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  • In Silicon Valley’s version of the nanny state, the nannies are all offline

    As the techies of Silicon Valley rake in the profits from our inability to live without devices, they’re cutting their own children’s screen time down to zero to ensure that at least one group of privileged kids can spend quality time—with their nannies. And to make sure the nannies of Silicon Valley are off-line as well, parents are forcing them to agree not to text, call, or surf on the job. According to the restrictive contracts nannies have to sign, a logon in the presence of their charges—even when the nanny is responding to a parent’s text—may be grounds for dismissal. Which is odd considering that nannies, like the parents who hire them and almost everyone else in the digital age, rely on texts, email, and the internet to find work, arrange their schedules, and deal with everyday details and emergencies, both personal and work-related.

  • Countering the backlash against nonbinary pronouns

    Today, Oct. 17, is International Pronouns Day. You can follow my earlier pronoun posts on singular they here, on Winnie the Pooh and gender-neutral heesh, here, on the violence of pronouns, here, on some of the first invented pronouns here, and on the politics of generic he, here.

    In this post I want to look at the backlash against gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns.

    Singular they and invented pronouns like ze, hir, E, and per highlight the need for respect and inclusion, so it’s not surprising that they generate backlash from the enemies of respect and inclusion. The objections to the pronouns are unconvincing, occasionally bizarre, and totally wrong.

  • Nonbinary pronouns are older than you think

    October 17 is International #PronounsDay. We have grammar day, mother language day, dictionary day, punctuation day! apostrophe day’, talk like Shakespeare day, even talk-like-a-pirate day. But this is the first time ever that a part of speech gets its own day. And not just a part of speech, but a part of a part of speech. Oct. 17 is not a day to celebrate all pronouns. We don’t celebrate the interrogatives, demonstratives, and relatives, worthy as they may be. We don’t even celebrate all the personal pronouns. Instead, October 17 is set aside for just the third-person singular gender-neutral and nonbinary personal pronouns.

    It’s the day for ze, hir, E, per, xi, ip, thon, heesh, co, um, le, and singular they. These may seem new, but they’re older than you think.

  • International Pronouns Day

    October 17 is International Pronouns Day, a whole day devoted to a part of speech that comes with its own website and a dedicated hashtag, #PronounsDay. Since it’s the first-ever pronouns day, many people are not sure how to celebrate, and so the organizers offer some suggested activities: tell people your pronouns; ask people their pronouns; have a pronoun party.

    A party? Pronouns, a part of speech that probably made your eyes glaze over in English class, are now highly-contested, high-profile symbols in the ongoing struggle for human rights. Maybe not worth a pronoun party. Certainly worth a #PronounsDay.

  • Hey, you guys, you is already plural

    Should we get rid of the plural you guys because it’s sexist? Joe Pinsker, writing in the Atlantic, reports a growing resistance to the common use of you guys—along with hey guys, and just plain guys—to address mixed groups of men and women, as well as single-sex groups of only women. Pinsker finds that trans and gender-nonconforming people feel excluded by you guys; that teachers and business people reject you guys as not inclusive; and that lots of people want to ditch you guys in favor of something gender neutral, like folks, or people, or comrades. Then Pinsker adds this peculiar observation by way of explaining why you guys is so popular: “English lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun.” He actually says this twice.But that is flat-out wrong. English has always had a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun: you.

  • In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

    In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.” . . .

    Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh.

  • A Brief History of Singular 'they'

    Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

    But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375 . . .

  • The right to read

    It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

    First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

    Then, as if the book police wasn’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. Guns, yes. Books, no.

  • The Babel Proclamation: celebrating a century of banning foreign languages in America

    Today America celebrates the centenary of the Babel Proclamation. On May 23, 1918, Iowa Gov. William Harding banned the public use of all foreign languages: in schools, on trains, at meetings, in church, even on the phone.

    They called the ban the Babel Proclamation. America was at war, and German—commonly spoken in Iowa at the time—was the language of the enemy. When asked why he banned all languages and not just German, Harding explained that “German intrigue does not confine itself to the German language. The fact is they find it more convenient now to use other languages.” Apparently no one thought to ask Harding, “So if German spies speak English, shouldn’t you ban English too?”

