Author Archives: Hannah

The 5 things you do in English that you might not know have actual, technical names

And so, it’s happened. It happened to The Huffington Post. It happened to The Guardian. And now it’s happened to us, too. Oh, how the mighty (!) have fallen.

It was always going to happen, really, the creeping inevitability of bitesized news reporting finding its way into the SLAIW camp. The more articles I read entitled “The 47 things only white girls born between 1988 and 1992 will remember[1]” or “The 17 ways you can spruce up your autumnal brunch”, the more the listicle format worms its way into my brain, until I open my wardrobe in the morning and announce to nobody in particular I’m about to compile the “8 accessories that will cover up the gravy stain on your favourite top so you can get away with wearing it again before it gets washed”.

Buzzfeed has a lot to answer for. Mainly, where the last eight months of my productivity went, but also how it managed to take over the whole internet without us even really noticing. Its rise has been stratospheric, its influence far-reaching, and its combination of charm, interactivity, readability and cat gifs irresistible.

So irresistible, in fact, that – without further hesitation – I present The 5 things you do in English[2] that you might not know have actual, technical names (snappy, right?).

1. Tmesis
The English language has prefixing (re-establish) and suffixing (establish-ment), and these prefixes and suffixes can be stacked to (sometimes) ridiculous extents (antidis-establish-mentarianism). However, unlike some languages of the world (including Portuguese, Arabic, and Tagalog, to name just a few), English doesn’t have infixing, the addition of a particle in the middle of a word to change its meaning.

Except, we kind of do. In language originating from (or often used to parody) hip-hop culture, words are modified from house and shit to hizouse and shiznit, for example.

More commonly, English has a creative process called tmesis – the insertion of a full word into another one, not for the communication of semantic information, but for emphasis or effect. Swear words are most commonly used, creating strings like fan-bloody-tastic, cata-fucking-strophic and seventy-shitting-seven. (And it doesn’t just have to be one word either. Barney Stinson’s catchphrase “Legen-wait for it-dary” is an example of tmesis.)

The process is creative, but you can’t just throw in a word willy-nilly; the phonotactic structure of the word is important. The infix comes before the main stressed syllable of the word (so you wouldn’t get fantas-fucking-tic), or in a logical morpheme break (so you wouldn’t say seven-shitting-ty-seven). So, true to form, when The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker peppers his language with fantastically creative swear words, he goes for “Enough. E-fucking-nough” (S3E2) and “I am totally beyond the realms of your fucking tousle-haired, fucking dim-witted compre-fucking-hension!” (S4E7). It’s a process not native to English that nevertheless has developed its own structure – pretty cool, right?


2. Mondegreen
Ever misheard the lyrics to a song, singing something that sounds similar but you later realise (usually to public embarrassment) is quite wrong? That’s called a Mondegreen!

The term was coined by Sylvia Wright in 1954, in reference to a 17th Century ballad called The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray. The final lines of the poem are:
“They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray // and laid him on the green”
while Wright (mis)heard
“They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray // and Lady Mondegreen”.
The misheard line is homophonic, but quite different in meaning.

Other classics include:
Glady the cross I’d bear — Glady the cross-eyed bear
Round yon virgin mother and child — Round John Virgin, mother and child
I am the Lord of the dance, said he — I am the Lord of the dance settee (<3)
Hold me closer tiny dancer — Hold me closer, Tony Danza
This whole scene from 27 Dresses, including “electric boobs” for “electric boots”
Britney Spears’ ‘If You Seek Amy‘ uses a kind of reverse Mondegreen, where mishearing the lyrics offers (what one would imagine is) the proper, NSFW meaning.


A particular favourite from my brief emo youth was a song by The Used called Light With a Sharpened Edge, which contains the deep, meaningful lyrics “It’s not me, buried wreckage my soul”, which my brain translated to “It’s not me, Ready Brek is my soul”. Thinking about it, that is both an example of a Mondegreen, and a kind of…

3. Spoonerism[3]
You may well be more familiar with this one. Spoonerisms occur when you switch the first ‘segment’ of a word with the first ‘segment’ of the following word. I say ‘segment’ in this way because it could be the first letter (belly jeans for jelly beans), the first morpheme/syllable (cubic toilicle for toilet cubicle[4]) or something less formal than that (my friend’s mum once yelled “close the door, I’m trying to keep my womb draw” instead of “room warm”, which is Spoonerlike).

Spoonerisms are often relied upon for tongue twisters, like “I’m not a pheasant plucker I’m the pheasant plucker’s son, I’m only plucking pheasants ’cause the pheasant plucker’s done”[5] (say it speedily, you’ll get it). They’re also used as the base for many jokes, including my favourite:

What’s the difference between a lobster in a bra and a dirty bus stop?
One’s a crusty bus station and one’s a busty crustacean.


Anyone? No??? Whatever.

4. Metathesis
Spoonerisms actually fall under the larger umbrella of metathesis, the switching around of letters, parts of words or whole words. It is a linguistic feature of loads of languages, occurring as a general rule to convey a different meaning, or to avoid a clash of sounds prevented by the language’s makeup.

In English, it’s once again not a general rule, but is a really common feature of everyday speech, particularly in children. My younger brother used to say aminal and demin instead of animal and denim, and I can’t count the times I’ve heard people call sudoku suduko through the same simple process.

You might think it’s just a slip of the tongue, but in actual fact, loads of English words have been created/changed through metathesis. The English words wasp, bird and horse were, in their original Old English forms, wæps, bryd and hros, and it’s through a simple occurrence of metathesis (and this switching of the sounds catching on, and propagating through the country) that we have the words as they are today.

