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"What Language Is": Language is Disheveled

In his new book, What Language Is, the linguist John McWhorter takes the reader on a guided tour of language as it really is, not how we might assume it to be. One of his keys to understanding language the way a linguist does is to appreciate that it is inherently messy, or "disheveled," as he puts it. In this excerpt, McWhorter uses the history of English as his example of just how disheveled language can be.

It's quite messy, this thing called English. Words and meanings don't match up nearly as nicely as we like to suppose, because the vocabulary is like a plant with dead leaves scattered throughout. In other words, I might say that a language is never sheveled — but then I can't say that, because the word doesn't exist despite the fact that, by all rights, it should, as should kempt. One cannot be couth — or, one seems rather the opposite if one utters it, nor can one show ruth to one's enemies, except under the peculiar circumstance of seeking victory over a foe by revealing to them the visage of someone named Ruth. [...]

Let's go back to Wharton's Ned Van Alstyne. Did you ever wonder why Ned is the nickname for Edward, Nellie for Ellen, and Nan for Ann? After all, if someone's name is Maria and you come to be fond of her, your impulse is not to start calling her N'Maria — and speakers of Old and Middle English were no sillier than we are. In itself, even Ned for Ed seems a little goofy — "Hey there, Ed, Eddie boy, good ol'... Nnnnned!!!" Why??? Today, if we have a friend named Aisha, the last thing we would start saying is "Ooh, here comes my... Nnnaisha!" What was it with early Brits and n?

The answer is a "mistake." Just as in German my is mein, in Old English my was mı̄n. You would say, in modern parlance, mine book, mine cat. And, you would often say, in affection, mine Ed, mine Ellie. As mı̄n changed to my, people started hearing the old n as the first sound in the names: mine Ed became my Ned. The result was new versions of these names starting with n, used as nicknames — i.e., names you use in affection, as people used to in saying mine Ed.

For a related reason, properly, there are no notches — the word is a mistake. There should be otches, as that was the original word. Notch happened when people heard an otch so often that they started thinking of it as a notch. Equally vulgar, if this was a "mistake," is a statement that Ned is Van Alstyne's nickname, since we "should" be talking about his "ickname" — a nickname happened when people misheard an ekename. Newt, to the extent that we ever say it ("Look, honey, a newt!"), is "wrong" for the same reason — it "should" be an ewt or, as it was at first, an eft, which is an actual word for the same slimy little critter, although you're only likely to come across the word in crossword puzzles. The tragically slovenly nature of the human condition meanwhile nicked the n's off of other words by mistaking their initial n as part of an an. Apron started as naprona napron sounded like an apron, and after a while, apron it was. But if that's wrong, then umpire, adder, and auger would also have to be classified as gutter talk.

I'm afraid we also need to get over the idea that there is such a thing as a pea, a cherry, or sherry. All three are mistakes. One pea was at first a pease — that's why it's "pease porridge hot." Medieval English speakers didn't mean what we would mean with "peas porridge," as, once again, they weren't silly: they wouldn't call pea porridge "peas porridge" any more than we would ask for "apples pie." But you can easily see how pease was subject to misinterpretation. It sounded like a plural, and so people assumed that there was a word pea. Now, it would seem, there is.

Cherry is cerise in French and that's where we got the word, but that sounded plural, too, and pretty soon we were hearing people singing about how "I Gave My Love a Cherry," which to some at the time must have sounded like someone being handed two slices of cheddar and saying "Okay, but I'm on a diet so I'll just take one chee." And sherry was named as the wine of Xeres in Spain (in earlier Spanish the x was pronounced sh). But "I'll have a glass of sherries," as it came out in English, was ripe for misinterpretation as just sherry. Hence we now consider ourselves rather "too too" when we sip something that we refer to with, technically, an unlettered barbarism. [...]

What this all means is that the very fabric of the English language we speak without a care is full of meaningless chunks, bits of stuff that hover awkwardly between life and death, sounds that started out as the ends or beginnings of adjacent words, and even sounds that wouldn't be in the language at all anymore if a few people hadn't decreed that they hang around in scattered random instances.

Update: Read a second excerpt from McWhorter's book here.

Excerpted from What Language Is by John McWhorter. Copyright © 2011 by John McWhorter. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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Ben Zimmer spoke to John McWhorter about how "chunking" can help teach English.
In another dialog, Ben Zimmer and John McWhorter discussed the State of the Union address.