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Grammar at the coalface
Orwell's advice Speech
Indian Summer So
revisited Imitating in conversation The sounds of language
Have you ever wondered by people say
'stuff and nonsense' but do not 'nonsense and stuff'? There are
actually some rules.
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.
- 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'.
- The word with the shorter vowels comes first:
example 'stress and strain'.
- The word with the fewer initial consonants
comes first: examples 'helter-skelter' and 'fair and square'.
- 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)
- 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,
- The word with more final consonants comes
first: example 'betwixt and between'.
- The word with the more obstructive final
consonant comes first: examples 'kith and kin' and 'push and pull'.
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
So much for going to elocution classes
and trying to lose a regional accent.
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
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:
small boy won't eat his lunch,"won't" is an adverb.
The small boy is capable of eating his lunch,
of" is an adverb.
In a set of bowls, "set of"
is an adjective.
In Sam's folder, "Sam's" is a
went on and on as a source of amusement to linguists around the
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.
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.
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
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
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 gave a list of writing rules. At first sight they are pretty
good rules but when you think about them, well...
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Researchers have only agreed to a few
- 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the
day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.
the brook the maple leans,
With all his glory spread;
the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.
by great marshes wrapt in midst,
Or past some river's
Throughout the long still autumn day
Wild birds are
-- 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
“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
and then there is all that
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.
Imitating in conversation
So, my favourite word is back on my
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
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!
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
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
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