Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ye Olde Grammar Nazi

NOTE: These nine essays were originally published in my now defunct blog "Random Notes". As they were all cited in "Revisionism Strikes Again", I have decided to reproduce them, both to make them accessible for those reading that essay, and as a preliminary step toward reprinting most or all of the articles no long available at "Random Notes".

I am well aware my "Grammar Nazi" posts are, for the most part, unrelated to the subject supposedly covered in this blog. (Though I tried to offer a possible justification  "In Defense of Standards".) However, no matter how little those have to do with my usual topics, today's post has even less. So, before anyone mentions how completely off-topic this post might be, be aware I already know it is.

And now, having already excused myself for posting something totally unrelated, let me ask my readers this: How many errors can you find in the sentence "Whence goeth ye?"

No doubt many readers immediately pointed out that "whence" is the wrong word, as it means "from where". A slightly smaller group probably offered up the additional answer that the proper word is "whither", meaning "to where". Both words, though slightly archaic, are still in use often enough that many people can catch  errors of that nature. However, I doubt most caught the other two errors, one for each remaining word.

And that is my topic for today, the horribly clumsy way in which most people, including professional writers, create faux "archaic" English. And I am not just talking about the "humorous" attempts to create archaic speech by adding "-eth" to every word, regardless of whether or not it is a verb, but even those who try to create "realistic" speech. Almost inevitably they will end up creating something that would have been completely nonsensical to our ancestors.

For example "thee", "though" and "thine"1. Most manage to get thine right, using it as a possessive. But "thee" and "thou" seem to be used interchangeably, when they are clearly different cases. The easiest way to understand this is to recognize "thee" is the same case as "me", while "thou" is the same case as "I". Thus, in the sentence above, I used an accusative pronoun where I needed a nominative.

Second, those trying to simulate archaic English often try to tack on "-eth" or "-est", using them interchangeably, without a thought about the subject. However, these endings are no interchangeable, they are remnants of both Latin and Germanic verb forms, with "-st" being the second person ending and "-th" the third. Thus, "you" should take "-st", not "-th" as above. Yet, time after time I have seen "what does thou wisheth?" or something similar, which is simply wrong2,3.

The reason no one seems to get these forms right is pretty clear. Or rather the reasons. First, English is largely a language without cases, and with no distinctions drawn between verbs regardless of number or person. And so English speakers tend to not even consider those questions when writing. It is why English speakers have some problem with most Romance and Germanic languages, as they have strong cases, as well as many verb forms4,5

Second, English speakers lack the model their ancestors did. When speakers were routinely using "thee" and "thou" as well as "sayeth" and "sayest", those speakers were using such forms every day, and they were modeling their speech on intellectuals and others who were familiar with the Latin forms upon which these words were based. However, today, Latin is hardly as common as it once was, even among the educated, and so those trying to form these words lack both the everyday experience of their usage, as well as knowledge of the other language upon which those forms were based.

So, what is the point of all this? First, just to get it off my chest. For many years I have been griping about this topic, as I did about the topic of giant worms ("A Matter of Perspective, or, Not So Off-Topic After All"), and so I eventually had to write about it, even if it seems horribly out of left field. However, there is a second reason, and that is to show how languages truly evolve, such as the loss of the various cases of "you", which were eliminated as the same function could be performed by word position, and the supposed "evolution" of language which serves as an excuse for laziness. Many times, those who want to ignore the rules of grammar will excuse this laziness as "evolution" of the language. However, evolution is a slow process, by which a language loses features which are no longer needed, or which can be performed in more pleasing way. That is quite different from the slovenliness which is passed off as evolution, which is a rapid loss of forms which do serve a purpose, but which prove too difficult for the speaker6.   

Then again, I doubt my readers need to be told all this. "Evolution" in language is akin to "evolution" in politics,or in societal norms. In other words, what is called "evolution" is the forcible alteration of society to either meet with the political views of the speaker, or else an excuse for the speaker's inability to conform to standards. Of course, all philosophies want to reform their cultures to match their ideals, so it should come as no surprise that modern liberals do as well. What makes them different is that they refuse to admit they are imposing their views, and instead pretend their views are simply the outcome of some impersonal, indifferent process of evolution7.


1. It is interesting to see the way that "th" changed into "y" in English, both in the infamous "ye" which eventually became "the" and in "thou" which became "you". Also interesting is the way that most pronouns retained case (I/me,we/us,he/him, she/her and they/them) while "you" became the all-purpose second person pronoun, covering all cases and both singular and plural. The only other pronoun which underwent a similar loss of case is "it".

2.  Modern English retains some concept of person, such as "I do", "we do", "you do", "he/she/it does", "they do". But, as the example shows, most verbs only recognize person in the case of third person singular, the other forms are identical. There are exceptions, such as "to be" (I am, we are, you are, he/she/it is, they are), but those are the exceptions, in most cases English has eliminated almost all traces of number and person in verbs, and thanks to our ever lower standards, even that trace seems to be disappearing rapidly. (Sadly, one day "I is" will likely be proper usage, just as prepositions without objects -- "where you at" or "going out" -- are becoming more common. At least the latter has a precedent in German -- "ausgehen / gehe aus" --  and can be justified as a valid linguistic form, provided one thinks of the pronoun as a particle associated with the verb, rather than a pronoun needing an object, but the elimination of all number and person in verbs will lead to a more verbose English as subjects become mandatory to distinguish which verb form is being used.)

3. The one place I can think of a simplification of the language comparable to the loss of case is the tendency in modern spoken English, at least in some circles, to eliminate the distinction between "a" and "an" by substituting the sound "uh" for both. It has not moved into written English, and is hardly universal, but it is increasingly common. However, in this case, I actually have no complaint about the change. The "an" form is only justified by the prohibition on two vowel sounds occurring together. If the "uh" has a sufficiently prominent "H" sound, there is no reason it cannot be used for both. (In a way it is similar to the way that Spanish "el" and Italian "il" are never truncated because both end in consonants, while "la", "lo" and "le" in many romance languages get truncated when preceding a vowel sound.)

4. English speakers are so oblivious to verb forms that they cannot even make proper use of the few that exist in English, such as "were", the subjunctive form of "to be". From time to time one will still run across someone who uses the word, and in most cases those using it do use it properly, but for the most part, "was" is used as the counterfactual conditional form of "to be". "If I was a rich man" is far more likely to be heard today than the correct form.

5. To be fair to English speakers, they are not alone in ignoring the many forms that exist in their own language. Textbook Spanish, for example, may be spoken by a handful of academics and stickler for grammar -- in other words, Spanish versions of yours truly  -- but decades of speaking to Spanish speakers have shown me that the subjunctive is as ignored throughout Central and South America as it is in North.  Likewise, Italian may have a host of articles in textbooks, but between local dialects and simple laziness, I don't think I have heard anyone ever use the articles the way they appear in dictionaries. So English is hardly alone.

6. There are also politically motivated "evolutions", such as the introduction of the absurd "gender neutral language" concept. See "A Question About Language".

7. It is interesting that the same people do not accept such impersonal processes in economics ( "Environmentalism For The Economy?") or even in the environment ("Environmentalists Versus Evolution"), at least when it changes the status quo.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/01/16.   

Update (2014/11/03): Those who enjoyed "Environmentalists Versus Evolution" may also find some interest in "Extinction" and "Environmentalist Inertia". While those enjoying "Environmentalism For The Economy?" may like "Why 'Negative' Economic Indicators are a Good Thing" and "Bad Economics Part 11".

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