April 07, 2004

Clitics on Broadway

In creole studies, one is often warned of the dangers of oversimplifying a creole when describing it, out of a bias towards treating it as an abbreviation of the language that provided its words. But as I listened to a stage actor tonight drift into a distortion of spoken English that has always grated on my nerves, I realized that in some ways, conventions of written English can distract native speakers from ways in which our own language is more complex than we are often aware of. It was the grand old clitic problem.

The diligent scholar of Saramaccan Creole, for example, will describe not just one set of pronouns but two: a full set and a "short" set. Thus the full version of "I" is MI, as in MI WAKA "I walk." But in the spoken language, MI is often rendered as just M. This is especially common when MI is used as an object. "Lend me some money" is LENI-M SO MONI.

Things are even clearer with the object pronoun in the third person singular. The full form is EN, as in MI DU EN, "I am doing it." EN is pronounced as EH with nasality, as in the vowel in French CHIEN "dog." But after, for example, verbs ending in A, EN gloms onto the verb and turns the final A into an EH sound, creating a long, nasalized EH. PAKA is "pay," but "pay him" is not PAKA EN, but "PAKEHHN." Here the special form is less "short" than just different. Overall, this is what a linguist calls a clitic form of the pronoun. There are the free pronouns and the clitic forms -- MI and M, EN and "EHHN."

But it's easy for even a well-intentioned layman to dismiss these clitic forms as "sloppy," mere "contractions." Indeed missionaries in the eighteenth century who transcribed Saramaccan tended to substitute the full forms, such that one would barely know the clitic ones existed from their documents, despite the fact that they did catch many other subtle aspects of the grammar without being linguists. Granted, there is a possibility that the clitic forms had not evolved yet 200 years ago. But then even today, my main Saramaccan informant tends to make the same substitutions in his e-mails to me in Saramaccan, apparently out of a sense that the clitics are just "accidents," when in fact they are very precisely conditioned. For example, EN has the effect I described not only after verbs ending in A, but also ones ending in the EH sound -- but then not the similar AY sound, or EE, OH or OO.

I notice that written English distracts us from our own short form pronouns just as much as Saramaccan writing used to (and still does, to an extent -- LENI-M SO MONI would often be rendered as LENI MI SO MONI by people fluent in the language). This reveals itself in the theatre, of all places.

Tonight an actor said AND THAT'S WHY I'LL TELL THEM AS SOON AS I CAN in rapid, casual style, but he inserted a note of falseness by pronouncing THEM as "THEHM" rather than the way any native English speaker would pronounce it in that sentence, "THUM." "THEHM" did not aid clarity in any way -- if he had said "THUM" the audience would have still known exactly what he was talking about. He said "THEHM" out of a sense that this is what the word "really is."

But actually, "THEHM" is just the full form. "THEHM we can talk about," for example. "Me and THEHM went yesterday." But just as often, English makes use of a second form, the short one, THUM. By no means a lapse or mere static, THUM is absolutely required of anyone who wants to speak English without sounding like a Martian, or a competent but not quite acclimated newcomer to the language. But because our writing conventions "unravel" the language and transcribe both the full and short forms as THEM, the actor is often distracted into supposing that always saying "THEHM" is good form, "rendering the text properly" Actors erupt in these phony "THEHM"s all the time -- I have even heard actors pull this when spouting the vibrantly choppy, earthy vernacular of David Mamet plays.

This reminds me of when I was in a play years ago and a persnickety director insisted that I always pronounce YOUR as "YORE" instead of YER. This meant that I had to render a line like WE'RE INTERESTED IN YOUR ABILITY TO PERFORM as "WE'RE INTERESTED IN YORE ABILITY TO PERFORM," as if it would have confused the audience for me to say YER, or would have made me seem somehow déclassé when I say YER all the time in real life and have yet to be mistaken as a longshoreman or rejected by a woman's family as "Not Quite Our Class, Dear." After all, WE'RE was okay -- why not YER? That written English lets contractions squeak through but not our short form pronouns is essentially a happenstance.

If English were spoken by seven and a half people in a rain forest in Malaysia and a modern linguist described it, they would likely list a paradigm of short forms, such that alongside YOU, HIM, HER, and THEM there would be YA, IM, ER, and THUM with an alternate UM described as "typical of rapid speech" (TELL 'UM TOMORROW).

But in real life, beyond the obscure realm of professional linguists' treatments of spoken English, a sense reigns that our language has a single set of pronouns glistening pristine, unaffected by the slings and arrows of outrageous phonetic erosion, as if the language was born yesterday.

Posted by John McWhorter at April 7, 2004 12:54 AM