historical linguistics

In the Silence of the Darkest Hour

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12th century England marks the transition period between Old and Middle English. William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 ushered in a slew of French nobility and clergymen. The ruling class, though a distinct minority, spoke a different language than the peasantry, and in the subsequent decades, this factor led to a very quickly evolving native tongue.

Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, or simply Saxon, as it was called in this period—fell out of favor. It branded its speaker as a member of a lesser social class, while French indicated a more elite status. (English would remain “vulgar” up until about a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, by the way, and the narrative of its inherent inferiority persists even today.)

This difference in language statuses resulted in a lovely phenomenon, however: many of those on the lower end of the social spectrum sought to elevate their standing through language acquisition, so that French and Saxon co-mingled to produce a new hybrid English.

That’s right. It’s extremely likely that our beloved language is, at its roots, a creole.

Evidence lies in the shift from the Old English structure of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV, very Germanic) to the Middle English structure of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO, a common creole structure). French vocabulary piled into the language with class distinctions firmly attached. This is the period that gave us the Saxon terms for animals in the field—cow, pig, and chicken—but French terms at the dinner table—beef, pork, and poultry. The peasants in the field spoke Saxon, but their feudal, meat-eating masters spoke French, and the surviving terms reflect as much.

French and Latin dominated the written word. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ended its approximately 300-year run in A.D. 1154, but it was a singular relic by then. The Insular Script, developed in Ireland and popular in the Old English period, would give way to Carolingian cursive and a more gothic style (both of which are super difficult to read, haha), so that not even the alphabet looked the same.

Not that it mattered: for the duration of the 12th century, only peasants spoke English, and they were more than likely illiterate.

This illiteracy added to the rapid linguistic change. The written word provides an anchor; from A.D. 1100-1200, the English language was a ship adrift. Accents shifted and dialects mushroomed. The feudal system chained English speakers to their French masters’ lands, isolating communities from one another. The language of London arose as the standard-bearer while the western and northern dialects became marked and increasingly distinct.

King John I’s loss of Normandy in 1204 heralded the slackening of French influence upon the island nation. From that point onward, English would gradually reclaim its rightful place once more. But in the midst of the 12th century, native speakers could harbor little hope for their spoken word.

Truly this is the Dark Age of the English language, out of which a brilliant future emerged.

 

Out of Place in Time and Space

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Anachronism, that bane of all historical fiction writers, can crop up when you least expect it. Obvious New World acquisitions—coffee, cocoa, and tobacco—perhaps are easy enough to weed out. They are luxury items, associated with a certain lifestyle.

New World produce of a humbler nature might sneak into the narrative undetected. Basic as it may seem, those medieval peasants aren’t eating potatoes in their stew, and they can’t throw tomatoes at the prisoners in the stocks. Sorry.

Corn provides a particularly interesting case, because the word existed in English prior to New World exploration. It referred generally to all grain rather than one specific type. Thus, in the KJV Bible, when Pharaoh dreams of seven ears of “corn,” it’s not the on-the-cob variety; and when Christ’s disciples pluck the corn from the corn fields, they naturally rub its chaff off between their hands before they eat it.

It’s easy enough, from a modern perspective, to substitute the narrowed definition of corn into either of these instances. For Americans at least, corn is almost everywhere we look, from our soft drinks to our gasoline. And because it’s so pervasive in our culture, it’s an effortless hop-skip-and-jump to assume that it’s always been there.

Alas, not so.

Technology provides another source for potential anachronism. The introduction of gunpowder was a game-changer for any civilization. The development of cannons and guns rendered such protections as castle walls and plate armor ineffective where they had previously guarded against blades and battering rams. As guns increased in power, armor became a hindrance rather than a help.

The cycle of armor, too, has a logical progression to it. A prominent anachronism occurs in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: protagonist Hank Morgan encounters plate armor in 6th century England, roughly 700 years before it came into use. Mail—or maille, or mayle—preceded this more recognized type of armor. Oddly enough, the term “chain mail” is a later descriptor: Dictionary.com lists its entrance into the language as occurring between 1815-1825 (which exactly corresponds to when Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe artfully romanticized the Medieval period).

Which brings us to, perhaps, the most glaring anachronism of them all: the language itself.

