Category archive - Language

Emails of complaint

Emails of complaint

1322466000_now_to_be_br-7In one of the writing courses, we’ve been dealing with email of complaint, a skill B2-level writers should be able to handle, but that we have to teach and grade at high-C1 for our teacher trainers as they learn the ropes of using grammars of politeness and how to complain in an English-speaking world.

Grammars of politeness and ways of softening a message include (not limited to)

– using modals,

– words like ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ when suggesting a solution

– modals with questions and -ing forms (‘could it be worth considering’),

– superlatives in the positives (‘a truly wonderful week’) and

– played-down phrases (‘could have been better’ instead of ‘were really/very bad’ and substituting ‘very’ and ‘really’ for ‘a bit’, ‘somewhat’, ‘something of a …’, ‘a trifle’ in the complaint section of the writing

Sandwiching is also very important — start every sentence positively and put the complaint in the latter part of the sentence, then suggested solutions either as a new sentence or as another clause in what would then be a very long compound-complex sentence. Without sandwiching, a complaint becomes a rant and is unlikely to get a positive response.

We don’t get them writing limited business-to-business stuff, but encourage them to use a bit more story with a range of sentence patterns, so they can meet C1 criteria. It is a fine line we tread, especially as many of the examples we’ve found in textbooks lack the complexity required of a higher-level writer, and companies rarely publish emails of complaint.

After receiving some fairly aggressively written emails of complaint, we tried to work out what we had done wrong in our teaching. And, actually, it turned out that the Austrian students simply don’t believe that English speakers complain like this and that we are as direct as they are. We’re don’t and we’re not (a brief piece about how to be polite and complain at the same time, and another in GQ). 

I decided to model an example — with 20 students, so it is somewhat clumsy at times — one that would make use of the grammars and expressions of politeness and push the students to use the idiomatic phrases expected of a C1 writer, but I am interested in your opinions, Internet world. Do you think this is an excessively polite piece of writing (bare in mind we HAVE to have some of the more convoluted sentence patterns in there to fulfil the grading criteria)?

What do you think needs to be added and removed to make it a shining example of an email of complaint?

Subject: Feedback on KCSS

Dear Sir or Madam,

For the last four weeks, I’ve had the time of my life at KCSS. After arriving in LA, with its amazing weather (so different from home), we were whisked to a truly welcoming welcome party where we met people who would turn out to be best friends forever.

As the summer got under way, getting to know each other better took place, often, at the sports field, with its vast range of equipment; I met Charlie, for example, as we rummaged through the tennis store looking for a racket, but it turned out that many of them could have been in better condition. We decided to play football instead, but it might be worth considering checking through the store a little more regularly to make sure the equipment is in good shape.

Exhausted from our exertions, we headed back to camp, eager to dive into the buffet awaiting us: a table groaning under the weight of burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza and all manner of wonderfully American fare, fare which was possibly a little on the salty and fatty side for some of the other campers, who spent quite a bit of time running back and forth to the toilet. Maybe, when cooking for such a large group, some of whom have specific dietary needs, you might think about cutting back on the salt and fat a bit/ offer a little more variety of dishes, maybe a few more vegetarian options.

I really did have a superb trip and would love to come back next year with friends, so I would be very grateful if you could consider my suggestions for future years, and, possibly, think about some sort of remuneration/compensation, maybe in form of a discount or voucher for next year.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards/ Best wishes/ Best regards,

Ann Example

 


Breaking the Passive Habit

Breaking the Passive Habit

There are five good reasons for using the passive, aside from those, using the active is by far the more preferable way of writing. There are some, though, who can’t seem to break the habit of overusing it. Surely, there has to be an element of changing the way you think, but there are practical things you can do until that change happens.

Happily, the practicalities of removing passive in your writing is pretty simple using functions in Word — maybe when you see where you use the passive, your thinking will start to change naturally.

How to find your passives

On your document, use CTRL+F to launch a ‘find’ facility. Type ‘by’ into the search area (why ‘by’? See here: grades are received by students, results are understood by reading the research thoroughly), which will help you find unnecessary passives that have the subject in the object position (everything after the ‘by’).

When you find that subject in the object position, you can easily restructure the sentence to put the subject in the active position (usually at the beginning of the sentence) and make the whole sentence active (e.g. students receive grades, reading the research helps us to understand the results).

You could also use the CTRL+F function to search for conjugations of ‘to be’ (is, are, should be, have been etc.), again, helping you to identify where you have used the passive forms and changing them to active.

And there you have it. Passives will be a thing of your past, unless you use them for a particular purpose.

Thanks clickonenglish.blogspot.com for the loan of image

 


20 Sentence Patterns You Can’t Ignore

20 Sentence Patterns You Can’t Ignore

I’ve been working and researching sentences almost daily, now, for over a year. Yes I’m a word-nerd, but there you have it.

In my travels, one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading was The Art of Styling Sentences.

And during one of my late-night sentence surfs, I stumbled across this cracking summary, which I have lifted directly from the lovely people at Oxford Tutorials because I think it’s so incredibly useful.

Twenty Sentence Patterns

1. Compound construction with semi-colon—to condense; to unify

Talent is only one half of it; hard work is the other.

2. Compound construction with ellipsis (omitting a repeated verb ) and comma — to create rhythm or balance

A red light means stop; a green light, go.

3. Compound construction with a colon—to create interest

Dawkins’ God Delusion is educational: it teaches bad logic.

4. A series without a conjunction—to create smooth flow

King Henry won loyalty with his courage, faith and humility.

5. A series of balanced pairs—to create rhythm

He abandoned God and family, faith and honour, house and home.

6. Introductory series of appositives—to expand points succinctly

Vanity, greed, revenge—which was the book’s main theme?

7. Internal series of appositives—to convey information quickly

Some predators—lions, wolves, tigers—have been hunted almost to extinction.

8. Dependent clauses: paired or in series—to summarize main points

“Whether you eat, or whether you drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

St. Paul (1 Cor. 10:31)

9. Repetition of key terms—to create emphasis or intensity

“Never give in… never—in nothing great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
      Winston Churchill

10. Appositive at end, after colon or dash—to build to a climax

Students must conquer a two-headed monster—laziness and boredom.

11. Modifier between subject and verb—to add interest

The tiniest dot—all you once were—marks the beginning of life.

12. Introductory or concluding participles—for variety

Driven by greed, Scrooge almost lost his soul. Awaking to the light, the fugitive resumed his flight.

13. A single modifier out of place anywhere—for emphasis

Occasionally, my parents will argue.       

14. Prepositional phrase before subject-verb—for emphasis

     “By their own follies they perished, the fools.” Homer

15. Object or complement before subject-verb—for emphasis

“Famous and wealthy an English teacher will never be.”

16. Paired constructions—to make comparisons or contrasts

“As slavery divided North and South, so did the Indian Wars divide the East and West.”

17. Dependent clause as subject, object or complement—for variety

{How that could happen} is a complete mystery.  We couldn’t see {who it was}.  The result was {what he predicted].

18. Absolute construction (noun or pronoun with a participle) —to add interest and variety

{God willing}, we will arrive tomorrow.  The students, {their minds disciplined}, persevered.  We are doing well, {all things considered}. 

19. A short sentence for effect—to summarize or provide transition

Jesus wept.” (Jn. 11:35)  “I came, I saw, I conquered.” J. Caesar

20. Deliberate fragment—for dramatic effect

But how?  Never!  Next stop—eternity!  What a price to pay!
What a mistake!  Absolute power corrupting once more. 



Extraposition and Inversion: Glam-sounding Simple Things

Extraposition and Inversion: Glam-sounding Simple Things

Sentence patterns are very predictable in English, and, whether you’re a native-speaker or not, it’s easy to get into a rut with the way you approach writing.

