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Transformers

doll-s_house_posterHow many psychoanalysts does it take to transform a lightbulb? One — but the lightbulb really has to want to transform.

What’s happened to the verb transform? Has it undergone some transformation when I was looking away?

Here’s a typical sentence in what I think is the most up-to-date campus usage:

“The character of Nora transforms in the last act of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”

Nora does not transform some thing into something else. There’s no thing here that is being subjected to Nora’s powers. The writer of the sentence means that Nora changes, either on her own or as a result of outside forces.

So two choices. In the first case, the writer could mean “The character of Nora transforms herself.”  In the second case, “The character of Nora is transformed.”  It’s a small distinction, able to sustain more or less pressure depending on the actor and the directorial vision of the play.

But none of this helps the writer, for whom Nora simply changes or, to use the currently fashionable term, transforms.

When I read that Nora transforms, I find myself (now there’s a reflexive construction) looking for what it is she is transforming. If this Doll’s House were set in Hogwarts, for example, Nora might choose to transform a girl into a cat.

Which is the subject of one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s  more charming historical examples, this one drawn from a 1483 Caxton text and illustrating transitive transform: “This catte … is myn owne daughter the whiche by the plesure and wylle of god hath ben transfourmed in to a catte.”

The OED’s second definition of transform is the intransitive form, “to undergo a change of form or nature; to change.” That usage has been around for a few hundred years.

The OED’s examples of the intransitive transform fall into two categories: the poetic and the scientific. From the middle of the 18th century on, the OED cites only one literary example (an 1827 poem by Thomas Hood) in which “my pitying mates / Transform like grasshoppers.” All the other citations are from scientific and mathematical sources. You might even consider the Hood citation as science-y, since it’s about that change-maker extraordinaire, Mother Nature.

Do we owe the modern-day rise of the intransitive transform to science and math? Would Caxton today write that the girl “hath transfourmed in to a catte”? Can Nora just go ahead and transform, after all?

Maybe, but if so, some credit may be due to the Transformers, which since the early 1980s have been a powerful presence in the worlds of  toys, action figures, and animation. Transformers do what their name says: they transform into other things. (Girl into cat. Cat into girl. Though probably girl with superpowers into cat with superpowers and so on.)

My students, born at the end of the 20th century, may not know it, but at least in this case they’ve streamlined usage, pretty much jettisoning the reflexive pronoun as unnecessary baggage and giving up on providing objects of transformation.

Modern-day Nora, our Transformer Nora, transforms into something new, or at least newly shaped from existing parts.

Maybe Nora is finally in charge. Maybe not. “Does A Doll’s House imagine a viable independence for Nora?” asks every director. Does the answer turn on the nature of transform?

As for student writing, I’ll be true to the grammar and syntax of my generation, but I’ll try to be patient with the generation that just transforms. In language, as in so much else, nothing is as certain as change.

 

Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano

 

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