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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Kotodama: the multi-faced Japanese myth of the spirit of language

By Naoko Hosokawa
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse.

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Casting a last spell: After Skeat and Bradley

By Anatoly Liberman
I think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if the answer is yes, what should we do? Conversely, if no, why no? 

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Etymology as a profession

By Anatoly Liberman
Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.

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Jane Austen and the art of letter writing

By Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
Letter writing manuals were popular throughout Jane Austen’s lifetime, and it’s possible then that Jane Austen might have had access to one. Letter writing manuals contained “familiar letters on the most common occasions in life”, and showed examples of what a letter might look like to people who needed to learn the art of letter writing.

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What does he mean by ‘I love you?’

By Cristina Soriano
Have you ever had difficulty expressing your emotions in words? Have people misinterpreted what you feel even if you name it? If you speak more than one language, you’re almost certain to have answered “yes”.

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How the Humanities changed the world

By Rens Bod
Have insights from the humanities ever led to breakthroughs, or is any interpretation of a text, painting, musical piece, or historical event as good as any other? I have long been fascinated with this question. To be sure, insights from the humanities have had an impact on society.

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Thinking about the mind: an anti-linguistic turn

By Bence Nanay
Contemporary philosophy of mind is an offshoot of philosophy of language. Most formative figures of modern philosophy of mind started out as philosophers of language. This is hardly surprising – almost everyone in that generation started out as a philosopher of language. But this focus on language left its mark on the way we now think about the mind – and this is not necessarily a good thing.

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Whoa, or “the road we rode”

By Anatoly Liberman
The world has solved its gravest problems, but a few minor ones have remained. Judging by the Internet, the spelling of whoa is among them. Some people clamor for woah, which is a perversion of whoa and hence “cool”; only bores, it appears, don’t understand it. I understand the rebels but wonder.

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Dialect and identity: Pittsburghese goes to the opera

By Barbara Johnstone
On a Sunday afternoon in November I am at the Benedum Center with hundreds of fellow Pittsburghers watching a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s the second act, and Papageno the bird-man has just found his true love. The English super-titles help us decipher what he is saying as he starts to exit the stage.

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Buzzword shaming

By Mark Peters
I recently wrote about the proliferation of the lexical formula “X-shaming,” launched by slut-shaming and body-shaming and taken to preposterous extremes by words such as filter-shaming and fedora-shaming. Everywhere you look, someone is talking about shaming. The hyphen is optional, but the topic is increasingly mandatory.

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Edwin Battistella’s Word of the Year Fantasy League

By Edwin Battistella
Oxford Dictionaries have been collecting lexicographic material and updating dictionaries for over a century now, though its Word of the Year award is still relatively recent. Only since 2004 Oxford Dictionaries have been selecting a word that captures the mood of the previous year. Thinking about the possible contenders for 2013 (twerk? fail? drone? shutdown? bitcoin?) got me to wondering about the past.

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Edwin Battistella’s words

By Edwin Battistella
The annual Word of the Year selection by Oxford Dictionaries and others inspired me to an odd personal challenge last year. In November of 2011, about the time that Oxford Dictionaries were settling on squeezed middle as both the UK and US word of the year, I made a New Year’s Resolution for 2012.

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Lincoln’s rhetoric in the Gettysburg Address

By Jeanne Fahnestock
Perhaps no speech in the canon of American oratory is as famous as the “Dedicatory Remarks” delivered in a few minutes, one hundred and fifty years ago, by President Abraham Lincoln. And though school children may no longer memorize the conveniently brief 272 words of “The Gettysburg Address,” most American can still recall its opening and closing phrases.

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An interlude

By Anatoly Liberman
Every word journalist is on the lookout for interesting pieces of information about language. H. W. Fowler, the author of the great and incomparable book Modern English Usage, confessed that his main reading was newspapers. Naturally: where else could he find so much garbled English?

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