Category Archives: Language

The problem with the White Power symbol

You all know about this: It is being said that the OK sign is used to indicated “White Power” and this use has been spotted among politicians and celebrities everywhere. Is this real? I don’t know. Is it a valid symbol for “White Power”? Certainly not.

The problem with the white power symbol is that it is not a symbol. Or, if it is a symbol, it is a baby symbol that doesn’t know how to be a symbol yet, so don’t expect much from it.

Semiotics Ahead Index (not an icon, not a symbol, but yes, it is a sign.  With a sign on it.)
Semiotics Ahead Index (not an icon, not a symbol, but yes, it is a sign. With a sign on it.)

Try this.

Move your hands in front of you as though you were grasping a steering wheel, and pump your right foot while you say, somewhat loudly and using a touch of Vocal Fry if you can manage it, the words “Vroom Vrooom.”

Maybe snap your head back on the second “Vroom.”

You have signified rapid acceleration, but you did not really do it using full blown language. Well, you did, because you have full blown language, and so do the other people in the room wondering what the heck you are doing (I’m hoping you are reading this in a busy coffee shop). But the fact that they get that you are talking about rapid acceleration is because you made sounds like a car and play-tended that you are sitting in a car and reacting to forward rapid acceleration. That’s not really language. From a semiotic point of view, you signified the sound of an accelerating engine by imitating it, and you signified other aspects of rapid acceleration by imitating it. This is not symbolic. You were not doing a symbolic representation of rapid acceleration. You may be thinking, “yes, I was, or what the heck was that that if I wasn’t?” Just trust me, you weren’t.

(Except that since your intentional communication is essentially linguistic even when not and everyone around you is a human, you were, but that’s another matter for another time. Functionally, you were not, pragmatically you were.)

Now, do the following. Wipe that puzzled or snarky expression off your face and speak the following words, enunciating clearly.

nopea kiihtyvyys

Unless you are in a Finnish coffee shop, when you said those words out loud you were uttering a symbol, but unfortunately, a symbol with no meaning, because no one in the room, including yourself, speaks that language (if you are a Fin or among Fins, substitute some other language, please.)

Now, say, with no body movements or other fanfare:

rapid acceleration

In an English-speaking coffee shop, that was a symbolic act. There is no onomatopoeia. There is no imitation. There is no clue to the meaning of those words built into their utterance or the framework in which they are uttered (like an accompanying gesture or facial expression). However, you have made and conveyed meaning, and done so symbolically.

The very fact that these words mean what they mean in an utterly arbitrary way, a way unembellished with direct reflection of reality, is what makes them symbolic, and the fact that language works this way is what makes languae very powerful.

There are many reasons for this. For example, if your words were strictly tied to imitation or direct representation, it would be harder to extend or shift meanings. It would be harder for there to be a rapid acceleration of a political policy, or a state of war, or a child’s understanding of subtraction and addition, as well as a vehicle with a steering wheel. Also, you made this meaning using two words, each of which can be used as countless meaning making tools. There is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “rapid” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and there is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “acceleration” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and the two infinities are potentially non overlapping.

The warning sign above is like a lot of other signs (using the term “sign” like one might say “placard”). It has a triangle which, in this case, signifies semiotics. Why does a triangle signify semiotics? Because in one of the dominant theories of semiotics, which is the study of meaning making, symbolism, and sign making (the other kind of sign), meaning making has three parts (the meaning maker, the meaning receiver, and the other thing). But the triangle is not really a semiotic triangle because there are no labels. This could be a triangle of some other kind, linked to some other meaning. Indeed, the triangular shape is linked to warning signs generally, while the rhombus is for “stuff ahead” so this could be a sign signifying, by looking like something else (a danger sign), danger ahead, or pedestrian crossing ahead, or some other thing.

