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May the Fourth be with you! Playing off a pun on one of the movie’s most famous quotes, May the 4th is the unofficial holiday in which Star Wars fans across the globe celebrate the beloved blockbuster series. The original Star Wars movie, now known as Star Wars IV: A New Hope, was released on 25 May 1977, but to those of us who waited in line after line to see it again and again in theaters, it will always be just Star Wars.
23 April marks St. George’s Day. While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, on this day. Indeed, his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag. St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language; even the very word dragon hoards its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.
As somebody who loves words and English literature, I have often been assumed to be a natural enemy of the mathematical mind. If we’re being honest, my days of calculus and the hypotenuse are behind me, but with those qualifications under my belt, I did learn that the worlds of words and numbers are not necessarily as separate as they seem. Quite a few expressions use numbers (sixes and sevens, six of one and half a dozen of the other, one of a kind, etc.) but a few are more closely related to mathematics than you’d expect.
In the summer of 2012, I got a contract for a book about language, based on my experiences of more than 30 years as a copy editor at The New Yorker. I was thrilled, because now I had license to buy all the books about language that I wanted. That September, I was driving on [...]
False friends (‘faux amis’) are words in one language which look the same as words in another. We therefore think that their meanings are the same and get a shock when we find they are not. Generations of French students have believed that demander means ‘demand’ (whereas it means ‘ask’) or librairie means ‘library’ (instead of ‘bookshop’). It is a sign of a mature understanding of a language when you can cope with the false friends, which can be some of its most frequently used words. Having a good grasp of the false friends is a crucial part of ‘learning to speak French.’
Last month marked the hundredth anniversary of the Federal Trade Commission, the regulatory agency that looks after consumer interests by enforcing truth in advertising laws. Established by the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the FTC opened its doors in March 16 of 2015, taking the place of the older Bureau of Corporations.
Vaping is having an interesting cultural moment. Use of the word is increasing rapidly, as the Oxford Dictionaries editors note, although many people are still unfamiliar with it. (In a totally scientific survey of ten 40-year-old parents on the playground of my son’s school, none had heard the word before. In my husband’s university department, some of the graduate students used the word, but the consensus among the faculty was that to vape meant to live life as a Visiting Assistant Professor.) This increased use comes as people attempt to define boundaries for the activity, to figure out where it is socially acceptable, and where it is not. Is vaping like smoking, and thus offensive and possibly dangerous to non-vapers? Or is it more like chewing gum — not polite, exactly, but something you might do surreptitiously at work or in a movie theater? Would you vape in a childcare center? In a hospital? These are not just questions of etiquette, but also of law — will vapers, like smokers, be required to keep a distance of 15 to 25 feet from any doors or windows?
The word vaping has already caused devotees of juice (the liquid used in e-cigarettes) to lose the first battle in the propaganda war. Vaping carries overtones of illicit drug use — vaporizers provided a cleaner high for marijuana-smokers for years before they were used in e-cigarettes — and sounds, as was reported in The Guardian last year, “worryingly like a form of sexual assault, or a bewilderingly ill-advised 1980s dance craze.” Let’s look now at some words from smoking’s history, to see how earlier battles over tobacco use played out, and how current questions about vaping might be resolved.
Like many of our other good stimulants, tobacco was brought to Europe from the Americas, first imported by the Spanish in the early 16th century. Tobacco (first English use, 1577) comes from Native American words for a pipe or a sort of cigar, which the Spanish assumed referred to the leaves of the plant itself. Columbus’s conscience, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, described how when their expedition landed in Cuba, they found the Taino smoking these cigar-like “tabacos,” “by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue.” It was not a forgone conclusion that tobacco would be the English name for this miraculous plant — other candidates at the time were petum (1568), possibly derived from another Native American word, and nicotian (1577), from Jean Nicot, who brought the plant to France for the first time. (Nicot eventually gave his name to the tobacco genus, Nicotiana, as well as to its chemical of interest, nicotine (1817)).
Growing more and more popular with every passing year, tobacco seemed to be doing just fine with its common name, but others were coined for it to better advertise what were seen as its incredible health benefits — the holy herb, the queen mother herb, God’s remedy, and panacea (all 16th century). A panacea is a medicine reputed to cure all diseases, a tall order, but one that it was more than capable of fulfilling, according to proponents such as Anthony Chute, author of Tabaco (1595). The green leaves of the plant could cure any sort of laceration or skin ulcer, from a finger nigh severed by a giant chopping knife to the King’s Evil (Scrofula), the Canker, the Wolfe, and noli me tangere (“don’t touch me”), increasingly awful skin diseases. The smoke was thought to be even more efficacious, because of the humoral theory of medicine that held sway at the time. A healthy body had the proper balance of four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, which gave it the proper temperature and moisture. Tobacco smoke was very hot and dry, and so could cure diseases in which the patient was excessively cold and moist — all kinds of coughs, rheums, bowel problems, and, the epitome of cold and wet, drowning.
The “native English” way of getting smoke into the body was the clyster (1398), or glyster — a tobacco enema. It was superseded by the pipe, a Native American invention and a more social way to smoke, but the original practice survived until the mid-19th century as the best way to revive drowning victims, and is still around in the expression to blow smoke up your ass, meaning “to give insincere compliments.” (Though wonderful, this derivation of the idiom is possibly apocryphal. There is a long and independent association between “empty words” and wind, smoke, or vapor.)
Like vaping today, there were questions about the social acceptability of “drinking tobacco,” as smoking was called. Was it genteel for women to smoke, for example? On one hand, smoking was good for women, who were constitutionally a little bit too cold and damp. On the other hand, smoking involved sucking on something in public, generally a no-no. Early tobacco pipes also tended to produce quite a lot of brown, sticky saliva, which stained clothing, created a funk (a strong stink, 1623), and needed to be spit somewhere, often on the floor, until the development of the spittoon (1840). Tobacco use gained its widest social acceptance with the rise of snuff (1683), finely ground tobacco snorted through the nose, which neatly avoided all these problems.
Taking snuff has many similarities with vaping. It required lots of accoutrements, all of which could show off one’s individuality, relative wealth, and taste. Vapers today can buy standard, preassembled e-cigs and tobacco-flavored juice, but many people prefer to customize their equipment, especially if they drip. Dripping involves putting a few drops of juice directly on the coil of an e-cig atomizer (the heating element) instead of using a cartridge with a reservoir of liquid and a wick, which according to drippers (?)…drips (?)…advocates of dripping, provides a purer taste and the option of changing flavors more frequently. It requires vapers to assemble their e-cigs themselves, choosing an atomizer, a drip tip (the part you put in your mouth), possibly a drip shield, and a variety juice flavors, from the hundreds available — “Mother’s Milk” (“a creamy custard with a sweet strawberry exhale”), for example, or “Boba’s Bounty” (“tobacco, honey, and marshmallow”). Snuff-takers needed a snuff-box — some devotees had hundreds, beautifully decorated — a rasp, to grind the tobacco leaves, a tiny spoon if they preferred not to dirty their fingers, and a dark-patterned handkerchief to catch their sneezes and clean their nostrils. Like juice, snuff could be colored and flavored in hundreds of combinations, including orange flower, rose, bergamot, musk, and tonka bean (a flavor like vanilla, now banned by the FDA for containing coumarin, which in high doses can damage the liver).
Vaping has many of the same things going for it that snuff did — it appeals to a knowledgeable, somewhat moneyed, consumer and offers a way to display individuality and discernment. Now all it needs is a better name…any ideas?
Next week, I’ll be making a quiz of these words to see which students know and use. In class, we’ve been discussing how new words are created.
We talk about fixation: pre- (unfriend), suf- (selfie), in- (congratu-effin-ations), and circum- (embiggen). We explore the homonymy of prefixes and suffixes, and meaning of the word inflammable, which prompts discussion of the difference between ingrate and ingratiate. One student asks–in jest–why infallible doesn’t mean “able to fall into.”
We talk about acronyms and initialisms and the evolution of LOL and FAQ from “el-oh-el” and “ef-ay-que” to “loll” and “fak.” I find that my students are great verbers of nouns: They Facebook. They GIF. They gym. They library. They also reduplicate, compounding words to specify or intensify. I ask them the difference between a writer writer and a writer’s writer. “One makes a living and one doesn’t,” someone offers.
Our discussion goes on to the whys of word creation. New words encapsulate current ideas but also to express our identities as language users—irony, rebellion, erudition—and to characterize others, like the 2004 Word of the Year, chav, the British epithet for loutish youth in designer clothes. We talk about the accidental and logical leaps made by language users and how some of them end up as folk creations, like refudiate, the 2010 Word of the Year. I recount my own childhood confusion over hearing on television that American soldiers were fighting “gorillas” in Southeast Asia and tell them of the rejected job applicant who felt his department was often “the escape goat.” I offer my prediction that in fifty years the spelling segue will be edged out by the spelling Segway.
I always learn something new from the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list, and I’m often surprised by my own and my students’ reactions to new usages.
Clippings frequently rub me the wrong way for some reason. When I am in a conversation where someone used words like cran, vacay, andbro, the usages somehow feel much too familiar, like a telemarketer addressing me by my first name. Abbreviations can be annoying too, as if the speaker assumes I am as immersed in some topic as they are and know all the shorthand. IMHO.
I’m enamored of blends though, and I smile at the recollection of the first time I came across the word hangry in a tweet from a former student. To me blends are verbal magic tricks: words sawed in half and magically rejoined. I always think of publisher Bennett Cerf’s description of Groucho Marx as someone who looks at words “upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more.” Groucho would have loved the Urban Dictionary’s blend bananus, for the brown part at the end of a banana. When I finished my book on the language of public apology I toyed with using the word regretoric in the title, but wiser editorial heads prevailed. The best blends have a playful punning to them, in which the remnants of the old words encapsulate the new meaning perfectly (the worst blends are like Frankenstein’s monster, like schmeat, a finalist in 2013.). I’ll leave it to you to judge the blends in this year’s finalists: slacktivism (from slacker + activism), normcore (from normal + hardcore), budtender (from bud + bartender).
To me, mere affixation is not as much fun as blending. New words formed by affixation make me think of new versions of old products, some sleek, colorful, and playful (unfriend and selfie), and others a bit too clumsy (hypermiling, the Word of the Year in 2008, or contactless). As a consumer, I rush out to buy some new words and leave others on the shelf.
This year’s Word of the Year vape, meaning to inhale the vapors from e-cigarettes, is a word that I won’t use much, not being a vaper myself. But many people seem to be vaping and the word has a good chance of success. It’s brisker than saying “smoke an e-cigarette” and reinforces the difference between vaping and smoking. Adapted from marijuana terminology, vape is a classic clipping from vaporize, with the added analogy of vapors/vapers and vape, to smoke/smokers and smoke. The word has made its way from High Times to the New York Times and NPR and is already being used not just as a verb but as a noun and adjective. There are “Got Vape?” bumper stickers, vape lounges, and vape pens. Vape is likely here to stay.
The Linguistics Society of America’s Annual Conference will take place from Thursday, 8 January-Sunday, 11 January at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower in Portland, Oregon. This meeting will bring together linguists from all over the world for a weekend filled with presentations, films, mini-courses, panels, and more.
If you’re looking for fun places to check out in Portland before and/or after the conference, look no further. In order to get the scoop on the best places to check out in Portland, I checked in with our resident Portland expert Jenny Catchings, the newest addition to our Academic/Trade Marketing Team. Before she moved to New York, Jenny lived in Portland for three years, and she’s ready to share a local’s guide to the “The City of Roses.”
In Portland, the book game is run by Powell’s. You walk in and it’s kind of like a museum — you could spend the whole day in there. There are lots of readings, even by big name authors, so you really get the full bookstore experience. Fun fact: There are a few smaller branches in SE Portland which are more specialized and low-key, if you’re looking for that teeny, indie-bookstore vibe. (Powell’s City of Books by Kenn Wilson. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)
Best Museum: Portland Art Museum.
Like many Northwestern art museums, The Portland Art Museum tends to feature indigenous art work, which is really beautiful. There are also a lot of local artists on display. (Portland Art Museum by Roger. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.)
Best Doughnuts: Blue Star Donuts.
Portland does doughnuts exceptionally well. Everyone knows about Voodoo Doughnuts (and their legendary NyQuil doughnut), but locals prefer less gimmicky stuff. The thought of fresh Blue Star treats makes me homesick. Note: there are three locations ‘round the city. (Blue Star Donuts by Rick Chung. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.)
Best Vintage Shopping: Lounge Lizard.
Lounge Lizard is this very curated, very beautiful house filled with mid-century housewares and gorgeous antiques. Best part? It’s pretty affordable! (Lounge Lizard, SE Hawthorne Portland, Or by Mike Krzeszak. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.)
It’s gigantic. It’s the kind of place where people go and hang out all day. It’s a great place to go if you want to meet the locals… people from Portland are very friendly! (Laurelhurst Park, Portland, Oregon, 2014 by Where Is Your Toothbrush? CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)
Best Ice Cream Spot: Salt and Straw.
Salt and Straw creates some really beautiful, often seasonal flavors. Some of the flavors may sound strange, but trust me, they always work. Their biggest hit is the ‘Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper’ flavor. (Salt & Straw by jpellgen. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.)
My favorite dinner restaurant: Biwa. It’s small and very romantic. Don’t forget the sake! (Yakimoni at Biwa by VJ Beauchamp. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)
Best Bar in a House: Liberty Glass.
Liberty Glass is literally a house in NE Portland, a big pink one at that. Portland used to have a few of these types of establishments, but this is one of the last ones standing now. You can sit in the ‘living room,’ upstairs in what used to be bedrooms or on the awesome porch when the weather is fine. (8:36pm: a drink at the Liberty Glass with Tom by Liene Verzemnieks. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)
The recent release of The Imitation Game has revealed the important role crosswords played in the recruitment of code-breakers at Bletchley Park. In response to complaints that its crosswords were too easy, The Daily Telegraph organised a contest in which entrants attempted to solve a puzzle in less than 12 minutes. Successful competitors subsequently found themselves being approached by the War Office, and later working as cryptographers at Bletchley Park.
The birth of the crossword
The crossword was the invention of Liverpool émigré Arthur Wynne, whose first puzzle appeared in the New York World in 1913. This initial foray was christened a Word-Cross; the instruction in subsequent issues to ‘Find the missing cross words’ led to the birth of the cross-word. Although Wynne’s invention was initially greeted with scepticism, by the 1920s it had established itself as a popular pastime, entertaining and frustrating generations of solvers, solutionists, puzzle-heads, and cruciverbalists (Latin for ‘crossworders’).
Crosswords consist of a grid made up of black and white boxes, in which the answers, also known as lights, are to be written. The term light derives from the word’s wider use to refer to facts or suggestions which help to explain, or ‘cast light upon’, a problem. The puzzle consists of a series of clues, a word that derives from Old English cleowen ‘ball of thread’. Since a ball of thread could be used to help guide someone out of a maze – just as Ariadne’s thread came to Theseus’s aid in the Minotaur’s labyrinth – it developed the figurative sense of a piece of evidence leading to a solution, especially in the investigation of a crime. The spelling changed from clew to clue under the influence of French in the seventeenth century; the same shift affected words like blew, glew, rew, and trew.
Anagrams, homophones, and Spoonerisms: clues in crosswords
In the earliest crosswords the clue consisted of a straightforward synonym (Greek ‘with name’) – this type is still popular in concise or so-called quick crosswords. A later development saw the emergence of the cryptic clue (from a Greek word meaning ‘hidden’), where, in addition to a definition, another route to the answer is concealed within a form of wordplay. Wordplay devices include the anagram, from a Greek word meaning ‘transposition of letters’, and the charade, from a French word referring to a type of riddle in which each syllable of a word, or a complete word, is described, or acted out – as in the game charades. A well-known example, by prolific Guardian setter Rufus, is ‘Two girls, one on each knee’ (7). Combining two girls’ names, Pat and Ella, gives you a word for the kneecap: PATELLA.
Punning on similar-sounding words, or homophones (Greek ‘same sound’), is a common trick. A reference to Spooner requires a solver to transpose the initial sounds of two or more words; this derives from a supposed predisposition to such slips of the tongue in the speech of Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College Oxford, whose alleged Spoonerisms include a toast to ‘our queer dean’ and upbraiding a student who ‘hissed all his mystery lectures’. Other devious devices of misdirection include reversals, double definitions, containers (where all or part of word must be placed within another), and words hidden inside others, or between two or more words. In the type known as &lit. (short for ‘& literally so’), the whole clue serves as both definition and wordplay, as in this clue by Rufus: ‘I’m a leader of Muslims”. Here the word play gives IMA+M (the leader, i.e. first letter, of Muslims), while the whole clue stands as the definition.
Crossword compilers and setters
Crossword compilers, or setters, traditionally remain anonymous (Greek ‘without name’), or assume pseudonyms (Greek ‘false name’). Famous exponents of the art include Torquemada and Ximenes, who assumed the names of Spanish inquisitors, Afrit, the name of a mythological Arabic demon hidden in that of the setter A.F.Ritchie, and Araucaria, the Latin name for the monkey puzzle tree. Some crosswords conceal a name or message within the grid, perhaps along the diagonal, or using the unchecked letters (or unches), which do not cross with other words in the grid. This is known as a nina, a term deriving from the practice of the American cartoonist Al Hirschfield of hiding the name of his daughter Nina in his illustrations.
If you’re a budding code-cracker and fancy pitting your wits against the cryptographers of Bletchley Park, you can find the original Telegraph puzzle here.
But remember, you only have 12 minutes to solve it.
If you received a book over the holidays, was it digital or printed on paper? E-books (and devices on which to read them) are multiplying like rabbits, as are the numbers of eReading devotees. It’s easy to assume, particularly in the United States, with the highest level of e-book sales worldwide, that the only way this trend can go is up.
Yes, there was triple-digit e-book growth in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though by 2014 those figures had settled down into the single digits. What’s more, when you query people about their reading habits, you find that wholesale replacement of paper with pixels will be no slam-dunk.
Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been surveying university students in a variety of countries about their experiences when reading in both formats. Coupling these findings with other published data, a nuanced picture begins to emerge of what we like and dislike about hard copy versus digital media. Here are five facts, fictions, and places where the jury is still out when it comes to reading on-screen or on paper.
Cost is a major factor in choosing between print or the digital version of a book.
College students are highly cost-conscious when acquiring books. Because e-versions are generally less expensive than print counterparts, students are increasingly interested in digital options of class texts if making a purchase. (To save even more, many students are renting rather than buying.)
Yet when you remove price from the equation, the choice is generally print. My survey question was: If the price were identical, would you prefer to read in print or digitally? Over 75% of students in my samples from the United States, Japan, Germany, and Slovakia preferred print, both for school work and when reading for pleasure. (In Germany, the numbers were a whopping 94% for school reading and 90% for leisure.)
The “container” for written words is irrelevant.
There’s a lot of talk these days about “content” versus “container” when it comes to reading. Many say that what matters in the end is the words, not the medium through which they are presented. The argument goes back at least to the mid-eighteenth century, when Philip Dormer, the Earl of Chesterfield, advised his son:
Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.
When I began researching the reading habits of young adults, I assumed these mobile-phone-toting, Facebooking, tweeting millennials would be largely indifferent to the look and feel of traditional books.
I was wrong. In response to the question of what students liked most about reading in hard copy, there was an outpouring of comments about the physical characteristics of printed books. Many spoke about the aesthetics of turning real pages. One said he enjoyed the feel of tooled Moroccan leather. They enthused about the smell of books. In fact, 10% of all Slovakian responses involved scent.
E-books are better for the environment than print.
Debate continues over whether going digital is the clear environmental choice. Yes, you can eliminate the resources involved in paper manufacturing and book transport. But producing – and recycling – digital devices, along with running massive servers, come with their own steep costs. The minerals needs for our electronic reading devices include rare metals such as columbite-tantalite, generally mined in African conflict-filled areas, where profits often support warlords. Recycling to extract those precious metals is mostly done in poor countries, where workers (often children) are exposed to enormous health risks from toxins. The serried ranks of servers that bring us data use incredible amounts of electricity, generate vast quantities of heat, and need both backup generators and cooling fans.
Today’s young adults are passionate about saving the environment. They commonly assume that relying less on paper and more on digits makes them better custodians of the earth. When asked what they liked most about reading on-screen – or least about reading in hard copy – I heard an earful about saving (rather than wasting) paper. Despite their conservationist hearts, internal conflict sometimes peeped through regarding what they assumed was best for the environment and the way they preferred to read. As one student wrote,
I can’t bring myself to print out online material simply for environmental considerations. However, I highly, highly prefer things in hard copy.
Users are satisfied with the quality of digital screens.
Manufacturers of e-readers, tablets, and mobile phones continue to improve the quality of their screens. Compared with devices available even a few years ago, readability has improved markedly. However, for university students who often spend long hours reading, digital screens (at least the ones they have access to) remain a problem. When asked what they liked least about reading on-screen, there was an outpouring of complaints in my surveys about eyestrain and headaches. Depending upon the country, between one-third and almost two-thirds of the objections to reading on-screen involved vision issues.
It’s harder to concentrate when reading on a screen than when reading on paper.
True – by a landslide.
My question was: On what reading platform (hard copy, computer, tablet, e-reader, or mobile phone) did young adults find it easiest to concentrate? “Hard copy” was the choice of 92% (or more) of the students in the four countries I surveyed. Not surprisingly, across the board, respondents were two-to-three times as likely to be multitasking while reading on a digital screen as when reading printed text. It goes without saying that multitasking is hardly a recipe for concentrating.
How does concentration relate to reading? There are different ways in which we can read: scanning a text for a specific piece of information, skimming the pages to get the gist of what is said, or careful reading. The first two approaches don’t necessarily require strong concentration, and computer-based technologies are tailor-made for both. We search for specific keywords, often using the ‘Find’ function to cut to the chase. We jump from one webpage to the next, barely reading more than a few sentences. When we wander off from these tasks to post a status update on Facebook or check an airfare on Kayak, it’s not that hard to get back on track.
What computer technology wasn’t designed for is deep reading: thoughtfully working through a text, pausing to reflect on what we’re read, going back to early passages, and perhaps writing notes in the margins about our own take on the material. Here is where print technology wins.
At least for now, university students strongly agree.
Headline image credit: Books. Urval av de böcker som har vunnit Nordiska rådets litteraturpris under de 50 år som priset funnits by Johannes Jansson/norden.org. CC-BY-2.5-dk via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s Thursday evening in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I am late for an appointment to see my friend Shimanto (lit. boundary [Sanskrit]). On the street I shout ‘ei mama jaben?' (Hey uncle, will you go? [Bangla]) to catch an auto-rickshaw (auto [English] man-powered-wheeler [Japanese]). After striking the deal, I sit inside the three-wheeler. As the young driver speeds up almost hitting passers-by and curses ‘jyam khub kharap!' (Traffic jam [English] is very bad! [Persian]), I recollect the writing at the back of the car: ‘allāḥ sarvaśaktimān' (God [Arabic] almighty [Sanskrit]).
One month is unlike another. Sometimes I receive many letters and many comments; then lean months may follow. February produced a good harvest (“February fill the dyke,” as they used to say), and I can glean a bagful. Perhaps I should choose a special title for my gleanings: “I Am All Ears” or something like it.
Sometimes, we say what we don’t really mean. ‘You look really tired’, for example, when we mean to be caring rather than disparaging of appearance. ‘I thought you were older than that!’ when we mean to applaud maturity rather than further disparage appearance. And so it is with the gay thing. The accidental difference between what people are saying or writing, and their intended meaning, is becoming perplexingly polarized.
When it comes to assessing someone’s sincerity, we pay close attention to what people say and how they say it. This is because the emotion-based elements of communication are understood as partially controllable and partially uncontrollable. The words that people use tend to be viewed as relatively controllable; in contrast, rate of speech, tone of voice, hesitations, and gestures (paralinguistic elements) have tended to be viewed as less controllable. As a result of the perception of speakers’ lack of control over them, the meanings conveyed via paralinguistic channels have tended to be understood as providing more reliable evidence of a speaker’s inner state.
Paradoxically, the very elements that are viewed as so reliable are consistent with multiple meanings. Furthermore, people often believe that their reading of another person’s demeanor is the correct one. Many studies have shown that people – judges included – are notoriously bad at assessing the meaning of another person’s affective display. Moreover, some research suggests that people are worse at this when the ethnic background of the speaker differs from their own – not an uncommon situation when defendants address federal judges, even in 2014.
The element of defendants’ demeanor is not only problematic for judges; it is also problematic for the record of the proceedings. This is due to courtroom reporters’ practice of reporting the words that are spoken and excluding input from paralinguistic channels.
I observed one case in which this practice had the potential for undermining the integrity of the sentencing hearing transcript. In this case, the defendant lost her composure while making her statement to the court. The short, sob-filled “sorry” she produced mid-way through her statement was (from my perspective) clearly intended to refer to her preceding tears and the delays in her speech. The official transcript, however, made no reference to the defendant’s outburst of emotion, thereby making her “sorry” difficult to understand. Without the clarifying information about what was going on at the time – namely, the defendant’s crying — her “sorry” could conceivably be read as part of her apology to the court for her crime of robbing a bank.
Not distinguishing between apologies for the crime and apologies for a problem with delivery of one’s statement is a problem in the context of a sentencing hearing because apologies for crimes are understood as an admission of guilt. If the defendant had not already apologized earlier, the ambiguity of the defendant’s words could have significant legal ramifications if she sought to appeal her sentence or to claim that her guilty plea was illegal.
As the above example illustrates, the exclusion of meaning that comes from paralinguistic channels can result in misleading and inaccurate transcripts. (This is one reason why more and more police departments are video-recording confessions and witness statements.) If a written record is to be made of a proceeding, it should preserve the significant paralinguistic elements of communication. (Following the approach advocated by Du Bois 2006, one can do this with varying amounts of detail. For example, the beginning and ending of crying-while-talking can be indicated with double angled brackets, e.g., < < sorry > >.) Relatedly, if a judge is going to use elements of a defendant’s demeanor in court to increase a sentence, the judge should be prepared to defend this decision and cite the evidence that was employed. Just as a judge’s decision based on the facts of the case can be challenged, a decision based on demeanor evidence deserves the same scrutiny.
To celebrate the launch of our new Oxford Arabic Dictionary (in print and online), the Chief Editor, Tressy Arts, explains why she decided to become an Arabist.
When I tell people I’m an Arabist, they often look at me like they’re waiting for the punchline. Some confuse it with aerobics and look at me dubiously — I don’t quite have the body of a dance instructor. Others do recognize the word “Arabic” and look at me even more dubiously — “What made you decide to study that!?”
Well, my case is simple, if probably not typical. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, you can learn a lot of languages in secondary school, and I tried them all. So when the time came to choose a university study, “a language that isn’t like the others” seemed the most attractive option — and boy, did Arabic deliver.
Squiggly lines and dots?
It started with the script. A lot of people are put off by Arabic’s script, because it looks so impenetrable — all those squiggly lines and dots. At least if you are unfamiliar with Italian you can still make out some of the words. However, the script is really perfectly simple, and anyone can learn it in an hour or two. Arabic has 28 letters, some for sounds that don’t exist in English (and learning to pronounce these can be tricky and cause for much hilarity, like the ‘ayn which I saw most accurately described as “imagine you are at the dentist and the drill touches a nerve”), some handily combining a sound for which English needs two letters into one, like th and sh. Vowels aren’t usually written, only consonants. The dots are to distinguish between letters which have the same basic shape. And the reason it all looks so squiggly is that letters within one word are joined up, like cursive. Once you can see that, it all becomes a lot more transparent.
So once we mastered the script, after the first day of university, things got really interesting. The script unlocked a whole new world of language, and a fascinating language it was. Arabic is a Semitic language, which places it outside the Indo-European language family, and Semitic languages have some unique properties that I had never imagined.
For example, Arabic (and other Semitic languages) has a so-called “root-and-pattern” morphology. This means that every word is built up of a root, usually consisting of three consonants, which carries the basic meaning of that word; for example the root KTB, with basic meaning “writing”, or DRS “studying”. This root is then put in a pattern consisting of vowels and affixes, which manipulate its meaning to form a word. For example, *aa*i* means “the person who does something”, so a KaaTiB is “someone who writes”: a writer; and a DaaRiS is “someone who studies”: a researcher. Ma**a* means “the place where something takes place”, so a maKTaB is an office, a maKTaBa a library or bookshop, a maDRaSa a school.
This makes learning vocabulary both harder and easier. On the one hand, in the beginning all words sound the same — all verbs have the pattern *a*a*a: KaTaBa, BaHaTHa, DaRaSa, HaDaTHa, JaMaʿa — and you may well get utterly confused. But after a while, you get used to it, and if you encounter a new word and are familiar with the root and recognize the pattern, you can at least make an educated guess at what it might mean.
Keeping things logical . . . usually
Another wonderful aspect of Arabic is that it doesn’t have irregular verbs, unlike, for example, French (I’m looking at you pouvoir). But before you all throw out your French text books and switch to Arabic, let me warn you that there are about 250 different types of regular verb, each of which conjugates into 110 forms. This led to Guy Deutscher remarking, “if the Latin verbal system looked uncomfortably complex, here is an example which makes Latin seem like child’s play: the verbal system of the Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew.” Fair enough, it’s complex, but it’s all logical, and regular. I, for one, had much less trouble learning these Arabic verbs than the Latin and French ones, simply because there is such an elegant method to them.
There are other aspects of Arabic that are less logical. The numbers, for instance. I won’t go too deep into them, but suffice it to say that if you have three books the three is feminine because books are masculine and if you have three balls it’s vice versa, and then if you have thirteen of something the three is the opposite gender but the ten is the same, the counted word is suddenly singular and for no reason at all the whole lot has become accusative. Then at twenty it all changes again. It’s a wonder the Arab world proved so proficient in mathematics.
Other reasons to learn Arabic
Which leads me to the many other reasons one might want to learn Arabic. I focused on its fascinating linguistics above, because that is my personal favorite field, but there are the cultures steeped in rich history, the fascinating literature ranging from ancient poetry to cutting-edge modern novels, and of course the fact that every Muslim must know at least a little bit of Arabic in order to fulfill their religious duties (shahada, Fatiha, and salat), and for gleaning a deep understanding of the sources of Islam, Arabic is essential. Arabic is also a very wanted skill in many professions, and not just the obvious ones. I recall one of the recruiters at the Arabists’ Career Fair, speaking for a law firm, stating, “We can teach you law. Law is easy. What we need are people with a firm knowledge of Arabic.”
There is a study of color perception that has gotten around enough that I would like to devote this post to how I see it, according to my take on whether, and how, language “shapes” thought and creates a “worldview.”
The experiment involved the Himba people, and is deliciously tempting for those seeking to show how language creates a way of seeing the world.
There are two parts to the experiment. Part One: presented with a group of squares, most of them various shades of green and one of them a robin’s egg-style blue, Himba tended to have a hard time picking out which square was “different.” That would seem to suggest that having a single word for green and blue really does affect perception.
Part Two: presented with a number of squares which, to Western eyes, seem like minimally different shades of green, Himba people often readily pick out a single square which is distinct from the others. This, too, seems to correlate with something about their language. Namely, although they only have four color terms (similarly to many indigenous groups), those terms split up what we think of as the green range into three pieces – one color corresponds to various dark colors including dark green, one to “green-blue,” and then another one to other realms of green (and other colors).
Both of these results – on film, a Himba woman seeming quite perplexed trying to pick out the blue square, and meanwhile a Himba man squinting a bit and then picking out what looks to us like just one more leafy green square – seem to confirm that how your language describes a color makes a huge difference to how you see the color. The implications are obvious for other work in this tradition addressing things like terms for up and down, gender for inanimate objects, and the like.
But in fact, both cases pan out in ways quite unlike what we might expect. First, the blue square issue. It isn’t for nothing that some have speculated in all seriousness that if the Himba really can’t perceive the difference between forest green and sky blue, then the issue might be some kind of congenital color blindness (which is hardly unknown among isolated groups for various reasons).
That may seem a little hasty. But no one studying color terms, or language and thought, has ever denied that colors occur along a spectrum, upon which some are removed from one another to an extent that no humans have ever been claimed not to be able to perceive. Russians can suss out where dark blue starts shading into light a teensy bit faster than English speakers because they have separate words for light and dark blue – indeed. But no one claims that an English speaker plain can’t see the difference between navy blue and sky blue.
Along those lines, no one would remotely expect that a Himba speaker, or anyone, could actually not see the difference between spectographically distinct shades such as sky blue and forest green. One suspects that issues to do with familiarity with formal tests and their goals may have played a role here – but not that having the same word for green and blue actually renders one what we would elsewhere term color-blind.
Then, as to the shades of green, I’m the last person to say that the man on film didn’t pick out that shade of green faster than I would have expected. However, the question is whether we are seeing a “world view,” we must decide that question according to a very simple metric. The extent to which we treat something in someone’s language as creating a “cool” worldview must be the same extent to which we are prepared to accept something in someone’s language that suggests something “uncool” – because there are plenty of such things.
A demonstration case is Chinese, in which marking plurality, definiteness, hypotheticality, and tense are all optional and as often as not, left to context. The language is, compared to English, strikingly telegraphic. An experiment was done some time ago suggesting that, for example, the issue with hypotheticality meant that to be Chinese was to be less sensitive to the hypothetical than an English speaker is. That is, let’s face it, a cute way of saying that to be Chinese is to be not quite as quick on the uptake as a Westerner.
No one liked that, and I assume that most of us are quite prepared to say that whatever the results of that experiment were, they can’t have anything significant to do with Chinese perception of reality. Well, that means the verdict has to be the same on the Himba and green – we can’t think of him as seeing a world popping with gradations of green we’d never dream of if we can’t accept the Chinese being called a tad simple-minded. This is especially when we remember that there are many groups in the world whose color terms really don’t divvy up any one color in a cool way – they just don’t have as many names for colors, any colors, as we do. Are we ready to condemn them as not seeing the world in colors as vivid as we do because of the way they talk?
Surely not, and that’s the lesson the Himba experiment teaches. Language affects worldview in minuscule ways, of a sort you can tease out in a lab. However, the only way to call these minuscule ways “worldviews” is to accept that to be Chinese is to be dim. I don’t – and I hope none of the rest of us do either.
All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity — what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility — between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.
The problem that faces most learners of Arabic is that the written language is radically different from the various dialects spoken throughout the Arab world. Such differences appear in a variety of forms: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and tenses of verbs. The result is that even the most advanced learner of standard Arabic (or ‘the standard’) might find herself completely at sea on the streets of Beirut, while it is also conceivable for a student to complete a year of immersion in Cairo and not be able to understand a text written in the standard language.
The most diligent and ambitious of Arabic students, therefore, is required to learn both the standard and a regional variant in order to cover all the social situations in which they might use the language. This, however, will not solve their dilemma in its entirety: Moroccan Arabic is foreign to Levantines, while Iraqi can be quite a puzzle for Egyptians. Even the mastery of a regional variant along with the standard will only ease the learner’s task in part of the Arab World, while making it no easier in other regions. This phenomenon, in which a number of quasi- or poorly-intelligible dialects are used by speakers of a particular language depending on the situation in which they find themselves, is known as diglossia.
A many-headed beast
The source, or rather sources, of diglossia in the Arab world are both manifold and contentious. In part, regional differences come about from contact between Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers. Moroccan Arabic, for example, borrows from Berber, while Levantine dialects (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) have Aramaic elements in them. The dialects of the Persian Gulf area show the influence of Persian and Hindi, both of which were the languages of important trading partners for the region’s merchants. Finally, the languages of imperial or colonial administration left their imprint on virtually all dialects of the Arab World, albeit in different measures. It is for this reason that native speakers may choose from a variety of words, some foreign and others Arabic, in order to describe the same concept. Thus a Moroccan might use henna (from Berber) or jidda for grandmother; a Kuwaiti might buy meywa (from Farsi) or fawaakih when he has a craving for fruit; and a Lebanese worker might say she is going to the karhane (from Ottoman Turkish) or masna` when heading off to the factory.
Dialectical differences are not just a matter of appropriations and borrowings. Just as many non-native learners have grappled with the complex structure of the Arabic language, so too have many native speakers of Arabic. For all its complexity, however, there are certain nuances that standard Arabic does not express with efficiency or ease. This is why the regional dialects are marked by a number of simplifications and innovations, intended to allow for greater agility and finesse when speaking.
For example, Levantine dialects make use of agentparticiples (faakira, the one thinking; raayihun, the ones going; maashi, the one walking) instead of actually conjugating the verb (‘afkuru, I am thinking; yaruuhuuna, they are going; tamshiina, you are going). However, these same dialects, as well as Egyptian, have also created a series of verbal prefixes — small non-words that come before the conjugated verb — in order to refine the duration and timing of an action when conjugated verbs are used: baya’kal, he eats; `am baya’kal, he is eating; raH ya’kal or Ha ya’kal, he will eat. Such distinctions are familiar to speakers of English, but are not immediately apparent in Arabic, whose verbal system seeks to stress other types of information.
The more the merrier
Indeed, this display of innovation and human creativity is one of the strongest motivations for learning Arabic, whether standard or colloquial. Arabic might require as much effort and commitment as the acquisition of two or three Indo-European languages in order for a non-native speaker to be able to communicate in a meaningful way. However, it also opens the door to understanding the manner in which humans use and adapt language to their particular contexts. The diglossia issue is one that causes complications for non-native learners and native Arabic speakers alike, but it is also a fascinating showcase of the birth and evolution of languages that challenges our preconceived notions about good and bad speech, and the relative importance and value of dialects.
There’s something about the idea of ‘original pronunciation’ (OP) that gets the pulse racing. I’ve been amazed by the public interest shown in this unusual application of a little-known branch of linguistics — historical phonology, a subject that explores how the sounds of a language change over time. I little expected, when I was approached by Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004 to help them mount a production of Romeo and Juliet in OP, that ten years on the approach would become a thriving linguistic industry. Nor could I have predicted that a short documentary recording about OP for the Open University (which I made with actor son Ben in 2011) would for no apparent reason go viral towards the end of 2013, with 1.5 million hits in recent months.
