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Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

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.

Talking Monetization

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

A Facebook friend, Liza Kendall Christian, wrote Monday to express her curiosity about monetize:

“Bob, Do you knew the origin of the word monetize among all the other fun things you seem to dissect about language. Just a minor curiosity of when and in what venue/sphere it came into existence. Thank you, Bob!”

This word first began to appear in print in the second half of the 19th century in the sense of “to establish as the standard of currency”, a meaning which slowly evolved into “realize as or express in terms of money.”

In 1867 it was used several times in a book by J. A. Ferris called “The financial Economy of the United States”, e.g. “This would monetize gold again.” In 1903 it was being used widely throughout the English-speaking world. The British journal “The Speaker” was even using new words derived from it, e.g. “He demonetised silver in Germany and monetised gold.”

Money, money, money!The word was borrowed from French monétiser, which emerged some time before 1818. The French didn’t inherit it from Latin but created it from Latin moneta “money” plus the Greek suffix -iz-. The British still spell this suffix the French way -ise (monetise) while we long ago changed the spelling to -ize. The US spelling is, however, in the process of being adopted in the UK.

Ye Old Shoppe Shops

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

BK Teo wrote yesterday: “I have come across this word “shoppe” and I undersand it has the same meaning as shop. I would like to suggest that you use the word Shoppe for “What’s the Good Word?” series from alphaDictionary.”

Shoppe is an archaic variant of shop that is no longer in use. The spelling was probably influenced by French but who knows? Shoppe is used to for its sense of things dated, even old-fashioned, and quaint, as in “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe”. This phrase is simply a quaint variant of the modern “The Old Antique Shop”. These are curiosities but there isn’t much more than can be said about them that is interesting.

Why Gender?

Monday, May 10th, 2010

David Kelley of the Bucknell Electrical Engineering Department just dropped a note that I thought worth sharing with the world. Here is what he asked and how I answered.

I enjoyed reading Sam Alcorn’s ‘Ask the Experts‘ profile of you that has just recently appeared on Bucknell’s web site. There is an aspect of language that has puzzled me for 25 years. I have never found a satisfyingly complete answer to my question, so I thought I would ‘ask the expert’.

Does anyone know why (or have a good theory for why) gender developed in most of the world’s (or at least Europe’s) major languages? I know French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, and I know German adds “neuter” to the list. Even more intriguing to me is why English, which is derived from German and has borrowed heavily from French and Latin, has lost the classification of nouns by gender.

David, thank you for your note. I’m happy that you enjoyed Sam’s interview with me; I was pleased with it myself.

We should keep in mind that we are not looking for logical reasons for gender, so the question “why?” begs the question. Gender exists for grammatical reasons alone and our mental grammar has its own rules. Grammar interacts with other mental processes but it should not be confused with them: it is an independent human mental faculty with rules of its own.

That said, gender is actually a category of the lexicon, out mental vocabulary, the dictionary of words we have in our heads. Grammar, the rules for organizing words in sentences, works together with lexicon to bridge our minds and the real world. Their job is to provide a speedy means of the expressing ideas about the real world to others out there. The first step in this process is to categorize everything.

Just as we have semantic (conceptual) categories like animal, vegetable, bodies of water, countries, we have lexical categories that group words so that they may be quickly grasped and understood in speech: gender, number, person. These categories are usually reflected in the dress of words, the suffixes, prefixes, endings, that they bear. Gender is one of those categories, a category with two or three members, usually masculine and feminine, but also neuter in some languages.

Now, remember that the lexical categories have to do with words, not semantic categories. The names “masculine” and “feminine” are therefore misleading for they also refer to the semantic categories of males and females. Masculine and feminine nouns are not limited to males and females. The word for table in Russian, stol, is masculine while la table in French is feminine. As I hope is obvious to all, tables have no semantic gender at all. Moreover, in Russian, the words for “uncle”, “judge”, “daddy”, and all male nicknames are feminine and the word for “girl” in German, Mädchen, is neuter.

