Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Frack. It's certainly been a while since I updated this blog. I thought that going to Japan and studying another language while teaching English would have inspired me to write on this blog more, but in fact it's done the opposite, with my brain drawing linguistic tidbit blanks as my lack of using much higher level English makes my own English ability slowly degrade as it gets worse and worser.

But fortunately, I started reading another linguistics book I got for my birthday Which has inspired me to start writing again. But what to write about? Frack. I don't know.

Just in case you couldn't work out by the title of this blog, my slight obsession with tv has led me to find my new favourite swear word at the moment; frack. Originally from Battlestar Galactica (a show that I have yet to see as well), supposedly, it's the sweat word of the future, though in reality, it's really just a word that the producers of the show made up so they could find some alternative to the f word that could be uttered and not censored on tv. And its got it's following, even popping up on other tv shows, which is how I caught wind of it.

But anyway, why does frack seem to have legs as a cool new profanity alternative, and not like, dudgemuffin?

Well, when we try to communicate, even if what we come up with may not be a proper word or have even been used before on that context, since we like to assume that people are talking with the purpose of communication (and not to babble on mindlessly, unlike this blog post). We tend to fill in the gaps and make the associations ourselves. Kind of like an "Oh! He's using the word frack, and in that context of him being angry and when we would normally be swearing" moment. That's why we can all read that ubiquitous email forward that went around and understand it; if we read of trying to make sense of it we can.

Frack also made me wonder if it really does become the preferred profanity of the future, would future Tourettes sufferers (seeing there wasn't a cure developed by then) be shouting frack and not previously ye-olde profanity words like ragamuffin and zounds? Well, I just found out that swear words are actually stored in a different part of the brain than other words, so assuming Tourettes affects that part of the brain (and you still wouldn't find zounds as offensive as Shakespeare may have) then I guess you wouldn't, despite how odd it may have sounded. Drats. I mean frack.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The magic of spelling

It's interesting to see how much the written word has become ingrained as part of our spoken language - we talk about people dropping their gs from words like going and something (even though technically speaking, people who pronounce those words 'properly' aren't even making a g sound) and we look to the written word to see if words count as "real words" despite using them in everyday speech. Just play a game of Scrabble and try to put down emo or temp (as in a temporary office employee) - The look of indignation on the other player's faces will show you how strongly people feel about the written word. 

It's hard to believe that in Ye Olde times (that's the official term for that era, by the way) it was the majority of the population that couldn't read or write, and so the few who could actually read and write were seen to have magical powers. The word grammar actually has the same word origin as glamour for this reason; glamour meant "magical spell" before moving to meaning it has today. From a Ye Olde regular person's perspective, it's understandable- People who could read were able to speak words that may not have been uttered for years, and had access to a heap of information that regular people couldn't. For most people, this would have meant that they potential had access to spells and witchery.

However, up until fairly recently, those who could read at that time may not have been able to spell - well, not by our standards anyway. It was common to see a word being spelt a number of ways - even in the same passage written by the same person. Before we could all just Ctrl+J in Microsoft Word to justify text, people would just change an i to a y or add another s or two at the end of words. 

I guess Scrabble would have been so much easier in Ye Olde times.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

no thanks

Yeah, I know - there's been a lack of updates. I've been a little preoccupied with working and preparing to move to Japan, so blogging about linguistics has been pretty low on the list at the moment, but hopefully I find the time to update this a little more frequently once I move and get settled.

One thing I'm really paranoid about is unintentionally offending someone - you always hear things about Japanese people being super polite and formal. And, being Australian (who are apparently super-informal), there's bound to be some issues. It did make me wonder though, are Japanese people really polite? And are Australians really that informal?

This would be where I normally incorporate the definition of politeness, but I'll spare you the linguistics lesson. The point is, different cultures show politeness in a number of ways. For Australians, being formal is seen as being a bit standoffish and aloof, so to be polite, we try to treat people as we would our close friends - and so we get away with asking strangers about the weekend (even though we don't care) calling Uni lecturers and Doctors by their first name rather than their title. Japan on the other hand, is about maintaining traditions and a social hierarchy, so politeness can involve showing that you are aware that people are higher on the social ladder than you by being formal, and using their titles rather than their first names.

So long(ish) story short(er), Australians aren't that impolite, and Japanese people aren't that polite, it's just that different cultures have different ways of showing  it. It's all relative I guess - I spoke to  someone originally from India who was surprised how formal everyone was when she first arrived in Australia, since everyone, including people she considered friends,  said 'thanks' for anything. Coming from India, 'thanks' was never said to friends - it wasn't considered necessary for someone that the person knew well, and friends saying it was like a slap in the face - in India, it would've shown formality and a lack of friendship. From an outsider's perspective, she would've been considered rude for never saying 'thank you' for anything as well.

I guess I can only keep an open mind and hope other people do as well when I inevitably offend someone unintentionally. But if they don't, I guess it gives me something else to blog about I guess.

Friday, June 1, 2007

the cooties effect

Despite the earnest efforts of feminists throughout the ages, there's still some inherent inequality in language. Sure, nowadays using they as a singular pronoun for an unknown person has become grammatical English, and the usage of Ms. as the female equivalent is now accepted, but it certainly doesn't mean (in language at least) that men and women are created equal.

There's an underlying factor that's behind this male/female mismatch. While it's completely normal for words to change in meaning and lose/gain power over time (which is why you won't be insulted if I called you a vagabond) It seems to be quite prevalent when it comes to words relating to women. I'm sure there's a jargony linguistics term for this form of language change, but I like to call this the cooties effect.

Cooties: not just for kids, apparently. The difference between guys and girls seems to be the emphasis placed on their gender in determining their identity. So, for guys to traditionally be considered "real men", they have to be macho and manly and dissociate themselves from all things non-manly. So, some of the greatest insults to guys involve questioning how manly they are, i.e. girl, wuss, prissy. The same doesn't exactly apply to girls - calling a girl "a boy", or "macho" doesn't really have the same effect, does it?

So, guys seem to do anything to make sure their masculinity doesn't inadvertently come into question, with potentially ambiguous words. Just look at situations when there's a group of guys and girls - calling the whole group Guys seems fine, but calling them Girls - even if there's 20 girls and 1 guy - seems inappropriate. French has two words that can be translated to "they"
Ils and Elles - one masculine, and the other feminine, and follows the same kind of rule.

So, when words become associated with girls, guys start to stop using it and gradually the word becomes used exclusively for females. Girl used to mean " any young person" (as seen in this post) before the meaning of the word gradually become disassociated with boys. It also happens with names - Some start off being gender neutral end up becoming female names, like Sidney, Meredith & Bethel.

Gee, and you thought you already got over that whole "eew, cooties" stage.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Crayolas & peaches

When I was a kid, I used to be obsessed with colours. I memorised all the Crayola colours (favourites: Cerulean Blue & Tangerine) and my favourite books were the ones about differently-coloured vehicles and objects, like The Crimson Tractor. I don't even remember what the story was about actually, I just remember the tractor was red and that was cool (Sorry if I just spoiled the book for any of you).

But I do remember freaking out when I saw Batman on TV - not because of the ridiculously campy villains and the random "POW!" interjections, but I just couldn't believe that people at one point in time didn't know what colour was. While I was eventually told about the relatively recent invention of colour television, It did begin my life-long occasional freak out about my own perception of colour.

I always wondered if the colour I was seeing as red was what everyone else was seeing as red. What if I had this odd rod and cone deficiency that meant that I would see blue instead of red, and no one had told me? What if I saw blood (and everything else this colour) as what everyone saw as blue, but since I was taught that blood was red, I was calling the colour "red" the whole time? Did anyone else freak out about this or was it just me?

Well, with colour being a subjective thing, and no real way to test this out, there's no way to tell if I have a rare, undiagnosed colour-perception deficiency. But I do find it interesting the differences in colour perception just by looking at languages.

