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Linguistic Magnetism

November 30, 2009


Salmon in Sneakers

Figure 1. Seathlon participants smoking the competition.

Watching language change is like watching a fish grow legs and crawl onto dry land. It’s no wonder Darwin was fascinated with language for some of the same reasons that drew him to biology: the two are similar evolution-wise. But unlike biological evolution, linguistic evolution (linguists call it “drift”) is wonderfully observable. Inside your skull is a brain designed for your Cro-Magnon ancestors. It’s been about the same since the last Ice Age, which is when Cro-Magnon brains expanded so central heating could be invented. But in your lifetime—and even in the next year—you will see salmon wearing sneakers. Figuratively speaking. (See figure.)

Let’s take a look at a box of Kellogg’s Special K breakfast bars. On the back it says, “Everyday with Special K.” If this looks normal to you, chances are you’re normal too. If it raises a red flag with a picture of a red herring ringing a bell on it, you must have downloaded the latest Grammar Update into you cranium. Everyday, as it were, actually means “commonplace,” not “each day.” The latter is expressed with a subtle space: every day. As in: “Every day I do everyday things, like run salmon races down Broadway.” Kellogg’s is boasting the banality of its breakfast bars.

I bring this up because it’s related to what I like to call linguistic magnetism. It’s when two words in close association (e.g., log in) become magnetized from rubbing against each other so frequently. A hyphen appears as a sort of hydrogen bond (log-in), and finally all that friction snaps the hyphen in two and our phrase becomes a single word (login). Precisely speaking, log in and login are different in the same way that every day and everyday differ. To get to WordPress, I had to log in; my login ID is “linguafrancablog.” One’s a verb, the other’s an adjective. Get it? Usually the one-worders do the describing. But any obsessed linguaphile knows that language ain’t that easy—people will make mistakes, and those mistakes will become the norm. Login is a verb sometimes, and I wouldn’t doubt the appearance of log in as an adjective (“Harry has an embarrassing log in name”).

Bill Gates as a Child

A young Bill Gates contemplates the corner in English class

In all seriousness, none of this matters. It’s a theme I’ve iterated from the beginning. There’s nothing inherent in any aspect of language that makes it “correct”—we make it that way through convention. So if login wants to romp around as a verb, let it. Its friends have already joined the brigade: sign up/out/in, pick up, work out, break out, set up. The last is exceptional in that it’s been magnetized for so long that no one thinks twice when they setup, not set up, their computer. (I may be hinting at Bill Gate’s grammatical illiteracy.) Some of these are legitimately wrong, but hey, today’s wrong is tomorrow’s polished standard. If you don’t believe me, read this post again in fifty years. Wait—check out this example instead. It might convince you.

Remember so many paragraphs ago, when I discussed everyday? Well, take a look at back yard vs. backyard. You can sit in your back yard and admire the backyard furniture. Everything’s peachy, right? Well, not when you climb into the backseat of your rusty minivan. You see, back seat as a noun used to be exclusively two words, and backseat as an adjective used to be exclusively one word. Look in the dictionary, though, and you’ll see this fish growing legs.

From the blog of Jeff DeAngelis: “They sellout their LA shows and the one Philadelphia show sold out within the day tickets went on sale.” Normally, you’d only use sellout (one word) to describe someone like Rod Stewart, not as a verb (sell out). But witness linguistic magnetism in action! Mistakes like Jeff’s, though ignominious now, will be completely normal sometime soon.

The most prominent example I can think of, though, is email. Fossil evidence suggests this word was once Electronic Mail back in the 1990s, and lexico-paleontologists have posited the following evolution: Electronic Mail –> E-Mail –> E-mail –> e-mail –> email, with the intermediate form electronic mail falling somewhere towards the left. The newest human generation is growing up without knowing what the e stands for in email, and it’s due to linguistic magnetism. Words like this lose their capitalization when they become more common, and less important as “specialty” terms. In Spanish they’re having an even more difficult time, because they call it correo electrónico, which refuses to cooperate with hyphens. (Speaking of cooperate, it used to be co-operate, then coöperate [no joke!], before taking on its present form.)


Somebody give it a damn cheeseburger already. And give that poor rabbit his cereal.

