S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership at.
S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language, and this time we are going to talk about the pace of language change. And no, that is not boring, because what I’m trying to do is answer a question that I get from a great many of you. And this is a typical thing. I get the question and I kind of let it pass by, but I’m beginning to realize that in a way, people like me have created a misimpression. I am always saying it is natural to language to change. It’s always changing. It’s not going to stop changing. We just have to accept it. And, you know, I get the feeling that a lot of you are accepting that message to an extent that linguists would not have expected the public to get at, say, twenty five years ago. It’s actually getting out there. You all are receptive to it. And what it means is that in a way, we have created something of a monster, because I’m finding that a great many of you and a great many people who are contacting me, but who I just happened to read or talk to are thinking that the inevitability of language change means that English this language I’m speaking now in, say, 500 years is going to be a different language or close to a different language. And certainly if we check up on this language that I’m speaking now in, say, fifteen hundred years, then it’s going to be something else because language always changes. And the truth is that isn’t true. And I need to finesse what me and other people have been trying to teach the general public about language and change. So let’s start with the basics and then try to get a sense of why we have to nuance the basic idea that language change is like cloud patterns changing. If the cloud patterns don’t change, then something seriously wrong. That’s also true of language change. But does that mean that English is going to be a completely different language in a thousand years? And if it doesn’t and it doesn’t, then why not? OK, well, let’s start with the basics. The basics are that language changes all the time. And now that we have a long ish, depending on whether you call fifty five hundred years long, a long history of writing, we can see it very clearly.
S1: And so for example, August the month Latin I’ll gustus OK. French. Oh that’s all it is. Latin. Augustus French. Oh standard French. That’s the Parisian French that some people are under the impression with this mistaken that it’s somehow the best French. Oh so there is language change in action.
S2: You say Augustin’s but you know sounds tend to fall off of the ends of words. Sounds tend to fall off the beginnings of words. You’ve got consonants in the middle. They’re going to soften and then kind of go away. Kind of like if you put toilet tissue in the toilet and then it dissolves. I’m sorry to use that analogy, but it’s what came to me. And so next thing you know, and Augustin’s becomes just, oh, all that’s left is that middle. Oh, the OLG is gone. The Stass is gone. And just oh, and you know that this was a gradual process. It’s not that all of a sudden one day somebody decided, I’m French. And so I’m just going to say, oh, it’s that there was Latin and Latin gradually evolved into French and in old French, which was written down. You can see that where they were was a oh you S.T. and so oast, there you go. So Augustus, say that enough times over a long, long period, century after century goes by. Augustus, you don’t want to say that. I don’t want to say it now you’re going to start saying something like, oh, OK. Right. But after a while a host just becomes, oh, at least in some places, because even today in Quebec and in Cajun French, which is just French, it’s Canadian French that was taken down to Louisiana, you can get out instead of just. Oh, so Augustus goes to oh so everything’s fallen away except the Ah and the O but in stand up Parisian just. Oh so there’s beautiful language change. A lot of it has to do with things falling off. As I described in another show, things get added, words come together. We’ll see a little of that at the end of this show. But a lot of it is this kind of erosion or this is my favorite example ever. It comes from the Algonquian language family. These are Native American languages. I talked about them back in May. These are many of the Native American languages that we hear of in passing. So Pocahontas Powhatan, for example, or Cree, which is one of the few truly healthy and unthreatened Native American languages. Now Ojibwe to Ojibwe, Chippewa, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Chippewa. Those are related with chipolata kind of Ojibway Ojibway up there, too, in the Canada area and then somewhat down into the United States, Pottawattamie, Arapaho, Narragansett, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Kickapoo. You know, I’m sitting here just enjoying seeing the names of these languages. Algonquian has a lot of cool language names, but let’s talk about Cheyenne and let’s talk about Proteau Algonkin. What that means is that there are specialists in just the Algonquian languages. They are spoken. It’s an interesting range, actually. You’ve got some that are in kind of a splotch in the Midwest. Then you’ve got those Canadian ones up there sitting kind of like a hat on the United States. If you think of everything is starting from the United States, which I’m sorry, but I kind of do deep down. I know that’s wrong. And then you have a bunch of them that kind of go down the eastern coast of the United States. It’s a big giant splotch. And enough people specialize in all these languages that just like there’s this reconstructed language of Ukraine that became all of the Indo-European languages. Proteau Algonquian has been reconstructed pretty, pretty well. And so there are people who can tell you what, for example, the Proteau Algonquian word when there was only one Algonkin language that had yet to spread throughout so much of Canada. In the United States, the word for winter would have been papon we. And that can be reconstructed pretty firmly. Papon, we would have been the Proteau Algonquian word for winter.
S1: But then in Cheyenne, which is one of the Algonquian languages in Cheyenne, the word for winter is so proud. Algonquian has papon we Cheyenne has.
S2: Now you think, well, it must be that somebody made up some new word for winter or you know, Cheyenne got the word for winter from some other group of Native American languages. But no, Papon, we became R because language is always changing. How would that happen? It’s really it’s just you have to take it step by step by step.
S1: So, Papon, we that’s winter about three thousand years ago when there’s only one Algonquian language and the spread of them today doesn’t exist yet. Well, you know, things tend to drop off the end. And so, Papon, we after a while, that’s going to be just papon. You just know that that’s the way it’s going to be. And they’re Algonquian languages today where the word for winter is roughly that papon wheat starts there then Papon. OK, but then, you know, Papon, the peas maybe are going to soften to because PME are the same thing but be softer and so papon barebone. Now then think about Spanish and you know what we’re told are bees but they’re kind of like these. It’s going to be something like they’re on something like that or pretty soon you’re just going to drop that. So they’re on down. So Papon becomes just a on the PS get dropped h.s. Aren’t the only things that get dropped. So Hereford, Hartford and Hampshire, whatever that my fair lady line is an effort that’s not only h.s. You can drop other sounds, PE’s can go. Remember I showed you in one show that in Irigoyen Native American line, which is a whole different group, they’re no peas, nothing made with the lips. You don’t have to have sounds made with the lips and so they’ll be so Papon becomes Ayon, not an all Algonquian languages, but that’s what happened in some of them. So and then after a while Allen becomes an. You kind of think, why, why does Aion become I mean, well, let’s just take the air in the air and become so think of someone today saying bed and you listen to them really closely, more closely than you need to socially. But you just listen to the bed that, you know, there are some people who talk that way, probably under 40 bed bad. OK, now emersion listening to that person say bad, let’s go to bed. Might hear them saying let’s go to bed, because they kind of are saying Bud is because er there’s a short distance. Let’s go to bed. Let’s go to bed. Let’s go to bed. OK, well if you’re going to go to bed let’s go to bed, let’s go to bed. A little bit of onis in there. Well then suppose it becomes an hour so let’s go to bad. So bad. Bad but bad. But that is how you get from a to ah so on. I mean I’m going to leave out the part about the E but you get the point. So I mean. Well what’s at the end of that. Well that’s now ripe for illusion. And so I mean I thought that was the next step. Now it could be that, you know, the IHI gets longer, i.e. that might happen or something like I e you might say IEEE and that’s what happened then instead of I you might say, ah e these things happen just step by step, little differences that nobody thinks about at the time. But next thing you know, nobody remembers when it wasn’t that way. So r e oh but the ends are fragile huh.
S2: And I swear to you, that’s how you get from Fairphone weak to heart and that happened in either twenty five hundred or my guess is probably three thousand years. But that is the basics of language change. That is what we linguists try to get across. And so you can go from Papon to in three thousand years. And so you start wondering, well, what is English going to be like in three thousand years? And remember, that would happen in a cave. I’m not talking about what happens because of cultural exchange, because of people inventing things like bassoons and Viagra and psychoanalysis. I mean, just that language changes bit by bit because we’re always mishearing a little bit. We’re always randomly creating slightly new ways of saying things just because life is dull. And next thing you know, you have changes like Papon. We too are where Augustus to. Oh, that’s just the way it goes. Well, you know, it is time for a song clip. And, you know, this is you know, we’re getting to the end of the year. I want to get a little silly. I have played this before, I’m almost sure. And I know that I’m very flattered that a lot of you have listened to every show. But, you know, most of you haven’t. And I want to do a culture club song because I’m just in the mood. This is Church of the Boys and Mine back in nineteen eighty three. You could not get away from this and I liked it. It is a great little song. Culture Club sucked life. They couldn’t really play, but boy where they great in the studio and you know this one I like so much. It’s not just because of Helen Terry and that marvelous vocal that floats over it. It’s also because we’re talking about me and Mike doing another podcast at some point. And a lot of you music people have written to me when I’ve dropped in these little music and slides. Well, I’m just going to drop this. And the good thing about Church of the Boys in mind is that it relies on the here you go, the Miksa Lydian Mode music people. You know what I mean? Just listen to this. And so Church of the Poisoned Mind, it is a joy forever.
S1: Being able to say you can’t. Life is like. Here’s where we need to nuance, so, for example, I talk about those magic changes and English seems to offer some of the same thing in that there’s old English, middle English and modern English and old English is utterly foreign. Does old English looks like some sort of weird German to any English speaker then?
S2: Middle English looks just weird, but it seems like English. And then there’s modern English, but especially from old to modern English. It seems like some papon we stuff happen.
S1: And so, for example, let’s take the Lord’s Prayer, because it’s always easy to find direct comparisons. Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
S2: OK, so old English with the old English voice fat or full on 11. So that’s our father. You that are in heaven, fat or utter fool on heaven. I’ll be your name. Hallowed, hallowed be your name. So Seath in Na’ama God could be your name. That really is how they talked. Be your name. Honored now whatever that is fat or a fool that Arton on them see in alcohol that is not effing English. We don’t know what that is. And then it goes on. You know, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Tobor Coomber thin areca the vulva in its utterly opaque. But then you get to middle English. So this old English you know, call it roughly 800 A.D. then you’ve got middle English, thirteen hundred whatever and you’ve got our father which art in heaven. What’s the middle English voice. You know I’m going to use cartoon sweetness from the thirties because it always seems like the Canterbury Tales have that lilt, although who knows whether they talk that way.
S1: So that’s the middle English voice. So our father who art in heaven, middle English, Ouida, far thought out in heaven, knows it’s not English, but it’s English. Our father who art in heaven so far, the thirteen hit A.. And then hallowed be thy name. How it would be if phenomena that is different. You wouldn’t want to have a conversation with this person. But still it’s English. What happened in between old English and middle English that with middle English somebody sounds to us crazy like you wouldn’t want to hang out with them, but you can kind of get it in old English where it might as well be Burmese. Well, it’s supposed to be that language changes really quickly. And so old English went to middle English and created this whole new language and apparently just a few hundred years now.
