"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

language

Speaking Different Languages

Have you noticed how many ads there are on Facebook recently for foreign language instruction and translation software? There's also a popular article circulating that argues that when we speak a different language, we become a different personality. Apparently failure to communicate affects even the world's cats.


I've been wondering about the validity of that finding, and it occurs to me that the change may work in the opposite direction. 
Since I started writing full time, I've developed a whole new vocabulary--one that may be fairly meaningless or hopelessly confusing to others.  For example:

  • I talk about arcs and ARCs, but I'm not talking about mathematical curves or geophysical phenomena, or even a biblical boat.
  • Today I've been creating a bookmark, with lots of talk about trim size, which has nothing to do with the way my clothes fit, and bleeding, which does not call for a bandaid.
  • I'm waiting for a proof, but I'm not looking for incontrovertible evidence or a geometrical argument.
  • Spine width has nothing to do with a backbone.
  • Trade paper does not mean I'll check yours and you check mine.
  • Smashwords is not nearly as violent as it sounds. 
  • Twitter can sometimes express profound truths.
  • Cloud computing does not require a bird-like ability to fly.
  • Scapple is not a badly spelled version of a surgeon's knife.

So, the next time you complain that your friends and family do not understand what it is like to be a writer, maybe it's because you now speak a different language.

Can you think of other examples? Feel free to add to this list.

Do Your Characters Speak English or American?

The BBC News Magazine has been running an ongoing discussion of the differences between British and American English. Ite’s an amusing discussion, but an important one for American writers who set their stories on England. We might call the discussion, “How Not to Sound like a Bloody American!” Here’s an introduction to the problem, written by Matthew Engel last July.  I’ll follow it up with some readers’ additions  in the coming days.
 
American culture is ubiquitous in Britain on TV and the web. As our computers talk to us in American, I keep having to agree to a license spelt with an s. I am invited to print something in color without the u. I am told "you ghat mail". It is, of course, always e-mail - never our own more natural usage, e-post.

As an ex-American resident, I remain a big fan of baseball. But I sit over here and listen to people who know nothing of the games talk about ideas coming out of "left field". They speak about "three strikes and you're out" or "stepping up to the plate" without the foggiest idea what these phrases mean. I think the country has started to lose its own sense of itself.
In many respects, English and American are not coming together. When it comes to new technology, we often go our separate ways. They have cellphones - we have mobiles. We go to cash points or cash machines - they use ATMs. We have still never linked hands on motoring terminology - petrol, the boot, the bonnet, known in the US as gas, the trunk, the hood.

Yet in the course of my own lifetime, countless routine British usages have either been superseded or are being challenged by their American equivalents. We no longer watch a film, we go to the movies. We increasingly have trucks not lorries. A hike is now a wage or price rise not a walk in the country.

Ugly and pointless new usages appear in the media and drift into everyday conversation:
  • Faze, as in "it doesn't faze me"
  • Hospitalize, which really is a vile word
  • Wrench for spanner
  • Elevator for lift
  • Rookies for newcomers, who seem to have flown here via the sports pages.
  • Guy, less and less the centrepiece of the ancient British festival of 5 November - or, as it will soon be known, 11/5. Now someone of either gender.
  • And, starting to creep in, such horrors as ouster, the process of firing someone, and outage, meaning a power cut. I always read that as outrage. And it is just that.

I am all for a living, breathing language that evolves with the times. I accept that estate agents prefer to sell apartments rather than flats - they sound more enticing. I accept that we now have freight trains rather than goods trains - that's more accurate.

Many British people step up to the plate and have ideas out of left field.

I accept that sometimes American phrases have a vigour and vivacity. A relative of mine told me recently he went to a business meeting chaired by a Californian woman who wanted everyone to speak frankly. It was "open kimono". How's that for a vivid expression?

But what I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic - even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither.

Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version - the original version - of the English language.

This is an edited version of Matthew Engel's Four Thought broadcast.
 

Beware the Lurking Homonym

Yesterday I offered you some "big" words.  Today, I have some "little" ones. Do you remember homonyms?  Those pesky little words that sound exactly alike by are spelled in several different ways and had several different meanings?  In grade school I had a teacher who loved them. During quite periods, she taught us to play a game in which we made up sentences containing homonyms but substituted the word "teakettle" for the words themselves. The challenge was for the other students to identify the missing homonym.  The sentences sounded like this: "I teakettle would like teakettle eat teakettle  pieces of cake."

The game was just childish silliness, but it's not funny when a writer gets wrapped up in her story and types one homonym for another without noticing. Maybe you are writing a sympathetic description of an admirable politician  who suffered from great depravation -- or did you really mean to type deprivation? There's not a spell checker in the world who will catch an error like that. And there's no sure way to avoid making the occasional goof. About all you can do is take time to think about the words that cause you trouble.  Here's a baker's dozen that may trip you up when you are busily touch-typing.

• Cite (to summon, to quote, to refer to), Site (place, situation), Sight (view)
• Council (administrative or advisory group), Counsel (to advise, advice)
• Desert (waterless region, to abandon), Dessert (last course of a meal)
• Dew (moisture), Do (perform), Due (owed)
• Gait (manner of walking, Gate (door)
• Grate (iron frame), Great (large, magnificent)
• Haul (pull, carry, transport), Hall (passageway, large room)
• Here (in this place), Hear (to perceive sound, to sit in judgment)
• Idol (image, object of adoration), Idle (not busy), Idyl (poem)
• Leak (hole, to drain out of), Leek (vegetable)
• Made (created), Maid (domestic servant, unmarried woman)
• Meat (animal flesh food), Meet (a gathering, to encounter, to convene)
• Morning (before noon), Mourning (grieving, to grieve)

How Many Kinds of English Are There?

Yesterday, in the middle of finishing an edit of several chapters of my next book, I found myself caught up in an internet search for the "correct" use of a word. I can't reconstruct my series of clicks, but somehow I ended up on the
PBS website, following a series of articles on the way language shifts and changes what we do and what we believe. The technical term for this field of study is sociolinguistics -- a topic I had never studied. Nevertheless, I found that I held a number of assumptions, nearly all of which proved to be wrong. I thought:

1. TV and radio have made the English language more homogenized.
2. Regional dialects are disappearing.
3. Differences in black and white speech are disappearing.
4. There is such a thing as standard American English.
5. Pronunciation is tied to social status.

Now, I've lived in many parts of the U.S. in my adult life. After being educated in northern Ohio, I've lived in Washington State; Panama City, Florida; Key West; Ontario, Canada; Colorado; and Tennessee. Almost everywhere I've traveled, someone has said "You're not from around here, are you?" My son learned to talk in Canada, and for his entire life, he could startle me with his pronunciation of the word "about" -- not "abowt" but "aboot." I said "Huh?" He said "EH?"
Still, I thought those were just small differences.

As an English teacher, I insisted on "correct English" from my students. But this whole series of articles seemed bent on proving me wrong: TV has had NO effect on the way we speak. Regional and ethnic differences are becoming more distinct. And pronunciation depends almost entirely on where the speaker lives at any given time. Red States really do differ from Blue States. Maybe that's why we have so much trouble understanding each other.

The article that really caught my attention had to with a regional dialect known as "Northern English." A map showed that northern English is spoken in a region that stretches from the shores of the Great Lakes  through Minnesota, with another small section referred to as the "St. Louis Corridor." I recognized the location; I grew up in it. But here was the kicker. The writer, an internationally respected sociolinguist, argued that pronunciations in this region were undergoing a major vowel shift. It was, he said, a change that started in 1960 and is continuing today. He offered lots of examples; the one I remember best is the pronunciation of my middle name -- Ann. He argued that in 1960, Ann was pronounced with one syllable and a flat, open-mouthed a-- [an]. Today, in Cleveland, Ann is pronounced the same as the name Ian-[-ee-un]. That kind of vowel shift is as distinct as the one that occurred in the English language between 1400 and 1600.

My first reaction was to say, "No way!" But then I realized that I really didn't know what I was talking about. I left northern Ohio in 1961, just as the change began. And I have not been back since, except for short periods of one to three days. I haven't heard the shift in pronunciation, but I know that I no longer feel at home there. Maybe you really can't go home again.