Sunday, 19 April 2015

Physically the new literally

Usual disclaimer: while I am talking about the language use of actual people, it's in the spirit of interested observation and not at all critical, and the examples used here are made up but based on real ones.

You'll have noticed that quite a lot of people get upset about the use of literally when it's used non-literally (though, as Jesse Sheidlower notes (thanks to Stan Carey for alerting me to this) its literal use is rarely very literal).

I've recently noticed what I think might be a similar phenomenon in student assignments. They need to express something precisely and explicitly, but they lack the skills to do it quite right. For instance, we asked them to say whether a phrase some books was 'referential' in a particular sentence or not. The correct answer needed to point out that as the sentence included a past tense verb, referring to an event that had already happened at the time of utterance, there had to be certain specific books that were found and the phrase was, therefore, referential. Many of the students could see this and got basically the right answer, but didn't realise that it was the verb tense that was the thing to mention, and instead fumbled around a bit with this kind of thing:
There are some actual books that Mara physically found.
Given that this is a fictional world and a made-up sentence, this cannot be true. But you know what they mean, don't you? This is where the line blurs between actually literally literal use and actually not-very-literal use (and just look how non-actual 'actual' is nearly every time it's used).

I mentioned this on twitter and people responded with examples like this:
@johnthejack also noted that he thought this usage began with things like I physically can't do that, where it's more or less literal but starting to have its meaning bleached, and then expanded into more and more abstract territory, as is generally the case when words change their meaning.

A quick look at a twitter snapshot from today (19th April 2015) shows that most of the time, it's used in opposition to mentally:
I'm mentally and physically exhausted
Or to refer to the body:
I'm going to paint it on you - physically on you 
Sometimes, it's emphasising that the person really does mean 'in real life' where there might be the possibility for ambiguity (which indicates that it's already well on the way to metaphorical use):
He physically hit me
Sometimes, it's referring to 'in real life' but as an exaggeration for comic effect:
It doesn't matter how cold my feet are, I'm physically incapable of wearing socks to bed. I like them to just cover my toes with heels out. (@geekhag)
There's also a lot of use of the set phrases physically sick and physically attracted to, which can be interpreted literally or with physically as an intensifier. This leads to the use of the phrase physically impossible, where it also may or may not be an intensifier.

I also noticed this nice metalinguistic comment:
My favourite is when people say things like "Physically murdered." @jake_lach)
While physically seems to me to have pretty much the same meaning as actually, there are others going through the process with slightly different effects:
Stan thought this is 'typically used to stress agreement or the truth or facts about something'.

I should point out that all of these are non-academic language and so shouldn't be used in assignments, but that's another matter. I'm not saying anything more about this just now, but let it be noted and I'll keep an eye out for it, and see how it develops. Will it sneak in unnoticed, or will people start to get annoyed about it as they do with literally?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Daily Fail fails to ask a linguist (again)

It's no surprise when a newspaper publishes an article about language and fails to ask a linguist. They rarely do. It's even less of a surprise when the newspaper is the Daily Mail and the 'article' is actually just a summary of a website (note to newspapers: this is not journalism. It's lazy. Especially when you get to it two weeks after the rest of the internet has already seen it).

This 'article' summarises a reddit thread for us, which is actually quite handy because reddit threads are horrible things to read. The questioner wanted to know what the hardest English words to pronounce are. Here's the top ten, as reported by the Mail:

  1. Worcestershire
  2. Specific
  3. Squirrel
  4. Brewery 
  5. Phenomenon
  6. Derby
  7. Regularly
  8. February
  9. Edited
  10. Heir

The Mail then helpfully made some very condescending comments about how specific and squirrel are 'apparently easy' and brewery and edited 'seem rather straightforward to the average Brit', while February and phenomenon are 'notorious tongue twisters even for native speakers'.

So far, so utterly, utterly dull and vacuous.

Among the linguistically interesting things to note here is the fact that there are two types of difficulty: hard to articulate, and hard to predict. Derby is very easy to say for most people, but it's hard to predict its pronunciation from its spelling. Similarly heir and, of course, Worcestershire, which has the further problem of being long and daunting.

On the other hand, specific, squirrel, brewery, February and edited are all pronounced more or less like they're spelt, but it's actually saying them without stumbling that can prove tricky. They have consonant clusters like [skw], and lots of [r] sounds and 'glides' [w] that occur between vowels, making them hard to keep control of. February causes native speakers less trouble than the Mail would have you believe, because we don't try to pronounce both those [r] sounds.

[r] in general crops up a lot here, probably because a lot of the contributors to the list speak a first language like Chinese where [r] and [l] are not two different sounds, but rather two 'versions' of a sound ('allophones'). English contrasts these sounds (so read and lead are different words), but doesn't contrast the two 'k' sounds in car and key, for instance (so you can't the difference unless you're trained to do so). If your language treats [r] and [l] as being as similar as those English considers those two 'k' sounds, you can imagine the difficulty regularly or squirrel is going to cause you.

Likewise, edited contains a string of short, similar vowels separated by [d] or [t]. Those two sounds are very similar to each other, differing only in terms of whether they're 'voiced' or not ([d] is, [t] isn't) and again, many languages don't contrast these sounds. In many English dialects (e.g. US English), they are actually pronounced more or less the same in this word. You end up with some sequence of rapid tapping of the tongue against the back of the teeth which is over almost before you realise you've begun it.

(Incidentally, no one in real life pronounces the name of the sauce as Worcestershire - everyone calls it 'Worcester sauce'. Apparently this is frowned upon by the company that makes it, but it's true.)