I hate it when you say that!

Published 10:36 am Thursday, April 6, 2017

Recently, my friend Linda and I were talking about language, specifically about language that gets on our nerves. Now I realize that variation or multiple ways to say something exists in language, but I also realize that part of being human is that there are words, pronunciations or structures that get under our skin.

And I think it’s okay to talk about it. It really makes Linda feel peevish when someone says “cyoo-pon” instead of “coo-pon,” while I am irritated by “Where are you at?” and “expresso” instead of “espresso.” A week or so ago I was corresponding with a fellow language watcher who is pained by his friend’s using “blasé, blasé, blasé” when he should be saying “blah, blah, blah.”

Feeling annoyance with other people’s use of language is nothing recent. Approximately 2,000 years ago, a Roman grammarian was so disquieted by the language he was hearing that he wrote out a list of specific concerns, more than 200 to be exact. We know it today as the Appendix Probi and it gives us a priceless glimpse of real Latin.

This is Latin as it really existed, as people actually used it, not the Classical Latin that we learn in school. This Roman grammarian constructed his list in a very simple, clear way. He wrote the standard form of the word first and then wrote “non” (not) followed by the offending form. For instance, he writes “oculus non oc’lus.” “Oculus” is Latin for “eye” and instead of pronouncing it with three syllables, he heard people dropping out the middle syllable and making it a two-syllable word. It’s kind of like people saying “mutt’ring” instead of “muttering” or “intresting” (three syllables) instead of “interesting” (four syllables). Here are some more examples from the Appendix Probi:

• masculus non mas’clus

• pridem non pride

• mensa non mesa

“Masculus” meant “masculine” or “male” and is another example of a three-syllable word being simplified to a two-syllable word. Our grammarian was concerned that “pridem,” an adverb meaning “long ago,” was losing its word final –m. He includes “mensa,” meaning “a measure/allowance of food” and also “table or tray for food,” because speakers were starting to drop an interior consonant. We can all probably identify with the author’s concerns. He was really hoping his list would act as a set of brakes and would stop these changes from occurring.

What is so fascinating about this list of language do’s and don’ts, however, is that the second form, the form you are not supposed to say, is the very form of the word that ended up surviving. The forms that represent the “don’ts” are often the words upon which the Romance languages were built. For example, the offending form “mas’clus” was the forerunner of the Spanish word “macho” and “mesa” is the modern Spanish word for “table.” Although the intent of the Appendix Probi was to educate Romans and essentially sound an alarm about language change, its value now is that it shows us how exactly many Latin words changed as Latin evolved into French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

Like the author of this list of Latin words, we all have a prescriptive side that doesn’t want to allow certain words or pronunciations to change. That’s the way it is. It’s inevitable that all of us will have our own particular preferences and concerns about the language and as long as we don’t “send people to hell” for their own particular variations, the resulting discussion can be very informative. I don’t like apostrophes that mark plural noun forms and I really don’t like it when people say “between you and I.” It sends me through the roof! And I’m okay with having a moderately prescriptive side. It is this tension between the standard and the reality of language change and variation that keeps things interesting. It makes for great debate around the dinner table or over a few beers at the bar. And, while we hold tightly to the language as it is, we must remember that the forms we so despise might one day end up being perfectly acceptable to a future generation of speakers.

So, in the spirit of the Appendix Probi, I would like to invite you to help create our own list of language do’s and don’ts by having readers share their pet language peeves. What is it that people say or write that really bugs you? What are your language no-no’s? Send them to me at jpalmer@hsc.edu and I’ll share them in one of my next columns.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.