Living Language

Can anyone doubt today that language is a living entity, one that changes and morphs with the times? How quickly new words are incorporated into national languages, as well as the world vocabulary: internet, DVD, CD, bits, bytes, the Cloud, PCs, Macs, iPods, iPads, android, etc.

I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue, a thus-far fascinating look at how the English language came to be. In the fourth chapter, Bryson writes about how some of the words in the English language got there by mistake.

Take, for example, the word “dord,” which appeared in the 1934 Merriam-Webster International Dictionary, as another word for destiny. Turns out, this was simply based on the misreading of a typesetter’s note, which read “D or d,” meaning the word could be capitalized or not. When the error was discovered, the M-W folks removed the word, but not before it had found its way into other dictionaries.

Bryson writes that according to the First Supplement of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries that owe their existence to typographical errors, misrenderings, or mishearings. The word “buttonhole” was once “buttonhold.” “Asparagus” was for 200 years known as “sparrow-grass” and “shamefaced” was originally “shamefast” (fast here having the sense of lodged firmly, as in “stuck fast.”)

The process can still be seen today, for example in the tendency among people to turn “catercorner” into “catty-corner” and “chaise longue” into “chaise lounge.”

One of my favorite examples is the word “pea.” Originally, the word was “pease,” as in the nursery rhyme “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold…” but this was mistakenly thought to signify a plural and the word “pea” was back-formed to denote singularity.

And the words “grovel” and “sidle” similarly came into English because the original adverbs “groveling” and “sidling” were assumed to contain the -ing suffix, as in walking and seeing. In fact, it was the -ling suffix, but that didn’t stop people from adding a pair of useful words to the language. Other back-formations are “laze” (from “lazy”), “greed” (from “greedy”), “beg” (from “beggar”), and “difficult” (from “difficulty”).

What does this mean to writers? There is no reason to despair about our language. A compilation of several other languages, it will continue to grow and be enriched, as it always has been, by the addition of new vocabulary.  Perhaps the skill of oratory is one the wane for the moment, but don’t despair. We’ll, like, have, like, lots more words when, like, the people want to, like, express themselves again!

Words and Meaning

I suppose it is inevitable that I became a writer and editor. Words have always held great importance for me. The precise word for a precise meaning: a concept vital to me as a child, and still.

I remember contemplating the difference between the word “marriage” and the word “wedding,” knowing that these two words, while sometimes used interchangeably, meant something very different. Because I couldn’t formulate my question properly at the age of seven, I didn’t receive a clarifying answer when I asked my mother about the difference. The question continued to haunt the recesses of my mind, until at the age of nine I finally figured it out. A wedding was the ceremony that joined two people into a partnership called marriage. The wedding was a one-time event, and the marriage was the result. Don’t laugh. I felt immensely satisfied to have figured that one out on my own.

Then there was the night when I learned that it was, in fact, the Civil War, not the Silver War. I had asked my brother, by spelling, if he wanted to go play “S-I-L-V-E-R W-A-R” with his Army men after dinner. My father overheard and corrected me. As he and Mom often did. A fact for which I am eternally grateful.

I also learned, by similar means, that one made a cavalry charge when one played cowboys and Indians, not a Calvary charge.

Even today I am enchanted by language and words. PD James is one of my favorite authors because of how she finds the absolutely perfect word for what she means to write. When her character Adam Dalgliesh is sitting in a fire-lit room with his aunt, she writes: “The firelight threw gules on her long face, brown and carved like an Aztec’s, the eyes hooded, the nose long and straight above a wide mobile mouth.” I was enchanted. What was this word “gules”? I looked it up. It means the tincture of the color red, but in heraldry it also means an area marked with vertical lines. This blew me away. I could SEE the aunt’s face, tinted slightly red, with vertical wrinkles at the sides of the mouth, and on the cheeks. Who but PD James would use a word like gules to such an effect?

I am adamant about the importance of word use and word choice and fervent in my belief that we retain an important edge when we know and use our language to precise effect.  Too often, we are lazy with our language, and I think that we, as a culture, suffer as a result.

All Letters Matter

“To possess language is to possess reality; to lose control of words is to forfeit one’s claim to reality,” writes Nathan Mitchell in Cult and Controversy.

The truth of this became clear as I read Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, a book I received as a gift for Christmas. It’s a short fable, a cautionary tale, about how each and every letter of our alphabet matters, especially when that letter is deleted from the language, and all words containing that language must be excised from our lives.

At first, the islanders living on Nollop, a fictitious island off the coast of South Carolina, are not too worried. After all, only the letter “z” had fallen off the statue of the island’s hero, Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” which sentence graces the memorial to its creator. When the first letter falls off, the island’s government decides that the incident is a message from beyond, from Nollop himself, inducing the islanders to stop their verbal and written laziness and to make better use of the language.

What’s the big deal, asked most of the islanders when the government directed that after a certain date the letter “z” would no longer be legal, either in writing or in speech. Severe penalties were put in place for those who erred in speech or with pen, and the islanders began to inform on one another, waiting to pounce on any unsuspecting neighbor who might mention the buzz of bees or how something oozed from a pie. Still, there was no widespread panic. What’s the loss of a simple z?

As the book progresses, it is determined by state-siders that the glue that holds the letters to the memorial has calcified, and all letters will eventually plummet to the ground. But the island governors don’t want to hear such nonsense. Nollop is speaking to them, they are certain, and they will enact Nollop’s wishes.

Once the letter “d” falls, Nollop has become all powerful in the minds of the governors, and, since the word “God” is no longer allowed, he has also become all potent.

The book ends with only five letters remaining in the island alphabet: LMNOP. But the islanders are saved by the discovery of a new sentence that uses all letters of the alphabet (pangram), with 32 letters total.

It’s a fun tale, not too meaty or drawn out, but it did make me realize how even seemingly insignificant constraints on language can have a repercussive effect on thought, on communication, and on neighbors. Words can be used to inspire or to incite, to heal or to wound, to convey truth or lies. But these must never be a law that prohibits free speech or writing, for the public’s good. Who, after all, is to decide that good? Language must be allowed to flourish, or rights will die.

Can You Spell Potato?

Many people for whom English is not the first language comment on the difficulties of learning English, with its multitude of rules and legions of exceptions to those rules, and with the seemingly arbitrary spelling rules we follow. For me, that is part of the fun of language, but I know that it drives others nuts.

When I was six, my grandfather taught me to spell fish as “ghoti.” I’ve loved telling people about this ever since.

“F” as in enouGH.
“I” as in wOmen.
“SH” as in naTIon.

This January, riding the tube in London, I came across another wonderful comment on English spelling.

Spell “potato” phonetically as: Ghoughphtheightteeau:

If PH can stand for P in hiccough
If OUGH can stand for O in dough
If PHTH can stand for T in phthisis
If EIGH can stand for A in neighbour (British spelling, remember)
If TTE can stand for T in gazette
If EAU can stand for O in plateau,

then the way you spell potato is PHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEU!