Thursday, May 10, 2018

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

From Jim

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

If you had just finished your first novel in 2018, given all the changes that have happened in the publishing world, which path would you choose to publication and why?

Since Susan, Robin, and Dietrich have already covered this topic brilliantly, I feel I have little to add. So I’m not going to write about publishing paths. Instead, I’ll bore you with some musings on language, specifically foreign borrowings.

English has borrowed many words from other languages. “Borrow” is, in fact, something of a misnomer, since we rarely, if ever, give the words back. It’s true that some borrowed words fall from usage, but they’re still somewhere in the back of the dictionary, like a casserole on extended loan from a neighbor.

Few people call hot dogs “frankfurters” these days. Popular opinion holds that “hot dog” gained permanent favor over “frankfurter” during World War I, when anti-German fervor basically killed the Teutonic version for good. Of course, such a story gives no explanation why the word “hamburger” has survived and flourished despite its German origin. In fact, several words for sausage come to English from German – wiener, bratwurst, knackwurst, und so weiter. No one ever tried to Anglicize those, nor the garnish sauerkraut that often accompanies them. 

All-out world war with Germany may not have been reason enough to stamp out enemy sausages, but a difference of opinion with France over the Iraq war inspired boycotts of French goods and the appearance of a new item on the Capitol cafeteria’s menu: Freedom Fries. Redder, whiter, and bluer congressmen could not stomach the thought of “French” fries passing their lips. This waste of perfectly fine vitriol was an embarrassment for the lawmakers who proposed it (as well as anyone foolish enough to belly up to the lunch counter and actually order “Freedom Fries, please”). It’s noteworthy, by the way, that Belgians

claim French fries as their own. The French themselves lend credence to this claim by dint of the countless jokes about Belgians and their fondness for pommes frites. After a suitable period of French-bashing, of course, reason and practicality prevailed. French fries returned.

Like clothes, words come into fashion and fall out of favor. This holds true for loan words, as well. Sometimes a borrowed foreign word is supplanted by another foreign word, even from the very same language. Take the case of “macaroni.” When I was young, no one ate “pasta.” We ate macaroni, noodles, or, at best, spaghetti. A word of Neapolitan origin, “macaroni” was retired somewhere between 1975 and 1985, and the more refined “pasta” took its place. But before that “macaroni” had a long history in the U.S., dating back to Yankee Doodle’s time.

(Sorry about that.) In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the great waves of Italian immigration to North America took place. The vast majority came from southern Italy (Naples, Calabria, and Sicily), and “macaroni” gained traction in mainstream, white-bread America. Pasta, the standard Italian word for macaroni didn’t take America—and indeed the English-speaking world—by storm until the late 20th century when Italian culture found new popularity. By the way, “pasta” is a cognate of the English “paste” and “pasty” (the noun, as in Cornish pasty).

When an invading population subjugates the locals and imposes its language on them, the invading language is called the superstratum. The local language is called the substratum. In 1066, for example, the Norman invaders imposed their language on the native Anglo-Saxons and introduced thousands of French words. Sometimes the substratum leaves its fingerprints on the superstratum, too, usually in the form of grammatical structures, word order, and specialized vocabulary. The words for barnyard animals in English are nearly all Anglo-Saxon in origin. Cow, pig, sheep, chicken, etc. That’s because the conquered were the servants to the invaders, worked the menial jobs, and got their hands dirty. On the hoof, these animals were known by their Germanic names, while on the plate, they enjoyed names of French origin like beef, pork, mutton,

poultry, etc. The French also have two names for some of these animals, depending on whether you are tending them or eating them: vache-boeuf, cochon-porc, but English only borrowed the on-the-plate names. 

Today some languages are protected by their governments from outside corruption, English-speakers have taken a different tack altogether. We shop around, kick the tires, and pick the best from the bunch to take as our own. While France and Quebec struggle to stem the creeping influence of English, passing laws and mandating French-only usage, we do not. Language is a personal, visceral, and emotional issue. And while one may understand the desire of a group of speakers to defend themselves against linguistic imperialism and the risk of cultural obsolescence, such efforts force language to work against its own natural evolution. These are expressions of political agendas, not organic change. 

So go ahead and borrow! You never have to pay it back.


Paul D. Marks said...

Like you, Jim, I never remember using the word "pasta" pre when, maybe mid-80s. It was either spaghetti or noodles and it too me forever to get up to speed.

And congratulations on your Anthony nomination! Good luck!

RJ Harlick said...

So does this mean we can be inventive in the use of borrowed words in our writing? :) But then again that is likely how these borrowed words are often introduced. Interesting post.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good post, James. It's interesting how some languages seem to be branches originating from the same tree.