I was surprised when learning Japanese about how the terms for orange and pink are orenji and pinku - borrowed from English. The other term for pink was momoiro, or "peach colour". How can something we see as being orangey be pinky in another culture?

Our peaches:
Japanese peaches:
I also found in Japanese that aoi, which translates to "blue" is still used to refer to the colour of the traffic light that means "go", the colour of green apples, and hills. They still have the term midori, which translates to green, but according to Wikipedia, see midori as a type of blue, which is common in other languages too.

While English has 11 basic colour terms (white, red, yellow, green, blue, black, pink, orange, purple, brown & grey), some languages, such as Deni, only have two basic colour terms - one word to mean "any colour that white/red/yellowish" and another to refer to "black/blue/greeny" - It's not that they can't distinguish between orange and yellow (even though the basic colour term would been the same), they just don't. It's a bit like how we have the words maroon and crimson, which we can use when we're trying to be specific, but generally, we'd just use the term red. I guess there's no point distinguishing from midnight blue from cerulean blue if you don't use Crayolas.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I'll be there in a sec...

We all have that friend. The one who's continually late and can never make it on time to anything, and everyone else knows not to expect them on time. It's gotten to the point where if I'm meeting my friends for dinner, I'll tell everyone else to meet at 7:00, and my friend at 6:30, just to make sure he shows up on time. It worked the first couple times, but now he's now beginning to catch on.

So while I was waiting for the hundredth time, it gave me some comfort (though not much) knowing that I'm not the only one who's been in this situation. In fact, it seems people have been waiting for their ever-tardy friends since Ye Olde times.

Looking at the history words related to time, it's interesting to see how a regular pattern:
soon used to mean "immediately", and synonyms like anon used to mean "immediately" as well. Dictionary.com says that presently can either mean "soon" or "immediately", which is showing a similar shift like the other words as well.

It kinda makes sense as to how this happens - because "i'll be there in a minute" has become so overused, no one really takes that phrase literally, and now not many people would really differentiate the differences in duration in the sayings "I'll be there in a minute" and "I'll be there in a sec". Since I've known my friend since 1997, I know to double whatever timeframe he says. If he tells me he'll take 5 minutes, I've got at least 10 minutes before he arrives, and if he says 15 - well, it's worth grabbing a seat or find something to do for half an hour - like ponder the topic of my next blog post.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The 'r' in Banda Aceh

I was reading a newspaper ages ago with someone complaining about a news reporter being shocked about a news reporter pronouncing the Indonesian city "Bander Aceh" instead of without the 'r' -How on earth could a news reporter get the name wrong?!?

Well, it wasn't the news reporter's fault - she can't help it she's Australian. She was just doing what most other Australian-English speakers do everyday, and probably don't even realise.

Anyone who's tried to learn French will probably know about liasons - when the normally-silent final consonant of word is pronounced when it is followed by a vowel. So while les is pronounced more like "le" by itself, when it's immediately followed by a word like amis, then it will sound more like "les".

The same kind of thing happens in Australian English. Something obvious to American ears is that Australian English is an r-dropper; words like mother and father sound more like "motha" and "fatha". But the r isn't completely forgotten - want proof? If you're an Oz English speaker (or NZ English speaker, or possibly any other r-dropping English speaker) say "mother and father" ten times fast. If you listen closely, it'll sound more like "motha rand father". Isn't that amazing? It's one of those linguistic tricks I like to pull out at parties.

Anyway, so how does this relate to the Australian news reporter? Well, being an r-dropping English speaker, she's so used to pronouncing the r in between certain vowel sounds that she begins putting an r in between vowels when it sounds like there should to be an r, even if spelling-wise there shouldn't be one. The next thing you know, you're pronouncing Law and Order as "law rand order" and Banda Aceh as "Bander aceh". It's not a conscious decision to add the r, it just happens naturally, like how French speakers liase words without even thinking.

See? Another case of linguistics coming in to save the day.
...Maybe not saving lives or anything, but at the very least saving injustly-accused news reporters from seldom-read opinion letters...