A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

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Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

August 29, 2017

The sun still rose, and the shops sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe. —China Miéville, Embassytown

Science fiction offers endless scope for linguistic experimentation, and there’s no lack of creativity at a purely lexical level: new terminology abounds in hard SF, weird fiction, and other speculative genres. But I haven’t read many SF novels where language is a central theme, though I’m sure that says more about my underexploration of the genre than it does about SF itself.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 are notable examples. But they are several decades old, and – though I’m probably an exception here – the ideas and storytelling in both books underwhelmed me. So when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I felt there was finally a linguistic science-fiction book I could recommend unreservedly, should anyone ask for one.

Embassytown does not admit of simple summary, so I won’t try, but I do want to describe some of its linguistic ideas. There will be spoilers. For proper reviews of the book, read Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian and Sam Thompson in the LRB.

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Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

July 7, 2017

Uptalk, also called upspeak, rising intonation, and (misleadingly) high-rising terminal, is where someone ends a statement as though it were a question? These two are for illustration? Uptalk is stereotypically associated with Australians, ‘Valley Girls’, and young women generally.

It’s also widely hated. Get people talking about their language peeves, and sooner or later uptalk will crop up. It has been described as an ‘annoying tic’ (The Smithsonian), ‘worse than vocal fry’ (Time), and as a ‘nasty habit’ in Psychology Today, which also worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering.

Even Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain entirely’. The host, Paul Merton, said it could be a politeness strategy, though he didn’t call it that, but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply irritating’:

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The linguistics of colour names

May 16, 2017

The news website Vox has produced some good videos on linguistic topics, which can be found amidst their many other clips. Its latest one looks at the vexed question of colour names and categories in different languages, and in 6½ minutes it offers a decent summary:

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Link love: language (69)

May 9, 2017

As usual I’ve left it late to do a linkfest, so I have a bumper crop of 50 language links for you this month. There are more podcasts than usual, so you can spare your eyes and treat your ears between reads.

54 Irish curses.

Slang family trees.

The tragedy of Google Books.

Interactive speech synthesiser.

How etymology can help your spelling.

Podcasts about language and linguistics.

The thing is is that ‘is is’ is surprisingly common.

Free e-book (PDF): Applied Sociolinguistics (1984), ed. Peter Trudgill.

Language use and names in classical Rome (podcast).

‘Good grammar’ comes from privilege, not virtue.

Samtaims ai vonder if inglis spiiking piipöl…

Language and feral children (podcast).

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The Language Hoax: John McWhorter on linguistic relativity

April 12, 2017

Linguist, professor, and author John McWhorter has featured on Sentence first a few times before, in posts about texting, creoles, dialects, linguistic complexity, and book spine poems. He has written many books and countless articles about language, and has been hosting the excellent Lexicon Valley podcast for the last while.

In the video below, McWhorter talks about the ideas in his recent book The Language Hoax, the hoax being the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka linguistic determinism or relativity, depending on how strongly it’s believed to apply.* This is the appealing but mostly unfounded notion that our language shapes the world we experience. There’s a helpful summary of it here, and further discussion in this book review.

The subtitle of McWhorter’s talk, ‘Why the world looks the same in any language’, outlines his position. But he acknowledges there is wiggle room for weak versions of the hypothesis, whereby our perceptions can vary slightly because of our different native languages. It’s a fun and interesting talk, given at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico in 2016. It’s around 50 minutes long, and there’s a lively Q&A to finish.

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Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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