dicing with death

Previously on this blog, I've discussed whether BrE and AmE are different in their singular for dice. Have a look at that blog post if that's what you're interested in.

This one is about the phrase to dice with death, meaning essentially, to take risks with one's life or safety. It's one of those things that I didn't reali{s/z}e was BrE until another American pointed it out to me. (Apologies if you were that uncredited American—I can no longer find the correspondence.)

The OED says the use of dice to mean 'risk' is especially associated with motor sports (a phrase that itself seems to be more BrE than AmE). It is not about chopping up death into cubes, but about 'gambling with one's life' (a phrasing that can be used in either language). Though Merriam-Webster includes this use of dice with an example from Newsweek, it's nowhere to be seen in the American portion of the GloWBE corpus.

The phrase raised two questions for me:
  • is it dicing with death or dicing with Death?
    I imagined the latter, that it's playing a game of dice with the Grim Reaper. But none of the corpus examples treat death as a proper name, so perhaps I'm alone in that.
  • what's the relationship to dancing with death
Since not a lot of people use dice as an intransitive verb to mean 'to play dice', I was imagining that dance with death might have arisen from a misunderstanding of dice with death—an eggcorn, if you will.  And I think there's some evidence to back that up:


In this Google Books Ngram chart (click on it for details), the blue line shows dicing with death is already in existence in BrE during (BrE) the War. The green line is American use of it, intermingling early on with dancing with death. Dancing with death eventually catches up with dicing in AmE, while also rising in BrE, perhaps getting more currency as people have more distance from the 'risk' use of dice as a verb.

For what it's worth, it's slightly easier to find capital-D Death with dance than with dice, but it's far more common to find it lower-case.
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eggs

While I've been very good at keeping up with my Differences of the Day on Twitter, the blog posts have got(ten) fewer and f{a/u}rther in between. I'm committing this month (and hopefully from now on) to do one a week, and the way I'm going to make that feel more do-able is to piggyback on the work I've done for the #DotDs. Lately, I've been doing a lot of themed weeks of differences, and those can be built up into a nice little blog post.

I decided on #EggWeek because I was newly part of Egg Club. The first rule of Egg Club is that a generous member of our neighbo(u)rhood goes to a farm outside town and buys eggs from 'very happy chickens'. The second rule of Egg Club is that those of us with standing orders show up at her house with money and something to put the eggs in (we'll get to that, below).


Here are #EggWeek  differences I noted, and some information added-on by the tweople who responded to the tweets.

AmE has a vocabulary for fried-egg cooking that BrE doesn't, which starts from the assumption that if you want your eggs well-done, then you should flip them over. In UK, flipping is less common. In a (BrE) caff or (orig. AmE) greasy spoon and in some homes, a well-done egg is achieved by spooning the cooking fat over the egg. In my American life, I've never seen anyone fry an egg in enough fat to be able to spoon it. At any rate, the AmE vocabulary includes:
  • sunny-side up = not flipped
  • over easy = flipped over for just long enough that the egg white is cooked on both sides. Yolk should still be runny.
  • over medium = flipped over and cooked for a 'medium' amount of time/yolk-runniness
  • over hard = flipped over and cooked until the yolk is solid
BrE egg yolks can be described as dippy if they are nice and runny. A dippy egg is a soft-boiled egg into which you can dip your toast to get some nice yolk on it. 

That leads us to a difference that is more cultural than linguistic: in UK, soft-boiled eggs (often just called boiled eggs in this context) are just about always presented in an egg cup. I know some Americans own egg cups and use them, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Some UK folks proposed to me that this is because Americans don't eat soft-boiled eggs, but that's just not true. I once had a 70-something-day streak of having two boiled eggs and two slices of toast every evening for dinner. (This was back in my poor earning-rand-but-paying-back-student-loans-in-dollars days. You might think I'd have got(ten) sick of boiled eggs, but it's still one of my favo(u)rite meals. Only now I can afford some asparagus to go with it.)

But when I posted photos side-by-side  of British-style boiled-egg presentation and American-style, several British Twitterfolk protested that the American eggs were poached (righthand photo). No, they were boiled eggs that had been peeled and put on toast—which is exactly the way I eat them. (I am making myself hungry now. I guess I know what's for lunch.) The picture on the left is BrE egg and soldiers, the soldiers being the lengthwise-sliced toast strips.




Of course, this posting resulted in lots of people trying to tell me that the British way of eating boiled eggs is superior. You can have it, it's not for me. (My mother-in-law has given us several egg cups, perhaps because she couldn't find any at our house. I mostly store small kitchen bits in them.) Putting the egg on toast lets you give it a single and wide-spreading sprinkling of salt and (if you like) pepper. Peeling them is much easier if the eggs are fresh, which is what makes Egg Club so worth my while. The store-bought eggs I get in the UK are generally not as easy to peel. When I was a kid, a soft-boiled egg was a regular first foray in to the world of the eating after a stomach bug. My mom would peel it, and put it into a bowl, so you could smash it and dip your toast in it. But on toast is the grown-up way to go.  (And much easier than poaching, especially if you want to make a few of them.)

