How to Learn a Second Language: Lessons from a ‘Last Speaker’

One of my favourite holiday reads this summer was the ‘The Last Speakers’ by linguist K. David Harrison. The book is a compelling, first person account of the plight of the world’s minority languages – at least 1 in 4 of the world’s 7000 languages are in danger of dying out – and, most importantly, what can be done to save them.

In many cases, Harrison points out, this involves adults and young people learning a (heritage) language that is hardly spoken at home, if at all. As anyone who has struggled to learn a second language will know, this is no trivial task.

In the final chapter, Harrison describes a visit to the Washoe people, in Nevada, to find out about the fight to maintain their heritage language. One of the interviewees is Danny, a man in his twenties, who tells Harrison about his own efforts to preserve and teach Washo. Because so few children are exposed to the Washo language in the home, Danny explains that what is needed is an immersion programme for teenagers. He explains why:

‘[…] ‘Cause the way I learned to talk Washo was real hard. I learned it one word at a time, in the beginning. And just in the past two years I started putting it together – you don’t talk like you talk in English. And then there’s little, just little sounds that changes the word or changes the tense or whatever. The more I hear it, the more I understand it and I speak it better.’

Danny might not be a linguist, but he knows that there are two ways to learn a language. The easy way is the way we all learn our first language: as a child, with enough input from our parents, and without any formal teaching. The other way is the hard way, after the so-called ‘critical period’ for language acquisition, as an adult, in class rooms and from text-books.

And we all know just how hard that can be.

Language LearningFor adult language learners, there is a worldwide community of academics and practitioners devoted to research into the (cognitive, socio-cultural and pedagogic) processes involved in teaching and learning second languages, and how they can be made most effective. The fruits of their labours are countless journal articles on second language acquisition, and textbooks that strain to summarise the most important of them. Outside of the classroom, there are a myriad of ways to learn a second language, and countless commercial companies offering the newest and best methods for doing so. And, finally, there are a myriad of guide books, websites and blogs, written by fellow language learners, offering advice and insights on the most effective ways to learn a foreign language.

All of these are valuable, of course. But, for me, Danny sums up the process (and challenge) of second language acquisition most succinctly. Unless you grew up speaking it, there is only one way to learn a second language and that’s the hard way – one word at a time.

The interview made me think of an excellent documentary I saw last year, also about language endangerment, called ‘Tongues of Heaven’. The film explores the attitudes of four young women, from minority language communities in Taiwan and Hawaii, to their heritage languages. The two women from Taiwan in particular, fluent speakers of Mandarin, have both struggled to learn and speak the language of their grandparents. In carrying the burden of past generations to maintain their heritage languages into the future, they admit to feeling guilty that they haven’t tried harder to do so. ‘Do you feel lazy?’ the interviewer asks one of the women about her efforts to learn the language of her ethnic group, Kanakanavu. ‘Lazy? Yes,’ she replies.

But, as a teenager in a rapidly modernizing society, it’s hard to blame her. As any language learner will know, irrespective of all the great guidance material there is out there, it takes grit, determination and time to learn a foreign language to any degree of fluency. It’s going to take the same grit and determination to ensure Washo, Kanakanavu and the many other minority languages across the world can be saved from extinction.

A Game of Tongues: Why George R. R. Martin is a Linguist After All

One of the great achievements of any work of fantasy or science fiction is the creation of an entirely new world – think of the Star Wars universe or Lord of the Rings’ Middle-Earth. Although many new worlds have been created by fantasy authors over the years, only a few can match the complex, beguiling and deadly world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Of course, no new world would be complete without its own language or languages. Martin is quick to point out that he is no linguist himself. When creating the lands of Westeros and Essos, and all its linguistic complexities, Martin couldn’t rely on classical training as a philologist as J. R. R. Tolkien could. So, although he invented a few words and phrases of Dothraki for the original Game of Thrones novel, he had to hand over to professional language-creators to devise a Dothraki language proper for HBO’s TV series.

But even if George R. R. Martin didn’t hammer out the phonology, case systems and vocabulary of Dothraki or High Valyrian, in creating the linguistic context for his fantasy series, I want to show that he did an excellent job in matching the mind-boggling complexity of real languages. In celebration of the final episode of season 4, here are twenty ways in which – linguistically speaking – Game of Thrones is much more sophisticated than you might think:

1. There are plenty of languages in the known world…

Myrish, Braavosi, Dothraki… OK, so although there might not be the linguistic diversity of our own planet (we have something like 6000 languages), its clear that the Common Tongue of Westeros is not the only one in town.

First of all there’s Dothraki, spoken by the fearsome horse-riders of Essos. In Vaes Dothrak, ‘Khal’ is the title of the ruler, a word which gives rise to the derived forms ‘khalasar’ (for the Khal’s army) and ‘Khaleesi’ (his bride). Then, there’s Valyrian with its ‘liquid accents’, spoken in the free cities of Essos. Elsewhere, there’s the ‘sing-song’ tongue of the unfortunate Lhazareen. Last, but not least, there’s the Common Tongue of the Seven Kingdoms – which, fortunately for us, is surprisingly similar to British or North American Standard English.

2. …And some of the languages are related to each other

In Game of Thrones, Valyrian actually refers to a group of languages, including a number of ‘bastard’ forms, all derived from High Valyrian. He may not be a linguist, but Martin was well aware that, in our own ‘known world’, all but a few languages can be neatly grouped together into language families – groups of languages with a shared pedigree. In this respect, Valyrian is similar to the Romance languages where French, Italian and Spanish, and so on, are all derived from Latin.

3. With so many languages, a good translator is worth hanging on to

Translator Missandei does an outstanding job of mediating between surly slave-owner Krasnys and would-be-Queen Daenerys when she approaches him about buying an army of slaves. When Krasnys exclaims in his Astapori Valyrian, ‘Her Dothraki smell of shit… but may be useful as pig feed,’ Missandei translates this, prudently, as: ‘The Dothraki you have are not worth what they cost to feed’. Small wonder Dany sees fit to offer Missandei a job herself.

4. Different languages have concepts that others don’t

Languages, everywhere, reflect the culture of their speakers – and in Martin’s world it’s no different. In Dothraki, there is no word for throne, for example, a concept which doesn’t exist among the horse-riders of Essos. In the original Game of Thrones novel, Khal Drogo eventually gets tired of Dany talking about the ‘iron chair’ of Westeros. North of the Wall, we find out from Ygritte that the Wildlings don’t have a word in their dialect for ‘windmill’. And it may be something that Ladies in the south like to do but, as Ygritte is quick to point out, ‘swooning’ is simply not in her lexicon.

5. Each language has many dialects

Not surprisingly, given the size of Westeros, there are many dialects of the Common Tongue. Although most ‘high-born’ characters speak in a language which is not discernible from Standard English, Martin litters his prose with various low-born characters speaking in non-Standard forms. As well as phonological differences (accents), this includes grammatical variations between speakers too. For example, Will, of the Night’s watch, uses the past tense form of verbs as the past participle: ‘They couldn’t have froze.’ Mycah, the ill-fated butcher’s boy, uses double negatives which you wouldn’t find in the King’s Common Tongue. He tells Prince Joffrey, when caught sword-fighting with Arya: ‘It’s not no sword, it’s only a stick’. Then there’s Shagga, the mountain clansman, whose own idiolect doesn’t seem to include a first person singular pronoun (‘I’). He tells Tyrion: ‘Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop of his manhood…’

As well as variation in language depending on the social status of the speaker (what linguist William Labov calls ‘social stratification’), there is also plenty of geographical variation, giving rise to regional dialects. Pyp, Jon Snow’s well-travelled comrade in the Night’s Watch, brags to everyone that he can tell what you are and where you were born ‘just from the sound of your voice.’

6. Some people are good at mimicking the dialects of others

Just like amongst us humans, some people of the known world are better at accents than others. Pyp, we’re told, has a ‘hundred different voices’. When he’s telling his stories, he can shift his accent to play all the parts needed: ‘a king one moment and a swineherd the next.’ But he’s not the only one. In this scene from the TV series, for example, Lady Olenna shows she can do an impressive northern accent.

7. There are particular ways of speaking, tied to particular situations

Just as in real tongues, within the languages of Game of Thrones, there are multiple forms (different ‘registers’ and ‘styles’) that speakers use depending on who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, where they are, and so on. For example, common among high-born speakers of the Common Tongue is the use of very particular ceremonial language. At the execution of a deserter from the Night’s Watch, Ned Stark declares: ‘In the name of Robert of the House of Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.’

Which is not the sort of language you would use when ordering a plate of lemon cakes.

8. Some people are better linguists than others

There are definitely some talented linguists in A Game of Thrones. The Captain who brings Catelyn to King’s Landing, Moreo Tumitis, speaks the Common Tongue ‘fluently, with only a hint of the slightest hint of a Tyroshi accent.’ Arya’s Braavosi sword-master is almost as good. He speaks the Common tongue with a few non-native features (‘I am thinking that when we reach this Winterfell of yours…’). Then of course there’s Dany’s translator, Missandei, who can speak 19 different languages – surely making her one of the most gifted linguists in the ‘known world’.

Other characters are a bit more ‘human’ when it comes to learning languages. When we first meet horse-lord Khal Drogo he can speak only a few words of Valyrian, and only one word of the Common Tongue (‘no’). Although he does eventually learn some more of Dany’s mother tongue, he speaks with ‘an accent so thick and barbarous’ that only Dany can understand him.

But, of course, it’s Dany who takes the prize for effort in attempting to learn the language of her husband, under the wing of her handmaid Jhiqui. ‘Khalakka dothrae mr’anha!’ she exclaims in her best Dothraki (‘A prince rides inside me!’), before ceremonially downing a raw horse’s heart.

9. Some people can’t speak a first language

There are some people in A Game of Thrones who can’t even speak one language. Pity poor Hodor, the giant stable boy from Winterfell, who can only utter one word. ‘Hodor. Hodor. Hodor. Hodor…’

Perhaps, Hodor is inspired by ‘Tan’, a real life patient in 19th Century Paris who suffered from the first recorded instance of Broca’s aphasia – a speech disorder caused by damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. Tan was given the name as this was the only word he could utter.

