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The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom

By Anatoly Liberman
I have written more than once that the only hope to reform English spelling would be by doing it piecemeal, that is, by nibbling away at a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, reformers used to attack words like have and give and presented hav and giv to the irate public. This was too radical a measure; bushes exist for beating about them. Several chunks of orthographic fat are crying to be cut off.

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(Bi)Monthly Etymology Gleanings for July-August 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European.

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Understanding ‘the body’ in fairy tales

By Scott B. Weingart and Jeana Jorgensen
Computational analysis and feminist theory generally aren’t the first things that come to mind in association with fairy tales. This unlikely pairing, however, can lead to important insights regarding how cultures understand and represent themselves. For example, by looking at how characters are described in European fairy tales, we’ve been able to show how Western culture tends to bias the younger generation, especially the men.

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Grammar sticklers may have OCD

By Dennis Baron
It used to be we thought that people who went around correcting other people’s grammar were just plain annoying. Now there’s evidence they are actually ill, suffering from a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder (OCD/ODD). Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.

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I been, I seen, I done

By Anatoly Liberman
The forms in the title are substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English, and the universally understood reference to the genre called whodunit (it originated about seventy years ago) testifies to its partial victory. I have often heard the question about their origin and will try to answer it, though my information is scanty and to the best of my knowledge, a convincing theory of whodunit (the construction, not the genre) is lacking, which does not augur well for a detective story.

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Computers read so you don’t have to

By Dennis Baron
Machines can grade essays just as well as human readers. According to the New York Times, a competition sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation produced software able to match human essay readers grade for grade, and a study of commercially-available automatic grading programs showed that computers assessed essays as accurately as human readers, but a whole lot faster, and cheaper, to boot. But that’s just the start: computers could lead to a reading-free future.

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Languages, Species, and Biological Parallels

By Stephen R. Anderson
Human languages are not biological organisms, despite the temptation to talk about them as “being born,” “dying,” “competing with one another,” and the like.  Nonetheless, the parallels between languages and biological species are rich and wonderful.  Sometimes, in fact, they are downright eerie…

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Many thanks to those who responded to the recent posts on adverbs, spelling, and cool dudes in Australia. I was also grateful for friendly remarks on the Pippi post and the German text of Lindgren Astrid’s book (in German, spunk, the Swedish name of the bug with green wings, as I now know, remained spunk).

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Spelling. I am grateful for the generous comments on my post in the heartbreak series “The Oddest English Spellings.” Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Bell at a congress in Coventry, and around that time I corresponded with Valerie Yule. A positive comment from Peter Demaere (Canada) reinforced my message. The situation is as odd as English spelling. Spelling reform had famous supporters from the start. Great linguists, including Walter W. Skeat and Otto Jespersen, and outstanding authors and public figures agreed that we should no longer spell the way we do.

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Learning not to curse in Arizona

By Dennis Baron
The Arizona State Senate is considering a proposal to fire teachers who swear. SB 1467 bans their use of any words that would violate FCC regulations against obscenity, indecency, and profanity on broadcast radio and television. A teacher would be suspended without pay after the first offence, fired after the third. Employers would also have the option of dismissing an instructor at the first curse.

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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for March

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many questions, some of which are familiar (they recur with great regularity) and others that are new and will answer a few today and the rest in a month’s time.

Nostratic Hypothesis. Our correspondent Mr. Steve Miller asked me whether I ever treat the topic of language evolution and, if I do, what I think of the Nostratic hypothesis.

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Monthly Gleanings for February 2012, Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
There has been a good deal to glean this month because the comments and responses have been numerous and also because, although February is a short month even in a leap year, in 2012 it had five Wednesdays. Among the questions was one about the profession and qualifications of an etymologist. It is a recurring question from young correspondents, and I have answered it briefly more than once, but always in the “gleanings.” It occurred to me that perhaps I should write a short essay on this subject and, if someone else asks me about such things in the future, I will be able to refer to this post. The rest will be discussed next week.

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Slang evolution = lush

In these videos, The Life of Slang author Julie Coleman tells us how — and how fast — slang can spread from one side of the globe to another, and gives us 26 ways of saying ‘groovy’.

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How to communicate like a Neandertal…

By Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
Neandertal communication must have been different from modern language. Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. They were a distinct population that had a separate evolutionary history for several hundred thousand years.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., Rhetorically Speaking

Each year on the third Monday of January, we’re reminded of the practice of civil disobedience, of overcoming (and sometimes succumbing to) overwhelming adversities over which we have but marginal control, and of the power that language has to effect change in the world.

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