Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Secret Science Club North Lecture Recap: The Journey of a Word

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for the latest Secret Science Club North lecture featuring linguist and pundit Dr John McWhorter of Columbia University. Dr McWhorter's new book is Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally).

Dr McWhorter began his lecture with a quick overview of the processes by which languages change. New words are needed for new things, foreign words are adopted into a language, and slang and idioms are adopted. Dr McWhorter stressed that, even in the hypothetical case of a society trapped in a cave for a thousand years, the language of this isolated society would change over time. A dictionary page is merely a snapshot of a particular language at a particular time.

Dr McWhorter offered us the example of the word 'silly', which originally meant 'blessed'. Over time, meaning of the word silly changed, with the word becoming a synonym for innocent, then harmless, then weak, then slow on the uptake, until it finally arrived at its current meaning of 'goofy'. Originally, the word 'wort' meant a plant used as food (as an aside, I have to note that this sense of the word remains in plant names such as butterwort),but has been supplanted by the word 'vegetable'. Similarly, the word 'meat' meant 'food'.

To illustrate the change of language over time, Dr McWhorter cited the difficulty in understanding Shakespearean English while attending a play... while reading, one can use reference works to improve one's comprehension. He quoted a bit from Act 1, Scene 2 of King Lear:

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue?

In this passage, the word generous is better understood as meaning 'honest' rather than having the same meaning it has in modern English. Words evolve over time. Dr McWhorter followed this up with a passage from Act 1, Scene 7 of Macbeth:

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

In this case, 'faculties' has the meaning of the modern word 'authority', 'clear' means 'pure', and 'taking-off' would best be expressed by 'knocking-off'. Dr McWhorter then 'adjusted' Shakespeare to modern English:

Besides, this Duncan
Has borne his authority so meekly, has been
So pure in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his knocking-off

One major factor in language change is the evolution of words' implications and overtones as well as changes in meaning. Regarding 'proper' language, Dr McWhorter had some choice words- logically, no community of speakers can use a word the wrong way. The meaning of a word has to change if failure to change interferes with clarity of communication. Language change is a communal thing- one individual cannot change a language.

Dr McWhorter coined the acronym FACE to describe the characteristics of a language: Factuality, Acknowledgment, Counterexpectations, and Easing. In the case of factuality, the word 'really' is often used to show sincerity... he also cited the use of 'believe me' by a well-known politician for similar purposes. In the case of 'literally', the word originally meant 'by the letter', but has transformed into an intensifier. The current use of the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively', which has annoyed many members of the self-appointed language police, first appeared in the Frances Brooke's novel The History of Emily Montague:

"He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies."

The novel was published in 1769. Literally has now joined the illustrious ranks of contronyms, words which have two meanings which are the opposite of each other, such as fast, bolt, bound, seed, splice, and dust. Dr McWhorter joked that the current use of literally is no great crime.

Regarding acknowledgment, Dr McWhorter cited the phrase 'you know' as a prime example, then noted that said phrase is also older than most people realize, with Chaucer using the equivalent 'thou woost' in The Canterbury Tales. Dr McWhorter recalled speaking with a centenarian, and asked him, "What did flappers say to annoy you?" The one-hundred and five year-old responded "You know."

Counterexpectation was my particular favorite characteristic- Dr McWhorter cited the use of -ass as a suffix, using such examples as 'a big-ass pot' or 'a long-ass opera'.

Easing is the equivalent of using meaningless chuckling during a conversation in order to keep it light- in the case of text messaging, the use of LOL accomplishes the same function. The development of emojis allows the 'humanization' of text messaging.

Dr McWhorter then spoke about the changing meanings of words that are usually used as auxiliary verbs- 'can' originally meant 'know', a definition which is reflected in the modern words 'canny' and 'cunning'. 'Ought' originally meant 'owed'. The suffix '-ly' is a contraction of 'like', a word which originally meant 'body' (as an aside, I have to note that Clark Ashton Smith's beloved word 'lich' is a holdover of this)... in the case of a word such as slowly, the original form would have been 'slow-like'. As a hypothetical case of contraction, Dr McWhorter noted that 'let us go' has been contracted to 'let's go' and postulated that a future Martian linguist would record it as 'tsgo'. In the case of past tenses, a proto-germanic term like 'walk-did' would become contracted to our 'walked'. He then engaged in another bit of speculation about the use of 'I'm all' as a verb form giving rise to a new irregular verb- 'I maw', 'you raw', 'he zaw'. After joking about how Spanish speakers are proud of such irregular verbs as 'tener', he quipped that misunderstandings can become standard.

