Ephemeral Pursuits: Linguistics Lover

We all love being able to throw out those obscure and (supposedly) erudite words like “concomitant”, “denouement”, and “lexiphanic” (this blog post will be an example of the last term). This is especially true when it comes to using the technical jargon from our own areas of study (e.g. Heilsgeschichte, Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, dialectical, kerygma, immanence, demythologization, amanuensis, Vorlage, anacoluthon, lectio difficilior). What’s even better is when you can throw a whole bunch of them together! The more sibylline a sentence, the better!

Sometimes it is the simple words that give one the greatest pleasure. I enjoy the word indubitably. My wife and I say it to each other frequently and I can’t help but say it with a twang of a British accent (while picturing myself wearing a monocle).  But my absolute favorite English word is fuck. What can one say about the infamous F-word? For starters it is very euphonious; nothing beats its promise of lilting fricatives and staccato punch. It is also an incredibly versatile word; its beauty is through its utility. It can be used to convey love, hate, pleasure, pain, surprise, triumph, anger, and every other human emotion. It can be also used in almost any form (noun, adjective, adverb, transitive or intransitive verbs). The only function I can’t see it fulfilling is as a conjunction. It even functions as a common infix (e.g. “fan-fucking-tastic” or “abso-fucking-lutely”) and the English language doesn’t even have any genuine infixes.

Talking about the F-word makes me also think of etymology. There are a few false etymologies to ‘fuck’ that are popular amongst the hoi polloi. But despite popular belief the word did not originate as an acronym to the phrases “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornicating Under Consent of the King”. Nor was it a word originally penned by the Great Bard himself. EtymOnline has a nice summary of the issue, saying that it is found in the 16th century but “is a much more ancient word than that”. They don’t go into any detail in that regard unfortunately. But, IIRC, while the precise origin of the word is unknown, the root is definitely Germanic in origin due to cognates in other languages (e.g. fokken in Middle Dutch). Linguistics is not, of course, just etymologies. There are more than a few disciplines with this field of study, such as phonology, phonetics, sociolinguistics, semantics, psycholinguistics, and my personal favorite, historical linguistics. Diving into historical linguistics and seeing the evolution of languages is incredibly fascinating.

I sometimes wonder if linguistics is actually my calling and not religion. I love linguistics and find it an incredibly fascinating field to read up on, but I think I’ll stick with religious studies and resign myself to forever being an armchair linguist. For anyone planning on entering the wonderful world of linguistics, be forewarned: once you embark upon the journey you will soon feel the powers of the linguist growing within yourself. You must, however, use this power judiciously and never out of mere retribution, except upon prescriptivists (the scourge of language everywhere). Just imagine what a hit you’ll be at social gatherings. Visualize the following scenario: Someone has just said “octopuses” in a conversation and then some wannabe-prescriptivist interjects with, “Actually the plural of octopus is octopi”. You, armed with your immense knowledge of the English language, jump into the fray, countering with this devastating riposte: “Actually, the most technically correct pluralization is octopodes due to the fact that octopus comes from Greek and that is what the Greek plural form would be. Octopi is less correct because it contains a plural declension from Latin which, of course, should not be used with a Greek root. However, considering that octupuses is the most commonly used pluralization of octopus by English speakers, it should rightly be labeled as the proper pluralization”.

Interestingly, I just looked at the Oxford English Dictionary (a great built-in feature of the Kindle) and it says that ‘octopi’ is incorrect (obviously) and that ‘octopuses’ is correct. No surprise there as we all know dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. Unfortunately, the OED forget to mention that ‘octopodes’ is only used by pretentious wankers such as me! But seriously, insisting on giving Greek words (that have become English words) their original Greek plurals is arrant pedantry. All three pluralizations – octopuses, octopi, and octopodes – are completely fine to use. If you are a native speaker of the English language and you utter a sentence that is easily understood by another native English speaker, then what you have said is indeed correct (grammatically, phonetically, and semantically). Just don’t tell any prescriptivists I said that.

A pet peeve of mine when it comes to language is when I hear someone say “ebonics”. It is actually known as “African-American Vernacular English” and is every bit as legitimate of an English dialect as Standard English (a.k.a Oxford English). Sociolinguistic factors, however, have given AAVE a particular stigma and SE a distinct prestige. But in reality, AAVE is just like any other decreolized dialect; it is not ‘lazy’ or ‘incorrect’ English. It is important though to differentiate between ‘standard’ and ‘correct’ when it comes to English dialects, but keep in mind that what we know as “Standard English” is just a set of principles and trends with the purpose of facilitating communication across the various English dialects and other languages. So while SE should be taught in schools, reinforced in the workplace, and so forth, one needs to realize that the standards of SE are completely arbitrary and have no bearing as to how correct another English dialect actually is.

I have it on very good authority that the number one question linguists hate is when they are inevitably asked: “Oh you’re a linguist? How many languages do you know?” In fact, I believe you’ll get beaten up for asking a linguist that question. It is a common misconception that a linguist is someone who will necessarily know a lot of languages, but in reality a linguist may very well only be fluent in one or two languages. Though I guess it depends on if you equate ‘know’ with ‘fluent’. I would say I only know one language, English. I’ve been studying Greek off and on for the past 4-5 years, though I have also dabbled in Biblical Hebrew, German, and most recently, Latin. But I don’t feel like my proficiency in any of these languages is to the level where I could say I ‘know’ them (except for Greek maybe). I might just be really nit-picky about this sort of thing. I just don’t like when people learn a handful of phrases of a language and say they know it, or when someone says they know German even though they’re only halfway through their first semester of German. C’mon people! You don’t ‘know’ the language in any meaningful sense of the term. Bah! I knew there was a prescriptivist deep down inside of me somewhere.

And now a closing benediction to all the linguists out there: May you never be enervated of enlightening the laity of the wonder of language. Amen.

P.S. I said at the beginning of this post that it will be an example of ‘lexiphanic’. In case you haven’t guessed it, it means interlarding writing or speech with pretentious words.

One response

  1. The only negative thing I can say about this post is that I didn’t write it myself. Great job, seriously. After reading the paragraph on the f-word I’m left wondering about infixes in other languages. The paragraph with the party description resonated with me because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve jumped in to deliver a devastating riposte and was only met by blank stares. >-< And while I'd like to pretend I'm fluent in multiple languages, it's true, linguistics is a separate discipline from foreign language acquisition.

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