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Review: Words on the Move

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2016


It can be unsettling to be told to think about the fact that you have a tongue in your mouth. It’s wet; it’s biggish when you consider the whole thing all the way back; plus, it has that pebbly texture you’d find hideous to encounter in some undersea creature. Yet there it is sitting in your mouth and you can’t get it out.

As I’ve written before, John McWhorter is a master of analogies, and he still commands them in examples like this one. It comes from his latest book, Words on the Move, of which I received a free review copy from Holt Publishing. The tongue analogy above isn’t even in reference to articulatory phonetics, as you might think in a book about language; it’s about the oddball past-time marker in English used to, the commonality being that they’re both things that are amazingly weird when you stop to think about them, but which we use every day and consider completely normal. Here are some of the other analogies McWhorter uses in WOTM:

  • junk DNA
  • scooping out litter boxes
  • the mouth anatomy of fin whales
  • fade-out endings in pop music
  • fads in baby names
  • pre-ripped blue jeans
  • your child’s dating experiences
  • aside monologues in sitcoms that are not intended to be faux-reality shows
  • musical notes played
  • toolsheds
  • bees moving around in a hive
  • scurvy and being eaten by a bear (in the same sentence)
  • living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen
  • the Victorian party game of creating a “tableau vivant”

The theme of this book is how words not only do change, but are inevitably bound to. Fans of the Lexicon Valley podcast will recognize some of these topics from the episodes that have run since McWhorter’s assumption of host duties. In six chapters, he covers the various kinds of change that words are subject to, some of which will be familiar to most language enthusiasts, some of which won’t. Even when I was already familiar with the concepts, many of McWhorter’s examples were new to me. However, I have to say that I found this book to be M’s most “lecture-y”, because in between the fun analogies, there’s more awkward phrasing than I’m used to (or maybe more than I recall) in his other books. For example, in Chapter 3, M uses the example of some old Archie comics to illustrate how things that start out as markers of emphasis–in this case, exclamation points–end up just showing “basic engagement”. M quotes a dialogue between Archie and Veronica in which Archie is going fishing, and invites Veronica to come, and every declaration ends with a bang. M points out, “‘I’D LIKE TO FISH, TOO!’ in real life would [emphasis mine] get us near water with no one but ourselves.” He’s trying to make the text more interesting with this unexpected phrasing, but this attempt fell flat.

Chapter 1 is about one kind of semantic change, whereby words acquire meanings that are more about feelings and relating to one’s audience than they are about naming things or actions. Indeed, M observes that words like these are often hard to define. He calls them modal pragmatic markers, and uses the acronym FACE to divide them into those that emphasize factuality (those on the very/really/literally spectrum); those that acknowledge of your audience’s state of mind (discourse-initial so fits in here); those that indicate that something it counter to expectation (for example, a big-ass car is not merely big, but surprisingly big); and those that try to ease the impact of an unwelcome statement (I know, right?). Sometimes it’s not entirely clear why M puts a particular word in the box that he does, which makes me wonder how things would have shaken out if he had used, say, a 5-letter word as a mnemonic. Furthermore, the acronym wiggles a bit in that factuality is where words like really begin rather than what they become, whereas the other categories name the function that words later come to have. Even so, the classification is a good rough-ad-ready way to look at this kind of change.

Chapter 2 moves into another kind of semantic change, namely, the drifting that occurs as a result of happenstance imbuing a word with various connotations, which then become its denotation. His main source of examples in this chapter is Shakespeare, and I found this to be the driest part of the book, as he traced out example after example of seemingly familiar words that had very different meanings in passages from Shakespeare’s plays. Each would make a good entry for a page-a-day calendar, but one after another, they become numbing, even with M’s occasional one-liners to liven things.

In Chapter 3, M moves on to semantic changes that go so far that the words cease lose all of their earlier meaning and serve only to provide grammatical information. For example, the used to construction mentioned earlier really did start with a meaning that was closer to the “employ” meaning of use. It’s a good introduction to the process that linguists call grammaticalization, but M gets about halfway through the chapter before he reveals this word, since it has so many syllables that he wanted to put it off until the last possible moment.

Chapter 4 shifts from changes in word meaning to changes in pronunciation. In here, M covers not only the Great Vowel Shift, which will be familiar material to many readers of this review, but also various other vowel shifts that have occurred or are occurring in American English: the Northern Cities Shift, the Southern shift, and some less elaborate shifts, such as the cot/caught merger. He does all this without ever using the International Phonetic Alphabet, because he’s aiming for a non-specialist audience, but as with his similar attitude toward using the term grammaticalization, simply taking the plunge and bringing in the technical vocabulary earlier might have made things easier to read overall. Not using a vowel chart may have contributed to his surprisingly vague explanation of our diphthongs in mite and mouse: “[It] just branched off in a little spew.” A little spew? It makes a little more sense on his diagram, but not much.

Next, M attempts to sustain a sexual analogy throughout the entirety of Chapter 5, which he titles “Lexical springtime: Words mate and reproduce.” After quickly dispensing with portmanteau words and contractions, M resumes the progression of Chapters 1 through 3, now considering words that lose so much of their distinct meaning and pronunciation that they’re not even elements of grammar anymore; they’re just meaningless snippets of sounds that are parts of larger words. This still fits in his “words mating” analogy, because it all starts with compound words. M then goes through the stress-shift that regularly occurs in English compounds as they become familiar, to subsequent syllable reduction, to the eventual irrecognizability of the word as a compound at all. For example, I was surprised to learn here that world began as a compound of the same word for “man” that gives us werewolf and eld meaning “old”. Rather than Shakespeare, in this chapter M quotes a lot of examples from actual audio recordings, so that we can hear these processes taking place within the 20th century. (Actually, you can’t hear them so well on the page; I recommend listening to the Lexicon Valley episode where M plays the clips he’s talking about.)

In the final chapter, M talks about the effects of having a written language on how words change: It doesn’t stop it, but it makes it more visible and therefore more troubling–if you let it. M wraps up the work with a grand slam of all the kinds of word-change he’s talked about, illustrated in one word: like. He finishes with one more sexual analogy, one which, if he had spoken it, would have had me asking myself, “Did he just say what I think he said?” Here it is:

Language lives, as we do. Let’s love it as what it is–something always becoming, never still.

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives.

So if you’re looking for an entertaining and informative holiday gift for a language enthusiast, I’d go with McWhorter’s The Power of Babel or What Language Is. But if they already have those, or if their humor runs toward the sexual and scatological, Words on the Move is a good choice. And if you’d like a free copy of Words on the Move, write your best linguistics analogy in the comments, or tweet them @LiteralMinded (with the hashtag #LxAnalogy if you have room). I will see that a copy gets sent to whoever posts–by midnight EST, Monday, December 12, 2016–the most-entertaining analogy, as judged by me.

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Review: Talking Hands

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2013

Jive talk in sign language is not the same as the hand-jive

Margalit Fox, who writes obituaries for the New York Times, accompanied a team of linguists about 10 years ago to visit a remote “signing village” somewhere in Israel, where many of the inhabitants were hereditarily deaf, and most of them (i.e., many hearing people as well as deaf) regularly used an as-yet undocumented homegrown sign language now know as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL). She was there for less than a week, and out of that experience she wrote the book Talking Hands, which was published in 2007, but which I came across just this year on a display shelf at the library.

How did Fox manage to stretch a three- or four-day visit into an entire book? By putting in a lot of background and related information, and going on lots of tangents, and doling out information about these villagers in bits and pieces in each chapter. But you know what? She wove it all together so masterfully that I learned much more about sign language in this one book than I did in the sign-language chapter in Language Files, in the few scholarly papers on sign languages (SLs) that I’ve read, and in the couple of talks about sign language that I’ve attended. In fact, one of those talks was Mark Aronoff‘s plenary lecture at the 2006 LSA conference in Albuquerque, and Mark Aronoff was (and still is) a member of that team of linguists, and he was talking about that very language! I fell asleep for a lot of that talk.

In the frame story, Fox describes the team members, tells about the Bedouin society that this village is part of, talks about the visits and recording sessions at different households in the village, and explains how circumstances cooperated to create a village with widespread deafness and widespread use of a sign language that was born by and large free of any influence from spoken language, or even other sign languages. She also conveys how endangered this language, only three generations old, already is, as the youngest generation moves toward Israeli sign language.

However, in between telling about what happened during her one visit, Fox also provides an excellent primer in the history of sign languages and sign-language linguistics. I’ll just list here the various topics she covers, in the order in which she covers them throughout the book:

  1. Oralism, the belief that SLs were nothing more than pantomime, and that deaf people should be discouraged from using them, and should instead focus on lip-reading and speech.
  2. The work of Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima, a husband-and-wife team that did some of the pioneering work in SL linguistics.
  3. The life of Thomas H. Gallaudet and the birth of American Sign Language.
  4. The difference between structural linguistics and Chomskyan generative linguistics.
  5. The question of what kind of language would develop de novo–among infants with no influence from hearing any other language spoken or seeing any other language signed. (The idea of creating such conditions to find out is known among linguists as the Forbidden Experiment.)
  6. The necessary conditions for producing a signing village, i.e. a village with enough deaf people that sign language is regarded as a language, and is used by deaf and hearing people alike. Also other signing villages in history, including one on Martha’s Vineyard, and a Maya one.
  7. Crosslinguistic color terms, and classification of languages depending on which stage of color differentiation they have achieved. (ABSL is at Stage 1.)
  8. The life of William Stokoe, who defied prevailing wisdom in the 1950s to prove that ASL was a language complete with grammar, and identified the “phonological” features of ASL: place, handshape, and movement.
  9. A comparison of the linear syntax of spoken languages (i.e. words are arranged in time) and the spatial syntax of SLs (many pieces of information can be given simultaneously by using different areas of the space surrounding a signer).
  10. The sociolinguistics of whose accent (in any language) is perceived as the most beautiful or most proper.
  11. SLs as pidgin languages, including Nicaraguan Sign Language.
  12. Encoding grammatical relations (e.g. subject, direct object, indirect object) by syntax or morphology in spoken languages.
  13. More on the birth of ASL.
  14. Subject-verb agreement in SLs.
  15. Derivational morphology in SLs; for example, how you change a noun to a verb or vice-versa, or change one verb to another verb with a related meaning.
  16. Use of the face as an integral part of the grammar of SLs.
  17. Encoding grammatical relations in SLs. This is more interesting than it sounds. In fact, this part was so interesting that I told my son about it while we were waiting at the doctor’s office one day … and he agreed that it was interesting! He wasn’t just being polite, I tell you; he was intrigued. If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated at trying to keep track of numerous he‘s, she‘s, him‘s, and her‘s
    by the tone of your voice in a complicated story (“…so she told her … and then she told her…”), you’ll be envious of how SLs handle this. I loved this line: “By the end of a long conversation, the air around the signer fairly bristles with these invisible pronouns.”
  18. The three morphosemantic classes of SL verbs that turn up in SL after SL.
  19. Classifiers in spoken languages and SLs. Again, don’t be fooled by the boring-sounding title. This was another eye-opening section for me, showing how in some ways SLs leave spoken languages in the dust when it comes to efficient information packaging.
  20. Differences between full-fledged SLs and “home sign” and spontaneous gestures.
  21. What production or reception errors reveal about language cognition, in spoken languages and SLs. Yes, there are SL spoonerisms.
  22. Ling 101 psycholinguistics, with the usual information about Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.
  23. Different kinds of SL aphasia.
  24. The payoff for all the background spatial syntax and morphology, and subject-verb agreement, and grammatical relations, in other SLs: ABSL doesn’t have those things! The message that Mark Aronoff was trying to convey in that dark, warm auditorium on a winter evening in Albuquerque.

Now for a spoiler: What does studying this young SL, almost entirely free of the influence of other languages during its creation, tell us about language in general?

To judge from the natural Forbidden Experiment that is Al-Sayyid, what a language has at birth is words, and syntactic slots to put them in.

Just reading the description of this book on the cover or in the flyleaf, you’d think it’s mainly about this one language. Sure, it does say something about how this language teaches us about language in general, but that’s just to make it sound more important, right? Well, it keeps that promise (see spoiler above), but beyond that, Talking Hands is a fascinating, thorough, and very readable introduction to the basic facts about SLs that the average person might want to know, and that linguists should definitely want to know.

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Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch

Posted by Neal on December 20, 2012

When I was in eighth grade, my friend Philip Thrash introduced me to the standup comedy of Steve Martin by lending me his cassette tape of A Wild and Crazy Guy. At one point, Martin was going through a list of books he’d written, with titles such as I’ll Take the Alphabet and Renegade Nuns on Wheels. When he came to The Apple Pie Hubbub, he added, “That was a significant novel for me, because that’s when I first started using verbs.” A pause, then: “My novels really brightened up after that.”

That line kept coming back to me as I read Constance Hale’s book-length appreciation of verbs, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. When I first heard about it, I couldn’t quite get a clear picture of what it was about. The subtitle is Let Verbs Power Your Writing. That made it sound like a style or usage guide. On the other hand, some of what I read about it online suggested an enthusiastic wallow in linguistics like Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules, or an exploration of the syntax of awesome sentences by the most skillful writers, like Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Reading the press release that came with my review copy of the book, I learned that VHSS is intended to be all of these things.

The title is taken from the four sections contained in each chapter. The Vex sections provide the linguistic content to sketch out the basic information about the chapter’s topic. The remaining three sections are more about advice. The Hex sections bust myths and bogus rules about language and grammar–in other words, the rules that should not be heeded (at least not all the time). The Smash sections give examples of what not to do–in other words, the rules or guidelines that should be heeded. The Smooch sections finish with good examples, ways to have fun with verbplay, or both.

The strongest parts of the book are the Smooch sections, which fulfill Hale’s intention of showing good writing and highlighting how it makes use of the properties of verbs she has discussed in the chapter.

The Smash and Hex sections have good moments and bad. Sometimes I didn’t know how Hale decided which rules she would strike down in the Hex section, and which ones she would elevate in the Smash section. Sometimes I disagreed with her judgment. For example, within the class of linking verbs, Hale highlights what she calls “wimp verbs”, which are “disappointments in the name of a verb, because they allow a writer to hedge … rather than commit to an idea.” Two problems here. First of all, most of her wimp verbs don’t hedge, but straightforwardly express a meaning: become, keep, prove, remain, and stay. Second, sometimes a writer needs to hedge. Elsewhere, Hale writes that sentences without hedges “can seem, well, too bold. Get used to it.” She has seen too many cowardly hedges, I guess, so now she hates them all.

Other times, I agreed with Hale’s overall point, but disagreed with her example. This happened in Chapter 3, where Hale discourages needlessly Latinate or Greekate verbs when simpler alternatives exist. She quotes one guy criticizing a bureaucratic body when he said:

I essentially have to ask the approval of management to see certain documents. They go cogitate and then tell me whether I can see them.

Why not use think instead of cogitate? Hale asks. I’d say the speaker is showing an appreciation for the sound and connotations about verbs equal to Hale’s own: Pompous, out-of-touch power holders don’t just “think” about a matter; oh, no, they “cogitate” upon it.

In addition, not every chapter had a good-fitting topic for the Smash and Hex sections. For example, the Smash section in the chapter on verb tense is a good place to tell writers to choose their tenses carefully, and not go switching them with no reason. This Hale does, but in the chapter on verbs borrowed from other languages, how did she decide to criticize phrasal verbs with redundant prepositions (such as circle around)? Turning to the Hex sections, the chapter on phrasal verbs is a natural place to debunk the rule about stranded prepositions, and Hale does so. But in the chapter entirely devoted to the development of prescriptive grammar traditions in English, which rule is the lucky one to be Hexed? Multiple negation, as it turns out.

Like the Smash and Hex sections, the Vex sections have highs and lows. It is clear that Hale loves linguistics, as she cites linguists such as John McWhorter and David Crystal, tells about growing up speaking Hawaiian Pidgin, and discusses topics (such as crash blossoms) that show she’s a fan of language columns and blogs. At the high points, Hale clearly explains linguistic concepts to an audience of nonlinguist language lovers. My delight at those sections made the comedown even harder in the places where Hale’s explanations reveal her misunderstandings of linguistic concepts, and present misinformation that may cause readers confusion later. Furthermore, the Vex sections seem, more than the others, to strain at a playful tone in order to make the content less threatening. Here’s a selection from pages 107-108, where Hale introduces a bread metaphor to talk about different kinds of verbs, with the particularly grating parts underlined:

[L]et’s imagine that the universe of verbs is represented by a giant batch of bread dough. One half of the batch has been made with crunchy, hearty whole grains (wheat berries, oats, rye millet), the other half with refined white flour. … These [kinds of flour] give us our two main categories of … Verbs: Dynamic and Static. … The thing about white flour is that it’s hopelessly bland. Baguettes and ciabatta need other accoutrements–butter, raspberry jam, tapenade, caponata–to make an exciting meal. And guess what? Static Verbs need some delicious nouns and adjectives to make us salivate over the sentences they hold together.

I would rather read this kind of material in books like McWhorter’s What Language Is, or Crystal’s The Fight for English, where it is presented more thoroughly and accurately. I don’t object to extended metaphors; I loved McWhorter’s extended metaphor of coral seen dead and out of the water versus coral seen alive undersea to distinguish between most people’s understanding of language and how language actually is. I’ll list some of VHSS‘s linguistics-related high and low points at the end of the review. For now, here’s an overview of the chapters, with some of my comments mixed in.

  • Chapter 1: Some possible origins of language, and what language might have been like before syntax developed, with opinions from Derek Bickerton and Ray Jackendoff.
    • Vex: A side trip to take a look at nouns, including memorable noun-heavy passages from the Bible and a Hawaiian creation story.
    • Hex: The myth that writing is just about word choice; encouragement to consider words’ phonology and morphology for more adroit manipulation of mood and shades of meaning.
    • Smash: “Bad noun habits,” including compound nouns that “pile abstractions on top of abstractions and leave us clueless as to the people, places, things, or ideas they are actually describing,” circumlocutions, and confusing syntax from news, both written and spoken.
    • Smooch: Fun with writing with few or no verbs, as in some tweets and texts.
  • Chapter 2 introduces the basic notion of subjects and predicates.
    • Vex: Combining subjects with predicates, including the issue of agreement, and keeping careful track of how many predicates go with any given subject.
    • Hex: The myth that sentence fragments are always bad grammar.
    • Smash: “False starts” such as beginning a sentence with “I think” or existential There; tortured syntax that comes from attempting to avoid saying “I”.
    • Smooch: Describing a character by making him or her the subject of many predicates in a row (as opposed to switching subjects), and choosing “lively” predicates.
  • Chapter 3 tells about verbs borrowed from other languages.
    • Vex: A typical condensed history of English, including a summary of the relevant parts of McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and the obligatory excerpts from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales.
    • Hex: The advice to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin when possible.
    • Smash: Redundancy in collocations such as merge together, and in cliched coordinations such as cease and desist. Use of
    • Smooch: An exercise of describing many people all performing the same action in their own particular way, as a prompt to explore the nuances that different verbs can convey; short piece by Garrison Keillor as a model.

    BTW, you can read or hear excerpts from this chapter in the current episode of Grammar Girl.

