Category Archives: Written Language

Merry Xmas! An Illustrated History

It’s Christmas!! I’m sitting here in my Fairisle knit jumper with reindeer and snowflakes on, I’m listening to Idina Menzel forcefully emote glorious Christmas music at me, and I still haven’t bought all my presents or finished putting the decorations up. The festive season is definitely upon us.

All of that is slightly beside the point for the purposes of this blog post, but damnit, I just really love Xmas.

Oh wait, sorry – not Xmas, Christmas.

This is a common complaint at this time of year and gets people really riled up. A quick poll of my small corner of Twitter (disclaimer: I did this last year and was so slow to write the post that I saved it for this year) shows that pretty much everyone prefers to write Christmas over Xmas. For some, it’s a matter of principle, that they don’t like shortening or abbreviating words, or because Christmas is more proper and more traditional. For others, it can be seen as ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas’, which is obviously something bad if you’re religious, but might be preferable for secular writers.

Of course, I’m not here to tell you whether you should be offended by something or not, but I think opinions about this are interesting considering the history of Xmas.

Xmas is no less full of Christ than Christmas in any way but spelling. Any quick Google will tell you this, but I’m going to put it here. With pictures. Lots of pictures. But the point stands; writing Xmas is not taking the Christ out of Christmas. And it’s certainly not any less traditional.

The ‘X’ in Xmas comes from the Greek spelling of Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The first character, the X, is called Chi (pronounced ‘kai’, to rhyme with ‘high’). It had been used by pagan Greek scribes to mark notable or good things in the margins of texts, but in the 4th century it merged with the Rho to become a symbol.


The Chi-Rho

The Emperor Constantine adopted it, went into battle under it and won, and it took off. All of a sudden this symbol had power across the Christian world. Indeed, the Christian cross as we know it didn’t start to appear in art produced in the British Isles until the sixth century. The Chi-Rho was the go-to symbol, and is still used today.

Charles Thomas, in his Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, has two excellent illustrations showing its development and use in different contexts:

 Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.39.16 Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.39.34
[Google Books link, pp. 88-89]

And here, for your enjoyment, are some other cool things from early Christian history with XP on them:

redware-shard-ar20711Roman North Africa, 4th – 5th Century AD []

The Hinton St Mary mosaic from Roman Britain in the 4th century, AD.
[more info from the British Museum]

Most people were not literate in their own language, let alone in Latin or Greek and it’s very unlikely they recognised letters in the symbol. To most of the western Christian world, this symbol was Christ. The Chi-Rho was already in use in Roman Britain, and it comes into use again by the Anglo-Saxons from the fifth century. As I’ve written about elsewhere, scribes love abbreviating, and they really love symbolism, and XP combines those two in one heady mixture. XP is what we call a nomen sacrum, a sacred name, in which the symbol itself has power. In such cases, the abbreviation is not used to save space or effort, but because that form has more power than the full words. It was ‘not really devised to lighten the labours of the scribe, but rather to shroud in reverent obscurity the holiest words of the Christian religion’.*

It appears in the fanciest of manuscripts, taking up entire pages:

The Gospel of St Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the fanciest of manuscripts.

The Book of Kells. The fanciest of manuscripts.

And in quiet little brown manuscripts, used as part of the normal text:

 xpADD37517 135V a
British Library, MS Additional 37517  f. 135v, a quiet little brown manuscript.

Harley 2892   f. 20 a
British Library, MS Harley 2892 f. 20

Royal 1 D IX   f. 43v a
British Library, MS Royal 1 D IX f. 43v 

Harley 391   f. 33
British Library, MS Harley 391 f. 33

And oh wow in so many more places. See if you can spot it on each of these pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5.

Of course, as we know, Christ is not just a stand-alone word, it also appears within other words (Christmas being the relevant example here). In 1485, for example, it’s used in christened:

 1485   Rolls of Parliament. Any Kyng or Prynce in England Xp̄enned.

And in 1573, in Christopher:

1573   J. Baret Aluearie,   The long mistaking of this woorde Xp̃s, standing for Chrs by abbreuation which for lacke of knowledge in the greeke they tooke for x, p, and s, and so like~wise Xp̃ofer.

And eventually, just the X is used as a short-hand for the whole thing, as more obscurity slips in. The OED cites the first use of X in Christmas in 1551 by which time I imagine it’s long lost its symbolic power, particularly as, as the previous example shows, even in the sixteenth century, people were confusing the Greek letters Chi and Rho for the Latin letters Ex and Pee:

 Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 22.13.21
The earliest instance of X in Christmas,
in Edmund Lodge’s Illustrations of British History.

And then we see it cropping up in early 1900s greetings cards entirely detatched from any symbolic, early Christian meaning:

From the Ephemera Society

And on Victorian Xmas cards –  none of which I’m able to post here for reasonable copyright reasons but which you should look at because they’re lovely –  in the 1860s and 1870s.

So, not only is X- old as balls, in the medieval period it was even more powerful than Christ-. Feel free to use it for space-saving, festive, jolly, and religious reasons. And Merry Xmas!

[Note: What does surprise me – and if anyone can answer this, I’d be interested – is how low Xmas is compared to Christmas on Google NGrams. Possibly because it only contains published books, where Xmas might be rarer?]

