Thursday, October 11, 2007

Evocabulary - I may have coined one there

Warning - swear words ahead ...

I've just read an interesting feature in Nature in which Harvard brainiacs Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel and their boss, Martin A Nowak, of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, have applied evolutionary modelling to language.

Yes really.

They've discovered that language (well, English anyway) follows similar evolutionary patterns to those found in nature. For example, past-tense irregular verbs are disappearing in direct proportion to the rise of regular verbs - the more succesful 'species' are surviving at the expense of the others.

Regular past-tense verbs tend to have '-ed' on the end (e.g. sorted, finished, passed, kicked etc.) whereas irregular past-tense verbs have a variety of forms (e.g. got, awoke, began, became etc.). Words that cannot be regularised by the addition of an '-ed' are apparently falling out of use. Nowak et al cite the example of 'wed' and predict that 'wedded' will be the norm very soon. So goodbye newly wed and hello wedded bliss.

The researchers suggest that a verb used 100 times less frequently will evolve 10 times as fast. So, as wed is barely used these days, it will become wedded that much quicker. To develop this formula, the researchers tracked the status of 177 irregular verbs in Old English through linguistic changes in Middle English and then modern English. Of these 177 verbs that were irregular 1,200 years ago, 145 stayed irregular in Middle English but just 98 remain irregular today.

The English language is the most successful language on this planet. It is infinitely flexible, can borrow from other languages, and can evolve into new forms (American English, Indian English etc.) without losing meaning. It cna be spleled bdaly and sitll be udnertsood. It does not suffer the complications of gender and multiple conjugations and has a simple (though it could be simpler) alphabet of just 26 letters. I'm told by non-Brit chums that it's an easy language to learn to speak ... although harder to learn to write. Being a mongrel language, various spelling oddities have crept in throughout history meaning that we've been left with some bizarre pronunciations like 'rough', 'initial' and 'sword' that bear little relation to the letters used. And then there are the so-called 'Rules of English'. Like any rule, these are there to be bent, broken and beaten to within an inch of their lives.

'I before E except after C'? What about science then? And why is there a C in science anyway?

Many of these rules were invented by 19th century grammarians who desperately wanted their home-grown language to be as pure as the divine Latin. Sadly, this was never going to work in a language that can count among its ancestors not only Latin but Greek, the Celtic tongues, Eastern-European languages, Turkish, Indian etc. Which is why rules like 'You cannot split an infinitive' are nonsense. In Latin, the infinitive form of a word is 'unbound' - free of all descriptors or modifications. Hence, it doesn't really convey much information e.g. amare (to love), monere (to warn), ducere (to lead), audire (to hear) and consists (usually) of a single word. So you cannot physically split an infinitive. In order to add more meaning, you have to modify the form of the word e.g. ambulo (walk), ambulatiuncula (a little walk), deambulo (to take a walk), inambulatio (walking up and down).

However, in English, an infinitive invariably consists of two words, the first usually being 'to' (e.g. to go, to do, to play). So we can split an infinitive. And, trust me, it's perfectly acceptable to do so. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Kirk did it. Picard did it. So can you.

And the idea that you cannot start a new sentence with a conjunction is also a feculent pile of stool. I did it just then. And again, look. And again! It's perfectly okay to start a sentence with words like 'and' or 'but'. The Bible does it. Shakespeare did it. The fact that your primary school teacher got all eggy about it is neither here nor there. She simply didn't want to read 30 essays that sounded like this:

'For my summer holidays we went to Devon. And we went on the beach. And we rided on a donkey. And we had an ice cream. And my daddy got drunk. And my mummy hitted him with a deck chair.'

Incidentally, when children are learning to speak, they automatically create regular verbs like 'rided' and 'hitted'. We instinctively look for patterns and make predictions based upon experience. So is it any wonder these forms are on the increase?

I like this evolutionary model of language. I like the fact that new words enter the language every year and obsolete words vanish. Why keep a word if no one uses it? If no one groaks or chantepleures or acts like a parnel or a lapling any more, then why keep these words on life-support? Switch the machine off and move on. There are plenty more words in the dictionary and even more on the horizon. And I get so cross with people who go on about the word 'gay' being adopted as an alternative to 'homosexual'. As if these people ever used the word in its sense of 'joyous' anyway. It was a dying word. No one has used it since the 1950s with any regularity. So why not let it enjoy a new lease of life, albeit in a new context? Surely gay is much better than other more abusive terms?

All of which brings me to swearing. When I was a young man, I was told that there were only two obscene words in the language: 'The F word' and 'The C word'. The fact that the words themselves were only ever described in such a coded form just made them even more taboo it seemed to me. But why? Why did these two words - just two different combinations of four letters - why did they become so bad? How did they accrue such a taboo status?

Well, the story is long and confused and would take an essay the length of one of Stephen Fry's blessays to cover it. What I will say is that it's so, so wrong! Neither word deserves such a bad press. Eve Ensler does her best to reclaim the word cunt (there ... I said it!) for womanhood by extolling its virtues in her Vagina Monologues; even to the extent of getting the audience to shout it out loud. And the aforementioned Mr Fry makes a valid point about the word fuck (I did it again!) in his book Paperweight:

'If school teachers describing animals talked about the way in which they fucked rather than 'the mating process', if barristers and judges used 'fuck' in court cases where penetration is an issue, instead of relying on those strange forensic phrases 'intimate contact' and 'physical relationship', if parents used it when explaining reproduction to their children, then a generation would grow up for whom the word held no more mysterious guilty terrors and strange dirty thrills than the word 'omelette'. What would that do to the sex crime statistics? Were we to have taboos about the word 'kill' or the words 'maim' and 'torture', however, it might perhaps be healthy: cruelty and homicide are things we really should be ashamed of.'

The English language is a joy; possibly the greatest invention of the British peoples. The reason it is so successful is that it has been allowed to evolve. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I find the gutteral grunting of our nearest evolutionary relatives - those strange simian creatures that inhabit branches of McDonalds - intensely annoying. But only because of their lack of clarity. Language is all about the communication of concepts, information and emotion. 'I was like all yeah and he was like all duh' conveys nothing outside of their small tribal grouping and, frankly, is useless anywhere else. So anything that dumbs the language down should be abbhored. As should business jargon which appears to be designed solely for the purpose of obscuring simple concepts with a hedge of words. Recent examples I've discovered include community property (a jointly-owned home), skills ecosystem, trending over, anything that includes the word solutions and the execrable Can I stir fry an idea in your think-wok?

But, at the same time, let's welcome terms like pimped, barf, stoozing (The practice of borrowing money from a credit card during the card's introductory no-interest period and then investing that money to earn the interest as a profit) and gaydar.

And let's celebrate clever new words and terms like hasbian (a lesbian who has become heterosexual), multi-dadding, surgiholic, glamping (glamorous camping whereby all the home comforts are taken along) and duppie (A person who once had a high-status or high-paying job and must now work in a menial or lower paying job). They enrich and empower the language.

And we must insist that the evolution continues. We want our language to be the cheeky mongrel that enjoys robust health, as opposed to the in-bred pedigree that can only look forward to medical complications, crossed-eyes and an early death. Bear in mind David Crystal's words in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language:

'Vocabulary is the Everest of a language'.

Let's stay at the top, eh?


Spud said...

Superb! Fucking superb. And I think you're a right bright cunt sometimes!

Me said...

A prolification of naughty words - though non as naughty as Mr Spuds!
Another thought provoking clever rant though :)