The South Philly Snowclone

I’d like to suggest an addition to the snowclone definition: X once did Y to Z. I call it the South Philly Snowclone.

A snowclone is a rhetorical trope, often used by journalists, which “conveys information by using a familiar verbal formula and the cultural knowledge of the audience.” The South Philly Snowclone’s template is:

X once did Y to Z

What the phrase has to do with South Philly is how often lazy sports journalists refer to the time Philly fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus.

On the surface, it’s a phrase that’s technically true. Just like the Eskimos have more than one word for snow, Philly sports fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus. But the devil is in the details.

Ray Didinger and John Pierron* explain the whole story better than I can, but here’s what you (linguists) need to know. On December 15, 1968, after a long and disappointing season, some Philadelphia Eagles fans threw snowballs at a guy in a Santa Claus costume who was not supposed to be on the field. Ever since then, sports journalists have been using this as proof of why Philly is home to sports fans from hell. They don’t use the more recent riots started by Canucks fans or Lakers fans or any of the incidents listed here (OK, except for two out of three here). They more often than not use the South Philly Snowclone.

What all this has to do with linguistics is that you have certainly heard or read the X once did Y to Z snowclone before. It’s usually followed with an implied “therefore” and “X can’t possibly be A.” Like other snowclones, it’s used across genres. Look out for it. The next time you see it, you’ll know that the writer is only as good as a run-of-the-mill lazy sports journalist.

In conclusion, Go Flyers!

*Hat tip Enrico Campitelli Jr. at The700Level.com.

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You Guys Heard That?

If animals have language, do they hear voices?

Or, at what point does language and/or a brain become complex enough to make up imaginary voices?

Anyone interested in animal communication can see a list of Language Log posts dedicated to the subject. It comes up on Edmund Blair Bolles’ site, Babel’s Dawn, which is about the origins of speech. Stan Carey also sometimes talks about animal communication on his site, Sentence First. Here he discusses the linguistic capabilities of dogs. I don’t remember the idea of animals hearing voices ever being discussed on these sites and I don’t always read the comments. How would we even know if animals were hearing voices?

I’ve been interested in reading Daniel B. Smith’s book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity (Amazon), since I first heard about it. I guess now I have another reason in case it says anything about how central hearing voices is the the human mind. You can see an interview with him on the Colbert Report here.

Warning! Assholes are Closer than they Appear!

Geoffrey Pullum and I have not always agreed on everything. I like to comment, and he hates comments. But in a recent language log post, Mr. Pullum mentioned talking to his son about “the ghastly crew of obnoxious multi-millionaires who dominate the newspapers, and how they keep threatening to achieve success even in the political arena.” And that’s when his son turned him on to the fact that we are living in “the age of the assholocracy.”

At first, I thought I agreed with Pullum. It really does seem like there are a ton of assholes in power these days. And it seems there are even more assholes vying to get into power. It’s easy to believe that the age of the assholocracy is upon us.

But then I realized that we’ve always been living in an assholocracy. Assholes in power has long been the rule, not the exception. Just open a history book. Those things are chock full of assholes. It’s a wonder there’s room for anyone else. Or, even better, go ask someone who’s not a white middle-class male. They’ll tell you all about the assholes in power.

Mr. Pullum uses Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin as examples of the assholocracy we’re living in. But these people are downright pussies (to continue the anatomical analogies) compared to previous media moguls and Italian or Russian leaders. Is it possible we’re at the end of the assholocracy and the start of the pussypublic? You wish. (Again, just following the anatomy metaphor.)

Instead, I think these assholes are starting to be assholes to their own kind – the other white middle-class males – at an equal rate that they historically were assholes to other kinds of people. The assholocracy has gone into self-destruct mode, or what political scholars refer to as a dicktatorship.

Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is one of the most interesting books about the English language that I have read. That’s saying a lot since books about the English language is all I seem to read. I don’t review them enough since they’re usually textbooks (fun!), but Tongue definitely deserves a review, even if it’s just me telling you to go out and buy it.

Go out and buy Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.

Done!

Tongue attempts to answer a few questions about English that have either been overlooked or brushed aside by linguists. One of them is the mysterious nature of our meaningless do in phrases such as Do you realize…?. R.L.G. at the Economist’s blog Johnson has described Mr. McWhorter’s stance much better than I could, so I’ll link to that post (Hint: the existence of meaningless do in Welsh and Cornish, as well as English, is not a coincidence).

