Singular They Is Word of the Year.

I find the whole “word of the year” thing annoying and generally ignore the many news stories based on PR releases by lexicographers and other harmless drudges trying to drum up a little attention, but I have three cheers for this one from Dennis Baron:

Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.*

The footnote says, “Truth in advertising: The Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel, charged each year with picking the Word of the Year, consists entirely of me.” The rest of the post contains a nice history of the form and its history, and I applaud Baron’s choice. If anyone has a problem with it, let them eat xe!

Addendum. Geoffrey Nunberg posted this on Facebook, adding:

I took Dennis Baron’s selection of singular “they” as his Word of the Year as occasion to change my Facebook pronoun to “they” (as in “Wish them a happy birthday”), not so much because I have a problem with cisgender pronouns, but as a finger in the eye of the pedants who think there’s something wrong with “Everyone took their coat,” secure in the grammar they learned in eighth grade at the end of Sister Petra’s ruler.

Automated Reconstruction of Ancient Languages.

This BBC Science story by Rebecca Morelle… well, really all I need do is point out that the affiliations of the authors of the paper it’s based on, “Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change,” are one Department of Statistics, one Department of Psychology, and two Computer Science Divisions. My basic response to any paper making claims about language that does not have at least one actual linguist on board is to toss it in the circular file. But I guess it’s possible that this system that “automatically and accurately reconstructs protolanguages from modern languages” (it slices! it dices!) might be useful in chewing through large quantities of data and spitting out correlations that could save linguists some time; at any rate, there it is for those who might find it of interest.

Languages and Ecosystems.

This Living on Earth story makes a point that’s been made here before but that needs to be repeated because it’s often neglected by those who think the death of languages is no big deal (why can’t they just speak English?):

But [Jonathan] Loh, who’s also a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, says that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face.

“Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well,” he says.

And that’s no coincidence. Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. “The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior,” he says.

So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. “Then children stop learning the language, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge,” Loh says.

There are plenty of linguists who are studying and trying to preserve native languages, but Loh wants to see them work with biologists to make sure that valuable ecological history isn’t missed. “Linguists often don’t have the knowledge of natural history that’s necessary in order to be able to record an endangered language because so much of the lexicon is tied up with names of species or types of ecosystems,” he says.

He argues that “if we can recognize that culture and nature are inextricably interlinked, then working on a biocultural diversity as a whole, as a subject, would be a more fruitful way of looking at conservation.”

As is so often the case, specialists need to talk to each other across the boundaries of their specialties.

The History of Nationalized and Marginalized Languages.

I thought this AskMetaFilter question was interesting enough to repost here; I couldn’t think of relevant books offhand, and I’m sure some of my commenters can:

I know there was this process in the last few hundred years of European history where newly forming nations, trying to take hold of themselves, would decree one language official (French, Spanish), and try to squelch all of the many other languages/dialects (Occitan, Catalan) spoken within their borders. Where can I learn more?

Simple googling is not turning up enough to assuage my curiosity. I have a bunch of questions: is there a name for this process? How much resistance was there to it in Europe (like the modern Catalan independence movement)? How similarly did this process play out in Europe vs. other parts of the world (Russia, Japan, China)?


These Fragments I Have Shored.

I have a few envelopes stuffed with the “pocket papers” I used to carry around to jot down phone numbers, book titles, and other bits of information I didn’t want to lose, and every once in a while, in a fit of nostalgia, I go through them. The one I have before me is a call slip from Yale University Library (“Books must not be marked, annotated, or defaced in any way”), so it’s presumably from the 1970s, and on its back are scribbled a few items. The first is self-explanatory:

WWI: “If a sgt said, ‘Get your f-ng rifles,’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, ‘Get your rifles,’ there was an immed. implic. of urgency & danger.”

The second is more cryptic:

kwoy inam (ma) — mild piece of chaffing
kwoy lumata (sis) — very serious
kwoy um’ kwava (wife) — Mal only heard twice; learned of its exist. only after had been long in Trob’s

This turns out to be from Ashley Montagu’s The Anatomy of Swearing (as you can see, I’ve been interested in the topic for a long time); you can read the very instructive passage at Google Books (page 323). And the third is the amusing sentence “If I had a son who was an idiot I would make him a parson”; this turns out to be an anecdote about “that witty clergyman, Sydney Smith,” whose “quick rejoinder” was “Your father was of a different opinion.” Once again, I say thank heavens for the internet!

Swearing: US vs. UK.

