Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘language

Terminology and active vs. passive use / Follow-up: Various

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As I have written on a few earlier occasions, I sometimes have trouble with terminology, e.g. in [1], where I note “a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain)”.

Recently, I have seen two examples (“virulent”, “takeoff”) that appear to be less an issue of domain knowledge and more an issue of active use (writing/speaking; as opposed to a passive understanding). This possibly with three sub-issues, namely (a) that the brain might process input and output differently, (b) that the inexperienced active user might grab the wrong word without realizing it,* and (c) that the passive input might be perceived to be understood correctly (but is not) and/or that the passive input is only understood correctly due to surrounding context**. I also suspect that true awareness of a particular word often only arises with the active use, somewhat similarly to the nectarine phenomenon.

*This is what I believe happened with “takeoff”, and it might well have played in with “cartoon” in [1].

**Consider claims like “the assassin stabbed the king with an asdferrf” vs. “this is an asdferrf”. In the first case, sufficient context might be present for the reader to understand all that he needs to understand. (With a less silly word, he might not even reflect on his lack of deeper understanding.) In the second, his ignorance might well be a critical obstacle.

More in detail:

In a recent text on Vaccines, myself, and defamatory politicians ([2]), I claimed e.g. “For instance, the new omicron variant seems to be more virulent than the prior variants—but also less dangerous.”, which seems paradoxical if we apply the standard meaning of “virulent” (harmful*). The paradox is easily resolved, if we go by my actual intent, namely “likely to spread”. which might have been better stated with “infectious” or “contagious”. But how is the reader to know my actual intent, when the words do not match that intent?

*To give a one-word oversimplification of what Wiktionary says. In fact, “very harmful” might match Wiktionary even better, which would make my original formulation extremely far off its intended meaning.

Re-reading an older text about a Finnair flight, I spotted some very incorrect uses of “takeoff”.* I try to give more sensible-than-current limits for when a passenger should do this-or-that at the latest, and write e.g. “be at the gate no later than fifteen minutes before takeoff”. This would be optimistic indeed, but replace takeoff with my actual intent (“departure”) and I stand by the claim.**

*I also use both “takeoff” and “take-off” to discuss my adventures. I have not tried to verify which of these references are correct. An inconsistent spelling, however, is also something more likely to occur when active use of a word is new.

**At least, to some approximation. If e.g. some sub-group of passengers, say those in wheelchairs, must allow a larger margin for a legitimate reason, not just the convenience of airline or airport, I have no objections. It might also be that larger airplanes (than I am used to) might require different rules.

Excursion on other errors/my age:
To avoid errors, it also helps to have slept well. That this was not the case when I wrote [2] is clear from the claim that I am 47. Right now, I am actually 46. (I suspect that this was influenced by some earlier, private, contemplations about my own current age vs. those of my parents and grand-parents at various events, where I rounded my own age to 47 for a fairer comparison, rather than using 46 and swallowing almost 11 months.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 8, 2021 at 10:44 am

The Left, the war on language, and the war on the individual

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I am so deeply disturbed by the language insanities of the far Left that I see myself forced to violate my blog-is-closed policy.

Consider e.g. the recent idiocy* of “chestfeeding”: Not only is this a very ugly construction and one that is intended to replace, on a whim, a word used without controversy for a great length of time, but it is also utterly pointless and shows a horrifying lack of insight into the English language.**

*This is, of course, just one of many. However, in many other cases, there at least seems to be some natural purpose behind it, as with e.g. the re-definitions of “racism” to push that intellectually dishonest Blacks-cannot-be-racist/all-Whites-are-racist rhetoric. A particular common problem is that the Left demands tolkningsföreträde when situations change or new terminology would have been beneficial, as with e.g. redefining “man” and “woman” from the age-old meanings, when it would have been so much better to keep the old meanings and introduce new words for e.g. a-man-who-feels-like-a-woman. (Who, of course, in a sane world is a transgender man, not a transgender woman.)

**To this might be added a number of practical complications, including what to do with existing literature (down the memory hole?) or with any differences that might or might not arise between e.g. U.S., British, and Australian English.

Firstly, the historical main meaning of “breast” is identical to that of “chest” (as an anatomical term). This meaning might have predominated as late as a hundred years ago and is still common in many other Germanic languages (cf. e.g. the Swedish “bröst” and the German “Brust”, which both have the same dual meanings of “chest” and (almost) “udder”). Replacing the one with the other would then only be a step on a euphemistic treadmill.

Secondly, in as far as we hold to the meaning of “udder”, “breastfeeding” is more precise and less confusing than “chestfeeding”. The latter could be taken to imply e.g. someone being fed while in a chest (box) or while merely resting on someone’s chest while being fed in a different manner. This even discounting the incompatibility with prior or international use.

Thirdly, this idiocy appears to be rooted in some transgender/-sexual pseudo-equality movement. However, here it misses the point entirely, because (a) the milk-giving parts would be referred to as breasts irrespective of any “transition”, (b) even the individual male parts analogous to the female can be legitimately referred to as “breasts” in the first place. The suggested/demanded-with-outrage change is, then, as idiotic as demanding that football be renamed into “lower-leg ball” in order to, say, make it less male supremacist—a complete and utter idiocy.

Looking at the overall societal crisis, I would suspect that the true goal is to destroy language, just like history and history education, previous culture, higher education, science, etc. is being destroyed. Once language has been reduced to a meaningless Humpty-Dumpty, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” swamp, the people can no longer rely on language and the Left can change meanings and intents of words as they see fit, enabling it to manipulate and distort in a horrifying manner.

A particularly nefarious use of such distortion is the after-the-fact blacklisting of innocents, e.g. by noting that some mid-19th century physician used the horrifyingly sexist term “breastfeeding”, proving himself to be a narrow-minded bigot whose every argument and scientific claim can be safely ignored—nay, must be ignored.

