Shared posts

11 Dec 18:51

uglyfun: Hi, I’m here to propose that A.A. Milne’s distinctive syntax in the Winnie-the-Pooh books...


Hi, I’m here to propose that A.A. Milne’s distinctive syntax in the Winnie-the-Pooh books is a major origin of modern Capital Letters Used For Emphasis On The Internet. Observe:

(in which Pooh wryly self-deprecates)

(in which Eeyore masters modern sarcasm)

(in which Eeyore is vagueblogging)

(in which Owl says something i would absolutely type in the YOOL 2017)

(In which Eeyore continues to be a shining example to us all)

(in which Pooh describes a Big Mood)

(in which Piglet has a Relatable Experience)

I could go on, but you can read the books and find your own. It’s a weirdly modern-feeling layer to an old, thoroughly enjoyable story and most of the original Pooh books are online for free. I cited from this online text upload of the book. Enjoy!

11 Dec 18:51

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


“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!”

06 Dec 19:09

1 Year of Lingthusiasm - A Very Special Anniversary Thank You


I AM IN THIS LIST OF THANK YOUS. My life feels complete now. :D


Thank you to everyone who responded so lingthusiastically to our call for recommendations in honour of 1 year of Lingthusiasm! October was our biggest month yet for listeners, topped only by November, which was even bigger! We hit 100k listens just as Episode 14 was going up, and every single one of them is thanks to you lingthusiasts. Wow.  

We’ve so enjoyed hearing your stories about how Lingthusiasm keeps you company during your daily life, how it makes you feel prepared for the linguistics degree you’re entering or still connected to the linguistics degree you finished, how it reminds you of all the cool stuff in your field or introduces you to the cool stuff for the very first time, how it helped you confront linguistic discrimination or made you laugh out loud. 

In this year of independent linguistics podcasting, we’ve kept up regular monthly episodes and transcripts, upgraded our equipment, expanded to monthly bonus episodes and then full-length monthly bonus episodes, did a mini liveshow, started doing interviews, and launched lingthusiastic merch! Knowing that people were out there waiting to listen and talk about the show was what kept us motivated, and we’re very excited to keep bringing you even more Lingthusiasm in Year 2 and beyond! 

A huge thanks to everyone who recommended us privately, retweeted or reblogged in general, recommended us before this anniversary push so that we had such an amazing fanbase to grow from in the first place, or rated us on iTunes where we only see the total number. Special thanks to everyone listed below – and if you’re looking for some fellow lingthusiasts to talk about the show with, maybe check each other out!  


Strawberry and Tea blog
Der Zwiebel


@someone-call-the-vicar​, @linguistudyblr@dustcoveredourfootsteps@siriusmistake@basiltheratatouille@sarahthecoat@hotshoeagain@dangerousyako​ @stheno @catfishcafe​ @thecuckoohaslanded @beccaland


Nicole Holliday, L8R, Linguainfo Services, Jane Solomon, Patrick Cox, Jay Crisostomo, Seth Martin, Noémie Léonard, Dominique, marieter, Diane Lillo-Martin, Greg French, LukasDanielKlausner, Mariana Montes, Amanda Dalola, Tcherina, Talk the Talk, Plastic Indian, Spanish In Seconds, sixty Russian bots in a trench coat, J Paul S, Michelle Juel, Holly, TheHungryLinguaphile, Tamaiti Ma'uke, Dara Kaye, Erika Varis, LDTC, Kaye Boesme, EJ Pryor, Aroline Hanson, Hana, Christian Wilkie, Ben Harris-Roxas, Paige Kimble, Aurore Potalivo Richardson-Todd, Joshua Raclaw, Sarah Grey, Rob Hoelz, Dan Rossiter, Fran Wilde, Serenity Dee, Finn Smith, mariel frank, Monika Bednarek, queer mckinnon, Xina Broussali, Rosemary Hall, [ditsvibl], Rosie Le Faive, Filthy Monkey Man, umasslinguistics, Matthew Noble, hélène, Vicky, Chloe, Sue Browning, May Helena Plumb, Jemison Thorsby, Jaz Twersky, Angela Desmarais, Suzy J Styles, Adelin Zipman, Lindsey Ford, Chris Waigl, Richard Gadsden, ლ(ಠ益ಠლ), lexplorers, Lucas Verardo, Colm Doyle, Andy Allen, a wug, Nick Wilson, Emily M. Bender, Dr. Gillian W, UCLEnglishUsage, Alison Stevens, ⚆⚆, Arancha Pastor, Audra Spiven.

We tried really hard to make sure we found everyone, but if we accidentally missed you, please do let us know!  

04 Dec 10:32

Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive

Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive:


Research has shown that Hand Talk is still being used by a small number of deaf and hearing descendants of the Plains Indian cultures.

“Hand Talk is endangered and dying quickly,” said Melanie McKay-Cody, who identifies herself as Cherokee Deaf and is an expert in anthropological linguistics.

McKay-Cody is the first deaf researcher to specialize in North American Hand Talk and today works with tribes to help them preserve their signed languages. She is pushing for PISL to be incorporated into mainstream education of the deaf.

29 Nov 14:24

"Second Circle: The Serial Comma One half of this circle is populated by souls who are cursed to..."

Second Circle: The Serial Comma

One half of this circle is populated by souls who are cursed to make arguments that nobody cares about except their own mothers, howling gorgons and the infernal mistresses of hell. The other half are cursed to make arguments that nobody cares about except their own mothers, howling gorgons, and the infernal mistresses of hell. The difference between these two situations seems to matter a lot to both halves. Neither side will listen to you when you suggest that they could avoid this level entirely.

- McSweeney’s reimagines Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell as linguistic transgressions
10 Nov 09:59

Thank you, Angela Robinson: A Review Of Professor Marston and The Wonder Women

by Mimi Schippers

Originally Posted at Marx in Drag

I have been interested in and reading about the creators of the comic book super hero Wonder Woman for a few years now. My interest began in 2014.

I was half-heartedly listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and Gross was interviewing historian Jill LePore, the author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman. At the time, I hadn’t read LePore’s book or the Wonder Woman comics, and so I was mildly but not wildly interested in their conversation. When Gross asked LePore to talk about William Marston’s family life, LePore began to describe the relationship between Marston, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston’s wife, and Olive Byrne, the woman who lived with them and was, in Terry Gross’s words, Marston’s “mistress.”

Holy shit!, I said to myself. These people were polyamorous! Of course, I knew that they couldn’t have seen themselves as “polyamorous” in the contemporary sense of the word, for the word would not be invented for another fifty years or so after Marston and Holloway invited Byrne into their relationship. However, it sounded to me like they were doing something akin to a poly relationship—as in they had chosen to forge an intimate relationship that included more than two people, and they had built a life together.

In a word, I was hailed. I felt a sense of connection to Holloway, Byrne, and Marston—dare I say queer kinship. I am poly and so were these people from almost a century ago. These are my people! And here were Terri Gross and Jill Lepore talking about it on the usually rather conventional National Public Radio. This doesn’t happen often, so I stopped what I was doing and turned up my radio.

After LePore described the relationship between Holloway, Byrne, and Marston, Terri Gross said, “That’s just so bizarre.” And LePore agreed, “Yeah. It’s so bizarre…hilariously bizarre.”

My bubble burst. Instead of being hailed, I felt slapped in the face. I don’t know what Gross’s or LePore’s relationship history looks like, but they certainly sounded like monogamists looking in at us poly freaks from the outside, and they were calling us bizarre and laughing at us. A much too common experience.

That is why Angela Robinson’s film, Professor Marston and The Wonder Woman, is the real breath of Fresh Air.

