Check out “A Way With Words”

Hello readers. It’s been a while. I was abroad last semester in Argentina. Needless to say, I’m excited to get back to blogging. At some point I’m hoping to write about the linguistic points of interest from my time in Argentina.  

This morning, I was listening to an episode of “A Way With Words,” an independently produced radio program self-described as “the show about language and how we use it,” with Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette. I’m an avid listener, and I highly recommend the show.

To give you an idea of what it’s about, here is a scenario that frequently comes up. A disgruntled spouse calls to resolve a question about proper usage.

She says, “I call it a roundabout, my wife Marleen calls it a traffic circle, and our son Jeff came home from school one day calling it a rotary. Now, will y’all tell me I’m right so I can go home and set things straight?” (See this link for a map showing the regionally differing usages of these three terms across the United States.)

Martha and Grant will follow up such an inquiry with etymological information. It’s entertaining to hear them banter it out (in good humor, of course) as Grant claims that all usages are equally legitimate while Martha reveals her prescriptive bias, either telling the caller that they can go home and claim victory, or that the usage that they prefer is not as widely accepted. It’s nice to have a balance of the prescriptivist and descriptivist perspectives. Both hosts are fun and well-spoken. Together they make for an enjoyable hour of linguistic repartee.

As I was listening to a recent episode this morning, Martha popped a quiz on Grant. Grant had to guess what several seemingly unrelated tweets had in common. Here are two of them:

“Queen Elizabeth presents Angelina Jolie as an honorary dame for work to end warzone sexual violence.”

“Jobseeker tip: When customizing your cover letter, relate your qualifications and experience to the needs of the company you’re applying to.”

Try to guess the answer. (Don’t look below!)

I wouldn’t have known in a million years.  It turns out that these are “pangram tweets,” tweets that contain all the letters of the alphabet. They are a product of chance, real tweets that people had no intention of crafting as pangrams. Jesse Schiedlower, the author of The F-Word, designed a program that searches all content posted on twitter and finds tweets that contain all the letters of the alphabet. It’s not exactly a socially productive invention, but I suppose the internet can spare some bandwidth for geeky fun.

Martha invoked a great metaphor for the pangram tweets: “if you read that feed, they have something in common, but they don’t. It’s sort of like all the people on an airplane. Do you ever look around on an airplane, and think, ‘we’re never going to be here together again in the same way, but we have something in common, we’re all going to Phoenix!'”

This metaphor resonated with me on some kind of deeper level. I spent a lot of time in airplanes and at airports on my way back to the United States, and I did have that feeling as I looked around. 

I think that it’s possible to consider the entire lexicon of a language in this same way. What do all the words in a dictionary have in common? Not much, beyond the fact that they all appear in that dictionary. I’ll try to spell out the analogy. The English lexicon, the Spanish lexicon, and the French lexicon are networks of airports among their respective speaking populations. Each of these loosely bound networks (languages) has a diverse array of travellers (words). In an instance of communication, the passengers en route to a given destination (consolidated meaning) get together and fly from one airport to another. During the flight, they are all together, bound by their destination for an instant before they disperse in innumerable directions. I’m stretching the anology a bit here, but I think it works. When we speak, we call words together for a fleeting moment, like passengers on a flight. This moment, however transient, mobilizes a material reaction in the world.

I hope you take a few minutes to check out A Way With Words if you haven’t already. Thanks for reading.