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15 November 2020
Mad about Etymology
Recently there has been a push by the media to avoid using terms which stigmatize those suffering from problems with mental health. More particularly style books have been amended to avoid the use of the words 'bonkers', 'nuts' and 'crazy'. (It is perhaps not co-incidental that these changes in editorial technique come at the end of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, so the media feels less need to reach for these pejorative adjectives.)

Yet if the study of language teaches us one thing it's that when people want to say something, censoring the actual words they use simply creates space for new euphemisms which quickly come to replace the old. In fact, none of the words now being depreciated were originally descriptors for mental health issues. 'Nuts' had – and still has - a positive usage and when 'nuts' first went beyond things like acorns it was to describe any food considered a special treat. From this we got 'to go nuts', and things went downhill from there.

If you were 'bonkers' early on the 20th century, you were somewhat drunk – which is why something 'bonkers' had a certain disconnection from reality, and this in turn has led to the more common modern usage. Finally 'crazy' in the 16th century meant broken or cracked into irregular pieces, a sense we still use today with 'crazed glass' or 'crazy paving'.

Yet as these words have moved in one direction away from their origins, another word has made the journey in the opposite direction. 'Fond' when used by writers such as Shakespeare used to mean 'mad', but as also is the case with words such as 'quite', literally' or 'nice', overuse has diluted the original meaning, so now being 'fond' of something means you rather like it, instead of being um, nuts about it.
 
15 September 2020
The sounds we make

A young friend of mine was rather surprised to hear that 'meh' is a neologism less than two decades old. She had assumed that it had been around forever, as it's such an essential part of the teenage vocabulary. ('How was your date last night.' 'Well, kind of meh, you know.') As a way of expressing apathy, indifference, a lack of enthusiasm or some degree of of all three conditions the word is a splendid addition to the language.

It's also interesting to see how other short sounds expressing emotion are changing. In the twentieth century, the short expression of disgust - for example when the cat has been sick on the carpet - was 'Ugh!'. Today this has largely been replaced by 'Eeew!', with 'Ugh' now referring to an unsatisfactory situation. 'I have to stay at home this Saturday. Ugh.'

Likewise 'Wow!' used to be an expression of surprise at something wonderful.'Wow! A new bike!'. These days 'Wow' is more likely to be replaced by that reanimated word from the 1960s 'Cool!'. As with 'Ugh' we have not dispensed with 'Wow', but found it a new place in the language where it has become a way of expressing surprised disapproval- as in 'Wow. I can't believe you said that.'

And that's just the different sounds between English-speaking generations. There's a whole range of other short sounds in other languages and cultures which are worth exploring such as the Italian 'Beh' which indicates bemusement and resignation. 'Beh, he'll do it his own way I suppose.' Or the fact that while English speakers say 'atchoo' while sneezing, the Chinese go 'ya-chee!'
 
15 July 2020
The case for pronoun reform

Even before they moved on to the front line of the gender wars, personal pronouns in English were a mess. It's a truism that English is illogical, but with personal pronouns English seems perversely determined to be as illogical as possible.

Let's start with 'I' - straightforward enough? Yet when I ask, 'Who is there?' You can either reply 'Me' or 'I am', because for some reason 'me' has replaced 'I' in declaratives without an auxiliary. ('Who wants ice cream?' -'Me' or 'I do'.) When we get to 'I' plural - that is, 'we', it gets even more confusing. Should I happen to declare, 'We are in trouble', does this mean you and I are in trouble, or that I and someone else are in trouble but not you, or are I, you, and some other people all in trouble? It has been shown that to properly sort out the different meanings of 'we' the language should actually have four different pronouns.

'You', is of course a notorious linguistic abomination, and has been ever since English ditched the perfectly functional second personal singular pronoun 'thee, thy, thine'. As a further demonstration of the mess, consider that we can only address a person in the plural. So the sentence 'You have left your bags behind' might refer to one person with several bags, or several persons with one bag each. On the other hand, because English does not have a non-gender specific third person, if I want to refer to a singular person of unknown gender I have to use a plural. 'Someone has left their bag behind.'

Likewise, for some reason neuter possessive determiners are seldom used. We can talk about a woman and 'those kids of hers' but not of a car and 'those wheels of its'. Also the lack of gender neutral pronouns is particularly frustrating to non-binary individuals who have created their own. So let's welcome 'ae', 'ey' and 'per' to the mix. Zie can hardly make pronouns more confusing than xem are already, so xyr might as well make verselfs at home.
 
15 May 2020
Fun with Place Etymologies

Finding the origins of words is a fascinating part of studying a language, and studying the origins of place names even more so. England (named after the Angles, a Germanic tribe) is interesting because so many parts can be reconstructed. 'Den' is a hill, 'don' is a valley, 'ham' is a farm or hall, 'ton' is a forest clearing and so on.

However, when we cross to the United States, the entire naming process becomes a glorious mess which beautifully demonstrates the diverse origins of the nation. Some places like Pasadena ('the place in the valley') come from native American languages. Chicago gets its name from the French mispronunciation of shikaawa – the native name for a pungent type of wild garlic.

Other towns have names transplanted from their native land. Boston, England is a relatively small town, and Oxford, Mississippi got its name because the locals changed it in the hope that this would get the state university located there (it did). Paris, Texas has been voted one of the state's best small towns.

Other names describe the local geography in the settlers' native tongue. Detroit ('the strait') was named by French settlers because of its location between two of the great lakes, and English geographical descriptions abound – think of Boulder, in Colorado as an example.

Some places get their names directly or indirectly from the classical education of early Americans. Philadelphia ('the city of brotherly love') is one such example, and Cicero in New York state is another. I'm particularly fond of Minneapolis, which combines the Sioux word for 'water' with the ancient Greek word for 'city'.

In the south-west, one only has to think of that famous complaint by an American redneck. 'Go to places like San Diego, San Jose or all the way up the San Fernando valley to Los Angeles, and almost everyone you meet is a Latino.'


 
15 March 2020
The Learning Myth
'I wish I had started learning English when I was a child – children learn languages so much faster.'

This is something that teachers often hear from mature EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students, and it reflects a common misconception. So let's try to clear this up.

First of all, kids are awesome at learning a language – their own language – because humans instinctively develop language the same way that cats automatically chase mice and birds learn international navigation. It's built into us. However, when it comes to learning a second language, kids are in reality far worse than adults.

One reason for this is because languages come with different grammatical sets, and kids learn grammar automatically. Learning two different sets simultaneously is both confusing and painful. And whereas an adult with a good grasp of grammar can say, 'Ah, in English adjectives do not change to agree with the noun, but in inflected languages they do', a child will say 'eh? Can I play Fortnite now?'

Even with learning a first versus learning a second language, I reckon I can get a motivated adult EFL student from zero to reasonably competent within three years. Now try that with a first language on a two-year-old before he is five. It's not just that adults can grasp more sophisticated concepts such as indirect objects, but also that adults, especially motivated adults, actually concentrate and study with a lot more discipline, and consciously apply what they have learned.

You will note that by and large, my argument (backed I should add, by a number of academic studies) indicates that the primary factor in learning a language is motivation rather than age. A child learns a first language very quickly because the child urgently needs to communicate. Once that communication has been achieved, the same child is reluctant to make the effort again unless it is really worthwhile. (Remember that language they tried to make you learn at school?)

An excellent example of the motivation hypothesis is a Chinese student I once had. His parents sent him to England for immersion studies in English, but the kid ended up being adopted by a bunch of Spanish students. At the end of the year he spoke mediocre English, but excellent Spanish.
 

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