Blackboard Jungle, Part 2: Watch Your Language

I have no words (fit for printing) to adequately express my disgust with those self–anointed “guardians of (linguistic) culture”. Those, who enjoy themselves “bashing” the youth for “attempted linguicide”, every once in a while.

Youth words of the year? List of shame? Give me a break. Or, to borrow from the kid around the corner, “Sip tea! (smh)”.

Seriously, where have those “eggheads” been when the kids were taught their mother tongue? Or, what have they done to ensure the pupils’ teachers are able (and willing) to pass on “cultivated language”? And, last but not least, what is their active contribution to keep standard language alive?

Standard Language vs Standardised Language

Those funny “words of the year” lists — actually, I do think most of the candidates are hilarious rather than disturbing — are published once a year, but the “standard language” some accuse the youth of having failed to learn properly is in common use (among parents, teachers, and pupils alike) all the year round — even though it differs considerably from what linguistic experts consider “standard language”. In the streets, “standard” is what is common. In academia, “standard” is what did not manage to become common.

The use of standardised language is encouraged (or even expected) at school, whether or not the taught subject happens to be the language in question. Yet even experts disagree on whether strictly adhering to standardised language in the classroom is conducive to learning.

After all, the “real life standard” is closely tied to social relations, regional differences, and other factors, while the standardised language (the subject taught in schools) has little to no meaning as a tool of communication outside educational institutions. It is frozen in time and (to many) no more accessible than Latin or Ancient Greek.

I personally know native speakers (of English, French, Irish) who fared worse than foreign speakers in language classes where “their” language was taught, because their teachers (all of whom having been foreign speakers) considered “standard language” inferior to “standardised language”. What a joke!

Quite a number of “living” languages are polycentric (a.k.a. pluricentric). That is, distinct differences (as opposed to slight variations) are the established standard in individual (usually geographically separated) regions; the probably best–known example: British and American English.

I have lost count of book reviews out there, stating that “the funny spelling distracted me from the plot”. Seriously, what did you expect, when you bought a novel written by an English author, the book being self–published (or by an independent publishing firm), the plot being set in Dorset, and the lead character having been born and raised in Newcastle? The victim having been killed in a “theater”, the police taking a “highway” to arrive at the crime scene, and the detective “speaking hillbilly”?

I, for one, would expect the tragic person to be found in a “theatre”, the “coppers” take a “motorway”, the detective “speak Geordie” — and I expect only those punctuation marks left of the closing quotation mark that actually do belong there (for the entire sentence to make sense).

An extreme example in this context is “Irish” (as a governmentally monitored standard), which is basically a standardised language. Even though Ireland is a small country, and native speakers are few and far between, Irish Gaelic knows three standard variants and one standardised form: Munster, Connaught, Ulster, and Leinster — whereas the latter could be better described as “Dublin Gaelic”, since Leinster has no Gaeltachts in the true sense. (The large number of reported Irish speakers in the east is due only to the disproportionately high population in Leinster. A region is considered a “Gaeltacht”, when Gaelic is spoken as a common language by a vast majority of inhabitants.)

No Culture Without a Common Language

Yes, language is a cultural trait, and it is very likely to have been the (most important) catalyst for common societal development, but no language has ever been “ruined” by the emergence of temporary subcultures — and nothing else is teen slang: a temporary (more often than not, rather short–lived) phenomenon. So do us a favour and — chill.

At least the Oxford English Dictionary admits that keeping track of slang is a challenge, because of how quickly terms fall out of use again.

Slang terms are always challenging for dictionary editors to track but young people’s language today can be particularly elusive — because the terms that are in vogue change so rapidly and newer ephemeral modes of communication (texting, WhatsApp, Snapchat, etc.) make it difficult to monitor and record this kind of vocabulary. That’s why we are asking for your help in identifying the language used by children and teenagers today.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary (Online Edition)

That even editors of a renown dictionary find it difficult “to monitor and record this kind of vocabulary” is a strong indicator that young people are able to distinguish between situations when using slang is fine and those when standard language is appropriate — I honestly wish that much could be said about many an adult.

Do Not Throw Shade at Twitter (and Its Ilk)

To a certain extent, I can see why linguistic purists are concerned about the sloppy use of language, as witnessed on certain online platforms, but I do suspect some of them are more afraid for their own (imagined) authority status than for the language in question.

More often than not, the reader can easily tell whether the author of a message composed of 140 characters (or less) is challenging (i.e., creatively playing with) language or rather challenged by language.

To leave a meaningful note with such a limited number of characters takes quite some command of language as well as a creative mind.

