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English…mugging other languages

Posted on Saturday, August 1, 2009 in Natural Languages

Okay, so it’s not conlanging, but this quote has stuck with me since I saw it on a t-shirt at Tekkoshocon several years ago:

“Not only does the English Language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets”

Today, I remembered it again and decided to see if I could find a source. Turns out there’s several attributions. Many sites on the Internet attribute it to an Eddy Peters. For example, here, here, and here. “Eddy Peters” has no books in WorldCat and some sites give the quote as anonymous.

In digging around some more, I finally came across this posting by the author of the quote and this posting on the Linguist List providing even more background. And, so here is the original quote from James D. Nicoll:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Personally, I like that better than the one attributed to Eddy Peters. I suppose the connection to conlangs is that conlangers, like the English language, liberate words, grammar, cases, and the flotsam and jetsam of language to acquire inspiration for their works. But (whereas English is characterized as a mugger in Mr. Nicoll’s), conlangers may be thought of as well-meaning pirates of the high seas of language. (And, pirates like Disney’s Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard…not nasty real-life pirates).