Lexicon Valley - Podcast
I’m listening to a podcast in the background again as I carry on with my day job. Today I have mostly been listening to Lexicon Valley, and I chose this one because my work - both day job and writing sci-fi novels – is bound up with language. As a writer especially (or should that be specially?), I figure it makes sense to learn as much as possible about language. One of the hardest parts of self-publishing for me is the fact that, to keep the costs down, you have to do everything yourself. You have to do the cover illustration, add the graphic design to the cover, promote the book, oh and actually write the story within that cover, which involves a lot of things such as plotting, world building, and my personal least favorite, you have to do your own proofreading. The more I learn about the English, the easier and more instinctive that proofreading process becomes, at least theoretically.
According to Stitcher:
Lexicon Valley is a podcast about language, from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages. Hosted by linguist John McWhorter.
McWhorter is chatty, and his blog is wide-ranging, personal, and fun. I listened to his post about the pronouning of profanity, and I was pleasantly surprised by how often he can shoehorn a clip from a movie, a musical, or some other interesting example of language into the discussion. He plays Lil Wayne to illustrate how vowels near each other disappear, such as “doncha” for don’t you and “belee dat” for believe that.
In another episode that caught my eye McWhorter talks entertainingly about the problems with English spelling. He talks about vowel shifts and shows how this is happening now. He plays clips of young Americans saying head but pronouncing it had, for example. Which is entertaining, but not the full explanation of why English spelling is such a mess: there is more to it than the vowel shift.
There are also Latin insertions. For example, the world Island was originally spelled without an S. Somebody saw that, thought it came from French, and jammed the letter S into it. The same goes for the word doubt, which had the B jammed in. There is also the spelling of words like some, work, and come. What is the O doing in there? Apparently in the old days, in one particular writing system, it was hard to tell the difference between a U and two Is, so they wrote an O instead of a U.
This is all fun, and I already knew some of it, but he doesn’t stop there. He is unafraid to mention where the limits of current knowledge are. He doesn’t pretend linguists know everything, or that they are infallible. For example, why isn’t great pronounced as greet? Nobody knows why, is the reason. Why is wound not pronounced like found? Apparently it was at one time. Zounds is a contraction of His Wounds, which makes it clear that the pronunciation has changed. And old poems rhyme wounds with hounds, again making clear the old pronunciation. We can see that how we say the word has changed, but nobody knows why this has happened to this particular word.
Spelling, of course, is an obvious topic for a linguist’s blog, but he talks about other interesting stuff, too. For example he also talks about softeners, which he says are extremely important. An example of a softener is the word, like. An example of a sentence using like as a softener is:
This is, like, the only, like, way to, like, do it.
McWhorter talks about a whole apparatus of softening strategies. For example, I’m going to head out – is softer than I’m going to leave. He also talks about language changing, about surveillance being given a verb, like surveil, and incentive being given the verb incent. Another fun change he talks about is how profanities can be used as pronouns.
I’m going to fire his ass, means I’m going to fire him – so the profanity is a pronoun.
This is all fun but I was drawn to another podcast of his about spelling before my binge was finally over, a particular bee in my bonnet I guess, this time where he is interviewing an expert in etymology. Etymologist and poet Anatoly Liberman is an exponent of solving a problem in English, which is its spelling. He thinks we should do something about all the weird spelling in English, and start to change it to make the system more logical. I would definitely be a fan of a spelling system with some kind of consistency. Apparently this is a more popular cause in the UK than it is in the USA.
Both McWhorter and Liberman agree that it is an absolutely ridiculous system. One thing they debate is whether to keep the K of know, rather than change it to no. Liberman thinks that is too much, but he talks about destroying double letters, so that till and until both end in a single L, which could be done by stealth without too many people noticing, the expert thinks.
The S of island is again mentioned, and they both think it should be gotten rid of because it was put in by etymologists who had mistaken the origins of where the word comes from in the first place. They both see this S an abomination that belongs in the dustbin of history, and I can only agree.
As my binge of this language blog came to an end, the expert says that English is the worst spelling system in the world, that he is aware of. It is also the only European language that has not reformed its spelling system. Even Icelandic has reformed their spelling, and there is no more conservative language than that, apparently.
It’s an entertaining podcast and I think, if I listen to a few episodes, my understanding of English is bound to get a little broader and deeper.
Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy
Galaxy Dog is an epic space opera. What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet, brings to light an ancient archaeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy. This is the story of his rise, and the story of the fierce and independent woman and the feisty robot who help him.