Posts Tagged ‘Language Log’

They

December 14, 2017

Over the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of singular they — not with reference to an indeterminate person of unknown sex, as is by now generally accepted, except in the stodgiest circles, or even of known sex, as found in Shakespeare — but (as discussed a few years ago by Mark Liberman) referring to a particular person of known gender, and even more specifically to a person identifying as non-binary. The storm was started by Geoff Pullum’s statement that for him “singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent.” He added,

I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I’ll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Despite the disclaimer, numerous people took offense. I have criticized Geoff Pullum on occasion, but I never came anywhere near the vehemence that was expressed in these posts and comments.

It may very well be, however, that if the use by young people as described by Mark Liberman expands, some day they will become the default third-person singular pronoun, just as you has become the second-person one.

What this means in the future (I don’t expect to be around for it) is that, just as with you, people will struggle to find an alternative to plain they as the plural pronoun. Will the Irish say theys? The British they lot or them lot? Southern Americans they-all? Or will the putative “General American” they guys or them guys take over?

Any bets?

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Multilingual label

January 27, 2015

The eminent sinologist Victor Mair, a frequent contributor to Language Log, likes to post about linguistic oddities to be found  on signs, labels, menus and the like that are written at least partly in East Asian Languages, especially when Chinese characters are involved.

I have before me a box of cookies of the type called mandelbroyt in Yiddish (literally ‘almond-bread,’ sometimes anglicized as mandelbread). They are pretty much the equivalent of what are known as biscotti in North America and cantuccini in Italy, one of many instances where an Italian culinary term is used with a different meaning from what it has in Italian (latte, gelato, prosciutto, marinara, pepperoni…).

Here is the label, with some cookies in the background (the box is made of clear plastic):

schwartz

The label seems to be bilingual. The Hebrew characters on the second line do, in fact, represent a translation of the English on the first line (kehilla is a Hebrew word meaning ‘community,’ and specifically, at least historically, the organized Jewish community of a city). But a translation into what?

Reading from right to left, the first two words,  השגחת קהילה, mean ‘supervision of kehilla’ in Hebrew. So far so good.

The next character, ד, is a one-letter word pronounced [də] and meaning ‘of,’ but in Aramaic, not Hebrew!

It’s a rule of Hebrew writing, by the way, that one-letter words (mainly prepositions, conjunctions and articles) are attached to the following word. This is not the case if the letters represent abbreviations, but then they must be followed by a period or an apostrophe; most notable are the abbreviations ’י  and ’ה  representing יהוה (Yahweh, which of course must never, never be pronounced).

Now, what follows ד is לאס אנדזשעלעס, which is Los Angeles; but it is transcribed in Yiddish, not in Hebrew, in which it’s  לוס אנג’לס. In the Los part, note that Hebrew uses ו (vav) and Yiddish א (aleph; strictly speaking it should be אׇ) for the vowel represented by o. In Angeles, Yiddish has ע (‘ayin) for the vowels represented by e while Hebrew does not show them. And, finally, for the “soft g” ([dʒ]) sound Hebrew uses ‘ג, while Yiddish uses the trigraph דזש (something like dzsh).

So this simple-looking label is in fact quadrilingual!