LINGUIST List 11.1694

Sun Aug 6 2000

Disc: Writing and Speech

Editor for this issue: Scott Fults <>


  1. bwald, Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech
  2. Earl Herrick, Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech
  3. bwald, Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech
  4. Tadhg.O hIfearnain, RE: 11.1675, Disc: Writing and Speech

Message 1: Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Thu, 3 Aug 2000 00:58:30 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech

Richard Kaminski's informative discussion of English "very" contains
the following passage:

... as recently as the 17th Century....the word "very" had not yet
fully replaced the word "sore" as the chief adverb of intensification
(see, for example, such passages from the King James Bible as, "...the
people were sore afraid.") Today, though, it is undeniably perceived
as a fully English word by any and every native speaker of English.

No argument (now just barely surviving is "it's SORELY needed",
suggests, "needed so much that it HURTS", unetymologically). But I'd
still like to know why "very" is so bound to a "higher" (more
literary-sounding, or whatever you'd like to call it) register of
English. The colloquial word used instead of "very" (also from
French, and a near synonym in French) "real". It seems to me no
accident that these synonymous loans, meaning "true, genuine" in
French when borrowed into English, remain synonymous in the particular
English usage mentioned here. It remains to be explained why they are
distinguished by register the way they are -- and even when that
started to be the case.

"high" register: "Gadzooks, it's VERY cold out here" colloquial "Whoa,
it's REAL cold out here"
... and millions of other examples.


"high" register: the VERY person I was thinking of
colloquial: JUST the person I was thinking of (again from French, same
semantic ballpark, "just"
 = "fair/equal" > "exact/precise"

OR something else, but NOT "the VERY NP..."

- Benji
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Message 2: Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Wed, 02 Aug 2000 10:58:47
From: Earl Herrick <>
Subject: Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech

I have two quite separate comments that I'd like to add to the

(1) For years now, I've told my students, most of whom are would-be
teachers who are planning to go out and teach English composition,
that the English spelling system is "an accumulation of historical
accidents". I don't remember just how or why I made up the phrase. It
just came out of my mouth once when I was lecturing, and I liked it,
and I saved it, and I've used it since. It does express the two ideas
that (a) there is some reason for the sound/writing correspondences in
each English word, and (b) the reasons for the correspondences in one
word are probably not, and shouldn't be expected to be, the same as
the reasons for those in any other word.

(2) The things that Derrida is saying about
linguistics-and-literary-criticism, and the way he claims a Saussurean
basis for his ideas, remind me of something else that happened in
academe a few decades ago. There was something that was being much
talked of as "linguistic philosophy" or some such name. I read a bit
of it, hoping that I could find some philosophical ideas that would be
useful to me as a linguist, but I soon discovered that the people
involved in it were philosophers who knew (almost) nothing about
linguistics and who were playing around with it, hoping that they
could find something that would be useful to them in constructing

(ENDNOTE 1) Linguistics must be getting somewhere if Saussure is
joining those other people (including inter alia Jesus and Karl Marx)
whom people want to claim as their intellectual ancestors without
knowing, and perhaps without caring to know, what they really said.

(ENDNOTE 2) Derrida and his misunderstanding of the "arbitrary nature
of the linguistic sign" is obviously similar to something that we're
all too familiar with: the student who is asleep in the back row of
the class, wakes up, hears a few words, writes them down, goes back to
sleep, and then thinks that the few words s/he wrote down are
everything that we said during that lecture.)
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Message 3: Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Thu, 3 Aug 2000 19:56:42 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.1671, Disc: Writing and Speech

I hasaten to correct some errors I made yesterday in responding to
Richard Kaminski's informative and thoughtful discussion of "very" 
(<verray) and "sore". Richard notes that "very" has only relatively
recently been fully assimilated into English -- "nativised" as he
calls it.

The gist of my comments remains that "very" remains register-bound, as
far as I know, and thus its advance into English is not as complete as
it could be. Not as advanced as "just", for example, another
French-Latin loan that has had much more remarkable success in its
penetration into English -- in ALL registers. "just" also figured in
my comments because of the register-bound use of "very" in such
constructions as "the *very* man (for the job)", to be compared with
"*just* the man (for the job)".

Now, Richard was using "nativised" in the phonological sense,
observing that the original form "verray" was only eliminated in
favour of the forestressed (Anglo-Saxon-like form) "very" -- with
typical reduction of the final syllable) -- in the last several
centuries, i.e. during the Modern English period. He also drew a
distinction between "Anglo-Saxon" and "English", emphasising the great
influence of the aftermath of the Norman invasion on the subsequent
course of the language. He left it without saying that it took
several centuries for this influence to penetrate into every-day
language, after a period of elitist blingualism in French and English,
from which English emerged victoriously, returning English speakers of
all social standings to their famed monolingualism. I think it's
likely that from bilingualism to English (cf. Chaucer, already long
after the Conquest) much of the French adaptations, including "very",
filtered into speech from the written language (as it developed),
through the erudite, often bilingual in the early period, and thus
could be checked at the learned or elitist register level (the one
usually called "high"), needing to overcome more resistant to make it
to the colloquial everyday speech level.

In the course of his discussion he mentioned "sore" as the predecessor
of "very", in particular, the Anglo-Saxon one. Thus, he left "sore"
as emblematic of Anglo-Saxon and "very" of "English", the
post-invasion language, although his discussion also implies with
respect to nativisation, that Anglo-Saxon word stress and the fate of
unstressed vowels remains a force to be reckoned with in English (the
continuing "Anglo-Saxon" stratum, which keeps English a Germanic

I observed that "sore" survives in "sorely needed/missed" and such
constructions, where "sore" refers to its nominal meaning of "so much
that it HURTS". What I didn't realise until I checked is that even in
Anglo-Saxon it had this meaning, thus, we typically find it modifying
adjectives that refer to pain of some sort, as "sore sorry/aggrieved"
and the like (to advance to Middle English uses).

A few more thoughts occurred to me after I sent the last message, and
I checked a few things out in the OED, bearing in mind that the OED is
famous for NOT finding the earliest citations of written uses, and
that this does not give us great guarantees about previous spoken
usage, anyway, particularly for the more remote periods, quite
generally for Middle English. Nevertheless, for a quick study it lays
the foundation for further corrections.

According to the OED, the first citation of "sore" in the generalised
sense of "very" is not until 1474, where we find "sore well". This
suggests that the generalisation eliminating "that it HURTS" from "so
much..." did not occur until quite late in the Middle English period.
"sorely" in the same sense of "very much" (NB!) not until 1562 (just a
mattre of adding -ly to 'sore', already an adverb). We don't take the
precise dates too seriously, but "sore" as "very" is NOT Anglo-Saxon.
It had a more specific nuance of pain in Anglo-Saxon, which has
survived the replacement of "sore" by "very" (probably because of the
noun -- also colloqual adj "sore" = "angry", a form of pain,
cf. German "sauer" colloquial for "angry", from "sour", possibly
ultimately the same root as "sore", cf. "bitter" = "biting", but not
generally taken so. AS sa:r = "sore", su:r = "sour". Let's not make
it a sore point).

As for the replacement of "sore" by "very", that's where I observed
the register phenomenon, to the effect that in current English "very"
is somewhat "literary" or "high register" (in speech), as well as
formulaic in some phrases like "thank you very much" cf. "thanks a
lot" (which, of the two, is more prone to also be used sarcastically).
The colloquial form is "real", as in "real cold/smart/fast etc etc".
I supposed that this was symptomatic of the limits on the advance of
"very" into spoken English -- note our topic is speech and writing
(which I have here broadened to registers in speech, "higher"
registers being more affected by literary usage which may ultimately
have a non-native source).

