Saturday, June 18, 2016

surgeries, constituencies, MPs

American readers/tweeters have been getting in touch to wonder about the use of surgery in reports like this from the BBC and other UK sources.
Jo Cox 1974–2016
From the Labour party website

Mrs Cox, 41, is the first sitting MP to be killed since 1990, when Ian Gow was the last in
a string of politicians to die at the hands of Northern Irish terror groups.
The man taken into custody was arrested in Market Street, not far from Birstall Library where Mrs Cox was holding a constituency surgery.

I touched on surgery back in the post about physician's titles, but I didn't cover all its uses.  Oxford Dictionaries Online gives the relevant British senses. (This is sense 2, after the general-English 'invasive medical procedure' sense.)

2. British A place where a doctor, dentist, or other medical practitioner treats or advises patients.
2.1 [in singular] A period of time during which patients may visit a doctor, dentist, or other medical practitioner for treatment or advice: Doctor Bailey had finished his evening surgery
2.2  An occasion on which an MP, lawyer, or other professional person gives advice.
So, you can go to a doctor's surgery (AmE office) during her surgery (= consultation hours). Elected representatives also hold surgeries at which constituents can come to discuss whatever's bothering them. These can be held at their office, but are often at some more public or accessible place, like a library. In my parliamentary constituency (approx. AmE congressional district) the MP has held a surgery on a bus as it goes about its normal route.

By extension, surgery is used for many kinds of meetings where someone offers expertise to someone else. Schools and universities have writing surgeries, there are knitting surgeries and bicycle surgeries, events where you can drop in and have a problem diagnosed and get help in fixing it.

In US news, I've seen surgery translated into meeting. In the back of my mind, I have a recollection that there are similar things to MP's surgeries sometimes in the US, but I can't for the life of me think of (or find) the terminology. Can anyone help?

I've translated constituency above to district, but let's be clear that AmE does have the word constituency, it's just more likely to refer to the people than the place, in my experience. In the GloWBE corpus, there are nearly four times more British uses of the word constituency than American ones.

I tweeted this on Thursday: 

And, of course, the response was requests for translation of MP, which is more familiarly Military Police in AmE. (I think I --and maybe others of my generation-- just know that because of M*A*S*H.) It stands for Member of Parliament, which is kind of like AmE congressperson, or member of Congress. I should say: it's not straightforward to translate parliamentary terminology into American terminology. This one isn't too bad, but when Americans call the Prime Minister the President it's a bit of a sin. The PM is the head of government. The President is the head of state. (So some countries have both.) In the UK, the reigning monarch is the head of state, but the powers of the monarchy are severely restricted--so, as I say, it doesn't make a lot of sense to try to translate the terminology. The president isn't like the queen, but neither is the office the same as the office of Prime Minister. So, simple translations don't get you very far if you want to understand the context of news stories. 

I only first heard of Jo Cox this week, but, wow, she was something special. I can't say anything more about the subject without dissolving into a state of abject despair.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

the c-word and gendering mansplaining

In 2011, Douglas Bigham asked me if I'd write a piece about "the c-word" for the Popular Linguistics website, which he was trying to get started at the time. He observed:
It *seems* to me that "c---" is less gendered in the UK, but can only be directed at a woman in the US.
(He didn't censor the word, but I have. I'd say it in a linguistics lecture, but putting it on a page is a bit too in-your-face for a blog that wants to be used in schools. I think I've screwed my chances with the nanny software already, though. Of course, I'm talking about the word that's an anagram of the name of a certain Danish king.)

The article never happened (I'm sorry!) and the site closed (I hope unrelatedly, but I will admit my contribution by non-contribution, if necessary). But today I am moved to write a bit about the word because of this (slightly censored for this blog) message I got on Facebook this morning:

I will come back to why I got this message and why I've hidden his full name. Let's just deal with the BrE/AmE difference first.

This message looks like it's from the USA (and his Facebook profile agrees), because he called a woman a 'dumb c-'. Looking at the GloWBE corpus, there are two unique instances of this phrase in the American data. Both refer to women. There are five in the British data and they refer to: a male athlete, a male friend, and fans of a certain football team or football magazine. This is not to say that it can't refer to either sex in either country, but there are definite different tendencies, and they give the word a different feel in the two places. The shift from feminine to masculine in BrE is (of course) part of a more general tendency to use words for women (or our parts) as the ultimate way to put down a man. Which just sums up the status of womanhood in our culture rather neatly.

(The data for stupid c--- are a bit more mixed, but still tending toward(s) AmE=female, BrE=male. And, as we've seen before, the nationality of GloWBE data is probably 15-20% corrupted by the internationality of web data.)