S2: You know, that’s weird. Now, you might just accept that because you’re thinking that language changes like pipsqueak. But the problem is that middle English and modern English are so much more similar. Why is it that we can kind of understand middle English and then you’ve got Shakespeare and he’s straddling sixteen hundred and that’s going to be five hundred years ago pretty soon. Yet we can understand Shakespeare. We don’t understand as much of him as we think, but still it’s clearly the language that we speak so clearly something’s a little wrong there if we’re just talking about August and Papon and you know, actually there is a book. It’s called The Secret History of the English Language. It’s written by one Michael Harper. And they are completely wrong, completely funny. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read because he’s got that kind of British sort of raffish take no prisoners wit. But what he’s basically saying is that there’s no way that old English became middle English and some short period of time. He finds that implausible. And it actually makes a certain sense. And he’s got this idea that, you know, old English and middle English were completely different languages. It’s all utterly ridiculous and utterly hilarious. I recommend the book. I sat, you know, literally my sides were splitting it. How kind of Brit funny he is. But he is asking the question. And the truth is that the reason middle English is so different from old English is not because of Papon we happening within that tiny period of time, but because of contact between English and other languages. So, for example, the difference between old English and middle English is because Vikings, Scandinavian Vikings had come over and they spoke Old Norse, not old English and Old Norse and old English were different languages similar, but they were different languages. And there these Vikings and they marry Englishwomen and they grew up in.
S1: Listen, because there’s no media and there’s really no such thing as school kids grow up hearing faulty old English and next thing you knew, you had old English the way we would speak it if we had to learn it now. And so, for example, something like our father who art in heaven. Well, in old English, that’s all over Norm. A norm since we hear the norm were lost just right there. Whereas my middle English. It’s in heaven. In heaven. So in the heavens, a little poetic, but we get it. What’s this, Norm? Well, it’s the Vikings who got rid of the case endings of those kinds because they had them, but theirs were different. So you’re just going to leave that off and kind of generalize the good old plural s and so just in heavens it was contact that meant that middle English was so different from old English. It’s not that the language in a few hundred years started doing papon way to that extent or even with middle English. A lot of why we find it so hard is because there was more contact. It’s not just that the language was changing willy nilly and next thing you knew, you had to instead of Augustus. It’s because of contact with particularly French and Latin. So for example, early middle English around the first time we see middle English, there’s a document called Anchorena with an Anchorena with. You think Anchorena must mean ancient, but no, Al is accuracy’s, roughly kind of nones people who are cloistered and religious. So I’m kind of Wasserman’s anchoress knowledge. Wesser wit, mother wit get it so anchoress knowledge rules for the Anchoress. And when you read the Anchorena Wesser, what’s interesting is that it’s still English, English, and the reason that we have such a hard time getting it is because French and Latin replaced so many of the words. So it’s not just the we process, it’s that there was contact. And so, for example, at one point they say in Anchorena Wesser, let’s keep the the only Ohlson Scandinavian accent. And so it’s those do is charity of sheer Harakah and clean it done throughout. Baldev OK, what the hell does that mean. It means this rule is the charity of a pure heart and a clear conscience and true faith. Isn’t that pretty? But the thing is, we can’t get it because the words that we use to express something like that are French or Latin. So those who do lose charity. So this rule is the charity of sheer to see what? No, we say a pure heart pures from French unclenched it OK in it in which is conscience. It’s like your inner knowledge. I love the word in which can we please just keep using in what. And so Klann inward they use clean and we say clear.
S2: Now you have a clear conscience. You could say a clean conscience but you don’t. You say clear conscience, clear and conscience are both not inkless words aren’t trought a believer. OK and true belief. Belief. That’s a good English word. Faith is though what we use in faith is one of these French words. And so we read Anchorena Wizz today and I’m sure that we all do before we go to bed and we can’t read it. And it’s not just because the language was different, but it’s because of contact. So the question is, what would English be like after a thousand years? Let’s say that old English ends roughly a thousand years ago. What would English be like if there wasn’t the contact? And the truth is, it wouldn’t be as different as old English and modern English are. And we can know because of Icelandic English and Icelandic are both Germanic languages and Germanic is a relatively small family and Icelandic has spoken well, I think you probably know and it’s an island. And so it’s relatively isolated. And so it’s been allowed to mind its own business. There hasn’t been much contact with other languages in a very long time. And the thing is that Icelanders can read Icelandic written from about 900 A.D. through thirteen hundred A.D. I hear I’m supposed to say see these days. So pretend I said it, they can read it. How kind of you know, it takes some effort. You know, there’s a whole Shakespeare aspect to it, but they can read it. Icelandic is much, much, much less different from its earlier versions, which we call Old Norse. Then modern English is from old English, and that’s because Icelandic has had very little contact. So, Papon, we yeah, but if we’re thinking well, as English and five hundred years is going to be completely different because, say, Chaucer could not have spoken to the people who wrote Beowulf. No. Because really, English is weirdly different from its ancestor, because we’ve added things and that is contact in particular, I’m in a police mood this week and I’m not sure why I really love the police. No, not Sting. He’s great, but I mean the police. And the first time I realized I love the police was when to do doo doo doo. Dada was a hit on something called the radio. That was the first one of theirs I heard. And I remember thinking I was this Timperley cello playing Luser.
