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Language Items from 2013:                                               to enlarge a photo, click on it


Who and Whom   How we learn case or don't   The very model of an amateur grammarian    Sunstone   The lady doth protest too much, me thinks  Babbling    Meaningful puffs    When literally is not literally literal    Who is rational?     A new language    So that is that, period     Metahumour  

Who and Whom
James Thurber's remarks on who-and-whom:
"The number of people who use "whom" and "who" wrongly is appalling. The problem is a difficult one and it is complicated by the importance of tone, or taste. Take the common expression, "Whom are you, anyways?" That is of course, strictly speaking, correct - and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is "Who are you, anyways?" "Whom" should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a "Whom are you, anyways?" rather than a "Who are you, anyways?" - always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a "Whom are you?" is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance. "How are you?" is a much kindlier salutation."

Thyrber seems a bit mixed up himself about cases but besides that: I do hate whom and I wish it would just go find a hole to die in. The sooner English loses the last few hangers-on of grammatical case the better. Every time a pronoun gets close to the edge of losing its case distinction lets just push it over the edge.

How we learn case or don't
Below is a quote that I saw on the web. This person has not been taught (indoctrinated in) English grammar. They appear to be a native English speaker, English is their only language, and they have, in effect, learned English 'by ear'.
I'm starting to learn Icelandic and am very confused about the grammar. My biggest question is grammatical cases. This is Dative, Nominative, Accusative, and Genitive. I do not know any other languages besides English and this is baffling me because I have never encountered cases before.”
When children are learning a language, they first learn the irregular words along the rest of their vocabulary; then a little later, they try out forcing these words into the regular patterns; and finally, adopt most of the irregulars. For example, a child might learn the words child and children and use them correctly; then try out childs to resemble other plurals; and then revert back to children. The attempt to eliminate irregulars is the child's way of learning and testing of the grammatical rules 'by ear' or without them being formally defined. This is how irregulars that become rarely used disappear from the language – children do not re-learn them. Later in school the children may or may not learn grammar formally (rather than 'by ear'). Often it is the grammar of another language rather than English, like our Icelandic student.
It is not just the names of the cases that are foreign to this student but the actual grammatical concept of cases. Instead they have learned the pattern of the possessive clitic ('s) as a regular rule with alternatives using of or compounding. It does not appear to them as a change in the noun, as an inflexion. The handful of pronouns that are marked for nominative, accusative and possessive are learned as individual irregulars. They speak their mother tongue correctly (or anyway, in the same way as their community) without any inkling of noun cases. Modern English descended from languages with grammatical case but it is not something that English has now except for a few (not all) pronouns.
But for many there is a problem. There are more rules to consider. When a child says, “Me and Johnny did it.”, he will be corrected, “It is, Johnny and I did it, dear.” Two corrections have been made: the order of people in the sentence; and, the replacement of one case for another. The child does not have case as a concept and so assumes it is a correction of how a duel subject is presented. The child thinks “got it – Johnny and I”. The child will then say, “It happened to Johnny and I”, whereas before correction he would have said, “It happened to me and Johnny.” “It is, It happened to Johnny and me, dear”. Before long the child is so throughly confused that they will avoid such duel constructions if at all possible. They are trying to juggle their feeling that me is less egotistic and more polite than I, with their learning that if is more polite to mention the other person first and with their inability to understand the concept of grammatical case. On top of this there is the problem of what copulative verbs do to pronouns. There are adult, well educated, well read, intelligent, native speakers of otherwise good English that are still in the dark and go into a cold sweat when they have to decide whether to say and me or and I. I know some. I also know some that have managed to get it right and are still in the dark on what case is.
I, of course, made the obvious mistake when I was young and the advice I got from my family was to think of whether I would say me or I if it was alone and then put the other name in front. I was still choosing the right pronoun 'by ear'. That is as it should be. That is the right way.
People have spoken for a long, long time. Forget about 70 to 50 thousand years. That theory is based on an outdated idea. We are talking about more like 150 or more thousand years. It is unlikely that the formal concepts of grammar are much older than writing, maybe as young as a few of thousand years. Before formal schooling and books, language was learned 'by ear'. Just as music was before notation. This does not mean that language did not have grammar rules but that speakers were not conscious of them.
I read somewhere (where is long forgotten) someone praising the study of Latin. It was good for young students because once they learned Latin they would not make mistakes in English. He and his father and grandfather had been taught Latin when they were young and they all had perfect English grammar. In other words, if you learn to speak English in a Latin sort of way then your Latin will be better and your English will be like other Latin speakers, 'proper'. And it is true that there has been a Latin influence on English grammar since before the middle ages. You might even say that English has been twisted to resemble Latin, but then English has been twisted by everything it encounters. But my point here is that until recently all educated people learned Latin. Latin had an enormous effect on English grammar. Danish, Norwegian, French, and Flemish all had great effects on English but only Latin had its grammar taught formally in England schools before modern times. We have inherited many inappropriate grammatical quirks from Latin that haunt us yet.

The very model of an amateur grammarian
(With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)
I am the very model of an amateur grammarian
I have a little knowledge and I am authoritarian
But I make no apology for being doctrinarian
We must not plummet to the verbal depths of the barbarian
I’d sooner break my heart in two than sunder an infinitive
And I’d disown my closest family within a minute if
They dared to place a preposition at a sentence terminus
Or sully the Queen’s English with neologisms verminous
I know that ‘soon’ and not ‘right now’ is the true sense of ‘presently’
I’m happy to correct you and I do it oh so pleasantly
I’m not a grammar Nazi; I’m just a linguistic Aryan
I am the very model of an amateur grammarian
I’m sure people appreciate my pointing out their grammar gaffes
And sorting out their sentences and crossing out their paragraphs
When you crusade for good English, it’s not all doom and gloom you sow
The secret of success is: it’s not who you know; it’s whom you know
The standards of our language are declining almost every day
Down from a peak in 18– or 19– I think – well, anyway
Pop music, TV, blogs and texting are inflicting ravages
Upon English and unchecked, this will turn us into savages
I fear that sloppy language is a sign of immorality
For breaking rules of grammar is akin to criminality
So curse those trendy linguists, lexicographers and anyone
Who shuns the model English of the amateur grammarian
Conjunctions at the openings of sentences are sickening
I wish that the decline of the subjunctive were not quickening
And that more people knew the proper meaning of ‘anticipate’
Of ‘fulsome’ and ‘enormity’, ‘fortuitous’ and ‘decimate’
I learned these rules at school and of correctness they’re my surety
I cling to them for safety despite having reached maturity
Some say that language changes, but good English is immutable
And so much common usage now is deeply disreputable
My pedantry’s demanding but I try not to feel bitter at
The fact that everyone I meet is borderline illiterate
When all around are wrong then I am proud to be contrarian
I am the very model of an amateur grammarian
-Tom Freeman

Sunstone
Another oral tradition is being shown to be accurate. The tales of Vikings have mention of a sunstone that was used in navigation. But no sunstone has been found at Viking sites. But as well as in legends, it (solarsteinn) is also mentioned in the ancient inventories of Icelandic churches. The sunstone is thought to be a type of feldspar that is double diffracting. Light is separated into two rays and they converge when the crystal is in the direction of the sun. So using the crystal, someone could find the direction and height of the sun on cloudy and snowy days and for some time after the sun had set. This would allow navigation in the far northern summers for all or nearly all of 24 hours and in most weather conditions. As the compass was not introduced to Europe until the 1200s, it is hard to understand Viking navigation to Iceland, Greenland and North America without something of this sort.
There is mention of the sunstone in a poem about St. Olav. It is described as a mineral used to locate the sun in overcast and snowy skies by holding it up and noting where it emitted, reflected or transmitted light (hvar geislathi ur honum).
The weather was thick and snowy as Sigurthur had predicted. Then the king summoned Sigurthur and Dagur to him. The king made people look out and they could nowhere see a clear sky. Then he asked Sigurthur to tell where the sun was at that time. He gave a clear assertion. Then the king made them fetch the solar stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurthur’s prediction.
The recovery of an Iceland spar sunstone in an Elizabethan ship near Alderney (which sank in 1592) in association with navigational equipment suggests that the navigational technology may have persisted after the invention of the magnetic compass. The object was an oblong crystal about the size of a cigarette packet.
Another oral tradition becomes believable.


The lady doth protest too much, me thinks
It's a famous line from Hamlet that Tony Kroch analyses.
First, me thinks: This is a construction that no longer exists in English called the dative subject, a noun phrase in dative case can act like a subject with a verb of experience. Thinks here looks like the modern English verb but it is actually a similar sounding word meaning 'seems', and is a verb of experience. The 'me' is a dative pronoun acting as the subject of a experiencer verb.
Second, doth: The dialect difference between north and south England in Old English times had “does” in the north and “doth” in the south. The northern s replaced the southern th in London in the 1300s with a large influx of prosperous Northerns into London. Here doth is an auxilliary verb (as opposed to an action verb) and it began to be used in this way during the Middle English period. “Doth” does not appear (protest is alone) in earlier texts of the plays and “does” in later ones, so the change was probably happening in Shakespeare's time.
Third, protests too much: Although there is doth, there is not protesteth. The mean has also changed. In Modern Engish “protest too much” would mean to insist so passionately about something not being true that people suspect the opposite. In Shakespeare's day it simple meant affirm, promise or avow. It is almost the opposite meaning.
Well, the lady is the same as we thought it was.


