THE BOOKSHELF: WORDS OF THE WORLD.

Last year I wrote about Sarah Ogilvie’s Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary on the basis of a (sloppy, as it turns out) newspaper story; now that Cambridge UP has sent me a review copy, I can report on it firsthand, and I am happy to say that it is an excellent book, well represented by its subtitle and very poorly by the reviews that stressed a trumped-up controversy about Burchfield (one of the editors).
Ogilvie begins by describing how she came to work at the OED in 2001; I found her account charming and convincing, and it’s a good example of personal reporting at its best—it gives you a real sense of the place and its traditions. Then she proceeds to the history of the dictionary that takes up the first, and more important, half of the book (the second half goes into perhaps excessive detail about a couple of controversies and the “case of the missing tramlines”); I’ve read a number of books about the OED, and this is the one I would give to someone curious about the subject. Not only is it well told, but it’s told by a lexicographer, which makes all the difference; she’s not looking in from the outside, and she is able to convey what lexicography in general is about and what is particular to the OED. Her portrait of James Murray, the great early editor, and the obstacles he confronted is superb; I will quote a longish passage that made me want to stand up and cheer:

Murray had stressed that the English language was dynamic, and that no one person’s English was all of English:
The ‘English language’ is constantly spoken of, and written of, as if it were a definite number of words and constructions; and the question, whether a particular word or construction is ‘English’, is constantly settled by each man according to his own feeling and usage, as if his English were all of English. Then we find absurd statements in books, such as that the English language is calculated to contain 100,000 words (when 50,000 or 200,000 would be just as true), followed sometimes by a calculation as to how many of these are of native English origin, and this without definition of what is included either under ‘word’ or ‘English word’ [...]

This was a common theme present in his lectures and writings throughout his life. A few years before he died, he said in a lecture at Oxford, ‘How often have I heard from a man or seen a newspaper confidently assert that such a word or phrase was not English, or perhaps that it was a vile Americanism, when the fact was merely that they were not acquainted with it, it was no part of their English, and in their ignorance they assumed that their English was all English.’ When asked by correspondents for advice on standard usage, Murray always replied that a speaker’s individual free choice gave life and variety to language. He wrote:

Language is mobile and liable to change, and . . . a very large number of words have two or more pronunciations current . . . and giving life and variety to language . . . it is a free country, and a man may well call a vase a vawse, a vahse, a vaze, or a vase, as he pleases. And why should he not? We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?

That’s a rare enough attitude today, and to encounter it so forcefully stated over a century ago boggles my mind. There’s not a word I would change.


On the vexed question of when a word becomes “English” (the book has a great deal about this), Murray said:

It is man by man that Englishmen get the idea of a boomerang, a reredos, a caucus, or a tomato, and find a use for the name of it. Thus the English language is surrounded by a penumbra of French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Hindustani, Malay, Zulu, words, some of which are ‘English’ to some Englishmen, and undreamt of to others. At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?

And:

The English Language is the language of Englishmen! Of which Englishmen? Of all Englishmen, or of some Englishmen? . . . Does it include the English of Great Britain and the English of America, the English of Australia, and of South Africa, and of those most assertive Englishmen, the Englishmen of India, who live in bungalows, hunt in jungles, wear terai hats or puggaries and pyjamas, write chits instead of letters and eat kedgeree and chutni? Yes! In its most comprehensive sense, and as an object of historical study, it includes all these; they are all forms of English.

Oxford treated him shabbily for years, pinching pennies and ordering him not to include so many words (orders he uniformly ignored), and delaying the honorary degree he wanted so badly until almost the end of his life. But he won out:

Despite exclusion from the University establishment throughout most of his career, Murray never tried to change or conform to be included. Likewise, in his work, he stayed resolute—uncompromising even—in his focus on words from the margins, and in his endeavour to include these words in the dictionary. Towards the end of his life, the University accepted him more, and in 1911 Murray gave a series of lectures to the Oxford School of English. It appears that even the media began to understand the essence of the historical method, and the brilliance of Murray’s openness to foreign words and other words from the margins of English. As The Scotsman remarked in 1915, ‘Many people have objected to his inclusion of so many slang, dialectal, or technical terms, of “mere dictionary words” or of “newspaper English”, but the historical method has vindicated him and has shown how many words now classed as “good English” originated in the slang or newspaper English of past centuries, and no one can tell in this age of science, when some polysyllabic compound, like appendicitis, may not become current English.’

And of course you’ll run into many piquant bits of the lexicon, like (to pick one at random) padkos (S.Afr.) “Food or provisions for a journey” (from Afrikaans padkos, etymologically equivalent to “path-cost”). If you have any interest in the OED, you’ll want to read this fine and lively book.

