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  • The Diacritics 8:35 pm on August 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , perception,   

    The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
  • The Diacritics 7:46 pm on August 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english alphabet, gadhafi, libya, nato, qaddafi, transliteration   

    Khadafy, Gadhafi, el-Qaddafi (oh my!) 

    posted by Sandeep

    It looks like the civil war in Libya is winding down, with the rebels now established in Tripoli and moving to capture other government strongholds. Although the rebels have a long way to go toward building a new government, several Libyans are hopeful that their ex-Dear Leader, Moammar Gadhafi, will soon be on his way out.

    Hang on– spelled that wrong. Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. Or is it Qaddafi? Qadhafi? Khadafy? el-Qaddafi?

    Maybe the West Wing can shed light on this issue (as it so often does):

    Okay, that didn’t clear much up. Sorry.

    So why the confusion? The different spellings of the about-to-be-ex-leader of Libya (112, according to one estimate) stem from the difficulty in transferring the sounds of other languages (in this case, the Libyan dialect of Arabic) into the English (based on the Latin) alphabet.

    The limits of the English alphabet

    English has 26 letters, but surprise! we have many more sounds in our language than we have letters.

    Consider the sound [ð] (a voiced dental fricative, in linguistics parlance), which corresponds to the consonant sound in “the.” Although we use the very common sound [ð] in English every day, we don’t have a separate letter for it. We have to use two letters, “th” together, to do so. This wasn’t always the case: earlier forms of English did have a single letter for this sound, called eth, and represented with the symbol ð.

    Another example of a sound we use in English without having a separate letter for it is [ʃ], which is the consonant sound in “she.” [ʃ] is represented many different ways in English, including “s” (sugar), “sh” (ship), “ti” (edition), “ch” (charade), and others.

    It can be pretty confusing to think that the English alphabet doesn’t cover all of our linguistic bases. We’ve been taught since we were little to consider the alphabet exhaustive and finite.

    I think a better way to describe the English alphabet is: a good try, and mostly useful, but seriously deficient.

    Other languages may have more, or less, and often different sounds than English. There are a couple of examples that you might be familiar with: the sound represented by R in French, [ʁ] (a uvular fricative), is unknown in standard English. Indian languages, from Hindi to Kannada to Bengali, have a set of retroflex consonants like [ʈ] and [ɖ], which are formed by curling the tongue back and striking the palate. When many Indians speak English, those retroflex consonants may be used in place of English’s dental consonants [t] and [d] because they are perceived as only slightly different. To a large extent, those consonants are responsible for the distinctive “Indian accent.” There are hundreds of examples of unfamiliar sounds like these from all across the world.

    The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was designed to provide a standardized way to show how a word is pronounced. While it has its critics (not to mention the terror it strikes in the hearts of Linguistics 101 students), the IPA has proved to be an incredibly valuable tool to describe the variety in human language sounds.

    Transliterating that guy’s name

    Libya’s leader’s name is represented in IPA by [muˈʔammar alqaðˈðaːfi] in Literary Arabic, a standardized form of the language. In his local Libyan Arabic, it might be pronounced [muˈʔæmmɑrˤ əlɡædˈdæːfi].

    There are several sounds in his name that don’t exist in the English alphabet: the glottal stop [ʔ]*, sometimes represented with an apostrophe ‘ in English. We have that sound at the hyphen in the exclamation “uh-oh!”

    Another sound, the uvular* plosive [q] is common in Arabic but completely unknown in English. It’s usually represented with the letter Q in English, but in Libyan Arabic, the sound is sometimes reduced to a simple [g], which we do have in English.

    The voiced dental fricative [ð], which I discussed above as the consonant in “the,” is also present in the Literary Arabic pronunciation of his name. It is doubled (“geminated”), meaning the consonant gets twice the amount of time being pronounced than it usually would have. In Libyan Arabic, this sound is reduced to a voiced plosive [d], which is the same as English D. In addition, sometimes this letter is aspirated (meaning it has an extra puff of breath added).

    Finally, not a pronunciation point but a semantic one: sometimes the prefix “al-” is added to his name, and sometimes it’s not.

