JacketFlap connects you to the work of more than 200,000 authors, illustrators, publishers and other creators of books for Children and Young Adults. The site is updated daily with information about every book, author, illustrator, and publisher in the children's / young adult book industry. Members include published authors and illustrators, librarians, agents, editors, publicists, booksellers, publishers and fans. Join now (it's free).
Login or Register for free to create your own customized page of blog posts from your favorite blogs. You can also add blogs by clicking the "Add to MyJacketFlap" links next to the blog name in each post.
Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Linguistics, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 34
How to use this Page
You are viewing the most recent posts tagged with the words: Linguistics in the JacketFlap blog reader. What is a tag? Think of a tag as a keyword or category label. Tags can both help you find posts on JacketFlap.com as well as provide an easy way for you to "remember" and classify posts for later recall. Try adding a tag yourself by clicking "Add a tag" below a post's header. Scroll down through the list of Recent Posts in the left column and click on a post title that sounds interesting. You can view all posts from a specific blog by clicking the Blog name in the right column, or you can click a 'More Posts from this Blog' link in any individual post.
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 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.
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.”
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”.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
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.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
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!
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).
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
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
So I was hanging upside down like a bat in my underground lair, enjoying the pleasures of an undisclosed location, when I realized, “Man! I am getting nothing done around here.” Even with a loyal staff of minions, lackeys, toadies, lickspittles, facilitators, enablers, provosts, and drooling zombie slaves, my evil plans have come to naught in 2009, according to the quarterly reports.
True, I did swindle some orphans and bunnies. I also made a sweet deal with “the cartel.” (Note to self: check receipt to see which cartel that might be, and what I will receive for my millions.) Deliciously, I vanquished Dr. Vargas—my chief rival in the fields of global domination, local pranksterism, and polar-bear training (don’t ask). So the year hasn’t been a total loss.
But what have I done lately? Then it occurred to me what I need: more henchmen.
Fortunately, the field of henchology is no longer limited to mere men, who I know from personal experience would rather live in a ridiculous fantasy world than wrestle with the issues of the day (or those polar bears). Today, an evil employer has options.
You see, when I’m not hip-deep in rivers of evil, I’m armpit-deep in the seas of lexicography, as curator of Wordlustitude, where I’ve collected hench-words beyond the wildest dreams of my nemesis Dr. Vargas and his colleagues Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil, and Dr. Phil. I’ve found uses of henchblob, henchboob, hench-chicken, hench-Cylon, henchdemon, henchgoat, henchidiot, hench-lady-men-partners, hench-monster, henchscum, hench-wench, plus spokeshenchman, sub-sub-henchman, under-henchlings and many others. Finally, some good news: It turns out hench is a mega-productive prefix and the hench-business is ever-bustling, even in an economic downturn.
My favorite hench-book, the Oxford English Dictionary, tells us henchman originally meant, in the 1300s, “A squire, or page of honour to a prince or great man, who walked or rode beside him in processions, progresses, marches, etc.; also, one who, on occasion, fulfilled the same office to a queen or princess.” Subservience, if not evil deeds, was always part of the henchly package. Other right-hand-man-y meanings evolved over time, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the current sense started to take hold: “A stout political supporter or partisan; esp. in U.S. ‘A mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another’ (Cent. Dict.).” Mercenary adherents, venal followers, now we’re getting somewhere… The OED also has entries for hench-boy (1611) and henchwoman (1889), so the prefixitude of hench has established precedents. Those words are the primordial predecessors of hench-bunny-men and hench-robot.
This brings us to the wild world of contemporary hench-folk, who are usually mentioned in a fictional or humorous setting. Some henchnames reinforce the lackeydom of such lackeys (henchgoon, henchminion, hench-thug) while other reinforce their monsteriness (hench-vamp, hench-thing, hench-zombie) or evil (henchscum, hench-lawyer). A few names remind us that very few henchpersons could win a battle of wits with a box of rocks; these include henchmoron, henchidiot, and henchdoofus. Speaking of doofi, some writers love to imagine the nefarious thugs of their political enemies, such as “(George W.) Bush and his hench-psychos” or John Kerry and “his henchscum.”