Comments

  1. Oh yes. Ever since I read K. M. Elizabeth Murray’s book about Murray, I knew he was da man.

  2. dearieme says:

    “so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with”: that’s the point.

  3. I’ll have to keep a lookout for the book, then, it sounds lovely – I just read Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”, and Murray sounded absolutely fascinating in it.

  4. “so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with”: that’s the point.
    Except that it’s so very easy to pretend that any usage one does not personally like interferes with intelligibility and/or grace that I doubt there breathes a single prescriptivist who has not given in to the temptation. I will take such claims seriously only from people who very clearly understand how language works and are objecting only to a particular usage and not to the whole lineup of the usual suspects. (If you’re going to tell me that the sentence adverb “hopefully” interferes with intelligibility, for instance, I am just going to laugh at you.)

  5. And hopefully we will all join in the laughter.
    After all, why should English have a lexical gap for an adverb “that affirms the desirability of an occurrence that may or may not come to pass”? English does not tolerate gaps for long: she fills them with anything that comes along of about the right size and shape, to extend James Nicoll’s famous metaphor.
    But seriously, folks, “grace” I do not presume to judge, but “intelligibility” makes me twitch a little. Someone who speaks a non-standard dialect doubtless has a strong motivation for learning the standard dialect that is its Dachsprache. But in matters of accent only, where there is no standard (at least for English), how remote from the generality can a speaker be before the barriers are too high? Humans are awfully good at adapting to systematic phonological difference, but there must be a limit somewhere, beyond which is mutual unintelligibility despite structural and lexical near-identity. I don’t know that I’ve reached that limit myself, but I know other people have, as with the tale of the young African-American man in London who, weary of understanding nothing that white folks were saying to him, asked directions of a person of color, only to met with the same “unintelligible garble” as before. Presumably he got used to it after a while, though.

  6. “as with the tale of the young African-American man in London who, weary of understanding nothing that white folks were saying to him, asked directions of a person of color, only to met with the same “unintelligible garble” as before.”
    Of course it was unitelligible garble. He’s lucky he was not in Glasgow. I had a similar experience. Once when I was a young troop in Germany, I saw a group of soldiers in some kind of NATO uniformn a ways off. I couldn’t recognize the uniforms and I was too far away to catch anything but the general sound of the language. I guessed they were speaking Flemish.
    Later I learned what British uniforms looked like, and I learned to recognize the accent and place it geographically – not very far from Flanders after all, just a short stretch of water. So my guess wasn’t that far off after all.
    I wonder how the English in the Mississippi Delta or western North Carolina would sound to a Londoner.

  7. dearieme says:

    “If you’re going to tell me that the sentence adverb “hopefully” interferes with intelligibility, for instance, I am just going to laugh at you.” Wot, me, guv? Nevah crawrssed me mind.
    “Hopefully” can be a warning of tedium ahead but I’ve never seen or heard it become unintelligible. Though “Envision if you will …” is an even better predictor of tedium ahead: perfectly intelligible but woeful grace-wise.

  8. By the way, the unattributed quotation above (“that affirms” etc.) is from Wilson Follett’s (in)famous Modern American Usage, a prescriptivist spew that I was much taken with as a malleable teenager.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Inintelligibilité
    Around the end of the 19th century, a young man from Southern France who went to Paris for his studies was baffled at first because he could not understand what the people said. He later became a prominent phonetician (I think it was Paul Passy). As a Southerner (and therefore with an Occitan substrate) he was used to a pronunciation which was much closer to the spelling (especially, which observed all the “silent e’s”) than the Parisian one which seemed to chop most of them off.

  10. Are there cases in the pronunciation of Southern French which provably have nothing to do with Occitan (perhaps because it uses some other word altogether) but are more like the American pronunciation of cities named after ones in England (e.g. Birmingham), where we tend to pronounce them as spelled rather than in the English way? Which is the more important factor, the Occitan substrate or the spelling pronunciations?

  11. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t need any other website than Language Hat. In addition to being a first rate language blog, it offers a variety of clothes, services and prescription drugs. There’s simply no other language blog with a similar regard for the extralinguistic needs of its audience.