McWhorter also takes on the Viking impact on English and the pesky notion that our words channel our thought, but what I liked best about his book is when he points out that there is a problem when linguists focus solely on one aspect of one language. He says,

The specialization endemic to modern academia means that few of these scholars do their work with grammar sketches of all the Germanic languages and their histories in their heads, much less of languages around the world. They write mostly about English alone and, as often as not, just single features of its grammar.

It’s an unfortunate reality. Specialists in any field can’t be expected to know everything about their field (which is why they’re called “specialists”). So I enjoyed how McWhorter refrained from going on a witch hunt and faulting the linguists who overlooked the topics of Tongue.

As I said before, you should read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. It is well written and well researched. Moreover, it’s a great book for people who can’t be bothered to read linguistics textbooks and journals – or for those of us who wish to read something in between the textbooks and journals.

Up next: A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene and Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly

English Words with No Equivalents

You’ve seen the lists of words with no English equivalents and you’ve seen really, truly the utmost very best that English has to offer, but have you ever wondered what words are particular to English? I’m talking about words that have no equivalents in other languages.

Well, friends, wonder no longer. I have compiled a list for you. Now you can marvel at the intricacies and quirks of the English language. What does it tell about English speakers and their culture that they had to invent words for these strange things? Your guess is as good as mine. On to the list!

1. a, the, in, on, for, to, from – These simple words have no equivalents in Finnish. The poor Finns are stuck putting suffixes on words. It’s a shame really. How do they manage?

2. never – Never mind prepositions and determiners, the helpless Finns are also stuck without a word for never. The closest they have is ei ikinä, which roughly translates to “not ever.”

3. yesterday, today, tomorrow – While we’re up in the Nordic countries, can you believe that Danish and Swedish have no word for yesterday, today, or tomorrow. That’s right. Instead their stuck with i går, i dag, i morgen. Time must move so slow for them!

4. please – Ever wonder why French people are so rude? It’s because it takes them three times as many words (s’il vous plaît) to say please than it does for us. Spanish speakers are in the middle with two – por favor.

5. fuhgeddaboudit – can you believe that Italian doesn’t have a word for fuhgeddaboudit? I thought it was an Italian word! I thought it was passed down through generations of guidos and paisans. Who knew? I guess it’s Jewish.

This is just a sampling of words that English has been blessed with. When faced with such intricate and novel ideas as the ones expressed by the words in this list, other languages are at a loss.

Not a Him or a Her, Not a Madam or Sir

This is a post which elaborates on a comment I left on the Macmillan Dictionary blog. The post (by Stan Carey) discussed the nature of gendered pronouns in English and the ways people have tried to invent a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It’s worth a read (as are the comments in this post, where Stan was kind enough to indulge my ramblings). I tried to be very concise in my comment, but I feel like the point I tried to make deserves more attention (and page space) than is usually permitted in comments. So I’m making a post out of it.

My comment was this:

I’m going to try my best not to be too vague or overarching, but I wonder if the use of gender-neutral pronouns to point out chauvinism in language is anything like restructuring the history class curriculum to not be just one war after the other. The idea is that making war a priority in the history classroom perpetuates its priority in students minds year after year and so shapes the world they live in. Changing the curriculum would be interesting, but at the same time, war has been a major part of history and humans will always the capacity to be violent on a large scale.
What I’m trying to get at is the ways in which we are able to recognize and assess our own biases and the point at which we start fighting against our nature. Pronouns are learned first and then sexist meanings are attached to them (in varying degrees, I assume). But there’s no doubt that people distinguish between genders. I wonder how long it would take – or if it’s possible at all – to break down all the sexist meanings attached to our gendered pronouns. Just like how many years would it take to strip war of its priority in students minds?
Certainly experiments like the Egalia school’s will lead us to better understand how our brains relate natural necessities (like pronouns) with nurtured meanings (like equality or sexism), right? It should help us see whether finding a gender-neutral pronoun is a step in the process of breaking down inequality or if it’s a necessity, depending on how deep in our minds sexism lies and the ways in which it is learned.

That wasn’t too confusing, was it? Am I grasping at straws here or applying too much meaning to aspects of language?

The idea of using language in a different way in order to eliminate inequality in society is very interesting, especially when it involves pronouns because of their necessity in language. Racist words, for example, could arguably be removed from the language, but pronouns can not. If we removed one, it would need to be replaced. And that’s where things get tricky.

In the comment, I mentioned a post about how teaching history as being one war after another may be perpetuating the importance of war in young students’ minds. So, while war was a major part of life and possibly even a necessity in the past, it doesn’t need to be anymore (and shouldn’t). But if we keep teaching history in the way we have been, we may be creating a future where war is a constant. Changing the curriculum may be able to stop this, but there is no denying that humans have (and probably always will have) the ability to be violent.

