"English is a little bit like a child"

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Kory Stamper at harm·less drudg·ery responds to a correspondent who is sincerely troubled by the illogic of irregardless ("No Logic in 'Etymological': A Response I Actually Sent",  10/24/2012):

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.

Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??

Like  well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

Of course, language peevers' claims about logic, etymological or otherwise, are often illogical. And peeving is often more like adolescent arrogance than adult wisdom. But Kory's presentation of the "language as a wayward child" metaphor is still an instant classic, rivaling James D. Nicoll's 1990 "English as inveterate lexical criminal" metaphor:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

[via John McIntyre at You Don't Say]

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30 Comments »

  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    Whenever I hear others say the word "irregardless", I always cringe; whenever my students write it in a paper, I always point out that it is nonstandard; whenever I'm tempted to use the word myself, I always rule it out.

  2. Faldone said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 7:16 am

    I, on the other hand, when faced with other's improperly trained peeves' attacks on irregardless, claim, half-seriously, that the in- prefix (altered to ir- through the magic of assimilation) is not the negating prefix but the intensive prefix.

  3. Anubis Bard said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    And the texting! Don't forget that texting! What this language thinks it's doing, I have no idea. double yoo tee eff, I just dk.

  4. Faldone said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    Come to think of it, Latin did borrow (or steal, if you will) words from Gothic, Etruscan, and Greek. Probably a bunch more, too.

  5. D-AW said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    I've been trying to understand the metaphor since LH reposted it the other day. I don't see how the conceit works beyond the simple "our language is an entity that we can't completely master, and that's a good thing." The elaboration of the parent/child relationship seems inappropriate to me. First, is who is we/parents in all this – the poster and recipient? the language community at large? the sum of everyone who has ever spoken the language? Second, and related to this, how do we understand "English" in this metaphor? Is it the language of an individual, a generation, or the entire history of the language? Thinking through several of these possibilities, I have trouble making sense of the descriptions. For one, how do we nurture and love it into being? Next, what are the "friends" in the first para? Later it seems that these could be German and Latin and French, but that hardly makes sense – do we metaphorically ask English to be friends with German? If so, how? And so on. I could be missing something, but this strikes me as a vague and occasionally vacuous comparison rather than a proper metaphor.

  6. John said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 9:11 am

    ^ The parent is anyone who sets themselves up as an arbiter of language. The child is what they want that language to be like, and the result, the adult child beyond parental authority, is the English language as it really is. The idea is that just because you love something doesn't mean you get to decide what it does. Beyond that, I think you're overthinking it. Any metaphor will have elements that don't correspond, especially one intended to be humorous.

  7. CC said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    Part of the problem I have with the metaphor is that it ignores the fact that the "parent" themselves were at the beginning raised and influenced by the "child."

    I think it would be more apt to reverse the roles. Language raises us as we grow up, but then we get to a point where we become embarrassed by some of the antics that our parents get up to. We get to a point where we wish that our mother would stop showing our baby pictures to our friends or that our father would stop responding to all our facebook posts with "lol rofl"

  8. D-AW said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 10:03 am

    I like CC's take better. Of course all metaphor breaks down at some point. The question is how much it has managed to convey from one concept to the other beforehand. I disagree with the idea that we shouldn't think through humorous metaphors (as much), or that these needn't make total sense. They're only funny when they do make sense. I get nothing from the image of language as a teenager listening to an 80s band or writing irregardless all over itself, because I don't understand the correspondences that have given rise to that idea.

  9. DCBob said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    Great post. Irregardless.

  10. cd in canada said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    I like Mirriam-Webster's take on irrigardless…
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irregardless
    "… There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead."

  11. M. Drach said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    On that James D. Nicoll Quote, and related sentiments:

    I always cringe when I encounter people who claim that being full of loanwords somehow shows how vibrant and creative and special the English language is — when having lots of loan words is in reality a sign of LOW prestige and cultural force compared to the language they're loaned from. If anything, the dark alley metaphor should have Latin and Norman mugging English, beating the Germanic vocabulary out of it, and then intimidating it into wearing their gang colours. Though I can see why that might be less popular…

    …and then turn around and use the spread of english loan words to other languages as evidence of the inherent superiority and uniqueness of English. I wish they'd at least make up their minds what they want to feel special about.

    I've repeatedly heard things like "good languages borrow, great languages steal" from English speakers (referring to their own language, obviously), as if the way English loans words is somehow special, while at the same time conveniently putting languages on some sort of hierarchy of quality, with English at the top.

    (Not that I'm accusing Mr. Nicoll of holding both those sentiments, he seems to be consistently in camp Nr.1)

  12. Acilius said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    @Faldone: And Oscan, don't forget Oscan.

  13. suntzuanime said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    Adult "wisdom" is often more like adolescent arrogance than adult wisdom, you know. I think the metaphor is useful in both directions.

  14. MikeM said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    Regardless:irregardless::flammable:inflammable — well, not exactly, since the two latter words are generally accepted as equivalent.

  15. Sili said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    If it was good enough for Abner Yokum, it's good enough for me.

  16. Eugene said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    Redundancy in language is often emphatic, so maybe irregardless suggests being even more without regard than plain regardless. Nevertheless, most of us abandon irregardless when our attention is called to the issue.

  17. Rubrick said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    Personally I think English is more like a loaf of Pumpernickel bread, adorned with a bowtie and fake antlers, which has been smuggled through airport security by a circus acrobat who moonlights as a DJ in steampunk dance club.

  18. Graeme said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    Nice metaphors. But must they always ender in boostery claims that "my language is more inventive/daring/embracing-of-novelty than all others"?

    (And if teens are still listening to The Smiths, that's evidence of a canon in place.)

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    I find myself on the side of the cynics. English is a fine language, but it would be finer still if it weren't so darned illogical.

  20. Mark F. said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

    Objectively, having lots of loanwords is neither good nor bad. But it is a natural human tendency to take pride in your own stuff, whatever form it may take.

    Incidentally, discussions of how English has a lot of loanwords often talk about how many languages it's accepted loanwords from. But I'm not wholly confident English is really an outlier in its readiness to accept loans. Basically, the Norman experience gave it a huge lead in loanwords over most other languages, and none of the other languages that were to become major world languages ever caught up. But, when it comes to loanwords from diverse languages, I wouldn't be surprised if French has lots of those too.

  21. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

    Languages do differ, of course. But the claims made about relative differences in consistency and such seem questionable to me when they are intuitive and not within the context of an academically respectable analysis that rigorously somehow quantifies these things in a way that is independent of a) our exquisitely sensitive language capacity, and, b) our exquisitely sensitive language capacity tuned specifically to our native languages.

    An analogy for what I'm implying here is our face recognition capacity. We experience faces as being quite different. But faces are, outside the context of the part of our brains that is fantastically adept at recognizing and differentiating faces, very similar. Furthermore, this ability is tuned specifically to the kinds of faces we have the greatest familiarity with (i.e., our own ethnicity). What does it mean for someone to claim that northern European faces are more variable than East Asian faces? Are they? What does "variability" mean in the context of how absolutely similar different faces are and aren't (as meaningless, textured 3D surfaces)? If all individual human faces vary (I'm totally making a number up here, it has no relationship to reality) on average by, say, 0.05% of their topological and light-reflecting characteristics, and one population varies on average by 0.03% while another varies on average by 0.04%, is that a big difference, or not?

    Well, it's big between the two, but tiny relative to all facial characteristics. That would be meaningful in exactly that relative sense; but, on the other hand, if we were looking to those relative differences to tell us something deeply essential about those two populations, then 0.01% of all facial characteristics is perhaps not among the most essential things that makes faces what they are.

    This seems very philosophical — what does it mean to say that two things are more or less different? One wants to say that if every instance of a thing is exactly alike in every way except one tiny feature, then that one tiny feature is very important. So, sure. It is meaningful, that sort of comparison.

    But I suspect that people aren't very good at remembering that first "exactly alike in every way except" part. When we detect differences of this sort, in these sorts of contexts where we can't see the similarities but cannot fail to see the differences, I think we tend to entirely discount the similarities and wrongly amplify the differences into something that is thought to be essential, to be most of what a thing is, rather than just one tiny part of it.

    And I trust our intuitive faculty with language to correctly comprehend the objective nature of language even less — much less — than I do our faculty with face-recognition to correctly comprehend the objective nature of faces.

    All this to say that I'll only trust a linguist's expect opinion on these matters; and, even then, only if he/she explains just how "relative differences" (and "consistency" and such) are defined and measured.

  22. Ø said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

    boostery claims that "my language is more inventive/daring/embracing-of-novelty than all others"

    @Graeme: I know what you mean, but I don't think Stamper is making such claims. Not "mine is better", just "mine is maddeningly messy, but I love it".

  23. Chris Waters said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

    @M Drach: "I always cringe when I encounter people who claim that being full of loanwords somehow shows how vibrant and creative and special the English language is — when having lots of loan words is in reality a sign of LOW prestige and cultural force compared to the language they're loaned from."

    Gerroff! What are yer, some kinda toff? What makes you think that low prestige is a negative quality? One of our oldest cultural heroes is a ruffian who "stole from the rich to give to the poor." Many of our most popular celebrities today dress, talk, and act like gangsters or thugs or like homeless, unkempt hobos.

    In fact, I suspect this may be behind the "stealing" imagery. We're not begging for handouts because of the lacks in our language. We're pursuing other languages down alleyways to take their words by force. We take what we want when we want it. We tough, we bad, we street. It is a romantic notion, if not a very logical one. :)

  24. Sili said,

    October 28, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    I find myself on the side of the cynics. English is a fine language, but it would be finer still if it weren't so darned illogical.

    It amuses me that you didn't bother to make this comment in Lojban.

  25. SF said,

    October 28, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    @Victor Mair, I feel your pain about 'irregardless,' particularly when I see it used on, say, a Chicago Public Schools website just ahead of a strike:
    http://linguisticsofeverydaylife.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/irregardless-of-a-strike-lets-teach-the-kids-site-words/

  26. Jason Eisner said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 4:06 am

    It's asked above whether it really makes sense to celebrate the fact that English has lots of stuff in it.

    This property of English is valuable in the sense that it is exploited by writers of poetry and prose (and by teachers of linguistics). Some multilingual writers have discussed the experience of writing in different languages.

    Of course, English is hardly the only hybrid language. A friend of mine writes poetry in Yiddish as well as English (and reads LL, so maybe he'll comment). And there are many cultures in which writers and readers are acquainted with multiple languages, or multiple registers or dialects within the same language.

  27. [links] Link salad arrives at Monday somewhat confused | jlake.com said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 7:22 am

    [...] "English is a little bit like a child" — In which james-nicoll is correctly cited.) [...]

  28. Dougal Stanton said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    @D-AW

    Next you'll be asking whether the "chase down the alleyways" metaphor implies the victim language will wake up with some of its vocabulary missing.

  29. Chris C. said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    Is English really all that different from any other in this regard? Some languages have committees overseeing them to prevent any offensive changes to them, and I suppose to the extent such committees are successful they might be a bit more conservative than others, but aren't all languages this kind of mishmash?

    English is as much a donor as it is a recipient of words — these days, probably much more the former than the latter. English loanwords are in languages everywhere.

  30. Andy Averill said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 9:11 am

    First spotted in the wild, at least as far as Google Books knows, in the November 1921 issue of the Rotarian magazine:

    A card was pinned on each person, irregardless of his or her real name.

    just too late to make it into H. L. Mencken's The American Language.

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