Mama, die die die…

Walk into a Dutch supermarket and you might just see this worrying sight:

mama die

It doesn’t help that the words “Mama, die, die, die…” are set next to the image of a slightly angry-looking child, but this ad didn’t particularly phase the Dutch, only the unfortunate anglophiles who come across it. In its original language it is of course far less sinister, being a child’s request for her mother to buy her “that and that and that” (form what I’ve been told, I don’t speak Dutch).

Not exactly a terrible translation, rather an unfortunate cross-language homograph, but a clear example of what can happen when the advertising world doesn’t consider multilingualism. It’s worse, of course, when you’re trying to sell your product to a global market, but you fail to realise that your lovely new car, the Chevrolet Nova, translates to Spanish buyers as the Chevrolet “Doesn’t run”.

There are others of course, like Nokia’s Lumia phone which translates to a slang word for ‘prostitute’ in Spanish, ‘Gerber’ baby food means ‘to throw up’ in French; and Microsoft’s ‘Bing’ which is a homophone for ‘illness’ in China.  And those are the less rude ones. Check out some more amusing and unfortunate brand translations here.



I was recently trying to explain to the ever-present Frenchman in my life why writing “a whole nother story” was not a mistake on my part. No, I had not made a typing error, and no, ‘nother’ should not be written with an apostrophe before it as the ‘a’ had not disappeared, it had merely reappeared in front of the ‘whole’, and no, “another whole story” just wouldn’t mean the same thing.

I couldn’t think of the linguistic term for this phenomenon (‘an other’ >> ‘another’ >> ‘a nother’) so I searched around and disocvered the wonders of ‘rebracketing’ (or metanalysis or misdivision). Essentially rebracketing appears when pronunciation leads people to misunderstand where the parting between words occurs, and so the orange fruit which came from the Arab ‘narandj’ (still ‘naranja’ in Spanish) became ‘an orange’ when it firmly settle into the English language in the 14th century after transforming from ‘une norenge’ to ‘une orenge’ across the channel.

Other such examples are the transformations of Medieval words like ‘a napperon’, ‘a nuncle’, and ‘a nadder’, but rebracketing can go the other way too, with the best known examples being ‘a nickname’, ‘a notch’ and ‘a newt’, which were originally ‘an eke-name’, ‘an otch’ and ‘an ewt’. This, of course, can all happen far more frequently when a good part of the population is illiterate and the writing system is barely codified. Although that’s not to say that someday ‘nother’ might not enter the dictionary as an entirely seperate term.

Rebracketing can also happen in more complex cases, like when you misunderstand a whole phrase and interpret it differently as often happens when listening to songs. In ‘The Power of Babel’, John McWorther recalls how his mother always misheard a Church hymn as a girl, singing “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”, all the while imagining a visually impaired children’s book character. And I’m sure we can all sympathise having at some point mis-sung our favourite band’s lyrics at the top of our lungs, blind to the nonsensical nature of what we were saying.

There are multiple other examples: Stark-raving > Star-craving, Let alone > Little lone, Prima donna > Pre-madonna. And if you tell someone to “Polish it behind the door”, be careful that they don’t think you’re saying that Polly….

Class and terminology

I was always pretty confused growing up in Scotland as to what exactly people meant by ‘tea’ or ‘supper’, whether there was any difference when it came to ‘dinner’ and at what time exactly you were supposed to have ‘lunch’. I had put all this bemusement behind me until I stumbled upon a class-based explanation in Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’.

It turns out, you see, that I must have had friends and acquaintances from quite a variety of social backgrounds to have come across all of these linguistic variations. ‘Tea’, when it is the evening meal taken at around 6.30pm, is very much an affair of working class origin, especially when referred to as ‘my tea’ or ‘your tea’. To everyone else ‘tea’ is what you have around 4pm, and is it, well, typically tea, accompanied with some light snack – scones, biscuits, small sandwiches, that kind of thing. The working classes tend to refer to this particular snack-time as ‘afternoon tea’, distinguishing it from the evening ‘tea’.

Referring to your evening meal as ‘dinner’, and having it around 7pm designates you as lower-middle or middle-middle class. Apparently it was only in my house that this meal was often called ‘lunch’, a leftover appropriation of a term from a whole nother culture. For everybody else in the UK, ‘lunch’ is eaten at midday, only the working classes would call this meal ‘dinner’ and refer to the evening ‘dinner’ as ‘tea’.