I’ll be honest, I went to this film with some trepidation. I wanted to believe I wouldn’t be mocked or depicted as a bizarre spectacle given Angela Robinson’s resume, but polyamory? Between a man and two women? With kink? It would be very easy for Robinson to spill this very tall order.

I was worried that it wouldn’t do justice to just how unconventional the Marstons were. I was concerned it would perpetuate stereotypes about polygamy–dominant, selfish, and exploitive yet lucky (wink wink) men have multiple and suffering wives. I read LePore’s book, and as I write in my forthcoming book, The Poly Gaze, she often interprets the Marston family through this lens. I also didn’t want to see yet another film about a man with a wife and mistress and the bitter, catty, and destructive rivalry between the women.

Though understandable given the lack of feminist and/or queer representations of threesomes or poly triads in mainstream media, my fears and worries turned out to be completely unfounded. Rather than make a spectacle out of the perverts or freaks, Robinson adeptly turns the tables and asks the viewer to question their own assumptions about what is normal. It renders polyamory possible and highlights the dire social sanctions that often come with not living within the boundaries of monogamy. The film also offers a truly rare representation of sexual threesomes as a loving and sexy way to forge intimate bonds, and presents BDSM as a component of healthy relationships rather than a result of psycho-pathology or sexual trauma (think Fifty Shades of Gray).

All of this is rather groundbreaking, and I was, quite literally, in tears as I watched. Tears of joy and relief for being hailed as polyamorous, an enthusiastic participant in threesomes, and a dabbler in kink and not getting slapped in the face with mocking laughter or the pointing fingers of shame.

But these things were not, for me personally, the most unique and striking aspect of this film—though, to be perfectly clear, I do not want to diminish just how significant this film is in its bravery and beauty around polyamory, bisexuality, and kink. The most astonishingly wonderful thing about Angela Robinson’s film version of this story, as seen from my theatre seat, was being hailed as a feminist. Gazing at Elizabeth and Olive admire, fall in love with, and express desire for each other as lovers, not rivals. And even more significant was to witness them consciously and deliberatively (not deliberately, though that works too) choose to forge an unconventional and poly life together with Marston.

Unlike narratives about polygamy where women are passive objects of men’s brutality or desire, this film shows Elizabeth and Olive actively creating a life together and with a man who is an equal partner. Refusing to reproduce tropes about women’s competition with each other for the attention of a man, Angela Robinson situates the women’s admiration and desire for each other at the center of the story. Both women are brilliant feminists. And both women are, as Olive says about Elizabeth, ‘magnificent” and desirous of an unconventional life.

In other words, Angela Robinson has succeeded in transforming a story about a man with a wife and a mistress (as told by Gross and LePore) into two women and a man who bravely forge an unconventional, poly and feminist life.

Whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of the lived experience of Holloway, Byrne, and Marston is impossible to know, and to be perfectly frank, completely uninteresting to me. I am interested in the stories we tell—as historians and as filmmakers and what those stories say about people who live unconventional lives.

I cherish the story told in this film by Angela Robinson because of what it says about those of us who live unconventional, poly lives. Yes, we are freaks, but only in the eyes of those who live conventional lives and want everyone else to follow the rules. Yes, we are sometimes ridiculed and shunned, and yet, because of it, we are brave, strong, and resilient. And some of us, like Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne, and William Marston, and the character Wonder Woman, for that matter, are capable of changing the world. Thank you, Angela Robinson, for telling this part of the story.

Mimi Schippers is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is the author of Beyond Monogamy: Polamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities  (New York University Press, 2016) and Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock (Rutgers University Press, 2002).  

(View original at

05 Nov 17:52

Good Boys In Media, Ranked

by Silvia Killingsworth
  1. Peter K. Conaboy

All photos by Kelly Conaboy

(The “K” stands for “Kelly.”)

30 Oct 07:06

The strange reason deaf children aren’t taught sign language

The strange reason deaf children aren’t taught sign language:

A nice summary of the problems with speech-only language approaches for deaf kids and how they came to be in the first place. Excerpt: 

Basically, parents are often told that they have to choose between speaking or sign language for their children. Since most people in the U.S. don’t sign, many opt for focusing solely on spoken language, enrolling their children into speech therapy and audiological training. About 80% of children born deaf in the developed world will get a cochlear implant later on, but the problem is that their brains may not be equipped to understand the complex notion of language by the time that happens.

“Cochlear implants create an electronic symbol, not the ability to hear,” Hall said. “So they miss that first year of life and exposure to language anyway, and [when they get a cochlear implant], kids don’t have any language foundation to help them decode these electronic signals.”

How can a child learn the ABCs in kindergarten if, by age 5, they’ve never really been conceptually introduced to the idea of words and their meaning? Language deprivation has reverberating effects on relationships, education, independence — plus critical skills like memory organization, literacy and mathematics. As one 2012 paper put it, “the brain of a newborn is designed for early acquisition of language.”

“I’ve worked with many students who are language-deprived. Often, they show up to school with only two or three words in their vocabulary,” April Bottoms, a graduate student at Boston University’s Education of the Deaf program, said through an interpreter. “Can they learn how to write, read and get the foundations of education? No. I have to connect with them through shared gazing.” […]

The logical solution appears to be teaching children sign language, even in tandem with more popular, speech-based methods. But somehow, teaching ASL to every deaf child is still at the center of a century-old debate.

Read the whole thing

29 Oct 11:43

A neural network designs Halloween costumes



It’s hard to come up with ideas for Halloween costumes, especially when it seems like all the good ones are taken. And don’t you hate showing up at a party only to discover that there’s *another* pajama cardinalfish?

I train neural networks, a type of machine learning algorithm, to write humor by giving them datasets that they have to teach themselves to mimic. They can sometimes do a surprisingly good job, coming up with a metal band called Chaosrug, a craft beer called Yamquak and another called The Fine Stranger (which now exists!), and a My Little Pony called Blue Cuss.

So, I wanted to find out if a neural network could help invent Halloween costumes. I couldn’t find a big enough dataset, so I crowdsourced it by asking readers to list awesome Halloween costumes. I got over 4,500 submissions.

The most popular submitted costumes are the classics (42 witches, 32 ghosts, 30 pirates, 22 Batmans, 21 cats (30 incl sexy cats), 19 vampires, and 17 each of pumpkins and sexy nurses). There are about 300 costumes with “sexy” in their names; some of the most eyebrow-raising include sexy anglerfish, sexy Dumbledore, sexy golden pheasant, sexy eyeball, sexy Mothra, Sexy poop emoji, Sexy Darth Vader, Sexy Ben Franklin, Sexy TARDIS, Sexy Cookie Monster, and Sexy DVORAK keyboard. In the “technical challenge” department, we have costumes like Invisible Pink Unicorn, Whale-frog, Glow Cloud, Lake Michigan, Toaster Oven, and Garnet.

All this is to say that humans are very creative, and this task was going to be tricky for a neural network. The sensible approach would be to try to use a neural network that actually knows what the words mean - there are such things, trained by reading, for example, all of Google News and figuring out which words are used in similar ways. There’s a fun demo of this here. It doesn’t have an entry for “Sexy_Gandalf” but for “sexy” it suggests “saucy” and “sassy”, and for “Gandalf” it suggests “Frodo”, “Gollum”, and “Voldemort”, so you could use this approach to go from “Sexy Gandalf” to “Sassy Voldemort”. 

I wanted something a bit weirder. So, I used a neural network that learns words from scratch, letter by letter, with no knowledge of their meaning, an open-source char-rnn neural network written in Torch. I simply dumped the 4500 Halloween costumes on it, and told the neural network to figure it out.

Early in the training process, I decided to check in to see how it was doing.

