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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

New words for old

I never thought that I, of all people, would ask it, but...  has linguistics become just a little esoteric?

Passing this morning the campus of my charitable research foundation, the EDSRF, I was taken by an impulse to call-in and see how the donations were being spent. Mostly the research endeavours underway at the old place had a determinedly commercial ethos. In the Jobs Quantum Computing Laboratory, where I brushed away a tear at the memory of Steve and his generous bequeathal, the team were thrilled to demonstrate the latest chips, and to let me know that IBM had placed a $500m order for the output of the first full production run. Similarly enterprising initiatives were in evidence in the DuPont Material Science Department, the Vladimir Putin Applied Economics wing, and the Donald Trump Institute of Realtorship.

In the Kim Jong-Un Linguistics Directorate I was introduced to Laurent something-or-other, one of the new PhD interns. The subject of his thesis was to be an inter-linguistic comparative analysis of the incidence of reificative modal transpositions arising from phonemic catachresis. Fair enough, you'd say- a logical development of van Thoring's work. Indeed,  there was a time when I would have been first to leap to the whiteboard to sketch visionary lines of approach, to outline an itinerary of round-the-world research visits, to brainstorm a list of high-net-worth individuals who might be counted upon to fund the work, and so on. But this morning I found myself pre-occupied by a more practical concern- what can we do to hasten the evolution of English?

For example, where there has been a commonplace combination of a verb and a noun there has been a tendency for one or the other to be dropped. Driving a car  has become driving. Catching fish has become fishing. Cooking food has become cooking. Sending a text has become texting. I'm sure you can think of countless  (no members of the aristocracy on this blog, please) examples. Yet if I want to tell you that I have been reading a book, I have to use those three words: reading, a, and book, when surely there should be just one verb to represent such a universal activity. Likewise with lighting a fire, watching a television programme, listening to a CD, several words are needed when there should be one  to serve the purpose. Doubtless in a few thousand years such burdensome usage will be considered archaisms, but can we afford to wait? Why not establish a movement now dedicated to the eradication of all forms of inefficiency in English? Why let our brightest liguisticians pursue the most nuanced and recondite abstractions, when they could be applying their energies and talents to improve the lot of a struggling humanity?

I suppose I am partly to blame. Having burned such a brilliant trail in fields such as Ivatan syntax, prosodic structure analysis, contact-induced change, not to overlook my development of the concepts of affix grammars and the Proto-Oceanic lexicon, can I be surprised if others choose to emulate the greatness that has so inspired them?

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