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  • 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 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 9:03 pm on October 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 42, douglas adams, hitchhiker's, meaning of life, , word creation   

    The Meaning of Liff and words that should be words 

    Hi everyone! Sandeep and I have both been super busy with law school stuff, much to the detriment of our aspirations to post all the time. We promise to get back on the ball, though, so stay tuned!

    (posted by John)

    Many of us know and love Douglas Adams for his famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. They’re some of my favorites, not least because of Adams’s creative and awesome use of language. But as cool a word as bistromatics is, Hitchhiker’s doesn’t come close to the word-creating prolificacy of another little book of his, The Meaning of Liff. This book is entirely devoted to words that should exist to explain common (and sometimes not-so-common) scenarios, sensations, occurrences, and other phenomena, but that do not.

    Here are a couple examples:

    BRUMBY (n.) 
The fake antique plastic seal on a pretentious whisky bottle.

    PLEELEY (adj.)
Descriptive of a drunk person’s attempt to be endearing.

    THRUPP (v.) 
To hold a ruler on one end on a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrrddrr.

    WRITTLE (v.)
 Of a steel ball, to settle into a hole.

    This got me thinking about another word that I think should exist. It’s not one nearly as creative as any of Adams’s, but I think it is more logically a word than most of his.

    I know that I can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of my Civil Procedure reading and underwhelmed by the sheer monotony of its content, but can I just be “whelmed” by it? I think this would be a good word to start using: it would fill a linguistic gap in our language just like lots of the words in Liff would.

    Let’s say you went to the movies recently to see Moneyball.  If you thought it was just about at the level of your expectations, you could say you were “whelmed” by it.  This is different from “it was fine,” or something of that ilk, in that it is talking about the movie’s quality with respect to your expectations, whereas to say it was “fine” is to make a more objective statement of its quality.  It would be particularly useful if my friend knew that I really liked Aaron Sorkin, one of the writers: if I were “whelmed” by it, it would mean that it met my expectations pretty darn well (and I could convey that with one word!).

    It would also be useful for other things. If you have a particularly busy week at work, you might say that you are overwhelmed. But there’s not a good way to talk about being almost overwhelmed. I find myself in this state with some frequency: just barely keeping my head above water, but still breathing. I think that “whelm” would get at this idea nicely. If you’re “whelmed” at work, you’re busy and might soon become overwhelmed, but for now, you’re getting by.

    Interestingly, “to whelm” already means something different.  My dictionary widget gives it as a verb “to engulf, submerge, or bury.” The raging ocean might whelm a floundering ship. A brook can also “whelm,” or flow, up from its source.  It’s also given as a noun,“an act or instance of flowing or heaping up; a surge.”

    This doesn’t mean we can’t also use it in a new way (who uses it right now anyway?). When I’m less whelmed with work, perhaps I’ll start a campaign to spread the word!

    We’d be interested to hear of other words like “whelm,” or even NAD ((n.) 
Measure defined as the distance between a driver’s outstretched fingertips and the ticket machine in parking garage), that don’t exist, but should!

    • stuartnz 9:08 pm on October 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The Meaning of Liff is a great book, but it should be noted that Adams does not claim to have “created” those words. He said that they were pressed into service instead of hanging around on road signs and the like. He created definitions for them, which is, surely the hardest part of the job. Your mention of “whelm” also reminded me of one of my favourite Wodehouse passages: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”

    • johnwcowan 10:40 pm on October 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Yes, the over- in overwhelm is basically just an intensive.

      I used to work in a center at my college that specialized in resolving student problems with registration or payment. We called it the Gruntling Room: the students came in disgruntled and left gruntled.

      • johnwcowan 11:10 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        For those of you not reading The World’s Major Languages, gruntle is an intensive of grunt and related to grumble; it’s mostly applied to pigs nowadays. The dis- prefix is also just an intensive in this word, a common meaning of dis- in Latin but quite rare in English.

  • The Diacritics 10:36 am on October 12, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , debate, election, john, , necessary and proper,   

    Necessary and Proper: the Supreme Court aren’t linguists 

    (Posted by John)

    As I watch the beginnings of the Republican presidential primary season unfold, there’s one mantra I’ve heard espoused time and again: our government is too big. With debates about spending and entitlements (not to mention the health care law) as fierce as they’ve been in my lifetime, the question of the appropriate role of government appears to be coming to a head in a serious way.

    One clause of the Constitution, in particular, has had massive influence on this debate. That clause is the Necessary and Proper Clause. The Necessary and Proper clause says that Congress has the authority “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution [its enumerated powers].” This is basically a mandate for Congress to do the things that it needs to do in order to carry out its explicitly stated powers (e.g. levying taxes). The real debate, though, is how wide a mandate this clause actually grants. And as it turns out, answering that question depends greatly on…you guessed it, linguistics!

    What’s the right interpretation?
    So what does necessary and proper actually mean? For most people, and particularly those keen on limiting the scope of government, it means that any act Congress wishes to justify under the Necessary and Proper clause must be both necessary and proper. The “and” requires that both conditions be satisfied in order for an act to be authorized.

    This makes some sense. If I say “John and Sandeep have written posts for The Diacritics blog,” I mean that both John and Sandeep write posts, not just one or the other of them. This interpretation puts severe limits on what the government can do, too: anything that is not necessary to the execution of some explicitly stated Constitutional power is prohibited. Lots of people believe this to be the correct interpretation. And for those who do, the federal government has a long history of greatly overstepping its legitimate authority.

    But lets look a little closer at what this interpretation of the Necessary and Proper clause entails. What, for example, happens when there is more than one possible method by which Congress could undertake to levy taxes? If there are multiple options, any of which would suffice, precisely none of them is necessary. Thus, on the “strict and” interpretation of the Necessary and Proper clause, whenever there are multiple courses of action, Congress may not choose any of them. In my opinion, this is not a desirable outcome. It’s not that Congress is never allowed to pass a law to carry out an explicitly stated power. It’s that Congress may only do so when there is one option and one option alone. If this reading is to be a tenable one, some kind of work still needs to be done.

    There’s another legitimate, but lesser-known, interpretation of “[the authority to make] all laws necessary and proper” that doesn’t suffer from the “strict and” defect. To get at it, consider the following: God loves all creatures great and small. Obviously this does not mean “God loves all creatures that are both great and small.” This is a nonsense sentence. It is actually parsed something like: “God loves all creatures great and [all creatures] small,” or “God loves all great creatures and all small creatures.”

    Why, then, is it not legitimate to read “all powers necessary and proper” to mean “all powers necessary and all powers proper”? This reading is at least plausible, and it doesn’t suffer from the “strict and” problem of limiting action whenever there’s a choice. This is also the reading that proponents of larger government (perhaps only implicitly) might adopt.

    What the Court has said
    The Supreme Court has, over the course of our nation’s history, ranged across the spectrum in its reading of the clause. Unfortunately, they generally aren’t the greatest of linguists, despite the fact that John Marshall’s famous McCulloch v. Maryland opinion does recognize the “strict and” problem.  His solution to it is, essentially, reading the word “necessary” out of the Necessary and Proper clause. He adopts a purposive understanding: for Marshall, if the underlying goal of the act was to carry out some explicitly stated power, you were probably good to go. This meant that Congress couldn’t enact laws under the pretext of, say, regulating interstate commerce, but with the actual purpose of, say, prohibiting intrastate child labor. While this is not a linguistically plausible reading, it is perhaps a decent one from a policy standpoint: it avoids the “strict and” limitation on government but does try to set out some limit on federal power.

    The Court has treated this reading variously since then. Up until the New Deal Era, the Court was serious about keeping the federal government out of purely intrastate commerce, for example. But as we know, for most of the 20th Century, the Necessary and Proper clause was read as an essentially unlimited federal mandate. The Court ruled that the underlying purpose of a statute no longer mattered, and that any action that, considered in the aggregate, had an affect on interstate commerce was within the scope. Whether you use a Kleenex when you sneeze, taken across the entirety of the population, without doubt affects interstate commerce, and thus could have been regulated.

    Only recently has the Court begun to walk this unlimited mandate back. We’ll see how their reading evolves over the course of the next decade, as the debate about government’s size rages on.

    In the end, whichever reading you choose is fine by me.  But it will be interesting to see what those in Washington, presidential candidates and Supreme Court alike, have to say on the topic.

