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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 5:13 pm on March 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    The Diacritics – Discerning Through Language 

    Welcome to The Diacritics home page! We’re here to talk about language. Not necessarily language arts or grammar (though that’s certainly part of it), but language in general—the ins and outs of the words we use to describe thoughts, feelings, objects, etc., and more importantly, the meaning behind those words.

    Language is a tricky thing. Not only are there hundreds of different languages spoken around the world, but within a particular language there are many different dialects, colloquialisms, different meanings for the same word, and so on. It is remarkable that with all our developments as a species—our technological advances, research discoveries, medical breakthroughs, inventions, etc.—we still have trouble understanding each other. All because of the complexities and intricacies of language.

    How ironic that the very tool we use to be understood—that is, language—is also one of the most common ways in which we can be misunderstood. That’s why language itself is such a captivating subject—the way we use it, the words we choose, the ways we speak, and even the nonverbal communication that accompanies it. Language is the paradox of our race.

    It would be great if we could find a way to standardize language, to make the same word mean the same thing all the time. But language just isn’t that way—it is constantly evolving. It isn’t a solid; it’s a fluid. Take English, for example. If you have ever heard The Canterbury Tales read out loud in its original form, you would swear you were listening to a different language. But you’re not. It’s English. It’s just that it’s English as it was spoken in the 14th Century–far, far removed from English as it sounds today. Isn’t it amazing how much a single language can change and evolve just over the span of a few hundred years? That’s just a part of what makes the study of language so intriguing.

    In the pages that follow, you’ll read a number of articles about the various intricacies, complexities, discrepancies and ironies of language. We’ll talk about everything from puns to slang, from dialects to evolving shades of meaning. We’ll talk about the ways in which we are improving communication, and the ways in which communication is still just as primitive as ever.

    We invite you on this journey with us, to study the mysteries of language. As you learn about language…you may learn a thing or two about yourself, as well.

    We are the Diacritics.

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 5:22 pm on September 2, 2012 Permalink | Reply  

    No pun intended 

    Dear readers—Thanks for your patience! It’s been a busy summer for The Diacritics, but we’re ready for another school-year full of language-related fun. Let’s get to it:

    I was recently in line at a Comcast customer center, waiting with my dad to return a cable box I no longer needed. This is not a fun experience—I don’t recommend it. But the DMV-esque wait did allow us to have a nice long conversation, something my dad and I don’t always get the chance to do. At one point we were discussing the kinds of law I might eventually be interested in practicing, and I told him I had enjoyed working on some appellate briefs this summer. His response? “Well, that sounds appealing.”

    I thought he was making a pun on the fact that I was describing cases that had been appealed to a higher court. He wasn’t, though—he was being unintentionally punny.

    Listen closely and you’ll hear unintentional puns all over the place. After hearing my dad’s, I was able to recall a couple of my own. I was once talking to a friend who was at the beach with his family, and I informed him that I hoped his week was going swimmingly. I intended no pun. Another time, I was shaving and realized that my blade was dull. I actually said out loud (to nobody in particular), “This just isn’t going to cut it.” Again, no pun intended.

    Other examples I’ve recently heard include visits to cool old churches being the “saving grace” of an otherwise unremarkable trip, and a person’s “only beef” with steakhouses being the size of the portions.

    It’s funny when one recognizes an unintentional pun, and it’s amazing how frequently they occur. But there’s actually a good linguistic/psychological explanation for them.

    The explanation involves something called “priming,” a simple but robust linguistic phenomenon. As its name suggests, the basic idea behind priming is that exposure to a given stimulus “primes” you to give a similar response to later stimuli. The best explanation for why this occurs is something called “spreading activation.” This is a fancy way of saying that when you’re exposed to a stimulus—it could be a word, a picture, or something else—it activates a particular association or representation in your brain. This representation or association remains at least partially activated for a good while, which means it will be accessed more quickly and easily in response to later stimuli. Because it’s more quickly and easily accessible, you’re more likely actually to come up with it. 

    It’s pretty easy to see a connection between priming and unintentional puns. When I said the word “appellate,” my dad’s brain was primed to come up with similar words. When he went to respond, he was looking for the equivalent of “that sounds like an interesting thing to do.” What word of that ilk is the first to come to mind? Appealing.

