Preposterous Universe

Monday, August 16, 2004
What do you call a drive-through liquor store?

Switzerland is a very cosmopolitan country (despite clinging to their own currency rather than bowing before the Euro), with no fewer than four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). On the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Geneva, each announcement was first made in German and then repeated in both French and English. I don't know whether the English was simply a bow towards the universal language of the world, or whether the fact that the flight was officially a code-share with United had something to do with it.

The existence of multiple official languages must create occasional headaches. Of course, in the U.S. we don't have any official language, attempts by organizations like U.S. English notwithstanding (warning: cheesy patriotic music). And English doesn't have an official governing body, so we don't have to live through nonsense like the German spelling reform. Which I think is a good thing, since like Steven Pinker I fall firmly on the descriptivist side of the descriptivist/prescriptivist debate over the nature of language, believing that rules bubble up from the bottom rather than being imposed from the top. (Although I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace defending the opposition.)

Despite our lack of central authority, the usage of American English is probably more standardized than either French or German. But we do have charming regionalisms, which have been studied in the fascinating Dialect Survey. The Dialect Survey maps will tell you, for example, that "the devil is beating his wife" is simply Southern for "sunshower," while the important dibs/shotgun distinction has no strong geographical bias. I was interested to see that my linguistic upbringing was almost perfectly standard, in that I fall into the majority category of almost every regionalism. The one noticeable exception was that I grew up calling subs "hoagies," a distinct Philadelphia/New Jersey usage. And I am shocked to learn that nearly half of the country refers to sneakers as "tennis shoes." Takes all kinds, I guess.

Also, over seven percent of Americans have no word to describe the concept of ogling. How do they make it through the day?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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