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later Language items
Language Items from 2014:
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Sorry to say Interesting words Competence or performance Rhyme or Reason Geek speak The DTR techniques
Attributive Nouns How to recognize violence coming John Newlove The usage game:
catering to perverts Oral, written and in
between The etymology of fairy ann To boldy split A child's Christmas in Wales new
Sorry to say
Americans seem fond of making fun of
how often Canadians say 'sorry', or Brits say 'pardon', or Japanese
say 'suminasen'. Well, sorry, but these are nice useful words and
they do not imply that I necessarily feel guilty. It is not the same
as 'mea culpa' – that says I am responsible for something but does
not necessarily imply that I regret doing it. 'Sorry' is regret
without necessarily responsibility. So I may say sorry that someone
died. I had nothing to do with their death but I wish it had not
happened. I may say sorry because I am going to force someone to
move, I may wish that I didn't have to move them but I do. I may say
sorry to console someone who has been hurt and I am just saying that
I wish they hadn't been hurt; it doesn't mean I hurt them. I may say
that I'm sorry to have to give you bad news although I did not make
the news. I would say sorry I didn't hear you and I am implying that
you could maybe talk louder. Sorry is like please, thank you, your
welcome, and all those other little words that oil our social
'Sorry' has a history – it has the
same root as 'sore' but never meant physically sore, but distressed,
full of sorrow, expressing grief. Late in its life it became
associated with regret and still later with feeling of guilt. But
that guilt admission has never been the only or the strongest
A recent pole showed the order of
meanings currently in Britain and found that
sorry for actually having done something wrong, is now at the bottom
of the list of reasons why people utter the word. In the top five
reasons for saying sorry:
• number one is when we
don't have time to speak to someone or do something ("Sorry, I
don't have time to talk right now");
• two is to apologise
on someone else's behalf, such as our children, a partner or a
colleague ("Sorry, little Jimmy is always smashing things");
three is when we didn't hear what someone was saying ("Sorry,
can you repeat that?");
• in fourth place is when you want
something to be explained to you again ("Sorry, I'm not sure
what you mean");
• and right at the bottom, at five, is
when we actually feel the need to apologise for having
double-crossed, lied to or let someone down - "I'm sorry."
So why should Americans
find this difficult? Is it a low regard for politeness? I think not.
It seems more likely that it is the business that goes – if a bad
thing happens, it must be someone's fault, and they must pay to
remedy it. It is a mindset about taking things to court. Someone must
be at fault for every mishap. Or maybe it is not that at all, sorry.
January is the time of year for
everyone to produce lists of new words, 'words of the year', words to
outlaw, worst words. It is boring. These seems to be produced by
people who hate words – they take no pleasure in new words, new
ways of using words, new trends, new anything. They resent anything
that is not the language they were taught in school. This is from the
that has some joy and enjoyment in it.
Competence or performance
I was once in an argument with someone
about some aspect of language and I said something about language
being, after all, about communication. Well, I got an ear full: I
should separate language from communication, it was a novice mistake
to think that language was about communication.
This year I encountered a complaint
from NJ Enfield, a professor of linguistics. He thinks that a science
of language should be concerned with more than 'competence'. What
does that mean? He means that linguists emphatically avoid direct
observation of language as it is used. He says that the bad idea is
that linguists should study the mental capacity for producing
sentences (competence) rather than study what happens when we
actually talk (performance). Communication only degrades the
idealized perfect language of thought with all the problems of motor
control, attention, errors, local conventions, reactions of listeners
etc. Oh, what an ivory tower he is describing. (I have to say that it
is not my impression of a number of linguists what I read on
languagelog, but it seems a good description of Chomsky and linguists
of that sort and it certainly fit the man I was arguing with.)
To me communication in general is more
interesting than most any other aspect of language. How language
carries meaning from one brain to another is intriguing, so is the
practicalities of conversations with their back and forth. The way a
language changes is interesting. And in the end, no matter what the
formal linguists say, we have language in order to communicate
because it is communication that is the pay off.
Really the heart of language is not
model sentences or even ordinary writing, but oral language. Whenever
communication is important, it is oral: in school, in church, in
parliament, in courts, in courtship.
The idea that we cannot think without language and that language
developed as a way of thinking before it was used to communicate seems
just crazy to me.
Or as Enfield says, “Perhaps the most
unfortunate outcome of this idea is that generations of linguists who
have eschewed the study of performance now have nothing to say about
the essentially social function of language, nor about those aspects
of social agency, cooperation, and social accountability that
universally define our species' unique communicative capacity.”
