June 28, 2006

There's no battle, Morgan!

I just got back from doing Talk Of The Nation (ToTN) with Neal Conan on NPR from WBUR's studio in Boston. It was about... words. Everybody sees language as just words, words, words. A human language, as most people see it, is simply a Big Bag O'Words (BBoW). Neal Conan believes a language is a BBoW just like everyone else does. And he had Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette there to back him up.

Add a word to a human language, the host and other guests on ToTN seemed to think, and the language is enriched (a caller mentioned hearing a student say "OMG" instead of "oh, my god", and everyone other than me thought that was fascinating; I said it was simply like Colonel Potter on the TV series M*A*S*H calling World War 2 "WW2" except that Potter's abbreviation was over twice as long as the original). Lose a word, and the language is diminished (and losing two would surely seem like carelessness). Change a word, however slightly, and the language is not just altered, but positively degraded.

I do not believe a language is a BBoW at all. To me, it is a structural system, the particular words deployed in the structure being an independent (and much more rapidly varying) matter. But I was swimming against the tide here. Grant and Martha are both in love with lexicography rather than grammar: finding new words, gathering fresh slang, ferreting out rare nouns; and Neal was right in tune with that. The dictionary is where the action is, they alll agreed.

What happened with a caller from San Francisco called Morgan was instructive, I thought. Morgan found it just intolerably irritating that people were shortening until to till and shortening through to thru (those were the only two examples she gave).

I leaped in, probably breaking several radio rules (sorry to interrupt, Grant; I think you were going to make essentially the same point), and I explained (audio available here so you can check what I actually said): Until is actually an early 15th-century embellishment of till, made by adding on before it (as in "Keep right on till the end of the road"). Eventually the two merged into one word, and the two synonyms lived alongside each other happily ever after. The word till is older, and has always been correct. It has never been a contraction or shortening. (It is virtually identical to the analogous form in Swedish and various other Germanic languages.)

And through is of course not changed at all by the American practice of shortening its spelling to thru in informal documents. It couldn't possibly lead to any misunderstanding.

Yet, although all were agreed that too many people think English is rapidly going to hell, Grant did end up telling Morgan (by way of praising her for caring about language, I think): "Keep fighting!". He said, "If you sit back and accept these things without battling for them, then that's the mistake. The mistake is not to say 'This is wrong'."

I demurred. In a confusing scuffle where four people talked at once, I tried to say no, don't keep fighting, Morgan! There is no battle! No degradation! English is going to be OK!

"I've seen degradation," I think I remember telling them, "and this isn't it!"

I thought the others all sounded a bit skeptical. They approved of her battle against those contractions and erosions, those little changes that wear languages thin and loosen things and make things drop off our language like buttons off an old coat. Morgan was basically instructed by a 75% majority (Neal Conan sided with the other two) that these things do matter, and she should carry on fighting for the English language. Grant explained to her that these changes do happen in the slowly winding linguistic river, but it's OK as long as there is no flooding over into unintelligibility.

But I thought the relevant point was that Morgan had not suggested any case where misinterpretation was even a remote possibility.

Morgan did show some signs of lightening up, though. [By the way, is though a contraction of although? No. It just so happens that although is another early 15th-century embellishment. Though is older.] I certainly hope she heard my message of salvation. I hope she will not spend the rest of her life trying to protect English from imaginary threats and mistakes.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 28, 2006 02:06 PM