Sunday, August 10, 2014


I studied Linguistics in college.  Languages have always interested me, and I loved being able to study something that was also my hobby (and now I am qualified to flip a burger in three languages, yippee!).  I've had a niggling feeling lately that I've fallen off the proverbial academic bus, so I'm looking for ways to stay up on my linguistics research.

Which brings me to my first question for the void: does anyone out there have recommendations for interesting reads in the realm of linguistics or language?  It's sometimes so hard to get a sense of what's good from Goodreads, so I'll leave the recommendations to anyone out there who happens to have an opinion or recommendation.  Help?

But anyway.  I've been thinking for the past couple of days about a study I read back in the day about English language and violence.  I can't remember the name of the study, so don't quote me on anything, but the gist was this: language, and specifically slang, tells you a lot about the culture in which it is spoken.  More narrowly, English speakers use a variety of violent and/or war-like slang words...and what does that say about our culture?

For example:

"I bombed that test."

"Knock 'em dead!"

"That class totally kicked my butt."

"I'm so mad, I'm going to kill him!"

"I'm so tired, I feel like I got hit by a bus."

"That oral exam? I killed it!"


There are a ton of other examples that I can't think of right now (because it's Sunday night and my brain has been off for some hours), but it's a pretty interesting concept, don't you think?  Frankly, you've only got to turn on the news to see how violent a society we live in.

I speak French (but not well enough at this point to compare idioms) and elementary Arabic (heavens, I basically only speak "TV/24 Terrorist" Arabic...), but I'd be interested to hear how much of this exists in other languages.  Would a peaceful/pacifist country like, say, Sweden, have far fewer violent slang words in their language?  Would German speakers use more violent language than English speakers?

[These are gross over-generalizations about these two cultures, but there you are.]

AND. At what point does language start influencing culture rather than the other way around?  Can it?  Does it?  If we started speaking in less violent terms, would that make us a more peaceful people?  I doubt it.  But it's an interesting thought.

More often language evolves as the culture changes.  It's like the words we use to describe the internet (blog, web, etc.) or mass-produced items (fast fashion, McMansion, etc.) that only recently came onto the scene.  I think if Shakespeare visited suburban DC tomorrow, he'd be hard-pressed to understand what anyone was blabbering on about.  Then again, put me back in Elizabethan England and I'm sure I'd have just as much trouble understanding The Bard.

Now there's a thought.  How much violent language does Shakespeare use as description?  Has the language culture shifted that much since his time?

But, that's a study for another day...when my brain is on again.


  1. Sounds like you're on the path to giving a great Ted Talk someday. When that day comes I'll no doubt tell you to break a leg.

    1. Haha. I love it, Rach! Very clever (as always).

  2. We must be ambivalent about bombs. Someone who has just bombed a test is definitely not feeling like the bomb.

    It is only distantly related, but did you see the little piece in the Washington Post in early July on "How do you speak D.C.? ‘Accent tags’ help to define the District’s dialect" ( I sort of want to audio-record myself saying their word list to see where I land in the regional dialect spectrum. --Mariko

    1. So true! I'm adding that to my list.

      Also, that's a great piece! I hadn't seen it before, but I'm geeking out over it now. I want to record myself, too, though I wonder if I could be as objective listening to myself. I may have to enlist your help!

    2. We must! Even if only to experience how simple it is now compared to the undergrad days of checking out the departmental "portable" cassette recorder.