Shared posts

15 Mar 07:22

"Gretchen: On the International Space Station, you have astronauts from the US and from other English..."

Gretchen: On the International Space Station, you have astronauts from the US and from other English speaking countries and you have cosmonauts from Russia. And obviously it’s very important to get your communication right if you’re on a tiny metal box circling the Earth or going somewhere. You don’t want to have a miscommunication there because you could end up floating in space in the wrong way. And so one of the things that they do on the ISS – so first of all every astronaut and cosmonaut needs to be bilingual in English and Russian because those are the languages of space.

Lauren: Yep. Wait, the language of space are English and Russian? I’m sorry, I just said ‘yep’ and I didn’t really think about it, so that’s a fact is it?

Gretchen: I mean, pretty much, yeah, if you go on astronaut training recruitment forums, which I have gone on to research this episode…

Lauren: You’re got to have a backup job, Gretchen.

Gretchen: I don’t think I’m going to become an astronaut, but I would like to do astronaut linguistics. And one of the things these forums say, is, you need to know stuff about math and engineering and, like, how to fly planes and so on. But they also say, you either have to arrive knowing English and Russian or they put you through an intensive language training course.

But then when they’re up in space, one of the things that they do is have the English native speakers speak Russian and the Russian speakers speak English. Because the idea is, if you speak your native language, maybe you’re speaking too fast or maybe you’re not sure if the other person’s really understanding you. Whereas if you both speak the language you’re not as fluent in, then you arrive at a level where where people can be sure that the other person’s understanding. And by now, there’s kind of this hybrid English-Russian language that’s developed. Not a full-fledged language but kind of a-

Lauren: Space Creole!

Gretchen: Yeah, a Space Pidgin that the astronauts use to speak with each other! I don’t know if anyone’s written a grammar of it, but I really want to see a grammar of Space Pidgin.

- Excerpt from Episode 1 of Lingthusiasm: Speaking a single language won’t bring about world peace. Listen to the full episode, read the transcript, or check out the show notes. (via lingthusiasm)
15 Mar 07:09

Subsective adjectives and immigration

by Heidi Harley

An important rallying cry and usage distinction made by allies of undocumented workers in the current cultural battle over immigration in the United States is Elie Wiesel's assertion above: "No human being is illegal." In the quote, Wiesel gives examples of the kinds of adjectives that he feels can denote properties of people (fat, skinny, beautiful, right, and wrong). On the other hand, calling a person 'illegal', he says, is a contradiction in terms.

Here's a more elaborated statement of the idea, quoted from this website 

When one refers to an immigrant as an "illegal alien," they are using the term as a noun.  They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal.  The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal.  I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.” 

Now because syntax is my actual job, I am honor-bound to point out that the term 'illegal alien' is a noun phrase, not a noun, and furthermore, that "using a term as a noun" does not mean "using it to refer to a person, place or thing," which I think is what the author above may be trying to say. But that quibble aside, we can see the idea. Laws criminalize actions, not people. Hence only someone's actions, not their very existence, can be illegal.

What are the linguistic underpinnings of the intuition that using the term illegal alien implies that a person's existence is illegal? I think it derives from an important distinction in types of adjectival meanings that I've learned about from the work of my Language Log colleague Barbara Partee. Different types of adjectives license different patterns of inferential reasoning.

Plain-vanilla 'intersective' adjectives like broad-shouldered, purple and round permit you to draw inferences like the following:

John is broad-shouldered man.
Therefore, John is broad-shouldered,
and John is a man.

That is a purple box.
Therefore, that is purple,
and that is a box.

To evaluate the truth of such assertions, you just check whether the subject is in the set of men (or boxes), and then check whether the subject is also in the set of broad-shouldered things (or purple things), and if both check out, the Adj+N predicate applies. The interpretation of the  Adj-N phrase just intersects the set picked out by the Adj and the set picked out by the N.

With intersective adjectives, the content of the noun and its modifying adjective don't interact with each other. Once you've established the truth of John is a broad-shouldered man, and you subsequently  find out more about John, e.g. that he's also a violinist, or a father, you can truthfully reason as follows:

John is a broad-shouldered man.
John is a father.
Therefore, John is a broad-shouldered father.

In contrast, adjectives of the 'subsective' class, like skillful, cannot be interpreted without reference to the semantic content of the noun that they modify. To take Barbara's example, let's say you've learned that John is a skillful violinist, and you subsequently learn that he's also a doctor. You are not thereby licensed to reason as follows:

John is a skillful violinist.
John is a doctor.
#Therefore, John is a skillful doctor.

That is, skillful crucially sorts violinists by their skill in playing the violin, not by some noun-independent notion of what it means to be 'skillful'. That's because there is no such independent notion. It applies only within the set of violinists and picks out a subset of them, hence the term 'subsective'.

Wiesel's intuition shows, I think, that illegal is like skillful; it necessarily interacts with the content of the noun it modifies. The adjective asserts illegality with respect to the content of the head noun, in the same way that skillful asserts skillfulness with respect to the content of the head noun.

This is borne out by the inference patterns of illegal. If someone is farming illegally, you might call him an illegal farmer. But it's illegality with respect to the farming, not anything else. If he's also a musician, you can't therefore conclude that he's an illegal musician:

John is an illegal farmer
John is a musician.
#Therefore, John is an illegal musician.

If illegal is subsective, a phrase like illegal person entails that there's some way of being a person that can be performed in an illegal manner. Furthermore, the noun alien in immigration legalese simply means 'non-citizen'. Being a non-citizen is also not illegal, and the phrase illegal alien is consequently nonsensical–a contradiction in terms, as Wiesel suggests.

There is also a nominal use of illegal. The word illegal is a noun when it occurs with no other head noun around, and inflects and behaves syntactically as a noun. Here's an example in a recent headline from the execrable Breitbart News: "Trump's executive order could mean deportation for 11 million illegals." Here, illegal is clearly grammatically functioning as a noun. It's inflected for plural, as required by the number 11 million preceding it, and it's the head of the noun phrase that is object of the verb deported.

Crucially, like most of the bare handful of truly de-adjectival nouns in English (a psychic, an adolescent, a fanatic) it only refers to people; illegal as a noun means what the noun phrase 'illegal people' would mean. Wiesel's remark thus applies here too: it's a contradiction in terms. There is, thankfully, no circumstance in which being a person is outlawed in the United States. There are therefore no 'illegals'.

In point of fact, in this country, entities with the personhood property are recognized as being endowed with certain unalienable rights. The subsective adjective illegal in combination with alien or person, as well as the deadjectival noun derived from it, is thus both inaccurate and offensive. These uses are intended to introduce to your mind the idea that there can be such a thing as an illegal human being. And it can't help but work. Your language processor operates without your supervision or consent, and it will compose the meaning of that subjective adjective together with the meaning of the noun it modifies whether you like it or not. You'll be thinking there's such a thing as outlawed personhood without even realizing it. It's a dirty linguistic trick.


Postscript: There's tons more to say, of course. One question has to do with why illegal alien doesn't seem to raise an immediate mental question mark the way illegal person does. This may have to do with three things: First, the word immigrant, without 'illegal' on it, shares a lot of meaning with alien in the legal sense. Second, the phrase illegal immigrant operates more or less as it should, in terms of subsectivity; an immigrant is someone who immigrated, and there are illegal ways of immigrating, so one could imagine that someone who had immigrated in one of those ways could be called an illegal immigrant. Perhaps the semantic parallel between alien and immigrant is why illegal alien doesn't so obviously mean the wrong thing, the way illegal person does. Furthermore, the non-legal sense of alien is pretty terrifying and, well, alienating, so the whole evocative package is a perfect storm of linguistic misdirection and pejoration.

What about illegal immigrant itself? If it denotes, as intended, 'a person who immigrated illegally', are there any issues with using that phrase? In fact there are, though the reasons are more about accuracy, justice and consideration, not linguistics, and have been discussed many many times by people much more qualified and informed than me. In regards accuracy, about 40% of the undocumented or unauthorized residents of the US are people who came in legally, but overstayed their visas. They did not enter the country illegally, and in fact haven't committed any crime, because a visa overstay is a civil infraction, not a criminal one. Calling all undocumented residents 'illegal immigrants' thus judges 40% of them guilty of a crime they haven't committed. It is perhaps also worth remarking that our legal system is centered on the idea that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty; and the phrase illegal immigrant works directly against that principle, when applied to specific people who haven't been tried yet. For these reasons, undocumented residents and allies find illegal immigrant problematic as well. Here's a reflective discussion by Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker about it; in the end, he chooses to opt in the future for more considerate usages. 

Anyway, I really encourage you all to get educated about this issue. For example, before doing some homework for this post, I didn't understand the special nature of 'status offenses', and the reasons why our courts look on them with heightened scrutiny. In any case, if you made it this far, now you have another way to explain to the well-meaning but unthinking user of illegal alien, illegal person or illegals why they should think about changing their usage. You can bring up subsectivity in adjective meaning. That ought to change the topic pretty quickly.

Many thanks to Art Torrance, Barbara Partee and Megan Figueroa for helping me with this post! But all flaws, inaccuracies and inadequacies are entirely my own.


15 Mar 06:46

“I Heart Blood Sports”: Re-Framing Menstruation

by Lisa Wade, PhD

Flashback Friday.

In a humorous article, Gloria Steinem asked, “What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” Men, she asserted, would re-frame menstruation as a “enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event” about which they would brag (“about how long and how much”).  She writes:

Street guys would brag (“I’m a three pad man”) or answer praise from a buddy (“Man, you lookin’ good!”) by giving fives and saying, “Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!”

Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”), occupy political office (“can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priest and ministers (“how could a woman give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”).

Of course, male intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets – and thus for measuring anything at all?

Perhaps in homage to this article, the artist Käthe Ivansich developed an installation titled “Menstruation Skateboards” for the Secession Museum in Austria. Drawing on the same sort of re-framing, the exhibition was marketed with ads with bruised and bloody women and tag lines like “I heart blood sports” and “some girls bleed more than once a month.”  See examples at Ivansich’s website.

