Sunday, August 14, 2011

Linguistic "Affectation"

While vs. whilst, who vs. whom, split infinitives, dangling prepositions, farther vs. further, the list goes on and on. I know what you’re thinking. These are mere affectations having little to nothing to do with actual communication, what’s their use? Good riddance, I say! Hmm...

Here’s the question: Do such things contribute to the goodness and beauty of the language, or do they not? What is beauty in a language? It might be true that a certain combination of sounds determines something of a language’s beauty. It could also be that phonology is simply arbitrary, and a preference for the way one language sounds as opposed to another is simply a result of either taste or cultural conditioning. I don’t know, and it is beyond the scope of this post to probe into such an issue. We must, therefore, leave it aside for the time being.

At the very least, language is meant to serve a function—that of the communication of ideas from one mind to another. Like a chair, table, or anything functional, then, a language’s beauty is at least tied to its functionality; that is, how well it serves its function of communication.

Due to its unique and somewhat tumultuous history, contemporary English is home to a dizzyingly vast array of vocabulary as well as syntactical forms. These two elements which make up the matter (in the case of vocabulary) and form (in the case of syntax) work together to provide nuances of meaning to which other languages are simply not privy. To quote Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: “English retains probably the richest vocabulary, and most diverse shading of meanings, of any language. We can distinguish between house and home (as, for example, the French cannot), between continual and continuous, sensual and sensuous, forceful and forcible, childish and childlike, masterful and masterly, assignment and assignation, informant and informer. For almost every word we have a multiplicity of synonyms. Something is not just big, it is large, immense, vast, capacious, bulky, massive, whopping, humongous. No other language has so many words all saying the same thing. It has been said that English is unique in possessing a synonym for each level of our culture: popular, literary, and scholarly—so that we can, according to our background and cerebral attainments, rise, mount, or ascend a stairway, shrink in fear, terror, or trepidation, and think, ponder, or cogitate upon a problem.”

Read it. I seriously  just saw it at Half Price for cheap. Ish. Do it.

Likewise, on the syntactical level, it is possible in English to distinguish linguistically between a person performing an action simply (“I walk”) and doing so continuously at this very moment (“I am walking”)—a distinction of which most languages are woefully incapable. This variability of speech is so because of the many and sundrous languages that have wielded influence over English through the ages, so that it has become a truly cosmopolitan tongue, having absorbed the best of those languages which were its progenitors (chiefly Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman) and borrowed much good from many others with which it has had contact.

It is not true, however, that English has a monopoly on nuanced vocabulary and grammatical forms. A classic example in which English is deficient lexically is our word love. We use this one term to signify many different meanings. As I’m sure you know, the Greeks had four: eros, storge, philia, and agape, which stood for romantic love, the affection between a person and a thing or animal, familial love, and unconditional love, respectively. It is true we have terms which we might use to communicate these ideas. We could, for example, use “friendship” for philia and “affection” for storge, though these don’t usually carry quite the same meaning as the Greek words, and were we to translate them so, we would need to qualify in what exact sense they were being used.

This is the case grammatically as well. Vietnamese, for instance, makes use of a grammatical principle called “clusivity,” in which there are different words to indicate when one intends to use we inclusively (“You and I together did something.”) or exclusively (“This other person and I did something.”)

Nevertheless, I would argue that English is, on the whole, capable of far more complexity and nuance than most other languages. Evidence of this might be that children in other countries learn English partly so they can read Shakespeare in the original, whereas we read their literature in translation. Of course, it also might simply be evidence that children in other countries are better educated. Either way, all of this is to say that it is this very intricacy, in service to its function of communication, which makes English beautiful.

To return to our initial inquiry, it is true that there is room for natural development in a language, and that such development is a good thing. If there were not, the Middle English of Chaucer, though beautiful, would never have evolved into the Modern English of Shakespeare, also beautiful, though in different ways. Diversity itself is good, even in one language over time. Bill Bryson again: “One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees. It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries. To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.” The question, then, is whether or not a particular development contributes to the ability to communicate with clarity or does not. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

What about while vs. whilst and the other words that follow the same pattern: among/amongst, amid/amidst, and mid/midst? The “-s” in these constructions is a relic of the Middle English adverbial genitive. In other words, when adjectives were used as adverbs they were put into the genitive case, so that an “-s” was added as in our contemporary possessives. The “-t” is simply a parasitic particle formed in accordance with the old phonetics (but as they’re residual forms, it’s a package deal). That being the case, the list of these relics turns out to be considerably longer than at first glance, including: alway/always, toward/towards, backward/backwards, one/once, two/twice, three/thrice, here/hence, then/thence, when/whence, and others. It turns out, then, that these distinctions are actually of significant value, namely, to differentiate between a word’s adjectival and adverbial forms. Here’s a commonplace example in which we would never consider not making the distinction: “I walked to the store two times today,” as opposed to “I walked to the store twice.” In like manner we should say either “I walked forwards,” or “I walked in a forward direction,” but never “I walked forward.” After examination, the same conclusion can be reached for the distinction between farther and further, continuous and continual, between and amongst, and many others, albeit on different grounds. After all, an affectation is only an affectation if there is no reason to practice is beyond pretension.

On the other hand, a prescription like that against split infinitives is really pretty absurd. The idea is that in many languages an infinitive is one word (for example, that language most revered for centuries, Latin). Since it is impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, one shouldn’t in English. Other than that, though, why exactly is it better to say “to go boldly” than “to boldly go”? They mean exactly the same thing. Silliness.

In conclusion, one last quote from The Mother Tongue: “It seems to me there is a case for resisting change—at least slapdash change. Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage. We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one’s lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to house-break. In precisely the same way, clarity is generally better served if we agree to observe a distinction between imply and infer, forego and forgo, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and many others. As John Ciardi observes, resistence may in the end prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.”

To put it simply, it seems to me the hermeneutic of continuity applies equally well to the development of language as it does to that of everything else.

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