It wet my appetite and peaked my curiosity. Woah! Where you at?

I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to write that post title; the grammar nerd in me cringes. But I am trying to reform and accept the natural evolution of a living language (I will not, however, give up my semicolons). After all, when you are too uptight about proper written language you expose your own writing skills to increased scrutiny. My writing is not perfect.

Language has always interested me because it does evolve and like a living species, its current form reflects the adaptations of environmental pressures upon the contingencies of previous forms. You can look at any animal and among all the adaptations that suit that creature to its natural ecological niche, you can see traces of previous adaptations that no longer serve any purpose. You needn’t look any further than your own body for examples. Take goose bumps.

Goose bumps, goose pimples or goose flesh, are caused by tiny muscles at the base of each hair contracting to make the hair stand up. It’s called the piloerection and most mammals have this reflex in response to fear or to cold. The hair standing on end makes the animal appear larger to intimidate whatever is frightening the poor beast. It also traps more air to insulate the animal from cold. Of course humans don’t have nearly enough hair for either result to be effective, but we still have the reflex. It is a vestige of our hirsute ancestry.

The English language has goose bumps. I thought of this when I heard someone on the radio say that something had “whet his appetite”. This is a fairly common expression, but the “whet” part isn’t all that common in spoken English. There are many expressions in English that use the sharpness or the act of sharpening as a metaphor, when you think about it. The word “sharp” itself can mean someone who is clever or fashionable (on the “cutting edge”). Your interest or attention may be “keen” and you “hone” your skills. But honing, whetting and keen are these days perhaps less recognized as referring to blades as they are for their metaphorical meanings. I suppose it could be that people just don’t sharpen their tools much anymore. The word “whet” has the added disadvantage of being a homophone for the much more common “wet”. One usually uses a whet-stone to whet their blade. A whet-stone is generally moistened with oil or water for the purpose, making it a wet-stone as well as a whet-stone, and a blade is wet when it’s whet. So I can see how people get confused about the whole thing. Although “wet his appetite” doesn’t make a lot of sense as an expression, how else would people hear it if they aren’t familiar with the word “whet”? Besides, people often use expressions without knowing what the words really mean. And such idioms are often the only time you will hear certain words that are no longer in common currency. Idioms trap words in the language like insects trapped in amber. Occasionally something will pique your curiosity or your interest, but how often have you piqued yourself when you felt pride, or been piqued when your pride was deflated, or piqued your friends by using obscure words in conversation. “Pique your curiosity” is still a common expression, but people could be forgiven for thinking “peak your curiosity” when they hear the phrase if the word “pique” is otherwise alien. And it’s another darned homophone. The English language is full of them and that’s part of the problem right there. The English language is a hodge-podge of languages all cobbled together around a loosely Latin syntax. Pique comes from the Old French “piquer”, to prick, which in turn is derived from the Vulgar Latin “piccare”. Peak possibly comes from the  Old English “pic” for a sharp pointy thing (like a pike) which is ultimately derived from the same root as pique but through a different etymological path.  There’s really no good reason for us to have two words that came from basically the same root be spelled so differently yet be pronounced exactly the same. Similarities in spelling should indicate a common root and divergences in pronunciation should indicate changes in meaning. But the English language seems to have infinite ways to spell things but not many ways to pronounce them. At least the spellings bear evidence of the words’ peregrinations, even if the lazy English tongue (or even lazier American tongue) makes them all sound the same. These are the goose bumps that arise from time to time to puzzle, amuse, perplex or pique us with evidence of the language’s convoluted past.

So I can be a stickler for spelling – not because of some arbitrary adherence to rules, but because the way words are written gives clues to the word’s history. To misspell a word is to obliterate it’s history.

Consider our strange relationship with the letter H. The English language sticks H’s everywhere and seemingly for no reason since many of them are silent: the H in what, where and why. H is used to change the sound of hard consonants to soft in combination – like C to CH or S to SH but it also changes some letters in arbitrary ways. Why is the GH in “enough” pronounced like an F, but in “bough” the GH is silent and “ghost” the H does nothing at all? These are all presumably vestiges of our language’s tortuous history and it may be at different times and under different conditions the H was doing exactly what people expected it to do. But the H lingers long after its reason has gone.

Until just a few years ago I thought whoa was spelled “whoa”. That’s how I had always seen it written. Granted, as a verbal interjection, you were more likely to hear it spoken than to see it written. But one phenomenon of the ubiquity of the internet and electronic media is the return of the written word. After a long hiatus when people communicated only by phone (that’s telephone, not iPhone) and folks lamented the demise of written communication and predicted that illiteracy would return, people are writing again. Well, sort of. E-mail, blogging and texting – it tends to be informal almost to the point of practical illiteracy. For many there is no distinction in style between written and oral speech; they simply write exactly the way they talk. So if you say “whoa” in oral conversation, you write “whoa” in written conversation. Problem is, there are words you hear spoken all the time but you seldom see them written. English being the way it is, you learn how to write by reading. There are rules, but there are so many exceptions to those rules that it’s best to simply expose yourself to proper writing by reading as much as you can until you just get a sense for what is correct.

But you can read half a library’s worth of books before you see “whoa” in print. Before Keanu Reeves, it wasn’t even in common parlance outside of horse ranches. Now it’s everywhere and if people are inclined to say it, they are compelled to write it. But how is it spelled? When I first saw “woah”, I assumed that the writer had a just vague notion that it started with a W, it had an OA and there’s an H in there somewhere; tossed the letters together and hoped for the best.  They couldn’t be bothered to check the spelling on such an inconsequential word. Or maybe they weren’t speculating on the spelling but actually thought that this was correct. But had they seen it written that way before? That is the only way they would think the spelling is correct, since the spelling of “whoa” is arbitrary. The word existed a long time before anyone bothered to write it down and as a simple mono-syllabic interjection, more of a yelp than an actual word, you could spell it any way you pleased. Yet the spelling was formalized, since some people really like rules, and consensus spelled it “whoa”. Didn’t they? The problem is, people are more likely to read the word “whoa” (or “woah”) on the internet than in any book.  So is that where consensus should lie? When people type the word “whoa” or “woah”, they are likely to judge its correctness by what they have seen before. And what they have seen before was on the internet, not in a book, and there’s about a 50/50 chance which way it might have been spelled.

Then there’s grammar, and a problem: when do the rules help communication, and when do they hinder?

Where you at?

At first blush this would seem to be no more than an example of atrocious grammar. At least that’s how I reacted when I first heard these words spoken. But now I’m inclined to defend to defend this construction. Grammar is, after all, a way to make oneself understood, and the above question is not only understandable but its form clarifies the kind of response the interlocutor desires. The proper phrase should be “Where are you?”, but this could be interpreted in several ways. Think of context: When would somebody ask this question? If you are talking to someone face to face, you know where they are – they’re right in front of you. If you are speaking to someone on their home phone, you know where they are – they’re at home, on the phone. If you write someone a letter, you know where they are (you addressed the envelope). Maybe you are in the dark and you can hear someone but not see them. You might ask “Where are you?” and they might respond “Over here.”

But more likely you would ask this question when talking to someone on a cell phone. This is the most common situation in which you would know someone can hear you but you don’t know where they are. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the cell phone is the single reason that the phrase “Where you at?” became not only common, but in a sense necessary. Before the cell phone, the very fact that you could communicate with someone at all meant you usually had a fairly good idea where they were. They were either right in front of you or they were on the other end of a telephone line.  If you asked someone where they were, it was likely you were asking them to clarify their location in some relative way; you are asking because they are not where you expect them to be. They are  calling from a phone booth (“Where are you?”) or they are at home instead of  picking you up at the airport (“Where are you?”). The simple question can be interpreted in different ways and may be an invitation to an explanation.

But after the cell phone, talking to someone no longer meant you had a clue where they are. You might even call someone just to ask them where they are, something which had previously been impossible (and redundant). You had to know where someone was if you wanted to contact them. Well, unless you had a walky-talky. Then you might ask for someone’s co-ordinates. “Where you at?” is just an informal way to say “Give me your co-ordinates”. That’s the purpose of the “at” at the end of that question. It is contrary to the well-known proscription against ending a sentence with a preposition and it should be redundant besides, but it actually serves a purpose. The “at” frames the desired response – an object of the preposition, e.g. at home, at the store, at the laundromat, at such-and-such address. The ungrammatical “at” clarifies the kind of answer the question demands: a clear, physical location. Whereas “Where are you?” can be inflected to require a relative answer (“Why are you there and not here?”), “Where you at?” is unambiguous. And forget about that never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition business. A preposition needn’t always be followed by an object and English syntax allows the preposition at the end of a sentence if the object of the preposition is implied or unnecessary. The “at” in the question “Where you at?” is implying the substantive which is the answer to the question. Of course the most heinous error would be the absence of a verb in the phrase “Where you at?”. Well that is a problem , but I say it’s really a matter of esthetics. “Where are you at?” sounds awkward. “Where’re you at?” isn’t much better. The “are” is really unnecessary when the “at” already implies a state of being “at” some location.

