Nature and Art in Language¹

by Otto Jespersen, 1933

Part 1

It is customary to speak of such languages as English, French and German as natural, and such languages as Esperanto, Ido, Volapük, Occidental, Novial as artificial.

It will be my task in this paper to show that this distinction is not exact, as the difference is one of degree rather than of species; very much in the so-called natural languages is "artificial", and very much in the so-called artificial languages is quite natural, at any rate in all those schemes that count; therefore it would be wise to choose more adequate terms. I shall consequently speak of the first class of languages as national languages, and of the second class as constructed or systematically planned languages. The latter may also be termed international languages, for the purpose of those constructed languages with which we are to deal here is to serve as international auxiliary languages, i.e. means of communication between persons belonging to different speech communites.

First, then, as to the national languages spoken in various countries: are they altogether natural, that is, developed unconsciously or subconsciously by nations rather than consciously by individuals? Formerly languages were often spoken of as organisms whose natural growth was thought to be analogous to that of plants or even animals; but linguists have come to realize that this is a wrong view, because a language has no independent existence apart from those individuals who speak it. Still it is true that the vast majority of linguistic facts have come about by what may without any infringement of scientific precision be termed natural growth. This is especially true of linguistic structure, or what we generally call grammar. No single individual, no body of individuals, ever sat down deliberately to frame the endings and other means by which plurals or past tenses are expressed in English or any other language. If now men is the plural of man, and drank the past tense (preterit) of the verb to drink, this goes back to very early times, and linguistic historians are able to point out that the vowel changes in these words did not at first possess the grammatical significance which they have now, but were brought about mechanically in consequence of influences from previous endings or accentual differences, while those grammatical endings which in the earliest stages of the language served to mark plural and past tense respectively, have disappeared altogether - a development which took centuries, the forms being handed over from generation to generation while no one was ever aware of any changes going on in the sounds and in the grammatical value attached to these sounds.

Similarly with most of our common words, like house, grass, green, bind, never, etc. etc. They go back to immemorial times, and the changes in sound and in meaning which linguists may be able to point out can no more than the words themselves be traced back to any definite individual, though scholars may be inclined to say that theoretically the initiative must have come from one individual, or perhaps from several individuals each of whom hit upon the same expression or the same modification of an already existing expression.

On the other hand there are many words that have been deliberately coined in recent times, and some of them have become extremely popular. Kodak - a mere arbitrary collection of sounds without any perceptible association with existing words - is now known all over the world and often used for 'camera' in general, thus not restricted to that particular make for which it was originally framed. Generally the inventors of trade names for things they want to puff take one or two elements from national languages, living or dead, adding some usual ending and combining these elements ad libitum, often with supreme contempt for the ordinary rules for word-formation observed in the languages from which the elements are taken. This does not matter greatly, so long as the result is tolerably euphonious - and the article is saleable! It would, perhaps, be invidious to give examples, but anyone can find some in the advertising sections of newspapers and magazines.

We move in a somewhat higher sphere, though the process is strictly analogous, when we come to consider those new terms which abound in all the branches of science. If you look through a list of chemical elements you will find a curious jumble of words of different kinds. First we have the well-known old national words going back to immemorial times and therefore perfectly 'natural', words like gold, iron, tin, etc., next words like hydrogen, oxygen, formed from Greek roots by the first scientific chemists towards the end of the eighteenth century, and then a long string of words coined in even more recent times, some of them from the name of the first discoverer, like Samarium and Gadolinium, others more or less fancifully, from the names of planets or godesses, like cerium, uranium, palladium, or from similar Greek words, helium from helios 'sun', selenium from selene 'moon', neon from neon 'a new thing', etc. The latest fashion is to add the ending -um to the name of the place where the element was discovered: this may have originated in a misapprehension of gallium as if from Gallia France, though it really came from a translation of the name of the discoverer Lecoq (1875); but place names are found in germanium, ytterbium (from the Swedish town Ytterbo), hafnium (from the Latin name of Copenhagen, because discovered at Niels Bohr's laboratory there). Most of these names remain the possession of the happy few specialists, but others, like aluminium (coined by Sir Humphry Davy about 1812), are known by laymen as well.

