English is a language not to be ‘misunderestimated’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 14, 2009

The inner workings of languages have fascinated me for most of my life. I think my first memory of a significant linguistic feature goes back to a childhood Sunday school lesson about a heated dispute within ancient Israel.

As a test of membership in one of the feuding sides, individuals of interest were required to say the word, “shibboleth.” If they mispronounced it “sibboleth” – beginning the word with the sound /s/ instead of /sh/ – their interrogators knew immediately the speakers were from the wrong side – a mistake that cost them their lives (Judges 12:6). “Shibboleth” ultimately entered the English language, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, to refer to “a long-standing formula, doctrine, or phrase, etc., held to be true (esp. unreflectingly) by a party or group,” or “a word, phrase, pronunciation, usage, etc.,” that identifies the user as a member of a “particular class or group of people.”

Although for most of my 43 years as a descriptive linguist I have focused primarily on the sound system and structure of the Stoney Nakoda branch of the Sioux language family spoken at Morley, my interest in the history and structure of my first language, English, has been no less keen.

After all, English has become the most important language in the world today for commerce, information technology and international relations. And for its half-million or so words it’s indebted to every other major language and some not so major.

As the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman put it, “Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.”

How old is the English language? If by this we mean English as we would be able to make some sense out of it today, less than a thousand years. And even by 1611, when the venerable King James Version of the Bible was first published, spellings were not standardized as we have them now. For example, verse 4 of the 23rd Psalm originally read in the KJV: “Yea though I walke through the valley of the shadowe of death, I will feare no euill.”

Some English words have roots that are thousands of years older, of course. Sanskrit, the Indo-European language whose Rigvedic literary history in southern Asia can be traced back to 1,500 B.C., reveals itself in the following modern English words: “car” from Skt. car, “to go, move”; “door” from dur, “door”; and the prefix “tri” (as in “triathlon”) from tri, “three.”

As nearly universal a language as English is, it certainly has some bewildering features, due in large measure to its mongrel pedigree. How else can we account for its often-bizarre peculiarities in spelling and pronunciation?

Take the eight different pronunciations of the letter combination “ough” in the following sentence, for instance: “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman coughed and hiccoughed while strolling through the streets of Scarborough.”

And how about this example where the same sound /i:/ (‘ee’) is represented by seven different spellings? “He believed Caesar could see people seizing the seas.”

Just how funny the English language is in its use of words can be seen in the following: we turn water into steam and cars into a driveway; we park our cars on a driveway and drive our cars on a parkway; and if we drive our cars across a lake on thin ice, we get into hot water.

Retiring U.S. President George W. Bush is credited with saying: “In my sentences I go where no man has gone before.” Which explains why, in his final press conference before leaving office, he once again used his neologism (newly-created word), “misunderestimate.”

When it comes to meanings, some English words have more than you can shake a stick at. Take “set,” for instance. There are nearly 200 definitions for this seemingly simple three-letter word. For example, you can set a table, set a clock, set a book on the desk, set something in motion, set one’s hair, and set something to music.

From a grammatical perspective, there have been heated debates for years over whether it’s okay to split an infinitive, as in “to go quietly” or “to quietly go.” Others demand that “hopefully” should never be used as a sentence-level modifier, as in “Hopefully, the English language will survive text-messaging.”

And then there’s that famous response from Winston Churchill to a grammar-obsessed critic: “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

Speaking of which, I think that’s a great quote to end this week’s column with. Or should I say, a quote with which to end this week’s column? Ah, the joys of English.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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