  • The Diacritics 10:07 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    These United States 

    (Posted by John)

    Like a good law student, I was perusing my Constitutional Law book today. Along the way, I found a sort of linguistic diamond in the rough:

    “Prior to the Civil War, ‘the United States’ was treated as a plural noun. In Dred Scott, for example, the Court referred to a federal statute passed during the War of 1812 that referred to ‘the war in which the United States are engaged.’  After the Civil War, by contrast, ‘the United States’ became a singular noun.” Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet, and Karlan. Constitutional Law,6th Ed. Aspen Publishers. 2009. p 451

    When I read this, I was immediately reminded of Sandeep’s post on the linguistic legacy of 9/11, where he discusses the effects wars have had on our language.  The change from “are” to “is” that the Civil War brought about is minuscule in size, but ginormous in meaning. It reflects a profound reinterpretation of the relationship between one state and another, as well as between the states and the federal government. The shift marks the real beginning of the public’s acknowledgment that the federal government would expand its control over the states. Personally, I think it’s super cool that this tiny linguistic indicator is as important as any analysis of federal statutes or court opinions in figuring out when this trend began.

    Oh, and don’t forget to vote for The Diacritics here for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011!!

    • The Diacritics 10:22 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Interesting! Also, what about colloquially referring to the United States as “the states”? The last instance of “the states” as referring to the U.S. in the OED is in 1890. Of course, people still do use it today. I have a hunch, though, that “the states” is more common outside of this country than inside it. I wonder if that’s a cultural thing that’s associated with the post-Civil War shift you reference here. –Sandeep

      • The Diacritics 1:05 pm on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Sandeep, here’s a test for whether “the states” is being used as the states collectively or as a shortened form of “the United States” (so “the States”)

        (1) I’m from the states, which is a good place to live.
        (2) *I’m from the states, which are a good place to live.
        (3) I’m from the states, which is currently experiencing difficult economic times.
        (4) *I’m from the states, which are currently experiencing difficult economic times.

        I like (1) and (3), thus the asterisks before (2) and (4). Those really do sound wrong to me. If you agree, then it does just look like we’re saying “the States” as a shortened form of the singular United States.

        I chose those examples, because, interestingly enough, I have trouble with the simpler sentences you might think to use as a test, in (5) and (6) below.

        (5) ?The states is an awesome place.
        (6) ???The states are an awesome place.

        I think the fact that these sound weird, but (6) worse than (5), is evidence that we are trying to use “the states” singularly. But it gets complicated, and thus the sentences sound weird, because “the states” is typically a plural syntactic object (unlike the United States, which is now a singular entry in the lexicon). We get around this problem by placing some syntactic barriers between “the states” and its verb (i.e. the complementizer ‘which’). This lets us use “the States” (as a stand-in for the United States) without confounding it syntactically with the homophonous “the states.” Or something like that….


    • Sam 10:47 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here’s a quick-and-dirty check of Google Ngram Viewer, which appears to support the claim (though with a transition date in the 1870s rather than 1860s): http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/ngrams/graph?content=The+United+States+is%2CThe+United+States+are&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

      (The search is case-sensitive, so the uppercase “T” in “the” eliminates noise from occurrences within phrases like “the powers of the United States are,” which otherwise will swamp the signal.)

    • johnwcowan 11:23 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Americans refer to “the States” only when they are somewhere else.

      The OED cannot be safely trusted for 20th-century quotations. Even though the upper right corner says “Second edition, 1989”, only new words and new senses were added in that edition; that text is almost certainly unrevised OED1. Volume 9 part 1, which contained state, was published in 1919, but the underlying fascicle or installment containing the word, namely standard to stead, was published in 1915, so it’s unlikely that any quotations would be added thereafter.

      • The Diacritics 6:25 pm on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Do you have a source for your first assertion? That’s what I suggested in my earlier comment above, but I don’t have any actual data.

    • Bander Alfraikh 3:29 am on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Perhaps the most current word during the Civil War was Union, a singular word harbingering the shift from plural to singular in reference to the “States”. The shifts and shades of meaning words receive are often socio-cultural in nature as in this case although it is syntax that is affected here.

    • Josiah 3:55 am on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Love this post. Something I’ve been thinking about, particularly in light of all the current political happenings in our country. I’m not sure if I remember correctly but I think “Remember the Titans” referenced on this idea once. Awesome post!

    • Richard White 8:29 am on September 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Cf., inter alia, the following Language Log entries: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and


      Richard White

    • Bander Alfraikh 2:45 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I am also reminded here of similar constructions in Old English. The word “woman” was treated as masculine simply because the word ends with -man. Similarly, the United states ends in a plural, therefore, it should take the verb in the plural. This was the prevailing view of the prescriptive grammarins then. It would be equally interesting to find out if a word like “police” took “are” or “is” during the same period, the late 1890’s.

      • johnwcowan 11:31 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Not “simply because”, but because “woman” is a compound of “wife” (meaning “woman”) and “man”. Compounds take the grammatical gender of the last element in all Germanic languages that retain grammatical gender.

  • The Diacritics 4:38 pm on September 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    We’ve been nominated! 

    Exciting news! The Diacritics has been nominated for Best Grammar Blog of 2011.

    If you’ve enjoyed reading our posts so far, please consider voting for us here.

    [Update: The link is back up!]

  • The Diacritics 2:02 pm on September 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: dialects, tanzania, , travel   

    Getting lost in translation 

    (posted by John)

    Over this past summer, I had the great fortune of traveling to Tanzania for a safari (shooting with cameras, not guns). It was awesome—we saw pretty much all of the animals one might hope to see, from lions and leopards to hornbills and hippos. But we also had much more than I had expected in the way of cultural interaction with local tribesmen. We hung out with Maasai warriors, Hadza bushmen, and members of a small highland tribe called the Mbulu.

    They would help out in our camps, and they taught us about how they lived. We learned how to make a friction fire, how to throw a Maasai spear, how to make Hadzabe bows and arrows, how to find stingless bee honey, among other cool—and mostly useless in my everyday life—skills. Even cooler was learning something about their language.

    Tanzania has two official langauges: Swahili and English. Swahili is spoken by most, English, except for a few words, by very few. Then there are the tribal languages. According to the Ethnologue, there are 128 of them with at least one known speaker today. This may not quite reach the number of language spoken in some places, like India, but it’s still a lot.

    Tanzania has only had its independence for 50 years. Before this, there was no language spoken across the entire nation. Thus the first president, Julius Nyerere, decided that he needed to pick one for everyone to learn. So which one of the 128 do you choose? What does it mean to select one tribal language and impose it upon the other tribes? According to our safari guides (Tanzanian citizens) it was thought that by choosing any language, Nyerere would be giving preference to one tribal group. Many feared that the simple process of selecting a national language would throw the country into serious turmoil, igniting tribal rivalries and prolonging inter-tribal enmity from years past. To avoid this, Nyerere looked outside Tanzania to what serves as East Africa’s lingua franca: Swahili.

    Nyerere hoped that by doing this, he could create a national identity that could be layered on top of tribal identities. He didn’t want to supplant the rich cultural traditions of the tribes, but it was crucial to create some kind of national unity as well. Even so, many people living in the farthest reaches of the country speak nothing other than their tribal language. We’re talking about languages with fewer than 500 speakers, most or all of whom speak not a word of either official language. When we visited the Mbulu, who speak a language with Arabic influence called Iraqw, our guides had to have a translator. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine the strangeness of being completely unable to communicate with another citizen of our country. Talk about heterogeneity—the cultural insularity of these groups is nearly complete!

    Having a common language is crucial to creating a national identity. That’s why Nyerere chose one in the first place. One practical reason for this is just how much gets lost in translation when the language isn’t shared.

    There was one instance of this that arose a number of times during our trip that is illustrative, and it’s between the two official languages themselves, English and Swahili. It’s mostly trivial—I doubt any tribal wars would be launched because of it—but it’s still kind of interesting.

    In Swahili, the word for “you’re welcome” is karibu. It doesn’t, however, translate entirely cleanly from English. Kind of like the Italian prego, it can mean a number of things besides “you’re welcome” in the English sense of the word. You would say karibu to welcome a person (to your home, say) or if you let someone go in front of you in the street (kind of like our “after you”).

    It is also used, like the German bitte, when you give something to somebody, before they thank you. When we do this in English, we say something like “here you are.” But when Swahili waiters, for example, brought out a dish, they would put it down and say “you’re welcome.” Translation here becomes problematic; it’s actively rude in English to say “you’re welcome” before someone says “thank you.”