It is not my intention to “throw shade”; I trust the precious reader will know at least one author who just doesn’t get it — regardless of the number of available characters per “tweet”.

What I shall say, instead, is: Blame the player, not the game. These who are able to express themselves intelligibly, will also get by with (or less than) 140 characters; and those who don’t — well, chances are, they don’t know more than 140 words to begin with.

Be Quick to Think and Slow to Judge, Not the Other Way Around

It seems (to me) that some adults have more difficulty coming to terms with the foggy memory of their own upbringing than with the rearing of their children. This state leads to undue criticism and absurd rebuke — criticism that is superfluous and, in most cases, even wrong. (If you have successfully suppressed the bad experiences of your own upbringing already, you are definitely too old to have children.)

Sometimes, I happen to overhear overcorrect parents reprimand their offspring for using the wrong pronouns (that is, incorrect according to the parent’s opinion).

Note to self: Stop going to the supermarket. Have groceries delivered to the doorstep instead.

No, it is not wrong to say: “You know, ma, the boy that pulled my hair …”

There is no rule that requires your child to say, “the boy who …” That’s just what you believe to remember from your own schooldays. If you had read a bit more Shakespeare and fewer (not “less”) cheap magazines, you would know that.

Lest I should add to the confusion: As far as I know, Shakespeare never uttered, “the boy that pulled my hair”, but if a boy had ever pulled his hair, he would have said that (or “that”).

Having eventually finished her impromptu lecture, the same parent said to the kids: “Wait here, I’m going to be fetching the beans.” And off she went.

On the basis of what little evidence I had — shopping cart still “parked” in the middle of the aisle, two surprisingly patient kids waiting for her return, the fact that canned beans were only two aisles down (to the right, third shelf from the bottom) — I already suspected that she was not “going to be fetching” more beans than she could possibly carry in one go, but merely “going to fetch” just enough beans for dinner that night.

For the record: She brought back two cans, within about half a minute. Two cans, thirty seconds. Need I say more?

Seriously, if you are afraid of being embarrassed by your children’s (assumed) ignorance (in this particular case, their grammar), or their constant blabber, or whatever they might come up with while you are busy with something else, either don’t bring them to the supermarket or tell them to — pretty please — refrain from distracting you while you are gathering food for their delicious dinner.

Otherwise, they will keep trying to get your attention and they will constantly want to talk to you — especially so, if they haven’t seen you all day. (Well, you cannot seriously tell me this is unexpected news, seeing that your kids are five and seven already.)

Also, stop at the next bookshop and get yourself a dictionary (I would recommend one that costs more than a six–pack of candy bars or a cheap bottle of red).

What is said in private, makes us laugh, in the presence of others, it incites us.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist

Take my advice or dismiss it, yet do us all — and by this I mean you, me, and society at large — a favour: Do never (and I mean never) reprimand your children (or anyone, really) coram publico.

That’s poor style, because you embarrass everyone within earshot (also yourself). Do it (constantly) and you will lose people’s respect — yet more important, you risk losing your children’s respect. If that happens, the situation (especially yours) will inevitably deteriorate.

The Strange Case of an American Confusion of Tongues

In many respects, Americans never fail to surprise me. They always manage to complicate matters by ceaselessly trying to make things easier; language being but one aspect among many. You’d think all — somewhat educated — American native speakers are able to communicate with one another without much difficulty.

Yet some twenty years ago — I used to work for an institution where (American) English was the official language — I found myself repeatedly in the awkward situation of having to “translate” between several of them.

There was this New Yorker (whose accent led me to suspect that she was from somewhere in New York State rather than New York City) who seemed to be isolated by the common language, unable to communicate with her fellows. I don’t even want to think about how she got by outside the office.

Every morning, and whenever her schedule would permit, she dropped by to chat with me. Yes, she was a bit quirky, but a friendly person with a dry sense of humour — an incredibly quick thinker and exceptionally well educated (but that was also true for the majority of her fellow officers).

After a while, I seemed to recognise a strange pattern: People who had barely exchanged a word with me for years, began to drop by and leave short messages for her or ask what she had to say on certain issues — and she did the same. You know, “oh, by the way, could you tell …”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the last person to refuse support when support is needed (and promises to be useful), but this was ridiculous. Most of these people were university graduates, some holding at least one doctorate, and I had seen all of them talking to her on various occasions. What the heck!?

When the German (and the few other foreign) speakers began to jump the bandwagon, the situation threatened to get out of control. The number of my unsolicited “clients” had increased from five or six to twenty (or so) within a matter of days. Somehow, I had become the go–to person when a bit of information exchange between “New York” and any one place in the United States as well as the rest of our little world was considered due.

