previous Language items
Language Items from 2012:
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New languages Oratory Hashtags spreading Language for communication Communication changes Suspense is overrated Very old notes What is believable? Pronunciation poem Haywire Kin classifications RULES and rules A new snowclone Nervous cluelessness Burglarized? Oxford comma Right said Fred Like oil & water Literally funny The Metcalf prize British-isms Is English Scandinavian? Stages of language changes
A language is born as a pidgin and then becomes a creole and then a
language. The pidgin starts when people who do not share a language
have to communicate. It has no grammar, a very small vocabulary which
is biased towards words from the native language of the more powerful (even if the minority)
Pidgins can last a long time as pidgins or die. It takes other
ingredient to become a creole. Children must speak the pidgin as an
important communication tool amongst themselves. With each generation
the language becomes less of a creole and more a language. This is due
to the children imposing rules and conventions as well as increasing
the vocabulary. When a creole is mature and if it has a sizable number
of native speakers and a power base, it becomes recognized as a
Here is a discussion of Gullah:
“African American English also shares a connection with Gullah (also
known as Geechee), an English-based creole variety spoken by African
Americans in a region along the Atlantic coast from the southeastern
corner of North Carolina to the northeastern tip of Florida. While both
Gullah and African American English developed as a result of language
contact, major factors giving rise to Gullah were the high ratio of
enslaved Africans to whites and the limited interaction with white
English varieties on plantations in isolated coastal regions. This was
not the case throughout much of the other slaveholding regions where
African American English developed. Like African American English, the
linguistic structure of Gullah is different from that of Standard
American English. And though they share some structural similarities,
there are many ways that Gullah differs from African American English.
For example, Gullah speakers can omit the verb 'am' in addition to 'is' and
'are' in certain constructions, whereas speakers of most African American
English varieties cannot. So, for example, a sentence like: 'I glad to
hear from you.' is grammatically fine in Gullah, but not in Standard
American English nor in most African American English varieties.
Gullah, like most creoles, was formed through the interaction of
substrate and superstrate languages. In Gullah, the most likely
substrate languages were Mende and Vai (spoken in present-day Sierra
Leone) and Twi (spoken in Ghana). The superstrates were mainly the
English varieties spoken by Highland Scots and other Scots who settled
in South Carolina and Georgia.”
English has had a complex history of pidgins and creoles. Old English
was a collection of dialects based on the languages of the Saxons,
Angles and Jutes. Then the Danish and Norse settlements added in
another couple of languages.. Because all these languages were fairly
similar; by and large the words had the same roots and the grammar had
the same rules but the details varied. The pronunciation also
varied. There was simplification and fudging of word endings and the
like but nothing so drastic as a pidgin. All the languages were
Northwest Germanic from the North Sea coast (the Low Lands, North
Germany, Denmark, Norway), different but mutually intelligible.
But when French was added by the Norman landholders after the conquest,
the situation was different. English and French were not similar. The
French were in charge and they were not in a hurry to learn any
English. But they were outnumbered and there were limits to how much
French they could impose on the bulk of the population. So it seems
that a pidgin and creole grow up within and around the French
aristocrats estates. It had, as expected, a simplified Germanic grammar
and the vocabulary of French words. This gives us Middle English and
this was eventually seen as the language of the country.
Many people are becoming bilingual by learning immaculate English from
teachers who are native speakers of standard English. But all
over the world there is growing up new English-y pidgins, creoles and
various unique types of mixtures. Their vocabularies are largely
English but their pronunciation and grammar are those of the local
people. In many cases children are learning 'English' from second and
third generation non-native 'English' teachers. We should not be
snobbish about these languages - some of them may inherit the earth.
where persuasion is really, really important, we use oral speeches,
oratory. Arguing guilt and innocent in court, arguing the laws in
parliaments, taking marriage vows, giving half time pep talks,
praying to God and so on. I ran across some discussion of the oratory
of US Presidents. Interesting because most of their power is in the
'bully pulpit'. Theodore Roosevelt coined that term, bully then meant
In the early 1700s
presidents didn't speak, they wrote their 'speeches'. Good orators
were distrusted because they were thought to be too anxious for
power. The lack of public speaking did not last (it never does). It
is the way that people can judge their politicians character,
intelligence and attitudes. Of course, good orators can fake it as
every evil demagogue knows.
Here is a sad
“In the 1840 presidential campaign
William Henry Harrison, a Whig, was portrayed by the Democrats'
campaign machine as a simple frontier fighter and a hard cider
drinker, living in a log cabin. In fact Harrison was a scion of the
Virginia planter aristocracy, and he'd studied classics and history.
Once elected - and determined to slay this false image - Harrison
delivered a three-hour inaugural address, pulling out all the stops
and using all the rhetorical flourishes from his classical training,
which included references to the ancient Athenian constitution.
Unfortunately for Harrison, this
speech was delivered on a cold March day in Washington. Soon after
Harrison caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he died
on 4 April 1841.”
wanted his speeches to be like jazz with the speech-writer prepared
melody to start and finish and his own ad-lib in the middle where he
could be his empathetic, sensitive self. Churchill liked his speeches
to be like a psalm – very biblical in style – deep and stirring.
