language

Twenty years ago, radio in Michigan was dominated by WJR-AM, which had the strongest signal around. You could get it nearly anywhere in the state. The station’s signature personality was the legendary J.P. McCarthy, who was an amazing interviewer.

Politically, I suspect he was conservative, but it was hard to tell; he interviewed politicians of all flavors with decency, courtesy and wit. But then, J.P. suddenly died.

Today, he has been succeeded by the sort of ideological slashers who have given talk radio a bad name.

John Pollack says it's important to tell true analogies from false ones.
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We use analogies every day. Yet we rarely think about them. They're just part of our vocabulary and our speech. 

But for John Pollack, analogies are not something to be ignored.

Pollack is the author of the new book Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connection, Spark Innovation and Sell Our Greatest Ideas. He believes analogies often have big consequences on how we view the world.

For example, Pollack says there are a lot of analogies that ring true that actually turn out not to be true. 

Pollack mentions the case of the "domino theory" President Eisenhower used in 1954.

The analogy convinced Americans that if they didn't intervene in Vietnam, democratic governments across Southeast Asia would topple like dominoes.

While the analogy translated something complex and far away into everyday language, it falsified the situation: When U.S. forces withdrew from Hanoi in defeat, the neighboring countries didn't topple like dominoes.

Uncles have their own adjective in avuncular, but aunts don’t have any such adjective.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan explore adjectives related to family members.  

“Paternal related to fathers, maternal for mothers, fraternal for brothers, sororal, which is not a really common adjective but it’s available in the language related to sisters. You get filial related to sons and daughters, and then parental for parents,” says Curzan.   

She also points out that these adjective that come from Latin often feel more formal than their Germanic synonyms.

“What we are seeing here is a wider pattern in the English language where we have these synonyms where one is borrowed like paternal or maternal and one of them is a native English word. It’s a Germanic word that’s been in English since English has been around. And often the native English word will feel warmer to us. It will feel closer to us and the borrowed one will feel a little bit more formal.”

Listen to the segment above.

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This week, State of Opportunity's Jennifer Guerra explored language and discrimination. She talked to Robin Queen, a linguist who teaches a class about it at the University of Michigan.

From Guerra's story:

Queen says people often think there's one right way to speak, what linguists call Standard American English, or "The Standard," and everyone else is doing it wrong.

"Who gets to decide they can police someone else's language?" asks Queen. "I mean, when did we get to this point that shaming people for their language is fine?"

Remember the George Zimmerman trial last year? You probably read headlines about it somewhere, or maybe watched coverage of it on TV.

If you got to hear any of the testimony, you may remember Rachel Jeantel. She's a young, African-American woman who was the primary witness for the prosecution, and was on the phone with Trayvon Martin on the day he died. 

When Jeantel began speaking, people both in and out of the courtroom focused on the way she spoke.

Why? 

Check out Guerra's piece. You can watch testimony from the Zimmerman trial and read about a study from MSU on language and discrimination that has some surprising results. 

-- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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LANSING – The terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" will be removed from state laws under legislation being sent to Gov. Rick Snyder.

The bills incorporate a recent recommendation from a mental health commission appointed by Snyder. The bipartisan legislation strikes references to outdated language from various statutes and replaces them with terms such as "developmentally disabled" or "intellectually disabled."

The legislation unanimously passed the House and Senate this month and was approved by the Senate for delivery to Snyder Tuesday.

Democratic bill sponsor Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor says it's "a fundamental first step" toward "ensuring everyone in our state is treated with the dignity and the respect they deserve."

The contraction of the word “of” to o’ is considered highly informal, but the phrase “o’clock” is somehow different. 

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss how we talk about time.

The expression “o’clock” comes from “of clock” as in “according to the clock,” says Curzan.

It might seem like an antiquated phrase, but "o'clock" is still used quite a lot.  But, there is something else on the rise and that is the use of a.m. and p.m.

Maybe polar vortex has not been a welcome addition to all of our vocabularies, but there are some other great weather words out there.

In this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss regional words to describe the weather.

Depending on where we live, we use different names for a "light snow." According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, some speakers call this a skiff or a skift. However, in the Midwest and on the East Coast, people are more likely to use the terms dusting or flurry.

Writers online, and now speakers in informal speech, are using "because" in innovative ways.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about the American Dialect Society's 24th Annual Words of the Year vote. 

Curzan says, “It used to be that because had to be followed by a clause. So, I would say, ‘I don’t want to go outside because it’s really cold.’ And now I can say, ‘I don’t want go outside because  cold.’”

More words of the year include: selfie, Obamacare, and slash.

Click here for more on the Word of the Year for 2013.

Ever wanted to learn Ojibwe? Well, there’s an app for that.

The Ojibwe, also known as Anishinaabe people, make up one of the largest groups of Native Americans in the United States, with many living here in Michigan.

Darrick Baxter, president of Ogoki Learning Systems, helped design this free app that could go a long way towards keeping the Ojibwe language alive. 

Here's a video showing how the app works:

Listen to full interview above. 

It seems hard to believe that if you put 8 buffaloes in a row, you can get a grammatical sentence.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan talk about homonyms, or words that sound the same but have different meanings. 

Obviously, saying buffalo 8 times in row does not sound like a sentence. But, technically the sentence is grammatically correct although not readily understandable. It helps to recognize that we are talking about buffalo the animals that happen to be from the city of Buffalo. These buffalo sometimes buffalo as a verb. The verb buffalo can mean to outwit, bully, or trick.

If we substitute buffalo for the words bison and trick, the sentence will go like this:

Tricky plural words

Aug 11, 2013

The word data is plural in Latin. But that etymological fact may not make it plural in English at this point. 

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan talk about whether the word data should be plural or singular.

English borrowed the word data from Latin in which it is plural, the singular is datum. But, in scientific technical writing you will see data very often as plural.

"Many speakers have reinterpreted data as singular, as a mass noun much like information, so then you’ll see data is. The good news is for those of us who use it as a singular, and there are a lot of us, is that that is becoming more and more accepted, and in fact at this point if you look at the American Heritage Dictionary and the usage panel note on this, only 23% of the usage panel still rejects data as a singular," explains Curzan.

Listen to the full interview to hear more examples of making tricky words plural, including syllabus, focus, alumnus, and hippopotamus

Australian Government

A new language has been discovered in a remote aboriginal community of Lajamanu in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Dr. Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, first discovered the new language while studying in Lajamanu. The language spoken there is Warlpiri – an aboriginal language unrelated to English.

Over the last decade O’Shannessy has documented the emergence of “Light Warlpiri” or Warlpiri rampaku in the region.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan revisit regional variations in spoken English and offer up even more fun and often puzzling expressions. 

“For people who are from parts of New York or New Jersey, they will stand on line rather than in line...and for the people who say that makes no sense, the answer is that prepositions don’t always make sense and this is just regional variation," says Curzan.

Another expression that may not make sense to most of us is: drinking a cabinet.

“If you’re from Rhode Island you can drink a cabinet…in Rhode Island, a cabinet is a milkshake," Curzan explains.

Okay, so what to you call those balls of dust hiding underneath the bed? Dust bunnies or woofinpoofs?

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)  has documented over 170 different variations for those balls of lint. And, some variations take on hilarious names.

Graduate, then commence onward

May 5, 2013

Where are you graduating from? Or are you just graduating? On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss the mishaps with the proper use of "graduation."

There's been a good amount of change around the verb graduate, explains Curzan.

"It used to be that the University was supposed to graduate you...in the nineteenth century we started to get that students could graduate from the university."

Before you graduate from a university, or just graduate, you've got to matriculate. But what does matriculation actually mean?

"Matriculation technically means, 'to enroll in or at,' and you'll often see it used that way, but there appears to be some confusion. People sometimes use matriculate to mean graduate," says Curzan.

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Michigan high schools currently require students to take foreign language in grades nine through twelve. Well, that might change soon.

Republican State Representative Phil Potvin of Cadillac is pushing a bill that would make studying a foreign language and algebra II merely an option for students.

Last year House Bill 4102 was heard in the 96th Legislature, but wasn't voted on. Potvin expects the bill to be voted on this year.

"The real reason to do this is that our kids have such a tight curriculum now. [This bill] would allow them some choices."

You're gonna wanna see this...

Mar 10, 2013

This time on "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss the colloquial "gonna" and "wanna," and how these words are not just mispronunciations of their original verbs, but are developing their own distinct meanings.

"If you think about the verb 'go' as a main verb, it has directionality to it. So I could say 'I'm going to swim,' which would imply some kind of direction," explains Curzan. "But if I say 'I'm gonna swim,' that means at some point in the future, I'm gonna swim."

Curzan says that this evolution of the meaning of the verbs is due to the lack of definitive future-tense construction in the English language.

"Interestingly in English, some people would say that we don't have future-tense because we only have one tense marker, which is 'ed' for the past-tense. To talk about the future, we use these little auxiliary verbs like 'will,' which also used to be a main verb. Now 'go' is becoming an auxiliary verb. So this is now one of the ways we talk about the future," Curzan says.

Is 'actually' the new 'like?'

Jan 20, 2013

This week on "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the surging use of the word "actually" in recent years, and whether or not it has become the new "like."

Now part of everyday speech, Anne Curzan says the word "actually" in fact came to the forefront of American speech only just in the past century.

"It turns out the word 'actually' has more than doubled in usage over the 20th century."

But in recent years, the spoken use of "actually" has become even more pronounced.

"Between 1990 and today, so a little over 20 years, 'actually' has tippled its usage in spoken language, so it's no wonder that we're noticing it, and feeling like its everywhere," she says.

This week on That’s What They Say, Anne Curzan, English professor of the University of Michigan and Weekend Edition host Rina Miller discuss the origins of holiday words.

Here are a few:  

Mistletoe used to be called “mistleton.” “Ton” meant “twig” in old English.

The “yule” in the word “yuletide” refers to Christmas or the months of December and January, and “tide” means “a period or extent of time.” Therefore, “yuletide” means the “time of Christmas.”

And the “nog” in egg nog refers to strong ale.

Curzan and Miller also discuss how to pronounce the word “poinsettia” and Curzan explains that Santa’s reindeer named vixen is actually names after a female fox or a sexy woman.

The English language is constantly changing. How do English teachers keep up?

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller recently got a letter from a listener, Bill, from Eaton Rapids who asks why there isn’t a difference between researching English change and teaching language usage.

“I think there is a difference,” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

She believes teachers can teach the standard language usage and talk about language change with their students.

“And I think maybe one way to help think about this, is I often talk about it as a repertoire, and the bigger the repertoire we have as speakers and writers, the more versatile we are. So what I’m trying to do is to make sure that students have in that repertoire the standard, formal written variety and perhaps the formal spoken variety so they can use it when they need to or want to. But if they have other varieties in there too, all the better,” Curzan said.

Listen to the full interview above to hear why it’s okay to use ain’t in writing. Also, Curzan explains how people in the 19th century “hated” the English passive progressive construction, “the house is being built," but now it is completely standard. An example of why people should not be too quick to judge a certain form, as it might become popular years from now.

Merriam Websters’s definition of retronym is a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun. “Film camera” is a retronym.

Every Sunday, Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan a professor of English at the University of Michigan, specializing in linguistics.

In many cases the retronym is formed in response to technological advances.

“We now specify a land line because when you say phone people may assume it’s a cell phone and we need to now, talking about a phone, say a land line,” said Curzan.

Why do some people say, “I could care less” to mean they don’t care? It doesn't make sense. The expression is, "I couldn't care less," right?

“What has happened here, as far as I can tell, is that speakers are no longer parsing this phrase for every word. And this is what happens with idioms. Idioms take on a meaning that surpasses their parts,” says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

“I think the ‘less’ there feels negative to speakers. It already says, ‘I don’t care,’ so for them, ‘I could care less -- I couldn’t care less,’ they mean the same thing,” she says.

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller asks Curzan to explain this idiom, “Butter would not melt in her mouth.”

“People tell me that the pronoun ‘they’ cannot be singular. But here’s the thing - it already is,” says Anne Curzan. She’s a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

Most speakers already use “they” as a singular pronoun in speech.

“In writing, we are told to use ‘he’ or ‘she,’ or change the whole sentence,” Curzan says.

English teachers have been telling us for years that “they” is not a singular pronoun. But, Curzan offers a few examples of indefinite pronouns that speakers make singular.

Merriam Webster has one pronunciation for the word lackadaisical, but often people pronounce it laxadaisical.

“I would guess that what’s happened here is that speakers have reinterpreted lackadaisical as related to lax. And once they do that they change the pronunciation of lackadaisical to laxadaisical” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

Curzan says in surveys she’s done, half the people say lackadaisical and half say laxadaisical, but it doesn’t seem to be because of generation differences.

It’s seems that the combination of the letter K and S is what causes the confusion. Another mix-up can be found in words like especially and espresso.

Less vs. fewer

Nov 4, 2012

“There are people who cringe at the grocery store when they see the sign '10 items or less,'” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

It seems as though the rule for less vs. fewer is becoming less clear.

She said, “The rule is that with nouns that are countable we should use fewer. And with nouns that we can’t count, such as water, we should use less.

“Ten items, clearly you can count them because there are ten, so it should be fewer. If you have money it would be less money, but fewer dollars.”

The principles are the same with amount vs. number, so amount for an uncountable noun, and number for a countable noun.

Um, yeah, no, hmm...

Oct 28, 2012

Discourse markers are the little words at the beginning and ends of sentences that help people organize conversation and relate to listeners.

“I noticed ‘yeah, no,’ ‘no, yeah’ and ‘no, I know,’ where no seems to mean yes,” said Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan.

‘Yeah, no’ does a few things. It helps people agree with another person who has made a negative statement.

It is what is, says Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She spoke with Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller about the clichés she has been hearing lately and how they came into being.

“'To throw something,' or 'to throw someone under the bus,' it looks like that is first cited reliably about 1991 and has taken off since then,” said Curzan.

She finds clichés to be much like fashion--usage depends on repeated exposure to the phrases and often they develop momentum all on their own.  

Though it may be underlined in red immediately after I type it, “irregardless” is indeed a word.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, confirms its legitimacy ; but its usage, she warns, only invites contempt.

“A year ago I was talking with someone, and I said, ‘You know, people use it, it’s in most dictionaries.' And you could see that his respect for me and my scholarly perspective was shaken,” says Curzan.

The word comes from a blend of “irrespective and regardless.”

Open The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and you will inevitably find Usage Notes under certain words. These notes warn readers there might be problems or controversies involving grammar, diction, or writing style.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics is 1 of 200 panelists asked to comment on the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

If you listen carefully you can hear sentences with a double "is" all the time.

President Obama does it. “The fact of the matter is is that…,” he said at the House Republican Conference on January 29, 2010.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

What's the right way to use bad, or badly?

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

Linguists call "feel" a linking verb, which requires an adjective to follow it. Curzan says that's where people get confused.

"I feel happy, I feel bad, but people get confused because with other verbs you'd get an adverb there, I feel bad, I cook badly," Curzan said.

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