Language & Linguistics

The Remote Beacon: An Open Letter to the Anglophone World of Tomorrow

The year is 2018.  Two thousand and eighteen years since, as much of the western world would say, Jesus lived on earth.  We mark [track, record, tally] our years using the Christian model [way, guide, style, custom], although I cannot give a reason more satisfactory [fulfilling, sufficient, solid] than that we have done it this way for many centuries now; simply stated, it is too convenient [easy, conducive, agreeable] for us to change it.

I will begin with my name.  I am [I call myself, I am known as] Joseph.  While this name pleases me enough, I did not choose it.  My mother gave it to me when she bore [birthed, gave birth to] me.

At the moment [point in time] of writing this sentence, I am almost twenty-five years old [have almost twenty-five years, am almost twenty-five years of age, have nearly completed twenty-five years of life].  A quarter-century.  One score and five years.  Five times five years.  I am, even now, a young man in the eyes of many other people.

I live in [reside in, inhabit, dwell in, abide in] the northeastern United States of America, a band of many smaller states [lands, areas, regions] united [made one, bound together] under a broader federal [national, country-wide] government.  Though we have and fill fifty states, we call ourselves one American nation [people, folk, populace] in the same way the people of the state of France call themselves the French nation.

I speak English.  And, oh, is this the point [matter, question, quandary]!

I speak what the world knows in this age [period, era, expanse of time] as “American English.”  One would distinguish [separate, differentiate, make distinct] this variety [kind, style, form] from that spoken in, say, the United Kingdom — “British English.”  Really, the term “the English language” means all varieties of it in any place in any period in the history of the language.  These “varieties” are often called “dialects,” but I have a personal distrust [problem, gripe, issue, distaste] in the treatment [handling, usage] and accuracy [truthfulness, veracity, faithfulness, exactness] of the word.  For the sake of smooth reading, however, I will not dispute [contest, take issue with, argue against] it more than I have already in other writings of mine.

So, I return to my point: I speak and write in English.

But I ask [enquire, pray, beg]: do you understand me?

I continue [proceed, go on] with this piece [work, composition] under the following assumptions [things taken as truth]:

  1. That you, the reader, also speak, read and write in English.
  2. That you are reading this piece some great length of time in the future — many, many years, I would prefer, if its purpose [point, intent] is to be fulfilled.
  3. That the English you use in your age is different enough from mine to warrant [call for] a composition asking you, “Do you understand me?

I am writing a sort of language time capsule, in other words.  I wish to write a piece that a user of English several centuries forward can read without too much effort [strain, trying, energy] of the mind and without consulting [referring to, getting assistance from] a dictionary, thesaurus or any other book that would clarify [make clear or plain] a possible foreign [strange, odd, otherworldly] word or phrase.

This task I undertake is proving [turning out, showing] to be as challenging [difficult, tricky] as I had foreseen [expected, predicted, anticipated].

As I knew would happen, I am struggling to find the middle ground between my writing being foreign and my writing being too boring [dull, monotonous, uninteresting].  It is true that I could reduce [bring down, break apart] the vocabulary [full collection of the words I use] in this piece to the same plain ten nouns, verbs and adjectives, but no one would want to read the outcome of that.  There would be no spirit [life, living force, vigour, excitement] or character [uniqueness, individuality] in it.

Still, I must be mindful of my choice of words.  A word I might use as naturally as I breathe air might be very strange or old-sounding, if not completely unknown to you, hundreds of years from now.  It is for this reason that I have been interrupting [breaking up, stopping the action of] my sentences with bracketed words and phrases that clarify what I think may confound [confuse, baffle, trip up, be beyond one’s understanding] a reader in the distant future, as I do twice in this very sentence.

Most words I use in this piece I presume [expect with great confidence or surety] not to change in meaning or frequency of use much in the next several centuries, and so I do not feel a need to clarify them.  Such words include:

  • pronouns like you and me and them
  • simple nouns like yeartimeway, and name
  • simple verbs like thinkgoknowspeak and give
  • simple adjectives like bigyoungstrangehappy and fast
  • words dealing with parts of language itself like wordphrase and sentence

Because understanding that last group of words is necessary [needed, essential] to understand this entire composition, I will define [give the meaning of] them now.  In all likelihood, I do not need to do this, but I am taking no chances [risks, gambles] here.

  • Letter – A, B, C, and so on
  • Word – grouping of letters to form one single item of a thought — eighteen in this very definition of word
  • Phrase – group of two or more words with its own semantic identity, like go on and for the most part
  • Sentence – a complete thought using one or more words, like “Go!” and “The man threw the ball.

Then, there are some words that might seem plain and yet I have chosen to clarify for fear that the reader take the wrong meaning.  The word chance above is a fairly common one, but in my age it can mean any of the following:

  • “opportunity,” as in, “I did not have the chance to meet with him.
  • “likelihood,” as in, “What is the chance you will change your mind?“; sometimes seen in the plural form the chances
  • “arrangement of fate or fortune,” as in, “Do you, by any chance, have a pen I can borrow?
  • “risk or hazard or venture,” as in the phrase take a chance

As I made clear in the sentence in which I used chance, I meant the last one, but I could not be sure that the reader knew this.

I confess: I did not receive a formal education in linguistics.  As of writing this piece, I never have gone to a school, college or university to learn the science from a certified [official, sanctioned, credible] instructor or practitioner.

However, I have passed uncountable hours of private study with what is perhaps the most invaluable [of immeasurable value or worth] resource in my age: the Internet.  The Internet, a worldwide electronic network of information (which, I would wager [bet, imagine, guess], will exist [live on, be around] long after I publish this work), has imparted [given, handed over to, provided with] me a rich, rounded knowledge and understanding of the principles [rules, pillars, truths, tenets] of the discipline [science, practise, study] of linguistics; therefore I call myself a linguist.

As a linguist, I find one thing to be certain: language does change.

Now, if I were to stay within the realm [area, bounds, governance] of certainty, I would end this piece here.  The more I write, the more I leave to chance my language to be misunderstood by you.  But to end here is to betray [turn against, break fidelity to, renounce loyalty to] my idea of completely filling a time capsule for you to discover [come upon, find] later on.  I should, at the very least, comment on the way I use language now, in the year 2018.

And I will.  But, before I do, I must begin by making a clear distinction:

— Writing and speech are NOT the same. —

Humans happened upon a need to write as a means to record [preserve, keep] what has been said or spoken.

But, for the single person, his private writings seldom [rarely, not often] match [are identical to, mirror, reflect] his manner of speech with a friend or stranger.

To converse [speak without preparation with another person or group of persons, make discourse] is to exchange [give, provide, trade, impart] thoughts upon the very instant [moment, stound, precise time].

When we write, we have all the time in the world to word our sentences and arrange [set up, organise] our disclosure [revealing, telling] of information.

My point is that the way we write is likely better worded and better paced and more grammatically tidy than the way we speak and is, therefore, a poor [bad, subpar, flawed, insufficient] indicator [guide, way of telling] of how we use language when we are in our most relaxed and natural states.

I tend to be [am habitually, am by nature, am wont to be] slow and careful with my speech, and friends and acquaintances often tell me that I use words that are bookish and unusual for casual conversation (I would say by 21st century American English standards).  But even I fall short of making my written and spoken words always agree.

Here are a few examples of what I consider [think, would call, view as] some of my more flowery, more potent [powerful, moving, poignant] compositions:

As much as I try to resist the waves and currents of the thought-ocean engulfing me, it would be nothing short of falsehood to deny that I am a product of my era.  I am a slave to the conventions and leanings of my time, perhaps with the occasional moment of profound clarity, and sometimes my writing will likewise transcend this life sentence of bondage.

Words […] serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species.  Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly — and also where he showed poetic brilliance […] To study words is to study human thought — and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.

As I pulled each item from the box, I was given pause, just as I knew would happen.  I drank in the neatness and preservation of each note and picture.  I admired the beautiful simplicity of my personal collection — mostly tokens of the modesty and mundanity of my latter years of high school, anointed with stories romantic and dramatic.

Now here is an example of the way I use language in a conversation.  The following is an electronic text message I sent to a friend.  Almost no forethought went into this description of a walk I enjoyed one afternoon:

On my walk this afternoon I was startled by a couple ducks in a secluded residential suite parking lot.  It was a male and a female very close together.  I walked hardly a foot next to them without noticing them.  One of them made a very relaxed and soft quack and they both looked at me and didn’t budge an inch.

Rather plain, would you not say?  Still, though, it is writing and therefore lacks the pauses and many of the imperfections found in natural speech.  Below I will include a transcription of a video recording of me from my final stage performance as a student at my college.  In the recording, I talk about my time with the school before I introduce a song which I then perform — meaning this is completely unprepared, natural speech I used in the year 2016.

” […] So, this song is called “Dear Friends.”  Er, it’s a song from, er, Queen’s third album Sheer Heart Attack from 1974.  It’s a nice, little piano ballad.  Er, it’s, er, kinda my farewell from here, my last time on this stage as a student.

No, it is no “Gettysburg Address,” and I likely was more concerned with [worried about, focussed on, preoccupied with] my forthcoming vocal and piano performance than with dazzling the audience [spectators, watchers, patrons] with a rousing [exciting, lively] introduction, but this transcription does show that my speech does not always meet the standards to which I hold myself when I write.  This rule, I would argue, is true of anybody with a societal upbringing and schooling background similar to mine.

Even the works of the revered [deeply honoured, respected, highly esteemed] poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, show a disparity [inequity, difference, separation] in the way he used the English language.  While his sonnets and verses often are dense with metaphors, allusions and symbols, usually so much that the average [typical, everyday, standard, ordinary] reader in the 21st century cannot make sense of them, the Bard’s prose, by comparison, is rather straight and to-the-point and has not so many poetic embellishments [pretty additions, ornateness, flourishes].  As for the way he spoke, there is no way to be sure, but it is probable that he did not talk in poetic metre.  He likely spoke quite plainly — or, at least plainly by 16th and 17th century standards.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the five quotations above — as well as this whole piece you are reading — are my words.  They represent [stand for, show, betoken] only the way that I, Joseph, use English.  Do not think that they stand for anyone else, necessarily.  Do not read them and think, “Oh, this must be how EVERYONE in 2018 wrote and spoke.”  No.  Every person in my time speaks and writes in his own distinct style — following similar conventions, yes, but not without adding his own devices [techniques, ideas, patterns] — in the same way no two people in YOUR time write and speak precisely the same way.