    All of these discrepancies combine to make one very unclear transliteration. Moammar Gadhafi, Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, Muammar Qaddafi, etc.

    So, Hanukkah or Chanuka?

    We can’t always exactly transfer the sounds of another language into our own script. This phenomenon is extremely common when we borrow words from languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. That’s why we get different spellings in holidays (Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukah), names (Sandeep, Sundeep, Sandip), places (Bangalore, Bengaluru, Bengalooru), and sometimes technical or religious terms, too (brahmin, brahman, brahmana). We just have to make our best-faith effort to replicate another language’s sounds in a way that’ll help people familiar with English phonology pronounce foreign words.

    So is it Qaddafi or Gadhafi or any of the other possible spellings? Well, it’s all of them and none. The important part isn’t how you spell it; it’s how you pronounce it. The English alphabet might be limited, but our pronunciation capabilities aren’t.

    So as long as you can combine that unvoiced uvular plosive and those geminated voiced dental fricatives–…. you know what, just forget it. It’s Muammar Gaddafi. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

    (* denotes corrections made since publication)

    • stuartnz 6:42 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Great post on a subject that really fascinates me, thank you! I was especially interested in your mention of different transliterations of your won name. Among my Panjabi friends, I have one who transliterates her name, ਸ਼ਰਨਜੀਤ, as Sharnjit, but her sister transliterates her name, ਪਰਬਜੀਤ, as Prabjeet. I am also still looking for the full text of T.E. Lawrence’s wonderfully droll retort about his own “fluid” transliteration style. I bought 7 Pillars on Kindle, but it didn’t have the passage in question. Do you happen to have a link, by any chance?

    • Phil 2:25 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Minor note: /ʕ/ is the voiced pharyngeal fricative, not the glottal stop (you’re thinking of /ʔ/). Also, and this is just me pedantically splitting hairs, voiced stops cannot be aspirated – they are murmured (i.e. breathy voice).

      Great blog, btw! Subscribed.

      • The Diacritics 4:51 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for subscribing! I wasn’t aware that there technically weren’t aspirated voiced stops. I just took the concept directly from Indic linguistics, which differentiate /g/ and /ɡʱ/ (for instance) as separate letters.

  • The Diacritics 5:32 pm on August 25, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Fat people eat accumulates.

  • The Diacritics 10:56 pm on August 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , processing, pun,   

    Awesome Sentences (Part II of II) 

    posted by John

    Before we get started I just want to remind everyone: Club sandwiches, not seals.

    My first Awesome Sentences post was about recursion and processing capacity. Our language faculty can create infinitely long sentences using things like embedding, but our brains can only understand so many nested sentences at once. This led to some cool and confusing sentences:

    • Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.
    • The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed.

    But the capacity of our language processing system isn’t the only thing that leads to crazy sentences. In the public service announcement with which I began the post, we see an example of another very interesting processing effect. The sentence is reminding you that if you’re going to club something, make it a sandwich, not a seal. When you read it, however, you see ‘club’ used in a familiar sense—as in, a club sandwich—before you realize it’s being used (very punnily) as a verb. The pun comes about because you have to go back and reassess the meaning of what you read before, even though you thought you already knew. Let’s look at a few more.

    What if I said the following sentences to you:

    1. The horse raced past the barn fell.
    2. The old man the boat.
    3. The lady returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.

    Would you believe me if I told you that these are all grammatical English sentences? If you wouldn’t, you should, because they are. Each of them employs a similar trick to the one used in “Club sandwiches, not seals,” and they have even been given a special name by linguists: “garden path” sentences.  How did they earn this name? By leading the listener down what he or she thinks is a certain ‘path’ that the sentence will take, and then all of a sudden turning into something entirely different (ok, so the name doesn’t make absolute sense, but at least the part about being led down a path does).

    In the first sentence, “The horse raced past the barn fell,” we start off with what looks like the most basic syntactic structure of English. This would be the intransitive sentence, “The horse raced.” To it we add another common syntactic feature—the prepositional phrase “past the barn.” So far, our brain thinks it is looking at a run-of-the-mill intransitive sentence with an attached prepositional phrase. However, when we get to the final word, “fell,” we realize that what we initially thought was an intransitive sentence is actually something entirely different. Instead, we should have understood, “The horse that was raced past the barn [by the rider] fell.”

    The problem is that by the time we get to ‘fell,’ we have already processed the sentence as what we initially thought it was going to be. Thus our brain does not accept the last word as a coherent addition to the utterance.

    So what does this mean? It means that when we hear a sentence, our brain is immediately applying the most likely interpretation of the words and structure it is seeing and then making predictions about what is likely to come next. Simply put, we process on the fly, not as a whole. This is a sort of efficiency mechanism, designed to speed up processing and boost the overall utility of language. It backfires, however, when the “garden path” down which we are being led suddenly takes an unexpected turn, and the initial interpretation is shown to be incorrect. By the time we get to it, our brains have already ruled out “fell” as an appropriate final word for the sentence.

    Thus, in the second sentence “The old man the boat,” we begin with a common noun phrase modified by an adjective—“the old man.” We immediately process it as such, and now we are looking for the most likely thing to come next: a verb. This means that when we get to “the boat,” which is decidedly not a verb, the sentence stops making sense.

    What we don’t realize on our first try is that “the old,” (as in old people) is the subject, and that “man” (as in operate) is the verb.  If we had, we would know that “the boat” is simply a direct object. But because our brain expects to find a verb following the noun phrase “the old man,” we get confused. Only after this happens do we go back and reinterpret the sentence holistically: “Old people operate the boat.”

    The same thing occurs in the third sentence, “The lady returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.” By now, you know you should look for the trick, and you’ve recognized that the sentence means “The lady who was returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.”

    But for many people, the first time they read it, they think it is missing an “and” between “house” and “cleaned.” They interpret “The lady returned to her house” as they are first reading it. Because subordinate clauses (The lady [who was returned to her house]) are less common than simple intransitive sentences, they think they are seeing “the lady returned,” not “the lady [who was returned].” Thus when they reach “cleaned the kitchen,” it appears that the main verb has already come (“return”), and something goes awry.

    These are classic examples of “garden path” sentences. If you can come up with any novel ones, or if you have any other awesome sentences for us, leave a comment. And remember, the complex cool sentences can lead people to is like an obsession—so be careful!

    • johnwcowan 10:54 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’ve always thought The horse raced past the barn fell and its friends were crappy examples: they are only marginally grammatical examples of small clauses for me. The tomcat curled up on the cushion seemed friendly is much better, because curled is stative and can be understood as an adjective in the second (non-garden-path) reading. Still, The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi and The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families are infinitely better. (All examples from Wikipedia.)

  • The Diacritics 1:07 pm on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alice in wonderland, , , , , humpty dumpty, just a theory, , , legal analysis, , speech community, ,   

    Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of words 

    posted by Sandeep

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

    A lot of legal analysis hinges on the technical meanings of words. These definitions can be identified by statute (for example, if a government explicitly defines a criminal law term in its penal code) and by common law (what have previous courts decided that same term means?).

    If neither statutory law nor common law have defined a legal concept, lawyers and courts can also look to a dictionary definition, although this is rare. Nearly three centuries of accumulated law in the United States, building on even more centuries of law in Great Britain, have meant that almost all broad legal concepts have been defined and analyzed. The legal profession even has its own dictionaries — I, myself, just bought a fresh new copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.

    Today in my Criminal Law class, we discussed the meanings of words. Much of the discussion focused on the dichotomy between voluntary and involuntary acts. In common parlance, “voluntary” and “involuntary” have broad meanings: “voluntary” indicates some sort of will or want to achieve an end result. “Involuntary” indicates the absence of that will.

    But in the context of the law, the definitions are much narrower. Understanding these narrow senses is critical to forming an adequate defense to a criminal act. Let’s say John accidentally hit a pedestrian with his car. In normal conversation, we might describe John’s act as “involuntary” because he certainly didn’t mean to hit the pedestrian.

    But in the eyes of the law, a criminal act can’t be considered “involuntary” just because it is unintentional or the actor didn’t foresee potential consequences. Understanding what “involuntary” means is important because the law cannot punish “involuntary” acts.

    “No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily … The term “involuntary act” is, however, capable of wider connotations; and to prevent confusion … in the criminal law an act is not … an involuntary act simply because the doer does not remember it … nor … simply because the doer could not control his impulse to do it.”

    Bratty v. Attorney-General, 1963 A.C. 386, 409-410 (H.L. 1961)

    So wait. John could face years in prison for something we understand as “involuntary”? [Fear not, John–you would probably just get off with involuntary manslaughter, not murder!] Because the law is concerned with what our conscious mind causes us to do, an “involuntary” act cannot encompass things done with a conscious mind, even by accident or under duress, so its definition is narrowed to acts conducted while unconscious, asleep, hypnotized, or seizing. This definition is confusing enough, but to add to the confusion, sometimes the criminal law switches between the colloquial use of “involuntary” and the strict legal definition!

    Ugh! So how does a simple word like “involuntary” have so many conflicting meanings?

    Technical jargon sometimes conflicts with popular understandings of what a word means. When a specialized technical register exists (say, in law or in science), it often develops independently of colloquial usage, mainly because the technical and colloquial register would never interact with each other. So we might imagine a legal scholar ages and ages ago, grappling with the idea of unconscious criminal acts, coming up with two types of acts: involuntary and voluntary, based on the popular understanding of those terms. Over time, other legal scholars might have found limitations in the popular definitions and sought to narrow down their meanings. When the two worlds collide (in John’s criminal trial proceedings, for example), we get confused at the strange, specific usage of apparently familiar terms.

    Another popular example of this discrepancy between popular and technical jargon is the term “theory.” In scientific research, a “theory” is a model used to explain a natural phenomenon. A theory must stand up to rigorous testing and extensive peer-reviewed research before it can be called as such.

    In contrast, our popular understanding of the word “theory” is closer to the meaning of “hypothesis”–an unproved hunch about how a natural phenomenon might work. Disparaging the theory of evolution by natural selection, for example, as “just a theory” subscribes to this colloquial sense, even though evolution by natural selection, like other scientific theories (e.g., the theory of gravitation, germ theory), is a nearly-universally-accepted model of how a natural phenomenon works.

    But why the discrepancy? Why can’t we just all agree that a word means what it means?

    Complex social and individual forces determine the particular meaning ascribed to a word. As I have described above, the same word might mean different things in different contexts. The same word might also carry different social valence in various groups (such as the N-word among some African-Americans versus other racial groups, or vulgar profanity among some social classes versus others).

    Whether a word can have an inherent, inalienable meaning is hotly debated among linguists. I am skeptical that a word can ever have an inherent meaning. Some language prescriptivists (see John’s great post about Americanisms below), especially dictionary authors, believe otherwise.

    Dictionaries record definitions that are meant to document common usages, to be used in a particular speech community at a particular time. An English dictionary from the year 800 (if it existed) would be useless to us today [whether that language could be considered English at all is another topic altogether]. Several entries in a British dictionary would be useless in America today, and vice versa. Do you know what “pukka” means? It’s a word in Indian English: ostensibly a variety of the same language we know, but loaded with terms whose meanings we will never be able to deduce without context or explication.

    Indeed, context is crucial for deducing what particular meaning you are referring to– not only technical contexts (such as law) but also the speech community, register, geographic location, social class, ethnicity, etc. When I say “table,” am I referring to the thing with a flat surface and four (or three? or six?) supporting legs? Or am I telling you to “table” a discussion for our next meeting? Or am I studying the water “table”? Going to “table” for my local non-profit? Maybe “table” is New Jersey slang for the shape of The Situation’s hair.

    Language changes. Languages changes across contemporaneous speech communities (so my New Jersey terminology might be slightly different from John’s Virginia vocab) but it also changes over time. For example, many of the words we use today are derived from French terms (whose origins themselves are in Latin, and so on and so on) with narrower, broader, or completely different senses than their present English definitions.

    Words cannot have inherent meanings when their very existence is so tenuous and malleable.

    Lewis Carroll, in creating the character of Humpty Dumpty (see above), suggested the doctrine of “stipulative definition,” meaning that we can make words mean whatever we want, as long as we explain ourselves beforehand. Scholar Michael Hancher (in the linked article) disagrees, saying that a word’s meaning must be constructed by the commons — we all must agree on what a word means, and by doing so, we give it meaning. This becomes a complex, thorny issue when we consider how many different “commons”–that is, speech communites–exist in our world.

    So, Humpty Dumpty, a word can’t be just what you make it to mean. Sorry. We all have to come to a consensus in each of the languages we speak, whether in a colloquial context (John hit the pedestrian involuntarily) or in a technical context (John did not commit an involuntary act) or in some other context.

    Navigating this wonderful, awful complexity, I think, is one of the privileges, and prices, of participating in many different speech communities at once. The alternative, of course, is living in isolation, like Humpty Dumpty (and we know how that turned out…).

    • The Diacritics 5:34 pm on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary, but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.” [In simpler terms: the usefulness of dictionaries in a courtroom is limited, because statutes may have specific, unique meanings in mind. –s.p.] — Judge Learned Hand, Cabell v. Markham, 148 F. 2d 737

    • johnwcowan 10:58 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Note that table a discussion (or motion) means something different in North America than elsewhere: to take something off the table, rather than to put it on the table.

    • stuartnz 5:18 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Did Lewis Carroll suggest the doctrine of stipulative definition, or was he mocking it, in a sort of reductio ad absurdum style? At least one Carroll biographer I’ve read suggests the latter, which would fit with his mathematician’s prescriptivist pedantry.

  • The Diacritics 10:48 am on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

  • The Diacritics 12:58 am on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Awesome sentences (Part I of II) 

    posted by John

    One of the coolest things about language, and perhaps the single factor that allowed it to arise from the other basic human cognitive faculties, is recursion. Recursion, essentially, refers to the fact that human language is infinite, that there can be no longest sentence. What’s more, language possesses the property of being ‘discretely infinite,’ which means that you can make an infinite number of infinitely long utterances from a finite number of constituent parts. This is an ability unique to humans—no other animal has demonstrated the capacity for recursive language. Aren’t we special!

    One way in which recursion manifests itself is in what’s known as ’embedding.’ This is nothing more than the ability to say [The girl [that Sandeep likes] is cute]. The brackets indicate that what we see is one sentence embedded within another. This has been used by linguists to show that language has a hierarchical structure and not a linear one, as ‘that Sandeep likes’ interrupts the matrix sentence ‘the girl is cute’ (a cool topic itself, to which I might turn in a later post).

    The only thing limiting the amount of embedding we can do is what’s known as ‘processing capacity,’ which refers to the simple fact that our brains can only keep track of so many embedded structures at once.

    But the problem of processing does lead to some really and truly cool sentences. These are technically grammatical sentences that seem utterly incomprehensible because they exceed our brain’s processing capacity. Give these sentences a try (only the first two are technically processing problems, the third is just interesting):

    1. Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.
    2. The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed.
    3. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

    If you understood any of these sentences on your first read (and haven’t seen them before), you have super-human processing capacity. If they made almost no sense, then you’re probably more like the rest of us. Let’s see if we can parse them out.

    What is so amazing about the first sentence is that if I had written “Bulldogs bulldogs fight fight,” you probably would have understood it. But when I add the second embedded clause (or rather when Noam Chomsky did, and I later pirated it for this post), it starts to look more like a fight song from a famous university than an English sentence. It can be parsed as follows: [Bulldogs [bulldogs [bulldogs fight] fight] fight]. What it actually means is: Bulldogs, whom bulldogs who fight other bulldogs fight, also, themselves, fight.

    In the second sentence, we would, if we had the capacity, understand that a girl screamed because a cake hit her. The cake was baked by a baker that the owner fired. But when we read it as I wrote it above, all we see is a string of nouns followed by a string of verbs. To make it more comprehensible, we can say it as follows: The girl screamed because she was hit by the cake that the baker, who was fired by the owner, baked. Try adding more layers—it’s mindboggling.

    The last sentence, on a first read, seems impossible. But take a clue from the fact that in several instances the word ‘buffalo’ is capitalized—like the city. Here, we’re dealing with a single word that can act as a plural noun (the animal), an adjective (from the city Buffalo), and a verb (meaning to bully or intimidate). Thus we have: Animals from Buffalo that animals from Buffalo bully bully [other] animals from Buffalo.

    Isn’t language cool? Part two is coming soon. I’ll be writing about so-called garden path sentences. Things like, “The horse raced past the barn fell.”  Stay tuned!!

    • The Diacritics 11:05 am on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      a further explanation by John

      Even after you’ve seen explanations for the sentences above, they can be confusing. For most people, they are incomprehensible. Part of the point is that it really is too much for our brains to keep track of. If you do want to actually ‘get’ these sentences, the easiest way to do so is to start from a point that still make sense, then add more nested layers:

      For ‘bulldogs,’ we already saw [Bulldogs [bulldogs fight] (also) fight]. Not so bad, if a little weird. Now we can try adding the third, and seriously confusing layer. [Bulldogs [bulldogs bulldogs fight fight] (also) fight]. Parsing it here again, the first ‘bulldogs’ who are fought by bulldogs that other bulldogs fight, also do some fighting of their own.

      For the second embedding sentence, see if doing this helps: [The girl [the cake hit] screamed]. That’s easy. Much more difficult is: [The girl [the cake the baker baked hit] screamed] (leaving out the innermost brackets makes this version easier to get). That one is already more than your brain normally can do. Finally, then, you have [The girl [the cake [the baker the owner fired baked] hit] screamed].

      • pam 7:00 am on August 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        I really enjoyed this post. 🙂 Hello John! I don’t know you, i’m one of Sandeep’s friends from Melbourne. Anyways – i think it’s a great thing you guys are doing. Am still trying to understand the buffalo sentence. one day i’ll get it. 🙂

        • pam 7:10 am on August 26, 2011 Permalink

          Finally got it!! Haha you know what really helped? Replacing “Buffalo” with other words in the same word class. I have read the word buffalo more times in the last 5 minutes than i have my entire life, i think. thank you.

          Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
          Boston cows [which] Boston cows bully [also] bully Boston cows.

          these aren’t very nice buffalo at all.

        • The Diacritics 3:39 pm on August 27, 2011 Permalink

          glad you got it! and actually you can do even more buffalos if you want:

          Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

          Or, if newspaper headlines can be considered grammatical sentences of english (Man finds body in river (or something)), here’s another one:

          Set set set set set set set set set set.

  • The Diacritics 8:25 pm on August 21, 2011 Permalink | Reply

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    James Nicoll, author
  • The Diacritics 6:36 am on August 21, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Like its nouns, Latin continues to decline.

    “Vivat Latinitas!” Slate Magazine (http://www.slate.com/id/2302020/)
  • The Diacritics 5:41 am on August 21, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Americanisms: they shouldn’t be so annoying to people from England 

    posted by John

    Almost a month ago now, Sandeep sent me the following article about “Americanisms” that annoy our English-speaking counterparts several thousand miles to the east. I was originally planning a post about the use of “you’re welcome” in different languages as my first contribution to the blog, but I’ve since decided I’d prefer to introduce myself otherwise.

    Here is the article linked in full. If you feel the need to get your blood boiling, then by all means read the whole thing. It consists of a list of 50 popular complaints sent into the BBC by Brits around the US and England. Here are a few of their least favorite selections from our apparently ghastly lexicon:

    “#11. Transportation. What’s wrong with transport? Greg Porter, Hercules, CA, US
    #12. The word I hate to hear is “leverage”. Pronounced lev-er-ig rather than lee-ver -ig. It seems to pop up in all aspects of work. And its meaning seems to have changed to “value added”. Gareth Wilkins, Leicester . . .
    #18. Take-out rather than takeaway! Simon Ball, Worcester
    . . .
    #25″Normalcy” instead of “normality” really irritates me. Tom Gabbutt, Huddersfield
    #26. As an expat living in New Orleans, it is a very long list but “burglarize” is currently the word that I most dislike. Simon, New Orleans”

    Some of the entries concern themselves with misunderstood phrases, like “It’s a doggy-dog world out there” instead of a “dog-eat-dog” one. James from Somerset England points out one such example:

    “My favourite one was where Americans claimed their family were “Scotch-Irish”. This of course it totally inaccurate, as even if it were possible, it would be “Scots” not “Scotch”, which as I pointed out is a drink.”

    Phrases like this one, while they make interesting examples of how language changes in the first place, are often rather funny to point out. Until I was 12 or 13, I thought that the phrase meaning “to try really hard to do something” was to make a “conceited” instead of a “concerted” effort.

    Other Americanisms that made the list, including the ones listed above, aren’t so good-natured. Indeed, the derision is palpable in the contributing Britons’ outcry against the ugly American habit of calling an expiry date an expiration date, or full stop a period. How appalling it is that the letter Z is zee not zed, or that a shopping cart isn’t a shopping trolley, or that biweekly is not fortnightly. The list is a long one. Ultimately, though, it is a fundamental linguistic misconception that informs these opinions of American usage. It is pointing out and correcting this misconception that I want to make the real substance of my first post. And if I can use this article to do it– and thereby show the reader its arrogance, and in a real sense its incorrectness– then that’s good too.

    The fundamental misunderstanding I’m talking about is that of linguistic prescriptivism. To quote Jesse Sheidlower from the AtlanticOnline, “Prescriptivism involves the laying down of rules by those claiming to have special knowledge of or feeling for a language. Prescriptive advice tends to be conservative, changes being regarded with suspicion if not disdain.”(Elegant Variation and All That. December 1996). Style guides and English teachers claiming, for example, that we must not split our infinitives or use ‘impact’ as a verb are being prescriptive.

    The problem is that prescriptivists do not base their rules or assumptions on what real people actually say in normal conversation. Prescriptive rules are what may be considered ‘grammatically correct,’ but they are often far behind the times when it comes to what we might hear walking down the street. They are also different from the grammar we acquire as children–so different, in fact, that they are actually called ‘viruses’ by some linguists. A virus is essentially what happens when a rule taught to a person outside of his or her actual grammar takes over and ‘infects’ the natural usage in other contexts. For example, many people find themselves saying “She gave it to Hannah and I” because they have been taught to say, “Hannah and I went to the park.” For many of us, this latter form truly does seem better, but if you record large amounts of natural human conversation, most people actually say, “Me and Hannah went to the park.” The taught form, “Hannah and I,” which is not part of the grammar acquired by the child initially, then spreads to places where “I” has no business whatsoever (i.e. as a direct object). True, “me” is not normally a subject, but for must people, when both I and my friend Hannah are involved, it is always “me and Hannah.” And by the way, “me” does function as a subject sometimes (“Me too” or “It’s me”).

    The case of the British critique of Americanisms is simply an exaggerated version of the Hannah and I issue or the issue of whom becoming who. Simply put, language changes over time. It starts with the simplification of things like whom to who and with idiosyncratic changes like the acceptance of me and Hannah. It ends with different dialects, idioms, usages, and, eventually, different languages altogether. It is the ignorance of this fact demonstrated by the article from the BBC that so bugs me, and I hope I’ve explained it well enough to make it bug you, too.

    The reader might at this point wish to ask why, being so anti-prescriptivist, I am writing, or trying to write, with ‘proper grammar.’ It’s a good question and a fair one. I don’t want to spend too much time on the issue of ‘registers’ here, but basically, if I’m writing or speaking in a formal context, I should write or speak in a formal register–using formal rules of grammar. I should say “Hannah and I.” If I’m chatting in an informal setting, I should leave prepositions hanging and split infinitives– that’s simply how people talk. Neither of these, I’ll stress, is more correct than the other in any sort of absolute sense. It is simply that in certain circumstances, certain manners of speaking are considered to be more appropriate. That’s all I’ll say here, but if you want more on registers, see Sandeep’s column in the Duke Chronicle about the issue: http://dukechronicle.com/article/work-and-play-hard

    Now, just for fun, I want to take on one of the British claims to linguistic superiority. The example I’ll choose is the British maths versus the American math. “Surely the most irritating is: ‘You do the Math,’” Mathew Zealey of London writes. “Math? It’s MATHS.” True, the long form of the word is mathematics. But do you say (or might one in theory say) mathematics IS or mathematics ARE fun? How about gymnastics IS or gymnastics ARE fun? Is Chris Matthews incorrect when he writes (quoting a famous senator) that “all politics IS local”? Mathematics, just like gymnastics and politics, is a singular word. We would never call a politician a pols, just as we would never say “Maths are the hardest subject for me” (or maybe a good example is “Maths are the hardest subject(s)* for me,” meaning that if you wanted to say “maths”, you would need to say that “subjects” was plural as well–the asterisk indicates that the sentence is unacceptable without the ‘s’ at the end of subjects). Why would we think it is correct to add an ‘s’ to the end of a singular abbreviation? Clearly the American version is better!

    But, of course, it isn’t– it would be ridiculous for me to say that calling mathematics maths is in some real sense wrong. There’s a simple linguistic explanation for it that I’m certain the reader has already guessed. This development in British English occurred because the non-pluralizing final s was mistaken for a plural s, and over time the pronunciation caught on. The American math simply took another track. That’s how language works. It’s how language changes and evolves–and culture right along with it.

    True, when it’s the British calling American English silly, perhaps nothing beyond pride is vulnerable to attack, but often there is much more staked on considerably smaller differences. It happens within our own American brand of English, too. Many Americans believe that a person who speaks in African American Vernacular English (more commonly called Ebonics) is at best uneducated or illiterate, and at worst perhaps even dangerous. A southern drawl, too, is often associated with something between racism, drunkenness, and stupidity. These are themselves dangerous assumptions, and they are predicated upon the same fallacious understanding of linguistic change that makes the BBC’s article so annoying. So next time you hear someone spout a double negative, drop a slow twanged r, or simply say orientate instead of orient, try to remember that many of your own precious usages were once cringe-worthy deviations from the standard. Don’t take it for granite that you know better—for all intensive purposes, it’s best to assume you don’t.

    • Bill Walsh 12:27 pm on September 6, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Ah, but “really trying hard” is a common misunderstanding of what “concerted” means!

      • The Diacritics 1:58 pm on September 6, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        But I protest! Dictionary.com confirms: strenuously carried out; done with great effort.

      • Kennings 12:34 am on February 19, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        A question:

        Is it not “to/for all intents and purposes”—which is what I commonly hear in the UK? Or is “all intensive purposes” American usage?

        • Sandeep Prasanna 7:11 am on February 21, 2012 Permalink

          Yes. “For all intents and purposes” is correct on both sides of the pond. John was making a joke at the end.

        • Kennings 2:17 pm on February 21, 2012 Permalink

          My bad – I’ve just re-read the piece and noticed the humour. You miss a lot speed-reading at 5 am. DIdn’t notice the intentional eggcorn.

        • Sandeep Prasanna 5:17 am on February 23, 2012 Permalink

          Haha, yes, we do miss a lot speed-reading at 5 am… that is one of the lessons I’ve learned in law school so far.

    • stuartnz 5:27 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Of course, the other amusing thing about the rant list you mention is that many of the pet peeves listed are not even imports from American English anyway. I was also entertained by your choice of “maths” for a rebuttal. On a forum devoted to Hindi cinema, much derision was heaped on one film’s subtitles for using “maths” by US readers who insisted that it is was clearly a mistake of quite spectacular stupidity. Prescriptivism is definitely not pukka.

    • Bander Alfraikh 4:12 pm on September 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I had to look up the word “normalicy” to see how it fared over the years. The 1st ed. (1969) of the AHD has an an entry for the word with a note on usage. It says, “Normalicy is widely employed in standard usage. It is disapproved by some, however , as a needless alternative to normality, coined outside the normal pattern of the language. It is unacceptable in writing to 59 per cent of the [dictionary’s] Usage Panel”. In the 4th ed. (2000) there is no entry. Websters does have an entry. Perhaps, American English is better off without the word. Imagine if another president coined another word, and then another president coined still another wouldn’t Americans be now talking about the “President English “? Americans are lucky to have imigrated in the 1620’s. The work of Shakespear, Swift and other literary figures was still fresh on their memories, This may have immensely affected the development of American English.

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