Oxford University Press adds a new word to the prestigious dictionary and considers many more that have come into current usage. They chose “unfriend.” I’ve created a poll including some of the other candidates:
Research seems to be demonstrating that “people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.”
Intriguing article! I’ve often said, as this writer does, that language is an essential element of our humanity, and I tell students yearly that gaining mastery over one’s own language (and at least one other) is vital for thinking and living effectively in the larger human community. Boroditsky’s research and other experiments are showing, for example:
How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures?
One way to answer this question is to teach people new ways of talking and see if that changes the way they think. In our lab, we’ve taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think.6 In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.
… Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.
(6 Ibid., “How Deep Are Effects of Language on Thought? Time Estimation in Speakers of English and Greek” (in review); L. Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought? English and Mandarin Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43, no. 1(2001): 1–22.)
And these ideas about the pervasive effects of language and perspective also apply to reading poetry and any literature. If one can possibly encounter a literary text in its original language, that is best. An English translation of a Japanese haiku is not actually equivalent. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is not really Beowulf, though it’s a rattling good read. Buffy in French isn’t quite Buffy.
Thanks to my excellent sister, the Cordelia of younger sisters, for sending me the link to CNN’s story on Talk Like Shakespeare Day. As they point out:
It isn’t as difficult as it sounds. After all, Shakespeare single-handedly contributed more than 1,700 words and phrases to the English language — everything from “foul play” to “monumental” to, of course, “all’s well that ends well.”
If you want to really get revenge while sounding learned rather than crude, the Shakespeare insult generator is lots of fun, too.
Some scholars (Mersand, Cannon) have argued that Chaucer contributed over 1100 words to English. And he had to bring them in from French and Italian. Just saying.
Not for me, at least (she boasted vainly), I think because I seem to have a pretty good visual memory, but even so I usually find that I have to come back and fix one or two careless spelling errors in these postings, just because I’m not always paying attention. However, everyone agrees that English spelling is gruesome, because the language is a glorious jumble of different base languages that was “frozen” in print before reasonable (i.e., phonetic) spelling rules could be imposed. British/Canadian and American spellings differ as well. Nevertheless, English spelling can be conquered without resorting to replacing to/two/too with “2” with some care and attention to rules, exceptions and mnemonics.
These guidelines note that if you really want to improve your spelling, you’re going to have to practice, practice, practice. And note rule #9, which is more about punctuation:
Watch out for the “grocer’s apostrophe.” This gets its name from a spelling error traditionally made by greengrocers on signs in produce sections. Unfortunately, this error is popping up in all sorts of places these days. Remember that an apostrophe with an “s” shows possession. Correct: “The banana’s skin turned brown.” You do not use an apostrophe to form the regular plural of a noun. Not correct: “Special on banana’s: 49 cents.”
. . . nowadays, at any rate, the Merriam-Webster powers-that-be keep an eye on the frequency and usage of new words that crop up over the years. Then:
“As soon as we see the word used without explanation or translation or gloss, we consider it a naturalized citizen of the English language,” said Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. “If somebody is using it to convey a specific idea and that idea is successfully conveyed in that word, it’s ready to go in the dictionary.”
The history of English dictionary-making goes back at least to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, which he labored away at single-handedly, leading him to write in the Preface:
Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pionier of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius . . . . Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompence has been yet granted to very few. . . .
When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.
Over a hundred years later, James A.H. Murray agreed with Oxford University Press to edit a “new dictionary” which eventually became the Oxford English Dictionary. He had numerous assistants researching word usages and etymologies in a “scriptorium” in his back yard, but it was a much larger job than Johnson’s, and he could not finish it in his lifetime, though he came close. His life story is quite fascinating, and has been told in Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, by K.M. Elisabeth Murray. Recently, Simon Winchester’s somewhat sensationalized account of one of the more unusual contributors to the Dictionary brought renewed attention to Murray’s achievement with The Professor and the Madman.
My favorite among this year’s newly approved words: mondegreen: usually described as a misheard lyric. Its origin (because we dictionary people love etymologies), according to the largest collection of the things, is Sylvia Wright:
As a child she had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” and had believed that one stanza went like this:
Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae sla[in] the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Poor Lady Mondegreen, thought Sylvia Wright. A tragic heroine dying with her liege; how poetic. When it turned out, some years later, that what they had actually done was slay the Earl of Murray and lay him on the green, Wright was so distraught by the sudden disappearance of her heroine that she memorialized her with a neologism.
You probably know or have committed some of the “mondegreens” listed yourself . . . but maybe you didn’t know there was a term for such things! Now you know.
English is a fabulous language. Its enormous vocabulary, gathered from any number of other languages, makes it the most flexible medium of communication on earth. Poetry famously uses onomatopoeia–words that sound like the sounds they represent, e.g. “buzz,” or “murmur.” Joseph Bottum has been meditating on the way some words sound like what they mean, even abstract meanings:
They taste good in the mouth, and they seem to resound with their own verbal truthfulness.
More like proper nouns than mere words, they match the objects they describe. Pickle, gloomy, portly, curmudgeon–sounds that loop back on themselves to close the circle of meaning. They’re perfect, in their way. They’re what all language wants to be when it grows up.
In the absence of any formal linguistic term for such words, he decides to call them “agenbites.” Why?:
That’s a word Michael of Northgate cobbled up for his 1340 Remorse of Conscience–or Agenbite of Inwit, as he actually titled the book. English would later settle on the French-born word “remorse” to carry the sense of the Latin re-mordere, “to bite again.” But Michael didn’t know that at the time, and so he simply translated the word’s parts: again-bite or (in the muddle of early English spelling) agenbite.
Anyway, these words that sound true need some kind of name. And since they do bite back on themselves, like a snake swallowing its tail, Michael’s term will do as well as any other. Ethereal is an agenbite, isn’t it? All ethereal and airy. Rapier, swashbuckler, erstwhile, obfuscate, spume–agenbites, every one.
The conversation about “agenbites” continues on the First Things blog:
Another writer observes that some, though not all, of this phenomenon is created by what linguists call a “phonestheme.” Coined back in the 1930s by J.R. Firth, the term names the fact that, for unknown reasons, certain sounds are associated with a particular genus of objects or actions. So, for instance, the phonestheme “gl-” appears in a surprising number of words about light: glitter, glisten, glow, gleam, glare, glint, etc.
And then things get really serious and, of course, not so much fun. But I felt that I must include the link in the interest of fairness and scholarly completeness.