The linguistic relativity of up and down

In this article, I am going to give a nice and simple example of how learning a new language causes you to start perceiving the world differently. By doing so I will provide support for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (in its weak form), which is a hypothesis that claims that the language you speak predetermines, to some extent, how you think. I will demonstrate this on my favourite toy language, Irish. Continue reading

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Three plus one things to know about grammar

I don’t always reblog stuff from elsewhere, but when I do, it’s for a good reason. This article from Language Log (‘Reference to humans with this and that’ by Geoffrey K. Pullum) deserves to be reblogged because it neatly illustrates three interrelated points about grammar which, in my opinion, every self-respecting linguist should either agree with or be able to argue coherently against. Continue reading

Did Mark Zuckerberg really “invent” Facebook?

So Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, has been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. That is great and certainly not undeserved, but there is one thing in the media coverage that I just can’t resist commenting on. A lot of people say and write that Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. I do not think that that is true. Continue reading

Why we need more linguistics in schools

The art of advertising is, at least to some extent, the art of deception, and language is the tool of that deception. Let me illustrate that with this label I found on the back of a cider bottle I bought recently. It says:

The traditional type of cider press was called a rack & cloth press. This was used to crush the pomace and extract the apple juices. These cider juices were then left to ferment in their own wild yeast.

An ordinary Joe Public will probably think ‘ah that’s nice’ and enjoy his cider in the knowledge that what he’s drinking has been made in the good old traditional way. A linguist, however, will ask: why is this worded in the past tense? Surely, if they did actually make the cider in this way, they would have worded it in the present tense? So what, then, is the purpose of the past tense here? Continue reading

“Call me if you will change your mind”

This is a sentence I overheard in the shop this morning, spoken with what vaguely seemed like an Eastern-European accent. It sounds weird because it is ungrammatical in English. To make it good, you’d have to change the future tense “when you will change” to the present tense “when you change”. It reminded me of how often non-native speakers get their tenses wrong in English.

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Languages always develop towards simplicity – except when they don’t

Somebody suggested to me recently that languages always develop towards simplicity. It is not unusual for people to think that. There is a popular opinion out there that languages start out as very complex but over time the grammar and vocabulary and pronunciation and everything becomes more simple.

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“The passive voice must not be used”

Somebody called Marie Murray has written an opinion piece for the Irish Times in which she berates the passive voice (The passive voice is the penultimate weapon of denial, 31 July 2009). She basically says that the passive voice is bad because it lets people get away with not admitting responsibility for their actions. But while the moral side of her argument is true and laudable, the linguistics she uses to support it is, at best, shaky.

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