Word Crimes

When I listened to Weird Al’s Word Crimes song a few weeks ago I was on the edge of typing an extremely ranty post so I decided to let it sit for a few weeks. If you haven’t heard it yet, Word Crimes is a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines about non-standard grammar and spelling and takes a hardline prescriptive approach.

I couldn’t dislike it as much as I disliked Blurred Lines (that would be difficult!) but spelling and grammar policing is one of my biggest peeves.

Along with championing prescriptive language and mocking those who use it, it also uses ableist slurs (e.g. moron and spastic) to refer to non-standard grammar and spelling users. My university research about people’s use of terms relating to people with disabilities made me even more acutely aware of the problems caused by the casual use of these derogatory, ableist terms so I found this incredibly off-putting.

After a few weeks since listening to it, I think my initial dislike of it has waned a bit, so you won’t be subjected to the rant I was going to write when I first saw it. I don’t mean that I find the language any less offensive or that I’ve come around to prescriptivism, but that my dislike has just been muted somewhat. Part of my initial dislike was seeing the same complaints made by prescriptive grammarians all in one place. For whatever reason this didn’t bother me as much at the second listen and I am even prepared to entertain the idea (although not accept it) that the song might in fact be mocking the prescriptionists. It’s got a catchy tune and I could evem maybe, perhaps, enjoy some of the humour.

I will admit (in a very small whisper) that despite disliking linguistic prescriptivism I still find some of these so-called errors amusing. For example, the use of quotation marks used for emphasis on a menu I saw on holiday for Vegetarian “nut” roast made me laugh. The figuratively mug below also makes me smile. If I didn’t have a billion mugs I might even want it! However criticising people for their non-standard spelling and grammar isn’t something I can laugh at.

Literally – Grammar Grumble Mug No 5.

Siddling off topic, the song’s mention of emojis reminded me of an article I read recently about the use of emoticons on Twitter reflecting the personality of the user. You can read the original study by Tyler Schoebelen here.
Apparently noseless emoticons : ) are associated with a Tweeter who is more likely to use abbreviations and has younger interests. The nosed emoticon : – ) is associated with a more traditional style of writing such as the lack of abbreviations. Everyone I know uses noseless emoticons and a fairly standard texting and social media style so I can’t see if this fits into my own social circle.

You’ll be glad to know that in the few weeks since hearing Word Crimes my initial ‘I hate this!’ emotion has faded…a bit *noseless smiling emoticon*. I’ll concede that Word Crimes is catchy and covers most of the grammar police’s niggles even if the pro-prescriptivism and ablist language is off-putting. If you must listen to it you can see the video here.


Can a quiz guess your English dialect?

I’ve had fun seeing if a computer program can guess my dialect. This quiz guesses which English dialect you speak after you select the most ‘correct’ sounding sentences from multiple choices. It still got my dialect more-or-less right despite me being unsure which sentences sounded fine and which didn’t! (In an artificial situation it’s hard).

It guessed that my first language is English (it is) with second guesses being Romanian or Norwegian and that my most likely dialects in order were Welsh, England English or South African (English is right, but I grew up fairly close to Wales). I’m not sure why it suggested Romanian, an Italic language, along with the two other Germanic ones, I’d have expected see the same language families!

However, it was less accurate when my boyfriend – who is from the same part of the country as me- had a go. The quiz suggested that his first language was Norwegian (with Swedish or English as second and third most likely), and his most likely dialects were Australian, New Zealandish or Singaporean. Is someone with Norwegian as a first language likely to have an Australian dialect? I guess this is one of the areas the program will need ‘teaching’ more about.

There’s a quiz which guesses which American dialect you speak (I had a go despite not being from America and while most of my answers were very unlike any of the dialects, it suggested my dialect is closest to that of someone from Yonkers, New York or Honolulu), but it would be nice to see a quiz try to guess a UK dialect. I found a not-too-terrible one , but it relies on typical slang from that region, which most of the time I knew but don’t use myself. Most of the answers screamed which region they were meant to represent so the quiz might as well have just asked me which dialect I spoke outright. Plus being able to select multiple answers would have been better.

The worldwide English dialect quiz relies mainly on grammatical structure, the American dialect quiz on vocabulary and pronunciation, and the UK dialect quiz on slang. My gut instinct tells me grammatical structure and non-slang vocabulary are going to be the most accurate when asking people which phrases or words are ‘correct’. This is because slang is perhaps likely to be associated with a particular class as well as with a region, plus its problems with obviousness I moaned about above. On the whole grammatical structures and non-slang vocabulary are perhaps less tied to class (but equally indicative of dialect) than slang, so less stigmatised when you ask people to pick one. Pronunciation is also good (as used in the American dialect quiz), as it’s a hugely distinctive factor in a dialect.

Doing these quizzes makes me want to make one of my own! If anyone finds a better UK dialect quiz it would be nice to see it.


How our language affects how we see the world (to an extent!)

I recently I read Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher while on holiday. Get yourselves to your libraries and pick up a copy! After feeling sad at returning my copy, I’ve decided to buy myself one so I can read it again.

Whilst most of the studies and ideas weren’t new to me, I enjoyed the reminder and thought that the writing was perfect. The book takes us down a logical progression of entertainingly written facts and ideas about how the language we’re born with affects how we see the world. It concerns what I was taught was called the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativism. The strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that language confines how we see the world, is – as the book explains – no longer respected, but a weaker version that language affects some ways of thinking is very likely.

If you’re interested in how different languages express colour and how this reflects or affects – to a degree – how we see colour, pick up this book. I was reading bits out to my dad and he seemed as interested as I first was when I learned about the difference in how Russian speakers and English speakers see different shades of blue because they call light blue and dark blue by different colour terms.

I took the book away with me on holiday and it was a suitably easy read. It assumes very little knowledge of linguistics so could be picked up happily by most people and it should be picked up. This is a perfect introduction to linguistics because it covers a topic most people can get interested in, doesn’t require the reader to have a grounding in other areas of linguistics and is easy to read.

I know that I get excited by areas of linguistics even people studying linguistics find dull (I loved analysing speech intonation, but the fact that that module only had around 10 people signed up for it speaks for itself…), but I promise that linguistic relativism is more universally interesting.


Unfriending existed before social-media

I was surprised to learn that “unfriend” is a lot older than I’d expected. While it doesn’t come to be used to refer to social networking sites from 2003, there is a recorded use of it as a verb meaning to stop being friends with someone in 1659.

Defriend (first recorded use in 2004) doesn’t seem to have the same history. Could this be why unfriend became used more than defriend?

I had a little look at the Oxford English Dictionary myself and it seems that unfriend was used as a noun (and occasionally an adjective) to mean someone who isn’t a friend from a lot earlier. The first recorded use is from around 1275.

While I imagine it is the noun version rather than the verb version that’s being picked up on, I was interested to see (using Google Ngram Viewer)  that ‘unfriend’ is mentioned more often in books in the late 1700s and early 1800s than it is today. And I thought it was a modern word!




Affect and effect: how they used to be even more confusing

I follow quite a few language-y blogs and I’m always amused by prescriptive grammarians outraged by ‘incorrect’ language use, such as people writing the wrong homophone: ‘their’ instead of ‘there’ or ‘effect’ instead of ‘affect’. I imagine most people know when to use one instead of the other, but just typo the wrong one, so I don’t see the need to criticise.

The general rule of thumb is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. I usually taught pupils to remember that A (for affect) comes before E (for effect) in the alphabet and an action (affect) usually comes before a result (effect); for example ‘The sugar affected the taste of the tea, the effect was that it was too sweet’.

However the affect = verb and effect = noun this isn’t always true.

In the past, affect and effect both had a lot more meanings than they do today (some of which are still in use) so people irate at their abuse should be thankful they have less meanings now!

In the past affect could be used as noun with a variety of meanings; for example, being in favour of someone, an emotional response, an inner disposition, or a disease. It could be used as an adjective to mean ‘inclined’. Along with its common use today as a verb to mean having an effect on something, it could also mean to aspire to, affection for, having artificial manners, or to have a tendency towards something.

Effect also had numerous meanings over the yeas. For example, as a noun to mean an outward manifestation, an accomplishment, or the impression produced by a work of art, along with the common meaning of ‘results’. It can also today be a verb meaning to bring about an event.

This last example is shown in this cartoon my boyfriend sent me, which I love!

Effect an Effect from xkcd


Kine: an interesting plural

I read that the only plural in English which shares no letters with its singular form is ‘kine’, a plural for cow. I thought this was really cool until I was disappointed to be reminded that I/we and me/us also fits this description. But it’s still interesting. Plus I that the pronouns aren’t plurals in the same way … unless perhaps I clone myself and make two ‘I’s.

I’d never heard of ‘kine’ before and the OED declares it archaic, but my mother tells me it’s still often used in her cryptic crosswords.

Interestingly as well as not sharing letters with cow, it seems to have a double plural ending. In old English kine was originally ‘cy’ which became cȳna, the genitive plural of cū (cow). In Middle English this became kyn and now kine.

The Old English ‘cy’ seems to have denoted a plural, with another the pluralising ‘(e)n’ suffix added to this. This shows the same plural ending as other irregular plurals, such as children and oxen.

This TED video gives a short, simplified video about plurals which was a fun little watch:


Texting correlated with good spelling and grammar

Texting has been reported to be correlated with good spelling and grammar in schools. I read about an older study in David Crystal’s Internet Language book showing pupils who texted more had better spelling and grammar texted than those who didn’t text as much. While it’s only a correlation, there seems to be the feeling that texting does help with spelling and grammar. This could be for a variety of reasons: to abbreviate and play with language you need to understand the rules of standard spelling and grammar; texting a lot means you’re practising your spelling; when texting you need to be able to express yourself clearly enough for someone else to understand you. I think the latter is really important.

When we learn our mother tongue as a baby and when we learn a foreign language, it’s important to have an immediate response from someone so you can gauge your success. I imagine this might be the same when practising grammar and spelling. When you get something wrong in school you usually have the delayed response to the teacher marking you. While in texting if you don’t express yourself well enough, you’ll often soon receive a confused reply or be asked to explain better. I imagine this might help to develop better grammar and spelling skills. I can’t wait until people stop complaining about how damaging electronic communication is on young people’s spelling and grammar and realise it actually might help