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.

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