R.I.P. Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma is dead.  (If you don’t know what the Oxford comma is anyway, look here for smart people to tell you.)   Well, more or less dead. The University of Oxford styleguide apparently was updated to now include the following guideline for punctuation:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’

Now, the Oxford comma has been dying a slow death for years. It hasn’t been popular in the UK for a long time, and, as the Huffington Post article also mentions, even American standard works such as the Associated Press Stylebook and the Canadian Stylebook made no use of it. So this has just been the coup de grace to the Oxford comma, which has been due for a long time.

And good riddance, I say. The Oxford comma never made much sense to me, though I admit that that fact probably arises from my linguistic background. You see, in German (and Italian, Polish, French, Spanish, and a lot of other languages) the Oxford comma is not only rarely, but never used. In many of these, it does in fact go against punctuation rules. Yet even if you leave that aside, its usage was never consistent, it was mostly redundant and it could create ambiguity as often as it would resolve it. I for one won’t miss it.

I’ve corrected a lot of essays and papers as well as blog posts and emails in my time, both during my studies and in my free time, and I’ve noticed one thing: no one ever gets punctuation right. It doesn’t matter whether it’s native speakers of English writing in English, native speakers of German writing in German, or native speakers of German writing in English (and probably many other combinations as well, those are just the ones I have the most experience with). It’s commas, semicolons and hyphens that are giving people the most trouble, even if they’re otherwise perfectly fluent in the language in question. And amongst these, the comma is the worst offender.

The main problem with commas is that the rules governing their usage are very versatile (just look at these), which often lures people into thinking that they can place a comma wherever they feel like. In addition, as mentioned above, commas fall under heavily different rulesets in foreign languages. Some people also tend to use commas as a means to transfer streams of consciousness into writing, using a comma as an excuse to run on with their already overlong sentence instead of breaking it up into two readable chunks.

But basically, there are two types of mistakes people will make when it comes to commas. They’re usually fairly consistent about it, too: they either use commas wherever possible, or not at all. Small wonder: since no one knows how to do commas correctly, people opt either to leave them out completely (to be on the safe side: so as not to put one where none belongs) or put them everywhere (to be on the safe side: so none is missing from somewhere one should be).

Why are commas so hard? I guess it might be because  they’re the part of punctuation least reflected in speech (which obviously predates written forms of language). You can more or less “hear” colons and question/exclamation marks. But you can’t hear commas, because they do not mark a pause or tone in speech, just a unit of meaning within the sentence. In a way, it’s similar to capitalization. We do not require it in speech and have, in fact, no way to mark it, but in written language, it occasionally becomes necessary for clarity and readability.

In that analogy of sentence structure and lettering, though, the English Oxford comma was like German’s “scharfes ß”…a relict of the past that only serves to confuse people anymore.

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Published in: on July 1, 2011 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Neologisms: how made-up words become actual words

Have you ever wondered why “to google” is actually a word now (it was added by the OED in June 2006), but “to yahoo” or “to msn” etc are not?  Now, the fact that “to google” can be found in the OED was of course not what made it a word, it just gave some justification to its already widespread usage. After all, despite my great respect for the folks working on it, the OED is not the authoritative judge of what is an English word and what is not.

The truth is that there is no definitive authority, either for the English language nor any other widely-used language, which decides whether something is a word or not. After all, a language is not a list of words and rules that are set in stone. And if you don’t believe that, go watch this very intelligent man called Stephen Fry explain to you why you might just be wrong. I’ll wait for you here. Back? Good. As I was saying, language is a living entity that is constantly evolving through usage, and it evolves in new and unexpected forms in lexis, grammar and all other aspects. Nowadays most people will understand what you mean when you say “I heard about xyz and didn’t know what it was, so I googled it”.  But how did it come to that? Quite simply, actually. Someone must have used it first. Then other people started to use it, too, thinking it made sense. It spread and spread and spread and eventually so many people used it that it had become generally accepted. The fact that Google is the most widely-used search engine favoured its rise over “to yahoo” or “to msn”, if there ever were such terms.

