Friday, August 23, 2013

Update, 23 August

I apologize for my delinquency. I am currently writing an FAQ for historical linguistics over at Reddit which may answer a number of your common language questions - aside from being interesting in itself. Between that and the daily grind, I haven't had much of an opportunity to post here. Here are some facts about demonyms, names for people groups:
  • The word Jew is a corruption of a Greek word for Judean (person from Judah).
  • The original English word for any Germanic person (including Anglo-Saxon people) was dutch. Today it only means a particular Germanic culture in Denmark but its original sense is preserved in Pennsylvania Dutch and in the loanword Deutschland (Deutsch obviously being a cognate with dutch).
  •  Spanish gringo is a distortion of Spanish Griego "Greek," which several hundred years ago was a Spanish epithet for any foreigner.
  • Welsh originally meant "foreigner" or "stranger" (a word originally for any Celtic speaker). It gradually acquired a sense of inferiority which is preserved in words like welsh rarebit (a lower-class dish made of rabbit meat).
  • A person from the Isle of Man is called a Manx.
  • A Hittite to a linguist was a person who lived in Anatolia and spoke Nešili (but we usually just call the language Hittite for convention). But surprisingly, no one knows if the Hittites of Anatolia were the same Hittites we find in the Bible. When the Bible lists the names of Hittites, like Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, the names do not read as Hebrew or Nešili.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Four Features We Don't Have in English

This video is pretty educational. It points out four aspects of world languages that tend to blow the minds of English speakers. Two of my favorites:
  • He points out that English is necessarily time-sensitive, where the concept of when something happens must be included in a sentence
  • Our directions are relative to the speaker rather than absolute (left/right vs. north/south)
He does get a few things wrong (for instance, there are clusive languages in Europe, like Chechen), but the problems are minor quibbles. Enjoy.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Myths of language 2: Shakespeare's English

Thanks to his theater friends and the publication of a First Folio, William Shakespeare's wit was preserved for future generations and for the benefit of world literature. But how did Shakespeare speak? Close your eyes and imagine what a Shakespeare production sounds like. A sing-song quality? A cultivated accent? The thin refined speech of a London aristocrat in a Disney movie?

Nay. It may surprise you that the accent of Shakespeare was rougher, thicker, imbued with chopping block phonology of Early Modern English. Upon hearing Early Modern English accents, American ears may confuse them for a North English or Scottish accent whereas English ears may pick up American speech patterns. That's because it is a myth perpetrated by the theater and literature communities that Shakespeare spoke in what is today considered a modern, cultured British accent.

The myth is somewhat absurd if you think about the simple facts of language evolution. All accents in the English language descend from older English accents that had diverged over time. When settlers came to the colonies in the future United States, Canada, Australia, etc..., they took with them their own accents. Some of those accents did not survive back home in England; others did not survive in the colonies. After 400 years of divergence, it is more suitable to think of most accents as various children of Shakespeare's speech, each with their own peculiar innovations and conservative features.  

Here is the movie Shakespeare in Love, which uses Received Pronunciation (RP) and Modern London accents. The film never graces the true talk of the year 1600; Shakespeare would never have spoken like this. This is the common accent of Shakespearean theater today and likely the only theatrical Shakespearean accent you've come across (unless you're dealing with a play like Macbeth which would be performed in a Scottish accent anyway).


And here is a short video on producing theater in Original Pronunciation (OP) - the accent most closely approximate to Shakespeare's. 


So why is it so hard to find a performance in OP? One of the main reasons is that an OP production is difficult every way you look at it. It requires that the actors practice a long-forgotten phonology; it requires that theatergoers attune their ears, it can be difficult to understand OP speech at first. The accent is foreign and strange and there does not seem to be much demand for an Othello in OP, and yet in my opinion, it's those hidden qualities that make OP so much more interesting.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Rare Varieties of North American English

General American is the name for the generalized American accent spoken by most people in the United States and by a good many Canadians. There's no single General American because nearly all speakers have colored their speech with their regional accents and word choices. A General American speaker from Chicago may say gym shoes for all casual shoes; another from Boston may say a great movie was wicked awesome. But there are many dialects of North American English that are rare and unusual, featuring a prosody and word choice that will surprise you. Let's take a look at some of the more peculiar speeches of North America, shall we?

Appalachian English


Spoken among the Appalachian Mountain settlers. It is a unique "Southern" descendent of Scotch-Irish hillpeople. The tongue is often parodied (quite poorly) by Kenneth in 30 Rock.

Tangier


Tangier, Virginia is a tiny island out in the Atlantic Ocean. It was settled during the Reconstruction period of England, and its dialect has taken a unique turn. The island is a popular target of language tourists but the dialect dying fast.

Boston Brahmin


Everyone knows about the typical Boston accent, which in my opinion is more appropriately described as an accent clade along the eastern Massachusetts coast. The famous Boston accent is usually stereotyped as a Southie or lower class accent. There remains among the very elderly of Boston's elite the Boston Brahmin accent and it's quite different.

Newfie


The accent of Newfoundland, Canada, is one of the most divergent widely-spoken accents of North America.

West Jamaican



Monday, August 12, 2013

Myths of language, the Eskimo and their snow

Today let's have some fun. This will be the first in a series of posts on language myths.

Eskimos have 30, 40, 50, n words for snow. 

This one is pretty endemic to Canada and the United States and it's plagued with problems. There is no single Eskimo language; there is an Eskimo-Aleut family of languages. None of the languages have an unusual number of words for snow, and most have just a few. Unlike other myths we'll look at which are usually rooted in racism or social bigotry, this myth was probably an innocent misunderstanding of how Eskimo-Aleut languages behave. Eskimo-Aleutian tongues are highly polysynthetic

In linguistics, synthesis is the ability for a noun to change meanings based on morphemes. The word dog can undergo synthesis and pluralize, becoming dogs thanks to the morpheme -s. Synthesis is rare in languages like English and Mandarin, so we call them isolating languages. German and Japanese are mildly synthetic, meaning they are near the world average use of morphemes. Georgian and Hungarian are highly synthetic. Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, meaning they put Georgian and Hungarian to shame. Polysynthetic languages boast the ability to compound enormous sums of morphemes onto a single noun, so that you can make an entire phrase out of one noun that would normally take an entire sentence in English! Suddenly the Eskimo words for snow just got a lot more interesting.

A Yupik family. In truth, the word eskimo is a racist epithet
borrowed from the Algonquin. Eskimo is an Algonquinism for
"raw fish eater," an untrue insult among North American
tribes... but a compliment in a Japanese sushi bar.
Photo credit: AmazingRadio.
A classic example from Eskimo-Aleut languages is Yupik's single noun tuntussurqatarniksaitengqiggteuq "he/she had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer" (credit to Wikipedia on how to write that out). It is comprised of the noun stem tuntu- "reindeer" and a series of morphemes (morphemes much like the English plural -s): -ssur- "hunt," -qatar- "going to," -ni- "say," -ksaite- "did not," -ngqiggte- "again," -uq "he," "she." Only the word tuntu- has any meaning on its own, much like dog can have a meaning apart from -s but -s is dependent upon dog. 

Polysynthesis is not exclusive to Eskimo-Aleut languages. The phenomenon can be found in Australia, Asia, North and South Americas, Europe, and the Pacific Islands (Oceania). Only in Africa are we missing a polsynthetic tongue, and to be honest, there are many African languages that have not yet been adequately studied.

I hope this journey into myth and synthesis was as interesting for you as it was for me. Picard out.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Blevins, Basque, and Proto-Indo-European. Part II.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." ~ Carl Sagan 
So by a happy accident I ran across some cursory notes of Blevins' Basque-PIE talk. I discussed elements of the talk here. A number of days ago, linguist Juliette Blevins made a surprising argument: Basque is related to Proto-Indo-European. Not that Basque descends from PIE, but that Basque and PIE share a common ancestor, and that Proto-Basque sound correspondences with PIE reveal a Proto-Indo-Vasconic ancestor. You can acquaint yourself with the notes here (scroll down a ways).

