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Archive for November, 2006

How Much do Languages Change with Age?

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Well, I’m back from Colorado and the enjoyment of my grandchildren crawling over my spawling body, which makes it down to the floor more easily than it comes back up from it. I arrived to find an e-mail from my good friend and editor of our daily Good Word, Paul Ogden, about Modern Hebrew which raises the point about the boundaries of language.  Paul wrote:

hebrew_language“I had the pleasure of attending two of four lectures by Ghil’ad Zuckermann [who] claims that the language spoken in Israel today should be called Israeli, rather than Modern Hebrew. This is because of a break of some two millennia in which virtually no Jews spoke Hebrew as a mother tongue, leading to a situation where the late 19th century European Jewish revivers of Hebrew could not help but project their Indo-European, and specifically Yiddish, biases into the language. He makes an interesting case, though I’m not convinced.”

My response was I am inclined to agree with Zuckermann although I cannot claim any detailed knowledge of the language(s) involved. I have received a dozen complaints from Iranians arguing that Farsi is, in fact, Modern Persian and should not be called Farsi. Persian has changed so much that even Middle Persian, spoken from the 3rd to 10th century, is generally given a distinctive name: Pahlavi. Well, Italian is just as likely Modern Latin as Farsi is Modern Persian (though in this case Spanish, Portuguese, and French have as strong a claim to that title).

In “A Language is a Dialect with an Army” I wrote about the difficulty of drawing a line between a strong dialect and a different language. This is the same problem that we face in drawing (or not drawing) a line between Old and Modern Hebrew: it is a matter of degree upon which no one agrees. If Modern Hebrew is 51% different from the Hebrew of the Bible, should we give it a different name? 75%, 99%?

No modern speaker of English can understand a word of “Old English” without taking a course in it. We are as likely to understand Dutch as Old English, yet we do not speak “American”, “Australian”, and “British” languages.

The decision to use a different name, however, is never a linguistic one. It is always a political or cultural one. Nations that like to be associated with their past tend to want to symbolize the continuity with a continuous name for the language. Most nations with ancient cultures do. Only when there is a grave conflict such as that between all the various dialects of Latin that developed into languages is the decision clear-cut. Fortunately, it is an issue that the adjectives “old” and “modern” resolve as easily as an entirely new name.

Monday, November 20th, 2006

Back in the spring Paula Gray was taking the Rebel-Yankee test and dropped a few lines about some terms used in Louisiana:

“The word bundlesome is still used in southwest Louisiana. Another word used by the same person is toucheous, meaning sensitive or painful to the touch, as in “That scrape on my arm will be fine, but it is still a bit toucheous today.”

“Also, several years ago, my young son coined the word gription, which is now popular in our family. He was complaining that the soles of his athletic shoes were wearing out. The vinyl or plastic soles had become hard and slick. He described them as “not having enough gription anymore.” I suppose it is a combination of grip and traction.”

Well, gription is a blend or portmanteau of just the two words Paula picked. Portmanteaus are that recent phenomenon of smushing two words together when the meanings of both apply and the result is a reasonably well-sounding word: motel (motor+hotel) and smog (smoke+fog) are the classical examples cited most frequently.

What is not as widely known is that blends are a common form of speech error, when we mentally look up a word for a sentence and find two that fit the context and they are phonetically similar or compatible. One of my students was speaking of the immaturity of her peers at the college and referred to it as “this universery”, a blend of university and nursery. We all got a laugh. If they stick, they are called portmanteaus because two words are packed into one.

Bundlesome and toucheous are more interesting. Bundlesome is a substitute for burdensome and may be a blend of burden and bundlesome. In any event is a correctly formed word in a class with loathsome, frolicsome, troublesome, though the connection between bundle and “heavy” is a bit flimsy.

Toucheous, however, comprises an Anglicized word touch mismatched with a Latin ending remindful of talkative–a mismatch which has survived. It is not from standard French but I wonder if it is from Cajun French? Not speaking that dialect, I cannot say for sure but suspect that it is another mismatch of an English stem with a Latin ending.

More Phish Phat on the Phire

Friday, November 17th, 2006

Cody Brimhal takes exception to my aspersive attitude toward phish and my comment that they are lacking in use or creativity. Cody argues: “The spelling changes in question apply to words with meanings distinct from (albeit derivative of) their common English counterparts. Insofar as they serve to create–rather than confuse–distinctions in meaning, how is this bad?”

The reason that these words stand out is that they violate the rules of English spelling and I am strong advocate of following the rules. I spent the majority of my life searching for those rules and writing them up when I discovered new ones. The rule in English is that F means [f] and we find PH standing for that sound only in words we borrow from Latin and Greek.

