Archive for Language change

@Everybody

From Randy Alexander, a photo taken in the courtyard of an apartment complex in Huaying, Guang'an, Sichuan (广安华蓥):

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New life for whence?

Below is a guest post by Bob Ladd:


The post “Whither, whence, whatever” of June 7 was prompted by the phrase whence [she] was exiled (from a book review in the Guardian), which I sent in to Language Log Plaza.  The context made it clear that the intended meaning was ‘where she was exiled to’, but if you assume the basic meaning of whence as it existed in ordinary English for a good few centuries (‘from where’), then it actually meant ‘where she was exiled from’.  To convey the intended meaning, whence should have been whither (‘to where’).

In his post, MYL showed that both words have been falling out of use since about 1750, and suggested the lapse might have been a “Fay-Cutler malapropism”, in which a word is replaced by another that sounds like it.  However, an early commenter on the post (Andrew Usher) suggested a different explanation: “perhaps, the original wording was ‘to whence’, which was then mis-corrected?”  This made no sense to me at the time, because to whence is even worse than just whence – at least, if you think whence means ‘from where’. I figured that Andrew had made some sort of slip in his comment and at first I thought no more about it.  But then I wondered, what if people really do say to whence?

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Whither, whence, whatever

John Mullan, "The Mystery of Charles Dickens by AN Wilson review — a great writer's dark side", The Guardian 6/3/2020 [emphasis added]:

Then there is “The Mystery of the Cruel Marriage”. Nothing has more tainted Dickens’s reputation than his public repudiation (via an advertisement in the Times) of his wife, Kate, who had borne him 10 children and suffered all his demands for 22 years. Wilson’s house, he tells us, overlooks the back garden of 70 Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, whence Catherine Dickens was exiled, with the company of only one of her children, Charley, their eldest son. The others were forbidden to see her. We have found out recently that Dickens tried to have her certified insane, so that she would be put in an asylum. Not only did he want to be free to pursue an affair with Nelly Ternan, he wanted somehow to declare that it was all his blameless wife’s fault. He was the wounded party.

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Metathesis in action

At the end of the May 1 episode of the NPR show "Milk Street", host Christopher Kimball interviews Dr. Aaron Carroll about a recent California court decision that could force coffee to come with a label warning that it contains a chemical known to cause cancer.

The chemical in question is acrylamide, and it's apparently created (in small quantities) whenever carbohydrates are heated above about 250 degrees farenheit — so bread, crackers, cake, cookies, pizza, pretzels, fried potatoes, corn chips, and lots of other things besides coffee that most people eat regularly. Dr. Carroll argues that the quantities of acrylamide involved are far too small to pose any measurable danger, and that warnings like this one have the bad effect of persuading people to ignore all such messages.

But this is Language Log, not Cancer Warning Over-Reach Log, so what's the linguistic point? It's the way that Dr. Carroll pronounces the name of the chemical in question.

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O.K. is rude

Caity Weaver, "Typing These Two Letters Will Scare Your Young Co-Workers: Everything was O.K. until you wrote 'O.K.'", NYT 11/21/2019, starts with a note from someone in Queens:

I am a Gen X-er who generally speaks proper English and am a “digital native.” (Hey, kids: We built these tools that you claim as your own.) When I respond to a text or email with “O.K.,” I mean just that: O.K. As in: I hear you, I understand, I agree, I will do that. If I reply with “K,” I’m just being more informal.

However, I have been informed by my Millennial and Gen Z co-workers that the new thing I’m supposed to type is “kk.” To write “O.K.” or “K,” they tell me, is to be passive-aggressive or imply that I would like the recipient to drop dead. To which I am tempted to respond, “Believe me, if I want you to drop dead … you’ll know.”

I find “kk” loathsome. Are my co-workers being overly sensitive, or am I not acknowledging the nuance of modern communication? I would really like to settle this debate once and for all. O.K.?

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*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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