    Similarly when my buddy is at the beach, I’m primed for related words. So when I’m looking for a clever way of telling him to have a good time, what idiom better than “swimmingly”?

    The “appealing” and “swimmingly” unintentional puns are actually the result of different kinds of priming. The first is what’s known as “perceptual” priming, in which the actual words are similar in form. So “appellate” would prime “appealing” because the words are almost the same. “Table” would prime “tablet,” or maybe even “tabloid,” under this same reasoning.

    The other type of priming is what’s known as “conceptual” or “associative” priming. There, the initial word primes for words with related meanings, or for words that are typically associated with the initial word. When I was talking to my friend about his beach trip, I was primed to find the word “swim.” Or “table” might prime a person to find the word “chair.”

    So take heart—it turns out there’s a good reason the phrase “no pun intended” came into being. And don’t miss a beat next time you hear one, as there’s a good chance it wasn’t.

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 3:37 am on May 28, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammar girl, podcast   

    The Diacritics on Grammar Girl 

    One of Sandeep’s posts was adapted for a podcast produced by Grammar Girl.

    Read it and listen to it here, or download the podcast on iTunes.

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:30 am on January 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: affirmation, bible, britain, christianity, court, , i swear to tell the truth, , islam, justice, , , , religion, sharia, swear   

    I swear (affirm?) that I will tell the truth 

    I was watching a Kannada soap opera last night (because I have apparently become an elderly Indian woman as of late) and a scene in a courtroom caught my attention. One of the characters was being questioned, and before she gave her testimony she was asked to declare her intention to speak the truth.

    ಸತ್ಯವನ್ನು ಹೇಳುತ್ತೇನೆ , ಸತ್ಯವನಲ್ಲದೆ ಬೇರೆ ಏನು ಹೇಳುವುದಿಲ್ಲ , ನಾ ಹೇಳುವುದೆಲ್ಲ ಸತ್ಯ |

    satyavannu hēḷuttēne, satyavanallade bērēnu hēḷuvudilla, nānu hēḷuvudella satya

    I will speak the truth; I will not speak anything that isn’t true; everything I say is the truth.

    That segment caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

    First, that the declaration was different from our familiar U.S. oath, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

    But of course it wouldn’t be the same. While an objectively large number of people in India use English as a second or third language (some 125 millionaccording to the latest census, nearly half the population of the United States), that still only comes out to about 10 or 11 percent of the country’s population.

    It would be fundamentally unjust for court proceedings to be carried out in a language with which the parties were unfamiliar — even though that probably happens regularly, since there are only (!) 22 scheduled languages of India and hundreds more unrecognized dialects and minority languages.

    So, okay, the witness’s declaration was taken in Kannada. The action takes place in the state of Karnataka, where the two official languages are Kannada and English, so a witness could plausibly use either language. That makes sense. (Plus, it was a Kannada soap.)

    Another thing that caught my attention was that there was no religious sentiment expressed in the declaration. India is a highly religious country, with upwards of three-fourths of the country declaring that religion is important to them. In the U.S., that rate is a little lower, at 65%, but the most famous form of our witness declaration here does explicitly invoke God — “… so help me God,” a line that is usually delivered, scripted, by court bailiffs, along with a Bible.

    In American law, an oath specifically references God. The OED agrees: an oath is specifically a type of declaration that “invokes God, a god, or other object of reverence.” Those who don’t want to make an oath instead provide an “affirmation,” which starts with “I affirm…” instead of “I swear…” and omits the reference to God. Affirming is referenced four times in the U.S. Constitution as an alternative to swearing, and Britain has allowed affirmations instead of swearing since 1695.

    Regardless of whether you swear or affirm, if you lie, you can be charged with perjury, a serious crime.

    Other declarations abroad
    In Britain, oaths are given slightly differently from the American version:

    I swear by [Almighty God/Name of God/name of the holy scripture] that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Affirmations in Britain require several more hedges than an oath, perhaps because of a cultural suspicion against people who affirm rather than swear: “I swear to tell the truth…” is such a well-known phrase that any deviance from that — regardless of how legal it is — can be regarded with suspicion.

