Friday, 30 January 2015

More pronoun fun

As an update to the pronoun post, here's a good alternative pronoun set from Futurama, brought to my attention by Jonathan Kasstan.

However, despite the pronouns shkle and so on being required because Yivo is gender-neutral, there's a replacement for each of him and her: shklim and shkler.
Yivo is the lover of all beings male and female. But Yivo has no gender. Thus Yivo has proclaimed that instead of he or she we are to use the word shkle. And instead of him or her we are to use the word shklim or shkler.

Specification of pronouns

Sigh. Another silly article. It discusses the perfectly valid point that it would be good to have a gender-neutral pronoun so that people who identify as neither male nor female do not feel excluded, but then it says:
"For those now considering commenting to suggest that there’s a perfectly fine existing neutral pronoun – “they” – remember that pronouns must match both gender and number. So in the case of single individuals, it’s grammatically inaccurate." 
WRONG. As we know, what's grammatical is what speakers find to be grammatical, including singular 'they' for most people. (Let's also overlook the fact that in saying that 'pronouns must match... gender' it precisely contradicts the point of the article, which is that we want a pronoun that isn't specified for gender.) Fortunately, someone in the comments section was there to help them out:
"If pronouns have to agree on number and gender why aren't you campaigning for new words to separate you (singular) from you (plural)?" 
The technical term for this is 'underspecification': forms might be specified for number, gender, and person (first/second/third), and if any of these is not present, it's underspecified for that feature and it can 'match' with anything. So, for instance, we might say that you is not specified for number. In fact, it probably is, as it has to occur with the plural form of the verb (were rather than was, for instance), just like they does. And then of course in French the pronoun used to refer to 'you (singular)' is either singular or plural, depending on whether one is being polite (tu/vous) with appropriate singular/plural verb agreement. 

This is a much more sensible article on the matter.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Two wrongs don't make a right

I saw this cartoon tweeted recently:

It's the old chestnut that a double negative actually makes a positive, and if you say the non-standard phrase 'I didn't do nothing' you are in fact saying that you did something. It's used to try to shame or humiliate people into using the Standard English single negative: 'I didn't do anything'.

This is quite silly. Generally, linguists point out that lots and lots of other languages have double negatives as the standard form, and so it's ridiculous to suggest that it's somehow illogical. Italian is yer go-to example here, and for some reason it's always about telephoning: 'non ha telefonato nessuno', or 's/he hasn't telephoned nobody'. Jack Chambers has pointed out that as most non-standard English varieties have double negation (more technically called negative concord), perhaps it is in some way more 'natural' than the artificial standard of single negation that is imposed on us.

But even more than this, it's not even true that a double negative will be interpreted as a positive. It can be, if you give it the right intonation. But it's a very specific intonation with a pretty strong emphasis on the 'nothing'. Without that, there's simply no way that it can possibly mean 'I did something'. Anyone at all would interpret it was meaning what it's meant to mean. They might be a pedant about it and pretend not to understand, but they definitely would. And even in a criminal trial, where testimony has to be unambiguous, I don't think that they would try to hang the crime on the guy for using this syntactic construction.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Coloured people and People of Colour

Might as well join in with the Cumberbashing, as I've got nowt else better to do.

So today Benedict Cumberbatch is all over the news for a relatively innocuous slip up. I say innocuous, because it wasn't as bad as various other much worse things people have been saying recently (and say in real life every day), but it is of course still important to point out when people in the public eye use terminology that is offensive or inappropriate.

In this case, it can't be that offensive because all the newspapers have repeated the word he used: 'coloured', to refer to black actors who aren't getting the jobs they ought to. For context, this was until relatively recently the correct term to use, and grandparents are still apt to use it thinking it's the right word. However, either it was never right and now we know better, or else language has changed, because now it sounds really inappropriate and not at all the right word to use.

But ANYWAY even though clearly Cumberbatch was being a good person and pointing out racial inequality and calling for change, the media has stirred up a great big fuss over it (which I'm now contributing to, sorry) and people have got their knickers in a twist over 'political correctness gone mad'.


Firstly, this is not PC language. Or rather, it is, but only in the sense that PC means 'not being a dick'. It's really basic courtesy to not offend people more than you absolutely have to. If it's a simple matter of using a different word, that's not such a hardship. Secondly, it's not about deliberately finding new PC terms to use to deliberately make bigots' life harder. Language changes. Deal with it.

But I was wondering about the people complaining about overly-sensitive people getting offended by what they perceive as such a little thing. Probably some people were offended, but most do not appear to have been. There are not lots of people on the internet talking about boycotting his films, or even criticising him beyond a gentle reprimand. These people who are whinging about sensitive souls are saying we should consider his intentions, which were clearly good. This is true, we should do, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't also politely point out that he should not use that language. After all, no matter that the word is not as offensive as 'the n-word'; the unnoticed undermining of a person's identity by the almost unnoticed use of language by lots of generally right-thinking people is as important as the idiots using obviously offensive slurs. If it goes under the radar, it's more likely to go unchallenged and become part of the way we think about things.

Anyway I don't know what my point was, really, beyond a general moan that PC language ought to be a good thing but is only ever used in a negative way.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dogs shall be carried

I was in London recently, and while I was at King's Cross station I noticed that the escalators, which bear the usual safety warnings, now say among other things that 'Dogs shall be carried'. Maybe they've always said that, but it's more common to see the warning as 'Dogs must be carried'. This has given rise to the well-known joke, also seen in the recent Paddington film, in which a child is late for school and when asked why, he says that the sign said dogs must be carried and it took him ages to find a dog.

So my question is, does using 'shall' instead of 'must' remove this comedy interpretation or improve the sign in any way? No one really uses 'shall' any more, but it indicates future and apparently has some sense of being a command. 'Must' also expresses a command ('deontic necessity' - it can also express 'epistemic necessity' as in 'It must be cold outside'). Does 'shall' seem politer? Does a warning sign need to be polite? Unknown. Some more good suggestions here.

(photo credit not known; it's all over the internet)