Showing posts with label linguistics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label linguistics. Show all posts

Friday, March 03, 2017

"It doesn't matter as long as people can understand you"

There are people who say that it shouldn't matter whether something is written properly as long as the audience understands it.

I've heard this said about things that aren't "correct" English per the prescriptivist definition (like "ain't"), and about spelling and grammar errors, as well as things like slang and txtspeak, which aren't the focus of today's post.

I have also found myself in situations where these things make it difficult for me to understand the text. For example, if the "incorrect" English or spelling or grammar error shifts meaning, I interpret the text literally, not realizing that the person meant something else.

And sometimes in these situations where I'm having trouble understanding because I interpreted an erroneous text literally, I'm accused of being pedantic, as though I'm not understanding on purpose as a judgement of their poor writing skills, with tone and delivery hinting that I should stop being difficult and just get along and understand it like a regular person.

This makes me wonder: do people whose English skills lead to spelling/grammar/usage errors that shift meaning find it easier to understand other people with similar English skills?  Do they not see the shift in meaning, or somehow instantly see what was intended?

(In this post so far, I'm talking about people whose first language is English, although it could certainly also happen with people whose first language is not English.)

One thing I've learned in my translation career is that Anglophones and Francophones make different kinds of mistakes in French.  An Anglophone who learned French in school wouldn't confuse manger (to eat) and mangé (eaten), or ses (his/her where the noun is plural) and ces (these) on the grounds that they're completely different parts of speech, but these are among the most common mistakes Francophones make on the grounds that they're homophones.  (I was so proud of myself the day I almost sent out an email in French with an infinitive where a past participle should have been! Finally thinking in French!) 

Meanwhile, a Francophone would never say il faut que je vais (indicative , where the subjunctive il faut que j'aille is correct), but this is one of the most common mistakes Anglophones make because subjunctive isn't as intuitive for us.

A French text written by an Anglophone with poor French skills is very easy for me to understand. A French text written by a Francophone with poor French skills is perilously close to impenetrable for me.

I wonder if the same phenomenon occurs with texts written by people with similar skill levels in English, even if English is their first language. Do people who are prone to make errors in English understand error-prone English better than people who have a better handle on spelling and grammar?  If so, I wonder if they can understand error-prone English better than error-free English?

(Aside: I'm quite sure the gods of irony will have inserted a few errors of the sort that I don't usually make into this blog post.)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What if different kinds of lies were like apples and oranges?

Conventional wisdom is that politicians lie.

But when we say this, we usually mean "They don't keep their electoral promises." They say they're going to do something and then they don't, or they say they aren't going to do something and then they do.

But sometimes politicians lie about objective, observable facts.  And this is a problem, because they aren't just stating objectively incorrect information, they're also using the objectively incorrect information as a basis for questionable policy.

For example, a politician says there are more libraries than Tim Hortonses in their area, and therefore libraries should be cut. However, the fact of the matter is that there are more Tim Hortonses than libraries in their area.  And even if there were more libraries than Tim Hortonses, that wouldn't necessarily be a problem. And even if the ratio were a problem, perhaps the solution would be more Tim Hortonses.  And maybe the ratio is even a problem the other way - maybe there aren't enough libraries.  One possibility is that there are more libraries than Tim Hortonses but still not enough libraries (for example, if there were two libraries and one Tim Hortons, that wouldn't be enough libraries for the entire city.)

It creates a stream of hypotheticals that the people least likely to be willing or able to stay fully informed are least likely to be willing or able to follow. If you focus on debunking the clear, objective lie (more libraries than Tim Hortonses), you're implying that the problematic logic that follows (that more libraries than Tim Hortonses would be a problem, that libraries should be cut) is not a problem. If you focus on the problematic conclusions, you're implying that the false premise is accurate and failing to call out the politician for a glaring objective falsehood.

But not enough people see this lying about objective facts as a massive deal-breaker problem that needs to be immediately and drastically nipped in the bud, because we're coming from this baseline conventional wisdom that of course politicians lie.

This makes me wonder how our political discourse would be different if these different kinds of lies were completely different concepts in our language and concept system. We can, of course, describe the different kinds of lies that exist using words and phrases, like I've done above, but they're all lies.  What would happen if they were different concepts, like apples and oranges? Yes, apples and oranges have things in common (they're both round and sweet and edible, they both fall into the broader category of "fruit" in our concept system), but they're clearly different things in our concept system.