Rhyme or Reason
Why do we have aphorisms? They strike
us often as trivial, but there they are in our heads ready to pop out
when they seem appropriate. Sometimes they are almost embarrassing in
the way a pun can be. And yet they are remembered, generation after
generation, always ready to hand. There seems to always be one that
fits the situation or even two with opposite meaning like “Out of
sight, out of mind” versus “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.
A reason for the use of aphorisms is
that if a statement is easy to process in the brain, it appears to be
more trustworthy. This is the “illusory truth effect”. This can
be an unfortunate reality, but it is true of all of us under normal
conversational conditions. If I understand the statement immediately,
it 'rings true'. There is obviously an advantage to often repeated
statements. Familiar statements come to be believed (as Hitler
remarked). The more aphorisms are repeated, the more they appear to
be old and wise advice.
The other thing that works for
aphorisms is that rhyme, alliteration, metaphor and other rhetorical
devices make understanding faster and easier. They also make
remembering easy. Aphorisms tend to take those forms. In scientific
tests, people were asked to judge whether a string of letters was a
word. The string came with a priming word. If the priming word rhymed
with the string, the decision about whether it was a word was faster
that if it didn't. Children learn to rhyme very early in their
mastery of language.
Is there no “rhyme or reason” in
this? If you are on your guard to separate the form (rhyme) of a
statement from the content (reason) it is quite easy to do. But we
are not usually on our guard.
“Consider defense attorney Johnnie
Cochran’s celebrated plea to the jury during O.J. Simpson’s
criminal trial: “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit!”
Journalists have focused almost exclusively on the mnemonic value of
rhyme in this statement: Rhyme increased the likelihood that jurors
would rehearse, remember, and thus apply Cochran’s directive.
However, the fluent quality of the statement undeniably overshadows
its dubious proposition—after all, the jury was obligated to
consider all of the presented evidence, not just the tight gloves! We
wonder how persuasive the jury might have found this proposition had
Cochran proclaimed, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must find him
not guilty!” - McGlome & Tafighbakhsh”
"I speak fluent Geek" from efytimes.com
As if the
programming languages weren’t enough, programmers almost literally
have a language of their own. Here are 20 such jargon words and
Banana Banana: No, they’re
not going bananas. They are just referring to placeholder text, which
means that certain documentation is in progress.
Obama: This is our favourite.
This refers to a project management account, which consists of the
most optimistic projects. These are projects, which would otherwise
not get approval.
This term is a proof that programmers live in a world of their own
that runs parallel to ours. It is the programmer version of Bigfoot,
meaning a bug that has been witnessed by only one person. They also
call it the Loch Ness Monster bug.
Programmers can be touchy when it comes to their code. When a
reviewer points out a bug in the code, many return with a counterbug,
which was caused by the programmer.
Report: You have to be on
drugs to write such an incomprehensible bug report!
Report: It’s a slightly
toned down drug report. It’s like a sarcastic way to say, “Had
one too many drinks did you? Tipsy when you write this bug
Report: Don’t report a bug
and describe it using ‘xyz doesn’t work’. That’s what they
call a shrug report.
Report: We think this is the
most aptly used term after Bigfoot. Internet users often like to act
high and mighty, while the geeks sitting on the other end of a system
are laughing themselves to glory. Some users report bugs and act as
if they know a lot about the system. This bug report is called a smug
Programmers often add features to their code, which draws the
management’s attention. Not for the appreciation though, the
management will remove these features, but pay less attention to
other aspects of the code, making less changes to the
Development: This is when
your bosses put pressure on you by doing things like firing team
Code: A code has to be
elegant. If it’s not elegant, then its ghetto. Period.
This refers to making changes to a well designed code, which makes to
so different from the original that only the programmer can maintain
Typed: This is an
implementation that needlessly relies on strings.
You’re a developer, you’re new to the arena and you’re
clueless. You’re a Jimmy.
Unicorn’s are imaginary but this refers to an idea that is so early
in its planning stages that it is close to being imaginary
Code: This is a code that has
too many layers. The food loving programmers call it lasagne
Girlfriend Bug: Ever had your
girlfriend being really mad at you but you can’t quite figure out
why? If yes, then you would relate to this. It refers to a problem
with the code execution, for which the programmer is finding hard to
figure out the reason.
Code: A code that collapses
after a part of it is altered.
This is apparently the fear of coding on monitors with small screens.
