Sunday, March 30, 2008

Isolated Idiomatic Interlocution

Language Log posted about a certain pedocide (made-up word; guess what it means) who spoke in a curious strain of French, the subjunctive imperfect. Apparently it's jarring to the French, and others find it very "weird" (for lack of a better linguistic term). And this first got me thinking about a few other friends of mine who speak in curious strains of English. If English were the realm of microbes, and dialects were specific diseases, then the one friend would speak in E.Coli.

But despite the grammatically correct forms of this Frenchman and two certain friends of mine, why is it that their speech sounds strange? Why do I convulse and cringe everytime I'm forced to edit one of their essays? And what is it that makes me have seisures every time I read a note or email from them?

I think, to a large extent, it all relates to the "norming" of speech, acquired through society and regular social contact. I'd think it's pretty fair to assume that a grown man who goes around baiting and gutting bambinas isn't in regular contact with a network for friends.

Similarly, the two friends of mine can be described as being relatively isolated, especially in a sociolinguistic context. Or maybe they're just dumb men who're deaf to the conventions of English that they're surrounded by everyday. Or maybe, they don't actively seek normal English speakers and instead isolate themselves to Korean Visa students to make themselves feel better for speaking English better than them.

But whatever the cause, the fact remains that the majority of their speech and speech patterns are drawn from written literature, without instruction or convention. "Since Shakespeare said it, it must therefore make my speech superior to the average English speaker" seems to be the sort of sentiment behind my friends' convoluted conversation.

Admittedly, I myself was such an individual when I was significantly younger. The books I read were childrens books from 1960 or earlier, and with strong British flavour. A particularly strong memory is one in which a Griffin was speaking to the protagonist, and used these strange words, like "eejit". It stuck with me for a very long time until I was linguistically mature enough to relate it to the North American "idiot", and further to understand that "eejit" was to reflect a Scottish pronunciation.

Still, I'd like to think that the amount of social contact I have now has normalised my personal vernacular enough to a point where I'm easily communicable to the general [well-educated] individual. It's usually pretty easy to tell whose language is saturated with meaning and education, and whose language is merely inflated with antiquated forms and pretentious phrases.

Speaking generally, everybody speaks a unique variant of English; their own personal dialect. And of course, these dialects can usually be fitted into certain cross-sections: by age, sex, geographical location, socio-economic background, etc. Thus, people from the west end of the city might speak differently from the east end; the elderly would speak differently from the teenagers; men speak differntly from women; the British peers would speak differently from the working class.

Naturally then, the closer one is to your personal cross-section of dialects, the more "normal" their speech would appear. And thus, by extension, if my friends were simply from a far-removed enough dialect region from mine, it would be understandable why I have trouble understanding them.

But even within the realm of dialects, there's a range or normalcy, and those who exist well beyond that range seem equally alien to all natural dialect speakers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shrewd Shrew

Today's post is about linguistic registers. Everybody speaks in a register, much in the same way that we all speak a unique dialect. (Anyone who disagrees, or is unfamiliar with this concept, a quick google search on "dialect" should appease the uneasy.) The distinction I would like to make for this post between a register and a dialect is that of regional versus socio-professional. Thus, the difference between a Texan and a Abendonian is a dialect, but the difference between a medical doctor and a philosopher is a register.

I have two profs whose speech patterns couldn't be any more different. Both are consistent with their personalities; the first one is pretty laid back and easy to talk to. He says things like, "Poetry is difficult. Poets intentionally made them difficult. So don't be worried or feel stupid if you find yourself asking simple questions like 'who's Alison?'". The second professor is significantly older, and seemingly a lot more rigid. He would say things like, "Poetry is difficult. I have graduate students who struggle with this stuff, so of course you would too. If you didn't, I don't deserve my pay cheque."

It's convenient that both profs have said similar things for me to compare. The first prof obviously has a better sense of the emotional response of human beings, and more specifically, that of students. The second clearly attempts humour to try to arouse comradery with the students, but who likes being told they're stupid?

But aside from the inherently condescending tone that the second prof dons, he has a second tactic to try to win our favour. He'll sometimes switch out of his professor register, and speak in words that aren't considered appropriate for an academic.

Like when he was lecturing on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. "A shrew is, in today's terms, a b*tch," he says, with much emphasis, seemingly deriving pleasure at being able to say such a naughty word in the classroom. "A b*tch," he repeats, for dramatic effect, or for himself?

Of course, there really isn't such a thing as a register police. Although if he starts saying religiously offensive things, I'm sure committees will soon have his head. But personally, I feel that there's a limit to what a professor is able to say, especially in the classroom. If a student were speaking with the professor individually, I don't have any qualms about him breaking things down into such base terms. But a lecture is different. A level of professionalism and decency is expected.

