While the language police are having donuts

As anyone learning it as a second language will tell you, English could use some tidying up. The orthography alone is a mess: a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, where letters are used with some relationship to phonetics. Never mind Chinese. Then we have all those idiomatic traps (in front of, but behind);  illogicalities, real and seeming: loosen = unloosen, raveled = unraveled, inflammable=flammable; and all the words whose negating barnacles can no longer be pried off:

 It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened….

What we don’t have, and could use, is the wonderful Italian kit of modifying suffixes .  I know, when you have two words for everything from Latin and German, plus colonial uploads like bungalow, yada yada…  But wouldn’t you like to be able to stick -accio/a on something to tersely express disdain in the middle of a noncommittal sentence (Tea Partaccia), or signal affection by just saying “Spotuccio!” when your dog brings your unchewed slippers?

They stack, too: “Spotinuccio” for the little pug. This needs care, however, as they can trip over each others’ feet, so if you try this, heed the following, what happens when rough and untrained hands are allowed to meddle with machinery.

The violin was christened a “small viol” (violino). It isn’t really a viol (square shoulders, tuned in fifths, etc.), but violino/violin it is, OK.  A double bass is a great big one, violone, and it really is exactly that.  The tenor of the violin family was named a “small big viol”, or violoncello (its official name, also in English, and note the second o) even though it’s more properly a violinone (skipping the viola, but see below) and not any kind of viol.  Worse, the pieces got disconnected, and we absurdly call this second-largest of  the strings a cello, literally “a small”. By curdled analogy, the tenor, larger mandolin (mandolino = small mandola, OK so far) is a mandocello.

The Germans got off this derailing train with Geige, Bratsche , and Bass-Geige, but even they passed up Kleine Bass-Geige for violoncello. Bratsche is its own mystery, supposedly an attempt to bring   viola da braccia, “arm viol”, across the Alps. But (i) how can that word not denote a horn? and (ii) how could it not have been called violaccia from the start?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

10 thoughts on “While the language police are having donuts”

  1. I've known people who used the word "gruntled". I don't think it was entirely a cutesy commentary on "lost positives", or at least it continued past the point where such intent mattered.

    Also, the Italian practice you describe exists in colloquial American English, at least to some degree – think nicknames, like "Steve-areeno" or "Tommy" for "Tom". Or, for that matter, when to provide a sense of exuberance and informality you might refer to something as "wonderrific" instead of merely "wonderful". The suffixes and modifications are variable, and lack specific meanings, and some of them likely derive from Italian-American usagges. But the phenomenon does exist.

  2. "…a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, where letters are used with some relationship to phonetics. "
    France has the institution of the dictée. There used to be a national competition, televised. See the impossible minefield one drawn up by Prosper Mérimée. The main problem is the homophones. French schoolchildren discover at age six in the dreaded "CP" – classe préparatoire, thou shalt learn to READ – that three spoken verb endings – aime, aimé, aimons – become orthographically nine by an evil spell: aime, aimes, aiment; aimé, aimez, aimais, aimait, aimaient; aimons. It was all easier in the 11th century when they pronounced the terminal "s", which made its way into English from the Normans. The famous line in the Chanson de Rolland

    Chrestiens ont droict et payens ont tort

    should be hissed.

    1. I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

      –P.G. Wodehouse

    2. Homophonia, yup, national shame. J'ai vu cinq moines, ceints de vertu, portant sur leur seins le croix de Saint Juste. Actually I think the dictée is a reasonable learning exercise, because you have to actually understand language to get it right, not just do stenography.

      And how do you make italics in comments?

      1. Goodness, O'Hare not knowing something I do!
        Ordinary commenters have to put the HTML tags in manually. I often cheat and log in. I don't know what the limits are.
        Replacing angle brackets with braces so WordPress will ignore them:
        Italics: {i}lorem ipsum{/i}
        Bold:{strong}lorem ipsum{/strong}
        Link: {a href="my url"}lorem ipsum{/a}

        1. A couple of minor notes:
          "b" works for bold instead of "strong", and is more efficient and easier for me to remember
          The "my url" in the link html must include "http://". This isn't a problem if you've copied the link from the address bar of a browser tab, but it can be a problem if you just type it in.

  3. << a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, … Never mind Chinese. >>

    EVERY population finds a way to make something that should be trivial complicated — how else can you separate insiders from outsiders?
    So, not only ARE there Chinese spelling bees, they are a big deal — as is all the surrounding complaining about the new generation, the negative effects of technology, blah blah: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2013/10/21/tes

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