Stil following me?

Then there’s the ‘dinner’ of the upper-middle and upper-classes, which is still an evening meal but a rather more formal affair typically taking place much later in the evening with guests and fancy silverware. The more informal, daily family meals would in this case be referred to as ‘supper’, and eaten a little later than the middle-class ‘dinner’, around 7.30pm.

But the tea/dinner/supper variation is of course not the only British class indicator. When it comes to speech, it could take a whole book to go into the details of pronunciation across class and region, but the thing I always find more interesting is vocabulary. Did you know for example (and I had no idea), that certain words are veritable taboos amongs the upper classes and immediately designate one as a pleb?

So for example, when you can’t quite hear what the other person said, if you retort with ‘pardon?’, this assuredly puts a lower-class stamp on your person, regardless of how you might be dressed or how well you may have perfected your posh accent. If you say ‘sorry?’, you are probably middle class, and ‘what?’ designated you as a member of the gentry. Then again, if you hear ‘wha’?’ with the swallowed ‘t’ you’re probably dealing with a less-than-polite member of the working class. All a bit complicated, isn’t it?

There’s also saying ‘toilet’ (lower class if you don’t pronounce the ‘t’, probably lower-middle if you do) instead of ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, the more ‘proper’ form. The middle-middles will have a whole variety of other terms as well – ladies, powder room, facilities, privy etc. You will also be looked down upon if you say ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’, ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’ and ‘lounge’ istead of ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

And I wasn’t even aware that I was navigating such a sea of class-based terminology. Of coures this all comes from ‘Watching the English’, and I’m sure the Scots have a whole set of regional additions to these rules for which I should probably keep an ear out next time I cross the border.


Many of you may have heard about a proposed alternate spelling of ‘the word ‘fish’ , often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw, which reflects the utter silliness of Enligh orthography:


GH as in “rough”
O as in “women”
TI as in “nation”

GHOTI = “fish”

Take examples from a few other words however and you can end up with:

GH as in “night”
O as in “people”
T as in “bouquet”
I as in “piece”

….and GHOTI = “………….”

By this logic, both Ghoughpteighbteau and Ghoughphtheightteeau are possible alternate spellings for another foodstuff – can you work out which? (hint: think of hiccough, though, neigh, debt, neighbour and plateau among others)

Poems on the queerest language

My poor husband is currently reading David Crystal’s “Spell it out” and getting lost in the confusion of English spelling and pronunciation, which made me think of the following poems summing it all up quite nicely:


We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese.
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
When couldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot – would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn’t the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?

Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.

The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.



I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through?

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.

And dead; it’s said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there.
And dear and fear for bear and pear.

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —
Just look them up — and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.

And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

The origins of these poems are somewhat of a mystery. They are at times quoted as being one whole, the original versions of both seemingly elusive. The first poem has been cited as being the work of a certain Richard Krogh, while the second  is attributed to T.S. Watt and apparently appeared in The Guardian newspaper in 1954. Both are to be found with different titles and endings. Sometimes they are wrongly taken to be versions of “The Chaos”, an earlier and much longer poem by the Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946) which includes about 800 examples of irregular spelling. There are also many versions of “The Chaos” to be found online, but if you’re feeling up to it, here is where you can find two of them:,


Spending a lot of time in galleries and exhibitions, one can be forgiven for having the feeling of slowly going insane when confronted with art-world jargon used in everything from press releases to artists’ statements. Here’s a brief example of what I’m talking about from an art sale a little while ago:

art description

Believe it or not, the accompanying art work looked something like a hand-written Excel sheet. Grandiose, obscure and opaque, the language of art has long gotten my goat. A bit like some academic writing, I have always felt it to be an unnecessary code used to make the writer seem more intelligent than he or she really is, and give the reader a sense either of belonging to an elite if he/she is capable of decoding it (if there is anything to decode), or more likely of imbibing him/her with a feeling of awe and inferiority.