5. Contrastive focus reduplication
In this video, the tendency for English speakers to repeat the same word in order to convey a different meaning is highlighted as A Bit Daft. But it’s not! Again, reduplication (the repeating of a word, or part of a word) is a grammatical feature of many languages other than English (like, LOTS) , but it is used in English too. Consider:

“Is it hot today?” “It’s hot, but it’s not hot hot.”
“Do you want a drink, or a drink drink?”
“I’m grown, but I’m not grown grown.” (NSFW expansion)

These are all prime examples of contrastive focus reduplication! Somehow, the repetition of the same word twice (often with exaggerated/altered stress) manages to add extra nuance of meaning to the sentence. As this paper by Ghomesi, Jackendoff, Rosen & Russell explains, CFR can highlight a more prototypical example of the thing you’re talking about, like salad salad (as opposed to potato salad) or milk milk (as opposed to soy milk). For a lovely explanation of this, Gretchen McCulloch wrote a great piece for the Slate!

It can also highlight a more specific thing, like in the drink drink example above, suggesting an alcoholic drink rather than any kind of beverage.

“We should go out.” “We are out.” “No, I mean out out.”

This example in particular is interesting, as I’ve seen it used in two ways that are related, but quite different. Firstly, my friend said it to me a couple of weeks back to suggest that we get our gladrags on and go out in town one night. So, the reduplication specifies that, rather than just going ‘outside’, we should ‘go out’, in its conventionalised cultural sense of fancy clothes, drinks and dancing. I also saw it used on a bag, currently for sale in Dorothy Perkins!


I also heard it used on Orange Is The New Black[6], spoken by inmate Piper Chapman, who had been temporarily released from prison on furlough to attend her grandmother’s funeral (see below). Here, the same construction is used but this time to specify that her ‘outness’ is temporary.

out out!

So the same construction is used in both senses to be more specific, to restrict the same concept, but in the first instance it’s restricted culturally (for want of a better word), and in the second it’s restricted temporally. Aint English clever?!

(Eh, it’s clever, but it’s not clever clever.)

Thanks for reading – your favourite examples of any of the above are very much welcomed in the comments! I’m now going to find out which Friends character is most like my penis. No, really.

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What’s so bad about Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”?

So Weird Al Yankovic is back. To completely lift the words of my brilliant friend Stoo, “you remember Weird Al, right? He was last popular around the same time as nothing at all, ever”. On Tuesday night, I watched his second video-a-day offering (following Monday’s ‘Tacky’, a daft but vaguely entertaining ditty to the tune of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’). Called ‘Word Crimes’, it’s set to the tune of omnipresent twat-anthem Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, and is a lighthearted riff on the mistakes people make in written and spoken language. OR IS IT? (Clue: it isn’t.)

As soon as I read that blurb, I inwardly sighed. Then as I watched it, I outwardly sighed. A lot. I knew within hours it would be a viral hit with the ~liberal educated Internet crowd~ (of which I am one, I hasten to add), and was proved right when I opened Facebook this morning and several friends had shared it and sung its praises.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the wordplay is solid (rhyming “educate ya” and “nomenclature” definitely raised a smile) and god knows I’d rather listen to a less sexually predatory version of that song (“You would not use ‘it’s’ in this place” was slightly more palatable on the ears than “You the hottest bitch in this place”.) But it’s gross. It sums up everything that’s wrong with the current ~liberal educated Internet crowd’s~ habit of mobilising themselves as some kind of Language Army, taking down anybody who doesn’t conform to one particular type of English in order to cleanse the human race of morons and half-wits (read: to mutually pat each other on the back and bask in their collective superiority complex).

inb4 “Oh GOD you’re such a killjoy” – maybe I am. But this isn’t just some random video. This is going viral, will be watched by millions, and will inevitably be used for months to come by pedants to try and validate their weird obsession with making people feel bad about themselves.

English is the second most-spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin. It’s also the most-spoken second language in the world, and while totals are near-impossible to estimate, it’s probably reaching the point where almost a billion people speak some kind of English to some degree of fluency. A seventh of the population of Earth. That’s pretty cool (if you don’t think too much about the fact that it’s mostly because of colonialism/general douchebaggery that this is the state of affairs), and it’s pretty sweet that so many people can communicate with this one language. The language being spoken in so many places inevitably means it’s going to change. Language changes constantly; that’s just a fact of life, inevitable, and most definitely not negative. There’s a chance, owing to the vastness of its number of speakers, combined with the near-instant communication a huge number of us have access to and the dominance and reach of English language media, that these changes will be accelerated, and have been over the last few decades.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but society hasn’t collapsed in on itself just yet. As the English language has spread and changed; as we’ve introduced thousands of new words; as some of us have started using “was like” instead of “said” as a quotative; as people have occasionally spelt words with numbers in emails and text messages; as second person indirect pronoun “whom” has started to be used less often — the world has not spontaneously imploded or been sucked into the cavernous mouth of a hell-demon. Also, we can still communicate as effectively as ever.

And, funnily enough, hundreds of years ago when English lost its case inflection system, and the pronouns “thee” and “thou” (leaving “you” to act as both singular and plural second person signifier), and when the Great Vowel Shift caused (among other things) the word “night” to change from ‘nikt’ to ‘nayt’, we also didn’t spontaneously combust. In fact, we continued progressing to a society that now has stuff like 3D printed organs and peanut butter cup ice cream. Changes in language don’t mean that we as an English-speaking population will grind to a halt due to being unable to successfully communicate with each other. It just doesn’t. We adapt to the changes (even if that means a couple of instances of minor miscommunication, which are easily overcome) and then we carry on our merry way(s).

It’s natural to fear and reject the unfamiliar, I get that. But it’s only since the formalisation of arbitrary grammar rules and regulations that deviating from this perceived norm has resulted in pointing fingers and accusations of being “raised in a sewer”. Until the 17th Century (ish), without a formal way of printing language and very little in the way of transport, English was spoken differently in different places with no real bother. Then BAM, industrialisation. Trains! Roads! A conscious class system! At some point, those in the South East (London-based, mostly) decided that the way they spoke was the proper way. And, having the money and facilities open to them, decided to write books to that effect, books that ended up in schools and which still inform English language teaching to this day. Now, this isn’t in itself a completely terrible thing. Language teaching is good, it gives people a tool for communication, etc. etc.

BUT, these books stated that anything that deviated from this South Eastern standard was wrong. Now, it’s not like everyone outside of this area was bellowing at each other and/or shrugging their shoulders until this point, completely unable to communicate. No, they had lives and communities and workplaces and everyone got along merrily. As soon as these kind of books were published (and listened to), the language that people outside the SE of England spoke became wrong. Bad. Defective. Immediately. Through luck and social circumstance, one variety of English got picked to be the proper one, and from then on it became okay to mock, deride and ridicule anybody who deviated from that, despite the fact that their own varieties of English were equally adequate at communication. The upper classes, then (for it was these who wrote said books), had yet another way to disregard the thoughts and opinions of the lower classes, because if they couldn’t speak properly (i.e. adhering to the rules the rich folk made up), then they were barbaric and weren’t worth listening to anyway.

“But that happened hundreds of years ago, Hannah! That is sooooo 18th Century!” I know that, but the exact same kind of message is put out in these videos, and by grammar pedants like this little shit. The only reason to gloat and sneer when people deviate from a rule (that is often not relevant any more) is to get some kind of moral superiority and dismiss them as inferior. It’s founded in classism (and often these days, racism, as a lot of this bile is targeted towards non-native English speakers who, let us not forget, are fluent in at least one whole other language too and that’s pretty damn impressive doncha think?) and it’s gross. Particularly considering – in this example – the rules being upheld are ones which are fading away for the most part because they don’t serve a communicative purpose any more.

“Whom” is used less often now because not using it doesn’t directly impair the understanding of a sentence. You know what the person means anyway. In fact, if you’re pointing out a ‘mistake’, you must understand them in the first place in order to do so. People who dangle participles or use the newer, extended emphatic meaning of “literally” or use single letters to occasionally replace words are not, as Al states, “incoherent”. They’re perfectly coherent, and their communicative purpose is unimpaired – you just don’t like it, and want to make them feel bad about it.

And boy, does this song do that. “You’re a lost cause.” “You dumb mouth breather.” “Get out of the gene pool.” “That literally makes me want to smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.”

inb4 “It’s just a song, he’s using those phrases to make it rhyme and sound funny!” Oh believe me, you don’t have to delve far into the Internet to see identical comments being made by the self-proclaimed ‘grammar police’, and in conversations on the topic the sentiment remains very similar.

There’s a lot of reasons a person might not know that ‘whom’ is the indirect version of a second person interrogative pronoun. Maybe they’ve never heard it (because of how it’s dying out). Maybe they were never formally taught it, whether it was omitted from their English lessons, or they didn’t progress through the education system to the point where this is taught. Maybe they’re a second language speaker, and haven’t got to the level of fluency to easily use it. Maybe they’re dyslexic, or have another kind of language impairment. Telling any one of these people to “get out of the gene pool” is obscene. It’s demeaning and cruel, and purely to make them feel small and you feel big. Can you imagine being told that? Being hounded for not following a certain rule, even though the main function of your speech or writing (i.e. communication) was successful?

Just stop. Stop the grammar police. Stop hurling wildly hyperbolic insults at people for daring to deviate from a standard. Accept that language changes, and that it’s okay. Encourage people to learn language so we can all communicate more and easily, but don’t shit on them if their version of it is different to yours. It’s classist bullshit, and it’s so 2010.

Also, I should stress, this charming parody song includes the line “you write like a spastic”, and really, that is reason alone to throw it in the bin.

tl;dr – the English language is not a sacred thing we must uphold at all costs, and being nasty to people who deviate from a set of outdated and arbitrary rules makes you an asshole.

NB. For a less-sweary, better-articulated version of this response, you can do no better than Lauren Squires or Stan Carey, both of whom are excellent.

EDIT 23/07/13 – So some of the feedback I’ve had on this post has been amazing, and some not so positive – that’s cool, obviously, I barely agree with myself half the time so I don’t see why everyone else should! I just wanted to address a couple of points raised:

1. I spelt Weird Al’s surname incorrectly. My bad, genuinely sorry about that, have changed it now.

2. As a native speaker of British English, I reacted badly to Al’s use of the word “spastic” in the song, as over in the UK it’s a pretty horrid ableist slur. Having read up on it (thanks to an informative post here), I see the same word in US English has a far less offensive meaning, akin to ‘klutz’. I also see Al has sincerely apologised to British listeners who didn’t like it. Fair play, that one’s on me too.

2.5. 24/07/13 – Okay, I slept on this one, and a couple of comments have made me decide that, actually, my discomfort with the word still stands. Regardless of its innocuous status in US English, the word’s roots are still pretty ableist, and I think it should have been (and should be) avoided.

3. A few people have said that the song is a parody of prescriptivism and language policing itself, and that I have entirely missed the point. I’m afraid it doesn’t look like that’s the case – Al has spoken about the song, and confirms that he holds the beliefs it puts forward about ‘proper grammar’.

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.”


What’s the big deal about mocking someone’s accent?

As a society, we’re getting better at not being dicks to each other. It’s a slow progression, but some hurdles have been royally leapt: women can vote, homosexual couples can adopt, and ethnic minorities legally have access to the same goods and services as everybody else. Of course, we still deal with individual douche-canoes mouthing off at people because of their sexuality, gender identity, race, ability, age, body shape or a million other things; institutionalised prejudice hasn’t been eradicated; and prejudice is still enacted on a micro-level, often not from a malicious footing, but as the product of a society still breaking free of intolerant belief systems (that blasted patriarchy!). I’ve painted a cheery picture there, haven’t I? … but in general, while things are by no stretch of the imagination fixed, in most ways they’re getting better, and we’re a lot sounder to each other than we used to be.

Not, I would argue, when it comes to class. Class is something of a dirty word these days – we’re either too embarrassed to talk about it (“How gauche! To talk about money and social positions!”), or we believe we’ve superseded it (“We’re all middle class now”, came the cry from the New Labour camp upon election in 1997). I’m afraid that’s bollocks. While we still have caricatures of ‘chavs’ on television; while the richest 1% of people in the UK have as much wealth as 60% of the rest of the population combined[1]; while we still have benefit recipients universally derided as ‘scroungers’ in the mainstream press (and in opinion polls), we still have a class system in place, whether we’re talking about it or not. While I don’t think there should be a class system in place, ignoring that we have one isn’t going to make it go away.

There are many ways in which class judgements can be articulated, the majority of which I am not in any way well versed enough to write on[2] – but one of the ones I might be is language policing. That chavs don’t talk proper, innit. As with the majority of my blog posts, this one comes complete with OPINIONS and FEELINGS – you’ve been warned.

I reckon language and accent mockery and judgement is one of the last bastions of acceptable, overt prejudice. People mock each other’s accents all the time, in conversation, on television, and in print. Comments about people’s accents are often just a euphemism for class-based prejudices it would be improper to state more bluntly. “That woman sounds like she’s poor and ill-educated” – no. “She’s got a common, chav accent/Scouse is a horrible accent/she’s not even speaking English” – these are the kind of things you hear quite frequently. Mocking someone’s language is a helpful euphemism – a linguistic fig leaf, if you will – allowing shitty judgements and belief systems to go relatively unchallenged.

However, highlighting someone’s linguistic prejudice is often greeted with accusations of being oversensitive, and talk of “accent prejudice” followed by scoffs and eyerolls.  I can understand it – it doesn’t seem as severe as other douchebaggery, and in a real sense it’s probably not. But it does matter.

I hear the same excuses over and over:

1. “But it’s only an accent!” Accents are far, FAR more important than you might think when it comes to Getting On. Yes, we live in an age where BBC newsreaders aren’t restricted to a certain type of accent, and public figures like Professor Brian Cox, Paddy McGuiness and John Bishop (sporters of Mancunian, Lancashire and Liverpudlian accents respectively) are frequently featured on primetime. But if we’re more accepting of regional and multicultural accents, why are elocution lessons still on the rise? Although many carry a positive connotation (hence the choice to house many call-centres in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the accent being widely considered to be a friendly and approachable one), non-standard accents still carry an awful lot of stigma.

A damaging amount, actually. Even the most recent of studies – which led to ITV dedicating a Tonight programme to the issue – show that people still judge regional accents, with 28% of respondents feeling discriminated against because of their accent, and 80% of employers surveyed admitting to discriminating on the grounds of accent[3]. Previous studies have seen a person considered to be “significantly more guilty” of a crime having given evidence in a Brummie accent, compared to giving the same evidence with a Southern accent [4]. Likewise in the States, one researcher placed calls to landlords in white, African American and Latin American English accents, finding the latter two invited far more discrimination in finding housing[5]. This isn’t fiddle-faddle – people honestly think, in a simulated court of law, that a person is more likely to have committed a crime if they speak in a Birmingham accent – not based on the content of their speech, but how it’s pronounced. That’s not only bonkers, it’s a bit scary. Accent judgement has a real, tangible effect on people’s lives.

2. “But it’s just my opinion!” Yes, it’s your opinion, but it sucks. Other prejudices can’t be absolved by people just adding “…in my opinion” to the end. When some terrible homophobic member of congress says that gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry because they are a threat to children and it will result in homosexuality being taught in schools (before drunkenly crashing his boat into a bunch of kids [6]), he’s stating his opinion. And he’s also being horrible. How do you think it makes someone feel when you express disgust about the way they speak, something they can’t easily change, are born into, and are often proud of, it being an emblem of their upbringing? Yes, it’s your opinion, but it’s also mean. And perpetuating negative stereotypes about people based on their accent leads to more general poor treatment, as seen above.

3. “But they’re not talking properly!” What is “talking properly”? Most people would agree, including the people who write dictionaries, that the right way of pronouncing a word in British English generally matches the way a South-East English speaker would[7]. The standard accent is something akin to Received Pronunciation – though modernised – whose speakers are thought of as saying things correctly. An accent like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen’s, for example. Everything else is deviant.

But who do you think invented this idea of a “standard” way of speaking (and writing)? DING DING DING, that’s right – a very small group of rich, powerful, Southern white dudes! It’s a common adage that history is written by the winners, and the same is true of linguistic history. Upon the arrival of the printing press in England in 1476, it was soon decided that the wildly disparate English spelling system needed reining in, and decades of grammar books, dictionaries and pronunciation guides followed. The people who wrote these tended to be the most powerful, in positions of higher education, often males (but not exclusively), who lived in the South. As such, they wrote down their own way of speaking as the “right” way, thus abandoning all others to the realm of non-standard. Their version wasn’t inherently better at communicating or more correct, it was just in the right place at the right time, and was therefore eternally considered to be so. People in the north, for example, haven’t been speaking “incorrectly” for centuries, it was just decided at an arbitrary point that they were Doing Talking Wrong.

4. “But I can’t understand them!” Ooh, this one riles me up. To put it briefly: if you can correct them, you can understand them. Consider the following exchange:

#1 – “I’m goin’ shop”
#2 – “You mean you’re going to the shop – I can’t understand what you mean if you say that!”

The whole response is entirely paradoxical; how can you ‘correct’ someone’s grammar, inserting words they’ve omitted, and follow that by saying that you didn’t understand what they meant? I put it to you, either you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re just saying that to belittle someone. “In many cases…breakdown of communication is due not so much to accent as it is to negative social evaluation of the accent in question, and a rejection of the communicative burden” – Rosina Lippi-Green[8]. Which leads me on to my next point…

One of the things that gets my goat is when people do this:

kelly 2  kelly 3(Image source and a video link of the scene, with more examples here)

This is Kelly, from the TV show Misfits. She’s portrayed as a working class delinquent, completing a community service order, with a potty-mouth and a violent streak. As you’ve probably noticed, Kelly’s accent is written out phonetically in the transcripts above. But why? She’s saying the same words as you and I are, but hers are spelt out orthographically in a non-standard way. Robert Sheehan – the guy with the curly hair in the right gif – speaks with an Irish English accent, but his isn’t spelt out any differently. In fact, by this measure, all accents should be spelt out phonetically, as they’re all giving particular pronunciations of words.

But they’re not. Only certain accents are chosen to be spelt out like this – more often than not, accents like Kelly’s. This suggests that Kelly is not talking properly, that she’s somehow incorrect. By doing so, the way Kelly speaks (incidentally, with a broad urban Derbyshire accent) is portrayed as abnormal.

socha tweet 1
Lauren Socha – the actress who plays Kelly – responds.

The idea that non-standard varieties of English are inarticulate is long-standing.  Tony Crowley, in his book Standard English and Politics of Language, discusses early 20th Century division of people into ‘the articulate and the barbarians’[9], the latter being incomprehensible to the former. Non-standard speakers’ contributions are reduced from language to mere noise, and are therefore to be ignored; this allowed people to discredit the content of their speech based on its structure, considering it not worthy of time or consideration. When non-standard accents like Kelly’s are ‘translated’ to and from English, it reinforces this idea that their speech is defective, and therefore, if the speaker can’t even articulate themselves correctly, they can’t possibly have anything to contribute that’s worth listening to.

Some have said to me that it’s done from a place of affection, of celebration, and this could be true of things like dialect books and dictionaries, where local pronunciations are written out phonetically. But it’s tied up in and contributes to a bigger picture, one where regional and international accents of English are mocked and derided; one where speakers can be less likely to get certain jobs because of their accent (regardless of their intelligence or suitability); one where people with these accents feel the need to change them, and have internalised the stigma about their own accents to the point where they hate the way they speak. And that sucks.

Yes, having a standard is often useful, and allows for relatively easy communication on a global scale. However, variation shouldn’t be belittled, patronised and wiped out. You’ve probably seen the recent news stories about schools in Middlesborough and South London, whose teachers decided that they were going to try and quash regional pronunciation and vocabulary items; or stylised dictionaries of ‘chavspeak’ which have a dig at the kind of multicultural Englishes we see popping up in London and Manchester[10].

Non-standard accent and dialect features are interesting, valid, and often have a long regional history, not to mention being incredibly important to the speakers using them – and nobody should be made to feel bad for the way they speak. Someone’s accent is an integral part of who they are, and criticising it is kind of a dick move, wrapped up in long-standing classism. So don’t! Judge people on what they say, not how they say it.

[1] From a helpful and informative video here:
[2] If you’re interested, I’d start with Owen Jones or Danny Dorling if I were you.
[4] Dixon, John, Mahoney, Berenice & Cocks Roger (2002) Accents of guilt? Effects of regional accent, ‘race’ and crime type on attributions of guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 21:2, pp. 162-168.
[5] Purnell, Thomas, Idsardi, William & Baugh, John (1999) Perceptual and phonetic experiments on American English dialect identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18:1, pp. 10-30.
[6] Yeah, that happened.
[7] Though, of course, there are those who fervently state that a localised version is the “correct” way! [EDIT: This originally read “South-West” because Hannah is a numpty]
[8] If you get a chance to read any of English With an Accent, Lippi-Green’s book, PLEASE do. It’s ace, and covers with more knowledge than I am able discrimination of people with non-native English accents, which is incredibly important.
[9] Crowley, Tony. (1989) Standard English and the Politics of Language. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 180.
[10] See the work of Paul Kerswill and Rob Drummond for details.

Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’?

It’s been a year since I wrote one of these blog posts, which I know is appalling behaviour. But darling Kate recently posted some super interesting stuff about Old English, and that spurred/guilt-tripped me into writing something of my own.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anything about Old English, but do you know what I do know about? THE INTERNET.

Being a person who is On The Internet*, I’m amazingly fortunate to see language evolve before my eyes on a near-daily basis. When so much Internet communication is written/typed, it’s not surprising that different corners of the internet play with vocabulary, grammar and typology in order to carve out identities. Often, linguistic constraints caused by the technological corseting of computer programmes — like character limits, punctuation restrictions and the lack of intonation and other paralinguistic features that aid communication face-to-face — result in online communities developing linguistic quirks that go on to identify them as users of a particular game/forum etc. But it’s bigger and more exciting than that – those quirks are warped and developed into a whole new system of language use that singles out a person as a member of a gang, a clique, and that allows people to instantly relate.

