Monday, 20 May 2013

A Cunning Plan

 I've brushed up something I wrote on the subject of con a few years ago...
<rant flame="medium">
...before I hit my head on the OU's glass ceiling –  which makes it impossible to study beyond a certain level without wasting your time on angel-count-on-a-pinhead stuff that anyone in their right mind (if they've retained their right mind after the prolonged tedium of studying it) forgets the day after the exam. (And you have to pay them for the pleasure of this self-inflicted mental torture!)
Anyway, here it is. I've left in a reference to 'course materials' to add some context. For what it's worth, U211 was the course. (Incidentally, there's a The History of English – in 10 minutes there, added since my time, and well worth the time)

To most native speakers of current English the most obvious (verbal) meaning of ‘con’ is the most recent (the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] traces it to 1896 – US, meaning ‘to persuade, to speak persuasively to; to dupe, to swindle’). This is a verb back-formed from an abbreviation of 'confidence trick[ster]' and has nothing to do with the present discussion.

Of the meaning ‘know’ OED says ‘there remains no consciousness of connexion between can to be able, and con to learn'; no consciousness, presumably, among people who did not learn a little French at school: Je sais nager means ‘I can swim’, and ‘je sais’ means ‘I know’. But this consciousness is of the connexion between the concepts, rather than between the English words.

For non-francophone English speakers we must go further back to find this consciousness. Chaucer, for example, wrote of the Squire, in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:  
Wel koude  he sitte on hors and faire ryde.
He koude songes make and wel endite…
Here, koude refers to an ability.

But, in The Parson's Tale the Parson, talking of the Pater Noster, says
it is short, for [BK ‘so that’] it sholde be koud the more lightly
 – where koud refers to knowledge (although the two ideas are conflated: it is an ability to acquire knowledge).

However, Chaucer could be giving an early pre-echo of the point Melvyn Bragg made in The Adventure of English (3/15) – that the King James Bible was ‘deliberately archaic’; perhaps the Parson is intentionally – or by education – archaic-sounding (and consciously resurrecting an old usage). (As Melvyn Bragg points out elsewhere in The Adventure of English (2/13) Chaucer uses linguistic traits to further character development. And as Robinson writes in his ‘Introduction’ to an old edition of Chaucer's Complete Works 
no link, I'm afraid, Amazon has – to use a phrase annoyingly popular in the quaint vocabulary of the translator of The Killing, when referring to failed searches  – 'come up empty' [and heaven knows why I thought of that; it must have been quietly seething away for months] 
the Parson is not prepared to indulge in the Host’s game like all the other pilgrims, but agrees to speak of ‘moralitee and virtuous matere’. Linguistic conservatism might go well with this attitude. But it would take a Chaucer scholar to pursue this line of thought.)

This sense of ‘con’ – to ‘know –  has been largely lost to English, appearing today chiefly in crossword clues*;  but its traces can be seen in a number of ‘fossils’ contained in words made up with other morphemes: ‘uncouth’, for example, which OED dates to the early 10th century in the sense ‘Of facts or matters of knowledge: Unknown… uncertain’. It is today used in the more specific (and much later, 18th century) meaning ‘Awkward and uncultured in appearance or manners’. ‘Cunning’ contains another fossil of ‘con’; as does ‘canny’ in the Scots and archaic sense of  'knowing' (not able) – OED provides several 18th-century examples.  Perhaps also ‘conning tower’ carries this sense – although the OED supports no definite derivation. There is a clear maritime meaning in Stevenson’s (1886 [BK – sic Treasure Island was in fact published as a serial in 1881-2, and first published in book form in 1883]) usage: ‘Long John stood by the steersman and conned the ship.’

But where did the ‘l’ in ‘could’ come from? The OED leaves no room for doubt: ‘The current spelling is erroneous [BK – sic]: the 'l' began to be inserted about 1525, app[arently] in mechanical imitation of should and would, where an etymological l had become silent’. Presumably the apostrophe occurring in many examples represented a missing eth, thorn, or yogh (all also common), and not an '1'.  But it seems to have held the door open for a false analogy to be made with ‘sholde’ and ‘wolde’.**

Caxton used all three of these in a single sentence in his preface to Eneydos (quoted [BK –  by almost every historian of English, but I put a ref.  in here to pick up an extra mark!] in the late 15th century): 
…he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde haue had egges…. Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now write, egges or eyren.’
But Melvyn Bragg, in The Adventure of English (3/8) mis-stresses his script, saying 
An l  was inserted in “could”  because it’d become silent [pause] but it was still present in “should” and “would”**. 
Presumably he meant ‘… because, while still present in “should” and “would”, it’d become silent [in those two words]’. A pause before ‘because’ would help make sense of some rather poor writing. This is a reminder that Melvyn Bragg was performing and writing for the popular market; The Adventure of English  is interesting and informative but not as reliable as the other course materials.

* Speaking of which, here's one. Nothing to do with con. By way of a clue, remember that I thought of it while working through *ie* words.
Bride or groom more confused? (8)
**‘Could’ is grouped with ‘should’ and ‘would’ as an ‘auxiliary modal verb’ in Swan's Practical English Usage, 2005, 353-4.

Update 2013.06.25.21:00

PS OK. It's time you had the answer the the crossword clue. When I re-read this, I couldn't work  it out for a while. But I've got it (and it's not bad, though I say it as shouldn't). Knottier.

Update 2013.09.30.11:10
HeadFooter updated

Update 2015.10.0610.05 – Corrected IPA symbols (which were previously an uneasy mixture of IPA and  SAMPA). And updated footer again.

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each e cvowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
Well over 49,300 views  and nearly 9,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,700 views and nearly 1,100 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.


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