Egg cartons  are often called egg boxes in BrE:



The sandwich filling made of hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise is called egg mayonnaise in BrE, which Americans perceive as a pleonasm: all mayonnaise is made of eggs, so of course it's egg mayonnaise! But if you're perceiving it that way, you're probably imagining the stress pattern of the phrase as the same as you'd say herb mayonnaise for mayonnaise with herbs in it. The trick is to hear it like it's 'egg in the mayonnaise style'. The pronunciation of the mayonnaise is English, not French, but it follows a French food syntax (as we've seen before).  This concoction is called egg salad in AmE, though a lot of Americans would put in other ingredients as well to flavo(u)r the (orig. AmE) combo. This pattern holds for other mixes of bits of food with mayo: tuna mayonnaise/salad, chicken mayonnaise/salad.

There was one more #DotD in #EggWeek: whether scrambled egg is a count noun or a mass noun. In AmE, you can have a scrambled egg, but you wouldn't have scrambled egg. When you've got a bunch of it and you can't tell how many eggs are there, AmE goes for scrambled eggs. So, BrE scrambled egg on toast = AmE scrambled eggs on toast. I've covered this one before, so if you want to have a conversation about count and mass nouns, please see this old post.


One week of blogging down, many to go!

PS: I meant to point out another difference between US and UK (and European generally, I think) eggs: American eggs need to be refrigerated, British ones don't. Here's an article about why.

Egg cartons/boxes
colo(u)r-coded by size
PPS: What counts as a 'large' egg or a 'medium' egg differs too. Possibly not in the direction that you'd think. Have a look at Wikipedia

When I go to the shop to buy eggs in England, my choices seem to have more to do with how the chickens were raised than with the size of the eggs, whereas in US supermarkets, there seems to be more variety available in egg size, more clearly label(l)ed—e.g. in different colo(u)red cartons. You can see the difference in this photo of eggs on the shelf (not the fridge) in a UK chain versus this at our supermarket in NY state.

PPPS: It is very hard to get a white-shelled chicken egg in the UK. I go through a crisis about this every Easter when I'm trying to dye eggs (like the good American parent that I am, or try to be). I end up just leaving them in the dye extra-long and have dark colo(u)rs instead of pastel ones. In the US, white-shelled was the norm when I was growing up, but brown ones have become more and more common, on the mistaken belief that they are somehow more 'natural'. It's the species of chicken involved that determines the shell colo(u)r.
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2019 US-to-UK Word of the Year: gotten

For part 1 of the 2019 Words of the Year, click here.  Now we're on to the US-to-UK WotY.

Radzi Chinyanganya, WotY inspiration
I had pretty much decided not to do a US-to-UK Word of the Year for 2019. The words nominated were generally ones that had made a big splash in English recently on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than long-standing Americanisms that were making a splash in Britain. I had begun to think that BrE had reached peak Americanism. But then I went through my top tweets of the year, and saw one that made me think: "Oh yeah, that's it."


The US-to-UK Word of the Year is:

gotten



Here's the tweet that reminded me: 
 


Now, this choice might be controversial in that gotten is not just and not originally American. It is one of those linguistic things that mostly died in the UK while it thrived in the US. When I moved to the UK, a colleague told me that you'd still hear gotten among old people in Yorkshire. I haven't had the chance to bother any old people in Yorkshire about that, but -en forms of get were found far and wide in English dialects. That said, the OED has it as "chiefly U.S." and it is widely perceived in the UK as an Americanism. In England you do hear it more from Americans (in the media, if not in person) than from British folk. Here's a bit of what I said about it in The Prodigal Tongue:

That part of the book goes on to examine the evidence that gotten only really got going in the US—that it was not used much in the formal English of those who came from England to the Americas, and that its use exploded only in the late 19th century, when the US was finding a voice of its own. (Want to know more? I have a book to sell you!)

So, while gotten is not just American nor originally American, America is where gotten made its fortune. The "standard" British participle for get is have got, as discussed (along with its meaning) in this old post.

What's interesting about gotten in Britain in 2019 is that it's been used quite a bit in places where you don't tend to hear non-standard, regional grammatical forms: like on the BBC and in Parliament. And I have heard it among my child's middle-class (orig. AmE) tween friends here in the southeast. Here are some interesting examples, besides our friend Radzi.*

On the CBeebies (BBC channel for young children) website:


In a BBC news story about an orange seagull in Buckinghamshire:

Hospital staff said the bird "had somehow gotten himself covered in curry or turmeric".

In the linguistically (and otherwise) conservative Telegraph newspaper:**
Yet, it is the ageing filter that has gotten most people talking.

By then-Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who got into trouble for saying:
The Lib Dems have gotten kind of Taliban, haven’t they?

And in the House of Commons:
  • "I would like to share some of the thoughts of organisations that have gotten in touch in recent days to share their experience of training mental health first aiders..." —Luciana Berger, 17 Jan 2019
  • "...those in Sinn Féin say, 'Well, we’ve gotten away with two years of saying we’re not going back into government until...'" —Gregory Campbell, 5 Mar 2019
  • "...the mess that this place has gotten itself into..."  —Deirdre Brock 19 Mar 2019
  • "...the best way of dealing with this is not through a voluntary levy based on the least that can be gotten away with" —Jim Shannon, 2 July  2019
There's a difference, though, between the ones from the House of Commons and the others. The parliamentary ones have gotten in a set phrase of some sort. It's long been the case that British speakers say gotten in close proximity to mess and into, since they're alluding to Laurel and Hardy films, where gotten is indeed the form. And in the other cases above, we've got gotten away with and gotten in touch, which are figurative and idiomatic uses. (Neither of those particular idioms is particularly American.) Since gotten is heard in Parliament as part of set phrases, it's not clear that it would be a 'normal' way for those speakers to form the past participle of get in general.

The other examples above (and indeed Radzi's uses that inspired my original tweet) are have gotten just as a plain old verb in its many meanings. Those interest me more because they do seem more like the re-introduction of the get-got-gotten paradigm, and not just certain constructions that have been remembered with a certain verb form.

A lot of the British gotten that I've been exposed to is from homegrown children's television and children, and that's what really seals it for me as a 2019 word. After 20 years of not hearing it much (and training myself out of saying it much), I'm really noticing it. You can find lots of people, particularly older people, in the UK talking about its ugliness or wrongness, but the fact that younger people are un-self-consciously saying it makes me think that it will get bigger still.

And on that note, a bit later than is decent, I say goodbye to 2019!


Footnotes:

* I haven't presented corpus numbers in this post, since the bulk of the gotten numbers in corpora tend to be (in news) quoted Americans or (in other things) in set phrases. The Hansard corpus tool at Huddersfield University doesn't seem to be able to separate the gottens from the ill-gottens—which is a form that has remained in BrE despite the more general loss of gotten.

** (I got quite a few google hits for gotten in the Telegraph, for which I could see the gotten in the preview. But for some, when I clicked through, the same sentence had got. Might this be because some stories were originally posted with gotten then changed when the "error" was caught?)
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2019 UK-to-US Word of the Year: knock-on

It's the end of the year, and time to declare the Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year. As ever, I've got two categories: US-to-UK and UK-to-US. In other words: I'm interested in borrowings between these national dialects. To be a SbaCL WoTY, the word doesn't have to have been imported precisely in that year—it just needs to have been noticeable in some way. For past WotYs, see here. I'll post the US-to-UK word soon; this post is for UK-to-US.

I've been noticing a lot of Britishisms in American English this year (and, as ever, Ben Yagoda is recording many of them at his Not One-Off Britishisms [NOOB] blog). I've decided to go with one nominated by Neil Dolinger last month. The UK-to-US SbaCL Word of the Year is:

knock-on

The relevant sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
Being a secondary or indirect consequence of another action, occurrence, or event
It's most commonly found in the phrase knock-on effect, which is first recorded in the OED in 1972. Knock-on itself seems to have passed into general usage from physics:

Ben Yagoda's blog had knock-on effect as an "on-the-radar NOOB" in 2012, and the reason I've chosen it as the 2019 UK-to-US Word of the Year is its 2018-19 surge in US usage, as can be seen here in the US portion of the News on the Web corpus:



Of the 612 US examples of it in this corpus, 481 are in the phrase knock-on effect(s). Another 83 are followed by another noun, such as impact, employment, and delays.

It's still very much a British expression: while knock-on still occurs about 5 times per million British words in the News on the Web corpus, it's still less than once per million in the US news corpus (.63 in 2019 overall). And that corpus is showing the marks of globali{s/z}ation—a frequent source of knock-on in the US data is from the US edition of the UK paper The Guardian and of the Irish Times international edition. Still, it is showing up in a lot of homegrown US media: local news channels, the Washington Post, Forbes, Variety, and others:

Click to enlarge
 
Why is it more common in the first half of each year than the second? Well, for 2019, there are no examples after October, so I think that might be an effect of the corpus collection methods. It could also be because of rugby, in which knock-on is a noun (for when the ball is knocked forward). The Six Nations tournament starts in February and 4 out of 24 US examples of knock-on in February 2019 and 4 of 13 in March have the rugby sense. By contrast, in January and April, zero of the 29 US hits have the rugby sense. So, while there is definitely noise from the rugby sense in two months of the year, that effect seems limited.

I'll let Ben Yagoda have the last say about whether this shift is enough to take it from "on the radar" to being a full-blown Not One-Off Britishism in the US, but I thank Neil for nominating it.
But before I go, it seems fitting to mention this dialectal difference: BrE Heath Robinson machine versus AmE Rube Goldberg machine. You can click on the links to learn about their namesakes, but here's an OK Go video to illustrate knock-on effects, just for fun. Happy New Year!
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Book Week 2019: Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet


Welcome to the final review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing. The 'week' has turned out to be eight days. If you're perturbed about that, I'm happy to offer you a full refund on your subscription fees for this blog.

On with the show. Today's book is:


Because Internet

Understanding the new rules of language (US subtitle)
Understanding how language is changing (UK subtitle)

by Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead, 2019 (N America)
Harvill Secker, 2019 (UK)


Gretchen McCulloch describes herself as an internet linguist: writing about internet language for people on the internet. She actually does a lot more than that, with daily blogging at All Things Linguistic for years and being one half of the Lingthusiasm podcast team and writing on all sorts of linguistic themes for all sorts of publications. So, I expect many readers of this blog will already know her and have heard about this book. 

