Book Review: The Story of English (McCrum, et.al.) & The English Language (Barber)
Generally, we avoid reviewing older books in this space, but we make an exception this month. Over the past few years, several readers of the web site have asked about historical overviews of the English language. The essay A (Very) Brief History of the English Language on the wordorigins.org site is available, but this is simply a summary of major events and trends. Those who want a more detailed account have to look elsewhere. Here we take a look at two lengthy treatments of the topic.
Myths of Language Change, Part 1: That’s Not A Real Word
The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.
How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.
American Dialect: Upper Midwest
Even if you have never been there, most of us are familiar with the accent of the Upper Midwest states from movies such as Fargo (1996) and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Minnesota, and the Dakotas (a.k.a. Baja Manitoba) have some distinct features of pronunciation and vocabulary.
The patterns we examined last month also apply up here. The Northern Cities Shift is active in the region, but there are some other pronunciation changes that are unique to the Upper Midwest.
Word Of The Month: Mount Everest
Fifty years ago this month, on 29 May 1953, two men, New Zealander Edmund Hillary (b. 1919) and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986) became the first humans to ascend to the summit of Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet (8848 meters) the highest mountain on earth.
In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of this event, our Word of the Month is:
Mount Everest, prop.n., Himalayan peak on the border of Nepal and Tibet, the highest in the world. It is named for Sir George Everest (1790-1866), surveyor-general of India. Cf. Chomolungma, Sagarmatha.
War Words Part Deux
Last month, we featured various military terms that were likely to be on the news. Of course, predictions are not perfect. There are host of jargon and slang terms that have cropped up in the reporting on the war in Iraq. Here are some that we missed last month. Not all of these are relevant to or used in the current conflict. Some are historical, evoked by recent events.
American Dialect: The Northern Cities Shift and the Great Lakes Region
The dialect of the inland north, or the Great Lakes region, has the distinction of being “normal” American speech. As such, it is often difficult to categorize and people from the region are often not recognized as having a distinct dialect at all. Of course they do have one; all people speak with a distinct dialect. It is just that in this case there is not much to distinguish it from what is considered “standard” American speech. But there is one very distinctive feature of the accent of the region. It is one of the more distinctive pronunciation patterns in American speech. It is known as the:
The Northern Cities Shift
The shift is evident is a swath of territory stretching from the Hudson River valley in New York, across northern Ohio and Indiana, to Chicago and Detroit, encompassing the rust-belt cities of the northern Midwest. The shift is a distinctive pronunciation of short vowel sounds that was first identified by linguist William Labov and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. Now, not everyone in the region displays the shift; many opt for “normal” American pronunciation. Some people only display the shift with specific vowels, opting for the standard pronunciation for the others. But if one spends any significant time in the region, one can begin to identify the shift.
Book Review: Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories
It seems lately that we have been reviewing books that are not in and of themselves bad or especially flawed, but whose utility is limited. The market for books on words and language is a crowded one, yet publishers seem intent on pumping out books that do not fit a particular niche or offer anything new or different.
This month we review yet another. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, edited by Glynnis Chantrell, is a book that has no obvious flaws. The scholarship is uniformly excellent, relying on the extensive lexicographic files of Oxford Press. There are over 12,000 entries, which give the book considerable scope. Yet, in reading it one continually wonders if anyone would actually ever find this book useful.
Word of the Month: Space
On 1 February, the space shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven were lost during their return to earth. In the weeks since, news reports have treated the public with detailed insights into NASA and the US space program and exposed millions to jargon terms used by astronauts and aeronautical engineers. So to honor the seven who lost their lives in the exploration of the heavens, our word of the month is:
Space, n., the expanse of the universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere. This sense was first used in 1667 by Milton in Paradise Lost. From the Old French espace.
Book Reviews: Dog Days and Dandelions & Coined By God
This month we take a look at two new trade etymology books, Dog Days and Dandelions by Martha Barnette and Coined by God by Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain. Both are well-written, well-researched works that look at the origins of words connected with a specific topic. But both books suffer from a common defect of etymology books, organization by alphabetical order, a defect that makes what could have been interesting topics that shed light into how English creates and adopts words and turns them into volumes of etymological trivia. Both books are fine works for what they are, but one is a bit disappointed when one considers what they could have been.
On the surface, one might think that alphabetical order would be a natural arrangement for books on etymology. After all, that is how dictionaries are organized and it makes finding individual words quick and easy. But while alphabetical order is appropriate for comprehensive reference tomes like dictionaries, it is not the best format for other works. Alphabetical order masks common themes and patterns of etymological change. Other formats sacrifice the ease of looking up a particular word or phrase, but this is easily addressed with an index.
American Dialect: African-American Speech
Our study of American dialect cannot be solely based on regional differences. While regional distinctions are perhaps the most significant influences on the way we speak, other distinctions play a role as well and one of these distinctions is race and ethnicity. For most ethnic groups, patterns of speech are quickly assimilated into the local speech, becoming indistinguishable from the regional dialect, except perhaps for some specific cultural terms.
But African-American speech is different in that it transcends regional differences. African Americans have distinctive patterns of speech that are recognizable regardless of region. That is not to say that there are not regional differences among African Americans, but the similarities in the dialect across the nation are strong.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton