On May 15, Janne Saarikivi published a turd of an opinion column in YLE (Finland’s national broadcasting company). The article is a prime example of nationalistic fearmongering. It has the appearance of being well-thought out and reasoned, like the contemplations of a reflective scholar, but a peek under the hood shows that it’s just repackaged right-wing ideas. The problem is that Saarikivi’s article is likely to convince readers who do not have any knowledge about his topics. And that’s a lot of people. So strap on your Nokia boots and let’s wade through this bullshit swamp.Continue reading “Janne Saarikivi’s Fascism Lite, or how to fearmonger with statistics”
Grambank linguistic database
There’s a new linguistic database in town! [Duffman voice: Oooooh, yeah!]
It’s called Grambank and according to its website it was “designed to be used to investigate the global distribution of features, language universals, functional dependencies, language prehistory and interactions between language, cognition, culture and environment.” Sounds great!
I haven’t had too much time to check it out yet, but the interface is similar to WALS, so if you’re familiar with that, you should be able to jump right in. And Grambank is open-access so you can indeed jump right in!
Grambank has 2,467 languages (from 215 different families) and it has info on 195 linguistic features. You can read more about it on its website here: https://grambank.clld.org/
There is one very important finding already out of the research: language diversity in the world is at great risk. Hedvig Skirgård and Simon Greenhill, two of the researchers that created Grambank, have an article in the Conversation in which they warn:
some regions of the world such as South America and Australia are expected to lose all of their indigenous linguistic diversity, because all of the indigenous languages there are threatened
This is worrying. Language is closely connected to people’s lives and so language loss means a loss in the health and well-being of people.
Skirgård and Greenhill give more details on the situation in their piece, including a call to action:
Without sustained support for language revitalisation, many people will be harmed and our shared linguistic window into human history, cognition and culture will become seriously fragmented.
There are projects dedicated to language protection and revitalization. You don’t have to be a linguist to join one of these organizations and help out. Wikipedia has a list of some of these groups, but you could also check with your local authorities.
Some of Noah Webster’s spelling changes haven’t happened yet!
If you learn about attempts at spelling reform in English, you’re bound to come across Noah Webster’s suggestions. Webster is considered the grandfather of American English since he had such a profound influence on it in the early days. His Blue-backed speller (basically a school grammar book) went through 385 editions and sold 60 million copies. Holy cow! And his dictionary? Well, that old thing is still being updated and it still has his name on it.
Some of Webster’s spelling reforms stuck. He’s the reason US English doesn’t spell honor, color or neighbor with a u. But others not so much. He suggested spelling women as wimmin. I’m sure he meant well, but try saying that out loud and not sounding like a person who definitely doesn’t like women. He suggested korus for chorus and dawter for daughter. You can see the idea behind these suggestions – they simplify the relationship between sound and spelling. The only reason they look wrong or strange to us is because they didn’t catch on. We learned that daughter was spelled with “augh” instead of “aw” and so everything else looks rong (or “wrong”).
And that brings us to another one of Webster’s suggestions that didn’t catch on… or didn’t catch on yet! In a similar fashion to korus and dawter and honor and color, Webster suggested that we spell machine as masheen. Looks fine to me! But of course, we all know that no one spells it that way. And that’s because we’re still in the first century of the millennium. We’re going to have to wait another 500 years for the spelling of machine to change to masheen.
Because that’s exactly how it’s spelled in the movie Idiocracy. (Spoiler alert for a movie that came out over 15 years ago.) The plot takes place in the year 2505. At the end of the movie, the protagonist is taken to a theme park ride called the “Time Masheen”:
I’m sure the director Mike Judge was having fun here – or maybe he’s a lexicography buff and he was tipping his hat to ol’ Noah. I know that this spelling of masheen is supposed to show how stupid people have become in the future, but spelling reform is actually a good idea. Some argue that spelling reform will have to happen sooner or later in English, especially as we get further away from the current spelling of words due to sound shifts, so why not now? And there’s the fact that our antiquated spelling system makes learning unnecessarily difficult. But there are other problems associated with spelling reform, such as choosing which variety of English to base the spelling on when there are so many different varieties. Food for thought.
Check out some more of Webster’s suggestions in an article by Arika Okrent for The Week. Merriam-Webster has a post about other spelling reforms that never caught on (including masheen). And the podcast Word Matters, which is hosted by editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, has an episode where they discuss the history of Noah Webster’s monumental work on his dictionary. In that episode they talk about exactly why masheen never caught on – hint: Noah was bamboozled by his editors!
How NOT to talk about language change
A New York Times article from 1977 article rolled across my screen recently (courtesy of Mark Harris). It concerns language change and boy is it a doozy. The article asked members of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel to give their comments on some recent developments in English. Let’s take a look.Continue reading “How NOT to talk about language change”
The meaning of “Would you rather have unlimited bacon but no more video games or games, unlimited games, but no more games?”
I was recently asked about the meaning of the phrase
Would you rather have unlimited bacon but no more video games or games, unlimited games, but no more games?
On first glance, this phrase may not seem to work (and it kind of doesn’t – more on that below), but it gets used around the internet and people understand it. So that means it does work. What gives?Continue reading “The meaning of “Would you rather have unlimited bacon but no more video games or games, unlimited games, but no more games?””
Big language claim in Hickman’s Black Monday Murders
I came across an interesting line about language in Jonathan Hickman’s comic The Black Monday Murders.
If you ask any competent linguist what’s the most spoken language on Earth, they will tell you – with some assurance – it is Mandarin, and they would be wrong.
Since we first learned to grunt, man has possessed a universal language, and it remains a language everyone on the planet still speaks.
The character who says this is a professor, although I’m not sure of what subject. History, maybe? The professor is right and wrong with his assessment of the most spoken language on Earth. But there are a few things that make it hard to be so clear cut with such a statement.Continue reading “Big language claim in Hickman’s Black Monday Murders”
Watch your grammar, young padawan
(Or something more Star Wars-y. Sorry, I’m a different kind of nerd.)
You have to be careful out there with posts on the interwebs about grammar. Case in point: this Medium post that showed up when we were doing a search in class. It ties in to some of my recent posts. The post is called “Yes, Yoda’s Grammar is Technically Correct” and overall it’s correct. Yoda’s grammar is fine (if a bit stilted). The grammar in this post though… not so much.Continue reading “Watch your grammar, young padawan”
Google doesn’t know what a Direct Object is
After my recent discovery that a whole ton of sites online don’t know what a Subject is, I couldn’t resist looking at their idea of what a Direct Object is. Surprise! They get that one wrong too. And for almost exactly the same reasons. Womp womp. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.
So if grammar is something that interests you and if actually want to be right about it, read on to learn what a Direct Object is – and also what it is not.Continue reading “Google doesn’t know what a Direct Object is”
Adding ‘s to a pronoun
In the episode 18 of the seventh season of the tv show The Flash, the main character said a very interesting thing:
That’s future us’s problem.
This line is said by the main character on the show, Barry Allen, who is also the superhero The Flash (played by Grant Gustin). It caught my eye right away because I wrote about something similar a couple of years ago. In that article, I discussed the genitive ’s being added onto prepositions at the end of a noun phrase, such as “The woman who I was just talking to’s mother is a famous author.”’ Microsoft Word doesn’t like it, but me and my students found some examples of it in movies, TV and online language use.
What’s happening here is that the genitive is being tacked onto a pronoun. That’s wild. I don’t know if this was in the script, but it seems like it could have been. I mean, this doesn’t seem like a line to improv, but I’m not an actor. This show has been on for 7 seasons, so maybe the actors are able to just wing it. Either way, I love this show even more now 😊
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) discusses the genitive ’s being put on pronouns (in Ch. 5, §16.6). They call it a phrasal genitive and they give some other examples:
- the man opposite me’s facial expression
- a friend of mine’s father
CGEL also says that these phrases show double case marking. In the example from The Flash, there is inner case marking on the pronoun us and outer case marking shown by ’s. Pronouns are the only part of speech that can show internal case marking in English.
In Brinton’s The Structure of Modern English, we get a little bit of history about what’s going on here. Brinton says:
Historically, this has not always been so: prior to the sixteenth century, such phrases had internal modification in the possessive, as in kings crown of England (=‘king of England’s crown’), which has the possessive ending –s on king. Then it became possible to add the possessive ending to an entire phrase, a construction called the “group genitive”. What precedes the possessive ending need not be a single-word compound but can be a phrase, as in my neighbor next door’s dog, or even a clause, as in a woman I know’s niece.
The line could be phrased in standardized English as something like “That’s a problem for us (to deal with) in the future”. But the phrasal genitive makes total sense, especially in a show that deals with time travel a lot. The characters are constantly running into their future or past selves.
Patrick Stewart on his Yorkshire speech
NPR recently re-aired their interview with Sir Patrick Stewart and he makes some comments about language. These reminded me of some comments he made when he was on “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Both of these are about Stewart’s regional variety (aka dialect or accent). So let’s hear Professor Jean-Luc X. Picard in his own words!Continue reading “Patrick Stewart on his Yorkshire speech”