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

    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 7:46 pm on August 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: civil war, , english alphabet, gadhafi, libya, nato, qaddafi, transliteration   

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

    posted by Sandeep

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

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

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

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

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

    The limits of the English alphabet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Transliterating that guy’s name

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So, Hanukkah or Chanuka?

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

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

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

    (* denotes corrections made since publication)

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

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

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

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

      Great blog, btw! Subscribed.

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

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

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