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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.

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Kate: Why I Love Language

Why I love Language

I think I’ve always loved language (singular, more than plural – more of which later). I remember when I was about 13 walking to school in the morning and repeating to myself “p”, “b”, “p”, “b”, trying to work out why they were different – they use exactly the same motion with the mouth but they’re different. Then, later, sitting in a lecture at university and mentally slapping my forehead when I was introduced to the concept of voicing. How had my thirteen-year-old self not worked out that “b” uses my voice and “p” doesn’t?! Whoever had worked that out was a clever egg indeed.

The aforementioned ‘later’

My fascination has always been not with learning individual languages, but with language as a concept – bugger the language itself. I don’t want to be able to use it; my brain has never latched onto language-learning like other people’s brains have. I just want to understand how it works, I want to pick it apart piece by piece and see what makes it individual, see what connects it to all the other languages. I love the feeling that linguists are like detectives, piecing together clues until we see the big picture. Or maybe a clockmaker. Or some other trade for which I am utterly unqualified. Maybe a jigsaw-completer, identifying the pieces, working out their shapes, and fitting them together to make a whole.

My chief interest is with the remote, be it historical or geographical distance. I studied aspects of some Pacific/Australasian languages and found it amazing that the rules of language that we’ve established by observing the Indo-European languages can be applied to those which have never had any contact. I love that they work in ways that are so different and yet the same.

Most of all though, I love historical language issues.  The fact that you can see the beginnings of Modern English in Old English. It’s simultaneously remote but at the same time instantly familiar. I love etymology, semantic and phonological change. Cognates. Language family trees. Reconstruction. All of it.

My research now is into the history of English, currently focusing on late Old English. This brings with it the awesome areas of research that are place-names, language change, manuscripts, and the relationship between the spoken and written language in Old English. Oh! The fun I have. In conducting this research I’ve had opportunities to read about Middle Egyptian poetry, Neuroscience, Folklore, Archaeology, Geography, Economics and Geology. Language is inherently human, and as such inextricably connected to everything we are and do. And that’s just marvelous, innit.

So – please talk to me about it! What do you like? What would you like me to talk more about? I am at your disposal.

Greetings, and our Manifesto

Hello! Welcome to ‘So Long as It’s Words’, a shiny new blog run by Kate and Hannah – two linguists whose areas of research and excitable enthusiasm cover, between them, a vast array of fields. We’re hoping, through this blog, to convey our – frankly – embarrassingly intense and flaily-handed love of language in a way that’s informative and engaging, so you too can get all flaily-handed about words and the like. We will be posting about topical language issues, and issues which are decidedly not topical, and never will be (which is why we love them).

We share many loves (wine, dashing men in cravats, yellow shoes), but chief among those is our love of language and our love of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. There are several wonderful quotes throughout the play and film, but beyond that, the entire thing just speaks to the heart of our love of language and our love of learning. It’s from this that we’ve taken the title of our blog: ‘so long as it’s words’. Our world view is basically that there is nothing but words; they are everything that is worth knowing, and no matter what words they may be, they’re all ripe for discussion, analysis and investigation. So long as it’s words, it’s OK by us. That basically gives us free reign to write about anything and everything to do with words and language on this blog, and that’s how we like it. So there.

We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we will enjoy writing it, and that our boundless geekery inspires something similar in you.

Hannah and Kate