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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 5:13 pm on March 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    The Diacritics – Discerning Through Language 

    Welcome to The Diacritics home page! We’re here to talk about language. Not necessarily language arts or grammar (though that’s certainly part of it), but language in general—the ins and outs of the words we use to describe thoughts, feelings, objects, etc., and more importantly, the meaning behind those words.

    Language is a tricky thing. Not only are there hundreds of different languages spoken around the world, but within a particular language there are many different dialects, colloquialisms, different meanings for the same word, and so on. It is remarkable that with all our developments as a species—our technological advances, research discoveries, medical breakthroughs, inventions, etc.—we still have trouble understanding each other. All because of the complexities and intricacies of language.

    How ironic that the very tool we use to be understood—that is, language—is also one of the most common ways in which we can be misunderstood. That’s why language itself is such a captivating subject—the way we use it, the words we choose, the ways we speak, and even the nonverbal communication that accompanies it. Language is the paradox of our race.

    It would be great if we could find a way to standardize language, to make the same word mean the same thing all the time. But language just isn’t that way—it is constantly evolving. It isn’t a solid; it’s a fluid. Take English, for example. If you have ever heard The Canterbury Tales read out loud in its original form, you would swear you were listening to a different language. But you’re not. It’s English. It’s just that it’s English as it was spoken in the 14th Century–far, far removed from English as it sounds today. Isn’t it amazing how much a single language can change and evolve just over the span of a few hundred years? That’s just a part of what makes the study of language so intriguing.

    In the pages that follow, you’ll read a number of articles about the various intricacies, complexities, discrepancies and ironies of language. We’ll talk about everything from puns to slang, from dialects to evolving shades of meaning. We’ll talk about the ways in which we are improving communication, and the ways in which communication is still just as primitive as ever.

    We invite you on this journey with us, to study the mysteries of language. As you learn about language…you may learn a thing or two about yourself, as well.

    We are the Diacritics.

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 9:13 am on May 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Harden, Harden elbow, long names, Malice at the Palace, , , , nominative determinism, Ron Artest, world's longest name   

    Crazy names (redux) 

    Hi everyone — Sandeep and I are both in the throes of finals, our apologies for the lack of posts! We’ll get back to regular posts as soon as we can, but in the meantime…

    I wrote a post a couple months ago about crazy names, looking at some of the most interesting name changes that I’ve come across, and speculating as to why people might make the changes they do. Today, a couple more wild names, and motivations for taking them, came to my attention.

    These are both crazy long names. A man who used to be known as Nicholas Usansky was simply going for fame, taking what was, at the time, the longest name in the world:

    Barnaby Marmaduke Aloysius Benjy Cobweb Dartagnan Egbert Felix Gaspar Humbert Ignatius Jayden Kasper Leroy Maximilian Neddy Obiajulu Pepin Quilliam Rosencrantz Sexton Teddy Upwood Vivatma Wayland Xylon Yardley Zachary Usansky

    He held the record until a woman hoping to gain publicity for her charity, Red Dreams, showed him up big time. Her name is an incredible 161 words long!

    Red Wacky League Antlez Broke the Stereo Neon Tide Bring Back Honesty Coalition Feedback Hand of Aces Keep Going Captain Let’s Pretend Lost State of Dance Paper Taxis Lunar Road Up Down Strange All and I Neon Sheep Eve Hornby Faye Bradley AJ Wilde Michael Rice Dion Watts Matthew Appleyard John Ashurst Lauren Swales Zoe Angus Jaspreet Singh Emma Matthews Nicola Brown Leanne Pickering Victoria Davies Rachel Burnside Gil Parker Freya Watson Alisha Watts James Pearson Jacob Sotheran Darley Beth Lowery Jasmine Hewitt Chloe Gibson Molly Farquhar Lewis Murphy Abbie Coulson Nick Davies Harvey Parker Kyran Williamson Michael Anderson Bethany Murray Sophie Hamilton Amy Wilkins Emma Simpson Liam Wales Jacob Bartram Alex Hooks Rebecca Miller Caitlin Miller Sean McCloskey Dominic Parker Abbey Sharpe Elena Larkin Rebecca Simpson Nick Dixon Abbie Farrelly Liam Grieves Casey Smith Liam Downing Ben Wignall Elizabeth Hann Danielle Walker Lauren Glen James Johnson Ben Ervine Kate Burton James Hudson Daniel Mayes Matthew Kitching Josh Bennett Evolution Dreams

    My previous post speculated that people might take strange names for reasons beyond simple narcissism, in support, for example, of a cause. I think something like that was the idea behind b-baller Metta World Peace’s name change. He wanted signify to the world that he had completed a personal journey from the Malice at the Palace (where he jumped into the stands during an NBA game, punched a fan, and was then suspended for an entire season (see also Grantland’s recap)), to the winner of the NBA’s Citizenship Award last year. Of course, things got a bit awkward for that narrative after he viciously elbowed a player in the back of the head a couple weeks ago, so there’s that as well. (So much fornominative determinism, I guess.)

    Nevertheless, at least one of these new name changes supports my speculations. Ms. Dreams’s motivation (generate publicity for her charity) was admirable, even if the name itself is completely weird.

    Mr. Usansky, it seems, thinks otherwise. He apparently told The Scottish Sun that he would consider trying to retake the longest-name crown from Ms. Dreams, as “there is no point to having a wacky name like that and not having the longest in the world.”

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 12:48 pm on April 17, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , health care, healthcare reform, language of politics, Obamacare, ,   

    How the language of politics could doom Obamacare 

    For politicians there are lots of topics that are simply too hot to handle. Social security reform, abortion, gay marriage — these are all crucial issues, but many politicians hate taking strong positions on them. It’s not hard to see why: Do so, and there goes the vote of an entire demographic.

    But if there’s one word, particularly in recent years, that is anathema to more than just one or another segment of the voting public, it’s the “T” word: taxes. At all costs, don’t tell people you’re hitting them with new taxes. Especially if you’re already trying to pass a controversial new mega-suite of laws like . . . say . . . Obamacare.

    That’s precisely what Obama and the Democrats did with their healthcare reform package. They took great pains to tell people that reform did not mean new taxes.

    One of the centerpieces of the bill is what the government calls the “minimum care provision.”  Its opponents prefer to call it the “individual mandate.” Whatever you want to call it, it means (almost) everybody must obtain at least some health insurance by 2014. The government claims this is necessary to keep premiums down once insurers are forced to cover people they otherwise would not.

    So far so good. But once 2014 rolls around, anybody that fails to get minimum coverage will be taxed . . . er, “penalized” . . . to cover their share of the expense. Here’s where things get tricky: Is this sanction a tax (gasp!)? Or is it a penalty? Well, in the law itself, Congress prefers to call it a penalty. This “penalty,” though, is assessed on a person’s tax returns, and the provision is even part of the tax code. It bears all the markers of a tax on those without minimum coverage, but, presumably for political reasons, Congress chose to call it a penalty instead.

    What they perhaps didn’t realize was that their refusal to call the tax a tax might cause problems for the law’s constitutionality.

    Congress has a broad authority under the Constitution to raise taxes. It uses this authority all the time to make people pay for things they might not otherwise want. Whether it be farm subsidies, alternative energy, or national defense, Congress’s tax power let’s them force us to buy things, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But Congress cannot constitutionally impose a penalty on people for refusing to buy a certain product. This is beyond even the reach of the commerce power. It’s a distinction simultaneously very fine and very intuitively obvious — the government can make you (help) pay for other people’s food stamps, but it can’t make you go out and buy broccoli.

    The Sixth Circuit jumped on this distinction, and the lawmakers’ fear of the “T” word, in one of the challenges to the health law (though it eventually upheld the law on other grounds):

    Congress might have raised taxes on everyone in an amount equivalent to the current penalty, then offered credits to those with minimum essential insurance. Or it might have imposed a lower tax rate on people with health insurance than those without it. But Congress did neither of these things, and that makes a difference. . . .

    The individual mandate is a regulatory penalty, not a revenue-raising tax . . . . That is what Congress said. It called the sanction for failing to obtain medical insurance a “penalty,” not a tax. Words matter, and it is fair to assume that Congress knows the difference between a tax and a penalty . . . making it appropriate to take Congress at its word. That is all the more true in an era when elected officials are not known for casually discussing, much less casually increasing, taxes.

    Thomas More L. Ctr. v. Obama, 651 F.3d 529, 550-51 (6th Cir. 2011) (emphasis added).

