Words At Play

Power of Babel

I am intrigued by language.  I have spent many happy hours reading books about word origins and looking up the origins and usage of both common and unusual words in dictionaries and in my copy of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.  One of the books about language that I’ve enjoyed is linguist John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language.  In it he makes quite a few interesting points about language.  Here are a few of them along with my comments:

Printing has slowed down the changes in languages around the world.  For example from the time when Beowulf was written to the time of Shakespeare, English changed tremendously.  From Shakespeare’s time to the present, English has changes less drastically because the printing press (and dictionaries) created a written standard that resisted change.

Spelling has not kept up with changes in pronunciation, and people are simplifying spelling.  He uses the French verb parler (to speak) as an example.  The present tense is conjugated like this: je parle, tu parles, il parle, nous parlons, vous parlez, and ils parlent.  Four of the six forms of “speak” (parle, parles, parle, and parlent) are pronounced the same – PARL – though you have three different spellings of PARL.  English has similarly not changed old spellings.  Take the word “through,” as an example.  Informally it is often written “thru” because the old spelling is too complex.  This relaxation and change in spelling is easily seen in the names of businesses.  An article at Slate.com about this phenomenon is worth reading.

There is no innately correct word order in sentences.  English places the subject first, the verb after the subject, and the object after the verb, but other languages do not follow that rule.  Mathematics may have rigid rules that must be followed, but not language.  Language is whatever we make it.

Double negatives are a normal part of many languages, and used to be perfectly acceptable in English.  McWhorter even feels that double negatives can serve as an intensifier in English.  He rejects the idea that two negatives equal a positive when it comes to language.

“You” is used in the second person singular and the second person plural today.  But long ago “thou” was used in the second person singular and “you” was only used in the second person plural.  “You” in the singular, in my opinion, does not work well.  Though we Southerners are criticized for using “ya’ll,” people all over the U.S. say “you all,” “all of you,” “you folks,” “you guys,” and such when speaking to more than one person.  So why not use the contraction “ya’ll”?

All languages are dialects.  For instance, the Italian dialect that was spoken in Florence when Dante used it to write for the common people (in lieu of the more scholarly Latin) became the basis for what we now call Italian.  There are still many dialects in Italy, and the dialects are so different from one another that they may not be understandable by speakers of standard Italian.  It is also common for Italians to speak both standard Italian and their local dialect.  The different dialects in English here in the U.S. are not quite so different.

Hebrew and Arabic are related.  I found that interesting since the Israeli’s and their Arabic-speaking neighbors don’t get along too well.

I find it strange that the Germans and French, among other non-English speaking people, get so upset when their citizens incorporate English words into their vocabularies.  My surprise may be because I am so used to opening a dictionary and finding that almost any work I look up is derived from a foreign word.  In fact, John McWhorter says that fully 99 percent of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are taken from foreign languages.

Spanglish is spoken when Spanish speaking people use an English word to form a new Spanish word.  McWhorter uses the example of Spanish speaking people using brecas for brake instead of the Spanish frenos.  Many years ago I had a Cuban friend at LSU who told me that in Cuba students weren’t allowed to drop courses.  When they came to the U.S. and found that dropping courses was acceptable they formed a new Spanish verb, droper, to signify dropping a university course.

One of the big problems we English speakers have in learning a Romance language is the rule that all nouns must be designated as either masculine or feminine – and there isn’t a rule you can follow to determine which will be masculine and which will be feminine.  In fact, this is not unusual in languages around the world.  Some languages even have more than two genders.

We will find a way to communicate with one another.  We may use a “pidgin” to give us just enough mutually understandable words to do business when there is no common language between us.  While verbs may not be conjugated fully, and we may not have enough words in common to express complex ideas, we can get by.  Think of Native Americans and settlers trading with one another.

McWhorter illustrated this need to communicate with the case of some deaf children from different parts of Nicaragua who were thrown together without anyone to teach them sign language.  They quickly created their own sign language.

There are about 6,000 languages in the world, but we are losing languages at a rapid pace.  Whereas different villages would often have different languages (or dialects) long ago, the modern world has thrown us together so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to those languages.  Here in south Louisiana I see that happening.  My father-in-law grew up in rural Louisiana and spoke Cajun French as his first language.  Now, it is mostly the old people who speak Cajun French, and soon Cajun French will be extinct despite efforts to keep it alive.

John McWhorter has written numerous books on language and has recorded several courses for The Teaching Company.

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