Language change and the politics of accents

August 12, 2017

These are the topics of my latest posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. In Words in constant motion, I write that every aspect of language use is subject to change, that this understandably unsettles some people, but that we can learn to live with it:

We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism.

In The politics of accents, I examine a recent case of linguistic prejudice against a British politician that centred on her regional accent, and consider what motivates such a reaction:

Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior.

One of Macmillan Dictionary’s busiest and most interesting features is its Open Dictionary, which relies on reader submissions of words and phrases previously absent from the dictionary. These entries, of course, are vetted and edited by lexicographers before being accepted (which many are not). Liz Potter wrote a helpful post on it last month: What’s the point of the Open Dictionary?

My full archive of posts for Macmillan is available here.


Language rules of the Third Reich

April 8, 2014

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

Read the rest of this entry »


Ms., Mrs., and Missing options

August 19, 2013

Ms. was coined as a title for women analogous to Mr. for men, implying nothing about marital status. In this respect it is crucially unlike the traditional forms Mrs. and Miss.

In a recent post, linguistlaura says a friend of hers faced the choice of Mrs. or Ms. – no Miss – in a website’s dropdown menu. This, Laura writes, undermines the point of having Ms., because:

if it’s used in opposition to Mrs., then it implies ‘unmarried’, becoming synonymous with Miss. For it to retain its purpose, it has to be the only option (with Mrs. and Miss not available) or the Mrs./Miss system must be available: both options must be present.

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Reductio ad Godwinum

May 7, 2013

Anyone who has spent some time online, especially in forums or social media where chat and debate predominate, is likely to have come across references to Godwin’s Law, created by Mike Godwin in 1990:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

This builds upon reductio ad Hitlerum (aka argumentum ad Hitlerum or playing the Nazi/Hitler card), an association fallacy proposed by political philosopher Leo Strauss a few decades ago. Godwin says he aimed to:

build a counter-meme designed to make discussion participants see how they are acting as vectors to a particularly silly and offensive meme…and perhaps to curtail the glib Nazi comparisons. (Wired, 1994)

Godwin’s counter-meme spread successfully – so much so, that references to Godwin’s Law are now common enough for me to suggest reductio ad Godwinum as a recursive corollary:

As an online discussion of online discussion grows longer, the probability of a reference to Godwin’s Law approaches 1.

Have you ever invoked Godwin’s Law? And what other corollaries or fallacies might we idly invent?


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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Tongue-tied, by Li-Chin Lin

February 5, 2013

The current issue of Words Without Borders has an interesting comic about language and identity by Taiwanese artist Li-Chin Lin, translated from French by Edward Gauvin.

Tongue-tied, excerpted (I think) from her début graphic novel Formose, vividly explores the politics of dialect and language, social attitudes towards their use, and the complications of squaring one’s sense of self with these conflicting pressures.

Li-Chin Lin - Tongue-tied - comic on language and identity

Li-Chin Lin is interviewed here about her work; the page is in French, so drop the text into Google Translate or similar if you want a rough version in English or another language.


Anti-anti-Americanismism

September 27, 2012

A recent article on the BBC America website features ’10 Things Americans Say… and What They Really Mean’. It begins with an unpromising generalisation and a gratuitous sideswipe:

When it comes to the spoken word, Americans are a truly baffling bunch. So we’ve decoded their most irritating idioms.

Here’s an example of said ‘decoding’ which, though it may have been intended as humour, seems to me sour and condescending: Read the rest of this entry »