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On the Origins of Fuck Part 2: But what about the D?

Last week I got to visit the manuscript that started it all. The one with the brilliant little note in the margin insulting some unpopular cleric with one of the earliest recorded instances of the word fuck:

whole page adjusted

Brasenose College MS 7, f.62v [photo mine, with thanks to Brasenose College, Oxford and Llewelyn Morgan]

What this picture shows is one full page of a fifteenth-century manuscript. The two main columns are a section of Cicero’s De Officiis – a moral treatise on good behaviour – which was the second-most frequently copied text of the Middle Ages. And at the bottom of these two columns someone has come along and written the following:

1.  false are the works wich this Abbot writ in the abbie of Osney alias Godstow 1528
2.  O d fuckin Abbot

This handwriting is found on several pages throughout the manuscript and, very unusually, it gives us a date – 1528 – so we know exactly when it was added.

Writing notes on manuscripts was common practice. Manuscripts weren’t viewed as they are now, and they weren’t equivalent to our modern books. We see a printed book as a complete object; to write on it is to defile it. Medieval manuscripts, despite being rarer than our mass-produced books and MUCH more expensive, were constantly added to, first by editors and correctors, then by later readers or students. In fact, this was a practice which continued for centuries, as described in this excellent post about Mr Bennet’s library. 

On this manuscript there are actually two layers of annotations: the handwriting shown here, and the work of a second, much more prolific person, who wrote all over it, clearly engaging very closely with the main text.

But to get back to the fuckin Abbot.

The first line tells us something about the possible identity of the abbot: the Abbot of Osney in Oxford in 1528 was John Burton and, as it happens, he wasn’t a particularly popular abbot.

At that time fuck was a word used to describe sex. It wasn’t used as a swearword as we’d use it today. So the ‘fucking’ here is probably being used literally: ‘Oh, that abbot who fucks a lot’. (Someone has tried to find evidence of this but the worst they could find was one pregnant nun nearby who may, or may not, have been shagged by the Abbot. If he WAS trying for Casanova’s record, he kept it quiet). 

‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE D?’ I hear you cry.

 close up

The only mention of it that I’ve found suggests that it’s an abbreviation of damned or damn, as in, ‘O damned fuckin Abbot’.* This isn’t an unreasonable thought: as I discussed in an earlier post, medieval scribes loved abbreviating. They loved it more than they loved doodling in margins and sharpening their quills.

However, when they abbreviated they typically added a mark – a dash, or a squiggle – to show that something had been missed off. Not always, but enough that the absence of such a mark here is unusual.

But how likely was it that damn would be used then?

Unlike the so-called Anglo-Saxon four-letter swearwords, the gritty, grubby nasty ones which we like to imagine hark back to a harsh medieval life, damn is originally from Latin, and came into English via French. In Latin, damnāre meant ‘to inflict damage upon something’ or ‘to condemn to punishment’.

When damn arrived in English, some time before the fourteenth century, it had a <p> in it, as you can see in these two examples:

‘For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede’ (For had God commanded maidenhood, then he had damned marriage with the act (of consummation)). Chaucer, The Wife of Bath (c.1386).

‘He wolde pray god for hym that he myght knowe whether she was dampned or saued’. William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England (1484). 

There are a few theories to explain the appearance of <p> in damn and in words like it (although I should note here that as damn arrived in English from Old French dampner it’s not, strictly speaking, exactly the same).

In Latin, Old French, and Middle English the second syllable of damn when declined was still pronounced (e.g. ‘dam-NED’). The addition of that syllable changes the way the ‘-mn-’ is pronounced. Now, the ‘n’ is silent, but in Middle English it was pronounced.

This consonant cluster falls at a tricky point in the syllable break between making an /m/ with your lips and an /n/ with your tongue on your alveolar ridge (the hard bit behind your upper teeth and before your palate), where you need to coordinate the switch between the two. The mouth’s way of getting around this is to insert a ‘transitional sound’ between them (this is officially called stop epenthesis). In the case of /-mn-/, a /p/ is produced because, like /m/, it has bilabial articulation (both lips). In English this <p> is first seen written down in the thirteenth century, particularly in the West Midlands, and when damn arrived from French it fit in quite nicely with the existing pronunciations.** The <p> was even included in damn when it wasn’t declined. In 1400, ‘I damp þe’ was ‘I damn you’.

You can see this process at work in words like dreamt or empty, where the mouth has to make a /p/ in the process of going from /m/ to /t/. Both dreamt and empty gained a <p> in their spellings in Middle English, but empty is the only word to still have it preserved in its modern spelling. It’s quite a nice fossil.***

Damn started out as a verb, to damn, and over the centuries it has become more versatile, doing all kinds of damn things, like:

becoming an adjective in the fourteenth century (appearing later in, for example, ‘Out damned spot’),
a noun by the seventeenth century (e.g. ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘),
and an interjection (‘Damn!’).

Then, as today, to damn had two main meanings: the first is to imply damnation, to suggest that someone is condemned to Hell. The second is a profane intensifier much like very, as in, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! (it performs the same function as a slightly swearier very (‘YOU VERY DIRTY APE!’). By the 1500s, the date of the tricky D, this second meaning was definitely in use and it wouldn’t be unexpected to see it in this manuscript.

I just don’t think it was.

