October 28, 2005

The longue duree is not our forte

An article about English usage by Candace Murphy in the Oct. 25 edition of "Inside Bay Area" (a publication of the Oakland Tribune) underscores the pitfalls of the "Recency Illusion" that Arnold Zwicky has eloquently blogged about in this space (here, here, and here). The article, entitled "Good Words Gone Bad," takes the typical hell-in-a-handbasket approach to "language abuse," despite objections from the very experts that Murphy quotes.

The article begins as follows:

The word is harmless enough. It has five letters. It doesn't have an inordinate number of consonants or vowels. It is commonly used in conversation.

But nearly always, it is pronounced incorrectly.

And that rankles true verbivores.

"Oh, yes. 'Forte,'" says Paul Brians with a perceptible sigh, pronouncing the word meaning a person's strength as it should be, monosyllabically without a flourishing finish on the word's final vowel. "I've given up on that one. It's a dead issue. If you went around saying 'FORT,' people wouldn't know what you're talking about. It's an error that has become a non-error."

The use, or some might say, abuse, of the English language, and the standardization of non-standard English is endless. A joke is hysterical when it's really hilarious. People buy a chaise lounge when it's really a chaise longue. Forte, probably confused with the musical dynamic of the same spelling that's borrowed from Italian, gains an extra syllable.

The skeptical reader's warning bells should be set off right away with the assertion that a particular word, in this case forte, is "nearly always ... pronounced incorrectly." It is the same alarmist approach that led a writer more than a century ago to proclaim that "every journalist and every author wherever the English language is written" is guilty of "sloppy usage" because they insist on pluralizing person as people. Everyone is wrong, and only by recognizing our linguistic condition of original sin can we hope to atone for our wayward usage and get on the straight and narrow.

A second warning bell should go off upon reading the supposition that "true verbivores" are "rankled" by such atrocities as the two-syllable pronunciation of forte in its sense of "strength." Paul Brians, the keeper of the comprehensive "Common Errors in English" website, is certainly a verbivore of excellent standing, but he shows little sign of outrage about this putative linguistic transgression (besides the "perceptible sigh" that the reporter would like us to think is telling). What does Brians actually say? "It's a dead issue." "It's an error that has become a non-error." In fact, Brians has specifically listed the two-syllable pronunciation of forte on his page of "non-errors," a position he has further emphasized in a thread on the alt.usage.english newsgroup.

It's difficult to know exactly how long English speakers have been conflating French-derived fort and Italian-derived forte (both from Latin fortis meaning "strong"), but it's safe to say it's not a new phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the spelling of the "strength" sense as forte rather than fort has been in use since the 18th century (probably simply an adoption of the feminine form of the French word at the expense of the masculine, akin to other Gallic borrowings like locale and morale). The two-syllable form evidently developed some time after that as a spelling pronunciation, but it has long been recognized as the primary pronunciation of the word in both American and British English.

From this spurious example, Murphy makes a great leap in logic:

It's enough to make a lexicologist wonder: Are we all just a bunch of idiots?

"I don't think so," says Brians, a professor at Washington State University who manages the Web site "Common Errors in English" and who recently wrote a companion book called "Common Errors in English Usage" (William, James and Co., $15). "People have always abused language. The specific abuses they commit just change with time, so we notice the new ones."

But today, it's quite likely that those abuses and misuses are worming their way into standard English usage at a quicker rate.

Here we see a fascinating tension between Brians — the authority who Murphy has brought in for the article (and author of a new book that provides her news hook) — and Murphy herself, who has clearly already made up her mind about the degenerative state of English usage. Brians plainly lays out the Recency Illusion as it applies to matters of disputed usage, but the reporter chooses to ignore her own source to put forward the unfounded claim that "abuses and misuses are worming their way into standard English usage at a quicker rate." (The claim is prefaced by the journalistic weasel words "it's quite likely," which we should translate as "I have nothing but anecdotal evidence for what I am saying.")

Murphy doesn't enlist any actual subscribers to the degenerationist point of view (say, a Robert Fiske or John Simon) but instead relies on Brians and the equally reasonable Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary. Both make the point that non-standard usage may appear to be on the rise because we are exposed to so much more of it in written form due to the explosion of online communication. (Coupled with the rise of Google and other search engines, this easy availability of an endless array of non-standardisms has spawned such pastimes as eggcorn-collecting and peeveblogging.) Brians further notes in the alt.usage.english thread that "such reading as people do is now often not professionally edited, which is a marked change from the past." This certainly heightens the Recency Illusion, though it doesn't necessarily imply what Murphy calls "the seeming increase in language abuse" (again note the weasel word "seeming").

But wait! Not only are all sorts of non-standard words and expressions spreading like wildfire across cyberspace, they're even entering our hallowed dictionaries!

Courtesy the Internet, those misuses, abuses, slang and shorthand are broadcast to the world, or at least, the World Wide Web, where they earn a standard usage of their own. Combine that with the fact that the new young crop of dictionary editors are more attuned with the Internet than their predecessors — McKean is one of the youngest, at 33, while the Oxford English Dictionary is helmed by Jesse Sheidlower, 36 — and it suddenly makes perfect sense why "podcast" is now in the dictionary.

"All the lexicographers I know who are in their 30s spend an unconscionable amount of time on the Internet," says McKean. "We're looking for language. Language is there."

That's where McKean has found words like farb (not authentic, badly done), nomenklatura (non-literally; by analogy), drabble (a short story of 100 words or fewer), haxie (a hack for the Macintosh operating system) and swancho (a combination poncho/sweater).

Though they're not in the dictionary yet, they may be coming soon to one near you. Each word is categorized by McKean as "on the brink." None of them may be right, correct, proper or even real. But McKean calls them innovations. And innovation, she says, is the essence of language.

Darn those young Turks of lexicography and their blasted Internet! Murphy should know, though, that the whippersnappers of the dictionary world are not a bunch of radicals hellbent on tossing out the old reference books in favor of Urban Dictionary. In fact, despite their penchant for online research, they tend to take the long view, patiently observing that in every generation there are those who decry new usage as barbaric, as somehow not "right, correct, proper or even real." And often that "new usage" is not so new after all, since the same bugaboos, like the pronunciation of forte as for-tay, keep getting hauled out time and time again as evidence of our linguistic degeneration.

The Recency Illusion is powerful, though, and it's very easy to ignore the longue durée in favor of a kind of naive presentism. For some reason, that presentism is particularly alluring when it comes to the shifting sands of English usage.

[Update, 10/31/2005: If you were baffled by the mention of "nomenklatura (non-literally; by analogy)" in the list of Internet-derived innovations, Languagehat has the explanation straight from Erin McKean: "she had been talking about a nonliteral use of the word nomenklatura itself, 'that is, one that referred to people that weren't Russians, but were metaphorically similar to the Russian nomenklatura.'"]

[Update, 11/18/2005: The curmudgeonly comic strip character Mallard Fillmore, who previously railed against apostrophe abuse, took up the (lost) cause for monosyllabic forte in the Nov. 13 strip.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 28, 2005 03:29 PM