How to linguistics #1: the bare bones

One of the first things you learn in Statistics class is that correlation does not imply causation. The field of linguistics has a tagline of its own: “descriptivism yay, prescriptivism nay”. (This is not the way my professor phrased it, but it’s been almost half a decade since I took Linguistics 101, so I may need to take some liberties here.)

Crudely stated, prescriptivism is concerned with how language should be used, the underlying idea being that usages can be correct and incorrect. A prescriptivist might say singular ‘they’, as in “someone forgot their wallet”, is wrong; it should be “someone forgot his or her wallet”. Descriptivism, on the other hand, is concerned with how language is actually used, in the real world, by real speakers. (I’m a huge fan of singular they. I use it all the time.) Prescriptivism has no place in the scientific – therefore objective – study of language, but it does have a place in aforementioned real world.

A digression on prescriptivism: British vs. American English
Take, for example, American English— a variety of English that is very dear to my heart. My only qualm is that I think manoeuvre looks more elegant than maneuver, but that’s about it. I love American colors, American pants, American organizations. Colours, trousers, and organisations are just not the same.

Not everyone on this side of the ocean would agree with me here, though. I’ve had conversations with British English speakers who are convinced that their variety is the superior variety. Some even reject the notion of American English being a variety of English altogether; mention American and British English in the same breath, and you run the risk of someone butting in with, “I’m sorry, did you mean incorrect English and proper English?”

The reason often given in support of this prescriptivist perspective is that American English arose from British English and is therefore somehow a lesser offshoot. American English is the illegitimate child looming in the shadows all the way in the back of the family photo. “Who, that? Oh, that’s… yeah, we kind of try to forget about that one.”

(Interestingly, neither Canadian nor Australian English seems to evoke the same sentiment. Maybe that’s because they’re barely in the picture at all, obliterated by the huge, ancient matriarch taking up the entire frame… or maybe it’s because the bastard kid is currently in the prime of his life, spreading unchecked across the world as the matriarch watches through narrowed eyes.)

But the equation of seniority with superiority is questionable, even more so in a linguistic context. Sure, American English arose from British English— but British English, in turn, is a melting pot of Celtic, Latin, Old Norse, Old Norman French, and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few ancient languages. The reason why we’re not getting any Ancient Celts, Romans, Norsemen, or Old Normans complaining about issues comparable to the pronunciation of can’t as /kænt/ instead of /kɑːnt/ is because they’re all dead.

Here’s a timeline to illustrate how right I am. Also, the colors are pretty.

Back to descriptivism
Anyway, all of the above is a great (if somewhat extensive) example of how not to linguistics. Modern linguistics is about descriptivism— about observing and describing what happens in a language, and trying to explain why this happens, without dismissing in advance certain usages or varieties for reasons of purism, traditionalism, or personal taste. If someone decides to coin the phrase ‘how not to linguistics’, a linguist does not say, “No, Maud, that’s not how English works. You can only use the infinitive marker ‘to’ with a verb.” Instead, the linguist might file this phrase away as an idiosyncrasy, an unintentional error, or usage that sounds unnatural to a native speaker.

Upon further investigation, however, the linguist would discover that this phrase does occur more often, among a particular subgroup of English speakers. A Google search for ‘how not to cat’ yields 251,000 results; the search ‘forgot how to dog’ yields 56,9000 results (a considerable difference, but we all know the internet is for cats). The use of ‘how to’/‘how not to’ in combination with a word from a word class not ordinarily found in this construction, then, might be one of the many diverse features of internet slang.

Why on earth would someone say, or type, ‘my cat forgot how to cat’? In the realm of internet linguistics, two explanations often seem to go a long way: brevity and comedy. ‘My cat forgot how to cat’ is shorter than ‘my cat forgot how to behave like a cat’. It’s also funnier, possibly because it’s not conventional language usage; the human brain likes novelty, after all.

And, in the case of ‘how not to linguistics’, there’s an additional reason: gravity. ‘How not to linguistics’ doesn’t sound nearly as serious as ‘this is not how a linguist is supposed to behave’. Of course, I couldn’t possibly say that—  it would be terribly prescriptivist of me.

(Note: according to Steven Pinker, “most writers who have given serious thought to language are neither kind of iptivist.” You can find his much more in-depth consideration of micro-level prescriptivism – as opposed to the macro-level “my variety is better than your variety” I discussed above – vs. descriptivism here.)

Image credit: wordstimelinecat

Holy trinities and double whammies

One of the things I was most excited about when I got accepted into a Master’s program called ‘Translation in Theory and Practice’ was not having to dread the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions anymore. The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions is as follows:

  1. How are you?
  2. What do you do/study?
  3. What do you want to do/be when you grow up? (This question is rarely phrased this way, but this is exactly what it boils down to.)

The first question can usually be answered in a relatively straight-forward manner, but the other two form a double whammy. When I was getting my BA, it was pretty much impossible for me to answer the second question succinctly— which is kind of the point of small talk. Getting a liberal arts degree in a country that contains only a handful of liberal arts colleges puts a considerable strain on your ability to converse with people you don’t know all that well but know well enough to, you know, have to converse with them. Continue reading

A house is a house is a house

Once upon a time there were two people who thought it would be a good idea to buy a house built in 1924.

Those people were my parents, and that house is the house I moved back into after graduating college. It’s a fine house, a big house, but allow me contextualize that year. 1924. That’s before ballpoint pens were invented. Before the legendary Leonard Cohen graced this earth with his presence. Perhaps most shocking of all, it’s before IKEA was founded. How does one even furnish a house without the help of IKEA?

Old houses have got their charm, but they require upkeep. The only act of home improvement I personally find absolutely essential is getting a Wi-Fi system that doesn’t conk out whenever it feels like it, with a signal that reaches every remote corner of the house, i.e. my room, preferably all the way to my bed. Alas, my parents consider matters such as painting and gardening to be of much more pressing concern. Continue reading

The curse of constant connectivity


It’s a truth universally acknowledged: we’re addicted to our smartphones.

We’re slaves to Twitter, ensnared in Facebook’s mighty jaws. We Instagram every meal we eat. The instant our attention wanes from a task at hand, every second we spend waiting for our train to show up— we grasp at every opportunity to grab our cell phone. We wake up to blink blearily at the WhatsApp messages our friends send us at 3 AM. Maybe they’re out drinking; maybe they’re in a different time zone. Hell, maybe they just felt like texting us in the dead of night. “It’s always beer o’clock somewhere,” has turned into “It’s always social media o’clock somewhere.”

Sources in support of this claim are everywhere. Can’t turn on the television without stumbling straight onto a heartfelt complaint about the superficial and unrepresentative quality – or rather quantity – of communication in this age of constant connectivity. See also: YouTube. Continue reading

The stubborn language whore in the attic

In the Netherlands you can take pretty much as long as you like to finish university. Where I live, it’s not unusual to run into guys – they’re usually guys – in their late twenties who have been studying for eight years and still haven’t gotten their Bachelor’s degree. The Dutch government once tried to remedy this situation by implementing a langstudeerboete, a fine for students with a study delay, but it got dismissed almost the minute it went through.

This reminded me of the following. In my hometown, there’s an alley which used to be a no-bike zone. The Dutch are big on cycling, obviously, and when it comes to cycling, traffic rules usually get ignored. Red lights? One-way lanes? Ha! Similarly, the idea of a no-bike zone simply does not exist in the Dutch conceptual system. Flocks of school kids, students on rattling hand-me-downs, mothers with toddlers front and back, elderly couples on tandem bicycles; everyone cycled through the no-bike alley. Cops used to guard it on either side to fine every culprit, but to no avail. We persevered in our fundamental right as Dutch people to turn the world into one big bike lane until, one day, the cops were replaced by this sign:

Cycling permitted; bonus points for not knocking pedestrians off their feet.

There’s this Dutch proverb, de aanhouder wint – literally ‘the one who persists wins’. The Dutch are stubborn. We do not bend to legislation; legislation bends to us.

To return to the subject of studying:  Continue reading

Curriculum vitae imaginationis

#5 on the list of ‘Required Documents for Application to this Master’s Program’: an updated curriculum vitae (résumé). According to the explanatory note, a curriculum vitae is “an overview of your personal details, and your educational and professional background”.

I wonder, should someone who doesn’t know what a resume is even be allowed to apply for a postgraduate degree? Also, why specify that the resume has to be updated— isn’t that kind of obvious? No, prospective student, don’t send us the Comic Sans MS document you wrote in Microsoft Word 97 with nothing but some babysitting to boast. We want experience! We want extracurricular activities! We want sweat, unpaid internships, after-school jobs in shoe stores and downtown cafes— anything to prove your dedication to responsibility and hard work!

When I was five or six years old, it was my life goal to own a petting zoo. I wouldn’t stop penciling meticulously designed floor plans into the margins of my primary school notebooks. Rabbits would go here; goats there; horses would get a pasture of honor in front of my house. Countless drawings and frustrated teachers later, I had perfected the farm’s architecture to a point where I had no idea what else to add. Continue reading

Five favorite movies of 2012

While the world is celebrating the birthday of Baby Jeebus, as my brother calls him, I’m looking forward to New Year already. New Year’s Eve is the holiday for people who like lists, clean slates, and philosophical pondering. In recent years, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing an ‘end of year report’ just to have a coherent overview of what happened my life over the past twelve months. This report invariably includes an ‘art’ section – hey, I have to live up to the Bachelor of Arts title I’m receiving in a few weeks – with my favorite movies and books of the year. I thought, why not share?

1. Intouchables
Back in March, I called Intouchables “the most hilarious and heartwarming movie I’ve seen in 2012 so far”. And when I go through the list of movies I’ve seen in 2012, this is the one that really stands out to me. It’s just so good. Everything about it is right – the story, the cinematography, the acting. It’s fantastic.  Continue reading