The DTR techniques
Disrupt-then-reframe is a technique to
influence people in a very short time. It is being used by
professional salespeople and other influencers since it was
discovered in '99. First you have to disrupt the listener's normal
thought process and then quickly (within a couple of seconds) give
them a frame to view things through. The listener will accept the
frame if they still have their thoughts disrupted.
Davis and Knowles give the examples:
Here the 300 pennies is the disrupt –
people have to stop and deal with this unusual phrase. The reframe is
immediately following in the same sentence. The frame is accepted.
- They went to people and told them about 8 cards that were
available at $3. In this “normal” way, they made sales at 40% of
- In the other condition, i.e. DTR condition, they went to
the people and told them about 8 cards that were available at the price
of 300 pennies immediately followed by: “…it’s a bargain!” In this way,
they made sales at 80% of households.
The disrupt can be anything a word or
grammar mistake or awkwardness. The reframe is short, fast and
This technique reduces counterarguments
very effectively. BE WARNED. All sorts of people will be after your
acceptance or money with this simple ploy.
Often two nouns
appear together as in 'meat market' or 'weapons grade'. These are a
complex mixture and the rules of how to create them are not clear.
For instance why don't we say 'meats market' and 'weapon grade'. When
do we make the first noun plural?
One usage guide
says: "Sometimes an attributive becomes conventional in the
singular (toy store), and sometimes in the plural (ladies room).
Often we choose by ear and it doesn't matter (employee lounge,
employees lounge)." It does not seems to be about the number of
things – there are lots of toys in a toy store. There isn't even a
hint that number is involved.
Maybe it is not an
's' for plural but an 's' for ownership. Could we say 'room of lady'
rather than 'ladies room'. Using just an 's' without an apostrophe
used to be common. But this doesn't turn out to be consistent either.
In other words there is no logic, just what we get used to in each
What about whether
we make a compound or leave the two nouns separate? 'Buttermilk'
could be 'butter milk' like 'coconut milk'. This seems to be a
question of age. It used to be common to compound nouns but now is
less so. Still no logical consistency.
When can a
particular noun be used as an attributive noun? Some would say, 'if
the dictionary shows it to be 'attributive' then it can be used and
if not you need to put in a hyphen'. It gets tricky then a word is
both listed as a noun and as an adjective with slightly different
meanings. There is not a great deal of logic here either.
buffs say not to sweat it, use what sounds OK to you, and don't bet
on being right about any rule or convention you think you have found.
How to recognize violence coming
What is hate speech? Insightment to
violence? Instigating violence? Actually it often takes a lot to get
people to become violent. The target cannot just be hated but must be
hated deeply and it a particular way. Leaders of violent movements
are masters of the sort of speech that encourages violence. Leaders
of non-violent movements are masters of dampening the particular
triggers of violence. It would be a good idea if people could
recognize the different between dangerous and non-dangerous verbal
attacks on specific groups and individuals.
Countries differ in their laws but
there is an international law against incitement to genocide that has
the same standing as war crimes and crimes against humanity. It can
be enforced with reference to national laws. There is also a
international convention that puts a duty on countries to prohibit
all negative statements towards national groups, races or religions
if those statements constitute incitement to discrimination,
hostility or violence. How countries have interpreted this duty
varies widely. For example in the USA the statements would need to be
incitement which is intended to cause imminent
violence. Many other countries have hate speech laws that are
Studies of leaders speeches leading up
to violence and to non-violent protest show differences. An important
characteristic leading to actual violent is a mixture of anger,
contempt and disgust. It takes anger to do violence, contempt to
degrade the targets to being not-human-ish, and disgust to make the
targets immoral and the attackers righteous. Take away one ingredient
and the incitement is likely to be ineffective. It can take months of
increasing use of anger, contempt and disgust in the speeches of a
leader, to work people in to a state that turns into a raging mob.
Speeches that work against feelings of
anger, contempt and disgust but are still motivating are required to
create a group that can protest successfully but non-violently.
Non-violence like violence does not 'just happen'.
In condemning groups on the web, clubs
and organization we should look for whether they are using these
three emotions in their propaganda. Those are the people we should be
afraid of and try to discourage.
When John was writing poems pretty well all day every
day in Vancouver, he wrote and rewrote on scrapes of paper and then
when it took some shape he would start writing a poem in his note
book. After days of polishing he would have his poem and he would say
that he had learned some more about being a poet. He had a backpack
and not much more, he ate at various friends houses and slept in
Stanley Park. If it was raining at night (which was common this being
Vancouver), we would look out and see John coming up the hill to our
tiny one+-room flat to spend the night out of the rain. The flat had
only some furniture Harry had made: long table, two long benches, a
screen. Our bed was one of those that came out of the wall. So when
the bed came down there was no room for any more furniture. John
would put his sleeping bag on one of the benches. So we got to hear
some of his early poems in various stages of perfection. Recently
this appeared in Facebook (thanks to Judith Copithorne)
rob mclennan on John Newlove at 76
On June 13, 2014, Saskatchewan poet John
Newlove would have been seventy-six years old. He
died the morning of December 23, 2003, two years after an initial
stroke that he expected not to live through. Soon after the stroke,
he told me that he knew something was coming, but he’d expected it
would have taken him out. He even seemed surprised.
After stints in Vancouver, Toronto, Regina and Vernon, John
Newlove and his wife Susan moved to Ottawa in 1986, the same year his
trade collection The Night the Dog Smiled (ECW Press)
appeared. He lived his final seventeen years in Ottawa, and yet, he
always considered himself a Saskatchewan poet. Once here, he didn’t
publish another trade book during his lifetime, save the second of
his three volumes of selected poems, Apology for Absence:
Selected Poems 1962-1992 (The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc., 1993).
In Ottawa, where he remained, he once wrote in a bio, “for his
For well over a decade, I saw John Newlove on a regular basis,
whether around Ottawa’s Chinatown, where we lived but a fraction of
a block apart, or on Bank Street, near his office at Official
Languages. When we’d encounter each other on the street he always
took the time to wave, or tell me a story of obscure Greek history.
Once, he gleefully recounted a somewhat inappropriate story of
himself as a young man at a party at Jane
Rule’s house. It took time for me to realize that
John didn’t deliberately stay away from people, he just happened
to. Through shyness, he developed the habit. Aware through others of
his discomfort with people, I did my best to leave him alone,
slipping envelopes of chapbooks into his mailbox for years without
any expectation of response. I simply wanted to pass along what I had
produced, as author and publisher both. I wanted to give thanks, in
my own way. Occasionally, he would even respond. Once, a postcard
arrived that said: “If I didn’t thank you for the books, I do.
JN.” A week or so after I told him I was enjoying the poems in The
Cave (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), a book I had borrowed from
the library, a hardcover copy arrived at my doorstep with the
inscription, “would it be more vain to rip out the bad pieces or to
leave them in? Jn.”
During the time we corresponded, my favourite had to be the twenty
dollar cheque he mailed, having to travel further to a post-box than
simply slip into my own mailbox. A thanks for the books, I suppose.
In 1999, he allowed me to produce a small chapbook, THE
TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, through above/ground press, his
first publication of new work in fourteen years. He launched it as
part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and later, in
Vancouver, where he had to be convinced to read anything but what he
considered his long-published “hits.”
Soon after his stroke in June 2002, at his wife Susan’s
insistence, I went to visit him at the Civic Hospital. On entering
his room, I said something along the lines of, geez, John, you must
have to see a bunch of people now. No, he shook his head, and held up
two fingers, for myself and John
When I was seventeen years old, the first poem of his I read of
John’s came from ,em>Contemporary Poets of the 1960s, edited by
It was an important book for my future considerations, after my
eventual ex-wife gave me a copy, where I was introduced to the work
Newlove, George Bowering, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn
MacEwen and others. It was the variant
on one of
John’s hitch-hiking poems from the early 1960s that first struck
me, composed when he was still travelling back and forth from the
prairies to the west coast, the first of many of his poems to do so.
Originally published in his collection 7 Disasters, 3 Theses, and Welcome Home,
click., It's the last poem of his in the anthology.
Everywhere I go
What are people talking about. Everywhere I go they whisper.
They stick their eyes at me, right at the base of the
when I’m not looking.
The breastbone seems flat, pointed like a dagger to the top of
O, my stomach, my stomach . . . when the knife rips you open it
find coffee and four strips of bacon, pieces of chewed beard
handwritten note saying I have left town forever
There are poems that stick with you, long after you’ve
read them, which might just be the mark of a great poem. Or perhaps
that’s a flimsy argument. There are more than a couple of poems by
John Newlove that have stuck with me at various points over the
years. For a couple of stretches throughout my twenties, I used the
poem “Concerning Stars, Flowers, Love, Etc.” from The Night
the Dog Smiled almost as a blueprint for how to approach my own
writing. While driving the prairies during a reading tour with Joe
Blades, Brenda Niskala, Anne Burke
and D.C. Reid
in May 1998, I rode the highway to the endless beat of his “Ride
Off Any Horizon.” Driving across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and into
Alberta, there was just something about the poem that made a new kind
of sense. I carried his books around with me, while alternately
amazed that most writers my age hadn’t even heard of him.
