Friday, January 14, 2011

Verbing weirds language

Verbing—or denominalisation, as it is known to grammarians—is not new. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Language Instinct” (1994), points out that “easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English.” Elizabethan writers reveled in it: Shakespeare’s Duke of York, in “Richard II” (c1595), says “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle”, and the 1552 Book of Common Prayer includes a service “commonly called the Churching of Women”. [...]

What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections. The infinitive does not take a separate ending, so while in French the noun “action” has to become the verb “actionner”, English can use the same form for both. In German (apart from “essen” meaning “food” or “eat”), such words are virtually unknown; the same is true of Chinese—though the noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “to shock”. In Arabic such formations are not found at all. [...]

Sometimes the results are ridiculous—notably when verbs are minted from nouns which were formed from verbs in the first place. To say “Let’s conference” instead of “Let’s confer”, “I’ll signature it” instead of “I’ll sign it”, or “they statemented” instead of “they stated”, makes the speaker seem either ignorant or pretentious. 
~"You've Been Verbed," by Anthony Gardner

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