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.
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.
June 5, 2013
Another month means another selection of language and book links, the latest batch including tiny libraries and great secrets, badgers and Moo Fields, jive and wiki. Something for everyone, I hope.
Slim Gaillard’s jive dictionary.
Preserving the Texas German dialect.
The world’s tiniest library.
(Not counting Marc Giai-Miniet’s.)
On slipping a phrase into the language.
Throwing cold water on “ultraconserved words”.
Phonetic analysis of Marge Simpson’s disapproval-sound.
Watching badgers, not inhaling: 10 scandalous euphemisms.
Explaining the Latin jokes in Asterix (h/t LanguageHat).
Indian languages as a primer on historical linguistics.
The Pig Latins of 11 other languages.
Wiki: a word’s journey.
What can we learn from children’s writing?
The role of editors in codifying Standard English.
“Because I say so!” The trouble with Gwynne’s grammar.
Cunning Geo, Moo Field: amazing place names of Orkney and Shetland.
How learning a foreign language reignites the imagination.
N.K.Y.S.A. (Nobody knows your stupid acronym.)
On descriptivism and grammaticality.
Why do we say Yeah, no?
All the headlines from The Simpsons.
“Herein lies the great secret: Thought is made in the mouth.” (A Dada manifesto by Tristan Tzara.)
May 10, 2013
Caxton is a new blog about language from Barrie England, an Oxford graduate who has studied English literature, foreign languages, and older varieties of English. It is named after printing pioneer William Caxton, who, as Barrie writes, “by using technology to reach a wider public . . . can be seen as the progenitor of the digital age”.
Barrie wrote Real Grammar before its host pulled the plug; I’ve linked to it here in the past, most recently to his post on the rise of Swiss German dialect. Some of you may also know him from his insightful comments at Sentence first.
Since setting up Caxton and importing his old posts, Barrie has been blogging regularly, offering astute and balanced observations on such subjects as the value of linguistics, the early shapers of English, education, reflexive pronouns, dialects, grammar, and Jacques Brel. Rummage around and you’ll find all sorts of good material.
If you’re interested in the usage, history, politics, and beauty of English – or language generally – I recommend visiting and bookmarking Caxton. I’ve also added it to the links in the sidebar of this blog.
Updates: More thoughts on Caxton: Language Hat wishes it a “long and prosperous career”, while You Don’t Say celebrates “a new voice of sense and informed judgment”.
February 14, 2013
A minor linguistic storm arose in the UK last week after a Teesside school principal asked parents to “correct” their children’s informal speech – phrases such as it’s nowt (it’s nothing), I seen (I saw, I have seen), and gizit ere (give us it here = give it to me). Dan Clayton alerted me to this story, and provides additional insights and links on the unfolding debate.
As Dan points out, the extent and passion of the responses – in online comments, follow-up articles and discussion elsewhere – “[show] what a live issue” it is. People have very strong feelings about correctness in language, but unfortunately this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by tolerance and understanding.
Read the rest of this entry »
January 8, 2013
I’ve been meaning to share this for months, and a tweet today by @OxfordWords has prodded me into action. Late last year the British Council and the OED sponsored an expert panel discussion on the state of the English language, titled ‘Who cares about English?’
The talk is chaired by John Knagg, head of English research at the British Council. He takes questions from the audience and puts them to panel members John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society; novelist Romesh Gunesekera; and author and critic Henry Hitchings.
Among the topics covered are language regulation and correctness, change and innovation, history, social media, favourite words, and regional and global varieties of English. The speakers offer insight, learning, and humour, and there is some inevitable (and extreme) peeving from the floor.
You can watch part 1 below, or go here for the full video, which lasts a little over an hour. Enjoy!
February 18, 2012
From Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961):
Meanwhile Miss Brodie said:
‘And Mrs Lloyd — is she a woman, would you say, in her prime?’
‘Perhaps not yet,’ said Sandy.
‘Well, Mrs Lloyd may be past it,’ Jenny said. ‘It’s difficult to say with her hair being long on her shoulders. It makes her look young although she may not be.’
‘She looks really like as if she won’t have any prime,’ Sandy said.
‘The word “like” is redundant in that sentence. What is Mrs Lloyd’s Christian name?’
‘Deirdre,’ said Jenny, and Miss Brodie considered the name as if it were new to her . . .
Like is indeed redundant in that sentence, and you could equally say as if is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with like as if, but it has too colloquial a feel for the formal register Miss Brodie encourages in her students — more “proper” speech being advantageous in conservative society. COHA shows like as if used mostly in casual language.
Note also the recurrent use of said to report dialogue. Some writers are suspicious of its ordinariness, readily replacing it with such words as replied, spoke, enquired and exclaimed, but these draw more attention to themselves and hence away from the story.
Omit needless criticisms of redundancy
Jessica Love on quotative like
November 8, 2011
I received an email lately about an admirable new website, The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery, that stores and classifies examples of “interesting sentence- and paragraph-level patterns, including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and other rhetorical devices”.
It was created by David Clark, an English teacher who sees the educational value of collecting and systematically arranging sentences that exemplify these literary-linguistic structures and devices. (The project was also motivated by “unadulterated nerdiness”, something language enthusiasts will identify with.)
The portal offers a great range of categories, both familiar and obscure. Under hyperbole, for example, I found entertaining examples from Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce, Shakespeare, Flann O’Brien, and others. Imagery, smell has a solitary example from Annie Proulx, so that tag would benefit from readers’ submissions.
To get a feel for how it works, click around and see what happens. If you’re into language and literature, you’re likely to find it fun and edifying. David would love to hear comments and suggestions, and he invites readers to use and share the site and contribute examples to its database. As he says: the bigger it becomes, the more valuable it can be.