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.

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