John Newlove was a friend of mine, I said at his memorial. Breif weeks
after John died, Randall Ware and John Metcalf organized a small event
at the Manx Pub in Ottawa, and a dozen or so freinds and admirers read
poems and told stores to a packed crowd. At the end, Susan said that
John would have hated this. She added: But I really appreciate it.
John Newlove has long been hailed as one
of our early masters,
“the best lyric poet in Canada” from 1964 to 1974, somehow
emerging fully-formed as a poet in the early 1960s, and capable of
such incredible precision and brevity. Despite his shyness, he also
managed to live in the prairies more than once during interesting
periods of prairie writing, and living in Vancouver as one of the
“downtown Vancouver poets” (a loose grouping that included Judith
Copithorne, Roy Kiyooka, Maxine Gadd and Gerry
Gilbert) alongside the emergence of TISH.
There are stories of Newlove’s days working at the UBC Bookstore,
stealing reams of paper and tossing it out the back door to a truck
of TISH poets, waiting to haul it away to produce a new
issue. By the opening of the 1970s, he was in Toronto working as an
editor for McClelland and Stewart, in the heyday of the new
generation of Canadian literature. Somehow, this shy poet happened to
be at the right place at the right time far more than once. And yet,
once he made Ottawa, he was happy enough to fade quietly into the
background, writing occasionally, and corresponding with numerous
writers, students and others (even now, Montreal critic J.A.
Weingarten works to finalize editorial work on a
selection of letters for publication). The poems that emerged were
When we were putting together A Long Continual Argument: The
Selected Poems of John Newlove (ed. Robert
McTavish, Chaudiere Books, 2007), we were only able
to discover some twenty-four pages of work that hadn’t yet been
collected into a trade work, since the publication of Apology for
Absence. We kept hoping for more. Perhaps greedy.
I recently heard from the poet John
Pass, asking me about Newlove’s poem “The Grass
Is A Reasonable Colour,” a poem not included in our selected, and
one I wasn’t previously aware of. At least, not consciously. As
Pass says, “Can’t go far wrong with Newlove.” A poem he doesn’t
recall seeing in print since the sixties, possibly “in mimeo form
in Bill New’s
Canlit class,” and one he’s toying with reissuing as a broadsheet
if any of us can get our hands on it. After some digging, I discover
the poem in Moving in Alone (Contact Press, 1965; Oolichan
Books, 1977). It includes lines that feel familiar to any reader of
There is a time for everything.
Mistakes are explainable.
Usage Game: Catering to Perverts
is the abstract of a talk given by Geoffrey K. Pullum of Edinburgh
University at the Cambridge Symposium on Usage Guides and
Usage Problems in June:
"I am sure most educated users of works
on grammar and usage believe that they seek a sensible relationship
in which they are treated like grownups and provided with
authoritative information about Standard English. There is a great
deal of evidence, however, that what many of them really want is to
be dominated, humiliated, and punished. They yearn, they positively
lust, to be forced to use their language in certain ways and to be
disciplined for any transgressions. One sign of this is that The
Elements of Style, with its 105 pages of century-old maxims from
Strunk and opinionated stylistic nonsense from White, far outsells
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, with its 978 pages of
brilliant and clearly explained objective scholarship, about a
century newer (and costing very little more). This poses a dilemma
for usage guide authors. The advice of economics is of course to
supply what the customer wants; but ethics may differ: usage guide
authors find themselves in the role of pornographers serving a
community of masochistic perverts. Worse, if they dare to provide
evidence refuting myths about grammatical correctness in English they
are attacked for lowering standards and promoting anarchy. I will
review this problematic situation, and make some modest proposals
about how the users of Standard English might be drawn out of their
dark fantasy world into the daylight of mature and healthy linguistic
Oral, written and in between
Many people think that written language
is just like oral language, but it isn't. Oral language is what we
learn as children when we learn language and it is what humans have
learned for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of humanity still
doesn't read and write. So oral language is much more the heart of
language then the written product.
