Archive for Politics of language

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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