This piece by Erin Moore is an extract from her new book That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms and What Our English Says About Us; both it and a thread suggest that the book is largely ignorant tosh, like most books on language by non-linguists, but I’m posting about it for the following delightful paragraph:

Celia Walden, an English woman who moved to Los Angeles, described for the Telegraph her realisation that Americans “don’t use expletives as much as we do.” She found it refreshing (“I haven’t been cursed at in nearly a year”) and noted that her “new sensitivity” to swearing might be related to having become a mother to a child whom she’d rather “didn’t end up like the tiny mite I once saw fall out of his pushchair in Shepherd’s Bush, look accusingly up at his mother, and calmly enunciate the words: ‘Bloody hell’. I still wonder whether those were that poor child’s first words.”

After that she quotes a wonderful Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie sketch “based on the idea that if the BBC wouldn’t let them swear on the air, they’d simply make up their own curse words”; I recommend it as well. (Thanks, Eric!)

Linguistic Self-hatred.

Karina Picó Català writes about “Why I’m ashamed of speaking my mother tongue”; after describing being in a restaurant and hearing two obvious Catalans speaking Spanish for the waitress’ benefit, she says:

The concept of self-hatred was first used by the North American psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, to refer to the feeling of shame a person feels for possessing certain individual characteristics that she despises in her own community. However, it was the Spanish sociologist, Rafael Ninyoles, who pioneered its application to linguistics, which then evoked interest well beyond Spain. What does self-hatred mean in linguistics?

In a situation of self-hatred, the speaker feels ashamed of speaking his own language, which he considers to be inferior, and he substitutes it for another, usually the dominant language, which possesses greater social prestige. Far from being a phenomenon exclusive to Catalan, it is present in various linguistic settings around the world. It is found in languages like Breton (against French in France) and Quechua (against Spanish in Peru). Displaying a complete rejection of his mother tongue, the speaker not only attempts to switch to the dominant language, but also modifies his accent and his name (e.g. if the speaker is named Josep, he introduces himself as José); hiding, ultimately, any indication of his origin.

Even if it initially begins as only an individual linguistic behaviour, it often ends up rippling through an entire community. On the one hand, you have the speaker who decides to abandon her language, and feels a sense of disdain towards those who decide to remain loyal to it. On the other, there is the speaker who accuses the former of being unfaithful to her community and wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture. [...]

Where does one look for the causes of this phenomenon? Perhaps in the apathy of a people who no longer care about their language? Perhaps in the 40 years of the tortuous Franco regime, which took it upon itself to “unify” Spain, rapaciously fighting against regional culture, destroying linguistic diversity and making great strides towards the eradication of Galician, Basque, and Catalan? The roots of the phenomenon are no doubt deep; but that is another story altogether.

“How do I explain it? Catalan is…like the slippers you wear at home: comfortable, but old and ugly,” my grandmother once explained to me when I asked her why she had not brought my father up in Catalan, despite it being her mother tongue. “Spanish, on the other hand, is like the shoes one wears on Sundays. Leather shoes, elegant, and flawless. Nobody goes out into the street exposing oneself to the world in ragged and dirty shoes, don’t you see, dear?”

When a language becomes nothing grander than those slippers you walk around indoors in, when it has lost all prestige, it is only a matter of time before the speaker no longer feels comfortable using it—and abandons it entirely.

Sad but illuminating. (Via the Facebook feed of Slavomír Čéplö, aka bulbul.)

Incidentally, she ends: “‘Vaja bé,’⁴ I blurt out, somewhat sad. I gather my change and leave the restaurant,” and the footnote says “A common Catalan expression to bid farewell.” I first thought the verb must be a Castilianism for vagi, but this discussion showed me it’s authentic, if archaic/regional.

Three String Books.

The latest newsletter from Slavica Publishers (see this LH post) brings news that should please anyone interested in the literature of Russia and Eastern Europe:

Slavica is pleased to announce the establishment of a new imprint, Three String Books, devoted to translations of literary works and belles-lettres from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the other successor states of the former Soviet Union. The name has been selected to underscore the indispensable roles played by all three parties to literary translation: author, translator, and reader. And our new logo builds upon the prevalence of three-stringed folk instruments throughout these lands.

We will be delighted to discuss proposals for translation projects, which should be addressed to the managing editor of both Slavica Publishers and Three String Books, Dr. Vicki Polansky ( Keep an eye on this newsletter for announcements of upcoming publications!

