Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 May 2016
The highest star

Recently I read of an internet hoax which claimed that 'superstar Pauley Perrette is dead'. While this information might have stunned some users, I had heretofore - with all due respect to Ms Perrette - been unaware that she was alive. A quick check on the internet revealed that the lady in question plays the part of a forensic scientist in the crime drama NCIS, and both she and the character she plays are both very much alive.

This incident got me wondering what qualifies someone as a 'superstar' these days. Originally the 'star' was the leading actor in a cinematic production. If the leading actress was not sufficiently important in her own right, she was rather patronizingly called the 'starlet'.

Today, thanks to Hollywood promotions, a certain degree of verbal inflation has taken hold. Even people with walk-on roles are called 'stars' while the leading actors are 'superstars', even if the show is an obscure drama on cable TV with an audience of ten, including the superstar's mother. As a result increasingly desperate attempts are made to define people of whom the general public has actually heard. 'Megastar' is the current favourite, though this is less popular with the digital generation to whom a megabyte is actually rather tiny. 'Gigastar' has already been taken by a satiric comedian, so I'll be interested to see what the publicity machines come up with next.

In rather the same way, have you noticed the hunt for rare metals among the credit card companies? Where once credit cards were silver or gold, the new standard is platinum. Unfortunately after that rare metals become rather toxic and obscure. A Gadolinium Credit Card actually sounds rather impressive, but advertising inflation has settled for the more mundane 'Platinum plus'.
15 March 2015
A Good-humoured Blog

Do you have a sense of humour? Actually, you should have four humours, because the ancients believed that the 'humours' were actual fluids in the body. 'Humour' and 'humid' have the same etymological root. Though today we associate humour with fun and amusement, humours need not be so pleasant. Melancholy is also a humour - once believed to be caused by too much black bile in the body. When you think about it, if humour was always pleasant, we would not refer to a personality as 'good-humoured', since 'good' would be redundant.

Even today, although we do not use 'humour' as a class, we refer to character types in that class by their 'humour'. If someone is 'sanguine' about a result, it is because blood as a humour makes one cheerful, optimistic and carefree. On the other hand a phlegmatic person is calm, thoughtful and patient. We have seen that black bile makes us melancholy, but yellow bile was supposed to make a person choleric - restless, irritable and unsociable. These character classes were called 'temperaments', which is why today someone whose mood changes quickly through the classes is called 'tempermental'.

So how did the four humours condense into one idea with the meaning of light, funny and amusing? Well, the change came in the late Middle Ages, when humour started to be associated with mood. If the balance of the four humours in a body changed, the person might become 'ill-humoured', and sad or irritable. However, it was noted that a person's body fluids could be brought back into balance by managing that person's emotions. You just had to 'humour' him.

So humour evolved into something changeable, easily attracted to an idea and as easily distracted. Of course if something was light and amusing, it was more likely to be attractive, and so came to be described as humorous.
15 January 2016
The Singular 'They'

'I would want to really know a person before I marry them', remarked a celebrity on TV recently. While the sentiment is unremarkable, the use of the pronoun bears further examination. 'Them'? We can safely assume that our celebrity is not contemplating bigamy here, since a singular partner is explicit in 'a person'. So why did the speaker chose to use a plural pronoun?

In fact, this usage is not new - for years I have been teaching students that in some circumstances the singular 'they' is acceptable. For example, as a class leaves the room, I might remark, 'Someone has left their backpack behind.' Should a student remark that this is improper pronoun use, one might respond that if so, then the error is common also to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and almost every other great writer of the English language.

While we rightly laud the flexibility and expressiveness of English, the language does have some lamentable and obvious failings. One of these is a gender-specific third person singular. If we use a third-person pronoun we have explicitly to refer to the gender of the subject of that pronoun - even if that gender is irrelevant or unknown.

In the past, this was dealt with by the 'inclusive' male pronoun. Where gender was uncertain 'he' included both male and female. 'The male embraces the female', the grammarian ruled, and wondered why this pronouncement did little to dispel the claim that the 'inclusive' pronoun is seen as sexist. Politically correct types have taken to using 'she or he' (in that order) to be fully inclusive and non-discriminatory. However, like many things politically correct, this can get long-winded and tedious very quickly.

Ideally what we need is a new pronoun which refers to a person of unknown or irrelevant gender. Running through available letters of the alphabet, I'd recommend 'k' for 'khe, kis, kers, kim' as in; 'If anyone objects, khe is welcome to kis opinion, so long as khe respects mine as I do kers.' As with most logical reforms of English, I don't see it catching on.

Instead it looks at though, by default, we are stuck with 'they'. 'They' already includes all genders, non-genders and all the new genders that are popping up nowadays. For example, our celebrity might be a pansexual and indifferent to the gender of a potential spouse. But at least khe was clear about the intended number.
15 November 2015
'Two bee' or not 'two bees'?

Consider these two sentences -

'Frightened by the dog, the sheep ran across the field.'
How many sheep are we talking about here - one, or an entire flock?

'While Fred is away, I am feeding his goldfish.'
How many goldfish? One, or a pond full of the things?

Some words in English have no plural form. (Okay, I know that the plural of sheep is allegedly 'shaepu' but try getting away with that in everyday conversation.) These plural-free words are fairly random. We have two sheep, but two cows and not 'two cow', we have three deer, but four rabbits. Fish are remarkably singular, as we see with salmon, trout, hake and other finny creatures. However, remove the fins and we get 'oysters', 'crabs' and other seafood - apart from 'shrimp' which appear to be honorary fish in this regard.

There are several possible explanations for these exceptional words. Some are imports from languages which handle plurals differently. This is why we have one or seven samurai (though no-one can explain why ninjas have been pluralized anyway). Many plurals are food animals, and the argument is that these are somehow uncountable, like 'bread' and 'butter'. Fair enough, but why are 'sheep' singular and 'goats' plural? Or 'buffaloes' plural but 'bison' singular? Anyway, other cases have nothing to do with dinner. We have two aeroplanes, but three aircraft. I weigh 14 stone, but 195 pounds.

The most plausible reason is that most of these words were originally strong Anglo-Saxon neuters, and they failed to develop a plural as the language evolved simply because the need was never great enough. Language generally follows the path of least resistance. Actually when you think about it, plurals are not generally needed. Why do we need words to signal the difference between one and more, but not the difference between two and two thousand? When we do need to indicate number, we can do so specifically (e.g. 'two thousand and five') or generally ('lots', many', 'several'). As sheep and salmon show, we can just as easily do that for indicating one or more. But we don't.
15 September 2015
Second person plural

Way back when, English actually had a second person singular pronoun as well as a plural. These pronouns were 'Thou' and 'You' respectively. This was very useful, as a speaker could address an individual within a group without appearing to speak to the entire group. In fact this is why other saner languages still have a second person singular. Yet far from repenting of this linguistic folly, English speakers have extended the madness by using 'you' for the impersonal pronoun 'one'.

In the past, the acceptable way to say that people tended to do something was to use 'one'. For example, 'The street signs downtown are so confusing that one can easily get lost.' These days that sentence is often given as, 'The street signs downtown are so confusing that you can easily get lost.' This in turn might provoke the indignant response, 'No, that's rubbish. I never get lost there.'

However the relentless march of 'you' to total pronoun dominance has started to meet resistance. Increasingly, English speakers are starting to develop their own plurals. Watch a TV programme set in the southern United States and you will discover that 'you' is basically a second person singular. The plural is 'y'all'; a contraction of 'you all', as in 'Y'all be coming to Hank's party - except for you, Jeb.' This neat linguistic trick has a further advantage in that it can be adapted to 'y'both' to pick a couple out of a group.

In northern England, and a few other parts of the word, the approach has been equally logical. Much as it might frustrate linguistic purists, 'youse' has become a standard pronoun for many native speakers. 'Are youse going to Newcastle for the football?'

In the western Appalachian mountains there is the specific plural form 'yinz', so when a state trooper there informs the occupants of a car, 'I want yinz out and standing up by the kerb', it is clear he does not want only the driver to exit the vehicle.

The Irish, with their accustomed perversity, have kept to the classical plural pronoun 'ye' - as in 'How're ye keepin' this morning?' but use it as a singular. Making 'ye' into a plural is more awkward, as 'yes' is already taken. However, I've noted that 'yez' is gaining traction - as in 'Get out of here, yez daft idiots.'

In short, native speakers have reacted to a linguistic vacuum by coming up with their own variations to fill the gap. However, I feel special credit should be given to those Yorkshire folk who have faithfully stuck with 'thee' and 'thou', whatever the linguistic fancies and fashions of the rest of the world.

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