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  • "Young chicken without sex": China bans Chinglish for Olympics

    Wanting to show off its cosmopolitan modernity while maintaining tight control over what the Chinese are allowed to say in public, China has banned Chinglish, the oddly-phrased, unintelligible, and often unintentionally funny English translations of Chinese signs that have been proliferating in the capital in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

    For example, there’s the bus sign that announces pregnantly in English lettering under the Chinese, “Offer the Seats to the Old, Weak, Sick, Cripple, and Gravid,” or the awkward but apt warning on the gasoline tanker, “Dangerous Goo Keep Clear.”

  • You lie: Dictionaries find truth in a post-truth world

    It’s a fact: politicians lie, and the news media exposes their lies. It may seem surprising, but lately dictionaries, not the media, have become the guardians of facts and the exposers of lies.

  • You can save this endangered language for only pennies a day; or you could let it die.

    According to some alarming estimates, half of the worlds 7,000 languages will die by the end of this century. English, French, and Arabic probably wont be among them. Some people try to save the endangered languages by writing grammars and dictionaries and encouraging their use among schoolchildren, or by videotaping the few remaining speakers on the off chance that future generations will want to revive the lost tongue.

  • You are the person of the year. One of you? Two of you? All of you?

    Time magazine has just announced that you are its person of the year for 2006.  One blogger faulted the magazine for not making clear whether you is singular or plural.  Since the magazine’s cover has a mirror – actually a bit of silvered paper impersonating a mirror – it seemed clear to me that you was singular. Calling you the person of the year, not the people of the year, suggested this as well.  Nonetheless, some ambiguity remains: many of the articles in the “Person of the Year” issue address a mass audience, users of the World Wide Web, you plural.   

    Whatever Time meant, it’s clear that when it comes to numbers, the English second person pronoun isn’t clear at all.  You can mean one, or two, or more than two.  That hasn’t always been the case.  Old English had separate second person pronouns for the singular, the dual (referring to two people), and the plural (for more than two).  The dual died out – after the Norman conquest the English decided that two was the loneliest number – but singular thee, thou and thy held on till well into the 17th century, with ye, you and your reserved in most cases for the plural. 

  • Yo! A new gender-neutral pronoun from, of all places, Baltimore

    Yo, a new gender-neutral pronoun, has been popping up in an unlikely spot, the hallways of a few Baltimore schools. Or maybe Maryland middle schools arent such unlikely incubators of new words after all, since theyre full of teen-agers whose linguistic inventiveness hasnt yet been beaten out of them by grammar lessons and standardized tests, teenagers who love to play with language and coin ever-newer words just to prove to adults that were never going to get it, never in a million years will be as cool as they are now. (What they dont know is that we invented cool, or our parents did, but hey, whatever.)

  • "Yes, we want" -- Who owns global English?

    A 1.8 million euro advertising campaign for Madrid's new Spanish-English public schools is being ridiculed for its slogan "Yes, we want," which critics are calling bad English. English is what the chanters of "Yes, we want," want to learn, because English is the new global language. The ads, which evoke Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," have appeared on Spanish television, radio, billboards, and buses, prompting complaints that the Education Ministry should be promoting its bilingual public elementary and high schools in correct English if it wants pupils to pick them.

  • WTF? Swearing at work is good for business

    Bans on swearing in college sports have been making headlines in the last year or two as part of a concerted effort to enforce good sportsmanship among players and fans alike, both toward the opposing team and toward the refs, but a new study coming out of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School reports that, while swearing may cost you the game, on the plus side it does build team spirit.  Their research further suggests that turning the air blue on a regular basis may actually be good for business.

    The legendary American lawyer Clarence Darrow reportedly told one interviewer, “I don’t swear just for the hell of it” (at least the Darrow character in Inherit the Wind says this).  Now two business scholars, Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins, report in a recent issue of the Leadership and Organization Development Journal (vol. 28 [2007], pp. 492-507), that regular swearing at work creates a sense of community and reinforces social relationships. 

  • WTF is the 2010 Word of the Year

    WTF is the 2010 Word of the Year. Each December the Web of Language chooses one word or phrase which best exemplifies the spirit of the year gone by. It may be a new word, like "refudiate," chosen as word of the year this year by the Oxford American Dictionary, or an old one, like "austerity," Merriam-Webster's choice. It could be a word that lasts: "blog" and "information superhighway" were words of the year. But it could be an obscure word as well: "locavore," for example, which few people had a taste for, or worse yet, "plutoed," a word with the visibility of a very dim comet (neither word was Web of Language approved). Then there was "roadside bomb." That morbid phrase appeared in so many daily headlines about the War in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 that it was the Web of Language word of the year two years running.

  • Written Language Disorder: Medical researchers fear there's no cure for bad writing

    A group of Mayo Clinic researchers has found that almost 15 percent of otherwise normal school-aged children in Rochester, Minnesota, are suffering from Written Language Disorder. According to Dr. Slavica K. Katusic, while Written Language Disorder, or WLD, does not pose as great a threat as the H1N1 virus, it’s actually just as common in school children as reading problems, with boys twice as likely as girls to be symptomatic.

    Teachers and editors have long suspected that some people write better than others, and critics typically treat writing they don’t like as diseased. But bad writing wasn’t recognized by the medical profession as pathological until 1994, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, defined the syndrome, and psychiatrists suddenly began seeing it in many of their patients.

  • Words don't lie: semantic mapping of presidential debate shows what's really on candidates' minds

    With the global economy imploding and the United States mired in two wars of attrition, the presidential candidates met for their first debate Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi. By counting their words we can create a semantic map for each candidate, a map which shows just how skillfully Sens. McCain and Obama skirted these pressing issues.

  • Words don't lie, part IV: Candidates debate role of plumbers in the White House

    Although the candidates did occasionally discuss substantive issues like school vouchers, abortion, and the principles they might use in selecting Supreme Court justices, the most riveting part of last night's third and final presidential debate, held at Long Island's Hofstra University, came when John McCain looked straight into the camera and asked the American people, "Why can't you ever get a plumber when you need one?"

  • Words don't lie, part II: Perception Analyzer reveals no Jack Kennedys at vice presidential debate


  • Words don't lie, part III: Campaign rhetoric gives way to campaign linguistics

    Language has taken on a special prominence in the 2008 presidential election. It's customary for each side to malign the opposition for using words that are vague or deceptive, and even for lying outright nothing new there. But this time around it's Language with a big "L" that's also coming under scrutiny, the use of language as a whole, not just individual words unfairly spun or improperly deployed.

  • With T-shirts at work, you can’t always say what you want

    In 2011, Southern New England Telephone suspended 183 employees who refused to remove T-shirts that said “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back. The National Labor Relations Board sided with the phone workers, but the company appealed the NLRB’s decision in federal court. Defending its action, the phone company argued that the mass one-day suspension was justified because the T-shirts “could cause customers to believe that AT&T employees were actually convicts.” AT&T might as well have argued, “We’re the phone company, we don’t have to think it's funny.”

  • Without a net: Judges tell jurors with smart phones, "No surfing allowed"

    According to the New York Times, jurors around the country have been triggering mistrials by using their iPhones to research the cases they’re deciding, or worse yet, by Twittering trial updates. Judges traditionally instruct jurors not to read about or discuss the case outside the courtroom. Now they’ve added prohibitions against surfing or talking about the case online as well, because more and more are googling plaintiffs and defendants and the finer points of the law on their web-enable cell phones, or posting trial trivia on Facebook.

    It won't be long before Law and Order runs an episode on this new kind of jury tampering – L and O's unaccredited but fully-functional Hudson University School of Law has already worked getting juries offline into its curriculum – but real-life attorneys fear that web-savvy jurors are undermining the criminal justice system and they want the internet out of court.