The topic then shifted to vowel shift... sounds just change over time. Dr McWhorter told us to forget about the whole 'A,E,I,O,U (sometimes Y)' thing and showed us a chart of vowel sounds related to their position in the mouth. He used the consonants B and T in combination with the vowel sounds:

Front of mouth beat bit but boot Back of mouth

bat bet bought boat


Vowels move around the mouth. Recently, starting in California, the 'bit' sound is starting to shift towards 'bet'. When vowels move, they push each other around, so 'bet' is starting to shift towards 'bat'. Women are at the forefront of language change. Another vowel shift that is now occurring is a shift from 'awww' to 'ahhh' when a younger English speaker sees something cute. Dr McWhorter then treated us to a pronunciation guide from the early 20th century, with such preferred pronunciations as com-PEN-sate, ce-LIB-a-cy, bal-CON-y, pre-CED-ence, and ca-NINE. He also talked about backshifts in pronunciation to form verbs from nouns- rebel, outlaw, and record being examples. We now have about one-hundred years worth of recorded speech, so we can hear that a 1950's speaker would say superMARKET, and the cast of the Mary Tyler Moore show would say Chinese FOOD in 1972.

Dr McWhorter then touched upon compound words, jokingly referring to the combination of two words as 'word sex'. Such words as 'bluebird' and 'blackboard' would originally have taken the forms 'blue bird' and 'black board', but then became applied to specific things. The Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is distinct from a blue bird from Papua New Guinea, and the black boards of the Symphony Space stage are not blackboards, which are often green or white. There are also compound words which are only recognizable as such if someone informs you of their origin- 'daisy' is a contracted form of 'day's eye', 'sheriff' was originally 'shire reeve', and 'hussy' is a contraction of 'housewife'. In even more cryptic cases, compound words reflect a combination of words which are no longer used in modern English- the root of the word 'barn' is a combination of words meaning 'barley' and 'house'. The word 'world' is a contraction of 'were', meaning man, and 'eld', meaning 'age'.

The topic then shifted to the word 'like', which can (to the dismay of many on the left) perform all of the FACE functions: factuality, acknowledgment, contraexpectation, and easing. 'Like' can perform adverbially, in such structures as 'slow-like', and can take on grammatical functions 'she was like...'

In conclusion, Dr McWhorter reiterated that print serves as a Polaroid snapshot. A word is not something that is, it is something that is going on... words are processes.

The lecture was followed up by a brief Q&A session. The best question regarded the use of profanity in modern speech- is profanity playing a bigger role in current English? Without missing a beat, Dr McWhorter quipped, "Abso-fucking-lutely". This was followed up by an entertaining discourse on cuss words, with the erudite and genteel doctor contrasting such place names as 'Phila-fucking-delphia' and 'Cinci-fucking-nati' with 'Fucking LA' and 'fucking New Jersey'. He noted that scatalogical and blasphemous terms are not typically considered vulgar nowadays, while terms that attack the identity of individuals- the 'N' word and the 6-letter 'F' word are. He noted that he is not going to bother telling his daughter that 'shit' is a bad word because he doesn't want her to experience a disconnect when she is older and everyone around her is saying it. Eegarding a question about texting, Dr McWhorter emphasized that texting shouldn't be considered writing per se, but speech using the mechanics of writing.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr McWhorter, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the scintillating Symphony Space. After the lecture, I asked Dr McWhorter about vocal fry, which was briefly the bugbear of the language police about five months ago. He noted that, like most linguistic change, it was initiated by women, and that it crept from California speak to the airwaves of NPR. He covered vocal fry and the role that women play in the evolution of language in this article. He kindly referred me to his Lexicon Valley podcast for additional linguistic topics.

Here is a video of a TED talk by Dr McWhorter, addressing texting:

Pour yourself a libation and soak in some science.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

What an interesting lecture.

Give the language scolds something to ponder.

OBS said...

Originally, the word 'wort' meant a plant used as food

Aside: "wort" is also the sugary liquid (extracted from the "mash" of malted barley and/or other grains and water) that is boiled with hops to eventually turn into beer after fermentation.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Give the language scolds something to ponder.

I used to be a grammar fascist, but I think I need to relent a bit.

Aside: "wort" is also the sugary liquid (extracted from the "mash" of malted barley and/or other grains and water) that is boiled with hops to eventually turn into beer after fermentation.

Oh, yeah, but it used to have a much, much more general meaning.

I also forgot to mention that 'loaf'originally meant 'bread'.