Instead, I think this is a mistake, or a false start. You can see in the picture that the ‘d’ is smudged but nothing else is. There are no other smudges on any of the other things written by that person and the letters around it aren’t smudged. I think that this was a half-hearted attempt to rub out the D which may have been an intended damn, or some other word.****

Normally a scribe will correct a mistake by scraping the vellum (animal skin) with the point of a knife. It leaves that spot a bit roughed up, but you can write over it and, if you don’t look too closely, no-one will ever know. Here, for whatever reason, the Sweary Scribbler hasn’t fully erased the mistake. Maybe because there wasn’t a knife-point to hand, or maybe because it’s time-consuming and delicate work and this isn’t formal writing meant to be presented neatly, it’s just a note.

I’m not saying it DEFINITELY wasn’t meant to be a damn(ed) fuckin Abbot, I just think it’s unlikely.

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What’s so bad about Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”?

So Weird Al Yankovic is back. To completely lift the words of my brilliant friend Stoo, “you remember Weird Al, right? He was last popular around the same time as nothing at all, ever”. On Tuesday night, I watched his second video-a-day offering (following Monday’s ‘Tacky’, a daft but vaguely entertaining ditty to the tune of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’). Called ‘Word Crimes’, it’s set to the tune of omnipresent twat-anthem Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, and is a lighthearted riff on the mistakes people make in written and spoken language. OR IS IT? (Clue: it isn’t.)

As soon as I read that blurb, I inwardly sighed. Then as I watched it, I outwardly sighed. A lot. I knew within hours it would be a viral hit with the ~liberal educated Internet crowd~ (of which I am one, I hasten to add), and was proved right when I opened Facebook this morning and several friends had shared it and sung its praises.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the wordplay is solid (rhyming “educate ya” and “nomenclature” definitely raised a smile) and god knows I’d rather listen to a less sexually predatory version of that song (“You would not use ‘it’s’ in this place” was slightly more palatable on the ears than “You the hottest bitch in this place”.) But it’s gross. It sums up everything that’s wrong with the current ~liberal educated Internet crowd’s~ habit of mobilising themselves as some kind of Language Army, taking down anybody who doesn’t conform to one particular type of English in order to cleanse the human race of morons and half-wits (read: to mutually pat each other on the back and bask in their collective superiority complex).

inb4 “Oh GOD you’re such a killjoy” – maybe I am. But this isn’t just some random video. This is going viral, will be watched by millions, and will inevitably be used for months to come by pedants to try and validate their weird obsession with making people feel bad about themselves.

English is the second most-spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin. It’s also the most-spoken second language in the world, and while totals are near-impossible to estimate, it’s probably reaching the point where almost a billion people speak some kind of English to some degree of fluency. A seventh of the population of Earth. That’s pretty cool (if you don’t think too much about the fact that it’s mostly because of colonialism/general douchebaggery that this is the state of affairs), and it’s pretty sweet that so many people can communicate with this one language. The language being spoken in so many places inevitably means it’s going to change. Language changes constantly; that’s just a fact of life, inevitable, and most definitely not negative. There’s a chance, owing to the vastness of its number of speakers, combined with the near-instant communication a huge number of us have access to and the dominance and reach of English language media, that these changes will be accelerated, and have been over the last few decades.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but society hasn’t collapsed in on itself just yet. As the English language has spread and changed; as we’ve introduced thousands of new words; as some of us have started using “was like” instead of “said” as a quotative; as people have occasionally spelt words with numbers in emails and text messages; as second person indirect pronoun “whom” has started to be used less often — the world has not spontaneously imploded or been sucked into the cavernous mouth of a hell-demon. Also, we can still communicate as effectively as ever.

And, funnily enough, hundreds of years ago when English lost its case inflection system, and the pronouns “thee” and “thou” (leaving “you” to act as both singular and plural second person signifier), and when the Great Vowel Shift caused (among other things) the word “night” to change from ‘nikt’ to ‘nayt’, we also didn’t spontaneously combust. In fact, we continued progressing to a society that now has stuff like 3D printed organs and peanut butter cup ice cream. Changes in language don’t mean that we as an English-speaking population will grind to a halt due to being unable to successfully communicate with each other. It just doesn’t. We adapt to the changes (even if that means a couple of instances of minor miscommunication, which are easily overcome) and then we carry on our merry way(s).

It’s natural to fear and reject the unfamiliar, I get that. But it’s only since the formalisation of arbitrary grammar rules and regulations that deviating from this perceived norm has resulted in pointing fingers and accusations of being “raised in a sewer”. Until the 17th Century (ish), without a formal way of printing language and very little in the way of transport, English was spoken differently in different places with no real bother. Then BAM, industrialisation. Trains! Roads! A conscious class system! At some point, those in the South East (London-based, mostly) decided that the way they spoke was the proper way. And, having the money and facilities open to them, decided to write books to that effect, books that ended up in schools and which still inform English language teaching to this day. Now, this isn’t in itself a completely terrible thing. Language teaching is good, it gives people a tool for communication, etc. etc.

