Saturday, August 27, 2011

Language Degradation

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix published a column in this morning’s paper by Bronwyn Eyre titled “Who still appreciates proper grammar?” In it Eyre laments the loss of proper grammar in speech and writing: “…for me, the inexorable disappearance of whom and the non-nominative use of who, frequently by people who should know better, puts me into a mini-melancholy.” After describing the proper and improper usage of who and whom, and a few other common grammatical errors, she concludes “The reason grammar and usage aren’t much taught in schools these days, I expect, is that many teachers no longer know the distinctions in question. Which, for a who-whom stickler like me, is a sad development indeed.”

I’ve been thinking of writing on this topic for some weeks, so this column provides the necessary motivation to tackle it (and a wonderful introduction - thanks Bronwyn!).

Every generation has writers with serious concerns about the (then) current degradation of their language. Most believe that a generation or two back the language was spoken more correctly. Let me share some quotes from Chapter 3 of Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language (2005).

A review by Clive James in the Times Literary Supplement, 2002, lamented the falling off from the English of even just two generations ago when “a mistake was a mistake and not a sign of free expression”.

So, what did writers have to say of the language from the period of which James nostalgically refers? George Orwell, writing in the journal Horizon in 1946, stated “…most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way”.

Is this a 20th century phenomenon? Hardly! In 1848 August Schleicher, a renowned linguist wrote that English showed “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink” and predicted that English would likely further “sink into mono-syllabicity”.

Going back another century, Thomas Sheridan wrote in 1780 “…that many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground [among people of fashion]; and if something is not done to stop this growing evil …English is  likely to become a mere jargon”. Sheridan believed that only seventy years earlier “during the reign of Queen Anne [1702-14] … English was … spoken in its highest state of perfection.”

But it was during the reign of Queen Anne that Jonathan Swift wrote what Deutscher described as “one of the most astoundingly bigoted rants” among language critiques – his “Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue”. Swift begins with “…our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions…” and goes on (and on) from there.

Do you see a pattern here? And this pattern is by no means limited to English. Modern Germans consider the age of Goethe and Schiller to be its “Golden Age” yet Jacob Grimm (of fairy tale fame) lamented in 1819 (during Goethe’s lifetime) that, compared to the language of his day, “six hundred years ago every common peasant knew … perfections and niceties of the German language of which the best language-teachers nowadays can no longer even dream.”

Serge Koster complained in 2001 of the recent changes in French that are “corrupting a system of grammar which was constructed throughout the centuries, and which has stayed almost stable since the eighteenth century”. In 1843 the French philosopher Victor Cousin argued with author Victor Hugo that “the decay of the French language began in 1789.” Gaston Paris, a French linguist, goes much further back, stating in 1862 that French, because it developed from Vulgar Latin (the Latin of the “illiterate masses”), was “inferior in beauty and logic” to the Latin of the age of Virgil and Cicero.

Cicero himself, comparing the Latin of his day with the speech of a century before him, wrote “…practically everyone … in those days spoke correctly. But the lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect in this respect.”

The pattern is clear. Every age laments the changes that they observe happening in their lifetime and look back on the previous generation as being superior. Why should this be?

Modern linguists now agree that language change is inevitable and unstoppable, and in itself is neither good nor bad. Even the strict Academie Francaise could not stop the French language from changing (as we saw in a previous post with the modern dropping of “ne”). But why is language change always seen as degradation? The answer, which was only recognized by linguists over the last few decades, is that the forces of destruction and decay are more easily observed than the forces of construction and creation. Both of these forces are constantly at work, gradually removing from, and adding to, the language.

I will leave descriptions of these opposing forces for future posts.


Although not directly on the topic of language change, skeuomorph is somewhat related to retronyms and is at the very least an interesting word. I first learned of the concept in an October 2008 A.Word.A.Day e-newsletter.

A skeuomorph is a design element copied from a once-functional element that is no longer required due to change of material or technology, and often serves no practical purpose. A good example is the electronic "click" sound added to digital cameras. Another is "woodgrain" plastic laminate countertop. The click may have some function in telling the photographer that a photo was captured, but the only advantage of the woodgrain pattern is its appearance.

Wikipedia gives several definitions and many examples. Some examples date back hundreds of years, so it's not just a recent phenomena. Ceramic ware has been found with clay "rivets" and seams added to simulate more expensive metal ware. Ancient Greek stone buildings were built with design elements that had been functional with wooden construction, but were merely decorative with stone.

