Why is English Spelling So Weird?

Why is English spelling so weird?

At the beginning of my freshman  year French class in high school, my teacher passed out a poem called “English is Tough Stuff.” She had each student read several lines aloud. The point was to show us how difficult our own language was, and that we should think twice before complaining about how hard learning French was. Here is an excerpt:

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s OK

When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive and live.

The difficulty of English spelling, while perhaps not at the forefront of one’s mind in a French class, is certainly a well-known concern among all educated English speakers. Some people are talented at English spelling, but our orthography is the bane of many elementary school students in the US and the UK. Why is English spelling so inconsistent and hard to learn? Is this an intellectual exercise made up by malicious English teachers?

The answer lies in the history of our language. English’s history is a winding, complicated one, particularly in its writing. If you want to read a more in-depth history of spelling, you can read this article by David Crystal (who has written a whole book on the topic if you’re really curious). While some languages have a fairly linear history (for example Latin → Italian), the history of English is a bit more complicated. English is technically a West Germanic language, because Old English came to England by way of Anglo-Saxon invaders. However, English has had a huge amount of influence from other languages because of two major invasions in the Middle Ages: first an invasion from the Scandinavian countries whose people spoke North Germanic languages and then from the Norman conquest, which brought in a huge amount of French influence.

The Viking invasion brought a large influx of new words in the 8th and 9th centuries. Many English words beginning with “th” and “sk” can be attributed to this period. The Vikings assimilated into English culture and became a part of the island, and brought now-common English names like Eric and Howard, as well as last names ending in -son, like Anderson.

The Normans, however, did not assimilate into English culture. They took over the ruling positions and almost everyone in the higher classes spoke French rather than English. This is one of the reasons that French words are associated with class in English. An example: in other languages, many of the words for the animal are the same as the words for the meat. In German, pork is schweinefleisch, or “pig flesh.” However, in English we often do not use the same word for the animal and the meat. Pig, pork. Deer, venison. Sheep, mutton. Cow, beef. The reason for this is that the English people who raised the meat were peasants, and as such they continued to use Anglo-Saxon terms for the animals, because they did not speak French. But the French speakers could afford to eat the meat, and so used their own animal terms for the food — in French pig is porc, cow is boeuf, sheep is mouton.

So what does this have to do with spelling? Different languages have different sounds, and different languages sometimes use different spellings for the same sounds. For example, in (many) words of Modern English, the sound “oo” as in “food” is spelled with “oo.” However, the same sound is spelled “ou” in Modern French, or “u” in Modern Spanish. You can imagine, then, that the melding of languages might make things complicated. There is, however, some systematicity in English spelling within the language of origin. In order to be good at English spelling, you have to understand patterns in the language and be able to hold in mind several competing patterns at once. So the sound “s” in “sad” can be spelled like just an “s” or it can be a “c” as in “city,” but there aren’t any other options for that particular sound. A lot of these patterns are based on the language of origin.  For example, the word “crouton” comes from French, so it is spelled like the French way, but the same sound in “food” comes from Old English. This is the reason that kids in spelling bees often ask for a “language of origin” — it gives them a clue to how some of words are spelled. (Spelling bees are a purely English phenomenon, by the way, though other languages do have some interesting linguistic competitions of their own)

In addition, there are sounds that used to exist in English that no longer do. For example, the sound “gh” in words like “night” and “thought” used to be pronounced like the end of Bach or loch, making the sound of the word “night” closer to its German cousin nacht. Vowel sounds have changed dramatically as well. In much of Shakespeare’s work, the words at the end of the lines no longer rhyme; but they did at one point. For example, if one line ended with “love” and the next ended with “Jove,” they were pronounced the same way. Today’s Shakespeare performances sound very different than they did long ago.

Of course, for linguists all of this confusion makes life more exciting, though we certainly do have sympathy for the schoolchildren who struggle. There have been many attempts at spelling reform for centuries. Despite these efforts, however, I think that English spelling is not going to simplify any time soon, and indeed, with the modern status of English as a global language, I think we’re only going to see more of an influence from other languages.

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Who Counts as an American?

This blog post was inspired by a post on Skepchick, entitled “No, Meb Keflezighi Was Not the First American to Win the Boston Marathon Since 1983.”  Author Jamie (no last name provided) shows headline after headline from major news outlets declaring that Meb Keflezighi was the first American to win the Boston Marathon since 1983. Unfortunately, that statement erased the win of Lisa Larsen Rainsberger, an American woman who won the marathon in 1985. Was she not an American? Did she not count because she was a woman?