And, no, in today’s Western world this is not paranoia. Consider e.g. the fate which has already befallen authors, even anti-slavery or pro-black authors, who have used the word “nigger” in a historically correct manner in their works—and note that these works and authors are now increasingly blacklisted.* Similarly, there are cases of e.g. lecturers being condemned for merely uttering “nigger” in order to discuss topics around the word and its uses. That a word once was not in the least offensive does not seem to matter either: In my native Sweden, the word “neger” was considered entirely mainstream and unproblematic, more comparable to “negroe” or “black” than “nigger”, and without any of the U.S. historical load—until some point in the 1980s when someone, somewhere, without an ounce of justification, decided that “neger” was also offensive.** We then had a small band of fanatics demanding a ban—and they were ignored or ridiculed by the broad masses. However, after years of shouting “offensive” and “racist” they managed to change public perceptions and turn a perfectly harmless phrase into something that either a majority or a sizable minority unjustifiably considers offensive—a lie repeated often enough is ultimately taken to be the truth.

*Mark Twain and Harper Lee are likely the foremost examples.

**Even when it comes to the U.S. “nigger”, I am not entirely convinced that the word had a truly offensive character in the early days, and I am open to a process similar to the one taking place in Sweden. However, I have neither done the legwork on the issue, nor can I draw on personal experiences.

One of the more common PC abuses of language is the use of “they” not just as a generic singular (bad enough), but increasingly as a sole pronoun, including cases, e.g. regarding animals, where “it” was already established. Or consider the idiocy of “one” and variations of “they”—instead of correctly saying e.g. “one must eat one’s vegetables” formulations like “one must eat their vegetables” are used over and over again. (See e.g. [1] and [2] for earlier writings.)

This fits into another pattern, namely attempts* to destroy individuality—what can be more de-individualizing and humiliating than to be turned from a “he” or a “she” into a “they”? (Or, as in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem”, turned from an “I” into a “we”. The novella is disturbingly farsighted.) Even an “it” still has individuality, a right to be something or someone of and by it self. A “they” is just a worker bee or a member of the Borg Collective.

*This is not unique to today but a recurring issue with the Left. Consider e.g. the uniformity of clothing or address (“comrade”, etc.) pushed by some Leftist dictatorships.

This war on the individual is notable through e.g. the focus on aspects like ethnicity and sexual orientation over individuality, including demands that voters must vote according to these aspects rather than their personal convictions, e.g. the focus on having (or, in doubt, professing) the “right” prescribed opinion rather than one’s own opinion, e.g. the denial of inborn qualities in favor of an outdated-by-fifty-years attitude of “nurture only”—that we are just what others have molded us to be, and with another molding we would be someone entirely different.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 17, 2021 at 6:11 pm

Quitting the VDE / Follow-up: My experiences with professional associations and similar groups / Follow-up: A few thoughts on English and German language choices around men and women

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I have previously written both about my disappointing experiences with professional associations and similar groups ([1]) and absurd PC language in Germany (e.g. [2]; and, obviously, a number of texts on English PC language).

As I wrote in [1]:

VDE: So far, knock-on-wood, the least disappointing organization and the only one where I am still a member. There are some VDI-like tendencies, but they are nowhere near as strong and there is much more of the engineer mentality I found wanting at VDI.

I have now decided to terminate my membership in VDE, too. This partially for the simple reason that I have switched careers,* but also due to a growing disappointment with the quarterly membership magazine (“VDE Dialog”). About a year ago, in particular, an edition (04/2019) had a great focus on the environment or the climate, which forewent a scientific and “engineery” approach in favor of Greta-Thunberg-style populism and superficiality. One interview spoke derogatorily of nuclear power; and no-one from the VDE spoke in its defense. To my recollection, nuclear power found no serious mention or discussion—remarkable for a magazine/organization ostensibly targeted at electrical engineers.

*This is a German organization for electrical engineers and members of related professions. Even as an IT consultant, I was stretching it; as a writer of novels, I am wasting my of money.

I wrote a letter pointing this out, and also noting that articles were mostly written by non-engineers, including various freelance journalists. I suggested improvements, including that the set of authors be switched to people with a deeper scientific and technical understanding, and that VDE should remember the typical qualification level and field of the readers—a master degree in a STEM field being a typical education.

This letter has so far remained unanswered* and the situation has not improved.

*Not counting a generic remark in the next edition that there had been a large amount of feedback, both positive and negative, on the topic. Reading between the lines, I suspect that there was a considerable amount of criticism.

The latest edition (04/2020) again addresses environmental topics. The result was similar, including a great emphasis on hydrogen as fuel, but nothing or next to nothing on nuclear power.

It also has a 16-page special on “Corona”, with a similar superficiality and lack of probing and understanding—starting with the abuse of “Corona” for the COVID pandemic: the Corona-family is not a one-virus thing and many (most?) infections are indisputably trivial, e.g. as one of the leading causes behind the common cold. Hitler came from Austria, but not all Austrians are Hitler; SARS-CoV-2 is a Corona virus, but not all Corona viruses are SARS-CoV-2.

However, what really pissed me off, and where we have the connection between the two topics*: One article used “Nutzerinnen und Nutzer” (“[female] users and [male] users”), with a footnote claiming “In der Folge verwenden wir aus Gründen der besseren Lesbarkeit nur die weibliche Form.” (“In the following, for better readability, we only use the female [sic!] form.”) …

*I recommend reading [2] before continuing. Search for “Then Germany:”, if you want to get to the point faster.

So: First the article unnecessarily uses “Nutzerinnen” together with the epicene* “Nutzer”, despite the extreme awkwardness of the phrase—and then it tries to remedy the situation by exclusively using the non(!)-epicene female-only form. Idiotic beyond belief and proving a complete ignorance of language and contempt for the readers. (Who, again, are typically highly educated STEM professionals—not brainwashed snowflakes trying to complete a degree in gender-studies without being expelled for wrongspeak or wrongthink.)

*Roughly, a word which can include both biological sexes irrespective of its own grammatical gender, something very common in German. Here, “Nutzer” (without “Nutzerinnen”) would almost always have been taken to imply both male and female users, just like the English “users”.

