Archive for September, 2010

Recognition for eggcorns

Posted on September 30th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Words | Leave a Comment »

It seems eggcorns are having their day. The word has just been added to the Oxford English Online Dictionary, according to the Boston Globe.

If you’re not sure what an eggcorn is, here’s the official definition: “an alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.” So if you, like Joey from Friends, say “it’s a moo point” rather than “moot point”, you’re using an eggcorn.

Eggcorn seems like an odd word though – what’s its origin?

The term derives from “egg corn” as a substitution for “acorn,” whose earliest appearance comes in an 1844 letter from an American frontiersman: “I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I can not get her and I hop to help you eat some of it soon.”

Why would eggcorn (as we now spell it) replace acorn in the writer’s lexicon? As the OED editors comment, “acorns are, after all, seeds which are somewhat egg-shaped, and in many dialects the formations acorn and eggcorn sound very similar.” (And, like corn kernels, acorns can be ground into meal or flour.) This coinage came to the attention of the linguists blogging at Language Log in 2003, and at the suggestion of Geoffrey Pullum, one of the site’s founders, it was adopted as the term for all such expressions.

Eggcorns needed their own label, the Language Loggers decided, because they were mistakes of a distinct sort — variants on the traditional phrasing, but ones that still made at least a bit of sense. “Nip it in the bud,” for instance, is a horticultural metaphor, perhaps not so widely understood as it once was; the newer “nip it in the butt” describes a different strategy for getting rid of some unwelcome visitation, but it’s not illogical. Hamlet said he was “to the manner born,” but the modern alteration, “to the manor born,” is also a useful formula. (Source:

Does anyone have any interesting eggcorns to share? If not, take a look at the Eggcorn Database.

Emma Thompson attacks ‘sloppy’ language

Posted on September 28th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Slang, Words | 2 Comments »

The actress Emma Thompson has attacked the use of sloppy language in an interview with the Radio Times.

From the BBC:

She said: “We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power.”

Ms Thompson added that on a visit to her old school she told pupils not to use slang words such as “likes” and “innit”.

“I told them, ‘Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.”‘

Whilst this may sound harsh, Ms Thompson went on to say:

“There is the necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity.”

This is something I think we can all agree on. The ability to recognise the correct vocabulary to use in different situations is learnt through experience. And it’s noticeable when learning a new language also – in Spanish for example there are different greetings depending on the time of day (buenos dias, buenas tardes, buenas noches) and the person you are talking to.

These “two languages” are part of the reason why it’s difficult to become fully fluent in a language – you can learn the “official” language and yet until you hear and see how it is used by people in different contexts, you can’t really get the true feeling of a language.

What do you think of Emma Thompson’s views on sloppy language?

Revitalising the Vlashki language

Posted on September 27th, 2010by Michelle
In Indigenous languages, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

A New York City linguist is giving hope to a dying language in Croatia.

Zvjezdana Vrzic is originally from Croatia, and grew up in a household with Vlashki roots. The historical homeland of the Vlashki language (also known as Istro-Romanian) is the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia’s north-west. The language has been dying out since World War II, when emigration made the population smaller.

Vrzic initiated a project to save the language after she became a professor at New York University and connected with the community of Vlashki speakers in the city.

“I want to create a digital archive — a regional digital archive — where all the materials available on the language, including those that I’m collecting myself, will be deposited,” Vrzic says. “[I want to create] an archive that will become available to the community members. And I’m kind of bringing a different angle to it by making it very technologically-inspired.” (Source: Radio Free Europe)

Crucially, Vrzic realises that to save the language, the community needs to work to revitalise it. And it seems Vrzic has had some success – in Croatia her team is working with locals to plan a Vlashki heritage centre and has already organised well-attended language workshops.

To listen a proverb spoken in Vlashki, as well as a folk song, click here.

Fashion dictionary

Posted on September 23rd, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, English, Invented languages, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Are you having trouble telling your treggings (seen in picture) from your jeggings? Then a new dictionary is here to help.

Department store Debenham’s has launched an online reference guide to fashion lingo to “help clear up the confusion”. The guide defines terms such as “mandles” (sandals for men”) and “whorts” (winter shorts).

As these terms are reasonably simple amalgamations of two common items of clothing (blurt = blouse/skirt), I can’t help feeling that a spokeswoman for Debenham’s is taking it a bit too far when she says:

“It’s now easier to understand Sanskrit than some of the words commonly used by commentators within the fashion industry to describe garments.” (Source: Sky News)

Apparently the reason behind the dictionary is: that every shopper – both fashion expert and non expert alike – can shop easily and clearly in all of our stores. However, we are also urging the fashion industry to use existing English words to describe their garments rather than made up amalgamations. We’d love to drop all these amalgamations and at the very least we are committed to keeping their use to a minimum. (Source:

A noble cause indeed.

Talk to the Snail

Posted on September 20th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, French, Hints and Tips | Leave a Comment »

Continuing my occasional series of reviewing language books, here’s a slightly less serious one than before – Talk to the Snail by Stephen Clarke.

Clarke’s witty book doesn’t deal with subjects as weighty as dying languages; instead he tackles (as the book’s subtitle says) Ten Commandments for Understanding the French. Through themed chapters such as ‘Thou Shalt Be Wrong’ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Served’, readers are guided through how to get what they want from the French.

Helpfully each chapter ends with a list of phrases (including phonetic spellings) for visitors to France to use to get their way. Clarke clearly adores the French, for all their idiosyncratic ways, and gently mocks the national character throughout the book whilst providing handy tips on say, how to get served in a restaurant.

Definitely aimed at the British – a number of stereotypes are used) – the book is a good read, and perhaps a good accompaniment, to any trip across the Channel.

Gaelic medium schools a success

Posted on September 16th, 2010by Michelle
In Education, Gaelic, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Gaelic medium schools are becoming successful in Scotland, according to an article in the Scotsman.

A big commitment to teaching the language to children has been made in parts of the country – including Edinburgh, where a council is looking into creating a dedicated Gaelic school. This follows the success of Tollcross Primary’s Gaelic Medium Education unit in the city, which has seen pupil number rise in the past five years.

Critics of the move point out that Gaelic is a dying language (one per cent of Scots speak it) and wonder why it’s use is being promoted in this way. Teaching children other languages such as Mandarin may prove more useful, they say.

Whatever the second language taught, the benefits of bilingualism for children are clear:

A glowing HMIE report has just highlighted the great academic success of children at Tollcross Primary, where “a significant proportion achieve national levels in English, Gaelic and mathematics earlier than might normally be expected”. It adds: “Children learning through the medium of Gaelic progress very well.”

Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University and director of the new information service Bilingualism Matters, says: “The results are consistent with research on child bilingualism, which shows that growing up with two languages brings a range of benefits to children.

For example, bilingual children tend to display improved attention and an enhanced ability to deal with complex information, have better metalinguistic skills and are more efficient language learners.”

And as the headteacher of another primary points out

“It’s like building a house. If you have one other language, whatever that is, it’s far easier to learn other languages and the benefits are wonderful.”

For language learners who aim to achieve more than two languages, that’s encouraging news.

Spoken Here

Posted on September 14th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Research | 1 Comment »

I’ve just finished reading a language book – Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley.

We are frequently told about languages dying, and this book explores some endangered languages and what efforts are being made to preserve them. The languages range from Aboriginal Australia (Mati Ke and Murrinh-Patha) to Manx, the language of the Isle of Man located in the Irish Sea.

It’s not too difficult a read, as the focus is on the culture and people who speak the language rather than the technicalities of how it’s constructed. Whilst there is some discussion of grammar, luckily it’s not too technical. Abley’s passion for his subject shines through in the book and the humour he brings to situations is welcome. He doesn’t offer a solution to the ‘problem’ of disappearing languages, but shows what may happen when they are lost.

Has anyone else read the book?

New English-Zulu dictionary

Posted on September 9th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Education, English, Zulu | Leave a Comment »

The first English-Zulu dictionary for more than 40 years has been published in South Africa.

Zulu is South Africa’s most common African language, and it is hoped the new dictionary will help break down the language barriers in a country where English is the main language used for business and politics. Zulus are the largest ethnic group in the country, and 2.8 million school pupils study the language.

South Africa has 11 different official languages. Many children speak Zulu at home but are taught in English at school. It is hoped the dictionary will bring together children who speak Zulu and English.

Megan Hall, the publisher’s manager for dictionaries, said: “To our knowledge the last substantial bilingual Zulu dictionary was published more than four decades ago. A great deal has changed since then – in the world around us, the language we use to talk about it, as well as in the way we now make dictionaries.”

Hall said the book had been an “enormous project” that took more than three and a half years and involved an international team of academics, teachers, language experts and specialist lexicographers. “It’s taken so long because it’s an exceptionally difficult job.”

It included research with sample entries at schools in the Zulu heartland, KwaZulu-Natal province. “We found out that teachers wanted key curriculum words included in the dictionary, together with definitions – something never done before in a bilingual dictionary of this sort,” Hall said. “So we selected terms from textbooks across the curriculum, like acid, greenhouse effect and multiply, and gave learners and teachers the support they’d asked for.” (Source: The Guardian)

Take a look at the full article for some examples of Zulu translated into English.