Lincoln's Gettysburg address (probably the most famous presidential
address) also has that old fashioned biblical air about it. FDR had a
positive air, cheerful and hopeful but also with the air of a father,
uncle or teacher whose wisdom would save the day. JFK was always on a
mission and looking into the future with resolve. Were these images
the real men? They were probably at least what the real men aspired
Hashtags were invented by Twitter users
(actually they occurred earlier in other places but were not well
known until Tweeters took to them) as a way to group similar
messages, search for and follow particular conversations. For example
during the demonstrations in Egypt, tweets about it would be tagged
with #TahrirSquare or similar. It is no wonder that the tags were added to
Twitter and that once there, Twitter supported their use. Twitter is a
crazy environment to find things in and a place where anything that
saves characters is welcome. What is a surprise is its spread to
other messages (facebook, google+, texting, email). Google+ was
forced to support them even though their search does not need them.
Some users are angry at Facebook for not adopting them. Others are
not so happy with hashtags - “I find it
annoying. It does nothing. It's for twitter to search, but then
people come along on Facebook and #hashtag #every #word #but #it
#does # NOTHING! They don't even look cool while doing it…”
Well I have to
say that if hashtags do nothing than people would not have taken to
them with such enthusiaism.
hashtags were been changing their use. They are not just for
searching. Now people are using them as a form of metalanguage –
comment on the main text, emotion indication like emoticons, pieces
of sarcasm, self mocking, irony, scorn, asides, intimate whispers,
disclaimers, jokes, reasons for message, indications of importance
and so on.
They have been
used in advertising to say 'we are cool and up to date'. Some use
them in conversation - 'hashtag sorry forgot'. Some make the # sign
with their fingers where most would use a wink.
There is nothing
new here in what is being communicated, just how. It is another case
of the oral language being written down and therefore needing ways to
communicate the non-verbal part of the oral language without changing
its nature to conventional written language. This new type of
language is written but keeps oral vocabulary, grammar, style and
pragmatics. What it does not have is the oral language non-verbal
channels and so it creates them. This is the language of creative
young people not grumpy old authors who have spent a lifetime
learning how to write so as to communicate what would be non-verbal
using very cleverly constructed sentences. Let's be thankful we have
a living language that can change and grow.
Language for communication
Some linguists apparently doubt that
the primary reason for language is communication. That is surprising
enough but their reasoning is even weirder. They believe that
language cannot have developed for communication because it is so
poorly designed for communication. It appears that they back this
idea up by pointing out that language is very ambiguous. Duh! You
would want a language with no ambiguity?
What would an unambiguous language be
like? First it would have a lot more words. Most of us just manage a
sizable English vocabulary and keep adding words throughout our
lifetimes. We still have to go to the dictionary or ask someone every
once in a while. If words did not have more than one meaning
(according to statistical analysis) we would need about to increase
the number of words three fold – too many words. As this ratio
seems fairly constant across various languages, it is probably near
an ideal compromise between remembering large vocabularies and
putting up with ambiguity. Too many narrow words and we forget the
rarer ones, using commoner ones to cover extra meaning. Too many
ambiguous utterances and we will coin words to separate meanings.
There is no reason to think this is not a self regulating system and
is clearly based on what is best for communication.
Secondly, we need a little ambiguity
when we do not know all the aspects of what we are saying. Words like
'stuff' show this; the speaker does not know what specific sort of
stuff should be specified. This is an example of a wide meaning
rather than an ambiguous one. Its a fine line between the two. The
point is that sometimes it is better communication to be vague rather
than inaccurate or giving an emotional slant that is uncalled for.
Again over the years a language will develop the ambiguities, meaning
ranges, overlaps, non-meaning/emotional differences etc. that are
generally convenient (again for communication).
Thirdly, the way words are born tends
to be in metaphors. Icon now has two distinct meanings to do with
religion and with computers both the result of our metaphorical use
of the word for an image. Without metaphor communication is
practically impossible and with metaphor words are going to be used
with many meanings coming from distinct metaphors. Metaphor is
natural to language and to communication. As an example of this, here
is a list of meanings coming from an old Germanic work for 'pull'
given in LanguageLog:
Meanings of draft and draught
n. A current of air in an enclosed
n. A device that regulates the flow or circulation of
n. The act of pulling loads; traction.
n. Something that
is pulled or drawn; a load.
n. A team of animals used to pull
n. Nautical The depth of a vessel's keel below the water
line, especially when loaded: a river vessel of shallow draft.
A heavy demand on resources.
n. A written order directing the
payment of money from an account or fund.
n. A gulp, swallow, or
n. The amount taken in by a single act of drinking or
n. A measured portion; a dose.
n. The drawing of a
liquid, as from a cask or keg.
n. An amount drawn: ordered two
drafts of ale.
n. The process or method of selecting one or more
individuals from a group, as for a service or duty: a candidate who
did not pursue the nomination, but accepted a draft by the party
n. Compulsory enrollment in the armed forces;
n. A body of people selected or conscripted.
Sports A system in which the exclusive rights to new players are
distributed among professional teams.
n. The act of drawing in a
n. The quantity of fish caught.
n. Any of various
stages in the development of a plan, document, or picture: a
preliminary draft of a report; the final draft of a paper.
representation of something to be constructed.
n. A narrow line
chiseled on a stone to guide a stonecutter in leveling its
n. A slight taper given a die to facilitate the removal
of a casting.
n. An allowance made for loss in weight of
v. To select from a group for some usually compulsory
service: drafted into the army.
v. To select from a group for
placement on a sports team.
v. To draw up a preliminary version of
or plan for.
v. To create by thinking and writing; compose: draft
v. To work as a drafter.
v. To move, ride, or drive
close behind a fast-moving object so as to take advantage of the
slipstream, especially in a race.
adj. Suited for or used for
drawing heavy loads: oxen and other draft animals.
adj. Drawn from
a cask or tap: draft beer.
idiom. on draft Drawn from a large
container, such as a keg.
This is not ambiguity; this is
metaphor/figurative usages and a strength of language.
Finally, the whole idea that meaning is
a property of a word is an illusion. Meaning is a property of whole
utterances. Meaning includes the context: who is talking with whom,
where, when, to what purpose and so on. Meaning includes the other
words in the utterance – and even what might have been said
yesterday. If I say “I'll go.” this may only have meaning because
you asked some time previously if I wanted to go with you to a
meeting and I was undecided. Communication is not words but
conversations. Communication includes voice, face, body language,
gesture as well as actually verbal content. When people write, they
have to be more careful about ambiguity but there is still a lot of
context to rely on. The beauty of language for communication is that
it is flexible and can be bent to all sorts of communication:
gossiping, teaching, commanding, pleading, deceiving, and on to every
type of use we put it to. It is easy for babies to learn. It is easy
for all of us to use. It has had its corners smoothed like a water
worn pebble. It is extremely well designed for communication –
communication is what has designed it.
When we first
lived in England in the 60s, we had no phone - we had no friends with
phones so why would we. A couple of times a year I would phone my
mother. This involved a trip to the phone company or preferably to a
big posh hotel. In either case, we arrived arranged for the call to
be booked, waited around until we were called to a phone and the call
was connected. It cost a bomb, it must not go on for too long and the
line was a bit noisy. As I was not a great letter writer I didn't
communicate with other relatives and friends for many years.
How times have
changed. People carry their phones like they carry their wallets and
keys and are never without them. They call a lot from anywhere and
don't think about the cost or the time. And now there is also email
and texting, and also Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc. People are
communicating like mad but not so much face to face.
People under 25
spend more time texting from their cell phones than talking on them.
spend half their working time on emails.
the highest volume of email with the people they know least.
People feel free
to email others that they do not known well enough to phone or visit.
answering times for emails are close friends–7hrs, work contacts–11
hrs, strangers–50 hrs.
The number of
friends and of close friends a person has does not change with
Facebook use but amount of communication goes up.
On the internet,
people make some close friends that they could never been able to
meet without the web.
Suspense is overrated
I am a person who does not enjoy
surprises. It is great to have a part in choosing the right present,
in planning the party, in knowing who is coming. Surprises are fun
for the giver but often disappointing for the receiver. I remember
someone in tears because there were a couple of people she hated at
her surprise birthday party and missing were a couple of her best
friends. I also have to admit that I am not too keen on suspense –
like horror movies - don't see why I should pay good money to be made
I do like great plots like an Agatha
Christie's and many other mystery writers who put their work into plots
and the who-done-it guessing games. But I have found that I actually
enjoy them more the second time around when I know what is going to
happen – especially if it is a really, really good plot.
Some researchers have found that my
attitude is common. They gave people stories to read (ironic-twist,
mystery, ordinary stories – 12 in all). In some cases told the
reader the ending, in other cases they hid knowledge of the ending in
a sentence early in the story, and finally in some cases they gave no
hint of how the story ended. Each story was read by 30 readers. The
readers were asked how much they enjoyed the stories they read. For
all the story types, the readers enjoyed the 'spoiled' stories the
most especially when the ending was given ahead of the story rather
than hidden in its text.
Some are saying that this means that
plots are overrated. Nonsense – plots are enjoyable but they just
get more enjoyable on repetition. A really great story can improve
over five or six encounters. How many times it can get better depends
on the writing, the plot and if a show, the acting and staging.
It is not plot structure but
suspense/surprise that is overrated.
Very old notes
Here are some notes made on the margins
of medieval manuscripts by the copying scribes. Of course, the notes
would have been in Latin originally. Poor monks.
New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing
I am very cold.
That's a hard page and a weary work to
Let the reader's voice honour the
This page has not been written very
The parchment is hairy.
The ink is thin.
Thank God, it will soon be dark.
Oh, my hand.
Now I've written the whole thing: for
Christ's sake give me a drink.
Writing is excessive drudgery. It
crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your
St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from
While I wrote, I froze, and what I could
not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.
As the harbor is welcome to the sailor,
so is the last line to the scribe.
This is sad! O little book! A day will
come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that
wrote it is no more.”
What is believable?
I ran across some advice on
believability – use concrete language.
