Creative Destruction

July 1, 2006

The American Prediliction for New Coin

Filed under: Content-lite,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 11:56 pm

I thought Daran’s entry on neologisms admitted to the language (or at least coined and offered for adoption) suggested a broader treatment of the subject (which I had already intended but was apparently beaten to the punch). English is often cited as one of the hardest languages to learn. It’s not the pronunciation or syntax that are troublesome, it’s the sheer number of words and the fact that those words are drawn from everywhere.

According to The Global Language Monitor, English has, conservatively, nearly 1 million words. French has fewer than 100,000. Why compare to French? In the Colonial Period, French was the international language of diplomacy, so one might have expected French to be more democratic than English and to survive into the modern era as the preeminent international language. However, the French have since the 1600s admitted new coin only slowly — the Academie Francais is only on its 9th edition of its dictionary — the idea being to preserve the purity of the French language, notwithstanding that French borrows heavily from Latin. There are clear strengths and weaknesses to such an approach.
So English and French, the two most recent international languages (Latin and Esperanto were previous international languages), have diametrically opposed approaches to new coin. English, especially the standard American dialect, delights in creating new words, especially the combinations of existing words German speakers are familiar with. (The word metrosexual is a good example. Smash-ups of names such as Beniffer and Brangelina are good pop examples. I also recently came across infonaut and infobahn.) Many magazines have columns devoted to new usage, like this one at Variety, especially when the usage is hip, clever, slangy, and specialized. The idiom is sometimes called slanguage or slang-chic.

Technological advance offers myriad opportunities for new coin. Richard Dawkins took credit for the word meme, whereas the origin of the word Internet is a frequent subject of folk etymology or faux origins. A site called Word Origins specializes in word and phrase etymologies. A whole category of “retronyms” are needed to distinguish older word forms from newer ones when technological change renders the older root less precise. For example, e-mail vs. snail mail, land line vs. cell phone, acoustic guitar vs. electric guitar, etc. A list of -nyms words can be found here, for those curious what to call a variety of different word categories.

English has long been a sort of bastard child of many other languages and has no apparent compunction about accepting new words from any source. To take food for an example, soup derives from French, cheese from Latin, burger from German, squash from American Indian, pie from Irish, waffle from Dutch, coffee from Arabic, chili from Spanish, soy from Japanese, etc. There’s an interesting hypothesis for why English words for meat before it’s cooked — cow, swine, sheep, and calf — are of Saxon origin whereas meat after it’s cooked — beef, pork, mutton, and veal — are of Norman origin. The idea is that Normans conquered the Saxons and the Saxons were servants who used their own words in the kitchen but had to use the Norman words at their masters’ tables.

Words and their origins go beyond idle interest. They are our very tools of thought and function as powerful metaphors for reality. Edward Sapir believed that each language constructs reality differently from other languages, which goes a long way toward explaining why mere word translation can’t begin to bridge the gaps between cultures with difference languages. Edward T. Hall refers to hidden aspects of culture — those things embedded in our metaphors — as “deep culture.” For instance, is time a line, a circle, a flow, or a dimension? Is its measurement meaningful, flexible, or irrelevant to human experience? Answers to questions such as these influence one’s cultural assumptions and whether, for instance, an appointment is kept punctually or treated casually.

One explanation for America’s preeminence in the world today, beyond the obvious natural resources at our disposal, is that as a young country, unlike regions of the world with histories stretching back millennia, we were created anew from a diverse range of languages and cultures that became a greater whole than its parts. Our national character, as described by Tocqueville for one, stems in part from the need for so many different peoples to cooperate, rely on each other, and rise above their individuality to form a nation. And we continue to see that diversity played out in our predeliction for new coin.

6 Comments »

  1. Great post. I really enjoyed reading it. Nonetheless, I have a few skeptical questions:

    However, the French have since the 1600s admitted new coin only slowly — the Academie Francais is only on its 9th edition of its dictionary — the idea being to preserve the purity of the French language, notwithstanding that French borrows heavily from Latin.

    I don’t doubt that English has more words than France – the ability to Wordify is the glory of the English language, imo – but I wonder if the French dictionary you refer to, as a result of its hesitation to change, leaves out a lot of the French language that is actually used by native French speakers. Just because a word’s not in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s not part of the language.

    Edward Sapir believed that each language constructs reality differently from other languages, which goes a long way toward explaining why mere word translation can’t begin to bridge the gaps between cultures with difference languages.