A google image search for "sign triangle" shows that the triangle, on a sign, could mean a lot of things but almost always refers to something ahead that you need to be cautious of. Some of these signs are icons (a little train for a train), some are verging in indexes (maybe the explanation point?) but they are not very symbolic.  If I take a triangle out of the road sign panoply and put it on another road sign, it might be indexical to "danger." The widespread use of the triangle for this context may render the triangle as un-symbolizable, because it will always be iconic of the indexical reference to danger, until civilization ends, everyone forgets this, and different signs, indices, and icons emerge.
A google image search for “sign triangle” shows that the triangle, on a sign, could mean a lot of things but almost always refers to something ahead that you need to be cautious of. Some of these signs are icons (a little train for a train), some are verging in indexes (maybe the explanation point?) but they are not very symbolic. If I take a triangle out of the road sign panoply and put it on another road sign, it might be indexical to “danger.” The widespread use of the triangle for this context may render the triangle as un-symbolizable, because it will always be iconic of the indexical reference to danger, until civilization ends, everyone forgets this, and different signs, indices, and icons emerge.

Cleverly, the warning sign above is both an index to semiotics and a reference to danger, placed on a sign shape usually used to warn of danger ahead (like a deer crossing).

Briefly, a thing that looks like a thing is an icon. Like the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document on the floppy disk. A thing that has a physical feature linked to a thing or meaning, but not exactly looking like it, is an index. We can arbitrarily link a representation to an index (like an index card in a library to a book, linked by the call number which appears on each item) or a representation can evolve from icon to index because of change. For example, the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document in the cloud, in a world with no floppy disks where most computer users don’t have a clue what a floppy disk is or was, but they do know that that particular representation will save their document.

(See: Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce)

A symbol can evolve from the index when the physicality of the link is utterly broken. The vast majority of words do not look, sound, in any way resemble, what they mean. Words are understood because the speakers and hearers already know what they mean. New meaning is not generated in the speaker and then decoded in the listener. Rather, new meaning is generated in the listener when the speaker makes sounds that cause the listener’s brain to interact with that third thing I mentioned above, which is shared by both.

And, of course, meaning can be generated in someone’s mind when all that happens inside your head. It is advised that, when doing so, try to not move your lips.

The point of all this: having a representation of something linked by the way it looks to some kind of meaning is asking for trouble. A totally arbitrary association between intended meaning and how something looks (or sounds, like a word) is impossible to understand for anyone not in on the symbolic system. But, such an arbitrary association allows, if the meaning making is done thoughtfully and there is no deficit in the process, for an unambiguous meaning making event. At the same time, the arbitrary nature of the symbol allows for subsequent “linguistic” (as in “symbolizing) manipulation of the arbitrary thing itself. And, the fact that the symbolizing requires that third thing, the common understanding of meaning, is what allows us to avoid meaning making that is spurious, as happens when a sign is not a pure symbol, but instead, iconic or indexical of something. And this is where the White Power symbol everyone is talking about, made up of the common “OK” sign, falls into the abyss.

Do this and show it to all the people in the coffee shop:

hand_gesture_ok_fingers_7983_1600x1200

If you are in the US you may have just told everyone that all is “OK” (or is it “Okay”?).

Among SCUBA divers it specifically means “no problem” which is subtly different than just “OK” because the problems being discussed are on a specific list of important issues to SCUBA divers, like “my air is good” etc.

In the above cases, the gesture means what it means because it is making an “O” for the beginning of OK/Okay. The gesture is an icon of the term “OK.” It is not a full blown proper symbol.

If you are in Argentina or several other South American areas, and possibly parts of Europe, you may have just called everyone in the room an asshole. In this case, the gesture refers to that anatomy, and the anatomy is metaphorical for a state of mind or behavioral syndrome. The symbol itself is an icon or index to the sphincter region.

In other contexts (mainly in Europe), the symbol is also an insult in a different way, in that the “0” part of the gesture implies “you are nothing, a zero.”

In Arabic speaking cultures, the symbols sometimes refers to the evil eye, because it looks like an eye. So it is used, along with a mix of phrases, as a curse.

If you put the ring formed by the gesture over the nose, you are telling someone they are drunk, in Europe. Or, you may place the “O” near your mouth to indicate drinking.

In Japan, if the hand is facing down, that “o” shape is a coin, so it can mean money or something related.

In parts of china, while the symbol can mean “three” the zero part tends not to. To say “zero” one simply makes a closed fist.

In basketball, the “o” part of the gesture is just there to get the index finger out of the way. The key part of it is the three fingers sticking up, which means that the player who just threw the ball into the hoop got three points.

illuminati-triple-666Meanwhile, among some Buddhists, the three fingers part is not the point. The circle part is where the meaning is, but not as the letter “o” but rather the number “0”. Moving across the religious spectrum a ways, in another South Asian religion, it is the three fingers symbolize the three “gunas” which you want to have in harmony, while the “o” part represents union of consciousness. But again, all of these meanings have to do with the actual physical configuration of the fingers.

Rarely, the symbol means “666” and, increasingly, is linked to the Illuminati. To the extent that the Illuminati exists, and I’m not going to confirm or deny. The symbol is also found in western Christian allegoric art. I don’t know what it means there.

There are places in this world where there are both negative and positive meanings implied by the iconic nature of the symbol, which can lead to both confusion and intended ambiguity. I worked on a crew with people who were either Argentinian or who lived in Argentina for a long time, and others who had never been to Argentina. It was always great fun to watch the boss give kudos to a worker at the same time as calling him an asshole. We need more gestures like that.

I put the spreading but I think recent interpretation of the OK symbol as “white power” at the top of the post.

The Anti-defamation league identifies a version of the White Power symbol, where you use one hand to make a W (start with a “live long and prosper” then move the two middle fingers together) and an upside down OK to make the P. It is not clear that the ADL is convinced this is real; they may just suspect it. Bit generally, the symbol is found in a small cluster of mainly twiterati, who have produced a few pictures of possible or certain white supremacists or racists using the symbol. But in all cases, they may just be saying “OK” in the usual benign sense. the best case I’ve seen for the one handed WP=White Power OK symbol is its apparent use on a sign being held at a white supremacist group march, but that could be a singular case, or fake.

Of course, now that the cat is out of the bag, the OK symbol IS a sign for “White Power” or could be, or at least is an ambiguous one, so anything can happen from here on out. I’m just not sure this use was there before a few days ago when Twitter invented it.

OLYMPICS-BLACK-POWER-SALU-008But that is not the point I wish to make here. The point is that the OK gesture sucks as a symbol in the modern globalized world because it has so many existing meanings, yet is not an arbitrary symbol. It isn’t fully linguistic. It has a hard time doing the job a symbol should do, which is to be both fully agreed on, with respect to meaning, and adaptable into novel meaning contexts without easily losing its primary symbolic, historically determined, references.

And, the reason for this is that the OK hand gesture looks like something, or more importantly, looks like a lot of things. A bottle coming to the mouth, a bottle on the nose because you are so drunk, an eye (evil or otherwise), a zero, a three, an “O” or a “P”. A coin or an asshole. Probably more.

So, yes, a “black power” gesture looks to someone in Hong Kong like a declaration of “Zero!” That sign isn’t in as much trouble as “OK” because the meaning “black power” is regional, and the use of the fist is regional. But it is another example of something indexical (a fist meaning power is very indexical, maybe even partly iconic) and thus, not truly symbolic, and thus, limited as a fully powered linguistic thing.

Don’t get me started on this one:

Hook 'em Longhorns. Or, cuckold! Or, Eye of the Camel. Or, Evil Eye. Or, "I fucked your wife" (in Argentina, variant of "cuckold"). "Out Out" to evil in some South Asian religions.  Heavy metal/rock on.  Satan.
Hook ’em Longhorns. Or, cuckold! Or, Eye of the Camel. Or, Evil Eye. Or, “I fucked your wife” (in Argentina, variant of “cuckold”). “Out Out” to evil in some South Asian religions. Heavy metal/rock on. Satan.

Palpable History: Dictator’s Voice, Dictator’s Words

It is a good idea to occassionally experience history. This helps us understand ourselves, and our possible futures, better. Much of this is done through reading excellent texts. For example, I’m currently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin’s objective is to contextualize Lincoln by looking at him in the broader context of the individuals that ran against him for the Republican nomination, and whom he later added to his cabinet. Goodwin succeeds, at several points, in placing the reader in a time or place of great import. Watching the very young Abraham Lincoln lower himself onto a log (he was out cutting firewood), his face buried in his hands and tears streaming from between his fingers, and not leaving that spot or position for hours after learning of the death of his mother. Or the layout and use patterns of Lincoln’s office in the White House, where he occupied a corner desk, and various members of his cabinet and military came and went with urgent messages, and made vitally important decisions, until the end of the day when Lincoln would sit down for a long read. That sort of thing.

So here, I’m going to invite you to do something a little strange. I’ve got here an audio recording of Adolf Hitler having a normal conversation (about extraordinary things) with a fancy dude by the name of Mannerheim, during a visit to Mannerheim at the time of his birthday. Wikipedia has the story on the audio recording. Here, it is presented as a YouTube video so you can follow who is speaking, and what is being said.

The reason to listen to this for a few minutes (no need to listen to the whole thing, though if you know anything about WW II, it may become captivating after a while) is because Hitler almost always screamed at his audience, and this is him speaking in a normal voice. I want to pair this audio experience with a linguistic but read experience. After listening to the audio recording with Mannerheim, read through the transcript of Hitler’s only other known “conversational” bit of significance.

There is a recording of that as well. It is a speech but one in which he speaks normally for much of the time. The point here, though, is not to listen to it to get the voice experience (but that is interesting) but to read his words. To hear how he formulates his statements, how he describes his situation. How he aggrandizes himself in the face of failure, how he belittles his enemy. How he schizophrenically moves between the gigantic and the modest, how he moves around his own goal posts as needed to make himself look big league smart.

Below you’ll find the two videos and the text. If either video vanishes (they do sometimes) you can easily relocate one on YouTube

The Mannerheim Recording:

The text of Hitler’s Stalingrad Speech:

If we follow our enemies’ propaganda, then I must say that is to be compared with “Rejoicing towards Heaven, depressed until Death”‘ The slightest success anywhere, and they literally turn somersaults in joy. They have already destroyed us, and then the page turns and again they are cast down and depressed. I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Stalin knew I would. I provide one such example. If you read the Russian telegrams every day since June 22nd, they say the following each day: “Fighting of unimportant character”. Or maybe of important character. “We have shot down three times as many German planes. The amount of sunken tonnage is already greater than the entire naval tonnage, of all the German tonnage from before.” They have so many of us missing that this amounts to more divisions than we can ever muster. But, above all, they are always fighting in the same place. “Here and there”, they say modestly, “after fourteen days we have evacuated the city.” But, in general, since June 22nd they have been fighting in the same place. Always successful, we are constantly being beaten back. And in this continued retreat we have slowly come to the Caucasus.

I should say that for our enemies, and not for your soldiers, that the speed at which our soldiers have now traversed territory is gigantic. And what has transcribed this past year is vast and historically unique. Now, I do not always do things just as others want them done. I consider what the other probably believe and then do the opposite on principle. So, if I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Mr. Stalin probably believed I would, but because I didn’t care about it at all. But I wanted to come to the Volga, to a specific place and a specific city. it happened to have Stalin’s name, but that’s not why I went there. It could have had another name.

But, now this is a very important point. Because from here comes 30 millions tons of traffic, including about nine millions tons of oil shipments. From there the wheat pours in from these enormous territories of the Ukraine and from the Kuban region then to be transported north. From here comes magnesium ore. A gigantic terminal is there and I wanted to take it. But, as you know, we are modest. That is to say that we have it now. Only a few small pockets of resistance are left. Some would say “Why not fight onwards?” Because I don’t want a second Verdun! I would rather hold this with small combat patrols! Time does not matter, no ships are coming up the Volga! That is the important point.

Hitler’s Speech, 8 November, 1942:

Turns Out Dick Is Really Interesting.

Have you ever wondered how “Dick” became short for “Rick”?

Probably not. But it turns out that the reason, if the following video is accurate, is interesting.

I have two questions for the historical linguists in the room. First, is there a name for this rhymification effect? Is is common? Is it confined to certain regions or cultures? Is it linked to Cockney in some way?

OK, that was a lot of questions, but really, all the same question. My second one is simpler: Where does the phrase “Swinging dick” come in? It is a Britishism for, I think, Square Mile money managers and investors. According to something I saw on TV once.

16 common grammatical mistakes or problems

Certain things that come across one’s desktop, on the internet, are hard to turn away from. Train wrecks, for example. For me, this list includes commentary about grammatical errors and proper language use.

