lexicon valley

Why does Henry Higgins teach Eliza Doolittle to speak like a posh lady, instead of her teaching him to speak like a Cockney flowerseller?

What we think of as “good” English is the English historically spoken by people with the most power. The bumper crop of grammar texts and usage guides that started proliferating in the mid-18th century were part of an attempt by the growing middle class to access economic opportunities that were only available to people who spoke like Henry Higgins. At first, these were primarily a guide to speaking like the upper classes, although, over the years, various arbitrary preferences have found their way in and became crystallized as dogma, so much so that, to quote the linguist Stan Carey, “the aim of these non-rules is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow an in-group to congratulate itself on knowing them.”

Can it be a rational decision for the Elizas of the world to modify their idiolect in search of more opportunity? Of course. But at a societal level, it’s deeply suspicious that Henry gets to grow up speaking in a way that automatically makes him a better job candidate, while Eliza will have to learn a different dialect than her friends and family if she wants a chance at the same jobs.

We don’t pick where and how we grow up, and we know that where and how you grow up influences your idiolect, so why is it acceptable to penalize people for something no one has any control over? The answer is simple if your goal is to keep power and economic opportunity in the hands of those who have always had it. We like to think we’re more enlightened and less bigoted than our ancestors, but as long as we believe that some idiolects are right and some are wrong, we’re not making much progress. “Standard English” is a loose assortment of idiolects like any other dialect, and valuing one over the other is a social construct that has nothing to do with linguistic merit.


Why do you think you’re right about language? You’re not. 

In which I explain idiolects and Hulk-smash prescriptivists. 

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Recommended podcasts (favs have an *):

  • History:
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    • Revolutions (including the Glorious, the American, and French Revolutions)
    • Whistlestop* (American presidential campaign history)
    • Amicus (supreme court law)
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  • Science:
    • Freakonomics (behavioral economics)
    • RadioLab (various topics)
    • We Have Concerns (comedic commentary on science in the news)
  • Productivity and Other:
    • Happier* (productivity and happiness)
    • Getting In* (the college application process)

Thank you, and happy listening!


Robin Williams and Koko the Gorilla were friends. 

I’m on Lexicon Valley with a cute but sad story: 

In addition to many millions of humans, at least one other primate is likely mourning the loss of actor and comedian Robin Williams today. Koko, the gorilla who communicates in a modified version of American Sign Language and is said to understand even some spoken words, filmed an ad campaign with Williams in 2004 to raise awareness of threats against gorillas. The video shows their first meeting, where Koko asks Williams to chase and tickle her, steals his sunglasses, and rummages through his wallet. (Read more.)

Why Are Opera Singers Hard to Understand?

High, squeaky notes. Screeching soprano solos. Unintelligible opera divas. There are a slew of stereotypes for how soprano voices sound at the top of their range. Even exceptionally talented singers struggle to be understood when singing high notes. Is it just a matter of technique, or is there something else going on? As it turns out, soprano voices are limited more by physics than by skill, and here’s why: 

Lauren Ackerman, who you might recognize as wuglife, is on Lexicon Valley talking about what happens to vowels at high pitches. It’s fascinating, contains cute animals, and I definitely learned things while I was editing it, so you should check it out

Another really nice demonstration of a related phenomenon is in this real-time MRI of “the diva and the emcee”.

Phonesthemes (Oct. 20, 2014)

Today I learned about phonesthemes, which are pairings of syntactic form and meaning in a word. They don’t rise to the level of morphemes (e.g. -s, -ing, re-) because the remaining part of the word doesn’t hold any independent meaning. Perhaps an example is in order. Wikipedia points out a bunch of English words having to do with light or shining or vision that all have the phonestheme “gl-”: "glitter", “glisten”, “glow”, “gleam”, “glare”, “glint”, etc. Or, the example I heard this morning while listening to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast (a delight) which prompted looking this up: “sn-” in lots of words about the nose or face: “snout”, “sniff”, “snot”, “sneer”, “snore”, “snooty”, or even the British English “snog.”

Can you think of any other phonesthemes?

Back-to-the-Future Tense: How Does Time Travel Affect Grammar?

A recent episode of The Big Bang Theory shows Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard watching Back to the Future, Part II and discussing the appropriate tense to use when talking about something that happened in an alternate past timeline. So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of…

Were I a traveller to yesterday and back, I would have had written this were it not for the fact that I will not have hadn’t had the idea yet.

[I’m pretty sure that parses?]

Here’s my parse:
[I had written this yesterday, when a clone of myself appeared at the door]=x; I would have (done X) yesterday, were I a traveller.

[Yesterday, I hadn’t had the idea yet]=x; When I travel back to yesterday, I haven’t read this article yet, so I will not have x.

Back in Macdonald’s era, it was still just possible to think of the English language as a single great stream with its sources in literary tradition, rolling majestically past the evanescent slang and jargon scattered on its banks. That was a glorious fiction even then. But it isn’t a credible picture when all the old distinctions have been effaced — between high and low, formal and casual, print and oral, public and private.

—Geoff Nunberg On The Significance Of Language Wars : NPR

If we’re talking about Webster’s Third dictionary (and we are—there’s a new book out about it, David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t) then we must also be talking about Dwight Macdonald’s skewering of it, “The String Untuned,” collected in Masscult and Midcult.

On the same topic, have a listen to this interview with Skinner at Slate’s delightful* language podcast, Lexicon Valley.

*Any program Bob Garfield hosts is automatically delightful.


More from one of my favorite new podcasts, Lexicon Valley.

External image

So …

Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo on a little word with big ambitions.

Have you noticed the seemingly stratospheric rise of the word “so” in recent years? People use it not only as a conjunction or an intensifying adverb—as in “That’s so awesome!”—but also to begin or end sentences in a manner pregnant with implied meaning. So … Bob Garfield and I set out to determine what this sort of “so” might in fact be accomplishing.

One Planet, One Language: How Realistic Is Science Fiction Linguistics?

“You speak Romulan, Cadet?” “All three dialects, sir.” –Lt. Uhura, Star Trek, 2009. Somewhere out in space, in the Beta quadrant of the Star Trek Universe, there’s a planet called Romulus. It’s a planet a bit bigger than Earth, and has about 18 billion people on it. But Earth, with…