Saturday, November 27, 2004

But Not Martin Scorsese

Indulge my nerdish leanings for a moment.

With some exceptions, virtually all words ending in the suffix “-ese” are adjectival forms of places. “Chinese,” for example, is the word describing somebody from China. (I guess I should mention that most “-ese” words are homographs, or words with more than one meaning, because they often appear as an adjective describing place of origin as well as a noun describing the language of that place.)

This suffix doesn’t really show up in any other instances in English. It’s either a place of origin or a language. That being said, I’m suspicious of what kind of geographic locations that word gets attached to.

Think about it: Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Cantonese, Lebanese, Maltese, Pekinese, Siamese, Sudanese, Nepalese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese. A pretty specific geographic area, huh? All the words that use this suffix refer to Asian, African or Middle Eastern places. There are some exceptions, however. For some reason, a few western European locations take the “-ese” suffix as well, as evidenced by Genoese, Tyrolese, San Marinese, Milanese, Viennese and Portuguese as well. The sole standout is “Guyanese,” whose root country is located in South America.

And finally, a small group of Americanism born from the suffix exists, including “journalese,” or the verbal style of newspaper headlines; “officialese,” the style of official or bureaucratic documents; “computerese,” tech talk; “motherese,” or the way moms talk; and the most common, “legalese,” or the language of legal documents.

But I’m still not exactly clear why a certain word is “-ese” appropriate.

If I look at the ending letters of the countries whose adjective take “-ese,” many end in the sounds classified linguistically as liquids: [l], [m], [n] or [r]. The textbook definition of a liquid is a sound that you make without any friction (as you would with a [p], for example.) Also, the liquids can be prolonged like vowels, while other consonants cannot.

Place names ending in liquids:
  • Japan
  • Lebanon
  • Siam
  • Canton
  • Sudan
  • Nepal
  • Taiwan
  • Vietnam
  • Tyrol
  • Milan
  • Portugal
Others take the “-ese” suffix by chopping of the last letter of the word, usually a vowel. For example:
  • China
  • Burma
  • Malta
  • Peking
  • Genoa
  • San Marino
  • Vienna
So apparently when using this suffix, the final letter is negligible as long as the penultimate letter is a liquid.

The rule even works for the American “-ese” inventions like “legalese” and “officialese.” I just think it’s remarkable that while very few people would have actually considered how the suffix works, they used the rule correctly in inventing these little words that describe specific breeds of jargon. They could have easily ignored it and invented something that didn’t apply, but anyone who did never heard their invention work into the national lexicon.

What’s especially interesting to me, however, is one last group of words that includes “Congolese” and “Javanese.” Each of these, for some reason, actually adds as a liquid to the end of the location they describe in order to use the “-ese” suffix. Why? It seems like Congan or Javan would have sufficed just as well, but English speakers mashed them into the pattern.

Historically, the suffix traces it roots back to the Latin “-ensis” ending, which denoted place of origin even back then. We still use it in certain scientific taxonomy, like the name Homo floresiensis that scientists used to describe the “Hobbit” fossils found on the island Flores. That “-ensis” leaked through the years and continues to influence how we describe place of origin even today in English, though the Oxford English Dictionary cautions that suffix only suckered onto the end of foreign towns — always the places “way over there,” never “here.”

I’d guess that we still have that mindset when it comes to the “-ese” suffix. It’s not a word part to describe home, even today. So when English needed an adjective for “from the Congo” or “from Java,” we viewed them as being “over there” and unconsciously obeyed the linguistic rule of the “-ese” suffix. This would explain why I’ve never heard anyone describe the mannerisms of my hometown as being “Hollisterese,” as the town’s name sounds too Western. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard “Hollisterian” either, but that might be because people tend to not bring up my hometown in polite conversation.

(One would think that recently born nations, such as Eritrea would also take that suffix. Alas, no. Perhaps there’s too many vowels at the end. Also, The OED tells me that there’s a trend in the speech of illiterate Americans to drop the [s] when using the suffix when referring to certain nationalities. It’s “Chinee” or “Portugee,” the latter being what people in Hollister refer to the local Portuguese families. Apparently, it’s somewhat disparaging, though I’d imagine it probably defames the speaker more than anyone.)

This bit of linguistic pondering was made possible in part by a contribution from professional intern Canada Sue.

No comments:

Post a Comment