The Speech Community

June 8, 2018

I recently enjoyed Language and Social Context: Selected Readings (Penguin, 1972), edited by Pier Paolo Giglioli. It includes some articles so famous that even a non-linguist like me knew them (John Searle on speech acts, William Labov on nonstandard English), along with many that I didn’t.

One article I especially liked is ‘The Speech Community’ (1968) by linguistic anthropologist John J. Gumperz, in which he describes that unit as ‘any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage’.

The idea of a speech community is very useful when discussing and thinking about language: we easily forget how highly social and context-dependent are the linguistic rules and norms we observe more or less unconsciously. Gumperz goes on:

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Savouring each preposition

May 31, 2018

In ‘The Last Campaign’, from her story collection Orange Horses (Tramp Press, 2016), Maeve Kelly portrays a marriage whose members have deeply contrasting – and sometimes clashing – communication styles. Martha and Joe are a middle-aged couple devoted to each other and to their farm, on which much of their conversation turns:

Herself and Joe met at the tap on the wall outside. He hosed down his boots, thinking about something.

‘Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe,’ she said. ‘You might get the last of the hay drawn in today.’

‘I might,’ he said, looking up at a small, dark cloud away on the horizon and checking the direction of the wind. ‘If it holds. I think there’s a change.’

‘It’ll hardly break before this evening,’ she said.

‘Maybe not.’

She wondered to herself why his sentences were always so short. Words spilled over in her own mind so much. She had to hold them back, conscious always of his brief replies and afraid she might become garrulous in her effort to fill the void. ‘Communication,’ she reminded herself sometimes, ‘is not only made with speech.’

From this brief exchange we understand not only each character’s expressive preferences but also the effect of the difference on Martha, who would likely be more talkative were Joe not so taciturn. For this lack she must console herself with truisms. And yet their mutual fondness is unmistakable and is underscored implicitly as the tale unfolds.

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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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Look at the cut of this Irish expression

February 18, 2018

Growing up in rural Ireland, I regularly heard – and still occasionally hear – some version of the phrase the cut of someone. It’s an informal idiom that means the state or appearance of someone and usually incorporates criticism or amusement or both. Here’s an example I just read in Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:

‘Look at the cut of me!’ Claire’s mother had said the last time she’d visited her. She’d been sitting by a mirror, combing out her faded hair. ‘I’m as grey as a badger. How come I look so old, yet I feel no different to what I was forty years ago? Where’s the sense in that?’ She’d started to laugh …

In Irish literature the expression is generally found in dialogue or in vernacular narrative. Madden’s example is typical in a few ways: it’s light-hearted, colloquial, and deprecatory – in this case self-deprecatory. In a similar vein, the next two examples involve mirrors. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There:

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Good advice in Bottle Rocket

December 3, 2017

Even among fans of Wes Anderson, his debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) remains relatively unsung, less seen and less acclaimed than the likes of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. It lost money and wrong-footed viewers, but over time it found its audience – some of them, anyway. Martin Scorsese, for one, loves it, and so do I.

Bottle Rocket is a sweet, slacker caper film about lifelong friendship and inept crime. It’s a heist film, road movie, and buddy comedy in one. Two of those buddies are Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson, brothers in real life, starring in their first feature film. Luke’s character has a love interest (‘Which part of Mexico are you from?’ ‘Paraguay’), which prompts the following reflection in a letter to his sister:

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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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A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

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