Sunday, 29 May 2011


This is my brain—on words. 

While I was in middle school, I attended an after-school lecture regarding sex in the media. I would learn why beer and cigarette ads showed copious amounts of female skin. It was the first time that I had heard that axiom, “sex sells”, yet I don’t recall being surprised.

No, I was reeling from a bigger shock: that I was fundamentally unlike my peers.

In order to introduce his topic, the speaker asked the hundred of us to close our eyes and see what happened when he said a word. We closed our eyes, and he said the word “chair”. After a moment’s pause, we opened our eyes again.

“How many people saw the word ‘chair’ spelled out in their mind?” the speaker asked. I raised my hand high. “I see, okay, a few of you. Okay, thanks. Now, how many people saw the picture of a chair in their mind’s eye?”

Ninety-five hands shot into the air.

The speaker went on, connecting this illustration to the way advertising puts images into the mind, selling sex to sell products and yadda, yadda.

But I couldn’t concentrate on that. Until that moment, I’d thought that everyone sees words in their mind. I was shocked by the idea that people see pictures in their mind.

I mean, sure, if you ask me to picture something, I will. But as for the inner monologue, don’t people read it off the inside of their skulls?

My inner monologue, as far back as I can remember, has been like a ticker-tape rolling through my mind. As a youngster, I imagined my words as white letters embossed on black Dymo-style labels. One of my favorite games was to see how many of these tickers I could get going at once. I’d start thinking about something, then I’d start thinking about thinking it, then thinking about thinking about thinking about it, and so on. Little strips of thought would begin to build up, one in front of the other, and they would all keep going as my thoughts became more and more abstracted.

Of course, there was a time before I could read, but I can’t remember what came before—whether I would see images or words or something else in my head while I thought.

So, how many people think in pictures? How many in words? How many people think in pictures of words? What does it say about who we are and how we learn? And, how does this affect our theories of language?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Etymology of 'Woman'

This is by far my favorite story about English. 

Although the majority of English words are loaned, borrowed, or stolen from other languages, woman has no cognates in contemporary or historic foreign languages, making it one of few exclusively English words. The word is derived from wyfman, the combination of wyf [wife] and man. Following is an examination of the word’s history, and a brief glance at its possible future.  

The word wyf is a cognate of several languages, including Old French (OF) and Old Saxon (OS). In the Early Old English (eOE), wyf was used to describe a member of the female gender, unlike our contemporary use of the word, meaning ‘a married woman’ and correlating to husband. “Alduuif” makes an appearance in one of the oldest English texts, the Corpus Glossary, in around the year 725, then “wiifa” we see in 900 and “uif” in 950. By 1175 wife began to be used to denote a married female, and the two meanings coexisted until the late 16th century when a new meaning emerged: that of the marketer or saleswoman. In 1635, we see “Oyster wives, herb wives, tripe wives”, the structure of which we recognize in the words ale-wife and fishwife, with the connotation of a lower class woman. From this point on, the sense of ‘adult human female’ in the word wife is completely replaced by ‘lower class marketer’ and ‘female spouse’.

While the sense of wife was changing, there arose a need for a word to take up the mantle of ‘adult human female’. Meanwhile, there was a need in ME for a word meaning ‘adult human male’. The words were and wapman, meaning ‘male’ and ‘males’ respectively, had become entirely obsolete by the 13th century. The only word left to mean ‘adult human male’ was the word man, which had until then been used irrespective of sex to mean simply, ‘human’. Both problems were temporarily solved by the combination of the words wife and man into wifman, literally meaning ‘female human’. The earliest usage of wifmon occurs by 893, and by 1225 we see wummon appear, indicating the shift in the first vowel sound from wi to wu.

By 1400, the singular woman and plural women were established, and these became the usual spellings. The suffix –en was a common suffix used for pluralization, such as is found in the modern oxen, but also bears a similarity to the suffix –en used for feminization, which survives singularly in the modern word vixen, meaning ‘female fox’. Also, it is interesting to note that although the spelling of the second vowel changes between the singular and plural forms, the pronunciation does not. Instead, it is the first vowel sound that changes, from the singular: wu-, to the plural: wi-. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this may be due to the “associative influence of pairs like foot and feet” (“woman, n.” etymology).