Because the notes are simple summaries, probably done in haste, they contain a sketch of the argument but lack any real evidence, substance. A shame because some of these proposals are so radical, they would need significant evidence to convince me. I proffer my own thoughts.
  1. "Five problems with this proto-inventory that Juliette Blevins is going to fix." Why are there problems with Michelena's or Lakarra's reconstructions? Why can we not be content with the reconstructed phonological inventories thus far?
  2. "Problem 2: VhV sequences. (where vowels are identical) e.g. behe, bihi, lahar, luhur, mahatz, zahar." In many of these lexemes, the question should not be "Why are there VhV sequences?" but rather "Why are there VnV sequences?" An intervocalic */n/ was nasalized, then lost, unless the /n/ was assimilated (assimilation occurred frequently in words with alternating vocalics). A more interesting theory could be that nasal */n/ became /h/ if bookended by identical vowels and became /ɲ/ if the vowels were different. A word like mahai would come from *manai.
    The ruins of the Proto-Basque. Ancient Basque colmechs can
    be found throughout the hills and valleys of Navarre. This
    picture has no purpose. I just thought an image would be
    a welcome break.
  3. "To our knowledge, no one has attempted to expalin why h is so frequent and why it has wider word-internal distribution than most of the orial stops. We will solve this problem by positing two new historical sources for h." Well, first, Michelena accounts for the presence of intervocalic /h/ as the product of a loss of the intervocalic /n/ (above). Second, it is true that aspiration is very common in some Basque dialects, and was probably very common in Proto-Basque. Because many of these h-words have forms with /g/ and /k/, I've often wondered about an earlier system of *k, *kC, *kV that can no longer be recovered (such as PB *harri and its possible relationship with European *kar- words for stone). Third, it's not true that no one has attempted to explain the frequency of aspirants; Michelena believed them to have arisen from suprasegemental accent changes.
  4. "We propose only a single *s in PB." Proto-Basque's phonology was likely influenced by Iberian (both lacked an /m/; both boasted laminal, apical s; identical 5-vowel inventories; etc...). To what extent the sibilants were the product of Iberian influence or were an in-house movement is unknown.
  5. "We [are]proposing *m." Sorry, what? You already scared me by positing no sibilant contrast. Now you're saying Basque had an /m/? I'm beginning to lose the faith, father. You're going to need some powerfully good reasons. If there was no *b > m evolution, then why are there relics of an earlier *b in toponyms (mendi "mountain" but Auzpendi).
From what we have so far, this isn't even close to enough to convince me. On the other hand, it's just a summary from a talk, so I'll still give her the benefit of the doubt. If she writes on the matter, I hope - nay, expect - a significant body of supporting evidence.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

moving up in the world and pop vs. soda

Linguist List just added this blog to their linguistics community.

A "Saratoga" bottle. One of the first carbonated drinks, soda water,
was bottled in this Saratoga bottle style. Soda water had been bottled
as early as the 1790s. Credit: Society for Historical Archaeology.
In celebration here's a fun fact: in the eternal, American, carbonated battle between pop vs. soda, pop is the older word. It was formed as an onomatopoetic of the "popping" sound of the cork released from the bottle in 1812. At that time, soda was an old word for sodium carbonate. It was not applied to carbonated drink until sometime thereafter. Soda-pop was not even used until 1873. I am sorry to East and West Coasters who may not appreciate that the Midwestern 'pop' lexeme is the elder word. Hey, if it's any solace, age is meaningless and there is no "right" or "wrong" speech. Language change is an inevitable process and the most a dictionary can do is describe that change, not prescribe the rules.



Cheers, everyone.

Etyma from...

"pop" in Online Etymological Dictionary. Douglas Harper. www.etymonline.com. 2013

"soda" in Online Etymological Dictionary. Douglas Harper. www.etymonline.com. 2013

Blevins, Basque and Proto-Indo-European

This subject of this post has an update! You can find the update here.

The cemetery of historical linguistics is littered with the graves of famous linguists who buried their careers by making unsupported (or even ridiculous) claims of genetic relationships between languages. Why, just the language behind Linear A is a veritable killing field. So when someone says that they can demonstrate that Basque is related to another language, needless to say my eyebrows rise a little.

It's understandable. People have claimed Basque related to North Caucasian, Etruscan, Minoan, Iberian, Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Afrasian, the list goes on. It's come to my attention that two days ago, Juliette Blevins, who is no academic slouch, made the astonishing claim at the University of Oslo's historical linguistics conference that it is possible to demonstrate that Basque and Proto-Indo-European are distantly related. Very distantly. But close enough that she was able to spot up to two hundred related items with systematic sound correspondences - including a relationship with the Indo-European laryngeals. For non-linguists out there, Proto-Indo-European is believed to have had three different "H" sounds, not one, that were lost in all Indo-European languages except in Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, and Lydian (extinct languages in what is modern-day Turkey).

Her abstract was very vague and looked like any other summary of Joseba Lakarra's work. Since the untimely death of the famous Vasconist R. L. Trask, Lakarra is probably the leading light of historical Basque language studies; summaries of Lakarra's work abound. If I were at the conference I probably would have skipped Blevins' talk, but people who attended inform me that this was no mere summary. Making the claim that it is possible to show that Basque and Proto-Indo-European are related is dangerous ground to tread. Forni recently made the claim in the Journal of Indo-European Studies earlier this year and his work was not well received - including a resounding rejection from Lakarra himself.

I will not pass judgment on Blevins' argument until I read it myself, but am I skeptical? Yes, definitely.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Most Diverse Place on Earth

Hey, everyone. I re-designed the blog... at least temporarily. I hope you like it. The background image is of Japanese fireflies by the wildlife photographer Rei Ohara.

Today I want to talk about the most linguistically diverse area of the globe. There are a few areas where language diversity is especially high. Each candidate region is worth a mention. The Caucasus are home to five major language families and hundreds of languages; even in antiquity, Julius Caesar needed 120 translators to communicate with the local chieftains, and the region was probably more diverse back then. South America's jungles are especially diverse; again hundreds of languages, some spoken by still-uncontacted tribes.

But neither of those areas hold a candle to the most diverse place on earth: New Guinea. Eight hundred languages and most are unrelated. The collection of islands is so diverse that linguists devote a language "family" just to the isolates, the Papuan Family, meaning there are so many languages that are unrelated to any other on earth that linguists defeatedly lump them into one big mystery category.



Above is Southeastern Asia at roughly 40,000 years ago, when the first human mass migrations began. There was not the thousands of islands we have today, but large land bridges broken by canals of water from the Asian continent to Australia. 10,000 years ago the Ice Age ended, the glaciers and ice caps receded, and the oceans rose. The lowlands of Southeastern Asia were swallowed by the waters in Noachian fashion. The peoples of New Guinea were cut off from each other, only visitable by boat. Below is a picture of the negritos, the genetic descendants of the first men and women.


Complicating the matter is the introduction of Austronesians, the boat travelers of Taiwan (pictured below), who colonized New Guinea about 2,000 - 3,000 years ago. They spoke a language called Proto-Oceanic. Some of their descendants would later settle Polynesia, Melanesia, Easter Island, and Hawaii. Proto-Oceanic and its descendant tongues replaced and influenced the surrounding languages so that the study of Papuan languages grows all the trickier.



What this means for language studies is that the first migrants settled the land at 38,000 BCE and were permanently separated from each other at 8,000 BCE. This means that at best, each island's languages broke apart from each other 10,000 years ago. Potentially, there may have been different languages spoken by different tribes at the moment of first settlement, meaning that at worst, the languages are separated by more than 40,000 years. Contrast this to the oldest language family, Proto-Afrasian, which we can date back to roughly ~10,000 years old, and the second oldest, Proto-Indo-European, which is about 7,000 years old. In other words, the Papuan languages are going to stay a mystery.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

tocharian, the most important extinct language family you never heard of

Probably the most forgotten branch of the massive Indo-European family is Tocharian. Unlike Germanic, Indo-Iranian, or Greek branches, you likely have never heard of the Tochars unless you had previously read up on Indo-European studies. It is comprised of three separate languages, which we have conveniently labeled Tocharian A, B, and C.

When the Tochars, and their writings, were discovered in Western China in the 20th century, they overturned much of what we knew about the Indo-Europeans. Here's an example. Before the Tocharian discovery, we noticed that some phonological features can be found in only western or eastern IE languages but not shared between each other. The numeral for 100 in western languages, for instance, had a hard /k/ sound (English had a hard /k/ sound, but it softened to an aspirated /x/ - the "h" sound in hundred) while eastern languages had an /s/ or some variant. We called this particular division the "Centum-Satem Split." Centum is an example from a k-language, Latin (pronounced something like kentum), and Satem is an example from an s-language, Sanskrit. The C-S Split was particularly tricky because we did not know which sound, /k/ or /s/, was the original. 

