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  • John Stokes 8:22 pm on September 2, 2012 Permalink | Reply  

    No pun intended 

    Dear readers—Thanks for your patience! It’s been a busy summer for The Diacritics, but we’re ready for another school-year full of language-related fun. Let’s get to it:

    I was recently in line at a Comcast customer center, waiting with my dad to return a cable box I no longer needed. This is not a fun experience—I don’t recommend it. But the DMV-esque wait did allow us to have a nice long conversation, something my dad and I don’t always get the chance to do. At one point we were discussing the kinds of law I might eventually be interested in practicing, and I told him I had enjoyed working on some appellate briefs this summer. His response? “Well, that sounds appealing.”

    I thought he was making a pun on the fact that I was describing cases that had been appealed to a higher court. He wasn’t, though—he was being unintentionally punny.

    Listen closely and you’ll hear unintentional puns all over the place. After hearing my dad’s, I was able to recall a couple of my own. I was once talking to a friend who was at the beach with his family, and I informed him that I hoped his week was going swimmingly. I intended no pun. Another time, I was shaving and realized that my blade was dull. I actually said out loud (to nobody in particular), “This just isn’t going to cut it.” Again, no pun intended.

    Other examples I’ve recently heard include visits to cool old churches being the “saving grace” of an otherwise unremarkable trip, and a person’s “only beef” with steakhouses being the size of the portions.

    It’s funny when one recognizes an unintentional pun, and it’s amazing how frequently they occur. But there’s actually a good linguistic/psychological explanation for them.

    The explanation involves something called “priming,” a simple but robust linguistic phenomenon. As its name suggests, the basic idea behind priming is that exposure to a given stimulus “primes” you to give a similar response to later stimuli. The best explanation for why this occurs is something called “spreading activation.” This is a fancy way of saying that when you’re exposed to a stimulus—it could be a word, a picture, or something else—it activates a particular association or representation in your brain. This representation or association remains at least partially activated for a good while, which means it will be accessed more quickly and easily in response to later stimuli. Because it’s more quickly and easily accessible, you’re more likely actually to come up with it. 

    It’s pretty easy to see a connection between priming and unintentional puns. When I said the word “appellate,” my dad’s brain was primed to come up with similar words. When he went to respond, he was looking for the equivalent of “that sounds like an interesting thing to do.” What word of that ilk is the first to come to mind? Appealing.

    Similarly when my buddy is at the beach, I’m primed for related words. So when I’m looking for a clever way of telling him to have a good time, what idiom better than “swimmingly”?

    The “appealing” and “swimmingly” unintentional puns are actually the result of different kinds of priming. The first is what’s known as “perceptual” priming, in which the actual words are similar in form. So “appellate” would prime “appealing” because the words are almost the same. “Table” would prime “tablet,” or maybe even “tabloid,” under this same reasoning.

    The other type of priming is what’s known as “conceptual” or “associative” priming. There, the initial word primes for words with related meanings, or for words that are typically associated with the initial word. When I was talking to my friend about his beach trip, I was primed to find the word “swim.” Or “table” might prime a person to find the word “chair.”

    So take heart—it turns out there’s a good reason the phrase “no pun intended” came into being. And don’t miss a beat next time you hear one, as there’s a good chance it wasn’t.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna 8:00 am on June 14, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: currency, dollar, , euro, hip hop, money, plural, rand, singular,   

    One euro, two euro, many euro 

    South African rand(s)

    The currency here in South Africa is the Rand, named after the Witwatersrand, which means “white waters ridge” in Afrikaans.  (Witwatersrand refers to the area where Johannesburg was first built. A prominent university here shares the name.)

    It’s a matter of contention whether the plural of “rand” is “rand” or “rands.”Articles 13, 14, 15, 55, and 57 of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1961 use “rand” as the plural. Many currency exchange sites, such as this one, state that “rand” is the plural form. Most of the South Africans I’ve asked say they use “rand,” but I’ve also seen “rands” in some places, like the meter at the local gas station. I’ve also heard “rands” in conversation.

    I GET EURO — PLURAL

    Other currencies have nonstandard plural forms, too. For example, the European Union has designated in several places that “euro” is the official plural form of “euro” in English. This guide delineates the singular and plural forms of “euro” in all the official languages of the EU and says that one writes “100 euro” in English, not “100 euros.”

    However, another official publication of the EU—the English translation style guide—says that, “where appropriate,” “euro” becomes “euros” in the plural: “This book costs ten euros and fifty cents.” In Ireland, the only English-speaking country to use the currency, most of the media, as well as the Department of Finance, uses “euro” for the plural, an issue that has raised a few hackles, such as here and here.

    According to Google Ngram, “euros” seems to be more common than “euro” for the plural in English-speaking countries, with the difference slightly more pronounced in American English compared to British English. (Unfortunately, there’s no filter for Irish English.)

    “million euro / million euros” | American English | British English | English
    “billion euro / billion euros” | American English | British English | English

    This note says “10 euro,” but it’s also intended to be multilingual.

    And why should “euro” be the plural in English, anyway? Other languages have adapted the currency to fit their own standard plurals—in French, for example, one would say euros (although it’s usually still pronounced the same as the singular euro) and in Spanish it’s the same—euros. In German, it’s 100 Euro, but they did the same thing for their previous currency, the Mark (100 Mark). The point is, we have “dollars” and “pounds” and “shillings” in Anglophone countries, so why shouldn’t it officially be “euros”?

    Hang on—there are currencies in English-speaking countries that take a nonstandard plural. The South African Rand is one example, but there’s also the Pula in Botswana and (possibly) the new Gambian currency, the Dalasi.

    But what about other currencies? Why do we say “10 yen,” “100 baht” (Thailand), and “1,000 renminbi” but reserve the usual English -s plural for “10 rupees,” “100 rubles,” and “1,000 francs”? Why is it pounds in proper British English but quid in slang?

    Surely pop music can set us right. In the immortal words of Chris Brown in “International (Serious)” (on Estelle’s new album):

    My stock grown in Stockholm
    Dough heard in Joburg
    F— the SoundScan
    I left with 3 million rand
    So I don’t want to pound it
    Unless we talking pounds
    Yeah, I take euro – plural
    Estelle, your girl

    Sorry, C.Breezy, but that didn’t clear anything up.

    POSSIBLE PATTERNS

    Perhaps currencies tend to take a standard –s plural when native English speakers are historically familiar with dealing with the currency. This would explain why we have dollars, pounds, and shillings (from direct use), francs, rubles, and pesos (from geographical proximity and frequent historical trade), and even rupees (from the British Raj era, which presented a combination of direct use and frequent trade).

    Even though the EU attempted to legislate the plural for “euro,” they have had questionable success. It seems that, given the chance, native English speakers will revert to the standard English –s plural. This would explain the popularity of “euros” as the plural form in English-speaking countries.

    This pattern might explain why it’s officially and usually “5 rand” but occasionally “5 rands” here in South Africa, a country where native English speakers constitute merely 8% of the population. And that might also explain the persistence of the singular as plural in Botswana and The Gambia, where English is an official language but spoken natively only by small portions of the population.

    However, it doesn’t explain why we still have “yen” and “renminbi” as both singular and plural—surely English speakers are now familiar with these currencies. But perhaps sustained, large-scale trade with Japan and China is too relatively recent to have instigated the change, or perhaps (more convincingly) there isn’t a large enough population of native English speakers dealing directly with the Yen and Renminbi on a daily basis, unlike the Euro, to adapt those words into English and create the change.

    I leave you with a stirring quote from Jay-Z’s verse in “Mr. Carter” (Lil Wayne):

    I see euros, that’s right: plural
    I took so much change from this rap game it’s your go

    Wait—what?

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna 11:40 am on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , language policy, , rwanda   

    The costs of switching to English 

    French was the official language in Rwanda until 2008, when the government decided to transition to English in a bid to increase Rwanda’s viability in the global market. The government at the time stated that English, not French, was key to ensuring economic success and establishing Rwanda as a tourist destination, IT hub, and business center in Africa following the violence of the 1990s.

    Choosing English and aligning with the Anglophone world for economic reasons seems pretty innocuous, right?  It makes sense—English is the most spoken second language in the world and the primary language for international relations and business.  But observers note that there were historical wounds that contributed to the decision, and critics allege that there were political motives at stake.

    Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009—becoming one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that weren’t former British colonies—under the pall of diplomatic intrigue: Rwanda was still a member of La Francophonie (the international alliance of French-speaking nations), but an official Rwandan commission in 2007 accused 33 prominent French officials of being directly involved in the 1994 genocide and relations soured soon afterwards.  In addition, Rwandan officials suggested that colonial-era ties to France and Belgium contributed toward the ideology that resulted in the 1994 genocide, and the government wanted to eradicate ethnicity-based identities, according to researchers Beth Samuelson and Sarah Freedman.

    Many Tutsis who lived in exile in Anglophone countries (e.g., Uganda) during the Hutu-Tutsi violence of the 1990s came back into power after the violence slowed, and they brought with them an English-speaking culture and an English-based power structure, wrote Canadian PhD student Izabela Steflja last month.  Steflja writes that despite Rwanda’s nominal efforts to foster a unified Rwandan identity—based on English (the language of 4% of the population), rather than French (~8%) or Kinyarwanda (~88%), the native language that straddles both Hutu and Tutsi peoples—are misguided and serve only to reemphasize existing power conflicts.

    As for education on the ground, Rwanda gave up trying to teach young children English last year, choosing instead to teach children in Kinyarwanda for a few years before switching to English.  Critics decried the instability in the education system while others praised the attempt to preserve Kinyarwanda, the first language of about 15 million people. But some commentators have questioned the quality of English-language education in the country, especially because there is a dearth of teachers fluent in English.

