I’m sorry, I know we just did this last week, but dammit, I can’t let this stuff go uncorrected. In today’s column he discusses a certain negative prefix:
That got me wondering about ir- words, from irresponsible to irreverent, and irrespective to irrational. There’s no doubt about the meaning of the prefix ir-; it means “not.” Why, then, don’t we use the standard prefixes that turn around a word’s meaning, like in- or un-?
The reason is that language is created to fit the mouth. It is easier to pronounce irresolute than inresolute or unresolute, which is why those clunkier forms never got off the ground. Somewhere in the mist of early mouthings, English speakers found the n uncomfortable before words beginning with r. So – why not scrap the “inr,” with its two separate sounds, and go with a simple “ir-“? In most cases we dropped the n of in-, leaving only the i, pronounced “ih.” Then, because spelling is the handmaiden of pronunciation, when it came to writing down the way the word sounded, we decided to double the r.
I think I’ve already used the phrase “mindbogglingly stupid” to describe a Safire column, and I hate repeating myself, so let me ask him one simple question: if it’s a question of English phonology, how come we say inroads instead of irroads and unresolved instead of urresolved? Answer: because it’s not a question of English phonology, as he could have found out by looking at a dictionary, any dictionary. Let’s try irrational. What does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate say? Why, it says “Middle English, from Latin irrationalis, from in– + rationalis rational.” So we’re talking about Latin phonology. Yes, Virginia, Latin did have an assimilation rule that changed n+r to rr (and n+l to ll, which is why we say illiberal and illiterate); that’s why only words derived from Latin show this assimilation. Now, was that so hard? Again I ask: does nobody at the Times dare question the man?