A dozen Shakespeare plays have now been produced in original pronunciation, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kansas University in 2010 and Hamlet at the University of Nevada (Reno) in 2011. This year a group from the University of Texas (Houston) brought an OP production of Julius Caesar to the Edinburgh Fringe. Next January, Ben Crystal and his OP ensemble are presenting Pericles in Stockholm as part of an Interplay series along with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. More productions are in the pipeline.
But it isn’t just Shakespeare. The interest in him tops the list, but it is a long list, in which the work of any dramatist from the period can be treated in this way. And not just drama. Poems and prose too. My recording of the Sonnets is available on the website associated with the book Pronouncing Shakespeare. An OP recording by Ben of one of John Donne’s long sermons can now be heard as part of the Virtual St Paul’s Cross project.
Donne takes us forward in time to the 1620s. Going backwards in time, the British Library wanted an original pronunciation recording of William Tyndale to accompany the publication of its facsimile of the Tyndale Gospels. They chose the Matthew Gospel, and I recorded this for them in 2013. That takes us back to 1525. There are earlier recordings in the BL archive, made for the Evolving English winter exhibition in 2011-12, including extracts from Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, and Paston. The British Library also commissioned a CD of Shakespeare extracts from Ben and his ensemble: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.
But the interest extends well beyond literature. Notably present in the talkback sessions after the first original pronunciation productions at the Globe were people interested in early music. And since then there have been many explorations into the kind of pronunciation used by Purcell (late 17th century), Dowland, and other composers. As with their literary counterparts, musicologists have been struck by the fact that so many of the rhymes in songs, madrigals, and operatic texts simply don’t work in modern English, and they want to hear them as they would have been. They note the way many of the vowels and consonants would have had different values in those days, and they want to explore how the texts would sound with those old values articulated. The result is a very different auditory experience, and — by all accounts — an exciting one.
Finally there are the heritage people. It’s all well and good establishing a historical centre where an old period is recreated, and people dress up in old clothes and walk around — but how should they speak? The occasional ‘verily’ and ‘forsooth’ isn’t enough. Here too we see an interest in recreating styles of speech that would have been used in those days.
Add all these constituencies together and you can see why the original pronunciation experiment has become something of an OP movement, with more and more people wanting to learn about OP, to hear it in practice, and to explore its application in texts that so far have received no study. Every new text brings to light something new — such as a previously unnoticed pun, or a fresh way of speaking a line. At university level, people are beginning to write dissertations on the subject. Ben, as I write, is exploring ways for his ensemble to cope with new OP commitments. There’s plenty to do. With only a dozen Shakespeare plays explored so far, that leaves a couple of dozen more awaiting investigation.
The consequence is an urgent need to provide materials to help people take original pronunciation activities forward. Paul Meier already has some tutorial material on his website, and his Dream production is available both as an audio recording and on a DVD. Several articles have now been written answering the usual questions people ask (such as ‘how do you know’?). And I am hard at work on an OP Shakespeare dictionary, which will enable people to make transcripts for themselves. I have paused, in the middle of letter N, to write this post. But with luck and a good following wind, I should have it finished in time for the great anniversary in 2016. And it will be published, of course, by Oxford University Press.
Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon faced certain impeachment by the Congress for the Watergate scandal. He resigned the presidency, expressing a sort of conditional regret:
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
Nixon is not apologizing here as much as offering what sociologist Erving Goffman calls an account—a verbal reframing of his actions aimed at reducing their offensiveness. Nixon treats himself as a victim of his own mistakes and treats his mistakes as managerial, not criminal. His language is loaded with such words as “any,” “may,” “would,” and “if,” among others and circumlocutions likes “in the course of the events that led to this decision” and “what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.” Nixon offers regret, but there is no unconditional apology, and there never was.
I sometimes wonder how Nixon’s attitudes toward Watergate and his resignation were shaped by the 1952 presidential campaign, and the events that led to his so-called “Checkers” speech.
It was the home stretch of the 1952 campaign, in which the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senator Nixon were pitted against Democrats Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman to succeed President Harry Truman. Truman’s popularity was at a low point and Eisenhower and Nixon were optimistic about their chances. Then, in mid-September, the press began reporting stories of a secret expense fund established in 1950 by Nixon supporters. The New York Post offered the sensational headline that “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” As the story developed, many Democrats (and less publicly some Republicans) called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. News editorials disapproved of Nixon’s actions two-to-one. Even the Washington Post, which had endorsed the Republican ticket, called for Nixon to withdraw from the race.
The issue took some of the optimism out of the Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower defended his Vice President publicly, but also promised that there would be a full reporting of the facts by independent auditors. The 39-year-old Nixon offered his account in a half-hour television address broadcast from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, on 23 September 1952.
“I want to tell you my side of the case,” he began, and in a speech that ran just over 4,500 words, Nixon used a series of rhetorical questions guide his audience through his version of events. He used the strategy that rhetoricians called differentiation by claiming that the fund issue was not what it seemed to be. Nixon said that there was no moral wrong because none of the money—about $18,000—was for Senatorial expenses and that none of the contributors receive special favors. He asserted his own good character by explaining why he needed the money: because he was not a rich man and he didn’t feel the taxpayers should pay his expenses.
Nixon bolstered his character further with his biography—explaining his modest background and finances, giving details down to the amount of his life insurance, mortgages, and material of his wife’s coat: not mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” adding that “And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
He added another rhetorical turn in the second half of his speech: “Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have?” Nixon’s answer was “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Here Nixon implies that he is motivated by a greater good and he pivots to an attack on his political opponents and his avowal that Eisenhower was “the man that can clean up the mess in Washington.”
The speech was the first ever use of television by a national candidate to speak directly to the nation and to defend himself against accusations of wrong-doing. And the public was impressed. For many, the most memorable part was when Nixon told the viewers about a black and white cocker spaniel puppy that a supporter from Texas had given his daughters. One of them named it Checkers, and Nixon defiantly asserted that, “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech thus became known as “The Checkers Speech.”
Nixon finished with a call to action, asking his listeners to write to the Republican National Committee to show their support. His broadcast was seen by an estimated 60 million viewers, and letters and telegrams to the Republican National Committee were overwhelmingly supportive. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and a few weeks later the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket carried the day with over 55% of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes.
Nixon accomplished three key verbal self-defense strategies in the “Checkers” speech. He argued that the fund was not what it seemed to be. He argued that he was a good steward of public funds and exposed his personal finances. He implied that he was serving a higher good because he supported General Eisenhower and opposed Communism.
But by 1974, things were different. Nixon was in trouble again, much worse trouble of his own making, and there was no “Checkers” speech, no way reframing his situation that would save his presidency. He resigned but he never apologized. Three years after resigning, in interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon was unequivocally defiant:
When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.
Perhaps he was thinking about the “Checkers” speech.
Headline image credit: President Richard Nixon delivers remarks to the White House staff on his final day in office. From left to right are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president, First Lady Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Ed Cox. 9 August 1974. White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The death rattle of the gender binary has been ringing for decades now, leaving us to wonder when it will take its last gasp. In this third decade of third wave feminism and the queer critique, dismantling the binary remains a critical task in the gender revolution. Language is among the most socially pervasive tools through which culture is negotiated, but in a language like English, with its minimal linguistic marking of gender, it can be difficult to find concrete signs that linguistic structures are changing to reflect new ways of thinking about the gender binary rather than simply repackaging old ideas.
One direction we might look, though, is toward the gendering of third person pronouns, which is what led me to write this post about pronouns on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social media giant may not be your first thought when it comes to feminist language activism, but this year’s shift in the way Facebook categorizes gender is among the most widely-felt signs of a sea change in institutional attitudes about gendered third person pronouns. Although Facebook does not have the same force as the educational system, governments, or traditional print media, it carries its own linguistic caché established through its corporate authority, its place in the cultural negotiation of coolness and social connection, and its near inescapable presence in everyday life.
In response to long-standing calls from transgender and gender non-conforming users to broaden its approach to gender, Facebook announced earlier this year that it would offer a new set of options. Rather than limiting members of the site to the selection of female or male, an extensive list of gender identities is offered, along with the option of a custom entry, including labels like agender, bigender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, trans person, two-spirit, transgender (wo)man and cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) (wo)man.
With all of the potential complexity afforded by these categories, Facebook couldn’t rely on a simple algorithm of assigning gendered pronouns for those occasions on which the website generates a third person reference to the user (e.g. “Wish ___ a happy birthday!”). Instead, it asks which set of pronouns a user prefers among three options: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. As a result, there are two important ways that Facebook’s reconsideration of its gender classification system goes beyond the listing of additional gender categories. The first is the more obvious of the two: offering singular they as an option for those who prefer gender neutral reference forms. The other is simply the practice of asking for a pronoun preference rather than deriving it from gender or sex.
Sanctioning the use of singular they as a gender neutral pronoun counters the centuries-old grammarian’s complaint that they can only be used in reference to plural third person referents. Proponents of singular they, however, point out that the pronoun has been used by some of the English-speaking world’s finest writers and that it was in wide-spread use even before blatantly misogynistic language policies determined that he should be the gender-neutral pronoun in official texts of the British government. More recently, an additional source of support for singular they has arisen: for those who do not wish to be slotted into one side of the gender binary or the other, they is perhaps the most intuitive way to avoid gendered third-person pronouns because of its already familiar presence in most dialects of English. (Other options include innovative pronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/em’s.) In this case, a speaker must choose between upholding grammatical conventions and affirming someone’s identity.
But wait, you might ask – don’t we need a distinction between singular and plural they? How are we supposed to know when someone is talking about a single person and when they’re talking about a group? Though my post isn’t necessarily meant to defend the use of singular they in reference to specific individuals (an argumentothers have madequite extensively), this point is worth addressing briefly if only to dispel the notion that the standard pronoun system is logical while deviations are somehow logically flawed. As the pronoun charts included here illustrate, there is already a major gap in the standard English pronoun system when compared to many other languages: a distinction between singular and plural you. Somehow we get by, however, relying on context and sometimes asking for clarification. Could we do the same with they?
The second pronoun-related change Facebook has made – asking for preferred pronouns rather than determining them based on gender category – is a more fundamental challenge to the normative take on assigning pronouns. According to conventional wisdom, a speaker will select whether to use she or he based on certain types of information about the person being referred to: how their bodily sex is perceived, how they present their gender, and in some cases other contextual factors like their name. To be uncertain about which gendered pronoun to use can be a source of great anxiety, exemplified by cultural artifacts like Saturday Night Live’s androgynous character from the 1990s known only as Pat. No one ever asks Pat about their gender because to do so would presumably be a grave insult, as Pat apparently has no idea that they have an androgynous appearance (were you able to follow me, despite the singular they’s?).
But transgender and queer communities are increasingly turning this logic on its head. Rather than risk being “mis-pronouned,” as community members sometimes call it, it is becoming the norm for introductions in many trans and queer contexts to include pronouns preferences along with names. For instance, my name is Lal and I prefer he/him/his pronouns. (Even the custom of calling these “male” pronouns has been critiqued on the basis that one needn’t identify as male in order to prefer he/him/his pronouns.) The goal behind this move is to remove the tension of uncertainty and to avoid potential offense or embarrassment before it takes place. But this is not just a practice for transgender and gender non-conforming people; the ideal is that no one’s pronoun preferences be taken for granted. Instead of determining pronouns according to appearance, they become a matter of open negotiation in which one can demonstrate an interest in using language that feel maximally respectful to others.
Facebook’s adoption of this new approach to pronouns, despite prescriptive grammarians’ objections, suggests that the acceptance and use of singular they is expanding. More than that, it furthers the normalization of self-selected pronouns since even those who are totally unfamiliar with the use of singular they as a preferred pronoun, or the very idea of pronoun preferences, may be faced with unexpected pronouns in their daily newsfeeds.
For those of us at academic institutions with sizable transgender and gender non-conforming communities, the practices discussed here may already be underway on campus. During my time teaching at Reed College, for instance, I found students to be enthusiastic about including pronoun preferences in our beginning-of-semester introductions even in classes where everyone’s pronoun preferences aligned with normative expectations.
My goal here isn’t to argue that the gender binary is dissolving in the face of new pronoun practices. Indeed, linguistic negotiations of gender and sexual binaries are far too complex to draw such a simple conclusion. However, what I do want to suggest is that we are in the midst of some kind of shift in the way pronouns are used and understood among speakers of English. Describing a more fully complete change of this sort, linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein has explained how religious and political ideology among speakers of Early Modern English resulted in a collapse of the second person pronouns thou (singular, informal) and you (plural, formal). In the present case, rapidly changing ideologies about the gender binary may be pushing us toward a different organization of third person pronouns of the sort illustrated by the non-binary pronoun chart above.
The effect of Facebook on linguistic practice more broadly has yet to be fully uncovered, but its capital-driven flexibility and omnipresence in contemporary social life suggests that it may be a powerful tool in ideologically-driven language change.
The development of linguistics as a scientific discipline is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary thought, as it has led to the discovery of some fundamental principles about the functioning of language. However, most of its recent discoveries have not yet reached the general audience of educated people beyond the specialists. Scholars of classics, in particular, have found it difficult to become involved in the debate, since many recent studies in linguistics have been driven by the necessity to free themselves from the subordination to Latin grammar and have put into question the validity of certain aspects of traditional grammar.
As a consequence, progress made by contemporary linguistics has paradoxically had a negative rather than positive effect on the teaching of Latin. Although traditional grammars are now outdated, a suitable replacement has not yet been offered and a widespread scepticism has forced many to keep relying on old fashioned textbooks.
In order to overcome this undesirable state of affairs, it is desirable to bring Latin grammar back to its original high-level scientific conception, going beyond a prescriptive attitude and restoring the original theoretical tension. Although many branches of contemporary linguistics are potentially suited to fulfil this objective, none of them have been fully exploited in teaching yet. Their advantage over traditional approaches lies in their ability to satisfy the same needs as traditional analytical and philosophical Latin grammar, exploiting – at the same time – new methods, which are suitable to formulate more accurate analyses and theoretical generalizations.
Latin grammar should be presented as an activity which raises the linguistic awareness of its readers, using the most recent tools of modern linguistics. This should not be limited to the traditional Indo-European historical perspective, but includes the comparison of different languages and the attempt to represent the way in which grammar rules are codified in the mind.
The hypothesis is that there exists a language faculty underlying all languages, known as Universal Grammar (UG), i.e. a system of variable and invariable factors internalized in the speaker’s mind, which constitutes the basis of the grammar of each language. Understanding the contents of UG amounts to understanding those linguistic phenomena that are common to all languages. In this perspective, it is possible to develop a new method of teaching Latin, which aims at strengthening the cognitive skills of the learner’s mind. This method consists in overcoming the rigidity of a purely normative conception of grammatical rules, in order to make them explicit in a synchronic formal way and thus formulate hypotheses about the mental mechanisms that generate them. This method is an updated enhancement of the old conception of grammatical studies known as progymnasmata, i.e. “gymnastics of the mind,” which introduces the reader to the world of classical scholarship.