Lexical gender, then, is an arbitrary set of classes and all nouns must belong to one of them. There is a tendency to associate semantic categories with lexical categories because of the confusion between the two that led to the names “masculine” and “feminine” for the lexical categories. Still, speakers have to memorize which class a noun belongs to just as they memorize each word’s meaning.

Languages that have gender also have agreement. This means that when a noun is used with an adjective or verb in those languages, that adjective and verb must bear an indicator (suffix or prefix) associated with the class of the noun. This helps the mind of the listener keep up with which adjective and which verb goes with which noun in complex sentences that have multiple adjectives and verbs. This is generally the purpose of lexical categories and, as you can see, it is purely grammatical, not semantic or logical.

The relation is not logical because languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no prefixes or suffixes, no gender, no agreement yet speakers and listeners have no trouble processing these languages. English historically has been moving away from gender-agreement to the Chinese and Vietnamese model. We use only a handful of affixes now and there is evidence that they are losing their grip.

Why? No one knows. Clearly gender and agreement are not required of a functioning language; they just come and go for the arbitrary “reasons” of language alone, reasons linguists have not yet been able to establish.

Getting off the Snide

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Pat Williams Jeffery, Bucknell ’72, just dropped me this note today:

Listening to a sportscast the other day, I heard the announcer talk about someone getting ‘off the snide’. I thought that might be a good word for the day as it has more than one meaning—a snide remark, for example. I am really curious as to the origin of the ‘off the snide’ phrase and thought other readers might like to know, too.”

“Off the snide” is a nonce expression which may have been created by whomever you heard use it. I’m not familiar with it but there are hundreds of such creative configurations floating around out there like the names of such pseudo-diseases, as the hungries, the greasies, the gigglies, the twitchies, and others like do the dirty. Rarely do any stick but some do: on the ball, off the sauce, off his game. This one doesn’t have as much going for it as does, say, off his rocker or off her game, so I don’t give it much chance of survival.

Snide would be a good Good Word but both my two central sources say “Origin unknown” so we won’t find any history of it. It started out as thieves argot in Jolly Old, which pretty much assures that its history is lost forever.

Speeding Language Change

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Not all that long ago I wrote a Good Word, fish, in which I railed against the spelling of the new meaning, fishing for identity information, as phish, with an tastelessly ungrammatical PH instead of F. I predicted that it would go the way of the dinosaurs rather quickly.

In fact, I find myself more and more using the term ‘nonce word’, a word used in a particular time and place that isn’t a word at other times and places. However, the nonce words I write about do not seem to go away but rather spread throughout the English-speaking world. Lexical atrocities like phat, phish, homophobe (for homosexophobe), as well as made-up words like dongle and chad, on top of legitimate words like multitask, boot up, google, logon are crowding our mental lexicons and the general lexicon of the English language.

But why are the bad nonce words like phish surviving? The reason, I am now surmising, is the Internet.

My experience with nonce words comes from pre-Internet times, when words had to pass keenly language-sensitive editors and get into print before being widely accepted. The Internet brought a radical change in the way we build vocabulary. Today, everyone on line is a publisher and everyone is connected to everyone else. New words, whether rightly constructed or not, spread like wildfire, leaving readers with the impression that all new words are legitimate.

Words that are not constructed by the rules of English grammar are added to the English lexicon every day because they are published every day; they are conveyed to millions of readers in an instant. They differ from grammatically constructed words, though, in that they must be wholly memorized without any mnemonics to help them. Were we to call phishing, say, identity theft, as many already do, there is little additional load to memory. The first time a speaker hears phish, however, identity theft must be explained and they are left with the question of why the word is misspelled.

