Saturday, November 25, 2006

In the Know

A French student of mine, a banker but philosopher at heart, recently asked what the “k” and “w” were doing on either end of the word, “know.” C’est un bon question, I replied, stalling for time, though realizing fairly instantly, and admitting: I did not KNOW.

I followed up by asking him why French had two words for “know” – one (connaitre) for being acquainted with people and places, and another one (savoir) for facts, general ideas and basic experience. His reply was similar to mine, in that he didn’t know; but then, with a Gallic shrug, he added (supply your own French accent here) that maybe two words for “know” are necessary -- but maybe they are just tradition.

Hmm: necessary, or tradition -- Which is it? Perhaps not as thought-provoking as Clairol’s old ads, “Does she or doesn’t she? or “Is it true blondes have more fun?” but I decided to look into the whole “know” question anyway.

One thought I’ve come to is that there may have been a time when Old English, say, 1,500 years ago, also had two words for “know”; but back then the language also had genders and case endings for nouns, two forms for “you” and other complexities. English eventually (and thankfully!) shed those and other features and so, if there ever were two “knows,” we have gotten along just fine with our one “know” for literally ages:

“Do you know the way to San Jose?”
“Hey, whaddya know?!”
“Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”
“What did he know and when did he know it?”
“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

How easy with the one-word-fits-all kind of thing (except for in the biblical sense, which is now considered archaic). And not one of my foreign students has ever complained about the paucity of “knows” in English.

Oddly enough, many widely spoken languages agree with the French that two “knows” are better (or necessary, or tradition) than one. To see this globally, grab a map and color in all of Western Europe, Russia, China, Japan, South and Central America and any former French, Dutch or Portuguese colonies in Africa and elsewhere. (I admit, I’m not accounting for India’s languages, but that’s too confusing.) Still, at the very least the number of “two know” language speakers comes to more than 2 billion people, versus the clearly out-numbered half billion English speakers using one. So, in the spirit of, “50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong?” should we reconsider?

The sheer diversity and quantity of “two-know” speakers are what make me think that perhaps English used to have two “knows,” just as we once used two words for “you”: “you” for the formal, and “thou” (like “tu” in Spanish and French, and “du” in German) for the informal, as in, “But thou O Lord, have mercy upon us,” (from the King James Bible – which, I agree sound anything but informal). In any case, whatever English lost in dropping “thou” -- perhaps a touch of linguistic intimacy – we have gained as a culture by the simple, democratic nature of “you” and in not having to worry about offending an elder or recent acquaintance. But I digress: with a second “know,” I can’t think of anything that might have been lost.

One difference might be in introductions: The Frank Sinatra song, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” might be otherwise translated as, “Do You Know Miss Jones?” (Perhaps that lingering archaic biblical reference is another reason we phrase introductions the way we do.) Then there’s the phrase, “It’s not what you know, it’s who* you know:” Okay, it’s a cliché, but at least it’s got some symmetry. The French, on the other hand, must say, “Ce n’est pas ce qu’on sait, mais qui on connait,” which means, “It is not what one knows but whom one is acquainted with,” which completely loses the What-You-Know-Who-You-Know rhythm, and the phrase simply becomes a truism. (*Grammar hounds: let’s not choose this place to quibble over “who” vs. “whom,” okay? But I’m happy you spotted that.)

To find out why “know” is spelled with a silent “k” and “w” required a little search in the dictionary (I like the Random House American Heritage one):
The word began with the Indo-European root (and these roots are about 8,000 years old), “gno,” which meant “to know.” The early Germans (a barbarian people we call the Saxons) took that word and stretched it out a bit to “gnow” and later … to the word (and pronouncing the “k”) “know.” The Saxon tribes brought this word from northern Europe to the post-Roman Britain (450 A.D.), and there the word merged unchanged into Old English and, albeit with pronunciation changes, into today’s word.

