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The imperative’s new clothes?

Q: I’ve searched all over the Internet for an explanation of the third-person imperative, but everybody seems to have a different opinion. I’m thoroughly confused. If you can help, I’ll be forever thankful. A: Strictly speaking, there...Show More Summary

Henny Penny, Chicken Little, Chicken Licken

While writing the other day, I wondered whether it would be widely understood if I used Chicken Little as a metaphor for a certain kind of language peever. It felt right, but I also knew the name Henny Penny (of the main character in the story--see comments for variations), both from my American childhood and from my child's English childhood. Show More Summary

Zuckerberg's Mandarin

The world is abuzz: "Zuckerberg Wows Beijing Audience With Fluent Mandarin", PCMag (10/22/14). Also on Facebook (of course), and many other sites, including this AP article that called Zuckerberg's pronunciation "far from fluent." See and hear for yourself: Post by Mark Zuckerberg. The audience went nuts over almost every syllable. Zuckerberg's Mandarin is not bad. […]

No word for father

Last week I read this article about the Mosuo people of southwest China:   "The Ethnic Group in China That Doesn’t Have a Word for Father" (10/13/14). The Mosuo are indeed famous for having a matrilineal society, and I had long been aware of their unusual marriage customs, but I was innately suspicious of this sensationalist […]

BEEP vegetables

Chinglish makes an appearance in the "Translators" segment of HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (10/19): For those who may have missed my old Language Log post, this classic Chinglishism was explained at great length and with many details in "The Etiology and Elaboration of a Flagrant Mistranslation" (12/9/07), with an update and refresher […]

Use It or Lose It.

We all know that babies are voracious learners and easily acquire language and that it gets harder to learn as you grow older, but this Guardian article by Nathalia Gjersoe puts it memorably (and doubtless oversimplifies the science) in the course of debunking the myth that the average person only uses 10% of their brain: […]

In case you get bored watching the paint dry…

R.B. writes: I'm sorry that I can't provide info on where it came from originally (and for all I know, it's an oldie-but-goodie).  I found it posted in a discussion group on Ravelry, which is a social networking site for knitters, spinners, weavers, and others who work with fiber.

Prok Prok Prok!

That’s the sound of applause in Indonesian, according to illustrator James Chapman in BuzzFeed, “explaining what the world sounds like in different languages.” The illustrations are a delight and I haven’t noticed any obvious errors in the multilingual onomatopoeia; there’s not much else to say except go, look, enjoy! (Also, it’s interesting, now that he […]

Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited

John Templon, "No, Obama’s Pronouns Don’t Make Him A Narcissist", BuzzFeed News 10/19/2014: Conservative commentators are fond of pointing to Barack Obama’s excessive use of the word “I” as evidence of the president’s narcissism. (“For...Show More Summary

The Revision (1864).

Back in 2009 I was posting enthusiastically about The Oxford History of English Lexicography, and in this post I discussed “Major American Dictionaries,” going straight from Joseph Worcester’s Dictionary of the English Language (1860)...Show More Summary

Rule of / by law

Because it has been very much in the news in recent days, the question of how to translate the Chinese term f?zhì ?? (lit., "law-rule / govern") has come up.  Should it be "rule of law" or "rule by law"? First of all, let's look at the numbers: 1. "rule of law"  6,080,000 ghits Quick […]


I’m continuing to read Abulafia’s The Great Sea (see this post), and I have to share this striking passage (the year is 1867, and Ismail is Isma’il Pasha): Politically, Ismail found he had to steer a careful course. He persuaded the Sublime Porte to grant him a new title and the automatic right of succession […]

Embarrassing amnesia

[This is a guest post by David Moser] Part I I was giving a talk the other day, in Chinese, to Chinese students, about English pedagogy (go figure).  I wanted to mention something about the difficulty of remembering how to write Chinese characters, and I chose to use an example of the idiom ???? tao1guang1yang3hui4, […]

The genitive wars

Q: I question the use of an apostrophe in “Seven Years’ War.” I assume that “Seven Years” is simply an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “War.” However, your “Sui Genitive!” post supports the apostrophe. I have a book on the subject due for publication next year, and I want the correct punctuation on the cover!... ? Read More: The genitive wars

The Prehistory of Prehistory.

A 2006 paper (pdf) by Peter Rowley-Conwy, “The Concept of Prehistory and the Invention of the Terms ‘Prehistoric’ and ‘Prehistorian’: The Scandinavian Origin, 1833–1850? (European Journal of Archaeology 9:103–130), not only antedates by twenty years the OED’s first citation for the English word (1871 E. B. Tylor Primitive Culture II. 401 “The history and pre-history […]

Etymology in the rain forest

"Scientist discovers puppy-sized spider in rain forest", ABC 11 Eyewitness News 10/20/2014: For all readers with arachnophobia, take a moment to collect yourself before proceeding further, because this spider will haunt your dreams.Show More Summary

The “worse” case

Q: I’m puzzled by the grammar of this sentence: “Worse, the huge sums spent on subsidizing kerosene make a mockery of government health spending.” What part of speech is the word “worse” here? A: “Worse” has many functions in English—it can be an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. When it introduces a sentence or... ? Read More: The “worse” case

A Surprising New Sign Language.

Julie Sedivy of the University of Calgary (previously cited at LH here) has a post with the hyperbolic, but apparently not actually deceptive, title “The Unusual Language That Linguists Thought Couldn’t Exist”: Languages, like human bodies, come in a variety of shapes—but only to a point. Just as people don’t sprout multiple heads, languages tend […]

Ebola fear stalks Bloomberg headlines

Bloomberg News is notorious for its bizarre, impenetrable headlines. There's a whole Tumblr blog devoted to strange Bloomberg headlines, and Quartz last year ran an article looking into "how Bloomberg headlines got to be so odd." Here's a new one, spotted by David Craig and Brett Wilson: Mark Liberman noted another Bloomberg specimen last January: […]

Berber: classification, Tasahlit, roots vs. stems

Today seems to be a good week for comparative Berber linguistics - the day's haul is worth sharing: Maarten Kossmann has uploaded his preliminary classification of Berber varieties based on shared innovations: Berber subclassification (preliminary version). Show More Summary

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