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Next week, I’ll be making a quiz of these words to see which students know and use. In class, we’ve been discussing how new words are created.
We talk about fixation: pre- (unfriend), suf- (selfie), in- (congratu-effin-ations), and circum- (embiggen). We explore the homonymy of prefixes and suffixes, and meaning of the word inflammable, which prompts discussion of the difference between ingrate and ingratiate. One student asks–in jest–why infallible doesn’t mean “able to fall into.”
We talk about acronyms and initialisms and the evolution of LOL and FAQ from “el-oh-el” and “ef-ay-que” to “loll” and “fak.” I find that my students are great verbers of nouns: They Facebook. They GIF. They gym. They library. They also reduplicate, compounding words to specify or intensify. I ask them the difference between a writer writer and a writer’s writer. “One makes a living and one doesn’t,” someone offers.
Our discussion goes on to the whys of word creation. New words encapsulate current ideas but also to express our identities as language users—irony, rebellion, erudition—and to characterize others, like the 2004 Word of the Year, chav, the British epithet for loutish youth in designer clothes. We talk about the accidental and logical leaps made by language users and how some of them end up as folk creations, like refudiate, the 2010 Word of the Year. I recount my own childhood confusion over hearing on television that American soldiers were fighting “gorillas” in Southeast Asia and tell them of the rejected job applicant who felt his department was often “the escape goat.” I offer my prediction that in fifty years the spelling segue will be edged out by the spelling Segway.
I always learn something new from the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list, and I’m often surprised by my own and my students’ reactions to new usages.
Clippings frequently rub me the wrong way for some reason. When I am in a conversation where someone used words like cran, vacay, andbro, the usages somehow feel much too familiar, like a telemarketer addressing me by my first name. Abbreviations can be annoying too, as if the speaker assumes I am as immersed in some topic as they are and know all the shorthand. IMHO.
I’m enamored of blends though, and I smile at the recollection of the first time I came across the word hangry in a tweet from a former student. To me blends are verbal magic tricks: words sawed in half and magically rejoined. I always think of publisher Bennett Cerf’s description of Groucho Marx as someone who looks at words “upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more.” Groucho would have loved the Urban Dictionary’s blend bananus, for the brown part at the end of a banana. When I finished my book on the language of public apology I toyed with using the word regretoric in the title, but wiser editorial heads prevailed. The best blends have a playful punning to them, in which the remnants of the old words encapsulate the new meaning perfectly (the worst blends are like Frankenstein’s monster, like schmeat, a finalist in 2013.). I’ll leave it to you to judge the blends in this year’s finalists: slacktivism (from slacker + activism), normcore (from normal + hardcore), budtender (from bud + bartender).
To me, mere affixation is not as much fun as blending. New words formed by affixation make me think of new versions of old products, some sleek, colorful, and playful (unfriend and selfie), and others a bit too clumsy (hypermiling, the Word of the Year in 2008, or contactless). As a consumer, I rush out to buy some new words and leave others on the shelf.
This year’s Word of the Year vape, meaning to inhale the vapors from e-cigarettes, is a word that I won’t use much, not being a vaper myself. But many people seem to be vaping and the word has a good chance of success. It’s brisker than saying “smoke an e-cigarette” and reinforces the difference between vaping and smoking. Adapted from marijuana terminology, vape is a classic clipping from vaporize, with the added analogy of vapors/vapers and vape, to smoke/smokers and smoke. The word has made its way from High Times to the New York Times and NPR and is already being used not just as a verb but as a noun and adjective. There are “Got Vape?” bumper stickers, vape lounges, and vape pens. Vape is likely here to stay.
Vaping is having an interesting cultural moment. Use of the word is increasing rapidly, as the Oxford Dictionaries editors note, although many people are still unfamiliar with it. (In a totally scientific survey of ten 40-year-old parents on the playground of my son’s school, none had heard the word before. In my husband’s university department, some of the graduate students used the word, but the consensus among the faculty was that to vape meant to live life as a Visiting Assistant Professor.) This increased use comes as people attempt to define boundaries for the activity, to figure out where it is socially acceptable, and where it is not. Is vaping like smoking, and thus offensive and possibly dangerous to non-vapers? Or is it more like chewing gum — not polite, exactly, but something you might do surreptitiously at work or in a movie theater? Would you vape in a childcare center? In a hospital? These are not just questions of etiquette, but also of law — will vapers, like smokers, be required to keep a distance of 15 to 25 feet from any doors or windows?
The word vaping has already caused devotees of juice (the liquid used in e-cigarettes) to lose the first battle in the propaganda war. Vaping carries overtones of illicit drug use — vaporizers provided a cleaner high for marijuana-smokers for years before they were used in e-cigarettes — and sounds, as was reported in The Guardian last year, “worryingly like a form of sexual assault, or a bewilderingly ill-advised 1980s dance craze.” Let’s look now at some words from smoking’s history, to see how earlier battles over tobacco use played out, and how current questions about vaping might be resolved.
Like many of our other good stimulants, tobacco was brought to Europe from the Americas, first imported by the Spanish in the early 16th century. Tobacco (first English use, 1577) comes from Native American words for a pipe or a sort of cigar, which the Spanish assumed referred to the leaves of the plant itself. Columbus’s conscience, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, described how when their expedition landed in Cuba, they found the Taino smoking these cigar-like “tabacos,” “by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue.” It was not a forgone conclusion that tobacco would be the English name for this miraculous plant — other candidates at the time were petum (1568), possibly derived from another Native American word, and nicotian (1577), from Jean Nicot, who brought the plant to France for the first time. (Nicot eventually gave his name to the tobacco genus, Nicotiana, as well as to its chemical of interest, nicotine (1817)).
Growing more and more popular with every passing year, tobacco seemed to be doing just fine with its common name, but others were coined for it to better advertise what were seen as its incredible health benefits — the holy herb, the queen mother herb, God’s remedy, and panacea (all 16th century). A panacea is a medicine reputed to cure all diseases, a tall order, but one that it was more than capable of fulfilling, according to proponents such as Anthony Chute, author of Tabaco (1595). The green leaves of the plant could cure any sort of laceration or skin ulcer, from a finger nigh severed by a giant chopping knife to the King’s Evil (Scrofula), the Canker, the Wolfe, and noli me tangere (“don’t touch me”), increasingly awful skin diseases. The smoke was thought to be even more efficacious, because of the humoral theory of medicine that held sway at the time. A healthy body had the proper balance of four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, which gave it the proper temperature and moisture. Tobacco smoke was very hot and dry, and so could cure diseases in which the patient was excessively cold and moist — all kinds of coughs, rheums, bowel problems, and, the epitome of cold and wet, drowning.
The “native English” way of getting smoke into the body was the clyster (1398), or glyster — a tobacco enema. It was superseded by the pipe, a Native American invention and a more social way to smoke, but the original practice survived until the mid-19th century as the best way to revive drowning victims, and is still around in the expression to blow smoke up your ass, meaning “to give insincere compliments.” (Though wonderful, this derivation of the idiom is possibly apocryphal. There is a long and independent association between “empty words” and wind, smoke, or vapor.)
Like vaping today, there were questions about the social acceptability of “drinking tobacco,” as smoking was called. Was it genteel for women to smoke, for example? On one hand, smoking was good for women, who were constitutionally a little bit too cold and damp. On the other hand, smoking involved sucking on something in public, generally a no-no. Early tobacco pipes also tended to produce quite a lot of brown, sticky saliva, which stained clothing, created a funk (a strong stink, 1623), and needed to be spit somewhere, often on the floor, until the development of the spittoon (1840). Tobacco use gained its widest social acceptance with the rise of snuff (1683), finely ground tobacco snorted through the nose, which neatly avoided all these problems.
Taking snuff has many similarities with vaping. It required lots of accoutrements, all of which could show off one’s individuality, relative wealth, and taste. Vapers today can buy standard, preassembled e-cigs and tobacco-flavored juice, but many people prefer to customize their equipment, especially if they drip. Dripping involves putting a few drops of juice directly on the coil of an e-cig atomizer (the heating element) instead of using a cartridge with a reservoir of liquid and a wick, which according to drippers (?)…drips (?)…advocates of dripping, provides a purer taste and the option of changing flavors more frequently. It requires vapers to assemble their e-cigs themselves, choosing an atomizer, a drip tip (the part you put in your mouth), possibly a drip shield, and a variety juice flavors, from the hundreds available — “Mother’s Milk” (“a creamy custard with a sweet strawberry exhale”), for example, or “Boba’s Bounty” (“tobacco, honey, and marshmallow”). Snuff-takers needed a snuff-box — some devotees had hundreds, beautifully decorated — a rasp, to grind the tobacco leaves, a tiny spoon if they preferred not to dirty their fingers, and a dark-patterned handkerchief to catch their sneezes and clean their nostrils. Like juice, snuff could be colored and flavored in hundreds of combinations, including orange flower, rose, bergamot, musk, and tonka bean (a flavor like vanilla, now banned by the FDA for containing coumarin, which in high doses can damage the liver).
Vaping has many of the same things going for it that snuff did — it appeals to a knowledgeable, somewhat moneyed, consumer and offers a way to display individuality and discernment. Now all it needs is a better name…any ideas?
As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back and see which words have been significant throughout the past twelve months, and to announce the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Without further ado, we can exclusively reveal that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014 is…
As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vape has grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.
Usage of vape peaked in April 2014 — as the graph below indicates — around the time that the UK’s first ‘vape café’ (The Vape Lab in Shoreditch, London) opened its doors, and protests were held in response to New York City banning indoor vaping. In the same month, the issue of vaping was debated by The Washington Post, the BBC, and the British newspaper The Telegraph, amongst others.
The language of vaping
Vape is also the modifier for other nouns, creating new compound nouns which are growing in popularity. The most common of these are vape pen and vape shop, and there is also recent evidence for vape lounge, vape fluid, vape juice, and others. Related coinages include e-juice, cartos, and vaporium — as well as the retronymtobacco cigarette for traditional cigarettes. (A retronym is a new term created from an existing word in order to distinguish the original word from a later development — for example, acoustic guitar developing after the advent of the electric guitar.)
Vape before vaping
You may be surprised to learn that the word vaping existed before the phenomenon. Although e-cigarettes weren’t commercially available until the 21st century, a 1983 article in New Society entitled ‘Why do People Smoke?’ contains the first known usage of the term. The author, Rob Stepney, described what was then a hypothetical device:
“an inhaler or ‘non-combustible’ cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but…delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as vaping.)”
However, despite these early beginnings, Oxford Dictionaries research shows that it wasn’t until 2009 that this sense of vape (and vaping) started to appear regularly in mainstream sources.
Here are the words that came close, but didn’t quite make it as Word of the Year:
bae n.used as a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner.
budtender n.a person whose job is to serve customers in a cannabis dispensary or shop.
contactlessadj.relating to or involving technologies that allow a smart card, mobile phone, etc. to contact wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.
indyref, n. an abbreviation of ‘independence referendum’, in reference to the referendum on Scottish independence, held in Scotland on 18 September 2014, in which voters were asked to answer yes or no to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’
normcore n.a trend in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate fashion statement.
slacktivism, n., informalactions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website; a blend of slacker and activism.
Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.
China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.
The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.
The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.
Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.
How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.
From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.
A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”
Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).
“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.
In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.
Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.
The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.
Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
It’s fairly common knowledge that languages, like people, have families. English, for instance, is a member of the Germanic family, with sister languages including Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages. Germanic, in turn, is a branch of a larger family, Indo-European, whose other members include the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, and more), Russian, Greek, and Persian.
Being part of a family of course means that you share a common ancestor. For the Romance languages, that mother language is Latin; with the spread and then fall of the Roman empire, Latin split into a number of distinct daughter languages. But what did the Germanic mother language look like? Here there’s a problem, because, although we know that language must have existed, we don’t have any direct record of it.
The earliest Old English written texts date from the 7th century AD, and the earliest Germanic text of any length is a 4th-century translation of the Bible into Gothic, a now-extinct Germanic language. Though impressively old, this text still dates from long after the breakup of the Germanic mother language into its daughters.
How does one go about recovering the features of a language that is dead and gone, and which has left no records of itself in spoken or written form? This is the subject matter of linguistic necromancy – or linguistic reconstruction, as it is more conventionally known.
The enterprise, dubbed “darkest of the dark arts” and “the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries” in the epigraph to a chapter of Campbell’s historical linguistics textbook, really got off the ground in the 1900s due to a development of a toolkit of techniques known as the comparative method.