The exhibition included skateboards that generally mocked sexist language and re-claimed the blood of menstruation. This blood, the message is, makes me hardcore. The art project nicely makes Steinem’s point, showing how things like menstruation can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the social status of the person with whom it is associated.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

(View original at

15 Mar 06:14

Shaming statistics for the 175

by (Jen)
tw: suicide stats

I'm very - perhaps too - fond of asking why people so rarely look at their actions in the context of "what happens next?"  As Peter Cook might have asked, did A Question Of Sport die in vain?

Back when the same-sex marriage bill was wending its way through parliament, we heard many arguments for and against. Some were coherent. Some were respectable. There's a fun venn diagram to be drawn of which were one, neither or both.

Now, I've just been reading some research from the USA looking at the impacts of same-sex marriage legislation there, where change happened in bursts from state to state over several years.

No, not at the number of weddings and the impact on the sale of top hats and fabulous frocks. One of the other impacts same-sex marriage has had.

It's based on huge sample sizes and shows one of the effects of allowing same-sex marriage nationwide was about 134,000 fewer adolescents attempting suicide each year.  Looking at numbers before and after, there's a 7 percent reduction in the proportion of all high-school students reporting a suicide attempt over the previous year, and a 14 percent drop among LGB students, when same-sex marriage becomes lawful where you live.

Often we talk about these kind of statistics but we rarely pause to turn them round. To consider the "what if", the "what happens next" of the path not taken.  The path we didn't take thanks to the passage of the two same-sex marriage bills in Wales & England and in Scotland.

US and UK culture are in very many ways similar. So with about a quarter of their population we might rule-of-thumb that the impact here is 134,000 divided by four - 33,500 fewer young people attempting to end their lives each year in the UK.  Each year.  Our 2013 vote is four years ago already: so the change is 33,500 upon 33,500 upon 33,500 upon...

What an amazing number. What a horrifying number. For the 400 MPs who voted to allow same-sex marriage, what a humbling number. Yes, you let some people get married, and that was beautiful. But "what happened next" was a huge positive impact on the mental health and even survival of young people. You let some people get married and, thanks to an unwritten clause in the Bill, you saw to it that thousands did not try to end their lives early.  An unknowable number of parents never came home to the horrible ultimate consequence of social, legal and institutional homophobia.

And for the 175 MPs (and indeed 148 Peers) who planted their colours against the tide of history, with numbers like these the nature of their actions and motives is laid bare. We can see what they were actively, consciously, premeditatedly complicit in, what they were voting for, because let's be frank: while we didn't have these figures, we and they knew the answer to the "what happens next" question all along.

A handful of the 175 have said they'd vote differently today. We have to conclude that the rest are proud of the future they were voting for, and take comfort that they didn't get what they wanted.
15 Mar 06:12

allthingslinguistic: science-of-noise: William Jones, who first used the symbol π (pi) to represent...



William Jones, who first used the symbol π (pi) to represent the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter was the father of William Jones, who first posited the existence of the language that became known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

That’s as good an excuse as any to eat PIE pie on March 14th.

14 Mar 10:51

"The alleged lexical extravagance of the Eskimos comports so well with the many other facets of their..."


Minnesota definitely has lots of words for snow. Britain doesn't, but it has more words for overcast skies and for rain. We do ourselves a disservice by piling up these racist myths.

The alleged lexical extravagance of the Eskimos comports so
well with the many other facets of their polysynthetic perversity:
rubbing noses; lending their wives to strangers; eating raw seal
blubber; throwing grandma out to be eaten by polar bears; “ We are
prepared to believe almost anything about such an unfamiliar and
peculiar group,” says Martin, in a gentle reminder of our buried racist

The tale she tells is an embarrassing saga of scholarly sloppiness and
popular eagerness to embrace exotic facts about other people’s
languages without seeing the evidence. The fact is that the myth of the
multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind
of accidentally developed hoax perpetrated by the anthropological
linguistics community on itself.

The original source is Franz Boas’ introduction to The Handbook of
North American Indians (1911). And all Boas says there, in the context
of a low-key and slightly ill-explained discussion of independent versus derived terms for things in different languages, is that just as English uses separate roots for a variety of forms of water (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam) that might be formed by derivational morphology from a single root meaning ‘water’ in some other language, so Eskimo uses the apparently distinct roots aput 'snow on the ground’, qana 'falling snow’, piqsirpoq 'drifting snow’, and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift’. Boas’ point is simply that English expresses these notions by phrases involving the root snow, but things could have been otherwise, just as the words for lake, river, etc. could have been formed derivationally or periphrastically on the root water. 

But with the next twist in the story, the unleashing of the
xenomorphic fable of Eskimo lexicography seems to have become
inevitable. What happened was that Benjamin Lee Whorf, Connecticut
fire prevention inspector and weekend language-fancier, picked up
Boas’ example and used it, vaguely, in his 1940 amateur linguistics
article 'Science and linguistics,’ which was published in MIT’s
promotional magazine Technology Review (Whorf was an alumnus; he
had done his B.S. in chemical engineering at MIT).

Our word snow would seem too inclusive to an Eskimo, our man
from the Hartford Fire Insurance Company confidently asserts. With
an uncanny perception into the hearts and minds of the hardy Arctic
denizens (the more uncanny since Eskimos were not a prominent
feature of Hartford’s social scene at the time), he avers: 

“We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different.” […]

Notice that Whorf’s statement has illicitly inflated Boas’ four terms
to at least seven (1: “falling”, 2: “on the ground”, 3: “packed hard”,
4: “slushy”, 5: “flying”, 6, 7 …. : “and other kinds of snow”). Notice
also that his claims about English speakers are false; I recall the stuff in question being called “snow” when fluffy and white, “slush” when partly melted, “sleet” when falling in a half-melted state, and a “blizzard” when pelting down hard enough to make driving dangerous. Whorf’s remark about his own speech community is no more reliable than his glib generalizations about what things are “sensuously and operationally different” to the generic Eskimo. 

But the lack of little things like verisimilitude and substantiation are
not enough to stop a myth. Martin tracks the great Eskimo vocabulary
hoax through successively more careless repetitions and embroiderings in a number of popular books on language. […]

But never mind: three, four, seven, who cares? It’s a bunch, right?
Once more popular sources start to get hold of the example, all
constraints are removed: arbitrary numbers are just made up as the writer thinks appropriate for the readership. […]

Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmission
and elaboration of a false claim is that even if there were a large
number of roots for different snow types in some Arctic language, this
would not, objectively, be intellectually interesting; it would be a most
mundane and unremarkable fact.

Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of
horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have
names for shades of mauve; printers have many different names for
different fonts (Caslon, Garamond, Helvetica, Times Roman, and so on), naturally enough. If these obvious truths of specialization are
supposed to be interesting facts about language, thought, and culture,
then I’m sorry, but include me out.

Would anyone think of writing about printers the same kind of slop
we find written about Eskimos in bad linguistics textbooks? Take a
random textbook like Paul Gaeng’s Introduction to the Principles of
Language (1971), with its earnest assertion: “It is quite obvious that in
the culture of the Eskimos… snow is of great enough importance to
split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word and one
thought in English into several distinct classes…” (p. 137). Imagine
reading: “It is quite obvious that in the culture of printers.., fonts are
of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that
corresponds to one word and one thought among non-printers into
several distinct classes…” Utterly boring, if even true. Only the link
to those legendary, promiscuous, blubber-gnawing hunters of the icepacks could permit something this trite to be presented to us for

- Geoff Pullum, in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.
14 Mar 10:47

Parenting by the Books: How To Do Things With Words

by Sarah Blackwood

Moms and the Philosophy of Language

Image: Robin Tomens

“Josh was saying curse words today!” he declared as he stepped off the bus home from his central Brooklyn public school. “Oh!” I exclaimed, and then a little conspiratorially: “what words did he say?” He breathlessly spilled the beans. “The ‘J’ word” and the ‘A’ word and the ‘F’ word and the ‘H’ word.” “What words are those?!” I prompted, eyes wide. He answered. “Jerk, and asp, and funk, and….heck!”

I don’t know if the street-smart second grader on the bus is saying the actual F word, and my younger child is mishearing, or if they are all just going around shouting “funk you” at school and thinking it makes them anything other than super-miniature Brunos Mars. Does it matter if they know “what” they are saying? If they think they are cursing, aren’t they cursing? Or, even putting aside the question of intention, if their “shocking” utterance changes the world for them in some way, makes it shimmer for them in the way the best curse words do: isn’t that its own confirmation?

Being a mother continually challenges me to think about how language works, which makes it weird to think back on aspects of my graduate education related to the philosophy of language. The most common genealogies hold that it wasn’t until Ludwig Wittgenstein in the early twentieth century that philosophy started to seriously explore how language did more than just describe an already extant world. Language, these modern thinkers realized, in fact shaped the world and acted upon it. This is more than just arcane grad seminar stuff, it’s the “linguistic turn” out of which the world-altering theories of structuralism, post-structuralism, performativity, and semiotics emerged.

Yet it occurs to me: had anyone consulted someone who cared for small children, perhaps we might have gotten to this insight a little sooner in human history? The disregard for the realities of caretaking is kind of the problem with philosophy, right? Any parent will have had experience with what J.L. Austin called, in his 1962 book How to Do Things With Words, “illocutionary” language: an act of speaking that actually does the action it promises to do. “STOP!” “Yes, you may.” “Use your words.” “I love you.”

How to Do Things With Words carefully maps how performative speech works, which of course includes thinking through the (many) instances when it doesn’t. Here, too, caretakers have important knowledge: examples of when and where performative language breaks down, where language fails to act upon the world in the way intended or expected. Consider the first few times I heard my kids say “shut up.” I played it so uncool, made it so clear that I disliked it, that they now use the phrase as some sort of fast track button to press when they want to get somewhere bad, quickly. When they’re looking for a conflict, when they want to ramp things up to the point of a good cathartic screaming cry, when they need to get some of the ugly out of themselves, they know how to do it. “Shut up,” my three-year-old mutters through pressed lips like Mugsy. It’s a familial Rubicon, a semantic breakdown where our speech is definitely doing something but not at all what we want it to do.

How to Do Things With Words is a great book, and I love much of the theory and philosophy that grew up alongside it. And yet its position in intellectual history reminds me how much of women’s knowledge and intellect has been ignored throughout history. I’m put in mind of Virginia Woolf’s description of the harmfully inverse relationship between reproduction, caretaking, and the achievements of the intellect in A Room of One’s Own. Her clever authorial persona considers the difference between the riches of an imaginary all-men’s college of Oxbridge and its shabby all-women’s counterpart, Fernham. Oxbridge has $$$, nourishment for the body and soul, grass she is not allowed to walk on, and a towering library full of knowledge that she may not enter. How did this come to be? Why had no one left a fortune to sustain an institution for women’s flourishing? “What force” the narrator asks about the miserly dinner they’ve just eaten, “is behind the plain china off which we dined?” And then she realizes:

For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether….Consider the facts, we said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets.

You, indeed, cannot! “STOP!!” I shout as my children race their scooters toward a dangerous intersection. And they do. Stop, that is. My words, performatively (and iteratively) uttered day after day after day as we criss-cross the city blocks home after school, draw boundaries about them. For their part, my children are speech acting all the day long: labelling, repeating, pleading, refusing. And, of course, trying to poke holes in those boundaries, testing out the places where language fails: SHUT UP AND FUNK YOU! The linguistic turn in philosophy captured something real and ordinary about how language actually works. The question I have, though, is why it took us so long — until the twentieth century! Unbelievable! — to get there.

Woolf, I think, would say that it’s because we had not thought to ask, or know anything about, the people taking care:

Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

Were you to have posited to a mother of five children, in 1850 or 1910 or 1723, that language mostly “described” the world as it “is,” she likely could have offered an almost limitless number of counter-examples, drawn from her daily linguistic world-building with children. But, of course, nobody asked her.

Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.

Sarah Blackwood is editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.

Parenting by the Books: How To Do Things With Words was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

14 Mar 10:24

"Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned..."

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’). […]

A number of these reports followed the same formula: first they described a racist white Briton telling a non-white or non-British person to ‘start packing’ or ‘go home’, and then they commented that the racist couldn’t even speak English properly. One writer reported that she’d stood up to a white woman who harangued her in a shop, by telling her, among other things, that ‘I speak better English than you’. She explained that she’d heard the white woman speaking to someone else, and noticed that ‘her grammar was appalling’.

I’m not going to blame someone in this situation for defending herself with whatever weapons are to hand. My question is why claiming to speak better English than your adversary is so often a weapon people reach for. Why does it seem more apt, and less crass, than (for instance) ‘I’m better looking than you’ or ‘I’ve got more money than you’?  Maybe it’s because it chimes with the idea that bigots are ignorant and stupid. It allows their critics to feel intellectually and culturally as well as morally superior (‘I’d hate my child to be educated by a gay teacher’. ‘Pity no one bothered educating you. Gotcha’). But however satisfying that may be, it raises the question of whether you can claim the moral high ground by using one unjust prejudice against another.

If you describe someone you’ve heard speaking in a shop as using ‘appalling’ grammar, the only thing you can mean is that s/he speaks a nonstandard dialect. In Britain, speaking a nonstandard dialect generally means that (a) you grew up working class and (b) you didn’t spend enough quality time in formal education for your native dialect to be replaced in everyday speech by the more prestigious dialect of the middle class (though you’ll use that dialect when you write, and you’ll certainly be able to read it). So, criticising a racist’s nonstandard grammar is mobilising one form of privilege (based on class and/or education) to attack another (based on whiteness). As I said before, I’m not going to blame the person who uses this tactic in self-defence. But that doesn’t mean I have to applaud the tactic. […]

The same problem arises with the political examples I took from Twitter. In no case does the response engage directly with the tweeter’s prejudice. It says, in effect, ‘this mistake tells me you’re stupid, and if you’re stupid I can just dismiss your argument, which is also, by extension, stupid’. And the argument may indeed be stupid, but it wouldn’t be any less stupid if it were spelled correctly (just as Hitler wasn’t any less fascist because he could write a coherent sentence). Conversely, deviations from standard usage do not make a true fact less true or a just argument less just. The moral status of what someone says is about the content, not the grammar. […]

By all means take issue with bigots–but for their politics, not their punctuation. Criticise their views, not the size of their vocabulary. Stop using their grammar as a measure of their moral worth.

- Pride, prejudice, and pedantry by Debbie Cameron
12 Mar 07:17

Have fun

by Fred Clark
It's not quite the right word or the right category. The night had been difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable -- none of the things you're signing up for if you're looking for a night of fun. Pose an open-ended question in which I were asked to provide a description of that evening and I would never have reached for the word "fun." Nor would Mick, or Charlie, or the nurse at Jeff. "Fun" seems reductive and dismissive, like some inconsequential amusement or time-killing diversion.
12 Mar 07:14

An open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

An open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival:

A recent guest post on Language Log is an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson about the role of linguists versus cryptographers in Arrival: 

As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

In the @ArrivalMovie I’d chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

Though the term linguist is often used by the public to refer generally to anyone whose occupation is related to language (especially translators and interpreters), the type depicted in Arrival is a special kind of linguist who engages in the scientific study of human language: its structures, its uses, its underlying similarities, and its surprising diversity. A cryptographer simply cannot replicate the specialized training that a linguist like Louise Banks has, which takes years to learn and decades to master.

Most importantly, a cryptanalyst would likely be much less suited to the task of communicating with aliens than a linguist would (a cryptographer even less so, since they work on encryption, not decryption). Cryptanalysis relies on decrypting coded messages from a known language. If the source language and the encryption method are both unknown, ordinary cryptanalytic methods will fail. This is why the Native American code talkers of the 20th century were so invaluable to the US in both world wars: their languages were not understood by enemy cryptanalysts, so their encrypted versions could not be cracked, unlike with well-known languages like English.

Read the full open letter or see also many previous posts about the linguistics of Arrival.

12 Mar 07:13

Day 5909: Mr John Humphrys in Muddy Waters

by Millennium Dome

Today’s lesson: when @BBCR4Feedback call an hour early and say they can call back in an hour… they aren’t going to call back.

How did we get to there? Well, the usual start to the week – listening to Daddy Richard shout at the radio – was interrupted by a moment of shocked silence when, as he tweeted, THIS happened:

“Jaw dropping moment as John Humphreys asks: doesn't it muddy the waters if we call far right terrorist murder of Jo Cox "terrorism" #r4today”

Life in the Today Programme goldfish bowl...

That generated… a fair number of retweets and replies, one of which said we should make it a proper complaint to the BBC. So that’s what we did, and posted it up on the Facebook too:

“After a jawdropping moment on this morning's Today programme, I have submitted this complaint to the BBC, via

During an interview with Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, in charge of Counter Terrorism, Mr Rowley warned the public should not forget the terrorist threat from right-wing extremists, and cited the murder of MP Jo Cox.
John Humphreys responded by asking "didn't that muddy the waters" and suggesting that the murderer Thomas Mair was mentally ill.
The judge, sentencing Thomas Mair, said: "There is no doubt this murder was done for the purpose of advancing a political, racial and ideological cause namely that of violent white supremacism and exclusive nationalism most associated with Nazism and its modern forms."
Dismissing genuine terrorism as actions of "lone mentally ill person" is factually wrong and dangerous to public safety. And the implication that terrorism is something done only be foreigners / non-white people / Muslims is dangerously close to accepting the premise of the racists that Thomas Mair represents.
If the police are describing the Jo Cox murder as terrorism, the BBC should not be questioning that, but asking itself serious questions about the climate of right-wing hate that has been allowed foment in the UK, for which the BBC by airing or repeating (as here) the views of these people bears some responsibility.

And THAT generated another lot of traffic and clearly a LOT of other people were quite cross too, because that was when the Radio FEEDBACK programme got in touch and asked if they could talk about that Tweet and the reaction to what Mr Humphrys said.

So they said that they would call between 10am and 1pm, Wednesday. Actually they called at 9.15, just as we were getting on the Jubilee line.

So, IF this ever happens to you, do not let them say: “it’s fine we will call you back in an hour”. No! You say “I WILL TALK TO YOU NOW”!

Anyway, here is what we WOULD have said:

Why was I so taken about by John Humphrys suggestion that calling the murder of MP Jo Cox terrorism was “muddying the waters”?

The Facts – the police, the crown prosecution service, the sentencing judge all agreed that this was a politically motivated terrorist murder. These are not liberal snowflakes, they are serious people. Jo Cox’s killer, Thomas Mair, was psychiatrically examined and found to be in his own mind and fit to stand trial for his actions.

This is the BBC’s own report of the sentencing judge’s remarks: - note the emphasis on the high degree of planning and premeditation, as well as the political motivation. This was not the random act of a “madman”.

The right wing press – who have an agenda – might question this. But I expect very senior BBC journalists to know the facts and not repeat propaganda.

The Context – the interview was with Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley asking the public to contact the police with information if they are worried or suspicious about their neighbours. And as a Liberal, I’m not 100% happy with his “be afraid and inform on your neighbours” agenda here. So actually, I was giving him some credit when he was reminding people that there is far right political terrorism to watch out for as well. When Mr Humphrys interrupted. But if anything is going to “muddy the waters” it is the suggestion from the interviewer that some terrorism isn’t as worth while contacting the police about because it is a fascist rather than ISIS who is threatening people’s lives.

And I think you could tell that the Assistant Commissioner was somewhat taken aback by this sudden derailing of the interview, too.

The Narrative – because it’s all very familiar to hear white terrorists described as “a lone wolf” or “mentally ill”. These excuses get repeated whenever a white person commits an atrocity like this. Anders Breivek who killed all those children in Sweden; Timothy McVeigh the Oklahoma bomber; Dylann Roof, the man who shot nine black churchgoers at a service in Charleston Carolina; the list goes on, back to the Unabomber and earlier.

The message is “white people don’t commit terrorism; only brown people do terrorism”.

And it’s wrong.

We don’t hear people challenging the idea that the murder of Lee Rigby was terrorism. We don’t hear people suggesting that the shoe bomber Richard Reid was mentally ill. And it’s not like we have no experience of white sectarian terrorism in this country.

The BBC has a responsibility not to perpetuate this myth, which leads to…

The hate crimes – we’ve seen a surge in attacks against women and minorities, particularly people who are immigrants or even just perceived as immigrants, fuelled by the xenophobic language of the Leave campaign and UKIP and now even the more right-wing elements of the government. The murder of Jo Cox happened at the height of the most horribly divisive and racially charged referendum campaign and on very the day Nigel Farage was unveiling his Nazi-imagery-evoking “Breaking Point” poster.

