Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Flexibility of the English Language

Elizabeth Zelvin

Earlier this week, Poe’s Deadly Daughters celebrated the 199th birthday of the father of the detective story and the first anniversary of the blog itself. We particularly encouraged regular readers to post comments, and to our great pleasure, they complied. One topic that sprang up in the ensuing conversation was the use of verb forms of ordinary nouns, newly coined nouns, and brand names. Several people, both Daughters and our readers, expressed their distaste for such locutions as “to party,” “to blog,” “to Swiffer,” “to Netflix,” and “to Fandango.” I would assume they feel the same about “to google.” And there must be some folks out there, those who still say, “It is I,” perhaps, who have not relinquished their objection to “to contact.” I’m pretty sure that Nero Wolfe had something caustic to say about that one fifty years ago. What a tribute to the memorability of a mystery-fictional voice! But that’s perhaps a topic for another day.

To return to the issue of coining verbs: I dissent. Brand names are a separate issue: if you say that we “Fandango,” as my husband and I did last Saturday night when we selected a movie online and printed up our ticket from the computer before leaving home, you are merely demonstrating the success of a rather clever and charming advertising campaign. But when I blog or google, I am taking advantage of the great glory of the English language: its flexibility.

The French language is regulated by the Académie Française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Its first dictionary was published in 1694 and the most recent complete edition in 1935. (Yes, I googled it.) Instead of making this dictionary available to the public, the French make laws about complying with its dicta. Not surprisingly, these laws are increasingly unenforceable in a world that is changing so rapidly in our times that new vocabulary is constantly needed. Even back in the 1960s, when I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in French-speaking West Africa, I remember being exasperated by French people’s invariable response to creative attempts to make an adjective out of a verb, a verb out of a noun, or a non-sexist replacement for a noun that applied to both genders (dentiste or poète, for example) carrying a male article. Ça n’existe pas! they would insist.

Well, if French wouldn’t do it, English would. As a result, English has replaced French as the global lingua franca, to the great chagrin of the French. The greatest task of the Académie Française these days is trying to stem the tide of Anglicisms in today’s French: le weekend, le businessman, l’email. In 2003, they chose the Québécois word le courriel as the official term for email. According to Laura K. Lawless, About.com’s expert on the French language, the French Ministry of Culture formally “banned the word e-mail in any government-related documents.” I haven’t seen any French governmental communiqués, but I keep in touch with French-speaking friends all over the world (including Quebec) by email, and I have yet to encounter the word le courriel.

It’s not merely about language, in my opinion, but about creativity and individual freedom. Any writer abhors censorship. Grammar and punctuation are a different matter. I still believe they clarify meaning, as amply demonstrated in Lynn Truss’s delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But words themselves belong to us. So I not only will continue to blog and to google, but if I perceive an unmet need, I claim the right to coin a term of my own. Most recent example? The bane of my existence, cellphonistas, those narcissists who quack and gabble, mobile phone glued to ear, in crowded buses and on endless lines at the post office. So when the term "cellphonista" passes into general usage, remember you heard it here first.

25 comments:

Joyce said...

Great post, Liz.

I don't have a problem with using blog or google as verbs. As a matter of fact, I do it all the time. And I'm with you on the behavior of those cellphonistas. I love that word!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've thought of a good solution too: make all the cellphonistas sit in the back of the bus. ;)

gs said...

I used to be a language Nazi, and for a short while I even collected examples of verbed nouns (note the use of the noun "verb" as a verb :) on this page:

http://beaglewriter.com/writings/verbs.php

But reading David Crystal's The Stories of English was an epiphany for me, and I went from being a Nazi to a Flower Child. Linguistically speaking, anyway.

But enough about me! What I really wanted to do was point out that your examples of verbed nouns -- google, blog -- are words that fill a new need. For example, there isn't a word in "legacy English" that fills the same role as "google." "Google" means more than "search." It means specifically "to search the Internet using any publicly available indexing engine." Good word!

On the other hand, and despite my having become a Linguistic Flower Child, I still have a teensy problem with a verbed nouns when there's already a perfectly good verb that means the same thing. For example, "gifted." Not as in, "She's in gifted math," but as in, "I gifted her that bracelet." People! There's already a perfectly good word! It's called "gave!"

Pardon me while I go take my medication :)

Julia Buckley said...

Very interesting post, Liz. The problem some of us have, I assume, is that, despite being writers who enjoy the new, we are traditionalists who fear change. Therefore we don't always embrace linguistic drift.

GS, I think your comments are on target, and I think your distinction is an important one. And here's another funny language thing: what my brain does with certain words. I went to your website and saw "underdogishere" and wondered, "What is a dogi shere?" I'm not kidding. It's sad.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

GS, I have my pet peeves among unnecessary locutions: "uncomfortability" for "discomfort" is one of them. So the transgressions don't appear only in verbs.

Sandra Parshall said...

The beauty of English is its flexibility and its constant incorporation of words from other languages (a practice that scandalizes the French). I still find it lacking in subtlety, though -- as I wrote in a blog a few months ago -- and sometimes it's difficult to find a way to express a delicate balance of emotions. If we need to borrow words from other languages to convey our meaning, I'm all for it. English is full of foreign words and expressions.

A Paperback Writer said...

I like cellphonista. I knew what it meant before you explained it.
Since I use yahoo as a search engine 99% more often than google, I frequently say "I yahooed it." Everyone knows what I mean.
The Mexican Spanish-speakers (but I doubt the Spaniards themselves) are quite adaptable at making new words as well. My students use "lonche" (lunch) and "parkear" (to park) and "el hall pass" (do I need to translate that one?) and "mi loquer" (my locker) frequently. I think Latino Spanish will continue to outshine Castellano for the same reasons you mentioned that French has died off and English has spread.

A Paperback Writer said...

To GS:
In the phrase "verbed nouns," the word "verbed" isn't a verb, it's a participle, which is a verb used as an adjective -- or you can just call it an adjective. If you want to use "verbed" as a verb, you have to say something like: "I verbed several nouns in that sentence."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Paperback writer's examples of Mexican-American Spanglish remind me of stories my parents told about growing up as Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York. My father, whose first language was Russian, arriving in the US at age 6, had to learn not only English but also Yiddish--to survive on the streets of Brooklyn. "Pure" Yiddish is based on Low German, so, for example, "window" would be "fenster." But all the kids growing up in Brownsville said "da vinda."

krimileser said...

Liz, I like your argumentation.

In Germany there is a heated debate about the usage and integration of foreign words into German. Most of all this concerns words of English origin. "Newsletter", "Online", "Lifestyle", "Service Point" are examples, but the are legions. Often these words will follow the rules of the German grammar and sometimes word develop a meaning which does not exist in English (i.e."Handy" for mobile/cell phone).

And what really impresses me about the English language are the verbed nouns "a car tree-sixtied" and adjectived (?) nouns ["fleecy wrist", John Updike in Couples for a wrist full of hair]. You couldn't say that in German.

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Bruce said...

I would expect the "-ista" suffix to mean something particular and not be subject to widely varying interpretation. In this case, "cellphonista" would be someone rudely imposing themselves on other folks in the vicinity. That could as well be someone complaining about cell phone usage.

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