Men, Women, and Children

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: From New York City. This is Lexicon Valley a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter and you know what I. This time I. Am in a certain kind of mood. This is Duke Ellington and this is a cut called Warm Valley. Listen to Duke Ellington and the Warm Valley. This is Johnny Hodges playing the saxophone. That sounds just like a warm Valley doesn’t it. And Ellington was naughty with his titles. He didn’t mean a Warm Valley as some sort of geographical formation.

S3: And along those lines on this show we’re going to talk about men and women and well not that not exactly sex but I’m in this strange mood and we are going to talk about men and women as words. And that is man. Men women women child children.

S4: What is it with those words English and the irregular plurals and the way they seem to cluster around things like family members and farm animals. Just what what is that. Well you know there are a lot of interesting stories there. And you know I’m I’m in a mood. Let’s start with this word man. And not because men are men but you’ll see that it’s handy if we start with the men. You go back to Old English.

S3: And the truth is here’s your first Fun fact the word for man in Old English was where you’re thinking well what’s that we’ll think about werewolf so a werewolf is a man and a wolf will wear a wolf. So man wear and then woman was weave. That’s our wife word now. But woman in general was we’ve. But this word man just meant person. So they did have man it was pronounced man back then.

S5: But that meant human being person it was gender neutral and we still have remnants of that when we say something like mankind or manslaughter it’s not that those words were created with the sense that they only applied to male people. You can think especially with manslaughter why would you mean that it was that when those words were created man still had the meaning of if you will human. But since then man has specialized. We call this semantic narrowing and it doesn’t mean just person but it means a male person. But then the question is why the irregular plural. So for example you know Broome. Broome’s Fox foxes man man’s. Why is it men who plan that you know nobody would plan that you put a language together you come up with a conlang you’re going to come up with some sort of way of marking the plural that’s at least fairly regular and you’re not going to then bake in unless you’re a really good con Langer and you’re trying to make your language like the way languages actually are but if you’re trying for order and we have to at least pretend you’re not going to have the plural of man be men why that how that happened. Well it’s actually it’s an interesting story. It happens via a series of accidents and then you wake up one morning and your language has a kink in it. Think of it this way we go back to English. That is such early English that it’s not English. We’re going back to what linguist called Prato Germanic and that is the ancestor of depending on how you count it. About 15 Germanic languages of which German big surprise is one. And then there’s Dutch and Swedish and Norwegian and Afrikaans and there’s Icelandic and Faroese and of course good old English. Oh and remember Friesen from rather a lot of shows ago. So the Germanic group but Proto Germanic was the ancestor. So before all those languages existed they were their father or mother language Proto Germanic we don’t know what its speakers called it but we can reconstruct what that language would have been like and in that language Mohn would have meant person and there were many ways of making a plural in Proto Germanic. Think about Italian. For those of you who’ve taken Italian and so you have e for the masculine and A for the feminine and other things that happen. Well as it happens in Proto Germanic one way that you would make something plural other than putting an s after it was to use E the sound eat. So the plural of man was not morans or monies or something like that it was money. That’s how you said man. So singular man plural money. So that’s the way it was at a certain slice in time. Now if you say money enough times what happens is the kind of anticipation. This is something that happens sometimes when you flub linguistically and so you’re going to say something like book block and you might accidentally say a block block because you feel the look coming up in the second word. Well in the same way if you say money a lot the R is going to start drifting closer to the E and so actually if you play around with these sounds in your mouth what’s closer to the e in between the eye and the E is and so are moves up to a.

S6: And that means that it’s in between. E You can go on E and notice that you’re going up front a is in between. So say money enough and it’s not you as an individual but over many many many generations money is said enough. Pretty soon money might become many because you’re anticipating saying the E and so you get closer to it when you say there are many. So we’re at stage two now where the singular word is man and the plural word is many. So not only do you put this e at the end but you have to change the vowel many now imagine more generations go by and I mean a whole lot of them. And you know stuff has a way of dropping off for the ends of words.

S7: And so for example the dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot.

S8: What musical is that. Don’t worry I’m not going to play anything from it. That’s West Side Story. I did not say West Side Story I said West Side Story. The tour dropped off of the West. That’s the way everybody says West Side Story unless they’re so careful that they probably are too neurotic to leave their house to go see it. So West is often as not we say West goes the ends are delicate it’s like split ends on certain kinds of hair. So over time you’re saying man many but after a while that many it’s probably going to become just men. And so then you have stage three where singular man is man then plural man is just men. That’s how it got that way. Now all of this would have happened with nobody knowing anything about writing except for a high remote elite. It’s not that anybody who was saying man men knew about a time when the language had it as modern money. These things happen bit by bit by bit but next thing you know your language has a little hole in it and so man or man as we now say it and then men that’s how that kind of thing works that is called for those of you who like terminology that is called ohm loud or specifically e ohm lout.

S5: And that’s when a vowel turns like that because of the influence of another vowel. And that created all sorts of things in our language that are strangely irregular or even annoying or things you don’t think much about. So for example let’s say that I fall from a tree and so I’m angry at the tree. And so I decide to chop it down. This is like something that would happen in a loony tune. And so I decide I’m going to fill the tree well obviously there’s a relationship between falling and felling. But why is it that you just have that vowel change. There’s actually a reason if you had that Looney Tunes situation in Proto Germanic and so Frodo falls out of a tree and he gets mad and so he chops it down fall was foul on. Yeah who cares. But to make something fall down to fell a tree was folly on folly. So there’s that e again as time goes by the endings drop off so far land becomes fall foul Leon becomes folly. But then you’ve got the R coming before the E and it becomes an a sound and so fell then the E drops off and you’ve got fell so foul Leon fell leaf fell that’s why you have fall and fell. So those things are remnants of previous complications. That’s how you get ridiculous plurals like that you know om Lao is what the people who wrote I love Lucy called the sound that Lucy would make when something awkward happened remember this sound. In the script they would call that sometimes the spider sound and sometimes they would call it the omen. That’s actually how I first learned the word um Lao because of course when I was 10 years old not having much else to do I was reading that I love Lucy so that’s how I learned um Lao. So now you know it too.

S3: So what about woman. Women. Woman Women why women. Why is that the original word that we now know as woman was we’ve Mohn so not wife man but that man woman person we’ve man say we’ve man enough and it’s going to become a woman. At first you have singular woman. And that’s from female person. WOMAN And then the plural is women because there’s man and men. So women. Women now man and men both don’t have the accent. And so things are gonna get muddy and pretty soon both of them are pronounced women. And so there’s a women one women standing there you know with an umbrella. And then here’s a bunch of women and there are words like that. So for example one sheep three sheep well one women three women. It happens but then over time the singular women started changing. And so you started saying not women but woman because war is something that falls naturally from a W.

S5: WS have a way of screwing things up in that way all over languages all over the world. So if you say women a lot over time there’s a chance it’s going to become a woman because of what the W did.

S3: Now that happened only in the singular maybe because people use the singular more but that meant that. Now the singular was woman woman as we pronounce it now and the plural just stayed the way it was as women. And so the singular is something that happened later. The plural is the way both of them were before. So we went from one women and six women to one woman and six women. It started out as wife man. But what that meant was a woman person a female person. It didn’t mean a wife to a man.

S9: You know I’m thinking now of a man and a woman together Cole Porter kind of suits that mood. This is a song that never gets around enough it’s a duet of his that’s very cute. It’s called cherry pies ought to be you. And these are two people singing it who are in the style of 1950. But you know that’s just the way it was this musical is called out of this world. It was a failure and it didn’t quite deserve to be. This is cherry pies ought to be you listen to them loving each other in lyric.

S10: Cherry pie this ought to be. Scott. Off to be used to pull lip certain price ought to be just go. Got to be Harlem ought to be one up to be all of Beethoven’s nine ought to be Shakespeare. You are so enticing. I’m starting to shake.

S11: My to continue heaven’s blue off to be heaven to be everything super. Do ought to be off to be Texas. This ought to be in deep shit to some to be sued for Chief drawing rooms ought to be off to me. Rita come.

S10: Up to me.

S12: Shoot.

S3: So men women.

