Subject-Verb-Object. Right?

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership at. From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter. And this time what I’d like to share is the glories of well, let me let me get you into it through the back door. Let’s say that you try to learn some Japanese as ever more people do these days. Well, Japanese can seem quite the challenge for we English speakers, partly because you don’t get very many cognates. The words are all of a completely different shape. And we’re expecting, but also because the Japanese seems from our perspective to have crazy word order, it seems like it’s almost deliberate. And so, for example, let’s say somebody is named Shoichi and you’re talking about something that Shook’s friend did, Squeegees friend bought a book in Osaka. OK, simple sentence in Japanese. The way you say that is Shuichi of friend Osaka in a book bought Shuichi Tomodachi Osaka de Honoka that is bought all the way at the end. So Sugai of friend Osaka in a book bought. Why do you have to put it that way? Why is it all backwards and screwed up. Well, you know, that sort of thing makes more sense than you think. As I often say, linguistics is about at least trying to find the order in chaos. And the question is why is world order so different from language to language? And the answer is that word order varies in ways that make a certain kind of sense. And often word order variations mean something or they do something. So from English, it just seems so natural that everything would be subject, verb, object. The boy bounced a ball. You figure, what are you talking about? The boy, what are the boy do he bounced. And what did he bounce. Well, something say a ball that seems so natural. Not necessarily SVO as we call it. Subject verb object. That’s just one of many ways of being a language. So for example, English is SVO. Japanese though is what we linguists call SLV. That means subject, object, verb. So the boy, the ball bounced and you can kind of get used to think of it that way. Just say it to yourself a few times. Not the boy. Bounce the ball. The boy the ball bounced the boy, the ball bounced. Kind of like the boy babysat sat the baby. You know, we can do Sauvie when we want to do well in Japanese. You want to all the time. So SLV is not weird. It’s just that the whole key to how word order works in that language is different from ours. Very specifically, Japanese is in that regard. Head final. What do I mean by head? Well, what I mean is that in English, the main thing in a little chunk of a sentence comes first. And so, for example, let’s say that the boy bounced the red ball, so bounced the red ball. You’ve got the verb and then, well, what did the boy bounce? A red ball. But the verb comes first. So that little verb part of the package bounced the red ball. To the extent that all of that goes together, that there are two halves, basically the boy and then bounce the red ball, the verb comes first. That’s the way we expect things to go. If you’ve got a preposition and what it refers to, something like, you know, I’m in the house or I’m under the car, or this is a book about a boy. Well, OK. The main thing there is the preposition that’s telling you where you are, what it’s about in the house, about a boy under the car and that distinguishing thing. The boy bounce the ball in Philadelphia. Well, OK, the end comes first. In fact, we called a preposition in Philadelphia, not Philadelphia. In from English we think of head first as being normal, but lots and lots of languages are head final. And so that means that the boy, the ball bounced that Shuichi in Osaka, a book bought. Or notice that it’s Shuichi Osaka in because it isn’t a preposition, it’s a post position. That’s actually what we call it. You can have two things. The generic term is add position and add position can be either pre or post. We have prepositions, the Japanese have post positions so it just makes sense if you’re going to say Shuichi of friend a book bot. Well, if you’re going to specify where it happened, it’s not going to be in Osaka, it’s going to be Osaka. In the two things go together because in this language the head comes last. So all these things make perfect sense. And if you’re thinking of. Things that way, then Japanese just feels predictable, you figure, oh, it’s going to be head final and then you know how the word order is going to go. You’re going to know that it’s going to be Sugai Osaka in a book. But, you know, it’s all going to be backwards. It’s very elegant. And, you know, while we’re on Japanese and it’s kind of time for one of the clips, let’s use something that’s Japanese but not stupid and kitschy. Let’s use Stephen Sondheim’s musical Pacific overtures about Japan’s opening to the West over time. Believe it or not, there was a musical about that. It will not surprise you that it flopped first, but it has since become very much a cherished item and has run again on Broadway. This is a bowler hat from it, and it’s about a Japanese man’s transition to Western ways. I think it’s quite beautiful. It’s not peppy, but I have to have Pacific overtures in this show at least once. So here is a part of a bowler hat from Pacific Overtures 1976. This, by the way, is the actor Esaw Sato doing this role.

