There are many ways in which texts give us pleasure, but none has accumulated more prestige than what some have called syntactical vertigo. When we think of masters of prose, the names that typically jump to the front of the line are the Virginia Woolfs, Thomas Manns, and Marguerite Yourcenars of the world: the writers who could turn a trainwreck of clauses into an unlikely thing of beauty. This might be changing.
In her Nautilus essay on the ever-shifting terrain of English syntax, Julie Sedivy shows how languages become exponentially more complex as societies transition from oral communication to textual transmission. This makes one wonder: if we’re indeed in an age that moves (dare I say, pivots) away from the printed word, will this lead to an inevitable flattening of our syntax?
When children are fed a steady linguistic diet that is rich in complex sentences, these become easier to compute, and in turn, more readily produced under the time pressures imposed by speech. For example, psychologist Jessica Montag and her colleagues targeted relative clauses in the passive voice (the dog that was hit by the car), which are exceedingly rare in speech but more abundant in text, even that written for children. They found that heavy readers in the 8-12-year-old range produced such structures more often than children who read less. Even among adults, the production of these sentences was highly correlated with how much text they consumed, suggesting that avid readers are far more likely to transmit complex sentences to future generations.
All of this suggests that exposure to literary language is essential for the health of complex recursive sentences in English. If certain structures are too rare in speech to be reliably mastered by learners and passed on, then they may fade out within a community of non-readers. Naturally, this raises the question: Could syntactic complexity in literate languages diminish over time, if new technologies (podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks) tether language more tightly to speech and its inherent limitations?
In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.
These changes may reflect shifts in readers’ experience with language: Where literacy used to be an elite skill commanded by a very few steeped in lives of scholarly study, now it’s a universal basic necessity. More people now read—because they have to—but many probably still consume the vast bulk of their linguistic diet in spoken form and may have little patience for writing that is mentally taxing and reeks of snobbery. The need to make text accessible to a broader population, with a wide range of linguistic experiences, has created some pressure to bring the structures of written English more in line with spoken English.
It begins at an outdoor café while you’re working for a month in central Mexico. From one table away, you zero in on his brown forearm, the two black cuffs tattooed around it. You want to touch those cuffs, encircle his arm with your hands. Soon you’ll learn the word esposas, which means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but today you know only polite Spanish, please-and-thank-you Spanish. You smile at him until he approaches. When he asks if you have a boyfriend, you start to cry and can’t stop. You want to explain something to him — that you loved someone the way a dog loves her owner — but the only available language is snot. He holds a cocktail napkin to your nose. “Blow,” he says. For a second, you think he’s serious. Then you laugh so hard you feel something shift, the way the sky shifts from blue to pink.
His socks never match. His clothes and his dog are splattered with paint. His mother embroiders designs on his guayaberas and does his laundry. At night, he crashes wherever he is — on a porch, on a couch, by the lake in his pueblo. He takes you hiking to see the bursting white moon. He takes you to meet the shaman who can erase your pain with feathers. He takes you to see pyramids and an eagle carved into a mountain. He knows how to build a fire. He knows how to prepare a sweat lodge. He knows how to get people to buy him drinks. He knows how to wrap your hair around one hand and undress you with the other. During sex, he says all kinds of things you wish you understood. By the lake, you get so stoned together he stares at your face and asks if you’re Buddha.
“If I were Buddha, I couldn’t tell you,” you say.
“You have the face of Buddha.” He takes a drag, exhales a cloud, leans back on one elbow. “But don’t tell me. You are right. It is better not to tell me.”
When I moved to Laos in 1998, there was almost no violent crime. The landlocked country had five million people, 57 languages, and 90 million unexploded bombs in the ground. In the 10th-poorest nation in the world, Lao people focused on food, festivals, and family. Buddhism thrived. In my house in Vientiane, the salty scent of the Mekong River drifted through my screens. I was 25, and my first six months there, I rarely thought of the killings that had launched me overseas.
I lived between a temple and a beer shop, the two great traditions of solace: the monks and the drunks. My excessive sleep, a portable artifact of PTSD, blended well in Laos. All around the partially paved capital, people napped in hammocks strung on half-built buildings, on tables of stacked silk at the market, and in tuk-tuks parked in the shade of banyans. My Lao colleagues at our United Nations outpost snoozed right at their desks. I did, too.
So the morning my boss, Patrick, sauntered into my office, he found me cheek to notebook. The monsoon clattered beyond the window. I’d passed out pondering the prospect of turning 26 in two weeks’ time. Birthdays, like rain, stirred up the muck. I was alive. Others were not. Read more…
New words, phrases, and definitions are added to the Oxford English Dictionary four times a year, and this month’s revision includes over 1,200 changes and updates, from a new “sense” of the word thing to the “well-established, but newly-prominent usage of woke,” as Head of U.S. Dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin writes on the OED’s blog.
Martin, one of the people who decides which new words and “senses” get added to the OED, agreed to answer a few questions for us about how that process works, and whether dictionary rivalries exist. (We’re looking at you, Merriam-Webster.)
A United Airlines jets sits at the gate at Denver International Airport. (AP Photo/David Boe)
Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes | 3000 words
On Monday night, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, sent an internal email to his staff regarding the incident on Flight 3411 in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked. In the note, Munoz offered an explanation of events and a defense of both his employees and law enforcement. The email ended up on Twitter where its contents were roundly excoriated.
Munoz’s email is, in its own way, a work of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. It misstates objective facts and shifts responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.
As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.
What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. On Twitter, I referred to it as a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility,” and followed with a few tweets that highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim.
We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock-still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.
A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).
Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.
“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”
I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer. Read more…
In an earlier letter, I put out a call for favorite words you learned in 2016. I hoped they’d make a nice handful of marbles for us to have in our pockets for this new year, which only this week taught me the word ‘kompromat.’ :-(. Read more…
Winters are long and cold in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province, but the language that describes the many local varieties of rain, wind, and ice is anything but dreary. In Hakai Magazine, Emily Urquhart digs deep into the rich lexicon Newfoundlanders — from First Nations people to Basque and Irish immigrants — have assembled over the centuries to talk about the world around them.
Stories, like songs, are told with cadence and tone, timing, and, most importantly, attention to language. Perhaps there simply weren’t enough words to describe the erratic weather and rock-lashed land, the complex history of the people who settled there, and the boundless sea that surrounded them. Maybe the regional lexicon was not simply the result of limitation—the isolation of the outports—but a response to the limitlessness of the natural and social landscape.
The vocabulary is fluid. It’s an ongoing dialogue, and it’s as captivating and elusive as the Newfoundland fairies. Preservation efforts are constantly underway, from the b’ys (read: dudes) on George Street outdoing one another with local slang to the academics who collect and study this kind of talk like specimens in a jar. But it’s the artists who’ve cornered the market on heritage language in the province.
Marlene Creates, for example, captures the language of the natural world in her poetry and visual art, which are equal parts aesthetic and political. And what wordsmith could resist terms like glim, a light seen across a distant ice field, or swatch, a rivulet of open water in ice? There is an onomatopoeic quality to these words that lends itself to lyrical language: sketch, for the thin layer of ice that rests on the water; sish, both the word that describes a boat running through slushy water and the resulting sound. You can hear the crackle in brickle ice, which is easily shattered. Way ice is more straightforward, in that a vessel can navigate its broken pans.
I first noticed “mama” while pregnant with my son in 2012. I was browsing on the internet—familiarizing myself the different types of mothers out there, trying to figure out what kind of mother I might become—when I noticed a number of alternative moms who referred to themselves as “mama.” This was the radical homemaking, attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding bunch, and “mama” was right at home with their folksy, back-to-the-earth approach to motherhood.
This use of mama can be traced back to women like Ariel Gore, who began publishing her alternative parenting magazine “Hip Mama” in 1993. Inspired by her experience as an urban single mom, the magazine became the source of parenting advice for riot grrrl types, tattooed and pierced women who wanted to find a way to embrace parenthood while simultaneously rejecting much of the bourgeois accouterment that comes along with it.
“Here’s the thing, I can’t change the health of the world alone, but I’m absolutely convinced that as a group, women and moms can. … Not only are we raising the next generation, feeding them, teaching them, etc but we control the majority of food dollars spent around the world.”
She continues by explaining that being a “Wellness Mama” is a way for women to counter any criticism they might receive for being a stay-at-home mom. “I hope to make being #justamom just a little easier for you.” Mama isn’t just a pet name, it’s a manifesto. Read more…
When we turn to the person sitting next to us and say something, it’s not particularly difficult to convey our emotional intent. We have an entire arsenal of non-verbal tools at our disposal when we communicate in person: we can gesticulate, frown, shrug, shake our heads, even face-palm. But what about the instances when we are limited to words on a screen? According to linguist Chi Luu, “email, instant messaging and other online forums for speech have made the efficient communication of emotion and social cues necessary,” and this is where the internet famous face-palm comes into play. In a recent column for JSTOR Daily, Luu explored the rise of so-called “reaction GIFs,” and their place in our internet vernacular:
The evolution from simple punctuation-based emoticons to more complex reaction gifs from internet memes shows how more nuanced expressions are being stylized and conveyed in online culture. Emoticons in parallel have themselves developed some complexity, influenced by their Japanese counterparts. These are known as kaomojis, which use combinations that include katakana characters, such as the shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and the ever popular table flip (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ . Emoticons that are frequently used have been developed into image versions of their punctuation selves (also known as emoji) and are so popular with internet users an emoji-only messenger is now available for those who like their communication short and sweet.
From visual emojis depicting simple emotional states, it’s a short step to the more dynamic emotion or reaction gifs, used by certain internet subcultures to respond or react in playful ways to an online discussion. These are gif images, often originating from internet memes, that depict elements of body language that can be too complex for an emoticon to describe. Essentially, it’s an innovative way for speakers to convey a sense of gesture on the internet.