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To Seek Out New Vowels …

vowels_in_mouth

Part of my teaching this semester (with my colleague Alice Turk) involves an exploration of space: the space of the remarkable array of speech sounds humans can produce. Consider just the vowel space, for example. Phoneticians map the infinite space of possible vowel qualities by reference to a set of reference points at the edge of vowel space: the final frontier. They’re known as the primary cardinal v…

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The Whaughts?

time-decade-from-hellI began advocating for the aughts 15 years ago. I was not alone — Google search finds the term used occasionally to describe the first decade of the 21st century as far back as January 2000 — but for many years it made people uncomfortable. When we were living through the 1980s, we could say things like “I can’t wait for the eighties to be over.” But in 2005, if you mentioned casually that you thought the aughts were becoming the decade of Iraq, people looked at you funny, not because th…

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Trump

Back in 2012, when presidential politics was sane, I wrote a Lingua Franca post called “The Word the Media Won’t Use.” The word was lie. And (speaking as a journalism professor), I approved of the media’s reluctance to use it.

To assert that someone has lied is to say that he or she has uttered, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The “false statement” part is the proper province of journalism, and the media is on that case. The…

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The Vocative in Crisis

Comma Peter Arkle

Illustration courtesy of Peter Arkle*

Readers can you pay attention for a moment?

I know there was a debate last night, but seriously readers wouldn’t you prefer to think about something less ephemeral than a presidential election? Something as durable as … vocatives?

I bet neither candidate mentioned vocatives. And yet there’s a vocative crisis, illustrated in my first two sentences above. Readers, lots of vocatives are losing their protective commas, the commas that set them off from their nei…

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Can I Give That Job Talk?

microphoneThe academic talk is on my mind as I sit here on the train back to Berlin, having spent the past three days in Poznań, Poland, at a conference on English linguistics.

September also marks the beginning of the academic job market, which means I am reviewing drafts of job letters and CVs and the like. In a few short months, we’ll be on to campus visits and job talks.

Linguists don’t typically read their talks at conferences. They work from slides — or handouts, although we see fewer and fewer …

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Destinated Americans

aeneas's travelsThe New York Times urges that “now is a good time to make our own those who have come as migrants and propose to remain as permanent residents.”

At least it did in that editorial, which appeared in 1925.

Written with an open acknowledgment of immigration quotas, the position piece speaks to 21st-century questions, however different the challenges of a different era.

Life then: Two-thirds of America’s immigrants, reports the Times, were coming from Canada and Mexico; a third of the Italians who a…

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M22: Highway Sign and Trademark

kathleen-mcdonald

Fickr photo courtesy of Kathleen McDonald

M22 is not just another pretty face. In fact, not only is it not a face, it isn’t particularly pretty, unless you think a plain black-and-white road sign with letter M and number 22 on a white diamond on a black background can be pretty. But it stands for all that is beautiful at the west edge of the Michigan mitten. And that designation and design, curiously enough, are private property — as you will discover if you try to sell a T-shirt imprinted …

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Mensiversaries

solstice

It was her idea. We had met at a winter solstice, on the 21st of December, and subsequently, as our relationship developed, at some point we started treating every 21st as a kind of mini-anniversary. Except that anniversary wasn’t the right word. Anniversārius in Latin meant “repeated yearly” (ann- “year” + vers- “turn”); diēs anniversāria meant “day returning each year.” I was the linguist, so it was my job, she said, to come up with a better word. And I saw immediately what it should be. Just…

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Have We Reached Peak ‘Peak’?

mrrobot

Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot”

Show of hands: How many watched the Emmy Awards on Sunday? How many had seen even 10 percent of the nominated shows?

I thought so.

In 2015, no fewer than 409 scripted series aired on broadcast and cable TV and online platforms. That’s nearly double from 2009 (211 shows). And a lot of these programs are really good. For some time, the unprecedented combo of quantity and quality coming out of our sets has appeared unsustainable. Speaking to TV critics in August of last ye…

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Scabby at the University

union rate[2]Unions are slowly making their way back into the news these days, perhaps because it’s a presidential election season, perhaps because graduate students are now considering their right to bargain collectively at several universities, primarily in the Ivy League. To mark this trend, a huge inflatable rat, nicknamed Scabby, has appeared at Long Island University, where stalled negotiations resulted in a lockout before faculty and administration agreed on a contract, and at Columbia University, whe…