Archive for February, 2012

Animated linguistics

Posted on February 29th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Words | Leave a Comment »

Today is leap day, the extra day we get every four years. Why not use it to learn a little more about linguistics?

Steven Pinker is a well-known linguist (amongst other things), with specializations in visual cognition and psycholinguistics. He’s also very good at making complex ideas seem very understandable and engaging, which is why I love this video illustrating a talk he gave to the RSA.

In it, Pinker “shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings”. Take a look and let me know what you think.

The linguistic power of young women

Posted on February 28th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Speech, Words | 1 Comment »

A great article in the New York Times reveals that young women are linguistic trendsetters.

The use of “like” and uptalk (“pronouncing statements as if they are questions?”) is often seen as a sign of stupidity or immaturity, with women being compared to “Valley Girls”, like Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless. Linguists have refuted this however, saying that girls and young women popularise vocal trends and slang, and use embellishments in more sophisticated ways than previously thought.

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” said Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.” (Source: New York Times)

Take a look at the rest of the article – it’s fascinating. And women, never again feel ashamed of using these social cues!


Posted on February 25th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Last month I posted about a new book by Michael Erard called Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

Erard defines a hyperpolyglot as someone who speaks eleven languages or more, and he can add Oxford University student Alex Rawlings to the list. Alex is only twenty, but can speak eleven languages: English, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Hebrew, Catalan and Italian.

He started learning as a child because his mother spoke three languages with him – English, French and Greek. Alex’s love of languages has grown from there. You can hear him talk about his language acquisition progression in this video from BBC News.

Being British

Posted on February 22nd, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, English | Leave a Comment »

I’m sure this has been around for a while, but I’ve only just seen it. I’m especially guilty of using “I’m was a bit disappointed..” when I’m really annoyed! Us Brits are too polite for our own good sometimes…

Dickens dictionary

Posted on February 19th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, English, Events | Leave a Comment »

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth (7th February 1812), with lots of events, films and new books about the man released to celebrate it.

One of the new books is The Dickens Dictionary by John Sutherland. Subtitled “An A-Z of England’s Greatest Novelist”, the book is written by a recently retired Professor from the University of London.

Martin Chilton from The Telegraph wrote about a few things he learned from the book, all of which are very interesting:

There are more than 16,000 characters in the works of Dickens.

Considering he wrote upwards of 20 novels and short stories, this is an amazing number!

The word umbrella is mentioned 55 times in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens suffered from nightmares following a visit to London Zoo as a boy. It was the horror of seeing snakes eating birds and guinea-pigs.

What’s your favourite Dickens fact?

Tiger or giraffe?

Posted on February 15th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Words | Leave a Comment »

This story’s been around for a few weeks, but it’s worth posting because it’s so darn cute!

A three year old girl called Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury’s last year to ask why tiger bread is called tiger bread, and suggested it be renamed giraffe bread. Lily is right – the bread does look more giraffe-like than tiger-esque!

Sainsbury’s wrote back and have decided to rename the bread:

“In response to overwhelming customer feedback that our tiger bread has more resemblance to a giraffe, from today we will be changing our tiger bread to giraffe bread and seeing how that goes,” the supermarket said.

Tiger bread is typically a bloomer loaf with a pattern baked into the top. Rice paste is brushed on to the surface before baking, forming the pattern as it dries and cracks while it bakes. (Source: BBC News)

I wonder what else we could get supermarkets to rename?

The death of trading slang

Posted on February 9th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, English, Slang | Leave a Comment »

There’s not much sympathy to be had for banks or the people that work in them at the moment.

But language lovers will spare a thought for the loss of the lingua franca of the trading floor. Described as a mix of “Cockney rhyming slang, market banter and expressions picked up from horse racing bookmakers”, the slang is in danger of dying out because of the switch to electronic trading.

The language used by traders evolved because they spoke in person or over the telephone – it’s apparently not quite the same asking your computer screen for some “Bill and Ben” (Japanese yen). Other factors also come into play:

Many traders nowadays are recruited as university graduates with top marks from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and M.I.T., whereas 30 years ago aspiring youngsters with few, if any, academic qualifications often started as back office clerks and worked their way up to the trading floor.

Young London lads blessed with quick wits, common sense and ability to juggle numbers were often prized above those with academic laurels and went on to make fortunes as City traders.

“They were the ‘barrow boys’ coming off the market stalls. It was more working class and with that came the language of the street,” said one trader, who used to work alongside some dealers who also owned fruit and vegetable and flower stalls.

“In the early days of dealing rooms it was the City institutions and especially the British banks where you heard it. Now dealing rooms might be a bit more international and slang is dying off a bit.” (Source: Reuters)

NHS translation costs

Posted on February 7th, 2012by Michelle
In Translation | Leave a Comment »

There’s a bit of an uproar in the press this week about how much the NHS spends on translation services.

According to a Freedom of Information request submitted by a health think tank, the NHS spends £59,000 a day on translating documents and providing interpreters – over £23 million in the past year.

The think tank is outraged:

The think tank’s chief executive, Julia Manning, said: “The costs involved are truly staggering in an age of austerity.

“Urgent action must be taken by trusts to stem the flow of translation costs.

“The most glaring problem is that NHS trusts translate their own material rather than have access to a central pool of translated documents.”

The organisation suggested using free internet translation software and easier to understand English rather than medical jargon. (Source: BBC News)

As the Department for Health pointed out in response, the NHS has a duty to ensure patients and doctors can communicate with each other. It’s very important to give accurate information when it involves someone’s health; one mistranslated word from a free translation website could make a big difference. Some NHS trusts also have up to 120 languages to translate into, perhaps they’re not all covered by free software?