  12. Trond: A much-needed early-morning laugh! Thanks.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Are there cases in the pronunciation of Southern French which provably have nothing to do with Occitan (perhaps because it uses some other word altogether) but are more like the American pronunciation of cities named after ones in England (e.g. Birmingham), where we tend to pronounce them as spelled rather than in the English way? Which is the more important factor, the Occitan substrate or the spelling pronunciations?
    One thing I know (and it may not be current anymore) concerns French words ending in written s: Occitan speakers learning French in school (like my grandparents) were used to pronouncing a final /s/ in their language (as in Spanish) and had to learn to ignore a final written s, usually indicating the plural, when speaking French. But French also has many singular words, or names, ending in a purely orthographic s, like tapis ‘rug, carpet’ or Camus (the name). As a result, Occitan learners ignored it everywhere, as in Latin borrowings such as rébus or terminus (end of a train or bus route) where the s is sounded in French. This is probably less current now because of the influence of radio and TV. But that is probably not what you are talking about.
    I can’t think of examples such as local names, but mispronouncing dialectal names of obscure villages could occur anywhere. I think though that English spelling being so conservative, especially in place names and last names (“Cholmondeley” etc), spelling pronunciations would be more likely among such names transplanted to another continent than in France (pronouncing all the written e’s is so common in the South, and usually also possible in the North in a very high register, that it does not really count as a spelling pronunciation).
    I am not sure if that answers your questions.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Trond: great comment!

  15. Trond: Thank goodness I wasn’t drinking coffee or tea when reading your comment, I doubt my screen would have survived the experience.
    Marie-Lucie: I frankly doubt your example (of written final S never being realized in Southern French, including in words where it is realized in the standard) has anything to do with an Occitan substrate.
    Leaving aside the fact that many Occitan dialects have dropped final /s/ much as French has, the issue is this: a learner of French in a school setting, *whatever said learner’s L1 is*, will learn that *as a rule* final written S in French is not realized. For a learner to thus over-extend this rule in the case of rare or new words is unsurprising.
    John Cowan: in addition to what Marie-Lucie said, I think that there is a matter of timing: for the spelling pronunciation of a place-name to become established in the place of the local pronunciation you need large-scale literacy combined with little to no contact between users of the spelling pronunciation and users of the “correct” pronunciation.
    Now, this was certainly the case of the United States, which as early as the late eighteenth-century was a society with some 75% literacy and where the bulk of the population would never encounter a native speaker of British English.
    But in Southern France large-scale literacy spread at a much later date (nineteenth century) and was accompanied by the setting up of a national railroad system (which probably contributed to the spread of French as much if not more than the school system did).
    This means that there never was a time when Southern France was both literate in French and isolated from Northern France (and thus Northern French speakers), so that I suspect that you will not find any instance of a spelling pronunciation used in the South but not in the North.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: many Occitan dialects have dropped final /s/ much as French has
    But not the one I am personally familiar with. And I am not aware of rébus etc dropping the final s in other parts of France.

  17. NOW you tell me I have to unlearn my /kamy/ of multiple decades’ standing?!!
    Place names or proper names generally were a misleading example. Unfortunately I can’t come up with a better one, as good examples of a real contrast between a substrate pronunciation and a spelling pronunciation just aren’t occurring to me. Still, it seems reasonable that they could be easily confused if the substrate is a more conservative language that is inherently closer to the (always conservative) spelling.

  18. NOW you tell me I have to unlearn my /kamy/ of multiple decades’ standing?!!
    Not sure if you’re serious, but the -s is definitely silent in Camus.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    JC: You are safe: Camus is of course /kamy/, it is not a Latin word like rébuS. It is an adjective, like confus, obtus (fem. camuse, confuse, obtuse) and a few others.

  20. Oh, I misread “purely orthographic” somehow. Damn, and now I’ve propagated the miscorrection. Oh well, time to propagate the correction to the miscorrection.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: in Southern France large-scale literacy spread at a much later date (nineteenth century) and was accompanied by the setting up of a national railroad system (which probably contributed to the spread of French as much if not more than the school system did)
    I am not sure I can agree with you. There had always been (especially since the 16th century which made French the official language) some literacy in French in the South among the middle and upper classes (and literacy in local varieties of Occitan for those still writing poetry in it), but not among the poor and the rural population. Compulsory universal education (in French only) did not happen until the end of the 19th century, and even then, it was only compulsory until age 12, so most children of rural families did not acquire much more than a functional level of French, heavily influenced by the Occitan dialects they spoke at home.
    As for the advent of railways, it must have encouraged commerce and local travel, but not population movements throughout the country on an equal basis, Since troubadour days and even now, there has been much more in-migration from the South to the North than the opposite, as Southerners migrate(d) North in search of jobs: as a typical example, my grandparents (who came from the same village) separately entered the postal system (as did most of my grandmother’s siblings) and moved to Paris where they met again and married, but Parisians and other Northerners were (and still are) unlikely to move South in large numbers (the ones that do are most often of Southern origin, moving back home to retire, for instance).
    In terms of linguistic influence, I think that national radio between the two wars was much more influential in spreading spoken Standard French in the South than actual contact with Northern French speakers (the first such large-scale contact occurred among men in compulsory military service and during WWI).

  22. We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?
    I would like more variation in spellings.

  23. m-l: there has been much more in-migration from the South to the North than the opposite, as Southerners migrate(d) North
    Probably the same in Italy. Maybe Portugal and Spain too.

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    As if snoring weren’t bad enough, now we have to learn to do it unnaturally.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Paul O: m-l: there has been much more in-migration from the South to the North than the opposite, as Southerners migrate(d) North
    - Probably the same in Italy. Maybe Portugal and Spain too.

    There are many causes for population migration, but if you look at physical maps of those countries, in France and Italy the North (especially in France) has much larger areas of fertile, flat terrain suitable for agriculture on a large scale, making the population more than self-sufficient, while the South is overall much more mountainous and therefore less able to support the local population, so South to North migration has existed for centuries. In Italy, large numbers of Southern people have migrated not only to the Northern area of their country but (according to the period) to France, Algeria (during French colonization) and South America. Many people from Spain (another largely mountainous country) have also migrated to those places.

  26. Dental pain is among the most common discomforts folks go through. Ayurveda states that onions and garlic have tamo guna which induce passion and ignorance.
    It’s the ignorance of spammers that inspires passion, and if dental pain is involved at all, it’s from grinding one’s teeth at their constant invasions. The poor onions have nothing to do with it, even if one eats six and three-quarters of them in a mere ten minutes (size of onions not specified). “In onion there is strength.” —Aesop, “The Bundle of Stinks”

  27. I’m vaguely remembering a science fiction story where a guy comes howling into a post-apocalyptic town and waves a gun (?) until one of the remaining dentists pulls a tooth for him. That was my introduction to the concept of unbearable dental pain (and gave me a lifelong appreciation of modern dentistry).

  28. My childhood dentist was quite modern in technique, but he didn’t hold with anesthesia for mere-schmere cavities. As a result, after leaving home I didn’t visit a dentist for many years, and wound up with something like 22 cavities to fix when I finally did. I’m still with him.

  29. At this time I am going away to do my breakfast,
    once having my breakfast coming over again to read further news.

    This spam seemed worth saving.

  30. My grandfather was a dentist with the same opinion of novocaine, but fortunately he died before I was born.

  31. Trond Engen says:

    I had dentistry without anesthesia until I was 20, i.e. as long as public dentistry for children and soldiers in national service lasted. The first time I paid for my own treatment I told them to give me all they had, and I’ve never looked back.

  32. I’ve never understood the ideology so many people seem to have that physical pain is good for you, or at least shouldn’t be counteracted. Those people should all have to undergo painful procedures without anesthesia until they change their minds.

  33. Well, administering a drug always entails a risk and a cost, whereas making the patient tough it out does not, at least to a first approximation. The fact that the patient in whose mouth you are working has very convenient manual access to your gentleman-bits doesn’t tend to enter into the equation.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    LH: the ideology so many people seem to have that physical pain is good for you
    … and will make you repent of whatever sins you have committed. I guess that is the idea behind punishing women with considerable pain in childbirth in order to punish them for the alleged sin of their (actually our) common ancestress Eve. But Adam was not punished (as far as I can tell) for being a willing accomplice in the aforementioned sin.
    JC: the patient in whose mouth you are working has very convenient manual access to your gentleman-bits
    Not all dentists are men.

  35. I believe Adam was punished by being make to work for a living. I’m not saying that that’s comparable to the pain (or travail) of childbirth.
    I wonder, what was supposed to happen in the long run if they didn’t screw up like that and get ejected from Eden? Would they have reproduced? Painlessly if at all, it seems.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    I forgot about Adam having to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, but that would be shared by Eve if they were both working in the fields like their descendants of both sexes. Adam and his male descendants were not hit by severe pain in their bodies like the female descendants of Eve when performing functions indispensable for obeying the injunction to multiply.

  37. Oh, I’m not saying Eve didn’t get the worst of it.
    And, yes, there was that injunction, wasn’t there? Before the fall.

  38. m-l: True, but today’s massive rise in the number of female dentists (about half of all dental-school graduates in the U.S. are women) is I think well subsequent to the general acceptance among dentists of anesthetics for cavities in the U.S. Though it’s true that the founding mothers (I quote the Web site with glee) of the American Association of Woman Dentists did their founding in 1893, a hundred years later (after I had left home), women were only 2.6% of dentists in private practice.
    (In any case, jokes are invariably behind the times, and what’s more, if I have to choose, I’d rather tell castration-anxiety jokes than rape-anxiety jokes. Castration, though inherently disturbing, is not a realistic threat to most males.)

  39. marie-lucie says:

    JC, interesting about women dentists, but do you know how this statistic compares with the number of women doctors, for instance? One problem with increasing the number of women dentists in private practice might have been the high cost of the equipment and the difficulty for qualified women to raise the necessary funds.

  40. About 11% of doctors were female twenty years ago, and I think you are right about the capital costs of a dental practice as a barrier to entry. The chairs alone cost well over US$10,000.

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