Language is a loose cannon of fun!

Yesterday in my writing class, I found occasion to teach the word schadenfreude (the feeling of pleasure at other people’s misfortune.) They were all quite fascinated with the word – not only its meaning but that it’s actually a German word, not English. One student remarked, “But there’s really no word to say that in English?”

Well, no there isn’t. Not until we borrowed it from German. And really, who are we kidding? We didn’t borrow anything. We stole it.

We steal a lot, actually. And there’s no one to stop us. The French have their Académie Française, the Germans have their Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, and even Tartar has the Institute of Language, Literature and Arts of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan. I don’t even know where Tartarstan is.

But English? Nothing. No regulating body to scold us for stealing German words (or Polish, Turkish, Russian, Chippewa, Navajo, Japanese…you get the idea). No learnéd council to tell us our follies or charge us fines for not choosing proper Anglo-Saxon words like leave instead of relinquishask instead of inquire; or drink instead of imbibe.

We are free to say what we want.

Or are we? What, or who, else is trying to control language?

This question has arisen anew in the past few weeks, starting with a scuffle over what the Swedish can or cannot (officially) say. The Language Council of Sweden was all set to add some new words to its official lexicon, among them such words as “…emoji, emoticons used in instant messages; drinkorexi, an eating disorder involving barely eating while drinking alcohol instead; and conversesjukan, or Converse disease, bad feet or posture caused by wearing trendy trainers.” (The Guardian)

It was also going to include the word ogooglebar, which translates as “ungoogleable” and would be defined as “something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine.” However, the word hasn’t become official yet because someone opposed it: Google.

You don't hear Kleenex complaining. Oh, except that you do. Click the picture to find out more.

You don’t hear Kleenex complaining. Oh, except that you do. Click the picture to find out more.

Google wanted the Council to change the definition to “something that cannot be found on the web using Google,” and also to include the fact that Google is a trademarked name. In response, the Council announced that it would not give in to Google’s demands and instead would simply drop the word from its official vocabulary. In a statement given on Wednesday, 26 March 2013, the Council’s director, Ann Cederberg, said, “Google asked the Language Council to amend the definition of the word. Today, we instead are deleting the word, marking our displeasure with Google’s attempts to control the language.” (The Guardian)

This, of course, is not the end of the story.

There is apparently yet another word in Swedish: Bloggbävning: “in Englisha blogquake, or “the process by which a topic explodes in the blogosphere and is then picked up by more mainstream media outlets.” (CBC NewsOgooglebar became an Internet darling, adopted by Twitterers everywhere and making it a trending topic. The Atlantic even suggested that we immediately add it to our own English language. For example,

Used in an English sentence: “I’m going on a date tonight, but he’s totally ogooglebar! What are the odds he’s an axe murderer?”

Anyone who has older brothers or sisters who liked to tease their young siblings would know that the surest way to get teased even harder was to insist that they stop teasing. When I was just a wee lass, I couldn’t say /r/ properly. It came out as a /w/ instead. Knowing this, my sister would ask me questions such as, “Who is your favorite on Happy Days?”

“Wichie.” I would say.

“Who?”

“Wichie! WICHIE!”

“Who?”

I should have just said Fonzi. He was cooler than Richie anyway.

I should have just said Fonzi. He was cooler than Richie anyway.

This continued until I was near tears, knowing I’d been once again duped into being teased. (It occurs to me that this might have been a pivotal moment in my decision to be a linguist.) I begged, threatened, cajoled, bribed…I did anything my 5-year-old self could conceive of to get her to stop. This, of course, only ensured that she would continue her torment. The only thing that eventually stopped her was when I just shut my damn mouth. That and speech lessons in the first grade.

So what I’m essentially saying here is that in this situation, Google is acting like a 5-year-old girl with a speech impediment.

Ogooglebar may be officially disavowed, but it has been embraced by the Internet and we all know what that means. Game over.

So much for language regulation by anyone, official or otherwise.

English, as I’ve said, has no official regulatory body to control its usage by its speakers. There are many reasons for this, but if nothing else, we can almost guarantee that as long as the Internet exists, it will serve to mock and render useless any decree such a body would attempt to make. And who likes to be mocked?

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A collection of facts.

Goose tracks in the snow on the first day of spring.

Goose tracks in the snow on the first day of spring.

Spring is in the air.

Apparently.

Two days ago was the vernal equinox – the first of two days this year in which we have equal amounts of sunlight and darkness. From here, the days keep getting longer until we hit the summer solstice, or the longest day of the year.

The advent of spring makes a lot of people happy. We talk about spring cleaning, spring fever, April showers and May flowers. It’s often a symbol of new life, of new beginnings, and of new spring fashion colors.

Pantone Emerald

But there’s another use of the word spring that has nothing to do with leaping or rising or gushing or darting or beginning.

A long-known oddity of English is its use of different terms for a group of collective nouns, one of the more famous of which being an exaltation of larks. We enjoy these possibly because the noun used for “group” is often so descriptive, even playfully so. Not to mention we often become familiar with more vocabulary than we did before: I never knew that a cony was a type of European rabbit, but now I also know that a group of them is called a bury of conies.