In the UK, the word is thrown around rather easily among men. It can be used among friends in a playful way, but more often (as far as I can tell) it is a term of abuse for men they don't like. The statistical analysis in the GloWBE corpus marks it as a particularly British word, with 1634 British uses to 467 American ones. The statistically "most British and not American" words to come before it are that, fat, black, some and the. (The American data shows up no 'strongly American' collocates.) That shows us that it's often used referentially in BrE--i.e. to talk about people rather than to address them directly, as in "Some c- of an economics analyst on BBC News 24 just tried to equate...".

The British can be amused by how much this word offends many Americans. And it does offend. For me in my American state-of-mind, only certain racial insults are viler than this word. It was a very long time before I could say it out loud at all (I don't think I ever even heard it till [AmE] college/[BrE] university), and I am not usually one who is shy about words.

But the intent with which words are uttered is what really matters and this reminded me of something else that happened recently:
This was in the UK, and what the man yelled (really aggressively at a woman in an open-windowed car) was "YOU STUPID COW". While cow isn't a taboo word, it can be used very aggressively (and also often playfully) to refer to women in BrE. (Worth noting here that everyday life in the UK provides ample evidence against the American stereotype that the English, as a people, are polite.)

I wouldn't claim that  cow got started as a substitute for the coarser anatomical word (women have been insulted by all sorts of animal names for centuries), but I think that in cases like this road-rage incident there's a link. The former c- word for women is now used for men, but cow provides a similar articulatory gesture.

I've seen lots of cases of women reclaiming the c-word as an anatomical term, but less so reclaiming it as a word for people, rather than people-parts. (Compare the word for a female dog, which has been reclaimed often as a word for women showing strength of character in the face of sexism.)

a bit on the mansplaining...

I'd like to say a bit about what led to this point. It started when the Linguistic Society of America shared a link on its Facebook page:


That's a bad piece of  (AmE) subhead /(BrE) standfirst writing. What it means is that studies are equivocal about whether bilingualism helps cognitive development. What it says is that there might not be any advantage to bilingualism. Linguists know well about these debates, and so I posted an ironic comment on the article:
"not show any real benefits"? Like speaking two languages isn't a real benefit?
I later added a smiley face. But without the smiley face  Mr Jason, above, felt the need to explain to me that there are studies that have said that there are cognitive benefits of bilingualism and other studies that have said there are not. (He deleted his explanation before I received his personal message.) I went back-and-forth in my mind a bit about how to respond to it, and I went with this comment-reply:
Sorry, is this what they call 'mansplaining'? It was a critique of the phrasing. I do know this. I do teach it!
And in the morning, I got the private message you see above. Before reporting him to Facebook and blocking him, I did get a look at his public profile. According to that, he had studied English Applied Linguistics at a Wisconsin university less than 10 years ago. I am not including his full name here, because, honestly, it's not worth whatever further abuse he might be willing to give. I have once before received a very similar Facebook message from another  young man (that one in Ohio) after I beat him repeatedly on an online game and he accused me of cheating. (I no longer play on-line games against people I don't know.) I know a male Scrabble champion who gets such cheating-accusation abuse all the time. All they needed to do was google his name to know how silly their accusations would sound. But that seems to be expecting too much of some people. So here are some helpful rules if you want to insult people on the internet.
Rule #1 for insulting people on the internet: find out who you're insulting first.
Rule #2 for insulting people on the internet: don't insult people on the internet.
(I bother with rule #1 because you might learn something interesting. )

Now, you might say here that I did not follow rule #2. I would disagree that I literally insulted, though I will admit that it seems to have had the same effect. I used the word mansplaining in order to call out a behavio(u)r. I did not call the person anything. Maybe that one needed a smiley-face too.

I had weighed whether to call it mansplaining (and even when I did, I did so indirectly), but in the end I went with it (and even got a 'like' and a supportive message about it). I've posted this Jason's message on my Facebook page and have been discussing it with my friends this morning. One (male) friend, whil{e/st} being sympathetic to my situation and angry on my behalf, said
this is why I'm not a fan of the word 'mansplaining'. Let's not taint the name of a whole gender because of these morons.
And I've got mixed feelings about that. I replied (in part):
I have had my joke explained to me three times and it has been by a man each time. Any genitals-free behavio(u)r can be done by anyone, sure, and I have used 'mansplain' at least once of a woman, but that doesn't mean it's not gendered behavio(u)r. Just like I argued two weeks ago(?) that I felt it important to call out creepy behavio(u)r as 'creepy' I think this needs to be called out for what it is. [...C]alling it out with the 'man' is to acknowledge male privilege, and I think men (and whites and straights) need it pointed out once in a while that they are coming from a position where they've assumed some things based on that privilege. I 40% agree with you, but I 60% agree with me.
The creepy thing relates to another debate with my Facebook friends. When an inappropriate appreciation of my photo was posted in the '10th blogiversary' post, I went back and forth a bit about whether to just delete the comment or to thank him for the other part of the comment, followed by "but let's keep it non-creepy, please".

In that case I got a mix of advice in both directions. I put up the "thank you for your kind comments on the blog, but please let's keep it non-creepy" comment and deleted it almost immediately (I don't know whether the post will have gone out to people who were following the thread by email) and then deleted his comment (because I do have a comments policy and I just didn't want to spend my time debating it with strangers). I found it interesting that several female friends suggested paraphrases of the comment (mostly without the warm thanks part) that changed creepy to inappropriate or that asked for "no personal comments, please" or that I not post a photo of myself. I reacted to those suggestions [in part] with:
I don't mind personal comments. I don't like creepy comments. If I'm going to [comment on] it, I'm going to say 'creepy'. [...]  'Inappropriate' doesn't tell him what was inappropriate about it. Creepy does. Some guys don't reali{s/z}e what creepy is [...]

I post pictures to be more human. Having a face isn't an invitation for somewhat sexual comments about it. I do have a comments policy where I say that I reserve the right to delete things that aren't in the spirit of helpful conversation. But I'm not interested in banning comments about appearance. If someone says "You look just like one of my cousins!" or "I think your hairstyle has got more British while you've lived there" (I don't think it has!), that can be a bit of fun.
So, as I said above, I 60% think that when unfortunate behavio(u)r is gendered, it's important to point out the genderedness of it. That way, you hope that the person who's creeped you out, or exasperated you, or insulted you might go ahead and think about their sociali{s/z}ation to act in this way and to maybe pause to think a bit more about the things they've been led to believe about the world.  Maybe before "helping"  someone who's said something that they think "needs help", they might pause to wonder whether there's another possible interpretation of what she's said (it could have been a joke) or whether she might know more about the topic than you do.

The act of explaining things to people who don't need an explanation can be done by any gender of person to any other gender of person, sure. And it is usually done with no malice. But there's a reason it's been called 'mansplaining' and it is exhausting. Women get their jokes misunderstood or explained to them because there is a cultural assumption that women aren't funny. Many men (in many cultures) are put in positions from childhood where they are listened to, treated as authority, expected not to keep quiet and play along. And so on and so forth.

The main reason not to call out genderedness of gendered behavio(u)r (the other 40%--but it's important to note that my 60/40 split sometimes reverses) is that it makes people defensive when they're treated as a phenomenon and not an individual. And so they might not learn. But if the genderedness isn't pointed out, then they might not consider everything there is to learn there. I tweeted my ironic comment (my joke, if you will) as well:

At the time I'm writing this, 30 people have retweeted it, and 80 have 'liked' it, so I think many are getting the joke. But another three men have tweeted back to 'explain' the line about 'no real benefit of bilingualism' to me. Another follower called one of them out for mansplaining, and the explainer protested that he hadn't mansplained--he just hadn't read the article. So to him, explaining an article you haven't read to a person who has read it (and made a joke about it) isn't mansplaining. To me it is a perfect example. But it may well be the naming of it as a gendered behaviour that (apparently) kept him from thinking more deeply about the matter. This is why sometimes my 60/40 thinking flips to 40/60. I could try to deal with the situation by saying "let's all be good humans and treat each other with respect", and that's what I want in the end. But I think it's hard to think about what "being a good human" means without being able to reflect on sexist privileges, beliefs, and behavio(u)rs. If you've grown up male (and comfortably masculine) in a culture where masculine power and the masculine point-of-view is the default, then your perspective on what it means to be treated badly in that culture starts from a position with a limited view.

Of course, the other reason not to point out sexism is that there are a lot of scary men out there. They send threatening messages. They call the other scary trolls' attention to you. And in Jason's land they're allowed to own guns. America has become a violent opera about the dangers of damaged masculinity. It's a complete Catch-22. Don't call out sexist behavio(u)r, and sexist behavio(u)r is allowed to thrive. Point out sexist behavio(u)r and you might have to live with more (and worse) of it.

(I'm sticking to sexism here, but I think the argument and the dangers are fairly transferable to other kinds of discriminatory structures and behavio(u)rs and the privilege they create. But that might not be for me to say!)

In case you are ever accused of mansplaining or any other kind of unhelpful 'splaining, here are some responses that you might consider:
"Whoops! Sorry about that!"
"It hadn't occurred to me that I was doing that, but thanks for pointing it out."
"Fair enough. Never mind!"
"Hm. That's given me something to think about, thanks."
If you use the last one, please note that you can do the thinking without involving the person who felt mansplained-to. Don't expect them to give you a sticker for working it out. Don't expect that they want an argument about why what you did wasn't really mansplaining. Just take it as someone else's observation on your behavio(u)r. (You don't even have to reply at all on social media.) And then, if you want to be helpful, try to see it from their side.

on  irony

And, yes, it's dangerous to try to achieve irony on the internet. Next time, I'll try to remember the smiley face. British people often comment on Americans' alleged inability to interpret ironic statements (here are two old posts about that: one two and a BBC piece on the matter). There are definite regional differences in this, however, and that may have been a factor here.  I'm a northeasterner. (It may also be relevant that I'm an academic.)  I do irony, and I enjoy it when others enjoy it too.

p.s. avoiding mansplaining

I forgot to add my easy mansplaining-prevention tips for any gender:
  1. If you feel the urge to explain something (especially to a stranger, especially on social media), pause to ask yourself: was I asked a question? 
  2. If you were asked a question, consider: might this be a rhetorical question?
  3. If you weren't asked a non-rhetorical question, there is no need for you to explain.
Regarding the second item: it's not a bad idea to avoid rhetorical questions in writing.
Regarding the third item: this doesn't mean you can't have a conversation about the topic. But rather than trying to explain, you could ask a question and find out more about the other person's relationship to the topic. You could say why you too think the topic is interesting. There are many things you could do that don't involve making yourself seem like a mansplainer...

Monday, June 13, 2016

Book week: You could look it up

And so we come to the end of Book Week. There may well be other books that I'd been sent at some point or another, and if I find them, I may stick in a book post here or there. But I'm ending with a book that I cannot wait to read, but that I have to wait to read because of other work-related reading commitments. So, the main thing I'm going to do here is call attention to it and talk about why I want to read it, because it's probably more useful to the author and publisher if you know about it now rather than knowing about it later...

Free book 9: You could look it up by Jack Lynch

The subtitle of the book (or maybe its tagline) is The reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia. A history of reference books--swoon!

Order UK Order US
When I went to the States in April to do research for my 'Dictionary Cultures' project, I had just received this book, and though I was excited to read it, I had just started Rosemary Ostler's Founding Grammars (which I'd actually paid for). It was much less bulky than Lynch's book, so I stuck with Ostler (a good read if you're interested in the role of grammar books in American history), and left Lynch behind. Then I kept meeting people who said things like "Have you read Lynch's book yet?" and "You know Jack Lynch, right?", and I had to say "regretfully, no" to both. (Though I certainly knew of him. He's also written The Lexicographer's Dilemma. He's a clear and entertaining writer.)  The praise the book was getting from lexicographers I was meeting only made me more eager to read it. 

I'd gone to the US in April because that was the most convenient time for me to go family-wise, but it was not the most convenient time to go project-wise. So when I got back, I had to put dictionaries aside for a while (they're in chapter 9 of the book I'm working on, I haven't got past chapter 5 yet). And so Lynch's book is sitting there, waiting for me to get past the catch-up reading lists I have for intervening chapters.

I have allowed myself the prologue and the table of contents. Look at the chapter listing --it has half-chapters! I am charmed!

The structure is to look at 50 great reference works. Lynch admits this is a love letter, and possibly a eulogy, as printed reference books fall by the wayside. (Just yesterday I was admitting to not using mine.) The tone, at least as far as the prologue goes, is warm and personal. Now I want to read it now even more. 

So, have any of you read it?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book week: Collins dictionary & Punctuation

I missed a couple of my promised 'post a day for Book Week' posts because I was running a fantabulous event (if I do say so myself) called Doing Public Linguistics. The event was about linguists doing things like I do here with the blog--engaging non-academics in the work we do as academic linguists. One of the best bits of the day was when Geoff Pullum (speaking about his involvement in Language Log) gave us their motto for how to deal with media stories about language: "We can fact-check your ass". It's what I do, but I'm glad now to have a motto to go along with the doing.

Now back to books!

Free book 7: Collins English Dictionary, 12th edition

The beautiful cover
Order UK

One of my hobbies: looking up words that start with nid-
I'm grateful to the Collins people for sending me a copy of the latest edition of their beautiful dictionary. Collins is one of the dictionaries I regularly use for checking BrE facts. It's also now the basis for the  Official Scrabble Words used in the UK and most of the rest of the world, so I know its two- and three-letter words intimately.  (Scrabble is owned by a different company in North America, so it's been hard to standardi{s/z}e our ways of playing.)

It claims to be the most inclusive single-volume dictionary of English (any English? I'm not sure). One of the marketing points for this edition is that it includes more words without making the dictionary bigger. Looking at the pages, you see why. It is crammed with print. It's also, as they go, a fairly encyclop(a)edic dictionary--including a lot of proper names of places and people. (Don't try playing them in Scrabble.)

I think the binding is beautiful, but the truth of the matter is that despite their gift, I still mostly use the online version. Since I'm mostly on the computer when I need to use a dictionary, it just makes sense. I also haven't found that this paper dictionary is particularly easy to find one's letter-place in.

I will be using the print edition when I get a bit further into the research I'm doing on American and British Dictionary Cultures, and I look forward to doing so!

Free book 8: Punctuation..?

User Design sent me this book after asking if I might like to review their new book. I said 'okay', received the book. Three weeks later, they emailed me to see how the review was coming along--and that was part of what inspired me to do Book Week and try to salve my conscience about all these free books. But instead of reviewing theirs immediately, I wrote back with a question: why was I told this was a new book, when it was published in 2012 (as an improved second edition)? A week later, I still don't have an answer to that one. The other mystery is why the title of this book has been punctuated with a combination of marks that's not found in the book itself.

Order UK
The book introduces each of the punctuation marks with little cartoons that illustrate  examples of the marks' "correct" use. And when I say 'each of the punctuation marks', I mean above and beyond the usual expectation. They've got guillemets (the «  » you might see surrounding quotations in French texts), the interpunct · and the pilcrow ¶. Still, they don't have my fave, the swung dash:

I'm not 100% sure who the book is for. It claims to be age-non-specific, and suggests it be given as a gift. I suspect it would be best given to designers, as they need to know a bit about punctuation, including things like interpuncts and pilcrows, but they don't need to know a lot. A telling quotation is:
"An almost identical character to the forward slash is the fraction or division slash (/) but with more of an angle, it is used to make fractions" (p. 20)
Who but a typesetter would need to know the difference between a forward slash and a division slash? Where do I find a division slash on my keyboard? And, most importantly, why are these two sentences separated by a comma, rather than a full stop or a semi-colon?

It's definitely a pretty little book, but from this blog's point-of-view, it commits a major sin: it claims to give "the correct uses" of these marks, but never acknowledges that these are only the correct uses in certain places and in certain styles. You could say that the hints are very strong that this is about British punctuation, since it talks about full stops (not periods) and exclamation marks (not exclamation points). But I'd say that's not enough. Readers may be able to identify that the American names aren't there, but they won't (unless they're well versed in these things) necessarily know that what's been claimed as "correct" is only correct so far as some stylesheets in Britain are concerned. (General ignorance that there is a transatlantic difference was what allowed Eats, Shoots and Leaves to be a US best-seller.) Without qualification, the book tells us that you don't put a full stop after Mr or Dr or within an acronym like USA. The one place I noticed such a much-needed qualification was in the discussion of quotation marks, where there is a "In the UK," qualification. That's something, at least, but we're not told what happens elsewhere. (You might say: "that's ok because it's a book for British people". But then I'd ask: then why did we need to know the difference between French and German practice in the guillemet section?) At the back of the book, we are told that initial reference for the text content was the Oxford English Mini Dictionary, 5th edition. Oddly, the book neither uses nor mentions the Oxford comma.

So, if you know a British designer who needs a handy reference for the difference between en-dashes and em-dashes, this might be a cute little gift. But for people who need more practical information beyond what you learned in primary school (e.g. which lists of prenominal adjectives get commas and which don't? how many spaces after a full stop? should you ever capitali{s/z}e the first word after a colon?) and global outlook (e.g. how do Americans use quotation marks?), you probably need to look for something else.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Book week: One language, two grammars?

Book Week continues...

Free book 6: One language, two grammars? differences between British and American English

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A lot of the interesting work about British and American English these days is not coming from Britain or America, but from the home countries of other Germanic languages. This collection, edited by Günter Rohdenburg and Julia Schlüter is a case in point; German, Swiss, and Swedish universities are better represented in the table of contents than the US or UK. The 19 chapters cover a range of topics--many of which I've not got(ten) (a)round to posting about here, with a few exceptions (like this one). 