S13: Then what about Lady. You know lady start says starts as loaf made the original word is her laugh D laugh D laugh is loaf D is made and that doesn’t help us today you just have to accept it but loaf made well her laugh D becomes lefty so English about twelve hundred where we would expect lady it’s lofty and then the F drops out and you’ve got Lady lady lady lady lady so lady starts out as the loaf maid and of course loaf refers to bread but bread to an extent could mean food in general and so for better or for worse the lady is somebody who is taking care of the loaves and if it’s any consolation Lord is frankly even better Lord starts out as laugh Where’d laugh Where’d the loaf ward.

S5: So he’s the war half of the loaf and so his software becomes levered in the thirteen hundreds.

S9: You can see it on the page levered and it’s easier to imagine that that would have started out as something like loft where but then lover becomes Lord and so Lord believe it or not began as a compound you know it may have started as the loft Where’d and then became a loft where there almost certainly was a back shift way back in the mists of time and so Lord begins as two words this is one of the places that words come from when words smushed together and they so much so thoroughly and yet such a dastardly car wreck that you can’t even tell where one car ends and the other car begins that’s what Lord was and you know about some of you are wondering well if we’ve meant woman then how did you say wife in old English and you know how you said you said Queen The word was Queen back then but Queen was the original word for wife and then Queen extended into meaning somebody who was female and helps to run a kingdom and is presumably the wife of the King so you never know how these words are gonna evolve and for whatever it’s worth husband that I’ll bet you can tell now that starts as a compound whores yes is house and then bond meant roughly dweller a husband was a house dweller that was not the original Old English word that is something that we for some reason borrowed from the Vikings when they came starting in 787 and settled in we borrowed a lot of their old Norse words including very basic things like Get Happy and neck when you listen to Judy Garland singing Get Happy Don’t worry those two words are coming from the Vikings and husband was another one of them and then hubby is short for husband I’m not sure if I ever fully knew that I didn’t think about it much because hubby is kind of a cloying word but hubby is short for husband and notice how just because of what we call sound symbolism sounds symbolism meaning that for example words beginning with G L tend to be about pink like glamour glamour glint words with us we are always kind of cute so like Tubby Tubby is a cute kind of word Oh he’s kind of Tubby you kind of want to put your arms around that person or the same thing with chubby you know it’s kind of cute all I’ll be words are kind of cute and almost always difficult to figure out what the etymology of them was Tubby probably from a tub chubby well they’re various chubby that it might come from an actually it if I may because all words are words there’s also one if you read a lot of old books you might catch Bubby and Bobby is actually a word that’s probably more familiar to a lot of us if I may as far as boobs as this boobs word boobs ghost pack two boobies and believe it or not that does not start in Porky’s or something like that boobies goes back to the sixteen hundreds and then boobies goes back to Bobby’s and Bobby’s is a strange word that you see in semi ancient English documents and you have to figure out that what they’re referring to is well you know what we’re talking about and there are various etymology is of Bubby some people say that it might be from a Latin word for little girl and despite how tempting that is because of the way some people call what I’m talking about the girls I suspect that it’s onomatopoeia or maybe just imitative there are words that are like that but anyway hubby Bobby Tubby chubby they’re always there and while we’re on this subject which we will leave very quickly it’s time to play another song.

S14: One of the stars of out of this world was the wonderful Charlotte Greenwood. She was a lanky character actress with a wonderful smile she was from Philadelphia like me and she decorates especially a lot of the splashy 20th Century Fox musicals often with Betty Grable in the 40s you if you’re listening to this podcast you have probably seen Charlotte Greenwood even if you didn’t know it and she had an early talky career that was different and she did a movie with Eddie Cantor called Paul me days where she does a number. She’s a gym instructor and she’s surrounded by all of these core greens and she’s teaching them that you have to keep in shape in order to be attractive and you very dated message but the song is called bend down sister. And not only is it very catchy but if any of you don’t have anything else to do go take a look at bend down sister on YouTube and notice certain things about what they could get away with before the production code. In terms of shall we say costume in any case this is bend down sister. New sources.

S15: Manet 2 0 0 0 9 and then of course what about human.

S9: You’re thinking well if it was woman and that’s a wall wish man then is a human. A man who is hew and actually know that resemblance is accidental. Latin humans.

S4: That goes back to the word in Proto Indo European. That father or mother language to almost all the languages of Europe and then quite a few beyond that was spoken in Ukraine Puerto indo european word would have been something like Goldman or more properly to go. But I’m going to smooth it out here and stick with the Goldman part because that’s what ended up being left so often in languages that came from this source. The Goldman meant roughly Earth inhabitant earthling. And it’s interesting. It ends up spilling down into various Indo European languages.

S9: But this go mon came into Old English not as a man but as a word Guma. There was a word other than where that meant male person. There was Guma and that solves a little mystery. You ever thought about bridegroom. So the man is about to get married and for some reason the man is referred to with the noun that you usually use for somebody who’s off brushing the stinky horses why is it a bride groom why is it the groom. Because it started out as bride groom and that meant the bride man. But after this Guma were dropped away. That became opaque and the only thing that seemed to make any sense was to call it for some reason. A bride groom so bridegroom is one of those many many many words in English that began as a mistake and now well you just have to accept it. We certainly don’t want to call a bride groom a bride groom. We don’t say where’s the groom. That sounds like somebody with some kind of disease or you know a massive wart on their back or something. It’s a bridegroom and we’re stuck with it but really. Originally it was that same route that elsewhere creates human. So we can think of it that way. The bride. Human. Or what happened when man no longer means just person. Well we ended up taking person from French and that’s originally from Latin persona which meant kind of what persona means to us because we borrowed that from Latin later persona meant mask a characterization some part that you’re playing French has person we take person from French then person is odd in this same way that I’m using for the theme of this show with its irregular plural why in the world do you have person and then people notice persons isn’t wrong but it’s very specialized you have to know how to use it it’s rather literary if you’re talking about more than one person you’re supposed to say people in casual speech and that comes from a completely different word that’s from populous the Latin populace which is like folk and in fact our word for people before there is a such thing as that word in our language was folk and that’s how it is in a normal Germanic language but we took Latins populace and it became people and after a while it oddly took its place as the plural of person and so we have person and then people and that becomes a kink that you have to learn in English and neither one of those or actual English words. And so we ended up borrowing material into our language and using it in a way designed to confuse the innocent language will kick your butt. But in terms of this mood here is another song from out of this world. This is on cause in New York’s reenactment of it in better sound. Many many many decades later this is the wonderful Ken page playing Jupiter and this is at the beginning of the show and Mr. Jupiter has a certain problem.

S16: Huh. To return. To retire. With Zack. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

S17: Wait wait wait what. Oh shoot. Oh to guitar. Like a friend did so. Much to. Break it. Hello. Hello.

S18: Hello. I’m tired. Oh lovely dark suits. With than bodies.

S9: So then there’s a bigger picture here. These irregular plurals. Why do we have those and we don’t have that many. There are languages where irregular plurals are the default. We only have a handful. But why do we have these words like men and women you can see it can happen various ways men is because of E ome lo and then women is because the word woman broke off in a singular in both senses of the word way and then you have people for person because of just a random train wreck and how we borrow words from other languages and unfortunately sometimes don’t give them back. What about the others. Well it tends to be these eccentric kind of stories and so for example you have a louse and then you have lice.

S13: You have a mouse and then you have mice. Well then how come you have a house but you don’t have heights today you just have to kind of suck that up. But the reason for that is that earlier English divided its words into three absolutely ridiculous genders ridiculous in that words belong to genders really most of the time for no particular reason so just like in Spanish a hat is a boy sombrero. And then the moon is a girl Luna. Well old English had that and beyond yet masculine feminine and neuter. What happened was that louse and mouse happened to be feminine words and feminine words had their plural in this e and so that e did its e ome lout business. And so the word for louse was loose. Now you give it a plural marker and you have Lucy that that I don’t to. So Lucy but if e gets pulled closer to you than you get e it’s that French e that you have to use where you shape your mouth for loon and say lean lean and that’s how you say moon and French and so loose leaves C.. Well then the E drops off for one thing. So you have just loose. And then if you say loose enough then you’re just saying lease.

S5: Now imagine if you say lease a whole lot but then you develop what to us would sound like a down home Southern accent.

S4: So lease lease so you gonna give me some lease. Lies lies lies lies. That’s how you got the plural lice mousse for miles. Went through the exact same process after while you have mis. And then you have Meese then Gomer Pyle says Meese and then mice and then mice and then mice and so that’s how you get mice. That didn’t happen with House which began its who’s because who’s even though it sounded like moose and moose. This is beginning to sound like Dr. Seuss. It was neuter and neuter words and old English did not take E for the plural. That’s not what they did. Sometimes they didn’t take anything whose was one of those words. And so you had one house you had seven House. That’s the way it was only later that we start tacking the s onto it and saying houses. So there never was an E plural with House. You never said who C. And so you don’t talk about having Heiss if you had talked about Lucy then we would say well I would love to have to Heiss but we just don’t know what the plural of hand was. It was Handa you said Honda you could clap here Honda and you know that’s one of my favorite Gershwin songs. This is from okay in 1926. This is a recording of a show from the 1950s and the recording has all the hallmarks of the way producers in the 1950s tended to reinterpret shows from the 20s and 30s to sound like the kind of goopy television special 50s. I don’t recommend this album in general but the way they do clap your hands which was what was called a revival stick. No. Back in the day is really very very good. The singer’s name is Alan case listen to the double pianos. This is one of my favorite cuts of music ever. Clap your hands. So to speak.

S19: And this is a 1950s version of a 1926 song clap your hands slap your thigh.

S20: Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Everybody come along and join the Jubilee.

S21: Clap your hands slapped your thigh. No time to lose time. Come along and shake the shoes. Time now for you and me. On the sands of time. You are only a rain man must be treated just like a rebel.

S20: Second the devil with your hand slapped your thigh. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Everybody come along and join the Jubilee.

S9: Notice how even the 50s. They could almost jam. They really get a good rhythm going in that cut. And notice he says Come on you children. There’s another one of these plurals so children. Child Y Not child’s what’s children. Well it wasn’t only children. Something that weird generally was a pattern in the past and so today it’s like the fly caught in the screen dead and it’s a corpse. But Sarge say that about children. But back in the day children was something that was common. There were many English words that had that run ending. It used to be that you talked about if you had two mothers if that’s the way things were to go then you had mothering. Not mothers that would have sounded quite crude many lambs today one lamb seven lambs seven lamb seven sheep. I don’t know. But back then it was lamb Bran. That’s how you would have said it. It had several eggs he had several Erin and he had several calves. He had several Catherine. Those of you who are fluent in Old English because you spoke it at home. Yes that ending was Roo in Old English actually. But to make it more vivid for today I’m making it seem as if it had already become Wren. So actually was lamb brew it grew. But whatever children was part of a pattern this mood I’m in maybe seemed a little too bubbly. And so here’s Charlotte Greenwood again singing with David Byrnes and out of this world.

S4: This is cherry pies ought to be you the I hate you version listen to them not liking each other to the exact same music. This is clever circa 1950. Shooting payments ought to be adult grain ought to be slaughtered when it rains up in your hands in subway trains ought to be you in that crash ought to be lethal gas ought to be shower all our process ought to be at the Old Bailey bazaars ought to be you You look so forgetful you’ll give me the joints. Kid if you ain’t cheerful I’ll give you to want to continue horsemeat steak. Ought to be your pickled snake. Ought to be everything I can’t take it may go up to be you audibly full up you ought to be go ought to be you ought to be you would be you.

S6: By the way you know how you talk about a morn and you can talk about and Eve.

S9: Well then where do we get morning and evening what is all that about and is there anything more to say about it. Well you know there is and I suspect you’d enjoy it but you won’t know what I said about it unless you subscribe to Slate Plus for a nominal fee. Not only do you get little tags and the one that I’m doing today I am using a clip of something but you also don’t have to listen to any ads read by me or anybody else. And this nominal fee helps pay not only for Lexicon Valley but for the vast array of wonderful podcasts as opposed to mine that Slate does. So get Slate Plus and you get a little extra and you don’t have to deal with any commercials. You know what this is this is Mel Torme.

S22: And you may think of him as the Velvet Fog singing ballads etc. but there was actually kind of a jamming jazzy Mel Torme. And this is coming home and it’s pretty clear what he’s supposed to be coming home for. This is Mel of all people man. Let’s take a listen. Coming home baby. I’m comin home now. I’m. At home sitting at. Home. You can reach us at lexicon Valley at Slate dot com. That’s lexicon Valley at Slate dot com to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out go to Slate dot com slash lexicon valley if you wanted to light your children with a special dessert that no other parents are giving their kids. I suggest that you get them peach jello and not just the peach jello but sprinkle watermelon pop rocks on top of the peach jello. You will rock your children’s world and it cleans up easily. Mike lolo is as always the editor and I am John.

S9: You know you’re talking about hello and goodbye and good morning.

S4: They’re little things about that aspect of our language that are really fun in terms of etymology and so for example you can say adieu for goodbye. That’s from French or you can say audio so I think all of you know what language that is. That’s this romance way of saying goodbye it’s to God. And then what’s eclipsed is I command you so I command you to the arms of the grace of God idea ideas. Well as we’ve talked about on this show French and Spanish are just two ways that Latin happened to come out. There were dozens and in northern French instead of it being idea in some northern French is it was more like ideas. And so a consonant hung on on the N ideas or I’d juice or juice or juice you ever notice. You have Europeans who say choose that comes from idea to God who would ever have known or mourn a September Morn and then Eve for evening Christmas Eve or something like that.

S13: Well where do we go. Morning and evening. It’s something that happens bit by bit by bit. So you’ve got an Eve and that’s the original word for evening. Well if evening is coming then you start saying that it’s beginning to even now. Why would you say that.

S4: Because in an earlier English as a verbal ending we still have it but don’t think about it so open notice how in a poem you can say ope open.

S14: Well ope used to be the word open is a remnant of a time when that end was what you put to make something a verb with most verbs that UN dropped off so you don’t say Walken you say walk you don’t say fallen you say fall but with open it just kind of stuck on there listen it’s the same thing and you can find poetic uses of a word list which means not to tip like the Titanic but to open your ears because that’s how it should have happened. So you have these remnant ends well before that happened. If it’s getting towards Eve then you can say that it’s beginning to even. OK. Well there’s a short step from there to saying oh my I’m so glad that it’s finally evening because it’s time to put the kids to bed and we can whatever. So now we’re at a stage where there’s mourn. That’s the original word for the break of day mourn. And now we’ve got this evening. Well you know words have a way of imitating each other. And so after a while you get morning just because of what had happened to evening to make them alike. So mourning is not an original word it’s originally just the mourn. Mourning comes via what we call analogy and really the language was trying to go even further in that direction. Now we might talk about Dawn you’ve heard dawning in certain song lyrics for a while it was trying to be dawning. And so you’ve got the morning you’ve got the evening and you’ve got the dawning all of this is about imitation it reminds me of my favorite character on Bob’s Burgers there’s a show that I have binged over about the past six months I’m now completely caught up. What an utter delight very much the equal of the Simpsons Family Guy and South Park and my favorite character in it actually his Jocelyn. Who is this sniffy adolescent girl whose main personality trait other than the sniff penis is that she never has an original thought in her head and so she just says what everybody else is saying. Often she says yeah after somebody else said something and at one point she actually lays out her philosophy and here is the clip because everyone else like Tim I need to start thinking for myself unless you guys don’t think that’s caught in a.

S9: So morning is Jocelyn or I might say morning as Jocelyn. That’s how that sort of thing goes. But words imitate each other words kind of suck that way you know like for example tomato that word originally was tomato which sounds borrowed it sounds like something different we like the diversity of it these days it was tomato. But today we say tomato why do we say tomato. Well just because that sounds like potato. And so you figure well it’s these two slightly overrated foods and so well if you’ve got this round thing that’s a potato. Well the tomato must be a tomato as well and even potato was one of those things where it just got kind of torn up and it wasn’t an imitation of anything it was just because we were stupid and American it supposed to be a potato.

S14: But no we called it a potato because that somehow sounded better in English. It’s just like sometimes people used to say Hawaiian instead of Hawaii Guatemala instead of guacamole.

S4: Those of you who’ve really stuck with this show and sometimes some of you write me and tell me that you’ve actually listen to every one of them you might remember the one where I talked about how Americans used to have a way of utterly butchering foreign words potato. Was one of those it should be potato. But then once there’s potato then the tomato becomes a tomato. So that is how language change works and there is your slate plus segment for this week.