Saturday, 23 March 2013

On "lost" positives

I received a very interesting email the other day from someone I consider a good friend (though I rarely see him since he moved away), and the email was with respect to an observation made by a person - a biography my friend is editing - having to do with language change. At first I didn't quite get the question and in fact I thought it had to do with "folk etymology" but a couple of emails later and much thinking I realized what a profound observation the guy had made - I hope I did justice to enlightening my friend.

You see, in the Inuit Language - before contact with non-Inuit - there was no such thing as "how are you?" and "good day". The close proximity/bonds of members within a community (usually family and close friends) didn't require these formalities much, and, upon meeting a stranger, the greeting rituals consisted of hand-shakes, a few verbal exchanges to determine where from the stranger(s) came and/or who they were related to, etc. (if the strangers weren't familiar with the receivers, that is). But there was no "qanuippit?", no "ullukkut"

The "Qanuippit" question originally had a meaning: "are you unwell?" (ie, are you not in good health) and the stress/emphasis was different from how modern Inuktitut now use it and, therefore, even today the modern usage usually requires an answer in the negative "qanuinngittunga" to indicate that one is not unwell. The "ullukkut" greeting is likewise a bit strange if you think about it - in a sense that it is an orphaned phrase (morphemically speaking) from "(I see and acknowledge you) through/on this day" which has been quickly lexicalized into "have a good day"

Languages change.

In English (which is a weird mixture of Germanic and Latin/Greek languages), there is a phenomenon called "lost positives" that do not make much sense in the way these "lost ones" are used in contemporary English but do make sense (in a way) when we trace them back to the original language.

There are words like "inept", and "disheveled", for eg, in modern usage of English but it sounds strange and wrong to say "ept" and "heveled".

I mentioned this to my nuliakuluk (a consumate and insightful student of Inuktitut) and her comments made the missing puzzle pieces fall into their places beautifully. You see, the word "inept" can be etymologically traced back to Old French (from Latin originally):

c.1600, from Old French inepte (14c.) or directly from Latin ineptus "unsuitable, improper, absurd, awkward, silly, tactless," from in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + aptus "apt" (see apt). Related: Ineptly; ineptness. (

In fact, my nuliakuluk told me, Modern French still has the positive opposite of inept: apte though the opposite didn't quite make it into the English usage (at least not in the sense in which the opposition was originally used).

What's interesting about "disheveled" is that there is no "heveled" let alone "hevelling" or "hevels" because the root word "hevel" comes from Latin chevel and one can't quite transition the apparent past tense -ed into the present and present perfective forms. In fact, a logically derived analysis of "disheveled" would suggest that the initial segment /ch/ had been fronted to /s/ in English, such that the proper translation would derive into "without hair" - which is the opposite of the modern English meaning.

The other day I was watching The Family Guy (an episode in which Lois becomes a boxer) where Quagmire is seen dragging an unconscious female boxer that Lois knocked out and he shrugs and says "I like watching her box" and Peter quips: "That has two meanings".

As a student of linguistics and an Anglophile (in terms of language and literature), I'm constantly delighted by how flexible and diverse the English language is (actually, all language are). English is, clearly, an arrogant bastard; a 3 dressed as a 9; liable to cut off its nose despite its face. It is sheer madness to look too closely at it.

But it also points to the profound insight that, once we look beyond just the words, we realize that the grammatical structure of human languages is divinely inspired, and utterly beautiful to contemplate.


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