Anthimeria weirds languages

A little non-technical rant for a Friday.

Professor Thingo, in a recent blog entry,

decries the use of “Gestalt” as a verb and asks “Does the English language now allow parts of speech to be used entirely interchangeably? Did I miss a memo?

Though I also would personally balk at verbing “Gestalt” and ”

architecture” (but not “architect”, a perfectly good verb!) I feel compelled to answer the rhetorical question — yes, by and large English does allow parts of speech to be used interchangeably. In fact, the very notion of “part of speech” arose from the study of Latin grammar, a language with precious little in common with English. The whole notion of “parts of speech” maps poorly to English, a language which cheerfully uses “green” as an adjective, verb, adverb, noun and interjection.

Latin, unlike English, is a highly inflected language. In inflected languages there are roots.  You then do things to them that make them into nouns, verbs, plurals, diminutives, whatever you want. The part of speech can usually be determined by the inflection. Some Latin verbs have over a hundred inflections.

English, by way of contrast, never has more than five verb inflections for a given verb (except the perennial exception, “to be”). Drive-drives-driving-driven-drove, throw a couple nouns for good measure (driver-drivers) and we’re done. Every other form of “drive” is formed by adding more words into the mix.  You can figure out whether a noun or a verb is meant from cues such as phrasal verb particles (“back” is ambiguous, “back away” is probably a verb), auxiliary verbs (“turn” is ambiguous, “will turn” is not) and other contextual cues.

A huge number of English words are nouns that became verbs without benefit of any kind of inflection or derivation. That’s just what English does, and what it’s done for centuries, and yet prescriptivists continue to decry it. (Of course, they’ve also done so for decades, so it’s a bit silly for me to decry prescriptivism!)

I found

this page of bad advice to be particularly hilarious. This line in particular:

If you look at a dictionary entry carefully, you’ll often see that the word you’re looking at was used exclusively as a noun up until 1983 or something like that.

Unlike those guys, I actually did look at a dictionary carefully and discovered that in fact many of the verbings they were decrying had been used as verbs in English for centuries. Two in particular stood out. “Impact”, which is actually a verb that became a noun in the late 18th century. (Though, to be fair, the 17th-century meaning of “impact” as a verb was more along the sense of “impacted molar” than the physics sense of things colliding – that usage didn’t arise until the 20th century.) More ridiculous though is “parent”, which they decry as “idiotically new-age” but has been used as a verb in English since at least the mid 1600’s. (Again, to be fair, the intransitive usage is modern, but the transitive verb sense is very, very old.)

The earliest known recorded usage of each as a noun and verb is telling. 

contact: v: 1834  n: 1626
impact:  v: 1601  n: 1781
focus:   v: 1875  n: 1656
parent:  v: 1663  n: 1450
medal:   v: 1822  n: 1578

“Parent” has been a verb almost as long as “impact” has even been a recorded English word! And anyone who tells you that you shouldn’t use “medal” as a verb because it’s only been used in that sense since 1822 should also be decrying the use of “mail” as a verb (in the postal sense).  “Mail” as a verb dates from as recently as 1827.  And not to mention “access”, which only dates from 1962 as a verb!

Furthermore, when English introduces new words it frequently takes on both noun and verb forms. Is “Spackle” (a trademark, incidentally) a noun or verb? What about “blog”?

Look at the over two dozen words I’ve used just in this short essay that are clearly both verbs and nouns – part, miss, map, green, root, contrast, throw, figure, answer, cue, back, down, turn, will, line, record, sense, mention, date, take, look, tell, form, use, essay … Using nouns as verbs is just what English does, and I think it’s great. Go verb!

Comments (23)

  1. bryan says:

    so in the english language a function can take another function as an argument? I should learn this.

  2. Eric Lippert says:

    Now that I think about it, "back down" isn’t unambiguous. It could mean "to give in" (another phrasal verb!), or "the feathers from the back of a goose", or "tipped over on its back", in which case "back" would be a verb, appositive and noun respectively.

    But you take my point, regardless of my poor choice of examples.

  3. Mike Dimmick says:

    The ‘rules’ were back-formed by scholars trying to emulate Rome and therefore attempting to apply the alleged rules of Latin (themselves probably guesswork by Latin scholars, and only very high-class patrician Latin at that) onto the bastardised tongue we speak.

    English is a synthesist – we pick up words from any culture we touch, with the result that British English, at least, is an Anglo-Saxon core with a smattering of Celtic/Briton/Welsh/Gaelic, overtones of Norman overlords, bits of Norse languages, later Germanic and French additions, words picked up from Native Americans, Africa, south-east Asia and Australian aboriginals, then in this century from all over Europe. There’s also a great deal of innovation. Sometimes the words adopted end up with different meanings to those used by the original owners, producing mass confusion all round.

    Britain and the US are sometimes referred to as two countries divided by a common language (we all know the examples!) Many of them are due to independent invention of the same ideas at around the same time, or rapid adoption from one country to another, with the result that one word caught on in one place and a different one in the other. Spellings were another thing largely foisted on us by the scholars, especially the dictionary writers Johnson (for the UK) and Webster (for the US). Johnson essentially had his own ideas but adopted, and adapted, spellings from everywhere in the country; Webster allegedly simplified the spellings for his dictionary (you can tell which side of this debate I’m on!)

    An interesting source for etymology (word origins) is

  4. mike says:

    >English, by way of contrast, never has more than five verb inflections for a given word.

    Well, uh, speaking pedantically, the forms of "to be" are many and varied: be-being-am-is-are-was-were-been. Historically, this resulted because the current conjugation of "to be" is a mish-mash of I believe three separate verbs in OE. But ok, that’s kind of cheating; in most languages (at least, among the ones I know) "to be" and "to go" are about as irregular as they get.

    >it’s a bit silly for me to decry prescriptivism

    Doesn’t matter; you have to try to stop them, yea, verily, even as they are at the gates. :-)

    Mike (Dimmick), your comment that English is a synthesist puts me in mind of the observation made by James D. Nicoll: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffled their pockets for new vocabulary." And I guess this from Robert Burchfield: "One cannot but be impressed by the amazing hospitality of the English language."

  5. Eric Lippert says:

    > Britain and the US are sometimes referred to as two countries divided by a common language

    Indeed — in fact, they are sometimes so referred to by me, right here in this blog!

    Though of course, Shaw said it first.

    > Webster allegedly simplified the spellings for his dictionary

    Allegedly indeed! Webster insisted that "reliable" was spelled "relionable".

    > the observation made by James D. Nicoll

    I’d like to take this opportunity to observe that Nicoll is considerably more colourful than Burchfield. Hospitality indeed.

  6. kip says:

    I’m so glad that although you balked at verbing Gestalt, you weren’t so shy with going ahead and "verbing" verb. The ultimate purist insult?

  7. Raymond Chen says:

    How does nouning compare to verbing on the "we’ve always done this" scale? In the table above, "impact" was nouned, but the others were verbed. The other day I encountered for the first time "add" as a noun. (A form not yet recognized by most dictionaries, it seems.) Last year I met the noun "ask" (with a different meaning from "bid"). Is the mean that the see of noun is on the increase? When is the stop?

  8. mike says:

    >When is the stop?

    Never, Mr. Chen. At least, not till the language has achieved the dead.

  9. foxyshadis says:

    I truly pity future scholars and purists who try to model their language after that of the American empire. Latin has been sanitized and reconstructed enough in the last 2000 years but still retains more than its share of wonkiness. Imagine that same reverence applied to English constructions.

  10. Eric Lippert says:

    Raymond, I note with delight that "mean", "see" and "stop" are all already nouns, though of course not usually used in the senses you mention.

  11. Mark says:

    Funny, when I read "back down", I read it as an adverbial phrase ("He’s going back down the hill."). I see that you’ve already admitted that it was a poor choice of examples, but I felt compelled to pile on with one more reason. :-)

  12. Raymond – surely you’re familiar with the BS Bingo favorite "value add", a phrase which casts add as a noun?

  13. Zac says:

    I claim that "architect" is not a perfectly good verb. We have all kinds of good verbs that architects used for a long time to describe the sort of work they did (before anyone tried to verb "architect"), such as "design". But then, if we referred to "architecting software" as "designing software", we wouldn’t be able to retain the class division between "software architects" and "software designers".

    And that would never do.

    If you insist on a verb to serve in the place of "architect", allow me to suggest "edify", as in "edifice" and "edification". Zing!

    I read an interesting review of a French novel written recently that used no verbs at all. Now that’s progress.

  14. Eric Lippert says:

    No verbs? Wow! Probably plenty of sentence fragments though. Good device, sentence fragments. Versatile! Punchy! (Irksome after a while.)

  15. The Biedenbach says:

    Good device, indeed! You’ve just reminded me of the seminal treatise on self-referentiality by David Moser, "This Is The Title Of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times In The Story Itself."

    Yet unread? Here! (damn good device…)

  16. Eric Lippert says:

    One of my favourites!

    Incidentally, "design" is another good word that is both a verb and a noun. Both forms date back to Shakespeare.

    "Edify" as in the verb meaning "to build an edifice" is EXTREMELY old. It is very rare in modern use. The more common modern usage is the sense of building up moral character. Both uses were first recorded in English in the same document in 1340.

    I’d be happy to revive this sense of the verb.

  17. Eric Wallace says:

    Thanks, Eric! A little lesson in linguistic sensability is helpful every once in a while. People can get tired of me harping over these myths and misconceptions, so it’s nice to hear it from someone else…


  18. The people that are crying about the shortcommings in natural languages like german or english should just relax a bit, natural languages are never as clean and tidy as artificial like esperanto are, natural languages grow over a long time, which can make anything quite inconsistant, but hey, is the 80×86 instruction set any better? …

  19. Jon Skeet says:

    The use which irritates me is "woman" as an adjective: "She’s the first woman politician to do XYZ."

    What’s wrong with "female"? After all, if you have a nurse who is a man, you call him a "male nurse" rather than a "man nurse".

    One of the worst offenders for this is the BBC, which should know better.

  20. mikeblell says:

    Which is  correct, or may be I should say better:

    I googled  or I Googled?