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Archive for June, 2008

English’s Invisible Suffix

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I recently heard an NPR reporter misplace the accent on a word and it reminded me of the invisible suffix in English. I did not write down the specific word (I’ve heard this error many times on radio and TV) but it was a word like survey, which is pronounced both survey and survey. Both are legitimate words. Do you know the rule which governs where the accent falls? Here are some more examples:

  • reject : reject
  • increase : increase
  • subject : subject

If you think accent on the second syllable indicates a verb and accent on the initial syllable indicates a noun—you’re right.

This difference in accent may legitimately be called an invisible (though not inaudible) suffix since it distinguishes verbs from nouns as surely as -ment does in state and statement or -ation does in form and formation. The rule is very simple: two syllable verbs with accent on the second syllable are converted into nouns by simply shifting the accent to the first syllable. (The words generally have to be made up of two distinguishable constituents or morphemes such as re- and -ject in reject and in- and -crease in increase.)

The meaning of the noun created this way is “the result of the action signified by the underlying verb”, just as a statement is the result of stating and and formations result from forming. The result of surveying is a survey and if we reject something, it becomes a reject.

This rule is particularly productive (active) among verbs with the prefix re-. If you recap the news, the result is a recap, the result of retreading a tire is a retread, anything we remake turns out to be a remake. I could go on all night and through most of tomorrow but I think these examples are enough to show that this accent shift is an active rule of the English language.

Sometimes the meaning is simply the process of the verb, as a reboot of a computer is simply the act of rebooting, but the same duality of meaning can be found in nouns ending on -(at)ion and -ment. English has so few suffixes that all of them serve multiple functions.

The important point is that the language does provide a means of distinguishing between many verbs and nouns that are spelled identically and we should be careful to observe the rule that maintains this distinction when we utter these words.

Well, Bless my Cotton-Pickin’ Heart

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

This month alphaDictionary will set a new record of more than 500,000 unique visitors to the site. A ‘unique visitor’ is a distinct viewer.  This excites me because it will bring more mail and, hopefully, delightful pieces like this one, received today from Julie McIntosh of Dallas, Texas. By the way, she is right: you can say pert much what you want to about a person down South so long as you prefix or suffix it with ‘bless my heart’. . . and that’s what I like about the South.

I have to correct y’all about your definition of “bless your heart” [in your Glossary of Quaint Southernisms].  This is not [only] a compliment, nor is it an expression of encouragement or approval.  Quite the contrary, this delightful and right useful expression is frequently called upon because properly bred Southerners (particularly Southern ladies like yours truly) would never want to say a harsh word about anyone.  Therefore, we soften it with “bless your heart” or “bless his heart” or “bless her heart”, etc.  
Example: “Bless his heart, if you put his brain on the head of a pin it would roll around like a bowlin’ ball on a six-lane highway.” 
Example: “That child has a face only her mother could love, bless her little heart.”
Example: An uncouth man says to southern lady, “Damn, woman… You’re FINE!”  Southern Lady responds, “Well,  bless your heart” rather than giving the uncouth man the “go to hell” he so richly deserves.   
For my last example, if you have a little ol’ lady in her Ford Tempo driving 45 in the fast lane in Detroit, someone might say to her, “HEY! (expletive deleted) What the (expletive deleted) do you think you’re doing?  Get the (expletive deleted) off the road!”  Down South, we’d just pass her on the right and say, “Well bless that darlin’ ol’ girl’s heart.” 
Basically, if the heart is sufficiently blessed, then any negative comment is softened into something downright pleasant — or at least less than nasty.     
But y’all just didn’t know, what with you bein’ from Pennsylvania and all…bless yer precious little ol’ Yankee hearts!   
Hugs and Kisses,  
Julie McIntosh

Disconfusing Apprised and Abreast

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Jackie Strauss, a dear contributor to our Good Word series, wrote me the following yesterday:

“I’m enjoying going through your list of commonly confused words. When I got to the word “apprised”, I wondered why you didn’t include “abreast”. I often hear people using both of these words to mean the same thing. Do they? Are they entirely interchangeable, e.g. “I’ll keep you apprised of his post-surgical condition” or “Please keep me abreast of his post-surgical condition”. Which would be correct, or are they both correct? Or can one only keep oneself abreast of anything?”

“And why is there no word like “disconfuse” or “unconfuse” that I could use in this very sentence?!? Please DISCONFUSE me!!”

Keeping someone abreast and apprised do not mean the same but the two words often can be used in the same context. “Keep me abreast” means “keep me up-to-date” while “keep me apprised” means “keep me informed”.

Somewhere I’ve written about the difference between meaning and reference. Words and phrases with different meanings can have the same reference, e.g. “the morning star” and “the evening star” refer to the same celestial body (the planet Venus, by the way). Jackie’s examples fall into the same category. These phrases are different in meaning but in such a way that they may often be used interchangeably in appropriate contexts.

When one of my students years ago wrote in a term paper that President Nassar of Egypt saw himself as “the halter of the British in the Middle East”, my marginal comment was, “My, you do keep abreast of things”. In that situation, only one of Jackie’s words seems to work.

Now, disconfuse is another story. We use disremember so often in the US that several dictionaries now carry it—including Merriam-Webster. It appears currently about 38,000 times on the Web. In fact, there is no reason not to add the prefix dis- to remember and the meaning is clear. I would say the same applies to disconfuse, which appears 143 times on the Web today (so Jackie is not the only one who has thought of it). The meaning is perfectly clear to me and is not synonymous with clarify, the antonym of confuse.

We are not restrained to use to words that we have already heard when we speak or write. Language is very productive and we are free to create new words whenever we need them so long as we follow the rules of grammar. My sense of the grammar is that the prefix dis- can be added more or less freely to verbs of Latin origin so I can think of no grammatical reason why we shouldn’t use disconfuse.

Did this disconfuse the issue enough for you?

How’s ‘Yall’ Doing?

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Spread of yallWhen my family sat down at the table in ‘The Egg and I” cafe in Boulder last week, the waitress dropped off the menus and said, “I’ll come back to help yall in a minute.” As someone who has been tracking the spread of the new pronoun yall (2nd person plural personal) for some time now (see my article and blog entry), I was curious as to where our waitress had picked it up.

When she returned, I learned that she had spent most of her life in Colorado but had been born and spent a few years in Utah and Arizona. Her family as far as she could remember came from California. Since US dialects only made it as far as the Mississippi except for the southern one, which made it as far as Texas, yall should not be in these far western states.

Yet, it is there, further supporting my points: (1) The language has been in need of a 2nd person plural personal pronoun since the thou-you distinction broke down ages ago and (2) yall is the best candidate for the job: youse (New York, New Jersey) and yuns (Pennsylvania) are losing out.

I told you so.

The Loud American

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

One of the distinguishing characteristics of speakers of US English that makes them stand out in any crowd is the volume of their voices. In the US we speak much louder than do people speaking other languages or even other dialects of English.

My wife and I were shouting to each other across a particularly small table at our local pub last week when this observation arose again. We recalled the pleasure of dining in restaurants on our recent visit to southern France, where everyone kept their voices at a level where normal conversation was possible at all tables.

Donald Ogden Stewart’s Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and, of course, the The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick (1958) suggest that boisterousness is a quality US Americans assume only when they are abroad. I don’t detect any significant difference in our behavior at home and abroad.

Part of the problem is that many of us are unaware that people living in other cultures are different from us. Since the US considers itself the policeman of the world, it is easy for us to think that we own it.

We don’t often discuss why US Americans are so obnoxiously boisterous. The answers that I have heard include a suggestion that most in the US never quite grow up and that the loudness is that of childhood. Others think it is a remnant of the wild and wooly days of the frontier.

My own sense is that it is individualism out of control, slipping precipitously into selfishness. We worship individualism in this country often without understanding it, or without understanding it well enough to distinguish it from selfishness. All of the “I’m worth it” and “I want it all and I want it now” commercials on TV and radio seem to me to reflect this attitude. This sort of focus on oneself implies some degree of oblivion to others.

Anyway, we can speculate on the causes but I haven’t been able to find any lexical items that shed any light on the issue so far, so I won’t belabor the point. I would be interested if anyone else out there has any insight into the matter.

Feminism and Feminine Forms

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

A reader who wishes to be known only as “JC” recently sent this comment to our Good Word inamorato:

In response to the inamorato email which states (in regard to feminine/masculine forms); “The use of suffixes like -ette and -ess to distinguish females from males is now harshly frowned upon.”

I can’t help but chuckle, sometimes, at the supposed “good intentions” of our almost obsessively politically correct society. Such morphemes are very useful, and, I suspect, exist for this very reason, [that] they convey meaning much more efficiently.

I’ve noticed this over the last several years in relation to the term actor. The unacceptability of this morpheme now necessitates the use of the term “female actor(s)” if one needs to make such a reference.

Consider the information conveyed in the word bartendress—not in the dictionary, to my knowledge, but useful nonetheless. I shudder to think what would happen if such a fad took hold of a language like Nahuatl, in which there seem to be [a plethora of] morphemes that can be used to construct single words that are pregnant with meaning!

This American sport even takes the liberty of imposing itself on terms from other languages. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that a mixed group in the Romance languages, when referred to in the third person, will use the plural masculine pronoun unless it is composed of females.

Taíno, in reference to the Taíno Indians of the Carribean, is a word that has been Hispanicized (for obvious reasons), yielding Taínos for a (mixed) group and Taínas for a group of females.

In The Cave of the Jagua, an anthropological study about the Taíno Indians, the text constantly refers to “the Taínos and Taínas” just as readily as one would refer to “the English” or “the Germans”. Unfortunately, the Spanish language has made an insensitive and chauvinist distinction that now necessitates undoing.