Constant Motion.

Stan Carey has a fine Macmillan column on the fact that language constantly changes and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well accept it:

Understandably, this unsettles people. We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism: we drop the false idea that language doesn’t or shouldn’t change.

It’s well said, and of course I thoroughly agree, but I might not have posted it here if it hadn’t begun thus: “To Heraclitus we owe the saying (variously phrased) that you can’t step into the same river twice.” Check out that parenthetical link; you may be as surprised as I was that the “same river twice” interpretation is basically folk philology — according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed. There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains.” That is actually more interesting than the traditional interpretation, at least to me.


  1. marie-lucie says:

    “we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river

    I don’t know Greek, but the word for “river” must be related to the word for “to flow” (as in Latin fluvius from fluere)” Am I right?

  2. No, they’re unrelated: potamos “river”, rheō “to flow”. The argument isn’t etymologically based.

  3. potamos – is Pre-Greek substrate. It may have had literal meaning of “flowing” in that Pre-Greek language, we just don’t know.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Trond. Strange that the etymology would work in Latin but not in Greek, the language of the text!

  5. Речка движется и не движется,
    Вся из лунного серебра.
    Песня слышится и не слышится
    В эти тихие вечера.

    The river is moving and not moving
    Made of the silver moonlight
    A song is heard and not heard
    In these quite evenings.

  6. And also my lorde abbot of westmynster ded do shewe to me late certayn euydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now vsid / And certaynly it was wreton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe I coude not reduce ne brynge it to be vnderstonden / And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that. whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne / For we englysshe men / ben borne vnder the domynacyon of the mone. whiche is neuer stedfaste / but euer wauerynge / wexynge one season / and waneth & dyscreaseth another season / And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchaũtes were in a ship in tamyse for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande / and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond. and wente to lande for to refreshe them And one of theym named sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hows and axed for mete. and specyally he axyd after eggys And the goode wyf answerde. that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaũt was angry. for he also coude speke no frenshe. but wolde haue hadde egges / and she vnderstode hym not / And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren / then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel / Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte. egges or eyren / certaynly it is harde to playse euery man / bycause of dyuersite & chaũge of langage.

    William Caxton’s colophon from Eneydos

  7. That’s great! Caxton at his chattiest. I’m surprised that he had so much trouble with OE, considering that he knew Flemish.

    Does anyone still say “eyren” in Kent or elsewhere?

  8. a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing …

    I’m not sure that’s so remarkable: an antelope is constantly ‘flowing’ across the terrain. We can still happily say it’s the same creature even though it is never still. That applies even more to a herd of antelope on the move. It’s the same herd even though we’re not seeing the same set of creatures from moment to moment.

  9. Does anyone still say “eyren” in Kent or elsewhere?

    Not in English, I’m afraid, and the traditional dialect of Kent has largely been engulfed by the Estuary koine. In some places, however, people can still be axed for meat.

  10. In some places, however, people can still be axed for meat.
    Thread won.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    asked for meat

    I think that meant “food” at the time.

  12. When did this “thread won” meme start to become popular? I had never seen it until I noticed it popping up on LH this year.

  13. It was imported by David M from Elsewhere (where it’s been in use considerably longer).

  14. January First-of-May says:

    (BTW, what does “You can no longer edit this comment” mean? Is it a spam thing? I wanted to add a few words, but the edit didn’t work, and this line appeared instead, even though there was clearly enough time left.)

  15. Weird. I have no idea.

  16. But you can always ask me to edit a comment.

  17. January First-of-May says:

    I can’t. because I got stuck with that unable-to-comment bug again (which is probably why I wasn’t able to edit).

    EDIT: looks like the bug went away, but in any case, the original comment isn’t visible now. (And I forgot what I wanted to add pretty quickly, anyway. But it was fairly minor.)
    The missing comment, for the record, was about the “thread won” thing, and had a link to a forum thread using this meme in 2007 – which is probably what it was deleted for.

  18. From here (May 21, 2007):

    Thread won.

  19. January First-of-May says:

    The link I wanted to post was this (March 10, 2007):

    “Thread won. No one can top Mattingburg.”

    (There are several other SpaceBattles results from later in 2007.)

    (How do you do that quote alignment thing, by the way?)

  20. Did Google Books search on the expression. The oldest was

    “He who cut the thread won the game.”
    (c) “History of the Mongols: From the 9th to the 19th Century” by Sir Henry Hoyle Howorth – 1880 -.

  21. With regards to winning threads, there was a period of hyperinflation starting around five years ago. Instead of just threads somebody would “win the Internet.” Sometimes that would just be “for today,” until, “You win the Internet forever,” came along. Even that was inflated further, to “You win 1000 Internets,” before settling back to where the winning started, with threads.

  22. January First-of-May says:

    I was pretty sure that was “you won an internet”, or maybe “won 1 internet” (and it might be where the “1000 internet” thing got started).

    But apparently Know Your Meme does mention this as “win the internet”, and dates it back to 2004 (also, as I just found on Google, here is a hilarious complaint on “you win this thread” from 2005).

  23. That is hilarious!

  24. David Marjanović says:

    You win an internet made from cookies!

    I’m surprised that he had so much trouble with OE, considering that he knew Flemish.

    Some of the vocabulary has completely fallen out of fashion throughout Germanic.

  25. “He who cut the thread won the game.”

    I am pretty sure it should have started at least as far back as Μοῖραι

  26. What makes LH special is that here someone can win the thread without ending it.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    That’s actually normal.

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