23 January 2011

Language Part II: This thyme it's homophonic

Today, 'lets' deal with homophones. It's a 'thymely'* subject! We'll have a look at some of the many instances where homophones can lead to problems at the written level.

It's v its: This is a classic example of something that is very unstable and certain to change in favor of what is now viewed as a 'mistake'. (See earlier entry, especially the section on 'he and she' v 'they'.) First of all, they are homophones. But the real problem is that the distinction is entirely counter-intuitive: normally an apostrophe+s construction denotes a genitival relationship, e.g. Christopher's Take; but 'it's' is a contraction of 'it is' while 'its' is a genitival form of 'it'. WTF, mate?! So I expect this to disappear sooner or later. This is the descriptive grammarian in me defeating the normative one.

Their v they're v there. Wow. 'Their' is adjectival and possessive, 'they're' is a contraction and 'there' is an adverb. Hard to blame anyone making a mistake here, at least in everyday writing. The semantic differences are very clear, of course, but the fact that all three are very common and are homophones, makes it easy to slip up. Even I do it if I am in a hurry and/or I am not editing carefully. I expect to see some fusion here eventually. I give it a few decades, but if I had to place bets, it would be on 'there' becoming the single orthographic entity into which the other two are subsumed.

Who's v whose. Pretty much the same thing going on here as 'they're' v 'their'.

To v too. Easy to distinguish between them: one is a preposition and the other an adverb. Hmm...except that 'to' can sometimes be an adverb as well, albeit in a different context. Throw in the fact that it is a difference of but one letter, and I give the whole thing maybe fifty years before one is absorbed by the other. I place my bet on 'to'. I think 'two' will survive on its own, though.

Your v you're. Placing my money on 'your' winning out in the end. Some people will say, "How? They mean two different things!" To which I reply, "Seriously?" I just have this to say: bear (animal) v bear (unrelated verb), quail (bird) v quail (unrelated verb). We get much of our meaning from context anyway, so homonyms are as harmless as homophones.

A lot v alot: This one's a bit different because the latter isn't even a word. But guess what? It soon will be. And for good reason: it expresses a single idea. So while I personally would never write 'alot', I accept that it will soon be an accepted word in English.

Let's v lets. Contraction (imperative of first person plural of a verb) v third person singular conjugation of the same verb. C'mon...it'll boil down to 'lets' eventually anyway. Lie back and think of England. Just 'lets' let it happen.

Ant v aunt: Normally I wouldn't even include these, but they bring in yet another wonderful factor: semantic difference guards against confusing homophones, but especially ones that are entirely regional to begin with. To me, these words are homophones, because in my native South (of the US), they are both pronounced \ˈant\; but elsewhere, they are not homophones at all, as aunt is \ˈänt\. I therefore expect this written distinction to survive.

Almost any word in plural v possessive. This one drives my wife bonkers. You see it everywhere these days: "We have the best price on television's!" "Kitten's for sale". Most words in their plural and in the possessive are homophonic, so this shouldn't be too surprising.

I say just kill the apostrophe everywhere. Look at this plural v possessive issue issue and many of the issues above it: mistakes centered on this annoying little floating comma. Context should take care of making it clear when we mean one v the other, so why bother at all? Will anyone fail to understand "I didnt take its meaning"? 'Its' perfectly clear to me!

As for me, as much as I accept that the 'mistakes' will soon be the rules, and even as I personally promote the downfall of some of the stricter current rules, I am too much a perfectionist to say things like "lets say its OK to make these mistakes". Besides, if I relent, I lose out on the fun of correcting and judging you and making you feel that your worth as a human being is tied to your grammar and spelling. So, you know...I'll just stick with the rules.

Kidding aside (and yes, for the humorless among you, I was just kidding about judging you), if you take away** just one thing from this posting, let it be this: writing follows speaking, rarely*** the other way 'round. We forget this because ours is a highly literate society. But even now, in the 21st century, most languages**** spoken on Earth are either unwritten or are written using a borrowed script (e.g. Latin alphabet). Language occurs naturally; writing is quite artificial. One day I will get around to a blog entry on written language as an (arguable) precursor to civilization. But not today.


*OK, 'thyme' can't be an adjective, but shut it..it's my blog.

**We'll talk about hyphens at some point. Take-away v take away and so on.

***Spoken follows written only in cases of a sort of hyper-correction, when speakers try to make their speech conform to written standards. Granted, 'hyper-correction' is usually used in a different context, but I think it fits here, too. Remind me to talk about hyper-correction when we discuss comparative linguistics!

****It always surprises people when they hear that there are roughly six THOUSAND languages on this planet. [No one really agrees on the exact number, since there are a lot of grey areas, especially when it comes to distinguishing language v dialect. This can be a very touchy subject. For example, I have always maintained that Norwegian (and its MANY dialects), Swedish and Danish are all just dialects of a single Scandinavian language, since they are all more or less mutually intelligible; but I do not recommend ever saying that to a Scandinavian person! But when someone like me can study at university in Norway and have textbooks in all three 'languages' throughout the course of his academic career, it seems difficult to make the case that they merit the distinction of being called separate languages. But as usual, I digress!] India alone has around 700 languages. Even the language we call Chinese is in fact many different languages, many of them mutually unintelligible on the spoken level (though sharing a common, mutually understandable written version).

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