2009 11 29
Recently read: In the Land of Invented Languages

Posted by in: Books, Language

Arika Okrent. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

Why does language have to be so damn messy? Why do we have irregular verbs and inconsistently pluralized nouns and difficult to memorize and often arbitrary rules about the usage of prepositions and all the rest of it? The quirks of a language annoy and repel outsiders and almost as often stump native speakers too. And might this disorder in natural languages have consequences beyond the headaches involved in learning them? We have very muddled minds, do we not? Perhaps the muddle is linguistic in origin, and a clearer, more rational language would have us thinking clearer and more rational thoughts. And anyway, wouldn’t inventing an entirely new language simply be fun?

And so in a world already teeming with natural languages, many of which are suffering from neglect, we get people—a surprising number of people—who sweep all these languages aside in favour of new languages entirely of their own making. Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages is a highly entertaining, insightful and well-researched look at several hundred years of attempts to construct artificial languages.

Okrent begins with early modern attempts to develop languages in which the names for things would indicate clearly what they actually were. (An artificial language with this ambition would use a term for a dog which would indicate precisely what a dog is, whereas our word “dog” denotes a dog simply by convention.) It’s an utterly nutty idea, and not just because you need to know how to break the entire universe down into categories before you can create, let alone speak, the language. It gives some sense of Okrent’s approach (and her goofy sense of humour) that the word she chooses to investigate is “shit,” and that she actually pulls off quite a nice discussion of some of the philosophical difficulties raised by her investigation.

As the dream of a language that would reflect the very structure of reality faded, many people retained a longing for the simplicity that an artificial language might offer. The most famous, and successful, of the attempts to produce a clear, rational artificial language is Esperanto, which is still spoken by many people today (though it seems to have peaked a while back). (Indeed, I know a guy who is fluent in Esperanto.) But there were, and are, an enormous number of rivals, many of which Okrent examines. And then there are modern languages developed to test theories of language (especially the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). There is a language developed to embody a feminist perspective. And finally, there are languages invented as part of fictional worlds (Tolkien’s languages, which came before his books, Klingon, and more). Okrent does a great job of showing how these languages, and their strengths and their weaknesses, actually shed interesting light on natural languages. Recommended!

Howls of outrage (10)

2009 01 02
Retraction: who/that edition

More than a year ago, I wrote:

You would never write this, would you, dear reader?
Socrates was a philosopher that believed . . .

No, of course you wouldn’t. You would write,

Socrates was a philosopher who believed . . .

In such cases you use “who” or “whom” for people and “that” for objects, right?

Almost every day since then I have encountered some counterexample to my claim. I hear it in spoken English in every register. I come across it on blogs, in newspapers, books, and even in the titles of books. It’s clearly standard English to use “that” for people as well as “who” or “whom.”

So, I was wrong. I hereby retract my previous post.

Howls of outrage (7)

2008 04 23
Notes on Punctuation

If you don’t know it (as I didn’t) go read Lewis Thomas’ short essay Notes on Punctuation.

Ok, maybe only if you are a colossal nerd. But aren’t you? Really?

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 02 29
Critical Idiom Shortage

Posted by in: Language, Odds and ends

I am weeping with laughter at this. (I’ve had a margarita, which may explain it partly.)

Nada (0)

2007 11 18
Useful phrase watch: “mbuki mvuki”

Posted by in: Language, Music

May you find this useful:

Mbuki Mvuki is Bantu for “to shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance.”

It’s not a single word, but I think it’s pithier than the English gloss.

Howls of outrage (4)

2007 10 04
Operation Mockery

Posted by in: Language

I love that a current Canadian military operation in Afghanistan is code named Operation Honest Soldier. That’s a bit lighter on the testosterone than most of the recent U.S. operations. There’s a very long list of the latter, but you can always make more if you’re so inclined. Anyway, I think we’re all doing better than the Belgians, who, according to Wikipedia, named an investigation into Islamic terrorists “Operation Asparagus.” If I were less busy I would try to come up with a joke here about funny smelling pee.

Nada (0)

2007 09 30
Grammar (Who and That Edition)

Posted by in: Language

You would never write this, would you, dear reader?

Socrates was a philosopher that believed . . .

No, of course you wouldn’t. You would write,

Socrates was a philosopher who believed . . .

In such cases you use “who” or “whom” for people and “that” for objects, right?

I don’t think I’m being some fussy pedant here, the sort of prescriptivist bore who thinks he’s scoring points with God by insisting that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This seems really basic to me: a grammatical distinction meant to mark an important difference in attitude depending on whether we’re discussing a person or a thing.

Anyway, my (entirely unrigorous) impression is that over the last few years my students’ grasp of this rule has gotten progressively weaker. I could swear I didn’t see this mistake as much even two years ago.

Manual trackback: Alif Sikkiin

Howls of outrage (14)

2007 09 07

Posted by in: Language

I find myself desperately wanting to form possessives of names ending in “s” the same way I do with any other names. E.g., just as I would write “Plato’s idea” I want to write “Socrates’s idea.” That’s even how it sounds, motherfuckers! Why in heaven’s name would I not treat it like any other name? What perverse impulse led someone to propose inventing an entirely new and unnecessary rule for such cases? And yet there’s so much pressure to write “Socrates’ idea.” Everywhere I turn I see the awful vision of style guide writers slowly shaking their heads and frowning at me. And yet! The other day, I noticed that no less an institution than the New York Review of Books was forming possessives of names ending in “s” the sane way. Is this the permission I need to start living my life the way I want?

Howls of outrage (7)

2007 05 21
Canadian curse words or insults?

Posted by in: Canada, Language

Over at Ask Metafilter, languagehat writes that he is putting together a book on cursing worldwide, and can’t come up with anything good for Canada. He’s looking for “pointers to good use of wicked language by Canadians (doesn’t have to be obscene; cf. Twain’s “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward…”), old or new, online or off.” There are some suggestions posted that he could probably use some input on (is it “nob” or “knob”? was “hoser” an insult before Bob and Doug Mackenzie?).

So, Canadians among us: can you think of anything? Can your friends? Ask around. Post here and I will email them to him, or you can email him directly: languagehat AT GOOD OLD

Howls of outrage (42)

2007 03 16
“Slanted eyes”

The leader of the Parti Québécois is in a bit of trouble for referring to Asians as having “slanted eyes.” There’s a history here that’s hard to explain to non-Canadians, but part of the reason for the fuss is that separatists in Quebec have long been accused of being xenophobic (often fairly, in my opinion, though whether xenophobia is intrinsic to separatism is a much more difficult question). Anyway, I just asked Yoon what the proper way to refer to Asian-looking eyes is, and she had no idea. “Almond shaped?” she said, finally. But mine are almond shaped too, aren’t they?

So, what is the non-offensive way to refer to distinctively Asian-looking eyes? Is it “Asian-looking eyes”? Or is anyone out there (besides evil mystery commenter Kegri, of course) willing to stick up for “slanted”?

Howls of outrage (21)

2007 01 17
Translation resource

Posted by in: Language

This translation resource is fairly narrowly focused, but I suppose it might come in handy in certain situations. You never know.


Howls of outrage (2)

2006 08 28
They, their

Posted by in: Language

Further to this post (plus the comments) on grammar, I just came across this footnote in a paper by Myles Burnyeat (“Enthymeme: Aristotle on the Logical of Persuasion”, 1990):

This article sometimes uses their as a gender-neutral pronomial adjective and they as a gender-neutral pronoun, in accordance with a usage that goes back to the fifteenth century.

If that doesn’t settle it for you, you’ll need to hear Burnyeat give a talk, so that you can imagine the tone – the withering tone – in which he might deliver the footnote aloud.

Nada (0)

2006 06 13
Lasus and the Lipogram

Posted by in: History, Language

From Podlecki’s paper “The Peripatetics as Literary Critics”:

To [Heraclides of Pontus], too, is ascribed the observation that Lasus of Hermione composed his Hymn to Demeter without sigmas.

Hey, that’s like that French dude. Since Lasus was 6th Cent. B.C., I wonder if that makes him the originator of the lipogram.

Nada (0)

2006 03 26
Grammar advice

Students often write this sort of thing:

If a person/individual [blah, blah, blah], then they [blah, blah, blah].

The problem, of course, is that “they” is plural, yet it’s referring back to “person” or “individual,” both of which are singular . . . Or is “they” necessarily plural? It’s pretty obvious that the word is undergoing a shift in usage now which allows us to take it as either singular or plural depending on the context. The problem is that I’m not sure at what point I ought to stop correcting this in student papers. In favour of correcting it:

1. Part of my job is to teach standard English. If employers and newspapers and so on continue to regard it as an error, then it’s my job to make sure that students know how to write with that in mind. If they choose to ignore the rule, that’s their business, but I need to ensure that it’s a decision, and not simply the result of ignorance.

2. I can’t help it: The singular they just looks hideously ugly to me.

In favour of just giving up and going with the flow:

1. It’s obvious why this shift is occurring: it’s awfully convenient to have a gender neutral singular pronoun that refers to a person, since the traditional thing to write here is “he.” The alternatives aren’t great: “She” gives most students the willies, and anyway, we often want to make a gender neutral point. “he/she” or “s/he” and “he or she” are both ugly and often lead us into long-winded formulations (“then he or she will want respectively his or her . . . [blah, blah, blah]“.

2. Because of #1, I look forward to the day when my own linguistic intuitions gradually yield to the singular they.

3. The shift to the singular they really does seem a natural one. Only stuffy people like myself or old people avoid it in spoken English these days, where it’s incredibly common. I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist, so I’m not about to elevate my own knee-jerk prejudices about the singular they into some silly pining for the good old days of the English language.

So . . . if a person wants to be sensible about this, what should they do?

Howls of outrage (41)

2006 03 25
Syntactic ambiguity

Posted by in: Language, Sex

From the abstract to “Time for sex: nycthemeral distribution of human sexual behavior” (pdf) by Roberto Refinetti in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms:

Background: Nycthemeral (daily) oscillation has been documented in a variety of physiological and behavioral processes. The present study was carried out to evaluate the existence of a nycthemeral rhythm of human sexual behavior and to identify environmental factors responsible for the rhythmic pattern.

Methods: Non-traditional university students (ages 18 to 51 years) recorded the times of day when they went to sleep, when they woke up, and when they had sex for 3 consecutive weeks. They also answered a questionnaire designed to identify the causes of their selection of time for sex.

Emphasis is mine.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)