I leave you with an unrelated grammar anecdote from Jeopardy!. You’re probably familiar with the Lolcats internet phenomenon. If you’re not, I’ve included the original image that sparked the creative craze. Anyway, it’s grown to such proportions that there was a Jeopardy! category the other day called “I Can Has Cheezburger?” Neither Alex nor any of the contestants seemed to know what it meant. Alex presumed it was a comic Russian mis-translation, and read it in a Russian strongman voice. Drusha rendered it “Can I have the cheeseburger?” and Chris said “Can I has cheeseburger?”. Only Jarret had the sense to truncate it to “Cheeseburger” to save himself the embarrassment. (I’ll cite the rearranged grammar of the original image as my excuse for including this on a linguistics blog.)

Why Do We Talk?

November 18, 2009

I should have gone to bed by now, but I stumbled across one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s a BBC Horizon program called Why Do We Talk? If you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend watching this. It’s entertaining, enlightening, and even surprising—and the music is great too. It attempts to answer questions like “Why do we talk, and why don’t animals talk?” and “Where did language come from?” Some really bright scientists talk about their revolutionary experiments, and there’s even a creaky-voiced appearance of Noam Chomsky, truly the Sigmund Freud of linguistics. Watch this if you have any interest in language at all. You won’t be wasting your time.

Galileo’s Linguistics

November 16, 2009

A modern linguist in his laboratory trying to turn lead into grammar

I can’t keep my head out of a linguistics book for the same reason that Galileo’s mother failed to make her son do something besides peer into his telescope all day. Astronomy had been around for centuries, but Galileo wasn’t convinced of the universally accepted model of the universe that had Earth as its center. “You idiots!” he’d yell, upon discovering that some mischievous kids had put black ink on the eyepiece of his telescope. He’d clean his face, then yell, in Italian, “You idiots! You’ve got the universe all wrong. Just watch.” Then he discovered four moons of Jupiter to prove them all wrong. If Jupiter had moons, that meant that not everything revolved around the Earth. Once the Ptolemaic universe was disproved, Galileo got bored and started dropping stuff from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Today we take for granted that Earth revolves around the sun, and the sun revolves around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way spirals around erratically and leaves a trail of cosmic dust that vaguely resembles Galileo’s head every 191 million years. And someday we will say the same of linguistics: we will know exactly what is possible (and impossible) in every language; we will construct some sort of universal grammar; and there will be no debate about the extent to which language and culture influence each other. But right now, linguistics is still a bubbling alchemy. Not only do we know close to nothing about all languages, but most languages are either poorly documented or not documented at all. The study of grammar has been around for thousands of years, but historical linguistics (the flavor of linguistics that tries to piece together the past) is in diapers. And this is precisely why linguistics is appealing to me: it’s in the same stage of development now as astronomy was in Galileo’s time. We still have a lot to learn, and it will take centuries of scholarship. By scholarship, I mean the petty bickering of people with PhDs, which is how all science is advanced.

Ruhlen's World Language Tree

Merritt Ruhlen's Tree of Wishful Thinking

Merritt Ruhlen

Look into my eyes… you are getting sleepy… there is a single mother tongue…

Remember a couple of posts ago, when I wrote that it was probably impossible to know exactly how and when language originated? Well, Merritt Ruhlen, PhD, thinks he has the answer. The above diagram is from his book The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (John Wiley & Sons, 1994; page 155). I explained how Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of Latin and most other European languages, is completely speculative, and how there are absolutely no records of it because it wasn’t written. (Just to clarify, Proto-IE is a language; IE is a language family that contains all the languages descended from Proto-IE, like Latin and French and English and Bulgarian.) Well, do you see Indo-European on Ruhlen’s language tree?  It’s toward the middle, there. You will notice that it’s at the very bottom level of the tree. Most modern linguists do not deem it possible to reconstruct anything above that level because languages change too rapidly for us to be able to track them over millennia, and they often hide in dark alleys when we try. Merritt Ruhlen is not most modern linguists. He not only deems it possible, but goes so far as to chart every language family in the world, all the way back to Proto-Sapiens, the very first language (it’s at the top of the tree). Not through linguistic reconstruction (which is impossible this far back), but through genetic data. And while study after study has shown that language populations often coincide with genetic pools, this tree is highly presumptuous as a set of linguistic relationships (look at Ruhlen’s caption).

The Origin of Language

"How to Not Be Respected by Most Linguists," by Merritt Ruhlen, PhD

Because Ruhlen is ostracized for his far-reaching conclusions on monogenesis (the idea that all languages come from a single source), he resorts to methods that are at the least unorthodox, and at the extreme a form of brainwashing. Anyone who reads The Origin of Language will have a hard time refuting Ruhlen’s claims because he forces the reader to come to his conclusions. I must admit, the evidence for a single mother language appears astounding (e.g., something like the sounds of aqua for “water” appearing in almost every language in some form, and a few other “universal” roots). But the way Ruhlen convinces his audience is by presenting tables of words from different languages, and making the reader group the languages into families based on those words. By the end of the book, the reader will be convinced that language isolates (that is, languages that don’t have any known relatives) should all be invited to the family picnic, and that, beyond a reasonable doubt, there was a single mother tongue spoken tens of thousands of years ago. After all, if you make Ruhlen’s conclusions for him, how can you argue?

Folks, Ruhlen is just another alchemist claiming to have discovered the philosopher’s stone. Monogenesis is likely true, even supported by almost all modern linguists. But Ruhlen’s “proof” of the mother tongue is nothing like Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons—it’s not about to turn linguistics upside down and shake the coins from its pockets. It’s as if Galileo had claimed to know exactly how the universe began. Which he couldn’t do, because those damn kids were always smearing black ink on his telescope.

Do as I Say, Not as I Write

November 5, 2009

"To be, or not to be, hooking up with me, you see: that is the question, m'ladies three."

It’s quite stupid, if you think about it, when people break out into spontaneous song and dance in musicals. (Although there was that one time when the mailman, the garbageman, and I all started tap-dancing, and as we sang an original song about being discontent in suburbia, I wondered when I had gotten tap shoes. That’s an isolated incident, though, and my shrink says not to worry about it. I have donated the tap shoes to Africa and I do not speak to the mailman.) But consider this: Shakespeare sometimes transmogrified his characters into Instant Minstrels™, too. In fact, all that iambic pentameter is essentially the same thing. Hamlet’s a smart Dane, but not even Shakey himself could have conjured up a “To be, or not to be” on the spot, say, as a pick-up line in a bar. My convoluted point is that writing and speech are quite disparate. This is fairly obvious to the layman and probably does not require an example involving a tap-dancing trash collector, though I daresay you may have changed the channel if I had been prosaic.

Scientists postulate first human words were "Og invent subjunctive mood."

What’s likely not obvious in this equation is how writing and speech affect each other, and why writing is like a baby in a tuxedo, and speech is like its father in flannel. If you read my last post (on language origins) you’d know that spoken language arose tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before written language (which is only 5,000 years old). Speech is our primary vessel of communication, not writing; most of the world’s 6,000 or so languages aren’t written at all. (Rather, they travel through the air in particles like a giant Wonka bar.) Over the course of our collective arrogance we’ve come to gild writing and ostracize speech, so that today it appears as if speech derives from grammar books. Writing is formal deliberation of the permanent sort, so it deserves its pedestal. It just doesn’t need to sneer at speech from up high, that’s all. Speech was the one who lent its shoulders so writing could climb up there in the first place.

Our problem as a grammatapocalyptic society is that we run around like grammarians with their heads cut off, worrying about where to use whom in colloquial speech. The answer is simple: don’t. Unless your job title is a three-letter acronym beginning with C, or you’re the president of a small country, you shouldn’t be worrying about this feeble vestige of olden tymes. Whom is fine, even required sometimes, in writing, but if you whom your way through a cocktail party there’s a good chance your friends will secretly anesthetize you with a date rape drug and lock you in a closet. The fact is, whom has contracted an intractable disease called obsoletitis, and who is jumping in when the enemy’s down. Whom‘s tenactious proponents are primarily hypercorrectors, anyway. Hypercorrection is when someone misapplies a prescriptive grammar rule to sound more intelligent, and ends up wearing a linguistic dunce cap. For example, let’s say the rule is “Use who in the nominative, and whom in the accusative.” Since no one in contemporary America knows what the hell that means, the average hypercorrector re-writes the rule to: “Use who when you want to sound like a redneck, and whom when you want to sound like a Harvard-educated librarian.” Hence such classic utterances as, “Whom went with you?” that are as ungrammatical as they are unintelligent.

Here’s the rule for who and whom. Who is a subject, and whom is not. Par example:

Gottfried, who hated oysters, ordered them anyway, along with a French wine he couldn’t pronounce, to look sophisticated.
Gottfried, whom I hated, polished his monocle and ordered a revolting dish of caviar.