If different kinds of lies were apples and oranges, no one would say "Of course that politician is oranging, everyone knows that politicians always apple." No one would say "Why are you calling out that politician for oranging but not that other politician for appling?"  People could be aghast that the politician oranged without even having to address the conventional wisdom that politicians apple, because they're two completely different concepts.

I wonder what our political discourse would look like then?

I wonder if there are any languages where different types of lies are completely discrete concepts?  I wonder if the cultures where those languages are spoken also have the conventional wisdom that politicians lie?

Saturday, December 05, 2015


I've decided to adopt the French usage of Daesh to refer to the organization that recently committed terrorist attacks in Paris.

This article gives a good English-language explanation of why.  In short, they're not actually Islamic and they're not actually a state, so we shouldn't give them an importance they don't have.  Plus, the word "Daesh" (which is an acronym of the group's Arabic name) can mean "a bigot who imposes his view on others" in Arabic, which is appropriate.

I find each of these points sufficiently compelling in and of itself, but, on top of all that, we have the fact that Daesh dislikes being called Daesh but France prefers that usage. Under the circumstances, I think it's especially appropriate to disregard Daesh's preference in favour of France's.

It occurs to me that it would be interesting to extend this principle. What if there was a general rule that the victim of any offence gets to choose the name or terminology used to define and/or address the perpetrator?

This would be optional (so the victim isn't in the situation where now they have to decide on a name for the perpetrator on top of everything else!), and perhaps there would have to be limitations, like the name you give the perpetrator can't be worse than the offence they committed (so you can't insist that everyone address the guy who blocked your car in the driveway as Pedophile) and they get to resume their own name after the consequences of their offence have ended (so if they kill someone the name change is permanent, but if they fixed your shoes wrong and you had to go back and get them redone, the name change only lasts until you get your properly-fixed shoes back.)

Assholes have been known to use names and forms of address to insult, belittle, or otherwise disrespect people (e.g. calling a grownup woman "miss", misgendering transpeople, insisting on addressing people by their birth name even though they changed it, addressing people by their spouse's surname even when they didn't opt to take their spouse's surname.)  So why not use this power against the assholes?

Unless, of course, that would just make us no better than the assholes...

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Idea density

I've been reading about the famous Nun Study of Alzheimer's disease, and specifically about its findings relating to idea density.

As part of the study, they analyzed essays that the nuns wrote when they were in their early 20s, and found that nuns who didn't get Alzheimer's had higher idea density in their essays, and nuns who did get Alzheimer's had lower idea density.

An example of a sentence with high idea density, taken from this article:

"After I finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their consent."

An example of a sentence with low idea density:

"After I left school, I worked in the post-office."

Interpretations of this finding tend to view high idea density as equivalent to better language skills. But when I read about this, my first thought was that some nuns may have been able to write a more idea-dense essay, but chose not to.  They may have thought a simpler style more appropriate to the purpose of this essay.  They may not have enormous colour to add to this one particular subject.  Maybe they didn't have as much time as they would have liked.  Maybe the pen they were using was uncomfortable to write with. It's possible that their writing style may even have matured away from frills - I know when I was younger, I went through a phase of writing ridiculously (yes, even more ridiculously than now) in an attempt to emulate of the Victorian authors I was reading at the time.

Even if we accept the assumption that high idea density equals better language skills (I'm reminded of the much-attributed "Please excuse the long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one."), we have no way of knowing how many of the subjects had higher linguistic ability but chose not to use it to its fullest extent for that particular essay.  What if the true predictor of Alzheimer's is instead whatever process leads the subject to assess that particular essay assignment as more conducive to a simpler writing style?

It would also be interesting to see if the idea density correlation persists over generations.  The various examples of high idea-density sentences I've read seem old-fashioned to me (probably reflecting the fact that the nuns wrote them in the first half of the 20th century), while the low idea-density sentences seemed more timeless. 

Actually, it might also be a function of the specific education the subject received. Someone being trained in writing today would be guided away from certain stylistic elements in the high idea density example given above (although not necessarily from idea density itself), and these elements seemed fairly common in the various examples of high idea density sentences I've read from this study.

It would also be interesting to see if the idea density pattern holds up in other languages.  In my French writing classes, I was nudged towards a higher idea density than I'd land on naturally, although I never find myself wishing for lower idea density as I translate French to English. Other languages might gravitate to lower or higher density for syntactic or cultural reasons, which might change the correlations with Alzheimer's.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The condolence script

This bereavement has given me some insight into the condolence script.

During my last bereavement (which was 15 years ago!!) I hadn't yet read up on etiquette theory, so I didn't know what people were supposed to say or how the bereaved is supposed to respond.  (It didn't really come up IRL though, because I was in university and the funeral was on a day when I had no classes, so I just went about life without telling many people.)

I used to think that you had to say something awesome to the bereaved person, that would make them feel better.  And I used to think that, as the bereaved person, you have to give a mitigative response, because condolences are such an intense and one-sided thing to receive that you have to sort of balance out the conversation (like how if someone compliments a specific aspect of your outfit, you might look at a specific aspect of their outfit to compliment.  Or if someone thanks you extra-profusely for something, you might feel like saying "Please, it's no big deal.")

When I started reading Miss Manners, she said that a simple expression of condolences or sympathies is sufficient ("I'm so sorry" or "My sympathies" or "My condolences"), and that "thank you" is a sufficient response.  These seemed woefully inadequate to me, but Miss Manners said they suffice and I certainly couldn't come up with anything that was as awesome as I thought it needed to be, so I began using them.

With this bereavement, I've come to the realization that there's no such thing as a series of words that can achieve the level of awesomeness that I thought was necessary in an expression of condolences.  Words uttered just exist on a completely different plane and scale than bereavement, even simple bereavement. It's like trying to knit a sweater that will refute a political argument.  It's just not a tool that can be used to achieve that goal, no matter how awesomely you do it.

So why bother?  Because the expression of condolences acknowledges the elephant in the room.  Death is huge, and it can seem weird and wrong and assholic to avoid the topic if you're talking to someone who's recently bereaved.  So "I'm so sorry" or "my condolences" is the standardized code for "I acknowledge that you were bereaved", and "thank you" is standardized code for "I acknowledge that you acknowledged it."  Then you can proceed with the business at hand without anyone having to worry about being rude about the elephant.

The existence of a standardized script helps because it's so difficult to say something right.  It's like saying "please" or "thank you" or "you're welcome".  Imagine trying to express those concepts if we didn't have standard words for them!  And, of course, bereavement is a far more sensitive and emotionally fraught situation than asking someone to pass the salt!  So the standard, etiquette-approved script allows us to acknowledge the situation and then move forward. No more, no less.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I was googling about various digestive-related things, and, since Google generally knows what I need and I don't always act like a grownup when no one is watching, I was phrasing my queries very childishly.  For example, "How long does it take food to turn into poo?"  (Answer: an average of 2 days)

I soon noticed that Google's autocomplete was always using phrases that contained the word "poop", not "poo". For example, if you type "My poo is" into Google, you'll get a drop down full of autocompletes saying "My poop is" every colour of the rainbow.

People who have done more research than me suggest that "poop" is USian, and "poo" is more British.  A google (which, I realize, is not the most precise research method ever) gives 298,000 hits for "poo" and 198,000 for "poop", so it seems that "poo" is more preferred in Canada.

However, even if you go to, the autocomplete still suggests "poop" when you type in "poo".  "Poop" also turns up in the and autocompletes. ( and retain "poo".)

Which one do you use?

Monday, July 01, 2013

The choreography of conversation when not everyone understands the language

From David Eddie
Every spring my mother-in-law arrives from Europe. While she stays in her own home we see her often, usually for meals and then a four-day visit to the cottage with us. Although she speaks English very well, she seems to feel we should all be learning her language and accommodating her, to the point that she will often speak her language at these meals. So instead of saying “pass the butter” which is hardly a complicated matter in English, she will revert to her own language and then she hooks in my husband and they begin talking and no one has a clue what they are saying. I know it’s a power grab so she can control the conversation and cut me out but my husband is afraid to stand up to her because she has quite a temper, and because he says that at 78 you get to do what you want to. This causes untold friction in my family and, judging from the number of mixed marriages in Canada, for many other families, I am sure. Is it rude to speak a foreign language in front of people who don’t understand?
My credentials: I was born into a bicultural family, where some family members don't speak the local language very well, and still others choose to talk among themselves in the heritage language despite being functionally bilingual. I am fluent in the local language, but for most of my life I understood nary a word of the heritage language.  (I understood it as a toddler as well as a toddler understands anything, then lost it when I began school and started learning it in adulthood, but I'm still nowhere near fluent and can  follow along only sporadically.)  So I grew up immersed in this situation, but nearly always as a unilingual party who didn't understand half of what was being said.

In this capacity, I propose that the best approach is for the husband to translate the conversation for his wife.  He doesn't have to do every single word, he can just say "Mum's asking about our vacation, so I'm telling her the story about the elephant and the guy with the hat." If his mother's receptive English really is fluent, perhaps he can even respond to her in English so his wife can follow along, and his wife can participate in the conversation too. Then when his mother responds in the heritage language, he can translate her statements.