There are ways to tell that there is a
difference between the two. If you have every read a court transcript
you will have found that it was very difficult to figure out the
meaning of what was said. In the actual court they had no difficulty
or the judge would have asked for clarification. So written language
is not just oral language that has been recorded in writing. Next if
you listen to radio talks you can often tell whether the person is
reading a script or just talking. It can be very plain to recognize
but hard to identify exactly what is different between speaking
freely and reading aloud. Oral language differs in 3
ways: its delivery, its vocabulary and its grammar.
The tone and strength of the voice adds
a good deal of meaning clarification and emotional content to words
being said. A person communicates with their whole body whether they
think about it or not. They communicate not just with their voice but
with their posture, body movements, facial expressions and gestures.
(Watch people talking on the phone.) These channels of communication
are ancient – older than language, some older than humans, a few
older than mammals. We use them automatically without planning or
practice. (Watch how much the body is used when little children
talk.) When these channels are removed, the language has to change to
make up for their loss. Communication is restricted to words and is
not an expression of the whole body, forcing written language to use
work-arounds to deal with questions, irony, sarcasm, emphasis, and
emotional colouring. Clever ways are used to make the words alone
carry the whole weight of communication. Without those literary
devises, written language is somewhat dull.
There is another aspect of delivery in
oral language, rhythm. Here is the problem. The speaker must deliver
his utterance in a way that the listener can follow: not too fast,
not too slow, in the right sized phrases, in a consistent rhythm. If
they do that then the listener can work in that rhythm and when a
phrase is delivered, the listener is ready and able to take it in.
(Watch how people who are conversing move in unison – when it is
speeded up with film it looks like a little dance.) People quite
literally get on the same 'wavelength'. The way oral language is
phrased is right for the length of easy breathing and the amount of
information a person can take in at a time. Often this makes reading
aloud difficult because the phrases are an awkward or erratic
lengths. This is one of the reasons that writing dialogue is
difficult – it must be written language to carry the emotion etc.
because there is not an actual voice to carry it, but at the same
time, it must be oral language in its other aspects like rhythm.
Finally, the delivery of oral language
is to a specific person or audience and they give feedback. The
speaker can tell if the listener/s are following and understanding
what they are saying. They can go back the restate something or go
more carefully or be less careful. Listeners are rarely silent; they
give little murmurs of recognition. They nod, smile, frown and in
many ways help the speaker. When writing, the writer often has to
guess who, when, under what circumstances the words will be read.
Therefore writing is naturally more exact and structured then oral
For some reason (that I do not know),
words from German/Scandinavian roots are more common in oral English
than in written; French/Latin roots are less common. I seems that
there is a difference in tone. The French borrowings seem more formal
and impersonal, while the Germanic words seem more plain homely
English and carry more emotion and power. Whatever the reason, it is
a measured fact. And it is also true that using to many French/Latin
root words sounds stuffy and pompous. This feeling comes over much
less in written language. The Romance words tend to have narrower,
exact meanings that are useful in writing.
It is also the case that spoken
language has more phonic devices then written. The ear loves to hear
rhymes, alliterations, assonance, consonance, phonic echoes, meter,
cadence patterns and the like. They are often missed when they do
occur in written language and rarely valued by the writer. These
phonic devices along with the rhythm of oral language makes it more
poetic in nature. This has always been part of oral language. If you
think of the time before writing, all the knowledge in a culture was
in the form of oral recitations: the history, laws, geneology,
property borders, art, religion, entertainment and much more was all
oral. It was important that this oral tradition was not forgotten or
degraded. For this reason it was often in the form of poetry (or
song) and the rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and other phonic devices
made it was easier to remember unchanged.
With writing, you can go back and check
things as you read. You do this on purpose some times but you also do
it unconsciously with a tiny flick of the eye. For this reason,
written sentences can be much longer and more complex grammatically
then oral ones. On the other hand, to be understood without the
context of an on-going conversation, written language has to be more
carefully grammatically. For example almost all written language is
in the form of proper sentences. Quite often full sentences are in
the minority in oral conversations. Oral language seems to be based
on phrases as opposed to sentences. (Watch how often people leave out
the place holder words 'it is' which have no meaning but create a
sentence with a subject and a verb. People will say 'very hot today'
rather than 'It is very hot today.) It is interesting that for a very
long time there was no study of English grammar; it was important to
have perfect Latin grammar but English was just assumed to be
basically the same grammar and where it differed was a mistake. When
English grammar was studied as its own creature, it was the grammar
of written English. The grammar of oral English has never been
Usage conventions differ too. This has
to do with avoiding boredom in writing and avoiding having to use a
lot of memory in speech. For example, I might say: “I'm going to
the store, then I'm going to the library, then I'm going to my
friend's.” But I would never write that, I would write: “I'm
going to the store, the library, and then my friend's house.” The
redundancy in the oral sentence saves the listener's memory, each
part is complete and the meaning resolved before dealing with the
next part. But if you wrote like that it would drive people up the
wall. On the other hand 'friend's' can stand alone in speech because
the listener gets the meaning from the whole context. But in writing,
even though we know that the thing belonging to the friend is the
destination, having a possessive with nothing to possess is grating.
