Sunday, December 30, 2012

Au Jour de Hui and Yesterday: How Language Changes

Being on the cusp of a new year, it seems somehow fitting to write about change – namely, language change. But street change also provides a fitting metaphor:

Like yesterday - I got out of the subway at 86th St and Lexington and headed toward the new Panera Bread café to meet a student. As I walked, I had a sudden memory of 86th St in the mid-1980s, when there were still some wooden storefronts and even a few German restaurants, which were then just remnants of an earlier era when the whole neighborhood was filled with German stores and families. Now 86th St is lined with the sleek, glassy storefronts found in any mall in America. This change was slow but steady, but now, from a sidewalk view, the street looks completely different from 25 years ago.

Language, as discussed by Guy Deutscher in his enthralling book, “The Unfolding of Language,” is subject to similar forces of destruction and creation that keep all living languages -- not just English – fresh and well, even despite heavy resistance: preservationists support neighborhoods as well as language (where they’re called “prescriptionists”), each group trying its best to maintain tradition and standards – succeeding, at times, for a while.

But change usually finds its way in the end.

In “The Unfolding of Language,” Deutscher shows how all languages constantly seek shorter and easier ways for speakers to express themselves; this is a principal part of the “destructive” element of language, while the “creative” aspect comes up with substitutes for old words as well as new words and expressions.

Grammatical patterns and easy rules are also key to language. Grammar mistakes are usually the result of something not fitting a pattern or having a rule not well understood. Young children make natural mistakes, saying, for example, “I writed you a letter,” following a past tense pattern they have perceived. My blog, “Between you and I” (4/28/2009) is an example of people misunderstanding the pattern (“You and I” as subjects vs objects) and grammatical rule (using object pronouns after prepositions); my blog, Lie and Lay (9/3/2012) is another case of people confusing patterns and rules, both persisting for decades until they are finally reaching a critical mass of acceptance.

To some, those changes above are still cringe-worthy. That’s because they’re new; but the older changes are ones we don’t even realize were once cringe-worthy to a different generation. Take regular English plurals:  the simple “s” or “es,” are standouts of clear patterns and easy rules. But back in Old English, when such Germanic-rooted counterparts as “men,” “women,” “children,” “mice,” and “geese” were normal plurals, a simple “s” no doubt seemed barbaric to the older generation. The “s” on plural nouns was not chosen in an alphabet lottery; rather, it is the souvenir of the plural “a-s,” once reserved for certain types of masculine nouns; gradually, new generations of English speakers began tweaking the rule so it resembled the system we have today.

Then there are case systems, where words have certain endings to show their function in a sentence. Modern Russian, German, and Hungarian have case systems, as did ancient Latin and Old English. Many Latin scholars have considered the case system as the pinnacle of form and structure and its destruction as linguistic doom. But linguist Deutscher points out that the case system itself was created through the same forces of tearing-down and building-up to make things easier:

For example, a noun like “store” would once have been followed by words meaning “to the” to express movement toward it; the “to the” words are called “post-positions” because they came after the noun, as in “I’m going store to the.” Gradually, the post-position words just became the ending to the original noun, so that “store to the” became “storetothe” –  as in,“I’m going storetothe.” This so-called case ending was simply linguistic evolution – but even that ultimately proved too confusing for use in modern Latin languages:

French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese have all done away with case endings, putting “to the” before the noun (as a prepositional phrase); even so, each of those languages developed a new shortcut: “a + le” = “au” in French; “alla” in Italian; “al” in Spanish, or “a” (with an accent) in Portuguese.

Another example of word-shortening that Deutscher gave was the French word, “aujourd’hui,” which means “today.”  The “hui” part of the word was abbreviated from what Deutscher assumes was the pre-recorded Latin “hoc die,” which meant “on this day.” By the time Latin was recorded, the word for today had been shortened to “hodie,” which Old French gradually pared down to “hui.”

But what happened to “hui” is like what happens when I write a thank-you note: somehow, “thank you,” or “thanks” just seems too short, so I usually add a heart-felt “so much” for emphasis. In the same way, “hui” felt a little short to the Old French-speakers, who began adding a more emphatic “on the day of” to “today,” creating, “au jour de hui” that eventually became the single (though awkward, I think) “aujourd’hui.” But now even that consolidation has new layer – with the informal French term, “au jour d’aujourd’hui” or literally, “to the day of to the day of today,” meaning “right now” -- instead of the more general “now.”

The point is, as we near January 1, time brings change – for better or worse, but hopefully more often for the better. On today’s streamlined 86th Street, there are perhaps many who wax nostalgic for the old German place over Panera Bread (though the Heidelberg’s still there, on Second Avenue). But few English speakers today would want to go back to the knotty boughs of Old English. Rather, let us see English as a steady, flowing work in progress. Cheers!