The beauty of English is that it’s not a pure language – it’s a hybrid, with a Germanic core and Latin overlay, with a strong streak of practicality allowing for word and pronunciation changes, and a mind-boggling breadth of expression. And unlike pure languages (from Spanish to Icelandic to Basque), English speakers themselves can call the shots on what’s useful and what’s not. So if people decide to root out, or add on, it’s pretty much just done. No Ministry of Language to say if it’s okay or not. Just voce popular. (That’s not to say there aren’t standards to be upheld – hence, this blog.) Still, it’s got a flexibility I haven’t found in any other language.

But back to “know”: anyone who knows German today also knows that they no longer use “know.” Instead, being a “two-know” language, they use “kennen” for people and places, and “wissen” for facts and things, with “wissen” rooted in the ancient Sanskrit word, “veda,” meaning “knowledge.” Other Germanic languages (from Scandinavia, Holland, etc.) use similar words. And though our words “wise” and “wit” come from that, English still has the only “k-n-o-w” verb I know of.

And just so you k-n-o-w, French and other Latin languages also started out with “gno,” but ended up attaching the prefix, “co,” (meaning “with”) to the Romanized, “gnoscere,” creating, “cognoscere,” which is still Italian for knowing people and places. The French, Spanish and Portuguese formed their particular variations from that. The Latin (and again, still Italian) “sapere,” for knowing facts and ideas, and which became “savoir” in French and “saber” in Spanish and Portuguese, actually first meant, “to taste or perceive.” Would that mean that those cultures originally equated good taste with knowledge? I can’t help but think they would agree.

As for the “necessary vs. tradition” question: World languages other than English may find it hard to accept that they don’t need to distinguish one “know” from another – but it does seem a mere tradition at this point. Even Scottish English, which still uses the Germanic “kennen,” uses that word for people, places, facts and ideas, just as we use “know.”

Still, given how truly ancient the root words for all these “knows” are, it’s certainly possible to think that at one time it was necessary to distinguish between what a person knew from experience and memorization, and what the same person knew from visual recognition. But is the need for that distinction going the way of our little toe?

Evolutionarily speaking, English may have jumped the gun with our one “know” by millennia.

Just so you know.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Lying (or Laying?) Around

My daughter emailed me yesterday:

“… btw*, yesterday mariana was like "whats the past tense of lay? is it lied or lay?? I told her that u lived for that stuff and she was like "yeah, right" and i said "seriously, my mom has a blog on the english language, lets look it up …… I remember that u did give us a lecture on the past tense of lay/lie but figures i didnt exactly keep it in my brain.”

(*btw: an Internet acronym for ‘by the way.’ FYI.)

Quickly, before I start musing on what writing emails and instant messages are doing to the next generation’s writing, spelling and punctuation (wow -- how fuddy-duddy does that sound!), or about how my children never keep my lectures in their brains; I want to say upfront that I’m happy that Mariana was even aware that she didn’t know the past tense of “lay.” Lots of people don’t know, but either they don’t know that they don’t know, or they don’t care, so they never ask or even wonder.

Sorry to say, I did not have a posting about LIE and LAY, so I’d like to remedy that situation right now – because what a difference it makes to get it right! One summer I was on the night train to Paris, something that still rings of black and white movies and romance. The reality, however, was bleak: I shared a compartment with some family from a southern U.S. state and the whole night the mother kept saying to her two-year-old, “Laaaaay doww-n, Susie! Laay down!” The experience might have been just that much less awful if the mother had said, “Lie down, Susie! LIE down!” (even with some expletives thrown in, as long as she got the grammar right).

So here’s the thing about LAY and LIE:

LAY takes an object, which makes it a “transitive” verb, so the dictionary will stick a little italicized, “tr.” next to “lay” in the dictionary. Basically, using “lay” means that you must lay SOMETHING down, as in, “Whenever I walk in the door, I lay the car keys on the table.” (I wish); or the exhausted parent who lays her baby down for a nap and then conks out herself. Or think of the prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” (As you know from “Myself Misuse” – it should have said, “Now I lay myself down to sleep” but – whatever, or as my daughter would write: w/e.)

LIE does not take an object, so it is an “intransitive” verb and the dictionary will stick a little italicized “intr.” next to “lie” in the dictionary.** As in, “How do I train my dog to lie down?” or “The Atlantic Ocean lies between our two countries.” New York City lies a mere 26 miles from my home, but some days, it seems so far away, it may as well be the Atlantic Ocean.”

** To lie, meaning (among various related definitions) to rest, recline or be in a prostrate or recumbent position, comes from the Old English, “licgan.” The other meaning of “lie,” as in the intransitive verb, “to present false information with the intention of deceiving” comes from the Old English, “leogan.” (I don’t know how to pronounce those words, but I think it’s interesting that they both end up as “lie.”)

Of course, both LAY and LIE come in different verb tenses: a verb tense tells you when the action happened, and the three main ones to know are the present, the past, and the past participle. In case you’ve forgotten, the present tense describes general, routine kinds of things, like “I write my blog on Sunday;” the past tense describes and action that is over and done with, as in, “I watched an old movie yesterday;” and a participle (as verb form) usually goes with a “helping verb” like have/has/had. Think: “The Great Oz has spoken!”

So here’s LAY and LIE, present, past and participle:

Present: lay/lays … Who lays down the law in your house?
Past: laid … I laid my car keys down somewhere – where are they?
Past Participle: laid … That reminds me of a sign I once saw posted inside a Greenwich Village apartment building: “Walk carefully. The tiles have just been laid.” To which someone else had scrawled, “Lucky tiles!”

TO LIE (as in lie down)
Present: lie/lies … My Bonnie lies over the ocean.
Past: lay … Yesterday, my Bonnie lay down on the couch -- and on the job.
Past Participle: lain … My Bonnie has lain around for years, thinking about when to come home.

Now you begin to see where the confusion, ahem, lies. The past tense of LIE is the present tense of LAY. Even worse, saying “I lay down” sounds a lot like “I laid down” so it’s hard to hear the difference. Still, if you think of little Susie’s mom yelling in my ears all night in that train compartment, you’ll try to master this. And yes, people really do say, “lain.” Although I haven’t lain awake nights thinking about all this.

It’s interesting to note that on Google, dog training sites often stick both “lie” and “lay” in their web page titles, just to make sure no one – including Susie’s mom – misses “How to Train Your Dog to Lie Down, Lay Down;” thankfully, the instructions (in the two sites I read) only use “lie down” in the text. (Which reminds me that in Barnes & Noble’s early days in New York, they had to list the store in the phone book under both “Barnes” & Noble and “Bonds” & Noble to accommodate some of the locals’ pronunciation.)

BTW, there are two other pairs of transitive-intransitive verbs; that is, ones that are similar, except one takes an object and the other does not: RAISE -- tr. v. (raised, have/has raised) and RISE – intr. v. (rose, risen) and SET – tr. v. (set and set) and SIT – intr. v. (sat, sat). That’s why you raise a window when the thermometer rises, and not the other way around. That could also be why you set the table before you sit down to eat. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be too much confusion with these verbs. The real question now is, how are you going to ease your new words, “transitive” and “intransitive” into your next cocktail conversation?! Okay, okay, w/e.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"No Problem"

Dear Language Lady,
Would you please consider writing a blog on the phrase "no problem?" As in my asking, "May I please have a receipt?" to which the cashier responds, "No problem!" Doesn't "no problem" presume that providing a receipt (or whatever else you may have requested, say a clean fork) might be problematic? Of course, everything is potentially problematic. But the "no problem" response often is evoked irregardless (From LL: Please see my “Leaf-Blower Awards”) of the probability of an actual problem.
-- Pissed Off in Ohio

Dear Pissed Off,

“No problem” seems to have become such an automatic reply in current English that it can mean anything from, “sure thing” (it’s approximate original meaning) to “you’re welcome,” to the ubiquitous and equally full of nuance, “whatever.” It’s so common that Internet users simply write NP instead of the whole phrase.

When your cashier tells you cheerily that giving you a receipt is “no problem,” you may translate that as meaning, “certainly,” or “of course” and not consider your request in any way problematic; however, if the cashier mutters the phrase while slapping a grease-stained receipt in your palm, you have every right to feel the way you do.

“No problem” meaning, “You’re welcome,” has long been a proper Australian response to “thank you,” because Aussies don’t even use the phrase, “You’re welcome,” which perhaps has too formal a ring about it, one that that defiantly informal culture has resisted. An Aussie’s usual response to “thanks” includes: “no worries” or “it’s nothing, mate.” Now perhaps our own Casual Friday (and often Casual Mon – Thurs, and weekends) Culture is also catching on to that meaning of the phrase. So, no worries, mate: it’s just language stretching its legs. However, that does not mean there’s not a problem with “no problem” (or multiple negatives!) Let’s go back to the coffee shop for a minute:

Let’s say you receive a dirty fork and then ask the waitress for a clean one, to which she replies, “No problem.” Well, in that case, “no problem” is the absolute wrong way to respond, because providing you with a clean fork to begin with was, actually, a “problem” (a difficulty not able to be overcome); her response should be more like: “I’m sorry! I’ll get you a clean one right away.”

It’s that type of instance -- when “no problem” allows its sayer to passively avoid admitting to making a mistake -- that inspired a whole sermon at Duke University Chapel a few years ago. In it, Rev. Dr. William Willimon, formerly of Duke and now Bishop of Northern Alabama, called “no problem” a phrase “spreading like kudzu throughout our speech …

“When I say to you, ‘Excuse me, but there is no banana in my banana split,’ it is not for you to say, ‘OK. No problem.’”

Exactly! What about, “Woops! You can’t have a banana split without a banana -- how could I have been so stupid?!” But instead, the waiter detaches himself from the mistake by uttering, “No problem.” Grrr. (And I’d check your spoon to see if it’s clean. That too could be “no problem.”)

The reverend went on to cite another instance: this time, at a garage where the mechanic had guaranteed his car would be ready by a set time:
“’Not ready?’” I repeated incredulously. “’Well, I’ll make do for another couple of days.’”
“No problem,” says the mechanic.
“And I think, ‘No problem?’ No problem for whom? For me, that you have no problem with keeping my car for another two days is, well, a problem.”

Again, a simple apology was called for but an unsatisfying “no problem” was served up instead. My question is, did the mechanic even know that he should have apologized? Did he think that “no problem” covered his mistakes, or did he think it was mighty generous of him to keep the reverend’s car parked for free in his garage another two days while he worked on it?

We live in a No-Problem culture – as anyone might surmise by noting the 27,400,000 sites listed under “no problem” on Google: “Bad Credit? No Problem!” “No Plot? No Problem!” “Terrorist Attack on the Internet? No Problem!” There are 20,000,000 more sites listed under the more festive-sounding, Spanish “No Problema” (yes, “problem” is feminine): “Lo-Carb Mexican Food -- No Problema!” “Language Barrier -- No Problema!” No one likes problems, least of all Americans, who will do just about anything to avoid them, or avoid admitting that there is one – unless they can go on Oprah or Sally Jessie Raphael or Jerry Springer to talk about it.

Not that I’m suggesting that the next time you ask your cashier for a receipt or a clean fork and she utters the NP phrase, you immediately call up one of the afternoon shows to request a chance to vent and throw some language around. It might be useful, though.

What “no problem” needs is an anti-publicity campaign to take it down a few notches and put some real meaning back into those words. So now that we’re aware of the problem, resisting the urge to say it should be no problem.