The world is your dinner.

"Whom ordered these, and for whom, and whence came they?"

This wonderful phenomenon is called the “predicate nominative,” which is an unwarranted technicality in this user-friendly blog. In simpler terms, you can see above that when Gottfried is doing the hating, he’s a who, and when he’s being hated upon, he’s a whom. If you want it even simpler, use who when you’d use he and whom when you’d use him (that last m is no coincidence). He hated oysters? Use who. I hated him? Use whom. Whom is never the subject, as in “Whom thinks I’m a pretentious scumbucket?” Of course, I’m speaking of writing. Never speak how you write. Writing about speaking, however, I will add that who is correct in all cases. Also, “Wade and me kicked Gottfried in the shin” is acceptable in speech. The whole I/me debacle comes from the same rule as the whom catastrophe—something to do with subjects and objects. Hypercorrection strikes again when lecherous whomanizers paint the town red with over-generalizations about I. Normally, I is a subject and me is an object, but since “Wade and me” is incorrect (in writing) in the above painful sentence, the hypercorrector assumes it’s incorrect simply everywhere, and plasters Is in such disgusting places as the accusative, as in “Gottfried sent Wade and I a threatening letter.” Take out the Wade and you’ve got a sentence with the intelligence of an oyster.

Let me stress that you shouldn’t stress over colloquial speech. There are grammar predators out there (perhaps some are reading this) who will attempt to correct your floating-Wonka-bar English. When you meet them, it is best to play dead, as they rely heavily on sight to trap their prey. If you are spotted, however, I advise you to explain how writing and speech are totally different, then kick them in the shin.

The Genesis of Language

October 29, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: there is no conclusive evidence at this point, so until research dilutes theory into fact I propose an indefinite recess for the case of Linguists v. Where Does Language Come From. In the meantime, I’ll present the panoply of current arguments.


“Me? What the hell do I know about building inspections? The foreman's speaking Greek all the sudden and the blueprints are in Pig Latin.”

Divine Origins

The title of this post is an intentional reference to the Bible. I want to illustrate how there is still such a wide gap in our knowledge of language origins that we have room for a serious linguistic pursuit (I’m hesitant to call it a science) called Edenics. Its apologists maintain that God gave Adam the original language, which God chopped up into a thousand pieces when Adam’s descendants tried to build the Tower of Babel. If this were true, however, the confusion of tongues at Babel would actually be a gift to humanity. The world’s diversity of languages is, arguably, the source of its creative diversity. Thanks, Babylonians!

Despite being around for a couple of centuries, linguistics is still a fledgling science. It has not yet answered many of the fundamental questions: Where did language come from? Does language affect thought? How do I order a burrito in Spanish? History, as you know, is written with the blood of radical thinkers. In the 16th century, Giordano Bruno had the bad judgment to declare that the Earth revolves around the sun, so he was invited to a BYOB burning at the stake (he was the guest of honor). Even way before that, Socrates was deemed unfit for society and made to drink a hemlock and tonic. Luckily, the modern world is civilized enough that when it thirsts for blood, it doesn’t kill heretic scientists, but instead reaches for the nearest Big Red Button. Still, historical reconstruction of languages is akin to evolution in that it doesn’t bode well with religious fundamentalists. Linguists, after all, generally posit that spoken language arose between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, but creationists usually argue that the Earth is only 10,000 years old.

Goats: The source of divine language?

Goats: The source of divine language

There was an interesting fellow by the name of Psammetichus who lived about 2,500 years ago. Psammetichus (sometimes Psamtik I) happened to be a pharaoh with questionable linguistic inclinations. He borrowed two infants and stuck them on a hillside with a bunch of goats and a mute shepherd. Two years went by before Psam returned to discover a shiny scientific miracle: one of the children had uttered a sound not unlike the Phrygian word bekos ‘bread’. When he published his report in the Nile Delta Journal of Linguistics and Slave Torture, his deduction was that Phrygian was obviously the original, divine language. Linguists have since concluded that the child prodigy was emulating a goat. So much for divine languages.

