Word crimes

Dear Weird Al,

I enjoyed your “word crimes” song. I was raised to be a descriptivist linguist, but an inextricable part of my heart is prescriptivist, and you are clearly sided with the prescriptivist part of me. The descriptivist was dismayed at what you thought was wrong, but the prescriptivist rejoiced at some of the advice given.

That said, you yourself committed two word crimes during your song. They both occurred near the end, so perhaps you had become weary of words by the time you reached the end. This is understandable.

First, you misplaced the word “only” so that it modified the whole verb phrase instead of the determiner phrase. (“think you should only write in emojis” — in prescriptivist land, this means you should only write to the exclusion of all other verbs. You wanted to say “think you should write only in emojis”)

Second, you split an infinitive. “Try your best to not drool”. In this phrase, “to drool” is an infinitive, and the prescriptivist would say that English speakers should not split the parts of an infinitive by adding in a word like “not”.

So, good effort, Weird Al. I appreciate it. But you should have someone check over your grammar before you publish a song about how bad grammar bothers you.


The most cunning linguist


How languages evolve

Really interesting happenings in English historical linguistics:

The Great Vowel Shift, or the beginning of “Modern English”.


Changes to the long front vowels Changes to the long back vowels
[aː] –> [æː] –> [ɛː] / [eː] / [eɪ]. [ɑː] –> [ɔː] –> [oː] –> [oʊ] / [əʊ].
 [ɛː] –> [eː] –> [iː]. [oː] –> [uː].
 [eː] –> [iː].
 [iː] –> [ɪi] –> [əɪ] –>[aɪ]. [uː] –> [ʊu] –> [əʊ] –> [aʊ].Before labial consonants, this shift did not occur, and [uː] remains.

The Great Vowel Shift? One of the many reasons that English spelling is so difficult to master. The printing press in the 1400s preserved the spellings of Middle English, while the Great Vowel Shift happened after these spellings were already printed. Nobody wanted to re-print the books, so we kept a nonsensical spelling system for Modern English.

H-loss, which occurred sometime between 1400-1600. the “gh” in many English words, pronounced /x/, became unpronounced such that “taught” and “taut” are homophones. This is an example of cheshirization, named after the cat in Alice’s Wonderland, since it disappears (the sound) but leaves a trace (the spelling / “gh”).

Initial cluster reductions: 1400-1600. The words “know” and “no” now sound alike. Cluster reductions do not just belong to kids with phonological disorders. The whole of the English language cluster reduced.

Grimm’s Law: How all of the Germanic consonants differ from the other IE consonants in an organized fashion. So the Latin “pes, pedis” is cognate with English “foot” because p>f, d>t.

  •  > b > p > ɸ
  •  > d > t > θ
  •  > g > k > x
  • gʷʰ >  >  > 

Why SLPs should learn other languages

Speech pathologists help people learn language. They might help children with autism learn pragmatics, children with SLI learn morphosyntax and semantics, adults with TBI relearn phonology — overall, we are in the business of language learning.

However, speech pathologists tend to be monolingual. Why?

Perhaps it is because speech pathology degree programs tend to follow a very strict course of study that does not really allow for many outside courses like languages. Maybe study abroad programs do not complement the speech pathology curriculum. Or speech pathologists feel so exhausted from the requirements of knowing all about English that they cannot be bothered to learn all about another language. Most speech pathologists will work in English-speaking countries, so maybe they’re not interested in learning another language since it seems a waste of time.

These are all valid reasons, but the benefits of learning a second language far outweigh these concerns.

Know English better to teach it better. It seems counter-intuitive, but learning another language makes you better at your native language. There is a reason that kids who study Latin tend to beat the monolingual English speakers on the English part of the SAT. Learning another language and having to translate it back into English makes you very aware of English’s morphosyntactic structure, phonotactic rules, and semantic maps. If you learn an Indo-European language, you begin mapping the morphemes of the new language to English, and this gives you a framework from which to begin teaching new words to your students. For example, knowing Latin and Greek helps me to break down the morphemes of unfamiliar words in order to guess their meaning — so “imbibe” comes from in + bibo (to drink), after some bilabial place feature spreading, so I know that “imbibe” means “to drink in” or something similar without having to consult a dictionary. How could you teach that to students? Babies need a BIB when they’re drinking.

Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen
Those who know no foreign language knows nothing of their mother tongue.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Understand what your clients are going through. For kids with SLI, speaking English is just as hard as speaking a foreign language. You’ll appreciate the work they put into communicating much more if you have experienced learning a second language and trying to communicate while keeping in mind vocabulary, semantics, grammar, morphology, syntax, and phonology. It’s a pretty overwhelming task. Add to that confusing cultural mores living abroad, and you’re closer to understanding how a kid with a pragmatics deficit struggles with communication. You’ll be much better equipped to help them after this, too.

Knowing a second language prevents dementia. The news has been reporting this for a while. Learning a second language prevents Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We are not yet sure why, but speech pathologists know that using language requires a lot of brain activity. Using two languages will require even more, which could keep the brain healthy.

“These findings suggest that bilingualism might have a stronger influence on dementia than any currently available drugs.” – Thomas Bak, University of Edinburgh

Meet the demands of your job. Speech therapy sessions require a lot: making goals, recording utterances, dealing with behavioral issues, and making therapy seem like a game while keeping up your professional goals. Bilinguals tend to have better attention spans and be better at multitasking (here and here).

Reach more students. As America becomes more diverse, the need for speech pathologists who speak other languages is growing. Spanish is a particularly important language, as Spanish is the second most prevalent language in the States right now.


ASHA agrees that bilingualism is beneficial. Though this is targeted at educating SLPs about the benefits of children who are English language learners, this is applicable to SLPs as well.

Many research studies cite the cognitive-linguistic benefits of being a fluent bilingual speaker. Experts have found that children who are fluent bilinguals actually outperform monolingual speakers on tests of metalinguistic skill.

In addition, as our world shrinks and business becomes increasingly international, children who are fluent bilingual speakers are potentially a tremendously valuable resource for the U.S. economy. Most Americans are currently monolingual speakers of English, and are finding more and more that it would be highly advantageous to their professional lives if they spoke a second language.


Traveling is more fun. When you go on vacation, it is very nice to be able to speak the local language. You can ask the locals where the best food is, or you can order something special at a restaurant. You understand the food options, can manipulate the public transportation, and won’t get ripped off at the market.

So, SLPs — learn another language. It will make you a better speech pathologist.

The easiest languages for English speakers to learn are Indo-European, especially those of the Germanic or Romance branch. German, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Italian are good places to start.

More on easy languages here and here.

Etymology: nauseous/nauseated

The Greek word ναῦς (naus) means “boat”. It is the source of words such as nautical and Nautica…it is related to the Latin naves, from which English takes navigate, naval, and navy.

Best words from this classical root set? Nauseous/nauseated (depending on to what extent you are a prescriptivist) = the feeling of being (sick) on a boat.


English is not a good language

Here is the proof:

Most other languages have some sort of one-to-one correspondence, whether morpheme-to-meaning (Chinese, Japanese) or grapheme-to-phoneme (Korean, Russian, Italian). English has neither. English requires memorization because there is no way you could sound out English words and always arrive at the correct pronunciation or spelling.