Saturday, June 09, 2007

You've got some Gallicism

Here's a little peek at an exchange (as hosted by the ADS-L) between me and venerated dictionary editor Laurence Urdang. Google his name and take a look at his impressive body of work.

I will present segments of this exchange with nothing other than these introductory remarks and a closing benediction. The eminent lexicographer is not to be dismissed as an ignorant blowhard -- his reasonable and clearly stated claims are evidence enough of his reason. I can only hope that I will publish as successfully as he has. He has both experience and expertise.

After Urdang establishes a complaint against spelling pronunciations and other choices in language use, the noted lexicographer writes the following:

And whence comes homage, a word borrowed and assimilated as HOM-ij or OM-ij, from 12th- or 13th-century French, made to rhyme with fromage? What pretentious crap!

These are all current in the speech of those who otherwise sound like native speakers of American English. Now that we've taught them to read, maybe we can teach them to read a dictionary once in a while so that, as Pick and Pat used to say, they can keep their ruby lips flip-flip-flappin' in the breeze reflecting more or less "standard" (or, at least, high-frequency) usage.

My response
I suppose AmE 'garage' could sound just as pretentious to some. We're surrounded by Gallicisms. Shall we bid them all adi...goodbye?

His response
It might seem unpleasant---even rude---to reject remarks like that of Mr. Covarrubias for asking if we should reject Gallicisms, but I am too old to tolerate silly nonsense. Garage is a borrowing, a loanword from French, and not a "Gallicism." Unlike the British, who, owing to generations of wars, despise the French and warp everything they say if they can (and say GAR-idge just for spite), American speakers harbor no such venom and make an honest, though often unsuccessful effort at simulating the pronunciation of the original.

Covarrubias wishes to regard language clinically, without criticism or comment, accepting what he finds, much as the oncologist never tells you that cancer is "bad," then that is his privilege. I too have a clinical hat, which I don when I need to hark back to my B.S. in English Literature and my Ph.D. in General and Comparative Linguistics (Columbia, 1958) or to my (few) years teaching English and linguistics at New York University, in the 1960s.

But I am also possessed of taste and discernment, and I know good art, especially in language, when I see it or hear it. And mispronunciations, among other errata, are not among the perpetrations I enjoy. Others might delight in them, but I, for example, have not heard any speaker of American English use the word lie correctly in the past few years" it is invariably lay (and I don't mean the past tense, either). Such errors in grammar not only interfere with the communication of ideas but they mark the speaker's education level and his lack of sensitivity to the traditional ways in which English works.

You might well say, "Bugger tradition," in which case you may go on saying, "I ain't got no money" (or whatever you're lacking), and it is unlikely that the language police will incarcerate you for using infer for imply or for rhyming homage with fromage. Also, many of your interlocutors won't even notice the difference between your speech and that of an educated speaker. But I will know and, possibly, so might a handful of others whose opinions are just as unimportant to you.

It all come down to art and to how important that is to you. The use of traditional grammar in language is akin in function to that of the appendix; but, like the appendix, when it endangers infecting the surrounding (t)issues, it must be excised.

My response

Yes I suppose the American venom towards the French...I mean the Freedom People is less vitriolic than the British. Common pronunciations provide some fine evidence: ahnvelope, ahmbiawnce, corsawge, coo-de-grah, ahnclave, homage...some borrowings have retained a semblance of their original sounds. Some had lost an original sound and have now regained it. Some have even changed to sound "more" French in a mistaken attempt to follow what we think are the rules of French pronunciation. I choose not to say much about "pseudo-French" forms because "Gallicism" covers those forms that are *from* French and those that are merely *like* French forms. Borrowed or not.

Yes "homage" is a borrowed word and there are descriptive rules for the assimilation to English pronunciation when a word was borrowed more than 700 years ago. I'm sure that some who insist on reintroducing or just using a Gallicized vowel are trying to use a prestige form. And I'm sure that some who insist on that same pronunciation think it's a recent borrowing, or at least that the pronunciation is standard. I'm not going to call shenanigans on either.


If I see a "cancer" threatening to destroy a language too quickly I'll judge it. I'll say it's "bad." But I'm not going to suggest that every freckle be chopped off.

I don't think he and I are in stark disagreement. We probably view a lot of usages with the same judgment regarding style. And when I hear speech that is riddled with affected prestige forms I'm likely to roll my eyes as well. Perhaps where we differ is in our view of what these forms do to the language if they become parallel standards.

I do wish he would have kept tearing into my arguments. I realize of course that my young and clinically sterile perspective is of little interest to him. He has bigger fish to spear.


  1. Well, I'm pleased to see that you didn't just lie down for him...

    Silly nonsense. Actually, all very interesting.

    Gretchen had a dream last night that she and I were at a picnic with my family and she gave birth to our first baby at the picnic. Then everyone asked, "What will you name it?" -- but someone said, "Wait, we have to sacrifice a baby lamb first." So we waited until the sacrifice was complete, then Gretchen and I went down to the river and thought about it for a while. When we came back, I proudly declared, "His name is Cees."

    And I thought that was one fine dream.

  2. Well, regarding homage, he has a point, no?

    Remember that awful, awful British sitcom from the 70s, Keeping Up Appearances? Her surname was "Bucket", but she insisted on the French pronunciation, "Bouquet". There ain't much difference between that and pronouncing it [ʔɒma:ʒ] I reckon. The difference between "homage" and other gallicisms is that it is used by literary types and other toffs in general, leading to a prestige thing.

    I suspect if everyone, read: the hoi polloi, started saying [ʔɒma:ʒ], then the toffs would recommence with [hɒmɪdʒ] and claim that only pseudo-intellectual wannabes falsely use French pronunciation norms for forms borrowed over 700 years ago, et cetera. It's the nature of the prestige.

  3. "I suspect if everyone, read: the hoi polloi, started saying [ʔɒma:ʒ], then the toffs would recommence with [hɒmɪdʒ] and claim that only pseudo-intellectual wannabes falsely use French pronunciation norms for forms borrowed over 700 years ago, et cetera."

    Isn't that exactly what's happening here?

  4. He has a point. But I reserve judgment and shy away from disgust for a few reasons.

    Arnold Zwicky contributes the following suggestion:

    well, it might be pretentious, but surely what's going on here is the use of the french word "hommage", with an approximation to the french pronunciation. (i think this usage is especially widespread in film circles.) the result is a doublet -- old nativized "homage" and new frenchy "hommage".

    I would add to this that analogy with collage and montage has undoubtedly influenced the pronunciation.

    Educated or not...given to pretense or not...many people first encounter 'homage' as readers. Is it a surprise if they see the spelling in the context of honour and praise they go for a prestige form that matches other Gallicisms?

    I remember Keeping up Appearances. The bucket/bouquet pronunciation is hilarious. It pushes the very edge of pompous prestige forms. The traditional pronunciation is so common and so expected that the French pronunciation is 'clearly' a pretentious affectation. 'Homage' isn't common enough to be obvious.

  5. Greetings Dave.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.