Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Making History Every Time You Speak

Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan studies the history of English. "I have a great job," she says, one where she challenges people to rethink their ideas of how language works. In addition to teaching, she co-edits the respected Journal of English Linguistics and is also on the usage panel of the The American Heritage Dictionary. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with her about the history of English, medieval language, gender in language and more. Our conversation was so intriguing we broke it into two parts. Here's part one:

VT: Do you consider the history of English to be a living history?

Anne: Absolutely. My primary field of study is the history of English, including Old and Middle English, so I'm looking at changes in the language since medieval times. But the history of English is going on all around us every day and I'm completely fascinated by that, too. This is one of the primary messages I share with my students. I give them perspective about the variation they're hearing that they tend to think of as mistakes or bad English. In fact, it's often evidence of language evolving and of language variation.

VT: Can you give us an example?

Anne: In terms of grammar, for example, I'll ask my students: "What is the past tense of dive?" Most of them answer dove. I tell them this is new! Since 1300 the past tense has been dived. We're now happily creating a new irregular verb by making the past tense of dive into dove. I'll also ask: "What is the past tense of sneak?" The classroom will be evenly divided between sneaked and snuck. Again, we have created a new irregular past tense here. This kind of change in language happens all the time -- and while sometimes we make words behave more regularly, we certainly don't always...

VT: Why do you think these changes are happening? Why doesn't it just stay snuck forever?

Anne: Because we as speakers are creative beings. Every time a child learns the language, they learn it slightly differently. And as we use it, and use it creatively, it also changes. Every living language does.

VT: I wonder if you hear a thread of medieval English in the language we speak today. Is there anything left?

Anne: That's a great question. If you look at the most common words in English today, the majority of them are native English words, and you can trace them all the way back to Old English. They're words like land, heart, mother and father.

VT: It's interesting that words like mother and father remained the same throughout the course of English's history. You'd think human invention would change them.

Anne: Well, their pronunciation did change over time, but you can trace the word itself to the beginnings of English. The words we use everyday we don't as often tend to borrow from other languages or create anew. So the words that are closest to us, like home, water, or good or evil, are all native English words.

What's interesting about English is that you don't have to get too far outside that core before you find words that are, in fact, borrowed. They're borrowed from Old Norse, French, Latin, and now in the modern age, from a whole range of languages that English comes into contact with. We don't realize the extent to which some of the most common words are borrowed, like egg, sky and sister, which come from Old Norse, and pea, which comes from Latin.

VT: Amazing.

Anne: Yes, in fact, the pronouns they, them and their are also all borrowed, which is one of the true oddities of English.

VT: Really, from where?

Anne: From Old Norse.

VT: Our conversation got me thinking of the controversy in France about how foreign words are polluting "true" French. From what you're describing that argument doesn't really make any sense.

Anne: That's right. It's interesting when you hear about people who are concerned about the purity of English, or who say that English is being corrupted. Speakers have had this desire for centuries, to fix the language in its current state. The idea is, right now English may be okay, but whatever changes are happening are very worrisome and probably bad.

VT: And this has been going on for hundreds of years?

Anne: It has been going on for hundreds of years. You can go back and read about people who said, "Well the high point was?" And they name a period within the prior few hundred years when they thought really good English was spoken. And they invariably add, "It's been decaying since then. But if we can just stop it now, we'll be okay." But this is a shifting target. If you look at the 19th century, for example, people were looking back to the 17th century and saying 19th century English was terrible. And now we look back to 19th century and say, "Oh, but those people were really eloquent."

VT: Fascinating, so language is anything but static.

Anne: Here is another example. I often ask my students this question: What does the word peruse mean? Let me ask you, how do you use it?

VT: To look over something without too much detail, I guess.

Anne: But if you look in most standard dictionaries, it will say, "to read carefully or thoroughly, to pore over."

VT: Really?

Anne: Yes. And this has just happened within the last generation. If you ask my parents, they use it to mean to "read carefully." But almost all if not all of my students use peruse to mean to "skim or scan." For some of them it can even involve walking, as in "peruse the aisles in a grocery store." When I ask students about this word, they usually want to go to a dictionary. They often want to say, "Well, it means what the dictionary says." But my answer is, if we all think it means skim or scan, then doesn't it mean skim or scan? And they'll ask, "So when will the dictionary catch up with us?" And I respond, "It will. It's tracking us. But we'll always be ahead of it."

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