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  • Helping MI6 with their inquiries

    An inconvenient tweet: it's against the law in England

    At least six people have been arrested in England for tweets about the recent terrorist killing of a British soldier, and they’re only the latest tweeters to be punished because some tweets, in England, are against the law. In 2012, 653 Brits faced criminal charges because they crossed the line in one way or another while using social media.

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Espionage, obscenity, and fighting words are not protected, along with certain kinds of commercial speech. You can’t conspire with the enemy, shout fire in a crowded theater, lie about a product you are selling, or broadcast obscenity or profanity over the airwaves during hours when children might be in the audience. Other than that, anyone can say just about anything online or off, and the law will look the other way.

    But England has no free-speech guarantees. The English Communications Act makes it illegal for the 6.6 million active tweeters in the U.K, to tweet anything grossly offensive, obscene, or menacing. But it’s also against British law to send any electronic communication “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.” In England, it is illegal to send an inconvenient tweet.

  • An M.A. in Facebook: now you can earn academic credit and avoid schoolwork at the same time

    Birmingham City University, in England, is offering a Masters degree in Facebook and Twitter. Students can now pay £4000 (about $6000) to earn credit for doing what they normally do to avoid schoolwork.

  • Another benefit of bilingualism: it delays dementia

    Researchers at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Aging are reporting “that the lifelong use of two languages can help delay the onset of dementia by four years compared to people who are monolingual.”

    For some time now, researchers have been convinced that being well-educated, having a high-status job, and engaging in mentally-stimulating leisure activities build up a “cognitive reserve,” a stash of brainpower that seems to push back dementia symptoms as we age.  Bilingualism can now be added to this list of things promoting mental health.

    Using more than one language was once thought to be unhealthy.  In the 1920s American psychologists regarded bilingualism as a disease, common among immigrants, that led to high rates of poverty, crime, and mental retardation.  In their view, two languages took up more space in the brain than one, making less room for really important knowledge.

  • Another of Maryland's English-speaking towns poised (from the French) to go English-only

    Thurmont, a beyond-the-beltway community in northern Frederick County, Maryland, is poised to make English its official language.  On June 16, Mayor Martin Burns introduced a bill requiring town employees to speak only English and ordering Thurmont’s municipal paper-pushers to generate their copious (from the Latin) paperwork only in English as well.

    Thurmont isn’t very big: its zip code, 21788, includes about 6,000 town residents, with another 5,000 people in the surrounding countryside.   According to Mayor Burns, the official-English measure is necessary to ensure the proper integration of immigrants into the American melting pot: “It’s a way of saying, ‘We speak English in America.  It’s the universal language.’”

  • A panda walks into a bar, or, why language self-help books help nobody

    Americans are convinced that theres a right and a wrong way to write something. We gleefully point out other peoples language mistakes, though many of us secretly worry that given half a chance, wed use who when we should be using whom, or put the comma in the wrong place. So we buy books to find the answer.

  • Portrait of the artist

    A portrait of the selfie

    Oxford Dictionaries has picked selfie as its 2013 Word of the Year (WOTY). Announcing your word of the year in mid-November guarantees a lot of attention from journalists and late-night TV comics, but it also suggests that not much is going to happen, linguistically, in the six weeks that remain in 2013. The Web of Language won’t make its annual WOTY pick until late December, and the American Dialect Society makes its announcement in early January. Nevertheless, judging from the attention it has gotten, selfie seems a good choice.

  • The late Steve Jobs demonstrates Apple's patented pageturning animation on a giant prototype iPad. The pageturner works on Apple's new minipad as well as the iPhone.

    Apple patents page-turning. What's next, the letter i?

    Apple has just patented page turning. On Nov. 13, 2012, the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple patent no. D670,713s for a “display screen or portion thereof with animated graphical user interface.” In plain English, that’s a page turner®. 

  • Nick George, who took three years of Arabic in college, says he made these flash cards -- the English translation is on the other side -- to help him read Arabic-language news sites

    Arabic flashcards bump student from plane

    In August, 2009, a 22-year-old Pomona College senior was questioned, handcuffed, and placed in a cell at the Philadelphia International Airport police station for five hours for carrying Arabic flash cards in his pocket as he tried to board his flight back to school in California.

