For the Love of Prepositions Part 9a: games with ge-, y- a-, chaos and nothing

Although language change is heavily influenced by historical and political factors over time, we should not underestimate the extent to which the forms linguistic features take are determined by play.

Infants acquire their first language largely by playing with its sounds and shapes, its vocabulary items and their relation to the real world. Arguably, adult second-language learners should learn the same way, although this may not be practicable in a world in which there is not much time available to spend protracted periods just ‘messing around’.

The other main influence on language change is laziness. No-one wants to play a boring complex game. But no-one wants to play a boring simple one either and will tend to introduce complicating elements to liven things up.

Mainstream linguists lazily tend to boil down this complex interplay of playfulness, laziness and historical determination to mere arbitrariness. This, however, tends to blanch all the meaningfulness and fun out of language, reducing it to a bare skeleton of reductionist syntactic structures, supposedly related to intracranial synapses and the stern commandments of evolutionary biology and, as a result, overlooking the role that historical and cultural diversity and other idiosyncratic creative features have to play.

My fondness for prepositions is fuelled by the way that these little words, while apparently complying with their assumed arbitrary subservient status, are forever impishly defying the assumed arbitrary authority into whose service they are pressed, marshalled or cajoled.

Sometimes they are reduced to ghosts. But even that does not deprive them of a certain revenant power.

Take ge-. Every German speaker knows that ge- has a clear function in the established grammar of the Teutonic language. It indicates the past participle of a verb. Some might, albeit unconsciously, connect this with the ancient meaning of ge- as ‘together’. The idea of the perfective aspect in Old Germanic is connected with the idea of putting things together, tying things up, finishing things off and cutting off loose ends, to create the perfect Hegelian synthesis (Gestalt), in which the real truly does conform to a noble but potentially dangerous ideal.

English and other more peripheral Germanic languages started losing this ge- prefix quite early. Old English was already reducing it to y- and this process was accelerated by a constant influx of Danes on Viking long-ships, who were inclined to drop it altogether.

Y- persists as a badge of erudition and connection with tradition in Middle English and even later as an affectation, by now hopelessly confused with the a- prefix, which came, by happenstance, to have exactly the same pronunciation, and perform a merely decorative, at best metrical, function, with a soupçon of the original sense of ge- thrown in.

The times they are a-changing.

Nowadays, a- seems more laughably pretentious than ominously portentous and ge- irrevocably consigned to the garbage bin of linguistic history.
And yet, the ghosts, as ghosts do, have a way of not wanting to stay put in the ground.

“Game” is a word that is certainly on the rise, be it as a form of virtual entertainment that mimics physical sports for the couch-bound obese or as a euphemism for the gambling industry that is the sleazy sibling of presumably nobler financial transactions on which the whole world economy now depends.
“Game” is also used to refer to near-extinct species of wildlife corralled onto reserves as easy target practice for aspirant demagogues, the entitled and the super-rich.

It is also used as an adjective to imply willingness to enter into the team spirit, with an undertone of necessary humiliation. A whole ‘Game for a Laugh’ style of candid camera TV reality comedy shows have based themselves on this premise of the group humiliating an individual and the humiliated victim being expected to endure the further humiliation of publicly accepting this treatment in good grace. The process is so effective that North Korean dictators have recently used it as cover for surreptitiously assassinating their enemies in plain sight.

It is all just a game.

The English word game derives from Old German ‘ge-Mann’, meaning a group of men together and by extension the kind of things that a group of men tend to get up to together: getting pissed, pissing around, picking fights, plotting and conspiring against one another, harassing women, trashing the environment, and claiming that the resulting chaos reflects the natural order of things. Fair game, if not fair play.

Ge- is thus, through this seemingly benign word, in a disturbing manner, muscling its way back into the English language.


For the Love of Prepositions Part 8 …but

In Part 7 of this series of posts on prepositions, I noted that ‘and’ often has a more prepositional than conjunctive flavor in modern English, outlined its nobler etymological pedigree and speculated as to the reasons for its fall from grace.

‘But’ has arguably fallen even further. Its etymological ancestor combines no less than three separate antique prepositions ‘by’ ‘out’ and ‘on’.