  • Chapter 4: The rise of prescriptive grammarians.
    • Vex: Two more usual checkpoints in histories of the English language (Shakespeare and the King James Bible); “the rise of the grammar cops” (including Jonathan Swift and Robert Lowth); how it was decided English had eight parts of speech. A sidebar defines various morphological processes for creating new words (see my linguistic comments below).
    • Hex: The history of multiple negation and its fall from grace.
    • Smash: Bad verb-formation habits, including conversion (aka “verbing nouns”), overuse of -ize, and some backformations. Hale doesn’t universally condemn these practices, but recommends more specific verbs when they exist.
    • Smooch: An exercise of describing one person doing many things, as a prompt to use existing verbs in an unexpected way; models are an observer’s descriptions of Louis XIV’s routine, and part of Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
  • Chapter 5: A broad classification of verbs.
    • Vex: Static verbs (i.e. linking and auxiliary verbs) and dynamic verbs (all the others).
    • Hex: The myth that Standard English is the only appropriate dialect to use, in all situations. But why is that topic in this chapter, instead of the Hex part of Chapter 4?
    • Smash: Periphrasis with be (e.g. is desirous instead of wants); overreliance on static verbs; wordiness in general.
    • Smooch: Passages rich in dynamic verbs from several authors, including one from Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit.
  • Chapter 6: Verb tense.
    • Vex: A glimpse of the plethora of historical Indo-European tenses, and Old and Middle English verb suffixes. Overview of simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive tenses; auxiliary verbs (with the term helping verbs reserved for those that show tense (i.e, do, have, be), including a sampling of how they can interact, but no overall set of rules or summary; a passage from John Hersey’s Hiroshima to illustrate interaction of simple past and past perfect tenses.
    • Hex: Nonstandard tense formations, with a concise summary of some in Black English.
    • Smash: Clintonian use of verb tenses for evasion; Palinian performance errors in tense formation; guessing at irregular past tenses instead of looking them up in a dictionary.
    • Smooch: The historical, “narrative” present tense; dialectal or nonce tense formations; deliberate chaotic use of tenses to show a narrator’s mental instability. Examples include John Steinbeck and a Caribbean novelist named Chamoiseau.
  • Chapter 7: Verb voice.
    • Vex: History of the passive voice, and the widespread cluelessness about what it actually refers to in grammar; comparison of active and passive voice across 12 tenses (with an unexplained switch in example verb halfway through); good reasons to use passive voice; bad reasons to use passive voice.
    • Hex: The oversimplified advice to avoid passive voice. Examples of effective use of passive voice by several authors (but with one verb phrase incorrectly labeled as passive). Headlines ruined by avoidance of passive.
    • Smash: Passive voice used to avoid placing or accepting blame, with a Zimmer-like history of the phrase Mistakes were made; similarly for corporate responsibility-avoiding speech (but with another mislabeled passive voice!).
    • Smooch: Effective use of active voice, even when you might expect to have to use a lot of passives, in a passage from a short story by Thomas Curwen; powerful interaction of active and passive voice in the Gettysburg Address.
  • Chapter 8: Verb mood.
    • Vex: Indicative, imperative, and subjunctive mood; modal auxiliaries and conditional sentences; a classification of conditionals that gets the basic facts right; imperatives in a poem by Donne; modal auxiliaries in lines from songs and poems.
    • Hex: Premature reports of the death of the subjunctive, with a list of the most common places where you’ll find them (though for some reason, the only verb she uses in wish clauses is were; never had or could or knew…).
    • Smash: Conditionals with would have; use of may have where might have is appropriate; use of wish … was instead of wish … were.
    • Smooch: Samples of texts rife with indicative verbs or imperatives; authors include Henry James and Tom Wolfe.
  • Chapter 9: Verb valence.
    • Vex: Intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive verbs. Verbs with object complements such as elect; verbs of causation such as make, let; verbs with patient subjects such as burst (which she calls ergatives, which is less Hale’s fault than the fault of syntacticians who misuse the term than; a less confusing though still jargony term is unaccusative); a toy phrase-structure grammar summing up these kinds of verbs, with examples of each using political slogans from American history.
    • Hex: The lack of respect for sentence diagramming; two sample Reed-Kellogg diagrams and one tree diagram.
    • Smash: Confusion of lay and lie, who and whom, I and me; sentences that depart from a verb+complements structure to get weighted down with many phrases that don’t fit neatly in.
    • Smooch: Sentences that stick to a verb+complements structure for maximum power in minimum length, including memorable telegraph messages, and a passage from Hemingway. (Unfortunately, one telegraph story presented as truth is, in fact, a long-debunked story about Cary Grant.)
  • Chapter 10: Nonfinite verbs.
    • Vex: Participles, gerunds, and infinitives; confusion between past tense and past participle; infinitives as subjects and complements of verbs (though she calls them direct objects).
    • Hex: Splitting infinitives.
    • Smash: Dangling participles; possessive subjects of gerunds.
    • Smooch: Good use of gerunds and participles from sources including Toni Morrison, Susan Orlean, and some Viagra commercials.
  • Chapter 11: Phrasal verbs.
    • Vex: Phrasal verbs and the distinction between prepositions and particles; the term prepositional verb for phrasal verbs that use prepositions instead of particles.
    • Hex: Ending sentences with prepositions; Ben Zimmer’s debunking of the “up with which I wil not put” story. However, Hale ignores the distinction between prepositions and particles that she so nicely made in the Vex section.
    • Smash: Separating a verb and its particle with a long-ass noun phrase. (Here, an example that should have been in the Smooch section has crept in: Hale praises Ronald Reagan’s phrasing of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”) Choosing the wrong preposition for a phrasal verb; unnecessary prepositions when the verb itself is sufficient; unnecessary phrasal verbs when a single-verb option exists.
    • Smooch: Phrasal verbs with up, exemplified in Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”.
  • Chapter 12: A grab-bag of verbs that cause confusion for one reason or another.
    • Vex: A grab-bag of verbs that cause confusion for one reason or another.
    • Hex: The belief that there is only one right way to express some thought.
    • Smash: Misunderestimate, refudiate, aggravate.
    • Smooch: Careen, carom, career; deliberately nonstandard usage in dialogue, with examples from Cormac McCarthy and the Beatles.
  • Epilogue: Thoughts on style that go beyond the grammar, including metaphor and various rhetorical devices, with more good examples from spoken and written English.

VHSS has several appendices, which are billed in the press release as useful references. Some of them are; others would have been if they had presented a more thorough and organized picture of their topic.

  • Appendix 1 discusses ideas about the origin of language that didn’t make it into Chapter 1, including the hoary “ding-dong,” “bow-wow,” and “yo-he-ho” hypotheses that I remember reading about 25 years ago.
  • Appendix 2 attempts to present all the troublesome cases for subject-verb agreement in one place: collective nouns, every, fractions, singulars that end in -s, compound subjects, and more. This is a great idea–I wish Hale had pushed it a bit further. She covers compound subjects linked by and, but what about pronouns linked by or, as in you or I? And what about sentence like What you need is/are better apps?
  • Appendix 3 briefly reviews several popular dictionaries. This is a good summary.
  • Appendix 4 lists all the most common irregular verbs. Hale begins with a glimpse of the linguistic history of irregulars. However, she mentions only strong and weak verbs, saying nothing about weak verbs whose past tense resulted from contraction (such as beat), or suppletion (come/went, is/was)–although these verbs still appear in the list. Worse, in the introductory paragraph she even highlights–as an example of a “once strong verb”–the most famous example of an originally weak verb that has developed a strong/irregular past tense: sneak. An admirable attempt to put some linguistic information into a grammar reference has ended up a source of linguistic misinformation.
  • Appendix 5 covers phrasal verbs in a list whose members were chosen more for their entertainment value than for representativeness of phrasal verbs. Idiomatic meanings aren’t explained; they’re just used as if the reader knows them. Hale uses run over as a phrasal verb in the phrase running him over, but never mentions that for many speakers, over acts as a preposition instead of a particle, as in running over him. At times she even loses sight of what actually constitutes a phrasal verb, as when she discusses try to and try and, neither of which contains a particle.
  • Appendix 6 is a usage guide on misused verbs. Some of the mnemonics don’t make sense. For example, to remember the difference between wax and wane, Hale advises the reader to remember that “wane precedes wax alphabetically, just as small comes before big.” Huh? Maybe, if you’re thinking about living things, but I tend to think about the moon when I think of waxing and waning, and in that case, small comes both before and after big, month after month.

In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Constance Hale has ambitiously tried to create something that Geoff Pullum has often called for: a linguistically informed prescriptive grammar or style guide. Though she succeeds in the Smooch component, the mix of good information with misinformation and misunderstandings in the Vex, Hex, and Smash components causes it to fall short.


Where Hale gets it right when it comes to linguistics

  • Noting that verbs are an open class. (Introduction)
  • Moving away from the notional definition of nouns (“person, place or thing”) and giving a more syntactically oriented view. (Introduction)
  • Introducing the idea of selectional restrictions by noting, “You can’t just take any noun and hitch it to a verb.” (2)
  • Briefly but accurately (as far as I can tell) describing nonstandard verb tenses in Black English. (6)
  • Defining the passive voice accurately (or at least accurately enough). (7)
  • Accurately presenting intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive verbs, and not claiming that any verb phrase with an indirect object can be rephrased with a to prepositional phrase. (9)
  • Distinguishing between prepositions and particles when discussing phrasal verbs. (11)

Where Hale misses the mark

  • Claiming that in some languages, verbs are less important than in English, and illustrating with an Arabic sentence with a zero copula. Lots of languages do this! Show me a different missing verb to convince me. (Introduction)
  • Writing that swear is the oldest verb in English, since it’s attested as early as 688 CE. Does she mean “oldest verb attested from a time when English is still considered English”? What about all the (other) verbs that English inherited from Proto-Germanic, or Proto-Indo-European?
  • Calling sad a morpheme (true) which can combine with other morphemes to form words such as saddle. (1)
  • Alluding to the newscasting style that Geoff Nunberg calls “Inglish”. (1) Hale says it doesn’t have verbs, but it does! They’re all participles!
  • Claiming that a passage in George Orwell’s Newspeak omits verbs. (1) In fact, the only one it omits is is, and the others are simply in abbreviated form.
  • Giving an example of one subject with two predicates that’s really two clauses with repeated subject we. (2)
  • Getting the constituency wrong in a cursory look at tree diagramming: really pretty isn’t parsed as a constituent in most really pretty girls. (2)
  • Unwittingly including a multi-level coordination in a passage intended to show how someone “carefully coordinates his subjects and predicates”. (2) (The coordination is have solidified her muscles, seasoned her pugnacity, and … the suddenly limp police horde perceives the murderous intent….)
  • Claiming that English’s “full palette of phonemes gives us the change to let vowels and consonants echo the sound of real things”. (3) Full palette of phonemes? We don’t have any uvular consonants, or front round vowels, or clicks. People who speak click languages, for example, would have a much easier time than we would of making the verb for “knock” sound like actual knocking.
  • Disregarding her own advice by needlessly inventing new words for morphological processes. In her sidebar in Chapter 4, compounding becomes smishsmashing, and conversion becomes slipsliding. These words are less transparent than what they replace. For example, I would have guessed that smishsmashing referred to blending (i.e. portmanteau words).
  • Noting that verbs, in particular, forms of be, are optional in some Hawaiian sentence, but not saying the same about Black English, which she discussed on the previous page, or other languages with copula deletion. (5)
  • Implying that helping verbs are not just auxiliary verbs, but any verb that takes a verbal complement, such as make, let, or cause. (5)
  • An editing error: printing thorns as p in passages from Old English. (7)
  • Implying that passives can be constructed with have (which is true), but giving had been sowed as an example. (7) It’s passive, but because of the been, not the had.
  • Labeling the verb phrase was to remember as passive voice. (7)
  • Implying that there are three passive clauses to be found in a quotation from the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, when there are only two. (7)
  • Claiming that the saws that cut the rectangular wood tiles for Milton Bradley’s Scrabble game are now still is in the passive voice. (7) These last two examples were such disappointments after such an otherwise clear-eyed assessment of passive voice!
  • Calling auxiliary verbs with elliptical complements intransitives, as in You wouldn’t or I do. (9)
  • Writing as if the syntactic subtypes of the verbs presented in Chapter 9 are all of the subtypes, without mentioning verbs that take clausal or infinitival complements.
  • Insisting that subjects of gerunds must be possessive (10), without considering differences in meaning, or what to do with expletive subjects (the problem of its being too foggy to drive?)>
  • Giving credence to the Global Language Monitor. (Chapter 1 notes)

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You Are What You Speak

Posted by Neal on March 8, 2011

You may recognize the name Robert Lane Greene if you read some of the blogs on the blogroll here. For almost a year, he has been writing the language blog Johnson (as in Samuel Johnson) for The Economist. Now he’s published a book, You Are What You Speak, a copy of which has come to me for review.

The press release that accompanied the book gives this summary: “The claims people make about language — and the superiority of one way of speaking and writing over another — are often really about nationalist and identity politics.” This theme unifies what on the surface would seem to be a loosely connected set of linguistic topics, covering on one end of the spectrum complaints about the decline of English grammar, and on the other, how language has affected geopolitical issues.

Before I get into the main part of the review, I just have to tell about something that spoke to me (if you will) in the preface. There, Greene writes about his father, who grew up in Macon, Georgia:

His grammar was nonstandard, his pronunciation southern, his vocabulary earthy and frequently not the type you want your three-year-old learning. He was also the best talker I knew. Dad could tell the same joke again and again and make it funny every time. And the stories he told of growing up, getting in trouble, and fighting his way through life got more outlandish every time I heard them. Yet I couldn’t wait to hear them again. He could spellbind any audience. (xx)

Change the hometown to Albany, Georgia, and this passage could be about my dad.

Now, back to the review. Much of the material Greene covers is stuff that has already been covered in other linguistics books for popular audiences. For example, Greene’s discussion of dialects and dialect continua reminded me of John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel. Chapter 2, which gives a history of English prescriptivist grammarians covers much the same facts as David Crystal does in five or six chapters in The Fight for English. His story of Nicaraguan Sign Language is the same story as can be found in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues. His sketch of the development of historical linguistics, with William Jones and Ferdinand de Saussure, is familiar from … what?

It was about here that I realized the problem was not with Greene, but with me. Jones and Saussure are in any book about historical linguistics, but the nonlinguist audience Greene is aiming for will not have read those books, and probably not the others I mentioned. Furthermore, all this material is necessary background before Greene can really make his points. For someone who hasn’t discovered linguistics yet, Greene’s introduction will be fascinating and entertaining; for those who have, it will be like watching a rerun of a show that you liked enough to watch again. And when you get to the stuff that’s not old hat, the book really takes off.

You Are What You Speak begins with a short chapter that gives an overview of the linguistic and political issues that will fill the rest of the book. Greene opens up with the Bible story about shibboleth, illustrating the sometimes life-and-death importance of language as a marker of identity people impute to language. That may be familiar territory for many readers, but then Greene makes an unexpected connection with a modern sociopolitical example:

Militant Protestants and Catholics distinguished one another in Northern Ireland in part by the modern-day equivalent of “shibboleth”: Protestants pronounce the eight letter of the alphabet “aitch,” while Catholics say “haitch.”

This is the kind of detail that makes what I think of as Greene’s “Tales of Language, Religion, and Politics” a worthwhile read.

After the “Brief History of Sticklers” in chapter two, Greene gives an overview of linguistics in chapter 3 (including the part about historical linguistics noted earlier). Here we also meet Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum of Language Log, and LL readers will recognize be quite familiar with Liberman’s challenges to modern linguistic mythology such as the idea that women speak more words per day than men, and Pullum’s rants about prescriptive grammar dogmatists (in particular Strunk and White). Also in the chapter, highlights three subfields of linguistics (syntax, psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics) to show how linguists look at the same issues that are important to prescriptivists, but with the aid of actual data. It’s also in this chapter that Greene starts to delve into modern social and political consequences of language, talking about varieties of Greek, French in Haiti, and Arabic across the Islamic world, and the big-time consequences of being taught that the language you speak naturally is degraded, and the standard language that you can’t read or understand is the only true version.

Chapter 4 is the chapter about dialects and dialect continua. By now Greene is hitting his stride, and he opens the chapter with a great comparison. In an Internet video, a black journalist switches from standard English to angry African American English after an unpleasant surprise (a bug flying in his mouth); when Greene’s Danish wife stubs her toe, she curses in Danish. Both are instances of the same phenomenon: lapsing into your native language in an emotional moment. But AAVE is commonly considered bad English, while Danish is a respected standard language! In fact, these are the parts of the book I liked the most: when we get a glimpse of Greene’s personal experiences with language. A similar anecdote was in the previous chapter, when Greene recounted his experience speaking broken standard Arabic with two Egyptians in a South African bar.

It’s also in chapter 4 that Greene makes another unusual connection. You’ve undoubtedly read complaints that sloppy language is an indicator of sloppy thought. If you’ve read many popular linguistics books, you’ve also read refutations of Whorfianism. But this was the first time I saw the prescriptivist argument about loss of precision in language called out as nothing more than one more example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and debunked as such.

Chapter 5, “Welcome to X. Now speak Xish,” is, in my opinion, the best and most informative in the book. Near the beginning, he writes:

Modern-day maps like to show where speakers of this or that language live, perhaps with French-speakers colored red or German-speakers blue. But a map of medieval Europe with a dot for each speaker would show a mess, with a great deal of overlap. There would be no “red,” just reddish hues from brownish read to orange-red to hot pink, representing the different Romance dialects spoken in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. Our Germanic “blue” might be greenish in the area that became the Netherlands and purplish in the area that became Bavaria. … There were no “languages” as we think of them today, codified in dictionaries and grammar books. Everything was dialect.

How did we get from muddy continua to crisp borders? How did the hazy and shiftin gmess of dots get sorted into rigid containers, all the red dots in this one, all the blue dots in that one? What happened to change our thinking from “Everything is a dialect” to “There is one proper French (or English or German)”?

After reading that, I couldn’t wait to find out. His answer: the rise of nation-states. I’d read the term in high-school world history, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. This chapter, showing the development of nation-states through the lens of linguistics, did. I recommend it as history reading even for those who are more interested in the history than the languages. Greene starts with Spain, France, and England, to Italy and Germany, to others that followed and the outbreak of World War I. Again, I remembered the word “nationalism” coming up in my high-school history books in the chapter on WWI, but Greene’s language-focused overview gave me a better understanding than I ever got in school. After Europe, Greene gives capsule histories of Israel, South Africa, India/Pakistan, and the most recently created Balkan nation-states. Whether talking about events from the history books or stories I remember hearing about in the news not so many years ago, they all make more sense after reading about them here.

Chapter 6 turns to language and laws. Topics include the French Academy, spelling reform in German, truly radical spelling reform in Turkish, and why Japanese probably won’t and Chinese almost certainly won’t move to Romanization, which Greene sums up succinctly:

Writing Mandarin in pinyin would expose to all non-Mandarin speakers the fact that they are looking at a foreign language. This is a headache that China’s authorities, already fearful of non-Han separatist movements in Tibet and the Muslim, Uighur-speaking region of Xinjiang, can do without.

Chapter 7 has the title “The Microsoft and Apple of Languages,” a title I suspect will look ridiculously dated in a few decades. It refers to English and French, and the chapter is about English-only and French-only language movements. Personally I didn’t find this chapter as interesting as the others, but a book on language and politics wouldn’t be complete without it.

The last chapter revisits the idea of discrete languages all in their separate boxes (nations), and suggests shifting, fuzzy clouds as a better way to think about languages. Great, but how do we deal with such chaos in a practical way, especially since history has shown that people want and expect that

Only one variety of one language called German should be the language of exactly one country called Germany, which should include all and only German-speakers; and so on for Italians, French, and so forth.

Greene admits that it’s simply unrealistic to expect that there could be a way for every language to survive, and given the bloody propensity for same-language speakers to want to create nation-states for themselves, it might not even be a good thing. Even so, Greene ends with a call for multilingualism and for an attitude that your various dialects or languages serve different purposes.

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Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 3

Posted by Neal on September 7, 2010

For the last two posts, I’ve been reviewing Peter Culicover and Beth Hume’s Basics of Language for Language Learners, and now I’m ready to finish up with Part 3 of the book, “Acting Like a Native Speaker”. This last section contains three chapters, one of them a general chapter on language and culture, and the other two covering politeness and taboo. C&H sum up the reason for covering these by-and-large extralinguistic topics thus: “The better you understand the culture of the language you are learning, the better you will be able to interact successfully with native speakers” (p. 176).

Chapter 10, “The Link between Language and Culture”, begins by making the point that just as the connection between a word’s sound and its dictionary meaning is arbitrary, so is the connection between the forms used (i.e. the particular words as well as syntactic structures that speakers choose) and what they call social meaning. C&H observe that a culture (by definition) has norms for behavior, and since language is a part of behavior, some of these norms will be language norms. Areas to be on the lookout for these norms include formality, politeness, taboo topics, and how to conduct yourself in a conversation. As for why you should The better you understand the culture of the language you are learning, the better you will be able to interact successfully with native speakers. (p. 176)As in Parts 1 and 2, they give exercises to prompt the reader to think more carefully about their native English than they would probably bother to otherwise, and in so doing, prepare to make the same kind of analyses in the target language. A typical exercise is to write down the different ways you would ask someone to repeat themself because you haven’t understood them, depending on whether the someone is a younger sibling, a parent, a close friend, a teacher, or — and here’s where C&H subtly underscore the importance of these subtleties — a cop at a sobriety checkpoint.

But beyond simply being aware of potential differences in the target language culture, what can you do to discover them? C&H recommend keen observation. Instead of just noting that some phrase is used as a greeting, for example, they ask the learner to write down any overheard greetings, noting the age and sex of the speakers, and the situation. Then look for patterns; in other words, think like a linguist doing fieldwork. C&H make this recommendation after discussing two non-recommended methods. One is to ask your language instructor, but the trouble with that is that people might lie about sensitive topics, and it might even be taboo to discuss the rules regarding them. Here’s their wry presentation of the other non-recommended method:

An alternative means of learning whether or not something is a norm is to violate it and see what happens. The reaction of people around you will probably be a fairly good indication of whether or not the norm exists. Of course, the major drawback of violating a potential norm is that it may trigger discomfort, embarrassment, or any number of other negative reactions. (p. 179)

(Off topic: That passage reminded me of an old Ernie and Bert sketch; the relevant bit is about 30 seconds in.)

Next, the chapter discusses language varieties, pointing out that they exist in other languages just as they do in English, and discussing attitudes and stereotypes regarding speakers of “non-prestige” varieties of a language. Knowing that variety exists will, C&H hope, prepare language learners for experiences they’ll have hearing whatever variety of the target language is spoken where they visit, and allow them to appreciate each variety instead of assuming its speakers are ignorant or rude.

The last section of Chapter 10 covers gesture. C&H first discuss gestures that are familiar to English speakers, but whose usage in various situations may be different from their usage among English speakers; e.g., handshakes, kisses, or bows in greetings. Next they cover gestures that look familiar, but which can have dangerously different meanings in other cultures; for example, the “OK” gesture. This one, in fact, is often covered in books just about gestures in other languages, and C&H mention one such book by name. Finally, they mention a few sample gestures that don’t exist at all in English, just to give a taste of the kind of unexpected things you might have to look out for. But once again, how to learn these unwritten conventions? The exercises again involve observing speakers of other languages, but doing so with more attention and purpose than you might otherwise.

Chapter 11 focuses specifically on politeness. Whereas errors in grammar from a nonnative speaker are usually tolerated and forgiven, C&H write, errors where politeness is concerned usually aren’t. With that motivation established, C&H begin by introducing the ideas of positive politeness (striving to be friendly and inclusive) and negative politeness (striving not to inconvenience anyone, especially your superiors), which are actually useful concepts to know about even when you’re using just English. The next section shows ways in which politeness is expressed in English by way of grammatical forms: modal auxiliaries, choice of verb tense, the use of preparatory moves such as, “Is this a good time?” After the look at politeness in English, C&H move on to politeness in other cultures. They talk specifically about different cultural norms for giving and receiving compliments, and for making requests. Finally, C&H discuss languages in which politeness is built into the grammar, bringing up French and Japanese in particular. The exercises are similar to those in Chapter 10, involving introspection about English and directed observation for the target language.

Chapter 12, “Swearing, Insults, and Taboos”, starts off with a warning: You may be eager to learn the target-language equivalents of your favorite cuss words, but you can’t assume that the slightly impolite phrases in English will have slightly impolite translations, or that the really offensive phrases in English have really offensive translations. As different cultures assign differing importance to various societal taboos, the words that refer to these taboos will vary in offensiveness from language to language. How to learn these taboos? C&H recommend asking your language teacher (if they’re comfortable discussing it), or a good dictionary that goes into this kind of depth (if one exists). The rest of the chapter discusses some common bases for taboo in world cultures: sex, religion, your mother, social status, and animals. (A minor complaint about the last one: C&H mention humans’ “higher position on the evolutionary scale” (pp. 209-210), an outdated metaphor that I don’t expect to hear from college professors, even those in fields other than biology. And on that subject, way back on p. 6, they refer to “highly evolved creatures”. For more on this complaint, I recommend reading any book by Stephen J. Gould.) This chapter doesn’t bother with exercises, though at this point the learner who has diligently done the exercises in previous chapters should probably be able to learn a lot by careful observation.

These chapters are faster and easier reading than those in Part 2, but even so, occasional lapses in organization slowed my progress. For example, in Chapter 12, one paragraph about making requests is located in the section about compliments. So is a paragraph about adding disclaimers such as “if God wills it” when expressing wishes or plans (i.e., not compliments). These meanderings caused me to have to re-read sections, to make sure that the misplaced content really didn’t belong, and that I hadn’t just missed some connection.

Unlike the material in Parts 1 and 2, most of the material in these three chapters is available in other books for non-linguists; plenty of books for business travelers talk about politeness and taboo, for example. However, none that I know of situates these topics in the larger landscape of differences that learners of a foreign language should be on the alert for. Despite the problems in presentation in Parts 2 and 3, BLLL has a lot of good information and suggestions that will help the adult language learner — provided they have the discipline to follow through on them. I am reminded of my piano teacher telling me that I would show more and faster improvement on a song by spending some time concentrating on just the troublesome sections, instead of just playing through the whole song and continuing to stumble through the problem areas. He was right; the trouble was in marshaling the discipline to follow his advice.

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Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 2

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2010

In my last post I began reviewing Culicover and Hume’s Basics of Language for Language Learners, and got through Part 1 of the book, which deals with the sounds of foreign languages. In this post I cover Part 2, “Thinking Like a Native Speaker”, which gets into syntax and semantics. The payoff in these chapters is a bit more abstract than the payoff in Part 1. There, they gave concrete examples of how you could make sounds that at first seemed completely foreign, by using already-familiar gestures used in English sounds. In Part 2, they can’t really do that. But the fact is, even in Part 1, learning to make an actual foreign sound won’t help you, unless you happen to be learning a language that has that sound. All it really does is to give you a taste of what else is out there in terms of phonetics, and show how you might be able to handle it. The analogous exercises in Part 2 have you analyzing structures of English and other languages, in order to get a taste of what else is out there in terms of grammar.

Chapter 7, “The Work That Language Does”, begins by making a four-way distinction between a sentence’s content, its form, its function, and its force. To illustrate, C&H talk about a situation involving a waiter, a customer, a cup of coffee, and an action of giving. This situation is the content of the sentence. Different forms of sentences could contain this same content: declarative (You’re giving me a cup of coffee), interrogative (Are you giving me a cup of coffee?), or imperative (Give me a cup of coffee). The function is what, on the surface, in a literal-minded way, the sentence does. The declarative makes a statement; the interrogative asks a question; the imperative gives a command or request. The force is what the speaker actually intends for the sentence to do. For example, the declarative You’re giving me a cup of coffee could be taken as a command, rudely expressed. The interrogative Are you giving me a cup of coffee? might be expressing a speaker’s impatience more than posing a question to be answered.

I found this part of the chapter confusing, even though the concepts were familiar to me. Part of the trouble is that C&H try to take a preview-then-fuller-picture approach. In one section, they work through the example of the cup of coffee, mentioning some of the technical terms in the course of the discussion. In the next section, they focus more intensely on the ideas of form, content, function, and force. The result is that some of the ideas get presented twice, which made me think on the first reading that I had misunderstood what they were saying in the previous section. In particular, the idea of force is blurry. For example, they give the sentence “What kind of dog is that?”, saying that “[t]he force is that the hearer should provide the answer to the question.” Maybe, but I could easily imagine this as a rhetorical question, with the intended force of insulting the hearer’s dog. Other readers who imagined a similar scenario might find themselves thinking they’d misunderstood the difference between function and force.

Why do C&H need to make these distinctions? The point they’re leading to is that it is a language’s grammar that contains the rules for linking particular kinds of content and functions with the right forms. (Force is quietly dropped from the picture at this point, I assume because it depends so much more on context.)

Next, C&H turn to the idea of structure of a sentences and phrases — the kind of thing I do in posts that show syntactic tree diagrams. They spend a page in defense of learning grammar, and it’s here that they best state the purpose of learning these technical concepts:

We already know intuitively how our own language works; the challenge is to acquire knowledge about how another language works. And we want that knowledge to be usable.

To put it another way, the grammar of a language is the set of “rules” … that specify how units are arranged to form phrases and sentences and how the parts of a sentence correspond to its meaning. For anyone who wants to learn how to communicate thoughts in another language, some insight into the grammar of that language can be very useful, and in some cases it may even be essential. (p. 96)

Another good statement of their aim in increasing awareness of English grammar:

[I]t does help to know that another language could use a different order of words, but we have to know precisely what the order is. In other words, we know what questions we should ask about how another language forms [sentences], but we do not necessarily know what the answers are going to be. (p. 98) [NW: The actual phrasing is “how another language forms questions”, but I think this has to be a cut-and-paste error.]

The rest of the chapter is devoted to developing very basic phrase-structure rules for languages that differ from English in, for example, putting the subject after the verb. The analogy they use is that of a “Chinese menu”. All that means is “choose something from column A, something from column B, and something from column C,” which apparently is how menus in some Chinese restaurants are set up. The exercises here are mainly consciousness-raising about the structure of English phrases, with some comparison exercises like those in Part 1, this time comparing how English and some other language form verb phrases or different kinds of full sentences.

Chapter 8, “Talking About Things,” goes more specifically into the grammar of noun phrases. C&H begin by introducing the category of noun, but once again I got thrown off by their strategy of giving a small taste of the material to be covered in one section and then the fuller treatment later. C&H talk about how languages differ in how they indicate definiteness of a noun, and on how (or whether) they mark singular and plural. This material is covered again in later sections, which had me going back to this first section to see if it really was the same subject matter or if I’d misunderstood something. The next section covers determiners, including issues of agreement, gender and sex, noun classes (the more general notion of which gendered nouns are just a special case), placement of determiners, and learning to use them. Here C&H give one piece of specific for learning other languages: Memorize nouns and the determiners that go with them as set phrases. Although it’s good to understand the rules that generate these phrases, for effective communication they need to be accessible instantly.

The last subsection in the section on determiners is called “Describing Things,” and is not about determiners at all, but about adjectives and relative clauses. Huh? It turns out that this is just a segue into the section on adjectives (“We discuss how this works next.”). This is another example of how the organization of the chapters in Part 2 is hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the headings for the main sections and subsections aren’t intuitively clear on their hierarchical position. I found myself flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to look at the font of the first section, or looking for a section heading immediately atop a subsection heading so I could determine whether the (sub)section I was entering was part of the previous topic, or a new one.

C&H discuss the rules for ordering determiners, adjectives, and nouns in English, and compare the rule to some used in other languages, pointing out different ordering possibilities, and the fact that some languages make adjectives agree with nouns in number and gender (or noun class). The next section does the same for relative clauses. The exercises involve figuring out phrase structure rules for determiners, adjectives, nouns, and relative clauses in a few languages, again with the apparent aim of raising the language learner’s consciousness of these other possibilities, and minimizing surprise and confusion when they are encountered in a target language.

Chapter 9, “Expressing Meaning,” is the longest chapter in the whole book. In it, C&H do for verb phrases what they did for noun phrases in Chapter 8. Because of the longer length, the presentation problems mentioned above make this chapter even more difficult going. The overall picture C&H present is that a verb is the heart of a sentence, because it says what role all the noun phrases play in the event being described. Various roles include agent, theme, instrument, goal, source, and experiencer. These roles are part of a sentence’s content; how they are expressed in a sentence is an issue of form. When talking of form, we don’t talk about roles, but grammatical functions: subject, direct object, indirect object. There are three main ways of identifying these grammatical functions in languages: word order, case markings, or agreement, and prepositions. Whoops! Make that four main ways! Which role is linked to which grammatical function depends on the individual verb. A verb is said to directly govern the roles that it expresses with grammatical functions, and indirectly govern those that it has to express via prepositional phrases.

C&H also discuss the difference between main verbs and auxiliary verbs, active and passive voice, tense, mood, and aspect. By this time, the language learner may be getting overwhelmed, and there is simply no way to cover all the other ways of doing things that a target language might have. All C&H can do is raise the learner’s awareness enough to allow them to ask the right questions, and hopefully assimilate the answers better than they would if these possibilities were coming as a surprise. For example, in the section on mood, C&H tell the learner, “As a language learner, you will have to come to terms with the different ways in which your native language and the language you are learning carry out these functions” (p. 152); in other words, “You’re on your own here, and good luck.”

Chapter 9 continues, as C&H tell how verbs express different the different functions previewed in Chapter 7. They give a good overview here of how English and a few other languages differ in making statements, posing questions, and giving commands. The exercises are the same type as in Chapter 8, inviting the reader to think about how the rules work in English, and how they work in other languages that they already know.

Part 2 of BLLL is a tough read, because of the amount of information squeezed into it and because of the problems in presentation. However, this book is aimed at intelligent, motivated learners, and after a second pass through the chapter, there is a lot of good, general information about how languages express various kinds of meaning, information that will probably help the learner who pays attention and thinks about these things while learning a foreign language. I hope that in future editions, there will be more diagrams showing the interplay of the various concepts introduced. There are two pages of phonetic charts at the very back of the book; why not some charts showing semantic roles, grammatical functions, sentence forms, agreement, and the like?

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 1 Comment »

Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1

Posted by Neal on September 1, 2010

Back in April, I was somewhat embarrassed to receive an email from someone named Dmitry, who asked me:

If you know English language (and, it seems, others) so well, perhaps you know the best way to learn a language? As many others who learn a language when they already have a job and family, I don’t have that much time to spend on learning. So I try to spend time as effectively as I can.

Wow, someone asking me for advice on how to learn a language. It’s a standard joke among linguists (at least American linguists) that when people learn your profession, they ask, “So how many languages do you speak?” and the usual answer is “One.” I developed an interest in language only in high school, well past the critical period for me to learn a language and have any hope of native-like proficiency. While linguists (including me) bemoan the fact that most schools in the country don’t offer foreign languages until junior high school, I was the guy who balked at having to take Spanish lessons in elementary school in El Paso, Texas, surrounded by Spanish-speaking classmates! And even in college, although I minored in French, the languages I studied most were ones no longer spoken, and I never even looked into the possibility of studying abroad. Or doing fieldwork on an endangered language as a graduate student. What was I thinking?

So I’m not the best person to try to answer Dmitry’s question, but two other linguists have published a book that attempts to do so: Basics of Language for Language Learners, by Peter Culicover and Elizabeth Hume. I don’t know how many languages these two have learned, but Peter specializes in syntax, and Beth in phonology, and in this book they provide a linguist’s point of view on what kind of language differences are most likely to catch language learners off guard. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I got my copy of this book for free. When the current and former OSU folks were congregating at the LSA conference back in January, Beth and Peter offered to get me a copy when it was published, and I took advantage of their offer.

The main thesis that BLLL advances is that linguistic knowledge will not make learning a foreign language easy, just somewhat less difficult and confusing than it might be otherwise. Despite its generality in talking about learning any language, this book is necessarily specific in one regard: It is written for speakers whose first language is North American English, and uses English throughout as a basis for comparison to other languages. (There might be an opening here for C&H to team up with speakers of other languages and make editions geared toward native speakers of various other languages. On the other hand, with most of the rest of the world already accustomed to being multilingual, there may not be as much of a need for these other editions.) More specifically, BLLL is written for serious, highly motivated language learners whose first language is English, and it tries to help in two ways. First, it alerts the language learners to ways (other than the obvious differences in lexicons) in which the target language might differ from English, so that they can be on the lookout for them, and (hopefully) spend less time on being bewildered about some difference, and more time on actually learning it. Second, it gives advice on what kind of hard work will get at the troublesome areas most efficiently, some of it very specific, some of it more vague.

In the introductory chapter, after an overview of child language development, C&H lay out all the ways in which adults are at a disadvantage compared to young children in learning a language (including Dmitry’s), but point out that adults do have a couple of advantages: the ability to learn grammar rules explicitly and consciously focus on them; and the ability to take steps to make language-learning easier and more interesting for themselves.

The rest of the book is divided into three parts: “Sounding Like a Native Speaker” (Chapters 2-6), “Thinking Like a Native Speaker” (Chapters 7-9), and “Acting Like a Native Speaker” (Chapters 10-13). These parts are quite different from each other. For that reason, and to cut down the length of individual blog posts, I’ll review just Part 1 in the rest of this post, and Parts 2 and 3 in subsequent posts.

“Sounding Like a Native Speaker” takes on the problem of foreign accents because of mispronounced sounds. Chapter 2 is more or less an overview of the next four chapters, introducing the idea of different sound inventories for different languages. In it, C&H talk about several general kinds of pronunciation mistakes speakers of any language might make in learning any other language: replacing the unfamiliar sound with a phonetically similar sound from the speaker’s native language (L1); omitting the unfamiliar sound; and inserting sounds to break up strings of consonants that are impermissible in their L1. For each mistake, C&H give examples of how speakers of one or two non-English languages often make it when pronouncing English words, and examples of how native speakers of English often make the same mistake in other languages. Next, C&H move on to word stress, tone (for tonal languages), and phrasal intonation, three more sources of pronunciation errors. They discuss more specific kinds of errors in subsequent chapters in this section, but those errors require some phonetic background.

Chapters 3 and 4, titled “How to Make a Consonant” and “How to Make a Vowel”, provide this background. Before getting down to consonants specifically, Chapter 4 introduces some general phonetic concepts, such as gestures made by the tongue, lips, and other parts involved in speech; and narrowing the passage in the vocal tract. C&H present an encouraging message: No matter how strange a sound in another language may seem, you can pronounce it using the right gestures. In many cases, you already know the gestures from sounds in English. They give an example with the vowel [y], heard in words such as the French tu; and the click consonant [!]. For each example, C&H give step-by-step instructions on how to make the sound. Their instructions for [y] were straightforward, as I expected, but I was surprised to find that the instructions for how to make the more exotic [!] were just as easy to follow.

C&H’s discussion of the phonetics of consonants and vowels is much like you’d find in many introductory linguistics textbooks. For consonants, they discuss the various places of articulation (lips, palate, etc.), manners of articulation (stop, fricative, approximant), nasality, voicing, and consonant length. For each of these features, they list the appropriate consonants from English’s phonetic inventory if they exist. If they don’t (e.g. uvulars and pharyngeals), C&H describe sample sounds from languages that do have them. As with [y] and [!], the instructions for making the sounds are clearly written. I do have one complaint about C&H’s presentation of consonant length, a feature that is not used to distinguish English words. They give the Italian minimal pair fato “fate” and fatto “made”, but nothing in English. But if they had considered minimal pairs of two-word strings like pickup and pick cup, C&H could have demonstrated how consonant length can convey meaning even in English, with an example that English speakers would know they had pronounced correctly.

In the cases where English does have the kind of consonants or vowels under discussion, C&H tend to simply give the ones English has and not show how additional such sounds exist in other languages. For example, they correctly list [p, b, m] as the English bilabial consonants, but they do not say, “Other bilabials that are not part of English’s phonetic inventory are possible. For example, Spanish has bilabial sounds [ɸ] and [β] that are like [p] and [b] except that instead of there being a complete closure of the airstream at the lips, some air is allowed to escape.” To some extent, this is understandable: My suggested addition involved talking about manner of articulation, which C&H don’t discuss until they are finished talking about place of articulation, which is where the English bilabial consonants are inventoried. To avoid this problem, perhaps they could have taken time at the ends of these two chapters to fill out the logically possible combinations of features. On the other hand, such a presentation could well be overwhelming, as it could theoretically expand to include every known sound of any human language. C&H seem to figure that if you’ve understood the material on the various features, you should be able to create sounds with whatever physically possible combinations of features you like: “Keeping these points in mind, you should be able to tackle the pronunciation of new sounds” (p. 49).

Even so, C&H curiously leave out discussion of some entire classes of consonants: the so-called non-pulmonic consonants, which comprise clicks (such as [!]), ejectives, and implosives. C&H include them in the IPA chart on the inside of the back cover, but they’re different enough from the other consonants that some of C&H’s easy-to-follow instructions for making them would have been especially welcome. For example, they could have described ejective consonants as “pronounc[ing] a consonant while holding your breath,” as Ryan Denzer-King puts it.

The chapter concludes with a step-by-step procedure for a time-consuming exercise, but one of lasting value: taking a phonetic inventory of both English and the language to be learned; identifying sounds not in English, and using your new knowledge of phonetic features and families of sounds to figure out how to pronounce them.

Chapter 4, “How to Make a Vowel,”goes straight into the phonetic features of vowels. Using the same approach as they did in Chapter 3 for consonants, C&H introduce the distinction between front, central, and back vowels; then vowel height and rounding. They continue to provide simple instructions for making non-English sounds, with high central and front unround vowels in the spotlight this time. They continue on to monophthongs and diphthongs, nasality, and vowel length. They conclude with an exercise similar to the one for consonants in Chapter 3: identifying and charting all English vowels and all vowels in the language to be learned, and trying to make the unfamiliar ones, armed with newly won phonetic knowledge and awareness.

Having covered vowels and consonants, C&H move on to consonant clusters in Chapter 5, “Putting Sounds Together.” They begin by observing that there are 552 theoretically possible consonant clusters to begin a word, but in reality, there are less than 50. After drawing some generalizations about permissible two-consonant clusters in English, C&H enumerate the permissible clusters, with examples for each, and noting a few combinations that are permissible only in foreign words. (One such combination that they overlook is [sf], as in sphere, sphinx, sphincter, and sphygmomanometer.) Then they do the same for three-consonant clusters, and give a chart that shows how even among the twelve possible clusters that meet the general constraints, only eight are actually used in English words. Even if the chapter stopped right here, it would be a good resource for increasing an English speaker’s awareness of the patterns in their language. Even speakers who have studied some linguistics should find this a useful reference.

The chapter continues with a presentation of some languages that allow fewer word-initial consonant clusters than English does, some that allow more, and some that allow about the same number, but a different set. Then C&H turn to word-final consonant clusters and go through the same kind of presentation as for word-initial ones. The chapter ends with the same kind of exercise as in the previous two chapters, this time with consonant clusters. Again, these are exercises that will take days to do, but should really solidify a learner’s knowledge of the target language’s phonetics — as well as that of English.

The last chapter in Part 1, “Common Pronunciation Errors,” focuses on eight kinds of errors that come up again and again, for multiple languages. With the exception of the first one, these errors all fall in the category of replacing an unfamiliar sound in the target language with a similar one from your native language. They are:

  • Not getting familiar with the spelling conventions of the target language, and making pronunciation errors as a result
  • Aspirating stop consonants when you shouldn’t, or vice versa
  • Pronouncing what are alveolar consonants in English ([t, d, n]) as such in languages that pronounce them as dentals
  • Pronouncing intervocalic /t, d/ as a flap in languages that don’t have that rule / Not pronouncing a flap when needed (e.g. Spanish /r/)
  • Not releasing stop consonants word-finally in languages that release them, or vice versa
  • Reducing vowels to schwa in languages that don’t do that
  • Pronouncing /e/ and /o/ as English-style diphthongs in languages where they’re monophthongs
  • Pronouncing the unrounded back vowel [ɯ] as the rounded back vowel [u] (Instead of [ɯ], C&H give it as [ɨ], which I assume is a typographical error.)

Despite the omission of non-pulmonic consonants, I think Part 1 of BLLL all by itself justifies at least half of its ~$25 suggested price. How many times have you looked over a pronunciation chart for another language, and found the descriptions of the sounds that aren’t in English crammed into the same one or two lines that all the familiar sounds get, with explanations like “the ch sound in German Bach“, or “a soft d sound” (whatever that means)? This book takes the time to get as explicit as necessary to tell you what might be going on in sounds that are unfamiliar to you. The presentation of English phonotactics, the tough but inarguably sensible exercises, the compilation of the most common pronunciation errors that English speakers make — all in one book — make this an interesting and useful reference. And although I can’t claim fluency in any language but English, learning explicitly about all these phonetic features in linguistics classes has helped (not perfected, but helped) my own pronunciation of what I do know of Spanish, French, German, and other languages.

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 18 Comments »

The Un-Unwritten Rules

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2010

I don’t get too much use out of page-a-day calendars. I’ll rip off a page a day and put it in the recycle pile for a while, until I forget for a week or so, and then I just won’t bother catching up. After that, the page-a-day calendar is just an extra-fancy pile of scratch paper, which may take years to use up. I got a Latin phrase-a-day calendar in 1996 that I finally finished about three years ago, and in my office there’s a page-a-day calendar of brain teasers for I don’t know what year anymore.

However, Doug and Adam and I have been amusing ourselves with a page-a-day calendar called the Hidden Curriculum. It’s put out by the Autism Asperger Publishing Company, and is intended to provide written rules for many occasions, for people who don’t do so well with unwritten rules. For example, here’s a useful one that I actually learned on my own while growing up: “When your parents are lecturing your sister or brother about something they have done wrong, it is not a good idea to laugh or make fun. You may end up getting in trouble yourself.” Others, though, can cramp one’s style a little bit. “Don’t blow your nose on your napkin”? I’ll have to make a note of that one.

The rules are compiled from submissions from users of calendars from previous years, and sometimes I find myself imagining the circumstances that inspired someone to write down a rule. Was it an inconvenienced parent of a friend of an autistic kid who sent in “Don’t invite yourself to someone’s house. Wait for an invitation”? Was it an autistic kid’s own outraged parent who sent in “You should not have to buy gifts for or give money to your friends to keep them as friends”?

Many of the tips are translations of idioms like “Cat got your tongue?” or “I’m all ears.” Doug and Adam and I got a laugh when we pictured the inspiration for writing this one: “When someone calls ‘shotgun’ as she is leaving, that means she is claiming the front passenger seat in the car, not that there is a weapon.”

But some of these rules were not written with sufficient allowance made for an audience that has difficulty making generalizations. “If your grandmother tells you to “hold your horses,” she means that she wants you to wait or slow down.” OK, so what if your mother or a friend of the family tells you to hold your horses? Does it mean something else in that case?

And then there’s this piece of advice for people who might not know the social niceties:

If you meet a person with a service dog, ask if you can pet the dog. It may be busy helping the person, so you need to let it do its job. It performs an important function.

Reading this one, I imagined not the rule-writer, but the confused rule-reader, thinking, “But what if I don’t want to pet their dog? I never knew it was rude not to pet someone’s service dog. Good thing this calender has clued me in, so I’ll never make that mistake again!”

Posted in Pragmatics, Reviews, You're so literal! | 6 Comments »

Wordnik Gets Serious with Synonyms

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2010

In one of her Boston Globe columns last year, which I can’t seem to locate, Erin McKean explained the concept of her online dictionary Wordnik. The starting premise was that a definition was intended to be a distillation of a word’s meaning, as induced from reading many examples of that word in context. The reason for creating such a thing is that it’s impractical in printed form to include all those examples. (The OED tries to, and look how big it is.) In the age of the Internet, though, there’s no obstacle to doing just that, with examples continually added.

Wordnik has now taken this concept and extended it to the thesaurus. The most interesting feature, and the one touted in an emailed press release, is that in thesaurus mode, you can compare the collected examples for two synonyms. The way it works is that you look up a word and you’ll get a list of synonyms, as you’d expect. Then on the right you can click the “Compare” button, which allows you to check the boxes for the two words you want to compare. You can compare the word you looked up with one of its synonyms, or forget about the word you looked up and check out two of its synonyms. In a pop-up window, side-by-side entries will appear with the definitions. Click on “Examples” at the top of the window, and then you get the side-by-side examples.

In the press release, Wordnik’s director of product development, John McGrath, gave a couple of examples of the interesting, not obvious details about shades of meaning that the comparisons can give you:

Traditional online thesauruses … don’t tell you that people like brownies that are moist but not brownies that are damp, or that it doesn’t make sense to moisten your enthusiasm.
Want a more nuanced understanding of ‘vacant’ vs. ‘void’? Viewing their definitions and example sentences next to each other reveals that they’re not interchangeable: ‘vacant’ is often applied to jobs and properties, and ‘void’ often refers metaphorically to emptiness. Those nuances are missing from traditional online thesauruses and dictionaries.

I tried it out with the word delicious, and got off to a rough start. In regular definitions page, Wordnik lists synonyms ambrosial, delectable, luscious, scrumptious, toothsome, yummy. Where’s tasty? In thesaurus mode, it lists a disjoint set of synonyms, that still doesn’t include tasty: They are charming, delightful, effeminate, luxurious. Effeminate? I clicked to compare effeminate and delicious, but after comparing the examples, still didn’t see how the words were in any way synonymous.

I had better luck when I tried searching for tasty. This time in thesaurus mode, I got delicious as a synonym, which makes me wonder more about the synonym-finding algorithm. I also got palatable, elegant, and hetic? Hetic? A new one to me. Probably something of Greek origin. I clicked on it, and got examples like: “It has been a hetic week but we are getting back on schedule!” OK, never mind.

I then turned my attention to palatable, because it reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my wife when I brought home a tube of Viralys L0Lysine HCl Nutritional Supplement for our cat Nick. It was supposed to alleviate symptoms of a chronic virus he has.

“He’s not going to eat that,” she said.

“He might!” I said. “It’s palatable! Highly palatable! See, it says, ‘Viralys is a highly palatable gel,’ right here.”

I clicked to compare tasty and palatable, and this time came away with a meaning nuance I hadn’t been fully conscious of before: Both mean “good-tasting,” but palatable tends to refer to something that tastes good in a metaphorical sense, or something that you wouldn’t expect to taste good, or both; for example,

the only way it becomes even palatable is if it comes out of the 700 billion already allocated to fix the mess.

I guess the Viralys makers knew their synonyms in this case. Nick refuses to lick Viralys out of the tube, or even let us get it close enough to his nose to put a dab on there for him to lick off.

So, you may ask, how does Wordnik’s new thesaurus functionality compare with that other online thesaurus? Well, Visual Thesaurus is all about visual presentation, as the name suggests, with diagrams of lines and clickable nodes connecting the words, with words’ visual distance from each other representing difference in meaning, and labels on the lines indicating what kind of relationship holds between pairs of words. Wordnik’s presentation is all text. On the other hand, Wordnik has lots of in-context examples, sometimes hyperlinked, whereas Visual Thesaurus gives just one example, and only for selected words in a diagram. I’ll probably be using both, but I hope whatever glitch in Wordnik came up with synonyms for delicious/tasty like effeminate and hetic will be ironed out.

Posted in Reviews | 6 Comments »

Nathan Bierma: The Complete Series

Posted by Neal on November 10, 2009

Think of it more as a bathroom readerIt’s a bittersweet moment when you see a boxed set of DVDs for a show you liked, like Freaks and Geeks or Firefly, and the subtitle says not “Season 1” or “Season 4” or what have you, but “The Complete Series”. On the one hand, you get the entire series! On the other hand, bummer — they can only say “The Complete Series” when the series is over, and they can only fit it into one boxed set when it got canceled after just a season or two. That’s the feeling I’ve been getting as I read Nathan Bierma’s The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English, published just this year by the same people who brought you Far From the Madding Gerund. (Yes, it’s another piece of blog swag: Editor Tom Sumner at William, James & Co. sent it to me personally.) Nathan Bierma was The Chicago Tribune‘s answer to William Safire of The New York Times Magazine and Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe. I say was not because he’s dead (at least as of this writing), but because the column ran only from 2004 to 2008. The EEE is a collection of Bierma’s columns from this time period.

Bierma’s style is more like Jan Freeman’s than William Safire’s; as the blurb on the back from Erin McKean states, he’s “interested more in the ‘why?’ of language than the ‘don’ts.'” His background is mainly in teaching English, but he has a regular set of linguists, etymologists, and lexicographers that he calls upon to offer insights on whatever question he’s writing about, among them Grant Barrett, Anatoly Liberman, Mark Liberman, Erin McKean, Geoff Nunberg, Geoff Pullum, Dave Wilton, Ben Zimmer, and Arnold Zwicky. Some of the entries that I’ve found especially informative or insightful feature:

  • five changes to English that were so profound that nobody should even think about complaining about the kind of stuff that they complain about now
  • how even though anxious and eager are often used as synonyms, anxiety and eagerness remain strongly differentiated
  • a comparison of back in the day and back in my day
  • one reason raise the question is not a good substitute for the ignorant often-frowned-upon usage of beg the question
  • a smackdown between Bierma and Martha Brockenbrough, promoter of National Grammar Day and founder of SPOGG (Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar)
  • a comparison of Hispanic vs. Latino (a topic often discussed in my family when we lived in El Paso, Texas)
  • the demise of I’m all and the hand of I’m like
  • a history of I’m good to mean No, thank you
  • the semantic shift of journey to be almost always metaphorical
  • a debunking of a stupid etymology of lost
  • an easy-to-follow introduction to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift
  • how pay one’s respects came to so strongly connote visiting a dead person

There is an occasional misstep. For example, in his entry for lay/lie, Bierma points out why it’s so hard to maintain the semantic distinction between them, but missed an opportunity to mention that it’s no coincidence they sound so much alike (since one was a causative form of the other in Old English). At least there was no misinformation in that entry. In the entry on the omissibility of that in relative clauses, Bierma says that as far as he knows, “there’s no clear guideline. It’s a matter of feel.” Well, there are some guidelines. For instance, the that has to stay if it’s serving as the relative clause’s subject (as in the bag that leaked). Worse, Bierma says that that tomorrow things will get better is a relative clause in the sentence I’ll tell him that tomorrow things will get better.

However, such errors and missed opportunities are (mostly) outweighed by Bierma’s modus operandi of “seeking out scholars who might have the information he’s looking for and then actually listening” (as Arnold Zwicky’s blurb puts it). What I found even more distracting was the organization of the book. Unlike a DVD boxed set, the columns in EEE are not arranged in order of publication. That’s not a problem: Chronological order doesn’t suit a format like a weekly column. Instead, as the title suggests, the arrangement is alphabetical, as in an encyclopedia. Unfortunately, this arrangement doesn’t work so well, either. Even though the columns are broken up into bigger and smaller pieces depending on how much Bierma had to say on the various topics in them, many of the entries contain disparate items that (in an alphabetical arrangement) should have been separated. For example, there’s an entry on eon and dilemma. What do these words have in common? Are they part of some idiom? Are they easily confused? Either of those possibilities would have been news to me. Instead, it was just that one Greek reader had asked about them both, as loan words from Greek whose English meaning differed from the Greek. If they had to share an entry, maybe it could have been on Greek loan words. Another example is the entry February and jewelry. They’re together because one of Bierma’s readers vented two peeves in one letter: the pronunciations “Feb-yuary” and “joolery.” Thank goodness for the index.

Other peculiarities arise from the attempt to force a collection of columns into an encyclopedia format. One column was about Erin McKean and her work on the downloadable version of The New Oxford American Dictionary, but instead of just being presented as a (perhaps lightly revised) version of a column Bierma wrote, it’s shoved between entries on diagramming sentences and did you not, and labeled dictionaries, coexistence of handheld technologies. Many times a column that was clearly a book review appears under some heading like this, which can be deceptive. For example, an entry labeled pedantry, history and misguidedness of is really a review of David Crystal’s book The Fight for English: How the Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. The label led me to expect something more general and inclusive than just what was in Crystal’s book. In fact, this is a complaint about the entire book: Encyclopedia suggests a comprehensive (or at least systematic) survey of some field of knowledge, but EEE actually just covers the topics that Nathan Bierma happened to write about in his column.

In other entries, the attempts to scrub the entries of their dates to make them more timeless seem pointless. When Bierma says, “Here in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I lined up along the motorcade route to pay my respects as President Gerald Ford’s funeral procession passed by,” why not just say, “In December 2006,” or just give the column’s publication date and go with the more natural “Last week”? The same goes for the book reviews that no longer coincide with the book’s publication, and have to specifically mention the date. Sometimes the scrubbing is incomplete, and deictic references like “this month” survive, hidden in the middle of the entry, as in the entry about Eskimo snow vocabulary.

To some extent, I can understand tinkering with the format of a weekly column before putting it into a book. Jan Freeman tells me that publishers tend to be wary of books that simply collect columns, because reading them one after another can get tiresome. What I think would have done is to divide the book into sections of broad topics: human interest stories about particular languages, word histories, book reviews, language myths, word usage questions. These sections could contain entire columns or just excerpts, as the entries do now; the reviews and human interest would work well as entire columns, while the word usage questions would do better as snippets of the columns that address the particular words.

All that’s not to say that EEE is a bad book. It’s fast, easy, entertaining reading, and would be a good gift for people who like reading about language but may not have heard of Nathan Bierma yet. It’s just not so much a reference book as a language lover’s bathroom reader.

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Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments »