Category: language and communication

What is language, really?  Vocal acrobatics are somehow converted by the brain of the listener/reader into meaningful utterances, at which point communication takes place.  This category examines those broad issues: how does communication occur (or fail to occur)?

Language change: getting it right

Aspects of the english language

The many aspects of English

The attitudes and prejudices of speakers towards various languages and dialects is important “peri-linguistic” data.  They may influence the development and differentiation of language itself.  Or they may not — just voices in the wind.

Gripes of a pseudo-expert

Thus, when a major, even venerable magazine, Harper’s, publishes an essay “Semantic Drift” by Lionel Shriver, it deserves critical attention.  I have seen many such pieces before — a pseudo-expert bitching about linguistic developments he doesn’t like.

Code-switching and pandering – a new low

Code-switching can be used in the service of pandering, as when Presidential candidates lapse into Spanish to win favor in the cheapest manner.

 Spare me the sight / of this thankless breed, these politicians / who cringe for favors from a screaming mob / and do not care what harm they do their friends / providing they can please a crowd!

Euripides, Hecuba (c. 425 BCE)

This post introduces my Blahblahblah Award, bestowed upon the politician using the most devious and manipulative language since…well, since the previous award.  The grinding Presidential race will continue for many months, so there should be plenty of material.

On baby talk and language change

Kinds of lingo

Linguistics is concerned with who says what to whom, and why. Why do groups of people adopt their own manner of speaking? There are many answers.

 

Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy?  I don’t know and I don’t care.

William Safire

 

I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.

I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.

Words, maps, territories, and the political abuse of language

 

From mind to thought (and from there to the speech and auditory organs)
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The truth is what most people believe.  And they believe that which is repeated most often.

Paul Josef Goebbels

Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):

March 19, 2019

Dear Editor,

Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s  comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps.  This is worse than obscene and ignorant.  It is an utterly irresponsible use of language.  As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.

The Babel problem and the dangers of multilingualism

Aspects of the english language

English

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” 

The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 

Who’s got the sexiest accent? Not me.

Dialects unite and divide us

Dialects unite and divide us.

I just read an article on “who’s got the sexiest accent?’, and when I Googled the article, I discovered that “sexiest accent” generates over four million hits.

As Trump said about health care, who knew there were so many surveys?

The ones I skimmed through seemed mostly intended as tourism boosters, at least for the places with accents people like.

I didn’t see a survey conducted by any linguistics scholar I ever heard of. In the latest survey, from Big Seven Travel (Katey Psencik, The Columbus Dispatch), there are 50 accents — just like we have 50 states! Some of the accents are associated with cities, so presumably not every State was represented.

The difference between code-switching and pandering (pay attention, Hillary)

Be yourself.

“…style is intrinsic and private, like…voice or gesture, partly a matter of inheritance, partly of cultivation.  It is more than a pattern of expression.  It is the pattern of the soul.”

-Maurice Valency

Think of language as haberdashery: you have a closet full of clothes for every occasion. Your clothing choice expresses yourself in a particular context, for a particular audience.  In the same way, barely aware of it (or not aware at all), you change your speech to what you think (though there are no conscious thinking processes) will be effective for a particular situation and audience.

Biden’s plagiarism alone disqualifies him

Stopping plagiarism is as hard as defining it. As long as certain ideas, themes, personages, etc., remain in the public domain, there will be accusations – but not necessarily dishonesty. Biden’s plagiarism is at a whole different level.

 

 

Don’t forget why God made your eyes — plagiarize!

Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky”

I’m involved in a fair number of plagiarism cases.   In non-fiction allegations, I typically represent a student who has omitted quotations marks, possibly because he/she was lifting what appeared to be basic background information.  There are very few ways of saying some things with the appropriate degree of precision (especially in legal and scientific writing).

Political language 2019: simpler but no less devious

Political speech – simpler, but no less devious

Definitions of “politician”:

An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.

Ambrose Bierce

(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.  That means he knows only one class: enemies.

Friedrich Nietzsche

[Someone] who identifies the sound of his own voice with the infallible voice of the public.

Joseph K. Howard

A set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who…are, taken as a mass, at least one step removed from honest men.

“You have the right to remain silent…”: On understanding the Miranda warning (it’s not so easy)

The famous Miranda warning – “you have the right to remain silent…” — is actually very difficult to understand, especially for non-native speakers, who often give up their rights without knowing what they are.

1. You have the right to remain silent.
2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
3. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned.
4. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish one.
(After the warning and in order to secure a waiver, the following questions should be asked and an affirmative reply secured to each question.)
1. Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you?
2. Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to me now?

Language and the “Catfish” Scam (“It’s the Grammar!”)


The tongue of man is a twisty thing
There are plenty of words there
Of every kind
The range of words is wide
And their variance

— Homer, Iliad

If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

— Confucius.

I’ve spent a lifetime learning about language. As I pay attention, I continue to learn. Here’s a true story about something I recently learned about language. I call it “It’s the grammar, stupid.”

Dr. Phil hunts online love-scammers

Trump, Trump, Trump: desperately seeking synonyms

Charles Dickens is famous for giving his characters whimsical names that often reflect their personalities.  “Scrooge” is probably the best-known, unmistakably conveying a grasping miserliness in almost tangible terms.

If Dickens had written about a vulgar, aggressive billionaire intent on seeking power, crushing his enemies, and emblazoning his name around the world, he could hardly have chosen a better name than “Trump.”

But we’re not talking about a literary character.  Trump is a real person who makes sure his name is repeated 24/7 in every possible mass-media outlet.

over-Trumpified

Questions about the war on clickbait

“People tell us they don’t like stories that are misleading, sensational, or spammy. That includes clickbait headlines that are designed to get attention and lure visitors into clicking on a link.”

Facebook blog

So Facebook has declared war on clickbait.  The post defines three categories.

“Spammy” I can understand. But we already have protection built into our email services — and, hopefully, our minds.

The Language of “The Passion”

If we can set aside, just for a moment, our passions about “The Passion,” we can view it as a movie with some really good linguistic special effects.

Below is the full text version of an article entitled “The Jesuit scholar who translated ‘The Passion'” (by Nathan Bierma, Special to the Tribune. Chicago Tribune, Mar 4, 2004). The footnote numbers refer to my comments at the end.


Obscured by the furor surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is one relatively mundane bit of trivia: Last week’s debut marked the widest release ever of a subtitled film in North America.

Beyond “Fun” linguistics: The Deconstruction of BS and the Search for Truth

I suppose I should not be shocked by the trivialization, in the popular view, of the discipline to which I devoted so many years of my life and still consider myself a practitioner: linguistics — the objective, scientific study of language. I’m not surprised because many sciences get trivialized. The ongoing search for knowledge of nutrition spawns health fads and new diets galore. The data of biology and astrophysics are twisted to support crackpot theories of creationism. The bewilderingly complex study of climate change is as polluted by politics and emotion as the environment is itself polluted with human, toxic waste.