Upon further thought, I realise [suddenly understand] that you, however far in the future you might exist, may not examine [study, look at, review] the work of Shakespeare as closely or as ardently [hotly, intensely, passionately] as we do in the 21st century.  You may not even know the name at all.  To me, he is very old.  He died over four hundred years ago now, and yet his work continues to be taught and studied and performed, even with the widening language gap.  If you are reading this in the year 2318, 2418 or 2518, then I am about as old to you as William Shakespeare is to me and the people of my era.  For aught that I know, there could be in your era a longing to study so reverently the work of those from the 21st century (or 19th or 20th).  I wonder who will be your Shakespeare.  Charles Dickens, perhaps?  Edgar Allen Poe?  Mark Twain?  J. R. R. Tolkien?  Ernest Hemingway?  Ray Bradbury?  Dare I mention my contemporaries J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin — or even Stephen King?  Then again, we do still study Geoffrey Chaucer, who predates Shakespeare by over two hundred years, so the latter may still be a prominent [stand-out, key, important] literary figure for you, if a bit more antiquated [old, archaic].

But if you think MY English is antiquated, then look at this brief sample of Old English:

Se wisa wer timbrode his hus ofer stan.
Þa com þær micel flod, and þær bleowon windas, and ahruron on þæt hus, and hit ne feoll: soþlice, hit wæs ofer stan getimbrod.

— from the New Testament parable “The Man Who Built His House on Sand”

Completely foreign, right?  Save for [ignoring, with the exception of] maybe two or three words like and and on and his, this is unreadable to anyone of the English-speaking world in my age who has not studied Old English, or “Anglo-Saxon,” as it is sometimes called.  In fact, this would have been unintelligible [not understandable, incomprehensible] by the 14th century.  But that was English in those days.  That was how it looked a thousand years ago.

Here is some Middle English:

These ben þe poyntȝ and þe articles ordeyned of the bretheren of seint Katerine in the cite of Londone, the whiche is founden in the chirche of seint Botulf with-oute Aldrichesgate.

The furste poynt is this, þat whan a brother or a suster schal be resceyued, þat þey schul be swore vpon a book to þe brotherhede, for to holde vp and meyntene þe poyntȝ and the articles þat be write after folwynge, eche man to his power, sauynge his estat; and þat euerich brother and suster, in tokenynge of loue, charite, and pes, atte resceyuynge schule kusse eueri other of þo þat be þere.

— part of a document from the 14th or 15th century¹

You likely can make out a few more words in this — and perhaps make good guesses about other ones if you have a sharp eye.  The common people in my age can, at least.  What we in the 21st century may find to be somewhat similar to our English may bear even less similarity to yours; this Middle English text could be hardly [barely, not much] less foreign to you than the Old English was.

Some Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s era):

The English speach doth still encroche vpon it [Cornish], and hath driuen the same into the vttermost skirts of the shire. Most of the Inhabitants can no word of Cornish; but very few are ignorant of the English.

— Richard Carew, The Survey of Cornwall (1602)

To a reader and speaker of English in the 21st century, this looks even closer to the language he knows today.  Besides a few words with unfamiliar spellings (i.e., speach speechencrocheencroachvttermostoutermost), someone in my era can, at the very least, read the whole thing.  He may not understand precisely its meaning, but he can read it without too much trouble.

Finally, some Modern English:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

— final paragraph of one of the several drafts of the Gettysburg Address, penned and spoken by United States President Abraham Lincoln, 1863

To the English-speaking world of my era, this looks fairly — well, modern.  From the first word to the very last, we can read this passage.  And, though Lincoln uses some rather old-fashioned grammatical constructions, the meaning is still clear as day to us, over a century and a half later.

Now, I am not so foolish as to believe that you, in your age, necessarily call these periods of English what we, in our age, call them.  These are names we have given them from our perspective (18th century onward) — therefore, we call our own “Modern English.”  As the history of English lengthens, the names of its periods may shift.  To you, my English could be similar enough to what we call “Middle English” and different enough from yours that you group our period with Middle.  You might know “Middle English” as lasting from around the year 1100 to some time in the 20th century, the beginning of the electronic, digital age.  It depends [hangs, hinges, is dependent] largely on how far in the future you are.

All this I say to come to my final point: what is YOUR English like?

This is a different game entirely.  Linguists have a hard time as it is telling how a language was wielded in the past; to make guesses about how it will look and sound in the future is virtually impossible.  There are too many variables [factors, potential ways of changing] to consider [account for, think about].  Some would even call such an endeavour [hope, dream, mission, goal] foolish.

One linguist predicted that, after two hundred years of separation, American English and British English would have changed so much that their speakers no longer would be able to understand each other.  Well, as of the time of composition, it has been nearly two hundred and forty-one years since the United States of America declared [announced, claimed, asserted] their independence from Great Britain, and over four hundred since the first British settlers came to the North American continent, and I have no trouble speaking to or understanding a Briton.

Perhaps, in a similar fashion [way, style], I am making an ass of myself in believing that a reader several centuries beyond me might find parts of this piece incomprehensible [not understandable, lacking sense].  You may very well have no difficulty at all nor have any need for these pace-ruining word clarifications I provide so often inside my text.  At the same time, you may indeed find yourself puzzled here and there.  There is no way I can be certain of either possible reality, nor could I in a thousand lifetimes guess correctly about the state [condition, quality] of the English language in your age.

But it is fun [amusing, enjoyable, entertaining] to try.

You might have noticed [taken note of, seen] that I have not used a single contraction yet in this composition (unless it was part of a quotation).  There is a good reason for this.  Contractions, throughout our language’s history, have had a habit [tendency, inclination] of changing and falling out of use.  To make a contraction is to combine [fuse, bring together] two or more words by leaving out letters and syllables and replacing them with apostrophes ( ‘ ).  We do this in writing to reflect the hasty way we speak the words.  Common ones in my era include:

  • I’m (I am)
  • you’ve (you have)
  • he’s (he is)
  • we’d (we would, we had)
  • they’re (they are)
  • there’s (there is)
  • isn’t (is not)
  • can’t (can not)
  • wouldn’t (would not)

Now here are some we do NOT use anymore:

  • cham (ich am) — ich is a Middle English form of the prounoun I
  • chave (ich have)
  • th’art (thou art) — thou used to be our you for addressing a single person with whom one is familiar; now survives mainly in religious texts
  • ’tis (it is) — still recognisable as an archaism, but replaced by it’s
  • ’twas (it was) — same as above, although it survives in fossilised expressions like, “‘Twas the night before Christmas.
  • in’t (in it) — popular in Shakespeare’s day
  • is’t (is it) — also popular in that time

Contractions are not going anywhere.  I say with full confidence that you have them in your time as well.  Here are some that are rather new in my time — perhaps they will be commonplace and even accepted as proper English after a couple hundred years:

  • not’ve (not have) — as in, “I would not’ve done it if I had known you would be so upset.
  • I’d’ve (I would have) — as in, “I’d’ve let you if you had only asked first.
  • wouldn’t’ve (would not have)
  • I’ll’ve (I will have) — as in, “I‘ll’ve been to every continent once we land in Europe.
  • you’d’ve (you would have
  • y’all’d’ve (you all would have) — y’all is already treated as its own element, meaning you all — frowned upon by prudes who think it a corruption from the American South

Maybe y’all and ain’t (am/are/is/have/has not) will be fully standard by your time as well.

Next and more difficult is the problem of words.

As you know quite well by now, I am choosing my words with great care.  Every word I use must pass through a series of gates, if you will.  They are:

  1. Does it satisfy precisely the meaning or idea I wish to say?
  2. Does it have only one, clear primary meaning — or one that is nearly impossible to confuse with other senses in its given context?
  3. Has its meaning stayed more or less the same over the course of the word’s existence in English?

If the answer is “yes” to all three gates, then I leave the word alone and move on.

If the answer is “no” to any of them, then I either find a different word or I underline it and immediately clarify the word with synonymous words and phrases or with approximations [words that are close enough].

Sometimes I do not clarify potentially foreign words because I trust the context to clarify them for me.

I believe I have done well so far, but foretelling how future English-speakers will use words is tricky.

The most obvious reason is that their meanings can change over time.

The word nice has enjoyed a remarkable [noteworthy, extraordinary] journey through meanings in the many centuries it has been in the language.  In the past, this little adjective has meant everything from “ignorant” to “foolish” to “stupid” to “inexperienced” to “naïve” to “petty” to “small” to “childlike” to “simple” to “quaint” to “pleasant” to “kind.”

Today, the term nice guy, a man who is outwardly agreeable to or respectful of women, seems to be taking on an ironic secondary meaning — of a man who is NOT respectful of or pleasant to women — by the idea that he would fake or pretend to be such as a means of gaining the chance to have sexual intercourse with them.

I could be wrong about this, but perhaps the word nice will continue to evolve, as it has so much already.  Perhaps in your era it means something like “disrespectful,” or “unkind,” or “ill-mannered,” or “rude,” or “insidious,” or “pretentious; given to pretending.”

The word nice demonstrates [shows by example] also how much a seemingly simple word can change — and why I feel so strongly about clarifying the words I use in this piece.

Then we have words that replace others.

There have been several words for “living creature” in the history of English.

In Old English, the word was deor.  This is the word that became deer.  Slowly, the meaning shifted to mean the creature with antlers.  The word in Old English for what we would today call a “deer” was heorot — which became the word hart.

In Middle English, the preferred word for “living creature” was beste (beast).

Now, in my Modern English, the most common word for this is animal.

Words simply die sometimes.

It has not been since the Old English period that we called a library a boc-hus — literally a “book-house.”  Nor is a male human anymore called a wer, for he is always a man — unless we speak of a werewolf, or a “man-wolf.”  Nor do we use the unnecessarily long word esperance when hope will do.

How am I to know that words today like ardentembellish and disparity will live on?  They are not the most common words to hear on an American street.  Can I reasonably expect them to survive when there are many other, more popular words for each?

Then, sometimes, words are dug up and revived.  

Blithe, meaning “happy” or “joyful” or “carefree” was rare after the 15th century and virtually dead by the beginning of the 20th.  The playwright, Noël Coward, reintroduced it to the English-speaking world when his play, Blithe Spirit, opened in the 1940s.

You may remember my inclusion of the obscure word stound earlier in the piece when I was clarifying the noun instant.  Almost nobody in my era has even seen the word stound, let alone knows what it means.  It is simply not used anymore.  It would make even the most learned people say, “What?” if I were to speak it.  It is an obsolete word for “a brief stretch of time; a moment.”  But who is to say that stound will not be in use several centuries from now?  Who is to say that stound never will be revived like blithe was?

Who is to say that ANY English word ever is truly dead?

