Language Lens

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

Archive for the category “Grammar”

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!

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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.

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.

Yesterday’s word, Tomorrow’s voice

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.” -T.S. Eliot

past and future

How your language impacts your money saving habits

Of course someone who grew up speaking a different language would think differently and make different decisions than you, wouldn’t they?  I’m convinced it’s true, although whether or not it’s solely because of language is questionable.  This question has been and continues to be debated by (real, as in professional) linguists, and every now and again examples pop up to prove that it’s true.  Watch this video for  a recent example.

In the video you either chose to watch or chose to watch later (as it’s really interesting), Behavioral Economist Keith Chen suggests that the language you speak impacts the way you think about the future, and specifically about your money-saving habits.  How is it that countries with similar economies can still have radically different savings patterns? And could language–something different between countries–possibly make a difference?

Map of money

English is what Kevin called a “futured language,” meaning that it has a future tense and speaks about the future in a different way than the past and present.  It separates the future in other words and makes it a separate entity.  English in fact is the only Germanic language that speaks about the future this way.  Believe it or not, other languages such as German and Chinese don’t differentiate time like English does.   German often uses the present tense in place of the future tense, and Chinese allows someone to say (in translation):

  • Yesterday it rained.
  • Now it rained.
  • Tomorrow it rained.

These are called “futureless languages.”  The theory was that if a language speaks as if the present and the future are so different and so far away from each other time-wise, then it would make it harder to save money; whereas if the present and the future are viewed in nearly the same way, then it makes saving more likely.

After analysis and a lot of cross-tabs, the data showed that this theory was in fact true!  The best savers are more closely related to futureless languages.  Statistical analysis showed in Kevin’s research that “futureless language speakers are 30% more likely to save in a year,” and “retirees from futureless languages are going to have 25% more” money saved for retirement,  if income is held constant.

What a contradiction this is!  Countries with future languages such as the United States that are almost-obsessed with the concept of saving money for the future are actually saving less than countries that don’t even think about the future in their words (and maybe therefore in their thoughts.)

This was on an individual level, so what about on a country basis?  Comparing China, Estonia and Germany to India, Greece and the UK, one major difference is savings rates.  Germans save 10 percentage points more than the British (as a fraction of GDP), and Estonians and Chinese are saving 20 percentage points more than Greeks and Indians!  And as we know, who’s doing better than most countries today in the difficult economic climate?  The strongest economy in Europe is Germany, and worldwide we know that China is doing pretty well.

And that ladies and gentleman is what I call pure discovery!

For more examples on how language impacts our behavior, go to the article that corresponds to the video.

More from Kevin’s blog.

 

Texting isn’t the death of written language but its evolution

I remember when text messaging first became popular, when you had to hit a number on the keypad three times to reach the desired letter.  I prided myself on how fast I could do it, and even wondered on more than one occasion if I should enter a texting competition.  This was the beginning of a new era.

The quantity of text messages that teenagers sent a month and even a day was alarming!  Driving while texting was becoming a big problem, and many experts said it was worse than driving drunk.  And of course there were new terms or lingo that made communication even faster, such as “LOL” (laugh out loud) or my personal favorite “LMK” (let me know).    Texting was changing many things, including how often people talked to each other on the phone and the importance of spelling and writing.

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This was “then” but new phenomenas are happening “now” – all the time in fact.  I often see people celebrating on Facebook that they just learned how to do a keyboard shortcut for an icon/image.  A now old example is the ❤ for a heart, and one that I discovered tonight  is **== for the American flag, although one person called it a duck! (LOL)

As chat and text ‘lingo’ began (and continue) to increase in use, opinions and attitudes naturally emerged (emerge).  Many viewed (and view) this as a negative change, one that has dumbed-down society to yet another level, which they won’t be able to spell once they get there.  John McWhorter, however, an American linguist and political commentator, gives us a different perspective.  It is one based on evolution rather than death.

Watch John here.

In summary: John tells us that of the approximate 6,000 languages in the world, only around one hundred have a written language.  Written language is in fact relatively new, compared to speech.  Although we do not typically talk in the same way we write, there are examples of people speaking like they write.  For example, imagine a poor speech giver that is glued to the pages in front of him, rather than relying on his own knowledge of the subject.  There is now a form of writing like our speech, and that ladies and gentleman is the modern text message, or text.

John calls the texting of today “fingered speech.”  He credits this phenomena to modern devices like tablets and smart phones that are now allowing us to write faster than we speak.  Evidently text lingo like “LOL” and “TTYL” have grammatical use as well; they are considered particles, which are words or a parts of a word that have grammatical purpos but often have little or no meaning.  John also gives an example of how word meaning has changed (or evolved as I like to think), because of the communication medium.  The example given was the word “hey,” which is a way of getting someone’s attention in oral speech, however in texting when one can’t benefit from body language, “hey” is used as a way to change the subject.

Text lingo is just one way that communication has been influenced.  Other examples are the many shortcuts that exist, making communication faster than ever, bc (because) that is what the world is about now isn’t it – the speed in delivering information?  Here are some examples of modern text shortcuts in English. (Warning: not recommended for English student use in work emails.)

  • Thx (Thanks)
  • 2night (Tonight)
  • xoxo (Kisses and Hugs, known as Hugs and Kisses in speech)
  • Luv ya-ttyl (I love you-talk to you later)
  • IDK bc I lft.  (I don’t know because I left.)

The video and blog post pertain to English, but of course other languages are influenced by the same phenomena.   Here are a few examples of common Spanish-modifications due to texting:

  • salud2 (Saludos) – Greetings / farewell
  • porfi/porfa (Por favor) – Please
  • tb (también) – Also
  • pera (Espera) – Wait a second
  • TQM/TKM – (Te quiero mucho) – I love you very much
  • grax x too (Gracias por todo.) – Thanks for everything

There are even rules on how to form text lingo in Spanish!  For more info on Spanish text shortcuts, see the links below.  Happy texting!

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http://www.webopedia.com/quick_ref/textmessageabbreviations.asp

http://www.netlingo.com/acronyms.php

http://www.disabled-world.com/communication/text-shortcuts.php

Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life – Podcast Summary

Children of bilingual parents, or parents of two different languages, start to develop a bilingual brain in the womb.  So by the time they are born, their brains are not the same as a monolingual child.

By the age of 3 of 4, kids have already acquired thousands (yes thousands) of words and complex grammars.  Children in fact can speak many grammars that they were never taught!  (If only learning a second language were this easy you’re thinking.)  Although imitation can certainly help, in truth this podcast tells us that young children don’t learn by imitation and instead learn by where they are at in their personal development.  This is why a little girl will repeatedly say “My teacher holded the baby rabbits,” no matter how many times her mother corrects and tells her that it’s “My teacher held the baby rabbits.”  Eventually she will graduate to a higher level and use the irregular verbs, but until then, she is learning aspects of language by finding and recognizing patterns in the language she hears around her, rather than by simply imitating others.

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This simply touches the surface of the information available related to child and language development.  I encourage you to listen to this podcast if you get some time to hear it from a true expert, Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist from Boston University who is credited with developing the “wug test,” a test of children’s knowledge of morphology.

Listen to Unfolding Language, Unfolding LIfe here.

Fuck, there is no word like it

  • It’s one of the most recognized English words, all over the world.
  • It has tremendous grammar versatility as it can be used as a verb, adjective, adverb and noun, to name a few.  See YouTube reference here.
  • The same word can be used to describe pain, pleasure, hate and love.
  • And finally, of all the words in English that start with the letter “F”, it’s the only one that is referred to as the “F-word.”

That’s right, the word is Fuck, F-U-C-K.

I said it.  I typed it, and I hope you aren’t offended.

You see it’s necessary to point out the offensiveness of this word right away.  Despite its common use, fuck is a very strong and profane word in the English language that can offend easily and/or give a (negative) indication of your character, if you care.  Most English-speaking countries censor the word on television and radio.  The American Heritage Dictionary notes that many see the word as vulgar, improper and utterly taboo, and Wikipedia repeats that the word is highly offensive in the modern English-speaking world.

A study once done with the British public concluded that fuck was the third most severe profanity in the English language, right after one of its compound forms Motherfucker.  Use your imagination on what you think was number one.

What has suprised me is the use of the word among non-native English speakers and even more surprisingly among people who don’t speak much English at all!  Not a day goes by that I don’t see some use of the word on Facebook for example.  A recent example comes from a fellow American living in Argentina who went to a birthday party of her daughter’s friend.

  • At a birthday party today, Ann’s 5 year old Spanish-speaking friend says “F*!& You” to me. After my initial shock, I try to explain that it’s not a nice thing to say and then it is her turn to look shocked. Is this a result of the unedited English songs on the radio here? Is it completely harmless for a kid her age or should I make a big deal of it? I am going to freak out when it comes out of my child’s mouth.

There are many legends on the origin of the word, including two common explanations deriving from the acronym F.U.C.K:

Fornication Under Consent of the King: During the Black Death in the Middle Ages, towns were trying to control the population and required couples to get royal permission to have children.  Once the king granted them permission, they would then place a sign with the acronym “F.U.C.K” on their house to be visible form the road.

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge:  Many centuries ago this was the name of a legal offense for adultery or for out-of-wedlock and/or underage sex.  This was also the name of Van Halen’s third album.

In actuality, these are only myths about the word.  I know, it makes it far less interesting.

The real origin of the word is from cognates of Germanic languages, some saying from the German word frichen, meaning to strike.

  • German frichen (to strike)
  • Dutch fokken (to breed, to strike, to beget)
  • Norwegian fukka (to copulate)
  • Swedish fokka (to strike, to copulate)

Fuck in all its forms is still considered very vulgar, so be careful using it if you don’t fully understand what you’re saying.  All that being said, use of the word is becoming more and more accepted.  In 2005 the Canadian Press handbook added the infamous four-letter word and now considers it commonplace.  This year the term “F-Bomb” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary after having first surfaced in newspapers more than 20 years ago!

Fuck, there is no word like it.

Quick grammar practice if you dare:

  • John ______________ Nancy.  (Transitive verb)
  • John’s doing all the  ______________ work.  (Adjective)
  • John talks too  ______________ much.  (Adverb)
  • I don’t give a  ______________. (Noun)
  • What the ______________ are the words that stand for ____ ____ ____! (Acronym)

Fuck

 

To be or not to be… Tolerant

Tolerance.  It’s a noun and a politically-charged word, which naturally some preach and others detest.  It and its adjective form, tolerant, have been used in a social context for years and continue to be used, just for different reasons.  I read it in fact today in the comments of an article, “I think you need to start becoming more tolerant of others.”

Spanish is very precise with its verbs and has two verbs for the single verb ‘to be’ in English, ser and estar.  In general ser is the choice to talk about personality traits and things that are more permanent, like nationality or telling time, where estar is the choice for things that are temporal, like feelings or location.  This topic proves to be difficult for English speakers who are used to yet one verb.  In order to differentiate between a permanent trait and a temporal state, we English speakers have to use more words… more grammar, such as adverbs:

  • The water is cold.  (It’s still unclear whether the water is permanently cold or just temporarily cold.)
  • The water is always cold.  (Adding the adverb ‘always’ shows that cold is the water’s permanent state.)

In Spanish, the meaning of a sentence changes based on the verb choice, and not by adding extra words:

  • Ella es feliz.  (She is a happy person.) (Ser)
  • Ella está feliz.  (She is happy, in the moment for some reason.) (Estar)

It struck me recently when I was reminded that the adjective “tolerant” in Spanish goes not with estar, a temporal state verb, but with ser, the permanent state verb.  Through the grammar lens, I say it’s a great message: tolerance isn’t a temporary state that comes and goes, it’s something that we must ‘be’ in the diverse world we live in.

I think so at least.

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And PS – this was about the word ‘tolerant’ and not the verb ‘to tolerate.’  That is another subject for another day.

Is Spanish Sexist?

Not long after you start learning Spanish do you learn that a huge difference with English is that Spanish has genders, as is the case with other Romance languages such as French.  All words are either masculine or feminine in other words.  For example “el hombre” (man) is obviously masculine and “la mujer” (woman) is feminine, but other words such as “map” (el mapa) are masculine and “rain” (la lluvia) are feminine, words that have no explicit gender reference.

Point 2: The masculine gender dominates the language.  For example, if you have “brothers” and “sisters” together, instead of being forced to use both words as you would in English (unless you say siblings), in Spanish you say but one word to mean both—“hermanos.”  ”Hermanos” could also mean more than one brother, however, so despite being confusing at times the masculine dominance is clear.

Point 3: A common stereotype in Latin countries, some more than others, is that ‘machismo’ is ever present among the men, and some say among women too.  Machismo is synonymous with excessive masculinity, both apparent in attitudes and actions.  For a more academic analysis of machismo, go here… Now. 🙂

A BBC article entitled  ¿Es sexista el idioma español?  (Is the Spanish language sexist?) threw out the question if language is a reflection of the culture or vice versa?   One journalist and magazine director, June Fernández from Píkara Magazine, was quoted at saying that the masculine factor in the language is both a bias and a view of reality for how women are treated.  It seems that Fernández supports the theory that language is a reflection of culture.

Gender is a language trait that politicians take full advantage of in Spanish.  Cristina Kirschner, the current Argentine president, directs both “Argentinos” and “Argentinas” in her speeches, instead of the standard Spanish way which would be “Argentinos.”  Another example is the Venezuelan constitution which includes a long list of positions, including “presidente” (male president) and “presidenta” (female president), ministros y ministras (male and female government ministers), y viceministros y viceministras (you have the idea by this point.)

I see aspects of machismo in the culture, and even in my own culture I saw it.  It is close to what some North Americans would call being a “chauvinist.”  It also struck me when several Latin men told me that they considered women to be the actual machistas in society, as women either demand (or allow) men to treat them a certain way and as mothers, “they taught us to be this way,” one said.

So, gender dominance exists on both a grammatical and a societal level.  The sexism debate isn’t a new one, but what never gets old are the examples of it in language and culture.  One that stood out to me is the translation for handcuffs—a symbol of dominance in itself—“las esposas”, which means “wives” in English.

Need I say more? (Hehehe)

http://pinterest.com/pin/250653535482103958/

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