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Thursday, December 13, 2007

On Ought

posted by on December 13 at 12:08 PM

We already know that economic power or intercourse structures and restructures the entire body of the English language. For example, when French was the prestige language in England (1066-1200), English was reshaped by the force of French economic power, by the way it operated, which was through juridical or law institutions: courts, policing, documents, and so on. To this day, we speak in French when we speak in our legal language. But here is a curious and not irrelevant development. Around the 17th century, the meaning of the word “ought” changed in the English language. “Ought” used to designate ownership. To ought a debt, or a house, or a horse, meant to “own” it. That was the case until the 17th century, the beginning of the modern period, the moment when Europe departs from feudal society and travels to a capitalist one. At this point, the word “ought” makes a telling transition; and I believe there is a connection between the shift in the word and the shift in the economy. That shift injects “ought” with a new moral connotation, a new moral substance. After the 17th century, in the area of history between the fully medieval/Aristotelian order and the fully capitalist/Galilean one, “ought” begins to mean: “This is something you must do”; or: “This is the right thing to do.” You ought not do this or that because it is wrong and you owe to yourself to do the right thing. The shift in the word calls into being a subject that sees ownership in moral/legal terms. The word change establishes and reinforces the subject of capitalist economics and interpellation.

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that ought to have been more than one paragraph. other than that, you ought this topic!

Posted by infrequent | December 13, 2007 12:19 PM

You mean to tell me that capitalism not only affects our lives and our livelihoods but also our LANGUAGE! You've convinced me. It's time for a long march.

Posted by Jerod | December 13, 2007 12:30 PM

BS, Chaz. According to this link
the term "ought" as an obligation first appears c.1175, And the root is Germanic, not French. Nothing to do with economics. Pseudo-sociolinguistic babble.

Posted by DaiBando | December 13, 2007 12:39 PM

Uh, no, we speak *Latin* in our legal language. Though there's a fair amount of French in politics and government (attache, charge d'affaires, etc.), not so much in law.

Posted by K | December 13, 2007 12:50 PM

Charles, if this is the best you can do, you really ought to find another line of work.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | December 13, 2007 12:56 PM

And the OED has the Old English Hexateuch---an 11th century translation of the first six books of the Old Testament---as the earliest recorded use of this meaning. So it probably predates the Norman invasion.

Posted by danny | December 13, 2007 12:56 PM

ought is not a french word. i was only using the french impact on english as an example. sorry for the confusion.

Posted by charles | December 13, 2007 1:13 PM

uhh yeah it's been mentioned once already but we don't use french in our legal system we use latin. How do you not know this?

Posted by aaron | December 13, 2007 1:17 PM

Hmmm...interesting post, but I'd have to disagree about the French influence on law as well. As K points out, much of American legal terminology is Latin not French.

Beyond the language, I'd say that the English common law system -- which, of course, forms the basis for the American system -- could best be described as a _reaction_ to the "civilian" systems that dominated the European continent. These systems were directly derived from Roman law (more Latin, eh?) and feature a much different set of perspectives than what emerged in England. Notably, civilian regimes rely heavily upon formalized codification of statute as opposed to a more organic development of legal structure through jurisprudence. For a solid overview, try Norman Cantor's 1997 work, _Imagining the Law_.

And I'd also like to nitpick your dates as well. 1066 is a bit early to talk about French as a "prestige" language. Norman conquest serves as an important milepost, but the real extension of cultural power came with the Plantagenets a bit later.

Posted by Habaeus Data, Charles | December 13, 2007 1:20 PM

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Posted by Burgin99 | December 13, 2007 1:23 PM

Voir dire: the procedural term for the direct examination to qualify an expert witness.

It's French. It's legal. Deal with it, Latin-o-philes.

Posted by Robin | December 13, 2007 1:38 PM

Voir dire: the procedural term for the direct examination to qualify an expert witness.

It's French. It's legal. Deal with it, Latin-o-philes.

Posted by Robin | December 13, 2007 1:38 PM

Charles, when it comes to etymology, you are out of your depth, I'm afraid. Your analysis is wrong. French never had the kind of impact you suggest on English, even when it was the court language (never the legal language). And the relationship and development of "ought", "own" and "owe" (the other related word you leave out) owe nothing to the forces you claim caused them. The missing word "owe" does a lot to explain the relationship between the different meanings, revolving around "duty".

Capitalist law formulation is an English invention, not a French one, and English Common Law is the root of our legal system, except in Louisiana, where the Napoleonic Code is at the bottom of things. None of this has anything to do with the word "ought".

Seriously, get yourself an OED. It'll save you lots of trouble in the future.

Posted by Fnarf | December 13, 2007 1:41 PM

@11: Sorry, sweety -- not quite right. In our system, voir dire is examination of *jurors* during the empanelment process. It can refer to qualification of witnesses in other common law systems, but you might want to re-read your first year civpro textbook before finals.

And it comes from a Middle French bastardization of the Latin term, "verum," for "truth." It's not related to the modern French, "voir" or "see."

Posted by Touche? Not Quite... | December 13, 2007 1:46 PM

The Normans didn't speak French, did they? Hardly anybody spoke French, even in France, until about a century ago.

Posted by Fnarf | December 13, 2007 1:47 PM

but with a charles post, you never know. he claims to post things that are wrong or misconceptions to make some other point. it's like when you can't tell if that one guy is being sarcastic or not. he may not even know anymore.

Posted by infrequent | December 13, 2007 1:57 PM

To be precise, the legalese that some lawyers use is called "Law French." It is not French or Latin though; as we use it. Although it has its roots in Latin, it has been altered by its passage through ancient French and English filters.

I've been an attorney for WAY too long. ;-)

Posted by Sachi | December 13, 2007 2:07 PM

What everyone else said.

It was horrifying to read this. Seriously. The legalistic "Latin" used in the court systems is bad enough; to rewrite that as "French" (yes, there is some French; but most technical legal language is a very ungrammatical variety of Latin. And the pronunciations. Oy!) is just ... where did Mr Mudede get this? Was there a point?

Cicero, who would have known Latin from French (in that he spoke one, and the other did not yet exist) once wrote that "it's ok for rhetoricians to lie if they want to make a point more sharply." (in Latin, this is a pretty catchy little saw. Trust me)

Cicero was right. It's ok for rhetoricians—and to a certain extent journalism and slogging fits the bill—to lie a bit *if it is to make a point more forceful.*

But if the whole thing is lies, lies all the way down (lies like tortoises reaching down to the bottom), one's audience becomes so distracted by the lies (I'd rather call them that than "blatant ignorance") that your point isn't sharper: it's obliterated.

As I think others have pointed out, "ought" is either the past tense of "owe" (possess; have), or the present tense, usually uninflected.

It may seem crazy: how can "owe" / "ought" and "possess" or "have" be anywhere near the same thing? They aren't! Liars! Liars all!

1. I have to go.
2. I ought to go.

"I had to pay" = "I was under an obligation to pay" = "I owed." The idea here is the what one "has" or "possesses," when not specified, is an obligation or expectation.

And the use of "ought" as a past tense modal auxiliary connoting obligation (ought = infinitive) started in the 12th c CE; the use of "ought" as a present / future modal auxiliary—the use Mr Mudede blames, like a big blamer, on the French—came only later, but that's because before this, "owe" was used as the present / future modal auxiliary.

Mr Mudede, may I recommend that you veer clear from Fun with False Etymologies? This was embarrassing.

Also, make sure that the Stranger has a subscription to the online OED. If they already have one, which I imagine they MUST, then I recommend you learn how to use it.

Posted by Abulafia | December 13, 2007 2:09 PM

again, please, there is no connection between the french as the prestige language of the 12th century and the shift in meaning of the word "ought." i was only making an example. ought is not a french word. i very well know that.

and the northmen did speak french, or a form of french.

Posted by charles | December 13, 2007 2:19 PM


Posted by infrequent | December 13, 2007 2:20 PM

So... was your only point that political and social shifts may cause concomittant shifts in spoken and written language?

Like, say, how there was no need for the term *demokratia* until the rise of the Athenian system of rule (more or less) by the *demos*, or citizenry? Like, say, how meaning of Res Publica (not "the thing of the people," but more like "commonweal") in the mid and late Roman Republic means one thing, but in the Empire, when the Republic as such has crumbled, it comes to mean something else entirely? Like, say, the phrase "family values" had a very different meaning (it was, for one, not a catch phrase at all) twenty years ago?

Like that? Politics shapes language. This was your revelation?

Was this the point of your entire post?

I mean, yeah. It's interesting stuff. But it's not exactly stop the presses material, and... ok, I won't harp any further, but (1) you do title the thing "On Ought" and then go on to show that you completely misunderstand the etymology of the word, so don't get all defensive when your misapprehensions are pointed out and (2) the point could have been made much more effectively with better examples.

Posted by Abulafia | December 13, 2007 2:39 PM

Aarrgh! This thread is making my head hurt. Now where's my thirty-ought-six?

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | December 13, 2007 2:44 PM

Hot for words?

Posted by johnnie | December 13, 2007 2:53 PM

The Normans spoke Norman, which is not French.

Posted by Fnarf | December 13, 2007 3:00 PM

Mon Dieu!

This is the most informed, educated thread I have read here in the USA.

Posted by Marcel | December 13, 2007 4:22 PM

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