Archive for Politics of language

Ultimate language threat

The news these days, I find, seldom merits a smile. But at one news story I heard at lunchtime today I actually laughed out loud, alone in my kitchen. Michel Barnier, charged with heading the EU side in the complex forthcoming negotiations that will set the terms for the UK's exit from the European Union, has found a way to hurt the British more deeply, and put them more at a disadvantage, than I ever would have thought possible. It is so fiendish it ought to be illegal, yet it violates no law or basic principle of human rights. It is simply wonderful in its passive-aggressive hostility. I take my hat off to him. He has announced that he wants all the negotiations with the British team to be conducted in French.

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Talk amongst yourselves

Please, talk to each other. It's important to linguists that there should be plenty of chat. We need language live, on the hoof. Millions of spoken word tokens everywhere, so that we can (for example) compare Donald Trump's amazingly high proportion of first-person singular pronouns to the average for non-narcissists like typical Language Log readers. tubechat

However, beware of engaging in chat to strangers on the subway if you are in London. A new campaign for people to wear a "Tube chat?" button when traveling on London Underground trains, intended to provoke random conversation with other passengers, has been met with horror and disdain by the misanthropic curmudgeons who use the services in question. No chat please; we're Londoners.

[Comments are turned off out of respect for readers in London.]

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Sex, lies, and childishness; and insomnia

It's a bit early for Language Log to do any analysis of the presidential debate last night. Where I live, it came on after 2 a.m., and where Mark lives it is still only 5:15 a.m. right now. But Vox has already analysed the interruption rate, a well-known index of gender in speech style. Trump interrupted Clinton exactly three times as often as she interrupted him. I think Language Log can confidently affirm that here we have convincing linguistic evidence that Trump is male and Clinton is female.

But one other thing I noticed, as I struggled to stay awake in the darkness of the middle of the night here in Edinburgh, with the bedside radio softly relaying the debate via the BBC World Service, was the astonishingly childish nature of many of Trump's interruptions.

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Speak Polish and die

Arkadiusz Jóźwik, an immigrant from Poland who had been living in England for four years, decided last Saturday evening (for the first time, according to his brother) to go down to a pizzeria in a strip mall in Harlow, Essex, and collect his pizza rather than have it delivered. He stood outside with a friend eating a slice, and a group of teenage boys who often hung out there heard him speaking to his friend in Polish (he didn't know much English). That linguistic evidence of foreignness was enough for one of the teenagers to attack him. Others joined in and savagely beat him. The friend was also attacked, sustaining fractured bones in his hands and bruising to his stomach. Both men were taken to a local hospital, but Arkadiusz had to be transferred to Addenbrooke's in Cambridge to be treated for a head injury, and by Monday he was dead.

Such is the poisonous atmosphere that has emerged in some areas of England since the June 23 vote in which a majority of the UK's electorate voted for leaving the European Union.

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The sounds of Eurasia

A concert entitled "Sounds of Eurasia", held in a church, by a youth orchestra I'd never heard of from somewhere in the -stans region of Central Asia, admission being free and unticketed. It didn't sound too great. But I saw a flyer for it at local shopping center on Saturday, and the event was scheduled for that very evening. I showed the flyer to my friend Carol and we decided (since we could hardly complain about the price) that we would be adventurous and risk it. I wasn't confident; I stressed that in the worst-case scenario we might be in for a a slow and painful lesson teaching us only that Central Asian music was a cacophony of strange whiny-sounding horns and out-of-tune one-stringed bowed instruments and was not for us. "Doesn't matter; you can stand almost anything for an hour or so," she said, gamely insisting we should go.

Boy, did we ever misunderestimate. The Youth Chamber Orchestra of TÜRKSOY is stunningly good. It was an amazing evening.

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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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Open Letter to Terry Gross

Sameer ud Dowla Khan, a phonetician at Reed College, has written an open letter to Terry Gross, which starts like this:

While I am a loyal fan of your program, I’m very disappointed in your interview of David Thorpe and Susan Sankin from 7 July 2015. As both a phonetician who specializes in intonation, stress patterns, and voice quality, as well as a gay man, I found the opinions expressed in the interview to be not only inaccurate, but also offensive and damaging.

You can listen to that interview, and read the transcript, on the Fresh Air web site — "Filmmaker And Speech Pathologist Weigh In On What It Means To 'Sound Gay'":

Is there such a thing as a "gay voice"? For gay filmmaker David Thorpe, the answer to that question is complicated. "There is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice," Thorpe tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But, he adds, "there is a stereotype and there are men, to a greater or lesser extent, who embody that stereotype."

In his new film, Do I Sound Gay?, Thorpe searches for the origin of that stereotype and documents his own attempts to sound "less gay" by working with speech pathologist Susan Sankin.

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Bring the calvary

David Donnell's friend from Urbana drew his attention to the trailer for Furious 7, where Dwayne Johnson pronounces cavalry as ['kæl.və.ɹi]:

Michelle Rodriguez: Hey, did ya bring the cavalry?
Dwayne Johnson: Woman, I AM the calvary.

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Torrential language politics in the forecast for Quebec

In Canada, an early election can be called by the leader of the ruling party, and naturally, this power is often wielded for strategic purposes. And so, Quebec premier Pauline Marois, elected to office a mere eighteen months ago, has called for a general election to be held on April 7. Marois leads the Parti Quebecois, which took power in September 2012 with a minority government, and is now gunning for a majority. This would allow the PQ to pass several controversial pieces of legislation that have met resistance by the opposition parties. One of these is Bill 14, which proposes additional restrictions on English-language education and the use of English in the workplace. Language politics are sure to be in the foreground during the election campaign, and if the PQ is re-elected with a majority, for the foreseeable future.

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Uyghur as a "dialect" — NOT

The latest issue of The Atlantic has an article entitled "The Uighurs, China's Embattled Muslim Minority, Are Still Seeking an Identity".

The comments on language usage and policy in Xinjiang will be of particular interest to many Language Log readers, since they reverberate with a number of recent discussions that we've been engaged in.

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Depopularization in the limit

George Orwell, in his hugely overrated essay "Politics and the English language", famously insists you should "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." He thinks modern writing "consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else" (only he doesn't mean "long") — joining togther "ready-made phrases" instead of thinking out what to say. His hope is that one can occasionally, "if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin, where it belongs." That is, one can eliminate some popular phrase from the language by mocking it out of existence. In effect, he wants us to collaborate in getting rid of the most widely-used phrases in the language. In a Lingua Franca post published today I called his program elimination of the fittest (tongue in cheek, of course: the proposal is actually just to depopularize the most popular).

For a while, after I began thinking about this, I wondered what would be the ultimate fate of a language in which this policy was consistently and iteratively implemented. I even spoke to a distinguished theoretical computer scientist about how one might represent the problem mathematically. But eventually I realized it was really quite simple; at least in a simplified ideal case, I knew what would happen, and I could do the proof myself.

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Chinese character of the year: mèng 梦 ("dream")

Raymond Li has an article in the South China Morning Post (Friday, 21 December, 2012) in which he announces the results of a poll by the Education Ministry that has selected mèng 梦 ("dream") as the character of the year, ostensibly because it represents the hopes and achievements of the nation.  But mèng 梦 ("dream") is definitely a double-edged sword, and critics of the government put a totally different spin on the word.

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The science and politics of reading instruction

Just out: Mark Seidenberg, "Politics (of Reading) Makes Strange Bedfellows", Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Summer 2012. The article's opening explains the background:

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker created the Read to Lead Task Force to develop strategies for improving literacy. Like many states, Wisconsin has a literacy problem: 62% of the eighth grade students scoring at the Basic or Below Basic levels on the 2011 NAEP; large discrepancies between scores on the NAEP and on the state’s homegrown reading assessment; and a failing public school system in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee. The task force was diverse, including Democratic and Republican state legislators, the head of the Department of Public Instruction, classroom teachers, representatives of several advocacy groups, and the governor himself. I was invited to speak at the last of their six meetings. I had serious misgivings about participating. Under the governor’s controversial leadership, collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public service employees were eliminated and massive cuts to public education enacted. As a scientist who has studied reading for many years and followed educational issues closely I decided to use my 10 minutes to speak frankly. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of my remarks.

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