Crucial to the comparative method was a revolutionary empirical finding: the regularity of sound change. Though it has wide-reaching implications, the basic finding is simple to grasp. In a nutshell: it’s sounds that change, not words, and when they change, all words which include those sounds are affected.
Let’s take an example. Lots of English words beginning with a p sound have a German counterpart that begins with pf. Here are some of them:
English path: German Pfad
English pepper: German Pfeffer
English pipe: German Pfeife
English pan: German Pfanne
English post: German Pfoste
If the forms of words simply changed at random, these systematic correspondences would be a miraculous coincidence. However, in the light of the regularity of sound change they make perfect sense. Specifically, at some point in the early history of German, the language sounded a lot more like (Old) English. But then the sound p underwent a change to pf at the beginning of words, and all words starting with p were affected.
There’s much more to be said about the regularity of sound change, since it underlies pretty much everything we know about language family groupings. (If you’re interested in finding out more, Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language provides an accessible summary.) But for now let’s concentrate on its implications for necromantic purposes, which are immense.
If we want to invoke the words and sounds of a long-dead language like the mother language Proto-Germanic (the ‘proto-’ indicates that the language is reconstructed, rather than directly evidenced in texts), we just need to figure out what changes have happened to the sounds of the daughter languages, and to peel them back one by one like the layers of an onion. Eventually we’ll reach a point where all the daughter languages sound the same; and voilà, we’ve conjured up a proto-language.
There’s more to living languages than just sounds and words though. Living languages have syntax: a structure, a skeleton. By contrast, reconstructed protolanguages tend to look more like ghosts: hauntingly amorphous clouds of words and sounds. There are practical reasons why the reconstruction of proto-syntax has lagged behind. One is simply that our understanding of syntax, in general, has come a long way since the work of the reconstruction pioneers in the 19th century.
Another is that there is nothing quite like the regularity of syntactic change in syntax: how can we tell which syntactic structures correspond to each other across languages? These problems have led some to be sceptical about the possibility of syntactic reconstruction, or at any rate about its fruitfulness. Nevertheless, progress is being made. To take one example, English is a language that doesn’t like to leave out the subject of a sentence. We say “He speaks Swahili” or “It is raining”, not “Speaks Swahili” or “Is raining”. Though most of the modern Germanic languages behave the same, many other languages, like Italian and Japanese, have no such requirement; speakers can include or omit the subject of the sentence as the fancy takes them. Was Proto-Germanic like English, or like Italian or Japanese, in this respect? Doing a bit of necromancy based on the earliest Germanic written records suggests that Proto-Germanic was, like the latter, quite happy to omit the subject, at least under certain circumstances.Of course the issue is more complex than that – Italian and Japanese themselves differ with regard to the circumstances under which subjects can be omitted.
Slowly but surely, though, historical linguists are starting to add skeletons to the reanimated spectres of proto-languages.
The development of linguistics as a scientific discipline is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary thought, as it has led to the discovery of some fundamental principles about the functioning of language. However, most of its recent discoveries have not yet reached the general audience of educated people beyond the specialists. Scholars of classics, in particular, have found it difficult to become involved in the debate, since many recent studies in linguistics have been driven by the necessity to free themselves from the subordination to Latin grammar and have put into question the validity of certain aspects of traditional grammar.
As a consequence, progress made by contemporary linguistics has paradoxically had a negative rather than positive effect on the teaching of Latin. Although traditional grammars are now outdated, a suitable replacement has not yet been offered and a widespread scepticism has forced many to keep relying on old fashioned textbooks.
In order to overcome this undesirable state of affairs, it is desirable to bring Latin grammar back to its original high-level scientific conception, going beyond a prescriptive attitude and restoring the original theoretical tension. Although many branches of contemporary linguistics are potentially suited to fulfil this objective, none of them have been fully exploited in teaching yet. Their advantage over traditional approaches lies in their ability to satisfy the same needs as traditional analytical and philosophical Latin grammar, exploiting – at the same time – new methods, which are suitable to formulate more accurate analyses and theoretical generalizations.
Latin grammar should be presented as an activity which raises the linguistic awareness of its readers, using the most recent tools of modern linguistics. This should not be limited to the traditional Indo-European historical perspective, but includes the comparison of different languages and the attempt to represent the way in which grammar rules are codified in the mind.
The hypothesis is that there exists a language faculty underlying all languages, known as Universal Grammar (UG), i.e. a system of variable and invariable factors internalized in the speaker’s mind, which constitutes the basis of the grammar of each language. Understanding the contents of UG amounts to understanding those linguistic phenomena that are common to all languages. In this perspective, it is possible to develop a new method of teaching Latin, which aims at strengthening the cognitive skills of the learner’s mind. This method consists in overcoming the rigidity of a purely normative conception of grammatical rules, in order to make them explicit in a synchronic formal way and thus formulate hypotheses about the mental mechanisms that generate them. This method is an updated enhancement of the old conception of grammatical studies known as progymnasmata, i.e. “gymnastics of the mind,” which introduces the reader to the world of classical scholarship.
On the basis of some recent discoveries made by the neurosciences, it is possible to formulate grammatical rules that represent a better approximation of the implicit and explicit mental operations carried out by the language learner. The desired effect is the activation of the appropriate areas of the brain, i.e. the ones which are naturally devoted to the processing of linguistic information, thus rendering the process of language acquisition faster and more natural. Indeed, a vast number of recent studies have shown that language learning strongly relies on a constant and unconscious comparison between the second language (L2) and the learner’s mother tongue. By comparing linguistic phenomena across distinct languages and by interpreting the results with updated theoretical tools, we intend to underlie the deep similarities among languages rather than their superficial differences. This new teaching perspective represents a fundamental advantage for learners, who can focus their attention on the limits of linguistic variation, making their acquisitional task more feasible. In particular, by overtly reflecting on language and comparing L2 grammars to the structures of the mother tongue, the study of Latin becomes more stimulating and active.
Moreover, as students become aware of the difference between a “mistake”, as banned from the standard language, and linguistic “agrammaticality” (i.e. an option which is disallowed by the deep structure of the language), they become more critical and aware of the level of their written and oral performance in their mother tongue. From this perspective, it is clear that the study of Latin contributes to the overall linguistic education of learners, and not only to the training of those interested in classical studies. Students should no longer learn by heart the obscure rules of school grammars, often rooted on misconceptions, but they should instead explore the discoveries of centuries of classical scholarship in order to actively work out how languages function and change. In particular, they should focus their attention on the aspects of the targeted language they already know, before exploring the points of divergence from their mother tongue. Thanks to this revised methodology, the study of Latin loses any passive connotation and becomes an activity which enhances linguistic awareness, meta-linguistic competence, as well as critical thought.
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse. The notion of kotodama is closely linked with Japanese linguistic identity, and the narrative of kotodama has been repeatedly reinterpreted according to non-linguistic factors surrounding Japan, as well as the changing idea of “purity” of language in Japan.
The term kotodama literally means “the spirit of language” (koto = language, dama (tama) = spirit or soul). It is a belief based on the idea of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan which worships divinity in all natural creation and phenomena. In ancient Japan, language was believed to have a spirit, which gives positive power to positive words, negative power to negative words, and impacts a person’s life when his or her name is pronounced out loud. Wishes or curses were thus spelled out in a particular manner in order to communicate with the divine powers. According to this ancient belief, the spirit of language only resides in “pure” Japanese that is unique and free from foreign influence. Therefore, Sino-Japanese loanwords, which were numerous by then and had a great impact on the Japanese language, were eschewed in Shintoist rituals and Japanese native vocabulary, yamatokotoba, was preferred. Under the name of kotodama, this connection between spiritual power and pure language survived throughout Japanese history as a looser concept and was reinvented multiple times.
One of the most significant historical moments in which the myth of kotodama was reinvented was during the Second World War. In order to strengthen national solidarity, the government reintroduced the idea of kotodama, coupling it with the idea of kokutai (国体, こくたい, koku = country or nation, tai = body), the Japanese national polity. The government promoted the idea that the use of “pure” and traditional Japanese language was at the core of the national unity and social virtue that is unique to Japan, while failing to use the right language would lead to violation of the national polity. Under the belief of kotodama, proposals to abolish or reduce the use of kanji (Chinese characters), which had been introduced since the modernization of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century, were fiercely rejected. Instead, the use of kanji as well as traditional non-vernacular orthographic style was encouraged. Furthermore, based on the kotodama myth, the use of Western loanwords was strictly banned as they belonged to the language of the enemy (tekiseigo) and those words were replaced by Sino-Japanese words. For example, the word ragubî, which is the loan from the English word “rugby,” was replaced by tôkyû, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “fight ball.” The word anaunsâ, which is the loan from the English word “announcer,” was replaced by hôsôin, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “broadcasting person.”
It is interesting to note that the kotodama myth was reinvented to encourage the use of Sino-Japanese elements, whereas in the ancient belief the myth promoted the Japanese native elements and eschewed Sino-Japanese elements. In other words, Sino-Japanese was redefined as the essential element of the “pure” and “traditional” Japanese language. Even the movements to simplify the Japanese orthographic system by abolishing the use of Chinese characters and using only kana (phonetic syllabaries) to write Japanese were considered to be violations of kotodama, despite the fact that kana was invented in Japan. This complete reversal of the position of Sino-Japanese elements can be explained by the belief that the increasing use of Western loanwords was creating a new threat to the Japanese linguistic identity. The idea of kokutai, along with other militarist propaganda, was stigmatized in post-war Japanese society and faded away. However, the idea of kotodama survived through the post-war democratization period into contemporary Japan with yet another face.
You still hear the word kotodama today. A song titled “Ai no Kotodama [Kotodama of Love] – Spiritual Message” performed by a Japanese pop rock band, Southern All Stars, is a well-known hit which has sold over a million since it was recorded in 1996. Above all, one frequently sees the term kotodama used in public debates on the subject of foreign loanwords (gairaigo, which excludes Sino-Japanese loans). For example, an article from a nationwide newspaper stated that “loanwords are threatening the country of kotodama.” Thus the idea of kotodama is still linked to the purity of language in contrast to Western loanwords but, unlike the link between kotodama and political identity of the country made during World War Two, it seems that the myth is now linked to its cultural and social identity while recent waves of globalization have increased the diversity within the contemporary Japan.
The diversity of Japanese society goes hand in hand with the diversity of its vocabulary, which we can see from the rapid increase of loanwords in Japanese. However, at the same time, this increases a sense of insecurity in relation to the linguistic and cultural identity of Japan. As a result, the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a “pure” language. Kotodama has no fixed definition, and continues to transform as Japanese society undergoes changes. It is questionable if the Japanese still really believe in the spiritual power of language — however, the myth of linguistic purity persists in the mind of the Japanese through the word kotodama.
What is English? Ask any speaker of English, and the answer you get may be “it’s what the dictionary says it is.” Or, “it’s what I speak.” Answers like these work well enough up to a point, but the words that make it in the dictionary are not always the words we hear being used around us. And the language of any one English speaker can differ significantly in pronunciation and word order from the English of another, particularly today, when two out of three English speakers have learned English as a second or third language. In What Is English? And Why Should We Care?, Tim Machan addresses these deceptively complex questions in order to suggest the ways in which definitions of English always depend on speakers’ definitions of themselves.
Britain’s soldiers were singing about “hot stuff” more than 200 years before Donna Summer released her hit song of the same name in 1979. The true origins of martial ballads are often difficult to ascertain, but a song entitled “Hot Stuff” can be found in print by 1774. The 5 May edition of Rivington’s New York Gazetteer attributes the lyrics to sergeant Edward Bothwood of the 47th Regiment during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
This text leaves little doubt that “hot stuff” held similar sexual connotations to its eighteenth-century crooners that it does today. Alluding to the famous generals on the battlefields of Quebec, the final verse describes the soldiers invading a French convent (or possibly a bawdy house, since the terms were synonymous among soldiers). The sexual element in “hot stuff” is abundantly clear:
With Monkton and Townshend, those brave Brigadiers,
I think we shall soon knock the town ‘bout their ears;
And when we have done with the mortars and guns,
If you please, madam Abbess, — a word with your Nuns:
Each soldier shall enter the Convent in buff,
And then, never fear, we will give them Hot Stuff.
The Oxford English Dictionary has not previously recognized the use of “hot stuff” as a term to denote sexual attractiveness in the mid eighteenth century; the earliest such usage claimed by the current edition only dates back to 1884 and I have alerted the editors of this earlier example.