    In Britain, one doesn’t simply “affirm” — one solemnly and sincerely and truly declares and affirms:

    I do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    In the U.S., one can simply affirm. Atheist and former Governor of California Culbert Olson, in office from 1939 to 1943, famously said to California Supreme Court Justice Waste, “God [can't] help me at all, and there isn’t any such person.” He chose to say “I will affirm,” rather than “I swear” during his oath of office.

    According to one of my friends in France (hi, Benoît!), the common declaration given by witnesses in France is:

    Je jure de parler sans haine et sans crainte, de dire toute la vérité, rien que la vérité.

    I swear to speak without anger and without fear, to say the entire truth, nothing but the truth.

    My friend writes, “Because France is a non-religious country, there isn’t any trace of God in any institutions.” I’m sure truth is more nuanced than that, but the French people are certainly less religious than the United States. But the word – jurer – used in the oath is similar to “swear.” Jurer usually carries the same valence as the English “swear” (in that it has religious undertones) and it also has the same secondary meaning of “to curse.” But jurer can also translate to “certify” or “pledge,” words that carry no religious undertones in English.

    Another one of my friends, a walking encyclopedia of Islam (hi, Ahmad!), gave me an overview of Muslim declarations of truthfulness. In many majority-Muslim countries, cases that are tried under Shari’ah law (today, usually family law disputes) require an oath to be given by witnesses. However, unlike Western civil courts, the oath is traditionally given after testimony is given. Once the judge collects all the testimony, he asks the parties to swear on the Qur’an or by God that what they have said is true, or else bringing upon them divine wrath. (Incidentally, this traditional oath appeared in the recent Golden Globe-winning Iranian film A Separation, which I highly recommend.)

    Back home

    The U.S. government is explicitly areligious, but a profession of faith is built directly into the common understanding of court procedure. Of course, there’s no law requiring nonbelievers to swear. But it’s undeniably unfair when free deviance from a set religious phrase, scripted and delivered by a court’s bailiff, could color a jury or judge’s perception of a witness. We shouldn’t be suspicious of someone who affirms more than someone who swears, but many of us are.

    Eliminating “I swear…” probably won’t help, but maybe raising the profile of “I affirm…” as an option for nonbelievers (and even believers who object to swearing in a civil setting) will help make the process fairer.

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 4:32 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply  


    Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve reached a milestone. Our domain is now officiallyhttp://www.thediacritics.com!

    Subscribers, don’t worry–you don’t need to change anything. Also, our WordPress domain will redirect you to the new site automatically.

    Oh, and new posts to come soon!

    -John and Sandeep

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 1:19 pm on January 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cyrillic, dear leader, dprk, hangul, hanja, hanzi, kim il-sung, kim jong-il, kim jong-il looking at things, korean, , naming conventions, north korea, russia   

    What’s in a Kim? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I’ve been fascinated by North Korea’s late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il for a while now — not just because he liked to look at things or because he died, although many people agree that those were two of his more positive qualities.

    Kim Jong-il looking at a leaflet.

    The reclusive state that he, and his father before him, maintained affected the development of the Korean language in the North by setting forth new standards (via official pronouncements in 1964, 1966, and 1987), which solidified differences between the Seoul and Pyongyang dialects. And while general daily vocabulary is based on a pre-partition standard, South Korean uses a lot of foreign borrowings from languages like English, whose influence is all but absent in the North.

    I was also surprised to learn that Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia with the name Yuri Irsenovich Kim. I couldn’t find any information about that discrepancy, so I did a little sleuthing.

    Kim Jong-il looking at names

    Korean naming conventions place the family name (here, Kim) at the beginning of the name. The name 김, Kim (pronounced /kim/, often mistakenly heard as “gim” because the /k/ is unaspirated) is the most common surname in Korea, with nearly 22% of Koreans named Kim. The name is derived from the Chinese hanzi (called hanja in Korean) 金, jīn, which means gold. In fact, nearly all popular Korean names derive their meaning from Chinese, and are often written in hanzi as well.

    The second part of Kim Jong-il’s name is derived from 正, zhèng (hanja), written 정 jeong (hangul), which means “straight” or “correct.” The third part is derived from 日, rì (hanja), written 일 il (hangul), which means “day.”

    Kim Jong-il named his sons using a generational name, keeping the character 정 jeong in all of them — Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul, and finally Kim Jong-un (the current Supreme Leader), although he didn’t do the same for his eldest child, a daughter, Kim Sul-song. Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, kept the character 일 il in his son’s name.

    That all does little, of course, to illuminate Kim Jong-il’s Russian name, Yuri Irsenovich Kim. For that we turn to the Slavs, whose naming conventions differ widely from the Koreans.

    Who is Kim Ir Sen?

    Russians place the family name (Kim) at the end. For males, the second name is a patronym, which means that it’s derived from the father’s name. If Yuri’s father’s name was Ivan, then his second name would be Ivanovich, like cosmonaut Yuri Ivanovich Malechenko. If Vladimir’s father’s name was Vladimir, then his second name would be Vladimirovich, like Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

    So this means that Kim Jong-il’s father’s name was Irsen, right? Right.

    Wait, what? Sort of.

    Kim Jong-il’s father, as we all know, was Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea. In Russian, his name was transliterated Ким Ир Сен, Kim Ir Sen. That form is the most commonly used Cyrillic transliteration of Kim Il-sung’s name. However, under the standardized Kontsevich system of transliterating Korean hangul into Cyrillic, his name would be spelled Ким Ильсо́н, Kim Il’són. The Kontsevich system is the main system for Korean transliteration in Russia, but proper nouns such as names are still often treated differently. (Indians can relate to this discrepancy — for example, while my name would be transliterated saṃdīp, it’s most commonly written in English as Sandeep.)

    What a happy brutal autocrat!

    The border between the liquids /l/ and /ɾ/ is frail in Korean, and a word spelled using /l/ can be pronounced as /ɾ/ depending on its position between vowels or at the end of words. However, the “l” in Il-sung is not located in one of those places. Instead, the Russian transliteration of Il-sung as Ир Сен Ir Sen seems to be a sound change that occurred in Russian, not Korean. I’m not familiar with Russian phonology, so maybe somebody can explain in the comments why his name is spelled with “р” r, not “л” l.

    But… Yuri?

    The name “Yuri” is derived from the Greek word γεωργός geōrgos, which roughly means farmer. It’s unlikely that naming Kim Jong-il “Yuri” was an attempt to translate “Jong-il” into Russian, because the component parts of Jong-il translate into “straight” and “day.” Maybe Kim Il-sung just really liked the name Yuri for his son.

    Yuri is a nice name, although if Kim Jong-il had kept it, he probably would have been teased on the playground — Yuri (유리, transliterated yuli but pronounced /ju:ɾi/) is a girl’s name in Korea.

    And nobody — nobody – teases the Dear Leader.

    So there you have it — a “look” at Korean and Russian names. Kim Jong-il — sorry, I mean Yuri Irsenovich Kim — would have been proud:

    Yuri Kim looking at jam.

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:00 am on December 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ape, cormac mccarthy, , evolutionary anthropology, , monkey,   

    Aping McCarthy 

    [This is a guest post from my friend and former research colleague Joel Bray, a junior at Duke studying evolutionary anthropology. He is recently back from projects and adventures in Uganda and Madagascar and writes about his experiences and all things primate here. -S.]

    I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian, an epic tale about the depravity and brutality of the American Old West, revolving around a teenage boy who joins a band of Native American scalp hunters. An unpleasant read, to say the least.

    I was struck, however, as any good primatologist should be, by McCarthy’s obsession with the word “ape.” He uses it not once, not twice, but nine times throughout the story to describe the primitiveness and wretchedness of humanity. For example:

    • “Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.”
    • “He turned to the men and smiled and they once again began to hoot and to pummel one another like apes.”
    • “They were half naked and they sucked their teeth and snuffled and stirred and picked at themselves like apes.”
    • “…where the company sat among the rocks without fire or bread or camaraderie any more than banded apes.”

    The frequent use of “ape” got me thinking about the word’s etymology and current popular usage. I did some browsing on the web, and it appears that the word can be traced to pre-12th century and has its roots in Middle English, from the Old English apa. Its origin is uncertain, possibly alluding to animal chatter, but it seems to have first referred to all primates and was a synonym for “monkey.” Since medieval times, it was believed that apes were prone to imitative human behavior, and the word was used to describe a “fool,” leading to the modern, secondary definitions of “ape” as a mimic, or large uncouth person. Recent cognitive studies suggest, however, that humans are in fact the expert imitators, which explains why you see children mimicking ape behavior at the zoo more often than the reverse.

    As the use of “ape” among the public changed over the centuries, so did the biological definition evolve over time with advances in our scientific understanding of primates. For a long period, and even among some holdouts today, it was used to describe all members of Hominoidea except humans. Homo sapiens remained exceptional until recently, when they were finally placed within the other apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons — a victory for monophyly (grouping all descendants of a common ancestor together).

    Colloquially, “ape” and monkey” continue to be used interchangeably to the constant vexation of primatologists (shortcut: monkeys have tails, apes do not). From personal experience, if and when people do differentiate, “monkey” simply refers to all primates while “ape” retains some specificity. To be fair, even “monkey” refers to a paraphyletic group (a group descended from a common ancestor, but not including all descendants) and thus is not reflective of true evolutionary history, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    An amateur investigation at Google Translator suggests that most languages (Spanish, Dutch, French, Korean, Portuguese, Arabic, German – exceptions include Japanese and Chinese) do not even distinguish between the two and use the same word or character for both. For example, in Spanish “mono” means both “monkey” and “ape,” although due to English influence there seems to be a movement for the less-used “simio” to signify “ape,” though traditionally it too refers to both. Complementing this usage is the phrase “grandes simios,” or great apes, which parallels the English in referring to all apes except gibbons.

    Other languages likely have similar etymological histories. However, since English is the modern language of science, it may have been the prime mover in officially separating the two words and their meanings. That being said, I’d be curious to know if languages from regions of the world that are home to both apes and monkeys (e.g. equatorial Africa, Indonesia) have historically had more subtle terminology to describe them. [The English word "orangutan" comes from the Indonesian/Malay words orang hutan, forest man, suggesting that Indonesians viewed orangutans as more similar to humans. The word kera is translated as both "monkey" and "ape," but in a scientific context monyet is "monkey" and kera is "ape." --ed.]

    Ultimately, with such a complicated and dynamic etymological and evolutionary history, it’s no surprise that the public can hardly keep up with the wishes of primatologists on what to call the primates. I won’t give up the good fight, but I realize that it’s pretty much a big deal to fewer than a hundred people on the entire planet.

    Thinking back to the connotations in Blood Meridian though, I would like to know how other people perceive the word “ape” and what it suggests to them. So I ask you: does ape make you think smart, thoughtful, creative? Or primitive, nonhuman, backwards? Do you imagine monkeys? Savages? King Kong? Yourself?

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:11 am on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english teachers, , , , ,   

    Speaking with precision 

    (posted by John)

    My first semester of law school is drawing to a close, so I thought I would write about something I heard on my very first day. I’ve been mulling it over since then, partially because at first blush it runs so against my beliefs about prescriptivism and the ‘rightness’ of one person’s language over another’s. Professor John Langbein finished his riveting orientation talk on the history of law schools in America with a lament about the debasement of the English language my generation is committing. My immediate reaction, as you might guess, was a bit of haughty “This old fogey just doesn’t get it. Prescriptivism is dumb!”

    But on at least some level, he was right. Professor Langbein’s point was not that language shouldn’t change because change is bad. His point was that it’s easy to lose some of the aspects of language most valuable—especially to someone trying to become a lawyer. To me his most potent example was the loss of precision in language, which he blamed on the overlarge number of outlets for spewing our thoughts to others. Cell phone, text, facebook, twitter—you catch the drift I’m sure. It seems every major newspaper has a bi-monthly requirement for an editorial talking about the over-share phenomenon of Facebook status and twitter updates.

