Tag Archives: language

The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life. Continue reading

The Donald: The podcast

You may recall that I recently wrote an article on Donald Trump’s language techniques. We’ve made that into a podcast now, so you can listen to it rather than just reading it – if you can stand the sound of Trump’s voice.

How Donald Trump hypnotized America


The quick way to know what that language on the imported cookie package is

After a bit of a pause while I was busy doing and writing other things, I’ve written another article for The Week. This one is on a shortcut to knowing what language you’re looking at (when it’s written in the Latin alphabet and is a language you’d reasonably likely see on merchandise or in mass media or social networks). The short of it is: It just takes a little character.

How to identify any language at a glance

(My editor wrote the title. Obviously it’s not really any language.)

The Grammarist interviews me

The language-oriented website Grammarist.com has published an interview with me about my views on words, blogging, et cetera. If you would like to read it, it is at http://grammarist.com/interviews/interview-with-james-harbeck/ . Previous interviewees include Constance Hale and Mignon Fogarty.

There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitive eat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little is left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Let’s get started

Starting today, I will be posting in installments, intermingled with my word tasting notes, a how-to guide for word tasting: A Word Taster’s Companion.

Let’s get started

Welcome to the world of word tasting.

Oh, you aren’t new to it, not really. It’s possible for a person who is a novice in wine tasting truly never to have tasted wine before, but we all use words, we all run them through our minds, nearly all of us form them with our mouths. We can’t not taste them, at least a little. We choose one word over another for reasons that go beyond the dictionary definitions. We have all looked on sentences where the wrong word was used. It sets the teeth on edge.

But our daily usage is so much guzzling compared with what we can truly get from words. Just as, when you actually set out to taste a wine, you discover things that simply wouldn’t have been there for you had you merely swigged it, so too in tasting words you will not only put your finger on the nuances that had passed so lightly across your tongue – you will create a world of delight that hadn’t existed before, just through your interaction with it. And you will become a much better user of words as well.

Let’s get going and shake the cobwebs out. You’ll be better at tasting words, and will get more enjoyment out of it, when you are an expert (i.e., when I’m finished with you), but this isn’t Zen archery or contract bridge: you don’t spend forever thinking and talking about it before doing it. But you already have at least a developed sense, to a greater or lesser degree conscious. So here we go.

Here are some uncommon words. You might not be familiar with all of them.





For each of these words, write down the first ten things you can think of. Try the sounds, the things they sound like, the way they feel in your mouth. What do they make you think of? If you want to look them up, do. If you don’t, don’t – though ultimately finding out the meaning of unfamiliar words will be an important part of a word tasting.

Now do the same with the following words, but go for 20 things:






Include the words you tend to use them with (phrases, expressions, whatever other words they bring to mind), places they would be appropriate or inappropriate, and whatever else comes to your mind. Anything that you know about them or think about them or that they make you think of.

Congratulations. You have just attained the first degree of word tasting. You have planted the seeds; the rest will follow as roots and branches.

Next: What words are made of.

What we pay with in word country

In word country, words aren’t just what you buy. You can pay with them too. Not word by word, mind you; a word by itself usually doesn’t work as payment in a value exchange, except for words like “Thanks.” What people want are words in sentences. Words that signify obligations and expectations and negotiate status levels. The economy of social interaction.

This is pretty plain once you see it in action. Every child is taught it: a request with “please” in it is usually worth a little more than the same request without “please” because “please” acknowledges that you don’t have the right to make flat demands, so it doesn’t borrow as much status from the other person. And an indirect request, which allows the other person more latitude, costs you less – is worth more – than a direct request, which demands more of the other person.

Consider Mark, a word grower. He’s tending his words one afternoon in harvest season. He’s by the side of a dirt road, not too far out of town. People walk past every so often. Mark hasn’t set up a stand. He’s not out to sell his words to people who just walk past. But people come out this way not just to listen to the susurrus of the syntax trees and relax in the penumbra of a lexis vine, awaiting Morpheus. There is always the hope of some fresh words to bite into.

