Tag Archives: linguistics

Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

Let’s start with four hard truths:

  1. Language changes.
    Language is used by living, changeable people who are constantly being gradually replaced by new people who learn it in different circumstances and get different ideas about it. It’s a part of a society that is in constant flux. Nothing else stays the same; why would language?
  2. We take part in that change.
    You and I are among language’s users – and editors have extra influence in what makes it into print.
  3. We can’t always predict or control how it will change.
    We’re still only individual players in a very large game.
  4. We are usually unaware of how it has changed in the past.
    We have less of an idea of how our language has changed than we have of how our clothing and décor have changed. Most of us don’t know that a sentence such as The suspect planned to use a car to raid the warehouse would have been “bad English” in 1900 for its use of suspect as a noun, plan and raid as verbs, and car to mean automobile, while every “awful new error” in Hopefully, gifting generously will impact our decimated morale has been established usage for much longer.

Change always happens, but it happens at different speeds in different ways in different places. Teenagers embrace and create change; certain areas of publishing resist it obdurately. Some new words catch on slowly, others quickly, and some don’t last (zowie!). We change language for four basic reasons:

  1. To make life easier.
    We reduce the effort in saying a word or we reduce the number of words in a sentence: give incentive to becomes incent. We cut down the complexity of a language system: more than a dozen different forms of the definite article have been merged into the. We avoid social awkwardness: we now always use you so we never have to decide if someone is a thou. We add clarity and reduce ambiguity: some dialects now have a you all. Sometimes making life easier means increasing effort in order to avoid confusion.
  2. To feel better.
    We do it for fun: wordplay, clever slang, cute turns of phrase. We do it for art, for example metaphor. We do it for culture, using new words for food, artifacts, and so on. And we do it for in-group identity: teen slang, technical jargon, the pervasive in-house acronyms of the business world.
  3. To control.
    Some change happens because some people want to exert power over others. And some change happens because some people want their world to be tidy. These two impulses often work in concert, as when we impose a standard version of the language with specific rules and exceptions and make it a badge of membership in a certain social set. Words, phrasings, or pronunciations are deprecated because they’re associated with lower-status groups, even if they’re the product of the same kinds of processes used in the standard dialect.
  4. Things slip.
    We actively change language for the three preceding reasons. But sometimes we also change it through accident and the gradual slippage inevitable in centuries of use and transmission. The word ask started out as acs and now some dialects are taking it back to that; throw used to mean “twist” and warp used to mean “throw”; an adder eating an orange and some peas used to be a nadder eating a norange and some pease.

 The most insidious kind of change is imposition of rules that claim to be guarding against change. All of the big “rules” that some people get so exercised about were introduced in the last two or three centuries: don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a conjunction, don’t use double negatives or double superlatives… If you ignore these “rules” there will always be people who claim you are changing the language (and making an illiterate mess of it – see reason 3, above), but you will in truth have more historical basis.

So what do we do about all this? Since we’re all active participants in language change, and since we editors have some influence and have to make conscious decisions about what change to accept and what to resist, we need some criteria on which to base our decisions. I recommend asking the following five questions:

  1. What is the change? Really?
    Make sure you know what’s newer: the “new” thing or the “rule” against it. Hopefully, you can look it up.
  2. Where did it come from? When?
    Dictionary sites such as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com and language-focused sites such as World Wide Words, Language Log, and several others (including my own) can give useful details.
  3. Where is it used? By whom?
    Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and other tools such as Google ngrams can be very useful to find out when, where, and by whom a word has been used.
  4. Who is your text for?
    It’s up to you to know as much as possible about the demographics of your readership and the general expectations for the kind of writing you’re editing – some genres and audiences are more conservative (or stuck on schoolhouse “rules”) than others.
  5. What are the gains and losses?
    This is the real point of decision on any usage or rule. If it adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping: subtle differences of tone, emphasis, and signification. (That doesn’t mean use slang freely in formal documents – it might make the slang lose its casual tone!) But anything that mainly serves to limit what you can do with the language – whether it be a blurring of a semantic distinction or a rigid rule against a certain construction – will do more harm than good and is best put aside… if it can be.

The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life. Continue reading

Prayers and thoughts and inefficacious speech acts

My latest article for The Week is actually one I wrote a few months ago. We decided to keep it in reserve until another mass shooting brought the topic into the news again. Sadly, we knew that it would happen. And it did. Here’s a piece on that thing that people say as a substitute for doing anything effective:

How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became the stock phrase of tragedies


What’s logical about English?

A common complaint about English – by those who are inclined to complain about English – is that it’s not logical enough. Whatever that means. Words aren’t premises and sentences aren’t syllogisms, after all.

If you inspect the targets of their opprobrium, you find soon enough that what they mean is that English isn’t tidy enough for them. It’s inconsistent. Lacking in symmetry. Their experience has led them to believe that for every up there should be a down, for every in an out; when they see an over, they think “therefore under,” and if there is no under, they are… underwhelmed.

They’ve condemned themselves to a lifetime of disappointment. English does not satisfy their need for an overarching tidiness. It is not a Zen garden; it is a forested mountain, every tree grown unplanned in its place and conditions, every rock where the ineluctable complexities of physics left it. It is not an edifice of modernist design with proportions based on the golden mean; it is a Winchester House of a language, a veritable Heathrow Airport of accretions (for those who have not been to Heathrow, let me just say I suspect that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts on it). Like any natural language, English has been built up by habit, need, association, and analogy. It does have structure – in fact, it has some inflexible syntactic requirements. We have slots to fill, and fill them we do. We just sometimes grab whatever’s ready to hand to fill them.

