What’s the difference between more pork and a morepork?
Archive for the ‘Language’ Category
A commenter on the “non-believer epitaph” thread writes,
“Epitaph” is probably used for “epithet” more often than “epithet” is. I can’t help but wonder if it’s only a matter of time before epithet becomes an archaic word and epitaph replaces it completely.
This, I think, overestimates the frequency of the error. A quick Google search for “racial epithet,” for instance, yields 154,000 hits; “racial epitaph” yields 14,600, some of which are references to the error. Searches I’ve done with other likely adjectives gave me similar results. Maybe matters are different in speech than even in the informal writing present on the Internet, but I know of no evidence of that.
Part of the reason for such illusions, I suspect, is that erroneous usages are jarring and therefore noticeable; we therefore remember them more than we remember the correct usages. In any event, it seems that in this instance, the “epithet” / “epitaph” distinction is, at least at this point, pretty strongly maintained.
From an AP story about trouble in Pakistan (thanks to Thomas Asch for the pointer):
Most of the deadly attacks targeting Shiites in Pakistan have been carried out by a group affiliated with the SSP. Yet the renamed SSP is fighting elections as part of a coalition of six radical religious parties. Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the SSP and a candidate, said the coalition has 300 candidates running for election. His party placards often hurl abuses at Shiites, calling them kafirs, or non-believers.
The non-believer epitaph is also widely used in reference to Ahmedis, who consider themselves Muslims but have been explicitly declared non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution. As well as violent attacks on its members, Ahmedi leaders told the AP they have been singled out with a separate electoral roll that identifies them as Ahmedis. The separate list also gives their addresses, making them easy targets. Security was tightened after a brutal attack in 2010 when militants simultaneously hit two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore killing more than 100 people and wounding scores more.
Sadly, the use of “epitaph” for “epithet” here might be less inaccurate than such a mistake usually is. For a case actually involving derogatory epitaphs, see Purtell v. Mason (7th Cir. 2008) (though these were on fake tombstones, not real ones).
This very interesting Washington Post story discusses some linguists’ controversial claim that they have identified a 15,000-year-old “proto-Eurasiatic” language superfamily (thanks to Paul Milligan for the pointer); I can’t speak to the merits of the claim, of course, but here’s one passage from the newspaper article that struck me (italics added):
In addition to Indo-European, the language families [within proto-Eurasiatic] included Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchi-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia); Dravidian (languages of south India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages); Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages) and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others).
They make up a diverse group. Some don’t use the Roman alphabet. Some had no written form until modern times. They sound different to the untrained ear. Their speakers live thousands of miles apart. In short, they seem unlikely candidates to share cognates.
Well, if they don’t use the Roman alphabet, imagine how different from Indo-European languages — or from each other — they must be!
UPDATE: Prof. Sally Thomason (Language Log) has a substantive response to the “proto-Eurasiatic” theory.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting and thoughtful article by Prof. Anne Curzan about her discovery that one of the supposed rules she had been enforcing for years as a copy editor was in fact not a recognized rule at all:
I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.
For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit — and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.
Here’s the conclusion:
To all the authors whose prose I changed, I apologize for ridding your prose of all those on the other hand’s that were effectively doing their rhetorical job, often much better than in contrast can. And to any readers who have also been enforcing what turns out to be a fairly mythical prescriptive rule, or who have been subject to the enforcement of the rule, I hope this post will give you a new critical perspective on that practice (a practice that the lexicographer Bryan Garner, it turns out, calls “pure pedantry”). I have long known that the “rule” about not starting a sentence with And (as I did in the last sentence) is a myth perpetuated by English teachers; I had not realized that I, despite my extensive research on the history of prescriptivism, had fallen into enforcing another “rule” that had little basis in style guides or in actual usage.
Thanks to Prof. Geoffrey Pullum (Language Log) for the pointer.