“Are you selling words?” A young guy in a hat and T-shirt is standing at road’s edge, looking down at Mark, who is busy pulling some weeds.

“Nope,” Mark says. He’s pretty laconic: he’s not in the business of giving words away for free either.

The guy strolls along a bit but doesn’t really go away. He stands inspecting a particular plant. “Some mighty nice-looking words you got here. Are these Greek roots here?”

“Latin,” Mark says, without glancing over.

“Could I buy one from you?”

Mark jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a guy with a stand up the road.”

Offer made and deflected without any direct request or rejection. You see: not “Sell me one” and “No, go buy from him.” Much less exposure and demand. This is all small-coin stuff.

“I’ve seen his stuff. Yours looks a lot nicer.” There’s something you can pay: a compliment. Coin in the bank.

Mark can see this guy isn’t going to go away so readily either. He stands up, looks up and down the road. He doesn’t want to commit to selling to anyone else. But there’s someone coming. More than one person, in fact. “If you can wait a few minutes, I might have something I can spare,” he says. Low commitment, low demand: not “Wait a few minutes and I’ll sell you something.”

“Okay, thanks.” The guy wanders just a little ways away and looks at the plants.

A young woman approaches. She is what one calls winsome and sporty. She has just a little bit of playfulness and naughtiness in the way she smiles as she walks up, stops abruptly, stands with her hands knit together behind her bum, leaning her chest forward. “Hi.”

Mark gives her an elevator look: top floor to bottom floor, back to top. He wipes his dusty hands on his jeans. “Good afternoon. Something I can do for you?” So far he’s gotten one word out of her and already he’s offering. This is because she has more that he wants: he likes looking at her and talking to her. Attraction is already partial payment.

“You wouldn’t have any words you could sell me today, would you?” She’s offering him lots of latitude. This is bigger payment than a simple request. She puts him in charge.

“Well, I don’t know…” It’s not that he doesn’t want to sell to her, and it’s not that he doesn’t know, either. He just doesn’t want to put himself in a weaker position with that other guy there, who can see this going on, and he also wants to draw out the interaction with this girl. He’ll get as much interaction as he can from her in exchange for some fruits of his labours. “I might have something.”

The girl wanders up to a vine. “These look nice. What are these?”

“Anglo-Saxon,” he says, and is about to step over and show her more closely, but a man wearing sunglasses and an expensive-looking suit has just walked up. Mark wants to ignore him but it’s too late; he’s already glanced at him.

The man pulls a fiver out of his pocket. “One word. I’ll have that one.” All demand, no payment – not in words, even if he’s offering money.

“No,” Mark says.

“I want that word. Give me that word.”

“I’m not a roadside word stand.” Mark isn’t interested in accepting this guy’s high-status positioning at all. If you let that sort of thing pass, it’s like giving a person a permanent line of credit that they don’t have to pay back.

“You’re selling to her.” He gestures at the young woman.

“I’m talking to her.” Pause. “She’s a lot nicer than you are.” Pause. “I already have buyers for all my words. There’s a guy down the road who has a stand.”

The guy thrusts his fiver at Mark. “That one,” he says, pointing.

“If you want Anglo-Saxon words, I can give you a couple you might already be familiar with.” Pause. “Go. Away.” The guy hasn’t once given anything of value to Mark. Mark doesn’t need the fiver, and there’s been no deference, no inconvenience on the guy’s part, nothing that advantages Mark or disadvantages the potential buyer. And he’s taking up Mark’s time.

“Some businessman,” the guy grumbles as he starts away, a last little shot to see if he can get Mark to open up a vulnerability, at least keep talking. But Mark just snorts a little as he turns back to the young woman. If he spent all his time taking fivers for a word at a time he wouldn’t have much of a business at all.

“So tell me about this one,” the young woman says, gently touching a nimshite.

“You don’t want to get any of that on you,” Mark says. He gently pulls her hand slightly away from it, which is exactly what she had designed the gesture for, and he knows it. Physical contact with an attractive person: that’s definitely coin of the realm. It may not be words, but it’s communication too. Value is given. “That’s not a word you can use in too many places. It’s rather rude. Crude.”

“What kinds of words are you growing here?” She steps back a bit and looks over the lot. She’s demanding time and information from him, but in this case it’s welcome because it puts him in the role of knowledge giver to someone he might want to have a positive balance with, and because she’s paying him something he wants from her: attention.

“Well, aside from the Anglo-Saxon, we have some Greek rootstock, lots of Latin rootstock, and I have a section over here that I’m really fond of, some borrowings from East Asia. Including some really interesting hybrids.” He starts walking towards that row and gestures forward. He doesn’t pat her on the back to encourage her to go forward: that might cost him a bit. “I like these ones. Here, look at this.” He points to sarariman. “And this.” Beisuboru. “Loans from English into Japanese. I’m looking at bringing them back into English.”

“Crafty!” she says. “Oh, what’s this one?” Bakkushan. “Could you spare this one?” She glances sideways at him, her head tilted slightly down: a submissive gesture. He knows he’s being played, but it’s fun, at least for now.

“Trust me,” he says. “You don’t want that one. It looks good at first, but I wouldn’t give it to my friends.” He doesn’t say “I wouldn’t give it to a friend” because that might seem too much like he’s calling her a friend. But he did say “give” – not “sell.” He’s loosening his position.

She makes a pouty little moue. She’s playing it maybe a bit too much: now it’s clear that she’s angling for something she wants, not just to spend time with him, so her currency is devalued slightly.

“These are interesting but not all that useful. You can sink your teeth into them, but you might find they don’t go with a whole lot of things.” He gestures towards the Latin section. Lots there that he can spare. That stuff grows like zucchini, courgettes, marrows. Cross-breeds spontaneously with the Greek stuff too.

They walk in that direction, a few accidental-on-purpose contacts between hands and hips as they walk. Just a little more flirting. He can’t be sure it’s of value to her other than for persuading him, but it’s of value to him and he’ll take it for a little longer before getting back to work. He’s not bored quite yet.

“Ooh! Look at this one!” She darts ahead. “I’ll take this one!” Before he can stop her, she’s run up to a word and grabbed it. “Callitrix! I love it! Like two little girls, Callie and Trix! So crisp and smooth and fast and stylish and… feminine! Oh, I just love it!”

Mark stands there, looking at her, lips pursed slightly. She’s overstepped a little, not paid enough respect in this interaction: her direct and demanding approach has taken money off her balance. But it’s done. He can’t unpick the word. He would have liked it to grow a little more – it’s riper with an h after the t, callithrix. But no point in saying that now.

She knows she’s presumed just a touch too much. But she doesn’t want to risk refusal now. She smiles at him, eyebrows lifted. Then she says “Thank you,” darts over and kisses him on the cheek, and scampers off.

Well. That was a brief bit of entertainment. And not all that expensive. And…

The young guy in the hat has been watching from nearby. He takes a few languid steps up, looking at the young woman as she scurries away. At first he’s not sure what sage or witty observation to make. Mark remains tacit. At last the young man says, “Hope you got a good price for that.”

Mark smiles a little. “If she’d given a little more she might have gotten a little more. Such as the definition of the word.” She gets less value, and he gets a little boost: even if she left with a bit of upper hand, he has the upper hand in the long run because he knows she might be in for a little surprise. Heh.

“What was the word?”


The guy starts to laugh. “A little monkey.”

“Business,” Mark says.

“At least she didn’t take this one,” the guy says, pointing to meretrix.

Mark smiles. The young man has shown some interest and a certain degree of knowledge. A common bond is always worth a little something. He gestures towards the crop. “And what were you hoping might be ready for picking?”