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Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

Aren’t you Mispronouncing “Aren’t”?

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Here is a mystery. I received a message from Stefani O’daniel today that contained this complaint:

“Please tell me if I am right or wrong. I hate didn’t pronounced [diddent], not [didnt], wouldn’t pronounced [wooddent] not [woodnt], and couldn’t pronounced [kooddent] not [koodnt]. Which is right?”

“I’ve heard these words pronounced this way for the past 30 years now and iits irritating. I was told the words are pronounced this way because that is the correct pronunciation.”

I became aware of my students using these pronunciations in the 80s. Where it came from, I cannot say but I’m very suspicious of California, Valley Speak, so to speak.

N in the English language now can be pronounced as a vowel when occurring between consonants. The schwa (UH or on this website [ê]) has disappeared from the language before N between consonants. The tongue does not move between the D and the N in these words.

The T [t] is disappearing, too, in rapid speech. So the pronunciation of these words are reduced in fast speech to didn, wouldn, couldn. Now, we approaching the point where there is very little to distinguish did from didn’t, etc.

I suspect the pronunciation that so irritates you is spreading because it more clearly distinguishes the negative forms of these words from the positive. Also, it is possible that some young speakers of English don’t realize that these words are contractions involvingi not.

There is no right or wrong about this; it is normal cross-generational language change. It annoys me, too, but even more annoying is the misspelling it encourages: didn’t spelled diddent occurs 150,000 times on the Web.

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

To trip the light fantastic is a playful expression of “to dance”. It originates in several other idiomatic expressions referring to dancing in our not too distant past. A passage in Milton’s poem L’Allegro (1632) goes like this:

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastick toe.”

Milton was, indeed, describing the highly nimble (fantastick) footwork of a jig or some other fast dance. For years after Milton the expression “the light fantastic toe” appeared frequently in literature.

Milton’s concept was apparently an extension of the phrase “tripping it on the toe”, an expression referring to dancing used as far back as Shakespeare himself. In Act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Ariel says:

“Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow [moue].
Do you love me, master? No?

As the years ground by, “toe” was lost and the phrase was smoothed down to “tripping the light fantastic”.

God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Bud Sherman raised an interesting question today, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that deserves thought and research.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, there was a conditional phrase, ‘if the creeks don’t rise.’ I always assumed it was about flood waters. An on-line friend in the South said that it had to do with the Creek Indians.”

This phrase is the first part of the caveat, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”, the title of Spike Lee’s documentary on the results of Hurricane Katrina. Down South in North Carolina, where I grew up, I always heard, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” or “God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise.”

What is suggestive is that the phrase is wide-spread throughout the South, where the Creeks (actually Muskogees) lived and often came in conflict with Southerners. The Spanish tried to enslave them but the English set up trading posts to trade with them. Since the Creeks often had nothing to trade, periodically they would raid trading posts, resulting in conflicts. There was also the occasional out-and-out war.

Another bit of evidence is that I am very uncomfortable saying “if the creek doesn’t rise”. Everyone says, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” I am just as uncomfortable with your version, “the creeks don’t rise.” The interesting thing about this fact is that, while substituting don’t for doesn’t is not uncommon in many English dialects, Indian names were generally treated like the null-plural animals: deer : deer, fish : fish, Creek : Creek. Settlers all over the US at the time spoke of one Creek and many Creek.

Finally, a flooding creek doesn’t present any danger. What don’t we say, “God willing and the river don’t rise”?

Now Susanne Williams has brought Benjamin Hawkins to my attention. Apparently, he had good reason to refer to the Creeks and may have even written the phrase with Creek capitalized. If this is so, we need only track down the letter in which Hawkins used this phrase for the first time, and we will have settled the issue.

Who is Stealing ‘Kumbaya’?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

kum-bah-yah • Hear it!

Meaning: 1. “Come by here” in the Negro spiritual “Kum Ba Yah, my Lord”. 2. Human spiritual unity, often used sarcastically.

Notes: We have finally solved the mystery of where this word comes from (click here). We are still struggling as to how to use it. It is associated with singing around a campfire while holding hands as a symbol of spiritual (or pious) unity. But now that meaning is widely used sarcastically by cynics who think human unity a pipe dream while the answer to our problems lies in meanness and anger.

In Play: Although kumbaya has been contaminated by the Washington press, we do not have to yield the meaning of this word to the cynics just yet: “We were lucky that all our good intentions led to a kumbaya spirit that helped us quickly settle the church’s business.” By the same token, we cannot ignore the current (mis)usage: “If the town council thinks there is some kumbaya solution of the downtown parking problem that will please everyone, they are naive, indeed.”

Word History: “Kumbaya, my Lord” was first recored in 1927. The song was sung in Gullah on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the creole language featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of “Song of the South.” American missionaries took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the early 1960s the song was rediscovered and made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was quickly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and other liberal causes, which invited sarcastic use by conservatives.

Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, Alumnae

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Probably half the words in English were borrowed from Latin or its descendants, French, Italian, and Spanish. Today English is hardly recognizable for the Germanic language it is, cousin to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

Originally, the plural forms of Latin nouns were borrowed along with the singular forms, so that the plural of abacus was abaci, of cactus, cacti. As time passed, however, that has changed in bewildering ways.

Abacuses and cactuses have all but totally replaced cacti and abaci, and foci is used as a plural of focus only in academic institutions. All dictionaries now list the plurals of callus and sinus as calluses and sinuses as the only options.

On the other side of the coin, most speakers don’t even know that agenda and media are, in historical fact, the plurals of agendum and medium. (Radio is one medium.) More and more I hear “a phenomena” presumably spoken by people who don’t know that the singular is phenomenon.

Gigi Marino, Editor of the Bucknell Magazine tells me she is weary of reading “I am an alumni” in letters to her office. The plural of the Latin word for “pupil”, alumnus, has not changed and is not even in the process of changing. The plural of this word is not optional but only alumni. It is the plural, not the singular. “I am an alumnus,” is the only way to express the singular sense of this word.

I suspect the reason for the plural of this word taking over the singular is the awkwardness of the expected change, alumni > alumnuses. No matter, the only plural for this word is alumni.

One final note. Not only did English borrow the Latin word for “pupil” as its word for “alumnus”, it borrowed the feminine forms: alumna and plural alumnae, pronounced [ahlumnee] to refer to female alums. Again, alumnae is the only plural form of alumna.

So, what if we are talking about several graduates, some men, some women? The general rule in Latin and all related languages is that in the general form covering both genders is the masculine. So alumni may refer to several male graduates or a mixture of male and female graduates. Also, if you are not sure whether the alum is male or female, alumnus is the general term to use. (This a grammatical rule that has nothing to do with sexism, by the way.)

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

Yours Truly on CNN

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Beard on CNNCNN.com is carrying an op ed piece by me on the way words went in 2010. Click here to read about the new words and new usages that appeared over the course of the year. Tea Party strikes me as the most abused phrase of the year for reasons I lay out in the piece.

The Remnants of Rome and Latin

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I am joyfully returned from ten warm and sunny days in the south of Europe: Barcelona (festival of La Mercé), Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, the restaurants of Mougins, the wines of Verrazzano, Orvieto, Cinque Terre, and Sorrento. It was a pleasure to roam the architectural remnants of the Roman empire while imbibing the remnants of the Latin language: Spanish, French, and Italian.

Clichés may be redundant but they are not false. When I heard in high school that the study of Latin would help me not only learn the languages of Europe more efficiently but bring me greater insight into English, I quickly signed up for Latin while my friends flooded French and Spanish. The cliché is true. While I stumble around in the spoken form of these languages (my degree is in Slavic linguistics), I can read them all quite well and enjoy hearing their different melodies whether I follow them or not.

The ancient Greeks were boxed in by the Turks and Romans, so their language developed along a single line; Modern Greek is to ancient Greek as Italian is to Latin. While the Roman empire contracted, the Romans were never driven back to Rome, so Latin continued to develop in many directions under the influence of the aboriginal languages that were spoken prior to the “arrival” of the Romans.

Today, the Latin of Gaul is French, of Iberia is Portuguese and Spanish, and the Latin that stayed home is Italian. Romanian is a remnant of Latin spoken by the originally Slavic peoples of Transylvania and thereabouts. Each of these languages share many roots in common, even suffixes and prefixes. But they are distinguished by their music: their accents and accentuation, intonations, pronunciations. They form a theater of modern Latinate speech and passing through them, curtain after curtain, while enjoying the autumn landscapes, local wines, and cuisine of the regions was the kind of music a linguist most enjoys.

However, I am back and hopefully the Language Blog will benefit from the tidbits I picked up along my journey.

From Dime Stores to Dollar Stores

Friday, September 17th, 2010

S. H. Kress logoLon Jones just reminded us of one more Southernism not included in our Glossary of Quaint Southernisms: tin sin stow, i.e. a ten-cents store, also called five-and-dimes in their day. In my town of birth and up-bringing, Fayetteville, NC, we had our choice of Kress’sMcCrory’s, or Woolworth’s. Other cities had their Kresge’s, Ben Franklin, Murphy’s, Neisner’s and, no doubt, others. If you are older than 50, you probably had your own favorite.

Lon admitted that both terms are “rather dated” and he is right. This compound word does date Lon for the correlates of the ten-cents stores of the 30s-50s today are the dollar stores, whose name perfectly reflects the 1000% inflation rate since the heyday of the five-and-dimes.

The five-and-dimes kept their prices low by hiring drop-outs and recent high school grads to man (or girl) the counters. When I was in high school, my friends and I quickly learned that the sales personnel in these stores could be rather naive. To identify the naive ones and for a few chuckles, we would go in after school and ask for such mythical items as a No. 3 sky-hook or a 36″ shelf stretcher just to see their reactions.

Some would tell us that these items were out of stock, on order or not. Better yet, some would tell us they weren’t sure about these items and ask that we wait while they checked with the manager.

Well, the manager was brought into these snicker-filled situations one time too many and my friends and I eventually found ourselves on the Kress’s persona non grata list. You might find it odd that a dime-store would have such a list but I’m here to tell you that it was an effective one. My friends and I soon found ourselves escorted out of the store as soon as we set foot through its portals.

Maybe that’s why these stores went out of business: we often dropped in for legitimate purchases of non-mythical items.