Updates from November, 2011 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • The Diacritics 11:43 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chaucer, , language and gender, new york times, on language, , singular they,   

    They, their, and them 

    (posted by John)

    We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

    And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

    -Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular 'they.'

    This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

    “And every one to rest themselves betake.”

    -Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

    “Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

    -Lord Byron, letter, 1805

    “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

    -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

    Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

    “She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

    -Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

    “. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

    -C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

    Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

    Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

     “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

    On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

    For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

    However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiser or shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

    One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

    Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know! 

    • johnwcowan 11:54 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “Man is the only animal who menstruates.” –old biology textbook

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: lolcat, nom nom, om nom, onomatopoeia   

    Om nom nom 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In honor of Thanksgiving (and my last day of classes for the semester!), I thought I’d pick a little lighter subject today: eating. Specifically, the sound most Americans will be making later today: “om nom.”

    According to Urbandictionary.com, om nom (pronounced [a:m na:m]) is:

    An onomatopoeical adjective based on the sound emitted when something is “oh so tasty” (either through hunger or flavorological value) that one gnaws through it without regard to cleanliness or etiquette. This sort of ravenous eating will often result in an “om nom nom nom” noise being emitted from the eater.

    “Om nom” is so popular now as an onomatopoeic representation of eating that it’s become a pervasive Internet meme. The conventional wisdom is that the “om nom” meme was started by none other than famous television eater Cookie Monster (who has, in fact, since learned to eat healthier):

    “Om nom” and its cousin, “nom nom,” are frequently used by LOLcats, those charming (and only occasionally annoying) grammar-deficient cats who have nested on the Internet’s message boards and email chains.

    For example:

    There is a whole site, omnomnomnom.com, dedicated to pictures of everyday objects drawn with eyes and teeth, seemingly devouring other things.

    This is a picture of the St. Louis Arch eating a building. (It says “Om nom nom nom!” at the bottom.)

    Cats can make the “om nom” sound in real life too, apparently:

    According to a Wikipedia list of cross-linguistic onomatopoeias, “om nom” is in good company. The French say “miam miam,” the Italians “gnam gnam,” the Spanish “ñam ñam,” and the Swedes “nam nam.” The Japanese apparently say “mogu mogu,” but nobody asked them, anyway.

    Finally, here is an interview of Cookie Monster, who explains the origin of om nom.

    Happy Thanksgiving, and try not to “om nom” too loud at the table.

    • Khadijah Élisabeth 10:06 am on November 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Interesting bit of etymology 🙂 Keep posting – I look forward to all your articles in my inbox.

    • BeSlayed 11:13 am on November 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I thought “om nom nom” was the noise Buddhists made when eating.

    • johnwcowan 4:45 pm on November 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      This John Wells Phonetic Blog posting provides further discussion, and shows that the term long predates Cookie Monster, at least in some languages. I think my comment on Iban nyam-nyam ‘tasteless, insipid’ is particularly interesting — but then I would, wouldn’t I.

    • France 1:32 pm on November 25, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Incidentally, Italian (gnam gnam) and Spanish (ñam ñam) pronunciations are exactly the same.

  • The Diacritics 12:14 pm on November 21, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: apple, , , legalese, license agreement, south park,   

    The importance of legalese 

    (posted by John)

    One thing most people like even less than lawyers is the legalese that they have made so ubiquitous in our lives. By legalese, I mean the legal speak that we see in things like insurance policies and licensing agreements. It’s something we deal with all the time—we see it in our cell phone bills, our apartment leases, every time we update iTunes.  Of course, if you’re like most people (see the pie chart), you’ve never actually read (or agreed to?) the terms of your agreement with Apple. We don’t read these enormously long, technical, and boring documents at least in part because even if we knew what they said, we couldn’t do anything about it. We have no individual power to bargain with Apple, so we can take their terms or leave them. It’s not worth Apple’s time to bargain with any one customer, because it would be more expensive to deploy legal teams to ‘dicker’ over terms with individual customers than it would be to simply let go those customers that don’t like the terms. 

    These types of agreements are called ‘contracts of adhesion.’ They were considered a brilliant development when they came about in the business world because they helped drastically limit the legal costs of firms. Companies that developed standardized forms to deal with their customers en masse gained a huge advantage over those that had to create unique documents for each transaction. Today they’re a hallmark of the corporate world, but most of us just find them impersonal and generally annoying . . . or at least I do.