  • Arabic Pledge of Allegiance brings protests

    To celebrate Foreign Language Week, established by proclamation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “highlight programs that encourage American youth to broaden their horizons...and understand and communicate with people of other nationalities and nations,” a student at Pine Bush High School in upstate New York recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic over the school’s PA system during morning announcements. Students immediately protested, and the school superintendent received “complaints from district residents who had lost family members in Afghanistan and from Jewish parents who were equally outraged by the reading” (the school had been sued in 2013 for antisemitism). FoxNews headlined their report of the story, “One nation under Allah.”

    Responding to the furor, Pine Bush High School immediately canceled Foreign Language Week and ditched plans to have the Pledge recited in Japanese, Spanish, or Klingon. From now on, Pine Bush will only pledge in English, and it will only celebrate Foreign Language Week in English. After all, English is a foreign language in North America.

  • Are laws requiring English signs discriminatory?

    English on business signs? Its the law in New York City. According to the "true name law," passed back in 1933, the name of any store must "be publicly revealed and prominently and legibly displayed in the English language either upon a window . . . or upon a sign conspicuously placed upon the exterior of the building" (General Business Laws, Sec. 9-b, Art. 131).

  • The 'science' of detecting lies through facial expressions makes for good TV even if the results don't hold up in court.

    Are lying toddlers destined for greatness?

    A Canadian research team has found that toddlers who lie could actually wind up more successful than those who tell the truth. At least that's what the BBC claims in its report on a new study which proves that learning to lie represents a "developmental milestone" and that "the complex brain processes involved in formulating a lie are an indicator of a child's early intelligence." And the London Times gleefully adds, "Scientists have discovered that a child who claims 'the dog ate my homework' may have a future career in the City (London's version of Wall Street)." Newspapers, TV, and blogs are having a field day repeating the story that young liars have what it takes to succeed later in life, as if precocious prevaricators could explain everything from the subprime mortgage dbacle to the Iraq War, the impeachments of Bill Clinton and Rod Blagojevich, and Al Franken's critique of liars on the extreme right.

  • Welcome to Arizona: English-Only Zone

    Arizona's war on Spanish comes to campus

    Arizona’s constitution not only makes English the state’s official language, it also gives anyone who has been discriminated against or penalized for using English the right to sue. So Terri Bennett, a nursing student at Tucson’s Pima Community College, sued her school for creating what she regarded as “learning environment [that] was hostile to English speakers” in violation of Article 28 §3 (b) of the Arizona constitution.

  • Army tells gay translators, don't tell, or don't translate

    According to the Houston Chronicle, the U.S. army has kicked out as many as 58 Arabic translators recently because they were gay.  40 members of the House of Representatives want to know why, when the army is so short on troops that it’s issuing what it calls “moral waivers” that allow convicted felons, drug users, and those who fail to meet the army’s educational standards all to join up, it can afford to dismiss soldiers with language skills that are actually critical for pursuing the war on terror.

    In a separate story, Rep. Barney Frank (D, MA) cited a report that in the past decade the army released 322 soldiers with critical foreign language skills because of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  And as long ago as 2002, CBS News reported that that army dismissed 9 gay translators, six of whom were specializing in Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, the military's prestigious language training center.

  • A spelling reformer writes to Mr. Lincoln

    In 1859, a Methodist minister named A. B. Pikard wrote two letters to former senator Abraham Lincoln -- Lincoln had lost his seat to Stephen Douglas in 1858 -- protesting the inhumanity of the fugitive slave laws. Its no surprise to find a northern abolitionist minister opposing the return of runaway slaves to the masters theyd escaped. But a minister who uses the phonetic alphabet to argue that the practice is both immoral and unconstitutional, well that is unusual.

  • AT&T says it's a person under the law and should enjoy the right to personal privacy. What's wrong with this picture?

    AT&T wants us to believe that corporations are people, just like you and me, and that just like us, they have a constitutional right to privacy. Their case, argued before the Supreme Court last week, hinges in part on the relationship between an adjective and the noun it derives from. To prove their point, AT&T wants us to look both at the law and at the dictionary.