10. You can exploit the fact that others don’t speak your language

Dany’s truculent brother, Viserys, loves to audibly trash talk the Dothraki in the Common Tongue, knowing full well they don’t understand him. (‘The savages lack the wit to understand the speech of civilised men,’ he says.) It comes back to haunt him, however. Because he can’t speak Dothraki, he doesn’t realise he’s about to receive a crown of molten gold until it’s too late…

11. If you’re bilingual, you have a choice of which language to speak

If you are bilingual in Game of Thrones, and you know that the person you are speaking to speaks the same two languages as you, you have three possibilities: you can speak one language or the other, or you can code-switch between the two. For example, when the Red Priestess Melisandre meets Thoros of Myr in the forests of Westeros, they greet each other in Valyrian, before Thoros suggests switching to the Common Tongue so his men can understand, before later switching back to Valyrian…

12. Code-switching can be a powerful (linguistic) weapon

There are many reasons why individuals might switch languages like this – and they might not always be benevolent. As linguists studying bilingual interaction have pointed out, negotiating which language is used in a given a conversation, sometimes mean negotiating which of the speakers holds the power. In the royals courts of Westeros and Essos, it’s no different.

In Astapor, for example, when Dany negotiates with Krasnys for his army of slaves the conversation is first held in both Valyrian and the Common Tongue, mediated by translator Missandei. Neither party wants to give an inch of ground by speaking in their interlocutors’ mother tongue. However, things change suddenly when Dany offers up one of her dragons in exchange. Suddenly Krasnys is willing to barter with Dany directly. ‘T’ree dragon’, he says, in his pidgin Common Tongue. In the Game of Thrones, it’s a small victory for Dany, who now knows she’s really got him interested…

But the most powerful instance of code-switching is surely what happens next. When Dany finally reveals, to the surprise of everyone, that she can speak fluent Valyrian, Krasnys knows that she has been playing him all along. When she orders her dragon to burn him alive, he also knows it’s too late. Dany has been playing the game of tongues all along.

13. Style-switching is another good weapon in the game of tongues

But even if you are not bilingual, you can still switch between the various registers and styles of your own language to gain the upper hand. In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion is one of the masters of this. When the jailer at the Eyrie shoves a plate of boiled beans in his direction and asks bluntly ‘you want eat’, its an affront to his ego. Tyrion tries to grasp some of it back, humorously switching to a very polite and formal style: ‘A leg of lamb would be pleasant,’ he says. ‘Perhaps a dish of peas and onions, some fresh baked with butter, and a flagon of mulled wine to wash it down. Or beer, if that’s easier. I try not to be overly particular…’

14. But, if all else fails, you can always swear

Sometimes, only a taboo word will do. After all his more linguistically-sophisticated efforts get him no closer to freedom, Tyrion calls his jailer a ‘fucking son of a pox-ridden ass’.

15. Sometimes you can say one thing and mean something entirely different

What is said semantically might not always been the same as what is meant pragmatically. Or, to leave fancy linguistic terminology aside, sarcasm is alive and well in Westeros. In A Game of Thrones, when Littlefinger is escorting Ned around the Red Keep, Ned points out that they aren’t going in the directions of his chambers. No, says Littlefinger. ‘I’m leading you to the dungeons to slit your throat and seal your corpse up behind a wall.’ And when Tyrion is told he will be riding to the top of the Eyrie on a goat, he replies ‘I can scarcely wait’.

16. You should choose your words carefully if you don’t want to be (im)polite

As society dictates, the citizens of Westeros and Essos employ polite forms of language, particularly when they are talking to their equals and their superiors. Politeness and deference is manifest in forms of address (such as ‘my lord’, ‘m’lady’ and ‘Your Grace’), mitigating phrases (‘with respect’), pleas (‘begging your grace’), statements of flattery (‘what a pleasure’), and so on.

And wherever polite language is expected, its absence sends a powerful message. For example, when Dany meets an envoy from Yunkai, the conversation treads a deliciously fine line between politeness and bare-faced aggression.

17. Sometimes you can play with language just for fun

In our world, people have been playing with language for as long as its been around – often just for fun. In Game of Thrones, it’s much the same. When Shae, the prostitute who Tyrion ends up falling for, introduces herself to him, she shows that she’s more than a match for Tyrion’s verbal wit. ‘I am Tyrion, of House Lannister,’ he says. ‘Men call me the Imp.’ In response, Shae deftly plays with the ambiguity of the verb ‘to call’. ‘My mother named me Shae,’ she says. ‘Men call me…. often.’

18. You should know how to use your tongue…

Martin makes it clear that you can get a long way in A Game of Thrones armed with only a sharp tongue. As such, Tyrion – the character with perhaps the sharpest tongue of anyone – can’t understand how his squire, Podrick Payne, can be so quiet. He’s so vexed, he asks Podrick to stick out his tongue and show it to him. ‘Definitely a tongue,’ he says. ‘Someday you must learn to use it…’

19. …But you should still be careful what you say

But sometimes a sharp tongue will only get you so far. In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s hired sell-sword and bodyguard, Bronn, warns him: ‘You have a bold tongue, little man. One day someone is like to cut it out and make you eat it.’ The point is you can have the fastest tongue in the world, but it’s not necessarily going to stop someone sticking you with the pointy end of a sword.