Hyphenated words must stay as such for many years before people will accept them without the hyphen ( – ).  Very common words like todaytonight and birthday used to be written to-dayto-night and birth-day.

With this knowledge, I expect many compound words that take hyphens in the 21st century, such as half-jokinglyheart-wrenching and grade-school, will be embraced [welcomed, accepted heartily] one day without their hyphens.

I can make educated guesses about words.  The future of English grammar, however, is a bit hazier [cloudier, foggier, harder to make out].

That said, though, I do have some commentary about several specific matters of grammar.

First is that of whom; I fear that this pronoun will disappear in the next few centuries.  It is hardly seen in writing anymore, much less heard in speech, where who is greatly (and grammatically wrongly) preferred.  It is an object pronoun used in the same way him and her and them are used.  Compare:

You sold your car to him?” vs. “You sold your car to he?

You sold your car to whom?” vs. “You sold your car to who?

Next is that of the subjunctive mood — used to express a hope, wish, fear, request, command or a conditional clause.  This, I am afraid, also will disappear before too long.  When using the English subjunctive, the verb stays in the infinitive (unconjugated form).  Examine the following:

I desire only that she return my affections.

It is asked that he leave the restaurant.

The event will be held outside, whether it be raining or shining.”

And a sentence I used earlier in this very piece:

[…] and yet I have chosen to clarify for fear that the reader take the wrong meaning.

The subjunctive may also, in time, be phased out from conveying [carrying, supplying] a hypothetical situation, as in the following common constructions:

If I were you…

Well, if it were me…

Or, perhaps a sentence like this:

Were it so easy.

Set phrases and idioms like as it were, however, may yet persist [remain, live on] in your time.

Last is that of using the pronoun they to refer to [indicate, mean] one person.  This is a topic of some heat in the decade of the 2010s.  While pedants [those concerned with trivial or minor pursuits of correctness] will insist that they never be used for a single person, the fact is that the pronoun has been used this way for several centuries now — to refer to a hypothetical, unknown or unspecified person.  Very recently, though, there has been a push by cultural progressives [forward thinkers] for society to accept “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun, as many people in our modern 21st century are beginning to find themselves outside the gender binary — the social construct of being of either male or female disposition (NOT of possessing either type of genitalia — that is how we define sex) — and to seek a pronoun that implies neither man nor woman (i.e., not he or she); hence they.

I believe that, while both of these movements are being met with some resistance, language will find a way to make the change, as it always has done.  “Singular they” may be so natural in your era that there is never any question or second thought about using it.

Other parts of grammar, such as syntax [word order, grammatical arrangement of a sentence], verb tenses and conjugation, are more complicated [complex, convoluted, involved, elaborate] and thus harder to speak on, so I will not do so.

In the matter of predicting how your English will look and sound, I have yet to address (though I did mention it once much earlier) one blatant [obvious, stick-out] complication: the Internet.

I presume I do not need to teach you everything about this technology [advancement, device, machine, work], as I trust that it will be alive and well for a great many years.  Perhaps, though, I am blinded by the natural arrogance [elitist attitude, smugness, haughtiness] of existing in what anyone would call his own modern, up-to-date society — perhaps humans will create in the future a faster, more powerful, more tangible [of essence, touchable] means of communicating with each other over vast [large, stretching] distances.  Perhaps the Internet means nothing to you — perhaps you have something better in your age.

But, then again, I have used the Internet both to compose this work and to publish it.  This is what we call in my age a “blog post.”  Blog is a shortened form of the term web log, the “Web” being the “World Wide Web,” which many people wrongly (but understandably) confuse with the Internet.  As this work is a product of and for the Internet, and as you are reading this because you are on and familiar with the Internet, I will take off my philosopher hat and return to my point.

The Internet has made most modern languages ripe for study.  Users all over the world have found ways to shorten words and expressions and phrases in all their languages.  In a span of fewer than thirty years, slang specific to the Internet has popped up, changed and fallen out of use.  To put it briefly, this worldwide network of communication is making languages evolve quite rapidly.

Older English speakers might maintain [hold as true, argue, claim] that these evolutions are harmful and that younger generations’ English has decayed [decreased in quality/structure, deteriorated, crumbled, atrophied] because of the Internet.

At the same time, the Internet is also responsible for [behind, answerable for, the reason for] a convergence [bringing together, homogenisation, unification] of English.

Because of the lightning-fast travel of information and language on the Internet, the English used around the world is becoming more unified.  Internet users are becoming familiar all at once with all the same new words and slang and ideas.  The generations that have matured [grown up] with the Internet, plus those that will do the same in the future, across the world have and will have a unique “Internet English,” or “Internet-speak,” through which to write (and, to a lesser extent [reach, degree], speak) to each other.  It is their variety of English.  And possibly the future world’s English.

But this is but a symptom [sign, showing, manifestation] of a larger process [action, development, unfolding, occurrence] — one that has been affecting [changing] the language since the days of Middle English.

That process is standardisation.

Since William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476 has the country been promoting a national language standard.  Official [legal, of government] documents were printed in London, the seat of power of the state, so the English from the city and surrounding areas began to take on a sort of social prestige [height, status, superiority, dominance], while regional variation came to be “nonstandard.”  Other Englishes needed to conform to [become more like] the budding standard.

It is thanks [due, owing] to this emergence [growth, sprouting, coming out] of a language standard that English has not changed much since the 16th century, the Early Modern English period.  Or, rather, change since that time is much smaller and finer than the difference between Old English and Middle English.

In the 20th century, the new technologies of film, television and radio helped unify slightly the Englishes of the world in a way akin to that of the Internet at the end of the century.  In an effort to sound less “regional” and to sound more like the standard Englishes on news networks or in motion pictures, people’s regional accents [word pronunciations and vowel quality] began to dull, and those of younger generations seem to be “disappearing” [fading away] altogether.

The reason I speak of standardisation is that its agents (chiefly the Internet) further obscure [make unclear, make cloudy] the future of English.  On one hand, I know fully well that the nature of word and grammar evolution can sever [cut off, separate] your English from mine; on the other hand, I am aware of the endless progression [advancement, going forth] of technology and that both the Internet in my age and whatever exists in yours may help keep English from changing too much.

In other words, without these standardisations in play [active, in effect], I would KNOW that our Englishes would be greatly different.  I would KNOW that there would be change.  But with the wild Internet, I do not know what to predict.

Finally, there could be much to be said of a difference in Englishes from planet to planet, if space travel is common in your age and humans have visited and settled on other heavenly bodies.  You may perceive [see, note] a gap between “Earth English” and, say, “Mars English” in the same way American English grew distinct from British English.  And then, perhaps, you will perceive a spreading and changing of English within each planet you go to.  And I imagine that English will not be the only Earth language to be carried over.

As I conclude [come to a closing, finish, wrap up] this piece, I ask [request] of you two things:

First, I ask that you remember my biases.  My upbringing, my schooling and my region all colour my perception of English and how it is used in my age, in the year 2018.  My position and my usage of English are unique, one of a kind.  They are my own.  Any person in my age could have written this piece for you.  But you are reading mine.  Do not withhold from yourself any further study of English of my era.  Read some books from the 20th and 21st centuries.  Use the Internet to view old messages, old forum posts, old videos.  Perhaps, on occasion, you will read or hear language that is so similar to yours that the author’s or speaker’s hand might seem to reach out to you.

Second — remember your own.  Remember your own biases as you read my English, yes.  But remember YOUR English.  Foster a self-awareness for your speech and writing like I have done myself.  Know that the future is watching you as well.

Permissions

 

¹ These texts may be copied freely by individuals for personal use, research, and teaching (including distribution to classes) as long as this statement of availability is included in the text. It may be linked to freely in Internet editions of all kinds, including for-profit works. Redistribution by commercial or not-for-profit content providers is expressly forbidden.

 

Advertisements

Science is the Sh*t: The Epic Journey of a Word and Its Kin

No, really — science is shit, etymologically speaking.  But we’ll get to that later.

Partial click-bait titles aside, consider this blog post the spiritual successor to my “Language Tint My World” entry from spring 2016.  In that post, I described my humble beginnings as curious schoolboy and my transmutation to bona-fide linguist; here, I present a more specific fascination: the word.

Shove It Up Your Arsenal

Words are funny.  Some prove highly resistant to transformation and hardly change at all in a millennium, while others seem to change at the drop of a hat.  Humans, armed literally to the teeth with imperfect diction and hearing, have taken their word-ingots to the forge and have beaten the forms of those most malleable, sometimes leaving them so altered that they would no longer be recognisable in pronunciation or spelling to a speaker of the same language mere centuries prior.

Here are but a few mild processes by which a word may change:

Misdivision – The difference between “an ice cube” and “a nice cube.”  This is the faulty separation, or “mis-dividing,” of two words next to each other.  A few modern English words lost an N several centuries ago to the preceding indefinite article a.

“a napron” ⇒ “an apron”
“a nadder” ⇒ “an adder”

Works the other way, too.

“an ewte” ⇒ “a newt”
“an eke*-name” ⇒ “a nickname”

*Eke, here, is an archaic English word for “an increase, augmentation.”  Therefore, a nickname is literally an “additional name.”

These misdivisions, of course, occurred in the Middle and Early Modern periods of English.  Want a more recent example?  Look no further than “a whole nother.”

IMG-1586

“an ice cube” vs. “a nice cube”

Misdivision sometimes will manifest itself not in a word’s spelling, but rather in its pronunciation.  Here are a couple modern examples I’ve observed:

Painstaking (meaning one “took pains” to accomplish something) is often pronounced “pain-staking.”  I don’t know what it means to “stake pain,” but a word separation more faithful to the intended meaning of the compound would be “pains-taking.”  Say them both.  “Pains-taking.”  “Pain-staking.”  They should and do sound different.

Each other, in casual speech, sounds more like “ee-chother.”  Very subtle difference, but a particularly careful speaker will make sure the /ch/ sound is attached to the first word and not to the second.

Metathesis – Sometimes we jumble the intermediate sounds of a word.

The Anglo-Saxons had a word for a beaked, winged creature: bridd.  Over time, the R and the following vowel switched places, so now we spell and pronounce it bird.

The same people had a couple variants of the verb meaning “to call for an answer; enquire of somebody.”  They were ascian [AHS-kyahn*] and axian [AHK-syahn].  (We know this verb today as ask.)  The /s/ and /k/ sounds were pronounced in either order.  Both verbs survived into Middle English as asken and axen, and Chaucer used both.  Until around Shakespeare’s time, to “ask a question” and to “ax a question” were equally appropriate.  (Such a construction would not have been formed back then, but you get my point.)

*In Anglo-Saxon phonology, S followed by C represents the /sh/ sound, as in the word scip (“ship”), so the verb ascian should have yielded Middle English ashen, but the Old English form was altered by the Scandinavian cognate, hardening the C, hence the metathetic X variant axian.  Remember that the /x/ sound is really the consonant cluster /ks/.

Syncope – Sometimes called syncopation.  Because music has a monopoly on most of the latter’s meanings, though, I prefer the original Greek.  Anyway.

Syncope is the disappearance of an unstressed syllable in a word.  It is usually the second of what should™ be a trisyllabic word.  Some examples (and I got a million of ’em!):

  • family ⇒ “FAM-lee”
  • different ⇒ “DIFF-rint”
  • chocolate ⇒ “CHAWK-lit”
  • opera ⇒ “OP-ruh”

In British English, medicine is often “med-sin” and library is often “lie-bree.”

Sometimes, syncope yields new words.  This is where it gets fun — at least for me.  Here:

  • courtesy ⇒ curtsey
  • fantasy ⇒ fancy
  • jettison ⇒ jetsam

Back-formations – When we derive a new word (usually a different part of speech) from the original.

A prime example is donate.  This is a relatively new contrivance.  The noun donation existed in English far longer than the convenient verb we designed after it.  I guess people grew tired of saying “make a donation” all the time.  That’s all well and good.

Here’s where the process becomes problematic — sometimes we create unnecessary or superfluous back-formations.

The verb that has traditionally corresponded to conversation is converse.  But now we have “conversate” for some reason.

Many of the readers who are thinking, “Well, *I* don’t say ‘conversate’” are about to be caught with their pants down — what verb corresponds to obligation?

Oblige is the traditional verb form, not “obligate.”  “Obligate” was born of the same ignorance that spawned the abomination “conversate.”  They are equally hideous to my ears.  You can denounce the use of “conversate” all you wish, but you had better not let me catch you saying “obligate.”

Some quick examples of back-formations not from -ation words:

  • statistic from statistics
  • couth from uncouth
  • diplomat from diplomatic
  • sleepwalk from sleepwalking
  • injure from injury
  • greed from greedy (the original noun form was greediness)

Parasitic Letters – New sounds sometimes latch on to other sounds in the same word.

Empty didn’t always have a P in it.  But say the word as if there were no P.  “Emty.”  Hard NOT to say it without one, huh?  Our lips close to form the /m/ consonant before immediately hitting that /t/ plosive, so it’s only natural that a brief “puh” sneaks in there.  It was in the Middle English period that scribes began writing the word with a P.  This is an example of euphonic alteration — when the spelling of a word changes to become more sonically pleasing.

More recent examples of both processes include yep/yup and nope.  These affirmative and negative word variants come from clipped pronunciations of yeah and no, typically given as very quick, one-word responses.  A subtle P latches on to the end of each word as the lips abruptly shut.  An even more recent example is welp, a curt variant of well, as used interjectorily to introduce a clause (e.g. “Well, would you look at that.”).  Welp is the same word, but its abbreviated vowel length conveys an even greater tone of surprise or vexation, as in the sentence, “Welp, there go my plans to relax tonight!

But English words aren’t the only ones susceptible to these processes; we can see their mark on Latin words as well.  To form a noun from the verb assumere (“to take up,” and origin of English assume), let’s add the suffix -tionem.

One would think that assum(ere)tionem = “assumtionem.”  But note the M and T next to each other.

The compound was actually written A-S-S-U-M-P-T-I-O-N-E-M.  With a P.  Meaning that ancient Romans must have fallen prey to the same “parasitic P” that infected the English word empty.

Don’t feel guilty for making an assumption; just make sure you don’t “assumpt” anything.

Associative Alteration – Changing a word to make it conform to an unrelated word.  More examples that you probably won’t bother to read:

  • perform – From Anglo-French parformer, alteration of Old French parfo(u)rnir.  The second element fornir is related to the word furnish but was changed by association with the word forme.
  • admiral – From Arabic amir-al or amir-ar-rahl.  The D was added possibly by influence of Latin admirabilis (“admirable”).
  • island – Very old English word that never had an S in it until scribes stuck one in there to make it cosmetically similar to the Latin-derived and unrelated isle.

“Pend”-House Magazine

Now that the dense stuff is out of the way, let me regale you with less-dense stuff!

Words can change in sound and appearance, but what truly enthralls me is to examine how they change in meaning over time.

This process is referred to as sense evolution or sense shift, and I will use both terms throughout this blog post.

How often does one use spearhead to refer to the “tip of a spear?”  Of course, that is its original, literal meaning.  But its more common meaning of “anything leading an attack, operation or undertaking” is a figurative understanding of the word.  And it’s often used in the verb form, as in the sentence, “She spearheaded the initiative to help ex-convicts rejoin society.”  We’ll return to this principle in a bit.  In the meantime, however, I want you to take a gander at the picture below:

balance20scale

This image of a scale is absolutely critical in understanding this next part.  Keep it in your mind for the next few paragraphs.  There’s a family I’d like for you to meet.  I present to you the Pends.

In this household live pendantpensivepensionpound (unit of measurement and money), ponder and all the -pend verbs you can think of (impendsuspendexpend/spend, etc.), plus others.

They aren’t what you’d call an idyllic, classic American nuclear family, though.  There are no parents or children living there — only cousins — and you’ll hardly ever see any two of them in the same place at the same time.  They’re a family that’s as large and extended as it is dissociated.  But they’re all blood — this much is certain.

All the words listed in the “Pend” family are united via the notion of hanging and weighing.

Their origin, the Latin verb pendere, means “to hang.”  And that’s how things were weighed.  On scales like the one depicted above.  What did the ancients weigh?  Why, money, of course!

This is what we call the ground sense.  The ground sense of a word is its initial, primitive idea.  The base from which all other meanings are derived.  The ground sense of all the “Pend” words is hanging and weighing; this is the universal sense felt, no matter how faintly, amongst all of them.

pendant is a hanging ornament.  Something suspended is hanging in the air.  Your impending doom is hanging over you.

A pound of weight and a pound of money, if we go back enough centuries, are one and the same in England.

Pensionsexpenses and spendings all are things being paid out, a sense conferred by the notion of weighing money.

Word senses generally shift from the literal to the figurative, as I demonstrated with spearhead earlier.  We connect the contemplative meanings of pensive and ponder to the hanging and monetary meanings of the other words by using the scale as a metaphor for thought.  When one is pensive or pondering, he is taking the time to “WEIGH things out,” thus, “consider.”

I know — I’ve got goosebumps, too.  But wait — it gets even better.

What if I told you that this sort of sense shift can occur in parallel between two completely unrelated word groups from two separate languages?

The Latin verb capere carried meanings of “grab, seize, take hold, catch” and is the root of many French-derived English words such as captive and capture.

The same verb exists in Italian, albeit with an evolved meaning.  Capere in Italian means “to understand.”  Many Americans are familiar with the second-person-singular conjugation, “Capisci?” or rather, “Capeesh?

How does such a physical, forceful verb take on a more intellectual meaning?

That’s right, class!  Through figurative use!

When one understands something, he “grasps” it.

Latin/Italian capere and English grasp underwent the same literal-to-figurative sense evolution.  Their initial “grabby” meaning is physical, but a figurative meaning of “to get a hold of mentally; comprehend” emerged over time in both words independently.

You TAKE my meaning?
You CATCH my drift?
You GET what I’m saying?

Here’s another pair of unrelated words that enjoyed remarkably similar sense evolutions.

Latin causa (“judicial process, lawsuit, case”)
Proto-Germanic* thengan (“appointed time”) – ancestor of English thing

*Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed, theoretical common language of all the Germanic tribes that was spoken several millennia ago when they all lived in relative proximity to one another before splitting off and developing what would eventually become the modern Germanic tongues of German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, etc.

Many of the Germanic languages held on to this word — thengan.  In most cases, it came to mean “meeting, public assembly, council,” which more closely resembles in meaning the Latin causa.  Then it shifted to mean “that which is DISCUSSED at a public assembly,” hence “matter.”  From “matter,” it shifted again to refer to various nouns like “entity,” “body,” “being,” “act,” “deed” and “event.”  Today, in many Germanic languages, the word means simply what we would call “a thing.”

dscn7044

The building for “Althing,” the parliament of Iceland.  The second element of the name keeps the original sense of “public assembly.”

This sense shift was mirrored in the Romance languages.  The descendants of causa, which bore judiciary and public assembly meanings, include the French chose and Spanish/Italian cosa, all of which likewise now mean “thing.”

One more pair to demonstrate a parallel sense development:

English friend
Latin amicus (“friend”)

Friend comes from the Anglo-Saxon word freond, which is a noun derivative of the verb freogan, meaning “to love.”

Amicus is related to the Latin verb amare, meaning — can you guess? — “to love.”  Anyone who’s taken a course in a Romance language should recognise amicus as the ancestor of the Italian amico, Spanish amigo and French ami — “friend.”

(Those especially keen might recognise it as the source of English words like amicable, amiable and amity.)

But here’s a Latin-based English word that gives me an internal chuckle every time I see it: enemy.

Hard to tell from looking at it now, but that word is the descendant of the Latin inimicus, which entered English via the Old French inimi.  Let’s break down the original Latin word and see just how ridiculous it is.

inimicusin- (“not”) + amicus (“friend”)

Therefore, enemy literally means “not friend.”  Real imaginative, Romans.  That’s right up there with fireplace for least-inspired words.

What A Load Of Crap

Sometimes our prejudices keep us from seeing the truth.  Two words that look nothing alike and with completely separate meanings still could be related etymologically.

Science is the word of academia.  It encompasses the virtues of observation, concentration and patience.  It is the embodiment of pure, humble intellect.

Shit is…well…none of those things, really.  I suppose one could argue that patience is required for — actually, no, never mind.

These two words have nothing in common (save for their starting letter).

…Or do they?

Rewind, say, seven millennia or so.  Before there was any Latin.  Before Greek.  Before any of the Germanic languages.

Linguists have reconstructed what is known as Proto-Indo-European (henceforth written as PIE), another theoretical parent tongue.  This would have been the common language of the earliest settlers of the Eurasian landmass.  As this first group of people began to disperse (over the course of several millennia), they developed their own dialects — e.g. Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Slavic, etc.  And, of course, each of these became a language family in its own right.

IMG-1588

The PIE root for “to cut, split, divide, separate” is skei-.  This root, like many other PIE words linguists have reconstructed, was the progenitor of numerous nouns and verbs still in use in the extant Indo-European languages.

The prehistoric word served as the base for a couple Proto-Germanic verbs.  They are skaithan and skit-.  Both these verbs remained more or less faithful to the literal sense of “separating.”  Skaithan yielded English shed (as a snake does to its old skin or a tree to its leaves) and German/Dutch scheiden.

The other Germanic verb skit- manifested itself in English as shit (dialect shite preserves the Old English vowel), in German as scheissen and in Dutch as schijten.  All these verbs came to mean “defecate” on the notion of excrement being SEPARATED from the body.

PIE skei- was present in Latin words as well.  It was used to form the important verb scire, meaning “to know.”  But how could the verb for splitting or separating something mean that?

*cue angelic choir* FIGURATIVE SENSE SHIFT!

To “know” is to “separate one thing from another; distinguish.”  The Roman verb became a metaphorical separation, whereas the Germanic verbs remained literal separations.

The noun derived from scire was scientia, meaning “a knowing; knowledge.”  This is the obvious origin of the English science and all the Romance cognates.

(Bonus: The Greek verb skhizein (“to split”) comes from the same PIE root and is the origin of the English word schism.)

To recap:

PIE skei- ⇒ Proto-Germanic skit- ⇒ English shit

PIE skei- ⇒ Latin scire “to know” ⇒ Latin scientia “knowledge” ⇒ English science

Therefore, science and shit are distant cousins.

bioscience_logo

Carry On My Way-“Word” Son

What a journey some words have!  Sometimes they need to make pilgrimages across vast lands over great stretches of time to find themselves.  It may take centuries for some words to settle at long last on one primary sense.

Nice is one of these “journey words.”  (Not a technical term — just something I call them.)  Nice was a Middle English borrowing from French, which in turn was an evolved form of the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware.”  The Latin is an adjectival compound of the prefix ne- (“not”) and scire — yeah, that verb we JUST covered — meaning “to know.”  It literally means “not-knowing.”  (And, yes, that makes it related to shit as well.)

In French and when it entered English, it wasn’t too far-removed from the Latin, carrying meanings of “foolish, stupid, senseless, silly.”  The sense development in English is remarkable, having shifted across “simple,” then to “petty, fine, minute, (a sense preserved in nicety)” to “childlike,” to “delicate,” to “agreeable, pleasant,” to “kind, thoughtful.”  The Oxford English Dictionary says this about the word:

“In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.”

The adjective slight originally meant “smooth, sleek,” then moved to “slim, slender,” to “feeble, not strong, inferior,” hence “not good,” before resting on “small in amount.”  The German cognate schlecht followed a similar path, moving from “smooth, plain, simple” eventually to “bad, mean, base.”

Words can weaken and strengthen over time as well as narrow or broaden.  The Old English yfel (Modern English evil) was the go-to adjective for anything negative or displeasing.  The Anglo-Saxons used “evil” where we would use badcruelunskillful and defective; the sense of “morally wicked” also was in Old English, but it did not become the main one till the 18th century.  Slay, like its Germanic cognates, originally meant “beat, strike.”  The English form, however, strengthened to “kill, destroy, especially with a weapon” later on.

Starve comes from Old English steorfan, meaning “to die.”  Its main modern meaning is specified and weakened: “to be in the process of perishing from hunger or suffering severely from it.”  German cognate sterben still means “to die.”

The Old English noun deor (ancestor of deer) meant “animal.”  Today, it refers to a specific, antlered animal, while the Dutch and German cognates (dier and Tier) retain the broader sense.  Linguists reason that the word narrowed to mean this creature in particular because that which we now call a “deer” was the favoured beast of the chase.

The verb try has assumed various meanings in the past few centuries.  In Middle English, it was restricted to the legal sense of “put on trial,” but it has since expanded to “put to test” and “attempt to do” and “put forth effort.”

A word’s journey might take it so far that it ends up a complete 180° from its initial meaning.  Moot, from Old English gemot, was the noun form of the verb meet.  Much like thing, a moot was an assembly where matters were discussed.  A “moot point,” therefore, was that which was “up for discussion or debate.”  The modern opposite meaning of “not debatable; not worth discussing; impertinent; irrelevant” must go to show how effective those meetings were.

Before Our Very Eyes

Sense evolution and sound changes are not a purely historical study.  If you squint hard enough, you will take notice of the more recent changes occurring in words.

Mad, for most of its history in the English language, meant primarily “insane,” but its newer meaning of “angry” has eclipsed the former in common use.  Madman and maddening retain the traditional sense.

Oblivious did not mean “unaware” until the 19th century; before then, it meant “forgetful.”

Only a purist or a pedant (like me) might insist that words like these can mean only what they did originally.  But that reasoning is flawed; nobody is going to call his dim-witted coworker a “nice” man to mean he is a simpleton.  Similarly, most people don’t use decimate to mean “remove one tenth of,” as the ancient Romans did.

The hard truth about sense evolution is that, when a word acquires a new primary sense, the older one often falls into disuse, sometimes earning the label “archaic” or, more absolute, “obsolete,” at which point that particular sense is no longer understood by the common people.  The old sense of obliviousness or oblivion, perhaps fittingly, may well be on their way to “the state of being forgotten.”

(Some old senses end up getting fossilised in idiomatic expressions.  One such lucky specimen is large, in the sense of “free from restraint.”  This sense is obsolete, except in the phrase at large, as in the sentence, “The murderer is still at large.“)

Take a moment sometime to listen to the way we use our words to convey specific shades of meaning.  Soon and anon both originally meant “at once; immediately; without hesitation.”  Because of human procrastinative nature, however, they relaxed to a more lenient “shortly; in a little while.”  Can you detect a similar shift with now?  When we say that something needs to be done “now,” is there implied leeway?  Maybe a few moments?  How might your response differ if you were asked to do something “RIGHT now?”

In a similar vein, literally has shifted so much in popular use that speakers and writers may find it necessary to precede it with the word quite in order to express that something ought to be taken truly “literally,” that is, “precisely as worded.”

In merely the last century, the syllabic stress of harass and harassment has shifted from the first to the second.  Second-syllable stress for those words has recently become the primary pronunciation, at least in American English.  There are some, though (including me), who still prefer the traditional stress pattern.

The Internet is a trove of examples of linguistic shift in action.  In this new era of instant communication and self-broadcast, we find that words, abbreviations, phrases and slang come into existence and develop in the online world at a rate unseen in the natural world.  They obey the same linguistic evolution principles as their real-life counterparts, but their changes occur at a rapid, observable rate.  I believe that they have a place in academic scrutiny.  A few terms for thought:

  • LOL – “Laughing Out Loud.”  Possibly the best-known — and it is certainly one of the earliest — product of shorthand in online communication.  Originally meaning that the person behind the keyboard is actually laughing; has been used at least as early as the new millennium to indicate that something is mildly humorous, even if no actual laughter occurs.  Now often used as filler or placed at the end of a serious message to soften its impact, as in, “Car broke down today, lol.”  Phonetic pronunciation “loll” or “lawl” is not uncommon.
  • Netflix and chill – It did not take long for this once-innocuous phrase meaning “to watch programmes on Netflix in a low-stress environment, usually with another person,” to acquire a “wink, wink” undertone.  Users on websites like Twitter pounced on this sort of Internet inside-joke and accelerated the phrase’s development to imply sexual interaction between the participants — with or without the Netflix.
  • RIP – “Rest In Peace.”  Popular in online video gaming culture, this solemn real-life initialism has been hijacked by the Internet.  The phonetic “rip” pronunciation in online gaming was facetious at first but quickly became the standard.  Originally used as an interjection for when a player dies in a video game; meaning has expanded to refer to the end or destruction of any non-human thing or institution; then applied to anything unfortunate, whether in a game or in real life.

Person 1: “Ugh, my earbuds are tangled again.”
Person 2: “Rip.”

  • Own, Wreck – Another instance of gaming culture appropriating common words for its own stylistic needs.  In competitive gaming, to say that one has been owned or wrecked (spelling variants include wreck’d and rekt) is to say that one “was utterly dominated or defeated.”  Noun forms wreckage and ownage (and ironically misspelt variant pwnage) are also common.  On a personal note, I am elated that the word rape, as used in this way, is not as pervasive as it was a decade ago.
  • GIF – Image format that has had Internet users arguing over its pronunciation for over two decades.  Once disparaged by know-betters as an ignorant corruption, the “ghif” pronunciation (hard G) is now just as valid as “jif” and is perhaps more prevalent.  Also, I may or may not have written a blog post on it last year.

How “Nice”

Words, whether in the spoken or written form, serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species.  Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly — and also where he showed poetic brilliance.

We are the words we use, in a way.  To study words is to study human thought — and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.

Reminds me of that classic speech from Hamlet:

“…to hold, as t’were, the Oxford English Dictionary up to nature, to show poetry its own coinages, slang its own etymology, and the very speakers and writers of the time their pronunciation and usage…”

Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A Sick Pleasure

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform — each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final T’s, there were some dropped H’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid Theatre Tank Engine to be avoided — the choo-choo.

Prolonged Linguistic Explanation Inbound

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.

lee-fullsize1

General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

Would_you come here for a minute?
Don’t_you see it?

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant; it is just a clipped long /e/ vowel.  (To demonstrate: say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.  /Y/ and long /e/ are produced in the mouth precisely the same way; the only difference is that the latter is held longer.)  When used this way, /y/ has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of gymnastics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a valley through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”

image002

Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you/ya” and “don’t you/ya.”

Wooja come here for a minute?
Doncha see it?

Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But wait — it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, /sh/ and /zh/.  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” — my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule
  • the Z and Y used to be unassimilated (i.e., distinct) in words like measure and vision (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but have merged into /zh/

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOHL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOHL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

So, to recap:

/t/ + /y/ ⇒ /ch/, as in statue
/d/ + /y/ ⇒ /j/, as in soldier
/s/ + /y/ ⇒ /sh/, as in pressure
/z/ + /y/ ⇒ /zh/, as in vision

This phonological shift is called yod-coalescence.  When we palatalise, or bring to the palate, any one of these clusters, the two individual sounds are said to be “coalescing,” yielding a new, single sound.  Yod is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and represents the same sound denoted by the English Y.  Not related to the little, green Jedi master from Star Wars.

Yod-coalescence is responsible for peculiar word pronunciations in dialects that retain the “liquid U” after T and D.  Liquid U is in words like cube and fume — you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/ — not “coob” and “foom.”  In chiefly British and Australian dialects, this brief /y/ sound still prevails in “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  But, as we observed earlier, the palatalisation of the [ty] and [dy] clusters gives us /ch/ and /j/.  So, while an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Aussies might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

And why Sean Connery does not assume things — he “a-shooms” them.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can “re-zhoom” what we were doing.

