The English language is very subtle. One of the causes of this subtlety, and one of the things that makes it very difficult to go from advanced non-native speaker to native-like fluency is the influence of prepositions. Some of these are very simple—I remember years ago trying to explain the difference between “in the corner” and “on the corner” with the aid of various bits of cutlery and salt/pepper pots—but, others are much more complex. I’ve just been writing a work-related email to a colleague, and I found myself correcting “If you want to meet up to talk about this further, let me know.” to “If you want to meet to talk about this, let me know.”. Somehow, the verb “to meet up” is casual, about social meetings, etc.; whereas the verb “to meet” is about serious, work-related meetings. Not a distinction that had ever struck met until just now!
Archive for the ‘Language’ Category
Been doing quite a bit of python programming this week. So far I have managed to mistype python as:
We all seem to have tiny little mental blocks, micro-aphasias, things that we, try as dammit, cannot learn. My mother couldn’t remember the word “volcano”—she was a perfectly fluent native speaker of English, with no other language difficulties, but whenever she came to that word it was always “one of those mountain-things with smoke coming out of the top” or similar, followed by several seconds until the word came to her. I have a block on the ideas of “horizontal” and “vertical”. Whenever I read these, I feel my mind blurring; I know which two concepts they map on to, but for a second or two (which feels like an eternity in the usual flow of thought) I cannot fluently map the words onto the concepts. Usually I break the fog by making a gesture with my fingers—somehow, this change of mode (moving my fingers from left to right strongly associates with the word “horizontal”) dispels the confusion, it must trigger a different part of my memory associations. Quite where these odd little blocks come from—and, why we can’t just learn them away—is fascinating.
I like the casual use of—often rather strong—swearing in very day-to-day situations. Last night, there was a small group of people standing outside the Sainsbury’s Local on the corner. The following conversation took place:
- Have you got the hummus?
- Yeah, sure.
- Thank fuck.
The singsongy rhythm of the last couple of phrases was particularly neat.
It sometimes surprises me quite how formulaic the smalltalk at the beginnings of conversations is. I know that it isn’t acceptable to respond to the question “How are you?” with a list of your latest ailments and insecurities, but it is still sometimes surprising how much that part of a conversation is a cognitive readymade, without any ready deviation. I remember a couple of incidents in the days after my father died.
- Meeting a colleague a few days after my father had died. Wanting, gradually, to let people know what had happened, I responded to his “How are you?” with a “Actually, not so good.”, expecting to get a query back about what had happened. Instead, I just got the response “Great, I’m fine.”, as if I had said (as I would 99.9999% of the time) “I’m fine, how are you?”. Literally, my response hadn’t been processed at all. If you want some evidence for hearing being a process of anticipation then you’ve got it there. There’s no other response in the “repertoire” to “How are you?” other than minor variants on “Fine, how are you?”, so the brain doesn’t even really bother processing what has been said. Any response is just treated as the standard one.
- Speaking to my uncle a day or two after my father had died (I had already told my uncle). This time, he asked first: “How are you?”. My response, understandably: “Not too good.”. My uncle’s response—no criticism intended, this is just a point about how deeply embedded language structures are—”Oh, why is that then?”. I was, very unusually, struck dumb for a few seconds. For a moment I thought “Perhaps I didn’t tell him that Dad had died?”; for surely, someone wouldn’t say something so crass to someone who had just lost a parent—surely it would be obvious why I “wasn’t too good”. Eventually, I managed to stutter out “Well, you know, Dad died yesterday.” It is bizarre how fixed our linguistic patterns are that, even after one of the worst things that can happen to you, saying that you are anything other than “fine” causes our whole language generation system to collapse.
If an antipodean eats avocados on toast in the afternoon, is that arvo toast?
One of the linguistic tics that has remained with me, as someone from a basically working-class background is the addition of a self-deprecating adjective like “poncey” or “yuppie” to anything vaguely middle class. Despite having lived a basically middle-class lifestyle since going off to university as a teenager, I still feel the need to describe anything containing quinoa as “my poncey salad” and similar remarks.
I think this started at university. A colleague started referring to filter coffee as “bourgeois coffee” and the name has stuck, at least in the back of my mind, ever since. Similarly, another light-hearted fellow student’s description of the mineral-water-with-lemon that I used to get sometimes from the local shop as “your yuppie water” remains to this day. There is still, in the back of my mind, the idea that Real Men drink instant coffee and tap water, and that fripperies like cafetieres are odd inconsistencies.
I think this a reliable tell for people who have moved from a broadly working-class background to a middle-class one.
There is a wonderful subreddit called Dear Reddit, Today I Fucked Up… in which people post (usually fairly lighthearted) accounts of how they erred during the current day, beginning with the abbreviation “TIFU”. Here is my post there from today.
TIFU by starting to ask someone the question ‘So, where are you from?’, realising as I opened my mouth that it often sounds a little bit racist (with its implication of ‘So, where are you from *really*?’), deciding to draw attention to the fact that I know that it’s a stupid and clichéd question by putting it in air quotes, then didn’t really start moving my fingers until the last word of the question, which made it look like I was saying ‘So, where are you “from”?’ which made the question even worse.
There ought to be a name for that special kind of sandwich that you make accidentally when you fold two bread rolls over in the wrong order, resulting in one roll with two top halves and one (slightly superior) roll with two bottom halves.
It is a measure of how bloody southern I have become that I refer to the damn things as “rolls” rather than “baps”
When we are learning creative writing at school, we learn that it is important to use a wide variety of terms to refer to the same thing. To refer to something over and over again using the same word is seen as “boring” and something to be avoided.
It is easy to think that this is a good rule for writing in general. However, in areas where precision is required—technical and scientific writing, policy documents, regulations—it is the wrong thing to be doing. Instead, we need to be very precise about what we are saying, and using different terminology for the sake of making the writing more “interesting” is likely to damn the future reader of the document to hours of careful analysis of whether you meant two different-but-overlapping words to refer to the same thing or not.
From my late grandmother, in the corner shop:
“I’d like an uncut sliced loaf, please.”
A conversation from many years ago between my late mother and the dentist’s receptionist:
Mum: “I’m here for the 2pm appointment.”
Receptionist: “And your husband? He is here for his appointment at 2:30.”
Mum: “No, I’m afraid I’ve lost him.”
Receptionist (with a look of deep sympathy): “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Mum: “No, I haven’t lost him; I mean he’s wandered off to the shops round the corner and I can’t find him.”
A while ago I had a conversation with a colleague, that went something like this:
Me: “I’ve come across a new book that would be really useful to you for the module you’re teaching next term.”
Colleague: “I don’t really think I need that.”
Me: “No, it’s really good, you will find it really useful.”
Colleague (rather angry): “I appreciate your suggestions, but I REALLY DON’T NEED A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT.”
It eventually transpired that my colleague was interpreting “you will find this book useful” as “Because you don’t know the subject of the course very well, you will need a book to help you learn the subject before you teach it to the students.”. By contrast, I was meaning “you will find it useful as a book to recommend to your students“.
This subtle elision between “you” being taken literally and being used in a slightly elided way to mean “something you are responsible for” is easily misunderstood. Another example that comes up frequently is when I am discussing with students some work that they have to do on a project. I will say something like “you need to make an index of the terms in the set of documents”, using the common elision in software development of “you need to” to mean “you need to write code to”, not “you need to do this by hand”. Most of the time the students get this, but on a significant minority of occasions there is a look of incomprehension on the student’s faces as they think I have asked them to do the whole damn tedious thing by themselves.
I really really really wish we hadn’t settled on the term “statistically significant”. There’s just too much temptation to elide from “these results show that situation X is statistically significantly different to situation Y” to “the difference between X and Y is significant” to “the difference between X and Y is important”.
Statistical significance is about deciding whether it is reasonable to say that the difference between two things is not due to sampling error. Two things can be statistically significantly different and the magnitude of the difference of no “significance” (in the day-to-day sense) to the situation at hand.
We really should have gone for a term like “robustly distinguishable” or something that doesn’t convey the idea that the difference is important or large in magnitude.
Oh for God’s sake Grauniad, learn the difference between a “physician” and a “physicist”:
Next time I get theoretically ill I’m certainly going to a theoretical physician.
I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t know the phrase “used in anger”. Also, if you use it at the person you are talking to doesn’t know what you are taking about, it sounds like quite a nasty accusation: “no, of course I’ve never got angry about this, what sort of person do you think I am?”.
Language shifts are interesting. Double language shifts in a short time, even more.
Over the last couple of years, there is a little idiom that has appeared in English, which is the use of “because” followed by a noun—no proposition, no explanation, indeed often repeating a word in the previous sentence. For example, “I’m going to stop at the chocolate shop on the way home, because chocolate.”. This had a clear meaning, that of saying that the action is actually self-evident; it isn’t just lazy leaving out of some parts of the explanation. The above sentence means something like “I’m going to stop off at the chocolate shop on the way home, because, well, if I have to explain to you why getting chocolate is a good thing then there must be something wrong with you.”. You can almost hear someone saying it “because…….(long pause to try and think of an explanation)………chocolate”. “Because because” is a similar expression. There is a decent attempt to explain the linguistics behind this by Geoff Pullum on a recent language log article.
Interestingly, after a couple of years of this having quite a specific meaning, it is now starting to influence the day-to-day use of “because”, and we are starting to see the use of “because NOUN” as a simple lazy compression. Take this real-world example from a blog comment: “You’re not depressed because single.”. Contrasted to the above example, where the sentence essentially contains the same meaning as “I’m going to stop off at the chocolate shop on the way home.”, the recent example cannot cut off everything before the “because” without changing the substantive meaning: “You’re not depressed.” doesn’t have anything like the same meaning. I have collected a couple more examples just in a few days of noticing this: “The kids are encouraged to misbehave because good TV.”, “…we ate plum pudding on the 21st of December because Jewish.”.
In the course of a couple of years we have gone from creating an interesting new idiomatic expression to it being on the point of vanishing!
In most areas of human endeavour, we adopt words that have an everyday meaning and use them as the basis for terminology. For example, in physics, we talk about sub-microscopic objects having “spin” or “colour”. By this, we don’t mean this in a literal way, but we adopt these terms because we need to find names for things, and so we find something that is very loosely similar, and use that terminology. This doesn’t subsequently mean that we are allowed to take other properties of these labels and reason about the objects using those other properties (an elision that often seems to occur when word-drenched literary theorists wade into discussions of science).
When the day-to-day and technical usages of a word coincide, we can sometimes end up in a muddle. A couple of years ago I set a programming assignment about card games, and I used the word “stack” of cards. Despite being very careful to explain that this use of the work “stack” was not meant to imply that this piece of data should be represented by the data structure known as a “stack” (and, indeed, was best not), I still got lots of questions about this, and lots of submissions that did confuse the two. Perhaps I should have simplified it—but, there was a valuable learning point about requirements elicitation to be learned from leaving it as it was.
Another example is the UK government report from years ago that talked about the UK needing a “web browser for education”. This got lambasted in the technical press—why on earth would the education sector need its own, special, web browser? Of course, what was meant was not a browser at all, but some kind of portal or one-stop-shop. But, this could have caused a multi-billion pound procurement failure.
I think that we have a cognitive bias towards assuming that the person we are talking to is trying to make some precise, subtle, point, even when the weight of evidence is that they have simply misunderstood, or been unfamiliar with terminology.
I try to be aware of this when I am the non-expert, for example, when dealing with builders or plumbers.
This is a great danger in communication between people with different backgrounds. The person who is unfamiliar with the terminology can accidentally wade in looking like they are asking for something much more specific than they intended, because they accidentally use a word that has a technical meaning that they don’t intend.