William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley. (1749-1750); Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
It should not be surprising that the expression “hot stuff” had its origin in military circles. Britain’s common soldiers were immersed in a counter-culture of which language was an important signifier. Men in uniform have long been known for having a greater propensity to swear, for example. This is borne out by the literature of the time. As early as 1749, Samuel Richardson referred to the popular expression of swearing “like a trooper” in his novel Clarissa. Characters in Robert Bage’s 1796 novel, Hermsprong, held profanity to be “as natural to a soldier as praying to a parson,” and worried that “if soldiers and sailors were forbidden it, their courage would droop.” It transcended the boundaries of rank and gender.
Folklore anthologist Roy Palmer uncovered a reference to a pensioner’s wife who swore compulsively, yet was considered a good soul whose coarse language was simply an indelible imprint of army life. One of the most famous of these military wives, Christian Davies — who followed her husband disguised as a soldier and later traveled with the troops as a sutler — commented on an officers’ ability to “curse,” noting one particular lieutenant who “swore a round hand.”
Martial language went beyond swearing, however. Francis Grose proudly named “soldiers on the long march” as one of the “most classical authorities” in the preface of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (first published in 1785). Having served in the army himself, Grose had first-hand knowledge of military slang. His dictionary referred to terms such as “hug brown bess” meaning “to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier;” “fogey” for “an invalid soldier;” and “Roman” for “a soldier in the foot guards, who gives up his pay to his captain for leave to work.”
Though Grose arguably provides the best evidence of military slang in the eighteenth century, other records offer hints. One soldier testified at the Old Bailey in 1756 that it was common for military men to use the term “uncle” to mean “pawnbroker,” for example. The contemporary resonance of terms like “hot stuff” and “fogey” are evidence that some, though not all, eighteenth-century soldiers’ patter eventually found its way into the civilian lexicon.
Francis Grose By D. O. Hill (Prof Wilson. Land of Burns. 1840) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Historians who have studied military slang for other armies tend to have a narrow scope that stresses the distinctive nature of the time and place under observation. Thus, a scholar of the American Civil War theorizes that the “custom of independently making up words” came at least in part from the fact that “the Civil War was fought by Jacksonian individualists.”
Tim Cook’s exploration of the colourful idioms of the Canadian troops in the First World War suggests that they served simultaneously to distinguish the Canadians from the other British forces and to help a disparate body of recruits develop a unified identity that separated them from their civilian counterparts. Although many of his insights could be applied to other armies in other wars, Cook limits his observations of language to its role in helping soldiers “endure and make sense of the Great War.”
I would suggest, instead, that linguistic liberties are a common characteristic to all Anglo armies from the eighteenth century onward. More needs to be done to determine whether the phenomenon is broader in geographic and temporal scope, and to understand precisely why military culture tends to take this particular shape.
At the very least, the British soldiers singing bawdily about “hot stuff” in the mid-eighteenth century probably found their shared slang helped to bond them to one another. Language operated similar to the uniform in separating military men from civilians and transforming them into objects of fascination (both positive and negative). Set beside Donna Summer, these raucous soldiers take their proper place at the forefront of popular culture.
Jennine Hurl-Eamon is associate professor of History at Trent University, Canada. She has published several articles and book chapters on aspects of plebeian marriage and the interactions between the poorer classes and the lower courts. She is the author of three books, Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720 (2005), and Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2010) and Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century (OUP, 2014).
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Image credit: William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley. (1749-1750); Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Francis Grose By D. O. Hill (Prof Wilson. Land of Burns. 1840). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A few weeks ago, I talked about euphemisms on Minnesota Public Radio. The comments were many and varied. Not unexpectedly, some callers also mentioned clichés, and I realized once again that in my resentment of unbridled political correctness, the overuse of buzzwords, and the ineradicable habit to suppress the truth by putting on it a coating of sugary euphemisms I am not alone.
The trouble with buzzwords and euphemisms is that they tend to lose their force and turn into inanities. A wonderful lady has been appointed president of a community college. This is the way she was characterized: “…an inclusive, transparent and collaborative leader with proven commitment to the success of all students.” I have no doubt she is, for she goes from one high post to another every two years, and such mobility needs a talent for collaboration and glass-like transparency. Yet I felt that something was missing in the recommender’s encomium, though I could not put my finger on it. Luckily, I read a review of his own performance and found that he is “a visionary leader who cares passionately for our students and works tirelessly on their behalf.” That’s it! The new president, I am sure, is also a visionary and cares passionately for the students at every college at which she was inclusive and transparent. How could those qualities be overlooked? (No one has plans any longer; we only “articulate visions”: a two-year vision, a five-year vision.) And the tireless leader, the author of the recommendation, is certainly a Renaissance man. Nowadays Leonardos are a dime a dozen.
A visionary. (Lenin making a speech in the Red Square at the unveiling of a temporary monument to Stepaz Razin in 1919. Photo by G.P.Goldshtein. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Stale, flat, and unprofitable are our official speeches. They have become like excerpts from reviews used as ads. Here are two quotations from central newspapers (both deal with ballets): “Riveting and exhausting, fascinating and relentless, brilliant and tedious… a mesmerizing exploration of…”; “tackling arduous roles…with degrees of energy, scale, detailed nuance, and musical sophistication seldom found anywhere.” (Are they paid per epithet?) I once read a review of a thoroughly mediocre performance of The Swan Lake. “The best performance I have seen,” the reviewer assured us. I suspect that it was the first he had ever seen, so he must have been telling the truth. It is with praise as with standing ovations; in our climate of rapturous overstatement to applaud sitting looks like an offence.
Some euphemisms the listeners remembered from their family tradition are truly mesmerizing and captivating, especially for their detailed nuance. One of them is gentleman cow for “bull.” Others are old and well-known but still funny, such as I have to see a man about a dog (horse), that is, “excuse me, I have to go to a toilet.” (Toilet itself has fallen victim to countless replacements, from restroom to john.)
Euphemisms and taboo words are perennial. People were afraid to pronounce the name of the bear; hence our word bear (its etymological meaning is “brown”; the Indo-European word for “bear” is hidden in Engl. Ursa, from Latin, and Arctic, from Greek). One of the listeners wrote: “I hate passed away/passed on/passed. What’s wrong with dead?” Euphemisms for death and dead may have the same origin as those for bear (fear); it is better not to call a terrible thing by its real name, for it will hear, understand, and come. But today we are not so superstitious, so that our passed and passedaway are mere signs of sham gentility. On the other hand, the rude phrase death tax has almost supplanted estate tax in everyday speech. You never know!
Then, naturally, embarrassing actions need sweet names. This is true not only of urinating and defecating but also of begging and extorting money. No one says pay up or get lost; people ask for “donations.” Aren’t service fee, seat fee, and convenience fee among the most precious verbal treasures we have? Conversely, we despise the filthy rich, usually out of envy. But wealth also commands respect. This is how the neutral term job creator became a synonym of “rich”: sounds business-like, even laudatory in our “trickle-down economy.” Doctors are among the main perpetrators of euphemisms, and we are happy to follow their usage. “Can blindness be the result of the surgery?” Answer: “The surgery may affect your vision.” “During the procedure you will experience slight discomfort.” It intends to mean “sharp, stabbing pain.” Sex has produced two tendencies. Our wonderful liberation allows everyone from early age to use the F-word. On the other hand, in polite conversation have intercourse is the limit. Most will prefer to say she sleeps with X, they made love on their first date, and the like.
It is a joy to watch verbal dances around old age. There is of course no need to call a spade a bloody shovel and say that old geezers have a 10% discount, but we feel queasy even about pronouncing the adjective old. “When I was pregnant with my third child, the doctor kept saying ‘Because of your advanced age…’.” Of course: not blind (only suffering from impaired vision), not too old but only of advanced age. Then the noble word seniors came up, and it is certainly here to stay. Seniority plays an important role in our fight for survival.
As one of the listeners put it: “What’s fun about a euphemism is what it tells us about a culture and about a user.” Indeed, but it is sometimes moderate fun. We are obsessed with offending someone, especially when it comes to ethnicity and gender. As a lecturer, I constantly dread “creating a hostile environment.” My audience may miss the content of the entire talk but will notice a poisoned sting in the most innocent joke. Everybody is supersensitive. Jew’s harp—shouldn’t we change the name, considering that the instrument has nothing to do with Jews? Because of the late connotation of spade (an ethnic slur), why not abolish the phrase call a spade a spade? On the Internet, I found a long essay that answers someone’s question about the phrase. Fortunately, it explains that in this case we have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet when you come to think of it, isn’t bloody shovel safer after all? Most of us still remember the uproar caused by the use of the adjective niggardly (which, of course, has nothing to do with the slur). The noun niggard seems to be of Scandinavian origin, but some people may feel hurt by its use.
In Minnesota, Asian carp has been replaced with invasive carp. Very wise. Why offend people of Asian descent? Not that they have been offended (though I may have missed something), but what if someone explains to them that the term is an outrage on their heritage? Our barbarous past has burdened us with Dutch uncle, French kiss, and many other shocking idioms. And don’t forget French fries ~ freedom fries. One of the listeners called my attention to such horrors as English sole (I will add: what if someone takes it for English soul?), German measles, Irish setter, Japanese beetle, Spanish fly, French letter, and Russian roulette—all highly inappropriate. I agree.
Let us work together on improving our language, and many thanks to those who participated in my talk show.
The French language came to North America with the first French settlers in the 17th century. French and British forces had long been at war before the final victory of Britain in the mid 18th century; after the loss of New France, France lost contact with its settlers and Quebec French became isolated from European French. The two languages evolved in different ways, leaving Quebec French with older forms of pronunciation and expressions that later died out in France. Until the emergence of radio and television broadcasting, French Canadian society had been completely dominated by English, which was the language of the ruling class.
During the 1960s, Quebec went through a period of intense change called the Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution). This period marked the transition from political conservatism and sociocultural immobility, mainly orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church, to a modern era characterized by major social development and an increase of Quebecois control over the province’s economy. The Quiet Revolution was also characterized by the affirmation of the Quebecois identity, closely related to their linguistic affirmation.
The French language spoken in Quebec was no longer a simple linguistic matter, but became an ideological, political, academic, and economic issue — the symbol of a society willing to get rid of its alienated minority status. The modernization of Quebec society had repercussions on the language itself, which was seen by the francophone elite as underdeveloped and corrupted by its contact with English. Laws were voted to promote French as the only official language of the province of Quebec, and plans to replace pervasive English terminology were supported by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française. At the same time, an eager desire to standardize and to improve Quebec French in line with the Metropolitan French norm was observed. This drew criticism from a lot of Quebecois, who claimed that their language was an integral part of their identity. Today, even if the status of Quebec French still remains slightly ambiguous, the Quebecois have mainly lost their feeling of inferiority toward Metropolitan French. The media now uses what is called ‘standard Quebec French’, and people are proud of its deviations from European French.
Quebec French and Metropolitan French
There are several types of differences between Metropolitan French (MF) and Quebec French (QF). Besides phonetic differences that will not be addressed here, the more obvious ones are lexical. Here is an overview of what they look like.
There are plenty of words in QF that are falling out of use or sound old-fashioned in MF: for example, soulier (shoe) rather than chaussure in MF, bas (socks) instead of chaussette in MF. We can also observe some small discrepancies that can cause confusion, since word meanings are not always completely equivalent. For example, “birthday” is anniversaire in MF but more commonly fête in QF, while fête in MF (meaning “party”) is party in QF (pronounced as [paʀte]). Thus, the expression fête d’anniversaire (“birthday party”) is usually party de fête in QF. In QF foulard is the equivalent of both écharpe (scarf) and foulard (light scarf) in MF. Where MF requires a precise word for each relationship, the informal word chum in QF can encompass husband, common-law husband, and boyfriend.
But differences between these two forms of French go beyond the lexical level. Although some Quebecois tend to deny it, there are also some syntactic differences. One can observe the use of prepositions in QF where MF would not allow them. For instance, in QF il vient à tous les soirs (he comes every night) is il vient tous les soirs in MF. Twenty years ago, the verb aider (to help) was still a transitive verb with an indirect object: aider à quelqu’un instead of aider quelqu’un.
While the use of the interrogative pronoun in a declarative sentence such as je ne sais pas qu’est ce qu‘il faut faire is seen as an uneducated mistake in MF (where people say je ne sais pas ce qu’il faut faire), this form is commonly used in QF.
Finally, more surprisingly, morphological differences can be noticed between the two languages. While trampoline is a feminine noun in QF, it is a masculine one in MF. On the contrary, moustiquaire (mosquito net) is a feminine noun in MF and a masculine one in QF. Cash machine is translated as distributeur de billets in MF and distributrice de billets in QF. Some recent linguistic borrowings have different genders too: feta and mozzarella are feminine nouns in MF but masculine ones in QF; job is a masculine noun in MF and a feminine one in QF, and so forth. One can also observe some nouns with a floating gender in QF, for instance, sandwich is either feminine or masculine.