The typical motivation for this PC nonsense is to not make readers feel “excluded”. The solution to this largely imaginary problem, here, was to remove a form that any native and rational German* would see as inclusive of both sexes, and to use a form that any native and rational German would see as excluding men, barring an explicit statement to a contrary intent. Consider e.g. a U.S. talent agency saying “we represent actresses and actors, but in the rest of this advert, we will speak of actresses to keep things simple”—where no-one (sane) would have raised even half an eye-brow had the text originally just said “we represent actors” and would almost certainly have expected “we represent male actors”, if the contrary was intended.

*Sorry, “Germanin or German”.

To boot, “Nutzerinnen” is about twice as long as “Nutzer”, which reduces readability, and the original order (“Nutzerinnen und Nutzer”) is flawed, as discussed in [2].

VDE is exactly the type of organization which should take a clear stand against this type of anti-intellectual and contemptuous PC nonsense. It is also exactly the type of organization that should speak out for a scientific approach to climate issues, not populist FUD—which includes an objective and neutral take on nuclear power.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 25, 2020 at 9:56 pm

Odd language use / Swedish journalism

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Disclaimer:
This text turned out to be much thinner than I had anticipated. I would normally have foregone it entirely or waited until I had more material. However, as I explicitly mentioned it in the linked-to text, I prefer to get it out of the way.

The poor style and grammar of many journalists often annoy me. Recently, I have become increasingly annoyed over the Swedish use of “då” (roughly, “then”, in at least some meanings) as a sentence or even paragraph opener. Unfortunately, this is not even limited to journalists.

For instance, consider a sentence quoted earlier today:

Då menar jag att med hänsyn till dessa omständigheter har det varit försvarligt av Krister Petersson att i sitt beslut namnge den personen.

Here the word is used to imply “in light of this”, “considering this”, “in this situation”, or similar; while a literal translation might be “then”, or something like “at that time” or “in that [sic!] situation”. Looking at the logic of language, not the typical actual use, this seems quite odd.*

*This is not a unique example. Consider e.g. the English use of “since” to imply causality instead of timing; or the French “sans doute” to imply “probably” instead of the literal “without doubt”. Indeed, such small traps are so common that an attempt to save writing from them might lead to unrecognizable texts. Some uses are worse than others, however, and “då” is quite bad.

However, this is a comparatively harmless case. Common uses include e.g. the pattern:*

*I have kept no specific example. The quote is hypothetical, put directly into English for illustration. The division into two paragraphs is deliberate and matches the pattern used; however, the actual examples tend to be a little wordier.

Last year, boxer-X and boxer-Y fought to a controversial draw. Last night, they met again.

Then* boxer-X won on knockout.

*In a past sense. The English “then” is actually less misplaced than “då”, because “then” can be used for sequencing in another manner, as with “I went to the movies and then I went home”. In Swedish, this would likely have been resolved with “sedan”: “Jag gick på bio och sedan gick jag hem”. The same sentence with “då” would likely have been taken as something simultaneous, as with “I went to the movies and while I was there I went home”.

Unnatural, contorted, and with some risk of confusion? It is the same in Swedish. Even “now” (“nu”) would have been better, and something like “this time” clearly so. Moreover, the entire construction is dubious. I might have gone with:

Last night, boxer-X defeated boxer-Y on knockout in a re-match of their controversial draw from last year.

(Of course, many other variations are possible—but few as poor and odd as the original.)

Still, this type of pattern appears again and again: A first paragraph with background information. A second paragraph, beginning with “Då”, with the event. (Optionally, followed by further paragraphs with more details.) This is the odder, as someone reading about a sports event in a newspaper will want to see the result in the first sentence of the first paragraph.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 19, 2020 at 1:45 pm

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Capitalization of racial colors

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I capitalize quite a few words, and tendentially more as time goes by, including Democrat/Republican,* Liberal**, Conservative**, Feminist***, and various nationalities**** (e.g. Swede and German). Sometimes, I follow standard use; sometimes, I do not; sometimes, there is no true standard. (The reader is encouraged to check this text for various uses of capital letters, even outside first-letter-of-a-sentence.)

*The U.S. party belongings, to differ them from the more general words denoting attitudes towards forms of government and whatnot.

**The ideologies, as opposed to everyday meanings.

***Originally, probably, by analogy with something else.

****As per standard conventions in English.

This includes “White” and “Black”, when I intend the racial groupings—not the actual color. (Contrast e.g. “White man” and “white boat”. As can be seen from the footnotes above, disambiguation is often the cause.)

I have some concerns about the appropriateness of these terms based on e.g. the difference between claimed and actual skin color, and questions like how to handle e.g. black or dark-skinned people who are not of African descent—should e.g. some Indian or Australian groups be considered Black, despite not being African? Ditto the paradox that many Asians are whiter than “White” Europeans.

Only very recently, have I become aware that even capitalization can be an issue, if often for idiotic reasons. Much of the linked-to page boils down to a conflict over whether those who use capital-B
“Black” should also use capital-W “White”. (A question that by any reasonable standard should have the answers “yes”, for reasons of consistency, just like we have “Monday and Tuesday”, not “monday and Tuesday”.)

For instance, it quotes the “Washington Post” as saying “Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States”, to support its recent decision to capitalize both words, while “Associated Press” and “Columbia Journalism Review”, apparently, has a capital-B-only policy.

Several (mostly incoherent) tweets are quoted, including one claiming “[…] or it* could imply White Power, White Pride, etc, which makes me very uncomfortable.”

*From context, the capital-W.

