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Notes on linguistics

I recently read John McWhorter's new book, Words on the Move: why English won't - and can't - sit still (like, literally). If you have any interest in words and language, I highly recommend pretty much anything he's done - besides books, he's now doing the Lexicon Valley podcast. (His lecture series for The Great Courses are all fabulous, as well.)

He's the person who single-handedly changed me from a staunch prescriptivist into a mostly descriptivist, which is saying something.

I wanted to make notes of a few things from this book, and I thought I might as well share them here. Randomness follows:

Merry, pretzel, and bra all came from the same original word. I wish I could include the whole explanation here, but it involves way too much typing. But from Proto-Indo-European down through Latin and then Old High German, the explanation makes sense.

Talking about turning verbs into nouns: they do actually become different words with (sometimes subtle) different shades of meaning. An "epic fail" means something different than an "epic failure."

"In the same way, we must expect that designations for various groups will turn over regularly: the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker has perfectly titled this 'the euphemism treadmill.'" So for example, the correct, kind way to refer to a person with a disability used to be cripple. But after a certain amount of use, that word became associated with the "kind of ridicule tragically common among members of our species," and handicapped was chosen as the kinder alternative. "But while words change, people don't," and soon that became an unpleasant word as well, and we moved to disabled, then differently abled ... which will soon become tainted, and we'll find yet another word.

"And here's the rub: since words cannot help drifting in their meanings, we need not worry that people are deliberately keeping us off guard or are given to indecision. The euphemism treadmill must be accepted as an inevitable and unexceptionable result of what a word is: not only a bundle of sounds linked to a meaning, but also one that naturally piles up with implications over time because it is used by human beings living lives."

Then there's the idea that compound words are not really two words joined together, but a completely new word created out of two words. A black board is different from a blackboard, for example, and part of that is because of backshift (itself a compound word!)

Backshift is when the the emphasis changes - it happened when sus-PECT (a verb) became SUS-pect (a noun.) We automatically and mostly unconciously know that to noun a verb, you change the emphasis. (See also rebel and record.) This happens with compound words too: a black BOARD is different from a BLACKboard.

And all this explains why I habitually find myself typing "icecream" instead of "ice cream" and why we say ICE cream, not ice CREAM.


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(Deleted comment)
Feb. 24th, 2017 07:10 pm (UTC)
Interesting. A peculiarity of English is that we do shift the accented syllable to shift the meaning, plus often move it when adding a suffix.
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