Arrant Pedantry

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100,000 Words Whose Pronunciations Have Changed

We all know that language changes over time, and one of the major components of language change is sound change. Many of the words we use today are pronounced differently than they were in Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s time. You may have seen articles like this one that list 10 or 15 words whose pronunciations have changed over time. But I can do one better. Here are 100,000 words that illustrate how words change.

  1. a: Before the Great Vowel Shift, the name of the first letter of the alphabet was pronounced /aː/, much like when the doctor asks you to open your mouth and say “ah” to look down your throat. In Old English, it was /ɑː/, which is pronounced slightly further back in the mouth. The name of the letter was borrowed from Latin, which introduced its alphabet to much of Europe. The Romans got their alphabet from the Greeks, probably by way of the Etruscans. But unlike the Greeks, the Romans simply called the letters by the sounds they made. The corresponding Greek letter, alpha, got its name from the Phoenician aleph, meaning ‘ox’, because the letter aleph represented the first sound in the word aleph. In Phoenician this was a glottal stop (which is not written in the Latin alphabet). The Greeks didn’t use this sound, so they borrowed it for the /a/ sound instead.
  2. a: This casual pronunciation of the preposition of goes back at least to the 1200s. It doesn’t appear in writing much, except in dialogue, where it’s usually attached to another word, as in kinda. But of itself comes from an unstressed form of the Old English preposition æf. Æf didn’t survive past Old English, but in time a new stressed form of of arose, giving us the preposition off. Of and off were more or less interchangeable until the 1600s, at which point they finally started to diverge into two distinct words. Æf is cognate with the German ab, and these ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂epó ‘off, away, from’, which is also the source of the Greek apo (as in apostasy) and the Latin ab (as in abuse). So the initial laryngeal sound in *h₂epó disappeared after changing the following vowel to /a/, the final /o/ disappeared, the /p/ fricatized to /f/, the vowel moved back and reduced, the /f/ became voiced to /v/, and then the /v/ fell away, leaving only a schwa, the barest little wisp of a word.
  3. a: The indefinite article a comes from an unstressed version of the numeral one, which in Old English was ān, though it also inflected for gender, number, and case, meaning that it could look like āne, ānum, ānes, ānre, or ānra. By Middle English those inflections were gone, leaving only an. The /n/ started to disappear before consonants starting in the 1100s, giving us the a/an distinction we have today. But the Old English ān came from an earlier Proto-Germanic *ainaz. The az ending had disappeared by Old English, and the diphthong /ai/ smoothed and became /ɑ:/. In its use as an article, its vowel shortened and eventually reduced to a schwa. But in its use as a numeral, it retained a long vowel, which eventually rose to /o:/ and then broke into the diphthong /wʊ/ and then lowered to /wʌ/, giving us the modern word one. The Proto-Germanic *ainaz goes further back to the Proto-Indo-European *óynos, so between PIE and Proto-Germanic the vowels lowered and the final /s/ became voiced.
  4. aback: This adverb comes from the prefix a- and the noun back. The prefix a- comes from an unstressed form of the preposition on which lost its final /n/ and reduced to a schwa. This prefix also appears in words like among, atop, awake, and asleep. On comes from the Proto-Germanic *ana, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European **h₂en-, which is also the source of the Greek ana-, as in analog and analyze. As with *h₂epó, the initial laryngeal sound changed the vowel to /a/ and then disappeared. Back, on the other hand, has changed remarkably little in the last thousand years. It was spelled bæc in Old English and was pronounced just like the modern word. It comes from a Proto-Germanic word *baka, though its ultimate origin is unknown.