I won't try to go through all of the chapters here--you can read the table of contents at the publisher's (Cambridge University Press) site. The book tests the sociolinguistic aphorism that "accent divides, syntax unites" by taking a much closer look at the patterns of language use and grammatical change in these two major varieties of English and questioning whether there are more differences than first meet the eye. In summing up the findings, the editors note that generalizations about grammatical differences "remain confined to system-internal, intrinsic tendencies" (p. 5). The four generalizations they make are:
  • AmE has "greater tolerance and inclination" (p. 5) toward(s) the structures of colloquial speech, with California setting trends, while the east coast is more conservative. BrE is comparatively more formal (in writing--most of the work here is on written corpora. That they find these differences in writing is interesting because in general there's a pull toward similarity in writing, difference in spoken forms). 
  • AmE exhibits a pull towards(s) regularization of patterns in both morphology (e.g. how past tenses or plurals are made) but also in syntax--for example, using more comparatives (which can be applied to any adjective) where -er ones might be possible (in Britta Mondorf's chapter).
  • AmE tends more toward(s) explicitness. While the same things are grammatical in both varieties, AmE users often choose forms that put a lighter cognitive load on the hearer/reader or they add clarifying information, where BrE users tend to leave more implicit. (I have to say, I found the evidence for this a bit too mixed to be totally convinced by, but I often feel it true when reading British writing--things like leaving off that in relative clauses and lower use of commas seem to make the reading harder going, requiring more sentence restarts. But I can't know whether that's just me. A colleague and I once discussed doing an eye-tracking study on this, but then our eye-tracking contact moved away. Anyone want to eye-track with us?)
  • AmE "shows a more marked tendency to dispense with function words that are semantically redundant and grammatically omissible". This is kind of funny considering how many complaints I listen to about Americans having of in things like off of the sofa or how big of a catastrophe, not to mention the greater British tendency to leave off that in relative clauses (e.g. The sofa (that) I sat on). But the evidence here comes from lesser use of reflexive pronouns (e.g. acclimate/acclimati{s/z}e (oneself) to) and not using prepositions after certain verbs (e.g. protest), both of which are discussed in chapters by Rohdenburg.  
Another general theme of the book is discerning the evidence for colonial lag, the idea that language changes slower and older forms remain preserved in colonial-type offshoots of a language. There's not much evidence for that lag here--but it's also not the case that AmE is always the innovator.

This is a book for academics, really. If you're an editor wanting more insight on which prepositions to put with which verbs, you want Algeo's book in the same series.

This is another book that I've had for an embarrassingly long time (published 2009) before reviewing it. The main reason for this lag: my god, this book is heavy. They sent me the hardcover, and it is shockingly heavy for 461 pages. I tend to do book-review reading on plane or train journeys, and when there's a heavy book to do, I often photocopy a chapter at a time to take on the journeys, so I don't break my back. I couldn't stand to do that for this book because it saves its bibliography for the very end, rather than at each separately-authored chapter, and I hate reading chapters without bibliographies. The other little complaint that I have to Cambridge University Press (publisher of many fine books!) is the re-starting of section numbering in each chapter. Yes, this is really (BrE) anorak-ish/(orig. AmE) nerdy and minor, but if a book has lots of section 5s when I'm looking for section 5 of chapter 12, it would be so much easier if it were marked as section 12.5.

But never mind the physical flaws, it's a really interesting book!


A post-script: I've just discovered that I've double-reviewed one of this week's books! Re-inventing my own wheels. No wonder my to-do list doesn't get any shorter...

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Book week: English - meaning and culture

(For more about Book Week, see the first post of the week.)

Free book 5:  English: meaning and culture

I do believe that this was the first book I ever received as a blogger. Yes, it is 10 years old. Yes, I am only just writing about it. Yes, I am contrite.

What's kept me from writing about it is that I haven't read it cover to cover. This is very common with me and academic books. I get a sense of the argument, a sense of the contents and then I know where to go when I need more specifics on that kind of content. When I read books for review in academic journals, I do read cover-to-cover (except for reference books, for which I set up a sampling scheme). What's got(ten) Book Week going is that I've relieved myself of the duties of print book reviews. I am freeing myself to say things about books that I'm reasonably familiar with.

English: meaning and culture is by the mind-bogglingly productive Anna Wierzbicka, and like most of her books it uses elements of her particular approach to language, Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). I'm going to suggest right now that you let your eyes glaze over a bit at the NSM explications (unless you're a super linguist nerd). That to me is not the fun part.

The fun part is watching how Wierzbicka's (I'm just going to type W from now on, please excuse), mind works in shaping an argument--particularly in the wide range of linguistic and cultural evidence she brings to bear on the argument.

Essentially, she takes an opposite position to that of this blog. While I'm here saying "look at how different American and British language/culture are", W is saying "those differences are piddling; the important difference is between how Anglos [her term for English speakers of the "inner circle"] think and how other cultures think. She is, of course, more correct than I am. I'm looking at what's easy to look at--the more similar things are, the more easy it is to specify their differences. She's looking at a much bigger picture, and she (as a Polish immigrant to Australia) has a great outsider-insider vantage point. The book starts with a chapter that's really stayed with me: "Anglo cultural scripts seen through middle-eastern eyes". In it W examines the experience of Abraham Rihbany, a Syrian theologian who immigrated to the US, and discovered how becoming enculturated there affected his ways of perceiving his home culture. Though Rihbany was writing about these things in 1920, the observations are fundamental enough that they ring true today--about the valuing of accuracy in English speech. Accuracy trumps other possible values like positivity or effusiveness, which Rihbany found to be more important in his homeland.

