Ali G: How many words does you know?
Noam Chomsky: Normally, humans, by maturity, have tens of thousands of them.
Ali G: What is some of 'em?— Youtube.com After forty years of making a living using words in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, Roy Blount Jr. still can’t get over his ABCs. In Alphabet Juice, he celebrates the juju, the sonic and kinetic energies of letters and their combinations. Blount does not prescribe proper English. The franchise he claims is “over the counter” and concentrates more on questions such as these: Did you know that both mammal and matter derive from baby talk? Have you noticed how wince makes you wince? Three and a half centuries ago, Sir Thomas Blount produced Blount’s Glossographia, the first dictionary to explore derivations of English words. This Blount’s Glossographia takes that pursuit to other levels. It rejects the standard linguistic notion that the connection between words and their meanings is “arbitrary.” Even the word arbitrary is shown to be no more arbitrary, at its roots, than go-to guy or crackerjack. From sources as venerable as the OED (in which Blount finds an inconsistency, at whisk) and as fresh as Urbandictionary.com (to which Blount has contributed the number-one definition of “alligator arm”), and especially from the author’s own wide-ranging experience, Alphabet Juice derives an organic take on language that is unlike, and more fun than, any other.
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Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee, to trying to understand the South. He is a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! and is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount now lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
According to scholars of linguistics, the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. In proof, they point to pigs. Steven Pinker, in Words and Rules, observes that pigs go oink oink in English, nøff nøff in Norwegian, and in Russian chrjo chrjo. That may look arbitrary. As if it went something like this:English committee member #1 What’ll we put down for pig noise? Member #2 (whose motives are unclear) Let’s name it for my uncle Oink. Member #3 No, we need to capture more of that grunh, grunh . . . (Weary groan arises.) Member #4 In Russia . . . (He or she is shouted down.) Committee chairman People. We have to move on. Have you ever tried to spell any of the various sounds that pigs make? It isn’t easy. It’s damn well worth trying, but eventually you have to settle on something close. (Chickens being more articulate, you’ll find their noises to be pretty similar the world round. Baby chicks go peep peep in English, pío pío in Spanish, piyo piyo in Japanese.) And I’m not sure Pinker is playing fair with that chrjo. It’s not Russian letters. How am I supposed to know how Russian people or pigs pronounce it? Fortunately, by Googling "Russian pigs go," I have obtained the input of an online chatperson (at ask.metafilter.com) named "MrAnonymous," who sounds like he knows what he is talking about: In Russian, pigs go hroo, hroo. Note that these are rolled r’s and the h is more of a hk sound, like when you try to build a loogie. (Don’t try and pronounce the K, just flem up the H.) That, although it should be "try to pronounce" and phlegm, is not bad. Over the years and around the world, generation building upon generation, people have put much mimetic effort into the spelling of pig utterance. For that matter, grunt works for me, and I resent any insinuation that I have been programmed by random convention. Dictionaries in their grudging way call grunt "probably imitative." The word is a distinct refinement, or counterrefinement, of the Old English grunettan, and although the parallel Greek gry, in comparison, looks less than fully swinish, you can see the resemblance. The French for "to grunt" is grogner. You know what the French for the growl of a car is? Vroum! That car is running on alphabet juice. So, less obviously, are spice and tang and strength (do you think that word fits its meaning no better than would, say, delicacy?) and, excuse me, sphincter, which shares a root, incidentally, with the Sphinx. Marshall McLuhan, whom we celebrate for coming up with such memes as "the global village" and "the medium is the message," played fast and loose with the roots of words, according to his biographer, Philip Marchand: he "pored over etymologies in the OED as if they were mystic runes," and irritated colleagues at Cambridge by making up fanciful derivations to support his theories. I prefer a firmer grip on etymology—"the wheel-ruts of modern English," as etymonline.com puts it. So I am not going to think of the mysterious statue and say sph- is soft (face of a woman, and we may think of sphagnum moss), the middle part is retentive-sounding, and the x is for unknown. I am going to consult several reliable lexicographical sources, and report to you that the original Sphinx, the monster whose riddle Oedipus solved, was named by the Greeks from their verb sphingein, to squeeze, because she strangled her victims. Pronouncing sphincter, or squeeze, constricts the throat. Oddly enough, McLuhan did his Ph.D. dissertation on Thomas Nashe, who described a comely maid as "fat and plum every part of her as a plover, a skin as slick and soft as the back of a swan, it doth me good when I remember her. Like a birde she tript on the ground, and bare out her belly as