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A Chat With Joseph Pickett

Joseph Pickett's picture
Date: Apr 19, 2001
Topic:The History of English
Duration:One hour




Joseph Pickett is Vice President and Executive Editor in the Dictionary Department at Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston. He has worked in lexicography for 18 years, starting in 1982 as an editor at The Middle English Dictionary project in Ann Arbor , Michigan. He has worked at Houghton Mifflin for 11 years, starting as Senior Editor in 1989, and becoming Senior Lexicographer in 1996, Executive Editor in 1997, and Vice President in 2000. Trained as a medievalist, he holds a Ph.D. in English language and literature from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His major projects have included entries for the letters S and T of The Middle English Dictionary; The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition and Fourth Editions; The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition; The American Heritage Student Dictionary (for Middle School students); The American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary; and The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Born and raised in Albany, New York, he has also worked as a science writer and adjunct professor of English, teaching literature and writing. He lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts, with his wife and two sons.

Transcript

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome ye to the tenth online chat at Wordsmith.Org! Today we've invited Joseph Pickett, Executive Editor of the American Heritage Dictionary and other dictionaries as our online chat guest. He is joining us from Swampscott, Massachusetts. In this chat we'll talk about the history of English.

Welcome, Joe!

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Thank you, Anu. It is a pleasure to be here.

kudadaan-India
Having gone through more than a thousand years or so, how does Beowulf rate in modern times?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
I admit to prejudice in this case. I have studied Old English and read Beowulf in the original, and I can only say that it is really magnificent.

kudadaan-India
And, how do you view the contribution of Indian authors to the development of English language?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
I confess I have not studied Indian English in any sort of detail. It is an interesting and dynamic variety of English, with a rich literature.

kudadaan-India
Magnificent in what ways?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Like all varieties of English, it has its own system--its own special vocabulary, sounds, and constructions. These are interesting and (in my view) beautiful in their own right, but it also reflects India's rich and complex culture. It's hard for me not to be a fan.

daveg USA
The language will evolve regardless of what dictionaries print. How can dictionaries contribute to sensible evolution of English, and who determines what is "sensible"?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Well, you determine that for yourself, as we all must. I'm not sure dictionaries contribute to the evolution of English. Some say they retard that evolution, but I think they represent a snapshot of a changing system, like an overhead photo of a river.

Let me add something to my previous remarks. Dictionaries tell us what is conventional, broadly acceptable, in public discourse. Because the dictionary is a fixed reference book, it seems to fix the language, but the language and its conventions are always changing. This is why you need to update your dictionary periodically. . .

Anu Garg (Moderator)
The Old English is nearly unintelligible to a layman. Do you think current form of English will be the same in a few hundred or thousand years?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Old English is certainly a foreign language to us, more like a dialect of German than one of English. It is unintelligible to anyone who has not invested some time studying its grammar and vocabulary--but it is still a wonderful language. Will our English be similar obscure to people in 500 or a thousand years? That's hard to say, but it will require some work to understand, much as Shakespeare's English does today.

daveg USA
So you would say that a dictionary is like a road map which needs to be replaced periodically to reflect new construction and roads taken out of service?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Absolutely. The map metaphor is an apt one--something that you can refer to in order to get your bearings and understand where you are. But as the landscape changes around you over 10 or 20 years, so does the language.

nick
Would you comment on the influence the Danish language on the development of English?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
If you mean Modern Danish, I don't think it has had much influence at all. If you mean what is known as Old Norse, then the influence is enormous.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Because the Scandinavians of various sorts (called Vikings) settled in England and actually ruled much of the country for a while, many English words come from Old Norse (think of the sk- words like skirt). Danish also gave us the -s ending in verbs (as in he does). And the pronoun they.

keith
Can you tell me anything about the word "ubiquitous"? I seem to run into it everywhere.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Good joke. It comes from Latin, where ubi meant "where".