Babbling
What is babbling all about? It seems babies are able to understand quite a few words and bits of grammar before they ever attempt to speak. First they perfect their babbling! Song birds do a similar thing when they are learning to sing, a sort of a bird babble. Researchers looking at language in babies and song in young birds found that they are similar in their babbling. They are learning transitions between syllables.
First babies babble 'do do do do' and 'da da da da'. Then they have to learn how to do 'do da' and 'da do'. Until they can string syllables together, they cannot speak. It is a little bottleneck. It is the same with birds. The songs have discrete song syllables. After birds learned a song (ABC) they were then required to learn another with the same syllables but a different order (ACB). The birds had a hard time and practiced thousands of times a day for weeks. They did not have to learn any new syllables so the effort was in the new transition between syllables.
Babies and birds use the same method – first they learn a new syllable, then they learn to put it ahead of another syllable, then behind, and finally in the middle. After that - on to another syllable.
I find it interesting. When I describe the dyslexic's problem, people often balk at the idea of hearing and processing syllables rather then phonemes. (da instead of d and a). But the theory is that dyslexics cannot hear really fast sound changes. We dyslexics hear and process syllables so it is very hard to learn the phonetics of words because that needs the ability to accurately hear consonants, to break the syllables in to pieces so the the consonants are identifiable. What the dyslexic hears is the affect of the consonants on the much longer and stable vowels. In ba, a dyslexic hears what the b does to the a and not the b by itself. Then when it comes to reading, we are expected to identify the b and to identify the a. The b is not heard and the a changes with every different syllable that contains it. As dyslexics have no problem in learning to understand oral language, to hear it and speak it, this must be possible without accurately hearing short consonants but only processing whole syllables.
In any case it seems that babies have to take time and practice to get good a this syllable thing.

Meaningful puffs
Dr. Dye studied 2 and 3 year old's language – but very meticulously, noted every pause, puff, light noise or other interruption in their speech. These children were young enough that they did not use grammatical words and it had been thought that they did not 'have grammar'. Later they would quickly and mysteriously transform and within a short time they would 'have grammar'. What the doctor found was that the little pauses, puffs and little sounds were occurring exactly where a grammatical word should go. It is like the children recognized the lack of something at particular points in the speech but had not yet figured out what to put there. They probably understand much of the grammar of the language they hear. No wonder the adding of grammar takes so little time.


When literally is not literally literal
I hear that there has recently been a fuss about the meaning of literally. The storm started when someone noticed that Google defined literally to mean, “Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true”. The cry started that the sky was falling, the language was broken, civilization as we know it was threatened. The cry got louder when it was realized that almost all dictionaries including the OED have this meaning as part of their definition.
For the life of me, I cannot understand how some people can get so angry about something like literally being used figuratively. They don't get upset about monstrous being used about things that are not monsters. They may wait an eternity for food at a restaurant. They use and listen to figurative language all the time. How do they pick their targets? Why do they get so mad? Why do they not look into the usage before they blow their tops? I quite literally (literally) really cannot understand this anger.
Words have always been used metaphorically and figuratively. It rarely, if ever, is a problem. Metaphors enrich the language. We could say very little with accuracy and clarity without figurative language. So why pick a handful of words and outlaw their use in any figurative sense. Words usually have more than one meaning and it causes few problems because it is usually clear from the context what the intended meaning is. So why choose certain words and insist that they have one and only one meaning and cannot be used metaphorically.
In any case, the linguists have pointed out that this is not a new meaning for literally. It went into the OED in 1902 so it must have been very well established as a usage by that time. The dictionary quotes it from a novel published in 1769. If this was going to break the English language, it should have been broken by now. It would probably be in common use before it made its way into a published work. Why wouldn't people find out the history of the usage before they fly off in a tantum?
Why, why, why the anger?


