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Archive for March, 2010

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.