I wish I could say that this was a rare occurrence and that this particular linguistic tidbit was the first time I’d seen it happen. However, as we discussed before, men are considered unmarked and women are considered marked in our culture. Another term that is useful to know (besides unmarked and marked) is “erasure.” Erasure is what generally happens when one group is marked and one is unmarked. Because the unmarked is considered the “default,” a group containing only unmarked people can be described as “people,” whereas generally a group of only marked people will be specifically called by the name of that marked group. By describing a group of only men as “Americans” while ignoring American women, journalists who discuss Meb Keflegizhi’s win are participating in the erasure of American women.

The erasure of women is an incredibly common occurrence, especially in the language of sports. Why are the two associations called the NBA and the WNBA? Why is there a World Cup and a Women’s World Cup? When was the last time you heard someone refer to MLB games as “Men’s Baseball?” When was the last time you heard the Indiana Fever referred to as just “basketball” and not “Women’s Basketball?” Why do we consistently erase professional female athletes in favor of male ones?

I think it’s important to put these discrepancies into context. For a long time in the US, sports were for men and not for women. There weren’t professional female athletes (apart from unusual circumstances à la A League of Their Own) and even public schools did not have to have any female teams; financial resources for athletic competitions were something only the boys received.Then Congress passed Educational Amendments of 1972. As part of the amendments, any educational program receiving federal funding could not discriminate on the basis of sex. If there was a boy’s basketball team, there now had to be a girl’s basketball team (or equivalent funding in a different sport with more interest). This landmark legislation is known as Title IX.

Things have improved dramatically for girls and women wishing to compete in school sports in the K-12 and collegiate level since 1972, but unfortunately this has not translated to all that much more interest in women’s sports. Language follows culture, and until the culture changes, the language will not change (for the most part).

So what can you do? Well, on a non-linguistic note, you can start following women’s sports. I know that seems hard because they’re not as accessible as men’s sports, but because we live in the age of the internet, I believe it’s possible. Get together at your friends house and watch a rousing game of WNBA (as opposed to the MNBA, naturally). If you’re not that into sports (admittedly, I am not outside of the linguistic issues and the athletes I know personally from tutoring), you can keep a close eye on what you say. Take after an academic counselor I know, who when asked what team she counselled for proudly stated “Men’s Football.” (It should be noted that there was no women’s team.)

Also, congratulations to Meb Keflezighi on being the first American to win a Boston Marathon since 1985!

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“Political Correctness”

The term “politically correct” is an interesting term in and of itself. Think of all the times you’ve heard someone use the phrase “politically correct.” Almost no one uses it in a positive way. It is frequently followed by other phrases like “run amok.” The people who use it are clearly implying that using different words than they’ve always used is a hindrance to communication, and even a form of mind control. The fear of the “political correctness gone mad” scenario is so strong that many are quick to believe the most ridiculous of urban myths. For example, a story circulated that a British school changed the lyrics “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because it was deemed racially offensive, and this spurred similar rumors that the phrase “black coffee” or “blackboard” were also banned.

But so-called “political correctness” is there for a reason. As we as a culture collectively become more accepting and more progressive, we use language more carefully. We change words that were once used, because they are offensive. Why does political correctness inspire so much fear in people?

On the one hand, this fear is partially motivated by a more general fear of language change. In many cases, we are just as worried about non-politically correct slang (for example, using a preposition to end a sentence, where there are obviously no political roots) as we are about PC  (politically correct) language. But PC language seems to attract a much stronger vitriol. Why? Is it because we’re all a bunch of racists, sexists, heterosexists, ableists, ageists, etc.?

I don’t believe so. Many people may support the goals of PC language but they don’t believe that changing language does that much good. What difference does it make, they argue, whether we call a group of people by their old name or by their new name? It won’t end a bigger issue like racism. And why does it matter if we call a person a “fireman” rather than a “firefighter”? Women can still be firemen; the word is neutral and it doesn’t matter.

But these words do matter. Some studies have found that people who hear a word like “fireman” are more likely to picture a man than when the word they hear is “firefighter.” That may not sound like it matters, but children form opinions on what type of careers they can pursue based on what they see and hear. If a little girl hears an occupation with a “-man” suffix, she is less likely to think of herself in that career. Small children are very keen observers of gender stereotypes.

And just like using gender-neutral language matters, so does using the correct terminology for underprivileged groups. Calling a group by a different name may not seem like a big deal for people in positions of privilege. Why does it matter whether I call an underprivileged group one name versus the other, as long as I treat them the same? By insisting on referring to the group by a name that is outdated, or even offensive, a privileged person makes an assertion of their power over that group. That is oppression. Refusing to use the word that the group themselves would prefer to be called is essentially using one’s power to say “No, I’m going to keep using the word that my group gave to you, and you have no say in the matter.” By using the correct terminology, you show sensitivity to that group. You show that you value their input, and that you listen to them. Listening is the most important thing a privileged person can do to show that they respect those with less power.

I believe that most people who read this blog know the advantages of sensitive language and make sure to use that language in their day-to-day lives. But we all know people who have complained about PC language too. If you have a friend or relative who has lamented “political correctness run amok,” you can gently ask them: what do they think PC language is and what are its goals? What is wrong with it? What would be a better alternative? How do power relationships factor into their opinion? If you get them to think about it a little, maybe they’ll change their tune. Or you can at least tell them that “black coffee” story is BS.

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Like My Blog? You’ll Probably Like These Too.

Via Gretchen McCulloch’s blog, All Things Linguistic

This week, I decided that I would share with you some other great language blogs where I draw inspiration and information. And if you have any other linguistics blogs that you follow, feel free to share them in the comments or on the Facebook page.

Language Log

This is the Bible of linguistics blogs. With an all-star (in the linguistics world, anyway) cast of contributors, especially the ultra-prolific Mark Liberman, this blog covers a lot of ground in the field of linguistics, and is frequently cited by major news outlets. The content is widely varied, from jargon-filled posts for professional linguists to discussions of current events like Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon Martin case, to fascinating, bizarre topics like xenoglossy (the sudden “ability” to speak a language you have never learned). The blog is written in a (mostly) accessible way, so you should take a look.

All Things Linguistic

I’ve mentioned this blog before, but its virtues bear repeating. While Language Log is run by veteran linguists, most of them having been in academia for decades, All Things Linguistic is a language blog that appeals to a younger audience. The blog is written by Gretchen McCulloch, a grad student at McGill. She weaves together popular culture and linguistic knowledge in an engaging blog that addresses important topics like the grammar of the doge meme and John Travolta’s “Adele Dazeem” slip-up. She has especially been targeted by news outlets for her knowledge of internet language. Her posts are so popular and have such broad appeal that she has been asked to do guest blog posts for the Toast and has been interviewed on the BBC and CBC.

Anne Curzan on Lingua Franca

Anne Curzan is another linguist who has achieved some public visibility. Her blog entries on Lingua Franca, the language blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education cover a number of interesting topics. She is always on the lookout for new language forms, on the internet or otherwise. She often writes on the topic of prescriptivism (for a refresher on what that is, you can check out my post about it) and language and gender (which you may have noticed is one of my pet topics as well). She also has a wonderful short radio program on Michigan Public Radio (Michigan’s NPR station) called That’s What They Say, which you can listen to online or download as a podcast via iTunes.

Do you have a favorite linguistics blog? Please tell us about it!

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What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners

Recently, a video has gone viral of a young Finnish woman speaking gibberish that sounds like what certain languages sound like to foreigners. If you watch the video below, you can see that although some of them aren’t perfect, many of the languages she imitates sound remarkably realistic.


How is it that you can make yourself sound like you’re speaking a language, when you aren’t using any of the words of that language? The bulk of this type of performance is based on phonology, the patterning of sounds in a language. First of all, a Youtuber must know all or most of the sounds of the language they are imitating. If they choose to imitate English, they must know that English contains several “unusual” sounds, like our “r.” To make the gibberish really sound like English (as opposed to another language), they should use that sound a lot — the more usage of those distinctive sounds, the better.

Not only does the Youtuber have to know the inventory of sounds for a language, but they must also know what sounds can go together. For example, in English there are many sounds you cannot use in combination, either at the beginning of a word, the middle of a word, or the end of a word. You cannot start a word with a combination of the sound “k” (as in “car”) and the sound “th” (as in “three”). So a word like “kthar” is not acceptable, even as a gibberish word for English. The sounds “m” (as in “mother”) and “p” (as in “police”) cannot occur at the beginning of a word like “mpal”, but are considered totally fine in words like “bump” or “clump.” Some combinations cannot occur anywhere, such as “s” (as in “sun”) followed by “b” (as in “bump”); therefore, “tisb” would not be a good word to use. A word like “beemp” or “snorl”, however, would be perfectly fine.