I’m not even a prescriptivist who thinks that grammatical rules are hard and fast. I love language change—etymology is based on the conclusion that historical language change is also rule-driven. I think we owe it to each other to be consistent in our creative use of language, so that we don’t lose each other in our conversations. The English spelling system is the worst of the Western European languages (click here if you don’t believe it), misspelling fat and fish makes it even worse.

I love slang. I spent half this year starting my own slang dictionary that allows you to trace slang historically, not to mention my Slang Generation Test that gives you a good idea of where your slang comes from. However, when we encode words in slang (swell, far-out, flaky, awesome) the rule seems to be: don’t mess with the spelling unless you’re making up a new word: dweeb, geezer, hissy, kooky. Just check our daily Good Word to see how much I love writing about these words.

I shudder to think that I may have Bonnie Prince Charles on my side in my effort to keep English honest. He was recently quoted as saying that Americans “. . . invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be . . . . We must act now to ensure that English, and that to my way of thinking means British English, maintains its position as the world language.”

Well, to my mind it has nothing to do with right and wrong or the position of English in the world. My issue with these words is their inconsistency and distance by which they miss wittiness.

How Phat is Phishing these Days?

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

PhishingLast October I wrote up fish as a Good Word, referring to the “silly spelling” of this word as phish around the Web. James Kilpatrick has claimed that it is “phutile to phuss” over this spelling because Google shows 622,000 examples of this “phatuous” spelling.

My first reaction was: “Good grief, has Google now become the authority for acceptable English?” Has that authority become a democratic process, like electing politicians to office? Do we do such a splendid job of electing the right people for the right job that we now want to elect correct spelling and usage?

My second reaction though was, “Big deal. Everything on the Web is so transitory 622,000 hits today mean little if anything.” However, while recent Good Words were swirling through my head, it occurred to me that we already have a word for phishing: pretexting.

According to Kilpatrick, the definition of phish that he found on the Web is: “The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.” My definition of pretexting is: “Obtaining secret or private information by pretending to be someone eligible to see that information; in other words, giving a fictitious identity (pretext) to obtain restrictive information.” The only difference is that the vehicle of the deception is e-mail. What difference does that make?

So Kilpatrick and I agree on the silliness factor in misspelling words like phish. These are attempts at creativity by the utterly uncreative. They should never have arisen in the first place but their continued survival only deepens the embarrassment.

Why is ‘Liberal’ a Four-Letter Word?

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

The recent elections have brought the word liberal again to the fore, along with a plethora of apologies from those “accused” of being a liberal. I am always surprised at Republican campaign ads accusing Democratic opponents of liberalism as though it were communism or socialism.  Why can’t you be “accused” of being conservative?

Elephant and donkeyOf course, no one knows what the word means any more—that mystery no doubt adds to the fear-factor conservatives rely on—and I am not going to offer one here. (You’re welcome.) I am simply going to make a few comments on the usage of the term and explore how it could come to pass in one of the most progressive (a step beyond liberalism) nations on Earth, liberal could come to be a pejorative term.

I can recall the days when Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey interacted creatively with Republicans like Everett Dirksen, Charles Hallek, and others. Dirksen, I recall, voted for the progressive 1964 Civil Rights Legislation and was happy to be called a liberal Republican. Not any more.

Today the Republican Party comprises conservatives and moderates while only the Democrats are divided by the media into conservatives and liberals. You just don’t hear “liberal Republican” after years of media disparagement of the term. It is further interesting to note the host of pejorative epithets added to liberal: “tax-and-spend liberal”, “bleeding-heart liberal”, “liberal do-gooders”, to name three of the most common. Well, you expect this type of ad hominem in politics but where are the conservative equivalents? Where are the not-tax-and-spend conservatives and the cold-hearted conservatives?

The words themselves still seem to express the honest differences between the two very broad trains of thought in US politics: conservatives wish to conserve the status quo and liberal want to liberate society from it, to change things however modestly. Liberalism is the mildest from of left-wing politics, where left-wing refers to the politics of change. Progressives, socialists, communists (who live happily and participate fully in European politics) want far more change far more rapidly.

The imbalance in pejorativity associated with the terms liberal and conservative is very odd in a country known for such rapid and sweeping social changes as have characterized the history of the US, certainly their recent history. Liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson have done no harm to the nation that has been brought to my attention. So there is no logical or linguistic reason for the term liberal to be pejorative in the US but not elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

My point is that hopefully the Democratic win in the interim elections will last long enough to return an emotional balance to the two terms conservative and liberal since we need both to move forward without losing control of our progress. Right now, with both parties fighting for the center, US corporations are making radical, almost daily, changes in our culture and social fabric with very little reserve, constraint or oversight.

Arid Zones, Blends and Pronounceable Acronyms

Friday, November 10th, 2006

Two old and dear cyberfriends, Susan Lister and Pierre Laberge, recently read the Origin of State Names Glossary and were amazed at the definition of Arizona. They had always heard that it was a blend of arid + zona, a cogent though false etymology. I thought my response might be of interest to others.

If anyone ever tells you that a word comes from combining more than one word, by blending words like arid +zona or by using initials, ask for evidence. Combining words is a Madison Avenue way of creating company and product names that began around 1950, maybe in the late 40s. No one created words this way before US advertising came along. I know no words that were created this way before the middle of the last century.

I am making the dates up; they may be a little late but the point is valid: in most languages words are created by derivation rules, adding suffixes, prefixes, or compounding: account: accountant, accountable, accountability, unaccountable, unaccountability, or birdhouse, housebird, etc.

The problem with this method is that English has been losing its affixes for ages has been building its lexicon by borrowing from other languages (especially Greek and Latin) rather than deriving new words from English stems. But now, the English-speaking people are leading the technological revolution afoot in the world (and no longer studying Greek and Latin), so borrowing words has become a problem.

Where can we get new words today? Well, we’ve turned back to English, but now we go outside the derivational rules and create new stems, not derivationally, but by using any means we can think of. Blending words and creating pronounceable acronyms began with commercial terms like motel (motor+hotel) and was picked up by journalists who began adding more like smog (smoke+fog) but within the past 100 years, long after Arizona picked up its name.

Pronounceable acronyms like radar, sonar, and laser soon followed suit from the military-industrial-educational complex. However, posh has been around too long to have emerged as an acronym of “port out starboard home” stamped on steamer tickets in the 19th century, as one urban myth would have it.

So only since the Industrial Revolution have speakers become conscious of needing new terms and only since the Technological Revolution has the need become critical. The rapid advances in science and industry has forced us to become conscious of words themselves, not just the things they refer to. This has resulted in lively discussions of words on the Web and an unrivaled and unconstrained passion to crete new ones.

It is amazing that we have invented ourselves out of our language by creating new things faster than language can name them. And it is fun watching ourselves compensating for this problem but be careful of all the neologisms bombarding us every day; they are coming from uncharted waters. We must also keep in mind that it is a very new phenomenon that did not exist before to the Technological Revolution, so words that emerged before time could not have been created by these new means.



Lexical Memorials to Native Americans Long Past

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

Native AmericansI have just uploaded an etymological glossary of the names of the US states. Take a look at it; it contains quite a few surprises. I found compiling it an adventure for several reasons. First, there are dozens if not hundreds of websites out their with lists of the origins of US state names, most of which are wildly inaccurate. Using authoritative sources, linguistic colleagues from my past life who specialize in North American native languages, provided far more provocative and intriguing etymologies than even those concocted by factually unbridled anonymous concocters of the past.

It was a bit perplexing and saddening, on the other hand, to discover how, as our European ancestors decimated the tribes and nations they found in the New World, they kept reminders of their victims in the names of tens of thousands of boroughs, towns, cities, counties, regions, states, mountains, rivers—the broad context of the rest of their lives and those of their offspring. You would think our predecessors would have wanted to forget that activity and remove any evidence of it that might reach us, their grandchildren. Perhaps it was unavoidable: too many things to name.

I am glad our forefathers did retain the native names of things because of the sheer beauty of words like Minnesota, Kiowa, Arapaho, Mississippi, Tallahassee in comparison with the names we brought with us: New London, North Sedgewick, New Brunswick, Dunkirk, St. Louis, St. George, named for places and people of little or no current relevance to our world.

I find it interesting to know that all those words beginning on miss- refers to something big (in Algonquin), those on minne- to water (from Dakota). When I first moved into my current Pennsylvania farm house, open fields spread beyond my back door. I often tried to imagine what my world would be if Lenape (Delaware) people still trudged occasionally across that property on their way to and from the hunt. I think I would have enjoyed the opportunity to speak with them and learn more of their mellifluous words and the fascinating syntax those words haunted.

Yellow and Blue Dog Democ_ats

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

When President Bush was asked last night how he would deal with the new Democratic Congress, his response was that there would be enough ‘blue dog’ Democrats in it that he would be able to work with it. Blue Dog Democrats?

Blue and Yellow Dog DemocratsWhen I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina in 1959 of the 100 counties in the state, only 2-3 HAD a functioning Republican Party organization. Everyone voted Democrat and the real elections were the primaries. No one ever received a majority in a primary and usually there were two candidates close enough to the winner that either he (white male Protestant) or the runner-up would have to “persuade” the third-place winner to throw his votes behind one of them. Several months after the elections, the third-place winner usually received a Cadillac and other appreciative and appreciated gifts from his “supporters”.

The point is, all candidates were Democrats. The saying down there was, “I’d vote fer a yeller dawg if’n he’s a Democrat!” This led to the appellation of those who would vote for or with Democrats, no matter what the issue, as “Yellow Dog” Democrats.

The Southern Democrats were always social conservatives, i.e. they were strong supporters of segregation. So when the Democratic Party pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they were left out in the cold. Many leaders, like South Carolina Democrat Strom Thurman, converted to the Republican Party to keep his seat in the Senate and he was joined by racists like North Carolina’s Jessie Helms and succeeded in turning the blue South red.

Some Democratic leaders did survive by voting very conservatively. Those who supported Reagan’s tax cuts were called ‘Boll Weevils’ for the damge they did to the Democrat Party. That name was much too pejorative so they looked for another. Since ‘Yellow Dog Democrat’ was much more positive (dogs are assumed to be faithful), they changed their name themselves to ‘Blue Dog Democrats’ and formed an unofficial organization.

Democrats at their best are more remindful of a herd of cats than they are of dogs. But the Blue Dog Democrats are fairly predictable: their positions are much more conservative, closer to those of the Republican Party than traditional liberal Democratic positions. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be in the new Congress and how they will blend in with the other ilks and breeds and hues.

Radio TV School

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

A comment on Hardball, Chris Matthews’ show on MSNBC, last night struck a chord with me that I think I can connect to a comment I received in my e-mail yesterday. Someone raised a question that has long needed investigation: How much do Americans learn from school as opposed to how much they learn from radio and TV?

This is a crucial question since it bears on the issue of the importance of school, raised by the spread of online educational schools and universities. Assuming we can agree that traditional educational institutions are worth their growing cost, the answer to this question bears on the sempiternal question of what should we be teaching in them (no point in teaching what they are learning on TV) and how should be teaching it (in-class sitcoms? thrice-a-week soap operas?)

A writer that prefers to be unidentified wrote yesterday, “One word whose definition seems to be eroding (or broadening), is notoriety. Lately, I have heard it misused all over television and occasionally even in print. The misuse, of course, is attributing to the word it’s opposite meaning, ‘of note’, in a positive way, rather than its true negative slant, i.e., notorious. Must I swallow my disgust at this misuse as I hear it becoming an absurdly common substitution, or can we still scoff at people who consider the word ‘of note’ rather than ‘notorious’?”

The fact of the matter is, radio and TV have so ingrained themselves in our lives, once a misusage like this spreads through the media, there is little educators or anyone else can do about it. Language does change and we should be flexible enough to adapt to new usages. Still, I have written recently about other words, like reticent, a word that has lost the subtlety of its original meaning in news reporting. I could name a dozen more. In every case, words denoting subtle differences that lent depth to our conversations are being flattened out so as to become synonyms of words with broader meanings that we already have. Just as TV and radio flatten the news and most forms of entertainment into two dimensions, so it is flattening our language.

On a broader scale, we really need to know how much our children learn about politics from courses in political science and how much from campaign ads on TV. How much do they learn about the legal system from courses and how much from “Law and Order” or Rambo movies? My suspicion—maybe I should say ‘fear’—is that just as TV has converted the news, sports (football players who have to dance for the cameras), and religion into entertainment, it is now converting education into entertainment as well.

The Origin of the Names of the US States

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

US FlagWell, after researching them for a month, I finally uploaded a first pass at an authoritative etymological glossary of the names of the US States. I call it a first pass because I am still finding books on the subject and former colleagues who specialize in the languages involved. However, I found some rather surprising sources for the first pass that are at odds with the informationi floating around the web in such resources as Answers.com, Infoplease, and Wikipedia.

The subject came up when someone within earshot expounded on knowing the meaning of the word Mississippi “The Father of Waters”. Could be but the meaning somehow struck me as odd. So, I googled “origin state names” and came up with a formidable list of lists containing the definitions or other origins of all the states in the US. I was horrified at the mistakes I could spot even though I am not a specialist in native languages. The most appalling aspect of these lists (there must be at least 50 out there) is that they are all practically identical! The ease brought by the Web to plagiarism had taken its toll.

My introduction of the list includes this: “The names of the places where we live reveal that, as the Europeans took over the lands of the native populations living in North America, they retained much of their beauty, beauty from their languages, many now long dead. Read below to see how the names of our states are memorials to lost native populations and a few European monarchs who “granted” Native American lands to European settlers.”

I have always cringed at the fact that, although I never see a native American, I bath every day in their languages. We must have absorbed every word in every native language into the nomenclature of this country. Since a major intent of our daily Good Word is to use words to pry into our history, loosen bits that enhance our understanding of ourselves, I thought that understanding how lexically dependent we are on native American words would contribute to that intent.

There are many interesting discoveries: the name Idaho seems to have been a nonsense word, Oklahoma means “red man” (can’t rid that state of all traces of its original owners), and Massachusetts, which everyone seems to think means “(people of) the big hill” more probably means “arrowhead hill”, according to the head linguists of the Smithsonian, a specialist in the now extinct Massachuset language. Anyway, take a look and let me know what you think.