Monday, April 29, 2013

Talking about talking: haphazard hypercorrection

We all know that the way we speak is just as important as what we say. Your speech can tell others a lot about you--like your age, gender, ethnicity, place of origin, socioeconomic status, and more. We all know, too, that different ways of speaking carry different levels of social prestige. In school, we're taught to write (for example) Standard American English, because it's the variety expected in professional white-collar life. Your ability to speak "correctly" (remember, "correctly" always means "following a standard"), with a newscaster's vaguely Midwestern accent, can give you an air of education, wealth, and authority.

We're all aware of these facts at some level, and most everybody has made a conscious effort at some point in their lives to use a standard form of language over a more natural nonstandard form. But what happens if you're not totally sure what the standard form is supposed to be? Let's imagine a scenario that might feel uncomfortably familiar (continued after the jump):

Teacher: You should always use "I" when it's the subject of the sentence, never "me". Say "John and I went to the store", not "me and John went to the store".
Student thinks:  Oh crap, I'm not supposed to say "me"!
Student says: Well, between you and I...
This is called hypercorrection: you sort of know what the standard rule is, but you apply it in the wrong place.

And it's not a modern phenomenon. Gaius Valerius Catullus, one of Rome's greatest dirty poets, penned this little piece poking fun at a guy named Arrius, a prodigious hypercorrector:
Chommoda dicebat, si quando commode vellet
dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias,
et tum mirifice sperabat se esse locutum
cum quantum poterat dixerat hinsidias.
credo, sic mater, sic liber avunculus eius,
sic maternus avus dixerat atque avia
hoc misso in Syriam requierant omnibus aures:
audibant eadem haec leniter et leviter,
nec sibi postilla metuebant talia verba,
cum subito adfertur nuntius horribilis
Ionios fluctus, postquam illuc Arrius isset,
iam non Ionios esse, sed Hionios.
Here's a translation, done in 1894 by someone with the wonderful name Leonard C. Smithers:
Chommodious Arrius would say, whenever he wanted to say commodious, and for insidious hinsidious, and then hoped that he had spoken with accent wondrous fine, when aspirating hinsidious to the full of his lungs. I believe that his mother, his free uncle, his maternal grandfather and grandmother all spoke thus. When he was sent to Syria, everyone's ears were rested, hearing these words spoken smoothly and slightly, nor after that did folk fear such words from him, when suddenly is brought the horrible news that th' Ionian waves, after Arrius had come there, no longer are Ionian, but are now the Hionian Hocean.
What's the joke? Well, although Latin had the letter H, the average person had stopped pronouncing it pretty early on. (It's not there in the Romance languages; think of Spanish hombre or French homme, with silent h, both from Latin homo.) Only Standard Latin, spoken by the literate upper class, kept the h. So if you wanted to appear rich and sophisticated, naturally you would pronounce your h's. But poor Arrius didn't know where h actually belonged, so he just stuck it at the beginnings of words and hoped he was right. (The phrase "his free uncle" suggests his ancestors were slaves, so he had a good reason to want some social mobility.)

While we're on the topic of Latin h, English has borrowed a good number of Latin words starting with h (some via French), and in most cases the h is pronounced. Here are some I found just skimming my Latin dictionary:
habitat, heredity, hesitate, inhale, hernia, hiatus, hibernate, hilarious, hirsute, Hispanic (but Español!), histrionics, hominid, horror, host, hospital, hostile, human
Why do we pronounce all these h's? The reason is simply that these words were mostly introduced by literate people, who knew that Latin h was "supposed" to be pronounced.

Of the words with no h, most come from French, where the h was of course silent: ability, herb (the British pronunciation with h is from the 19th century, as is the h-ful pronunciation of humble), honor, honest, hour.

I only noticed one word that we borrowed directly from Latin without the h: arena, from Latin harena meaning 'sand'. Why didn't we keep the h? Not sure.

I even found a few examples of hypercorrection that made it to English, e.g. hermit, which comes from Old French heremite, which comes from Latin ermita (ultimately from Greek eremites)!

One last thing about h: there's a decent chance English h is headed for oblivion too. Think of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady saying "'enry 'iggins", or those dialects that say "yuman" and "yuge" for human and huge. H is just a pretty pathetic sound.

(If you like the stuff on Latin words in English, you might like!)

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