Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Linguistic Movements: Fun With Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Profiling

This selection is condensed here and meant to be part of my lengthier blog entry

Fun With Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Profiling

  • There was once a staunch abandon of contractions in what was considered proper speech. Contractions were looked down upon as common. They were viewed as the product of lazy, uneducated tongues. It took an overpowering, linguistic, grass roots movement to see to it that most modern American English is now contracted beyond what can be represented on paper, huge portions of which are today considered proper English.

  • Punctuation and text formatting are also parts of language. More recently there was strong opposition to alternatively formatted business language when put to paper. There was one accepted format and all others were deemed inappropriate. It took a movement spurred on by email and the fact that differing email servers handled simple paragraph indents adversely to change this language component. Today, it is okay to send a business to business email without paragraph indents, in many places preferred, so that digital text isn’t interpreted by local machines to belong in all sorts of weird places on the digital page, thereby appearing unprofessional. The change sparked much creativity and many new formats.

  • Differing pronunciations of the same words in the same language across the various, fantastic dialects of our free nation all resulted from unseen linguistic movements as language evolved.

  • The “Me” Generation more greatly intensified language that centered on the self, in explanation and in literature.

  • Einstein inadvertently brought focus to parts of speech that were based in mathematical notions.

  • Edgar Allan Poe made up words when he didn’t have one express that which he wished to describe, words that are now in every American English dictionary worldwide.

  • Lexicographers find themselves constantly revamping their approaches to proper definitions as science continually serves up new proofs and new discoveries.

  • Even efforts like the completely fictional Klingon Dictionary stem from fantasy origins that create linguistic movements, in this case movements so overwhelming that Oxford’s English Dictionary added terms like “Klingon” and “warp drive” to their volumes during the early part of the 21st Century.

  • To add, Leet or LeetSpeak is an entire subculture of tech based slang that constitutes an enormous linguistic movement of its own, which in turn impacts other linguistic movements and language. You can read more about "l33t" here and here.

  • When looked at from a number of points of view, there is a linguistic movement that seems to state, "If you film an American movie about anything that took place in a language other than English, forcing the actors to use all upper class British accents will lend credibility to the piece." Sure, we English speaking Americans realize that our mother tongue and the pronunciations within it are not the fountainhead of the English form. We are far from the originators of most English words and we look up to even standard British as a form superior to our own in classy usage. However, this does not necessarily mean that a tale from ancient Greece, a ditty about Julius Caesar, and a character study about Gingus Khan must include British accents of any kind. Somehow we grapple onto the idea that anything older than America's Old West is somehow more believable if done in English with a British accent. Yes, Americans generally hate reading subtitles. Yes, some stories actually take place around Brits. Still, American cinema's use of British English to represent any older form of any language highly (and wrongly) expands our existing perception of British enunciation as more chic. Before, such pronunciations were pure, coming from Brits and British actors. Now, most come from American actors attempting and frequently failing to master British pronunciation thereby spurring the populous on to think of these lesser and mistaken sounds as the haut speech. Our minds lend the British speech patterns greater importance in that we are inundated with them through film, while our ears poorly refabricate these patterns into something we turn around and call classy when it is not. Just look at the five year stint that Madonna tried to speak with a sudden British accent in order to make up for her own, stupidity laced, guttural pronunciations. Then, an entire half-step generation of fans began doing the same because it was so neat. Thousands of poor examples of "new" pronunciation and slang got folded into our existing lexicon, just from that one move on Madonna's part.

  • What seems like over usage of the word LIKE in today's vernacular drives me personally crazy. However, even I have to acknowledge that it is simply a neutral, linguistic change that language vamps around whilst redefining its structure. Everything below is quoted from an article by Patricia T. O'Conner in The New York Times Magazine showing that lexicographers agree.

On Language


Published: July 15, 2007

Like is a friendly word. As a verb, it gives off affectionate vibes. In other parts of speech, it’s a mensch as well, emphasizing what things have in common, not what separates them. But there’s another like in the air, a gossipy usage that has grammar purists — and many parents of teenagers — climbing the walls.
This upstart like is the new say, and users (or abusers, depending on which side you take) find it a handy tool for quoting or paraphrasing the speech of others, often with sarcasm or irony. Linguists call it the “quotative like,” but any 16-year-old can show you how it works.
For example, like can introduce an actual quotation (“She’s like, ‘What unusual shoes you’re wearing!’ ”) or paraphrase one (“She’s like, my shoes are weird!”).
Or it can summarize the inner thoughts of either the quoter or the quotee (“She’s like, yeah, as if I’d be caught dead in them! And I’m like, I care what you think?”).
Like even lets a speaker imitate the behavior of the person being quoted (“She’s like . . . ” and the speaker smirks and rolls her eyes).
This like is not to be confused with the one that sticklers see as a meaningless verbal tic (“The band was, like, outrageous!”). Linguists would argue, however, that even that one has its uses — to emphasize something (“I was, like, exhausted!”) or to hedge a statement (“We had, like, six hours of homework!”).
But back to the like that’s used as a marker to introduce quotes (real or approximate) as well as thoughts, attitudes and even gestures. Parents may gnash their teeth, but language scholars like like.
“It’s a shame this poor little usage gets such a bum rap,” says Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain, an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and one of several people interviewed by e-mail for this column. Dailey-O’Cain, who has published an often-cited study on the use of like, says, “It’s innovative, it serves a particular function and it does specific things that you can’t duplicate with other quotatives.”
The other quoting words commonly used in speech are say, of course, along with go (“He goes, ‘Give me your wallet’ ”) and all (“I’m all, ‘Sure, dude, it’s yours’ ”). But like definitely has legs. In just a generation or so it has spread throughout much of the English-speaking world.
O.K., the new like is hot and it’s useful, but is it legit? Aren’t some rules of grammar or usage being broken here?
Linguists and lexicographers say no. It’s natural, they say, for words to take on new roles. In this case, a “content word” (one that means something) has become a “function word” (one that has a grammatical function but little actual meaning). Academics call the process “grammaticalization.” It’s one of the ways language changes.
So is the new like proper English? Well, the latest editions of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now include it as a usage heard in informal speech. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but it’s not a condemnation either.
As for me, I’m convinced that this is a useful, even ingenious, addition to informal spoken English. But let’s be honest. For now, at least, it smacks of incorrectness to a great many people. In writing my grammar book for kids, I wrestled with this problem. In the end, I suggested that the usage is O.K. in informal conversation but not for situations requiring your best English.
Contrary to popular opinion, like is not exclusively a kid thing. Grown-ups use it too, men and women about equally, according to Dailey-O’Cain.
“Part of what inspired my study was the fact that my mother (who was in her 50s at the time) used to complain about other people using like,” she says. “But once I started pointing it out to her every single time she used it herself, she stopped making those kinds of criticisms!”
The linguist Geoffrey Pullum, an author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, finds the usage “quite logical and reasonable.” And he agrees that it’s not confined to youngsters. “My former student Jessica Maki caught her 65-year-old aunt, who grew up in North Carolina, saying, ‘I’m like, don’t answer the telephone!’ ”
Yet part of the resistance to like may be due to its youthful rep. “People see it as associated with teenagers,” says Arnold Zwicky, a visiting professor of linguistics at Stanford. “In general, variants associated with young people tend to be disdained.”
Another unfounded assumption about like is that it’s used by the less educated among us. “A lot of people are going to say that the variant just ‘sounds uneducated,’ and no amount of factual evidence is likely to counter this judgment,” Zwicky says. “Here we have another factor contributing to people’s disdain for quotative like, especially in their own children: nobody wants their kids to sound uneducated.”
I’ve always believed that young people are capable of knowing when to use formal versus informal, written versus spoken English. Zwicky’s experience with like-mindedness seems to bear this out. “It’s a specifically spoken form,” he says. “I don’t see it in writing, even from my students who are heavy users of it in speech, except when they’re producing writing that they intend to sound like speech.”
A word to parents: Loosen up. You may be using like this way yourselves without even realizing it. I have a confession to make. My husband caught me in the act only the other day. He was like, “Did you hear what you just said?”

Patricia T. O’Conner’s most recent book is “Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.” She is working on a book about language myths and misconceptions. William Safire is on vacation.

RETURN TO: Fun With Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Profiling

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