Adding Words To The Dictionary Has Always Been A Slow Process. Then COVID-19 Hit

September 28th, 2020 by There’s been no shortage of criticism in recent week of everyone from business leaders to public officials to individual citizens, for not moving fast enough to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But one industry whose stock-in-trade is to work slowly is moving with unprecedented speed: The dictionary. Not every new word that makes is way into our day-to-day conversations makes it into the dictionary — even online, where space is essentially unlimited. In fact, it’s actually pretty hard for a new word to get the nod. "We have a kind of reflex to wait," said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Springfield-based Merriam Webster. "[We want] to make sure that the word has staying power; that it’s going to be around for a long time." Typically, he said, when a new word emerges, researchers watch it — fastidiously citing its usage over time in publications. Phonetics experts study its pronunciation. Etymologists examine its history. Definitions are drafted, edited and refined. It’s a careful, deliberative, intentionally slow process. "Normally, it’s more like a conveyor belt that takes, on average, a number of years for a word to go from being noticed to being added to the dictionary," said Sokolowski. Even in our fast-moving, hyper-connected world, where technology creates new toys — and new terms — at a breakneck pace, that process has held true. "The word blog, for example, B-L-O-G. I believe it took four years from its coinage to its entry into the dictionary," said Sokolowski. The word AIDS, which first appeared in 1982, was included in their dictionary two years later in 1984. Sokolowski said that’s the fastest a word had ever been added. Until now. Read more: WGBH

How COVID-19 is changing the English language

September 26th, 2020 by In April, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did something unusual. For the previous 20 years, they had issued quarterly updates to announce new words and meanings selected for inclusion. These updates have typically been made available in March, June, September and December. In the late spring, however, and again in July, the dictionary’s editors released special updates, citing a need to document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the English language. Although the editors have documented many coronavirus-related linguistic shifts, some of their observations are surprising. They claim, for example, that the pandemic has produced only one truly new word: the acronym COVID-19. Most of the coronavirus-related changes that the editors have noted have to do with older, more obscure words and phrases being catapulted into common usage, such as reproduction number and social distancing. They’ve also documented the creation of new word blends based on previously existing vocabulary. Read more: The Conversation

The Oxford English Dictionary, like the English language, is all about change

November 7th, 2019 by Samuel Johnson once said a dictionary should aim to “not form, but register” the language. Indeed, a dictionary should “not teach men how they should think,” he continued, “but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts.” We tend to think of our dictionaries as tools of instruction; as books that set the standard, with a certain air of the definitive, for how our words ought properly to be used. But that was never the intention. The great lexicographers understood that the ideal campaign of a worthy dictionary was descriptive, not prescriptive. It would simply record what we’ve already agreed upon socially. It would, like the English language, live and breathe and change. Language changes more quickly than ever. Its mutations spread at broadband speeds, as usage adapts in an instant to the changing demands we place on it. New words emerge overnight and become common currency almost as soon as they’re uttered; old words fall into swift and seemingly permanent obsolescence, discarded as the world develops and our needs evolve. In the face of such advancement, a nimble and responsive dictionary is more essential than ever. It isn’t a relic. It’s a cultural imperative. Of all dictionaries, none looms more imposingly than the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED. It stands as a monument — the great colossus of Victorian scholarship and human endeavour. It seems rather definitive, in its scope and erudition, its breadth of research and hard-won wisdom. But as its history and evolution make apparent, the OED remains a testament most of all to the dictionary’s endless sensitivity to change. “The OED, more so than any other dictionary, encompasses the entire history of the modern English language,” writes Ammon Shea, in the introduction to his laborious undertaking Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. “By doing so it also encompasses all of English’s glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is today.” The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the one Shea read, published in 1989, contains more than 59 million words, spread across 20 volumes, in text so small that when you bought a copy, once upon a time, booksellers threw in a magnifying glass. The sheer size of the OED made Shea’s exhaustive account a “thinking person’s CliffsNotes to the greatest dictionary in the world,” an equally daunting and irresistible venture. Of course, Shea’s conceit is interesting precisely because the OED was never meant to be read all the way through. It was never intended to be consumed, page by page, from beginning to end. Works of reference are designed for consultation: You pick up the phone book or the encyclopedia or the farmer’s almanac because you want to locate some specific article of information, swiftly retrieved before the volume is returned to its place on the shelf. Read more: National Post

