Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Conversation: 'untranslatable' words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

I wrote a piece for The Conversation recently, which I'm reposting here just in case you haven't seen it yet.

Language: 'untranslatable' words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

File 20180806 191038 ewcqb9.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Say what? Shutterstock
Laura Bailey, University of Kent
When the word “hygge” became popular outside Denmark a few years ago, it seemed the perfect way to express the feeling of wrapping yourself up in a crocheted blanket with a cosy jumper, a cup of tea and back-to-back episodes of The Bridge. But is it really only the Danes, with their cold Scandinavian evenings, who could have come up with a word for such a specific concept? And is it only the Swedes who could have needed the verb “fika” to describe chatting over a coffee?
The internet abounds with words that lack a single-word English equivalent. In order to be really lacking an English equivalent, it must be a single, indivisible unit of meaning, as phrases are infinitely productive and can be created on demand by combining different words. Take, for example, the claim by Adam Jacot de Boinod in I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, that Malay has a word for the gap between the teeth that English lacks: “gigi rongak”. Well, this appears to be a phrase, and it translates literally as the perfectly cromulent English phrase “tooth gap”.
In fact, English even has a single-word technical term for a gap between the teeth: “diastema”. Okay, that’s actually a Greek word, but it’s in use in English, so it’s also an English word. Does that matter?
Where we get our words from tells us something about our history. Take, for instance, Quechua – the language spoken by people indigenous to the Andes and the South American highlands. The Quechuan word for “book” is “liwru”, which comes from the Spanish word “libro”, because Spanish colonisers introduced written forms of language to the people they conquered. In fact, English does now have a word for “hygge” – it’s “hygge”.

Cultures in language

It is often said that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but it’s a myth that has been comprehensively dismantled, probably first of all by Laura Martin in 1986. “Eskimo” is a somewhat meaningless term anyway, but the structure of the languages spoken by peoples such as the Inuit or Aleut in the Arctic Circle are very synthetic, meaning that each “word” may comprise many parts or “morphemes”.
Entire phrases can be contained within words in these languages – a single “word” may literally mean “fallen snow”. For that reason, “having 50 words for snow” in these languages is about as remarkable as having 50 sentences to talk about snow in English.

The ‘50 words for snow’ fallacy is a perfect example of misreading a culture. Shutterstock

And yet the myth and others like it snowball, because we are fascinated by the idea that language reveals something about our psyche – or perhaps even determines it. The economist Keith Chen has devoted some considerable effort to demonstrating that speakers of languages that grammatically encode the future and the present separately behave more recklessly with respect to their health and money. He argues that it shows that overt future tense marking makes a speaker more aware of the future as a separate time from the present and thus more distant, which has a corresponding effect on behaviour.
Many linguists have some reservations about his conclusions, but the main claim hit the news and people were intrigued by the idea.

False cultural judgements

While careful experimentation has shown that having words for concepts makes them easier or faster to name, it is not true that lacking a concept means you cannot conceive of it, and vice versa. For instance, many languages have gender-neutral pronouns (the same word is used for he and she) but are spoken in cultures with very poor levels of gender equality.
This might seem obvious – it’s Orwell’s Newspeak (from 1984) in action. In Orwell’s dystopia, the word “free” was stripped of all meaning of individual freedoms and could be used only in the sense of a dog being free from lice, which in turn was supposed to remove the ability of the citizens of Oceania to conceive of such freedom. But it is not just science fiction. There is an important note of caution that linguists are always aware of: making claims about other cultures risks “exoticising” them.

A mural depicting indigenous people in Arizona. Shutterstock

At worst, this results in racism. The Hopi people of Arizona, who are sometimes claimed to have no way to express time based on a misunderstanding of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s work on their language, were assumed by some to be incapable of following bus timetables or arriving at work on schedule, a mistaken belief that led to obvious problems.
But even an apparently benign conclusion about how some Australian languages encode space with compass directions (“north”) rather than ego-relative position (“my left-hand side”) suggests English speakers often miss out on knowledge about language and cognition because they are busy measuring things against an arbitrary English-centric benchmark. Different language conventions are usually not exotic or unusual; it’s just that English speakers come from a position of very great privilege because their language is the default. People who speak other languages are seen as different, as outsiders.
The Conversation
I’m not a total killjoy. I still delight in “untranslatable” words. It’s something special to learn a word and along with it make concrete a nebulous but recognisable concept like hygge, or indeed its wonderfully chilling opposite, uhygge. I just suggest a position of healthy scepticism when you meet claims that a language has “no word for X” or “50 words for Y”, or, as the internet recently got excited about, that “tag” stands for “touch and go” (sorry folks, it doesn’t).
Laura Bailey, Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Kent
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Trump and sensitive editing

Trump (who I don't blog about much because I don't think it's helpful to criticise his poor command of language when he is so unbelievably awful in so many other more important ways) has been mocked on twitter again. He used the phrase [they] pour over my tweets rather than pore over. This is a very common mistake; lots of perfectly intelligent people also make it; it's not transparent enough for it to be a thing you could work out. You just either know it or you don't. In most uses, pore is a little hole for your skin to breathe through, so it's not obvious why it should mean 'gaze intently', and in fact we don't know where that meaning comes from - we just have it recorded in early English writing and without a known origin. So I'm not going to beat Trump up for not knowing that, but the internet did. The problem was that he used it in a tweet where he explicitly said how good his written English was, and a version of Muphry's Law states that if you write anything praising your accurate writing, there'll be an error in it.

So let's look at this positively. Lot's of people just corrected the spelling of pore, others pointed out other less-than-brilliant aspects of the writing in the original tweet, but this person, a writer himself, edited the tweet to read much better:

There's a commonly-criticised error in the original tweet, which Michael hasn't fixed: the dangling participle(s) at the beginning. Normally, people are keen to point out the comedy of such constructions (Plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite Falls). But in this case, it's fine: the potential confound is it, which is what we call an expletive, which means that it doesn't mean anything so you can't accidentally interpret the modifier as modifying it. And it sets up the context for the rest of the tweet nicely, so it's a perfectly acceptable construction.

Secondly, Michael has actually introduced a split infinitive (to constantly pore). I'm a big fan of these, especially if they make a sentence read better, which they often do, and which it definitely does in this case. It's not the liking that's constant, it's the poring, and the rhythm is also nicer in my opinion.

I like this sensitive editing with attention paid to how the tweet sounds and no rigid adherence to the rules given that it is a tweet. If you're an editor for a newspaper whose style guide says no split infinitives, then you must remove all split infinitives and that's it. But if you do have a choice, then it's good to be able to use them where it improves a thing.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Danny Dyer should be held account for it

Danny Dyer was briefly everyone's favourite wideboy again last week when he called David Cameron a 'twat' on telly, twice. Here's a link to the Guardian's round-up of the twitter response, with video.

As well as his well-chosen epithet, he also said this:
“How comes he can scuttle off? He called all this on. Where is he? He’s in Europe, in Nice, with his trotters up, yeah, where is the geezer? I think he should be held account for it.”
He repeated that phrase: he should be held account for it. If you've been paying attention to my research interests lately, you'll know that I collect missing prepositions. The most frequently omitted preposition, by far, is to in a directional sense with a familiar location: I'm going to the pub, for instance. (The article the is also omitted; that's not relevant today.) Now, this phrase of Danny Dyer's is normally held to account. He skipped the to. Might this be the same kind of thing?

I think not, partly because this to doesn't have the same characteristics as the commonly-omitted kind. While it is a preposition, it's part of an idiom and doesn't have any directional meaning. It just holds the whole thing together. You can function perfectly well without it without losing any meaning, as demonstrated by Danny himself. The other thing that to my mind makes it more likely that this is a simple speech error is the existence of the basically synonymous phrase held accountable. Then, the to isn't present at all, so it's a straightforward process to mix the two up and come out with held account.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Miss Bailey, a lady doctor

Female academics on twitter have been adding their 'Dr' title to their handle today (I've done it too) to make a point. A discussion has been taking place about how women with PhDs routinely find it harder than men to have their knowledge and expertise in their field recognised. It's actually a lot more complicated than that, because people have been accused of saying that people without PhDs can't be experts (not true, of course) and that they shouldn't proclaim themselves 'Dr' 'simply' for having a PhD (a bizarre claim, as there's nothing simple about it and... you are a doctor if you have a PhD?) and also the general nonsense that you get whenever you say anything feminist on the internet.

I've seen others disagreeing with this practice as it seems exclusionary to them, and I don't normally have my title in my handle for the same reasons I don't insist on it in everyday life - a title just isn't necessary, and it can make people feel like you're trying to be better than them. I've done it today, because I also think that we should be allowed to use that title when it's relevant without it being seen as showing off or being immodest - and my twitter is semi-professional, so it is appropriate to use my professional name and title.

I also expect people who address me as "[title] Bailey" to use it, because it's my title and that is what should be written on their computer screen (the only people who use my title are cold callers). If they prefer not to, then they should absolutely use 'Ms', and definitely not 'Miss' or 'Mrs', as neither of those is accurate. (Mx would also be ok but that's yet to catch on very much.)

