Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Our wacky language: It's enough to give up its meaning

As regular readers know, I was never a linguist but I do find the topic of language development to be of at least passing interest. Not of sufficient interest to do exhaustive research, of course, but enough to ruminate on something for the next few minutes.

I paid attention in life to an extent that allows me to know the difference between possessives (such as its) and contractions (it's). I'm not suggesting that is at all an impressive intellectual feat; I'm merely identifying it as a bit of knowledge that, experience tells me, distinguishes me from some other people (who appear to have difficulty consistently distinguishing which is which).

Lest you start to think this will be a scathing criticism of those who seem to fail to make the effort to learn such things, let's step back a moment and consider what our language requires of us all.

If one combines two words into a single syllable phrase, such as making it is into it's, one indicates that with an apostrophe where the dropped letter(s) were. So an apostrophe means a contraction was done.

However, if one has a noun and one wishes to indicate an object is possessed by that noun, one appends an apostrophe and "s" to the end of the noun. So 's means possession.

...Unless one is using a pronoun, in which case the possessive is indicated by using a separate but related pronoun (his, hers, theirs, its, etc.), all of which end with an s without a prefacing apostrophe. So possession is achieved with an s at the end but no apostrophe.

Except when an apostrophe-less s simply indicates the noun is plural.

Or a noun can be part of a contraction with is and get the apostrophe + s treatment, where that doesn't suggest anything possessed (as in the sentence "Joe's going to the store"). So the same noun + 's can be that as well.

Viewed in this light, it seems remarkable that people are able to correctly indicate contractions and possessives as often as they do. There isn't a simple rule to account for all contexts.

If one were designing a language with the intention of being clear and consistent, it seems highly unlikely one would set it up this way to indicate possessives and contractions, using the same punctuation and letter to mean possibly both. Oh, and having that letter also be what turns most nouns plural would just come across as a way of messing with people.

Obviously English is really an amalgamation of words and rules that have been cobbled together over centuries without an overriding philosophy to mandate absolute conformity, and thus it has a certain appealing flexibility. That makes English an interesting language, and offers an opportunity to feel proud when one can keep straight its many convoluted rules, but to suggest it's easy is ridiculous.

It is not as bad as it could be if one sought to make a language more complicated to read and write, but it's not necessarily that far off.

But if it weren't for such delightful convolutions there'd be no grammar quizzes for your thusly inclined friends to share on Facebook and humblebrag about how many they got right, nor would we have an amusing Weird Al Yankovic parody of Robin Thicke's big hit (although it may be that Robin Thicke's not too happy about that send-up).

We're making the best of the situation.


Someday being able to designate the possessive of the pronoun "it" by not including an apostrophe (in standard usage, the apostrophe would only be used in contractions of "it is") will be one's secret password to an exclusive club.

(Heh. As though in non-academic written communication that's not already the case.)

Lament not for the ostensible deterioration of language but rejoice in opportunity to be distinctive.

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