Monthly Archives: December 2013


Siri’s Sex Change

imagesI don’t have Siri, and so my experience of Apple’s virtual personal assistant is limited to eavesdropping on my friends’ iPhones. But it has struck me as fascinating that the voice for several years was a woman’s, at least in this country. Despite the impression that a female avatar would be “less knowledgeable,” than a male, according to the Stanford researcher Clifford Nass, Apple’s initial roll-out was given a female voice because female voices are preferred in the “helper or assistant ro…


Lord Quirk Drops the Ball

For three-quarters of an hour one afternoon a week ago, the British House of Lords was entirely occupied with a discussion of pronoun grammar. The discussion had been requested by a former judge, Lord Scott of Foscote, and the impetus was a promise by the previous government that future laws would be framed in gender-neutral language, at least “so far as it is practicable, at no more than a reasonable cost to brevity or intelligibility.”

Predictably, Lord Scott defended what The Cambridge Gramma…



Recombobulation1We’re nearing the end of the year, which has me thinking about the annual Word of the Year vote at the American Dialect Society meeting in January. We’ll be in Minneapolis this year, and Grant Barrett (Vice President of Communications and Technology for ADS) is soliciting nominations for a list of possible contenders. I asked students last week if they had suggestions, and they came up immediately with twerk, turnt, and insta (as a noun and verb, < Instagram).

But I’m writing this post not to …


A Bite of DARE

So what can the newly electrified cloud-based version of the Dictionary of American Regional English do that its paper antecedent can’t? If you’re lucky enough to have your own set of six volumes on your shelf, or have a nearby library that houses the print volumes that you can consult free, why would you pay $150 for a year’s subscription to the electronic version? Or why, in these times of tight budgets, should you ask your favorite library to subscribe for $1,200 a year?

The answer is simple….


Why Doesn’t English Have an Academy?

The question routinely becomes a subject of debate. Does English need an institution to safeguard it, or at least to regulate its health? Spanish has the Real Academia Española; French, L’Académie française; Arabic, the Academy of the Arabic Language; Mandarin Chinese, the National Languages Committee; Dutch, the Nederlandse Taalunie; German the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung; Hebrew, the Academy of the Hebrew Language; Irish, the Foras na Gaeilge; Italian, the Accademia della Crusca; and s…


DARE in the Air

A half century of field work and lexicography came to completion earlier this year with publication of the last volume of that massive work, the Dictionary of American Regional English. It encompasses six volumes of a thousand pages each, some 50,000 entries of American regional words, numerous maps and countless cross references, along with a final volume including an index by region and the complete list of responses to a nationwide survey of regional vocabulary.

Move over, Oxford English Dict…


Spanglish and the Royal Academy

Not long ago, the Real Academia Española, its matrix located in Madrid, with 21 branches throughout the Spanish-speaking world, did something at once surprising and disappointing: It approved the inclusion of the word espanglish in its official dictionary. I say it was surprising because for decades the RAE systematically disregarded the existence of this hybrid form of communication, suggesting it was just a passing phenomenon unworthy of serious academic consideration. Indeed, one of the insti…


Cold Comfort for Graphophobes

3657055_com_writersblockjckI’m writing under deadline, having promised this post to my editor this morning, and I will get it to her this morning, if you count “morning” as lasting until 1:00 p.m., which is when civilized people eat lunch, right?

It is the season to procrastinate. Our excuses are manifold—too many committee meetings, exams to grade, application files to review, holiday cards to mail, presents to purchase, students to reassure, recommendations to write. One can almost revel in it, if one has incurable gr…


Banning Students’ Native Dialects

The teaching profession in Britain, where I currently reside, has very largely heard the sociolinguistic music: The facts of linguistic diversity and language change are generally accepted, teachers acknowledge most of the elementary facts about language, and dialect differences are not viewed in the same light as hideously disfiguring skin diseases. I had begun to think there was little danger of the British teaching profession being disrupted by an outburst of race or class bias masquerading a…


I’ve Got Your Back, and You’ve Got Mine

When (and why) did we begin saying—earnestly, everywhere—“I’ve got your back”?  The phrase seems to pop up in conversations around me at least once a day, though that might be partly a matter of my working in higher ed, where backs seem to be unnaturally in need of protection.

I’ve seen the expression in New York subway ads. It pops up on sitcoms. On an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon promises to have Leonard’s back in the pursuit of a big gift for scientific equipment (wealthy widow, …