March 5, 2019

One of my enduring interests is the history of language in general, the historical and genetic links between each language in a language family (Indo-European, for example, or Niger-Congo), and between each of the families into which we have divided the earth’s 7,000+ spoken and written forms of communication.

Languages, like all living forms, evolve and change. We know that each language and each language family had earlier forms, known as proto-languages; and there has been speculation that all languages are ultimately derived from some original or ur-language.  I haven’t accepted that thesis for quite some time, preferring instead to believe that language — being so vital to the complex world that the fast-rising homo genus was creating — evolved multiple times in multiple locations.

That being said, and while understanding that language and writing are not the same thing, Canadian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has presented evidence that the same symbols of human communication might well be global at a period many thousands of years before the Sumerians “invented” writing.


In fact, she suggests that this system is “a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa” tens of thousands of years ago. ‘This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,’ she writes.”

Like much cutting edge science, this analysis remains to be proven or otherwise. In the meanwhile, it allows for fascinating speculation.


Looking For Love With The Oxford Comma

February 22, 2019

Image: from Reddit

I have always used the Oxford comma. Because of it, I have been abused by grammar “purists”, marked down in school, and “corrected” by copy editors all my life it seems, but still I am happy to cheer lead for it. The battle for and against the Oxford comma is deeply divisive but limited, or so I thought, to those who write a lot. No more, according to an article in GQ:

“Recently, the Oxford comma has found a spot on the Bingo card of online-dating profiles, alongside mainstays like “no hookups,” “no drama,” and “420 friendly.” Whether you’re mindlessly grazing on Tinder or Bumble, OkCupid or Match.com, you’re now as likely to learn someone’s thoughts on the Oxford comma as you are their job title or their penchant for tacos. On the Tinder subreddit, which has 1.8 million subscribers, one user lamented that the Oxford comma features in “like a quarter of bios ’round my parts.” Another said, “It’s everywhere.” Even a journal entry on Tinder’s own blog mentions it: “Honestly, I’m not sure how compatible I can be with someone who is anti-the Oxford comma.”

I sympathize with that final cri de coeur.  However, is it really so important that it can affect your love life?  According to GQ, it is a reliable class signifier:

“The blue-blood punctuation mark, named after the Oxford University Press, acts as a social signifier, a sieve for the bookish and studious (and, perhaps, pretentious). It suggests personality traits that extend far beyond punctuation preferences …  I think it suggests care. It suggests somebody who’s structured and disciplined and not a slob … Somebody who’s into detail, who likes precision. Somebody who has standards.”

Gosh. Who knew?

History of the English Language in 10 Minutes

December 12, 2018


January 14, 2018

I have always loved writing, words, languages. It is one of the great joys of my life that the final chapter of my working life was as a professional writer.

I remember with the clarity of the senile the day in 1960 I first discovered Roget’s Thesaurus. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for a 10-year old boy with undiagnosed OCD and an over-developed love for words. Pages of words. Lists of words. Lists of words in clever categories. Words referring back to other words. I spent several months reading it from front to back. To hell with God, this was heaven.

This nostalgic torrent was unleashed through the agency of Jonathan Yardley’s review of Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget. From the review I was fascinated to learn that the Thesaurus for Roget was a form of therapy for depression.

“As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery — that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”

I’m sure I know exactly how he felt.

When “Fuck” Actually Meant Something

November 13, 2015

It is hard to imagine that hearing the word “fuck” used in a casual conversation would shock many people these days. We hear it so much — on TV, in films, on the bus, in the playground — that is has become little more than an annoyance of constant repetition.   However there was a time, in my remembrance, when the word carried real freight.

Fifty years ago today, on 13 November 1965, I was part of the audience for a BBC late-night satirical show called BBC-3. On the show was the renowned theatre critic and public intellectual Kenneth Tynan. In an answer to a question about sex in plays, he said: “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.”

This was quickly recognized as the first deliberate use of the word on the BBC and the event became a weekend sensation for the more lurid media.  In 1988, Paul Johnson called the moment, Tynans’s “masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.”

Times have changed.


March 9, 2015

I went for a long ride on the #20 and then the #9 (and return) followed by lunch at The Dime today, which allowed me lots of time to finish up a wonderful book called “Alphabetical” by Michael Rosen.

This thick 400+ page tome has 27 chapters, one for each of the letters in the English alphabet plus a chapter on word games at the end.  Each of the first 26 chapters gives a brief history of each letter and a summation of its use in English, followed by a short essay on a subject that is more or less related (for example “C is for Ciphers”, and “P is for Pitman”).  Academic snobs might pooh-pooh the lack of footnotes and specific citations, but this is a lively read full of fascinating detail and personal anecdotes about all things alphabetical.

The author, Michael Rosen, knows whereof he speaks. He is an accomplished poet and host of the BBC Radio show about language, “Word of Mouth“.

I enjoyed this immensely and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in language and symbols.

On Dictionaries

January 25, 2015

While suffering — though definitely not in silence — from some nasty bug that has laid me low for three days now and shows few signs of abating, I have at least had a chance to rest and read. One of the most interesting pieces I got to spend time on is this marvelous Slate piece about the creation of the 4th edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary — the OED of American English.

Merriam-Webster have caught up with the times:

More than half a century after it was published, the company’s landmark book—Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, known in lexicographic circles as Webster’s Third, W3, the Unabridged, or the Third—is getting an overhaul. The Third is a behemoth—4 inches thick, 13½ pounds, 2,700 pages—that falls like a crashing wave when opened. A fourth edition, by contrast, might never exist as a physical object. This latest revision, a project Merriam-Webster hopes will secure its dominance in the tenuous business of commercial lexicography if not ensure its future survival, is happening entirely online.

The article includes some fascinating snippets about the history of dictionary-making in America, and provides insights into how the old and the new are melding in the current production. For example:

The New Words file contains about 1,700 nominees for word-dom. But it isn’t the sum and substance of the Unabridged revision. Merriam plans to re-examine and when necessary—and it’s usually necessary—rewrite each of more than 476,000 entries from the most recent printing of the Third, in 2002, when the original 1961 edition, plus its seven addenda, was first made available online.

An incredible task and not without its risks from a business perspective. After all, with no physical book to sell, the potential revenue streams are more difficult to assess:

On its face, this might sound like a terrible plan. Merriam has tasked the majority of its employees with rewriting a book that likely won’t generate revenue the old-fashioned way, through hardcover sales. The project involves the subscription-only Unabridged site, not Merriam’s free online dictionary, which is based on its smaller desktop book, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So there’s no guarantee it will find enough customers willing to pay $29.95 a year to turn a profit. Plus, the work could take decades to complete. By the time the Third gets close to being a Fourth, it’s not clear how people will use a dictionary, or even what a dictionary will be.

This is a wonderful piece for anyone interested in the future of vocabulary and the use of dictionaries. Thoroughly recommended.