Hopefully by now you see where I’m going with this. It’s interesting to talk about how words have changed over the years, but listicles like “10 Words Whose Pronunciations Have Changed” can be misleading, because they imply that changes in pronunciation are both random and rare. Well, sound changes are random in a way, in that it’s hard to predict what will change in the future, but they’re not random in the sense that they affect random words. Sound changes are just that—changes to a sound in the language, like /r/ disappearing after vowels or /t/ turning into a flap in certain cases in the middle of words. Words can randomly change too, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

And sound changes aren’t something that just happen from time to time, like the Great Vowel Shift. They’re happening continuously, and they have been happening since the beginning of language. If you like really deep dives (or if you need something to combat your insomnia), this Wikipedia article details the sound changes that have happened between late Proto-Germanic, spoken roughly 2,000 years ago, and the present day, when changes like th-fronting in England (saying fink for think) and the Northern Cities Shift in the US are still occurring.

So while it’s okay to talk about individual words whose pronunciations have changed, I think we shouldn’t miss the bigger picture: it’s language change all the way down.

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Is Change Okay or Not?

A few weeks ago I got into a bit of an argument with my coworkers in staff meeting. One of them had asked our editorial interns to do a brief presentation on the that/which rule in our staff meeting, and they did. But one of the interns seemed a little unclear on the rule—she said she had learned the rule in her class on modern American usage, but she had also learned that either that or which is technically fine with restrictive clauses. So of course I asked if I could chime in.

I pointed out that the rule—which states that you should always use that for restrictive clauses (except where that is grammatically impermissible, as when the relative pronoun follows a preposition or the demonstrative pronoun that)—is a relatively recent invention and that it didn’t really start to take hold in American usage until the mid-twentieth century. Many writers still don’t follow it, which means that editors have a lot of opportunities to apply the rule, and it’s generally not enforced outside the US.

My coworkers didn’t really like the perceived implication that the rule is bogus and that we shouldn’t worry about it, and one of them countered by saying that it didn’t matter what people did in 1810—the history is interesting, but we should be concerned about what usage is now. After all, the data clearly shows that the that/which rule is being followed in recent publications. And then she deployed an argument I’ve been seeing more and more lately: we all know that language changes, so why can’t we accept this change? (I’ve also heard variations like “Language changes, so why can’t we make it change this way?”)

These are good questions, and I don’t believe that linguists have good answers to them. (Indeed, I’m not even sure that good answers—or at least logically sound answers—are even possible.) In her book Verbal Hygiene, the linguist Deborah Cameron argues that it’s silly for linguists to embrace change from below but to resist change from above. What makes a “natural” change better than an unnatural one? We talk about how language changes, but it’s really people who change language, not language that changes by itself, so is there even a meaningful difference between natural and unnatural change?

Besides, many linguists have embraced certain unnatural changes, such as the movements for gender-neutral and plain language. Why is it okay for us to denounce prescriptivism on the one hand and then turn around and prescribe gender-neutral language on the other?

I haven’t come to a firm conclusion on this myself, but I think it all comes down to whether the alleged problem is in fact a problem and whether the proposed solution is in fact a solution. Does it solve the problem, does it do nothing, or does it simply create a new or different problem?

With gender-specific language, it’s clear that there’s a problem. Even though he is purportedly gender-neutral when its antecedent is indefinite or of unspecified gender, studies have shown that readers are more likely to assume that its antecedent is male. Clearly it’s not really gender-neutral if most people think “male” when they read “he”. Singular they has centuries of use behind it, including use by many great authors, and most people use it naturally and unselfconsciously. It’s not entirely uncontroversial, of course, but acceptance is growing, even among copy editors.

There are some minor thorny issues, like trying to figure out what the gender-neutral forms of freshman or fisherman should be, but writing around these seems like a small price to pay for text that treats people equally.

So what about the that/which rule? What problem does it claim to solve, and does it actually solve it?

