Posted tagged ‘language’

What’s not to like

October 23, 2013

Quite frequently I travel to and from work by bus. I live a little way outside Aberdeen, and the bus journey is good for doing some reading in preparation for the day; and to over-hear conversations, like the following one. The dramatis personae were two young women.

Woman #1:   ‘I don’t know, like, it’s like, I was like, “what are you doing?”‘
Woman #2:   ‘I hate that, like, when they’re like “I don’t understand”.’
Woman #1:   ‘I’m like, “are you stupid, like?'”

Well, I think the word ‘like’ now urgently needs to be erased from the English language. Its use in any context should be severely punishable. That’s all we can still do. If we don’t act now, we shall all be fatally buried under an avalanche of ‘like’.

Linguistic crepusculum?

January 9, 2013

If you are an English speaker, then you have available to you a usable vocabulary that is significantly larger than that of other languages. It is estimated that English has maybe 1 million words, which could be nearly five times that of French. Furthermore, it is thought that a new word is added every two hours or so. But how many of all these do we use?

Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In one piece of field work that was presented to me about eight years ago, it was estimated that many people’s average active vocabulary – the number of words he or she would use on a regular basis – may be as low as 1,500.

There is also some evidence that the English language’s capacity for the active use of synonyms, whereby a variety of words is regularly used with the same or a similar meaning, is being eroded. A distinguished person is probably now rarely described as eximious, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is probably not often called hamose, nor would be be described as an hallion. But that means we are depriving the language, and ourselves, of some wonderful opportunities. An illustration of this was provided by the American linguist Richard Lederer in his introduction to the Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate:

‘One of the happiest features of possessing a capacious vocabulary is the opportunity to insult your enemies with impunity.  While the maddening crowd gets mad with exhausted epithets such as ‘You rotten pig’ and ‘You dirty  bum,’ you can acerbate, deprecate, derogate, and excoriate your nemesis with a battalion of laser-precise pejoratives.  You can brand him or her a grandiloquent popinjay, venal pettifogger, nefarious miscreant, flagitious recidivist, sententious blatherskite, mawkish ditherer, arrant peculator, irascible misanthrope, hubristic narcissist, feckless sycophant, vituperative virago, vapid yahoo, eructative panjandrum, saturnine misanthrope, antediluvian troglodyte, maudlin poetaster, splenetic termagant, pernicious quidnunc, rancorous anchorite, perfidious mountebank, or irascible curmudgeon.’

So are we now reduced to a small selection of often four-letter dressed expletives? And is everything desirable just, well, ‘nice’?

If all this is so, what are the causes? What can be done to maintain English as a peculiarly rich language with a subtle and varied vocabulary? In particular, how can we harness the many opportunities now afforded by information technology to ensure that it is a platform for verbal sophistication? This is a cause worth fighting for.

Sic transit

May 29, 2012

A little while ago at a meeting, someone handed me a note which read, inter alia, ‘this must be done ab inissio.’ Somehow this stumped me, and it took me a minute or so to realise that the writer was talking Latin, and that what he had wanted to say was ‘ab initio’. Welcome, then, to what’s left of the world of Latin.

In fact, Latin was after 2000 or more years condemned to death when the Roman Catholic church decided to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. With the few other bodies that had required Latin all abandoning the language by the late 20th century, it was clear enough that the language could not realistically continue to prosper.

In fact, by the 1980s it was pretty much gone. I still belonged to a generation that had to learn Latin at school. By the age of 10 I could speak Latin fluently, in the sense that I could string together words that would convey a clear meaning – even if I, like most others, had no absolute idea what the Latin of ancient Rome sounded like, phonetically.

I am not normally given to traditionalist nostalgia, but it is my firm view that the removal of Latin from the syllabus of schools and other educational establishments was a mistake. Young people no longer have this tool that would help them to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar. There is  very little else, and certainly nothing more modern, that would have the same beneficial effect.

I doubt I could persuade anyone to mount the barricades with me in support of Latin. But I regret that. I hope someone will see sense and restore Latin. Tam celerrime.

It’s annoying, like

May 13, 2011

Many years ago when I was in my 20s I suddenly realised that I had acquired a verbal tick that led to me add the word ‘actually’ somewhere in almost every sentence. ‘Actually, I had lunch at 1 o’clock today.’ ‘These are my views, actually.’ Once I had become aware of it I made every effort to suppress this annoying habit, and actually, I believe I succeeded. But I also became more aware of everyone else’s habits. A friend of mind who added ‘at the end of the day’ to every statement that was supposed to sound a little more profound; another who could not get through a sentence without saying ‘if you like’; another whose every sentence had to begin or end with ‘basically’; that sort of thing.

Back then, if you lived in Ireland you would constantly hear people sprinkling the word ‘like’ all over their sentences, in a completely meaningless way. I don’t know whether it was always so, but I have started to notice that young people in particular are doing this all over the English speaking world now. Recently I was in the presence of a multinational group of students, and they were all at it. No, they were all at it, like. It was, like, an annoying part of everything they said, like.

