Archive for the ‘Language in the news’ Category


August 26, 2014

We had an earthquake in northern California in the middle of the night on Sunday. Centered in Napa County, where it did some significant damage. Down here on the peninsula, we got some long shaking, but not much otherwise. My windows rattled, but nothing was harmed; not even the pictures on my walls were deranged.

Then there’s the media coverage, which prominently uses (in all quake reporting, but especially in headlines) the word temblor, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard in ordinary conversation; it seems to be a journalists’ word.

Maybe some journalists think that temblor is a technical, precise term and that (earth)quake is a colloquial and less precise term, but I can find no evidence for this idea. All the dictionaries I’ve looked at, plus the Associated Press Stylebook, treat temblor as a straightforward synonym for earthquake, with no referential distinction.

It’s true that temblor is shorter than earthquake, so it’s handy for for headlines. But the clipped quake is shorter than temblor, and has the advantage of easy comprehension. (Tremor is also compact and easy to understand.) But newspapers like the exotic temblor.


On the racism watch

April 30, 2014

The current flurries over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling are rich veins of overt and coded racist language, explored at great length in the news. That provides me with an opening to post today’s Scenes From a Multiverse, entitled “Racism 2.0” (you’ll notice that I’ve been experiencing an avalanche of recent cartoons of linguistic interest; sometimes they come in clumps or waves):

And the Hispanics / Latinos. And the Arabs / Muslims. And…

On the portmanteau watch: Boston, coyotes

April 19, 2013

I’m gripped by the story of the past day’s events in the Boston area, large portions of which are under lockdown as the search continues for 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — suspected as being responsible, with his older brother Tamerlan (now dead), for the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday and the fatal shooting of an MIT policeman and the wounding of a transit policeman in an exchange of gunfire in Watertown MA last night. In the midst of this, occurrences of the portmanteau Marabomber ((Boston) Marathon + bomber), echoing the name Unabomber. And while I was listening to NPR coverage on KQED, there came a local feature from a naturalist about coyotes, with the portmanteaus coywolf and coydog (referring to coyote-wolf and coyote-dog hybrids, respectively).



March 12, 2013

As the papal conclave proceeds in Vatican City, we turn to the word conclave, with its intriguing etymology:

late Middle English (denoting a private room): via French from Latin conclave ‘lockable room,’ from con- ‘with’ + clavis ‘key.’ (NOAD2)


Pronouncing names

October 15, 2012

In the NYT on Saturday, a front-page piece (“Missouree? Missouruh? To Be Politic, Say Both”, by Sarah Wheaton) about the pronunciation of names, with a political connection.


Goat accents

September 10, 2012

In yesterday’s NYT Magazine, in the “one-page magazine” feature, this story about goat accents (“What a Well-Born Goat” by Hope Reeves):

It’s not just Eton alumni who distinguish themselves with their posh accents. According to a new University of London study, English pygmy goats (those farm-bred in Nottinghamshire, anyway) also display recognizable vocalization styles that morph as their social groups change. “It is not really a measure of animal intelligence,” says Alan McElligott, a co-author. “Nevertheless, the study does show a surprising additional cognitive capacity in a domestic animal that we are all very familiar with.”

In contrast to the great “cow dialect” story of August 2006, there’s real research here — McElligott leads a research group at Queen Mary University of London, “focussed on communication and cognition research, using goats, cattle and fallow deer” — but the little piece in the Times (with its fanciful dialect map of British goat bleats) frames the story in terms of large-scale dialect differences (by geographical region and social class) that will be familiar to its readers, though that’s not what McElligott’s research was about.


Voices of California

August 6, 2012

In today’s Stanford Report, a report (“Stanford linguists seek to identify the elusive California accent”, by Ed King, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at Stanford):

With the Voices of California project, Stanford linguistics professors and students aim to discover and document the diversity of California English.

Brandon Conlan of Redding, Calif., doesn’t think he has an accent. A trip to Florida a few years ago confirmed his opinion. Friends there said he had the standard “TV accent,” which to them meant that he didn’t have a distinguishable way of speaking.

Conlan and his friends aren’t alone. Because there aren’t many stereotypes of California speech compared to the distinctive way of speaking associated with East Coast cities like Boston or New York, a lot of Californians are happy with their lack of accent.

Penelope Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, was intrigued by the disconnect between California’s diverse populations and Californians’ views of their own speech as homogenous and indistinguishable. Eckert and her graduate students launched a multi-year research endeavor called “Voices of California” to fully investigate how English is spoken in different parts of the state.

Hundreds of interviews with California residents from Merced and Shasta counties have revealed the influence of the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma, and have highlighted differences between coastal California and the Central Valley.

“It’s really important to portray California as it is,” said Eckert. “People have this view of California based on Hollywood, and California really is a very diverse state.”

Despite being the most populous state in the United States, California is largely unrepresented in large studies of American dialects.

The participants are beginning to present results of the project, but this is only the third year of the project (Merced and Redding in previous years, Bakersfield coming up next month) and there’s a lot of California to study.

Here are Penny Eckert and grad student Kate Greenberg at work wrangling data:

Plain talk in the NYT

June 12, 2012

In the NYT on the 9th, a piece by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, “How Racist Are We? Ask Google”, reporting on his own research (“The Effects of Racial Animus on a Black Presidential Candidate: 
Using Google Search Data to Find What Surveys Miss”, here). The research design:

… many Americans use Google to find racially charged material. I performed the somewhat unpleasant task of ranking states and media markets in the United States based on the proportion of their Google searches that included the word “nigger(s).” This word was included in roughly the same number of Google searches as terms like “Lakers,” “Daily Show,” “migraine” and “economist.”

A huge proportion of the searches I looked at were for jokes about African-Americans. (I did not include searches that included the word “nigga” because these searches were mostly for rap lyrics.) I used data from 2004 to 2007 because I wanted a measure not directly influenced by feelings toward Mr. Obama. From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches.

Note that the Times here doesn’t shrink from printing nigger (and nigga). Not all the reports on the study have been so straightforward.


The Queen’s Christmas Message

December 20, 2011

Damien Hall on the Variationist List today noted that the Queen’s Christmas Message will soon be upon us, and pointed to research on changes in the Queen’s variety of English over the years, using these broadcast messages as data.

The way the press reported this research is a story in its own right.


Language news in the NYT

December 14, 2011

Two recent items in the New York Times: “Everyone Speaks Text Message” by Tina Rosenberg in the 12/11 Magazine; “Athhilezar? Watch Your Fantasy World Language” by Amy Chozick in the 12/12 paper.