Category Archives: Linguistics

The Power of Language: Why Words Matter

The linguistics of the Rio 2016 Olympics

For two weeks every four years the athletes of the world unite in the spirit of competition. The rest of the world, however, remains as fractured and splintered as it ever. The war in Syria and Iraq continue. Poverty remains. The world continues its daily routine.

Social media has changed the way we talk about that routine though. The Rio Olympics 2016 are no exception. My friends’ posts flicker through my Facebook newsfeed as I scroll. Some share articles about the issue of drug use and the feud between the Chinese and Australian swimmers. Others comment on the way we talk about female competitors are talked about in the media. And amongst my writer friends, it’s simply the way the commentators talk. Apparently they don’t talk right.

According to my Welsh housemate, neither do I. But this is about more than just the difference between a pepper and a capsicum, or that of an aubergine and an eggplant. It’s about words and their power to unite or divide.

'Medalling' in the Olympics almost 100 years ago

‘Medalling’ in the Olympics almost 100 years ago

It all began with the question of commentators’ use of the word to medal. For example, ‘Usain Bolt medalled in this event in 2012’, instead of ‘Usain Bolt won a medal in this event in 2012’.

While some find this as grating as nails down a chalk board, the linguist in me can’t help but get excited. It never ceases to amaze me how language evolves. How new words can be born out of a specific context at a point in time unlike any other, that cannot be repeated. A moment in history.

Prescriptive grammar Vs descriptive grammar

Our perspectives on this come down to two different grammatical schools of thought. Prescriptive grammar is about adhering to a set of rules, while descriptive grammar is interested in the patterns of spoken language. Here’s a good explanation from the University of North Carolina.

Contrary to popular belief, linguistics is more about descriptive grammar. To a linguist, what’s correct is what in use, and what generates meaning.

Funnily enough, it turns out that ‘medalled’ is indeed grammatically correct, according to the dictionary and the prescriptivists (I’m pretty sure this word doesn’t exist – the irony has not gone unnoticed).

But as you can see from this post it’s an argument that comes around in grammar enthusiasts’ households every four years.

Seems some people just don’t like it.

The problem is that this form of the verb is only really used during the Olympics. Perhaps because the games happen so infrequently we seldom hear it, so it sounds odd to our ears. And that oddness makes it seem like it’s been made up. And you can’t just invent a word whenever you feel like it and get away with it. Can you? Perhaps not if you’re a sport commentator.

William Shakespeare is credited with inventing a fair few words in the English language, some by means of using nouns as verbs – but that’s whole other post.

The smell of elitism

What’s really going on underneath all this?

Ask yourself, if a celebrated author had used the word ‘medalled’ in a blog post, would he or she be chastised in public for it? A writer would be hailed as clever, witty, spontaneous, quirky, inventive, CREATIVE. But a sports commentator. Oh no. They’re just people who don’t know how to construct a sentence because all they do is watch sport all day. They probably don’t know the difference between your and you’re, either.

It’s the same reason it bothers me when people compare different languages – discussing which languages are the hardest, or which has largest vocabulary, as though it’s a competition. It makes me want to ask them, do you think that means that one race of people are perhaps more intelligent than another? Language is a tool. It’s central to being human. We are all humans born with a capacity for language.

Language and privilege

There’s a word for this. It’s called privilege. You can also call it as grammar snobbery, as it’s explained by Melissa A. Fabello from Everyday Feminism. The irony of it all is that the Olympics are supposed to be about coming together in unity to celebrate the richness and diversity of the world. It’s about the hope for equality in a world that’s defined by privilege. Yet never is the inequity our world as stark as it is during the Olympics.

Language and the Olympics

The five colours of the Olympic flag respresent the colours in the flags of the countries united during the games.

A friend of mind told me he was looking forward to watching Usain Bolt win the 100m because he wanted to watch history be made. As Usain Bolt made history in Rio, a close friend of mine from Syria silently celebrated as his brother and sister boarded a flight to the US. After 4 years of seeking asylum they’d finally been accepted as refugees by the UN. A selfie of the two of them on the plane flittered across my screen as I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed. It seemed like any other selfie posted on social media. So every day I almost missed it. And yet history was being made before my eyes.

Under the Blue Moon Tonight

I always get a little buzz when I discover the links between origins of words and expressions. One such gem occurred this week, when I heard about the imminent blue moon, which will occur very soon on the 31st July.

A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month, an event that occurs once every 2.7 years – not very often. Hence the expression ‘once in a blue moon’, right? Not so fast. A little research reveals history is not so linear.

Blue Moon: the lunar event

This definition of the lunar event itself is actually quite modern and can be traced back to 1950 when amateur astrologer James Hugh Pruett mistakenly coined the term in Sky and Telescope. He had lifted the term from a 1937 issue of the North American publication Maine Farmers’ Almanac. Closer examination of the almanac reveals the term was actually used to describe the third out of four full moons in a season (usually there are only 3). This definition was based on the seasons of a ‘tropical year’ which is dependent on various ecclesiastical dates calculated according to the Gregorian calendar. So complicated was this definition that Pruett misinterpreted it as the 2nd full moon in a calendar month. It seems to have stuck!

Once in a Blue Moon: the expression

The expression meaning that something happens rarely, follows another story altogether. The earliest found reference to the colour of the moon was in an anti-clerical pamphlet published in 1528 by William Roy and Jeremy Barlowe [good name!]: “Yf they say the mone is blewe/We must believe that it is true.” This meaning, that lay people were expected to believe whatever the Church said, derives from the idea that the moon appearing to be the colour blue is something that would never happen; something of an absurdity. However blue moons do happen! For two years after the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883, sunsets turned green and the moon appeared blue all over the world.


The Missing Link

Language adapts, and we know that by 1821 the usage of the expression in the media in London had changed from something that never happens, to something that happens very rarely. This happened to be around the same time that the Maine Farmers’ Almanac first used it to describe the extra full moon of a season (1921). So although they are separate, it is still technically possible that the older definition of a blue moon event used by the almanac, did originally come from the expression ‘once in a blue moon’. We may never know for sure.

La Lune Bleue: the French version of events

So what do the French have to say about all this? Not surprisingly, the term ‘la lune bleue’ has been adopted from English to describe the lunar event as the 2nd full moon of a calendar month. However, the expression meaning something that happens very rarely, has not travelled across the channel, nor the Atlantic Ocean,= for that matter. They have their own expression for this: ‘tous les trente-six du mois’ (every 36th day of the month). This illuminates even further that the expression and the modern day term describing the lunar event evolved separately.

Curiously the French Wikipedia page on the subject also describes a blue moon as the 13th full month in a year. Really, I’m beginning to get the impression this is all just semantics!

For the keen astrologer the blue moon about to occur this Friday 31st July takes on another significance altogether.