A blog meant to represent, as most blogs do, extracts or excepts from day-to-day life.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Inspring language

OK, I'm a grammar nerd. Grammar used to occupy most of my time; now it's just something I do for fun.

I just overheard two Italians talking to an American about the screwed-upness of the English language (a language that allows facile, on-the-fly construction of words like "screwed-upness").

"I always have trouble with H's," the Italiana said.

"I never know when an H supposed to be silent," she explained. "Like, sometimes it's silent and sometimes it's, like, you know, inspired."

She used the example of "hair" and "air," which isn't the best example. I'll cite for my readers "herb" (like in cooking) and "Herb" (the male forename).

Of course, what ma donna meant to say here was aspirated, rather than inspired, and to my ears the faux pas with regard to our slippery consonant was kidna funny.

And the subtle irony was not lost on me: while the two words--inspired and aspirated--have quite different meanings, they are closely related etymologically. Both words have to do with "breath," and I think the phonetic link between the disparate words is "aspired," as in "ma donna aspired to say her H's correctly." On the other hand, a native English speaker's H's are more or less, well, inspired.

By the way, if I remember right, Martha Stewart aspirates the begining of "herb" (as in the thing used in cooking), and I don't think she picked that up in prison. I think it marks a larger trend, the anglicization of American English. I notice a lot of cases where British language and grammar tend to sneak into American usage. A great example of this--but one that has nothing to do with H's--is the propensity for British punctuation in the formidable and very American Language Log. I think I can trace the British punctuation to U Penn linguist and Language Log contributor Mark Lieberman, who always puts end punctuation outside of end quotation marks. Of course, that's what they do across the pond. I love the blog but, Mark, WTF? Or as Mark himself might rather say, "WT *"?


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