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Writers Talk About Writing

Five Years in the Web of Language

University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron is a regular Visual Thesaurus contributor, and we have been proud to feature selected pieces he has written for his site, The Web of Language. Today WOL celebrates its fifth anniversary, and Dennis has commemorated the occasion by looking back on some of his most notable posts.

The Web of Language is five years old today.

The first post — "Farsi Farce: Iran to Deport All Foreign Words" — appeared on August 17, 2006, which in digital years makes it practically Neolithic. To protest American meddling in the Middle East, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned all foreign words from Farsi: pizza would become "elastic bread," and internet chats, "short talks," because chatters wouldn't have much time to talk before they were hauled off to prison.

In retaliation, the United States expelled all the Persian words it could find, including pajamas, calabash, dervish, diadem, divan, gherkin, indigo, jasmine, marzipan, mummy, naphtha, organdy, pagoda, paradise, saffron, sandal, sherbet, talc, talisman, and tulip, except for checkmate — 'the shah is dead' — which had diplomatic immunity. 

In the end, Ahmadinejad's linguistic purge went largely unnoticed in the West. Instead of deporting all those English words, the Iranian president might have done better to take them hostage and trade them for enriched uranium. 

There have been 275 Web of Language posts since its debut. Some of them get reposted on other sites, and a few have even appeared in print, for those who still read hard copy. For the blog's fifth anniversary, here's a retrospective of some of the most popular posts, plus some of my own favorites.

WOL's first big hit was the unlikely "Commas Gone Wild," a medley of various comma stories: Pres. Bush's statement that the Iraq war was a historical comma; a Canadian lawsuit in which millions of dollars seemed to hinge on a comma; and a misguided book about a panda who walked into a bar. I didn't know it, but punctuation is always hot.

"A Spelling Reformer Writes to Mr. Lincoln" details the efforts of an abolitionist minister to explain to Abraham Lincoln both the evils of slavery and the advantages of phonetic spelling. The nineteenth century saw a number of proposals to replace the apparent chaos of English spelling with a rational system. A. B. Pikard told Mr. Lincoln, "I trust u wil hav no difikulti in redin dis; — u se it is ritn in de Fonetik Alfabet, and if u deturmin a letr in eni plas u deturmin it in evri plas." Whether or not Lincoln had "no difikulti in redin dis" (no difficulty in reading this), he left the alphabet as he found it, though he did abolish slavery.

Perhaps the most popular Web of Language post is one that I wrote years before WOL went online: "The Noun Game." It's the story of a young Indian boy whose world view clashes with his teacher's views of good grammar. In the noun game, students take cards with nouns on them and place them in buckets labeled "person," "place," or "thing." When Ganesh placed "horse" in the "person" bucket, his teacher marked him wrong. But Ganesh, who grew up in India before moving to Ohio, knew that living creatures weren't things, that they had more in common with people than they did with inanimates. Is the point of the noun game to see whether students recognize possible nouns as nouns, or whether their view of the universe agrees with the teacher's? Is education fitting things into buckets, or wondering why the categories don't fit the facts? Does education consist of grading you on how well you can play a game? Alas, most people who click on the post are probably not looking for a critique of how the schools teach grammar, but a game to help their children learn that nouns name persons, places, and things.

"Should Everybody Write?" confronts critics who want to limit the exploding author's club made possible by the internet. In the old days, writers had to prove their chops before they could publish. Now all you need to be a writer is a laptop, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks. There may be too much to read now, but even in the days of the great library at Alexandria there was too much to read. The best way to deal with too many writers and their textual overload isn't to license authors and limit their production. Just close the book, hit the off button, or avert your eyes.

Finally, there's "The Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Still an Epic(ene) Fail." Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, to supply a missing word, prevent grammatical error, and restore gender balance to the English pronoun system, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that they are indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule, or just ignore these proposals for what truly is "the word that failed." 

That's only a small part of what the Web of Language has been up to during the past five years. You can read all these posts and more, plus all the ones to come, by clicking on the Web of Language. And you can say happy birthday to the Web of Language by tweeting @DrGrammar.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 17th 2011, 4:54 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Happy Birthday WOL!
No Twitting but wish for Dr. Grammar to receive it.
The more I'm reading all these VT columns, the more I'm turning to an English major person. My trade is chemistry.I'm going to ferget my trade language.
Hour after hour, I spent on reading these articles. At the beginning, objective was to improve my English language proficiency. (I'm not native English.)As my reading habit grows in size, so my free time to read chemistry articles is declining.
Closing is so easy now, a simple click on a cross mark, yet we do not do it, specially for these types of articles. I enjoyed the writing and like to read more of professor Baron's column.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
Happy Birthday WOL

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The Noun Game
- 34 Comments
Dennis Baron explains how a grammar lesson can lead to a clash of civilizations.
With the advent of the Internet, the tools for writing and publication are available to all.
Dennis reports on the 150-year failed history of the gender-neutral pronoun in English.