So it was to my delight that I stumbled across this article on the art website Triple Canopy, which seeks to linguistically examine what the writers (an artist and a sociologist) term International Art English (IAE). By machine-analysing a 13-year corpus of art writing from renowned online art sources and press releases, they first identify the defining characteristics of IAE using a tool called ‘Sketch Engine’ which can compare things like the relative occurrence of certain words or phrase types in comparison to a corpus of British English. So what is ArtSpeak composed of? Here’s a few outlines:

Vocabulary: “IAE has a distinctive lexicon:  aporia,  radically,  space,  proposition,  biopolitical, tensiontransversal,autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns:   Visual becomes  visualityglobal becomes globalitypotential becomes potentialityexperience  becomes … experiencability.”

Syntax:  –  frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned
– double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert
pairing of like terms whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases
–  reliance on dependent clauses, embedding as many clauses as possible, and the action of the sentence, deep within the structure. (see what I did there?)
the use of more rather than fewer words –  the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.”
– all sorts of redundancies, such as groupings of ostensibly unrelated items : “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”
– a dependence on lists (oftentimes another redundancy)

But perhaps the more interesting question behind all of this is WHY? Or as the authors put it, “how did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?” (constantly employing suffixes like -ity, -ality, and -ization and overusing definite and indefinite articles – “the political,” “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”)

Well, part of their explanation is that IAE perhaps did in fact rise up from directly-translated writing on art by French and German theorists in the 1970s. They argue that IAE mimics the highbrow French used by post-structuralists, a language which they themselves at times parodied, but which was taken and continued to be used without irony. If you’ve ever read texts upheld as the great products of French 20th Century literature you’ll recognise the never-ending sentences that make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. But the Germans may also be to blame. The article authors posit that their legacy can be located in the liberal use of terms like productionnegationtotality and dialectics.

Yet whereas the German authors aspired to a type of analytic precision regarding the meaning of the words they employed, in IAE this elite form of language has become an approximation of itself – “What ‘dialectic’ actually denotes is negligible. What matters is the authority it establishes.” There is a pure absurdity of the whole resulting situation, in which much of the IAE out there comes from artists whose strength lies in visual, not verbal communication, and from daunted young arrivals to the art world’s many stuck-up institutions. The article sums it up nicely: “The IAE of the French press release is almost too perfect: It is written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.”

So what are we to make of all of this? Should we accept that IAE, or ‘ArtSpeak’ as I like to call it, has transcended the realms of communication and become a type of poetic verse, transmitting abstract feeling rather than concrete meaning? Should we, like the entrepreneurial John Russel, actively seek to remedy the situation by sending back annotated and corrected press releases to galleries and museums? Should we weigh up the benefits, like the artist’s and curator’s ability to bypass censorship and ministerial control in many countries by clouding the real, political meaning of their work behind a haze of ArtSpeak?

If we expect so much writing to be produced in response to art (statements, grant applications, publications, press releases, critical articles, flyers and accompanying explanations in exhibition spaces), then should we demand clarity, insisting on descriptive rather than theoretical language, objectivity rather than subjective babble overflowing with adverbial nonsense? Or should we accept that the language of art necessarily reflects art itself, that it is a challenging and personal encounter, and seeks to pose more questions than give answers?

These questions are something every artist, curator and intern should be asking themselves before they sit down before a keyboard. If I were in charge of the art world, I would suggest to them that rather than reproduce obtuse and unfathomable ArtSpeak, they write something worth reading, or paint a picture instead.

I say curb strip, you say berm…

I had a linguistics professor who was rather obsessed with whether people said ‘soda’, ‘pop’ or ‘fizzy drink’, and how they pronounced their vowels. Coming from Scotland, he would occasionally make me repeat certain words over and over again to judge exactly what bizarre vowel I was pronouncing when I said ‘bird’. I found out that he used his time in Cambridge wisely, compiling this online survey of world Englishes, which I invite you to take. Moreover, someone else had so much time on their hands (or was possibly the professor’s poor PhD student),  that they compiled this survey data into visualisations of pronunciation in the US, devising an algorithm to estimate probability of pronunciation in each city.

You can easily spend a few hours browsing through this website and not only wonder at the 122 variations of English all across the US,  but also ask yourself such pertinent and soul-searching questions as: “can you call coleslaw ‘slaw’?”, “what word do you use for gawking at someone in a lustful way?” and “how many syllables are there in ‘mayonnaise’?”. Bonus Quiz: find out what “the devil is beating his wife” refers to in a few southern states.

Spell It Out

spell-it-outDavid Crystal, possibly my favourite linguist, has been at it again. He has been promoting his new book by stirring public opinion with his seemingly brash and nonchalant views on language change. Orthography to be precise. You see, unlike most laymen who are appalled at the idea of internet culture influencing ye auld English spelling, Crystal is a mere content observer of such phenomena as the disappearing ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ and ‘p’ in ‘receipt’.

He has been monitoring the internet by means of Google searches for a while now and has observed a distinct increase in the number of hits appearing which include such linguistic anomalies. When we don’t pronounce a letter in a word anymore, we tend to forget that is was there in the first place and little by little alter its spelling. This has been going on since writing began of course, but somehow when we observe the change happening within our own lifetimes it becomes sacrilege. Surely the way we were taught to spell in primary school was God’s Law and that all those red pen marks over our essays ingrained into us the importance of getting it right?

What has the world come to when leading authorities on language like Crystal or Oxford English Professor Simon Horobin begin telling us that it’s really not such a big deal whether it’s spelled ‘they’re’, ‘their’ or ‘there’? After all, it’s all pronounced the same and we get meaning from context. Such brazen views expounded at the Hay Festival this year incited relatively important reactions from the media considering that we are talking about a festival of literature and ideas, not Glastonbury. The Telegraph even did a reader poll in reaction to Professor Horobin’s statements, and an astounding 93.27% of those who replied did so to affirm that Grammar Does Matter.

A more interesting poll would perhaps have been to find out whether people even think that the ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ or in ‘where’ is even pronounced these days. There are still some quite divided on the issue as it turns out.

Variations on English

I already wrote about the differences a Brit encounters in America and vice-versa, yet to leave it at that would be forgetting the numerous varieties of English that are spoken throughout not only the British Isles and the US, but all over the globe. Wikipedia tells me that there are something like 27 cases of Pidgin English and around 50 English-based Creole languages spread across every inhabited continent, not to mention all the geographic, social and ethnic variations we find form one village to the next in Standard English-speaking countries.

The most comprehensive collection of variation which I have come across is the Freiburg Institute’s eWAVE project (Electronic World Atlas of Varieties of English). They have so far mapped 235 different features, covering 13 domains of grammar, across 74 varieties of English. On their website you can browse by variety (e.g. Manx, Rural African American, Aboriginal, Nigerian Pidgin…), feature (e.g. absolute use of reflexives, double determiners, be as perfect auxiliary…), or informant (if you’re looking for the work of a particular person). Alternatively, if all these grammatical terms confuse the heck out of you, you can just have a look through the recorded sentences given as examples for each variety and marvel at the diversity on display.

Yale University has also begun a similar project but focused uniquely on micro-syntactic variations in North-American English (although they have also mapped a few variations in the UK). The ambition of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project is to bring together research from the last decades, and if possible record not only the academic source for each piece of data, but also information about each recorded speaker such as age and ethnicity. You’ll find some unexpected examples in there like the ‘positive anymore’ in Arizona (“Men are wearing hats anymore.”, meaning “All men are now wearing hats, and they didn’t do so before”), or double modals (“Might should we have invited Jim?”, “I might just couldn’t see it.”). However, the number of phenomena mapped so far is limited and many recorded examples date back to research in the 60s and 70s which makes me question their relevance today.

Both of these projects are aimed at collecting and increasing research into language variation, and they are created to be used by people who don’t need explaining what a benefactive personal dative construction is. For mere mortals like us, there is another source of linguistic fun in the form of the British Library’s ‘Sounds Familiar? websiteHere you can click to hear recordings of English variation throughout the British Isles. It is handily divided into lexical, phonological, grammatical and social variation, and even those terms are carefully explained. They even have a section about language change and encourage people to record their own voice to add to the mapping and investigation of regional variation. Hats off to the British Library quite frankly.

And good luck sorting out Billinge:

Thanks go to Neil for the link (he’s from Lancashire and still couldn’t quite understand it), and for making me realise that there was a more incomprehensible dialect than Glaswegian. Neil has lately also been spending his time on rope-swings in the Bolivian rainforest, all in the name of linguistic research.