Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings.
Being inoffensive and being offended are now the twin addictions of our society.
Corona beer? Coronavirus? What do they have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing. They’re homonyms – multiple meanings for the same sequence of sounds. The English language is full of them, but only a few cause trouble, by which I mean they become infected with a “political virus.”
I would not want to attend the panicky meetings going on inside the walls of the marketers of Corona® beer. The bugaboo of the current news cycle is the supposed connection between the worrisome coronavirus and the beer of the same name.
Gender politics pervades language, and it’s getting even harder to know what’s “correct.”
Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a medium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man. . . We may smile at the linguistic illusions of primitive man, but may we forget that the verbal machinery on which we so readily rely, and which our metaphysicians still profess to probe the Nature of Existence, was set up by him, and may be responsible for other illusions hardly less gross and not more easily eradicable?
Pronouns and gender politics full post
(1187 words, 1 image, estimated 4:45 mins reading time)
Politicians commit various language abuses considered “BS.” Biden is a prime example.
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
Henry Adams, 1907
The politician is an acrobat. He keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does.
Maurice Barres (1896-1923)
Political BS, a noxious blend of mendacity, manipulation, and meaninglessnss, is all around us, as it has been ever since we invented politics. So let’s try to understand what it is, the better to identify and resist it (this is knowledge that all middle-school graduates should have, but it is in the interests of the ruling classes that they not have it).
Overwhelmed by political BS full post
(1093 words, 1 image, estimated 4:22 mins reading time)
The apostrophe plays a weak role in writing and none at all in speech. That’s a problem.
(Sign on restaurant in Jaffrey, NH)
Former copy editor John Richards has decided to surrender in his 20-year quest to promote correct (i.e., prescribed/codified) apostrophe usage.
Richards and like-minded crusaders are enraged by (i) use of the apostrophe in plurals and (ii) in possessive it’s (which I’ve seen many times on signs and websites and in print) and (iii) omission in other possessives where it does belong (Barclays).
Apostrophe warrior lays down his sword full post
(777 words, 1 image, estimated 3:06 mins reading time)
Politically incorrect speech is neither red nor blue. It is red, while and blue. It is American. Repression of speech leads to repression of thought.
This is a message that the p.c. crowd — in the media, in the universities – needs to hear again and again, because they don’t get it, especially when a Presidential candidate (Warren) announces “her” pronouns on the debate stage, and a teacher is fired for not using the student’s preferred pronouns. It is not enough, the argument goes, to have pronouns of two genders, when there are so many other genders. We need more pronouns!
Stop the pronoun craziness full post
(1288 words, 1 image, estimated 5:09 mins reading time)
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.
Language change: getting it right full post
(1688 words, 1 image, estimated 6:45 mins reading time)
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.
Code-switching and pandering – a new low full post
(668 words, 1 image, estimated 2:40 mins reading time)
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.
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.
On baby talk and language change full post
(1067 words, 1 image, estimated 4:16 mins reading time)
From mind to thought (and from there to the speech and auditory organs)
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
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.
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.
Who’s got the sexiest accent? Not me. full post
(1395 words, 1 image, estimated 5:35 mins reading time)
“…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.”
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.
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 quotation 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).
Biden’s plagiarism alone disqualifies him full post
(577 words, 1 image, estimated 2:18 mins reading time)
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.
(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. That means he knows only one class: enemies.
[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.
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?
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.
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
Philip Roth produced a tremendous volume of work, on a machine like this. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” he writes of a man tortured by neck pain – possibly from all the typewriting.
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.”
“You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
― American Pastoral
A prophet of political correctness
One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.
Our society is divided by many conflicting forces, but two of them are in our face almost all the time, roiling America like the whirling blades of the old MixMaster – and causing just as much confusion.
Both are related to the field in which I was trained – linguistics. Both center on language – not surprising, since language is a multi-purpose tool without which we would not be human.
I think of them as two mega-issues, each with a constellation of sub- and intersecting issues.
1. Hate speech and fighting words
The weaponization of language full post
(1167 words, 1 image, estimated 4:40 mins reading time)
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.