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Catching up

Lots going on, and a fair amount of private correspondence connected with this blog. So today is tidbits day.

Official languages

I’ve received a note from a reader objecting to yesterday’s post about the pointlessness of establishing English as our official language:

No, no, no. English is being attacked on several fronts: from within, by the morning traffic girl and her use of "gonna" and your own paper's confusion of "less" versus "fewer"... and from without (as it were), by the omnipresent Spanish-only population. As for Orwell, eight years of "undocumented" workers, "death" taxes, and "enemy combatants" at Gitmo mean that you've written Orwell's epitaph prematurely.

There are several separate issues clustering here. I don’t care much myself for casual pronunciations or slang, but I don’t feel the pillars of civilization collapsing under me when I hear them. Mistakes in usage are endemic to writing, and have been since humans invented the practice. (My art history professor at Michigan State used to point out that those lovely medieval illuminations decorate manuscripts that contain errors in the Latin.) The propensity of governments to indulge in euphemisms certainly merits criticism, and regularly gets it.

The point on which Orwell was mistaken was to think that governmental manipulation of language could limit human understanding. The point that keeps coming up in this debate, though not always openly, is “the omnipresent Spanish-only population.” There are certainly going to be cultural adjustments that many people will find uncomfortable as the United States inexorably becomes a country in which white people are not a majority in the population, but apprehensions have been exaggerated and amplified by political interests playing on people’s fears. And it is highly unlikely anyhow that making English “official” will alter the consequences of the demographic shift.

French has been the official language of France since the Revolution, and France maintains its venerable Academy of Immortals to preserve the purity of the language. And yet, as a post today at Language Log by the estimable Mark Liberman illustrates, the situation is and has been more complicated than one might have imagined.

Voices in the head

Another reader looked up some citations in the medical literature about research into the auditory experience of silent reading. (Silent reading, incidentally, is a comparatively modern development. From classical antiquity into the Middle Ages, people read by reading aloud.) The reader comments on them:

Despite a number of fascinating experiments and case reports, there really isn't a good review of the phenomenon of "inner speech" (which is a subcategory of what is called "auditory imagery", if I understand correctly from my brief perusing of articles) and reading. The first article, however, touches on the subject in its introduction. The second article is an excellent review article of the neurological pathways for reading, giving some indication for why we "hear" what we read, but the article is also very highly technical. And the third article is on the other phenomenon you discussed, being able to hear music while reading a score, also valuable mostly for its introduction.

“Reading voices and hearing text: talker-specific auditory imagery in reading.” Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2008 Apr;34(2):446-59.

“Development of neural systems for reading.” Annu Rev Neurosci. 2007;30:475-503.

“The mental representation of music notation: Notational audiation.” Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2008 Apr;34(2):427-45.

The martini

An old classmate from Michigan State checked out the martini video and replied:

My wife, who tended bar in her college days, had a customer who regularly complained that the martinis she made for him weren't "dry" enough. She finally gave him a straight shot of gin (without telling him, of course), and still he lamented that young folks didn't know how to make a good dry martini.

File this one under “Suspicions, Confirmed.”

Soldiering on

Finally, I appreciate this touching comment from another reader:

I am sorry that the Sun and you are having to go through the downsizing stress that is affecting so many newspapers. Your blog is a near-daily source of inspiration, education, and humor (read: strength to carry on), so whatever management tells you, don't think you aren't appreciated out here in the hinterlands.

It’s a troubling time for print journalism, and we are struggling to find our feet in an environment that is suddenly inhospitable. There has been a good deal of fumbling toward a new, stable business model, and we have not gotten hold of it yet. But throughout the turmoil, with reductions in force and outsourcing and other hazards looming over us, the copy desk carries on,

I wish we hadn’t used Columbian for Colombian in a headline the other day, or illegals as a noun. I wish the desk had challenged a story in this morning’s paper that I couldn’t follow in a single reading. I wish that the decline in advertising were not limiting the space in the paper. I wish that I were not on the point of saying painful farewells to colleagues at the end of the month.

But these difficulties, large and small, must be dealt with. The work remains, and the work of making the texts clear, correct and precise is worth doing, however great the obstacles. Journalism itself is not passing away, and copy editors will continue through the present and future dislocations to make the case for the importance and value of editing. It is worth doing. It is worth doing well.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:45 AM | | Comments (2)


Except, of course, for my boy Alexander, who read silently, according to Plutarch.

Well, yes. Sandy was an exceptional lad in every way.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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