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

    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 4:03 am on August 20, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , conflict, , international, italy, sandeep, sports   

    Smack talking on the field 

    posted by Sandeep

    Duke’s men’s basketball team is currently on a tour of China, visiting Duke’s upcoming campus in Kunshan and playing a few matches with the Chinese national basketball team and others. Georgetown’s team is doing the same–on a “goodwill tour” of the country–but on Thursday, the Bayi Rockets and Georgetown got into a violent brawl, cutting the game short and forcing Georgetown to leave the stadium before anyone got seriously hurt. My friend Ben suggested that the language barrier between the Americans and Chinese could have lowered the tolerance for cooperation between the two groups.

    According to the Washington Post,

    “Immediately before the fighting began, Bayi forward-center Hu Ke was called for a foul against Georgetown’s Jason Clark. The senior guard took exception to the hard foul and said so to Hu, triggering pushing and shoving between them. At that point, players from the Georgetown and Bayi benches ran onto the court, and bedlam ensued.”

    Was it really the actual content of what Clark said to Hu that triggered the conflict? While it’s possible that Hu understood Clark–many Chinese people know at least basic English–maybe he was reacting to his tone and body language. And I’m willing to bet that few, if any, of the Georgetown players understand Chinese. Of course, a language barrier doesn’t really matter when someone is screaming and pummeling you in the chest. There’s no reasoned understanding of each other in those situations:

    I wonder if there are statistics on violence in international sports, and whether those can be correlated to histories of cultural or linguistic conflict.

    The Georgetown-Bayi brawl reminded me of another famous fight: Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutting of Marco Materazzi at the soccer World Cup in 2006. There, Zidane was allegedly responding to Materazzi’s taunts about his mother or sister (accounts vary). The BBC hired an Italian lip-reader to decode what Materazzi had said, and they seemed to find that Materazzi had indeed insulted Zidane and his family, in Italian. But Zidane is French, of Algerian origin, and there’s nothing in his biography or background that would indicate that he understands Italian.

    So what was he reacting to? The tone of Materazzi’s taunts? His body language? Or maybe he picked out a few words and just inferred the rest?

    The idea behind sports teams’ goodwill tours is to beget cross-cultural understanding without language. That’s the whole idea behind international events like the Olympics and the World Cup. We don’t all speak the same language, but we play many of the same games.

    So what happens when language does enter the mix? I can imagine a lot of situations in which language learners completely misunderstand the intentions of someone else because they can only pick out a few (unfortunate) words. Materazzi was clearly provoking Zidane, and body language and tone are generally good indicators of meaning. But I wonder if beginner language learners expose themselves to as much conflict as they do friendship, especially in heated, tense situations like sports.

    International athletic events ride on national glory as well as personal glory. Our linguistic identities are closely tied to our national loyalties. Hearing an opposing player’s smack talk, in a foreign tongue, in a foreign location, in a situation where we’re already tense and on edge, might just make us angry in unexpected ways.

    So does this mean international cooperation is doomed? No–I’m skeptical of the value of international athletic competitions as they relate to “cross-cultural understanding” because of the fundamental problem of trying to foster friendship in an inherently hostile environment. That doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch. I’m just hesitant to find any broader linguistic or cultural conflict in a mid-game brawl at a basketball match (as some news commentators are doing now). A couple of Chinese athletes can “otherize” their American opponents based on their appearance and language without actually thinking about the broader implications (the budding U.S.-China rivalry?) of their conflict.

    • Morgan 10:47 pm on May 11, 2013 Permalink | Reply

      “But Zidane is French, of Algerian origin, and there’s nothing in his biography or background that would indicate that he understands Italian.”

      Zidane played professionally in Italy for five years (1996-2001), so he actually does probably understand Italian.

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