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Newsletter 902
06 Nov 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. The Language Myth.

3. Wordface.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Lost in translation. A Sic! item in the last issue reproduced a report from the Sydney Morning News on that supposed Russian incursion into Swedish waters. Rear-admiral Anders Grenstad was reported as saying “It could be a submarine, or a smaller submarine”. Many readers suspected, as I did, that the newspaper quote was a bad translation.

Terry Walsh went back to the Swedish original and confirmed that the English version should have been “We are certainly able to exclude a conventional submarine. Some of the observations do not allow for that depth, says Grenstad. But he is sure of one thing. There is some type of underwater vehicle, at least one.” How one gets from that to the quote in the newspaper is hard to understand.

By the way, the original text showed that the usual Swedish term for a submarine is u-båt. This comes from U-Boot, an abbreviation of German Unterseeboot, literally undersea boat, likewise the standard German term for a submarine. We took this into English as U-boat to mean specifically German military submarines of the two World Wars.

Trunk and boot. Lance Jones wrote, “I live in the wire-grass section of South Georgia. My grandmother, and other folks I have known of her age (born around the time of the First World War), call the trunk of a car the cooter hull. I think as in turtle shell. They tend to use hull more than shell but that seems to be passing as they do.” [Cooter is a regional term for a freshwater turtle in parts of the southern US.]

Boot turns out not to be entirely unknown in the US in the car sense. John C noted, “At least until the early 1950s in the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia, it was common to refer to the trunk of an automobile as the boot. My wife, who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, remembers that her grandparents used boot for their car trunk.”

Randy Sigman wrote, “It may be of interest to you that the US automaker Tesla Motors has coined the term frunk.” This is the front storage space where the engine would have been in most petrol or diesel cars. So that was what we should have called the same space in a Volkswagen!

Several readers have suggested I do a similar analysis of bonnet and hood. I’ve added it to my — alarmingly long — list of words to look at.

Rumbles and dickies. Karl Franklin wrote, “Your comments on the back storage area of a car and its etymology reminded me that in the old days we used to ride in the ‘rumble seat’ of a car. It was an outdoor seat that could fold out or in, and was in about the same area as the trunk or boot. You probably are familiar with the name but I wonder what the equivalent is in British English.”

In Britain it was called the dicky, or dicky seat. We may guess it’s the same word as the familiar form of Richard, but that merely takes the obscurity back a step. Dicky had been taken over for cars from a similar seat for servants at the back of horse-drawn carriages and one writer has suggested that Richard was once a generic term for a servant. I’ve been unable to confirm this.

The experts are sure it isn’t connected to another British English sense of dicky, for something that isn’t working properly (“he had a dicky heart”) though it may be connected with dicky for a false shirt front. The dicky in a car was often used to carry luggage and the word is still in use in Indian English for the boot/trunk. Another term for it in the US was mother-in-law seat.

Incidentally, a rumble, or rumble seat, was also used of servants’ seats at the rear of carriages from early in the nineteenth century, presumably because being over the back wheels it took up the vibration of the vehicle on the road. It’s yet another oddity of automobile vocabulary that it was transferred to the car seat in the US but not in Britain.

2. The Language Myth

For the past half-century, the dominant view in linguistics has been that human beings uniquely possess a hard-wired concept of language. This implies that all languages are related at a deep level, because all of them are created on the same fundamental grammar template. It explains how a child is able to readily learn any language.

The idea, called Universal Grammar, was created by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and has been enormously influential, not only in linguistics but also in fields such as psychology and philosophy. It’s still the standard view in most textbooks and has been popularised by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct and later books.

Cover of The Language Myth

However, the concept that language is an instinct, and a uniquely human one, has been challenged as a result of research in a number of fields in recent decades. We now know much more about how children acquire language, the diversity of the world’s languages, the evolution of the human species, the structure and function of our brains, and the ways in which other animals communicate.

A vigorous debate is raging. Vyvyan Evans, the professor of linguistics at Bangor University in north Wales, has written The Language Myth to bring together the growing evidence against Universal Grammar.

For example, Chomsky’s view that this instinct for language is unique to humans and arrived suddenly as a mutation about 100,000 years ago cannot be true. Our complicated vocal apparatus, with the sophisticated brain necessary to manipulate it to utter and remember speech, couldn’t have been the result of a single sudden change but must have evolved stage by stage among our hominin ancestors. Neanderthals had similar vocal anatomy to ours and so were very probably able to communicate through speech.

One implication of Universal Grammar is that there must be some module or faculty in the brain, present at birth, dedicated to processing grammar. Though the brain does have sections devoted to specific functions, such as Broca’s area, responsible for the creation of speech, we know now that this area does other jobs as well and that the work of processing language takes place quite widely across various parts of the brain. A grammar module as such doesn’t exist.

The truth, Professor Evans argues on the basis of current research, is very different. Babies are not born with a set of internal rules but with a universal capacity to learn about themselves and the world around them. The brains of infants are plastic: experience and discovery moulds them and acquiring a language is one aspect of this.

Professor Evans also partly rehabilitates a theory developed in the 1930s by Benjamin Whorf; a version that was developed after Whorf’s death is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after him and his mentor Edward Sapir. Whorf called it linguistic relativity, arguing that speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently. This has been denied by followers of Chomsky’s work, since if true it would refute the view that language is innate and universal. Subtle neurological experiments in the past couple of decades have suggested that at an unconscious level people can be influenced by the nature of their language.

The Language Myth is a wide-ranging polemical dismissal of the received wisdom of many linguists. It’s worth reading also as a classic case study of an orthodoxy undergoing what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift.

[Evans, Vyvyan, The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct; published by Cambridge University Press in hardback, paperback and e-book; ISBN 978-1-107-04396-1 (hbk), 978-1-107-61975-3 (pbk).]

3. Wordface

Shining light. Kathy Atkinson asked about the term lilly-lo, which her late grandmother in Yorkshire used for a child’s nursery light, or any light if she was talking to a baby or small child. The English Dialect Dictionary, compiled at the end of the nineteenth century, has it in that spelling and also as lilly-low and confirms that it was then used throughout northern England and Scotland. The second part is from an old Scandinavian word that meant a light or a flame (a distant relative through Indo-European of our light) and, as lowe, has been used for a fire or a small candle or other naked flame. It’s still known in Scotland and parts of northern England. The longer form is a playful extension used particularly with children, source unknown, though we might guess at a nursery version of little.

4. Sic!

• An e-newsletter from an organisation called Better Markets was sent to Todd Bernhardt. He found that it referred to “Washington's white-color defense lawyers”.

• A mailing from Damart surprised Philip Stevens: “Don't miss our brand new TV ad with 20% off & Free Delivery!” He didn't realise he had to pay for an ad to be delivered, especially four-fifths of one.

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