Quebec French and English
About two thirds of Montreal’s population are francophones, most of whom are bilingual. However, in Quebec City and rural Quebec, even the youngest aren’t necessarily fluent in English. Some people do not have any knowledge of English whatsoever. Yet, since the province of Quebec is surrounded by English-speaking regions (i.e. the rest of Canada and the United States), even if people fiercely fight it, QF is inevitably and strongly influenced by the English language. Some Anglicisms are so commonly used that they have become assimilated into the particularities of QF: for example, tomber en amour literally means “to fall in love,” and prendre une marche is literally “to take a walk.” There are a lot of mispronounced English words that have been introduced to QF, such as gagne from gang, bécosse (toilet) from back house, bobépine from bobby pin, paparmanne from peppermint, and pinotte from peanut.
One can observe some Anglicisms that are not the same as those in MF. We find in QF être conservateur (to be conservative), faire le party (to party), and avoir une date avec quelqu’un (to have a date with someone), where in MF one would say être prudent, faire la fête, and avoir un rendez-vous (galant). Instead of week-end, parking, and email commonly used in MF, QF uses fin de semaine, stationnement, and courriel respectively.
Even if the Office Québécois de la Langue Française has done a very good job of promoting French terminology in many technical areas, some of them are still dominated by English. For instance, a lot of Quebecois, even the non-English speakers, do not know the French equivalent for “windshield,” “muffler,” or “clutch.”
In asserting itself, Quebec French faces two issues: it stands between the ongoing invasion of English and the will to fight against it, and also between a desire to conform itself to Metropolitan French and to claim proudly its own particularities. Over the years, Quebec French has moved from a very popular English-mixed dialect to a valuable distinct and recognized French language. The Quebecois like to consider it as a true language and are eager to protect it, since it guarantees the liveliness of their particular culture in an English-speaking North America.
When it comes to assessing someone’s sincerity, we pay close attention to what people say and how they say it. This is because the emotion-based elements of communication are understood as partially controllable and partially uncontrollable. The words that people use tend to be viewed as relatively controllable; in contrast, rate of speech, tone of voice, hesitations, and gestures (paralinguistic elements) have tended to be viewed as less controllable. As a result of the perception of speakers’ lack of control over them, the meanings conveyed via paralinguistic channels have tended to be understood as providing more reliable evidence of a speaker’s inner state.
Paradoxically, the very elements that are viewed as so reliable are consistent with multiple meanings. Furthermore, people often believe that their reading of another person’s demeanor is the correct one. Many studies have shown that people – judges included – are notoriously bad at assessing the meaning of another person’s affective display. Moreover, some research suggests that people are worse at this when the ethnic background of the speaker differs from their own – not an uncommon situation when defendants address federal judges, even in 2014.
The element of defendants’ demeanor is not only problematic for judges; it is also problematic for the record of the proceedings. This is due to courtroom reporters’ practice of reporting the words that are spoken and excluding input from paralinguistic channels.
I observed one case in which this practice had the potential for undermining the integrity of the sentencing hearing transcript. In this case, the defendant lost her composure while making her statement to the court. The short, sob-filled “sorry” she produced mid-way through her statement was (from my perspective) clearly intended to refer to her preceding tears and the delays in her speech. The official transcript, however, made no reference to the defendant’s outburst of emotion, thereby making her “sorry” difficult to understand. Without the clarifying information about what was going on at the time – namely, the defendant’s crying — her “sorry” could conceivably be read as part of her apology to the court for her crime of robbing a bank.
Not distinguishing between apologies for the crime and apologies for a problem with delivery of one’s statement is a problem in the context of a sentencing hearing because apologies for crimes are understood as an admission of guilt. If the defendant had not already apologized earlier, the ambiguity of the defendant’s words could have significant legal ramifications if she sought to appeal her sentence or to claim that her guilty plea was illegal.
As the above example illustrates, the exclusion of meaning that comes from paralinguistic channels can result in misleading and inaccurate transcripts. (This is one reason why more and more police departments are video-recording confessions and witness statements.) If a written record is to be made of a proceeding, it should preserve the significant paralinguistic elements of communication. (Following the approach advocated by Du Bois 2006, one can do this with varying amounts of detail. For example, the beginning and ending of crying-while-talking can be indicated with double angled brackets, e.g., < < sorry > >.) Relatedly, if a judge is going to use elements of a defendant’s demeanor in court to increase a sentence, the judge should be prepared to defend this decision and cite the evidence that was employed. Just as a judge’s decision based on the facts of the case can be challenged, a decision based on demeanor evidence deserves the same scrutiny.
To celebrate the launch of our new Oxford Arabic Dictionary (in print and online), the Chief Editor, Tressy Arts, explains why she decided to become an Arabist.
When I tell people I’m an Arabist, they often look at me like they’re waiting for the punchline. Some confuse it with aerobics and look at me dubiously — I don’t quite have the body of a dance instructor. Others do recognize the word “Arabic” and look at me even more dubiously — “What made you decide to study that!?”
Well, my case is simple, if probably not typical. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, you can learn a lot of languages in secondary school, and I tried them all. So when the time came to choose a university study, “a language that isn’t like the others” seemed the most attractive option — and boy, did Arabic deliver.
Squiggly lines and dots?
It started with the script. A lot of people are put off by Arabic’s script, because it looks so impenetrable — all those squiggly lines and dots. At least if you are unfamiliar with Italian you can still make out some of the words. However, the script is really perfectly simple, and anyone can learn it in an hour or two. Arabic has 28 letters, some for sounds that don’t exist in English (and learning to pronounce these can be tricky and cause for much hilarity, like the ‘ayn which I saw most accurately described as “imagine you are at the dentist and the drill touches a nerve”), some handily combining a sound for which English needs two letters into one, like th and sh. Vowels aren’t usually written, only consonants. The dots are to distinguish between letters which have the same basic shape. And the reason it all looks so squiggly is that letters within one word are joined up, like cursive. Once you can see that, it all becomes a lot more transparent.
So once we mastered the script, after the first day of university, things got really interesting. The script unlocked a whole new world of language, and a fascinating language it was. Arabic is a Semitic language, which places it outside the Indo-European language family, and Semitic languages have some unique properties that I had never imagined.
For example, Arabic (and other Semitic languages) has a so-called “root-and-pattern” morphology. This means that every word is built up of a root, usually consisting of three consonants, which carries the basic meaning of that word; for example the root KTB, with basic meaning “writing”, or DRS “studying”. This root is then put in a pattern consisting of vowels and affixes, which manipulate its meaning to form a word. For example, *aa*i* means “the person who does something”, so a KaaTiB is “someone who writes”: a writer; and a DaaRiS is “someone who studies”: a researcher. Ma**a* means “the place where something takes place”, so a maKTaB is an office, a maKTaBa a library or bookshop, a maDRaSa a school.
This makes learning vocabulary both harder and easier. On the one hand, in the beginning all words sound the same — all verbs have the pattern *a*a*a: KaTaBa, BaHaTHa, DaRaSa, HaDaTHa, JaMaʿa — and you may well get utterly confused. But after a while, you get used to it, and if you encounter a new word and are familiar with the root and recognize the pattern, you can at least make an educated guess at what it might mean.
Keeping things logical . . . usually
Another wonderful aspect of Arabic is that it doesn’t have irregular verbs, unlike, for example, French (I’m looking at you pouvoir). But before you all throw out your French text books and switch to Arabic, let me warn you that there are about 250 different types of regular verb, each of which conjugates into 110 forms. This led to Guy Deutscher remarking, “if the Latin verbal system looked uncomfortably complex, here is an example which makes Latin seem like child’s play: the verbal system of the Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew.” Fair enough, it’s complex, but it’s all logical, and regular. I, for one, had much less trouble learning these Arabic verbs than the Latin and French ones, simply because there is such an elegant method to them.
There are other aspects of Arabic that are less logical. The numbers, for instance. I won’t go too deep into them, but suffice it to say that if you have three books the three is feminine because books are masculine and if you have three balls it’s vice versa, and then if you have thirteen of something the three is the opposite gender but the ten is the same, the counted word is suddenly singular and for no reason at all the whole lot has become accusative. Then at twenty it all changes again. It’s a wonder the Arab world proved so proficient in mathematics.
Other reasons to learn Arabic
Which leads me to the many other reasons one might want to learn Arabic. I focused on its fascinating linguistics above, because that is my personal favorite field, but there are the cultures steeped in rich history, the fascinating literature ranging from ancient poetry to cutting-edge modern novels, and of course the fact that every Muslim must know at least a little bit of Arabic in order to fulfill their religious duties (shahada, Fatiha, and salat), and for gleaning a deep understanding of the sources of Islam, Arabic is essential. Arabic is also a very wanted skill in many professions, and not just the obvious ones. I recall one of the recruiters at the Arabists’ Career Fair, speaking for a law firm, stating, “We can teach you law. Law is easy. What we need are people with a firm knowledge of Arabic.”
There is a study of color perception that has gotten around enough that I would like to devote this post to how I see it, according to my take on whether, and how, language “shapes” thought and creates a “worldview.”
The experiment involved the Himba people, and is deliciously tempting for those seeking to show how language creates a way of seeing the world.
There are two parts to the experiment. Part One: presented with a group of squares, most of them various shades of green and one of them a robin’s egg-style blue, Himba tended to have a hard time picking out which square was “different.” That would seem to suggest that having a single word for green and blue really does affect perception.
Part Two: presented with a number of squares which, to Western eyes, seem like minimally different shades of green, Himba people often readily pick out a single square which is distinct from the others. This, too, seems to correlate with something about their language. Namely, although they only have four color terms (similarly to many indigenous groups), those terms split up what we think of as the green range into three pieces – one color corresponds to various dark colors including dark green, one to “green-blue,” and then another one to other realms of green (and other colors).
Both of these results – on film, a Himba woman seeming quite perplexed trying to pick out the blue square, and meanwhile a Himba man squinting a bit and then picking out what looks to us like just one more leafy green square – seem to confirm that how your language describes a color makes a huge difference to how you see the color. The implications are obvious for other work in this tradition addressing things like terms for up and down, gender for inanimate objects, and the like.
But in fact, both cases pan out in ways quite unlike what we might expect. First, the blue square issue. It isn’t for nothing that some have speculated in all seriousness that if the Himba really can’t perceive the difference between forest green and sky blue, then the issue might be some kind of congenital color blindness (which is hardly unknown among isolated groups for various reasons).
That may seem a little hasty. But no one studying color terms, or language and thought, has ever denied that colors occur along a spectrum, upon which some are removed from one another to an extent that no humans have ever been claimed not to be able to perceive. Russians can suss out where dark blue starts shading into light a teensy bit faster than English speakers because they have separate words for light and dark blue – indeed. But no one claims that an English speaker plain can’t see the difference between navy blue and sky blue.
Along those lines, no one would remotely expect that a Himba speaker, or anyone, could actually not see the difference between spectographically distinct shades such as sky blue and forest green. One suspects that issues to do with familiarity with formal tests and their goals may have played a role here – but not that having the same word for green and blue actually renders one what we would elsewhere term color-blind.
Then, as to the shades of green, I’m the last person to say that the man on film didn’t pick out that shade of green faster than I would have expected. However, the question is whether we are seeing a “world view,” we must decide that question according to a very simple metric. The extent to which we treat something in someone’s language as creating a “cool” worldview must be the same extent to which we are prepared to accept something in someone’s language that suggests something “uncool” – because there are plenty of such things.
A demonstration case is Chinese, in which marking plurality, definiteness, hypotheticality, and tense are all optional and as often as not, left to context. The language is, compared to English, strikingly telegraphic. An experiment was done some time ago suggesting that, for example, the issue with hypotheticality meant that to be Chinese was to be less sensitive to the hypothetical than an English speaker is. That is, let’s face it, a cute way of saying that to be Chinese is to be not quite as quick on the uptake as a Westerner.
No one liked that, and I assume that most of us are quite prepared to say that whatever the results of that experiment were, they can’t have anything significant to do with Chinese perception of reality. Well, that means the verdict has to be the same on the Himba and green – we can’t think of him as seeing a world popping with gradations of green we’d never dream of if we can’t accept the Chinese being called a tad simple-minded. This is especially when we remember that there are many groups in the world whose color terms really don’t divvy up any one color in a cool way – they just don’t have as many names for colors, any colors, as we do. Are we ready to condemn them as not seeing the world in colors as vivid as we do because of the way they talk?