On the basis of some recent discoveries made by the neurosciences, it is possible to formulate grammatical rules that represent a better approximation of the implicit and explicit mental operations carried out by the language learner. The desired effect is the activation of the appropriate areas of the brain, i.e. the ones which are naturally devoted to the processing of linguistic information, thus rendering the process of language acquisition faster and more natural. Indeed, a vast number of recent studies have shown that language learning strongly relies on a constant and unconscious comparison between the second language (L2) and the learner’s mother tongue. By comparing linguistic phenomena across distinct languages and by interpreting the results with updated theoretical tools, we intend to underlie the deep similarities among languages rather than their superficial differences. This new teaching perspective represents a fundamental advantage for learners, who can focus their attention on the limits of linguistic variation, making their acquisitional task more feasible. In particular, by overtly reflecting on language and comparing L2 grammars to the structures of the mother tongue, the study of Latin becomes more stimulating and active.
Moreover, as students become aware of the difference between a “mistake”, as banned from the standard language, and linguistic “agrammaticality” (i.e. an option which is disallowed by the deep structure of the language), they become more critical and aware of the level of their written and oral performance in their mother tongue. From this perspective, it is clear that the study of Latin contributes to the overall linguistic education of learners, and not only to the training of those interested in classical studies. Students should no longer learn by heart the obscure rules of school grammars, often rooted on misconceptions, but they should instead explore the discoveries of centuries of classical scholarship in order to actively work out how languages function and change. In particular, they should focus their attention on the aspects of the targeted language they already know, before exploring the points of divergence from their mother tongue. Thanks to this revised methodology, the study of Latin loses any passive connotation and becomes an activity which enhances linguistic awareness, meta-linguistic competence, as well as critical thought.
It’s fairly common knowledge that languages, like people, have families. English, for instance, is a member of the Germanic family, with sister languages including Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages. Germanic, in turn, is a branch of a larger family, Indo-European, whose other members include the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, and more), Russian, Greek, and Persian.
Being part of a family of course means that you share a common ancestor. For the Romance languages, that mother language is Latin; with the spread and then fall of the Roman empire, Latin split into a number of distinct daughter languages. But what did the Germanic mother language look like? Here there’s a problem, because, although we know that language must have existed, we don’t have any direct record of it.
The earliest Old English written texts date from the 7th century AD, and the earliest Germanic text of any length is a 4th-century translation of the Bible into Gothic, a now-extinct Germanic language. Though impressively old, this text still dates from long after the breakup of the Germanic mother language into its daughters.
How does one go about recovering the features of a language that is dead and gone, and which has left no records of itself in spoken or written form? This is the subject matter of linguistic necromancy – or linguistic reconstruction, as it is more conventionally known.
The enterprise, dubbed “darkest of the dark arts” and “the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries” in the epigraph to a chapter of Campbell’s historical linguistics textbook, really got off the ground in the 1900s due to a development of a toolkit of techniques known as the comparative method.
Crucial to the comparative method was a revolutionary empirical finding: the regularity of sound change. Though it has wide-reaching implications, the basic finding is simple to grasp. In a nutshell: it’s sounds that change, not words, and when they change, all words which include those sounds are affected.
Let’s take an example. Lots of English words beginning with a p sound have a German counterpart that begins with pf. Here are some of them:
English path: German Pfad
English pepper: German Pfeffer
English pipe: German Pfeife
English pan: German Pfanne
English post: German Pfoste
If the forms of words simply changed at random, these systematic correspondences would be a miraculous coincidence. However, in the light of the regularity of sound change they make perfect sense. Specifically, at some point in the early history of German, the language sounded a lot more like (Old) English. But then the sound p underwent a change to pf at the beginning of words, and all words starting with p were affected.
There’s much more to be said about the regularity of sound change, since it underlies pretty much everything we know about language family groupings. (If you’re interested in finding out more, Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language provides an accessible summary.) But for now let’s concentrate on its implications for necromantic purposes, which are immense.
If we want to invoke the words and sounds of a long-dead language like the mother language Proto-Germanic (the ‘proto-’ indicates that the language is reconstructed, rather than directly evidenced in texts), we just need to figure out what changes have happened to the sounds of the daughter languages, and to peel them back one by one like the layers of an onion. Eventually we’ll reach a point where all the daughter languages sound the same; and voilà, we’ve conjured up a proto-language.
There’s more to living languages than just sounds and words though. Living languages have syntax: a structure, a skeleton. By contrast, reconstructed protolanguages tend to look more like ghosts: hauntingly amorphous clouds of words and sounds. There are practical reasons why the reconstruction of proto-syntax has lagged behind. One is simply that our understanding of syntax, in general, has come a long way since the work of the reconstruction pioneers in the 19th century.
Another is that there is nothing quite like the regularity of syntactic change in syntax: how can we tell which syntactic structures correspond to each other across languages? These problems have led some to be sceptical about the possibility of syntactic reconstruction, or at any rate about its fruitfulness. Nevertheless, progress is being made. To take one example, English is a language that doesn’t like to leave out the subject of a sentence. We say “He speaks Swahili” or “It is raining”, not “Speaks Swahili” or “Is raining”. Though most of the modern Germanic languages behave the same, many other languages, like Italian and Japanese, have no such requirement; speakers can include or omit the subject of the sentence as the fancy takes them. Was Proto-Germanic like English, or like Italian or Japanese, in this respect? Doing a bit of necromancy based on the earliest Germanic written records suggests that Proto-Germanic was, like the latter, quite happy to omit the subject, at least under certain circumstances.Of course the issue is more complex than that – Italian and Japanese themselves differ with regard to the circumstances under which subjects can be omitted.
Slowly but surely, though, historical linguists are starting to add skeletons to the reanimated spectres of proto-languages.
Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.
China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.
The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.
The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.
Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.
How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.
From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.
A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”
Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).
“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.
In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.
Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.
The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.
Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back and see which words have been significant throughout the past twelve months, and to announce the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Without further ado, we can exclusively reveal that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014 is…
As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vape has grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.
Usage of vape peaked in April 2014 — as the graph below indicates — around the time that the UK’s first ‘vape café’ (The Vape Lab in Shoreditch, London) opened its doors, and protests were held in response to New York City banning indoor vaping. In the same month, the issue of vaping was debated by The Washington Post, the BBC, and the British newspaper The Telegraph, amongst others.
The language of vaping
Vape is also the modifier for other nouns, creating new compound nouns which are growing in popularity. The most common of these are vape pen and vape shop, and there is also recent evidence for vape lounge, vape fluid, vape juice, and others. Related coinages include e-juice, cartos, and vaporium — as well as the retronymtobacco cigarette for traditional cigarettes. (A retronym is a new term created from an existing word in order to distinguish the original word from a later development — for example, acoustic guitar developing after the advent of the electric guitar.)
Vape before vaping
You may be surprised to learn that the word vaping existed before the phenomenon. Although e-cigarettes weren’t commercially available until the 21st century, a 1983 article in New Society entitled ‘Why do People Smoke?’ contains the first known usage of the term. The author, Rob Stepney, described what was then a hypothetical device:
“an inhaler or ‘non-combustible’ cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but…delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as vaping.)”
However, despite these early beginnings, Oxford Dictionaries research shows that it wasn’t until 2009 that this sense of vape (and vaping) started to appear regularly in mainstream sources.
Here are the words that came close, but didn’t quite make it as Word of the Year:
bae n.used as a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner.
budtender n.a person whose job is to serve customers in a cannabis dispensary or shop.
contactlessadj.relating to or involving technologies that allow a smart card, mobile phone, etc. to contact wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.
indyref, n. an abbreviation of ‘independence referendum’, in reference to the referendum on Scottish independence, held in Scotland on 18 September 2014, in which voters were asked to answer yes or no to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’
normcore n.a trend in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate fashion statement.
slacktivism, n., informalactions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website; a blend of slacker and activism.