The phrases “woe man” and “wee men”, convincing homonyms though they might be, are neither synonyms nor sources for woman or women. They are simply the result of happy coincidence, and have been used as puns, commonly in the Early Modern period. This usage could be humorous or serious. For example, in 1534, Sir Thomas More writes in his A Dialogue of Comforte Against Tribulation, “Man himselfe borne of a woman, is in deede a wo man, that is, ful of wo and miserie” (“woman, n.” 1k).  Richard Flecknoe is quoted in the OED with “Say of Woman worst ye can, What prolongs their woe, but man?” in 1653 (Ibid). These puns are not exclusive to the 16th and 17th centuries, for surely they are made today, but it is interesting to note that they were the most prolific at the time of the English tract-writing controversy known as The Querelle de la Rose. During this time, the virtues and vices of the female gender were being argued, with women writers emerging to argue for the first time on behalf of their own sex. It was surely a time for upsetting the genders’ status quo.

Currently, in the late 20th and early 21st century, we are in the midst of another shift in the ongoing history of the word woman, especially as it relates to man. This shift is due in large part to the growing awareness of feminism, which has its roots in the Querelle. The usage of the word man to indicate humanity is being protested, especially in the compound words such as chairman and policeman, in which the –man is becoming obsolete and is being replaced by –person. Because of the feminist movement and the shift in meaning in man from ‘human’ to ‘male’ growing ever stronger, we are in need of gender-neutral words for mankind. (Human and mankind, for example, both employ the root word man.) We can connect this gap in our language back to the 13th century when, rather than using a new word for ‘male human’ when were became obsolete, we simply added to the established gender-neutral man to create woman, thereby leaving man to indicate maleness by default. A better fix would have been to add something to man to indicate maleness as well as adding wyf to indicate femaleness. However, language is never created by design, but by evolution and adaptation. We may yet see a prefix added to man to indicate maleness, or we may see something entirely new arise to fit the meaning we need.

In addition to protesting the compound words chairman and policeman, some feminists have removed man from the very word woman. ‘Womyn’ is a new alteration of the plural women, replacing –men with the nonce suffix –myn, appearing for the first time in 1975. Currently it is only used by feminist groups, but 100 years from now may be a foundation for menmyn, replacing the etymological wyf with the current man to mean ‘adult male human’, while man reverts back to its original genderless state.  


Works Consulted or Cited

“man, n.1 (and int.)” OED Online. June 2003. Oxford University Press.  31 January 2009 <>
 “wife, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <>
 “woman, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <>
 “womyn, n.” OED Online. June 2003. Oxford University Press.  31 January 2009 <>

Saturday, 21 May 2011

So, part 2: with verbs or not

I'm so not into adding 'so' to verbs.

The OED online has two more new entries for so as of 2005, in addition to the adjectival intensifier in my last post. In one, the word is used with verbs, and in the other, the word is used with negatives.  I smile to myself to think that both Clueless and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) get credit in the OED in the entry for so modifying a verb. “Oh thank you, Josh, I so need lessons from you on how to be cool,” Cher says, “Tell me that part about Kenny G again…?” Interestingly, Friends is not cited in the OED at all under “so”.

The other two citations in the OED for so as a verb modifier make it clear that the usage is merely slang, no more—nothing even resembling standard, formal, real English. Therefore, it should sound strange when we stumble across it in print. Which is exactly what happens:

“Silas shakes his head, and his eyes fill with pain, pity, love; he so wants to be able to tell her that he’s not the Potential.” – Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, page 301

Although this is a Young Adult novel, the usage seems forced here. In 256 uses of the word “so” in the book, it is never paired with a verb until right at the end.  Call me nitpicky, but it is an abrupt change of style. And there are many other ways of intensifying the verb “want” that do not sound so out-of-place. (I’m not sure, but I think an editor’s job is to catch stuff like that.)

Tagliamonte’s description of so with a negative is “Gen-X so”, and quite apt. Examples include “That’s so not cool,” or “That’s so not what I meant.” If memory serves, Friends was quite the proponent of this so. But wait—the data says otherwise. Tagliamonte noted only six times in the entire series that this type of so was used. I’m so surprised! As a Gen-X hanger-on, I’m so guilty of using this term to excess. But I would so never write like that! 

Works Cited
Pearce, Jackson. Sisters Red. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2010.

so, adv. and conj. Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version March 2011. <>; accessed 19 May 2011.

 Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Chris Roberts. "So weird; so cool; so innovative: The use of intensifiers in the television series Friends." American Speech 80.3 (n.d.): 280-300.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

So, part 1: with adjectives

I miss Friends so much; it was so funny and so true.

While reading an interesting journal article about adjectival intensifiers in the TV show Friends by Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts, I learned two things: one, I would be totally willing to work as a linguistic researcher and/or data compiler; and two, Friends is not to be blamed for the usage of the word ‘so’ as adjectival intensifier. It’s only to blame for making some of us aware of it.

Tagliamonte and Roberts went straight to the source for the history of the word so, the OED 2nd Edition. Their reading of the entry is that so, used as an intensifier, dates back to Beowulf; however, the OED online only admits so specifically as an intensifier as early as 1923. Either case pre-dates Friends definitively. Tagliamonte and Roberts’ claims are that intensifier use is based on trend and popularity (like slang, unlike other parts of speech) and that, even in Friends, the word follows strict usage rules for intensifiers coming into popularity.

Apparently, there are rules about how intensifiers act when they are coming into or going out of popularity. The process is called “delexicalization” and follows these stages of broadening usage:
  1. Lexical word 
  2. Used for occasional emphasis 
  3. Used more frequently 
  4. Used with wider and wider range of words. 
Meanwhile, the original meaning of the word is gradually lost. (Psst, quick, define “very”!)

In the Friends data, the word first only applies with certain other words, as in “so dated” or “so old” but all other adjectives go with the other intensifiers such as really or very. Later in the series and in real life, the word is applied with more diverse adjectives. Another “rule” is that females tend to use new intensifiers more than males, and again, the Friends data are in line with this theory.

But Friends ended in the spring of 2004. In the seven years since, how has the word been used? Is it still on the rise? Has it yet settled into the vernacular? “Intensifier use has long been associated with colloquial and nonstandard usage”, writes Tagliamonte. So we wouldn’t see the usage of so as intensifier from a major publications such as newspapers or literature… would we? 

I want to make it clear that I'm mostly summarizing and commenting on the journal article, the full citation of which follows: 
Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Chris Roberts. "So weird; so cool; so innovative: The use of intensifiers in the television series Friends." American Speech 80.3 (n.d.): 280-300.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


Oasis CholestPrevent by lilasandoz
Oasis CholestPrevent, a photo by lilasandoz on Flickr.
I have said that I like portmanteau words, but this is pushing it.

A word about portmanteaus: the word is French, meaning "a compartmentalized suitcase". It's applied in linguistics to mean a word made of two or more combined words--or a word with "compartments". Portmanteau-ing is very popular right now, especially in the media, where every couple's names are mashed together like "Brangelina" and "TomKat" and the great grand-daddy of them all, "Bennifer".

Japanese language lends easily to portmanteau words, making creations such as パソコン (paso-con) from パオナルコンピュター (pasonaru-conpyutaa), whereas English shortens personal computer to PC. In fact, Pokemon is also a Japanese portmanteau of English-borrowed Pocket Monsters.

Antioxidant, though not itself a portmanteau or neologism, is a new, hip word in the world of food and health products. Marketing campaigns have popped up just about everywhere to try to shill blueberries, cranberries, and pomegranates because of their oxygen-blocking qualities. (As if our bodies were supposed to have no access to oxygen at all.) The trend is saturating the market with these big words, so in order not to alienate the third-grade-reading-level public, they have to try to make the meanings of the words as obvious as possible.

Which is where "CholestPrevent" comes in. It's troublesome because it's too long to be a good portmanteau, and rather than combining two nouns, it combines a noun with a verb. That's not a portmanteau, that's just a verb phrase without a space.

I'm sure there's an actual word for a product that prevents the buildup of bad cholesterol, but it's probably five syllables too long. And most people don't know it off the top of their heads (I don't), nor would they recognize it if they saw it. So we have products with labels like these. I can only pray that this word never makes it into the vernacular.

What's your favorite (or least favorite) portmanteau word?

Monday, 16 May 2011

Baby's Growth Chart

When does linguistic ability develop?

One can easily look up information on when the heart, lungs, or fingernails develop in the fetus. We can tell when a baby takes his or her first breath. So why can we never pinpoint when the linguistic centers of the brain activate?

If my reading of Language and Responsibility is competent, Noam Chomsky argued in 1979 for recognition of linguistic ability as a function of the physical body no different from growing hair, teeth, or soft tissue. A fabulous idea, I think, if a bit hard to chew.

Chomsky's idea of a "universal grammar" means that underlying (physical?) structures in the human brain are receptive to linguistic acquisition. That also means that these receptors can turn on and off--like blood clotting, like fingernails always growing, like bones that reach a certain size and then stop growing--in ways we don't understand.

So, when do babies begin to understand language? When they begin to think in pictures? When they begin to understand relational concepts such as "in" and "upon"? When they begin to babble? Is the first word also the first step in the linguistic process? Or is it one of the last?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

School Hard

I can't remember a time when I didn't want to go to school. 

I heard it before I saw it, but I didn’t know what it was. Its large engine revved as it geared down to stop at the bottom of the hill.  Then, there it was at the corner by my house. I saw it in all its glory: a big, yellow school bus. It might as well have been the ice-cream truck for all the awe it inspired in this four-year-old girl. I knew the older kids went to school, and their bus stop was there at the corner, but I had never actually seen it before.

Now I was suddenly confronted with its bigness, its yellowness, and its meaningfulness. This huge bus was the key to getting to school. I stood stock-still for a moment, pondering this magical capability. I would only need to catch this bus to get to school.

The oversize engine started up again and the vehicle turned the corner, heading away from our cul-de-sac. I dropped the toy I’d been playing with. I didn’t have any more time to think—I needed to follow that bus! I ran and ran as fast as I could, waving to the kids looking out at me from the back seat. They waved back, laughing and encouraging me.

I hadn’t gotten very far, though, when I realized what I’d forgotten: all school kids need a lunch! I’d seen the older kids waving their pails, their brown bags around on their way out in the mornings. How could I go to school now, without one? I turned around and ran back to the house, sweating and worried that the bus might get away while my back was turned.

“Mom! Mom! Come quick!” I yelled all the way from the front door to the kitchen, where she was spooning banana into my baby brother’s mouth.

The spoon fell from her hand with a clatter as she rushed over to me, taking in my erratic and disheveled look. “What’s wrong, Lisa?” She asked, already looking me over for blood and feeling my limbs for broken bones. “What happened?”

It took a few tries to make myself understood. I was too excited to speak, too tongue-tied to make sense. When my mom finally figured out what I needed and why, she laughed. I didn’t understand. Why would she laugh? Obviously this was of utmost importance!

“Mom, hurry! The bus is getting away!” I jumped up and down and tugged on her clothes.

“Aw, honey, the bus is probably long gone by now.” She reached around and hugged me tight.

“But then how will I get to school?” I cried.

“You can’t go to school until you’re old enough. You can go to school when you’re five. You’re only four now, next year you’ll be five.

I started to cry, there, in her arms. I had been so close to catching that bus... if only I’d been faster, had had that packed lunch. The future seemed too far away, and I was just itching to get to go to school.

My mom just hugged me and held me, her heart breaking. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to tell me I was too young for school. I’d been begging to go since I was three. She didn’t want to disappoint me any longer. And yet she had no idea how hard it would be to tell me, when I woke up on my fifth birthday in April that I still couldn’t go to school for another five months.  

When the day finally came that I was allowed to go to school—my first day of kindergarten—my mom actually wanted to drive me. That was okay and all, but the best part of starting school, the most victorious part of finally being five (and a half), was the second day of school when I actually got to ride the school bus. It was the fulfillment of a nearly lifelong dream.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

For which I will never forgive myself

I once passed on a free set of the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2005, I was living and teaching in Japan. My high school library was doing some “spring cleaning” and decided to get rid of the complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary—all 20 volumes and supplements—and offered them to me. Free of charge. The librarian even wheeled them all across the school to my office. But at the last minute, I said no.

Why did I do it? I figured it would cost several hundred dollars to ship them back to the States—money I didn’t have. I was already spending a hundred dollars to ship other books I bought over the course of the year. And I didn’t have access to a car—I could hardly have walked them all to the post office anyway.
I knew I’d regret it. I knew I’d mentally kick myself for the rest of my life. The OED still waits on my Amazon Wish-List, taunting me with its $995 price tag.

Incidentally, I have been able to afford interesting books about the OED, including The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, which I highly recommend.

Reading and Writing

The power of written record

Words will last much longer than persons.
 So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this [poem], and this gives life to thee. – Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
Every memory, every thought must be saved.
Where do all those forgotten moments go?
Who will testify to our lives?
One must make a lasting record: I was here. I felt, I thought, I was.
Ideas, feelings, discoveries, experiences and beliefs must be shared.
Ideas and discoveries must be passed down to the next generation(s).
Writing is an exploration of the human condition; the human comedy.
"All of art and science depend on questioning what seems to be in light of what is." - Michael Burgess, More Letters to Uncle Mike
Reading is transformative.
Through narrative, each man may live hundreds of lifetimes: first as a reader, then as a writer.
Through written record is man’s only chance of ultimate knowledge.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Monday, 9 May 2011

Linguistics & Semiotics

The power of words

They call me Linguo.
I am a word-hoarder: a vocabularian and etymologist.
I suffer frequently from onomatomania—but I like it. [1]
English is a most excellent language because of its elasticity.
I love portmanteau words, and to verb nouns.
I believe that a thesaurus should be drawn with Venn diagrams, not lists. 
Almost no words can singularly express any singular ideas.
The larger the vocabulary, the more accurately ideas can be expressed.
Learning more languages—verbal and non-verbal—increases the ability to express oneself.
Grammar and punctuation serve to elucidate and clarify these ideas.
The ideas are in our heads waiting to be put to words.
Without words these ideas cannot escape, cannot serve us or our community.

[1] Vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word