These are two little guys that have a lot to give, simply by being cheeky and getting into places they wouldn’t ordinarily be.

Inversion


To break away from the expectations of sentence patterns, you can invert. Here, the verb comes before the subject (i.e. use the question form for the main verb) and a prepositional phrase helps to emphasise the verb.

            High up in the sky flew the plane

            Out came the sunshine.

            Along the street came a car, battered and red.

After negative adverbials (usually used with perfect and/or modals (can/could) and usually in comparison (explicit or implied))

Never have I been more excited.

Not only had she learnt to walk very early, but she had also started talking before her first birthday.

Rarely have I asked for help.

Seldom can I say I’m worried about life.

Extraposition

Very simply, the subject gives up its place at the beginning of the sentence and goes on a short break to the end of the sentence.

            The twins are in first place = In first place are the twins.

            At the deep end of the pool were the older kids = The older kids were at the deep end of the pool.

When extraposition is introduced by ‘it’ they are actually fairly natural:

It’s a good idea to have a spare pen = To have a spare pen is a good idea.

You’re more likely to hear the first version, though, aren’t you — so extraposition is a rather glam-sounding thing that you never realised you did.

Starting a sentence with a ‘that’ noun-clause can be considered rather awkward, so is usually introduced with ‘it is’:

That the world will come to an end is inevitable. = It is inevitable that the world will come to an end.

Just another tool for you to stick in your toolbox before you get writing.


Make Words Work

Make Words Work

Placing emphasis on the right idea and right word in a sentence is an art. In the UK this isn’t something we really played with as children, which I think is a crying shame. In the US it’s standard grade-school fare, as far as I understand it.

I don’t really ever toying with word order or fiddling around to get the perfect effect. Shame.

Below is an example of a process called sentence combining.

You get a cluster of ideas, which you use to play around with until you get the sentence that works best for your story.

Here’s a basic cluster:

The apartment was quiet

It was punctuated by ticking

The ticking was soft

The ticking was insistent

The ticking came from a clock

And here’s what I made out of that cluster. Some I like, some I don’t, but look at the difference in each of the sentences, achieved simply by moving the words and ideas around.

Sometimes I add a word to alter the meaning of the sentence, but, for the most part, the words stay the same. It’s just word order and use of punctuation that places the emphasis.

  1. The quiet in the apartment was punctuated by ticking. The soft, insistent ticking of the clock.
  2. It was the ticking clock, soft and insistent, that punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  3. It was the quiet apartment punctuated by the soft, insistent ticking of the clock.
  4. It was the clock, ticking, soft and insistent, that punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  5. What punctuated the quiet of the apartment was the ticking of the clock, insistent but soft.
  6. Soft and insistent, the ticking of the clock punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  7. The apartment was quiet; only the ticking of the clock, soft and insistent, punctuated that quiet.
  8. There was a ticking, soft and insistent, that punctuated the apartment’s quiet.
  9. All that punctuated the quiet of the apartment was the ticking of the clock, soft but insistent.
  10. Only the ticking of the clock punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  11. But, punctuated only by the soft, insistent ticking of the clock, the apartment was quiet.
  12. Punctuated only by ticking clock, soft and insistent, the apartment was quiet.

Which do you like most? Why?

 

 


Bibliography and Useful Resources for Sentences and Writing

Bibliography and Useful Resources for Sentences and Writing

Useful resources

Vince (2009) Advanced Language Practice  pp 54 – 91

Fish, S (2011) How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. New York: HarperCollins

Longknife, A & Sullivan K.D. (2002) The Art of Styling Sentences. New York: Barron’s

Tufte, V (2006). Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Conneticut: Graphics Press LLC

University College London‘s Grammar pages: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/internet-grammar/function/extra.htm (accessed 27th December 2011)

Loads of writing advice from an OU lecturer and successful novelist http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/resources.html


Sentence Structures: A little trick

Sentence Structures: A little trick

It’s all well and good knowing stand-alone sentences, but sentences don’t often hang around on their own, do they? My Grammar and Writing students were having a bit of a time with sentence structures, so I found a little trick to help them.