In Japanese, where the phonological rules are different, a word like “beemp” would not be okay, even though Japanese also has the sounds “b”, “ee”, “m” and “p.” Syllables of Japanese cannot end in a consonant cluster like that. To imitate a Japanese word, you’d need to use what linguists call “open syllables,” which are syllables that do not end in a consonant. The only consonants that are allowed to end a syllable in Japanese are “m” and “n”. Think of every Japanese word you know; they will all follow this rule. Sudoku, karate, samurai, sensei. In addition, Japanese words do not allow consonant clusters like English does. You can see how this plays out in English loanwords in Japanese. A Japanese word for a labor strike, from English strike, becomes sutoraiki, inserting vowels so that it becomes a “good” Japanese word. So a good fake Japanese word would be something like “panaku,” whereas a word like “stranum” would not be a good word for Japanese, but would be perfectly fine in English.

I am not suggesting that the people who do these videos know about all these steps consciously. I would guess that in reality, they learn to do the fake language by doing what we all do naturally, as language learners: listen and imitate. Even professional linguists sometimes have trouble determining what phonological rules are at play in a language. However, in order to put on a convincing linguistic performance, a rudimentary knowledge of phonological rules for a given language is necessary.

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Is the Moon Male or Female?

One of the most interesting and most hotly debated theories in the field of linguistics is called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” or “linguistic relativity.” The idea is simple: the language you speak affects the way you think. Here’s an example from Whorf’s “Science and Linguistics” paper, where Hopi and Eskimo are compared to English. In some areas, English has more words than Hopi, like the “flying things” category in the first panel, but for others we have fewer, as in the example for water on the bottom panel. This is partially because culture affects our language — for example, people living in traditional Hopi culture may not have been using planes as often as English speakers (this article was published in 1940), and therefore there was really no need to denote a plane, a pilot, and a dragonfly with separate words. Conversely, the difference between bodies of water and drinking water could have been more important to their everyday lives.

The idea that language affects your thoughts is somewhat controversial in linguistics. Most linguists would agree that language does change the speaker’s thought process, at least in a small way. However, it seems unlikely that language shapes our thought too strongly. Imagine if one language has, due to its structure, concepts that are totally foreign to another language. One could imagine that the task of translation between the two languages would be very difficult, almost impossible.

There’s a pretty good chance that most of my readers have studied either Spanish, French, or German, because they are so common in our high schools. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably struggled a lot with grammatical gender, both with the memorization aspect and the conceptual aspect. How can a trashcan and a planet be female? How can a CD be considered male? (Bonus points to readers who can guess which of the three languages I took based on that information alone.) A professor of mine once told me she had seen French and German speakers argue until they were blue in the face about whether the moon was “really” male or female. While to an English speaker grammatical gender is just a pain for high school students, speakers of these languages really do form gendered ideologies about inanimate objects.

There are several studies that confirm that speakers of languages with grammatical gender really think of these inanimate objects as literally masculine or feminine. In one study by Boroditsky et al., German and Spanish speakers were asked, in English (to ensure that they were asked in a gender-neutral way), to remember proper names assigned to inanimate objects, i.e. a pencil could be named Patrick. Half of the nouns they were asked about were given names consistent with their grammatical gender — if a pencil was masculine, for example, then Patrick would be consistent. As predicted, speakers were much more likely to remember the names of the objects if their names were consistent with grammatical gender.

In another study by the same people, native speakers of German and Spanish were asked to give the first three adjectives (in English) that came to mind when asked about 24 inanimate objects. The results were very clear: masculine objects were described with “masculine” nouns and feminine objects were described in very “feminine” ways. For the word key, which is masculine in German, German speakers described it as hard, heavy, jagged, and serrated. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, have a feminine key, and they described it as little, lovely, intricate, and golden. For the word bridge, the grammatical genders were switched. Here the Germans described bridges as slender, elegant, pretty, and fragile. Spanish speakers, by contrast, called bridges strong, big, dangerous, sturdy, and towering.