Surely not, and that’s the lesson the Himba experiment teaches. Language affects worldview in minuscule ways, of a sort you can tease out in a lab. However, the only way to call these minuscule ways “worldviews” is to accept that to be Chinese is to be dim. I don’t – and I hope none of the rest of us do either.
All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity — what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility — between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.
The problem that faces most learners of Arabic is that the written language is radically different from the various dialects spoken throughout the Arab world. Such differences appear in a variety of forms: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and tenses of verbs. The result is that even the most advanced learner of standard Arabic (or ‘the standard’) might find herself completely at sea on the streets of Beirut, while it is also conceivable for a student to complete a year of immersion in Cairo and not be able to understand a text written in the standard language.
The most diligent and ambitious of Arabic students, therefore, is required to learn both the standard and a regional variant in order to cover all the social situations in which they might use the language. This, however, will not solve their dilemma in its entirety: Moroccan Arabic is foreign to Levantines, while Iraqi can be quite a puzzle for Egyptians. Even the mastery of a regional variant along with the standard will only ease the learner’s task in part of the Arab World, while making it no easier in other regions. This phenomenon, in which a number of quasi- or poorly-intelligible dialects are used by speakers of a particular language depending on the situation in which they find themselves, is known as diglossia.
A many-headed beast
The source, or rather sources, of diglossia in the Arab world are both manifold and contentious. In part, regional differences come about from contact between Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers. Moroccan Arabic, for example, borrows from Berber, while Levantine dialects (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) have Aramaic elements in them. The dialects of the Persian Gulf area show the influence of Persian and Hindi, both of which were the languages of important trading partners for the region’s merchants. Finally, the languages of imperial or colonial administration left their imprint on virtually all dialects of the Arab World, albeit in different measures. It is for this reason that native speakers may choose from a variety of words, some foreign and others Arabic, in order to describe the same concept. Thus a Moroccan might use henna (from Berber) or jidda for grandmother; a Kuwaiti might buy meywa (from Farsi) or fawaakih when he has a craving for fruit; and a Lebanese worker might say she is going to the karhane (from Ottoman Turkish) or masna` when heading off to the factory.
Dialectical differences are not just a matter of appropriations and borrowings. Just as many non-native learners have grappled with the complex structure of the Arabic language, so too have many native speakers of Arabic. For all its complexity, however, there are certain nuances that standard Arabic does not express with efficiency or ease. This is why the regional dialects are marked by a number of simplifications and innovations, intended to allow for greater agility and finesse when speaking.
For example, Levantine dialects make use of agentparticiples (faakira, the one thinking; raayihun, the ones going; maashi, the one walking) instead of actually conjugating the verb (‘afkuru, I am thinking; yaruuhuuna, they are going; tamshiina, you are going). However, these same dialects, as well as Egyptian, have also created a series of verbal prefixes — small non-words that come before the conjugated verb — in order to refine the duration and timing of an action when conjugated verbs are used: baya’kal, he eats; `am baya’kal, he is eating; raH ya’kal or Ha ya’kal, he will eat. Such distinctions are familiar to speakers of English, but are not immediately apparent in Arabic, whose verbal system seeks to stress other types of information.
The more the merrier
Indeed, this display of innovation and human creativity is one of the strongest motivations for learning Arabic, whether standard or colloquial. Arabic might require as much effort and commitment as the acquisition of two or three Indo-European languages in order for a non-native speaker to be able to communicate in a meaningful way. However, it also opens the door to understanding the manner in which humans use and adapt language to their particular contexts. The diglossia issue is one that causes complications for non-native learners and native Arabic speakers alike, but it is also a fascinating showcase of the birth and evolution of languages that challenges our preconceived notions about good and bad speech, and the relative importance and value of dialects.
There’s something about the idea of ‘original pronunciation’ (OP) that gets the pulse racing. I’ve been amazed by the public interest shown in this unusual application of a little-known branch of linguistics — historical phonology, a subject that explores how the sounds of a language change over time. I little expected, when I was approached by Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004 to help them mount a production of Romeo and Juliet in OP, that ten years on the approach would become a thriving linguistic industry. Nor could I have predicted that a short documentary recording about OP for the Open University (which I made with actor son Ben in 2011) would for no apparent reason go viral towards the end of 2013, with 1.5 million hits in recent months.
A dozen Shakespeare plays have now been produced in original pronunciation, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kansas University in 2010 and Hamlet at the University of Nevada (Reno) in 2011. This year a group from the University of Texas (Houston) brought an OP production of Julius Caesar to the Edinburgh Fringe. Next January, Ben Crystal and his OP ensemble are presenting Pericles in Stockholm as part of an Interplay series along with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. More productions are in the pipeline.
But it isn’t just Shakespeare. The interest in him tops the list, but it is a long list, in which the work of any dramatist from the period can be treated in this way. And not just drama. Poems and prose too. My recording of the Sonnets is available on the website associated with the book Pronouncing Shakespeare. An OP recording by Ben of one of John Donne’s long sermons can now be heard as part of the Virtual St Paul’s Cross project.
Donne takes us forward in time to the 1620s. Going backwards in time, the British Library wanted an original pronunciation recording of William Tyndale to accompany the publication of its facsimile of the Tyndale Gospels. They chose the Matthew Gospel, and I recorded this for them in 2013. That takes us back to 1525. There are earlier recordings in the BL archive, made for the Evolving English winter exhibition in 2011-12, including extracts from Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, and Paston. The British Library also commissioned a CD of Shakespeare extracts from Ben and his ensemble: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.
But the interest extends well beyond literature. Notably present in the talkback sessions after the first original pronunciation productions at the Globe were people interested in early music. And since then there have been many explorations into the kind of pronunciation used by Purcell (late 17th century), Dowland, and other composers. As with their literary counterparts, musicologists have been struck by the fact that so many of the rhymes in songs, madrigals, and operatic texts simply don’t work in modern English, and they want to hear them as they would have been. They note the way many of the vowels and consonants would have had different values in those days, and they want to explore how the texts would sound with those old values articulated. The result is a very different auditory experience, and — by all accounts — an exciting one.
Finally there are the heritage people. It’s all well and good establishing a historical centre where an old period is recreated, and people dress up in old clothes and walk around — but how should they speak? The occasional ‘verily’ and ‘forsooth’ isn’t enough. Here too we see an interest in recreating styles of speech that would have been used in those days.
Add all these constituencies together and you can see why the original pronunciation experiment has become something of an OP movement, with more and more people wanting to learn about OP, to hear it in practice, and to explore its application in texts that so far have received no study. Every new text brings to light something new — such as a previously unnoticed pun, or a fresh way of speaking a line. At university level, people are beginning to write dissertations on the subject. Ben, as I write, is exploring ways for his ensemble to cope with new OP commitments. There’s plenty to do. With only a dozen Shakespeare plays explored so far, that leaves a couple of dozen more awaiting investigation.
The consequence is an urgent need to provide materials to help people take original pronunciation activities forward. Paul Meier already has some tutorial material on his website, and his Dream production is available both as an audio recording and on a DVD. Several articles have now been written answering the usual questions people ask (such as ‘how do you know’?). And I am hard at work on an OP Shakespeare dictionary, which will enable people to make transcripts for themselves. I have paused, in the middle of letter N, to write this post. But with luck and a good following wind, I should have it finished in time for the great anniversary in 2016. And it will be published, of course, by Oxford University Press.
Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon faced certain impeachment by the Congress for the Watergate scandal. He resigned the presidency, expressing a sort of conditional regret:
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
Nixon is not apologizing here as much as offering what sociologist Erving Goffman calls an account—a verbal reframing of his actions aimed at reducing their offensiveness. Nixon treats himself as a victim of his own mistakes and treats his mistakes as managerial, not criminal. His language is loaded with such words as “any,” “may,” “would,” and “if,” among others and circumlocutions likes “in the course of the events that led to this decision” and “what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.” Nixon offers regret, but there is no unconditional apology, and there never was.
I sometimes wonder how Nixon’s attitudes toward Watergate and his resignation were shaped by the 1952 presidential campaign, and the events that led to his so-called “Checkers” speech.
It was the home stretch of the 1952 campaign, in which the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senator Nixon were pitted against Democrats Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman to succeed President Harry Truman. Truman’s popularity was at a low point and Eisenhower and Nixon were optimistic about their chances. Then, in mid-September, the press began reporting stories of a secret expense fund established in 1950 by Nixon supporters. The New York Post offered the sensational headline that “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” As the story developed, many Democrats (and less publicly some Republicans) called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. News editorials disapproved of Nixon’s actions two-to-one. Even the Washington Post, which had endorsed the Republican ticket, called for Nixon to withdraw from the race.
The issue took some of the optimism out of the Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower defended his Vice President publicly, but also promised that there would be a full reporting of the facts by independent auditors. The 39-year-old Nixon offered his account in a half-hour television address broadcast from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, on 23 September 1952.
“I want to tell you my side of the case,” he began, and in a speech that ran just over 4,500 words, Nixon used a series of rhetorical questions guide his audience through his version of events. He used the strategy that rhetoricians called differentiation by claiming that the fund issue was not what it seemed to be. Nixon said that there was no moral wrong because none of the money—about $18,000—was for Senatorial expenses and that none of the contributors receive special favors. He asserted his own good character by explaining why he needed the money: because he was not a rich man and he didn’t feel the taxpayers should pay his expenses.
Nixon bolstered his character further with his biography—explaining his modest background and finances, giving details down to the amount of his life insurance, mortgages, and material of his wife’s coat: not mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” adding that “And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
He added another rhetorical turn in the second half of his speech: “Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have?” Nixon’s answer was “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Here Nixon implies that he is motivated by a greater good and he pivots to an attack on his political opponents and his avowal that Eisenhower was “the man that can clean up the mess in Washington.”
The speech was the first ever use of television by a national candidate to speak directly to the nation and to defend himself against accusations of wrong-doing. And the public was impressed. For many, the most memorable part was when Nixon told the viewers about a black and white cocker spaniel puppy that a supporter from Texas had given his daughters. One of them named it Checkers, and Nixon defiantly asserted that, “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech thus became known as “The Checkers Speech.”
Nixon finished with a call to action, asking his listeners to write to the Republican National Committee to show their support. His broadcast was seen by an estimated 60 million viewers, and letters and telegrams to the Republican National Committee were overwhelmingly supportive. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and a few weeks later the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket carried the day with over 55% of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes.
Nixon accomplished three key verbal self-defense strategies in the “Checkers” speech. He argued that the fund was not what it seemed to be. He argued that he was a good steward of public funds and exposed his personal finances. He implied that he was serving a higher good because he supported General Eisenhower and opposed Communism.
But by 1974, things were different. Nixon was in trouble again, much worse trouble of his own making, and there was no “Checkers” speech, no way reframing his situation that would save his presidency. He resigned but he never apologized. Three years after resigning, in interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon was unequivocally defiant:
When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.
Perhaps he was thinking about the “Checkers” speech.
Headline image credit: President Richard Nixon delivers remarks to the White House staff on his final day in office. From left to right are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president, First Lady Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Ed Cox. 9 August 1974. White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The death rattle of the gender binary has been ringing for decades now, leaving us to wonder when it will take its last gasp. In this third decade of third wave feminism and the queer critique, dismantling the binary remains a critical task in the gender revolution. Language is among the most socially pervasive tools through which culture is negotiated, but in a language like English, with its minimal linguistic marking of gender, it can be difficult to find concrete signs that linguistic structures are changing to reflect new ways of thinking about the gender binary rather than simply repackaging old ideas.
One direction we might look, though, is toward the gendering of third person pronouns, which is what led me to write this post about pronouns on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social media giant may not be your first thought when it comes to feminist language activism, but this year’s shift in the way Facebook categorizes gender is among the most widely-felt signs of a sea change in institutional attitudes about gendered third person pronouns. Although Facebook does not have the same force as the educational system, governments, or traditional print media, it carries its own linguistic caché established through its corporate authority, its place in the cultural negotiation of coolness and social connection, and its near inescapable presence in everyday life.
In response to long-standing calls from transgender and gender non-conforming users to broaden its approach to gender, Facebook announced earlier this year that it would offer a new set of options. Rather than limiting members of the site to the selection of female or male, an extensive list of gender identities is offered, along with the option of a custom entry, including labels like agender, bigender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, trans person, two-spirit, transgender (wo)man and cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) (wo)man.
With all of the potential complexity afforded by these categories, Facebook couldn’t rely on a simple algorithm of assigning gendered pronouns for those occasions on which the website generates a third person reference to the user (e.g. “Wish ___ a happy birthday!”). Instead, it asks which set of pronouns a user prefers among three options: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. As a result, there are two important ways that Facebook’s reconsideration of its gender classification system goes beyond the listing of additional gender categories. The first is the more obvious of the two: offering singular they as an option for those who prefer gender neutral reference forms. The other is simply the practice of asking for a pronoun preference rather than deriving it from gender or sex.
Sanctioning the use of singular they as a gender neutral pronoun counters the centuries-old grammarian’s complaint that they can only be used in reference to plural third person referents. Proponents of singular they, however, point out that the pronoun has been used by some of the English-speaking world’s finest writers and that it was in wide-spread use even before blatantly misogynistic language policies determined that he should be the gender-neutral pronoun in official texts of the British government. More recently, an additional source of support for singular they has arisen: for those who do not wish to be slotted into one side of the gender binary or the other, they is perhaps the most intuitive way to avoid gendered third-person pronouns because of its already familiar presence in most dialects of English. (Other options include innovative pronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/em’s.) In this case, a speaker must choose between upholding grammatical conventions and affirming someone’s identity.
But wait, you might ask – don’t we need a distinction between singular and plural they? How are we supposed to know when someone is talking about a single person and when they’re talking about a group? Though my post isn’t necessarily meant to defend the use of singular they in reference to specific individuals (an argumentothers have madequite extensively), this point is worth addressing briefly if only to dispel the notion that the standard pronoun system is logical while deviations are somehow logically flawed. As the pronoun charts included here illustrate, there is already a major gap in the standard English pronoun system when compared to many other languages: a distinction between singular and plural you. Somehow we get by, however, relying on context and sometimes asking for clarification. Could we do the same with they?
The second pronoun-related change Facebook has made – asking for preferred pronouns rather than determining them based on gender category – is a more fundamental challenge to the normative take on assigning pronouns. According to conventional wisdom, a speaker will select whether to use she or he based on certain types of information about the person being referred to: how their bodily sex is perceived, how they present their gender, and in some cases other contextual factors like their name. To be uncertain about which gendered pronoun to use can be a source of great anxiety, exemplified by cultural artifacts like Saturday Night Live’s androgynous character from the 1990s known only as Pat. No one ever asks Pat about their gender because to do so would presumably be a grave insult, as Pat apparently has no idea that they have an androgynous appearance (were you able to follow me, despite the singular they’s?).
But transgender and queer communities are increasingly turning this logic on its head. Rather than risk being “mis-pronouned,” as community members sometimes call it, it is becoming the norm for introductions in many trans and queer contexts to include pronouns preferences along with names. For instance, my name is Lal and I prefer he/him/his pronouns. (Even the custom of calling these “male” pronouns has been critiqued on the basis that one needn’t identify as male in order to prefer he/him/his pronouns.) The goal behind this move is to remove the tension of uncertainty and to avoid potential offense or embarrassment before it takes place. But this is not just a practice for transgender and gender non-conforming people; the ideal is that no one’s pronoun preferences be taken for granted. Instead of determining pronouns according to appearance, they become a matter of open negotiation in which one can demonstrate an interest in using language that feel maximally respectful to others.
Facebook’s adoption of this new approach to pronouns, despite prescriptive grammarians’ objections, suggests that the acceptance and use of singular they is expanding. More than that, it furthers the normalization of self-selected pronouns since even those who are totally unfamiliar with the use of singular they as a preferred pronoun, or the very idea of pronoun preferences, may be faced with unexpected pronouns in their daily newsfeeds.
For those of us at academic institutions with sizable transgender and gender non-conforming communities, the practices discussed here may already be underway on campus. During my time teaching at Reed College, for instance, I found students to be enthusiastic about including pronoun preferences in our beginning-of-semester introductions even in classes where everyone’s pronoun preferences aligned with normative expectations.
My goal here isn’t to argue that the gender binary is dissolving in the face of new pronoun practices. Indeed, linguistic negotiations of gender and sexual binaries are far too complex to draw such a simple conclusion. However, what I do want to suggest is that we are in the midst of some kind of shift in the way pronouns are used and understood among speakers of English. Describing a more fully complete change of this sort, linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein has explained how religious and political ideology among speakers of Early Modern English resulted in a collapse of the second person pronouns thou (singular, informal) and you (plural, formal). In the present case, rapidly changing ideologies about the gender binary may be pushing us toward a different organization of third person pronouns of the sort illustrated by the non-binary pronoun chart above.
The effect of Facebook on linguistic practice more broadly has yet to be fully uncovered, but its capital-driven flexibility and omnipresence in contemporary social life suggests that it may be a powerful tool in ideologically-driven language change.
A Happy New Year to our readers and correspondents! Questions, comments, and friendly corrections have been a source of inspiration to this blog throughout 2012, as they have been since its inception. Quite a few posts appeared in response to the questions I received through OUP and privately (by email). As before, the most exciting themes have been smut and spelling. If I wanted to become truly popular, I should have stayed with sex, formerly unprintable words, and the tough-through-thoughgang. But being of a serious disposition, I resist the lures of popularity. It is enough for me to see that, when I open the page “Oxford Etymologist,” the top post invites the user to ponder the origin of fart. And indeed, several of my “friends and acquaintance” (see the previous gleanings) have told me that they enjoy my blog, but invariably added: “I have read your post on fart. Very funny.” I remember that after dozens of newspapers reprinted the fart essay, I promised a continuation on shit. Perhaps I will keep my promise in 2013. But other ever-green questions also warm the cockles of my heart, especially in winter. For instance, I never tire of answering why flammable means the same as inflammable. Why really? And now to business.
Folk etymology. “How much of the popular knowledge of language depends on folk etymology?” I think the question should be narrowed down to: “How often do popular ideas of language depend on folk etymology?” People are fond of offering seemingly obvious explanations of word origins. Sometimes their ideas change a well-established word. Shamefaced, to give just one example, developed from shame-fast (as though restrained by shame). Some mistakes are so pervasive that one day the wrong forms may share the fate of shame-fast. Such is, for example, protruberance, by association with protrude. Despite what the OED says, it seems more probable that miniscule developed from minuscule only because the names of mini-things begin with mini-. Incidentally, from a historical point of view, even miniature has nothing to do with the picture’s small size. Most people would probably say that massacre has the root mass- (“mass killing”), but the two words are not connected. Anyone can expand this list.
Sound symbolism. A correspondent has read my book on word origins and came across a section on words beginning with gr-, such as Grendel and grim. Since they often refer to terror and cruelty (at best they designate gruff and grouchy people), he wonders how the word grace belongs here. It does not. Sound symbolism is a real force in language. One can cite any number of words with initial gl- for things glistening and gleaming, with fl- when flying, flitting, and flowing are meant, as well as unpleasant sl-words like slimy and sleazy. But green, flannel, and slogan will show that at best we have a limited tendency rather than a rule. Besides, many sound symbolic associations are language-specific. So somebody who has a daughter called Grace need not worry.
Grendel attacking Three Graces.
Engl. galoot and Catalan golut. More than four years ago, I wrote a triumphant post on the origin of Engl. galoot. The reason for triumph was that I was the first to discover the word’s derivation (a memorable event in the life of an etymologist). Just this month one of our correspondents discovered that post and asked about its possible connection with Catalan golut “glutton; wolverine.” This, I am sure, is a coincidence. In the Romance languages, we find words representing two shapes of the same root, namely gl- and gl- with a vowel between g and l. They inherited this situation from Latin: compare gluttire “to swallow” and gola “throat.” English borrowed from Old French and later from Latin several words representing both forms of the root, as seen in glut ~ glutton and gullet. As for the sense “wolverine” (the name of a proverbially voracious animal, Gulo luscus), it has also been recorded in English. By contrast, Engl. galoot has not been derived from the gl- root, with or without a vowel in the middle. It goes back to Dutch, while the Dutch took it over from Italian galeot(t)o “sailor” (which is akin to galley).
Judgementversus judgment. This is an old chestnut. Both spellings have been around for a long time. Acknowledgment and abridgment belong with judgment. Since the inner form of all those word is unambiguous, the variants without e cause no trouble. The widespread opinion that judgment is American, while judgement is British should be repeated with some caution, because the “American” spelling was at one time well-known in the UK. However, it is true that modern American editors and spellcheckers require the e-less variant. I would prefer (though my preference is of absolutely no importance in this case) judgement, that is, judge + ment. The deletion of e produces an extra rule, and we have enough of silly spelling rules already. Another confusing case with -dg- is the names Dodgson and Hodgson. Those bearers of the two names whom I knew pronounced them Dodson and Hodson respectively, but, strangely, many dictionaries give only the variant with -dge-. Is it known how Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, pronounced his name?
Zigzag and Egypt. The tobacco company called its products Zig-Zag after the “zigzag” alternating process it used, though it may have knowingly used the reference to the ancient town Zig-a-Zag (I have no idea). Anyway, the English word does not have its roots in the Egyptian place name.
Lark. I was delighted to discover that someone had followed my advice and listened to Glinka-Balakirev’s variations. It is true that la-la-la does not at all resemble the lark’s trill, and this argument has been used against those who suggested an onomatopoeic origin of the bird’s name. But, as long as the bird is small, la seems to be a universal syllable in human language representing chirping, warbling, twittering, trilling, and every other sound in the avian kingdom. It was also a pleasure to learn that specialists in Frisian occasionally read my blog. I know the many Frisian cognates of lark thanks to Århammar’s detailed article on this subject (see lark in my bibliography of English etymology).
Bumper. I was unable to find an image of the label used on the bottles of brazen-face beer. My question to someone who has seen the label: “Was there a picture of a saucy mug on it?” (The pun on mug is unintentional.) I am also grateful for the reference to the Gentleman’sMagazine. My database contains several hundred citations from that periodical, but not the one to which Stephen Goranson, a much better sleuth that I am, pointed. This publication was so useful for my etymological bibliography that I asked an extremely careful volunteer to look through the entire set of Lady’s Magazine and of about a dozen other magazines with the word lady in the title. They were a great disappointment: only fashion, cooking, knitting, and all kinds of household work. Women did write letters about words to Notes and Queries, obviously a much more prestigious outlet. However, we picked up a few crumbs even from those sources. The word bomber-nickel puzzled me. I immediately thought of pumpernickelbut could not find any connection between the bread and the vessel discussed in the entry I cited. I still see no connection. As for pumpernickel, I am well aware of its origin and discussed it in detail in the entry pimp in my dictionary (pimp, pump, pomp-, pumper-, pamper, and so forth).
Again. It was instructive to see the statistics about the use of the pronunciation again versus agen and to read the ditty in which again has a diphthong multiple times. If I remember correctly, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and others rhymed again only with words like slain, though one never knows to what extent they exploited the so-called rhyme to the eye. Most probably, they did pronounce a diphthong in again.
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Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS. Image credit: (1) Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Three Graces, 1531. The Louvre via Wikimedia Commons. (2) An illustration of the ogre Grendel from Beowulf by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall in J. R. Skelton’s Stories of Beowulf (1908) via Wikimedia Commons.
People who care about good language tend to assume that casual spoken language is full of chaos and error. I shared this belief till I did some substantial research into the linguistics of speech. There’s a surprising reason why we — academics and well-educated folk — should hold this belief: we are the greatest culprits. It turns out that our speech is the most incoherent. Who knew that working class speakers handle spoken English better than academics and the well-educated?
The highest percentage of well-formed sentences are found in casual speech, and working-class speakers use more well-formed sentences than middle-class speakers. The widespread myth that most speech is ungrammatical is no doubt based upon tapes made at learned conferences, where we obtain the maximum number of irreducibly ungrammatical sequences. (Labov 222. See also Halliday 132.)
Our language as it’s spoken / words by Geo. W. Day ; music by F.W. Isenbarth. c1898. Source: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
But just because so much spoken language is incoherent and ungrammatical, that doesn’t make it useless for writing. Careless casual speech may be too messy for careful writing, but it happens to be full of linguistic virtues that are sorely needed for good writing. For example, speakers naturally avoid the deadening nominalizations and passive verbs that muffle so much writing. Try asking students what they were trying to say in a tangled essay that you can’t quite understand: they’ll almost always blurt out the main point in clear and direct language.
In the past, I’ve been interested in the wisdom that can be found hidden behind incoherence. But now I want to explore the wisdom revealed by incoherence itself, a particular kind of incoherence that is especially characteristic of academics. That is, I’m not talking about little interruptions that so many literate people make to correct a piece of careless “bad grammar” that slipped out of their mouth. No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”). Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one. (“Elections tend to favor those who… You know what’s interesting here is the way in which political parties just… Still, if you consider how political parties tend to function…” and so on.) Alternatively, we drift into sentence interruptus: a phrase is left dangling while we silently muse — and we never return to finish it.
When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course), because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.“ “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:
X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.
And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.
As a result of all this training we come to internalize these written voices so that they speak to us continually from inside our own heads. So even when we talk and start to say “X,” we interrupt ourselves to say “Y,” but then turn around and say “Nevertheless X in certain respects, yet nevertheless Y in other respects.” We end up with our minds tied in knots.
It’s tempting to laugh at this — and I try to smile good-heartedly when people make fun of my speech. After a recent talk, a listener said to me, “Peter, you never completed a single sentence.” But it’s time for the worm to turn. Finally I want to try to stick up for my linguistic disability. I want to suggest that it comes from a valuable habit of mind. It’s the habit of always hearing and considering a different idea or conflicting view while engaged in saying anything. Too many things seem to go on at once in our minds; we live with constant interruptions and mental invasions as we speak. We are trained as academics to look for exceptions, never to accept one idea or point of view or formulation without looking for contradictions or counter examples or opposing ideas. Yet this habit gets so internalized that we often don’t quite realize we are doing it; we just “talk normally” — but this normal is fractured discourse to listeners.
This linguistic problem comes in two flavors. The first is characteristic of strong-minded, confident academics who tend (especially after they get tenure and have published some books) to have few doubts about their own views. Strong-minded people like this can be incoherent in speech because they constantly think about criticisms that could be leveled against their idea. They constantly interrupt themselves to insert additions or digressions to defend what they are saying against any criticism. Sometimes the digression gets even longer as they move on from simple defense of their idea to an active attack on the criticism. This is a mind constantly on guard. Here is one philosopher’s ambivalent praise for the ability of a highly-respected philosopher to write steel-plated prose:
The argument is heavily armored, both in its range of reference and in the structure of its sentences, which almost always coil around some anticipated objection and skewer it; [Bernard] Williams is always one step ahead of his reader. Every sentence… is fully shielded, immune from refutation. Williams is so well protected that it is sometimes hard to make out the shape of his position. The sentences seldom descend to elegance, and lucidity seems less highly prized than impregnability…” (McGinn 70)
But there’s a second flavor of linguistic incoherence that comes from what seem like weak-minded, wishy-washy academics. Their sentences are confused because it seems as though they can’t quite make up their minds; they are characteristically tentative and tend to undermine what they are saying by being unable to resist mentioning a telling criticism. I have a special sympathy for this flavor of incoherence because I suffer from it. It comes from a tendency to feel loyalty to conflicting points of view. As soon as I start to say X, my mind is tickled by the feeling that Y is also a valid point of view. “Maybe I’m wrong. Uh oh. I can’t quite figure out what I really think. Should I change my mind?”
I want to argue that there’s something valuable here. (Let’s see if I can make this argument without being too be weak-kneed about it. I don’t want to do you the favor of mentioning the vulnerable points.) I want to celebrate the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas. It’s a habit of mind that can help people avoid being dogmatic or narrow-minded. When I say something and someone gives a reason why I’m wrong, I often feel, “Oh dear, that sounds right to me. How can I be right in what I was trying to say?” I can be left in mental paralysis. But I want to argue that this is a frame of mind that can help people move past either/or conflicts and transcend the terms in which an issue is framed. “I believe X. Yet Y seems right. How can that be? What should I think? Let’s see if I can reshape the whole discussion and find a different point of view from which both X and Y are true?” Surely this is an important way in which genuinely new ideas are born.
In short I’ll be less apologetic about my inability to explain an idea clearly and forcefully. And besides, it was this ineffectuality in speech that led me to take writing so seriously. Nevertheless, the habit of constant interruption invades my writing too and makes me have to revise interminably. If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong. Why should the tongue make such a mess when given freedom to speak or draft, yet be able to craft strong, clear sentences when used for out loud revising? That’s an intriguing mystery that I’ve had a good time trying to explore.
Peter Elbow is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and former director of its Writing Program. He is the author of Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Writing Without Teachers, Writing With Power, Embracing Contraries, and Everyone Can Write.
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The questions people ask about word origins usually concern slang, family names, and idioms. I cannot remember being ever asked about the etymology of house, fox, or sun. These are such common words that we take them for granted, and yet their history is often complicated and instructive. In this blog, I usually stay away from them, but I sometimes let my Indo-European sympathies run away with me. Today’s subject is of this type.
Guest is an ancient word, with cognates in all the Germanic languages. If in English its development had not been interrupted, today it would have been pronounced approximately like yeast, but in the aftermath of the Viking raids the native form was replaced with its Scandinavian congener, as also happened to give, get, and many other words. The modern spelling guest, with u, points to the presence of “hard” g (compare guess). The German and Old Norse for guest are Gast and gestr respectively; the vowel in German (it should have been e) poses a problem, but it cannot delay us here.
The hostess and her guests
The related forms are Latin hostis and, to give one Slavic example, Russian gost’. Although the word had wide currency (Italic-Germanic-Slavic), its senses diverged. Latin hostis meant “public enemy,” in distinction from inimicus “one’s private foe.” (I probably don’t have to add that inimicus is the ultimate etymon of enemy.) In today’s English, hostile and inimical are rather close synonyms, but inimical is more bookish and therefore more restricted in usage (some of my undergraduate students don’t understand it, but everybody knows hostile). However, “enemy” was this noun’s later meaning, which supplanted “stranger (who in early Rome had the rights of a Roman).” And “stranger” is what Gothic gasts meant. In the text of the Gothic Bible (a fourth-century translation from Greek), it corresponds to ksénos “stranger,” from which we have xeno-, as in xenophobia. Incidentally, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the best Indo-European scholars had agreed that Greek ksénos is both a gloss and a cognate of hostis ~ gasts (with a bit of legitimate phonetic maneuvering all of them can be traced to the same protoform). This opinion has now been given up; ksénos seems to lack siblings. (What a drama! To mean “stranger” and end up in linguistic isolation.) The progress of linguistics brings with it not only an increase in knowledge but also the loss of many formerly accepted truths. However, caution should be recommended. Some people whose opinion is worth hearing still believe in the affinity between ksénos and hostis. Discarded conjectures are apt to return. Today the acknowledged authorities separate the Greek word from the cognates of guest; tomorrow, the pendulum may swing in the opposite direction.
Let us stay with Latin hostis for some more time. Like guest, Engl. host is neither an alien nor a dangerous adversary. The reason is that host goes back not to hostis but to Old French (h)oste, from Latin hospit-, the root of hospes, which meant both “host” and “guest,” presumably, an ancient compound that sounded as ghosti-potis “master (or lord) of strangers” (potis as in potent, potential, possibly despot, and so forth). We remember Latin hospit- from Engl. hospice, hospital, and hospitable, all, as usual, via Old French. Hostler, ostler, hostel, and hotel belong here too, each with its own history, and it is amusing that so many senses have merged and that, for instance, a hostel is not a hostile place.
Unlike host “he who entertains guests,” Engl. host “multitude” does trace to Latin hostis “enemy.” In Medieval Latin, this word acquired the sense “hostile, invading army,” and in English it still means “a large armed force marshaled for war,” except when used in a watered down sense, as in a host of troubles, a host of questions, or a host of friends (!). Finally, the etymon of host “consecrated wafer” is Latin hostia “sacrificial victim,” again via Old French. Hostia is a derivative of hostis, but the sense development to “sacrifice” (through “compensation”?) is obscure.
The puzzling part of this story is that long ago the same words could evidently mean “guest” and “the person who entertains guests”, “stranger” and “enemy.” This amalgam has been accounted for in a satisfactory way. Someone coming from afar could be a friend or an enemy. “Stranger” covers both situations. With time different languages generalized one or the other sense, so that “guest” vacillated between “a person who is friendly and welcome” and “a dangerous invader.” Newcomers had to be tested for their intentions and either greeted cordially or kept at bay. Words of this type are particularly sensitive to the structure of societal institutions. Thus, friend is, from a historical point of view, a present participle meaning “loving,” but Icelandic frændi “kinsman” makes it clear that one was supposed “to love” one’s relatives. “Friendship” referred to the obligation one had toward the other members of the family (clan, tribe), rather than a sentimental feeling we associate with this word.
It is with hospitality as it is with friendship. We should beware of endowing familiar words with the meanings natural to us. A friendly visit presupposes reciprocity: today you are the host, tomorrow you will be your host’s guest. In old societies, the “exchange” was institutionalized even more strictly than now. The constant trading of roles allowed the same word to do double duty. In this situation, meanings could develop in unpredictable ways. In Modern Russian, as well as in the other Slavic languages, gost’ and its cognates mean “guest,” but a common older sense of gost’ was “merchant” (it is still understood in the modern language and survives in several derivatives). Most likely, someone who came to Russia to sell his wares was first and foremost looked upon as a stranger; merchant would then be the product of semantic specialization.
One can also ask what the most ancient etymon of hostis ~ gasts was. Those scholars who looked on ksénos and hostis as related also cited Sanskrit ghásati “consume.” If this sense can be connected with the idea of offering food to guests, we will again find ourselves in the sphere of hospitality. The Sanskrit verb begins with gh-. The founders of Indo-European philology believed that words like Gothic gasts and Latin host go back to a protoform resembling the Sanskrit one. Later, according to this reconstruction, initial gh- remained unchanged in some languages of India but was simplified to g in Germanic and h in Latin. The existence of early Indo-European gh- has been questioned, but reviewing this debate would take us too far afield and in that barren field we will find nothing. We only have to understand that gasts ~ guest and hostis ~ host can indeed be related.
There is a linguistic term enantiosemy. It means a combination of two opposite senses in one word, as in Latin altus “high” and “deep.” Some people have spun an intricate yarn around this phenomenon, pointing out that everything in the world has too sides (hence the merger of the opposites) or admiring the simplicity (or complexity?) of primitive thought, allegedly unable to discriminate between cold and hot, black and white, and the like. But in almost all cases, the riddle has a much simpler solution. Etymology shows that the distance from host to guest, from friend to enemy, and from love to hatred is short, but we do not need historical linguists to tell us that.
No, the image to the left is not a newly discovered picture of Jane Austen. The image was taken from my copy of The Complete Letter Writer, published in 1840, well after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. But letter writing manuals were popular throughout Jane Austen’s lifetime, and the text of my copy is very similar to that of much earlier editions of the book, published from the mid-1750s on. It is possible then that Jane Austen might have had access to one. Letter writing manuals contained “familiar letters on the most common occasions in life”, and showed examples of what a letter might look like to people who needed to learn the art of letter writing. The Complete Letter Writer also contains an English grammar, with rules of spelling, a list of punctuation marks and an account of the eight parts of speech. If Jane Austen had possessed a copy, she might have had access to this feature as well.
But I doubt if she did. Her father owned an extensive library, and Austen was an avid reader. But in genteel families such as hers letter writing skills were usually handed down within the family. “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper what one would say to the same person by word of mouth,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 3 January 1801, adding, “I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.” But I don’t think George Austen’s library contained any English grammars either. He did teach boys at home, to prepare them for further education, but he taught them Latin, not English.
So Jane Austen didn’t learn to write from a book; she learnt to write just by practicing, from a very early age on. Her Juvenilia, a fascinating collection of stories and tales she wrote from around the age of twelve onward, have survived, in her own hand, as evidence of how she developed into an author. Her letters, too, illustrate this. She is believed to have written some 3,000 letters, only about 160 of which have survived, most of them addressed to Cassandra. The first letter that has come down to us reads a little awkwardly: it has no opening formula, contains flat adverbs – “We were so terrible good as to take James in our carriage”, which she would later employ to characterize her so-called “vulgar” characters – and even has an unusual conclusion: “yours ever J.A.”. Could this have been her first letter?
Cassandra wasn’t the only one she corresponded with. There are letters to her brothers, to friends, to her nieces and nephews as well as to her publishers and some of her literary admirers, with whom she slowly developed a slightly more intimate relationship. There is even a letter to Charles Haden, the handsome apothecary who she is believed to have been in love with. Her unusual ending, “Good bye”, suggests a kind of flirting on paper. The language of the letters shows how she varied her style depending on who she was writing to. She would use the word fun, considered a “low” word at the time, only to the younger generation of Austens. Jane Austen loved linguistic jokes, as shown by the reverse letter to her niece Cassandra Esten: “Ym raed Yssac, I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey”, and she recorded her little nephew George’s inability to pronounce his own name: “I flatter myself that itty Dordy will not forget me at least under a week”.
