Archive for Language change

Easy to Laugh

My friend James Cathey sent me an eyebrow-raiser this morning: “Here is a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: "Robinson, who has a warm voice and is easy to laugh, has a way of setting the record straight …"   (TIME: March 12, 2018, p. 50)"

Jim says he could never say "is easy to laugh" in any context that he can think of, and asks “What is going on here?”

I could never say that either, but then I was also surprised at some of the meanings Russian reflexives (and Polish, etc) can have — not only reflexive, reciprocal, and 'unaccusative' (the door opened, etc), but also transitives with missing object and a 'habitual' meaning — I heard it used standardly for 'that dog bites'.

So “easy to laugh” feels to me not totally impossible, and maybe related to the connection between 'These plates break easily' from a transitive and 'He laughs easily' from an intransitive. In the literature I've seen plenty of discussion of the 'break easily' cases and don't remember seeing any of the 'laugh easily' cases.

Maybe also relevant that “laughable” is one of the relatively few -able words formed from an intransitive? But the sense of “laughable” is very different, seems related to a transitive ‘laugh at’ sense, whereas this one is clearly based on intransitive ‘laugh’.

Comments (13)

Overheard just now…

…in Alta, Utah, where I'm conducting field research into how many words skiers have for snow, evidence of the polysemousness of Twitter:

Do you want to know what her Twitter is? [Apparently meaning 'her Twitter handle']

I have a Twitter. [By the same guy, apparently meaning 'a Twitter account']

Extra added bonus: I'm writing this on my iPad, and the autocorrect suggestion for polysemousness was polysemous nests, which for some reason I kinda like.

Comments (14)

Don't skunk me, bro!

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen continues the conversation about begs the question (Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth). Citing my previous post Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question", Jonathon describes me as writing that "the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers." I wouldn't put it that way; I did quote Mark Liberman's statement to that effect, and I did note that I had, in an instance I was discussing, decided to follow that advice, but I don't think I went so far as to offer advice to others.

As it happens, I'm meeting Jonathon for lunch (and for the first time) later today. I'm in Utah, where the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference put on by the Brigham Young law school was held yesterday, near where Jonathon lives. So I will have it out with him over the aspersion he has cast on my descriptivist honor.

Despite my peeve about Jonathon's post, it's worth reading. He discusses the practice of declaring a word or phrase "skunked".  As far as I know, that is a practice engaged in mainly by Bryan Garner, who offers this description of the phenomenon of skunking: “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become 'skunked.'”

Jonathan writes, "Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way." He explains:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question"

The tweets above have extra salience for me, because I used begs the question in the traditional way ('assumes the answer to the question in dispute') in my most recent post on LAWnLinguistics. I did so with some trepidation—not because I was worried that someone would think I was using the phrase wrong, but because I was worried that someone would think I was using it in the 'raise the question' sense and wonder what the question was that I thought was being begged.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (49)

Decreasing definiteness in crime novels

In a series of posts over the last few years, I've documented gradual declines in the frequency of the English definite determiner "the" in a wide variety of text sources: State of the Union addresses, Medline abstracts, the Corpus of Historical American English, Google Books (from both American and British sources), and so on. Both in conversational speech and in informal writing, we see the kind of correlation with sex and age that we expect for a language change in progress; and there are surprisingly systematic geographical differences. (See the links below for details.)

For reasons discussed in a couple of recent posts ("Proportion of dialogue in novels", 12/29/2017; "Ross Macdonald: lexical diversity over the lifespan", 1/13/2018), Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing variation over time in the writing of some prolific 20th-century authors, so this morning I thought I'd take the opportunity to look at longitudinal changes in "the" usage in the two authors whose books I've processed so far, Agatha Christie and Ross Macdonald.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)

Language for the people!

4 speakers

Four sure-to-be-amazing talks on language are coming to central Texas on January 8 and all are invited!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

"Mixed" languages

On Monday (11/26/16), Erika Sandman will be defending her doctoral dissertation on "A Grammar of Wutun" in the Faculty of Arts, Department of World Cultures, at the University of Helsinki.  I have a special interest in this type of "mixed" (for want of a better word) language that is situated at the interface between the Tibetic and Sinitic groups.  My fascination with the hybrid Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages of northwestern China derives from a number of factors, including the decades of fieldwork and historical research I have devoted to the region, the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama was born here, and the intriguing thought that — if Sinitic and Tibetic are indeed related in some fashion, as many people believe — the Gansu-Qinghai sprachbund constitutes a laboratory both for the study of Tibetic and Sinitic languages individually, but also for observing their interactions with each other and with the Turkic and Mongolic languages that have also prevailed here at different times and are still present today.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)

Dialect death

Reports of the death of languages and the extinction of languages are alarmingly routine, but before a language dies out entirely, when it is endangered, its dialects die off one by one.

"Last native speaker of Scots dialect dies" (10/6/12)

Dialect Death:  The case of Brule Spanish (1997)

The list of publications documenting the dead and dying dialects could go on for many pages:  I lament each and every one of them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

"Either… or…"

The following photographs come from an article on citizen protests in Lanzhou and Beijing openly demanding governmental transparency on public officials' personal assets (I am no longer able to access the article online).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

More katakana, fewer kanji

In a comment to "Character amnesia and kanji attachment " (2/24/16), I wrote:

For the last 40 years and more, I have informally tracked kanji usage in Japanese books, newspapers, journals, magazines, signs, notices, labels, directions, messages, reports, business cards (meishi), packaging, etc., etc. and the conclusion I reach is that the proportion of kanji used now is much less than it was four-five decades ago. Conversely, the proportion of katakana, hiragana, rōmaji, and English has increased dramatically.

Has anyone done studies of this phenomenon in a more formal, rigorous way? And I would suggest extending the investigation back a hundred years or more.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

Up (for) and down (with)

From Peter Weinberger:

My group at work was discussing a proposed outing:
I said "I'm up for that".
Our intern said "I'm down with that".

Do you know if this is purely generational, or is there some sort of geographic component?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (40)

From "Servia" to "Serbia"

[The first part of this post is from an anonymous contributor.]

The Serbian legation in London complains to the media about the spelling Servia, which is 'highly offensive to our people'.

(It is true that there is a place in Greece called 'Servia', whose name 'derives from the Latin verb servo, meaning "to watch over"'.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

Gender bending

There's a guy with brown hair who has worked as a checkout person at a store I go to regularly.  He's been there for about five years.  Of the 20 or so checkout persons at the store, all of the others except one are female, mostly between 18 and 25.

Over the course of the last year or so, I noticed that this fellow became increasingly girllike.  Finally, last week when I went to the store, there was a new checkout girl with straight, long blonde hair.  It turned out that I was next in line to go to her counter.  She was wearing a name tag that said "Karen".  I really didn't know this person, but when she spoke to me I realized it was that guy, though his / her (–> their) voice was much higher, and manner even more feminine than before, and he / she (–> they) was (–> were) wearing a skirt.  I really didn't know what to do or say.  My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (67)