    The group I work for in South Africa doesn’t normally deal with issues related to Rwanda. But one of our focus countries, Mozambique, a country with a Portuguese colonial past, has also joined the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique hasn’t adopted English as an official language—an fact made abundantly clear as I tried to Google Translate my way through the Mozambican Constitution last week—but I’m curious to see whether it’ll follow the example of Rwanda and ditch its colonial past (… to adopt another colonial language) in the name of economic advancement.

     
    • John Cowan 1:14 pm on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      It’s been said that although Mozambique is not a colony of England, it is a colony of a colony of England.

    • Katie 8:31 am on June 14, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Having visited both Mozambique and Rwanda in recent(-ish) years, the effect of any governmental efforts to institute English education is negligible at best (as far as I could tell). In Mozambique in particular, VERY few people spoke English (or at least were willing to admit they spoke English). Many people outside of Maputo, especially the young kids, didn’t even speak Portuguese.

      In Rwanda, I had fun one night getting very lost and trying to find directions back to my guest house in Mzansi, and finding that almost everyone spoke only French and/or Kinyarwanda. I did eventually find one teenage boy who was eager to practice his English with me, but it was almost incomprehensible. But it was Kinyarwanda phrases that I learned over the next few days that helped me, not English (or French).

  • Sandeep Prasanna 10:39 am on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afrikaans, , , , xhosa, zulu   

    Wading into language politics in South Africa (uh, Suid Afrika? iNingizimu Afrika? uMzantsi Afrika?) 

    I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days ago to begin my work with a human rights litigation group for the next two months. I came to South Africa cold—I knew little about its languages. It’s also very cold here.

    But I knew I was in for an awesome experience when I hopped aboard the Gautrain commuter rail to the center of the city and watched patiently as the electronic sign reading “Stops at Rhodesfield, Marlboro, and Sandton” slowly cycled through five or six different languages, none of which looked familiar to me. (Yes, the city names were even different! Cool! Wait—where does the train stop? Come back, English text!)

    The linguistic diversity of South Africa is overwhelming. With 11 official languages–in order of native speaker proportion: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele– South Africa has the second most officially recognized languages in the world after India.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    According to the 2001 census, Zulu had the greatest proportion of native speakers but still only clocked in at 23.8%. Although only about 8% of South Africans speak it as a first language, English emerged as a politically neutral lingua franca, used in business, politics, and the media, during Apartheid. Choosing English was a politically and racially charged move. The conflict came to a head when the Afrikaner (white Dutch-descended South African) government attempted in 1976 to make Afrikaans, a linguistic descendant of Dutch, a main medium of instruction in all South African schools. That didn’t end well.

    While Afrikaans was seen as the “language of the oppressor” (in the words of Desmond Tutu) and virtually useless outside of southern Africa, English offered broader horizons and opportunities in the international community.

    Before I started preparing to come to South Africa, I overestimated the role of Afrikaans in Johannesburg and even wondered whether I would need to learn a few Afrikaans phrases to get by. I didn’t—nearly everyone in Johannesburg at least understands English. Of course, Johannesburg isn’t representative of all of South Africa, and there are certain areas of South Africa where Afrikaans is commonly spoken.

    I also underestimated the role of other languages: 62% of Johannesburg residents speak Bantu languages at home, a fact that blew my mind but really shouldn’t have.

    Not knowing about the sheer diversity of languages in Johannesburg is partly due to my own ignorance, of course. But I also wonder the extent to which representations of South Africa and South Africans in American popular media, and the racial and cultural implications of those images, influenced my previous impressions. I’m still trying to slowly piece a more accurate picture together. For example, I know next to nothing about Bantu languages and I can’t wait to learn more while I’m here.

    And the more I talk to people, the more complex the language politics of Afrikaans seems. What does using Afrikaans convey about the speaker? (Is it still the “language of the oppressor”?) When do people decide to use it? (My housemate, who learned Afrikaans as a first language, says he sticks with English, a politically safe choice, unless he’s positive from a person’s name that they know Afrikaans.) Who decides to learn it? (After expressing a passing interest in taking Afrikaans classes, another friend advised me not to tell others that I was learning Afrikaans. As part of her rationale, she pointed out that the relationship between Indian South Africans—who number over 1 million today—and black South Africans is not easy.)

    Lots of questions, but so little time!

     
    • Lane 1:00 pm on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I believe the Soweto riots were kicked off by the government’s insistence that *half* of instruction be in Afrikaans – so hated was the language that that was what did it. Looking forward to hearing more about what you find – I vastly enjoyed my own trip there as I went through the same questions…

      • Sandeep Prasanna 5:03 am on June 2, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Right– my mistake! Hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to share over the next weeks.

    • Seumas 6:07 am on June 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      It’s made even more complicated that Afrikaans doesn’t belong exclusively to Afrikaners, it’s also the first language of some rural black and coloured communities in the Cape, younger people from Bushman communities and so on. The ANC’s pro-English policy of trying to erase Afrikaans ignores the needs and plight of non-white South Africans who speak Afrikaans and not English. Language politics in South Africa is fiendishly complex on all levels: politically, historically, racially, geographically and economically.

  • The Diacritics 6:37 am on May 28, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammar girl, podcast   

    The Diacritics on Grammar Girl 

    One of Sandeep’s posts was adapted for a podcast produced by Grammar Girl.

    Read it and listen to it here, or download the podcast on iTunes.

     
  • John Stokes 12:13 pm on May 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Harden, Harden elbow, long names, Malice at the Palace, , , , nominative determinism, Ron Artest, world's longest name   

    Crazy names (redux) 

    Hi everyone — Sandeep and I are both in the throes of finals, our apologies for the lack of posts! We’ll get back to regular posts as soon as we can, but in the meantime…

    I wrote a post a couple months ago about crazy names, looking at some of the most interesting name changes that I’ve come across, and speculating as to why people might make the changes they do. Today, a couple more wild names, and motivations for taking them, came to my attention.

    These are both crazy long names. A man who used to be known as Nicholas Usansky was simply going for fame, taking what was, at the time, the longest name in the world:

    Barnaby Marmaduke Aloysius Benjy Cobweb Dartagnan Egbert Felix Gaspar Humbert Ignatius Jayden Kasper Leroy Maximilian Neddy Obiajulu Pepin Quilliam Rosencrantz Sexton Teddy Upwood Vivatma Wayland Xylon Yardley Zachary Usansky

    He held the record until a woman hoping to gain publicity for her charity, Red Dreams, showed him up big time. Her name is an incredible 161 words long!

    Red Wacky League Antlez Broke the Stereo Neon Tide Bring Back Honesty Coalition Feedback Hand of Aces Keep Going Captain Let’s Pretend Lost State of Dance Paper Taxis Lunar Road Up Down Strange All and I Neon Sheep Eve Hornby Faye Bradley AJ Wilde Michael Rice Dion Watts Matthew Appleyard John Ashurst Lauren Swales Zoe Angus Jaspreet Singh Emma Matthews Nicola Brown Leanne Pickering Victoria Davies Rachel Burnside Gil Parker Freya Watson Alisha Watts James Pearson Jacob Sotheran Darley Beth Lowery Jasmine Hewitt Chloe Gibson Molly Farquhar Lewis Murphy Abbie Coulson Nick Davies Harvey Parker Kyran Williamson Michael Anderson Bethany Murray Sophie Hamilton Amy Wilkins Emma Simpson Liam Wales Jacob Bartram Alex Hooks Rebecca Miller Caitlin Miller Sean McCloskey Dominic Parker Abbey Sharpe Elena Larkin Rebecca Simpson Nick Dixon Abbie Farrelly Liam Grieves Casey Smith Liam Downing Ben Wignall Elizabeth Hann Danielle Walker Lauren Glen James Johnson Ben Ervine Kate Burton James Hudson Daniel Mayes Matthew Kitching Josh Bennett Evolution Dreams

    My previous post speculated that people might take strange names for reasons beyond simple narcissism, in support, for example, of a cause. I think something like that was the idea behind b-baller Metta World Peace’s name change. He wanted signify to the world that he had completed a personal journey from the Malice at the Palace (where he jumped into the stands during an NBA game, punched a fan, and was then suspended for an entire season (see also Grantland’s recap)), to the winner of the NBA’s Citizenship Award last year. Of course, things got a bit awkward for that narrative after he viciously elbowed a player in the back of the head a couple weeks ago, so there’s that as well. (So much for nominative determinism, I guess.)

    Nevertheless, at least one of these new name changes supports my speculations. Ms. Dreams’s motivation (generate publicity for her charity) was admirable, even if the name itself is completely weird.

    Mr. Usansky, it seems, thinks otherwise. He apparently told The Scottish Sun that he would consider trying to retake the longest-name crown from Ms. Dreams, as “there is no point to having a wacky name like that and not having the longest in the world.”

     
  • John Stokes 3:48 pm on April 17, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , health care, healthcare reform, language of politics, Obamacare, ,   

    How the language of politics could doom Obamacare 

    For politicians there are lots of topics that are simply too hot to handle. Social security reform, abortion, gay marriage — these are all crucial issues, but many politicians hate taking strong positions on them. It’s not hard to see why: Do so, and there goes the vote of an entire demographic.

    But if there’s one word, particularly in recent years, that is anathema to more than just one or another segment of the voting public, it’s the “T” word: taxes. At all costs, don’t tell people you’re hitting them with new taxes. Especially if you’re already trying to pass a controversial new mega-suite of laws like . . . say . . . Obamacare.

    That’s precisely what Obama and the Democrats did with their healthcare reform package. They took great pains to tell people that reform did not mean new taxes.

    One of the centerpieces of the bill is what the government calls the “minimum care provision.”  Its opponents prefer to call it the “individual mandate.” Whatever you want to call it, it means (almost) everybody must obtain at least some health insurance by 2014. The government claims this is necessary to keep premiums down once insurers are forced to cover people they otherwise would not.

