Luke’s Languages: Whom does it bother?


Hello, and welcome to what they tell me will be another rainy week! Let’s all stay indoors and take advantage of the fact that it’s getting to be hot chocolate season again.

Today’s topic is people’s perception of language. I’ve talked about language correctness once this year already, in the context of language change. But there’s so much to say about it. For example, on Saturday, (whom, by the by, you shouldn’t take very seriously) posted a short article on the disappearance of the word “whom”. What I found interesting was the comments.

Here’s a comment by one “Jeff” that brought a smile:

“I think it should be kept. Just because people are getting sloppy with their grammar is no reason to do away with a word. If they want to sabotage themselves by not growing their vocabularies and using slang and computer lingo, then so be it. But the rest of us like our words, and we find beauty in them.”

What’s funny is how widespread the view is among lay linguists that language needs to be pure and preserved, but in reality they just mean their particular language, the way they speak it, needs to be.

What do I mean? Well, the difference between “who” and “whom” is a rare vestige of Old English’s case system (think of it as the difference between “he” and “him”). But I’d bet that Jeff is content without the entire noun system we once had, which distinguished between five cases, three genders (yes, three), and singular versus plural.

That system eventually eroded away because (among many other factors) people pronounced fewer and fewer of some word-final sounds that marked case and gender—a habit which was no doubt condemned as laziness at the time. Yet this erosion is precisely what left Jeff with the English of which he is now so proud. And before that stage, there was an earlier Germanic language whose speakers might be mortified by Chaucer’s pronunciation and (what they would see as) slang. They might even hear Chaucer describing the newly invented clock or spinning wheel and wince at his “technology lingo”.

But is it entirely wrong to fret about changes to language? Is Jeff right that we lose some sort of beauty when we lose particular aspects of a language? For that, we’d need some kind of definition of what makes a language beautiful and judge languages according to that. But what people find beautiful about their languages is, so to speak, in the tongue of the speaker.

Take sound, one of the more popular criteria of beauty. Ask people to name the most beautiful words, and more often than a list of Tolkien’s elven names (like good old “Lothlorien”), you’ll get words with for beautiful things, like “iris”, “liberty”, “melody”, “love”, “mist”, and “thrush”.

My aunt has spent much of her life working in Nepal among the Maithili people. A native speaker was telling her one day about how Maithili was such a beautiful language that it was impossible even to sound angry in it. “The sounds are so lovely,” he told her. “Just listen to the word for ‘lady’: beggum!” He paused to savour the sound of it, and repeated, “Beggum!” To most English speakers, that probably sounds even worse than “Gollum”. But to a Maithili speaker, it’s beautiful.

All languages have beauty, perhaps because they all share a few principles of phonology. Only from some standpoints can one language seem more beautiful than another—and never is the opinion unanimous. That’s not to say there’s no aesthetic quality to language, only that in the long run, we wouldn’t be any worse off without “whom”.

But the association of linguistic habits with non-linguistic traits, like Jeff’s “self-sabotaging”, is nothing new. In my historical linguistics class, we studied regular sound change across languages. As I mentioned in last year’s column, a few language families—for example, Romantic, Germanic, Indic, and Slavic—capture a huge proportion of the languages of the Old World. In the 19th century, Jakob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm discovered that almost wherever you have a voiceless plosive b, d, or g in Indic and Romantic languages, you have  a voiceless plosive p, t, or k, respectively, in the related word in the Germanic languages (and other related changes). He found the latter set harsher, and wrote the following explanation:

“From one point of view the sound shift seems to me to be a barbarous aberration from which other quieter nations refrained, but which has to do with the violent progress and yearning for liberty as found in Germany in the early Middle Ages, and which started the transformation of Europe.”

Read that again. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you linguistics as she was played 150 years ago. Today, the above is not at all considered a good explanation of the sound change, except, perhaps, among the fiercest of language purists. In reality, the switch from voiced to voiceless plosives—a change describable in terms of the vibration of your vocal cords—has nothing to do with barbarousness.

So why do so many people think the loss of “whom” has to do with laziness? Many people of this generation were born into a milieu that doesn’t even have it in their vocabulary, so they can hardly be blamed.

As for their parents, they seem to survive without using “whom”. The fact is, people don’t speak to each other in languages that aren’t complex enough to express what they need to express. In fact, if people have lost the morphological complexity of “who/whom”, it’s a safe bet that they use more complex syntax when they need to avoid potential confusion over it.

So whom does it bother?