MJ U.S.A.
Referring to the road map metaphor, then those of us in our twilight years are truly out of step when we decry what we perceive as the poor use of language by the young.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Yes, we are out of step. Young people use language (as we did) to create their identities and to establish social connections and meaning. To do this, they vary their language from the older generation. Much of what we perceive as poor is experimentation with language, experimentation that may one day become so common as to be unremarkable.

daveg USA
Yeah, MJ, it's like saying "Why don't you take the turnpike they tore down 20 years ago?"

kudadaan-India
In one of the chats here at Wordsmith, the guest speaker from the Columbia School of Journalism had thought of internet to make language evolution speedier and English becoming a global language. Any comments?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
I think English is becoming--has really become a global language for a couple of reasons. American economic power makes it useful to know English around the world, and in certain areas like science and computers English is a standard mode of communication--using one language makes communication easier. But I don't think that English is becoming homogenized, quite the contrary. As more and more people in very different cultures speak English, they develop their own variety of English that is different from those of other areas. World Englishes might be a better way to put it.

Dolores-Argentine
What do you think of George Bernard Shaw's idea of turning English into a phonetic language to make it easier to be read?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
There was an interesting study published a month or so ago that said that dyslexia is more common among English speakers than speakers of Italian because of the ways in which English spelling diverges from its pronunciation. So theoretically at least adopting a kind of simpler spelling system would be a good idea, only it would be so very difficult that it might not be worth the trouble. Many such proposals have been put forth over the last 200-300 years, and they have all met with failure.

yenchy
When and how do they decide to include new words in the dictionary, and when will "alot" be added?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
At the American Heritage Dictionary all of our editors read publications in a variety of subject areas, taking out examples of new and changing usages. We put these examples into a database so we can study them. When we think we have enough material, we update the dictionary. Sometimes we ask consultants such as scientists to help us determine which words are important enough to be included, but the final decision is ours.

The fused spelling "alot" is an interesting case and it shows how the judgment of dictionary editors comes into sway. There is no linguistic reason to keep "alot" out of the dictionary. It is a very common spelling (as any composition teacher will tell you), and there are many similar words already (there's one right there) in the dictionary, like "awhile." But commercial dictionaries are mainly concerned with what is conventional in publishing, and "alot" is certainly not conventional in newspapers, magazines, and other published sources. So it will be a while (two words) before "alot" gets in.

Bhead
With the growing number of Latinos in the United States do you think that Spanish will have a greater influence on this country's English in the future? Are there any Spanglish words in the AHD currently?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
I see the mixing of Latino and Anglo cultures in the USA much like two giant tectonic plates colliding--there are bound to be some interesting linguistic phenomena bubbling up from this. And I expect there to be a lot of borrowings from Spanish and coinages in Latino communities.

Right now, most of the new material in English reflects Latino culture rather than Spanglish. We see loads of Mexican foods--direct borrowings like quesadilla--and other things like salsa (the music!) and Texano. There will be more of these, but I also expect there to be more ordinary sorts of words too.

mirdard
My college English professor recommended that I study Latin if I want to gain a complete command over English. Would you agree with him? I wish I had asked him to explain more. Does Latin give English more than words? What about structure and grammar? Is that inherited from Latin too?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Studying Latin can certainly help you understand English words of Latin origin, and there are a lot of them, but I'm not sure it would give you "complete command." English is a Germanic language--its structure and grammar are not Latinate at all, so Latin will not help you there, German (or Dutch or a Scandinavian language) will be more help. Almost any language you study will help you understand English better. Do I recommend Latin? By all means! I studied it.

Dolores-Argentine
Why are there so many grammar rules according to this or that grammarian? Why isn't there a kind of Academy like the Spanish Real Academy to avoid so many exceptions to grammar rules?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
This is a good question that goes to the heart of English and American culture. We have a long tradition of being skeptical of central authority--maybe it's rugged individualism, I don't know. What I do know is that having a language Academy has been proposed repeatedly, and it always seems to get ignored. I think English speakers like feeling that the language is theirs to use as they choose.

