Saturday, June 27, 2009

Unwritable Words

In keeping with the idea of yesterday's post, here is a tidbit that strikes me as humorous.

English speakers have long used a sort of clicking sound that we make by putting the tip of our tongues to the roof of our mouths just behind our front teeth. Then we suck in our breath ever so slightly, making a longer version of a click.

In the singular (one click) it can express exasperation or dissappointment. In the double, it means dissaproval. In this sense (double) we often use it ironically, signalling mock dissaproval.

Well, we use it so often that authors have had to invent a way to spell it. At some point, someone decided that it sounds kind of like a mixture of the letters "t," "s," and "k." I think the "k" should have been a "ch," but nobody asked me.

So, we see sometimes in the conversation in books, that somebody says, "tsk." Or, "tsk, tsk."

Great, so we are finding ways to write unwritable words. If only it stopped there.

But readers try to sound out what they see on paper. And when they see "tsk" some have been rather at a loss as to how to pronounce this word. After all, we are all told that all English words have vowels. So some vowel must be missing.

So readers (rather a lot of them) have invented a vowel to put in the word. And enough of them have independently chosen to insert an "i" that we have now a new word. "Tisk." Or, "tisk, tisk." And then they go and use that word in ordinary speech. "John just won't listen to his mother. Tisk, tisk."

Thus, through trying to spell unspellable words, and then trying to read them back, English has gained a new word that never was.

Our language is really out of our control. That is not bad, it is merely amusing.



John W. May said...

ὀνοματοποιία … love ‘em.

I always loved the word ‘building’ (e.g. the Empire State Building). It almost seems that we should call them ‘builts’, as these structures are in a stage of completion … of course, it’s not as pretty-flowing, and as far as I know, inappropriate syntax. Another one of my favorites are the two phrases: “the house burnt up” and “the house burnt down”- the two of which refer to the same phenomenon. Yet again: when I dive into a pool, and am submerged, am I truly “under water”? Seems I’d be dry as a bone if I were.

These aren’t onomatopœia, but beautiful examples of how weird our language is.

Doug P. Baker said...

Weird language?

How about the words "aught" and "ought." They both mean "anything," and they also both mean "nothing."

"Were't aught to me I bore the canopy" (from a Shakespeare sonnet) Here he uses it to mean "was it nothing to me. . .?"

"What's aught but as 'tis valued?" (from Troilus and Cressida) Here he uses it to mean "What is anything . . .?"

And so the the two words continue to bear their opposite meanings.

Or how about the words "regardless" and "irregardless"? They are opposite in construction, yet they are interchangable and mean exactly the same thing.

Yup, weird language!

Mary Rae said...

It's hard to slow down our language, which, aided now by media, changes at a lightning pace, like it or not. Television and radio--even before the internet--has played a role. I'm old enough to remember cigarette commercials on TV--And I remember Pall Mall as a brand when I was a child--an older brother smoked Pall Malls--but on TV it was pronounced Pell Mell. It only took a few years for the name to be pronounced as written.

Doug P. Baker said...

And do you remember the cigarette ads (such as in Life Magazine) that promised that their cigarettes would soothe a sore throat? I think it might have been some variety of menthol cigarette. Probably Phillip Morris, because I think the bellhop was in the ads.

Can you imagine how quickly IMing is changing our language? idk what's 2 bcome of r kids who gro up in the IM age. Chaucer and Shakespeare are already out of many people's range; will Stephen King be too difficult and old-fashioned for tomorrows teens?

I'm sure a hundred linguists are already studying its effects, because IMing is actually changing syntax, not only grammar and spelling. How much those changes will influence tomorrow's standard English remains to be seen.

Mary Rae said...

I guess it was Phillip Morris. Those ads have stayed with me all these years. And yes, it's hard to think of anyone caring about writing wonderful letters, when IMs are so easy and immediate. I'm out of the loop when it comes to the IM lingo. But I guess many good things happen now with language, too. I just watched Nove and they talked about someone who helped invent Captchas, (the word verification I have to solve to send this comment!) He felt bad that it wasted seconds--which multiplied by millions of people was a significant amount of time. He thought about how all those people could do something useful and came up with Recaptchas--there would be a regular captcha for someone to solve, but also a word the computer couldn't read--taken from old illegible books and newspapers. In this way, users are helping to read and solve those "illegible words and creating digital files of books that might be lost. I loved it!

Doug P. Baker said...

Very interesting! Didn't realize that.