Archive for Language attitudes

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)

"Would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French?"

Today, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on H.R. 997, the "English Language Unity Act of 2011" sponsored by Rep. Steve King [R-IA]. The House bill and its Senate counterpart (S. 503, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe [R-OK]) have been introduced in the last several sessions of Congress, and there's no indication that this attempt to "declare English as the official language of the United States" will be any more successful than the previous iterations. But at the very least the hearings provide some moments of politico-linguistic theater. At the hearing today, Rep. John Conyers [D-MI] delivered his opening statement in halting Spanish, after which Rep. Trent Franks [R-AZ] requested, "would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French?" Franks and King both argued that Conyers' use of Spanish was itself a compelling argument in favor of the bill (with King making a Tower of Babel reference). Here's the video, from TPM.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (25)

Fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns

As I write these words, the number of comments posted below Kyle Wiens's strangely contentless piece in Harvard Business Review, "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why", is just coasting up toward 1200 (yes, one thousand two hundred; that's not a typo). This cannot be out of any enthusiasm for grammar: the number of grammar issues mentioned in the piece is zero. Wiens says or implies that he wants employees who know the difference between apostrophes and apostles; between semicolons and colons; between to and too; between its and it's; and between their, there, and they're. But this isn't about grammar; these are just elementary vocabulary and spelling distinctions. How could it possibly be of interest to Harvard Business Review readers that the CEO of a technical documentation company expects his employees to be able to spell different words differently? I like literacy too, but why this fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Create a language, go to jail

I've received several messages with links to this NYT piece since its appearance online on Sunday. The piece is on Dothraki, a constructed language used in the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and invented by David J. Peterson, founder and President of the Language Creation Society and (as it happens) a former PhD student here in the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza. The piece also talks about constructed languages ("conlangs") and language constructors ("conlangers") a bit more generally, and most specifically with respect to their use in Hollywood. (That 'their' is purposely ambiguous.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (66)

Fake foreigner

I just now stepped out of a Singapore cab.  There are many different ethnic groups in this cosmopolitan city, including Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, etc.), Indian, Malay, and so on.  The driver of this particular taxi was Chinese.  He was slight of build and very high strung.  He asked me what I was doing on the campus of the National University of Singapore.  "Were you here to give a lecture?"

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (82)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (81)

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (64)

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.

Comments (67)

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:

"I want to speak the national language, not the topolects."

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

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

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?)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (49)

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.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off