Category Archives: language and linguistics

Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

Let’s start with four hard truths:

  1. Language changes.
    Language is used by living, changeable people who are constantly being gradually replaced by new people who learn it in different circumstances and get different ideas about it. It’s a part of a society that is in constant flux. Nothing else stays the same; why would language?
  2. We take part in that change.
    You and I are among language’s users – and editors have extra influence in what makes it into print.
  3. We can’t always predict or control how it will change.
    We’re still only individual players in a very large game.
  4. We are usually unaware of how it has changed in the past.
    We have less of an idea of how our language has changed than we have of how our clothing and décor have changed. Most of us don’t know that a sentence such as The suspect planned to use a car to raid the warehouse would have been “bad English” in 1900 for its use of suspect as a noun, plan and raid as verbs, and car to mean automobile, while every “awful new error” in Hopefully, gifting generously will impact our decimated morale has been established usage for much longer.

Change always happens, but it happens at different speeds in different ways in different places. Teenagers embrace and create change; certain areas of publishing resist it obdurately. Some new words catch on slowly, others quickly, and some don’t last (zowie!). We change language for four basic reasons:

  1. To make life easier.
    We reduce the effort in saying a word or we reduce the number of words in a sentence: give incentive to becomes incent. We cut down the complexity of a language system: more than a dozen different forms of the definite article have been merged into the. We avoid social awkwardness: we now always use you so we never have to decide if someone is a thou. We add clarity and reduce ambiguity: some dialects now have a you all. Sometimes making life easier means increasing effort in order to avoid confusion.
  2. To feel better.
    We do it for fun: wordplay, clever slang, cute turns of phrase. We do it for art, for example metaphor. We do it for culture, using new words for food, artifacts, and so on. And we do it for in-group identity: teen slang, technical jargon, the pervasive in-house acronyms of the business world.
  3. To control.
    Some change happens because some people want to exert power over others. And some change happens because some people want their world to be tidy. These two impulses often work in concert, as when we impose a standard version of the language with specific rules and exceptions and make it a badge of membership in a certain social set. Words, phrasings, or pronunciations are deprecated because they’re associated with lower-status groups, even if they’re the product of the same kinds of processes used in the standard dialect.
  4. Things slip.
    We actively change language for the three preceding reasons. But sometimes we also change it through accident and the gradual slippage inevitable in centuries of use and transmission. The word ask started out as acs and now some dialects are taking it back to that; throw used to mean “twist” and warp used to mean “throw”; an adder eating an orange and some peas used to be a nadder eating a norange and some pease.

 The most insidious kind of change is imposition of rules that claim to be guarding against change. All of the big “rules” that some people get so exercised about were introduced in the last two or three centuries: don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a conjunction, don’t use double negatives or double superlatives… If you ignore these “rules” there will always be people who claim you are changing the language (and making an illiterate mess of it – see reason 3, above), but you will in truth have more historical basis.

So what do we do about all this? Since we’re all active participants in language change, and since we editors have some influence and have to make conscious decisions about what change to accept and what to resist, we need some criteria on which to base our decisions. I recommend asking the following five questions:

  1. What is the change? Really?
    Make sure you know what’s newer: the “new” thing or the “rule” against it. Hopefully, you can look it up.
  2. Where did it come from? When?
    Dictionary sites such as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com and language-focused sites such as World Wide Words, Language Log, and several others (including my own) can give useful details.
  3. Where is it used? By whom?
    Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and other tools such as Google ngrams can be very useful to find out when, where, and by whom a word has been used.
  4. Who is your text for?
    It’s up to you to know as much as possible about the demographics of your readership and the general expectations for the kind of writing you’re editing – some genres and audiences are more conservative (or stuck on schoolhouse “rules”) than others.
  5. What are the gains and losses?
    This is the real point of decision on any usage or rule. If it adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping: subtle differences of tone, emphasis, and signification. (That doesn’t mean use slang freely in formal documents – it might make the slang lose its casual tone!) But anything that mainly serves to limit what you can do with the language – whether it be a blurring of a semantic distinction or a rigid rule against a certain construction – will do more harm than good and is best put aside… if it can be.
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A macaronic feather in our cap

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

English is gloriously macaronic.

