Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Nenglish and Dederlands

March 27, 2009

I have bit of a background in linguistics. That was one of my loves at high school when I first read “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, so I went on to study it before university. First, self-taught, I tried my hand at building machine translation programs (in Basic, on the ZX81 on then a BBC micro), which is where I found out it was pretty useful in Artificial Intelligence. Then I actually studied it as an A-level before university, and found I had a certain knack for it. My dad persuaded me at the last moment that doing a joint honours in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science — I’d been programming for a decade already — would be a lot more useful in the ‘real world’ than a degree in Artificial Intelligence and Linguistics. Neither of us foresaw the rise of search engines or how their rise would be fed by Computational Linguistics graduates and researchers.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an eternal dabbler, who loves taking deep dives into subjects before moving on to the next subject that I grew to love learning new languages. I speak about two adequately and about 15 extremely poorly. The natural result of that is a passion for linguistics.

One of the first differentiations I learnt was between ‘prescriptive’ grammarians and ‘descriptive’ grammarians. The former are old school types who state how a language should work based on our understanding of its roots and how we were taught it. This presupposes that languages are best pinned to the floor and dissected carefully. ‘Descriptive’ grammarians watch a body of language moving in the wild and describe what they see and hear, but never fall into the trap of thinking that because one generation does one thing, so should the next.

In English, much of how the language was taught thirty years ago — and still is taught today in some places — comes from the prescriptivist approach. Students are taught not to use the words and ways of putting those words together that they would use in spoken language at home. Instead, they are taught a single way of speaking and writing English. The prescriptivist approach is true to its Victorian roots: it is very morally clear on what is ‘proper English’ and what ain’t. Oops — sorry that was a little under the belt.

There is no doubt that it is useful for children to learn a certain requisite flexibility in their language. In linguistics, this is sometimes refered to as varying the ‘register’ of a voice. Different dialects (particular words and syntax used more frequently or solely in certain places in a country) and sociolects (ditto for different social strata) can be very useful for communicating more effectively, just as the Queen’s English can be useful in certain situations. The important thing is not to teach a single register to the exclusion of others. That reduces flexibility and the effectiveness of communication.

So, imagine my surprise when the first rumblings of prescriptivism stirred in my belly. Commercials using Dutch words in English sentences seem to be on the rise. A packet of crisps announces that they are ‘delicious chips’ (‘chips’ is ‘crisps’ in Dutch, but is a common false friend that Dutch people use in their English too). I wouldn’t have an issue with ‘lekker chips’ or ‘delicious crisps’ but mixing the two together? Similarly, a bus tells me to “Take a ING hypotheek”. My closet prescriptivist jumps up in anger. I wouldn’t have too much of an issue with “Take an ING mortgage” but using a Dutch word in English, and then making a basic mistake with a/an — I can’t take it!

Maybe it’s me getting older but my natural tendency is to damn rather than describe. In fact, this is a fascinating phenomenon. English is being used more and more frequently in the Netherlands, for teaching at University, on TV (with Dutch subtitles) and some are even suggesting that we should use English to teach high children because the best text books on the newest subject matter is only available in English (the same arguments as we used for the universities).

A Pidgin is not misspelt small bird, but a ‘contact language’ with relatively simplified grammar and vocabulary that is often created when two different sets of language speakers are brought into contact with each other and without a shared language. But this is not like a Pidgin, more like starting to use English as a dialect of Dutch or Dutch as a dialect of English. Is the start of the death throes of Dutch, or the start of a new form of language in the Nethelands, or just advertising that sounds hip to the ears of its main audience? Perhaps the closest analogue is actually cool-looking Japanese script on a tee-shirt, which actually reads ‘this foreigner is an idiot’.

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Response and meaning

July 31, 2008

I recently took part in a videoconference. These are becoming more and more common at work as they provide an effective alternative to flying with more nonverbal signals than one gets on a teleconference call. In this call I was the only one in the room in Amsterdam whilst the nine or ten other participants were on the same room in Dublin.

I knew the message I wanted to bring across and had prepped a little on what the other speakers were going to say. Still I only received the presentations at the last minute, unlike the ‘rest of the room’ who had all presentations printed in book format.

Halfway through one of the presentations I jumped in to point out a key risk. This is something I’d discussed at length with the speaker already, although this time we were speaking in front of his boss and other executives. At the time I spoke passionately (as I am wont to do at times). This was not how the others in the room experienced my little speech. I got an mail from my boss pretty quickly asking me to tone down my remarks. I didn’t understand but a couple of minutes and mails later he repeated the request. From that point on when I wanted to speak I raised my hand primary school style.

After the meeting I got feedback from a couple of different people that I had been overly aggressive (not passionate). Also this did not match with my experience I took it onboard and started to investigate more deeply. Sure enough the guy with whom I was speaking was actually very annoyed with me. Although he was not really offended he was pretty puzzled — ie he was wondering why I was out to get him.

One of the presuppositions which is axiomatic to Neuro Linguistic Programming is that “the
meaning of the message is the response you get”. ie it is not what was in your head when you were speaking but the response that that elicited from your partner in conversation. This I’d not to ‘be kind’ to the person with whom you are communicating but to help you in communicating with less iterations of confusion. This is a principle I have given talks and workshops on… which is why it is humbling — and useful — to screw up like this.

I did my best to make up, by talking about my intent and my behaviour — and apologizing as only the British can.

What is actually worse is that by making this kind of schoolboy error most of my point was lost on the room and it will be harder to make the point I’m the future.

Live and learn, or in the words of a Japanese expression “Fall down seven times and get up eight”.

Getverdikkerie and potverdorie

August 5, 2007

My son Ben is not allowed to swear. But there are so many different levels of swearing. For my parents, the f-word in English is already the limit. When I worked in London (which is admittedly a few years back now), the same held true. Up north — and I mean far north, in Edinburgh — the c-word was almost the only taboo left, and the f-word was completely normal. Now, I work with a number of Australians, for whom a sentence does not make sense unless it contains the f-word.
Ben gets a regular supply of Dutch swearwords from me, since I swear in Dutch (but speak English to him). His mother generally swears in English (but speaks Dutch to him). He’s 4 going on 18 right now. I’m pretty sure it won’t be too long before he is scaled the swear-ladder up to some more (un)reasonable levels. Logic would suggest that he finish at a level that his surroundings find offensive.

In Dutch, the most worst swear words revolve around nasty illnesses such as cancer or the ‘pox’, since the most offensive thing to say is to ‘get the pox’ (in Dutch at least). ‘Damn’ is godverdomme — literally G-d be damned. Ben has not yet discovered anything worse than a auditory smudging of the work into ‘getverdikkerie’, but even this is too strong, so now the most he is allowed to say is ‘potverdorie’.

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