Book Review: A History of Reading

Few people think to distinguish reading from writing. Most generally assume that these two skills are one and the same. Stephen Roger Fischer’s A History of Reading disabuses us of that notion. Fischer’s book is the third in a trilogy, the first two volumes addressing language and writing. This third volume focuses on reading, the various types of reading, how we do it, and the social significance of it.

First, the mental process of reading is quite different from speech or writing. We do not normally read individual phonemes or letters and accomplished readers may not even read individual words. Instead we take in entire phrases with a glance and use pattern recognition to render it comprehensible. Children learning to read do sound out individual phonemes, as do adults when they encounter unfamiliar and complex words, but once reading has been ingrained as a skill, most of us do not.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Genitive Pronominal Antecedents

After three months of repeated letter writing by Kevin Keegan, a Montgomery County, Maryland school teacher, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has thrown out a question on the 2002 PSAT exam, raising the scores of some 500,000 students. The issue at hand is whether or not the question as originally written was actually wrong.

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Myths of Language Change, Part 2: That’s Not What It Really Means

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

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Word of the Month: Usenet

Usenet, n., is a distributed bulletin board system. The term is an abbreviation for users’ network. Usenet was originally implemented in 1979-1980 to link computers at Duke University with those of the University of North Carolina. The system consisted of numerous discussion forums called newsgroups. Computers that functioned as newsservers would pass messages to one another. Usenet was originally conceived to carry local news and information, hence the names. By 1996, Usenet had over 10,000 newsgroups and an average of over 500 megabytes of information posted to it daily.

Usenet was not originally part of the Internet. Instead it was originally carried by the UUCPNET network of Unix computers. By the early 1990s, however, most of Usenet was being transferred over the Internet.

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Book Review: The Story of English (McCrum, et.al.) & The English Language (Barber)

Generally, we avoid reviewing older books in this space, but we make an exception this month. Over the past few years, several readers of the web site have asked about historical overviews of the English language. The essay A (Very) Brief History of the English Language on the wordorigins.org site is available, but this is simply a summary of major events and trends. Those who want a more detailed account have to look elsewhere. Here we take a look at two lengthy treatments of the topic.

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Myths of Language Change, Part 1: That’s Not A Real Word

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

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American Dialect: Upper Midwest

Even if you have never been there, most of us are familiar with the accent of the Upper Midwest states from movies such as Fargo (1996) and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Minnesota, and the Dakotas (a.k.a. Baja Manitoba) have some distinct features of pronunciation and vocabulary.

The patterns we examined last month also apply up here. The Northern Cities Shift is active in the region, but there are some other pronunciation changes that are unique to the Upper Midwest.

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Word Of The Month: Mount Everest

Fifty years ago this month, on 29 May 1953, two men, New Zealander Edmund Hillary (b. 1919) and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986) became the first humans to ascend to the summit of Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet (8848 meters) the highest mountain on earth.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of this event, our Word of the Month is:

Mount Everest, prop.n., Himalayan peak on the border of Nepal and Tibet, the highest in the world. It is named for Sir George Everest (1790-1866), surveyor-general of India. Cf. Chomolungma, Sagarmatha.

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War Words Part Deux

Last month, we featured various military terms that were likely to be on the news. Of course, predictions are not perfect. There are host of jargon and slang terms that have cropped up in the reporting on the war in Iraq. Here are some that we missed last month. Not all of these are relevant to or used in the current conflict. Some are historical, evoked by recent events.

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American Dialect: The Northern Cities Shift and the Great Lakes Region

The dialect of the inland north, or the Great Lakes region, has the distinction of being “normal” American speech. As such, it is often difficult to categorize and people from the region are often not recognized as having a distinct dialect at all. Of course they do have one; all people speak with a distinct dialect. It is just that in this case there is not much to distinguish it from what is considered “standard” American speech. But there is one very distinctive feature of the accent of the region. It is one of the more distinctive pronunciation patterns in American speech. It is known as the:

The Northern Cities Shift
The shift is evident is a swath of territory stretching from the Hudson River valley in New York, across northern Ohio and Indiana, to Chicago and Detroit, encompassing the rust-belt cities of the northern Midwest. The shift is a distinctive pronunciation of short vowel sounds that was first identified by linguist William Labov and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. Now, not everyone in the region displays the shift; many opt for “normal” American pronunciation. Some people only display the shift with specific vowels, opting for the standard pronunciation for the others. But if one spends any significant time in the region, one can begin to identify the shift.

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