The 'meaning and culture' of this book mostly has to do with how Anglo epistemology--what we count as knowledge and truth and how we use those things--pervades the language and vice versa. The rationalism of Anglo culture, essentially. The desire for accuracy. The need to say I think  or I suppose when we're not 100% sure of something, the belief that the world can be divided (by us) into right and wrong or correct and incorrect, the need to be "reasonable". She shows how many of these concepts don't map exactly to the "equivalents" that are offered in bilingual dictionaries.  These concepts are the kinds of thing that we take so much for granted in our culture that it takes a lot of pointing out--a lot of evidence--for us to get it through our English-thinking heads that this is not a natural way to be. This is a cultural way to be.

A more recent book of W's is called Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English As a Default Language, which gives the hint that she sees English lingua-francaism as a potential problem. This is the theme of the conclusion of English, and W looks at some case studies of problems for international English. For example, harking back to chapter 5, about the concept of "fairness", W questions whether fair-use copyright laws can be interpreted in the same way in different cultures. Non-"Anglo", i.e.  "outer circle" Englishes--things like Singaporean English or Nigerian English-- are a different matter. Their differences from Anglo English indicate to W that the language had to meet their home cultures part-way. But where English is used as a lingua franca, it's supposed by many to be "neutral", and W is having none of that.

There's just too much in this book to do it full justice here--so order it from your library and see what you think.

The book (like most of W's books) is published by Oxford University Press. Unfortunately, their website is not working well tonight, so I have not been able to link directly to a "buy" page. But I'm sure you're resourceful enough to find it...

Monday, June 06, 2016

Book week: Women talk more than men & Origins of the specious

Instal(l)ment 2 of me showing off the books people have sent me for (BrE informal) nuffink.  (For the introduction to Book Week, click here.)

Free book 3: 
Women talk more than men...and other myths about language explained

First today it's Cambridge University Press's Women talk more than men...and other myths about language explained (2016) by Abby Kaplan, whom they list as "assistant professor (lecturer) in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Utah". I checked her website to see which was her real title, and it's the same there too, and other people have it at Utah as well (but not all assistant profs do). Is this Utah's way of marking a teaching-only positions? Or are individuals there trying to translate their titles into British? (Why?) {E/i}nquiring minds want to know.

Order UK
Order US
Ok, that was a tangent about titles, but before I go on to say nice things about this book, I'm going to (BrE) have a go at its title, particularly the "myths about language explained". I don't need the myth just explained, I need it investigated or debunked. And the book actually does all those things, so I do wish the title said so.

Getting past my obsession with titles, this is a very nice textbook. It might also be a good read for people interested in language generally, but the textbook tone and structure might make it less of a beach book than some. Each chapter introduces the 'myth', looks at details and facts, and most provide one or more case studies. There are lots of tables and graphs and an appendix on statistics. The aim is that "the book will encourage you to think of linguistics as an empirical science, one that requires systematic and technical study" (p. 3). Since it doesn't really give the tools to engage in that kind of study oneself, it would best suit a "linguistics for non-majors" elective or a pre-major introductory module.  It might also work well in the UK for something like the English Language A-level (or maybe Psychology? I don't know enough about their curriculum to say). Though, I must say, it will probably work better in the US than in the UK. The stuff on English dialect is about US dialects, including (the grammaticality of) African-American Vernacular English and attitudes toward(s) a variety of US southern accents. (There is a case study related to British Sign Language, though.) It's all good stuff, but not necessarily stuff that UK students have a feel for (says the voice of experience). But though the English in it is mostly American, many other languages are explored in the case studies.

The book covers myths like "a dialect is a collection of mistakes" and "adults can't learn a new language" and "texting makes you illiterate". One it doesn't cover (that other myths books--like this one--do) is anything much about the history of the language and particularly the myths about the relationships between British and American Englishes (and other national Englishes). Which brings us to the next (orig. AmE) freebie...

Free book 4:
Origins of the specious: myths and misconceptions of the English language

This one is more suited to the beach--not written for students, but for people who like to read a bit about language. It's Patricia T. O'Conner (author of the grammar guide Woe is I) and (in smaller print) Stewart Kellerman, who also run the Grammarphobia blog. The authors' note tells us that two people wrote the book, but in one person's (Patricia's) voice. The book was published and sent to me in 2009, and I read the whole thing then, but I'm not going to read the whole thing once more in order to refresh my memory. But I did enjoy it.

