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Linguistic Geekery #1

December 4, 2008
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I consider myself to be somewhat of a geek. One scholarly subject I find utterly fascinating is linguistics. A brief explanation: Linguistics is the study of language as it lives in the human mind. The ultimate question linguists as a group are striving to answer is “How is language learned: To wit, how do children acquire language?” To this end, numerous theories regarding the underlying rules of language have been proposed. These rules have to be able to explain all of the world’s languages, not just any one or any one group.

Linguistics is a somewhat broad discipline because there are so many aspects to it. Some of the sub-fields are phonetics (how people produce and perceive sounds), phonology (the inventory of sounds in a language and the rules governing their interplay and variance), morphology (how the words of a language are put together), syntax (sometimes called descriptive grammar, but deeper and more basic than the surface grammar most people think of), semantics (the meanings of words, phrases, sentences, etc.), and pragmatics (non-obvious connotations that utterances can take on) to name just a few.

Then there’s historical linguistics, which tracks the evolution of a given language from an earlier form to its present form. This historical aspect is quite intriguting to me, especially when I consider that I’ve seen subtle changes in English within my own lifetime. We’ve all seen it happen, every time a new word is added to the dictionary. But that’s not the only way in which language changes, as any student of Shakespeare or Chaucer can attest to. Words aren’t just added to our lexicon, but deleted as well. Spellings change. Meanings change.

Last week, I was listening to an episode of an NPR show called “On the Media,” in which they discussed how the word “media” is losing its sense of plurality, as demonstrated by the increasingly common use of “media is” rather than “media are.” If you follow the link, you’ll notice that the issue is being discussed among educated people who are aware of the Latin origin of the word “medium” and that its plural, “media,” has also been retained in English. But language does not evolve in the mouths of the educated and literate. Language evolves in the mouths of the common, ordinary people who don’t know the historical origins of words and only know the sense of meaning they have from common, ordinary use.

“Terrible” is one example of how the sense of a word’s meaning can weaken. Time was, “terrible” was reserved for truly great and horrific things. The sinking of the Titanic was terrible. The Holocaust was terrible. But with time and more wide-spread usage, “terrible” gradually started being applied to things that were mundanely bad, things that were inconvenient and undesired but of no real consequence, like a terrible haircut.

One word we use today that is the product of building up to counter weakening is “children.” Most people don’t know it, but “children” is redundantly plural. It all started in Old English (circa 450-1100). Without getting too much into the various declensions English still had back then, which were different depending on the word’s gender (grammatical, not natural), suffice it to say that two of the declension patterns can be represented with the words cild (“child”) and oxa (“ox”) respectively. The salient plural of cild was cildru and that of oxa was oxan. Modern English retains many of what we commonly call “irregular” plurals, such as “oxen,” which comes directly from oxan. Over time and for various reasons, people started getting the sense that cildru just didn’t sound right, didn’t properly convey the sense of plurality the way they felt it ought. Thus, by analogy to oxan, people started using another plural ending for cild and began saying cildruan. This is what survives today as “children.”

As Mr. Spock says: “Fascinating.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy Raz permalink
    December 12, 2008 9:31 am

    I took several linguistics classes (studying both English and French) in college. I love semantics. I hate syntax.

  2. Jaelyn permalink
    December 26, 2008 10:03 pm

    The bit about “children” was neat. I didn’t know that. I’ve stumbled across the “media” problem myself, and I’ve been thinking that it’s because, as with the original word for children, the correct word doesn’t “sound” right to the average speaker. “Medium” has come to mean something different than the singular of media to the common speaker, so they continue to use the word they know, which also “fits;” by which I mean that it’s not screamingly plural in the way most of us understand pluralised words. It *is* fun watching language change right before your eyes, even when the changes annoy.

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