What is it about language that gets people so hot under the collar? That drives them to spend hours arguing with strangers on the internet, to go around correcting misspelt signs in the dead of night, or even to threaten acts of violence? The languages we speak are central to our sense of self, so it is not surprising that their finer points can become a battleground. Passionate feelings about what’s right and wrong extend from the use of “disinterested” to what gay people are allowed to call themselves. Here are some of the most memorable rows, spats and controversies.
A so-called “grammar vigilante” has been correcting shop fronts in Bristol, England, for more than a decade. His pet peeve is the confusion of plain old plurals with possessives, which in English are usually marked by an apostrophe followed by an S. Confronted with a sign advertising “Amy’s Nail’s”, he will obliterate the second apostrophe with a sticker. Addressing the potentially illegal nature of his mission in a BBC report, he said: “It’s more of a crime that the apostrophe is wrong in the first place”. Linguist Rob Drummond disagrees: “Fetishising the apostrophe as if its rules are set in stone,” he writes, “and then fostering an environment in which it is acceptable to take pleasure in uncovering other people’s linguistic insecurities is not OK.”
Are you really disinterested?
Use this word at your own risk. If what you want to say is “lacking in interest” then brace yourself, because there’s an army of people who will point out that it should be “uninterested”, and that “disinterested” must mean “impartial”. They are sticklers for what they regard as the correct meaning, and have taken up columnist William Safire’s command to “rear up and rage, rage against the dying of an enlightening distinction”. The problem is that if a word is more frequently used to mean one thing than another, then that’s effectively what it means: you can’t fight a linguistic consensus. The news for pedants gets worse, however. The OED tells us that the use of “disinterested” to mean not interested or unconcerned has been around since at least the 17th century, used by no less a stylist than the poet John Donne.
Shipshape and patriarchal
“It is an insult to a generation of sailors … a ship is like a mother.” An incensed Admiral Lord West was speaking earlier this year about the Scottish Maritime Museum’s decision to stop using “she” to describe ships and boats on its information signs. The move, made after the female pronouns were scratched out by persons unknown, provoked a furious debate, with feminists arguing that the tradition was anachronistic and “perpetuat[ed] the patriarchal view” while naval enthusiasts claimed it was “political correctness gone mad”. Unlike English, many languages force speakers to assign a gender to inanimate objects, and there is evidence that it influences the way they think about them. For example, “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. When asked by researchers to pick words they associated with it, German speakers chose adjectives like “beautiful”, “elegant”, “pretty” and “slender” and the Spanish speakers chose “big”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”.
The fact that we used to make fun of George W Bush for his malapropisms seems quaint these days. But it was worrying to many of us at the time that the man in charge of the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal didn’t seem to be able to pronounce it right. He said “nucular” and it was one more black mark against his intelligence. But this syllable-flip is in fact a fairly common linguistic process called metathesis. All English speakers live with the results of historic metatheses that caught on: horse used to be “hros” and bird used to be “brid”.
Trumped by language
Now we have far greater opportunities for ridicule in Donald Trump, whose multisyllabic manglings have become world famous: “covfefe” anyone? But acting as a linguistic irritant appears to be a family trait. Journalist Eve Peyser has kept tabs on words the president’s daughter Ivanka seemed to misuse in public pronouncements, and they included relative (“my husband keeps incredibly long hours, so I try to keep mine on a relative basis”), otherwise (“Cuddling my little nephew Luke, the best part of an otherwise incredible day!”) and “indeniably” (“Indeniably it’s very expensive to raise children”).
When commas change history
Let’s just hope none of the Trump family gets to rewrite the US constitution, because it’s there that linguistic quirks get really serious. Its precise wording, even punctuation, has been endlessly scrutinised, sometimes with life-and-death consequences. The second amendment states that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The comma after the word “arms” has been used to argue that the framers of the constitution believed the right of an individual to own a gun was more important than collective self-defence. That interpretation ultimately resulted in the striking down of some Washington DC gun controls, which had been among the strictest in the nation.
