Posts Tagged: language

Language Wars

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Most writers aspire to clarity in language. Politicians, of course, are the exception. Legislators are turning to language to obscure their intentions, claims Steven Poole over at the Guardian. Poole cites a trade deal between the EU and the United States that confounds the issue of tariffs known as TTIP:

One might be forgiven for concluding from this, and in general from the obfuscatory and often downright misleading bureaucratese in which TTIP’s aims are framed, that they are trying to hide something.

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Reviving Tongva

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Pamela Munro on reviving a language no one speaks:

It’s hard to find information on Tongva. There are no audio recordings of people speaking the language, just a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings of Tongva songs. There are additional word lists from scholars, explorers, and others dating from 1838 to 1903, but Harrington’s notes are the best source of information on the language.

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Grammar As You Like It

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Everybody has that one friend who insists they know good grammar. They’re probably wrong—Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker insists strict rules just don’t matter because language is fluid. Mother Jones explains the grammatically anti-authoritarian position:

…language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions.

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Sharing Our Words

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Writers often overuse a few unique words, creating a linguistic fingerprint. Vocabulary words are also exchanged between social groups. Some people contribute new words, while others adopt them. The process is not entirely random, though:

Diana Boxer, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in sociolinguistics, says that when we find ourselves in a situation where someone uses language differently than we do, or words we’re unfamiliar with, we usually respond in one of two ways.

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A Whole Jar of Change

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Make your way to The New Yorker, where Elif Batuman makes an inquiry into what has become a dominant American disposition: awkwardness. “Awkwardness,” Batuman argues, “is the consciousness of a false position.”

Here is the top-rated definition of awkward in Urban Dictionary: “Passing a homeless person on your way to a Coin Star machine.” In other words, denying that you have any spare change while carrying a whole jar of change, a transparent column of money, right in front of the person.

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Creating New Words

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The act of creating new words helps make language more precise. George Orwell once proposed a ministry responsible for inventing new words for precisely that reason, explains  The Airship Daily. However, the shortcomings of language and the new words created for precision is the reliance on interpretation:

However, coining new words won’t change the fact that these spirits, these significant chunks of human existence, remain trapped inside our skulls, inaccessible fully to anyone but ourselves.

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From Metaphor to Consciousness

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Neuroscientists are examining metaphors and finding that they’re essential to language. Modern brain scanning has allowed scientists to look at brain activity as the brain employs metaphors from language. What has been found is that the brain interprets metaphors literally. For instance,  metaphors based on actions involving the body activate areas of the brain that normally activate when the body is in motion.

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Spellbound

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Unaccustomed, vicious, onomatopoeia… We all have that one word we can never spell correctly. Paris Review blogger Sadie Stein’s was “Wednesday.” “It’s like a mental block,” she writes, “or maybe, an increased reliance on technology.” Read the rest of the mini-essay here.

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An Agnostic, Chortling Freelance Space-Yahoo

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Amid all the meanings and uses that give a word its weight, it’s easy to forget that language is ultimately a system of arbitrary signs. Lexicographer Paul Dickson’s new book “Authorisms—Words Wrought by Writers” chronicles some of the most dynamic moments in a language’s history: those instances when writers endeavored not just to create with words but to create the words themselves.

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Literature Is Not Medicine

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In The World Exchange, Alena Graedon’s debut novel, language is in danger, and reading becomes a means of salvation. Over at the New Yorker, bibliophile Peter C. Baker explains the problem with the idea that reading could be a panacea. In his words, “practical urgency and literature have little business mixing.” Baker believes that reading “cuts against the grain of the everyday,” helping us to escape “the jobs we have to work” and “the bills we have to pay.” Reading is not about fixing the world around us, but about finding a way to escape it.

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Like, Considering the Other Side

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Critics might believe that “like” has infiltrated and degraded American English, but John McWhorter argues just the contrary. McWhorter claims that “like” is not a marker of the downfall of spoken language, but instead, a sign of its “growing sophistication.” He explains that “like” is not necessarily a sign of hesitation and indecision; it can be used to signify consideration.

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