Book review: Blooming English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 9 15:47:42 UTC 2005

Forwarded from LINGUIST List 16.654
Sat Mar 05 2005

Burridge, Kate

Blooming English
Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the
English language
Cambridge University Press 2004

Announced at

Robert Mailhammer, University of Munich


th: voiceless interdental fricative
^ next to vowel grapheme denotes phonetic length
AuE: Australian English
G: German
ModE: Modern English
OE: Old English
ScE: Scottish English
All examples from languages and sounds appear in underscores thus: _..._.


As the first version of "Blooming English" - published in 2002 - was
available almost exclusively in Australia, Cambridge University Press has
now produced a brand-new version for the Northern Hemisphere. The basis
for the book are almost 200 radio pieces for the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation's programme "Soundbank", in which callers from all walks of
life can share their thoughts and feelings about language. One observation
Kate Burridge has made from these calls is that many people care about
language and that they derive a "tremendous enjoyment" (p. 1) from it.
Hence, one goal of the book is to contribute towards "bridging the
apparent gap between linguists and the wider community" (p. 4). The theme
uniting the different sections of "Blooming English" is the image of the
English language as a fertile garden exploring language change from
several perspectives.


"Blooming English" is divided into 15 sections each of which features a
more general linguistic topic which is then illustrated in smaller sub-
sections using examples from historical and contemporary English. Each
section is preceded by a quotation as well as a short introduction using
the garden image providing an illustrating parallel.

The first section is entitled "The complexity of language", and it is a
basic introduction to language theory. Burridge (p. 7-9) broadly defines
the unique characteristics of human language as an initiated, arbitrary
and conventionalised means of communication based on sound sequences, in
contrast to animal 'language' that usually lacks one of these defining
properties. Moreover, this first part also introduces basic linguistic
concepts, such as the morpheme, the notion of productivity or re-analysis.
In order to illustrate e.g. changes in the productivity of word-formation
elements, Burridge draws a parallel between word-formation and the world
of fashion pointing out that e.g. certain types of suffixes are en vogue
at certain times, then lose their privileged position, only to stage a
come-back centuries later, like the Old English suffix _-do^m_ in
_stardom_, _PCdom_ and the like. Another example of illustration for the
non- specialist reader, Burridge presents the phenomenon of re- analysis
producing such examples as _Gladly the cross-eyed bear_ instead of _Gladly
the cross I'd bear_" (p. 19) alongside well-known cases from English word
history like _nickname_ (< _ekename_) or _adder_ (< _nadder_). The
penultimate part of this section is on secret languages, which despite the
complex linguistic operations they are often based on, can be spoken
fluently even by children, which serves to highlight the innate linguistic
capacity of human beings. Finally, a brief history of collective terms
reveals imaginative suggestions for groups of linguists of which _a
paradigm of linguists_ is only one example.

Section two is headed "Language Change" and basically deals with sound
change and morphological change. Burridge generally views sound change as
being "reductive" (p. 27) spreading from more frequent to less frequent
words, but notes that this line of development is not always followed
mentioning the revived pronunciation of from the 19th century onward,
and well-known cases of anaptyxis, e.g. _thunder_ (compare G _Donner_) or
_humble_ (compare _humility_), alongside more current cases such
as /fillum/ for /film/ (_film_) . A particular Australian example
illustrates the phenomenon of suppletion: _bought_ increasingly is used as
the past tense of _bring_ (p. 37). As one trigger for language change is
the need for functional renewal, Burridge (p. 33-35) posits the future
renewal of negation in English arguing that the elements of negation in
English have been practically reduced to next to nothing and presents
potential constructions like _a bit_ in _it didn't hurt a bit_, similar to
the development of _ne ... pas_ in French. Moreover, in Burridge's view
structural changes in a society can provide additional motivation for
language change. As an example, she relates the history of the English
pronoun system and the loss of _thou_ to changes in the social structure,
but also emphasises the functional aspect by mentioning the emergence of
forms denoting pronouns in the 2nd person plural, e.g. the well-known
AuE/ScE _youse_. Moreover, at least one reason why changes can take hold
in a language, according to Burridge (p. 40- 42), is social accommodation
towards an interlocutor or demarcation from them.

At the beginning of the third section - "Word Creation" - Burridge argues
that, despite thousands of words having "quietly slipped away" (p. 45) -
among them such useful ones like _gry_ 'dirt under the fingernails' or
_apricate_ 'to bask in the sun' - many more are constantly being created
every day through various processes. Compounding is the first operation
examined in this section discussing familiar problems of compounds, such
as spelling, e.g. _crowd diving_ vs. _headbanging_, the effect on
pronunciation in the case of old compounds, e.g. _nostril_ (OE
_nosthyrel_, literally 'nose-hole'), problematic plural formations, e.g.
_attorneys general_ vs. _attorney generals_ and the semantic relationship
between the compounded elements, e.g. _fruit juice_ vs. _fruit loops_. In
particular, the role of excessive compounding in the language of
advertising and politics is emphasised with examples like _value-for-money
6 kg boxes_ or _reality augmentation_ (instead of _lie_). One of the "most
under- appreciated word formation processes in English" (p. 47), according
to Burridge, is reduplication, which has been a means of creating new
words such as _hush-hush_, _brain drain_, _nitwit_ (_nit_ 'louse' +
_wit_ 'intellect'), or many expressive words, e.g. _ho-ho_. Another
interesting type or word formation is backformation for which again
Australian English provides one of the many examples, the verb
_bludge_ 'to scrounge' from the noun, _bludger_. Often taken for a
comparatively recent phenomenon, Burridge argues that blending has been
around for quite a while, although recently it has become especially
productive: Consider _twirl_ (< _twist_ and _whirl_), _flush_ (< _flash_
and _gush_), and contemporary _chocolateria_, _workaholic_ and
_Monicagate_. This section concludes with a short part on acronyms
explaining their formation as well as the motivation behind them.

One of the longest and probably most interesting chapters of "Blooming
English" is entitled "Meaning Shifts". The sometimes drastic change in
meaning of lexical items is illustrated with a short passage from a
linguistic workbook which can only be understood if earlier meanings of
certain words are known. Although Burridge notes that semantic change can
be fairly erratic, she points out some paths of change that have been
common in the history of English or which are interesting because of their
idiosyncrasy. One example examined is the change of 'clever' turning
into 'crafty, skilful in deceit' as in _crafty_; sometimes words can even
come back to their original meaning: e.g. _politician_, after some time
with a positive connotation is moving back to its sinister 17th century
original meaning denoting 'a crafty, cunning intriguer', according to
Burridge (p. 61f). One way of semantic change is through metaphorical use
of words, a field that is also discussed in "Blooming English" as an
especially rich resource in language change. Starting from synaesthesia,
Burridge points out several metaphors whose origin in the world of sport
are hardly recognisable today, e.g. _thrill_ originally 'to pierce, to
penetrate' from medieval jousting. Arguing that expressiveness and
variation are powerful motivations for language change, Burridge shows
that they are also reasons for words to fade and to subsequently
disappear. However, sometimes it is the world that changes and words just
adapt to it, as in _straw_ (made of plastic nowadays), and thus manage to
stay in use.

The next section of "Blooming English" (Relics of Language change) is very
short and draws attention to a well-known observation which is taken up
later in the book, namely that "irregularities are the leftovers of past
regularities" (p. 132), e.g. cases of umlaut and compounds in which one
part is no longer transparent, e.g. _werewolf_ (<_wer_ 'man').

Entitled "The Nature of Exotics", section seven illustrates one central
theme of the book and this is the integrative capacity of English.
Burridge (p. 89) argues that the "hierarchical patterning" in the English
vocabulary "reflects nicely the historical development of the language
with respect to borrowings" which is illustrated by noting that the more
refined terms tend to come from French, Latin and Greek rather than Anglo-
Saxon, e.g. _rise_ : _mount_ : _ascend_.

