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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Back Formation and our Latin Heritage

"Back Formation" is a grammatical term for describing the linguistic process of shortening and simplification caused by dropping a suffix. Burgle evolved subsequent to burglar and statistic formed after the field of study, statistics. A 'pea' is a shortened version of an older original, in this case 'pease' which was not plural, and meant 'a pea', but now means many 'peas'.

I remember a friend, a salesman who made comic attempts to repair damage caused by back formation. One of his favorite expressions was "It's not rocket scientry", in lieu of "It's not rocket science".

He also took liberties with the middle of words - "That's mathically unproven," instead of, "mathematically unproven." The word science dates from the 1300's and scientific, from 1589. Scientry is not a word at all but I wish it was. I love it.

My boeuf about Latin cognates is this: 

The Romans, via the French and Norman invaders of England, brought a Latin lexicon to English. Latinate roots, sprang from a military regularity of conjugation and syntax, and offered an ability to conjugate all variety of meanings.

Latin was designed like an all purpose tool-kit, an engineer's language, broadly covering such concepts as inside and outside (introvert and extrovert), or before and after (predict and postprandial). It's precise, superb at description.

It's a bridge builder's language developed as a kind of verbal math. The regulation of distant territories, the supply of far-flung armies and the construction of aqueducts and coliseums across the civilized world arose because of the precision of Latin as a language for dispensing military orders.

English inherits two major systems of expression. Latin, which excels at matters of business and government, for example liberty, and the older Anglo-Saxon cognates for poetic expression, for example freedom. These pairs are throughout English, inebriated vs. drunk, tolerate vs. stand.

Notice how in the last example tolerate is quite specific, whereas stand has a huge variety of meanings. The Germanic and Anglo-Saxon roots give English it's power.

"Hasten to the point would you!" I can hear my friends now. What do Latin cognates have to do with back formation?

Latin derived words are are built up of parts, often three or more. But language naturally does not tolerate pointless complexity. Some of those parts need to be dropped, over time. Back formation is the natural process by which English speakers often omit the front, middle or back portions of their words. One could say Latin syntax is ritualistic, a bit like Sanskrit, logical, and repetitive. In a ritual things are added or subtraced at the back, front, or middle. They subtract the same way.


Onto Celtic and Saxon roots of English poured a new vocabulary, in full force with William the Conqueror. At that magic moment, England inherited the power of Latin, as a language of Empire, through a Gallic filter. The new words conquered, literally:

     con·quer  (kngkr)
     v. con·quered, con·quer·ing, con·quers
     1. To defeat or subdue by force, especially by force of arms.
     2. To gain or secure control of by or as if by force of arms: scientists battling to conquer disease; 
     a singer who conquered the operatic world.
     3. To overcome or surmount by physical, mental, or moral force: I finally conquered my fear of heights. 
     [Middle English conqueren, from Old French conquerre, from Vulgar Latin *conquaerere,
     from Latin conqurere, to procure : com-, intensive pref.; see com- + quaerere, to seek.]

We may have lost the expressive power of Old English, but gained the power to dominate, to control, and to organize.

France and England reacted differently to injections of foreign linguistic power. The French standardized - beginning in the seventeenth century the Académie Française unified, codified, and deciding what was French and what was not. French has gone the way of Latin, dying from too much regularity, and planning.

Perhaps because of the organization imposed by William, the English subconscious became hungry for expressive power that got lost.

British upper classes held onto their irregular verbs, and used them as badges of birthright, and prestige. Language evolved a caste-system unto itself. Scotsmen returned from the Indian colonies, uttering new words like 'curry', 'thug' and 'pyjama'. The empire dispatched them back to their crass speaking realms with a curled upper lip. A similar division divided Cockney London from West End. The Scottish wag morphed into the badge of a servant engineer.

I'm for the power and innuendo of the street. Bring on the life of the word! Put me on the ground where a new lingo is evolving.

And so England's class strata, defined itself with the difficulty of spoken English, and injections of new vocabulary into a new street vernacular. Ports of entry for vocabulary were through the lower classes. New expressions flooded English Central from India, the Americas, Australia, and were shared on the streets of every foreign colony. England's upper crust assumed a select few of these expressions, but to this day reject many commonly accepted figures of speech.

In theory, a new word is English if a) it is pronounceable, and b) it has been used a number of times in English speech. If it bears the stamp of Latin logic, or has been formed by an organic linguistic process, it has an upper hand.  Isn't it true that any new English word has the upper hand?

Meanwhile French is slowly dying as a language, at least in France. The Académie Française is fighting back, by trimming the dictionary!

For centuries the Academy approved or rejected vernacular changes to French. Writers beginning with the Encyclopedists, defined what is French. As a result, spoken French retains little of the imported richness from French colonies in Africa and the Americas. The classic French dictionary, dies of malnutrition.

True, the brevity of French made it a wonderful vehicle for philosophers, thinkers, and existential poetry. But the starved vocabulary does quadruple or quintuple duty due to an overall paucity of word count, and thus excels at expressing abstract concepts. Slang combining existing 'legal' French words grows like weeds. The average French word has more dictionary meanings by far, than the average word English, but less words by far.

So, whether my friend was aware of his role in this process of converting common argot into new expressions, 'rocket scientry', since 1990, is emerging as an alternative way of saying 'rocket science', though he may have been joking, or pleading the scientrist's amendment.

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