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S2: I went to my pocket watch. We saw white walking the halls is far too small. I knew the spider run the water, but not this and thought it was a lucky thing.

S3: I read Spinoza every day for read.

S4: Where is my bowler hat?

S5: It’s Gordon.

S2: I left my why is nobody exploring in the sky explorers as well as are the corners of my life. We must keep moving with the.

S6: He wears a bowler hat.

S1: So we’re in this head final world, and specifically we’re talking about subject, object, verb languages, SLV and, you know, SLV, as funky as it seems to us from a language like English or Spanish, is actually a little more common than SVO in terms of languages around the world. I think the figure is something like 41 percent of languages are SLV and only about thirty five percent say over a third are SVO. There is nothing exotic about Sauvie in the linguistic world. You get very used to it. So, for example, Proteau, Indo-European, that language that fathered most of the languages of Europe and a great many of Asia and was born on the steps of Ukraine, that language was almost certainly and SLV language, not an SVO. And you see evidence of it in all kinds of ways that lead to that conclusion. So, for example, if you ever had any Latin, think about how Latin’s word order seems so crazy. Often it’s described as free, but there were tendencies and there are ways that you can see Latin as an SUV language. Think of a classic kind of schoolboy sentence. Cesar withdrew his forces to the nearest hill. Kysa Soulas copious in proxy mom call them, so boogied. That means Caesar, his forces to the nearest hill withdrew Kysa through us, capias his forces in Proxima and call them to the nearest hill, subdue subduct and that is withdrew. I think I’ve come up with. That’s going to be the Latin voice from that one. I don’t know what that is, but that is a typical Latin sentence and that is S Ovie with that withdrawing at the end. Or think about a little quirk in romance languages that to us in English always seems kind of odd. So I have it Spanish Yo La Tengo so thingo that’s have yo I think you know what that means. The low is the it. So we would think that would be your tango although I have it. Why not. Why is it your look tango when actually if you were going to talk about having say a dog it would be your tango Umberto. So I have a dog to us that feels normal. But then if you say I have a dog. No, I have it. Then all of a sudden you have to put the pronoun before and say your look dangle. Well, what is that? Well, one thing that is, is it’s s o v that is a remnant of the fact that romance languages are derived from languages where S of was OK. And so your subject law, that’s an object. And then Thingo, that’s a V is just peeking out from behind Indo-European languages all over the place. German, his father says that he feels better. Tzion father, his father zonked says that Daas He feels better al zek Besso feud he himself better feels so Slinn Fata’s Expresso food ok well food is feels and that’s at the end. That’s only in the subordinate clauses in German. But why. That’s the original situation, the fact that in the main clause you have good old SVO so often in German that’s later. And so German ends up leaving things the way they were over in the quiet conservative aspect of things, over in the subordinate clause that nobody cares about, whereas all the change happened up in the main clause. So her father kicked a ball, not her father, a ball kick, not her father. A ball kicked her father kicked a ball. And then her father says that he feels better. Her father says that he better feels that’s because of this of business. SLV is the word order in the Asian Indo-European languages in general, the ones of India, the ones of Iran. And even in this language that I’m speaking now, listen to, this is a justly forgotten sitcom that did radio. It was on TV. There were a couple of movies. There were comic books drawn by the Iraqi people. My friend Irma was a major franchise in the late 40s and early 50s. And it was it was about a quote unquote, dumb blonde. And she has a dumb semi criminal boyfriend. And here is one episode from nineteen forty eight. And listen to the language that the boyfriend goes into when he’s striking a jolly archaic tone, trying to give her an engagement ring that he did not by.

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S7: Go ahead. Oh it’s beautiful. But East is east and west as well as Mark Twain said we have met and haven’t met. I hereby with this ring. They do engage my love here. Oh. Oh. What’s the matter a.

S1: Oh, all the lights on that, for the record, was Marie Wilson and John Brown. If you care in any case with this ring, they do engage. So with this ring, I thee do engage. And so subject, object, verb, that’s something that earlier English could do and did quite often. Old English really liked itself, some SLV, and yet here we are. And finally, another indication that Sauvie is quite natural is that sign languages tend to be Sauvie. They all can at least have SLB sentences as one option and they tend to emerge as sobby even if they start doing more SVO later. It is a major element of being a sign language to come out as s o v, not SVO. So the boy, the ball bounced perfectly natural and a sign language to first do the boy and then do the ball and then indicate the bouncing. And in answer to your very reasonable question, this is one that I get often in answer to the question as to why I haven’t done an episode or episode on Sign Language, because there are great many of them. They are language just like spoken language, and they are hugely interesting. If you think about it, you know the answer. I don’t think this would be the best medium for doing sign language. They would have to be some special visual episode because you can’t see it. I just want you to know I love sign language. I’ve written a little bit about them. I think they’re fascinating. But this would have to be a different kind of show for me to really do sign language justice. But what I just said is something that really must be kept in mind. There’s only one hair out of place to give you a sense of how the science really goes. Trying to decide about SUV. Frankly, there are linguists and not just a few who think that language emerged as SLV. Of that, the first language would have been SLV and that the ones that are SVO like ours, are just a later development. And if you look at languages around the world, very often we can see SLV languages becoming SVO, but almost never the other way around, and usually for quirky reasons having to do with people coming together not just as a natural step by step development. So there are people who think SLV was first and then you look at sign languages and it certainly looks like that would be the case. But the problem is if language breaks down into, say, a pigeon where people are just using a few hundred words and a little bit of grammar in some situation of trade or unfortunately some situation of forced captivity, as happened with the slave trade, if language breaks down into a pigeon and then is built up again into a real language, then even if a lot of languages, in whatever context that was where of then the Creole that comes out is SVO. That seems to have happened enough that there seems to be something about SVO in that sense. So, for example, in Guyana, there was one very peculiar language that was created apparently by both slaves and Native Americans who were living there and interaction with the Dutch. There was something called Berbee Dutch. Dutch is SLV in the same way as German. So lots and lots of sentences have SLV in them then for reasons that are probably not recoverable. The Africans who created this language pretty much all seem to have spoken. One African language called Egil and Egil happens to be an SUV language. So all these people came together. There’s Sauvie all over the place. It’s the default order from Ijaw. It’s about half of the time in Dutch. And yet Berbee Dutch was the language is dead now, but it was SVO. So there’s a hair out of place. But SLV is possibly the default setting of language and so it’s not Japanese. That’s strange. In a way, it’s English. That’s strange. I want to play this for you just because I like it. And it’s been in my head over about the past week. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, you just know that they would have done a Broadway show at some point. And of course they did. And it was nineteen sixty nine. It was called Golden Rainbow. And you just know, as wonderful as they were that it was going to be this kind of glitzy Vegas thing that kind of came and went and was just designed to show them off. And that is exactly what it was. It had these delightful songs by Walter Marx, who I met once, actually, and Ernest Kenoi, who I didn’t he did the lyrics. And the cast album is a great listen. It’s got this late 60s TV variety show kind of arrangement. And Eydie Gorme was one hell of a singer. So this is a song called He Needs Me Now. She’s singing about her nephew, of all things, but the arranger. Here is just spectacular. He knows he needs me now. Just just listen to this. Whereas so with this, she walks on, you know, that the orchestra had to stop here and everybody clapped for Eydie Gorme because this was her entrance. And now listen to the arrangement underneath you, Donna. So it’s no wonder with him. Ba ba ba ba ba ba listen to those two stings on the trumpet. They didn’t have to put that in and it really makes it sound ruminative.

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S8: Your dad should have left you with me.

S9: But don’t you worry, dear. Now, your Aunt Judy.

S8: It’s me now, my. I can feel it. It’s me now. And so. And come between us. I.

S1: So those of you who are numerate, which I sometimes am not, may have noticed that I said, well, SLV languages are about 41 percent and then SVO languages are only about a third. And you’re thinking, well, that leaves a certain amount of space within the 100 percent. And you were correct. And that is because all six of the possible permutations of S.A. Venus and ONIS exist. There is SLV, there is SVO, and there is even though you might not think there is Vasso, there languages where the verb has to come first and then you talk about what’s being verb and what’s verbs in those languages are, for example, Keltic. So languages like Welsh and Irish, they are highly unlike English, much less like English than you might think because of the issue of just geographical contiguity. And one indication of that is that the verbs come first or Polynesian languages. And so Samoan, Hawaiian, those are V. S o languages. So when you’re wrapping your head around those languages, the first thing that throws you is the verb always comes first. When from our English perspective, you think, well, certainly we’re going to start with the subject. What is it about? And as exotic as this vessel might seem, and you find it here and there all over the world, including classical Arabic, classical Arabic, Leicht itself, some VSL, you can see that processing language with the verb first is not as impossible as it might feel. For example, even in English, we’re going to go try to raise this money, said Henry. OK, well said. Henry is the yes, said Henry, or Baa Baa black sheep. Have you any will have you any will have you a book that is the. So have you any wool. Well we use it in a question. Short step from it being something you do in a question to maybe it becoming just the ordinary way of expressing yourself. German again is one of these things. And so I eat fish each as a fish, OK, I often eat fish, not often it’s a fish. German has this thing where the is the verb refuses to move. The verb is very heavy, so everything has to move around it like some old building that has the historical register behind it. And so all the skyscrapers get built around it and there’s still this little brownstone sitting there while all the cars are going by, that sort of thing. So not each s a fish s is going to stay in that second place. And so oft s each fish often eat. I fish. That’s the way you do it. But if you say it’s a fish, well then that’s arved verb subject object. So he s oh so you’ve got the VSOE there in a language like German that seems to almost be flirting with it and their language is where the flirtation led to an eternal bond. And so you get these VSOE languages, that’s the next most common order. So salvias first, then SVO and we feel like we’re in normal territory, but it’s only like one in three and a bit. And then next most common is V. S. Oh. Now one order that really feels counterintuitive to us, though, is doing it completely backwards from what we know. So SVO, if that’s normal then. Oh Vess so the ball bounces the boy. And what you mean is that the boy bounces the ball. You’d think that wouldn’t exist. And for very reasonable reasons, linguists thought that such a thing just couldn’t exist for a long time. And then oddly enough, in the 1970s, languages that were OVC started to pop up in the Amazon. There aren’t many, but it does happen. Their language is where your default way of saying things is to say something like the the ball. I can barely do it myself. The ball bounced the boy. So, for example, one of the languages is called Hish Carlana. Beautiful word. He’s Carlana and in his Carlana, if you want to say the Jaguar a the man well man is Toto Kamara is Jaguar. And so the way you say the Jaguar, the man is Tauto Yono. Yeah. Kamara and it is quite, quite specifically the mandate, the Jaguar. And you know that a man wouldn’t eat a Jaguar. You can tell cats don’t taste good and you can imagine the big cat’s taste worse. It wasn’t that it wasn’t no matter how hungry he was, it’s the man ate the Jaguar. Now how in the world would that happen? Why would people do that? And it’s reasonable to ask because, you know, sign languages do not come out of Creole languages, don’t come out OBES. Most languages don’t come out that way. So there must be a story and. The story is that all these languages start as SLV, then the of package, the sort of in Osaka, a book bought, that package goes up to the front. And so then you get Ovie and then s as a kind of an afterthought. So, for example, you would start with something like my wife to me, a hammock gave very Japanese my wife to me, a hammock gave. Then you might change that to a hammock, gave my wife to me hammock gave my wife to me. And next thing you know, that’s default. And hammock gave is oh the my wife to me and my wife subject. So that’s the way it can go. Languages again flirt with this sort of thing all the time. It’s not as bizarre as you think. So for example, my favorite language, Russian has this. And so you’re always seeing in a cartoon dogs chasing cats. Well, suppose a cat is chasing a dog. And so let’s say that you’re listening to it and there’s some something’s going on and you don’t get to quite see it and you’re hearing it more than you’re seeing it. And you say, wait a minute, what’s chasing the dog? And then somebody says, oh, honey, the cat’s chasing the dog. Well, that’s a little odd. And in Russian, if it’s something that’s kind of odd like that, if it’s some new observation, well, you put it at the end. And so in Russian, the way that you would say, oh, the cat’s chasing the dog is you would say the dog’s chasing the cat and you can get away with it because Russian marks the dog as an object with little change. And so, you know, even though the dog comes first, that it’s an object. So the word for dog is Sobotka. If something’s doing something to the dog, it’s a subcu. So what’s chasing the dog? You say Sobotka, Kosuga, that you know, Kocherga as a cat, that could be nothing else, of course, because not a giraffe, of course, is not a cushion. A Kosuga is something that goes meow. It’s a girl cat. So you would say Sobotka, you would Kosuga and anybody would know that you don’t mean that the dog is chasing the cat, partly because subcu means that the dog is an object. But you put it at the end, meaning that that’s an obvious sentence in Russian to go object verb subject is perfectly normal in English. Think about this. This program was brought to you by tide. Tide gets your clothes there cleanest or whatever the slogan was. Well, default would be. Tide brought you this program. Notice they didn’t put it that way. They said this program was brought to you by tide. This object was verb to you by the subject. That’s an oh the structure. We use it again to put things in a certain way. You want to focus this time not on the kitty cat, but on the tide. And so, oh, this is not that odd. Or even even in more casual language. And I have to dig up something obscure here. This is the title number of Top Banana, a musical about burlesque comedians headed by Phil Silvers in nineteen fifty one. There’s a very good recording of this. You can also see it. It was practically filmed on stage and you know, dirty prints of it are online or you can purchase what you end up buying is the same fucked up print. But Top Banana has a title song where there’s just this eccentric oh the yes order. Listen to this segment of them talking about an old burlesque bit and listen to a sentence like one banana. I have I that might as well be not just one banana heavy.