    Langbein wasn’t quite talking about this, though. Think about a recent conversation you’ve had, in which you related the contents of an interaction with another person. Did it run something along the lines of “I was like . . .Then he was like . . . Then I was just like whatever and left.” It may not have, but if you do some good ol’ eavesdropping on the street you’re sure to hear something like it. (Or if you’re lucky you might get “And I was all . . . Then she was all . . . Then I was all . . . .” ). This is one of the things (<– there’s another one of them) that dismayed Professor Langbein. “Is that really what you were like?” He asked us. He gave other examples, too. Overusing “thing” was one of them. Another was prefacing a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express with “You know, uh, . . . ,” and then proceeding on our muddled way. Another was compensating for a poorly-thought-out sentence by ending it with an “. . . or whatever.”

    We can all get our point across using imprecise language, and the linguist in me recoils at the thought of saying it’s actually ‘wrong’ to do so. But you can be sure that being imprecise is the one of the quickest routes to becoming an inept law student (not to mention a bad lawyer).

    So I’ll cede the point: it is worthwhile to attempt to be precise in language. If we don’t use linguistic vagaries like “or whatever” and if we avoid saying “thing” whenever the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, it forces us to organize our thoughts more clearly. Using precise language makes us think more precisely. I tried spending a day saying precisely what I meant every time I spoke. It was exceedingly difficult, but it seemed helpful in terms of my mental organization.

    Based on our knowledge of how language allows us to think complex thoughts in the first place, it makes sense that being more precise in our speech would make us more precise in our thinking. I wrote a post a while back looking at some of Liz Spelke’s experiments that suggest language lets otherwise distinct, insulated modules of intelligence interact, thereby making us ‘smart’ compared to other species. One experiment I didn’t discuss there shows that language allows us to grasp the concept of “sets of individuals.” Babies and monkeys can distinguish “individuals” and they can distinguish “sets,” and when the set is less than four items large, they recognize that adding or subtracting an individual changes the size of the set. But when the set is larger than four, they cannot combine the representations of ‘set’ and ‘individual’ to understand that it is a “set of individuals” such that adding or subtracting one changes the quantity. Only once we have language is this possible.

    There are also sad but interesting cases of so-called ‘feral children‘ who have been deprived of exposure to language from a very young age.  These people never fully learn a language. They also are unable to perform tasks indicative of ‘higher’ human intelligence—for example distinguishing which of two massed quantities is larger.  According to still more research by Spelke and others, children without language and other animals like monkeys can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities at a ratio of about 2:1. If the quantitates get much closer in number, it becomes difficult for them to guess correctly. Humans with language can do this at a considerably better rate.

    Finally, the emergence of language, some have argued, is associated with a cultural explosion of sorts; more complex tools, recursive patterns on bits of pottery, even materials that look like they could be used to go fishing. The idea is that language allowed us to do the ‘higher thought’ necessary to develop culture.

    All of this evidence suggests that we are able to think complex, highly structured thoughts in large part because we have language. It also suggests I should take Professor Langbein’s advice: you know, try not to be like, “Let’s speak more clearly or whatever.”

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 1:18 pm on December 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bad lip reading, dubs, fake english, funny, history of english, , , mcgurk effect, , videos   

    Lots of language videos 

    Stephen Fry rails against pedantic prescriptivists: “Sod them to Hades!”

    Bad Lip Reading, whose hilarious dubs bring to mind the McGurk Effect, reimagines the words of disgraced Republican candidate Herman Cain: “Mexican people don’t eat sugar, especially when it’s a mixture of lice and tiger DNA!”

    The Open University describes the history of English in a charming cartoon video.

    Finally, short film capturing the cadences and sounds of normal spoken English, but utterly nonsensical. Apparently intended to show how American English sounds to others. (Family Guy trades it back, making fun of how British English sounds to Americans.)

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:35 am on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alcohol, , crazy english, drinking inhibition, language learning, second language,   

    Drinking in language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    This article originally appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on October 21, 2010.

    My friends and I were on the C-1 bus a few weekends ago, leaving an off-East Campus house to get to West and catch the Robertson bus to Chapel Hill. I had just turned 21, and I was looking forward to my first night out barhopping since I had come back stateside.

