Why you most definitely can make up words in English

“Children can’t use word x because it doesn’t exist, and you can’t just make words up.” So said a teacher once on a forum I was following at the time.

My reply was, “Why can’t you?”

Shakespeare is one of the most respected writers of all time, and he invented a whole pile of words! He probably didn’t invent all the 1700 he is often credited with, but there is little doubt that he made up more than a few, including giving new meanings to old words. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

People have been making words up for millennia. Some of the words made up never catch on and are forgotten about; others are used and repeated – and if enough people use and repeat them they enter the hallowed pages of the OED and become an accepted part of the language. I have to wonder whether anyone who claims you can’t make words up has ever taken a selfie (first recorded usage 2002).

Think about it – if you can’t make words up, how did we end up speaking English anyway? Without words ever having been invented we’d still be walking round grunting at each other. We probably wouldn’t have such comfortable lives either, because without the means to record their findings, scientists wouldn’t have been able to keep a record of their successes and failures, and they wouldn’t have been able to pass the baton on to future generations to refine and improve. And what about those inventions? Without making up words, telescopes, televisions, lightbulbs, electricity, football, matches, chocolate and wellington boots would all be referred to as “things”. That would make life confusing!

One of the things I love about the English language is it’s richness: we don’t just have ‘big’, we have ‘huge’, ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’ and ‘gargantuan’. Another thing I love is the fact that you can play with it: if I told you that my road was really carparky in the mornings, you’d know exactly what I meant, even though the word doesn’t (yet) appear in the OED.

In my opinion, instead of telling children, “You can’t just make words up,” we should educate them about when it’s appropriate to make up words (informal speech, creative writing) and when it’s not so appropriate, and then we should leave them to be creative. After all, who knows? One of them might grow up to leave the English language an even greater legacy than Shakespeare did.

English podcasts

As I said in my last post, I’m a recent convert to podcasts. I really like the fact that I can slip my phone in my pocket, plug my headphones in, and learn something new while I’m washing up or cleaning the windows! It makes the munane tasks seem a bit more bearable!

I’m not a GCSE teacher so I can’t vouch for the quality of the podcasts mentioned in this post, but you may find them useful.

GCSE Revisionpod – I really like this one. The banter between the two presenters keeps it light-hearted.

Revise GCSE English Literature

Approaching Shakespeare – this one isn’t GCSE specific, but there are some really interesting insights into Shakespeare’s plays.

Mr Bruff podcast – I know lots of people really like Mr Bruff’s website as I see it recommended quite a lot. I didn’t find this podcast as engaging as GCSE Revisionpod (above) but everyone has different tastes.

How English lost the double negative (and French gained it)

double negativesDouble negatives are considered bad grammar in English. Try telling an English teacher that you “haven’t got no pencils” or that you “didn’t see no-one” and he or she will pounce and say “Aha…. A double negative cancels out to become a positive, so you do have some pencils and you did see somebody.”

It hasn’t always been like this though. There was a time in English when using a double negative was an acceptable way of emphasising something. Shakespeare is littered with double, and even triple, negatives!

In As You Like It, Celia says: You know my father hath no child but I, nor none is like to have…

In Richard III, Stanley says: “I never was nor never will be”

And in Twelfth Night, Viola says: I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth.
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”

Other languages still have a double negative. For example in Spanish to say I see nothing you would say “No veo nada.”

Well, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, and it’s still good enough for other European languages, what went wrong in English? To paraphrase Baldric in Blackadder goes forth, “ There must have been a moment when double negatives being acceptable went away, and double negatives not being acceptable came along. So, how did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?”

Well, what happened is that the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason came along. Mathematics became more socially important and scholars tried to impose the same mathematical rules to language. In the mid 1700s Robert Lowth wrote a book about English grammar, proclaiming that two negatives must make a positive, and so it has been ever since.

Interestingly – French made the opposite change. As anyone who has tried to learn French will probably remember, to say something in the negative you have to make a ne pas sandwich. I don’t want is “je ne veux pas, I don’t know is “je ne sais pas” and so on. If you’ve ever wondered why you had to use two bits, and why the second word was the same as the word for a step, well… there is a reason!

It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time I don’t want was “je ne veux, I don’t know was “je ne sais” and so on. But then there came a great fashion for exaggeration for emphasis: I couldn’t eat another mouthful….I couldn’t drink another drop……I couldn’t walk another step. Over time this manner of speaking became the norm, but then gradually most of the expressions disappeared, just leaving “pas” which tacked itself onto all of the negatives and has stayed there ever since.

And that’s the story of how English lost the double negative, and French gained it.