November 05, 2005

Shooting too good

In response to my question about word rage outside the Anglosphere, Bob Yates suggested the Zwiebelfisch feature at Der Spiegel. This is "Bastian Sicks Kolumne zur Sprachpflege" ("Bastian Sick's column on language hygeine"). Sick's latest book is Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, which features complaints about sporadic failures to use dative case marking according to traditional (?) principles. The particular example of "word rage" that Bob cited involves one of these missing datives:

Wenn unser Bundeskanzler nach Washington fliegt, hört man garantiert auf irgendeinem Kanal, dass er sich "mit dem US-Präsident" treffen werde. Jedem Korrespondenten dürfte es dabei eiskalt über den Rücken laufen.

When our Chancellor flies to Washington, we hear some television network promising us that he will meet with the US President.  That should send shivers up every correspondent's spine.

(It should be "mit dem US-Präsidenten", not "mit dem US-Präsident".)

Sorry, but I'm not going to count this as "word rage". We're looking for some over-the-top anger, preferably with threats of physical attack, mutilation or death. (I'm assuming that the eiskalt über den Rücken business means that journalists should feel embarrassment for their profession, not that they should feel fear due to impending violent revenge...)

Another reader referred me to Leo, "an English-German forum sponsored by the University of Munich that serves professional translators between these languages (as well as French-German), and also attracts questions and responses from amateurs and interested bystanders". According to Martin,

... every now and then a flame war erupts over German usage, and it gets just as virulent as with English. Two issues that keep coming up are "Denglish" (the German equivalent of Franglais) and, just as with English, the wrong use of the apostrophe. The German's call it the "Deppenapostroph", i.e. the idiot's apostrophe.

But the same reader wrote back an hour later to say

I may have to retract my claim about having seen violent expressions in discussions of perceived misuse of German.

I just scanned through a few archives of the Leo website for examples of threatened violence, and didn't find a single suggestion of chopping or stabbling or smashing any language villains. The most violent acts that I saw was someone who said that they erased an "idiot's apostrophe" by spitting on it, and another who said they had to puke at some example of Denglish. So maybe this violence *is* something peculiar to us English speakers.

The score so far: disgust yes, violent anger no.

Adding to the examples in my earlier post, let me give a couple of classical quotations expressing English language rage. Professor Henry Higgins, in Shaw's Pygmalion, says to Eliza Doolittle

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and The Bible; and dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

In "Why can't the English", from Lerner and Loewe's musical comedy version of Pygmalion, Higgins' implicit threat is stated more plainly:

By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue

Threats of summary executation are popular among real-life English prescriptivists as well. For example, with respect to a notice that a legal document "Does not need notarized", a livejournal denizen comments that "Someone need to be taken out back and shot for that!" Back at the Guardian's talk forums, in response to the question "Has 'per say' become an acceptable spelling?", someone responds " No, shoot on sight". One of the webmob suggests that users of another proscribed expression should be "wheeled out and shot", and another chimes in with "The wheeling part is to [sic] good for them Just shoot", and someone else opines "Shooting too good."

Again, I understand that this is just ritual japery. The question is, do members of any other culture carry on like this about the violent punishment of linguistic offenders? Do they even talk about their rage rather than their displeasure or disgust, as when a commenter at writes

"Hot Dog's and Coke's". Makes me insane with rage.

I'm still waiting for examples.

[By the way, how did Zwiebelfisch = "onion fish" come to mean "misprint" or "typographical error" in German? And why is a column on "language hygiene" entitled "typographical error", anyhow? Is the implication that any linguistic sins must be slips of the fingers?

The Zwiebelfisch forum ought to be a good place to find word rage: its sysop kicks it off by asking "Woran orientiert sich Ihr Sprachgefühl? Welche Sprachsünden ängern Sie am meisten?" ("By what does your language sense orient itself? What language sins anger you the most?") Someone who reads German more fluently than I do ought to find some examples there, if this cultural pattern exists among German-speakers today.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 5, 2005 10:41 AM