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Archive for the 'Language & Culture' Category

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.

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.

A Jolt in the Slow Lane

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

The folks in the slow lane opened their Sunbury Daily Item to a shocking headline last Thursday. (I had planned to write this Thursday afternoon, but then this is what happens in the slow lane.) The huge headline glaring at us from the top of the Sunbury Daily Item last Thursday read:

Bus leaves girl at wrong stop

I don’t think anything this drastic had ever hit the valley before.

Of course, had this been the fast lane, the girl, who was only seven at the time (she is probably around nine now), might have been in grave danger from a fast-lane predator. Here, however, where things are warmer and fuzzier, the girl was picked up by her friend’s father who took them both to a cafe and bought them a lemonade before taking the girl (whose name is withheld for obvious reasons) home.

Anyway, the community was hard hit by the news and I’m only getting back into my old groove myself, still a bit unnerved by the horror those headlines were fraught with. The little girl, whose pouting photo appeared under the headline on page one, has vowed never to ride a bus again. Could anyone blame her?

NPR Interview: Sarah Palin’s Language

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Here is the complete (edited) transcript of my interview with Linton Weeks, national correspondent of NPR news, cited in his article, “It No Longer Takes @#$%& To Use ‘Foul’ Language”, that you may now read by clicking here.

(Weeks) I am thinking about trying to write something this morning about Sarah Palin’s use of the word “cojones” yesterday when talking about President Obama and the immigration issue. On Fox News she said that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer “has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans, not just Arizonans, but all Americans, in this desire of ours to secure our borders and allow legal immigration to help build this country, as was the purpose of immigration laws.”

(Weeks) That coarse language spoken by coarse people has entered popular American parlance is an old story. But coarse language spoken by proper, line-toeing people may be a new thing. Sarah Palin may be known for many attributes, but a foul mouth is not one of them.

Dr. Beard hiding under his new hat.(Beard) Clearly, in using this word she is appealing to the literate rednecks in the ultra-rightwing base. She is using an off-color euphemism for a vulgar word that would not be readily accessible to Tea Partiers, but you are right in suggesting this word may be spreading in the general population. On the other hand, she may be extending a tentacle to the Spanish-speaking population, which would be rather apropos for the subject she was speaking on.

(Weeks) Are we living in a new era when the idea of coarse language no longer exists?

(Beard) The 60s changed the attitude of many middle-of-the-roaders when the left-wing of political thinking in this country began insisting that unless freedom of speech is absolute, it is of no value. Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, the YIP and even, to some degree, the leadership of the SDS of the time made a point of using profanity as a test of the First Amendment. This loosened constraints in some registers of speech and some places (HBO, movies in general, porn sites on the Web, etc.) and that loosening is growing every day. While profanity is becoming acceptable in the speech of others, most English speakers still avoid it and I hear it mostly from people or characters who have rejected mainstream society. In principle, this represents no change except that today that body of people is much larger and forms its own society.

(Weeks) When a formerly taboo word is used by respectable people, is that when it enters the general lexicon?

(Beard) Using the formula “mainstream society” = “respectable people”, yes, that is true. That is the purpose of euphemisms like ‘cojones’, ‘screw’, ‘dump’, ‘pee’, ‘poop’. We even have a children’s book now called “Everybody Poops”, for which the film rights have been acquired. How mainstream can a word get?

(Weeks) Can you think of a few formerly edgy words that are now firmly in the mainstream?

(Beard) Actually, yes. When I was growing up ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were as taboo are their off-color synonyms. One way to get around taboohood is to use a scientific term; science is good, right? We see this pushing of the envelope in TV ads, too: ads for “erectile dysfunction”, tampons, mini- and maxipads, medicines for vaginal conditions—even condoms for a while, were all prohibited when I was growing up in North Carolina. All of these ads imply things expressed by profanity in the general language yet, while the words are taboo, the subject matter is watched by “respectiable people”.

(Beard) I know respectable people (including my grandchildren) who use the medical terms as well as the “kiddy terms” (poop, tinkle). So we are inundated by the concepts in very respectable radio, newspaper, and TV ads, the words themselves occur in very respectable motion pictures about people on the other side of the respectability divide and, in fact, are used by our friends and acquaintances who occasionally step just just over that divide, today a rather wide gray area.

(Weeks) Does it help that Palin said that Brewer, a woman, has cojones? Does that lift the word out from the literal realm and place it in the metaphorical?

(Beard) Not usually. When we use the F-word metaphorically, it has the same effect as when we use it literally. People who would not talk about f…ing in the literal sense, also avoid that word in the metaphorical sense, e.g. Woody Allen’s famous line in (I think) “Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Sex.” In that film he claimed to be doing the same thing to a girl that the president was doing to the country, avoiding the F-word equally in either sense. Given all the other sources (mentioned above) for these words, I would expect Palin’s use of them to whiz past most ears unnoticed. Here is the reasoning:

  • If the concepts are not taboo (TV ads, medical terms, kiddie terms),
  • And the words themselves occur all around us, and in any realistic movie or TV show about those beyond the respectability divide,
  • What could be wrong with the taboo words themselves, let alone the euphemisms like ‘cojones’?

