Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year Ragan.com published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

February 4, 2014

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

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Modern English as an archaic dialect

October 22, 2013

Voltaire is said to have described etymology as a science in which vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little. The line’s provenance is questionable, but the point holds. Over time, vowels shift and so do consonants: words may transform radically. If people are around in a few centuries’ time, we won’t just be using lots of new words: we’ll be using old words that sound different.

I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction, despite the genre’s reliance on time travel and future scenarios. But I came across an example last weekend in the Ursula K. Le Guin–edited Nebula Award Stories of 1975. Joe Haldeman’s story ‘End Game’ is a futuristic military drama that refers briefly, on a few occasions, to phonetic change and to language change more generally:

(1) Language, for one thing, was no small problem. English had evolved considerably in 450 years; soldiers had to learn twenty-first century English as a sort of lingua franca with which to communicate with their officers, some of whom might be “old” enough to be their nine-times-great-grandfathers. Of course, they only used this language when talking to their officers, or mocking them, so they got out of practice with it.

(2) Most of the other officers played chess, but they could usually beat me – whenever I won it gave me the feeling I was being humoured. And word games were difficult because my language was an archaic dialect that they had trouble manipulating. And I lacked the time and talent to master “modern” English.

(3) He said a word whose vowel had changed over the centuries, but whose meaning was clear.

No dialogue or descriptions provide any details of the form to which English had changed in four and a half centuries, but that may be just as well, as it leaves it to our imagination and avoids suggesting something a linguist might object to. It’s nice to see the subject addressed at all, and so explicitly; the sociolinguistic reference to mockery is an especially good touch.


Films of linguistic interest

September 23, 2013

After watching the experimental French film Themroc (1973), about a man who rejects society to become a city-dwelling caveman, I was amused to see its Wikipedia page say the language used in the film is “Gibberish” – meaning nonsense language.

It’s true – dialogue in Themroc is minimal, and where communication occurs it takes such forms as babble, grunts, murmurs, and howls. So aside from its subversive politics it’s an interesting film from a linguistic point of view. Which got me to wondering: What other films belong in that category?

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Grammatic innovation, dramatic pronunciation

May 29, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to report. First up, LOL slash grammar, knowmsayin? looks at recent innovations in how people use LOL and slash, among other terms:

Sometimes . . . existing words get repurposed, switching grammatical classes or incorporating new ones: verbs and adjectives are converted into nouns, and vice versa. This attracts predictable criticism, but it’s a thoroughly ordinary process; nounings and verbings are a large part of the everyday formation of new usages.

Other switches are more unusual.

Linguist John McWhorter has noted that the phrase (Do) you know what I’m saying? is not usually the question it might superficially seem to be,

but rather is “a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does”. Given its frequent informal use, the phrase is often compressed into a syllable or two for efficiency. If you search Twitter for nomsayin or knowmsayin, you’ll see how common this is.

I offer a brief synopsis of the broader implications for language (hint: harmless; positive), then the comments extend the discussion: OMG is cited as showing similar semantic drift to LOL, while dot dot dot and full stop are further examples of verbalised punctuation.

You can read the rest here.

*

I now pronounce you … Wait, how do I pronounce you? steps back from the recent pavlova palaver over the pronunciation of GIF, to look at other examples of phonological confusion and controversy – and do we place the stress on that word’s first or second syllable?

Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.

A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself.

Since I began with an anecdote from my school days, readers have joined in by sharing stories of pronunciation-related embarrassment and epiphanies (and, included in the post, one of violence). Feel free to add your own.


There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects

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.

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