Sexy sexy Dombie Sexy Cat
Sexy A stare Rowan
Sexy RoR A the Rog
Sexy Cot
Sexy Purbie Lampire
Poth Rat
Sexy Por Man
The Wombue
Pombie Con A A Cat
The Ran Spean Sexy Sexy Pon Sexy Dander
Sexy Cat
The Gull Wot
Sexy Pot

In retrospect, I should have expected this. With a dataset this varied, the words the neural network learns first are the most common ones.

I checked in a little later, and things had improved somewhat. (Omitted: numerous repetitions of “sexy nurse”). Still the only thing that makes sense is the word Sexy.

Sexy The Carding Ging
Farbat of the Cower
Sexy The Hirler
A costume
Sexy Menus
Sexy Sure
Frankenstein’s Denter
A cardian of the Pirate
Ging butter
Sexy the Girl Pirate

By the time I checked on the neural network again, it was not only better, but astoundingly good. I hadn’t expected this. But the neural network had found its niche: costume mashups. These are actually comprehensible, if a bit hard to explain:

Punk Tree
Disco Monster
Spartan Gandalf
Starfleet Shark
A masked box
Martian Devil
Panda Clam
Potato man
Shark Cow
Space Batman
The shark knight
Snape Scarecrow
Gandalf the Good Witch
Professor Panda
Strawberry shark
Vampire big bird
Samurai Angel
lady Garbage
Pirate firefighter
Fairy Batman

Other costumes were still a bit more random.

Aldonald the Goddess of the Chicken
Celery Blue Frankenstein
Dancing Bellyfish
Dragon of Liberty
A shark princess
Statue of Witch
Cupcake pants
Bird Scientist
Giant Two butter
The Twin Spider Mermaid
The Game of Nightmare Lightbare
Share Bat
The Rocky Monster
Mario lander
Spork Sand
Statue of pizza
The Spiding hood
A card Convention
Sailor Potter
Shower Witch
The Little Pond
Spice of pokeman
Bill of Liberty
A spock
Count Drunk Doll of Princess
Petty fairy
Pumpkin picard
Statue of the Spice of the underworker

It still was fond of using made-up words, though. You’d be the only one at the party dressed as whatever these are.

A masked scorby-babbersy
Magic an of the foand tood-computer
A barban
The Gumbkin
Scorbs Monster
A cat loory Duck
The Barboon
Flatue doctor
Sparrow Plapper
The Spongebog
Minional marty clown
Count Vorror Rairol Mencoon
A neaving hold
Sexy Avical Ster of a balana Aly
Huntle starber pirate

And it ended up producing a few like this.

Sports costume
Sexy scare costume
General Scare construct

The reason? Apparently someone decided to help out by entering an entire costume store’s inventory. (”What are you supposed to be?” “Oh, I’m Mens Deluxe IT Costume - Size Standard.”) 

There were also some like this:

Rink Rater Ginsburg
A winged boxer Ginsburg
Bed ridingh in a box Buther Ginsburg
Skeleton Ginsburg
Zombie Fire Cith Bader Ginsburg

Because someone had entered about 50 variations on Ruth Bader Ginsberg puns (Ruth Tater Ginsberg, Sleuth Bader Ginsber, Rock Paper Ginsberg).

It invented some awesome new superheroes/supervillains.

Glow Wonder Woman
The Bunnizer
Light man
Bearley Quinn
Glad woman
robot Werewolf
super Pun
Super of a bog
Space Pants
buster pirate
Skull Skywolk lady
Skynation the Goddess
Fred of Lizard

And oh, the sexy costumes. Hundreds of sexy costumes, yet it never quite got the hang of it.

Sexy Scare
Sexy the Pumpkin
Saxy Pumpkins
Sexy the Pirate
Sexy Pumpkin Pirate
Sexy Gumb Man
Sexy barber
Sexy Gargles
Sexy humblebee
Sexy The Gate
Sexy Lamp
Sexy Ducty monster
Sexy conchpaper
Sexy the Bumble
Sexy the Super bass
Pretty zombie Space Suit
sexy Drangers
Sexy the Spock

You bet there are bonus names - and oh please go read them because they are so good and it was so hard to decide which ones to fit into the main article. Includes the poop jokes. You’re welcome.

I’ve posted the entire dataset as open-source on GitHub.

And you can contribute more costumes, for a possible future neural net upgrade (no email address necessary).

Next time I go to a Halloween party, I’m going to write a couple dozen of these on index cards, fasten them to string, and drape it around myself. It’ll be a Halloween Costume Neural Network Halloween Costume. 

29 Oct 11:14

I think the reason why people fear Arab speaking populations like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan (I guess those are the three the US is focusing on right now) is because there's a very harsh and beliigerent undertone to the language and it's indicative of the people.


This is such a good read, and helps explain why I've always heard that German is harsh but have never thought so. Also why I like Brummie accents.


26 Oct 16:52

For America, for your family, for your neighbors, for your home town …

by Fred Clark
How is it that no one turned on that fan? Is patriotism dead?
26 Oct 16:49

allthingslinguistic:Linguist Twitter had a lot of fun with...


Linguist Twitter had a lot of fun with #SpookyTalesForLinguists. Go check them all out, or read last year’s Linguistics Gothic

This is your annual reminder that, if you come up with a linguistics-themed Halloween costume, please do post a photo/description and alert me to its existence so it can be added to the archives

26 Oct 06:28

To boldly go

by Mo

From Facebook, with thanks to Chris and Iain.

17 Oct 03:17

A to Z of English usage myths

by Stan Carey

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

A is for ALTERNATIVE. Peevers say you can’t have more than two alternatives, because Latin. This is the etymological fallacy.

B is for BEG THE QUESTION. Pedants say it can’t mean ‘raise the question’, but the data beg to differ.

C is for CONJUNCTIONS or COORDINATORS. Because sticklers say you can’t start a sentence with them. And that’s just plain silly.

D is for DECIMATE = ‘destroy’; DIFFERENT THAN; DOUBLE NEGATIVES; and DUE TO = ‘because of’. All are fine, if not always appropriate.

Anyone who says DECIMATE must mean ‘kill one in ten’ should also call October ‘December’. That’s the rule.

E is for ENTHUSE, a back-formation in long, useful existence. Some purists consider it ‘wrong’ and ‘stupid’. It’s neither.

F is for FLAT ADVERBS, like ‘drive SLOW’. Peevers think they’re adjectives used wrong(ly). Doubly false.

G is for GRAMMAR: applied unhelpfully to spelling, punctuation, diction and random bugbears, seldom – outside linguistics – to syntax and morphology.

H is for HOPEFULLY. Die-hards say it can only mean ‘in a hopeful manner’. Hopefully they’ll cop on, because frankly that’s daft.

I is for IRREGARDLESS. Haters say it’s not a word, because that’s their wish. It’s nonstandard, but it is a word. Look it up.

I is also for INVITE. Peevers irrationally hate nouning and verbing. This one’s unsuited to formal use, but colloquially it’s OK.

J is for JEOPARDIZE. Webster 1828 called it ‘useless’; a later critic found it ‘foolish and intolerable’, jeopardizing his cred.

K is for KEY = ‘vital, essential’. Prescriptivists even in the 21stC reject its status as an adjective. The usage dates to 1832.

L is for LESS. Pedants loathe its use with count nouns (‘less pedants’) despite 1000 years of regular use in literature and speech.

L is also for LITERALLY. Some hate its non-literal use, but it’s been around for literally centuries.

Also: ‘literal meaning’ is literally a contradiction in terms. The peeve is (figuratively) hoist with its own petard.

M is for MAN. Reactionaries say it’s fine as a generic term for people. No: it’s sexist and insidious.

N is for NONE. Peevers say it must take a singular verb, ignoring a thousand years of common use with singular and plural verbs.

