Endangered Language Alliance

‘Welcome to the new website of the Endangered Language Alliance. We are a non-profit organization whose mission is to further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction. You can read more about us here.’


I’m Not Hanging Noodles on your Ears


My friend Julia Suits, New Yorker cartoonist, just sent me a copy of this book by Jag Bhalla, of which she is the illustrator. I don’t know if Julia knows of my fascination with linguistic curiosities but this is right up my browsing alley. It is a delightful book, all about idioms from other cultures. I recall one of my favorite browsing books, Howard Rheingold‘s They Have a Word for It, about untranslatable concepts other cultures embody in native words. Bhalla turned my head when he pointed out in the introduction to the present volume that idioms are essentially expressions that are untranslatable in their own language!

And Suits’ wonderful illustrations, with their absurd and at times surreal literality, are perfect amplifications of the incongruity Bhalla sets out to depict.


How Do You Say 2010?

Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious St...
Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones

Today’s All Things Considered had a story about the division of opinion over how to refer to the name of next year Which is it, “two thousand ten” or “twenty ten”? One commenter said that “two thousand ten” is proper and polite; I think he went so far as to call it the “adult” thing to say. This gets right to the core debate about whether proper usage is vernacular — as spoken — or normative.

But, more important, the story did not address more vexing questions. First, what nickname will we use for 2010. 2009 was “oh nine”; will we say “one oh” or “oh ten” for short? For example, if you trade in your “oh five honda” for a new car, is it an “oh ten prius” or what?

And how will we refer to the decade to come in aggregate? This, it seems, has remained an unresolved issue with respect to the decade now ending: what came after the Nineties? The “oughts” or “noughts”? So are we heading into the “teens”? Does anyone know how people referred to the corresponding decades a century ago?

(And, no, I’m not going to beat a dead horse by mentioning that, of course, since there was no year zero, the decade does not really end for another year, until December 31, 2010. I thought we had put that one to rest a decade nine years ago at the turn of the century.)


There’s a word for that?

LAS VEGAS - JUNE 16:  Cirque du Soleil perform...

Mamihlapinatapai is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”, and is considered one of the hardest words to translate. It describes “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.”” (Best of Wikipedia)


‘To Be’ or Not ?

Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher and scien...

Explore, if you will, the world of E-Prime. Arising from the thinking of Alfred Korzybski and the International Society for General Semantics which he founded, E-Prime consists of the subset of the English language left after expunging it of the use of the verb ‘to be’ in its two major functions of connoting identity (“I am a weblogger”) and predication (“I am nice”). Proponents feel that these uses of ‘to be’ cause major confusion of thought and consequent social problems. To start with, consider how the use of the same verb for identity and predication readily obscures the distinction between opinion and fact. Moreover, it readily lends itself to stereotypy and inflexibility.

This paper claims that using “E-Prime in Negotiation and Therapy” can challenge dogmatic viewpoints, clarify confusion, and defuse conflict in daily life. I don’t conduct myself as a strong proponent of E-Prime in my life; awkward circumlocutory constructions arise whenever I try to write in that way. But the difficulty in using it perhaps speaks to how early in our lives the associated thought patterns were ingrained. Language doesn’t determine what we can and can’t think, but it does readily shape what can be thought with ease as opposed to with difficulty, IMHO. Does the challenge involved in thinking ‘outside this box’ perhaps indicate the importance of doing so? The links above have plenty of further links if you want to explore your identifications and predications more thoroughly.


‘Fucking shut the fuck up’

The only thing not to appreciate about this analysis is the gratuitous digs at Van Morrison.

The main syntactic problem is to determine whether the fuck is being used as an [sic] pleonastic (semantically empty) direct object of shut or as a pre-head modifier of the preposition phrase (PP) headed by up. (Yes, the up of shut up is a one-word PP. It is not an adverb — all the traditional grammars are flat wrong on that…

I conclude that in colloquial English the NP the fuck (and it does indeed have the form of an NP) can function as a pre-head modifier in a PP, including the light one-word PPs (like up) that are known as particles.” (LanguageLog)

Can anyone think of a construction similar to this use of “…the fuck…” other than “…the hell…”?


The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks

Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Ptolemaic Temp...

I’ve received a number of links to the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. I’m as much a “grammarian” as many others out there, but my feeling is that enough is enough. Yes, we get it, most sign-posters do not know how to use quotation marks. Very little rationale, IMHO, to keep amassing example after example of this pretty annoying but pretty common English usage blunder. Now, is there much of descriptivist pushback against prescriptivists with respect to unnecessary quotation mark practice, given how widely distributed this usage pattern is?