20. Conversations are battles to be won or lost

What all this means – and what Martin so deftly captures in the world he creates – is that conversation is a game. Linguists know that, like any game, conversations have fixed rules about who speaks when (‘turn taking’), what is said and what is not said, and so on. Like any game, conversations can be at once about cooperation and about competition, about adversaries and about allies. They are about a negotiation of power.

So, the Game of Thrones is not just fought on the battle field. It is not just a matter of steel and fire. Across Westeros, and the rest of the ‘known world’, it is fought and won in countless conversations. What you say, and how you say it, is no small thing – it can be a matter of life or death. To paraphrase a master of the art: ‘When you play the game of tongues, you either win or you die’.

Has your advertising slogan got ‘it’?

ImageHave you noticed that, in the world of branding, there’s a lot of it about?

By which I mean, of course, the pronoun ‘it’ – the gender neutral, third person pronoun that can stand for just about anything.

Take, for example, Jaguar’s ‘Don’t dream it, drive it’ or L’Oréal’s ‘Because you’re worth it’. Or how about EA Sports’ ‘It’s in the game’. ‘It’ clearly gets around a lot.

But what’s it all about?

At its most basic, ‘it’ can be used as what linguistics call an anaphor, used to refer to something that’s already been introduced. For example:

Ronseal. It does exactly what it says on the tin.
VISA. It’s everywhere you want it to be.
American Express. Don’t leave home without it.
Red Bull. It gives you wings.

Other times, ‘it’ can be used to refer to that culturally-conventional concept of ‘desirability’, ‘sex appeal’ or ‘X-factor’ that people either have, or they don’t:

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.
Virgin Atlantic. You airline’s either got it or it hasn’t.

But in the cleverest cases, ‘it’ doesn’t have a clear reference. Instead, it can mean exactly what the customer wants it to mean.

Ebay. Buy it. Sell it. Love it.
Argos. Don’t just shop for it. Argos it.
Interflora. Say it with flowers.

In the first two cases, ‘it’ neatly stands for pretty much anything you can buy or sell. In the second, ‘it’ becomes any human sentiment.

Three brands stand out as the masters of using ‘it’ in this way.

In Burger King’s ‘Have it your way’, the restrictive sense of ‘have your burger with or without gherkins’ opens out into a more general statement of customer empowerment. In McDonalds’ ‘I’m loving it’, the notion of enjoying ones burger becomes a broader associative statement of happiness and positivity.

Then, of course, there’s Nike’s classic ‘Just do it’. Now more than 25 years old, and inspired by the last words of a death-row criminal, this one phrase most clearly demonstrates the powerful potential of ‘it’. Here, is ‘it’ that 10 mile run you’ve been putting off, or that 5-aside football final your office team is desperate to win. Or does ‘it’ extend to referents outside the sporting world? Is ‘it’ that tricky conversation with you’re boss you’ve been putting off, of that flat-pack shed still waiting to be assembled?

It doesn’t matter, of course. ‘Just do it’ is a slogan that inspires you to do whatever it is you need to do – though not before buying a pair of trainers first.

Finally, if you still don’t believe the powerful potential of ‘it’, try putting that two-letter word into this random slogan generator. Here’s just a few examples it threw back at me – all of them, I’m sure, would make the Mad Men proud:

You’ve always got time for it.
We’re serious about it.
Every kiss begins with it.But I’d rather have a bowl of it.

So next time you need to find that winning slogan for your brand, remember that simple, two-letter, flexible friend.

And just use it.

 

I’m Tired of Your Cheesecake: The Lyrics of Eurovision 2014

Photo: Daniel Aragay (https://www.flickr.com/photos/proteusbcn/2511676676)

Photo: Daniel Aragay (https://www.flickr.com/photos/proteusbcn/2511676676)

Everyone knows that in tonight’s Eurovision final, the lyrics will be the most important thing in deciding who the eventual winner is. Forget about the melodies, the chord progressions, and the height of the high notes. Forget the costumes, the mise-en-scène, the fancy footwork, and the people trampolining in the background. For the 26 contestants representing their respective countries, it’s all about the words.

In that spirit, I did a brief analysis of the lyrics of tonight’s finalists. Here’s what I found out:

Multilingualism

Thanks to the ubiquity of English in pop culture, of the 26 songs, 20 are in the language of the Beatles. Nul points there. Refreshingly, however, there are 5 entries which aren’t – from France (in French), Italy (Italian), Montenegro (Montenegrin, a form of Serbo-Croatian), Poland (Polish) and Spain (Spanish).

