Monday, October 31, 2005

English: the 18th century underdog to be lingua franca

Trivia from LL:

In 1783, the Berlin Academy held a competition for essays on the subject of the widespread usage of French, and its prospects for continuing as the lingua franca of European intellectuals. Apparently nine submissions argued that French would continue; nine that it would be replaced by German; and one that Russian would win out. (English got no votes.)

De Rivarol made his case for French:


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/31 at 01:23 PM
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‘On Language’ 10/26: Bring back thou and thee!

It might be helpful to bring back use of `thou’ and `thee’
On Language
Chicago Tribune
October 26, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

Q. I appreciated your recent article on intensifiers and the disappearance of “ye” in the 16th Century [“Linguistics study: `Friends’ reflects speech changes. So?,” Sept. 7]. But while you’re on the subject, what was the difference between “ye” and “thee,” and “thou” and “you”?

—Larry Simpson, Chicago

A. In the late 1400s, English had a second person pronoun system that worked this way: “Thou” was the singular subject (“Thou must ...”), “thee” the singular object (”... for thee”), “ye” the plural subject and “you” the plural object.

In a relatively rapid series of puzzling changes, “ye” and “you” kicked “thou” and “thee” out of the language, and then “you” almost completely replaced “ye” by the early 1600s. In a little more than a century, “you” went from having one grammatical job to having four.

The resulting ambiguity in English second person pronouns leads to such phrases as “you guys” and “y’all,” which are frowned upon as improper but are often necessary distinctions, thanks to this 16th Century shift.

I propose we get the very useful “thou” and “thee” back in the English language, but, as this episode shows, language change has always been beyond our control.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/31 at 10:33 AM
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Saturday, October 22, 2005

‘Myself’ as non-reflexive, and the etymology of ‘cockpit’

From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words newsletter this week:

Heavens, what trouble I got into last week when I wrote “You can hear an item with Adam Jacot de Boinod and myself”. The chorus of condemnation was loud and sustained. The trouble is that the “rule” about not using “myself” in this situation has been
drummed into generations of school children without much to justify
it except a vague feeling on the part of grammarians and educators
that it seemed somehow wrong. Modern style guides point to the body
of historical use of the construction as a justification for using
it. In the Third Edition of Fowler, Robert Burchfield remarks that
such forms are “beyond reproach” and quotes a sentence parallel to
mine from a booklet of his own. But Bryan Garner, in his Modern
American Usage, is against it, marking a stylistic difference that
seems to exist between American and British English.


Q. If I don’t find out where the air force term ‘cockpit’ came
from, I’m going to go mad. What do you think? [Rick Loiacono,


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/22 at 01:20 PM
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Friday, October 14, 2005

“On Language” 10/13: Linguistic evidence for reincarnation?

Skeptic scoffs at the link between language and past lives
On Language
Chicago Tribune
October 13, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

Linguist Sarah Thomason has published critiques in the journals American Speech and Skeptical Inquirer of linguistic claims about reincarnation, especially the findings of Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. Beginning in the 1970s, Stevenson studied subjects such as a West Virginia woman who, under hypnosis, conversed in German and claimed to be a 19th Century German teenager named Gretchen.

Thomason studied Stevenson’s transcripts of conversations with “Gretchen” and concluded the woman couldn’t have been a native of Germany in a former life.

“Gretchen usually answers with just a word or two rather than in full sentences,” Thomason wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer. “All she seems to know, either for speaking or for understanding, is a handful of words.” Many of Gretchen’s words, Thomason added, closely resemble their English equivalents—“braun,” for example, is the German word for “brown.”

Of Gretchen’s responses to questions she was asked in German, many were either repetitions of the question or “ja” or “nein” (“yes” or “no”). Of Gretchen’s other 102 responses, Thomason said, only 28 were “appropriate” or sensible answers, while 45 did not make sense and 29 were “cop-out” answers such as “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know.”

Thomason says that in one telling exchange, the interviewer asks, “Was gibt es nach dem Schlafen?” This literally translates “What is there after sleeping?” but is intended to mean “What do you eat for breakfast?” Gretchen answers, “Schlafen, Bettzimmer,” meaning “Sleep, bedroom.” Thomason points out that not only did Gretchen misunderstand the question, she uses the word “Bettzimmer,” while a native German speaker would say “Schlafzimmer,” literally “sleep room.”