    So far so good. But once 2014 rolls around, anybody that fails to get minimum coverage will be taxed . . . er, “penalized” . . . to cover their share of the expense. Here’s where things get tricky: Is this sanction a tax (gasp!)? Or is it a penalty? Well, in the law itself, Congress prefers to call it a penalty. This “penalty,” though, is assessed on a person’s tax returns, and the provision is even part of the tax code. It bears all the markers of a tax on those without minimum coverage, but, presumably for political reasons, Congress chose to call it a penalty instead.

    What they perhaps didn’t realize was that their refusal to call the tax a tax might cause problems for the law’s constitutionality.

    Congress has a broad authority under the Constitution to raise taxes. It uses this authority all the time to make people pay for things they might not otherwise want. Whether it be farm subsidies, alternative energy, or national defense, Congress’s tax power let’s them force us to buy things, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But Congress cannot constitutionally impose a penalty on people for refusing to buy a certain product. This is beyond even the reach of the commerce power. It’s a distinction simultaneously very fine and very intuitively obvious — the government can make you (help) pay for other people’s food stamps, but it can’t make you go out and buy broccoli.

    The Sixth Circuit jumped on this distinction, and the lawmakers’ fear of the “T” word, in one of the challenges to the health law (though it eventually upheld the law on other grounds):

    Congress might have raised taxes on everyone in an amount equivalent to the current penalty, then offered credits to those with minimum essential insurance. Or it might have imposed a lower tax rate on people with health insurance than those without it. But Congress did neither of these things, and that makes a difference. . . .

    The individual mandate is a regulatory penalty, not a revenue-raising tax . . . . That is what Congress said. It called the sanction for failing to obtain medical insurance a “penalty,” not a tax. Words matter, and it is fair to assume that Congress knows the difference between a tax and a penalty . . . making it appropriate to take Congress at its word. That is all the more true in an era when elected officials are not known for casually discussing, much less casually increasing, taxes.

    Thomas More L. Ctr. v. Obama, 651 F.3d 529, 550-51 (6th Cir. 2011) (emphasis added).

    Even once the challenge reached the Supreme Court, the government did not push the Justices to uphold the law under the Taxing Clause. Instead they focused on Congress’s broad authority under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses to regulate what they consider to be economic activity (i.e., participation in the healthcare market, which, the argument goes, all of us do simply because we are entitled to treatment whether or not we can pay, forcing those that can to pay for those that cannot). The merits of that argument are not my point here, but if you’re interested check out SCOTUSblog‘s (very thorough) coverage.

    Instead, what I’m interested in is the fact that the language of politics — avoid “taxes” at all costs — led the government to forfeit perhaps its surest defense of the law. The Sixth Circuit judge said as much in the two paragraphs above.

    At first blush, it seems silly that saying “penalty” when you mean “tax” could be the difference between blatant unconstitutionality and perfect acceptability. But perhaps Judge Martin has a point. Don’t we want to hold politicians accountable for what they say and the language they use to say it? Isn’t that especially so when that language is meant to mislead?

    That seems to be precisely what Judge Martin is doing. He’s telling politicians that he’s going to take seriously what they actually say, especially when there’s reason to believe they mean something different but don’t want to let the rest of us know.

    If the language of politics can be used to mask an unpopular proposal, then it should have to be used subsequently to defend that proposal too. To put it differently: If you want to bamboozle the voting public with deceptive language, by all means do so. Once you’ve made your bed, however, you have no choice but to lie in it.

    Oh, and when I say “lie,” there is no pun intended.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna 9:00 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , if i was, if i were, mood, , pop music, , subjunctive   

    If I were Justin Bieber… 

    If I was your boyfriend, never let you go
    Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
    I can be a gentleman, anything you want
    If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go

    Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

    Truly stirring.

    According to English grammarians, “If I was your boyfriend” should read “If I were your boyfriend.” Bieber is describing something that isn’t true — he isn’t the girl’s boyfriend — so he needs to use the subjunctive mood. Here is a lengthier description of the subjunctive. (Not all big pop stars get it wrong, though: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” follows the rule correctly.)

    My problem with substituting “if I was” for “if I were” in songs is that it doesn’t cost anything to be grammatically correct — you end up with the same number of syllables and stresses. Why not follow the rule? Is there a social cost to using the subjunctive? Like, is it automatically less cool?

    There’s some evidence to suggest that the use of “if I was” is on the rise. Here’s the Ngram data for “if I was” (blue) versus “if I were” (red):

    When “if I was” occurs in the middle of a sentence, writers are almost as likely to use it versus “if I were.” But writers are less likely to use “if I was” if it occurs at the beginning of the sentence (second graph).

    The problem with this data is that “if I was” is occasionally grammatically correct, as in “If I was rude to you yesterday, I’m sorry.”

    So I tried narrowing the searches to eliminate correct instances of “if I was.”

    First, I thought of “if I was you” (blue) versus “if I were you” (red). But saying “if I were you” is pretty much idiomatic at this point. The data confirm that suspicion.

    Here is “I wish I was” (blue) versus “I wish I were” (red). They’re nearly convergent now. I thought that “I wish I were” was idiomatic, just like “if I were you,” but apparently that’s not the case.

    But maybe the subjunctive “was” isn’t really entirely encroaching on the territory of “were.” I compared the phrase “if I was your” to “if I were your,” thinking that a grammatically correct instance of “if I was your” was unlikely to occur. The difference is greater:

    Separating the correct instances of “if I was” from incorrect instances is a challenge. Does anyone have other/better ideas on how to eliminate grammatically correct instances of “if I was” to compare it to “if I were”?

    On a similar note, does anyone know of any studies that look at the loss of the subjunctive in English?

     
    • johnwcowan 11:51 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I think it’s hopeless to tease apart irrealis was from ordinary past-tense conditional was on the basis of string searches alone; you need too much real-world knowledge. For every If I were/was President, I’d balance the budget there is an If I was President, it was because the people voted for me as said by a former President.

      In any case, I don’t think you can call irrealis was ungrammatical any more. The language has moved on; objections to irrealis was are mere prescriptivist heel-digging.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:15 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I sort of suspected that it wouldn’t be possible to fully parse out was/were, which is why I tried to get as close as possible. But I agree with you that we really shouldn’t care about the rise of the subjunctive “was” — but the prescriptivist tendencies latent somewhere in me still cry out.

      • stuartnz 3:33 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I agree totally and, thanks for introducing me to “irrealis”. I think it quite possible that “were” will survive as a “museum piece”, perhaps particularly in lyrics and poetry. A fate similar to that which seems to be happening to “whom”, as discussed by Stan Carey at sentence first recently.

        • markonsea 9:06 pm on April 11, 2012 Permalink

          You think the particular loss of the subjunctive you complain about is bad? What about its loss – almost total here in the UK – in what I shall call an agendum clause? Standard usage here is eg “She insisted all her guests left before midnight”, which I’m willing to bet any North American reader would misunderstand as speaking about events in the speaker’s past rather than laying down a rule. Similarly, “The bank demands that all debts are paid.” Begins to sound Pythonesque, doesn’t it? (But you can’t halt Language Change …)

        • johnwcowan 3:31 pm on April 12, 2012 Permalink

          Markonsea, the nearly-complete loss of the mandative or jussive subjunctive in the U.K. is pretty well known. However, if there is a genuine ambiguity, as in this case, it can be solved transatlantically with “She insisted all her guests should leave before midnight”, which works for everybody. In North America, the mandative subjunctive forms are still current and well understood (for me, automatic); I don’t know what the story is in the other anglophone countries.

    • Lauren 6:13 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      The subjunctive has been losing ground in English for a while now. As another datapoint see “If I were a rich man” from the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof and then Gwen Stefani’s 2004 cover “If I was a rich girl.” In Australian English at least the subjunctive construction these days sounds slightly forced and archaic to most speakers.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:48 am on April 11, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Right — I had forgotten about the difference between Gwen Stefani’s “cover” (to use the term loosely) of the Fiddler song. I wonder why the word was changed. Perhaps it was for a reason similar to what you note — that “were” just sounds too archaic to use in a radio-ready song.

    • Hannah 11:37 am on April 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Here is a small piece on the subjunctive mood from the New Oxford English Dictionary. It displays well why the subjunctive is vanishing. I agree with you that it ought to be retained for its own sake.
      “… if I were you; the report recommends that he face the tribunal; it is important that they be aware of the provisions of the act. These examples all contain a verb in the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is used to express situations that are hypothetical or not yet realized and is typically used for what is imagined, hoped for, demanded, or expected. In English, the subjunctive mood is fairly uncommon (especially in comparison with other languages, such as Spanish), mainly because most of the functions of the subjunctive are covered by modal verbs such as might, could, and should. In fact, in English, the subjunctive is often indistinguishable from the ordinary indicative mood since its form in most contexts is identical. It is distinctive only in the third person singular, where the normal indicative -s ending is absent ( he face rather than he faces in the example above), and in the verb ‘to be’ ( I were rather than I was , and they be rather than they are in the examples above). In modern English, the subjunctive mood still exists but is regarded in many contexts as optional. Use of the subjunctive tends to convey a more formal tone, but there are few people who would regard its absence as actually wrong. Today, it survives mostly in fixed expressions, as in be that as it may; far be it from me; as it were ; lest we forget ; God help you; perish the thought; and come what may.”

    • llanarth 9:01 am on December 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      One problem with this research; you don’t distinguish between written and colloquial English. So while this is beautifully researched for written word, what about colloquial English? Personally, I haven’t got a problem with ‘if I was your….’ not that I particularly like Bieber’s songs. This is an interesting discussion, For another perspective look on Crystal’s blog http://david-crystal.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/on-if-and-waswere.html

  • Sandeep Prasanna 2:25 pm on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english only, foreign language, german american, , mexican american, nebraska, , tucson   

    “Inimical to our own safety”: regulating heritage languages 

    With the country waiting for the Supreme Court to release its decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I thought it would be fun to revisit an older Supreme Court decision — one where the Court directly considered the benefits and disadvantages of foreign language learning.

    I was inspired to check out this case, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), by a section in Lane Greene’s fantastic book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, where Greene described it in the context of fervent “English-only” activism in the US.

    The suit in Meyer v. Nebraska was brought against a teacher who had been caught teaching German reading skills to a 10-year-old child in a parochial school in Nebraska. This was back when German was still commonly spoken in the Midwest by recent immigrants. The relevant statute read in part as follows:

    Section 1. No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language than the English language.

    Section 2. Languages, other than the English language, may be taught as languages only after a pupil shall have attained and successfully passed the eighth grade …

    [The statute discusses penalties.]

    Section 4. Whereas, an emergency exists, this act shall be in force from and after its passage and approval.

    Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the case, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the validity of the statute. They wrote:

    The Legislature had seen the baneful effects of permitting foreigners … to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land. The result of that condition was found to be inimical to our own safety. …

    It was to educate them so that they must always think in that language, and, as a consequence, naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country. …

    The obvious purpose of this statute was that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state.

    The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Nebraska Supreme Court, holding that the statute infringed on the rights guaranteed by Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (“… [n]o state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law…”). Specifically, the Court held that the statute unfairly infringed on the teacher’s right to teach, as part of his occupation, as well as the right of parents to engage that teacher in instructing their children.

    Moreover, they noted that the sole purpose of the statute was to inhibit the teaching of modern languages alone, even though, they note, “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. Heretofore it has been commonly looked upon as helpful and desirable.” Later, they write that foreign language learning is “not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.”

    But, lest you think the Supreme Court was being too progressive, they still warn:

    The desire of the Legislature to foster a homogeneous people … is easy to appreciate. Unfortunate experiences during the late war [World War I] and aversion toward every character of truculent adversaries were certainly enough to quicken that aspiration.

    Still, the means used were too intrusive, they concluded.

    I’m in Tucson, Arizona, right now, working on a handful of legal projects with U.S.-Mexico border human rights organizations. The small-town reasoning evident in the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision — foreign languages are bad, and they are dangerous for our youth and for American ideals — are alive and well today, not least in Tucson, where many people regard the exercise of Mexican-American pride as an assault on the US itself.

    The Tucson Unified School District board recently decided to remove its Mexican-American studies courses in response to a finding by the Arizona Schools Chief that the program promoted racial disharmony. Regulating identity in our schools and fostering homogeneity with dire warnings of a multicultural dystopia don’t seem to have gone out of vogue yet, 89 years after Meyer‘s implicit remonstrances.

    But, as Lane Greene writes, there’s nothing to fear from the teaching of heritage languages — because they’ll probably be lost within two generations, anyway, through the inexorable march of the American monoglot machine. As an Indian-American, I can offer anecdotal support — for better or worse, few among my cohort speak our heritage languages fluently, and those who do still speak English fluently. Of course, anecdotes aren’t data, so here are hard numbers: Hispanics in America today are learning English more rapidly than German Americans at the turn of the century — 95% of surveyed second-generation Hispanic children located in the heavily Hispanic areas of San Diego and South Florida spoke English fluently, and 40% spoke no Spanish. Hardly the bilingual disharmony English-only activists warn of.

    Greene writes:

    It is, to put it simply, nearly impossible to raise a child in the United States without the child learning English; it would require isolation from the outside world bordering on child abuse. Children born in America, and even those arriving at a young age, inevitably pick up English.

    This fact, of course, does little to quiet the English-only activists.

     
    • johnwcowan 4:23 pm on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      There’s a deeper question, though: can you be a real American and not speak English? Civic nationalists say “of course”, ethnic (which often means racialist) nationalists deny it.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 9:30 pm on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Surely even the most fervent “ethnic nationalists” can’t deny that Native Americans who don’t speak English are American? (Or can they?) Also, a frequently debated question: can a monolingual person who doesn’t speak one of the languages that government documents are regularly translated into (e.g., Spanish, sometimes French, sometimes Chinese) fully participate in American civic life?

        • Dani 10:02 am on March 31, 2012 Permalink

          Plenty of native, English-speaking Americans do not participate in American civic life.

        • johnwcowan 12:36 am on April 2, 2012 Permalink

          Ethnic nationalists don’t care about Native Americans; most of them speak only English anyway.

    • Dani 9:59 am on March 31, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      During my time teaching in a heavily Hispanic (>85%) high school, I noticed that the only students who did not speak English were those who had immigrated to the US within the previous 5 years. Students who had arrived earlier spoke passable, if not fluent, English. Students born in the US to immigrant parents spoke English fluently and unaccented, even if their parents spoke only Spanish.

      As you said, if a problem exists, it is that so many of my students barely knew Spanish.

    • Peregrin 5:52 am on April 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      From my own experience I’ve found that first/second generation immigrants and their children have a much easier time learning the English language in America than, for instance, here in the UK. Although there is also a presence of ethnic “ghettoes” in the US, it seems to be more prevalent in some of the larger cities in England and Scotland. For example, here in London, especially the inner-city, it is possible to be born in an area or neighbourhood and never actually attain a full grasp of ‘native’ London English or British English. Cockney has been largely replaced by what’s called Multicultural London English (MLE). So while such individuals do learn a form of English, this variation is one based on the evolution and development of local varieties and ‘second-language’ English. Although many do understand the difference between the registers and can switch accordingly, there are those who, chiefly in the more impoverished areas, can only speak this variety with any real fluency.

      A similar situation can be observed in Sweden. Speaking from personal experience, I found that some of the neighbourhoods and suburbs of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo, with large immigrant populations tended to exhibit this ‘second-language’ trait. There are men and women in their twenties and thirties who have been born in these suburbs having only a tentative grasp of Central Swedish (or Rikssvenska). A famous example is that of Rinkeby Swedish (Rinkebysvenska), named after the Stockholm suburb; it borrows heavily from Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Serbo-Croat, Syriac, and Kurdish.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 7:34 pm on April 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        This is really interesting. I wonder to what extent the political structures/laws regarding immigration and immigrant communities influence those patterns.

  • John Stokes 12:13 pm on March 12, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammaticality judgments, , literature, , newspapers, , text speak, , txt   

    Those narrow-minded, prescriptivist . . . texters? 

    Texting encourages us to be creative and unconstrained with our language, right? Traditional print media, fettered as they are by the bounds of Standard English, promote more rigid acceptability and grammaticality judgments, don’t they? Aren’t those prescriptivist editors and stodgy old style columnists just concerned with dictating how we speak and write?

    Not so says some new research from University of Calgary linguist Joan Lee.

    Lee’s Master’s thesis tested students with varying levels of exposure to text/instant messaging versus traditional media (newspapers, magazines, literature, nonfiction). She hypothesized that those with comparatively more exposure to the free-form nature of ‘text speak’ would be comparatively more lenient in their acceptance of novel and deviate forms of words, both morphological and orthographic. What she found was the opposite.  Students who had spent more time reading books and newspapers were more likely to judge novel words or deviate forms of words as acceptable. Those who had more exposure to text speak tended to be considerably more rigid and constrained in their acceptability judgments.

    This result is moderately mind-boggling. Think of all you know about texting and compare that to your expectations of the effects of traditional media on language use. From texters, we see such classics as ‘wot r u doin 2day‘ and ‘ur stoopid dood‘ and ‘kewl‘ and, perhaps best of all, kthxbai‘. There’s a bunch of research discussing why texters say and spell things like this. In the preview of her thesis linked above, Lee cites one such study that says people are trying to be playful, spontaneous, socially interactive, and even creative. Compare this to what you read in the New York Times, where there’s actually someone who writes articles nitpicking the grammar of other traditional-print-media articles, including sometimes the NYTimes itself!

    I haven’t read the whole 150-page thesis yet, but it seems there are several plausible explanations for what’s going on. One idea is that for a novel form to be acceptable to texters, it must be a novel form commonly seen in text speak. So while there may not be the same types of grammatical constraints, there are conventions that are respected nonetheless. Or perhaps text speak is still free-form and not subject to constraints in the ways that traditional media might be, but free-formedness doesn’t actually equate with creativity. So while you’re tossing standardized grammar out the window, you’re not necessarily looking for the most precise, novel, creative word to express a given idea. You may be using words with odd morphology and spelling, but you’re probably not reaching deep into the dictionary to find those words. This means that readers of text speak don’t often see words they’re unfamiliar with and thus don’t often have to figure what those unfamiliar words might mean.

    If, on the other hand, you’re a big-time reader of traditional print media, you probably encounter unusual words all the time. To figure out what they mean, you either infer their meaning from context or use your knowledge of productive morphology like -ity or -ness. This could explain why texters are ok with ur and kthxbai and wot, but not some of the novel forms that Lee proposed in her study, like canality and groundness. If you read and don’t text, the textisms may be ridiculous to you, but you might be able to come up with a meaning for canality and groundness that makes sense, and thus conclude they’re acceptable words.

    I’m sure much more will be said on this front in the near future. For now, I think it’s enough to note this interesting bit of research and sign off — TTYL, folks.

     
    • Chad Nilep 7:39 pm on March 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I haven’t read the thesis at all, but but it seems there are several plausible arguments that this phenomenon is not going on. According to Lee’s abstract, she administered a questionnaire to 33 university students. Small sample size, homogeneity of the subject pool, or confounded variables might cause such research to turn up artefacts that don’t hold in the larger population, texters and newspaper-readers generally, that they are extrapolated to.

      It sounds like an interesting study, and I’ll add it to my queue of things to read in my spare time. But I’m not confident that Lee’s findings would necessary hold up in a larger study. I’m more confident, however, that if much more will be said on this front in the near future some newspapers will report the results as though they were proven to be true among a much broader general public.

    • Josh 11:33 pm on April 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I can’t see past page 17 of the article, but the abstract says the sample size is 33, which seems awfully low. I’d also be curious if she controlled for gender/income/some proxy for intelligence since it’s easy to imagine some variable like this being highly correlated with text/instant message frequency. But I imagine these issues were probably addressed in pages 18-150!

      • Josh 11:34 pm on April 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Note: I didn’t see Chad’s comment when I first posted.

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