Category Archives: Semantics

Language Acquisition

I’m sat at home as I type this with a little girl cuddling on my lap. She’ll be two in July. She is mine, I hasten to add… I didn’t kidnap her for the sake of a blog post!

We’re still waiting for her to talk which is the point of this post. She relies almost entirely on /m/ sounds. Now, in fairness, there is a wide range of expression in her /m/s and we can tell the difference between an angry /m/ and a happy /m/ and a naughty /m/ and an asking /m/. Mmmmmm and Mmm? and MMMMmmmmm and mmmmmmmmmm… And she can laugh both spontaneously and with somewhat dramatised /ha/ /ha/ /ha/ sounds. 

She is capable of producing other sounds: we’ve had /d/ sounds which seems lmore like a Simpsons’ “D’oh” rather than anything meaning “dad” but we have had /æ/ sounds, generally in the context of singing Row Row Row Your Boat.  Or, as here, in reenacting scenes from Hammer Horror’s Dracula. 

I have had arguments with both my other daughter and health visitor as to whether these noises constitute ‘words’ or ‘speaking’. Personally, without any sense of consistent semantics, I think they are just noises, experimentation and play. 

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Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge 

She dreamed that she was in a dressmaker’s shop to be measured, but that when she took off her own frock to try on the new one, she found she had another dress on underneath. She took off that one as well, only to find yet another dress beneath that one. Dress after dress she removed, becoming thinner and thinner all the while, until it came to her that in the end there would be nothing left of her, except a pile of discarded clothes and a disembodied wail. 

  

Language and Grammar Jokes

My favourite language joke of all time goes as follows:

Three intransitive verbs walked into a bar. They sat. They drank. They left.

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If you ever want a tumbleweed moment, deliver that to a classroom of teenagers!

However, here are a few more, shamelessly stolen from around the interweb… Thank you Grammarly, in particular.

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Have a wonderful 2015!

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Sex Drugs and … vocabulary?

Having just found this article on Facebook, I now feel slightly ashamed of my dog-eared and well thumbed thesaurus….

Apparently, learning new words activates the same parts of the the brain as sex and drugs do.

Well, well.

Who knew?

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Shades of Meaning: Lay and Lie

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There are so many times when I have had to explain that these are actually different words with different meanings and different morphologies.

Obviously, there is a shared etymology here from Middle English leyen and Old English lecgan but, in the eight hundred years since the thirteenth century, this single root has diverged. To lay is transitive and requires an object to have been put down; to lie is intransitive and has no need for an object.

And, it goes without saying that the homophonous (and also intransitive) verb to lie meaning to deceive and dissemble is from a different root altogether: the Old English lēogan. Phonologically equivalent but etymologically and semantically totally distinct.

Who says the English language is easy?

The God Particle?

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This is, apparently, according to the power of Google image search, something to do with the Higgs Boson particle. I have no idea. Is it what the particle looks like? How it works? How it was discovered? Who knows?

But the Higgs Boson – and the CERN Large Hadron Collider – is something that captured our imagination. I remember Year 8s terrified that a black hole would be created and we’d all be sucked into it; Dan Brown used it to create the threat in Angels and Demons; I’ve read quite an academic and esoteric – by which I mean I only understood 48% of it – treatise in which the Dust of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was compared to the Higgs Boson.

As much as anything, this fear and angst, in my humblest of uneducated opinions – derives from the nickname The God Particle. Could a nickname be more inflammatory? Could science threaten the church in any more obvious way?

And so it was that I genuinely snorted outloud in my car yesterday hearing Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. This is not a common reaction to the sanctified Radio 4’s flagship spiritual reflection. But, according to the Reverend Dr Michael Banner, Leon Lederman was writing a book about the search for the Higgs Boson and was so frustrated by it elusivity that he gave it the title “The God-damned Particle” but his publisher removed the “damned”.

The God-Damned Particle.

A minor piece of censorship that appears to me to have sparked the world’s imagination along very unexpected tangents!

Weasel Words: regularly

Imagine the scene as I drive to work through the rolling countryside of Dorset, through the winding villages of Abbotsbury, the sea heavily to my right and Radio 4 in the background.

“Half of Britons eat porridge regularly,” intone the dulcet tones of John Humphreys or some other lark-minded presenter.

What?

Half of Britons? Regularly?

Sounds like a brilliant news item! Porridge is a fantastic food: economical, tasty and healthy full of slow-release carbohydrates – and a smell which takes me back to my granny’s farmhouse kitchen when I was six. I’m not that keen on the taste I have to say but a divine, comforting smell! Like a thick and heavy woollen jumper!

But really? Half of the country? Regularly?

John Humphrys, or which ever presenter it was, seems also to have questioned the language. What did regularly mean? Apparently, something in the region of ten times a year, less than once a month.

“Regularly” is one of those weasel words which can mean anything you want it to. After all, Santa arrives regularly, albeit once a year! But for a breakfast for which there is an opportunity to take it 365 times a year, I don’t think 10 times classes as regularly: that’s 2.7% of the opportunities available (not including the opportunities to take porridge at other times of the day!). At least Santa arrives on 100% of the available opportunities (even the naughty list receive coal from him and, with energy prices as they are, are probably quids-in!)

So where does its weasliness come from? Etymologically, “regularly” never denoted frequency: from the Latin regula and regularis meaning rules and guidance, the word “regular” actually referred to those who lived according to religious rules in contrast to the secular life.

“Regular” and the adverbial form “regularly”, therefore, have meant, since the fifteenth century, “according to order and at the appropriate time”.

I’m not sure when the idea of frequency has been accepted as part of the meaning of “regular” but it appears to have attached itself to the word almost as an addendum: to occur according to an ordered routine (and reasonably often).

And so it is that a weasel word is born! Want to suggest that something rare is common? Use the word “regularly”! Want to interpret your statistics positively? Use the word “regularly”!

Anyway, for porridge enthusiasts, the Daily Mail also ran the same article here.

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