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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The sense of things improper

May 20, 2013

Alison Dye’s novel The Sense of Things (1994) has a conversation between the narrator, Joanie, and her friend-to-be, Jesus, in which Jesus nervously corrects himself twice in an effort to speak more properly.

Joanie has gone to Jesus to order new flooring for the shop she works in, and Jesus is explaining the sheet approach to her:

‘Installation is slightly easier with the sheeting and therefore cuts down on your labour costs. We would unroll it and cut as we go, from the wall out. However, with a sheet you are stuck with the one colour or print except for the borders which you can be a little creative with, if you like. I mean, with which.’ He coughed.

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Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors

April 4, 2011

Since my last report on activities at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve written several articles there about words and language. Time for a quick recap. March was the website’s month of sporting English. Coming from a family of sports enthusiasts (and having played a lot myself), I enjoyed exploring various aspects of sporting lingo.

In Be a sport about clichés, I take issue with Edwin Newman’s lament that there is “no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English”, and I offer a partial defence of clichés and sports commentary in general:

When the umpteenth soccer pundit (typically a former player) tells us it’s a “game of two halves”, we might sigh wearily, grudgingly acknowledge the validity of this tired truism, or idly wish there were a fresh way of saying it, or more ways of not saying it at all.

Perhaps even more reviled is “at the end of the day”. This throwaway idiom is also popular with politicians – Irish ones, anyway – and means something between “ultimately” and nothing whatsoever. Its versatility and existential vagueness might be partly why it’s so commonly used: novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has defended it as “very deep” and “very close to reflecting the human condition”.

Next up is an article about the word goal: I briefly explore its origins and semantics, and I recall my childhood confusion over the meaning of hat trick, born of my inability to sensibly interpret a frame of the comic strip Billy’s Boots.

Stepping temporarily into a different field of play, I address the matter of linguistic register and “code switching”, especially in the interactions of students and professors. Is it appropriate, I wonder, to begin a semi-formal email with the words “Hey Professor”?

There’s a lot going on in and around a word. This is shown clearly in the image below, which is a slide from Michael Rundell’s presentation on language technology and lexicography:

Using the word word as an example, in the post In a word I take a closer look at the fuzzy edges and multiple possibilities of a word, showing how in many cases

word doesn’t mean “a word” so much as a number of words that convey a certain kind of message. This is an example of metonymy, where a word or phrase is used to refer to something with which it has a close semantic relationship – to transfer a concept to an adjacent domain, as linguist Guy Deutscher put it (metaphor involves transfer to a distant domain). Along the same lines, we sometimes use tongue as a metonym for speech and language.

These sorts of metaphors are so commonplace, they are likely to pass us by unless we foster the habit of noticing them. On Twitter recently I posted a link to an article on metaphor by Diane Nicholls, called “What we talk about when we talk about words and language”. It generated a lot of interest, and it’s easy to see why.

Back to the sporting series. Blunt as a bag of wet mice is my post about the very original commentating style of Ray Hudson. Such is his passion for soccer, he often forgoes balance and calm for an excited flood of superlatives and strange similes, producing such quotable gems as “happy as a banjo player” and “like a big werewolf with a plate of liver in front of it”.

Appropriately enough, April is the month of metaphorical English at Macmillan. Sports and metaphors make a good team, but why do some sports generate more metaphors than others? Does it have more to do with class than popularity? This page conveniently gathers articles and resources on metaphor; I’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks, and all my archived articles are available here.