The US island that speaks Elizabethan English

July 6th, 2019 by I'd never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I've spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I'm still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue. The people here just have their own way of speaking: it's like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in some Irish tones and 1700s Scottish accents, then mixed it all up with pirate slang. But the Hoi Toider dialect is more than a dialect. It's also a culture, one that's slowly fading away. With each generation, fewer people play meehonkey, cook the traditional foods or know what it is to be mommucked. Located 34 miles from the North Carolina mainland, Ocracoke Island is fairly isolated. You can’t drive there as there are no bridges, and most people can’t fly either as there are no commercial flights. If you want to go there, it has to be by boat. In the early 1700s, that meant Ocracoke was a perfect spot for pirates to hide, as no soldiers were going to search 16 miles of remote beaches and forests for wanted men. William Howard was one of those outlaws, serving as quartermaster on Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Leaving before Blackbeard’s final battle in 1718, Howard made his way to Virginia, eventually taking the general pardon offered by King George I to all pirates. But unlike some, Howard had a plan. For several decades, he dropped out of sight, only to reappear in 1759 when he bought Ocracoke Island for £105 from a man named Richard Sanderson, a justice and later a General Assembly member in mainland North Carolina. Howard settled down along with some other ex-pirates and started building a community with boat pilots who had been stationed on the island to help guide merchant ships around sandbars in the area. A mainland North Carolina Native American tribe also interacted with the early settlers. The Woccon tribe had set up fishing and hunting outposts on the island, which they called Woccocock. Through misspellings and mispronunciations, it became Wokokon, Oakacock and Okercock, before finally arriving at the current version of Ocracoke in the mid-1700s. So at this point, there were Native Americans, English sailors and pirates from a variety of places all in one location. And that isolated community of just under 200 started blending words and dialects, and eventually building its own way of speaking. “It’s the only American dialect that is not identified as American,” said Dr Walt Wolfram, a North Carolina State University professor who studied the Ocracoke dialect for more than 20 years and currently works as the director of NC State’s Language and Life Project. “That’s fascinating to me. You can find pronunciation, grammar structures and vocabulary on Ocracoke that are not found anywhere else in North America.” Read more: BBC

Is the English language too powerful?

November 6th, 2018 by In 2016 I published the “Power Language Index”, a research note on the efficacy of languages. It was a systematic data-driven analysis using 20 indicators to compare the clout of the world’s languages. It tried to answer the question: which language best serves a person to engage in life from a global perspective? The index was designed as a cardinal measure, meaning that the output - a number that ranges from zero (least powerful) to one (most powerful) - not only ranks the languages, but also indicates the magnitude with which they are more or less influential vis-à-vis another. Not surprisingly, the index showed that English, with a score of 0.889, is most powerful. It is the world’s lingua franca. In second place is Mandarin at 0.411. So not only is English the most powerful language, it is more than twice as powerful as its closest rival. However, even with such a dominant score, the index likely underestimated the power of Shakespeare’s tongue. For one, official data often do not pick up the fact that English is almost universally the second language in most countries. In today’s society, “bilingual” is usually taken to mean fluency in the home language and English. Thus when strangers from different countries meet for the first time, the instinct is to ask the other party if they speak English. Similarly, English is often the medium used to teach a second language to a diverse group of foreigners. Moreover, English is a Latin script language, which makes it easier to learn for a majority of the world. In some follow-up work on the efficacy of languages, the dominance of English is confirmed to be more prominent than first demonstrated. Indeed, when I set out to create the index, there were many significant challenges in constructing it, as often there is an imperfect mapping between languages and the indicators of the index. For example, universities (which are part of the index) may operate in a language other than in the home language(s). This is especially true of global and research-intensive institutions. Universities may also offer programmes or degrees in English to attract an international student body. Wholly English language universities can even be found in non-Anglo countries. In fact, given the dominance of English as the language of science, business and research, it is common in many settings for the home language to be used for “kitchen” conversations while professional interactions are in English. Read more:

Can the language of the Vikings fight off the invasion of English?

October 18th, 2018 by “Coffee and kleina,” reads a large sign at a roadside coffee shop by one of the main roads in Reykjavik. Not so many years ago, such a billboard would simply have read: “Kaffi og kleina” – in the language of the Vikings, the official language of Iceland. It is a privilege of the few to be able to read and write Icelandic, a language understood by only around 400,000 people worldwide. Icelandic, in which the historic Sagas were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, has changed so little since then on our small and isolated island, that we can still more or less read them as they were first written. But Iceland is not so isolated anymore, and there are signs its language is facing challenges never seen before. Following the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent collapse of the Icelandic currency (making Iceland a much cheaper destination than before), tourism has emerged as the largest industry in Iceland, with 2.5 million tourists expected to visit a country of 350,000 people this year alone. And everyone is catering to the tourists in English, of course. At restaurants and coffee shops, people are frequently greeted in English rather than Icelandic, and often Icelandic will get you nowhere if you want to order food or drink. Companies use English names or are rebranding themselves in English. The importance of tourists to the economy is rapidly making English not only a second language in the service industry, but almost the first language. (The irony of this article being written in English is certainly not lost on me.) There are other warning signs. Icelanders have always been very proud of their literary heritage, boasting that we write and read a lot of books. However, Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010. Read more: The Guardian

‘Untranslatable’ words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

August 10th, 2018 by When the word “hygge” became popular outside Denmark a few years ago, it seemed the perfect way to express the feeling of wrapping yourself up in a crocheted blanket with a cosy jumper, a cup of tea and back-to-back episodes of The Bridge. But is it really only the Danes, with their cold Scandinavian evenings, who could have come up with a word for such a specific concept? And is it only the Swedes who could have needed the verb “fika” to describe chatting over a coffee? The internet abounds with words that lack a single-word English equivalent. In order to be really lacking an English equivalent, it must be a single, indivisible unit of meaning, as phrases are infinitely productive and can be created on demand by combining different words. Take, for example, the claim by Adam Jacot de Boinod in I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, that Malay has a word for the gap between the teeth that English lacks: “gigi rongak”. Well, this appears to be a phrase, and it translates literally as the perfectly cromulent English phrase “tooth gap”. In fact, English even has a single-word technical term for a gap between the teeth: “diastema”. Okay, that’s actually a Greek word, but it’s in use in English, so it’s also an English word. Does that matter? Where we get our words from tells us something about our history. Take, for instance, Quechua – the language spoken by people indigenous to the Andes and the South American highlands. The Quechuan word for “book” is “liwru”, which comes from the Spanish word “libro”, because Spanish colonisers introduced written forms of language to the people they conquered. In fact, English does now have a word for “hygge” – it’s “hygge”. Read more: The Conversation

Where Australians can’t understand English

June 28th, 2018 by Traveller's Rest, the dusty farm where I spent a month climbing, lies 260km north of Cape Town in the bosom of South Africa’s rugged Cederberg ranges. The mountains tower majestically above fertile citrus farmland, forming a wall that keeps the rain – and most of the tourists – to the south. Beyond the barrier of peaks is an almost Martian landscape scattered with orange, wind-sculpted boulders and roamed by leopards and baboons. They call this place Rocklands. My partner and I came from Australia for the rocks. We spent most of our days climbing, but one morning the sky was a giant bruise, flinging the odd fat raindrop at the dusty red earth. Instead, picking up maps of the renowned Sevilla Trail at Traveller’s Rest’s farm stall – a restaurant and corner shop catering to visitors – we wound our way among painted boulders admiring San (Bushman) rock art, some dating back 8,000 years. Today, this is Afrikaner heartland; many of the farms in the area were first tilled in the 1740s by Trekboers, the Dutch ‘wandering farmers’ of Calvinist faith later known simply as Boers. Their descendants are called Afrikaners; their language, Afrikaans. After our walk, we returned to the farm stall for lunch. "How are you people?" Frida, the waitress asked as we arrived. ‘You people’ is a common address in South Africa, but until I learned that it was a direct translation from the Afrikaans, ‘julle mense’, it left me feeling like a schoolgirl in trouble. The history of South African English is inextricably linked to that of Afrikaans, the language that South Africa is known for, which is a modern-day iteration of 17th-Century Dutch. As I set out to tell the story of one, the other kept cropping up, demanding attention, dispensing context. But here, English and Afrikaans are also inseparable from Africa itself. Just as they draw words from each-other, and from the migrants and slaves brought by the colonists, the languages also draw much of their character from the people who were here first. In that regard, language is like the culture in Africa’s southernmost country: rich beyond comprehension, a patchwork of worlds. Read more: BBC Travel