I suppose one good thing about having such profs is that I can learn (by contrast) how to be a good prof, or at the very least, to be an inoffensive one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Contraction Controvesy

I like alliteration. I don't consider it the high point of fine literature, but it's fun and easy to do.

Anyway. For some reason I was considering contraction pairs. "it is" becomes "it's", and "you will" becomes "you'll". And so on and so forth. But what happens when you get three words that can be contracted? "You will not" can be "you'll not" or "you won't". A quick google search reveals that "you won't" gets 69x more hits than "you'll not". And what about "it is not"? Should it be "it isn't" or "it's not"? Again, our quick google search shows that "it's not" is about 40x more used than "it isn't". Is there a subtle difference, or is it merely a mark of linguistic trend?

As a possible explanation for the first pair, I'd venture to say that the pronoun "you" is of higher ordinance (whatever that means), than the auxilliary verb "will", and therefore the contraction tends toward the lower-order word, resulting in "You won't". One could then argue that "you'll not" puts stronger emphasis on the negation (although I'm sure the latter construction could be easily a regional dialect thing).

So what about "it's not"? "It's not" is two syllables, whereas "it isn't" is three. Does the copular verb to be have a higher ordinance than the neuter pronoun it?

I really doubt my explanation holds any weight (especially since I only spent about 30 seconds coming up with it), but it certainly does make one wonder. Does one happen in a certain context more than another? It's easy to see if there's precedence, the negating parallel structure is easy to do.

A: "It's only a matter of time until the men in white coats come to get you"
B: (1) "It's not only a matter of time, it's a matter of how many men!"
(2) "It isn't only a matter of time, it's a matter of how many men!"

Is it this even a legitimate area of study for linguistics? Maybe, but it's not something I'd want to investigate for 8 months or more.

To close off with a fun fact of the day, let's look at some holes in the OED. For the word comparable they only have listed in the pronunciation "COM-pri-bull" instead of "com-PAIR-a-bull". But I've always pronounced it the 2nd way, and most Canadians I speak to also pronounce it that way. Does the OED only consider British and American standards to be worthy of their attention? How cruel.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Form and Formality

Generally, we tend to have this idea that the longer a title, the better it must be. Therefore, an archbishop must be several points holier than bishops, and grand dukes must be higher-born than dukes. However, consider "viscount" and "count" (or, in English, "earl"). Earls rank above viscounts in the peerage hierarchy.

Now, one that really gets me is "sir" and "sirrah". People assume that because "sirrah" is longer than "sir", it must therefore be more formal. Unfortunately, this is NOT so!

Sir is a general title of respect, and formally a title of knights and gentry. Sirrah, on the other hand, is a derogatory title used by the upper classes to address their lower peers or servants.

"You, sir, are a disgrace" - strong
"You, sirrah, are a disgrace" - stronger.

So the next time you want to thank someone for a service, please choose your words carefully. They may not be so forgiving the second time.

(In other news, I'm moving out of this hellhole into a [relative] paradise. Although once women move in as well, that may change...)

Computer Grammar

Sometimes, I seriously wonder about the thought that goes into grammar check in MS Word. Usually the grammar explanations make marginal sense, and the specific sentence in question is only partially corrected by accepting such simplistic generalisations. Today, however, I encountered something totally bizzare.
Original sentence: "What do you think is Chaucer's understanding of masculinity?"
MS Word suggestion: "What do you think is Chaucer understands of masculinity?"
The explanation?
Certain verbs cannot be paired with forms of the verb "to be." Use the simplest form of these verbs (without the "ing") when you write about present or past action.

Instead of: "Eris was preferring the opera to rock music."
Consider: "Eric preferred the opera to rock music."

Instead of: "Jonathan is needing a break in his studies."
Consider: "Jonathan needs a break in his studies."

How the heck does the computer think that "Chaucer's" = "Chaucer is", when it's immediately preceeded by an "is"!? So the computer thinks it's correcting "Chaucer is understanding ..." to "Chaucer understands". And, weirdly enough, when it is corrected to "What do you think is Chaucer understands of masculinity", the computer doesn't complain. Looks like grammar check still has a loooong way to go before it's considered useful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

National Grammar Day

So today is apparently National Grammar Day, where today is the third of the month of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand and eight.

Mixed feelings on the subject. As a university student, it's easy for "my kind" to jump at the chance to condemn others for being less than ourselves, but on the other hand, this is exactly the sort of propaganda that brought the Nazis and Communists to power, and subsequent ruin.

Ultimately, yes, language is an organic thing, and isn't controlled by a ruling committee. But philosophically speaking, it doesn't stand to reason why that fact doesn't mean that it shouldn't be. The Japanese have their little ministry, and their language is still as vibrant as ever.

So, I'll leave you with this humorous comic: