By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many questions, some of which are familiar (they recur with great regularity) and others that are new and will answer a few today and the rest in a month’s time.
Nostratic Hypothesis. Our correspondent Mr. Steve Miller asked me whether I ever treat the topic of language evolution and, if I do, what I think of the Nostratic hypothesis. This is also a question I have once tackled in the past, but there is no reason to assume that everybody remembers everything I have ever written. With age the idea of one’s place in the world undergoes a noticeable change. Decades ago (I will coyly suppress the numeral before decades), I used to feel slighted on discovering that somebody had not read my poems, articles, or even books. Now I am surprised to meet those who have not missed them.
The Nostratic hypothesis revived the age-old idea, according to which all languages go back to the same protolanguage, and attempts to reconstruct the phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary of that language. It was advanced by a scholar of exceptional talent and developed by a group of his able followers. Like all grand theories of evolution — whether the subject is language, religion, oral tradition, or art (I will leave out the laws of nature) — it runs into serious, partly insurmountable difficulties. In principle, the idea of monogenesis (development from a single center) is more attractive that the idea of polygenesis, for language, as it seems, must have evolved once (no one knows how it happened, where, and when), but God is in the details, and numerous details refuse to conform to the Nostratic idea. However, the work done in this direction has been useful and stimulating. Its main thesis can never be proved to everybody’s satisfaction, but such is the fate of all distant reconstruction. We are not on the last page of an Agatha Christie novel or at 221B Baker Street. Compare the negative (in my opinion, justified) reception of Joseph Greenberg’s picture of the Amerindian languages and the unsettled questions of the the earliest forms of the Indo-Europeans and of their homeland.
Fillers in Present Day English. Mr. Jon Lockerby defends the use of like and you know because they perform a certain function. Indeed, those fillers emerged to express hesitation, uncertainty, polite detachment, and other shades of meaning subsumed under what linguists call modality. (There is a sizable body of literature on this subject: blogs, articles, chapters in books, and monographs. See, for instance, Gisle Andersen, Pragmatic Markers and Sociolinguistic Variation, Amsterdam, 2001.) I will reproduce part of Mr. Lockerby’s letter. He quoted the invented sentence I told her what her boyfriend did and she was, like, no way, and I was, like yeah, way, and she was like, oh my God and commented: “No one really talks like that, not even teenagers (unless they’re trying to irritate you, because they know good and well how irritating it is).” “Put the gun down,” he continues, is final. But in conversational speech, people are more likely to say: “I was, like, put the gun down.”
Although everything in our speech performs certain functions, it does not follow that they are always put to good use. Likewise, everything that grows is part of nature and deserves respect; yet we are advised not to eat poisonous mushrooms. I also wonder whether “no one really talks like this,” because I hear exactly this kind of talk only too often. Nowadays, like and you know rarely modify people’s “discourse” (if I am allowed to use a word that has become an inalienable component of our scholarly jargon). They have become parasites. All of us deal with people who add you know to mark the end of nearly every sense group and use like three times in a short sentence. Those are the products of mental sloth, rather than being subtle markers of modality. By the way, I notice that people who encourage a laissez-faire attitude toward fillers, swear words, and so forth hardly ever use them themselves. We tend to be tolerant and democratic when the consequences of our openness concern somebody else. It is similar to enjoining other people to pay more taxes. Why not? Language, in addition to being a means of communication, is a vehicle of culture, a garden to be watered and weeded, and should not be allowed to run to seed. On the other hand, language planning should be practiced with utmost care: a garden is easy to ruin. Restraint remains our ideal in such matters. I will let my opponent have his way (you know) if he, like, shows as much understanding of my conservative stance.
For the same reason, I despise adverbialitis. (I actually want to go to the library tomorrow; actually, this book is already overdue; both utterances in this order were recorded yesterday from a conversation with a colleague.) Mr. Lockerby points out that actually needn’t be taken literally. I agree and still disapprove. A related question concerns the use of so at the beginning of a sentence. (So, now we will discuss the use of language fillers. So, one day two kids went to a grocery store. The title from a sports section in a newspaper: “So, they meet again.”) I cannot answer the question about its origin. Could it be a remnant of the introductory German so and also in American English? Or is it equally common in England and elsewhere? Suggestions from our readers are welcome.
Still versus yet. Our correspondent often hears is he here yet? instead of is here still? And she wonders what the cause of the confusion may be. This use of yet seems to be substandard, but the confusion is easy to explain. Since in certain contexts yet alternates with already (Is he here yet? Yes, he is here already/ He is already here, and, moreover, he is still around.), some speakers feel uncertain where to say what.
What is the origin of per se? It is a Latin phrase (calqued from Greek) meaning “in, of, by itself” or approximately “as such; inherently.” (“This is not a disaster per se, but it will give you a lot of trouble.”) Per is a preposition; se is a pronoun. The phrase made its appearance in English books in the second half of the sixteenth century. Those who don’t realize that they are dealing with Latin sometimes write per say — not a variant to be recommended!
The Loss of the Subjunctive versus the Subjunctivitis. The complaint about if I was younger instead of if I were younger is well-taken, and I have commented on it many times. If it is any comfort to those who bemoan the loss of the subjunctive, I may say that were after a singular noun or pronoun cannot but puzzle those who have not been taught to use it (“I wish he were here.” Why not “I wish he was here”?! What is he were?). The ousting of were in such constructions has been going on for centuries. On the other hand, the subjunctive has not gone anywhere in subordinate clauses of the type “I suggest that the question should be tabled” and in simple sentences like “God bless America.” In several of my recent posts I expressed my dismay at seeing would in sentences like “Gov. XX recently made a trip to House Speaker XX to try to get his support for the stadium bill. XX has said he won’t block the project, but has said he would not call legislators to request support for it.” Here one could perhaps make a case for the second would meaning would rather, but, most probably, there is no difference between the first and the second part of the sentence. It is quite clear from the article that the Speaker will not block the project but will not call the legislators. The use of would after has said has become a journalistic cliché. In sum, the subjunctive is dead. Long live the subjunctive!
More answers on April 25.
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 him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”