Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Spanish, like many of the other Romance languages, has a transparent spelling system, which means once you know how to say the basic letters, you can pronounce nearly anything.  It means that the letters will (almost) always be pronounced the same way.  If only English were this way!  Instead, it has strange letters popping up, like the “h” in spaghetti or the “b” in doubt, and don’t even get me started on the vowels!  Technology is making spelling less and less important to people as well, therefore “a lost art” if you will.   According to Mencap, a third of British adults struggle with spelling due to over-reliance on spell checks and technology, and for people over 18, one out of every five has difficulty spelling tricky words.

Should we all return to the spelling bee days?  Until learning that English has an “opaque”spelling system, also known as deep orthography, I assumed all elementary students participated in spelling bees, some spelling “e-s-c-u-e-l-a” while others spelled “s-c-h-o-o-l.”  But no!  English students need spelling bees because of the spelling issues, difficulties, and rarities.  As English speakers, we must study the spelling because we can’t guess based on solely how the word sounds!  This is why many consider English pronunciation difficult, as one doesn’t know how to say the word by reading it alone.  And it’s also why those regular verbs in the past can get so confused…

So, next time you want to ask your Catalan or Colombian friend about those dreaded spelling competitions, think twice!  They didn’t do it!  But you could ask a French, Arabic or Hebrew speaker perhaps…as their spelling system is like English–opaque and unclear! The question remains if videos like this appear in those languages and cultures!   Spell “sardoodledom” please!

Language, it shapes many things in our lives

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” ~Benjamin Lee Whorf

The Fork of Identity

I haven’t written in this beloved blog for many months. Since the last post I have come to Europe–Barcelona, Spain specifically–and although it’s only been about six months, it feels like years!  Adaptation and growth can indeed feel like a pressure cooker I suppose.

I could write about many things to open the Europe chapter of this blog, but one topic comes to mind specifically: table etiquette.

I remember how Alexia ate, a dear French friend I met in college.  I remember thinking it was quite “pretty” the way she held the utensils and used both at the same time.  I quite honestly had forgotten about it since coming to Europe, but of course it’s come to my full attention.  How could it not?  Recently someone commented on the way I changed hands when eating.  To him, it was quite strange and far from elegant.  The process is as follows:  American Style: Knife in right hand, fork in left hand holding food. After a few bite-sized pieces of food are cut, place knife on edge of plate with blades facing in. Eat food by switching fork to right hand (unless you are left handed). A left hand, arm or elbow on the table is bad manners.

Placing the knife on the edge of the plate and switching hands  was like turning on automatic pilot, and it’s moments like this when you realize just how American you are!   The American style of eating seemed like a lot of extra and unnecessary work to him, but what was far worse of an offense was that my left hand was not visible,  but according to the description above from “United States Dining Etiquette Guide,” having your left hand or arm visible on the table is bad manners in the US of A!  There are many ways to spot an American tourist: college and professional sports paraphernalia, tennis shoes, fanny packs, and the infamous North Face jacket, among others.  I never took part in the fanny pack craze (and never will for that matter), and I prefer Converse over Nike thanks to Argentina, but apparently, the hand I use to hold my fork is also a dead giveaway of my nationality!  Let’s call it the “fork of identity.”

It’s more accurate to call it the “North American style” instead of the “American style” as this also is the common way to eat in Canada.  In comparison, here is a description of the Continental/European StyleKnife in right hand, fork in left hand. Eat food with fork still in left hand. The difference is that you don’t switch hands-you eat with your fork in your left hand, with the prongs curving downward. Both utensils are kept in your hands with the tines pointed down throughout the entire eating process. If you take a drink, you do not just put your knife down, you put both utensils down into the resting position: cross the fork over the knife.

continental and american style

In the early nineteenth century in Europe, shifting forks back and forth while eating was not only accepted but also common believe it or not.  It was around 1850 when the upper class changed this and the Continental/European style became fashionable.  A French etiquette book of the time stated: “If you wish to eat in the latest mode favored by fashionable people, you will not change your fork to your right hand after you have cut your meat, but raise it to your mouth in your left hand.”  Although the “Continental” approach is also accepted in North America, it is far less common, and the opposite is not true.  The North American style stays on that side of the world and most Europeans today have their preferred style.

It’s debatable among etiquette historians where the “switch and then switch again” North American style came from.  Some etiquette books teach that it came to the States along with the British colonists, where others infer that Americans created it to be different, to keep in line with their pioneering ways.  Last week I happened to be at a dinner full of expats and sat next to an American who had been living in Europe for more than 15 years, and across the table was another with less years to his European CV.  I quietly watched to see how they ate, and neither of the two would have revealed their nationality based on how they held their fork.  They both used the European style with ease.  I asked Rob next to me when he changed his eating style, and he was struck by my question. He admitted he hadn’t thought about it in years, if ever at all, and he thinks he goes back and forth between the two styles depending on where he is.

I imagine this topic comes up for many Americans living abroad and/or in Europe often.  Despite having an EU Passport and living across the Atlantic, my identity as an American can’t and won’t change…but I think my fork will!

 

 

 

 

To be in the black vs. to be in the red, that is the question

To be in the black vs. to be in the red, that is the question.   These phrases are common in Business English, and despite black usually having a negative connotation, it is positive in this example.  “To be in the black” means for a company to be making profit, to have money in its account in other words, where “to be in the red” means the contrary–to have a negative balance in its account and owe the bank.  Both terms can apply to a person, a company or an account.

  • XYZ company is finally in the black and seems to be recovering financially!
  • ABC company on the other hand is in the red and continues to lose clients, unfortunately.

These terms come from the days of manual accounting, where a ledger was used to manually keep track of funds.  A positive flow of money was reported in black ink, and an expense was reported in red ink.  The way I wrote that makes it sound like a historic practice which it isn’t, but let’s face it, technology has replaced and changed many practices including how balance sheets and income statements are done.  Just remember this: a company wants to be “in the black“, as they want to be making money!

This is the case for English, but be careful as the phrases do no translate directly into Spanish!  “Estar en negro” or “trabajar en negro” means to work illegally, and translates instead to “working under the table in English,” which means avoiding taxes and earning in cash for example.  It doesn’t refer to a foreigner working in a country illegally.  “Estar en blanco” (literally, to be in the white) means to be working legally, to be paying taxes on wages and reporting income.

under-the-table

  • Estoy trabajando en negro por ahora.  I am working under the table for the moment.
  • No extraño mi trabajo en blanco, porque gano mejor en negro.  I don’t miss my registered/legal job, because I’m earning better under the table.

A little Business English for you folks, and my favorite Rolling Stones song with a fitting title: Paint it Black, but don’t be fooled by the name.  The lyrics are clearly about someone who is likely “in the red” instead.

Whiskey: I stand with the ‘e’

Well gosh… it’s been many months since I wrote for this dear blog, and I hate to let so much time pass, but it’s been a busy year… with a lot of movement.  One part of that movement was returning to the “homeland”, she says with an Irish brogue.  I like to tease like that, as many of us Americans come from Irish ancestry, and especially a family with the last name of Kelly, the second most common last name in Ireland after Murphy.  Irish roots come from both sides of my family in fact, and nearly all my life someone made mention of just how Irish my name is.  So… it was no wonder that I wanted to go and see it someday.  That day arrived this past summer when I finally made it to the Emerald Isle!

My brother is the Guinness drinker in the family, and I went to the Guinness Museum in his honor, but I will admit it’s not my favorite brew.  What I prefer but don’t drink often is whisky.  I mean whiskey.  Both are actually right!  I was told before about this spelling difference, but didn’t quite understand it until I went to both Scotland and Ireland and saw it for myself.  These two countries take their whiskey seriously!  In the gaelic language, whiskey originated from the word uisce (Irish) /uisge (Scottish), meaning “water.”  Distilled alcohol in Latin (aqua vitae) is technically “water of life”, so therefore combine Distilled and Whiskey into Gaelic, and you get uisce beatha (Irish gaelic) and uisge beatha (Scottish gaelic), meaning “water of life” and indeed that is how it is viewed.

There are two general ideas about the spelling change.  First that it’s just a regionalism between the two countries, like color and colour from the US vs. Britian.  And secondly that the spelling refers to where it is from.  After going to the Whiskey Museum in Dublin, I attest that the second is true!  Whisky without an e is always for the Scottish versions, often called Scotch for Scotch Whisky.  Spelling it as “whiskey” in fact can be quite offensive.  As the two countries were competing back in the day and still dispute over who has the best spirit to offer the world, the ‘e’ was added to the Irish version for “excellent” to show its superiority.  Today much “whiskey” is spelled as such in the US as well, which isn’t surprising after visiting and seeing just how tied the two countries are.  The only other place I saw a comparable number of American flags is in America itself, and tour guides’ best explanation for this was “to welcome the American tourists.”  In the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, nearly 33.3 million Americans (10.5% of the total population) reported Irish ancestry, where Ireland itself has nearly 6.4 million lads and lassies!  So many of us consider ourselves Irish American, although I learned saying American Irish is more accurate, and what the Irish think is more appropriate as well!

So… now you know a bit about the word difference.  This isn’t just a spelling variation or a regionalism.  It truly shows where you stand in terms of preference and allegiance.  I stand with the ‘e’.

Here are a few photos from my journey: the Irish Whiskey Museum, the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, Ring of Kerry, Galway, Blarney Castle, and Killarney National Park!

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Native Speakers as the Language Authority

Language is a living thing… constantly changing and transforming in the face of modern society.  Spanish, unlike English, has an authority or “regulatory body” which monitors the language and works to promote linguistic unity between different Spanish speaking regions: the Real Academia Española (RAE), Royal Spanish Academy in English. The RAE works to ensure a common standard in the language, following its founding charter: “… to ensure the changes that the Spanish language undergoes […] do not break the essential unity it enjoys throughout the Spanish-speaking world.”   Since English has no official regulatory body, some suggest the Queen is that authority or dictionaries like the Oxford English dictionary or the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but in the end, dictionaries are just a collection of words and language is so much more than that.

There are many more countries in the world that speak Spanish compared to English, however, there are many more English speakers in the world as it´s the most common second language to learn and is a lingua franca.  English as a lingua franca (ELF) has emerged as a way to explain communication in English between speakers with different first languages. One in every four English speakers in the world are native speakers, therefore the majority are speaking English as their second language!  Since English doesn´t have this authority like the RAE for Spanish, it will naturally be influenced by many people who speak it as only a second language and not even from just natives.  Singlish is an example: colloquial English spoken in Singapore.  Although English is an official language in Singapore, Singlish is a dialect with unique intonations and grammar stemming from the influence of other languages in the region, such as Malay and Chinese.  It is a regional variation of English–a dialect in other words–but it´s not the same as comparing US and British English as these come from Standard English and are not influenced by other languages in the case of Singlish.

Despite so many people in the world speaking English at a near native level, it is still the native speakers who are thought to have authority in this according to Barbara Seidlhofer in her article English as a lingua franca.  Seidlhofer says that, “there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage.”  Perhaps the RAE equivalent in English are the native speakers themselves.

Despite RAE´s controls, there is a lot of creativity with new words in Spanish.  I love how you can make a verb for almost anything, like matear (as in to drink mate), boludear (to be/act as a “boludo” in Argentina), and my personal favorite: salpimentar (to salt and pepper your food.)  With the internet and technology, news words are constantly being added to the English vocabulary, and English has its own way of creating new words, such as by combining two ideas and/or concepts (like in the examples below) or to make a verb from a noun for the action, such as “to google.”  The following is a summary of some brilliant new terms that really reflect culture in the United States and/or in English speaking countries.  Some made me laugh a bit too!  For a full list of terms from the original article “25 brilliant words to add to your vocabulary”, go here.

afterclap askhole beerboarding cellfish chairdrobe chiptease destinesia dudevorce hiberdating internest nonversation textpectation

I have been back in the United States for about four months, and I can´t say that I have heard any of the following terms used, but I wouldn´t be surprised if I started hearing them, or if they are already used.  Who hasn´t bought a bag of chips and in the end it´s more air than chips?  And “chairdrobe” is great for me, as I have done this my entire life!

