How to Anger English Majors

shakespeareI love languages.  I specialize in the “dead” languages of Greece and Rome.  But the history and development of languages has always fascinated me.  I was hooked the first moment I heard about Indo-European (which was first hypothesized by William Jones, whom I hope is a long lost relative).    One thing I firmly believe about language is that grammar is primarily descriptive not prescriptive.  Though it does give us rules about (prescribes) HOW to speak, it is mainly a reflection of (describes) how we in fact DO speak.   Languages change.  And as languages change, so do the rules.  One group of people who just don’t get this is English majors.  Maybe because they enjoy knowing the rules and condescending to those who don’t, who knows?  But in keeping with the holiday season, I give you 2 things that are absolutely true about English but which will absolutely infuriate English majors.

1. Refudiate is (or soon will be) a word – Yes, I know the original word is “repudiate.”  But it is changing for a variety of reasons.  1. The root word in repudiate is “pudor,” a latin word which isn’t used elsewhere in English.  On the other hand, “refudiate” seems to contain the word “refute” a word we use a lot and which seems related to what we mean by repudiate.  2. Phonologically, “refudiate,” with its labio-dental “f” is easier to say than “repudiate” with its bi-labial “p”.  All it will take is for a majority of us to start saying refudiate (we may already be there) and the word will have successfully slipped from one spelling to another. So the next time an English major snarls at you for saying refudiate, just say that you enjoy being on the cutting edge of linguistics and language shift.

2. Ending sentences with prepositions is part of our German heritage – We have all heard it.  We say, “Where are you going to?” and some English major snarks back, “Don’t end sentences with prepositions.”  My response has traditionally been to respond sarcastically, “Ok…fine…where are you going to, jerk?”  But that has not produced much head-way.  Instead, now I point out that though a great deal of English vocabulary comes from Latin through French (thank you, William the Conqueror), English is at its root a Germanic language when it comes to syntax…and in German it is perfectly normal…even required…to end sentences with prepositions.  Example: “Anrufen” means “to call.”  “An” is a preposition.  If I were to say, “Call me,” It would be “Rufen sie mich an.”  Notice: preposition at the end of the sentence.  So the next time an English major barks at you for ending a sentence in a preposition, just remark that you are celebrating your language’s German heritage and wish them a Guten Tag.

Enjoy…but use at your risk.  English majors can be an unruly lot…must be all that coffee and existentialist poetry

4 responses

  1. English majors who love English also love to end sentences with prepositions. It’s how we roll. The die-hard Classicists are the real prigs. Do it around them, and it tears them up.

  2. Pingback: Entry #4:….and the Words were recorded by Scriveners. “ « I was just thinking…….

  3. Dorothy Sayers says identifies the troublemakers, and they’re not English Majors.

    “There are pedants, God mend their ears, who, having read some cheap-jack, rule-of-thumb, cramp-wit folly in a sixpenny text-book, would like to break our free idiom to the bit of an alien fashion. These are not the Latinists (who know better), but the Latinisers; they remember the Latin bones of language, and will have them dry bones. These are the pinching misers, who will hoard their gold, but will not put it out to gain. Of such are the dreary little men who write to the papers protesting—in the teeth of Chaucer, Bacon, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, the English Bible, Milton, Burton, Congreve, Swift, Burke, Peacock, Ruskin, Arnold and the whole tradition of English Letters—that a sentence must not end with a proposition. This is no matter of syntax; it is a matter of idiom; and the freedom to handle our prepositions is among the most glorious in our charter of liberties.” —”The English Language,” 1936.

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