Having to memorize a dozen new words a year creates no problem, but a dozen a week or even a month is problematic. The Internet has produced a prodigious task for our brains, learning the meanings of and memorizing far more words than were demanded of us in the past. Even words we know are not English words are forced upon us willy-nilly and we must memorize them.

So what does this mean to speakers of English? It could lead to a process of dialectalization in which different groups have different vocabularies. Since the sheer number of new words are too great for everyone to remember and the difficulty in learning and remembering them is greater than necessary, we may divide into groups that know differing partial vocabularies. That would be a long way off, however. In the meantime, it simply means that we will have more and more difficulty understanding each other as some of us learn one set of words and others, other sets.

Pitching Black Jets

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Luke-a-lele left the following comment in the Alpha Agora, “…I never really understood the jet in jet black myself. I’ve never seen jet any other way in regards to color. Are there different shades/hues of black? To me black is black, though there are other words used, e.g., ebony.”

At about the same time, Bucknell librarian Bud Hiller dropped me the following note:

Pitch jet black“I was wondering about the phrase ‘pitch black’. In this case, is pitch specific to black as in “black as pitch”, or is it a modifier, as in ‘very black’?” [The question] came up when I was talking to someone in the library about how quiet it was at 7 AM and I described it as “pitch quiet”. Of course, pitch can also be used for sounds, and then we talked about it for half an hour.”

Well, jet is an extremely hard type of coal that can be carved and polished. It was once used for statuettes, buttons, and children’s toys. Pitch is another word tar, a word I heard a lot in my youth referring to substances for filling chinks in roofs or even covering roofs on commercial buildings, a word that I don’t think I’ve ever heard since moving north.

The first interesting question these expressions raise is why do these epithets remain after their critical constituent loses its original meaning? Words in compounds and crystalized phrases like these two generally disappear shortly after either constituent slips out of use. For instance, to and fro has become back and forth since we stopped using fro.

I can’t imagine anyone saying “pitch quiet”, knowing myself what pitch means unless, since the meaning of pitch has been lost in most US dialects, the assumption is that pitch means “very”. Well, it does, sort-of.

The possibility of pitch becoming an adverb meaning “very” arises from the second interesting question expressions like these raise: if jet and pitch are themselves black, why do we need to repeat the concept of blackness? It is like saying “as black as something black”. Prescriptive grammarians have tried for centuries to rid the language of redundancy for logical reasons, but redundancy is the very stuff and grammar that distinguishes it from logic and other mental processes.

Repetition (redundancy) is interpreted by all human languages as emphasis. That is why we say things like “very, very good” and “a red, red rose”, or even “a drinkable wine”, when the only purpose for wine is drinking. “Drinkable” is built into the definition of wine. Jet black and pitch black are another face of emphatic redundancy commonly found in languages.

Languages also love to specify variable qualities like colors, moods, sounds by comparing them with familiar objects in our lives: dirty as a pig, eat like a horse, fly like the wind. The problem with these two expressions is that the objects of comparison are no longer familiar.

Squalid Fish Scales

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Andrea wrote a few days ago in reference to our Good Word squalid the following:

“In response to the squalid Good Word: the minute I read in your text that squalare meant meant ‘to be covered with a rough, scaly layer, be coated with dirt, be filthy,’ I thought of scales and wondered whether the concept “squalid” is related to fish scales. [This] would also make sense because of the identical word for a large fish in Latin squalus and filthy. So not that fish become stinky, but that being covered in scales when you are a fish and to be so dirty that you are scaly (when a person) are similar.”

In fact, I can mentally picture a squalid house falling apart like fish scales fall from a fish, so I am in sympathy with Andrea’s connection. In fact, I tried to suggest that without committing myself to a firm connection since I could find no etymologist who would agree with me.

The problem is that if this were the case (and I believe the similarities too close for it not to be), it was the case before Latin developed from other Italic languages and we have no record of words that are ambiguous between “scaly” and “squalid”. So we have to rest on “in all probability”. That is as far as even I have courage to wander.