Archive for the ‘Attitudes’ Category

And still they come

February 13, 2011

There seems to be no end to books proposing to fix people’s lives by fixing their “grammar” (in that all-embracing sense of grammar — my slogan is It’s All Grammar — that I frequently complain about), usually incorporating any number of factual errors and fallacious assumptions about language and language use and displaying at best regrettable, at worst harmful, shameful attitudes about linguistic variation and social life. I collect these things, usually trying to get them used, so as not to give financial suppport to the authors or their publishers.

Latest to heave into my view (hat tip from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky) is Grammar Sucks: What to Do to Make Your Writing Much More Better, by Joanne Kimes with Gary Robert Muschla, as discussed in a guest blog on Sociological Images by Josef Fruehwald, a grad student in linguistics at Penn who blogs on language variation and language attitudes (among other things) here.


National caricatures

January 22, 2011

On January 19 on the op-ed page of the NYT, the British writer and collector of miscellany (“curator of knowledge”) Ben Schott assembled a huge “glossary of arcane national caricatures from writers curiously fascinated with difference” (“Vive la Différence”). Some of these differences are specifically linguistic ones. A few items:

(Robert Southey) Ours is a noble language, a beautiful language. I can tolerate a GERMANISM for family’s sake; but he who uses a LATIN or a FRENCH phrase where a pure old ENGLISH word does as well out to be hung, drawn and quartered for high treason against his mother tongue.

Oh dear, the verb quarter and the noun treason both came into English through Anglo-Norman, that is, from French.

(attr. to George Gascoigne) The most ancient ENGLISH words are of one-syllable, so that the more monosyllables that you use the truer ENGLISHMAN you shall seem, and the less you shall smell of the inkhorn.

Well, he could have said “one-syllable words” instead of the pentasyllabic “monosyllables” and avoided the smell of the inkhorn.

(Karl Gutzkow) The ENGLISH tongue is as natural as passion itself. FRENCH is the language of conversation, of mutual understanding and amiable persuasion. The GERMAN language, though our poets find in it a free stream of astounding beauty, is yet far too abstract for ordinary purposes; it expresses nothing right out, is full of paraphrases, and is far too much a curial language to be all the orator requires.

Here it becomes clear that this passage, along with most of the others in fact, is about high culture; ordinary Germans have been getting along with their language just fine “for ordinary purposes” for a very long time.

My patience ran out pretty quickly.

More diets

May 11, 2010

My recent posting on diets started with a distinction (not original with me, but generally recognized in dictionaries) between two principal senses of the count noun diet in English. Restricting the definitions to people:

diet-1: the kinds of food that someone habitually eats [usually sg]

diet-2: a special course of food someone restricts themselves to, either to lose weight or for medical reasons [sg or pl]

Commenting on that posting, irrationalpoint noted a cultural specialization of diet-2, to

“a restricted set of foods, supposedly to lose weight, but with a dodgy scientific/medical basis, usually promoted by a celebrity or women’s magazine”. As in “I’m on a cheese diet” — which means “I’m eating only cheese”. This sense of “diet” got sufficiently popular when I was in my last two years of school that if anyone said they were “on a diet”, they would immediately [be] asked “what kind?” and if the answer was “generally healthy eating, you know, to lose weight. I’m not eating so much junk food”, then the reply was “oh, I though you meant a celebrity diet”.

There’s also a distinction that some people make between two subtypes of diets-1, between those, on the one hand,  that are imposed by cultural authorities (as in religious prescriptions of and proscriptions against certain foods, in general or on certain occasions), are otherwise culturally normative (“what we eat and don’t eat around here”), or are necessitated by some people’s physiology (as allergies in the technical sense, inabilities to digest certain foods, or other inabilities to tolerate certain foods); and those, on the other hand, that are avoided or sought out as a matter of individual taste (perhaps a taste shared with others, or one arrived at on a principled basis, or simply a personal food attraction or food aversion). Call the two subtypes O and I (suggesting “obligation” and “individual”, though those glosses are just hints, not definitions).

Four situations:

A: Someone avoids shellfish because shellfish are proscribed by Jewish law or by the (vegetarian) Hinduism they practice;

B: Someone avoids shellfish because of an allergy to shellfish;

C: Someone avoids shellfish because they are committed to vegetarianism (outside of a framework of religious practice)

D: Someone avoids shellfish because they find shellfish disgusting in taste or texture

In the first two situations, we have O-type dietary choices, in the other two, I-type dietary choices.

Note that all are choices; you could choose to do otherwise. And all are choices that go against majority cultural practices.

But for O-type choices, there are consequences, sometimes quite severe ones. You can choose to disregard these consequences (many American Jews will happily eat dishes with shellfish or pork in them — definitely treyf — but only when these dishes are Chinese, in a restaurant or as take-out), and even in the case of physically-based food intolerances, people sometimes indulge in the forbidden foods, because they get pleasure from them, and then live with the short-term consequences — not really an option for people with life-threatening allergies, of course (as here).

Why make a distinction between O-type and I-type dietary choices? Because the two kinds of choices tend to be treated quite differently in our culture: I-type choices are likely to be dismissed as eccentric or frivolous and only grudgingly tolerated, or even derided. If I inquire, at a meal with acquaintances, whether the broth in some soup is a meat broth (chicken or beef), I might well be asked why I want to know (soup is soup, after all), and if I say that I’m a vegetarian, I might be further asked if I’m a Hindu or something like that; individually-chosen vegetarianism is likely to be treated as picky and frivolous and, frankly, annoying, while religion-based or culture-based vegetarianism calls for tolerance (perhaps grudging tolerance), at least in some places in our culture.

The urge to enforce general cultural norms is strong.

I come back now to diets-2. Diet-2 is a specialized development from diet-1, and diets-2 seem to be fact I-type diets: going on a diet is an individual choice. However, the distinction irrationalpoint saw at the beginning of this posting mirrors the O-type vs. I-type split: some diets-2 are undertaken simply for good reasons of health, while other choices of diet-2 strike many people as frivolous, faddish, undertaken for reasons of fashion, etc., and therefore open to ridicule.

People are quick to assign motives to other people’s behavior, even in the absence of evidence for these motives.

Zippylicious geographical names

February 20, 2010

Zippy is in love with words — beautiful words, somewhat ridiculous words, peculiar words, they’re all delicious to Zippy (a manifestation of word attraction). Names especially so. Here he is savoring two geographical names from Montana: Grundy Gulch and Zortman:

As is customary with Bill Griffith, the names are genuine. He does seem to have taken some liberties with the depiction of Grundy Gulch, though. There seems to be no actual town named Grundy Gulch — nothing like what we see in the cartoon. There is only

A gulch [in Lewis & Clark County] named for David Grundy, discoverer of the gulch. (link)

(My Times Atlas of the World lists a Grundy VA and a Grundy Center IA, but no Grundy Gulch.)

However, there is a town of Zortman MT, with an entertaining website (with photo), almost all of it promissory.

Zortman, Montana is a historic gold town located in the middle of the Little Rocky Mountains.  It has been home to farmers, ranchers, sheepmen, miners, storekeepers, loggers, teamsters and outlaws, among others.

There is camping, hiking, float trips, self guided nature tours, gold panning, pow-wows, fishing and hunting.

For those who just like to kick back and let the world go by for awhile, the Zortman area provides the perfect spot.  For those who don’t want to be quite so out of touch, the information highway runs right through Zortman. There are several small businesses in the area already taking advantage of the future. [There’s an optimistic page on the “Technology Gold Rush in Zortman”.]

The Accommodations page lists no actual places to stay, but has a photo of a big-city-scape (viewed from on high), with the promise:

Here we will put a picture of the inside of a room or the view from one of our rooms.

The Rates/Amenities page tells us:

Here we may list our rates for the different rooms we have. These rates could vary, so it is always a good idea to confirm the rates when making reservations. [No address is provided for such confirmations.]

All in all, the site has a lot of goofy Zippylicious charm.

Spectacular spelling fail

September 4, 2009

A Wisconsin highway sign, noted on The Smallest Minority site on July 30:

(under the heading “Guvernment Skools” and filed under “Education”). The company that made the sign quickly fixed it (the instructions to the company had everything spelled correctly).

The spectacular spelling fail — all three words on the main sign are misspelled — is, you will see, attributed to the school system; it’s framed as yet another symptom of the appalling decline in the quality of schooling. (Some of the comments also snipe at Wisconsinites.)

For some people, everything bad in language is the fault of the schools, or of young people, or both, and these opinions seem to be immune to facts. In the case at hand, there’s an obvious alternative hypothesis.

All three errors are letter inversions: IS for SI, IE for EI, EI for IE. This is just too perfect (well, too perfectly wrong). It’s what you see in the spelling of many dyslexics (I’ve had dyslexic students who spelled like this — very bright students, I hasten to add). If that’s the root cause, then we might wonder how a dyslexic came to be making up highway signs.

(Hat tip to Victor Steinbok.)

X can’t mean Y

May 27, 2009

Back on 23 May on ADS-L, I noted an occurrence (in speech) of “The military can do so much”, clearly intended to mean, in the context, ‘the military can do only so much’ (i.e., not everything, or not a lot, while “the military can do so much” otherwise conveys ‘the military can do a lot’). Not long after, a poster wrote:

If “can do so much” can actually mean “can do only so much”, then perhaps Churchill really meant “Never have only so few owed only so much to only so many”? I don’t think so. The sentence really needs “only” in there to make sense.

This is one version of the “X can’t mean Y” (sometimes “X doesn’t mean Y”) reaction to reports that some people sometimes use X to mean Y: flat rejection of the pairing of form X with meaning Y, usually on the basis that the objector wouldn’t use X that way (grammatical egocentrism). Note that the objection is framed as statement of fact (about the language in general, not just about the objector’s variety of the language), though actually it serves as a normative judgment (that X shouldn’t be used to mean Y).


A celebration of American English

April 3, 2009

Political consultant, pollster, and sloganeer Frank Luntz, in Words That Work (2007), pp. xiv-xv:


For the record, I love the English language. I have built a career attending to matters of rhetoric, to the painstaking and deliberate choice of words. I love the soft twang of Southern belles and the gum-popping slang of Southern California valley girls, the gentle lyricism of the upper Midwest and the in-your-face bluntness of Brooklyn cabbies. I’m enthralled by the bass rumble of James Earl Jones, the velvet smoothness of Steve Wynn, the upper-crust sophistication of Orson Welles and Richard Burton, and the sexy intonations of Lauren Bacall, Sally Kellerman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. When spoken well, the language of America is a language of hope, of everyday heroes, of faith in the goodness of people.

At its best, American English is also the practical language of commerce. The most effective communication is the unadorned, unpretentious language of farmers, mom-and-pop shopkeepers, and the thousands of businesses located on the hundreds of Main Street USAs, as well as the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, bottom-line language of men and women who built the greatest companies the world has ever seen.

This is meant to be celebratory and to sound heartfelt, but it strikes me as patronizing and overwrought. But then it’s Luntz.

(Richard Burton, by the way, was a child of the Welsh working class.)

Attititudes and attributions

February 3, 2009

A Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum  that started with the pronunciation of the composer Sibelius’s name in Finnish has diverged in many directions, one of them having to do with word-initial [h] in varieties of English. The presence or absence of this [h] is noticeable to most speakers, since the difference is phonemic, potentially distinguishing otherwise identical words (ham vs. am, heart vs. art, hail vs. ail, etc.). You are especially likely to notice an [h] where you don’t have one yourself or the absence of [h] where you have one yourself. Here’s the commenter Noetica on the subject:

In Australia we notice the American way with ‘erbs, and it sounds strange and pretentious to us.

This comment, clearly from someone who has an initial [h] in herb, both expresses an attitude about the (common American) [h]-less variant (“it sounds strange”) and attributes a motive to those who use it (it sounds “pretentious”). The attribution of pretentiousness was a surprise to me; it’s a reversal of the usual judgements about [h]-less herb from people who have an [h] in this word. (more…)