Saturday, December 23, 2006

"Word Referees"

Today's NYT Arts (!) section has a piece by Andrew Adam Newman called "Wordsmiths: They also serve who only vote on 'ain't". (It's available free on-line.)

The piece covers the usage panel that the American Heritage Dictionary regularly surveys for input on usage, chaired by Geoff Nunberg and including a real range of folks, from a set of famous intellectuals and writers like Henry Louis Gates and Sherman Alexie, to folks like Anne Curzan, a very good linguist specializing in the history of English, to Word Court's Barbara Wallraff to sportswriter Frank Deford (a guy so literary in his style that it's hard to use that title for him) on down to a scumbag from the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, I mean you, Scalia. If I can choke back the bile at the notion of Scalia being taken seriously beyond rightwing extremist circles and thwarting the will of the people in national elections, I think it's a good piece -- nice little window into the process.

They highlight three questions: How to pronounce 'niche', whether you'd use 'prioritize' and how you judge the sentence "Members of the League of Women Voters will be manning the registration desk." It's worth looking at the answers to all three in their graphic. But the first one is particularly interesting in a way. In an article published last year in the Journal of English Linguistics (edited by Anne Curzan, as it happens) called "Filling the Gap: English tense vowel plus final /š/" (33:3.207-221), Greg Iverson & Joe Salmons laid out the history of words like niche. These words are surprisingly restricted in number and they don't just come from French, but Arabic and other languages. The patterns of coinages in affective vocabulary (swoosh, etc.) are pretty striking. I&S note that tense vowel plus 'sh' retains a sense of "oddity or foreignness ... for some speakers". I think I normally say [nɪtš] unless I'm in Europe wearing a beret and smoking Galloises or something, which makes me one of those people. You might expect this panel to lean toward the French form, but only 30% did, while 28% went my way. In fact, the graphic includes toward comments calling 'neesh' "pretentious" and "affected". Their third option 'neetch' only worked for 2% and they left out a clearly viable form, [nɪš], which a lot of us surely use occasionally. My sense is that the usage panel's gives a pretty good result here.

PS: Note that this is a positive post about the treatment of language in the NYT ... beyond what's in Science Times.

Update, Dec. 24, 12:00: Geoff Nunberg
, "Chair" of the panel, has an update here. Mostly minor clarifications.


Nancy Friedman said...

Thanks for sharing the news about this fascinating look under the hood of the language machine. Two small corrections: it's Sherman Alexie, noted Native American writer, not "Alexie Sherman"; and viewing the article online is not restricted to subscribers.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks! (I can't believe I did the wrong order thing on Sherman Alexie's name ... I do that constantly with names when speaking and now it's seeping into writing.