Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Language’ Category

A Little Science about Language and Babies

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Apparently, babies are tuned in to language from the moment they’re born, and possibly earlier. A recent study suggests that even if they can’t understand or form specific words, newborns recognize the intonation of their parents’ tongue and try to replicate its peculiar melody.

Here’s the article at NPR, which also includes the original broadcast audio and demonstrations of the differences between French and German babies’ intonation.

And just in case you’re still curious, here’s a fairly in-depth analysis of that same study from the Language Log blog at University of Pennsylvania.

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November 17, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Languages Deader (Or Dyinger) Than Latin

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Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great: Proud to know his language lived on ... sort of.

Latin’s not a dead language … not really. It never completely disappeared, but morphed into a bunch of other languages like Italian and Romanian. Like Anglo-Saxon getting sculpted over the centuries to give us English. And the process is easy to see – think about Shakespeare’s English and you can see how much change can occur in a measly five hundred years.

But there are a lot of languages deader than Latin. (“Deader?” Yeah, check out this post on absolutes.) And they’re dying faster than ever before. According to this article, approximately 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages will die by the end of this century.

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November 3, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Do You Talk Like Alex Trebek?

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Alex Trebek sans mustachio.

Alex Trebek sans mustachio.

I have a confession to make: I have a bit of the Alex Trebek Syndrome.

I’ll explain more in a minute, but first, listen to this link, which will start a sound clip automatically.

This is from the movie I Love You, Man, where the main character, Peter, pronounces the name of his favorite movie in a decidedly un-American way. Maybe Chocolat should be said the way he insists, but what about other foreign words?

Do you go to a bakery and ask for a KWAsahn?

(You know what it sounds like, so stop rolling your eyes at my attempt to type out a French pronunciation.)

You probably wouldn’t do that unless you were traipsing through Pah-ree. So most Americans will ask for a kruh-sahnt, even knowing that it’s a French word, and probably knowing how they pronounce it.

Sometimes we do put on that foreign accent …

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October 22, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Bad Euphemisms, Political Correctness and Censorship

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1984

It’s Banned Books Week. So in celebration, let’s look at censorship, how politically correct speech is ruining schools and why euphemisms are silly.

Censored words

Does anyone really consider vertically challenged a good alternative to short? Does old really carry such a negative connotation to require us to remove it from our speech?

Some people think so. This article outlines how committees have banned words like bookworm and blind from US textbooks in the interest of sensitivity.

I think it’s ridiculous. Not just because it’s easy to see how being politically correct can be taken too extremes (the article uses the example of The Older Person and the Water to sanitize Hemingway’s famous novella The Old Man and the Sea). And not just because too often this seems to be an effort to protect groups that really feel no need to be protected (many people who can’t hear prefer the term deaf over hearing impaired, even though the former has been stigmatized as politically incorrect). But also because euphemisms rarely stay euphemistic.

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September 30, 2009 at 8:19 pm

A Linguist Listens to “Mad Men”

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madmen1After a post focusing on advertising and marketing, it’s nice to have a  segue back into linguistics. In the comments from that post, one person recommended checking out the show “Mad Men.” Though I’ve never seen it, it apparently centers around advertising in the 1960s and comes highly recommended. Then I found this article from The New Republic. Author and linguist John McWhorter questions whether the speech patterns affected by the characters in “Mad Men” are really genuine, and whether people really talked the way we think they talked fifty years ago.

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September 8, 2009 at 6:59 am

Is Your Speech Weak? Or Courteous?

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In a recent article I found on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, the author argues for women ridding their speech of “hedges.”

Hedges are those little apologetic words and phrases we insert into our speech. For example:

  • I’m sorry, but
  • Well, actually, I think …
  • In my humble opinion …

The idea is that these little apologies soften your speech and indicate a low level of confidence. And while the article specifically talks to women (it originally appeared in Redbook), this is something men should take note of, as well.

But my question is this: are hedge words actually bad?

Does hedging your speech actually give an appearance of weakness? Or instead, does it indicate a respect for the other speakers and offer some courtesy to help society run a little more smoothly?

  • This article (the one I referenced above) advocates giving the ax to hedge words and putting more strength into your speech.
  • This article from the Macmillan Dictionary Blog suggests that hedge words may be pretty vital to communication and us all getting along.

Personally, I think it’s a matter of degree. We all know some über-hedging folks who seem to apologize even as they order their lunch. But then there are others who wouldn’t notice a hedge word if it kicked them in the teeth because they’re stubbornly barreling through conversations heedless and disrespectful of anyone around them.

So I’d suggest moderating your hedges. You needn’t preface every idea you have with “This may sound dumb, but …” And at the same time, no one likes it when people bully their way over everyone else’s ideas like Genghis Khan.

Be firm, be confident, and be polite. And just as importantly – be aware of how you speak. Knowing to what degree you use hedge words will go a long way toward projecting the image you want through your speech.

What do you think? Keep the hedge words? Or ditch ’em for stronger language?

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July 30, 2009 at 5:39 pm

New Jersey Accents and a Glossary

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What’s your idea of a New Jersey accent? Well, according to this article, there’s not just one, but at least two.

Even if you don’t read the whole article, I’d recommend checking out the video and the glossary at the bottom.

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July 20, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Does Language Shape Reality?

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Is reality the same for everyone?

Some people think the language you speak may influence how you view the world. It may inform your prejudices, your beliefs and how you relate to everything around you.

What if English didn't have a word for "time?"

What if English didn't have a word for "time?"

For instance, what if your language had no concepts of time? How different would your world-view be? Kind of nice to think you could never be late for work, isn’t it?

This seemingly timeless aspect of one language is precisely what prompted a linguist studying the Hopi language to propose the idea of linguistic relativity. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, linguistic relativity says that because we use language to define our world, our world-view is defined by our language.

What’s that really mean?

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July 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Storyteller as a Noble Calling

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To entertain someone is to transport them to a different world. This is no small feat.

In my previous post, I talked about my belief that genre fiction can also be literary, and emotionally and intellectually deep.

But the honest truth is a lot of what we read isn’t deep. And that’s ok.

It’s pure entertainment, and that’s still valuable for a number of reasons:

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June 19, 2009 at 6:35 am

Linguistics and Political Phrases

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Just a quick note to recommend some language-related listening.

In a recent episode of Fresh Air, Terry Gross talked with linguist Geoff Nunberg about political language, how English is changing, and his sarcastic English teacher.

Click here to go to the page, and click on the “Listen Now” link.

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June 18, 2009 at 2:21 pm