While all this is happening, the wife should feel free to participate in the conversation in English even if she doesn't understand every word that's being said.  For example, after the husband says "I'm telling her the story about the elephant and the guy with the hat," the wife could chime in with "And make sure you tell her what the weather was like that day!" - regardless of whether he's already told her that part. 

As an added bonus, if the mother can in fact express herself in English as easily as LW thinks she can, she will naturally begin using more English in this context.  It might be to speed things up, but it quite often even happens through normal code-switching patterns.

This will achieve the same result but make the mother feel like it was her idea, all without having to have an awkward conversation trying to convince her not to converse with her child in the language in which she naturally converses with her child.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Things They Should Invent: dictionary of connotations

I recently had a disagreement over a word.  I thought that it was neutral, linguistically unmarked, and derived directly from the verb in question (analogous to how a cook is a person who cooks, or a grave-digger is a person who digs graves).  But my interlocutor  thought it was negative, and wanted us to use a less negative word, but couldn't actually suggest one.  I wasn't able to suggest one either, because I didn't feel that the original word was negative (or positive), and it's very difficult to come up with a synonym that has a different degree of a characteristic that's absent in the original word.  It would be like if someone asked you to provide them with a cake recipe that's less extroverted, or a career path that's not quite as purple.

In any case, the problem was that we were at an impasse over whether this word had this connotation, and there was nothing either of us could to to prove our position to the other.

Proposed solution: a dictionary of connotations.  You look up a word, it tells you all the positive and negative connotations.  In this situation, we could have looked up the word to see definitively if it has the connotations in question, much like how you'd look up a word in the OED or the Petit Robert if you're disagreeing on the meaning.

It would also be useful in preventing inadvertent racism.  Most of the racist things I've uttered in my life have been because I didn't know they were racist, because I don't spend much time around people who are being racist so I don't know all the slurs and stereotypes.  (The remaining times I've been racist have been when I learned some non-neutral words for concepts without having learned the neutral words, so I didn't have the vocabulary to express what I wanted to neutrally.)  It would be enormously helpful to have a reference where we can check these things without having to google for racism.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Things They Should Invent: non-emasculating way to praise small penises

General societal attitude towards penises is that bigger is better.  But, given that the internal dimensions of the human body are finite, it is possible for a penis to be too big from the point of view of the person on the receiving end.  And, if you've been in that situation, you might find yourself thinking that a smaller penis would be more enjoyable.

People who have had a partner with an uncomfortably large penis are aware of this.  Based on what I've read in Savage Love comment threads, owners of uncomfortably large penises are aware of this.  But are owners of small penises aware of this?

It's not something you can tell someone.  Even putting aside the fact that comparing one lover to another is in poor taste, telling a man "Oh, your penis is so nice and small, not like my previous boyfriend's.  His was enormous, it was so uncomfortable!" is not going to make him feel good. Nor is a delighted "Oh, it's so nice and manageable!" when he takes off his pants for the first time, even though you are truly delighted about it.

The language surrounding not just small penises but also non-big penises all makes it sound like a deficiency to be compensated for. "It's not size that matters, it's what you do with it," as though not being gargantuan needs to be compensated for with skill. Even porn about small penises (or at least the first page of google results thereof) seems to have themes of humiliation and emasculation, rather than being intended to reflect the fact that viewers of various shapes and sizes may wish to see people they can identify with in porn, or the fact that sticking a projectile the size of one's forearm into a space the size of one's pinky is not necessarily everyone's idea of optimal sexiness.

This attitude of small penises as a deficiency to be made up for or an emasculating humiliation is so wholly pervasive that, even as I sit here wishing for a way to praise small penises, I feel the need to protect the dignity of those I love and have loved by explicitly stating that this whole question is purely academic for me.  I have never been in the situation of discovering that a penis is smaller than I expected.  However, I have given thought to the matter, and it occurs to me that I may well feel positively about the situation, and I would like to have the option of expressing any delight, enthusiasm, or other positive emotions I may feel at the time.

If you discover something delightful when undressing your lover but do not feel you can comment positively on it (or, if you want to make a positive comment, you have to do so in a way that could imply you mean the opposite of what you really do), we have a cultural problem and a linguistic problem.  We need to figure out how to fix it. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lentils and lenses

The German word Linse means both "lentil" (as in the legume) and "lens" (like in a camera).

The French word lentille means both "lentil" and "lens" as well.

But English has two different words and they don't overlap at all!!!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Why does textspeak still exist?

My cellphone is five years old, and it still has predictive text (T9). Today's phones are equipped with full keyboards and autocorrect, which is even better. These technologies both make it easier to write real words than to write fake words. If you type a real word, it will guess the word for you and you don't even always have to type all the letters. But if you want to type a fake word, you have to teach the device the word.

More and more communications are being typed on phones as opposed to keyboards, which means that more and more communications are being written with a device that makes it easier to type a real word than a fake word.

So what's up with people who still use textspeak for everything?

I know that sometimes you need to shorten things to keep it under 140 characters for platforms like twitter or SMS, but on sites like Failbook or Damn You Autocorrect I keep seeing people who are using textspeak systematically, for everything, even on platforms that don't have a character limit.

Why are they putting in all the extra effort?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Mnemonic wanted

Does anyone know a mnemonic for correctly identifying when to use "consist of" and when to use "consist in"?

I know the theoretical difference between the two.  "Consist of" is "to be made up of"; "consist in" is "to have as its main or essential part".  The problem is that every single time I try to apply that logic to a sentence, including the sentences used by credible reference books as examples for "consist in", my logic comes up with "the meaning there is clearly "to be made up of", therefore the correct answer is "consist of."

Anyone know any tricks for landing on the right answer when you're at a philosophical impasse?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Things They Should Invent: opposite of né(e)

(And, no, I don't mean mort(e).)

In English, we have the word né(e) to refer to the surname a person was born with, most frequently used (as née) to refer to a woman's name before marriage. For example, suppose Elizabeth Bennet marries Fitzwilliam Darcy and changes her name to Elizabeth Darcy. If she is subsequently profiled in her alumni magazine or hometown newspaper, they might refer to her as "Elizabeth Darcy (née Bennet)" so that people who knew her before her marriage but lost track of her will recognize her.

We also need a word that refers to the name a person would later adopt, but did not have at the time at which they're being referred to. For example, suppose, sometime after her marriage, a childhood photo of Elizabeth is published somewhere. It would be inaccurate to describe this as a photo of Elizabeth Darcy, because she wasn't Elizabeth Darcy in the photo. However, if the caption says "Elizabeth Bennet", people who know her as Elizabeth Darcy might not realize who it is.

I know we can totally express this concept clearly by arranging words into phrases and sentences, but I want a simple one-word term that will express it as elegantly as né(e). Extrapolated logically from French, it would be something like marié(e) or devenu(e), but I'd prefer something more elegant.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My theory, which is mine

I always advise fellow translators to use a more specific preposition than "regarding" (or synonyms thereof). I feel that "regarding" forces the reader to make some effort to figure out how the two elements are related to each other, and if you can use a more specific preposition, then the reader doesn't have to make this effort.

However, I have also begun to think that using no prepositions whatsoever, by piling the elements together as a noun phrase or something similar, might make it even more effortless for the reader. This obviously wouldn't work for non-Anglophones (at least not non-Anglophones coming from Romance languages), but I really do suspect noun phrases scan more effortlessly for Anglophones. Perhaps it's because it implies to the reader that they're closely familiar with the subject matter, giving them a sort of false reassurance.

Specific (fake) example:

"The problem regarding the umbrellas"
takes more effort to read than
"The problem with the umbrellas"
takes more effort to read than
"The umbrella problem"

Strictly speaking, they all provide the same amount of information. If someone is completely unfamiliar with whatever the problem with the umbrellas is, calling it "the umbrella problem" isn't going to help them. But if they already have the information they need to understand "the problem regarding the umbrellas", then "the problem with the umbrellas" or "the umbrella problem" will be more effortless to read and understand.

Is this consistent with your experience with the English language?

(Anonymous comments welcome, non-Anglophone comments welcome, but if English is not your first/primary language please tell me what is.)

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Choosing female titles in English

Lately I've had a number of different people have a number of different kinds of confusion over which female title to choose when writing in English, so I thought I'd put together a bit of a primer.

Please note that, in all cases, no matter what other factors are in play, the stated preference of the individual being referred to takes precedence over any and all other considerations.

Ms. is the English generic, and as a general rule you should only use Mrs. or Miss if you know the person being referred to prefers that form of address.

However, people who are, for whatever reason, naturally disinclined to use Ms. usually aren't comfortable with that guideline. I've found some people's visceral response to my instruction to use Ms. is "Yeah, but..." So here are some more ways of thinking about it to determine if that "Yeah, but..." is founded.