Language change can be at once both rapid and slow, obvious and subtle. Slang comes and goes like a flash in the pan, while a subject-agreement cycle might require centuries to manifest. Literacy plays a huge role in slowing change, but any encounter with foreign cultures will speed it up. All of these elements and more combine to make an ever-shifting linguistic field. Anachronism of terms, then, is basically impossible to avoid.

Much has been written about the dysfunction of the English writing system. People lament that words like break and beak don’t rhyme, or that though, through, rough, trough, bought, and bough display six different pronunciations for the same cluster of four letters. Welcome to the Great Vowel Shift. In the 1300-1600s, English vowels migrated in their pronunciation.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for people like me who love this sort of thing), this is the same time period in which Caxton brought the printing press across the Channel and standardized spelling became a thing. Mid-shift. Meaning half these vowels shifted their pronunciation after printers decided, “Hey, this is how that word is spelled.”

Haha. Oh well.

Personally, I adore the English spelling system. It’s quirky, yes, but all restricted codes are. Those who call for spelling reforms dismiss the history inherently tied to our lexicon. They also fail to acknowledge that funetik speling looks iliterit. English has 13 vowels and only 6 letters with which to represent them. A true spelling reform would require a revised alphabet.

Too much effort.

And of course, for any type of historical fiction, modern spelling applies. But if you’re headed back to the Middle Ages, be aware that any modern words dating from that period had a markedly different pronunciation back then. Chances are, your time-traveling hero won’t recognize them right off the bat, especially when they’re ensconced amid the jargon of their day.

The Case of the Autonomous Body Parts

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Prescriptive Rule: “Never use a body part as the subject of your sentence.”

E.g., “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (This structure is deemed bad, according to this rule.)

I randomly encountered this piece of advice a few months ago and was baffled because—confession—I break this “rule” all the time. When the adviser could yield no information as to why this would even be a thing, I went ahead and dug around the Internets a bit to find some reasoning. (You’re welcome.)

And I found three main points:

  1. It leads to dangling participles.
  2. It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.
  3. It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

#1: It leads to dangling participles.

“While talking, her fingers curled around the warm, comforting coffee mug.” (Amazing, these talking fingers.)

Initial Assessment: I’ll give #1 a halfhearted nod for effort. Dangling participles are a legitimate structural issue, and for writers who view a featured body part as representative of the character, this trap might be too easy to spring. However, it’s not the body-part-as-subject’s fault. Dangling participles are sloppy writing and easily corrected:

  • “While she was talking, her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup.”

In this example, the true subject reunites with its participle, and the fingers still get to curl. A prescriptivist might contend that a better fix would be,

  • “While talking, she curled her fingers around the warm coffee cup.”

That, however, is a matter of debate. “She curled her fingers” is redundant, unless you want to argue that she could as easily be curling someone else’s fingers around the cup (which is 90% nonsense, 10% possible if this is a murder scene, the other person is unconscious, the coffee cup is the murder weapon, and “she” is framing “her”). The redundancy also makes it less efficient, especially since the writer can easily emphasize this character with the proper subject in the participial phrase.

Personally, I’d go with, “Her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup as she talked,” and skip the participle altogether.

Point #1 Diagnosis: The possibility of dangling participles doesn’t give license to forbid an entire class of subjects from someone’s writing. Rather than saying, “Never use body parts as subjects, because they can lead to dangling participles,” a better rule would be, “When using a body part as a subject, beware of possible dangling participles.” Or, more tongue-in-cheek, “When using a body part as a subject, your writing should have no dangling participles.”

(You see what I did there? Participles can dangle without body-part subjects, too. So let’s stop talking about dangling and body parts, shall we?)

#2: It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.” vs. “Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.”

Initial Assessment: This point looks to sentence structure as well. In English, the beginning of any sentence carries a focus feature that inherently directs the reader or listener to where they should train their attention. If the subject is the first element we encounter, it draws that focus.

Theta-Roles

Syntax and semantics teach about theta-roles, particularly the Agent, Experiencer, and Theme. Because Point #2 is so concerned about the character getting displaced as an agent, this bears looking into.

  1. Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.
  2. Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.

These two sentences have a distinct rhetorical difference. In the second, Roger intentionally jams his elbow. In the first, the elbow is jammed, but whether Roger did it intentionally depends on context. If, for example, Roger and Sheryl are tumbling down a staircase together, Roger probably doesn’t intend to jam his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage. It happens due to gravity and physics and the chaos that results from two people colliding under those circumstances. Sentence #1 is, therefore, the correct description.

Even in the case where the elbow-jamming is intentional, however, sentence #1 has a good argument for use.

Say, for example, that Roger and Sheryl are listening to Peter rant about how someone spilled a can of paint all over his car. Roger knows that Sheryl did it. He jams his elbow into her ribcage to drive home the point. However, he does it surreptitiously, so that Peter won’t notice.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage” carries both a narrower and a more removed sense to it. From Sheryl’s perspective, Roger is prodding her to speak, but he’s doing so in a secretive manner. Only the elbow moves. The narrowing of the agent from “Roger” to “Roger’s elbow” gives a minute rhetorical cue of this controlled gesture. Roger can still be fixed on Peter and his ranting while ribbing Sheryl.

Point #2 Diagnosis: Yes, using the body part instead of the person shifts the agent of the sentence. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Banning the structure all together is like telling all artists to get rid of their fan brush because some of their peers use it too much or improperly. It makes no sense, and it robs creators of a tool that could otherwise be used to good effect.

Better instruction would involve training in syntax and semantics, so that the author who starts a sentence with a body part does so wittingly, aware of its narrative effect.

(Education, what? Shock! Chagrin! /sarcasm)

#3: It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

“Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (All by themselves, halfway across the room from where she stood. It was bizarre.)

Initial Assessment: “Ohmigosh! A disembodied hand just jumped into the narrative!” ~No reader, ever.

Pardon me for going off the rails here, but this excuse of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts is the MOST RIDICULOUS PIECE OF FREAKING GRAMMAR-NAZI DRIVEL THAT I HAVE EVER COME ACROSS IN THE WHOLE OF MY EXISTENCE. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??

  • “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.”

No reader in their right mind is going to take that sentence as indicating that a pair of shoulders unattached to a body somehow magically appeared on scene and are moving of their own accord. The same goes for the following:

  • “His foot tapped a staccato rhythm against the floor.”
  • “Her fingers danced across the piano keys.”
  • “His eyes darted around the room.”

Body parts! Body parts everywhere!

EXCEPT NO.

See, there’s this thing about words. They have several layers of meaning built into them, layers beyond a simple dictionary definition. And when it comes to body parts, one of those layers dictates that the default condition for a body part is that it’s ATTACHED TO A BODY. That default remains in place unless specified otherwise.

So yeah, if you’re writing a zombie horror novel or graphic crime-scene thriller where disembodied parts are common and described in depth as being severed from their origin point, your reader might misunderstand a sentence that starts with a body part.

Might.

But probably not. Because readers aren’t stupid. (Or, at least, mine aren’t. *wink*)

Semantics—the layers of meaning that take in denotation, connotation, and sense for any given word and for the language as a whole—governs our understanding of language use. 99.9% of readers will never have that disembodied image enter their mind; the other 0.1% have heard this rule and had their mental process hijacked. (Thanks, prescriptivists!)

Or, worse, they’re being intentionally obtuse. “Look at this arm lurching across the page by itself, hur-de-hur-hurr!”

Point #3 Diagnosis: This is stupid. Quit using it as an excuse for telling people how to write.

The Eyes Have It

“Oh, but you should never have eyes darting, Kate. Eyes can’t dart, because they’re stuck in your head.”

Yes, exactly. They are stuck in your head, and everyone knows this. That’s why “darting eyes” works, actually. The minute the literal meaning comes up lacking, our brains switch over to a metaphorical one instead.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what darting eyes look like. I know you do.

A person’s eyes have long been synonymous with the scope of what they can see, but modern prescriptivists would have us believe that we should restrict the use of “eyes” in favor of “gaze.” And don’t even think about eyes doing anything beyond looking at other people.

I mean, unless you’re Shakespeare, that is.

Sonnet 137:

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot,
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have err’d,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.

William? Have you been ignoring prescritivist advice again, hmm? But surely that was a fluke, right?

Sonnet 5:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

Sonnet 14:

Mine eyes have drawn thy shape

Sonnet 78:

Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.

Sonnet 121:

For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?

But it’s only in the sonnets, right? He can take poetic license in a sonnet.

Haha.

All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V Scene 3:

KING. Now, pray you, let me see it; for mine eye,
While I was speaking, oft was fasten’d to’t.

and later,

LAFEU. Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon.

Yep! Eyes playing tricks TWICE IN THE SAME SCENE! Now try this next one.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene 10:

ENOBARBUS. That I beheld;
Mine eyes did sicken at the sight and could not
Endure a further view.

Shall I continue? If you go to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare over on Project Gutenberg, you’ll find hundreds of “eyes.” Shakespeare’s eyes draw, eat, smell, and speak. They are anchored and fastened. They sicken and stay and bend and turn. They are, in short, horrendously active in ways that their physical limitations might proscribe.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Can “eyes” be overused in a text? Unequivocally, yes. But insofar as restrictions upon what task the eyes might or might not be capable of performing? CAN IT, GRAMMAR-BOTS.

You know what the author means when they reference someone’s eyes darting around the room. Quit straining at gnats.

/soapbox

If I Were Any More Uncertain, I’d Be Subjunctive

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If English language elements are a collection of family members, the Subjunctive Mood is the sickly great-uncle, bed-ridden and lingering at death’s door for ages upon ages, and just when you think he’s finally kicked the bucket, BAM! He rears his hoary old head and demands a pudding cup.

(No offense intended to any sickly great-uncles out there. Please enjoy your pudding.)

The “was” vs. “were” debate is by no means of recent origin. It started to emerge sometime in the 1600-1700s, but the transition began gradually enough that it’s still happening to this day. And the thing is, no one uses one or the other consistently. No one.

The Subjunctive Mood

Moods, in language, refer to the speaker’s disposition towards the words they’re saying. The Indicative (AKA the Declarative) is the default mood; there’s also the Imperative (which only has a 2nd person form because it’s demanding action from someone else), the Interrogative (for asking questions), the Conditional (for that non-committal speaker), and the good ol’ Subjunctive.

The Subjunctive Mood expresses hypotheticals. Or, at least, it’s supposed to. But since it’s been dying out in English since the Dawn of the English Language (yes, really), it mostly gets trotted out when some pedant wants to put someone they don’t like in their place, grammatically speaking.

The identifying hallmark of the Subjunctive is that it carries no inflection. Present Subjunctive is the root verb; Past Subjunctive is its plural past-tense form; Future Subjunctive gets the modal “should” (recall that the “mod-” in “modal” is actually “mood” [OE mod] and that modals exist to convey the speaker’s grammatical Mood). So, the subjunctive forms for the verb to run would be as follows:

  • Present: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they run
  • Past: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they ran
  • Future: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they should run

Basically, in Modern English, the only place this mood could actually show up as different from the Indicative is in the 3rd person singular present expression (e.g., if he run, if she run, if it run).

Unless!

Unless we’re talking about a most irregular verb.

To Be or Not To Be

The etymology of our strangest and most common verb, to be, is a fascinating tangle. A hybrid of two Old English verbs, beon and wæron, its Indicative Mood displays inflection in every singular present tense, and a separate form for plural present, past singular, and past plural:

  • Present Singular: I am, you are, he/she/it is
  • Present Plural: we/you/they are
  • Past Singular: I/he/she/it was
  • Past Plural: we/you/they were

The Subjunctive forms are, again, the root for Present Subjunctive, the plural past tense for Past Subjunctive, and the modal “should” for Future Subjunctive:

  • Present: if I be
  • Past: if I were
  • Future: if I should be

That’s right. Proper use of the Subjunctive demands that you use “if I be” for present-tense hypotheticals.

  • “If I be late to the restaurant, order without me,” said no one within the past three hundred years.

Remnants of the Present Subjunctive survive in idiomatic usage (e.g., “be that as it may”) and colloquial speech (e.g., Yosemite Sam out lookin’ fer a fight), as well as more archaic references, such as the giant’s rhyme from Jack and the Beanstalk: “Be he alive or be he dead / I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

Past Subjunctive has proved a little more hardy: “if I were,” “I wish I were,” “as though he were,” etc. still survive in everyday speech, but was has steadily crept into that territory. One theory is that, because was gives more certainty to the sentence, it started being used for emphasis: “I’m not this, but if I was…”

Regardless of the cause, Subjunctive were has become marked as an oddity, yet it clings to its role with a death-grip. For every song lyric that starts “If I was,” there’s an armchair grammarian in the wings gnashing their teeth against the usage.

But, again, only if they dislike the band. We’re very quick to condemn those we wish to find fault with and to excuse the ones we love.

Final Thoughts

Whether the Subjunctive eventually dies its long-drawn death is anyone’s guess. At this point, it’s mostly personal preference that dictates whether someone uses it or not. And, frankly, calling someone out for their non-use is like criticizing them for not liking carrot cake: it’s pointless, fruitless, and—ultimately—counter-intuitive. It breeds hyper-correction and contempt, neither of which are good for cooperative communication.

In my estimation, where Subjunctive were is concerned, it’s best to live and let live. Or die, as the case may be.

 

*Fun Note: The song that’s linked on the words “If I was” above casts off the Past Subjunctive in its chorus but preserves the Present Subjunctive in the lyric “Be I a poor man or a king.”

Standing on Formality

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I was raised on the King James Version of The Bible (the good ol’ KJV). In addition to its spiritual tutelage, this translation quite nicely programmed my brain with archaic language structures, a blessing for which I am eternally grateful.

Because, apparently, the distinctions between thou/thee and ye/you are not all that easy to pick up or keep track of (to say nothing of the 2nd and 3rd person agreement markers on verbs).

My parents taught me to pray using thou and thee to address the Lord. It’s a custom in my religion, though members follow it to varying degrees depending on how comfortable they are with these archaic pronouns (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing Him with the modern you). We even hear on occasion that use of this bygone form of address shows a heightened reverence and respect toward deity.

By its very nature, archaic language, especially that associated with religious texts, takes on rhetorical features of formality, respect, perhaps even antiquated stuffiness.

The thou/thee/thy/thine of yesteryear, however, was anything but formal.

In the Old English period, the distinction between thou/thee and ye/you (or þu/þe and ge/eow, as they then appeared) was simple. Thou/thee referred to one person. Ye/you referred to more than one.

(Fun fact: There was also a dual case of pronouns in OE—git/inc in the 2nd person—that served to address exactly two persons, but it was in decline long before the end of that era, with only 1st and 2nd person forms attested.)

The singular/plural distinction between these two sets of pronouns suffered a heavy blow in A.D. 1066. For all you non-linguist, non-historians out there, that was the year Guillaume le Bâtard decided he’d had enough of his derogatory surname and crossed the Channel. He slaughtered Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, and called himself William the Conqueror from that point onward.

And he brought his Norman French with him, forever changing the linguistic landscape of the British Isles.

French, like English of yore, has distinct 2nd person singular and plural pronouns: tu and vous. There’s an added element to these pronouns, however: familiarity and politeness. If you are being polite, you always use the plural pronoun, vous. They even have specific verbs to request or correct pronoun usage:

  • tutoyer (“On peut se tutoyer?” = “May I address you with the informal tu?”)
  • vouvoyer (“Ne me vouvoie pas.” = “Don’t address me with the formal vous.”)

This familiar/polite distinction shows up in Middle English. Thou shifts from being merely singular to also indicating a close relationship. Ye picks up the slack for singular polite communication (and quickly gets absorbed into its object form, you).

And so begins the downward spiral of thou into obscurity.

Once politeness came into play, the familiar form fell out of use. It was already well into its decline in the 1520s when William Tyndale implemented it in his defiant English translation of the Bible. It was positively archaic in 1611 when the KJV was published. But since the King James scholars lifted their translation almost wholesale from Tyndale, its appearance there should shock no one.

Tyndale was a canny scholar, inspired, enlightened, determined, and far-seeing. Perhaps he used thee/thou/thy/thine simply to distinguish singular vs. plural pronoun translations. I prefer to think he chose his pronouns deliberately, though, that he recognized their colloquial use and the relationships they implied.

