Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On Language Change and Oatmeal Cookies and the Oddities of My Brain

There are certain jokes which don't rely on a punchline so much as on the feel of language -- wordplay that doesn't strike us as funny because of clever double meanings but because it just... has a certain feel, for lack of a better word. "Jokes" might be the wrong word, too. Nothing so formal as that. Like treating plurals as singulars, at least when they are plurals not formed with a simple -s. Like Tad Williams' facebook status update the other day, on how children are crazy, and "thank goodness I was never a children."

Or the phrase under consideration today, the frequent comment that so-and-so "is good people." This sort of informal not-exactly-a-joke may be overused, but unlike a true joke it doesn't seem to decay with use. It's sort of insinuated its way into our language, far as I can tell. In doing so it doesn't mean the same thing as saying so-and-so is "a good person." It has hardly any connotation of morality; the connotation is all of wholesomeness and appealingness. Or just appeal, if you prefer to keep your nouns simple instead of adding a nounizing morpheme to their adjectival forms. But that sounded too much like the verb for my purposes here. Anyway. So you see, "good people" even acts very much like a one-word adjective, despite being formed out of what's ostensibly one adjective and one noun.

This is why it makes perfect, perfect sense that the other day after making oatmeal cookies I often found myself thinking, as I ate them, "Oatmeal cookies are good people."

This is not an example of true language change however -- I highly doubt the above example will make its way into widespread use. The origin is too transparent at the moment -- one's brain can easily and subconsciously follow the change of meaning between "a good person" and "good people" in the original context of describing one person; using it for inanimate objects jars the brain back to superconsciousness, and most people who aren't fond of analyzing language would find it extremely crazy instead of realizing how much sense it makes.

It does sort of fit into the overarching reason for language change -- to make something either easier to say or to understand. I mean, there's this very specific connotation that has come to be signified by the words "good people." I wanted to apply it to my oatmeal cookies. That was the easiest way to express the intended connotation. But alas, for the reasons given in the above paragraph, I cannot. I must bow to the oft-said (in my linguistics classes), "speakers of languages are lazy." It's true in making me want to say "oatmeal cookies are good people," and it's true in preventing me, for I can hardly expect sufficient English speakers to become language analysts and agree with me that the above statement makes sense. It is not easy to understand. A pity. At least they can't prevent a blog post.

Yep. That's my answer and I'm sticking to it. And yes, I was this way before I took linguistics classes. I just didn't have as many resources at my disposal. It's harder when you have to build your resources from scratch.


Tim Motte said...

If the reason for language change is to make things easier, then wouldn't all languages be gradually progressing towards one streamlined Esperanto-esque conclusion? I don't see that happening. There must be other factors involved in language change.

Marcy said...

No, because it's too hard to keep up with a world-wide language. All those little changes that occur either to make something either easier to say or easier to understand (and don't forget that "easier to say" and "easier to understand" are in constant tension, permanently preventing a static conclusion) happen in community, in a region. New languages come out of new dialects come out of small differences and accents (eventually).

Certain kinds of change, like one called "nasal place assimilation" (makes things easier to say phonetically, it's basically the change of an "m," "n," or "ng" sound to one of the others, based on which consonant it's next to; sometimes it only occurs in rapid or informal speech, sometimes it becomes the standard, as in "impossible" instead of "inpossible") are extremely common the world over, but that doesn't mean that particular change is *always* going to be applied at *all* times in every situation where it potentially could be. Application varies, and what works for one language at one particular point in time may not be helpful at that point for a different language. Not to mention that culture and language are very intertwined, which means that certain other kinds of changes, like the formation of new words, may fill a need for ease in one language that just doesn't exist in another language.

Change will inevitably cause regional differences; that's extremely hard to prevent. People have tried all kinds of things to control language change, and I've yet to hear of one that really works. Well, aside from causing language death anyway, *that's* relatively easy to do.

Rachel said...

Marcy is a good cookie.