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Words, pronunciations evolve and merge through time

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Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2012 11:38 pm

FAIRBANKS — Back when I was a mere slip of a boy, I knew when my mild mom had reached the outer limits of patience, because she’d mutter “Fiddle-de-dee,” her strongest expletive. She did it with amazing force, and I knew bad things were about to happen.

“Fiddle-de-dee” is meant to express the sound of a fiddle-string vocalized. Hence “sound signifying nothing,” according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

The American Heritage Dictionary is more direct, defining it as an interjection “used to express mild annoyance or impatience.” 

It comes from “fiddle,” which first was recorded in English in the late 14th century as “fedele,” though it was preceded by “fithele,” which came from the Old English “fidele” and, the experts say, might have come from Dutch or German predecessors.

“Perhaps,” Etymolonline.com tells us, it’s ancestor might have been the Medieval Latin “‘vitula,’ or ‘stringed instrument,’ which is perhaps related to the Latin ‘vitularia,’ ‘celebrate joyfully,’ from Vitula, Roman goddess of joy and victory, who probably, like her name, originated among the Sabines.”

Fiddle-de-dee came to mind upon reading a recent online Atlantic monthly article by Megan Garber titled “How America Swears.” The article uses frequency maps to indicate how often people in 462 U.S. cities tweeted the infamous four-letter F-word between July 14 and 24 of this year. NY City was up there, but Los Angeles was the clear winner.

The F-word has been traced back in English to 1508, but some linguists believe it goes back to the mother of Western languages: Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. The 103 modern Indo-European languages, like English, Sanskrit, and Gaelic are all descended from PIE root words.

Now a University of Auckland study claims that PIE itself didn’t originate 4,000 years ago in the steppes above the Black Sea and spread through chariot-enabled military invasions, but began 9,500 years ago along with the invention of agriculture in a small region of Anatolia in present-day southeastern Turkey.

A New York Times article by Nicolas Wade, titled “Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia,” describes how the UA researchers used computers to trace the origins of words that are resistant to linguistic changes, or “cognates,” back to PIE root-words. 

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “cognate” as “related in origin, as certain words in genetically related languages descended from the same ancestral root.”

For example, English “mother,” Persian “madar,” and Polish “matka” are all cognates descended from the PIE root-word “mehter.” However, the PIE vocabulary includes words like “wheel,” “axle” and “to go in a vehicle,” which fit the invasion scenario and can’t be traced back further than 3500 B.C.E.

The academicians may never conclusively battle that one out, unlike the big change in how American pronounce vowels. A

slate.com article by Bob Mifsud describes how the “North Cities Shift,” or NCS, is dramatically altering how Americans, residing near the Great Lakes accent their words, but not Canadians.

“Nothing divides English dialects more efficiently than vowel pronunciation,” Misfud states. What linguists call the “Great Vowel Shift” began around 1400 “established the basic contours of today’s English,” but the way we use short vowels, as in “bat,” “bit,” “but,” and “bet” “have remained pretty much constant since the eighth century … Until now.”

Linguists believe the NCS “began with a simple change to the short a sound.” Those urban Northerners “began moving their tongues forward and up,” producing “a nasal-like sound that is the hallmark of the NCS dialect.” This led to a “chain shift” wherein “a change in one vowel sound can force the rotation of some, or even all, of the others.” So “caught” is pronounced “cot,” and “cot” is pronounced “cat.”

Americans also are starting to employ “y’all,” that most useful second person plural pronoun, outside the Southern and African-American dialect zones.

Alaskans come from all over the country, and they likely come from towns with public libraries serving as ready sources of intellectual stimulation and enlightenment. The citizens of only a couple of other countries can claim the same without it being nonsense, or as some would put it, fiddle-faddle, a 1570s term coined after the obsolete word “faddle,” meaning “trifle.” 

Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.

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