Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Some of our basic verbs: “eat”

Philosophy News image
Whoever the Indo-Europeans were and wherever they lived several thousand years ago, by the time they began to write, they had produced a word for “eat” that sounded nearly the same all over the enormous territory they occupied. In Latin, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, Greek, Sanskrit, and beyond, the verb for devouring food resembles Engl. eat. Eat, like be, belonged to a rare grammatical class. Only one example from Modern English can show how things stood. The first person singular of Engl. to be is am. Final m in it is an ancient ending. Compare Engl. (I) am and Russian (ya) yem “I eat.” (Engl. yummy and yum ~ yum-yum have nothing to do with it.) Such verbs were few. In Germanic, unlike what we observe in Slavic, the situation changed early (that is, with regard to the conjugation, eat joined the main group), but, since Modern English has lost all verbal endings except for –s (he/she eats), there is nothing for us to discuss. Only the past tense of eat presents some interest to a modern speaker of English, because, whatever dictionaries may say, in educated British English, ate more often rhymes with let than with late, while in American English the situation is reverse. The historically justified variant is ate homonymous with eight, and therefore it does not come as a surprise that the colonists took this old pronunciation to the New World. The origin of the pronunciation et for “ate” is not quite clear. There may have been the Middle English form ēt, which underwent shortening. Since both variants have been known in England for centuries, their coexistence in America need not surprise us either. Problems arise only when such variants become shibboleths, markers of a social class. Since all people prefer their own pronunciation and tend to look on it as correct, some disagreement is inevitable. But we are familiar with the same situation in many other cases. Sneaked, not snuck! Dived not dove! As I said, not like I said. All such discussions are as inspiring as. . .

Continue reading . . .

News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

blog comments powered by Disqus