In this Issue
Letters to the Editor
Write to Us
Spread the Word
How many words are there in English? Hundreds of thousands, at least. I'm not going to attempt to answer this question more exactly; it's much more complicated than it seems. What about lexical phrases, or multi-word items, or the various other names they're given how many of them are there? Even more complicated! And then, how many different meanings do all these words and phrases have?
Even if you thought you could answer these questions accurately, your answer would in any case only be provisional. New words and phrases, and new meanings of established words and phrases, are entering the lexicon all the time just look at the Macmillan English Dictionaries' Word of the Week, for example. And let's not forget that at the same time, quietly and unnoticed, other vocabulary items and meanings are falling out of use.
Where have all these words and phrases, and all their meanings, come from? Vocabulary doesn't just grow on trees, and it's hardly ever invented completely out of the blue. (The trade name Kodak is supposedly an exception.) There are various recognised ways in which English has expanded its vocabulary, and you can read about them in books such as Stockwell & Minkova. Here I want to consider just one, which dates back to the early development of English – and much earlier than even that, in fact – but which is still very productive today, and underlies the proliferation of phrasal verbs, as well as a lot of other vocabulary.
Think yourself back a hundred thousand years ago or so, into the shoes of one of your ancestors (no, you wouldn't have had shoes, I know, but I'm speaking figuratively) at the time when they've decided it would be a good idea to invent language, in order to communicate more effectively, conduct their lives more efficiently and generally give themselves an evolutionary advantage over monkeys, lions, mosquitoes, earthquakes and existential angst.
This is an undertaking of unprecedented proportions. Think of the innumerable things that need to be decided: Are you going to have 'th' sounds, or do you think people will find them too difficult? Are you going to have genders, and if so, will 'sun' be masculine, feminine or neuter? Are you going to let people get away with deleting object pronouns in defining relative clauses? And so on. But through eloquent use of primitive grunts and semaphore, the work is farmed out to various committees, and you get assigned to the vocabulary committee. Work proceeds slowly but surely. At one point there's a bit of a mutiny when a majority agrees that 'tree' would be a nice word for that big wooden thing with leaves, but a group of rebels insist that it should be 'Baum', storm out of the meeting and stomp off to a different part of the savannah, where they declare independence and invent German. But eventually, after an exhausting series of meetings lasting a few thousand years, you're ready to report back to the elders of the tribe. You do this by pointing or drawing and naming things: 'tree', 'zebra', 'fire', 'scattered showers', 'that bloke in the corner yawning', or by demonstrating or miming: 'walk', 'run', 'stroll', 'saunter', 'up', 'down', 'in', 'on', 'a couple of yards to the left of'. And so on. This is, in fact, the first-ever dictionary, although it only exists in oral/kinaesthetic form. Your presentation is inevitably lengthy, but the elders watch and listen attentively, and seem quite impressed. But after a bit of consultation among themselves, they say ('say' using grunts and semaphore, of course) "Nice though the dictionary was, we have to point out that there were quite a few things missing. Yes, of course we'll need words like 'daisy', 'dandelion', 'buttercup', 'tulip', 'lupin', 'lager' and 'trombone' when we migrate to northern Europe. But what about abstract vocabulary? How are we going to talk about hypotheses, develop philosophical concepts, and discuss the pros and cons of different systems of government, for example?"
The answer is: Take the vocabulary you've got already, and spread it over new areas of meaning by using it metaphorically. For example, you can talk about some situations or abstract concepts as if they were physical places. Just as you can get into – or out of – a cave or a forest, you can get into – or out of – difficulty, debt, a habit or a routine.
You can also get into a discussion or conversation with someone. And once you're in there, the discussion or conversation is like a space to move around in, with tracks, obstacles, detours and destinations. Just as you can go back – or return – to a place you were in earlier, you can go back – or return – to something you were saying previously. You can stop to take stock of where you are, you can get lost, wander off the track or lose sight of your destination.
Here are some examples of how this conceptual metaphor
(Lakoff & Johnson, Moon)
is exploited in the English lexicon:
Similarly, when we say that applications are pouring
in, or flooding in, or that they have dried up, we're
using the conceptual metaphor 'a large number of something is like a large
amount of water', which also generates:
When we say that a search operation has been scaled
down, or that the government has played down a threat to public
health, we're using the conceptual metaphor 'more is up, less is down',
which also generates:
When we tell someone to cheer up, we're using the
conceptual metaphor 'happy is up, sad is down', which also generates:
As I showed in Phrasal Verbs International this process of 'spreading the word' – of stretching the meanings of already-available concrete vocabulary, including combinations of verbs and particles, into metaphorical dimensions – is typical of other languages as well as English. The explanation for this is presumably partly that it spread through the borrowing of vocabulary between languages, partly that it originated at an early stage before Indo-European languages became differentiated, and partly that it's the product of a universal human disposition to relate to the world through conceptual metaphor.
If we compare modern English with Old English, we can see a certain continuity but also a change in preference for exactly how this vocabulary-building process works.
Old English abounds in particle+verb compounds, like modern
German and Slavonic languages. From þyncan (= seem, appear)
for example, the following are derived:
In this extract from an Old English biblical fragment
(in Sweet/ Whitelock) we see the contrast between
a simple verb and a particle+verb:
Some Old English particle+verb compounds have survived, such as withstand, forbid and overcome. Mass expansion of the phrasal verb component of the English lexicon as we know it, with verb+particle word order, is a fairly recent phenomenon. The shift in preference from particle+verb (one word) to verb+particle (two words) is assumed to be part of the general development of English from a more analytic to a more synthetic language (from a fairly free word order with a great deal of inflection to a fairly fixed word order with very little inflection). It's suggested (Baugh & Cable) that the spread of verb+particle combinations would have happened faster, but was delayed by the mass importation of Latin/French vocabulary items in the wake of the Norman Conquest and later in the Renaissance – of course, these used the order particle+verb: e.g. suggest, combine, delay, import, inflect, assume, develop. Early examples of the verb+particle structure, when they did arise, were mostly literal in meaning, like climb up, fall down, but they later came to be used, as we know, to express metaphorical meanings, falling into line semantically with Old English forms like oferdrencan and Latinate ones like suggest.
The result of this history is that English has (like the Scandinavian languages) both verb+particle and particle+verb combinations of Germanic origin, and particle+verb combinations of Latin/French origin. In modern English, the particle+verb construction is still productive to some extent (e.g. outperform, upload, download) but the verb+particle construction is much more productive, and the result is all those 'phrasal verbs' that we know and love so well.
A History of the English Language,
A. Baugh & T. Cable (Routledge, 1951, 4th edition 1993)
In the final article in the series I will review some
approaches to teaching and learning phrasal verbs.