New words are constantly coined, especially in the sciences. The easiest way for one of these coinages to be used outside a tightly-knit circle such as the community of neurobiologists in a lab somewhere at the UCL or you and your friends at the bar is simply for the new word to fill a lexical gap. This is very easy when it comes to new inventions such as the car or the computer. We needed a word for it, someone called it computer, we then had a word for it, and then we used it. It’s even less difficult to introduce a new word if you’re introducing the thing it names at the same time, of course. You call an iPad and iPad because Steve Jobs thought it would be a neat idea to call it that. If you were to suddenly call it an iCrap, you might be closer to an apt name for it, but few people would join in because an iPad already has a name. If there is already a term that describes the item, idea or general concept of what you’re trying to name, it’ll be very hard to get people to use your word. For instance, you’d be hard pressed to get everyone to call a car a tuma (I just made that up).

Still, words can enter lexical competition and newer words can replace older terms regarding widespread usage. Sometimes they will then exist side by side and be interchangeable, especially if their meanings are not 100% the same. A good example for this is the German word for handkerchief, Taschentuch and the name of the most widely used brand of these in Germany, Tempo. If you’re asking someone for a Tempo around here, you’re not asking for the specific brand, but a handkerchief in general. Sometimes the rise of a new term will cause the old term to change its meaning, for example to acquire a pejorative connotation: when the french Dame slowly replaced the older German word Weib as a general term for woman, the latter eventually acquired such a connotation. Another possible outcome is that the older term will be completely replaced and disappear from everyday use, or at least be considered archaic in its usage, such as the English knave (interestingly enough, its German equivalent Knabe, which is descended from the same Germanic term, is undergoing the same)

So as you see, anyone can make up new words, and if they find their place within the language and enough speakers find their use valid, they’re as much part of it as any older words. Shakespeare, for instance, made up words whenever it suited him, coining new terms as well as starting the whole thing with converting adjectives into nouns, nouns into verbs and all those other ways that are possible in a language as flexible as English. He is said to have made up around 1700 words (though a good portion of that were probably already in use before him, and his works are just providing us with the first written proof of their usage). Getting accepted into such prestigious clubs as the Oxford English Dictionary may be considered something akin of a “knighthood” for a word, if you will, but it’s not required. However, that does not mean that making up new words is suitable in any situation. Remember that one of the primary functions of language is as a means of communication. If the other side cannot understand you, it fails to achieve that function. You should not, for instance, write a master’s thesis and use a whole bunch of words that you just made up – even if they fill a lexical hole in English, your professor is likely to not be pleased.

Published in: on June 6, 2011 at 9:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Translation & Transcreation

I think we can all agree that translation is amongst the most difficult and thus rightly the most prestigious disciplines of linguistics. When I began my studies at the university, I saw an advertisement for research studies in literary translation. I remember thinking, back then, “pssssh, as if literary translation needs anything like that, I mean, how hard can it be?”. I’ve beenhumbled since then. If you share past-me’s ignorant opinion, read this blog post by Pat Rothfuss, one of the best authors in the world (in my opinion; he also features on the very short list of people I would bow to in real life. Yes, I’m a fanboy). He’s a much cleverer man than I am and can explain it better. Come back when you’ve realized you’re wrong. Are we on the same page now? Good.

As I’ve said before,  it is extremely difficult to convey certain phrases, nuances and connotations from one language to another. More often than not, something is lost in translation. It is even more difficult to translate poetry, and it’s almost impossible to do so and keep both meaning,  rhyme, meter and all that other stuff intact. To manage such a feat and recreate something readable in another language is more than mere translation – it’s transcreation, the recreating of a work of art in another form, or another language. There are few such gems, but one example is the transcreation of Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece The Raven by Carl Theodor Eben, who managed to transfer everything I love about The Raven into German. Here’s the first few lines:

 

Mitternacht umgab mich schaurig, als ich einsam, trüb und traurig,

Sinnend saß und las von mancher längstverklung’nen Mähr’ und Lehr’ –

Als ich schon mit matten Blicken im Begriff, in Schlaf zu nicken,

hörte plötzlich ich ein Ticken an die Zimmerthüre her;

„Ein Besuch wohl noch,“ so dacht’ ich, „den der Zufall führet her –

Ein Besuch und sonst Nichts mehr.“

 

 

Here’s the full translation at Wikisource. And here’s the original beginning, in case you are so unlucky as to not be familiar with it yet:

 

 

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —

Only this, and nothing more.”

 

If you don’t speak German, allow me to demonstrate you how close the two are nonetheless. Here’s me reading the German version, and here’s the English one. You’ll at least hear that it’s done very well (the translation, not the reading) in terms of keeping the feel of the poem intact. You’ll just have to take my word for it in terms of the meaning. I have nothing but the utmost respect for such a feat.

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 11:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Language fragments – language impressions

Something in my Caesar class got me to think. My prof was remarking on how the focus on canonical literature for Latin classes in school, that is, the classic Latin of Caesar, Cicero and their contemporaries, eventually led to a canonical vocabulary. Basically, those German scholars responsible for limiting the authors most students will ever read in Latin to a specific scope have written part of the language’s vocabulary out of canon.

Let me explain. Latin, like any language, has a basic vocabulary spanning things such as the most important verbs (e.g. esse – to be), nouns, etc. Then there’s specific vocabulary such as military terms, political terms or poetical terms. Now, it’s basically these three topics that most students of Latin will encounter during most of their studies – simply because those are the fields literature was written in, and those are the fields that Latin literature has survived to this day. So a student of Latin will have a wide vocabulary in these fields, but may be lacking in others.

Let’s contrast this to the learning of another, a “living” language, if you will (though I deny the claim of Latin being a “dead” language). When I learned French, for instance, I never aquired much military of political vocabulary. Naturally, the school curriculum’s vocabulary is more concerned with the areas of daily life, such as asking for the way, ordering a meal in a restaurant, etc. pp. Now, that is of course a sign of the times. We do not learn how to order a meal or ask for the way in Latin because it simply wouldn’t do us any good. We learn the vocabulary we need to acquire in order to translate the texts that are left to us.

Now I’ve heard it said by students that they find it interesting how many different words the Romans seemed to have for killing, weapons, warfare, etc. But is that actually true? Even in Ancient Rome, the military vocabulary probably did not constitute as great a part as the school curriculum’s vocabulary might have you believe. As such, one could get the wrong impression of the Latin language by how fixed it seems to be on certain areas, when in fact it’s just the curriculum that’s overly concerned with them.

The remnants of texts from earlier times are the only source we have of classical Latin. There is no unbroken line of native speakers, so we have only these texts to rely on. Now, let us consider for a moment that English would, at some point in the future, lose all native speakers, unlikely as that is (just pretend that the world is really going to end in 2012, and only the French will survive, or something). In the Apocalypse, all media containing the English language is lost. As society slowly rebuilds itself, it recovers only … Broadway musicals, for instance. I wonder how that would colour the perception of English.

Published in: on May 30, 2011 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Language trivia 001: What you did not know about…Irish!

Did you know why the Irish never (or rarely) say yes or no?

If you talk to Irish people regularly, you might have noticed (as this man did) that they often respond in what you might call a roundabout way, not clearly saying yes or no, but instead repeating the verb in question. It’s one of the many interesting peculiar features of Irish English (also called Hiberno-English). But do you know how it came to be?

The answer is simple: the original Irish language has no words for yes or  no. If you ask an Irishman/-woman a question such as An dtiocfaidh tu?” (“Will you come?”), he/she does not have an option that would correspond to English yes or no. Instead, he or she will use a socalled echo response by repeating the word in question. Thus, his answer might be “Tiocfad.” (“I will).

Even though in many languages such as English, French, and German the two little words yes and no (and respectively ja/nein as well as oui/non) are considered part of the basic vocabulary, there are quite a few languages that lack them. Another example of these would be Latin, which employs echo responses as well.

The more you know!

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why multilingualism rules

Knowing more than one language is a great advantage. I could proclaim this as a fact, and I could also very well write a few thousand high, lofty words about how it sharpens your mind and builds character, etc.pp. I still might, in the future. But this post is a little different. I am aware that there are people who think that since they know English, and most of the world (or at least, most of the part they’re likely to ever interact with) speaks English, they should be fine. And you know what? They’re probably right, they’ll do just fine.

And after all, learning a foreign language is hard, right? I won’t argue that. It can be hard, and frustrating, and boring at times. Some grammar just happens to be incredibly dull. I am aware that learning a foreign language can be incredibly hard, and incredibly frustrating, depending on what language it is and how you’re going about learning it. Some people are better at it, some people struggle more. But it’s always an effort. What I will be trying to show you is that it can be worth that effort. So here are some situations you probably haven’t considered before: three situations in which you would wish you’d learned another language.

1. Win A Quiz Show – Latin or Greek

Let’s say you’re on “Who wants to be a millionaire”, or whatever quiz show runs in your country. You’re set to win a giant pile of cash if you could just answer one question. You’ve already used all your lifelines/jokers. The host asks you:

“What animal is considered part of the family of the canidae?”