A new form:
Over the years there have been other
forms of English, such as headline English which has a very odd
grammar. But these other forms were limited in their use. When people
started to use computer communication for chatting, they were trying
to be speedy and were thinking in an oral rather than a proper
written fashion. There were misunderstandings and so smiley faces and
the like became very popular. Now it is as if a new form of the
language was taking form and is spreading, an e-English between oral
written. In the mind it forms pieces of communication as if it was
talking and then tries to put it in written form while still being as
fast as talking but as clear as writing. It is not just smiley faces
that have appeared, it is also hashtags, abreviations, small groups
of letters standing for whole phrases, a different use of the period
and of capitals, and it changes very quickly – trying to get things
right. But this is a hard task – to be oral and written at the same
time. It is fascinating to watch this form develop, changing month to
month. It is also interesting to see how the existence of this new
English is bleeding into both the oral and the written language.
The etymology of 'fairy ann'
Fairy ann is one of the lastest eggcorns examined on Language Log.
An eggcorn is coined when people do not see a word and phrase - they
hear it and sometimes re-make it so that it is sensible to them. For
example people will say 'damp squid' – it seems to make sense –
because the word 'squib' is not known to them.
Jeannette Winterson has this story:
“My father was in Ipres, (pronounced Wipers), during the War,
and like many of his generation, came back with bits of French. Ce ne
fait rien turned into San Fairy Ann, meaning Stuff You, and then a
new character emerged in Lancashire-speak, known as Fairy Ann; a
got-up creature, no better than she should be, who couldn’t give a
damn. ‘San Fairy Ann to you’, morphed into, ‘Who does she think
she is? Fairy Ann?’”
It is now in the Oxford Dictionary “san fairy ann., n., as
Jocular form repr, French ca ne fait rien 'it does not matter', said
to have originated in army use in the war of 1914-18. An expression
of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.
Also ellipt. as Fairy Ann.”
Eggcorns are interesting and I have found that I was guilty of
eggcorn -for acorn (the original that give the name to the group)
a hare's breath -for a hair's breadth
a mute point -for a moot point
a shoe-in -for a shoo-in
isle -for aisle
all for knot or all for not -for all for naught
Old-Timer's -for Alzheimer's
You get the idea. There are many hundreds to be found in print.
To boldly split
There are still people in this world that worry about split
infinitives. How did this come to be a problem?
There was a time when 'Grammar' meant Latin grammar, or in a more
general way the 'Natural Principles' that were found in Latin, Greek
and Hebrew. Latin was the dead language most often taught and so it
was Latin grammar that must be learned. There arose a teaching method
that taught the children to speak English in a way that made it
easier to think in a Latin way. One of the elements of style in this
manufactured English was that the English infinitive could not be
split – the 'to' had to be said immediately in front of the
infinitive verb. If children learned to think in this way, they would
write the Latin infinitive rather than a non-infinitive form and an
awkward attempt at a Latin 'to' in an awkward place.
These changes to the school boy English were not considered a
bastardizing of English because English was considered a degenerate
language. This teaching method came into vogue in the 1600s, at the
time when the number of schools increased, but few of the students
were actually going to use their Latin. At that time government,
scholarship, and church language was becoming more often English
rather than Latin. Although Latin was used less, it was still felt
that to think with logic and precision, it was important to think in
Latin or some sort of quasi Latin. Many educated people wrote in the
Latinized English but spoke in the ordinary English of the day.
The problem with the no split infinity rule is that it messes with
English meaning. In Latin because it is inflexed, word order is not
important to meaning. Each word carries inflexions that identify the
part it plays in the meaning. But English is basically syntactic and
therefore word order is very important – sometimes it is awkward to
put the 'to' directly in front of the verb. For an inflexed language
to dictate the position of a word in a syntactic language is asking
For many, many years, scholars who study English have pointed out
that this rule is not always followed by the great writers of
English. And if you take their 'slips' and move the 'to' to in front
of the verb, it is clear why they broke the rule. But the rule is
still something that many people feel should be followed, including
teachers, editors and others who should be experts in language use.