    Some of our fellow passengers had been drinking, and the heady odor of beer and rushed vodka shots overpowered the bus and began to give me a healthy buzz.

    More than the stench, though, my mind was on the two red-faced freshmen next to me, who were engaged in an enthusiastic, but obviously slurred, conversation in Spanish. Their grammar was poor and their pronunciation worse, but it sure looked like they were having fun. If they were in the middle of an oral exam, they would have scored low on structure but high on confidence.

    Does drinking alcohol help people speak other languages?

    Every student knows that being embarrassed is one of the cornerstones of the difficult process of learning another language. After all, we students are visitors in a new world. For those who are used to easy academic success, stumbling over verbs or gendered nouns can be stressful or disheartening.

    So in response, we inhibit. We mumble when we’re called on in class, or we clamp up in conversation. We don’t speak the language outside of the classroom. We’re intimidated by students whose abilities seem greater than our own. Our teachers tell us to be fluid and open to mistakes—practicing is important, after all—but their pleas aren’t always convincing.

    This, my friends, is where alcohol comes in.

    We all know what drinking does, whether through observation or participation. People with “liquid courage” are more likely to do or say things that they might have been reluctant to while sober.

    The fear of embarrassment fades away with every ounce of rum. Inhibitory control slips out of our hands like a wet beer can. People loosen up, and some of us are more sociable and talkative after a few. Many of the neurological processes at work when your roommate jumps on top of the bar at Shooters are the same as when he later whispers je t’aime in the ears of his dancing partner. Our uninhibited behavior is mirrored in our speech.

    And maybe because some of us drink to become someone else—a party alter ego—speaking a foreign language fulfills some sort of urbane, globetrotting identity that we aspire to embody.

    I’m not recommending downing a dozen steins whenever you need to practice German. Yes, moderate amounts of alcohol might help with practicing a language. And associating positive memories with foreign language use can prime you to perform better. You might even form a good friendship with a foreigner over a few bilingual drinks.

    But drinking probably won’t help you learn the basics of a language, because studying demands a clear mind.

    Researchers studying second-language acquisition have identified two aspects of learning another language: one that is automatic (e.g., an understanding of simple grammar based on one’s mother tongue) and another that is memorized (e.g., vocabulary). Students usually feel comfortable with the first and stumble over the second. When people drink, though, their loss of inhibition probably facilitates memorized language, even if they are making mistakes.

    As with all things alcoholic, using language under the influence presents a mixed bag. The rewards are there, but they are lost when people binge.

    People’s inhibition disappears with every sip in a binge, and so does their awareness. Very drunk people might believe that they are smooth or charming or balanced, but they are often none of those. Similarly, when drunken foreign language speakers believe that they are using proper grammar and pronunciation, they are often sloppy and incoherent. And practice is useless if you don’t remember it the next morning.

    But maybe we don’t even have to drink to take advantage of the benefits of alcohol.

    Li Yang, a Chinese entrepreneur, certainly thinks so. His “Crazy English” program centers on his conviction that orthodox teaching is ineffective. Instead, Li’s students jump up and shout English phrases in the classroom, on buses and from rooftops. The goal is to eliminate embarrassment, curb inhibition and facilitate a positive social environment.

    Crazy English sounds a little bit like last weekend’s Crazy Party. But it ditches the spiked punch and concentrates on making language learning fun and communal. It has been astoundingly successful: over 20 million people have taken a Crazy English course in the last 15 years.

    The success of this program demonstrates that a student doesn’t necessarily need to drink before her oral exam to get a good grade. Language students can be uninhibited without alcohol. Maybe a fun, worldly identity can be crafted without it, too. Whether or not you drink, your learning experience is affected by your confidence.

    Maybe next time you’re studying for a language exam, you should try the Crazy method and shout for practice. Lose control. Make a fool of yourself. Climb onto a rooftop and let the quad echo with vocabulary from Haitian Creole or Arabic 125. Imagine you’re fully bilingual. Drink in the language experience.

    Whether or not this study session requires alcohol is none of my business, of course. Liquid or dry, the courage is the same. I just hope I overhear you on the bus next weekend.

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