S1: And I remember thinking that is a good song. And what I liked about it was that the guitar keeps hitting in before the chorus, the second instead of the tonic. So that bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, it’s the second and you’re waiting for it to resolve to the tonic. So it makes it sound like whatever they’re saying is kind of urgent because there’s a shoe that hasn’t fallen. I remember thinking back then that is a quality piece of work and I couldn’t have told you why at the time. But the reason to do to do is not boring is because of that bang, bang, bang.
S2: So let’s just have a little bit of to do to do to Dada da. I love it.
S4: It reminds me of playing the cello in nineteen eighty one oh oh oh oh. Ba ba, ba ba.
S5: One that scares me. That logic tells me a little.
S1: What we have to realize, this is a major aspect of finessing what we could call the prepon way thing is that once there’s widespread literacy, language change slows down. And what I mean by that is, for example, a question that we might have. Shouldn’t Icelandic be more like Cheyenne? Shouldn’t there be more? Papon, we you know, Icelandic has existed for a very long time up on that island. Why is it that modern Icelanders can still read the sagas with a certain amount of effort?
S2: Wouldn’t you expect more change even if we’re talking about a thousand versus twenty five hundred or three thousand years? Wouldn’t you expect more? There are two answers to it. One of them briefly, is that some languages for no reason that I think anybody could actually chart change faster than others. Some languages are just more in a hurry because of a certain let me be a little bit a certain intersection of various phonological and phonotactics factors. So some languages just go faster.
S1: And so, for example, this Creole language of Suriname that I’m always talking about, it almost seems like I’m advertising it because I want you to purchase some product. But it’s really just that I wrote a grammatical description of it with another linguist, Geoff Goode. And so I think of it often, and it’s spoken by descendants of slaves who escaped plantations and Surinam. There are various Creole languages spoken in Surinam as the result of plantation slavery there. And we can know that the first word for brother in these Creoles, because they’re based on English brother, was Barata.
S2: So you listen to somebody saying, brother, you speak an African language where probably the structure is kind of like Japanese, where you have consonant vowel, consonant vowel, consonant vowel. So brother, you’re going to unravel that into Borodai. OK, in SR1 on which I’ve played on this show, this is the metropolitan lingua franca of all Surinam vernacular language. A Creole Baratta has become bruddah.
S1: It’s shortened brada. So there you go. In Samarkand though instead of just leaving out that first off so that you have Brada Sarah Mulkern, the word for brother from that same original word Barata is ba ba. It’s three hours in a row. No. Ah that’s gone. And the D is gone too. So Brada and then Brahe and then ba so that’s what it is. Samarkand in general has changed more from that original Proteau Creole than Qanun has a nobody could tell you why or for example French you know Augustus becomes. Oh but in Italian agosta Italian holds back, French moves ahead. No one has ever quite explained why French is weird in that way. So some languages are just more in a hurry to become different. But mainly the thing is, once there’s not only a written version of the language, but also a critical mass of people are literate, then next thing you know, you have brains on writing and to be a brain on writing is a funny thing, despite the fact that if you listening to this, you are somebody whose brain is on writing.
S2: It’s just like this is your brain on drugs and they have the fried egg. And in the commercial your brain on writing is a really interesting and in some ways a sad thing, because it means that you think that language is that thing that’s on the page and that any departure from the page is somehow a mistake. So once widespread literacy sets in, despite the massive benefits that that affords to a population, it means and maybe we don’t care that the language isn’t going to change as fast because there’s always that written model kind of peeking over your shoulder. This explains something like not only that, Icelandic hasn’t changed as much as it would have if there were no writing. Part of the reason Icelandic stays the way it is is because it’s a highly literate society, has been for a good while. And the sagas, in a way, are staring over everybody’s shoulder. That’s what the language supposedly, quote unquote is.
S1: And so you’re not going to have papon way because these Algonquian languages, for the most part, have been unwritten. And so they get to do what language naturally does. So an example of this is CocaCola that delicious cured pork that comes from Italy.