It’s Important to Know Your ‘False Friends’ in English and French

May 23rd, 2018 by People learning a second language might have heard of the expression “false friend.” This term is used to describe words in different languages that look alike, but have different meanings. Last month, we looked at examples of false friends in two languages, English and Spanish. Today we will tell you about another language -- French -- that has a lot of false friends, the French words faux amis, in English. A history of faux amis You may be surprised to learn that English gets 30 to 45 percent of its words from French. The reason goes back to the year 1066, when Norman forces invaded what is now Britain. The Normans were from northern France and spoke French. During the Norman occupation, French became the language of England’s rulers and wealthy class. This lasted for more than 300 years. Other people in England continued to speak English during this period. Over time, the two languages combined and shared words. Some researchers believe that about 10,000 French words eventually entered the English language. ​However, although English took many French words, their meanings have not always stayed the same. Sometimes the differences in meanings can be very important, and lead to funny or strange situations if the words are used the wrong way. Take, for example, the French word collège. In English, college can often be used in place of the word university, or sometimes as a school within a university. However, in French, collège actually means “middle school,” or the level of schooling for students in grades five or six through eight. Read more: Voice of America

OED looks for words used worldwide to reflect global nature of English

May 11th, 2018 by English has been spoken across the world for hundreds of years. And now the Oxford English Dictionary has launched a campaign to make sure its contents reflects the language's global nature. The dictionary is looking to expand its entries by including more words from Anglophone countries outside the UK. Eleanor Maier, associate editor of the OED, said it had "always been a global dictionary" but its expertise was slanted towards Britain and America because it was based in the two countries. "A lot of the English we're exposed to tends to be from the UK or America and when it comes to regional words - British words or American words - we also have our own knowledge, being from that area. "It's just brilliant to increase our coverage and cover English all around the world because English isn't just spoken in the UK and America, it's spoken everywhere, and as a dictionary we need to cover the types of English that people are speaking. "It's just a really good opportunity to increase our knowledge. "We need to reflect the English that's spoken and written - it's spoken in South Africa, the Philippines, India, Singapore, Hong Kong - so we need to reflect those varieties." Read more: The Telegraph

The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence

November 22nd, 2017 by An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude. To some linguists, Noam Chomsky among them, sentences like these illustrate an essential property of human language. These scientists have argued that recursion, a technique that allows chunks of language such as sentences to be embedded inside each other (with no hard limit on the number of nestings) is a universal human ability, perhaps even the one uniquely human ability that supports language. It’s what allows us to create—literally—an infinite variety of novel sentences out of a limited inventory of words. But that leads to a curious puzzle: Complex sentences are not ubiquitous among the world’s languages. Many languages have little use for them. They prefer to string together simple clauses. They may even lack certain words such as relative pronouns that and which or connectors like if, despite, and although—these words make it possible to link clauses together into larger sentences. Allegedly, the Pirahã language along the Maici River of Brazil lacks recursion altogether. According to linguist Dan Everett, Pirahã speakers avoid linguistic nesting of all kinds, even in structures such as John’s brother’s house. (Instead, they would say something like: Brother’s house. John has a brother. It is the same one. This can’t be pinned on biological evolution. All evidence suggests that humans around the world are born with more or less the same brains. Abundant childhood exposure to a language with layered sentences practically guarantees their mastery. Even adult Pirahã speakers, who have remained unusually isolated from European languages, pick up the trick of complex syntax, provided that they spend enough time interacting with speakers of Brazilian Portuguese, a language that offers an adequate diet of embedded structures.) Read more: Nautilus

The Randomness of Language Evolution

November 2nd, 2017 by Joshua Plotkin’s dive into the evolution of language began with clarity—and also a lack of it. Today, if you wanted to talk about something that’s clear, you’d say that it has clarity. But if you were around in 1890, you would almost certainly have talked about its clearness. Plotkin first noticed this linguistic change while playing with Google’s Ngram Viewer, a search engine that charts the frequencies of words across millions of books. The viewer shows that a century ago, clearness dominated clarity. Now the opposite is true, which is strange because clarity isn’t even a regular form. If you wanted to create a noun from clear, clearness would be a more obvious choice. “Why would there be this big upswing in clarity?,” Plotkin wondered. “Is there a force promoting clarity in writing?” It wasn’t clear. But as an evolutionary biologist, Plotkin knew how to find out. The histories of linguistics and evolutionary biology have been braided together for as long as the latter has existed. Many of the earliest defenders of Darwinism were linguists who saw similarities between the evolution of languages and of species. Darwin himself wrote about these “curious parallels” in The Descent of Man. New words and grammatical rules are continually cropping up, fighting for existence against established forms, and sometimes driving those old forms extinct. “The survival ... of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection,” Darwin wrote. Read more: The Atlantic