Simple sentences with concrete language
such as actors, action verbs, objects are understood quickly. The
brain does a little trick, fast means easy, easy means good, good
means true. And language that can be pictured in the mind is
remembered better and easy recall adds to the sense of validity. A
pictured event also passes a test of being physically possible so we
don't have to ponder whether the event is probable, also adding to
believability. Ambiguous words add to the effort and doubt in the
listeners mind. So does complex grammar that needs thought to parse.
Another way to add believability is to
include more details and facts. We are convinced by hearing details
and facts. Vivid details are especially effective.
Of course people find it easier to
believe things they would like to be true. We positively welcome
confirmation of our believes. A speaker can start with things we
believe and stick what he wants to convince us of in the middle.
It is a good idea to have this advice
in mind when you are a listener as well as when you are the speaker.
You may have a bit of immunity against demigods, but don't count on
it. You will probably be enthralled by the images in your head and
the easy flow of the language without registering the danger.
Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh
hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say,
devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood
are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont,
want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve,
gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom,
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and
George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
We say hallowed, but allowed,
leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Petal, panel, and canal,
plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour,
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with
here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give
English Pronunciation by G. Nolst Trenité
I recently ran across a history of the
term 'haywire'. It originally (around 1900) was a joining of 'hay'
and 'wire' for the wire that was used to bale hay. Later it became an
adjective meaning not functioning properly or broken and finally it
came to mean mentally confused or crazy.
This wire was like duct tape – used
for any sort of quick, makeshift repair. It was always around on a
farm, handy for use. It was also always around in lumber camps from
the hay bales delivered for the horses. It was even more handy in the
camps with no hardware stores within reach. It became associated with
those make-shift repairs, and a haywire outfit was how poorly
equipped loggers were described. This was a North American but
especially Canadian usage – probably because that where the logging
was being done.
The meaning drifted further to be
broken or working badly when applied to equipment and objects in
general. There was a tinge of the impossibility of keeping haywire
neat and organized. So as well as broken or poorly mended was added
Finally the word was applied to people
who resembled the broken, inefficient, disorganized things. It came
to mean out of control, erratic, confused, unpredictable, or crazy
people. But the emotion carried by the word is not that unfriendly.
It implies that the person manages to get on with their life but just
not in a conventional or predictable way – someone is not quite
Every language carefully specifies kin with words that create
categories of relatedness. In English we have mother, father, son,
daughter, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin,
grandfather, grandmother, granddaughter, grandson with their half -,
-in law, step-, -once removed, and great- modifications just for a
start. As a child, I wondered why there was only one word, uncle, for a
parent's brother and for a parent's sister's husband. They seemed very
different ideas to me. But it didn't occur to me that it would be
useful to specify which parent was involved in supplying the sibling.
But then I encountered information about cultures where it was a
child's mother's brother who had many duties to a child not cover by
any other relative. I once talked to someone who had taken to referring
to she-cousins and he-cousins, which she found useful. Having surnames
helps to save the need for specifying maternal from paternal
relationships but not much. We have an awkwardness in the specification
of birth order in groups of siblings. Apparently if you take all the
contrasts that are common in languages in their kin classifications and
apply them all to 3 generations up and down (ie from you
great-grandparents to your great-grandchildren) you would have 71000
words for each possible person to be uniquely referred to. At least
this is what I am told – it seems too high a figure, but I accept that
it will be a large enough number to be unworkable as a system even if
it is a fraction of that.
If the group of words is too small, we will be inventing words (like
she-cousin). If the group is too large, we will forget how to make
obscure classifications (and just call them cousins or kinfolk or make
a stepwise path like my sister's husband's step-mother). There is a happy medium
which each culture needs to find based on which relationships it is
important to mark in that culture. “A system with a single category
that includes all possible relatives would be simple but uninformative
because this category does not help to pick out specific relatives. A
system with a different name for each relative would be complex but
highly informative because it picks out individual relatives perfectly.”
This is true of all sorts word types. How many or how few words can a
language stand for individual colours? Always a compromise.
RULES and rules
The Queen's English Society has bit the dust; it is killed by apathy
because no members will serve as officers or on committees. After 40
years, the language police have called it a day. They did studies to
document the slip in English standards. They influenced teaching in
schools. They even corrected the Queen herself a few times. Their biggest dream
was an Academy of Contemporary English and that plan collapsed this
year. I can hardly contain my glee. The prescriptivists have lost a
weapon to hit us English speakers over the head with. (How is that for a prescribed sentence) Now we can
think about small letter rules.
What is the difference between a prescriptivist and a descriptivist
approach to grammar. They both believe in 'rules' but in a very
A rule to a prescriptivist is the product of logic, made by order of an
authority, it is right and the alternatives of wrong. A rule can be
right even when many people ignore it. Change is bad for language and
it needs to be halted.
A rule to a descriptivist is a description of a pattern of usage which
has grown or evolved in the language. A rule exists when the pattern is
used by many people. People are not aware of most of the rules they
use. Change is natural for language.
