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”
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”
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.
Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
Dreyer’s English is not a style guide like the MLA or Chicago Manual. It’s more in the vein of the Elements of Style and Gwynne’s Grammar. Unlike those books, however, Dreyer’s English is fun to read and (for the most part) correct in its language proclamations. One of the reasons this book is good is because Dreyer knows what a style guide is and what it should be. He explains in this quote:
This book, then, is the next conversation. It’s my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.
Or perhaps you’re simply interested in what one more person has to say about the series comma.
Let’s get started.
No. Wait. Before we get started:
The reason this book is not called The Last Style Manual You’ll Ever Need, or something equally ghastly, is because it’s not. No single stylebook can ever tell you everything you want to know about writing – no two stylebooks, I might add, can ever agree on everything you want to know about writing […] (p. xvii)
Sounds good to me. This passage also gives you an idea of Dreyer’s writing style, the conversational nature of it. I’ve broken this review up into the Good, the Bad and the Other. This may seem like there are three equal parts, but really there’s much more good in this book than anything else.Continue reading “Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer”
The sociolinguistics of speaking Spanish in America
Here’s a good article on the politics of language in America today. The article talks about how Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro does not speak Spanish fluently. They make an excellent point of what this can mean to people:
The matter has become something of a litmus test from reporters whom Castro says ask him repeatedly why he doesn’t speak Spanish as though that were essential to being authentically Latino*.
The article also uses the word fluent a couple of times in the beginning, but then makes a good point about how this idea is a misnomer:
Proficiency in Spanish, and in any language, is more of a continuum than a box you can check, said Belem López, an assistant professor in the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“People have these constrained ideas that you have to speak English perfectly and Spanish perfectly,” López said, “but really that doesn’t exist.”
And, of course, there are different standards for different people:
Latinos are expected to speak impeccable Spanish, while non-Latinos are showered in praise for speaking imperfect Spanish. When white Americans learn Spanish, “it’s seen as enrichment,” a sign of high social status and education, Tseng said. In part, Tseng added, this is because their “American-ness” is never up for question.
“If Tim Kaine goes out on the street and speaks Spanish, no one is going to shout at him, ‘Speak English, we’re in America!’ ” Tseng said.
But it ain’t all bad. Many Latino parents who did not learn to speak Spanish as a first language at home are encouraging their children to learn the language. And despite the ridicule that people have had to face for daring to speak a language other than English in the US, it seems the Latino community considers it important for future generations to know Spanish.
Guess what? It’s going to be important for non-Latino people too.
Check out the rest of the article here: https://wapo.st/2JNt5LU.
* The WaPo uses Latino throughout the article, which is why I’m using the word here instead of Latinx, the gender-neutral form of the word. If you want to know more about Latinx, see Merriam-Webster, Wikipedia and the Huffington Post.
Strange etymologies are afoot at Psychology Today
Last week I was on the twitters talking about “untranslatable” words. The idea was about Dr. Tim Lomas’ work on “untranslatable words,” or his term for how some languages have words that don’t have exact equivalents in other languages (but usually English). Right around the same time I posted my blog post, Lomas wrote an article in Psychology Today. Let’s have a look at it. If you want to see my thoughts on “untranslatable” words, go see my post on it and then come back.
Lomas claims that many concepts are non-English in origin. What this means is that the words used to describe these concepts are from other languages. I think this is opening a whole can of worms, but I’m willing to go with the idea that concepts can be “from another language”. For a bit. Let’s move on.
To prove his point, Lomas analyzes an article on positive psychology by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000). He looks for the etymology of every word in the text.
According to Lomas, there are:
1333 distinct lexemes
‘Native’ English words – belonging either to the Germanic language from which English emerged, or originating as neologisms in English itself – comprise only 39.4% of the sample (and 38% of the psychological words). Thus, over 60% of the general words (and 62% of psychological words) are loanwords, borrowed from other languages at some point in the development of English.
First, Lomas has a strange definition for “‘native’ English words”. Which “Germanic language” does he mean? Proto-Germanic? One of the other West Germanic languages? Old English? It’s also strange because Lomas’ definition means that these words are not native English words: they, table, blue, and orange. [Britney Spears gif says “huh?!” Oprah gif says “hrmmm?!”]
Lomas also doesn’t say exactly how he counted the words in the C&S article. He says that there are 1,333 “distinct lexemes”. The term lexeme is used in linguistics to talk about all the inflected forms of a word: singular and plural forms for nouns, present and past tense forms for verbs, etc. So runner and runners would be a part of the same lexeme RUNNER, and run, runs, ran, running are a part of RUN. Lexemes are also sometimes called “lemmas” in linguistics.
If Lomas really went through every single word in the article, then he spent a whole lotta time on this. The C&S article is 8,124 words long (not including the References section). He doesn’t say how he did the work, but I used some corpus linguistics methods and got different results. I checked the C&S article against the Someya lemma list in AntConc and found 1,750 lemmas, or 417 more lexemes than Lomas found. This is a large difference and I’m not sure how to explain it. Maybe Lomas didn’t divide his words based on parts of speech? So he counted ran and runner as part of the same lexeme? I don’t know.
Second, let’s look at counting the words in language. Lomas seems to do a straight count. That means one instance of one form of a lexeme is equal to all the other instances. For Lomas, it doesn’t matter how many times a word occurs. In corpus linguistics, however, frequency is a big deal. I’m not going to go through the theoretical points here, but basically if a word is more frequent then it is more important or worthy of being looked at (hehe, fight me, corpus linguists).
So, Lomas claims that only 39% of the lexemes in the article are “native English words”. I took the lexemes in the article and ranked them based on frequency (using AntConc). Then I went through the 100 most frequent lexemes on the list and looked at their etymology. My numbers look much different than Lomas’. I found that 85% of the 100 most frequent lexemes are English in origin. That is, the 100 most frequent lexemes occur a total of 4,440 times in the article (so the lexeme the occurs 442 times, the lexeme of occurs 308 times, the lexeme BE occurs 300 times, and so on) and of these occurrences, 3,767 are English words. This isn’t particularly intriguing – you’ll probably find a similar percentage with any text in English. [See the bottom of this post for my data.]
Looking at this from another angle, we could treat each of the 100 most frequent lexemes as equal – forgetting about how often they occur. Then we find that 70 of them are English, while 30 of them come from another language. This is closer to Lomas’ numbers, but still pretty far off: 70 of the 100 most common lexemes in the article are still English words.
Of course, words in language do not really occur in the way that we’re looking at them. The most common word is the with 442 instances, but the first 442 words of the article are not all the. The word the is sprinkled around the article (you know, where the grammar of English calls for it). I’m not sure how to get to Lomas’ numbers. We could assume that every lexeme outside the 100 most frequent were non-English, but that only gets us down to 46% of the words in the article as being English lexemes. Lomas’ ratio was 40% English to 60% non-English.
Later in the article, Lomas says that 234 words were treated as English in origin in his analysis. But this means that only 17% of the words in his counting are English in origin (234/1,333=0.17). What’s going on here? If 39.4% of the lexemes in the article are English in origin, and there are 1,333 total lexemes in the article (according to Lomas), then there should be 525 English words. Where he gets 234, I don’t know. Let’s move on.
Lomas’ includes two graphs to visualize his findings but they’re pretty weird. The graph below “shows the influx of words according to the language of origin (with the century in which they entered English as stacks within them)”. Look at the third column.
English words entered English? I don’t get it. Or Germanic words from before the 12th century are not English words? What’s going on here? I guess in Lomas’ counting, Germanic and English lexemes are English lexemes, but then he splits them up in the graph? Are the words me, myself and I not English words? It seems very strange to me to cut things up like this and I would like to see his list of etymologies, or his rationale for doing so.
Agree to disagree?
But there are places that I can agree with Lomas. At the end of the article, he writes:
In these ways does our understanding of life become complexified and enriched. In that respect, one can make the case that English-speaking psychology would do well to more consciously and actively engage with other languages and cultures. Its understanding of the mind has benefited greatly from English incorporating loanwords over the centuries. If one accepts that premise, it follows that psychology would continue to develop from this kind of cross-cultural engagement and borrowing – including, of course, through collaboration with scholars from non-English speaking cultures themselves. One such way in which the field might develop is through inquiring into untranslatable words, since these constitute clear candidates for borrowing (given that they lack an exact equivalent in English). I myself have sought to promote this kind of endeavor, with my ongoing creation of a cross-cultural lexicography of untranslatable words relating to well-being.
I definitely agree with the first part of this. We should engage with speakers of other languages and people from other cultures (although Lomas’ wording seems to present all English speakers as a monolithic culture). I find it hard for anyone to not accept the premise that English (not just “English-speaking psychology”) has benefited greatly from incorporating loanwords. That’s kind of just a fact of language – borrowing words is one of the things that living languages do and so English is still a living language partly for this reason. But I totally agree that people should collaborate with people from different cultures (although again, Lomas’ wording blurs the distinction between language and culture too much for me and again presents English speakers as one culture).
When Lomas goes into the sales pitch in the second to last sentence, I can’t sign on, particularly based on what I’ve seen of his research into “untranslatable” words (in my last post and in this one and in a later one to come).
Lomas’ claims are true – we should reach out to people who speak other languages. But he should perhaps recognize that the reason that English has so many words from Latin and Ancient Greek is because these were once prestigious languages (and to a large extent still are in academia). It wasn’t because the Latin-speaking or Greek-speaking cultures had anything more special than other cultures, but it was believed that by using these languages people would be more civilized. Of course, we know what happened to the Latin-speaking and (Ancient) Greek-speaking cultures. They dead.
But we in English-speaking cultures could just as easily have adapted Finnish words to use in the fields of psychology and linguistics, but Finnish was never considered a prestigious language. Or consider German: once German raised its standing, we got words from German to describe abstract concepts because the texts describing them were written in German and people were supposed to know German to engage in the debate.
There’s more to say about all this and I’ll be back at cha with a later post. I’ll link to it when I write it.
Spreadsheet with my analysis. The first sheet is the Someya lemma list analysis. I counted words from Anglo-Norman as not being English. I’m including the 3rd person plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) as being English. Illness counts as English. The second sheet uses AntConc’s Word List tool, so it’s not a lexeme/lemma analysis, it treats every “word” as separate (that is, was, am, and is are separate words, not part of the lexeme BE).
Link to download the C&S article as a plain text file (.txt) which was used with AntConc in the analysis. The References section is excluded. And here’s a link to download a POS-tagged version of the article (using CLAWS7).
Direct object or prepositional object?
This sentence is in the exercises for one of my grammar classes:
My wife always has a good cry over a wedding.
For the assignment, students need to analyze the syntactic elements of the sentence (subject, predicator, objects, etc.). The answer key has Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Locative complement(over a wedding). But recently a student analyzed the last clause (over a wedding) as a prepositional object. This got me interested. It turns out the answer key is wrong (maybe you already knew that), but the student might be right. Here’s why. Continue reading “Direct object or prepositional object?”
Who cares about Latin plurals?
Apparently a lot of people do. You know this. You’ve probably heard something along the lines of what is said in the following tweet:
Mike Pope had a nice response:
But this got me thinking: It’s a bit of slippery slope to say that we have to follow the pluralization rules for Latin with (some) Latin words. Why stop with Latin? English has taken words from other languages as well. And why stop at pluralization? Latin has endings for when a word was used as a subject or object (if my rudimentary Latin is correct). So why not bring those along too? I wrote a joking response to point this out:
As fate would have it, James Harbeck published an article on this very topic on the very same day that these tweets appeared. And Mike Pope published a similar blog post a while ago. I’m not going to restate what they say – you should go read their posts. Instead, I’d like to second what Dr Sarah Shulist responded with and add to it:
The reason that we are told to follow the Latin’s pluralization methods for words from Latin is because Latin has long been held in high prestige by educators and others who wield power in society and language learning. That’s it. If Finnish was held in as high regard as Latin, then we would have people saying it’s incorrect to use saunas because the plural form in Finnish is saunat. But Finnish is not held in the same regard as Latin. Same goes for almost every other language.
But when you think about it, requiring people to use Latin plurals is actually pretty… lazy. We’re talking about noun morphology and in English there are really only a few things we can do to words that are nouns. I know I’m oversimplifying things here, but stay with me. We can:
- make nouns plural (hero >> heroes)
- add a genitive marker (hero >> hero’s)
- add prefixes and suffixes (superhero, heroism, etc.)
Is anyone arguing for applying the Latin genitive to words from Latin? Of course not. Because the prescription that you must use Latin plurals with words from Latin isn’t about grammar at all. It’s about language policing and linguistic discrimination. It’s about putting other people down for following English grammar instead of Latin grammar WHEN THEY’RE SPEAKING ENGLISH. And like most forms of discrimination, it’s lazy thinking. It is only one aspect of noun morphology applied to only some words from pretty much only one language.
To be clear: I’m not saying that it’s discriminatory to use a word from another language and not follow the morphology of that language. It’s kind of the opposite of that. To say that people must follow the pluralization morphology of Latin when they use a word from Latin is classist. When people are speaking English, there is nothing wrong with them using plain old English morphology to pluralize nouns. And, yes, that holds for words from Latin too. It’s possible that people don’t realize that they’re practicing linguistic discrimination when they play the pedant card with words from Latin, but that’s not an excuse. Maybe next time point out that the hill they are dying on isn’t so much a mighty mountain as it is a puny pismire hill.
Anyway, by far the most pragmatic reply was from Marie Georghiou:
Dialect Surveys of American English and World Englishes
In my review of Joshua Katz’s book Speaking American, I mentioned that a new dialect survey was up. Much of the data in Katz’s book was drawn from an online dialect survey done by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Here’s Ben Zimmer giving credit where credit’s due.
Vaux is now conducting the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes with Marius L. Jøhndal. If you’re interested in world Englishes, head on over to that site, where you can also see the results without taking the survey.
Vaux also has a new survey of American English dialects available at https://www.dialectsofenglish.com/. The survey takes about 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you choose to answer and how long you spend looking at the heat maps it shows you. There are some very fun questions in there.
This ain’t your family member’s thing
I know of the phrase This ain’t your [family member]’s X, but I’m not sure where it came from and who the family member should be. Your grandma? Your daddy? Your granddaddy? I decided to do a quick Duck Duck Go search on some of these that sounded natural. Take what you will from the search results.
“this ain’t your daddy’s”
this ain’t your daddy’s big band
this ain’t your daddy’s Eagles
this ain’t your daddy’s !Q
these ain’t your daddy’s “This ain’t your daddy’s” jokes
“this ain’t your mama’s”
this ain’t your mama’s peach pie recipe
this ain’t your mama (church)’s church
this ain’t your mama’s recipe
“this ain’t your grandma’s”
this ain’t your grandma’s artwork
this ain’t your grandma’s ‘dick’
this ain’t your grandma’s teddy bear
this ain’t your grandma’s postum
this ain’t your grandma’s soap anymore – or is it?
this ain’t your grandma’s bingo
this ain’t your grandma’s SETI
“this ain’t your grandpa’s”
this ain’t your grandpa’s AR-15
this ain’t your grandpa’s DHEA
this ain’t your grandpa’s ceramic bong
this ain’t your grandpa’s laptop
this ain’t your grandpa’s AKIDO
this ain’t your grandpa’s sex toy
If anyone knows where this phrase comes from, please leave a comment below. The OED has an example of it from 2000 under the entry for hot-rodding (“This ain’t your granddad’s classic car book.”), but it must be older than that. COHA has hits for “this ain’t your”, but none followed by a word for a family member. Google Ngrams is no help (surprise!). Each of my searches used a parent or grandparent, so I guess the family member referred to has to be one that is necessarily older in order for the phrase to sound natural. But I bet variations could be used depending on what the “thing” is – “This ain’t your kid’s cartoon” could be used for animated shows and movies that are aimed strictly at adults, such as Big Mouth and Sausage Party. But what sounds natural to you?