Friday, January 07, 2022

Language Change, Especially Verbing

As with most of my language posts over the last two years, there is a good deal of John McWhorter - book, magazine, podcast - woven in and out. 

Language change is continually deplored and has been for centuries. It is not only the old who object, as children are often conservative about what they know and are sure the rules are. But if you are older, inexorable language change has gone on longer. There is more change since you were five years old than since your grandchildren were. Jonathan Swift was brilliant - can we stipulate that he was one of the smartest people ever? Yet he objected to the saving of syllables by saying fledg'd or disturb'd as we would today rather than the full fledgED or disturbED. We say both bless'd and blesssED because the older form has been preserved in saint's names, liturgy, and music. Swift was also one of the motive forces behind insisting we apply mathematical rules to language and not have a double negative - though no other language cares about that. It's  just one more fussiness of a person saying, well, technically, now that I look at it, we should all change what we have been doing for centuries because I think you are all wrong. If you haven't got nothing, then it means you've got something. Right? Right? See what I mean there? No, look.  If you haven't got nothing...Let's call that settled then. Good writers had always used double negatives in English, because that's how English works. New rules were applied for little reason later.

Robert Lowth, to whom we owe many of our entirely arbitrary rules of usage and grammar that bedevil us to this day, wrote in the late 18th C that chicken was the plural of chick, similar to oxen, and needed no final s. It was Lowth who codified the insistence that we should not end a sentence with a preposition (a rule from Latin), and insisting on whom in cases even the fussiest of us now would consider unnecessary.*

It pays to keep in mind that a language is really what is spoken, not written.  Writing is this oddity that is tacked on and is an approximation of the language. It tends to freeze things artificially. (Especially when it is a dead language like Greek, Latin, Sanskrit.) That isn't without some benefit, of being able to more clearly understand our forebears, at least for a while. But we who think of our language as equally or even primarily written are almost entirely western European. No one else in the world looks at their languages that way, and even in our countries, it ain't everyone. Son #4 is fluent in Romanian, English, and Norwegian, and doesn't read much in any of them.

But...those were people from long ago.  That doesn't count, does it? (KJV only people, note your contradictions here.  One way or the other...) So on to Robert Grant White, another respected authority in his time, writing in 1872 - uncomfortably close to the time that my elementary school teachers were trained in the rules they insisted to me were eternal.  And it's going to get worse from here.  White didn't like standpoint, washtub, shoehorn, brewhouse, rainbow.  

Granting for a moment that standpoint may be accepted as a point at which one stands, what we really mean is 'from our point of view' and we should say so...By no contrivance can we explain standpoint as the point of, or to, or for standing.

Let me jump forward in time to Jacques Barzun, a more modern thinker and author of the magisterial From Dawn to Decadence (2000), the summation of his enormous scholarship.  I will jump back to midcentury in a bit. Barzun knew everything. I can't imagine contradicting him on the smallest point for fear he would have so thoroughly drowned me, however gentle he was. And yet...he disapproved strongly of the words evaluate, implement, directive, finalize, and cheeseburger. In the 1950s in Atlantic Monthly. At what point to we tell even brilliant people to just get over it?  Real languages aren't like Latin and Classical Greek. Those are just curiosities now, the fascination with them understandable at the time but now purely cultural declarations, not intellectual ones.  Real languages change.  Every year. 

So now on to a couple of sacred cows. Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and the King James, or Authorized translation of the Bible.  Here we go.

"Strunk and White" was beloved but is now obsolete. Many things it recommends against are now indisputably part of the language and correct despite them.  And we don't mind. I think conservatism in language is useful in that it helps us understand past writing better and thus have access to perspectives that are not our own. This works best with the last 300 years or so.  After that too many things start dropping out that we think we know. In Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible Mark Ward notes that in such verses as "Abstain from appearance of evil" (1 Thess 5:22) it does not mean "even what things look like," which is what I have always understood, but every instance of evil. Which, now that I look at it, was the older meaning of appearance - "happening, presence, instatiating itself" like the ghost of Hamlet's father, not "impression." Or also, Psalm 37:8 "Fret not thyself in any wise to do evil." We get some sense of not putting effort or energy into doing evil, but the two halves don't connect well. I'll come back to the KJV. 

We love EB White because he wrote Charlotte's Web (I directed a production in college) and some of his essays from the New Yorker, back in the days when one could write for them while being a gentleman farmer in rural Maine, are still remembered. He is outside out current categories**, so we can hardly bring ourselves to dislike him even when he is wrong. I was assigned him in college and took to him greatly. His One Man's Meat included much that was from The Elements of Style. I imitated him.  I saw at once what he was driving at and why he had liked his professor Strunk at Cornell. After misunderstanding in Introductory Linguistics what transformational grammar and similar concepts about cognition (not style) meant, I craved that certainty. Modern critics complain that White and Strunk were bossy and prescriptive with no particular foundation to their preferences other than the personal.  Reading it now, I see the critics are right. The Elements of Style was assigned at all the St Grottlesex prep schools and the better colleges 1970-2000. But it's still just wrong in so many places. Not entirely useless.  Just not enough.  If you are giving a gift to a student, I recommend Steven Pinker's A Sense of Style instead.

They didn't like view, silence, copy, and worship being made into verbs. They thought such usages should not be allowed in the better publications and marked down on college compositions. This was only 60 years ago. Objections to verbing, making nouns into verbs, was a common complaint when the word modern first became a compliment. Verbing is a practice that has come in for particular disapproval over the last century and more. People can give you lists of offenses they think obvious.  I will come back to this.

Strunk and White are not just fussy about pronouns, they are insistent enough on old Latin rules about agreement as to create infelicitous expressions.  Quai substantivo et adjectivum concordat in generi,numerum et casus, eh? I learned to say "It is I," because I was told it was the only correct usage. But even I use it with a hint of self-mockery. If you knock on the door or call on the phone, saying "It's me" is not only allowable, it is more correct, because that is what English speakers use naturally. Trying to yank out some archaic phrasing based on a false application of Latin to English and sniffing about that. Ridiculous.  "Officer, the person who beat up that little girl was he?" Really? No. Native English speakers say "him" and it sounds right.  Pronouns are a mess in most languages because they are used so frequently and variously that they get bent out of shape. Creating insecurity about what to use has encouraged people to turn good usages into bad ones. They get so worried about slipping and saying "Amy and me are having people over" that they overcompensate and say "They came over to see Amy and I." 

They think that words that are technically closer to a meaning are always preferable, such as ignorance and failure. They thought that because "failure" was the noun it should be preferred as more precise than "failed." The connotations were irrelevant to them.  But all of us would rather say that we have failed rather than that we are a failure.  The connotation is absolutely part of the word. They would insist that ignorance merely meant not knowing something, with no value judgement attached. That everyone does attach a value judgement to someone being called ignorant was of little importance to them. They had an odd insistence on what the word "really means." 

I will touch on their "shall" and "will" only briefly. They go through the old Shall in the first person singular, will in the second and third persons. Which no one uses now, and almost no one did them. When you have those sorts of interrupted constructions, real people on the ground just run right over that. Their other thought, which they want to enforce, is that shall is "belief" and will is "determination"  and so the swimmer's "I shall drown, no one shall save me" versus the suicide's "I will drown, no one will save me." Umm, sure. Let me know how that goes. It follows neither what lawyers have come to insist on in contract law, nor common usage (and don't get me started on that one), nor a recognition that British usage is rather opposite. Drop it.

