Category Archives: * Language

Quirks, interesting facts, or changes in the language

You STILL Can’t Legislate Language

Oxford English Dictionary

Photo courtesy Flickr user mrpolyonymous (CC BY 2.0)

Those governments and governmental bodies are at it again. In France, you’ve often had the Académie Française trying to urge the use of French terms and the avoidance of words from other languages, to maintain the strength (and the purity?) of the French language. The Canadian province of Quebec has tried something similar, forcing the French language into greater prominence than English, say, on public signage. The Russians have also tried their hand, over the years, at preventing foreign words from entering the language and being used.

We know how well that works, especially in a globally interconnected world.

But in the same way that you can’t legislate away words you don’t want to see used, you can’t legislate words into prominence either. Take this interesting example noted by the Oxford Dictionary blog: Legislation meets lexicography: the campaign for dictionary recognition of the word ‘upstander’. It seems that the New Jersey Senate passed a resolution on June 29, 2015, “urging Merriam-Webster, Inc. and the Oxford University press to include the word upstander in their dictionaries.” This isn’t really a law, just an “urging.” But the state senate really wants this.

The word “upstander” is a good thing. It came from an anti-bullying campaign promoted by New Jersey high school students. People are urged to stand against bullying–to be “upstanders”–and of course, that’s a very good thing. The word is actually getting a lot of use, and this new and important meaning has further expanded some other meanings that already existed in prior usage of the word.

But the Oxford blog went so far as to show a graph comparing the usage (per billion words) of “upstander” compared to “cyberwarrior,” which was recently added to the Oxford Dictionary, and “upstander” lags far behind. Positive though the word is, there’s no way yet to know whether it’s going to last or will fade away by the next dictionary update.

Oxford reminded people of the only way a word is finally shown to be a significant, lasting English word: it gets used.

At the moment, upstander does not quite meet the criteria for inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries, but if usage continues and expands, it could be a strong candidate in the future. The New Jersey Senate’s resolution is a powerful indication of the word’s potential significance, but the best way to ensure that upstander is ultimately added to dictionaries is for its supporters to use it as often as possible. If the word spreads among more and more English speakers, evidence for it will continue to mount, and its fate—not just in the dictionary, but in the English language itself—will be secure.

Some words get used a lot, and the language embraces and builds on them. Other words turn out to be a fad, and the language briefly accommodates them and then they sink into that deep pool, leaving hardly a ripple for posterity. That’s how every language works, how it has always worked, and how it will work in the future. And unfortunately for the New Jersey State Senate–no legislature can dictate that process.

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Morewords.com – an interesting resource

I found an interesting website today: Morewords.com. It’s just a site full of words, which you can search for in many different ways. It touts itself as a site where you can find words for crossword puzzles, Scrabble games, or other word games. But it seems to me that if you’re looking for a rhyme, it would be good for that too.

The reason is that you can look for words that end in certain combinations of letters as well as those that begin that way. I found it when I needed to find words that used the prefix, “anti,” and had done a Google search on “words ending with anti.” Up popped a whole list on Morewords.com! So if you were looking for a word that rhymed with, oh, “despise,” you could first look for words ending in ize, and then for words ending in ise. You can bet, as I needed to make lists of words with certain prefixes and suffixes for a project today, I made good use of this site.

You can do searches that leave letters out, you can find anagrams of words, and you can even get lists of words made by adding one letter either before or after your search word. This is an interesting tool for wordsmiths.

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Brian Clark of Copyblogger,on Grammar Goofs

This is a post where I basically get to go, “What he said!” Brian Clark,, at Copyblogger, produced a great illustrated chart that covers several spelling and grammar errors that can make one’s writing look bad. Make no mistake: if you use “your” when you really meant “you’re” (as in “you are”), it does get noticed, and it does plant a subliminal idea that you may not be as great a writer as you think. So if you’re prone to these mistakes, study the right usages till you know them — cold.

I give you, with permission: 15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly:

15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly
Like this infographic? Get more copywriting tips from Copyblogger.

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Why the Alphabet is the Best Invention Ever

Think those pictorial signs on bathroom doors in the malls, or on roads or in airports, are a new innovation? Think again. Those and other such pictorial symbols constitute a return to an older form of communication. They may get the correct message across to people who speak thousands of languages all over the world, but unfortunately, they are almost completely useless outside of the one specific context they are used for.

And that’s the reason we need an alphabet.

Imagine having to use such pictorial symbols to get a more complex idea across. It might work for a grocery list: there could be simple drawings for carrots, apples, or even dishwashing detergent. And many companies clearly believe that if you have to assemble a bookcase or a couch, pictorial instructions are all you need. Some people, on the other hand, might consider those bookcase instructions a good example of the limitations of this method of communication.

The earliest form of written or drawn communication was pictorial. But even if people drew or carved actual scenes, those pictures didn’t represent the actual words they used, so if they wanted to convey specific facts about the event, they were still out of luck. If they carved a battle scene and wanted to say something like, “We defeated these people, but they were rebels and their fellow citizens weren’t our targets,” that would have taken many more pictures to explain clearly.

So the emphasis eventually moved to smaller pictures in which one specific symbol represented a single idea. You can see this type of writing, called the “logogram,” in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or, even today, in Chinese and Japanese scripts. With this type of writing, you could have one symbol for “rebel” and another for “citizen,” and you could begin to make a differentiation.

But with one logogram representing one idea, imagine trying to memorize all the symbols for all the ideas in English! Even if you combined some simpler ones to make a more complex idea, you’d still need to know many thousands of the basic symbols first. And the relationship of the symbols to the actual words spoken in the language would still not be entirely solid. For one thing, you’d have no way of knowing how the language is pronounced.

Historically, though, some of those logogram symbols gradually became associated with the sounds of the words they represented. So for example, if we had a symbol for “hand” in English, a hand symbol might come to stand for the “h” sound. A ball symbol might signify a “b” sound. And so on.

And that was the beginning of the revolution. Because even though you could combine idea-symbols to represent more complicated ideas, you were still not conveying the actual words. Furthermore, you needed to memorize thousands of those idea-symbols. But once you could represent the sounds in the language, you could combine those a lot more powerfully. And you wouldn’t need thousands of those – you probably wouldn’t even need as many as one hundred. But they could combine not just to form the exact words in the language, but they could even give a better clue about how the words were pronounced.

And the precision in what you could say was magnified many thousands of times. For example, with logograms you’d pretty much be stuck expressing something like, “Army – south – defeated – rebels – surprise – morning.” To say anything more elaborate would take a great many more pictures and a lot of space. But with an alphabet forming actual words, you could say explicitly, “The army coming from the south soundly defeated the rebels who had not been expecting an attack so early in the morning.”

Alphabets work phonetically, representing sounds rather than separate ideas. In English we have twenty-six sound symbols, and they combine to express both the meaning and pronunciation of about a million words. Symbols in other languages can easily express hundreds of thousands of words. Can you imagine how many separate pictorial symbols it would take to represent those words, if there was no alphabet?

Sometimes, even now, logograms work better than an alphabetical system. Just think of those universal symbols that let people know where the bathroom is, no matter what part of the world they’re in. But for expressing complex linguistic ideas, with economy of space and a precision of detail, the alphabet was pretty much the best invention ever.

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