FIND THE SUBJECT AND THE VERB

Each sentence needs a subject and a verb – many of them have more than one. When you can find the subjects and the verbs, then you’re a lot closer to working out what kind of sentence you have.

If a sentence has 1 subject and 1 verb then it’s a simple sentence.

Simple sentences can be hard though.
What about this?

Joan and Peter like to shop and to walk every Sunday.

To the untrained eye, it’s easy to think there are two subjects and two verbs BUT they are written as subject + subject, then verb + verb, which means it’s a compound subject (Joan and Peter is the subject) and a compound verb (shops and walks becomes a compound verb) NOT to be confused with a compound sentence!

If you can find 2 different subjects and 2 different verbs (S+V and S+V) then it’s a compound or complex sentence.

The compound sentence can be indentified either by a semi-colon or by the word after the comma: if it’s a ‘FANBOYS’ for, and, but, or, nor, yet, or so then you’re looking at a compound sentence.

Every Sunday, Joan and Peter like to walk, and they like to shop.

Notice that Joan and Peter remains the compound subject and like is the verb, then there’s a comma+and combo, which separates the clauses, and they becomes the second subject with like taking the second verb role.

If what follows the comma, or is at the beginning of the sentence, is a subordinating conjunction, then you have a complex sentence.

If there are commas either side of a semi-colon or a FANBOYS+comma combo the chances are it’s a compound-complex sentence. Identify the S+V combos either side of the semi-colon and check the purpose of the comma aswell – if the comma separates items in a list make sure there are S+V combos scattered around the sentence.

So, keep your eyes open for the subjects and verbs in your sentences and you’ll be able to spot all kinds of patterns that will benefit your own writing enormously.


Beautiful Sentences

Beautiful Sentences

What’s the loveliest sentence in the English language?

“And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.”

One literary critic, Stanley Fish, cited this as one of his favourite sentences ever written in the English language. (It comes from Ford Madox Ford‘s The Good Soldier, published in 1915.)

Personally, I’m a bit of a Hamlet hag and love the sound and rhythm of the:

‘O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt’ bit. Can’t say I like the idea itself, but it’s lovely to listen to.

Then, of course, there’s the opening lines from The Hobbit:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

What’s your favourite English sentence of all time?


internet or Internet?

internet or Internet?

Sometimes it’s written with a capital, sometimes without, and there rarely seems to be any logic behind the choices. It seemed to be down to taste, more than anything. How on earth can modern readers expect to get a grasp on the evolving rules of language if there isn’t any consistency?

Happily sub-editing the International Press Institute’s World Review, I spotted it again and decided it was time to get a definitive answer to the internet/Internet conundrum. Here’s what Reuters has to say about it:

Internet

A global data communications system comprising hardware and software that connects computers. The World Wide Web consists of content accessed using the Internet and is not synonymous with it. It is a collection of documents and other resources linked by hyperlinks, or URLs. The Internet also carries, for example, email and downloadable software.
Capitalise as a noun, lower case as an adjective e.g. internet banking, internet cafe.

My brand-spanking-new Shorter OED lists ‘internet’ initally without a capital with “now usual: Internet” written in brackets. Why? Why is it now usual?   I quite like the idea of distinguishing between the noun and the adjective, but surely there are more than enough people who don’t have a clue which is which and will merely confuse their readers.

For me, though, the question is: should it be a proper noun? Back in the day, the internet wasn’t considered a proper noun, so wasn’t capitalised. Just as we didn’t capitalise telegram, book, television, telephone, discussion, – which serve/d a similar purposes as the internet. What makes the internet any different (in grammatical terms) to any other media, any other common noun? By capitalising we are giving it massive importance – akin to Mum, Dad, Big Ben and London. Does it deserve to have this standing? Is it more important than books or telephones, newspapers or words?

What do you think? Should it be universally spelled with a lower case ‘i’, or should we plug on with a capital?

UPDATE (4th April 2011): reading The Sunday Times this morning, I noticed it used ‘internet’ – no capital. I did a leap of joy, quietly!


What a Week

What a Week

And that wraps up my first week lecturing at the University of Salzburg. It’s been thrilling putting my brain back in the driver’s seat and back in front of a class of students.

From British food and drink in Communication and Culture, to the intricacies of sentence rhythm, power words and word emphasis in Writing Genres, and finally paying a visit to commas and semi-colons, briefly, in Advanced Writing Skills – every minute has been a pleasure.

There is nothing like teaching to deepen learning. I don’t think it matters how many hours you make notes, highlight, or even discuss, there is nothing as potent in the learning process as delivering a lesson. Each time you deal with a topic, you learn something new.

Sometimes, however, I wonder what the role of the lecturer really is. I look at my bag stuffed with books, I look at the students to whom I’ve recommended the very same books, and I wonder where on earth I stand. Surely the students are as capable of reading those books as I am. Years of experience, maybe, mean that I bring a bit more to the ideas and theories in the books; maybe those years of experience mean I am able to understand the theories a little better. Do those years of experience also allow me to better explain how to fit the theories into everyday writing? I guess I like to think so.

Fascinating are the names given to techniques that I’ve been using in my writing for years. Bamboozling is that someone sat down and worked out how each of these techniques work and applied a set of rules. Rules which, it would seem, were made almost specifically for breaking, or at least bending.

In Advanced Writing we explored dear old comma. He has his rules, and I guess thought he was all set. But then you can get rid of him and let a semi-colon take over, because he’s not strong enough to connect two complete clauses. If you feel you’ve had enough of him, you can sub him for a dash – you’re allowed to, after all!

And then there are the correlative conjunctions and adverbials that help you change the emphasis of a sentence and highlight specific aspects. Adverbial and adjectivial ‘power words’ that are great, but shouldn’t be used too much for fear of them losing their power. Look at these two sentences – one using an adverbial – taken from Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar

•The senator spoke about the problems of the homeless.

•The senator spoke eloquently about the problems of the homeless.

Identify the power words – the words you emphasise – in each sentence and think about how the sound of the sentence changes with the added word. How does your understanding of the sentence change when ‘eloquently’ is added? Who becomes the most important part of the sentence? With this one word the reader will expect to read more about the senator in the next sentence, and not about the homeless. How could use just one word to tip the interest in favour of the homeless?

Just when you think you’ve got power words, adverbials, adjectivials and correlative conjunctions sorted in your head, one of the correlative conjunctions decides to break away and form its own splinter-cell that has it’s own special set of rules. ‘Both – and’, unlike his brothers ‘not only -but also’, either-or’, ‘neither-nor’, can’t join two complete clauses together.

Correlative conjunctions also alter the rhythm of a sentence:

–Individuals and nations must learn to think about the environment.

–Both individuals and nations must learn to think about the environment

How has ‘both – and’ altered the focus of the sentence? Where is the focus in the first, then the second sentence? Try rewriting the sentence using ‘neither-nor’.

The inticacies of our language are almost infinite. But we give rules out willy-nilly, only to remove the rules in the next breath. It fascinating and frustrating all at once.

Bring on next week, I say, when I add a bit of business English at Salzburg FH to the mix.


Great Resources

Great Resources

With my Linked:HR moderator hat on I was asked for a list of my favourite website resources, so I thought I should share them with you too.

When I am writing, proofreading or copy-editing these are the places I turn to, as well as my own library of ‘real life’ books, to make sure I’m on the mark.

If you want to improve your writing skills, aside from using English Pro’s forum, these are excellent places to start:

Common mistakes explained: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/

Writing guidance for copy-writers http://www.copyblogger.com/

Masses of information about writing http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/681/01/

Easy guide to punctuation: http://www.informatics.sussex.ac.uk/department/docs/punctuation/node00.html

And if you’re still learning English, these guys have some fabulous, interactive games: http://www.englishgrammarsecrets.com/index.html


What the ~*^%!?

What the ~*^%!?

It’s undeniable, things happen every day that can drive you to distraction. However, should venting frustration, annoyance or pain not be coloured in shades other than blue? I was always told that swearing merely displayed one’s limited vocabulary or ability to manipulate language.

Oh deary me!

Between being a teacher and a mum to 2 little people, my relationship with expletives ended quite some time ago. I have an affection for the far quainter ‘Grandma’ versions of cursing: Crikey! Oh lorkes! By jiminy! Oh fudge cake!; and to hear a glorious insult, like this one by Henry James on Oscar Wilde, is something of a treat:

‘”Hosscar” Wilde is a fatuous fool, a tenth-rate cad, an unclean beast.”

Personally I think Oscar is/was fab, but you can’t deny the insult, while deeply insulting, is beautifully lyrical, showing a far better grasp of language than anything we get to revel in these days where swearing litters most spoken sentences. Some movie plots are impossible to follow riddled as they are with swearing that does little to explain what’s actually happening. With the official millionth word added to the English language in 2009, there are plenty of other words to draw on to replace those over-used, multi-meaning mini-words.

What of the worldwide ‘texplitives’: OMG, WTF/H, PITA, FFS, and so forth? By not actually ‘saying’ the word, can you get away with it? After all, ‘Jiminy Cricket’, ‘Oh lorkes’ and ‘Crikey’ are all derivatives of blasphemous curses, which were far from acceptable back in the day.

Expletives seem to be losing the power they once had: they’re now catch-alls used to express a rainbow of emotions that are met in myriad moments of the day when an expletive is the natural reaction. What would you say if you slammed your finger in a drawer/ hit the send button on an email half way through composing it? Should four-letter words have the stigma removed maybe? Has it already been removed and only a few dinosaurs like me find them uncomfortable to say and hear? I’m not saying get rid — far from it! A well-placed swear in a genuine rant that has purpose and structure adds power and punch, but in a professional setting this kind of rant really shouldn’t rear it’s head.

In a moment of extraordinary coincidence, halfway though writing this an email appeared in my inbox from Outshine Consulting regarding professionalism in the workplace. Faye Hollands’ words perfectly sum up my feelings about swearing and the impression it gives:

“…The way you communicate has a huge impact on how professional you’re perceived to be.  It doesn’t matter what job you do, swearing will never be a prerequisite on a position description, nor will it help you in the professionalism stakes.  Similarly, slang and inappropriate phrases along with general rambling and poor communication will do nothing other than damage your image.  On the flip side, being able to communicate your ideas and opinions clearly, and with respect, will serve you much more positively.  Again, it doesn’t matter whether you sit behind a desk, or work on a building site, being able to communicate appropriately is an important ingredient in the professionalism-mix!”

Hear, hear!

For more thoughts about expletives see:

http://www.springerlink.com/content/j784g6516g266222/

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=expletives

http://thestar.com.my/english/story.asp?file=/2009/9/25/lifefocus/4769154&sec=lifefocus

http://www.dailywritingtips.com/expletives/


English evolving

English evolving

Of course there was not a date in history when someone said “Right ho, we’re all going to start speaking English today…All of us, and yes, that means you too Alfred”; English has been evolving for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

Researchers at Reading University cite I, we, two and three as words that have been around for tens of thousands of years based on results their clever ‘word analysing’ computer spewed out (after several years of their own research as well!). Having focussed on word patterns and how long words stick around, they predict that squeeze, guts, stick and bad could soon join the legions of words that we have stopped using, in whose great numbers count fabulous words like: billingsgatry, succubus and galligaskin.

