Book spine poem #39: Language, Language!

December 18, 2016

My latest piece of doggerel in book-spine form has an obvious theme.


Language, Language!

Language, language!
The story of language.
Language, slanguage
Spoken here: a history of
Language, a history of
Writing: style, style,
Style in fiction,
Linguistics and style,
Language and linguistics.
What is linguistics?
Understanding language.


[click to enlarge]


Read the rest of this entry »

Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea

August 26, 2014

In his groundbreaking Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler, with his customary insight, wrote:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

If the history of the English usage wars shows us anything, it’s how overpowering that temptation has proved, and still proves, to be. No special training is required to be an amateur grammarian, and so the annals of language commentary fill with unfounded peeves from those who like to tell other people they are Doing Language Wrong.

ammon shea - bad english -a history of linguistic aggravation - perigee book coverOf course, there has always been an opposing force from those who know the perils of setting usage advice in stone, of saying a certain word must mean this and never that and so it should be forevermore. Decrees of this type may be out of date by the time they’re published, and can seem particularly odd or surprising a mere generation or two later.

Ammon Shea’s new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (a copy of which I received for review from its publisher Perigee Books), is a very welcome addition to the canon of usage commentary. It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Palindromic poems and related wordplay

April 1, 2014

As a child I was very taken with anagrams and palindromes and similar wordplay. The interest waned or mutated over the years, but not fully, so when I stumbled upon Howard W. Bergerson’s book Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover Publications, 1973) in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, available for all of €2, I quickly picked it up.

palindromes and anagrams - howard w bergerson, book coverThe book contains most or all of the well-known palindromes, like Madam, I’m Adam, Able was I ere I saw Elba, Live not on evil, and (maybe most famously) A man, a plan, a canal – Panama; to which, incidentally, J. A. Lindon wrote a parody: A dog, a pant, a panic in a Patna pagoda. Other enjoyable one-liners include:

Drab as a fool, as aloof as a bard.

Hell! A spacecraft farce caps all, eh?

Did I do, O God, did I as I said I’d do? Good, I did!

I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas no melon. Distressed was I.

The next three invited combination into a cryptic mini-narrative:

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: ‘Odd Job Man’ by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green

March 19, 2014

Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.

2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online. [Edit: it has done, for subscribers.]

Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*

Read the rest of this entry »