But the funnest of the fun are the terms that take the hench prefix on a wild ride to words and beings not usually associated with the hench-istic arts: I think henchnoncorporeal being might be my favorite, though hench-toddler is a contender. Perhaps because pet-havers are called masters, many people can imagine their pets as hench-companions, inspiring the words henchdog, hench-ferret, hench-hamster, and hench-kitty. Bizarrely, there are several terms such as hench-cleavage and hench-breasts, which might be an indication of how boob-obsessed the world is, or a sign that the cleavage-killing Chesty Morgan and her Deadly Weapons are more influential than I thought. I’m not sure how useful a hench-cacti would be, but if Dr. Vargas gets one, I will too! Damn him!
Anyhoo, besides its wide use as a prefix, hench has been up to other lexical shenanigans. While searching Twitter for more hench-words, I was psyched to read this tweet: “@Rocmoney I think Madonna scared herself when she realised that she looked like a hench skeleton” (July 30, 2009, Andremcdmusicpr). At first I thought I’d be adding hench-skeleton to my list of words and roster of employees, before my brain informed me that I was making even less sense than usual, because who the heck would Madonna be a hench-skeleton for? Oprah? Zeus? Unlikely.
That sentence is an example of a slang meaning of hench as a henchman-inspired term for beefy, bulky, muscular, and strong, as in “A lion! It would be my personal bodyguard!! Do you know how HENCH and HUGE a lion is?! Mos definitely a lion! Hands down!”
(July 31, 2009, TEAMaiwo) and “Arrived at the gym, time to get hench!!” (July 29, 2009, U.S.F.). An upcoming movie about a struggling henchman is called Hench, so I imagine the word will continue to take on a wide-ranging, man-free life of its own, as noun, adjective, prefix, and whatever else it pleases. Who’s gonna stop it?
So, employers and warlords and supreme leaders, let this be a lesson! Don’t be so hasty when filling the rank ranks of your hideous hordes. Clip and save the following list of hench-folks. Refer to it as you write an ad for Craigslist or Evil Illustrated. And if you ever question your way of life, remember the words of that brave, muscular, lovelorn overlord of the underworld in the South Park movie: “Without evil there could be no good, so it must be good to be evil sometimes.”
“This has been a wonky day. Jose Cuervo and his hench-cacti are out to get me.”
(July 28, 2009, Amy Mohr)
“So NBA hench-commissioner Adam Silver begins pulling the team-logo placards out of the envelopes amid the overwhelming silence and TV-studio ambient buzz. The dominant sound, in fact, is the scraping of the placards against the inside of the envelopes as he pulls each one out. Is this great TV or what!”
(King Kaufman, May 21, 2008, Salon)
“AT&T threw a lavish, secret party near the Denver Democratic Convention for the Blue Dog Democrats and their hench-lobbyists that voted them the gift of retroactive immunity for drift-net spying. Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller, Jane Hamsher and others tried to get in, only to discover how aggressively private the party was.”
(Aug. 25, 2008, isen.blog)
“Oh, how I hate sleeping on the hovercraft… I woke up so stiff this morning… I need a hench-masseuse. The lair includes a sauna.”
(July 24, 2009, Diabolical One)
“It’s unfortunate that if Bush and his hench-psychos continue to have their way, it’s the United States that will end up on the ash heap. And sooner rather than later.”
(Dec. 9, 2007, Grumpy Lion)
“It started out on Animaniacs as a series of short skits about two genetically engineered lab mice. Every night, Brain hatches a plot to take over the world with Pinky as his faithful (if insane) hench-rodent.”
(April 8, 2007, Answer Bag)
“Scar says this about the hyenas in Disney’s The Lion King. Unfortunately, this is justified, as they’re the only hench-species available in the savannah.”
(Date unknown, TV Tropes)
“I had more trouble thinking up a name for the young one. ‘Satan’s Hench-toddler’ seemed appropriate a couple of weeks ago. Then she got a cute new haircut, and I thought maybe ‘Pixie’ might work better.”
(April 9, 2008, Diapers and Wine)
“Thanks to my wonderful hench-writer and grand vizier Andrew.”
(July 28, 2009, Snail in a Turtleneck)
“I also went back to a much earlier saved game point to make sure I hadn’t missed something (which I had but it wasn’t important. Basically Hilrad wasn’t in the movie cut-scene when the beholder zapped him because he was too busy getting beat up by my hench-zombie for whatever unknown reason).”
(Aug. 17, 2007, Neverwinter Nights 2 Vault)
Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-word is many things: a super-mega-normous look at all things fuck; a huge, steaming pile of filth; and a huge, erudite pile of scholarship. It’s a myth-dispelling history lesson in taboo language, literary culture, and pop culture, with appearances by The Sex Pistols, Pulp Fiction, Dick Cheney, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, James Joyce, and Kurt Vonnegut. It may be the greatest bathroom book of all time.
This citation-packed historical dictionary also raises questions about the moral fiber—not to mention the moral cocoa puffs—of society. There was a time when fuck didn’t even get included in dictionaries, and now there’s a dictionary with only fuck, in its third edition no less? How can the tender hearts and minds of our time cope with a book so explicitly illustrating the history of fuck-a-doodle-doo and its barnyard brother, the fucked duck? What will they say at (as Jerry Seinfeld put it) “the finest finishing schools on the eastern seaboard” when confronted with almost two pages on doublefuck and six on ratfuck? Will schoolchildren of the future soon be texting and tweeting DILLIGAF and FYBIS? (”Do I look like I give a fuck?” and “Fuck you, buddy, I’m shipping out,” for the acronymically innocent).
Yes, this is a ticking bomb clock of a book, and the average language-user can’t be expected to know where the red, blue, green, and mauve wires are leading. That’s where I come in (cue “The Final Countdown”).
In addition to being the leading prophet of a new religion based on pancakes, I am also an authority on etiquette. In fact, I am a licensed etiquitte-ologist, and the fact that I made the license myself with crayons is something etiquette forbids you to notice. Instead, you should latch your eyes onto the following usage guide like a hobo seizing a discarded KFC bucket. My advice on these sensitive terms, selected from Sheidlower’s towering temple of titillation, is guaranteed to save—or cause—an embarrassing faux pas, or your money back.
(In the interests of full disclosure and maximum courtesy, I must confess to being one of several word-herders thanked in The F-word, though my contributions were small, and I remain chagrinned that my finding of neurodoublefucked didn’t warrant inclusion. Har-smurfing-umph).
Though not as well known in the highest echelons of society as violin concertos or speed metal, pigfuck is the name of a music genre, specifically one “associated with the late 1980s and typically regarded as an outgrowth of punk and a precursor to grunge, characterized by a gritty, noisy sound.” Thus, pigfuck is entirely appropriate to use when discussing that genre, and that genre alone. However, discretion must be exercised when proximity to a barnyard might cause ambiguity. Similarly, it is always OK to call the windfucker bird (or kestrel) by name, just as long as you don’t say it was my idea.
HMFIC (head motherfucker in charge), MFWIC (motherfucker what’s in charge)
The supreme leaders, supreme commanders, dear leaders, grand poohbahs, rear admirals, and assistant deans of the world all feel, at times, that their present titles may not sufficiently connote the grandeur they wish to inspire in the help and the masses. However, if you refer to yourself as, for example, “Dr. Vargas, HMFIC” I am almost certain those children will stop laughing at you.
IHTFP (I hate this fucking place)
As a former resident of Buffalo, NY, where the snow sometimes falls in six-feet-per-week increments, and the football team loses games that range from heart-attack-spawning to mass-suicide-provoking, I can heartily recommend the use of this expression there. It is also handy and apropos in Phoenix or hell during the summer. Speaking of those sweltering mid-year months, I think we can all agree alternatives are needed to the overused, worn out clichés “Hot enough for ya?” and “It’s hotter’n Satan’s thong!” I suggest using hotter than a fresh fucked fox in a forest fire, an expression dating from 1950, for future steamy summers and eternal flame-y torments. Sometimes, freshness of phrase trumps ickiness of idiom.
The question of when it is “okey-dokey” or “swell” to refer to a goat-fucking contest has puzzled correctness czars and English professors since Christ was a corporal. We can learn something from a Sheidlower-collected 1998 citation: “Colonel, you and me been to three county fairs and a goat-fuckin’ contest and I ain’t seen you hit by nothin’ heavier than shrapnel.” First, it seems this expression is super-apropos in the military, an entity that cultivates profanity by the bucketload. Secondly—and I presume this has something to do with the metric system—this and other examples include three country fairs along with the goat-humping, so precedent dictates that these words should stay wedded idiomatically. We can also extrapolate that a goat-flipping contest is not to be mentioned or invoked lightly. No matter how good that coffee is, it’s probably not three-county-fairs-and-a-goat-fucking-contest good. Finally, since the expression often includes merely a goat-fuckin’ (or goat-ropin’) with no mention of a contest, I am almost certain this expression is not fit for ESPN.