BUT, these books stated that anything that deviated from this South Eastern standard was wrong. Now, it’s not like everyone outside of this area was bellowing at each other and/or shrugging their shoulders until this point, completely unable to communicate. No, they had lives and communities and workplaces and everyone got along merrily. As soon as these kind of books were published (and listened to), the language that people outside the SE of England spoke became wrong. Bad. Defective. Immediately. Through luck and social circumstance, one variety of English got picked to be the proper one, and from then on it became okay to mock, deride and ridicule anybody who deviated from that, despite the fact that their own varieties of English were equally adequate at communication. The upper classes, then (for it was these who wrote said books), had yet another way to disregard the thoughts and opinions of the lower classes, because if they couldn’t speak properly (i.e. adhering to the rules the rich folk made up), then they were barbaric and weren’t worth listening to anyway.

“But that happened hundreds of years ago, Hannah! That is sooooo 18th Century!” I know that, but the exact same kind of message is put out in these videos, and by grammar pedants like this little shit. The only reason to gloat and sneer when people deviate from a rule (that is often not relevant any more) is to get some kind of moral superiority and dismiss them as inferior. It’s founded in classism (and often these days, racism, as a lot of this bile is targeted towards non-native English speakers who, let us not forget, are fluent in at least one whole other language too and that’s pretty damn impressive doncha think?) and it’s gross. Particularly considering – in this example – the rules being upheld are ones which are fading away for the most part because they don’t serve a communicative purpose any more.

“Whom” is used less often now because not using it doesn’t directly impair the understanding of a sentence. You know what the person means anyway. In fact, if you’re pointing out a ‘mistake’, you must understand them in the first place in order to do so. People who dangle participles or use the newer, extended emphatic meaning of “literally” or use single letters to occasionally replace words are not, as Al states, “incoherent”. They’re perfectly coherent, and their communicative purpose is unimpaired – you just don’t like it, and want to make them feel bad about it.

And boy, does this song do that. “You’re a lost cause.” “You dumb mouth breather.” “Get out of the gene pool.” “That literally makes me want to smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.”

inb4 “It’s just a song, he’s using those phrases to make it rhyme and sound funny!” Oh believe me, you don’t have to delve far into the Internet to see identical comments being made by the self-proclaimed ‘grammar police’, and in conversations on the topic the sentiment remains very similar.

There’s a lot of reasons a person might not know that ‘whom’ is the indirect version of a second person interrogative pronoun. Maybe they’ve never heard it (because of how it’s dying out). Maybe they were never formally taught it, whether it was omitted from their English lessons, or they didn’t progress through the education system to the point where this is taught. Maybe they’re a second language speaker, and haven’t got to the level of fluency to easily use it. Maybe they’re dyslexic, or have another kind of language impairment. Telling any one of these people to “get out of the gene pool” is obscene. It’s demeaning and cruel, and purely to make them feel small and you feel big. Can you imagine being told that? Being hounded for not following a certain rule, even though the main function of your speech or writing (i.e. communication) was successful?

Just stop. Stop the grammar police. Stop hurling wildly hyperbolic insults at people for daring to deviate from a standard. Accept that language changes, and that it’s okay. Encourage people to learn language so we can all communicate more and easily, but don’t shit on them if their version of it is different to yours. It’s classist bullshit, and it’s so 2010.

Also, I should stress, this charming parody song includes the line “you write like a spastic”, and really, that is reason alone to throw it in the bin.

tl;dr – the English language is not a sacred thing we must uphold at all costs, and being nasty to people who deviate from a set of outdated and arbitrary rules makes you an asshole.

NB. For a less-sweary, better-articulated version of this response, you can do no better than Lauren Squires or Stan Carey, both of whom are excellent.

EDIT 23/07/13 – So some of the feedback I’ve had on this post has been amazing, and some not so positive – that’s cool, obviously, I barely agree with myself half the time so I don’t see why everyone else should! I just wanted to address a couple of points raised:

1. I spelt Weird Al’s surname incorrectly. My bad, genuinely sorry about that, have changed it now.

2. As a native speaker of British English, I reacted badly to Al’s use of the word “spastic” in the song, as over in the UK it’s a pretty horrid ableist slur. Having read up on it (thanks to an informative post here), I see the same word in US English has a far less offensive meaning, akin to ‘klutz’. I also see Al has sincerely apologised to British listeners who didn’t like it. Fair play, that one’s on me too.

2.5. 24/07/13 – Okay, I slept on this one, and a couple of comments have made me decide that, actually, my discomfort with the word still stands. Regardless of its innocuous status in US English, the word’s roots are still pretty ableist, and I think it should have been (and should be) avoided.

3. A few people have said that the song is a parody of prescriptivism and language policing itself, and that I have entirely missed the point. I’m afraid it doesn’t look like that’s the case – Al has spoken about the song, and confirms that he holds the beliefs it puts forward about ‘proper grammar’.

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.”


Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’?

It’s been a year since I wrote one of these blog posts, which I know is appalling behaviour. But darling Kate recently posted some super interesting stuff about Old English, and that spurred/guilt-tripped me into writing something of my own.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anything about Old English, but do you know what I do know about? THE INTERNET.

