I See What You Did There—A Letter from the Managing Editor SpecGram Vol CLXIII, No 2 Contents Spelling Reform: As seen through the eyes of a child—Yan-Ying Mottainai and Madingle Hopper

Ask Mr Linguistics Person

      “Why do languages decay?
—Robin McSmarty-O’Pantssen,
age 8⅔, Smart Aleck, NY.

Hwæt! Languages don’t decay, they change over... okay, I just can’t go on perpetuating this myth that languages don’t decay. They do. They decay because speakers are lazy. The prescriptivist language mavens are right. (By the way, maven is a portmanteau of musty and raven and comes from a well-known story by Aesop called The Ravens and the Musty Corpse. (It is usually left out of collections of Aesop’s fables for children these days because of the corpseand our society’s inability to accept death as part of the cycle of life. (If you aren’t familiar with it, then blame the fact that you never read any of Aesop’s fables as an adultbecause we no longer value true literary classics in our societypreferring instead Harry Potter and Twilighteven as adults.)) Where was I? Right. The fable is about a group of ravens who defend the musty old corpse of a grammarian from the other ravens, even though there is almost nothing left of it to eat. They are continuously distracted by shiny objects on the corpse. They loudly proclaim that the corpse is in perfect condition, and a wonderful source of food and treasure. Eventually the ravens on the musty corpse starve to death, but none of the other ravens notice, having moved on to feast on the intellectually more stimulating carcass of a mathematician.)

Anyway, to get back to my main point, the word portmanteau refers to a word made by combining two other words, such as with the case of musty + raven = maven. The word portmanteau itself is, at least apocryphally, a merging of three words. More of a smooshing, actually, since they didn’t really merge all that much. Mark Twain, when pinned by etiquette and unable to escape a traveller on a steamboat who insisted on telling a long and rambling tale, called out to the barkeep, “Bring me another glass of wine! And a glass of sherry! Hell, bring me a whole bottle of port, man, too!” The phrase captured the imagination of a Frenchman traveling on the steamboatand only his imagination, since he didn’t speak a word of Englishand he took it back to France, where the French violated the word’s orthographic rights and respelled it against its will, and then exported it back to England and America.

But I digress. What I really wanted to tell you about was the word apocryphal. It comes from Greek ἀπό-, meaning “away, apart” + English crap + ha!, and was originally used by classics scholars to mean “Ha! Get that crap away from me!”, and was used when other, lesser, scholars seemed to be making things up.

So, as I was saying, English is in fact rotting from the inside out. The prescriptivists are right on that score. Where they are wrong is in believing that younger generations today are any lazier, are more linguistically degenerate, or contribute more to the decay of English than the generations who came before. We all do terrible, irreparable violence to our Langue every time we open our Parole holes. That’s the nature of Language.

Out in the real world, decay is part of the cycle of life. Plants pull nutrients from the soil, struggle toward the light, grow, and get eaten by animals. Animals get nutrients from the plants (and other animals) they eat, poop, and die. Animal poop and dead animals provide nutrients to the soil, and the cycle of life continues.

So, too, with languages. Lazy speakers of synthetic languages erode the grammar-bearing morphology off their words. Eventually, the language poops out its morphology, becoming isolating rather than synthetic, the word order petrifies, and small function words take over the role of grammar-bearing units. Lazy speakers of isolating languages erode the spaces between words, until the grammar-bearing small words glom onto adjacent words, and speakers become too lazy to remember the order in which words should appear in a sentence. These glommed-on grammar-bearing bits eventually become morphology, the language becomes more synthetic than isolating, and it poops out its reliance on a fixed word order.

Thus the cycle of life and the cycle of grammaticalization are very similar, except the cycle of life operates on individuals over short time spans, involves the struggle for life and growth, and only partly relies on real or metaphorical poop, while the cycle of grammaticalization operates on groups over long time scales, involves the antithesis of strugglelazinessand consists entirely of poop.

The important question is: where are we? How long until English is nothing but a pile of grammatical excrement? Fortunately, there are linguo-cultural indicators that linguists can reliably use to gauge such things. Excessive use of parenthetical asides, rambling prose, lack of narrative structure, untoward hyperbole, and improper use of em-dashesand, commasare signs of the impending linguistic apocalypse (and also of dementia, but I digress). So clearly we’ve got plenty of time before English implodes on itself.

Ha! Just kidding! It is mathematically provable that there is now no way to ever use commas that will keep all language mavens happy, and we’re running out of time so fast that this sentence may haveby the time I finish writing itbecame ungrammatical anymore.

I See What You Did ThereA Letter from the Managing Editor
Spelling Reform: As seen through the eyes of a childYan-Ying Mottainai and Madingle Hopper
SpecGram Vol CLXIII, No 2 Contents