A Blog About Language

Dec. 19 2014 2:09 PM

Language Travel Tips: How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English

People travel a lot these days—and they're often speaking English when doing it, even if it's not their first language. If you're already fluent, you've definitely got an advantage talking to someone who's not very proficient in English, but you may still find yourself at a loss. If you just keep on chatting like you would with anyone else, you're probably not going to be understood, but what should you do instead?

Despite how often you see it in popular culture, simply speaking louder, (a.k.a “translation by volume”), doesn’t help much. But there are certain features of English that are surprisingly difficult to learn as an adult, but which you're probably completely oblivious to if you learned it as a child. Here are 9 linguistically-informed tips for communicating interculturally in a meeting, at a conference, or travelling abroad.

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Dec. 17 2014 2:00 PM

Don’t Stay Classy

Occasionally a word wends its way into the cockles of whatever the Internet has instead of a heart. Classy, the adjectival equivalent of a graceful, pearl-draped woman in a ball gown, is one example. It joins the ranks of such preprogrammed Web responses as  “SMDH,” “this,” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

This (THIS!) is a shame (SMDH). English has so many alternatives to “classy” that are at once more precise and less offensive: elegant, stylish, sophisticated, courteous, brave, distinctive, swanky, ravishing, comely. When L.A. Times fashion critic Booth Moore tweeted last week that, “shrugging off [its] Kim Kardashian and Kanye brand image,” Givenchy had cast “Julia Roberts in a classy spring ad campaign,” she conveyed something uglier than what (we hope) she intended. Her point—change-up!—was obscured beneath waves of implied racial and socioeconomic bias. A subtweeter, perhaps riffing on Sheryl Sandberg’s imprecations against the word bossy, implored, “#banclassy.”

Classy is, of course, classist, wearing its snobbery on its sleeve. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the modifier dates to 1891; it’s a spinoff of class, which originally hailed from a Latin term for “fleet” or “division.” As words that carve up humanity go, class used to be neutral and descriptive. When Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, conducted the first census for taxation purposes, he separated the populace into six orders, each a classis. Class entered the English language in the 17th century, blandly denoting “a number of individuals … possessing common attributes” or “a rank or grade of society.”

Dec. 17 2014 11:18 AM

The Plague of Fake Paraphrasing

Countless foreheads hit countless keyboards at 11:23 on Dec. 16, when Wolf Blitzer, reacting to Jeb Bush’s Twitter teasing of a Facebook announcement that he “will actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States,” perpetrated this tweet.

There was a chorus of “Wolf” and “delete your account.” The dismay had something to do with Wolf’s attempt to sex up presidential politics by borrowing from pop culture, and also with the genre of groaner wordplay, and also with the fact that others had already test-driven this joke before subjecting themselves to penitential swirlies. Reviews from Slate’s Twitter criticism desk included: “It’s not even a worthwhile insight,” “would have worked without overexplaining ‘GOP’ ” and “should have been ‘all about the baes.’ ” A more sympathetic soul countered that Blitzer had issued the best possible PSA for “those of us of a certain age”—that one must “avoid youthspeak at all costs,” regardless of how “down” one feels.

Dec. 16 2014 3:48 PM

Young Women Shouldn’t Have to Talk Like Men to Be Taken Seriously

If you're a young woman, you've probably been told there's something wrong with your voice.

It seems like there are always new features of women’s speech that need to be corrected, be ituptalkvocal fryhigher pitchswoopy intonation (believe it or not, that is the technical linguistic term), using discourse markers like “like,” or simply speaking too much. One woman even made a movie just to tell young women all the things they should change about their voices.

And I've been told the same thing. Last week, I gave an interview on NPR, and while most of the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, I also received several messages suggesting I change my voice so that people will take me seriously. Why? Well, I uptalk. But I'm not ashamed of it, and no one else should be either.

Dec. 15 2014 2:10 PM

Dumbwatches, Pinch-to-Zoom, and Glanceability: New Words via Technology

Even the least tech-savvy lexicographer understands that technology is a robust source of new words. As technologies move from the realm of science fiction into our everyday realities, new words and meanings spring up around them. While it is expected that names for these new technologies and the words describing our interaction with them are regularly entering the language, there are less obvious coinages that grow out of technological advancement. Old technologies get rebranded to disambiguate them from newer ones, and more abstract terms enter the lexicon to characterize how our world has been shaped by innovation.

Dec. 10 2014 12:50 PM

The Stimulating History of Coffee: Why You Hear This Word Around the World

Imagine that you’re flying Turkish Air. The beverage cart bumps down the aisle. A flight attendant holds up that little carafe and asks, kah-vay?

You travel a lot. Now you’re flying Finnair. The beverage cart bumps down the aisle. A flight attendant holds up that little carafe and asks, ka-vee?

Still racking up the frequent flier miles. It’s Air China today. The beverage cart makes its weary way down the aisle. The flight attendant holds up that little carafe. Ka-fay?

You don’t speak Turkish. You don’t speak Finnish. You don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. None of these languages is remotely related to English. In fact, none of these languages are even in the same language family. Yet you can recognize, within the two quick syllables of kah-vayka-vee, and ka-fay, the word you know as coffee. As a frequent flier, you’ve picked up Kaffee in Berlin and caffè in Rome. You travel to Lagos and pick out kofi on the menu; you order kŏfī in Delhi and кофе in St. Petersburg. In Seoul you’re brought something that sounds like ka-pee, and in Tehran you’re served gah-veh. It’s always recognizable: the two reliable syllables, the seesaw of vowel sounds punctuated by velar stopsand fricatives. Why is that?

Dec. 8 2014 6:17 PM

Why Do Brits Say Maths and Americans Say Math?

The Imitation Game, a glossy new biopic about the British cryptanalyst Alan Turing, features a lot of maths. Characters take advanced maths classes that require them to scribble complicated maths on notebook paper, and then they set their sights on the devilish maths of the Nazi Enigma machine. To American audiences, all those maths might seem doubly mysterious in their propensity to add and multiply. We Yanks prefer to pledge allegiance to the Math, indivisible, under God.

For a field centered on numbers, math seems pretty confused about its pluralization. Americans and Canadians tend to say math while Brits and Australians opt for maths. In defense of our star-spangled convention, “math” is more consistent with the way English speakers abbreviate disciplines like economics (econ) and linguistics (ling). Still, both versions are correct, if complicated by the fact that while mathematics sounds plural, it may actually be singular.

Dec. 8 2014 3:21 PM

Why Trans Caught On

In the late 1990s, I attended a conference focused on "those who identify at the male end of the gender spectrum." At the end of the conference, organizers asked each participant to fill out an exit poll, intended to capture demographic information about conference attendees. In addition to the usual geographic/age-related questions, organizers asked about gender identity, and included a checkbox for every term they had ever heard used as a self-descriptor by members of this community. The list included: transdike, transdyke, transexion, transsexual, transgender, transie, transindividual, transmale, translesbigay, transnatural, transman, transguy, tranz-fag, trannyfag, MTM (man to male), FTM, trannyboy, tranzboy, boi, transboi, tranzsissy, transsissy, sissyboi, transmasculine, dragboi, transperson, transhuman, transqueer. And below these check boxes was a box that said, "Other," and a line to write in a term.

Despite its length, the above list is not fully inclusive; people are always adding to it.

Dec. 5 2014 7:14 PM

Let’s Break Shit: A Short History of Silicon Valley’s Favorite Phrase

The New Republic as we know it is broken, and the looming question is whether that breakage will produce anything more intellectually valuable or economically viable than a dust cloud of corporate jargon. In New York, Jonathan Chait describes the beginning of the end: “Several weeks ago, [TNR CEO Guy] Vidra communicated the new vision to the staff in what I am told was an uncomfortable stream of business clichés ungrounded in any apparent strategy other than saying things like ‘let’s break shit’ and ‘we’re a tech company now.’ ”

What that means: The magazine will relocate to New York City, sharply curtail its print edition while ramping up its online presence, make as-yet-unknown adjustments to “staff structure,” and in general “reimagine” itself as “a vertically integrated digital media company.” Others have unpacked the implications of this conversion—the prevailing attitude seems to be that TNR fell off a horse, but not in an illuminating way—but I’d like to return to Vidra’s buzzy phrase, “let’s break shit.” It belongs to an instantly recognizable lexicon of brands, content, disruption, and the “new media landscape.” Where did it come from?

Dec. 5 2014 3:45 PM

This Word Is Toast: Slang From Cult Films

Cult films are slippery customers. One person's cult film is another's mainstream hit, and both would probably be prepared to fight to the death to defend their opinion. For some a film can only be described as "cult" if just a handful of people have seen it. For others it is a film that did not achieve mainstream success when it was first released, but gradually built up a significant following by word of mouth. Whatever you think, cult films are a vital part of our culture, and thus our language, so let's zoom in on some films that have been generally accepted as "cult classics" that have been quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.