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.

Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

March 9, 2015

Marina Warner, in her book Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (essentially her 1994 Reith Lectures in book form), has a note on the practice of reclaiming slurs and insults, often called reappropriation:

Moving in to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear has become a popular strategy. Sometimes this takes the form of ironical co-opting of a jibe, or even an insult – as in the open defiance of the black rock group called Niggers With Attitude, or the ironic names of women’s enterprises, like the famous publishers, Virago. In Zagreb, five writers were recently denounced as dangerous women in the Croatian nationalist press: the targets immediately accepted the label, and their supporters now wear badges proclaiming them ‘Opasna Žena’ – a dangerous woman. This is a form of well proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.

I like Warner’s description of this act as occupying metaphorical objects, like sleight of semantics: it captures the tangle of abstraction we employ in constructing identity, while also prefiguring the global use of occupy in political uprisings and protests in recent years.

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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.

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Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

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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?

Centring around phonetic alphabets

March 11, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?


Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.