I find this sort of discussion interesting because I’m an anthropologist, and probably also because I’ve spend a lot of time 100% immersed in a language or two other than my native English. This training and this experience each make me think about how we make meaning linguistically. Also, as a parent, I have observed how a child goes through the process of first, and quickly, learning how to use language properly, then spends the next several years learning how to use it wrong by following our arcane rules. And, as a writer – well, you can imagine.

Today I was inspired to write my own version of one of those posts on grammatical errors and quirks. I came across Bill Murphey Jr’s post “17 Grammar Mistakes You Really Need to Stop Correcting, Like Now” via Stumble Upon. Bill’s main point is to cool off the conversation a bit and tell people to lighten up on the grammar correcting.

I’m not too concerned about that. Excessive grammar correcting certainly is annoying, but my main interest in this topic is not the nature of language policing so much as it is the nature of language, as well as simply knowing what is considered righter vs. wronger. As it were.

So, I took Bill’s list of grammar issues, deleted a few, and created my own commentary on them. And resorted them. And here goes:

Further versus farther

Futher is a word’s word. It works with concepts, or as a marker for where the thing you are saying is going. Farther is about physical distance. This is easy to remember. “Farther” has “far” in it. “Those who go farther have indeed gone far.” Not, “Those who have gone further have indeed gone fur.” Meanwhile, we use the word “furthermore,” derived from “further” but there is no such thing as “farthermore.” Not yet, anyway.

(Actually, “farthermore” was a word at one time, but our language has moved further along and it no longer is.)

dot dot dot vs em-dash

Don’t use “…” to break up sentences. Use a long dash (an em-dash). An ellipsis is a part of quoted text that is left out. The same word, ellipsis, is also used to refer to the three dots that we put in the ellipsis. So, if you type dot-dot-dot make sure that something is truly missing there.

Double negatives

It is not uncommon for people to use double negatives when they are trying to look like they are not uneducated. Outside of certain contexts, this is always bad. If a logic algorithm has to be applied to your sentence to understand what it means, you messed up. Don’t do that.

That is the “proper” double negative I’m recommending against. The hauty tauty classist double negative. The other kind is the kind that just makes things wrong, but in a way, it is more linguistically acceptable even if grammatically the equivalent of crushing baby kittens.

I ain’t never going to do that. Or, even, a term like “irregardless,” where afixes or words conflict with each other in a way that seems to cancel out. In language, we often add bits to a word or phrase to add emphasis or, perhaps absurdly, underscore something by negating it. Irregard, if it was a word, would be without regard. Regardless is without regard. So, if we really want to make the point that there is very little regard, we say it both ways at the same time: irregardless of grammatical proscription! This would be a sort of double negative you should avoid in proper and clear writing, and keep in your toolkit for dialog or ironic phrasing.

i.e. versus e.g.

i.e. stands for the latin id est.

e.g. stands for the latin exempl? gr?ti?

Id est means “that is.” Use i.e. to prefix an example of something that elaborates a term or phrase. The Doctor’s time travel machine, i.e., the Tardis.

Exempl? gr?ti? means “for example.” Just like it sounds.

Time machines, e.g., The Doctor’s Tardis, or Dr. Emmett Brown’s DeLorean.

See the difference? Not much of a difference. But there is a difference.

E.g. is usually followed by a comma, just as you might say, “I would like dessert, for example, ice cream” = “I would like dessert, e.g., ice cream.”

I like to think of e.g. as plural, in a sense. Examples.

I.e. can be thought of as “in other words.” So, I might say, “I don’t like desserts like flan, i.e. slimy icky stuff.”

In writing, if you find yourself saying “in other words” a lot, you should revise and perhaps use the “other words” that were your afterthought as your actual words. So, perhaps, if you find yourself using “i.e.” you should revise as well. Either way, if someone complains to you about your use of i.e. vs e.g. you could probably make a case that your word choice was correct no matter what you did.

Incomplete comparisons

Incomplete comparisons are less annoying.

Than what??? Less annoying than what????

A sentence that is an incomplete comparison may not be incomplete at all if the larger context keys the reader in to what is being compared. The Prius and the Smart Car get great gas mileage. The Chevy Volt gets better gas mileage. This is less of a grammatical problem than a marketing problem. Out of context incomplete comparisons reflect incomplete thinking.

(By the way, we’re not talking about semicolons here, but that would have been a great place to use one: “The Prius and the Smart Car get great gas mileage; the Chevy Volt gets better gas mileage.”)

Into versus “in to”

This one can be tricky. “Into” is a preposition. Note that the word “position” is in “preposition.” “Into” pretty much only means that something is moving from and to particular positions. The words “to” and “in” do a lot more work than the prepositional. Generally, if “in to” and “into” both seem right, you want “into.”

There are some odd exceptions. “He walked into the room” is correct. But if he is a burglar and he gets there by force, he broke in. So, you would not say “He broke into the room,” but rather, “he broke in to the room.” He did, however, burgle his way into the room.

Also, the “to” can be possessed by a verb following the term, demanding “in to” instead of “into.” He went into the room where he left his wallet. He opened the door of the room and went in to get his wallet.

Prepositions are not always about space, in the usual sense, so of course, “into” is also used for other kinds of transitions. If life gives you lemons, make them into lemonade.

Irregardless

Regardless of what people tell you, irregardless is a word. But, it is a word that even the dictionary says should be avoided. Instead of sneaking quietly into speech and becoming a normal word that means the same thing as “regardless” it annoyed grammar experts early on (as far back as the 1920s) and was stigmatized. So, now, “irregardless” is a signal that you don’t care about the quality of your spoken or written word. In good writing, “irregardless” should be confined to dialog spoken by characters that you want to look a little careless or poorly educated.

Leaving off the “ly” ending for adverbs

If you want to use an adverb, a word that modifies a verb, you generally need the “ly”. But if you are using a lot of adverbs in your writing, you probably want to delete some of them. A well chosen verb hardly needs such help in eloquently written verbiage. After you’ve written something, go on a ly-hunt. Search for the string “ly_” (note the space) and revise as appropriately. I mean, appropriate.

In the old days you could leave off the -ly to make more impactful text. Bill gives the example of an Apple marketing campaign that used “Think different” instead of “Think differently.”

This method of catching our attention was overused and that ship has sailed.

Me versus I

This is one of those important distinctions that is very easy in certain circumstances and very hard in other circumstances. So, the way to get it right is to restate a sentence in such a way as to make the distinction unambiguous, then revise as if necessary.

For example, you can see that “I wrote a blog post” is correct and “Me wrote a blog post” is Tarzan-talk.

The confusion comes when the simple “I/me” part of the sentence is joined with others.

Jose and I/me went to the movies.

Jose took Jasper and I/me to the movies.

Simply picking the “I” over the “me” in these sentences might sound to some to be “better” because culturally we have come to expect to be corrected more often when misusing “me.” In other words, always opting for “I” is a way to sound like you are not uneducated.

In most cases, the way to figure this out is to remove the second person, the one that is a name and not a pronoun, and see how it sounds.

“Jose and me went to the movies” does not sound a lot different than “Jose and I went to the movies” but the difference becomes clear when we ask Jose to leave the sentence. Compare “Me went to the movies” with “I went to the movies.” I am the subject of the sentence, so I get to be I, not me.

“Jose took Jasper and I to the movies” and “Jose took Jasper and me to the movies” also don’t sound all that different, but compare “Jose took I to the movies” with “Jose took me to the movies.” I am the object of the sentence, and so “me” is correct, and when we parse it out this way, “me” sounds correct.

Me can forgive Tarzan for getting this wrong.

One or two spaces after a period

In the old days, you put two pieces of lead after the period in order to make sentences look normal. This practice continued with non-proportional typefaces on typewriters and other machines.

People will tell you that modern fonts don’t require this, so you should not do it. However, there is a missing part of the story often conveniently ignored.

In the less old days, people who used computing technology to manipulate text could use a .__ (a period and two spaces) as distinct from ._ (period and one space) to tell the difference between the end of a sentence (with a full stop period) and an abbreviation.

Had we continued, as a society, to use period-space-space, this convenience could have been preserved. But we din’t. So that was ruined.

Now, of course, when you are fingering your smart device and hit the space twice, the app automatically puts in a period.

Checkmate!

You can tell me again and again to use only one space after a period. But my thumb will ignore you.