The first instance I remember hearing of this was during an A Level English class, where we learnt about leet speak, or L337. Originating on message boards and online gaming communities in the 1980s and 90s, leet speak is a form of language which sees alphanumerical characters used to graphologically recreate written language – so Hannah, in an extreme case, might be spelt as I-I /-\ I\I I\I /-\ I-I. Phrases like l33t (from elite), n00b (from newbie) and pwned (from a frequent mistyping of owned) which are now used across the internet (and in spoken language) originated from hackers’ and gamers’ frequent communication, and evolved from their desire to conceal information, gain and show esteem and skill, and mock outsiders. L33t was one of the first stylised online dialects to become whole and recognisable – it developed coherent syntactical structures, reams of new vocabulary, and it was learnable for new users. How cool is that? Just the same way that people who speak to each other in person on a daily basis pick up phrases and quirks of accent from each other, the same thing happened with written language on the Internet.

Of course, this is nothing new. This post is also nothing new. There has been tonnes of commentary on the glories of Internet speech and the new and brilliant linguistic quirks that come from online activity. What I want to talk about is the snobbery that has bounced back from this internet speak, and why I completely disagree with it.

Tumblr is a newish social networking/microblogging site which was set up in 2007, and in recent years has been a hotbed of fandom action – some of which I observe and participate in. Tumblr is a primarily visual medium, with talented users photoshopping graphics for their favourite bands/shows/films/games/people, but it is also frequently used as a platform for lengthy discussion of social justice issues. Readers who partake in Tumblr will most likely be familiar with the language variety that has sprung up on the site, acknowledged as ‘tumblrspeak’. It’s hard to quantify every feature, as it develops and evolves every day, and I’m bound to have missed many here, but some of the most common ones include:

– a lack of capital letters at the start of sentences, and frequent omission of punctuation such as full stops and commas

– but: a very frequent use of capital letters to express shouting/excitement, and excessive use of exclamation marks and other punctuation

– long, run on sentences

– frequent use of abbreviations and acronyms (totes, amaze, lbr, kms)

– stylised, non-standard turns of phrase, often hyperbolic in nature: i want this because of reasons, i can’t hold all these feels, LET ME DIE, i am cry

– use of angry, offensive sentences actually meant with love/lust: shut up with your face, fuck you for existing in the first place, go away and stop ruining my life

– sentence fragments used to express emotion: i just, i can’t, i cannot even


Original comic, by Ryan Pequin, here. [Source corrected Feb 2014]

Found scouting around tumblr, here are a few examples of posts which use some of these features – 1 2 3 4**. A lot of the time this kind of language play is used in the tags of picture posts rather than in the content itself, so look out for that.

One of the most interesting things I see (and do) on tumblr is innovative use of graphology and the shape of words to mimic the pronunciation and intonation that is used in spoken communication to express sarcasm, etc. Frequently, people will staRT USING CAPS IN THE MIDDLE OF A WORD!!! to express a kind of aroused shoutiness/lack of control over one’s keypresses that makes perfect sense if you’re involved in fandom, but it kind of hard to explain to outsiders. Or, they’ll space words differently in a way that symbolically tells the person who is the focus of the post to s t o p.

It’s fascinating how the constraints of a written medium are circumvented and linguistic trickery is employed to make up for the lack of verbal cues. And, as with other mediums, tumblr’s rules and software quirks have resulted in a good many of these linguistic quirks: the tagging system, for example, doesn’t permit comma use, and so develops the tendency for run-on sentences.

But again, it goes beyond necessity. Tumblrspeak is a badge of belonging, of being in a place where EXTREME ENTHUSIASM isn’t frowned upon, and screaming about a TV show is a great way to make friends. And it’s absolutely brilliant. So much of tumblrspeak uses non-standard grammar, spelling and punctuation, but it’s not out of laziness. It’s a conscious decision: as this simple post puts it, not using punctuation is a way of using punctuation. Tumblr users are likely to be perfectly familiar with standard grammatical rules of English, but they’ve said ‘fuck it’ and put emotions first, twisting and moulding their own language variety that is by the medium, for the medium.

Just because language is non-standard, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that communication is hampered. In fact, tumblrspeak is an incredibly effective and efficient method of communication. In tumblrspeak ‘I am really attracted to this person’ is translated to ‘FUCK U’, ‘I am having a lot of strong emotions about X’ is translated to ‘HALP’, and ‘I agree wholeheartedly with whatever opinion is being expressed here’ is translated to ‘THIS’. That’s pretty efficient!

People use language differently depending on the company they’re in – my furious potty mouth is toned down in front of my grandmother, but utilised in full force on my Twitter feed. Using language in a standard way, adhering to rules prescribed by teachers and centuries of grammar books, is just one way to use language. Flouting those rules allows for inventiveness, companionship and, far from being a sign of poor intelligence, is actually pretty damn smart.

Final point: a frequent feature of Internet/fandom-related language is the keysmash, or a stylised ‘askjdhfgjakhsd’ used to express feelings of the most extreme nature. A tumblr user suggested this should be referred to as typerventilating. Typerventilating. T Y P E R V E N T I L A T I N G. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the smartest, most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.

*different to being ‘on the internet’ – the capitals suggest that I conduct a good deal of my life and friendships through online platforms, and have for years.

** NB. One or more of these posts may contain One Direction.

Is Swearing Really So Bad?

As is fairly obvious from the title, this post contains strong language. If you’re not keen on that, feel free to run away, but I would suggest you read on – perhaps it might change your opinons a little!

I fucking love swearing. It’s excellent fun, and really quite cathartic. Nothing like a good old cry of ‘shitting tossing arse buckets of wank!’ to soothe the soul.[1]

However, I may well be shooting myself in the foot in choosing it as a topic for my first blog post. Thing is, swearing may be about words, but it is far from being a matter of purely linguistic interest – to fully understand swearing and taboo language as a concept, we must delve into history, sociology, neurology, psychology and cultural studies. Each sheds a new light on swearing, and to leave any out is to ignore an important aspect of the topic.

However, I am but one person, and this is but one blog post – one I would like to keep under the length of War and Peace, preferably. I can’t explain everything; I’m not an expert in any of these disciplines. But I do have OPINIONS, and the ability to read lots of things and attempt to summarise them in an interesting and informed manner, therefore I am going to tackle the topic anyway. Fuck it, why not?

I wonder if the last sentence of the preceding paragraph jarred with you. For many, that was likely the case (though for those more familiar with me and my vocabulary, it wouldn’t have come as much of a shock). Many of us stumble on swear words almost instinctively – they grate, they startle, they stand out, and that is precisely what they are designed for. Swear words, as a group, don’t have an all-encompassing feature that makes them phonologically or grammatically unique (they DO have aspects of interest there, but shh, I’ll get to that in a minute), nor do they have a single collective meaning. What brings them together is the effect they have on people, how they make us feel, their pragmatic impact. Swearing is one aspect of taboo language – in basic terms, things you feel you shouldn’t say, or restrict yourself form saying in certain contexts.

But what interests me is – why? Swear words are just arbitrary jumbles of letters. When uttered with a particular illocutionary force, yes, I can completely understand why they would be considered reprehensible: if someone called me a rancid little fucker, I would be duly offended. But I would also be offended if someone called me a loathsome stuck-up try-hard, yet if I uttered any of those words in isolation, I doubt many would bat an eyelid. Swear words have this inimitable quality that sets them apart from all other vocabulary, and I find that FASCINATING.

Swearing and linguistics
Swear words, like any other, have their own etymology, grammatical idiosyncrasies and dialectal variation. The exact origins of fuck, for example, are a little bit fuzzy (unsurprisingly, many early dictionary-writers were reluctant to include it in their tomes), but it most likely developed from a proto-Germanic root *pug, meaning to strike – a root which produced cognates such as the Dutch fokken (to breed/strike/beget) and the Norwegian fukka (to copulate).[2] This ties in nicely with the way we use the word in constructions like fuck this! – in these instances, strike this! is much closer to the user’s intended meaning than copulate with this! (Unless the fuck this! was being issued as a command, of course, though I dread to think in what situation that might occur).

I have pondered, in the past, whether the phonetic makeup of swear words triggers distaste in our minds in some way. After all, the most abhorred of English words (and a firm favourite of mine) – cunt – is made up of two hard, plosive sounds and a short, back-of-the-mouth vowel, and is one of those words that is capable of being spat rather than said. Of course, the variation in syllabic makeup of swear words means that this theory is easily rebuffed – but there is some linguistic merit in investigating the shape of taboo words.

Timothy Jay (1992) gave 49 students a list of 120 words that could be considered taboo, and asked the subjects to rank them on a scale of ‘offensiveness’. He found that shorter words of Anglo-Saxon origin (fuck, hump, screw) were considered more offensive than longer, Latinate words (copulation, coitus, intercourse).[3] Naturally, many of us wouldn’t consider the Latinate examples to be swear words at all; perhaps it was the short, blunt sounds of the Anglo-Saxon words that encouraged their adoption as taboo variants in the first place. This is an interesting thought, and one which might go some way to explaining why my mother hates it when we use the word twat, because she ‘just doesn’t like the sound of it’. (Additionally, the Romance languages – Latin and French – were used in the courts and by the gentry, while Old English was used by us peasants, again perhaps contributing to the former’s prestige and the latter’s lack thereof.)

Swearing and neurology
Language is considered a ‘higher’ neurological function, and is processed in the cerebral cortex, while emotion and instinct – ‘lower’ functions – take place in the deep, dark crevices of the brain. However, studies suggest that, rather than being processed as a string of phonemes which combine to make an utterance, swear words are stored as whole chunks, and the act of using them is closer to a motor function, processed by the same part of the brain which deals with emotion, bypassing the language centre.[4] This suggests that swearing is far more instinctive and reactionary, and that the use of swear words may have little to do with one’s spectrum of vocabulary. Which leads me neatly on to…

Swearing and people
People judge swearing. They judge it a LOT. And it is on this judgement that my aforementioned OPINIONS come into play. To those who say that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, I refer them to one Malcolm Tucker, and kindly ask them to knob off. Just because someone chooses to use a swear word, doesn’t mean they can’t think of anything less shocking to say; the force of a swear word, the taste of it on your tongue, that unquantifiable effect it has above all other word choices – those are all reasons to use it. As Nancy Banks-Smith simply and eloquently puts it, ‘Trust me, Larkin did not swear because his vocabulary was limited. He swore because he was angry’.[5]

But regardless of my opinions, one of the most fascinating aspects of swearing and sociolinguistics is why people react to these words so violently. As David Mitchell has previously mused[6], why are we so offended by wanker, but not banker (ah, so many potential jokes, so little blog space)? As Christopher M. Fairman explores in his fantastic paper on the interaction between fuck and constitutional law[7], what is it about the arrangement of these four letters that could potentially land you in jail?

It’s odd, even when a swear word is used in a context that is completely devoid of potentially offensive meaning, many people still complain. For example, when James Naughtie tripped on his words when introducing ‘Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’, he was forced to apologise to the Radio 4 listeners who complained. Naughtie’s mistake was a slip of the tongue – a hilarious and unfortunate one, but a slip of the tongue all the same. The mind boggles as to how this could be deemed offensive just because it took the shape of a taboo word.

The curious thing is, swearing wasn’t always frowned upon. In Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, it was commonplace to undertake in flyting: the act of hurling long and elaborate insults at your peers. Studies suggest this was a form of social bonding, not meant to offend, but to let off steam and entertain. In fact, scholars of swearing, such as Tony McEnery, suggest that current attitudes towards swearing weren’t formed until the late 1600s – when the issue of social class came into play.

