This week in languages: October 14, 2016

by on October 14, 2016



Aiyoh! Aiyah! Scrumdiddlyumptious! What do all these words have in common? They belong to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just included a handful of South Indian English words this month.

10 October was Indigenous People’s Day on Duwamish Land, Seattle, Washington, and Seattle-born learner of Gàidhlig (‘Gaelic’) Kent Jewell ponders the ‘white-ness’ of the discourse about anti-racism and anti-colonialism for GaelicUSA. In the thoughtful piece, Jewell notes that “much of this anti-racist writing put forward by fully well-intentioned self-identified “white” US writers doesn’t adequately acknowledge the multi-layered and rich importance of linguistic diversity and related, embedded complex cultural practices (from micro- to macro-) across time and history”, in response to having read Madeleine Bunting’s book Love of Country and article about Gaelic as the community language of resistance against corporate greed and capitalistic ideals.

Welsh language commissioner Meri Huws has raised concerns that the provision of Welsh language services on the main UK government website ( has “deteriorated astonishingly“. The website was launched in 2012 as a single domain for online government services.

Commentaries and Features

Feminist writer Deborah Cameron, in a piercingly honest piece, rebuts her critics who argue that women should change their way of speaking in order to empower themselves in an unfair world. Cameron makes the point that the structural inequality underpinning such sexist policing of women’s speech should be the main focus instead. In a related op ed, Shaun Harper of the Washington Post highlights the intense misogyny of the speech that some men freely throw around, usually justified as “locker room banter” and exemplified by US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Harper calls on men to actively oppose such talk in order to address the sexism that pervades many spheres of life.

Has the United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s accent changed over timeTIME cogently uses New York University researchers John Victor Singler, Nathan LaFave, and Allison Shapp’s analysis of Ginsburg’s linguistic accommodations in Supreme Court hearings to explore wider issues and prejudices about accents, discrimination, and sociolinguistic variation in the US.

Christine Ro, writing for Catapult, shares the experience and the challenges of growing up with an immigrant mother who chose to raise her in English rather than her native Korean. Although the presence of Ro’s grandmother in her early years allowed her to pick up some of the language, she now wishes that she had made a more concerted effort to learn and practice it.

If we drop the pronoun it from the declarative sentence, ‘it contains a box’, this would leave us with a strange-sounding sequence, ‘contains a box’. Ever wondered why English declaratives “do not usually begin with a verb” when verb-initial declaratives are not at all uncommon in Italian and Spanish? In his recently-published book, Contiguity Theory, Norvin Richards, Professor of Linguistics at MIT, attributes permission or otherwise for verb-initial declaratives to the phonological rules of a language. Speaking to reporter, Peter Dizikes, Professor Richards expresses his belief that to understand a language’s grammatical rules, “we need to integrate phonology—the study of sound in language—with syntax”. As observed, the English verb, ‘contain’, is stressed on the second syllable whether in its present form, ‘contain’, or in its past form, ‘contained’. Relative stability in stress positioning of English verbs apparently permits “a subject before the verb, which speakers can put stress on—like the word it“.

What’s in a dictionary? Are lexicographers just word-lovers and word-makers? Former Oxford English Dictionary’s chief-editor John Simpson speaks about the life of a lexicographer to linguist and lecturer John McWhorter, in a podcast for Slate‘s Lexicon Valley series. “Lexicography is about writing and discovering about your language and culture.”

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