Real World English: a video series

September 7, 2017

Over the last year or so, Macmillan Dictionary (for whom I write a column on language) published 11 videos and blog posts in a series titled Real World English. I wrote the video scripts, which were then revised by the editors, jazzed up by the graphics team, and presented by Ed Pegg of the London School of English.

Like the dictionary itself, this material is aimed at English-language learners but may be of use or interest to others too. Its focus is on dialect differences in the workplace, mainly UK/US. The entries focus on vocabulary (greetings, education, holidays, etc.) or pragmatics (irony, directness, politeness, etc.). The introductory video gives the gist:

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You can access all 11 videos and blog posts (plus video scripts) on this page, or you can use the playlist above. Each clip is 2–3 minutes long, and the whole series comes in under 30 minutes. Real World English follows the popular Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series of previous years. I hope you enjoy it.

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Writing tips from Teilhard de Chardin

June 17, 2013

Lately I read a collection of letters by the priest, palaeontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon during World War I, where he acted as stretcher-bearer on the front lines and won several medals for bravery and service.

The letters were translated from the French by René Hague and published in English as The Making of a Mind: Letters from a SoldierPriest 1914–1919. They show a side of Teilhard I had not previously seen, having read only some of his books on evolution and theology.

Teilhard’s letters include this passage of writing advice he offered his cousin, who had sent him one of her lectures for comment:

Read the rest of this entry »


Do dogs get a ruff deal, linguistically speaking?

July 7, 2011

Galway had its first Dog Expo this summer. I don’t have a dog, but I went with a friend who does. (It was all fine fun until they started putting hats and boots on the dogs and catwalking them around the stage to bad dance music.)

The communicative bond between the two species has long fascinated humans. I read Man Meets Dog (1950) by Konrad Lorenz lately and thought the following passage worth posting:

It is a fallacy that dogs only understand the tone of a word and are deaf to the articulation. The well-known animal psychologist, [Viktor] Sarris, proved this indisputably with three Alsatians, called Harris, Aris and Paris. On command from their master, ‘Harris (Aris, Paris), Go to your basket’, the dog addressed and that one only would get up unfailingly and walk sadly but obediently to his bed. The order was carried out just as faithfully when it was issued from the next room whence an accompanying involuntary signal was out of the question.

It sometimes seems to me that the word recognition of a clever dog which is firmly attached to its master extends even to whole sentences. The words, ‘I must go now’ would bring Tito and Stasi [an Alsatian and an Alsatian/Chow crossbreed, respectively] to their feet at once even when I exercised great self-control and spoke without special accentuation; on the other hand, none of these words, spoken in a different connection, elicited any response from them.

Lorenz describes a report from Annie Eisenmenger, who co-illustrated the book, about her Schnauzer, Affi. Supposedly, Affi recognised the words Katzi, Spatzi, Eichkatzi (diminutives of kitten, sparrow, squirrel) and Nazi, which was the name of Eisenmenger’s pet hedgehog and had “no political meaning in those days”.

Imagine: Nazi the hedgehog. Anyway, Affi reacted differently to these words, for example running from tree to tree at the sound of Eichkatzi; and, upon hearing Nazi, rushing to a rubbish heap where a hedgehog lived.

Lorenz writes that Affi “knew the names of at least nine people, and would run across the room to them if their names were spoken. She never made a mistake.” This is a second-hand anecdote, but Lorenz says he is confident of its truthfulness. Stressing the crucial difference between the behaviour of an animal in the lab and that of one who is free to accompany its human companion, Lorenz adds:

With the dog, one is seldom given the chance of achieving high feats of word recognition in the laboratory, since the necessary interest is lacking . . . . Every dog-owner is familiar with a certain behaviour in dogs which can never be reproduced under laboratory conditions. The owner says, without special intonation and avoiding mention of the dog’s name, ‘I don’t know whether I’ll take him or not.’ At once the dog is on the spot, wagging his tail and dancing with excitement, for he already senses a walk. Had his master said, ‘I suppose I must take him out now,’ the dog would have got up resignedly without special interest. Should his master say, ‘I don’t think I’ll take him, after all,’ the expectantly pricked ears will drop sadly, though the dog’s eyes will remain hopefully fixed on his master.

