Friday, February 5, 2010

Not just a curiosity piece but a little primer in verb-formation

Five years is such a long time from the word-creation standpoint of a language—particularly if that language is English. Since 2005, in fact, the English vocabulary has grown to probably over 700,000 words today from the Oxford English Dictionary’s benchmark 615,000 words that year, growing at the rate of about 25,000 words a year as projected by the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged). The brash, less discriminating U.S.-based Global Language Monitor, however, had put the 2006 figure at 991,833 words, then made such a big to do about the 1,000,000th mark having been surpassed early in 2009. Whatever the actual vocabulary figures, there’s no stopping and denying the fact that the English language is indeed growing, growing, and growing…getting more robust and more expansive because of so many advances in science and technology.

This growth in English neologisms has not only been in new nouns but in many new verbs as well. Indeed, before 2005, hidebound grammarians were bewailing the surge into the English lexicon of such computer-technology verbs as “firewall” (meaning to protect a computer system from hackers and spammers) and “architect” (meaning to design and develop a new computer setup), and the corporate world was then still getting the hang of such strange new verbs—yes, verbs not nouns—as “conference,” “leverage,” “impact,” and “office.” Today, most of these new verbs are now de rigueur in English, which now must cope and live with even newer neologisms like the verb “text” (meaning to send a written message by mobile phone) and “unfriend” (meaning to remove from one’s list of friends in Facebook).

I had pondered this noun-to-verb conversion syndrome in an essay that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times towards the end of 2005. Today, although many of the neologisms swamping English then have now become firmly entrenched in the language, I find that the same word-formation principles and processes are still very much at work. I am therefore posting the essay here not just as a curiosity piece but as a little informal primer and cautionary tale on word formation.

The noun-to-verb conversion syndrome

One major word-formation process in English is to use the noun itself as a verb to express the action conveyed or implied by the noun, without changing the form of the noun in any way. This direct noun-to-verb conversion, one of the so-called “zero derivation” processes in linguistics, has been taking place since language began. It has given English such basic action verbs as “eye” to mean “to watch or study closely,” “nose” to mean “to search impertinently,” “face” to mean “to deal with straightforwardly,” “mouth” to mean “to talk in a pompous way,” “elbow” to mean “to shove aside,” and “stomach” to mean “to bear without overt resentment.” Rather than come up with a new word for the action that a body part typically can do literally or figuratively, English speakers simply made that body part stand for the action itself; later on, they did the same for tools, machines, and technologies. It has been estimated that by this process, something like one-fifth of all English verbs had been formed from nouns.

Creating verbs this way, which is facetiously called “nerbing” by some language observers, is particularly tempting in English because it saves time for the speaker or writer and simplifies sentence construction. For instance, rather than saying “She made a catalogue of the books,” we can use the noun “catalogue” as the verb itself, knock off the verb “made,” and say “She catalogued the books” instead. In the same token, rather than saying “The wealthy couple served as parents for the orphan until she reached legal age,” we can use the noun “parent” as the verb, drop the verb “served,” and say “The wealthy couple parented the orphan until she reached legal age.” A bonus in both cases is that aside from saving on words, the language is enriched by a new verb—a “nerb,” a synthetic term that we will use here simply for convenience.

Traditionally, jobs and the professions and occupations have been among the most prolific generators and users of English nerbs: “He mentored the student in the art of debating.” “She liaisoned with media for an entertainment company.” “He engineered the merger of the two companies.” “The unscrupulous accountant doctored the corporate books.” “The government legal counsel secretly lawyered for the powerful political family.”

Scientific, medical, and manufacturing processes have also tended to produce a generous share of nerbs: “We centrifuged the donor’s blood to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.” “The laboratory technician chromatographed the mixture for possible contaminants.” In this latter type of nerbs, the name of the machine is directly converted to a verb that describes its action, streamlining what would have been a longer phrase built around the verb “use” (as in “They used a centrifuge to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.”).

During the past few decades, of course, advances in information technology and computers became the richest and most frenetic source of “nerbs.” Totally new verbs grew out directly from the names of such new technologies as the telephone, photocopier, fax machine, and e-mail. Thus, practically all English speakers now use such highly efficient nerbing shortcuts as “They telephoned [phoned] me just now,” “She photocopied the contract,” “My assistant will fax you the document tonight,” and “I’ll e-mail you the file tomorrow.”

The developers of these new technologies themselves have been prodigiously creating nerbs to describe new technical procedures and processes: “You must firewall your computer to protect your system from hackers and spammers.” “Please refer to this manual to architect your new portal server-based dynamic workplace.” Management and industry have likewise been riding on this trend by using such nouns as “conference,” “leverage,” “impact,” and “office” into verbs that some grammarians find deplorable, as in “They’ll conference out of town next week” and “She now offices at home for convenience.”

Some language observers fear that direct noun-to-verb conversion has become such a serious syndrome in English, one that promotes confusion instead of understanding among its users. As Sir Kingsley Amis, the late English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher, had observed about the phenomenon, “There are times when this sort of verb seems to be growing too fast for comfort, and one suspects that now may be such a time…[Such verbs] may be quicker to say, but then cutting your arm off will reduce your weight faster and more irreversibly than any diet or exercise.”

It is highly unlikely that the nerbing syndrome can be stopped, however, but we can at least help prevent inappropriate nerbs from swamping English by using usefulness and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating nerbs before using them ourselves. This way, only those that foster brevity as well as accuracy and clarity to language can survive and become welcome entries to the English lexicon. (December 05, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 5, 2005, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


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  1. But leaving to the writer/speaker the prerogative to choose the appropriate nerbs is likewise tricky. Can't we just accept where the English language is going and tolerate it? For only a hard-and-fast rule can put a stop to this...

  2. We can’t control or legislate the path that a language will take over time. The best we can do is only to encourage responsible use of the language, whether it’s English or another language. As I said in my December 5, 2005 essay on nerbing, “It is highly unlikely that the nerbing syndrome can be stopped…but we can at least help prevent inappropriate nerbs from swamping English by using usefulness and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating nerbs before using them ourselves. This way, only those that foster brevity as well as accuracy and clarity to language can survive and become welcome entries to the English lexicon.”