The trouble with language Academies is that they often end up looking foolish because they can't really control the way people speak, though they can control some things like spelling conventions (at least in major publishing centers). I have heard many papers pointing out the absurdities and irrelevancies proposed by the French Academy, like their made up words to counter English computer parts and programs. A waste of time, for the most part.

Some people feel that our system of letting a consensus develop naturally about usages, with all the exceptions and oddities, is chaotic, but I like it fine. It helps, though, to have a sense of how conventional or quirky a particular usage is--and that's why I like our usage notes, where you can see how our Usage Panel feels about a particular word or usage.

keith
Is "Webster's" just another example of someone failing to hold on to their unique 'copyright', like "Xerox"? I have multiple "Webster's" Dictionary that disagree with each other frequently!

keith
Is "Webster's" just another example of someone failing to hold on to their unique 'copyright', like "Xerox"? I have multiple "Webster's" Dictionary that disagree with each other frequently!

keith
Somehow my message got xeroxed.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Apparently there was some glitch.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Correct. The name "Webster's" is in the public domain--anyone can publish a dictionary with "Webster's" in the title, and most dictionary publishers do. There are a number of words like this--words that were once trademarks but have lost their proprietary status. Aspirin is a case in point.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Not surprisingly, I hear frequently from trademark lawyers. Most lexicographers do.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Do they suggest you remove their trademarked word from the dictionary? What is your response?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Sometimes they insist we define the word as a trademark. Sometimes they insist that we remove it. Most of the time they are just making an effort to protect the trademark status--if they can show they made an effort, they will almost certainly keep the trademark status, even if the dictionaries don't say it's a trademark. We usually try to comply, but we reserve the right to define the word even if it's as a trademark, on our own terms. Incidentally, it's not always obvious to us when a word is a trademark. We have to research the words to find out.

mirdard
Can you please recommend an introductory book on the history and evolution of English for the non-specialist?

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Bill Bryson wrote a good popular book on the history of English a few years ago (I forget the title). I think Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable's "A History of the English Language" is a fine book, though it is more scholarly.

nick
Was it only after 1066 with the influence of the Normans (whose language, I assume, was also influenced by the Scandinavian languages) that Latin-root words appear in any appreciable number in the English language? How significant an influence was the Roman presence? With regard to the earlier question about a good book on the history and evolution of English see Robin McNeil's _History of English_ which was also a great PBS series. The tapes might be available in your local library.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Yes, the McNeil book is a very good one. I highly recommend it. The series is good too, but a little jingoistic.

The Normans were originally Scandinavians but their language was French. The Romans did not exert any direct influence on English because they had cleared out long before English was spoken in England (the Anglo-Saxons , who could not build with stone, thought the Romans ruins had been built by giants). It was Christianity that first introduced Latin words into English. There are a number of Latin Bible parts that have interlinear translations in Old English. Words like "school" go back to Old English via Latin. But to be sure many more Latin words came in during the Middle English period, that is, after the Norman conquest.

JoniUS
Did Shakespeare's audience understand all or most of his language? If so, were they more attuned to the language than we are today? If not, how much did they understand of the content of his plays? Were they smarter than we are today, one wonders.

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
This is a good question, one more properly asked of a historian of drama. Certainly Shakespeare's audience was more attuned to his language than we are. After all, they spoke it too. Whether they could appreciate the depth of his poetry and the complexities of his drama is another question. I suppose just like us some could appreciate more than others. But Shakespeare's drama was a popular art form, and presumably many people were there primarily to be entertained rather than edified.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was the last question for today. Thanks to everyone who joined, even if we couldn't field all the questions due to limited time.

Thank you, Joe, for being here and thanks to all the participants!

Joe Pickett (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for having me, Anu, and thanks to all the chatters for their challenging and thoughtful questions.

Dolores-Argentine
My regards to Joe and thank you so much for your precious time.

nick2
Thank you.

Dolores-Argentine
Thank you Anu for such a wonderful opportunity!

keith
Enjoyed it!


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