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:

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.

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.

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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.


Issue #2 of The Black Monday Murders by Jonathan Hickman (w), Tomm Coker (a), Michael Garland (c), Rus Wooten (l).

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.

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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.

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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.

Barry Allen using a phrasal genitive on The Flash s07e18

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: Have You Eaten Grandma? By Gyles Brandreth

Have You Eaten Grandma? is another entry in the list of books that claim to be about grammar, but are mostly about punctuation and spelling. It’s written by Gyles Brandreth, who, like others that write these kinds of books, claims to love language but spends his whole book proving that he actually hates it.

I’m going to start off with good stuff in this book. Then we’ll move on to the meh stuff and end with the garbage fire material.

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HAWKEYE and prepositions

I was re-reading the HAWKEYE book by Matt Fraction and David Aja and wouldn’t you know it, in issue #3 there is some dialogue relevant to this blog. The character Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) scolds the character Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye… don’t ask) for dangling a preposition. Check it out:

HAWKEYE #3 (2012) by Matt Fraction (w), David Aja (a), Matt Hollingsworth (c) & Chris Eliopolous (l)

But wait a minute! Is that really a preposition? Haykeye Barton is talking about the word “to” at the end of Hawkeye Bishop’s sentence:

‘Cause I’m about to.

So is that a preposition? It depends on who you ask.

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Some strange language claims in Kaplan’s book on monsters

Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is about the science behind monsters, or how we can trace the origins of some of our most classic horrible creatures. The book does a good job in that regard, but it also makes some interesting claims about language. One of these seems to be a simple slip up, while a second follows some unfortunate tropes of describing languages that aren’t in the Germanic or Romance families. The third one is a side note about a claim made by Carl Sagan and it’s very interesting. Let’s look at these in turn.

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Is you guys really a gender-neutral term?

Recently, a colleague pointed me to this 2018 article by Grace Jennings-Edquist on the word guys. The article discusses whether guys is gender-neutral these days, especially in regard to using it at the workplace. This topic is something that’s been on my mind for a while since you guys is the second-person plural pronoun where I come from. I’ve been actively trying to use other terms when addressing my classes – and not just because most of my students are women.

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Language achievement: UNLOCKED!

TFW Merriam-Webster is writing about the same thing you wrote about:

It’s a discussion of no problem and other phatic expressions which are more informal than you’re welcome and also seem to imply that saying thank you was not necessary. M-W didn’t pick up on my predating of you’re welcome but that’s probably for the best. They’re the professionals, after all. Check the M-W article here.

In other news, this morning my 9-year-old texted “no problem” to me after I thanked him for something. Kids these days. Pssh.