Code-switching

4 songs feature a mixture of languages, or ‘code-switching‘, cunningly trying to appeal to multiple language communities, home and abroad. The Polish, Slovenian and Spanish entries all feature large chunks in English. The French entry, the hirsute ‘Moustache’ by Twin Twin, goes one step further. It also features Spanish in the chorus:

Mais moi j’voulais une moustache
Une moustache, une moustache
I wanna have a moustache
A moustache, a moustache
Quiero un bigote

Rhyming

As you might expect, rhyming plays a vital role. I have plenty of respect for the syllabic sorcery of Iceland’s entry, for example (‘Even if you’re taller / Or someone who is smaller / Or perhaps you’re thinner / Or one who loves his dinner’). Nul points to Ukraine, however, for rhyming ‘clock’ with ‘tick-tock’:

Tick-tock, can you hear me go tick-tock
My heart is like a clock
I’m steady like a rock

Schwa it up

The unstressed middle vowel that you get, for example, at the end of words like ‘better’ and ‘deeper’ – the schwa – is the most important phoneme in pop. As you might expect, schwa’d contractions like ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’ feature heavily in the 26 entries. As well as Greece’s ‘music makes me wanna / grab somebody rise up’, how about this from the Belarus’ pastry-themed ‘Cheesecake’:

I don’t wanna
I’m not gonna be your boy

Humour

Happily, among the earnestness of the ballads, there’s a fair bit of humour in there. Most strikingly, there’s the 1970s-style smutty innuendo of the Polish entry, ‘We are Slavic’ (‘cream and butter taste so good’), as well as in the name of the cross-dressing Austrian singer Conchita Wurst. Personally, I quite like the more absurd lines in the comical French entry, especially the one about not wanting to show emotion in the gym. After all, who doesn’t try to stay stoical on the treadmill:

Je n’aime pas montrer mes émotions
A la salle de musculation

Common themes

A quick statistical analysis of all the lyrics reveals the most commonly occurring words across the 26 songs. Interestingly ‘Rise’ is one of the most common one, as heard in Austria’s defiant ‘Rise like a Pheonix’ (‘Retribution / You were warned / Once I’m transformed / Once I’m reborn’) and Greece’s ‘Rise up’. The weather also features heavily, particularly among the northern nations. For example, the Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch entries all feature the word ‘storm’, metaphorically or otherwise. Finally, if Latvia’s ‘Cake to Bake’ had made it through the semi-final, there would have been a strong culinary theme. Fear not, those with a sweet-tooth. We still have Belarus’ Teo performing ‘Cheesecake’:

I look over all the maps trying to escape
’cause I’m tired of your sweet cheesecake

Nonsense sounds

The disconnection of linguistic form (phonology, morphology and syntax) from meaning (semantics) is a characteristic feature of what linguist Guy Cook calls ‘language play’. As you might expect from this celebration of pop, there’s plenty of ooh-ahs (e.g. Malta) and la-la-las (Iceland). My favourite is the upbeat Danish entry ‘Cliché Love Song’ which starts:

skuba duba dabda dididaj
skuba duba dabda dididaj

Just plain nonsense

And of course there’s plenty of plain nonsense. What on earth artist Sebalter is talking about in the Swiss entry, for example, I’ll never know:

Like an evil satellite, twisting the truth then leaving us alone
In this mad and moody world, society without love
I state my heart has been well trained, I’m gonna be your candidate
I am the hunter you are the prey, tonight I’m gonna eat you up

And the winner is…

Finally, possibly the most sophisticated piece of linguistic creativity in all of the entries, is this nouning of an adjective (‘sad’) in Sweden’s ‘Undo’:

Undo my sad
Undo what hurts so bad

Will it be enough to win them the title? We’ll just have to wait and see.

 

‘Dawn-hearts’ and ‘Jellyspoons’: Creativity and the Compound Noun

 

ImageAll creativity, including linguistic creativity, is about novel combinations – that is, the marriage of old concepts to form new ones.

Linguistically, this can mean combining any part of speech with another. But while poets and writers might get carried away with fancy combinations of verbs and adverbs, I would argue there’s as much to be said for combining the simplest part of speech: the humble noun.

Compound nouns are formed by combining any number of nouns together to make a new one. They are quite commonplace. English, for example, has “hair-brush”, “moonlight”, “dog-house” and “Facebook”, just to name a few. Of course, compound nouns can be pretty mundane. But what would a holiday be without “sun-cream”, sun-screen”, “sunglasses”, “sun-block”, a “sun-bed” or a “sun-hat”? And what would dinner be without “rice crackers”, “jam donuts”, “potato chips”, “bread pudding”, or a “jellyspoon” to serve your preserve with?

New words, new concepts

Most importantly, such compounds are the source of endless creativity. Say you take any common noun, signifying some concept like “cat”. Then you take another noun, signifying some seemingly unrelated concept, like “fish”. When you put the two nouns together, to create a compound noun, you can’t help but create a new concept by fusing the two old ones together: “cat fish”.

Such compounding in a ripe source of neologisms, particularly to describe new concepts in socio-cultural and political thought. The last decade, for example, has brought us “black swan theory”, “kitchen-table politics”, “prawn-sandwich man” and “choice fatigue”, among many other such compounds. It’s also a lively process in pop culture too, as seen in words like “flash mob”. Not unsurprisingly, quite a few compound nouns have appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year list. Noun combinations include “toy-boy” (WOTY in 1981), “beatbox” (1983), “kitten heels” (1995) and “text message” (1998).

Compounding is also a rich mechanism in poetry. One of the masters of the art of combining nouns was the English poet DH Lawrence. Flick through his collected works, particular his later poems, and you’ll find all manner of hyphenated compounds. I particular like this evocative passage from his 1923 poem, Almond Blossom:

     Sweating his drops of blood through the long-nighted Gethsemane
     Into blossom, into pride, into honey-triumph, into most exquisite splendour.

“Globe-flower”, “fire-mist”, “mother-love”, “lady-smock”, “moon-tide”, “sun-starer”, “sage-ash desert”, “dawn-heart”, and “wound-stump”, for example, are also all his.

Creative compounding

But compounding nouns is not just for writers and media professionals – it’s for everyone.

Here’s a game to try: Take a dictionary, open it at any page quite at random, and write down the first noun you come to reading down from the first entry. Then, open another page, again at random, and write down the first noun you come to directly after it. Now look at the two words side by side. Bizarre as the combination might seem at first, I’m pretty confident your brain, by appropriately re-wiring your semantic system to link the two concepts, will find some way of making sense out of it.

Here’s a few random examples I came up with using exactly this method:

     Material forest (a place where various materials can be harvested)
     Slope alloy (a type of metal used primarily for inclined surfaces)
     Sycamore flour (a low-gluten wheat substitute)
     Runt cricket (a game played by the smallest cub in every litter)
     Toddler necessity (the need for small children in times of crisis?…)

They’re certainly bizarre, and you may not agree with my attempted explanations for them. But somehow, thanks to our creativity,  such combinations are not entirely implausible – at least in our imagination.

Compounds in other languages

Although the Romance languages, like French, tend to avoid them (think “sac à dos”, “salle d’attente” or “pain au chocolat”), compound nouns are certainly not limited to English. Chinese, with its limited inflection, loves to throw whole nouns together to make new ones; the Chinese word for “food”, for example, is “fancai” (literally “rice vegetable”). And even ancient languages had compounds. Sanskrit grammarians had a special word, “dvandva”, for compound nouns where both components referred to the same person (such as “boy-king”, “singer-songwriter” and “girlfriend”).

But German, as everyone knows, is the master of the art of combining nouns. Take a look through any German-English dictionary and you’ll see countless examples of compounds – noun after noun breathlessly strung together without space or hyphen. How about “Fussballspiel” (football match), “Fahrkartenautomat” (train ticket machine) or “Waschmaschine” (washing machine)? Or, how about this particular favourite from my school days?: “Brustwarze”, which means “nipple”, can be literally – and somewhat unromantically – translated as “breast wart”.

The German language’s propensity to shove nouns together to form new ones is a source of great enjoyment for language lovers. In an episode of the US Comedy Series How I Met Your Mother a German character called Klaus has just run away from his own wedding. When he bumps into Ted, the show’s hapless protagonist, he decides to give him a Teutonic lesson in love. Klaus tells him:

“There is a word in German, Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. The closest translation would be ‘lifelong treasure of destiny’. And Victoria is wunderbar, but she is not my Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. She is my Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand, you know?”

Ted, understandably looks confused. Klaus is vexed:

“You know wunderbar but you don’t know Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand?! That is something we learn in Kindergarten. I’m sorry, “Kindergarten” is the German word for…”

Both “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz” and “Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand” are made up, of course. “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz”, for example, is built from the words for “lebenslang” (lifelong), “Schicksal” (destiny) and “Schatz” (treasure). But people with only a modest knowledge of German would get the joke.

The perils of writing them down

But English speakers shouldn’t be so quick to mock. Because, like all the Germanic languages, English is also full of compound nouns – and we have some pretty long ones too. How about “pension fund capitalism”, “container ship”, “ink jet printer cartridge”, “African American” or “sodium potassium nitrate salt”?

The real difference, of course, is how we write them down. Whereas in German it’s consistently alphabet soup all the way, the English convention is that – well – there’s not really a convention at all.

Eric Partridge in his 1947 classic Usage and Abusage (Partridge, 1973), isn’t particularly helpful. Under “Hyphenation”, he writes: “In the life of compound words there are three stages: (1) two separate words (cat bird); (2) a hyphenated compound (cat-bird); (3) a single word (catbird).” And that’s pretty much it. The transition from an orthographic rendition as two words, through a hyphenated middle stage, to a rendition as a single word is to do with how frequent, or well entrenched in the language, the compound noun is perceived to be. That is, somebody somewhere is going to have to make a (fairly) arbitrary judgement either way – just like I have in quite a few places above.

Most importantly, the fact that we write “football match” and not “footballmatch” (like the German “Fussballspiel”) makes no difference to the way the compound noun functions in a sentence. As linguist Steven Pinker writes, about compounds in general (Pinker, 1999, p. 181):

“Do not be distracted by the inconsistent way compounds are spelled in English: sometimes as one word, as in ‘teethmarks’; sometimes with a hyphen as in ‘mice-infested’; sometimes as two words as in ‘geese crossing’. The way to recognise a compound is by its composition, such as being two nouns in a row, and by its stress pattern.”

