The end is the beginning.
I had long been puzzled by how many people don’t get the saying “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” This morning it occurred to me that the opacity is not in the minds of my friends but in the phrase’s antique construction.
Say “That’s the exception that proves that there is a rule,” and a world of lightbulbs will go on. And lovers of euphony shall be dismayed.
In Fairport, New York, where I grew up, there were lots of Italian American families, and I had many Italian American friends (still do). I married an Italian American from Liverpool, New York, and have a son from this marriage who, though he is only *half* Italian American, regards himself as *almost completely* Italian American. I noticed the way my friends and my (then) in-laws and wife pronounced words for food dishes did not correspond (to my ear) to either the spelling or the pronunciations provided in my fat dictionary. Writer Dan Nosovitz of AtlasObsucra.com explains why, in How Capicola Became Gabagool: The Italian New Jersey Accent, Explained:
Let’s do a fun experiment and take three separate linguistic trends from southern Italian dialects and combine them all to show how one Standard Italian word can be so thoroughly mangled in the U.S.
First: “The features that you’ll find across a lot of these dialects, and one that you still hear a lot in southern Italy today, is vowels at the ends of words are pronounced very very softly, and usually as more of an ‘uh’ vowel,” says Olivo-Shaw. D’Imperio is a little more extreme, calling it “vowel deletion.” Basically: if the final syllable is a vowel? You can get rid of it. Vowel deletion is common amongst many languages, and is done for the same reason that, sometimes, vowels are added: to make the flow from one word to another more seamless. It’s easiest, in terms of muscle movement, to transition from a vowel to a consonant and vice versa. A vowel to a vowel is difficult; in English, that’s why we have “a” versus “an” in phrases like “a potato” or “an apple.” Some Italian words that would follow food words, like prepositions or articles, would start with a vowel, and it’s easier to just remove it so you don’t have to do the vowel-to-vowel transition.
The stereotypical Italian “It’s a-me, Mario!” addition of a vowel is done for the same reason: Italian is a very fluid, musical language, and Italian speakers will try to eliminate the awkwardness of going consonant-to-consonant. So they’ll just add in a generic vowel sound—”ah” or “uh”—between consonants, to make it flow better.
Second: “A lot of the ‘o’ sounds will be, as we call it in linguistics, raised, so it’ll be pronounced more like ‘ooh’,” says Olivo-Shaw. Got it: O=Ooh.
And third: “A lot of what we call the voiceless consonants, like a ‘k’ sound, will be pronounced as a voiced consonant,” says Olivo-Shaw. This is a tricky one to explain, but basically the difference between a voiced and a voiceless consonant can be felt if you place your fingers over your Adam’s apple and say as short of a sound with that consonant as you can. A voiced consonant will cause a vibration, and voiceless will not. So like, when you try to just make a “g” sound, it’ll come out as “guh.” But a “k” sound can be made without using your vocal cords at all, preventing a vibration. So “k” would be voiceless, and “g” would be voiced. Try it! It’s fun.
Okay so, we’ve got three linguistic quirks common to most of the southern Italian ancient languages. Now try to pronounce “capicola.”
The “c” sounds, which are really “k” sounds, become voiced, so they turn into “g”. Do the same with the “p”; that’s a voiceless consonant, and we want voiced ones, so change that to a “b”. The second-to-last vowel, an “oh” sound, gets raised, so change that to an “ooh.” And toss out the last syllable. It’s just a vowel, who needs it? Now try again.
My Central New York State friends and family didn’t share the famously distinctive accents of their New Jersey brethren, but they did pronounce “Prosciutto” like this: “pruh-zhoot” (or “bruh-zhoot,” beginning with the voiced consonant).
Notes Mark Liberman at Language Log: “In a better world, the speakers of the ‘standard’ variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead.”
“We have somehow not successfully received your professional-development documentation,” a Dean’s Office colleague wrote me in an email early in my career at Kwantlen.
The sentence both charmed and alarmed me, especially the phrase somehow not successfully received, which seemed so artfully composed. Why had such care been taken in writing this simple request?
Because I had been habitually late and/or sloppy with my paperwork. Because I always needed guidance and reminding. And because now my colleague was *mad*.
I had to remember where I was: British Columbia, Canada. People here really are polite, just like the Americans say. My colleagues back in New York might have made such a request with explicit impatience, or even invective, to make sure I understood what they needed and what I had been doing wrong.
The language used for disapproval where I now worked was identical, it seemed, to the language of approval, in terms of vocabulary and tone. What gave the game away was the inordinate amount of care given to a simple writing task.
One could infer that this care came from irritation rather than pleasure.
Thereafter I have always wondered whether I am able – whether I am Canadian enough – to hearken to the subtle ways my colleagues and neighbors can scold.
It’s fitting that I should write this post on National Grammar Day. Choosing and arranging the right words with the right endings in the right order with the right punctuation isn’t even close to the most interesting thing I could tell you about language.
I recently had the opportunity to guest “lecture” for an Interdisciplinary Expressive Arts (IDEA) class at Kwantlen. I use the term lecture loosely; what we actually did was meditate upon, collect, and play with words.
Words are how we come to know the world. Though unable to speak intelligibly, infants begin to understand what spoken words mean at around six to nine months. Before we can do much of anything besides eat, poop, sleep, roll over, and turn towards sounds, we are picking up on the complex and consensually constructed language we’ve been born into.
Language has no inherent meaning; in a process that is almost magical, we imbue it with the concepts and objects and actions it comes to represent. Apart from onomatopoetic words like coo and screech, spoken words in no way resemble the ideas they represent. It’s a quality of language called arbitrariness. Look at that word: arbitrariness. Stare at for a little while, whisper it to yourself, until it unyokes from its meaning and begins to look weird and sound foreign. Neat, huh?
The wonder of words is that our creations are viral. Words enter language because we invent them to represent a particular thing, and then enough people must use them for the word to spread. It tickles me to think that words like boustrophedon — which refers to writing that alternates left to right and right to left, like an ox (bous in Greek) plowing a field — and aglet — the cap on the end of a shoelace — filled such a need to describe an idea or a thing that they were coined, they caught on, and they still exist. And the process of adding new words never stops. Want to see it in action? Visit Wordspy.
Not only do we come to know our history and our culture through words, we come to know each other. We are the sum of the words in our vocabulary and the frequency and manner with which we use them. Our idiolects, dialects peculiar to just one person, betray our worldviews and our personal histories. If you can forget politics for a moment, President Obama’s English charts a fascinating life.
That we can string words together into near-infinite variations within the bounds of grammar, an attribute called generativity, allows us to share with another the vicarious experience of our personal histories and imagined futures.
Words make us, we make words, and our words make the world.