English is fantastic

I am a closet pedant. Yes, I admit it.

When I hear people say something like “I’ll try and do it better”, I inwardly wince.

When I hear people use a word like ironical (instead of ironic), I die a little death.

However, in the latter case at least, it turns out that my annoyance could be misplaced, and in fact, the “-ic” versus “-ical” question is a bit of an unresolved mystery. In fact, it seems like it points to some weirdness going on in the English language.

The problem arises because you can turn many nouns into adjectives by adding a various suffixes. Some common ones are the “-ic” suffix (e.g. history becomes historic), the “-ish” suffix (e.g. book becomes bookish), the “-al” suffix (e.g. nation becomes national), and the “-y” suffix (e.g. box becomes boxy). However, suffixes can be added to other suffixes, and you can easily end up with abominations.

Why do we need words like ironical, symmetrical, or problematical, when ironic, symmetric and problematic are already doing a fine job?

I admit that there are a few places where the “-ic” and “-ical” adjectives have different meanings, such as historic(al) or economic(al). However, it seems that solid differences are the exception, rather than the rule.

I recently came across this study by Stefan Th Gries, which takes a deep look into the literature on this matter and also draws new conclusions based on a statistical investigation of a large corpus of English texts. The conclusion that I came to, after reading it, was that differences between the “-ic” and “-ical” adjectives seem to vary between regions and across time. Sometimes the variants of an adjective move further apart and then move closer together again. They are words that are pegged to the meaning of the underlying noun, but by dint of being separate words, have separate lives.

It reminded me of the theory of genetic drift. At least, to the extent that as difference in utility between using the “-ic” or “-ical” variant is so slight, it may be essentially random population effects that could be driving the frequency of using a particular variant for a particular purpose. Some variants happen to become sufficiently popular for a particular use, and that meaning becomes stuck.

I have now realised that here in Melbourne, we have two old gardens that are relevant to this discussion. The Royal Botanic Gardens were founded in 1846, while the Royal Zoological Gardens were opened in 1862. (In fact, animals were kept in the Botanic Gardens until the Zoo opened.) Even though these places were named around the same time, one has an “-ic” style name and the other has an “-ical”. The word “zoologic” seemed to have by then (and still today), for whatever reason, fallen out of fashion, while its companion word, “botanic”, continued to be popular.

I am going to continue to despair for those people that use “ironical” but I think I’ll cut the others a bit of slack.

Treasured Languages

I’ve just finished listening to a podcast of a seminar put on by the Long Now Foundation, on endangered languages. It was fascinating for many reasons, but just one was the concept put forward that a language is a codified form of the culture that produces it.

For example, the many different words for various trees known to a people indicate a need within their culture to be able to distinguish them, or a culture that uses plant poisons would probably have words for plants that reflect their importance in producing poisons. If you knew what those words were and what they meant, it would give you knowledge. The latest evolution of a culture’s knowledge of the world and philosophy is captured in their language.

Which is why it is a shame when languages die. We don’t just lose a particular way of expression, but potentially also useful learnings about the world.

It reminds me of the story of how ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were decoded after being undecypherable for centuries. Sure, the Rosetta Stone helped, but if it wasn’t for the realisation that the Coptic Language preserved the ancient Egyptian linguistic forms, I suspect we’d only be able to decode a few words and that would be it. In a real way, the culture of the ancient Egyptians is open to us now only because it was carried forward to us in the form of Coptic. If Coptic had died out (and it is nearly extinct), so would’ve our opportunity to understand the ways of an ancient people.