The inaugural publication under the Three String Books imprint is Apollon Bezobrazov, a modernist novel by “recovered Surrealist” Boris Poplavsky, originally published in the early 1930s and now translated by John Kopper. Making an uncharacteristic detour into prose in the 1920s, the Russian émigré poet Poplavsky presents a novel that reveals the Surrealist influence of prominent Parisian contemporaries like André Breton and Louis Aragon and rebels against it. The hero, and the novel’s namesake, embodies the figure of the urban hippie—the flâneur of French literature—while the narrator, a young Russian, falls under his spell. The story describes in colorful, poetic detail the hand-to-mouth existence of a small band of displaced Russians in Paris and Italy. It chronicles their poverty, their diversions, their intensely played out love affairs, and Bezobrazov’s gradual transformation in the eyes of his admiring followers. The novel abounds in allusions to Eastern religion, Western philosophy, and 19th-century Russian literature. In its experimental mixing of genres, the work echoes Joyce’s Ulysses, while in its use of extended metaphors it reveals the stylistic impact of Marcel Proust. Not published in complete form in Russian until 1993, Apollon Bezobrazov significantly broadens our understanding of Russian prose produced in the interwar emigration.

Poplavsky is a fascinating character; I wrote about him here, and there’s a great chapter on him in The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972 which you may or may to be able to read some of at Google Books. At any rate, now I know who to contact if I decide to translate a novel myself.

The Earliest Known Abecedary.

I had meant to post this a while back, but it got lost in the shuffle:

A flake of limestone (ostracon) inscribed with an ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BC turns out to be the world’s oldest known abecedary. The words have been arranged according to their initial sounds, and the order followed here is one that is still known today. This discovery by Ben Haring (Leiden University) with funding from Free Competition Humanities has been published in the October issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts. ABC and HLḤM were both used in Syria in the thirteenth century BC: cuneiform tablets found at site of ancient Ugarit show both sequences. Back then, ABC was still ‘-b-g (‘aleph-beth-gimel). This sequence was favored by the Phoenicians who passed it on to the Greeks, together with the alphabet itself. Thus a-b-g found its way to the later alphabets inspired by the Greek and Latin ones.

The ostracon was found over twenty years ago by the British Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick in an Ancient Egyptian tomb near Luxor. The text has never been understood, however, until it was deciphered by Ben Haring, a Dutch Egyptologist working at Leiden University. [...] The text is an incomplete list of words written in hieratic, the cursive script used in Ancient Egypt for some 3,000 years. To the left is a column of individual signs that appear to be abbreviations of the words. Very possibly they even render the initial consonants of the words, which would make them alphabetic signs.

Thanks, Paul!

Crowdsourcing Scholarship.

I was quite excited to see this Jordan Center post by Eliot Borenstein, in which he discusses blogging his new book:

I started my academic career planning a dissertation and book about my favorite Russian author, Yuri Olesha. Depending on whom you ask, Olesha was either a talented novelist and playwright driven by Stalinism to abandon prolific writing for prodigious drinking, or he was an unprincipled hack who spent most of the 30s and 40s producing embarrassing Soviet drivel for the central newspapers. Olesha’s last book had to be assembled postmortem by his surviving frenemies, but he had already chosen its title long ago: No Day without a Line.

As a title, “No Day Without a Line” is almost heartwarming in its optimism, given how much difficulty Olesha had putting pen to paper. When working on my dissertation, it struck me as a much more encouraging motto than the song that kept playing in my head: Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book.” One hinted at discipline and possibility, while the other suggested waking each morning to an impossible task.

As I write my third book, I have decided to put my money where Olesha’s dead mouth is. More to the point, I want to take the opportunity afforded me by modern technology, the safe entrenchment of a tenured position, and the ongoing crisis in scholarly publishing to try something different.

I’m going to write my book on a blog. [...] I see several benefits in giving this a try. First, it will impose short, regular deadlines (I want to post at least once a week). Second, it will allow me to crowdsource some of the minor points that always come up during the writing process (suggestions for sources and footnotes, for instance). Third, it will provide an informal peer-review process before the manuscript is even seen by the press’s reviewers. And, finally, I hope to prompt further reflections on just how it is that we share our research with our colleagues and the world around us.

I think this is a wonderful idea, and the book, Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism (“a study of the role of paranoid fantasy in contemporary Russian political discourse and culture”) sounds quite interesting. If you go to the blog page, you can sign up to be notified by email when new posts go live; needless to say, I have done so. (Also, I love Olesha’s writing and am looking forward to reading the book mentioned in the first paragraph.)