US Cover
I expected Because Internet to be good, knowing Gretchen's work, but I also probably (in my grumpy, middle-aged, oh-do-we-have-to-talk-about-emojis-again? way) expected it to be faddish. There have been too many just-plain-bad, (orig. AmE) jumping-on-the-bandwagon books about emojis, and I've got(ten) a bit sour on the topic. 

This book is so much more than I expected it to be. 

I should have known better. Having read and heard much of her work, I should have expected that this would be a truly sophisticated approach to language and to general-audience linguistics writing. So far in Book Week 2019, I've recommended the books as gifts for A-level students/teachers, science lovers, and language curmudgeons. This book is good for all those groups and more. 

UK cover
The key is in the subtitle(s).* This is not just a book about emojis and autocomplete (and, actually, autocomplete isn't even in the index). This is a book about the relationship between speech and writing and how that's changed with technology. It seamlessly introduces theories of why language changes, how change spreads and how communication works in a time when the potential for change is high and the potential for changes to spread is unprecedented. 

That seamless introduction of linguistic concepts is the reason I've started this book from the beginning and not skipped around (unlike for other books in Book Week—where the rule is that I don't have to read the whole book before I start writing about it). In most books about language for non-linguists, I'm able to skim or skip the bit where they talk about the basics of how language works and the classic studies on the topic and the ideas springing from them. McCulloch covers those issues and those studies (the Labovs, the Milroys, the Eckerts), but since this is intertwined with looking at how language is changing in the 21st century—because (of the) internet—it was worth my while to read straight through. The great thing about the language of the internet is: even when it looks really different from non-internet language, it's still illustrating general principles about how language, communication, and society work. But it also shows how society is changing because of technology, particularly in changing who we are likely to interact with or hear from, In the process, it gives a history of the internet that's enlightening even for those of us who've lived through it all. (I've just flipped open to a section about  PLATO at the University of Illinois. One of my student jobs was working in a PLATO lab, playing Bugs-n-Drugs [aka Medcenter] while signing people in and out. That game was not good for my hypochondria, but I have awfully fond memories of PLATO.)


Another thing to appreciate about McCulloch's book is how unreactionary it is. She doesn't set up her discussion as "You've heard people say these stupid things about the internet, but here's the TRUTH." (A style of writing that I can be very, very guilty of.) She mostly just makes her case gracefully, based on what the language is doing, rather than reacting to what other people say the language is doing. Rather than 'This, that and the other person say emoji are a new language, but they're not', she just gets on with explaining how emoji fulfil(l) our communicative need to gesture. It's a positive approach that academic linguists will have had trained out of them by the requirements of academic publishing.

This is a bit of a nerdview 'review'. Usually reviews tell you some fun facts from the book they're reviewing, whereas I'm telling you what I've noticed about its information structure. That's because that's what I really look for in books as I prepare to write a new one. In terms of information, in this book you'll learn, among other things:
  • which "internet generation" you belong to and how your language is likely to be different from other generations'.
  • what punctuation communicates in texting/chat and how that differs from formal writing
  • how language change can be traced through studying strong and weak social links and geographic tagging on Twitter
Inevitably, the book is mainly about English, in no small part because English rules the internet. But it does make its way to other languages and cultures—for instance, how Arabic chat users adapted their spelling to the roman alphabet and how emojis are interpreted differently around the world.  In the end, she briefly considers whether space is being made for other languages on the internet.

It's a galloping read and you'll learn all sorts of things.


So, on that happy review, I declare Book Week 2019 FINISHED.


* I love the transatlantic change in subtitles, since it completely illustrates the point of chapter 8 of The Prodigal Tongue: that Americans like to talk about language in terms of rules, and Britons in terms of history/tradition. I've also written a shorter piece about my personal experience of it for Zócalo Public Square.
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Book Week 2019: David Shariatmadari's Don't Believe a Word

Welcome to the third review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing this week. In the end, there will be four posts. I thought there would be five, but one of the books has (orig. BrE) gone missing. Having had a day off yesterday, I will also have a day off tomorrow, so the final review will appear during the weekend. Probably.

Anyhow, today's book is:

Don't believe a word
the surprising truth about language

by David Shariatmadari
Norton, 2019 (N America)
W&N, 2019 (UK/RoW)


David Shariatmadari writes for the Guardian, often about language, and is one of the sensible journalists on the topic. The number of sensible journalists writing about language has really shot up in the past decade, and judging from reading their books, this is in part because of increasingly clear, public-facing work by academic linguists. (Yay, academic linguists!) But in Shariatmadari's case, the journalist is a linguist: he has a BA and MA in the subject. And it shows—in the best possible way. 

The book is a familiar genre: busting widely held language myths. If you've read books in this genre before, you probably don't need these myths busted. You probably know that linguistic change is natural, that the border between language and dialect is unfindable, that apes haven't really learned sign languages, and that no form of language is inherently superior to another. Nevertheless, you may learn something new, since Shariatmadari's tastes for linguistic research and theories is not always on the same wavelength as some other books directed at such a general audience.

Once again, I'm reviewing with a partial view of the book (this is the practical law of Book Week 2019). In this case, I've read chapters 1, 5, and 9 and skimmed through other bits. The introductory chapter gives us a bit of insight into Shariatmadari's conversion to full-blown linguist, as a reluctant student of Arabic who was quickly converted to admiration for the language and to the study of language as an insight into humanity. "It's not hyperbole to say that linguistics is the universal social science", he writes. "It intrudes into almost every area of knowledge."
UK cover

I chose to read chapter 5 because I'd had the pleasure of hearing him talk about its topic at a student conference recently: the popularity of "untranslatable word" lists. Goodness knows, I've contributed to them. What I liked about the talk was his detective work on the words themselves—some of the words and definitions presented in lists of 'untranslatables' are practically fictional. And yet, those of us who don't speak the language in question often eat up these lists because of our ethnocentric need to exotici{s/z}e others. This leads inevitably to discussion of linguistic relativism—the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think—and the bad, old (so-called) evidence for it and the newer evidence for something much subtler. The chapter then goes in a direction I wasn't expecting: introducing Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), an interesting (but far from universally taught) approach to meaning that uses about 65 semantic building blocks to represent and compare meanings across languages. NSM adherents make the case that few, if any, words are truly equivalent across languages. But while any word in one language may have no single-word equivalent in another language, that doesn't mean those words are untranslatable. It just means that translating them can be a delicate and complicated thing.

US cover
The final chapter (9) takes the opposite view to David Adger's Language Unlimited (in my last review), and argues that the hierarchical (and human-specific) nature of linguistic structure need not be the product of an innate Universal Grammar, but instead could arise from the complexity of the system involved and humans' advanced social cognition. While Adger had a whole book for his argument, Shariatmadari has 30-odd pages, and so it's not really fair to compare them in terms of the depth of their argumentation, but still worth reading the latter to get a sense of how linguists and psychologists are arguing about these things.

Shariatmadari is a clear and engaging writer, and includes a good range of references and a glossary of linguistic terminology. If you know someone who still believes some language myths, this might be a good present for them. (Though in my experience, people don't actually like getting presents that threaten their worldview. I still do it, because I care more about myth-busting writers earning royalties than I care about linguistic chauvinists getting presents they want.) It would also make an excellent gift for A-level English and language students (and teachers) and others who might be future linguists. After they read it, send them my way. I love having myth-busted students.
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Book week 2019: David Adger's Language Unlimited

Welcome to the second review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week. Next up we have:

Language unlimited
the science behind our most creative power

by David Adger
Oxford University Press, 2019


This is a book for people who like to think about HOW THINGS WORK. It's a serious work of popular science writing, which carefully spells out the mysteries of syntax. And by mysteries, I mean things you've probably never even noticed about language. But once they're pointed out, you have to sit back and say "Whoa." Because even though you hadn't noticed these things, you know them. Remember a few years ago, when the internet was hopping with posts about how we subconsciously know which order to put adjectives in? That's kid's play compared with the stuff that Adger'll teach you about the things you know but don't know about.

Adger (who is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University, London) describes the situation carefully, clearly, and engagingly, using copious examples and analogies to communicate some really subtle points. (I particularly liked the explanation of form versus function in language, which drew on the form versus the function of alcohol. Chin-chin!) He draws in evidence from neurology, psychology, and computer science to both corroborate his points and to introduce further questions about how language works.

As I said in the intro to Book week, I have not read all the books I'm reviewing absolutely cover-to-cover. In this case, of the ten chapters, I read 1–3, 7, and 10—and skimmed through the other chapters. The early chapters make the case that there's more to linguistic structure than meets the eye and that human linguistic abilities must consist of something special—they must be qualitatively different from the types of cognition that other animals use and that humans use in non-linguistic communication. Later ones cover issues like how children experience and acquire their first language and what happens when computers try to learn human language. Throughout, the examples feature Adger's partner Anson and his cat Lilly.  I almost feel like I know them now. Hi Anson and Lilly!

Adger makes clear from the start that his book makes a particular argument in favo(u)r of a particular way of explaining language's mysteries—and that particular way is a Chomskyan way. This means that he makes the case for a Universal Grammar that underlies all human language. I was struck by his willingness and ability to take this all the way for a lay audience. By chapter 9, he is explaining Merge, the key tool of Chomsky's Minimalist Program

Now, here I have to say: this is not the kind of linguistics I do. It's not just that I'm not a syntactician—though I have, from time to time, dipped my toe into theories grammatical. It's also that I lost faith in theoretical monotheism when I moved from a very Chomskyan undergraduate degree to a more ecumenical linguistics department for my (post)graduate studies. When I arrived for my PhD studies, the department wanted to know which syntactic theories I'd studied, so they could determine which courses I needed to take. I could not tell them. After four years of studying Chomskyan linguistics, I thought I had spent four undergraduate years studying "Syntax". No one had told me that I was studying a theory of syntax, just one among several theories.

Ever since, I have tended to agnosticism and s{c/k}epticism when it comes to syntactic theory. (This is probably how I ended up as not-a-syntactician; I don't know that it's possible to have a career in grammatical studies without adhering to one theoretical church or another.) Being a lexicologist has meant that I don't have to take sides on these things. And so I play around with different theories and see how they deal with the phenomena I study. When I listen to the evangelists, I listen warily. I tend to find that they oversimplify the approaches of competitor theories, and don't learn as much from them as they could (or, at least, sometimes don't give them credit for their contributions). This is all a very long explanation of why I skipped to chapter 7—the chapter where Adger responds to some non-Chomskyan ideas (mostly personified in the chapter by Joan Bybee).