Let’s consider a few examples. One case where a desire for logic has actually prevailed is “double negatives.” Anyone who has studied logic will tell you that in “not not” the second not undoes the first one. “There will not be cake” is disappointing; “There will not not be cake” is affirming. Thus, the reasoning goes, “I do have nothing” and “I don’t have nothing” are opposite. But anyone who has learned a Romance language ought to know ça ne vaut rien, no vale nada – that ain’t worth nothing.

Nothing, you see, is not not. It’s a noun, not an operator. And one thing languages like is agreement. Concord. Adjectives tend to take the same gender as the nouns they modify, for instance. In English, we use concord with tenses in some contexts: “Should we expect them tomorrow?” “They said they weren’t coming.” Notice how we use weren’t even though we’re talking about the future? We even let negative concord pass unremarked in some contexts: “They won’t be coming, I don’t think.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t be coming; it just retains the negative aspect.

But since it’s possible, with shifting emphasis, to make “There ain’t no one here” and “There ain’t no one here” mean opposite things, an argument can be made for disallowing negative concord for the sake of unambiguity. So the proscription stuck, defended by pleas for logic – although “if negative noun, then negative verb” is perfectly reasonable if that’s the rule in the language.

Syntax has its requirements – as linguists would say, there are principles and parameters that specify how it functions in a given language. Negative concord is one parameter we have managed to turn off. Others are not so easily disabled. It’s necessary to have an explicit subject (except in imperatives), for instance; I can’t write “Is necessary to have an explicit subject,” so I stuff in an it that has no meaning. It may not seem logical to have a pronoun with no referent, but consider that, from the view of our syntax, “if it has a sentence then it has a subject” is solid. Sometimes we grab and stuff on the fly – we may jam a word in the place where a word like it normally goes, even if in this case it’s a whole nother thing and what even were we thinking? This, too, comes from a simple if-then – just a little simpler than it might have been.

Another plea for logic comes when a word is pressed into service in a way that seems untidy. One I saw recently was an objection to using disconnect as a noun, as in “There is a real disconnect between the labourers and the management.” We don’t say “There is a connect between them,” we say connection, so it’s illogical not to say disconnection. Indeed, this is untidy, in the same way as it’s untidy that when my wife is at home I heat two servings of food and pour two glasses of wine, but when she’s not at home I heat one serving and open a beer (or go out for sushi). But our little untidinesses have reasons: my wife doesn’t drink much beer and doesn’t like sushi. And disconnect is an allusive use borrowed from electronics and telephony.

A line of communication is expected to remain connected, so there is no instance where we would say that it has experienced a connect. We grabbed a bit and stuck it where it fit, and in so doing made a metaphorical connection. There’s no need to construct a symmetrical positive use any more than there is a need for a 33-storey building to have 33 levels of basement. And there’s no need to disallow allusions just for the sake of tidiness – we don’t forbid lights on Christmas trees just because there are none on the house plants. If you want to make a connection, you make it; if you don’t, you don’t. That’s logical, no?

Some people also like to laugh at how “illogical” English words are. “Why do our noses run and our feet smell? Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? Why do we say a bandage was wound around a wound? How come you can object to an object?” OK, now tell me why these are illogical.

Every one of them comes from a well-motivated historical development founded on consistent principles: metaphor, ergativity, historical sense developments and standard compounding rules, phonological shifts, stress-based differentiation of nouns from verbs. In every case there was an if-then judgement based on analogy. It just happened not to be exactly analogous to some other if-then judgements, and it produced results that seem inconsistent when juxtaposed. I think that’s fine – why not have funny things? But more than that, it’s not even illogical. In every case, we got to it from “if A → A´, then B → B´.” They just happened to be local judgements made in the context of a big, multifarious, inconsistent world.

But it would be illogical to treat a multifarious, inconsistent world as though it were elegant and pervasively consistent, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be well adapted. It would be like laying down a strict grid street plan for a very hilly city (and San Francisco knows how well that worked out). It wouldn’t be as much fun, either. And it might do real harm.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.















































Books on linguistics for non-linguists

I recently asked Twitter for suggestions for introductory books on linguistics I could recommend to people who have no background in it and don’t want a full-on university text. Here’s what I got. If you have more suggestions, do add them in the comments!

Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon.

Crystal, David. What Is Linguistics?

Everett, Daniel. Language: The Cultural Tool.

Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.

Matthews, Peter H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

Winkler, Elizabeth Grace. Understanding Language.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, Eric; Déchaine, Rose-Marie; and Burton, Strang. Linguistics for Dummies.

Yule, George. The Study of Language.

An online course was also recommended: Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Which reminded me that you can access MIT courseware online for free too (see Introduction to Linguistics, for example), but that is full-on university.

Infixes? Absofreakinglutely… not.

The tools of linguistics are like a fancy set of lock-picking tools, different ones suited to different locks. Some locks are hard to pick and linguists try a few different tools, proclaiming varying amounts of success in the effort. Sometimes you may want to conclude that a new tool is needed. One case that’s given a lot of fun in the attempt is the case of words such as abso-freaking-lutely. What, exactly, is taking place, morphosyntactically? Or is morphosyntax even the right way to look at it?

Well, here’s what I think, in my latest article for The Week:

Why linguists freak out about ‘absofreakinglutely’

They don’t even really know what to call it