A note on “alt right”

Last week a friend asked me what the “alt right” was, and I realized I couldn’t come up with a definition. It’s one of those stretch-and-shrink terms with no fixed meaning. Sometimes it means neo-Nazis like Richard B. Spencer. Sometimes it means websites like Breitbart News that give a platform to nativists. Sometimes it means people on the Internet who say offensive things but don’t have any clear set of ideas.
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The ALA tries to destroy the concept of diversity

The American Library Association has made explicit what a lot of us have suspected: that to a certain mindset that loves to throw the word around, “diversity” isn’t a measure of the variation in a group, but a particular group of people. It gives this definition:

The American Library Association (ALA) defines diversity as being “those who may experience language or literacy-related barriers; economic distress; cultural or social isolation; physical or attitudinal barriers; racism; discrimination on the basis of appearance, ethnicity, immigrant status, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression; or barriers to equal education, employment, and housing”.

Even Humpty Dumpty would never imagine he could make the word “diversity” mean “people who have certain characteristics.” The point isn’t to define the meaning of the word, but to destroy it by turning it into an anti-concept. See the comments on my earlier post for how this works.
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When the passive voice can be used

Self-proclaimed experts on writing often express contempt for the passive voice, whether they understand what it is or not. Language Log has a good discussion of what it is and where it’s a perfectly good choice. It covers obscure cases that most people don’t know about.

Rather than offering my own defense of the passive voice, I’ll just list some of my own favorite uses of it.
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Did Southwest Airlines kick a passenger off for speaking Arabic?

Depending on which news account you believe, Southwest Airlines kicked a passenger off and Federal agents searched him because he spoke Arabic or because he made threats. How do we decide between these two claims?

The Daily Californian reports that Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a student at UC Berkeley, “was removed from Southwest Airlines flight 4260, detained by security officers, questioned by the FBI and refused service from Southwest after speaking Arabic before his flight took off.” Makhzoomi is a refugee from Iraq. He claims that an officer searched his genital area in public as police dogs stood by.
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Miscellaneous usage gripes

Language changes, but usages that don’t make logical sense bother me. Here are some of my pet peeves (and why would anyone have a peeve for a pet?):

Rising to a crescendo. A crescendo is an increase, usually in the volume of a musical piece.

A is exponentially greater than B. An exponential curve is one where the y value is a number raised to the x value (or is a linear function of a number raised to a linear function of the x value). It’s known for its rapid growth. But any positive number A that’s greater than positive number B is B raised to some power. Update: Not strictly true. 1 to any power is just 1. Come on, people, you’re supposed to catch me at these things!

Meteoric rise. Meteors fall.

Quantum leap. A quantum leap is the smallest possible amount of change.

Epithets ending in “phobia.” Phobia is persistent fear without a rational cause. Used to score points against an opponent, it’s psychologizing. If you want to say someone is hostile or bigoted, say that. Or at least be consistent and say that opposition to a high-rise development is “acrophobia.”

Substituted with. This generally means “substituted for, or replaced with, I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter.”

Home signs reading “The [last name]’s.” I assume it’s the home of the clan head, especially if the name sounds Scottish.

Déjà vu all over again. This was funny once, but not when I see “Déjà vu all over again” again and again.

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Varieties of political correctness

It’s not politically correct to criticize political correctness. If you do, the politically correct will say you’re a bigot or worse.

PC is a confusing term these days, and other terms may be less ambiguous — for reasons other than political correctness. According to an article by Jesse Walker, Marxist-Leninists were the first to use it, and they considered it a good thing. Over time, it became a pejorative term, referring to demands from the political left (whatever that means to the speaker) for thoughts or word choices that follow a party line. Political correctness includes efforts to mold discourse so that it’s impossible to express dissenting ideas; for instance, defining “racism” as a position only white people can hold.

Some people on the “right,” though, denounce dissent from their ideas as “political correctness.” A Washington Post article reports “conservative voters near Mobile have praised Trump’s rejection of ‘political correctness’ and his forthrightness on a key issue.” The context is Trump’s claim that the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States,” doesn’t apply to all persons born in the United States. Saying that the Constitution means what it says is outrageously narrow-minded, it seems. Some years ago there was a “No ‘Merry Christmas,’ no Christmas shopping” movement, which declared that anyone who said “happy holidays” was imposing political correctness on them. Actually, isn’t playing the victim and taking offense at a choice of words that doesn’t conform to their ideas a textbook example of political correctness?