Enter Tocharian.

Pictured above is a map of Indo-European's subset language families. The red and orange boxes represent satem languages and the blue box represents centum languages. What's Tocharian doing way over there? If Proto-Indo-European split into an east-west dichotomy early on, then did the Tochars make a long migration from Europe to China? 

The answer is simpler. Based on this isogloss and several other isoglosses, it is now hypothesized that the Proto-Indo-European language was spoken by a fairly large nation or nations. The Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, Greek, and Armenian families descend from speakers that were located in the center of these nations while Germanic, Celtic, and Tocharian speakers descend from peripheries - an outer ring of sorts. A /k/ word for 100 was used initially, but a mutation in the sound (/k/ --> /s/) emerged. The trend was catching on enough that interior speakers picked up the habit permanently, but the evolution never caught on in outer-ring languages which had already begun to drift and migrate away.

So now we have our answer (granted, later information may change our opinion, but subsequent data seems to only confirm our hypothesis). The Centum Languages speak with the older word-form while the Satem Languages represent an innovation. We couldn't have known this without the discovery of Tocharian A, B, and C.

As a final goodbye, I will leave you with the trail of 100 from Proto-Indo-European to English. The asterisk indicates that the word was reconstructed and not directly attested in writing. It has no phonetic value.

5000 BCE: *dkmtom (the dkm- cluster is a zero-root, meaning vowel-less, of dekam- "ten")
5000 - 3000 BCE: *kmtom (the d- is snipped off the front in later Proto-Indo-European; the Centum word we just discussed)
2000 BCE: *hundam (Proto-Germanic has softened k to h; the vowel m in PIE becomes an n in the stressed position and a vowel appears before it; o becomes a schwa)
2000 BCE?: *hunda-ratha "120" (Proto-Germanic makes a new word by adding ratha "reckoning" to the end of 100 to fashion a new number)
0 CE: hundrath "100," "120" (Proto-West Germanic has now abbreviated the "hundred-reckon" to a shortened form, but because the individual words are mangled, the original meaning is lost. The influence of Christianity spreads the Latin language, including their counting methods, and it confuses the meaning between 100 and 120 among Germanic tribes)
800 CE: hundred "100" (English has hardened the -th into a solid, tapped -d; -a- has weakened to -e- in an unstressed position)

north asian wanderers

Proto-Indo-European was spoken in mid-east Russia, directly above the Caucuses. Their ancestors were probably the Yamna culture, located further east, closer to Mongolia or south central Russia. Just as I demonstrated in my Urheimat post about Europe is true for Asia: a stretch of terrain from Northeast Asia to Northwest Europe below the permafrost was populated by dozens of language families, if not more. In fact, there is no reason to doubt that the same stretch functioned as a long route of inter-tribal contact and trade.

There are at least three linguistic hints of early trade. The trick, however, is that dating the entry of the words is a tricky ordeal, so the question of "When did Lexeme A enter Language 1?" is frustrating. In most cases, we can say that a word may have entered into a language before a certain date but not after. So we need a disclaimer that these hints may be several thousand years older than each other.

1. Sulfur

The word for sulfur has resisted etymology in a good many language families. Semitic, Germanic, Italic, Slavic (in this case, the Italic, Slavic and Germanic reflexes are remarkably similar but not directly related), Turkic (in Turkish and Mongolian), etc... Further, in many of the languages, the reflex may have cognates in unrelated languages. This is proof positive of language contact, and strong evidence of trade. But what is more exciting is that if both cognates come are loans, then they must have come from a third-party language: an ancient, disappeared language (!) Suddenly historical linguistics tells us things before the first ancient writings and outside the soil of archaeological digs.

2. Cannibas and 3. Hemp

These two examples are fairly convoluted, so I'll try to give a simple explanation. Both words trace back to separate reflexes. hemp < Proto-Germanic *hanipa and cannibas < Proto-Germanic *kanib-. There's an obvious relationship between the two. First, there's a mechanical relationship, as hemp is made from the cannibas plant. Second, the linguistic relationship is tantalizingly close; an /h/ ~ /k/ and /p/ ~ /b/ connection is exceedingly safe to make. However, such a change between the two consonants has no morphological or phonological foundation in German. Because there is no Proto-Indo-European etymology for the word, and because there are cognates in Turkic and other North Eurasian languages, a trade route may be suggested.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Why we need Kusunda.

Wikipedia's Kusunda language page has been recently updated, which is refreshing because last I checked the site still listed the language as part of the Sino-Tibetan family. Kusunda is the language of the Kunsunda people, a sizable Nepalese tribe famous for their experience in the jungle. The name Kusunda is Nepali for "lords of the forest." Though the Kusunda people are doing well, their language is nearly extinct. One speaker lives in Nepal; two other speakers are rumored to have emigrated to India for work but linguists have not been able to track them down. But what's so special about Kusunda is that it is probably the only Paleo-Asiatic language left on earth.

When the Sino-Tibetan languages (Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, etc...) invaded northern India, they displaced and eventually replaced indigenous languages. Because this happened in pre-history, we have no idea how many languages disappeared, but if history is any judge, it was likely dozens or higher. This is parallel to what Indo-European languages did to Europe, the Near East, and western India. Until the 21st century, everyone thought that the original languages of Nepal (and the Tibetan mountains) had vanished forever. Gone the way of the Fir Bolg and the Picts. 

Until several years ago, three Kusunda speakers were discovered in Nepal. This excited local linguists because, according to what people thought, it was a presumed-extinct Sino-Tibetan language that we would get a second chance to study. What we got was so much more. After the first in-depth survey of the language was published in 2005, historical linguists noticed it was not Sino-Tibetan at all! It was a language isolate, unrelated to any other languages on earth. Subsequent analysis revealed its the last link to the world of Central Asia before the pre-modern invasions. 

Kusunda studies have only begun but native Kusunda speakers are very old. When they die, so too will their language go with them. It's a vital connection to a world so long ago and can tell us how the aborigines of Nepal viewed the world, thought about religion and life, and how they mastered the jungles. It also tells us things like ancient trade routes, wars, and cultural stratification. In short, we're missing out on a golden opportunity here. The Kusunda are doing fine in forests of Nepal. The Kusunda do not need us.

We need the Kusunda.

icelandic is magic

Ugh, file this one under "Bad Linguistics." Daniel Tammet, the autistic savant whose astonishing ability to calculate and recall numbers was documented by the film The Boy with the Amazing Brain, has been utterly unimpressive when it comes to language. Despite his claim to have learnt Icelandic in a week, he gave an absolutely underwhelming performance in the documentary. In fact, his level of Icelandic after a week's study was about on par with any normal adult that has gone abroad and hit the books every day for seven days.

I was also less than thrilled to hear the documentary talk up Icelandic as if it is some sort of holy grail of language learning. Oh, please. It's a Germanic tongue that separated from English several thousand years ago. It's closer to Norwegian than to English, but it's fairly close. Not to mention, English-speakers endured several hundred years of Viking invasions - invasions that left a profoundly Old Norse impact upon our speech (Old Norse was the ancestral tongue of Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, etc...).

Well Tammet's come back with another Icelandic screwball. Tammet writes an article on the declination of adjectives in Icelandic that betrays a clear ignorance of grammatical gender. In Icelandic, the first four numbers (when used as adjectives) are declined according to the noun's class. That leaves each Icelandic numeral with three possible forms. This is the product of language evolution from Proto-Germanic; just as Old Norse is the ancestor of Icelandic, Proto-Germanic is the ancestor of Old Norse, and if you think Icelandic's system is tough, take a gander at the declension of number one in Proto-Germanic (make sure you click 'Declension of *ainaz' to unhide it).

Tammet also fails to recognize that we have plenty of numeral alternatives as well. Is a separated group wrest in two or wrest in twain? Did you celebrate the four of July or the fourth? Did the song go "One time, two times, three time's a lady?" The fact that Tammet missed this obvious fact of English has me confused thrice-over.

But all this is fairly moot. The declension of a noun according to its grammatical function is a normal process of agglutinating languages and Icelandic is a moderately agglutinating tongue. This does not arise due to a "special" psychological process, as Tammet suggests, but out of normal language evolution and the maintenance of a case system. A case system is quite normal. English used to have one, and many languages actually embiggen their case systems over time, as in the cases of Polish and Finnish.

The long story made short is that Tammet needs to go back to the books.

Thanks to /r/badlinguistics for pointing this article out.