Do you want to use Mrs.? Is the subject married? If so, is the surname with which you want to use Mrs. her husband's surname? If the answer to either of these questions is no, you must not use Mrs. Technically, Mrs. means "wife of" and is used with the subject's husband's name. It is technically incorrect to use it with a surname other than the subject's husband's, so you may not refer to anyone as Mrs. Maidenname. Divorced women may correctly choose to use Mrs. with their ex-husband's surname, but there's too much potential for offence in calling someone who isn't married "Mrs." unless you know her preferences. Women who have a wife rather than a husband may also correctly choose use Mrs. with their wife's surname, but, again, there's too much potential for offence in introducing such patriarchal connotations unless you know her preferences.

Note that Ms. does not imply unmarriedness. It does not presume to comment on marital status.

Do you want to use Miss? Traditionally, Miss means unmarried, but it also has negative connotations for many people. It can be insulting to young women who want to be seen as mature and grown-up, and it can be insulting to older women who don't want to be thought of as spinsters. The most effective way to explain the precise flavour of the negative connotations is to think of Miss as an accusation of virginity. (Yes, this example is in poor taste, but it's by far the most effective way to explain the negative connotations to someone who doesn't grok them.) When you find yourself reaching for Miss, ask yourself: do you think the subject would want people to think that she's a virgin (regardless of whether she actually is)? If you were in her position, would you want people to think of you as a virgin? If the answer is no, you must not use Miss. So if the subject is 12 years old, Miss is probably okay. If she's 30 years old, it would probably be a diss. If she's 18 years old, it would be rather condescending.

Note that Ms. does not imply non-virginity. It does not presume to comment on personal history.

If you're going to get it wrong, Ms. is the best way to get it wrong. Calling a woman Ms. when she prefers something else is like calling a man Mr. when he prefers something else. If it's a mistake, it's a perfectly understandable mistake. For example, suppose you meet a man you know nothing about except that his name is John Smith. So you address him as "Mr. Smith." No problems there. But it turns out Mr. Smith is actually in the military, and is properly addressed as Col. Smith. That's fine, and you'll use it in the future. But you had no way of knowing that going in, so your use of Mr. was perfectly understandable. However, suppose when you meet Col. Smith he's wearing his uniform so you can see he's in the military. But you don't know your rank insignia very well, so you end up calling him Sgt. Smith. That would be a huge diss! Or suppose you remember that he doesn't go by Mr. but don't remember what it is he does, so you take a guess and call him Dr. Smith. That would just be weird! Unless you're absolutely certain of what his actual title is, Mr. is the best way to get it wrong. Similarly, Ms. is the best way to get it wrong.

Pour les francophones: Oui, le titre féminin utilisé par défaut en français est Madame. Mais Madame, dans le sens du titre défaut, ne se traduit pas par Mrs.! Mrs. est manifestement incorrect si la personne en question n'est pas mariée ou n'utilise pas le nom de famille de son mari. Le titre défaut féminin en anglais doit être Ms.

When translating from French to English: Always always always translate Madame/Mme. as Ms., unless you specifically know the subject prefers something else.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Will young speech markers one day become elderly speech markers?

Even though I'm nearly 30, the features that mark my speech as young and female aren't going away. I still use upspeak. I still "like" quotatively and as a discourse marker. I still use "awesome" for things like youtube videos. I still use "dis" in casual conversation - I'd never use it in a translation, but I'd use it when explaining verbally why a word choice in a translation is unsuitable. "It makes it sound like he's dissing him." This isn't going to change. This is my dialect. And I've noticed that it's here to stay in many, if not all, of my peers.

These speech markers were used by teenagers who were cooler than me when I was a child, and my peers and I absorbed them by emulating the cool big kids. That means the early adopters are now at least in their late 30s-early 40s. It's possible there are even older early adopters who grew up in places that are on the cutting edge of linguistic trends.

Their dialect likely hasn't changed and isn't going to change. They still talk the same as they ever did. So in another decade or so, a quorum of working-age adults are going to upspeak.

I don't know if younger generations also upspeak etc. It might be too soon to tell. If they do, it's going to read as unmarked a generation from now. If they don't, in 30 years or so it will read as old lady talk. And in the interim, it will just read as people of a certain age trying to be friendly and perky, like how currently certain women of a certain age seem to deliberately modulate their speaking voice to make it more...melodious, I suppose...when they're trying to be friendly.


When writing a sentence that ended up not needing to be in this post, I started talking about how we wouldn't use upspeak et al when arguing a case in court, because it's non-authoritative.

But this made me realize that I use it in contexts where I'm speaking non-authoritatively to specifically designate that I'm being non-authoritative. When I have to be authoritative, I speak authoritatively. When talking to my peers or doing business or just having everyday social interactions, I'm not speaking authoritatively so I use my non-authoritative natural dialect. I sometimes even exaggerate my speech markers in situations where I'm emphasizing my lack of authoritativeness for social lubrication

So this makes me think that we used it with greater frequency as teens because we didn't really have any reason to be speaking authoritatively. Our parents might have wrung their hands because they couldn't picture a person arguing a case in court while talking like that. But would parents actually want their teenagers talking to them with the authority of a lawyer in court? If I'd done that, I would have been told either to stop talking back (which is bizarre, because as I've been working on Entitlement I've come to realize that I suffered far more for not "talking back", because my grownups actually did tacitly expect me to even though they told me not to), or I would have been told "don't be smart!" (Unless, of course, I was being told to "smarten up".) For a teen to speak authoritatively is perceived as disrespectful by their elders and stuck-up by their peers. Is it any wonder that we don't do so in situations where we don't have authority?

Friday, August 27, 2010

How to spot an optimistic Francophone

I already knew that there are two French words for the ordinal number "second" (deuxième and second), but I only very recently learned the difference between the two. It turns out second is used when there are only two things being counted, and deuxième is used when there are more than two.

So here's my theory: if you want to tell if a Francophone is an optimist or a pessimist, as them the name of the war that took place in Europe in 1939-1945. If they say «Seconde Guerre mondiale», they are an optimist. If they say «Deuxième Guerre mondiale», they are a pessimist.

Monday, July 26, 2010


1. Why are people saying "affirmative action" all the sudden?

The phrase "affirmative action" has been in headlines recently with reference to a federal government program. I find this completely bizarre, because federal doesn't call it affirmative action. Federal calls it Employment Equity. My understanding is that the term "affirmative action" is USian.

There are 11,600 google hits for the phrase "affirmative action" on federal government websites. The first of these is about the Employment Equity program, and nearly all of the rest of the first page refer to programs from other jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, there are nearly ten times as many google hits for "employment equity" on federal government sites.

However, as of this posting, there are 88 Canadian news articles for "affirmative action" and only 37 for "employment equity".

How on earth did that happen?

2. What's up with spinny legislation names?

The names of a couple of new pieces of legislation have caught my attention recently. These pieces of legislation are called the Truth in Sentencing Act and the Strengthening the Value of Canadian Citizenship Act. The reason they caught my attention is because the names are so spinny, in that they sound like they've been named by the PR department.

I don't think federal legislation names are usually that spinny. Skimming the alphabetical list of all the federal laws, it doesn't look like most of them are. The vast majority of the names seem completely neutral to me, and even those that aren't 100% neutral aren't nearly as spinny as these two new pieces of legislation.

Is this new, or have I just not noticed it before? Am I missing equally spinny legislation names? (If so, post them in the comments!) The Clarity Act and the Accountability Act come to mind, but that depends on the exact content (I'm not particularly fluent in any legislation.)

If it is new, do they not think it's detrimental to the credibility of the legislation and the government? Because I don't know about you, but it immediately puts my antennae up.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The question no one has asked yet about the language test for new immigrants

I'm not in a position to evaluate the test itself. It pings my bad idea radar, but I can't make any definitive statements without more sample questions. And, of course, the idea of not having an exemption for people whose first (and perhaps only) language is already English or French is just as silly as it sounds. But after looking at the one sample question provided by the Toronto Star, the first question that comes to mind is:

Who stands to profit from this test?

The question provided shows a pie chart of Tomoko's expenses, broken down as follows:

Rent and food = 45%
Study materials = 25%
Clothes = 15%
Entertainment = 15%

Then some sentences about the pie chart are provided, and the candidate is instructed to correct the sentences. The first sentence given is:

Tomoko spends an equal amount of money on rent, food, study materials and entertainment.

The correct answer is to change "equal" to "unequal". But I didn't get that right away, and I don't know if it ever would have occurred to me to answer that way. I was reading the sentence wondering "Is this sentence trying to say rent=food=study materials=entertainment? Because rent and food aren't broken down separately. In any case, study materials is more than entertainment. So what are they asking me?" I probably would have ended up writing something true but far more complicated, like "Tomoko spends more on rent and food combined than on study materials, and more on study materials than on entertainment."

Part of the reason I didn't see the desired answer is because food and rent are a single item on the pie chart but listed as two separate, comma-delineated items in the question, which made me think the question is asking me for something more complicated than it is, on the assumption that this change is meaningful. In most language tests I've taken, when something is different in two different places on the same page, that's meaningful. (And I'd love to know the story of how that happened! If I or anyone on my team had been translating it, we would never have let that through and would have pointed it out to the client as something that might prevent candidates from being evaluated perfectly fairly.)

Another part of the reason is that in the many language tests and other tests I've taken and real-life situations I've been in, equal vs. unequal is never really a factor. More vs. less is a factor and specific numbers are a factor, but I have never in my life needed to think about equal vs. unequal in this sort of way. It's just never been the sort of thing that is meaningful enough to be on a test because it's so excessively obvious.

I understand the words perfectly, of course. It's just not within the scope of my experience with Things That A Test Might Be Asking Me. Understand, this sample was the very first time I've ever seen the IELTS, and this equal vs. unequal question was the very first IELTS question I ever saw. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know if it would be insultingly easily or humblingly difficult, I didn't know what kinds of things they were looking for or what kinds of skills they were looking to test. All I had going in was a lifetime as a native speaker of English and decades of experience as a student of languages and as a student in general. It was not a failure of my English skills, it was a result of my lack of familiarity with this particular test.

"But you're just a mildly interested passer-by clicking on an internet link," you might be thinking, "In real life people prepare for tests!"

Yeah, that's why I'm wondering who profits.

In googling about this test, I found a lot of things for sale. Sample tests, exercise booklets, preparation kits, tutoring services - often at prices that would put a significant dent in a newcomer's budget. Free sample tests (some of dubious quality) certainly do exist, but for-pay materials fall into one's lap far more readily.

People do tend to get significantly lower marks when taking a test sight unseen than when they know what to expect from the test. For example, the result of my first professionally-administered IQ test was 135. Subsequent tests (both professionally-administered and not) clocked in at 150. During the first test, I just stared at the memory test pictures for the designated amount of time and struggled through the questions. In subsequent tests I knew they'd be asking things like "How many bluebirds are there?" or "What time does the store open?", so I was able to focus on those things and make good use of my memorizing time. The first time around, I guessed on every single memory question. Now, I systematically memorize the exact things they're looking for and get every question right with certainty. Familiarity with the test itself makes a massive difference, even if the candidate's skills level is the same.

And there seems to be a huge for-profit industry out there charging money to make people familiar with the IELTS test. If I were an investigative reporter looking for a juicy story, or a political partisan intent on bringing the current government down, I'd be digging into seeing exactly who stands to pocket these profits. If I were a member of the current government trying to make this policy look credible, I'd be working on making test preparation materials readily available at no cost, and/or work on making sure every single question in the version of the test administered to our immigrants is so clear and unambiguous in its expectations that there's no penalty for never having seen the test before.

Update: This is an interesting development. Language Log has determined that the sample test provided by the Star is not, in fact, a typical IELTS question. It seems it's an excerpt from unofficial training materials.

Several questions remain: So what does an actual IELTS question look like? Given that native speakers and second-language speakers make different kinds of mistakes, can the IELTS fairly and usefully assess native speakers? And what is the motivation behind suddenly testing native speakers? Is there a particular existing problem that this is meant to address? What is gained?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Now taking suggestions for a new word

The protesters who were wrecking stuff were using black bloc tactics, complete with full black costumes. This does is a great favour semantically, because we can now call them "black bloc protesters", which is a clear and simple way to distinguish them from the majority of legitimate peaceful protesters.

What we need is a similar term for law enforcement who abuse their power. It needs to be clear, straightforward, and easily understood, so there are no barriers to using it every time you need to describe the concept. It will eliminate any ambiguity without making the speaker seem an apologetic for the police (which could hinder the speaker's perceived neutrality and/or credibility).

The word needs to be neutral, without casting any positive or negative connotations on the people it refers to. Black bloc is a specific protest technique, so people who engage in it can rightfully, neutrally, and unquestionably be called black bloc protesters. It's like how a person playing a vuvuzela can rightfully, neutrally, and unquestionably be called a vuvuzela player. Regardless of how you feel about the people being referred to, it is inherently non-judgemental.

(At this point, someone usually points out that the people in question deserve to be spoken of judgementally, but we can't do that properly unless we also have the option of referring to them neutrally, thereby making any aspersions case an informed and deliberate choice.)

Suggestions welcome. If any journalists or anyone else with broader reach than me would like to take this up, you're welcome to it. If your suggestion is clear, obvious, and justifiable enough that I can use it in translations, I will do so if the topic ever comes up.