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  • The Diacritics 8:51 am on November 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: aimer, , english, , , 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 7:00 am on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: congo, country, definite articles, english, , geography, , iraq, nation, popular usage, rule, the congo, the ukraine, ukraine, usage   

    Indefinite definite articles: the Ukraine or Ukraine? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 2007, Miss Teen South Carolina embarrassed herself in the Miss Teen USA pageant by giving a famously terrible answer to a simple question. Buried somewhere in the maze of her response were two references to Iraq, except in both instances she referred to the country as “the Iraq.” There are plenty of things wrong with what she said, but calling “the Iraq” was especially (and laughably) jarring to me. We just don’t call Iraq “the Iraq.”

    But why? Is it really so simple, that we just don’t add the definite article “the” to Iraq? There are innumerable other examples of countries that don’t take a definite article, of course. All of which would sound ridiculous with a definite article: “the France,” “the Greece,” “the India.”

    But there are a handful of countries which do take definite articles. There are two main patterns.

    The Gambia.

    The Gambia.

    (1) It seems that many countries whose names derive from important geographical features, such as “the Philippines” (islands) or “the Gambia” (river) or “the Netherlands” (lowlands) take a definite article. (Consider similar formations in the names of solely geographical features, such as “the Amazon” or “the Sahara.”)

    (2) Then there’s the United States of America and the United Kingdom, which take a definite article because the countries’ names describes their political organization. (This becomes clearer when you consider similar formations in many countries’ official names, such as “the Republic of China” [Taiwan] or “the Russian Federation” or “the United Mexican States.”)

    Mexico map.

    The United Mexican States.

    For most countries’ names in English, the presence or lack of a definite article is settled. But there are still other conflicts about whether to use “the.”

    (The) Ukraine

    Consider (the) Ukraine. Both “the Ukraine” and “Ukraine” are used in English. Personally, I’ve always used “the Ukraine,” but we’ll see below that my usage is likely misguided.

    A commonly accepted etymology of the word Україна (Ukrayina) is “borderland.” Based on this etymology, the “geographical feature” rule described above could explain the presence of the definite article in “the Ukraine.” But there’s still some level of uncertainty about Ukraine’s etymology — some believe it to be an ancient ethnonym of the Ukranian people, among other etymologies — so that rule doesn’t seem very persuasive here. The geographical rule for definite articles only seems to be useful when the country’s name is obviously referring to a geographical feature. We don’t use definite articles with countries whose names now have tenuous connections to geographical features — like India (the Indus River) or Indonesia (“Indian archipelago”).

    The use of “the Ukraine” stirs up intense passion among Ukranians, in fact. Some argue that the systematic use of “the Ukraine,” especially before its independence from the U.S.S.R., was used by English-language authors and journalists to subjugate the people and nation of Ukraine by demoting it to a mere region, a mere feature of the larger U.S.S.R.

    A similar issue has raised hackles in the Ukranian language itself. The use of the preposition na “on,” before “Ukraine,” has been scrapped for v “in,” within Ukraine. According to this site, the Ukranian government requested the change in 1993. Russian prescriptivists, quoted on the same site, continue to demand na, based on “tradition”:

    Литературная норма не может измениться в одночасье из-за каких-либо политических процессов.

    “Literary norms cannot change overnight because of any political process.”

    Some have pointed out that the style guides of many newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post and The Economist, have explicitly required the use of “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine” after its independence. (I don’t have a copy of these style guides, so I can’t confirm, but there are secondary sources online which mention the shift.)

    Ukraine map.

    Ukraine or The Ukraine?

    I did a Google Ngram search to see the frequency of the phrases “in Ukraine” and “in the Ukraine” over the last 50 years in books. There’s a definite shift around 1993, soon after Ukranian independence (and the same year that the Ukranian government requested the preposition shift from “on” to “in”) from “the Ukraine” (red) to “Ukraine” (blue). Click the image below for a larger version.

    Similar data for the phrases “from the Ukraine” (red) and “from Ukraine” (blue).

    As someone who has been using “the Ukraine” for the past decade, I guess I’ll have to make a shift to the apparently more acceptable “Ukraine.”

    (The) Congo

    But what about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (The) Congo’s name refers to the Congo River, which itself refers to the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom. Some sources use “the Congo” whereas others use “Congo.” The official name of (the) Congo uses a definite article: “the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” similar to other definite-articled nations like “the Republic of the Gambia” (the Gambia) and unlike nations such as “the Republic of South Africa” (merely South Africa).

    People I know who have traveled often to (the) Congo, including my undergraduate advisor Brian Hare, call it “Congo.” News outlets, such as CNN, also use “Congo.” But check out these Google Ngram graphs.

    “From Congo” versus “from the Congo” usage from 1800-2000. “From the Congo” (red) is significantly more popular.

    Similar data for “in Congo” (blue) versus “in the Congo” (red).

