Why “The Diacritics?” Why have a website about language? Why talk about talking?

The best way to answer is with a story.

We knew of a girl who was half German, half Sri Lankan, made her home in Hong Kong, and spoke British English. (Talk about an international student.)

This girl attended college in the United States. During her freshman year, she needed to erase something on her paper, but she didn’t have an eraser handy. In the seat next to her was a young man who had an eraser on his desk. The young lady asked the man in her British accent if she could borrow his “rubber.”

In British English, a “rubber” is an eraser. In America, it is a slang term for condom.

You can imagine what transpired. Embarrassed, the young man tried to ignore the girl and continue studying. The girl, an outgoing person, persisted and asked a couple of times more to borrow his “rubber.” Finally, the young man whispered back through clenched teeth, “I don’t have a rubber.”

Still not understanding the mis-understanding, the girl felt hurt by the young man’s apparent meanness. Of course he had a rubber; she could see it right there on the desk! It wasn’t until after the incident that she figured out what the term “rubber” meant to a college guy in America. These two people were speaking the same language, but they absolutely were not communicating. When she shared the story later, we all had a good laugh about it.

While funny, this story illustrates a key point about language: just because we have a word to describe something, it doesn’t mean people will understand what we mean. This is because language is fluid—ever changing, meaning different things to different people. And this is just one part of the intricacies of language—there are also dialects to consider. When you consider the possible extremes of dialects just within the English language, it it sometimes difficult to imagine that it is all the same language. If you put someone with a strong Boston accent in the same room with a Cajun from the deep south, there’s a high probability that the one will not understand a word the other is saying. Yet they are both speaking English!

This is what makes a discussion of language so interesting and intriguing—realizing the different ways that we can mis-communicate even while trying as hard as we can to make ourselves clear. This is the mystery and beauty of language. And this is why The Diacritics website exists. Enjoy!