But, now, according to the OED "real" as in "real good" for "very
good" is not recorded until 1718 (with a weird "reallest good" in
1658) -- and the OED comments "chiefly US". Thus, we might assume
that the US has been more resistant to "very" than Britain. But the
evidence so far is only suggestive. The other question is, if "sore"
was not the usual intensifier in Anglo-Saxon what was it, and what
happened to it? What did "sore" replace later in ME? My guess comes
from the other construction Richard mentioned with "very", the "very"
person. I noted "just the person", where "just" also comes from
French, and from meaning like "fair" or "equal" comes to have senses
like "exact/precise" (in both French and English). But I omitted the
most interesting word, an Anglo-S one, "right", cf. "true"
(cf. correct/exact) the original and still French meaning of "very"
(vrai). We indeed find "right" used as "very" in AS and it still
persists dialectally and colloquially, in fact, more commonly in
England than in the US. The US is more prone to "downright". Thus,
the OED cites "right good" in 1200, long before "sore well". Thus, I
have heard "right friendly" etc in England (cf. US "downright
friendly", and "downright upright"), even though again the OED
comments on "right" for "very" as "chiefly US". "right" as in "right
then", "right after" goes way back in AS (OE, as it's usually called),
foreshadowing "right away" etc. "just" seems to be a calque on
"right", though now slightly differently nuanced, cf. "just now" and
"right now" -- also French usage equated them whence still in French
"justement" for "exactly" or "just so".

Turning to "the very man for the job", we can see that "just the man
for the job" and "the right man for the job" all work, where I note a
higher register limit for "the very man..." but not for the
alternatives. To be sure, such direct replacement does not work for
all such uses of "very". Thus, "the very person we were talking
about" could be "just the person..." but not "the right person..."
Here the register difference, for those who recognise it, shows the
greater success of "just" than of "very", and the bowing out of
"right", i.e., it did not evolve so far in this direction -- as far as
I have ascertained. The nuance of "the very" and "just the" is also
extremely close, if not identical (?), and even beats the more
streightforward "the SAME person we were talking about", though
syntactically "very" might be said to replace "same" here.
Incidentally, OED dates for such uses of "just" straddle the
Middle-Modern period. "just to (the door)" 1400 cf. "right to (the
door)" (different nuances now). and "'tis just the fashion" (= the
right/very fashion) 1600, with a prior 1594 example that I didn't like
or note down. "the very NP" is much earlier, 1375, but its survival
to present shows some semantic evolution, and leaves behind in the
dust earlier examples meaning "true/genuine/actual" where there can be
a 0 or indefinite determiner, attested since 1200, e.g., 3onde sitteth
a verrei man (i.e. a real/true/genuine man) 1380. "the very" survives
by narrowing its extended meaning of "the particular/the one at issue"
to "the (self-)same" (ah that's better for the nuance of "very").

Almost enough for now. A few final observations. The one place where
"real" cannot function as "very" in colloquial English (US?) is with
the quantifier "very much". My intuition also balks at "real many"
for "very many", but that's because colloquial uses "a lot" or "lots",
again conspiring to keep "very" register-bound. According to the OED
these uses are quite recent, 19th and 20th c, 1815 "lots of our
senators" and "I love you lots" 1920 -- I couldn't find "I love you a
lot", but take my word for it, it's common -- probably late 19th/early
20th c then. But did it actually replace "very much" in the
colloquial? -- say in the 18th c? The OED can't take us there,
unless we can come up with a supposed earlier alternative -- and that
doesn't occur to me at the moment.

