January 28, 2018

The Ten Thousands Things

Linguists have come up with a number of amusingly named theories of how the first words might have been created. One theory (called the mama theory) is that language began with people attaching the easiest syllables to the most significant objects. Another (the pooh-pooh theory) says that language began with yelp-like interjections, as when we say “ouch” to express pain or “oh” to express surprise. Yet another (the bow wow theory) says that language began with onomatopoeic words that mimicked the things they denoted, as when a child calls a dog a “bow wow” or a train a “choo choo.”

A similar theory (the ding dong theory) is that the sounds of words are related to their meanings through a concept known as sound symbolism. In a 1929 experiment, psychologists showed participants two shapes and asked which was a “takete” and which was a “baluba.”

There was an almost unanimous tendency to name the jagged shape a “takete” and the rounded shape a “baluba,” suggesting some sort of mapping between shape and sound.

It seems somehow fitting that a cactus is called a “cactus” and not a “willow,” and that a flea is called a “flea” and not a “hippopotamus.” There is often some sort of metaphorical mapping between sound and concept. Notice, for example, how the inside of your mouth gets smaller as you say “teeny” and bigger as you say “large.” Many of the seemingly arbitrary words we use today probably originated with some non-arbitrary association that is now lost to history.
Once the idea of words took root, people went about naming things. When something is named with a word that sticks, that concept is said to be lexicalized. Each culture lexicalizes as many concepts as it considers worth talking about. There is an urban myth that Eskimos have 500 words for snow, while English- speakers have only one. That’s wrong on both counts. According to the linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, the Inuit have about a dozen words for snow, and English speakers have almost as many (including “slush,” “sleet,” “powder,” “flurry,” “dusting,” “blizzard,” “avalanche,” and “squall”). This is not to say that there is a word for every meaningful concept. In English, there is a word for light red (“pink”), but no single word for light blue. There is a word for brothers and sisters (“siblings”), but no word for nieces and nephews. Lexicalization is somewhat hit-or-miss.

The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, “The word, once introduced, become the mother of the ten thousand things.” His point was that true reality is an interconnected unity, though we tend to speak of it—and therefore falsely think of it—as a bunch of disconnected concepts. Words chop the world into discrete categories of thought, drawing lines of separation and contrast even where no natural discontinuities exist.

Take colors, for example. In English, we tend to speak of colors as though they are crayons in a thirteen-crayon box. According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the most commonly used color word is “black,” which is used as an adjective 14.7 times in every million words. The thirteen most frequently used color words are: “black,” “white,” “red,” “blue,” “green,” “yellow,” “gray,” “brown,” “pink,” “gold,” “orange,” “silver,” and “purple.” In fourteenth place is “tan,” which occurs with less than half the frequency of “purple.” The rest of the list includes such b-list colors as “turquoise” and “beige.”

Cultures often lexicalize more than one word for a given category because different words can carry different emotional connotations. We can speak of an adult human female as a “woman,” “lady,” “gal,” “broad,” or “bitch,” depending upon how we feel about her. Every word choice is a mini-editorial.
Big words are constructed from meaningful smaller parts called morphemes (literally, “form parts”). The word “bicyclists” is composed of four morphemes:

bi  cycle  ist  s  

Morphemes probably originated as words. Suffixes like “-ing” were probably words that, over time, became bound to the ends of other words. (Prior to the invention of writing and word spacing, the difference between “walking” and “walk ing” would have been a moot point.) A recent example of a word- turned-morpheme is the prefix “e-” (short for “electronic”) as in “email” and “ecommerce.” Another is the suffix “-gate” (derived from “Watergate”), which journalists now use when naming political scandals, such as “Nannygate” or “Monicagate.”

President George W. Bush had a funny habit of inserting morphemes where they didn’t belong. Mr. Bush said that certain issues did not “resignate” with the people and that he did not need to get “subliminabable” about his views. He praised leaders who were “exemplorary” and was grateful for people who made a commitment to “embetter” themselves. Speaking of his critics on the eve of the 2000 presidential election, he said famously, “They misunderestimated me.” I point out President Bush’s linguistic missteps not to make fun of him. (On the issue of language I sympathized with the President. I used to say “irregardless.”) I cite these examples because they shed light on a linguistic process so natural that it normally takes place without a hitch and without notice.

Children learn how to construct words at an early age. In an experiment now known as “the wug test,” young children were shown an illustration of an unfamiliar bird-like creature and told, “This is a wug.” The children were shown a second wug, and the researcher said, “Now there are two of them. There are two what?” Most children of age four or older would say, “Two wugs.” They had evidently learned the general rule for constructing a plural noun.

We keep in our heads a large mental dictionary of word roots (“dog,” “happy,” “walk”) along with a small set of rules for inflecting them (“-s,” “un-,” “-ing”). Also in our mental dictionary is a list of irregular forms that do not follow the rules (“men,” “went,” “threw”). When a toddler knows the root word and the rule, but not the irregular form, the child might say something like, “Daddy throwed the ball,” or, “I saw deers in the woods,” forming constructions that are both cute and incorrect.

The average American high school graduate knows about 45,000 different root words. If you count names and proper nouns—all the words you can’t play in Scrabble—the number grows to about 60,000. That number doesn’t include all the variations on words. It includes “happy,” but not “unhappy,” “happiness,” “happily,” and “happier.” If you count all common constructions, and especially if you include such possible but seldom-used constructions as “unhappier,” the number of words becomes astronomical.
For non-native English speakers, learning all the words is only half the battle. They also have to learn the idioms. In the classic Saturday Night Live sketch the “Wild and Crazy Guys,” the Czech brothers played by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd try to speak in the vernacular of “swinging” young Americans, but can’t get their idioms quite right. They say, “We sure have a drag” (instead of “This sure is a drag”), “You’re standing on the base," (instead of “You’re on the mark”), and “Here is a thing I will tell you” (instead of “I’ll tell you what”).

An idiom is a phrase, like “throw up” or “make out,” whose meaning is different from the literal meaning of the words in the phrase. Idioms go hand-in-hand with metaphor. Many common idioms are based on spatial metaphors (“go crazy” “fall in love”) and transactional metaphors (“give up” “take time”).

Some idioms have quirky anecdotal origins. “High on the hog” refers to the fact that the best cuts of meat come from the upper portion of a pig. “Close but no cigar” originated back when cigars were given out as prizes at carnival games. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” was an advertising slogan for Listerine mouthwash in the 1920s.

There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in English. That’s a lot, quite a few, a whole bunch, and certainly more than you can shake a stick at.

Next: One Damned Thing After Another

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