Does it matter? Probably not. Of course I didn’t say anything to them. I just wonder whether there is some connection between this and lower levels of literary awareness, or a trend towards a less rich language. It’s not that I don’t like slang, just that this particular habit makes the speaker seem strangely inarticulate.

Maybe, at the end of the day, I’m just too much of an annoying pedant. I mean, like.

Research globalisation and language matters

May 6, 2011

A few months ago, while waiting for a reception to begin, I was chatting to a young man who was registered as a PhD student in one of our universities and who was telling me with great energy and enthusiasm about his research topic. Or at least I think that is what he was doing, because to be honest, his English was not really fluent. He was enormously likeable, and in fact I am sure that his academic and intellectual credentials were impeccable, but his English was not.

Does this matter? Well, there is no doubt that we need to encourage the mobility of researchers, including those doing PhDs. We need to ensure that people have the opportunity to benefit from the exchange of information and ideas, and that they learn to work in international, multicultural teams. But what if there is no real common language? Should that be a barrier? Or perhaps we might also ask that if there is to be a shared language, can we always insist (or even expect) that it is English?

This question is likely to receive further attention as a result of the admission by the University of Derby that 60 per cent of its doctoral students fail to complete their their research and do not proceed to the degree. One of the reasons identified by the university for this state of affairs is that too many of their students do not have sufficient English language proficiency to complete the work.

In fact this has the potential to be a rather complex and sensitive topic, because wrapped up in the language issue there could be subtle points of a racist nature – which is what I am always tempted to expect when the Daily Telegraph climbs on to the bandwagon. But equally we have to take seriously the potential problems caused by an inability to communicate in the language of the research institution.

One unusual take on this issue that I came across recently was the suggestion by an Asian professor that English should be the accepted lingua franca of all global research, and that researchers simply needed to accept that they have to learn English. Is that fair, I asked. Research is a form of language anyway, he replied, and there is no point disseminating it in a form that cannot be read and therefore used and developed by the international community of scholars.

It’s an approach that makes me uneasy. But it may well win out. And maybe it should, I suppose. Perhaps.

We are what we speak; or are we?

February 28, 2010

Amongst the various genetic, cultural and personal characteristics that together make us what we are language must be significant. But how significant?

As many readers of this blog will know, I am German by birth. I was born in Northern Germany and lived in that country until I was seven years old, speaking only German. My father came from Silesia, which was German at the time of his birth but is now Polish. His family home was near Opole (which he knew as Oppeln), which was interesting because the language commonly spoken there was a dialect that mixed Polish and German. I have early memories of him using Polish expressions or creating composite words that were both German and Polish. That, together with his liking for Polish cooking, tempered what was otherwise a very German personality.

In my own case, I arrived in Ireland at the age of seven, and over the next six or so years gradually adopted English as my main language – I was 12 when I became aware that I ‘thought’ in English. And  just as that had been established, a year later my family returned to Germany, where I finished school and stayed for another two years to the age of 20. Then back to Ireland, and since then I have lived in Ireland and Britain. The reason I am explaining this – and apologies for the rather boring personal history – is because what all this did for me was the create a certain cultural ambivalence. I still think in English, but just occasionally something may happen that will let loose some exclamation in German in my head. Or in other circumstances, I may be driven to some typical Westmeath expression.

In my mid-20s a then girlfriend told me that I was relaxed, witty and unflappable when I spoke English, but when I spoke German I was tense, serious and determined; and to cap it, she thought I was charming and rogue-ish when I spoke French (which I did occasionally). So she clearly saw me as reflecting certain national stereotypes as I spoke the respective languages. But was that what she was expecting, and therefore determined to see, or was she right? What does language do to us?

Clearly languages are something more than equal or equivalent communication tools. Their very different constructs, the different size vocabulary, the expressions that draw on unique geographical, climate-based or cultural influences all have the capacity to convey something more than just objective meaning and can invest certain apparent cultural characteristics in the speaker.

But what happens when individuals or groups of people are deprived of vocabulary?  A study I read recently of a group of socio-economcally disadvantaged people in an English region suggested that their active vocabulary was as low as 1,500 words (the English language is generally thought to have around 200,000 words in common use and over 600,000 words with a current meaning). How far would such verbal deprivation affect the people concerned, and what would be the impact on their cultural experience?

As was noted by commentators to a recent threat in this blog, language constantly evolves and adapts. But that is not necessarily a progressive trend; language can retrench and be impoverished as easily as it can expand. So it seems to me that we should be concerned when language becomes less sophisticated, or banal, or coarse; because in the end, at least in some measure we are what we speak.

Basically, we have an ongoing situation going forward

February 26, 2010

I was delighted to see a letter to the editor of the Irish Times in today’s paper by my DCU colleague Patrick Kinsella, commenting on the use of the word ‘ongoing’ in that newspaper’s columns. His main point is that the ‘word’ is ugly and, more significantly, usually unnecessary in the context of the sentence in which it is used.

I fear that unnecessary fillers have become a regrettable part of modern language. I have to listen to a lot of speeches and read many reports, and they are full of ‘actually’, ‘basically’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘if you like’, ‘in the end’ (which it almost never is).

And then we have all those expressions which are just extremely irritating, such as ‘going forward’, or ‘out of the box’. And we have the annoying habit of turning nouns into verbs, such as ‘to impact’, or ‘to deplane’ (which my spell checker accepts, shame on it).

Worst of all, I think there are many people who use all the above words and expressions because they believe that they create elegant prose. Heaven help us!

Mind your language!

August 27, 2009

Last year I wrote a post on political correctness, and mentioned the occasional attempts to sanitise our language of all possible suspect associations. In fact, I should say that I am not against being sensitive with language and avoiding expressions that are clearly offensive, particularly terms that were once used to dismiss ethnic or racial groups. However, all this can be taken too far. At a recent meeting which was conducted in an atmosphere of considerable gloom because of current economic conditions one participant remarked that it was a ‘black day’. His neighbour suddenly perked up and delivered himself of a long speech about how it was ‘the very worst kind of racism’ to use such offensive language so carelessly. The offending original speaker was flustered and embarrassed but subdued. Certainly not a racist, he wasn’t sure how to respond without making matters worse. I came to his defence and suggested he had a track record of being opposed to racism, and after a little more shuffling around the meeting settled happily back into the appropriate gloom about matters economic.

As a recent report noted, this kind of over-the-top concern with identifying unacceptable expressions is not uncommon, and increasingly language commissars are active in stopping us from using terms that we should find offensive even when we don’t. This brings us to the sort of verbal gymnastics that results in renaming Manchester as Personchester.

I am absolutely of the view that the use of expressions that have a history of use in discrimination or oppression is unacceptable. But equally we should not drive this kind of thing too far, and above all should avoid contrived words that take us to almost comical lengths in order to avoid associations that nobody saw in the first place. In language as in much else, we should not let go entirely of common sense. So for me it is OK to talk about a ‘black day’ (though I wish we didn’t have any), as indeed I don’t see that an accusation of a ‘whitewash’ is reprehensible as anti-white racism. In other words, we should not amend our language on the basis of the assumption that good people ought to be offended, even when they manifestly are not. We should be sensitive with our language, but we should not allow the tyranny of a language police.

Through space and time

July 26, 2009

Earlier today I was driving along a major road when I saw an advance warning that told me there was a ‘dual carriageway ahead’. Fair enough. I drove another 200 yards or so, and at this point another sign suggested: ‘dual carriageway now.’ And indeed, right there the dual carriageway (divided road, for an North American readers) began. But as far as I was concerned, the sign was wrong, or rather conceptually confused. In a nutshell, the signwriter was apparently unable to distinguish between space and time. The message that was to be conveyed was that the road was changing into a dual carriageway there: but at that precise location, not at that precise moment. In fact, by its appearance the dual carriageway was built maybe two decades ago, so that the signwriter’s apparent comment might have read, not ‘dual carriageway now’, but rather ‘dual carriageway in 1989’. However, what was really meant was ‘dual carriageway begins here’.

I offered all this as a comment to my companion, whose somewhat harsh (but maybe justified) response was that I was an annoying pedant. Probably so. And yet, I still feel just a slight irritation that we have become so sloppy that we don’t distinguish between quite unrelated concepts. I wince when people say ‘less’ when they mean ‘fewer’ (as in ‘there are less cars on the road today’), or when they use a tautology such as ‘forward planning’ (have you ever planned backwards?). English is designed to allow the speaker to be very precise in conveying a meaning, but this is undermined when the precision is wrongly applied.

To make my point, I stopped the car just a foot or so before I reached the sign. There, I said, the dual carriageway isn’t happening now at all. I won’t repeat the reply.

Get out of your comfort zone: stop using clichés

July 18, 2009

Some time ago I was participating on an external interview panel when I noticed that one of my fellow interviewers, a senior manager, seemed to use a cliché in every question. He would ask candidates what they did when they were ‘outside their comfort zone’, or whether they were good at ‘thinking outside the box’, or what they would do to ensure a ‘win-win situation’, or how they would manage things ‘going forward’ (one I particularly detest). It became so bad that I simply could no longer listen to the actual content of his questions, I was so mesmerised by the anticipation of each new banality; and I was full of admiration for the candidates, who seemed to be able to rise above the verbal fog.

But the experience marked me, because now I wince whenever I hear any of these awful phrases. Or ones like ‘dumbing down’, ‘moving the goalposts’,  being ‘on the same page’, wanting a ‘level playing field’.

But what is so bad about these expressions? I also must say lots of things that really irritate others, so who am I to complain? I suppose there are two points to be made. First, any kind of expression that gets to be repeated endlessly is going to sound bad very quickly. But the second objection is more important, and its implications more interesting. Most of these clichés use metaphors, which is fine when the speaker has a sense of what they are doing with them, but bad when the imagery of the expression is being used accidentally and without any real linguistic appreciation.

Really, I should apologise, for this must all sound very patronising, and many people who use clichés are highly respected individuals. But nevertheless, we are caught up in a process of mangling our language, and we should stop trying to be clever with it and start putting things in a way that make sense and express something real. And we should stop repeating ad nauseam expressions we heard from someone or other which we think sound cool; in fact, we should all stop singing from the same hymnsheet. It’s annoying.