And even those that really do not believe that the rule is valid,
will still advise people that they should follow it because there
are many people who will judge them ignorant if they don't. So - do
we have to wait until the last teacher who knows of someone who
rejects applications with this particular grammar 'fault', actually
dies, before we are rid of this silly rule?
Why does this stubbornness exist? Language is important to people
and they worry when they sense that it is changing. The idea seems to
be that any change must be a change for the worse. This is a
misunderstanding of how language works. Each child does not so much
learn his mother tongue as invent it. The child constructs a way to
communicate with the people around it. The carers make the odd and
fairly rare direct correction, but mostly the child listens
carefully, mimics, tries things out, experiments, practices and ends
up with his own personal version of the language – very close but
not identical to other versions. This generational reinvention assure
that the language stays useful in the current environment, that it
does not change faster than a speed that allows grandparents to
converse with grandchildren, that there is enough logic. The
reinvention maintains consistency in the language so the brain to
handle it, and so on. The language is not about to fall apart because
it is reborn in every child with new vigor and eloquence. And while
the child grows into a teenager and young adult, their language is
creative. They coin new words and ways of expression until the day
they stop being inventive and want to freeze the language. There is
no reason to protect language as if it was fragile – it is sturdy.
It is one of the most resilient bits of our cultures.
There are other reasons for the angst. Language is a kind of glue
that hold societies together. The constant chatter has been compared
to grooming in other primates. The communication through language is
vital for our societies to function. Anything that looks like it will
interfere with communication is a source of worry. Again this worry
is not necessary. No communication is going to depend on a single
word, and if a word becomes unusable because of some on-going change
in meaning, some other word will be used instead. Quite often when
there are complaints about some usage, it is clear from the complaint
that the complainer understood what was meant. There was no failure
to communicate only a failure to do it 'right'. Communication is also
People can become extremely angry, hysterical and even destructive
on the subject of correct language. I don't think this is because
they fear that the language is going down-hill or communication is
threatened. That bothers many but does not account for the emotional
moral outrage. That has to do with people's identification with their
language – not their language in general but their personal usage,
accent and the particular grammatical rules they respect. The anger
seems to come from finding people who pretend to be 'us' rather than
'them' but insist on talking like 'them' rather than 'us'. This is an
affront by traitors, interlopers, pretenders, outsiders to the group
'us'. The failure to follow the usage of the group can be ample
reason for a very self-righteous corrective put down, no matter how
rude. Usageism, to coin a word, is very similar to racism, sexism,
ageism and other types of discrimination. As with all things where
one is protecting identity, there is a feeling of pride and a
smugness noticeable in the “I'm right and your wrong.” The way
people spend effort in going out of their way to find and point out
faults, that are of no importance to them, indicates that there is
some sort of reward in finding fault. This discrimination should be
called whenever it occurs just like other discriminations; to be
silent is to participate. The anger is not about language, it comes
from class warfare, xenophobia, political intolerance, ideological
battles. It is about separating identities rather than coming
together in communication. It is not about loving your language but
about using language as a weapon of hate.
In an old tradition, at Christmas I read yet again the poem about
memories of childhood told in gorgeous language. There are some
things that one loves very personally and deeply. No matter what
anyone else thinks, to me this poem is damn near perfection.
from A Child's Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the
sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking
of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can
never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I
was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights
when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down toward the
two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky
that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged
fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out
whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white
bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing
sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
It was on the
afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden,
waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always
snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland,
though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold
and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the
cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and
snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden
walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and
moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our
deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never
We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the
muffling silence of the eternal snows - eternal, ever since Wednesday
- that we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the
bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like
the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor's polar
cat. But soon the voice grew louder.
"Fire!" cried Mrs.
Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.
And we ran down the
garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke,
indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was
bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier
in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on
the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs,
and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.
was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept
there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was
standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A fine Christmas!"
and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.
"Call the fire
brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
won't be there," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."
was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero
standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were
"Do something," he said. And we threw all
our snowballs into the smoke - I think we missed Mr. Prothero - and
ran out of the house to the telephone box.
"Let's call the
police as well," Jim said. "And the ambulance." "And
Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."
But we only called the fire
brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets
brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time
before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas
Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in
the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt, Miss. Prothero, came downstairs and
peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she
would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at
the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the
smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, "Would
you like anything to read?"