Being a person who is On The Internet*, I’m amazingly fortunate to see language evolve before my eyes on a near-daily basis. When so much Internet communication is written/typed, it’s not surprising that different corners of the internet play with vocabulary, grammar and typology in order to carve out identities. Often, linguistic constraints caused by the technological corseting of computer programmes — like character limits, punctuation restrictions and the lack of intonation and other paralinguistic features that aid communication face-to-face — result in online communities developing linguistic quirks that go on to identify them as users of a particular game/forum etc. But it’s bigger and more exciting than that – those quirks are warped and developed into a whole new system of language use that singles out a person as a member of a gang, a clique, and that allows people to instantly relate.

The first instance I remember hearing of this was during an A Level English class, where we learnt about leet speak, or L337. Originating on message boards and online gaming communities in the 1980s and 90s, leet speak is a form of language which sees alphanumerical characters used to graphologically recreate written language – so Hannah, in an extreme case, might be spelt as I-I /-\ I\I I\I /-\ I-I. Phrases like l33t (from elite), n00b (from newbie) and pwned (from a frequent mistyping of owned) which are now used across the internet (and in spoken language) originated from hackers’ and gamers’ frequent communication, and evolved from their desire to conceal information, gain and show esteem and skill, and mock outsiders. L33t was one of the first stylised online dialects to become whole and recognisable – it developed coherent syntactical structures, reams of new vocabulary, and it was learnable for new users. How cool is that? Just the same way that people who speak to each other in person on a daily basis pick up phrases and quirks of accent from each other, the same thing happened with written language on the Internet.

Of course, this is nothing new. This post is also nothing new. There has been tonnes of commentary on the glories of Internet speech and the new and brilliant linguistic quirks that come from online activity. What I want to talk about is the snobbery that has bounced back from this internet speak, and why I completely disagree with it.

Tumblr is a newish social networking/microblogging site which was set up in 2007, and in recent years has been a hotbed of fandom action – some of which I observe and participate in. Tumblr is a primarily visual medium, with talented users photoshopping graphics for their favourite bands/shows/films/games/people, but it is also frequently used as a platform for lengthy discussion of social justice issues. Readers who partake in Tumblr will most likely be familiar with the language variety that has sprung up on the site, acknowledged as ‘tumblrspeak’. It’s hard to quantify every feature, as it develops and evolves every day, and I’m bound to have missed many here, but some of the most common ones include:

– a lack of capital letters at the start of sentences, and frequent omission of punctuation such as full stops and commas

– but: a very frequent use of capital letters to express shouting/excitement, and excessive use of exclamation marks and other punctuation

– long, run on sentences

– frequent use of abbreviations and acronyms (totes, amaze, lbr, kms)

– stylised, non-standard turns of phrase, often hyperbolic in nature: i want this because of reasons, i can’t hold all these feels, LET ME DIE, i am cry

– use of angry, offensive sentences actually meant with love/lust: shut up with your face, fuck you for existing in the first place, go away and stop ruining my life

– sentence fragments used to express emotion: i just, i can’t, i cannot even


Original comic, by Ryan Pequin, here. [Source corrected Feb 2014]

Found scouting around tumblr, here are a few examples of posts which use some of these features – 1 2 3 4**. A lot of the time this kind of language play is used in the tags of picture posts rather than in the content itself, so look out for that.

One of the most interesting things I see (and do) on tumblr is innovative use of graphology and the shape of words to mimic the pronunciation and intonation that is used in spoken communication to express sarcasm, etc. Frequently, people will staRT USING CAPS IN THE MIDDLE OF A WORD!!! to express a kind of aroused shoutiness/lack of control over one’s keypresses that makes perfect sense if you’re involved in fandom, but it kind of hard to explain to outsiders. Or, they’ll space words differently in a way that symbolically tells the person who is the focus of the post to s t o p.

It’s fascinating how the constraints of a written medium are circumvented and linguistic trickery is employed to make up for the lack of verbal cues. And, as with other mediums, tumblr’s rules and software quirks have resulted in a good many of these linguistic quirks: the tagging system, for example, doesn’t permit comma use, and so develops the tendency for run-on sentences.

But again, it goes beyond necessity. Tumblrspeak is a badge of belonging, of being in a place where EXTREME ENTHUSIASM isn’t frowned upon, and screaming about a TV show is a great way to make friends. And it’s absolutely brilliant. So much of tumblrspeak uses non-standard grammar, spelling and punctuation, but it’s not out of laziness. It’s a conscious decision: as this simple post puts it, not using punctuation is a way of using punctuation. Tumblr users are likely to be perfectly familiar with standard grammatical rules of English, but they’ve said ‘fuck it’ and put emotions first, twisting and moulding their own language variety that is by the medium, for the medium.

Just because language is non-standard, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that communication is hampered. In fact, tumblrspeak is an incredibly effective and efficient method of communication. In tumblrspeak ‘I am really attracted to this person’ is translated to ‘FUCK U’, ‘I am having a lot of strong emotions about X’ is translated to ‘HALP’, and ‘I agree wholeheartedly with whatever opinion is being expressed here’ is translated to ‘THIS’. That’s pretty efficient!

People use language differently depending on the company they’re in – my furious potty mouth is toned down in front of my grandmother, but utilised in full force on my Twitter feed. Using language in a standard way, adhering to rules prescribed by teachers and centuries of grammar books, is just one way to use language. Flouting those rules allows for inventiveness, companionship and, far from being a sign of poor intelligence, is actually pretty damn smart.