I most definitely do not expect non-academic people in my everyday life to use 'Dr'. For example, the removal men who are currently moving all of our offices at work do not need to call me anything but Laura. This is partly a balance of power thing: I am relatively in a position of power if they are effectively doing a job for me (moving my office). But they are relatively in a position of power too, because they are men and I'm a woman. The other day two of them were talking outside my open office door (so they knew I could hear) about who on my corridor needed a crate delivered. One, reading off a list, said "Dr Laura Bailey. One crate." His colleague, who sounded very young, repeated "One crate for Miss Bailey", and that use of 'Miss' instantly made me feel infantilised, disrespected, and powerless. (He went on to repeat my colleagues' European surnames with gleeful incredulity, which endeared him to me even less.) That opportunity for casual delegitimisation by using a title that inherently includes youth, powerlessness, lack of authority is why I put 'Dr' into my twitter handle today.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

It ain't nothin'

I've talked about 'double negation' before, by which I really mean negative concord: using two negative elements in one clause to give a single negative meaning. I've pointed out how it makes no sense to argue against it on the grounds of it being illogical (it isn't), and I usually say that in context, you can always understand what the speaker means. That's more or less true in speech, when you have intonation to help you out. But in writing, without that clue, sometimes the context isn't quite enough. I found this example in a friend's facebook post:
15 days in jail, which ain't nothin'. 
The context really didn't tell me if 15 days was a lot or not much for the crime in question, and so without the intonational cues (in my crude non-expert terms, whether you'd give stress to both ain't and nothin' or just to nothin') I couldn't tell if he meant that 15 days was a significant time, or that 15 days was nothing at all.

Monday, 9 April 2018

ELL Undergraduate Conference 2018

We had our annual undergraduate conference on Saturday, where our dissertation students presented their work. I normally Storify the tweets but they're killing the service in May, so I've just collected the hashtag here (so they're in the wrong order chronologically):

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Can you buy macarons here?

Google sometimes asks me questions, via my phone, about places I've been to so that it can improve its information about businesses when people search for them. These are very revealing about what people search for, Google's insistence on not Britishising its communication, and the way that search data translates into queries.

Let's take the straightforward non-British terminology first. Google knows that these are places in the UK, and that I am a UK user. I've been annoyed before by how my phone's autocorrect only seems to know US places and spellings, and even the grammar is American (certain contractions that are more used in the UK don't come up in the suggested words, for instance). In its common questions are the following:
Is there a restroom here?
Is this place popular with travelers?
Is there a parking lot or structure?
The last one is specially for my friend and colleague Christina, who is very interested in who uses 'structure' to refer to what we (British people, I guess there might be variation but I don't know about it) would call a multi-storey (or underground) car park. A 'parking lot' is just a 'car park'.

This is lazy. It would be the easiest thing in the world for Google to translate 'restroom' to 'toilet'. It's not like it doesn't know. I included the 'travelers' one here too because I just felt that it struck slightly the wrong note. I think the word 'travellers' is too associated with the Traveller community (Gypsy or Romany people) and I would use 'tourists' in this context.

Some of the questions reveal differences in the kinds of places people might want to go. One of the questions asked me,
Does this place offer an all-you-can-drink option?
I think the last time I was somewhere with an all-you-can-drink option, with the exception of package holiday type places, was the Tuxedo Princess, a nightclub on a boat in Newcastle, where you paid a tenner entry and could drink rubbish alcopops all night. It's not really a thing in normal places. Similarly, another common question is this:
Does this place offer musical entertainment as well as dinner?
Apart from being a difficult question to answer because of the presupposition that it does offer dinner (how do you answer this about a place that offers musical entertainment but not dinner?), I don't think that dinner-plus-music is much of a thing. I certainly have never searched for it nor seen it offered as a tempting prospect anywhere except for a hideously old-fashioned restaurant that has since closed down.

Other questions, like the one above, pose problems because of the way they're asked. Take this one:
Does this place only serve vegetarian food? 
I was asked it about a pub that doesn't do food. So technically, it doesn't only serve vegetarian food, and the answer is 'no'. But that implies that it does do non-vegetarian food, as 'only' implies a sub-set of all kinds of food.

Then, take this one:
Can you drink outside on the street here? 
Well, at this pub that doesn't do food, no, you can't drink outside on the street. But it does have a really nice, big beer garden. Are people that ask this question just interested in drinking on the street, or do they more generally want to know if they can drink outdoors? That's another question, so I've been answering this literally, but I'm not sure it's the most useful thing to ask.

My favourite kind of question is the ones about weirdly specific products at random shops. I was asked of Morrison's (a low-end supermarket):
Can you get carpets here? 
And I was asked of Aldi (a cheap European supermarket):
Can you get macarons here? 
I... don't know. I suppose sometimes people ask where they can buy macarons or carpets and that translates, via algorithm, into a question for me.