Next, "too". "too" has sometimes functioned as "very", as in "I shall
be too happy", first attested in 1842, the OED calls it "feminine",
probably thinking of Victorian novels and the famed mitigation and
self-effacement of women's speech in that period (and later, according
to Robin Lakoff), as if parasitic on the more common meaning "more
than appropriately (happy)" - in a manner of speaking, of course.
"too" shines as a block to "very" in the current colloquial in
NEGATIVE contexts, e.g., "not too good" (well, we wouldn't want it to
be "too" good, would we? -- if you try to be "literal", cf. "writing
vs. speech"). The earliest I could find for this use is 1842 "the
not-too-accurate reader". Again, how can anyone be "too accurate"?
(only, uh, just kidding)

Last word. I read Richard's implication on "sore" as "very" in A-S as
misleading since it did not have the range that "very" has taken as an
adverbial intensifier (of adjectives). More general intensification
seems to be served by "right", and probably some others that haven't
occurred to me yet. We must note that German "sehr" is cognate with
"sore" and shows the same form of evolution from "so much that it
hurts" to "so, I mean, very much". But the evidence we have seen so
far indicates that it is parallel evolution and that "sore" as "very"
is not Anglo-Saxon much less proto-(West) Germanic (except perhaps in
the interesting context of going from the nominal "sore" to the
intensifier "till it hurts").

- Benji
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Message 4: RE: 11.1675, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Fri, 04 Aug 2000 14:58:38 +0100
From: Tadhg.O hIfearnain <>
Subject: RE: 11.1675, Disc: Writing and Speech

	I have been reading with interest some of the debate on the
question of whether or not Irish and Scottish Gaelic have 'irregular'
spellings. The assertion that Irish spelling is somehow far removed
from speech is frequently made by English-speakers who are tackling
the language for the first time. It is, however, far from the truth.

	John Philips (Yamaguchi University) seems closest to the mark
in the recent debate when he says: '... pronunciation is largely
predictable from spelling, but spelling is not predictable from

	The spelling system is very regular and corresponds very
closely to speech. There are no 'silent letters' nor have there been
in the past, from th eperspective of an Irish/Gaelic
speaker. Everything that is written is pronounced. The inverse is not
entirely true, particularly for the native speaking (child) learner
because of dialectal variation. For example, terminal -aigh as in
'brostaigh' will be read by somebody in the southwest as brostig' and
by somebody in the northwest as brosti: However, when it comes to
writing the southwesterner could try to spell the word as brostaig,
and the northwesterner as brosta�, which would give similar
pronunciations, but both of which would be meaningless to the other.

	This is, however, a small enough hurdle to leap because of the
overall regularity of the whole orthographic system. Because the
system is indeed 'archaic', developing in a continuum from medieval
times, even the 'irregularity' is constant. As opposed to Manx, the
orthographic system in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic is essentially a
compromise between etymology and pronunciation. The 1948 spelling
reform in Ireland was the first real handbook of the modern
standard. Scotland also now has a standard introduced by the
Department of Education. The Irish reform did not so much 'remove
silent letters', as find an acceptable middle ground between the
dialects which could be used nationally.

	If one were to use the L�rchan�int ('middle dialect'), the
synthetic spoken standard, such 'irregularities' themselves would
disappear. It has never really taken off though, quite probably
because the orthographic system is not really perceived as much of a
problem by literate Irish speakers/writers.

	Some problems do arise in that the number of phonemes far
outstrips the number of available letters in the alphabet (note that
ordinary Latin typeface has as long if not a longer history in printed
Irish as does the Elizabethan 'Gaelic' typeface). This leads to
problems with written vowel qualities. Written vowels are often used
to show the quality of the neighbouring consonants. But as any Irish
teacher will tell you, if you can get them to pronounce the consonants
and consonant clusters correctly, the vowels will follow. Really, one
can teach the Gaelic spelling system to adult learners with good ears
in a few hours.

	Finally, as a linguist and intellectual one should be wary of
using words like 'simplify' about any written language when one really
means 'closer to English'.

> An Dr. Tadhg � hIfearn�in
> L�rionad na dTeangacha Feidhmeacha
> Roinn na dTeangacha agus an L�inn Chult�ir
> Ollscoil Luimnigh
> Luimneach
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