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Language Items from 2010:                                               to enlarge a photo, click on it

Word order   Regional Pride    Grammar at the coalface   Sarcasm   Orwell's advice   Speech give-aways  Halfalogues   Indian Summer   So revisited   Imitating in conversation    The sounds of language    Swearing          

Word order
Have you ever wondered by people say 'stuff and nonsense' but do not 'nonsense and stuff'? There are actually some rules.
  1. The word with the fewer syllables comes first. This rule explains 'stuff and nonsense'. It even has a name, Panini's rule. Another example is 'kit and caboodle'.
  2. The word with the shorter vowels comes first: example 'stress and strain'.
  3. The word with the fewer initial consonants comes first: examples 'helter-skelter' and 'fair and square'.
  4. The word with the less obstructive initial consonant comes first: examples 'huff and puff' and 'namby-pamby'. The order of consonants is: h, glides (wy), liquids (lr), nasals (mn), spirants (fvsz th sh), stops (pbtdkg)
  5. The word with the highest second formant frequency: examples 'dribs and drabs' and 'flip-flop'. The order of vowels is: see, sit, her, cat, arm, put, saw, too.
  6. The word with more final consonants comes first: example 'betwixt and between'.
  7. The word with the more obstructive final consonant comes first: examples 'kith and kin' and 'push and pull'.
It seems to me that there is another principle which I do not see in the books. The heavier word (in the sense of old English poetry) comes first. This depends on the meaning and the stress that will be put on the word, as well as the sound of the word. Take 'blood, sweat and tears' which I admit is not a pair of words but a triplet. The phrase breaks the rules above but seems to carry a feeling that the heaviest word is first and the lightest is last. Even though the weight of words in still with us, we are hardly aware of it. The order in normal phrases is heavy to light.

Regional Pride
It seems that Estuary English is not having it all its own way. The British Isles are not becoming a place of uniform accent. The stronger regional accents are eating up their weaker neighbours and holding their own against London.
It is the big city accents that are becoming part of identity of many people. These are the accents with names: Geordie from Newcastle, Scouse from Liverpool, Mancunian from Manchester, Brummie from Birmingham. The accents that identified each rural area or market town are going, but not into a national accent but into regional ones. There may be only 10 or so accents in England in the next generation: Southern, West Country, West Midlands, Yorkshire, North Wales, South Wales and a few large cities.
There appears to be a deliberate choice that people are making to identify with their region even when they live and work elsewhere. And regional accents are now common in TV adverts – do people trust the people who speak a regional accent?
These accents may in the longer term future just become a North, South, Welsh and Scottish accents. It seems that no matter what the circumstance, Northerners do not want to sound like Southerners and vice versa. Along the Scottish border where accents used to change a bit gradually, the border is now marked by a sharp line between the Scottish and English accents and identities.
So much for going to elocution classes and trying to lose a regional accent.

Grammar on the Coalface
I have vaguely been following a controversy in the language blogs. It sounds like one of those terrible anti-Australian jokes about their supposed lack of culture.
It started with the magazine of the Queenland English Teachers Association publishing a guide to teaching grammar called 'Grammar at the Coalface' by a Dr. Ferguson. The guide was publish as a series of articles. The first few of these came to the notice of the king of grammar in Australia, Dr. Huddleston. He made quiet and polite communication to the magazine suggesting that there were too many errors in the guide and they should be corrected. When the magazine ignored Huddleston several times and did not correct the guide, he went public in the Australian newspaper with a criticism of the guild. But the teachers did not back down; they started a public fight with Huddleston. When nothing was still done about the guide, Huddleston wrote to every school principal in Queensland to warn them of the error-strewn guide's existence. He particularly pointed out that students who answered exam questions based on what the guide said in error, would be marked as wrong. At this point the Teacher's Association president began a smear campaign against Huddleston.
To start to get a feel for what was being criticized here are a few of the 65 errors Huddleston found in 16 pages of the guide:
In The small boy won't eat his lunch,"won't" is an adverb.
In The small boy is capable of eating his lunch, "capable of" is an adverb.
In a set of bowls, "set of" is an adjective.
In Sam's folder, "Sam's" is a possessive pronoun.
The errors went on and on as a source of amusement to linguists around the world.
Rather than admit the errors and correct them, Ferguson claimed some were typos, editing mishaps, bits taken out of context, but most of all, she claimed they were differences of opinion and a difference in theoretical stance, finally she appealed to the right to develop a new grammar that was easier for students to learn. Dr Ferguson said Professor Huddleston did not follow traditional grammar but had invented his own type, called the Cambridge grammar, which was unique and had reclassified terms. She had the right to do the same.
The dispute soon became a free for all, with everyone adding in their pet peeves. It became political. Grammarians were supposed to be conservative and teachers lefties. People had to defend themselves against being Nazis, Marxists, post-modern deconstructionists, or elitist. It became politically incorrect to tell what a noun was or, on the other hand, a sin not to know what a verb was. There were arguments about Chomsky and about prescriptive verse descriptive grammar. Teachers on one side and linguists on the other were being mauled.
The president of the English Teachers of Queensland Association, Collins entered to portray Huddleston as a failure as a linguist, sad, crazy and besmirching honest teachers out of bitterness. He was clearly put right by linguists: “Huddleston has a fellowship in the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the British Academy, Honorary Life Memberships in both the Australian Linguistic Society and the Linguistic Society of America, an Excellence in Teaching award from his university, a Centenary Medal from the Australian Federal Government for services to the humanities, an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of London, a Leonard Bloomfield Book Award, and a beach house overlooking the Coral Sea near Noosa Heads. He has a great life. And he is now probably the most respected and influential grammarian alive.” Linguists also pointed out that the Cambridge Grammar was THE gold standard of English Grammar. If you are going to disagree with its analysis, you should bring a similar level of scholarship, evidence and argument, many volumes of it.
Australians have entertained themselves and much of the world with this crazy fight for 3 years so far.

'What a nice day.'
What does that mean? It is impossible to say without a context. Just because we assume a default context out of habit, does not change the fact that the meaning of statements depend on the context in which the words are uttered. This particular sentence, for example, can be a simple statement of fact – in the context of the sun shining. It can be a sarcastic statement – in the context of it pouring rain. It can be an ironic statement – in the context of another sunny day in a drought. People have to interpret what they hear in the context of the speaker and the situation.
There is a difference between the two halves of the brain in resolving the meaning of speech. Until the 70s or so, the right hemisphere was thought to have no language - to be “not only mute and agraphic, but also dyslexic, word deaf and apraxic, and lacking generally in higher cognitive function”. But it turns out to be the right hemisphere that connects context with meaning. We need a working right hemisphere to appreciate the poetic, hear the emotion in a voice or get the punch line of a joke.
There are a number of ways to describe the division of labor between the hemispheres. One is that the right deals with the big picture and the left with the details. Another is that the left deals with ordinary life and the right with things that upset the ordinary. A third is that the left does linear thinking and the right does three dimensional. A fourth, which is based on the accepted fact that sarcasm is a facility of the right hemisphere and not the left, is that the left hemisphere excels at the fine-grained and literal, while the right hemisphere is better at coarse-grained analysis, allowing us to make sense of things within their context. The difference, however it ends up being explained, has to be something that applies to at least most mammals and perhaps a wider group for it turns out that many animals are somewhat 'handed'. It is not primarily about language.
I do wish that our written language had a mark for sarcasm, like ? for questions or ! for emphasis. I think that # would be appropriate for a 'not to be taken literally' mark so that the phrase can be read with the right inflection and pace. There is something awkward about writing a sarcastic remark by having to describe the context first in long winded text.

