A trip off your tongue

"I have never met a person who is not interested in language" Stephen Pinker

This is a blog about language.

Thinking about language intersects my interests, work and personal life, and I expect the following to be the main threads through this blog:

  1. As a user and student of English...my own (and others') thoughts about my mother tongue.
  2. As a tutor of English as a Foreign Language...insights into English and teaching through those attempting to grasp it.
  3. As someone living with a second language (British Sign Language)...another take on human communication.

    What this blog is NOT about:
  • It is NOT about correctness of grammar, usage and style. It's hard to believe from the mountain of words dedicated to this area, but there really are more stimulating discussions to be had about English than the well worn (sorry, well-worn) and often petty controversial' fuzzy edges of the language, such as when to use hyphens or dangling participles and all the other concerns of copywriters' style manuals. Stephen Fry deals with the folly of 'correctness' brilliantly in his blog http://www.stephenfry.com/blog/#more-64
  • It is NOT about the origins of words and phrases. Well-covered elsewhere.
  • It is NOT about the delights of idioms, clichés, euphemisms, new words, obsolete words, word games, etc. Again, the bookshelves are overflowing with these. I have no idea what the collective noun for a group of quail is, and I will make it my business never to find out.

There is so much more to language. More fun, more wonder. I want to look beyond the usual topics covered in popular language books and websites and communicate a more thorough and fulfilling understanding of language. I have found the word the to be far more interesting than square meal or sticky wicket. I don't expect the reader to agree with me now, but read on and you might.

Language is used so much, but rarely understood. There is a hidden world literally under your nose. Let's start the journey on a trip off your tongue.

Something Old, Something New

A version of this article was published in 'Modern English Teacher' April 2009


There is a plaque on a wall in Grosvenor Square which reads:
In this house lived John Adams
If one of your students produced this in a piece of writing, would you mark this as correct? Why is it not:
John Adams lived in this house ?
Why is the ‘normal’ word order reversed, with the subject coming after its verb?
The answer lies in a widespread and simple concept of discourse, largely ignored in textbooks – that of given and new.

The flow of information
When language is used to convey information (as opposed to communication for social purposes), this information can be divided into two stages:
given - old information which is already known to the listener or reader,and
new - that which is presumed to be not yet known.
For example:
[ given ] [ new ]
Margaret’s going to have a baby.

The notion that information is a combination of given and new is a very simple, real world, non-linguistic and common sense concept. Communication wouldn’t work without it. If we only stated given information without the new, for example if we say Margaret’s going to have a baby to somebody to who we’ve already told, then this is repetition or stating the obvious– a pointless redundant utterance. If, on the other hand, all we say is new, e.g. if we’re speaking to somebody who has no idea who Margaret is, then our utterance is meaningless or surreal. To function as successful communication, the listener should already know Margaret, but not yet know about her pregnancy. Similarly in the plaque outside John Adam’s house, the adverbial In this house is the given (you are looking at the house), but what may be news to you is who lived there – John Adams. The dynamic between given and new influences many areas of language and forms an explanatory framework that I believe EFL teachers do not fully exploit.

1. Word and phrase order
In general given precedes new. In other words, you take a bit of the old, then add to it with something new:
[ given ] [ new ]
You know I went for an interview last week? Well, I got the job!

a. Adverbials
When looking at a house:
[ given ] [ new ]
In this house lived John Adams
As we can see, the power of given and new to influence word order can sometimes override the subject – verb – object canon.
If, however, we are on a John Adams themed tour and we approached a house, a more appropriate order would be:
[ given ] [ new ]
John Adams lived in this house
b. Time adverbialsMany EFL textbooks have little to say about the position of time adverbials, and many simply say that it is correct to put them either at the beginning or at the end of the clause:
I went to London on Sunday.
On Sunday, I went to London.