    Perhaps the continued popularity of the phrase “the Congo” is due to the recurrence of the imagery of the Congo rainforest (a geographical feature) over references to the actual nation. My advisor Brian Hare’s globetrotting author wife Vanessa Woods wrote a book about bonobos (who live almost exclusively within [the] Congo) and the subtitle of the book uses the phrase “the Congo.” But was that usage referring to the country or to the rainforest? It’s debatable.

    So while Miss Teen South Carolina was clearly veering from popular usage when she called Iraq “the Iraq,” other cases aren’t so clear. It’s worth noting that some languages draw a bright line — French, for example, tacks on a definite article to all non-neuter-gender countries: even though “the France,” “the Greece,” and “the India” might sound strange to us, “la France,” “la Grèce,” and “l’Inde” are par for the course in France.

    • John Cowan 12:31 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The official name of the U.S. is “United States of America”, no article, though no one ever uses it that way. Similarly, the United Church of Christ doesn’t use an article officially.

    • lynneguist 3:29 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      There’s also some variation on this kind of thing between British and American English. I did a post on that a long time ago, if you’re interested: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/04/gambia-lebanon-etc.html

      • The Diacritics 4:00 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for sending this along! I’m curious whether it’s Americans or Brits who are more concerned about the “colonialist” undertones of using “the.” -S

    • Alex 8:25 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In German, it’s “der Irak” and “der Iran”. German doesn’t tend to use definite articles for countries but those two are generally accepted exceptions.

    • Irena Bell 11:00 am on October 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Great article ! ‘ Ukraine ‘ it is !

    • stuartnz 5:13 am on October 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The use of the article is a feature of NZE when it comes to the two main islands of Aotearoa. Native speakers will say “THE North Island” and “THE South Island”, treating the compass points as adjectives , non-native speakers (except perhaps Aussies, who may know better) almost invariably say “North Island” and “South Island”, as if that’s what they were actually called. Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu both include the article, though. 🙂

    • Lane 2:59 pm on October 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

    • Mark Bej 3:42 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I do not believe that “geographical features”, nor a description of political organization have anything to do with the use of the definite article. The definite article is used when the name of the country includes a noun that is a “regular” English word, i.e., not merely a proper noun. Thus: “the Netherlands”, because this is literally, the nether (low) lands. Compare, for example, against “Holland”, which never takes the definite article. “The Philippines” is so most likely because of the implication of “Islands” thereafter; similarly with “the Azores”, “the Antilles”, yet we say “Indonesia”, without the article, since the country is not called “the Indonesian Islands”. In the case of the US and UK, it’s because “States” and “Kingdom” are regular English words that just happen to be a part of these names. Compare, for example: “South Africa”, but “_The_ Union of South Africa”.

      The other consistent pattern is that regions take the definite article. The Amazon, the Sahara, the Sahel, the Himalayas, the Midwest, the New World, etc., all exemplify this. “The Sudan” would thus be a now-outdated reference to that portion of Africa in those years when, politically, it was a region of a colony under England’s control. This is the most likely explanation as to why “the Ukraine” came to be used in English.

      As to “the Gambia”, I have never been able to figure out why that country’s government insisted on the definite article being used, but it certainly does not follow the usual English pattern.

      Note that French does not have a neuter gender. It would not be unusual to see some degree of transference (insisting on the definite article where it does not belong, or insisting on its absence where it should be used) by those whose native languages are not English.

      • The Diacritics 4:11 pm on October 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        I’m not sure that you understood the thrust of my argument. Your points actually do fit neatly into my categories: the Netherlands (lowlands), the Philippines (islands), the Azores (islands)– these are all geographical features. Similarly, the regions that you point out all take “the” and they are all geographical features (desert, river, etc.). And the political organization (Union, States, Kingdom) also informs the use of “the” in a country’s name, whether it’s their official or common name.
        The Gambia uses “the” probably because the country is named after the Gambia River, hence a geographical feature.
        You point out correctly that French does not have a neuter gender, but the names of countries/political units that are also islands do not have a gender. So you would say Je vais à Hawai (I’m going to Hawaii), whereas for gendered countries/political units you would use the prepositions “au” or “à la” depending on the gender.

        • Mark Bej 2:34 pm on October 19, 2011 Permalink

          Not at all, I understood your argument quite well.

          My argument is that the use of the “the” has nothing to do with a geographical feature. Rather, (in my view) it has everything to do with the fact that “land[s]”, “island[s]”, “state[s]”, and “union” — the latter two of these decidedly *not* geographical feature, but a man-made one — have semantic meaning in the English language, whereas “Congo”, “Ukraine” etc. have no semantic meaning outside of its meaning as a proper noun.

    • Julie 10:13 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I use “Gambia,” not “the Gambia.” I’ve never heard anyone say it with the article before…

    • johnwcowan 11:18 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here is Arnold Zwicky’s list of Language Log postings on anarthrous (article-free) proper names. In French, the rules are fairly simple: all such names are arthrous unless they are abbreviations of more complex forms. Thus Maurice (Mauritius) takes no article because it is short for l’île de Maurice.

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

    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 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AAVE, colloquial, descriptive linguistics, ebonics, english, , , , where you at   

    Where you at, man? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I have a sordid confession, grammar nerds. I use the phrase “Where you at?” on a regular basis.

    That Boost Mobile commercial just got to me. And then Jennifer Hudson came out with a song called “Where you at?” and I just couldn’t resist anymore. “Where you at?” is a phrase associated with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but plenty of my non-African American friends use it. And then there’s me, too.

    So what’s with this phrase? From a prescriptive standpoint, there are just so many grammatical issues.

    First, there’s no verb (called a copula in this instance, since we need a form of the verb “be”). But let’s give speakers a little break. Maybe the “are” just got swallowed up in the “where.” When many speakers casually say the two words “where are,” the “are” usually gets contracted into the “where,” resulting in “where’re.” That’s a pretty hard word to pronounce, so it may get reduced to a simple “where” when we’re speaking. Also, in AAVE, the copula is generally omitted altogether, anyway.

    So, okay, there’s no verb — fine. We’ll allow it.

    But what about that pesky “at” at the end? The word “where” literally means “at what place,” so saying “Where you at?” effectively results in “At what place (are) you at?” Repetition is usually no good. There shouldn’t be two instances of “at” when they are used for the same purpose.

    There’s also a prescriptive argument that a preposition like “at” shouldn’t be used at the end of a sentence. I generally avoid subscribing to that view, especially when it creates awkward sentences. There might be a case for that argument here, though: If we place the “at” somewhere else in the sentence, we see that it doesn’t really belong in this sentence. “At where (are) you?”

    But maybe that “at” serves another purpose. I find “Where you at?” to be a more useful phrase than the standard “Where are you?” because it requests something deeper than a simple GPS location. I want to know where you are, what you’re doing, whom you’re with, and whether it’s fun. Can I come to where you’re at? Can I bring friends? Maybe the simple word “at” holds much more meaning than we give it credit for.

    I also like the phrase because it’s more casual and less creepy than an out-of-the-blue “Where are you?” — it has all the functionality of the “proper” phrase and none of the stalker undertones. Maybe that reason alone is enough to welcome the sentence into my regular speech.

    In addition, the social implications of the phrase — cool, hip, urban — probably play into my and others’ decision to use the phrase. You don’t want to be lame and use “Where are you?” when a more proper “Where you at?” would do the job in certain contexts.

    Sure, I probably won’t use it when I’m speaking to my elders or in a professional context, but I like using it with my friends and peers.

    And after all, for descriptive linguists, utility and popular usage is where it’s at.

    • johnwcowan 8:39 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Quoth the OED2 under at sense 1d:

      Used superfluously after where. U.S. and Brit. dial. (see E[nglish] D[ialect] D[ictionary]).

      1859 J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (ed. 2) , At is often used superfluously in the South and West, as in the question ‘Where is he at?’

      1899 A. Nicholas Idyl of Wabash 34 Where does he live at?

      1903 N.Y. Sun 8 Nov. 6 The business world wants rest. It wants to know where it is at.

      1911 E. Ferber Dawn O’Hara xx. 294 This is where I get off at.

      1914 G. Atherton Perch of Devil i. 8 She‥disliked‥not knowing where she was at.

      So we see that Where are you at? and similar expressions have been in use for at least a century and a half in American English and probably much longer in England.

    • Lane 4:52 pm on September 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Don’t forget that it means “how are you?” in New Orleans, among the whites who, as a result, are called “yats”.

      Short story: In college, I worked in our Junior Year Abroad office, and we put up a map with pictures of where all our JYA students were studying. We thought it a fun idea to put up a banner above it reading “It’s not where you’re going – it’s where you’re at”, in a nod to the local slang. (This was Tulane.) One sleepy summer day when nothing was happening in the office, a gray-haired woman stormed in and denounced the sign in what felt like a three minute monologue: “People pay a lot of money to send their children to this university to learn how to use the language, and then here – a university office, no less! – you are ending a sentence with a preposition! I realize you probably consider it tongue-in-cheek, but I consider it inappropriate.” She finished by giving her name, her title (“professor emerita> of French”), turned on a heel, and stormed out. I hadn’t said a word the entire time.

      For those who think there aren’t still neanderthal prescriptivists out there. This was a language professor!

    • John Cowan 11:34 pm on September 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      My experience (limited, but not zero) with professors of Romance languages is that that’s their customary attitude.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: english, , , ,   

    Frenemy, pls refudiate haters 

    Posted by Sandeep

    Around every new year, I have fun looking at different dictionaries’ and publications’ lists of “the new words” of the year. Sociolinguistic commentators always have a field day around every January: Some loudly lament the decline of English, and others marvel at the flexibility of our language. Everyone seems to love a good invective against modern society—but why do we care about change in language so much?

    Natural systems are dynamic; any scientist will argue that. But most things man-made—from buildings to morals—strive to achieve an intrinsic stability. Nature fluctuates, but the concrete and the abstract of man-made creations are designed to be constant. Language, one of the most fundamentally human of characteristics, straddles this dichotomy. It is at once a natural system encoded into society and into the human brain—an ability to process and synthesize communicative gestures of the same species—as well as a synthetic system based on arbitrarily assigning sounds and symbols to the human experience.

    As such, language might be torn between natural drift and conscious shift in ways that no mathematical or historical model will ever be able to describe or predict.

    Amid this complexity, change in language—a perceived or documented shift in semantics, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or writing—has engaged humanity because it is associated with some of the most important elements of the human condition: culture, identity and the origin of man.

    We know at least some of the why of language change. Cultures attack, conquer and interact with one another. Language academies are created and maintained for the explicit purpose of standardizing written and spoken forms because there’s a historically and geographically universal perception that society in general and language in particular is falling precipitously from a refined past. Certain forms of grammar and vocabulary are stigmatized and others are praised; the same ones might be conversely mocked and admired by different groups. The inherent variability in the human experience, a necessary component for any change, allows that when different cultures interact, there is a productive exchange of ideas and language.

    This is all well and good. We can name what has happened and offer some explanations as to why these changes occurred. I have shown above that language is inconstant: This much every linguistics student knows. But if language is a man-made system, then it was created to be constant. Man works toward homeostasis.

    Language, ostensibly, arose because certain neural pathways more complex than those of our predecessors allowed for abstract thought and the use of symbols. This adaptive development allowed for complex social interactions and communication that made one Homo species more fit than another.

    And yet, as humans, we—by the same or different neural mechanisms—are capable of reflection on our behavior in a way that hasn’t been observed in other animals. So for the entire history of our species, where we are today is as much a product of natural forces as it is deliberate choice. Taken into context, if humans use language to communicate, and if language is useless without facilitating communication, then we ask why vocabulary isn’t finite and syntax isn’t fixed—this would seem to be the most effective way to ensure meaningful interaction. But the point is that it’s not.

    This problem has occupied researchers and still isn’t resolved—but will it ever be?

    It seems to me that change in language might be such a complex, multifaceted, multivariable process that we may never be able to understand how all of the forces work together in one whole, coherent way such that we’ll be able to competently describe or predict past and future change in every respect. Language is natural and synthetic and neither, and it displays trends characteristic of both and none. Human behavior, the human mind and human interactions are all inconceivably complex variables. Linguists might always be consigned to dividing up language change into neat parcels and analyzing the hell out of each. This might not be such a desperate thing to do.

    As long as we recognize that the entirety of language change defies conclusive explanation, we can concern ourselves with functional explanations of certain trends in a way that is useful and productive.

    Even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms and processes of language change, it would be silly to believe that our language is declining: It’s difficult to objectively characterize any change as degradation. We’re not moving toward some end-goal, no matter what sort of a harbinger the “texting generation” is. The truth is that every generation has always experienced language change and called it decline. Change is just change.

    As far as I’m concerned, the “new words of the year” lists are only useful in reminding me how woefully square (we’re still using that word, right?) I am.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on January 13, 2011.)

    • JP 9:57 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Like this piece, except, maybe, the third paragraph. It works well rhetorically, but we don’t really know that. Got here via languagehat.com and think I will be a regular..:-) Saudações from Brazil.

    • johnwcowan 3:45 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Well, we don’t always seek homeostasis. In particular, we know that some language change happens in order to differentiate an in-group: notable cases are the characteristic Martha’s Vineyard phonology, which is actually more common in young people now than it is among their parents (who were trying to assimilate to off-islander English), and the Northern Cities Chain Shift, which seems to be a way of differentiating white Northern Americans from black Americans and Canadians.

      • The Diacritics 11:34 am on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Right. There are a few really well-known examples of people consciously changing their speech. What I meant to say was that at any given point, people want stability in their language — it wouldn’t do to have the meaning of, say, “table” change from day to day. We seek homeostasis in describing our world within our communities.

  • The Diacritics 5:12 pm on September 6, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english, , ,   

    Why are humans smart? Language and LEGOs 

    posted by John

    In her absolutely awesome paper “What Makes Us Smart? Core knowledge and natural language,” Elizabeth Spelke writes

    When we compare the cognitive achievements of humans to those of nonhuman primates we see striking differences. All animals have to find and recognize food…but only humans develop the art and science of cooking. Many juvenile animals engage in play fighting, but only humans organize their competitive play into structured games with elaborate rules. All animals need to understand something about the behavior of the material world to avoid falling off cliffs…but only humans systematize their knowledge as science and extend it to…entities that are too far away or too small to perceive or act upon. (Elizabeth Spelke, “What Makes Us Smart? Core knowledge and natural language.” In Language in Mind. Gentner and Goldin-Meadow (eds.). 2003.)

    So, Spelke asks, “What is it about human cognition that makes us capable of these feats?”

