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.

The word “over” as in ’The game is over’ is labeled an adverb in the dictionary. How do you explain this? Could you see it as an adjective? What’s the difference between ’The game is ended’ and ’The game is over’?

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

I’m having trouble with the comment function of this blog so I’ll edit in Laura Gibbs’ comment.
“Hi Pat, I especially enjoyed the comment about how Spanish does not experience contractions – fascinating! I’ve been working a lot on Latin prosody this summer, and it is a language full of contractions. Wouldn’t it be great to know how people actually SPOKE…? Luckily we have some written evidence for the contraction (syncopation) process in Latin, because it was important in poetry, and thus left traces in the written evidence – periclum for periculum, to take one example. I have a personal theory about Latin iambic poetry, which is that when it was read out loud in Latin, syncopation was used – rather than all the insanely complicated possibilities for substitution which you will find if you look up an account of the “rules” of iambic poetry in Latin (and even if my theory would not hold for the ancient Romans, I am really confident it held for neo-Latin iambic versifers in the Renaissance and later, for whom the vowel quantity system was a complete artifice). If anybody knows a good book on linguistic prosody and literary prosody in the different languages of the world, I would love to read that! The literary prosody of Latin poetry gives us some clues to everyday prosody (thank goodness for Plautus!), but it’s indirect evidence at best, and all tangled up with the influence of Greek poetic conventions. Anyway, if somebody knows of such a book, especially if it looks at Latin and/or English for examples, I’d love to read such a thing. :-)”

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