I don’t mean that it’s like a big bowl of elbow noodles, not exactly. But I also don’t mean that it’s like a macaron – well, maybe I do, but that’s not the word means. Macaronic, linguistically, refers to something that’s a mixture of languages. Macaronic poetry, for instance, may switch from English to Latin – some well-known Christmas carols do this (anything containing the words in excelsis, for starts). More broadly, macaronic refers to something that’s a jumble of things. Macaronic architecture, for instance, is exemplified by the heedless stylistic promiscuity of the McMansion style. English is macaronic: it’s made up of an almost hyperreal mixture of words from different languages. And it’s full of macaronic words, too.

A macaronic word is one that combines parts from multiple languages. The word hyperreal, for instance, uses hyper, which we took from Greek, and real, which comes from Latin (via French). And, fittingly, McMansion mixes Gaelic and Latin sources. This may seem like mixing Lego and Meccano – inadvisable or at least somehow improper. But we do it all the time, and not just with the usual classical parts. In fact, any new term that enters common usage has a pretty good chance of being an assemblage of pieces every bit as cosmopolitan as a modern city. To illustrate, let’s look at a few entries added in 2017 to Merriam-Webster dictionaries:

  • froyo: from frozen, an old Germanic word, and yogurt, taken from Turkish
  • Internet of Things: Internet is Latin inter plus Germanic net, and of and Things are also Germanic
  • ransomware: ransom, by way of French from Latin redemptio, plus ware, an old Germanic word
  • pregame: Latin pre plus Germanic game
  • photobomb: Greek photo ‘light’ plus bomb, which comes from French bombe, which comes from Spanish bomba, which comes from Latin bombus, which refers to a buzzing or booming noise and is also the source of boom
  • airball: air, ultimately from Latin by way of French, plus ball, Germanic
  • EpiPen: the Epi is in this instance short for epinephrine but, either way, is a prefix taken from Greek; Pen traces back to Latin penna, ‘feather’
  • weak sauce: From weak, which is Old Norse in origin, and sauce, which comes from French, tracing ultimately to Latin salsus ‘salted’ (which is also the source of salad)
  • alt-right: from alternate, which comes from Latin, and right, which is Germanic (so much for their “purity”)

Macaroni? The effects are more like the sandwiching of cream between meringues in a macaron. And as with our words, so with our sentences. Nearly every sentence in this article liberally mixes Germanic and Romance (Latin/French) words, plus some Greek (sometimes by way of Latin) and occasionally something else too. I think it’s delicious.

The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life. Continue reading

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading

ginormous

I learned today from Bryan Gividen on Twitter (@BryanGivi) that ginormous has been used for the first time in a US federal judge’s written opinion, and for the first time in any US judicial opinion not quoting a party. The passage, from J Thompson (CA1): “But by the early to mid-2000s, competition with ginormous retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Toys ‘R’ Us caused Old K’s financial distress.”

I’m sure that has a few people dumbfounded. It will undoubtedly give many others something to snark about over brunch – and prompt a few emoticons on the internet. Is it bodacious? Or craptacular? A trial is not a sitcom, after all, and while the opinion in question was on a commercial case, you can sense an impending dread that it will be used in sentencing someone for, say, a carjacking – or even condemning someone to electrocution (“The murder was a ginormous shock to the family, but not as ginormous as the shock you will receive to end your days”).

The word clearly has something undignified about it, more fitting to a motel room than some workaholic’s office. But I am not with those who see it as so much lexical smog. It’s been with us for at least 65 years – and don’t say that means it’s ready for retirement! Its usage has been increasing steeply since the 1980s, and it can be seen in fitting occasions in fiction and in magazine articles – and now in the law.

It’s not a small thing to have a word enter the formal records of the law. Legal English, stiff and verbose as it can be, sets a standard, and always has. The formal standard for English was first set centuries ago by law clerks in England. After all, if there’s one place you need things not only written down but written down in an exact and careful form, it’s legal matters!

Why does ginormous seem unseemly, undignified, to so many of us? There is a certain adolescent something to overemphasis of magnitudes – you can almost hear the carbuncular voice shouting “Ginooooormous!” In mannered formal speech we might say large or quite large or even of considerable magnitude before we get to huge, let alone enormous. Giant is not quite as undignified, somehow – but jam it together with enormous and you have wordmash that is almost bionic in its artificiality and strength. And yet now, it seems, it is as likely to earn a peruke as a rebuke in a court of law. It has made its way into polite company. That’s a ginormous step for a word.

It’s not as though such formations are inevitably undignifed, low-grade, and adolescent, anyway. Ginormous is what is called a portmanteau word (a coinage by Lewis Carroll) or a blend (a plainer way of saying it for linguists): take part of one word and part of another and glue them together without regard for the parts they were originally made from. Thus, for instance, workaholic comes from work plus alcoholic even though alcoholic is absolutely not formed from alc plus oholic.

The origins of ginormous are not intrinsically a bar to formal use. While portmanteau words may seem sloppy or unrestrained or otherwise ill-conceived, there are quite a few of them in regular use, and not all of them are looked at askance. Examples you may be familiar with include dumbfounded (dumb + confounded), snark (snide + remark), brunch (breakfast + lunch), emoticon (emotion + icon), internet (international + network), bodacious (bold + audacious), craptacular (crap + spectacular), sitcom (situation + comedy), carjacking (car + hijacking), electrocution (electronic + execution), motel (motor + hotel), smog (smoke + fog), and bionic (biological + electronic). An exhaustive list of them would be ginormous.

The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.

frontline

Who is at the frontline of language change?

Sorry, should that be front line? I think it should. If you are at the foremost front, you are at the forefront, not the fore front, but the line that forms the front of a battle – or, more figuratively, any other advance (especially in conflict situations) – is the front line, according to, well, every dictionary you look in.

But a lot of those dictionaries have frontline too. Not as a noun, though: as an adjective. Staff who are dealing directly with customers are front-line staff or frontline staff. If they were written as front line staff, there could be confusion over whether they were line staff at the front rather than staff at the front line. So we hyphenate. And, over time, as with this adjective, we may merge.

Or we may not. Mergers happen sometimes and not other times. You can be a healthcare professional working in health care – or working in healthcare, because that noun has a closed-up version now too. And you’re reading this on a website – or, to be old-fashioned, a web site. But you can have an ice cream float or an ice-cream float, but if you had an icecream float you risk having some pedant with a marker draw a couple of lines to indicate that there should be a space there, implying that you need grammatical trainingwheels.

The front lines, in language change as in war, are very uneven, meandering up and down and in and out, and the main thing that keeps them from moving is just if they get really entrenched (yes, when you think about it, front line and entrenched both call to mind the ghastly battles of World War I – both predate it by centuries, but both have military origins).

So… could frontline become the noun form too? Some people want it to be – a colleague mentioned to me that one of the people he works with is pushing for that change in their published text. Mind you, his coworker isn’t saying “I know that front line is standard, but I think we are making a good move forward to close up this compound. We may be in the, erm, vanguard, but we can take the fire.” No, his coworker is saying “I looked in the dictionary and it has frontline as a form so I’m going to use it everywhere.” His coworker is heedless of the noun-adjective distinction.

Which is how language change so often happens: reanalysis, or what members of preceding generations tend to call mistake. The English language isn’t really an ongoing battle – if there is an enemy, they are us. It’s more like a complex game that gets passed on from one family to another, and it doesn’t have a rulebook, and each new group of players pick up a few things from the previous players but mostly figure things out for themselves, resulting in some shift of the rules over time. We hear our parents talk, and we work things out for ourselves, and they don’t correct all of our reconstruals.

So, yeah, you could say that the front line in language change is the battle between the older generation, wanting to preserve what it knows, and the younger generation, wanting to do what suits them best. But from another perspective, the battle is as much like explorers having to put up with previous people – who didn’t get as far – shouting at them “No, you fools! You’ll fall off the edge of the planet!”

Fine, fine. The question remains: is frontline taking over from front line as a noun? Is it heading the way of healthcare and forefront? Will we soon see not only the frontline but the frontlines just as we see the headlines? Or is it like icecream and trainingwheels? Let’s have a look at a Google Ngram:

frontline_NOUN is way below front line_NOUN and both adjective forms, and not gaining very much

Hmm. Nope. Anyone who uses frontline as a noun is going to be awfully far in front of everyone else, exposed and prone to being shot at… from behind. And the general usage may not ever come close to catching up. It looks pretty well entrenched.

Addendum: I neglected to consider one important vector for change in this. Google ngrams are case-sensitive, and I only surveyed lower-case. But take a look at this:

Frontline-1

So Frontline is increasing in usage much more than frontline. Why is that? I’ll tell you one reason. Since 1983, PBS has had a documentary series called Frontline. TV shows are important vectors for language change.

But that doesn’t mean the branding of the show is spreading the one-word noun throughout the language rapidly. A brand is a brand and may stay as such. Let’s put this in perspective:

Frontline-2

After all, it’s on PBS, not NBC, ABC, or CBS. Public broadcasting is at the front line of knowledge, but most people don’t actually like to get too close to the front line. At least not intentionally.