Both the concerns around identity, be it cultural or racial, and “White Power” should be entirely irrelevant to the question of capitalization:

The former refers to something highly arbitrary and ever-changing, which makes it entirely unsuitable as a criterion. It could, for instance, lead to situations where Pat Buchanan was born white, because there were no “White” cultural identity at the time, and by now having turned White, because such an identity would now exist. We might then, in the atrocious style of Wikipedia, find claims like “A White man, Pat Buchanan was born to white parents. Originally a white baby, he began turning White in 1982.”. For instance, we might find that capital-B is eventually unacceptable because the “Black” identity fractures too much over time. (Indeed, even now, it can be disputed both whether e.g. Obama, a Black Bronx-kid, an elderly Alabama Black, and a first-generation immigrant from the Ivory Coast, have that much of a common culture, identity, or whatnot, and whether any related identity would be “natural” or imposed by propaganda.) For instance, it leaves open how to handle those who carry the outward signs, but do not share this identity.* Moreover, this would leave a great deal to arbitrary judgment and a danger of abuse through Leftist tolkningsföreträde.

*By this standard would Rachel Dolezal be White or white, or would she even be white and Black. Is an “Oreo” black or Black, or even black and White. Etc.

The latter would involve both a dropping of context* and open doors wide open for misinterpretation, even of a deliberate kind: “Hey, he used a capital-W. Now we know that he is a White supremacist—no further proof needed!”.

*Consider e.g. the drop of modifiers from “discrimination” (say, “sexual discrimination”), which has led to a severe distortion of meaning, or the ridiculous abuse of “chauvinist” to mean e.g. “misogynist”, instead of “nationalist”, based on the analogy expression “male chauvinist” and the later dropping of “male”.

Two simple rules:

If you do use capital-B, then capital-W is mandatory. (And vice versa.)

Whether you do, is up to you, but I recommend it for reasons of disambiguation and disambiguation only—to differ colors from groups and entities named based on colors.*

*This not restricted to racial groupings. For instance, if we have a tournament between teams identified by color, it would usually make more sense to e.g. speak of “the White goalkeeper”, “a Blue forward”, “the Green team”, etc. (And, yes, the White goalkeeper might very well be a Black man, but that should be beside the point in this context.)

As a corollary: Never assume anything more than disambiguation from this type of capitalization.

Note on quotation marks:
I have deliberately left out quotation marks on a good many places where they normally belong. This, in part, to avoid cluttering; in part, because of a problem of interpretation and expression: Everyone writes “Black” with a capital “B”, and saying e.g “Spell ‘Black’ with a capital ‘B’!” would be tautological and uninteresting. If it is not spelled with a capital “B”, it is not “Black”, but “black”. (Or “Slack”, “Alack”, whatnot, depending on how the capital “B” is avoided.) The latter complication has also led to use of “capital-W” and “capital-B” above.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 9, 2020 at 3:27 pm

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Tolkningsföreträde

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I find myself, again, wanting to reference the Swedish concept of tolkningsföreträde. To make this easier, I publish this text as a considerable modification of an excursion from an older text:

An apparently international problem with many members of the Left is that they presume to have, using a Swedish word, “tolkningsföreträde”—it is their way or the high way: They decide what a word should mean. They decide what is sexism, racism, xenophobia, whatnot. They decide what is acceptable. They decide what is fair and unfair. They decide what is science and what quackery.* Etc. Often, they even presume to decide what someone else meant by a statement and what his motivations were.** Have the audacity to question this right in Sweden,*** even by pointing to the possibility of another interpretation or by pointing out that their use does not match the established one, and what happens: You (!) are accused of demanding tolkningsföreträde …

*Often mixing the two up in a manner that would be comedy if it was not so tragic, as with the blanket condemnations of anything related to IQ or the influence of “nature”, despite solid evidence, and the blanket acceptance of e.g. “gender studies” claims and a “nurture only” view, despite very severe problems with lack of proof, ideological bias, an adapt-the-facts-to-fit-the-hypothesis attitude, and whatnot.

**Not to be confused with the often observed (and it self disputable) attitude that it is solely the subjective perception of the “target” which counts to determine e.g. whether a statement is offensive: Here I mean the case of e.g. unilaterally deciding which interpretation of a statement the speaker intended and unilaterally deciding that the speaker was motivated by e.g. racism or sexism—not e.g. by concerns over sustainability of this-or-that or by the wish to make a joke. For instance, someone who says “White lives matter” is actually a racist shit who means that Black lives do not matter—not someone who, just maybe, might try to point to problems with the current attitudes against Whites or who wants to push for a more inclusive approach.

***The principle holds internationally too, if to a lesser degree and without use of the word “tolkningsföreträde”. Consider e.g. the very deliberate misdefinitions of “racism” pushed by some groups, which are simultaneously illogical and contrary to established use, but where even the attempt to push the correct meaning can lead to condemnation.

The behavior often goes beyond what can be taken as good faith based in stupidity and ignorance, and moves into outright Orwellian areas, where deliberate attempts to manipulate the debate and suppress dissent must be suspected. This especially when the Left reverses the accusation by complaining about tolkningsföreträde in others. Then again, the level of hypocrisy and blindness is often disturbingly large, and, even here, I cannot rule out an inability to see the hypocrisy.

The word, it self, means roughly “precedence of interpretation” and originated as a legal term* implying that one person/organization/whatnot has the power of interpretation of e.g. an agreement or a set of rules or by-laws, in case of ambiguity or dispute.

*An English/U.S./common-law equivalent might well exist, but I am not aware of it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 21, 2020 at 10:32 am

A few thoughts on English and German language choices around men and women

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As I spotted when writing another text earlier today, my sources used phrases like “von Frauen und Männern” (“from women and men”), while I find it natural to stick to “men and women” in my own writings. As the situation in Germany is quite interesting (and highly unfortunate) a few words on these issues.

For starters, let us look at men and women in English:

Is it “men and women” or “women and men”, and why? Is it e.g. sexist to use the former or “progressive” to use the latter?

Looking at meaning and sentence logic, the order is irrelevant and it should (to those not subscribing to Feminist rhetoric or some extreme version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) almost always be “men and women” for reasons of rhythm and smoothness—and it should be “ladies and gentlemen” for the same reason, not “gentlemen and ladies”.

Start by saying these phrases out loud a few times, and note how differently they feel. In particular, the human (or English?) ear tends to prefer* trochaic and iambic rhythms and something that allows a pattern of some sort to form. With “men and women”, we have two trochees (“MEN and WOmen”), but with “women and men” (“WOmen and MEN”) we have more random** syllables. The latter can be made to sound good, but would then require a sufficient rhythmic context (or, possibly, an exaggerated pronunciation).

*But not to exclusion. For instance, the anapest (think Dr. Seuss) can be quite catching; for instance, cf. the dactyls below. To some part, I suspect, trochees and iambs are preferred because e.g. English is naturally filled with series of these or their approximations.

**It could be seen as a single choriamb, but four-syllable metrics are not usually applied (for good reasons) and there can be no pattern with just the one choriamb. It could also be seen as a trochee followed by an iamb, but this allows no pattern either, without a larger context.

Similarly, “ladies and gentlemen” is broadly* two dactyls (LAdies and GENtlemen”, while “gentlemen and ladies” is broadly* a dactyl followed by an amphibrach (“GENtlemen and LAdies”). (And a dactyl could, in this informal context, be seen as a “long” trochee.)

*I am not entirely certain whether to treat “gentle” as a single very long or as two separate syllables, as the final “e” is silent and the vowel sound of the “l” is weak or even optional. If two, there might be some dispute exactly how the main beat is to be placed. (Poetry-wise, I am an amateur. And, no, I do not have all of the Greek names memorized.) Then again, it can be disputed whether syllables or length/morae are more important, which would leave us with dactyl or “dactyloid” anyway. Of course, in the theatrical “Laaaaaaaaaaadies aaand geeeeeeeeeentlemen”, the two syllable version is almost bound to apply.

Then Germany:

Here the situation is much more complicated and unpoetic: a simple “Männer und Frauen” (two dactyls, again) compares slightly better than “Frauen und Männer” (another dactyl + amphibrach), but not as strongly as in the two English cases. (Possibly, because of flexibility in splitting the “aue” combination in “Frauen”. I take it as au-e, as the most likely syllables are “Frau” und “en” (with a diphthong “au”), but, with the added flexibility in the pronunciation, “Frauen” can be bent to fit other patterns.)

However, if we look at current German use, we are bombarded with phrases like “Bäckerinnen und Bäcker” (“[female] bakers and [male] bakers”), “BäckerInnen” (artificial word presuming to include both sexes; note capitalization of the internal “I”), and “Bäcker*innen” (ditto; note non-footnote star in the middle).

Here poetry is usually beside the point and other concerns apply, the most notable that these attempts at “gender-inclusive” language are entirely unnecessary in almost all contexts: “Bäcker”, like most* similar male-seeming plurals, is epicene, i.e. can refer to members of both sexes. Ditto the singular in a generic context, where a baker of unknown sex might be referred to as “der Bäcker”, but the known woman would be “die Bäckerin”. This does bring some ambiguity, in that some contexts leave it open whether a certain group is single-sex or not, but in most the “not” can be taken for granted and in many it does not matter.** The same applies, obviously, to the basic English “baker” and “bakers”, because there are no even optional female forms for most “traditionally male” professions (and vice versa). Indeed, many of the problems with Feminist language manipulation go back to the refusal to consider the epicene enough—actual “social” neutrality*** is needed. (Hence, e.g. the rejection of the epicene generic “he” in favor of the neutral or quasi-neutral generic “they”, even at the price of switching from singular to plural.) It is the odder in German, however, where epicenity is very wide spread, including cases where a man is legitimately referred to as “she”. (A more extensive discussion of this in German is present in an older text on gender-neutral language. This text is also relevant to some other points.)

*Including typical professions, but usually excluding e.g. “Männer” (“men”). Even for “Männer”, the inclusion of women could be argued when we do not intend it in the sense of men-as-opposed-to-women, but e.g. members-of-a-troupe-of-X (as with the similar use of “men” in English). An army officer holding a speech to his “Männer” might well take women to be included, as the word points to a certain role or membership, not a sexual division. Context can be important, as even the singular “Mann” is occasionally applied to women, even by other women, in sloppy language—just like some U.S. women might refer to other women as “guys” or even “dudes’. For instance, it is conceivable that an irate teen girl says something like “Du hast meinen Stift geklaut, Mann!” (“You stole my pencil, dude!”, except that “dude’ is less likely than “Mann”) to another teen girl.

**“Bäcker backen Brot” (“bakers bake bread”), e.g., is obviously not single-sex. Ditto e.g. “wir stellen Bäcker ein” (“we hire bakers”; few, contrary to Feminist propaganda, care about sex over ability to bake) and “Bäcker der Bäckerei X” (“bakers of the bakery X”; might be single-sex if few enough, but it would then rarely matter). In contrast, in “zwei Bäcker schlugen sich” (“two bakers were physically fighting”) the details might well be relevant.

***Be it through use of a grammatical neutral, something inherently “non-gendered” (arguably, “they”; but it might also be considered epicene), lengthy duplications (“Bäckerinnen und Bäcker”), or artificial words or constructs (“BäckerInnen”, “Bäcker*innen”).

As an aside, I note that these solution attempts are all “binary”, which implies that the “gender-inclusiveness” is not reached by modern standards to begin with. The epicene “Bäcker” does not have that problem …

To look more in detail at the three typical workarounds-for-a-non-existing-problem:

“Bäckerinnen und Bäcker” is lengthy for no good reason, with a negative effect on readers, writers, speakers, and hearers alike. Moreover, the prefixing of the female version makes the expression clumsier yet, as the second part is a substring of the first and rarely* adds any new real information. (And I see the reverse as poetically sounder.) That the prefix is almost always the female version, even with male dominated groups, opens the suspicion that specifically women should somehow be pushed. (As to the reasons, I can only speculate. Possibilities include “we need to compensate for centuries of oppression” and “we need to show women that they, too, can be X”. Sadly, I cannot, in today’s society, rule out that some Feminists or “gender scientists” put the female form first because they actually do consider women more important.)

