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International Linguistic Silliness

I find the subtle differences between American English and British English endlessly fascinating. Leaving aside the obvious divergences, as in spelling and slang terms, I'm intrigued by the ways that Standard English words have acquired different meanings and are used for different purposes in the two branches of the language.

I bring this up because of a BBC headline on the Senate's recent re-consideration of the big immigration bill. The headline is "US Senate Revives Migration Plan". The intention of the headline writer is clear, and I suppose the British use Migration to mean much what we mean when we discuss Immigration, but still the use of the term has a weird connotation to a speaker of American English. I tend to think of Migration in terms of what animals do when they move long distances. "The Senate reached a compromise on the Migration Bill today; foreign guest workers will be permitted into the United States during the warm summer months, but must migrate to sunnier tropical climes when the bitter cold of northern winters looms."

My other favorite dicordant Britishism is the term "Redundancies." Redundancy has no special significance to Americans, and we tend to think of it only in terms of its standard denotation of duplicating other functions. You might speak of a redundant system in engineering or a redundant argument in a discussion. In England, though, "Redundancies" carries the same meaning as the American phrase "Lay-offs," large-scale firings that are not directly the result of malfeasance on the part of the worker but that are instead caused by larger macroeconomic trends.

Of course, "Redundancies," in the British sense, is a euphemism, the kind that passive-aggressive managers devise in the hopes that if the word used to tell someone they're fired is nice enough the worker might forget that they've just lost their job. "It's not that you're a bad worker, you see, it's just that, well, you're kind of redundant. The firm would love to keep employing you, as would I, but, well, through no fault of your own, your function is already done by somebody else. Completely our mistake. An over-hiring problem, really. Best of luck to you, though. Security will escort you out."

What's interesting is when the euphemistic sense of the word doesn't apply at all, which can leave someone unfamiliar with the term a bit confused. "The Thistlebottom Construction Company closed its door for the last time today, as trying economic times and a dearth of new construction starts forced it into bankruptcy. The firm's closure created 600 redundancies." It makes no sense when read literally; if nobody's working at Thistlebottom at all anymore, how can anyone be redundant? I suppose, if one wishes to get metaphysical about it, one could argue that now that it no longer exists the Thistlebottom Construction Company is in the business of doing nothing. Since there are a great slew of non-persons available at Thistlebottom to do Nothing, any actual persons employed there to do nothing would be redundant. On the other hand, one could argue that Thistlebottom is now in the business of Not Existing. While non-persons are superlative at the job of not existing, actual employees have a much more difficult time of it. While the actual persons would not be necessary, insofar as they are not advancing Thistlebottom's primary business activity of non-existence, they can't honestly be said to be redundant.

The question boils down, then to whether Thistlebottom is an ethereal entity in the business of doing nothing, or a non-entity in the business of not-existing. The question is intractable, so we must assume both that Thistlebottom exists and that it does not. This is known in Business Law as Schrödinger's Firm.

Vice President Cheney: Mixer of Metaphors

The defense attorney for Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame leak trial has just released a hand-written note, composed by Vice President Dick Cheney, about a meeting the Vice President had with Libby. The note says, in part,

"not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."

One either sticks one's neck out (readying it for the axe) or one throws oneself into the meat grinder. Sticking one's neck into the meatgrinder is very difficult unless one either a. sticks one's head in first (in which case, having your neck in the meat grinder is the least on one's worries) b. sticks one's body in first (same difficulty as above) or c. first separates one's neck from one's head and one's body (why?). The Vice President should pick one metaphor and stick with it. This linguistic flip-flopping should not be tolerated among our political elite.

Graffiti at the Met


I went to the bathroom during the first intermission at tonight's performance of Rigoletto by the Metropolitan Opera Company. All of the urinals were occupied, and even though all I had to do was pee I decided I'd rather wait for a stall than wait until the requisite number of urinals were abandoned for me to properly take my place (keeping in mind the essential one-urinal buffer zone). I'm glad I did. Inside the door to the stall I occupied was a sign that originally read "Please do not throw paper towels in the bowl." Somebody had defaced the sign by adding "to" after "in," so that the sign was now grammatically correct: "Please do not throw paper towels INTO the bowl." Upon exiting the stall I quickly surveilled the others around me; they each had the same sign, but only mine had been corrected, indicating that it was the work of some vigilante grammarian and not some Met-wide policy of cheap correction. To whoever you are, you Zorro of prepositions, wherever you may be, I salute you!


I have a linguistics question: how did Latin get so structured and formalistic? Actually, my question is a bit more general than that; as others have pointed out, a lot of ancient languages tend to be very highly structured. I'm curious about how they got that way.

To elaborate: Latin (and, based on Dianna's comments, Sanskrit) involves a large number of fairly complex rules, but those rules are pretty universally applied. Your verbs have to be conjugated to match the person and number of the subject, your nouns and adverbs have to be declined to match their function in the sentence. There are rules of pronunciation and accent that are universal, though nuanced, and that can result in the pronunciation of a word shifting as you conjugate/decline it. But here's the trick: There's a big messy mass of rules to remember, but if you remember the rules and how to apply them, you can work your way through just about anything. The exceptions are pretty few. Spelling, for instance, is universal. The same set of letters always make the same sounds, and if you know how a word sounds, you know how to spell it.

Compare this to English, which is essentially just one giant pile of exceptions. There are a few rules-of-thumb, but even these can't be relied upon ("I before E except after C. Or in Neighbor or Weigh where the 'ie' sound is "ay.' And also 'Weird.'") You can't rely on a pronunciation to know how a word is spelled, and you can't rely on spelling to know how a word is pronounced (Compare "Union" to "Untie").

But English is sort of a special case; modern English is the result of an enjambment of different languages over the course of thousands of years (Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, French, and then modern attempts to rationalize and modernize the languge). But even so, other modern languages are similarly unstructured when compared with the ancients. A lot retain conjugation, but few retain declensions. Many still identify three genders for nouns, while others have cut down to two, and others (English, in one of its more admirable qualities) don't bother assigning arbitrary sexes to inanimate objects and concepts at all.

So it seems like there's been a general linguistic move away from rigidly-structured rule-based languages and towards more ad-hoc, informal arrangements. And it's pretty easy to understand why. People need to communicate regardless of your fancy "rules," and they'll go ahead and do it even if they do it wrong. The more complex the rules, and thus the more education required to speak the language properly, the more likely vernacular simplifications become. Granted, there will be socialization towards these complex rules based in the fact that people can absorb them from daily life and they become second nature, but this same socialization will facilitate the spread of useful simplifications. As the variants multiply, people eventually end up speaking a language that is no longer recognizable. This language won't be as structured as the old one because it's the result of convenient alterations made by thousands of amateur linguists as necessity required.

So, yeah. The whole point of this is to say language used to be highly structured, now it's much more loose and disorganized, and it's very easy to understand how things moved that way. But here's my question: How did Latin (and Sanskrit, and others) get so highly-structured to begin with? A move from more organization to less organization makes intuitive sense. But where did the high levels of organization come from? Latin was not divinely ordained. Who, exactly, decided that adding a vowel after another vowel makes the first vowel short?

Of course, it could be that Latin (and others) just present the illusion of order to the modern learner. It could be that we're only getting the very highly-educated sources, the folks who are in a position to have learned all of the elaborate rules. Further, it's quite possible that the rules they follow are, themselves, artificial constructs that don't reflect the actual ad-hoc language that people spoke. Some unknown guardian of the Latin language, perhaps, took a look at the mass of informal arrangements that made up the language, invented a lot of descriptive rules of thumb, and these rules were promulgated and reinforced among the elite. The descriptive rules likely cut corners and left out exceptions, but they became the basis for written Latin, and in turn written Latin has become our source for How Latin Was.

So, um. Any other explanations? Were ancient languages really so formal and structured, or do we merely think they were in retrospect? And if they were, how did they get that way? It makes sense for languages to become less structured, so how did these highly-structured languages come into being and become popular among the masses?

Latin: Very Useful

I scoff at those who insist that learning Latin isn't useful. Scoff! Thanks to today's self-guided lesson, if I ever find myself transported back in time to ancient Rome and selling myself as a prostitute on the docks, I now know how to say "Hello, sailor!" in Latin. It's "Salve, nauta!" (pronounced "SAL-way, NOW-tuh")

As for the lesson itself, I got most of the way through the exercises ("Sententiae Antique"). I was quite pleased with myself for translating the phrase "Without philosophy we often go astray and pay the penalty" into Latin (I believe the best translation is "Sine philosophia, saepa erramus et poenam damus"). Then I decided to call it quits for the night when confronted with translating "If your land is strong, nothing terrifies the sailors and you ought to praise your great fortune." I'm fuzzy enough about proper word order with conjuctions, and I don't even know where to begin with a conditional thrown in. Something like "Si patria tua valere est, nihil nautas terret et debes magnam fortunam laudare." I think. I'm probably completely wrong there, though.

Latin Conjugation of the Day: Basiare (To Kiss)
Basio (I Kiss)
Basias (You Kiss)
Basiat (He/She/It Kisses)
Basiamus (We Kiss)
Basiatis (Y'All Kiss)
Basiant (They Kiss)

Latin Declension of the Day: Mensa (Table)
Mensa (A Table)
Mensae (Of a Table)
Mensae (To a Table)
Mensam (At a Table)
Mensa (On a Table) (And that's a long "a" at the end, as opposed to the short "a" in the base form)
Mensa (Oh, Table!)
Mensae (The Tables)
Mensarum (Of the Tables)
Mensis (To the Tables)
Mensas (At the Tables)
Mensis (On the Tables)
Mensae (Oh, Tables!)

Today's unadulterated quote from a Roman author: "Philosophia est ars vitae" (Pronounced "pil-aw-SAW-pi-uh est ars WEE-tai") It's by Cicero, and means "Philosophy is the art of life."

Quick Poll

If I were to say to you, "Civilization is a fun game," would that raise your hackles, grammatically-speaking?

I Prophesied the Prophecy

Huh. You learn something new every day. A prediction of the future is a "prophecy," with a C. To issue a prophecy is to "prophesy," with an S. So the first is a noun, the second a verb. Interesting. Ish.

I'm working on (yet another) cover letter, and would like advice on a phrasing. Which sounds better:

"...I would love to have the chance to develop my abilities further..."


"...I would love to have the chance to further develop my abilities..."


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