    Even once the challenge reached the Supreme Court, the government did not push the Justices to uphold the law under the Taxing Clause. Instead they focused on Congress’s broad authority under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses to regulate what they consider to be economic activity (i.e., participation in the healthcare market, which, the argument goes, all of us do simply because we are entitled to treatment whether or not we can pay, forcing those that can to pay for those that cannot). The merits of that argument are not my point here, but if you’re interested check out SCOTUSblog‘s (very thorough) coverage.

    Instead, what I’m interested in is the fact that the language of politics — avoid “taxes” at all costs — led the government to forfeit perhaps its surest defense of the law. The Sixth Circuit judge said as much in the two paragraphs above.

    At first blush, it seems silly that saying “penalty” when you mean “tax” could be the difference between blatant unconstitutionality and perfect acceptability. But perhaps Judge Martin has a point. Don’t we want to hold politicians accountable for what they say and the language they use to say it? Isn’t that especially so when that language is meant to mislead?

    That seems to be precisely what Judge Martin is doing. He’s telling politicians that he’s going to take seriously what they actually say, especially when there’s reason to believe they mean something different but don’t want to let the rest of us know.

    If the language of politics can be used to mask an unpopular proposal, then it should have to be used subsequently to defend that proposal too. To put it differently: If you want to bamboozle the voting public with deceptive language, by all means do so. Once you’ve made your bed, however, you have no choice but to lie in it.

    Oh, and when I say “lie,” there is no pun intended.

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 9:13 am on March 12, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammatically judgements, , literature, , newspapers, , text speak, , txt   

    Those narrow-minded, prescriptivist . . . texters? 

    Texting encourages us to be creative and unconstrained with our language, right? Traditional print media, fettered as they are by the bounds of Standard English, promote more rigid acceptability and grammaticality judgments, don’t they? Aren’t those prescriptivist editors and stodgy old style columnists just concerned with dictating how we speak and write?

    Not so says some new research from University of Calgary linguist Joan Lee.

    Lee’s Master’s thesis tested students with varying levels of exposure to text/instant messaging versus traditional media (newspapers, magazines, literature, nonfiction). She hypothesized that those with comparatively more exposure to the free-form nature of ‘text speak’ would be comparatively more lenient in their acceptance of novel and deviate forms of words, both morphological and orthographic. What she found was the opposite.  Students who had spent more time reading books and newspapers were more likely to judge novel words or deviate forms of words as acceptable. Those who had more exposure to text speak tended to be considerably more rigid and constrained in their acceptability judgments.

    This result is moderately mind-boggling. Think of all you know about texting and compare that to your expectations of the effects of traditional media on language use. From texters, we see such classics as ‘wot r u doin 2day‘ and ‘ur stoopid dood‘ and ‘kewl‘ and, perhaps best of all, kthxbai‘. There’s a bunch of research discussing why texters say and spell things like this. In the preview of her thesis linked above, Lee cites one such study that says people are trying to be playful, spontaneous, socially interactive, and even creative. Compare this to what you read in the New York Times, where there’s actually someone whowrites articles nitpicking the grammar of other traditional-print-media articles, including sometimes the NYTimes itself!

    I haven’t read the whole 150-page thesis yet, but it seems there are several plausible explanations for what’s going on. One idea is that for a novel form to be acceptable to texters, it must be a novel form commonly seen in text speak. So while there may not be the same types of grammatical constraints, there are conventions that are respected nonetheless. Or perhaps text speak is still free-form and not subject to constraints in the ways that traditional media might be, but free-formedness doesn’t actually equate with creativity. So while you’re tossing standardized grammar out the window, you’re not necessarily looking for the most precise, novel, creative word to express a given idea. You may be using words with odd morphology and spelling, but you’re probably not reaching deep into the dictionary to find those words. This means that readers of text speak don’t often see words they’re unfamiliar with and thus don’t often have to figure what those unfamiliar words might mean.

    If, on the other hand, you’re a big-time reader of traditional print media, you probably encounter unusual words all the time. To figure out what they mean, you either infer their meaning from context or use your knowledge of productive morphology like -ity or -ness. This could explain why texters are ok with ur andkthxbai and wot, but not some of the novel forms that Lee proposed in her study, like canality andgroundness. If you read and don’t text, the textisms may be ridiculous to you, but you might be able to come up with a meaning for canality and groundness that makes sense, and thus conclude they’re acceptable words.

    I’m sure much more will be said on this front in the near future. For now, I think it’s enough to note this interesting bit of research and sign off — TTYL, folks.

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 11:26 am on February 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 9th circuit, California, , , gay marriage, gay rights, , prop 8, proposition 8   

    Prop 8: The importance of being ‘married’ 

    The 9th Circuit ruled today that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, saying that it violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For a summary of the ruling and a link to the opinion itself, check out SCOTUSblog.

    Most of us probably remember that Prop 8 was the anti-gay-marriage initiative that California adopted a couple years ago. More specifically, though, Prop 8 was a public initiative that amended the California Constitution to prevent same-sex couples from obtaining the official designation of ‘married.’ It left in tact all of the rights afforded to gay and lesbian couples — the same rights that married opposite-sex couples are entitled to — but it forbade them officially to call these relationships ‘marriage.’

    One might argue–as indeed the proponents of Prop 8 did–that if none of the substantive rights of gay couples were taken away, the lack of official designation shouldn’t be a constitutional problem. Having the rights, after all, is more important than what they are called. But the 9th Circuit disagreed:

    All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of ‘marriage,’ which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships. Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite sex couples.

    -  Perry v. Brown. 9th Circuit 10-16696. (from Judge Reinhardt, writing for the panel that decided the case)

    In other words, what you call something does matter. And this is a powerful idea. The 9th Circuit says it doesn’t care if you leave the substantive rights in tact; it doesn’t matter if you maintain all the other entitlements that come along with the word ‘marriage.’ No– certain words have such special significance, such special power, that to deny access to their use alone is enough to violate a right.

    So indeed – the 9th Circuit’s ruling came down to the fundamental importance of being, specifically and officially, ‘married.’

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 12:34 pm on January 31, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chad ochocinco, , inherit, magic, , , , nobility, titles   

    Who you callin’ Beezow Doo-Doo Zoppittybop-Bop-Bop? 

    Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is the name of a man who was arrested recently in Wisconsin. Yes, that is his legal name. Considering that for much of history, a person’s name was of such weighty import as to be the key to their “power” (in one way or another), Mr. Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is a sign of just how far that history is gone.

    As Wikipedia tells us, certain cultures throughout history have thought that something’s name was so important that it was actually a “separate manifestation” of that thing. If you knew the name of a demon, you could exorcise it from a possessed person. If you invoked the name of a god or another spirit, you somehow impregnated your words with their power. If you knew the name of a person, that person was under your control.

    Most of us probably think this is silly today. But given the names of these legal figures, maybe they were on to something with the idea that a person’s name can bear influence on the course of their life.

    Learned Hand — Every law student comes to know the great Judge Learned Hand. He’s widely considered to be one of, if not the, greatest judge never to become a Supreme Court justice, and his formulation of the test for whether or not a person has been negligent dominates the tort law scene to this day.

    William Wayne Justice — Judge Justice is famous (or infamous) for his role in what’s come to be known as the Texas Prison Litigation. This was a court battle that raged for two decades about the conditions in the Texas prison system. Justice dictated that the system be improved in order to meet minimum Constitutional standards, but his role (the role of Justice, that is) was considered by many to be ‘activist’ beyond what is proper for a judge.

    Then again, maybe those names are just a happy coincidence. After all, someone, sometime was bound to have a name that coincided with their profession. Either way, in many other societies, your name had an entirely different type of influence on the course of your life. It’s not that if someone knew your name, they had power over you — it’s that if you had the right name, it meant you had power over others. I’m talking about titles of nobility – land, power, and status conferred by inheritance. No mysticism is needed to understand the importance of names in this type of society. With one type of name, you were guaranteed riches and power as a matter of right; with another,well, tough luck.

    Today, there can be no question that one’s name is less important than it was during these other periods in history. This decline is probably the subject of some very interesting historical and sociological literature, but it seems likely that the end of hereditary ruling and aristocratic classes indeed had something to do with it. If there’s no longer a hereditary aristocracy, whereby your name entitles you to certain lands and status, it’s less important to be associated with a particular genetic line. (Interestingly, the US Constitution goes so far as to prohibit the federal and state governments from granting titles of nobility.)

    Even so, one would not expect names to become entirely irrelevant (just ask a Kennedy or a Rockefeller). But, taking Mr. Zoppitybop-Bop-Bop as an example, it has become increasingly popular to forsake the name of one’s ancestors and adopt an appellation that’s slightly less traditional. Here are a couple of interesting examples from the sports world:

    Ron Artest –> Metta World Peace.  World Peace is an NBA player on the Los Angeles Lakers. His choice of names is interesting, as over the course of his career he has garnered more than his fair share of flagrant and technical fouls, and he has generally become reputed for his less-than-peaceful play.

    Chad Johnson –> Chad Ochocinco. Chad Johnson is a renowned wide receiver with great talent and a huge mouth. He is now on the roster of the New England Patriots, where he’s had a less-than-stellar season. The name that’s currently on the back of his jersey, you guessed it, is the Spanglish translation of his jersey number – 85.

    Jon Koppenhaver –> War Machine.  This guy is a mixed martial artist who liked his nickname so much that he legally took it. Haven’t seen him in the Octagon recently? Well, that’s probably because he’s been in jail for the last three years…

    Lloyd B. Free –> World B. Free.   Lloyd came into the NBA to play for the 76ers in the mid ’70s. This name change is particularly cool because his actual nickname was World. He apparently got the nickname for having a 44 inch vertical that allowed him to do a 360 dunk (back in the days before that was a common feat among NBA players). So he went ahead and made it official–how convenient his middle initial!

    Often times, these names smack of caprice and/or arrogance. But as a form of self-expression, changing one’s name can in theory be extremely meaningful. There’s literally no better way of identifying yourself with, say, World Peace than to actually make it your identity (though as I mentioned above, I’m not sure I buy that from Ron Artest).

    And dropping one’s inherited name (though most often done in favor of names less crazy than these examples) is one of the strongest forms of dissociation available to us. Today we take that to mean dissociation from one’s family for one reason or another. But this is actually something the ancients also recognized: by changing your name, you could avoid an ugly fate associated with your inherited name. An interesting idea for sure — I just hope Mr. Zoppitybob-Bop-Bop’s children get that message before it’s too late.

     
  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 6:15 pm on January 8, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: E.B. White, , , , quote, , taxes, White   

    Advice from E.B. White (especially good for aspiring lawyers…) 

    “Some day I mean to have a fireside chat with my government, that we may come to know each other a little better, for it is by a better understanding of the other’s traits that a government and its citizens must fulfill their mutual destinies. In my chat I want particularly to take up the first sentence under Section G of Form 1040, which is called ‘Items exempt from tax’ and which starts this way:

     ’The following items are partially exempt from tax: (a) Amounts received (other than amounts paid by reason of the death of the insured and interest payments on such amounts and other than amounts received as annuities) under a life insurance or endowment contract, but if such amounts (when added to amounts received before the taxable year under such contract) exceed the aggregate premiums or consideration paid (whether or not paid during the taxable year) then the excess shall be included in gross income. . . .’

    I want to ask my government what it thinks would become of me and my family if I were to write like that. Three sets of parentheses in one sentence! I’d be on relief inside of a month.

    That sentence, above, was obviously written by a lawyer in one of his flights of rhetorical secrecy. There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences. The contents of Section G of Form 1040, I am perfectly sure, could be stated so that the average person could grasp it without suffering dizzy spells. I could state it plainly myself if I could get some lawyer to disentangle it for me first. I’ll make my government a proposition: for a five-dollar bill (and costs), I will state it plainly.”

    -E.B. White. “Fro-Joy.” One Man’s Meat.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 4:32 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply  

    thediacritics.com 

    Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve reached a milestone. Our domain is now officiallyhttp://www.thediacritics.com!

    Subscribers, don’t worry–you don’t need to change anything. Also, our WordPress domain will redirect you to the new site automatically.

    Oh, and new posts to come soon!

    -John and Sandeep

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:11 am on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english teachers, , , , ,   

    Speaking with precision 

    (posted by John)

    My first semester of law school is drawing to a close, so I thought I would write about something I heard on my very first day. I’ve been mulling it over since then, partially because at first blush it runs so against my beliefs about prescriptivism and the ‘rightness’ of one person’s language over another’s. Professor John Langbein finished his riveting orientation talk on the history of law schools in America with a lament about the debasement of the English language my generation is committing. My immediate reaction, as you might guess, was a bit of haughty “This old fogey just doesn’t get it. Prescriptivism is dumb!”

    But on at least some level, he was right. Professor Langbein’s point was not that language shouldn’t change because change is bad. His point was that it’s easy to lose some of the aspects of language most valuable—especially to someone trying to become a lawyer. To me his most potent example was the loss of precision in language, which he blamed on the overlarge number of outlets for spewing our thoughts to others. Cell phone, text, facebook, twitter—you catch the drift I’m sure. It seems every major newspaper has a bi-monthly requirement for an editorial talking about the over-share phenomenon of Facebook status and twitter updates.

    Langbein wasn’t quite talking about this, though. Think about a recent conversation you’ve had, in which you related the contents of an interaction with another person. Did it run something along the lines of “I was like . . .Then he was like . . . Then I was just like whatever and left.” It may not have, but if you do some good ol’ eavesdropping on the street you’re sure to hear something like it. (Or if you’re lucky you might get “And I was all . . . Then she was all . . . Then I was all . . . .” ). This is one of the things (<– there’s another one of them) that dismayed Professor Langbein. “Is that really what you were like?” He asked us. He gave other examples, too. Overusing “thing” was one of them. Another was prefacing a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express with “You know, uh, . . . ,” and then proceeding on our muddled way. Another was compensating for a poorly-thought-out sentence by ending it with an “. . . or whatever.”

    We can all get our point across using imprecise language, and the linguist in me recoils at the thought of saying it’s actually ‘wrong’ to do so. But you can be sure that being imprecise is the one of the quickest routes to becoming an inept law student (not to mention a bad lawyer).

    So I’ll cede the point: it is worthwhile to attempt to be precise in language. If we don’t use linguistic vagaries like “or whatever” and if we avoid saying “thing” whenever the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, it forces us to organize our thoughts more clearly. Using precise language makes us think more precisely. I tried spending a day saying precisely what I meant every time I spoke. It was exceedingly difficult, but it seemed helpful in terms of my mental organization.

    Based on our knowledge of how language allows us to think complex thoughts in the first place, it makes sense that being more precise in our speech would make us more precise in our thinking. I wrote a post a while back looking at some of Liz Spelke’s experiments that suggest language lets otherwise distinct, insulated modules of intelligence interact, thereby making us ‘smart’ compared to other species. One experiment I didn’t discuss there shows that language allows us to grasp the concept of “sets of individuals.” Babies and monkeys can distinguish “individuals” and they can distinguish “sets,” and when the set is less than four items large, they recognize that adding or subtracting an individual changes the size of the set. But when the set is larger than four, they cannot combine the representations of ‘set’ and ‘individual’ to understand that it is a “set of individuals” such that adding or subtracting one changes the quantity. Only once we have language is this possible.

    There are also sad but interesting cases of so-called ‘feral children‘ who have been deprived of exposure to language from a very young age.  These people never fully learn a language. They also are unable to perform tasks indicative of ‘higher’ human intelligence—for example distinguishing which of two massed quantities is larger.  According to still more research by Spelke and others, children without language and other animals like monkeys can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities at a ratio of about 2:1. If the quantitates get much closer in number, it becomes difficult for them to guess correctly. Humans with language can do this at a considerably better rate.

    Finally, the emergence of language, some have argued, is associated with a cultural explosion of sorts; more complex tools, recursive patterns on bits of pottery, even materials that look like they could be used to go fishing. The idea is that language allowed us to do the ‘higher thought’ necessary to develop culture.

    All of this evidence suggests that we are able to think complex, highly structured thoughts in large part because we have language. It also suggests I should take Professor Langbein’s advice: you know, try not to be like, “Let’s speak more clearly or whatever.”

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 8:43 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chaucer, , language and gender, new york times, on language, , singular they,   

    They, their, and them 

    (posted by John)

    We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

    And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

    -Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular ‘they.’

    This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

    “And every one to rest themselves betake.”

    -Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

    “Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

    -Lord Byron, letter, 1805

    “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

    -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

    Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

    “She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

    -Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

    “. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

    -C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

    Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

    Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

     “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

    -On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

    For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

    However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiseror shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

    One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

    Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know! 

     
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