O is for ONGOING. Haters hate it; style guides try (and fail) to ban it. There’s nothing wrong with it.

P is for PASSIVE VOICE. Said to be bad by peevers, who usually misidentify and always mischaracterize it.

Q is for QUOTE. Purists say it can’t be a noun. They confuse formality with correctness and overlook the benefits of brevity.

R is for REASON WHY. Sticklers hate its redundancy but not that of ‘place where’ or ‘time when’. It’s 800 years old and standard.

S is for SPLIT INFINITIVE. The bogus rule against it is based on Latin-fetishism and leads to mangled English.

T is for TRANSPIRE. Peevers say it can’t mean ‘occur’ – a usage centuries old and standard. There’s no sound basis for the objection.

U is for UNIQUE. Pedants insist that it’s absolute: that nothing can be ‘very unique’. Their argument is illogical and spurious.

V is for VERBING. Peevers hate it, but only when they think it’s new – they constantly use verbings that were established earlier.

W is for WHICH in restrictive clauses. Peevers insist on ‘that’. The so-called rule is a useless upstart.

W is also for WHOM. Pedants say it’s obligatory in object position (‘who to follow’), but normal English is much more flexible.

X is for XMAS. Traditionalists abhor this short form, unaware of its thoroughly traditional use. X for Christ is a millennium old.

Y is for YOU, singular, once decried the way singular THEY is nowadays. Why accept one and not the other?

Z is for ZOOM. Theodore Bernstein said that this term, being from aviation, should only mean ‘upward mobility’. English went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


A few readers were happily on board until they reached a particular bugbear. That’s fair enough. I should say, for the record, that I had to remove my editor’s hat for certain items. I’m not advocating for irregardless, despite what some inferred: I’m just saying (uncontroversially and irrefutably, I’d have thought) that it is a word. Yet even this observation drew real hostility.

Nor am I saying these usages are all hunky-dory: some are unsuited to formal or standard English. This brings us to a central problem in popular conceptions of language use. The belief that standard English is ‘correct’ and ‘proper’ and other varieties are therefore substandard or illegitimate is widespread, wrong, and destructive. Different forms of language are appropriate in their own domains. Standard English is socially privileged, not linguistically superior to any other dialect.

Less for count nouns drew a mixed reaction. I’ll be addressing this item in a future post. Someone said they despise all flat adverbs. That must be awkward. The tweet about man provoked some defensive reactions (from men). Beg the question was bewailed and lamented. My post on it suggests solutions.

There were a couple of queries about the December thing. It was the tenth month of the old Roman calendar, and the word has the same root (Latin decem ‘ten’, from PIE *dekm-) that we find in decimate. The etymological fallacy produces no end of absurdity like this, but people resist information that contradicts their old beliefs; they’ll conjure up all kinds of nonsense to avoid changing their minds.

close-up image of a snowflake

A unique snowflake. OR IS IT.

One reader balked at unique and found, in Oxford Dictionaries: ‘Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else’. He concluded, prematurely: ‘That’s the definition.’ But the same page, same source, offers sense 1.2: ‘Particularly remarkable, special, or unusual.’ Here’s a tip for using dictionaries: Read past line 1.

Gradable unique cropped up in the comments here before, and recurs in collections of peeves. Purists assert that being unique is like being married or dead or pregnant: you either are or you aren’t. They make similar hyper-literalist claims about perfect, certain, equal, and other adjectives, even though all these words have been modified by great writers for centuries (a more perfect union, anyone?).

Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style, defends gradable unique:

Here is the flaw in the purists’ logic. Uniqueness is not like pregnancy and marriage. It must be defined relative to some scale of measurement. I am told that all snowflakes are unique, and so they may be under a microscope, but frankly, they all look the same to me. Conversely, each of the proverbial two peas in a pod is unique if you squint hard enough through a magnifying glass. Does this mean that nothing is unique, or does it mean that everything is unique? The answer is neither: ‘uniqueness’ is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying. . . .

Calling something quite unique or very unique implies that the item differs from the others in an unusual number of qualities, that it differs from them to an unusual degree, or both. In other words, pick any scale or cutoff you want, and the item will still be unique. This ‘distinctive’ sense has coexisted with the ‘having no like or equal’ sense for as long as the word unique has been in common use.

MWDEU, after surveying the history of the word and the commentary thereon, concludes: ‘Those who insist that unique cannot be modified by such adverbs as more, most, and very are clearly wrong’. This is not to say that you should say ‘very unique’: neither Pinker nor M-W recommends this. But the purists’ claims reflect only their wishes, not the reality of English or the world it seeks to describe.

Intransigence over language use is a recipe for irritation, given how inexorably it keeps changing. Everything about language use changes: meanings, sounds, structures, spellings. Wishing this would stop is like wishing the clouds would freeze in place or the tide would leave your sandcastles alone. A lot of usage myths arise in the gap between the true nature of language and sticklers’ false beliefs about it.

Peevers who are not satisfied with grumbling to themselves become language police, ‘grammar’ cops playing inept games of gotcha with other people’s speech. They don’t stop to think they may be wrong and rude, or that their targets might use a different dialect or have learned English as a second language or have been blessed with less education. They forget their privilege and their manners.

Linguistic fault-finding gives language lovers a bad name. We end up characterised as intolerant fusspots obsessing over ‘correctness’ and pedantic niceties in every human interaction, silently judging our peers’ speech. On the contrary: linguists (and linguistic dabblers like me) love language in all its diverse wonder. We are infinitely more likely to be intrigued by error and delighted by variation than irritated by usage.

Usage myths, on the other hand – don’t get me started.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the aim of many of these myths is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow in-group members to feel pleased about knowing them, to present as authority figures, and to stigmatize other groups. Thus they preserve – or imagine they preserve – their status and power in social hierarchies.

You don’t have to recognise it. Language has no ultimate authority except its users, and your vote is as important as anyone else’s.


[Previously: A to Z of linguistics in rhyming couplets.]

* Not just linguistically, you may have noticed.

Filed under: dialect, grammar, language, language history, linguistics, usage, words Tagged: descriptivism, dialect, etymological fallacy, etymology, grammar, language, language change, language history, linguistics, pedantry, peevology, politics of language, politics of usage, prescriptivism, Twitter, usage, usage myths, words
07 Oct 19:27

wuglife: Hahaha, oh man this is beautiful! A quick...


Hahaha, oh man this is beautiful!

A quick explanation:

  • Pokémon only say their species name
  • This Meowth appears to be able to converse with the trainer
  • Meowth* says that it is in fact only saying its name, thus behaving as all other Pokémon
    *thus it is not actually a ‘Meowth’ but a species of a name that consists of every utterance it ever said or will say
  • If its linguistic behavior is indistinguishable from a human’s linguistic behavior, who is to say that humans aren’t also only saying their species name over the course of their lifetime?

One of the reasons this is brilliant is because “infinite utterances with finite resources” is a key tenet of human language. We (humans) can respond to unexpected situations with novel, unexpected, and unique utterances. In other words, how could every single utterance be pre-programmed into us, when (at our birth), there are words that don’t yet exist that we will use in our lifetime? Concepts we can’t imagine now? Things that don’t exist yet?


(remember this? who could have predicted this headline when you were born?)

For instance, Pokémon: Pokémon was released in 1996. If you were born before then, there would have to be a remarkable coincidence in genetics and biology for your pre-programmed linguistic behavior to include that word (as so many other people also, coincidentally, had that word programmed into them).

This isn’t logical.

Unless, the universe itself is pre-programmed. Freaking out yet?

Don’t worry, quantum physics suggests that this can’t be the case (or at least is highly implausible). The universe is too unpredictable to be pre-programmed. So what does that leave us with?

If something can produce linguistic behavior (i.e., utterances) that are indistinguishably similar to humans’ linguistic behaviors, this means that it can (seemingly) respond appropriately to otherwise unexpected circumstances. After all, the endangered ferrets can be discussed, as can Pokémon, as can whatever else is going on in the news. If the universe is too unpredictable to be preprogrammed, then utterances can’t be preprogrammed in our genetic code or in our brains. Unless we’re all just very lucky all the time…?

Anyway, this is a great demonstration of how a thought experiment can help you test hypotheses about language. It’s not 100% conclusive, but it’s a good way to start thinking about how one might test a hypothesis, or what one would need to find in order to support or disprove a hypothesis.

This is the most amazing and elaborate addition to the novel sentences files yet. 

18 Sep 13:36

Do Sign Languages Have Accents? This interesting video is a...

07 Sep 10:39

Even Racists Got the Blues

by thegeekygaeilgeoir

OK…I have to say that, most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

This pic came across my desk about nine months ago, and it may just be the worst example of a self-translation disaster I’ve ever seen. 

In fact, it’s so bad, and so out of context, that most of my Irish-speaking friends had no idea what this person was trying to say with those three Irish words: “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.” It’s beyond gibberish. It even took me a few minutes.

The sad thing is, in order to “get it,” you need to be familiar not only with the ways in which people make translation mistakes (which are legion), but also with a particularly unpleasant segment of U.S. politics.

What this person was trying to say, with this mess of a translation on his t-shirt, is “Blue Lives Matter.”

A Little Background

For the sake of those who don’t live in the U.S. (and without delving too deeply into the dark underbelly of American politics), suffice it to say that the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” arose in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement arose in response to the disproportionate degree of police brutality directed at people of color in the U.S., particularly toward African Americans.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what would motivate someone to oppose such a movement. The term I prefer can be found in your Irish dictionary under “C.”

So no…I’m not very sorry for this person (I am, however, very sorry at the assault upon the Irish language!).

Beyond philosophy, then, what exactly is wrong with this translation? Well, let’s start with how the “translator” went about it:

Sometimes the Dictionary is NOT Your Friend

I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”

That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).

Irish syntax is very, very (very!) different from English. For one thing, the verb comes first in the sentence. For another, adjectives follow the nouns they modify. So even if you COULD render this phrase with these three simple words, you’d need “Matter Lives Blue.”

Unfortunately, however, you can’t fix this phrase simply by reordering the words, because, among other things…

Idiom Also Matters

An idiom is an expression particular to a particular language or region. For example, in English, when we say that something “matters,” we mean that it has worth and/or that it makes a difference.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way in other languages. In Irish, we’d have to get more specific. We might say something like Tá fiúntas i _____ (“There is worth/value in _____”) or Tá ________ tábhachtach (“______ is/are important”).

To make matters worse, though (there’s another idiom for you!), whoever made this “translation” apparently forgot that the word “matter” in English can have several meanings. In this case, the word he or she chose — ábhar — means “matter” as in “subject matter.” It’s a noun. Oops!

So Does Pronunciation

Another thing this poor “translator” apparently forgot is that the word “lives” in English can be pronounced to rhyme with “gives” or with “hives,” and that the meaning changes accordingly.

What was wanted here, of course, is “lives” as rhymes with “hives.” Three guesses as to which one the “translator” chose. Yep. Wrong one.

The word cónaí in Irish (which in certain grammatical circumstances inflects to chónaí) means “dwelling.” When we want to say that we live somewhere, we literally say “Am I in my dwelling in _________.”

Tá mé i mo chónaí i nDún na nGall: “I live in Donegal.”

Tá Seán ina chónaí i nGaillimh: “Seán lives in Galway.”

To toss another problem onto the pile, in Irish, we probably wouldn’t use the equivalent of the English “life/lives (rhymes with ‘hives’)” to mean “people”. We’d most likely just use daoine: “people.” There’s that “idiom” problem again.

And Then There’s Gorm

The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. Just not in this manner, and definitely not in this context.

When color is used to describe a person in Irish, it typically refers to hair color. For example An bhean rua: The red-haired woman.

There are exceptions, of course: For example, Na fir bhuí (“The orange/yellow men”) is used to refer to members of the Orange Order because of the color of their sashes. But “blue/gorm” would not be used to refer to police officers as a group. That’s an American thing.

All that having been said, though, here’s the lovely, delicious irony: When the word gorm is used in reference to people, guess what it means?

It means “Black.”

People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).

That’s right. At the end of the day, allowing for grammatical travesties (of which there are many) and horrendous word choices, what this person’s shirt says is “Black Lives Matter.”

Somehow that makes me strangely happy.

Featured image © 2016 by Karen Reshkin. Used with permission. Karen took this picture at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Please visit her Irish-learning website A Clever Sheep (

In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit

03 Sep 12:17

I’ve learned a new favourite French idiom. Apparently god can...

I’ve learned a new favourite French idiomApparently god can also be wearing the breeches, the breeches can also be a vest, and either can also be made of silk.

26 Aug 15:45

datarep: Letter and next-letter frequencies in English by...


Letter and next-letter frequencies in English

by Udzu

The best part of this chart is the pseudowords it generates: 

  • Bastrabot
  • Forliatitive
  • Wasions
  • Felogy
  • Sonsih
  • Fourn
  • Meembege
  • Prouning
  • Nown
  • Abrip
  • Dithely
  • Raliket
  • Ascoult
  • Quarm
  • Winferlifterand
  • Uniso
  • Hise
  • Nuouish
  • Guncelawits
  • Rectere
  • Doesium
  • Whigand 
  • Gamplato
  • Onal
  • Foriticent
  • Thed 
  • Euwit 
  • Gentran 
  • Loubing.
20 Aug 07:31

"Deep in the belly of a giant fiberglass triceratops, eight rare bats have made a home."

“Deep in the belly of a giant fiberglass triceratops, eight rare bats have made a home.”

- Today in “linguists are not kidding when they say that your command of English enables you to understand sentences that have never occurred before in the entire history of the human species.” (from Atlas Obscura)
20 Aug 07:31

breakaribecca:Found this quote in an article on the harm of...


Found this quote in an article on the harm of prescriptivism in social movements, so I made a simple, shareable version.

The whole article, about English varieties in Ghana, is also worth reading

17 Aug 13:38

White tears in Trumpville

by Lisa Wade, PhD

This week FOX commentator Melissa Francis was brought to tears while trying to defend Trump’s assertion that “many sides” were to blame for the fatal violence in Charlottesville, VA during a white supremacist, anti-Semitic, pro-Confederacy demonstration and counter-demonstration. She was challenged by two of her fellow panelists who argued that Trump was drawing a false equivalence to suggest that each side was responsible. Oddly, Francis took their comments on Trump personally, began to cry, and said this:

I am so uncomfortable having this conversation… because I know what’s in my heart and I know that I don’t think that anyone is different, better, or worse based on the color of their skin. But  I feel like there is nothing any of us can say right without without being judged!

At this point, a fellow FOX commentator, Harris Faulkner, who is African American, interrupted to console her:

You know Melissa, there have been a lot of tears… It’s a difficult place where we are… [but] we can do this. We can have this conversation. Oh yes, we can. And it’s okay if we cry having it.

But is it okay for white people to cry in the midst of conversations about racism?

Education scholar Frances V. Rains has argued that it is not okay. In her essay, Is the Benign Really Harmless?, Rains discusses several types of reactions white people frequently have to difficult conversations about race, ones that undermine meaningful progress. In one, she talks about white people’s tears.

When a white person cries in response to frank discussions of racism, Rains explains, it derails the conversation, refocuses the attention on the white person, and holds anti-racist speakers accountable for attending to his or her feelings. The most important thing in the room, in other words, becomes a privileged person’s hurt feelings, not generations of systematic racial oppression, exploitation, and violence.