Although most speakers have a clear notion of what "bad language" is, in
her section on this topic Burridge calls attention to the fact that its
definition is less clear than most speakers are aware of, and contends
that it often has a social function, i.e. the location "within a social
space" (p. 93), which is also a reason for its continuing existence. From
tautology in e.g. _pre-booked tickets_, fillers like _sort of_, slips of
the tongue that turned earlier _waps_ into _wasp_, the intrusive _r_,
vowel reduction (playing a vital part in the rhythm of English) and
irritating spelling to jargon, Burridge demonstrates that so-called 'bad
language' has always provided stimuli for the change of English.

This point is taken up in the next section entitled "Colloquial Today,
Standard English Tomorrow". Burridge provides numerous examples of today's
standard vocabulary which started out as markedly colloquial/substandard
or slang, such as _clever_, _nowadays_ or _to capture_. This path of
development can also be taken by non-lexical features, such as stress
patterns of polysyllabic words (_contro'versy_ vs. _'controversy_) or
pronunciation (e.g. phenomena of deletion rendering pairs like _fence_ and
_defence_ or _ticket_ and _etiquette_). Moreover, Burridge argues that the
singular use of _they_ fills a gap in the pronominal system and exhibits
the same grammatical incorrectness as singular _you_ from a diachronic
point of view, and consequently should not be considered ungrammatical.

The question whether _deepfroze_ or _deepfreezed_ is the correct past
tense of _deepfreeze_ introduces the topic of analogy. The solution to
this question suggested in "Blooming English" is that compounds featuring
an irregular component tend to be regularised as soon as the elements
involved fuse together closely enough so that the connection to the
original irregularity is lost. For example, the past tense of _babysit_ or
_highlight_ are completely regular, whereas Burridge (p. 130) contends
that in the case of _deepfreeze_ this process has not been completed,
hence the past tense _deepfroze_. However, Burridge observes that,
although cases of analogy usually involve productive patterns, such as the
regular past ending _-ed_, in some instances, patterns that are no longer
productive on a larger scale can nonetheless be extended, as demonstrated
by _bring_ : _brung_, or AuE _skin_ : _skun_, or the historical example
_fling_ : _flung_. The remainder of this chapter mainly involves plural
formations which have also been subject to various forms of analogical
change in similar ways as verbal tense formations, as evidenced by the
extension of the _-s_- plural or the contrast between _dwarves_ vs.
_wharfs_. However, also the backformations touched upon earlier
in "Blooming English" are cases of analogy, as Burridge explains in the
last part of this section.

Another feature of language is examined in the next section, called "sound
symbolism", in which Burridge argues, that, despite the original
arbitrariness of words as speech signs, conventionalisation can result in
the close association of a word with its meaning. In a subsequent process
speakers transfer this meaning onto similar sounding words creating
phonaestemic groups. The consequence, according to Burridge, is the
feeling that certain sounds carry a certain meaning. In particular,
interjections that are usually seen to be of onomatopoetic origin in fact
can turn into other parts of speech, such as verbs in "They ummed and
ahhed" (p. 143).

In addition, cases of contamination are explained as the change of a
word's pronunciation as the result of its association with other words,
e.g. _female_ from earlier _femelle_ under the influence of _male_, or the
mix-up of two words due to their similarity in pronunciation as in
_prodigy_ (originally _protg_) or _mitigate_ (< _miligate_). Burridge
(p. 151)argues that cases of "sound symbolism" can also be attempts to
bring back transparency to words that have become obscure similar to folk-
etymological creations like _veggieburger_ from a re- segmentation of

In the next section ("What is correct English?") Burridge takes this
thought one step further. As "language is not a precise notation like
logic" (p. 160), every speech sign is in need of an interpretation.
Consequently, language is always changing and any attempt to establish a
certain kind of standard is in fact an attempt to stop this natural change
from happening. Burridge contends that it is detrimental to the kind of
creativity in language that has given us great examples of artistic
language use. Although conversation is impossible without some kind of
conventionalised standard, Burridge draws attention to the fact that
communication depends on the interpretative goodwill of the people
involved. This is all the more true, since every set of grammatical
rules "has fuzzy edges" (p. 163), i.e. the nature of language as a system
necessitates the interpretation by language users, which is the reason
behind disagreements, language creativity and, of course, language change.

One result from the considerations in the previous section is Burrdige's
scepticism towards normative language regulation as she understands and
accepts language change as perfectly normal and desirable. Nonetheless,
the chapter entitled "Dictionaries, Style Guides and Grammars" begins by
drawing attention to words that have disappeared from the lexicon despite
their apparent usefulness, such as _symposiast_ 'one of a drinking party',
_eubrotic_ 'good to eat', or _pinguedinize_ 'to make fat_. Even so,
Burridge argues, there is no need for distress as the English lexicon is
in quite a healthy state, "with well over one million words, and gaining
new ones all the time" (p. 166). Sometimes, however, words are created
and/or kept alive either due to a mistake either by a dictionary editor
(the infamous _dord_ is mentioned), by scientists inventing new terms
(e.g. _dismiss_, _transmit_) or nostalgists. Word rescuers in particular
are confronted with another common fallacy of historical linguistics,
Burridge argues: This is the idea that there is a 'true' meaning attached
to each word which ought to be preserved. However, wondering what exactly
this 'true' meaning is, Burridge (p. 170) returns to the topic addressed
above saying that words' designations are not fixed and therefore
constantly "sprout" new meanings.

This section is followed by a short chapter on personal names arguing that
there are phonological preferences for male and female names expressing
characteristic connotations that are also linked to the social
significance of names. From the viewpoint of word- formation, personal
names can also spawn other parts of speech, such as _to boycott_ or _to
bowdlerize_, whereas nicknames can be used to express affection,
particularly in Australian English.

The two last chapters deal with various forms of circumlocution, such as
euphemisms, taboos and dysphemisms, e.g. offensive language. This
communication strategy fulfils important social functions of solidarity,
demarcation, or politeness, according to Burridge (p.201, 207).
Diachronically, the semantic development of euphemisms and dysphemisms is
seen to be interrelated by Burridge: Dysphemisms are largely based on the
prevalent social norms, i.e. e.g. religious swear-words have largely
disappeared, and they are subject to semantic bleaching due to the loss of
expressive quality. Euphemisms or semantically positive words, on the
other hand, tend to attract the negative connotations connected to
the 'dirty' words they replace. Burridge (p. 213) re-formulates an
economic law to sum up the path of this particular semantic change: "Bad
connotations drive out good". This is demonstrated with cases in which
words which are replaced because they are phonetically or semantically
associated with taboo expressions: Burridge (p. 212ff) adduces for example
the tendency to avoid _cock_ 'rooster' or the replacement of _undertaker_
by _funeral director_. Once perfectly acceptable in polite conversation
due to the lack of any taboo connection, the meaning of words like
_orgasm_, _ejaculation_ and _erection_ has certainly narrowed down to the
often tabooed semantic field of sexuality.

That euphemisms and positive circumlocutions are highly popular in the
language of advertising and politics is shown in the last sections
of "Blooming English". The world of food is a rich source with examples
from _Welsh rabbit_ ("neither Welsh nor [...] rabbit", p. 220) to _Golden
Fried Bermuda Onion Rings_. However, especially the jargon of political
correctness has spawned a diverse variety of expressions referring to the
elderly, of which _the chronologically gifted_ or _the experientially
enhanced_ are especially innovative examples. However, Burridge (p. 228ff)
argues that, ultimately, euphemisms can be used offensively causing their
subsequent replacement, which is especially apparent from the chain of
substitution involving _Member of the African Diaspora_ replacing _Afro-
American_ which replaced _black_, a term to avoid earlier _coloured_. The
last part of "Blooming English" points out the most recent euphemisms
military language has come up with, such as _collateral damage_, _surgical
strikes_ and _incomplete success_, before ending with a short bibliography
and a subject index.


In discussing of "Blooming English" it has to be borne in mind that this
book is not primarily intended for the linguistic specialist.
Consequently, in several cases simplifications are necessary and sometimes
this can result in minor inaccuracies. For example, not always can
irregularities be seen as "the leftovers of past regularities" (p. 132),
which is evident from phenomena of suppletion. Moreover, the notion
that "negation is ripe for renewal"(p. 34) because _not_ is "reduced to _-
n't_" (p. 34) does not take into account that the English negative
operators are in fact _not_, _don't_, _won't_ etc., which cannot be
generally regarded as reduced. Sometimes Burridge's observations on
current tendencies cannot be generalised for all varieties of English, as
e.g. the negative connotation of _politician_ may not be as strong in the
rest of the English speaking world as it may be in Australia.

However, taking into account the designated audience of "Blooming
English", these cases do not have to be over- emphasised, as they mostly
are generalising simplifications.

There are just a few linguistic comments to be made: Burridge (p. 38ff),
discussing the disappearance of _thou_, posits that a similar process
leading to the loss of the "polite 'you' pronoun" (p. 40) is taking place
in German. This is rather doubtful, as the position of G _Sie_ cannot be
viewed as endangered.

In addition, I would like to draw attention to the fact that dialectal
Yorkshire English, particularly in the city of Sheffield, still has a
fully operational system of historical _thou_/_thee_ (/di:/ : /da:/) vs.
_you_. Another point is the influence of Celtic languages on English.
Contrary to the standard opinion quoted in "Blooming English", I would
like to point out several recent studies arguing for a more substantial
influence on English, e.g. a number of articles in Filppula et al. 2002
or Vennemann 1999a, 2004.

One minor addition corroborating Burridge's remark on the past tense of
_bring_ in Australian English is my impression that the past tense of
_buy_ also seems to have changed to _brought_ which is a perfect
morphological cross-over.


Despite the points raised in the discussion, "Blooming English" is a well-
researched and neatly edited introduction into the world of linguistics
for non- specialists. This is in particular due to Kate Burridge's
extraordinary talent for explaining rather complicated linguistic topics
in a way that is accessible to non- linguists, which is greatly
facilitated by her wonderful enthusiasm. However, what makes this book
interesting also to linguists is that it features many curious word
histories which probably not every specialist would be familiar with. From
this point of view, "Blooming English" is a rich resource for historical
English linguistics. Moreover, its casual style makes "Blooming English"
excellent reading, showing that the world of linguistics is truly an
interesting garden to wander around marvelling at its diversity. In this
sense "Blooming English" certainly achieves its goal to narrow the
gap "between linguists and the wider community" set in the introduction
(p.4). It therefore is highly recommendable to language enthusiasts, no
matter whether professional or amateur.


Filppula, M., Klemola, J. & H. Pitknen (eds.), (2002), The Celtic roots
of English, Studies in Languages 37, Joensuu.

Vennemann, Th., (1999) "On the rise of 'Celtic' syntax in Middle English",
in: P. J. Lucas & A. M. Lucas (eds.), Middle English from Tongue to Text,
Selected Papers from the Third International Conference on Middle English:
Language and Text, held at Dublin, Ireland, 1-4 July 1999, Berne, 204-234.

Vennemann, Th., (2004), "Die Entstehung des Englischen, in: P. Schrijver &
P.-A. Mumm (eds.), Sprachtod und Sprachgeburt, Bremen, 21-56.


Robert Mailhammer has just completed his Ph.D. in Language Theory and
Applied Linguistics at the University of Munich with a dissertation on the
morphological and etymological situation of the Germanic strong verbs.
Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list