majestical as an Estrich." (In one or two places I have slightly modernized Nashe’s Elizabethan spelling, but I wouldn’t touch Estrich. Another old version of ostrich was Austridge. The roots go back, via the Latin avis struthio, to the Greek strouthokamelos, camel-sparrow.) I say "oddly enough" because McLuhan, according to Marchand, "was never interested in the ‘music of words.’" In Understanding Media, McLuhan maintained that the phonetic alphabet—"in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds"—had alienated people from the body. The ink had hardly dried on that notion when the Free Speech Movement broke out at Berkeley, and pretty soon people were running naked and letting their hair grow wild. Maybe many of them were trying to break away from the alphabet, but I wasn’t. To me, letters have always been a robust medium of sublimation. I don’t remember what I was like before I learned my ABC’s, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We’re in the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you’re like me, you feel like a pig in mud. What a great word mud is. And muddle, and muffle, and mumble . . . You know the expression "Mum’s the word." The word mum is a representation of lips pressed together. Since it’s not merely a sound, mmmm, but a word, to say it we have to move our lips. For the separator we choose that utterly unintellectual (though it’s what we say when trying to think) vowel sound uh, which thrusts at the heart of push and shove and grunt and love. The great majority of languages start the word for "mother" with an m sound. The word mammal comes from the mammary gland. Which comes from baby talk: mama. To sound like a grownup, we refine mama into mother; the Romans made it mater, from which: matter. And matrix. Our word for the kind of animal we are, and our word for the stuff that everything is made of, and our word for a big cult movie all derive from baby talk. What are we saying when we say mmmm? We are saying yummy. In the pronunciation of which we move our lips the way nursing babies move theirs. The fact that we can spell something that fundamental, and connect it however tenuously to mellifluous and manna and milk and me (see M), strikes me as marvelous. You know the expression "a magic spell"— Here the scholar cries, Aha! (See H.) And the scholar has a point. I’m not here to play tricks (see abracadabra), but to find traction. I am saying arbitrary, schmabitrary. Linguisticians will concede me onomatopoeia: snap, crackle, pop, and so on. But they marginalize these words by throwing up the inconstancy of pig sounds, and then they get on with their theories. Steven Pinker does allow that some people might channel their magical thinking into "sound symbolism (words such as sneer, cantankerous, and mellifluous that naturally call to mind the things they mean)." As it happens, scrutiny of the term symbolic in that sense has led me to find a discrepancy in the greatest lexicographical work in English, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I won’t dwell on that (see wh-). I will say that theorizing stands and falls on its examples. Here is Pinker: Sound symbolism, for its part, was no friend of the American woman in the throes of labor who overheard what struck her as the most beautiful word in the English language and named her newborn daughter Meconium, the medical word for fetal excrement. This has the ring of an urban legend, a tendentious one, like Ronald Reagan’s mink-coated woman stepping from a limousine to claim her welfare check. If there was a woman who gave her baby girl such a name, she had a highly idiosyncratic ear. (Of the thousand most common female names according to the 1990 census, Miriam was the only one ending in m, and it was 285th.) Salmonella, maybe, or Campho-Phenique, but Meconium? No. This mother—I will stop short of saying that linguisticians conjured her up, consciously or unconsciously, to reinforce their denial of so much evidence of the senses, but I will say that this mother is not, in this respect, a good example. The Japanese, I am told, have two different words for two different kinds of imitative language: giseigo, mimic-voice-language, for instance potsu-potsu, rainfall of medium force; and gitiago, mimic-condition-language, for instance pittari, to fit exactly. Neither of those examples may seem intuitive to English speakers, but every language has its deep aesthetic network of sonic correspondences. The very consistency of English is inconsistent—don’t expect remember to be the opposite of dismember, or pitch, because its vowel sound is like the first one in sphincter, to betoken a withered peach. But all language, at some level, is body language. (Or anyway, all English is body English. See the quote from Allen Tate at spin.) Who wants a tongue to be cut-and-dried? It beats me why any writer would want to minimize the connection between high-fiber words (squelch, for instance, or wobble or sniffle [see -le], or the flinch and wince family, or the -udge’s, or prestidigitation) and the bodily maneuvers from which they emanate and those they evoke. But I don’t claim to be a scientist. Science naturally abhors what it can’t universalize. For many years, the dominant theory in the science of linguistics has been Noam Chomsky’s, that all human language is made possible by a universal, recursive (that is to say, allowing of insertions such as this one)...
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