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The History of English
undertaker was originally a euphemistic term with a very different range of
meanings from the principal one which it now carries: the word used to mean
'helper', 'contractor', 'publisher' and 'baptismal sponsor', among others (Pyles and
Algeo, 1982: 249).
Sometimes euphemistic terms undergo pejoration if the social taboos remain
strong, as can be seen in terms for subjects such as excretion. English speakers of
particular generations (mine included) feel extremely uncomfortable saying I'm
going to the toilet and if we have to make such an announcement, are much more
likely to use terms such as loo, restroom, the American-influenced bathroom, or
(depending on who we are talking to) jokingly childish alternatives such as I'm
going to have a wee/pee. It is worth noting though that toilet is not pejorated for
everyone - the majority of my students, who are in their late teens or early
twenties, say they have no problem using the word, and typically find
euphemisms used by much older generations, such as little boys'/girls' rooms, or
spending a penny, laughable. To return to the cycle of pejoration that such terms
can undergo, however, toilet was in fact a euphemism (deriving ultimately from
French toile 'cloth') introduced to replace pejorated terms such as privy, latrine
and lavatory - each of which was initially euphemistic (see Pyles and Algeo,
1982: 250).
The fact that people react negatively to certain issues and topics has led, in
some instances, to an arguably deliberate use of euphemistic terms. An explicit,
current example can be seen in the myriad expressions used by the nuclear
industry to detract from the potentially horrific results of their weaponry. This
technostrategic language (a term used by Cohn, 1987) includes terms such as clean
bombs, counter value attacks, collateral damage and surgically clean strikes, which all
obscure the actual scale of death and destruction. Weapons are also often given
either innocuous names which 'domesticate' them, such as daisy cutter and cookie
cutter, or romanticized labels which have connotations of godly (and therefore
beneficent) power, such as Titan and Polaris. In another example of rendering the
terrifying more familiar, silos, in which launch-ready missiles are kept, are referred
to as Christmas tree farms. Such terms are not only used within the nuclear
industry but have also entered the public consciousness via diffusion through the
media. Their positive effect, however, remains questionable: during the 2003
furor over war in Iraq, for example, letters to newspapers such as the London Metro
frequently complained that the use of euphemistic expressions allowed
governments to hide from the grim consequences of war.
1.5 Morphological Change
Changes in morphology essentially means changes in word structure. However,
since words are ultimately made up of sounds and in themselves make up
utterances, a language's morphology is integrated with its phonology and syntax,
and can be affected by changes they undergo. For instance, the process of
i-mutation (see Section 1.2) for plural formation was a phonologically
conditioned change, but the loss of conditioning -i (and hence of the process) has
simply rendered words such as feet and geese morphologically 'irregular'. As an
English as a Changing Language
example of syntactic change influencing morphology, consider that a 'full' verb
(that is, one which carries meaning and can be used as a main verb) can
eventually become a verbal affix and hence, part of a language's morphology.
Thus, the endings -ás and -án in Spanish verb forms, such as tu comprarás 'you
will buy' and ellos comprarán 'they will buy', have actually developed from
ancestral Latin habe¯re 'to have' (a full verb). We will revisit this process of
grammaticalization in more detail in Section 1.6 but let us now turn our attention
to some of the major ways in which morphological change can occur.
Re-analysis of a word's structure can result in changed morphological forms. We
have already seen an example of this in Section 1.3 with the re-analysis of bikini.
Re-analysis has also led to the development of umpire from noumpere and apron
from napron (consider related napkin, napery): it seems that (Middle English)
speakers analysed the initial nasal as part of a preceding indefinite article a(n).
The same kind of re-analysis, but with the opposite effect, gave English nickname
from (an) ekename and newt from (an) ewt.
A great deal of morphological change appears to occur through the operation of analogy, a concept initially devised and explored in diachronic studies of
sound change undertaken by the nineteenth-century scholars known as the
Neogrammarians. A principle of the Neogrammarian approach was that certain
sound changes operated with 'blind necessity' (McMahon, 1994: 20); that is, they
occurred because they were inevitable and despite any consequences they might
incur for the rest of the grammatical system. Thus, a sound change could result in
the creation of opaque irregularities that left no trace of the fact that they were
once the product of a regular process: witness again the example of i-mutated
plurals. The Neogrammarians believed, however, that analogy would come into
play after a sound change had operated, making irregular forms conform to a
regular pattern. Thus, although other nouns, such as book (OE bo¯c) should have
historically followed the i-mutation pattern of feet, geese and others, they instead
conformed to the more widespread one of forming plurals with -s, in this case
giving modern English books and not, as might be expected, beek. We can see from
this example, however, that the operation of analogy is in itself sporadic - if it
were not, we would now have foots and gooses. This interaction between sound
change and analogy is neatly summed up in Sturtevant's Paradox: sound change
is regular but creates irregularity, whereas analogy is irregular but creates
regularity. We will return to this below.
Analogy has also been invoked as a general explanatory principle in
morphological change. One of its incarnations is analogical extension, which
involves 'the generalisation of a morpheme or relation which already exists in the
language into new situations or forms' (McMahon, 1994: 71). A typical example
of this process lies in an area of English morphology that we have already
mentioned a few times, namely the formation of the plural. As we will see in
Chapter 3, Old English nouns, which were gendered, belonged to different
inflectional paradigms which carried information on case and number. Thus, the
plural form of a word like stone (OE sta¯n; masculine gender) was sta¯nas when used
as a subject and sta¯num when an indirect object. On the other hand, the plural
form of ship (OE scip; neuter gender) when in subject position was scipu but scipa