In a separate study by Julie Boland and Robin Queen of the University of Michigan, participants listened to names of objects (in German) spoken by both male and female native speakers. Listeners were then asked to respond, as quickly as possible, with the gender of the speaker (not the noun). Listeners were significantly faster if the gender of the speaker matched the gender of the noun.

As you can see, there is some merit to the idea that language shapes thought, at least in the case of grammatical gender. We can tell that it makes a difference in how listeners think of their nouns, from something as explicit as the gendered descriptions of inanimate objects, to something as subtle as reaction time in identifying the gender of a speaker.

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Do You Have an Accent?

The short answer is: yes, you have an accent. We all do, even if most people perceive the accent as “neutral.” When most people ask if someone has an accent, what they mean is “do they have a stigmatized accent?” or “do they have a different accent?” Remember the discussion of “marked” speech in my post on women’s language? Different accents and different dialects can be “marked” in the same way that women are “marked,” compared to men. If you’re from Michigan or Ohio, you’re much more likely to notice someone’s accent if they’re from, say, the South, or the UK, than you are to notice someone who speaks like you or someone who speaks like they’re on TV.

Whether or not you think you have an accent, chances are you have plenty of opinions on the subject. Watch this video of linguist Dennis Preston, asking passengers on a train what they think of different American accents.

These opinions, among other things, constitute language ideology. We have very strong ideas about what having a certain accent means. Think about characters with Southern accents in TV shows and movies where there aren’t any other Southern characters*. Generally, that character is not very bright, but is probably very friendly and well-meaning. This sort of stereotyping is not rare, and most marked accents have them. Ever notice how many movie villains are British? Ever notice how almost none of those villains are poor?

Language ideology can not only shape our opinions of fictional characters, but they can also affect what we think of real people we interact with, and even our own language. Southerners often say that they don’t speak English well because their accent is so stigmatized, and many Southerners who move north modify their accents in order to avoid being stereotyped as unintelligent. A high-profile example of someone who has done this is Stephen Colbert, who grew up in South Carolina but lost his accent when he moved north to pursue a career in television.

The ideologies people hold about their language can even affect what they can hear. An anecdote: in college, I tutored athletes in linguistics. I tutored one player from Baltimore; a big city, not too far South (although, below the Mason-Dixon line). He considered his dialect to be fairly standard. People from that area do what linguists call “/l/-vocalization,” where they pronounced the L in words like “call” as a sound similar to “w”, so it comes out sounding like “caw.” Listen to this paragraph and focus on the words “call,” “small” and “will.” I decided to ask him if he heard the difference between the way he said the word “call” and the way I said “call.” I repeated “calllll” and cawww” over and over, and his response was always the same: “one is longer!” He couldn’t hear the difference between the two sounds even though his teammate from Chicago could hear them quite clearly. I tried this again with my mother, who also does l-vocalization because she is from rural Maryland. She has lived in the Midwest for 15 years – and she still couldn’t hear the difference, even though she gets a lot of comments on her accent.

I tried this experiment a second time, with a pair of football players from Texas and Michigan the following year. I knew that in Texas and in many parts of the South, there is no difference between the pronunciation of the words “pin” and “pen.” Linguists call this the pin-pen merger. I asked the Texan football player if he could hear the difference between “pin” and “pen” as I (a non-merged speaker) said them. He looked at me as if I was an idiot. He could hear the difference perfectly, even if in his native dialect he wouldn’t pronounce them differently. He had also recently told me that he “toned down” his accent when he was in Michigan. He got teased pretty constantly by his Michigander teammate for his accent, slight though he had made it. For this player, he knew the difference because he had to know the difference, or risk social consequences. The stigma of his Texas dialect made him very aware of his speech.

Because the player from Baltimore considered his dialect as “standard” and didn’t consider it much different from people on TV or from dialects in the Midwest, he didn’t pay any attention to the smaller differences in his dialect. The player from Texas, however, did know the differences between his dialect and the Michigan dialect he was immersed in, in part because he was constantly reminded of it by his teammates and friends. He also had some obvious insecurity about his speech, because of the ideologies surrounding Southern accents in our culture. Who wants to look like the dimwitted character in a TV show? No such stereotypes exist for speakers from Baltimore, so the first player could be blissfully unaware of the differences between his speech and mine.In this case, social realities of geographical stereotypes changed what sounds they could hear. If Southern varieties had more prestige, the Texan player may have been unaware of the difference between “pin” and “pen,” in the same way that people in the blue areas on the map above can’t hear the difference between “caught” and “cot.”  Linguistic stereotypes literally affected what sounds they can hear.

*There is no one “Southern accent,” but TV shows, movies, and other media don’t generally make any distinctions between those accents.

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Accent Reduction

via the Oregon Department of Transportation's Flickr

via the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Flickr

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about academic subjects. I do that because I find them interesting and I have a strong background in those topics. However, I realize that not everyone who reads this blog will be academia-oriented, and this blog has the potential to answer some of their burning questions about language in the context of real-world applications and technology. For example: how does Siri work? How does voice recognition work? How can I use knowledge of language to help other people? How is language used in industry? Following my usual MO of starting with things I know the most about, I’ll tell you today about the field of accent reduction.

In college, I did an internship at the Accent Reduction Institute (ARI), under the direction of President and Founder Judy Ravin and CLO Barbara Niemann. Although the internship came highly recommended by a friend of mine because he loved the people he worked for, I was a little nervous about the job. As you can probably gauge from the topics of previous blog posts, I am very concerned with language discrimination and issues of social justice within linguistics. Was it okay to work for a company that taught people how to modify their foreign accents? Were we encouraging people to give up a part of their identity because being more American was the correct way to be?

In fact, I needn’t have worried. The views of the people at ARI were completely in line with my own. They use linguistic knowledge every day to help people in real, tangible ways. They were sensitive to issues of identity and did not denigrate the speech of their students. They also knew that many other people would see a strong accent as a reason to deny promotion to hardworking foreign nationals. In order to correct that problem, Judy Ravin developed the Ravin Method, taking her knowledge of phonetics and made it accessible to non-linguists. This allowed students to learn exactly how to move their tongue in order to master the trickier sounds of English.

This training has helped foreign nationals become more competitive in the workplace. White men completely dominate the executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. When many of ARI’s students completed their courses successfully, they were able to be promoted to higher-ranking positions. The majority of ARI’s students were diverse speakers of Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and many other languages. These students were able to attend these courses because ARI was paid by the company they worked for, so the employees of the company were able to receive this valuable training without paying out of pocket.

Another impressive attribute of this particular company, which I believe is unique even in the accent reduction field, is that they provide services for native speakers of American English as well. While their main business was in helping foreign nationals learn American English pronunciation, they also helped people learn how to better understand speakers with foreign accents. They provided this training mainly to public employees, in the military and to firefighters and police officers. In an emergency situation, understanding the people you are helping is key. This program, called Building Bridges, puts the onus on Americans to learn how to deal with foreign accents, rather than requiring foreign speakers to seriously alter their pronunciation. At ARI, communication is a two-way street.

To read more about Accent Reduction, outside of my experience with ARI, you can read about it in this LA Times article by Anna Gorman.

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Language Change: Not the End of the World


Via xkcd.com, by Randall Munroe

In the past, I’ve alluded to the fact that linguists consider all varieties of language to be equal. A linguist friend of mine suggested that I expand on this topic, and discuss why linguists don’t think any one dialect is better than another. To address this question, let’s talk about the difference between linguists and people who care about “good grammar.” The latter are called “prescriptivists,” because they prescribe the way people should speak; they are sometimes referred to as “grammar Nazis”. Prescriptivists have an idealized standard of language that they believe everyone should follow. Linguists, on the other hand, are “descriptivists”: they describe what people actually say.

Having a standard dialect has many advantages in formal, written language. Agreeing on spelling, punctuation, and rules about writing helps editors and printers make their products uniform, just like McDonalds wants all their burgers to taste exactly the same, no matter where you buy them. However, many prescriptivists take their prescriptivism outside the realm of formal, written language. They judge you when you speak, they judge your Facebook statuses, they judge your tweets. Here are some issues linguists have with prescriptivism (apart from some of the ones I addressed in my post on Language Discrimination).

Language changes. Period. It has changed, it does change, it will change. Language has always changed, and at least since the time of print media, there have always been people to complain about it. Here’s an example from Language Log of a prescriptivist rant from the 19th century:

 “This modern form [“is being …”] is very seldom used among writers of the highest class…. “The house is being built” does not express what is intended; being built denotes existence in the state expressed by built; as, “Our house being built, we have now a home.” It would be better for those who are not satisfied with the well-established classical form [“The house is building”] to say, “The house is becoming built” — coming into the state expressed by built.”

This is very different from the construction we use today. If someone were to say “the house is building” now, you might imagine an anthropomorphized house creating other houses. However, that phrasing was the standard in the 19th century, and when it changed, prescriptivists freaked out. And yet, here we are, building houses left and right, and civilization has not collapsed.

People will tell you the old way is always considered clearer, more precise, and just all-around better. They’ll tell you that good grammar is important and creates easier-to-understand sentences that we can better understand. Here’s an example of why using non-standard grammar is considered “confusing”:


While I understand that this is supposed to be a joke, there are a lot of perfectly serious people who argue that they really cannot understand non-standard grammar. Another example of the “unclear” argument is the usage of double negatives. If someone says “I don’t have no pencils,” a prescriptivist may argue, “Oh, they must mean they HAVE pencils, because it’s a double negative! One negative negates the other!” I think that people who make that argument are being a bit disingenuous. Any speaker of English in a normal conversation would not even blink at that sentence. A grammar nazi in that situation might think of the speaker as uneducated, but would never actually think that the speaker has pencils. The argument for clarity is an ad hoc justification for why a usage is “correct.”

For more interesting discussions about prescriptivism and developments in the English language, I highly suggest following work by Anne Curzan on the topic. She writes for the Lingua Franca blog, and she has a show on Michigan Radio which you can listen to online.

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Myths About Women’s Language

One thing that really grinds linguists’ gears is the constant, nonstop perpetuation of language myths by popular media. As in other sciences, linguistic untruths continually get written up and given a sense of authority by journalists who don’t know the first thing about the topic they’re writing about.

This type of reporting is especially irksome when journalists write about language and gender, because a LOT of the reporting reinforces existing gender stereotypes. This is the case especially in psychology and neuroscience reporting, but it also happens frequently in linguistics. Part of this is because there is a bias in being published as a scientist; no one is interested in a study that says “women and men are actually pretty similar.” This principle also goes for popular media, which is one of the reasons why the following three myths about the way women speak are so pervasive.

Myth #1: Women talk more than men do

When I read claims about the differences between men and women, I like to ask myself a couple of questions. As a rule of thumb, here are two good ones to ask yourself: 1) does this claim have anything directly to do with the anatomical (ahem) differences between men and women? and 2) does this claim conform to existing stereotypes about women? If the answer to the first question is “no,” then you have some reason to be skeptical — there’s a claim that the differences are biological, but there may be no direct evidence for such a claim. If the answer to the second question is “yes,” then there may be a motive for the journalist to support the status quo.

In the case of this particular myth, the answer to the first question is “no”, meaning we have some reason to be skeptical. In the case of the second question, I believe that this claim reinforces stereotypes about women. The idea that women talk more than men is nothing new. There are many proverbs about women talking a lot, and generally the underlying message is the following: women talk too much. The implication is that women should be quieter than their husbands. Some of these proverbs are hundreds of years old, and the current trend in popular linguistics and popular psychology books are only continuing the tradition.

The truth is that in many different social situations, men actually talk more often. This has been studied in “expert” talk shows, large-classroom style discussions with questions asked, and male-female face-to-face discussions. Only when the topic was very feminine-oriented (i.e. pattern sewing), did women speak more often. When women do speak, they are much more likely than men to do what linguists call “backchanneling,” which is a general term for things like “uh huh” and “mhm” and head-nodding that a listener does to show the speaker they are listening and to encourage them to continue. Next time you’re in a restaurant and you happen to be sitting near a (heterosexual) couple on a date, do a little eavesdropping. You might be surprised to hear who does most of the talking.

Why do we have these very strong, persistent misconceptions about how much women talk? One reason is the fact that women are what linguists call “marked.” “Marked” speakers are ones that are considered exceptions, and can sometimes get more attention when they do something. Men (and indeed, most privileged groups) are considered “unmarked.” Ask a friend to think about the following sentence: “The mail carrier brought the mail to our house.” Chances are, they pictured a white man doing the carrying, although the sentence does not specify the gender of the mail carrier. And you probably just pictured the friend in this scenario being male. Only when there are strong gendered assumptions about certain words (for example, “the nurse” or “the secretary”) are we more likely to picture an unspecified person as being a woman.

When women speak, they are noticed more often. In a subtle, insidious way, people notice when women speak because they may not think that women should be speaking. These feelings may not be conscious. Even many people who claim to be interested in gender equality might still feel this way. Reading an article, they may think “Oh yeah, my Aunt Martha talks way more than her husband Jeff!” Perhaps Aunt Martha is a topic of ridicule in the family, while Uncle Bill talks a lot and no one notices. Because Uncle Bill is male, he has the advantage of being unmarked, and therefore “normal”.

Myth #2: Women are better communicators than men

Let’s see how it fares on our questions: 1) This research has nothing to do with actual anatomical differences between men and women and 2) I’d say again, yes, this finding supports the status quo. This myth serves the purpose of putting women back in their rightful place: in a supportive, relationship-oriented role. On the one hand, it’s something of a consolation prize by those who want to seem progressive while enforcing restrictive gender stereotypes: men are better at leading, at science, at a lot of things that make them just perfect for high-paying careers in industry and politics. But you know what women are good at? Communicating. Intuiting. Emoting. Knowing what to say and when to say it, in order to keep the peace. They’re good at supporting those men. Men get to be interested in their own development, whereas women are other-oriented. It’s science. Sorry, ladies.

The problem (well, one of the problems) with this is that it’s hard to establish what it means to be “good” at communication. One way that neuroscience is used to defend gender differences is through the discussion of hormones. If you can prove that hormones are involved in a social behavior, you could make an argument that there is a biological basis for differences between men and women. One study linked the act of communication to the increased production of the hormone oxytocin in women. Journalists cite the fact that oxytocin is the hormone responsible for love and pleasure; the implication is that women enjoy communication more than men do, presumably because it is easier for them as women. Oxytocin has been linked to those feelings, and is generally considered responsible for women’s attachment to their babies directly after birth. However, as Mark Liberman of Language Log pointed out, the article failed to mention that the study also stated that oxytocin in the marriage context tended to signal relationship distress, meaning that the women could associate communication with a stormy period in their marriage. To quote Dr. Liberman: “Oops.”

Even if there were no directly conflicting information in the very articles cited by the neuroscience-defending-sexism brigade, the very idea of using hormones as evidence has been criticized by some. For example, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine has critiqued the hasty conclusions neuroscientists make based on the assumption that (prenatal) hormones are linked to brain structure and behavior. Neuroscience is a fairly new field, and there isn’t much information about how brain structure affects behavior, or how hormones affect that brain structure. Even the measurements used to measure prenatal testosterone, for example, are fraught with flaws — most methods have not been proven to be valid, and yet are cited as evidence of difference between men and women. One popular method for measuring testosterone is the digit ratio between the forefinger and the index finger. Although men tend to have longer ring fingers than their index fingers, and women tend to have equal length, there are many exceptions to this rule and no direct link has been established between testosterone and digit ratio. If we can’t even agree on how to accurately measure hormones, I think we have a lot of room to be skeptical of claims made on the basis of hormones alone.

Myth #3: Women use “like”, vocal fry, uptalk, and other “Valley Girl” characteristics more than men do

If you’ve noticed a pattern here, this has the same answers to the questions as the other two myths. From a linguist’s perspective, there is absolutely nothing wrong with “like”, uptalk, vocal fry, and “Valley Girl” speech in general. These characteristics are used in media to show that a character is like, a total airhead. Through our stereotypes, these have become linguistic proxies for identifying a teenage girl, and are usually used to show that teenage girls are not very bright.

But here’s the thing. Teenage girls are not the only people who use “like”, vocal fry, uptalk, etc. It is true that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that most linguistic changes are led by women, so all of these features did originate with young women. However, in 2014, young women are definitely not the only people using them any longer. “Like” is used by older people as well, though not to the same extent. Not only that, but men are actually using “like” more often. Uptalk is becoming much more common among men as well.

Vocal fry is considered a more recent phenomenon among women, and one that has had its fair share of vilification lately. It actually used to be associated with men in studies from the 1980s. While several recent studies have associated the feature with women in informal interviews, even more recent work (alright, mine) in Michigan has found that women and men don’t differ in their usage of vocal fry in informal situations. (Women did use more vocal fry in more formal speech.) The conclusion? Perhaps there’s a regional difference between Michigan and the other places where the studies were done (Washington DC and California) or maybe men are catching up to women in their usage of this feature, as they did with uptalk and “like.”

Creaky Voice in Michigan

Results for individual speakers (“creaky voice” = vocal fry)

If you’re interested in hearing more about language and gender, or just the perpetuation of myths about the differences between men and women, I would highly recommend checking out The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron and Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine.

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