Back to verbing. I can recall people telling me - and certainly reading in the language usage columns that were once popular - that it just isn't correct to say that someone chairs a meeting, or structures a deal.  A good deal of sputtering is involved. "Impact a situation?  What does that even mean! Hmpf." I recall snickering to co-workers about a psychologist I had spoken to in 1980 saying time was short and he wanted to dialogue with me in another space. It still seems artificial to me (BTW, artificial has changed in meaning since the 17th C), but not so strongly now.  We get used to things with hearing. What would be the objection to using download and fax as verbs? What better choice are you offering?  This is what English has done for centuries. More at the verbing link above.

Richard Lederer deplored it recently, but notice the verbs in the quote.

"We ought to accept new words that add color or vigor, but let's short-shrift the ones that don't. We'd like to guilt some writers and speakers into the habit of using words better instead of creating mutants the language doesn't need," (Lederer and Downs 1995). 
Use is intertwined in very deep origins as noun and verb, guilt is a new verb based on a noun; BTW, give more likely came from gift than the other way around; short shrift, which was a noun is now okay as a verb, Richard? and create has been long reversed and made into a noun creation. (It's one of the lessons we have to continually learn about correcting other people's language is that it seems to increase the number of examples of ourselves offending in the same way.)  "Snow" is a verb,  "rain" and  "milk" are just nouns made into verbs centuries ago. It can be nuanced, in that we don't say the weather is fogging, but we will say something fogs up our glasses. The word is windy, not winding. Turning a noun into a verb can mean putting in or on (water, carpet) or taking them out or off, (seed, skin). We've done this for centuries, and it is one of the things that makes English what it is.  Other Germanic languages do this also, but not as much as we do (I hear.  I don't know myself). We used to assemble them with prefixes - friend on Facebook now, but befriend in earlier centuries.  Bedeviled. Be-anything, really. (Though be-something can also make a verb into an adjective, as in bespeak/bespoke "spoken for in advance, custom-made.") We know how to do this automatically and don't hesitate at need, though we often reserve initial cases for light or humorous writing

The cows are almost mooing, turtledoves are cooing, which is why a Pooh is poohing in the sun. 

BTW language change on that word pooh is so entire as to require explanation to read it to small British children now, or they will just giggle at every mention.

Pinker estimates that as many as one-fifth of English verbs were originally nouns.

There’s only so much you can do to champion denominalization or to choke it, but in the end, it’s a democratic process: If a neologism appeals to you, promote it by using it. If it appalls you, demote it by eschewing it. Not every grating verbification will last, and if one that particularly annoys you goes extinct, you can take partial credit because it has always been absent from your writing.  Mark Nichol

That's about my view on all language change.  If you don't like it, discourage it by starving the beast and not using it. Deploring is not a strategy.

On to the KJV. There are side arguments about text and history which I have been dragged into in past decades but will stay away from here.  The complaint now is about understanding what is being said. "Abstain from all appearance of evil."Above.  I have seen that used many times in counseling others in their courses of action, and have applied it to myself many times. It's not necessarily bad advice or a bad idea, but it is a more modern one and not in the text. Appearance in that instance means "occurrence." Mark Ward in Authorized describes 50 examples - and there are more. In John 2:3 we are told the guests "wanted" wine at the wedding in Cana. It doesn't mean that they desired it, it means they lacked it, If you think that doesn't matter much, know that prosperity preachers use that verse often to teach that God will not only meet our needs, but our desires. God tells Amos he gave them "cleanness of teeth." Ward found that few readers knew what that meant. "Hungry." Thee and Thou have taken on such an aura of formality and authority that Muslims sometimes use them in translating the Koran into modern English. But not only were they never formal, they were the type of informal we are familiar with from other languages, the address we gave to social inferiors. Yet because it is also the language of intimacy, of speech among close family, the better theologians decided it was more important to preserve that intimacy despite the rather horrifying disrespect to God it might also express.  If you think more than 1% of the people using the KJV understand that distinction and the tension between meanings, I don't think you are listening to them intone the verses in such august fashion.  They love it for the precisely wrong reason. "But we could just make an effort to tell them, and then it would be fine." Seeing as this truth has been available and taught - sometimes directly to them - I would bet not.  I have heard with my own ears people claim that they knew that when defending their insistence on the KJV, and in the next breath declare that it's better because of the overall majesty and respect that version shows for God. They don't understand it. They are losing meaning, not gaining it.

Ward, who was a King James proponent and has his PhD from Bob Jones University, prided himself that he could understand the nuances and was not thrown by them in reading. Yet starting with "appearance of evil" when he came to study he found he was getting tripped up too many times. He tentatively asked others about these meanings as he came across them. He notes in retrospect that it is the educated who are the problem here, those who are too proud to admit they don't understand. Also, they are often more clever at making stuff up that when they encounter a puzzle to a level they are at least satisfied. It's just that we are wrong sometimes. Working in street ministry he found more people willing to say they didn't get it and ask for explanation. This is about what I noted in my posts on not understanding Shakespeare, with language from about the same time. It needs about a 10% translation into modern English, because it is also poetry and more complicated.  The KJV needs about a 5% translation. So it is in no way useless - most people get most of it while reading or listening, and misunderstandings can come from many places, not just language. But we have a command from Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 to be first intelligible, and I think we should strive for more than approximation. 

I do have language changes I disagree with, and sometimes even deplore.  They are those imposed on language from without, rather than those which grow up naturally.  A good deal of woke language is just an echo of deciding that Latin would be a better model for how we talk. We smart and better people have decided what's good for you.  So you had better eat your vegetables and you will like it.

*Lowth was no fool, even if he is primarily remembered for this foolishness,  His translation of the book of Isaiah was regarded as the gold standard for over a hundred years. 

**Pulling that post up was fun.  (just split another infinitive again, didja notice? It's not a real rule that developed organically in English, which is why it's so easy for even educated people to get it wrong. It's not wrong.) I only like a percentage of the posts I wrote that far back, but this is one of them.



Grim said...

However! Words like “shall” (which I understand to denote the performance of a duty, cf. “should”) need some freezing when used at law. Bush v Gore came down to a Florida law that obligated the Secretary of State to certify results as of a certain date. The whole point of “shall issue” firearm carry permit laws is to insist that the government issue the permit absent proper cause to deny it. Allowing “shall” to drift into anything less obligatory ends up making the law perilously empty of content in such cases.

Christopher B said...

That's a more general problem with any word that has specific contextual meaning. Lots of people talk about programming an electronic device when they mean nothing more complex than setting a timer or activating a feature, not the tasks I perform when programming a function for a computer system. I agree it's a bigger problem in the context you give since the law should be understandable to even non-specialists.

In addition to humor, there seems to be a tendency to turn nouns into verbs as form of technical puffery. There's a lot of systematizing and regularizing that's just writing another policy memo or set of instructions, and the creation of pseudo-jargon seems to have gotten worse as we've moved the production of documents higher and higher in middle management.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Grim, yes but no. In contract law, which informs a lot of other law, knowing the exact meaning in context is important. But it doesn't mean we have to use the word the same way now. We just need to know what they meant. And while preserving that meaning in everyday discourse sounds like a good way to do that, it isn't. The language changes from Blackwell the day it is printed. It can actually become a distraction or be used as a deception, to think that a word has not changed, and the writers of the Constitution mean the same thing as we do. I think that is what the "Living Constitution" problem actually is, of pretending the language has not really changed that much, so we can interpret what we think it means now.

Donna B. said...

Shall vs will: I prefer "will" in contracts I sign. It's the association of "shall" with "should" that sways me. I should eat a healthier diet, but that doesn't mean I will.

Donna B. said...

I'm probably irrational in my dislike of "gifting" and "gifted". That's likely because the people using them are those who already strike me as pretentious.

As for someone who says they want to have a dialogue with me (in whatever space!) I presume they have already written the dialogue and that nothing I have to say will fit into it.

There are my two huge pet peeves about 'verbing'. If challenged, I can come up with others :-)