I’m rather fond of the term, at least when it applies to people who keep devising new ways to get outraged, precisely because it outrages them some more. It’s subject to misinterpretation, though, so in serious discussions a more straightforward term, such as “demands for conformity” or “chronic offense-taking,” is more suitable than “PC.”

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Miscellaneous musical notes

Some singers allegedly have four-octave vocal ranges. This is very doubtful. That would cover F below the bass clef to F above high C, allowing the same person to sing Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. (Update: I’ve found numerous claims that certain singers have ranges of five octaves and even more. My impression is that they’re counting the ability to produce sounds, not their usable singing range. I can produce three octaves myself when I have a cold, but you wouldn’t want me to.)

You don’t “rise to a crescendo.” A crescendo is a rise in volume, and if you want it to be effective you start softly.

If random notes scattered in an illustration represent music, then random letters likewise scattered ought to represent literature.Franz Schubert postage stamp

Alto is the shortened form of contralto. They mean the same thing.

There are two musical instruments whose name means “small”: the piccolo and the cello. The piccolo makes sense. The cello does too, if you know its name was originally violoncello, or “little big viol,” but I can’t think of any other case of a word being worn down to its suffix while retaining its specific meaning.

Until the twentieth century, no one set out to write “classical music.” Bach and Beethoven wrote for their audiences, employers, or students.

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Thoughts on language learning

While I was at DFDF, I noticed that some people who have spent more time than I have in Germany have more trouble with the language than I do. I don’t claim to be fluent at it, but I can generally understand people and be understood. Several years ago I reached the point where if I talked to strangers in German, they’d usually answer me in the same language instead of switching to English. That was a major milestone for me. At this DFDF, there was a workshop on translation. I was the only native English speaker there, so we used German, and I was invited to ask about anything I didn’t understand. I got through it understanding almost everything and participating actively. It was a thrill to be able to do that!

Why do some people get to a pretty good skill level at a language, while others put in just as much effort but still struggle? I haven’t done any scientific study on this, but here are a few thoughts from my personal experience.

1. Be bilingual before you’re six. This advice is certainly too late for nearly everyone reading this blog, but I think I benefited a lot from knowing some Greek from an early age. It got me used to the idea that there’s more than one language, to speaking with two sets of phonemes, to seeing relationships and differences between languages.

2. Use the language. Textbooks and language labs are fine, but the only way to make a language stick is to use it in real life. Look for publications that interest you, even if you can only understand a little at first. Join forums or mailing lists that are tolerant of beginners. If you have friends who know the language, exchange email with them in their language. I started talking to my cats in German. They’re very accepting of grammatical errors. It’s gotten to be such a habit that I now talk to cats in general in Katzendeutsch. I enjoy listening to science podcasts in German, learning something new while getting practice in the language. When you’re talking with people, you may have to push back a little when they switch to English; explain that you’d like the practice, if they can stand it.

3. Make mistakes. The only way to learn a language is to use it, and you have to be willing to get it wrong before you can get it right. Accept corrections. Get a little better each time.

4. Pay attention to grammar, but don’t let rules paralyze you. I see advice in a lot of places not to worry about grammar till you know the language well. This is the way children learn their first language, but it doesn’t work when I approach a new language. The advice may be the result of an excessive, paralyzing emphasis on getting grammar right in years past. Human languages aren’t like computer languages; you can’t apply a set of rules that will unfailingly tell you which sentences are right and which are wrong. But learning how sentences are put together and how gender, case, and number work is much easier than pure induction from examples.

5. Enjoy the language. If you think of it as a struggle, with a reward coming only after years of study, it will be a struggle. I think a big part of my success in German is that I enjoyed learning it, pulling out bits of comprehension, looking at strange books, making silly mistakes, and doing sillier things in it like talking to cats. Enjoy the ride, and you’ll get there.

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Addendum on racial insults

Since posting on socially acceptable racism a few days ago, I’ve found there are some people who think it’s perfectly fine for them to engage in racial insults, because they aren’t really racial insults but code terms that mean something else entirely.

May I suggest the following guideline: If you’re using a term which a reasonable person, not familiar with your private in-group code, would take as reference to people’s ancestry or superficial physical characteristics, and you’re using it to insult or mock, then you should be very careful to use it only with people who speak your in-group language, and you should think about why you have to use such a term even then. Also, don’t ever count me as part of your in-group for that purpose, even if you’ve told me about your neologism.

There are ambiguous cases, since words have multiple meanings and shift over time, and insults can be in the eye of the beholder. What I’m talking about here is blatant special pleading, the notion that it’s OK because you’re different.

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