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Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

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.

Making Love

Friday, December 18th, 2009

I was listening to “Siriusly Sinatra” yesterday when they played Jo Stafford singing Make Love to Me, one of her big hits in the mid-50s. The song struck me as a little raunchy, a sense quite out of place in a song so simple and simplistic.

As I tried to resolve this conflict of impressions, it dawned on me that “make love” means something quite different today than it meant in the mid-50s. Back then this phrase referred only to making out, canoodling, petting, cuddling up with someone you love, just hugging and kissing.

So what happened? Well, the pill happened and the major impediment to “going all the way” melted away. As it did, it pushed the meaning of “make love” all the way to what it implies today.  Very different notions of boy-girl relationships.

In our Good Word series, I like words that tell us things about ourselves and our history. Words that reflect our prejudices, values, and ideas and especially how they change. Since this is a phrase, I decided that the blog is a better place to mention this one.

Language Consolidation

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

A good deal has been written and is being written on the topic of language death. Linguists and anthropologists don’t like the idea though they are hard pressed to present any reasons for their dislike. I suppose it emerges from the dislike of death itself and the implication that a culture is dying if not the peope speaking the language themselves.

Another way of looking at language death, however, is the way the commercial world looks at the death of companies: language consolidation. The native languages around the world are being consolidated, not in the usual sense of that word, but in the financial sense that they are being replaced by larger entities that must grow larger and larger.

In North American, for example, the hundreds of Native American languages are being consolidated into English and Spanish with a bit of French tossed into the mix. In France, the Celtic languages to the south are being replaced by French. The result of language death is the same as consolidation in the world of business where small businesses die out so that large businesses can grow larger.

The great difference between commercial and linguistic consolodation is that in the commercial world, small businesses reappear. Once a corporation reaches a certain size, it loses interest in small niche markets and new, small businesses appear to service them.

The beer industry is a prime example. As the breweries of the last century grew and put smaller breweries out of business, they were forced to produce beers of universal appeal, which is to say bland, inoffensive tasting beers. Drinkers with a taste for beer were ignored because the larger breweries thought them too small a minority to cater to. So, microbreweries began to appear to cater to that minority on a local level.

This does not happen in the linguistic world. Once a language is gone, it is gone forever and no other language will ever arise to take its place. Language consolidation is permanent. This means that the number of languages in the world will continue to dwindle but the number of people speaking the surviving languages will continue to increase. Attempts to preserve the smaller languages, like attempts to preserve small businesses in competition with large corporations, are doomed at the outset to failure.

Polysemy: Adding More Meanings

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa has been thinking long and deep about words this week and the result has been short e-mail essays that raise interesting issues that should be shared. Here is another comment from Chris:

Over the weekend I was in an idle moment pondering two unrelated yet somehow connected things. The first was how different words are adopted in different countries to denote the same thing (e.g. you would say hood and trunk to describe parts of your car, whereas I would call them the bonnet and boot). The second is how sometimes the shortest words have the widest variety of usages.”

The word tap sprang to mind as being a rich example, though I guess you would call it a faucet [up North but spigot down South--RB]. It is marvellous how English has adopted myriad words in order to be able on the one hand to precisely describe exquisite nuances, obfuscate, aggrandise or wax poetic, and on the other to be terse, concise and to the point. Plus, it is impressively economical in being able to reuse words to such an extent.”

The linguistic phenomenon is that the most commonly used words tend to change more slowly than infrequently used words. The most frequently used words tend to be short, like come, have, go, and all have several meanings as well as several irregular forms, e.g. go: go, goes, went, gone. Tap has a pretty straightforward set of forms but a wide range of meanings as a noun and a verb.

English once had a rich set of prefixes and suffixes which helped create new words out of old. Most of those have, for reasons we have yet to fathom, been lost. English is becoming more and more like Chinese, which has not prefixes or suffixes. This means that we simply add new senses to old words, senses that are only discernable in context.

The part of the computer that stores data is simply called memory since we no longer use the location suffix -ery (otherwise it would be a datary or informationery). The electronic connection between two web pages is called a link, even though it bears no resemblance to a chain. Highly complex systems of transistors are called chips because the originally were small.

You would think that we would reach a point of overload when we could barely understand each other because each word has so many meanings. But we seem to do OK because, when a problem emerges, we simply to go another language and copy a word from its lexicon. As I have said many times before in the histories of the Good Words, English is a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas of world languages, hauling in any word it needs, often “borrowing” the same word several times over the course of its development, giving each variant a distinct meaning. 

So maybe the accumulation of meanings on words without prefixes and suffixes to distinguish those meanings, forces us onto the bounding lexical main.

Tera-, Peta-, and Femtoflops

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

My old friend Chris Stewart of South Africa chided me today for sending out anything so outdated as teraflop for a Good Word. Indeed, over the weekends I’m recycling some words from four years back for the benefit of those who have subscribed since then and for myself, who has discovered the joys of weekends off. Over the course of those four years, electronics has grown immensely smaller and faster, so Chris is right in trying to lead me to the future. Here is what Chris said in part (I left out the chiding section):

“Just a few weeks ago I had an e-mail exchange with a friend of mine in the software industry on the subject of Intel’s new generation of processors. These consumer items contain about half a trillion transistors on a single chip. I said soon individuals will be able to purchase portable computers containing teratranny chips (a word I coined to indicate a trillion transistors). I mention it purely as an example of unsurprising synchronicity since terra- as a prefix is clearly becoming more common.”

“Having said all that,” Chris continues, “tera- is already passe whereas peta- is on the rise. Peta- seems to have a peculiar contrived etymology; at least its antonym femto-, which is also on the rise) seems to have more solid origins (being Danish for “fifteen”). Doubtless exa- will soon become commonplace, while atto- / femto- / pico- are already with us, e.g. inkjet printers are described in marketing materials as dispensing picolitre droplets. SI units are a bit weird, therefore interesting.”

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, “IBM’s supercomputer dubbed Blue Gene/P is designed to eventually operate at three petaFLOPS.” The Free Dictionary offers five entries for pemto-, and its definition for pemtovolt is “one quadrillionth of a volt (or one thousandth of a nanosecond)”. I must admit to being surprised that someone deferred to Danish rather than the much heavier authorities of Latin and Greek for this prefix.

I also like Chris’s word teratranny and the implication of petatranny processors in the future. It is gratifying to know that the English language can still keep up with the rapid changes in computer and electronic technology.  The number of transistors possible in a single chip seems to be paced by the number of dollars in the US national debt. Is there a connection?

‘Off of’ or Just ‘Off’

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Brian Thornton wants to know if I can explain the use or misuse of the adverb off: should we use it alone or with the preposition of. Should we say, “The cat jumped off the table” or “off of the table”?

Well, maybe I can at least define the problem. The adverb off is in the process of becoming a preposition. As an adverb, its object requires the preposition of: “The button flew off [of my shirt].” As this word becomes more and more a preposition itself, the additional preposition of becomes redundant: “The button flew [off my shirt]“. (I used square brackets here to set of the prepositional phrases.)

I am speaking only of the adverb off. Like many words in English, this word has several functions. It is also a prefix (an off-white dress), and adjective (the lights are off), and a verbal particle (Lenny took his hat off). It started out as an adverb, though it apparently was never happy in that function and hence is currently changing careers. While it is in the process of change, we should use whichever form those around us are using; both forms are correct.

This historical shift is not unusual. Out is another example of an adverb becoming a preposition. Out, too, is still used mostly with a preposition to mark its objects: “Melvin came out [of the house]“, “Lucinda Head is out [of her mind]“. It has picked up a new meaning, however, “out through”, and in that sense, of cannot be used: “The dog sniffed his food once and flew [out the door]“. Out is lagging materially behind off in its career shift but it seems to have begun the journey.

Many other adverbs are prepositions and conjunctions: after and before may be all three:

     • I’ve never seen him before. (Adverb)
     • I saw him before he grew the beard. (Conjunction)
     • I knew her before the war. (Preposition)

I’m sure you can think of others. Nothing amiss here: multifunctional words that belong to several categories are commonplace in all languages.

Language is not stagnant. It is changing all the time. Language change is not simply the coming and going of words; that is the least interesting change in language. Words are shifting from one category to another, the categories themselves are changing, syntactic structure is changing, juggling words as it goes along. All this is taking place now right under our noses, where tongues and lips are constantly churning out grammar and vocabulary, producing nuances that eventually add up to new dialects and even languages.