Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hoi vey!

[preface/update - I've noticed from the keyword search statistics that several visitors to this post have been looking for the meaning of "hoi vey." This is a common missspellling of the Yiddish phrase "oy vey." For some forgettable reason I chose to combine the "hoi" of "hoi polloi" (the subject of this post) with the "vey" of "oy vey" (not the subject of this post) in the title. Eliezer Segal loosely connects the two-word phrase (meaning roughly "woe is me") to the German "weh" (pain) the Latin "vae" the Greek "ouai" and the Hebrew "ee" (all similar in meaning: alas/woe/ah).]

Buffy asked me the other day how I feel about the use of the definite article before hoi polloi. I told her I think it's redundant. This is one of those opinions that can make the holder seem like an elitist or a pedant. She read aloud - sharing the view that intolerance on this point is silly. Her source argued that there are other English words that in their language of origin comprise(d) an article with another segment and can now employ the English article without the snobs making a fuss. The word algebra [Arab. al-, the + jabr, reunion of broken parts] was given as an example.

I do see some differences between algebra and hoi polloi - the main difference being that algebra has been in the English register since the 16th century and entered the Late Middle English register probably through Medieval Latin (Early use of the word described the practice of healing bone fractures). Algebra has also shuffled off its italicization. Hoi polloi is often printed still in italics, indicating the word is used as a foreign term - the productive qualities of this typography are usually phonological. Often the pronunciation follows rules or even uses phonemes that are not a part of the English inventory. E.g. - One may pronounce adieu with the front rounded vowel (an 'ee' with rounded lips) that does not occur in the English phonological bank. Of course I won't rely on the typical font of a word as an indicator of its syntactic character.

In fact I'm not going to use any of these observations to argue the point of acceptability or appropriateness - it's really not that fruitful an issue. And lately I've come to see the value of simply speaking as I will and letting others do the same. Linguistics would be abysmally mind-numbing if there was no variation among users. And equally so if there was no change in a language over time. Even if I choose not to use the before hoi polloi I can easily see a time when the syntactic behaviour of the term will warrant the English article. I can even see a time when nother will become a dictionary entry - but that's a whole 'nother issue.

More than any other language English has opened its borders and granted citizenship to the foreign. Italics are just a green-card we force some words and phrases to carry before we give them a vote.

In my writing classes I do tell my students to avoid writing "and et cetera." But that's really just to get them to think about what the borrowings mean. It's the same reason I give them a fun little quiz asking them to define e.g. and i.e. also.

Eventually those who argue that language is supposed to be used within their parameters will rely only on the claim of stability: "It is bad to change the expectations of those few who have chosen to have expectations." And it is in their best interest that not even their own efforts succeed in changing common practice. It would be a pyrrhic victory for these conservationists who love showing that they can find fault in speech and who trumpet the skill loudly and abrasively. They would succeed in obliterating their favourite claim of their own relevance.


  1. Oh man, hoi polloi is one of my absolute favorite things to say. What if we all just started saying, "the polloi?"

    Good job reminding me that this little gem is at my disposal... haven't used it in years.

  2. I think the reason I put an article before hoi is that it's completely unrecognizable as an article except to Greek scholars such as ourselves. The spanish el, on the other hand, I think most people would recognize syntactically. For instance, you don't hear "the el presidente." I suspect french articles are allowed to stand as well.

  3. Actually I'll bet Bush has said that.

    This is an excellent point m_x_rk. Except that in Chicago they do say "let's take the El train."

    okay okay - I'm trying to think of some real exceptions and the only one I can come up with is "Hey let's all ride in the El Camino!"

    I swear I've heard a the-el construction somewhere. Hmmm...


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