Monogenesis vs. Polygenesis

The real debate—and this is the one people with lab coats are allowed to quibble over—is whether language originated as a single mother tongue (monogenesis) or as many independent tongues (polygenesis). It’s more or less an anthropological issue: did humans acquire language before or after they scattered? The poly camp cites the vast diversity and dissimilarities of the world’s language families as evidence that migration preceded language development. After all, how could English and Korean have come from the same place? Besides, civilization, which is at least as complicated as language, did develop independently and in similar patterns on both sides of the Atlantic, without mutual contact until Cortés arrived “diplomatically” in the Aztec empire. Perhaps this provides evidence that the human brain is innately structured to develop complex systems like civilization and language automatically. But, as we will see with monogenesis as well, linguists can only speculate about what proto-languages sounded like. Remember, spoken language may have come about as early as 100,000 years ago—but we aren’t even certain about the ancestor of Latin, and Latin is only several thousand years old. All we know is the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of it may be unknowable. Spoken language, unlike written language (which appeared only 5,000 years ag0), is phantasmic. It leaves no record of itself. Proto-Indo-European, which is what linguists call the common ancestor of a wide swath of European and Indus Valley languages (including Latin), is 100% certified guesswork. And since we have no clue what came before Proto-IE, we also have no clue as to whether all humans ever spoke the same language.

The proud descendant of a British colonist

The proud descendant of a British colonist

I asked a moment ago how English and Korean could possibly share a common ancestor. But if Latin could morph into Spanish and French and Italian in just a few thousand years, imagine what kind of linguistic evolution took place over the course of the last hundred thousand years. Or consider this: English colonists came to America speaking British English, but now they’re reckonin’ ifn y’all’s car needs warshed. That kind of radical change took place in just the last 400 years. Indeed, things are looking up for monogenesis, the theory that all the world’s languages have a single common ancestor. Most scientists check this box today, especially in light of the math. Anthropologists claim that humans began leaving Africa 60,000 years ago. Linguists claim humans could have had language 40,000 years before that. Ding ding ding, we have a winner.

How We Went from Laconic to Loquacious

The Bow-Wow Theory

This is an actual linguistic term, believe it or not. Proponents of this suspicious theory claim that early humans started imitating sounds in their environment, and voila!, they had language. You know what I think of this theory? I think it’s correct. The ancestors of the linguists who came up with it must have imitated cuckoos as they flew in circles overhead.

The Pooh-Pooh (Yo-He-Ho) Theory

Gee, these terms keep getting more technical. I hope I’m not losing you. In this one, an early hominid walks into a bar. The grunts and curses he utters as he’s lifting heavy tables to impress the Neanderchicks and beating Cro-Magnons to a pulp effectively become a set of communication tools, which later evolves into full-blown language. He later regrets developing language, as it allows the bartenderthal to ask him about his unpaid tab.

The Gestural Theory

First we communicated through physical gestures—a sort of sign language—and later we replaced those gestures with words. The only defense I see for this argument is that we began communicating systematically before our vocal tracts were sufficiently evolved to produce language, and before our skulls had developed enough room to accommodate a sufficient central processor for that language. Apes can’t choke on food for the same reason that they can’t speak—their larynges (larynxes?) can’t produce words like we can.

So What?

Whether or not humankind was ever united by language, it’s important for us to go out and document the languages we still have. The main problem in linguistic reconstruction is the absence of source languages. Most of the world’s 6,000 tongues, even today, aren’t written down. And half of them are predicted to disappear by the end of this century. As I said earlier, linguistics is still a new science—perhaps it came along a little too late. Hundreds of languages will die off before they can be documented, and it will be as if they never existed. The history of a language can tell us a lot about the history of its speakers. But more importantly, languages are an invaluable source of information. One minority language in South America has catalogued 10,000 medicinal plants. If it dies, we may never know if one of those plants has cancer-fighting properties. Language death is completely natural, of course, but the current mortality rate is very unnatural. We’re headed toward insularity, ignorance… and something else that begins with i. We should always ask “Where did language come from?”, but it’s equally important to find out “Where is language going?”

Mind if I Borrow That? (Part Two)

October 26, 2009

I realized when I started writing a two-part post that a lot of people were only going to read one part. I do suggest you actually read Part One (it’s not too long, and there is at least one hot chick), but if you’re too lazy motivationally disinclined here is the official summary:

Official Summary of Part One

English is greedy.

That being duly summarized, we now return to our regularly scheduled program. So: what exactly do we bargain for when we borrow a word from another language? A word isn’t just a word, after all. Borrow, for example, has many personalities: borrow, to borrow, borrowing, borrows, borrowed, barrow, burrowed, etc. When we snag something from Latin or French or Tamil, it’s often unclear how we’re supposed to deal with it—that is, whether we’re supposed to borrow associated forms as well, like the plural. There’s no customs inspection for lexical imports and the word trade is unregulated. (Very often, expatriated foreign terms arrive on dinghies in the middle of the night.) I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. If you separate the media into individual TV stations, are they all just mediums? And why would I tack an s onto medium, when the plural form media is readily available? The distinction’s rapidly fading, and people are eschewing medium for the more prevalent media.

Only the most pretentious Hamlets would still call their parts "rôles."

Only the most pretentious Hamlets would still call their parts "rôles."

The usual development of a loanword begins when English hires it as a temp. Temps aren’t full-fledged words, so they have to be italicized to set them apart. The word role (as in, “I tried out for the role of William Safire in the new play Nattering Nabobs of Negativism”) comes from the French rôle, which means exactly the same thing. Some clever thespian press-ganged it into English presumably to clarify the word part, which could mean a number of things. The Oxford English Dictionary says people were using this word in English as early as 1606. Jumping ahead to a period of more standardized spelling, it appears (no surprise) as rôle, just like in French, in the 1700s. By about 1900 people felt that rôle had been running around and getting coffee long enough, and started dropping the italicization (this is where it was promoted from its temp position). It still had that weird hat over the ô, but changes of this type take time. It isn’t until the 1970s that the odd French birthmark was removed, at least according to OED citations. From then on it was role, plain and simple, like you’re used to seeing it.

This guy actually said "C'est magnifique!" at a party last Thursday, and he's not even French.

This jerk actually said "C'est magnifique!" at a party last Thursday, and he's not even French.

If this process doesn’t seem intuitive, just think of all the French expressions you see in English that are italicized. They’re the temps of 2009. Many of them will be fired before getting a promotion, such as mauvais quart d’heure (a short unpleasant moment) and décolletage (cleavage). The latter may have practical uses in situations where the English is too revealing, but these kinds of expressions are generally only ejected from the mouths of the suave and debonair (two permanent French fixtures in English). When English plays for keeps, it’s usually because a loanword is popular enough to deserve full lexical rights. No one knows which italicized Frenchisms are here to stay and which ones will die humbly in the gutter—but there are a constellation of survivors: connoisseur, debut, detente (which is losing its é), femme fatale, film noir, escargot, and flambé. A rough rule: if you want to be pretentious, italicize (and wear a monocle).

As I’ve spelled out, loanwords sometimes take centuries to bloom. During that time they not only assimilate more and more into English, but they lose all their accoutrements. We could revisit the media scandal, but I prefer index. Do you say indexes or indices? Both are currently correct, though indexes is gaining a terrific amount of ground. It should be obvious, though, that we’d want to spell the plural with an -(e)s, just like every other regular plural in English. And that’s a sure sign that index is always growing deeper English roots and dissolving its native ties. It’s getting lonely.

Two "paninos"? Two panini? One panino cut in half?

Two "paninos"? Two panini? One panino cut in half?

Have you ever eaten a panini? If so, you’ve gourmandized on a grammatical contradiction. The sandwich is singular, but the word panini is the Italian plural of panino (which means the same thing). But if you ever caught anyone eating more than one panino, you can be sure as hell it would be paninos. It’s arbitrary, folks. Casino also comes from Italian, but all those flashy buildings in Vegas are never casini (which sounds more like a pasta dish) unless you’re an irrational Italophile. And certainly if a procession of automobiles passed by, you wouldn’t say they were carau (car is from Welsh, and that’s how they flavor their plurals). Yet we still have words that are no longer italicized, but still cling to their heritage: plateau can be pluralized with an s or an x, depending on how far your nose is upturned. The same goes for chateau. Palm is also French (palme), but it’s never palmeux. If you have two palmeux you’re a pompous scalawag (I mean that in the best possible sense). And if you’re a graffito artist you’re a pompous derelict scalawag with no respect for beaux arts.

(I didn’t have time to cover endonyms, which, as far as I can tell, are either pernicious diseases or the native names for places on a map, but Nathanael Green has written up a brief, entertaining post on them called “Do You Talk Like Alex Trebek?” that I recommend checking out.)