These terms are definitely better understood by native speakers, as they join together two words or two ideas to describe a new phenomena, which may not even exist in the same way in a different culture.  Furthermore, these words aren´t “real words” (yet) that one can find in a dictionary.  They are reflections of culture influencing language to create new words for new activities. New words come from new ways of life, and again, language is always changing and evolving, just like life around us.

Exactly this, another way to think about things!

another perspective

Connecting meditation and language learning

I come to you almost two weeks after finishing my first meditation retreat.  This was for a technique called Vipassana, which is one of the most ancient forms of meditation from India.  Until about a year ago I had never heard of it, and until about two weeks ago I knew nothing about it.  I had tried several meditation techniques, never getting real direction and only getting frustrated in the process.  Maybe you relate.  Like everyone who starts, I was trying to stop my mind, but how can you do that really? And especially when you have a mind that will never seem to stop running? They say “mente a mil” in Spanish, literally the idea of your mind being at “speed one thousand.”

I am no expert and am pretty young in the meditation world honestly, but I now understand the point and have experienced some real results of my own.  Meditation can be practiced in many forms: in cleaning, drawing, focusing on breath, counting breath, scanning the body for sensations, the list goes on.  You are simply learning to observe your mind rather than stopping it, and each technique has a different approach on how to do it.  By observing, you become aware, and awareness is the first step to any kind of change.

Now I want to talk about language learning, and of course since this is a language blog!  A wise woman once taught me about this thing that happens when acquiring language.  First you become aware of a mistake you are making either on your own or with a teacher´s help. Then you get repeated correction from a teacher (and realize just how much you are making that mistake.) Thirdly, you start to correct yourself, and finally, the error is no longer an error and has been converted, corrected, transformed…however you want to call it.  There is something in linguistics called “fossilization” which is an error that has happened so much or was never learned correctly to begin with that it has “hardened” so to speak, leaving an imprint as a fossil does.  It´s a mistake that a student has made so many times that it has become part of their natural speech, for example.  In the world of meditation, you could call it taking root.

As I worked to find my bliss at the Vipassana retreat, I realized it wasn´t bliss at all really.  It was hard work sitting up for hours at a time and trying to focus.  I had some moments of bliss but there is nothing like the bliss of seeing some change in your life.   I “scanned my body” (and for anyone who has done it, you know what I mean) and throughout the week thoughts came to me, things I hadn´t thought about in years and others that came around and around again.  Some of these thought patterns we all have seem impossible to change, just like a fossilized mistake!

So I´m back to the real world, the hectic world that it is.  Those ten days in silence enjoying nature, finding inner peace, and searching for the right meditation position were blissful now that I compare it to the city noise.  Maybe it is  just that I´m back to the typical routine, and it feels intense because I had never calmed my mind like that before?  Why do we meditate really?  To find peace, tranquility…equanimity… equanimity… equanimity.  We do it to change our minds and to evolve, because you can evolve past the broken record that goes on and on in your head.  Awareness is the key to any kind of freedom, even freedom from language mistakes.  You too can correct and evolve past fossilized mistakes.  It just takes some work.

I had many days to sit and meditate and admittedly think about other things too.  One thing I thought about was this blog post in fact and the connection to fossilized mistakes and roots in our mind.  These things can change… it just takes some work.

meditation one

Happy Birthday Lengua Lens!

Language Lens started as a blog and later developed into something more: Lengua Lens.  One year ago today Lengua Lens was officially launched!  Thanks for your follows, interest and support this past year!

Happy Bday

Wondering about the World

People travel to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.” –St Augustine

Hike

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