Home > English, Geek, Grammar, Language > Literally, the Best Grammar and Language Series You Could Aks For

Literally, the Best Grammar and Language Series You Could Aks For

Note: the “aks” in the title is not a spelling error. More on that later.

Back in the before time, when I was getting my undergraduate degree in English from the University of Michigan, I took a class by the intelligent and sassy Anne Curzan on the history of the English language. It was a wonderful and informative class, and I still study the text, A Biographical History of the English Language.

For the past few years, Anne has been recording videos on grammar and language for the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Youtube channel. At last count there are 24 parts, which can be found here.

The videos cover many topics in grammar and language, including the “new” use of the word “literally” as an informal and emphatic substitute for the word “figuratively” (apparently it has been traced back to the 18th century and the OED has had noted that usage for one hundred years). A large number of the videos coincide with things we talked about in her class, and one of the videos even references a conversation the class had.

Whether you’re interested in what the Old English word Ymbsittend means or what the heck a linguist means when they talk about reduplication, these videos are sure to fascinate and educate.

What I’d like to do now is to post three parts of this series and talk briefly about them, hopefully to whet your appetite for more knowledge. Well, I assume if you’ve gotten this far you’re already a fan of knowledge and weird language trivia, so that’s probably covered.

In Part 1 of “The Word on Language and Grammar” Anne talks about “-ize” words like the word problematize.

Anne defines problematize as: “to render something problematic.” From there, she focuses on a discussion of general “-ize” words and a brief history of criticisms of the words, including a bit with a letter Ben Franklin wrote to David Hume in which he claimed he was going to strike the word “colonize” from his vocabulary.

I like this video because it shows how preferences about word usage changes from generation to generation. This is actually relevant in a lot of conversations about modern English being “dumbed down” because of the ways that young people use it. Some people blame Twitter, or Facebook, or cell phones, and the concerns about shrinking vocabularies are valid. However, languages are living, and they do change. The “lol” of today could be the “colonize” of Ben Franklin’s yesterday, and could eventually be seen as normal, accepted usage.

The second video in the series focuses on a linguistic phenomenon called metathesis and how it has changed English words over the centuries. Metathesis, according to the font of knowledge wikipedia, is a rearrangement of the sounds or syllables in a word.

This video should elucidate the spelling of “aks” in the title of this post, and Anne begins by talking about the difference between the modern spelling of asterisk and how it is often pronounced (as asteriks). Later in the video she talks about the transposition in the “k” and “s” in the older word “aks” to make the modern word “ask,” and notes that Chaucer uses the “aks” pronunciation in The Canterbury Tales.

Well, dear reader, I have to be honest. This video is relevant to me because of Futurama. In the episode “Xmas Story,” Fry is having a hard time adjusting to the peculiar celebrations and culture of the future. The humans of the year 3000 had replaced Christmas with Xmas in light of the maniac Santa robot that brought murder and mayhem instead of presents. Leela, realizing that when Fry is talking about Christmas he means Xmas, says that he’s using an archaic pronunciation, “like when you say ask instead of aks.”

Now that I know about metathesis and the history of the pronunciation of the word “ask” I find this joke even funnier, because in the future it reverts back to its original form. What? That’s not funny to you? Well, you don’t know what funny is, mister (or madam…I’m not judging).

Jumping ahead to part 6 in the series, Anne talks about whether or not the pronoun they can be used as a singular pronoun.

Anne, like myself, argues that it can be used as a singular pronoun. The English language lacks a neuter third person singular pronoun, and as such, is open to all sorts of weird sentence constructs like she/he or just the use of “he” or “his” when the gender of the person in question is unknown. In speech I have no problem using the plural pronouns they, them, or their, as singular third person neuter pronouns. Even in writing, especially in dialogue, my issues with this kind of usage are almost nonexistent.

Anne counters some common arguments against such usage, such as the impossibility of a word to exist as a singular and a plural in the English language (the example of the use of “you” for both individuals and groups, for instance). More importantly, she notes that most English speakers use the singular form of they already, and I’m inclined to think that as time goes on this will become increasingly regular until we take it for granted.

Does this represent a degradation of the English language? Of course it doesn’t! It shows that speakers of a language are very crafty at finding ways to solve problems their language encounters as it is used over time. If people understand that the word “they” can be both singular and plural depending on context, the meaning of “they” as it is used is perfectly clear. It’s really quite a fascinating development in how we view the progression of the English language.

So please, watch more of these videos to learn more about the history and use of the English language.

I promise it won’t hurt.

…Well, it might.

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  1. March 5, 2014 at 2:17 AM

    These videos are fantastic. Good length and use of graphics to illustrate Curzon’s point. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

    • March 5, 2014 at 2:21 AM

      I’m happy that you like them. Curzan was an excellent teacher and I am more than happy to share her knowledge.

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