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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/February 1912/Some Interesting Characteristics of the Modern English Language

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 80‎ | February 1912



MODERN English possesses not a few characteristics of great interest from a psychological as well as from a merely philological point of view. This is especially true, if one considers the possible culmination of our mother-tongue as the world-language. For some of these traits are the very ones which seem fitted to enable English to survive in that role. They are matters connected with flexibility; correspondence with thought instead of subordination of it to grammatical categories and merely formal canons; power over words unknown to other tongues, where freedom in accepting foreign terms and liberty to "reduce" unnecessarily cumbersome expressions are often unhappily much restricted; absence of fear of hybrids and certain other misgivings of the "purists" and pedants. Altogether, English is a living language, master over both grammar and dictionary, and exceedingly skilful in its use of this sovereignty. But a few of these important qualities of modern English can be considered here.

1. Foreign Words.—The free adoption of foreign terms of all kinds is one of the most striking evidences of the real vitality and essential cosmopolitanism of modern English. Its vocabulary always has "the open door." It admits on the same conditions a word from Ojibwa or from Greek; one from Latin or from Polynesian. If the right word turns up at the right time, there is no Academy to pass judgment upon it, grammatically or lexicographically. The sole authority to welcome or to reject is the genius of the language itself. Tammany and telephone, taboo and aeroplane, all come into our common speech with equal rights to citizenship. English is thus dependent upon no one language, or even set of languages, for the accretion of its vocabulary. It can pick and choose wherever it will; no linguistic market is ever closed to its traffic. No one language, however polished, however important in the past history of the world, however highly esteemed by educators or approved by men of science, can assume the rôle of dictator here. The balancing of its draughts upon the classic languages with those upon insignificant or unknown barbarian tongues and dialects is a marked feature of the mother-tongue. English lets the psychological moment dominate; the needs of the time outweigh the prohibitions and the circumscriptions of the pedant. Thus Greek gave us ostracise, but not the more living boycott; we owe to it democracy, oligarch, aristocracy, tyrant and politics, but we have borrowed from the American Indians Tammany, mugwump, and perhaps caucus; nor has anthropological science any greater words to conjure with to-day than totem and taboo, the first of which is derived from an Algonkian language of North America, and the second from one of the Polynesian dialects. To create sociology, a hybrid of Greek and Latin that shocked the purists was called into being, but the very useful and significant term club was taken from a cognate Scandinavian language. The familiar word squirrel goes back to Greek, but chipmunk, in spite of its rather deceptive appearance, is derived from the Ojibwa dialect of the Algonkian Indians. The Latin ending of petunia can not altogether disguise its ultimate origin from one of the Tupi-Guaranian languages of aboriginal Brazil. Megatherium is Latinized Greek, but mammoth is little changed from the form it had in a Tatar language of Siberia. The vocabulary of English owes much to Greek and Latin, but this debt does not include terms like the following, which have all become part and parcel of everyday speech: Slave (Slavonic) and nabob (Hindi); talk (Lithuanian) and jungle (Sanskrit); thug (Hindustani) and bantam (Javanese); gong (Malay), tattoo (Tahitian) and guinea (W. African); alcohol, assassin, and tariff (all Arabic); buccaneer, cannibal, hammock, hurricane, mahogany, potato, tobacco, tomahaiuk, wigwam (all from the various Indian tongues of the New World). What list of the important loan words of modern English could omit Tammany, mugwump, totem, etc.? And what place-name of classic origin has, in the present day and generation, been given new life and significance in our tongue, like Chautauqua, one of the remembrancers of the Iroquoian predecessors of the white man in the great state of New York? Another place-name from the same source, Saratoga, has also won lodgment, but with less fame and repute. In American English, in particular, the only memorial existing of some now extinct and forgotten tribe of savages may be some such word which has won a place in our hospitable lexicon. On the other hand, the united efforts of all the "purists" in the land are often insufficient to secure permanent footing for some new coinage, whose classical parentage is quite unimpeachable and whose grammatical attire forbids criticism. Very often does our language illustrate the truth of the old saying, "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first." It is a democratic institution, having adopted a declaration of independence against King Grammar and his whole court.