So (mostly BrE*) all credit to Adger for spending a chapter on this, and for citing recent work in it. I generally thought his points were fair, but I did what I usually do in response to such theoretical take-downs: I thought "ok, but what about..." I do think he's right that some facts point to the existence of a Universal Grammar, but I also think it's not the only interesting part of the story, and that it's premature to discount arguments that explore the possibility that much of what happens in language learning is based in experience of language and general cognitive abilities. But then, I would think that.

I definitely recommend the book for people who are interested in the scientific approach to language, but I'd skip the final chapter (10). It is an oddly tacked-on bit about sociolinguistic phenomena, precisely the kinds of things that are not even approached in the theory the rest of the book has been arguing for.

I congratulate Adger on this strong work that makes extraordinarily abstract concepts clear.





P.S. Since I'm not doing Differences of the Day on Twitter this week, here's little chart of use of all credit to (frequency per million words) in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, for good measure.


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Book week 2019: Jane Setter's Your Voice Speaks Volumes

Welcome to the first review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week.

I'm starting with the most recent book in the ol' pile of books from publishers:

Your voice speaks volumes
it's not what you say, but how you say it

by Jane Setter
Oxford University Press, 2019


Jane is Professor of Phonetics at the University of Reading (UK) and a recipient of the prestigious National Teaching Fellowship. (As you can see, we are on a first-name basis, as we travel some of the same Public Linguist circles.) I mention the teaching fellowship because it is relevant: Jane is excellent at making linguistics, particularly phonetics, crystal clear for the uninitiated. She uses that talent to great effect in her first book for the general public. 

This book speaks squarely to a general British audience — and to those who want to know more about English-language issues and attitudes in this country. I'm writing this on a day when my social media feed has given me (a) the story of a man wrongly arrested for public drunkenness in Brighton—because the police had mistaken his Liverpool accent for slurring and (b) a misreading of the relevance of accent in the US (as a means to say something about how accents are read in the UK). But I'd have at least two such things to tell you about on any other day when I might have written this post. Accents make the news in Britain because they matter inordinately. Differences that might not be discernible to those from other countries are imbued with layers and layers of meaning and subjected to piles and piles of prejudice. 

As I warned in the intro to Book Week, I have not been able to read the whole book. But I was able to get through much more than I thought I'd be able to in a single evening (four of the seven chapters: 1, 2, 3, 7). Part of my speed was because I could skim the bits that were explaining linguistic facts that I already knew. (That's not to say that the facts here are too basic. I've just had a helluva lotta linguistics education.) But it is a zippy read throughout. Setter uses personal and celebrity stories to demonstrate the everyday relevance of the phonetic and sociolinguistic facts that she's explaining. (Hey look, I seem to revert to last-name basis when I'm reviewing someone's book.) 

The chapters I haven't yet read are those that I'd probably learn the most from: on the use of linguistics in forensic investigations, on voices in performance (including accent training for actors and why singers' accents change in song—which she should know, since she's also a singer in a rock band), and on transgender and synthesized voices. I started with the chapter that relates most to my work ('English voices, global voices') and then went back to the beginning where I was most likely to run into things I already know. That's good from a reviewing perspective, because I can say with confidence that Setter covers well the things that I know need to be covered for her audience. But as I got further into the book, the more unexpected things I learned. I ended in the chapter on women's and men's voices, and I will tell you: I learned some things! To give an example, I liked her interpretation of a study in which women and men were asked to count to ten using various kinds of voices, including 'confident' and 'sexy'. It turns out men generally don't have a 'sexy voice' to put on, while women do, and this might tell us something about what we're sociali{s/z}ed to find sexy—and why.

It's hard to write about sound —and especially about linguistic sounds for a general audience. Writing for linguists is easy, because we have a lot of practice in using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). But you don't want to fill a book for non-linguists with letters that don't make the same sound as they make in English spelling, or letters they've never even seen before. Setter mostly talks about accents without having to get into the kind of phonetic minutiae that excite linguists and make laypeople glaze over. Where she does need technical terms (e.g. lexical sets), she explains them carefully and clearly. But happily for all of us, Setter wrote this book in the internet age. Throughout the book, there are scannable QR codes by which one can hear the sounds she's talking about. (You can get there without a QR reader too, the web URLs are provided.)

For readers of this blog with an interest in US/UK issues, there is plenty of comparison between UK and US and discussion of "Americani{s/z}ation". These are discussed with an assumed familiarity with British Englishes and less with American Englishes.

This book is an important instrument for fighting accentism and other linguistic prejudice in the UK. It might make a nice gift for that person in your life who says they "care deeply about the English language", but really what they mean is "I like to judge other people's use of the English language". 

But more than that, it is a great demonstration of what the study of phonetics can do. I really, really recommend it for A-level students in English (language) and their teachers, as it touches on many of the areas of linguistics taught at that level and would surely inspire many doable research projects. 

Let me just end with: congratulations on this book, Jane!
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Book week 2019: the prologue

My new year's resolution for 2019 was: Finish the books I start. 

Now, it must be said, I don't read enough books. I do a lot of reading for research, which does not usually involve reading books from cover to cover. (It involves reading journal articles, reading chapters, using the indices of books to find the bits I need.) Since so much of my working life is reading (including multiple books' worth of student writing each term), after work I tend to do other things. But I still want to be reading books, because there are so many good books out there and I have great respect for the writers of books and the books they write.

I find it's very easy to start (reading) books. Rarely do I start reading a book and then lose interest in it. I have every intention and desire to finish most books that I start. But then some other book comes along and I just want to start that one too.

(It must be said here that these days I mostly read non-fiction—and it's relatively easy to leave non-fiction unfinished. If there is a story to a non-fiction book, I generally know how the story ends, so it doesn't have that page-turner vibe that fiction can have.)

At the start of 2019, there were four books that I had started months before, and had been really enjoying, yet instead of finishing them, I started other books. But thanks to my resolution, they are finished. Yay! 

So that was going well. Until I started starting books again. As of last week, I had seven books on the go (not counting a couple that made me say "Life's too short to spend it on this sub-par book"). And thanks to what I'm about to do, I will probably soon have 12 unfinished books heading into the LAST MONTH of 2019. So: made a resolution to reduce the number of unfinished books I have, and I am ending the year with THREE TIMES AS MANY unfinished books. What a failure!

But the reason I'm starting even more books is that people send me books. Publishers send me books. I get a lot of books. They send me the books because I have a blog and they want me to help publici{s/z}e the books. I like getting the books, and I want to help authors of good books. And it helps them if I tell you about the books in a timely way.

So this week, I am going to write about some of the books I've been sent this year and which I may not have read from cover to cover. For each book, I plan to read at least two chapters before telling you about it. So, I'm going to have a feel for the book, which I can tell you about, even if I haven't read the whole book.

Why do this now? Two reasons:
  1. I can assuage my guilt about not writing about these books sooner by pretending that I was waiting to give you a seasonal list of books that would make great gifts for the holiday season!
  2. I have the time.
I have the time because my union is about to go on strike for eight days. During this time, I am not engaging in the activities that the university pays me for. (And indeed, I will not be paid by the university for those days.) So, I'm catching up on things I want/like to do that are not within my job description. And apparently starting books and not finishing them is one of the things I like to do best.

I'm only going to tell you about books I like. I'm channel(l)ing my mother: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." I'm also listening to the adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity." I've decided not to give any publicity to sub-par books. I could be scathing about them (and witty—scathing and witty go hand-in-hand). And that might be a lot of fun. But I'd just rather not shine my light on sub-par books, since that takes space and attention away from the good books. 

Some of the books I'll write about are by people I like. It's not that I know them well, just that I've had enough interactions with them to know we're on the same wavelength—so it's not quite nepotism (just tribalism?). And I'm going to try my best to have five posts for five days, but life happens and I might have to interpret "week" very loosely.

So: stay tuned, and we'll get this book week going.

Oh, and: I'm taking nominations for US-to-UK and UK-to-US Words of the Year. Are there any US-to-UK or UK-to-US borrowings that are particularly 2019-ish? They don't have to have first come to the other country this year, but they should have had particular attention or relevance in the other country this year. Please nominate them in the comments below.
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grammar is relationships


This is not a post about American versus British English. I hope you’ll indulge me. It's come out of some Twitter conversations this afternoon.

It started when I read this sentence in James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns:
Function words require social skills to use properly.

And I wondered how it had got(ten) past a copyeditor. So I did a Twitter poll to see if other people were happy with the sentence. The poll looked like this: 


So, 25% of more than 300 people thought it sounded fine. 75% felt there was something weird about it. Given how I phrased the question, it's possible that the 75% had 100 different reasons for thinking it weird. But considering some of the tweet-replies I had, I know that at least some people had the same reaction that I did. 

The problem with the sentence for me is that there is no reasonable subject for the verb to use. Compare it to this sentence with the same kinds of parts in the same order:  
 The law requires every driver to drive safely.

In that case, the subject of the infinitive to drive is every driver—every driver is to drive safely. So, what you've got is:
  • Main verb: requires
  • Subject of main verb: the law
  • Object of main verb = infinitive clause: every driver to drive safely

But that doesn't work for Pennebaker's sentence. Social skills to use properly is not a complete clause because (a) there's no object of the verb to use (to use what properly?), and (b) social skills is in a position where it could be the subject of to use (as in the driving example), but it's not.  The sentence could be "fixed" in a number of ways that involve making it clearer that function words are the things being used.
  1. Make the infinitive into a passive, so it's clear that function words is the object of use: Function words require social skills to be used properly.
  2. Move use closer to function words so that it's clear how they relate to each other: To use function words properly requires social skills. (Or Using function words properly requires social skills.)
  3. Move function words closer to useIt takes social skills to use function words properly.
Number 1 is a little ambiguous (it sounds a bit like function words are bossing social skills around), so I'd prefer 2 or 3, where it's really clear that function words is the object of use

But there are sentences with require that do work more like Pennebaker's sentence:
Crops require water to grow.

Here, it's not the water that's growing, it's the crops. So it doesn't work like the driving sentence—the object of require is not water to grow. In both sentences, I've put the object of require in blue, so you can see that the sentences have different structures. Another way that you can tell they're different structures is that you can replace to with in order to in one and not the other and can rephrase one with that and no to, but not the other.
The law requires every passenger in order to drive safely.
Crops require water in order to grow.
 The law requires that every driver drive safely. [or drives if you're not a subjunctive user]

Crops require that water grow.

So one of the reasons I wanted to write this post is to make this big point:
Grammar isn't just where words go in a sentence, it's how they relate to each other.
The fact that the crops sentence is the same shape as Pennebaker's sentence doesn't mean that Pennebaker's sentence is grammatical, because it still has the problem that there is no subject for to use. Notice that it can't be rephrased in either of the ways that the other two can:
Function words require social skills in order to use properly
Function words require that social skills use properly
The last possibility is to interpret use as being in middle voice (as opposed to active or passive voice). This is when the verb acts kind of like a passive (where what would have been the active object becomes the subject), but doesn't get the passive be +past participle form. English has some verbs that work this way.
I cut the bread easily. (active voice: subject is the cutter)
The bread is cut easily. (passive voice: subject is what's cut)
The bread cuts easily. (middle voice: subject is what's cut)
Grammar Girl has a podcast and post on middle voice in English if you're interested. English has more of a 'middlish' voice than a 'middle', as we're really limited in how we can use it and it doesn't have a special verb form, as it does in some other languages. As Grammar Girl notes:
[English] middle-voice sentences usually include some adverbial meaning, negation, or a modal verb, or a combination of the three. “The spearheads didn’t cast very well” has both negation (“didn’t”) and an adverb phrase (“very well”). “The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would” has the adverb phrase “more easily than I thought it would.”
While Pennebaker's sentence does have an adverb, properly, it's not one that I'm super-comfortable using with a middle construction (?The bread cuts properly), but maybe some people would like it better than I do. (Proper is used more as an adjective and adverb of intensity in some colloquial BrEs than in my AmE.)

So, are the 25% who like the sentence reading it as having middle voice? I'm not totally convinced, because I think that the English middle doesn't do well with fancier sentence constructions as with require:
?That bread requires a good knife to cut easily.
?That bread requires a steady hand to cut easily.
Putting an object between requires and to makes it confusing—is it the bread or the knife/hand that is cutting easily? If it's the knife or hand, then the sentence would usually require an it to stand for the bread: The bread requires a good knife to cut it easily. 

So, anyhow, when I put the Pennebaker sentence up, some people wondered if it was like this dialect phenomenon, found in some parts of the US (particularly western Pennsylvania) and some parts of the UK (particularly Scotland):
The car needs washed.
It was natural for them to make that connection because both Pennebaker's sentence and the needs washed sentence would work in other dialects if the final verb were made passive. But note that what needs to be added to the sentences to create a passive is different in the two cases. In needs washed, the washed is in the past participle needed for a passive. But in Pennebaker's sentence the infinitive verb is not in any way in passive form.
The car needs to be washed.
The function words require social skills to be used properly.

So, I asked the 25% who accepted the sentence to write back and tell me where they were from. And it turns out they're from anywhere.... New Jersey, California, New England, southeastern US, eastern and western Canada, up and down the UK, the Caribbean. That makes it look like it's not a dialect feature. 

An interesting thing about the 25%, though, was that a few got in touch to say: "I clicked that the sentence was fine for me, but once I started thinking about it, I was less sure."

After the dialect idea didn't pan out, I joked that the next step was to give personality tests to people who didn't like the sentence. And while it was a joke, I think there is probably something to the idea  that some people read for meaning and don't get the grammatical 'clang' that I got because getting the meaning is good enough. If they can get the meaning without a deep look at the grammar, the grammar is irrelevant. I'd wonder if people who get a 'clang' with this sentence are also more likely to also notice misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. A lot of us who notice these things notice them because we've been trained in looking at language analytically, or we're just very literal readers. Had I heard Pennebaker's sentence, I probably wouldn't have noticed that there was no workable subject for the verb use. I would have just understood it and gone merrily on my way. But in reading, CLANG.


Anyhow, the main reason I wanted to blog this was to make that point that Grammar is how words relate to each other. That two sentences with the same shape can be working in very different ways. And on that note, I'll leave you with an experiment that Carol Chomsky did way back when. She gave children a doll with a blindfold over its eyes and asked them if this sentence was true—and if not, to make the sentence true.
The doll is easy to see. 
Notice how that sentence doesn't work like this sentence:
The doll is eager to see.
In the first, the doll is being seen. We can paraphrase it as The doll is easy for me to see. In the second, the doll is who will do the seeing. We can't paraphrase it as The doll is eager for me to see, because it means The doll is eager for the doll to see. The words easy and eager determine how we interpret the relations of the other words in the sentence. In linguistic terms, they license different relationships in the sentence. (In these sentences it's adjectives doing that relationship-determining, but in most sentences, it's the verbs. In our requires sentences above, we can see that require licenses a range of possible sentence structures—words do that too.)

Understanding that a blindfolded doll is easy to see is something that most kids don't master till they're into their school years. When asked to make the doll easy to see, the younger kids take off the doll's blindfold. This shows us that kids take a while to fully take account of the grammar, not just the words, in sentences.

Hope you didn't mind my little grammatical foray...
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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)