Saturday, May 23, 2009

Linguistic pet peeves

Plenty of people have linguistic pet peeves, phonetic or syntactic variants, usually non-standarad, that they cringe upon hearing. I'll admit to my fair share of them: I have a slight adverse reaction when I hear people say "I wish I was..." or "This is him". But I'll tell you what really bugs me: people who insist that their linguistic pet peeves should be enforced upon everyone. When I hear someone say "I wish I was..." I think to myself "I wish I were..." But I don't say anything, and I don't think to myself, "Man, that person is an idiot." Language is what people say, not what's in the Strunk & White. This isn't to say that all prescriptive grammar is hogwash. Some of the prescriptive suggestions really do lead to clearer, better writing. But so much of it is just linguistic peevery. What's wrong with, "I wish I was"? Is it ambiguous? Is there something that the subjunctive adds to the meaning of the sentence? No. It's merely agreement. In fact, the subjunctive is so useless that it shows up in languages very late in their development, and it's often one of the first features to be lost. That's not to say I don't love and use the subjunctive; I just recognize that it's a personal thing, not a linguistic law.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pronunciation of final -e

My wife and I were last night discussing the varying pronunciations of Nietzsche: nitʃi versus nitʃə. As far as I'm aware, the latter is the preferred pronunciation, based on the fact that every philosopher I know pronounces it this way (and they're the ones with most cause to use it), and that Nietzsche was German, in which a final e such as this one should, according to my scant knowledge of German, be pronounced as a schwa. So why do people say nitʃi? That's what I said until I started taking philosophy classes. My hypothesis is that it stems from final -e in the numerous Greek words and names we've borrowed into English. To give some examples from linguistic and English terminology, "apocope", "syncope", "synecdoche", or from Greek mythology, "Persephone", "Ariadne", etc. etc. When people look at a word they don't say "Hmm, what language is that from?" They have vague unconscious knowledge of how they've heard other similar words pronounced, and in this case that results in a translation of the German -e in Nietzsche to the final -e in Greek which is pronounced i. Another reason we should have linguistics classes in school.