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. 

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?

The Schwa Is the Laziest Sound in All of Human Speech

Arika Okrent explains schwas on Lexicon Valley

We all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to pronunciation. One big reason for this is the prevalence of schwa in the spoken language. That’s why dictionaries and other written guides to pronunciation make use of a special symbol to represent the schwa sound. It looks like this: ǝ—an upside down e. But what is schwa anyway? Here are nine things to help you get to know this very important vowel.


A schwa is the ‘uh’ sound found in an unstressed syllable. For example, the first syllable in amazing (ǝ-MA-zing), the first syllable in tenacious (tǝ-NA-cious), the second syllable in replicate (RE-plǝ-cate), the second syllable in percolate (PER-cǝ-late), the first syllable in supply (sǝ –PLY), the first syllable in syringe (sǝ-RINGE). That’s a written A, E, I, O, U and even a Y coming out as schwa in the spoken version.

Schwas are very common in English (although they’re surprisingly difficult to play in IPA Scrabble, because they’re far more common in polysyllabic words). They’re less common in other languages, and are one of the things that contribute to non-native accents in both directions: English speakers tend to reduce vowels to schwa even when it’s unwarranted, and speakers of many other languages tend to pronounce too many full vowels. 

Because of how common and distinctively-shaped schwa is, it (along with wugs) have become a ubiquitous icon for linguistics. For example, there’s a schwa necklace, dozens of schwa mugs and t-shirts, and of course the publication Schwa Fire

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.

  • Listen

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.

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.

What Does "She" in Science Fiction Tell Us About Language on Earth?

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. The language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms.

                    –Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This past weekend, Ancillary Justice, by American author Ann Leckie, took home the prestigious Nebula Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel, beating out an impressive field that included previous winners Nicola Griffith and Neil Gaiman.

One of the book’s most notable conceits, for a linguist anyway, is its approach to gender and pronouns. The story’s first-person narrator, Breq, speaks a language that doesn’t make gender distinctions, and, consequently, refers to all characters by the same default pronoun, rendered she in English. The only exceptions are in dialogue, when Breq is communicating with a person whose language does make gender distinctions, in which case she awkwardly guesses at he or she. But is Breq’s experience as an alien speaking a second language anything like the experience of actual human language learners?

I wrote about language learning and gender pronouns for Lexicon Valley. Ancillary Justice was a really interesting book, and it inspired me to look up other works of fiction that do interesting things with gender, such as this short story which uses singular they and this series on post-binary gender in Science Fiction. Any more recommendations would be appreciated! 

For more ling fic and ling fi (sci fi with a heavy language element), I’ve also talked briefly about Suzanne Elgin’s Native Tongue series, A Clockwork Orange, Ella Minnow Pea, and China Mieville’s Embassytown

7 Ways to Fake-Pronounce Any Foreign Language

I’m on Lexicon Valley talking about why linguists tend to be good at pronouncing words in other languages (and no, it’s not because we speak all of them). 

People who speak languages other than English are sometimes impressed by how well I and other linguists pronounce words or names in their language, even if we don’t speak a word of it. But it’s not magic: Here are seven basic principles that linguists use to fake-pronounce foreign languages but that anyone can apply. They won’t make you sound completely fluent, but you’ll sound a lot better than the average English speaker.

1. Pronounce ALL the letters. English (and a few other languages like French and Gaelic) often has silent letters at the ends of words, but most languages don’t. Unless you know you’re dealing with one of the silent-letter languages, you should pronounce that “e” or “h” at the end of the word and all the other letters too. (Read the rest.)

Technically, this is a cross-post from myself, but since it’s an expanded version of a post that I wrote in my first month of blogging ever, you probably haven’t seen it before. It was shockingly popular at the time though, considering I only had a handful of followers. 

If you’re inspired by tip #7 to take up the IPA, you may find this post on vowels and this post on sonority/manner of articulation helpful. If you’re more into learning languages for reals than faking them (not that these tips are inconsistent with real learning, actually), I’ve got quite a lot in my language learning tag

I call it the kilogram model of language, because there is literally a physical object in France by which the unit kilogram is defined, and there are in fact multiple and worryingly imperfect copies of it around the world. But what linguists have discovered is that language is definitely not like the kilogram. The only place where English really exists is in the minds of its everyday speakers. To the extent that varies geographically and socially, so does English. There are no imperfect copies.

Josef Fruehwald, What’s Wrong With “America’s Ugliest Accent”

The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially like this part. 

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…

The Science of B-B-B-Beatboxing

I wrote about a really interesting study on the linguistics of beatboxing at Lexicon Valley

Beatboxing doesn’t sound a lot like language and, well, that’s sort of the point. It’s supposed to be an a cappella version of the percussion section, not a complementary set of lyrics. However, since the human vocal tract—including the palate, tongue, teeth, and other mouthparts—is used for both beatboxing and speaking, linguists at the University of Southern California wondered to what extent beatboxers draw on actual speech sounds.

To find out, they put a professional beatboxer in a real-time MRI machine. The resulting cross-sections of the beatboxer’s mouth and throat show a range of sounds, all linguistic, but only some of which are found in the beatboxer’s native language (in this case, both English and Spanish).

(Read the rest)

Several video demonstrations at the link, but I wanted to add this more technical chart from Proctor et al with IPA equivalents to many common beatboxing sounds. I hope no one is reading this in public, because you should probably spend the next few minutes trying them all. 

“What Do Cows Drink?” Trick Questions That Show How Your Brain Organizes Language.

What do cows drink? Your first intuition was probably to answer “milk.” And then, depending on how familiar you are with bovine diets, you realized that, wait, it’s the calves that drink milk—adult cows drink water. What’s going on that makes it so hard to respond correctly? And what does it tell us…

Watch on allthingslinguistic.com

A recent episode of The Big Bang Theory discusses what tenses to use for talking about time travel. The full clip is above, but here’s a small relevant excerpt: 

Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?

Leonard: What do you mean?

Sheldon: Is placed the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?

Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?

Neal Whitman, at Lexicon Valley, has a longer discussion of how reasonable Leonard and Sheldon’s grammatical system is. 

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past”: Biff would place his bet sometime later.

The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline.

So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the “alternate future in the past” tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed. 

(Read the rest.)

The Lexicon Valley article, in turn, gave rise to a few comments on how similar time-travel tenses could be created in other languages. A French example, from Beyreybask on Twitter

Eut fallu que nous le sussions!

And a German example, on the forums of linguisten

Er hat sie getötet werden.

Making "Fetch" Happen: What Makes New Words Catch On?

Gretchen Weiners: That is so fetch!
Regina George: Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!

In the ten years since Mean Girls came out, we’re still no closer to having “fetch” as a common slang term, though the quote “stop trying to make fetch happen” has achieved its own popularity as a means of mocking the out-of-touch. But why didn’t “fetch” happen? Or, more generally, why do certain slang terms catch on while others languish in obscurity?

In his book Predicting New Words, linguist Allan Metcalf identifies five factors that make a new word or phrase more or less likely to become a widespread part of the language, which he abbreviates with the acronym FUDGE. Let’s see how “fetch” stacks up against each of them.

(Read the rest

I’m on Lexicon Valley again talking about why “fetch” didn’t happen. (For the record, yes, it was incredibly weird writing about a Gretchen who isn’t me.)