Blog Excerpts

Johnson: A New Language Blog from The Economist

The esteemed British newsweekly The Economist has launched a new blog all about language and its relation to global politics and culture. Though the blog is newly hatched, its name is venerable: Johnson, after the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

As the blog's introductory post explains, this is not the first time that The Economist has made linguistic observations under the Johnsonian banner:

FROM 1992 until 1999 The Economist published a monthly column on the English language, under the by-line "Johnson", as in Samuel Johnson, man of letters, dictionary-maker and legendary epigrammatist. The columns were all written by Stephen Hugh-Jones, a long-time staff writer at The Economist, and can still be read here.
For some time now, we've wanted to bring Johnson into the twenty-first century. Much of our writing in The Economist, including our blogs, touches on language one way or another. ... With the launch of this blog, when our bloggers and other correspondents have thoughts on the language of politics or business, you will find them at Johnson.

The early posts on the Johnson blog are a promising array of dispatches from around the globe. Here's a sampling (click the links for the full posts):

This time we mean it

In 1712, Jonathan Swift... proposed a solution familiar from continental Europe: a language academy, like the storied Académie Française, to give the language a heavier guiding hand. The idea never took. That hasn't stopped the language-authoritarians from coming back again and again. And sure enough, the Times reports the creation of a new English Academy by the Queen's English Society, an outfit that has been around griping about the decline of English since 1972. ... The reason to be sceptical of any English Academy, not just this sloppy and small effort, is that the English-speaking world has always resisted this kind of top-down approach towards language.

Thou shalt speak their language
When politicians drop phrases in a foreign language, it's usually in an attempt to express friendship—think of John F. Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner (to the amusement of Germans, for whom ein Berliner is not a native of Berlin, but a jelly doughnut) or Bill Clinton's touching Shalom, khaver at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has turned the trope around to express hostility.

What is it about "halfalogues"?
Is there something about overhearing just part of a conversation that is particularly weird? It turns out that there is. Researchers at Cornell have found that we inherently try to predict the next thing to be said, and it is harder and more distracting, this predictive effort, if we only hear half of what is being said. Mark Twain called hearing half a conversation "that queerest of all the queer things in this world". Now we know why. An aside: "halfalogue" is the researchers' decent offhand word for half of a conversation. ... "Dialogue" is already etymologically double; to cut it in half would make a "monologue", but that's not what we're after. Half a dialogue might be a "hemidialogue", but that's a bit clunky.

Learning English, losing Spanish
There's a rumour abroad that Spanish-speaking immigrants to America learn English less quickly than immigrants that came to the country in previous waves. Further, the story goes, they are making America bilingual by insisting on Spanish. Not quite. True, Latinos are now America's biggest minority, and there are so many recent arrivals that Spanish can be heard in any major city, and overwhelmingly in certain neighborhoods of certain cities. But the Pew Hispanic Center has data showing that once those immigrants settle in, they do exactly what previous immigrants do: learn English and, by the third generation (the second one born in the country), lose the home language.


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Tuesday June 15th 2010, 6:49 PM
Comment by: L B.
Yep, it's true for sure. Being a teacher in Washington state, where a lot of Hispanics do the manual labor in orchards, packing plants and asparagus fields, their kids go to school. There is hardly an exception. Most are bi-lingual, while a few new-arrivals are seen in schools, when I am made aware, I sit a bi-lingual next to them. But, a vast majority are as well English-spoken as any born-here American.

Strangely, and somewhat mysterious, I perceive the bi-lingual kids are more adept at seeing combinations of meaning, than the monolinguals. many speak Spanish at home and English in school. It's wonderful, from my view.

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