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  • Top 10 Language Stories of 2008

    The end of the year is the time for the media look back on the biggest stories of 2008, the most-read articles, the best photos. The Weather Channel is reminiscing about the top 10 storms, ESPN is recapping the top 10 plays, and the Chicago Tribune has even celebrated the top 10 inventors to "meet their maker" last year (pun presumably intended), including the creator of the egg mcmuffin.

    The Web of Language covered over 60 stories about language in the news last year, and in keeping with the New Year spirit, we now present a wistful and nostalgic romp through the Top 10 Language Stories of the year gone by, in no particular order, except maybe for the last:

    1.  The U.N. proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to encourage the use and study of lesser-used languages. If estimates are correct, about 25 languages disappeared in the past twelve months while U.N. peacekeepers stood idly by.

    UN Peacekeepers

    2. As for protecting languages that need no protection, a Federal judge in Wichita ruled that a private school had broken no laws when it declared English the school's official language and banned students from speaking anything else. The ban on foreign languages was instituted to combat bullying, but the school's principal didn't indicate whether she would outlaw English as well if students bullied one another in that language.

    Letter from Wichica principal proclaiming English-only policy  

    3.  Official English continues to pop up not just in schools but also in the workplace. A truck driver was fined for the new crime of DWS, driving while Spanish, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings into the legality of employers requiring workers to speak English on the job, a practice that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission labels discrimination on the basis of national origin, a violation of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. The present administration favors official English policies, and official English formed a plank in the Republican party platform for 2008. In contrast, the Democratic party platform suggests that the Obama administration will follow a more liberal policy, encouraging non-English speakers to learn the language; encouraging English-speakers to learn other languages; and minimizing rules about when and where a particular language must be used.

    4.     The presidential election injected all sorts of words into our everyday speech, from maverick, hockey mom, Joe the plumber, and McCainiac to change, hope, postracial, and Obamalama. But after the election, these all faded away, and for those looking forward to Barack Obama's linguistic impact as well as his domestic and foreign policies, one commentator, after reviewing the meager language legacy of presidents Clinton and Bush, predicted that while the new president speaks with a silver tongue, he's not likely to do much more than rebrand the rhetoric of the previous administrations, coming up with his own versions of Bush's "No Child Left Behind" and "War on Terror," and Clinton's memorable phrase, "That depends on what the meaning of is is." Optimists moved by the president-elect's skilful ways with words are hoping for much more. Watch this space for an assessment next year of the language of the New Camelot's first 365 days.

    Nixon plumbers 

    Nixon's presidential legacy includes plumbers and the phrase, "I am not a crook." 

    5.     Along with the election, the economy dominated the news during the latter part of 2008, and huge market losses threatened to impoverish the nation while at the same time enriching the language with words like bailout, housing bubble, and staycation. Toxic assets are the latest economic poison, and the Ponzi scheme has become a synonym for 'global capitalism.' The only upside to the plunging economy has been a downturn in roadside bombs and other words associated with the Iraq War (unfortunately the war continues – it's just that the media pays less attention to it).

    Dow Jones graph showing losses in 2008 

    As unemployment rises and the Dow plunges, the English vocabulary continues to grow at a healthy pace. 

    6.     In 2008 we celebrated Noah Webster's 250th birthday, and Henry Fowler's 150th.  Webster's name became synonymous with 'dictionary,' although no dictionary records this fact. Fowler's name became synonymous with usage rules and purist prescriptions, although his advice, like George Orwell's after him, was always to ignore a rule if following it would produce barbarous or clumsy language.

    Portrait of Noah Webster on a US stamp

    7.     Reports in 2008 continued to blame technology for linguistic decline. French President Nicolas Sarkozy thinks les textos are responsible for poor French, and reports in American newspapers frequently accuse students of using txt abbreviations in their schoolwork. In fact, research shows that young texters quickly learn when to use txt lingo and when to use more standard forms, and older texters (in high school and especially college) actually frown on the jargon we associate with text messages and IM, preferring standard spelling and pronunciation, and no linguistic shortcuts in their messaging.

    Text message announcing selection of Joe Biden as Obama's VP 

    Contrary to popular opinion, text messages pose no threat to spelling or syntax

    8.     In 2008 reformers continued to tinker with English, recommending such changes as accepting incorrect or "creative" spellings of words or going native by rooting out Latin and Greek borrowings from the language. Some argued that we should switch from English to Esperanto to save money or promote world peace. And others condoned vandalism in order to correct errors on public display. Such actions have little impact, as users of English continue to reject reforms and commit errors as regularly as they have always done. 

    Mispunctuated traffic sign says  

    An appropriate New Year's sentiment in search of an editor who doesn't mind a bit of vandalism 

    9.     In 2008 the U.S. military finally gave up on its plan to fight wars by training soldiers to speak the enemy's languages. After declaring foreign languages to be military weapons, trying to form crack linguistic military units, and firing all its gay translators, the army finally realized that the only way to bring its troops up to speed linguistically was not to train soldiers to speak foreign languages like Farsi and Arabic, but to train speakers of Farsi and Arabic to march, salute, and shoot guns at the bad guys. After treating speakers of these critical languages as security risks for years, convincing them to join up hasn't been the easiest thing. Nonetheless the army is optimistic that it has found a new and effective way to deploy language to fight the war on terror.

    army t-shirt says  

    10.  And finally, in a 5 to 4 vote the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the 27-year-old Washington, D.C., ban on handguns for violating the Second Amendment. Ruling that guns don't kill people after all, the Court's majority decided that the amendment's first part, stressing the importance of a well-trained, well-armed militia, had nothing to do with its second part, which concerns the people's right to bear arms. Interestingly, the court's 4-justice minority found the opposite, that the two parts of the amendment were inextricably connected in a cause-and-effect relationship, and that what the Second Amendment protects is a right to bear arms for military service, not for hunting or self-defense.

    Whatever one thinks about their politics, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are all intelligent, highly-educated, and with long experience in unraveling the nuances of language (or at least their clerks are). The fact that 5 of them read the amendment one way, and 4 read it to mean something else entirely, illustrates just how complex a thing language is. If experts disagree, then – as the events of 2008 clearly show – language must continue to be fair game for everybody else.

    Antonin Scalia giving obscene gesture 

    This term the Supreme Court will rule on obscenity in the media

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