    The answer to this question is a complicated one, even if you already know I’m going to say it is language. Why is it complicated? Because it’s not just language itself, but the ability, associated with language, to combine otherwise separate “core knowledge” systems. Whereas lots of animals have our same basic cognitive senses of spatial relations, object mechanics, number sense, geometric sense, and navigation, humans (once they develop language) are uniquely able to combine them and make them work in conjunction.

    How do we know this? Basically, it has been demonstrated that both infant humans and many other animals have extremely similar core knowledge systems. Babies and monkeys, for example, have essentially the same ability to understand how objects move and interact, whether one group of objects is larger than another, and how basic geometry allows you to walk a room in specific, novel paths.

    Each of these tasks represents a separate “core knowledge” system (you could also call them ‘modules’). Crucially, these modules in both babies and other animals are isolated, encapsulated, and unable to interface (representations from one are incomprehensible to the other).

    Rats and babies—all that (cognitively) different?

    To understand in what way these modules are isolated, let’s look at just one example (simplified slightly for reasons of space): Say you put a rat in a rectangular room and show him that a bit of food is located in the northeastern corner. You then disorient the rat (cruel, I know), and set him loose. Immediately, with no trouble, he will go to the northeastern corner and find the food. The rat has the cognitive ability to search using some sort of ‘directional’ or “geocentric” sense.

    Similarly, if you then put a little chair in the room, show the rat that there is some food on the chair, disorient it, then set it free, it goes directly to the chair and finds the food. The rat can also do navigation by landmark.

    These are two separate systems of spatial relationships and navigation: navigation by direction and by landmark. Crucially, then, if you put a piece of food northeast of the chair, the rat will search at random somewhere near the chair. This is evidence that he cannot navigate using both “northeast” and “the chair.” Combining the two systems—each of which works fine on its own—leads to problems.

    Infants have the exact same problem: when directed to find something at a chair, it’s easy. When directed to find something in the northeastern part of a room, it’s fine. But northeast of the chair doesn’t work. Again, the separate modules are not able to interface effectively with each other.

    Adults, of course, have no trouble going northeast of the chair. They have an ability to combine and communicate between these two cognitive systems that infants and other animals do not. The emergence of these combinatorial abilities is directly associated with the development of language. Once you can talk, you can do things like this too. How intelligent of us!

    The LEGO Analogy

    There’s a really nice way to think about how this whole business might work: Consider each individual module as a LEGO, but without the little raised dots on top. Each does it’s own thing pretty well—and maybe you can make a basic stack of them to do slightly complex things. But once you try anything more than the most basic of interactions between modules (LEGO blocks), your structure collapses. So when you try to combine navigational capacities to go to the left of the chair, things get confusing.

    Language, then, is the little raised dots on top of the LEGO (and I guess the little holes they fit into). Once you have those, everything changes. Structures unimaginably complex from the point of view of bump-less Lego blocks now become possible. We go from a basic stack of unconnected blocks to things like a full-on LEGO arena.

    Now maybe we’re not that smart—not yet at least—but that’s the basic idea. The reason that humans are smart is precisely because we have language on our side. The language capacity, Spelke and others have suggested, allows the most basic building blocks of cognitive ability to communicate and interact. So, like LEGOs with connectors, we can now build structures of near infinite complexity (remember The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed) and combine the faculties that previously could only work alone.

    Other linguists, like Noam Chomsky or my former professor Cedric Boeckx, have taken this even further. They have theorized it’s not language, per se, that allows for communication between modules, but rather some other relatively small, yet crucial, cognitive development. Part of the core reasoning behind this is evidence that advanced cognitive abilities, like language and culture (and also the sorts of actions discussed above), developed remarkably fast by evolutionary standards. The first evidence of language goes back only some 30,000 years! Because of the relative speed with which language evolved, it’s been supposed that the critical upgrade was actually only a tiny little change, albeit with massive consequences.

    Well, what if that change was, very simply, the ability to take all of the separate human cognitive faculties and allow them to work together? What if the only change was the development of a cognitive ‘connector’? We would then have the ability to take discrete modules and concepts and place them in communication with each other; the ability to build more complex structures using the most basic of building blocks. This would not only explain how our separate core knowledge systems could start to be combined, but also how we came to put words together into syntactic structures.

    This theory has been influential in the linguistics world (though it’s not without its detractors). It makes some sense, too. Not only would the combination of northeast and chair be possible, we could also create structures made up of concepts based in the real world.  We could take concepts (eventually words) that previously existed as individual, non-interfacing ideas (animal, food, run), and put them together into complex thought patterns and, eventually, sentences (There is an animal that we could eat, so let’s run after it). What were previously non-connecting LEGO blocks can now be combined in majorly complex ways.

    Once this ‘connector’ mechanism is sufficiently developed in human infants, they, like adults, can combine cognitive modules and, importantly, combine concepts into sentences.

