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June Ends (and so did May)

By Anatoly Liberman

This month I again spoke on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) and, as always, received many questions. During the hour at my disposal I could address only a few of them. The gleanings for June will incorporate answers to our correspondents and listeners, but I don’t want to make my summer posts unbearably long and will divide the answers into two parts. Part 2 will appear next week, which is a blessing in disguise, because the next gleanings will have to wait until August 26. Today I will deal with general questions.

Language history and colonial languages. American English is a colonial language, a circumstance that explains its conservative character. But American English is full of new words. How does this fact tally with my statement? (This is the question I received.) “Conservative” refers mainly to pronunciation and grammar. In colonies, the speech of the settlers also develops, because change is the law of language, but it tends to preserve (perhaps conserve would be a better term) many features brought to the new home from the old country. A glance at Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch here means “deutsch,” that is, “German”), Louisiana French, French in Quebec, the Spanish of Latin America, and Modern Icelandic in comparison to Norwegian will reveal the conservative nature of all those languages. With regard to English, a few facts can be cited. Despite the regional differences, most Americans sound their r’s in words like part, pert, hurt, girl, and the like; lorn (still recognizable from lone and lorn creature and from forlorn) and lawn are not homonyms in their pronunciation. British English lost its postvocalic r’s since the days of the colonization of North America, while American English still has it. In British English, cask, glass, path, and so forth have the vowel of father and Prague. The pre-17th-century norm required the vowel of bad in all of them, and this is what we have in American English. Anyone who will compare the grammar of the Authorized Version of the Bible with the grammar of American English will notice numerous similarities that are not shared by that translation and present day British English. The suggestion from a listener that the pronunciation of Spanish in Latin America may stem from the resistance to the norm of the old country has little ground. Sounds develop according to the laws over which speakers have minimal or no control. By contrast, words are not subject to mechanical laws. They come and go, and speakers are able to accept or reject them consciously. In American English we find many words that were at one time current in British dialects and later disappeared, and hundreds of words have been coined on American soil, but they shed no light on the opposition avant-garde versus conservative as it is understood in this context.

Does the term American language have justification? Languages cannot be always delimited on linguistic grounds. No doubt, English and Japanese are different languages. But what about Swedish and Norwegian? Russian and Ukrainian? Sometimes such questions become heavily politicized. Mutual intelligibility is not the only criterion here. In most cases Swedes can understand Norwegians, but according to our classification, they speak different languages. Swiss German is vastly different from the German in its standard variety (for example, as it is taught to foreigners), and so is Dutch. But the Dutch speak a language of their own, while the Swiss emphasize the unity of their language and German. If a speaker from Lancashire tried to communicate with a speaker from Kent, both using the broad variety of their dialect, they would not understand a word. Yet we agree (and so would they) that both speak English. A similar situation holds for Spanish, Arabic, and even for some countries whose population is small and the territory not too great, Danish, for example. Consequently, the answer to the question about the American language depends on one’s personal predilections. H.L. Mencken, a brilliant journalist with a chip glued to his shoulder, preferred to think that the American language existed. It seems that the American variety of English would be a more appropriate term. English is spoken in many countries by many people. Some time ago the ugly plural Englishes was coined. This noun is disgusting, but the notion it captures is real.

Are there periods of accelerated and periods of slow language change? Although this question has been debated for decades, we still have no definite answer to it. The paradox of language development is that, apart from registering new words, we notice even epochal changes only in retrospect. Language changes through variation. Some people say sneaked, others say snuck. Once all those who say sneaked die out, the “harm” will be done. This won’t be an epochal event, but it follows the familiar model. We are more or less resigned to the fact that great upheavals happened in 13th and 15th-century English, but it is surprising to learn that in the days of Charles Dickens some vowels were pronounced differently from how they are pronounced today. Yet even in the course of the last 50 or 60 years, the British pronunciation of so, no, low has changed dramatically, and people who return to the town of their childhood sometimes hear the question: “Where are you from?”. (From the street round the corner. Really? You don’t sound like us. Their norm has changed, and the guest’s vowels have adapted to those of his new home.) Many attempts have been made to correlate language and societal change. To the extent that migrations, conquests, long wars, and revolutions result in great demographic changes (George Babington Macaulay spoke about the “amalgamation of races”), this correlation makes sense. But in many cases we observe curious things. In 1066 England was conquered by the French, and this fact determined many events in the history of English. For example, in Middle English, endings underwent weakening. But Germany was not conquered by the French; yet the endings weakened in German exactly as they did in English. An attractive hypothesis crumbles like the proverbial cookie. All this being said, it is probably true that in the countries where everybody goes to school and is exposed to the relatively uniform language of the media, sounds and grammatical forms change more slowly than they did in the past.

If meaning is determined by usage, how is it possible to state that something is right or wrong? A related question: “Some changes in language seem to flow from general ignorance of proper usage. When should we resist it?” I think right and wrong are a matter of statistics. Every novelty has to be accepted or rejected by the community. For example, some of my students confuse precise and concise (they think that precise means “short, compact”). So far this usage is “wrong” because it has not spread to the majority of English-speakers. If this happens, it will become “right.” In a highly literate society like ours, teachers and editors guard the norm and correct mistakes. Their work is useful, but they fight a losing battle. Wilderness always takes over. Some time later we begin to call the weeds a flowering wilderness and still later a blooming garden. Every innovation in the history of language was at one time a mistake. This is how language changes. Observing the process is breathtakingly interesting, but being part of it is sometimes depressing. In language, as in everything, it may good to be a little behind the fashion.

Should etymology be left to professionals, or is anyone allowed to dabble in it? People do not need permission to have ideas. Language and politics are two areas about which everybody has an opinion. This is natural: all of us live in a society, and all of us speak. Etymology cannot be guessed; it has to be discovered. The sad fact is that in so many cases the early history of words is lost and then the dictionary says “origin unknown.” But most people do not want to discover the truth the hard way. A professional etymologist has to spend years learning languages and their laws. Conversely, it takes no time at all to suggest that posh and tip are acronyms (they are not!). Sometimes under the influence of superficial similarities speakers change the words of their language (this is what is called folk etymology; like nose drops, it gives immediate relief but provides no cure). As a result, we now say shamefaced instead of shamefast and spell island with an s in the middle (several centuries ago, it occurred to some ill-advised Latinists that island is related to insula). Now these wrong variants are the only ones we are allowed to use. Language belongs to the people, and they do with it what they want. But the science of etymology, like any other science, should preferably be left to experts.

To be continued.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  3. Clint Wilson

    Fascinating. I would have assumed colonial languages would be less conservative than the mother country’s.

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