To boldly split what no one should split: The infinitive.

Lies your English teacher told you: “Never split an infinitive!”

To start off this series of lies in the English classroom, Rebekah told us last week about a common misconception regarding vowel length. With this week’s post, I want to show you that similar misconceptions also apply to the level of something as fundamental as word order.

The title paraphrases what is probably one of the most recognisable examples of prescriptive ungrammaticality – taken from the title sequence of the original Star Trek series, the original sentence is: To boldly go where no man has gone before. In this sentence, to is the infinitive marker which “belongs to” the verb go. But lo! Alas! The intimacy of the infinitive marker and verb is boldly hindered by an intervening adverb: boldly! This, dear readers, is thus a clear example of a split infinitive.

Or rather, “To go boldly”1

Usually an infinitive is split with an adverb, as in to boldly go. This is one of the more recognisable prescriptive rules we learn in the classroom, but the fact is that in natural speech, and in writing, we split our infinitives all the time! There are even chapters in syntax textbooks dedicated to explaining how this works in English (it’s not straightforward though, so we’ll stay away from it for now).

In fact, sometimes not splitting the infinitive leads to serious changes in meaning. Consider the examples below, where the infinitive marker is underlined, the verb it belongs to is in bold and the adverb is in italics:

(a) Mary told John calmly to leave the room

(b) Mary told John to leave the room(,) calmly

(c) Mary told John to calmly leave the room

Say I want to construct a sentence which expresses a meaning where Mary, in any manner, calm or aggressive, tells John to leave the room but to do so in a calm manner. My two options to do this without splitting the infinitive is (a) and (b). However, (a) expresses more strongly that Mary was doing the telling in a calm way. (b) is ambiguous in writing, even if we add a comma (although a little less ambiguous without the comma, or what do you think?). The only example which completely unambiguously gives us the meaning of Mary asking John to do the leaving in a calm manner is (c), i.e. the example with the split infinitive.

This confusion in meaning, caused by not splitting infinitives, becomes even more apparent depending on what adverbs we use; negation is notorious for altering meaning depending on where we place it. Consider this article title: How not to raise a rapist2. Does the article describe bad methods in raising rapists? If we split the infinitive we get How to not raise a rapist and the meaning is much clearer – we do not want to raise rapists at all, not even using good rapist-raising methods. Based on the contents of the article, I think a split infinitive in the title would have been more appropriate.

So you see, splitting the infinitive is not only commonly done in the English language, but also sometimes actually necessary to truly get our meaning across. Although, even when it’s not necessary for the meaning, as in to boldly go, we do it anyway. Thus, the persistence of anti-infinitive-splitting smells like prescriptivism to me. In fact, this particular classroom lie seems like it’s being slowly accepted for what it is (a lie), and current English language grammars don’t generally object to it. The biggest problem today seems to be that some people feel very strongly about it. The Economist’s style guide phrases the problem eloquently3:

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

We will continue this little series of classroom lies in two weeks. Until then, start to slowly notice split infinitives around you until you start to actually go mad.

Footnotes

I’ve desperately searched the internet for an original source for this comic but, unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. If anyone knows it, do let me know and I will reference appropriately.

This very appropriate example came to my attention through the lecture slides presented by Prof. Nik Gisborne for the course LEL1A at the University of Edinburgh.

This quote is frequently cited in relation to the split infinitive, you can read more about their stance in the matter in this amusing post: https://www.economist.com/johnson/2012/03/30/gotta-split

Standardisation of languages – life or death?

Hello and happy summer! (And happy winter to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere!)

In previous posts we’ve thrown around the term ‘standard’, as in Standard English, but we haven’t really gone into what that means. It may seem intuitive to some, but this is actually quite a technical term that is earned through a lengthy process and, as is often the case, it is not awarded easily or to just any variety of a language. Today, I will briefly describe the process of standardising a variety and give you a few thoughts for discussion1. I want to stress that though we will discuss the question, I don’t necessarily think we need to find an answer to whether standardisation is “good” or “bad” – I don’t think either conclusion would be very productive. Still, it’s always good to tug a little bit at the tight boundaries we often put around the thought space reserved for linguistic concepts.

The language bohemian, at it again.

There are four processes usually involved in the standardisation of a language: selection, elaboration, codification, and acceptance.

Selection

It sure doesn’t start easy. Selection is arguably the most controversial of the processes as this is the step that involves choosing which varieties and forms the standard will be based on. Often in history we find a standard being selected from a prestigious variety, such as the one spoken by the nobility. In modern times this is less comme il faut as nobility don’t have monopoly on literacy and wider communication anymore (thankfully). This can make selection even trickier, though: as the choice of a standard variety becomes more open there is a higher need for sensitivity regarding who is represented by that standard and who isn’t. Selection may still favour an elite group of speakers, even if they may no longer be as clear-cut as a noble class. For example, a standard is often based on the variety spoken in the capital, or the cultural centre, of a nation. The selection of standard forms entails non-selection of others, and these forms are then easily perceived as worse, which affects the speakers of these non-standard forms negatively – this particularly becomes an issue when the standard is selected from a prestigious variety.

