Otto Jespersen on language: ‘Everything is dynamic’

May 26, 2016

Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen appeared almost a century ago, in 1922. It has inevitably dated in some respects – e.g., occasional sexism and ethnocentrism – but in linguistic outlook it feels for the most part thoroughly modern, compared with some commentary on language change and grammar even today.

In March I read the elegant hardback copy (Unwin Brothers, 1959) of Language I picked up in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last year. A few excerpts follow, more or less in the order they appear in the book.

The first four chapters, comprising Book I, offer an illuminating history of linguistics as a science. They also feature this eloquent diversion on ‘correctness’:

The normative way of viewing language is fraught with some great dangers which can only be avoided through a comprehensive knowledge of the historic development of languages and of the general conditions of linguistic psychology. Otherwise, the tendency everywhere is to draw too narrow limits for what is allowable or correct. In many cases one form, or one construction, only is recognized, even where two or more are found in actual speech; the question which is to be selected as the only good form comes to be decided too often by individual fancy or predilection, where no scientific tests can yet be applied, and thus a form may often be proscribed which from a less narrow point of view might have appeared just as good as, or even better than, the one preferred in the official grammar or dictionary. In other instances, where two forms were recognized, the grammarian wanted to give rules for their discrimination, and sometimes on the basis of a totally inadequate induction he would establish nice distinctions not really warranted by actual usage – distinctions which subsequent generations had to learn at school with the sweat of their brows and which were often considered most important in spite of their intrinsic insignificance.

If you haven’t read Jespersen, the passage gives a fair sense of his style: formal in a lightly scholarly way, but infused with lively vernacular (‘the sweat of their brows’) and altogether accessible. He writes long sentences that build to long paragraphs, but his care for logic means the complexity is noticed chiefly in its appreciation; he has a talent too for the pithy phrase.

Discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jespersen zeroes in on the fundamental dynamism of language, and the related fact that speech is primary:

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Australian clippings in Peter Temple’s ‘Truth’

February 5, 2015

Australian English has a famous tendency to abbreviate words, doing so frequently and in a variety of ways. Clipping comes first, then the stump may be suffixed with an –er, –o, -s, -ie or –y, etc. This can and does occur in any form of English, but Australians seem to have taken diminutives furthest: it’s an unmistakable feature of the dialect.

Peter Temple - Truth - Quercus book coverPeter Temple’s Truth is an Australian crime novel with an abundance of such terms, and as I read it I decided to note some of them. The book, incidentally, is outstanding: the generic phrase crime novel utterly fails to capture this eloquent and ambitious morality tale. Anyway: to begin with -o forms. Truth offers several, usually in dialogue:

‘…get someone to take down every rego in the parking garage’ (registration, i.e., car number plate)

‘…years ago, you rings the cops, the ambos, they come.’ (ambulances ambulance paramedics)

‘If my old man had been a garbo, I’d be labouring on a building site.’ (garbage collector)

‘And have the Salvos take a walk around there,’ said Villani. (Salvation Army)

‘Told you at the servo then, you don’t fucken listen.’ (service station, i.e., gas station or petrol station)

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‘Ledgebag’ is totes amaze

January 19, 2012

‘Are you leaving your curlers in, Dot, till it starts?’ Eithne Duggan asked her friend.
‘Oh def.,’ Doris O’Beirne said. She wore an assortment of curlers — white pipe-cleaners, metal clips, and pink, plastic rollers. Eithne had just taken hers out and her hair, dyed blonde, stood out, all frizzed and alarming. She reminded Mary of a moulting hen about to attempt flight.

This passage appears in Edna O’Brien’s Irish Revel, from her short story collection The Love Object (1968). I like her list of curlers and the unsparing description of Eithne’s hair, but I’m quoting it here because it contains a curious abbreviation — def. for definitely — that I don’t remember seeing in written dialogue before.

Nowadays, definitely is often abbreviated as defo by teens and 20-/30-somethings. My younger sister has introduced me to several novel clippings she and her peers use, and which are an ongoing source of familial amusement and interest. Some of what follows I owe to her; others I came across elsewhere. Some are old, some new.

Besides defo there is hilar (hilarious), wev(s) (whatever), obvs and obvo (obviously), morto (mortifying), fabbo (fabulous), abso (absolutely), natch (naturally), /kaʒ/ (casual), dodge (dodgy), and tradge (tragic) — which through semantic inflation can be used to refer to pretty much anything mildly regrettable. The exaggeration is often deliberate, and lends the utterance an ironic or tongue-in-cheek quality.

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