No, not this teal, though it is awfully close to the Emerald, which IS a spring color.

No, not this teal, though it is awfully close to the Emerald, which IS a spring color.

Many of the lists of collective nouns are dominated by birds: the aforementioned exaltation of larks; a band of jays; a watch of nightingales. Here is where we find our other use of the word spring: a spring of teals. A teal is a type of duck that is found in various varieties around the world. Here is a blue-winged (teal-winged?) bird found in North America.

These collective nouns can be a bit obscure at times:

  • a rout of knights
  • a sord of mallards
  • a drift of swine

They can also be playful or satirical:

  • a converting of preachers
  • a neverthriving of jugglers
  • an ostentation of peacocks
  • a number of mathematicians
  • a conspiracy of ravens
  • a ponder of philosophers

And some can be a little mean:

  • an ugly of walruses
  • a murder of crows
  • a gaggle of gossips (or woman – not misogynist at all!)
  • an abominable sight of monks

A more exhaustive and quite amusing list of 15th century collective nouns can be found here. In addition, here is another list, created for English language learners, that includes first a long list, and then a very interesting reorganized list by term and reference.

So what’s your favorite? (So far, I’m going with a superfluity of nuns.)

A spring of teals in flight. (photo via Flickr)

A spring of teals in flight. (photo via Flickr)

Fun facts for the Ides of March

The 15th of March was not a good day for Caesar. It’s never really a good thing when your own BFF quite literally stabs you in the back.

I have more pleasant memories of this day from the year 2011. That was the day when a little thing called Freshly Pressed happened to my post, My Cat Says Hello. Before that day, I didn’t even know what it meant to be Freshly Pressed, but I was soon swept up in the dizzying whirlwind of going from single-number hits to thousands of hits in one day. Watching those numbers plummet two days later was like waking up from a Vegas bender with a killer hangover. But it was fun while it lasted.

Now they can't avoid the paparazzi.

Now they can’t avoid the paparazzi.

To celebrate the anniversary of the whirlwind, I decided to revisit the topic of animal communication and find out if anything interesting has developed since the girls made their Internet debut to help illustrate my post.

First, a word of warning: trying to do this on your own by searching Google for “animal communication” is far more likely than not to find you an animal psychic or therapist rather than information on the linguistic abilities of non-humans. I recommend at least switching to Google scholar to avoid the new age folks.

From what I could find, there is no new significant evidence to suggest that we are closer to understanding whether or not non-humans can use human language. One abstract from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B summed up the current state of our knowledge: studies have shown that animals can indeed learn to use a limited set of grammar-like rules, but we don’t know yet if they are able to handle the full complexity of human language. There aren’t enough experiments being done in this matter, partly because of the difficulty of designing an experiment that could provide convincing empirical evidence. The question is still open.

Understanding the limitations of what non-humans can do in regards to language may help us understand the nature of language and what makes it unique to humans. And in the meantime, we are learning more things about the communication systems that do exist among different groups of non-human animals. Just a week ago, a new study was released that explained a new understanding of how rats sniff to communicate certain social information, much as dogs and cats do.

Does anyone else have that Smashing Pumpkins song stuck in their heads?

Does anyone else have that Smashing Pumpkins song stuck in their heads?

Researchers basically observed in rats what has been seen in other mammals – including humans – with complex social orders: a communication system that conveys social order and appropriate behavior. When two rats approach each other, the dominant rat sniffs the submissive one more frequently, while the submissive rat sniffs less often. If the submissive rat sniffs too much, the dominant rat is more likely to get aggressive and put that rat in its place.

We humans don’t sniff, but we do certainly have ways of asserting social dominance. For one example, I’m instantly reminded of how men of lower status in Japan have to bow more deeply than their social superiors do. In another example, it also seems that “Men Act Like Dogs to Determine Dominance.” Dominant dogs have deeper growls and submissive dogs whine in a more high-pitched tone. Similarly, men who perceive themselves to be dominant compared to another man will lower the pitch of his voice. If he feels like he is the subordinate, he will “whine” and speak at a higher pitch.

But more often, we communicate this linguistically, and in ways we may not expect. According to psychologist James Pennebaker in his recent book, The Secret Life of Pronounsour pronouns can often reveal social or professional dominance: less dominant people use “I” more often than those more dominant. Also, people who are romantically interested in each other may start mimicking each other’s speech patterns, and so their pronouns and other function words may suddenly behave very similarly. You can even check your own use of pronouns on Pennebaker’s website.

So no, we are not necessarily any closer to knowing if we could teach animals to speak our language, but we seem to be getting more valuable information by observing the parallels between animals’ own behavioral and communication systems and our social and linguistic behavior. These parallels might give us more understanding about the link between social interaction, communication methods, and the development of language. Some linguists are looking more at that link rather than at individual grammatical systems to determine what they’re made of or how they are connected. Some psycholinguists, for example, are using computational methods from evolutionary biology to track how languages diverged and became separate, and what role social processes may have played in the rate of that language change.

But we’re also gaining knowledge of how to navigate our daily linguistic lives. Now you know that if you want to climb the social ladder, you must adjust your pronouns and voice pitch. Most importantly, however, don’t sniff other people too often unless you want to get smacked.