Archive for Ignorance of linguistics

Rules and "rules"

Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer writes:

Is there going to be a language log comment on the article "The English Wars"  in the current issue of the New Yorker?  I find it completely shocking to see that an author who purports to be writing about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism has so little understanding of the subject, and that the editor (presuming that such a position still exists at the New Yorker) would not catch the absurd claim that John Rickford is a prescriptivist.

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Mark's transatlantic reaction to the linguistic story of the week in the UK — the news that a major bookstore chain has changed its name from Waterstone’s to Waterstones (shock horror scandal probe!) — was simply to mock a ridiculously over-written barbarians-at-the-gates piece from the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, over here in the UK, I was listening to one of the stupidest discussions of language I've ever heard on the radio (and I've heard some beauties), one that stands a very good chance of placing as dumbest of 2012, early in the year though it is.

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Honor killings and those misogynistic pronouns

The misconception that language and culture march in lockstep fashion is so prevalent that pronouncements about grammar can often be used as a sort of Rorschach test to reveal how people really feel about a particular culture. I suspect it's more socially acceptable to vent indirectly about a culture by denouncing its grammar than it is to comment bluntly on the culture itself. Ergo, innocent grammar ends up shouldering the blame for the sins of its speakers.

Journalist Christie Blatchford indulged recently in a bit of linguistic finger-pointing while covering the trial of Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan-born Montreal resident. Shafia, together with his wife (Tooba Mohammad Yahya) and son (Hamed Shafia), has been charged with murdering his three daughters and first wife in an alleged "honor" killing. Blatchford reports the following from the testimony of a relative of the slain wife (Ms. Amir):

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The "Word of the Year" should be a word

The Oxford Dictionaries organization (responsible for marketing the Oxford English Dictionary and its many spinoffs and abridgments) picks a word at the end of each year that they think epitomizes the main currents of what happened in the world (or the anglophone parts of it). Or to be more accurate, they pick either a word or a phrase. And two years running they have picked phrases. I want to argue that this is a mistake, not just because they have chosen an utterly undistinguished item, but because what they have chosen is a straightforwardly compositional phrase, one that couldn't be argued to be a lexical item at all.

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I feel ashamed. I am so unobservant that I never noticed before that the name of the Italian dessert called tiramisu is simply the Italian phrase that translates into English as "pull me up". And I never noticed that until last Thursday night when I happened to eat at an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh (Librizzi, on North Castle Street) with a menu that translated the Italian word on the dessert list into the English phrase pick-me-up.

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"Words for snow" watch

It's been a while since we've rounded up public appearances of the old "Eskimo words for snow" myth. Here are a few recent examples that have been sent in to Language Log Plaza.

Item #1: The singer-songwriter Kate Bush will be releasing a new album on Nov. 21 with the title (sigh) 50 Words for Snow. That's also the name of a song on the album, and some other tracks are similarly snow-themed ("Snowflake," "Snowed in at Wheeler Street"). It's unclear at this point exactly how Eskimos will figure into Bush's songwriting, but it's safe to say they'll be in there somewhere. It's perhaps also a telling sign that the album features a guest appearance from Stephen Fry, he of "Fry's Planet Word."

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Around the world of words, without a linguist

Non-linguists frequently ask me whether I am avidly watching "Fry's Planet Word", the new five-part BBC television series on language written and presented by Stephen Fry. (A bit of googling will probably find it for those outside the UK who can't access the BBC iPlayer; there are various illicit copies around, including some on YouTube.) The answer is no; I simply cannot bear Fry on the topic of language. Such a fine actor (the quintessential Jeeves); such an insufferable twit on linguistic topics. So I know barely anything of this series except that even the radio trailers for it make my teeth itch. However, Edinburgh syntactician Manuela Rocchi is made of sterner stuff, and has watched some. She kindly contributes this guest post to inform you (and me) about it.

Guest post by Manuela Rocchi

The first episode of Fry's Planet Word was entitled 'Babel', and covered a huge range of topics, from language origins to language change, from first language acquisition to feral children, to the number of languages spoken in the UN. As the show was only an hour long, none of these topics were really explored in any meaningful detail, partly because a lot of time was wasted on showing Fry travelling around the globe for no particular reason.

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Learn some phonetics, Reacher

Through the accident of reading two of Lee Child's novels out of sequence, I first got the impression that he had actually checked some phonetic details with a linguist, but then ended up disappointed. I wrote about this recently on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog. I can be a bit more technical about the phonetics and phonology with you here, because you are Language Log readers.

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"Linguistic norms" vs. "groundless peeves"

In the comments on various recent LL posts, someone using various names has been complaining repeatedly and at length about "Linguistic Post-Modernists" who allegedly believe that "there is no such thing as a 'wrong' usage, only nonstandard ones", and so on.

Since the associated set of confusions is all too common, I've collected below a list of some past posts that address it. I also recommend Geoff Pullum's 2004 address to the MLA, "Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory".

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Pronouncing it by the book

A correspondent who had better remain nameless tells me that while dining among mostly strangers at the birthday dinner of an old friend he encountered a young woman who had an accent that he absolutely could not place anywhere on the globe. It seemed almost British, and yet not really. Eventually he just asked. She was from Northern California, but had been born in the Midwest, and she acknowledged, "Everyone always assumes I'm British or something just because I'm more careful to pronounce words properly. It only sounds unusual because everyone simply ignores how words are spelled anymore." Everyone else at the table simply nodded as though that made all the sense in the world.

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Leaf-blower metathesis?

Tad Friend, "Blowback: The great suburban leaf war", The New Yorker 10/25/2010:

Dr. Michael Kron, a Berkeley psychiatrist who had been canvassing studies on noise, addressed the problem's demographic valence. "Because we're not living in Oakland ducking the next hail of bullets, there's this idea that we're just some fat-ass fussy busses, rich white people in the suburbs, worrying about a little noise,", he said. "But noise is very powerful. We've used Britney Spears songs on Guantánamo Bay prisoners."

The actual noisiness of blowers is a vexed issue. The average new blower is rated at about sixty-nine decibels, only as noisy as a loud conversation. But that official rating is determined by measurements made fifty feet away in an open field. Those operating the blowers are subjected to considerably more noise, as are neighbors who live in cramped or reverberant terrain; Kendall had just clocked the Stihl BR 500, which is rated at sixty-five decibels, at ninety-eight decibels up close — nearly ten times as loud. Kron continued, "Children exposed to these noise bombs, it's a disaster: impaired concentration, impaired sleep, inability to learn to read and speak. Children in loud, loud places like East Oakland are the ones who grow up saying, 'Can I ax you a question?'" [emphasis added]

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Excite your brain with negativity

Darryl Shpak writes to me: I came across the following surprising claim this morning; you might find it interesting:

"50 per cent of all words are negative, and only 30 per cent are positive, in both English and Spanish. So we tend to have a much more colorful, rich, negative vocabulary, and it's all because our brains are built to be particularly excited by negative things."

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Laying and lying: the alleged perfection of Australian English

John McIntyre writes a column in the Baltimore Sun's online content pages called "Leave it lay" in which he discusses the perennial difficulty of getting students to distinguish the verbs lie and lay in their writing. (See my post Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful guidance for the details of the two horribly intertwined paradigms.) He recommends giving the topic a rest, since teaching it is such a dead loss as regards imparting really valuable information. And a commenter named Tom (the second commenter on the post) immediately pipes up to say this:

The point you make is indeed true, however the example of lie and lay is a curious one. In Australia, the word lie not only survives, but has not become confused with lay in the slightest. The two retain their distinct meanings more or less unabated, forming a sharp contrast to the developments in the US. I would imagine the same would be true of most other English-speaking countries and those learning English as a second language outside the US.

When will people learn that nowadays everyone can fact-check linguistic claims of this sort?

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