A: Wolf,  B: Ant, C: Frog, or D: Crab.

Imagine you’ve never had a look at latin in your life, and you aren’t eaxactly a biologist either. Would you know that canidae is the biological family of wolves, foxes, dogs, etc.? Had you learned latin, you might have remembered the word “canis, -e”, or at least the saying “Cave canem” – beware the dog. In fact, a scientific study of the german version of “Who wants to be a millionaire” has shown that more than 20% of the questions could be solved easier or immediately through knowledge of Latin or Ancient Greek.

 

2.  Don’t be fooled – German

Listen to this song. Yeah. Sorry I made you do that. Does that sound German to you? Well, 85% of it isn’t. It’s Gibberish. Good thing you wouldn’t be so naive to try and actually use that to talk to a native speaker. Anyway, my point is this: anyone can make up words and claim they’re speaking another language. If you have a slight inkling of many languages, you won’t be fooled as easily.

 

3.  Enjoy art in its original form – English/German/Latin

It is extremely difficult to convey certain phrases, nuances and connotations from one language to another. More often than not, something is lost in translation. So why not enjoy the original form, if you can? If you’ve ever read Goethe’s Faust in English, let me assure you that the German version is about three times as good. There’s a saying that goes “A translation is like a woman – it can be either faithful or it can be beautiful”. I find that to be true (the part about the translation, not necessarily the part about women). If you translate Vergil’s Aeneid into English, you’ll almost certainly lose the verse structure or the hexameter. In order not to, you will have to make certain adjustments with wording, losing the precise meaning of the words. This phenomenon is not limited to literature, either. It’s considered supremely difficult to translate songs, for instance. I find that I detest most German versions of musicals that I love, but that were written in English. Another little bonus, one that is more valid for those who picked up English as a second language, though: if you speak the language a certain book or movie is released in, you’ll get it that much earlier. I don’t think I could have waited for the German translation of The Wise Man’s Fear, for instance.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’m sure I’ll pick up on this again later.

 

Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Comments (1)  

Welcome to Link to Language!

Hey guys and gals, and welcome to my new blog, Link to Language. This is where I tell you what most of this blog will be about, so you can decide whether to hit that back button very fast or maybe stay here for a while, and listen (yes, I know you’d actually be reading and not listening, but that’s how the quote goes, so bear with me). Anyway, this blog will basically function as a journal for all my random thoughts about language and anything remotely related to the subject – and I have many such thoughts. So many, in fact, that you could call  me a “fan” of languages, for lack of a better term.

While the concept of languages as a whole is a fascinating and very broad topic, there are some language that receive the main focus of my attention. First and foremost, those are German, English, and Latin, simply because the first is my mother language, and the other two the first and second foreign language I acquired, respectively. English and Latin are also two languages that will remain a focus of my life, as I am currently studying at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian-University to become a teacher for these two languages and for the subject of History. In addition, I am working at the University, helping to construct the Bahamas component of the International Corpus of English, or ICE Bahamas for shot.

Now, given that German is my mother language, you might be wondering why I’m writing this blog in English. The answer is very simple: I have an easier time expressing more complex thoughts in English than in German. This seems as strange to me as it might to you, but it’s a fact. It might be due to the amount of time I have spent reading, hearing, writing, speaking and even thinking English for the last five to six years. In fact, I tend to switch around English and German in my head depending on the situation. So even though I did not start learning English until I was around ten years old (and learned most of it by just delving into English books, of which I didn’t understand more than one sentence per page at first), I consider myself, for all intents and purposes, bilingual.

While I’m not fluent and familiar enough to think in them, there are a couple of languages other than the three above which I have some proficiency in. I still know enough French to get in and out of France without making an entire fool of myself, for instance, and I know enough Finnish to get by without starving or having to sleep on the street. Bits and scraps of Swedish, Japanese and Italian remain wedged firmly in my mind as well. And I’m in the process of learning Ancient Greek. So I have a pretty good basis covered when it comes to talking about languages.

Have no fear though, this is not a blog about grammar. I won’t be trying to teach you things such as latin word forms, Finnish pronounciation or the difference between can and could. Frankly, there are people that are much better suited to such endeavours than I am. I am more interested in the ways that knowledge about languages can help you in other areas of scholarly and daily life, how languages can affect each other, how they change and evolve, etc. So if you think that might interest you, why don’t you just stay a while and listen?*

 

 

 

*Gods help me, but I do love that quote. Sorry.

Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment