Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for August, 2007

If Only the Subjunctive were Still Around

Monday, August 27th, 2007

If you don’t like off-color jokes, skip down to the next paragraph. But there is an old joke that has been floating around Boston for at least a half century about a woman who grabs a cab at the airport and asks to go to downtown Boston. On the way she effusively talks about all the things she wants to do and see on her first trip to that city. Halfway into the city, the driver asks her where she would like to be dropped off. “Anywhere I can get scrod!” she exclaims with glee, thinking of the popular New England fish. “Wow,” replied the driver, obviously not a fish-eater, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard the subjunctive pluperfect of that verb.”

I still hear people of my generation say things like, “If Harry were more careful,” and “Were mom to hear what you just said . . . .” Most speakers still seem to still prefer, “If I were you,” but that is probably a crystallized idiom now. “If I was you” does occur, though, so Somerset Maugham was probably right when he said, “The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible.”

In fact, the subjunctive mood is still around; what has changed is the use of the plural past tense to mark it: “If I were,” “If he were”. “If I was you” means the same thing as “If I were you”. Was here still implies a conditional, nonexistent or impossible situation rather than serving its usual function, the past tense. What has happened is that the past tense endings are now being uses without any modification to indicate the subjunction mood. “If I was you” is different from “If I am you” in exactly the same way that “If I were you” is different from “If I am you”.  Was clearly is not indicating the past tense in these phrases.

The problem is one that I think I’ve written about before: English is losing its affixes for a reason linguists have not been able to establish. However, it is not losing the functions (meanings) of those affixes; rather, more and more functions are expressed by any given affix. Look at all the functions -ing has: I’m walking the dog (verb), Walking seems to be a popular sport around here (noun), The walking dog is dangerous (Adjective), Walking the dog, I happened to see Renfrow (Adverb)—without even thinking about words like roofing, flooring, siding that are derived from nouns.

So, what is right, “If I were” or “If I was”? Whenever language enters a state of change like this, speakers don’t change. There is no reason for anyone to change their speech. If you are comfortable with “If I were”, continue using it but keep in mind that the younger generation will be using “If I was”.. If you think it sounds old fashioned, say “If I was” but remember that “If I were” is still acceptable until those of us still using the subjunctive are in our death throes. Until then, we are all speaking the language as we learned it perfectly grammatically.  (I would like to thank Kathleen McCune of Norway for asking.)

More Southern Accents

Friday, August 24th, 2007

Every now and then I receive a letter from one of our visitors that doesn’t contain the sort of incisive insight most of my posts contain 😉 but is just downright pleasant and well-written. Larry Gilbert sent me one today (or recently) which I thought I might share with yall. Here it is:

For Dr. Goodword:Southern Accent
Just read your dictionary of Sourthern words and sayings. Might nice. Of course, it’s hard to be complete in so little space and, as we both know, there are differences in dialects within the South, too. For example, the people on the Outer Banks have their own dialect with many words quite different from folks in the Smokey Mountains. Likewise, there are differences between the speech of North Carolinians, Georgians, Texans and Mississippians.

Southerners from different areas do have different ways of pronouncing the same words. The one example I noted in your dictionary is pecan. While North Carolinians may say “pee-can,” that is anathema to Mississippians. In fact, that’s the way we hear damnyankees pronouncing pecan. In South Mississippi, a pee-can is a thunder jug, kept under the bed. South of Hattiesburg, the word is pronounced “puh-kahn” or even “p’kahn,” with a soft [p].

Finally, I’d like to throw another word your way, shouldna. It’s an abbreviation of “Should not have.” The word is usually used in conjunction with oughta, meaning “ought to have.” The example is “You shouldna oughta whacked that hornets nest,” meaning, “You should not have struck that hornets nest.”

Thanks for the great dictionary.

Larry R. Gilbert

My response:

Dear Larry,
Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your visit and hope yall* come back again.

Yes, we are well aware of the differences in southern dialects and have mixed them all together because we didn’t think it worth the effort to try to identify them all. Actually, no one has tracked them all down and located them, so we couldn’t have done it without a gumment grant and, the way we talk, we figgered we didn’t stand a chance of getting one of those.

People from all over the South have written in and, if we think their contributions worthy of the level of our work, we just add them. Someone from Morganton, NC wrote in this morning with the same comment, reminding us that dialects vary greatly from the northern to southern parts of Morganton. When I lived in Cumberland County, NC, I could distinguish people from three different parts of that county and distinguish them from folks over in Sampson County.

Our efforts are part heritage preservation (our words have been used in several heritage celebrations down South) and part fun. I’m surprised about puh-kahn in Mississippi–that is pure Yankee speech in NC. But then these dialect feature lines run ever which a way down there and it is hard if at all possible to keep them straight.

My academic colleagues at Bucknell, when I taught there, always laughed when I would say “I might could to that . . . ” since northern English grammar strictly forbids two auxiliary verbs. “Shouldna orta” is another example of that. I see no reason not to double up on auxliaries if you need two. It all boils down to simply sounding funny to northerners.  Who cares?

“Dr. Goodword”

*Northerners who think Southerners mistakenly use yall in the singular miss an important aspect of Southern culture (and you can’t separate language from culture): it is impolite to invite one person to your home without inviting their family. In the South, you can do that with one word, yall.

Whistling Dixie

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

A few months back I walked though The Lexiteria to my office whistling and my office manager shortly thereafter stuck her head in the door and said, “I’ve never heard you whistle before.”

Whistling Dixie in harmonyWell, it had been a long time since I had whistled and I wondered why. Now I’ve had time to observe and I’ve come to the conclusion that no one in the US whistles any longer; we are no longer a whistling nation. When I was growing up, people whistled popular tunes all the time. It was a sign that we were happy, in a good mood, at peace with the world. We don’t do that any more.

Since whistling is another type of oral communication, it strikes me as fair game for this blog. I think it is time we began asking ourselves why whistling has died out and I offer this blog as (so far as I know) a first attempt at blind speculation on the subject.

The world has become much more complex over the past half century, of course. Probably fewer of us are at peace with the world and more of us busy trying to keep up with it. I don’t think any fewer of us are never happy, so the question is why don’t we whistle to express our happiness?

The loss of whistling puts a long list of idioms at risk: “just whistling Dixie”, “whistling in the wind”, “whistlestop”, “blow the whistle”, “whistle in the dark”. How many of these do you know? I fear they are slipping away.

One reason that jumps out is that we no longer have composers writing whistlable songs. Rappers and hip-hoppers chant mean-spirited jargon that is foisted on us by recording companies. Have you heard a recent rap that made you want to whistle it?

In the 40s and 50s we had tunes by Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Julie Styne and the 60s brought us a slough of whistlable songs by John Lennon and others.

My tentative conclusion is that whistling has been disassociated with happiness by a shift in music from the beautiful ballads of yesteryear to angry, unmemorable chants pandered by the music industry today. But, as I mentioned before, this is just a preliminary blind speculation. More advanced analysis awaits further investigation.

Can ‘They’ replace ‘He’ and ‘She’?

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Kathleen of Norway asked the following poignant question via e-mail today:

“EveryONE paying THEIR own check???”

The question arose in connection with an example in yesterday’s Good Word, stickler: “Morris Bedda is a stickler about everyone paying their own check when dining out.”

Since this question has been raised before, I decided to write something definitive on the subject.  I just added it to the reference shelf in my office, which you can access by clicking here.

Haplology: the Syllable Thief

Monday, August 13th, 2007

Andrew Gillett just sent “a quick question which has been bugging me and my friends. I recently saw an ad in a magazine for mascara by Chanel. It had the word inimitable written on the ad and my friends and I had absolutely no idea why inimitable is spelt that way and not inimitatable or unimitatable, which seems to me to be more obvious since translate becomes translatable.”

Andrew has stumbled on an example of ‘haplology’, which should be ‘haplogy’ since it refers to the deletion of two adjacent identical or near identical syllables. English doesn’t like inimitatable because of the duplicated TATA in the middle—so it drops one TA. The same thing happens in other verbs, e.g. demonstratable becomes demonstrable though, if one of the syllables is accented (as in translatable), haplology will not apply.

Did you ever hear anyone say probly? This is the result of the same process since the OB and AB are pronounced identically in this word. This word undergoes haplology that is not reflected in its spelling but we find haplology built into the spelling of other words.

Other forms, like inimitable reflect haplogy in their spelling and everyone but Andrew ignores them: emphasis+ize is spelled emphasize and feminine+ize has permanently become feminize, dropping one of the INs.

The British apply haplology to those words with R appearing in two adjacent unaccented syllables: library becomes lib’ry and February becomes Feb’ry. So, haplology is all around us. Why then has haplology itself not undergone haplology? Because one of the LOs is accented.


Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

I think it was in J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter that the word jeechet first appeared in print. It has always fascinated me because it is clearly one single word phonologically (a phonological word is easily defined as a series of linguistic sounds bearing a single accent). However, this ‘word’ corresponds to an entire four-word sentence!

Now, before you say that this is not a word but just the result of lazy speakers slurring their speech, let me assure you that linguists can track every single change from the sentence to the word using common rules of English phonology, i.e. rules that occur widely elsewhere and throughout the language. Here they are for your amusement and edification.

The first rule is that function words (monosyllabic pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions, etc.) like did are rarely accented except for emphasis which is irrelevant here. The second rule is that unaccented vowels occurring before the accented syllable like the [i] here are regularly dropped in English, e.g. p’lice for police, s’pose for suppose. Since did is unaccented, it attaches to [you] for accent and the [i] then disappears, giving us
ddyou eat yet
However, since English (unlike Italian, for instance) does not tolerate double consonants, [dd] regularly reduces to [d] resulting in
dyou eat yet

Since you is another function word, it isn’t accented either and is regularly reduced to where [ê] represents a schwa, pronounced, roughly, [uh] dyê eat yet. However, since it is not accented, it must attach to the following word for accent, giving us
dyêeat yet
The only accent in this sentence is on eat which means that the vowel [ê] is now an unaccented vowel preceding the accented one and so falls to the ax of the second rule mentioned above, resulting in
dyeat yet

Next, the combination [dy] regularly reduces to [j] and [ty] to [ch], e.g. mature [mêtyur > [mêchur] and picture [piktyur] > [pikchur]. Since the accent is on eat in this sentence, both the [dj] and [ty] are subject to this rule, which reduces our sentence further to
pronounced [djeechet]. Of course, the sound [j] is a combination of [d] + [zh], the sound of the Z in azure. This makes the [d] redunant, giving us

One reason we can’t determine the number of words in a language is because a phonological word (the sound part) does not always directly correspond to a semantic word (the meaning). According to Dr. Language at (also me), “I would have” comprises 3 distinct sounds and meanings but “I’d’ve” is a single two-syllable phonological word that matches the same three meanings—one word or three?

Speaking a language involves a complex set of mental activities in different parts of the brain each of which follows its own rules. The output of these rules are plotted onto the input of others in ways linguistics is still exploring. One of the most remarkable aspects of language is the surprising variety of rules and interaction of rules that the brain must carry out in order for us to express ourselves and be understood.

No other ‘word’ in the English language exemplifies the labrynthine nature of the levels of grammatical rules and their interactions better than jeechet.



Grammatical versus Acceptable

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

Doug Schulek-Miller wrote yesterday:

“I was recently confused by something. For all my literate life I’ve believed “Semitic” people to be those of the Middle East, inclusive of Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians—all the folks that used to be citizens of different countries in that area before WW I, and probably Persians [Iranians], too…. Therefore, anti-Semitic relates to being antagonistic to all of the above people, Semitic people.”

Well, first off, Iranians are not Semitic but belong to our family, the Indo-Europeans. Farsi, the language currently spoken in Iran, is written in Arabic script but it is clearly an I-E language related to English.

Doug’s point, though, is correct; many strange quirks lurk in language. Grammatically, anti-Semitic can only mean “against Semitic peoples” but that isn’t the way it is used and using it in this sense would lead to a breakdown in communications. Another example, homophobic grammatically can only mean “fearful of people” or “fearful of sameness”, depending on whether you intend the Latin or Greek homo, but that isn’t the way it is used and restricting the use of this word to its grammatically appropriate senses would lead to confusion.

Linguists make a distinction between what is “grammatical” and what is “acceptable” in speech. It is possible for ungrammatical usages to be accepted, as in these cases, and for grammatical uses to be unacceptable, as in the case of defenestrate meaning “removing windows”, as I recently reported and was criticized for. Errors are made because people don’t realize that they are errors and if everyone joins in agreeably, they become idiomatic forms or phrases.

In fact, most of the funny words in English are ungrammatical but accepted: gobbledygook, stick-to-it-iveness, panjandrum and hundred of other similar words were not generated by the rules of English grammar but by wags playing with those rules. The important point is this: humans make the rules of language so they can break them without going to jail or paying fines. So we do.