Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Verbing in American English

If there's one thing we love to do in English, it's verbing. In case my usage isn't wholly transparent, I mean creating verbs out of nouns simply by reclassifying them, as opposed to applying any derivational morphology. The title of this post refers to American English because that's my dialect, but I expect it's widespread in the English language, and for all I know many others. Recent examples that come to mind specifically have to do with web sites: to google something, to mapquest something, to youtube something. We love to simply take a noun (especially a proper noun) and just use it as a verb with no special morphology. Case in point: just now one of the how to's of the day on my iGoogle page was "How to network." In fact, it's a little difficult to think of network not being a verb, but it resulted from the noun. Thus the verb is "to make something a network." The OED records the first instance of network as a noun in 1530, with the computer usage coming about in 1962. The verb network, on the other hand, first appeared in 1845, with the computer usage coming about in 1982. In both cases the noun appeared, followed later by the verb, even though in the case of the computer usage, the use of network as a verb was already well-attested.

The example that prompted this post was my use of JSTOR (an online repository of scholarly articles) a few weeks ago. I was searching for something which returned no results, and as a helpful tip JSTOR told me that I may have gotten no results because my search "may have been ANDed instead of ORed." Here we have even lowly conjunctions being used as verbs; JSTOR was telling me that the AND operator was probably used instead of the OR operator, resulting in far fewer hits.

The ease with which we do this sort of thing raises the question of how different nouns and verbs really are at the underlying level in the lexicon. There are plenty of papers on the noun/verb debate in Salishan and Wakashan languages of the American Northwest, in which many words can be used as either noun or verb merely by applying noun morphology or verb morphology (NB: I do not mean adding derivational morphology to derive a noun or a verb, I mean simply adding tense/aspect/mood inflection or person/number inflection). Of course, in English we don't even deal with morphology. The difference is indicated entirely in the syntax and semantics.

1 comment:

Largo said...

Verbing weirds the language.

(Calvin and Hobbes)