Archive for Language attitudes

Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

Able to read and write, yet illiterate

In the course of doing research for a series of posts I plan on doing, I was listening to an interview from a few years ago with Bryan Garner, and something he said bothered me. Well, actually, I was bothered by more than one thing that he said, but this post is only about one of them: Garner’s use of the word literate. And truth be told, that’s something that’s bothered me for a while.

Garner doesn’t usually use literate to mean ‘able to read and write’. Rather, he uses it as a term of praise for the kind of people and publications that use the expressions he approves of and avoid those he condemns. Thus, his usage guides tell us that the double comparative is uncommon “among literate speakers and writers,” that irrelevant is sometimes misspelled irrevelant in “otherwise literate publications,” that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge.” In contrast, pronouncing the –p– in comptroller “has traditionally been viewed as semiliterate,” as is the word irregardless and writing would of instead of would have. Saying where’s it at is “a badge of illiteracy.”

Garner would say that he’s using literate to mean ‘educated’ or ‘cultured.’ Although there’s no entry for the word in his usage guides, there is one for illiterate, which obviously illuminates Garner’s understanding of literate:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (41)

Prescriptivist statutory interpretation?

The title of this post combines two topics that are popular with the Language Log audience, and that are not usually discussed together. It is also the title of a LAWnLinguistics post from 2012, shortly after the publication of Reading Law, a book about legal interpretation that was co-authored by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner. It was one of a series of posts that I did about the book—a series of which the last installment has not yet been written.

The post was about whether prescriptivism has any role to play in statutory interpretation (no inside jokes in this title, I'm afraid), and it occurs to me that since many people here will be interested in the topic, it might be a good idea to bring the post back for a return engagement in a larger venue. And because the topic is one that I recently returned to at LAWnLing, I'm going to include the relevant part of that post as well.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

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)

Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

Comments (2)

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.]

Comments off

Why the Khitan / Liao ruler Abaoji refused to speak Sinitic with his fellow tribesmen

The mighty Liao Dynasty (907-1125) of the Khitans ruled over a vast empire in Northeast Asia and Inner Asia that included Mongolia, Manchuria, parts of the Russian Far East, northern Korea, and northern China.

They spoke a language that is held to be Proto-Mongolic and had two writing systems, known as the large script and the small script. The two writing systems were separate, but seem to have been used simultaneously and continued in use for a while after the fall of the Liao.

The Liao Dynasty was destroyed by the Tungusic Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus) of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) in 1125.  The remnants of the Khitan established the Qara Khitai (Western Liao dynasty, 1124-1218), which ruled over parts of Central Asia before being defeated by the Mongols.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Bavarian Rhapsody

"La Bavière veut imposer aux étrangers de parler allemand, même « en famille »" Le Monde
(12/7/14)

L'Union chrétienne-sociale (CSU) qui dirige la Bavière depuis des décennies veut empêcher les étrangers de parler une autre langue que l'allemand, même en famille….  C'est d'autant plus risible que les Bavarois eux-mêmes utilisent un allemand bien éloigné des standards officiels et parfois même peu compréhensible dans le reste de l'Allemagne.

The CSU, which has governed Bavaria for decades, wants to prevent immigrants from speaking a language other than German, even at home…. It's even more ridiculous that the Bavarians themselves use a variety of German quite far from the official standard, and often nearly incomprehensible in the rest of Germany.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (43)

Cantonese poetry recitation

A recent issue (1/7/14) of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) carried an article by a staff reporter entitled "Hong Kong student's poem recital goes viral in the mainland ". The article features this amazing video of a Hong Kong high school student reciting a couple of Classical Chinese poems:


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

Media uptake on uptalk

Yesterday afternoon, UC San Diego Linguistics grad student Amanda Ritchart presented her research (joint with Amalia Arvaniti) on the use and realization of uptalk in Southern California English at the 166th Acoustical Society of America meeting. This work is profiled in the ASA's press room, and has thus far received a fair amount of attention. You can hear and/or read about it on KPBS (San Diego's public radio station), at WBUR's Here & Now, on BBC News, and in the Washington Post. (See also this shout-out on the Linguistic Society of America website.)

Uptalk has been discussed many times here on Language Log, so regular readers are probably not unfamiliar with it. But one of the most recent Language Log posts on the topic ("Uptalk awakening", 9/29/2013) shows how relatively unaware of this long-standing feature of many varieties of English some folks still are. So the media coverage of Ritchart & Arvaniti's work is welcome — and on the whole pretty good, if a little biased toward a "wow, it's spreading to men!" interpretation of the research results, which kinda misses the point. But of course, if you scroll down to the comments (why oh why do I ever scroll down to the comments???), you'll see that many appear to think that the use of rising intonation at the ends of (some!) statements is the clearest evidence we have of the decline of western civilization. Sigh.

Update — more here.

 

Comments (29)

Food logistics: a sign of the times

Dachser Food Logistics is what it said on the side of a van that just went by the window of my hotel in Leipzig. Do you see why I raised an eyebrow?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

New NPR blog: Code Switch

NPR has launched an engaging new blog called Code Switch. From the inaugural post, "How Code-Switching Explains The World," by Gene Demby:

You're looking at the launch of a new team covering race, ethnicity and culture at NPR. We decided to call this team Code Switch because much of what we'll be exploring are the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. In one sense, code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures. It evokes the conversation we want to have here.

Linguists would probably quibble with our definition. (The term arose in linguistics specifically to refer to mixing languages and speech patterns in conversation.) But we're looking at code-switching a little more broadly: many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.

When you're attuned to the phenomenon of code-switching, you start to see it everywhere, and you begin to see the way race, ethnicity and culture plays out all over the place.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (13)