Category Archives: Language

Damia

Damia. ‘Mond ychydig o wythnosau yn ôl penderfynes i gyhoeddi mwy yn y Gymraeg, yn enwedig wrth sgwennu am fy mab. A ddoe ysgrifennes i ddau gofnod newydd amdano yn Saesneg. #Ochenaid hir# Mae arferion yn anodd eu torri. Wel, mae gen i’r esgus bod y ddau gofnod wedi eu anelu at bobl sydd efallai yn ystyried gwneud yr un beth â ni, ac dwi ddim yn meddwl bod angen llawer o anogaeth neu gyngor ar Gymry Cymraeg yn hyn o beth.

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Iaith/language

In spite of the title of this blog, I write almost every post in English, not Welsh. This is for several reasons: Most of the people I know speak English; I haven’t lived in Wales for over a decade (and so do most things in English); and I want to reach a reasonably wide audience.

On the other hand, I have two native languages, and I like to use both when I can (for example, I speak English to my wife, who only knows a little Welsh, and Welsh to my son, who knows even less of either language). I also think that Welsh speakers who don’t want their language to die have a certain duty to use it.

For this reason, I’ll try in the future to write more posts in Welsh, particularly if they’re especially relevant to Wales, or to my son. Or perhaps also when I just happen to feel like it. When these posts are relevant to non-Welsh-speaking readers, I’ll try to provide an English translation. Where they’re not (as here), I won’t bother.

I think that’s fair.

———

Er gwaethaf teitl y blog hwn, dwi’n ysgrifennu bron i bob cofnod yn Saesneg yn lle’r Gymraeg. Mae amryw o resymau am hyn: Mae’r rhan fwyaf o bobl dwi’n nabod yn siarad Saesneg; dwi heb fyw yng Nghymru am dros degawd (ac felly dwi’n gwneud y rhan fwyaf o bethau trwy gyfrwng Saesneg); ac dwi eisiau cyrraedd cynulleidfa eang.

Ar y llaw arall, mae gennyf ddwy famiaith, ac dwi’n hoffi defnyddio y ddwy ohonynt pan y gallaf (er enghraifft, dwi’n siarad Saesneg i’m gwraig, sydd ond yn deall mymryn o’r Gymraeg, a Chymraeg i’m mab, sydd yn deall llai fyth o’r ddwy iaith). Dwi hefyd o’r barn bod rhywfaint o ddyletswydd ar siaradwyr Cymraeg sydd ddim eisiau i’w iaith farw i’w defnyddio.

Oherwydd hyn i gyd, mi wna i ymdrech yn y dyfodol i ysgrifennu mwy o gofnodion yn Gymraeg, yn enwedig os ydynt yn arbennig o berthnasol i Gymru, neu i’m mab i. Neu efallai hefyd pam dwi’n teimlo fel gwneud. Pan fydd y cofnodion hyn yn berthnasol i ddarllenwyr di-Gymraeg, mi geisia i ddarparu traddodiad Saesneg. Pan fydden nhw ddim (fel yn yr achos hwn), ni thraffertha i’n hun.

Dwi’n meddwl bod hynny’n deg.

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On grammar and transphobia (with an idea for an experiment)

Many people take a dislike to the word they or their being used to refer to a single individual (as in “You say you met a rather interesting individual today? Could you tell me more about them?”) or with antecedents that normally take singular agreement (as in “Could everyone raise their hand, please?”).

This usage tends to be referred to as “singular they” and it has a most venerable history (it was used by Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible, among many others, and continues to be used by respected writers and speakers). It is also clearly useful: by using “they” in such circumstances, we don’t have to use a word like he or she that implies a particular gender. Some people prefer not to employ it, and are welcome to their preferences. To accuse those who do of “grammatical incorrectness”, however, betrays either a failure to understand what grammar is or an ignorance of English.

Whatever their origin, the relevant assumptions seem to be, first, that any noun or pronoun in English must belong exclusively to one of two categories (singular and plural), and, second, that a pronoun in one category must not be used to refer to an antecedent in the other.

Now, these assumptions look rather a lot like some assumptions that occur elsewhere: specifically, that every human being must belong exclusively to one or two categories (male and female). There’s a further, closely related, assumption that any person with two x chromosomes should be referred to as “she”, while a person with an x and a y chromosome should be referred to as “he” (even if this contradicts their wishes, or their own sense of identity).

Which leads me to think we should expect a very high correlation between transphobia and opposition to singular they. Not only does singular they itself violate the exclusive-category assumption noted above, but it also allows a speaker to avoid assigning human beings to the male or the female category. I think there’s a clever experiment waiting to be devised.


Note:
Some readers may point out that this usage leads to “they” being ambiguous, since it will not be clear whether it is being used to refer to one individual or several. This is true, but not a very good argument against employing the usage (and no argument at all for calling it “ungrammatical”): cases of genuine ambiguity are rather rare, and there are fairly straightforward ways of avoiding them when they arise.

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On language, reason, and lego

I’ve touched on prescriptivism a little in this blog (there are some relevant links here), but I haven’t said much about how strong the bias towards it seems to be, and how strong the emotions can be. Language Log, not unexpectedly, has quite a few posts on this topic. I have a strong suspicion that’s it’s partly connected to perceived group membership. We associate not talking like us with not being part of our group (and we associate certain specific usages with certain specific groups), and so our response to the way people use language is tied up with all sorts of other deeply emotive things, like feelings of belonging, cooperation, competition, xenophobia, racism, treachery, and so on.

But then, if you read my thesis, you’ll see that I would say that. And there must be other factors involved too. I was particularly struck recently by my own response to a particular usage. I like to think of myself as a fairly rational chap, not given in particular to xenophobia and the like, and in particular someone who has a better than average understanding of how language works. So you’d expect my responses to linguistic usage to be fairly rational, right? So why do I recoil whenever I hear someone use “lego” as a count noun? What is it about the (in the US entirely unexceptional) word “legos” that irritates me so much? And in a way that isn’t true of plenty of other features of American English?

The bad and irrational response to this would be to complain about people saying this and to start instructing them not to. There are two good responses: to try to override my feelings with reason, and to try to get to the bottom of where they come from. I’ll see what I can do.

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Hitler killing a child

When I was in primary school I had a friend who claimed that his grandfather, fighting in World War II, had once seen Hitler kill a child. I found this very unlikely even then, and rather silly. When I challenged my friend on this, he just asked me if I was saying his granddad was a liar. I can’t remember what I replied.

In any case, I was reminded of this today when I saw the following on the BBC website:

 

 

 

I found the headline to have a strangely childish quality, until I read the text underneath and realised I’d misparsed it.

Language Log, as many readers will know, has popularised (though not coined) the term “crash blossom” for this kind of headline. You can read about them here, and in lots of later Language Log posts.

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Correctness, a one-sentence summary

I go on far too much about linguistic correctness in this blog. In a meta-sense, though: not about which usage is or isn’t correct, but what it means to say that someone’s usage is or isn’t correct, and when that’s even a coherent concept (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). It’s probably a bit of an obsession, and my posts about it are almost certainly too long. So here’s a one-sentence summary:

Someone’s use of language might be said to be incorrect, but without reference to what speaker was trying to achieve, this is incoherent.

I think that covers it. Maybe.

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Wordle of my PhD thesis

I don’t know why I took so long to do this. It doesn’t leave much doubt that I did experiments on language:

Wordle: My PhD thesis

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