This subtlety of understanding is a far cry from the Far Side cartoon in which Gary Larson pokes fun at the tendency to harangue dogs at complicated length:

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Many animals-and-human-language stories are of the YouTube Wunderhund variety: crude phonetic imitation. Others emphasise vocabulary. Some dogs can recognise hundreds of words, but to claim that this means a dog is as intelligent or linguistically advanced as a two-year-old human is pretty silly, I think, and unfair to both dogs and people. It rests on a facile interpretation of intelligence (human and animal), an impoverished misinterpretation of language, and a hopeless anthropocentrism.

The comparison is misleading because it isolates one modest parameter — vocabulary, or perhaps just recognition of aural stimuli — and omits many other relevant ones. Syntax, for example, is a different matter altogether. I don’t think dogs do grammar, whereas kids begin to employ it from a very early age.

Dogs are intelligent animals and very sensitive to people’s cues, but the degree to which they understand our utterances is easily overstated and difficult to settle. A discussion at the Straight Dope Message Board shows how divided common opinion is. The chat is also worth browsing for some of the anecdotes, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Do you own or know a dog, and if so how highly would you rate its inter-species communication skills?

Edit: Arnold Zwicky has posted a Wondermark cartoon on the subject, followed by a short discussion, at his language blog.


37 per cent of my favourite things

May 24, 2010

Have you ever wondered what proportion of words are nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs? According to the word specialists at Oxford Dictionaries,

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

This is an interesting estimate, but it is a crude one based on a small data pool, especially given the extent of derivation, the size of English vocabulary, and the significant variation between types of text. Just as I began to wonder in earnest about all this, I spotted a tantalising datum in A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar:

In any language, the nouns make up by far the largest category in terms of number of dictionary entries, and in texts we find more nouns than words of any other category (about 37 per cent of the words in almost any text).

Evidently there had been systematic investigation. I soon found what I presume was the authors’ source: “About 37% of Word-Tokens are Nouns”, a paper by Richard Hudson that appeared in Language in 1994. Hudson, an emeritus professor of linguistics at University College London, examined two major corpora and related studies: the Brown University corpus of a million words of written American English, and the Lancaster–Oslo–Bergen (LOB) corpus of a million words of British English.

Both corpora divide texts into the same 15 genre categories — press reportage, science fiction, religion, learned & scientific writings, humour, mystery & detective, etc. — and tag words according to their word class. This enabled Hudson to cross-compare, by category, between the corpora. The genres can readily be arranged into two self-explanatory supergenres that Hudson calls “informational” and “imaginative”. He observes that “the similarities are sufficiently striking to suggest an underlying constancy”:

More detailed examination of the word types in genre categories reveals that the proportion of nouns varies, as we would expect it to, but only between 33% (in learned & scientific writings) and a more “nounful” 42% (in press reportage). Hudson speculates on possible causes for the observable patterns and variations, notes that the generalisation in his paper’s title is an “oversimplification of a system which is complex but quite regular”, and describes the trends as “facts . . . in search of a theory”.

Much to my delight, the paper also contains data on the proportions of other word classes in written and spoken English and other languages from various sources, including children’s speech at different ages:

(P stands for prepositions, cN for common nouns, nN for proper nouns, pN for pronouns, V for verbs, Adj for adjectives, and Adv for adverbs.)

Hudson concludes that language has “regularities which involve the statistical probability of any randomly selected word belonging to a particular word-class”. I haven’t looked for follow-up studies yet, so I don’t know what has been made of these and similar data since 1994, but it’s a fascinating paper in its own right.