In my post about Scots , I briefly mentioned the problem of selection we would face in a standardisation of Scots as a variety which has great variation both within individual speakers and among different speakers (e.g. in terms of lects). Battling this same tricky problem, Standard Basque was mostly constructed from three Basque varieties, mixed with features of others. This standard was initially used mainly by the media and in formal writing with no “real” speakers. However, as more and more previously non-Basque-speaking people in the Basque country started to learn the language, they acquired the standard variety, with the result that this group and their children now speak a variety of Basque which is very similar to the standard.

Elaboration

Standardisation isn’t all a prestigious minefield. A quite fun and creative process of standardisation is elaboration, which involves expanding the language to be appropriate for use in all necessary contexts. This can be done by either adapting or adopting words from other varieties (i.e. other languages or nonstandard lects), by constructing new words using tools (like morphology) from within the variety that’s becoming a standard, or by looking into archaic words from the history of the variety and putting them back into use.

When French was losing its prestige in medieval England, influenced no doubt by the Hundred Years’ War, an effort was initiated to elaborate English. During the Norman Conquest, French had become the language used for formal purposes in England, while English survived as spoken by the common people. This elaboration a few hundred years later involved heavy borrowing of words from French (e.g. ‘government’ and ‘royal’) for use in legal, political, and royal contexts (and from Latin, mainly in medical contexts) – the result was that English could now be used in those situations it previously didn’t have appropriate words for (or where such words had not been in use for centuries)2.

source

Codification

Once selection and elaboration have (mostly) taken place, the process of codification cements the selected standard forms, through, for example, the compilation of dictionaries and grammars. This does not always involve pronunciation, although it can, as it famously does in the British Received Pronunciation (usually just called RP), a modern form of which is still encouraged for use by teachers and other public professions. Codification is the process that ultimately establishes what is correct and what isn’t within the standard – this makes codification the sword of the prescriptivist, meaning that codification is used to argue what the right way to use the language is (y’all know by know what the HLC thinks of prescriptivism).

When forms are codified they are not easily changed, which is why we still see some bizarre spellings in English today.  There are of course not only limitations to codification (as with the spelling example)– there is obvious benefit for communication if we all spell certain things the same way or don’t vary our word choices too much for the same thing or concept. Another benefit, and a big one at that, is that codified varieties are perceived more as real, and this is very important for speakers’ sense of value and identity.


Codification does not a standard make – most of you will know that many varieties have dictionaries without having a standard, Scots being one example. Urban Dictionary is another very good example of codification of non-standard forms.

Acceptance

The final process is surely the lengthiest and perhaps the most difficult to achieve: acceptance. It is crucial that a standard variety receives recognition as such, more especially by officials or other influential speakers but also by the general public. Speakers need to see that there is a use for the standard and that there is a benefit to using it (such as benefiting in social standing or in a career). Generally though, people don’t respond very well to being prescribed language norms, which we have discussed previously, so when standard forms have been selected and codified it does not necessarily lead to people using these forms in their speech (as was initially the case with Standard Basque). Further, if the selection process is done without sensitivity, some groups may feel they have no connection to the standard, sometimes for social or political reasons, and may actively choose to not use it. Again, we find that a sense of identity is significant to us when it comes to language; it is important for us to feel represented by our standard variety.

What’s the use?

Ideally, a standard language could be seen as a way to promote communication within a nation or across several nations. Despite the different varieties of Arabic, for example, Arabic speakers are able to switch to a standard when communicating with each other even if they are from different countries far apart. Likewise, a Scottish person can use Standard English when talking to someone from Australia, while if the same speakers switched back to their local English (or Scots) varieties, they wouldn’t necessarily understand each other. Standardisation certainly eases communication within a country also, and a shared standard variety can provide a sense of shared nationality and culture. There is definitely a point in having a written standard used for our laws, education, politics, and other official purposes which is accessible for everyone. On the other side of this, however, we find a counterforce with speaker communities wanting to preserve their lects and actively opposing using a standard if they can’t identify with it.

So, a thought for discussion I want to leave with you today: Do you think the process of standardisation essentially kills language, or does it it keep it alive? An argument for the first point is that standardisation limits variation3 – this means that when a standard has been established and accepted, the varieties of that standard will naturally start pulling towards the standard as its prestige and use increases. However, standardising is also a way to officially recognise minority varieties, which gives speakers an incentive to keep their language alive. It is also a way to ease understanding between speakers (as explained earlier), and in some cases (like Basque), standardisation gives birth to a new variety acquired as a first language. As I said from the start, maybe we won’t find an answer to this, and maybe we shouldn’t, but it’s worth thinking about these matters in a more critical way.

