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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.


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 »

The -tide of reform

May 2, 2011

Sometimes it behoves people to adopt and accelerate changes in the common vocabulary of their language for political or cultural reasons. Mankind, once the norm, is now widely and rightly considered an inadequate term for humankind. Ditto chairman for chairperson, fireman for firefighter, and similar sexist and androcentrist terms.

In other cases, though, such attempts to ‘fix’ a language are misguided to the point of absurdity. I think we’re better off without huperson, woperson, personslaughter and personhole covers.

Of course, it’s not always gender that’s at issue. Here’s an account of one mercifully short-lived attempt at linguistic reform in the name of religion:

In the nineteenth century, British politician Thomas Massey railed against Catholicisms in the English language and proposed to the House of Commons that Christmas should be renamed ‘Christ-tide’ to avoid reference to the Catholic mass. When Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stood up, however, to ask Thomas Massey whether he was then also prepared to change his own name to ‘Tom-tide Tidey’, the matter was closed.

From A History of Language, by Steven Roger Fischer.

Previously: Aborting the sexist pronoun.

Aborting the sexist pronoun

December 15, 2010

In Connecticut in 1975, a Bill was proposed with the following text:

at least twenty-four hours before any abortion is performed in the state, the person who is to have the abortion shall receive counselling . . . concerning his decision to have such abortion.*

It’s an unremarkable passage, with one striking exception: the bizarre use of his, a masculine pronoun, in a context that could only refer to women. I came across this nugget of non-sense in Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Words and Women (1976), a short, lucid and well-documented study of how sexist language reflects and perpetuates sexist culture. The authors write:

The decisive argument against using masculine terms generically . . . is not that they are often inadequate and sometimes ridiculous, but that they perpetuate the cultural assumption that the male is the norm, the female a deviation. It is this bias that the advocates of common-gender terms want to eliminate. Yet almost every attempt to evolve new, amplifying symbols meets with hostility: the response of purists is sometimes so highly charged it is as though the male-is-norm assumption itself is what they are defending rather than the generic terms.

In 1972, Miller and Swift argued for tey, ter, and tem as gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns, but these remain ‘almost invisible’ [PDF] despite some high-profile appearances. Workarounds like s/he and she or he are far more common despite being unsightly or ungainly. So I tend to be sceptical about newly coined (or resurrected) common-gender pronouns.**

Very few suggestions have attained any currency or widespread public recognition. Thon, ey, and xe did better than most, yet they’re unknown to most English speakers. Proposing epicene pronouns seems to be a doomed enterprise, albeit a persistently popular one that generates many curious terms, from a to zon.

Most of the time, semantically singular they, their and them work just fine, both in casual speech and in literature. But not always. Interest in this peculiar lacuna is therefore likely to continue, despite (or because of) the fact that there is no perfect solution.

For more on Miller and Swift’s work, there’s an interesting interview in the Fall 1995 issue of The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly.


* State of Connecticut, ‘An Act Requiring Counseling Prior to Abortion’, Proposed Bill No. 263, General Assembly, January Session, 1975.

** Other types of revision, such as humankind or humanity for mankind and generic man, pose no problems.

Pronunciation: received or rejected

September 27, 2010

In his book Does Accent Matter? The Pygmalion Factor, John Honey writes that public school attendance or an RP [Received Pronunciation] accent were among the main criteria for being a British army officer in the world wars of last century. (Actor Dirk Bogarde is said to have attributed his promotions in WWII to his accent.) According to Honey, carnage in the trenches led to a relaxation in the requirement for an RP accent, and men were commissioned “whose voices betrayed their promotion from the ranks”.

Such was the prestige of an RP accent that its lack in these newly promoted officers — the “temporary gentlemen” of Pat Barker’s historical fiction — was apt to invite automatic disrespect from certain quarters. When one such officer inspected the cadets at a public school in Lancing in 1919, Evelyn Waugh (then in his mid-teens) helped organise the dropping of rifles to demonstrate against the officer’s regional form of speech. As a collective gesture it was perhaps more powerful than a Waugh of words would have been.

Honey describes the role schools played in creating a consensus that certain accents were authoritative, while others — whether from the mouths of students or teachers — were shameful:

There is little evidence that, in boys’ public schools at least, [RP] was systematically taught. New boys with local accents were simply shamed out of them by the pressure of the school’s ‘public opinion’. The prep schools, having pupils at an earlier, more formative age, were very important in this respect. In the decades immediately following 1870 there was a time-lag before non-standard accents died out among masters (and indeed headmasters) in the leading public schools. New appointees could be, and were, screened for accent. The boys’ reaction to that minority with ‘suspect’ accents who got through this screening depended upon their general effectiveness as teachers: a weak disciplinarian would find that his accent became another stick with which they would beat or bait him. In a popular man, respected for his teaching or sporting gifts, mildly non-standard speech forms were tolerated — even humoured — as part of the idiosyncrasies of a ‘character’.

As Orwell put it in Politics vs. Literature: “public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity, is less tolerant than any system of law”. Donning my biologist’s hat for a moment, I would say that conformity can be a powerful motivator of behaviour because it serves the structure and survival of a group. This instinct, which can manifest with great cruelty (ridicule, humiliation, isolation, and so on), probably serves an adaptive purpose. It binds a social group, strengthening its cohesion by dismissing outliers (or demanding that they cooperate), and thereby fostering a more effective and efficient system. It’s not pretty, but it’s very mammalian.

Update: There’s further discussion about this at Language Hat.

Oversalted with foreign words

May 31, 2010

The Economist reported last week on what it called “the vain battle to promote German”. It quotes the founders of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruitbearing Society), a literary group almost 400 years old, who centuries ago described the German language as “watered-down and oversalted” with foreign words. This old and common complaint has been taken up again by the New Fruitbearing Society, founded in 2007.

The degree to which foreign words “water down” or “salt” a language is subjective, and even the foreignness of a word can be debatable. Simeon Potter has written about the English language’s “highly technical efficiency in word-formation which enabled it . . . to absorb new elements and from these elements to shape new compounds”. This very efficiency troubled some traditionalists, who by default preferred words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Robert Burchfield called the quest for Saxonisms* “an unrealizable nationalistic dream”.

English is an unusual case, not least for the cultural power it has wielded through historical circumstance. But for all its force as the international lingua franca, it is far from monolithic. Its singular name is convenient but misleading: despite the popularity of simplified international forms such as “Basic English” and “Globish” (or the popularity of the idea of them), there are countless varieties of English, all taking their own unpredictable paths and becoming, in many cases, mutually unintelligible to varying degrees.

The boundaries between languages can be as much administrative and political as linguistic. In the so-called battle between languages, ground is always being gained here and lost there; their statuses and relationships never stabilise. Words seep from one language into another, sometimes remaining as they are (e.g. Gestalt, Zeitgeist), being translated as a calque (e.g. homesickness is calqued on Heimweh), or suffering what Burchfield described as “the indignity of being absorbed into the syllabic and other patterns of the receiving language”.

If languages survive through a process analogous to natural selection, it’s probably as complicated as it is in biology — and perhaps even less predictable, being human-centred. We can see related and ancestral forms in the morphology of words we use just as in the morphology of plants and animals we see. Anthony Burgess, in Language Made Plain, wrote that there is “fascination in looking for the family face under the whiskers”; that invasion and academia had given English “the surface appearance of a Romance language”, but that it remained “very much a Germanic dialect”.

This is unlikely to console the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, whose grievance is understandable but who would do well to prepare for disappointment. I’m all for languages retaining native words and expressions, but there are limits to how much influence — not to mention control — any person, lobby group or statutory body has over anyone else’s usage. L’Académie française is a telling example. Moreover, causes like this tend to attract purism and scapegoating, neither of which squares with the practical promotion of a language.


* Saxonism: “a name for the attempt to raise the proportion borne by the originally & etymologically English words in our speech to those that come from alien sources” (H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage).

[Image adapted from here.]