2. Hybrid Words.—English has no morbid fear of joining its words together regardless of the remoter origin of the newly-wedded elements. It is a language in possession of those who use it, and not one in perpetual and cringing serfdom to grammarians and lexicographers. It shows its genius in its independence of these linguistic tyrants, being the most untrammeled and democratic tongue ever linked to an advanced and progressive type of human culture. When the term sociology was first introduced, narrow-minded classicists and other would-be guardians of the purity of the language objected that, since it was not composed of two Greek or of two Latin elements, but happened to be made up of one part Latin and one part Greek, it could not be admitted into the vocabularly of modern English. But how many "pure" words have filled forgotten graves since it was born! And this is but one example of the attempts to make the classical tail wag the English dog. Did English tolerate no hybrids, we should be without Christmas, dislike, grateful, pastime, becalm, dishearten, and many more of our common words. And where were the "purists" and the classicists when, in response to the needs of the political or the scientific moments, as the case might be, anti-Tammany, near-genius, re-tattooing, pre-totemic, pseudo-mugwump, semi-taboo and other interesting terms came into being? Hybridity is no efficient scarecrow for such a tongue as modern English. A fair field and no favor is now the law of survival and entries are welcome from all sources, known or unknown. The satisfying term that appears at the psycholgical moment has to undergo no recherche de paternité. English possesses some most remarkable hybrids—an example or two must suffice, here.

a. Remacadamizing.—In English one may speak of "remacadamizing" the road or, using the word as a noun, of its "remacadamizing." It is certain that no other language in the world can boast a word of such mixed and varied hybridity. Remacadamizing resolves itself into the following components: (1) re-, a Latin prefix, signifying "a repetitition, or doing over again"; (2) mac, a Gaelic word for "son," in common use as a prefix for genealogical purposes; (3) Adam, the representative in a number of European languages (including Gaelic and English) of the Hebrew name of the first man, according to the Mosaic account of the creation as given in the first book of our Bible; (4) -iz (or -ize), the modern English representative, through French -iser, of the Greek verbal terminal-ιζειν; (5) -ing, the English suffix of the participle present, verbal noun, etc. The word remacadamizing thus represents five languages: Latin, Gaelic, Hebrew, Greek and English. The "root" (macadam) of this word exhibits also in another way the vitality of our English speech and its ability to draft new words into its vocabulary, whenever the need arises. The term macadam is really the family name of the man, John Macadam, who, in 1819, devised the well-known method of paving roads with small broken stones, etc. Celtic and Semitic had already combined to produce Macadam, "son of Adam," which the English language then took up and further molded to suit its genius.

&. Siouan.—When the late Major J. W. Powell, the anthropologist. in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, drew up his classic list of the linguistic families of American Indians north of Mexico, he adopted as a suffix for each stock-name the convenient -an. One of the families thus constituted was the Siouan, embracing all the tribes cognate with those already known as Sioux or Dakota, etc. Now Sioux is in English a loan-word from Canadian-French, being really a "reduction" or abbreviation of Nadowessioux, which is found in varying spellings in the latter part of the seventeenth and during the eighteenth century in the writings of travelers, etc., of French nationality or extraction. Nadoivessioux, itself, is a corruption of Natoweisiw, literally, "he is a small rattlesnake" (of the massassauga variety), a term applied, in the sense of "enemy" to Indians of the Siouan stock by their Algonkian neighbors, such as the Crees, Ojibwa, etc. The word Siouan turns out thus to be a very curious hybrid, to the formation of which the Cree-Ojibwa, French and English languages have contributed. Natoweisiw is composed of natowé, "snake," and the compound suffix -is-iw, which serves to give the word its special meaning. In Canadian-French the termination was corrupted into -ssioux, since the word was conceived of as a plural and given the sign of the plural in French -x. By and by the word Sioux appears as the representative of the longer term Nadowessioux, and so made its way into English, where also it was regarded as a plural. The word Siouan exemplifies, in a different way from remacadamizing, but quite as interestingly and just as remarkably, the genius of the English language in the evolution of hybrids. This characteristic, like its readiness to adopt foreign terms, is aiding English more and more in its candidacy as a worldlanguage.

