Sunday, May 20, 2007

Peevish About Language Pet Peevishness

Everyone has pet peeves about the way other people use language, just as we all have pet peeves about the way other people dress, drive, or eat.

The existence of peevishness on my part, though, doesn't justify my writing a newspaper column about it (that's what blog posts are for!), unless I can write something witty or illuminating about myself, or about others, or about the offending behavior itself. It won't do just to say, Some people do X, and I don't like it. How ignorant and illogical those people are!

And that, in a nutshell, is my objection to "Word's Worth," Mike Clark's monthly language column in the News & Record.

For example, in this week's column, Mike expresses disapproval about the way some Americans pronounce the word didn't, saying (according to Mike) did-dint, putting in an extra d. But instead of simply going on about how incorrect this is, I wish Mike had started by paying close attention to the actual sounds people make, and had not mischaracterized their pronunciation. They actually say di-dint, and are adding a vowel, perhaps a short i or a schwa, just before the voiced consonant n. This insertion slightly changes the pronunciation of the second d in didn't, but doesn't add another d.

Once I had the phonetic facts straight, I might be curious about whether this kind of change happens elsewhere. For example, some people pronounce the word athlete as ath-e-lete, inserting a vowel before the voiced consonant l, and some pronounce umbrella as um-buh-rella (as Paul McCartney did in his song "Mamunia"), inserting a vowel before the voiced consonant r. This might make me wonder whether the new pronunciation di-dint is following a phonological rule -- does vowel insertion tend to happen before voiced consonants?. Hmm, did anyone ever propose the idea that changes in pronunciation are rule-governed? Something to think about.

I might also be interested to find out that vowel insertion is widespread enough in the world's languages to have a name, epenthesis (also called anaptyxis). Maybe I could observe that epenthesis happens as a rule in English plural formations when the singular form of a word ends in an "s" sound; thus the plural of kiss is not kiss-s but kisses.

And maybe I'd go so far as to wonder whether negative contractions show variation in other English dialects, and -- voila! -- 20 seconds of Googling would tell me that a common variant of didn't in England is dimt, and that in Newcastle people say both dee not and divvn't (those ignorant and illogical Brits!), and that in the Chicago area many people say dint.

Mike thinks we should fight this change, saying "we've blinked in the past, and the language has suffered," apparently blind (or deaf) to the fact that the contraction didn't was itself originally a variant "corruption" of did not -- yet we use it, and the English language has not disintegrated!

Perhaps Mike would also propose that we rescind the great vowel shift, and that we should no longer use the words apron or adder, because they were earlier napron and nadder, and people got a bit confused about the way they related to the indefinite article -- a napron got construed as an apron, etc.

But enough about sound. What about meaning? Mike complains that commonly-used expressions such as even as we speak and you guessed it often do not carry their literal meanings in everyday conversation. That is, when people say you guessed it, they often don't really mean to say that you guessed anything, and that when they say even as we speak, only one person is speaking. No kidding!

So what? Mike says they are being "inaccurate," but he himself uses a number of expressions in their non-literal meanings in his column, such as driving me crazy (he isn't really going crazy), we've blinked (he's not really talking about blinking the eyes), drives me bananas (not sure whether this one even has a literal meaning), and covers the gamut (and isn't the idiom actually runs the gamut?).

It would be much more interesting to try to find out what people actually mean when they say you guessed it, and to put the change of meaning into a larger context. Golly, the next thing you'll be complaining about is that when people say how do you do?, they are not actually inquiring about your state of being, and that when they say can you pass me the salt, they are not really asking whether you have the ability to pass the salt; they are actually requesting that you pass them the salt. How inaccurate of them!

Finally, Mike complains about people saying more than they need to in expressions like et cetera et cetera, or and so on and so forth, or in any way, shape, form, or fashion. But Mike doesn't show any interest in the general phenomenon of pleonasm, and he fails to wonder why it turns up so often in great literature:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
That Robert Frost -- what a maroon!


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Rick Rutledge said...

I enjoyed your commentary; you stayed a step ahead of me. I hadn't read the article to which you referred, but as I read many of your comments, I thought, "Yes, but what about ... OK."

I had these additional observations:

-"Oh no you di-dint!" is, to my ear, as likely to be pronounced "Oh no you di^int!" - rather than inserting the vowel after the D, replacing the D with a vowel and a glottal stop. (And of course, the expression is often accompanied by an arm akimbo, a wagging finger, and perhaps a bobbing head...)

- Those silly Brits who say "divvn't" are equally likely to celebrate their "birfdays" ("whever" they like getting older or not).

- Like "an apron" and "a napron," but perhaps less phonological and more rooted in ignorance or misunderstanding, I'm always intrigued whether someone who professes to be "agnostic" might actually be "a gnostic" rather than "an agnostic."

-Finally, to throw together the contractions and vowel insertions, pull in "weak" liquids, and "will not" "will[i?]n't" becomes "won't."