Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What's Leubh Got to Do With It?

In honor of Valentine's Day and celebrations everywhere of love and/or flowers and sweetened fat in the form of chocolate--70% dark, please!--John McWhorter discusses a bit of the history of that certain feeling:

Recently I was on a panel about language "usage and abusage." The idea was for me and three other language specialists to answer the audience's questions about why there is such an epidemic of "sloppy grammar" afoot in America. "Why are people using interface as a verb?" "What's with ‘nucular'"? [...]

The reality that animals and plants have changed eternally has gained a pride of place in enlightened conversation, such that creationism is on the defensive. On the other hand, the general public has yet to join the 21st or even 20th century when it comes to language. The educated person is taught that a language is something enshrined in its "right" form in dictionaries and Strunk & White, such that any departures from this book and guide are "mistakes."

In fact, it is every bit as inherent and inevitable for languages to change as it is for animals and plants to. What we are taught to recognize as "mistakes" are simply tomorrow's version of the language.

Valentine's Day provides an object lesson, in that humble yet marvelous word — love. A simple, proper word, some might believe. But, in fact, like all words, it has a chaotic mess of a history.

It is one of several offshoots of a little piece of lexical kudzu that some bands of land-hungry Neolithic farmers infected in Europe. We only know so much about them. Apparently they were eager to make the world safe for horses, wheels, and patrilineal inheritance, and they emerged either on the steppes of southern Russia or in what is now Turkey. But the language they brought with them when they spread westward into Europe is the seed for most of today's European languages.

In that language there was a word, leubh, that meant "to care" or "to approve of." In each region of Europe these people's language spread throughout, leubh settled in with them and morphed into different shapes and meanings, rather like Web log became blog.

By two millennia ago, this was happening to leubh in the language that was soon to become "Englisc." The word love was one outcome — one may well have love for something that one cares for or approves of. Love was as a noun, but quickly started being used as a verb as well. That is, when you say, "I love you" to someone, you are using a word that began as a noun just as fax, interface, and green-light did.

Yet we would have little interest in an early Englisc-speaking shepherd scolding us for using love as a verb. And love was only part of the story anyway. Meanwhile leubh also morphed into what we know as leave — not as in departing, but as in the archaic expression "I give you leave to … ," or in other words, it meant "approval." This leave is more alive to us as it was bound into the word belief — belief means approval. Like other nouns, belief was turned into the verb believe.

Plus, notice the jump from leubh to leave: people started "mispronouncing" leubh just as you-know-who pronounces nuclear as nucular. But the planet keeps spinning and we have no sense that the "proper" pronunciation of belief is "beleubh." It was the same with the transformation of leubh into love. Every time we say love or belief, we are, technically, mispronouncing leubh!

[...] One could note that the word love is the descendant of an ancient word that contained within it desire, approval, belief, and permission. That's sweet, but a tad antimacassar.

The word love that we will hear in such proliferation today is one dollop of restless horsemen's heedless splattering, unconcerned with its multifarious fates, of leubh all over Europe.

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