3. Prefix and Suffix.—There exist in the world languages that use prefixes only, others that know only suffixes; and there are also many that employ both these morphological devices. Few, like modern English, are free to use the very same particle as both prefix and suffix. And it is one of the complaints of foreigners that expressions of the type of "set up" and "up set" are often very far from being identical in meaning—indeed, may have no kinship in signification whatever. But this fact is a character of strength rather than of weakness, in a language such as ours. We can say: aftermath and day-after; aforetime and pinafore; overalls and allover; overdo and do over; overlook and look over; overpay and pay over; overtake and take over; overwork and work over; inset and set in; intake and take in; instep and step in; onset and set on; outlay and layout; outlook and lookout; outworks and work out; by-gone and passer-by; undergo and go under; understand and stand under; uphold and hold up; upstart and start up, etc. A study of the meanings of the words just cited will demonstrate that English has still a fertile field in this direction. It has been pointed out by the cynically minded that uphold and hold up (in the colloquial sense of robbing on the highway) are just about opposite in their significations. A similar perversity of meaning attaches to the suffix use in such expressions, in colloquial use, as take in, do up, and some others. But it is such flexibility, nevertheless, that gives the language a powerful advantage over all other modern or ancient forms of speech. In English, too, a prefix or a suffix can, upon occasion, become an independent word. Thus we may speak of "isms" and "ologies"; and of "ana," derived from the termination of Shakespeariana, etc.

4. "Reduced" Words.—Another noteworthy characteristic of modern English is its capacity to "reduce" words of inordinate or unnecessary length—a sort of evolutional monosyllabism, as it were, in many cases. The phone and bike of the street to-day are kin of the dictionary terms cab (for French cabriolet) and mob (for Latin mobile vulgus), bus (for omnibus), etc. In America Jap, for Japanese, seems common to newspaperdom and occurs sometimes elsewhere. Slang and the special jargons of classes, professions, etc., of course, count such "reduced" words by the score. One place where the process is clearly seen at work is in the case of words and place-names adopted from American Indian languages. Thus, if Dr. J. H. Trumbull be right, the Algonkian toboggan has, by way of Tom pung, produced pung, the name of a wellknown vehicle in New England; and the Indian Quaquanantuck in Long Island has been "reduced" to Quag; Sagaponack to Sag, etc. More than one "Hog Island" on the New England coast is perhaps all that represents, by way of quahog, the Indian word seen in the Narragansett name of the round or hard clam, poquauhock. Other "reductions" of words of Indian origin are: Cisco or sisco, which is all that is left of the Ojibwa name of this fish of the Great Lakes, pemitewiskawet, corrupted by way of Canadian-French; longe, or lunge, from Ojibwa maskinonge—the longer term being also in use; coon, via raccoon, from a Virginian Indian arakunem, or as Captain John Smith spelled it, aroughcoun; etc. In most of these cases the "reduction" has occurred at the beginning of the original word. Examples of "reduction" in which the terminal part in more or less mutilated form has survived are: Squash, which represents the Narragansett askuia-squash, the name of this vegetable, of which we meet also another early form, squontersquash, keeping nearer the original; hickory, from the pawcohiccora (as the old writers give it) of the Virginian Indians. It sometimes has happened that in one part of the country the first part of an Indian word has survived in "reduction," and in another the last. The Narragansett-Massachusetts scuppaug has produced in Rhode Island, etc., scup, and in some other places, perhaps pogie or paugie; and poquauhock has given in Nantucket, etc., pooquaw, and elsewhere quahog, cohog, or even hog. Some of the words in our English dictionary, concerning whose etymology little or nothing is known, may have originated in somewhat similar fashion. The "back-formations" of Dr. Murray, the English lexicographer, cited by Jespersen as one of the means the language employs for the purpose of forming new words "by subtracting something from old ones," belong under the head of "reduction." In this way darkie is derived from darkling; pup from puppy; cad from cadet or caddie; grovel from groveling; difficult from difficulty, etc. It is evident that the "back-formation" variety of "reduction" may be of great service in the future development of our language, being another aid in the process of survival as a world-tongue. A very recent addition to the vocabulary of to-day is "to typewrite," from typewriter—in England "to type" is much in vogue, a word which illustrates admirably the process in question.