Something Borrowed ...

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Fri Nov 13 18:33:09 UTC 2009

> Sonnet 18 is not a representative sample. It is very small. It is by a
> single writer. It is a single work. It is writing of a different era. You
> cannot extrapolate from this extremely limited sample (I would not call it
> a
> "corpus," which implies a degree of comprehensiveness that a single sonnet
> lacks) to draw conclusions about the language as a whole.

Dear Dave,

Many thanks for your gracious drawing of attention to the limitations and
flaws in my methodology.  I shall attempt to remedy this by including
William Dunbar's "Hail sterne superne" in any future revision of my study.

> Chaucer and
> Hoccleve, which I chose because the numbers were at hand, are not good
> examples for how we write and speak today, nor is Elizabethan English. If
> you want to draw conclusions about the language as she is spoken today,
> you
> need a large and broad corpus of 21st century works.

As someone who, as a younger man, spent long hours in the dark watches of
the night agonising over the exact extent of de Saussure's synchronic
moment -- One hundred years? Ten?  Five minutes? -- I entirely sympathise
with the sentiments expressed in the above paragraph.

But who among us is without flaw?  I was recently talking to a poet and
Romany scholar, when he asserted that polari was derived from Romany.  When
I gently suggested that while this might be partly true of circus polari
(from which his one example was taken) it was much less true of general
theatre polari or gay polari, the other two main branches of that slang

When I furthermore suggested that the recently-discovered Winchester
Confessions of 1615-16 called seriously into doubt Alice Becker-Ho's
contention, in _The Princes of Jargon_, that the entire range of European
cant can be traced to Romany, he rather huffily suggested that there was no
evidence that the Anglo-Romany glossary found there was by an actual Romany

While he did have a point, it rather leaves us with the possibilty that the
only alternative is that there existed in 1615 a Middlesex magistrate who
not only knew Anglo-Romany well enough to construct a glossary of over 100
terms, which can be confirmed from the larger independent corpus of Welsh
Anglo-Romany, but would also have the motive to father such a glossary on an
alleged whipjack (or jarkman).

All this touchingly illustrates the universal application of a nonce phrase
once found widespread throughout the Comment Is Free columns of the The
Guardian:  "It just goes to show, you can't be too careful."



The American Dialect Society -

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