In compounds of all kinds, when spoken, the stress tends to fall on the first part of a compound noun (we say “workmen” rather than “workmen”). And, however they are written, compound nouns will function, more-or-less, like simple nouns. For example, in the plural form, only the rightmost noun (the head of the compound noun) will get the plural ending added: we have “attorney generals”, “singer-songwriters”, “boy-kings”, and so on. And, although there are a few exceptions, speakers of English tend to avoid plural endings in the middle of compound nouns: we say “anteaters” not “ants-eaters”, for example.

In conclusion

So next time you see a compound noun in print, I would urge you to forget for a moment how someone has decided to write it. Instead, try to admire it for what it is: the ripe fruit of a marriage between two seemingly unrelated disparate concepts and – quite possibly – the creation of something marvellous.

Because, wouldn’t the world be a poorer place without a “dawn-heart” or two?

 

References

Cook, G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Partridge, E. (1973) Usage and Abusage. Baltimore, MA: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (1999) Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

 

[Many thanks to John Cowan for pointing out that “jellyspoon” is indeed a functional serving utensil, and not a made up word as I had naively thought, undermining an earlier version of this post!]

‘A Sort of Verbal Bannockburn’: Language and the Debate on Scottish Independence

ImageFor lovers of language, there will be plenty to watch out for in the run up to the Scottish vote on independence.

In February, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his first speech directly addressing the forthcoming referendum. It was certainly emotive. ‘Centuries of history hang in the balance’, he said, as he told Scottish voters to reject independence. According to Cameron, campaigners now had seven months to save Britain.

In the speech, as you might expect, there was a good deal of rhetoric. According to the classical principles of rhetoric, there are three possible ‘appeals’ that an orator can make to help win over their audience: logos (an appeal to logic and rational argument), pathos (an appeal to the audience’s emotions) and ethos (an appeal based on the orator’s identity).

There was certainly much pathos. In the speech, Cameron said he could not bear to see the country ‘torn apart’.

And there was more than a deft sprinkling of ethos. In his speech, Cameron spoke about his family’s Scottish roots in the West Highlands. ‘The name Cameron might mean “crooked nose”’, he said, ‘but the clan motto is “Let us unite”, and that is exactly what we in these islands have done.’ You see what he did there?

But, in the debate, we shouldn’t expect all such appeals to ethos to be so explicit.

Linguists will tell you that language and identity are almost inseparable. Whenever we open our mouths – whether we mean to or not – we tell our interlocutors something about who we are, where we were born, where we live, even where we were educated. In choosing the language, dialect, register and style we use (what you might generally call ‘code’), we necessarily convey something about our identity (Auer, 2005).

Cameron, speaking to the whole of the United Kingdom, spoke in British Standard English (BSE), the UK’s ‘norm’ dialect, with a southern accent. In doing so, he was signalling that he is educated, part of the mainstream, ruling majority, English but – most importantly – British too.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), spoke immediately after Cameron’s speech. He too spoke in a Standard English (albeit in a Scottish accent) which, in print, would usually be rendered indistinguishable from Cameron’s code. But, in accusing the Prime Minister of running scared (in not agreeing to a direct debate with him on the issue of independence) he chose one word particularly carefully. He told the BBC:

‘I just want the Prime Minister to come and debate with me and stop being such a big feartie.’

‘Feartie’ is a Scots word, not in currency south of the border. Meaning somebody who is afraid, it was a deft choice: instead of simply calling him a ‘coward’, Salmond could take a swipe at Cameron and underline his Scottish – not British – identity.

I think it’s safe to expect plenty more Scots language to enter the political debate in the run up to the referendum – and not just among the SNP. It’s not unlikely that we’ll also see unionists north of the border using the Scots language to mark their Scottish identity as something which is not incompatible with British unity.

And it won’t be just about using one language or the other. We should also look out for politicians and columnists ‘code-switching’ between the two languages.

Scots-English code-switching is not new. For example, it was something Robert Burns used for great poetic effect. But, code-switching can also be used as a powerful rhetorical device. For instance, I spotted a recent letter to The Observer from a reader in Edinburgh. The letter, arguing that ‘it’s not Scotland’s job to save England from it’s failings’, concluded:

‘Are we to understand, then, that the union’s shared values offer nothing to Scotland but more of the same, or that Scotland must remain in the union so that its different values will enable it to become the union’s (England’s) conscience, pace Hutton? Ye’re haeing a laff.’ (The Observer, 9 February 2014)

In linguistic terms the code-switch to Scots at the end is particularly ‘marked’ (Myers-Scotton and Bolonyai, 2001). It carries meaning, beyond ‘you must be joking’: that is, it carries a distinct and defiant Scottish voice.

There were some interesting comments left on the comments section below the BBC report of David Cameron’s speech. Most aptly, one reader wrote:

‘The last thing Alex Salmond wants is to debate issues […] Salmond wants to portray himself giving the English oppressors a bloody nose… a sort of verbal Bannockburn.’

Perhaps, then, that’s what we can expect over the next 6 months: a ‘verbal Bannockburn’, a battle of words between two duelling languages. Whatever happens in the vote, there’ll be plenty of interest for the linguists.

http://www.scotslanguage.com/ is a great resource for information on the Scots language.

References

Auer, P. (2005) A postscript: code-switching and social identity. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 403-410.

Myers-Scotton, C. and Bolonyai, A. (2001) Calculating speakers: Codeswitching in a rational choice model. Language in Society, 30, 1-28.

“I’m going shop”: Preposition dropping in British youth dialects

Slide1There’s a new trend on the streets of London, and it’s not anything you can wear. It’s a fashion for dropping prepositions.

If you listen to a group of teenagers on the streets of, say, Hackney or Haringey you might catch someone utter a phrase like “I’m going shop” or “I’m coming pub” – something that to many people’s ears would sound totally ungrammatical.

In Standard British English, the verb “to go” is intransitive. That is, it takes an indirect object, via a preposition like “to”, in phrases like “I’m going to the shop” and “I’m walking to the office”. However, in this new form, “to go” looks like its transitive positioned as it is next to a direct object. Both the preposition and the determiner are dropped leaving just the verb and the bare noun – simply: “I’m going shop”.

If you want to know who’s dropping prepositions like this, social media is a good place to look. When I put the phrase “I’m going shop” into Google (on 3 February) it returned 7 genuine examples: 3 from Twitter, and 4 from other social media forums: uk.answers.yahoo.co.uk, footballforums.net and reptileforums.net (whatever that is).

The first hit was from a Twitter user in London.

“Ok I’m going shop!!!! Chocolate and pickled onion monster munch!!! #onthis #munchies” (tweeted June 2013)

The next two, were from Twitter users in London and Leicester (a city 2 hours up the road):

I’m going shop to buy junk then I’m gonna watch loads of films” (October 2012)
“[…] I’m going shop rite now for a wispa gold. […]” (November 2009)

Notice that in the first tweet, the “to” in the infinitive “to buy” is retained; only the proposition associated with the verb “to go” is dropped. Notice too how “I’m going shop” contrasts with the reduced construction involving the auxiliary verb “to go” (“I’m gonna watch”).

I found plenty of other examples using similar Google searches, including:

“Dad I’m going pub can I have some money… […]” (May 2013)
I’m going town now so I can get the Luas back to yours if that suits” (June 2013)
“[…] spice island? That right next to Katie’s, I’m going Katie’s aunties in Kent for a BBQ haha, surprised your not going venue!!(December 2012)
“Looks like I’m going Brighton.. Got 3 hours to get my shit together..” (May 2011)

Although the noun is usually rendered in its bare form (“shop” not “the shop”), I did find some examples of “I’m going the shop”, such as this from a Twitter user in Liverpool:

I’m going the shop. It’s a whole 20 seconds away. Wish me luck.” (August 2011)

And the pattern seems to work for other verbs of movement. For example, I found this result for “I’m coming pub”:

“[…] I’m not going out but I’m coming Pub!!xxxxx” (Jan 2013)

There are plenty more examples (put “I’m going shop” directly into the search bar in Twitter and you’ll get hundreds). Even so, based on the evidence here you might argue that these are examples of ‘text speak’, or that they’re just the result of hurried typing.

But these are forms that young people are genuinely using in speech, and that researchers are already beginning to record.

Sociolinguists from universities in London and Paris are currently carrying out a comparative study of ‘Multicultural London English (MLE)’ and ‘Multicultural Paris French (MPF)’ – language varieties, common among youth speakers in the two capitals, which are heavily influenced by the languages of local ethnic minority speakers (particularly Afro-Caribbeans in London and North Africans in Paris). As part of the study, the researchers are recording hundreds of hours of speech, by urban speakers of all ages, to try and analyse the novel linguistic features of MLE and MPF – features like the preposition dropping in “I’m going shop”, which don’t appear in more traditional dialects.

It’s not clear exactly what’s happening with “I’m going shop”, but preposition dropping is certainly not a new feature in English. For example, “to” is pretty commonly dropped in phrases like “she gave it (to) him”, and researchers have studied the same phenomenon in sentences like “the ozone layer prevents radiation (from) reaching the earth”. At least for some speakers, “because” has recently become a preposition itself as a result of preposition dropping in phrases like “because (of) grammar”.

If it’s anything like these cases “to” might remain optional for a long time, in phrases like “I’m going (to) the shop”, for speakers of MLE. Or, perhaps the verb “to go” will become rigidly transitive, going the way of the verb “to write” in American English (where it’s “writing someone” as opposed to the “writing to someone” of British English). In this case, you might expect to hear derived (question) forms like “which pub are you going?” (instead of “which pub are you going to?”) – though I couldn’t find any examples online.

Either way, the most obvious driving force for this latest linguistic innovation is economy: that is, the removal of redundancy for reduction in effort. In other words, if you don’t need to articulate the preposition to be understood, why bother at all?

MLE has been studied as a youth dialect. It’s too early to say how far it will spread, and to what extent it will take over from more traditional dialects like Cockney. The big question is how many novel forms like “I’m going shop” might be taken up by other age groups, and other speech communities in London and elsewhere. If such preposition dropping is copied by others, given enough time, it could one day become a feature of Standard Englishes in Britain and beyond – just one more step along the endless path of language change.

Now, there’s food for thought. I’m going shop.