The claim is that the rule helps distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, which in the abstract sounds like a good thing. But the argument quickly falls apart when you look at how other relative clauses work in English. We don’t need any extra help distinguishing between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with who, where, or when—the comma (or, in speech, the intonation) tells you whether a clause is restrictive. The fact that nobody has even recognized ambiguity with restrictive who or where or when as a problem, let alone proposed and implemented a solution, argues against the idea that there’s something wrong with restrictive which. Furthermore, no language I’ve heard of distinguishes between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with different pronouns. If it were really an advantage, then we’d expect to see languages all over the world with a grammaticalized distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

I’ve sometimes seen the counterargument that writers don’t always know how to use commas properly, so we can’t trust them to mark whether a clause is restrictive or not; but again, nobody worries about this with other relative clauses. And anyway, if copy editors can always identify when a clause is restrictive and thus know when to change which to that, then it stands to reason that they can also identify when a clause is nonrestrictive and and thus insert the commas if needed. (Though it’s not clear if even the commas are really necessary; in German, even restrictive clauses are set off with commas in writing, so you have to rely on context and common sense to tell you which kind of clause it is.)

It seems, then, that restrictive which is not a real problem at all and that insisting on that for all restrictive clauses doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even though Deborah Cameron criticizes linguists for accepting natural changes and rejecting unnatural ones, she also recognizes that many of the rules that copy editors impose, including the that/which rule, go far beyond what’s necessary for effective communication. She even quotes one scholar as saying that the that/which rule’s “sole virtue . . . is to give copy editors more billable hours.”

Some would argue that changing which to that doesn’t take much time, so there’s really no cost, but I don’t believe that’s true. My own research shows that it’s one of the most common usage or grammar changes that editors make. All those changes add up. I also know from experience that a lot of editors gripe about people not following the rule. That griping has a real effect on people, making them nervous about their abilities with their own native language. Even if you think the that/which rule is useful enough to justify the time it takes to impose it, is it worth making so many people feel self-conscious about their language?

Even if you believe that the that/which rule is an improvement, the fact is that English existed for nearly 1500 years without it, and even now it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of English speakers have never heard of it. Although corpus data makes it appear as though it’s taken hold in American English, all we can really say from this data is that it has taken hold in edited, published American English, which really means that it’s taken hold among American copy editors. I’m sure some writers have picked the rule up from their English classes or from Word’s grammar checker, but I think it’s safe to say that American English as a whole has not changed—only the most visible portion, published writing, has.

So it’s rather disingenuous to say that the language has changed and thus we should accept the that/which rule as a valid part of Standard English. The argument is entirely circular: editors should enforce the rule because editors have been enforcing the rule now for a few decades. The fact that they have been enforcing the rule rather successfully doesn’t tell us whether they should be enforcing the rule.

Of course, that’s the fundamental problem with all prescriptions—sooner or later, you run into the is–ought problem. That is, it’s logically impossible to derive a prescriptive statement (one that tells you what you ought to do) from a descriptive one (one that states what is). Any statement like “This feature has been in use for centuries, so it’s correct” or “Shakespeare and Jane Austen used this feature, so it’s correct” or even “This feature is used by a majority of speakers today, so it’s correct” is technically a logical fallacy.

While acknowledging that nothing can definitively tell us what usage rules we should or shouldn’t follow, I still think we can come to a general understanding of which rules are worth following and which ones aren’t by looking at several different criteria:

  1. Historical use
  2. Modern use
  3. Oral use
  4. Edited written use
  5. Unedited written use
  6. Use by literary greats
  7. Common use

No single criterion is either necessary or sufficient to prove that a rule should be followed, but by looking at the totality of the usage evidence, we can get a good sense of where the rule came from, who uses it and in which contexts they use it, whether use is increasing or decreasing, and so on. So something might not be correct just because Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen used it, but if something has been in continuous use for centuries by both literary greats and common people in both speech and writing, then it’s hard to maintain that it’s an error.

And if a rule is only followed in modern edited use, as the that/which rule is (and even then, it’s primarily modern edited American use), then it’s likewise hard to insist that this is a valid rule that all English speakers should be following. Again, the fact that editors have been enforcing a rule doesn’t tell us whether they should. Editors are good at learning and following rules, and we’re often good at pointing out holes or inconsistencies in a text or making it clearer and more readable, but this doesn’t mean that we have any special insight into what the grammar of English relative clauses should be, let alone the authority to insist that everyone follow our proposed changes.