To make another strained analogy to biological evolution: consider the panda’s thumb. Pandas eat bamboo. To get at the good parts of the bamboo they need to grab and hold the stalks with their paws and peel the outer layers with their teeth. Thumbs are really good for grabbing and holding things but pandas evolved from carnivores that had already adapted their digits for claws. In fact, the ancestor bear’s claws were just too claw-like to reconfigure into an opposable digit, but other parts of the paw could serve the purpose. Over time, a bone from the wrist shifted in place and enlarged to form a rudimentary thumb.

This is an over-simplification, and I invite you to read the late, great Stephen Jay Gould’s essay on the subject for details.

The panda is an odd beast, and one would not expect that a bear adapted for carnivory would become a giant bamboo eating machine, but it happened. And like a bear may have to find a thumb where none existed to become a new kind of animal, language finds a way to put itself together from its divers parts to communicate in a new way. After all, twenty or thirty years ago there were few occasions when the average person would find it necessary to ask someone “where you at?”. But this is the world we live in now.

And that’s where it’s at.

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8 thoughts on “It wet my appetite and peaked my curiosity. Woah! Where you at?

  1. Are you multilingual, Joel? I ask because last year I took a (French) linguistics course and was amazed by the complexity of language evolution. As a result, I worried about the rapid extinction of languages which ended up driving me to begin learning more languages. Unfortunately, learning two new languages at once (one of them without a class) was a bit beyond me so I have to learn a bit slower than I would like.

    I really enjoy being able to use language evolution as an excuse. I may pronounce something “improperly”, but if someone corrects me I simply tell them that I’m helping the language evolve 😛

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  2. I did take a few years of Spanish in high school but that was many, many years ago and I’ve lost much through lack of practice. I once attempted to teach myself Gaelic, but that didn’t take. So in short, I’m not as multilingual as I wish I was. I really wish I had learned more languages when my brain was young and spongy, it gets much harder as you get older.
    But I’ve always been interested in languages, especially the history that is encoded in language. I’m fascinated by the tension between the desire to standardize language and the natural tendency of langage to change.

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  3. Hwoh, Joel!
    As the daughter of a cold-type printer turned major newspaper conglomerate vice president (retired), who was the son of an early 20th century, western US newspaperman (founder, reporter, printer, salesman), spelling and syntax was all-important to me. Until I matured enough to see the language underneath.
    Thanks for your wonderful essay.
    And, care to share your caffeine supplier?

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    • I’m the son of an English teacher myself (also retired) and grew up knowing the difference between “can I” and “may I” (Q: “Can I go to the bathroom?” A:”I don’t know, can you?”) Learning the rules was never as interesting as learning why they are as they are.
      As for caffeine – I’ll take whatever I can get whenever I can get it, but I go for the good stuff straight from Brazil when possible.

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  4. Hello there, Joel! I love your entertaining and informative article. Thank you!
    I would not be considered by most as a native speaker(I am an Asian in Asia) but I am passionate about English! I grew up in an English-speaking environment as my father taught English.
    “To misspell a word is to obliterate it’s history.”
    It would be great if you could have an article on the use of ‘its’ vs ‘it’s’ and ‘your’ vs ‘you’re’.
    My mother made sure my diet had little caffeine…
    May the best of times be with you always!

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    • Thanks Clariissa,
      The problem of “its”, “it’s”, “your” and “you’re” I would categorize as carelessness more than anything else. Carelessness in the true sense, in that it betrays a lack of care. Most errors I see in written English seem to indicate a writer with little experience in reading, who is satisfied to write in an approximation of spoken English.
      Ironically, I often find that the most conscientious writers in English are non-native English speakers since their experience with the language is more closely tied to reading it than to hearing it spoken casually everyday.

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    • Clariissa – I have a pet peeve blog that includes those and a few more. “peak/pique/peek” is in there, as well. I tried to make the piece informative and entertaining.
      http://stephenlwilson.blogspot.com/2013/01/pet-peeves.html

      joelcooper – Thank you for understanding my concerns! You have verbalized some important details in a thorough manner, which is appreciated. It is comforting to know that there are others as passionate as I am regarding this topic.
      Thank you in advance for allowing my link. Hopefully you don’t consider it to be spam, as I am trying to help Clariissa. I will be promoting this page, as well. Thanks! 😎

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