14 November 2011

An example of language change: Genealogy.

Genealogy has always been moderately popular as a hobby, but in recent years it has become all the rage, thanks to TV programmes like the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? which shows celebrities and public figures tracing their family trees (and often crossing continents in the process).

Now, I had always thought the word was geneology, but the BBC and various websites disabused me of this notion.  But just the other day, one of the other students here mentioned that her dad was working on the family tree... and she said "geneology".

Let's have a look at the etymology of the word.

According to Etymonline, genealogy comes from the Greek "genea" (generation, descent), + "logia", (to speak about).  So originally -logy was about lecturers, and over time was generalised to experts, and hence knowledge.

Unfortunately, the English-speaking brain doesn't understand declension of nouns, so it sees the first morpheme as "gene", not "genea", and expects the "alogy" bit to be a single morpheme.  As most "-logy" words are "ologies" (biology, radiology, geology etc), we have generalised all -logies to -ologies.  (Even though Etymonline has the suffix entry as "-logy".)

Don't believe me?  Consider this famous advert from the 1980s:

If the English-speaking brain recognised the original morpheme boundary, would they have scripted it as "ology"?  And would we have understood as easily?  The popularity of the advert (it was a widely-used pop-culture reference for years after it stopped showing) suggests it's natural English.

Given all that, I can only conclude that the word is, to all intents and purposes "geneology", and that attempts to preserve the A are misguided.

Let English be English and let Greek be Greek.


Mark said...

This is too simplistic. I guess that there are two "English-speaking brains" in this respect. Those who learned the word orally and those who learned it "scriptually". I learned it the latter way and hence am clear about the -a-. I even pronounce the word [dƷini'alodƷe], with a stress on the [a].

Nìall Beag said...

Fair enough, I'm not claiming that everyone says it that way, after all. However, I'd argue that you've most likely learnt it as an exceptional modified form of the "ology" morpheme.

So in your head it would be gene|alogy rather than genea|logy.

And even if not in your case, I would still reckon (until proven otherwise) that the vast majority of English speakers break up the morphemes this way.

Of course, I've only got an argument, not evidence, so you're free to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean that in the English brain you also have bi|ology, radi|ology and ge|ology rather than bio|logy, radio|logy and geo|logy? Seems strange to me, OTOH in Czech you always put stress on the first syllable so I don't know how influential the stress on the "o" is for an English speaker.

Nìall Beag said...

Yes, that's what I mean. bi|ology, radi|ology, ge|ology.

Part of this is down to the syllable structure of English. Consonants following tressed vowels tend to be included in the stressed syllables, so there is no syllable boundary between the O and the L.

(Ge-ol-o-gy, etc.)

While morpheme and syllable boundaries don't always coincide, in this case it would be surprising if they didn't....

Anonymous said...

So with words where the stress comes only after the "o", eg many here, the difference is that you have a prefix morpheme geo which modifies the rest of the word, while with geology you have a "basic" morpheme ge, which is itself modified by suffix morpheme -ology?

Nìall Beag said...

Actually, most of those words are realised with two stresses, otherwise you wouldn't get the strong /i/ vowel in the "geo-" of "geoarchaeology", or the /aj/ in "bioinformatics". These feel to me like compound words, as though there were two nouns in the word.

Words like "genealogy", "geology" and "biology" only have a single stress, though.