Archives for posts with tag: language

My Dad had several memorable phrases that you hardly ever hear these days, and even back then they would probably be viewed as fairly antiquated.

One of his favourites was to tell me I was ‘hoist by your own petard’. I never really knew what it meant, except that I was kind of the victim of my own devious plan.

Apparently, according to the good folks at wikipedia, the actual phrase is ‘hoist with his own petard’, from Bill Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It means to be blown up by your own bomb, petard being the bomb part. It has, or had, come to be used proverbially, when something to you try to do to bite someone ends up biting you back.

Fantastic! It came to me the other day, though I can’t remember how my brain accessed it. I do need to start getting it into everyday conversation, if at all possible.

I was reading an article the other day which suggested that native English speakers need to learn how speak English with non-native English speakers.

It seems pretty obvious to this writer that we need to adapt the way we speak – to some degree – to every single person we speak to, even if they’re also native English speakers. That’s what communication is all about; adapting our vocabulary, phrasing and colloquialisms to the person and situation at hand. This is what all communicators do naturally, talking more slowly to non-native speakers, avoiding idiom, softening accents, and so on.

Those that don’t do this are small-minded, either because they don’t understand the basics of communication or they don;t care to make life easier for the person they’re in dialogue with.

Non-native English speakers may find written English easier to understand, because it’s more formal, they can take their time with it and revisit the sentence if they want, or look a word up for a translation. Spoke English offers none of these luxuries, unless you help out. Written and spoken English are also two different, and diverging, languages, each subject to different forces like speed of change and formalising regulations.

So, speaking with or writing for  non-native English speakers is like speaking with or writing for any speaker. It;s basic sales and marketing. You adapt your content to your audience.

Here are two words that tend to be confused – not the words themselves, of course, I’m sure they know what they mean and how to spell themselves – in certain circumstances.

Take the old-fashioned compliments slip, used to add one’s good wishes or hello to an item sent to someone. And we know someone is being complimentary about us when they say nice things. All good so far.

Then there’s complement and complementary. I first came across the word complement in a Latin lesson where it was used to describe, for example, the word ‘good’ in a sentence like ‘the boy is good,’ where the adjective carried the same case as the noun, as though the phrase was actually ‘the good boy.’ With me so far?

The confusion arises when you consider the word complementary/complimentary. The former completes or supports something, the latter says something nice.

So imagine my consternation when I was invited to a complimentary webinar the other day. I was about to scoff in contempt, thinking, ‘I doubt this is a webinar where they’re going to say nice things about me.’ Surely they’re offering a complementary webinar, where the webinar supports the product I’ve just bought?

But then, I thought, maybe they did mean complimentary, in a sense that the webinar was free, gratis, for nothing. I had to grudgingly give them the benefit of the doubt. Coulda gone either way.

I know, I should get out more, it’s true…

I have a friend – it’s true I tell you – who’s from Germany. His German is flawless, as you might expect, and his English is better than fluent. The one area he struggles with is This and That.

Note that I’m not talking about my favourite shop of the year in 2013, which luxuriates in the same name.

You see, there’s one German word – dieser/diese/dieses depending on the gender of the noun – to signify this and that, so they’ve never had to make the distinction, which is a problem where they communicate in those languages that do make the distinction.

The way I explain it is that it’s a question of distance, geographically and temporally. We use ‘this’ if it’s near to us, we use ‘that’ when it’s far, relatively speaking.

A couple of examples will suffice:

Customer: I want that apple please [pointing], the one there.

Grocer: What, this one here [picking it up]?

Customer: Yes please.


That was good [past tense, further away], but this is better [present tense, near].

Germans have no issue with here and there, because they have different words, hier and da. Drawing a parallel between how they should use this and that, with how they already use here and there, helps them out considerably. Next time you hear a German making this mistake, it could be your good deed for the day to put them right :-).

Those of you for whom English is a first language will know the challenges of wrestling with your maiden second language, because the chances are it embraces the whole new world of gender. We speakers of English only really come across gender in words like waiter/waitress, actor/actress and master/mistress.

To my mind this is just a vocab thing, since our pronouns – ‘the’, ‘a’ and so on – and adjectives – big, small, you know the deal – don’t have to ‘agree’ with the noun – tree, house, stop me if I’m going too slowly here. Besides, our US friends have largely abandoned the female forms of these words anyway.

Your romance languages introduce the notion of gender as reflected in the noun, like le fils, la fille, and in any adjectives or verb parts related to those nouns, as in Il a sauvé la petite fille blessée – he saved the little injured girl. Sorry, a bit macabre, but all I think of on the hoof. Then there’s German, not content with 2 genders, which introduces the 3rd gender of neuter, not to be confused with a recent German initiative to introduce a 3rd gender for humans – and don’t ask me how your adjectives and verbal adjectives are going to deal with that conundrum.

Remembering and using the right genders with the tens of thousands of words in the language is a tall order even for those schooled in it from birth, never mind us folks shambling through a sentence or two in the hope we get served the right drink, meal or hotel room. As a case in point, I offer you the German for knife, fork and spoon.

Now knife, fork and spoon for me fall into a natural notional group – eating implements.  So in the interests of facilitating the speaking of the language they should all have the same gender signifier in my view. Is that the case in practice? No. Far too easy.

Knife is Das Messer, neuter. Fork is Die Gabel, feminine. Spoon is Der Löffel, masculine. Go figure. You see, it appears that German doesn’t follow a natural ‘genderising’ process for its words. For example, ‘Wo ist das Mädchen? Es ist sehr klein’. ‘Where is the girl? She is very little.’ The word for girl is neuter, hence the words Das, Es – which also means it – and the neuter adjective klein. As a poor speaker of German, I’m indebted to this book for putting me right on this vexing topic.

Tricky one, huh? It almost militates against the natural growth of the language. At least we don’t have to worry too much in a world governed – for now – by business Americanish.

When I was 17, I was very lucky.  My first flight ever was to the US (from the UK) for 2 weeks on an educational study tour of the north east of the US and Canada.  It was run by Guardian Overseas Education, a long since defunct wing of the eponymous newspaper.

As part of the tour, we were asked to right a short essay about some aspect of our trip.  Since the trip was during my Easter break, the last thing I wanted to do was write a short essay.  I was however, doing latin and greek at school, and have always been interested in language.  Not necessarily speaking it, but from a more structural point of view, concerning grammar, syntax, etymology and the like.

Various luminaries such as Shaw and Wilde have  described the US and Britain as ‘two countries divided by a common language’.  (Let’s not get into a further division, namely that of British English into English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh versions.  That’s the topic of a further post.) This is even more true these days, and will continue to be so as the two languages develop, despite the massive unifying efforts of the Internet and instantaneous global media.  Language change is constant, and it’s not good or bad, it’s just change, which characterises all living things.

On my trip, it was my etymological leanings that led me to notice that American english in some cases seemed to favour a more latin-derived word over one with perhaps more anglo-saxon origins.  I remember writing that the Americans would use ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’, ‘suspenders’ for ‘braces’ and ‘vacation’ for ‘holiday’, and that this seemed like an eminently sensible way of going about things.  I also remember the trip organisers being distinctly underwhelmed by my essay, but I’m going with it anyway.

This tendency, along with the US habit of ‘izing’ words like ‘productize’ and ‘awesomize‘, seems to make American english more accessible than British english to those for whom english is not their first language.  A huge factor is also the universality of American english, from its arts and media output, the sheer number of Americans on the planet and their hegemony as an economic, political – and therefore linguistic – powerhouse.

Let’s face it, the english we’ve all inherited is a pretty irregular and complex language, and so any moves towards people being able to converse in it more easily should be applauded.