Otto Jespersen on language: ‘Everything is dynamic’

May 26, 2016

Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen appeared almost a century ago, in 1922. It has inevitably dated in some respects – e.g., occasional sexism and ethnocentrism – but in linguistic outlook it feels for the most part thoroughly modern, compared with some commentary on language change and grammar even today.

In March I read the elegant hardback copy (Unwin Brothers, 1959) of Language I picked up in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last year. A few excerpts follow, more or less in the order they appear in the book.

The first four chapters, comprising Book I, offer an illuminating history of linguistics as a science. They also feature this eloquent diversion on ‘correctness’:

The normative way of viewing language is fraught with some great dangers which can only be avoided through a comprehensive knowledge of the historic development of languages and of the general conditions of linguistic psychology. Otherwise, the tendency everywhere is to draw too narrow limits for what is allowable or correct. In many cases one form, or one construction, only is recognized, even where two or more are found in actual speech; the question which is to be selected as the only good form comes to be decided too often by individual fancy or predilection, where no scientific tests can yet be applied, and thus a form may often be proscribed which from a less narrow point of view might have appeared just as good as, or even better than, the one preferred in the official grammar or dictionary. In other instances, where two forms were recognized, the grammarian wanted to give rules for their discrimination, and sometimes on the basis of a totally inadequate induction he would establish nice distinctions not really warranted by actual usage – distinctions which subsequent generations had to learn at school with the sweat of their brows and which were often considered most important in spite of their intrinsic insignificance.

If you haven’t read Jespersen, the passage gives a fair sense of his style: formal in a lightly scholarly way, but infused with lively vernacular (‘the sweat of their brows’) and altogether accessible. He writes long sentences that build to long paragraphs, but his care for logic means the complexity is noticed chiefly in its appreciation; he has a talent too for the pithy phrase.

Discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jespersen zeroes in on the fundamental dynamism of language, and the related fact that speech is primary:

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English Dialect Dictionary Online

May 1, 2016

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

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How gender-neutral is ‘guys’, you guys?

February 22, 2016

Guy has followed an improbable path from its origin as an eponym for Guy Fawkes to its common and versatile use today. It’s increasingly popular as a term to address mixed-gender and all-female groups, but not everyone welcomes this development (see video below). So how gender-neutral is guys, you guys?

Instead of a simple answer there’s a spectrum that depends heavily on context. But we can draw some general conclusions, as I did in an article at Slate’s Lexicon Valley on guy(s) as a gender-neutral word:

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How do you pronounce ‘eschew’?

February 19, 2016

Eschew ‘avoid, shun, refrain from’ is a formal word of Germanic origin that entered English via Old French in the 15thC. It’s not one I use often, still less speak aloud, but a brief exchange on Twitter got me wondering how people pronounce it.

Let’s do a quick poll before I say any more. It simplifies the range of vowel sounds in the unstressed first syllable, so ignore any small difference there for now. I want to focus on the consonant cluster and what we might call the shoe, chew and skew forms.

If you’ve never said eschew or are unsure how to, go with whichever one you think you would say.

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Six videos about language

February 17, 2016

Rather than wait for the next linkfest to share these videos about language – there’s no telling when that would happen – I thought I’d bundle them all together. Most are bite-sized.

First up is Arika Okrent, whose book on conlangs has featured on Sentence first a few times. Her YouTube page has a growing selection of clips on various aspects of language, their charm enhanced by animation from Sean O’Neill. Here’s a recent one on animal sounds in different languages:

At The Ling Space, Moti Lieberman and team are prolific makers of entertaining videos aimed at people learning linguistics or interested in it. The Ling Space Tumblr blog supplements the videos with further discussion. This one is on the anatomy of the human voice:

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If Finnish is Godzilla, what creature is English?

February 2, 2016

This image has been floating around the internet for a while, but I don’t think I’ve seen it on a language blog. I don’t know who created it, but a search on TinEye suggests it originated on 9gag in 2014 as a two-part visual joke comparing Swedish and German grammar, before being variously (and anonymously) modified and extended.

[click to enlarge]

Scandinavian grammar - Swedish Danish Norwegian Icelandic Finnish kitten cat tiger alien godzilla

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Link love: language (65)

January 20, 2016

It’s almost two months since my last batch of language links: definitely time for another. It’s a smaller pile than usual, and some of them are short. But if you’re still pressed for time, think of it as a lucky dip.

Ootland.

Drownded.

The Water Glossary.

The early history of Ms.

A guide to air punctuation.

Profanity as Weltanschauung.

The rise of non-binary pronouns.

The rules of totesing are totes intch.

Inside the minds of real-time translators.

Where did the Australian accent really come from?

What’s the difference between language and dialect?

The internet is legible to speakers of just a few languages.

There’s a village in Bali where everyone knows sign language.

Seamus Heaney on his early sense of ‘verbal music’.

What do we visualise when we read fiction?

MRI scanner video of a woman singing.

Dictionaries and how we use them.

Of Mice and Men, a found poem.

A bad year for blasphemers.

Pronouncing Diplodocus.

The revival of smeuse.

And cheeseling.

Beware of writing tics.

Shakespeare Confidential.

Why do we say Once upon a time?

Wherefore pleaseth archaic English?

Journal of Language Evolution – a new publication.

How far back in time can we find evidence of deafness?

On the sociolinguistic significance of Martin Luther King Jr.

Murder in 1876 over the pronunciation of Newfoundland.

Irish isn’t ‘compromised’ – it just needs more support.

Monco – a useful new language corpus.

Why designers love the ampersand.

Back to prep(osition) school.

Star Wars style guide.

The smell of Latin.

Compassion fade.

Of Oz the WizardThe Wizard of Oz in alphabetical order:

Older language links here.


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