The names in -ium here mentioned show the natural tendency to use the same ending in coined words of similar meaning. This is seen also in other chemical and mineralogical terms; thus we have the ending -ite in melanite, dynamite, graphite, humboldtite, etc., adapted from old Greek words like anthracite, chlorite. Another ending that is exclusively used in such coinages is -ol, taken from alcohol (originally an Arabic word in which the ending has no derivative value) and extended to a great many names of substances: carbinol, methol, naphthol, phenol, cresol, odol, (a tooth-wash, very irregularly formed from Greek odous, odontos, tooth). A curious formation is seen in carferal from car(bon) + fer(rum) + al(umina).

While we have here seen names of concrete things or substances formed consciously in recent times, most sciences in their modern developments have felt greater need of abstract terms, and have produced such in great numbers, chiefly from Greek and Latin roots. Here we may mention the names of various branches and subbranches of sciences made necessary in our day by the ever growing specialization of science: biology, biochemistry, photochemistry, entomology, otology, anthropology and many more in -ology and -ography. Sociology when framed by Auguste Comte was objected to because it was a hybrid of Latin and Greek, but the word filled a gap and has now gained a firm footing together with sociological and sociologist. Recent writers on heredity use extensively Wilhelm Johannsen's coinages genotype and phenotype, and similar technical terms that may be traced back to individual specialists abound in all recent books on science. The tendency to form new terms for useful or even indispensable notions is perfectly legitimate, but some scientists carry the tendency to such extremes that one is tempted to speak of terminological hypertrophy; among linguists I must mention as sinners in that respect the Swede A. Noreen and the Belgian A. Carnoy: in the latter's book "La Science du Mot" (Louvain 1927) there are at least 35 words in -sémie, most of them coined by the author himself, and some of them really quite superfluous.

It may surprise some readers to hear that poets and novelists are responsible for extremely few word-coinages: what they have done is chiefly to give literary currency to words that were already used in everyday speech. Shakespeare is perhaps the author of bumbailiff, but Dickens does not seem to have been the inventor of the word bumbledom, though it is formed from the name of the beadle Bumble in Oliver Twist: and if that name was remembered it was because the common name bumble was already in existence and was a very expressive word (cf. jumble, grumble, bungle, etc.). Spoof as the name of a game of hoaxing and nonsensical character and then as a general name for humbug or hoax is traced back to the comedian A. Roberts, but hundreds of similar slang words have been and are daily coined in all countries - anonymously, for no one cares to record their author, and yet they must ultimately be referred to individuals, who give vent to sudden impulses to blurt forth jocular or contemptuous words never heard before. Most of these whimsical formations are stillborn, but some take the fancy of the hearers and are spread in wider and wider circles, chiefly those words that seem to fill a gap and are felt as expressive. Many of them are so similar to already existing words and so easily associated with the ordinary vocabulary of the language that they are hardly felt as new words. But that is only another expression of the fact that these words are "natural", and we thus see how "natural" it is "artificially" to frame new words under certain circumstances: art and nature cannot be separated by a hard and fast line or boundary. Slang is that "art" of language which comes "natural" to some people (chiefly young) and to some moods (2).

Sometimes one is reminded of the way in which contagious diseases spread when one sees how certain suffixes become the fashion and are used in an increasing number of new words. A case in point is -eria in recent American use: it began with cafeteria, a Spanish or pseudo-Spanish word adopted in California and giving rise to a whole mania of new coinages: basketeria - a store where baskets are sold; chocolateria, fruiteria, luncheteria, valeteria an establishment for cleaning and pressing clothes; even bobateria where the hair of women is bobbed. A synonymous ending is -torium: barbatorium, printorium, bobatorium, pantorium, or pantatorium a synonym of valeteria; one may doubt whether the new healthatorium will succeed in ousting the older and better established sanatorium (chiefly in U.S.A.). At any rate such words, barbarous as they appear to the purist, are of the greatest interest to the student of linguistic psychology and to the adherent of the idea of a constructed language for international communication.