Who is rational?
Jag Bhalla wrote a blog in the Scientific American complaining that economists are using misleading jargon. “'Rational' is the secular holy. It is a sacred prestigious label in mind work. We look to the rational to save us. Yet some professors of a rational-is-holy faith aren’t being wholly rational. Their sect uses 'rational' so differently it has become an unmeant trojan horse term. It looks good but hides destructive ideas.”
I have been annoyed by this for a few years. There is an ordinary person's use of 'rational' – sensible, sane, moderate, reasonable. But there are a number of specialized meanings. One is to use it as the opposite of 'empirical' as in the idea that science is based on empiricism, experiments and observation while philosophy is based on the 'rational' as in logical argument from agreed axioms. So with this meaning, I would not be a rational thinker but an empirical one (and proud of it). Well, that is a very old meaning and anyone using that meaning in a non-philosophical situation would probably take the trouble to explain their meaning. There is also a theological use that is similar and again would not be used to confuse lay people. But the meaning that economist have decided on is used in ways that confuse the ordinary person.
“Alarmingly, the econo-rational can oppose the human-rational. Econo-rationality creates the supposedly inevitable tragedy of the commons, but Elinor Olstrom has shown how human-rationality can avoid it by simple coordination. Econo-rationality condones maximizing self-interest by exploiting ‘the commons.’ It’s ok and desirable to do things that if others also do them, guarantee collective depletion and doom. Can that be rational? Damaging what we depend on should never be deemed rational. Only a blinkered and distorted kind of self-interest risks being so self-destructive. Tolerating this misuse of rational is like letting doctors call healthy what foreseeably causes illness. Till these sorts of ill-fated ideas are cured, popularized economics deserves criticism.” The term homo economicus or economic man: the imaginary man being assumed in economic models who is logically consistent but amoral, was coined largely to illustrate this view of rationality. Economists useage of 'rational' is very short-sightly, completely selfish. They have also redefined efficient. None of these new meanings have made it into the little one volume dictionaries we have on our shelves. But there are articles in magazines, speeches by politicians, popular books that use 'rational', 'efficient' and 'utility' in the economic sense and leave the impression that those who have cooperative, moral, environmental, community goals as being wrong or stupid. (So I am proudly not rational in the economic as well as the philosophical sense.)


A new language
In northern Australia a new language has been created. A local indigenous language, Warlpiri, is very endangered. In one small community, Lajamanu, it has been taken over by a new creole spoken by young adults who formed it as children (and their children). But this is not a conventional creole. It has three parents: Warlpiri, English and Kriol (a pre-existing creole). The new language is called Light Warlpiri and it has aspects of all three languages plus some characteristics that are not found in any of the three. The verb structure is partly from English and partly from Kriol and the noun structure is from Warlpiri. Most creoles take their grammar from one language and their vocabulary from the other. Light Warlpiri is more mixed. A few older creoles and languages in the Balkans have this mixed quality and it is believed that they also arose from more than two parents.
Another oddity of Light Warlpiri is that there are new structures that came from the parents but are no longer the same as in the sources. For example, it takes I'm 'I-present tense,' and creates new forms such yu-m 'you-nonfuture,' (that is, the present and past but not the future). There were no structures in Warlpiri, English or Kriol, however, that mean 'nonfuture time.' This may mean that there are separate rules for how creoles are formed then they are formed from multiple languages. So we have a new language, maybe a new language type.


So that is that, period
I read that the period has taken on a new life – not just the way to end a sentence and a few other little unemotional tasks.
People who do a lot of texting, on-line chats, tweets and so on do not often actually need a period because they have only written one sentence and so they don't bother to put one in. If they write more than one sentence then they usually separate the sentences with something (period, question mark, emoticon, 'and', or whatever works). Single sentences are often not started with a capital letter either.
There seems to be at least three reasons for this: the people are thinking orally rather than in written English; capitalizing or putting in a period is noticeable work for the little thumbs; most times people are writing text in a hurry, speed is important in texting conversations with a number of participants. If you are going to leave out vowels and shorten standard phrases to three letters, why would you go to the trouble of putting in an unnecessary period.
So what happens with someone my age who automatically capitalizes beginnings and puts periods on ends of sentences without even thinking about it? Well, if it is not usual to put in a period and I have gone to the trouble of putting one in, I must be saying something with it - that would be the reaction. Now, what could I be saying? 'Full stop' could mean “that is the end of the conversation”, “don't argue with me”, “what do you have to say to that”, “I emphatically mean what I said”. In other words, it is an aggressive or arrogant or rude message.
In texting and even in emails, capitalizing has taken on the role of shouting in oral language and so is generally avoided (unless you want to shout). There is something snooty about starting sentences with unnecessary capitals.
I am fascinated by the way the electronic media has become a pseudo-oral language and has slowly acquired ways of replacing facial expressions, tone of voice and the like which are integral to oral language. I have always been a cheerleader for oral as opposed written language and find it interesting that we are getting closer and closer to being able to write oral language.
the Period. is. Meaningful.


Metahumour

joke