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December 4, 2011
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I s'pose that the -ize/-ise disparity is ultimately the same argument about whether we want to go all the way back to the Latin (or here even the Ancient Greek) or take the Anglo-Norman or Old French spelling. When all of these differences in spelling began to be homogenized in the eighteenth-century there seems to have been no real rhyme or reason to much of it on either side of the Atlantic but there is some history to certain conventions. I'm not advocating a resurrection of variants like 'governour' or 'errour'. There's a reason for all of these forms to exist or not exist but in the Internet Age it seems like some of it could be codified.
I've been living in the United Kingdom long enough to know how these things go. Mostly they have no clue what they're talking about. Sometimes I just want to be able to say 'sidewalk' with impunity while other times we all have a good laugh that the Yank said 'pants' when he meant 'trousers' and no one cares. I do wish the Americans would just switch over to the date convention the rest of the world uses and make it easier for everyone. I make a point of writing the date with the name of the month written out and the day-month-year order (26 February, 2013, for example) when I can to avoid confusion.
I know that spelling usually doesn't impede understanding but, then again, not many proper usage rules protect comprehension either. People want to be understand so they usually make an effort to avoid ambiguity. As French evolved and certain changes occurred others like liaison compensated for ambiguity. Liaison rules weren't set down they evolved naturally. At least in spoken language this is true; often written language can be frustratingly ambiguous with things like antecedents. A lot of the differences among dialects just have to be understood as part of tapestry of linguistic diversity. But the reasoning behind some of these things just looks wrong. As you say, even as a non-prescriptivist, you take issue with things like group nouns in American English. It'd be nice if we could come to a consensus on some of the unnecessary differences at least as the gold standard in formal writing. As unimportant as it may be, I'd like to see 'colour' in the States and 'harbor' in the Commonwealth. Oxford spelling nicely favours 'synthesize' but it doesn't seem to have gained currency in the rest of the United Kingdom and my compatriots extend the pattern to 'analyze' quite wrongly. It really isn't much of a cause for complaint but when one is writing transatlantically a fair amount and always thinking about what to write and why to write it that way, it begins to seem important.
Right, you need to pick and choose whose advice you heed. I hold none of these usage bibles sacred. I think here they're being somewhat fair but I see some of these rules more as guidelines and others completely unfounded and nonsensical. As from any religious text I can glean a lot of reasonable moral advice and a lot more mythology. Many of these rules rooted in erudition rather than tradition, books rather than speech, are absurd. I agree with you for the most part but don't share your complete disdain for prescriptivism. I don't want to tell people how to talk but I do have my own opinions on what is correct when 'experts' have set rules that I disagree with on historical or etymological grounds. I suppose it's more the prescriptivists that get my goat. As you say, some of their laws are nonsense. So who's correct? If there are to be rules, and I think there should be some things we can agree on for formal writing and teaching, they should have some kind of correlation with the spoken language or some historical reason for existing.
If I had a nickel for every time a British English-speaker has told me that the way I speak or write is incorrect, I'd have a nice nest egg by now. Spelling is one of the big ones. I can see the etymological justification for Norman words like 'favour', 'colour', and 'labour' but also for 'harbor' and 'neighbor'. There's a similar argument for -ize/-ise. A lot of these accepted usage laws have the same kind of flimsy defence but we're told we're wrong when we disobey them. I know that this probably belongs in a different forum but discussing prescriptivism like this begs that question: whose Rx are we taking?
That's about right. I was under the impression that this was no more than an amusing exercise in etymology or some kind of language construction game. There is very little serious style and usage talk here. I don't see any practical application beyond something akin to the old Strunk & White commandment, V.14: "Avoid fancy words". There's not reason 'ameliorate' when you can 'improve'. They're both Latin-rooted but one often smacks of awkward pretentiousness. Each has its uses depending on whether you're speaking formally, dysphemistically, quaintly, or however. Strunk and White go on to write:
"Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one's ear must be one's guide: 'gut' is lustier than 'intestine', but the two words are not interchangeable, because 'gut' is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context. Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason. If you admire fancy words, if every sky is 'beauteous', every blonde 'curvaceous', if you are tickled by 'discombobulate', you will have a bad time with Reminder 14. What is wrong, you ask, with 'beauteous'? No one knows, for sure. There is nothing wrong, really, with any word--all are good, but some are better than others. A matter of ear, a matter of reading the books that sharpen the ear."
I think that's pretty fair. A bit dated maybe. I knew I'd read that 'gut/intestine' example somewhere. The only thing I advise or hope beyond that is that speakers keep a closeness or an affinity for the language they speak, its heritage and richness, and a respect for the regional speech that keeps language close to home. I'm not advocating that we lose any of it, if it's good, useful language. Where I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts my family called a refrigerator an icebox long after refrigerators ousted iceboxes and I always preferred the sound of it. Hell, 'box' is a Latin word but it's a much more colourful than 'refrigerator'. But I don't think I'll be trying to call a sickwagon to take me to the sickhouse anytime soon. This is a fool's errand. I mean, 'cheese' is a much more English-sounding word than 'etiquette' but 'cheese' is a Latin-rooted word and 'etiquette' is Germanic, related to Old English 'stician'. It's a wild goose chase through the pages of the OED. When you get back to the Frankish and the Old High German and the Old French, the etymology becomes so incestuous it's hard to make heads or tails of what's what anyway.
Most of these old Norman words sound more quintessentially English than anything else. All this talk about Anglo-Saxonness and people forget that what makes English special is that it's British. Where I live in Glasgow it seems that nothing is more native to the Western Lowlands than Scots but, despite its heavy Norse vocabulary, it's all Norman-riddled Middle English to its core. At that point, why don't we all just speak Pictish?
I can understand both sides. It seems that the 'think' argument has history on its side. Does this make it right? Maybe. But then rightfully 'ache' should be 'ake' and 'island' should be 'iland'. Growing up hearing 'thing', I'm ashamed to say that I never questioned it. As I understood it, the meaning fell alongside the dozens of other expressions whose literal meaning had been somewhat lost. Or maybe, as Geoffthing and Traduttore were saying, I understood 'thing' to refer to some kind of secondary reckoning. But this is how language develops. Around the time 'napron' became 'apron' were the older folks arguing that for their side on similar grounds? For me the evolution of things like this and the etymological changes that shape a language have a sort of ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny kind of relationship.
*". . . a conversation wherein after . . ."
It must be getting late . . .
That reminds me of a conversation I overheard in a pub in Fife after every few words the speaker would interject 'ye ken'. It's great, that.
Haha, sorry about the Third Reich reference, Gallitrot. I didn't mean it to be too nasty. I suppose it comes with the territory of discussing the preservation of Teutonic linguistic purity. I certainly didn't mean to imply that anyone here has any devilish intentions.
There is certainly something exquisitely visceral about words that have a deeply-rooted connection with the language. Native English words have a richness that Latin loanwords will never have. And often it's unnecessary, insipid, and haughty to favour a long Latin-rooted word when a simple English one would do. I think people should take pride in the words they're using and there's nothing better than having an understanding of and using this kind of heritage language. Anything to keep the spark alive. I like the word 'guts' much better than the word 'intestines'. I like 'wickedness' much more than 'turpitude'. What I bemoan is the sterilisation of language with listless contemporary coinages. English is great partly we have the choice to use more evocative language or more sterile language depending on the circumstances. English has a long and wonderful evolution. Let's not forget that 'haughty' has its roots in Latin 'altus' but everything about the word shows how all kinds of factors have contributed to the building of our vocabulary. But nowadays so much of it is being lost across the board and it's a pity that none of it is studied or remembered. I imagine that this is the way so many English words went and I hope that we don't continue to lose more of the language to sterilisation. At this point I become something of a prescriptivist. It annoys me to hear people talking to me in such broken-down language. Someone told me that a night out was 'ridiculous'. What the hell was he talking about? Why can't people speak and explain things these days instead of using these trite, flat, colourless words? Few would shrug and let Roman ruins go to pot simply because that's the natural evolution of building materials. I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to preserve language. It certainly isn't questioned with endangered languages.
It's terrible that regional speech has been so extinguished. Having that strong connection with language as regions do with their own slang is beautiful. Certainly the teaching of Standard English is necessary for society to have some kind of lingua franca in which communicate but it does kill out a lot of local linguistic charm. That Lallans Scots is great. Sadly fewer and fewer folks are speaking this way with the influence of internationality. I've got a Scots dictionary on my shelf and I love it.
Everyone has the freedom to talk however he or she wants in the end. At least most of the time that's true. I don't think anyone here is advocating a practical overthrow of prevailing linguistic conventions in English such that words like 'university' or 'hospital' or 'government' would no longer be used. I don't think that even needs to be said. But everyone has his or her own thoughts on this business. I think a lot of it is fantasy and if we can't have fantasy why have anything? But some folks have real grievances with regard to usage and, fair enough, voice them here.
For me, this is just an exercise in etymology and an appreciation for lost vocabularies. I have no intention to impose some kind of Goebbelsian prescriptive recasting of the language in line with linguistic purity. I like playing around with language and I like Old and Middle English. I agree with Warsaw Will in this but am perhaps a bit more wistful.
Linguistic prescriptivism is a tricky game. As with most things, it's best in moderation. The Icelanders seemed to have done all right with it from the beginning but the inexorable spread of popular culture has leaked in a few new words. I don't really have anything against that. 'Les immortels' over at the Académie française are fighting a ridiculous war trying to keep words like 'le weekend' out of common parlance. Dozens of rules were invented in English in the nineteenth century like those governing prepositions at the end of sentences and split infinities--both demonstrably and history fine in English but invented and imposed by academics modelling English on French. This annoys me a bit but I understand that these things are part of the history of the language. But sitting on the bus a few days ago and listening to some kids talking I remarked how bland their vocabulary was. This has nothing to do with education--I assumed that they were university students. Or a couple not speaking to each other at all but each of them looking at his or her mobile. Again, I don't really care. To each his own. Languages evolve. It seems sometimes that popular culture is having the same strong affect on language as French or Latin-language culture did in the Middle Ages. But nowadays it's not the writings of Thomas Aquinas or Boethius that are influencing the language. I understand the vast importance that Latin and French had on the history of the English language culturally and linguistically. It's not regret but celebration. I have no desire in stripping every word with roots in Nahuatl or Hindi or Xhosa or Cantonese or whatever from the language. I don't want to tell people how to talk. But sitting in a pub in the Gorbals and listening to some old-timer talking with such colourful language makes me think about nature of linguistic progress at the hands of contemporary culture.
I meant to write, "the beauty of a language is NOT measured by how many words it has in its vocabulary." Sorry.
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