4.17.2011

if this knish could talk: some language-related thoughts

When I first moved to Canada, I could really hear my neighbours' "accent" - their Canadian-sounding speech. Now I no longer notice it. People still sometimes ask me if I'm from the US, and occasionally someone recognizes my speech as New York- sounding. Recently, though, I've noticed the sound of my own language changing. My "sorry" now sounds more like "sirry" than "sahry". The other day, I said "zed" without thinking. It's interesting to me how this just happens, some kind of linguistic osmosis.

As far as I know, I never sounded like this video, but some of it is irrefutable. "They're not usually quiet people."


I recently read this review of You Are What You Speak - Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity by Robert Lane Greene.
Greene makes it his business to dispel popular misconceptions, large and small. (Politicians and pundits, please note: the Chinese word for “crisis” is not composed of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”) To that end, he visits with the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman, a multifaceted scholar who serves as a one-man truth squad at the Language Log blog, of which he is a co-founder.

In her 2006 book “The Female Brain,” for example, Louann Brizendine reported that women average 20,000 words a day against just 7,000 for men. That came as no surprise to many in the media; as one TV reporter put it: “Here’s a news flash. Women talk more than men. Duh.” But Liberman tracked Brizendine’s figures to an unsourced claim in a self-help book and noted that the empirical research shows both sexes using about the same number of words in a day. Duh! yourself.

And when columnists including George Will and Stanley Fish asserted that President Obama’s frequent use of “I” and “me” betrayed his arrogance and self-absorption, Liberman did the counts and showed that Obama actually used those pronouns far less often in speeches and press conferences than did any of his recent predecessors.

. . .

In his view, the efforts of the French to purge their tongue of English words arise in part from a “dented self-image,” even though French is hardly a threatened language. And while Americans may bristle at the comparison, he sees the same unwarranted insecurity behind the English-only movement. As Greene notes, English doesn’t need protecting; modern immigrants are acquiring the language far more rapidly than immigrants did a century ago and, sadly, are rapidly losing their original languages in the bargain. But that’s unlikely to deter the sponsors of English-only measures, which presuppose that recent immigrants have resisted assimilation.

Greene’s abhorrence of linguistic meddling extends to the “grouches,” “scolds” and “vigilantes” who complain that English is going to hell in a Hupmobile and insist on imposing specious rules and crotchets on a language that is doing quite nicely on its own, thank you. In fact, he argues that the quality of this “declinism” has itself gone downhill over the last century. We’ve passed from the thoughtful homilies of Fowler to the pithy dictums of Strunk and White to the operatic curmudgeonry of modern sticklers like Lynne Truss, whose gasps of horror at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe are a campy cover for self-congratulation.

. . . Most of the usage questions that engage us daily have nothing to do with politics, race or class, and they almost never figure among the score or so of timeworn bugbears that people report as their pet peeves, like “irregardless,” “literally” and “I could care less.” (Doesn’t anybody know what “pet” means anymore?)

Not long ago I did a double take when I encountered the phrase “refreshingly simplistic” in a music review. When I looked it up on Google, I got hundreds of hits. It seemed to have sprung out of nowhere ­— these things always do — but it turns out people have been using “simplistic” for at least 40 years to mean something like “plain” or “unadorned.”

Well, language changes, and speakers in a generation or two will probably find my animadversions over “refreshingly simplistic” as tiresome and fusty as I find those by people who still grouse about using “nauseous” to mean sick. (As Greene succinctly puts it, “Yesterday’s abomination is today’s rule.”) Yet the prospect of future acceptance doesn’t allay my feeling that the phrase is a pratfall. It’s as if I’d tried to tell my parents when I was growing up that I shouldn’t have had to wear a jacket to a restaurant, since people a half-century later would be showing up in jeans and flip-flops.
I liked this bit because I have my own decidedly mixed feelings on this abomination-vs-rule debate. The avalanche of apostrophe abuse drives me insane. The quantity of quotation marks, same. I'm fond of saying "It's not ironic, it's a coincidence!" This surely makes me, in Lane's eyes, a grammar grouch.

But... there's a but. People who correct other people's grammar and usage bother me almost as much as bad grammar. My comment policy, for example, asks that we not correct each other in comments. We all have different backgrounds, different levels of formal education; what's important is that we communicate, not that we communicate according to a specific set of rules.

I sometimes email with a friend in Peru. My Spanish is abominable. But he encourages me to write him, and he always says my Spanish is fine - undoubtedly because he is too nice to say otherwise, and because he wants me to write. I always encourage people to express themselves, in whatever way they can.

Yet when one of my professors - a woman with a PhD, for crissakes - wrote it's for its, I was embarrassed for her. I wonder if I'm the only person in the class who noticed.

Somehow I subscribe to these two contradictory modes of thoughts at the same time.

52 comments:

Amy said...

Who was it that said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds"? :) Be as of many minds as you wish!

laura k said...

Thank you, Amy. :)

And Bartlett's tells me that was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I looked it up in a reference book instead of Googling it. :)

allan said...

On Friday, I noticed an error in a beautiful, colour promotional brochure for the firm I work for. A sentence ended "more then ever before".

In the movie, I liked the guy who claimed he could tell which neighbourhood in New York City someone came from by his or her accent. These seem like other clips: here and here and here.

laura k said...

Than / then - that's a huge one.

Part of why I don't want to be a grammar grouch is because public education in the US sucks, and people can't know what they don't learn.

OTOH... on professionally produced brochures, there's no excuse. Proofreaders should know better.

Amy said...

Finally had the chance to watch the clip (I am busy trying to get ready for Passover with a bunch of Noo Yawkehs). So true! It's funny how I have gone from having a New York accent to being surprised when I hear a heavy NY accent. When I first met Harvey and we then moved to Boston, he was teased mercilessly by people with heavy Boston accents because of his Bronx accent. (Perhaps that's why he never became a Sox fan?) Now no one ever says he has a NY accent. Sorta sad.

The one NY thing we both still say is "on line" when we are waiting ON a line. It gets confusing now that on line has such a different meaning. I never realized that was a NY thing until all my non-NY college friends teased me and said it was IN line. I just told them NYers stand ON more lines than anyone so know better.

Amy said...

As far as being a grammar snob, I am probably one of the worst. It really grates on my ears and eyes when I hear or read something that is just not right. But I don't correct people, except when I am editing student papers. And it is amazing what they do not know about grammar and punctuation.

I have a friend who is even more persnickety than I am. He does not even use split infinitives in speaking. To me, that just sounds weird, and I refuse to speak or write informally that way, though I do not split infinitives in formal writing unless it really sounds awkward.

Nitangae said...

I don't think you are inconsistent.

I think of grammar a bit like manners. Grammar, proper spelling and proper word use all make it easier to understand each other, reduce ambiguity and allow for elegance and for distinctions in meaning which otherwise wouldn't exist. It is a beautiful thing to write well. On the other hand, when grammar becomes a way of humiliating people from the wrong background or country, then grammar no longer helps with all those wonderful things I mentioned above.

Nitangae said...

I also love knish - for some reason I didn't eat knish until I came to Vancovuer.

laura k said...

(Perhaps that's why he never became a Sox fan?)

That's not why. :)

The one NY thing we both still say is "on line" when we are waiting ON a line. It gets confusing now that on line has such a different meaning.

I am FINALLY learning not to use the NY version of "on line" for this very reason. At a get-together last year, someone asked how Allan and I met. I said I was on line at a club - the person didn't hear the last part - and thought Allan and I met online! Not in 1985 we didn't! So I am weaning myself away from this. Like you, I never realized it was unusual.

laura k said...

I also know many grammar snobs - for lack of a better word - much snobbier than me. I am much pickier in writing than I am in speech, which makes sense to me... though obviously does not to many people.

One thing that's helped me relax about it is knowing people who were never taught grammar or spelling at all, who have learning disabilities and limited language abilities, yet who write for self-expression and therapeutic reasons, helping themselves and reaching others. On balance, grammar and spelling don't mean very much in that light.

laura k said...

Nitangae, you are awesome.

Awesome: a word I refused to use in its current meaning until very recently, at least 15 years after it came into use. Now I love using it all the time just to mean super cool.

Knishes: YUM! Yah-um.

allan said...

Part of why I don't want to be a grammar grouch is because public education in the US sucks, and people can't know what they don't learn.

But if they are told the correct way, maybe they would learn. I am not sure how you could do that politely in comments, however. (I have sent private emails to people in discussion forms in the past. Most never reply, though one person thanked me.)

Amy said...

I have learned to be more flexible in grading student papers over the years because of what you point out: how little grammar and punctuation is taught any more. I have almost given up on trying to teach people the comma rules. In fact, there is so much variation in usage even in publications that I fear there are no rules any more. In my last published article, the editors insisted on adding commas where I would never have put them, but I gave up fighting.

Like I said, I never correct people (except my students where it is part of my job to do so), but for me it is almost like hearing an off-pitch note. I do not pass judgment for all the reasons identified---I know some people were not taught, are foreign, etc., etc. But it still does give me a jolt!

Amy said...

Some of the New York expressions I miss because Harvey got teased out of using them:

Make a wash (for doing the laundry)

Take a shave (for shaving)

Should I get some bagel? (For bagels)

I am sure there are many others, but they escape me now!

laura k said...

It's very difficult to learn grammar as an adult, similar to how much more difficult it is to learn a new language. It's especially difficult if you don't practice/drilling. If we're told once, we tend to forget. I know I do.

Add to that people's defensiveness about their own ignorance, and I would say that correcting people's grammar seldom results in learning.

I once emailed a blogger to tell her there was a huge error in a headline - "brake" for "break" - because I was embarrassed for her. She thanked me. But I see typos in blog headlines all the time, especially unnecessary apostrophes, and that was the only time I ever said anything. I'm not sure I was right to do it then either.

laura k said...

It's especially difficult if you don't practice/drilling.

^get much

laura k said...

Make a wash (for doing the laundry)

Take a shave (for shaving)

Should I get some bagel? (For bagels)


I have never heard any of these.

laura k said...

for me it is almost like hearing an off-pitch note. I do not pass judgment for all the reasons identified---I know some people were not taught, are foreign, etc., etc. But it still does give me a jolt!

Same here. It leaps out at me.

Amy said...

Perhaps it's just a Bronx thing? Everyone in Harvey's extended family and all his high school friends used these expressions. I never used them or heard them either, growing up in the suburbs--hence, I teased him, and they disappeared.

allan said...

Make a wash (for doing the laundry)

Take a shave (for shaving)


Are you sure it's not your hearing? Maybe he was saying "make a wish" and "take a shit".

laura k said...

Perhaps it's just a Bronx thing?

I guess. My roots are Brooklyn. I grew up with first-generation suburbanites, everyone's parents were from the Bronx and Brooklyn, and I never heard any of those.

But apparently it exists! Sub-sub-culture lingo. :)

laura k said...

LOL @ allan

allan said...

I'm not sure I was right to do it then either.

You were.

The person who thanked me writes a cool music blog. A post was riddled with "it's" instead of "its". He replied and said it was a huge problem for him.

***

A few weeks ago, I did not buy a certain brand of wine because the back label stated something like "the finest grapes of it's kind".

Amy said...

ROFL, Allan! My hearing was pretty good 35 years ago, but today it is quite possible I would hear things that way. (Harvey once thought a student said "shit" when the student had actually said "shift!")

My mother was from Brooklyn, and she never used those expressions either, so it could have been just a Bronxite thing. I will ask her tomorrow if she heard it when her family moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx when she was in high school.

Amy said...

Allan, you are even more persnickety than my friend, the non-split infinitive guy! Not buying wine because of an apostrophe! You have very high standards.

(And once again I recall nostalgically the first time I posted on JOS....)

impudent strumpet said...

Can someone give me an example of what grammar drilling would be?

allan said...

Not buying wine because of an apostrophe!

I did not say I didn't buy wine! :>)

I bought a bottle from the same company, but a different type of red -- with no mistakes on the label. (I always think I will email whatever company has made the error and tell them, but I never do.)

laura k said...

Grammar drilling would be repetitive learning of (for example) the differences between they're/there/their, by filling in spaces in workbooks, choosing from mutliple choice, writing sentences that use each one properly, and so on.

Also FWIW, I wouldn't buy any product with a misused apostrophe if I could help it. There are plenty of other wines to drink!

Stephanie said...

Wish I had seen this sooner but then again this is a subject that could consume me if I am in procratination mode.

I just wrote a section in my thesis about the 17th century French grammatical tradition that could be seen as placing a normative pressure on the language of the poets at a time when the French language was still unruly (like an awkward teenager if you can forgive the metaphor).

More discussion in future I hope.

impudent strumpet said...

Oh, that makes much better sense! We did do that in elementary school, but it fell under "spelling" (i.e. there/their/they're were among the words on our spelling list, and we had to use them properly in sentences just like all our other spelling words.)

The only thing I ever did in English that was labelled "grammar" was this ridiculous exercise in Grade 6 where we had to mark the subject and the predicate in a bunch of sentences, but the subject was always the first word and the predicate was always the rest of the sentence, so no one learned anything. I was thinking you couldn't possibly mean that's what's lacking from people's education!

tornwordo said...

"The Evolution of Language" is a good read. It turned me into an embracer of new abominations. Although I still cringe at McDonald's I'm lovin' it slogan. Still, perhaps one day we'll say, "Darling, I'm loving you." Shudder, lol.

tornwordo said...

Okay I can't help myself. It's "much snobbier than I am" not "much snobbier than me". RE: 10th comment in this thread. I always catch this one even though soon we'll be teaching it as correct.

laura k said...

Okay I can't help myself. It's "much snobbier than I am" not "much snobbier than me". RE: 10th comment in this thread. I always catch this one even though soon we'll be teaching it as correct.

1. I maintain that "than" takes the "me" not "I", and past editors of mine at several magazines agree.

This one is debatable.

2. However, even if you disagree, you can help yourself. In the future, please do.

Thank you.

johngoldfine said...

"Recently, though, I've noticed the sound of my own language changing."

I read that recordings of the Queen (your Queen?) taken over the past sixty years show that her accent has drifted from the poshest possible to something much more 'Estuary.'

Here's a look:

http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/queen.htm

I have to go read student papers (that do lots of violence to apostrophes and homonyms), but I imagine this thread will lure back....

deang said...

The frequent errors these days in punctuation, grammar, and spelling leap out at me, too. When I've taught ESL, it's sometimes been difficult to explain to students why what I'm teaching them is correct when they've seen it done differently all over the place, even in magazines and newspapers. I tell them that I am teaching them the correct, traditional way but that standards are currently in flux and the US education system isn't teaching these things much anymore.

I think I've said here before that I once worked in an office next to a room used for meetings, and I once overheard a meeting of public school teachers and administrators talking about declining spelling and grammar among students. This was five years ago and both teachers and administrators concluded that these things no longer mattered, "because of the internet." Everyone seemed to accept that as an explanation. I wanted to scream.

johngoldfine said...

I'm of two minds too, Laura.

Personally, I try to be careful in my own writing. Professionally, I want to teach writing, and to me that has always meant something very different than teaching subject/verb agreement, comma splices, apostrophes, and homonyms.

There is a very ugly tradition in English Department offices of sharing with colleagues 'hilarious' examples from student papers of misplaced modifiers, malapropisms, absurd misspellings, and so on.

I don't like that or respect the people who do it. One of the things that immediately appealed to me about your site was the rule against picking on mechanical mistakes in comments, though, getting back to a 'foolish consistency,' I am forever mentally editing and rewriting most of what I read to improve it....

laura k said...

Hey Stephanie, you're not late, I only posted this on Sunday morning. It just took off quickly. :)

I hope you'll come back and share more.

laura k said...

This was five years ago and both teachers and administrators concluded that these things no longer mattered, "because of the internet." Everyone seemed to accept that as an explanation. I wanted to scream.

ARGH. I will scream.

laura k said...

There is a very ugly tradition in English Department offices of sharing with colleagues 'hilarious' examples from student papers of misplaced modifiers, malapropisms, absurd misspellings, and so on.

John, I was going to mention something on this earlier. I didn't know it was a tradition.

I have a friend right now who is a university professor. When she grades papers, to lighten the load for herself and provide some humour, she sends a group of friends a "Sentence of the Day", usually with humourous misuse of words. It's always anonymous and some of them are really funny - unintentionally, of course.

That alone doesn't bother me. But apparently many of her friends are also teachers and after one of these emails, there is always a flurry of reply-all one-upmanship on everyone's inept students.

It really bugs me. I feel like shouting, "Do any of you ever make any mistakes??"

Anyway... your articulation of the internal conflict over this is very good.

opit said...

A friend from Quaker Heights teased me over my use of 'Zed' some years back - and I couldn't seem to trace the linguistic source. Since I tended to a use of the Oxford dictionary in my youth I ended up with a very 'Upper Canada College' accent...and noted the constant misuse of "it's" as a possessive as well.
I still think the silliest signage error appeared at a hotel in Radium, B.C., where an advertising sign appeared coincident with that on the building - spelled differently.

laura k said...

My favourite typos remain two Allan and I saw in NYC many years ago.

One was a handwritten sign at a deli announcing "Board's Head Ham". Not sure Canadians can appreciate that one. "Boar's Head" is a popular deli brand. The logo is a pic of ... a boar's head.

The other was a professional sign on a Chinese restaurant: Frist Wok. Other signage for the place said First Wok.

To this day - more than 20 years later - we still say "frist" for first.

Driving through some town in Oregon, we started counting misplaced apostrophes on signage until we lost count. I distinctly remember the buffet announcing 100's of item's available.

johngoldfine said...