This is exactly what happened in the clip above.

  1. The panelists were debating whether Trump’s comments amounted to a false equivalence that was supportive of racism and anti-Semitism.
  2. A white woman rejects the notion that Trump’s comments endorsed bigotry.
  3. When some disagree, she cries and begins discussing what it feels like for her personally to be having this conversation.
  4. The conversation turns away from racism, anti-Semitism, and the possibility that the President of the United States is a Nazi sympathizer, and toward the white woman and her feelings.
  5. Her discomfort become the problem to be resolved.
  6. A member of the disadvantaged group steps in to comfort her.

This is just as Rains would have predicted.

Amazingly, an earnest conversation about oppression turns into an opportunity to give solace to the oppressor… and it’s a member of the oppressed who must do the comforting.

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 Aug 07:30

snowgall: Rare audio of indigenous languages saved by invention...


Rare audio of indigenous languages saved by invention 100 years later

Non-invasive technology allows researchers to transfer recordings from thousands of decaying wax cylinders.

Optical scan technology is helping researchers at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, preserve audio of 78 indigenous California languages, most of which were recorded more than a century ago. The recordings are on approximately 2,700 wax cylinders that are now barely audible due to issues such as mold. These are the only known sound recordings for several of the languages, and in many other cases, the recordings include unique speech practices and otherwise unknown stories and songs.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), linguist Andrew Garrett, digital librarian Erik Mitchell and anthropologist Ira Jacknis, all of UC Berkeley, are restoring these recordings.

[read more and watch the video at the NSF page]

29 Jul 10:56

A video from Nyle DiMarco illustrating the difference...

A video from Nyle DiMarco illustrating the difference between hearing actors playing Deaf characters and his actual fluent ASL (subtitled). 

One thing that I noticed was that many of the movie clips had the actors poorly lit, so you couldn’t see their signing very well, especially their faces. Non-manual markers are also a really important part of ASL grammar! 

26 Jul 20:39

christophoronomicon: fieldofblackbirds: shaelit: spinningyarns: madmaudlingoes: assassinregrets: ...







im just

the cherokee language has a verb tense that specifically notes the exclusion of a person in the conversation

so there’s i’m going, you’re going, we’re going, and we’re going (but not you) 

i love it

This is called “clusivity” and it’s found a bunch of languages, including Chechen, Vietnamese, Samoan, and Quechua.

Some languages just side-eye harder than others.

No wait, please come back. How does this work? Like, is there a conjugation system so it’s everyone by me, everyone but you, everyone but him/her/it, etc.? Or is the change made on the noun, so there’s like the root verb hanging there and everyone knows SOMEONE is being excluded, but you don’t know until the indication pops up on the word for “you”?

In all the examples of this I’ve heard it is just for first person plural. So there’s we as in me and you vs we as in me and someone else. It’s not everyone but you. For instance, in English if you say, “what are you up to tonight” and I say, “we’re going to dinner,” it might be ambiguous whether I meant something like “you and I made dinner plans for tonight, remember?”  or “I can’t hang out with you because I made dinner plans with someone else.” Many languages have first person plural pronouns and conjugations which clarify that

Exactly. The OP made the whole thing really unclear by calling it a “tense”, but it’s not. It’s a person. As in “1st person” (I), “2nd person” (you), etc. Clusivity is about how some languages do not have one but two separate 1st person plural markings (pronouns, affixes on verbs, etc.): an inclusive 1st person plural that means “you, me and possibly others”, and an exclusive 1st person plural that means “me and others, but not you”.

That’s all clusivity means. It’s a very useful distinction mind you, but it’s not dark magic!

If English had clusivity, we could imagine that instead of “we” we might have “wein” and “weex” (we-inclusive and we-exclusive). So you’d get: 

Wein are going
Weex are going

And of course you’d need object and possessive forms, so you’d also have:

They like usin
They like usex

Ourin chocolate
Ourex chocolate

If a language with verb inflection, like Spanish, had clusivity, we could imagine that instead of “vamos” there might be “vamosi” and “vamose” (again for inclusive and exclusive). These would be in your present tense paradigm along with voy, vas, va, etc. 

Except that pronouns and verbal inflection tend to be pretty old parts of the language, so they almost certainly wouldn’t be formed after the grammatical descriptive terms which came around much later. But that’s how it could show up on pronouns or inflectional endings. 

It’s kind of like when a language has formal and informal second persons – they tend to show up on pronouns and/or verbal inflections. 

26 Jul 19:04

Scenes & Sketches: America’s Women Naturalists

by Sarah Pedry

Rachel Carson and the tidepools


Rachel Carson (b. 1907–d. 1964) is one of the most famous women naturalists. Her book Silent Spring documented the devastating effects DDT had on the environment. Because of Silent Spring, DDT was banned for agricultural use in the US. But Rachel Carson, a trained biologist, was also an artful writer whose first love was life in the sea. She wrote three books focused on life in and around the ocean. Her book The Edge of the Sea (from which the following quotes are pulled), captures the fleeting beauty of life in this unique ecosystem.

Life where the sea meets the shore is brutal. Survival requires adaptation to both full submersion in the salty sea water, and baking dry in the heat of the sun. And in between, there is the relentless hammering of the waves. For biologist and writer Rachel Carson — whose love of the sea still could not convince her to enter into it any more deeply than her knees — the edge of the sea was like home. She knew every nook and cranny of that home, including the one room that was open for only a fleeting moment under the perfect conditions.

In the twilight between the darkness of the night and the dawn of the sun, Rachel Carson waited on the shore, near what she called “the fairy cave.” The moon was full, pulling the tide to its lowest point. This was key. The fairy cave held within it a rarely seen tide pool filled with exquisite, delicate creatures. But it could only be accessed “rarely and briefly when the lowest of the year’s low tides fall below” the entrance. This was one of those rare times. Finally, as the sun peaked over the horizon, and the tide ebbed, Rachel traversed a slippery, seaweed-covered ledge that emerged from the receding water. This led to the mouth of the fairy cave.

She carefully approached the entrance, and knelt, finally getting a close-up glimpse of the pool, which lay just inches from the ceiling of the cave. The water was crystal clear and still. A starfish hung from the ceiling, dangling only inches from the surface of the pool. So vivid and distinct was its reflection, Rachel wrote it was “so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two.” Her time at the fairy cave was short, and she spent the few moments she had taking in the rest, observing “flowers that are not plants but animal, blooming on the threshold of the deeper sea.” And then the tide rose, and Rachel left the fairy cave, enchanted by “the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return…”

Art by Sarah Pedry. Words by Sarah Pedry and David Obuchowski.

Scenes & Sketches: America’s Women Naturalists was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

25 Jul 11:03

Review: That's the way it crumbles, by M. Engel

by lynneguist
Those who follow the blog may remember that in February I was on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth, where fellow guest Matthew Engel and I debated the effect of American English on British English. Engel had written many newspaper columns on the topic, but at that point his book, That’s the way it crumbles: the American conquest of English, was yet to appear. What struck me in that radio conversation was how little Engel appeared to have to say about a topic he’d just written a book about. While he had some examples, he mostly seemed to repeat his claim that American English is "taking over" British English while offering little more than the experience-based perceptions of an Englishman in his seventh decade. He does have much more to say in the book, but he hasn't changed my mind about the topic. (You're not surprised, right?) I'm writing this on my way back from giving a conference paper on the research gaps and logical problems in British arguments that "American English is taking over". While I didn't discuss Engel's book there (my focus was on work by linguists—and media representation of that work), I wouldn't have had to change my argument if I had discussed it.

It's easy to suspect that the conquestin the book's subtitle was the work of his publisher's marketing
department, since Engel states in the preface "Let’s get two things straight right now: this crisis is not the Americans' fault; and this book is not anti-American." (Some of his best friends are American…) Instead, the "crisis", as Engel has it, is mostly the fault of the British, and their "current self-imposed verbal enslavement" (p. 3). Chapter by chapter, the book takes a chronological tour of Britain's alleged "long journey towards subservience" (p. 109). I've written about this slavery trope in an earlier blog post. It seems a peculiarly post-imperialist way of understanding global relationships—if you are no longer the master, you must be the slave.

If Engel is not anti-American (and we do have to ask: is he the best judge of that?), we can still conclude he’s somewhat anti-linguist. A few linguists are cited in the book (mostly for popular-audience works), listed in the references list under the 19th-century-feeling heading "Philology, etc.". In recalling the path to the book (more on this below), he complains that his work
reached the ears of the online lexicographical community, some of whom have not quite learned the niceties of civil disagreement and disputed my right to offer an opinion at all. One American said it was none of my business because I was not a 'qualified lexicographer'.
This is one quotation whose source Engel doesn't cite, and which I’ve been unable to find in the "online lexicographical community". (I don't know what they'd think a "qualified lexicographer" is. Lexicographers generally have experience rather than qualifications—see the last book I reviewed.)
As for whether linguists and Americans (or, indeed, American linguists) have been civil in their conversations, well, if you start with fighting words, you get fighting conversations. For Engel, there is a contest between American and British words, and it is "no longer a fair one" (p. 66). Americanisms aren’t just words, they're culprits, invaders, garbage. And if you say that about my words, it feels like you're saying it about me.

The lexicographers were loud not just because of Engel’s opinions, but because the "facts" in his newspaper columns often misjudged what was actually British or American English. He has learn{ed/t} his lesson on that point and so starts the book with a "note on the text" in which he admits that there will be "honest errors" of categori{s/z}ation and that he's willing to receive "politely worded suggestions for amendments" (p. viii). Since I suspect that Engel and I do not share a common view of what "polite wording" is (maybe I'm the "online lexicographical community" to which he refers), I won't burden him with my (few) (orig. AmE) nitpicks about word origin in the book.

The issue for debate here is not whether Engel is entitled to an opinion; rather it's whether people are entitled to go unchallenged when they express opinions that show only partial understanding of the issues at hand. Engel has the opinion that Britons should fight against American English. But this opinion is based on various claims or assumptions 
  • about what English is in the US and UK. For example, though he's not southern in origin, the English he talks about is very much the south-eastern standard—take, for instance, the claim that pants meaning 'trousers' is American and trousers is British—a common oversimplification, but an oversimplification all the same
  • about the nature of the "Britishness" that he wants to protect.
  • about how language changes, and how it is or is not changing in the UK and US. For example, what's the role of regional identity or social class [in bold because it's heavy] in how English changes in Britain?
  • about the relationship between language and culture. 
This last point is important. Engel's real enemy is not American words, but changes to British culture. Thatcherism, Blairism, loss of interest in the countryside, all are blamed on "Americani{s/z}ation". The extent of that can be debated, but Engel wants to situate the problem in words. The words came over, and they brought ideas with them, and as if in some Whorfian horror story, the ideas have eaten British brains. One problem with blaming the words is that in several chapters Engel has to stop after discussing word-culprits and admit "None of these can actually be counted as Americanisms" (p. 110)--they are relatively fresh Britishisms. But they feel American in tone or meaning to Engel, so they go on the slag heap.

Engel’s book provides lots of interesting cultural history, rich with entertaining facts, quotations and stories of the famous and not-so-famous. It’s also very well written, with a sly sense of humo[u]r. But the claim for “loss of the British language” (p. 235) feels, at best, like a case of selective attention leading to a grumpy nostalgia for olden times (or vice versa). At worst, it comes off as disingenuous. Engel  knows very well (as evidenced in the book) that British English has always been undergoing change and that exciting linguistic things are happening in Britain that have nothing to do with America. (He has a bit on Multicultural London English, which is not very American at all.) But he's got himself into an argumentative corner where he has to rely on hyperbole. "It would be totally impossible to write a coherent book in English without words imported from the United States" (p. 11). (Writers! The gauntlet has been thrown!) It also has irony. "I’m not prescriptive", he writes on page 13.

In the end, Engel proposes that Brits try to stop Americanisms with pressure groups, for instance emailing and Twitter-shaming the BBC whenever they hear life vest instead of life jacket. The thing that worries me is that when I analy{s/z}ed a list of complaints to the BBC about Americanisms, only half of them were Americanisms. But if you're going to base your linguistic crusades on nationalism, maybe you don't care about facts. Engel also proposes that "Ridicule can work wonders" (p. 238). Ah, so that's how "civil disagreement" works.

One gets the feeling in the book that Engel is not fully committed to the topic. That he’s got himself in a (BrE) one-way system and is having a hard time getting out. It’s not really the language he wants to complain about, it's modern life—and who doesn’t want to complain about that? In the acknowledg(e)ments, Engel recounts that the publisher had called to tell Engel he wanted his book. Engel replied "What book?". "I had already decided I did not want to write a book about Americanisms", Engel tells us (p 259). But he has written it.

Thank you to Profile Books for providing a review copy of this book. In fact, they sent me two. If you'd like my spare copy, please write a comment on the Americanism you're most grateful for in British English in which you indicate a word/phrase of American origin that has been usefully (to your mind) been borrowed into British English.
I'll put those responses into a hat on 31 July and draw one.  If you win it, you can then tell me if you think this was a fair review! (Anonymous entries may have to be discounted if I can't find a way to contact you.)

17 Jul 17:54

Linguist twitter is pretty excited to watch people refer to the...

Linguist twitter is pretty excited to watch people refer to the Doctor across regenerations using singular they. 

16 Jul 19:48

The highly accurate dialect map we didn’t know we needed, from...

The highly accurate dialect map we didn’t know we needed, from twitter

Bonus points for identifying the original distinction that this map was made for. (Answer on Language Log.)

16 Jul 02:11

"the" Americanization of English?

by lynneguist
from the Guardian
Today the Guardian reported on a new study by Bruno Gonçalves, Lucía Loureiro-Porto, José J. Ramasco, and David Sánchez (you can get the pdf here) entitled The End of Empire: the Americanization of English. There are interesting things to find in this study, but I'm taken back to a panel that Sandra Jansen, Mario Saraceni and I presented on 'problems in predicting the linguistic future' last week in Newcastle. The focus of our talks was how the media present change in the English language and how linguists  sometimes contribute to skewed presentations of past, present and future—taking part in the very linguistic ideologies that academic linguists should be regarding with a critical eye. We're now working on making our panel contributions into an article, and I think it'll be a good one.

It's perfectly clear that many originally-American words and spelling standards have spread elsewhere. It would be surprising if they hadn't, since the US has a large population that mostly (and mostly only) speaks English, as well as a very big and very international economy. For me, the problem comes
    • (a) when "Americanization" becomes the whole story (because life and language are more complex than that),
    • (b) when the story depends upon informational/logical fallacies, and
    • (c) when that story is pitched as a story of winners and losers (because language doesn't have to be a competition, and because that winner-loser narrative is often heavily dependent on the simplifications of (a)).
    Though I've label(l)ed those points as a/b/c, part of the task I have in writing up the paper is that it's hard to pick apart and label those points—they're very interrelated and also they hide a lot of detail. Here was my first draft—a slide from my talk last week. It's called "panic tools" because I am considering how Americani{s/z}ation* news stories might sit within "moral panic" about language change in Britain—a panic that Deborah Cameron wrote about in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene.
    Slide from Is the future American? (Murphy 2017)

    Anyhow, I was heartened to see that the Guardian article is by a data scientist, Mona Chalabi, and therefore it did something that popular news articles rarely do when talking about linguistic research—it sounded a note of caution concerning the data sources for the research: Google books data and Twitter.

    Both are problematic resources in terms of making sure the data is what you think it is (here's one of many Language Log posts about Google Books metadata). This is not a criticism of the paper—we linguists use what we can to find out about language. But then we give caveats about the data, as we should.

    But that note of caution is about where they've looked. There's also what you look for. Neither the Guardian article nor the paper give many caveats about that. The Google Books data was used to see what's happening in the US and UK over time, and the Twitter data to see what English is like across the world, and they searched for a specific list of "American" and "British" spellings and vocabulary.

    To give just some examples that deserved more caution (from the paper's appendix of the British and American vocabulary that the authors searched for).
    • AmE bell pepper is matched to "BrE" capsicum. But the usual term in British (as in AmE, really) is just pepper or a colo(u)r+pepper (green pepper, etc.) or sweet pepper. Capsicum is primarily Australian English.

    Capsicum the GloWBE corpus
    • AmE drug store and drug stores are matched to BrE chemist's. Why just the singular possessive? Why no plural? Looking at the same data set as they used (Google Books), it's clear that it's more common to get things from the chemist than from the chemist's. And often (maybe even usually) in contexts in which Americans would say drug store rather than pharmacist—e.g. The boy from the chemist is here to see you. But then, that leads us to another problem: does chemist's really match with drug store, when it also means pharmacist's and pharmacy?
    Click here to be taken to the interactive version

    And then there are the problems of polysemy (many-meaninged-ness) and variation, for example (but there are many examples):
    • The polysemy problem: in comparing BrE draughts and AmE checkers, are we sure that they're all about games? Some of the draughts will be AmE drafts (for beers or breezes). Some of the checkers could be checking things. If the frequency of use of any of these meanings changes across time, then that can interfere with answering the question of what people call the game. Elastic band is given as the BrE for AmE rubber band, but in my AmE, elastic band can be a name for the covered kind you make ponytails with (and then in the US there are also regional terms for both the stationery kind and the hair kind).
    • The variation problem: BrE plasterboard is given as equivalent of AmE wallboard, which I can't say I've ever used. It's drywall or Sheetrock to me in AmE. BrE spring onions is compared with AmE green onions (which, since that's the title of a song, might provide a fair amount of data "noise"), but AmE scallions is not included. BrE mobile phones is searched for, but not mobilesbut it looks to me (using GloWBE corpus) that about 1/3 of mentions of such phones have the shorter term. In the US, calling the phone by the shortened name cell looks to be less common than the equivalent shortened British form. So if you compare mobile phones to (AmE) cell phones, you might be missing a lot of BrE. (Then there's the problem of the not-uncommon spelling cellphones, which they didn't search for either.)
    • The vocabulary–spelling problem: AmE license plate v BrE number plate. If BrE or another English borrows license plate, they may very well adapt the spelling to their standard, so why not look for licence plate? What does it mean if that's found? Is it an Americanism or not?
    All of this is to say: comparing such things is hard to do well. If it's possible at all.

    (If the authors read this and want to correct me on any points in the comments, please do. I may have misread something in my haste.) 

    I'd also like to sound a note of discomfort and caution regarding talking about AmE and BrE  "around the world". This involves a leap of thinking that bothers me: that AmE and BrE are used outside the US and UK. To be fair, the authors mostly talk about BrE or AmE forms being used. But for us to claim national ownership of those forms is to take a particular nationalist-political stand on English, I think.

    It's a common way to talk about English. People in, say, India or Korea might say "I/we speak British English" or "I/we speak American English". But what people generally mean is "I/we use the British (or American) spelling conventions."

    If you're learning English as a foreign language (e.g. in Korea), you may well use learning materials that are from the US or the UK. (Your teacher may well be from somewhere else.) You may aim for a particular kind of accent (though a number of studies show that learners are often not very good at telling the difference between the accent they're aiming for and others). What you speak will be English, but it won't particularly be "American English" or "British English".  You may aim for a certain pronunciation convention, you may get certain vocabulary. But your English has not developed in Britain or America. It's developing right now where you are. It's absolutely related to British and American English. But it is neither of those. (Glenn Hadikin's your linguist if you want to know about Korean English.)

    In a place with longstanding English usage, like India, the language has been going in its own direction for some time. The fashions for UK or US spellings may change, and the language will take in new English words from the US and other places, but it also makes up its own, has its grammatical idiosyncrasies, etc. If you look at whether people in India use off-licence or liquor store (as this study did), then you're missing the fact that the Indian English liquor shop is more common than either the American or the British term. (And, interestingly, it looks like a mash-up between American liquor store and the British use of shop for retail places.) I don't know what the alcohol-selling laws in India are, but if they're not like Britain's then the British term off-licence would make no particular sense in India. Instead, Indian English has a nice descriptive phrase that works for India. But what a study like this will find is that there are a few more uses of liquor store in their Indian data than off-licence —who knows, maybe because they're talking to Americans on Twitter or because they're talking about American films in which people rob liquor stores. (Spare thought: are there UK films where people rob off-licences?) The study then completely misses the point that, for this particular word meaning, Indian English is Indianized, not Americanized.

    The most interesting thing about the study (for me), but not one that gets a mention, is what happens to their data in the Internet age. After 1990, we see the gap narrowing. This does not come as a surprise to me—this is also the point at which Britain falls out of love with the -ize spelling and starts preferring the -ise one (having allowed them co-mingle for centuries). In the internet age, we also are seeing grammatical changes that set British and American on different paths (you're just going to have to wait some months for my book for those details).

    From Gonçalves et al. 2017

    This graph is based on Google Books data from the US and UK (or at least, that's what Google Books thinks). The yellow line is BrE vocabulary and the black line is BrE spelling (of the particular vocabulary and spellings they were looking for—which include no words with -ise/-ize). Those lines are fairly steady--though you can see that the two world wars did no favo(u)rs to British book publishing. You can also see dips in the American lines after WWII. The authors attribute this to European migration to the US after World War II.  I'd also wonder about American contact with Britain during the war.

    But after 1990, those British lines are going up—the spelling one quite sharply. In the paper I gave last week, I talked about (what I've decided to call) contra-Americanization—British English changing or losing old forms because they look like they might be American. There seems to be a backlash to (perceived and real) Americanization.

    I've  congratulated the Guardian author on the note of caution. I don't want to congratulate the headline writer, though. Nor the researchers' title for their paper.

    The paper's title, setting the end of Empire against Americanization, implicitly feeds into that "it's a two-way competition" story.

    The Guardian headline 'Do you want fries with that? Data shows Americanization of English is rising' includes an Americanism that wasn't part of the study. The implication that Americanization means de-Briticization (which falls out from the competition story) doesn't work for fries. British English now has fries, but it has very Britishly made it mean something different from what it means in America, since in Britain it contrasts with (rather than replaces) chips. But the bigger problem in the headline is that "is rising". Given what we've seen in the post-1990 graph line, is that true?

    These kinds of things also raise the question: what is meant by Americanization? Apparently it means non-Americans having the words fries and cookies in their vocabulary. But if those words don't mean the same thing to them that they mean to Americans, what does Americanization mean here?

    The moral of this story: talking about "the Americanization" of English makes a lot of assumptions—including that "Americanization" and "English" are each one thing. They ain't.

    *I'm too tired to keep up the marking of the s/z contrast here, so I'm going with the z because it's Oxford spelling, good in Britain and America. Don't let any contra-Americanizer tell you otherwise!