Saturday, April 25, 2009

Our magnificent bastard tongue... an ace phrase and also the name of a book by American linguist John McWhorter who is one of several writers contributing to a special edition of Forbes magazine. In it (click here for the link) various experts and lexophiles have a good look at the growth of the English language as it (apparently and rather controversially) heads towards its 1 millionth word.

Among the articles are some really good pieces on how language changes and spreads, new words that have come from internet gaming, how new types of prefixes and suffixes have arisen, and loads, loads more.

I've picked out a few extracts below to give you a taste of what's covered, and I'm sure we'll be using some of this in class in the next two weeks (which is all we have left before study leave...woohoo! Sorry, I mean dammit).

On the millionth word topic:

An outfit called the Global Language Monitor claims that English is about to add its millionth word, boldly (and absurdly) projecting the event to transpire some time around June 8, 2009. But that gives the patina of precision to the ultimately subjective task of determining what counts as "English" nowadays--and what counts as a "word." Even if we content ourselves with the paltry number of neologisms that get included in dictionary updates, it's instructive to see which words make the cut. Recent additions to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, include biosignature, botnet, locavore, mocktail, plus-one and vanity sizing. In some cases we know exactly where these words are coming from. Locavore, meaning "a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food," was coined in 2005 by a group of four San Francisco women who challenged local residents to eat only food grown within a 100-mile radius. It was then picked up by like-minded activists around the country.

On new prefixes and suffixes:

Suffixes and prefixes are the Legos of word-making, handy attachments we slap onto words as needed. Most don't make us blink: like the "pre" and "s" in "prefixes" itself.

Others are a little more creative, gaudy and eye-catching. It's no longer unusual to spot "-y" suffixed words like "women's magazine-y" and "false-prophet-y" or words with " 'tude" such as "braindead-itude," "poor-human-being-itude" and "warlorditude." There's nothing new about "nano" in conjunction with a very small iPod or scientific words like "nanotubes," but slangy, informal words like "nano-brained" are adding fancy new features to the insulter's toolbox. The celebutante-inspired prefix "celebu-" has spawned many recent coinages such as "celebu-tats," "celebu-chefs," "celebu-ooops," and "celebu-scent."

On gaming words:

Sometimes new words are not invented, but are crafted from old words. In gaming, a "griefer" is a player who intentionally disrupts the gameplay of other players--a griefer gives other players grief. Gamers took a word that already existed and added the highly productive suffix "-er" to make a word that fit their language needs.

On the history of new words:
Shakespeare popped off hundreds of neologisms, such as "excellent," "lonely" and "leapfrog," that have long been accepted as words, but which, if dictionaries were being written in Elizabethan times, would have been flagged as suspiciously colloquial. Given that it is nearly impossible to create a word for something out of thin air and see it adopted by the rest of the English-speaking world--i.e., if you randomly decided to call the cover for your memory stick a "verch," no one else would join in--most of the words that have accreted in the vast English vocabulary over the 2000-plus years of the language's existence have been created in various ways.


Chellie said...

Hi Dan

On a totally unrelated topic. Would you mind if I used your blog as an example of how to use a blog in education. I want to show it to other teachers in my school.

Dan said...

Hi Chellie

That's fine. I'd be honoured.