And people want to deny there is a connection.

The right wing, the nationalists, want people to think that only foreigners can be terrorists. They want people to be afraid. But they don’t want it to come back on them. And they won’t take responsibility. They want to deny that there are extremist views on their side, and that among those extremists are some people who use violence and murder for their political ends.

I do not expect senior BBC journalists to be giving support to these people.

The excuse – the excuse given in reply to my complaint was that John was just putting a challenging question. Well, firstly, it wasn’t a question. It might have had the form of a question, but it was just an assertion. It was not posed as a question, more a muttered aside. And it presupposes that Jo Cox murder could not be terrorism if the “question” put is whether that statement muddies the waters.

But also, if you’re going to ask challenging questions, why start at that point? Why not challenge the Assistant Commissioner over why the terror alert is still at the second highest level after years and years, and doesn’t that make it a bit pointless? Or challenge him on the threats that the police say that they’ve defeated – what sort of threats are we talking about: knife attacks, anthrax letters or something on the scale of 7/7? That would give the public a genuine insight into the threat level, in a way that questioning whether Jo Cox murder was terrorism would not.

The Farage agenda gets far too much of a free ride from the BBC already, with UKIP – or their proxies in the Tory Party – on the air far more often than their support however you count it would justify. But this was a particularly poor interview – unquestioning of the authoritarian agenda at the start and then then tossing in this unjustified assertion that would not have been out of place in the Daily Mail.

John Humphrys has a reputation to live up to. We should expect more of him.
12 Mar 07:00

submitting slavishly...

by lynneguist
 Please reserve the comments section for topics related to this post. 

Lately, I've been super-aware of people saying that British English "slavishly" copies American English. Like this:
 the UK slavishly adopts Americanisms !! (from an email to me this week)
“To be snooty about Americans, while slavishly admiring them; this is another crucial characteristic of being British.”  (From the Economist, but quoted this week in Toni Hargis's reflection on the recent Word of Mouth on English)
It's an interesting choice of words, and I was reminded of it this morning when I read the television critic Mark Lawson writing about BBC4 (my emphasis added):
The original 2002 mission statement also included “international cinema”, and this was expanded to include foreign television, which could be regarded as BBC4’s most lasting legacy. Its screening of Mad Men was formative in changing the UK’s attitude to US drama from dismissiveness to submissiveness.
Why slavishly? Why submissive? Lawson was probably pleased with his rhyme, but why not dismissiveness to enjoyment or appreciation? In this case, it's not even that it's a torrent of US drama that the viewer cannot avoid, as BBC4 doesn't broadcast very much American drama. The paragraph goes on:
Its imported Swedish and Danish hits – including The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen – established that subtitled stories could find a British audience, encouraging other channels to shop from Scandinavian suppliers, and also to adopt the slower rhythms of Scandi-drama in homegrown series such as Broadchurch and The Missing.
What, the homegrown series didn't submit to the Scandinavian rhythms, but adopted them? Don't you mean they slavishly copied them? 

Now, of course, slavish isn't the same thing as enslaved. The relevant OED sense is defined  as

Servilely imitative; lacking originality or independence.

Available here
But it's an interesting word and image. The adjective slavish is used to similar degrees in AmE and BrE.  Most often it's followed by the noun devotion in both countries, but in the UK it's about as likely to be followed by adherence while in the US, the next most frequent noun is fear. Slavish fear involves a very different interpretation of slavish than slavish devotion does. It calls more directly on literal slavery, with the existence of a fear-inspiring master.

The adverb slavishly is found nearly twice as much in BrE (in the GloWBE and NOW corpora). Google Books corpus shows that the two countries used to use it at similar rates, but it's been falling off in the US since the 1960s. Perhaps Americans find it a bit more distasteful since the civil rights movement. (Maybe that accounts for my reaction to it.)

For me, the weird thing about the use of slavishly in the 'copying American English' context is that you can't have a slave without a master. And being a master has to be intentional. But American English isn't trying to have a slave.

Yes, Americans want to export stuff. But they don't care a lot about exporting American English--at least, not as much as the British establishment cares about exporting (and enforcing?) British English. (The reasons for this American lack of interest are complex, but contributing factors are that the British are already doing the work and the feelings that any English is good enough and that British might even be superior.)  Exporting the language is a bigger industry in the UK-- most of the dictionaries for learners of English as a foreign language come from the UK (in fact, that's the only kind of dictionary that some UK publishers work on). The government funds the British Council (which also makes a lot of its own money through the IELTS language test). The US has been much later to that parade--and half(-)hearted about joining it.

The language continues to be Britain's empire--and imperialism seems to be the frame through which many Britons frame relationships with "bigger players", like the US and the European Union. Once the British were the imperialists, and now other relationships of interaction and dependency are framed as if they are the coloni{s/z}ed. There is often a disconnect between the complaint that American English is "taking over" and fact that it all started when Britain took over. Not to mention that Britain has benefited hugely from American English's role in keeping their language relevant to the rest of the world.

I compare this to thinking about British English and French. About how in the 19th century the British added the -me on programme in imitation of the French spelling.* How the British couldn't sell zucchini (the particular hybrid was originally Italian), but ate up courgettes. How they're partial to French-inspired spellings like colour and centre. British English is often deferential to French--after all, for a long time the aristocracy spoke French. But although French speakers were, at points in English history, literally the overlords (and then they had two centuries' worth of wars with them) I don't hear complaints that English has slavishly copied French. (Well, I do hear them from myself sometimes. Those [heavily tongue-in-cheek] complaints were recorded for a podcast that'll be released in July.)

All of this is related to the themes from two posts ago. These things are at the forefront of my mind as I write the conclusion for my book, so I'm testing out ideas here. But the slavishly/submissiveness wordings also resounded particularly this week after Ben Carson's comments about "involuntary immigrants" and also reading about another "unpopular invader" from America, the gr{a/e}y squirrel. Not comparing these things, you understand, just hyper-aware of how 'migration' and 'slave'-related words are being used these days.

So, are the British brainwashed by American English into slavish submission? Have you other thoughts on these metaphors and their use?

* The earlier spelling program has come back from the US and is now used in Britain as computing jargon. The Americanness of computer jargon spelling (program, dialog box, disk) is taken by some as an unwelcome American incursion. But in my experience British computer types use these spellings as (more AmE?) shibboleths. Those who know not to use the general-purpose British spellings for the computer-related meanings are accepted as reasonably knowledgeable. Those who don't might be in for some instruction on the topic.
12 Mar 06:30

"Gretchen: One thing that happens with third-person pronouns is what I have called in a blog post The..."

Gretchen: One thing that happens with third-person pronouns is what I have called in a blog post The Gay Fanfiction Problem.

Lauren: That very serious linguistic problem.

Gretchen: It’s a very serious linguistic problem that happens when you have a narrative with multiple people using the same pronoun, and you have to figure out, with a sentence like, ‘he touched his hand’, who’s touching whose hand or other parts of the body?

Lauren: Especially when this has been going on for multiple paragraphs.

Gretchen: One of the things people ask sometimes is, why do we have gender in pronouns at all? And one of the answers is that it’s a rough-and-ready way of trying to divide the population into two equal groups. And it’s not perfect, but it’s better than some of our other options – like dividing people into groups of tall and short people, or young and old people or something like that. In a lot of situations, some people in a group will be male and some people in a group will be female. It’s not The Straight Fanfiction problem because there you do have pronouns to tell them apart.

Lauren: If there are only two people in an interaction.

Gretchen: Well, there’s two problems. There’s the Gay Fanfiction Problem, and then there’s the Poly Fanfiction Problem, and those are two separate problems.

Lauren: Yep, but when they collide it’s very complicated.

Gretchen: Then there’s The Gay Poly Fanfiction Problem.

Lauren: But not all languages have this problem for their gay fanfiction!

Gretchen: I don’t know if all languages write gay fanfiction but they presumably all tell stories where multiple people are involved.

[Cut interesting but long discussion on several ways languages partially solve this problem.]

Lauren: And of course there are a set of languages where none of this is a problem at all, and they are sign languages that use spatial locations for pronominal reference. So in sign languages, generally what happens is to make the equivalent of a pronoun in a language like English, they all sign someone’s name or a reference to someone or their actions in a particular space and then that space will be used to call back to that person throughout the interaction. Or the person can move around in the kind of signing space but they’re always able to be spatially referred to.

Gretchen: So signing space could be like ‘top left’ or 'towards the right of the person who’s signing’ or something like that.

Lauren: Yeah. I mean, when you speak English and you gesture across a narrative you’re possibly doing this without really thinking about it anyway. So you may be referring to Bob and Dave as if Bob’s on the left, Dave’s on the right. In sign languages like Auslan, which is the one I know this type of example from best, Bob will get put in a particular space and he’ll be signed there and then he’ll kind of keeping called back to from there.

Gretchen: So if the barbecue is to the left of us and Bob’s by the barbecue, then we set up the barbecue on the left, we set up Bob near the BBQ, and then we have Dave over by the house on the right.

Lauren: And so if Bob says something, I’ll sign what Bob said in the left-hand space.

Gretchen: Or kind of turn your body towards that space, as if you’re speaking from Bob’s perspective. I don’t know much ASL but I’ve seen people talk about this in ASL as well.

Lauren: It’s a very elegant solution.

Gretchen: It’s beautiful. And the nice thing about it is you’re not limited to just having people on the left or people on the right, because you could have someone that’s kind of like 'top-left’, 'bottom-left’, 'top right’, 'bottom right’…

Lauren: Yeah, I don’t know what the maximum number is… I guess it’s however many people you can keep track of in the narrative.

Gretchen: I feel like I’ve heard someone say seven but that might be false.

Lauren: A good storyteller, surely

Gretchen: But definitely you can do more than two, which is fantastic. And it doesn’t matter anything about their gender because you can just set them up wherever you want.

Lauren: Gender doesn’t matter, number doesn’t matter, all of those kind of things.

Gretchen: So several sign languages have solved the Gay Poly Fanfiction Problem, and all other languages will have to figure out how to do that.

Lauren: Playing catch-up, really

Gretchen: Or just learn a sign language so you can write better fanfic.