My wife and I organized the Second Annual Pacific Palisades Spelling Bee yesterday, and talking to one of the word pronouncers led me to think up this phrase. In English (and some other languages), unstressed vowels often come out sounding very similar, with a short sound that is known as the schwa. In normal speech, we generally take no pains to distinguish the original vowel, but when we pronounce a word in a context where we want someone to spell it right, we might sometimes try to artificially stress or elongate the sound to make the letter clear. “Schwa discipline” consists of a spelling bee pronouncer’s resisting the temptation to give contestants this sort of subtle hint about the spelling.
One fun thing about being around children is that it teaches you things about your own language that you never realized. Children often say things that are perfectly logically constructed, but that are jarringly unidiomatic, in a way you hadn’t noticed precisely because the usage is so uncommon. (OK, that’s one fun thing for me about being around children — your mileage may vary.)
An example: Generally speaking, pronouns and nouns have similar grammatical roles in a typical sentence, with respect to the verbs in the sentence. “The dog ate the food.” “Have you seen what the dog did? It ate the food.” “It” and “the dog” are grammatically interchangeable in that context. (I’m speaking here of their relationships with verbs; their relationships with adjectives differ, I suspect largely because the specificity of the pronoun’s referent generally makes adjectives unnecessary for pronouns — one generally wouldn’t talk about “the tall she,” though “the tall woman” is just fine.)
Yet, I recently learned from hearing a child speak, in one common verb-linked context using a pronoun is highly unidiomatic, though using a noun is perfectly fine. For verbs such as “give,” “show,” and the like, you can say either (for instance) “give [noun/noun phrase] to me” or “give me [noun/noun phrase]” — “give me the dog” or “give the dog to me.” There may at times be a subtle difference in emphasis between the two, but both are quite normal.
But try substituting a personal pronoun, and one option is highly unidiomatic: “Show it to me” is very common, but “show me it” sounds very odd, at least to my ear (and Google Ngrams bears this out, especially once one looks at the results and see how many of the “show me it” phrases are false positives). “Give me the dog” is fine, “give the dog to me” is fine, “give him to me” is fine (if you use “him” or “her” to refer to pets), but “give me him” is right out. [UPDATE: I speak here of personal pronouns; I think the matter is different for relative pronouns -- "give me that" is fairly idiomatic, I think.]
You say, why? (You say, why? You say, why?) Don’t ask me why. That’s just the way English (or at least American English) works. And it’s such a familiar rule that I didn’t even know it existed until I heard a child, using eminently sound logic, depart from it.
A slogan of a Portland restaurant that I ran across with a Yelp search. (According to Yelp, the food is very good there.) According to dictionary.com, one of the definitions of “foregone” is “that has gone before; previous; past” — yet I think most readers would recognize the usage in the quote as extremely unidiomatic (to me, humorously so, which is why I’m passing it along).
Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) has an interesting post on usage debates and political debates; you should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:
[T]he insistence on regulation by prescriptive “rules”, in whatever relationship to the direction of linguistic history, is another interesting inversion of the standard political metaphors as applied to matters of usage. Consider this passage from Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volumes 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11:
[Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design....
Yet ... [m]any of the institutions of society which are indispensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view....
Man ... is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.
It would be hard to find a better statement of the descriptivist attitude towards linguistic norms.
But Hayek is using a general discussion of “all institutions of culture” to argue for a libertarian approach to economic and social policy, avoiding central planning and minimizing coercive regulatory intervention. Hayek was “one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite thinkers” and an important influence on Margaret Thatcher — I think it’s fair to associate these attitudes with the right-hand side of the political spectrum over the past half-century or so.
Projecting political, social, and cultural philosophies onto a single dimension necessarily yields odd juxtapositions. But if we insist on doing it, we should try to be clear about the process and the results. Today, most people who know what the words mean would align “descriptivism” and “prescriptivism” as left and right respectively, I suppose because they associate the elitist and authoritarian aspects of prescriptivism with the political right. But the right has no monopoly on class-consciousness or on coercion. And in this case, I feel that the natural projection falls in the opposite direction.
Trying to figure out how to refer to Solzhenitsyn, I did a Google Ngrams search comparing Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Alexander (the translation) was in the lead, though the transliteration Aleksandr has recently been almost nearly as popular. Alexandr is very rare.
For 19th and early 20th century Russians that have easily translated names, Leo Tolstoy wins hands down over Lev, Peter Tchaikovsky handily beats Piotr, and Czar Nicholas beats Czar Nikolai — yet Nikolai Gogol is vastly more common than Nicholas Gogol.
In the 20th century, Leon Trotsky is much more common than Lev Trotsky. Joseph Stalin is also much more common than Josef Stalin, though Josef Stalin forms a substantial minority (about 20%). Yet Josef Stalin is neither translation nor transliteration; the Russian pronunciation would be roughly “Yosif” or perhaps “Iosif,” which are extremely uncommon. But Mikhail Gorbachev is the standard, with Michael being almost never used.
In any case, I just thought I’d note this, in case people have some theories. I suspect that there’s something of a longterm trend towards transliteration rather than translation, but that doesn’t explain everything. There is also likely some effect based on the Latin-alphabet language in which the people first became known (perhaps that’s why Tchaikovsky got his initial “T,” unnecessary English but necessary in French). But I don’t think these explain everything, and I’d love to hear other explanations that people might have.
Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) is unimpressed with the claim that Gov. Chris Christie “used the word ‘I’ 30 times, plus a couple of ‘me’s’ and ‘my’s’ tossed in for seasoning” in his speech, and that this somehow says something important about Christie. Liberman had in the past responded similarly to those who made similar charges about President Obama.
That floating hopefully had been around for more than thirty years in respectable venues when a clutch of usage critics including Theodore Bernstein and E. B. White came down on it hard in the 1960’s. Writers who had been using it up to then said their mea culpas and pledged to forswear it. Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications. The poet Phyllis McGinley called it an abomination and said its adherents should be lynched, and the historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it “the most horrible usage of our times” ....
You wouldn’t want to take the critics’ hysteria at face value. A usage can be really, really irritating, but that’s as far as it goes. You hear people saying that a misused “hopefully” or “literally” makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that — what it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen. It’s all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.
Of course even if you find the tone of these complaints histrionic, you can often sympathize with their substance. I feel a crepuscular wistfulness when I hear people confusing “enormity” with “enormousness” or “disinterested” with “uninterested.” It doesn’t herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory.
But the fixation with hopefully is different from those others.... [T]here’s no rational justification for condemning it. Some critics object that it’s a free-floating modifier (a Flying Dutchman adverb, James Kirkpatrick called it) that isn’t attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker’s attitude. But floating modifiers are mother’s milk to English grammar — nobody objects to using “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” or “frankly” in exactly the same way.
Or people complain that “hopefully” doesn’t specifically indicate who’s doing the hoping. But neither does “it is to be hoped that,” which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a “natural” substitute. That’s what usage fetishism can drive you to — you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction and you tell yourself you’ve improved your writing.
Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) has all about this “exchange” — in this instance, a literal fistfight rather than a figurative one — all about whether to “elevate the status of Russian to a second language, equal to Ukrainian, in about half the regions of the country, including Kiev.” You have to see the picture, or at least the video (which I’m deliberately withholding so that more people can visit and maybe see what a great site Language Log is).
Prof. Julie Sedivy (Language Log) has a very interesting post about a British film ratings controversy involving a Ken Loach movie that uses the word “cunt.” The film rating people are distinguishing “aggressive” uses of the word from “non-aggressive” uses; a British commentator faults this for being a double standard, and a class-based one at that; Prof. Sedivy responds, I think quite soundly. A very interesting discussion. (What the proper rule of film ratings agencies should be, when it comes to either legally binding or non-legally-binding but nonetheless practically coercive ratings aimed at shielding minors from certain images or words, is a different story.)