Archive for Language change

*Neither Sentence Nor Sentence?

Today in Seth Cable's seminar on Montague's Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was grammatical.
My own intuition was that it had to be "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke", though that sounded a little funny too.

So out of curiosity I just checked in the big Huddleston and Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I was afraid the question was too arcane to be covered there; but to my happy surprise they do actually discuss it, on pages 1308-9 in their chapter on coordination.

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"Horse" and "language" in Korean

A Korean student was just in my office and saw this book on my table:  mal-ui segyesa 말의 세계사.

She said, "Oh, a world history of words!"

But I knew that couldn't be right because the book is a world history of horses.  It's actually a Korean translation of this book by Pita Kelekna:

The Horse in Human History (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2009)

So what happened?  Did the student make a mistake?

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Language as a self-regulating system

Thought-provoking article by Lane Greene, the language columnist and an editor at The Economist:

"Who decides what words mean:  Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge", Aeon (12/6/18).

Greene starts with a wallop:

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists' facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But then he softens the blow by saying, "it doesn't have to be this way".

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"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I'm pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila's, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn't want — that there will be or that there won't be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use "pessimistic that" in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: "I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise." But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

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Ask Language Log: "Incredible"?

Stephen Mendenhall asks:

That word is in the news again. Putin made an offer to Trump, to have US investigators visit Moscow, (and other stuff).

Trump thinks the offer is "incredible", meaning "good". Nobody else thinks the offer is "credible", so it's literally "incredible".

Does anybody use "incredible" to mean "not credible" any more? Do even police investigators use the word for its literal meaning?

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DACA litigation, the "illegal/undocumented alien/immigrant" issue, and a surprise

In the recent decision enjoining the suspension of DACA (but giving the government a 90-day mulligan), the court referred to the people who are affected by DACA's suspension as "undocumented aliens" rather than "illegal aliens," and it dropped a footnote explaining why it made that choice:

Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have referred to aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States as "illegal" instead of "undocumented."  See, e.g.,  Texas  v.  United  States, (explaining that this "is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law"); but see  Mohawk Indust., Inc. v. Carpenter (using the term "undocumented immigrants"). Because both terms appear in the record materials here, and because, as at least one court has noted, "there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase 'illegal alien'  offensive," Texas v. United States, the Court will use the term "undocumented." [pdf (citation details omitted)]

Although the court didn't similarly decide to use immigrant instead of alien, that may well be due more to the fact that alien is a frequently used term in the context of immigration law than to any view about the term's possible offensiveness.

The first case mentioned in the footnote, Texas v. United States, is the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had enjoined the DAPA program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was related to but separate from DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That decision used the term illegal aliens rather than undocumented aliens, but like Tuesday's DACA decision, it explained its choice of terminology.

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OED on the language of sexual and gender identity

On Twitter, Katherine Connor Martin (Head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press) writes:

In the latest @oed update, dozens of entries relating to sexual and gender identity were revised, the first phase of a project to revisit this rapidly changing segment of the English lexicon.

She links to the lengthy Release Notes, of which the following is just the introduction:

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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'.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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