CFM is an acronym for “come fuck me” that, in the older and commoner form “fuck-me” usually applies to skirts, shoes, boots, heels, pumps and other traditionally conjugalicious women’s wear. Sheidlower defines fuck-me as “(especially of an article of clothing, typically footwear) intended to invite sexual advances; seductive, vampish, sexy.” I just wonder if the haberdashers and seamstresses and J. Petermans of the world have sufficiently plumbed the depths of CFM-ness. Perhaps some enterprising clothes-ologist could design the fuck-me fez, the fuck-me Mr. Rogers sweater, and—for the cautious-minded—the fuck-me tin-foil hat. We all need love, you know.
Finally, etiquette mavens and manners enthusiasts—not to mention politeness pundits—may be baffled when considering the bulging bucket of insults for which fuck is a prefix. Thankfully, Sheidlower’s definitions lend a helping hand. Consider this handy chart of fifteen easily confused terms:
fuckass: “a despicable or contemptible person” fuckbag: “a disgusting person, ‘asshole’, etc.” fuckface: “an ugly or contemptible person.—usually used abusively in direct address” fuckhead: “a stupid or contemptible person” fuckhole: “a despicable person; an asshole” fuck-knuckle: “a stupid or offensive person” fucknob: “a stupid or contemptible person” fucknut: “a stupid or contemptible person” fuck-pig: “a contemptible person” fuckrag: “a worthless, contemptible, or despicable person” fuckshit: “a despicable person” fuckstick: “a worthless, contemptible, or despicable person” fucktard: “a despicably stupid person” fuckwad: “a stupid or contemptible person; an asshole” fuckwit: “a stupid person”
If only I had this list during grad school, I could have been so much more accurate and beaten up!
Thanks to these distinctions, I’ll be able to send Festivus cards with confidence this year. My colleague Bucky is quite dumb, yet possesses no despicable or contemptible qualities, so I shall address him as “little fuckwit.” My nemesis Dr. Vargas is cunning as a sewer rat and quite despicable; therefore, he is a fuckass (as well as a fuckshit and fuck-pig). My cousin Jeffrey is neither despicable nor contemptible, but he is worthless, so I guess he’s a fuckrag, like Grandma always said.
You see, even in this warp-speed world of Twitter and moon-smashing, there’s always time for the right word in the right place for the right worthless, contemptible, or despicable person. It may be impolite to call a doofus a fucknut, but it’s impolite and inaccurate to call a fuckbag a fuckrag. There’s no excuse for it–even if you’ve been to four county fairs and a goat-you-know-what-ing.
“Should everybody write?” That’s the question to ask when looking at the cyberjunk permeating the World Wide Web.
The earlier technologies of the pen, the printing press, and the typewriter, all expanded the authors club, whose members create text rather than just copying it. The computer has expanded opportunities for writers too, only faster, and in greater numbers. More writers means more ideas, more to read. What could be more democratic? More energizing and liberating?
But some critics find the glut of internet prose obnoxious, scary, even dangerous. They see too many people, with too little talent, writing about too many things.
Throughout the 5,000 year history of writing, the privilege of authorship was limited to the few: the best, the brightest, the luckiest, those with the right connections. But now, thanks to the computer and the internet, anyone can be a writer: all you need is a laptop, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks.
The internet allows writers to bypass the usual quality-controls set by reviewers, editors and publishers. Today’s authors don’t even need a diploma from the Famous Writers School. And they don’t need to wait for motivation. Instead of staring helplessly at a blank piece of paper the way writers used to, all they need is a keyboard and right away, they’ve got something to say.
You may not like all that writing, but somebody does. Because the other thing the internet gives writers is readers, whether it’s a nanoaudience of friends and family or a virally large set of FBFs, Tweeters, and subscribers to the blog feed. Apparently there are people online willing to read anything.
Previous writing technologies came in for much the same criticism as the internet: too many writers, too many bad ideas. Gutenberg began printing bibles in the 1450s, and by 1520 Martin Luther was objecting to the proliferation of books. Luther argued that readers need one good book to read repeatedly, not a lot of bad books to fill their heads with error. Each innovation in communication technology brought a new complaint. Henry David Thoreau, never at a loss for words, wrote that the telegraph – the 19th century’s internet – connected people who had nothing to say to one another. And Thomas Carlyle, a prolific writer himself, insisted that the explosion of reading matter made possible by the invention of the steam press in 1810 led to a sharp decline in the quality of what there was to read.
One way to keep good citizens and the faithful free from error and heresy is to limit who can write and what they can say. The road to publication has never been simple and direct. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI’s Bulla inter multiples required all printed works to be approved by a censor. During the English Renaissance, when literature flourished and even kings and queens wrote poetry, Shakespeare couldn’t put on a play without first getting a license. Censors were a kind of low-tech firewall, but just as there have always been censors, there have always been writers evading them and readers willing, or even anxious, to devour anything on the do-not-read list.
In Western Society we have at least two official names, a given name and a surname. Surnames carry some history in that they give an indication of our ethnic origins. Think of Zellweger, Banderas or Zeta-Jones, to take a few at random. Given names often have similar associations of ethnicity or religious affiliation; some tend to be associated with a particular generation, and a few such as Napoleon and Washington evoke particular historical figures. Occasionally we have to hide our ethnic or religious affiliation. During World War I the British royal family had to change their name from Battenberg to Windsor, but normally we have no fear about revealing our name, and right from when we start school we have to give our name to authorities. However, in many societies in the past, and still in some today, people tended to keep their name secret. This is possible in a small-scale traditional society where there are no authorities wanting to record your real name, and for most purposes you are called by a pet name, a nickname, or a kin name like ‘little brother’ or ‘nephew’.
The reason for keeping personal names secret is that one’s name can be used in sorcery. In a wide variety of cultures it is believed that if enemies know your name, they can place an effective curse on you. This belief in the power of a name is linked to a belief that a name is part of one’s being just like an arm or a leg. In English we can say ‘my arm’ or ‘my leg’ just as we might say ‘my dog’ or ‘my car’. We treat them all as possessions, though of course an arm or a leg is part of one’s body. In some languages you cannot speak of body parts as possessions. For example, in most of the indigenous languages of Australia words for ‘my’ and ‘your’ cannot be used with body parts. In the Kalkadoon language, for instance, although you can say, ‘There’s a spider on your blanket’ to say ‘There’s a spider on your arm’, you have to say, ‘There’s a spider on you, arm.’ In other words you say the spider is on the person and then specify what part of the person is involved. Names are treated like body parts. You can’t say, ‘He wrote down my name’, you have to say, ‘He wrote down me, name.’
Since a name was considered an integral part of a person, it could be an effective target for sorcery. In some literate societies mistreating a person’s name was thought to be able to produce an analogous effect on the person. In Ancient Egypt the names of enemy kings would be inscribed on pottery bowls and ritually smashed with the aim of bringing about the death of these rulers. Curse tablets from the Ancient Greek and Roman world have been unearthed in whic
Despite the claims of mass murderers and freepers, the government does not control your grammar. The government has no desire to control your grammar, and even if it did, it has no mechanism for exerting control: the schools, which are an arm of government, have proved singularly ineffective in shaping students’ grammar. Plus every time he opened his mouth, Pres. George W. Bush proved that the government can’t even control its own grammar.
Nonetheless, grammar conspiracy theories abound. In a YouTube video, Jared Lee Loughner, arrested for the Tucson assassinations that so shocked the nation, warns, “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling your grammar.” As further evidence that Loughner’s own grasp both of grammar and of reality is tenuous, he is reported to have asked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords the truly bizarre question, “What is government if words have no meaning?” three years before he put a bullet through the left side of her brain, the part that controls language.
But wresting control of grammar away from the government the same way other revolutionaries might take over the newspapers and the radio stations is the underlying theme of another denier of government authority, the right-wing loony-toon David Wynn Miller, a former pipe-fitter who made up his own language in order to challenge the government’s legitimacy and avoid paying taxes. News accounts detail attempts by Miller’s followers, after attending his expensive how-to seminars, to bring the courts to a standstill by filing stacks of incomprehensible legal motions written in what Miller calls “Quantum Language,” or sometimes, “communication-syntax-language,” but is literally psychobabble.
The idea that government controls language, which appeals to conspiracy theorists, is just a subset of the more-commonly-held view that language controls thought. George Orwell used Newspeak to illustrate this kind of linguistic mind control in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and in his essay “Politics and the English Language (1946), where he decried the connection between “politics and the debasement of language.” In the essay, Orwell presents a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” of words like “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality“–together with syntactic forms like the passive voice. Orwell claimed that all of these were used in political writing “in most cases more or less dishonestly,” and, using the passive voice, he added that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
0 Comments on The Government Does Not Control Your Grammar as of 1/28/2011 6:14:00 AM
By Dennis Baron
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened ten years ago, and although everybody remembers what they were doing at that flashbulb moment, and many aspects of our lives were changed by those attacks, from traveling to shopping to going online, one thing stands out: the only significant impact that 9/11 has had on the English language is 9/11 itself.
Neandertal communication must have been different from modern language. To repeat a point made often in this book, Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. They were a distinct population that had a separate evolutionary history for several hundred thousand years, during which time they evolved a number of derived characteristics not shared with Homo sapiens sapiens. At the same time, a continent away, our ancestors were evolving as well. Undoubtedly both Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens continued to share many characteristics that each retained from their common ancestor, including characteristics of communication. To put it another way, the only features that we can confidently assign to both Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens are features inherited from Homo heidelbergensis. If Homo heidelbergensis communicated via modern style words and modern syntax, then we can safely attribute these to Neandertals as well. Most scholars find this highly unlikely, largely because Homo heidelbergensis brains were slightly smaller than ours and smaller than Neandertals’, but also because the archaeological record of Homo heidelbergensis is much less ‘modern’ than either ours or Neandertals’. Thus, we must conclude that Neandertal communication had evolved along its own path, and that this path may have been quite different from the one followed by our ancestors. The result must have been a difference far greater than the difference between Chinese and English, or indeed between any pair of human languages. Specifying just how Neandertal communication differed from ours may be impossible, at least at our current level of understanding. But we can attempt to set out general features of Neandertal communication based on what we know from the comparative, fossil, and archaeological records.
As we have tried to show in previous chapters, the paleoanthropological record of Neandertals suggests that they relied heavily on two styles of thinking – expert cognition and embodied social cognition. These, at least, are the cognitive styles that best encompass what we know of Neandertal daily life. And they do carry implications for communication. Neandertals were expert stone knappers, relied on detailed knowledge of landscape, and a large body of hunting tactics. It is possible that all of this knowledge existed as alinguistic motor procedures learned through observation, failure, and repetition. We just think it unlikely. If an experienced knapper could focus the attention of a novice using words it would be easier to learn Levallois. Even more useful would be labels for features of the landscape, and perhaps even routes, enabling Neandertal hunters to refer to any location in their territories. Such labels would almost have been required if widely dispersed foraging groups needed to congregate at certain places (e.g., La Cotte). And most critical of all, in a natural selection sense, would be an ability to indicate a hunting tactic prior to execution. These labels must have been words of some kind. We suspect that Neandertal words were always embedded in a rich social and environmental context that included gesturing (e.g., pointing) and emotionally laden tones of voice, much as most human vocal communication is similarly embedded, a feature of communication probably inherited from Homo heidelbergensis.
At the risk of crawling even further out on a limb than the two of us usually go, we make the following suggestions about Neandertal communication:
1) Neandertals had speech. Their expanded Broca’s area in the brain, and their possession of a human FOXP2 gene both suggest this. Neandertal speech was probably based on a large (perhaps huge) vocabulary – words for places, routes, techniques, individuals, and emotions. We have shown that Neandertal expertise was large
Just when you thought it was safe to break out your rhyming dictionary (or start running all your rhyming endings alphabetically through your head), someone tells you there's gender to contend with in the rhymes you write. What's up with that? After all, the last time you paid any attention to linguistic gender was Spanish class in the ninth grade---or was it when you ordered that beer during Spring Break in Puerto Vallarta?
No matter. The last place you thought gender would be an issue had to be rhyme, right? Well, fear not. It's not quite as problematic as you may anticipate. In fact, except that someone back in the day must have thought structural endings and sounds ought to be classified according to gender, it's unlikely that anyone would even notice. But just out of curiosity, it might be fun to try and sleuth out who among the ancients decided gender was important---and why.
So, where did the whole gender in rhyme thing originate? Did the early Chinese rhymers grapple with gender in their day? Although some of the oldest surviving Chinese poetry contains lyric aspects, because the written language is character based, any gender association to poetic form may be difficult to tease out. Left with that uncertainty, is the male-female poetic structure primarily western in origin? Could it simply be a non-functioning, vestigial "leftover" from Old Latin which etched its subtle tracks on the English language as romantic entanglements ebbed and flowed across Europe?