“Do we need a paranormal explanation for her knowledge of some German words and phrases? Surely not,” Thomason wrote.

Robert Almeder responds with these comments:


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/14 at 08:43 AM
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“On Language” 10/5: The Errors of ‘Elements’

Linguist throws the book at gurus
On Language
Chicago Tribune
October 5, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

Geoffrey Pullum, linguist and co-author of “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” (Cambridge University Press, $160) and “A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar” (Cambridge University Press, $29.99) ... was none too happy to hear about “Elements of Style Illustrated.”

“There is an ILLUSTRATED edition of `The Elements of Style’ coming out?” he replied by e-mail. “Oh, how pathetic, how horrible.” ...

Pullum says other rules in “Elements,” such as the book’s bans on beginning a sentence with “however” and using “hopefully” to mean “we hope that . . . ” also go against the grain of English. To see how unnatural the rules of “Elements” can be, Pullum says, look at White’s own fiction (which Pullum praises for its elegance).

White goes only two paragraphs of “Stuart Little” before breaking his rule that only the word “that,” not “which,” can introduce a clause not enclosed by commas…

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/14 at 08:38 AM
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Monday, October 03, 2005

The Awful French Language

Geoff Pullum is a little like Mark Twain. And his LL post entitled The Miserable French Language and Its Inadequacies is a little like Twain’s “The Awful German Language.” The difference is that everyone already thinks German is ugly; but common snobbery has it that French is sophisticated. Au contrair, says Pullum:

... this is a language used by people who are supposed to be the big experts in love and kissing and sexy weekends of ooh-la-la, and they don’t have words for “boy”, “girl”, “warm”, “love”, “kiss”, or “weekend”. ...

I’m not buying the idea that this is a language fit to hold its head high and participate in world diplomacy and lovemaking. This is a language to be tossed the scrap-heap of human communicative failures.

(But what about LL’s misgivings about the Whorf hypothesis and its equation of a culture’s reality with its ability to articulate it?)
Meanwhile, an anonymous author quoted in an LL folo-up opines that “French is nothing but Latin (a gawky language to start with) in an advanced stage of putresence.” 

Hey, rip into French if you want, but don’t dis Latin! Finest language ever.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/03 at 02:03 PM
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Swtiching and Borrowing in Ghanaian English

From a back issue of English Today:

Grammatical adaptation appears to be less
normative. My data contains adequate evidence
to show that the noun, for instance,
maintains its original plural markers in most
cases: singular nana, togbe, odikro, plural
nananom, togbuiwo, adikro – no English forms
*nanas or *togbes but there are the double-plurals
adikros (attested in the sentence “Kuntunkununkun
elevated a number of ‘adikros’ to
chief status with palanquins”, Chronicle
19–21:3:99) and akyames (Akan: ‘linguists’)
(as in “I didn’t know there were female
akyames in Ghana”, as said by an Akan University
professor, 18 Aug 2000, where the doubleplural
markers are Twi a- and English -s). ...

[Sidebar:]When writers in Ghana use a word that they recognize
as non-Standard English, the item is commonly
isolated on the page by means of such devices
as an initial capital or italics, regardless of its frequency
of occurrence. Some examples from the


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/03 at 01:56 PM
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“On Language” 9/21: Dictionary invents a word as a copyright trap

Dictionary sets a trap with an invented word
On Language
Chicago Tribune
September 21, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s entry for “esquivalience” defines it as “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties,” as in, “After three subordinates attested to his esquivalience, Lieutenant Claiborne was dismissed.” The word’s etymology is traced to the late 19th Century, “perhaps from French esquiver, `dodge, slink away.’”

But while “esquiver” is a real French word, “esquivalience” is an invention. ...

The copyright trap worked. “Esquivalience” showed up at, attributed to the electronic dictionary Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English. (The word has since been removed from

McKean says although the definition of “esquivalience” had been altered at, there was no question that the entry came from anywhere but the New Oxford American Dictionary.

For more, see the 9/24 World Wide Words newsletter, “Noted This Week” (#4).

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 10/03 at 12:00 PM
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