language

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).

The Right Man for the Job

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The perfect pupil for a mentor/pupil relationship, if literary tradition is any indication, fits the following template:

  • Male
  • Well-meaning
  • “Ordinary” looks

And it doesn’t hurt if he’s orphaned and maybe living with a possibly unsympathetic uncle.

Epic heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker come most readily to mind. In that same vein, we never see Frodo Baggins’s parents, while his Uncle Bilbo plays a prominent role. Oliver Twist at least lives in a workhouse instead of with heartless relatives; his literary cousin, Pip Pirrip, lives with a trenchant sister rather than an uncle (although her age does put her in a different generation than him).

And all of these heroes are “ordinary,” except that they’re not.

In many cases, the author goes out of their way to describe an average appearance, perhaps something tipping toward the lower end of the physical appearance spectrum. But not too low. We wouldn’t want our hero to be outright ugly or repulsive. Instead, we find them skinny, a little on the short side, with unruly hair or freckles or some other minor aesthetic flaw. They can grow into their handsome looks along with the plot.

(If they have a quick transformation into handsome looks via magic or some other supernatural means—which, sadly, does happen—the MarySue alarm should be clanging in your ears. Just FYI.)

In essence, the “perfect pupil” is a blank canvas, something that the mentor, narrator, and author all can draw upon to create the hero that we as readers are conditioned to expect.

And while it’s a nice template, and has certainly been put to good use, imagine the possibilities if you switch up the elements. Take a moment to consider the following character templates as the pupil in a mentor-pupil relationship:

  1. Male, well-meaning, eye-candy
  2. Male, malevolent, “ordinary” looks
  3. Male, malevolent, eye-candy
  4. Female, well-meaning, “ordinary” looks
  5. Female, well-meaning, eye-candy
  6. Female, malevolent, “ordinary” looks
  7. Female, malevolent, eye-candy

With only three characteristics, a whole spectrum of scenarios emerge. (And that without even taking the pupil’s family situation into account.)

And now, a linguistic aside. Among its methods of language classifications, the field of typology looks at basic, “unmarked” word order. That is, it asks, “What is the underlying structure for this language?”

With three constituents—Subject (S), Verb (V), Object (O)—there are six possible combinations:

  1. SOV
  2. SVO
  3. VSO
  4. VOS
  5. OVS
  6. OSV

These are listed in order of frequency across the world’s languages. (Old English was SOV, but Middle English switched to SVO. Possibly because it was actually a creole between OE and French and creoles tend to be SVO. But I digress.)

For a decent chunk of time, #6 (OSV) was only theoretical. What language could possibly have a basic word order of Object-Subject-Verb? Even its nearest neighbor OVS amounted to only 1% of samples.

And then linguists went mucking about in the Amazon basin. Surprise! There lurked the underlying OSV structure.

This structure, with the handful of languages that fall into its classification, statistically amounts to 0% of the world’s languages.

But it exists.

(Proud Yoda would be.)

While it’s certainly fun to explore the field of languages that fall under the more common SOV and SVO word orders, the mere existence of OSV is something to celebrate and cherish.

In that same spirit, while it’s certainly fun to explore the ranks of male, well-meaning, ordinary-looking heroes, variations of that template ought to be encouraged. There’s room for a full spectrum of characters in literary canon. Any gaps simply mean we haven’t gone exploring deep enough into our creative jungles.

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

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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.)

 

7 Things Every Writer Should Know about Linguistics

It’s a big, complicated word, “linguistics,” stuffed with technical concepts and broad theories. If writing is your craft, though, this particular study could well be your best friend.

1. Linguistics is the study of language structure and use. It is not full language acquisition.

Don’t ask a linguist how many languages he or she speaks, because you’ll get the stink-eye in return. The purpose of linguistics is not to learn multiple languages. It is to study and define the patterns that occur within a language and across multiple language families. This makes it is the perfect discipline for any writer who wants to get elbow-deep into the craft.

2. Linguistics is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one.

It never ceases to amaze me how prescriptive “creative writing” can be: Don’t use this. Don’t do that. Write this way, not that way. These days, creative writing instruction seems to focus on the “how,” the rigid application of language use. In contrast, Linguistics focuses on the “why,” the doctrine. It teaches the underlying principles that govern language use and, as such, can cue a writer on when it’s appropriate to ignore prescriptive counsel or to flout a general rule.

3. Linguists are not Grammar Nazis.

Again, linguistics aims to describe language use, not prescribe it. Because of this, linguists might exude a somewhat smug moral superiority over the petty grammar “advocates” that pepper the Internet and elsewhere. Linguists know the rules (quite intimately, in most cases) and love to observe when and why those rules get broken. They don’t want you to check your grammar usage around them, which is probably the most convincing reason that you should.

Where a Grammar Nazi will correct your every little flaw and dictate which words you should or should not use, the linguist’s outlook is more a “live and let live,” stress-free state of mind. And because no one, not even the most stringent of Grammar Nazis, gets language 100% right all the time, the laissez-faire approach is much more logical.

Besides, who doesn’t love exuding smug moral superiority? Put down your brickbats, Grammar Nazis, and delve into true language proficiency.

4. Linguistics has multiple fields that can be useful to a writer, especially a fiction writer.

  • Phonology/Phonetics: the study of the different sounds in language. Every language has its own phoneme inventory, and phonetic environments create variations called allophones. This field includes regional and foreign accents as well as speech impediments and slurring, and can be an incredible tool to show characterization. Additional writing tools: stress, alliteration, assonance, metathesis, onomatopoeia.
  • Morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning in language, called morphemes. These are the building blocks for word creation and include affixes, roots, and grammar markers (such as the ‘s on a possessive noun). Writing tools: wordplay, portmanteaus, nonce words; J.R.R. Tolkien uses an aberrant morphology pattern in Gollum’s speech to reinforce his disconnect from society; Louis Carroll combines morphemes from separate words to create new ones (e.g., “chortle” from “chuckle” and “snort”). Morphology can also serve well in world-building, particularly when it comes to place names.
  • Syntax: the study of sentence structure and parts of speech. Seriously, what can I say about this? You can’t write without syntax. Writing tools: verbing, word order, parataxis vs. hypotaxis vs. embedding, fragments and run-on sentences. If you’re a writer, syntax is your bread and butter, and you’d be well served to delve into its depths.
  • Semantics: the study of meaning. Writing tools: metaphor, ambiguity, malapropisms, double-entendres. Semantics takes nuance into consideration and helps create the atmosphere associated with any work of literature. Is your narrative dry or lush? Purple prose or objective sparseness? Semantics can introduce multiple layers of meaning and set the tone of the piece.
  • Pragmatics: the study of communication. Writing tools: the big word with Pragmatics, insofar as I’m concerned, is DIALOGUE. But it’s not just character-to-character dialogue. Writers create a dialogue with their readers. Pragmatics includes intent vs. result, whether a message was properly received, and whether the speaker even meant for that message to be properly received. Politeness, deception, relevance, the meaning behind a certain intonation or inflection: all of these fall into the field of Pragmatics. This is the garden path where all aforementioned fields come together to play. I cannot say enough about the usefulness of pragmatics in creative writing.
  • Typology: the study of patterns across multiple languages. Writing tools: foreign language structures and features; those really ambitious writers who want to create a new language entirely can look to typology as an apt starting point.
  • Language Acquisition: the study of language learning. Writing tools: speech patterns of children (first-language learners) and speakers of other languages (secondary-language learners), including phonetic approximation and vocabulary acquisition. We’ve all read that story where the supposedly normal 2-year-old speaks with unnatural distinction, or the foreigner stumbles with simple vocabulary but pulls out complex verb tenses. Don’t be that writer. Language acquisition is systematic and predictable.
  • Historical Linguistics: the study of language change over time. Writing tools: etymology, archaic case endings and speech patterns. This is my favorite field of linguistics. It provides such a nice template for creation, and it softens one’s inclinations toward prescriptivism. It’s difficult to demand that language use be kept to one specific pattern when you’ve glimpsed all the other cycles it’s passed through to get there.

5. Linguistics can shine light on the otherwise nebulous “Show, don’t tell.”

In fact, it can do so from multiple angles. In Syntax, “showing vs. telling” involves the theta-roles assigned by verbs. Pragmatics highlights “showing” through manner and relevance of communication. Instead of the narrow, “do this, not that, use this verb not that one” instruction that occurs with creative writing classes, these linguistic fields provide the inner workings of the language, thus allowing writers to self-identify “tell” prose and “show” prose and strike a balance accordingly.

6. Linguistics has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth the climb.

The discipline is rife with jargon, a “restrictive code” to talk about restrictive codes (among other phenomena). This is nothing more than language used to describe language. Terms and usage will be unfamiliar at first, but don’t get discouraged.

Syntax is probably the easiest place to start, because most people are at least familiar with parts of speech. Hardest place to start would be Pragmatics, where “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And yet, from a creative standpoint, Pragmatics is probably the best field to tackle, simply for how it broadens one’s concept of language and its endless possibilities.

7. As a writer, you’re already using linguistic principles. You’re probably using many of them subconsciously.

Ultimately, as language users, the principles of linguistics are already written in our brains. It’s just a matter of identification. Do you have a character that spouts off $5 words to assert personal authority/intelligence? That’s Pragmatics with a dash of Historical Linguistics. Foreign accents? Phonology and Language Acquisition. Deceptive double-speak? Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. None of these fields exists in a vacuum, and no literature exists without them.

In closing, I leave you with this quote from the wonderful Ludwig van Beethoven:

Beethoven_quote

 

Also, as an apology for the click-bait title on this article, a bonus!

8. Linguists love puns and other corny language jokes.

It’s true. The worse the pun, the more they adore it. Check out the Linguistics Llama for undeniable proof. If you think that’s clever, or you want in on the jokes, Linguistics might be the discipline for you!

 

Literary Influences: Beowulf

BeowulfHwæt!

(Did it work? Do I have your attention?)

Beowulf is one of those works of literature that, quite honestly, never interested me. Some beefy warrior kills a monster, and then he kills another one, and there’s a dragon in there somewhere, and at the end (spoiler alert!), he dies. I maintained a scornful disinterest for this epic over the course of a decade, until my conversion in my mid-twenties. Here’s how it went down.

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Verbs, Part 6: Conclusion (for now)

Objectives:

  1. Describe major verb features and their functions.
  2. Classify specific verbs according to the theta-roles they assign.

Skill level: Advanced

As indicated by the title, this is the final post in my verb series, though not necessarily my final post on verbs. (Who knows what the future holds, yeah?) This is mostly an overview post, so it’s short, quick, and to the point.

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Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

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Verbs, Part 4: Theta-Roles, or How to Eliminate Passive Voice

My favorite syntax resource, Radford's English Syntax: An Introduction.

My favorite syntax resource, Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction.

The discussion in this post requires a different view of language structure. For a deeper understanding, I refer you to Andrew Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction (ISBN 0521542758), particularly pp. 190-193 . Much of this post draws from that source.

Objectives:

  1. Identify the theta-roles assigned to nouns by verbs.
  2. Revise Passive Voice from sentences by using verbs with alternate theta-role assignments.

Skill level: Advanced

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