    That doesn’t answer the question, though, of whether we should we be reading the terms of agreement. For things like Facebook or iTunes, I tend to go on the assumption that someone out there has read the terms and made sure they don’t contain anything too bad. This, my contracts professor assures me, is a stupid thing to assume, though even after several months in his class, I personally am no closer to understanding the terms I’m agreeing to. But I guess my professor must be on to something—as South Park, in its wisdom, shows us, you should be careful about signing on the dotted line (or clicking I Agree), else you might end up agreeing to participate in human experiments run by Apple. (This clip basically sums up the post, if you’re short on time…)

    But even for all of its annoyingness, legalese is important. One of the major topics in contract law deals with the question of how we know when a binding agreement has actually been made. If, for example, you said to your friend, “I’d give you a million bucks for the rest of that hot dog,” it seems pretty clear you’re not making a serious agreement. But it’s not always that obvious. We read a case earlier this year in which two guys at a bar (one probably drunk, the other probably pretending to be) wrote an agreement on a napkin for the sale of a farm. When the drunk guy eventually sobered up, he tried to say one of two things: either, (1), the whole discussion had been in jest, that they had been laughing and joking about him selling the farm, because the other guy knew he’d never actually want to sell it; or, (2), he was drunk and not of sound mind at the time, so there was no enforceable agreement. But the courts enforced the napkin contract, and the guy had to sell his property.

    The question of when we’re making a serious agreement, of when we wish to bind ourselves, is not an easy one. One of the most effective ways we have dealt with it is by developing the lexicon of legalese that, today, is often embodied by what we see in those annoying standardized forms. This legalese helps us in a couple of ways in particular.  First, when we use it, it shows we actually intend to be bound. When you know certain words have the power to bind you, then you won’t use them unless you’re serious. Second, when we notice a person we’re talking to is using legalese, it puts us on notice that that person is being serious. Even if you know nothing about the law of contracts, when someone mentions getting a lawyer involved, writing down “terms,” or actually signing a piece of paper, you quickly realize they aren’t kidding around and that you shouldn’t keep going unless you aren’t either.

    That’s why the courts ended up enforcing the napkin contract—even though it was written on a napkin, it was still written, and it contained all of the hallmarks of a serious agreement. The guy should have recognized that fact and known not to sign the napkin unless he was serious too.[1] It’s also how Kyle ended up in trouble with Apple after not reading his license agreement (see the South Park link above). That’s the importance of legalese; when we use it, we know it has special power to bind us to our word. To put it differently, once your friend writes your offer for his hotdog on the wrapper, you shouldn’t sign it unless that hotdog is looking, literally, like a million bucks.

    [1] The court also said that he wouldn’t have been able to draw up such a detailed contract with all of the necessary bits and pieces that would normally make it binding if he had been drunk, so the contract couldn’t be eliminated on those grounds either…

    • johnwcowan 1:33 pm on November 21, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Fortunately for us all, contracts of adhesion are construed strictly against their creators, and this is so (in most jurisdictions) notwithstanding any language in the contract that attempts to opt out of the strict construal rule. Public policy does still rule in a few parts of the law, and “a dirty dog will get no dinner from the courts”.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , email, , , , grammar b, , , , written language   

    The effects of txt 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

    We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

    Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

    Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

    Winston Weathers.

    It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

    But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

    So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

    Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

    Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

    World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

    If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

    So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.


    I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

    In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

    This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

    But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

    For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

    What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

    Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

    We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)

    • Lane 10:58 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In my book I argued that really successful prescriptivism, which enforces the rules of “Grammar A” religiously in writing and encourages them sternly in “proper” speech, leads inevitably to diglossia in the long run. My exhibits are Arabic, with its early, successful prescriptive grammar tradition freezing Classical Arabic while spoken Arabic changed normally over the centuries; and French, where nearly 400 years of a French Academy has also frozen a formal version of the language that no one speaks. (An alien linguist would give the French verb paradigm as “je parl, tu parl, il parl, on parl, vous parlé, il parl.” Our alien would conclude that one negative particle, “pas”, is sufficient in nearly all cases. Etc.)

      So I think even those who value stability in formal language must either let Grammar A (I’d just say “writing”) change gradually in line with natural change in Grammar B (“speech”), or watch diglossia take root, with its inevitable plaints that “nobody speaks real Arabic anymore.”

      • The Diacritics 3:35 pm on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Fantastic. Is that “You Are What You Speak”? Can’t wait to read it over winter break.

  • The Diacritics 11:10 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: brad pitt, , , inglourious basterds, , movies, tarantino, , west wing, world war II   

    Language in the movies 

    (Posted by John)

    Check out this clip of an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt.  They’re talking about Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds.  If you don’t know, the movie is a World War II revenge fantasy in which a group of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, undertakes a plot to kill Hitler.  It’s a pretty fantastic movie, especially for the way it uses language as a tool. While most World War II movies avoid the language issues that might arise (everyone speaks English—their accent reveals where they’re actually from), Inglourious embraces language as a means both to drive the plot and to develop suspense. (watch from 12:06, where the clip starts, to about 13:45)

    In his movie, Tarantino’s talking about building suspense in particular in a couple of scenes. The first one is the opening scene of the movie, in which the movie’s Jewish heroine is hiding under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house in France.  An SS agent comes in search of Shoshana and her family.  He is able to draw out a confession from the homeowner without alerting the hidden family that he’s found them out. And he’s able to do it because he switches from French, which the Jewish family understands, to English, which they don’t. Here’s a clip from part of that scene, after Landa has switched to English.

    Here is the exchange that happens a bit later:

    SS Col. Hans Landa: You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?

    Perrier LaPadite[softly] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: You’re sheltering them underneath your floorboards, aren’t you.

    Perrier LaPadite[tears forming in his eyes] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: Point out to me the areas where they are hiding. [LaPadite points with his pipe; Landa walks over and stands on top of that area, gesturing with his own pipe for confirmation] Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English.

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes.

    Col. Hans Landa: I’m going to switch back to French now. I want you to follow my masquerade, is that clear?

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes

    Col. Hans Landa[in French] Monsieur LaPadite, I thank you for the milk and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done. [walks over to the door and opens it] Ah, ladies. I thank you for your time. [booted Wehrmacht soldiers troop inside and position themselves] We shan’t be bothering your family any longer. So, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, I bid farewell to you and say: adieu!        [Soldiers open fire on the floorboards, killing the Dreyfuses]

    Another scene, probably the most suspenseful of the whole movie, is at a German bar behind enemy lines. A group of Allied soldiers are meeting an informant (Frau Hammersmark) there, but they’re interrupted by a nosy SS officer.  He becomes suspicious of the undercover Allies by detecting subtle differences between the accent that the British officer speaks German with. He doesn’t ultimately discover the man’s nationality, though, until the Brit asks for “three glasses” using the British/American hand signal for “three” (index, middle, ring fingers), instead of the German one (thumb, index, middle).

    (The most relevant parts are the first 3 minutes and  ~10:20-11:00. The whole scene is there though–it gets graphic at the end, so beware.)

    The idea of using linguistic data as a sort of defense goes back to biblical times and the story of the Shibboleth. One side in a war couldn’t pronounce the sh sound at the beginning of the word shibboleth, pronouncing it instead as sibboleth. This alerted the other side that they were dealing with their enemies.

    Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
    —Judges 12:5-6, NJB
    Of course, things like this are always easier to explain with a West Wing clip:
    Anyway, I think that Tarantino makes a good point–as he says, I don’t buy that Clint Eastwood speaks perfect German. Those differences in language should be exploited to make a better movie…though I hope our military isn’t taking any cues from Brad Pitt as Aldo, trying to speak Italian.
  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bushel, customary system, , english system, gallons, , imperial system, kilometers, league, liters, metric system, miles   

    Stop! Don’t move a centimeter! 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    “You know I’d walk 1609.3 kilometers if I could just see you tonight.” – Vanessa Carlton’s famous ballad, A Thousand Six Hundred and Nine and Three Tenths Kilometers

    A few reasons why we need to keep the customary system of measurement in America:

    • That’s a nice 37.9-liter hat!
    • It hit me like 907.2 kilograms of bricks.
    • He’s buried 1.83 meters under.
    • Give a man 25.4 millimeters, and he’ll take 1.61 kilometers.
    • I’ve got 907.2 kilograms of work to do tonight.
    • He didn’t feel 28.3 grams of regret for his actions.
    • He went the whole 8.23 meters.

    Okay, okay, to be fair, I should use nice, round numbers in these phrases. But does “You know I’d walk a thousand kilometers if I could just see you tonight” sound any better? “Stop! Don’t move a centimeter!”

    There’s something about the customary system that lends itself better to flowing rhetoric. What is it? Maybe it’s that the metric system is so closely tied to science, a decidedly unpoetic field. Maybe it’s similar to the general Germanic-Latinate perception distinction in English (although the metric system is mostly ultimately derived from Greek), where Germanic words are perceived as simpler and earthier, whereas Latinate words are perceived as haughty and highfalutin. Maybe it’s something else altogether.

