First installment of intriguing articles on English

My major reason for wanting a blog was to have discussions on language issues that would attract serious and open-minded people. One way to do this is to respond to posts on listservs, but that has the disadvantage of irritating the authors of said posts. Another way is to enter information I find intriguing and hope others find it so, too. This information should pique the interest of language people and challenge their thinking.

To that purpose, I have decided to begin entering items from my notes on books I’ve read on the history of English. I chose English because that’s what I read the most of and because most readers have English as their native language. I read material on the history of a number of Indo-European languages but know the most about English.

This grew out of my frustration with posters who seem to think that if they are English speakers they are ipso facto experts on usage. My knowledge of English grammar and other features of the language is superior to that of most people, but I can be blind-sided. For instance, if someone had asked me if “the car needs washed? could appear as a natural English utterance, I would have said, “No, English can say, “The car looks washed? and “The car needs to be washed?, but not “The car needs washed?. Then I read about the Pittsburgh dialect where in fact “The car needs washed? does occur.

So we all have a lot to learn and I hope to add to that accumulated knowledge. Let me start with a couple of things I have learned recently. I will eventually post a bibliography, in fact, one’s already on my blog from June of 2006 and I’ll add to it soon.

?Willy nilly? comes from contractions no longer found, to wit, ne + will he = nilly. So “willy nilly? = “will he won’t he. Also note the way Englishmen contract “I will not? to “I’ll not? while Americans say “I won?t?. In addition, African-American vernacular English can delete the copula where Standard English contracts it and cannot delete where SE cannot contract e.g. SE he’s my brother AAVE He my brother but SE I know he is vs *I know he’s and AAVE I know he is vs *I know he…. where the * means it is a non-occurring form.

Have you ever wondered why contractions occur in English but not in Spanish? It has to do with the phonetic system, the stress type and the syllabe timing. Languages like English and the other Germanic languages have a stress-timed syllabic arrangement and heavy stress at that, so unstressed syllables aren’t given any stress and very little time, the time being given to stressed syllables. This allows us to swallow weak syllables and probably contributed to the disappearance of inflectional endings by the early modern period e.g. Shakespeare. Spanish, OTOH, has a lighter and even stress, no secondary stress like English, and is syllable-timed, so that each syllable gets the same amount of time, stressed or not.

Comments? Questions? How often have you had students tell you that contractions are “incorrect English??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *