Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

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 Today this has largely been replaced by 'Eeew!', with 'Ugh' now referring to an unsatisfactory situation.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.
15 January 2020
Janus Words

As a language, English can be quite confusing. As proof of this, take another look at the previous sentence. Does 'quite confusing' mean 'rather confusing', or 'completely confusing'? Actually the sentence can have either meaning, because 'quite' belongs to that category of words that leave despairing language students sobbing into their textbooks – words that are their own opposites.

Consider 'left' which can mean 'departed' or 'remained', as in; 'When Fred and Bill had left, only Janet was left in the room'. Words like this are called Janus Words, from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, whose two faces look in opposite directions. Some of these words owe their ambiguity to the vagaries of British history. Thus the adjective 'fast' from old German means secure and immobile, as in expressions such as 'to hold fast' and 'fast asleep'. Then came the Vikings with their own interpretation of the word which meant 'vigorous, or speedy', so today we can have a car that could go fast were it not stuck fast in the mud.

Sometimes the word is derived from the relevant noun such as 'dust' which is why we dust a cookie by putting on icing sugar and dust the cake tin by taking the dust off. Likewise we stone a peach or plum by removing the stones, but primitive societies stone adulterers by vigorously adding stones.

Prepositions add a further layer of ambiguity. Should a town's water supply fail (give out) an aid agency might step in and supply (give out) that water. And if local doctors 'fight with' the city council to get extra hospital beds, are the doctors fighting against the city council , or are doctors and city council allies in a fight against the government?

Oddly enough, native speakers don't really consider Janus words a problem, whether they clip (together) papers or clip (off ) the tips of their fingernails. Generally, the meaning is clear from the context or tone, and occasionally from the grammar. (e.g. 'Left' means departed as a verb, but 'remain' when used as an adjective.) Nevertheless we can agree that this linguistic oversight needs sanctioning, if only we could agree whether 'oversight' means 'careful supervision' or 'lack of careful supervision' and 'sanctioning' means 'punishing' or 'giving permission'.

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