Anthimeria weirds languages

Anthimeria weirds languages

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A little non-technical rant for a Friday.

Professor Thingo, in a recent blog entry, decries the use of "Gestalt" as a verb and asks "Does the English language now allow parts of speech to be used entirely interchangeably? Did I miss a memo?"

Though I also would personally balk at verbing "Gestalt" and "architecture" (but not "architect", a perfectly good verb!) I feel compelled to answer the rhetorical question -- yes, by and large English does allow parts of speech to be used interchangeably. In fact, the very notion of "part of speech" arose from the study of Latin grammar, a language with precious little in common with English. The whole notion of "parts of speech" maps poorly to English, a language which cheerfully uses "green" as an adjective, verb, adverb, noun and interjection.

Latin, unlike English, is a highly inflected language. In inflected languages there are roots.  You then do things to them that make them into nouns, verbs, plurals, diminutives, whatever you want. The part of speech can usually be determined by the inflection. Some Latin verbs have over a hundred inflections.

English, by way of contrast, never has more than five verb inflections for a given verb (except the perennial exception, "to be"). Drive-drives-driving-driven-drove, throw a couple nouns for good measure (driver-drivers) and we’re done. Every other form of "drive" is formed by adding more words into the mix.  You can figure out whether a noun or a verb is meant from cues such as phrasal verb particles ("back" is ambiguous, "back away" is probably a verb), auxiliary verbs ("turn" is ambiguous, "will turn" is not) and other contextual cues.

A huge number of English words are nouns that became verbs without benefit of any kind of inflection or derivation. That's just what English does, and what it's done for centuries, and yet prescriptivists continue to decry it. (Of course, they’ve also done so for decades, so it’s a bit silly for me to decry prescriptivism!)

I found this page of bad advice to be particularly hilarious. This line in particular:

If you look at a dictionary entry carefully, you'll often see that the word you're looking at was used exclusively as a noun up until 1983 or something like that.

Unlike those guys, I actually did look at a dictionary carefully and discovered that in fact many of the verbings they were decrying had been used as verbs in English for centuries. Two in particular stood out. "Impact", which is actually a verb that became a noun in the late 18th century. (Though, to be fair, the 17th-century meaning of "impact" as a verb was more along the sense of "impacted molar" than the physics sense of things colliding – that usage didn’t arise until the 20th century.) More ridiculous though is "parent", which they decry as "idiotically new-age" but has been used as a verb in English since at least the mid 1600’s. (Again, to be fair, the intransitive usage is modern, but the transitive verb sense is very, very old.)

The earliest known recorded usage of each as a noun and verb is telling. 

contact: v: 1834  n: 1626
impact:  v: 1601  n: 1781
focus:   v: 1875  n: 1656
parent:  v: 1663  n: 1450
medal:   v: 1822  n: 1578

"Parent" has been a verb almost as long as "impact" has even been a recorded English word! And anyone who tells you that you shouldn’t use "medal" as a verb because it’s only been used in that sense since 1822 should also be decrying the use of "mail" as a verb (in the postal sense).  "Mail" as a verb dates from as recently as 1827.  And not to mention "access", which only dates from 1962 as a verb!

Furthermore, when English introduces new words it frequently takes on both noun and verb forms. Is "Spackle" (a trademark, incidentally) a noun or verb? What about "blog"?

Look at the over two dozen words I’ve used just in this short essay that are clearly both verbs and nouns – part, miss, map, green, root, contrast, throw, figure, answer, cue, back, down, turn, will, line, record, sense, mention, date, take, look, tell, form, use, essay … Using nouns as verbs is just what English does, and I think it’s great. Go verb!

  • One of my favourites!

    Incidentally, "design" is another good word that is both a verb and a noun. Both forms date back to Shakespeare.

    "Edify" as in the verb meaning "to build an edifice" is EXTREMELY old. It is very rare in modern use. The more common modern usage is the sense of building up moral character. Both uses were first recorded in English in the same document in 1340.

    I'd be happy to revive this sense of the verb.
  • Thanks, Eric! A little lesson in linguistic sensability is helpful every once in a while. People can get tired of me harping over these myths and misconceptions, so it's nice to hear it from someone else...

    ~ewall
  • The people that are crying about the shortcommings in natural languages like german or english should just relax a bit, natural languages are never as clean and tidy as artificial like esperanto are, natural languages grow over a long time, which can make anything quite inconsistant, but hey, is the 80x86 instruction set any better? ...
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  • The use which irritates me is "woman" as an adjective: "She's the first woman politician to do XYZ."

    What's wrong with "female"? After all, if you have a nurse who is a man, you call him a "male nurse" rather than a "man nurse".

    One of the worst offenders for this is the BBC, which should know better.

  • Which is  correct, or may be I should say better:

    I googled  or I Googled?

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