Linguists share love of words with amateurs via Weblog

By Nathan Bierma
Special to the Tribune

July 29, 2004

Last December, within hours of U.S. envoy Paul Bremer's announcement that
Saddam Hussein had been captured, linguist and author Geoffrey Pullum posted
a brief analysis of Bremer's exclamation "We got 'im!" to Language Log, a
Weblog at www.languagelog.org. Pullum noted that Bremer dropped the "h" in
"him," but when BBC reporters quoted Bremer, they put it back.

Pullum's post, wrote fellow linguist and Language Log co-founder Mark
Liberman, "improved on our record for timely response." Language Log isn't
always so up-to-the-minute, Liberman said, but he pointed out that "the
speed of blog" is still much faster than the speed of "formal intellectual
discourse," such as quarterly academic journals.

Wednesday marked Language Log's first birthday, a major milestone by blog
standards. On July 28 of last year, Liberman, linguistics professor at the
University of Pennsylvania, posted the blog's first entry, linking to a news
article about the Austrian recipient of a tongue transplant.

"Both Geoff and I spent a lot of time writing informal e-mails to friends
and acquaintances, in the form of, `Did you see this?' `What do you think
about that?' and so on," Liberman said in an interview by phone. "We wanted
to share these observations more widely. . . . We regarded it as very much
an experiment, and not one that would necessarily succeed."

Since its first post, Language Log has featured three or four posts per day,
covering language-related news items and examining patterns of speech that
catch the eye of the blog's contributors. Most of the entries are written by
Liberman and Pullum, but their list of contributing bloggers includes 14
other linguistics professors.

In their more than 1,000 entries, the Language Log linguists have pondered,
among other things, the prose of "The Da Vinci Code," Brad Pitt's accent in
"Troy" and the inscription on the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower at the
site of the World Trade Center.

They also have taken up such common but grammatically challenged phrases as
"these type situations" and "could care less" and the issue of whether
"squelch" can be an intransitive verb. The blog tallied 12 posts on the
grammatical function of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

What you won't find at Language Log are rants about the sorry state of
proper standard English in America. Linguists tend to be more interested in
observing how words are used than in complaining about what they hear. The
Language Log bloggers often distinguish themselves from what they call
"language mavens" bent on enforcing traditional rules of English grammar.

"Language Log excels not only at delivering readable, witty and informative
entries about cool language topics, but also at pointing out the places
where linguistics has something pertinent and interesting to say about
current events," said Erin McKean, editor of the language quarterly Verbatim
and Chicago-based senior editor of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University

"We saw this as part of an effort to speak more directly to the public,"
Liberman said. "[Between] the things people tell you over e-mail and the
things you read about in published articles . . . the informal discourse is
a lot more interesting and accessible to outsiders interested in language."

Language Log has started to make that connection. Liberman said that lately
the blog has been attracting about 1,500 visitors and up to 5,000 page views
per day. That's quadruple the traffic the blog was getting when Liberman
started monitoring it last November.

"It's tiny by comparison to InstaPundit [www.instapundit.com], but decent
for an academically oriented, relatively intellectual, non-political
Weblog," Liberman said. "It's a big enough audience that we feel like we're
not just talking to empty air."

At times the technical detail of Language Log posts will challenge readers
who aren't logging on from linguistics departments. Liberman has a standard
tongue-in-cheek response to reader complaints about the blog, which is free.

"We have a standing offer to refund all subscription fees in full in case of
any dissatisfaction," he said.

Endings: One linguistic phenomenon Language Log has been following is the
frequency of what it calls "eggcorns," or unintentional homonyms, such as
saying "egg corn" instead of "acorn."

For example, Language Log bloggers searched for the phrase "inclement
weather" using Google, one of the most popular Internet search engines, and
then searched for the eggcorn "inclimate weather." For every 16 Web sites
that said "inclement weather," there was one that said "inclimate weather."

For every 33 sites that said "Tongue in cheek," there was one that had the
eggcorn "tongue and cheek." And ever since Language Log mentioned the
eggcorn "wedding vowels" as a variant of "wedding vows," it has been getting
hits from Google searchers who type the former when they apparently are
looking for the latter. . . . Another language blog of interest is called
"How to learn Swedish in 1000 difficult lessons"
(http://francisstrand.blogspot.com). It documents the lost-in-translation
struggles of an American living in Sweden after marrying a Swede.


E-mail Nathan Bierma at onlanguage@gmail.com.

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