The Plural of Book

I just finished a book called The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. It's pretty awesome if you're interested in a) how grammar evolves over time and b) how the very notion of grammar (verb tenses, prepositions, etc.) emerges in the first place.

The author describes, for example, the Latin case system, where nouns can have different endings depending on what role the noun is playing in the sentence. You say "cactus", for example, if it's used as a subject, but you use "cactum" if it's used as an object.

This was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. It means that you can pretty much place the words in your sentence in whatever order you like, without changing the meaning, because the subject and the object are identified, not by word order, as in English, but by the endings on the word. Cool. Insanely difficult, but cool. Apparently Russians still do it. They have my sympathy.

How does such a system even arise? As the author jokes, it seems fairly obvious that these endings weren't enumerated by some ancient Council of Elders or anything like that. So what happened?

As a clue, the author also describes the evolution of the future verb tense in French. Take a verb like sauter (to jump):

  • Je sauterai
  • Tu sauteras
  • Il/Elle/On sautera
  • Nous sauterons
  • Vous sauterez
  • Ils/Elles sauteront

If you know a bit of French, and you exclude the nous/vous cases for a moment, there's a pattern here: you take the infinitive and you add a the present tense of the verb "avoir" ("to have"):

  • Je sauter ai
  • Tu sauter as
  • On sauter a
  • Elles sauter ont

It's apparently not a coincidence. When the French future tense was emerging, the verb "avoir" could express an obligation (as in the English phrase "I have to jump"). So by putting "avoir" after a verb, you were expressing an obligation to do something. But if you have an obligation to do something, that means that you haven't done it yet; it's something that will happen in the future. Eventually the notion of obligation was forgotten and all that was left was the abstract notion of something that has not yet happened, but will happen at some point, i.e. a future tense.

This process is apparently very common in all languages. A metaphor is used to express an abstract concept (in this case, "obligation" expressing the notion of "future"), and it gets used so often that it fades into the background and all that's left is the abstract idea. The "fossilization" of metaphors into grammatical markers is a major theme of the book.

What about the nous/vous case? That one can be explained by another major theme of the book: linguistic fusion and decay. The first person plural present tense of avoir is "Nous avons". You tack this on to "sauter" and you get "Nous sauter avons". Over time the "av" in "avons" gets eroded out of existence and all you're left with is "sauterons". It happens all the time.

Word Crimes and the Plural of Book

If you haven't watched the Word Crimes video by Weird Al Yankvic, you should. It's hilarious.

At the same time, The Unfolding of Language has put me on the fence about this obviously clever song. The song is intensely prescriptive, poking fun at and grieving over the various ways people stray from the established rules of English grammar. The problem is that what we call the rules of grammar - in any language, even the most consistent ones - are more often than not the result of fusing together various words and being lazy with your vowels.

In other words, most rules of grammar emerge as a result of getting things wrong. The French future tense is a case in point - particularly the first person plural. This is true even if the language is very regular and consistent - and Modern English is basically the opposite of regular and consistent.

There was a time when the plural of "book" was "booken". Someone, at some point in the past, started saying "books" and it was simply wrong - as wrong as saying "childs" when you mean "children". And yet, over time, it stuck, and now we can't imagine it any other way. The official plural of "book" is now "books". From a certain point of view, this is bad grammar - but no one would ever think of it that way, including, crucially, people who write English grammar manuals. To a certain extent, even the most prescriptive of grammar experts must take a descriptive approach when they write their manuals. There's no other way to do it.

Am I suggesting that we should all start saying "childs", or that we shouldn't bother correcting someone who does this? Not exactly. True, saying "childs" when you mean "children" makes much more sense all around - most plurals in English end in "s". Making that kind of mistake betrays a kind of logical mind.

Of course, such mistakes also make you sound uneducated or, at best, sloppy, and I guess that's kind of the point. For better or for worse, people are more likely to listen to you if you seem educated, and knowing your grammar is one way to do this. It's the rough equivalent of being familiar with the basics of economics or politics or history. It's a good indicator that you are the recipient of a decent education, some of it probably even at a post-secondary level, and that you are, generally speaking, a well-rounded individual. Possibly not the best criteria on which to judge a person, but such is the world in which we live.

It's when people unconsciously conflate "not knowing one's grammar" with "stupid" that I start to take issue. The difference between "who" and "whom" is indeed interesting to a certain kind of person (myself included), but I completely understand why eyes tend to glaze over when I try to explain it. More to the point, I don't think it matters all that much, and I would feel pretentious correcting someone on the matter.

(If you're interested: you use "who" as a subject and "whom" as an object. This is one of the last vestiges in Modern English of what linguists call "cases" - variations on a word that identify its role in the sentence. Other examples include "he" versus "him", or "she" versus "her")

We should all remember that language is ultimately for communication, and if we can get away with a particular simplification without a loss in meaning, we tend to do it - especially if everyone else is doing it. English, over the years, has lost most of its case endings, for example. From the point of view of the original Old English speakers, the language we speak now - I'm talking perfect, modern, Queen's English here - is completely wrong. So if someone uses "who" when they should be using "whom", well, they're just continuing the good work of our ancestors.

If we plucked some unknown, Old English grammarian from 900 and plopped them in the middle of the modern era, I shudder to think what they would make of today's literature - even good literature, with proper grammar. I imagine it would all sound juvenile, if any meaning could be discerned at all.

All this to say, while I love "Word Crimes", I think we should all lighten up a bit with the grammar policing.