You get the point.

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the [dy] cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno “JOR-noh,” not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour (“zhoor”).

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Got All That?

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors hit with a wrecking ball every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying instead of the acting behind them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the Railed Passenger Vehicle of the Playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the Thespian Multi-Carriage Machine of Transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

thomas the tank engine

Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Confessions and Repentance of a Cisgender Refuser of “Singular They”

About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun.  Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.

When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.

My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs?  Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.

Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.”  Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.

This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts.  When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species — not men or women specifically.  Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.

With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook.  My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they.  The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy.  My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing — let me be clear on that.

The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state.  But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever.  It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.

Reflection And Potential Solutions

I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause.  I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning.  To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.

The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”

As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered.  I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however.  I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else.  I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that.  It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me.  I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.

Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me.  Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite.  Their primary function is to play substitute for your name — your true identity.  They make sentences im-personal.  But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he.  Maybe I don’t get to make that call.

And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.

Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do.  I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.

I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she).  It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly.  There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide.  Thanks a lot, Great Britain.  The sun never sets on your empire, right?

The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.

So, we come back to they.

Nice Try

Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers.  Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently.  Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

—  Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii

Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:

using-singular-they

These are pretty compelling arguments.  One problem, though.  These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.

I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.

In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.”  In his mind, this “someone” could be ANY PERSON — male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever.  Anybody can lose a phone.  The image in his brain is of MULTIPLE PEOPLE, that is, a pool of options, if you will.  Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they.  We do this all the time.

Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor.  (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor — it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.)  Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange.  Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates.  Taylor is real, definite and specified.  Here’s how the exchange might sound:

Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car.  Where are they going?

I think they have to go to work.

In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.”  This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual.  In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.

Furthermore, someone listening to this exchange who is not familiar with Taylor’s pronoun preference would have been baffled by the grammatical inconsistency, having heard the explicit name Taylor.  Had the sentence been, “I saw SOMEONE hop in their car,” nobody would have batted an eye because the pronoun someone evokes the “pool of options” mental image of multiple people I described earlier.  Hearing a singular, definite name changes the logic inside the mind of the listener.

I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish — even when they might do it all the time in conversation anyway.  I know that this is how it works in my mind.  I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.

Not Unheard-Of

But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I — those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system.  These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.

And it has in the past.

The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio.  By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge.  Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio.  This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she.  Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively.  Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” — her represents the survival of the original H-form from Old English (hire).

She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use.  Circumstances demanded it.  And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person.  It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word.  But our best shot is they.

And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.

In Defence Of The Dialect

Every Wednesday at noon, my Uncle Louis and a few others gather at La Roma Pizzeria to dine and speak principally in Italian.  I join them when I can.  There, I go by Giuseppe, and my uncle is Zio Luigi.  Our collective is sometimes called “il gruppo italiano” (“the Italian group”), and one might say that we are one of the final vestiges of social italophony in the Utica-Rome area, a relic of a bygone era in a region that was once marked by widespread and deep Italian heritage and influence.

img_0546

Anyway, at one of these luncheons, my uncle used a word that garnered confused looks from others at the table.  It was quickly resolved by one of our guests that the word was dialectal and not standard Italian.  This did not come as a shock to my uncle, as he has said time and time again that the Italian dialect that was spoken in his home when he was a boy was a combination of Italian, Spanish and Latin (the linguist in me questions the veracity of this claim), but this is neither here nor there for the purpose of this post.

I wish to bring the spotlight on the old man who provided the proper Italian word for the idea that my uncle was trying to express.  Now, mind you that he is one of the humblest and most gracious and most well-spoken people I have talked with, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.  Because I was aware that he was born in Italy and is a native speaker of Italian, I decided to enquire further about the way the language is spoken in the motherland.  He happily explained to me that Italy is finally united under a common standard tongue after centuries of provincial variation; this matched my admittedly shallow understanding of Italian language history, which comes from two semesters of Elementary Italian in college, informal Internet research and playing Assassin’s Creed.

img_0530

Our guest authority on the Italian language went on to say that dialects are nowadays rightly reserved for the home.  That these dialects are not correct and should stay private.  This was a touch off-putting.

I couldn’t let that one go.  Using my reasonable linguistic rhetoric (with the caution not to offend the genuinely kind and well-meaning elder), I employed the Socratic method to query him into a corner and expose the fallacy in his notion of Italian dialects.

I asked for his agreement (successfully) with the following:

Italian, like other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, comes from Latin, yes?

And would you say that all these languages are recognised as their own sovereign modes of speech with their own unique rules?  That is, do they all have ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of being spoken?

Then how about twelve hundred years ago?  They’re older forms of the languages — but still distinct from each other, yes?

Let’s go back a couple more centuries.  They aren’t still French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, are they?  No, but would you consider them slightly evolved forms of the regional variants of Vulgar Latin?

So, if they’re just dialects of Latin at that point, are they incorrect forms of that language?

A cheerful smile manifested on the aged man’s thitherto vaguely grave countenance as he said, “I see what you are saying.

A Fundamental Misunderstanding

Dialects seem to carry a feint negative air.  They are unjustly felt as second-rate to what is considered standard in a language.  They are sometimes branded with such demeaning labels as “regionalism” and even “slang.”

Such attitudes are poison and will cloud the judgement of writers, orators and so-called linguists everywhere — and that veritably wise and knowledgeable twenty-one-year-old fresh out of undergraduate school with a BA in English.

I believe that this ill treatment of dialects comes from a flawed perspective on how languages grow and develop.img_0543

Dialects are not to be seen as tree branches stemming from the trunk, the standard; they are better visualised as their own individual trees growing alongside the standard, all from the same patch of earth.

Let’s use English as a template for this concept, as it’s safe to assume that it is the first language of most people who are reading this blog post.

If we examine English in the U.K. as it stands today, we’ll note the innumerable flavours scattered therein.  If we were to time-travel back to the Middle Ages, we would make a similar observation.  This is because there was as much differentiation in the language back then as there is now — or at any other point in history.  (Indeed there wasn’t just one Elizabethan vernacular.)

There were four main dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian and West Saxon.  These, along with the lesser dialects, had been on their own evolutionary courses for quite some time.  They didn’t just spawn out of nowhere.  img_0544They were brought over to Britannia by sundry Germanic tribes — chiefly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes — that left northern Europe.  And they didn’t all arrive at the same time, either; this was a migration of many peoples over the course of centuries, beginning when the Romans vacated the island.  That which we call “Old English” is actually a collection of closely-related languages spoken by different groups of people in relative proximity to one another.

What does all this mean?  It means that the English dialects today are, by and large, continuations of their ancestral mediaeval dialects, each with its own grammar, lexicon and phonology.  And those, in turn, were continuations of related Germanic tongues pre-migration, two-thousand years ago and prior.  They all grew up alongside the one lucky dialect that would become the standard for “English.”  And that’s the very problem with setting a language standard in the first place: to call one dialect the standard is to imply that related dialects are recent offshoots of it — and not separate self-governing entities that are equally ancient.

It pays a certain amount of respect to be specific when referring to the language of a particular region.  In some pockets of Scotland, it might be more appropriate to call their language “Scots” instead of “Scottish English,” despite its obvious strong kinship with Standard English.  Similarly, it is erroneous to call the languages spoken in Lombardy and Veneto “Lombard Italian” and “Venetian Italian.”  Lombard and Venetian are merely two of the many “dialects” that developed independently from one another in the area we now call Italy, but Tuscan (toscano) is the one that would serve as the basis for Standard Italian.  Again, they all have strong linguistic similarity to the standard, but they are better referred to as their own languages.

img_0542

(Remember that the country of Italy as it exists today has been around only since the late 19th century.  Before the unification, the peninsula was composed of numerous city-states.)

These dialects do not swear fealty to the country that happens to envelop them and are not owned by the country’s most privileged dialect.

Therefore, no, a “dialect” in such a case is not a second-rate version of the language standard; it is a first-rate version of itself.

We’ll Just Make It Our OWN Language, Then

All right, cool, so how about dialects that do branch off the standard?

Let’s suppose that, centuries ago, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Central Europe began to adopt the language of an unspecified German dialect.

Initially, these Jews would be speaking some bastardised version of what was considered standard for the variety of German they were trying to imitate.  It was assuredly German, but with some peculiarities.  They were pronouncing words differently because they were mapping Hebrew phonology onto them, and they were sprinkling Hebrew words here and there as well as re-purposing German words to suit their culture.

There’s no doubt that, at some point, people who spoke this variety of German the “correct” or “proper” way started to view this emerging vernacular disdainfully.  I imagine that they would have said that their German was being butchered.

Nevertheless, it was concluded that this “inferior” Jewish take on their language was here to stay, and so people began calling it a dialect.

In time, this dialect had acquired its own identity, complete with its own rules and conventions.  People finally started to recognise it as its own language.

Today, we call it Yiddish.

This raises an interesting question about the validity of other dialects in other languages.  Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or “ghetto speak,” truly ruining Standard American English?  Or is it merely following its own evolutionary path?

Drawing The Line

Here’s the thing with dialects and languages: the difference is mostly arbitrary.  Given enough time, derivative dialects become their own languages.  Dialects ignore the imaginary lines humans draw and call national boundaries.  Some dialects are so ancient and distinct that they aren’t really what most people consider dialects at all.

Sociolinguist Max Weinreich popularised an apt saying about them:

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

GIF vs. JIF, and Why You’re Right Either Way

While my often controversial word pronunciations have been compiled and catalogued (see my first-ever blog post), there is one in particular on which I have been rather reticent.  A certain initialism that many of us Internet-dwellers encounter daily.  A certain image format…

In case you forgot to read the title of this post, I refer to the GIF.

Let’s just get this out of the way now — I say it with a hard G.  And I know I’m correct.  But here’s the cool part — people who say it with a soft G (i.e., the /j/ sound) are also correct!  Crazy, I know.  I will spend the remainder of this post explaining how I arrived at such an outrageous and outlandish conclusion.  Despite my admitted bias, I feel that I have some measure of authority on the matter, given my linguistic background and, more important, my capacity to see both sides of the argument.

The .gif file format was introduced to the world in June 1987 by Steve Wilhite while he was working at CompuServe.  As the engineering lead of the team that invented it, by all rightsjif_ad he was the one to name it.  Wilhite called his creation, of course, the GIF (an initialism for “graphics interchange format”), and its intended pronunciation with a soft G was implied in the tagline, “Choosy developers choose GIF,” a deliberate nod to the familiar slogan of Jif peanut butter.

The previous paragraph outlines the most formidable and compelling argument for the “JIF” pronunciation.  After all, if you coin a new word or phrase — even if you’re not an English teacher — you wouldn’t want people mispronouncing it.  I know *I* wouldn’t.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong* with that sentiment.

*Unless your desired pronunciation is utterly unreasonable, senseless and illogical and does not follow the conventions of English phonetics.  Mr. Wilhite’s “JIF” pronunciation is in the clear.

(And, yes, even though it’s technically an initialism, we absolutely CAN hold GIF to the same guidelines that govern word pronunciation.  Laser and radar, both technically initialisms as well, are well-established in our vernacular and are treated as words.)

Nevertheless, as time went on, more and more English speakers began saying it with an assumed hard G pronunciation.  When this “improper” pronunciation was met with disdain from those who knew better, those in the “GHIF” camp responded by pointing out that the graphics in GIF begins with a hard G, and therefore the initialism should likewise be pronounced with a hard G.

The “ghiffers” remained steadfast in the face of the thorough, well-articulated case from the other side:point taken

B-b-but the creator pronounces it ‘JIF!’

The JIF-sayers had to do better.

The counter-counter-argument from the “jiffers” was that if all initialisms followed that rule, then we would pronounce JPEG “JAY-feg” instead of “JAY-peg,” as the P stands for photographic — or the organisation CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality) with a soft C.  They reason that the pronunciation of an initialism is dependent not on the words within it, but rather on what is most phonetically comfortable.

…Which is precisely the point.  Those who pronounce GIF with a hard G do so because it is the more phonetically comfortable or logical to them.  And the same principle applies to those who pronounce it with a soft G.

And this is where I start to wax linguistic.  This pronunciation dichotomy is reflective of a very tangible rift in the DNA of English phonology.  English, as a language, can be viewed as a hybrid of Common Germanic and Latin, or more specifically, French — or even more specifically, Norman French.  (English is undoubtedly Germanic, yes, but, for the purposes of this post, I am calling it a hybrid.)  These two parent branches, to put it simply, had different takes on the consonant G.  English would spend the next millennium or so trying to figure out how to pronounce this curious letter following its confused childhood.  Does it take after its Germanic mother and use a guttural hard G?  Or does it employ a gentler, fronted soft G preferred by its French stepfather?

Language personification aside, the choice comes down, in reality, to its speakers.  When we read, we see not individual letters, but letter combinations.  For me (and most, if not all GHIF-sayers, I would imagine), when I see “gi-,” I think of words such as give, gift, girl, gill, gild, giggle, gizzard, gimmick, giddy, the prefix giga- and the surname Gilbert.  Those who say “JIF” (including creator Steve Wilhite) might model their pronunciation after words such as gin, gist, giraffe and ginger.

It is no surprise, then, that, of all the hard G words I listed, over half of them assuredly are of Germanic origin (gizzard comes from French, giga- is Greek, giggle is imitative and girl and gimmick are of uncertain origin).  Conversely, three out of the four soft G words I provided entered English via French, while gin (distilled alcohol) is a shortening of geneva, which does come from French as well, but via Dutch.

Whilst hopelessly wading through a cesspool of a website run by JIF-zealots that was dedicated to the “proper” pronunciation of their sacred word, I encountered a beacon of sound thought.  One Erik J. Macki, a like-minded fellow who is evidently well-acquainted with linguistic fundamentals and principles, had posted a comment on the webpage and gave a convincing defence of the hard G pronunciation:

Thank you, Erik.  May your efforts not go unrecognised in the edification of my blog readers.

Therefore, linguistically speaking, using a hard G before the vowel I is as viable and historically supported in English as using a soft G, if not more so.

Look.  I get it.  “JIF” was the original intended pronunciation.  I respect that.  But if years of devotion to the study of linguistics have taught me anything, it is to respect language evolution — even when I don’t like it.  Word spellings, meanings and pronunciations change.  People who say “GHIF” are not wrong or improper; they are merely allowing this natural change to occur.  If I can live with people pronouncing sherbet as “sherbert,” then Steve Wilhite can live with people saying “GHIF.”

Bottom line?  JIF-sayers: stop shaming us for pronouncing GIF with a hard G.  GHIF-sayers: stop being dicks to the JIF-sayers.

tumblr_m3rtyerfHZ1qir45xo1_500

Language Tint My World

The pedant prescribes, but the linguist describes.

To many of my friends, the terms grammar nazi and Joseph are synonymous.  While the title grammar nazi, ignoring its obvious potentially offensive historical implications, is a somewhat accurate description of my M.O. in social gatherings, it fails to encapsulate all facets of my linguist persona.  In other words, it is a term that incompletely describes my relationship with language.  Grammar is but one stud on the leather-clad body of my cruel and domineering, yet sweetly rewarding, lifelong mistress known as Language.

While it’s true that I die a little inside when people grammatically mutilate their sentences and that I am wont to correct the perpetrators, I’ve reeled it in a bit.  I pick my battles nowadays; I reserve my breath for only the most repulsive concoctions of wording.  It used to be a compulsive urge, but I’ve finally learnt to control it.  (Now I mostly just judge people internally.)

Here’s what I can’t control: pretty much everything else linguistic.

You know how every person has his own “area” – a lens through which he views the world?  For example, a classically trained musician might listen to a tune and instantly be able to break down all its elements, including metre, key, chord structure, form and timbre.  Or, a geologist might go for a hike and be able to identify all the rocks and minerals in an outcropping.  Or, a seasoned ballet dancer might walk down the street and point out those with good posture and those with poor posture.  These people don’t have to think about it; their disciplines are permanent tints that affect the way they interpret their surroundings.

For me, that discipline is language, as you should have surmised.  Language has governed my thought as long as I can remember.  Consider this blog post a sort of coming-of-age tale, but one that is far less relatable and one that probably should not be adapted to the screen.

The Enquiring Mind

Let’s begin with my native tongue, English.

Now, say what you will about it, but I will die on the hill that English is a beautiful, rich and just language — if slightly misunderstood — with a riveting history well worth studying.  We’ll find as I recount my character-defining moments that this conclusion I’ve drawn is merely a symptom of the fondness I harbour for all matters of language.

I had been noticing peculiarities in English since early gradeschool.  One item that comes to mind is the difference in pronunciation of the word the, depending on whether the next word begins with a consonant or a vowel.  I was a child of six or seven years noting, during class story time, that we say “thuh dog,” but “thee end.”  Before vowels, the takes the long /e/ sound instead of the reduced vowel known as a schwa.  Of course, the other students didn’t give a rat’s ass when I pointed out this dichotomy, and, if I recall correctly, the teacher didn’t really care, either.

This isn’t to say that my peers weren’t noticing oddities like I was, but what separated me from the rest was my insatiable thirst to discover why.  “That’s just the way it is” was never good enough an answer for me.

Why do we pronounce that word differently there?  Why is that word spelt that way?  I needed to understand the reasons for our language’s weirdness.

Another game-changer occurred while I was doing an English assignment in third or fourth grade.  The homework didn’t take me long to complete, but I continued to sit at our dining room table for a minute or two because there was a “Try this!” kind of blurb at the bottom of the worksheet.  I trust you’ll forgive me if I can’t recite verbatim something from so long ago, but it went something like this: “Make the hard /g/ sound – what other letter does it sound like?

After many seconds of repeated guttural utterances that, to the unknowing observer might have appeared to be a serious verbal tick or a stroke, the young learner realised that “guh-guh-guh-guh” was sounding more and more like the /k/ sound.  But why?  How could that be?

Of course, there is a linguistic explanation, but in the early twenty-aughts, when readily accessible home internet was still in its infancy, little Joey didn’t exactly have the wherewithal to explore this matter further, and he had to live with the upsetting quandary that G and K were the same person.

This revelation was the seed that would sprout a decade later the blossom of phonetic research.  I now understand that hard /g/ and /k/ are virtually the same consonant.  They share a place of articulation (where the sound is made) and manner of articulation (how the sound is made).  Namely, they both are velar plosive consonants, the first element meaning the back of the tongue presses against the soft palate (a.k.a. the velum); the second meaning air is blocked off before being released all at once, resulting in an “explosion” of air, hence the term plosive (sometimes called a stop).  Hard /g/ and /k/ are identical in both the placement of the tongue and in the way the air is summoned.

What distinguishes a /g/ from a /k/, however, is voicing.  A voiced consonant is one that is produced with the vocal cords vibrating; conversely, a voiceless consonant is one without such vibration.  The vocal cords vibrate when making the /g/ sound, but not the /k/ sound.  Other voiced-voiceless pairs in English include B/P, D/T, V/F and Z/S.  An effective way to witness the distinction yourself is to alternate between Z and S (or V and F), as it’s a single stream of air.  Note that your mouth doesn’t need to move at all; all you’re doing is “activating” your vocal chords as if you’re turning a light switch on and off.  Voice [ON] for Z, voice [OFF] for S.  If you place a finger over your throat, you should feel vibration when you’re making the /z/ sound, but not /s/.

Back to my origin story.

When I was in middle school, my music teacher (who was also the choir instructor) introduced me to diphthongs.  A diphthong is two vowels put together to form one, as in that in the word time, which is really a combination of “ah” and “ee.”  In choral music*, when singing a diphthong lasting several beats, one holds the first sound nearly the entire duration before sticking the second at the very end.  Through learning vowel etiquette in song, I became familiar with the various “double-vowels” in English.  My teacher taught me that:

  • “ah” + “ee” = the long /i/ sound, as in time
  • “ah” + “oo” = the “ow” sound, as in ground
  • “eh” + “ee” = the long /a/ sound, as in face

*A choir singing the word time over several beats might sound like “taaaaaaaaah-eem.”

Another middle school teacher of mine, this one of the science variety, inadvertently awakened my propensity for breaking down words when he began a lesson by saying that the word disease is literally “dis-ease.”  This one blew my mind.  Just look at how much sense that word makes now!  An illness, or disease, literally puts the body into a state of “dis-ease.”

Before long, I was cracking word codes by my own initiative.  I deciphered the word alphabet when I saw the word alpha contained within it.  I thought, “Wait, that’s a Greek letter… and an “alphabet” is a list of letters… maybe the second element is ALSO a Greek letter… ‘-bet’? … Oh – ‘beta.'”  Indeed, those clever ancient Greeks named their letter system after their first two letters, “alpha” and “beta.”  “Alpha-beta.”  Alphabet.

Reverse-engineering words like disease and alphabet proved to be my first steps into the discipline of etymology, which is the study of word origins and how words evolve.  The sparks of a great journey toward enlightenment had been struck from the flint of curiosity.

Fostering the Flame

Electing to take French over Spanish was, in retrospect, one of the best decisions I made in gradeschool.  My comprehension of English language history might be far lesser than it is now otherwise.  Any English speaker who has studied French will tell you just how lexically similar the two languages are.  English shares more vocabulary with French than with any other Romance language.  And there’s a reason for that.  But eighth grade Joseph wrongly assumed that all these cognates like accepter and le table and excellent were in English first and that French borrowed them.

This highly erroneous assumption would be rectified some years later, after I used a word that I did not know does not exist in English.  I was commenting on how something was “inceived,” or how it began.  An inception is, after all, a beginning.  My mother promptly told me that “inceive” is not a word.  I was incredulous of this claim and decided to look up the word online to prove her wrong.  To my alarm, inceive was not showing up in any web dictionaries.

“Did you mean conceive?” mocked the search engines.  No, I couldn’t have meant conceive.  Conceive means something different, obviously.

I’m the kind of guy who was always adept at recognising patterns, whether they be mathematical or linguistic.  And, by this point in my life, I had become already quite familiar with prefix and suffix patterns in English.  The act of “re-ceiving” is reception, the act of “de-ceiving” is deception, the act of “per-ceiving” is perception and the act of “con-ceiving” is conception, so it stands to reason that inception, which I KNEW is a word, is the act of “in-ceiving.”

But, apparently, inceive was not a word.  So, I turned to Google.   I demanded answers.

Finally, some links I found shed some light on this problem.  Receivedeceiveperceive and conceive and their respective noun forms are Latin-derived words that entered English via various forms of French during the Middle English period, which lasted roughly from 1100-1500.  Inception came along a little later, toward the end of the period, directly from Latin, so its hypothetical verb form inceive never made it into our language.

One must also consider that the other “ceive” words didn’t have any certain equivalents in English with which to compete.  Inceive would not have been able to oust the native word beginnan (ancestor of begin), which was in common use – not to mention commence, a French borrowing already in the language.  English does have the verb incept, but it doesn’t carry any meanings of “beginning” or “starting.”

This marked a major turning point for me and my quest for complete understanding of English.  The inceive mystery ignited a chain reaction of discoveries for me.  Learning that the native English word beginnan resisted being purged from the language made me wonder: just how many native English words didn’t make it?

Most of them, actually.  English lost most of its native vocabulary during the Middle English period, the beginning of which is marked by the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William, duke of Normandy (French territory) conquered England.  For the next several hundred years, the nobility of England would be almost exclusively French-speaking, and their vocabulary would trickle down to the Anglo-Saxon peasants, replacing a great portion of the Old English lexicon until only its most basic words remained.  Compounds such as boc-hus (literally “book-house”) yielded to their Latinic equivalents – in this case, library.  This period of borderline-linguicide resulted in a heavily French-ified English and came to an end after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, at which point the monarchy was restored to a definitively English status instead of French.  But the damage had been done.

Today, we can hear in English echoes of the battles for dominance between words of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) origin and those of Latin origin.  For example, there is hardly any difference in meaning between oversee and supervise.  Super- is a Latin prefix meaning “over, above,” and vise comes from a Latin verb meaning “to see” (think vision).  Likewise, pairs such as aware-cognizant and forbid-prohibit and foretell-predict demonstrate how rampant such redundancies are in the language.

Picked Up Along the Way

Self-education, or should I say self-edification, allowed me to see the error in my naive assumption that English provided the French cognates and not the other way round.  It had broadened my scope from simply grammar nazi to etymologist and, to a lesser extent, socio-linguist.

Also thanks to my insatiable thirst, I have a basic understanding now not only of the English language, but also of the Indo-European language super-family, which includes, but is not limited to, the Indian languages (not Native American), Persian (Farsi), the Hellenic (Greek) languages, the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Bosnian, etc.), the Italic languages (Latin and its descendants), the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Cornish, etc.) and the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Gothic, the Scandinavian languages and, yes, English).

Don’t EVER tell me that English is a Romance language.  I will spend an hour lecturing you on why you’re wrong.  As I explained in the previous section, Latin has had a substantial impact on our language, but English remains Germanic at its core.

It is likely that most of the words you have spoken today come from Anglo-Saxon.  In fact, most of the words in the previous sentence come from Anglo-Saxon.  Ironically, the only words from that sentence that aren’t of Anglo-Saxon origin are Anglo and Saxon, which are the Latin-based renderings of the names of the chief two Germanic tribes that migrated to the island of Britannia after the Roman Empire withdrew.  (Side note: The Angles decided to rename the region “Angle-land.”  We still call it that, actually.  Eng-land.)

I’ve also become fascinated by the kinship between English and its Germanic cousins like German and Dutch.  It’s remarkable how closely these languages’ basic vocabularies resemble each other’s.  The simple English sentence, “What is your name?” would translate to “Wat is jouw naam?” in Dutch.  The Beatles’ single I Want to Hold Your Hand was released in German as Komm, gib mir deine Hand, which any English speaker capable of sound reasoning should be able to figure out literally means, “Come, give me your hand.”  We share other basic terms such as water (German Wasser, Dutch water), hound (German Hund, Dutch hond), house (German Haus, Dutch huis) and numerous simple verbs like to find (German finden, Dutch vinden).

Another noteworthy point (which is of particular interest to me, as I’m an actor) is the sound of Elizabethan English – specifically, the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded when they were first performed.  We don’t have voice recordings from four hundred years ago, obviously, but we know through examining various forms of linguistic evidence a few things about what’s called “Original Pronunciation.”  The coolest part about it is that it probably sounded more like American English than like modern-day English accents.

A friend asked me recently, “When did Americans lose their British accents?”  I responded by saying that the more accurate question would be, “When did Brits lose their American accents?”  When the early Puritan settlers arrived in the New World during the Jacobean period, they brought with them their dialects of English.  (Remember that Shakespeare was alive and well at the time of the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement in 1607.)  While mainland English accents evolved over time, the English spoken in the Americas remained relatively unchanged.  American English can, therefore, be considered “snapshots” of 16th and 17th century English and, by extension, a superior guide to pronouncing Shakespeare.

Please note: The claims made in the previous two paragraphs are a gross simplification and are probably hyperbolic in order to illustrate a point; I would urge interested individuals to seek out more comprehensive articles to understand more thoroughly the finer details of Elizabethan and its relationships with modern English dialects.

What’s most remarkable to me, however, is the notion of a common language that united the Proto-Indo-European settlers thousands and thousands of years ago.  As these groups began to disperse and became separated from each other, the aforementioned sub-families such as Germanic and Slavic and Celtic started to develop.  Indeed, to a linguist like me, English and Welsh and French and German and Russian and Albanian and Greek and Sanskrit are not separate languages, but rather distantly related dialects of the same parent tongue.

Basically, I’m Pretty Great

Does my obsession for language affect the way I interact with the world?  Well, I strive toward impeccable grammar and usage in both speech and writing, I can effortlessly and almost instantaneously dissect a sentence and indicate word origin and I can now recognise cognates and other relationships where most people do not.

So, I would say that, yes, language is that permanent tint, colouring my every perception.  My brain doesn’t take any breaks when it comes to language.  I will analyze just about anything thrown at me.  I’ll notice grammatical errors, of course, but also your word choices and the way you pronounce your words and everything else.  I can’t control it.

And I’m all right with that.


Post-Credits Bonus Section – If You Care

Before ending this post completely, there is something else I wanted to include here.  It’s the idea of “interchangeable Latin roots.”  Remember the receive-deceive-perceive-conceive pattern that I discussed earlier?  It’s the same deal, but greatly expanded.  I wanted to design an Excel-styled chart that illustrates relationships between a bunch of Latin-derived words in English.

On the y-axis, I’ve included Latin-derived verb bases.  On the x-axis, I’ve listed some of the most common Latin prefixes, which can be attached to the verbs to slightly alter their meanings and yield different common English words.

Before you view the chart, here is your handy-dandy reference guide:

Verb bases:

ject – “throw”
spect – “look”
tain – “hold”
mit – “send”
fer – “bear”
port – “bring, carry”
duce – “lead”
sist – “stand firm”
fuse – “pour”
scribe – “write”
tract – “draw”
pend– “hang, weigh”
form – “shape, form”

Prefixes:

in- “in, into”
ex– “out (of), from”
re– “back, again, against”
de– “down (from), away”
com– “with, together”
sub– “under, below, beneath”
pro– “forth, forward”
ad– “toward, at”
ob– “to, toward”; sometimes used as intensifier
pre– “before”
trans– “across, beyond”
dis– “apart, away”
ab– “off, away from”
per– “through, thoroughly, utterly”

Any word with the abbreviation obs. (obsolete) attached to it is one that has fallen out of common usage.  While these words are almost never encountered in speech and writing, I feel that they still must be included, as they demonstrate the kind of word construction I’m spotlighting.

One last thing to keep in mind before you examine the graphic is that, for each combination, I tried to find a verb.  If a combination didn’t correspond to any English verb, then I used another part of speech such as noun or adjective if one was available.  One such example is the combination of com- and ject, for which I included the noun conjecture, as the verb conject does not exist in English.

latin roots 2

 

*Demit has two separate etymologies: one with the de- root and one with the dis- root.
**Note the stress on the first syllable of sufferoffer and differ.  These words were in English longer than others and had more time for their stress patterns to shift.
***While fuse is the base commonly seen in English verbs, the “correct” form would be found, a root preserved in confound.  “Fuse” actually comes from fusus, which is the past participle of fundere, the infinitive of the verb meaning “to pour.”
****While the verb conscribe, meaning “enlist,” is the correct form here, conscript is more common.
*****”You forgot perform!”  Well, as it turns out, the form in this word is actually a corrupted version of the unrelated Old French verb fornir (to furnish), so it doesn’t count.  I was just as surprised as you are.

I hope that this chart was able to help you see relationships in English vocabulary that you may not have noticed before.  If you refer to the guide I created above it, then you can use it to break down each word and discover its literal meaning.  Let’s take transport, for instance.  Trans- (across) + port (bring) = “bring across.”

Or, how about subject?  When somebody is “subjected” to punishment, the person is being “thrown under” punishment.

Or, when an electronic device emits a signal, it’s “sending out” a signal.

Or, finally, when you are attracted to someone, you are (usually quite literally) “drawn toward” that person.