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Speaking Our Language



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 to primates.

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 mentions.)

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 to today.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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