or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, September 01, 2005


We're in the waning days of summer, we seem to have the ragbag scraps of Hurricane Katrina, and the weather's disgusting; it's raining on and off (mostly on), it's not hot-hot but it's hot enough to be uncomfortable (at 7 a.m. the humidex is 31 degrees Celsius, and that's not right), and the air is like a sodden sponge. Uck. People can make fun of Newfoundland weather all they like, but we never had days like this.


The lovely and vivacious Boingboing.com posted a link to a pageful of "Essentialist Explanations", descriptions of various languages and writing systems structured, as Boingboing say, as "Language X is essentially Language Y under conditions Z." Much of it isn't to my mind particularly funny--suffering from a case of Trying Too Hard--and some of it doesn't even have the barest ring of truth. ("English is essentially the language you speak without moving your mouth"? Try saying "What are you talking about, Marianne Cowan?" in a normal tone of voice and see how much moving around those vowels force the mouth to do.)

However, some of the quips are very funny ("English is essentially any other language spoken with a very hot potato in one's mouth", "Dutch is essentially English with all the vowels doubled", "Germänn ist eßëntiälly Ënglisch mit ein few Tschängen und das käpitäal Lëtteren und Lötten von Dötten."), and one of them in particular struck a chord:

English is essentially all exceptions and no rules.


English spelling--all exceptions, no rules--is, to steal a phrase from Henry James, a trap for the unwary. One big toothy trap. A spelling that seems logical--even necessary--can be invalidated by the forces of history and convention.

Here's a paragraph from the satirical newspaperThe Onion, from a piece entitled "Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index":

Google's robot army is rumored to include some 4 million cybernetic search-and-destroy units, each capable of capturing and scanning up to 100 humans per day. Said co-founder Sergey Brin: "The scanning will be relatively painless. Hey, it's Google. It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot. But in the event people resist, the robots are programmed to liquify the brain."

Well, what's wrong there? The word "liquify", that's what. "Liquid" is a correct spelling, it is true, and its root is Latin "liquidus". All well and good. But "liquidus" stems from the verb "liquere", "to be liquid"; "liquefy" comes from "liquefacere", which is to say "liquere-" plus "-facere", "to make" (the source of a clutch of words in English including "fact", "factory" and "factotum"), and at some point it was decided to keep the vowels as they were in Latin.

It's easy to see how "liquify" came to be considered, by some, an alternate spelling: the "-efy" suffix in English is far less common than "-ify", and the only other common words that use it are "putrefy", "rarefy" and "stupefy". It's a near-certainty that in the future it will be in all dictionaries, even the OED. But for now? Wrong.

(It's worth noting that, unless I am misunderstanding their point entirely, the OED seems to have given itself space for just this sort of change; there is of course no listing for "liquify", but the definition of "liquefy" says "also 6-9 liquify", though there are only five definitions of the word. It's reminiscent of the Monty Python line, "Rule 6: There is NO... rule 6!")


Blogger Frank said...

Funny, I just saw that Monty Python "There is no rule 6" episode tonight on BBC America.

Friday, September 02, 2005 1:28:00 AM  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Well, Marianne Cowan was my mother, a native German speaker. And by German standards, English is spoken without moving your mouth.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005 12:18:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Nothing against your mother, obviously, but I'm pretty sure the quip in question isn't her best work.

I'm not a native German speaker. I'm not even fluent in the tongue. But I have studied the language, and it doesn't seem to me that German is dramatically more orally mobile than English. Seriously; try saying aloud the first line of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in German ("Freude, schöne Götterfunken, tochter aus Elysium") and then the same line in the standard English singing translation ("Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, daughter of Elysium"). It's true that the vowels have somewhat different shapes and therefore move the mouth in somewhat different ways; but it is equally true that in terms of mileage, the English vowels move the mouth just as much as the German ones do (look at those long "e" sounds in "we", "thee", and "Elysium" that push the sides of the lips apart). Compare related words like "daughter" and "tochter"; the mouth moves just as much, and in more or less the same way, too, except for that first vowel.

One can, of course, speak English with that classic New England lockjaw that minimizes movement, but that's true of other languages, as well; it isn't somehow built into English. (Newfoundlanders, whose dialect is based mostly on Irish, move their mouths a lot.) You can speak German without moving your mouth, too, if you put your mind to it. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any German ventriloquists (and there are).

Wednesday, October 19, 2005 4:15:00 AM  

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