Monday, October 16, 2017

The New Normal -- and the old

Despite the efforts of those who actually study language, the notion of a "standard English," one to which we should constantly adhere, at the peril of revealing our fathomless ignorance, has persisted for generations. Perhaps it's just an inevitable consquence of the effort to make education accessible to the masses; in order to do so, language was codified, and people began to mistake those codes for the ones that actually govern everyday speech.

And of course, ever since there's been an English language, there's been a prestige or normative accent: The West Saxons looked down their noses at their Mercian and Northumbrian neighbors; the Oxbridge chattering classes guffawed at the parlance of Soho Square; even in the purportedly egalitarian American colonies, Boston Brahmins and Tidewater planters laughed at the usage of backwoods Kentuckians, at least until the Midwest conquered both, and laughed last.

And that's not all: even if, in terms of diction and pronunciation, we could talk about a normative way of speaking, and agree on what that was, none of us actually speaks it. We hear others having an "accent," and we may believe ourselves to have one, but truth be told, normative pronunciation is an accent too -- albeit an artificial one, known mostly by its seeming absence. Our linguistic variety, indeed, is our strength: the different phrases and idioms we use, the different pronunciations and accents natural to different persons, all of these are the life-blood of living language. The only languages that don't have such variations -- Latin, or Attic Greek -- are dead ones. And, within broad limits, the more differences, the merrier. English literature, indeed, is full of those whose manner of speaking is different from anyone else's, whether it's Dickens's Jo the crossing-sweeper, with his "I don' know nuffink," Liza Doolittle with her "Aaaaaaaaaaah-ow-ooh," or Popeye the Sailor with his "edjamication," his "horshpital," or his immortal apothegm "I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam" (which, incidentially, is the favored Twitter quote of Salman Rushdie). In more recent times, Hip-hop has brought us such wordsmiths as Keith Murray, Flavor-Flav, and Humpty-Hump, who boasts in "The Humpty Dance" that he'll "use a word that don't mean nothin', like loopted." But of course, sooner or later, every word means something.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Class consciousness

So what's the alternative to the old "parts of speech" model? Schoolhouse Rock provides a handy clue: "conjunction junction, what's your function?" -- what if we were were to ask of other words, not what it is they are, but what it is they do? The answer would give us word classes, which have the tremendous advantage of describing what English words actually do do in actual sentences and utterances. Some of these classes, such as the class of prepositions or that of conjunctions, are relatively stable -- these are sometimes called "closed" classes -- but in other cases -- what the parts people call nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs -- a word's class status might be completely different depending on the particular sentence it's in. In addition to words such as fish, photograph, taste, and service -- all of which can potentially be members of several classes without changing their form at all (these are called zero morphs) we also have a wide array of suffixes, and sometimes prefixes, that "recruit" a word from one class to another: -able turns verbs into adjectives (love ==> lovable); -ment turns verbs into nouns (govern ==> government); and of course -ly turns adjectives into adverbs (quick ==> quickly).

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What is Grammar?

We all know the "Grammar Nazi" -- and can laugh along with parodies such as College Humor's take on the famous scene from Inglorious Basterds. But why is this notion so persistent? I think it's because those of us who have anxieties about our grammar and usage have them because we've been called out somewhere -- in a classroom, on a stage, by a seeming friend -- for some real or purported usage error. The grammar guardians have that same smugness that we fear from the enforcers of some imaginary authoritarian regime: the law is on their side, and they will show no mercy. But how did we get to this state of affairs, with a language that most of us have been speaking since before we were two years old? How did we come to feel not at home in our own home language?

Part of it is that English is notoriously filled with inconsistencies. Compared with either Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) or Germanic ones (German, Norwegian, Icelandic), we have dozens of exceptions to the rules, all of which someone learning English as a second language must contend with. On top of that, we have quite a few "rules" which the grammar correctors are convinced are rooted in stone, which are in fact not rules at all, but merely conventions (see the previous sentence for how we're not supposed to end things). Perhaps most significantly, we tend to confuse these conventions -- which are those of formal written English -- with rules about everyday, informal speech.


I have good news though: as Dante Alighieri noted about his childhood acquisition of Italian, if English is your first language, then you learned it by imitation, and sine omni regula (without any rules). Rules come later, and after, and actually have nothing whatsoever to do with how we actually learn to speak, or do speak. Which is not to say English has no structure, but rather that the structures which help us generate speech are not the same as those external after-thoughts with with grammarians have measured and examined speech. When one thinks of language in generative terms, one realizes the sad futility of the rule-followers: to follow rules is not the same thing as grasping a principle.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The history of Grammar

One might think that English grammar, even more than its lexicon, would be something that would have long been intrinsically understood, and little in need of explication or improvement. And yet, the services of a dictionary having proven valuable, that of a printed grammar seemed a logical step -- after all, Latin Grammars were vital school textbooks, and the idea that English should be more like Latin, or at least described in Latin terms, caught on widely. We owe most of our grammatical terminology -- adjective (from adiectus, "to annex a territory"), to preposition (from præ-positiones, to place before), to conjunction (coniunction, to link together) -- to this idea.

Many different authors, mostly schoolmasters writing books for their own students's use, tried their hand at it, but two in particular proved to have long-lasting influence. Robert Lowth, who enjoyed a sinecure as Bishop of London, was perhaps the most notable. Among his many contributions was the notion -- by false analogy -- that a "double negative" was an error because, in mathematics, two negatives equalled a positive. Math, alas, is not grammar, but the idea stuck and double negation is almost universally regarded as an error, never mind its long history (Chaucer, among others, even enjoyed double and even triple negation wihout any doubt as to its import). He also originated the idea that a sentence should not end with a preposition (since its Latin name indicates that it must "come before" something else) -- which, although a reasonable guideline for written texts, is common and perfectly sensible in everyday speech.

Lowth is also often blamed (though in fact it came much later) for the "rule" that to place an adverb between "to" and the main verb (as in "to boldly go") was to "split the infinitive" -- again, on the mistaken analogy with Latin. Latin, like most ancient languages, has an infinitive (or non-finite) form that is actually a distinct one for every verb -- e.g. amare, "to love" -- so it would never be "split"; although Engish uses the preposition "to" to indicate a non-finite verb, the "to" is not actually part of the verb. In the example above, the non-finite form of the verb is in fact just "go" (which in English, confusingly, is identical to the first and third person present indicative form). George Bernard Shaw, among others, has minced few words in decrying this foolish supposed "rule."

Lowth's successor, Lindley Murray, was actually an American ex-pat, born in the woods of Pennsylvania, who moved to York at the age of 39 and spent the rest of his life in England. He kept most of Lowth's prescriptive rules, though his method of instruction was somewhat gentler, and adapted -- as the title-page puts it -- "for the different classes of readers." Among his innovations was a rule that one could not apply "more" to an adjective already in the superlative form (e.g. "more worst") -- and yet he extended this to adjectives which he regarded as "innately superlative" (chief, unique, extreme, etc.), so the would be no "more perfect union" for him!

Like dictionary-writers, grammarians saw themselves as arbiters, refiners, and polishers of the language -- the more so since, as their books were used for actual instruction on a daily basis -- and in that they surely succeeded. And yet, at the same time, they have given all of us a vague sene of guilt about the possible errors of our usage, and the sense -- entirely unjustified! -- that "bad grammar" is almost a sort of sin.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Crossing the Pond

The history of American English usage marks the most recent, and in some ways the most dramatic set of changes in English since the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare.  And yet, in this change, there was no single author, no single literary or political influence to credit, or blame; like the United States itself it was a patchwork affair, arrived at by degrees and with contributions from both immigrants and indigenous peoples over a period of more than four hundred years.

There is, however, one name that is often linked to some of the key changes in spelling and usage which made American English distinctive, and it's that of Noah Webster (1758-1853). Webster was a schoolmaster who, like many such men of his time, wrote his own textbooks, with a focus on orthography -- the spelling and pronunciation of words -- as well as elements of grammar.  He used the books in his school, and sold them to others; at a time when the printing business was in its infancy, Webster's "Spellers" as they became known, soon dominated the market.  The money he earned from them enabled Webster to work on his Dictionary, on which his larger hopes and ambitions rested.  In his instruction, as in his books, Webster held that the study of Latin and Greek, admirable though it was, should not take precedence over the study of English, and that everyday American usage, not that of British aristocrats, should be the model. He once lamented that "the whispers of common sense, in favour of our native tongue, have been silenced amidst the clamour of pedantry in favour of Greek and Latin."

One may note his usage there -- clamour and favour used the older British spellings that Webster would eventually abandon, preferring clamor and favor -- but his was no overnight reform, and the changes he made took place gradually over the course of his career.  Perhaps that, along with the ubiquity of his books, helped American adapt to, and eventually adopt, his spellings. Not all of his reforms succeeded -- we still use ache instead of Webster's akesoup rather than his soop, and tongue rather than tung -- but for the most part, his changes have become permanent.  He even had some influence on British usage -- Charles Dickens, for one, tended to use the -or rather than the -our endings -- but his publishers corrected these and so the Brits (and Canadians and Australians) are stuck with with them.