    “Can’t begin” seems overly strong to me – translations often do begin to bridge the gap, in practice. If translations couldn’t even “begin” to bridge that gap, then there’d be no Americans enjoying anime or Amélie, not to mention no multi-billion dollar market for translations of English-language films overseas.

    The strong version of the Sapir/Worph hypothesis has come under considerable fire among both linguists and anthropologists. The fact that people have thoughts that they can’t put words to, seems to undermine the idea that the boundaries of our thoughts are determined by the words we know.

    And we continue to see that diversity played out in our predeliction for new coin.

    I had always been under the impression that it’s the internal rules of English that allow us our constant wordification. Am I wrong about that? Is there any empirical evidence that Americans coin more new words per capita than, say, Brits or Australians?

    Comment by Ampersand — July 2, 2006 @ 10:20 am | Reply

  2. The GLM’s methodology is based on the use of words on the Internet. I’m pretty skeptical of this methodology as a way of counting the number of words “in the language,” since it will undercount:

    (a) Words used principally by lower-class speakers who are less likely to publish on the Internet.

    (b) As an extension of (a), words used by speakers in poorer countries where few people post to the Internet regularly. My guess is that the per capita rate of Internet posting among, say, native speakers of French in Africa is pretty low. So words that tend to get used by African French speakers are going to be dramatically undercounted.

    (c) Words in lower registers that people are less likely to write down.

    So this result could be entirely an artifact of the relative rates of internet posting among English and French speakers, and have nothing to do with the number of words “in” each language. It could also reflect a real difference, but color me skeptical.

    Comment by Elliot Reed — July 2, 2006 @ 11:05 am | Reply

  3. Ampersand wrote:

    I don’t doubt that English has more words than France … but I wonder if the French dictionary you refer to, as a result of its hesitation to change, leaves out a lot of the French language that is actually used by native French speakers. Just because a word’s not in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s not part of the language.

    The Academie Francais, as I understand it, is the authoritative body regarding modern French, sort of like the Modern Language Association for American English. Both bodies absolutely have policies and procedures for inclusion and exclusion, the former being far more conservative than the latter. So yes, the word counts are biased; there’s no way for them not to be. For the purpose of this post, I’m only trying to show that English swamps French in terms of number of words. The ratio 10:1 is reflected in the sources I chose, and I suspect other sources would demonstrate a substantially similar ratio.

    “Can’t begin” seems overly strong to me – translations often do begin to bridge the gap, in practice. If translations couldn’t even “begin” to bridge that gap, then there’d be no Americans enjoying anime or Amélie, not to mention no multi-billion dollar market for translations of English-language films overseas.

    “Can’t begin” is undoubtedly an overstatement, so I’ll retreat from that a little. Still, the point is that words have complex associations, both within a language but especially between languages, which makes them inexact. The example I gave was time. The mistake we all commit is in believing that a translation is a good approximation of meaning. It’s a start, a beginning, but is often still woefully inadequate.

    The strong version of the Sapir/Worph hypothesis has come under considerable fire among both linguists and anthropologists. The fact that people have thoughts that they can’t put words to, seems to undermine the idea that the boundaries of our thoughts are determined by the words we know.

    I’m not an expert in the Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis, but what I do know about it seems very credible to me. Obviously, there is room for debate.

    We have a range of cognitive skills. Processing the taste of foods and the sensations of pain/pleasure don’t require language, nor do they lend themselves well to descriptive language. For distinctively human thought, however, language is the dominant medium (though not the only one).
    Preverbal thought stays that, and is largely incoherent, until it’s distilled in language, which is to say that we organize our thinking through language.

    A person with refined language and communication skills has impressive cognitive advantages over a person with underdeveloped language. For instance, the power of naming provides the knower succinct symbols to communicate his/her ideas, whereas without knowing the names of things/ideas, another person is reduced to phrases like, um, you know, that, er, thing. It’s especially apparent in the classroom, where students frequently struggle to form coherent sentences and thoughts for lack of knowledge, vocabulary, and skill in their manipulation.

    I had always been under the impression that it’s the internal rules of English that allow us our constant wordification. Am I wrong about that? Is there any empirical evidence that Americans coin more new words per capita than, say, Brits or Australians?

    Rather than simply omit your questions without response, I have to acknowledge that I don’t really know and don’t have an opinion.

    Comment by Brutus — July 2, 2006 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

  4. “New Coin” ist nicht nur eine Englisches spiel. Haben Sie nie von “Neu Deutsch” gehort?

    Comment by Dianne — July 2, 2006 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  5. Is there any empirical evidence that Americans coin more new words per capita than, say, Brits or Australians?

