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  • Don't make English official, ban it instead

    It's International Mother Language Day, and once again, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Supporters of the measure say that English forms the glue that keeps America together. They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth.

    I would like to offer a modest alternative: don’t make English official, ban it instead.



  • Bus No. 66 requires French as well as exact change

    Montreal bus driver celebrates 40 years of official bilingualism by throwing English-speaking passenger off her bus

    After a passenger asked her for the time in English, a Montreal bus driver called the police and ordered all twenty passengers to get off her bus. Her supervisors defended the action because, while English and French have been Canada's two official languages for exactly forty years, French and French alone is the official language of the province of Quebec.

  • How to save an endangered language

    There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today. Five hundred years ago there were twice as many, but the rate of language death is accelerating. With languages disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks, in ninety years half of today's languages will be gone. Mostly it's the little languages, those with very few speakers, that are dying out, but language death can hit big languages as well as little and mid-sized ones. And it can hit those big languages pretty hard. Sure, languages like Degere and Vuna are disappearing in Kenya, Jeju in Korea, Manchu in China. And sure, Nigerians complain that Yoruba is fast giving way to English. But language-watchers warn that English itself may have entered a steep and potentially irreversible decline in both its native and its adoptive country.

  • Hwaet, the first word of the Old English poem, Beowulf

    The great language change hoax

    Deniers of global warming, the big bang, and evolution have a new target: language change. Arguing that language change is just a theory, not a fact, they’re launching efforts to remove it from the school curriculum. To support their efforts, they’re citing a new report, “The Myth of Language Change,” presented last month at the annual conference of the Society for Pure English in Toronto.

  • Too old to multitask? The author texting while writing on a laptop and listening to tunes

    Multitasking: learning to teach and text at the same time

    Most of my students belong to the digital generation, so they consider themselves proficient multitaskers. They take notes in class, participate in discussion, text on their cell phones, and surf on their laptops, not sequentially but all at once. True, they're not listening to their iPods in class, and they may find that inconvenient, since they like a soundtrack accompanying them as they go through life. But they're taking advantage of every other technology they can cram into their backpacks. They claim it helps them learn, even if their parents and teachers are not convinced.

  • Dirty words you can say on television: WTF as the newest cable channel?

    Whether you're a dedicated couch potato or only an occasional channel surfer, I'm sure you've noticed that swearing on prime-time television is on the rise.

  • That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

    Matthew Engel is a British journalist who doesn't like Americanisms. The Financial Times columnist told BBC listeners that American English is an unstoppable force whose vile, ugly, and pointless new usages are invading England "in battalions." He warned readers of his regular FT column that American imports like truck, apartment, and movies are well on their way to ousting native lorries, flats, and films.

  • 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 . . .

  • Teaching commas won't help

    A new rant in Salon by Kim Brooks complains, “My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay,” and asks the perennial question, “Is it time to rethink how we teach?”

    While it’s always time to rethink how we teach, teaching commas won’t help.

    Teachers like Brooks commonly elevate the lowly comma to a position of singular importance. But documents in which a misplaced comma can mean life or death, or at least the difference between a straightforward contract and a legal nightmare of Bleak House proportions, are myths, just like the myth that says Eskimo has twenty-three words for snow (twenty-eight? forty-five?). More to the point: understanding commas does not guarantee competent writing.

  • Webster's banned for too much sex

    Why ban a word when you can ban the whole dictionary? That's the attitude of one southern California school district, which pulled Merriam-Webster's "Collegiate Dictionary" from school shelves after a parent complained that its definition of "oral sex" was too explicit.

  • No laptops: classroom bans on digital devices are spreading

    Banning laptops in the classroom

    The new semester is starting, and a colleague proudly announced on Facebook that he is banning laptops, tablets, and cell phones in his classes because students are using them to go on Facebook. Other colleagues, who seem always to be trumpeting their support for the digital revolution on their own Facebooks, promptly “commented” their own plans to institute classroom bans on these attention-sapping devices. So much for the myth that professors trend left. 

  • Washoe, chimp who learned sign language, dies at 42 without signing good-bye

    Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned American Sign Language in the 1960s, died after a short illness on Oct. 30, 2007, at the age of 42, at her home on the campus of Central Washington University.  She had lived at the university’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute since retiring from her position as the first signing chimp at the University of Nevada in 1970. 

    When Goethe died, his final utterance was, “Mehr Licht,” ‘more light,’ and Hamlet went offstage with the equally enigmatic, “The rest is silence.”  But there were no reports that Washoe signed any last words or even waved good-bye to the friends who attended her at the end.

  • Take the National Grammar Day Quiz

    National Grammar Day rolls around again on March 4. It's a time for rejoicing, when everybody goes out and tells someone else what's wrong with their speech or writing. Wear good sneakers, and be prepared to run away really, really fast. Last year I worried whether anybody cared about National Grammar Day. I mean, I'm not observant, but there are plenty of people who believe there's only one true way to parse a sentence and who can't wait to celebrate this day of obligation by reading the dictionary (yes, there is only one dictionary, and if you're really orthodox you may only read it facing in the direction of Oxford, or maybe if you're American Orthodox, Springfield, Massachusetts), after which you may go out to photograph three public signs with errors in them and then post them on the internet.

  • How a bill becomes a law 2.0: A high-tech president renews the Patriot Act by autopen

    Because he was traveling in Europe when it came time for him to approve the extension of several key parts of the USA Patriot Act, Pres. Obama signed the bill, not in person, but long distance, with the stroke of an autopen.

  • The government does not control your grammar

    Despite the claims of mass murderers and freepers, the government does not control your grammar. The government has no desire to control your grammar, and even if it did, it has no mechanism for exerting control: the schools, which are an arm of government, have proved singularly ineffective in shaping students' grammar. Plus every time he opened his mouth, Pres. George W. Bush proved that the government can't even control its own grammar.