It’s often observed that “no” means “no,” but less noticed that so do “naw” and “nah.” Although in writing, the negative interjection is almost always spelled no, in speech a number of vowels can follow the n and still make for a correctly-formed negation. Continue reading
Archive for Linguistics
In life, we are constantly surrounded by signs urging us to do or not to do things. In English, they are usually in the imperative mood: Stop, Take one, Cut along dotted line. In the case of interdictions, they might use the gerund: No smoking. In specific cases there may be other syntaxes, but in general these two, the imperative and the gerund, form what might be called the “public imperative” in English.
Not so in French. Continue reading
In German every noun gets capitalized. Should we be doing that in English too? Continue reading
In many contexts in life there are clear rules that govern speaking. In a classroom, you raise your hand if you have something to say. On the witness stand, you answer questions clearly and concisely. Behind a podium, you deliver a complete address with a beginning, middle, and end. Someone with no understanding of these rules would be unable to participate adequately in these aspects of social life; they would jam up the gears of the speech-production machines that are the school, the courtroom, and the auditorium.
But casual conversation is also a sort of machine, and by the time we reach adolescence we are so adept at the rules governing its operation that we don’t even realize we’re following rules. These rules are why we aren’t constantly talking over one another, for example, and why our conversations don’t just fall apart after a misunderstanding. Continue reading
In our daily speech we encode and decipher subtle shades of meaning in all sorts of ways. Often this means making use of nouns, verbs, adjectives, cadence, pitch, and so on. But today I think I found an example of meaning encoded in an unlikely unit: the article, which in English is usually marked only for definiteness. Continue reading
About a year ago, I wrote a post titled “The Politeness Spectrum of Parts of Speech” in which I argued that, in modern English, some parts of speech have more polite or offensive connotations than some other parts of speech. In particular, bare nouns (e.g. “blacks”) seem to be ruder than adjectives (“black people”), which seem to be ruder than prepositional phrases (“people of color”). I’ve thought a bit more about this progression, and I think I now understand better why nouns are at the rude end of the spectrum. Continue reading
English is the language of the modern world for historical rather than linguistic reasons: it’s widely spoken less because it’s easy to learn than because of the political and economic importance of English-speaking countries over the past century or two. Nevertheless, there is a certain affinity between our language and our era. In this post I will explore one characteristic of English that matches up well with modern ideology: the lack of a formal/informal pronoun distinction. Continue reading