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. 

chal-converts  asked:

To Shira: I had a question about choosing surnames for Jewish characters - I know that certain surnames are tied to very specific people/families, rather than being like Smith or Jones. Do you have any advice for making sure my characters have family names that actually fit their backgrounds without inadvertently making it weird for anyone? Basically, I want to know how to check the cultural implications of choosing a given family name for a character. Thanks!

Jewish surnames

You might be overthinking this because our last names don’t necessarily mean THAT much more about our backgrounds than gentiles’. Unless you’re talking about the original way we used to name ourselves i.e. so and so bat Father'sName. Or Ben Fathersname. (i.e. Daughter of, or Son of.)

But if you do want to read more about Jewish surnames, this article is a good starting place.


Other than that, Google is your friend. I’d make sure there are existing Jews from the specific background of your characters before settling on a name. For example, “Hey, I want to write a character who’s Ashkenazi. Can I use Bernstein as a last name?” Lo and behold we have Leonard Bernstein. (Fun fact nobody asked for: his last name means “amber” in German! But his father, from where the name comes, was from a city that was in Poland at the time but is now in Ukraine.)

If I’m not answering your question, feel free to clarify, but other than researching the geographical origins of a name and making sure it’s a name real Jews have used either today or in history, I’m not sure what other answers are there.

In other words, look over the names of historical figures or living Jews from the same background as your characters, then use Google to research the geographical origins of those names. Try to stick to people whose names are from Jewish relatives i.e. Harrison Ford’s last name comes from his Catholic father, not his Jewish mother, whose last name was Nidelman. And yes, there are Jews who have no Christian relatives who have WASP-sounding last names, because sometimes people changed their names to pass so they could have better employment prospects. I guess if your character has a name like that and isn’t from a family that converted into Judaism, that’s one of those “implications” you were asking about – the implication that Green used to be Greenberg or whatever.


Why podcasts?

  • awesome resource for learning
  • tons of topics
  • can listen while driving, exercising, cleaning… almost anytime!
  • very personal and engaging
  • can help gain background knowledge or further information for class

How do I get started?

  • download an app! podcasts, stitcher, and overcast are some of the most popular
  • subscribe to some podcasts - you can browse the top charts and featured podcasts, or look for recommendations

Recommended podcasts (favs have an *):

  • History:
    • The JuntoCast (early American history)
    • Revolutions (including the Glorious, the American, and French Revolutions)
    • Whistlestop* (American presidential campaign history)
    • Amicus (supreme court law)
  • English: 
    • The New Yorker Fiction* (readings and discussions of literature)
    • Lexicon Valley (language and linguistics)
  • 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!

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. 


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.)

What Happens if a Child Is Never Exposed to Language?

Children learn the language(s) that they hear and see around them at a young age, but what happens if a child just never has any linguistic input, spoken or signed? Although a scientific study around this question would undoubtedly be fascinating, it would also be extremely unethical, so much so that the cultural historian Roger Shattuck has called it The Forbidden Experiment.

I’m on Lexicon Valley talking about early language exposure, including a video about Nicaraguan Sign Language which I came across when preparing for Ling Camp. See also creolization in general. 

Also related is the topic of children who grew up without exposure to language, such as Genie and Victor of Aveyron. I didn’t talk about them at the camp since especially Genie’s story involves terrible abuse and neglect, which I thought it might be upsetting for the younger students. 

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.

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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.

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”.


Leah Velleman has a fun and seasonally-appropriate analysis of at-issue-ness in this scene from Ghostbusters. 

The video [above] shows a scene from the Halloween classic movie Ghostbusterswhich helps set up the rivalry between childish parapsychologist Dr. Venkman and uptight bureaucrat Walter Peck. But it’s also a great example of one of the hidden rules of conversation—and how utterly obnoxious it is when someone breaks them.

(Read the rest.)

No, a Drunken Australian Man Did Not Coin the Word Selfie

Ben Zimmer in Lexicon Valley discusses “selfie” as Oxford Dictionaries word of the year, and the process of tracing back earlier uses of a word. He makes the very good point that just because we find the first time that a word was written down, doesn’t mean that the first writer invented it: 

Hope expressed genuine puzzlement that his long-forgotten forum post, complete with misspellings, had become international news, along with the photo of his busted-up lip. And he dispelled the idea that he was somehow responsible for the word. “It was not a word I coined. It’s something that was just common slang at the time, used to describe a picture of yourself. Fairly simple.”

So Hopey didn’t coin selfie, but why would everyone think that he did? There is a common assumption that a word can be traced back to a sole identifiable inventor who forged it in a burst of creativity. While this is sometimes the case (think of Lewis Carroll's chortle, or J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbit), historical lexicographers know that far more often, the best we can do is follow the trail of evidence as far back as it takes us without uncovering an originator.

Furthermore, in this case, it’s very likely that there was no single moment when the word was created, no Ur-selfie. Instead, as cellphone photography became commonplace more than a decade ago, numerous Australians probably thought to apply the hypocoristic –ie to make selfie. And it is also a good bet that, as is often the case with slang, the word traveled orally before anyone like Hopey thought to type it out in a forum that could be retrieved online by future word-hunters.