S2: You write it down, copy coal in America at least. So copy topical. OK, but then if you watch The Sopranos, you notice that they call it gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, and it kind of got around well what do they call it? Gobble, gobble. And there were some interesting media articles that kind of wrote around it. But it’s very simple. Gobble gobble is what could be called LA wants to do. You take pickle and that’s like you see a praying mantis and you catch it and you let it die and you put a. And through it and you put it in the box and there it is and you label it, but that is not the dynamic nature of the praying mantis on the pin gappy collar. Well, people are saying that at a certain point in the Italian dialects that happened to make it onto the page as the standard. So. Oh, well, this is copy Koula, but copy. Koula just wants to be ghoul. Cur becomes good naturally. So Piccola got Piccola wants to be a book. These are the softer versions. Ghab puggle. Piccola What’s at the end. You know it’s going to go away pretty soon. Piccola becomes gabacho. That’s normal. Talk to many Italian Americans and they’ll very spontaneously tell you that what we call ricotta cheese is Riggert, of course, or Oh, I love manicotti. No, man, I got that’s where the word goes in real life. So literacy preserves copy cola, but reallife makes Garba. So the question is, why wouldn’t a word go where it wants to go? That’s why in English one thousand addy’s to say fourteen hundred A.D. you have this complete turnover. You have old English become a completely different language. But then we can still sit through a Shakespeare play, hopefully having read it beforehand. But it is recognizable as the language that we speak. And that’s because after Shakespeare literacy became widespread and the page holds back major transformation. That means that foreigners, people who are speaking the language as a second language, they don’t affect the language as much as they used to. It’s not what would happen with Vikings. It’s not what would happen with the Norman French spewing all of these words into our language. That can’t happen once there’s the printed page looking over our shoulders and making us into people whose brains are on writing. Because however your dad talks, however your mom talks, whatever version of the language they’ve created. If you grow up as a native speaker, well, you listen to them and you’re used to the way they talk, but you’re listening to the native speakers and you’ve got writing, you’ve got media. All of that affects the way you render the language, which is going to be more or less the way everybody who is what you might call an indigenous speaker is going to render the language. So language always changes and language changes partly just by itself, but partly also because of contact. But once there’s widespread literacy, change gets majorly retarded. It’s majorly held back. And that’s true by default of most of the languages that most of us are going to know a lot about. Now to see, however, that change always happens, it’s important to realize that writing is not usually our best guide to how much change has happened because writing systems are consistently ridiculously conservative. It’s absolutely amazing how these things go. So, for example, even French with the oh, I’m saying that August is in French, but it’s spelled a o u t as if people were still saying, oh, which is a lot closer to our Gustus. That’s because French spelling system is almost as sucky as the English spelling system, where, for example, I’m going to whistle a happy tune. No, I’m not going to play that song, but notice that you have with style. So people say, well, I prefer to say often because the Taesan there, but none of them would say whistle or the style or listen to me, sweetie. What is he doing in there? It’s just because writing is ridiculously conservative or just something like made. You know, I made a hat. Look, I made a hat, OK? Made and made my day. Think about how weird that is. That’s as odd as the fact that you have a tongue in your mouth. We don’t think about it. But if I tell you ever this meat, it’s sitting in your mouth and it’s you thinking, well, you don’t. Well made is the same thing, mud. And we just know that that’s read is made. Writing systems are just stupid. So that’s Beida, my favorite example.
S1: And I don’t mean to insult the Burmese, but is Burmese because the writing system preserves and amber this stage of the language from way back. So just like one, two, three, one in writing, the way you write one in Burmese is tuque. The way you say one is to the way you write two in Burmese is not OK. The way you say two is Mnet.
S2: So imagine you’re bouncing on your mommy’s knee somewhere in Yangon and you learn that one too is. Which is kind of fun, but then when you learn to write, you have to write, talk, knock, tragic, tragic or the word for three in writing is some good. That’s a nice little word. But you know how they actually say it for Thor. And that’s because the surge became a thing and that became an all these things happen.
S1: But you don’t write Thor. You write some. That’s because writing systems are just insane. It’s as if the world is just running down like the police. And I have a question about this song. He talks about his VCR and how it’s the same one he’s had for years. This is what I’ve never understood. This song is 1980, probably written and recorded in 1979. Zenyatta Mandara is at that time. How did he have a VCR for years then when at least in my orbit VCRs were not common until around 1980. You got a new VCR if you were a snotty rich kid in my experience, which I wasn’t in about 1980 and that’s about 82 or 83 that other people have them, he’s saying Turn off my VCR. Same one I’ve had for years. Why did he have it for so long?
S6: But it’s also a wonderful song, the.
S2: Now, I want us also to pull the camera back, because I’m telling you that language change is all about this business of sounds eroding, etc. and that stuff is fun, but there’s more than that. And so language is changing and it’s always happening. It tends to be held back by print, but nevertheless, it is always happening. And even if you can’t always have the experience of watching, you know, copy Koula become Abagail there things that you can see on the page, for example, and things that you can feel in life. And so, for example, we have to think about changes in the meanings of words that’s as important as Coca-Cola to gobble gobble. We know that Shakespeare wrote in English, but as I have mentioned on this show several times, one of my first ones was with Jack Lynch, where we talked about how language has changed so much since Shakespeare’s time that there might be an argument for at least certain massaging of the text to make them easier to process in real time for us.
S1: When Shakespeare says generous, he means noble. He doesn’t mean magnanimous. And so there’s been a meaning change since then or not just Shakespeare, but Jane Austen. There are all sorts of little places in Jane Austen is easy to read as she is for us because it hasn’t been that long where she doesn’t mean what we think she means. And so, for example, Pride and Prejudice, that does not mean to us what it meant to her pride. We think, well, you know, I have a nice trellis or something, or that’s what they would be proud of because they didn’t have penicillin yet. So they have a trellis. I’m proud of my trellis, but no pride meant proudness to them. It was the negative pride. So Proudness Prejudice certainly had nothing to do with race and it wasn’t as inherently contemptuous in meaning for Jane Austen. What she meant by prejudice was roughly jumping to conclusions that you think something now that you end up being contradicted about later, not just that you look down your nose at something, but prejudice meant you thought that. But then you learned later that it was that. So, for example, the estimation of Darcy in that book. So Pride and Prejudice was more like proud Atti and Hastiness. That’s what she meant. We can’t help thinking what we think now, but that is natural to language as well, or today. So, for example, today, when we’ll say, oh, that’s awesome, oh, you can come at five, that’s awesome. Nobody would have said that. Even in, say, nineteen seventy awesome men, a cathedral. But then some centuries before that you could refer to the cathedral as awful and awful. Meant what some means to us now. It hadn’t become negative yet. You know, why not. And so you’re prideful. You’re wonderful and that cathedral is awful. That’s what you may have thought. But even today, the idea of awesome referring to that you put bacon bits in your scrambled eggs. I did that the other day. I highly recommend it. Tarragon in your mashed potatoes, bacon bits in your scrambled eggs. Then you don’t have to eat bacon itself and kill yourself. You just have the bits. It was awesome, but I would never have put it that way. I’ll bet James Beard never talked about some food being awesome. And that’s because meanings change. So meaning changes. Then also something else. Accent changes and we linguists call it stress. I’m talking about. If I say Aquamarine, the primary stress is on that last syllable aquamarine. Now, I know that in real life people call that accent, so I’ll switch between the two. But those changes of stress, those changes of accent have a lot to do with language change and they can even make something seem like a whole different language.
