Archive for April, 2009

Mum fined for calling son a poof?

At first sight the headline suggested a case for the Language Log UK Free Speech Watch Desk and the Abusive Epithets Work Group: Mother fined £250 for 'poof' abuse of gay son. A $370 fine just for using the word 'poof', even within the family? What next? Jail time just for calling one's clumsy husband a stupid bastard? Family life would collapse. Intrafamilial insults are part of a great British tradition.

But no, studying of the fine detail of the article (in the Metro, a free UK newspaper) revealed that it wasn't a matter of word use at all.

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So proclaims the cover of Michel Brûlé's "Essai sociologique" Anglaid: Une langue irrémédiablement vouée à l’impérialisme et à l’ethnocentrisme ("English: A language irremediably devoted to imperialism and ethnocentrism"), in a photographed scrawl that reminds me of the shots in the movie A Beautiful Mind of John Nash's study walls during his descent into schizophrenia.

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Room For Debate on Strunk and White

When The New York Times asked me to contribute to the discussion of The Elements of Style on their "Room for Debate" blog, I figured they would dredge up a bunch of aged worthies of the New York literati who would pother on about the virtues of the little book, and I would be alone out there in saying that it did not deserve our respect and could actually be educationally harmful. But it was not as I thought: all of the other four invited commenters (Patricia T. O'Conner of, Stephen Dodson of Language Hat, Ben Yagoda of, and Mignon Fogarty the Grammar Girl) are distinctly critical. Elements gets a rough ride. Perhaps not as rough as I would like, but never mind, there is a developing consensus here that I approve of. (And E. B. White himself might even have approved; he thought that no smooth ride is as valuable as a rough ride.) Dodson reminds us that on Language Hat he has called Elements "the mangiest of stuffed owls", a book that has been "undercooked and overpraised" (I knew I liked this guy). Check it out.

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Diamond, the New Yorker, and corpus linguistics

Forbes reports that the April 21, 2008 New Yorker article, “Vengeance is Ours,” by Jared Diamond, has recently generated a $10 million dollar lawsuit brought by Daniel Wemp,  a New Guinean who Diamond claimed was pursuing vengeance for his uncle’s death. His efforts are said to have led to six years of warfare that have claimed the lives of 47 people in New Guinea.  Rhonda Roland Shearer’s very long blog at provides more details. There’s a connection to Language Log because Shearer asked linguist Douglas Biber to assess whether the long, numerous, and allegedly direct quotations in Diamond’s article were actually spoken language or whether they were written language modified to look like direct quotes. Biber is an expert on measuring the differences between written and spoken language, so it was prudent for Shearer to seek his help with corpus linguistics to help resolve the issue.

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Maureen Dowd interviews Alexander Graham Bell

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Forbes on neologisms, and the return of the million-word bait-and-switch is running a special report on neologisms — a rather peculiar topic for Forbes, I suppose, but they put together a pretty decent lineup of contributors. From the Language Log family there's John McWhorter and me, with good friends of LL Grant Barrett and Mark Peters also pitching in. There really was no news hook for the report, unless you count the claim by Global Language Monitor that English will be adding its millionth word on April 29, 2009. No, make that June 8. Scratch that, June 10.

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Simplified vs. Complex / Traditional

All right.  Something seems to be afoot.

You will note in the this news story from China that there have lately been calls for a speedy and complete restitution of the complex / traditional (FANTI) characters.  Of course, that won't happen (at least not right away), but if you read between the lines, it does seem that there will be a retrenchment of the simplified (JIANTI) characters.

In the coming weeks, during the leadup to the promulgation of the new list of revised characters, we will see many more articles like this one from today's Economist, "Not as easy as it looks."

For an excellent account of this most contentious issue, I strongly recommend an article entitled "The Chinese Character — no simple matter" from the China Heritage Quarterly of The Australian National University, 17 (March, 2009). Note particularly the link to chinaSmack near the end for netizens' reactions.

