Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 July 2018
The Graveyard of Languages

English has always been just one of the languages spoken in the United States. Apart from the many different languages spoken by the native peoples, every group of immigrants has brought their own language to the country. Sometimes, places which were not English-speaking such as Louisiana and New Mexico became part of the English-speaking United States as that country swallowed up much of the North American landmass.

In the 1910 census, there were 92 million Americans. Three million spoke German, half that number spoke Italian, and Polish, Yiddish, Spanish and over a dozen other languages had between a hundred thousand and half a million native speakers.

Yet a recent survey of the descendants of these Americans revealed that almost without exception, their first language, and usually their only language, was English. Basically, research has shown that the United States is where languages come to die. It has been shown that many immigrant Americans hyphenate themselves (Korean-American, Italian-American, and so on) for around three or four generations. However, by then they have lost their original language.

The reason is simple enough – the social and economic opportunities available to immigrants improve in direct proportion to their English ability. Therefore the parents tend to acquire English rapidly, and their American-born children start off with it. This is especially true in linguistically mixed marriages. It has been shown, for example, that in marriages between an English and a Spanish speaker in the USA, less than 2% of the children had Spanish as a first language.

This is not necessarily as good thing. Language diversity is worth hanging on to. Not only has US English been greatly enhanced my bleed-over from other languages (especially Italian and Yiddish) but it has been shown time and again that bilingual people have more flexible thought processes and a greater capacity to absorb new ideas.

The problem is that it is hard to convince the US-born children of immigrants of this. If you are the only kid in the playground who speaks Farsi, then there's a temptation to ditch the Farsi and concentrate of blending in with English, no matter how it outrages your parents.
15 May 2018
English place-names

Many places in England have Old English names. Once we know the roots of the name, the names themselves become much more descriptive. Some names are easy enough - Cambridge developed at the place where there was a bridge over the river Cam. Oxford was the place where an ox could ford the river. (As a further clue the city badge shows an ox standing in a river.)

Things get more interesting when we have to work harder. Consider the word 'ham'. Not the slice of smoked pig, but a word meaning something between 'hall' and 'estate'. A small village is a 'hamlet' because '-let' or '-ette' is a diminutive in English. (Think 'piglet', 'flatlet', 'cigarette'). Therefore we see that many places are named after the estate or place around which the town developed, such as Durham, 'the place on the hill'. ('Dun' means 'hill' or 'fort' because most forts were on hills.)

We also have '-ham' as a suffix in Buckingham from 'Bucca's Hall' or Cheltenham from 'Celtan's Hall' (who or what Centan was is uncertain). This has been combined with another old English word 'ton', which means 'clearing in a forest'. So you can work out for yourself the meaning of places such as 'Southampton'.

There are over three thousand places in the UK which end in '-ton', but sometimes the meaning is less clear than one might think. For example we might assume that 'Boston' (yes, the first Boston
was in England) was 'Bosca's clearing' just as Teddington was 'Tedda's clearing'. Some etymologists say that is the case, but it is more probable that the name comes from 'Botsca's (boundary-marker) stone'.

There's a reason most places ending in '-mouth' are on the coast. The 'mouth' in question is where the river meets the sea. So for example, Plymouth is the end of the river Plym. Dartmouth is the terminus for the river Dart, and so on.

One of the clearest signs of Saxon occupation comes from county names. The suffix '-sex' shows which bunch of Saxons were where. The south Saxons were in Sussex, the east Saxons were in Essex, and those in between were in Middlesex. So the name has actually nothing to do with sex. That said, I shall leave it to someone braver to explain the origins of the word 'Kent'.
15 March 2018
Fossil words

As we wend our way through March, spring is in the offing. I have an ulterior motive for saying so, and you are probably waiting with bated breath to hear what it is. Well I shall make short shrift of my explanation. This piece is about fossil words.

'Fossil words' are words which have dropped out of the language except for particular usages where they are too useful to abandon entirely. Consider that first sentence. These days we never 'wend' anywhere but 'our way'. Go back to the 14th century and 'wend' was used instead of 'go'. For some reason 'wend' was replaced in the present tense by 'go', but we still stick with 'went', the past tense of 'wend'.

Did you ever wonder about that 'offing' which things about to happen find themselves in? It's the deep ocean which can be seen from the land. So when a ship is 'in the offing' we know it will shortly be in port, and the metaphor has been extended from there.

Something 'bated' is restrained or taken off, which is why you can wait with bated breath to see if you will get a rebate on your taxes. The 'shrift' which is inevitably short these days, is a noun which originally meant confessing one's sins. Back in medieval times, a man in a hurry might pop into confession, and ask the priest to give him 'short shrift'.

