Archives for November 2009


This thread quickly wandered into a discussion of the wonderful 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Anthony Asquith, with Michael Redgrave, Margaret Rutherford, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Greenwood, and of course Edith Evans as the definitive Lady Bracknell. In connection with that, I would like to bring to your attention the surprising etymology of the name Algernon, as presented by the Hanks/Hodges Dictionary of First Names:

English: of Norman French origin. In Norman French it was a byname meaning ‘moustached’ (from grenon, gernon moustache, of Germanic origin). The Normans were as a rule clean-shaven, and this formed a suitable distinguishing nickname when it was applied to William de Percy, a companion of William the Conqueror. In the 15th century it was revived, with a sense of family tradition, as a byname or second given name for his descendant Henry Percy (1478-1527), and thereafter regularly used in that family. It was subsequently adopted into other families connected by marriage with the Percys, and eventually became common property.

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IJ, EI, Y.

Nico Muhly is an American composer (the biography section of his blog won me over by announcing “His name is pronounced [ˈni ko] [ˈmju: li]”) currently resident in the Netherlands, whose language he is learning, and this post describes his response to it (“what I get is a sort of childlike pornography: hoog, sneeuwt, poesje, standplaats”) and mentions the “old school diagraph” IJ/ij, adding that he asked a Dutch woman “if it was one letter or two and she couldn’t really answer. It’s fascinating.” So it is; check out that link to the Wikipedia article for the gory details. Thanks for another excellent link, Martin!


I have loved H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ever since I snagged a beat-up copy of the 1926 first edition at a library sale almost forty years ago. I was never interested in the successive revisions, first by Ernest Gowers and then (actually a rewriting) by Robert Burchfield; they diluted Fowler’s dry wit and vigorously stated opinions without producing a guide I considered truly modern and usable. Now Oxford has come out with A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition, of which they were kind enough to send me a copy, and I am happy to report it includes the best of both worlds, keeping Fowler’s original text unchanged while adding a superb introduction and a concluding section of notes updating some 300 entries, both by David Crystal. He begins his introduction with a brief description of the origin of the work, then plunges into an analysis of “the climate of the time”:

The growth of comparative philology in the early nineteenth century had led to an explosion of interest in the history of language and languages, and one of the consequences was the increased study of English and its regional varieties… It was also a great age of individualists. In 1873 Isaac Pitman founded his Phonetic Institute in Bath, advocating the importance of shorthand and spelling reform… The focus on everyday speech in all its bewildering diversity was in sharp contrast to the educational ethos of the period, with its concentration on written texts… Fowler was thus writing at a time when the prescriptive approach to language was beginning to lose its pedagogical dominance and yet was attracting fresh levels of support from the literary elite. Revising his Dictionary for final publication in the early 1920s, he plainly felt the tension between the traditional focus on a small set of words, pronunciations, and grammatical usages, as indicators of ‘correct’ linguistic behaviour, and the diverse and changing realities of the way educated people actually used language in their everyday lives. Many of his entries comment upon it, and, as we shall see, he was not entirely sure how to deal with it.

Crystal says that Fowler is often taken as “the apotheosis of the prescriptive approach,” but points out that “this is a considerable oversimplification. He turns out to be far more sophisticated in his analysis of language than most people realize. Several of his entries display a concern for descriptive accuracy which would do any modern linguist proud.” In the section on pronunciation, for instance, he says “we deserve not praise but censure if we decline to accept the popular pronunciation of popular words.” And, as Crystal writes, “he defends the spelling of halyard ‘not on etymological grounds, but as established by usage’, adding the wry comment, ’tilting against established perversions . . . is vanity in more than one sense’.” But:

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A pleasantly discursive Cardus post by Nate Barksdale examines the history of “hello” as a telephone greeting:

Hello streamed into the gap created by an unprecedented social scenario, gaining popularity and, little by little, respectability. By the 1920s, Emily Post had given up on banning hello from her version of proper speech and simply tried to tame its former brashness: “On very informal occasions, it is the present fashion to greet an intimate friend with ‘Hello!’ This seemingly vulgar salutation is made acceptable by the tone in which it is said. To shout ‘Hullow!’ is vulgar, but ‘Hello, Mary’ or ‘How ‘do John,’ each spoken in an ordinary tone of voice, sound much the same. But remember that the ‘Hello’ is spoken, not called out, and never used except between intimate friends who call each other by the first name.”
… The fact that the message did not depend on the word itself was probably as key a factor as the device’s American pedigree in the internationalization of the telephone hello. This was especially [true] for languages that have an active distinction between the formal and informal you. In Bulgarian, say, the formal greeting is zdravejte, while the informal is a simple zdravej. The phone rings in Sofia: what do you do? Is the caller a friend or a stranger, an official, a salesman, a wrong number? Will it be zdravej or zdravejte? I know, alo!

Nate’s post was sparked off by his happening on Omniglot’s Hello in many languages, a page well worth visiting in its own right. Thanks for the link, Martin!


Arnold Zwicky at the Log has a post about “inflectional (commoner) vs. periphrastic (more common) comparatives and superlatives,” a topic on which there is a huge literature; it was sparked off by a correspondent who asked whether commoner shouldn’t be more common (adding, winningly, “I ask, fully expecting to be proven incorrect”), and Zwicky quite properly chastises “belief in One Right Way, in this case the assumption that an adjective or adverb takes inflection or periphrasis, but not both as alternatives. If you also judge X to be not what you would say, then it must be wrong and the periphrastic variant must be right.” He goes on to provide an astonishing anecdote:

Back in August 2005, Jon Lighter reported on ADS-L about Fox News anchor E. D. Hill, who maintained vehemently, on camera, that cleverer was not a word. Later she stated on air that a colleague had found it in a dictionary, so it was after all a word. But then (as Lighter wrote),

… in a surprising twist that left linguists in the viewing audience reeling, minutes before the show ended, Hill laughed as she said, “We’ve received an email from a viewer [name unintelligible] who has a doctorate, and she writes as follows : ” ‘Cleverer’ is not a word. It is not a verb and cannot be declined or inflected.’ ” Hill concluded, “So I was right all along ! It’s not a word ! “

As Zwicky says, “It is to weep.”

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Chris, who writes the blog The Lousy Linguist (“Notes on linguistics and cognition”), describes himself as “a rogue linguist who has worked in academia, government consulting, NLP, and the branding and marketing industry. I used to be a graduate student in linguistics specializing in the syntax-semantics interface and verb classes (can you say ‘Ay-Bee-Dee’ boys and girls?).” Why, yes I can, being one myself (ABD stands for “All But Dissertation”), and I’m pleased to discover this lively blog via Language Log, which links to Chris’s latest post, in which he introduces the excellent phrase the Full Liberman “to refer to Mark Liberman’s excellent manner of debunking bad journalism (see here and here for examples).”


In this recent thread, Grumbly Stu started grumbling about sloppy public speaking, one element of which (though not the one he was focusing on) was the plethora of filler words like “uh” and “er,” and michael farris made a very astute observation: “One of the things I tell students (learning English as a second language) is: ‘Don’t try to do things in a foreign language that you can’t do in your own.’ This includes space fillers, don’t try to learn to speak without space fillers, learn the right ones and use them appropriately.” So I thought “I’ll bet Wikipedia has an article on fillers,” and sure enough, here it is, with an interesting list of “Filler words in different languages.” Some of the contributors don’t seem to have grasped the difference between filler words and terms like “whatchamacallit” and “thingamajig” (I doubt Afrikaans watsenaam and Hungarian hogy is hívják are used like “uh”), but those are easy to filter out. If your professor hasn’t taught you these valuable if overlooked elements of the language you’re learning, now’s your chance to start sprinkling them into your sentences.


I occasionally run across clippings I tucked into books years ago, and I just found one that had a quote so marvelous I had to share it with you all. A Scott Kraft piece on the Lumière brothers in the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 24, 1995 (on the occasion of the centennial of their first public exhibition of films to a paying audience) included this sentence:

The Lumière brothers have a special place in the hearts of the French, who now use the word lumière to mean “light.”

No, this is not The Onion, and as far as can be told from context he was being entirely serious. (In case you were wondering, lumière is from Latin lūminaria, originally ‘torches,’ derived from lūmen, -inis ‘light’; in northern Gaul, lūminaria ousted the classical word lūx, which is retained in other Romance languages.)


The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English is the product of a research project begun in 1997 to answer these questions:
· What are the characteristics of contemporary academic speech—its grammar, its vocabulary, its functions and purposes, its fluencies and dysfluencies?
· Are these characteristics different for different academic disciplines and for different classes of speakers?
The History page says:

The goal of the first phase of the project was to record and transcribe close to 200 hours (approximately 1.8 million words) of academic speech from across the university. In June 2001, we finished the recording goal, with over 190 total hours recorded. In April 2002, we completed transcribing and proofreading all the transcripts… This search engine is notable for the large number of speaker and speech-event categories that can be selected. The search engine has increased in popularity each year since its launch, approaching as many as 140,000 hits in 2006.
The ELI committed resources to MICASE for a series of interlocking reasons. First, there was originally no database of this kind available. Second, we strongly suspected that once we examined the corpus for recurrent grammatical and phraseological patterns, we would find many divergences from those described in current grammar and vocabulary books, which have largely relied on introspection or on features of written texts. MICASE will thus provide authentic material in sufficient quantity to redefine our concepts of academic speech. Third, we eventually hope to be able to track generalized changes in speech patterns as people gain experience of university culture. (Although we know quite a lot about how academic writing evolves as students progress, our current perceptions of speech changes within academic cultures are largely anecdotal.) Fourth, with all this new information, we—and others elsewhere—will be in a better position to develop more appropriate ESL and English for Academic Purpose teaching and testing materials, and to evaluate how best to incorporate corpus work into EAP programs.

There’s discussion, and some more specific links, at the MetaFilter post from which I took these links.


Anyang, one of the ancient capitals of China, is now home to the National Museum of Chinese Written Language, as reported in a story by Xing Daiqi:

According to Xinhua, the museum, with an initial investment of 400 million yuan ($58 million), covers an area of 54,000 square meters. A combination of the old and new, the building has drawn inspiration from palaces of the Shang Dynasty (C. 1600-1100BC) and post-modern architecture. The five-story facility has a striking embossed golden roof and grand red columns.[…]
Divided into eight exhibition halls, the museum illustrates the history and evolution of Chinese characters through different dynasties and various ethnic groups in China.

Now, that’s my kind of museum. Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!