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Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

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 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.

Like, Where did this ‘Like’ Come from?

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Hoot Gibson sent me a single sentence today: “Can you tell me anything about the use of the phrase ‘like I say'”? Well, as you must know by now, I always have a few words about almost anything we say.

As for the interjective phrase, “like I say”, it was originally an emphatic marker placed before the word or phrase the speaker wished to emphasize:

Like I say, MY mother would never do that. (Who knows about yours?)
My, like I say, MOTHER would never do that. (Now, father might.)
My mother would, like I say, NEVER do that. (Not even once on a bet.)
My mother would never do, like I say, THAT. (Nor anything similar.)

Today this phrase has been reduced to simply “like” in the speech of current youth and some of their elders.

Like, MY mother would never do that.
My, like, MOTHER would never do that.
My mother would, like, NEVER do that.
My mother would never do, like, THAT.

I think most adults today have replaced this phrase with “as I say”. It is an emphatic marker that is also placed before anything you would like to emphasize:

As I say, MY mother would never do that.
My, as I say, MOTHER would never do that.
My mother would, as I say, NEVER do that.
My mother would never do, as I say, THAT.

I wonder if Hoot is related to the legendary cowboy movie star that my father thought the world of?

Get Used to ‘Usta’

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Last week Stanley John shared his pet linguistic peeve with me: the use of used to for the past imperfective repetitive. The imperfective aspect of verbs is a form of the verb that indicates either (a) continuing action (I was walking) or (b) repetitive action (I walked several times). The problem in English is that I walked is also the simple past, so English has no way of distinguishing walking once and walking multiple times in the past, present, or future tenses.

That is why, although we still spell it used to, we in fact pronounce this expression [usta] and it behaves like an auxiliary verb in a class with have, will, can. These are not regular verbs but “function words” that indicate various functions of the main verb. In Turkish and other languages their meaning is carried by suffixes: perfective aspect, future tense, etc. Usta has become the marker for the perfective repetitive (“iterative” in linguistic terms) aspect, a function which distinguishes action on the basis of whether it is completed or not.

Languages change for reasons that are not all clear. Markers of grammatical functions come and go. English among all other Indo-European languages has lost the distinction between singular and plural 2nd person pronouns; you is both singular and plural, polite and familiar. But we need that distinction so, as I’ve pointed out many times before, the phrase “you all” has been reduced to a plural pronoun, yall, all across the United States.

The same process accounts for usta: “I usta walk” makes it clear that the activity was habitual, repetitive, that it occurred more than once. With this auxiliary verb we can now distinguish between “I usta walk to work” without adding “every day” from “I walked to work” when we only mean “just this one time today”.

We might as well get used to (unreduced) it: when this kind of change sets into the vocabularies of millions of speakers, there is no turning back.

Ploughing Through Draughts

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Or is it “Plowing Thru Drafts?” Donald Shark was curious about the spelling of a Good Word we ran last year. Here is what he wrote:

“In my submission of the word fraught [for consideration as a Good Word] I neglected to ask the burning question, “Why doesn’t fraught rhyme with draught?”

I’m tempted to leave it at: “Because they are in the English language.” In defense of such a response I refer you to “The Chaos”.

The general rule you hear in grammar classes is that GH is not pronounced at the end of words or before T. That works on many words like these:

high height
nigh night
thigh fought
though thought
plough fraught

But this rule works much better on words that end on T than on words that end on the bare digraph GH:

laugh draught
cough ?
trough ?
rough ?
enough ?

The digraph GH in English was originally a sound like the CH in Scots English and German, like a K but without completely closing the throat. Germanic languages like English inherited it from the Proto-Indo-European [k] sound. It generally became H in Middle English and dropped out at the beginning of words, except, in some dialects which retained it. Elsewhere in the word it either disappeared or converted to [f] for unknown reasons.

In many dialects it dropped out everywhere, which is why we hear H-less words in Cockney English: “‘ow ’bout ‘elpin ‘im ‘op over dat ‘ole.” the H’s equivocation has led to the “a historical” versus “an historical” squabble, too.  Historical may be pronounced with or without the initial [h], depending on your dialect, resulting in the confusion over the choice of an or a as an article.

When an aspect of a language is undergoing change, particularly if it is disappearing, speakers lose control of the rule(s) governing it and what might be called “semi-rules” arise, rule like the one we see in the tables above, rules that “sorta” work. Speakers in the US have little patience with them, which is why they lead the way in changing spelling to fit the sound: draft, plow, and even (ugh!) thru.

Unfortunately, writing systems slow down the process of language change. We store visions of printed words in a separate chamber of our brain. These visions of spelling are as real as the words themselves (always spoken beings). Our British cousins are much more tolerant of these traditional spellings than are the pioneers who parted company with them two centuries ago.

Noise about ‘Noisome’

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Rob Nollan wrote today:

“First, let me tell you that I love your Dr. Goodword’s daily e-mail. Even when I’m too busy to read it, if I click on the mail and begin reading, I get sucked in and can’t escape. Your writing and wit make lexical discovery so much fun!”

“So…you state that noisome should not be confused with noise. But it isn’t too much of a stretch to recognize that noise comes from the Latin nausea which has nothing to do with sound, either.”

“Tracking the actual origin of words through historical usage is beyond my ability, but it seems to me that noise and noisome share identical meanings, other than the fact that one usually refers to sound and the other is an adjective.”

“Therefore, my question is this: how do you trace these words to know that noise and noisome really aren’t related? Just curious. Thanks for the great work!”

Here is, in a nutshell, how we do it. We follow the spelling of the word in historical documents as far as they go. Some languages have been preserved in many documents over long periods of time, some in few over only short periods, and yet others, in none. So that process is often limited.

Greek survives today, as does Latin (in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian). The same is true of the languages that developed from Sanskrit (Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc.) So, it is fairly easy to trace words back to these languages.

Doing that, we find that noisome unquestionably goes back to ‘in odium’ in Latin. Noise may come from nausea. Nausea is a Latin word based on the Greek word naus “ship” that we see in nautical and navigate. However, it may just as well originate in noxia “harm, damage”; we just aren’t sure. Either way, noise and noisome are probably two different words that are coincidentally  spelled similarly today.

Why aren’t we sure of the origin of noise? Even if there are written documents available, when talking about a span of 2000 years, there will be gaps of hundreds of years in which no written evidence has survived but the spoken language continued to change.

For those gaps etymologists apply rules learned from examining thousands of similar words without gaps over the same time period. That usually works, but not always. What we can’t predict are changes caused by the influence of other languages, people playing with their language, confusion of one word with another, and similar accidental phenomena.

It is fun, as you have discovered, but it is also revealing. I devote so much space in the daily Good Words to their histories  because words express us as surely as we express them. They express our ideas and attitudes. Their histories often provide insights into our cultures and especially the changes in our attitudes and thought over the centuries.