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S10: That’s object verb subject. Take a listen.

S11: I just came back from the and I have three bananas and I’m going to give you one in now just a minute. You only have two bananas then bananas here and I’ll prove it to you. One banana have a right to bananas. Do you want banana until bananas. Bananas you are out of your mind in your own words. I’m sorry. You’re wrong. I had one banana. I have two bananas. One banana rejuvenated. I got. He’s right Tim. Oh. Will you join me in a banana. I’d be delighted. One banana for you and you banana for me. Well, how about me. You eat the food. Banana. What the hey slate.

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S1: Plus members and listeners. Those of you who have already done it, it’s survey time again. And this means that it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate. Plus in Slate. The idea is to help us make a better slate by answering our survey. It only takes a few minutes. It’s not one of those long, nasty ones. And you can find it at Slate Dotcom Slash survey a little bit more about word order. Sometimes word order, as I’ve already hinted, isn’t just about what order the words happen to come in for some random reason. Often word order changes are about changing what you mean to say. So the business with Russian and the cat chasing the dog, there’s a beautiful example of this in the Chinese, and it’s one of these things where it shows you how there are many different ways to be a language. And the thing that I love about these things is that a native speaker can’t tell you, just like there are all sorts of things about. English that we can’t tell anybody unless some weird linguist explains, but these things are grammar. So, for example, if you’re learning Chinese, one of the first things you notice is that there’s no the and there’s no other it frankly makes the language seem kind of naked. You wonder how a language could do without Vanness and honest. Quite a few languages do, though. But this is the thing. There is no language where you cannot indicate definiteness or indefiniteness in any way, and it doesn’t always have to be with some little weird word. There are other ways of doing it, such as with word order.

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S10: So, for example, the guest has come in. Mandarin could cook is a guest. Bleiler is has come. Khalilah, the guest has gone. Now what you’re thinking is, no, the it’s not something like a cook or something like that. It’s just good. So it’s guest come did. That’s what it is. So you’re thinking, oh, how telegraphic. And in many ways Mandarin is compared to English, but here there’s more going on than that. So just come up. OK, but here’s how to say a guest has come like color. So come guest did if you say guest come did that’s the guest has come. If you say come guest did. That’s how you say a guest has come. Now nobody thinks of this, but in terms of the flow of meaning and who knows what at what time, when you say Cooloola, that is the guest has come that we’ve talked about, whereas if you say like Guler, then that’s you’re sitting there in the chair.

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S1: I’m imagining it in a big study and this kind of book lined library. And it turns out that, you know, your ex-wife came or something like that. And the butler comes and says, a guest has Gumbs there. That would be like color. Isn’t that something? These things just leave you feeling like you’re on a seesaw. You end up feeling like you’re you’re Fats Waller in the nineteen thirties singing a song called I’m On a Seesaw That Nobody Cares About But Me that is massively catchy. And so you need to hear a little of it before we encounter our final thing.

S12: I’m so happy you drove me. I don’t know when I’m. No strings attached. So you built them up and, you know, I don’t know when you. I don’t hear you. But first, I won’t ever buy them you and. And ground you you up, up where your. I see, so you brought me up and you brought me down and told me you don’t.

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S1: So then there’s also when word order is about the meanings of words themselves, and this is something that happens with adjectives. Now, the whole thing about why you say little black dress instead of black little dress is fascinating. I did that in a much earlier episode, so I’m not going to do that again. But think about romance languages once more. So, amigo in Spanish. Now, if you know some Spanish and then a little more Spanish, you know that it’s not unknown to hear somebody say Vieillard Miguel. So what’s the difference? You learn this default idea that adjectives come after the noun but then you keep hearing them coming before. So amigo of your friend old vehicle amigo old friend. What’s the difference. Well in Spanish amigo vehicle is my elderly friend my friend on a cane as opposed to a vehicle amigo which is my old friend, my buddy from way back. Those are two different kinds of old. If you think about it in some other language, you would probably have. And I don’t even need to look, I’m sure there are languages where there are completely different words for elderly verses from going way back, my old friend, or you have something like Umbro, Bobbito, Amanpour, as opposed to Bob Brown. Poor man, Andre Popenoe, man with empty pockets. Bobrow, Andre. Oh, poor little man. Different things. And I do know that their language is where the difference between not having money and being cute and maybe vaguely pathetic. Those are just completely different words. And so you get all sorts of little subtle businesses where it becomes clear that when you put the adjective before it indicates a more intimate quality, it indicates something that’s more inherent to the thing. Old friend, you can smell what that means. The two of you chewed bubble gum together, got drunk together, the poor little man. So you want to give him some bubble gum or you want to give him something that’ll make him drunk because things aren’t going well. And that means that you’ll see some poem or some title like the green leaves were blowing in the breeze, but you wouldn’t say last or they’re this the leaves greens. You would say that’s this ridiculous. Because if you’re talking about the green leaves, what you mean is the leaves are green. You see a leaf and it’s green. And that’s part of the charm green. This is inherent to the leaf. So that’s where this or not, that’s all that is. That’s what somebody like me would put. And it would sound on idiomatic, because if you’re talking about the Darling wonderful reminiscent green leaves, then it’s very dishonest to use the proper accent. Not all that it is. Notice also if you’ve got a spark, the fuel for Spanish. So the sweet honey Ladell smell, not the mild also because Lambiel also implies that there’s some other honey that tastes like pork chops or something like that. So there’s the pork chop, honey, and then the sweet honey. But no Ladouceur meal means are sweet honey, sweet honey in the rock or something like that. Honey is sweet usually. You know, it isn’t technically. I’ve never quite understood this, but if you go to like a business then it’s been abandoned. But there’s that kind of crud on the outside of the nest and you’re saying, oh, honey, I’m going to be like a bear in an old cartoon if you ever tasted that. And it basically just tastes like somebody’s foot. It’s it’s weird. In any case, however they do it, it’s honey is inherently sweet. You know, I need to say and I’m going to just say this very briefly, I cannot pretend that I don’t have a book coming out now in two months that I think most of you would enjoy reading. So I have to talk it a bit here. Nine nasty words, English in the gutter. Then, now and forever. You should preorder yourself a copy. I’m holding one now. Listen, it’s an actual physical object. These are pictures and it’s a very nice size. You want to carry it in your pocket if you have unusually big and ugly pockets. But it’s one of those books that you kind of want to hold. It’s kind of like a cat in that way. It’s got a cute cover, too. I didn’t design it, so I’m not bragging. And also, I have to say, given that most of you now know that I have this other life that if you want to read me on perhaps Tangier matters than ones of world order, then you can find me at John McWhorter dot substory dot com, where I am writing rather furiously these days. Let’s go out on a little more gourmet more. He needs me now because I just love the arrangement. I love the way she sings this. Listen to this mediocre song in the way with arrangement and her charisma, plus a bit of nostalgia. You can really get kind of a high from what is really a thoroughly forgettable two minute clip of recorded sound, though he’s in trouble.

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S13: Will he remember?

S1: You can reach us at Lexicon Valley, at Slate Dotcom, that’s Lexicon Valley, at Slate dot com, to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate dotcom slash Lexicon Valley. By the way, you know, during the pandemic I’ve been reading War and Peace. I decided if I’m ever going to do it, I’m going to do it now. War and peace is the most majestically boring piece of literature I have ever encountered. I can’t put it down. I warn you, I’m almost done at this point. But goodness, what a fascinatingly ponderous, boring book. I’m saying this is not technically teaching a Slovik department just wanted to share that. Mike Warlow is, as always, the editor. And I am John McWhorter.

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S9: He really. It’s me now.

S1: For Slate plus, this week, I want to talk about how what goes around comes around and how we’re seeing it with the word try in ways that we might just think of as some slang, but a really language change as it operates. So let’s start with something very mundane. You fall down, you can smell a tree, you can hear the relationship. What is that? Well, originally, to oversimplify, there was a word that was roughly follain and then there was a word follain follain meant fall. Follain meant to make something fall. It was putting in that year that gave you that nuance of making something happen. Now, if you’ve got that, you’re coming up and you say, ah, well, there’s a tendency for the R to come up to the front of the mouth just like that year is all is bacteremia is up front. So after a while you might be saying Filion, but then endings tend to drop off. And so instead of Follain and Filion, you have fall and fell.

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S10: So that’s how we get little Paya’s like that same thing with sit in a chair and set something on the desk, sit and Scythian becomes sit and said, well, it used to be that Kunlun meant that you can, it means that you are able that you know.

S14: OK, Kuhnen Kunlun after a while with Kuhnen you’re going to get it moving to the front. The Ugo’s up to something like A and you’ll get something like Kanyon and after a while Kundun and Kennen. And so by the time you get to middle English, there was a verb can then and that meant not to be able to or to know but to make, to know, to get to know something can. And we still have a remnant of it in Ken as in what you know. But we don’t have the verb anymore, not kanun. But what Ken and meant was to make, to know, to get to know, to try something out, to investigate it meant to try. That was the real one of their actually about three. But the real English verb for to try try is something that comes in itself from French. So there’s this treet verb. We borrow that from French as we borrow so much else and our native words for Trie drop out. So what’s interesting is that our original try came in as one of these cases of intensifying some other verb. So to be able to to know your way around it and then to make yourself able to make yourself know, to investigate, to test it, to try it. So here we are with our word try and you would think to try maybe with some ancient English word and it isn’t. But, you know, we’ve had it for a good eight, nine hundred years. It might as well the English, because it is. But it’s interesting to listen to what happens to try in, for example, American black English where Trie is being roped in to become a kind of grammar itself. So TRY is born in English as something that you do to a verb that ordinarily means to be able to. And now think about what TREIS doing in black English. So for example, I once heard a guy say if they try to cook so fast, unbeaten some raw meat. So if you heard him, you might think, well, he has some colorful way of talking. What does he mean. Try to but you have to listen closely. It’s something you’ll hear many black people say if they try to cook it too fast, I’m going to be eating some raw meat now, literally, of course, nobody’s going to try to cook something too fast. When he said that, what he was really saying was just if they cook it too fast. But he used to try to in there. And the reason he used try to in there is because try to in black English is becoming a new subjunctive. What he meant was in the hypothetical case that they cook it too fast. And so, for example, if they try to cook it too fast, in which case I might tell them to cook it more. But in that situation where it looks like they’re about to cook it too fast, well, I’m going to be eating some raw meat that is, of all things, a subjunctive aborning in vernacular, black English. So the first thing you might think of with black English and try is this item spelled Trina with tr y and A and that means that you’re being fake. So you’re trying. OK, that’s one thing. But then a second thing is the subjunctive aborning. And then there’s actually another thing which is in the expression I try and hear that. And what that means is I’m not going to listen. I am trying to hear that. I’m not going to listen. So here is one thing to hear closely, to hear deliberately is to listen. So I’m trying to hear that is a way of saying I’m not going to listen. I was reminded of this by a usage of it that Stewy makes in a recent episode of Family. But the expression goes way back, how far back, I don’t know, but the earliest attestation I know of is in a parliament song not from the 70s, but from the 90s, 1994. And you can hear it being used here. But, you know, rappers have used it since then. But here it is on science data that’s above the data to me.

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S1: I tried the same way. In any case, this usage of Trie is intensifying here. So in the same way that you had that year that could intensify, fall or sit or many, many other verbs, drink and drenches the same thing. And also this business of can where being able to become something like Kuhnen and Kenen. Well, now we have this. I ain’t trying to hear where you have here. And then a more intense version of here is this trying to hear. It will be interesting to see try and extend it to other verbs. This could not be just a single isolated expression. It might be more grammar aborning in black English. It starts with things like this. And next thing you know, you have brand new facets of this thing we call language. So that’s just a little exploration of things going on with the word try in old middle and new black English.