So we can’t—or, at least, I think we shouldn’t—simply say that language has changed in this instance and that therefore we should all follow the rule. Language change is not necessarily good or bad, but it’s important to look at who is changing the language and why. If most people are changing the language in a particular way because they find that change genuinely useful, then it seems like a good thing, or at least a harmless thing. But if the change is being imposed by a small group of disproportionately powerful people for dubious reasons, and if the fact that this group has been successful is then used as evidence that the change is justified, then I think we should be skeptical.

If you want the language to change in a particular way, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why you’re right and four hundred million native speakers are wrong. Until then, I’ll continue to tell our intern that what she learned in class was right: either that or which is fine.

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Prescriptivism and Language Change

Recently, John McIntyre posted a video in which he defended the unetymological use of decimate to the Baltimore Sun’s Facebook page. When he shared it to his own Facebook page, a lively discussion ensued, including this comment:

Putting aside all the straw men, the ad absurdums, the ad hominems and the just plain sillies, answer me two questions:
1. Why are we so determined that decimate, having once changed its meaning to a significant portion of the population, must be used to mean obliterate and must never be allowed to change again?
2. Is your defence of the status quo on the word not at odds with your determination that it is a living language?
3. If the word were to have been invented yesterday, do you really think “destroy” is the best meaning for it?
…three questions!

Putting aside all the straw men in these questions themselves, let’s get at what he’s really asking, which is, “If decimate changed once before from ‘reduce by one-tenth’ to ‘reduce drastically’, why can’t it change again to the better, more etymological meaning?”

I’ve seen variations on this question pop up multiple times over the last few years when traditional rules have been challenged or debunked. It seems that the notions that language changes and that such change is normal have become accepted by many people, but some of those people then turn around and ask, “So if language changes, why can’t change it in the way I want?” For example, some may recognize that the that/which distinction is an invention that’s being forced on the language, but they may believe that this is a good change that increases clarity.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable question. If language is arbitrary and changeable, why can’t we all just decide to change it in a positive way? After all, this is essentially the rationale behind the movements that advocate bias-free or plain language. But whereas those movements are motivated by social or cognitive science and have measurable benefits, this argument in favor of old prescriptive rules is just a case of motivated reasoning.

The bias-free and plain language movements are based on the premises that people deserve to be treated equally and that language should be accessible to its audience. Arguing that decimated really should mean “reduced by one-tenth” is based on a desire to hang on to rules that one was taught in one’s youth. It’s an entirely post hoc rationale, because it’s only employed to defend bad rules, not to determine the best meaning for or use of every word. For example, if we really thought that narrower etymological senses were always better, shouldn’t we insist that cupboard only be used to refer to a board on which one places cups?

This argument is based in part on a misunderstanding of what the descriptivist/prescriptivist debate is all about. Nobody is insisting that decimate must mean “obliterate”, only observing that it is used in the broader sense far more often than the narrower etymological sense. Likewise, no one is insisting that the word must never be allowed to change again, only noting that it is unlikely that the “destroy one-tenth” sense will ever be the dominant sense. Arguing against a particular prescription is not the same as making the opposite prescription.

But perhaps more importantly, this argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how language change works. As Allan Metcalf said in a recent Lingua Franca post, “It seems a basic principle of language that if an expression is widely used, that must be because it is widely useful. People wouldn’t use a word if they didn’t find it useful.” And as Jan Freeman has said, “we don’t especially need a term that means ‘kill one in 10.’” That is, the “destroy one-tenth” sense is not dominant precisely because it is not useful.

The language changed when people began using the word in a more useful way, or to put it more accurately, people changed the language by using the word in a more useful way. You can try to persuade them to change back by arguing that the narrow meaning is better, but this argument hasn’t gotten much traction in the 250 years since people started complaining about the broader sense. (The broader sense, unsurprisingly, dates back to the mid-1600s, meaning that English speakers were using it for a full two centuries before someone decided to be bothered by it.)

But even if you succeed, all you’ll really accomplish is driving decimate out of use altogether. Just remember that death is also a kind of change.

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