Eventually, I asked several of my “regular customers” in private why they didn’t address “New York” directly. Their answer (yes, singular) nearly caused me to lose all faith in modern education: “I simply don’t get what she’s saying. Her accent is horrible, you know … You seem to be the only one here who understands her.”

I suppose the precious reader knows that moment when you want to tell someone “I reckon your cornbread ain’t done in the middle”? Right. That’s what I was an inch from saying — to each of them.

A “horrible accent” may serve as a weak excuse for a while (days, a week or two), if you happen to be a foreign speaker. Yet after several weeks without making progress, you are well advised to reconsider your own ways of communication — as a foreign speaker, but especially as a native speaker. The proper routine (in this order): Listen (carefully), think (thoroughly), speak (clearly). Repeat (if necessary).

People! If well–educated adults of the same native language are not able to communicate with one another, that’s what I call a decline of language — and culture.

The Leading Newspaper Leads by Sales, the Superior One by Example

Quite recently, Austria’s most widely read “foreign–language” newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, published an article, titled “Medican Slowing Down”. A fairly weathered reader would expect to find such a headline in the economy section rather than among general news.

I had heard about a storm whirling across the southeast of Europe earlier, but reading that headline I was under the impression a great number of people had suddenly stopped consuming medical cannabis (perhaps resorting to street–grade alternatives instead), which had caused the growth of shares to falter. It turned out that it was not quite so.

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), Austrian philosopher

The article discussed a “Medicane”, which is supposed to be a portmanteau (a questionable fusion of “Mediterranean” and “Hurricane”), allegedly referring to a “tropical–like cyclone resembling a ‘Category I hurricane’” in strength (except that with projected winds at up to 100mph it would actually have been a “Category II hurricane”).

Using the term “Hurrikan” as a “German” equivalent for “hurricane” (but following English rules of pronunciation) is as ridiculous as using “kindergarden” as an “English” equivalent for “Kindergarten” but following German rules of pronunciation. (If you don’t happen to have kids: write “Apple Strudel” instead of “Apfelstrudl”, but pronounce it /ˈʌpfl.ʃtruːdl/.)

“Hurricane” is not a technical term in meteorology (that would be “cyclone”), but merely the English corruption of the Taino word “huracán” (meaning “Centre of the Wind”). In German, there have been several well–established terms in use to describe this phenomenon: Orkan (yet another corruption of huracán), Wirbelwind (for the slower ones; lit., “Whirlwind”), or Wirbelsturm (for the faster ones; lit., “Whirlstorm”).

There is no obvious reason to adopt yet another word of identical meaning, and certainly no good one to corrupt this corruption even further. German keyboards provide all the keys necessary to spell “hurricane” (or any of the German terms) properly.

A “hurricane”, a “Hurrikan”, an “Orkan”, a “Wirbelsturm”, a “Taifun”, a “Medican” (since these are supposed to be “German” nouns, they all have to be capitalised), and a “cyclone” are all the same thing: a rotating wind with a low–pressure centre. The only differences are the respective place of occurrence and the individual damage caused (both of which tend to be noted and discussed in great detail in individual reports, anyway).

Neither of these terms explains the phenomenon, or describes the situation (potential or extent of destruction), better than any of the others.

All this questionable practice of bringing about “new” terms really does, is confusing matters and adding to the drama (of which there is usually more than enough in areas where they occur).

“Hurrikan” is no more German than “hurricane”, and “kindergarden” is no more English than “Kindergarten”. Yet if you feel you have to germanicise that evil storm, the modification would have to be “Medikan” rather than “Medican”.

“Because I Say so” Is the Sword of the Clueless

When this writer was a child, each reader of mentioned newspaper who happened to find a typo was rewarded with a remuneration of 50 Austrian Shillings (almost seventeen times the copy price at the time). Today, one does not even receive a reply upon reporting grave grammatical blunders.

How is a primary school teacher supposed to respond to a pupil who insists on using “handy” (German native speakers tend to call a mobile phone “Handy” and top this nonsense off with “Handys” as the plural form; using English pronunciation, of course) as a noun, when the leading newspaper (as well as the majority of contemporary novelists of German tongue) does so constantly?

Telling an eight–year–old, “this is rubbish, and so is your source” is asking for trouble. Delivering this verdict without plausible explanation (something other than “because I say so”) might well end in an unpleasant war of words with a concerned parent (especially when this parent happens to be an enthusiastic reader of mentioned source), while an eloquent defence might cause an intellectual meltdown.

