Archive for Language change

Rein and reign

The word rein, which the OED glosses as "A long narrow strap, frequently of leather, attached to the bridle or bit of a horse or other animal on either side of the head and used by a rider or driver to control and guide the animal", was apparently borrowed into English from French a millennium ago. The Wiktionary entry gives the etymology in detail:

From Middle English rein, reyne, borrowed from Anglo-Norman reyne, resne, from early Medieval Latin retina, ultimately from Classical Latin retineō (“hold back”), from re- + teneō (“keep, hold”). Compare modern French rêne.

Displaced native Old English ġewealdleþer (literally “control leather”).

But the OED entry makes an interesting (apparent) mistake in this case — the full etymology seems good, but the "Origin" line gives the French etymon as regne — and règne (in the modern spelling) is actually French for "kingdom", from Latin rēgnum, which is the origin of a different English word, namely reign.

Rein and reign have been pronounced the same way in English for some time — perhaps always? — and their meanings overlap in extended or figurative uses having to do with control. This led to some early eggcorns, even back in the days when most people had personal experience with physical reins. Thus the OED entry for free rein, glossed as "Freedom of action or expression. Chiefly in to give (a) free rein (to)", includes "free reign" citations going back to 1834:

1834 J. Eberle Treat. Dis. & Physical Educ. Children (ed. 2) i. i. 6 She, who giving a free reign [1833 (ed. 1) free rein] to her appetite, indulges it to excess.
1924 Times 26 Sept. 11/5 Others thought themselves above the law, and gave free reign to their passions.
1993 Outdoor Canada Mar. 33/3 So few pike survive to a large size that the ones who do have virtual free reign to raid the pantry.

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War-induced language change

For those who read Russian, with commentary for those who do not:

Грешный мой язык

«Прибалтика», «На Украине» и «Белоруссия»: теперь это моветон. А «санкционка», «рашист» и «путиноид» — новые слова. Как война изменила русский язык

13:03, 30 августа 2022 Максим Пушкарев , «Новая газета Балтия»

—–

Greshnyy moy yazyk

«Pribaltika», «Na Ukraine» i «Belorussiya»: teper' eto moveton. A «sanktsionka», «rashist» i «putinoid» — novyye slova. Kak voyna izmenila russkiy yazyk

13:03, 30 avgusta 2022 Maksim Pushkarev , «Novaya gazeta Baltiya»

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Sinful my tongue

"Baltic States", "In Ukraine" and "Belarus": now it's bad manners. And “sanction”, “rashist” and “putinoid” are new words. How the war changed the Russian language

13:03, August 30, 2022 Maxim Pushkarev, Novaya Gazeta Baltiya

Link to whole article in Russian

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The birth of Spanish

New article by Johnson in The Economist (4/23/22):

On the origin of languages
It is tempting to think that they have clear beginnings. They don’t

First two paragraphs:

IN A CHURCH hewn out of a mountainside, just over a thousand years or so ago, a monk was struggling with a passage in Latin. He did what others like him have done, writing the tricky bits in his own language between the lines of text and at the edges. What makes these marginalia more than marginal is that they are considered the first words ever written in Spanish.

The “Emilian glosses” were written at the monastery of Suso, which was founded by St Aemilianus (Millán, in Spanish) in the La Rioja region of Spain. Known as la cuna del castellano, “the cradle of Castilian”, it is a UNESCO world heritage site and a great tourist draw. In 1977 Spain celebrated 1,000 years of the Spanish language there.

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Language meets literature; rationality vs. experience; fiction vis-à-vis nonfiction

New article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), "The rise and fall of rationality in language", Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollen (12/21/21)

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The Altaic Hypothesis revisited

"Altaic: Rise and Fall of a Linguistic Hypothesis", NativLang (9/28/19) — video is 12:29; extensive discussion after the page break

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"A Dub from Crumlin"

"Irish man leaves funny recording for his funeral":

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Japanese "totally" (not)

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun.  Today's column is titled "Different use of ‘zenzen’ fails to annoy Japanese language police" (9/29/29).

I still remember the shock of hearing the phrase "zenzen daijobu" for the first time about 20 years ago.

"Zenzen" is an adverb that modifies negative verbs and various other types of negative words and phrases, as in "zenzen shiranai," which means "don't know at all."

But "daijobu," which stands for OK, or fine, is an affirmative word, not negative. Now, if this isn't the ultimate example of the misuse of language, what is?

However, once I became accustomed to this phrase, I had to admit this was rather interesting.

"Zenzen daijobu" is fully accepted today, and its usage is apparently not entirely wrong.

According to "Nihonjin mo Nayamu Nihongo" (The Japanese language that puzzles even the Japanese people) by linguist Shigehiro Kato, the usage of zenzen with an affirmative word was already in evidence during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and was not rare during the ensuing Meiji Era (1868-1912), either.

In his novel "Botchan," Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) used zenzen with the affirmative phrase "warui desu" (it is bad).

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Gender-neutral "bro"

Apparently this has happened:

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@Everybody

From Randy Alexander, a photo taken in the courtyard of an apartment complex in Huaying, Guang'an, Sichuan (广安华蓥):

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New life for whence?

Below is a guest post by Bob Ladd:


The post “Whither, whence, whatever” of June 7 was prompted by the phrase whence [she] was exiled (from a book review in the Guardian), which I sent in to Language Log Plaza.  The context made it clear that the intended meaning was ‘where she was exiled to’, but if you assume the basic meaning of whence as it existed in ordinary English for a good few centuries (‘from where’), then it actually meant ‘where she was exiled from’.  To convey the intended meaning, whence should have been whither (‘to where’).

In his post, MYL showed that both words have been falling out of use since about 1750, and suggested the lapse might have been a “Fay-Cutler malapropism”, in which a word is replaced by another that sounds like it.  However, an early commenter on the post (Andrew Usher) suggested a different explanation: “perhaps, the original wording was ‘to whence’, which was then mis-corrected?”  This made no sense to me at the time, because to whence is even worse than just whence – at least, if you think whence means ‘from where’. I figured that Andrew had made some sort of slip in his comment and at first I thought no more about it.  But then I wondered, what if people really do say to whence?

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Whither, whence, whatever

John Mullan, "The Mystery of Charles Dickens by AN Wilson review — a great writer's dark side", The Guardian 6/3/2020 [emphasis added]:

Then there is “The Mystery of the Cruel Marriage”. Nothing has more tainted Dickens’s reputation than his public repudiation (via an advertisement in the Times) of his wife, Kate, who had borne him 10 children and suffered all his demands for 22 years. Wilson’s house, he tells us, overlooks the back garden of 70 Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, whence Catherine Dickens was exiled, with the company of only one of her children, Charley, their eldest son. The others were forbidden to see her. We have found out recently that Dickens tried to have her certified insane, so that she would be put in an asylum. Not only did he want to be free to pursue an affair with Nelly Ternan, he wanted somehow to declare that it was all his blameless wife’s fault. He was the wounded party.

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Metathesis in action

At the end of the May 1 episode of the NPR show "Milk Street", host Christopher Kimball interviews Dr. Aaron Carroll about a recent California court decision that could force coffee to come with a label warning that it contains a chemical known to cause cancer.

The chemical in question is acrylamide, and it's apparently created (in small quantities) whenever carbohydrates are heated above about 250 degrees farenheit — so bread, crackers, cake, cookies, pizza, pretzels, fried potatoes, corn chips, and lots of other things besides coffee that most people eat regularly. Dr. Carroll argues that the quantities of acrylamide involved are far too small to pose any measurable danger, and that warnings like this one have the bad effect of persuading people to ignore all such messages.

But this is Language Log, not Cancer Warning Over-Reach Log, so what's the linguistic point? It's the way that Dr. Carroll pronounces the name of the chemical in question.

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O.K. is rude

Caity Weaver, "Typing These Two Letters Will Scare Your Young Co-Workers: Everything was O.K. until you wrote 'O.K.'", NYT 11/21/2019, starts with a note from someone in Queens:

I am a Gen X-er who generally speaks proper English and am a “digital native.” (Hey, kids: We built these tools that you claim as your own.) When I respond to a text or email with “O.K.,” I mean just that: O.K. As in: I hear you, I understand, I agree, I will do that. If I reply with “K,” I’m just being more informal.

However, I have been informed by my Millennial and Gen Z co-workers that the new thing I’m supposed to type is “kk.” To write “O.K.” or “K,” they tell me, is to be passive-aggressive or imply that I would like the recipient to drop dead. To which I am tempted to respond, “Believe me, if I want you to drop dead … you’ll know.”

I find “kk” loathsome. Are my co-workers being overly sensitive, or am I not acknowledging the nuance of modern communication? I would really like to settle this debate once and for all. O.K.?

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