Whose Epitaph: “On to Z!”

Let’s begin here with a bit of a tutorial about the study of language habits and forms.

(1)  To linguists only the “spoken language” is considered to be the language of a cultural or national group.  (No language has begun as a written or printed form, except for Esperanto and other artificial, created languages.  Many languages still do not have–or did not have–a written form: today languages are disappearing at a quite alarming rate.)

(2)  Languages continue to evolve until the last speakers of them die, as have, for example, a number of Amerindian languages:  see for a personal account N. Scott Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”

(3)  Languages change significantly over time in three main aspects: lexical (meaning new words are added), structural (changes in forms and patterns), and phonological (changes in the sounds of words in a language).  One might ask, “What about changes in spelling?”  Orthography is not without importance; still,  it is but a way of recording the words and the forms of  a language in a written form.  And often the spoken patterns of words are but poorly reflected in the written forms.  English is a prime example; we have 26 graphemes (letters in our alphabet) to represent 40-some phonemes. (Diphthongs help somewhat.)

The lexical changes (addition of words + new functions or  new meanings of existing words) are the most readily seen and are now the subject of this posting:  the lexicon and the phonological distinctions found in what we have come to call “dialects.”

So: let us pause for now in order to establish a context for a very significant study of the American language (it began in 1965 and is not yet completely finished).  Here is a two-part question:  On whose tombstone (he died nine years ago) is the inscription “On to Z!” and what does that inscription signify?

I shall be sitting at my computer, listlessly,  aimlessly, perhaps even breathlessly (“Wha! Wha! Ahhhhhhh!”) waiting to hear from you. . . .



9 Responses to “Whose Epitaph: “On to Z!””

  1. Scott Says:

    It’s on the tombstone of Frederic Cassidy, and looks forward to the wrapping up of the “Dictionary of American Regional English”, the project he started.

    Of course, I didn’t know this five minutes ago. Google is everyone’s friend. 🙂

  2. Tammy Stephens Says:

    He studied many peoples’ speech. That would be intreging.
    I agree that the languages are disappearing at a quite alarming rate. It’s truly heartbreaking. Some are so beautiful and elequent! Cultures are changing so fast, we are losing the past.
    I think I would want my headstone to read, Last Pitch. (I pitch) Think it would be funny.

  3. Stephen Thompson Says:

    As an Esperanto speaker for 30 years, it hadn’t occurred to me that one of the unique aspects of the International Language is that it began life as a written language and became a spoken one, reversing the usual process. (It IS a spoken language – people do grow up speaking it as the language of their parents.) That Esperanto succeeds in face to face verbal communication between people from widely different backgrounds is evidence of the genius of its creator, L.L.Zamenhof, who was born 150 years ago this year.

  4. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Stephen Thompson,
    That’s pretty cool. Did you take a class from Mr. Rundus, lol?

  5. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    Forsooth! Shalt thou anon and fain go whither thou wouldst not?

  6. Tammy Stephens Says:

    If you say so, lol.

  7. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Before reading what may have come into my mailbox in the last couple of days, I do want to affirm that “Scott” is correct (assisted by good ol’ Google) in identifying the occupant of the burial site which bears the legend “On to Z!” on the accompanying tombstone.

    Frederic Cassidy (d. 2000) is the occupant of this burial site in, I believe, Madison, Wisconsin.. He was the chief editor, beginning with its initial field studies in 1965, of a tremendously complex and thorough study of the varieties of American spoken English as they existed in the five years between 1965 and 1970 (when all of the field studies, the volunteer reading program, and most of the taping work was done). Just over 1000 American speech communities were targeted for study. 1843 questions were identified as bases for the study; there were a total of 2,777 informants.

    The study was headquartered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Cassidy was a Professor and had previously done impressive work on the “Linguistic Atlas of the North Central States.” Joan Houston Hall is the co-editor.

    Cassidy lived long enough to see the first three volumes to completion. Volume IV (up to Sk) was published in 2002. It appears now that the final volume (Sl to Z) will be completed and published in 2010 and that Volume VI, including comprehensive background material, will follow, as will a complete electronic edition. All of these under the aegis of the Belknap Press of Harvard University.

    You can now understand, because of his life’s work on this project, why Cassidy’s epitaph is, appropriately, “On to Z!”

