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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Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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On caring less, and a new abbreviation (Ћ)

August 15, 2013

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’? looks at a recent orthographic innovation: Ћ, intended as a one-character symbol for the. If there were a pressing need for such an abbreviation, Ћ would stand a better chance of catching on. But we have lots of more familiar alternatives:

Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal.

And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way. Complete omission of the article is more common…

You can read the rest here. Will you be adopting Ћ?

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Next up: Could you care less? is about the expression I could care less and the constant cavilling it attracts. In David Mitchell’s entertaining video at the Guardian, he protests that the phrase implies you do care and is “useless as an indicator of how much you care”. I suggest that that’s true only

in a fantasy land where the expression and interpretation of language are tone deaf and bound strictly by formal logic. The point about idioms is that that’s not how they work. . . . Treating idioms this way is – to use Lane Greene’s choice phrase – “selective hyper-literalism”.

In speech, the stress pattern of an idiom can affect its interpretation, and so it is with I could care less. . . . As a Negative Polarity Item, it has its own independent negative force – like I could give a damn, which is synonymous with I couldn’t give a damn.

Read on if you couldn’t not care more or less about this, or for older articles visit the archive.


Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire

April 23, 2013

Last month I wrote about the dramatic, grammatic evolution of LOL,  referring to two talks on texting by linguist John McWhorter in which he describes LOL’s shift from straightforward initialism (“laughing out loud”) to pragmatic particle marking empathy and shared experience.*

One of McWhorter’s talks was not online at the time, but it appeared yesterday and is well worth watching if you’re interested in texting as a form of communication:

What texting is, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of something that we call writing, is fingered speech. That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk.

McWhorter discusses the differences between speech and writing and how they bleed into one another, and he demonstrates some of texting’s emerging structures and innovations, for instance slash as a “new information marker”.

He also tackles the myth that texting implies a decline in our linguistic abilities (an argument developed in more detail in David Crystal’s book Txtng: The gr8 db8). Says McWhorter:

What we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills – and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal, and it’s certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today – not consciously, of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.

Here is “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”:

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* My post was since translated into Chinese,  if anyone would like to read it that way.


The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

March 5, 2013

LOL, the poster child of txtspk and internet lingo, began as a handy abbreviation for laughing out loud (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats.

Some people even say lol offline to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing. (I’m sure these people laugh normally, too.) But there’s more to LOL than meets the eye. Anne Curzan writes at Lingua Franca that the meaning of LOL has changed – it often doesn’t mean laughing out loud. You might have noticed this.

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Comma clusters and texting style

June 25, 2012

My writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this month with posts about text messaging and comma usage.

How’s your txtng style? analyses how the language you use in text messages differs from your style in email and your prose elsewhere. I compare the grammar and style of my own text messages with what I know about others’, and I dismiss the suggestion that texting is somehow harmful to language:

New modes and styles of expression are an important part of language change and growth – they have ‘spawned all sorts of clever, funny and inventive new uses of language’, as Michael put it. Texting, like slang, is an ‘active frontier’, and the innovation and flux it illustrates is a sign of linguistic health. So long as communication is effective, and young people learn (or are taught) when texting style is inappropriate, there is no call for alarm. Despite occasional panic, texting is not ruining language – it’s just another way for social creatures to be social.

In the comments, readers have added their thoughts on texting in general and on aspects of their own habits and strategies, including abbreviations in other languages and how different phone types can influence text messaging style.

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A clutter of commas looks briefly at the subtlety and diversity of comma style. Gertrude Stein admitted to a “long and complicated life” with punctuation marks; such complication, I write,

is conspicuous in the comma. From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression. Ernest Gowers wrote that the correct use of commas – “if there is such a thing as ‘correct’ use – can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste”.

But it’s not quite so vague and elusive as this might make it sound. There is such a thing as correct use, but it may be better to think not of rules but of conventions – and to remember that these change over time and from one context to the next.

Few modern writers, for example, use commas as frequently as Dickens did; I consider the contrasting effects of ‘open’ and ‘close’ punctuation. Adrian (of The Outer Hoard) experimented by re-writing my post with his own punctuation to see where we differed, and he shares his findings in the comments.

Further comments are welcome at either location. You can also visit my Macmillan Dictionary archive for older posts on words and language.

Update:

Lane Greene follows up on “A clutter of commas” at the Economist‘s Johnson blog, saying he has “never understood why some people think that their personal comma preference is linguistic law”. Greene recalls an editor of the New Republic insisting that commas always appear in pairs. See Greene’s post for more on this strange belief.

Update 2:

Ruth Walker at the Christian Science Monitor joins in the discussion: “Proper punctuation can be a marvel of space-efficient communication.”