Thursday, September 01, 2005

Quitting English

In the comments section of a recent post, Ken 1 pointed out an egregious lexicographical flub with the following comment:
Pretty soon I'm just going to have to quit the English language.
I’ve been thinking about this. Let’s do it. Let’s quit English. Anyone can pick it up, but few bother to master it, and there’s the problem. The vandals have taken over, so let’s just abandon it and start up a new language. Or if that’s too much trouble 2, let’s at least have a premium, subscribers-only version of English. We’ll reboot the language, lay down new rules, and give it room to grow in the right way. Eventually the two versions of the language will diverge as the people using the free version of English twist and pervert it into an increasingly debased pidgin tongue, and for all purposes, we’ll have a new language of our own. I’ll still have to use regular English at work, of course, but I use Internet Explorer there too, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use Firefox at home.

Here are a few ideas for English Premium. Some are new things, some are old, I don’t take credit for any of them, but I like them all:
  1. The first place to start is with our lack of a satisfactory gender-neutral third-person pronoun. The generic he is unsatisfactory and a little sexist. He or she is cumbersome. They is (or is that are?) plural, and ought to stay that way. We’ve got it, but it’s a little inanimate, where we’re looking for neuter. We’ve got one, of course. But one may find oneself sounding a little stilted when using it in conversation with one’s friends. We could do worse than to give it a shot using Spivak pronouns such as E, em, eir, and emself. They’re just the they forms with the th knocked off. That makes some sense.
  2. We might be introducing a new batch of pronouns there, but there’s some good old ones we should take another look at. Unless you’re a Quaker, you’re not using the archaic singular second-person pronouns thou, thee, and thine anymore, and more’s the pity. There’s no need for a distinction between singular and plural second-person pronouns, you say? If only. Then no one would be using words such as youse and y’all. Clearly, there’s a linguistic need here. Let’s fill it with some old favorites and ditch the regrettable replacements. Youse, scram. Y’all, don’t come back now.
  3. Now and then, it would be handy to have not just a third-person pronoun, but also a fourth-person pronoun, as in Algonquian languages. When you have a lot of sentences like “He gave it to him”, things can get a little confusing. Yeah, you could just use people’s names, but that takes longer and it doesn’t help much when you’re trying to distinguish between the dozen girls named Mackenzie in your niece's class. Split the work up among proximate and obviative pronouns, and you lose potential for Abbott-and-Costello-style comedy routines, but you gain in clarity and speed.
  4. Along the same lines it helps clarity to have different pronouns denoting the inclusive we (including the listener) and the exclusive we (excluding the listener). This is also common in Algonquian, as well as in Austronesian languages and others throughout the world. If nothing else, it’d be handy for ditching people, as you could more easily say things like “We [but not you] are going to the bar” and not worry about sending out the message “We [including you] are going to the bar.”
  5. Following from that idea, we have two main ways of denoting grammatical number: singular and plural. Some languages, however, have the concept of dual number. Arabic has it. Inuktitut has it. A bunch of Slavic languages has it. Old English had dual pronouns, and we still observe differences between both and all, among other things. I like the idea of bringing back dual pronouns. It could only make love poetry better. It might make things easier when taking about pants or scissors too.
  6. That’s five on just the pronouns, and that amounts to a lot of changes, frankly, so let’s move on. Making things short and sweet, I’m up for some new punctuation: the interrobang, the rhetorical question mark, and the sarcasm point. (Two of these are actually old punctuation.) I’ve mentioned these before, and I’m still all for them.
  7. Th isn’t just the pairing of t and h. It’s a separate letter. It’s two letters, in fact: the voiced th, as in them, and the voiceless th, as in this. The Québecois can’t make these sounds, invariably substituting d and t, respectively. Let’s flaunt our mastery of interdental fricatives by bringing back eth (capital Ð, lowercase ð) and thorn (capital Þ, lowercase þ), the characters that Old English used to represent these sounds and that Icelandic and Faroese still use. It might also make it easier to figure out the liner notes of Sigur Rós albums.
  8. I’m a proud Canadian, and I make sure I put my u in when I’m spelling colour, but in the spirit of compromise, I suggest a general guideline of using British punctuation but American spelling. Frankly, it makes sense. Noah Webster was on the right track when it came to simplifying spelling for the colonies, as the Brits had and still have a lot of idiosyncratic orthography, such as gaol instead of jail. On the other hand, the British system of punctuation is more logical in some respects, especially governing the placement of periods and commas in relation to quotation marks. I still want the serial comma across the board, of course. It’s clearer. And I like the diaeresis in words such as coöperate. The New Yorker does it, Ray Smuckles does it, and it’s just plain classy.
  9. Whom, whence, whither, hither, thither, yonder, will, shall – they may be archaic, but they’re all good words, and they were invented for good reasons. Let’s not let them slip out of use, and let’s use them correctly. None of this business with whom used in the nominative case, or the redundant from whence.
  10. Finally, the French may not be able to pronounce th, but make no mistake – the French have got it together. We might scoff at the Académie française for wasting time by deliberating whether French people are allowed to say hot dog or if they must instead say chien-chaud. But when people start using junk English such as verbed forms of impact and dialogue, I wouldn’t mind having an official authoritative linguistic governing body in charge of telling them to knock it off. Let’s give binding legal power to the people who put together Lake Superior State University’s Banished Word List. Let it be like the Académie française, whose forty members are called the Immortals.3 That’s just plain cool.

1. For more on Ken and what he might do after quitting English, check out his recent scholarly discussion of speaking in tongues. The dude makes Bible college seem like some kind of actual education.

While I'm on the subject of young Ken, our old pal and occasional contributor Scott recently gave him some terrific advice on the forum, and I thought the following bit was worth repeating.
So far I've seen direct references to your head being both too big and too small. Very upsetting.

Solution: Keep better tabs on your head size. Monitor it from time to time. It's not the kind of thing you want to just let slide. When you hear people saying that your head is too big don't just pass it off as inaccuracy or jealousy. Try to make your head a little smaller. For the times that you peek in a mirror and find that your head is too small just grow it a bit. We're not talking rocket science here.

2. And it is too much trouble to start up a new language. A few months ago, I was at my friend Barry's house and I saw a little plaque of a guy hanging up that was labelled "Zamenhof". So I asked what the Esperanto guy was doing on the wall, and Barry's head almost exploded, because I was the only person he knew who'd ever made that connection except for his dad, who it turned out, is the only Esperanto speaker either one of us has ever met. He told me it would make his dad's day -- year, in fact -- if I told him I wanted to become his Esperanto student, but I had to decline. I don't want to break an old man's heart by lying to him. Esperanto is like the linguistic equivalent of Mah-Jongg; it's supposed to be fun and easy to learn, but just seems too foreign and too uncommon among the under-80 set for me to work up much interest in it.

As for Klingon, let's not even get into the kind of people who learn that.

3. This flies in the face of the oft-quoted maxim "There can be only one", of course. But then again, it has always been the French way to be contrary, n'est-ce pas?


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9/01/2005 05:32:00 PM  
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Hooray, my first blog spam. Let this be the first warning: If I start getting any more of these, I may have to disable anonymous comments.

9/01/2005 05:36:00 PM  
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9/01/2005 05:52:00 PM  
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9/01/2005 05:54:00 PM  
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9/01/2005 07:43:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

Well, that settles that.

9/01/2005 09:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is really quite insidious. What kind of degenerate wants to use a personal forum for marketing? What kind of idiot thinks that people will eagerly go to the advertising sites to buy something, rather than just getting pissed off? Can anyone say "negative brand awareness"???

I have two theories. The first is that you appear to be paying the price of fame - you've picked up too much traffic and made yourself a target. The second, and more likely explanation, is that God is punishing you for having enabled marketers to do their dirty work for too long. Apparently the big guy doesn't accept the "I was just doing my job" excuse.

And finally, what is up with your disassociational delusions? You are the jokester, always have been. When I worked with you, you amply filled the role of office jokester for a company of 300 people all on your own.


9/01/2005 11:12:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...


Of course, negative brand awareness is still brand awareness. It does work sometimes. Mostly on morons. But even average people who have been inundated with, say, phone spam from Best Price Movers sometimes find themselves having to move and figuring, "What the hell -- I'll give them a shot."

Agreed; your second explanation is more likely. My numbers aren't that good.

And finally, the audiences are getting smaller. It's a rapidly dwindling company. Three resignations and one termination this week alone.

9/01/2005 11:31:00 PM  
Blogger Dickolas Wang said...

They'll come get you anyway, those spammers, even if you disable anonymous comments. They're like locusts. Web-savvy locusts.

9/01/2005 11:57:00 PM  
Blogger John Eje Thelin said...

By way of an actual comment on the post, further proof of why Premium English may be a good idea.

I subtitle The Simpsons into Swedish, and I get their ridculously over-annotated scripts with things like "Made up: colloquial for 'invented'".

And in the last episode of season 16, the script not only has Bart saying, "You're a shoe-in" but also describes it as "colloquial for 'guaranteed to win'".

Shoo, I say.

And, yes, a non-gender-specific personal pronoun is great. Swedish has "man", but it's increasingly giving way to "du" (You), because people mimic English usage.

Like I said, be glad you're not a Swedish-sepaker.

9/02/2005 08:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Ken said...

Not only did I get a reference or two in this post, but there was a Highlander reference to boot. Actually, reading this did manage to perk me up in the midst of this rather unfortunate day.

But beyond that, I'm in. Sign me up for English Premium. I've long desired neuter pronouns, an inclusive and separately exclusive 'we' and a second-person plural pronoun. Plus, I hear one gets 100 MB of space when you subscribe to English Premium.

And I sure do love the interrobang. Oh sweet interrobang.

9/02/2005 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Marlene said...

How do you feel about coming up with a plural form of "you" when adressing a stranger or someone superior like the French do? Also, if they don't know the sex they just use "him". Although I don't know how they decided a house is feminine.

9/02/2005 09:04:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...


In fact, English and French used to have two cognate forms of the second-person pronoun. In the singular, English had thou, which French had (and has) tu. In the plural, English had you, which French had (and has) vous. As you've mentioned, the French reserve tu for intimate or subordinate relationships, and use vous for strangers and superiors. It was the same for the English and thou. For instance, when Sir Walter Raleigh was on trial, Sir Edward Coke insulted him by saying, "I thou thee, thou traitor!" thus showing that he did not consider Raleigh worthy of respect. Much as vous is the more common form in French because it is more respectful, you became vastly more common in English, and thou dropped out of general usage, except among the Quakers, who used it as a sign of humility and equality.

As for marking nouns for gender, I don't care for it. It makes sense to divide people and animals into males and females, but once you get into inanimate objects, it gets bizarre. Perhaps the guy who came up with French decided a woman's place was in the home.

9/02/2005 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger Marlene said...

Thou art my grammatical superior.

9/03/2005 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Jheurf said...

Just to let you know, Quebecois CAN learn to pronounce "th". You need to :
1. Hava had an incredible English second language teacher (Thanks Mona) that made your grasp of English as good as your French.
2. Stare real long at pouty super-model lips and tongues as they interdentally fricative (for me it was "three" that made it click).

P.S. Why don't you delete all those spams?

9/08/2005 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Jheurf said...

The "second-person pronoun in French thing" is all well and good, except when it comes to movie translations. Most of these are done in France and the French-French seem to eclusively use the plural form. Even when the situation warrants a more personnal address.

9/08/2005 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

I'm keeping the spam here as a lesson to myself. Also, this is my longest comment thread ever! So proud!

Your other points are well-taken, of course. There's no reason a Quebecois can't learn to do all kinds of things. It need not be all log rolling and syrup tapping for them.

9/12/2005 11:36:00 PM  

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