A Blog About Language

Oct. 3 2014 11:13 AM

Can "Y'all" Mean Just One Person?

"Y'all" is the most identifiable feature of the dialect known as Southern American English. It simply and elegantly fills out the pronoun paradigm gap that occurs in dialects that have only "you" for both singular and plural. Even people who don't speak the dialect, who sometimes look down on its other features, have a soft spot for "y'all." It's as American as can be, and it embodies our ideal national self-image: down-to-earth, charming, and useful. But there is also a mysterious side to "y'all," and for over a century, a controversy has been brewing over what might be called the Loch Ness Monster of dialect study: the elusive singular "y'all." There are a few who claim to have seen it in the wild, and many who denounce such claims as nonsense. Does it exist?

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Oct. 2 2014 1:05 PM

What's Wrong With "America's Ugliest Accent"

Gawker is running a competition, tournament style, to see which accent will be crowned "America's Ugliest." In the running are 16 cities in the US, and readers get to vote. As a linguist, I'm not so thrilled about it.

Sept. 30 2014 1:23 PM

What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview with Steven Pinker.

I talked recently with Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and other books about language and the mind, about his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

This seems like quite a different topic from your previous books. Why write about style?

For me, it's the perfect intersection of one of my professional interests, which is trying to convey complex phenomena in clear prose, and the area that I study, which is to say language and cognition.

What do you think linguistics and cognitive science have to add to a discussion of style?

The major difference between The Sense of Style and other style guides is that I try to use the science of language and mind to provide more systematic and motivated advice. Most style guides reiterate rules of thumb that were stated in previous style guides or the accumulated body of wisdom of some writer or editor. And so the entire discipline of linguistics and cognitive science that has come about in the past 60 years just plays no role in most style guides.

Sept. 29 2014 1:34 PM

Free "Tudoring" and a Moist Owlet: The 5 Different T Sounds in English

To the untrained ear, the letter t would seem pretty straightforward. Except for the embarrassment of pronouncing an occasional silent one—when, say, you chanced to read buffet or croquet before hearing them aloud—you probably haven't thought much about t since the days of Sesame Street. As a consonant, after all, t isn't like those slippery vowels, which can stand for some half dozen sounds apiece, and even when it’s joined by h to make a new sound (well, two), "th" still feels satisfyingly consistent. But what if I told you there were fully five different sounds that t can make in English, depending on which dialect you speak?

Sept. 26 2014 1:36 PM

THIS. What's So Exciting About a Pronoun?

Earlier this year, bloggers at Gawker left behind internet slang for a formal style more in line with the New York Times than gossip blogs. As Gawker attempts to redefine itself as a publishing authority, its new editorial guidelines have adapted to explicitly forbid the language that Gawker’s readers recognize as an identifying component of its brand. One banned term stood out amid the roster of internet slang, which included OMGWTF, and amazeballs: the standalone this.

What could be so controversial about this, your everyday, run-of-the-mill pronoun?

Sept. 25 2014 2:01 PM

The QWERTY Keyboard Is Everywhere. What's Next? 

Apple has just released an update for iOS 8, the operating system that runs on iPhones and iPads, and they’re supporting 3rd party keyboards for the first time in iOS history. Perhaps that's partly why I’m a little bit keyboard-obsessed right now: Over the last week, I have typed on 11 different devices: an old iPhone, a new iPhone, an iPad, two laptops, a desktop, a Kindle Fire, a Kindle Paperwhite, a TiVo, a Surface, and an old-school typewriter.

Every device apart from the TiVO uses a QWERTY keyboard layout by default. But why are we even using the QWERTY keyboard in the first place, and what can trends in computational linguistics tell us about the future of inputting text into machines?

Sept. 23 2014 1:51 PM

Sunshine, Baseball, and Etch A Sketch: How Politicians Use Analogies 

In the summer of 1940, with England in retreat from mainland Europe and Belgium and France falling under the Nazi shadow, Winston Churchill addressed the British people. "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war," he said. "If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age."

The speech, one of Churchill’s best, radiates emotional force. In his new book Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, former Clinton speechwriter John Pollack helps explain why. It wasn’t just that the moral solemnity of the moment heightened Churchill’s words, Pollack argues. The Prime Minister’s skillful use of analogy tapped into an entire root system of neural connections around the concepts of up, down, light, and dark. Without noticing it, listeners came to associate an English victory with the positive notions of illumination and high ground. Defeat meant sinking down, not just into dust but into darkness—a benighted age in which the country’s most brilliant values were snuffed like candles.

Sept. 22 2014 1:22 PM

Is Arabic Really Just One Language? 

All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity—what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility—between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.

Sept. 19 2014 11:32 AM

Why Do Pirates Talk Like That?

Break out the "Arrrrr, me hearties!" because today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day! But where does our idea of pirate speech come from?

Sept. 15 2014 1:34 PM

Why Does English Use "Iambic Pentameter" and Other Greek Poetic Terms?

If you paid any attention at all in high school English, you probably remember iambic pentameter, most likely from reading Shakespeare, and perhaps even other meters like trochaic tetrameter (the meter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song, among other things). And if you had an English teacher who was especially instructive in etymology, you may have learned that iambic pentameter takes its name from several Greek roots that translate roughly as “five metrical feet.” But wait. Greek and English meter don’t work in the same way, so how did we come to use Greek poetic terminology to describe English verse?