Yesterday, Benji Smith became the main character on Writer Twitter. It turns out that Mr. Smith has created a database of novels that he obtained through probably illegal means. Smith used this database in his Prosecraft project, which published statistics about each novel, such as its word count, the number of adverbs in each, and something called the “vividness” of the writing style (I’m not really sure what that means and Smith doesn’t provide a good definition). He was also using this database to promote his word processor program Shaxpir 4, which is why he’s almost certainly breaking the law.
But one of the other things that he claims to analyze is how many passive verbs are in the novels. And Smith has a very interesting (aka “bad”) definition of “passive voice”.
Content warning: This post is about harmful language and it contains words that are used to dehumanize people. Please take caution.
In April 2023, the Atlantic published a 2,500-word opinion piece complaining about language equity style guides. The attack on these guides is misleading, wrong, and harmful. It continually misrepresents the style guides. It shows a misunderstanding of the content and the point of them. It refuses to accept others and expresses contempt for anything that doesn’t fit the author’s narrow and outdated idea of language. And it gives fuel to the fascists in their culture war.
Is this dude about to mansplain mansplaining? Hoo boy. Here we go.
This is going to be a long post. I’ll go through each part of the article with my usual irreverence, but don’t be fooled. Thomas’s ideas about language are a real danger to women. So I’ll comment seriously on that as well. Let’s get to it.
tl;dr – Andrew Thomas is incredibly wrong about mansplaining. He cites no sources to back up his claim that men and women have different communication styles, except for one limited study from 40 years ago. Modern linguistic research disproves Thomas’s ideas, and in fact his ideas are about 50 years out of date. Mansplaining is one part of systematic discrimination that women face. Thomas tries to water down the meaning of mansplaining. Thomas’s ideas are dangerous because they will be used to silence and exclude women in society.
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/
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.