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Linguistic terminology easily explained

On this page we offer the interpretation of various phonetic symbols, as well as linguistical and grammatical terms, which are used on our website but might be incomprehensible to an ordinary reader or concern phenomena lacking in their mother tongue. Our overview is especially aimed towards English speakers, although native speakers of other languages might consider it useful too. Feel free to suggest terms that are used on this website and you cannot find here and we will add them to this overview. However, bear in mind that we do not cover the simplest notions that everyone would have learnt at school, such as vowel, consonant, substantive, adjective, adverb, number, tense etc. If you feel uncomfortable with these, try Wikipedia as a starting point.

active voice
' (apostrophe)
* (asterisk)
: (colon)
consonant letters

' ' (inverted commas)
middle voice
passive voice
phonetic signs
preterite-present verbs

[] (square brackets)
strong declension (subst.)
strong declension (adj.)
strong conjugation
¯ (upper hyphen)
vowel letters
weak declension (subst.)
weak declension (adj.)
weak conjugation

1. Symbols

1.1. * (asterisk) - is placed in front of a form that has not been registered:
*sáti, *kurna. So where did we take it from? It is our own construction - such a form is hypothetical. We need the asterisk to prevent any confusion between the real and our "guessed" forms. But do not regard such words as arbitrary or fabricated, as in most cases they can designate something which is highly likely to have existed and is reconstructed on the basis of a scientific method. Sometimes we discover such reconstructions as real borrowings in third languages, which only confirms that this was not just a mater of superficial guesswork. Remember the periodic law of chemical elements, which anticipated the prediction of previously unknown elements that were indeed discovered afterwards - it is practically the same method as the one which is used in linguistic reconstruction.

1.2. [  ] (square brackets) - are used for phonetical transcription to distinguish it from the orthographical notation. F.ex. Faroese
nógv 'much' is pronounced as [negv] and hví 'why' as [kwωj] or [kwuj].

1.3. ¯ (upper hyphen) or : (colon) - indicate the length of a sound:
ā, a: . The symbol "¯" is only used for vowels. Long vowels in Old Norse are normally marked with an acute: á,ó,ú,ý,í,é, also œ.

1.4. '  ' (inverted commas) - are used to mark the meaning of a word: ON
drengr 'boy'.

1.5. ' (apostrophe) - when used before a sonorant (
'l,'m,'n,'ŋ,'ņ,'ļ) marks the voicelessness of the respective consonant.

2. Phonological terms

2.1. Common terms

2.1.1. Phonetics - acoustical and physiological aspects of sounds and their pronunciation.
2.1.2. Phonology - sounds in a more abstract aspect (otherwise called phonemes), regarded as parts of a system they constitute through various relations and ties between each other.
2.1.3. Transcription - transformation of the orthographical notation into phonetic symbols. Transcription is especially needed for languages where the orthography differs greatly from the actual pronunciation (English is one of them). The golden rule of transcription is one letter for one sound and vice versa.
2.1.4. Articulation - the interaction of speech organs (lips, tongue, jaws, roof of mouth etc) for the making of sounds.

2.2. Orthography issues
Old Norse orthography (or its normalised and unified version we are using), was pretty straightforward and each letter had a very definite sound value, so we never transcribe Old Norse. The sound value of Old Norse letters is the following:

2.2.1. Vowels:
a - like a in Allah akbar
o - like o in English song
u - like oo in English spoon
i - like i or ee in English bit, steel
e - like e in English bed
y - like German ü or French u
ø - like German ö or French eu
ǫ - how exactly it was spelled we do not know, probably it was something between [a] and [o] or [ö] and [o]. In Icelandic and Faroese this sound has merged with ø or o.
á,ó,ú,ý,í,é - long a,o,u,y,i,e
œ - long ø
æ - long, like German ä or a in English bad
au - a+u, like ow in English brown
ei - e+i, like a in English mate
ey - e+y, soon developed into either [ei] or [öy]

2.2.2. Consonants:
Except in a few instances, consonants do not differ significantly from their English counterparts. The usage of the following letters must be specified:

j - like y in English yes
ð - like th in English the, those. This vowel originates from the Old English alphabet, although today it is used with its original meaning only in Icelandic. It is also present in Faroese where it indicates other sounds and has only an etymological value: maður [mεavωr], niðan [nijan].
þ - like th in English thorn (the actual name of this letter!) or thatch. This letter comes from the Runic alphabet. We are using it in our transcription, following the Nordic tradition, although in many books you will find another phonetic sign for this sound: the Greek letter θ, which sounded the same. (This Greek letter is used by Michael Barnes in his article "A Note on Faroese /θ/ > /h/" on the change þ > h we are referring to on the page about the language of the Ballad of Hildina, item
f - in most cases read as [f], except the positions between vowels and/or r,l where it is spelled as [v]: lifa [liva], kalfr [kalvr].

Practically the same system is used for our transcription, except for the fact that we never use
f for [v], adhering to the "golden rule". Notice that the transcription rules in other Scandinavian languages, even including Icelandic which looks in writing very much like Old Norse, may considerably differ.

2.2.3. Additional phonetic signs, occurring only in phonetic transcription:

ε,æ,ä - different degrees of sounds between e and a
ɔ,â,α - different degrees of sounds between o and a
ʌ - like u in English hut
ω,ȯ - different degrees of sounds between u and o
ė,I - different degrees of sounds between e and i
ə - an indefinite sound, like a in English ago or -er in brother
ŋ - like ng in English song
ş or ʃ - like sh in English show
ž - like sur in English measure
- like ch in English chain
- like j in English joke

2.3. Phonetical and phonological terms:

2.3.1. Vowels

front vowels -
central vowels -
back vowels -

high vowels -
mid vowels -
low vowels -

labialised vowel -
o,u,ø,y - vowels which are formed with an extra-lip rounding during the articulation
monophtong -
a,e,i,o,u - a vowel that does not change quality during its pronunciation
diphtong -
au,ei,ey,oa etc. - a vowel that changes quality during its pronunciation and can be represented as a sum of two vowels

2.3.2. Consonants

stops -
spirants -
affricates (stop+spirant):
sonorants -
voiced consonants -
voiceless consonants -
p,t,k,s,ş,þ, also 'l,'m,'n,'r,'ņ,'ļ,'ŋ - pronounced as if whispering
palatal consonants -
ņ,ļ,ĝ,ķ - formed with additional articulation by which the body of the tongue is raised toward the hard palate (as if j followed). The sound ņ is like Spanish ñ, ļ - like Spanish ll, ĝ and ķ resemble k,g being pronounced before j,i,e, but occurring in front of other vowels ( ĝa , ķu etc.)

devoicing - loss of sonority:
b,d,g > p,t,k, l,m,n > 'l,'m,'n
aspiration - a short h after p,t,k: ph
preaspiration - a short
h before p,t,k: ht

2.3.3. Sound alternations Umlaut (mutation). A regular change of a vowel caused by another one. Some of our readers might already know the German "Umlaut" letters
ä, ö and ü. The sounds they mark originate from a,o and u respectively, which were influenced by i in the succeeding syllable (which later might have been dropped). As a result, the mentioned "hybrid" vowels appeared, which combined the qualities of a,o,u and i. That is why this kind of mutation is often called i-umlaut, i.e. mutation caused by i.
This process was much more extensive in Old Norse. There were 3 kinds of umlauts in the language: a-umlaut, u-umlaut and i-umlaut, which had still occurred in Common Scandinavian:

u > o: *kurna > korn
a > ǫ: *barnu > bǫrn
a > e: *gastiR > gestr
(the short o did not exist in Common Scandinavian and was a product of later processes, mostly a-umlaut of u)
u > y: *hulijan > hylja
á > æ: *lātiR > lætr
ó > œ: *dōmijan > dœma
ú > ý: *lūtiR > lýtr
au > ey: *hlaupiR > hleypr

"Reverse umlaut" - this term means that in the given word there should have been umlaut but it did not occur, or perhaps it did but then was restored to the original sound value due to analogy from other words: Scand. *
sātija 'seat' > ON sæti > Norn sodi (that would correspond to ON *sáti, while ON sæti would have resulted in Norn *sedi). Breaking (caused by the succeeding
a or u):
e > ja,jǫ: *fella > fjall, *gebu > gjǫf
a > ja (known only in Norn): ON barnit > bjadni

2.3.4. Some other terms:

prevocalic - occuring before a vowel
postvocalic - occuring after a vowel

contraction - contraction of two syllables having no dividing consonant inbetween: ON
gráum > grám, ON rauðu > Norn ru (after the fall of ð)

monosyllabic - consisting of one syllable
bisyllabic - consisting of two syllables
polysyllabic - consisting of several syllables

3. Grammatical terms

3.1. Nouns

3.1.1. Case - grammatical category indicating the role of a noun or pronoun in a phrase (subject, object, indirect object etc) or having a specific meaning (functioning thus like prepositions).
English has two cases, Common and Genitive. Common case is the default one. Genitive indicates ownership and has the ending
's: my father's hat. The same assortment of cases is present in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch.

Old Norse, as well as Icelandic and German have a four-case system. This includes the two cases featuring in English, where the Common case is named Nominative and is the case of the subject. In addition to that there are two other cases, Accusative and Dative (Faroese has a three-case system, including all the cases as in Old Norse minus Genitive, which is practically lost). The prepositions in such languages require (or, as it is also said, govern) Genitive, Accusative or Dative.

Accusative - means 'whom?' (direct object). The sentence
'The boy saw the dog' would sound in Old Norse as Drengrinn sá hundinn. Drengrinn 'the boy' is Nominative and hundinn 'the dog' is Accusative.

Dative - means 'to whom?' (indirect object).
Drengrinn gaf manninum sverð 'The boy gave the man a sword'. Drengrinn 'boy' is Nominative, manninum 'to the man' is Dative and sverð 'a sword' is Accusative.

The existance of cases gives us the scope to change the word order without destroying the general meaning of the sentence. Let us get back to the sentence
Drengrinn sá hundinn 'The boy saw the dog'. Now if we try to reverse the word order: Hundinn (Acc.) sá drengrinn (Nom.) it would still mean 'The boy saw the dog', although in English a similar operation would give quite a different sense: 'The dog saw the boy'. In English it is mostly the word order which tells us who saw and who was seen. In Old Norse it is, to the contrary, the cases which do the job, and the word order is secondary to them. Normally, the subject in Nominative takes the first place like in English. But you can move the object to the first place to emphasize its role without destroying the general sense. Consequently, a better translation of the phrase Hundinn sá drengrinn is 'It was the dog that the boy saw'.

Let us consider a more sophisticated example by bringing Dative into the example.
Drengrinn (1) gaf manninum (2) sverð (3) describes the same situation as Drengrinn gaf sverð manninum (132), Manninum gaf drengrinn sverð (213) and Sverð gaf drengrinn manninum (312) = 'The boy gave the man a sword' (the difference between all these variants is only in emphasis). In English we have only one choice for the alternation of the word order, and this will involve the additional preposition to: 'The boy gave the man a sword' = 'The boy gave a sword to the man'. As in the former case, this example confirms that the cases provide much more flexibility in the terms of word order, its interchangeability and emphasizing, keeping the number of words needed to a minimum, than the strict word order rule does. No wonder that multicase systems are very widespread in languages of the world.

3.1.2. Article - a function word that marks definiteness. In English there are two sorts of article: definite (
the) and indefinite (a). In Old Norse there is only the definite article which corresponds to English the (the counterpart of the English indefinite article is just zero). In Old Norse the article stands either before the substantive word (usually when there is a modifiying adjective) or, more commonly, afterwards, joining as another ending: inn hundr 'the dog' = hundrinn (Nom.), inn hund = hundinn (Acc.), inum hundi = hundinum (Dat.), ins hunds = hundsins (Gen.).

3.1.3. Gender - a grammatical category which associates words with sex (masculine, feminine) or marks their animacy (masculine, feminine) or inanimacy (neuter). In languages with such a system father, son, brother, grandad are masculine, mother, daughter, sister, granny are feminine, while neuter includes mostly inanimate objects. Of course, this is a simplification, as there are masculine and feminine words for inanimate objects and there can be exceptional cases when animated nouns have neuter (f.ex.
'child' in many old Indo-European languages is neuter, i.e. as something whose anima, or soul, is still undevelopped according to old beliefs). In fact, nowadays, gender should rather be regarded as a purely grammatical ("meaningless", "technical") category. For example, in Icelandic you can have words of all three genders for a woman: fem. kona 'woman (neutral)', masc. kvenmaður 'woman (more official)', neut. kvenndi 'woman (vulgar)'. Apart from Old Norse and Icelandic, three genders have existed in Norn, Faroese and German. In Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch and Frisian masculine and feminine have merged into the so-called "common" gender, as opposed to neuter. In English and Afrikaans, all gender distinctions are lost (except relics in personal pronouns: masc. he, fem. she, neut. it).

3.1.4. Types of declension Strong declension (substantives) - used with substanives that normally have a consonant ending in (masc.
drengr 'boy', fem. ferð 'trip, journey', neut. barn 'child') Weak declension (substantives) - used with substanives that have a vocalic ending in (masc.
gluggi 'window', fem. amma 'granny', neut. auga 'eye')
(Sporadically substantives could change their type, mostly from strong to weak)

Ironically, in Proto-German the strong declension contained stems ending in a vowel and the weak one in a consonant. But after numerous reduction processes that occured in Common Scandinavian 1000-1500 years ago, this situation changed to the opposite. Strong declension (adjectives) - "default" declension, combines endings from the substantive strong declension and the pronominal declension (
svartr hestr 'a black horse', glaðir drengir 'glad boys') Weak declension (adjectives) - same endings as in the weak declension of substantives, is used if the substantive, modified by the adjective, has the definite article or if there is a possessive or definite pronoun (
svarti hestrinn 'the black horse', minn svarti hestr 'my black horse', þeir glǫðu drengir 'those glad boys')

3.2. Verbs

3.2.1. Mood - a grammatical category which expresses modality, subjective interpretation of the action, its possibility and necessity. Three main moods should be kept in mind: Indicative - used for factual statement or positive belief: ON
ek kem 'I (will) come', ek kom 'I came' Imperative - expresses an order, command, request, exhortation or prohibition: ON
kom! 'come!', sof ekki! 'do not sleep!' Subjunctive - expresses possibility, conditionality, wish: ON
ek kœmi 'I would come'

3.2.2. Voice - relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object etc.). In Scandinavian languages there are three main vocies: Active voice - the subject is the agent or actor of the verb: ON
Maðrinn drap hestinn 'The man killed the horse'. Passive voice - the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action. The verb is normally expressed by its passive participle preceded by the verb 'to be' (English, Icelandic) or 'to become' (German, Danish, Faroese): ON
Hestrinn var drepinn af manninum 'The horse was killed by the man'; Dan. hesten blev dræbt af manden, blev 'became'. Middle voice - is in the middle of the active and passive mode, expresses an action directed at the subject or that has a reciprocal meaning. In Old Norse was formed with the suffix
-st, which originated from sik 'oneself': ON drepast 'to get killed', Norn sadnast 'to "verify oneself"', i.e. 'to be verified', roast - 'to "frighten oneself"', i.e. 'to be frightened'.

3.3. Conjugation types

3.3.1. Strong conjugation - verbs which form their past forms through alternating the root vowel: Eng.
give - gave, bind - bound, ON gefa - gaf (sg.) - gáfu (pl.), binda - batt (sg.) - bundu (pl.).
3.3.2. Weak conjugation - verbs which form their past forms through adding the so called 'dental suffix'
-d-, -t- or -(a)ð-: Eng. call - called, tell - told, ON kalla - kallaði (sg.) - kǫlluðu (pl.), telja - taldi (sg.) - tǫldu (pl.).
3.3.3. Preterite-present verbs - a small group of verbs which form their present like past time of strong verbs and form their past like past time of the weak verbs (i.e. with the dental suffix). Most of these verbs have modal meanings (
can, shall, will, must etc.): Eng. shall - should, ON skal (sg.pres) - skulu (pl.pres.) - skuldi (sg. past) - skuldu (pl.past).



















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