I have read two comments on my post of April 29, 2020 and John Cowan’s post and came to the expected conclusion: even those who favor the idea of the Reform will never agree on what should change and in what order changes should be instituted. Every suggestion makes sense. For example, respell knack as nack, because k is mute there, or: don’t meddle with knack, because we are used to this spelling. As for the general principles, they have been discussed for more than a century and a half, and every possible objection has been known to everybody who has followed the history of this fated enterprise. Yes, any Standard (Received Pronunciation or Received Spelling, or Received Grammar) is undemocratic and reflects the influence of the greatest authors and the tyranny of the educated class. It will always, at least partly, stand at cross-purposes with the habits of the speaking community, most of which cannot care less for what is right and what is wrong. However, when it comes to English spelling, any reform will be better than what we now have. Those who don’t distinguish between futile and feudal, title and tidal; cot and caught; duel ~ dual and jewel, etc. are made and will be made to spell them differently, and this is unfair. The horror of due and do is known to every American teacher (“Professor [often: Proffesor], when is the paper do?”). And yes, English has many varieties, and any norm will disadvantage somebody.
It does not seem that in our discussion we are an inch closer to an agreement than our predecessors were in the days of George Bernard Shaw. Continuing the discussion in this blog would be a waste of time. Therefore, I’ll only make my point clear for the last time. Many people have offered or are ready to offer their variants of Reformed Spelling. They are intellectuals. Unlike them, in this one situation, I am mainly a politician. It is all the same to me whether knack will survive the Reform or change to nack. I want the idea of the Reform to be accepted by the public, but the public, I am sure, will oppose a revolution and the changes that will affect the most common words. Therefore, I would try to kill this monster in several stages and leave any, said, and their likes for dessert. Tampering with them today will cause an uproar and doom the rest of the proposal. This one war can be won only by attrition. Everybody wants to be scholarly; by contrast, I want to be practical. At present, the world has more pressing tasks than meddling with English spelling, but eventually the problem will resurface. The Spelling Society will offer its proposal. I can only hope that all of us will unite behind it, regardless of whether we’ll like it or not.
Counterpoint: grammar (the new normal)
It seems that it is easier to change the way people spell words than the way they speak. But no! Look at the examples of the type I have cited many times. Out of the blue, they appeared for a singular person (“When a student comes, I never make them wait”) and became the norm overnight. Then somebody decided that all infinitives should be split, that it is better to say to be or to not be than to be or not to be. We also want to make a proposal turned into we want to also make a proposal, etc. People writing to newspapers bend over backwards, in order to split: “They decided to also not only go there, but even….” Such constructions have begun cropping up in oral speech too. So not everything is like Shakespeare’s “rocks impregnable.”
Another curious change in American English is the spread of the progressive (continuous) forms. Somebody told me that it had begun with McDonald’s ad or slogan: “I’m lovin’ it,” but they must have overheard it. Anyway, not the greatest fan of McDonald’s menu, I met this innovation without enthusiasm. By contrast, the world swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. “Also, Sweden is a socialist country with health care for all. Is he wanting us to have a very high death rate and Medicare for All?” Because of the pandemic, in some stores, older people are encouraged to shop early in the morning, and, it appears, “they are liking it.” From a speech by a prominent politician: “They’re going to have to do that regardless of what a stay-at-home order looks like because people are naturally understanding that we’re going to have to social distance, because….” I find the phrase social distance silly (isn’t distance enough?), the verbal phrase to social distance ugly, but they are understanding….? If people agreed (without any pressure) to torture grammar for no reason whatsoever, perhaps they will also agree to spell aggression with one g and deign without it?
Just in case someone decides to tell me that the use of forms like they are liking it is perfectly normal: I know that the present continuous has various uses. Traditionally, it has avoided see and hear (Can you see me? The answer is not supposed to be: “No, I am sorry, I am not seeing you”), but this is what I have been hearing sounds fine (at least today in American English and perhaps elsewhere). Although this tense designates actions happening at the moment of speech, the emphatic statement I am always losing my keys is perfectly acceptable. But the new-fangled usage? No, I am neither liking nor understanding it.
Chinese and Indo-European
I’ll refrain from citing Chang’s examples, because his work mentioned in the post for April 14, 2020, is available online, and anyone can consult it. My objections were the same as those given in the comments. Knowing nothing about the history of the Chinses language, I could not determine the age of the words cited in the paper, but I also feared that they were modern, and comparing them with Pokorny’s roots seemed to me incautious, to put it mildly. The methodology (comparing reconstructed roots and words of a living language) is indeed inadmissible. Chang did not provide a historical background for his hypothesis, but, according to him, the Indo-Europeans and the Chinese lived in such close contact that hundreds of words are common to both groups. (Incidentally, he opposed the idea of the Sino-Tibetan family.) Finally, his poor knowledge of the facts over which I do have control made me suspicious of his entire framework.
Some problematic words
Aloof. In explaining the origin of the word aloof, I mentioned the fact that such a-words (afraid, astride, adrift, etc.) are always used predicatively. The comment pointed out to the attributive use of aloof. This use is rare and shows that aloof is no longer felt to belong fully with the a-group. But it would probably still be odd to say: “My brother is an aloof man,” where private, reticent, withdrawn, or reserved is expected. I have recently run into aloof transcendence of God, but transcendence is “aloof” by definition, and the phrase struck me as an example of pomposity.
Glove. Dutch gleuf “slit” is not related to it. Gleuf has cognates all over Germanic: Icel. gleypa “to swallow,” and many others, meaning “yawn; bite, etc.”
Fix. “How did fix come to have almost opposite meanings? I can fix that—good. I’ll fix him—bad, I’m in a real fix—bad. I’ll fix dinner—good.” The verb to fix appeared in late Middle English with the meaning “to make firm.” The noun, originally an Americanism, is half a millennium later. Like so many other things, being “transfixed” may be good (stability is desirable) or bad (lack of resilience is to be avoided). Hence the clash of senses that puzzled our correspondence. In American slang, fix seems to have only negative connotations.
Incontinence. Our correspondence writes: “Recently I picked up Dante’s The Divine Comedy and came across the term incontinence, and it was defined as ‘including all wrong actions due to the inadequate control of natural appetites or desires’. It was stated that this goes back to Aristotle’s division of reprehensible actions: incontinence, brutishness, and malice or vice…. When I looked for current definitions, all seem to be related to bodily functions. No reference is made about the past definition by Aristotle.” The question was about “how a word changes its meaning.” An answer to this question would require a book. Here I’ll say only two things. 1) When a word of Romance origin ends up in English, it starts a new life. You see French foyer and believe that you understand it. Alas, in French, this word means “home.” 2) Other than that, meanings deteriorate (the ancient meaning of the root of whore meant “dear”), ameliorate (fond once meant “silly”), broaden or narrow their range of application. Long ago, book meant “record, document,” and now it refers to any work consisting of pages put together. Incontinence has obviously undergone narrowing.
A reinforcing simile. In Tennessee, they say: “As heavy as Hoopenheimer horse.” Why? I know nothing about Mr. Hoopenheimer (perhaps someone from Tennessee will enlighten us?). Judging by the spelling, the name is Dutch, and people bearing this name exist, but what bothers me is the modern meaning of hoopen “penis.” Though I don’t know the age of this word in American slang, hooperdooper “a remarkable thing; an important person” is rather old. All this makes me think that the associations the name evokes are more important than the identity of the horse’s owner. The in-your-face alliteration (h-h-h) reinforces this suspicion. Comments are welcome!
Feature image credit: Noah Webster, The American spelling book (1790), p11. No known copyright restrictions. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.