Wednesday, March 16, 2016

No History Without Language: A Selection of Historical Developments Among Words

There can be no history without language. More than that, language is part of history. If history is the study of change, then language has been changing continuously since before history was recorded. So, from time to time, I include topics from the history of language as part of this blog.

 
Language is a link between the mind, and the body, and the mind of another person. It is fragile, yet remarkable for its hardiness in spite of its fragility. Language is a paradox. Mechanically speaking, language is mere breath; yet its parts are made with different degrees of concreteness. Consonants like the sounds we represent with the letters K, G, B, P, F, V, T, D, S, L, are hard, sharp or liquid. One of the most remarkable discoveries of linguistics, the scientific study of language, is that there are pairs of sounds that almost regularly turn into each other. For example, a word that begins with a "p" can change into a word that begins with an "f." (And an "f" can become a "v.") Similarly, a "d" can also become a "t." Thus an ancient word that was pronounced "perd" or "pard" becomes "fart." While consonants can be whittled away through disuse, they tend to be more stable and persistent than vowels, the sounds we represent with the letters A, E, I, O, U. The vowels are so purely made of breath that they can and do change shape or even disappear entirely over time.


PEN and PAN


For a long time, I noticed that there are words that mean similar things or even represent two related but different concepts, yet the chief difference between their pronunciation is a mere shift from one vowel sound to another, and I wondered whether this was meaningless coincidence. It turns out that it is not. Take, for example, the similarity of the first three letters in each of these two words: PENtagon and PAN-American. A pentagon is a five-sided figure while Pan-American refers to all of the Americas or both the north and south American continents. Is there anything more than coincidence to the fact that both of these words or prefixes consist of P – (vowel) – N? Yes. These both come from Indo-European, one of the hypothetical languages that linguists have posited to explain why languages can be grouped together based on their deepest similarities. This P – (vowel) – N combination is found in both ancient and modern languages ranging from Asia to Europe, including Sanskrit and Greek. "Pen" and "pan" were originally the same word, and here is how they could have both of the meanings “five” and “all”: Look at your open hand and think, These are the fingers of my hand; there are five fingers on my hand; these are all the fingers of my hand. Over time, as people needed to be more precise, they began to distinguish the word for “five” from the word for “all” by pronouncing them differently. That, at least, is the simplified version.
 

 Language Rules
 

Grammarians write rules in books and on the blackboard for students to memorize. Some of these rules are as arbitrary as they seem. For example, they will tell you that it is improper to say, “I don’t know nothing,” or “Ken, he went to the store.” The first case is the famous one of the “double negative” rule. You are not supposed to use it in English. It is said to be illogical, because “two negatives make a positive.” Yet many languages actually require speakers to use the double negative. In Russian, “Ya neechevo nye Zna-you” literally means, “I nothing not know,” and it is correct grammar. Centuries ago, English speakers, too, thought nothing of doubling the use of negative terms to emphasize the negativity of their expressions, rather than to cancel out one negative with another. The accounting method of grammar was invented by eighteenth century grammarians. (I am not telling anyone to flout the now recognized rules of formal English; just be aware that it is arbitrary, and that, as the old politician said, there are times when it is correct to say “ain’t.”)


Similarly, the locution, “Ken, he went to the store,” is considered “common,” which is to say that many people say it, but not the people who have been trained out of it by hoary grammarians. One is supposed to say, “Ken went to the store.” Yet, in Japanese, identifying the subject and right away referring to it with a pronoun is not only allowed but expected of a proper Japanese speaker.
 

When you knock on the door, do you say, “It is I” or “It’s me”? If you have been made neurotically self-conscious by grammarians, you say the former but say the latter if you are a normal English speaker (no matter how well educated you are). Linguist John McWhorter is fond of pointing out that the pretentious character, Hyacinth Bucket (who insists on pronouncing her last name “Bouquet”) from the British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances,” always says, “It is I.” And she is made fun of for precisely this type of affectation.

 
Yet language follows rules that are entirely unconscious and more natural. There are the simple nouns that never change form from subject to object. A dog is a dog whether it acts or is acted upon. The only change it goes through is the addition of an “-s” at the end when there are two or more dogs. That is the simplified way of treating nouns in English, and it is a relatively modern development. English was originally more complicated but became simpler over the last thousand years. A great many of the words in English once had different forms depending on their use in the sentence. An important descriptive rule is that the words that we use most often are precisely the ones that have resisted simplification. The plural of "man" is "men," not "mans." A child and his peers are children, not "childs." (This making of plurals by adding “-en” instead of “-s” reminds us of the old, old relationship of English to German, which still makes words plural by adding “-en.”) It demonstrates what a common occupation farming was when English became simplified that the plural of “ox” is still “oxen.”

There are several other words that do not become plural with either an “-s” or an “-en” ending. These include "goose," the plural of which is "geese"; "mouse," of which the plural is "mice"; and "foot" with its plural, "feet." Body parts, by the way, are very basic words and to some degree resistant to change. In the case of “foot,” though, I believe the development of “feet” as the plural might be a bit more complicated than what you might think; there was originally an ending added on to “foot” to make it plural, but over time the ending was dropped and the sound change that made the word plural shifted to the vowel sound between the F and the T. Something similar, I suppose, happened to “goose” and “mouse.”

A lot of words in English used to go through radical changes based on their use in a sentence, and while most of them have been simplified, some have resisted simplification. “I,” as moralists are always pointing out, is a word we use all too often, and this constant use made it almost impossible for it to be simplified into one form, suitable for all purposes. For example, “I” is the subject of a sentence while “me” is the object. It’s “I hit you, and you hit me,” not “Me hit you, and you hit I.” When something belongs to me, it is “mine.” The word/meaning for myself changes into almost unrecognizable variations depending on its use in the sentence. When I join with another person, "I" becomes “we,” and this, too, is inflected as “we, our, us.”


There is a price to pay for simplification. For example, most languages have two different words for “you,” one for addressing a single individual who is very familiar to us, and another for addressing multiple individuals or people we don’t know very well. We used to have this in English, too. “Thou” was for individuals close to us and “You” was for everyone else. We got rid of that, but now we sometimes miss it. After all, not only must we now express our feelings toward loved ones with the same impersonal word we use for strangers, but who can be sure when someone says, “You were angry with me,” whether he is speaking to you personally or to everyone standing beside and behind you? For this reason, some people in the early nineteenth century started saying, “You was angry with me,” to indicate that they were addressing only one person. “You were angry with me,” would only be used in an impersonal or group situation. If you are guessing that this trend disappeared because grammarians trained it out of people, you are right. We English speakers are forced to live without this nice distinction that graces most other languages in the world.


(By the way, notice how inflected the word “thou” is when we still find it in older works such as Shakespeare and the King James Bible: "thou" is always the subject of a sentence, "thee" is always the object, and "thine" is possessive – and parallel to "mine," as in “I, mine, me.”)


The above examples are pronouns and nouns, but verbs have become simplified, too. These action words used to be more varied than they are now, just like nouns. Linguists call verbs that strongly resist simplification “strong verbs.” Most verbs are “weak” in that they follow a very simple pattern when they go from present tense to past. “Today I talk, yesterday I talked.” Just add “-ed” to the end of the verb and you have it. This is the simplification that English has followed over the past thousand years. Any new words added to English follow this pattern. In contrast, strong verbs usually change the vowel sound within them. (Remember how “pan-” and “pen-” are related; changes in the vowel sounds are very common both as words change over time and, in this case, to adjust the meaning of the very same word.) An example will make this clearer:
 

Ring. Rang, Rung. That is, “Today I ring the bell; yesterday I rang the bell; and (also) yesterday the bell was rung.” The participial form, “rung,” can be used for several different verb forms, including passive, but it can be an adjective, too. “A rung bell is a bell that has been rung.”


There are only about forty strong verbs in English, or so I am told, because I have not seen the whole list. But here are a few of them. Notice that there are not always three different forms, sometimes only two.
Dive, Dove

Drink, Drank
Go, Went, Gone
Hang, Hung
Think, Thought
Wring, Wrung 

One of the most curious words on this shortened list is “hang.” It confuses many people because of the practice of hanging criminals. Some people are baffled as to whether criminals are “hanged” or “hung.” You will hear people say both, but which is correct? A simple history lesson explains the distinction. Apparently, the ancient Anglo-Saxons – the amalgam of Germanic tribes who came to England and are often spoken of as the originators of what we call English – did not punish their criminals by hanging. This is not to say that they did not have punishments equally or even far more cruel, but it meant that when hanging was introduced – possibly by the French – its novelty affected the native speakers of English so that they applied the word “hang” to it as if the word were being introduced into the language for the first time.
 

Now, “hang” was an old, strong verb, so it changed in meaning by changing its vowel. “Today I hang the laundry, but yesterday I hung the laundry.” “The laundry was hung.” (So were the stockings by the chimney with care.) When confronted with a new and very different meaning for the word “hang,” then, English speakers treated it as a new – and, therefore, weak – verb, and like all new words introduced into English, it follows the weak model.
 

Thus we should say, “The laundry was hung, but the murderer was hanged.”


And now you know not only which word is correct but why, and I hope that knowing why helps you to remember which is which, as it does me.

You might wonder whether the verbs that now end in "-ed" always ended in "-ed," or if they once had strong or irregular forms. It seems to be the latter case. For example, we now say, "Today I work, and yesterday I worked." The old, old past tense/past participle for work was "wrought." We can say that this is ordinarily not used anymore, but we cannot say that it is never used. In its participial form, we still use it as an adjective in terms such as "wrought iron fence," to describe a fence that is made of iron bars and other iron pieces that have been "worked" or "wrought" into shape and together to form a fence. A "set phrase" is what we call a term like "wrought iron fence" that consists of an archaic word that we would not use in ordinary speech but which we still use in that particular phrase to describe that particular thing.

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