A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

♪ Stuck a feather in his cap and called it…

23 April 2016 5:28 PM (musing | language | delectivism)

Once upon a time there was a language called Englisc. It was spoken on an island by a bunch of people who spent most of their time worrying about the Danes. Here is an example of someone worrying about the Danes in Englisc[1]. Englisc speakers also identified their kings with epithets instead of numbers, like Eadweard the Elder, Eadweard the Martyr, Æthelred Unræd[2], Eadmund Ironside, Eadweard the Confessor, and Eadgar the Atheling[3]. Eventually England was conquered by the Danes. These Danes, however, did not speak a Germanic language and give their kings cool epithets, they spoke French and gave their kings boring numbers[4] [5]. What we know as English grew up from the union of Englisc and French— at first. Using French like a soda straw it dipped into Greek and Latin and slurped both right up. It discovered it had a taste for assimilation and picked up bits of German and Sanskrit and Italian and everything else without prissiness or principle. The rest of the world adopted English, and corporations headquartered in Asia and Africa make English their official corporate language.

This state of affairs bothers some people. Their project looks fun, and I enjoy projects that make words for modern concepts from vocabularies last used in a world where a really fast horse was the height of technology. I wouldn't say that we lack control and ownership of our language. Instead, I would say that we have the exorbitant privilege of inate fluency in and influence over the world's linguistic reserve currency.

Now! Sometimes I will see the word ‘mutices’, offered when someone asks for the currect plural of ‘mutex’[6]. As you can see in the footnote, ‘mutex’ is an abbreviation for ‘mutual exclusion’, not a Latin word. So, if we use the standard English rules for forming plurals, we come up with ‘mutexes’. This is a perfectly good plural, but I will not say it is the correct one. (The correct plural is obviously muTexans.)

There is a term, macaroni, that refers to mixtures of pieces from different languages that would normally have nothing to do with each other. It's most commonly used to refer to playful punnery, like this:

Roses are red
Buttercups yella
What is a puer
Without a puella?
Whether it stretches to cover dog Latin (the little captions one often finds beneath coyotes and road runners) is up for debate. Germans in World War II Disney Propaganda Films speak entirely in German-English macaroni, and Spanglish is the most widespread modern example.

Consider ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. These are derived from the words ‘ὁμός’ and ‘ἕτερος’ and the word ‘sexualis’. Can you guess why the two words on the left are in a squiggly weird alphabet and the word on the right is in the Roman alphabet? That's right. They stuck Greek roots onto a Latin root and I'm calling it macaroni. It didn't have to be this way. We could have called people ‘homogamous’ and ‘heterogamous’ (to be fair that's a term of art in botany, but who cares?) or ‘similesexual’ and ‘diversisexual’[7].

Why am I mentioning this? Because sticking a Latin plural ending on a distinctly non-Latin word is also macaroni. That's an argument in favor of it. Our language is a big, huge mutt powered by hybrid vigor that breaks into other languages' territory and eats their words and makes their speakers speak it, too. English is an engine precisely for crashing things together to see what happens. Does that mean I'm suggesting people ought to use a Latin plural everyehwere they can possibly stuff one in? Well, no.

I am not, when it comes to language, a prescriptivist. I'm not under any illusion that there's a true correct form or that usage must be justified by appeal to geneology. I do think that people should learn the prestige dialect of the dominant social group in their society. In the United States, that means learning to write formal, standard English and learning to speak in a pronunciation close to General American with a large vocabulary roughly matching that of formal English and learning to avoid syntactic constructions dispreferred in formal English.

One could call this ‘high class English’. Speaking it doesn't prove you're intelligent, it doesn't prove you're trustworthy, and it doesn't prove you know anything. It usually means that you are from a well-off family, went to good primary and secondary schools, and went to a university and assimilated the way people speak in universities. Speaking it can make people believe you are trustworthy, intelligent, and knowledgeable. People are demonstrably discriminated against because of their speech. Thus, children should be taught the prestige dialect for its economic advantages.I do not say that they should learn only that or that we should try to stamp out other dialects. People code-switch all the time. They speak differently in bank board meetings than they do when playing basketball. High class English should be a tool in their linguistic toolbox, nothing more.

I am also not a descriptivist— not in my every day life. It's meaningless to use the term outside of linguistics (in linguistics I am descriptive, because that's the only way you can study linguistics), but people have taken it to mean accepting every use of language as equally desirable. I don't do that.

I am a ‘delectivist’. A delectivist, no you won't find the word in any dictionary, is someone who recognizes that language is as much an artistic and aesthetic object as it is a natural part of the behavior of certain organisms. In other words, since I speak this language and I have to use it and read it, I can have preferences about what I do and don't want in it, which is why I feel perfectly free to use words that aren't in the dictionary, or weren't considered words by anyone until I made them up. It's why I enjoy taking words that end with ‘-a’ and pluralizing them as ‘-ata’. It's why I happily adopt slang an anything else that appeals to me.

I'm happy to have people use whatever plural ending they want for something even if they know full-well it's not a Latin word. About the only time it annoys me is when people think something is a Latin word when it's not[8] or when they know It's Latin but use the wrong plural[9] from ignorance. Other than that, go mad, make up your words and morphology. So long as your listeners get the point, why worry?