Excerpt from Episode 2 of Lingthusiasm: Pronouns. Little words, big jobs. Listen to the full episode, read the transcript, or check out the show notes for links to further reading.
(via lingthusiasm)

As we pointed out for Episode 1 of Lingthusiasm, in order for Space Pidgin to become Space Creole, we would need a generation of Space Babies born to the astronauts and cosmonauts who could grow up with Space Pidgin as their primary linguistic input. Now, to help you write this fic (please, someone write this fic!), Episode 2 of Lingthusiasm tackles pronoun problems in fanfiction.

02 Mar 11:12

Is Americanization speeding up?

by lynneguist
Today I got to hear myself on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth talking with host Michael Rosen and anti-Americanism-ist Matthew Engel.

This is just a picture. Click HERE for the program(me)!
Biggest regret: that I completely blanked on the fact that sidewalk is originally a British word. Had to go home and read about it in my own book manuscript. I also regret that they cut a bit I said about British music artists singing in their own accents. (So please read this instead. I think the producer/editor might have thought that the reference to grime music would be too much for the Radio 4 [orig. AmE] listenership.)

But listening now to Engel repeatedly saying that American English influence on British is constantly increasing, I wish I'd pointed out this:

The 20th Century is often called "The American Century". The 21st Century is looking a lot less American. To be sure, it's not looking like the British century either. That came the century before.

American culture (and words) could easily spread in the 20th century because it was hard to produce and distribute recorded entertainment, but the US had the capacity and the economy and the marketing savvy to do so [And I mustn't forget the Marshall Plan, which my colleague just mentioned to me.] America was inventing and manufacturing all sorts of things and putting names on them and selling them everywhere. Two world wars and the cold war had Americans stationed all over the world using their slang in the presence of young recruits from other countries. The 21st century is looking rather different.

The 20th century brought us talking pictures and television. Radio, the most affordable form of broadcast, remained a more local proposition--though the recorded music could be imported. (Though the word radio, well that's an Americanism.) The 21st century is the time of the internet and of personali{s/z}ed entertainment. The popular songs are less universally popular, because people have more access to more different kinds of music on download. Instead of two or three or four choices on television, there are hundreds. And if you don't like what you're seeing you can go on YouTube or SoundCloud (or other things I'm too old and [orig. AmE] uncool to know about) and find all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. People go on the internet and meet each other and talk to each other, meaning that there's more opportunity than ever for there to be exchange of words between people, rather than just reception of words from the media. The slangs that young people use are sometimes local to their school or area and sometimes particular to an international online gaming community or music fandom. The notion of community, for many people, has internationali{s/z}ed. Language is moving in different ways now than it ever had the chance to move in the 20th century.

In the meantime, all indications are that the US is becoming politically more isolationist and more of an international pariah. Are its words going to flow so freely abroad? Will there be a taste for them?

The American century has happened. I don't know whose century this will be (please, please not Putin's), if indeed it will be any nation's century. (Better a nation's century than a virus's century, though.) American words will continue to spread to other parts of the world, but I can't see the evidence of Engel's strong claim that the imbalance between US and UK word-travel is increasing faster than ever.

At the start of the 21st century, British words seem to be entering America in greater numbers than they were a few decades ago. Much of this has to do with journalism and how international that's become. The online versions of the Daily Mail and the Guardian are extremely popular in the US. There are more US fans of Doctor Who now than in its Tom Baker days. Harry Potter is the single most important thing that's happened to children's publishing in the English-speaking world in my lifetime, and though the editions sold in the US are translated into American to some extent, it's actually only a small extent. Americans are reading and hearing more British English than they have in a long time.

The scale(s) is/are still tipped in American vocabulary's favo(u)r. But as far as I can see, there's not a lot of reason to believe that the degree of the imbalance is rapidly increasing. Yes, the number of American words in British English constantly increases, but there's more westward traffic now, more UK coining of managementspeak, and new local youth cultures making their own words in Britain. The tide hasn't turned, but there is (mixed metaphor alert) (orig. AmE) pushback.

And if English continues to be popular as a global lingua franca (due to its momentum, rather than the foreign and cultural policies of the UK and US), then more words may be coming from other places altogether.
23 Feb 17:54

sashayed: sashayed: sashayed: lierdumoa: sashayed: sashayed: ...







My name is Calfe
& Im too young
to know yet what do 
with my Toung!

So till my Mom say
“Dont Do That!”
Ill stick it out
And lik this cat.

My little Calfe,
Im proud of yu–
yur living like
the Big Cows do.
Yur doing just
what Mom have said–
for yu lik cat,
and cat 

lik bred.

Bad meme execution. 0/5 stars.

These poems are supposed to be imitative of 17th/18th century middle English poetry (pre-dating dictionaries and formalized spelling conventions) not early 2000s chatspeak, not babytalk.

These poems are also supposed to be in iambic diameter, giving them a pleasing songlike rhythm. The above has inconsistent syllabic structure from line to line.

These attributes are clearly illustrated in the prime:


So tired of people on this website and their flagrant disregard for syllabic structure.

No respect for the craft.

1. first of all, how dare you. i would never, N E V E R, put forth a cow poem with inconsistent syllabic structure. these may not be my finest work, but the iambic dimeter is IMPECCABLE. check my scansion again and come back to me. I guess “know what do yet” is not ideal, but it falls within the constraints of the form. i’m genuinely appalled by this. i have SEEN inconsistent scansion in this meme, i do NOT approve of it and i have NOT done it. how dare you. HOW DAR EYOU!!!

Secondly: it is not absurd to suppose that the linguistic constraints of a Cow Poem would depend on the figure to whom Cow speaks. In the original (and perfect) “i lik the bred,” the narrative cow, like a Chaucerian non-characterized narrator, directs her speech to an imagined and unspecific listener; not to “the men,” who are characters within the poem, but to some more general audience. (See the Canterbury Tales prologue for an example of this voice in action.) 

Later, poem_for_your_sprog has Cow address contemporaries like “dog.” You will notice that the voice of Cow varies slightly, in speaking to Dog, from her voice in the original “I lik the bred.” WHY, then, can we not extrapolate that Calfe – who is, after all, a narrator of limited capacity, being only a Baby Cow with a Baby Cow’s simplicity – would have its own variant voice? And why, too, would Cow not speak differently to her own Calfe than she does to an animal peer, or to reverent imaginary auditors? These are experiments within an emerging form – flawed experiments, certainly, but not mistakes ipso facto. Again: HOW DARE YOU!!!!!!!!


my name is Cow,
and as yu see,
its worth yor tiyme
to studye me.
but if yu dont
like what yu red,

take 2 deep breths

and lik the bred.

my name is Meme
and i combyne
the academe
and asinyne.
Calfe, Dog, Cat, Cow 
and Interned
the tyme is now 

to lik the bred

23 Feb 17:45

The temperature is struggling

by Geoffrey K. Pullum

I'm glad it's not just me who misses American weather forecasts!

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

I'm suppose to visualize a point on the temperature scale struggling? Who is it struggling with? What is it struggling to do?

Don't answer that. You know I hate comments. I try to avoid ever clicking on the button on the bottom left that opens comments, but sometimes when reaching for the Publish button I clumsily… Oops. Just clicked it. Damn.

23 Feb 15:31

A basic schematic of why the Korean alphabet is so cool, from...

A basic schematic of why the Korean alphabet is so cool, from Wright House

Unlike almost every other alphabet in the world, the Korean alphabet did not evolve. It was invented in 1443 (promulgated in 1446) by a team of linguists and intellectuals commissioned by King Sejong the Great.

In the diagram [above], the Korean consonants are arranged into five main linguistic groups (one per row), depending on where in the mouth contact is made. Notice that there is a graphic element common to all the consonants in a particular row. The first consonant in each row is the most basic and is graphically the simplest; this representative consonant for each group is the building block for the other characters in that group. Certain of these modifications are systematic, and yield similarly modified characters in several groups, such as adding a horizontal line to a simple consonant (a “stop” consonant–such as t/d or p/b–rather than a nasal consonant) to form the aspirated consonants (those made with extra air) and doubling simple consonants to form “tense” consonants (no real equivalent in English).

Notice that the five representative consonants (the ones in the first column in the upper part of the diagram) are also depicted in the drawings that make up the lower part of the diagram showing the relevant part of the mouth involved. Ingeniously, each of these representative consonants is a kind of simplified schematic diagram showing the position of the mouth in forming those consonants.

More details, including subsequent historical changes to Hangul, in the Wikipedia article

23 Feb 15:30

The Best Trolley Problem Yet

by Blake Stacey

You can punch a neo-Nazi who might fall onto the switch lever, which might divert the train away from millions of people, or you can do nothing. Choose.

From Stephanie Zvan.

23 Feb 15:29

How to pronounce Celtic words and names








Step 1: Read the word.
Step 2: Wrong.

Siobhan — “sheh-VAWN”
Aoife – “EE-fa”
Aislin – “ASH-linn”
Bláithín - “BLAW-heen”
Caoimhe - “KEE-va”
Eoghan - Owen (sometimes with a slight “y” at the beginning)
Gráinne - “GRAW-nya”
Iarfhlaith - “EER-lah”
Méabh - “MAYV”
Naomh or Niamh - “NEEV”
Oisín - OSH-een or USH-een
Órfhlaith - OR-la
Odhrán - O-rawn
Sinéad - shi-NAYD
Tadhg - TIEG (like you’re saying “tie” or “Thai” with a G and the end)

I work with an Aoife and I have been pronouncing it SO WRONG

As someone who is trying and failing to learn Gaelic, I feel like is an accurate portrayal of my pain.

This is the Anglicized spelling of a people who really fucking hate the English.

No, no, this is the orthographic equivalent of installing Windows on Mac.

The Latin alphabet was barely adequate for Latin by the time it got to the British Isles, but it’s what people were writing with, so somebody tried to hack it to make it work for Irish. Except, major problem: Irish has two sets of consonants, “broad” and “slender” (labialized and palatalized) and there’s a non-trivial difference between the two of them. But there weren’t enough letters in the Latin alphabet to assign separate characters to the broad and slender version of similar sounds.

Instead, someone though, let’s just use the surrounding vowels to disambiguate–but there weren’t enough vowel characters to indicate all the vowel sounds they needed to write, so that required some doubling up, and then adding in some silent vowels just to serve as markers of broad vs. slender made eveything worse. 

They also had to double up some consonants, because, for example, <v> wasn’t actually a letter at the time–just a variation on <u>–so for the /v/ sound they <bh>. AND THEN ALSO Irish has this weird-ass system where the initial consonant sound in a word changes as a grammatical marker, called “mutation,” so they had to account somehow for mutated sounds vs. non-mutated sounds, which sometimes meant leaving a lot of other silent letters in a word to remind you what word you were looking at.

And then a thousand years of sound change rubbed its dirty little hands all over a system that was kind of pasted together in the first place.

My point is, there is a METHOD to the orthography of Irish besides “fuck the English.” The “fuck the English” part is just a delightful side-effect.

I love it when snarky quips lead to real info.

And moreover, there are some really good linguistic reasons why the Irish monks picked these particular letter combinations to stand for these particular sounds (note that this is based on a Scottish Gaelic course I took many years ago so bear with me if I get a few details wrong).

Let’s start with <bh>. Now, the Latin alphabet at the time didn’t have a letter for the /v/ sound, but it did have an alternative way of writing the /f/ sound, which was spelled <ph> when it was borrowed from Greek (for other historical reasons). Well, /p/ is a sound that’s produced by letting a burst of air out from behind your lips while your vocal cords aren’t vibrating (it’s a voiceless bilabial stop), and /f/ is a sound that’s produced by letting a small amount of air out from behind your teeth on your lips while your vocal cords aren’t vibrating (it’s a voiceless labiodental fricative). So <ph> is kind of like a more breathy <p> (/h/ is a fricative like /f/). And /b/ is the same as /p/ except your vocal cords ARE vibrating, the exact same way that /v/ is like /f/. 

So <p> is to <ph> as <b> is to <bh>. 

Adding <h> to a consonant to indicate a sound somewhat similar to the base letter was very common in post-Latin Europe: English, Irish, French, German, and many other European languages ended up with <ch>, <sh>, <th>, <gh>, <wh>, and so on. It just happens that some h versions are found in some languages and not others, and pretty much every language uses the h variations to stand for different sounds. (Especially “ch”). 

Now let’s get to vowels. There are two groups of them: /i/ and /e/ are one group, while /u/, /o/ and /a/ are another. The traditional Gaelic (Scottish and Irish) terms for these groups are that /i, e/ are slender and /u, o, a/ are broad, but linguists also split them up, as front and back vowels. 

Front vowels /i/ and /e/ tend to pull consonants along with them, in very many languages, especially /t/, /d/, /k/ and /g/. It’s a process called palatalization and there’s a whole Wikipedia article about it. So the <si> in words like “Sinead” is palatalized just like the <si> in Latin-derived words like “precision” (not to mention all the words in “-tion” and rapid speech pronunciations like “didja” and “gotcha”). Palatalization also explains why English has “hard” (=broad=non-palatalized) and “soft” (=slender=palatalized) pronunciations of <c> and <g>, which are split by the same set of vowels – compare “cat” “cot” “cut” with “ceiling” or “cite”. (The pronunciation of <g> is more complicated which is why no one can agree about “gif”.)

And English spelling also retains or adds a silent letter where it would cause palatalization confusion. Think about words like “peaceable”, “placeable”, “changeable”, “salvageable” – normally a silent “e” is dropped before -able (bribable, adorable), but it’s kept here. Or the “k” added in “mimicking”, “frolicking”, “picnicking” despite “mimic, frolic, picnic”.  

Mutation (changing the initial sound of a word for grammatical effect) does seem to be particular to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family tree, although various kinds of mutations are found in other languages

Irish spelling looks weird if you take English as a starting point, but if you take Latin as a starting point (which it was), both Irish and English do different (but sometimes related) weird things.

17 Feb 18:18

Go make Nurse Why or something

by Mo

Source, the delightful Mark Smith in The Herald, who kindly included a large photo so you know him if you ever see him in real life. With thanks also to Prester for his succinct rebuttal.

17 Feb 18:16


by Mo

With thanks to Jessamyn.

03 Jan 16:02

allthingslinguistic: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in...


Proper Old English (not like what the Chaucer Twitter accounts think is Old/Middle English)! With proper Old English rules of poetry! I love this.


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in Anglo-Saxon meter, by Philip Craig Chapman-Bell. Via Etymonline on Facebook, who says “An Internet classic; but I can no longer find it where I first found it (Cathy Ball’s Old English reference pages).”

Incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor –
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.
Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
“Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!”
Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan –
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
“Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!”

Rendered literally into modern English:

Here begins the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer –
That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn’t allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
“Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!”
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead-deer –
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
“Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!”

I really appreciate how committed this poem is to Anglo-Saxon meter, which has alliteration rather than rhyme and uses a lot of compound nouns (known as kennings), like hoof-bearers and sky-flyers.

30 Dec 23:06


by Mark Liberman

This has reminded me of the time my father-in-law, Peter, called my mom for some reason and she was sleeping (I think he forgot about the time difference, wouldn't be the first time...) and he introduced himself and she hung up the phone because she thought it was a wrong number, someone talking about pizza.

From John Allison's Scary Go Round for 12/23/2016:

I'm trying to reconcile two apparently-incompatible pieces of knowledge, while simultaneously admitting to a scandalously inadequate knowledge of British dialectology:

  1. "Flapping and voicing" (as in liter==leader and at all==ad all) is an American characteristic
  2. Eye dialect of British origin often has things like get out of it==geddadavit

I get that there's a class difference between the sort of people who pronounce the /t/ in Peter as a voiceless unaspirated stop (so that it almost sounds like "pizza" to Americans), and the sort of people who pronounce it as a glottal stop.

But where does get out==geddout come in? Is it that the glottal stoppers do flapping and voicing of intervocalic /t/ before word boundaries? That would provide part of the explanation for "innit". Or is get out==geddout a different group entirely?

There's doubtless an extensive literature on this question, probably going back to Henry Sweet, but I seem to have missed it somehow.

Update — Responding to Sidney Wood in the comments:

It's plausible that some of the settlers of North American brought flapping and voicing with them. What I'd like to understand, and don't, is the historical, geographical, and social interaction among flapping, voicing, glottalization, and deletion of non-onset /t/, and the relation to lenition phenomena for other places and manners of articulation.

And Jarek Weckworth offers a partial answer from Wells (1982: 324-5) — which I ought to have checked:

"Indeed, there is another variant which also has a strong claim to be considered 'typically Cockney', namely the voiced tap (T Voicing, vol. 1, 3.3.4) [r], as [ˈbʌɾə] butter, [ˈʃæəɾɪd] shouted. It is also common intervocalically across word boundaries where the syntactic linkage is close: [(ˈ)ʃʌɾˈʌp] shut up, [ˈgɒɾɪʔ] got it. The use of [ɾ] appears to be connected with the rate at which the person is speakiɾg, since [ɾ] does not occur in slow speech, in hesitation, or before pause. Interestingly, though, Sivertsen claims that this alveolar tap (or 'flap', as she calls it; she writes it [t̬]) is regarded by her Bethnal Green informants as 'the normal, "correct" variant' (1960: 119); she continues, 'the alveolar stop, at least when it is strongly affricated in [the environment 'V V], is looked upon as being too "posh" for a Cockney to use: [ˈbetˢə] better is "posh", [ˈbet̬ə] is normal, and [ˈbeʔə] is "rough"'."

 From this it follows that it's in "competition" with glottalization in some positions. Some people would understand it as "free variation" but of course there isn't such a thing as free variation IRL. Maybe speech rate is indeed the main factor. I'm not aware of studies investigating this in London…

The Sivertsen reference is Eva Sivertsen, Cockney Phonology, Oslo Studies in English 8, 1960. Our library has a copy, which I look forward to reading.


I've also found out about Susan Fox, The New Cockney:  New Ethnicities and Adolescent Speech in the Traditional East End of London, Springer 2015, which I've requested via interlibrary loan.

30 Dec 23:04


by Victor Mair

This morning I asked my grandson, LeoDaniel SoliRain (five years old), what he wants Santa Claus to bring him tonight.  Without hesitation, he replied, "faidaman".  My son Thomas Krishna, his wife Lacey Michelle, his daughter Samira Lea (LD's seven year old sister), and especially I were all perplexed.

I asked LD what a "faidaman" is.  He repeated emphatically and clearly, "faidaman!"  The four of us started to speculate:  fighter man?  fireman?

LD was getting frustrated, so in a burst of zoological erudition, he explained with great precision, "it's got eight legs and spins webs".

Whereupon light bulbs went off in our heads.  (Sorry for the mixed-up metaphor, but people actually say that.)

30 Dec 22:55

What 80% comprehension feels like


I know I should be on my hiatus but this is something I really need to share with you all; those who are intermediate can relate. Some guy called Marco Benevides visually demonstrated what it’s like to only understand 80% of a text

Here is 98% comprehension

You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…

bold = uncomprehended 2%

Here is 95% comprehension

In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. “Where is dowargle?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. “Off the street!” he shouts. “Go home, lock your door!” “What? Why?” you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone.

bold = uncomprehended 5%

Here is 80% comprehension

Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…

And this really sums up how ***** annoying it can be to be an intermediate speaker. To be able to get the basic of gist of what’s happening, but never be able to get any kind of finer detail. I don’t think I’ve seen such a good illustration of intermediacy in a long time.


This reminds me of how I found reading A Clockwork Orange an interesting way of practising reading when you don’t know all the vocabulary. I haven’t done the numbers, but I’d say the first paragraph is between 95% and 80%, maybe around 90% comprehension: 

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new vesches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with velocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other vesches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.

The interesting thing is that, because the book is a fictional version of English, you can trust as a reader that the author will make the story somehow comprehensible even though you don’t initially understand some of the words. (Although the book has been out for a while and I’m sure someone has made a glossary by now, that wouldn’t have initially been available.) 

Whereas with a book in a language you’re still learning, you’re used to understanding basically everything when reading in your first language, so sometimes you’re tempted to go look every single word up, which takes ages and makes the story less fun. 

So reading Clockwork Orange many years ago was the thing that made me stop reading books in French with a dictionary in hand. Instead, I started reading a chapter or more at a time and then going and looking up a much shorter list - the words that had appeared often or importantly enough that I still remembered them and yet hadn’t managed to figure them out from context. It was much easier to retain these words because by the time I looked them up, I already remembered what they looked like in French and had formed a couple loose hypotheses about their meanings. The ones that didn’t stick in my mind by the end of the chapter, I probably wouldn’t retain them even if I did look them up.

21 Nov 17:45

People Who Make A Big Deal About How Much They Love Reading

by Rosa Lyster

And other deal breakers

Image: Vladimir Pustovit

There’s this very disappointing Reddit thread, titled “You’re on a date. What is the one thing the other person would have to say to make it an immediate deal-breaker?” My friend Rebecca asked me what some of mine were, and I remember thinking, “Well, shit, I am a kind and mega-tolerant soul. Bet you I will be able to think of two or three MAX.” Lolol.

(A caveat: I cannot speak for Rebecca, but I am All Too Aware that my very existence constitutes a deal breaker for all sorts of people. Somewhere someone is writing a similar list and at the top it just says “BEING LIKE ROSA.)

(Another caveat: the fact that the following does not include the real deal breakers such as being unkind or a racist or a bigot of any description means that these things go without saying.)

Some obvious ones, basic crowdpleasers:

  • People who are only ever able to enjoy things in an Ironic Way
  • 9/11 truther
  • People who are the self-appointed Tell It Like It Is participants in any group
  • Anyone who would EVER, EVER, do ANY FORM of Austin Powers impersonation
  • People who warn you about their Dark Sense of Humour
  • anyone who wants to show me lengthy youtube clips of anything.

Bizarrely specific stuff obviously based on bitter experience:

  • People who you can see are too pleased about being Nimble
  • men who are too serene from meditation
  • People who say mean things about Justin Bieber like it’s an original observation
  • Anyone who is still proud that they were a prefect
  • Anyone who thinks a jester isn’t intrinsically embarrassing
  • Men who make a big showy deal of brushing the tears from their eyes when they watch The Shawshank Redemption
  • Anyone who sees a piano and plays chopsticks like it’s funny or a marker of talent,
  • “Cares too much about coffee”,
  • “TED Talks”
  • someone who talks seriously about anarchy as a viable political solution
  • anyone who would say foreign words the right way, like CWASSONG for croissant.

(There is some stuff which is too mean to write down here, but you can email me and ask me about it if you need.)

In the course of compiling this list, I stumbled upon what is perhaps my biggest and most pettiest deal breaker of all: PEOPLE WHO MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT HOW MUCH THEY LOVE READING/PEOPLE WHO GO ON AND FUCKING ON ABOUT HOW MUCH THEY LOVE THE FEEL/WEIGHT/SMELL OF A BOOK.

You guys. This is the big one. I did not know how true it was until I wrote it down. It is my worst. I don’t why it is my worst but it is. It is the fucking pits. Remember when e-readers first came out and we all wanted to kill ourselves because there was always some ghastly person holding forth about how TECHNOLOGY could never replace THE TEXTURE OF THE PRINTED PAGE? Jesus. E-readers are useful and good and you can go on holiday with them and how is this even up for discussion? Remember this? Also THIS? Fuhhhhhhhhhh. Full-on deal breaker. If I had to be on a date with someone and they started waxing all lyrical about The Smell and Feel Of A Book and being Transported Into Another World and how sick it is to be an introvert, I would call for the bill immediately, and then after that I would make myself invisible so that I could go up to this person at a later date and whisper in their ear that they were a nerd. Sorry but that’s just how I feel.

How is it that here in late-stage 2016, we are still fetishizing reading like it is an activity only performed by sensitive woodland creatures with cool glasses on and their hair tucked behind their ears? An activity performed by people who live on the moon? You guys, we all love reading. If you are reading this, I think it is safe to say that you love reading. I think it is further safe to say that we can all move on with our lives now, safe in the collective assumption that reading is fine and ok and absolutely not a thing to get boasty about. Everyone likes books.

Also, if you don’t like reading, that doesn’t make you dumb. It just means that you don’t like reading, because reading actually is a morally neutral act. I believe this. Also, most books are about how to make money, or they are about murders, or they are aimed at teens. You know what is a book? Mein Kampf. You know what else is a book? It’s Not About the Bike. Liking to read doesn’t make a person smart or good, it just makes them literate. Reading in itself is not an intrinsically dreamy activity, and I think we should stop pretending that it is. How are we still getting away with this, here in the end times?

Reading is fine. It is fine to read. But here in late-stage 2016, let’s stop making it a thing. Let’s all never say anything again about how we love the smell of books and so on. We need to stop resting on our laurels, and come up with better and more intimidating ways to make ourselves seem interesting to others. Sorry but that’s just how I feel.

People Who Make A Big Deal About How Much They Love Reading was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

21 Nov 08:13

Advances in tuba-to-text conversion

by Ben Zimmer

My dad accidentally texted me with voice recognition…while playing the tuba

(h/t Chris Waigl)

[Update: Mark Liberman suggests this might be some artful fakery. See: "Another fake AI failure?"]

19 Nov 09:11

The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing

The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing:

An interesting long read in The Atlantic about the development of the Adlam script for the Fulani language, and what it means to be a digitally disadvantaged language: 

Fulani’s sounds were rendered imprecisely by the Arabic alphabet, the script most often used to write it; the Latin alphabet presented similar problems. Neither the Arabic nor the Latin alphabets could accurately spell Fulani words that require producing a “b” or a “d” sound while gulping in air, for example, so Fulani speakers had modified both alphabets with new symbols—often in inconsistent ways. […]

So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative. Abdoulaye was 10 years old; Ibrahima was 14.

After school, they’d shut themselves in their rooms to draw, filling blank composition books they brought home from the classroom with the shapes that would make up their new alphabet. They’d take turns drawing letters, and together, assigned sounds to the shapes they came up with.

Six months later, they had a working script. Like Arabic, its 28 letters were written right to left. But unlike Arabic, whose short vowels are written as diacritical marks above and below letters, the script assigned its five vowels proper letters. It looked something like a cursive version of Ethiopic. Ibrahima and Abdoulaye’s parents started taking their project seriously, and invited one of their father’s relatives, who had an influential post in the local government, for a demonstration.

The visitor tested them: With Abdoulaye in the other room, Ibrahima would take dictation. When Abdoulaye returned, he read aloud what his brother had written. They switched and repeated the test. Over and over, the brothers consistently read out the right sounds, even those unique to Fulani. Crucially, they spelled the same complicated words in the same ways, independently of one another.

The visitor turned to their father. “Oh, yes, these kids are being serious,” he said. […]

“A script is not a biological entity,” said Kamal Mansour, a specialist in non-Latin typography at Monotype who represents the company on the Unicode Consortium. “It doesn’t live alone. It has to have acceptance from people.” […]

During the decade after that first big test in the brothers’ house, their new alphabet—yet unnamed—spread at an astounding rate. Eventually, it would come to be called Adlam, after its first four letters: the equivalents of a, d, l, and m. The word is also an acronym for a phrase that translates to “the alphabet that will save a people from disappearing.” […]

In between work and school, the brothers saved up enough to pay for the development of the first Adlam keyboard and font. They found a software company in Seattle that makes specialty fonts, and, in 2008, they were able to type in Adlam for the first time. It was a huge step, but it came with disappointment: Since Adlam was not yet supported by Unicode, if they sent a document written in Adlam to someone without the font installed, the recipient would see only a nonsensical jumble of random, disconnected Arabic letters. That’s when the importance of being included in Unicode sank in. […]

Abdoulaye and Ibrahima traveled to the 2014 meeting of the Unicode Technical Committee in Sunnyvale, California, to iron out the last kinks in their proposal. That same month, the committee voted to approve Adlam.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,” Abdoulaye said. He tried anyway: “When we got the email that we were officially encoded, we were very, very happy.”

Open up the settings on any smartphone and scroll through the keyboard options. If you’re holding an iPhone, you’ll find Macedonian and Telugu and Catalan—but not Adlam. The alphabet was included in Unicode 9.0, which was published this summer, but technology companies haven’t leapt at the chance to use it in apps and keyboards. […]

Instead of waiting for official support for Adlam to arrive, some Fulani speakers have gone ahead and created their own apps. Two Android apps already allow smartphone users to text each other in Adlam (as long as both have the “Adlam SMS” app installed) and learn the Adlam alphabet on their device. […]

Mansour, the Monotype designer, has been involved in type development for decades. He says it’s easy to forget how far things have come since the ’90s, when the internet was dominated almost entirely by the basic Latin alphabet.

“You couldn’t even type Baltic languages like Estonian or Lithuanian. You couldn’t! You had to buy an Eastern European supplement [software package],” Mansour said. “Now, nobody thinks of that. We collectively forget the stages of development that have happened. Now, you could even type Icelandic on an Arabic system, if you wanted.”

Read the whole thing.

13 Nov 15:42

We All Sometimes Feel Like This Bird

by Rosa Lyster

That nameless and yet very particular feeling.

Just look at this hadeda ibis

My parents found this bird. She fell out her nest and into their back garden. Look at her. Look at her beak and her claws and her huge, bonkers, staring eyes. Look at her, all hunching around. She knows she is not cute. She knows that she is probably not great to have to pick up, all with her weird wet feathers and those feet of hers, but what can she do? This bird is trying her best. Look at her. Look at her face.

Now. Look at my face and tell me that you don’t sometimes feel like this bird. Try tell me you don’t, on occasion, feel distinctly like this bird. You cannot. Admit it. You, me, everyone: we all sometimes feel a little bit like this bird.

Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep last night, or you are hungover, or you have some bad jeans on, or you bumped into someone who thinks you are a nerd, or you have to do some public speaking and you hate it and you are right to hate it because you suuuuuuuuuuuuuck at it, or you tried to introduce yourself to someone and you said their name instead of your name, or you got out of a car in a weird way, or you slipped and fell down in a manner that was not painful and only embarrassing, or you had food in your teeth for many hours and you didn’t know, or you accidentally recommended your own article on Medium and then when you tried to undo it you recommended it again, or you smoked weed even though you should never smoke weed because it is not suited to your temperament, like, at all. There are many reasons to get that feeling. That nameless and yet very particular feeling of being wrong in this world. You have tried to describe it to yourself and to your friends, and you have never quite got there. It’s fine. We have a name for it now. It is called “feeling like this bird.”

Poor bird. Poor weird creepy raptor.

Here is a text from my dad, re the bird:

Sadly we have given her over to a bird rescue sanctuary. I miss her already. And the sadder thing is that this morning her parents (hadedas mate for life) were standing on the lawn for aaaages. We discovered the next at the top of the mahogany tree (that one against the fence next to the washing line) so she obv fell out. The parents can’t put them back in the next and nor could we. 😢

POOR BIRD. Poor parents of the bird. It is tempting to think of this as a fully tragic story, like the story of Buddy. But we have enough sad stories to go around for now, thank you. I put it to you that this is not, actually, a tragic story, but rather a story of hope. Take another look at the bird. She is not cute and she knows it. She is maybe worried that no one can love her, on account of her claws and her huge, insane, frightening eyes. But she can rest easy, because you know who loves her? My parents. They think she is a complete legend. They think she is just great and they appreciate her demeanor. My dad sent me many texts about her this morning, in which he went into great detail about her behaviour and movements. He literally described her as “my friend.” My dad’s friend, the bird. He also said that she was “beautiful,” and that if he had kept her as a pet, he would have called her Harriet. I suggested that there was something of the baby dinosaur about her, and he said “she is just trying her best.”

My mum sent me some texts, too, asking me what I thought Harriet the bird was thinking about, and worrying about her parents and what they were thinking about, and wondering what kind of a life Harriet was going to have now, given the unexpected turn it had taken. She thought she was going to probably meet all kinds of interesting people and “probably learn a bit of English.” They took her to the bird sanctuary because they knew it was the right thing to do, but they both miss her so much. They are thinking, even now, that they should just go get her. HARRIET THE BIRD. Their lives are the richer for knowing her.

This is a story of hope. Harriet the bird, with her creepy vibe and her weird personality, is proof that everyone has someone who loves them. Everyone has someone who cares about them, and who thinks they are great, and who will take them to the bird sanctuary when it is necessary. It’s true. Next time you are feeling like this bird, remember that.

We All Sometimes Feel Like This Bird was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

07 Nov 22:35

My Dad Reads ‘Wuthering Heights’ For The First Time

by Rosa Lyster

Andrew, don't you think her dad sounds like Plok? :)

Lolita renewed his respect for fiction, but Middlemarch made him fall in love.

The author and her father in Athens, 1988.

My dad and I are enthusiasts. We are two punchy salespeople, and we would like to interest you in this book. It is Middlemarch, or All My Puny Sorrows, or A Brief History of Seven Killings, or the last thing we really liked. Please read it right now. You might as well, because we will not hush until you do. Just get it over with, and then come back and tell us that you loved it.

We are blind to the faults of the things that we love. My dad will not, for instance, hear a word against Bach. If you get into his car and start it after he has been driving around by himself, you will be immediately pinned to your seat by the wall of Bach coming out of the speakers. It’s Bach at levels far beyond what I presume was intended. Bach is for when you are at home, surely, and you are putting together your elegant supper, and your friend arrives and says Wow what’s this, and you say It’s the Goldberg Variations, man. The Goldberg Variations are for when you are a Count in the Saxon court, and you have sleeping problems, and so you get Bach to compose something to help you relax and ease the misery of your insomnia. Is Bach intended for driving to the beach with your daughter, and it’s so loud neither of you can hear a fucking thing, and she says, DAD THIS IS AWFUL I HATE IT, and then you scream the story of the Goldberg Variations’ origins over the distorted sound? N.O.

I’ve told him so many times that I hate it. He looks at me, startled. But it’s BACH, he says. Just LISTEN. I say that I don’t want to, and he pretends to understand, but really he doesn’t. It’s BACH.

He is similarly bewildered by slights against the books he adores. My dad is a great one for tirelessly recommending books about Shackleton, or Poor Old Captain Scott of the Antarctic, or Darwin, or Roger Casement. He is very persuasive, and, as a result, I have read fifteen more books about Captain Scott than I need to.

For a long time, these books were non-fiction only. My dad studied English at university (lectured by the apparently terrifying J.M. Coetzee), and assures me that he read heaps of novels when he was younger. At some point, though, he just stopped. Maybe he got a few duds in a row, or he read a book that was too sad, but at some point before I was born, he hardened his heart against fiction and turned exclusively to non-.

This happens sometimes, I think. Mostly to men. They begin to feel that there is something vaguely unsound about fiction. That it is charming, but will ultimately let you down, in the manner of a guest who chatters effusively at dinner but who did not bring any wine, and who ignores all the unattractive people at the table. That it could not teach you anything that wouldn’t be more effectively learned via a book about the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

He ditched fiction altogether, for about twenty-five years, and he was happy with this arrangement. Then, he put his back out — classic dad move. He was immobilized for weeks, and all he could do while he recovered was lie there and read. He burned through three books about Stalin, I was told, two books about George Mallory, one about the Bloomsbury group, two about what a monster Cecil John Rhodes was, and two about epidemics that went especially out of control. He read every piece of non-fiction his house had to offer, and then he ran out. He panicked, and my mom said Why don’t you read a book. He said that he was, and she said, A real book, I mean. A novel. Like what, he said. I don’t know, she said. Like this. She handed him Lolita.

It’s not that he loved Lolita, understand — he is a nice man, and a dad, and the whole exercise was ultimately too gross for him, but he could not deny its impact. Here is an excerpt from an email he sent me while he was reading it:

“I’m just taking a well deserved break from Lolita. It’s so intense that its making me agitated. I feel that I may not be able to carry on, even though I know I will.”

Lolita renewed his respect for fiction, but it did not make him fall in love. Middlemarch did that. I was visiting my parents for the weekend when he was about halfway through, and he walked around the house like a man in a trance. His eyes were all misty, and he kept raising his hands to his head. When I got back to Cape Town, there were emails waiting, with subject lines like “DOROTHEA”, and “Oh God, Lydgate”, and “I think Mary Garth is great.” It was all we spoke about for months.

He felt very strongly about Middlemarch, but he was not totally sure about Dorothea. He liked her fine, but he could not really commit. He thought that she had it too easy, overall. Dorothea knows little of suffering, or at least not the polar explorer kind of suffering that my dad reveres: cold, sad, starving to death, etc. Crying out for help and no one even notices, etc. The suffering of a friendless orphan, a trembling reed of a person.

Enter Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre the novel, but also Jane Eyre the character, who my dad speaks about as if she is a real woman — the best woman to ever exist. Jane Eyre blew my dad’s mind, and Jane Eyre broke his heart. Subject line: JANE EYRE IS THE BEST. Subject line: I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN BEST FRIENDS WITH CHARLOTTE BRONTË. Subject line: Didn’t you love the bit where she puts her foot down? Subject line: Didn’t you love the end?

The problem is, I didn’t. I didn’t really like any of it. Being the salesman that he is, it is hard for my dad to resign himself to the fact that I don’t love his favorite book ever. I just don’t. It’s too long, and too dense with stuff I can’t care about. I find Mr. Rochester creepy as the dickens. Most importantly, I have difficulties with Jane herself. I respect her, but I cannot warm to her. Something about her self-control, I think, her ability to make decisions and then turn them over in her mind, altering them if required. I like to make decisions and then shoot them out of a canon straight away, so it’s difficult for us to relate to each other.

Also, Jane isn’t too keen on laughter. She doesn’t seem like she would be very funny. The main laughter in the novel done by Bertha Mason, and her laughter is mirthless — tragic and evil, the laugh of a goblin. Laughter is also used to illustrate Jane’s exclusion: the woman is always hanging around in the shadows to watch other people gaily throw back their heads and bray into the faces of their splendid companions. She is skeptical of laughter, and knows that there are more important things in life. I am at a total loss to describe what those things might be.

Jane’s entire personality serves as a rebuke to mine. We would never be friends. She would find me flippant and too hell-bent on having fun, and I would find her rectitude awfully trying. She is so hardy and stoical and brave and independent! She never complains! She is thinking the most potent thoughts imaginable, every minute of the day. Jane Eyre is heavy, and extremely intense.

My dad, naturally, admires all this without qualification. He doesn’t find her weird or boring in any way; he just thinks she is magnificent — a woman to look up to. He once sent me an email with the subject line “Jane Eyre: I love her.” He likes her spirit, and her independence, and how she doesn’t let anyone push her around. He even thinks she’s funny. He read Jane Eyre twice in a row, and then he read Villette (subject line: AAAARGH BELGIUM). He read Wuthering Heights (subject line: What is Hindley’s problem?), he read Agnes Grey (and then, of course, he read twelve books about the Brontës, and has ordered several more), and he will read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before the month is out. He is probably reading Wuthering Heights again as we speak.

Check out my dad, urging these books onto all of his friends, and phoning his daughter to tell her that he wishes he could have met Emily at least once. I ask him why he loves them so much, and he sighs happily. Think of them, he says, up at that awful old parsonage, churning this stuff out. Just think of how clever they were. I do think about it. I think about how the Brontë sisters’ response to poverty and privation was to write some of most beloved novels in the Western canon. Until well into my twenties, my response to adversity of any kind was to phone my dad, and to listen while he told me how to fix it.

This sounds bad, maybe, or pathetic. I don’t mean it to: I just grew up with a dad whose whole metier is looking out for people. He knows that I can teach, and write, and talk to pretty much anyone, and that I am trying my best. He is also aware, however, that I probably shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel of a car, that I frequently forget my own address, that I cannot tell left from right unless I hold up my one hand to spell the letter L and even then it doesn’t always work, that I get lost every single day, that I can break a phone charger just by looking at it. He recognizes all this, accepts it, and, from when I was a very little kid, has tried to make the world an easier place for me. He has always been on my side.

Jane Eyre grew up scared and alone, with no one on her side and no one to phone and say Help, please. She is serious, a little anvil of a person, because her world made her like that. This is perhaps part of the reason for my dad’s deeply respectful crush on her. He is pained by suffering, and has worked all his life to alleviate it where he can, and he knows what it means to be good when the world is so bad. He loves Jane Eyre because of her resilience, but he wishes it hadn’t been so hard for her. He knows that she doesn’t need protecting — she is way too tough for that. He just wants to be on her side.

My Dad Reads ‘Wuthering Heights’ For The First Time was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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