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English has no scruples

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James Harbeck, who writes the excellent Sesquiotica blog, has an article at The Week, "The strange Scandinavian pronunciation of common English words." The title is a joke, because the common English words mentioned are all of Scandinavian origin. We say sauna very differently than the Finns do.

A reader named Julia posted an irate comment:

What a strange, Anglo-centric article! You're talking about words that English BORROWED from those other languages you mention and then call the ORIGINAL pronounciation 'weird'. Wow. For an editor 'trained in linguistics' your standards are pretty low (I'm trained in linguistics too by the way.)

Julia, I think, has got the wrong end of the stick. Words naturalized into English become English words, whatever their country of origin. We took knife from Norse and made it our own, making the k silent. English is full of words originally French that no longer sound like anything you would hear in Paris. Think lingerie.

Sauna is a Finnish word, and the Finns get to say it however they like. But it is also now an English word, and we have the same prerogative. This is how languages work, without much respect for the integrity of one another.

Julia's comment echoes a kind of humorless fundamentalism that one customarily encounters among the peeververein. The AEIdeas post in which readers challenged my advice on zombie rules has a ripe example from a reader, CanSpeccy, who insists that decimate must be limited to reduce by a tenth":

So yes, decimate, does mean to execute one in ten. A good word that should not be decimated in meaning by ignorant people, who, having misused the word all their lives, try to insist on the correctness of their misuse on the basis of common usage. In fact, those who so misuse words that have specific and useful meanings should be decimated.

And, incidentally, correct use of “decimate” has been made on numerous occasions since Caesar decimated a Roman legion.

In 1649 Oliver Cromwell decimated the garrison in the town of Drogheda, the remaining 90% of the men being shipped to the plantations in the Caribbean.

In 1795 General Jean-Baptiste Carrier decimated the population of the Vendee after a Royalist uprising.

And on February 7, 1940, so the JTA reports, the Nazi’s decimated the inhabitants of a town near Warsaw:

“Polish official circles reported today that German troops on Dec. 26 executed every tenth inhabitant of the predominantly-Jewish town of Varka near Warsaw in reprisal for the shooting of a German policeman by a criminal escaping from a police raid. ”

And in 1655, Cromwell imposed the so-called decimation tax on the Royalists: a 10% tax to support the militia.

There you have the etymological fallacy at its finest. Because CanSpeccy can cite a handful of examples of the limited use of the word, the loose or rhetorical sense of "to subject to severe loss," for which the OED has examples dating back to 1663, must be ignorant and anyone who uses it should get fifty of the best.

The giveaway is CanSpeccy's sneer at "misuse on the basis of common usage." Common usage is what determines language, which is an arbitrary set of sounds or letters that means only what the users agree they mean. That is why in English we can use decimate in a way that Caesar did not use decimare,* why we can appropriate words from Scandinavian languages and alter their pronunciation to suit ourselves. Common usage is why we no longer speak Anglo-Saxon or Norman French.

I've used various metaphors to point to what should be an obvious reality: English is a magpie language that picks up shiny things where it sees them; English is a slut of a language that has picked up traces from every other language that has ever spent the night. You can make up your own.

The point is, we stole these words fair and square. They're ours now, and we're not giving them back.

 

*Not a Latinist myself. Are we sure, really sure, that no classical writer of Latin ever used decimare in a loose or rhetorical sense? The floor is open for discussion.

 


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