It’s easy to see how the letters are a linguistic goldmine. They show us how she loved to talk to relatives and friends and how much she missed her sister when they were apart. They show us how she, like most people in those days, depended on the post for news about friends and family, how a new day wasn’t complete without the arrival of a letter. At a linguistic level, the letters show us a careful speller, even if she had different spelling preferences from what was general practice at the time, and someone who was able to adapt her language, word use and grammar alike, to the addressee.
All her writing, letters as well as her fiction, was done at a writing desk, just like the one on the table on the image from the Complete Letter Writer,and just like my own. A present from her father on her nineteenth birthday, the desk, along with the letters written upon it, is on display as one of the “Treasures of the British Library”. The portable desk traveled with her wherever she went. “It was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in,” she wrote on 24 October 1798. A near disaster, for “in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l”.
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Image credits: (1) Image of Jane Austen from The Complete Letter Writer, public domain via Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2) Photo of writing desk, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
Is our language inherently male? Some believe that the way we think and the words we use to describe our thoughts are masculine. Looking at our language from multiple points of views – lexically, philosophically, and historically – the debate asks if it’s possible for us to create a gender neutral language. If speech is fundamentally gendered, is there something else we can do to combat the way it is used so that it is no longer – at times – sexist?
What do you think can be done to build a more feminist language?
Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Until recently he was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1999 a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is the author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.
Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.
Etymology purports to explain why the words we use have the meanings familiar to us. Why is a tree called “tree,” why do we say man, winter, nine, and so forth? People have always been interested in the origin of things. Numerous myths explain how the world was created, how the first people came into being, why it rains, and why winds blow. There is no myth about the origin of the faculty of speech. We don’t know how human language originated. It is not even quite clear what we are looking for. How complicated should signals be to deserve the name of language? Are we looking for intelligible primordial cries or a well-formed vocabulary, or coherent syntax? The wide use of the term language (compare the language of art, of music, and the like) makes the search even more complicated. We constantly hear about some bright chimpanzees mastering language at the level of a two-year-old child, about the language of bees, dolphins, and others. This is all very interesting but not particularly helpful.
Numerous attempts have been made to obtain the answer about the origin of language from a study of the languages of “primitive peoples.” Alas, the level of material culture proves no clue to the level of the speakers’ language sophistication. The concept of primitive people has been compromised for all times, and, when it comes to the Indo-European languages, the more ancient a language is, the more complex its structure turns out to be. A language of primordial cries has not been found. The chasm between the first words of humanity and the words at the disposal of modern linguists is impossible to bridge. Our records span only a few millennia, and there is no certainty that any of the truly ancient words are still current today. The Semitic languages developed more slowly than the languages of the Indo-European family, but even with Aramaic and Hebrew we are incalculable centuries away from the beginning.
Consequently, we are better qualified to discover the origin of the words of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, English, and other “extant” languages than the origin of the elusive first words. But even this task is often unattainable. Some words are among the oldest known, and we have no idea how long they had existed before they surfaced in written records. They are simply signs to us. One of such words is the numeral one. In all the Indo-European languages its cognates mean the same, and at some early time it probably sounded as oinoz. The form is unrevealing. Did it refer to the thumb or the little finger, or some single object? We feel more comfortable when it comes to derivatives. Thimble is related to thumb, and we only have to find out whether thimbles were ever worn on the thumb. We also notice that the German for thumb is Daumen and wonder why the English word has b at the end. Such questions can usually be answered quite well. It follows that an etymologist has to be informed about the properties of the things whose names are being discussed. Sometimes the answer is almost on the surface, but more often it is not. For example, German einladen means “to invite,” while laden means “to load.” What does loading have to do with invitation? This is a fairly complicated problem. The trouble with one is typical. Scholars collected all the forms related to it. The search presupposed the existence of certain nontrivial rules. They asked how people counted at the dawn of civilization and, to do this, traveled all over the world. The result is a mass of conflicting hypotheses, and a method is needed to decide which of them are especially promising. Hundreds of pages have been written about the origin of numerals.
The only junk worth admiring.
Other words are late. They too are the product of human creativity, but, even while dealing with recent coinages, we often fail to discover their sources. It may amuse non-specialists to see how many people have tried to find the origin of jazz and how uncertain even the best results are. Bigot (the subject of a recent post), like jazz, must also have arisen as a slang word. The circumstances in which a certain word comes into being may be so inconspicuous that we have little chance of discovering them. For a long time I have been planning to write a series of short essays on the words jink “to dodge a blow,” high jinks, I’ll be jiggered, and jingo, and their possible connections with jiggle (jink looks like a nasalized version of jiggle, and by jingo! is as emotional as high jinks). Unfortunately, too little is known about their history. Does junk belong with them? Is junk something that is avoided, “jinked”? Compare the vowel alternation in sink ~ sunk and drink ~ drunk. One should tread gingerly, that is, gently on this marshy ground. In a British journal for 1928, I read: “The taxi-drivers of London have announced that they are going to call the new two-seaters jixis, after the licencing House Secretary, Sir Williams Joynson-Hickes.” I am glad I know it. Otherwise, I may have proposed a profound theory of jixi being related to the jink words. In fact, it is a blend of Joynson and taxi (still not jaxi!).
So what are the qualifications of an etymologist? There is a thin layer of late words like jixi that requires no expertise in linguistics. Quite naturally, journalists prefer to write mainly about them, though the history of slang is often irritatingly opaque (capricious coinages, borrowings, and so forth). Work with the other words presupposes familiarity with historical phonetics, historical grammar, and historical semantics. If a language has a long written record, the specialist should be able to read old texts. Comparison is the backbone of linguistic reconstruction. Therefore, an etymologist is expected to have at least a passive knowledge of related and unrelated languages. Since words are the names of things, it is important to feel at home among both things and words. One may ask whether there are or have been people who met the requirements mentioned above. Yes, and rather many. Thanks to them we have an array of excellent etymological dictionaries. To the extent that a complicated etymology is a reward for weighing probabilities, it is seldom final and, by definition, can be superseded by a better one. But the assertion that nothing is final in this area of knowledge misses the mark. It is the end that tends to elude us, for a hunter cannot always be successful.
Occasionally I am asked whether there are job opportunities for etymologists. Paid jobs for experts in word history are few, though great dictionaries usually need editors who revise the etymological part of the entries. The OED has a group of professional etymologists, but this case is exceptional. Even university courses in etymology are rare, because historical linguistics has fallen into desuetude on our campuses. However, the public has a healthy interest in word origins, and books on etymology find a good market. Blogs dealing with etymology have a wide readership, and a stream of questions sent to bloggers never dries up. As long as people exist, they will want to know where words come from, and the world will need specialists who are able to satisfy their curiosity. However, a student aspiring to be an etymologist should remember that etymology is a respectable but not a lucrative occupation. Pre-etym is not quite the same thing as pre-med and pre-law.
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Image credit: A Chinese junk depicted in Travels in China. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if the answer is yes, what should we do? Conversely, if no, why no? Native speakers—let us call them native spellers—of English have long since stopped worrying: school is a place where they must spend twelve rather dull years (though occasionally spiced with proms, sports, and camping out) and survive multifarious bullying (note: bullying is bad, even illegal). Learning to spell is also bullying, but no law exists against it, and a spellchecker with its autocorrect is a nice palliative. There is no opprobrium in saying: “I am a terrible speller”; it even sounds coy. The only people who worry are foreigners. With regard to English, they have neither “competence” nor the wonderful thing called gut feeling, and they honestly try to memorize (memorise?) hundreds of words like hold ~shoulder, full ~ awful, awful ~ awesome, lame ~ claim, usable ~ feasible, and acknowledge ~ accredit. Our collective heart bleeds when we ponder the fate of undocumented aliens and the many difficulties any recent outsider has to overcome during the period of adjustment.
I am all for some version of spelling reform (to boost my case, I’ll capitalize the first letters: Spelling Reform), but my firm conviction is that, if something is going to be done about it, it will be done only out of compassion for our new and prospective citizens.
What can or should be done? Perhaps it will be useful to state a few trivial facts.
(1) Given a multitude of English dialects, no system that depends on rendering sounds by the letters of the Roman alphabet will satisfy everybody; Bradley was quite right. We cannot achieve the neatness of Finnish. Some people distinguish between horse and hoarse in pronunciation; they, and only they, naturally, applaud the spelling -or- ~ -oar-. For most American speakers writer and rider are homophones, though professional phoneticians tell us that there is a difference. I wonder. If some difference existed, students would not be filling their papers with pearls like title (= tidal) wave, deep-seeded (= seated) prejudice, and even futile (= feudal) system (but you see: they never studied medieval history and have long since realized the futility of their endeavors to spell polysyllables correctly; no feud in this department). Also, there would not have been cartoons featuring tutors, tooters, and Tudors. Any spelling of words with t between vowels will “disenfranchise” somebody. Horse ~ hoarse, Plato ~ play dough, and the rest like them are minor irritants. The pronunciation of words like time and tame is much more confusing: time, tahm, toim for time and time for tame are real killers. Do you chinge trines at foiv(e) o’clock? Perhaps you should. Conclusion: in English, strictly phonetic spelling is a utopia. For pedagogical purposes some version of phonetic transcription may be useful, but this is as far as it goes.
(2) With regard to spelling, etymological considerations should be of minimal importance. It is true that many centuries ago knock and gnaw had the sounds of k- and g-. Why is this relic to be honored? Many other words have also lost their initial consonants. For example, hn-, hl-, and hr- were legitimate onsets in Old English. Yet h- has been shed before n, r, and l, and we are much the better for the loss of h- in the written form of loud, nap, and rue. Or should we “hrather” have hloud, hnap, and hrue? Etymology takes us to the past, but a good deal of chaos characterized Middle and Early Modern English spelling. A look at any relatively old word in the OED will reveal a baffling multitude of spelling variants through history. People often say that they would like to keep etymological spelling for its sentimental value. What sentiment? What value? Those who love the history of English (a laudable passion) should enroll in courses on the older periods of their mother tongue: Beowulf, Chaucer, (H)occleve….
(3) Every spelling reform partly destroys the link between the printed books of the past and the present. Yet anyone who will leaf through the literature published in the eighteenth century will notice that even our recent tradition has not been perfectly stable (also read Shakespeare’s texts brought out in the seventeenth century). Mild reforms have been implemented in several countries. In Russia, not all of them can even be called mild. Especially radical was the one associated with the events of 1917, but the project of that reform predated the Bolsheviks’ takeover of power. Several letters that no longer had any correspondence in the modern language disappeared. The rupture was serious, yet the change made sense, old books are not hard to understand, and today probably no one would plead for the return to the prerevolutionary norm. Sweden too went a long way toward bringing spelling and even grammar in line with everyday speech.
More recently, spelling has been modernized in Iceland and Germany. The timid German reform met with violent opposition; yet now everybody seems to be accustomed or resigned to the novelties. There is no reason why English spelling should remain untouchable. At least one experiment took place in the English-speaking world not too long ago. In the United States, -or replaced -our; centre and its ilk became center; the suffix -ize replaced -ise; words like moulder and smoulder (but not boulder or shoulder!) lost their u; practice and practise, along with defence and defense have lost the letter that distinguishes the verb from the noun (one has lost it s and the other its c); and so forth. English culture survived those measures.
(4) This brings me to my main point. For any project of Spelling Reform (still capitalized) to be successful, it should be gradual and progress in several waves. The greatest offender is superfluous letters. The reformers who were active about a hundred years ago began with hav, giv, liv, ar (= have, give, are). This, I think, was a mistake. Such heavy-duty words should be left intact, at least for now. Society will not agree to “liv and make liv.” At first, only painless measurers should be suggested. Perhaps opponents will agree to get rid of the second l in full or to follow (folow?) some (!) American variants, seeing that, for instance, the difference between the suffixes -ize and -ise has little justification.
An etymological blog is not a proper forum for offering a ful(l)-fledged program. At this stage, it is more important to engage the public than to argue over details. As long as the reformers keep preaching to the converted (choir, quire), nothing will happen. At one time, I thought that influential politicians should be approached, but I was probably wrong. Politicians will always have to take care of more important things, like raising or cutting taxes, sending or not sending troops abroad, and getting reelected. The suggestion I have recently heard (“try to win over journalists and publishers”) sounds more practicable. After all, journalists write for newspapers, they wield the metaphorical pen, while publishers sell books. Are they interested? Will anyone contributing to numerous word colum(n)s respond to this post? Will dictionary makers take part in the discussion? Ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, hasn’t the time come for you to join forces with the reformers? Writers of the world, unite!