Language wars

Ilona has an ongoing, good-natured conflict with a friend, Bob. Bob thinks the best English is English as it was spoken in the past. This messy business of language evolving with the passing generations doesn’t sit well with him.

Ilona is not above a little mockery:

So when in time would you draw the line and say “Ha! The language was PERFECT then, and that’s how we should speak it henceforth forevermore”? Mid-thirteeth century? Elizabethan (that would be Shakespeare’s era)? 18th-century? When was the language entirely perfect, and everything since then has been downhill?

Language is a great example of tradition and transformation in action. Re tradition:  think about etymology for a moment. For example, here’s Webster’s etymology of the word “gist”:

ME giste < OFr, abode, point at issue < from gesir, to lie < L jacere, to lie; sense infl. by Anglo-Fr legal phrase l’action gist, lit., the action lies.

This is a word with a long tradition behind it:  derived from a Middle English word, which was derived from the Old French, which was derived from the Latin, under the influence of an Anglo-French legal phrase. Word usage is traditional.

Re transformation:  language does evolve as the decades succeed one another. And in the past century, as technological breakthroughs have revolutionized human society, language has changed rapidly to keep pace.

As language changes, there is a risk that we will cease to understand one another. Consider this classic scene from Airplane!:  the flight attendant doesn’t speak jive, but Beaver Cleaver’s mother offers to interpret.


The adaptability of English is one of its strengths. Even so, Bob is hardly alone in his perception that the language is degenerating all around him. Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post, explains how Tim Horton’s (a donut shop which is iconic in Canada) lost its apostrophe:

Early on, his coffee shops used an apostrophe in their name; dedicated punctuation fans claim that even now, in Hamilton, you can find original Horton’s with the apostrophe still proudly in place. These deserve designation as national heritage sites, remnants of a finer, more thoughtful and better punctuated Canada.

Like many traditions, the Horton apostrophe was a victim (so goes the accepted story) of Quebec nationalism. When Quebec decided that commercial signs should eliminate their possessive apostrophes, in the French manner, most companies hurried to comply.

[…] For the sake of efficiency and consistency [Tim Horton’s] decided to have all their outlets carry precisely the same logo, the one required in Quebec. Sea to sea, most Tim outlets meekly surrendered their apostrophes. The tragic result is that young English-speaking Canadians eat their Timbits and sip their double-double beneath signage that defies ancient tradition.

It was Fulford’s use of the word “tradition” that inspired this post.

I agree with Fulford:  careful attention to punctuation, including the use of apostrophes, is falling into disuse. As Fulford writes,

This is a defeat for clear expression. The purpose of punctuation is to clarify the written word. Without it, we are less able to understand each other.

Similarly, I can be a stickler for the precise use of words.

Still — on the whole, I agree with Ilona. English would be impoverished if we were to confine ourselves to words from the 16th century. Consider words like introvert and extrovert:  they enable us to think about ourselves in ways that otherwise, we could not. Or a word like black hole:  not only does it describe a fascinating phenomenon of the physical word, it has also developed a metaphorical usage. For example, depression as a psychic black hole.

Language evolves. That’s a good thing:  ye language curmudgeons of the world, deal with it!

72-year-old woman tasered

Via Andrew Sullivan. Fucking unbelievable.

I must have missed the part where this burly cop felt threatened by the elderly woman, which caused him to resort to potentially lethal force.

There are two stories here:  (1) tasers; (2) cops.

1. Tasers

Here in Canada, the death of Robert Dziekanski — after being tasered repeatedly in the Vancouver airport — has received considerable public attention. Here at i, Pundit, we have written about it three times (one, two, three).

A public inquiry into Dziekanski’s death proposed 19 recommendations concerning the use of tasers. Both the B.C. police and the B.C. detachment of the (federal) RCMP have agreed to abide by all 19 recommendations.

Coincidentally, the very same week, the Taser company announced a new semi-automatic model:

The X3’s main selling feature is its ability to fire three pairs of electrified probes in quick succession without reloading — giving an officer with a taser the chance to simultaneously zap up to three suspects. Older models, which have only one pair of probes, must be reloaded after each shot.

And no one will ever fire at the same individual three times in quick succession. We can trust the police not to do that, right?

2. Cops

Actually, tasers are problematic precisely because of how police officers are using them.

Tasers are supposed to deliver something less than deadly force:  nonetheless, not infrequently, their use has been associated with deaths.

I could accept the risk if police officers used them in situations where, otherwise, they might resort to firing their guns. Tasers are less likely to kill than bullets are, so it’s a good trade-off. But that isn’t how cops use them.

In other news this week, Andrew Sullivan calls attention to the cops in Mobile, Alabama, who tasered a mentally disabled deaf man who took too long in a public washroom. Perhaps the fact that the unfortunate victim is black was also a factor, but that’s mere speculation.

In both instances — the mentally disabled deaf man and the 72-year-old woman — the police used tasers in order to enforce compliance. Not because they were threatened in any way. Not because there was any threat to the general public, or even to the victim him-/herself.

In the case of the 72-year-old woman, it could easily have resulted in her death. It looks to me like cops can’t be trusted with tasers.

William Shatner performs the poetry that is Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin outdid herself in the incoherence of her farewell speech. But it gets even better when William Shatner turns the speech into a beatnik poetry reading.

Here’s the relevant paragraph of the speech, as transcribed by Huffington Post:

And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future. …

Classic! If they should happen to pull the video from youtube — in the USA, you can view Shatner’s rendering on TPMtv.

CBC’s X Challenge: Can Votes be Swayed?

CBC has recently put on an interesting experiment in BC, which is worth a gander for voters worldwide. The goal of the experiment was to test whether or not voters could or could not be swayed based on an engaging debate between members. This comes in light of the leadership debate that took place last week, which seems to have been played a somewhat decisive role in the recent polls, as my Dad pointed out here.

Of course, there are always certain things that must be taken into account. One is that most people getting involved in these experiments are inevitably politically active voters, rather than stay-at-home-and-ignore-the-country citizens. The other is that this particular debate is not between federal candidates, but participants in different levels of government, which could have an impact on how well each member comes across.

Also, the theory behind these is that in “instant democracy”, opinions may or may not be malleable. Because the results are based upon instant feedback, it’s quite possible that emotions are playing a larger factor here than in a normal election span. Peer pressure may all but nullify the effects of a good debate, if someone is constantly surrounded by opinions that are against the ides of the debate’s winner.

Either way, the conclusion is intriguing, and the debates worth watching. I’m going to post all of the videos, in chronological order, and oen can watch and comment at their own pace, since it totals almost an hour of watching.

As I was finding these videos, I also noticed that there was an Ontario session on the economy. They, too, have interesting results, particularly in the deviation in party success from these “environment” ones. This seems to back up my statement that “instant democracy” is largely contigent upon emotions based on the debater’s performance, and may not hold sway over a long period of time.

What is in this woman’s water supply?!

I never would have thought anyone could get so upset over …
                                                                  a RAINBOW!

Forty years later, hope flowers anew

A poignant video of Robert F. Kennedy. He announces that Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated. He appeals for Americans — black Americans in particular — to exercise understanding, compassion, and love.

(Make sure you watch the video to the end.)

Two months later, Kennedy himself was assassinated. The date was June 6, 1968.

Forty years later, understanding is as elusive as ever. Yet hope, seemingly a fragile flower, persistently blooms in the human heart.

h/t Andrew Sullivan.

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