About two hundred years ago, the languages of Eurasia were for the first time divided into families and groups. The largest family, which received the name Indo-European, stretches from Norway to Ceylon, and few languages in this gigantic area do not belong to it (Finnish, Estonian, and Basque are such). No one knows for sure who the people we call the Indo-Europeans were, where their homeland was, and how they succeeded in enforcing their language on the inhabitants of such an enormous territory. For a language to be recognized as Indo-European, it has to possess certain features pertaining to sounds, grammar, and vocabulary. In the process of evolution, a language may lose most of those features and then it will stop being Indo-European despite its heritage. Not that convincing examples of such a process have been cited, but the situation is not unthinkable. If we look at English, we will see how far it has deviated from its original state. I will skip the facts of phonetics because they are too technical and concentrate on grammar.
One of the most conspicuous features of the Indo-European languages is its conjugation. But what do we have in English? I go, we go, you go, they go. In the present, at least one ending has survived (he/she/it goes, with -s that not too long ago supplanted -th, still memorable from the Authorized Version of the Bible and Shakespeare), but in the preterit all endings are gone: I went, he/she/it went, we went, you went, they went. It is enough to look at the grammar of Latin and even of any modern Romance language or at the conjugation of the Slavic languages, to observe the wealth of verbal endings. From this point of view English can hardly be called Indo-European.
Another feature we hardly ever notice is the wiping out of the line between nouns and adjectives. I have once written about the collapse of the distinction between adjectives and adverbs (do it real quick and the like). Our British correspondents noted that this process is far more advanced in American English. Yet the examples collected in books on historical grammar show that it began in British dialects. I was especially amused by a sentence in a student’s paper she sings beautiful, though even such an extreme case of dropping -ly is not new (in German, this usage is the norm: sie singt gut “she sings good,” that is, “well”). But in addition to what one can find in books on the history of English, I now have my own collection of examples from Dickens’s short tales, including beautiful as an adverb. All of them occur in dialectal speech. It even seems that when Dickens ran into this usage, he enjoyed it, for he overdoes this feature in The Chimes: we shall be ready immediate, I was easy satisfied, and so forth.
Such sentences attract our attention at once. But adjectives have come close not only to adverbs but also to nouns, and we take this situation in stride. In early Indo-European, nouns could be used attributively and carry a special accent in that position; one need not call them adjectives. Now let us take two English nouns: stone and tomb. They can be combined both ways. A stone tomb is a tomb made of stone, while a tombstone is a stone forming part of a tomb. Latin bonus “good” and hortus “garden” have the same endings, but English stone and tomb have no endings at all, each can describe the other, and this free play of morphemes resembles the state typical of some languages of Southeast Asia. To be sure, there is a difference between stone and stony: stone refers to the material rather than quality and cannot have the degrees of comparison. A still stonier look is possible. Stone lacks the ability to express such nuances (a tomb is either made of stone or not); yet its ability to modify another noun is remarkable. This is the reason we have trouble with spelling: Apple Valley is two words, apple tree, if hyphenated, pretends to be one and a half, and applesauce is a single unit. The New American Oxford Dictionary gives both townhouse and town house. Obviously, solutions must sometimes be arbitrary.
The stone tomb ~ tombstone situation is responsible for some confusion. What place is a best steak house? Is it the best possible house for steaks or a house in which we get the best steaks in the world? The stress pattern is informative but hardly decisive in all such cases. We simply know the right answer. More often the adjective defines the word that follows. Thus Merry-Widow hat (the widow is merry, not the widow hat) and Jewish-Community Center (a center for the Jewish community, not a community center that has the distinction of being Jewish). Yet Third World country is Third-World country, but Second World War (called World War Two in American English) is Second World-War, not a war waged by the “Second World.” Here, too, we don’t make mistakes mainly because we know the right answer from experience. A similar group is a new Oxford dictionary. Ignorant of a place called new Oxford but aware of Oxford dictionary, we segment the phrase correctly. Would we be equally certain about A New Brighton Dictionary in the title? And what about old curiosity shop? Can’t an obscure college professor be a professor from an obscure college? Finally, what is a small animal farm? Is it a farm where small animals are kept or a small farm for animals? Again there will be some differences in the stress pattern depending on the meaning, but they are hardly as clear as between White House and white house or New York and Newark. (Incidentally, foreigners who order tickets to Newark by telephone and stress both elements of the town’s name are invariably sent to New York.)
There was a theory that once upon a time words were “pure stems.” Perhaps they were. No one recorded the birth of human language. We find Indo-European with a mind-bogglingly ramified system of endings (Sanskrit and classical Greek are good examples). The complexity of grammar has nothing to do with the level of material culture, so that the hope to find the lost world of “primitive” language in Australia or on the banks of the Yenisei River has proved to be an illusion. English does so well without endings that in some way it resembles the hypothetical state of “pure stems,” but it is the end, not the beginning of the history of English. The same may hold for Chinese, whose grammar is sometimes cited as an example of such a “primitive” state. Almost devoid of morphology, English can afford the luxury of distinguishing between tombstone and stone tomb and of formations like also-rans (not the “rans” who were also somewhere but also-ran in the plural), New Englander (not an Englander who is brand-new, but an inhabitant of New England, with New England being treated as a unit and adding a suffix), gold medalist (gold-medal with a suffix), stand-offishness, and many more of the same type. But as always, there is a price to pay. Thanks to this freedom, we struggle with ambiguities like Third World War versus Third World country and have to decide which is really good in a best steak house: the house or the steak (one cannot have everything).
Does it feel good to speak Indo-European? The question is irrelevant. Aesthetic criteria are inapplicable to sounds, endings, and syntax. Nasal vowels, progressive tenses, and fixed word order are sweet or jarring only in the mind of the observer. There is no progress in language, just growth. At any moment, it is a precious tool that can be made to produce beautiful music, and blessed are those who know how to do it.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”