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The Linguists in San Diego

If you happen to be in the San Diego / La Jolla area this afternoon at 5pm PDT, why don't you cruise by the beautiful UC San Diego campus to enjoy a screening of The Linguists followed by discussion with one of the linguists featured in the film, David Harrison? It's free and open to the public. Many more details can be found here. (If you miss it today, there's another screening at 5pm tomorrow at San Diego State University.)

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Prescribing terribly

In responding to bad publicity about the "Craigslist Killer", Jim Buckmaster has been accused of violating the norms of English grammar. An article in the Boston Globe  ("Craiglist CEO: Our site is not sex-related", 4/22/2009) quotes him as telling CNN that "We feel terribly, and it's quite sad that anyone would lose their life". To which Paul Mulshine, a syndicated columnist for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, responded "No, you feel terrible; you merely speak terribly".

According to Mr. Mulshine, feel in this case is what he calls a "linking verb", which is followed not by an adverb but by a "predicate adjective", describing "not the action of the predicate but the condition of the subject". He calls Mr. Buckmaster's usage a "hypercorrectionism", caused by "some time-server of a teacher" who warned "little Jimmy" against leaving the -ly off of adverbs, but "never got around to explaining the role of a predicate adjective".

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Fresh language

On Language Log you get new, fresh language, not just recycled phrases and repetitions of earlier prose. A search of the web suggests nobody had ever written down the phrase "epic paroxysm of poppycock" in the previous history of the world until Mark used it in the foregoing post. (It has some other very striking phraseology too. Mark is angry at this latest piece of junk science journalism! Check it out.)

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Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study

A little more than a week ago, our mass media warned us about a serious peril. "Scientists warn of Twitter dangers", said CNN on 4/14/2009:

Rapid-fire TV news bulletins or getting updates via social-networking tools such as Twitter could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering, scientists say.

New findings show that the streams of information provided by social networking sites are too fast for the brain's "moral compass" to process and could harm young people's emotional development.

MSNBC asked "Is Twitter Evil?". The Telegraph explained that "Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn". Other headlines from 4/14/2009 include "Twittering, rapid media may confuse morals", "Does texting make U mean?", "Hooked to facebook? Beware", "TV News More Damaging to Empathy Than Twitter", "The social networking, anti-social paradox","Study: Twitter erodes morals", "Twitter makes users immoral, research claims", "Twitter's moral dangers outlined", "Facebook hurting moral values, says study", "Twitter, Facebook Turn Users Into Immoral People", "Twitter could make us immoral", "Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists", "Facebook and Twitter 'make us bad people'", "Digital Media Confuse the Moral Compass",  …

As usual when stuff that people like is shown to be bad for them, the public apparently discounted these dire warnings. According to a poll reported at the Marketing Shift blog, when asked "Do social networks and rapid updates desensitize you to sad news?", 74% said "no", 13% said "maybe", and only 13% said "yes".

In this case, the public skepticism was a good thing, because the news reports were a load of hooey.

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Nervous cluelessness

Poor Sam Roberts. He begins his New York Times article "'The Elements of Style' turns 50" (April 21) thus:

How does a professional writer discuss "The Elements of Style" without nervously looking over his shoulder and seeing Will Strunk and E. B. White (or thousands of readers of their book) second-guessing him? (Is "second-guessing" hyphenated or not? Is posing a question the same as using the passive voice?)

Is posing a question the same as using the passive voice? Great Caesar's ghost, it is just as bad as I thought out there, or worse.

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Justinian's linguistic legislation

I happened to be browsing through my copy of Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire and came upon a passage I had forgotten about. The Emperor Justinian is known, if at all, for his legal code. The Justinian code was indeed a great success as a codification. It settled numerous disputed points of law and relieved judges and lawyers of the need to consult a huge range of often contradictory legal sources dating back to the Laws of the Twelve Tables, and in some areas, it was progressive. In areas relating to religion and to sex, however, it was just plain awful, in some ways worse than Shari'a Law.

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