Language is Disorderly, Alive and Full of Zombies

The next 3 lectures, starting with this lecture 13, are supposedly to give a better sense of the Prescriptive and Descriptive differences of English. I imagine it is the descriptive that will gain much of the focus.

McWhorter introduces an interesting term:


He uses the term to refer to an object or a feature that outlives its original function. In old Greek pottery, female figures had two bumps on them to represent the female chest. The female design eventually went away, but the bumps remained as a kind of tradition. Such is often language, because languages outlive its composers.

In English, examples of skeuomorphies are phrases like hem & haw, vim & vigor; words like cranberry, huckleberry; nicknames like Nellie, Ned; and grammar like lie/lay, rise/risen, sit/set, fall/fell, drink/drench. The five grammar examples here used to be a type of rule (descriptive rule, that is) of a verb that you do to someone. For example, drench used to mean to make someone drink – I drench my thirsty child. The only one of these grammars that still exists in its original form is rise/risen.

The point is that English, as the snapshot we see it today, or on any day, is an end stage in a long line of steps and processes. Seeing a language, or any complex system as a snapshot has benefits but it is not an ultimate endpoint. Language is in constant change. Language is full of fossils.

An example of one of these fossils is the suffix th, from such words as warmth, health, and wealth. This is a dead suffix because it doesn’t get added to anything new. An example of a near-dead suffix is some, from such words as lonesome, worrisome, and irksome. It still gets used, but not much.

In looking at snapshots, we try to order something that is also disorderly, alive, and full of zombies.


Link to the first post in this series is here.


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