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Where Do Words Come From, Then?

If it's hard to imagine how more than a few words could have arisen by imitating things, as I blogged about here yesterday, then one question is where words do come from.

Where the first ones came from we may never know. But we know a lot about how new ones come from old ones, and some of the ways are not exactly intuitive. Since the counterintuitive is a lot of what makes linguistics fun, let's look at one of the ways.

We know that one way we make new words is with suffixes like –ment to make nouns: govern, government. But that alone is kind of boring. We don't feel like government is really "another word" compared to govern. It feels like a version of it, wearing a kind of hat.We don't feel like government is really "another word" compared to govern. It feels like a version of it, wearing a kind of hat.

But: Those suffixes don't always work. How would you make the verb recall into a noun? There's no recallment. That's where things go below the radar: You make recall into a noun by shifting the accent backwards and saying RE-call. The Schwarzenegger movie, for instance, was not called Total Re-CALL.

It's the same with how we can rebel against something and become a RE-bel. This accent shift is a piece of grammar that we all have in our brains. It is also always creating new words out of what start as two. A bird that happens to be black is a black bird, where you say black BIRD. But the particular backyard bird is a blackbird, pronounced BLACKbird. That's because of the same shift that makes reCALL into REcall, except shifting to the first word of two instead of the first syllable of two.

The accent shifts backwards as the novelty of the concept fades. If you saw a vat of purple cream you'd point to that purple CREAM. However, the staple desert is pronounced ICE cream, except in a Simpsons episode ("Bart's Inner Child," 1993) where Mr. Burns, always mired somewhere around 1900, encounters it for the first time and fittingly calls it "iced CREAM." Linguists call these double-stuff words compounds.

We create new compounds all the time by shifting the accent backwards — without thinking about it: bank scam, Burger King, cost control. Imagine trying to explain to a foreigner learning English why we say a rocky ROAD but say ACCESS road instead of access ROAD. It's because access road is so conventionalized a concept that it is a compound, a new word despite its spelling as two.

What I enjoy is that now, with six decades of television as an archive of colloquial English since after World War II and so much of that vintage television available at the push of a button, we can watch this accent shift creating terms we use today, unaware that they would sound peculiar if we travelled just a few decades back in time.

In a 1973 episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, the characters eat what they call Chinese FOOD, as opposed to ChiNESE food, as we would say it. Chinese food wasn't as central to American eating in 1973 as it would later be (in the clip one character has never even eaten it before). Chinese food wasn't "a word" yet.

Or: In the old days, pizza was still called pizza pie, one of many kinds of pies one might enjoy, like what we pronounce as apple PIE, and as such, it was pronounced pizza PIE, as you hear in this '50s commercial.

But in the '50s, pizza was on its way to becoming an American staple, and, as such, the accent was already shifting fast, so that the expression was often PIZZA pie, a compound, which soon shortened to just pizza alone. In one episode of the Honeymooners ("Catch a Star") we can hear Alice Kramden at the tipping point, using first PIZZA pie and then pizza.

My favorite example of compounding on the march was when on a noisy street I overheard a woman talking on her cell phone about what sounded like "peestreh." After a while I made out what she was complaining about: repeat stress syndrome, pronounced as rePEAT stress instead of repeat STRESS. Because she says it all the time, the accent has shifted backwards, and we can expect to hear that pronunciation more and more.

Who'd have thought repeat stress syndrome and ice cream had anything in common? Yet they do: grammar. As always, English speakers initiate a new noun with the bizarre hazing ritual of holding it down and yanking its accent backwards.

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John McWhorter is a renowned linguist and the author of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He teaches at Columbia University, is a contributing editor at the New Republic, and has appeared widely in the media. He lives in New York.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in... Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. What Language Is: And What It Isn't... Used Hardcover $12.50

John McWhorter is the author of What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be

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