“All things must pass,” wrote Ian Roberts, a Cambridge University linguist, in a book published last year. “This is as true of you and me as it is of everything we know. It’s also true of languages: Avestan, Etruscan, Tocharian, Gothic, Cornish, Klamath, Yurok, Akkadian, Sumerian, Dyirbal. Gone.”
Except that one of these languages, Cornish, is not gone, a fact that a Cambridge linguist might be expected to know. Under the noses of a lot of other smart people who should know about this kind of thing, it has revived to a remarkable extent–with hundreds of speakers, many of them quite fluent–and stunningly, at least four native speakers, two pairs of siblings raised from childhood by fathers who have spoken nothing but Cornish to them. It has a narrow foothold on life, but last year the British government cut the paltry yet crucial £150,000 that helped train teachers and organize the movement. The end of the remarkable story is uncertain.
I did my best to tell the tale in Quartz, here.
The first issue of The Economist in 2017 features my 12-page Technology Quarterly, a special report on how computers learned to understand language and talk back to their human users. They don’t really "understand", of course, but what’s going on under the hood is technologically and even philosophically interesting. The full report examines the technology and the linguistics, and the cover article explains why voice is the next big leap in humans’ interaction with computers.
In The Economist, January 3rd, 2017:
"CHOOSING the ‘word of the year’ can be an unenlightening exercise. The last several years have seen language mavens and dictionary publishers pick an emoji (the one meaning ‘crying with joy’), ‘because’ as a preposition (because teenagers), and ‘hashtag’ (as in ‘I’m so happy, hashtag irony,’ to signal a hashtag in speech). Most are probably passing fads; a ‘word of the year’ should ideally both summarise the feel of the 12 months and have a chance of surviving…"
Having said that, I go on to describe why 2016 actually did produce memorable and necessary new words, albeit depressing ones, and reluctantly crown an awful phenomenon 2016’s Word of the Year.
An incredibly important navel-gazing announcement: Though everyone calls me Lane, I’ve been writing under my full name, Robert Lane Greene, as an homage to my beloved grandfather, since the beginning of my professional life. It just kind of stuck around by inertia. There were lots of other fun reasons: there was a Lane Greene in my hometown of Atlanta, occasionally quoted in the papers on architecture. I liked that "Robert" was recognizably male. And for a three-word name, Robert Lane Greene, at four syllables, is almost as short as you get, with a nice balance.
But from now on, I’m going to publish as plain Lane–that is, "Lane Greene", what actual family and friends have known me as since my parents put me in this awkward situation at birth. No more confusion with Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and such. (I suspect the confusion steered me more of his sales than the other way around.) No more telling radio presenters "Please introduce me as Robert Lane Greene, but then call me Lane." But most of all, none of the plain weirdness of a split personality, where I am Robert to the wide world, and Lane to a closer circle. My writing can be fairly personal, and even where drily intellectual, it’s always my personal passion that drives it along. Why not use the name I’m called? I couldn’t think of a good reason.
So, love you, Mom! Still miss you, Grandpa! But bye for now, "Robert", which will be confined to pestering from various bureaucracies and vendors addressing me from the coziness of a database. Friends, please call me Lane.
Hey there! Do please go read what I’ve got to say on
– why women don’t like being called "feisty".
– how weird Chomsky’s theories have become
– why it may be better to work in a second language
– what would happen to English if Britain quits the EU, and
– how two biracial comedians became America’s most popular sociolinguists
In the 1990s, The Economist ran a language column called Johnson, which I loved. In 2010, having been on the newspaper’s staff for a few years myself, I proposed reviving Johnson as a blog, and three years later, it became a weekly web column. Beginning in March, it has returned to the print edition, on a biweekly basis. It is the culmination of a lovely dream to have become the paper’s language columnist, having been such a fan of it back in its first incarnation, and having the chance (and the obligation) to say something new about language every two weeks.
My first three columns have been on what Samuel Johnson himself might say about today’s language controversies; what the demotion of the French circumflex and the demotion of Pluto have in common; and how the @-sign’s inclusion in e-mail addresses jostled a punctuation system that was already barely settled.
Stay tuned for more.
Another day, a new town, a new hat: I’m now working from the London headquarters of The Economist, as the deputy Books & Arts editor. I help run the books coverage of The Economist in print and our online coverage of culture on the Prospero blog.
I continue writing my language column, the latest instalment of which was on various Word of the Year choices for 2015, and why "they" was a rather singular choice by the American Dialect Society. Find more of my columns at Prospero.
I was also deputy editor of The Economist‘s annual prediction-bonanza, The World in 2016. In my own contribution to World In, I took my best stab at the language trends to look for this year.
Last summer I was delighted to be asked to join the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel, which has included so many great writers and language-experts that I was as intimidated as I was overjoyed.
Then came my first actual ballot, where the panel is asked to rule on disputed usages, and some philosophical conflicts as I filled it out. I tell the story
at Schwa Fire.
Of all of the statements of solidarity, I haven’t been able to make myself say “Je suis Charlie.” I’m not, and you probably aren’t either. As a journalist, I’ve never covered the kind of people who would kill me. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did. They did so knowingly. They were the sharp end of freedom of speech. Too sharp? Who gets to say? The most humorless person on the planet? Not everything in Charlie Hebdo was even funny, or even close. But they weren’t just aiming for schoolboy laughs. They understood that for a right to really be a right, it must not be couched in the language of “You have the right to offend, but you must never use it.” They offended, intentionally, to protect more important rights for the rest of us, understanding that if we let the zealots draw the line at Charlie Hebdo, they wouldn’t just stop there. The cartoonists drew the front line way out from where we are, so we could live safely well behind it. They died for that bravery. And I’ll intentionally borrow a term from the religious: they are martyrs, having died for their beliefs and ours. We are not Charlie, because Charlie was a lot braver than most people will ever be.
So Germany won the world cup, and I reflected on the team’s grace and class in victory. Joe Kaeser has been running Siemens for a year, and I wrote about his progress in tuning up German’s industrial dynamo. And no summer would be complete without a thirsty piece about good but uncreative German beer and the slow growth of American-style craft beer here.
In the Johnson column, I turned two holidays (in Spain and Sweden) into reflections on Catalan and on the Scandinavian "neighbor languages". I also examined the communication strategies underlying "mansplaining"–to the almost equal irritation of feminists accusing me of mansplaining and men mansplaining why I was wrong.