An Interview with Arika Okrent, author of Highly Irregular

Arika Okrent has an undergraduate degree from Carleton College, an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet University, and a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics from University of Chicago. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Linguistic Journalism Award in 2016 and a former contributing editor at Mental Floss, she writes about language for a popular audience.

She is the author of the 2009 book In the Land of Invented Languages, a sparkling tour of artificial languages from Blissymbolics to Esperanto to Klingon. Her latest book is Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, andDough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language, an illustrated history of English that reveals why the language is so weird.

Ed Battistella: How did you get interested in linguistics?

Arika Okrent: I was always interested in languages, their rules, and how they differ from each other. I didn’t discover linguistics until after college (a shame, because I went to one of the few small undergraduate colleges that actually has a linguistics department, Carleton College), but I was so relieved when I did. So I wasn’t just flaky, flitting from language to language! There was a whole field for what I wanted to study! Not languages, considered one at a time and independently from each other, but LANGUAGE, that thing that underlies them all (whatever it may be).

EB: In Highly Irregular, you managed to home in on exactly the questions about English that I hear from students –and relatives—weird spellings, unlikely meanings, the pronunciation of colonel. How did you determine what to include?

AO: I wanted to include a good distribution of questions, from different levels of language: letters, spellings, sounds, words, meanings, phrases, sentence structures. I think weird spellings are the most noticeable irregularities about English, but there is weirdness at every level, and it can get harder to see the more fluent you are. But kids and non-native speakers see it right away. The best questions come from them.

I also wanted a good distribution across time periods, of where in the history of the development of English the awkward bits originated. Some we can blame on the oldest layer; things that got stuck and didn’t change. Some come in later with developments in literacy, printing, and social attitudes.

EB: What was the research like in telling the stories of all these oddities? It seems daunting.

AO: There is a lot! But I could tackle each question one at a time, and after a while it became clearer from the beginning where each explanation would fit in the general, larger historical picture. It was interesting to me that some of the stories I already “knew” from my linguistics background turned out to be not exactly what I thought they were when looked at in the larger historical frame. For example I knew that there was an l in would and should because they come from will and shall, but I never thought about the fact that the l had already fallen silent by the time of printing and the spread of literacy, making it much easier for could to then acquire an l. Could got its l from the printed form of would and should and their frequency. But if the l was still pronounced there, it probably wouldn’t have picked it up.

EB: I really loved the way that the illustrations punctuated the prose. Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Sean O’Neill? You two have worked before.

AO: We worked together on a series of whiteboard videos for Mental Floss, 2 or 3 minute explanations of various language topics. These are on my YouTube channel. At first the idea was that I could pack more information in by having words+pictures going simultaneously, but what his drawings ended up doing was not just adding another angle to get at the information but really humanizing the things I was explaining. Linguists can get caught up in the abstractions of words, sounds, syntax, but all of those things only have identity through humans using them, and he brings that to life in a light, humorous way. For years our workflow has been this: I send him text, he creates drawings to go with it, and the work goes up. I almost never request any changes. I’m a word person, happy to have found a picture person who can come up with ways to visualize wordy concepts.

EB: I loved the unusual words you came up with—like the fancy-pants addubitation and the down-to-earth witcraft. Are there any words or forms you’d like to bring back to life?

AO: I think we could use some of the verbs from the old patterns that disappeared or became irregular. We could say, “yesterday I boke a cake.” Or “he already clamb that mountain.” Sounds more to the point somehow!

EB: You talk about some words that are trying too hard. I loved that idea. Can you give an example?

AO: The funny thing is that there are words that sound ridiculous to us now, and sounded a bit “too much” when they were coined, that have counterparts that are just as gussied up but don’t sound ridiculous at all anymore, maybe a little fancy, but not ridiculous. So there was the ridiculous inexcogitable, meaning unable (in-, -able) to be developed (-it) out of (ex-) thought (cog-). But we have inconceivable and incomprehensible which are just as cobbled together from Latinate parts. Are they trying too hard? Maybe a little, but we use them and don’t notice so much. Inexcogitable just couldn’t get over the usage hump. It’s trying way too hard.

Shakespeare made fun of this trend in Love’s Labour Lost with the word honorificabilitudinitatibus. It would mean something like “the state of being able to achieve honors” but it is used in the play to mock a couple of scholarly types. He didn’t make it up. It was a Latin word that people knew about and found very out of place in English.

EB: What’s your favorite oddity about English?

AO: I think the way that some words have been split into two words just because someone decided it should be so. Discrete and discreet, for example. We spend a lot of time learning the spelling difference and trying to keep track of which is which, but originally they were the same word. Someone decided to use one spelling for the “separation” aspect of the meaning and another for the “able to be discerning” aspect and a few people went along with that and then everyone not only decided to go along with that, but to enforce it as if it were some inviolable rule handed down from heaven. It’s similar to the way we are starting to use two different spellings for aesthetics (in art) and esthetics (in the cosmetic beauty business). The spelling difference is not yet really enforced as a rule, but some day people may say these are totally different words. We really want spelling differences to correspond to meaning differences!

EB: Are there some emerging oddities that you are tracking?

AO: It’s so hard to predict what future speakers might perceive as odd. Why would a 12th century English speaker think the silent k in knot would ever be odd? They actually pronounced it and didn’t know it would stop being pronounced. But there are some things having to do with technologies that have already disappeared that might seem odd someday. Or already do seem odd to a young person. For example, why podcast? What is that pod in there? If you’re a teenager you’ve probably never seen an iPod, and you listen to podcasts on your phone. My lifetime experience of technology as a middle-aged person means I know why we say “roll up” a car window, and “hang up” a phone, and “rewind” a video but a teenager will be using those words without any experiential connection to the technology that produced them. They’ll probably end up like “eggplant” words. There is a good reason why there’s an egg in there, but we’ve lost our cultural connection to it.

EB: I saw that you once worked in a brain lab. What was that like?

AO: It was exciting! Can you believe it’s actually possible to see an image of brain activity as people are performing mental tasks? (After the fact, with a lot of math involved, but still!) It’s also frustrating in that while it’s possible to locate tasks in the brain, to see what areas light up when tasks are performed, it’s a lot harder to say what that means or what the significance is, especially when it comes to language.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AO: Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate the thoughtful questions.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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