I don’t care whether some few do “know it is wrong” — the majority and, even more important, those who are supposed to learn, don’t. You cannot logically explain to any English scholar why they have to change “lady” to “ladies” (“–y” turns “–ies” in the plural form, if the preceding letter is a consonant) after you took an existing English adjective (that is still in use), “declare” it a “German noun” by authority of your indifference, and blissfully ignore all the grammatical rules that came with it.

Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.

Flora Lewis (1918–2002), American journalist

I wouldn’t mind people who constantly use “handy” in the sense of “that’s handy” (considering themselves special, using outlandish expressions) when referring to mobile phones, as these devices actually are not completely useless, sometimes. Alternatively, I wouldn’t mind people who use the word as a noun with the proper plural form (see above).

Whichever you prefer, I’ll be your man. Either ring someone from your mobile rather than “from your Handy”, because doing so is “handier” (more convenient) than going for miles to find a landline phone; or compare “Handies” rather than “Handys” to learn who’s got the bigger one — but then stick to your decision.

Either way, you’d have a plausible explanation “handy” as to why you deviate from the standard. Everything else is bound to lead to a Babylonian confusion, sooner or later. No one needs “Denglish” as a second official language — neither the teachers nor the students. Language is a tool of communication, not a random toy that anyone can use as they please.

Of Fish too Young to Marry

If you consider such matters small fry, you may not be old enough to remember the word “Backfisch” as a reference to females too young to marry. Around the 1950s, the term “teenager” was popularised in German–speaking countries by those who had a fancy for foreign expressions, but “Backfisch” remained the word of choice of the “more mature” generations. When I was a child, everyone under the age of sixty used “teenager”, but “Backfisch” was still in use.

Since I was never particularly fond of fish, I wasn’t aware of the word’s other meaning until I was old enough to read the menu in a restaurant without help. The precious reader cannot imagine my shock to find “[girls too young to marry] served with buttered potatoes (spiced with parsley, of course)” as the “offer of the day”. As if that was not bad enough, my aunt did actually order the “Backfisch”.

Needless to say, no one at the table was able to plausibly prove that what auntie savoured were not the mortal remains of a slaughtered damsel, coated with breadcrumbs, and fried. After all, even Goethe had neglected to clarify the matter, by letting the bridegroom enjoy the “prettiest Backfisch in the village”. What was “remembered” of his play (Götz von Berlichingen, 1773), however, is still on everyone’s lips today: “Kiss my arse!”

Who Killed Whom?

A few minutes later, I read a rather short article that was (probably) meant to report a case of manslaughter. What the “journalist” actually did report, however, was nothing short of a miracle. The way one sentence was composed by him or her (the byline was mercifully omitted), led the reader to assume the attacker had died of the injuries he had inflicted on his victim, while the status of the person under attack remained a mystery.

That’s what may happen when one sacrifices certain pronouns (in this particular case the demonstrative pronoun) on the altar of simplicity (or mere ignorance).

The development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understanding between people.

Maria Montessori (1870–1952), Italian educator

I am by no means what some call a “Grammar Nazi”, and I am prepared to confess that I, too, do have “bad grammar days”, but mindlessly dulling the most important tool of communication, the vehicle of “our precious tradition”, while mourning a general decline of language skills (and culture of discussion) — or accusing foreign speakers of being unduly slow to learn your language — is outrageous.

Here’s the problem: There is a standardised form of nearly every official language in both writing and speech. To ensure all people are able to study and teach them rather effectively, one has to comply with this standard. It may differ from the idiom spoken in the streets (common parlance), but it is necessary as a reference language.

Inventing new words without actual need (because a proper word with this particular meaning exists already) or parodising foreign words (even though there is a native term of identical meaning) makes languages unduly complicated.

Either is excusable in cases where the author is pursuing a specific purpose. The areas of proper application are rather limited, though (e.g., a novelist who wants to hint on a character’s ignorance or quirkiness, may do so by having this person constantly misspell certain words, or use idioms out of their traditional context, or use vernacular in rather unsuitable situations — cherishing the hope the reader will understand both meaning and purpose).

Newspapers, however, should adhere to standard language — or rather standardised language — because their readers may expect them to be established authorities in all things communication. That is to say, they should try their best to subject their publications to correct orthography, grammar, and semantics.

The notion that they might already do so is just as sad as the suspicion that they don’t; one would mean that they know not better, and the other that they are indifferent to this fact.

To Know Why Is to Know How, to Know Who Is to Know Why

The attentive reader will have recognised that I made a point of marking (dotted underline) and explaining (hover over term, cursor will turn question mark, explanation will pop up) popularly used abbreviations as well as terms and phrases not every reader will instantly understand.

While this is in general considered good practice in digital documents, it is too often “forgotten”. Unfortunately, it is rather unpractical to point out every English word that has been adopted from a foreign language in a document. There are too many of them, half of the document would have to be underlined.

It happens quite often that I see people — even English native speakers — use the abbreviations “e.g.” and “i.e.” rather randomly when they mean to indicate examples to support their statements. This tells me that (too) many don’t know what either abbreviation means.

I can imagine that some even think “e.g.” is short for “example given” (which would even make sense), but what would “i.e.” stand for, then? And why would there be two abbreviations for the same thing to begin with?

That’s what I always liked about Latin: it is a comparatively efficient language. (Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the way it is usually taught.)

Latin may have been dead for a while already, but forgotten it is not. In fact, modern English conversations would be rather paralysed without Latin.

Take the above sentence (“Latin is a comparatively efficient language.”), for example, and try to rephrase it, using words not adopted from Latin only.

Hint: You may use “is” (as it has Germanic roots) and “a” (which is indeed an English determiner). That leaves you with: “Latin is a …”

I don’t know about the precious reader, but I wouldn’t want to say (or write) it more than once: “When likened to others, Latin is a tongue that gives more meaning with less words.”

Now that I have driven my point home (or so I hope), I owe you an explanation for making so many words, discussing a language considered “dead and gone” by many today.

I do believe that learning Latin in school (and as early as any possible) gives pupils quite an advantage. Not only when learning other (foreign, particularly Romance) languages, but also by dramatically expanding the active vocabulary in their native language.

I noticed that children (but also some adults who had never to do with Latin) often seem to have difficulty finding the opposite or reversal of certain words. Unfortunately, one cannot always use the prefix “non–” or “anti–”, or change a sentence’s word order, to express them.

You can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous but you can’t get unfamous.

Dave Chappelle (*1973), American comedian

Take, as a random example, the word “fame”. A famous person is someone who is famed, while an infamous person is ill–famed, for certain qualities (or deeds). It would take a rare occasion (or a generous pinch of sarcasm) to properly use “nonfamous” or “antifamous”.

An ill–famed person is still famous (if in a rather undesirable way), while a famous person is, by definition, someone “being talked about”, and (usually) “of good reputation”.

A rule of thumb is easily found (though it should not be applied as a general rule): When the root word (in this case “famous”) is of Latin origin, the opposite or reversal takes the prefix “in–”. When it is of Germanic or English origin, its negation takes the prefix “un–”; e.g., “incredible” but “unbelievable”.

Typical exemptions are words of Latin origin starting with the letters l, m, p, and r (e.g., “imbalanced”, “illogical”, “immature”, “impossible”, and “irrelevant”). Words that may take different prefixes do also have different meanings (e.g., “dislike” and “unlike”, “insecure” and “unsecure”, or “incredible” and “uncredible”).

Both terms (“famous” and “infamous”) are ultimately based on the Latin noun “fama”. While being pronounced differently in English (/ˈfeɪ·məs/ but /ˈɪn·fə·məs/ rather than /ɪnˈfeɪ·məs/), both words are closely related.

(Actually, this last sentence is a fine example of the advantage of knowing Latin grammar — and how to employ it to effect in an English sentence.

A German native speaker without any Latin background would probably have written “differently pronounced” and “closely related”, as this is the common word order in German — the precious reader would have still understood the sentence, but in a slightly different way.

To shift the reader’s focus — or sentence stress — in German, it usually takes the rearrangement of entire clauses, while in Latin — and also in English — a different word order may do the job just fine.)

I much preferred Latin to Greek. I loved the language being such a pattern that you could not shift a word without the whole sentence falling to pieces.

Alice Oswald (*1966), British poet

Having to learn (or teach) yet another language? Yeah, I know: Sad faces, everywhere. Yet the point is, most of us (speaking a Romance or Germanic language, or English) are (to some extent) using Latin, anyway — we were just not properly taught it.

Latin is not taught anymore, because it is dead? Really? I’d rather say, “It’s still kicking alright, but our little behinds were not properly prepared to take the blow”.

The online version of the Oxford Dictionaries provides a list of the 100 most commonly misspelled words in English. Only about 20% were not adopted from or via Latin. Knowing Latin does not make one “omniscient” or even “omnipotent”, but knowing (at least) the basics of Latin would be quite convenient “omnibus”.