Orwell's advice
George Orwell gave a list of writing rules. At first sight they are pretty good rules but when you think about them, well...
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Of course the new one you invent should at least be as meaningful as the one you reject. This statement seems to down play the position of metaphor in language. Much of our language is composed of metaphors that were so apt and communicative that they were overused to the point that they became fossilized into addition literal meanings. What is so wrong with that. Better an old but good metaphor then a new but poor one. The important thing is the communication and if you are communicating well your metaphors can be ancient or brand new.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. This is one way to avoid being pompous but it can be taken too far. We could probably say most of what we want to say with a small vocabulary of short words. 'Cool' would do for a lot of other words and then there is 'nice' and many other words that are short and have very broad meanings. There are times when you may want a broad meaning and times when you want a narrow precise meaning. Long words are often the precise ones. They are also often the ones with the least emotional baggage.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Again this is a way to avoid pompousness but at a price. A certain amount of redundancy can be helpful to the reader and especially the listener. We would not always enjoy the collapsed and stripped-bare language of headlines even if they can be grammatically parsed with a little practice. Again the important thing is communication not word count.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. This rule has escaped captivity and is running wild. Passive sentences are fine, but long strings of them can be a bit boring. It is the norm in scientific writing and no one cares if it is a bit boring. It is also boring to have 'And then I did...' over and over again in the logging of an experiment. But people have got it into their heads that any sentence that does not name the doer is a cope out. 'Mistakes were made' may be a cope out but 'Rain happens' is a statement of fact. There may not be a doer or the doer may be obvious or we may not really care about the doer.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. This would be better phrased as 'not use words or phrases that your audience will not understand'. In most cases the everyday English equivalent has a much wider meaning than the scholarly one. The best thing is to use both where the audience may not understand the precisely defined single-meaning word but that is the narrow meaning you want to communicate.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Good idea. Keep your eye of the prize: communicate as well as you can with the audience you want to communicate with. Even if you can communicate better by being outright barbarous – hey, that your right.
Speech give-aways
Researchers have been busily counting the words that people use and trying to read their personalities from the stats. During the last American election this activity got somewhat out of hand when the press jumped on some very dubious stats and made mountains out of molehills, even non-existent molehills. I am not going to take reports like this in the press at face value ever again.

Researchers have only agreed to a few reliable correlations:
- Women tend to use more pronouns and references to other people than men. Men are more likely to use prepositions and big words.
- Older people refer less to themselves, use words with more positive then negative emotional baggage. They talk more about the future than the past judged by the tenses of their verbs.
- People telling lies tend to use simple constructions. People telling the truth, have complex clauses with words like 'except' and 'but'. They can remember subtle distinctions whereas liars need to keep things clear in their heads.
- Depressed and suicidal people use 'I' and 'me' more than others. Probably because they are self-absorbed and isolated. This is also true of poets, a very introspective lot.
- People in trauma or caught in social disturbances use 'I' less and 'we' more. They must want to feel part of a group.

- Political speakers tend to use words that will appeal to their core audience.

There are not many surprises in those observations - hardly worth the time. However, I suppose that through our life we learn without realizing it to expect certain types of words from certain people in certain situations. If we don't get our expectations, we can become vaguely aware that things are not exactly what we thought they were. “Sue is not very happy today and I think she is fibbing about how well she is getting along in her new job.”

Why are other people's use of cell phones so annoying. It turns out that half a conversation is much more distracting than a whole one. We cannot tune them out and ignore them. Full conversations, monologues and meaningless sound can be ignored but not half conversations. Halfalogues draw us in and away from what we want to concentrate on.
The reason is that when we hear speech, we predict what comes next. We are prepared for it and therefore find in easier to interpret. Person A say “hello” and we predict B will reply with some greeting. “Hello”, “Hi”, “Howdy” will be heard without any problems even if there is a lot of noise. We only need to hear a fraction of the sound because we expect only a few things. If B's reply is “Get lost you bastard!”, we will be taken by surprise and will need to put some actual effort into hearing and understanding the reply.
So what happens if we do not hear B's reply at all but just silence. We have our prediction ready and we hold it waiting to use it. This subtracts from our concentration on other things. But B's reply never comes. Instead A says, “fine, how are you?” We throw out our prediction and start again with a new one. As the conversation gets less routine, we get tired making more and more difficult predictions and never getting any confirmation of anything.
If only we could stop predicting but it is automatic and we rarely know that we are doing it. Instead our anger mounts at this ridiculous distraction, this stupid conversation, this rude behaviour – and we want to rip the phone away and stamp on it. Well, now we know a name for it, halfalogue rage.

Indian Summer

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.

Now by the brook the maple leans,
With all his glory spread;
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.

Now, by great marshes wrapt in midst,
Or past some river's mouth,
Throughout the long still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.

-- William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1919)

It turns out that this is a poem whose opening line is indelibly carved in Harry's mind and in mine, quite independently. Many times each of us has seen a view that popped the words into our heads, “Along the line of smoky hills the crimson forest stands”. That is what happens with memorized poems – the first lines stay with you forever and just 'pop'.
It must have been in one of those books with poetry for young school children to memorize. For we certainly must have memorized it. It would be one of the favourites with curriculum creators because it is short, with a simple idea and Canadian, above all Canadian. It would be ideal material for young minds to memorize. The redness of the maple in autumn in the Canadian Shield is legionary. There is a decade difference in our education and the miles between eastern and western Canada. When we compare our educations, we are very different. But we both were given this particular poem to memorize (probably while looking at Group of Seven image on the wall).
Campbell grew up on Georgian Bay and was known as the lake poet. It is near Algonquin Park where the famous paintings were done, one of the archetypes of Canada.
This is the near where my Grandmother, Sophia England, grew up.
But there were other less Canadian poems. What other lines lurch in the memory?
“The road was a ribbon of moonlight”
“The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas”
“leaves the world to darkness and to me”
“Tyger Tyger burning bright in the forests of the night”
“When all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils”
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree”
and then there is all that Shakespeare...
Whenever a line like this comes to mind I think about hearing that modern curriculum creators do not include memorizing poetry and if that is true, it is a shame.

So revisited
So, my favourite word is back on my mind.
SO- “The new “well,” “um,” “oh” and “like.” ... at the beginning, it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight...in the middle it has principally been a conjunction, an intensifier and an adverb... “so” conveys an algorithmic certitude. It suggests that there is a right answer, which the evidence dictates and which must not be contradicted. Among its synonyms, after all, are “consequently,” “thus” and “therefore.”
But so much more - ““so” is also about the culture of empathy that is gaining steam as the world embraces the increasing complexity of human backgrounds and geographies. To begin a sentence with “oh,” is to focus on what you have just remembered and your own concerns. To begin with “so” is to signal that one’s coming words are chosen for their relevance to the listener. The ascendancy of “so” suggests that we are concerned with displaying interest for others and downplaying our interest in our own affairs.”
So also - “The discourse marker ‘so’ is most commonly described as indexing inferential or causal connections... in conversations to explicate the role of ‘so’ in implementing incipient actions. The analysis focuses on the use of ‘so’ for prefacing sequence-initiating actions (such as questions) and demonstrates that speakers deploy this preface to indicate the status of the upcoming action as ‘emerging from incipiency’ rather than being contingent on the immediately preceding talk. ‘So’ prefacing is recurrently used in contexts where the activity being launched has been relevantly pending. Additionally, speakers can use ‘so’ to characterize and constitute a particular action as advancing their interactional agenda.” So, what exactly does that mean?
And so - “The idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

So finally - That's just soooo dictionary for such a little word!

Imitating in conversation
Some people are famous for imitating others – actors, comedians, salesmen, Oprah, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and on and on. But it seems we all do it because it is noticeable when we don't. We mimic the rate and rhythm, the intonation, choices of words, choice of word order and grammar, and accent, even very fine-grained aspects of sound production.
Just as we can tell in recordings whether someone is reading or speaking freely, we can tell if recorded conversations were actual conversations rather than two people edited to appear to be in conversation when they were actually recorded separately.
This should not be surprising. People mimic posture, gestures, facial expressions when in conversation. We speak with different vocabularies, accents and levels of complexity when speaking to different people. And above all two people will synchronize their speech rhythms when talking together. If people mimic the non-verbal parts of communication, why not speech itself?
I think it takes experimental situations or great practice to see the amount and types of imitation that go on during conversations. We are only sometimes aware of it.
The key to understanding why we should do this is communication. When we speak we really want to help the listener understand us. And when someone speaks to us, they try to help us. And so whether we realize it or not, we use whatever is available to get on the same communication wavelength.
Here is a quote from Lawrence Rosenblum:
“We are sensitive to the imitation performed by other people as they talk to each other. In fact, when it's missing, the dialogue sounds unnatural. This turns out to be a major problem for the production of animated films. Most modern voice acting for animated features involves recording the actors separately. This is one of the appealing aspects of voice acting for stars who can perform his part on their own time, without needing to coordinate their schedule with other actors.
But recording the actors individually poses a technical problem for the director and sound editor of the film. Essentially, they need to create compelling dialogue between actors who've never actually talked with each other. This was conveyed to me by Chris Williams, the director of the animated film "Bolt", the 2008 film starring the voices of John Travolta and Susie Essman. For the film, John Travolta (who voiced the dog ‘Bolt') recorded his lines months before Susie Essman (who voiced ‘Mittens', Bolt's feline sidekick) recorded hers, despite the fact that their characters had multiple dialogues together. Further, each of these actors performed their lines without hearing recordings of the other actor's performance. Of course, actors who must produce lines of dialogue without actually hearing one-other would be incapable of the speech imitation we all naturally perform. And it seems that when this subtle speech imitation is absent from dialogue, it can sound distractingly unnatural to the audience.

"A good portion of my time working on Bolt was spent in the editing room piecing together bits of dialogue so that the characters sounded like they were talking together", Chris Williams recalls. "As I was directing, I had the actors perform each of their lines 10 to 30 times with different speeds, inflections - I tried to get a wide spectrum to select from. Once all the dialogue was recorded [and before animation began], we spent many late nights putting the lines together. For every piece of dialogue we'd listen to each of the 30 line readings again, and again, and again to make sure we chose the one that sounded right with the other characters' lines. If you put lines together that don't sound natural, it's very jarring and apparent." In fact, the voice actors in the more recent film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" were recorded together on set, to avoid this very problem. This suggests that not only do we subtly imitate the people we talk with, we're also aware when this imitation is missing from the dialogue of others.”

The sounds of language
There is an idea proposed by Mark Changizi: the human brain has evolved to fit the natural world and culture has evolved to fit the human brain. So he dismisses the idea of a language instinct and says instead to look for how language uses mental skills that are more general. Here is what he does with the sounds of our languages.
The way we process sounds should be useful in general ways. One of these uses is likely to be to recognize and understand solid objects. What sort of sounds are made by objects? - sounds resulting from hits, slides and ringing. So it would be likely that our ear/brain is good at processing the types of sounds produced when objects are hit, when they slide pass one another and when they vibrate as a result of hits and slides. The total phonemes in all known human languages is about 150 or so, with most languages having about 35. But they mostly fall into 3 categories: plosives that seem to mimic hits (like t k p d g b), fricatives that seems to mimic slides (like s sh f z v r), and sonorants and others that seem to mimic rings (like a e i o u y w l m n). We are able to notice the nuances of these sorts of sound because they are useful in identifying objects and events involving objects.
How are sounds ordered in natural events involving objects? First there is the hit or slide and then it is followed by the disturbed objects ringing with there natural frequencies. The way words are formed is as one or a series of syllables. The most simple syllable is a consonant followed by a vowel. Like an object being hit and then ringing, for instance. These are sound events that our brains are built to connect together and then extract meaning from.
We do not need to have evolved a special structure in our brains to process the sounds of language because language has evolved (socially not biologically) to use an existing structure of the brain whose original purpose had to do with the perception of objects.

Recent research has shown that mild swearing is effective for public speakers. It does not seem to change the audience's opinion of the substance of the message unless it is over the line of good taste for that audience. If the audience does not react badly then it does no damage to the message but does no good either. It cannot be used too boldly or too often. If it is over the limit, the speaker appears foolish and unprofessional. Although mild swearing doesn't effect the message, it can make the speaker seem more sincere. The speaker appears more intense, more involved, more human. It gives the impression that the speaker deeply believes what they are saying and really wants you to believe it too.
Of course there are safer ways to show your passion and conviction. Personally I react badly to swearing if it appears rehearsed, planned or scripted and I assume that others do too – by and large if it is rehearsed it will appear so. Nothing has less passionate then canned passion.
All languages have a range of curse words and they are useful. The best use is to reduce pain – yes, the stream of profanity can actually remove some of the pain when you burn your hand or whatever. It is useful to manage anger. The problem is that the more a swear word is used, the less effective it is when it is needed for pain or anger. In the context of communication (the informal conversational kind), swearing does give a very clear indication of emotion. Again, only if it is not overused.
Here's the trick and it is the same as all those things that are effective but only if completely natural. There will be trouble if you try to fake it. What you can do is give yourself permission. Take gestures – never rehearse gestures or plan which to use because you will get it wrong. Give yourself permission to move and use your hands. Don't force it but just relax the inhibition. The same is true of swearing – never rehearse or plan it. Give yourself permission to use mild swearing occasionally. Relax the inhibition a wee bit.
What happens when the swear word is over used? So...two Australians are talking and one says 'equal pay for equal work'. The other does not understand and so the first repeats carefully, 'Equal Pay For Equal Work'. The other does not understand. After a couple more repeats, the first says ' Oh for f'ing sake, equal f'ing pay for equal f'ing work'.
'Well why didn't you just say so in the first place?'