Category Archives: Language

The discomfort of pregnant pauses … … … … … … in different languages

Wikimedia Commons

Glosso apologizes for the slightly longer-than-normal pause that followed the last post. …

It wasn’t deliberate. …

But it was slightly awkward …

How long do you think a pause in conversation has to be before it becomes uncomfortable? Two seconds? Four seconds? Eight? Continue reading

Forensic linguists play part in 20-year-old murder case

29043308 - magnifying glass on an old handwritten letter

Magnifying glass on an old handwritten letter / 123RF

What exactly is — or are — “forensic linguistics”? It’s the application of linguistic knowledge, methods and insights to the forensic context of law, language, crime investigation, trial, and judicial procedure. Here’s an example of it.

Retired FBI agent James Fitzgerald is one of the U.S.’s most prominent forensic linguists: as well as advising on some of TV’s popular fictional crime and forensics shows, he was on the investigative teams of two high-profile criminal cases of the last couple of decades: the Unabomber, and the murder of JonBenét Ramsey in 1996. The Ramsey case was recently back in the news, with a new TV documentary detailing a new, independent investigation of that 20-year-old crime. As part of the new investigative team, Fitzgerald returned to the scene of the crime to analyze in detail the notorious ransom note that became such a mysterious and vital part of the unsolved homicide. He talked to Yahoo TV about the significance of that 370-word document, and the various things it revealed about the person who wrote it. Here are a couple of excerpts from that interview: Continue reading

In the news … (Friday, Sep 16)

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) via Wikimedia Commons

In usage and grammar news this past month: how and why we curse (or swear, if you’re a profane Brit); a new app for grammar snobs; a celebrity scolds Siri for mispronouncing her name; names that parents regret giving their babies; the true nature of the word gypsy; and a grammar rule that we all use without knowing it. Continue reading

Gung ho — and other Chinese imports

tea

“Some golfers hardly gung-ho about chance to win Olympic gold,” read a recent headline in the Chicago Tribune. It’s a common enough expression — gung ho — in both American and British English, meaning “unthinkingly enthusiastic and eager, especially about taking part in fighting or warfare” (OED). But it recently occurred to me that being a phrase of Chinese origin, gung ho is fairly unusual in its etymology: I can’t think of many other words or phrases that English has borrowed from that language. So I did some digging … Continue reading

Demanning our language

dictionary

The National Association for Equality in the Workplace (NAEW) has announced an ambitious and somewhat controversial initiative — in cooperation with the US English Teachers Coalition — to remove “hot button” gender phonemes from standard American English over the next five years, ensuring that our vocabulary no longer contains gender-suggestive syllables or spellings. The NAEW launched the campaign today, explaining its 62-month goal to “de-gender” our lexicon by July 2020 — allocating five months per letter of the alphabet to phase out gender-suggestive words, with an extra couple of months built in to address the large percentage of male-dominant “m” words. Continue reading

In the news … (Feb 27)

shrimpsandwich

TGIF. Language and usage in the news this month: confessions of a comma queen; the possible death of “uh”; a town torn apart by an apostrophe; the mid-Atlantic language mash-up; some non-translatable idioms; what your pronunciation says about you; and a critique of Wikipedia’s grammar vigilante. Continue reading

Slang: the most esoteric and quintessentially human form of language?

fagin

Why do we talk slang? Is it like an inside joke, which makes us feel more connected with others in the know? Is it useful for covert communication, to hide wrong or bad stuff from prying ears? Are slang words and expressions the equivalent of linguistic toys, injecting some fun and humor into our normally drab verbal discourse? Can it fulfill a need for verbal economy, providing one word or phrase to capture a paragraph’s worth of meaning and suggestion?  Can slang be a proverbial ice-breaker, offering a sense of informality or even affection to an otherwise frosty exchange?

The answer is yes: any one of these factors can come into play when slang is on the linguistic menu, and some of these factors are at the heart of a particular slang’s very existence. Slang in its many forms can represent the most nuanced, potentially ambiguous, socially delicate and subtle of human utterances, depending as much as it does on the social context and culture in which it lives and thrives.

A fascinating article in The Guardian last year asked the question: Is slang the last frontier for artificial intelligence? Continue reading