Luke’s Languages: The simplicity or complexity of things


Hi, everyone! I hope you’re officially back in the groove by now. (I know I ain’t.)

This week’s topic is kind of a humble one: how words get naturalized. That is, how they go from being complex bundles of morphemes to being normal-sounding—how it gets so that we see them as, well, words.

One thing to note is that complexity or length isn’t a great predictor of naturalness.  This morning my friend Paul texted me in awe of how “immediate” came to mean what it does. Can you guess it? Here’s how: med is the Latin root meaning “middle”, im- is a variant of in- meaning “not”, and -ate is an adjectival ending. This gives something like “with nothing in between”. Pretty cool, huh? You’ve seen something like this when I’ve gone through the etymologies of various words.

But here I want to draw attention to the opposite. Language enthusiasts often quote an etymology and smugly remark, “So that’s what the word really means.” When we hear that, we’re a little impressed, but we also feel a bit cheated that a word we’ve used all our lives means something other than we thought it did. “What are you talking about?” the average speaker might say. “It just means ‘immediate’!”

The truth is, a word’s history is not what it really means. “Etymologies are not definitions,” writes Douglas Harper, the curator of “They’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.”

What they meant. Every native English speaker knows what “immediate” means, and unless they’re explaining it to someone who doesn’t know it, they won’t use the phrase “with nothing coming between”—and even if they do, they’ll have no clue that the word’s parts come together to mean exactly that.

How does it happen that what was once a complex coinage became a perfectly normal word everyone knows, regardless of, say, their education? And I’d argue that “immediately”, which is even more complex in terms of its parts, feels even more familiar, more “natural”, than “immediate”.

On the other hand, in the Italian movie Il Postino, a rural Italian postman meets the poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda uses the word metaphore, and the postman doesn’t know it. Neruda explains what a metaphor is, and the postman exclaims: “Oh, it’s simple! So why has it got such a complicated name?”

What strikes me (and feels realistic) in this scene is that metaphore is not a complicated word. Its parts are straightforward, if you know them, and Italian has many words that have more syllables and are harder to spell. The fact is, it’s just unfamiliar. Similarly, you’ll often read a book or see a movie where someone has an accent that people think of as not being “eloquent”. Say, someone from out west, who says things like “Ain’t never seen nothin’ so durn stupid”—picture the cowboy from The Big Lebowski if you want. Suddenly they’ll bust out a word like “parlance”, as in “Well, in the parlance of our time…” I don’t know about you, but that feels to my intuition like an upscale, even complex word. But it’s not; it’s just unfamiliar. And there are dialects in which it’s more common, and to those speakers it feels natural. This can happen to some pretty surprising words.

Or even whole phrases. There are endless examples where, through common use, a complex string becomes a simple one. And it happens in all languages. Here are a couple of examples from French:

One, chose (“thing”) is a feminine noun. But quelque chose (“something”) is masculine. This tells me that as the combination became a more and more common in French, it went from being composed of two distinct parts to only one in Francophones’ minds—the chose part was no longer recognized. It went from complex to simple.

Two, Latin had a word for “today”: hodie. But in French you say aujourd’hui; only the hui comes from hodie. And if you broke it down, the whole word would mean “on the day of today”. At some point in the long transition from Latin to French, hodie ceased to mean “today” (maybe it subtly shifted to “now”) and needed to be propped up with the whole phrase.

How can this be? you wonder. How can a language require you to say “on the day of today” whenever you just want to say “today”? The answer is, it doesn’t. To French speakers, aujourd’hui just means “today”. It became naturalized.

There are many more examples (including some great ones I’m reluctantly passing by in the interest of space). The basic point to remember, if you’re interested in language, is not to confuse complexity with unfamiliarity. Examine your own speech and that of your peers. Try and figure out what’s really eloquent—not just exotic.

Like the time I had to go to an examination for discovery (as part of a lawsuit concerning an accident I was injured in). The other person’s lawyer grilled me on a lot of topics about the accident. I often had to answer “Not to my recollection”, which I thought was nice and professional-sounding.

We took a lunch break, and he suddenly became friendlier. He even  said I was “eloquent”.

“Oh,” I said, “like how I keep saying ‘Not to my recollection’?”

“Well, no,” he replied. “Actually, I hear that one a lot.”

It took me a while to realize that the reason “Not to my recollection” sounded fancy and eloquent to me was because I rarely use it; it only seems complex. It’s also a fixed phrase, rather than a typical modern English construction.

So what was it after all? What pattern of speech did I use that this lawyer considered eloquent? I’ve never quite figured out I said that was so special. With the natural intuitions we all have about what sounds fancy and what sounds natural, I’ll probably never figure it out.

Maybe I should just be content with the answer Neruda gave to the postman: “Man has no business with the simplicity or complexity of things.”

  • Tom Konyndyk

    Would you care to come to my bookstore and briefly explain the point you’re making here to certain agenda-laden customers who mistake how (in general) a given word’s etymology relates to its meaning and current usage?

    • Luke

      Yes I would. :p I’ll drop by before long. I’ve been trying to catch up on the books I bought at White Rabbit.