Holy Mackerel, Safire

     In honor of the late William Safire, let’s talk about plurals.
     I’m thinking of plurals that have no singular.
     Premises, for example.
     What’s the singular?
     Premise?
     If so, it would be a rare case in which a singular, abstract, incorporeal noun becomes concrete – yet remains single – in the plural.
     Or “means.” By all means do it, we say. But we never say, “Do it by one mean.” By one mean what?
     Surely there are better ways to mark plurals.
     I like the way the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona does it. The O’odham form plurals by repeating the initial sound of a word.
     “Dog” is “gogs” in O’odham. “Dogs” is gogogs.
     But wait, the O’odham have two forms of plurals. There’s “more than one dog,” and then there’s “a whole lot of dogs.”
     “A whole lot of dogs” is sgogogsic.
     (The apostrophe in O’odham, by the way, is a glottal stop – as in the middle of “uh oh.” Odham means “person.” So the name of the tribe, O’odham, means, as most Native American tribes’ names for themselves mean, “The People.”)
     The Western Apache have another way to deal with plurals – not for nouns, but for verbs. Apaches conjugate verbs in the first, second, third and fourth person.
     Apaches have all the verb conjugations we do in English, but second person is a dual conjugation – used only for “you and me.”
     I like that one. It’s an intimate conjugation – sort of like the Spanish “tu,” or German “du” – a second-person pronoun used among friends.
     Speaking of Apaches, if you use an Apache verb that involves touching something, there are eight ways to conjugate it, depending on what the things feel like. There’s a conjugation for something long and hard like a stick, another conjugation for one long and limp like a rope, one for something shaped sort of like a blanket, another for things loosely packed like a bunch of grass, another conjugation for something contained inside something else, like a cup of coffee, and three more I forget.
     But that’s nothing compared to Nahuatl, the classic language of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The standard sentence in Nahuatl is a “sentence verb” that can be conjugated and inflected in 19 ways, incorporating objects, subjects, prepositions -whatever you like.
     In my younger days I considered going back to school to learn Nahuatl. I asked Frances Karttunen, a professor who wrote an English-language Nahuatl dictionary and grammar, how she learned the language. “Brute force,” she said.
     I have to lie down.
     I tried to get Safire interested in Native American languages, but he had his mouth full with English, I guess. I was one of his lexicographic irregulars. I sent him interesting stuff about language, which he ignored, but thanked me politely for it, three to six months later.
     I guess he had a lot of irregulars on staff.
     I disagreed politically with just about everything Safire ever wrote, but I liked the guy, though I never met him. He played fair. He was a bulldog when he got onto a story. He did his own reporting, and he really reported. He didn’t sit around and make stuff up, like his vicious epigones do today.
     The philosopher John Searle wrote, “It is much easier to refute a bad argument than to refute a truly dreadful argument. A bad argument has enough structure that you can point out its badness. But with a truly dreadful argument, you have to try to reconstruct it so that it is clear enough that you can state a refutation.”
     Safire didn’t make dreadful arguments. He was on the wrong side most of the time – he wrote speeches for Nixon and Agnew, for Pete’s sake – but he didn’t cheat.
     Most of all, though, I liked him because he seemed to get a big bang out of life. He had fun. He wasn’t a whiner or a crybaby.
     Most of the columnists who believe they have taken up Safire’s conservative banner today are liars, whiners and crybabies. They make dreadful arguments. None of them sound like they’re having any fun. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s never to take advice from an unhappy man. Or woman.
     So here’s to Bill Safire: a guy who loved language, and who took the time to know what he was saying before he said it, and who said it well. Even though he was usually wrong.

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