An Introductory Glossary of General Linguistics Terminology: Part C: R-Z

An Introductory Glossary of General Linguistics Terminology: Part C: R-Z: This glossary is ostensibly not comprehensive in any sense of the term, but it serves as a solid baseline introduction to linguistics terminology.

introductory glossary of general linguistics terminology Part C R-Z 


recursive definition: a definition that refers to itself and thus defines an infinite set of things. = circular definition. Recursive definitions are all too frequently found in research, and they are a dangerous trap.

rhotacism: 1. an exaggerated use of the sound of the letter R 2. inability to pronounce the letter R. + 3. a linguistic phenomenon in which a consonant changes into an R, as in Latin flos, where flos becomes florem in the accusative case.

root: a morpheme from a lexical class, typically verbal, nominal or adjectival, from which a lexical word is built (by adding affixes). Examples: -song- in -songster- + -sing- in -singer- + -singing- See also, stem


segment: any discrete unit or phone (sound), produced by the vocal apparatus, or a representation of such a unit. 

semanteme: an indivisible unit of meaning. See also: semantics, semiology 

semantic role: the underlying relationship that a participant has with the main verb in a clause. Also known as: semantic case, thematic role, theta role (generative grammar), and deep case (case grammar). Semantic role is the actual role a participant plays in some real or imagined situation, apart from the linguistic encoding of those situations.

Examples (active & passive):
If, in some real or imagined situation, someone named John purposely hits someone named Bill, then John is the agent and Bill is the patient of the hitting event. Therefore, the semantic role of Bill is the same (patient=object) in both of the following sentences: John hit Bill. Bill was hit by John. In both of the above sentences, John has the semantic role of agent.

semantics: 1. (linguistics) the science of the meaning of words. 2. the study of the relationship between words and their meanings. 3. the individual meanings of words, as opposed to the overall meaning of a passage. 4. the study of meaning in language; in generative grammar: how the meanings of words combine to form complex meanings of phrases and sentences. 

semi-consonant: see semi-vowel (English only)

semiology: the study of meaning.

semiotics: the study of signs and symbols, especially as means of language or communication.

semi-vowel: speech sound produced with a little more constriction of the airflow in the oral cavity than a vowel. Semi-vowels in English = l & r, but not in any other modern Occidental Indo-European language, in which l & r are pure consonants. In English only, semi-vowels or semi-consonants are the result of the great vowel shift in the Middle Ages, which softened the harder consonantal pronunciation of l & r typical of French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian and many other Occidental languages into a much softer l & r.

simulfix: a change or replacement of vowels or consonants (usually vowels) which changes the meaning of a word. Examples (English): -eat- becomes -ate - in past tense + -tooth- becomes -teeth- when plural.
speech community: a group of people sharing characteristic patterns of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. 

stative verb: a verb that expresses a state of affairs or being rather than action. Stative verbs differ from verbs of action not just in meaning but in formal structure and usage. Some verbs can be both stative, expressing a state of affairs, and active. Stative English verbs include: be, concern, have. The verb -become- is both stative and active. 

stem: a morphological constituent larger than the root and smaller than the word. Derivational affixes are inside of the stem, and inflectional affixes attach to the stem. Examples: root = run + stem = runner + word = runners & root = sing + stem = singer + word = singers

stress: a syllable having relative force or prominence.

substantive: (broadly) a word or word group functioning syntactically as a noun.

suffix: an affix that is attached to the end of a root or stem. Example (English): the past tense suffix -ed- attaches to the end of the verb stem -walk- to form the past tense -walked- Likewise, -ingest- to -ingested- & -transport- to -transported-.
syllabary: 1. table or list of syllabic letters or syllables 2. writing system where each character represents a complete syllable. Minoan Linear A, Mycenaean Linear B & Arcado-Cypriot are all syllabaries.

syllable: 1.a unit of spoken language that is next bigger than a speech sound and consists of one or more vowel sounds alone or of a syllabic consonant alone or of either with one or more consonant sounds preceding or following; 2. one or more letters (as syl, la, and ble) in a word (as syllable) usually set off from the rest of the word by a centered dot or a hyphen and roughly corresponding to the syllables of spoken language and treated as helps to pronunciation or as guides to placing hyphens at the end of a line.

synchronic: relating to the study of a language at only one point in its history. For instance, when a researcher limits his or her study to Mycenaean Linear B in the context of ancient Greek, the research is synchronic. Thus, synchronic linguistics is a key definition in the study of Minoan Linear A, Mycenaean Linear B, Arcado-Cypriot Linear C & Homeric Greek.

syncretism: the fusion of different inflexional forms. 

synecdoche: a figure of speech in which the one of the following (or its reverse) is expressed either as: (a) a part stands for a whole (b) an individual stands for a class OR (c) a material stands for a thing. Examples (English): -fifty head- referring to -50 head of cattle- & -cat- referring to -lion-.

synonomy: the relationship between words (or expressions) of sameness of meaning in some or all contexts. Synonyms: words (or expressions) that have the same meaning in some or all contexts. Examples: car = automobile + house = residence

syntagma: syntactic string of words that forms a part of some larger syntactic unit; a construction. 

syntax: the study of the rules governing the way words and morphemes are combined to form phrases and sentences. 

synthetic: pertaining to the joining of bound morphemes in a word. Compare analytic  

synthetic language: a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an isolating language. Agglutinative languages tend to exhibit synthetic properties. Indo-European languages, Greek + languages of the Romance family (Latin, Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish etc.), of the Germanic family (English, German, Swedish etc.), of the Slavic family (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak,Serbo-Croatian etc.) and of the Indoaryan family (Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian etc.) are all synthetic languages.

time deixis: time diexis refers to time relative to a temporal reference point. Typically, this point is the moment of utterance. Examples (English)= Temporal adverbs: now/then/yesterday/today/tomorrow = adverbial function.

tmesis: (prosody) the insertion of one or more words between the components of a compound word. Example: How bright (+the) chit (+and) chat, inserted into chit-chat 

trope: the figurative use of an expression. Tropes include euphemisms, hyperbole (exaggeration), irony, litotes (understatement), metaphor, metonymy, onomatopoeia and various other devices.  

typology: the systematic classification of the types of something according to their common characteristics.


unbound root: a root which can occur by itself as a separate word. Another morpheme need not be affixed to it to make it a word. Examples: root (instead of – roots- -rooted- - rooting- etc.) & think (instead of -thinks- -thinking- -think-tank- etc.)

univocal: 1. having only one possible meaning. -or-  2. containing only one vowel 

Ursprache: proto-language, such as the proto-language from ancient Greek and Sanskrit presumably arose. Although we can never know the actual structure, vocabulary etc. of a proto-language, we can attempt to re-construct it retrogressively. 


vocable: a word or utterance, especially with reference to its form rather than its meaning

vowel: speech sound produced without a significant constriction of the airflow in the oral cavity. 

vowel modification: an addition or alteration to the basic way that a vowel is articulated. For instance, in most languages, including English, most vowels can be articulated as long or short, as in: -a- in -father- (short) in -ate- (long), -e- in -set- (short) -meet- (long) & -o- in -got- (short) -goat- (long)


Significant Phonetic Variations in the Pronunciation of the L & R + Vowel Series as Reflected in the Linear B & Linear C Syllabaries

Significant Phonetic Variations in the Pronunciation of the L & R + Vowel Series as Reflected in the Linear B & Linear C Syllabaries 

Comparison of the Mycenaean Linear B & the Arcado-Cypriot Linear C Syllabaries: Click to ENLARGE

Mycenaean Linear B & Arcado Cypriot Syllabaries compared

Where the phonetic values of the syllabogram series R + vowel series (the L series missing in Linear B) do sound somewhat different in the two syllabaries, Linear B & Linear C, there is in fact a very sound phonetic reason for this.

But first, let me tell you a little story. If there were such a thing as time-travel into the past or the future, modern Greeks from Athens travelling back to the city in 500 BCE would indeed be shocked at how Greek was pronounced then. Ancient Greeks thrust into the future would have the same reaction – utter disbelief. I myself put this hypothesis to test while I was in Greece in May 2012. I could read modern Greek fairly well even then. But when I tried to communicate with some folks I met in a restaurant with my own plausible version of the ancient Attic dialect (there are actually 3 or 4 possible versions), no-one could understand scarcely a word I spoke. And when I asked my colleagues to speak modern Greek to me, I was equally at a loss. But I could read the menu with no problem.          

Moving on then.

Although the Mycenaean Greeks were apparently unable to pronounce the letter “L”, nothing in fact could be more deceptive to the unwary Occidental ear. It all comes down to a matter of our own ingrained linguistic bias in our own social-cultural context. To us, the Arcadians & Cypriots indeed appear to have already made the distinction between L & R, given that their syllabary contains syllabograms consisting of both of these consonants (L & R) followed by vowels. But I stress, to us, we cannot be sure how they pronounced L & R, or to what extent they had by then become phonetically separate. Looking at the Linear C Syllabary, you can see the distinction right away. See above.

Now some of you may already be aware of the “fact” that to our ears in the West, the Japanese seem utterly incapable of pronouncing either L or R, but appear to be pronouncing something half-way between the two, which sounds like mumble-jumbo to our ears. Since the Linear B syllabary has no L + vowel series of syllabograms, the Mycenaeans too might have conflated L and R into one consonant in a manner similar to the way the Japanese pronounce it, at least in the early days of the Mycenaean dialect (possibly from 1450-1300 BCE). On the other hand, since the Arcadians and the Cypriots had apparently already made the distinction between L & R from as early as 1100 BCE, their immediate forebears, the Mycenaeans, might have already been well on the road to being able to pronounce L & R distinctly as consonants by 1300-1200 BCE, although they still may have been confusing them from time to time. However, they probably could see no point in adding an L + vowel series such as we see in Arcado-Cypriot Linear C, given that they had already used the Linear B syllabary for at least 2 and half centuries (ca 1450 – 1200 BCE). I am inclined to accept this hypothesis of the gradual emergence of L & R towards the end of Linear B's usage ca. 1200 BCE, in preference to a hypothetical Japanese-like pronunciation based on the assumption that the L+R concatenation is a merging of L & R as semi-consonants. Still, either scenario is perfectly plausible.

Allophone English speakers invariably find the pronunciation of L & R in almost all other Occidental languages (French, Spanish, Italian etc.) much too “hard” to their ears. This is because the letters L & R in English alone are alveolars, mere semi-consonants or semi-vowels, depending on your perspective as an English speaker, which is in turn conditioned by the dialect you speak. There are some English dialects in which the letter R is still pronounced as a trilled consonant, but for the most part, allophone English speakers pronounce both L and R very softly – at least to the ears of allophones from other European nations. Practically all other modern European languages trill the letter R, making it a consonant in their languages. But not English. This is due to the “Great Vowel Shift” which occurred in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in English, whereby the earlier trilled R was abandoned in favour of the much softer semi-consonant or semi-consonant R we now use in English. For this reason and others besides, English alone of the Germanic languages is not guttural at all. At the same time, L, which had previously been pronounced just as in other European languages, became a semi-consonant.

You can put this to the test by pronouncing either letter aloud, paying close attention to where you touch the interior of your mouth with your tongue. Your tongue will instantly feel that the semi-consonant L scarcely makes any contact with any firm area of the mouth, but is pronounced almost the same way the vowels are – almost, but not quite. On the other hand, R, which is a true semi-vowel, at least in Canadian and American English, does not make any contact with any firm part of the mouth, in other words, it is pronounced just as the vowels are – no contact. So it really is a vowel. But English scholars and linguists in the sixteenth century could see no point in changing R to a vowel, any more than the Mycenaeans could be bothered with a new series of syllabograms beginning with L.      

But it matters little, if at all, whether or not we pronounce L & R as semi-consonants or semi-vowels, as in English, or as separate consonants as in the other European languages, since we all pronounce them as distinct letters. This ingrained linguistic bias greatly colours our perceptions of how others pronounce the “same” letters, if indeed they are the same at all. So it all boils down to just one thing: it all depends on your socio-culturally conditioned perspective as a speaker of our own language.

This state of affairs leaves me forced to draw the inescapable conclusion that to the Japanese it is we who have made a mess of things by separating the pronunciation of L & R, which sound identical to their ears, in other words as one consonant (which is neither a semi-consonant nor a semi-vowel). To assist you in putting this into perspective, consider the Scottish pronunciation of the letter R, which is also clearly a consonant, and is in fact the pronunciation of R before the Great Vowel Shift in Middle English. This is not to say that the Scottish pronounce their consonant R anywhere near the way the Japanese pronounce their single consonant, to our ears an apparent conflation of our two semi-consonants L & R.    

Again, the whole thing comes down to a matter of linguistic bias based on the socio-cultural conditions of two very distinct meta-cultures, Occidental and Oriental. In that context, the languages in their meta-classes (Occidental versus Oriental) are symbolic of two entirely different perspectives on the world. Need I say more?

In conclusion, it is extremely unwise to draw conclusions for phonetic distinctions between the socio-culturally “perceived” pronunciation of any consonant or any vowel whatsoever from one language to another, especially in those instances where one of the languages involved is Occidental and the other is Oriental. The key word here is “perceived”. It is all a question of auditory perception, and that is always conditioned by the linguistic norms of the society in which you live.

This still leaves us up in the air, so to speak. How can we be sure that the Mycenaean Greeks apparently could not pronounce their Ls “properly” (to be taken with a grain of salt). We cannot. Since we were not there at the time, our own linguistic, socio-cultural biases figure largely in our perception of what the so-called “proper” pronunciation was. If we mean by proper, proper to themselves, that is an altogether different matter. But what is proper to us was almost certainly not proper to them, of that we can pretty much rest assured. The same situation applies to every last ancient Greek dialect. What was proper pronunciation and orthography to the Dorian dialect most certainly was not for the Arcado-Cypriot dialect any more than it was for Attic Greek. To be perfectly blunt, we cannot ever be quite sure how anyone in ancient Greek pronounced their own dialect of the language, again because we weren't there.