    As for prayer, Harding told the Chamber of Commerce, “I am telling those who insist upon praying in some other language that they are wasting their time, for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice in English.”

    Oh, and that First Amendment business in the Constitution? Welp, according to the governor, freedom of speech is guaranteed only if you speak English.

  • Ghostwriters . . . who ya gonna call?

    The New York Times reports that people are turning to ghostwriters to help them write text messages, dating profiles, and status updates, the kind of personal writing that most of us used to do for ourselves along with our shopping lists, thank you notes, and diary entries. . . .

    But now that the internet has turned us all into writers, ordinary people are calling ghostwriters to help them post online. . . .

    The internet began as a free-wheeling, we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-rules space that would democratize writing. Turning everyone with a keyboard into a writer would take writing out of the hands of specialists. Along the way, you could ditch those school rules. Upper case, lower case? Who cares? Spelling and punctuation? No, thank you. Subject-verb agreement? It’s for losers. No teacher was going to cover that email in red ink; no boss was going to send that .pdf back for revision.

    But that’s not what happened. . . .

     

  • Yellow Fever: Is it a racist slur or just a place to eat?

    Is calling a restaurant Yellow Fever yet another example of mainstream racism? Is it a bold reappropriation of a negative stereotype? Or just a bad marketing decision?

    It’s all of the above when Whole Foods hosts a pan-Asian resto called “Yellow Fever” in one of its California markets.

  • The all-natural guide to writing technology

    What could be more natural than putting thoughts into words by writing them down? Thoreau called writing nothing less than “pure mind, pure thought.” So writing is as natural as granola, or as natural as granola made with non-GMO pure nuts and grains.

    Humans lived on earth for tens of thousands of years, or even longer, without inventing writing, which is only about 6,000 years old. That’s how natural writing is. It's all technology, all artificial in that you need artifice, you need tools, to turn thoughts into visible words.

  • Thon was Word of the Year in 1884

    Gender-neutral pronouns have been in the news recently. Last fall, a trans teacher in a Florida school was removed from their classroom for asking students to refer to them with the gender-neutral title Mx and the singular they. Two years earlier, when the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers make sure all students felt included by asking them, “What’s your pronoun?”, the state legislature closed the Diversity Office and banned the use of tax dollars to pay for gender-neutral pronouns.

    It’s only fitting then to remember that the gender-neutral pronoun thon was Word of the Year in 1884. Or it would have been, had we been picking words of the year back then. 1884 was the year that Charles C. Converse announced that he had coined thon, a gender-neutral pronoun, by blending that and one. Thon could refer both to men and women, and it would come in handy in cases where gender is unknown, or irrelevant, or where it needs to be concealed (C. C. Converse, “A New Pronoun.” The Critic, Aug. 2, 1884, p. 55).

  • The 2017 Word of the Year has been banned

    The Trump administration has banned the 2017 Word of the Year. 

    Adding to earlier reports that the federal government will no longer be allowed to use seven dirty words like evidence-based, vulnerable, diversity, transgender, season’s greetings, and #metoo, the Trump administration has canceled this year’s Word of the Year awards.

    Sources inside the White House, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear for their lives, reported on the social media site alt.gov on Sunday that the Department of Homeland Security has rescinded recent Word of the Year awards to feminism, fake news, populism, and youthquake, a word no one has even heard ofDHS further announced the suspension of all awards currently in the pipelines.

  • The new digital censorship: Writers blocking readers

    In a new form of censorship, social media lets writers block their readers.

    I found out recently, and quite by accident, that a writer whose work I’ve read from time to time had blocked me on Twitter. It’s a digital first: never since the invention of letters have writers had the option of preventing readers from accessing their work. 

    I’m not talking about private diaries, personal letters, or eyes-only top secret communiqués. I mean writers who write for the public. These writers—who used to be grateful that anyone was willing to glance at their work let alone read it all the way through—now have the power to say, “My words are for everybody else, but they’re not for you.”