Swearing and class
In 1690, certain English citizens decided that society was slipping into sin, and this was bloody well not top drawer. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (SRM) was born, and made it their crusade to clean up Britain. While laws against swearing did exist at the time, they were rarely called into action, until the SRM lobbied for new and better ones (ones which saw the accuser receive a cut of the accused’s fine, just saying). The SRM were middle class, and saw their reformation as a way of regulating the working classes, therefore entrenching the belief that swearing is associated with commoners (and, by extension, poor morals and a lack of education). Interestingly, there was no attempt to prosecute the gentry and upper classes for their lewd tongues.

While, of course, these laws did not persist, the attitude did, becoming ingrained in society and being echoed in Mary Whitehouse’s efforts in the 1960s to Clean Up TV. Both campaigns play to Moral Panic Theory, in which ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’[8] – and swearing remains a moral panic that rears its ugly head with some frequency, often in the right-wing press. Thus, the concept of swearing and a lack of vocabulary, education and moral standard are so tangled together that it would take a hugely concerted effort to extricate them.

But, when it comes to swearing, a hugely concerted effort is really what’s needed, and that might not even be enough. One of the most fascinating things about the concept of swearing is that it is a self-perpetuating taboo. ‘Obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have about words and things’ says Alan Walker Read – and he could not be more right. A good deal of swear words are merely used as phatic talk, expressing social relationships, or as emphatic talk, to add oomph to an utterance – yet these instances still fall under the umbrella of swearing, and thus of vulgarity. There’s a reason for this: the taboo of swearing persists because to use a word brings with it a thrill of breaking the rules, and to refrain from using it cements its taboo status. Basically, we’re fucked either way!

It’s hard to see a way out of this vicious circle of swearing-as-taboo, and on some level swear words losing their edginess defeats the object of adding that fizzle of shock into a vanilla sentence. But one thing linguists can do, at least, is to debunk a few swearing myths and stereotypes, and celebrate a much maligned aspect of language for the joyous, productive and and complex bastard it is.

[1] #things I have said more than once:!/curlybeach/status/8832081375264768
[2] It did not, as the urban myth states, develop as an acronym of ‘Fornicating Under the Consent of the King’; in the Middle Ages when the Black Death was rife, the story goes that villagers had to watch how many kids they popped out, and we made to seek express permission from the monarchy to get their freak on. And while we’re here, shit didn’t develop as an acronym of ‘Store High In Transit’, either. Take THAT, commonly-held misconceptions.
[3] Jay, T (1992) Cursing in America. Philadelphia, John Benjamin.
[8] Cohen, S (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford, Routledge.

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Hannah: Why I Love Language

My journey into full blown ‘language is my very best friend’ status started off as a slow burn, and ended with a good old thump in the face.

Words have always intrigued and delighted me. I think my earliest memory of such is being in a classroom aged about 7, and learning about palindromes; the teacher used my name as an example, and I remember feeling so proud because ‘hey, check out my name – it’s super cool!’

I was English-y throughout school, and eventually applied to study English Literature at three of my four university choices, and English Language at the fourth. By some twist of fate (and by ‘twist of fate’, I mean ‘getting rejected from the three other universities’, those bitches), I found myself on course to study English Language. And the thing was, I was delighted about it. My English Language A Level classes had sneakily planted themselves as my favourites and I realised just how much the entire concept of language fascinated me.

I think what got me the most, and probably what I love most about language to this day (though that honour changes almost hourly, to be fair), is that language is about people. Language is everything about humanity – the way we think and speak and write and even act, so much of it is about language and meaning and trying to communicate things and not quite communicating things and communicating things really, really badly. People, society and interpersonal relationships are all about language, the way it’s used and misused, the way a choice of words can make us beam with joy or completely crush us, the way in which the language that enshrouds us every day of our lives has such an effect – overt and covert – on the way we think.

So, anyway, as I was starting to have these stirrings about language (aided, as it has been throughout my schooling, by thoroughly excellent teachers whose enthusiasm I admired and whose passion I inherited), I picked up Linguistics as a minor subject at University and began studying it in tandem with English Language. Then came the thump in the face. About a week into University I found myself beaming at the prospect of attending my classes (more than I ever had before – which is really saying something, as I bloody loved school, in that annoying, obnoxious way that made people throw stationery at me), and I realised ‘this is it – this is the most fascinating subject of them all and I want to learn everything I possibly can about it’.

I’d never realised just how far-reaching study of the topic could be – we were learning about the biological evolution of language capacity; the way children acquire words and speech; language and gender constructions; language in advertising, poetry, education, news media, television, text messaging, music, everything! And every aspect had something new to deliver, a different way in which language is melded and manipulated and messed with and beaten into submission.

And there came another great revelation, perhaps my favourite of all – speech! I’d never studied the technicalities of speech, accent, dialect and spoken language before, and it fast became my favourite. I love listening out for the tiny technicalities of people’s accents; finding out about words and phrases from a certain dialect/sociolect/idiolect and where they came from; discovering the differences between the pronunciation of various languages and the sounds they do and do not have; and looking at – on a meta level – people’s perception of accents, both conscious and unconscious.

When people have looked at me with an ‘eh?’ expression when I mention that I study linguistics, I tend to describe it as the science of language, which I think is pretty accurate. It’s evidence-based study of language phenomena, with rationale and statistics and in-depth analysis like any other science, yet it’s also all about words and feelings and communication and life and so much more and I am going to end this sentence here lest I carry on forever.

In short, language is my very best friend, for all these reasons, and others I have inevitably forgotten, but delight in remembering day after day.