Split infinitives

An infinitive is a form of a verb that has the “to” attached. In some languages the “to” is so attached to the word that you can’t fit any other words in there. E.g., in upcountry Swahili, “ku” is “to” and “do” is “fanya” so “to do” is kufanya. One word. I imagine that the fact that many languages have infinitives that are pre-stuck together had led to the convention that one does not split them by adding extra words between the “to” and the “verb.”

(There is actually quite a bit of ink spilt over the history of this rule.)

In my view, the ability to split infinitives is really cool feature of English and there should be no rule against it. However, since we often split our infinitives with adverbs, and adverbs are overly used, hunt for split infinitives not so much to unsplit them but to identify adverb overuse.

That versus which

After you’ve written your text, go on a which hunt and change the whiches to thats. But, you can leave the whiches that start independant clauses. In other words, if the part of the sentence that stats with which could more or less be a separate sentence, and/or if you can remove it from the sentence and still have a sentence, it is probably OK.

I think that for a time the word “that” sounded more pedestrian than the word “which,” which is a guess on my part, I’m not sure, so people who wanted to write good seeded their sentences with random whiches. Never trust a random which.

The Oxford comma

Also known as the Harvard comma or, perhaps most correctly, the serial comma. In fact, I’m rather shocked that which of these terms to use is not itself a major battle among language mavens.

The Oxford comma is the last comma in a list, before the last item and before the “and” that separates out the last item. Always use this comma. Often, it is not necessary, but when it is necessary, it is sometimes really necessary. So just use it all the time and avoid certain embarrassing, though often hilarious, mistakes.

From here:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

vs

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

They or Their as a gender neutral term, instead of the singular Him, her, his, hers.

English lacks a gender-neutral singular possessive term. Also, English lacks (in common use) a term that is not so strictly gender binary.

Using the plural as a gender neutral is natural, since there is a kind of plurality (his’s, hers’s, or neithers’s).

New terms and new uses tend to grate, but a new term is less likely to be accepted and more likely to bother people than a re-use of an existing term. What needs to happen here, probably, is that the purveyors of proper language (elementary school teachers and the like) need to not correct students who use the plural form as a gender non-specific one.

Who versus that

This is simple. “Who” is about people, “That” is about things. More obviously incorrect and underscoring the point that who is people is the substitution of “The people who do that” with “The people what do that.”

So when it comes to referring to people as that or what, who would do that?

Less versus fewer

Less and more refer to changing amounts of something you don’t count in whole numbers. More or less rain, love, or apple cider. Fewer and more refer to things counted in whole numbers.

The fact that “more” is in both of these sets may be the cause of confusion between “Fewer” and “Less.”

Fewer trains pass by my house these days, so we have less noise around here. Not, less trains pass by my house these days, so we have fewer noise around here. But, we do have less train traffic these days, so we have fewer instances of annoying noise events.

What English Sounds Like To non-English Speakers

This is nice.

Karl Eccleston and Fiona Pepper are amazingly good actors. The writing is excellent as is the directing. The subtext. THE SUBTEXT IS BRILLIANT.

When I was living with the Efe Pygmies in the Ituri Forest, they would imitate French and English speakers while ranting about specific people who had annoyed or amused them. It was easy to tell which they were doing … French vs. English. But it only sounded like people imitating people, it didn’t sound like the real thing. I remember Sid Caesar doing this as part of his regular routine in several languages, and talking about getting in a cab, say, in Italy, and yelling at the cab driver in fake Italian during the whole ride. Here’s an example. But that isn’t what Eccleston and Pepper did either.

What the heck is Vocal Fry?

Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t even know what the heck Vocal Fry is. Apparently some people have gotten really annoyed about it, as it is a speech mannerism that has emerged among young folks, who are always annoying, and especially females, who are always annoying. Apparently. (I also did not know that until a few minutes ago! I’m learning a lot of new stuff today!)

It’s been written up in a scientific journal (see below), in popular media, and it was brought to my attention by a facebook post of Debby Goddard’s. But of all the sources I’ve seen, the following video best describes the phenomenon for those who don’t already know what it is:

Speech mannerisms come and go, and they seem to be part of the cultural process of ever-shifting styles. Some have suggested (Trigger warning: Possible Pop Psychology!) that this is an ingroup-outgroup mechanism. If you don’t know the current mannerisms, you can’t sit at the Middle School lunch table with the other cool kids.