    As far-fetched as this might sound, it’s actually not so different from the LEGO example. You had all the blocks before, and nothing changed but the addition of connectors. That’s the only difference between the technologies, and yet it has huge consequences.

    Our minds work in complex and fascinating ways, and of course there’s no way we can yet know for sure this idea is correct. But isn’t it exciting that there could be so simple and elegant an answer for why humans are smart? And you can’t deny that we are—we did, after all, invent the LEGO.

  • The Diacritics 1:42 pm on September 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: abjad, , alphasyllabary, , dyslexia, english, language disorder, language therapy, logogram, phonics, poetry   

    “My belabored relationship with words”: dyslexia in different languages 

    posted by Sandeep

    I willed myself into being him. I invented a character who could read and write. Starting that night, I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth. I imagined being able to sound out the words by putting the letters together into units of rhythmic sound and the words into sentences that made sense. I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.

    In a beautiful piece in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz writes about his struggle with dyslexia and how the utter difficulty of parsing and pronouncing words instilled within him a deep appreciation of the power of language.

    Dyslexia — an umbrella term for a host of reading disabilities, but most commonly understood in English to be the struggle to pair letters to their sounds and form words — has been the subject of quite a lot of recent research. A lot of famous people have struggled with dyslexia. Many famous authors have struggled with the disorder. A lot more not-so-famous people are dyslexic, too — some have estimated that up to 15% of Americans are dyslexic.

    The complexity of dyslexia belies its popular understanding. And because it can be difficult to properly diagnose, many dyslexics go through life thinking that they are simply unintelligent, rather than the bearers of a disorder.

    Philip Schultz writes:

    We know now that dyslexia is about so much more than just mixing up letters — that many dyslexics have difficulty with rhythm and meter and word retrieval, that they struggle to recognize voices and sounds. It’s my profound hope that our schools can use findings like these to better teach children who struggle to read, to help them overcome their limitations, and to help them understand that it’s not their fault.

    There’s plenty of research on dyslexia in English (of course), but I’ve been curious — in a language that doesn’t use an alphabet — like Chinese, which uses logograms, or my native Kannada, which uses an alphasyllabary — how does dyslexia manifest itself?

    Chinese is really different from English.

    The character for Biáng-Biáng Noodles is one of the most complex Chinese characters. Coincidentally, it is also one of the most delicious Chinese characters.

    In Chinese, the sheer complexity of characters, coupled with the fact that each character represents a morpheme (a language unit that has meaning–a word or part of a word) rather than a phoneme (a singular sound, not necessarily with meaning) creates unique problems for dyslexics. And because Chinese doesn’t use letters, a dyslexic can’t scramble letters the way an English dyslexic might.

    In a study published in Nature in 2004, researchers suspected that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may be fundamentally different because the main skill in English reading is putting letters into sounds (phonics, of Hooked on Phonics fame) and the main skill in Chinese is the rote memorization of characters and their meaning. They found that different areas of the brain were activated in English dyslexics versus Chinese dyslexics. Furthermore, they found that the left middle frontal gyrus (previously implicated in Chinese character recognition) in Chinese dyslexics was smaller than Chinese non-dyslexics.

    These researchers suggested that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may in fact be two different disorders because reading each language demands different things of the brain.

    In a 2009 paper in Current Biology, researchers expressed a hunch that because Chinese requires the rote memorization of characters and their meanings, those who had trouble understanding particular characters might have trouble with visual-spatial processing as well as phonological processing. English dyslexics typically only show deficiencies in phonological processing.

    During an fMRI activity, Chinese dyslexics showed less activation in a brain region associated with visual-spatial processing during a test in which subjects judged the relative size of objects, confirming that phonological and visual-spatial deficiencies may be uniquely coupled in Chinese dyslexics.

    The logical next point is: If English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia are two fundamentally different disorders, can you be dyslexic in one language and not the other? The research says, probably. Understanding the differences between the two (or more?) types of dyslexia could be critical in developing language-specific therapies for dyslexics.

    Spanish is pretty different from English, too.

    This clean dichotomy of “two dyslexias” gets muddier when you consider the differences between dyslexia in English versus a language like Spanish or Italian, which use the same alphabet for different ends.

    English and French are two languages whose pronunciation is not always intuited from the spelling of a word. As I explained in my previous post on Moammar Qaddafi, figuring out English pronunciation is pretty damn hard. French is notoriously hard, too. This is called deep orthography — pronunciation rules are highly varied. It requires more (social, contextual, memorized) knowledge to pronounce a word in deep orthographic languages.

    Spanish and Italian, on the other hand, use a standardized system of pronunciation that varies very little within a dialect. Non-speakers of these languages can usually suss out pronunciations if they are given a set of rules, even if they don’t actually know the language. These are languages with shallow orthography.

    A survey of studies (click for PDF) on the effect of shallow versus deep orthographies on developmental dyslexia has suggested that dyslexics who speak a shallow orthography language as their mother tongue have an advantage in overcoming dyslexia over deep orthography speakers.

    What about other writing systems?

    This Kannada character, /m/, has an inherent vowel, /a/, so it is pronounced /ma/.

    Unfortunately, there isn’t much research done on dyslexia in other writing systems, such as alphasyllabaries (e.g., all Indian writing systems, such as Hindi [Devanagari script] and my native Kannada). In Indian alphasyllabaries, each consonant is written with an inherent vowel, and vowels are written separately, so one letter usually corresponds to one syllable in a word (with some exceptions).

    My hunch is that dyslexics in alphasyllabary languages would have similar developmental issues to dyslexics of shallow orthography languages. In Indian languages, spelling-to-pronunciation is nearly one-to-one, similar to Spanish or Italian. In addition, although Indian writing systems are not alphabets, they are more similar to alphabets (in that they use letters to represent phonemes, not morphemes) than logogram systems. So, in the absence of research on the subject, I would guess that dyslexia therapy programs used in shallow orthography languages would translate well to Indian languages.

    — — —

    Philip Schultz writes that his [English] dyslexia inspired his love for language and poetry. I wonder if the same love can be developed by dyslexics in other languages, too.

    … the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music …

    I hope so. Schultz’s poetry is awesome.

  • The Diacritics 5:10 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: english, ,   

    The tomato: fruit or vegetable? 

    posted by John

    Most of us know that the scientific classification of the tomato is that it is a fruit. But, of course, we also know that it’s not quite like an orange, an apple, or a plum. I once heard it said:

    Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is never putting it in a fruit salad.

    What does that statement actually mean? If we unpack it just a little bit, we get something like the following: that although we know technically speaking, tomatoes are the juicy, seed-bearing part of the plant, and that makes them a fruit, we nevertheless consider them to be vegetables (and thus a better part of, say, a garden salad than a fruit salad).

    It turns out that the United States Supreme Court agrees. And in 1893, ten years after the Tariff Act of 1883 was passed, they were called on to decide the question as a legal matter. The tariff was to be imposed on the importation of vegetables, but not on fruits, so when John Nix was forced to pay duties on tomatoes he imported from the West Indies, he sued. This is what the Court found:

    Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine . . . But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert. (NIX v. HEDDEN, 149 U.S. 304 (1893))

    What the Court took to be the true meaning of the word ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ did not turn on its technical definition. It turned, rather, on its common usage: because it is widely understood to function more like a veggie than a fruit, the tomato should be considered a vegetable for the purposes of the tariff.

    In some ways, this makes sense. The Court was deciding how the tomato should be treated with respect to a tariff on vegetable imports. Thus if something is widely treated as a vegetable in terms of its economic use (garden but not fruit salads), then perhaps it makes good sense to treat it as such within the confines of the tariff. This was the Court’s reasoning, at least, and I generally think I agree with it. But come on; in other ways, it’s utter madness! If something is a fruit, it’s a fruit. Mass misunderstanding of that fact doesn’t make it less true.

    This conflict is related to Sandeep’s earlier post about Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of language—language doesn’t mean whatever we decide we want it to. But as Nix v. Hedden shows, our opinions and common conceptions of words nevertheless matter. To some extent, conventional meaning really determines literal meaning.

    As a former anti-vegetable child, I like that, and I think it gives hope to future generations of vegetable-averse kids: with a little persistence, maybe someday apples will count too.

    • The Diacritics 8:18 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Really interesting point. This is kind of the opposite of the point I made in the Humpty Dumpty piece. Here, it’s kind of like the general population pushing for a new meaning separate from the specialized (scientific) term instead of the specialized term pushing away from the general meaning.

      Unless people have always been calling tomatos vegetables. Shoot. This is like a chicken-or-egg thing, only it’s like fruit-or-vegetable. I wonder whether the Aztecs classified tomatoes as fruits or vegetables. Maybe they didn’t even have a binary classification like that.

      Oh… and, it’ll be a dark, dark day for children everywhere when apples are called vegetables.

      Finally, here is an apparently delicious fruit salad recipe with tomatoes: http://www.not-just-recipes.com/tomato-fruit-salad.html


      • The Diacritics 8:29 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        But apples taste good! So if we could convince everyone that they were vegetables, children everywhere could satisfy their veggie requirement with something delicious!

    • Bathrobe 8:04 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “But come on; in other ways, it’s utter madness! If something is a fruit, it’s a fruit.”

      Depends on your definition of ‘fruit’. Just because a scientist defines it as a ‘fruit’, using a different definition of ‘fruit’ from the usual one, doesn’t make his definition right. In fact, the scientist should leave the words ‘fruit’ and ‘vegetable’ out of it and coin his own word if he wants to create a semantic category that is at odds with ordinary usage. (I use ‘he’ because somehow it seems more likely that the perpetrators of this kind of violence on ordinary language are men.)

  • The Diacritics 8:36 pm on September 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: english, pragmatics   

    Tell me what you really think 

    posted by John

    (this post is based on part of Steven Pinker’s TED talk on this topic. You should watch it, but read this first!)

    What can The Wire, Taylor Swift, the Coen brothers, Cee-Lo, and A Beautiful Mind teach us about the linguistic field of pragmatics?

    For starters, check out this clip from The Wire, and we’ll see! (Watch from 1:12-1:50.)

    This lovely young lady asked our friend D’Angelo to “buy her a drink.” If we take her literally, it makes little sense that he would then ask her how much that drink cost, and even less that she would say $20. That’s a lot, and they’re in Baltimore, not Manhattan. But, of course, we know that she’s asking him to do a litttttle more than drink with her.

    Some of us might prefer T-Swift to The Wire (watch from 0:44-1:00):

    When she sings “But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” Taylor means that her unfortunate victim is famously lazy, or that she loves to sleep, right? No, Taylor is saying, rather, that this girl has developed what some might call a “reputation.” There, see, I’m doing it too.

    What is it? It is layering something unpleasant, uncouth, offensive, risky, or embarrassing underneath a statement that is entirely tame, coy, or ostensibly innocuous.

    We all do it to varying degrees, and most would probably attribute this proclivity for euphemism to general norms of politeness. But Harvard’s Steven Pinker argues otherwise.

    Let’s consider his example of layered and indirect meaning. He finds it in the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. In the scene we’re concerned with, Steve Buscemi’s character (the kidnapper) is pulled over in the midst of driving with the lady he has kidnapped in the trunk. When the officer asks for his license, he holds out his wallet, making a $50 bill visible, and asks if “we can take care of this right here in Brainerd*.” We know immediately that he is thinly veiling an attempt to bribe the officer.

    But why does the crook offer his bribe in this way?  Why doesn’t he say, “How about I give you $50 and you just let me go?”  Here, we’re not talking at all about issues of politeness, but rather of self-preservation. That is, our evil friend is maintaining what governments (and Pinker) call ‘plausible deniability.’ For a lawyer-in-training, it might be better called  “limiting liability” by speaking indirectly.

    Pinker examines why we might choose to speak euphemistically by looking at the potential consequences of speaking directly versus indirectly. Basically, it’s a game of risk-assessment and limitation. Speaking directly is “do-or-die.” If the officer doesn’t want to accept your bribe, he pretty much has no choice but to take action. Speaking indirectly, on the o there hand, allows the illicit offer to be either ignored entirely or later defended as simple, innocent talk. The latter is far less risky and thus we generally choose to adopt it.

    If the cop attempts to arrest Buscemi’s character for trying to bribe him (or however he’d give him trouble), Buscemi can simply say he was really only asking for the officer to give him a warning instead of a ticket. Same goes for Shardene’s proposition that led off this post. If our young lady happened to offer herself to the wrong person (say, a police officer), she can claim she simply was just asking for a drink.

    We know, however, that we can’t fully protect ourselves using this method. We layer meanings precisely because they are significant and we want them to be understood. Recall Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, who was caught soliciting sex in a bathroom stall. Although he simply arranged his luggage in a certain way outside the stall, his signal clearly carried a deeper significance (which is why we might call it a signal in the first place). And although the signal was surely designed to allow its users to maintain plausible deniability, it nevertheless meant enough for him to be arrested.

    There’s an entire linguistic field devoted to this problem of how we converse (or otherwise communicate) and actually understand each other—even when the relevant meaning isn’t the surface one. Context, as we all know, is critical. But so are a bunch of other things, known in the linguistics world as ‘maxims’ of conversation. The maxims are ‘rules’ of natural language and human interaction that we all (at least subconsciously) understand and follow.

    They are: Quality (people say things that are true), Quantity (people are appropriately specific), Relevance (people speak relevantly), and Manner (more or less, people are polite, avoid obscurity, and are orderly).

    What’s awesome about the maxims is that even when we ostensibly don’t obey them, we actually still do. Because we know people speak Relevantly, we know that even when their words themselves aren’t germane, their underlying intention must be. Thus we search for that meaning and most of the time find it. When we don’t, the joke, pun, or euphemism goes un-gotten. This is how we understand Shardene, TS, and Steve Buscemi’s character, despite their apparent obfuscation of meaning.

    It can get tiring to wade through the layers of meaning we construct to limit risk and avoid embarrassment. That’s why when we finally hear someone speaking without them, it’s so refreshing. I’m talking about things like this song (warning: explicit lyrics):

    Of course, it’s hard to even imagine a society in which we all said exactly what we meant all the time. It might not be a better one—we would all be like Russell Crowe in this scene from A Beautiful Mind

    Except that if you tried that, you would get slapped.



    *Original post incorrectly claimed that Buscemi wanted to take care of it in Fargo, but it is indeed Brainerd–thanks, Lane, for catching the mistake.

  • The Diacritics 7:01 pm on September 2, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: classy, , english   

    I like the word “indolence.” It makes my laziness seem classy.

    Bern Williams
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