In a similar way, racist words have been a part of languages, but no longer need to be (and should have never been). Removing them may sound fine to some, but racism and its motivations run deeper than the language we use. Remove one racial epithet and you’re liable to end up with another one just as quick (assuming you could even remove a word from the language, which you can’t). And yet, teaching people to not use racist words goes a long way in teaching them to not be racist, simply by bringing the effects of such words to the forefront. We can’t remove the violent nature of humans or the importance of war in the past, but we can possibly change how war is viewed today, just like we can change how people of other races are viewed. And we can do it (at least partly) by changing the ways we use language.

But pronouns and their entanglement with sexism is a whole different beast. We can’t do without pronouns – gendered or not. We can, however, do without the sexist meanings attached to them. From experience, I have noticed that children have no trouble learning to use gendered or neutral pronouns. My son is a bilingual speaker of English (gendered third-person pronoun) and Finnish (gender neutral third-person). To the best of my knowledge, he is not a chauvinist. Then again, he’s only two. Later on, as his vocabulary grows, the third-person English pronouns that he uses will acquire more meaning as he differentiates between men and women more and is influenced by other speakers. This is where sexist or chauvinistic meaning may come into play. And this is why people have tried to use gender-neutral pronouns in English – in order to raise people that do not place so much weight on the differences (real or imaginary) between genders. A similar motivation inspires changing the teaching of history. And yet, adults are the ones who recognize the sexist meanings that our pronouns carry. Our vocabulary includes those meanings, the vocabulary of children does not. And using gender-neutral pronouns is not guaranteed to make people less sexist. As I said before, Finnish has a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun and Finns can be just as sexist and chauvinistic as English speakers (no offense, mun Finnish veljet). What I’m saying is that gender bias and sexist meanings are at play in Finnish society. So is it even worth using only gender-neutral pronouns around our children?

I think there are two ways in which it’s worth it. First, English speakers may be at an advantage when compared to Finnish speakers. If we were to use gender-neutral pronouns, we would be bringing the sexist nature of gendered pronouns to the forefront, much like not using racist words brings the ugly nature of them into people’s minds. In English, we can compare pronouns to lessen sexism in society. Presumably, Finnish speakers can not do this. How ridiculous would it be for them to invent gendered pronouns to compare to their non-gendered ones? But this learning by comparison requires speakers to have the knowledge of sexist meanings, which is something that children do not have. So in order to teach them why the words he or she are sexist, we must first teach them sexist notions of gender. And we’re right back to square one.

Or are we? Because the second reason I think such a debate is important is that experiments such as the teaching of gender-neutral pronouns to children may lead to a better understanding of how much of our biases come from nature and how much come from nurture – just like the changing of the history lesson might give insight into how violent humans really are or how much they need war. Of course, it may be that we can never know how ingrained our biases or desires are, but impossibility has never stopped science from trying before.

Sorry for the serious post. I’ll return to the mindless drivel that normally makes up this blog soon. Just had to get these thoughts out on paper and decided to share them. I’m interested in hearing what you, dear readers, have to say on this matter, especially if you can point me to certain studies or books that relate to it. I don’t know of any off the top of my head or have the time to look any up, but I’ll try to update this post as I come across them.

[Updated] Rise Up! Free-form Grammar to Break Your Language Bonds

Too long have we been held in the chains of grammar. Too long have our oppressors, the so-called language mavens, told us what we can and cannot say! Too long!

This is the dawning of a new era, where we will no longer be slaves to our grammarians and their grammar books. This is the dawning of the Age of Avant Garde Grammar.

Free-form grammar is simple. Take the most hallowed rule of English grammar, the granddaddy of them all – that phrases must impart sensible information – and throw it out! Kill the head and the body will die!

Feel liberated, my fellow grammar slaves, for this is Liberated Grammar. You are slaves no longer!

[UPDATE – August 6, 2020] Hat tip to the Society Formerly Known as the Anti-Queens English Society and to the Proper English Foundation for helping the masses to break free from their grammatical bonds. Apologies and condolences to family and friends of the Queen’s English Society. Their death was inevitable, but it’s always sad to see a cult bite the dust.

[UPDATE – June 18, 2037]
Took while, but pre-New World Order grammar really caught, huh? People slave no government world mozzarella sticks. And hockey babies chair bring fellow scholars.

[UPDATE – June 23, 2068]
Lay dying pre-Alien Overlords grammar land law used start, oui? Time was no one mavens remember world chaos inner tube. Respect.