According to one source in the English Department at Carson-Newman College, (http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_R.html) the word "rhyme" itself originates "from Old French, rime meaning 'series,' in turn adopted from Latin 'rithmus' and Greek 'rhythmos'." Given some of the other gender assignments in Greek and Latin, might we ascribe gender features to the rhyming verses penned by the early Greeks and Romans?
No doubt, the definition of gender in rhyme could probably be argued until the cows come home, with a break taken only for milking before the debate starts again. As is true with virtually any sorting out of why words in any language might be classified as masculine versus feminine, rhymes are no different. One thing seems clear: at least in English, gender in rhyme seems to have little or nothing to do with the gender rules found in some romance languages.
That is, whether a line of verse in English ends in an "a" or "o" or other gender laden vowel or consonant, doesn't really matter as much as it does in the Spanish language. And speaking of word endings, despite its compromise value in the Italian language, the use of a neutral vowel (such as the letter "i") at the end of the plural form of both masculine and feminine words is not a gender-driven issue in English rhyme. But you have to admire the logical recognition of not being able to sort out gender in groups.
In the French language, the definition suggests line ending words which end in "e" are feminine and those that don't are masculine. Some sources also refer to "e" endings and unaccented ending syllables as being weak. Although I was a French major in college, I'll leave the "why" of those "differences" to others who know far more about the origins of the French language and who don't mind getting their shins kicked.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, although the reasoning might be debatable, the rules regarding gender in English rhyme are remarkably clear. According to the Collaborative International Dictionary of English, a female rhyme has a rhyming set in which the rhyming lines end in double-syllable words (ego, amigo). A male rhyme, on the other hand, is one where only the last syllable in the line endings agree (stand, demand). No doubt you have noticed the difference in where the stress is placed---keep reading.
The definitions are extended slightly in Brande and Cox (A Dictionary
There has been a good deal to glean this month because the comments and responses have been numerous and also because, although February is a short month even in a leap year, in 2012 it had five Wednesdays. Among the questions was one about the profession and qualifications of an etymologist. It is a recurring question from young correspondents, and I have answered it briefly more than once, but always in the “gleanings.” It occurred to me that perhaps I should write a short essay on this subject and, if someone else asks me about such things in the future, I will be able to refer to this post. The rest will be discussed next week.
Those who study and “profess” it are specialists in something else — usually, unless they are journalists, in the history of language and, if they are so lucky as to have an academic job, teach Classical Greek or Latin, or Old English, or any other old language. Although great dictionaries need someone who from time to time updates their current etymologies, they either hire consultants or assign this task to a knowledgeable member of their staff burdened with many other duties. The only exception is the OED (it has a permanent group of etymologists), but one cannot expect to become a Ph.D. and get a position there, just as even a good singer will probably not end up at the Met or La Scala. Popular books on etymology, especially those published by presses with good marketing departments, sell reasonably well, but living on royalties for such books is out of the question.
Etymologists study the origin of words. People have been wondering for millennia why certain combinations of sounds have certain meanings. Why man, tree, eat, red? This quest need not always take us to the beginning of human speech. For example, there is a book about the origin of the phrase hot dog. The now well-known name for a sausage in a bun was coined by some wits in the United States, not by dog worshipers at the dawn of civilization, who, on dog days, sacrificed their hounds to the eye of heaven. That much is clear, and hot does not puzzle us, but why dog?
To find out, one needed endless patience rather than expertise in a dozen foreign languages. Sometimes a dedicated amateur without any familiarity with the intricacies of historical linguistics can solve such riddles. However, there is no certainty: looking through hundreds of old magazines, newspapers, and ads may not yield any worthwhile results. This is the trouble with the profession of an etymologist: convincing answers are never guaranteed, which is bad for dissertations and grant proposals. No one will fund a project titled “In Search of the Proto- Hot Dog.” The explorer who will find the ancestor of all hot dogs, the primordial hot puppy, will be rewarded with thank you and sometimes with an article in a popular magazine (for example, the researcher who traced OK to its beginnings became a minor celebrity), but this is as far as it goes. Etymology is the least lucrative occupation in the world.
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.
Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.
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.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only lexicography and language articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.