Here’s an interesting thing about speech mannerisms: When we Westerners see them in other cultures, we (well, not you and me, but those other Westerners) often glom onto them as markers for primitivism or as indicators of less than fully developed culture or even language. A great example for those who know it is the banter of the men in the film The Feast, a Chagnon film depicting a Yanomamo Feast (more about the feast here). The men are bartering, arguing, making alliances, and showing off, and it is done with a cadence almost as though they were rapping. This is on top of the already highly nasalized language, and with face and hand gestures that vaguely resemble Western children complaining about things. This makes them look like children. Of course, they are talking about important matters of local economy, about death and warfare, about relationships, marriage, and so on. They are not acting like children in their own culture but they are heavily invested in a highly stylized set of vocal mannerisms that are not easy for a Westerner (well, those other Westerners) to interpret.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt has been said that Vocal Fry is the new Valley Speech, and if so we can see the lilting rise at the end of every single sentence replaced with a dropping of tone and glottalization at the end of every sentence, on certain TV ads and in certain sitcoms.

Language log has a discussion here. Slate has something here. And, here it is in Science Now.

The Journal of Voice reports a study, Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers.

The purpose of this study was to examine the use of vocal fry in young adult Standard American-English (SAE) speakers. This was a preliminary attempt to determine the prevalence of the use of this register in young adult college-aged American speakers and to describe the acoustic characteristics of vocal fry in these speakers. Subjects were 34 female college students. They were native SAE speakers aged 18–25 years. Data collection procedures included high quality recordings of two speaking conditions, (1) sustained isolated vowel /a/ and (2) sentence reading task. Data analyses included both perceptual and acoustic evaluations. Results showed that approximately two-thirds of this population used vocal fry and that it was most likely to occur at the end of sentences. In addition, statistically significant differences between vocal fry and normal register were found for mean F0 minimum, F0 maximum, F0 range, and jitter local. Preliminary findings were taken to suggest that use of the vocal fry register may be common in some adult SAE speakers.

You can access that paper here.

I think the most interesting finding may be one they are not too sure of based on the available data. Fry has been around a while, and has in the past been reported as a marker for larger scale chunks of speech, like paragraph-size utterances, but the new use is simply to fry-out the ends of sentences. If this turns out to be the case it constitutes an arbitrary re-use of an extant vocalization tool as a purely stylistic form rather than as a marker of meaning, since we probably already could tell where sentences ended. Also, it needs to be noted (as they do in the study) that this particular research does not identify focal fry as a thing done by females of a certain age. This study simply looked at females of a certain age, and did not attempt to identify the demographic parameters of the mannerism’s use.


More about Language here.

Wolk, L., Abdelli-Beruh, N., & Slavin, D. (2012). Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers Journal of Voice, 26 (3) DOI: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2011.04.007

Photo of fries by Fklickr user Gudlyf

soda. pop. snap.

The other day, and I kid you not, I saw someone say to someone else “would you like a soda” and the person stared back and said “why would I want a soda” and a third party repeated the question, only saying “would you like a pop” and the person said “yes, very much, thank you.”

I grew up in Soda Country, where 80 to 90 percent of the time people used the word soda. Now, I live in Pop Country where 80 – 100 percent of the time people call soda pop. For a while, I lived in the Soda Enclave along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, where soda is commonly used but there is enough nearby pop that people are cautious.

There is a website that deals with the Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy. Here. I love the rollover interactive map, but this graphic here is the cold hard reality.

I’d love to see one for frying pan vs. skillet.

What is the most important human adaptation?

Human infants require more care than they should, if we form our expectations based on closely related species (apes, and more generally, Old World simian primates). It has been said that humans are born three months early. This is not accurate. It was thought that our body size predicted a 12 month gestation, and some suggested that Neanderthals would have had such, but this research conclusion has been set aside based on new analysis. But it is still true that developmentally, human children do not reach a stage of development that allows some degree of self care for a very long time compared to apes. The actual sequence of development is not directly comparable: It is not the case that after a certain amount of time humans reach a specific stage reached earlier in the lifecycle by Chimpanzees, as the differences are more complicated than that. For the present purposes, we can characterize the human condition for early development like this: Human babies are more helpless in more ways and for longer than comparable ape babies.
Continue reading What is the most important human adaptation?