Final point: a frequent feature of Internet/fandom-related language is the keysmash, or a stylised ‘askjdhfgjakhsd’ used to express feelings of the most extreme nature. A tumblr user suggested this should be referred to as typerventilating. Typerventilating. T Y P E R V E N T I L A T I N G. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the smartest, most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.

*different to being ‘on the internet’ – the capitals suggest that I conduct a good deal of my life and friendships through online platforms, and have for years.

** NB. One or more of these posts may contain One Direction.

Is Swearing Really So Bad?

As is fairly obvious from the title, this post contains strong language. If you’re not keen on that, feel free to run away, but I would suggest you read on – perhaps it might change your opinons a little!

I fucking love swearing. It’s excellent fun, and really quite cathartic. Nothing like a good old cry of ‘shitting tossing arse buckets of wank!’ to soothe the soul.[1]

However, I may well be shooting myself in the foot in choosing it as a topic for my first blog post. Thing is, swearing may be about words, but it is far from being a matter of purely linguistic interest – to fully understand swearing and taboo language as a concept, we must delve into history, sociology, neurology, psychology and cultural studies. Each sheds a new light on swearing, and to leave any out is to ignore an important aspect of the topic.

However, I am but one person, and this is but one blog post – one I would like to keep under the length of War and Peace, preferably. I can’t explain everything; I’m not an expert in any of these disciplines. But I do have OPINIONS, and the ability to read lots of things and attempt to summarise them in an interesting and informed manner, therefore I am going to tackle the topic anyway. Fuck it, why not?

I wonder if the last sentence of the preceding paragraph jarred with you. For many, that was likely the case (though for those more familiar with me and my vocabulary, it wouldn’t have come as much of a shock). Many of us stumble on swear words almost instinctively – they grate, they startle, they stand out, and that is precisely what they are designed for. Swear words, as a group, don’t have an all-encompassing feature that makes them phonologically or grammatically unique (they DO have aspects of interest there, but shh, I’ll get to that in a minute), nor do they have a single collective meaning. What brings them together is the effect they have on people, how they make us feel, their pragmatic impact. Swearing is one aspect of taboo language – in basic terms, things you feel you shouldn’t say, or restrict yourself form saying in certain contexts.

But what interests me is – why? Swear words are just arbitrary jumbles of letters. When uttered with a particular illocutionary force, yes, I can completely understand why they would be considered reprehensible: if someone called me a rancid little fucker, I would be duly offended. But I would also be offended if someone called me a loathsome stuck-up try-hard, yet if I uttered any of those words in isolation, I doubt many would bat an eyelid. Swear words have this inimitable quality that sets them apart from all other vocabulary, and I find that FASCINATING.

Swearing and linguistics
Swear words, like any other, have their own etymology, grammatical idiosyncrasies and dialectal variation. The exact origins of fuck, for example, are a little bit fuzzy (unsurprisingly, many early dictionary-writers were reluctant to include it in their tomes), but it most likely developed from a proto-Germanic root *pug, meaning to strike – a root which produced cognates such as the Dutch fokken (to breed/strike/beget) and the Norwegian fukka (to copulate).[2] This ties in nicely with the way we use the word in constructions like fuck this! – in these instances, strike this! is much closer to the user’s intended meaning than copulate with this! (Unless the fuck this! was being issued as a command, of course, though I dread to think in what situation that might occur).

I have pondered, in the past, whether the phonetic makeup of swear words triggers distaste in our minds in some way. After all, the most abhorred of English words (and a firm favourite of mine) – cunt – is made up of two hard, plosive sounds and a short, back-of-the-mouth vowel, and is one of those words that is capable of being spat rather than said. Of course, the variation in syllabic makeup of swear words means that this theory is easily rebuffed – but there is some linguistic merit in investigating the shape of taboo words.

Timothy Jay (1992) gave 49 students a list of 120 words that could be considered taboo, and asked the subjects to rank them on a scale of ‘offensiveness’. He found that shorter words of Anglo-Saxon origin (fuck, hump, screw) were considered more offensive than longer, Latinate words (copulation, coitus, intercourse).[3] Naturally, many of us wouldn’t consider the Latinate examples to be swear words at all; perhaps it was the short, blunt sounds of the Anglo-Saxon words that encouraged their adoption as taboo variants in the first place. This is an interesting thought, and one which might go some way to explaining why my mother hates it when we use the word twat, because she ‘just doesn’t like the sound of it’. (Additionally, the Romance languages – Latin and French – were used in the courts and by the gentry, while Old English was used by us peasants, again perhaps contributing to the former’s prestige and the latter’s lack thereof.)

