Wednesday, 15 February 2017

politics and the English language

Because George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language has influenced so many usage writers (including Strunk and White), I think it's important to point out its problems. It's supposed to be a call for clarity of expression, but in fact it's not much more than a list of words and phrases Orwell doesn't like. He laments that English is in decline, but he provides no evidence that language in the past was any better. And he unquestioningly promotes a strong linguistic relativity: using these words will anaesthetize our brains.

I'm not the only person who doesn't like it. Geoffrey Pullum calls this essay "a smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational".

Orwell begins by discussing some of the characteristics of modern English prose, and how awful they are.

Dying metaphors. There are a number of metaphors that are "merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves." As if we should never use a metaphor that we have heard before! Furthermore
Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
This is the etymological fallacy. I don't need to know the origin or even spelling of "toe the line" in order to know what it means. I'm not familiar with the expression "the hammer and the anvil", but I think it's likely that most people who use it are unfamiliar with the physical properties of actual hammers and anvils, and there's no reason why they should be.

Operators or verbal false limbs. He says that using two-word verbs (as opposed to "simple verbs") saves the witer the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns. Shouldn't appropriateness be detemined by your audience and the meaning you want to convey? Isn't a word's meaning so much more important than its length?

He complains about nominalization, the -ize suffix, and not un-. He doesn't explain what is wrong with any of these, other than saying not un- gives banal statements an appearance of profundity. That's fair, but this can't be the only period in history when writers have tried to sound deep. He writes (using the passive voice) "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active", implying that there is something terrible about the passive voice, when there isn't.

Pretentious diction. He has something against foreign phrases, which I can understand, but he goes much further: he dislikes not just foreign phrases like, presumably, je ne sais quoi, but English words borrowed from Latin or Greek!
... the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
How does creating new words lead to an increase in slovenliness and vagueness? And he implies that a word like impermissible is somehow not English, even though it has been an English word since at least 1858.

Meaningless words. I don't understand what he means here. I think he just doesn't like art criticism:
When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.
Both "black/white" and "dead/living" are metaphors. Why is one proper and the other meaningless?

As we would expect, a lot of words on his blacklist are unobjectionable now. Who complains about extramarital, impermissible, make contact with, objective, or predict nowadays? Here we are, 71 years later, using language that Orwell said would turn us into machines.

More importantly he doesn't show us that bad writing was not common in the past as well. He starts this essay with the claim that "the English language is in a bad way", and if he wants to convince us of that, he should provide evidence that English is worse now than it used to be.

He spends the rest of the essay pushing his extreme linguistic relativity: that the specific words you use directly and intimately determine your thought, and vice versa. Here's my favourite bit:
When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.
He makes more incredible claims, for instance "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts", "A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine", and
This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.
Why is it only now that language has declined so much that we are in danger of becoming foolish robots? Why didn't it happen thousands of years ago?

There is no evidence that language controls thought in this way. There is evidence that "language nudges thought (in certain circumstances)." Mark Liberman writes about Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky, "English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently", CogSci 2008:
Even modest statistical differences in the way that different language communities tend to express things may correlate with modest differences in the way that their members remember things, if the experimental circumstances are carefully calibrated to produce memory performance in a range that allows these effects to be measured.
But there is no evidence for the idea that using "pretentious words", or the -ize suffix, or the passive voice, etc. determines your thought.

In 2010, The Economist hosted a debate between Boroditsky and Liberman with the subject "Does language shape thought?" It is no longer available, but I saved Liberman's closing remarks, where he notes that in the experiments that show language affecting thought, the effects can be easily eliminated. He refers to the Fausey and Boroditsky 2008 study I mentioned above:
For evidence of this relative weakness [of the linguistic relativity hypothesis], we need look no further than some of Lera Boroditsky's excellent recent research. Her work with Caitlin Fausey5 suggests that English speakers are somewhat more likely than Spanish speakers to specify an agent in describing accidental events ("She broke the vase" versus "The vase broke"), and also somewhat more likely to remember who the agent was. These effects, though statistically significant, were quite small, in absolute terms as well as in comparison to the within-group variation. Thus students at the Universidad de Chile were on average 4.4% worse at remembering accidental agents than intentional ones, while Stanford students were on average 1.9% better.6 Even to get this much of an effect, the event videos had to be carefully crafted to make the incidents and agents as bland and unmemorable as possible. Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, the authors found that you can turn English speakers into Spanish speakers-for the purposes of this paradigm-by having them listen to 24 non-agentive sentences before the start of the experiment.

Here a lifetime of linguistic and cultural influence is overwhelmed by a minute or two of passive listening! Similarly, linguistic effects on measures of individualism are twice as small as the effects of two minutes of silent thought about your similarities or differences to others;7 and linguistic effects on orientation experiments are roughly as strong as the effects of room decor.8

5 Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky, "English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently", proceedings of the 30th annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 2008

6 Mark Liberman, "Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?", Language Log 8/30/2010

7 Mark Liberman, "How to turn Americans into Asians (or vice versa)", Language Log 8/15/2008

8 Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman, "Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning", Cognition, 83(3): 265-294, 2002.
Back to Orwell. His belief that language controls thought made its way into 1984, where we are expected to believe that a constructed language (Newspeak) can somehow control how we think because it has replaced bad with ungood. If Newspeak became a native language, it would last less than one generation. I mean that it would change, the way a simplified pidgin turns into a full language, as its speakers created new terms to express all the concepts it was designed to hide.

The essay ends with a list of 6 bizarre rules.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
As Geoffrey Pullum says, this is impossible: "No one writes without using at least some phrases that are encountered moderately frequently (that's why they are moderately frequent)." Figure of speech itself is a figure of speech.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Why are shorter words better? Why does Orwell use slovenliness when he could have used the shorter word laziness? As David Beaver says, why do we need a rule based on the length of a word rather than its meaning?
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Why are less words better? Why does he not use "omit" for "cut out"?
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This is bad advice. And again, no reasoning is given. Nowhere in this essay does he explain why passives are bad, why less words are better, and why shorter words are better.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (page 720) notes that Orwell uses 20% passive clauses in this essay, which is higher than the average from periodicals (13%). Why does he use so many passive clauses if they are so terrible?
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
That depends on the audience. Jargon and scientific words serve useful purposes: they let specialists talk efficiently about their subjects.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This is a get out of jail free card. Since "barbarous" is a matter of opinion, I could break these rules all the time, and justify it by saying "otherwise I would have to write something barbarous".

I've been told that I'm not seeing the bigger picture, that I'm too focused on the details. I'm only doing what Orwell himself is doing. He spends most of this essay complaining about specific usages. Language and thought are intimately linked, he says, and use language a specific way and you will fix the thought. If he wanted to focus on the bigger picture, why doesn't he simply say "politicians lie"?

I’ve also been told that yes, he is linguistically naive, but who cares? - his advice is still valid. This baffles me. How do we know his advice is valid when he can offer no support for it, doesn't follow it himself, and is so confused about the consequences of not following it?

I don't blame Orwell for being linguistically naive. I blame people for treating this essay like it still has something useful to tell us, when they should know better.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

the big deal with the passive voice

David Kudler's article What's the big deal with the passive voice? is a good example, perhaps the best example, of misunderstanding the passive voice.
An author I work with recently asked me, “What’s the big deal with the passive voice?”

My first instinct was to answer, “Well, would that question have made as much sense as ‘The big deal with the passive voice is about what?’”
Does he actually think that The big deal with the passive voice is about what is passive? If not, what is he talking about?

As his example active sentence, he gives Dick runs. And his passive example sentence is The running is done by Dick. He could not have given a worse example. The running is done by Dick is not a passive version of Dick runs because Dick runs is intransitive and has no passive equivalent.

And then his reasons for avoiding the passive: it's longer, weaker, and unclear.
My students would write things like The suspect was apprehended by this officer instead of I arrested her or The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle instead of I followed the stolen Ford Taurus in my police car. Honest to goodness — they really did write this stuff. If you were a jury or a supervisor, which would you find clearer and more effective?
What exactly is unclear or weak about The suspect was apprehended by this officer? Kudler doesn't bother to explain.

[I just realized that this officer refers to the author of the sentence, which makes this sentence another terrible example, because it violates the discourse constraint mentioned below.]
The other problem with passive constructions is that they bury the actor, which makes the sentence weaker and more obscure. To stoop to the example that I used in the 1980s with those cops, would you rather watch Debbie Does Dallas or Dallas Was Done by Debbie?
*Dallas Was Done by Debbie is also a horrible example, because it is ungrammatical. I wasn't sure how to explain why it was ungrammatical, so I asked the noted expert on the English passive voice, Geoffrey Pullum. (I could have looked in my copy of Pullum and Huddleston's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, which makes similar points to those that Pullum made to me, but I somehow forgot I had it. I blame the bourbon barrel aged stout.)

The main reason is lexical: do in the sense of "visit" is never passivized. It's like "have" in the sense of ownership.

1a. The madman has a box.
1b. *A box is had by the madman.

2a. The Doctor and Romana did Paris in the spring.
2b. *Paris in the spring was done by the Doctor and Romana.

A second reason is that we tend to put "older or more definite or more established or more empathy-attracting material" in the subject position, and we put "discourse-new information about goals or affected entities or places" in the internal complement. Debbie is in subject position in Debbie does Dallas because Debbie is a human being and is the focus of the movie, while Dallas is a place. So *Dallas Was Done by Debbie sounds weird because it reverses this trend. Are there any real English movie titles that do this?

Kudler's other example The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle is unacceptable because it violates the most important discource constraint on passives. A Student's Introduction to English Grammar gives the generalisation "It is not possible for a subject to be new while the internalised complement is old." In Kudler's example, the internalised complement me is automatically old because it refers to the speaker of the utterance. Kudler seems to be choosing bad examples to prejudice the reader into thinking that any use of the passive is bad.

He ends with an old favourite.
This last trick is a great favorite of corporate, military, and governmental folks everywhere. They turn to it in press releases and at press conferences whenever something has gone pear-shaped, solemnly murmuring, Mistakes were made. This much-abused passive sentence makes it clear that whatever it is that happened was bad, sure, but it also completely avoids taking or assigning any responsibility.

So that’s the big deal about the passive voice: it obscures the relationship of the actor to the act. Unless that’s what you want to do, avoid it!
Alright, so the non-passive sentence mistakes happened is much better because it assigns responsibility and doesn't obscure the relationship of the actor to the act, right?

I recommend that Kudler check out Pullum's essay, Fear and Loathing of the English Passive for a description of what the passive is and what it isn't.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

pygmy and fuck

Proto-Indo-European *peuǵ- "to prick" became Greek πύξ puks "with the fist" and πυγμή pugmē "fist". Greek Πυγμαῖοι Pugmaioi (borrowed into Latin as Pygmaeī) referred to a legendary race of dwarfs.

The Latin reflex is pugnus "fist" as in pugnacious.

How a word meaning "fist" came to be associated with dwarfs, I'm not sure. Maybe because πυγμή was in Hellenistic Greek a measure of length from the elbow to the knuckles, and this was thought to be the height of the dwarfs.

The etymology of fuck is uncertain, but the OED Online says it is "perhaps" from "an Indo-European root meaning 'to strike'", which would be *peuǵ-.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


A Series of Unfortunate Events is a good TV show, but I pity Patrick Warburton, who has to serve as decoy for Lemony Snicket so Snicket can remain hidden.

Anyway, I could have done without the digression on literally in episode 2.
Klaus: You're going to marry Violet figuratively and you're going to marry her literally.

Olaf: Literally? That's outrageous. Wait... Literally? Literally...

Klaus: You don't know the difference between figuratively and literally, do you?

Lemony: It's very useful whether one is young or in late middle age to know the difference between literally and figuratively. Literally is a word which here means that something is actually happening. Whereas figuratively is a word which means it just feels like it's happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, that means you are leaping through the air because you are very happy.

Actor: I'm leaping in the air because I'm very happy.

Lemony: If you are figuratively jumping for joy it means that you are so happy you could jump for joy but you are saving your energy for other matters.
Actor: I'm so happy I could jump for joy but I'm saving my energy for other matters.

Klaus: So literally would be an actual marriage whereas figuratively would be marrying her for the purposes of theatrical entertainment.

Olaf: I knew that, I was testing you.
Olaf: Here I am, literally standing at the edge of a pond.

Gustav: He's not literally standing at the edge of a pond, he's figuratively standing at the edge of a pond.

White-face woman: By the gardens of Worthington, if I can't have him, my heart will literally break.

Jacquelin: Figuratively. My heart will figuratively break.
Taken literally, this is just wrong. Of course literally is used as a figurative intensifier and has been used this way for a while by good writers who presumably knew what they were doing.
"Lift him out," said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit. - Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby 
He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room - Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 
And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell - Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading
Why should I not say my heart will literally break when no one cares when I say my heart will really break or my heart will truly break? Really, truly (and even very) have undergone a shift from meaning "for real" to being used as figurative intensifiers, but no one cares about them.

Why is literally the only word in English we are not supposed to use figuratively?

As Jesse Sheidlower says, the literal meaning of literally is "by the letter" as in he copied the text literally. Every time we use literally to mean "not figuratively", we're using it figuratively.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

यात्रा एजेंसी बम्बई

I saw this tag on a someone's backpack at an airport, and it means I shouldn’t complain any more about unconjoined letters or unattached diacritics.

It's Hindi or Marathi यात्रा एजेंसी बम्बई yātrā ejeṃsī bamba'ī "travel agency Bombay", and the त and र and not conjoined, and the second vowel diacritic of एजेंसी is unconnected. If they do it in India then I guess it's ok with me.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Hawaiian wave words

From the movie North Shore:
You probably heard that the Eskimos have several hundred words for snow, right? Well the Hawaiians have just as many words to describe waves and ocean conditions… Pretty soon it's going to be kai maloʻo, low tide, when the reef gets exposed.
I know nothing about Hawaiian, but I did a little looking in this Hawaiian-English dictionary. kai maloʻo means "n. Low tide, as when much of the reef is exposed. Lit., dry sea". kai is "sea", maloʻo is "dry". If kai maloʻo is one word, why can't low tide be one word as well?

The dictionary has 24 terms for "tide" altogether. There are two terms for "tide", four terms for "low tide" (altho three of them seem to be variants of kai maloʻo), four terms for "mid tide", six terms for "rising tide", three terms for "high tide", and five terms for "turn of the tide".

I did a search for the six terms for "rising tide". kai apo is "n. Rising or high tide. Lit., encircling sea", kai ea is "n. Rising tide; sea washing higher on land than usual. Lit., rising sea", kai piʻi is "High or rising tide, high waves", kai kī is "n. Tide beginning to flow in. Lit., shooting sea", and kai nuʻu mai is "incoming tide". The last term, ʻae, is a verb meaning "to rise, of the tide".

Almost of these items for "tide" are compounds or phrases containing the item kai "sea".

By the way, there's an exotic language called English that has a lot of ways of talking about waves and snow.

Also by the way, because I still talk to people who believe that Eskimo languages have 50, or 100, or whatever words for snow: they don't.