*It is extremely rare to see a word like “Bäckerinnen” not followed by “und Bäcker” (resp. whatever male or epicene form applies). A word like “Bäcker”, on the other hand, might well see a more informative extension, as with e.g. “Bäcker und Konditoren” (“bakers and pastry chefs [?]”). If in doubt, what follows “Bäcker” is much more likely to be something other than an “und”, which brings the sentence forward (as with the above “Bäcker backen Brot”).

Interestingly, there have been cases of “innen”-forms used where non have previously existed grammatically, and the single form was then purely single-sex to begin with. Unfortunately, I do not remember exact actual examples, but consider, hypothetically, “Modelinnen und Models”, where the “Modelinnen” is a spurious female plural of the imported “Model”. The same type of problem is possible with the other two cases below.

“BäckerInnen” is pronounced exactly like “Bäckerinnen”, despite the different implications (men and women vs. women only), so this solution is useless for the spoken language and can cause confusion when reading a written text aloud. Moreover, even the optical difference is so small that mistakes of both reading and writing are likely. Those who subscribe to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, i.e. typically those who push this nonsense, should take great care, as this would be a school example of potential cognitive effects. Indeed, this is a case where even someone largely skeptical towards this hypothesis (e.g. yours truly) might well see a risk (I do). I have always been torn between considering use of this construct gross incompetence and an attempt to replace male/epicene forms with female or female/epicene* forms, the capital “I” being a mere alibi to use the traditionally female form. This type of internal capitalization is without precedent** and likely to cause confusion among those not used to it, including German-as-a-second-language-learners.

*Which, to avoid misunderstandings, would only acquire epicenity through this replacement.

**Barring company names, and similar, which typically arose after this idiocy reared its ugly head. The construct was in use when I first arrived here in 1997. (I do not remember my first own reaction, but I might well have thought it a typo.)

“Bäcker*innen”, a very recent invention, shares most weaknesses with “BäckerInnen”, while looking ridiculous, introducing unnecessary complications for e.g. spell checkers, and moving even further outside the traditional uses of characters. Indeed, a middle-of-word use of a star is usually the mark of a censored character, as with “f*ck” for “fuck”, which raises the question what has been “starred out” and why. To someone used to regular expressions and computers, it is idiotically shaped (cf. below), while a star in other contexts often implies something questionable (e.g. a disputed mark in athletics) or a pointer to a note of some type (as, indeed, in this text). In a linguistic context, which is obviously relevant, its main use is likely to indicate a form of a word that is only hypothesized, as with e.g. Proto-Indo-European reconstructions. (To which other, but less relevant, uses can be added, e.g. as an indicator of multiplication: the overloading of this character is too large to burden it with an additional meaning without a much better reason than claimed with “Bäcker*innen”.) The one advantage is a smaller risk of optical confusion, but the net result is a worsening. (There might or might not be some advantage in speech, e.g. that this could be spoken as “Bäcker-Stern-innen” (“Stern” = “star”), but that would be clumsy indeed, and risk confusion with “Stern” in e.g. the sense of an astronomical star.

How to do it better? Well, if it is not acceptable that “Bäcker” pulls double duty as the epicene term and the male counter-part of “Bäckerinnen”, it would make more sense to me to deprecate “Bäckerinnen” and just use “Bäcker” through out, as an entirely “non-gendered” term. (Effectively, follow the path of English in just using “bakers” resp. deprecating existing terms like “actress”.) However, if someone positively, absolutely insists on introducing new formations, they* should at least follow established conventions. For instance, “BäckerInnen” would better have been “Bäcker/-innen” in a regular writing context, while the pseudo-regexp or pseudo-computerese “Bäcker*innen” would better have been “Bäcker(innen)?” (or “Bäcker?(innen)”, depending on system) or “Bäcker[innen]”.** Of course, neither of these consistency improvements remedies the confusing impression or the pronunciation issues—so stick to “Bäcker”!

*As an aside, using correct and conventional grammar, anyone would realize that “they” refers to the formations (the one plural). With the perversion of the generic “they”, it would be more likely to refer to “someone”. Here the difference in meaning would be small enough to be tolerable, but in other cases considerable misunderstandings could arise. Indeed, the pollution with the generic “they” is so pervasive that I, proof reading, for a moment actually combined the “they” with “someone”, myself. Death to the generic “they”!

**But I would be willing to accept a “*” over “?” to reduce the risk of confusion with a question mark. Otherwise, in typical regular expressions, “?” indicates an optional occurrence, while “*” indicates an arbitrary number of occurrences. “ab?” would then be either of “a” and “ab”, while “ab*” would be “a”, “ab”, ‘abb”, “abbb”, etc. The incorrectly ordered and ungrouped “Bäcker*innen” would then amount to “Bäckeinnen”, “Bäckerinnen”, “Bäckerrinnen”, “Bäckerrrinnen”, etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 8, 2020 at 2:22 pm

Creating leadership to raise awareness of poor language

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I recently skimmed a Wikipedia page with the almost absurd claim “[he] devoted his time to raising awareness of childhood obesity”, which leads me to have a look at a few words/phrases that have annoyed me for a long time.

To begin with, unsurprisingly, “raising awareness”:

I cannot count the number of times that I have encountered this nonsensical “raising awareness” and I cannot remember more than a small fraction of the causes for which awareness is being raised. This makes the phrase hackneyed and pointless.

I have never quite understood what “raising awareness” would amount to, the phrase is too generic, and the implications can be very different from context to context. This makes the phrase uninformative, even potentially misleading.

The number of apparent causes is so large that it makes the phrase, even the general idea, disputable (also see an excursion below): Firstly, most of the underlying issues are either too trivial to bother the broad masses with or so obvious that any even semi-educated person will already be aware of them. (As with e.g. childhood obesity in the modern U.S.) Secondly, the number of issues is too large for anyone to be seriously “aware” of more than a small fraction of them. (And the limited “awareness” is, obviously, best spent on issues with a personal relevance or where a personal effort can bring something. Someone who tries to “raise awareness” of childhood obesity with me, a childless adult, wastes my time.)

There might well be worthy actions available to those who want to help with a certain cause or issue (and there might be some causes and issues far worthier than others), but “raising awareness” will hardly ever be one of them.

If someone provides an information service, then say so.

If someone raises funds, then say so.

If someone holds speeches, then say so.

Etc.

The we have variations on the “leader” and “leadership” theme:

For instance, consider how many colleges proudly proclaim that they are “educating the leaders of tomorrow”, how many activities will “improve leadership skills”, or how many “leadership” awards there seems to be.

“Leader” seems to be increasingly used merely as a term for someone of some level of accomplishment, and not necessarily a very high one. The aspect of actually leading* is often absent or reduced to being a claimed role-model, being a “leader by example”, or having at some point led something trivial, like a handful of boy-scouts or a three-person department (as opposed to e.g. an army regiment resp. a Fortune-500 company). Indeed, the truly competent are often not found in leadership positions, e.g. because they are not sufficiently interested in self-promotion and socializing, or because their ideas are voted down by a less competent majority.

*As an aside, I have a fairly low opinion of many types of leaders and leadership ideas in general. This in particular with leaders who focus greatly on motivation and/or are poor decision makers.

A brilliant scientist, e.g., might well be a “leading scientist” and might even legitimately have “led the field”, in the sense of being a forerunner, but these meanings are only tangentially related to “leadership” and “being a leader”. Why then speak of “leadership” and “being a leader”, unless separate proof of leadership is present?

From another point of view, consider the reality of the world vs. a Lake Wobegon where everyone is a leader: How many college graduates, e.g., will ever have a leadership position actually worth mentioning? Is it not better for an engineering student to focus on becoming a great engineer than on being one of the “future leaders of the engineering profession”? For a med student to focus on becoming a great physician than on being one of the “future leaders of the medical profession”? If in doubt, very many engineers will end up in a “Dilbert” scenario, “led” by an incompetent middle-manager*, while very many physicians work endless hours to remain in the middle off the pack. Looking at non-STEM students, they are often found “leading” customers to include fries in their fast-food orders.

*As an aside, making managers and administrators more than assistants of and paper-work handlers for the core work-force might have been a grave mistake.

If in doubt, when a college degree has become the norm, calling college graduates “leaders” would result in an army with more generals than privates.

Similarly, if someone played a major part in a sports win (possibly, any part), he “led” the team to victory, while, apparently, the team’s coach did not. Going by biographies and CVs there might be teams out there with as many leaders as players …

I might go as far as suggest that the reader bans terms like “leadership” from his vocabulary. Often, they are entirely misleading; when not, more specific* words are usually better, to avoid both the taint of today’s wishy-washy meaning and the risk, when applied to oneself, of sounding self-aggrandizing.

*Which words will depend on the circumstances, but calling Trump “president”, Merkel “chancellor”, the mayor “mayor” and the major “major”, and so on, would be better than speaking of the “leader of [whatnot]”. In collectives, “heads of government” would be better than “leaders of countries”, etc. Semi-generic, but still more specific, terms like “decision maker” can work well in many contexts.

Finally, consider “create”:

Increasingly, a song-writer no longer writes songs but “creates” them; a designer no longer designs but “creates”; replace an ingredient in an existing drink, and you have now “created” the whatever-you-choose-to-call-it; etc. On one occasion, I actually read that someone had “created” the hair of some celebrity or other—not even the hair style, but the hair …

A particular negative examples is an actor “creating” a part: Never mind the preceding work of a playwright or director—if an actor takes on a new part, he “creates” it. As much as I acknowledge an actor’s ability to interpret a part, variations of “create” will hardly ever be fair and meaningful. If this was limited to the first actor to play the part, I might have been content with pointing out that “originate” would be a better word, but, no, if the play moves from London to New York, a second actor might be credited with “creating” the very same part, move to Paris and we have a third, etc.

The word is used in such a blanket manner that it is beginning to lose all meaning. (Not to mention removing nuance from the language. Compare e.g. “I wrote this text” with “I created this text”.)

And, yes, I have seen cases of the double-whammy “create awareness” … (But, in all fairness, that use of “create” is much more acceptable.)

Excursion on the purpose of “awareness”:
From a non-language angle: What is awareness supposed to achieve? Those who are actually affected will usually already be aware—and those who are not, are unlikely to be sufficiently bright and willing to be made aware.* On the other hand, if someone never interacts with children, it will rarely matter whether awareness of childhood obesity is present. If some old lady spends her evening with concerns about all those poor obese children while she watches TV, how does that make the world better? Her evening would certainly be more pleasant without the awareness. If awareness changes voting patterns, it will usually do more harm than good, because few issues are even remotely important enough to outweigh the totality of other factors that decide a vote. If someone donates money, it might harm another charity or take away business from someone else—and money given to charities often mainly serve to keep the charity, it self, its employees, and its contractors in money. (Raising all that awareness can be quite expensive …) If more people join a march or run a marathon with a certain badge, then this achieves nothing, except, possibly, to raise more awareness.

*Take someone who is sufficiently uninformed, unobservant, or uncaring, to not prevent an obese child from stuffing himself with chips and soft-drinks. Would this someone be likely to listen to warnings against childhood obesity? Fervently write down tips for a better diet? I doubt it.

Now, if awareness was directed at truly big issues where ignorance is common, there might be a point—but it rarely is. For instance, consider formation of opinion (political opinion, in particular): if more were aware of how important it is to think for oneself, to look at both sides of a story, to read deeper accounts than what newspapers provide, to have a solid knowledge of history, to have free speech even for dissenters, …, that could have a major positive impact on the outdated or otherwise flawed opinions that plague current societies, which, in turn, could have a major positive impact on public policy. Very few* actually “raise awareness” (if that loathsome phrase is tolerated) in this area. Of those who do, hardly any are considered philanthropists, and quite a few are condemned for spurious reasons, like allegedly supporting a particular movement after merely having advocated that its members, too, must have free speech.

*I am one of the few, which explains the example.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2020 at 4:35 pm

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A few recommendations around “X began Y-ing”

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Preamble: The weird formulation family X began Y-ing has remained in the back of my head. I had gathered some resulting recommendations in a draft (almost draft-of-a-draft), which I have polished up a little below, to get the topic out of my backlog. Note that there is some overlap with and repetition of the original text.

Prefer a non-“start”* formulation, whenever it is not contrary to intentions. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is usually** inferior to “he swam ashore”. The non-“start” formulation is both shorter and more likely to match the actual intention. (It seems to me that e.g. some Wikipedia editors throw on an entirely unnecessary “start” formulation in a blanket manner. Consider, hypothetically, “modern humans first appeared” vs. “modern humans first began to appear” or, jikes, “modern humans first began appearing”.)

*With “start”, I include equivalent words, e.g. “begin”.

**An exception is when he did not reach the shore. Another when something follows in the text that takes place before arrival, e.g. an incident with a shark or a mermaid.

Prefer a “to” formulation. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is superior to “he started swimming ashore”. The former is grammatically sounder, less prone to ambiguity, more likely to bring the intent over, and stylistically better. Note that the most reasonable interpretation of “swimming” (in this context) is as a participle describing what he was doing when he “started”. (Be it in the sense of a sudden movement or of “began” with a missing verb indicating what began, as with “he started to drown swimming”, which, while awkward, is a possible formulation.)

Prefer a regular noun over a gerund. For instance, “he started constructION” is better than “he started constructING” (with very minor reservations for the exact contexts and intentions, seeing that there is a slight difference in meaning). As a special case, be careful not to replace a regular noun with a gerund that is the noun + “ing”, as with “he heard a moan” vs. “he heard a moaning”. (Again, with reservations for exact intention: If one moan is meant, it is “moan” and not “moaning”. However, if an on-going series of moans is intended, then “moaning” might be acceptable.)

Pay attention to prepositions: a gerund will often require one. For instance, “he began teaching of math” is logically acceptable as a gerund (even if very ugly), while “he began teaching math” implies* that “teaching” is a verb form, making “he began to teach math” the preferable version.

*Unless it is a participle, with something missing from the sentence: “he began to write on the blackboard teaching math”. (Incidentally, a good example why participles should be used with caution in English.)

Pay attention to the difference between gerunds (quasi-nouns), participles (quasi-modifiers), and verb forms. A great deal of confusion and a fundamentally flawed understanding of grammar arises when the simplistic idea of “ing” words (and, similarly, “ed” words) is used as a blanket replacement. These might all end with “ing”, but this is arbitrary and we might well have had them end with, respectively, “ing”, “ang”, and “ong”—or any other suffix, or have them be distinctive in some other manner yet. They happen to be the same in English, but that does not mean anything. The two lefts in “I left to the left” are not the same either and treating them as the same would be idiotic. “Swimming, he was swimming during the swimming” uses all three: The first is a participle, the second a (part of a) verb form, the third a gerund (if a little artificial in context). We can e.g. see that “was swimming” can be replaced with “swam” but that the others cannot; and that “was” fits with the second but not the others. The third can be replaced by e.g. “swim session”, while the others cannot. It also goes well with “the”, which the others do not. The first allows extensions like “pleasantly swimming” that are incompatible at least with the gerund use.* Indeed, the corresponding** sentences in Swedish and German display three visually (and phonetically) different words: “Simmande, simmade han under simmandet” resp. “Schwimmend, schwamm er während des Schwimmens”.***

*A gerund, as a quasi-noun, takes an adjective like “pleasant”. Participles and verb forms take adverbs like “pleasantly”.

**The commata are a little dubious in Swedish and German, but I have kept them to make the identification with the English sentence easier.

***The German version also illustrates a complication not obvious in the weakly inflected English language: Different word classes can underlie different modifications. Here the basal “[das] Schwimmen” is turned into “[des] Schwimmens” in the genitive case, which (at least in German) would affect neither the participle use nor the verb use. (The preposition “während” causes the genitive.)

Addendum on infinitives: In the original text, I spoke of how “Y-ing” in this type of formulation “logically fills the role of an infinitive”. With hindsight this was a partial misjudgment on my behalf: an infinitive is often used in such roles, but it is hardly a universal linguistic law. There might, for instance, be cases where English uses an infinitive and Latin a subjunctive, e.g. “he does it to win” vs. (with great reservations for correctness) “facit ut vincat”, not “facit ut vincere”. (This could possibly be the result of long-term confusion between “logical case” and appearance of the words involved, where one case disappears from consciousness or language because all its forms coincides with those of another case.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 14, 2019 at 1:09 am

For want of a dictionary / Paradoxical language issues

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The likely heaviest items that I brought to Germany in 1997 were a two-volume Swedish–German German–Swedish dictionary. I made heavy use of both the first few years. Indeed, early on, the German–Swedish part hardly left the bed of my small student room, as I had to constantly look words up when reading. Repeatedly, I used them to carefully construct and memorize one or two sentence for some official business, e.g. opening a bank account, so that the related meeting would not immediately descend into confusion.

Time passed, my vocabulary grew until I rarely needed Swedish as a starting point, and the exact choice and spelling of words were ultimately better handled by new websites like Wiktionary and Leo.

When I moved from Düsseldorf to Wuppertal a few years ago, I threw them away—I had not used them in years and they seemed like a lot of dead weight. There was even a slight feeling of pride, of the knowledge that these books, once so important, were now so unimportant. Big boys do not need training wheels.

Today, I find myself humbled and regretful: I am trying to write a letter to a Swedish bank, where my mother started a few accounts in my name—and finding reasonable Swedish (!) words is proving hard. Not only is my Swedish fairly rusty, especially when it comes to spelling, nuance, and false friends, but I also find that there are “adult” words* that I am accustomed to in German only, because I left Sweden before truly embarking on my adult life. A two-volume Swedish–German German–Swedish dictionary would have been a blessing …

*Business vocabulary and the like—not applied biology.

(The Internet still helps, but my knowledge of sites to help with Swedish is more limited than with English and German.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2019 at 2:16 pm