Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why Words Change Meaning

We think of words as being little bundles of meaning, but, actually, all words are polysemous. That means that all words in all languages potentially have more than one meaning.

In fact, words themselves are often not the only unit of meaning. Yes, a word like boy or girl is one unit. However, many words are composed of smaller meaningful units joined together. Linguists call the bits of words that carry meaning "morphemes." Think of the un in unpleasant. Oh, you also recognize the please in that word. That's another morpheme, as is the ant, which here doesn't refer to the insect, but, instead, is an ending which tells you that the unplease is being used as an adjective. Morphemes can be semantic or grammatical.

My loyal friend Inabech e-remarked to me that while reading Coatzee's novel Disgrace, she realized that Coatzee meant the word to mean 'absence of grace' rather than the more usual 'fall from grace.' She asked me to comment on literary usages like this.

It is true that good literary writers, novelists and poets, are sensitive to words, which is what makes their words of art works of art. However, what Coatzee did is something that regularly happens with ordinary prosaic speakers, except they may do it as a mistake or to be funny, or to avoid saying what they really mean.

What Coatzee did was to reinterpret the morphemes in disgrace so that the negative meant something like 'lack of' rather than 'asunder from.' This happens all the time in ordinary language and is one source of change in a word's meaning historically.

The classic example is disinterested. The OED notes the birth of this word in the 17th century. Then it meant 'impartial, not influenced by one's own advantage.' It retains this meaning in the law, so that juries are disinterested bodies and a witness may be a disinterested party. By the late 19th century, however, the dis-
was confused with the older negative prefix un- which often simply means 'not.' Increasingly since then in common parlance disinterested has come to mean 'uninterested' in the sense of not finding something interesting.

Actually, dis- came into the language via borrowings from Latin and Old French, and it had the sense of 'apart, away, asunder, abroad, absence of' It didn't mean simply 'not.' Now it does. Given that both morphemes bear a meaning of 'negative,' this was probably inevitable. When we speak, we have to come up with words in a split second. If we have two morphemes whose meanings overlap, then speakers simply choose either one to convey their meaning and hearers can figure out what was meant because the meanings overlap for them, too.

Sometimes even when a morpheme is used correctly, social circumstances cause it to lose its meaning. Disease originally meant 'absence of ease, a cause of discomfort.' From there it easily morphed into meaning a terrible or dreaded illness. Speakers, not wanting to say that someone was very ill, would use disease as a euphemism, much as people today say that someone "has the big C" or "has a growth" rather than say "cancer." This happened so often that disease lost the meaning of the two morphemes making it up, and simply became 'dreaded illness' or 'terrible illness.'

I can't resist one more example. Do you know what discover meant to Shakespeare? It meant to reveal one's secrets, confess, divulge information. Shakespeare says in Much Ado... "The Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece." As late as The Hound of teh Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, "He discovered himself," referring to Holmes coming out from behind a rock.

Discover in the sense of finding a new talent was a 20th century innovation, but it did mean to 'become aware of for the first time' by the late 16th century, although the other meanings seem to have been prevalent until much, much later. There is an easy semantic progression from revealing a secret, to a person who has had a secret revealed to him or her, to someone who found something out for the first time.

What can we make of all this? Well, when we speak and when we write, we take our old language and make it do new duty, either because we're encoding in a hurry, or we want to catch someone's notice, or we want to be humorous, or we want to be artistic. Poetry never says anything new. If you want to learn about death, you don't read Thanatopsis; you read a medical treatise. Poetry are all about saying old things in new ways. Narrative fiction often writes of ordinary people doing ordinary things, but if it's good, it does so by novel linguistic usages. And, all of us do the things that poets and novelists do, only not with as much skill or as much conscious choice.

Okay. Okay. You're ready to tell me I forgot science fiction or writers like Thomas Pynchon and Steve Erickson. Don't they say new things? Well, do they? They may speak of the impossible, the never-yet-has-happened, but ultimately, they're speaking about societal structures and situations which shed light on how we are now.

The wonder of language is that it can convey the unseen and the impossible. Fairy tales are impossible, but they are used to reinforce cultural standards. Science fiction shows us where the present world can lead us. Dystopian novels are telling us our societies suck. Nothing that they say can't be said in ordinary language. What makes it art is that it is in extraordinary language.

Myself Redux

Inabech, who noted to me that the use of myself as a subject, as in "Joan and myself went shopping," grates on her ears, commented on my blogpost that she has worked with white and blue collar workers all over the US and has heard it everywhere. Whew! One less thing to ridicule Rhode Islanders for.

Oh, I had to tell you what she said because blogspot won't accept her ID so that she can post a comment.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


One reader emailed me that one thing that "grates on her ear" is the use of myself as the subject of a sentence, as in "My wife and myself went on a trip." I always thought of this as a Rhode Island thing and associated it with those of Irish heritage. One of my teaching colleagues always referred to himself as myself whenever he used a compound subject. Neither he nor anyone else I've heard would say, "Myself went to the store," but put an and there, and I mysteriously turns into myself.

The friend who finds this grating lives in Washington, DC, so I guess this isn't just a Rhode Island usage. I rarely hear it from educated women, but I do hear it from men. That's not surprising. Women adopt prestige usages, and drop non-prestige ones, about 25 years before men follow suit. That is an actual fact, well-researched. Women are in the vanguard of "proper" language change in America.

Anyhow, the reason I suspect that this is originally an Irishism is that speakers of vernacular Irish English in Ireland, at least in old movies, say things like, "It's himself, is it?" I don't know if this is considered wrong in Ireland. It may be perfectly proper in their dialects, if, that is, they actually use such expressions.

In any event, Rhode Island, like Boston, has a large ethnically Irish population. However, before blaming the Irish, I must be honest and say I haven't done a respectable study of who actually uses the reflexive as a subject in the US, nor have I delved into historical dialects to find out if, indeed, it is only the Irish who use the reflexive this way, or, indeed, if they still do in Ireland.

Actually, "The wife and myself...." example is a different usage than the Irish Irish one I've quoted, so I'm also guilty of a poor analogy.

In any event, if misuse of the reflexive is widespread through America, then there is even less reason to think it derives from Irish English. Have you heard people say "My wife and myself..." (or the like)? Who says it? Do you? Do you find it wrong, or is it just normal English to you? Do you judge a speaker who says it as not being well educated?

Oh, why do I say it is wrong? Why does my friend find it grating? Well, myself and its companions himself, herself and themselves are reflexives and refer back to someone who has just been overtly named. They may be used for emphasis, as in "I myself disagree," or, with a set of verbs that take the reflexive, as in: "I dressed myself." "He watched himself on TV." "The children wash themselves every morning." These reflexives cannot be used as subjects unless they come immediately after the noun they refer to, as in "Marie herself came on the trip."

Why do people think that joining a name and a pronoun together automatically calls for a different pronoun than when it stands alone? We see the same thing in the hideous, to me, "He gave Sigrid and I a nice gift." You wouldn't say, "He gave I a nice gift," so why "Sigrid and I?" Similarly, as I already noted, nobody says "Myself saw a good movie." So, why say "My wife and myself saw a good movie."?

I suspect people who weren't raised in homes in which "correct" English was the norm think they are being more posh when they switch pronouns in compounded phrases. That is, they think "Sigrid and I" is more posh than "Sigrid and me" and "My wife and myself..." is more elegant than "My wife and I..." They are dimly aware that "Sigrid and me..." and "My wife and me..." are wrong in some instances, but they're not quite sure where or why, so they switch the pronouns when they shouldn't.

Am I being a snob about this? I hate snobs, but when it comes to language, sometimes people can't help being snobs. We have a hard time overcoming our emotional reactions to language usage. Now, that's another topic!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Battle's Over

I've given up on what used to be called correct speech, at least on some points. When the best of writers and the most educated of people are making the kinds of errors that, as my father used to say, "grate on the ears," it's time to "fuggedaboudit"

While reveling in John Gardner's Grendel, I read that Hrothgar's queen "had lain aside her hopes" Actually, I don't recall what she had laid aside, but that isn't the point. The point is that if you put something somewhere, aside, down, on the table or wherever, you have laid it. You have lain only if you are in a prone position. You can not have lain anything.

The verb lie, lay, (have) lain, (is) lying refers to the position of a person, animal or object, so that one is lying down on the bed, or one lay down for an hour yesterday, one asks the dog to "lie down," or something has lain there for a while.

In contrast, I finally lay down when I laid my arms down. If you can substitute put, then the verb is lay, laid, (have) laid, (is) laying. The problem is, for most speakers, that the present tense of lay, meaning 'put' is a homonym of the past tense of lie, meaning 'be in a prone position.'

Generations of grammar teachers and grammar books have tried to maintain the distinction between these verbs, and for some people, it is still maintained, but not for most people, even the well-educated. My fellow college professors regularly confuse lie and lay, even though they sneer at other "wrong" usages. I see writers, even good ones, even those devoted to literate language make the same error. Most telling, nobody even notices when someone confuses these verbs, not even copy editors.

So, go lay down if you want. As for me, however, I will continue to lie down, but I don't fool myself into thinking that anybody will notice that I lie down, I will be lying down soon, yesterday I lay down, and I have not lain down all day. I surrender to language change. Today, I officially have laid my grammar judgments aside and accept lay for lie.

I leave you with some questions: what former grammar errors are you willing to accept? Should we continue to rail against incorrect usage? Is any usage incorrect if everyone speaks that way?