That said, my delectivist attitude means I can dislike some things and want them to go away. I can't claim they're incorrect, just ugly. I would like, for example, the ‘because noun’ form to go away, not because it's a degradation of our proper syntactic forms, but because I generally dislike intentional irony and dismissive rudeness and uses like ‘because money’, ‘because reasons’, and ‘because logic’ are grammatically marked for rude, dismissive irony. I'd dislike the sentiments just as much in a more traditional form.

I dislike other things because the sound doesn't appeal to me or because they have some affective resonance I don't care for. I do not care for ‘hot up’. It does not differ from ‘heat up’ except that ‘hot up’ is most often applied to metaphors describing social situations. As best I can tell, it serves no purpose but to suggest that the speaker is a marketing department or political party pretending to be a skateboarder. However, People ought to stop asking about the correct use of neologisms and start treating the whole language as their own personal set of syntactic fingerpaints to do up the world however they wish.

[1] The underlined digraphs represent letters. I wish they wouldn't do that, we have Unicode now. The ‘dh’ is the letter eth, written ‘ð’, and the ‘th’ is the letter thorn, written ‘þ’.

[2] You might know him as Æthelred the Unready. You may have heard something about ‘unready’ meaning stupid. These are both incorrect. His name means ‘Good Counsel’ and Unræd (‘Ill Counseled’) was a pun. He became king around ten years old and did whatever his advisors told him to do. They advised him to levy the Danegeld, a tax intended to finance raising an army to repel the Danes, and say to the Danes “Danes, I will give you this gold if you will go away.” As you can see, this did not work well. Sweyn Forkbeard (a Dane) soon became King of England. Æthelred's advisors were also suspected of having murdered his brother, a much more popular king. However, Æthelred's claim of kingship was widely supported once Sweyn Forkbeard died, and he was restored, which I take as evidence that the animosity was directed at his advisors rather than him. You may have noticed, given Sweyn Forkbeard's name, that many Germanic people went in for epithets. There is also Harold Harefoot (so called because he was quick. Harefoot is also the name of the entire species of arctic foxes.)

[3] An ‘atheling’ was anyone of royal or noble blood who would be hold title by rules of succession but, for whatever reason, did not hold title. It doesn't have the connotation that they rightfully ought to have the title, since an atheling can be someone who was conquered, who was usurped, or who was such a terrible person that he was thrown out and replaced with someone better.

[4] The very first one, William, gave himself an epithet, ‘the Conqueror’. I opine that this was only so people would stop calling him ‘William the Bastard’ which was how he was known before his conquest of England. It's also how he was known after his conquest of England, by the people he conquered, whenever he wasn't in earshot.

[5] Also they stole the Dative case, which is why English doesn't have one. It's currently buried in a vault beneath the Eiffel Tower where it's used in experiments by the Académie française. They've performed similar acts of linguistic larceny, too. Yiddish isn't dying out, it's being stolen. They use it in illegal word-splicing experiments and as raw materials with which to manufacture new French words.

[6] A ‘mutex’ is a term of art in the field of concurrent programming. It is a contraction of ‘mutual exclusion’ and is a resource that only one process can hold at a time. When a process tries to take the resource, if no other process holds it, the resource is marked as held and the process wanders along happily. Yes, processes can be happy. If a process tries to take the resource while it is held, the process goes to sleep. When the process holding a mutex releases it, if there are any processes waiting for it, one is woken up and given the resource. The thing to realize is that ‘the resource’ is simply the state of being held or not. So a mutex is often paired with a structure holding actual data and programs are written to take the mutex before accessing the data and release it after accessing the data. If that sounds error prone to you, it does to a lot of other people, too.

[7] The conceptual division, whether the people one wants to have sex with are of ones own gender or not, has always seemed very strange to me. I like the terms ‘androphilic’ and ‘gynophilic’. They tell what someone likes without conditioning it on their gender identity. Also, since sexual orientation is nothing but a weird fetish focused on people's genders, it makes sense that they should have the same ending as other weird fetishes. Though, ‘-philia’ as the suffix for weird fetishes always annoyed me, since ‘-eroticism’ would have worked a lot better. Then you'd have ‘androerotic’ and ‘gynoerotic’ as ideal words for people who have a weird sexual fetish for males or a weird sexual fetish for females.

[8] ‘Octopus’ is not Latin, it's Greek. If you were to form a Greek plural, it would be ‘octopodes’. ‘Octopi’ is taught in some schools and is wrong, wrong, wrong. The generally accepted plural is ‘octopuses’. This is obviously wrong; If there are two of these creatures they are a ‘decahexipus’. Three would be an ‘icosatesserapus’, and four a ‘triantadyapus’. As you can imagine, I try to avoid speaking of more than one octopus at a time.

[9] The plural of ‘virus’ is not ‘virii’. ‘Virus’ does not have a plural in Latin. If you were to make one up, I'd be inclined to go with ‘virides’ which is completely wrong from a morphological standpoint but sounds cool. Similarly, the plural of ‘penis’ is not ‘penii’. If you want a Latin one, use ‘penes’. I think ‘penes’ is kind of an ugly word, and nobody's going to understand what you're talking about if you use it, and why are you talking about so many penises anyway?

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