is nuncle. Oxford describes it as archaic or dialectal, but it’s there. You can see it in Shakespeare:
Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
–King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4
The word is thought to have come from a segmentation of phrases like mine uncle as my nuncle, thine uncle as thy nuncle, etc.
The same thing can happen in other languages, too–any time people speak, there’s an opportunity for segmentation errors. Children who are learning their mother tongue often try out different segmentations. For example: in a past post, we looked at some bear-related vocabulary in French and English. Here are various and sundry relevant phrases:
- un ours: a male bear.
- une ourse: a female bear.
- un ourson: a baby bear; a teddy bear.
- un nounours: a teddy bear.
I once read a great blog post in which a French guy wrote about his toddler producing three different pronunciations of the word ours (male bear) in one day: ours, nours, and I believe lours (the last one would be a reanalysis of l’ours, “the bear”). (Sorry I’m guessing about that last one–I can’t find the guy’s post.)
Linguistics geekery, which you should feel free to skip: one of my homeworks in Phonetics 101 was to look at spectrograms and find indications of syllabic association, which can correspond to word segmentation, on occasion. It’s possible to do so–sometimes. For nasals in French, as far as I know, it would be restricted to some variability in when a vowel is nasalized before a nasal consonant, versus when it’s produced as a sequence of an unnasalized vowel before a nasal consonant. American English speakers, who have no contrast in nasalization versus lack of nasalization before a vowel, are unlikely to be able to perceive it, and I don’t know at what age a French kid would be likely to acquire it.
I have no clue how the current situation will or should be resolved. Obviously, if your town is being destroyed by the Syrian government, or ISIS, or whatever other assholes are causing death and misery in the Middle East these days, it makes sense that you would take your family and go elsewhere, and it’s simple human decency to shelter people in that situation. However, the situation is not clear in other ways–even the fact that the Wikipedia article on the subject is titled European migrant crisis and not European refugee crisis is a loaded choice, and one that has implications about how the people who are affected should be treated. The situation continues to evolve, with European and world sympathies tilting now one way and now the other–in favor of sheltering the affected people after a tragedy like the widely-publicized drowning of a Syrian toddler, and in opposition to it after the despicable assaults on women by crowds of migrant men last New Year’s Eve in Germany. Certainly the situation will have long-range effects on Europe. I began this post by talking about one of the ways in which the world sucks right now–the existence of this crisis. One of the ways in which the world doesn’t suck right now is that many people in many countries have been very active in welcoming refugees, providing real support services for them, and generally acting like decent human beings. This will get worked out.