Call them what they want

There was an op-ed by Abigail Shrier in the Wall Street Journal (it’s paywalled, but no need to click, I’ve copied the relevant bits below) on August 29, 2018. It’s about what a terrible thing it is to make public employees use the preferred pronouns of the public individuals that they are serving. Basically, it’s about how people should be able to call others “he” or “she” even if the person that they are talking to prefers a different pronoun, such as “they”.

I only want to point out two problems with this person’s argument. First, the writer says:

Typically, in America, when groups disagree, we leave them to employ the vocabularies that reflect their values. My “affirmative action” is your “racial preferences.” One person’s “fetus” is another’s “baby boy.” This is as it should be; an entire worldview is packed into the word “fetus.” Another is contained in the reference to one person as “them” or “they.” For those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation, denial of this involves sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square. When the state compels such denial among religious people, it clobbers the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, lending government power to a contemporary variant on forced conversion.

But that’s not how it works. If you work for the government and you want to use slurs to refer to people, too bad. You can’t do that. I’m sure Richard Spencer (the head racist du jour) or David Duke (your parents’ racist du jour) would argue that it is part of their “worldview” to call black and brown and gay people all the horrible things that they call them. But fuck that nonsense. We don’t let them use the words that they want. We shun them for it. And if they work for the government, we penalize them for it (yeah, I know, things are pretty bad right now, but if you’re arguing that the racists currently in the US government should be allowed to keep on being racist, then you’re wrong).

Second, the writer backs up a linguistic argument* by referencing Locke. Philip Locke, you ask? The linguist who wrote University Grammar: A University Course? Haha. No. John Locke, the [checks notes] philosopher from the [checks notes again] 17th century. I wonder if anything has changed in linguistics since then. Guess not!

Here’s what it boils down to: you don’t get to call anyone anything you want without any repercussions. Sorry! (not sorry) Can’t bring yourself to use a person’s preferred pronoun because of your bigoted worldview? Change your worldview. Or just call them by their name FFS. This isn’t that difficult and you don’t need to write an op-ed about it, Abigail.

Ok, one final point. The writer says:

In most contexts, I would have no problem addressing others in any manner they chose.

That sounds an awful lot like “I’m not a racist, but…”

 

*Sure, the argument is about culture and worldviews and society – but wrapped up in all of that is language. And the article is specifically about words.

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Reflections on ICS-2

I was at the 2nd International Conference on Sociolinguistics (ICS-2, Facebook & Twitter) last weekend. I enjoyed many of the talks there. Below are some thoughts on them, and just some other thoughts that came out of the weekend. Continue reading “Reflections on ICS-2”

There’s good articles out there

Here is an article that I meant to write about earlier, but it got pushed down my inbox and forgotten (you all email yourselves articles that you want to read later, right?). It’s a great article on linguistics. It’s short and sweet – about one seemingly simple linguistic topic – and the journalist talked to a linguist. Hooray!

The article is on the use of There’s before plurals, as in There’s three cars outside. According to (Standard) English grammar, that’s technically wrong. But as Prof. Andreaa Calude points out, everyone uses there’s before plurals*. And the phrase may be increasing. Prof. Calude also had this wonderful thing to say:

“We measure speech by the same yardstick as writing, even though speech is done differently and has a different function,” she said. “The grammar of speech is different to the grammar of writing.”

“We’re not clued up with what happens in speech. We think it must be bad because it’s not like writing, but that’s not the case.”

I love seeing that kind of stuff in a news article.

So it’s not all bad linguistics press out there. You’d think it was if you read enough of this blog, but I wanted to mention that there are good articles out there too. Go give their writers a click for their good work: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/102419351/theres-a-reason-were-bending-the-rules-on-speech-grammar

*Side note: the article says that what comes after there’s is the subject of the sentence. I know some grammars have described it like this, but I would argue that there is the real subject of the sentence and what comes after it is a displaced or notional subject, which then gets analyzed as the subject complement (also sometimes called the predicate nominative, I think). It’s a minor point. I’m sure most people reading the article were taught that there isn’t the subject in sentences that start with there is/was/are/were.

Michelle Wolf on Fresh Air speaking about her voice

Comedian Michelle Wolf was on NPR’s Fresh Air recently and the host, Terry Gross, asked her about her voice (at around 12:30 in this interview):

Let’s talk about your voice. I wasn’t sure how you’d sound as yourself, not on stage but just, like, talking to me. And I’d say your voice sounds, you know, sounds a little different when you’re just talking to me. Does your voice change on stage naturally? Do you emphasize certain qualities in it when you’re on stage?

I bring this up because things could have gone very bad at this moment… but they didn’t! I was bracing for some bad linguistics that thankfully never came. Wolf talks about how she wants to sound better in the interview because she respects Gross’s voice and Gross stresses that she thinks Wolf’s voice is fine and that her own voice changes when she tries to speak louder.

But this is interesting because the interview plays a clip of Wolf making jokes about people complaining about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly shrill voice. The term shrill is only applied to women and it’s some dog-whistling misogyny. As Gross and Wolf discuss in the interview, people’s voices change when they are speaking on stage – and that’s fine! Think about how Chris Rock speaks in his comedy specials. I don’t remember anyone ever asking him about his bombastic tone. Or how Jerry Seinfeld’s whining delivery (dare I say his “shrill tone”?) is endearing. No one sees that as a problem.

So it was nice to see the Fresh Air interview not go down a language-shaming rabbit hole. I wish more discussions between non-linguists on women’s voices were like this.

Fluency and linguistics in the news

There was some press recently about a new study which seems to claim that you can’t become fluent in a second language if you start learning it after age 10. In fact, the study* did not talk about fluency at all. As this article in the Conversation UK by Prof. Monika Schmid points out, the media misinterpreted what the study showed. I’m glad Schmid wrote this piece, which not only clears up the media’s confusion with the study, but also explains some other things about fluency in linguistics. I read the study in question and it seemed pretty legit. I have some misgivings about the idea of nativeness in language learning and about how the questionnaire says that India isn’t a “traditional English speaking country”. And also how the quiz said that “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept I’m finished my homework instead of with my homework,” when this is also very common in and around Philadelphia**.

games_with_words_done_my_homework

But all in all, it seems to be an interesting linguistics study that got blown out of proportion by the media. File it with the rest.

* The title of the study is “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers”. Does anyone else find “2/3 million English speakers” ungrammatical?

**It might just be me, but the phrase “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” also seems ungrammatical. “Canadians accept X” is ok, but “Irish accept X” and “Scottish accept X” are not, at least not in my variety of English. The latter two need articles before them or the word people after them: “The Irish accept X”, “Scottish people accept X”. I don’t know of any variety where “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” is correct. This is just a bit of irony in a quiz about the grammaticality of different clauses.

The grammar of “feeling less than (X)”

This tweet came across my TL and it interested me because of what it says and how it says it.

Since this is primarily a blog about language, I’ll focus on the how-it-says, rather than the what-it-says (and besides, the latter is just self-evident). Continue reading “The grammar of “feeling less than (X)””

Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics

For someone so progressive, Sam Smith is shamefully conservative with language.

In researching a book on English usage (called Junk English; review coming soon), I came across an article from 2007 by Sam Smith, the journalist, essayist and co-founder of Green Party. Smith’s article is a lesson in how to NOT write about language, as he gets a number of things wrong. One day I’ll write a general post about these kinds of articles, but for now, let’s go through Smith’s post and see where the train goes off the tracks.

The article starts with this:

Sitting in Manhattan across from an editor at one of best regarded publishing houses, I asked, “Does good writing still matter?”

Ugh. Like, gag me with a spoon. This kind of comment is a red flag inside a bell inside a whistle telling me that what is about to come is going to be a bunch of pretentious crap about the good ol’ days when people knew how to use The Language (a time which was probably also when Sam Smith was in his thirties; when he was looking forward to his life, not back on it) Continue reading “Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics”