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Archive for September, 2010

To -ly or not to -ly

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be “don’t let anyone tell you differently,” not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after some verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective inevitably with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the way it is being told,” i.e. in a whisper, in a letter, or some other way. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different.”

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (that she had been kept late). As you can see, we often supply a subordinate clause for clarification.

Without the subordinate clause the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which is undressed, the salad or Mary. So, let’s not give up this distinction: we need all the laughs we can get.

From Dime Stores to Dollar Stores

Friday, September 17th, 2010

S. H. Kress logoLon Jones just reminded us of one more Southernism not included in our Glossary of Quaint Southernisms: tin sin stow, i.e. a ten-cents store, also called five-and-dimes in their day. In my town of birth and up-bringing, Fayetteville, NC, we had our choice of Kress’sMcCrory’s, or Woolworth’s. Other cities had their Kresge’s, Ben Franklin, Murphy’s, Neisner’s and, no doubt, others. If you are older than 50, you probably had your own favorite.

Lon admitted that both terms are “rather dated” and he is right. This compound word does date Lon for the correlates of the ten-cents stores of the 30s-50s today are the dollar stores, whose name perfectly reflects the 1000% inflation rate since the heyday of the five-and-dimes.

The five-and-dimes kept their prices low by hiring drop-outs and recent high school grads to man (or girl) the counters. When I was in high school, my friends and I quickly learned that the sales personnel in these stores could be rather naive. To identify the naive ones and for a few chuckles, we would go in after school and ask for such mythical items as a No. 3 sky-hook or a 36″ shelf stretcher just to see their reactions.

Some would tell us that these items were out of stock, on order or not. Better yet, some would tell us they weren’t sure about these items and ask that we wait while they checked with the manager.

Well, the manager was brought into these snicker-filled situations one time too many and my friends and I eventually found ourselves on the Kress’s persona non grata list. You might find it odd that a dime-store would have such a list but I’m here to tell you that it was an effective one. My friends and I soon found ourselves escorted out of the store as soon as we set foot through its portals.

Maybe that’s why these stores went out of business: we often dropped in for legitimate purchases of non-mythical items.

Roomy, Rheumy and English Spelling

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

I seldom write about the English spelling system. When I taught linguistics, I always told my students to never feel guilty about making spelling errors, they are not the writer’s fault. English has an atrocious spelling system.

In fact, it is even worse than Gerald Nolst Trenite demonstrated in his now famous poem, The Chaos. This fact was impressed upon me when I briefly misinterpreted rheumy as roomy when I recently heard it. How can a language that spells words that are pronounced identically like these in two such radically different ways?

Why don’t we do something about it?” many have asked over the past century. The Simplified Spelling Society was established in 1908 and has had no impact over the past century. Over the same period, the orthography of Russian (1918), French (2004), German (1996), and Portuguese (2009), among other languages, have been reformed. Why not English?

Languages whose spelling systems have been updated are generally spoken in a nation with an Academy of Science with a language that oversees the “purity” of the language. Spelling reforms usually originate there, though the governments of these countries also show far more interest in language than those of most English-speaking countries.

English is spoken in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and is an official language of India. Changing the spelling would probably require  the involvement of the governments of at least a half dozen countries.

Governments have to be involved since there is always a backlash from those who prefer the status quo. In fact, most of the reforms mentioned above are today only partially accepted despite laws in some countries attempting to enforce reforms.

English, as readers of our daily Good Word well know, has borrowed most of its words from other languages, languages spoken around the world, wherever the British and Americans asserted their power. A reform that would cover all the various spellings of English sounds from its entire vocabulary—or even a siginificant part of it—would be very difficult, to say the least

All we can do is struggle with the English spelling system as it stands. We all hope our efforts here at alphaDictionary help our readers with that task.

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?

Ploughing Through Draughts

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Or is it “Plowing Thru Drafts?” Donald Shark was curious about the spelling of a Good Word we ran last year. Here is what he wrote:

“In my submission of the word fraught [for consideration as a Good Word] I neglected to ask the burning question, “Why doesn’t fraught rhyme with draught?”

I’m tempted to leave it at: “Because they are in the English language.” In defense of such a response I refer you to “The Chaos”.

The general rule you hear in grammar classes is that GH is not pronounced at the end of words or before T. That works on many words like these:

high height
nigh night
thigh fought
though thought
plough fraught

But this rule works much better on words that end on T than on words that end on the bare digraph GH:

laugh draught
cough ?
trough ?
rough ?
enough ?

The digraph GH in English was originally a sound like the CH in Scots English and German, like a K but without completely closing the throat. Germanic languages like English inherited it from the Proto-Indo-European [k] sound. It generally became H in Middle English and dropped out at the beginning of words, except, in some dialects which retained it. Elsewhere in the word it either disappeared or converted to [f] for unknown reasons.

In many dialects it dropped out everywhere, which is why we hear H-less words in Cockney English: “‘ow ’bout ‘elpin ‘im ‘op over dat ‘ole.” the H’s equivocation has led to the “a historical” versus “an historical” squabble, too.  Historical may be pronounced with or without the initial [h], depending on your dialect, resulting in the confusion over the choice of an or a as an article.

When an aspect of a language is undergoing change, particularly if it is disappearing, speakers lose control of the rule(s) governing it and what might be called “semi-rules” arise, rule like the one we see in the tables above, rules that “sorta” work. Speakers in the US have little patience with them, which is why they lead the way in changing spelling to fit the sound: draft, plow, and even (ugh!) thru.

Unfortunately, writing systems slow down the process of language change. We store visions of printed words in a separate chamber of our brain. These visions of spelling are as real as the words themselves (always spoken beings). Our British cousins are much more tolerant of these traditional spellings than are the pioneers who parted company with them two centuries ago.