Armchair Linguist

An amateur linguist drinks strong coffee and makes interesting observations about language from the comfort of his armchair.

Location: United Kingdom

Friday, July 30, 2004

Getting from A to B and why it's probably a good sight easier on the North American side of the Atlantic

Getting directions in North America is considerably easier than in England. For one thing, the cities tend to be set out in grids, which makes it easier to pinpoint specific places. Then there's the numbers system, which is far simpler to navigate by than our British version: In US and Canada, the number of a building tells you the block and how far along it is; in Britain, they just go from 1 upwards, with odds on one side and evens on the other, and there's no guarantee that they correspond to each other, especially if the street winds a bit or there's a gap on one side of the street with fewer buildings or none at all.

But then there's the linguistic dimension. Here in Britain, we don't really talk about blocks. The direction two blocks down on the right is as likely to confuse as it is to help. Part of that is due to the haphazard layout of British streets, but still it is often easy enough to identify blocks.

Secondly, North Americans have the convenient phrase kitty-corner, which means the corner diagonally opposite, as in the supermarket is kitty-corner to the gas station, where we Brits have only the more complicated-sounding diagonally opposite.

Thirdly, North Americans refer to streets simply by the first part of their name, eg. Madison for Madison Avenue or Main for Main Street. This leads to short, convenient directions like Go down to Foster and Main, meaning Go to the junction where Foster Avenue meets Main Street. Again, this would as likely confuse as help a Briton. We'd have simply to improvise a phrase, for we have no straightforward idiom like the North Americans have.

With all this in mind, I think I'd much rather be lost in New York than in London.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Lead and led and other common slips

I've noticed how many otherwise very good spellers get confused and write lead when they mean led as in I led the way. It has always baffled me, as I don't think I've ever got the two confused myself. It just occurred to me, however, that the probable reason is the similarity with the verb read, for which the past tense is of course read, pronounced red.

It's interesting to see the most frequent spelling errors, especially those that crop up in the written English of otherwise competent spellers. Awhile rears its head quite often. There is a word spelt awhile, of course, but it can't be used in place of every occurrence of the phrase a while. A related error, which I am quite surprised to see is so widespread, is writing alot for a lot, despite the fact no such word exists in written English according to the dictionaries. It is so common, in fact, I wonder whether it won't be long before dictionaries start to recognize it as a legitimate variant. It also seems to be an exclusively American phenomenon.

Thursday, July 15, 2004


I was just thinking to myself what an etymological curiosity the spelling of the word yeah is. (Can "etymological" refer to spellings?) I would expect a word such as yeah to have a simpler, more straightforward spelling, being both recent and informal, and therefore not having a long written history.

Two possibilities come to mind: a) the spelling is derived from the old English word yea; b) there is simply no easy alternative (ye? yeh?).

Any ideas?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Liverpudlian English

My parents run the neighbourhood store, so I get to hear a lot of local people talking. Though I grew up in Liverpool, I don't talk very much like a Liverpudlian, but I love the language nevertheless.

You get to hear all kinds of quirky variations from behind the counter. It is interesting, for example, that the semantic range of the word book includes what I would call a magazine. People come into the store asking if they can have "me books".

The second person plural is youse, pronounced yooz when emphasized or yuhz when the stress is elsewhere in an utterance. I am not sure how many other UK dialects have this feature, though I hear it mentioned often as a feature of New-Jersey-speech.

If I had my druthers, I'd go out someday with a tape-recorder and find out all the little quirks and habits that make the language of Scousers so special.

Too bad

Too bad is a curious phrase. In North America, it can be used as an expression of sympathy, the equivalent of "I'm sorry".

In Britain, it is almost always used facetiously as if to say, "Well, that's your problem."

There are consequences to being misunderstood. I once had an Internet conversation with a friend in the UK who was suffering terribly from arthritis. Trying to be sympathetic, I said, "That's too bad." The poor chap got pretty angry at my apparent callousness.

Watch out how you use that curious phrase, and who you use it with, or it might be too bad for you.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

My first critic

"Who on earth wrote that trash?" asked the message that appeared in my MSN window. Unaware that I was the author of "that trash", my friend unwittingly became this blog's first critic.

Said epithet was being applied specifically to my comments about Bill Cosby.

One thing that irks me terribly (and I must admit it has irked me particularly in conversations I have had in the past with this friend on the subject of the English language) is people who take great pride in the way they speak English, but then proceed to deny others the same right, riding roughshod over the way they speak English. In this case, my friend, a Southern-talking Mississippian and rightly proud of it, won't even acknowledge African-American English as an English variant.

All talk about the logistics of African-Americans getting ahead in society without learning "standard English" aside, this boils down not to whether it is economically and socially advantageous for an African-American to change the way she talks, but whether anyone has the right, as Mr Cosby assumes, to write off the language of an entire ethnic group as "crap". A Frenchman, for example, might well have to learn to speak "standard English" if he were to become a doctor in the US, but imagine the outcry if I were to write of the French language, "You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!"

It's unnecessary and it's prejudiced. African-Americans have a heritage that includes a distinct language just as any community or ethnic group does. Linguists seem to know this. Even my friend seems to know this in principle when it comes to her ethnic group, her heritage. It's just a matter of affording that same respect to speakers of other variants of the English language. And until that basic respect is established, I am not sure arguments in favour of learning "standard English" deserve to be heard.

Why Bill Cosby needs an attitude readjustment

A few months back, the comedian Bill Cosby made some controversial comments about the language of his fellow African-Americans:

They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English ... I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' . . . And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. . . . Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. . . . You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!

So Mr Cosby wants African-Americans to learn to speak "standard English". Unfortunately, he isn't going to get anywhere - indeed, I don't think he deserves to be heard - until he shows even an ounce of respect for the language of African-Americans. Alas, language appears to be one of the last remaining acceptable targets for prejudice. To denounce the language of an entire community as "crap" is linguistic imperialism.

For a more educated view of the language of African-Americans by someone who knows what he's talking about, check out William Labov's seminal 1972 essay Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence.

Lynne Truss is at it again

Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is at it again, ranting on about correct spelling in last Thursday's Telegraph. To give some indication of Ms Truss's passionate feelings about this subject, here's a sample confession:

Yesterday, as I was travelling by car between Manchester and Leeds, the driver offered to stop at a newsagent's, but as he slowed, I said: "No, look, it says 'stationary' with an A; we'll go somewhere else." He laughed politely, but I wasn't joking.

You'll have to register to read the article, but registration is free and well worth the time.


I am baffled by this one. Somehow I (Canadian-born) managed to get into my twenties in England without ever realizing the difference in meaning between the NAmEng and the EngEng pants. It wasn't until I was in college at the age of about 21 that I discovered that pants, to an English person, refers almost exclusively to underwear.

How did this elementary semantic distinction escape me for over fifteen years? When I made the discovery, I had fifteen years of conversations to go through in my head, wondering how many times I had embarrassed myself by talking about pants when I meant "trousers".

Luckily, there is a very mild expletive on hand that has gained in popularity over about the last five years in Britain, and it sums up perfectly my frustration with this whole fiasco: Pants!

Friday, July 09, 2004

Great films for linguists #2: The Royal Tenenbaums

This is one for the pragmaticists. Or pragmatists. Or whatever the hell you call linguists who are into Pragmatics.

Pragmatics, just in case you're even more of an amateur at this linguistics thing than me, is the study of how the entire context in which language occurs gives meaning. It goes further than Semantics, because it takes into account not just words but anything and everything that contributes to the meaning of an utterance, whether that be the social context in which it occurs, body-language, shared knowledge between speaker and audience or whatever. Pragmatics is about all the things we, as speakers of a common language, take for granted when it comes to deciding how to use words and how to interpret them in everyday speech.

That cleared up, I just can't get enough of Wes Anderson's brilliant 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. Particularly interesting from a linguistic point of view is a character called Dudley Heinsbergen, a teenager suffering from a syndrome his psychiatrist father (Bill Murray) imaginatively calls Heinsbergen's Syndrome. The symptoms seem to be similar to Autism and more specifically Aspergers. Those with Aspergers Syndrome have difficulty relating to the rules and principles of discourse that those without Aspergers take for granted. Knowing when it is appropriate to take an utterance literally and when to take it figuratively is a problem, for example.

There are a few points in the film when Dudley's situation becomes linguistically a tad interesting. One is the scene when a relative of Dudley's, Richie (Luke Wilson) has attempted suicide and is recovering in hospital. Into the hospital comes Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), out-of-breath and distraught, looking left and right anxiously. Think about the context: Richie is in hospital recovering from attempted suicide; distraught sister enters in a hurried panic.

Margot: Where is he?
Dudley: [Looks around blankly] Who?

A second example is the amusing scene when Eli (Owen Wilson), drugged up to the eyeballs, crashes his car into the front of the Tenenbaums' house and is sent hurtling through the living-room window. Everyone in the room is of course shocked, but the spaced-out Eli has no concept of reality at this moment.

Eli: Where's my shoe?
Dudley: [Without missing a beat] Here.

What makes the scene amusing is that it shows Dudley's total incapacity to relate to the norms and taken-for-granteds of everyday discourse. While everyone else is in utter shock and probably wondering whether Eli is going to live or die, Dudley's thought-world at that moment is exactly that of the drugged-up cowboy lying on the living-room floor.

Well, I thought it was kind of amusing, anyway.

Great films for linguists #1: The Graduate

One of my favourite films of all time is The Graduate (1967). The thematic mainstay of the film is the alienation recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) feels from the rest of the world. One of the ways this continually comes into play is through a number of linguistic jokes that serve to highlight the distance between Benjamin's way of thinking and that of people around him.

It's been a while since I saw this film, but allow me to recount just one example that comes to mind. There's this one amusing scene when Benjamin announces to his parents that he plans to marry Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross). I paraphrase:

Father: This idea all sounds rather half-baked to me, Benjamin.
Benjamin: No, really, it's completely baked.

Hmm. In everyday English, an idea can be half-baked, but never completely baked. Unless you're Benjamin, of course.

Ah, only the Armchair Linguist would get a kick out of that one.

Introducing the Armchair Linguist

I love language. I enjoy making quirky linguistic observations about everyday life. And here that's what I'll do.