Saturday, October 15, 2011

Weeds in the Garden of Words, by Kate Burridge

I recently stumbled upon a collection of Cambridge University Press e-books. As I browsed the titles, my love for my own field of study, linguistics, came pouring back.  I downloaded several titles and chose this one at random as the first read. It was a good choice, since of all the titles I downloaded, this is the least technical; it's the gentlest re-introduction to the field.  Kate Burridge is an Australian linguist, and Weeds in the Garden of Words is her rambling reflections on philology (the study of words), written for a general audience.

How does she define 'weed'? Gardeners can't agree upon a botanical definition for a weed, and Burridge allows that the linguistic definition is also inexact. Whether spoken, written or green, weeds can be useful and even attractive, but they can also be pernicious. One man's weed is another's ornamental. They often spread rapidly and prove difficult to exterminate; they're hardy. In both cases, "the difficulty is that weeds are context specific. It depends entirely on location and on time whether something is classified as a weed or not." Ultimately, weeds are in the minds of the beholders. If your blood boils every time a dandelion mars your prize lawn, or every time you hear someone say "at this point in time" -- that's a weed.  Yes, says Burridge, weeds are a subjective business:  "As I mentioned earlier, the garden weeds in my Companion to Weeds include some of my most cherished possessions. And so it is with our linguistic weeds. They are totally centred upon the bees that are in our bonnets."

She reminds me that linguists should be neutral, objective observers of language, not arbiters of usage. (I've lapsed in this regard.) She also reminds me that the rise of one language or dialect to pre-eminence is almost never for linguistic reasons. Intrinsic beauty, simplicity or logic does not guarantee linguistic success. Why, for example, isn't Liverpool or Melbourne English the gold standard today?
London English piggy-backed on a series of geographical, cultural, economic and political episodes. These included the emergence of London as a political and commercial centre and its proximity to Oxford and Cambridge; Chaucer’s literary genius; and William Caxton’s first printing presses in Westminster – these had the combined effect of putting London English in such a position that standardization was inevitable.
The problem with establishing a standard, however, is that one is expected to adhere to it. Language is a living thing, always changing -- when a lexical or grammatical weed crops up, it may be all but impossible to stop it once it takes root and starts to spread. Oh, but the purists do try.
Their publications safeguard the language against ‘the boundless chaos of a living speech’, to quote Samuel Johnson again. Johnson had produced in 1755 what was really the first complete dictionary of English. And his intentions were quite clear – to banish what he described as ‘barbarous corruptions’, ‘licentious idioms’ and ‘colloquial barbarisms’. I’m not sure he would have approved of bootylicious or beer goggles.
Burridge discusses the provenance of some lexical weeds which have wrangled their way into English. Many are loan-words, borrowed directly from a foreign language. Bijou, fettucine, and hacienda are examples. Calques, on the other hand, are literal translations of foreign phrases. Ear-worm (a tune that sticks annoyingly in the head) is a calque, translated directly from German ohr-wurm.  For some reason, English seems to borrow more often from French, but translate from German, which is intriguing when we consider that German is a related language. At any rate, we've always been great borrowers: "Our English language is something of a lexical bitser (or mongrel), with around seventy-five per cent of its vocabulary filched from other languages. More than 120 languages, in fact, have contributed to our lexical coffers."

Even a nonsensical expression, if it captures speakers' fancy, may take root and spread. Burridge mentions that 'the cat's pyjamas' came into vogue in the 1920s. There was no stopping it.
In addition to the cat’s whiskers, I’ve uncovered the cat’s miaow, the cat’s eyebrows, the cat’s ankle, tonsils, adenoids, even the cat’s arse. And there are various other cat trappings too, including the cat’s cufflinks, galoshes, and rollerskates.
The variations on the original phrase may have aided the survival of this particular cat-weed.  Other words or phrases appear on the language scene and then die from exhaustion.
Overuse will always take the life out of an expression and there were plenty of ‘lexical zombies’ (to use David Crystal’s label) on this list – between a rock and a hard place, touch base, boggles the mind, bottom line, thinking outside the box, the fact of the matter is, moving the goalposts, pushing the envelope and singing from the same hymn sheet. Others among the walking dead included intensifiers such as absolutely and awesome.
Then we come to the linguistic thistle-bush, the prickly subject of slang. It has always been purists' bugbear. "As someone early last century wrote, ‘slang is to a people’s language what an epidemic disease is to their bodily constitution’."  The impartial linguist, however, points out that slang has its uses. Any teen-ager could tell you that much!
Slang serves the dual purpose of solidarity and secrecy. It indicates membership within a particular group, as well as social distance from the mainstream. At the same time, it prevents bystanders and eavesdroppers from understanding what’s being said.
Eventually, though, the outsiders catch on to the hidden meanings of slang words and phrases. Then they either fade out of use or join mainstream vocabulary. Burridge cites a study showing that about 10% of slang terms gain acceptability in this way.

The definition of a weed can be purely regional.  Having grown up in the US, I had no idea that the word gotten might possibly cause offense.
I’m not sure what it is about the word gotten, but it seems to be a verb form that manages to get up almost everybody’s nose, outside of North America, that is. Ordinary laid-back Australians regularly vent spleen on examples such as It’s gotten more spectacular. ‘The ugliest Americanism’ is how one irate reader of the Canberra Times describes it.
Burridge replies that gotten is actually an older usage, reflecting the fact that the Puritans left England for the colonies much earlier than English prisoners began settling in Oz. Further, there are subtle differences between got and gotten.  (Think about He's got a job vs. He's gotten a job.)  I doubt the Australian attitude, since Burridge's defense, has gotten any better.  And who are those Aussies to judge, with that indescribable accent of theirs?
Indeed, at one time there was a popular theory that attributed the Australian accent to bad dentistry – ill-fitting dentures, in fact. Some writers even talked about a national nose inflammation through excessive amounts of pollen or hay.
On a more serious note, Burridge writes of the links between language and perception. We've all seen the various lexical gyrations when referring to people of different races, as well as the vocabulary we apply to the mentally ill. Nowadays we use euphemism to dance around the stigma of insanity. In the past, we might have said that our insane neighbour was 'a bit funny in the head.'  There was a reason for this.
There is a long history to the perceived link between madness and funny behaviour. Recall that people once visited insane asylums for entertainment – with an entry fee of one penny, Bedlam had an astonishing revenue of about £400 per annum in the early 18th century!
It feels good to return to a linguistics text, even if it's a light-weight one. It's refreshing to step back into the objective study of language as a living, changing system.  Will it stop me gritting my teeth when I next hear someone saying, "So I went like, y'know, and then he was like..." ?  No. I'm only human. Like where's the weed-killer?

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