My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!
Poetry began life as the Proto Indo European root kwoiwo, meaning “making”. It entered Greek as poein, “to make or compose”; the derived word poetes meant “maker” or “author”. From there it came into Latin as poeta, “author, poet”, and thence into Old French as poete and 14th century English as poet.
Prose, meanwhile, started out as a compound word in Latin: proversa, from pro (”forward”) + versus (”turning”), meaning “straightforward, direct”. It was shortened over time to prosa, and used in the phrase prosa oratio, referring to “straightforward speech” (i.e. without all that versification nonsense). From Latin it passed briefly through Old French before entering English about the same time that poetry did.
Something in the English language is changing, but not many people have noticed it. Maybe a teacher, here or there, has noticed it on one of their student’s papers, and thought it was an error. Or a pundit has railed against it in their column, or someone has written an angry note about it on their facebook page. But the average person is just making the change naturally, by themselves, without even noticing what they’re doing.
A reader of English in 1900 — or even 1950 — would have read the above paragraph and cringed at the horrible “mistakes” I made. It wasn’t a mistake, though; it’s a fundamental change in the English language. You’ve probably spotted it, given the title of this article. If not, here’s the way I “should” have written it:
Something in the English language is changing, but not many people have noticed it. Maybe a teacher, here or there, has noticed it on one of his student’s papers, and thought it was an error. Or a pundit has railed against it in his column, or someone has written an angry note about it on his facebook page. But the average person is just making the change naturally, by himself, without even noticing what he’s doing.
A couple of days ago I read one of those books that reaches deep into your heart and wrenches you. I was in my daughter’s brand-new first grade classroom, and the first big meeting between the class parents and the teacher was over, and people were milling around and talking and getting to know each other. In Waldorf education, a single teacher stays with a class without interruption from the first grade through the eighth grade, so at this meeting everyone knew that they were laying the groundwork for relationships that had to stand the test of time. Of course, many of us parents knew each other already from last year’s Kindergarten, and most of us knew our class teacher from earlier work she’d done with the school, and the informal parties and gatherings we’d had over the summer — but still…
I found myself over by the bookshelf. I wondered what books my daughter’s teacher had picked out to get started with — no doubt books with beautiful pictures and simple words for early readers… Here was a magnificent ancient edition of the Billy Goats Gruff, with a neat pop-up mechanism that allowed the reader to see the troll encountering each of the goats one at a time. The biggest billy goat Gruff looked so terrifying that I felt absolutely sorry for the troll.
My eye was drawn to a small paper book called Komo the Shepherd Boy, by Martha Hackman (Green Tiger Press, 1982). The illustrations were stunning — bright watercolors in a sort of “Yellow Submarine” late-60’s style, by Aura Cesari. I thumbed through the pages, and saw that there was quite a bit of text. Obviously, our teacher intended this to be a book that she would read aloud to the class. I was surprised, because in our experience Waldorf teachers tell stories completely from memory, for a number of reasons — perhaps most importantly to allow the children to form their own pictures in their heads, uninfluenced by pictures in a book, and to allow themselves to fully engage the children as they’re speaking…
My eye was caught by a few key phrases. I immediately read the whole thing in two minutes.
In (belated) honor of Valentine’s Day, I present to you an hommage to the language of love.
(I really shouldn’t do this, and I feel guilty about it. As a linguist, I value all languages highly and respect them as monuments to human culture and innovation. On top of that, French really is a lovely language, both written and spoken. Its spelling system may be inefficient — the word eaux, for example, is pronounced “o” — but who cares about that? Beauty doesn’t have to be efficient. But… still… perhaps I may engage in the occasional guilty pleasure…)
I always get excited about new linguistic discoveries. This new discovery isn’t certain yet, and the final linguistic consensus may not arrive for decades, but it’s an exciting possibility anyway.
Quite some time ago I wrote about taboo words and euphemisms, and what they can tell us about a society. The gist is that a taboo word is one which causes offense, for whatever reason. If you identify the taboo words in a languge, you can find some of the more sensitive parts of a society.
The power of the taboo word was demonstrated quite forcefully in the recent Senate race in Virginia. The Republican candidate slipped up and used a racial epithet in a speech. The race in Virginia was close enough — decided by fewer than 8,000 votes — that the candidate’s loss can certainly be attributed to the outrage caused by that taboo word. And the balance of power in the Senate was close enough that the single Republican loss led to a switchover in Senate control, so that now, for the first time in twelve years, the Democrats control the Senate.
Read up on all the juicy linguistic details here. (Warning: the article contains the taboo word in question, as well as some even less savory ones.)
..oft evil will shall evil mar…
As I described in this previous post, one of the requirements of the Magic Spiral in the candidate year in the AODA is to learn about magic through reading and meditation. The books I selected to start with were three on “neurolinguistic programming” by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. I started with Bandler’s book, Use Your Brain for a Change, which is an edited set of lectures from the 1980s, and The Structure of Magic I & II, which were written in the 1970s. Use Your Brain for a Change especially comes highly recommended. As a linguist, I was very interested to see how linguistics would play into these techniques. I’ll lay out some of my thoughts below.