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Academic Language, Codified

DNA wordlA new semester of classes started at German universities this week, which means I’ve spent the last few days asking fresh rounds of students about their language goals. The greatest number in any class want, above all, to improve their speaking skills. But a significant group has also mentioned vocabulary expansion. Given that most of the students are on course to complete master’s degrees in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering, which at the Technical University of Munich means mos…

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No Language for Lottie

LottieEating

People sometimes take my skeptical comments on animal-language news stories (“Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity,” for example) as evidence that I regard animals as inferiors. Jeremy Hawker complained on Language Log that I showed no interest in animal communication, and that linguists “cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language.”

In truth, the only animals I had showed contempt for were the bipedal primates who write science stories for newspapers. Back in …

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Final Madness

We’ve finally come to the end of Language Madness, and not a moment too soon. Just as Kentucky and Connecticut, two storied programs, will face off tonight in the NCAA men’s basketball finals (finals  instead of final  being another instance of rampant pluralizing), the LM tournament closes out with a classic matchup.

To recap, we started out with 16 “sins against the language.” As many have noted, they were a mixed bowl of wrongs. Some were mistakes or “mistakes” people love to hate, such as th…

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Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity

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Potentially communicative bottlenose dolphin
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It appears to have been just bad luck that one British newspaper, The Independent, chose April 1 as the day to publish James Vincent’s science report about a significant animal-to-human communication breakthrough.

I hope it worries animal researchers at least as much as it worries me that I had to do some reading around and cross-checking to be sure that the report wasn’t an Onion-style April Fool’s Day hoax. But I found t…

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It’s a Mad (Mad) World

About two weeks ago in this space, I kicked off Language March Madness, a fun-filled tourney where various solecisms and abuses have been vying for the title of Worst Sin Against the English Language, as determined by the votes of you, the public. (The idea is to choose something that combines high frequency and high annoyingness.) As you can see by the bracket, we’re almost at the end, and you can vote on the first Final Four matchup here.

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In Style

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Entries in the 2007 AP Stylebook

Style usually stands out, hoping to catch your attention. But not newspaper style. It has the opposite goal: to be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to distract the reader from paying attention to the message.

Without a stylebook prescribing usage, the natural variation of language would be a red herring, leading readers off the trail. For example, if one newspaper story uses the spelling OK while another uses okay, a reader is likely to notice the difference…

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‘Yooper’ and ‘the Dictionary’

Upper_Peninsula_of_Michigan[1]Michigan was buzzing last week with the news that the word Yooper is going to be included in the new edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary this spring.

For those of you who may not know, Yooper refers to someone who is from or lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (known as the UP, hence UP-er, or Yooper). Yooper is now a term of pride for many residents of the UP. According to Steve Parks (the man who lobbied for 10 years for the word to be included in Merriam-Webster’s), the te…

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Alphabetizing

ACB-blocks

Image courtesy Tufts Observer

Our ABC seems to have changed dramatically before our very eyes and no one is making a fuss. Not that it would matter.

It used to be that the alphabet was a sequence of 26 letters, from A to Z. The letter A came first for reasons that, as far as I gather, are arbitrary. Other than historical loyalty, there is no explanation—neither phonetic nor graphic—why it is at the beginning. The aleph in Hebrew starts the alphabet, and other Middle Eastern alphabets, such as th…

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Get Me the Concierge

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

“My husband used to be the concierge,” announces the woman in the window, “but he’s dead. Now I’m the concierge.” Movie fans will recognize the moment in Mel Brooks’s The Producers when our hapless protagonists approach the residence of the furtive ex-Nazi and pigeon fancier Franz Liebkind, author of the soon-to-be immortal musical “Springtime for Hitler.”

Liebkind’s apartment building is nothing special. It doesn’t have anything as glamorous as a concierge, just an u…

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Are You Feeling It?

I’ve never been a huge McDonald’s fan (my loyalties lie with Wendy’s), but lately the Golden Arches have become a particular bugbear. Many of you will recognize the chain’s slogan of almost a decade, “I’m lovin’ it,” and some will find its grammar grating. Traditionally, after all, English stative verbs—those that describe a state of being, what we think or how we feel—are not conjugated in the present continuous form. Before the lovin’ it campaign, a tasty Filet-O-Fish would have prompted most …