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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‘Answer’, a swear in plain sight

May 23, 2016

Some familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast, the vowels disguising it well. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. Semicolon is a folk etymology of samey colon, on account of its resemblance to the other mark.

geoffrey hughes - swearing a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in englishOK, I made that one up.

I read a nice account of another such etymology in Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanities in English (1991). The book packs considerable detail, scholarly insight and amusing lists into its 280 pages, so I’ll follow its lead and keep this post short.1

In a section on ‘numinous words: charms, spells and runes’, Hughes writes:

One of the most dramatic instances of the use of a malign spell in Anglo-Saxon literature is wrought by the monster Grendel [in Beowulf].2 Described as one of the evil tribe of Cain and an enemy of the Lord, he puts a spell on the weapons of his victims, the Scyldings. The key verb in the text at this point is, fascinatingly, forsworen, literally ‘forsworn’, indicating that the verb forswerian could mean ‘to hinder by swearing; to render powerless by incantation; to make useless by magic’.

Hughes goes on to relate other examples of such word-magic from the Life of St Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Then he quotes from The Battle of Maldon and picks up the -swear- thread again:

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English Dialect Dictionary Online

May 1, 2016

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

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Link love: language (66)

April 27, 2016

I haven’t done language links in a while, so I’ll share this set before it grows to an even more unwieldy size. The series is a sample of the links I share more regularly on Twitter, plus a few I haven’t. Happy reading.

Upside-down N.

A typeface made of trees.

How to make text look futuristic.

The language faculty that wasn’t.

The case for Black over African American.

A book known to the world only in translation.

Why does Britain have such bizarre place names?

Nouns that become verbs act as vivid linguistic shortcuts.

Gorillas compose happy songs that they hum during meals.

We don’t just see the world differently – we hear it differently too.

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How to pronounce ‘Celtic’

March 17, 2016

I don’t normally mark St. Patrick’s Day in any linguistic fashion, but this year I have a short article at Mental Floss about how to pronounce Celtic – is it /ˈsɛltɪk/ ‘Seltic’ or /ˈkɛltɪk/ ‘Keltic’?

Muiredach's High Cross, Monasterboice, County Louth, IrelandIn my own usage it’s both, depending on the context, but there seems to be a lot of uncertainty and debate over which is the ‘correct’ pronunciation. So I hope my article goes some way towards resolving the matter. Here’s a excerpt:

Celtic pronounced “Keltic” is an outlier in English phonology. Nearly every other English word beginning ce- has a soft-c sound: cedar, ceiling, cell, cement, cent, cereal, certain, cesspit, and so on (cello, with its “ch-” onset, is another anomaly). So it shouldn’t surprise us that “Seltic” was once overwhelmingly the norm. The now-dominant pronunciation “Keltic” is a modern innovation.

You can read the rest at Mental Floss, and feel free to leave a comment either there or below.

[photo by Adriao]

The history of English spelling reform

February 8, 2016

After the recent fuss about France dropping its circumflex (or not), I was approached by History Today to write something about spelling reform. My article, A brief history of English spelling reform, was published today.

In it I outline the various attempts made over the centuries to fix the knotty problems of English spelling – who tried, what they did and why, and how their efforts fared – while making quick forays into German and Old Icelandic and concluding with some general thoughts.

Here’s a taster:

Reports of the circumflex’s death are exaggerated, but they point to the intensity of feeling aroused by orthography – how personally we relate to something with so arbitrary a connection to meaning. Usage dictionaries reveal age-old disputes that erupt anew every day. Some of the most passionate are over spelling, which, as H.G. Wells wrote, has ‘become mixed up with moral feeling’. . . .

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Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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