American English also marked a period of renewed growth and change in our lexicon. We added words from native languages (moccasin, kayak, tomahawk), as well as from the waves of immigrants who arrived on our shores (look up brogan, schamltz, gauntlet, banana, tycoon, paprika, mammoth, or adobe for a sense of how wide the influence has been), along with all kinds of crazy coinages of our own, from shenanigans to shindig, from oink to woof, from pesky to phony, from vittles to vroom. Much like the UK, strong regional variations of English have developed, not only in terms of phonology but also lexicon and idiomatic phrases; the Dictionary of American Regional English catalogs these, and there are tens of thousands of them. Would you eat a "dropped egg"? How would you feel if you had the "mulligrubs"? And what does one do in a "chic shack?" All things considered, the American turn of English has been a wonderfully enriching one, and it ain't done yet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Shakespeare's Influence on English

To the generations immediately after his career, Shakespeare -- described by his contemporary Ben Jonson as possessing "small Latin and less Greek" -- was regarded as a sort of rustic, untutored, native genius. "Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's Child / Warbling his native Wood-notes Wild," wrote John Milton, and most readers of Shakespeare then would have agreed with the description. True, he had his sources -- Italian plays (but always cribbed via someone else's translation), Holinshead's Chronicles (the source for most the the history plays), and a ragtag of old tales and legends that would be known to any schoolchild -- but yet Shakespeare was an original in every sense.

Like Chaucer, he imported a tremendous number of new words into English, most often by picking them up from the streets of London, though also by compounding or shifting one part of speech into another. Among them are madcap, hobnob, gloomy, jaded, dauntless, amazement, savagery, birthplace, cold-blooded, knock-kneed, gnarled, and grovel -- over 1700 in all. And yet there was one thing Shakespeare almost certainly did not have -- a dictionary. English dictionaries were a newfangled thing in his day, and were not often employed, as they would be later, as reference books for daily use. Most were lists of "strange and curious" words, glossaries for use with older authors such as Chaucer, or compilations of words thought to be elegant and prestigious in form. Recently, a couple of fine fellows came upon the book known as the ALVEARIE -- a compilation of words as used in proverbial phrases in English, Latin, Greek, and French -- and ascribed its many annotations to Shakespeare, on the basis of the fact that many of these proverbial usages also appear in his plays. But this is backwards reasoning; the first question should be, how many words annotated in the book don't appear in Shakespeare? To add to that, the annotations are in an Italic hand, rather than the Elizabethan "Secretary" hand that was the only one we know Shakespeare to have used, and were made by someone familiar with French and Latin, which would exclude Shakespeare if Jonson is to be trusted.

One of the other aspects of Shakespeare's English that's less well-known is that his pronunciation was actually quite a bit more different from contemporary UK "received pronunciation" than one might think. The "r" after vowels was pronounced, but the vowels themselves were not at all "posh," but more like a rural northerly UK accent of today. Linguist David Crystal and his son Ben have a good deal of fun demonstrating why they're (with apologies to Naughty by Nature), "down with OP."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chaucer and Middle English


Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

And Chaucer's language is very close to ours -- close enough that, with a modest amount of practice, we can pronounce it and understand it reasonably well.  The main differences are that many combination of letters which are now silent, such as kn and gh, were pronounced, as was the e on the end of so many words which has since become our modern English friend "silent e." Lastly, the vowels of Chaucer's day were further back in the mouth, since the "Great Vowel Shift" which moved them forwards had not yet taken place.  Thus Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote" is pronounced as "Whahnn that ah-prill, weeth hees shooriss soat-uh" in our reconstructed Chaucerian mode.  

The other difference is mainly vocabulary -- "lexical" as linguists would say. Chaucer still used a number of words left over from older English; a "swevene" was a dream; "eke" meant "indeed" or "as well"; he used "lykned" instead of "likened," "hem" instead of "them" and "hire" instead of "their" there was no neuter possessive "its" so everything had to be "hys" or hers. Happily, there are many fewer such survivals in his verse than in that of the Gawain poet, who, living the north-west Midlands, was removed from many of the changes of London English and still used athele (noble), sithen (since), schawe (show), and lovelokkest (loveliest).

Chaucer was also on the forefront of many changes of which modern English has been the beneficiary; he introduced many words and usages from French, some in their Anglo-Norman senses, nearly all of which are still with us today: bachelor, melody, adversary, bounty, refute, vein, army, season, and devout. He borrowed a few Latin terms, though most often via their French versions, and his verse structures, such as "rhyme royal,"turned out to be particularly effective in English. 

And yet, despite his many achievements, subtle changes in English -- particularly the "Great Vowel Shift" and the falling silent of 'silent e' -- made Chaucer's verse seem less melodious and metrical to readers from Shakepeare to Dryden; it wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that philologists were able to reconstruct Chaucer's diction and restore his original English to its proper form and meter.