Mind if I Borrow That? (Part One)

October 23, 2009

"Aha! I've spotted a Proto-Indo-European root. Elementary, my dear Chomsky."

"Aha! I've spotted a Proto-Indo-European root. Elementary, my dear Chomsky."

The English language is like that neighbor down the street who buys a new toaster as soon as French does. He gets a security system when German does, and the day after Hindu hangs vermillion curtains you can be sure English will, too—vermillion with stripes. Even Navajo, who used to own the house English lives in, can’t plant a bush without English planting two bushes and a ficus plant. In a word, English is esurient. Esurient is a five-dollar word that English copied from Latin, and it means “greedy.” Latin lives pretty far down the street, but English is always ripping off his original ideas.

To be fair, even Latin isn’t original, and original isn’t even Latin. Original sashayed into Latin through the Proto-Indo-European root er-, which means “to move, set in motion.” Most of the languages of Europe and the Indus Valley, including Latin, are Indo-European languages. That is, they share a common ancestor called Proto-Indo-European. Linguists are currently on the trail with their magnifying glasses and corncob pipes trying to find it. Proto- is a prefix that entered English through Latin that means “earliest, original.” So to sum up: original isn’t original, plagiarize was plagiarized, and nothing proto- is quite the first of its kind.

As illustrated, no language is truly unique. Even “isolate” languages—that is, the ones that have no discernible relatives—rely on their neighbors for vocabulary. The Basque word for “green” is berde. If you know some Spanish, you’ll immediately notice the similarity to verde. Yet, linguists have failed to link Basque conclusively to any other language (and Spanish isn’t even a candidate). So why all the borrowing?

Chicks totally dig Enlightenment translators

Chicks totally dig Enlightenment translators

Putting aside the fact that there may be a single mother tongue to which all others can be traced—a sort of linguistic Adam—most of a language’s “original” words are there because of their natural development. It’s often said that Latin is a dead language, but that’s not quite true. Latin simply evolved into the Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Romansh, Walloon, and a dozen others. In the process, the vocabulary was modified: Latin semper (“always”) became Spanish siempre, Italian sempre, Bolognese sänper, and so on. Imagine semper as a seed that grew into an oak tree, and its branches are these variant forms. Every language of the world undergoes changes of this kind. It’s why English can be broken down into “Old,” “Middle,” and “Modern” periods. (These were the languages of, respectfully, the soldiers of 1066, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. You didn’t know Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, did you?) But borrowing occurs for a number of reasons. Sometimes speakers just need to fill a gap; sometimes a set of technical words is imported with a new cultural phenomenon (e.g., Italian classical music terminology); and sometimes the speakers of one language gather all their sharp weapons, put on horned helmets, and conquer the speakers of another language, the result of which is corpulent women singing Wagner.

Here's Isabella of Angoulême. She was hot; therefore you speak English and not French.

The reason you speak English, not French, is because Isabella of Angoulême was hot

English is a special case. I won’t get into the detailed history, but suffice it to say that our language had several periods of prolonged cultural and linguistic influence (from the Norse, from the French, from the Romans), many of which were precipitated by capricious love affairs or the personal avarice of kings. (You might very well be speaking French today if King John didn’t have the hots for Isabella.) Then, during the Enlightenment, things got out of control. You see, in order to be Enlightened, you need to study classical culture—Greeks, Romans, all that jazz. The trouble with Greeks and Romans is that they wrote in Greek and Latin, and had to be translated. So when translators came across terms like philosophy and physics, which had no ready equivalents in English, they simply annexed them. A number of charlatans noticed that big words, especially ones no one could understand, would land them all the chicks. At this point the floodgates of English opened with such force that they snapped clean off, and we got useless (but colorful) words like macrobean (“a long-lived person”), vellicate (“to pinch or tickle”), and quisquilian (“trashy,” as in “My, what a quisquilian prom dress!”). These days, it’s medically impossible to lift the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the biggest dictionary in history (and doesn’t even contain every English word). The 20-volume leather-bound set, which costs more than many used cars, is often sold as a set of weights for professional bodybuilders.

Now, I’m not a fan any blog post that’s longer than a Strom Thurmond filibuster, so I’ll save the rest of this for next time. I’ll discuss what exactly we bargain for when we borrow a word—and how such loanwords work once they get off the boat and step into the land of English.