Other examples of skeuomorphs play on our modern nostalgia for "good old days". Sepia tone photographic prints can be made from color images using digital manipulation to simulate prints made in the 1880s and 1890s. Modern hubcaps are made with decorative spokes to look like car wheels from the 1930s. Plastic sandals are made to look like leather, complete with molded "stitching".

Can you think of other skeuomorph examples? Remember that the original feature that is copied must have been necessary or have served some function.


A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently used in a humorous situation."  "Where there's a will, there’s a relative," is an example.

1. Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on my list.

3. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

4. If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

6. War does not determine who is right - only who is left.

7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

8. Evening news is where they begin with 'Good Evening,' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.

9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

10. A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.

12. Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says, 'In case of emergency, notify:' I put 'DOCTOR.'

13. I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.

17. I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

18. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

19. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

20. There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.

21. I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure.

22. You're never too old to learn something stupid.

23. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

24. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

25. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

26. Going to church doesn't make you spiritual any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

27. A diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.

28. Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even when you wish they were.

29. I always take life with a grain of salt. Plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.

30. When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

Here’s another one: The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

The above was in an anonymous email forwarded to me by my sister. Can you think of any more? Add them in a comment.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Grammaticalization - the French "Pas"

Linguists class words as either concrete or grammatical. Concrete words represent objects, actions, feelings, etc - things that can be named. Imagine two people sitting under a tree in the African savanna 100,000 years ago inventing words for the first language (that's not how it happened by the way). We can understand how words might have been made up for animals, stones, sun & stars, even feelings like hot and tired. These are concrete words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs). It is harder to imagine how they would have come up with words that we use to tie these concrete words together into meaningful sentences. Words like "and", "but", "the", "for", etc. These are called grammatical words because they form a language's grammar (prepositions, articles, conjunctions, interjections, auxiliaries).

Linguists believe that most if not all grammatical words started out as concrete words which later began to be used in a different way. An obvious example is the number one being used as the article "a". In French it is the same word "un/une". A more interesting example is the French word pas (pronounced pah - the French are even worse than English for not pronouncing all their letters). [Since my French is quite rusty, I  will use the examples from McWhorter's Lecture 4 in The Story of Human Language DVD.]

Pas is a concrete word meaning "step" which developed into a grammatical word meaning "not". Originally in French "He does not walk" would be "Il ne marche". For emphasis one could say "Il ne march pas" - "He doesn't walk a step". Similarly "Il ne mange" (He doesn't eat) could be said "Il ne mange mie" (He doesn't eat a crumb) and "Il ne bois" (He doesn't drink) as "Il ne bois goutte" (He doesn't drink a drop).

As time went by, the emphasis became weaker (like the word "awesome" which used to mean something really spectacular and can now be used to describe a salad) until the added "step", "crumb" or "drop" no longer made any real difference in meaning, and were dropped from usage. All that is, except for the word pas for step. It not only hung in there for not walking but began to be used for all negative actions. "He doesn't eat" became "Il ne mange pas"; "He doesn't drink" became "Il ne boit pas", etc. This is how I was taught French 40+ years ago.

Completing the process, in modern spoken French the "ne" is no longer used, leaving only the "pas". So to continue with our examples of not walking, eating or drinking, we now have "Il marche pas", "Il mange pas" and "Il boit pas" where the word for "step" is the only negative.

A familiar example in English [from The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher] is the verb going to which means "moving yourself to" but has taken on an element of a future tense. Consider: "I am going to the store. When I get to the store I am going to buy a book." Interestingly the "going to" in the second sentence can be shortened to "gonna" but the "going to" in the first cannot. So the slang word gonna has developed only for the future sense of "going to" not the original travelling sense. In the future should gonna become accepted as "proper English" it will be a new grammatical word. With further changes it could eventually morph into something unrecognizable from its original "going to".

Transitions like this have created all the grammatical words we now use not only in English but all languages. Fascinating!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One source of new words in our language is retronyms. These develop when, due to changing technology, it becomes necessary to modify an old word in order to specify what we are talking about. I'd been thinking of doing a post on retronyms for a few weeks, then discovered today a short blurb on the subject in the September Readers Digest (Canadian edition, page 26). Their definition: "new terms coined to distinguish existing objects or ideas from innovations improving or replacing them."

The RD blurb (it wasn't an article, just a page filler) gave several examples, so I had to think of different ones. Here is my list.
  - film camera
  - incandescent light bulb
  - land-line telephone
  - steam locomotive
  - standard or manual transmission
  - organic farming 
At one time all cameras used film so the "film" designation only became necessary with the invention of digital cameras. Similarly with light bulbs, telephones and the rest, there used to be only one type.

Please write in and add your examples to the post as comments. Note: to send a comment you may have to  register with Blogger. If you don't want to do that, just send them to me in an email and I'll post them for you.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Coroner and Coronary

These two words appear related in that they both have to do with death. A coroner is a government official who determines the cause of death, and coronary disease is a common cause of death.

Coroner and coronary are related, but their surprising root is crown, having nothing to do with death. The source of both is Latin corona for "crown".

A coroner is an official of the government or "Crown", an office originally established in medieval England. In England, Canada, and other British Commonwealth countries the federal government is commonly referred to as "the Crown", representing the King or Queen of England as the ultimate authority. In Canada, land owned by the Canadian Federal government is still referred to as "Crown Land".

The "coronary" heart condition is more properly called Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) or Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). The word coronary here comes from the crown-like shape of the arteries encircling the heart. These coronary arteries supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood. If the arteries become blocked or "occluded" by atherosclerotic plaque, the heart muscle tissue can die, a condition called myocardial infarction, and lead to cardiac arrest (a "heart attack"). It seems ironic that the heart which is full of blood that it pumps to the rest of the body depends on these small arteries to supply it's own vital oxygen - sort of like a gasoline tanker truck running out of fuel. Heart bypass surgery is a common procedure to replace these plugged coronary arteries with ones taken from elsewhere in the body. See the June 28, 2011 blog post on my Stay Healthy Naturally blog for natural alternatives to bypass surgery.

Source: A.Word.A.Day for August 15, 2011. If you haven't already subscribed to this delightful free email service, you can sign up at

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Curry Favour

An interesting example of Folk Etymology is curry favour meaning to ingratiate oneself by flattery. First, curry is the word meaning to brush or groom a horse, not the Indian spice. And the second word was originally Fauvel, the name of a horse in a satirical French medieval poem from the early 1300s. The French word fauvel from which the horse was named meant "fallow" or "chestnut-coloured" among a few other meanings, but was not related to favour. Fauvel, the equine hero of the poem, was a cunning rascal, the sort of character that might be influenced by flattery or favours.

The phrase to curry Fauvel developed meaning to ingratiate yourself with someone hoping for a favor in return, like you would by currying the rascally horse. At the time that the phrase developed in English, the poem was well known to educated people in Britain. As time went by the poem, and therefore the original meaning of Fauvel, was forgotten, and the word favour was substituted. While the word favour made perfect sense with the meaning of the phrase, the verb curry remained as a curious puzzle.

By the way, the word for the spice curry came a few centuries later from Tamil via Portuguese.

Source: POSH and other language myths by Michael Quinion, 2004, Penguin Books, London

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

True Folk Etymology

This post will deal with true Folk Etymology, where an unfamiliar word is changed into a more familiar form, or as Anatoly Lieberman puts it in Word Origins...and how we know them "the process of altering otherwise incomprehensible words, in order to give them a semblance of meaning". The other sense of Folk Etymology (called "Etymythology" by Michael Quinion in his book POSH) in which people make up plausible origins of words or phrases, was discussed in a previous post July 13.

There are two sources of unfamiliar words -- old words that have lost their meaning over time, and new words borrowed from another language. An oft quoted example of the former is bridegroom. The original was bridegome where gome was an Old English word for "man". By the 16th century gome had fallen out of use, remaining only in bridegome where it no longer made sense.  The more common word groom was substituted even though at the time it referred to a manservant or person of a lower class (the horse keeper sense of groom developed more recently).

Another example is kitty-corner for diagonally opposite. The original was cater-corner where cater is an English word meaning "four" Anglicized from the French quatre. Cater developed into a verb meaning "to place diagonally". Cater is now rarely used outside this expression, so it no longer made sense, and various versions sprang up including catty-corner and the more familiar kitty-corner. It is speculated that some people thought the word had something to do with prowling cats, but I don't think this is necessary at all for the word change. Kitty-corner just seems easier to pronounce, and makes a little more sense than cater-corner. One word that does relate to cats that I had not suspected, is caterpillar which is from Old French chatepelose meaning "hairy cat".

A frequently referenced example of a word changed from a foreign language is cockroach from Spanish cucaracha (it was cacarucha with the U in a different syllable at the time it was borrowed). Cock and roach were two familiar but unrelated English words joined to approximate the new unfamiliar word.

Sometimes the translation completely changes the meaning. In America, the French Cap d'Espoir (Cape of Hope) was Americanized to Cape Despair and the place name Purgatoire (Purgatory) became Picketwire.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hittite - the missing clue

Donna and I have been watching more from The Story of Human Language course. Last night we watched several lectures on the Indo-European language family. I'll write more about Indo-European later but want to share an interesting story about it. I had previously read that the discovery of Hittite writings had proven some theory about Proto-Indo-European (the mother language of the Indo-European language family) but had not really understood it. In one of his lectures McWhorter explained it simply enough for me to comprehend it.

Indo-European was the first language family identified, credited to Sir William Jones, a British born scholar living in India. His address to the Bengal Asiatic Society in 1786 in which he related his observations of similarities between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit and postulated their having a common ancestor, is credited with being the birth of modern linguistics. A whole linguistic industry grew from this discovery with linguists attempting to reconstruct the ancestral language called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). One of the books in my language library is the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

By comparing cognate words in surviving modern languages (and written historical languages), linguists work backwards using known laws of language change to recreate what the original word must have been. This process is called comparative reconstruction, and is also used to recreate the grammar.

Many languages have strong preferences for word construction. McWhorter provides the example of Japanese where words either end in a vowel or the consonant N. PIE words seemed to be mostly one syllable with a consonant-vowel-consonant construction. One group of exceptions are words that are consonant-vowel where the vowel is long. Here's where the theory comes in.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1), described as a pioneering linguist working in the late 1800s, wondered if these exceptions had at one time had a consonant at the end which had since been dropped. From other known language changes, it was known that throaty consonants called laryngeals (like H) cause the preceding vowel to become long, so de Saussure developed the theory that the missing consonants were laryngeals. The other linguists of the day strongly rejected this theory on the grounds that there was no evidence of it in any known language. His theory was vindicated some 50 years later with the discovery of Hittite texts (on clay tablets) in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Hittite (2) turned out to be what is now believed to be the earliest known IE language and had the missing consonants just where de Saussure predicted. This find not only vindicated the laryngeal theory but more generally supported the entire process of comparative reconstruction.

(1) Ferdinand de Saussure's father Henri was a scholar of, among several other disciplines, entomology. See my post from July 20
(2) Hittites - the Anatolian Hittites were named for the people that the ancient Hebrews ran into in the Old Testament but it is debatable at best if the two groups are related (source: Wikipedia).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Story of Human Language DVDs

After several years of receiving catalogues in the mail from The Great Courses [] I finally ordered one (my wife actually encouraged me to order one for my birthday). There are easily half a dozen that I would love to get, but one at a time... My first was The Story of Human Languages with professor John McWhorter.

There are 36 half-hour lectures on 6 dvds - 18 hours worth total. Donna and I have watched 7 lectures so far. It even comes with a Course Guidebook so you don't have to take notes, and can see how words referred to are spelled. McWhorter is one of my favorite linguistic authors anyway for his The Power of Babel book published in 2001.

In Lecture 3 McWhorter talks about sound changes, and explained the Great Vowel Shift which started in the late 1300's in English. The word name for example used to be pronounced NAH-meh which is why it is spelled the way it is. Two changes turned name into the way it sounds today - the first vowel changed into a long A, and the E became silent. This explains much of our weird spelling in English - the spelling is a fossilized remnant of the way words used to be pronounced - the sounds changed but the spellings did not. Boat, coat, etc used to be two syllable words BO-at, CO-at, etc. which is how they are still pronounced in modern Frisian. Inherent laziness caused our ancestors to turn them into one syllable words. Other examples were given of how words shorten over time.

Lecture 4 deals with how words are added to, a process that continuously occurs along with the shortening trend. Prefixes and suffixes started out as separate words that got shortened and attached. McWhorter explained how grammatical words (prepositions, articles, conjunctions etc like in, under, the, but, not...) develop out of concrete words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs), a process called Grammaticalization. He gave the fascinating example of how, in the French language, the concrete word pas meaning "step" became a grammatical word meaning "not" (if someone asks, I'll explain it in a future post).

Another process called Rebracketing creates new words out of other words. For example all one became alone from which came the word lone (not the other way around as we might suppose). Similarly a noranj became an orange, and an ekename became a nickname.  Another example of rebracketing is hamburger which started as Hamburger steak, named for the German city where burg means "fort" and ham has nothing to do with meat. It has been further shortened to burger, referring to the meat patty, from which variations like cheeseburger  and fishburger were invented. He also showed how new words in tonal languages can develop using an example from the Lahu language of SE Asia.

I'll share more from these dvds in future posts.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Celtic Vestigia

The English language developed in England so to understand the history of English we must explore the history of England.

The earliest inhabitants to leave any trace on the English language were the Celts. Their legacy is surprisingly small considering the centuries they inhabited Britain prior to and during the Roman occupation.

The Celtish languages are part of the Indo-European language family. There are six Celtic languages surviving into historical times, divided into two branches – the Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and Goidelic (Irish, Scottish and Manx).

The Brythonic (Brittonic) language was spoken across Britain south of the Firth of Forth by the people known as Britons during the Iron Age (800BC – 100AD). North of the Firth of Forth the distantly related Pictish language was spoken. By the 6th Century AD regional Brythonic dialects had developed into the Welsh and Cornish languages. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD Britons immigrated to the mainland (escaping the invading Saxons), settling in what is now known as Brittany, France. Here the third Brythonic language, Breton, developed, replacing the Gallish (or Gallic) Celtic language which was previously common across most of western mainland Europe.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic and Manx (from the Isle of Man) make up the Goidelic branch. These languages bear similarities to Iberian Celtic while the Brythonic languages are more similar to Gallish Celtic, suggesting that the Irish Celts came from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) while the Britons came across the English Channel from what is now France and Belgium. Thus the roots of differences between the Irish and English are very deep.

The Gaelic language was introduced to Scotland from Ireland in the 4th century AD by Irish raiders who settled in western Scotland. The Romans called Irish raiders Scoti and the area in northeast Britain settled by the Irish became known as Scotia (the Roman name for Scotland was Caledonia and Ireland itself was at one time known as Scotia). [I tried to explain this one time to a Scottish born friend but he wouldn’t hear of it.] Over time Scottish Gaelic diverged from the Irish Gaelic and spread throughout most of Scotland, displacing Pictish and Old English. Gaelic was later replaced by Scottish English, surviving in the Highlands and northern islands into modern times.

This brief history of the British Celtic languages lays a foundation for understanding the history of the English language. For a foundation, however, Celtic had surprisingly little lasting influence on English. A short chapter in my new book The Story of English deals with “The Celts and the Romans”. While the Romans ruled southern Britain, the Celts were more or less allowed to carry on with their life and language. After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxon invaders pushed them into the far western corners of the island. There was very little assimilation either of the Celtic people or their language. We have to look carefully to find traces of them in modern English.

Most modern English words of Celtic origin are of place names and landforms. The place name suffix combe is Celtic for valley (spelled cwm in Welsh, a useful Scrabble word!). Tor means hill or high rock (a bit of trivia I learned in a university geography class which has also proven useful in Scrabble). It has been suggested that the landform names for hills and valleys were borrowed from Celtic because the Anglo-Saxons, coming from countries with low flat land, lacked names for them. London (Latinized to Londinium by the Romans), Dover, Kent and the rivers Thames, Wye and Avon, among many others, are of Celtic origin. These place names increase in frequency from east to west across England.

Some words have been obviously borrowed from modern Celtic languages: bard, plaid, loch and glen from Scottish Gaelic and brogue, coracle and colleen from Irish Gaelic. Not so obvious is whiskey from the Gaelic compound word for water + life (similar to Latin aqua vitae for distilled alcoholic drinks). Bannock is another word believed to have a Celtic origin: OE bannuc (piece of a loaf or cake). It has survived in Scotland where it refers to a round, flat unsweetened and usually unleavened bread, and in Canada where its adaption to being baked over a campfire has made it a staple of northern trappers and traders. It was likely Hudson Bay Co. traders from Scotland that introduced both the bread and the name to northern Canada.

Two surprisingly modern looking words can be traced back to Celtic: slogan and car. Slogan comes from the Gaelic words sluagh (army) and gairm (cry) which together make war-cry. This proves that advertisers mean business! The word car has a more complicated derivation from words meaning “cart”. Old Celtic karros became Latin carra and Old French carre which was introduced into Middle English by the Normans. But this and likely many other words were previously borrowed by the Romans from the Celts living on the continent, not necessarily from the British Celts. Other Celtic words – like gravel, lawn, truant and valet were borrowed by the French from Gallic and later introduced into English following the Norman Conquest.

In summary, there remains very little evidence in modern English of the Celtic languages, once spoken across what is now England for centuries.