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Archive for October, 2007

The Chronos-Cronos Problem

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Virginia Becar sent us a note on our workup of anachronism, asking why “the Greek Titan, Kronos, was not mentioned as a source” even though she does “not know where the Ancient Greeks got that name for him.” We partcularly appreciated her continuing, “For that level I rely on my favorite words site—You!”

Well, we can help in this case for in an earlier, longer version of the Good Word article on anachronism we had a note to the effect that the titan Cronos (Greek Κρονος) should not be confused with Chronos (Greek Χρονος), a confusion that began with the Romans and continues in 90% of the Greek mythology websites today.

Cronos, as best I can learn, was the son of Uranus and Gaia and the youngest of the twelve Titans who produced Zeus and most of the other gods. Chronos was the personification of Time who existed before all the gods. Chronos later became identified as “Grandfather Time” since he was usually depicted in Greek art as an old man with a beard.

However, Chronos and Cronos were not the same originally. Chronos does not seem to have been a god or titan, just the Greek word for “time” used as though it were a name of a being. Chronos seems to have been a prior universal state that emerged from Chaos (Χαος), the original state of the universe.

All this begs the question, of course, which is where either name comes from historically.  Etymologists have no more idea about the answer to that question than Ms. Bekar.

Borrowing and Corruption

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

From time to time one of our Good Words rubs someone the wrong way. This happened to Lucy Medina when we published vamoose, mentioning that is a “materially corrupted” version of Spanish vamos. I was happy that she shared her immediate reaction to our essaylet on that word:

“As a Latina, I really resent the use of words in English that have come about by abusing another language, especially the Spanish language. The so-called western shows seen when I was a child in the 50′s did much to harm to the Latino children and the Latino population as a whole. There are still people alive who believe that what they saw on those western TV shows and movies is | historically true.”

“Maybe a series of word used in English that come from mis-using or abusing foreign languages would be ok, but I am not sure how I would feel about it.”

“Thanks for a usually great daily feature.”

The reason we love our job is because we meet so many people who take their language seriously and are, as we all should be, deeply emotionally affected by it. I would agree that the dissemblance of Western life in the motion pictures of the 40s and 50s probably is a danger to children and adults alike. However, I limited my response to the linguistic question of “corrupting” the pronuncation of borrowed words.

I know of no research indicating that borrowing and adapting words between languages (it works both ways) harms children or adults. Children have no idea where words come from; indeed, most adult speakers don’t know where they come from (unless they subscribe to the Good Word). I probably shouldn’t have said that vamoose is a “corrupted” form of vamos but that is a linguistic synonym for adapted that commonly appears in dictionaries.

Words are borrowed all the time; over half the English vocabulary has been borrowed from other languages. Since the sound systems of different languages are never compatible, adaptation or “corruption” is a normal part of borrowing.

I could see Spanish-speakers taking some pride in speakers of other languages appreciate Spanish enough to (try) to use Spanish words in their own speech. A language usually borrows from a language it considers exotic or superior in some way. That is why English borrowed so much from French and Latin. Spanish belongs to the same family of Romance languages.

Absolute Adjectives in the Mind

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Absolute adjectives offer an intriguing insight into how our knowledge of the grammar of language and our unconscious mental logic work together symbiotically. The brain is a magnificent achievement of nature and even though we do not know how it forms concepts and manipulates them during speech, we can see that grammar and logic are two distinct levels of mental processing that work together when we talk.

First, the claim that absolute adjectives cannot be compared or intensified is itself a misstatement of the grammatical facts. Most of us say “more infinite”, “very complete”, “pretty unique” all the time. Are all but the prescriptive grammarians and their dupes wrong in their use of absolute adjectives?

Of course not. The absolute adjective rule is a logical, not a grammatical rule. If the universe is either infinite or not, it makes no logical sense to say more infinite. However, grammar plays on that fact. Since we know this is logically true, we are allowed to use expressions like this since the hearer will know that more infinite cannot mean “more infinite”. The closest interpretation of this phrase is “more nearly infinite”—and this is precisely the interpretation we assign to such expressions. More complete means “more nearly complete”, “more dead” means “more nearly dead”, and so on.

Logic and grammar are intertwined but they are separate processes. Grammar, as you can see here, plays on logic. It does the same thing with the class of liquid substances. Logically, a substance like water has no plural. However, the vast majority of English-speakers say things like, “Please bring us two waters” or “four coffees” or “I put three sugars in my yoghurt” all the time.

Again, grammar plays off logic so that the speaker, knowing these phrases are not literally true, applies the nearest possible interpretation: “two portions (glasses) of water”, “four portions (cups) of coffee”, “three portions (teaspoons, lumps) of sugar”. Notice that the interpretation is perfectly consistent in all instances.

The reason that I studied and researched languages and linguistics for 40 years was the discovery of insights into the human mind like these. The fact that grammar and words tell us things about how our minds work that we can find nowhere else is a compelling reason to explore language on and on. I presume everyone reading this agrees with me on this point.

What is an Absolute Adjective?

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

The “grammar” taught in US schools over the years has by far done more damage than good. It was written by prescriptive grammarians (as opposed to descriptive linguists) who prescribed rules based on logic rather than an understanding of the actual rules of the language. I came across a wonderful example of their influence while trying to find a few examples of absolute adjectives Saturday. They also are perfect examples of the dangers of the Internet that lurk within its wonders.

Within the first 20 returns of my googling “absolute adjective”, I found three mutually incompatible definitions.

1. At the Summer Institute of Linguistics, we are told that an absolute adjective is an adjective which functions as a noun, e.g. the rich, the poor, an empty. This is an ancient prescriptivist definition; in fact, any qualitative adjective may be used as a noun in English. 

2. The Wikipedia claims that absolute adjectives stand alone and do not belong to a larger construction, as happy is an absolute adjective in “The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going.” This is simply an adjective phrase; they are consistently placed after the noun they modify in English.

3. The prescriptive grammarian at About.com defines them as adjectives, like infinite, unique, complete, or dead, that cannot be compared or intensified (no more infinite or very infinite. (I know the author is a presciptivist because he thinks a noun is a person, place, or thing.)

I was once discussing rather critically the performance of a college in the Russian Program with my dean. The dean, quite seriously, told me that she had it on good, objective authority that my colleague (a native speaker) spoke Russian better than me. My response was swift: “But we didn’t hire her to speak Russian.”

We had, of course, hired my colleague to teach Russian and the two activites are not the same at all. Teaching requires a strong understanding of the grammars of both languages and how they interrelate (if they do). A native-speaker’s knowledge of their native language is all unconscioius.

For some reason, many people believe that if you speak a language, you know it well enough to teach it to others. High school and college teachers are hired on the basis of the assumption that anyone speaking a language can teach it. But now hiring is a moot issue: the Internet provides an enormous university where anyone can build a virtual classroom and begin teaching whatever they like however they please. This is one reason I started yourDictionary and alphaDictionary, as reliable, authoritative language (grammar and dictionary) resources. alphaDictionary still is.

Now that I have this point off my chest, tomorrow I will share my thoughts on absolutely fascinating lives of absolute adjectives. They are far more intriguing than their representations in prescriptive grammars.

The Foppish Inro

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Foppish inroAmy Frits just joined our happy congregation of Good Word subscribers (now over 30,000 strong). When she suggested her first two Good Words, she included the story behind them which I think bears repeating (with her permission, of course). Here is her letter, slightly edited:

Two more words that readers might enjoy: inro and foppish.

My eldest child (who is now 20) found these two words in the dictionary one boring day:
     inro = a Japanese box worn on the waist
     foppish = foolish or silly

He walked around school telling kids who rubbed him the wrong way to “stick it in your foppish inro!”

The teachers thought he meant something bad, and so reproached him for saying it. He simply told them to look it up (an idea that apparently had not occurred to them). They discovered that it was not bad at all: “stick it in your silly Japanese box.”

We still laugh about it. The teachers were not happy.

Words change attitudes—even lives. [Dr. Goodword]

Reanalyzing Words

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

We just passed 100,000 pieces of spam deleted from this blog’s “Replies”. I spend a good 15 minutes a day weeding out the porn, pharma, investment, and other offers from companies who are bent on destroying the Web by choking it with unwanted ads. One company was sweet enough to send over 100 copies of the same piece of spam as a reply to one of our blog entries in the course of one day.

OK, now that is out of my system (sort of), let’s take a look at word reanalysis. I mentioned phrase reanalysis in an earlier blog. Some call reanalyses mondegreens, after perhaps the most famous instance, which you may read about here. Just remember that mondegreens are not limited to song lyrics.

The real process is called reanalysis by linguists because what happens is that the listener mishears a phrase and draws the lines between the words in the wrong place. Listening is not a passive process: a listener is constantly analyzing sentences and drawing words out of what is a long single tune coming from the speakers mouth. Language is a spoken means of communication and there are no spaces between words in speech as they are here, for example.

The alternation of a and an before nouns has presented problems of analysis by hearers for as many centuries as English has had this article. Generally, the rule is a before a word beginning with a consonant and an before a word beginning with a vowel: a pear but an apple. The problem has always been in drawing the line between this word and the next when the next begins with an N.

My first example is orange, which arose from the misanalysis of the original phrase ‘a narange’, based on Arabic word narange “orange”.

Another famous example is Old English naedre “adder” (an nadre) which turned into an adder between 1300 and 1500, after two centuries of wide-spread, constant reanalysis.

The noun apron was originally napron, from Old French naperon, the diminutive of nape “tablecloth”, which came from Latin mappa “napkin”. Well, the phrase a napron became an apron but the English diminutive of napron, napkin, a small apron after all, survived the cut and preserved its initial N.

Now I have discovered yet another of these misanalyzed phrases: auger is a reduction of Old English nafogar from Germanic compound *nab-gaizaz, a tool for splitting wheel hubs. nab came from PIE *nobho- “navel”, which also referred to the navel of a wheel, its hub, called its nave. This produced in Old English nafu-gár “nave-piercer”. This word reduced by Middle English to nauger and the phrase a nauger. But if you (mis)place the space one letter, the result is what we have in Modern English: an auger.

So don’t laugh at your children when they mistake “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” for “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear”.  Adults misanalyze and reanalyze spoken English in ways that permanently affects it.

Flipping out over ‘Flip-Flop’

Monday, October 1st, 2007

We heard a lot about flip-flopping during the last presidential campaign. I had hoped it had run its course but I’ve heard it a few times recently in the current pre-pre-preliminary campaign for the presidency of the United States so I feel I have to vent a little on the subject before I do ‘flip out’.

First, it is a child’s word, a rhyme compound like roly-poly, piggly-wiggly, willy-nilly, in a rhyme class with clip-clop and hip-hop. It isn’t a serious word; you don’t read it in scholarly journals.

Flip-flop is a pejorative term for “change your mind” or “reconsider”, something intelligent people often do when new or fresh information about an issue comes to their attention. The worse thing a leader, political or otherwise, can do is to remain adamant on a point despite the fact that new evidence indicates that his or her position is wrong. At least it is bad if the objective is taking the right postion on issues.

If someone in known to change their position for political reasons, then that fact should be drawn out and presented in detail. Changing one’s mind in general, however, is not a bad thing.

Flippety-flop, flippety-flopSo, using terms like flip-flop in a debate can be an admission that the target of the epithet is flexible in their thinking, that their thinking is based on best evidence and, as that evidence changes, so does the thinking of the flip-flopper. Flip-flop is a term of ridicule, to often used by debaters who have no argument or rebuttal. There is nothing wrong in flip-flopping if the evidence flip-flops—or if the flip-flopper’s thinking matures with experience.

So, let’s all keep in mind that flip-flopping is a pejorative term for mental flexibility, something those who used this word so extensively in the last presidential election do, in fact, seem to lack. Let’s hope that this word will be used in the future exclusively to refer to thongs of the feet such as those pictured above.