‘Please return the word “gay”’
The word used to refer to gay people has been controversial in several languages, not least English, where people railed against the co-option of the term until quite recently. In 1990 an anonymous journalist wrote a piece for Newsweek headlined “Please return the word ‘gay’”. “It is of the least possible concern to me what homosexuals do with one another in the privacy of their homes … But I want the word ‘gay’ back. ‘Gay’ used to be an extremely useful word. It showed up frequently in poetry and prose – Shakespeare used it 12 times.” Fast forward 30-odd years and a similar row is playing out in China, where the word tongzhi, whose literal meaning is “comrade” increasingly only has one interpretation. That didn’t stop the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary from prudishly refusing to list its common connotation, with one compiler telling the BBC they “did not want to draw attention to its more colloquial meaning”.
The Ebonics controversy
In 1996 the school board of Oakland, California, decided to recognise the dialect of many of its African American pupils, which it called “Ebonics”, as a language. It would henceforth be used to “facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English-language skills”. The move became a major flashpoint in the US culture wars after being attacked by commentators across the country. Then Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel labelled it “a big mistake” and black leaders weighed in, too, with Jesse Jackson writing “in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language”. But the Linguistic Society of America took a different view. It said: “Characterisations of Ebonics as ‘slang’, ‘mutant’, ‘lazy,’ ‘defective’, ‘ungrammatical’, or ‘broken English’ are incorrect and demeaning” and argued that evidence from other countries suggested its use in the classroom would help students. The storm of criticism stifled sensible discussion of the issue for years. “Ever since,” according to the Economist, “any recognition that there is such a thing as Ebonics sets people foaming at the mouth.”
You may have been told that it’s bad to split your infinitives in English – that you should never put anything between “to” and the verb – meaning a sentence like: “She wanted to fully support him” would be wrong. This was certainly a tenet of prescriptive works (like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style) and classroom instruction for much of the 20th century. But the Chicago Manual of Style dropped its objection in 1983, and there are relatively few pedants now prepared to die on a hill to keep the infinitive joined in matrimony. The origins of the “rule” are shrouded in mystery, with perhaps its earliest appearance in an 1803 grammar guide. But in reality, English speakers have been splitting their infinitives for hundreds of years. For an edict that’s never been properly observed, it has loomed surprisingly large in the grammatical consciousness.
Don’t call me ‘le president’
The self-appointed guardians of French, a once dominant language assailed by the rise and rise of English, can be especially touchy about changes to the conventions that govern speech. Particularly, it seems, when you add gender to the mix. In 2014 a row over whether masculine titles should be changed when the bearer is a woman erupted in the French National Assembly. Conservative representative Julien Aubert insisted on referring to socialist Sandrine Mazetier as Madame le president, using the masculine article and noun ending. Mazetier responded that he must call her Madame la presidente, and when he refused, she fined him €1,378 (£1,230).
Bollocks to jargon
In the late 2000s, the problem of obscure government language was getting so bad that the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee wrote a report on it. They referred back to comments by Tessa Jowell who, as culture secretary, said: “I have what I call a ‘bollocks list’, where I just sit in meetings and I write down some of the absurd language we use.” The report notes: “The unlovely language of this unreal world floats along on a linguistic sea of roll-outs, step changes, public domains, fit for purposes, stakeholder engagements, across the pieces, win-wins, level playing fields and going forwards.” In what must be a rare rebuke of Latin from a Conservative leadership hopeful, Michael Gove lamented that: “Since becoming a member of parliament I’ve been learning a new language … No one ever uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word, or a concrete example, where a Latinate construction or a next-to-meaningless abstraction can be found.”
Buried in translation
An interesting sub-genre of language controversy is the tiny translation error that has gigantic geopolitical ramifications. In 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev told western ambassadors at an event in Moscow My vas pokhoronim!, using a Russian idiom that means roughly “we will outlast you” – in other words, that communism would prevail in the long run. Against the background of a nuclear arms race, the English translation, “we will bury you”, took on an altogether more sinister meaning, particularly when it was splashed across the front pages of western newspapers. Five years later the Cuban missile crisis brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.
Polite to a fault
Richard Nixon was foxed by elaborate Japanese politeness in 1969. Prime minister Eisaku Satō visited the White House amid a trade row over textile imports. Nixon’s job was to get him to agree to restrict them. According to the New York Times, “Mr Sato replied as he looked ceilingward, Zensho shimasu. Literally, the phrase means: ‘I will do my best,’ and that’s how the interpreter translated it. What it really means to most Japanese is: ‘No way.’” When the Japanese government did precisely nothing, Nixon was furious, branding Sato a liar.
There’s often a dark side to disputes over language: they are often the medium through which inter-ethnic conflicts are brutally expressed. Linguists Marko Dragojevic and colleagues recount the story of a cafe in an area of Bosnia and Herzegovina controlled by Croatians during the 1992-95 war. “On its menu, the cafe offered its customers coffee at three different prices, depending on which pronunciation customers used to order the item. Kava, indexing a Croatian, and by extension, Catholic identity, was sold for the modest price of 1 Deutsche Mark. Kafa, indexing a Serbian and Orthodox Christian identity, was not available for sale. Finally, kahva, indexing a Bosnian Muslim identity, cost the customer a ‘bullet in the forehead’.”
The Waitangi swindle
In 1840, the British government and more than 500 local chiefs signed a bilingual agreement that made New Zealand a colony. English missionaries had translated the draft of the Treaty of Waitangi into Maori but the two versions had important differences. The New Zealand Ministry of Culture explains that “in Maori it gave Queen Victoria governance [kawanatanga] over the land, while in English it gave her sovereignty over the land, which is a stronger term”. The English text also assured the Maori that they would have “undisturbed possession” of all their “properties”, whereas the Maori translation merely gave them tino rangatiratanga (full authority) over taonga (treasures) – a more nebulous term.
If you’re a ruler with absolute power there’s nothing to stop you issuing any manner of linguistic decrees. Turkish leader Atatürk, for example, masterminded the abolition of the Arabic script and the adoption of a Latin-based alphabet in 1928. In 2002, in another country where a Turkic language is spoken, a more eccentric set of reforms failed to meet with universal approval. Turkmen president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov decided to rename the months and days of the week according to some of his favourite things: April changed from Aprel to Gurbansoltan, which happened to be Niyazov’s mum’s name. January was no longer Ýanwar, but Türkmenbaşy, which means “leader of the Turkmen” and was one of Niyazov’s self-bestowed titles. A Turkmen source told the BBC: “It seems like he lives on another planet,” and the changes never gained popular legitimacy. They were reversed in 2008, two years after his death.
A country at odds
Belgium is a country divided between Walloons who speak French, and Flemings who speak Flemish, a variety of Dutch (Walloon and Fleming are the demonyms for people from Wallonia and Flanders). The linguistic conflict simmers in places like Linkebeek, whose population is 85% francophone, despite being in Flanders. In 2010, the Guardian reported that the man who had been elected mayor on 66% of the local vote was barred from taking office because he sent out election literature in French to French speakers, and not in Dutch as the law stipulated. Conflict over language and identity was at the heart of Belgium’s failure to form a government for 589 days in 2010–11, setting a record for a democracy.
Agree to disagree
Linguists use the word “agreement” to describe the way the form of a word can change depending on its relationship with other words in a sentence. For example, if a man is named, then at second mention a pronoun can be used instead, but it has to “agree” in gender and number – so it would be “he” not “she”. But can it also be “they”? “They” is traditionally regarded as being plural: it refers to more than one person. As a result, sentences like: “If someone wants me, tell them I’ll be in the kitchen” are frowned upon. But, as so often with grammatical bugbears regarded as dastardly innovations, this kind of usage has been around a long time – since at least 1375, according to the OED. And now, of course, “they” is increasingly being used to refer to those who do not identify with gender-specific pronouns. A key pedantic bastion fell in 2017, when the Chicago Manual of Style changed its advice to read “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected”.
Are you literally kidding?
How can a word come to mean its opposite? That’s against nature, surely. Except when you consider “cleave” or “sanction”, so-called auto-antonyms (you can cleave something apart or together; you can sanction a behaviour, then sanction someone for doing it). But enough of them. Literally seems to be a word on a journey from one meaning – “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically” – to its polar opposite – “the strongest possible version of a figurative or allegorical sense”. Once more, this is a journey that began far earlier than you might think. The OED records the following sentence, from 1825: “Lady Kirkclaugh … literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart”. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote “I literally blazed with wit” in 1847. That hasn’t stopped repeated shock not only at the usage itself, but at dictionaries’ radical decisions to include it. “Merriam-Webster caves in: ‘literally’ now means ‘figuratively’” declared one blog in 2011. “Merriam-Webster says the word can now mean its exact opposite” reported Salon in 2013. The pedant community is convulsed like this every few years despite the fact that, according to Merriam- Webster’s own lexicographers, the definition has been sitting there for all to see since 1909.
Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in August
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