Taken in isolation, both are equally correct. However, as pieces of information, as acts of communication, they mean quite different things. This becomes clear when these sentences are framed as responses to questions:
i) When did you go to London? a. I went to London on Sunday √
b. On Sunday, I went to London
ii) What did you do on Sunday? a. I went to London on Sunday X
b. On Sunday, I went to London

Only one of each pair (assuming normal intonation – see below) is correct, since the new information (the answer) normally needs to come after the information given in the question.

c. Passives
Given and new is a strong determiner for the use of the passive, the choice of active or passive allowing us the flexibility to place the given noun first, whether it is the agent or not. Again questions can help clarify the different emphasis:
What did John do? John was arrested √
The police arrested John X
What did the police do? John was arrested X
The police arrested John √
Again, when looking at them in the isolation of a grammar exercise, passive and active sentences appear to be simply different phrasings of the same idea, but when put into a communicative context it is clear that they are absolutely not interchangeable. Textbook writers and teachers that invoke the phrase 'communicative' would do well to appreciate this a bit more often.

d. Position of indirect objectsAs with passive, the two forms of benefactive structures are usually presented as equal and interchangeable:
John gave Mary a book.
John gave a book to Mary.

The difference becomes clear when we choose the appropriate response to the questions:
Who did John give a book to?
What did John give to Mary?

d. Cleft sentences and topicalising structuresIt was James who opened the door.From a grammatical point of view, why can't we simply say
James opened the door. ?
The function of this cleft sentence is to emphasise James as an important piece of new information. This is achieved by moving James from the known position at the front of the sentence to the new position. Since a subject is grammatically compulsory, the dummy it is inserted, and the who clause added to make James the agent of opened. Cleft sentences are the compromise between the two competing systems governing word order: given-first vs. subject-first.

e. Position of adjectivesGiven adjective: The blue car sped away.
New adjective: The car was blue.

f. Determiners and pronounsA noun is frequently denoted as given or new by its article or demonstrative.
I met this actor. [new]
I met an actor. [new]

The actor left early. [actor=known]
That actor left early. [actor=known]

g. Relative clausesLearners often confuse defining and non-defining relative clauses, and make mistakes such as:
My grandmother that is 98 years old is called Maria.
London that has a population of eight million is the capital of England.
The town that is called Brighton is where I live.
These problems are most easily explained by reference to given and new.
In general defining relative clauses refer back to known information to identify the noun:
[ given ] [ new ]
The students that passed the exam went on holiday.
The town where I live is called Brighton.
Non-defining relative clauses, on the other hand, present two clauses of new information:
[ given ] [ new ] [ new ]
The students, who passed the exam, went on holiday.
My grandmother, who is 98, is called Maria.

London, which has a population of eight million, is the capital of England.

2. Choice of vocabularyThe choice between as and because to introduce a reason comes down to whether the reason is given or new:
She couldn't see the bank manger, as it was Sunday. [We already know it is Sunday]
She couldn't see the bank manager because he had been called away. [A previously unknown reason]

3. PronunciationNew information is commonly marked in speech by a falling tone, and often by extra stress. So in the above example:
What did you do on Sunday? a. I went to London on Sunday X
b. On Sunday, I went to London

While (a) would normally point to Sunday as the new information, changing the emphasis to London and placing the main falling intonation there, moves the new information without changing the word order:

What did you do on Sunday? I went to London on Sunday. √

Consider the intonation in the following exchange. The underlined words are the new information and are indicated with the main stress and falling tone:
I've lost my hat
What kind of hat?
It was a sun hat.
What colour sun hat?
It was white. White with stripes.
There was a white hat with stripes in the car.
Which car?
The one I sold.
(Rogerson & Gilbert, 1990: 46)
In fact, for this conversation to make any sense, correct intonation on the new is essential.

In conclusion, the concept of given and new permeates grammar, lexis discourse and pronunciation, and its usefulness in the EFL classroom is much underrated. Often, when grammar fails to explain, given and new can. It is not a difficult concept (far easier to understand than, say, the progressive aspect) as it relates to real world ideas, and often provides an explanation for the correct use of English where other rules don't. I'm sure I've only touched on a few areas in this article – any further applications of given and new would be gratefully received.
For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I have avoided discussion of the related concepts of subject–predicate and theme–rheme. Those interested in learning more about this area should consult McCarthy (1991), or one of the introductions to functional grammar.

McCarthy, M. (1991) Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: CUP
Rogerson, P. & Gilbert, J. (1990) Speaking Clearly. Cambridge: CUP

Gimme, gimme, gimme...

The meaning of a statement is not always obvious from the meaning of the words it contains.

I was with one of my beginner students in the library, helping her request some materials. The exchange between the librarian and the English language student went like this:

LIBRARIAN: Have you got your library card?
STUDENT: Yes, I have.
LIBRARIAN: Well can I have it then please?

The learner did not know that, for an English speaker, its completely natural to use have you got...? to mean mean give me.... In other words, we use a structure that looks like it's asking for information (have you got a sister, have you got a degree?) to issue an order (have you got a pen?, have you got any change?, have you got a moment?) and in this situation the correct response is not a literal Yes I have, but Certainly, here you are.

To learn a new language effectively, the student has to learn not only the meaning of words and structures, but (crucially) be sensitive to meaning in the actual contexts they are used. This is called 'pragmatic competence'. So it wasn't very good actually means quite bad; would you like to leave now means I'm ordering you to leave; can you play the piano?' can, in different situations, mean either the genuine question do you possess the ability to play the piano? or the order hiding behind a question form I want you to start playing now.

These changes in meaning according to context occur throughout language, but are particularly common in the delicate area of social interaction, where saying something directly (while easiest for a learner to understand) risks too much imposition on the listener, so we prefer to couch an order in the form of a question Have you got your library card? rather than the more truthful (and consequently less polite) Give me your library card.

Talk through solid glass and other superpowers - why you should learn Sign Language

1. Talk through closed windows (continue your farewell conversation as the bus or train leaves)
2. Talk underwater (divers use a basic system of signs, but sign language users can have near-normal conversations)
3. Talk with your mouth full
4. Converse in libraries or at the theatre (shhh!)
5. Talk across a noisy nightclub
6.Talk to your baby before it can speak (babies can control their arms months before it develops voice)
7. Talk about people in front of their back.

Sign Language is such a useful addition to anybody's communication repertoire.

Numbers in 5000 Languages -website review

Count to 10 in almost every known language. This simple idea for a website is the perfect premise for a broad overview of the vast array of human languages. By giving a little taster of each, it is possible to easily see the relationships between members of language families, and see how languages have developed and varied across the globe and through history.
Take the Indo-European family of languages. They arose in a broad arc of the globe from Iceland, across Europe (including English) through to northern India. This vast family is believed to have its origins in the Caspian Sea area several thousand years ago and spread through migration and contact to Europe and India and splintered into many of the world's major languages. This website easily shows this 'genetic' link by listing numbers 1-10. A few examples:

English: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten
Welsh: un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech, saith, wyth, naw, deg
Russian: odín, dva, tri, chety're, pyat', shest', sem', vósem', dévyat', désyat'
Bengali: æk, dui, tin, car, pãc, choy, sat, at, noy, dosh

The notes on the site throw up some interesting insights into other languages:
  • Numbers in Yoruba (Africa) are built on substraction, so 46 is sixty-less-ten-less-four.
  • In Kumbundu (Africa) the number 7 is a euphemism: to say 7 directly is taboo, so they use a word derived from '6+2' (I guess this is no more weird than numbering the 13th house 12A, or talking about the 'Scottish play').
  • Yumbri (Thailand) claims to have no numbers, only little and much.
  • There are a few base 5 systems, but there are some that are base 4 (so 7 is '4 and 3'), base 8 and binary.

And if the existing 5000 languages are not enough, there is also a slightly nerdy section on imaginary and sci-fi languages, as well as a bewilderingly optimistic array of artificial languages.

Strangely sign languages are omitted. Although they all (as far as I know) use the fingers for counting, each sign language has different ways of doing it. British Sign Language numbers and American SL numbers have only 1, 2, 4 and 5 in common:

BSL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWzYZf80orU

ASL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfeDNoHYz90

Interestingly, BSL for eleven and twelve are (like English and French) irregular, i.e. they don't follow the pattern for the rest of the teens.

Link for Numbers in 5000 Languages http://www.zompist.com/numbers.shtml

Bluffer's Guide to Passing Exams

One of my hobbies is doing multiple choice tests in subjects I know nothing about and seeing how high I can score. Today I got 45% in an online test of Russian (http://www.lidenz.ru/online-test/), putting me at A2 level (i.e. one above beginner) and my language was described as follows:
"You will be able to understand and use sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of everyday speech. (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography). You will be able to participate in a conversation concerning personal interests."
No I can't. I don't know any Russian - I can't even read the alphabet. Yet I managed to score correctly in nearly half the questions, a full 20% higher than what would be expected by chance.
Also today I did an advanced Dutch test, and was placed in the 3rd level (pre-intermediate)
Two years ago I did a test for doctors applying for immigration to Australia (Australian Medical Council - sadly the test has been removed now), I got 23/50, two short of the pass mark. Again I know nothing about medicine - I couldn't understand the language in most of the questions, let alone the answers. Added to this, there were 5 choices, giving an expected random hit of just 10/50.
How is this done? Well, its all to do with the Multiple Choice Test.
If somebody asks me a question in Russian, I am certain to give the wrong answer, because my knowledge of Russian is zero. But if I am given me four choices, then I have at least a one-in-four chance of getting it right. My success in the test depends, not on my skill in producing a complex foreign tongue, but simply my skill in picking a, b, c or d. People think that if there are four choices, then a person with zero knowledge must have only a one-in-four chance of getting it right. This is only true if each option is equally plausible. It only takes one option to seem unlikely to increase your chances to 33%; two unlikely answers and we're up to fifty-fifty.
So, what are the secrets? Here is my easy guide to bluffing to multiple choice test:
Choose the answer that is most like the others. Here is an example from a real test:
a. ground
b. arena
c. pound
d. stadium

A weakness of Multiple Choice is that writers naturally write distractors (wrong options) that are similar to the right answer. Answer a above is the only option that has something in common with all the other three (why would pound be an option when the only thing it has in common with the others is that it rhymes with ground?). Knowing this, it is often possible to triangulate the correct answer, or at least improve your odds.

Here is set of options from the Russian test:

a. входить - войдите
b. входи - войти
c. войти - входите
d. войди - входить

It looks tough at first sight, but I chose c because it is the only one where both words also occur in the other options. This is the correct answer.
Often there is one option that is obviously different from the others, or a nonsense answer. At other time two anwers look very similar: the correct answer is likely to be one of these two.
Another trap that question setters sometime fall into is making the correct answer longer in length than the distractors - this accounted for many of the correct answers in the Australian doctor's test.

Multiple choice is one of the most common formats for testing, often in important and high-stakes exams (no doubt because it's administratively easy to mark), but the margin between chance and skilled performance is sometimes so narrow that it's quite easy for these tests to have compromised validity.

Sign here

My boyfriend is deaf. When I met him 5 ½ years ago, he was only the second deaf person I had ever properly met who didn't have any spoken English. Although we could communicate satisfactorily through writing, it immediately became clear to me that I would have to learn sign language.
First, I had to overcome some preconceptions and misapprehensions:

Sign languages are languages comparable to any other human natural language
Sign language uses mainly the same language areas of the brain that are used in spoken language, rather than the motor areas that are used in, say, juggling (I experience an interesting phenomenon when John 'shouts' – makes energetic signs – in BSL: my ears hurt as if someone is physically talking loudly; my friend Les, while struggling to remember the sign for 'rain' blurted out 'la pluie', interchanging a signed 'foreign' word for a spoken one). BSL has all the features that define language, including arbitrary form-meaning relationships, a finite number of components that recombine to make an infinite number of utterances. It has phonology (sometimes called cheirology), grammar (actually very distinct from English), it has metaphor and idiom, puns, poetry and rhyme (using similarity in hand shape rather than similarity in sound), slang, accents, dialects, formality and informality etc, etc.
One major area in which BSL is lacking is that it has no written form and therefore no body of written literature.

It is a natural language
This means, like all the other mother tongues on Earth, it is another manifestation of the universal human language instinct and evolved spontaneously as a result of a community of people trying to communicate. It was not invented by missionaries, nurses or teachers. An artificial British sign language was invented in the mid 20th century called the Paget-Gorman system, which, as far as I know, has largely disappeared under the resurgence of BSL, going the way of all well-intentioned artificial languages (which are doomed to failure for the same reasons that genetic engineering cannot match the results of natural selection).

BSL is the 3rd most used native language of the British Isles

It has 50-70,000 deaf users, added to a considerable (but undetermined) number of hearing bilinguals and learners. Number 2 is Welsh.

It has a long history

The first record of sign language between deaf people in Britain was a wedding in Leicester in the 16th century where the vows were signed. Daniel Defoe published a fingerspelling alphabet (pictured above). It's reasonable to assume that anywhere where deaf people lived together that signing of some kind developed (as happened when Nicaragua opened its first deaf school in the 1980s, when, for the only time in history, researchers witnessed the birth of a new language). BSL was suppressed in the early 20th century by educationalists who believed that signing would prevent a child from learning speech and lip reading, with the monstrous result that many deaf children grew up without a first language, without a medium to fully express themselves.

It is structurally unrelated to English and has its own grammar

  • It has classifiers (like Chinese), where nouns are grouped according to their characteristics (e.g. animal, wide & flat, tall & thin, round etc), and has a far wider range of pronouns than English (e.g. an inanimate singular noun can only be represented in English by it, but in BSL there are a whole range of inanimate pronouns depending on their characteristics).

  • Verbs can be modified by their subject or object.

  • Word order is flexible (unlike strict SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT in English), and the strongest organising principle is (in common with many languages, including Japanese) TOPIC-COMMENT (e.g. exam, Zoe's passed or Mary, she's pregnant).

  • BSL, (in common with about half of native American, African and Papuan languages) distinguishes between inalienable (permanent) possession and alienable (temporary) possession, so the my in my brother takes a different form to the my in my cup of coffee.

Although it has many features that are vastly different to English, BSL, with its users being thinly scattered throughout an English-speaking nation, is heavily influenced by the dominant tongue. The fingerspelling system represents English letters when signing names of people and places, and are incorporated into many signs (many family relationships and days of the week use the initial letters of the English words; do and if can be spelled out as in English). Lip movement is an important component of a sign (it's not all just in the hands), and often silently follows the lip pattern of the equivalent English word; the sign for husband and wife both indicate the ring, the difference showing in the lips movement. Sign language can also follow closely English word order and grammar in a form of sign language called Sign Supported English (SSE). In its most 'English' form, SSE is used to teach profoundly deaf children English and literacy, using one sign = one English word and even sometimes including the English morphological endings, like -s, -ed, -ing; in its common form, it is a preferred form of signing for many users (depending on their education or upbringing), which has many elements of BSL, but with a more English pattern (e.g. SSE would sign the dog jumped over the fence DOG JUMP OVER FENCE; BSL would sign DOG then make the classifier for animal in the right hand and move it over the left hand representing FENCE). There is a continuum between BSL and SSE, different users moving between one or the other in different situations.

Sign Languages have some features not commonly found in spoken tongues

  • Multiple signs can be produced simultaneously, i.e. one in each hand + face. They were surprised to meet each other on the stairs can only be expressed in English as a string, one word at a time. In sign language these 10 words can be shown (as it actually happened in real life) as one event in a single sign. This is how (even though hands move slower than tongues) sign translations take the same amount of time as speech.
  • Use is made of space to accurately show relationships between things. Try explaining the offside rule in English without using your hands or a diagram: it's sooo much easier and more accurate in sign language.
  • Unlike spoken words, many signs have a physical or metaphorical similarity to the things they represent, making sign vocabulary easy to learn, improvisation and creativity possible, and a more subtle and poetic representation of many ideas.

Sign Language is not international
While BSL and Auslan (in Australia) and New Zealand sign language are related and mutually intelligable, Irish Sign language is not. American Sign Language is (because of the quirks of deaf education history) related to French sign language, and is not comprehensible to either Irish or British signers. So, while the patterns of distribution are different, sign languages around the world vary as they do for spoken languages, and for the the same reasons. Languages are codes of cooperation maintained through interconnected webs of communicators: where connections are rare, the codes will inevitably diverge.
There is an international sign language, Gestuno, used in international deaf conferences. I've never met anyone who uses it, but I suspect either it's heavily biased (like Esperanto) towards a small group of natural sign languages, or else it's so general it pleases nobody.