Clearly, like ‘and’, it was originally used as a grand contrastive flourish at the beginning of a phrase, like ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’ nowadays. And, like ‘and,’ its use in this position should certainly not be chastised. I have always been particularly fond of the peculiarly Australian positioning of the word at the end of a sentence, with rising intonation (of course)—a colloquialism clearly derived from ancient usage that may itself already be outdated by now. Similar to the use of ‘not’, in ‘not-type’ jokes, this adds a degree of smirking tongue-in-cheek suspense to an otherwise banal statement.

“But” can still be sharp as stiletto, when it chooses to be so.

I end this post with a question.

What is the difference between the following two phrases?
1. a bold but rash move
2. a bold, albeit rash, move

Both clearly mark a contrast between the two adjectives used by the speaker/writer to judge the move. But, which is the stronger contrast and what exactly is the nature of the difference between the two, if any? Which adjective (if any) outweighs the other across this fulcrum of ‘buts.’


Tell me, boy! what you get from our girl
& free yourself from her handcuffs & chains!

After all, we don’t expect the errand boy to turn up empty-handed, do we?
& a slave always tells a truer tale with the thumb-screws on.

So, spill the beans, boy! Reel it off right from the start!
I’m all ears. & don’t try to fob me off
with some lovey-dovey shit sob story you think I want to hear.

Have you seen her yet in a state with her hair-do all undone?
How much water fall from her eye?
Have you seen her, boy! smash her compact across the bedsit wall
& kick her locked bauble-box away under the bed
& wear nothing but that same frumpy grey top over her tits day after day?

Say how her dirty black hands ain’t got no gold drippin’ from ‘ em no mo’.
How her place got an atmosphere you need an ice-pick to get through,
with her little sistas all a-gettin’ at ya all day
to tell you what got into her and what you done to make her that way.

Does she do nothin’ all day but watch crap on TV
& fill the ashtray with un-lipsticked Malboro stubs
& Hershey wrappers and tear-drenched Kleenex screwed up in little balls?

Does she jerk up and cry out in her sleep
to pick up an old bone she has to pick with me? Sleepsaying:

“You man enough, to keep your oath, lover boy?
Your word your bloody bond, boy! your ball and chain?
Perjury put you away a long stretch, boy!
You gonna do me like he dumped me, lawyer boy!
Like trash in the can, like a tramp
wi’ no place I would ever wanna call home.
He happy seein’ me like my soul
rot on death row? He think me happy you doin’ me
one, doin’ me over, doin’ me in with your manhood
& your fists like he do, far better than you, lover boy!?

“Some other bitch hook him sure and not with her cool looks
& sweet winnin’ mamma ways, no. I’m tellin’ you, lawyer boy,
she drug him, sonny, with her big wet, furry, black Santa Claus,
with her gramma’s herbs & her brother’s cheap shit-hot crack
& a ragged poppet crucified on twigs in the woods
& smeared with ooze of punctured toad
& viper-bite to draw-draw the love-juice from his flabby bones
& chicken-feathers found round a grave glued to his zombie heart
& a scrap of a shroud round his undead head
& she torched the poppet of him on a doll’s house funeral pyre
so he go up in smoke and love.

“Get it down, lawyer boy! expert witness to my dreams?
‘Cos if you don’t, I’ll have my way with the both of you,
when it all goes on to appeal. I’ll get my sweet revenge
with both of you, writhing at my painted toes like snakes or worms.
There’s still some black-assed widow a-weaving her web in your empty beds,
lover-boys! & you can have Venus and Serena
in there at the same time, honeys; I still got you
in my crosswire, lover boys!”

& when you got it down, boy, come a-runnin’
& bring the goods to Daddy, like some mista
kicked you up the ass to get you a-movin’ boy!
Cryin’ your testimony like a baby,
paid for by nights with her. Admit it, boy!
She ain’t cheatin’ on me with a toy like you;
she’s just a-playin’ with you to hot me up. On your oath, boy!
Tell her I’ll be checkin’ into rehab
& a-keeping ma prick clean for a spell
& she’ll be back.

‘cos, boy!, if I get to make up & make out
after this little Civil War,
I’m your Abraham Lincoln, boy!
& you better sure thank me & God & the Constitution
& your fucking lucky stars & stripes
for setting your black ass free.