Archive for Language change

ER and ERM in the spoken BNC

From John Coleman:

Inspired by your recent Language Log pieces, I tried an analysis of "er" vs "erm" in the Spoken BNC. These are the two main transcriptions for filled pauses labelled as "UNC" in the Claws-5 tagset and also "UNC" in the richer set of pos labels used in BNC. I.e. they are distinguished from items labelled as ITJ / INTERJ, in which the few tokens of "uh" and "um" are classified. These "uh"s are almost all in "uh huh" meaning "yes", and many of the "um"s and "mm"s are also in contexts where the "yes" sense is clear. So I disregarded the ITJs and restricted the analysis to UNC "er" and "erm", which are far more numerous in any case. As these are mostly nonrhotic dialects one can interpret "erm" as just schwa + nasality, with no implication of rhoticity; ditto for "er".

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UM / UH: Life-cycle effects vs. language change

In English-language conversations, older people tend to use UH more often and UM less often. And at every age, men tend to use UH more than women, and women tend to use UM more than men.  These effects are large and robust – they've been documented in at least five independent datasets, from both North American and Great Britain – for details, see the links at the end of this post.

The cited patterns are consistent with two quite different classes of explanation:

  • There might be a language change in progress, with older people reflecting the patterns of an earlier time and younger people showing the language of the future, while women are leading the change, as they often do.
  • There might be stable gender and life-cycle effects, so that the UM and UH sex and age associations looked the same a few decades in the past, and will look the same a few decades in the future.

And there's an independent question about the functions of the classes of vocalizations that we transcribe as UM and UH:

  • Perhaps UM and UH are simply alternative expressions of the same compositional or communicative function – say, two different (classes of) ways of stalling for time in the process of speaking — or alternatively
  • perhaps UM and UH have partly or entirely different functions, and it's differences in the frequency of these functions that are associated with age, sex, and so on.

In neither case are the alternatives mutually exclusive — the truth might be some mixture of the two.

Yesterday, Joe Fruehwald looked at UM and UH usage in a dataset with enough time depth that we can tell the difference between a change in progress and a stable life-cycle effect. And he found that the truth seems to be a bit of both.

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Taking a selfie

In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

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Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)

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Reaching a crescendo?

There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.

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Where did Chinese tones come from and where are they going?

Recently we've had several discussions about how tones in Sinitic languages aren't as uncomplicated or inflexible as one might imagine or as is often claimed:

"When intonation overrides tone"

"Mandarin by the numbers"

In these posts and in the comments to them, we have seen how stress and musical tune / melody often override or distort the canonical tones for given morphosyllables in sung or spoken context.  This is a completely different matter than tone sandhi, where tones are modified according to their position within a sequence of syllables (I believe that most instances of tone sandhi occur for simple physiological reasons, e.g., in normal speech it is virtually impossible to pronounce two full third tones in a row because they both dip so low in an individual's register that one needs a means for readying oneself for the onset of the utterance of the second third tone and does this by changing the first third tone utterance to a rising second tone).

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Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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The future of singular they

I've recently encountered several people in their teens or early twenties who ask, as individuals, to be referred to as  they/them/their/themself. Looking around to see how common this might be, I found an undated (?) survey reporting the following results:

All in all, over eight hundred people responded, the majority from the US and other English-dominant countries. A few were binary- or cisgendered individuals who left hostile comments (i.e., stating that there was no such thing as gender outside the binary) or answers that indicated confusion as to the purpose of the survey (i.e., identifying themselves as binary-/cisgendered and remarking that they would always accommodate the pronouns requested by another person). Others, despite describing their gender only as one of the binary genders without further comment, also indicated nontraditional pronoun preferences.  [...]

“They” was the most preferred pronoun-set for 62.39% of respondents; the second and third were “he” and “she” at 31.39% and 29.73% respectively. (These numbers are not contradictory; about 48% of respondents indicated preference for multiple pronoun-sets).

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English or Engelsk?

A recent article in Science Daily has the headline `Linguist makes sensational claim: English is a Scandinavian language'. The claim in question is Jan Terje Faarlund's conclusion that `English is in reality a Scandinavian language' — that `Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.' The core of Faarlund's argument is that, in addition to many words that originally belonged to Norwegian and/or Danish, English has syntactic structures that are Scandinavian rather than West Germanic in origin. Specifically, Faarlund argues that `wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages — German, Dutch, Frisian — it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages.' Faarlund then gives a few examples of syntactic parallelism between English and Scandinavian [that is, the Germanic languages of Scandinavia] and concludes that `the only reasonable explanation' for this parallelism `is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.'

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes. The evidence cited in the article is nowhere near extraordinary. Assuming that he is quoted accurately, there are some serious problems with Faarlund's claims.

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When I split an infinitive, God damn it [...] it will stay split

In the spirit of Geoff Pullum's lyrical prescriptive poppycock offering, I can offer some Raymond Chandler in verse and letter. And this being Language Log, I will follow it with a light dessert of cheap science. Here's a small sample of Chandler's 1947 poem Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive for your edification:

There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb 'to be' as employed by me
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought
With many a strong sidecar.

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The Westernization of Chinese

In several recent posts (and in many earlier posts as well), we have discussed some of the ways in which English has had an impact upon Chinese:

But the Westernization of Chinese reaches far beyond the types of influences and borrowings described in previous Language Log posts.  Testimony of the extent to which this goes comes from a Chinese friend:

My mother, as I've mentioned before, said to me about ten years ago: "I often have difficulty understanding the Chinese in the newspapers," even though Chinese is her mother tongue and her only language, and she is well educated. I find it's because the Chinese newspaper's sentences are now a direct translation from English, with English, not traditional Chinese, grammar and vocabulary. The Chinese language is becoming inexorably westernized.

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"Would of like to of VERBed"

In a comment on yesterday's post, "Ask Language Log: '… would like to have VERBed'?", John Lawler quoted the phrase "I would of like to of seen it in person", as used in student papers.

Such things are certainly all over the internet, often in the writings of people who are clearly well past their student days:

Would of like to of come, but I'll still be in West Palm Beach.
Just would of like to of seen the World of Tanks and the Museum get a little more exposure.
I would of like to of seen a playmaker in there at least somewhere in midfield,

But the fact is, traditional spelling aside, "I would of like to of seen it" is exactly how I pronounce the phrase myself.

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Ongoing lexical fascism

Over at Lingua Franca, where I do weekly blog posts for The Chronicle of Higher Education, I tried to refer to some ongoing research other day, and called it that, and I was slapped down by my editor (she knows the New York Times style manual prohibitions far too well), quoting a remark by the managing editor: "If I see someone using ongoing in The Chronicle, I will be downcoming and he or she will be outgoing."

Lexical fascism! They would fire me for using ongoing as an adjective? Thank goodness for Language Log, I thought, where lexical liberty survives. So I'm back over here today, choosing my own words, ruminating resentfully on this stylistic bullying.

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Sweden's gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun

Slate has an article lambasting Sweden's growing enthusiasm for total gender neutrality, and it raises the profile of a move, actually originating in the mid 1960s, to get hen established as a new pronoun meaning "he/she/it", eliminating the forced choice between han "he" and hon "she".

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If they give me more is OK

On a billboard advertising an investment firm is a photo of a young-middle-aged guy described by Caroline Sams (on Twitter, 6 Nov 2012) as a "smug George Clooney look-alike" she'd like to punch. The slogan below his handsome twinkly-eyed unpunched face says:

I ask my team for 100%. If they give me more is OK too.

Another Twitter user asked if that second sentence isn't missing some commas or some extra words or something. But I think not. I think we have an incipient new construction here. I think this is an if-phrase used as subject of a clause in a way that isn't quite the same as anything I've seen before (I could be wrong). The semantic interpretation of if they give me more here has to be something like "for them to give me more".

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