Because it's about the English language, rather than Language (some linguists like me use the big L for Language as a phenomenon), the myths covered are more social and historical than the more psychological ones (about chimpanzees and language learning) that Kaplan covers. So, we've got grammar prescriptions, etymology, dirty words, neologisms and so forth. That is to say, the book is rich in things that readers of this blog will enjoy--or that they might already know from reading language blogs. But surely, you'll enjoy reading it again, in a book with a fantastic title?

As far as I can tell, this was released in the US only, and the title of the first chapter might offer a clue as to why: "Stiff Upper Lips: Why can't the British be more like us?"  At the moment Powell's (US) has both the hard and soft covers.

Book week: Word Drops; But can I start...

A nice thing about having a popular blog is that people send you free stuff. In my case, stuff means 'books'. Some have been sent with no warning (and gratefully received), some come with a query "would you like to receive this and maybe write about it?" and I say "yes, I'd be happy to receive it". (Notice the careful lack of promises on my part.)  I now have a stack of such books that I've been intending to say something about here--some of which I've not had time to read yet, some of which I may never read cover-to-cover.

I had been thinking: I'll just do a really big book post about all of them and get that off my plate. But that's a big job, and so it got put off. My new solution is: I'm going to write about one or two books each day for a week. And I'm not going to say too much about them, because I have a book to write myself. If you know these books, please do add your thoughts on them in the comments!

Where possible, I'll link to US and UK places to buy them (see the captions under the cover photos). Click through and you might figure out that I have opinions about where (not) to buy books. If you are lucky enough to live near an actual independent (more BrE) bookshop/(AmE) bookstore, the bestest thing to do is to order your books there, so that there will continue to be an actual independent bookshop near you.

On with the show! Let's start with the two that are closest (more BrE) to/(more AmE) at hand (because I am preternaturally* lazy).

Free book 1: Word Drops

Paul Anthony Jones tweets (and Facebooks and blogs) as @HaggardHawks ("so-called, I should point out, as haggard was originally a falconer's term describing a wild hawk", p. viii--I'm not sure that explanation explained it completely for me). And if you follow him, you'll know he loves odd facts about words--and odd words. His book, Word drops: a sprinkling of linguistic curiosities, consists of some of his collection. 
UK edition (hard cover): Buy here
The much prettier US edition (trade paper): Buy here

This is a perfect book to leave around the house in a place where you might have a few minutes now and then. Some might suggest a certain small room, but we're all too genteel for that, I'm sure. Put it in the kitchen to read while waiting for the kettle to boil. Or by the phone for reading while you're on hold.

What I really like about it (besides all the fun facts) is the stream-of-consciousness organi{s/z}ation, illustrated in this poorly photographed random page where the definition of ombralgia leads to the etymology of nostalgia, which leads to a word for intense longing for something missing from Portuguese, which leads to the Portuguese etymology of dodo, which leads to a Hawaiian bird, which leads to a fact about Hawaiian phonetics.

Pub quiz masters need this book. And people who want to learn things while waiting for the next available customer service representative. It's a lot of fun--and so are his social media outlets.

Free book 2: But can I start a sentence with "but"?

Hardcover; Order from US
This one was sent to me in thanks for doing an interview for the Chicago Manual of Style's Q&A online newsletter. The subtitle sums it up: "advice from the Chicago Style Q&A".  For those who don't know, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) is one of the most important style guides in American publishing. It's where I turned when writing my PhD (AmE) dissertation/(BrE) thesis and needed to know whether to alphabeti{s/z}e Ferdinand de Saussure under D or S. (The answer is D, but van names don't go under V. It's a cruel and complicated world.)

The book is a set of questions and answers from editors and authors to the Chicago Manual staff, organi{s/z}ed vaguely by theme. Since the questions relate to whatever some person needed on some particular editing job (e.g. "How does one cite a food label?"), it is not going to serve as anyone's go-to style guide itself. But it may be a nice book for the small room of an editor in your life. Make that an American editor in your life--since, for instance, the punctuation recommendations are particularly American.

The answers are written with good sense and good humo(u)r and references to the appropriate section of CMoS. For instance, I've learned that it's only acceptable to combine the punctuation marks ?! in formal writing "only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing" (p. 106).

Well, that first instal(l)ment took longer than expected. Tomorrow, probably one book.

* Checked this word before using it, and I loved the quotation by Douglas Allchin at the preternatural Wikipedia page: "suspended between the mundane and the miraculous". Yes, that's exactly where my laziness is.