Wandering through the history of such odd survivors of our linguistic past throws up some interesting details. Such as 'eke'.These days we 'eke' out something by using it sparingly, and always with 'out'. However, to eke was originally to add to or supplement with something, so you could eke your tea with sugar. You could also be given a supplementary name, which was your 'eke-name' which over time became corrupted to a 'nickname'.

There are many such fossil words in our everyday language - hue and cry, kith and kin, to and fro, that only survive with their companion words. A favourite of mine is 'riding roughshod' over something. In the past a 'roughshod' horse was one where the horseshoes were attached with protruding nails. These nails allowed the horse to get a good grip on a steep, muddy road, but anything ridden over roughshod was unlikely to benefit from the experience.
15 January 2018
The unhappy few(er)

Live long enough, and you'll notice that grammar and vocabulary change around you. Generally this noticing will be done with a snort and an observation that 'Kids don't speak properly these days.' It was always thus. King James allegedly claimed that St Paul's cathedral was 'awful and artificial' and meant by this that the construction was as filled with art as he was full of awe. Usage changes.

Because of this, there are occasions when one simply has to grit one's teeth and accept that the world has changed. One such example is 'less'. This word is - for absolutely no explicable reason - replacing 'fewer' in everyday speech.

The rule was once simple. We use 'fewer' for countable nouns (there are fewer policemen on the streets) and 'less' for abstract terms (people now feel less safe). 'Less' is going from strength to strength. No-one says 'I feel fewer safe than I did yesterday.' However, the reverse is not true. These days we seem to have less policemen on the streets, less free hours in the day, and less British wins in international sport.

Once you regularly come across this usage in the daily news, you know that the battle is lost. 'Less' will vanquish 'fewer' - it's just a matter of time. Yet why? It's not as if people have trouble with 'much' and 'more' even though the grammar is actually, er ... more complex. (e.g. 'I have more time than I thought' becomes 'much' in the negative.' I don't have as much time as I thought'.)

The people who regularly say 'There are less people on this bus today', never say 'There were much people on the bus yesterday'. They use 'more' and use it correctly. Grammatical ability is not the issue. It is just that the usage is shifting.

Another example which I have discussed before is what must perforce be called the 'declarative me'. (As in 'Who's there?' 'It is me'.) Two generations ago, this would have been properly rendered as 'It is I.' Why we changed the declaration from 'I' to 'me' is inexplicable, especially as we only changed it after the verb. Before the verb, 'I' remains in place. ('Who is there?' can be answered with 'I am' but not 'Me am'.)

This is the sort of thing that make English language learners throw textbooks across the room in frustration, and grammarians yearn for a language police such as the Academie francaise. However, English speakers will go on merrily mutating the language, and English will survive. But in the coming years expect uses of 'fewer' to become less.
15 November 2017
Why ain't 'ain't' acceptable grammar?

'Teacher, I ain't got a pencil.'
'No, Johnny, you haven't got a pencil. He hasn't got a pencil. We don't have pencils. Do you understand?'
'No, absolutely not. What happened to all them darn pencils?'

If the point of language is to express ideas clearly, here Johnny has done a better job than the teacher. The problem, from the teacher's point of view is the use of the word 'ain't'. Yet, despite the word's poor reputation, this is a contraction I'm coming to like.

For a start, despite protestations to the contrary, 'ain't' is in fact both grammatical and found in most dictionaries. It also does a valuable job of providing a negative first person auxiliary contraction. One can either say 'I am not' - without contraction - or 'I ain't' and be sneered at for using language also used by Trollope, Thackeray and Byron.

The advantage of 'ain't' is that it simplifies a lot of grammar without hindering clarity. Consider:

The advantage of 'ain't' is that it simplifies a lot of grammar without hindering clarity. Consider:

'I ain't here' - 'I am not here'
'You ain't here' - 'You aren't here'
'He ain't here' - 'He isn't here'
'We ain't here' - 'We aren't here'

The problem with 'ain't' is pure snobbery. Sometime around the start of the nineteenth century, the upper classes decided that 'ain't' didn't fit with their version of 'proper (Latin-based) grammar'. It was also around this time that it was decreed that sentences should not end with prepositions and other unnecessary foolishness. 'Ain't' was condemned as 'vulgar' and a word fit only for the working classes, despite there being numerous contemporary examples of its usage by the British aristocracy (who rather tend not to care about social rules imposed by the middle class).

These days writers are permitted to merrily split infinitives (as I have just done) and sentences finishing with prepositions are no longer unheard of. Therefore in the spirit of making English more comprehensible, flexible and easier to use, we should welcome 'ain't' back into the regular lexicon.

It, er... ain't as if the word is not thriving in exile. Despite attempts by Johnny's teacher and other educators across the English world, 'ain't' remains in use pretty much across the USA, New Zealand and Australia and it is fast regaining its foothold in Britain.

And there ain't a thing wrong with that.

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