Every kind of language has rules

Yes, even the ones that you don’t like. Here’s a quote from Spoken Soul by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford (2000: 92). It’s perfect in expressing the point that all language varieties have rules:

Every human language studied to date – whether loved or hated, prestigious or not – has regularities or rules of this type [i.e. conventional and systematic ways of pronouncing, modifying, and combining words]. A moment’s reflection would show why this is so. Without regularities, a language variety could not be successfully acquired or used in everyday life, and this applies to Spoken Soul, or Ebonics, as much as to the “Received Pronunciation,” or “BBC English,” of the British upper crust. Characterizations of the former as careless or lazy, and of the latter as careful or refined, are subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak each variety.

That is so good. The book that it appears in is about Black English (also called African American Vernacular English), so of course Rickford and Rickford had to address the (uninformed) idea that Black English is just “English without rules.” It’s not and it never was.

You don’t get to claim that some specific group(s) of people don’t have any rules to the way they speak. Because if you claim that, it will say more about your judgment of those people than it will about your assessment of their language. (Well, it will also say that you’re not very good at making assessments about language.)

Every language variety follows systematic rules. Every single one. Not some. Not most. All of them. They may not follow the same rules as each other, but they follow rules nonetheless.


#Themself all the way

Oxford Dictionaries has a great blog post called “Is ‘themself’ a real word?” After showing that themself is indeed a really real word, they note that it’s still not quite acceptable in Standard English. I really wish it was though. It’s so perfect. Check out the post to see more!



A tired English “rule”

Here’s a good example of why we split infinitives in English:

You may have heard that it’s bad grammar to split an infinitive. This is a made up rule that was taken directly from Latin. Thankfully, it seems to have been buried for good as people are starting to realize it’s a ridiculous rule. The infinitive is already split in English – there’s always a space between to and the verb. And you can see here that following the rule would produce some really weird sentences:

I wonder what it feels like to be not tired.

I wonder what it feels like not to be tired.

Both of those sound unnatural and unindiomatic.

Go listen to Fiat Lex

If Lingthusiasm and The Vocal Fries have you yearning for more linguistics, never fear! There’s a new language podcast on the map. It’s called Fiat Lex and it is (quote) “A podcast about dictionaries by people who write dictionaries. Yes, really.” The hosts are Kory Stamper and Steve Kleinedler, two lexicographers of high renown! They’re up to four episodes now and they are all great. Go check them out!


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.

Dictionary.com is picking up their slack

Credit where credit’s due, Dictionary.com has been putting out better blog posts on language these days. A few months ago, I went hard on them for whining about millennials in a listicle. And a few months before that I raged on them for their uninformed listicle about words you shouldn’t use. But recently they’ve written interesting posts about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and the changing nature of taboo words. They even had a listicle of quotes about the importance of net neutrality. I don’t care what kind of ad space they may be selling with these posts. That’s the name of the game online. I’d rather they get those clicks with posts on legit linguistic topics than with nonsense language shaming posts.

Dictionary.com also tweeted this and it is 🔥

So hats off to Dictionary.com for stepping up their game. I knew they had it in ‘em.

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**.


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.