A family isolated by language

April 15, 2018

Arja Kajermo’s short novel The Iron Age (Tramp Press, 2017) has a few passages that describe the difficulties of being linguistically marooned when you’re a child whose family moves to another country. The narrator is a Finnish girl transplanted to Sweden in the 1950s when her father finds work there:

We were now what Mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb Mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.

The children’s teacher, hoping to address the problem, sends a letter home with Tuomas, the girl’s brother. Their father translates it painstakingly with the help of a dictionary. Tuomas is to learn Swedish fast, and to do so he must forget his native Finnish and not speak it at all, anywhere: ‘It was for his own good and he would do better at school if he complied.’

Their mother considers this plan ‘ridiculous’, but their father accedes, being unwilling to go against the teacher’s instruction. A natural, secretive compromise ensues:

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Jodie Foster: ‘He started imitating my accent’

October 20, 2017

An important character detail in the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the journey of Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, from a rural working-class background to sophisticated city life as an FBI agent.

Take for example this monologue by Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, during his first encounter with Starling (from 4:15 in the clip; transcript below):

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Language change and the politics of accents

August 12, 2017

These are the topics of my latest posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. In Words in constant motion, I write that every aspect of language use is subject to change, that this understandably unsettles some people, but that we can learn to live with it:

We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism.

In The politics of accents, I examine a recent case of linguistic prejudice against a British politician that centred on her regional accent, and consider what motivates such a reaction:

Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior.

One of Macmillan Dictionary’s busiest and most interesting features is its Open Dictionary, which relies on reader submissions of words and phrases previously absent from the dictionary. These entries, of course, are vetted and edited by lexicographers before being accepted (which many are not). Liz Potter wrote a helpful post on it last month: What’s the point of the Open Dictionary?

My full archive of posts for Macmillan is available here.


Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

July 7, 2017

Uptalk, also called upspeak, rising intonation, and (misleadingly) high-rising terminal, is where someone ends a statement as though it were a question? These two are for illustration? Uptalk is stereotypically associated with Australians, ‘Valley Girls’, and young women generally.

It’s also widely hated. Get people talking about their language peeves, and sooner or later uptalk will crop up. It has been described as an ‘annoying tic’ (The Smithsonian), ‘worse than vocal fry’ (Time), and as a ‘nasty habit’ in Psychology Today, which also worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering.

Even Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain entirely’. The host, Paul Merton, said it could be a politeness strategy, though he didn’t call it that, but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply irritating’:

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Nora and James Joyce: making women’s speech the universal tongue

July 2, 2017

Maybe writing about typos in Ulysses triggered it, but I finally took Brenda Maddox’s book Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce off the shelf. It’s an exceptional study, rich in insight and research: highly recommended to anyone interested in her life, personality, and relationships, and in the author himself.

Maddox defends Nora soundly against a tendency in some Joyce scholarship to caricature her as ignorant or even illiterate. The scarcity of Nora’s own letters for some decades didn’t help this perception, nor did her famous dislike of Ulysses. She appreciated its value, but ‘her acceptance was always tempered by her dismay at its obscenity’, Maddox writes. When Joyce complained that Wagner, whom Nora loved, was obscene, Nora pointed irrefutably at Ulysses.

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Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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A sea of language at full boil

March 10, 2017

Jonathan Lethem is an author whose back catalogue I’ve been slowly, happily pecking away at. His protean, genre-blending style will not appeal to all tastes, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the few I’ve read. The most recent of these is Motherless Brooklyn, which won a couple of awards as the century turned. I single it out here because its narrator is obsessed with language.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan now grown up, more or less, and he has Tourette’s syndrome. (In his acknowledgements Lethem mentions Oliver Sacks, whose book An Anthropologist on Mars has a chapter on Tourette’s.) Lethem’s depiction of the syndrome is sympathetic and thoughtful, but he is alive too to its comic and dramatic possibilities, and the novel is often funny, tense, or otherwise affecting.

Lionel’s Tourette’s has its own particular contours, characterised by compulsive counting, ticcing, tapping (people’s shoulders, especially), kissing, collar-fixing, copying other people’s utterances and actions, and a kind of self-fuelling wordplay that draws on words heard or seen and then cannibalises itself unstoppably.

Early in the novel, staking out a meditation centre with a fellow orphan, the word Zendo catches Lionel’s eye and mind:

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