Is there a language sensitivity gene?

Hi Writers,
I just read an interesting “On Language” column in the NYT this week written by Jaimie Epstein, “Sentence Sensibility”

This column (difficult to get through due to the satiric(?) use of Jane Austen-esque run-on sentences that could poke a person’s eye out) brings up an important question for writers to obsess over: “Is there a language-sensitivity gene?”

From my own observations, I’d have to say, absolutely, yes. Case in point: This very weekend a song came on the car radio. It was a locally produced song, circa-1978 called, “Music, Sex and Cookies.” I hadn’t heard this particular song in at least two decades. Well, my passengers were stunned to witness that I knew the lyrics in their entirety.

This happens often and I never really think about it until I’m with non language sensitive types, and they infer how utterly freakish it is.

This, coupled with the fact that certain words will turn me so pale that our managing editor keeps smelling salts in her desk, leads me to believe there is, in fact, a language sensitivity gene.

To prove my point, I’m going to list one of my most hated words right here so you’ll see for yourself:


See, I just passed out.

Here’s my question to you: Is there such a thing as a language sensitivity gene?
Also, what’s your most hated word? Go ahead and share, it’s good to let it out.

Keep Writing,
P.S. A loyal WD forum member (cooltouch) has correctly pointed out that I offer no sound scientific findings in my thesis here stated. I am ordering DNA testing of grandparents on both sides and will report back on the results.


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13 thoughts on “Is there a language sensitivity gene?

  1. Charlie

    I think there is definitely a word sensitivity gene. I am very sensitive to the sounds of words, and how they are used. And I hate to hear words misused. I once heard the following from an official commenting on a tragedy "in lieu of the tragedy today, the softball championships will be cancelled…" Argggh!! Some of my pet peeves aren’t even words… you’s…as in I’ll see you’s later,blahblahblah, and anytime a weather man uses a precipitation word and adds activity on the end of it. Thunderstorm activity… OH and sticking ‘age’ on the end of a word to make it sound more sophisticated…signage, wordage, etc.

    I guess I have made my point but I could go on…and on…

  2. jain

    Very funny, Maria. Donna, I think you are on to something with p-starting words. There is a word I can’t stand hearing and now that I am about to type it…well, here it is: tasty.

    Actually, it wasn’t that bad given the left hand does most of the work (I have RSS in my right).

  3. Debbie

    Oh yes, there is a language gene. Fortunately I share the trait with my husband, who knows the lyrics to every rock/pop song ever recorded in England since approx. 1955 (born 1953). When we visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona years ago, we spent more time comparing the Spanish and Catalon captions to P’s works than actually admiring the art.
    The word I hate doesn’t make me faint. Rather it makes my blood boil. It’s the German word "kulant" which means obliging or generous. The dictionay translation does not reflect its actually usage. It’s mainly used in the context of a business "generously" prepared to "let" you return a faulty product 1 day after the guarantee has expired. One should then be eternally grateful for this gesture which you obviously, as a mere customer, do not deserve. That makes my hands itch for a throat to be wrapped around.

  4. :Donna

    OK, first I have to tell you, I cracked up when you passed out, Maria! LOL

    And has anyone else noticed that three of the most unusual (and annoying sounding) words began with the letter "p"? Indicative of a trend? 😉

    Anyway, I don’t generally hate any words that I can think of, but in being forced to find one, I did, and I can’t really say I "hate" it; it’s more of an annoyance. The word in question is: Worcestershire. Yes, as in the sauce. Now, I love the sauce, but I’m never sure I’m pronouncing it correctly if I’m actually looking at the word! lol


  5. Mayzee

    Ah, we were separated at birth then. There is most definitely a language sensitivity gene and, though I don’t know the words to Music, Sex and Cookies, I do astound people by being able to remember hundreds of hundreds of obscure lyrical ramblings that come over the airwaves. I remember stuff I don’t want to. For example, I can’t stand The Rodeo Song, but that doesn’t stop it from meandering through my mind at really odd times, like in the middle of a funeral or while I’m enjoying a cup of herbal tea at Tim Hortons. It’s a blessing… curse… blessing. I think it’s both.

    Most hated word? Hmm… pundit. Yes. I hate that word. Just the sound of it makes me feel like someone either used the lowest form of humour or did a no-no in his pants.

  6. Deborah Gatchel

    I’m pretty functional, so there are two words I hate because they are so impractical:

    1) cleave – means a)to cling to or b) to cut apart – um, go figure.

    2) inflammable- in=not, flammable=combustable, inflammable=combustable, ummmm?????

    As to the gene, can’t say whether it’s nurture or nature, but hubby and I are both language savy, and so are all four of our children.

  7. Kevin Alexander

    As you well know Maria, I like the word organic in almost every form.
    I can’t think of any words I hate. I’m just so filled with love.

  8. Maria Schneider

    Hi Lynn,
    Not sure what happened to your first post, but thanks for sharing.
    You’re right, palimpsest is a truly awful word. I lost a little oxygen to my brain typing it just now.

  9. Jim

    Language sensitivity:-
    Not sure I’m on the same wavelength but is that what Dylan Thomas had? Feeling for the rhythm and imaginative potential in words? I often listen to the wonderful melody in French or Russian people trying to speak English and was recently surprised to hear someone say they hear the same melodies when we try to speak French or Russian.

  10. Tom Bentley

    "Proactive"—benighted users must die! But yes, of course there is a language-sensitivity gene. Take note if you go to art galleries where there are collage-like (i.e., Rauschenberg-like stuff) images—don’t your eyes gravitate to the words first? Mine do. Or maybe I’m just nosy…


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