Up for Debate

Trump_&_ClintonIt has not always been a term describing a gladiatorial contest or a beauty pageant. It has not always been about popularity.  It has not always felt like a truck pull. It has not always been a public event regarded by the media with lipsmacking delight simply because audience size was comparable to the Super Bowl.

Yes, the word debate comes into English through Old French debatre and its Romance analogues, all of which have something to do with fighting, quarrelling, and other forms of contesta…


The Anglophone Millstone


I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and…


Pronoun Challenge in Ann Arbor

pronouns8I’ve learned to be suspicious whenever any change in language is described as inconvenient. It’s inconvenient, when you think about it, to have so many forms of the past tense in English. It’s inconvenient that we in America spell a number of words differently from the British. When the honorific Ms. was introduced in the 1960s, people complained that it was inconvenient to have to insert a new option into the list of choices on forms, or to wonder how a woman wanted to be addressed. So-called i…


Nudgy Down the Lane


Steven Pinker: No claims about what a word “means” or “doesn’t mean.” (Image by Rebecca Goldstein via Wikimedia Commons)

A verb my mother was fond of, especially in relation to me, was nudgy. I’ll use it in a sentence — “Stop nudgying me — we’ll go for ice cream as soon as I finish what I have to do.” It could also be intransitive — “If you keep nudgying, you’ll be in trouble.” There was also a noun form: “Don’t be a nudge.” You sense the pattern. (And by the way, nudge does not rhyme with budge…


To Seek Out New Vowels …


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…


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…


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…


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…


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 …


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…