Swearing and neurology
Language is considered a ‘higher’ neurological function, and is processed in the cerebral cortex, while emotion and instinct – ‘lower’ functions – take place in the deep, dark crevices of the brain. However, studies suggest that, rather than being processed as a string of phonemes which combine to make an utterance, swear words are stored as whole chunks, and the act of using them is closer to a motor function, processed by the same part of the brain which deals with emotion, bypassing the language centre.[4] This suggests that swearing is far more instinctive and reactionary, and that the use of swear words may have little to do with one’s spectrum of vocabulary. Which leads me neatly on to…

Swearing and people
People judge swearing. They judge it a LOT. And it is on this judgement that my aforementioned OPINIONS come into play. To those who say that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, I refer them to one Malcolm Tucker, and kindly ask them to knob off. Just because someone chooses to use a swear word, doesn’t mean they can’t think of anything less shocking to say; the force of a swear word, the taste of it on your tongue, that unquantifiable effect it has above all other word choices – those are all reasons to use it. As Nancy Banks-Smith simply and eloquently puts it, ‘Trust me, Larkin did not swear because his vocabulary was limited. He swore because he was angry’.[5]

But regardless of my opinions, one of the most fascinating aspects of swearing and sociolinguistics is why people react to these words so violently. As David Mitchell has previously mused[6], why are we so offended by wanker, but not banker (ah, so many potential jokes, so little blog space)? As Christopher M. Fairman explores in his fantastic paper on the interaction between fuck and constitutional law[7], what is it about the arrangement of these four letters that could potentially land you in jail?

It’s odd, even when a swear word is used in a context that is completely devoid of potentially offensive meaning, many people still complain. For example, when James Naughtie tripped on his words when introducing ‘Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’, he was forced to apologise to the Radio 4 listeners who complained. Naughtie’s mistake was a slip of the tongue – a hilarious and unfortunate one, but a slip of the tongue all the same. The mind boggles as to how this could be deemed offensive just because it took the shape of a taboo word.

The curious thing is, swearing wasn’t always frowned upon. In Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, it was commonplace to undertake in flyting: the act of hurling long and elaborate insults at your peers. Studies suggest this was a form of social bonding, not meant to offend, but to let off steam and entertain. In fact, scholars of swearing, such as Tony McEnery, suggest that current attitudes towards swearing weren’t formed until the late 1600s – when the issue of social class came into play.

Swearing and class
In 1690, certain English citizens decided that society was slipping into sin, and this was bloody well not top drawer. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (SRM) was born, and made it their crusade to clean up Britain. While laws against swearing did exist at the time, they were rarely called into action, until the SRM lobbied for new and better ones (ones which saw the accuser receive a cut of the accused’s fine, just saying). The SRM were middle class, and saw their reformation as a way of regulating the working classes, therefore entrenching the belief that swearing is associated with commoners (and, by extension, poor morals and a lack of education). Interestingly, there was no attempt to prosecute the gentry and upper classes for their lewd tongues.

While, of course, these laws did not persist, the attitude did, becoming ingrained in society and being echoed in Mary Whitehouse’s efforts in the 1960s to Clean Up TV. Both campaigns play to Moral Panic Theory, in which ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’[8] – and swearing remains a moral panic that rears its ugly head with some frequency, often in the right-wing press. Thus, the concept of swearing and a lack of vocabulary, education and moral standard are so tangled together that it would take a hugely concerted effort to extricate them.

But, when it comes to swearing, a hugely concerted effort is really what’s needed, and that might not even be enough. One of the most fascinating things about the concept of swearing is that it is a self-perpetuating taboo. ‘Obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have about words and things’ says Alan Walker Read – and he could not be more right. A good deal of swear words are merely used as phatic talk, expressing social relationships, or as emphatic talk, to add oomph to an utterance – yet these instances still fall under the umbrella of swearing, and thus of vulgarity. There’s a reason for this: the taboo of swearing persists because to use a word brings with it a thrill of breaking the rules, and to refrain from using it cements its taboo status. Basically, we’re fucked either way!

It’s hard to see a way out of this vicious circle of swearing-as-taboo, and on some level swear words losing their edginess defeats the object of adding that fizzle of shock into a vanilla sentence. But one thing linguists can do, at least, is to debunk a few swearing myths and stereotypes, and celebrate a much maligned aspect of language for the joyous, productive and and complex bastard it is.

[1] #things I have said more than once:!/curlybeach/status/8832081375264768
[2] It did not, as the urban myth states, develop as an acronym of ‘Fornicating Under the Consent of the King’; in the Middle Ages when the Black Death was rife, the story goes that villagers had to watch how many kids they popped out, and we made to seek express permission from the monarchy to get their freak on. And while we’re here, shit didn’t develop as an acronym of ‘Store High In Transit’, either. Take THAT, commonly-held misconceptions.
[3] Jay, T (1992) Cursing in America. Philadelphia, John Benjamin.
[8] Cohen, S (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford, Routledge.

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Is Texting Ruining our Language?

As an undergraduate, one of my lecturers once said that language is a tug-of-war between laziness and comprehensibility. Laziness, and our desire to communicate with as little effort as possible will make language change, but our need for comprehension will temper how much it changes.

Text-language is a perfect example of this – we want to fit as much information as possible into as small a space as possible by pressing the fewest buttons, but it still needs to be understood by its recipient.

And people HATE it. Texting is ruining language. U no wen its all shrt & theres no pnctation lol. Isn’t it awful! Does it annoy you? Does it? Does it get your goat? (Actually, I’m drafting this in Word and it certainly gets Word’s goat – there’s so much red and green under that sentence it’s like Christmas.)

Actual linguists don’t hate texting. But then, our purpose is to describe language objectively, not to say whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong. That being said, ever since I got my first mobile way back when, I’ve been incapable of using any of the abbreviations; I’d always rather cut a clause or phrase than shorten a word!

Instead, most of the people who hate texting are the general public (and the Daily Mail. But I think we can take it for granted that if a thing is, the Daily Mail hates it).

The OUTRAGE when the OED introduced text-abbreviations this year! OMG. WTF. W.T.A.F. (never mind the fact that a dictionary’s role isn’t to say whether a word is good, or right, just to say that yes – this is a thing that is being used as a word and is in print enough for us to acknowledge it).

To quote the always excellent David Crystal:

‘The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon – as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards’*

But the fact is, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Writing is always dictated by the tools we use. Runes developed because straight lines are so much easier to carve in stone or onto bone. Roman inscriptions are all in big CAPITALS because they’re easier to carve. When quills and ink were developed, writing got curlier, but it was still slow because, as anyone who’s written with a fountain pen will know, you can’t go up without the ink splattering, so letters were formed carefully, using a series of strokes, rather than in one long scrawl (like my writing with a biro, which is possible because of the flexibility afforded by the ballpoint).

In 1890, telegraph operators’ language was dictated by the tools they used to transmit it. This lovely article shows operators abbreviating every word, taking out not just vowels but a lot of the consonants, too.

And then you have medieval scribes, my area of expertise. They abbreviated everything they could get their hands on.

Modern English has the ampersand, which comes from the Latin et, meaning ‘and’, which elided and morphed to become a single symbol.

This shows the evolution of et > & well enough.

That was, of course, for writing Latin. Old English had its own equivalent, the Tironian Nota: ‘7’ (pleasingly, on a modern English keyboard it’s the same key as the ampersand, and I don’t know if that’s intentional or not). And, just as the ampersand has been used to represent ‘et’ in longer words (such as ‘&c.’ for ‘etcetera’), so too was the tironian nota used for ‘and’ in longer words such as ‘andlang’, meaning ‘along’.

Some other common abbreviations can be seen here:

Beowulf. British Library, Cotton Vitellius, A. xv.**

The symbol in the middle of the lower red square is an abbreviated form of ‘þæt’, pronounced ‘that’ (the first letter is a rune called thorn pronounced ‘th’), meaning ‘that’ (see how little our language has changed in over a thousand years!). This little symbol is seen everywhere, all over Old English manuscripts, and is no different from the modern texting @ for ‘at’, or U, or 4, or 2.

The top red box is another beastie entirely. The line over the top of the ‘u’ (and now you’re officially reading an Anglo-Saxon manuscript) means that either an ‘n’ or and ‘m’ has been removed from the end of the word. It’s even more common than ‘that’. Sometimes it’s used as a space-saving device – near the end of a line to squish a whole word in – but really, it’s used everywhere. It’s used in every genre of text: poetry, legal texts, record keeping, annals, histories, narratives. It’s used on fancy illuminated pages and in biblical texts, it’s not restricted to informal discourse like texting abbreviations are.

There are, in fact, so many abbreviations in medieval manuscripts that there’s a dictionary just for the abbreviation marks. It’s been put online (start clicking on letters to view it page-by-page). This is, frankly, far more extensive than anything we’ve yet to come up with through texting, and this is in Latin, the language we hold above all others and upon which we base our insane grammatical rules! And in Old English, the oldest and therefore BEST form of our language! At least, this is how they’re used in arguments by people scared about language changing and ‘corrupting’, when actually, language is language. It’s inextricably human and the ways we use it are the same whether we’re writing on parchment or texting on a phone.

I initially intended to write this blog post just to highlight the fact that abbreviation has been around, basically, as long as writing has, and it’s not new technology that’s causing a shift in the way we write. But, as I was researching it, a friend sent me a link to a BBC news article linking texting to literacy in children, which throws in a whole new line of conversation – not only is texting not corrupting language, it could actually be improving it. How d’you like that then, critics?

The article says:

‘when pupils replace or remove sounds, letters or syllables – such as “l8r” for “later” or “hmwrk” for “homework” – it requires an understanding of what the original word should be’

and concludes:

‘The use of text language “was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children”’

So, the process of creating a text-speak abbreviation involves being able to identify the various parts of a word and then being able to take bits out or to substitute them. Innovations with language like this require a relatively robust understanding of the language in the first place and the knowledge to be able to manipulate it meaningfully.

So, not only is texting not a terrible new scourge on our language, not only is it not showing a dumbing-down of the younger generation, but it’s actually helping them! Who knew?

Of course, I am a linguist and as such have to be totally descriptivist about this and not say that text-language is the WORST THING EVER because it’s just, demonstrably, not (this is also my get-out clause when I make mistakes in my writing – I’m a linguist, I believe there are no rights and wrongs in language, STOP BEING SO PRESCRIPTIVIST AT ME. What are you, THE MAN?). Its users are not, as John Humphrys so vividly puts it, ‘doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary’. They are, instead, continuing a millennia-old tradition of abbreviation and linguistic innovation, and improving their language skills, and all you prescriptivist grumps can put that in your pipes and smoke it!

* David Crystal, Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 7.
** As is always the way when you try to find an example to illustrate a point, you can never find any of the buggers anywhere. Such was my search for pictures of abbreviation in manuscripts that weren’t copyright. I’d love to show you endless manuscript images with all sorts of abbreviations, but the law gets in my way. Instead, here is the first page of Beowulf, the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript image there is.

Some further reading:
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