    There are plenty of reasons to adopt the metric system in the US. But will we lose these expressions if/when the US finally switches over? The United Kingdom partially adopted the metric system in 1965. However, the imperial (customary) system remains widespread. Today, official signs use the imperial and metric systems side by side.

    Does full metrication mean the eventual loss of these great, useful English phrases? If our children and grandchildren only learn the metric system, would a phrase like “Don’t move an inch!” even carry any meaning?

    Would we even be aware of units like “peck” (“a peck of pickled peppers”) or “league” (“20,000 leagues under the sea”) if they weren’t used in common phrases?

    In the UK, where the customary system is supposed to exist side-by-side with the metric system, more obscure customary units are well on their way out (via Google Ngram):



    But more common customary units seem to be hanging on pretty robustly:

    miles vs. kilometres

    gallons vs. litres

    Google Ngram gets its results from the Google Books collection, a corpus that doesn’t include scientific journals (which would be bound to use the metric system, at least for the last hundred years). So despite partial metrication in the UK, customary units like miles and gallons are still widely used in non-scientific written works. Still, you can see a sharp down-tick in the use of “miles” and “gallons” (and a sharp uptick in the use of “km”) around 1965, when the UK officially adopted partial metrication.

    It’s conceivable that units like “miles” and “gallons” could be considered obscure, generations from now, after full metrication in the US and the UK. Maybe then we’d substitute in “kilometers” and “liters” in our figurative language. But I’m more inclined to think that they have more staying power than “bushel” or “peck” or “league,” if only for the volume of common phrases and ideas that they’re used in. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, a premature nostalgia.

    Questions I don’t have the answer to, but hope that somebody does:

    • Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?
    • Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.
    • The Diacritics 9:30 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It’s pretty common in swimming and diving. we say 100m pool and 3m diving board–we especially wouldn’t say that a pool has a 3 yard diving board.

      • The Diacritics 10:58 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Sorry — I should have clarified. Common figurative or poetic phrases that use the metric system. -Sandeep

    • Mark 10:23 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m British. As far as I know I’m typical of British people, at least those of my age (I’d expect older people to use metric less – though my 60 year old parents learnt only metric at school)

      I use miles and mph when driving, because I have mph on my speedo and road signs are all in miles and mph.

      When walking I sometimes use miles and sometimes km – km are handy because maps have 1km grid squares. Altitudes always in metres.

      Pints to me are what you drink in the pub. They’re not really a measure of volume otherwise. I don’t think I’d ever use gallons.

      I use inches and feet for rough estimated sizes in conversation. I would never measure anything in them (it annoys me that most tape measures are dual unit, you can get metric only ones but they’re hard to find)

      • The Diacritics 11:45 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        In the US, our speedometers have both miles and kilometers, but the kilometers are much smaller (and pretty hard to see) than the mile markers. Presumably it’s for drivers who travel to Canada and need to check their speed against metric road signs. What do the speedometers in Britain look like — are mph and kph the same size, or is one larger than the other?

    • sscandel 12:27 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’ve often thought it funny that here in Canada, where we’ve been officially fully metric since the late ’70s, standard measurements still dominate the common language. When we talk about our weights or heights we talk in pounds, feet and inches, but the doctor will measure us in kilos and centimetres. Odd as it may seem, this is now only sometimes confusing. Imperial measurements have a way of holding on. Many industries still use SI measurements, and most of the phrases you mention are still used here.

    • 456 5:14 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In Germany (fully metricated for ages), the words for old measurements are still well-known and are used in set phrases, most people know more or less what they mean (i.e., they know a pint is about half a litre, rather than knowing it’s 568ml(UK)/493ml(US)). But they don’t get much poetic use, maybe a parallel to your Vanessa Carlton example would be this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmUjoQ8rS-Y

      As for common English phrases, I think anything involving ton(ne) could be seen as ambiguous, especially from a UK/Aus/NZ/etc speaker. And there’s always the phrase “metric fuck ton” which is unambiguous. I have heard “he didn’t feel a gramme of remorse”, and “two metres under”. The general rule about metric units flowing naturally in speech in the UK seems to be that you have to use the basic form, so metres, grammes (and sometimes kilos), litres – phrases involving the milli-, centi-, bits wouldn’t be idiomatic. The phrases with imperial measurements remain much more common though, even when the units aren’t precisely known (e.g., my partner who grew up in the UK always has to look up how heavy a pound is in kilos, but has plenty of phrases with pound in them in his active vocabulary (“pound for pound”, etc).

      I think “league” at least might stick around for a while in the UK, because most school children seem to end up studying The Charge of the Light Brigade (“Half a league onward, into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”).

      • The Diacritics 11:44 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for the insight, especially for that song — it gives Vanessa Carlton a run for her money.

    • Licia 6:57 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Italy is fully metric and yet we still use some idiomatic expressions with the Italian equivalent of "mile”,  e.g. sentire/vedere/capire lontano un miglio (hear/see/understand from a mile off), which however coexists with lontano un chilometro. Another expression, essere lontano mille miglia (literally, "to be one thousand miles afar", meaning to be very far away / to be miles apart) is unlikely to be replaced because the alliteration /’mille ‘miʎʎa/ works well in Italian (mille and miglia are actually doublets).

      • The Diacritics 11:46 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        It’s interesting that the two idiomatic expressions coexist. Is one more appropriate in certain situations?

    • Danielle 8:44 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sandeep!!!!!

      a) I take issue with your statement that science is “a decidedly unpoetic field”. Whatever happened to fractals and Fibonacci sequences in nature? Or the concept of convergent evolution?

      b) Expressions are great. But the metric system has so much utility. Expressions <<<< not having to memorize a bajillion conversion factors.

      c) On I-89 in Vermont, there is one highway sign which shows distances to control cities in kilometers. (Update: Wikipedia says those signs were replaced in 2010. Bummer.) Do you know anything about why this is? Other than that Washington County, Vermont, is relatively close to Canada, why would this particular sign in this particular location mark distances in metric?

      • The Diacritics 8:55 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Hi Dani!

        a) Science can be poetic. But science doesn’t present itself as a field concerned with aesthetics — it’s just a natural consequence of the subject matter that things end up being beautiful. On the other hand, poets and writers are deliberately concerned with aesthetics.

        b) For those of us pursuing careers in science (e.g., you), and even to many of us who aren’t, the metric system is far more appealing than the customary system. But that doesn’t mean the customary system is useless — we grew up with the system, so you and I know how much a gallon contains, how much a pound weighs, and how many miles we just ran. It’s a useful skill for us to be able to think in terms of pounds and inches because we’re surrounded by those units. Until the US fully metricates — a massive task — it’ll still be useful to understand these units.
        Also, for the same poets and writers I referenced above, expressions >>>>>> having to convert a bajillion conversion factors.

        c) Interesting! I want to instinctively point to Vermont’s proximity to Canada. To me, that seems like a satisfactory explanation for that one sign. But maybe there are also a lot of Canadian immigrants in Vermont.

        • Danielle 9:01 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink

          c) But there are 13 Northern-more exits and 2 Northern-more counties between this sign and Canada. All of the Northern-more signs display distances in miles. So I’m not sure proximity to Canada is a satisfactory explanation.

          Maybe Waterbury, VT, just has a lot of Canadian immigrants, as you suggested.

          Do you ever think we’ll go fully metric? Somehow, I think our current politicians would find metrification “un-American”.

        • The Diacritics 11:55 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink

          I think the ghost of that metrication attempt in the 70s will continue to haunt any wishful metrication attempts in the near future.

    • Lauren 10:12 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here in Australia we happily embraced the metric system but still kept all the old phrases. I know exactly what it means to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, go the full 9 yards and make sure I don’t give an inch – but we don’t make our children sweat through learning an irregular and outdated measurement system just because of some kind of historical issue with England and France. Perhaps meter-based phrases will eventually and naturally come into existence but there’s no use fretting about losing the old ones while they’re still so deeply ingrained – even in those of us who don’t even know how many feet are in a mile.

      • The Diacritics 11:47 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        5,280, but who’s counting? (It’s sad, but I actually had to look that up!)

    • David 8:50 pm on November 12, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      From an American perspective, the post makes sense. As an Australian, growing up speaking English in a purely metric environment, the post makes no sense at all.

      I would have no qualms saying to someone “don’t move a millimetre” or “the car was leaking litres of oil”. It is really just a question of what you’re used to.

      For vague distances we still say things like “miles away”, but it would be considered a set phrase, and that’s about the extent of imperial measurements in everyday language here.

      • The Diacritics 11:48 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        You’re right that it’s probably a question of what you’re used to. I think to hear “don’t move a millimeter” would be quite jarring to an American.

    • Mats 2:27 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In Swedish, expressions with pre-1875 units are alive and well. Also, the Swedish mile was redefined as ten kilometers, so that’s not an issue either.

      • The Diacritics 11:49 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Interesting! Is there a different word for that? Do you have to qualify it as a “Swedish mile” or is it just “mile” in Swedish? Do you instead have to qualify the imperial mile as being specifically imperial? (Perhaps similar to how Americans have to qualify “tonne” as a “metric ton” to avoid confusion with our unit ton.)

    • Phil 4:52 am on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Question asked, question answered. Phrases involving leagues and pecks survive quite comfortably despite the fact that hardly anyone is able to quantify the measures involved any more. Ditto for the vast majority of people reading the Bible who have no idea what a ‘cubit’ or ‘shekel’ is.

      In Czech, phrases like ‘ani centimetr’ (literally: “not even a centimetre”; figuratively: “Don’t move an inch”) are the norm. I cannot think of a single phrase or idiom involving customary units, though the language has a somewhat uniquely prescriptivist history (esp. in the 19th c.), so perhaps this isn’t quite the natural consequence of metrication.

      The Australian situation is outlined above quite aptly – the nation having metricated in the early 1980s. The phrases are alive and well, even as many of us can only guess at the exact distances involved. But, honestly, is knowing that 9 yards is ~8.25m really that essential to understanding the phrase “go the full 9 yards”? Personally, I find it rather inconsequential.

      • The Diacritics 11:53 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        The case of Czech seems to run counter to our “leagues” and “pecks,” doesn’t it? Maybe the difference is indeed inconsequential — but at some point, some writer has to ask himself why he’s using that phrase, right? And then, presumably, he would discard it altogether and move onto a more commonly understood unit.
        I wonder if it’s America’s fault, due to its role in global media, that customary units have stuck in our language. Maybe English is just itching to move on, like Czech, but it’s being held back by the US.

    • The Diacritics 11:42 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for the responses, everyone — especially the insight from abroad!

    • Kit Grose 11:21 pm on November 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m from Australia. We had converted completely to metric by 1988, with the process starting in 1970.

      I grew up and was taught entirely in the metric system. My knowledge of imperial measurement extends only to conversations with older people who might still ask for 6 inches of something or with landmarks like 7-mile beach.

      The interesting point is that in Australian English, you wouldn’t ever say “don’t move a centimetre”. You’d say “don’t move an inch” or “don’t move”. Its also interesting that (as you mention) we wouldn’t say “907.2 kilograms of bricks”—we’d use “tonne” and be referring to 1,000kg. If we were referring to some number of kilograms, though, we’d almost always say “kilos” (as in “I weigh 80 kilos”).

      Since Australian English is driven by slang we’re often inclined to abbreviate and modify the words we use a lot. If you need to extend something a specific but tiny bit, you might say “give me 5 mills” (referring to millimetres). Since we use “kilo” to refer to weight, we often shorted kilometre to “kay” (as in “50 kays up the road”), or to “click”. We can use both terms to refer equally to distance or speed (since the “per hour” part is inferred; “I was doing 120 clicks” would mean 120 km/h). Just as often we’d drop the unit altogether (doing 120).

      So to answer your questions:

      “Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?”

      No, but we would use (and/or understand) most of the American English phrases you mention.

      “Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.”

      Can’t help here, though.

  • The Diacritics 8:51 am on November 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: aimer, , , , , i love you, ich liebe dich, , je t'aime, love, lust, romance, wo ai ni   

    The language of love 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I love my parents, my brother and my friends. I love Duke and our basketball team. I love my law school, UCLA. I love walks along the Eno River in North Carolina at dawn. And I love the opportunities that my family and my education have afforded me.

    I used the same word—“love”—in all of those sentiments, but I didn’t mean the same thing. To be sure, love is a complex, multifaceted idea in any language. But the unique English colloquial use of the word spans many different meanings, from appreciation to liking to lust to romance. To non-native speakers, the protocols around its use are often perplexing. Hell, even for native English speakers, finding the appropriate moment to say “I love x” can be difficult.

    So let’s try to sort these out. Professing unconditional love to one’s family is common in Anglophone cultures. To tell your friends that you love them is fairly common, too. Saying you love abstract or inanimate things, like a university or a leisurely walk, is a common idiom in English, even though the feeling cannot be reciprocated. “Love” is also thrown around flippantly in situations where reciprocation is either unwanted, unspoken or unexpected. We have different situational terms to describe love, such as “platonic” or “unrequited.” “Love” can also be used as a euphemism for physical relations, from the phrase “making love” to the clever substitution of “love” for a certain four-letter word in clean versions of explicit songs.

    But in English-speaking romantic relationships, the moment when someone looks at his or her partner and says “I love you” is a watershed—a fantastically significant event after which everything supposedly changes. Commitment! Soul mates! Indeed, to say “I love you” requires the courageous expectation that the statement and sentiment will be reciprocated. As any soap opera viewer knows, the seconds after that first “I love you” can be agonizing: Will she or won’t she?

    But imagine for a moment that you’re having a whirlwind romance in Paris. You’re at your favorite café waiting for your date. You’re nervous—it’s only the second time you’ve met up—but after you share the obligatory bisous in greeting, you start to feel at ease. Then your date leans over the table, smiles and says, “Je t’aime.” Hold up. Did the L-word just get pulled out?

    Sort of. “Aimer” is used for both “like” and “love,” so its use isn’t surrounded by the sort of momentous protocol that the English verb is. “It is an important phrase for a relationship,” Duke University French lecturing fellow Christelle Gonthier told me, “but a couple can use ‘Je t’aime’ when they’re just starting to go out. In France, there’s not so much restraint as far as feelings go.” This was baffling to me, especially since the epic misplacement of the “I love you” moment is a running motif in American culture.

    Now close your eyes again and imagine that you’re on the hot streets of Bombay, holding hands with your significant other. It’s been a few months since you started dating, but you haven’t yet experienced the “I love you” turning point. Keep waiting, my friend—it’s not going to come.

    In Indian cultures, love can be expressed through actions, but it is almost never explicitly spoken. If it is expressed verbally, it will likely be in English. I didn’t even know how to say “I love you” in my first language, Kannada, until I looked it up online about two years ago. Most of my Hindi, Marathi and Bengali-speaking friends don’t know how to say the phrase, either. I have never felt unloved by my family—it’s just that the explicit articulation of that familial love isn’t part of our style. Sometimes silent demonstrations are more powerful.

    Other languages guard love, too. In Chinese, “wo ai ni” is a well-known phrase, but its use is rare. Germans save “Ich liebe dich” for exclusively romantic situations, preferring “Ich habe dich lieb” (roughly, “I like you”) for platonic relationships. To many cultures, love is an intensely personal and important emotion.

    It’s different here. Despite how puritanical America can often seem, our non-romantic use of the word “love” is laxly enforced. We’re no steamy Latin culture, but it’s heartening to note how freely we distribute “love.”

    To me, the permissive use of the word “love” in English doesn’t devalue the idea. It strengthens it through reinforcement. Even if we aren’t often open with our feelings, maybe the repeated and free use of the word “love” will eventually shift something in our collective consciousness. If the casual use of hateful speech can create pernicious environments, then why couldn’t the casual use of “love” do the opposite?

    After all, who ever said that putting more love into the world was a bad thing?

    A version of this post ran in The (Duke) Chronicle on 2/10/11.

  • The Diacritics 6:05 pm on November 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: compliment, court case, defamation, , evel knievel, hyperbole, ninth circuit, ninth circuit court of appeals, pimp, pimp my ride, rhetoric,   

    Complimentary defamation 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    As John mentioned below, we’ve both been kept busy in the last few weeks by plenty of law school work. Luckily, law is a rich source of fun linguistics topics.

    In the course of researching cases for an upcoming paper, I found a 2005 case in which the famous stuntman and motorcyclist Evel Knievel sued ESPN for defamation. The issue in question was whether ESPN defamed Knievel by calling him a “pimp.” ESPN had posted a picture of Knievel posing with his wife and another woman, along with the caption, “Evel Knievel proves that you’re never too old to be a pimp.”

    Evel Knievel was 67 years old in 2005, and he clearly saw ESPN’s characterization of him as a pimp — someone who manages prostitutes — as an attempt to tarnish his reputation. Sure, under those circumstances, who would want to be called a pimp because of a harmless photo with your wife and a friend? And, adding to the seriousness of the statement, being a pimp is a crime.

    But as any teenager or 20-something knows, “pimp” is also often used as a compliment. According to Wiktionary, “pimp” in both slang and African-American Vernacular English also means “a man who easily attracts women.” For people in this age group, “pimp” is very often thrown around as a compliment to another guy. (Also, according to the court’s analysis, “pimp” can also be used “when complimenting a person on their mastery of the subject matter.”)

    So was ESPN’s “pimp” comment a defamation or a compliment?

    The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examined the case and found in favor of ESPN. The court explained that although “pimp” could be reasonably interpreted to have a defamatory meaning when read in isolation (yes, understandable), the context in which it appeared made it impossible to understand it as a defamation.

    Ironically, it was most likely intended as a compliment. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1074 (2005).

    They reasoned that there was no way that the language on ESPN could be interpreted by a reasonable person to mean something literal. A precedent established a few years earlier, in the case Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, created a framework to understand whether a statement was defamatory. Basically, it boiled down to three elements:

    1)  What is the general tenor of the work?
    2) How much hyperbolic and figurative language is used, and what does the audience expect?
    3) Is the statement sufficiently factual to be proven true or false?

    The court acted unusually: it considered facts that were not alleged in the original complaint or contained in attached documents. It reasoned that the context of the alleged defamation was so important to the case that it needed to be examined. So on its own, the court examined the preceding and following pages on the ESPN website.

    They found that the content of the ESPN main page is “lighthearted, jocular, and intended for a youthful audience.” Surprise!:

    A reasonable viewer exposed to the main page would expect to find precisely that type of youthful, non-literal language on the rest of the site. Id. at 1077.

    Next, they moved onto the use of hyperbolic and figurative language:

    The web pages immediately preceding and following the Knievel photo use slang words such as “hardcore” and “scoping,” and slang phrases such as “throwing down a pose,” “put a few back,” and “hottie of the year,” none of which is intended to be interpreted literally, if indeed they have a literal meaning at all. Id. at 1077.

    But even if a viewer had interpreted the word “pimp” literally, he or she would have certainly interpreted the photograph and caption, in the context in which they were published, as an attempt at humor. Id. at 1078.

    The court found that the use of hyperbolic and figurative language was so common throughout the site that it was impossible for a reasonable reader to have interpreted “pimp” literally. ESPN was just trying to be funny.

    They dismissed the third element of analysis — whether the statement could be true or false — reasoning that the context and tenor of the piece made the issue immaterial. Yeah, you could probably prove that Evel Knievel isn’t actually a pimp (for one, he doesn’t have the wardrobe for it), but it doesn’t really matter because ESPN didn’t mean it literally anyway.

    To be fair, just because a statement is intended to be funny doesn’t always protect it from defamation. The response from Knievel’s lawyer, for example, highlights how a word can be understood very differently in some circles:

    The writer of this appellate brief graduated from a pool hall he attended every day during his high school years and he most certainly did not lead a sheltered life across the tracks on the north side of his city. “Pimp” was an insult then and always has been in a proper law-abiding society. Id. at 1078.

    For those people, sure, pimp would be a serious insult. But the court dismisses this anecdote and instead pushes us to consider the context. The context, the court says, can be dispositive when considering whether a statement is actionable defamation. In other words, language can’t be interpreted in isolation — as Knievel and his lawyers tried to do. So if a word that can be interpreted in a jocular sense appears in a jocular context, then its use isn’t meant to be defamatory. 

    “Pimp” is a pretty versatile word today. The well-known show “Pimp My Ride,” hosted by rapper Xzibit on MTV, customized people’s cars in ridiculous ways. The show came out in 2004 and was a hit until its cancellation in 2007. “Pimp” in that sense referred to taking something drab and making it awesome, probably drawing its meaning from the stereotypically flamboyant clothes of an actual pimp. Since that show came out (and before it, too), that meaning of “pimp” has been widely adopted. A simple Google search of “Pimp My Ride parody” turned up nearly 800,000 results. Talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel once ran a parody segment called “Pimp My Bride.” “Pimp” used all over the place.

    With the word having such a widely recognized and used jocular meaning, it’s embarrassing that Evel Knievel and his lawyers thought it was a good use of time and resources to chase after ESPN, a notoriously irreverent site, for an instance of “pimp” that was intended to be a compliment.

    Still, to be sure, “pimp” can still be a scathing insult — in 2008, MSNBC’s David Shuster got into hot water for saying that Chelsea Clinton was being “pimped out” by Hillary and her campaign. But the context of that statement made it clear that Shuster didn’t mean it in any jocular sense. (It’s unlikely that Shuster could be found guilty of defamation — courts make exceptions for such language in heated situations, such as debate, dismissing the language as understandable hyperbole.)

    If anything, court cases like these keep me entertained in this dark days of finals preparation. There’s at least one website where you can buy Knievel v. ESPN memorabilia. It’s great to see a court like the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, normally so staid and proper, struggle to describe slang:

    The term “hottie” refers to an attractive or sexually promiscuous person of the opposite sex, usually a woman. Id. at 1077.

    • sscandel 10:15 pm on November 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Really, Knievel’s wife and friend should have been the ones suing for defamation. If ESPN was calling him a literal pimp, that makes them prostitutes. I don’t think there is a good connotation of ‘hooker.’

      • The Diacritics 10:55 pm on November 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        A very good point. Knievel’s wife was joined in the lawsuit as a plaintiff, but I don’t know if that’s because she thought she was defamed too. The court’s opinion didn’t talk about the other two people in the photo at all.

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc