Archive for Language attitudes

Prejudiced linguists

Emilio Servidio wrote to me about the things-people-don't-have-words-for trope, but continued with some ruminations on a different topic that I thought might interest you. I supply his reflections here with his permission as a guest post.


It worries me that linguistic prejudice can distort reality in the eyes of otherwise smart and sensitive people. It even happens to some linguists I know. I witnessed an especially disturbing episode recently.

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Bilingualism is good for you — but not for me, thank you.

While travelling in Spain last week, I found myself waiting in the car for a long enough period of time that I decided to see what might be on the radio. By some cosmic coincidence, the first station I tuned to happened to feature a discussion of language.

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The Romantic Side of Familiar Words

I'm still noodling over Grant Barrett's  "On Language" column in the New York Times the week before last, which tracked the recurring claim that cellar door is the most beautiful phrase in English. It was a model of dogged word-sleuthing, which took us from George Jean Nathan to Dorothy Parker to Norman Mailer and Donnie Darko (winnowed down, Grant said on the ADS list, from more than 80 citations for the story he collected).  But the very breadth of the material raised questions that couldn't be addressed in that forum. What accounts for the enduring appeal of this claim in English linguistic folklore? And more specifically: is there a reason why everybody settles on cellar door in particular? I think there is, ultimately. Are you sitting comfortably?

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David Foster Wallace Grammar Challenge Challenged

Jason Kottke links to a "Grammar Challenge" devised by David Foster Wallace and posted by a student of Wallace's, Amy McDaniel. What's noteworthy is that Kottke reports getting 0/10. Kottke is a thoughtful, creative English prose stylist, and Wallace thought that these questions were basic ones that should be taught in any undergraduate class. Kottke seems to think the problem lies with him. I take a different view: this test is useless. Just imagine a chemistry quiz that accomplished working chemists could not pass. What would you make of such a quiz? I myself would question its author's competence at devising chemistry quizzes.

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National Language versus Mother Tongue

Grace Wu sent me a photograph taken at Taipei Storyland, shown at the right (click on the image for a larger version).

The characters running down the right side of the picture read as follows:

WO3 YAO4 SHUO1 GUO2YU3, BU4 SHUO1 FANG1YAN2
"I want to speak the national language, not the topolects."

In other words, "Let's speak Mandarin, not Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese, etc."

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Like shooting feet in a barrel

So Roy Ortega thinks that the Spanish-language media in the U.S. have an obligation to become "more proactive in encouraging [their] audience to seek full fluency in the English language". (Immediate side note: why do people seem to tend to write "the English language" instead of just "English" when making pronouncements like this?)

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Annals of offense-finding

From the Times Online of August 23, under the head "Quangos blackball … oops, sorry … veto 'racist' everyday phrases", a story that begins:

It could be construed as a black day for the English language — but not if you work in the public sector.

Dozens of quangos and taxpayer-funded organisations have ordered a purge of common words and phrases so as not to cause offence.

Among the everyday sayings that have been quietly dropped in a bid to stamp out racism and sexism are “whiter than white”, “gentleman’s agreement”, “black mark” and “right-hand man”.

Details to follow, but first a word about quangos, for readers unfamiliar with the term.

(Hat tip to Danny Bloom.)

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