(Beard) We are living in an era of tremendous upheaval, change on a scale and at a speed never experienced before. Everyone can now publish his or her ideas as fast as they can type them out and click “publish”. What is amazing to me is that there is anyone left who considers profanity profane at all.

(Beard) Here is why I think the attitudes of folks like you and me persist. Words, as we all know, are associations of (linguistic) sound with meanings. However, the concepts (meanings) of vulgar words are not taboo, as the TV ads and medical terms I mention above point out. It is the sounds of these words alone that is profane or off-color. That is why they are taboo in either their literal or figurative senses.

(Beard) It is the sound itself of these words that connect them directly to our sense of shame, our moral sense, our sense of right and wrong. So all we have to do is substitute a different sound (cojones, screw, crap) and, in most cases, we distance ourselves enough from our sense of shame to get by. Those who use the originals have to lose or ignore that sense of shame—assuming they were raised to have one.

(Weeks) Thank you so much.

Buckets about Buckets

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Buckets of bucketsMy wife and I just drove past a house in our newest McMansion development and my wife noticed a tree with buckets hanging from its limbs. She asked my opinion as to why someone would want hang buckets from a tree. I didn’t know for sure but immediately set my imagination to the task of resolving the issue with relish on gusto.

  • To symbolize how much money they have?
  • To symbolize how much money the property cost them?
  • In hopes someone would help pay the maintenance costs on the house?
  • Too much chlorine in their tap water?
  • They prefer acid to fluoride in their water?

My immediate association was with the phrase “buckets of money”. As I sat there waiting for her to stop laughing, I wondered why we keep saying “buckets of money” at a time when a bucket of money wouldn’t cover a car payment.

But that led to thinking about bucket in general. I floats almost effortlessly though the catalog of English idioms. “To kick the bucket” led to the “bucket list”, which I’ve heard two people use recently. This is after the Morgan Freeman-Jack Nicholson movie of the same name about two men working their way through a list of things they wish to do before they kick the bucket (die).

That led to sweet remembrances of the British comedy series “Keeping Up Appearances” with Patricia Routledge playing Hyacinth Bucket, who insisted her name be pronounced “bouquet”.

Of course, buckets is a fairly common synonym for lots: buckets of love, buckets of money, buckets of whatever we have lots of. It is a common word that does a yeoman’s work for English and makes us laugh doing it.

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.

Shmon: Eight and Body Search

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

An old acquaintance, Daniel Razumov, sent me an interesting Russian word with an unexpected story. Here is the story he tells:

“I have very nice example of Russian word “shmon” (шмон)  ‘body search’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word “shmone” ( שמונה )  ‘eight’.  My friends and I thought the similarity odd but coincidental.”

“Then we discovered that in the Soviet GuLags there was a body search at eight ‘clock each morning, and since many Jewish people were serving time in those prisons due to their ‘wrong’ political perspective in those days, the Hebrew word ‘eight’ was transferred from Yiddish or Hebrew to Russian slang as a body search.”

The semantic drift of words can be absolutely fascinating but also tell us so much about our history, where we are coming from and where we are going.

Back to Back-to-Back

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Actually, I’m not coming back to this funny little idiom, I just thought the title was catchy and, if you are reading this, it would seem to have worked.

Of course, idioms like “back to back” cannot be analyzed but must be taken at face value (so to speak). However, I did try to imagine how eight episodes of “Murder She Wrote” could be shown “back to back” as was announced sometimes in the not too awfully distant past on some television channel I occasionally peruse.

As I visualized these episodes, the first would have to be played forward, the second backward for them to be shown back-to-back. This means that episode two and three would be shown face to face–if anyone was still watching after number two was shown backward. Episodes three and four could then be shown back to back again.

Of course, I should be writing this idiom with hyphens, “back-to-back”, as do the dictionaries. “Back to back” without hyphens would mean literally “back to back”, as to stand back to back before stepping off ten paces in a duel.

We could avoid all this confusion with another phrase, face to back, but no one seems to be using this expression. We need it. That is the way bands march and people sit in auditoriums. Why isn’t it around? Let’s start using it. That’ll teach them.


Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Chris Stewart, a long-time e-friend from South Africa just pointed out that we have a new element that craves naming:

“See this New York Times article…. I propose to call this new element Superunobtanium, a name that speaks for itself and which I believe to be quite apposite considering only 6 atoms of the stuff have ever existed on this planet. However, there seems to be a committee of fuddy-duddies tasked with naming these things in commemoration of people who had nothing to do with their discovery and I imagine they would frown on such an eminently sensible appellation.”

Unobtanium, of course, is a fictitious element used by physicists and engineers in thought experiments pertaining to devices that cannot be produced because the material they require is “unobtainable”. It is also behind all the squabbles in the 3-D semi-cartoon movie Avatar. It has the unusual superproperty of having exactly the properties required by the use to which it is put.

Chris is one of those techies who would be in constant need of both these elements. I am one of those non-techies who can only pull my jaw back up and wonder at the discussion. I would much rather discuss the far more critical issue of whether unobtanium should be spelled with an I or not: unobtanium or unobtainium? I think the former looks much more impressive. The Grand Panjandrum of Fuddy-Duddidom has spoken.