    I also find it very interesting that the editors of the dictionary, together with a number of other contributors, in order to get a consistent and complete exhibit of the spoken English items, devised a short story, “Arthur the Rat,” in order to elicit the needed information from participants in the study. At some point, probably with Volume VI, “Arthur the Rat” will appear in print. Should be interesting!

    If you have never delved into this dictionary, it is worthwhile, in order to appreciate the quantity and quality of the research involved, to spend a few minutes in at least casual exploration of some of the items. Both UNCP and Fayetteville State, and probably Methodist University, would certainly have copies of the published volumes, as would, I expect, the HQ Library of the Cumberland County System.

    So far as I remember, neither Cumberland County nor Robeson County provided one of the “speech communities” that were identified and examined in this study.

    “On to get some Zzzzzzs!”


  8. Remush Says:

    “The lexical changes are the most readily seen and are now the subject of this posting”

    Raymond, did anybody investigate whether the change rate is the same for all languages ( I guess not.)
    Is it faster than in previous centuries? What are the essential factors that have influence on the change rate?
    Education, isolation, media?
    I think Esperanto would also be an exception here, with its very low change rate (not considering the new technologies which require new words)


  9. Raymond Rundus Says:


    I have in the previous “Comment” responded to our friend across the deep blue ocean, Mr. Stephen Thompson, and his advocacy for Esperanto as a universal “tongue” that could help much in allowing its speakers to communicate across a wide spectrum and national and cultural and even personal interests.

    Here are some queries from a blog reader with the handle of “Remush.” He had several questions, but basically only two “threads” to deal with.

    The first had to do with changes in the lexicon, the “word hoard” of a particular language. Keep in mind that a “dialect” is considered a variant of a “mother tongue” in which often both noticeable changes in the lexicon and in the phonology occur. Structural changes are less important, in my opinion, such as different patterns of verb formation and modification.

    Remush asked if the rates of lexical change were the same in all languages. The short answer is “No.” And I don’t much want to make it longer. His three possible categories of effects upon a languages lexicon make up his second question, and it helps very much to provide a frame for answering the first question: “Education, isolation, media?”
    These are indeed factors in the rate of lexical change.

    The first, education, it seems to me has more to do with the extent of one’s vocabulary than it has to do with the language itself as a instrument used by thousands, even millions of people, being affected.
    The second, isolation, would explain greatly the differences in the number of lexical items in one language compared to another. In the subtropical areas of South America, for instance, there are some tribes that have only recently been discovered and which have perhaps only a few square miles of territory that they occupy. Their need for words is, therefore, quite limited also.
    The third, media, would obviously not have an effect where there are no media in our sense of that word; that is, books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, the Internet and all of the tools of communication that we have.
    Some American linguists, including my linguistics professor (Donald J. Lloyd) at Wayne State University in the mid-1950s, might believe that such media as radio and television have but little effect on language change. I suspect that to be true in the matter of the lexicon, but I do believe that in the realm of phonology a great leveling effect has occurred. Why is it, for example, that most of the anchors and primary reports on the major networks hail from the Middle West or the Plains states? And why do we understand Snoop Dogg (who can speak in “street language” as well as in the common idiom) as well as we can “Dog” Chapman, the Bounty Hunter who was born and raised primarily in Colorado but has lived most of his adult life in Hawaii?

    In my personal experience, I became very aware when I moved to and worked in the still-somewhat isolated culture of the Lumbee tribe in Robeson County that there were distinct culture differences. I seldom now, forty years later, hear in Pembroke stores or eating places those lilting Elizabethan-era nuances in the spoken language nor come across the distinctive word usages of that time. Walt Wolfram of NC State, Stan Knick and Linda Oxendine of UNCP, and an associate of Professor Wolfram, have made an extensive study of the origins and the changes in the Lumbee language or “dialect.”

    To close for now: so far as changes in the lexicon of the English language go, travel, commerce, assimilation by force of other peoples, and war have brought about some remarkable changes in the English language, seen most dramatically in what happened after French-speaking Norman peoples conquered the native Anglo-Saxon peoples at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In a little over a century, the language of “Beowulf” became much like the language of “The Faerie Queene” and then “The Canterbury Tales.” It is likely that as long as the English language might last, it will likely never again undergo such a tremendous change as when “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon” became “Middle English.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: