Lingthusiasm interviews Randall Munroe

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Episode 72 of Gretchen McCulloch's Lingthusiasm podcast is "What If Linguistics – Absurd hypothetical questions with Randall Munroe of xkcd":

What’s the “it’s” in “it’s three pm and hot”? How do you write a cough in the International Phonetic Alphabet? Who is the person most likely to speak similarly to a randomly-selected North American English speaker?

In this episode, your hosts Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne get enthusiastic about absurd hypothetical linguistic questions with special guest Randall Munroe, creator of the webcomic xkcd and author of What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. We only wish that there was a little more linguistics in the book. So Randall came on to fill the gap with all his most ridiculous linguistics questions! One of our unresolved questions that we can merely speculate about is our predictions for what the future of English might be like. Are you listening to this episode from more than two decades in the future? Please write in from 2042 or later and let us know how accurate we’ve been!



  1. Madhuri Kherde said,

    September 17, 2022 @ 5:52 am

    There’re a lot of things that’ve confused me about language. English has some weird features. For example, legalese is a technical variety of English. But, it also uses everyday words in a way that has really technical and specific meanings. So, a word that has a really common meaning, in general, develops this really specific meaning in the legal context.

  2. Jason M said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 2:19 am

    Fantastic discussion. Huge Munro fan.

    Loved discussion of “clap” as onomatopoeic…but…the discussion of “forte” as a strength being originally Italian (and thus properly pronounced “fortay”) oversimplifies the etymology at best. Isn’t it most likely to be via French and, for some reason, the feminine adjectival ending used to do the nominalization (vs. “fort”, the masculine)?

    As it really isn’t a French word (ie “forte” is an adjective denoting a feminine noun that is strong; it isn’t a noun in French) but evolved its current meaning in English, and it is definitely not from Italian when used to signify a strength or talent (not as in a loud bit in a musical score), all bets are off on how we pronounce it in English, but most pedants like me would approximate the French adjectival “forte”, or, more or less, sound like the English word “fort” (as synonymous with “stronghold”) with maybe a final light “uh” to thrown in after the final “t” sound to make it seem we have given the pronunciation some thought.

  3. Julian said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 3:46 pm

    Discussion of 'It's three pm.' –
    'It's like English gets stressed out by not having a subject, and needs a dummy, like a baby.'

  4. Julian said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 4:05 pm

    On the future of English:
    Here's my take on the next century of grammatical change, based on the 'mistakes' (if we wish to call them that) made by speakers in parliament:
    – 'whom' is extinct except after prepositions, and is retreating even there.
    – 'They' with singular reference is standard.
    – The existential 'there's' replaces 'there is' in all cases ('There's many reasons why we need to do this').
    – Subordinate interrogative clauses follow the pattern of main interrogative clauses ('We are looking at what is the best solution').
    – The present perfect tense encroaches on the semantic territory of the simple past (as happened in German some ?hundreds? of years ago).
    – The present progressive tense encroaches on the semantic territory of the simple present tense ('The bill should be brought on, but the minister is wanting to avoid that').
    It's slow. I recently watched a 90-year-old film (Trouble in Paradise). I didn't hear a single word of dialogue that sounded like anything other than completely normal, idiomatic modern English.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 8:32 pm

    In the US, the EN-form of verbs is dying out. It is very common to hear people use e.g. came, went or broke where you would expect come, gone, or broken.

    There's is also replacing there are for plural subjects, but that seems like more of a niche phenomenon than a wide grammatical shift.

  6. Viseguy said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 10:44 pm

    @Madhuri Kherde: "… a word that has a really common meaning, in general, develops this really specific meaning in the legal context." This was hit home to me on my first day of law school (45 years ago) in the very first case we discussed in civil procedure class. It was an old English decision consisting of one short paragraph, starting with "Trespass on the case". The professor's first question was, What does that mean? If, like me, you thought, based on the common meanings of the words, that it meant that the case was all about trespass, you were, of course, all wet.

    @Jason M: Re the pronunciation of forte, the OED gives "ˈfɔːti, ˈfɔːteɪ, formerly fɔːt", which seems descriptively accurate based on what one almost invariably hears nowadays. As for me, I will continue to hold down the "former" pronunciation.

  7. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 19, 2022 @ 5:34 am

    Common words acquiring technical meanings: I see the same thing in the history of baseball rules. The 1845 rules stated a penalty should the pitcher "baulk" without defining what this meant. It was a standard word (though we spell it "balk" today) with the standard definition applying. Then there followed a long and ongoing history of its acquiring very technical definitions. This is far from the only example of the phenomenon.

  8. KeithB said,

    September 19, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    Jargon is in almost every field. Ask an EE about "reluctance".

  9. Don said,

    September 19, 2022 @ 12:44 pm

    Randall Munroe recently gave off a book, "What If 2"!

  10. V said,

    September 20, 2022 @ 11:23 am

    Randall's great. I suspect is based on something my then-girlfried related to his then-girlfriend about me attempting to install FreeBSD on her laptop. I had trouble with the Atheros wifi.

  11. Terpomo said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 6:01 pm

    Munroe is alright but I have trouble trusting Lingthusiasm after listening to their first episode and finding it had several basic factual errors about the language it was supposed to be examining.

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