    That’s a damn good question. Verbally there’s no way to know without extensive ethnological study, which would be expen$ive. But written neologisms ought to be easier to track down.

    There’s an interesting article here about new word formation, just FYI.

    I can think of two cultural factors which might favor US neologism formation, regardless of the new-country-forging-crucible-of-new-language theory. One, the US is more ethnically diverse (and has been for longer) than either Australia or the UK, so we have more raw material for internal borrowings. Two, we have a significantly higher birthrate and thus more young people than the commonwealth nations, and I gotta think that its the 10 to 20-year olds who are driving a lot of new word formation.

    Great post, Brutus.

    Comment by Robert — July 2, 2006 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  6. Wonderful article…I delight in the whole wonderful site, but this article draws a response from the heart.
    As the Honor’s English daughter of an English teacher, I have had my curiosity piqued by the subject for nigh on 60 years now, since I noticed that I seemed to speak entirely differently from my peers. Attracted to the freely flowing prose as an unitiated admirer, I actually had to study and practice cursing…and to end a sentence with a preposition, in order to be an effective crisis counselor during the Vietnam years.
    Things have only gotten more lyrical and esoteric since then, in spite of the educational system and American television. Playing with the language is assuredly the national pastime.
    By definition, America is partly every culture…of COURSE we assimilate words from everywhere. But the main driving force, aside from our perpetual search for humor, is the fact that we actually TRY to be unintelligible to those whom we don’t know well.
    Remember, we started our young country as a rebellious colony. I’m sure every group of insurgents throughout history has created it’s own slang, and, among each group, many subgroups. It is a survival tool, taken to extremes…children will create their own wordcraft to bamboozle the parents, prisoners will develop double entendres to appear to be talking about something acceptable to guards, and some groups will rudely speak a language they know a listener doesn’t know.
    Here in Miami, it’s volatile. Many older Cubanos refuse to learn English, sure that they will return to Cuba any minute. Oddly enough, they seem to think that the native Americans would refuse, in kind, to learn Spanish…because they (we) didn’t HAVE to learn it….and will say the most outrageous things, thinking they aren’t understood. But, we started learning Spanish in 7th grade!
    Also, our families have lived all over the globe, often with the military, but often with the Peace Corps or for other, more curious, purposes. It just tickles me when I can casually drop a line to a Japanese tourist, and enjoy the immediate surprise and warmth they show, at hearing this tall, blonde, blue eyed woman speaking in a Tokyo accent. It’s an immediate bond. (By the way, soy sauce in Japanese is shoyu!)
    Those bonds of language are strong, emotional ones. Today, I said, “Knowwhutimean, Vern?” to a friend who had spent those years in Paris, and had never, as it turned out, heard of Ernest P. Worrell. Though a very close friend, I actually felt a gulf between us for a moment. She did, too, and was actually apologetic about her ignorance of our cultural icons. I’ve learned to take it in stride, though…she doesn’t know who Longhorn Leghorn is, either! She did have a friend who started everything that he thought might appear pompous, “Ah say, Boy, Ah,Ah,Ah SAY…,” and she didn’t know why.
    Sharing obscure slang and cultural references will tell you much about a person, and in this global information age, gives us a strong way of connecting.
    Another consideration…time constraints often demand that a kind of verbal shorthand be employed, leading to creation of new words or phrases (of course, destroying the originals). Many people in the transportation business use ‘386’ to mean out of service, and I’ve heard it from people who have no idea of it’s derivation.
    Most of America knows ‘211’ is police code for robbery, and ‘187’ is homicide, and will substitute those letters in place of a long story. TV and movies may teach many of these things, but the populace will elaborate…i.e., “Five-O,” from the old series, “Hawaii 5-0,” was used 2 decades ago to mean any police, but now it refers to anyone who wants to know your business. And, “Five-Uh-Oh,” means you’ve been caught by the very person you were trying to fool. (Mmmm, cookies, but 5-uh-oh.)
    I have noticed a highly accelerated increase in obscurely coded language lately, and I can’t help but think, “What could this government possibly be doing to inspire such fear in it’s citizens?”
    Today, the person who answered the phone at the Supervisor of Elections number, told me not to pay any attention to The Miami Herald, that they were too liberal! And, I noticed, that the new Voter’s Registration Card that were issued shortly after Bush replaced Clinton, have, for the first time in history, your party affiliation on it.
    Duh.
    And that was only today. “Bushwhacked,” has gained an entirely new meaning, too!

    Comment by T. Davis — August 29, 2006 @ 2:38 am | Reply


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