Friday, 9 August 2013

Grow a tail, lazybones!

This piece is in response to this piece by Tom Chivers, where he says something about how the Brothers Grimm were linguists. Whilst it’s not brilliant, it is vaguely non-terrible and explains something about the word ‘gonna’ in a very similar way to how I’ve heard general speaker of sense and blogger Michael Bench-Capon explain it.

Nevertheless, I’m picking a bone with it on one main point, which I’ll get to later. Firstly, I’m pointing out the ridiculousness of most – or let’s say several so I don’t have to count them – of the comments. The gist of several comments is ‘I understand what you’re saying about how languages develop naturally but I still can’t stand it when people say X’ or when they ‘misuse X’ or ‘say X when they mean Y’.

This is a clear example of what I call humans being tragically ridiculous: They want to understand the clear and logical explanation and, on a rational level, they probably do. Yet they cannot use this understanding to overcome their silly viewpoints which are fuelled by far more powerful things than reason, such as prejudice, arrogance, snobbishness, being stuck in a rut, flogging a dead horse and downright muppetry. All of these things are perfectly human and to be expected, but they still amuse me when they are put on such evident display by people who think they’re being sensible.

Anyway, now to my main bone. The author of the article, I forget his name, uses the word ‘laziness’ to describe developments in pronunciation such as unvoiced consonants replacing voiced ones or fricatives replacing plosives. He explains how someone called Guy Deutscher claims this, which may be true. Anyway, I don’t like this usage, because I think it suggests an attitude not too far removed from that of the ridiculous commentators.

The word ‘laziness’, as it is normally used, describes a conscious decision not to do something. For example, a lazy man says things like ‘I can’t be arsed’ when asked to do the dishes or tidy up a room. Pronouncing a particular consonant as a fricative instead of a plosive isn’t a conscious decision caused by laziness. It is hard to imagine a teenager saying ‘fish’ and, being asked by his parents to say ‘pisces’, responding ‘I can’t be arsed’. He might well not be able to be arsed, but it’s more because his parents are being idiotic than because of the added effort involved in producing the ‘p’ sound.

For me, what Deutscher and Chivers (I had to look at the blog again so I’ve seen his name again) call ‘laziness’, causing these developments in pronunciation and, if you will, the language as a whole, is better described as efficiency. The human body is reacting to a situation where it can get away with doing something which expends less energy without causing itself any noticeable detriment. Much like where human bodies have long since evolved to stop growing tails because they’re a waste of space now that we don’t have to swing through branches very often.

Being a ridiculous human though myself, I think and agree with everything I’ve just written, but I still yell ‘grow a tail, lazybones’ whenever I see a Manx cat.

Note: This article was written at 1.40 in the morning in a slightly tired state, so apologies for the poor jokes, weak structure and/or typographical errors.

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