Whilst those words are currently on the endangered list, the computer can’t predict what may happen to the definitions of words in use today. Look at what happened to gay – for our grandparents it simply meant happy, it then meant homosexual, and more recently it was adopted by the ‘youf’ to describe something that is regarded as stupid by the speaker. So a word that once seemed to heading for the block was rescued, twice, by a simple bit of rebranding. Very Madonna-esque!

Google ‘oldest English word’ and there is a claim that cinnamon is the oldest word that is still in circulation, having been mentioned in the Old Testament; fart also makes an appearance (cover your noses!) courtesy of Wikipedia, and museumhoax’s members offer apple. Some lovely suggested it was ‘one of the 30,000 words that Shakespeare invented’, which seems a little unlikely because we understand several of the other words he used that would have come before the ones he invented (although fair play to the chap, he did a pretty good job!).

A few months ago the millionth new word (Web 2.0) was added to the dictionary. Some claim that, if you acknowledge all technical and jargon vocabulary as well, we passed the millionth yonks ago, whereas some say we’re ‘only’ at three-quarters of a million. Do you want to start counting? With new words being added every year (here’s 2008’s list) and several of those not being officially recognised is it really possible to put a number on it? ‘A lot’ could be a reasonable response. With most fluent speakers using between 20- and 40,000 and needing just a couple of thousand to ‘get by’ do we need all of these words? I’d have thought so!

To have such a fantastic plethora of words to chose from, and to use them in an infinitesimal number of ways is glorious. And yet there are still words we don’t have: feelings, explanations and ideas we still can’t describe because we don’t have the word for it – terroir for example; so we simply nick the word and adopt it as our own.

What word or usage would you add to the ever-growing, ever-changing English language? And which would you perfectly happily see drop into non-existence?


The day the language died

The day the language died

I ‘stumbled’ across a fascinating article that, quite frankly, makes me feel pretty guilty by association.

The BBC’s Today page discusses the tragedy of losing a language, stating that:

“In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.”

Astonishing.

“According to Ethnologue, a US organisation that compiles a global database of languages, 473 languages are currently classified as endangered.
“The death in 2008 of Chief Marie Smith Jones signalled her language’s death
Among the ranks are the two known speakers of Lipan Apache alive in the US, four speakers of Totoro in Colombia and the single Bikya speaker in Cameroon.”

The idea that there are already languages spoken by less than 10 people, that will die when those speakers move on, is galling.

Not only did the English (and Spanish) speaking world ravage ancient civilisations (and I don’t claim to have any great historical knowledge about this), but their steady march into all aspects of global business and social networking are now slaughtering other languages in its wake.

With our, nationally, fairly abysmal record for learning other languages – save the arrogant ‘speak louder’ approach – is it any surprise that languages are dying? Should we be held responsible for wiping out languages and cultures or should those cultures be responsible for their own continued existence? With the resurgence of ‘minor’ (loathsome, patronising phrase!) reinstating themselves, it’s clear that it is possible to come back from the brink and proudly reclaim both language and culture. What of those cultures who don’t care about their language and individual future? Should they be encouraged to cling onto their own traditions or should we – the billions of us who are currently certain of our language’s cultural future – leave them to it?

Personally, I think it’s a tragedy that so much rich culture and so many wonderful traditions will be lost, but I’m not entirely sure it’s something in which ‘we’ should involve ourselves.

Now, although I’m fairly agnostic (could you get more on the fence with that phrase?), but I’ve read my fair share of theological tomes and mythological stories and where the Bible claims languages were created by God because we were naughty and as punishment we should no longer be able to speak to each other, a similar notion appears in other cultures as well.

Could it be that we mere mortals are evolving so spectacularly that we are now overcoming the massive barriers our gods lay before us? Pah…I fear my ‘easy like Sunday morning’ approach to this beautifully snowy day here in Austria may be letting me get carried away with myself!

It’s an interesting thought though, isn’t it?