Teaching Registers

The Economist’s Prospero blog has a post on the necessity of teaching different registers of speech. It uses Portuguese as an example, which I can’t speak to, not knowing the language, but the fundamental point the article makes is a good one: “Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing.”

It’s a good point. Students are smart, and they instinctively know how to switch registers—they do it all the time in their own speech. The only thing that needs to be done is make them aware that they do it. It’s not a difficult concept.

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Depicting World Languages

A neat visualization of the twenty-three most popular languages, depicted proportionally by the number of speakers.

The graphic was created by Alberto Lucas Lopéz for the South China Morning Post.

Data like this is always a bit suspect, but this chart is based on the information at Ethnologue.com, which is generally pretty good. The biggest problem is that it represents only the top twenty-three languages, leaving out the other six thousand or so. It also only captures L1, or first-language users. The total number of English speakers, for example, is much larger. It also fails to capture dialectal differences; for example Chinese is not as unified as the chart makes it out to be. Still, it’s a useful visualization in many ways.

For me, the most surprising thing in the image is the realization that French has relatively few speakers. There are some 87 million additional L2 speakers, but that’s still not a lot compared to the other languages on the chart. I would have guessed that it would have been much higher. Still, in the rankings of all world languages, French is in the top one percent.

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Book Review: The Language Myth

Vyvyan Evans’s The Language Myth is something of a polemic. In the book Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University in the UK, takes on the dominant paradigm of twentieth century linguistics, the universal grammar of Noam Chomsky, especially as popularized by Steven Pinker in books like The Language Instinct. Evans’s book is, to say the least, controversial, and I am not fully qualified to judge its merits. (But this being the internet, I’m going to anyway.)

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The word Luddite presents an interesting case of a word. It’s a word that was used for over a century, albeit rather rarely, to refer to a specific historical series of events. Then, in the late 1950s use of the word’s exploded, but with a subtle shift in its original meaning. 

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A Tawdry Comic

Dinosaur Comics is one of my favorites, often riffing on linguistic issues. Today we get a double bonus: etymology and Anglo-Saxon history.

Here is the Big List entry on tawdry.

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dog, hound

The short answer is that we don’t know for sure where the word dog comes from. Canis may be familiarus, but its name is something of a mystery.

The word docga does go back to Old English, but it appears only three times in the extant corpus of pre-Conquest writing, once in a gloss, and three times as part of a place name. The genitive plural form docgena glosses the Latin canum, and is used twice in the description of property boundaries in a charter: doggene ford (dog’s ford) and doggene berwe (dog’s hill). The place name doggiþorn (dog-thorn) appears in another charter. In the twelfth century, the surname Dogheafd (Doghead) is recorded, and several other surnames that use dog as an element date to the post-Conquest era.

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See dog.

Review: Curzan’s The Secret Life of Words

I’ve been a bit leery of The Great Courses , a line of products that offers downloadable lectures by university professors. The idea combines two things that I have problems with: the whole massive open online course (MOOC) idea and paying for internet content.

MOOCs, or at least the way they’ve been touted as the savior of higher education, are problematic for a lot of reasons, but none of them apply to The Great Courses. One thing that MOOCs are good for is offering course content to those who simply want to learn—an open university. As to the second, I listen to a lot of audio podcasts—when I’m walking the dog or riding the subway into work. And there’s a lot of great audio content that is free (that is offered at no charge by the creator; I’m not talking about pirated stuff), so paying for content seems wasteful. And to one living on a grad student’s stipend, free is important. But it’s not just a personal problem; The Great Courses offerings are expensive, often running $200 or more for a course. 

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OxfordWords Blog: Jazz & Baseball

I’ve done a piece on the OxfordWords Blog on the origins of jazz and the word’s connection to baseball. There is no new breakthrough or original contribution here—I’m standing on the shoulders of giants—but if you’re not familiar with how jazz got its name, it should be of interest.

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The word gospel has a rather straightforward etymology. It’s an alteration of the Old English godspell, a compound of god (good) + spell (news, account). In Old English usage the meaning was not restricted to the four books of the Christian Bible that detail the life of Christ—although it was used in that restricted sense too—but the word could also be used to refer to the body of texts that professed Christian doctrine. And even though the word is made up entirely of Germanic roots, the word was influenced by Latin and Greek.

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