    Again, this example is trivial, but the issue of not understanding the correct register is not. When we learn a new language, register is one of the last aspects that we pick up. Knowing when to use formal endings is a problem that plagues English learners of French and Spanish. This is even difficult across dialects of English! Usage of adults’ first names, for, say, a friend’s parents, differs widely between dialects.

    Other issues of formality get lost, too. I’m from Virginia. During my first week at Harvard, I was in a restaurant, and I needed to get the waitress’s attention. I said, “Excuse me, ma’am, could I have some more water.” I was laughed at by my newly-made northern friends. They would never have used ma’am. (I think they said they’d use “miss,” or just eschew all titles and say “excuse me.”)

    This, again, is kind of trivial. But you can imagine the problems it might present for a country of 128 distinct languages, already struggling to find a sense of unity in the wake of independence. I find it difficult to believe the country would be as peaceful and unified as it is today if Nyerere hadn’t chosen his national language carefully. Of course, you’re welcome to disagree.

  • The Diacritics 9:45 am on September 25, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Arizona, dialect, discrimination, ,   

    Beware the accent police 

    (posted by John)

    You thought your schoolteachers were bad, but now even they aren’t safe from the accent police. An article in the New York Times today discusses allegations that Arizona engaged in ‘accent discrimination’ against teachers for whom English is a second language.  Since No Child Left Behind became law, the state has been sending “monitors” to classrooms to ensure that English is being spoken properly by teachers.

    “It was a repeated pattern of misuse of the language or mispronunciation of the language that we were looking for,” said Andrew LeFevre, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It’s critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language.”

    But the federal review found that the state had written up teachers for pronouncing “the” as “da,” “another” as “anuder” and “lives here” as “leeves here.”

    Check out the “Multimedia” on the left side of the article itself, which plays audio of one teacher whose accent came under suspicion. Once the state came under federal investigation concerning allegations that teachers were transferred or even fired for speaking with an accent, it stopped sending monitors.  But still, this is kind of scary. What, after all, counts as “mispronunciation” of the language? As the lawyer who filed the complaint on the teachers’ behalf put it, we were looking at something beyond the ‘language fluency’ requirement for teachers in No Child.

    “This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly.”

    So does the southern drawl on some words, so prevalent among many of my friends, count as mispronunciation? What about people who “pahk the cah in the yahd?” When not in their home environs, one culture might well think this group is speaking incorrectly. And that’s all well and good until it becomes state policy that they can’t teach certain children or in certain schools or even at all.

    We all have accents–don’t those Arizona officials sound stupid saying otherwise?

    • Bekah 4:32 am on September 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Yesterday, I wrote an article on my blog about a linguistic prejudice against the Spanish language, and I think this article adds an interesting perspective to the argument. (My personal opinion here is that this problem is partially due to a Spanish language prejudice….you can read the article here if you are interested: http://palmerlanguage.blogspot.com/2011/09/linguistic-injustice-rant.html). Like you said, would anyone tag a southern drawl as being “wrong”? What about a French or German accent? All of the “wrong” pronunciations cited were things that Spanish speakers typically due based on native language transfer (“th” to “d” and “ih” to “ee”, etc. — sorry…can’t find the IPA symbols on my keyboard here!) I wonder if there would be more of an uprising if the accent police started patroling the l/r issues of many Asian languages, the w/v German issue, and the french r. Anyway, thanks for the interesting article! I enjoyed it.

    • johnwcowan 11:26 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Bekah: There are many IPA keyboard pages on the Web. My favorite is Weston Ruter’s, which is basically a clickable IPA chart.

  • The Diacritics 5:49 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: comparative linguistics, joke, , philosophy of language, Sidney Morgenbesser   

    Linguistics joke 

    Classmate JJ Snidow told me this joke, but it was supposedly an actual exchange between Oxford Philosophy of Language Professor J.L. Austin and Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (who was apparently the man?)

    “In English,” Professor Austin said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

    A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

    Isn’t linguistics funny?

    • johnwcowan 6:04 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The version I heard was simply “Yeah, yeah”, which IMHO is much more of a double positive.

    • Stan 7:41 am on September 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It’s a good joke. Have you seen it in cartoon form?

    • Alex 1:28 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Isn’t this one attributed to Sidney Morgenbesser?

    • Helena Constantine 9:41 pm on October 2, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Actually, I would say that even in English a double negative becomes a positive only via learned hypercorrection.

    • Jristz 12:11 am on December 5, 2013 Permalink | Reply

      In spanish double negatve is strong negative, double poitive is strong positive and sarcasm switch both

      That is so helpful

  • The Diacritics 6:31 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: dumbledore, harry potter, , skill, , virtue,   

    Harry Potter, law school, and the power of language 

    Posted by John

    Question: which famous academic is known by his students for having said, “Never let your skill exceed your virtue?”

    Was it (A) Albus Dumbledore or (B) Yale Law School’s former Dean Harold Koh?

    If you guessed B, you were right. Sitting at the tail end of my law school orientation, I find it amusing that about half of what we were told in our first days of law school was about how not to become a terrible person. We’ve been given lectures ranging from “How not to become a lawyer joke” to “What are the professional rules of conduct for lawyers?” If you were wondering, by the way, why lawyer jokes are not good ones to tell, it’s because lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and nobody else thinks they’re jokes.

    I don’t think this sort of training, jokes aside, is unique to Yale’s orientation program. And I by no means wish to say that Yale thinks most law students are or will become terrible people. Nor do I believe that’s true—both my parents are lawyers, and I think they’re swell.

    But I do think it is interesting that Dean Robert Post, quoting Koh, would feel the need to warn us about the dangers of using law for less-than-noble purposes. It indeed sounds like something out of Harry Potter. So what did he mean? And is this comparison to Harry Potter apt?

    If there’s one thing all of this talk has taught me thus far, it’s that the power of law is at its core the power of language. Learning law, as Professor Heather Gerken told us, is itself learning a new language. To master the law’s deep power, then, is the same task as mastering the language of law. Once we immerse ourselves in and develop control over this new language, the hope is that we can shape it, direct it, and, indeed, wield it like a tangible instrument. Dean Post and others spoke as if we could ply the law as a weapon precisely because that’s what we are trying to learn how to do.

    In a lot of ways, it’s exactly what Harry and company were doing at Hogwarts. They were, themselves, learning a language of great and fundamental power—magic! The point of their education was to learn how responsibly to craft it, wrangle it, and direct it to some end. That idea of learning to wield the power of their language responsibly is the one Dean Post was trying to convey to us. While we might never be able to drop someone dead with two little words, the power of law’s language is real, and thus is real the weight of responsibility in utilizing it.

    Clearly, this is one of the more romantic ways we’ve yet been taught to think about law. That’s probably because it’s more exciting to not-quite-1Ls than telling us about the thousands of pages of case law we’ll soon be reading. But it seems to me that there’s at least some truth behind it. We all know the great power behind arguments made using the language of law (think, say, Brown v. Board of Education), even if we also recognize the profession’s shortcomings (e.g., the potential monotony of law school).

    Back to the Harry Potter analogy, though, there are other ways in which it can be extended. The concept of adversaries in the courtroom is the lawyer’s version of a wizarding duel: Each opponent is attempting to craft arguments—spells—that will outflank the other’s defenses. The really good wizards, like the really good lawyers, will not just look at the rules as they have been understood and applied before. They will use their mastery of the language to come up with creative new ways to accomplish their goals.

    As both a former linguist(-in-training) and a Harry Potter lover, I like this way of thinking about law as a sort of language, comparable in some ways to languages like HP’s magic. Maybe someday, if I can figure it out, I’ll write a post on which subjects would count as, say, the language’s origin (Constitutional Law?), syntax (maybe Procedure?), semantics, and everything else. But until then, does anyone know of a spell that will help me get my torts reading done?

    • The Diacritics 6:39 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Awesome! I wonder, too, how much “the law” is really just the manipulation of language in general — not just “the language of the law,” but general “language”… and how lawyers are really just surgical linguists, exacting what they need from our language for their own ends?

    • Captain Person (@captainperson) 7:37 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Have you read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? The author expands on the “hey, what if Hogwarts was more like a law school” idea a bit there.

      • The Diacritics 10:55 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        I have not! Looks like a cool book, though. Should’ve done my due diligence better!

    • Jeyna Grace 8:12 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply


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