I am a language geek. I mean, one would have to be to some
extent to be an editor. I am capable of caring about the technical
difference between the words “attorney” and “lawyer.” “Impact”
used as a verb rankles every time I run across it.
But as with all but the most pedantic of language geeks, if
you pull me away from the specifics of an offending text and
talk linguistics in the abstract, I’ll admit that language
does evolve constantly, and that I probably prefer it that
way. I rely daily on new words that have been created or reclaimed
for new times—not just technology related ones, from “e-mail”
to “netiquette,” but social ones, from “polyamory” to “McJob.”
I’ve also done my time dabbling in the experimental world
of English gender-neutral pronouns (“xie” and “xer” anyone?
How about “person” and “per”?).
Still, I was perhaps somewhat unprepared for how thoroughly
mind-blowing my latest bit of leisure reading, The Unfolding
of Language by Guy Deutscher, turned out to be. Subtitled
“an evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention,” the
book promises a lot. It delivers, in fact, more than it promises.
What Deutscher is actually trying to do is show how we could
have gotten from “Me Tarzan” to such finicky complexities
as Latin noun cases, Semitic consonant-only verbal roots,
and the subjunctive, a process that seems only marginally
less daunting from the outside than how we got from jellyfish
Deutscher’s model is, however, quite a bit easier to follow
than Darwin’s, mostly because it’s much easier to see all
of it at work in the present, in real time. In fact, that’s
where he gets his three main forces of linguistic change—the
present. (OK, so he also includes more linguistic scholarship
back to the dawn of written communication than one person
should reasonably be able to achieve in one lifetime, but
he starts with stuff you can hear around you).
Those forces are, roughly: laziness, desire to be more expressive,
and analogy. Laziness is the one pedants across the world—and,
apparently, given Deutscher’s whirlwind tour through despairing
proclamations about the dumbing down of language through the
ages, back at least to the Romans—have identified. We drop
sounds that take more work to pronounce, get sloppy about
our endings, slur words together. We always have.
But don’t despair, says Deutscher. The fragments created by
laziness help form new building blocks of grammar. I’ll leave
it to him to walk you through all the details of how, but
his example from right here and now is surprisingly convincing:
“gonna.” It’s clearly a lazy contraction of “going to.” And
yet, I’ve never heard a single person say “I’m gonna the store
to buy milk.” No. “Gonna” is only used to mark the future
tense. “I’m gonna leave in five minutes.” In a hundred years
it may well show up in verb conjugation tables as a helper
verb equivalent to “will.”
Desire to be more expressive expands what laziness contracts.
Therefore the middle English emphatic “ne a wiht” (roughly,
“not at all”) was added to the simple negative of “ne.” Then
it became used so often it wasn’t an emphatic any more, just
a long way of giving a simple negative. And so laziness again
contracted it to—you guessed it—“not.”
(This expansion and then contraction cycle is also clearly
what brought us to “mofo,” though that is not an example Deutscher
Analogy is the most fun one—people see patterns that arise
for other reasons (usually laziness) and make them into rules.
Any kid will show you how it’s done: plural of moose is meese,
plural of mouse is mouses.
I’ve given only the simplest gloss on Deutscher’s careful
exposition—and these three processes are really only the premise
he wants to lay down to take you on his little tour from caveman
But even just that basic outline has changed the way I interpret
the language changes I run into all around me. Although Metroland’s
style is still to hang back with the dictionary, meaning that
I recently had to change “card shark” to “card sharp” while
editing, I’m betting that the forces of laziness (“p” is apparently
completely gone from Arabic, that’s how much of a pain it
is to say, and it’s particularly tricky to enunciate in “card
sharp”) plus analogy (card shark does seem to follow from
loan shark and pool shark) will have the dictionary catching
up to that writer before long.
I’ve also started noticing the forces of analogy at work in
the random words my family comes up with at home. “Coze” as
a verb from “cozy” (like “doze” and “dozy”), for example.
It’s thrilling to see, and almost feels like a challenge to
do my part to keep language expanding and evolving. Especially
because Deutscher does point out toward the end of the book
that despite his making fun in the beginning of the book of
the doomsayers who could only see one half of the contraction
and expansion cycle, the simplifying forces do seem to overtake
the complexifying forces in literate, cosmopolitan societies.
So-called “primitive” languages are some of the most complex
in today’s world.
I’m sure this urge to participate in the great unfolding of
language will not end up actually curing me of my pet-word-usage
peeves. They’re awfully ingrained. But until Deutscher comes
out with a sequel explaining some kind of linguistic value
to throwing random apostrophes into plurals, perhaps I’ll
try to limit my ire to misused and confusing punctuation.
Hey, I’m always looking for the middle ground.