Footnotes

1 I’ve used the contents of several courses, lectures, and literatures as sources for this post. The four processes of standardisation are credited to Haugen (1996): ‘Dialect, language, nation’.

2 In fact, a large bulk of French borrowings into English comes from this elaboration, rather than from language contact during the Norman Conquest.

On a very HLC note, historical standardisation makes research into dialectal variation and language change quite difficult. The standard written form of Old English is based on the West Saxon variety, and there are far fewer documents to be found written in Northumbrian, which was a quite different variety and has played a huge part in the development of the English we know today.

 

Written “language”?

Hi everyone, Sabina here! As the resident nerd of orthography and writing systems, I am here today to talk to you about language. Shocking, I know!

When I say “language”, you might be thinking of spoken language but also, perhaps, of written language. But is “written language” actually language?

Well, yes and no. Written “language”, while sharing a lot with spoken language, is a medium through which we might use language to express ideas, thoughts and emotions, but it is not the language.

The distinction between spoken language and the written medium may sound simple enough, but the two are easily confused simply because they are very closely related. Haven’t you ever heard someone saying, with a frustrated tone, that the English language is soooo weird on the basis of spelling? Well, that’s the orthography, i.e. the rules that govern spelling, punctuation and such things, not the language.

Or perhaps that Chinese is an ideographic1 language? Well, that describes the writing system of the language, not the language (also, Chinese is logographic, but it’s a common misconception according to our resident Chinese expert, Riccardo).

Now, a writing system is a form of communication represented in a visual way. This may be through a system like the Latin alphabet (like I’m using) or the Cyrillic alphabet (like that used in Russia, e.g. алфавит ‘alphabet’) where the symbols represent sounds, or through a logographic system (like that used in Chinese, in which a written character represents a word or a phrase, e.g. 这是一个示例 ‘this is an example’). Basically, it is any way we use letters, shapes, accents and so on to convey meaning on… well, any material really, as long as it is graphically represented.

You with me so far? Great, let’s move into the tricky stuff.

Now, the writing system and the orthography of a language are derivative mediums of spoken language, usually reflecting the spoken language fairly well. However, writing may also go entirely its own way (or at least, it might seem like it).

Consider the English spelling of the word “tough”. Pronounced (in British English) as as [tʌf], it is nevertheless spelt with -gh, not f. (I’ll leave the vowels for now. We’ll offer more insight on vowels later.). So, if a written language is merely a way to express the spoken language: what’s up with that??

Well, this is the Historical Linguist Channel, after all (thought you could sneak by the history, did ya?). Such discrepancies (of which English has plenty) are often possible to explain by studying the history of the language. You see, orthography (especially spelling) is slow to change (like, really slow) and the standardisation of English was done during late Middle English/Early Modern English. English has, of course, changed quite a bit since then, but the written form of English actually still corresponds quite well (we think, at least) to the pronunciation of earlier stages of the spoken language.

While it would be convenient to have an orthography that reproduces the spoken language as exactly as possible, it would be quite difficult to create such a system. For instance, most letters pull a double (or triple or quadruple and so on) act and their pronunciation in a particular word is very dependent on the reader.

Let’s use another Swedish example here: In Swedish, the word for shrimp is ‘räka’. Now, in Gothenburg, where I’m from, this is pronounced something like ‘rää-ka’ with an open vowel ([æ:]), a vowel that, in Swedish, is traditionally associated with the letter <ä> .

However, my husband, who is from Stockholm, would pronounce the same word as ‘ree-ka’ with a much more closed vowel, perhaps something like [e:]. Yet, using the letter <e> to denote the vowel [æ:] may become an issue because the pronunciation “ree-ka” might actually be nonsensical to a lot of Swedish speakers (there’s actually a really old joke about it, talking about  a person wanting shrimp and the other person doesn’t understand what the first is asking for).

Add to that that there already is a word spelt ‘reka’ in Swedish, a clipped form of ‘rekognosera’ meaning “to explore or investigate”, and you’ll see how spelling shrimp as ‘reka’ might be an issue (especially since the pronunciation is highly dialectal and does not correspond to the pronunciation of other dialects).

There are, of course, a bunch of words that could (and perhaps should) be updated to a more ‘modern’ spelling, but the point of all this is that, while spoken and written language are closely related, we cannot expect the written form to be an exact replica of the spoken language. That being said, it would be naive of us to claim that spoken and written language are completely separate. Of course they’re not. But, at the same time, when we talk about “written language”, we must be aware that that “language” is not actually a language at all, merely a really slow-to-change expression of the spoken language. This does not mean that the study of writing systems and/or orthography is not worthwhile. Quite the opposite, especially for historical linguists whose only resource is written texts.

We cannot, and should not, expect writing to be a trustworthy representative of spoken language, and that’s okay.

Notes

1Ideographs are symbols that manage to convey their meaning independent of any particular language, like a big red circle with a line through it to mean “no”.