Author Archives

The Adaptation of Language Evolution


Your speech, or thine speech as Shakespeare would have said, has evolved with each generation that preceded you. The bubbling melting pot of language absorbs new influences with alacrity. Every time we repeatedly interact with people, we have the chance to develop a shared vocabulary. In The Walrus Gretchen McCulloch explores whether the language mix is changing faster as a result of technology. People interacting on social media often end up using similar phrases, yet we tend to follow others with the same interests, with words jumping around between demographically similar cities, regardless of geography. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to the most linguistic innovation. And other factors, such as community and gender, are still playing a part.

Young women are also consistently on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through media trend sections, from uptalk (the distinctive rising intonation at the end of sentences?) to the use of “like” to introduce a quotation (“And then I was like, ‘Innovation’”). The role that young women play as language disruptors is so clearly established at this point that it’s practically boring to linguists who study this topic: well-known sociolinguist William Labov estimated that women lead 90 percent of linguistic change in a paper he wrote in 1990. (I’ve attended more than a few talks at sociolinguistics conferences about a particular change in vowels or vocabulary, and it barely gets even a full sentence of explanation: “And here, as expected, we can see that the women are more advanced on this change than the men. Next slide.”) Men tend to follow a generation later: in other words, women tend to learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers.

McCulloch also delves into some innovative ways past linguists have studied language.

The fieldworker he selected was a grocer named Edmond Edmont, who reportedly had a particularly astute ear (it’s not clear whether this referred to the acuity of his hearing or his attention to phonetic detail, but either way, it got him the job). Gilliéron trained Edmont in phonetic notation and sent him off on a bicycle with a list of 1,500 questions, such as, “What do you call a cup?” and “How do you say the number fifty?” Over the next four years, Edmont cycled to 639 French villages, sending results back to Gilliéron periodically. In each village, he interviewed an older person who had lived in the region for their entire life, counting them as representative of the history of the area.

Read the story

The Misconception of the Wild


Leo Schwartz writes for Buzzfeed News about his romanticized notion of spending a summer in the Oregon backcountry. A fresh graduate, complete with an air of self-importance, he set off from New York for the grandeur of the American West for a period of introspection. Schwartz wanted to use the wilderness to satisfy something within himself:  it was a place to be used for his own purpose, an attitude prevalent in American society.

American conservation has a complicated past, rooted in the seizure of indigenous land for its administration by wealthy urbanites. Yosemite Valley, for example, lies next to the (formerly) equally stunning Hetch Hetchy valley, which was dammed, flooded, and converted into a reservoir in the early 20th century to serve the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Both valleys were inhabited by Native Americans before they were respectively turned into a playground and a wellspring.

Those who have access to the resources of federally owned forest land, both for recreational and agricultural purposes, are overwhelmingly white, and conflicts between government officials and land users — like the Bundys — are constant. 

For his time of reflection, Schwartz settled on a four-month volunteer program with the AmeriCorps.

…never mind the fact that my only real backpacking experience had involved puncturing several blisters borne of Walmart boots with a dull Swiss Army knife. I finally skimmed Walden. Now, I thought, the only thing separating me from bucolic bliss was high-quality footwear.

During the months of grueling labor, the wilderness began to take on a whole new meaning. No longer a place to find himself, it became instead somewhere to be respected, and, to be left alone.

The people of the Forest Service do this work not just because of a spiritual connection with nature, but because our world is burning. To begin to confront the impending end of the natural world, we have to redefine our relationship with land — and understand that it does not only exist for our own needs.

The United States has always viewed nature as a resource to be consumed or conserved. Wilderness, though, is not for us. Its purpose is to exist outside of our selfish motives. That summer, I was a steward for the wilderness of the Deschutes National Forest, but I was a visitor. It was not mine.

Read the story

The Reality of Being Sick and Alone


Diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, Anne Boyer writes a searingly honest piece in The Guardian about the brutal nature of chemotherapy — a potential cure that is so poisonous it can destroy eyesight, speech, and memory. A treatment that also bears huge financial costs and a hidden environmental impact.

Someone once said that choosing chemotherapy is like choosing to jump off a building when someone is holding a gun to your head. You jump out of fear of death, or at least a fear of the painful and ugly version of death that is cancer, or you jump from a desire to live, even if that life will be for the rest of its duration a painful one.

My problem is that I wanted to live millions of dollars’ worth but could never then or now answer why I deserved the extravagance of this existence, why I consented to allow the marketplace to use as its bounty all of my profitable troubles. How many books, to pay back the world for my still existing, would I have to write?

Unceremoniously tipped out of the hospital and left to face the consequences of treatment, Boyer also confronts what cancer means if you don’t have a traditional family unit to offer you care.

It should be no surprise that single women with breast cancer, even adjusting for age, race and income, die of it at up to twice the rate of the married. The death rate gets higher if you are single and poor.

If you are loved outside the enclosure of family, the law doesn’t care how deeply – even with all the unofficialised love in the world enfolding you, if you need to be cared for by others, it must be in stolen slivers of time. As Cara and I sat in the skylit beige of the conference room waiting for the surgeon to arrive, Cara gave me the switchblade she carried in her purse so that I could hold on to it under the table. After all of those theatrical prerequisites, what the surgeon said was what we already knew: I had at least one cancerous tumour, 3.8cm, in my left breast. I handed Cara back her knife damp with sweat. She then went back to work.

Read the story

Is it Possible to be Child-Free and Content?

Pexels Photo/ Alex Smith

Although an increasing number of women are choosing to remain childless, society still accepts motherhood as the “norm.” In a piece for The Walrus,  Lauren McKeon explains how she saw motherhood as a requirement, “a check mark on the way to an accomplished life,” until she eventually came to terms with wanting to be child-free.

I neared my thirties afraid to voice my dread. I worried that disclosing the main reason for my veer toward “no”—that I wanted to continue investing time in myself—would make me seem cold, even sociopathic. I worried about disappointing those around me, including my then husband, parents, and grandparents. I could already hear their disbelief. Even if they supported my choice, I worried about what I would do after I made it. How would I fill the next fifty—potentially empty—years of my life?

Even those unwaveringly confident in their choice can be overcome with doubt as they get older and start to mourn the loss of their fertility. This grieving can allow women to understand that while they don’t want children — they do “want something.” McKeon found a blossoming community of women dedicated to helping each other find fulfillment — while rejecting the need for procreation.  This is particularly important for a group that often receives pushback elsewhere: 

As the default structure for women’s lives, the motherhood imperative is a stand-in for order, an assurance that every woman is exactly who, and what, she is supposed to be. We live in an intense pro-maternity culture, one marked by everything from reality shows like Teen Mom OG to Kylie Jenner’s record-shattering February 2018 Instagram reveal of her newborn daughter, Stormi, which sits at 17.5 million likes (and counting). Even Hillary Clinton’s election team worked hard to frame her as, in husband Bill’s words, “the best mother in the whole world.”

Academics and activists call this mindset pronatalism. As Laura Carroll explains in The Baby Matrix, pronatalism is “the idea that parenthood and raising children should be the central focus of every person’s adult life.” Pronatalism is the reason the protagonist of the Hunger Games movie series earns motherhood as her reward for saving the world, and it is why, in real life, reporters recently asked one of the world’s first AI female robots where she stands on motherhood (surprise: she thinks having a family is “really important”). Pronatalism teaches women that children are synonymous with stability and that they are the answer to the question of life’s meaning. Motherhood, this mindset says, is more than a choice: it is a higher calling. To step outside of that path is not only inconceivable, it’s unnatural.

Read the story