May 17, 2004


Recently an ailing aunt of mine told me that she "fell out" a while ago. The term genuinely perplexed me -- I wasn't sure just what "fall out" meant. Upon probing, it turned out that she meant that she had unexpectedly lost her balance.

The American Heritage Dictionary does not list this usage of "fall out," instead noting military connotations and the typical meaning of to quarrel. But in the language log tradition of commenting on our President's speech patterns, I have recently read of his using "fall out" the way my aunt did twice.

Recently, giving a speech on a hot day he remarked "I better quit before some of us fall out" ( trail/12TRAIL-HEAT.html). And then earlier, he said during another speech ( "There are 34 nations that have joined us in Iraq. That's too long to list. The Senator might fall out on me if I start trying to read them all."

So it would seem that there is a meaning of "fall out" common among Southerners (of which my aunt is also one) that is, to most other Americans and English speakers, somewhat opaque. There is, after all, nothing about any meaning of OUT that would predict that OUT and only OUT would be used to indicate that the falling was involuntary and sudden.

Languages develop things like that over millennia. Words combine with words, or prefixes and suffixes combine with roots, in ways that over time drift away from perfect sense. What are we standing under when we UNDERSTAND? Presumably this word made intuitive sense in English at some earlier stage -- maybe standing under a tree was how early English speakers came to some kind of consensus in some forgotten tradition of communal parlaying -- but now we just say it without thinking about it. When a Russian says NAKAZAT' for "to punish," KAZAT' means "to show" and NA means, roughly, "onto." But how is punishing someone showing them onto something?

So, you know that a language is ancient when it has people failing to UNDERSTAND what FALL OUT means. And that is one way that many creole languages show that they are new languages, having emerged only a few centuries ago when subordinated people learned a makeshift variety of a language and then built that back up into a full one. If your language is a real one but also new, then after just a few hundred years there hasn't been time for illogical things like UNDERSTAND and FALL OUT to creep in. In Saramaccan Creole in Surinam, to spend too much money is to "eat" it -- NJAN MONI -- that's an idiom, to be sure, but it "makes sense." There are no UNDERSTANDS, and no fallings out.

In fact, these things can be seen as one of the sure indicators that a language is an old one rather than a recent creation, rather like isotope ratios in rocks and fossils. There are other indicators, such as inflectional prefixes and suffixes, or tones. Most languages have one or the other, but there are a few dozen that lack even them. Even here, though, there are always the UNDERSTANDS to tip us off that these languages trace back into the mists of time.

For example, many Mon-Khmer languages in Southeast Asia (of which Vietnamese and Cambodian are the rock stars) have no inflections and no tones. But they do have their FALL OUTs. In the Chrau language, TA- is a causative prefix, indicating that one made something happen: CHUQ "to wear," TACHUQ "to dress." But then there are cases that donít quite follow and just have to be accepted as they are. CHEQ means "to put," but TACHEQ means not "to make someone put" but "to slam down."

In the Polynesian language Tokelauan, one uses a circumfix -- that is, a kind of "earphone" consisting of a prefix AND a suffix -- to indicate reciprocity. The circumfix is FE- / -I, and so FEAHOGI means "to kiss each other." But then while ILO means "to perceive," FE-ILO-AKI means "to meet." Sure, meeting involves perceiving one another, but one would not guess that this is what FEILOAKI meant without being told. This meaning emerged gradually over time, and Tokelauans are stuck with it.

So this means that when George Bush uses a humble colloquialism like FALL OUT, he is less "undoing" our language than -- inadvertently of course -- displaying the depth of the English language heritage.

Posted by John McWhorter at May 17, 2004 12:26 PM