Of course, most people who know me know that I come from the
descriptivist camp. This is because I view language as being a form of
communication. What is important is whether a speaker is expressing
their message and whether a listener is understanding the message. The
language that groups of competent native speakers use to communicate
successfully with one another is 'the language' and it varies with
place, age, purpose etc. Only when communication does not work well is
there a problem.
Here is John Rickford: “… the patterns of variation and change … are
regular rather than random, governed by unconscious, language-internal
rules and restrictions that can often be appreciated only when we
assemble large numbers of examples and study these quantitatively.
People tend to think of rules and grammar as covering only the small
set of items about which we receive overt instruction … But in fact we
are unconscious of most of the language regularities and restrictions
that we follow every day … Language learning and use would be virtually
impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this
generalization applies to all varieties of language, including
Here is Steven Pinker: “The maddening paradox of false consensus has
long afflicted lexicographers and grammarians ... a rule of usage that
everyone obeys because they think everyone else thinks it should be
obeyed, but that no one can justify because the rule does not, in fact,
exist. The most notorious ... is the prohibition against split verbs,
where an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like to, or an
auxiliary like will, and a main verb.” Many think this is a rule but
almost no one actually obeys it.
Here is Friedrich Hayek: "rules which have by a process of selection
been evolved", in what he calls a "grown order", (as opposed to) what
he calls a "made order" governed by principles that are "thought of as
having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least owing
whatever perfection they possessed to such design".
A new snowclone
A new snowclone has been noticed by
Language Log. It is, “X is the last acceptable form of
(SomeImmoralAttitude). Here are some examples:
Obesity is the last acceptable object
Linguistic bigotry is the last
acceptable form of prejudice.
Gingerism is the last acceptable form
Abuse targeted at Travellers and
Gypsies has become the last acceptable form of racism.
Racism against Asians are one of the
last acceptable forms of racism.
Orientalism is the last acceptable form
Smearing all things Arab remains the
last acceptable form of ethnic bigotry in America.
Anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain's
last socially acceptable form of bigotry.
Catholicism is now acknowledged as the
last acceptable form of discrimination.
The fight is to end the “last
acceptable form of bigotry” against evangelical Christians.
The last acceptable form of bigotry
left in America is bigotry directed at orthodox people of faith.
Anti-Christian prejudice is the last
socially acceptable form of bigotry in this country.
We'd reached a moment when homophobia
finally ceased to be the last acceptable form of bigotry.
Anti-gay bigotry may be the last
"acceptable" form of discrimination remaining in American
Conservative-bashing is the last
acceptable form of bigotry.
Anti-Americanism that is perhaps the
last acceptable form of xenophobia among European intellectuals.
Among Texans, hating Yankees is the
last acceptable form of bigotry.
Anti-Welsh sentiment is one of the last
acceptable forms of prejudice in modern England.
Age discrimination remains the last
acceptable form of discrimination
The stigma against people on welfare
seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice.
Pejorative stereotypes of the white
working class are freely disseminated in popular culture and
uniformly embraced across identity politics lines as the last
acceptable form of prejudice.
John Walsh - a wealthy, self-made
corporate chieftain - believes he is a victim of the last acceptable
form of discrimination.
"Poshism" is the "last
acceptable form of discrimination"
Mental ill health is seen as the last
acceptable form of discrimination
I am a victim of what is perhaps the
last acceptable form of prejudice: late-riser bashing.
That is enough, I'll not go on with
short people, the youth of today, Bolshie people, blondes, pushy
women and so on. You get the pattern of the snowclone. (The name
snowclone comes from the pattern 'X has Y words for Z' as in 'the
Eskimos have a 100 and something words for snow' being cloned to
produce thousands of similar statements about how many words some
group has for something. The idea is that the pattern of a snowclone
gets overused to the point of being meaningless.)
There is a notion among grammarians of
'nervous cluelessness'. This is where native speakers use phrases
that are not considered grammatical and that children would not use.
Here is an example:
Many children will say, “Me and
Johnny went to play.” but a child would not say “He gave it to
Johnny and I.” But many adults say things like that. Because –
when they were children their 'me and Johnny' was corrected to
'Johnny and I' and they corrected all references to themselves and
another person to be 'name and I'. They then have “He gave it to
Johnny and I” corrected to be ”He gave it to Johnny and me”
they are throughly confused and nervous about when to say 'I' and
when to say 'me'. This is nervous cluelessness and many people suffer
from it in certain distinct usages. The particular usages are those
where children are likely to make mistakes and unable to comprehend
the distinction that the correction is about. The distinction between
nominative and accusative in English is all but invisible –
many/most young children do not recognize it. Most children would assume
that the correction is about the order of myself and another person
or in whether to use I or me when referring to the pair. Every time
they think they have got it right, oops it is wrong. They do not
recognize the concepts of subjects and objects. The advice that
people give to adults that have trouble with this is to leave out the
other person and decide whether it is “I went to play” or “Me
went to play”; ditto “He gave it to I” or “He gave it to me”.
The problem is that the nervousness is not relieved but made worse. Now
the person has to stop and do a little mental calculation before they
say something using that usage. They will learn other ways to
constructing sentences so that “Johnny and me/I” do not occur.
Have some sympathy for people who make this mistake. After all it is
not necessary to be correct for the meaning to be clear – the
mistake, original or acquired, is really, really trivial.
I read an article by Helen Sword in the
New York Times and I found myself oscillating between agreeing and
disagreeing, both strongly.
I hate words like burglarize because
there is a perfectly good word, burgle. What is wrong with burgle? 'I
was burgled' is good so why say 'I was burglarized'? Then we have
burglarization rather then burglary. What is the point of all this
nominalizations? Well, even though it is annoying to many, there is
a point to it. It cuts the meaning from the emotional impact of
Now if what you want an emotional
impact then go with the action statement, who-did what-to whom. Go
with concrete words rather than abstract. Avoid the passive
construction. Use vivid examples. And, yes, avoid those
If on the other hand you want the
meaning to be crystal clear without any emotional baggage, then the
nominalized words are great. Many of them come from technical jargon
and were coined so that 'loaded' words could be avoided.
Sword uses this as an example of the
“The partial participation of newcomers is by no means
“disconnected” from the practice of interest. Furthermore, it is
also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is
enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for
understanding through growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent in
peripheral participation must then be connected to issues of
legitimacy, of the social organization of and control over resources,
if it is to gain its full analytical potential.”
Now, I agree that this passage would not do for a rousing speech or
an interesting novel. It is like a flat, matt, grey piece of paper.
No one does anything to anyone here. Nothing is concrete; nothing is
vivid. And nothing has emotional connections. It is difficult to
extract the meaning, but after we have worked at it, I think that
only one meaning is available, the intended one. For this passage,
that is the point of the writing. The word 'peripherality' was no
doubt carefully defined. If the idea of the writing is precision then
this is the sort of thing that often results.
This has been going on for a long time. People used to write in
Latin. And it was thought to be a more precise language then English.
That was only because it was not the 'mother tongue' and therefore
carried none of the emotion that is attached to words in childhood.
When French words were introduced into English they had a high-class
air about them. A little of that still remains and, being newer, the
French rooted words seem emotionally weaker than the AngloSaxon
rooted words. Our language would be very different if people were
only interested in the impact of their words and not attempting more
Don't get me wrong, I am a great believer in impact, but not for
every single bit of writing. The social sciences have a particular
problem in trying to discuss society and its problems without get
bogged down in old ruts of thought. They have to invent these
ridiculous words and stilted style to avoid emotion and preserve
meaning. The physical sciences have to do this too but the problem is
not as acute; some flare is allowed (just a weensy bit). But like the
social sciences, the physical ones often have to avoid attributing
agency when none needs to exist. If who did something does not
matter, then it is misleading to say that some particular person was
the doer. I wish that critics would think for a moment and ask
themselves, not why is this writer so bad, but why did this writer
feel the need to write like this? Ignorance is not always the answer.
They should try to walk in the other persons shoes.
I still hate burglarize – it makes me feel robbed.
Many people get very hot about whether to use the Oxford commas or
not. This is the comma that some but not all people put in front of
the 'and' or 'or' in a list. It is also called the serial comma and
the Harvard comma. So “red, white and blue” has no Oxford comma
and “red, white, and blue” does include an Oxford comma. The
arguments on one side are valid but lame. The arguments on the other
side are lame but valid. Both point to consistency with convention
and avoiding ambiguity and can show examples. I like the Oxford comma
because I like commas that mark tiny pauses in the oral language –
there that's my prejudice. Enjoy the joke illustration.
I think it comes down to whether you like or dislike commas.
Those who dislike them want to rid the page of any that are not
absolutely necessary of the text to be grammatical. Those who like them
want to add any that can help the reader take in the text as intented
(including the rhythm if it was spoken).
Right Said Fred
The other day we were reminded of this little ditty as it was sung with
Bernard Cribbins. There have been many times over the years when one of
us has said “right” in a Fred-ish sort of way.
"Right," said Fred, "Both of us together
One on each end and steady as we go."
Tried to shift it, couldn't even lift it
We was getting nowhere
And so we had a cuppa tea and
"Right," said Fred, "Give a shout for Charlie."
Up comes Charlie from the floor below.
After strainin', heavin' and complainin'
We was getting nowhere
And so we had a cuppa tea.
And Charlie had a think, and he thought we ought to take off all the handles
And the things wot held the candles.
But it did no good, well I never thought it would
"All right," said Fred, "Have to take the feet off
To get them feet off wouldn't take a mo."
Took its feet off, even took the seat off
Should have got us somewhere but no!
So Fred said, "Let's have a cuppa tea."
And we said, "right-o."
"Right," said Fred, "Have to take the door off
Need more space to shift the so-and-so."
Had bad twinges taking off the hinges
And it got us nowhere
And so we had a cuppa tea and
"Right," said Fred, " Have to take the wall down,
That there wall is gonna have to go."
Took the wall down, even with it all down
We was getting nowhere
And so we had a cuppa tea.
And Charlie had a think, and he said, "Look, Fred,
I get a sort of feelin'
If we remove the ceilin'
With a rope or two we could drop the blighter through."
"All right," said Fred, climbing up a ladder
With his crowbar gave a mighty blow.
Was he in trouble, half a ton of rubble landed on the top of his dome.
So Charlie and me had another cuppa tea
And then we went home.
(I said to Charlie, "We'll just have to leave it
Standing on the landing, that's all
Trouble with Fred is, he's too hasty
Never get nowhere if you're too hasty.")
(c)1962, by Myles Rudge (lyrics) & Ted Dicks (music)
Like oil and water
Have you ever noticed that in quiz shows, someone can be answering
questions quickly and fluently and then there is a simple arithmetic
question (say what is 12 minus 5, plus 1?). The people stop dead and
take a long time to think about the question and answer it; some even
get visibly flustered and pass. But we can assume that in a series of
arithmetic questions, this example would be answered easily and
quickly. The same is true the other way; someone answering arithmetic
questions with a quick rhythm will stop dead at a word logic question.
We have to change gears and it takes time and effort to do it.
I have encountered situations that separate those that trust
mathematics from those that don't. Harry had a little puzzle about a
man who climbed a hill in the morning starting at 8 o'clock and taking
3 hours. The next morning he came back down starting at 8 o'clock and
taking 2 hours. The question was – is there a spot on the hill where
the man was at exactly the same time both mornings. Harry said, make
them two men on the same day or a man and his time ghost from the
previous day. They both start at 8 o'clock, one from the top and one
from the bottom. They have two cross at some point and that is the
point where the man is at the same place at the same time both trips.
Simple proof, but not for one person who said it was not a proof it was
just a sketch of a hill and a wordy story. To him a proof was
algebraic. There are people who do not accept an algebraic proof and
demand the logic in words or pictures. Most people accept any good
It seems that in biology (perhaps particularly in biology, perhaps not)
it is not a good idea to jump in and out of equations. Scientific
papers that have equations in the text are less regarded by scientific
readers than those without. Words and pictures are what impresses most
This is a bit of a problem, because scientists regard mathematical
proofs highly and yet shy away from examining them enough to fully
understand them. They come to some equations, skip past them and
continue reading, so that in the end they do not fully understand or
trust the argument. The solution may be to put the equations in an
appendix but to explain the nature of the mathematical equations
clearly in the text, referring the reader to the appendix for the
equations. Don't force the reader to change gears in the middle of a
text. If they have been processing words give more words; if they have
been processing numbers give more numbers. Like oil and water, words
and numbers do not mix.
The Metcalf prize
Alan Metcalf who writes in the Lingua
Franca column of The Chronicle of Higher Education, was criticized
for using 'centered around' in a comment. As usual in these
situations, this complaint has a history of a normal usage being
offensive to some one person and it snowballs into a rule for the
grammar police. In this case:
“ And the facts are that until the
1920s, nobody complained about “center around.” Then, some as yet
unidentified maven started the ball rolling by declaring that “center
around” is illogical. Others picked up this stricture, and soon it
spread like a computer virus through the usage handbooks, with the
warning that “some people” consider it illogical.”
So Mr. Metcalf announced a competition
to make your own new rule. Entrants were to state the rule, explain
its logic and give an example of its violation with how to correct
it. The rule must be brand new but must look venerable – not new or
arbitrary or idiosyncratic. The sort of rule that appears like it
would be followed by careful writers while ignored by careless one.
Here is the winner:
"Because of should not
be used to modify a sentence in the future tense, since it is a
logical fallacy to impute a cause to something that is not (yet)
true. Rather, a construction such as due to or owing to
should be used, or the sentence should be rewritten to be more clear.
example, instead of He's going to Florida next week, because of a
friend's wedding, one should write, He's going to Florida next
week for a friend's wedding.
Writers who observe this rule
thereby uphold an important distinction; a sentence such as Because
of the promised bonus, he decided to teach an extra class next summer
makes clear that the promised bonus is the cause of the decision
(which has already happened), not the cause of the teaching an
extra class (which hasn't happened yet, so doesn't yet have a
Pullum said of the winning rule, “It is truly a dumb rule. It is
clearly and simply written but remarkably difficult to understand.
And although it is totally fictive, with a sinking feeling in my
heart I see that I can imagine it catching on. For pity's sake, don't
let it. It's a joke.” But,
of course, the logic behind avoiding 'centered around' should also be
Here is a change. After generations of
American words and usages entering British English; the words seem to
be flowing in the opposite direction.
I remember when I was back in Canada,
there was a big to-do about a Scottish lady saying, “I'll have your
guts for garters”, and claiming that it was an ordinary phrase. A
couple of her co-workers came to see me and asked if I had ever heard
that phrase. I had not only heard it, I had used it. It was a
colourful but mild treat.
Apparently the words are just flowing
into the States from TV shows, movies and books – think Harry
Potter, Top Gear, Monty Python and so on. Examples:
spot on – perfect
will do – promise to do (and soon)
chattering classes – derogative for
pundits and commentators
cheeky – insolent
cheeky monkey – friendly for insolent
chat up – flirt
sell by date – the time after which
something is useless
the long game – pursue a long-term
ginger – red headed
go missing – disappear or run away
washing up – dish washing
keen on – like, be eager to
to book – to reserve
gastropub – gentrified pub serving
twee – excessively cute
metrosexual – fashion conscious
snog – kiss amorously
trendy – in fashion
bespoke – custom-made (suit)
one-off – made or done only once
peckish – hungry
gormless – dumb, clueless
bloody – a negative intensifier
bum – backside, rump
chav – pejorative for young person of
low social status and taste
cheers – word used for toasting,
goodbye and thanks
fancy – like, fond of
flat – apartment
frock – woman or girl's dress
gap year – year off especially
between levels of education
gobsmacked - amazed
innit – isn't it
kit – collection of personal effects,
athletes bag, uniform, gear
knickers – panties
loo – toilet
mate – same sex friend, term of
address for males like dude
mobile – portable phone, cell phone
muppet – stupid person
pop over – visit
proper – suitable, appropriate
queue – waiting line
roundabout – traffic island
row – quarrel, argument, fight
shag – vulgar for copulate
– without any money, broke
– figure out, found the truth about
– a fool
Is English Scandinavian?
We were once at a party where there was
a weird man who claimed at length that the only place where English
was spoken without an accent of any sort, was Leicestershire. He was
from Leicester and the party was in Leicester. He sounded like a
ridiculous bigot. Since then I have learned more about English
history. As it happens some of the early printers who standardized
the language's spelling and to some extent its pronunciation and
vocabulary, spoke the Leicestershire variety of English. So to a
large extent modern English descends from the language of the East
Midlands in the 1300s rather than its competitors.
Recently there has been discussion of
whether English is a Scandinavian language. The 'pros' say Old
English was an Anglo-Saxon (in West German group) language. But the
language spoken at the same time as Old English was a mixture of
English, Danish and Norwegian (in North or Scandinavian German
group). It was spoken in the half of the country under the Danelaw.
The extent of the Danelaw varied but basically if you draw a line
from London to Liverpool, north and east of that line was heavily
settled by Danes and Norwegians amongst the Angles. Leicester was
always in the Danelaw.
(When we lived around there we used to
picnic in a wild little corner near the village of Markfield south of
Leicester. The name Markfield was because it was on the border
between England and the Danelaw.) In fact Leicester was the center of
the most densely populated part of the Danelaw in the south of
England. They postulate that the foundation of English is the
language of the Danelaw (Northern Middle English) which merged with
Old English/Southern Middle English. What family a language belongs
to has to do with its little common words, its basic grammar and its
peculiarities. On this evidence, they say modern English is most like
Norwegian. This is because the people who created modern English were
basically from the old Danelaw and they spoke a mixed Scandinavian
and borrowed from Old English. Had they been from Wessex, they would
have borrowed from the Danelaw language.
Where there were different words for
the same idea and they were little common words, it tends to be the
Scandinavian version that has survived: anger, awe, bag, band,
big, birth, both, bull, cake, call, cast, cosy, cross, die, dirt,
dream, egg, fellow, flat, gain, get, gift, give, guess, guest, hug,
husband, ill, kid, law, leg, lift, likely, link, loan, loose, low,
mistake, odd, race, raise, root, rotten, same, seat, seem, sister,
skill, skin, skirt, sky, steak, though, thrive, Thursday, tight,
till, trust, ugly, want, weak, window, wing, wrong.
are some important grammar clues. English like Scandinavian languages
and unlike West German languages including Old English,
puts the object of a sentence after the verb and not in front as a
general rule. English like Scandinavian languages (informally) ends
sentences with propositions and splits infinitives.
The 'cons' do not accept the idea. Yes,
there was a heavy influence from Norse, and Wessex sort of died. But
this is like the influence of French. Basically modern English, taken
as the total, resembles West German more than North German. It is
closer to Frisian then to Norwegian. And we know too little about the
histories of the Germanic languages to understand how many of the
similarities arose and we also do not know enough about the borrowing
of grammar. Modern English is essentially the language of London and
all the people who gathered there, from north and south, east and
The argument carries on.
Stages of language changes
The third edition of Garner's Modern
American Usage uses a code to show the phases of change in the
Garner's five-stage "Language-Change
Stage 1 (“rejected”): A new
form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a
small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a
traditional usage (e.g.: “your” misused for “you’re” or
"lightning" misspelled "lightening").
Stage 2 (“widely shunned”):
The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community
but remains unacceptable in standard usage (e.g.: “pour over books”
for “pore over books” or "real trooper" for "real
Stage 3 (“widespread but . .
.”): The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated
people but is still avoided in careful usage (e.g.: “clinch”
misused for “clench” or "criteria" used as a false
singular for "criterion").
Stage 4 (“ubiquitous but . . .”):
The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds
by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots) (e.g.: “often”
pronounced “OF-tuhn” or "alibi" for "excuse").
Stage 5 (“fully accepted”):
The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot
eccentrics) (e.g.: “decimate” for inflicting large-scale
destruction or "raise" meaning "to bring up
These examples were a shock to me. I
misspell 'lightning'; I 'pour' over books like a 'trooper'; and of
course I use 'alibi' and 'raise' with their new meanings; I avoid
using 'decimate' because Harry has a fit if it is used for anything
but reduced by a tenth and I know that very few others understand it
that way – better to just never say it.