Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The ship sails

As a linguist, one of the things you have to get used to is that languages change.

The denial of this basic fact is at the heart of the argument between prescriptivists (people who think there are hard-and-fast rules regarding "proper" or "correct" speech and writing) and descriptivists (people who believe that a linguist's job is not to codify language for the purpose of determining what's correct, but simply to describe it and monitor how it changes).  I tend to be strongly descriptivist -- after all, my M.A. is in historical linguistics, and if the vocabulary and syntactic rules of languages didn't evolve, I'd be out of a job.  On the other hand, there's a line (no, I don't know where exactly it is), because if there were no grammatical and pronunciation rules whatsoever, it'd make communication pretty difficult.

So I understand why we teach prescriptively.  But it behooves us all to realize that the language is gonna change anyhow, whether we want it to or not, and fighting like hell against it is the very definition of an exercise in futility.

One of the places things change the fastest is in slang.  When I taught high school, I used to run into new slang expressions very nearly on a daily basis.  Some of them have interesting origins.  For example, the slang use of the word ship -- meaning, to watch or read a piece of fiction and hope that two characters fall in love -- comes from the characterization of fans who want that outcome for the characters as "relationshippers."  This got shortened to "shippers," and finally converted into a verb -- e.g., "I ship Mulder and Scully."  (And in fact, the word did come from fans of the iconic television show The X Files.)

The capacity for sinking yourself into the lives of a celebrity or a fictional character led to another coinage, this one from none other than a song by Eminem.  It's the word stan -- a portmanteau word made up by combining stalker and fan.  Initially, it had a completely negative connotation, implying the person was deranged, perhaps dangerous.  But over time it's moderated, and like ship has become a verb, meaning "to behave like a fanboy/fangirl."  The recent sweet queer romcom Red, White, and Royal Blue led to a lot of people stanning Alex and Prince Henry -- and I have to admit I felt a little of that myself.

Then there's yeet, which dates to 1998, and means "to throw something."  The origin of this word is uncertain, but may be imitative, representing the noise you make when you pitch something heavy.  I posted on social media last week something about this word -- "Linguistics question of the day: is the past tense of yeet yote?  Because it should be."  This generated a rather hilarious discussion over whether it should be yote, yot, yaught, yet, or yut, and one person who patiently explained to all of us that because yeet is a modern coinage, we shouldn't expect it to follow any of the patterns from Middle English strong verbs, so it should be yeeted.

Illustrating another general principle, which is that no matter how obvious you try to make humor, some people are going to take you seriously.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons M. Adiputra, Globe of language, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Even accents change, and it's new research in this field that brought the topic to my mind today.  A recent study at the University of Georgia found that the traditional Southern drawl -- for example, pronouncing prize as /praz/ and not as the more standard American English /praiz/, and face as /fɤis/ and not as /feis/ -- is fast disappearing.  The last generation of Southerners whose pronunciations are characteristic of the old drawl are Baby Boomers.  (There are exceptions, mainly in rural areas, but their numbers are dwindling quickly.)  The homogenizing effects of movement from one region to another, and hearing the more common accents of the Pacific Coast and Midwest on television, have gradually shifted the way people speak.  (And another factor has a darker subtext, one that as a native Southerner I'm really sensitive to; people using a fake Southern accent to code someone being stupid, bigoted, or backwards.  These ugly perceptions are why a lot of people who move north strive to lose their Southern-ness.)

The South is not the only area in the United States experiencing this, of course.  "The demographics of the South have changed a lot with people moving into the area, especially post World War II," said study co-author Jon Forrest, of the University of Georgia department of linguistics.  "We are seeing similar shifts across many regions, and we might find people in California, Atlanta, Boston and Detroit that have similar speech characteristics."

While I understand the reasons behind all this, and I know it's inevitable, I can't help but find it a little sad that regions are losing part of what makes them unique.  Our mobility and the role that television and movies have in culture are blending a lot of the distinctness out of us.

So while we'll continue seeing new coinages like ship and stan and yeet, we'll see other features of our language fade and eventually disappear.  It's the way of things.  Take, for example, this recounting of an argument from printer and writer William Caxton in 1490, when Middle English was inexorably evolving into Modern English, leading to the older generation having some difficulties being understood even in matters as simple as what the plural of egg was:
In my dayes happened that certayn marchau[n]tes were in a ship in Tamyse [the Thames] for to haue sayled ouer the see into Zelande [in Holland] and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte Forlond [in Kent]. and wente to lande for to refreshe them[.]  And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows [house] and axed [asked] for mete [food], and specyally he axyed after egges[.]  And the good wyf answerde, that she coude speke no Frenshe.  And the marchau[n]t was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges and she understode hym not.  And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren, then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel.  Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren, certainly it is harde to playse euery man, by cause of dyuersite [&] chau[n]ge of langage.

Forsooth, Caxton, thou hast said it.


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