S2: I don’t talk much about sounds on this show because my sense is that sounds don’t lend themselves as much to sharing with the public. And I’m also not a fan ologists. I don’t care as much about sound as I care about words and grammar, but these things do need to be attended to. So, for example, there are two languages that are spoken in China and well, one of them, Evenki, is spoken in China and Russia and Oricon is spoken in China. Their language is related to Mantu. And then again, you know, it’s not common to know that Mantu is part of a group of languages called the Tongas languages. In any case, there are over there and there’s a Venky and there’s Arcon. If you look at it, Venky and Archon on the page, they look like variations on the same thing. They look more similar than Spanish and Portuguese. But if you talk to a. Blankies and archons, they’ll tell you that they don’t understand each other and you can play recordings of the two languages to the speakers of the other, it’s like, what, what?
S1: And a lot of the reason is just because they stress the accent, different syllables. So the word for fish in a vanke is roughly Ollo in arcand. The word for fish is also well, that can be a little confusing, especially if it’s every second word. It really does make it hard for people to understand each other.
S2: And so, for example, you could listen to cultivated people speaking English in the late eighteen hundreds and based on the evidence of guides to proper speech for, you know, basically affluent or middle class and self-conscious white Americans living east of the Mississippi in the late eighteen hundreds, you know, that somebody could have said back then and this is a cooked sentence, but still somebody could have said I was trying to enjoy this exquisite melodrama, but the despicable people up in the balcony made too much noise. That is a perfectly reasonable evocation of the way Edith Wharton people would have talked. So not an exquisite melodrama, an exquisite melodrama, but the despicable, not daffy. You’re despicable but despicable people up in the balcony. That was a big one. You do not say balcony. That’s gross. Balcony made too much noise and exquisite is not that old a pronunciation lesson. For example, this is digging in the crates. But you need to hear this. Stephen Sondheim, Broadway composer. Anyone can whistle flop show that now people who love musical theater adore, including me. That was one of my first ten CDs cut song from it. Yes. Called There’s Always a Woman. This is who is this? Sally Saleem’s and Kaye Ballard doing the cut song. There’s Always a Woman. I’m playing this part for you only. So you listen to the way they say exquisite.
S7: Listen, Patti, it’s always a woman. Look here, the guy with the three dollar bill, a genius, great. There’s nothing at all with a woman as lovely, charming, delicious, stunning, fabulous, gorgeous, exquisite. I make what I’ve done would be perfect.
S2: But see how it’s exquisite, bump, bump, bump might play it one more time.
S7: I mean, delicious, stunning, fabulous, gorgeous, exquisite. A knife with a gun would be so they don’t say exquisite.
S1: They say exquisite. But Sondheim does not mess up Skansen. He makes sure that the music’s accents parallel the words accents. The reason that he has them saying exquisite is because people could still say exquisite when he wrote this in the early 1960s, especially people of a certain age. These are quote unquote ladies and so exquisite. He could do that because this business of the accent, the stress changing is a major part of how language changes and that sort of thing would make English sound really odd to us in the past, even if it wasn’t anything as dramatic as having to deal with Chaucer. And that’s an example of how the stress can move forward. Exquisite becomes exquisite, but then it can move back.
S2: I’ve seen that in my own now becoming lengthy life. I remember when I was a rehearsal pianist for a small musical back in 1993 and at one point the characters had to take out cellular phones. And I just remember the director saying, you guys are playing these really snotty people. These are people who use cellular phones. And so they actually got some props, cellular phones. And of course, they were the size of bricks and they had antennas on them is 1993.
S1: And everybody had to hold them for one song. And the way you said it was cellular phone because people didn’t have them six or seven years later, it was cell phone. So not cellular phone, but cell phone. So they’ve been the switch. And then you knocked off the phone and you just said cell. All of a sudden we’re running around in the early 2000s talking about cells. Nobody 20 years before, even 10 years before would have known what we were talking about. Or my favorite example of this is what you can hear in the 1930s with the word automobile. It’s really a lot of fun. You can hear layers.
S2: And so let’s listen to Helen Westley, an actress who was born in 1875 and therefore would have learned to speak in the 80s and is also playing a fussy, older kind of character in the film ization of Showboat of 1936, which to many people is as significant as Hamlet. So the film ization of Showboat, directed by James Whale, usually a horror film director, and they put him on a musical. Imagine how deep that came out. 1936 Showboat. And she’s having a conversation with her husband. Listen to how she says automobile.
S8: And then you dive in basements of automobiles and she don’t say automobile, automobile.
S1: That’s where it starts. But then you just know that if it starts as automobile, then some people are going to start saying automobile as they become more familiar, as I’ve talked about on this show.
S2: So, for example, here is a movie called Make Way for Tomorrow. I recommend it. It’s about what it was like to be very old before Social Security. It holds up. It is as modern as anything that is playing on Netflix right now, despite the fact that it’s nineteen thirty seven. And at one point in a scene late in the movie, there’s this sporting kind of fellow trying to sell a car to the old couple and listen to how he says it.
S9: My name’s Ed Whelan. Of course, you don’t know me from Adam’s father, but you can judge something of my character when I tell you I’m permitted to represent this automobile. Of course, the car sells itself. When I tell you it’s considered the mechanical wonder of the age, you would be surprised.
S2: Now that actor is Dell Henderson. He was born in 1877. So he was Helen Wesley’s contemporary. But he’s trying to play a young person on the make, whereas Helen Wesley was playing a grandmother. Nevertheless, you can hear that these different stages of the word were competing at this time. And if you’ve got automobile and then you’ve got automobile and then you’ve got automobile, well, you know that after a while, just like when you have pizza pie and then after a while pizza, you’re going to have automobile, automobile and then just auto. That already existed by the 30s. And you know it if you watch Betty Boop cartoons because listen to one of her many cute theme songs, this is the cutest one. And listen to this business of an auto horn, which means that there’s already a word auto. So not an automobile horn, but an auto horn hakonarson pounding on.
S10: And I’m going to the fact that people can do. Saxophone playing on a saxophone in our society both times, it’s never meant a chance of opening at anytime and anywhere you can have a running and I don’t want to go down the road and all awful again.
S2: And now maybe that doesn’t seem dramatic enough. And I, I would like it if I could tell you that in 500 years, English is going to need a new name because it’s just going to have changed so much. This business of like the stress changing and Shakespeare generous, etc., maybe that doesn’t seem like enough, but I should say that we have to attend to the difference between written and spoken language. And the truth is that if we’re talking about slang, if we’re talking about very colloquial and often ingroup speech, it does get opaque fast. And so here’s an example of how English is changing in ways that we might not know and in ways that will definitely throw people in the not too distant future. Let’s take a very simple, very plausible sentence, bro. Like they totally dispossess. I’m too old to say that, but you can imagine the person saying it. They Mabior into Bernie Sanders brow like they totally dispossessed. If somebody says that and if they is the new gender neutral, they where we’re talking about somebody who is non binary and you’re not going to refer to them as he or she, but they and so Brull like they totally dissed his ass. That is a completely opaque sentence to even a street person 100 years ago. So that person is in the street drinking their rye and they’re cool and they’re doing cool things and listening to ragtime. But for like they totally dispossessed, they would have no idea what any of that that we’re saying now means. So, bruh, it starts as brother. And then you hear black men saying, bro, in the mid 20th century and then white people pick it up and it becomes Brar. And so this is a certain kind of white guy who is calling other white guys deer or buddy bro bro. And that comes from a word that used to be brother, as in not a sister and now it’s brother. And so bro, like they totally dissed his ass. So what does like mean here? Well, it doesn’t mean that you like strawberry ice cream, and it doesn’t mean that it’s like something that you experienced before. Like, they totally dispossesses one of many meanings of like here it’s a highlighter. It means they really did like it’s like something more than you might think. Like means many things. Remember my show, many of you will not that I did with the like lady as I sometimes jocularly call her Alexandra Darsey like means a lot of stuff. But, you know, given that like took over starting only in the late 1970s, that your Gaslight era cool guy would have no idea why you were using like in that way they would have been used to like being used maybe to indicate approximation, like do it slow, like something like that, but not something like like they totally dissed his ass. When you’re talking about something extreme, then they say, well, let’s face it, many of us ten years ago would have had no idea how that was being used, that they totally dissed his ass. Now, the totally doesn’t mean they dissed his ass for real or in a total way. If somebody says this in context, what they mean is some people might deny that the ass in question had been dissed, but we in this group of people speaking to each other know that, oh, come on. It really happened. It totally happened. That’s called a pragmatic usage eye. Listening to bro. They totally dissed his ass in 1980 when I was 14 or 15. I would have no idea what that meant because that totally had not set in yet. So just forty years ago, when I’m an adolescent, if somebody has said totally, I would have thought, oh, do you mean completely? I wouldn’t have gotten the usage of it. That really has settled in in particular in the 21st century. So there’s that then dis for to disrespect, if I’m not mistaken, in 1980, if anybody heard this used in that way, if it had started, it was very funny. It was major slang. The first time that I heard this use where I thought, oh goodness, that’s actually become a word was in the year 1995 when somebody used it with a straight face to me, actually. And I thought amidst the actual social import of the exchange, which was. So unpleasant that this is now a word, it’s time to put it in the dictionary, but for a while this was like like it’s disrespect, but you’re kind of shortening in and it sounds kind of black American or whatever. So I would in 1980, you know, pro like they totally as I as the person that I was in 1980 would have had no idea what it meant. And if somebody told me, I would have thought, well, isn’t that interesting in terms of what it might intend for lexicography in the same time, for example, if this would have been hilarious in the same way Asshole was, I remember guys in the bathroom yucking it up over the word asshole because it only came to mean what it means now, as in Gerke in the 1970s, if you see any recreation of the deep past where people are calling each other assholes in 1930, then however delightful, whatever that is, is it’s technically inaccurate.
S1: And speaking of asses, frankly, the whole business of, you know, Brahe, like, they totally dispossessed that dispossessed. I don’t know when that particular his ass, that usage of his ass as a pronoun started. But this I know it was not mainstream English in 1920. Nobody was saying that, you know, F. Scott Fitzgerald, he wouldn’t have put it in one of his works. But I’m quite sure that it’s not something he would have been familiar with. So Brahe like, I totally this is s very normal sentence, not cooked.
S2: That’s not like I was trying to enjoy this exquisite melodrama. But the despicable people up in the balcony made too much noise. I made that up. But Brahe, like, they totally dismiss as I made that up. But there’s probably somebody saying exactly that right now under my window. And yet that would be utterly opaque to somebody, even, frankly, depending on who they were 50 years ago. So language change happens.
S1: This is the Christmas show.
S2: And so I should have something in there about Christmas because Christmas is what I celebrate. And you know what I’m going to have? I’m going to have one of my very favorite Christmas songs. And as you might guess, it actually doubles as a show tune. This is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This is Hugh Martin. Remember, I did one episode where I had only Hugh Martin songs and Ralph Blane, they wrote this for the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. I find those Arthur Freed musicals, frankly, overrated. I know I’m going to get hate mail for that, but meet me in St. Louis does have its charms. And I would say that the main one is just when Judy Garland sings this. But I already did a Judy song on the last show. So, you know, actually whose version of this is my favorite. It’s Johnny Mathis. And so let’s have Johnny Mathis, who I don’t think I’ve ever had on this show before, or if I’ve had Bobby Short several times. No, Johnny Mathis. Johnny Mathis does a kind of an early version of mid 20th century, have yourself a Merry Christmas. And someone who’s listening to this really loves the bridge. And so I’m going to hold this through the bridge and then we will continue, as we always do, have yourself a merry little Christmas.
S11: Your heart’s beating like.
S12: Make the yuletide.
S2: Once more, you can reach us at Lexicon Valley, at Slate Dotcom, that’s Lexicon Valley, at Slate Dotcom, to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate dotcom slash Lexicon Valley. Mike Volo is, as always, the editor. Same one I’ve had for years. But see, that’s the thing. Podcast editors were common by 2016, so that makes sense. But nobody cares about this police question anyway. I am, as always, John McWhorter.
S1: This week for our Slate plus segment, we’re just going to go down Rabbit Warren, we’re just going to look at something that you may not have had occasion to think about, which is hospital hostel, as in that horrible place. You stay out when you’re a student and you don’t have any money and hotel. Now, if I put all three of them in front of you, you can kind of tell that they’re the same word and they actually are. Hotel, hostel and hospital are all borrowed in English from what originally is the same word. Hospital is straight up. Latin hostel is what that word became in French. First old French where it wasn’t hotel yet you still had the S so hospital hostel is hospital said an awful lot over hundreds and hundreds of years. Then the S drops out and you have hotel. So English borrows from Latin, English borrows from old French. When the Normans take over then English borrows from French. Later after the esses dropped out and you can kind of see a similarity in meaning hospital with sick people, hostel with desperate young travelers with student loans, and then hotel. If you are somebody who’s just traveling now, all of them come from the same thing, but it goes a little further and it’s where things get interesting. What about hostile notice? When I say hospital hostel, I have to specify that it’s the thing that you stay in when you first go to Paris, because hostel most spontaneously to us is somebody who’s angry, hostile. But gosh, that word looks and sounds a lot like those ones that are about hospitality. And what’s interesting is that hostel, as an angry that comes from a word in Proteau Indo-European on the steps of Ukraine. And that word was roughly Hulst host. And what host meant, if you look at all of the words and all the languages that came from it, that is stranger and there is a bleed between stranger and guest. You’re a stranger. Well, you might take that stranger in. So hostile is about your attitude towards a stranger, but then this can also end up being part of words that mean things having to do with guests. And so, for example, hospital, so hostile hostel is from host with some changes hospital. We have to figure out what the P is. So the original word is hospice and that’s something like guest. But that poor really goes back to that instead of it being just host in Proteau Indo-European The Root was host deportee. And what that meant was the host, the stranger, the guest here, the guest, then Potti, which is Lord, you know, potentate, etc., hosted party guest Lord. And so that’s how you get it to be a hospital or the hostel in Berlin or the hotel on Route 66. So osteopathy ends up becoming hostage then. That’s where you get the P and that’s where you get the hospital. Now, the Slavs among you might recognize hospital, military, hospital, primary, God help me. That is closer to osteopathy then, for example, hotel. So this is how etymology works. And this host that did become guest. So that’s another pathway that it took. And then there’s even more you may have even guessed it if you say in English a host of things, a whole lot of things, a host of things. Well, that comes from this same host because strangers guests. But here it’s strangers, host of things. It’s a lot of things. But the earlier meaning of a host was and you may know this from ancient things, a host is a is an army. It’s a whole bunch of people who are trying to kill you. So host is a bunch of strangers. And it’s interesting that host of word that’s borrowed from friends, too. But we borrowed it when we as if I was made fun at the time Anglophones borrowed it from French when it had dropped the H as good French does. So we borrowed it as host of things. But there was always that person. I like to think that it was just this one person where we could go back in time and flay his buttocks. But this one person decided that we needed to put the H back on because you could see it in older sources. So we don’t say and host of things we say a host of things because of that person with unflavored buttocks and in any case, old English for a host of things. As in an army. It was had a it was hair that sounds utterly foreign to. Now, except that hair came down to us as to Harry, to Harry somebody, and so I’m feeling Harry Reid is because I’m feeling Ahmed, because what armies do to you know, you can tell I could go on for a while, but I just wanted to acquaint you with this business of hospitals, hostels, hotels and guests and a host of things and why sometimes you may feel harried by your guest.