Phatic communion, and lay vs. lie

July 19, 2014

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts on language matters. You’re the one for me, phatic offers an overview of phatic communion, a useful term from anthropology that refers to speech intended to establish or maintain social relations (as opposed to simply exchanging information):

A familiar example (and subset) is small talk, where people exchange greetings, good wishes, congratulations, and trivialities about the weather, recent sporting events, the state of the world, and so on.

Everyday greetings, such as How’s it going? and How are you doing?, are more about presenting a friendly attitude to someone than extracting answers from them, just as the replies – Fine, thanks, etc. – are usually stereotyped and automatic rather than necessarily being accurate indications of a person’s state. Though disliked by some people, small talk is a valuable social signalling system, as is phatic communion more generally.

The article also notes the origin of the term phatic and describes manifestations of the phenomenon in Ireland.

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Laying down the lie of the land addresses a knotty issue in English usage: the difference – and overlap – between lay and lie:

In standard English lay is transitive; that is, it takes a direct object (certain idioms excepted). You don’t just lay – you lay something. But this is a relatively recent rule, and it is very often ignored, especially in speech and informal use, where people frequently talk about laying down, laying on the floor, and so on. . . .

For many people lay meaning ‘lie’ isn’t wrong at all – it’s what comes naturally. But its use in edited prose invites criticism from those who learned the rule and want to see it observed as a mark of proper English. Like many contentious usage issues, it boils down to context and personal preference.

I look briefly at the history of this pair, noting that intransitive lay is over seven centuries old and only relatively recently became a usage to be avoided in careful prose.

Comments are welcome in either location, and older posts are available in the archive.


British Council seminar on language learning

June 4, 2014

Yesterday evening I watched a seminar from the British Council on language learning, which took place in Cardiff and was broadcast live on YouTube (video below). There were two talks, each followed by brief Q&As, and both are well worth watching if the topics interest you.

First, Miguel Angel Muñoz explored whether learning a foreign language makes you smarter – and if so, how. He reports on research into the cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism, and clears up some of the uncertainty in this area. Miguel wrote a post for the British Council blog which will give you an idea of the content of his talk.

Next, Michael Rundell of Macmillan Dictionary spoke about the difference between real rules and mere usage peeves, and how we should therefore teach grammar. For a flavour, see his excellent related post where, referring to Nevile Gwynne’s championing of pre-modern grammar books, he writes:

It is hard to imagine any other field of study in which a source is recommended precisely because it is out of date.

Here’s a slide from Michael’s presentation. The reference to “Heffer 2014″ will be familiar to anyone who has read my recent posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

michael rundell - british council seminars - language learning - using data vs claims

The video is 2½ hours long. If you want to skip around, introductions begin at 3:20, Miguel starts at 7:45, and there’s an interval from 1:02:45 to 1:13:18. Michael’s talk starts (after a technical hitch) at 1:16:15 and ends at 2:20:00, at which point there’s a few minutes of closing remarks.*

It’s almost like being there, except you have to make your own tea.

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Other British Council seminars and videos are available here.

* Or there are, if you’re twitchy about it.


The developmental overkill of language

June 1, 2014

In his excellent natural history of language, The Power of Babel, linguist John McWhorter describes dialects – and it’s all dialects – as “developed far beyond the call of duty”. He’s referring to the way languages tend to become structurally and idiosyncratically baroque:

Left to its own devices, a human language will tend to elaborate into overt expression of subdivisions of semantic space that would not even occur to many humans as requiring attention in speech and become riddled with exceptions and rules of thumb and things only learnable by rote. This process tends to achieve its most extreme expression among groups long isolated, but any language that has been spoken for tens of thousands of years exhibits some considerable degree of “developmental overkill.” It is this feature of human language that contributes to why learning other languages as an adult is such a challenge. No language has been goodly enough to remain completely tidy and predictable, no language has not stuck its nose somewhere where it didn’t really need to go, no language classifies objects and concepts according to principles so universally intuitive that any human could pick them up in an afternoon, and in none of them are there classifications indexed to currently perceptible cultural concepts in anything better than a highly approximate manner.

This tendency towards complex over-elaboration manifests inevitably in any language that has been around long enough. The converse is that new languages have relatively little such ornamentation, which emerges only through centuries or millennia of “sound erosions and changes, grammaticalizations, rebracketings, and semantic change”.

Pidgins are simplified languages, largely stripped of unnecessary complication, that arise for utilitarian reasons between groups who lack a common tongue. So when these are “born again” as full-fledged languages, in the form of creoles, the results are comparatively free of overdevelopment – before the engine of encrustation gets going again for subsequent generations.


The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

Read the rest of this entry »


Introducing Indo-European Jones

January 6, 2014

It started on Twitter, as these things often do. I read a comment about linguists and lexicographers being to language “what grave robbers are to archeology” (the context: hatred of the newly popular because X phrase), and I tweeted it with a raised eyebrow.

Jonathon Owen replied that he wished he’d been given a “leather jacket, bullwhip, and fedora” upon graduation, James Callan said he wanted to see an “Indiana Jones pastiche focused on a linguist”, and I felt it was a meme waiting to happen. So without further ado, let me introduce Indo-European Jones (or Indy for short).

James got the giant boulder ball rolling (click on images to enlarge):

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - this belongs in the OED - James Callan

Read the rest of this entry »


Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.

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What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.


Slang bans and aphaeresis

November 22, 2013

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, ’Scuse me, squire – ’tis just aphaeresis gives a brief account of the linguistic phenomenon known as aphaeresis or apheresis, which involves:

the dropping of an initial sound or sounds of a word. Despite its uncommon name, the process is familiar. It’s what lies behind the shortening of especially to ’specially, because to ’cause (also spelt cos), espy to spy, esquire to squire, and alone to lone. As you can see, what’s lost is often an unstressed initial vowel – this is a particular type of aphaeresis known also as aphesis.

Though it’s essentially a phonetic shortcut, what happens in speech tends to manifest in writing. Poets are fond of aphaeresis because it lets them manipulate prosody better. This is why in many poems you’ll see upon appear as aphaeretic ’pon, amid as ’mid and it was as ’twas.

Aphaeresis also explains the silent ‘k’ in knife and knee, and why drawing rooms aren’t for drawing in, and it lies behind pairs of now-semantically-distinct words such as amend and mend, and etiquette and ticket. Read the rest for more.

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Is banning slang counterproductive? follows up on a recent news story in the UK where secondary school students were given a list of words and phrases to avoid. I am of course sceptical (and skeptical) about this measure:

That those responsible have implemented the ban only in certain ‘formal language zones’ – not the canteen, for instance – suggests they know how futile a whole-school ban would be. It also suggests they trust that their students know how to switch from formal to informal registers – so why introduce the ban at all? Couldn’t awareness be raised through classroom discussion?

Complaining about young people’s slang is a popular pastime among older generations. Even celebrities get stuck in. Actor Emma Thompson lambasted what she deemed improper language: ‘It makes you sound stupid, and you’re not stupid.’ Compare her criticism with linguist William Dwight Whitney’s remark that slang combines ‘exuberance of mental activity’ with the ‘natural delight of language-making’.

The post also considers what the students themselves think of the ban, and shows how it might backfire on them socially.

Comments on either post are welcome here or at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and my archive is here if you want to browse older articles.


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