The I’s Have It

William Shakespeare

‘Since his election, the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers for using “I” instead of “me” in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “the main disagreement with John and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.”

The rule here, according to conventional wisdom, is that we use “I” as a subject and “me” as an object, whether the pronoun appears by itself or in a twosome. Thus every “I” in those quotes ought to be a “me.”

So should the president go stand in a corner of the Oval Office (if he can find one) and contemplate the error of his ways? Not so fast.

For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either “I” or “me” as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after “and.” Literature is full of examples. Here’s Shakespeare, in “The Merchant of Venice”: “All debts are cleared between you and I.” And here’s Lord Byron, complaining to his half-sister about the English town of Southwell, “which, between you and I, I wish was swallowed up by an earthquake, provided my eloquent mother was not in it.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about “I” and “me.” ‘ via NYTimes Op-Ed.


Give Up on Reclaiming ‘Liberal’

The Death of Socrates (1787)
David — The Death of Socrates

“To the extent that those who term themselves liberal consider themselves more open to change than the conservative, it would be within the spirit of their philosophy to open up to the true nature of human language and let liberal drift away as “the L-word.” “Reclaiming” has a good feisty ring to it, but don’t we have more important things to do–and even reclaim–than engage in a conceit so futile as to stop a word’s meaning from changing? Move On, indeed.” — John McWhorter via The New Republic.


Adopt Lost Words to Bring Them Back From Extinction

Illustration of a scribe writing

“Every year, hundreds of words are dropped from the dictionary to make room for new words. Lexicographers spend hours researching word usage and may drop words that have been completely neglected by the society.

To reverse this trend, Oxford University Press has launched an initiative called Save the Words that aims to prevent these lesser-known English words from becoming extinct.

Here’s how. You adopt one such word through “Save the Words” and take a pledge to use that word more often in your daily conversations or written communication.

This will directly increase the chance of that word’s survival because the moment lexicographers see discarded words being used in conversations, they may re-include them in the dictionary. Wheatgrass is one such word that was reinstated after missing from the dictionary for several years.

There are hundreds of “lost” words already – vacivity, plegnic, mingent or primifluous for example – all of them, not surprisingly, failed by the Firefox spell checker as well. So go ahead, adopt bring back a nearly-extinct word. In return, you get this nifty certificate.” via Digital Inspiration.


The 150,000-Word Sentence

Countries of the world where English is an off...
The Anglophone world…

Take that, all you doomsayers of the English language in the age of texting. Comes now word that the 517-page French novel Zone, by Mathias Enard — consisting of one 150,000-word sentence — will be published in English. Told from inside some guy’s mind as he takes a train trip, the story “has a lot of commas.” To which we can only add, exclamation point!

via New York Times Ideas Blog.


Atlas of True(?) Names

“As reported by Der Spiegel and picked up by the New York Times blog The Lede, two German cartographers have created The Atlas of True Names, which substitutes place names around the world with glosses based on their etymological roots…”

via Language Log


Oxford Researchers List Top 10 Most Annoying Phrases

Oxford University 2
‘Though maybe “you could care less,” the scholars in question keep track of linguistic mangling and overused buzzwords in a database called the Oxford University Corpus. The voluminous record keeps track of books, magazines, broadcast, online media and other sources, watching for new overused, tiresome phrases and retiring those that fade from use (or misuse).

The great hierarchy of verbal fatigue includes:

  1. At the end of the day
  2. Fairly unique
  3. I personally
  4. At this moment in time
  5. With all due respect
  6. Absolutely
  7. It’s a nightmare
  8. Shouldn’t of
  9. 24/7
  10. It’s not rocket science’ (Wired News)


The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form: “Our goal is to write at least one limerick for each meaning of each and every word in the English language. Our best limericks will clearly define their words in a humorous or interesting way, although some may provide more entertainment than definition, or vice versa.”

The Cognition and Language Laboratory

Diagram of human brain showing surface gyri an...

The twin research foci of this lab are cognition and language. That is, our primarily interest is in how language is implemented in the human mind. However, as understanding and using language probably involves many mental activities that aren’t strictly linguistic, many experiments delve into other aspects of thinking or cognition.

The CLL conducts experiments via the Web. You may participate by clicking here, see results from previous experiments by clicking here. The experiments are short — some take as little as 2-3 minutes to complete. All are anonymous.”