Posts Tagged: linguistics

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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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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Nabokov vs. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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“When Nabokov started translating [his English-language memoir] into Russian, he recalled a lot of things that he did not remember when he was writing it in English, and so in essence it became a somewhat different book,” Pavlenko says.

At NPR’s health blog, Shots, Alan Yu explores the controversial linguistic idea that the language(s) we speak helps shape how we perceive the world.

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“Pop,” “Soda,” or “Heaven Bubbles”?

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You’ve probably seen this regional-dialect quiz from the New York Times making the rounds on your social networks. You answer questions about your vocabulary and pronunciation, and it tries to determine where in the United States you’re from.

But the New Yorker‘s Shouts & Murmurs blog is really upping the ante with their own dialect quiz, which asks questions like “What do you call sweetened carbonated beverages?” Do you use “soda,” “pop,” or “Coke”?

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“Because” Has New Meaning, Because Grammar

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Like it or not, the meanings and uses of words are constantly shifting, because language.

At the Atlantic, Megan Garber writes about how the word “because,” normally a subordinating conjunction, is increasingly being used as a preposition, with examples and possible linguistic explanations:

However it originated, though, the usage of “because-noun” (and of “because-adjective” and “because-gerund”) is one of those distinctly of-the-Internet, by-the-Internet movements of language.

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On “Proper” English and Objective Legislation

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It’s no secret that English is a constantly shifting, malleable, many-headed beast of a language, yet, much of the time, writers and speakers insist emphatically on obeying its many ostensibly rigid rules.

At The New York Times, linguist John McWhorter writes about the myth of “proper” English:

“We are taught that a proper language makes perfect logical sense, and that allowing changes willy-nilly threatens chaos.”

In the article, McWhorter argues that changes in the English language are akin to shifts in fashion: they have real, tangible effects, but should not be used in any way to infer the “intelligence or moral worth” of a speaker or writer.

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The Language of American Politics

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At The American Interest, David Green issues “A Call To Linguistic Disobedience.”

In his essay, Green argues that some of the most basic linguistic techniques used to describe the state of American politics (or, to “define the situation”) – such as the use of a binary of left versus right, liberal versus conservative – create a system in which any substantive explanation or exploration of events becomes impossible, as actual dialog becomes shrouded behind and ultimately replaced by competitions over the definitions of fundamentally subjective labels:

“With no mutually acceptable vocabulary, communication between contending parties has all but been replaced by efforts to bypass opponents and communicate directly with two key constituencies: independent or swing voters, and the respective bases each side wishes to mobilize.”

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Happy Words Win

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Headed by the University of Vermont’s Isabel Klouman, a team of researchers did a massive language study that revealed an optimistic tendency of the English language—there are more positive words than negative. Compiling words from years of the New York Times, tweets, popular song lyrics and Google Books, they then analyzed the most common from each source, and finally rated each word’s relative positivity from the 10,122-word list.

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A Scientific Pronoun Revelation

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“Men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things.”

An article in Scientific American is towing the line between linguistics and psychology, deconstructing the differences in how we use language.

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