Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions

So the New York Times has another opinion piece about language and (surprise!) it’s a stinker. Not as bad as it could’ve been, but still not good. Let’s take a walk through it, shall we?

The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.

What is “near-perfect English”? English that this writer can understand? This is a shot across the bow at Europeans – some of them may sometimes speak as good as moi, but usually their language would best be described as “serviceable”. It’s also a slight to linguists, or the group of people who study language for a living and would never describe instances of it as “near-perfect”. I think we’re in for a ride full of hot takes. Continue reading “Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions”

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Book review: The Happiness Dictionary by Dr. Tim Lomas

This post sort of continues on from my earlier post about “untranslatable” words.

The Happiness Dictionary (2018, Piatkus) by Tim Lomas is a book which has good intentions, but it makes some startling and incorrect claims about language. My main contentions with Lomas’ claims are:

  1. He plays fast and loose with semantics. Describing the meaning of a word with other words does not give the meaning of that word, but Lomas seems to claim it does.
  2. You can’t check his sources because they’re not there.
  3. He misrepresents some linguistic terms.
  4. He uses research on one language to make claims about a family of unrelated languages.
  5. He fails to see the logical conclusions of his claims about language.

Continue reading “Book review: The Happiness Dictionary by Dr. Tim Lomas”

Tom Freeman on Lionel Shriver on semantic drift

Over on the Stroppy Editor blog, Tom Freeman has written a response to Lionel Shriver’s article in Harper’s complaining about semantic drift. You should go check Freeman’s article out here.

I want to point out two especially great part’s in Freeman’s post. First, Freeman starts his post by boiling down what these language complaints are really about:

The remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.

Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.

I tell my students something similar. The people who complain about language change are often the same people who are no longer in their 30s with their lives ahead of them. They’re in their 50s or 60s now and they’re recognizing that they are being replaced whether they like it or not. Life in your 20s and 30s seems great – you don’t have as many responsibilities, you still have your youth – of course the world and everything in it should stay the same, including the language rules that you learned. But it doesn’t. You get older. The world changes. And language changes. How dare they?

Freeman also gives the idea that dictionaries should be thought of as guidebooks, not gospels:

For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.

The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.

That’s a very good point. Go read the rest of Freeman’s article here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/how-do-you-cope-when-everyones-usage-is-wrong/

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.

The Y’all-Star Movement and the politics of y’all

There was a recent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast (ok, not so recent, but I’m getting caught up) where they talk about y’all. Not y’all reading this, but the use of the pronoun y’all. The episode featured journalist Brendan O’Connor, who asked what hosts Tarence Ray and Tom Sexton thought of the word. Specifically, O’Connor wanted to know what the hosts thought of his use of the word since it was not part of his dialect growing up, whereas it was for both of the hosts (who are from Kentucky and Texas). O’Connor feels that the word is great because it’s gender-neutral, it rolls off the tongue and it’s fun to say. The hosts agree.

In this discussion, however, co-host Tom Sexton lays down some sociolinguistics about the word y’all:

What I’m saying is, yeah, you’re right: I think in terms of gender neutrality and all that stuff, [y’all is] good. There’s a phenomenon in this sort of, like – you know, me and Tarence refer to it as the Y’all-Star Movement, but it’s sort of this, like, this New South thing where all these James Beard Award-winning restaurants that pay their dishwashers $2 an hour and, you know, they’re reviving the cuisine of the Geechee peoples of South Carolina that were brought here to work the rice and sugar cane fields and all this shit. And those people do something I call the Gratuitous Y’all, where they’ll just try to inject it as much as they can in a sentence. And it just sounds so jarring to me. Like, to me a good y’all should be like the intrusive R that English people use – it just helps the sentence flow better, you know?

After that, Tarence discusses how some people naturally use it, but there are people and businesses in the US South that try to use it to sound more authentically southern. And when they do, it comes off as the opposite – like they’re trying to be something they’re not. It seems obvious that the spread of y’all is (or would be) a bottom-up change, but I’ve never thought about that politics of bottom-up linguistic changes in this way. That is, the upper classes are being immediately recognized and critiqued for adopting y’all into their planned/edited language (their marketing, etc.) – at least by some of the people who use y’all spontaneously.

Check out the discussion of y’all at minute 1:11:06 here: https://soundcloud.com/user-972848621-463073718/episode-81-rich-people-are-deeply-diseased-w-special-guest-brendan-oconnor#t=1:11:06.

Dictionary.com on the word “mistress”

I’ve been harsh on Dictionary.com’s blog in the past, but they’re stepping up their game over there. For example, they have a post about how the word mistress is sexist. There’s no real equivalent for the man in an affair and the use of the word makes the woman in the affair seem immoral and the one to blame. The post cites others talking about the word and how journalists should probably stop using it (or be very careful when they do), and it quotes the AP Stylebook as saying that, instead of mistress, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred.”

But the post is also great because it discusses other words “used to describe women, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships, that don’t have a male equivalent,” such as spinster, tramp, housewife, and bitch. You should go give it a read. Follow the links in the article for more discussion. And think about how language can reflect culture – it’s not a surprise that the words used to describe women have more negative connotations than the ones used to describe men. People are and have been sexist. Time to change that nonsense.

Check it: https://www.dictionary.com/e/mistress-and-other-words-that-have-no-male-counterpart/

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 wordsbelonging either to the Germanic language from which English emerged, or originating as neologisms in English itselfcomprise 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.

Lomas_PT_graph_1

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.

 

Data

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).