I may also here briefly refer to such jocular blendings of two words as squarson from squire + parson, and brunch from breakfast + lunch, tunch from tea + lunch.

Twenty-five years ago a Danish newspaper offered a prize for the best word to be used instead of the heavy automobil; the prize was given to bil, which spread very rapidly and is now the term used universally not only in Denmark, but also in Sweden and Norway: it lends itself easily to compounds, and a verb at bile (to motor) is readily formed from it, which is the more convenient as it forms a natural group with some other verbs denoting rapid motion: ile (to hurry), pile af, kile af. It is more doubtful whether the word resulting from a recent competition opened by the same paper to find a name for a person celebrating his birthday will be equally successful: fødselar, formed from fødselsdag birthday with the ending of jubilar, one who celebrates his jubilee.

One of the best authenticated instances of instantaneous coinages that have been accepted by a nation at large is gerrymander: "In 1812, while Elbridge Gerry was Governor of Massachussetts, the Democratic legislature, in order to secure an increased representation in the State Senate, districted the State in such a way that the shape of the towns ... brought out a territory of irregular outline. This was indicated on a map ... Stuart the painter, observing it, added a head, wings, and claws, and exclaimed, "That will do for a salamander." "Gerrymander!" said Russell, and the word became a proverb."

Hungarian (Magyar), the development of which as a literary language is one of the youngest in Europe, is particularly rich in words and terms that have been consciously and deliberately coined or selected. One particularly striking instance has been mentioned by several linguists. The Hungarian word minta means 'pattern, form, model' and enters into scores of derivates and compounds; it sounds like a Hungarian word and does as good service as any other word. But if ever anything was manufactured in a retort it was this - and according to a misread recipe at that. The Swedish word for 'mint' or 'coin' is mynt, which was taken over into Lapp as mynta. In some old Lapp dictionary the translation 'pattern' belonging to the word minstar (cf. German muster) had through a printer's error found its way to the word following it, minta. Here Father Faludi found it about 1770; he took a fancy to minta because it reminded him of Magyar mint a 'as the'; he introduced the printer's error into Magyar, which is remotely related to Lapp, and it came to stay there without any brand of infamy. Many pages in S. Simónyi's great work "Die Ungarische Sprache" are filled with an account of the way in which writers consciously enriched this language; of one novelist Barcafalvi Szabó Dávid it is said that he applied himself to coining words as if in a manufactory. Some fifty words of his are still common property in the literary language.

In some cases the natural, unconscious development of a language has led to too great similarity between forms or words which it is particularly important to distinguish, and then conscious action has sometimes to be taken to regulate matters. The two old terms starboard and larboard seem to have been good enough in the old ships, but in modern steamboats with their greater dimensions and greater noise they were so often mistaken for one another, sometimes with fatal results, that the British marine authorities in 1844 were obliged to issue the order that port be used instead of larboard. A mistake of one numeral for another is specially annoying in telephoning, hence it has been agreed in Germany to revive the old for zwo for 'two', as zwei was constantly misheard as drei and vice versa (zwo is used also in the German marine). In England (and, I suppose, in America as well) nought and four were so often misheard for one another, that o had to be adopted as the official name for 0 instead of nought. In Rio Janeiro the number seis (6) was liable to be mixed up with tres (3) or sete (7), so in calling the number on the phone one has to say meia duzia 'half-dozen'; 66 is called meia-meia duzia, which is often abbreviated into meia-meia - which thus leads to a curious and nowhere else paralleled sense-development from 'half' to 'six'. In Japanese there are two series of numerals in use, one of native origin, and the other imported from Chinese; but as the forms of the latter series shi (4), shitshi (7) can be easily confused, they are avoided when prices of wares are indicated, on the telephone, and generally when it is important to avoid mistakes: then people will say jottsu (4), or the shortened form jo (4), and nanatsu or nana (7); for similar reasons kju is substituted for ku (9).

I have no space here for more than a very brief mention of a highly artificial linguistic trick that has lately come into fashion in many countries, namely that of coining terms from the initials of a composite expression, which are read either separately with the traditional names, as in Y.M.C.A. (in Danish correspondingly K.F.U.M.), or pronounced together, as Dora (Defence of Realm Act). This fashion was especially in vogue during the late war, and was extended even to such expressions as P.D.Q. = pretty damn quick. I must refrain from giving more examples from English and from mentioning more than one example from German: Hapag = Hamburg Amerika Packet Actien Gesellschaft, one from Italian: Fiat = Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, and one from Russian: Tcheka = Tchrezvychainyi Komitet (Extraordinary Committee).

Many words in various languages have been coined by purists to avoid the adoption of foreign words. This is not the place for a discussion of the merits of purism in general, but something must be said of the psychological aspect of the question from the point of view of the contrast that forms the subject of this paper. When a speaker or writer wants to express a notion, for which his native language has no word, while one is known to him in another language, two ways are open to him. Either he may take the foreign word and use it in the middle of his own language, with or without such slight changes in sound, spelling or inflexion as may make it more palatable to his countrymen, or he may try to coin a new term by means of native speech material, either a compound or a derivative of some existing word. Which of these two procedures is the more natural? It will be hard to answer this question beforehand and once and for all (3). As a matter of fact some nations prefer one way, and others another, and the same nation may even at various periods of its life change its preference in this respect.

This is seen very clearly in the case of English. In Old English times it was the fasion to form native words for those hundreds of new notions that were introduced with Christianity and the higher bookish culture that came in the wake of the new religion. Thus we find gesommung for congregation, witega for prophet, throwere for martyr, sunderhalga (from sunder separate and halga holy) for Pharisee, handpreost for chaplain, heahbiscop (heah = high) for archbishop, dyppan (to dip) for baptize, læcecræft (leechcraft) for medicine, efnniht (efn = even) for equinox, tungol-æ (star-law) for astronomy, and many others. It will be seen from the translations given that the English nation as a whole has given up the propensity to form native words for such ideas and now prefers to go to French and especially to the two classical tongues; many of these at first foreign elements have now become part and parcel of the English language, and the habit of taking ready-made words from abroad instead of trying to express the same idea by native means has become so firmly rooted that even such innocent words as handbook (for manual (4)) and folklore were for a long time looked upon as curious whims of purists, i.e., as "unnatural" and foreign to the speech-instincts of ordinary people. In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage Mr. Fowler writes:
"Foreword" is a word invented fifty years ago as a Saxonism by antilatinists, & caught up as a vogue-word by the people who love a new word for an old thing ..... It is to be hoped that the vogue may pass, & the taste of the general public prevail again over that of publishers and authors."

In another place he says that "the truth is perhaps that conscious deliberate Saxonism is folly" and this condemnation doubtless expresses the opinion of the average educated Englishman and American - though it may perhaps be doubted whether the ordinary man in the street who has not had the benefit of much school teaching would not in many cases prefer terms that were at once transparent to him, to those adopted by his learned compatriots.

On to Part 2 of this article

(1) American Speech, 5.89ff. (1929); much has here been added to the latter part of the paper.

(2) See on slang my book "Mankind, Nation and Individual", 1925, p. 149 ff.

(3) Cf. the discussion of this problem with regard to Danish in my "Tanker og Studier" (Copenhagen 1932), p. 140 ff., cf. ff.

(4) Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the Engl. L. § 47.

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James Chandler 03-Jun-01