I respect the modern sense of reverence and formality that surrounds this archaic case, but peeling back that layer to the history that lies beneath communicates an added meaning for me. In addressing my God with thou and thee I acknowledge a kinship, an exquisitely personal relationship with the Only One who knows me perfectly, the Only One with whom politeness gives way to loving familiarity.

Those simple bygone pronouns, for me, stand as a symbol of the Lord’s grace, and of the beautiful, individual connection that binds me to Him.

Sometimes, politeness isn’t everything, and formality is only a façade.

Hopefully You’re Not Offended by This

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It never fails to amaze me the outrage that people can muster up about language use. An example from the recent past lies in the innocent and well-meaning word hopefully.

The English language has a fairly robust tradition of creating sentence modifiers from words and phrases in its lexicon. See surely, certainly, clearly, curiously, oddly enough, be that as it may, however, regardless, and so forth. Syntactically, these words and phrases shift from a lexical to a rhetorical meaning when they enter the sentence modifier position (the Complementizer Phrase, found at the head of our minimalist CP-TP-VP  sentence structure).

In this shift, they undergo a process of linguistic bleaching: their literal meaning gets expunged and replaced with a rhetorical/conversational meaning instead. So, for example,

  • Surely you can’t be serious ≠ In a sure manner you can’t be serious. (And don’t call me Shirley.)
  • Oddly enough, she swore like a sailor ≠ In an odd enough manner, she swore like a sailor.
  • Regardless, I can’t come to the play ≠ Without regard, I can’t come to the play.

We never think that clearly at the start of a sentence means in a clear manner, and hardly anyone gives a second thought to the present-subjective mood of be that as it may. (Count me among the exceptions to that “hardly.” But the subjective mood is a linguistic amusement to me, so there it is.)

Why, then, the great fuss over hopefully?

The first attested use of this word as a sentence adverb comes from the 1930s. It gained popularity in the 1960s, and that’s when chaos erupted, so to speak. The grammar gatekeepers did not like it. They denounced it in print. They blamed the Germans (yes, really). When it crossed over the pond, British gatekeepers derided it as an Americanism. Strunk & White (1972) declaimed it.

(You know it’s SRS BSNS when Strunk & White gets involved, peeps.)

“It’s ambiguous!”

“It lacks a point of view when it’s used that way!”

“It’s just a trend, and a bad one!”

The outrage multiplied for a decade and more until it reached its peak in the mid-1970s.

And then it atrophied. Scholars who had denounced its use resigned themselves to inevitability. Some of them retracted their position. Some even decided to champion the word.

And yet, decades later, the rancor against it lingers.

If you look up “hopefully” at Dictionary.com, you get three different sources cited and three different attitudes in those sources. The first declares its sentence-modifier usage to be “fully standard in all varieties of speech and writing.”¹ The second claims that it “has now become acceptable in informal contexts.”² The third, in its snootiest possible accent, says simply that it is “avoided by careful writers.”³

Hopefully that third source doesn’t mind me quoting them here. I mean, hopefully they understand by now that the English language is fluid, that it likes to change and that this is hardly the worst infraction it’s performed in its thousand-year history. Hopefully.

Because I’m pretty sure this one’s here to stay, folks. At least for a few more years.

(Hopefully. Haha.)

 

Citations:

  1. hopefully. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hopefully (accessed: February 01, 2016).
  2. hopefully. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers.http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hopefully (accessed: February 01, 2016).
  3. hopefully. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hopefully(accessed: February 01, 2016).

When Someone Has an Axe to Grind

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We find one of the longest battles in English linguistic history in that simple, problematic word “ask.” You wouldn’t think that three small letters could cause so much trouble, but you would be wrong. Nowadays, someone using the pronunciation of “aks” (or “ax,” as it’s commonly written) gets painted as ignorant or lower class.

When really, it’s been a dialect issue from the beginning.

If you look up “ask” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology section will provide you with 40+ different spellings that have been used over the past thousand years. Old English used both acsian and ascian (but note that it’s also generally accepted that “sc” was pronounced like modern “sh” rather than “sk”). Middle English, true to its nature, has a dozen or more variations, depending on which dialect of English the written work comes from, and a good number of them use the letter x.

In other words, over the course of English history, it has not been at all uncommon to axe someone a question. In fact, for a good stretch in the Middle Ages, it appears to have been the standard.

Tell this to a modern Grammar Nazi, though, and you’re taking your life into your hands. (I did once. All I got in return was a hard stare and a single word: “NO.” I still get the giggles thinking about it.)

When two sounds in a word switch places, it’s called metathesis. This is a natural linguistic phenomenon. It’s the reason people sometimes pronounce prescribe as “perscribe” or nuclear as “nu-kyu-lar.” And, oddly enough, it probably has less to do with the speaker’s education and more to do with the ever mysterious brain-to-mouth process.

Nuclear is a fun one to look at. One of my professors back in the day pointed out that there are only, like, three words in the English language that end in that particular sound combination (the two-syllable “KLEE-er” as opposed to a one-syllable “KLEER” or “KLIR”), and that the other two are obscure. (I still don’t know what they are, so I can’t tell if he was being hyperbolic or literal; I can only report the anecdote.)

Meanwhile, you have particular, molecular, ocular, circular, spectacular, and dozens upon dozens of others than end in –cular: a quick Google search yields a list of 105, many of which have the scientific/medical context that someone might associate with nuclear.

In that respect, metathesis to “nu-kyu-lar” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The sound cluster is a common linguistic pattern. (And this professor was a pioneer for Analogical Modeling, so patterns played a huge part of his research.)

Similarly, pronouncing ask as “ax” isn’t such a stretch either. The consonant cluster “sk” occurs less frequently than “ks”—so much so that we have a single letter in our alphabet that can represent the second cluster (much love to you, letter x), while the first is always two letters or more. Plus, “sk” requires slightly more effort to articulate.

Go on. Say the two sounds against one another.

sk-sk-sk-sk

ks-ks-ks-ks

I’m not going to say that people are linguistically lazy, but we all slur letters and drop syllables. I mean, really. Who’s vocab’s perf? Obvi erryone’s had this awks convo wi’ th’r fams, amirite?

The Path of Least Linguistic Resistance is almost a birthright, and metathesis is one of its many variables. If chronic mispronunciation really is a brain-to-mouth process issue, calling someone out for it would be akin to mocking someone who has a speech impediment.

But whatevs. Do what you want.

(Just remember, though: on the Grand Scale of Time, you might be the one who’s saying things wrong. Language change is funny like that.)

 

When Resistance Really Is Futile

GrammarNazis_01

 

True story: “its” as a pronoun didn’t come around until Early Modern English. Up until the late sixteenth century, the 3rd-person gender-neutral possessive pronoun was “his.” (“Thereof” served the same function, though it appeared after the genitive object rather than before it: e.g., “the tail thereof.”)

Even better: when “its” finally did enter the language, it was frequently spelled “it’s” (including by Mr. William Shakespeare himself). Chew on that, high school English teachers everywhere.

Every time I see someone correcting someone else’s grammar, I instinctively think back to this and the many other changes our exquisite English language has undergone. And then I wonder how such people would have functioned in previous eras where those changes were more distinct.

But actually, prescriptivism probably didn’t exist in the 1500s—at least, not in the form with which we are most familiar. In the Early Modern English period, anything of value was written in Latin or French; the first English grammar wasn’t even published until 1586 (hat-tip to you, William Bullokar), and for a century afterward, successive English grammars were written in Latin.

Yes, Latin. English was a vulgar language. Only boors used it for scholarly writing.

Starting in the late 17th-century, scholars began to give English a little more credit. At that point, grammarians swept through and codified everything and tried to pattern our rules after Latin instead of Germanic structure. English words derived from Romance languages took on more prestige than those that came from good Old English (a belief preserved to this day in such mundane issues as “writer” vs. “author”: an “author” is so much more important, don’cha know, even though the only real difference between these two words is their etymology).

This is the era that chastised us for for splitting infinitives. (You literally can’t split an infinitive in Latin. It’s a single word instead of two.) It’s the era of inkhorn terms, those delightful absurdities. It is the great-grand-pappy that bred all the millions of self-appointed grammar gurus in the world today.

(The poor souls.)

Language changes. Trying to control that change is like trying to dam the Amazon with a handful of twigs. You can’t.

But that sure as heck doesn’t stop people from trying.

(Which is nice in its own way. I need a good laugh every now and then.)