I didn't know it was a tradition.

Slagging students is a tradition.

Beating students for poor work was a tradition until quite recently too. They both derive from the teacher's sense that there is something degrading about doing this work, something un-adult, faintly childish and silly about working with children or minds-in-transit.

The flip side of that shame is the self-congratulations one hears in the faculty lounges about teacher dedication and professionalism.

So, every conclave of English teachers eventually degenerates into a group of the resentful and self-pitying (but simultaneously self-important, self-styled culture heroes)--making fun of their own students, deriving the cheapest sort of pleasure from a dangling participle.

Sure, those danglers can be funny. I laugh. But plenty of things amuse me that I know make me smaller every time I laugh.

I really deeply dislike most teachers--good thing I enjoy students, eh?

Amy said...

John, my colleagues rarely do that. Not sure why, but although we share our frustration that students do not work hard enough and that they are not prepared well for studying, analysis, or writing even with a college education, we almost never mock them. Maybe I just don't hear it. I tend to block out things I don't want to hear, like baseball announcers and commercials.

I did get one kick out of a spellcheck error in an essay written for application to the law school this year. The applicant, explaining why he had bad grades one semester, said that he was ill with "phenomena." I assume that was a spellcheck correction of however he had typed pneumonia. But I love the image of him being sick with phenomena!

laura k said...

In my very brief experience as a teacher, I hated the teacher culture that I encountered. Truly hated. Individual teachers were terrific. Taken as a whole... yuck.

No one mocked the students, as they were at-risk young adults, attending school against unbelievable odds - everyone wanted only to support them. But it was an unconventional school, so I wouldn't make any generalizations based on that experience.

richard said...

And now that you're Canadian I wonder if, however you pronounce it, you say "sorry" more than you ever did. It's a national trait, I'm told, though I don't really notice it ( http://bit.ly/hAuyVD )

laura k said...

Not only is it said more, but people expect it to be said more, I think. I don't know if I'm doing it. My guess is yes.

Stephanie said...

Gone are the days of drilling grammar into the minds of our young students. (Never was this more apparent than in the language classroom.) I have heard from some parents that the pedagogical theory is, by forcing the rules of spelling and grammar on young minds, we risk stifling creativity! I say that's hogwash but this is only my opinion of course. I have no training in developmental psychology.

tornwordo said...

Interesting debate on the "than" + me. I liked the example Squiggly likes Aardvark more than me / Squiggly likes Aardvark more than I (do). They have totally different meanings.

And I would never bring it up unless we were discussing grammar as it is the sandbox I play in all day long. Plus, I make loads of mistakes myself.

laura k said...

Tornwordo, I know that, no prob. You're right, those two sentences do have very different meanings!

laura k said...

In 8th grade ("grade 8", as they say here), I had an old-fashioned English teacher who made us diagram sentences. She was the only teacher who did this, it wasn't standard curriculum. Everyone hated it - except I secretly enjoyed it.

I would never have admitted it out loud, but I liked the way a whole sentence could be broken down into parts of speech, how every part of speech had its place, how the whole thing could be organized and displayed visually.

And it actually helped me learn and grasp grammar!

But I doubt it had that effect on many other people. Most students considered it useless at best - a form of torture at worst.

Did anyone else ever have to diagram a sentence? Anyone know what that even means?

johngoldfine said...

I diagrammed sentences for Mr Gallagher four days a week all sixth and seventh grade and parsed them for Mr Hyde four days a week all of grade eight.

But every Friday, if we had diagrammed or parsed well, we would get a story read aloud. Mr Gallagher liked Tolkien, a taste I couldn't share, but Mr Hyde read 'The Wendigo,' 'To Build a Fire,' 'The House and the Brain,' 'August Heat,' and so on--vivid, scary, dark--much more my style, then and now.

Can't agree with you here, Laura. No one can convince me that diagramming and parsing had anything to do with my learning to write. Truth is (don't let my bosses know) I still have no abstract knowledge of parts of speech beyond the very simplest.

I couldn't tell you the difference between a gerund and an intransitive verb, a subject or a subjunctive....

Poor Mr Gallagher, poor Mr Hyde: they thought I was paying better attention than that!

laura k said...

On the contrary John, I think we do agree on this. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in the class that learned anything from sentence diagramming. If your'e only reaching one person in a class of (I'm guessing) 30, that can't be good.

To be fair to the memory of Ms Tilley, we also read and wrote and discussed. It wasn't all parts of speech. Even I wouldn't have liked that!