Dialects are a hugely important part of British culture. They do make you sound a bit thick, though

September 26, 2021 at 12:18 pm | Posted in humour, language, rage | 1 Comment
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By Hugh Rathergood

[Satire. Because I read this, and I wished I hadn’t.]

Everyone loves English dialects. They conjure up images of rolling hills, idyllic weekend breaks, country pubs, and vets with their arms halfway up cows. Dialects give normal people, like me, wonderful insights into cultures vastly removed from ours.

An interesting paper came out this week, saying it’s hard for children to learn Standard English. It’s a completely new topic; no-one’s done any research on this before. I don’t need to read any linguistics books to know all about language, because I was brought up speaking properly.

Sometimes, normal people like me think, ‘Gosh! That person doesn’t know that ‘I were sat next to her’ is incorrect! They can’t have gone to the right school. I wonder how that will affect their prospects of getting that job I’m interviewing for next week?’

Accents are sort of like dialects, but a bit different. Accents involve removing things like ‘h’s and ‘t’s from proper English, or saying ‘z’ when you mean ‘s’. This is lovely, as it reminds us of our holidays. Unless you’re from an inner city, in which case it makes you sound lazy and aggressive.

You can’t get a proper job with an accent, unless the BBC say it’s not that strong and you can have a job in local news. Your best bet is to stay where you were born and run something touristy for us normal people to enjoy on our weekend breaks.

A marvellous place to enjoy English accents

There *are* clever people who don’t speak RP, which is the linguistic term for speaking properly. But they all move to the South, because there are no good universities or jobs anywhere else. They lose their beautiful, historic local accents, and sell out their roots. But they are also living proof that it’s possible to change how you speak, pretend convincingly to be a normal person, like me, and succeed in life.

Accents are just a bit annoying, but grammar is critical. If grammar isn’t completely correct all the time, communication instantly fails. Grammar is difficult, and everyone should be taught it, apart from people like me who are born speaking properly. I’m going to list a few grammar terms just so you know I’m serious about this. I know what they all mean, don’t worry. No child should mix up their qualifiers and their determinants, because this would just prove how poorly educated they are. We can’t be blamed for not giving them a job, now can we?

Le test formidable de vocabulaire Spiral-based!

January 10, 2015 at 7:59 pm | Posted in language | Leave a comment
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(An updated version of this test is now on the Guardian TV & Radio blog.)

Get into the mood for the return of Spiral with my French slang test. Below are a set of phrases you may hear as Laure, Tintin, Gilou, Pierre, Joséphine et al. go about their business. Just pick a translation for each and check your answers at the end. Bonne chance!

Disclaimer: this quiz contains strong language from the start, mild peril, and scenes of a sexual nature.

1. T’es niqué, mon pote!

a. You’re fucked, me old beauty!

b. Put your trousers on, sunshine, you’re nicked.

c. Ooh, you’ve cut yourself! That looks nasty.

2. J’en ai marre de tes conneries!

a. Enough of your idiocies!

b. Enough of your lies!

c. Enough of your Bond impressions!

3. Je bosse demain, quoi.

a. I’ve got work tomorrow, innit.

b. Might have a duvet day tomorrow, yeah.


4. Merde! Ce sont des échangistes!

a. Shit! They’re foreign students!

b. Shit! They’re swingers!

c. Shit! They’re cross-dressers!

5. Putain! C’est quoi, ce bordel?

a. Heavens, this is tedious. Anyone fancy a game of bowls?

b. Goodness! Are these the courtesans of the Russian president?

c. What the fuck’s this fuckup, for fucksake?

6. Dégage, espèce de salaud!

a. Goodbye, and thanks for your call!

b. Bloody vegan restaurants! I’m off for a kebab.

c. Bugger off, you lowlife!


Answers: 1. b; 2. a; 3. a; 4. b; 5. c; 6. c.

Five or six correct: Bah, vous êtes dingue de l’argot, quoi? You’re totally qualified to turn off the subtitles. In fact it’s a good idea, as otherwise you’ll just be sitting there going ‘Well, that’s not actually what she said, you know, not in Parisian French, at least.’

Three or four correct: Pas mal, mon pote! Keep at it, and soon you’ll be swearing along with the telly like the best of us.

One or two correct: Bah, t’es pas dans ton assiette, hein? Never mind. Écoutez, et répétez. It’ll come.

The perks of apostrophes

May 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Posted in language | 10 Comments
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This ad has been doing the rounds this morning, to the sound of garments being rent all over twitter.

dorothy perkins apostrophes

I got a bit excited, though. As a linguist, I was trained to assume that language behaviour is motivated. By this, I mean linguists assume people who know and use a language have (largely unconscious) reasons for speaking or writing in particular ways. I’m not saying no-one ever makes a mistake in writing or speaking; I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t immediately write off everything that looks ‘wrong’ as an error, but instead think about why someone might have made that language choice, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time.

Writing is particularly interesting, because it’s easy to spot ‘mistakes’ and chastise people for ‘incorrectness’. The Rules are written down in dictionaries, style guides and grammar books. But writing isn’t simply about adhering to a set of (often arbitrary*) grammatical rules. While people delight in sharing this kind of thing…

… there are examples where the ‘correct’ written language can seem ambiguous or unclear. This is what I think is going on in the Dorothy Perkins ad. (More on this in a minute.)

So, you know the rule about plural formation, right? No apostrophes in plurals. Simple. Except even style guides give some exceptions, including plurals of some foreign words (folio’s), numbers (100’s) and letters (mind your p’s and q’s, the three R’s). Why the exceptions? I’d suggest it’s for clarity. The plural of folio is probably to suggest the correct pronunciation (foh-lee-ohz, not foh-lee-oss), while the others are probably to make sure readers interpret what’s written correctly (p’s versus P.S., 100’s versus 100 seconds…?).

Clarity. I saw a sign advertising coffees and tea’s. Why the apostrophe in tea’s only? Possibly because the writer unconsciously worried that teas might be misread (or misunderstood) as tease. (Yes, yes, I know this sounds nuts. I know the plural of pea is peas. Bear with me.)

I think there are several possible motivations for what’s going on in the DP ad.

  1. Making sure people read words correctly. If the plural of maxi is written as maxis, how do you stop people from reading it as ‘max-iss’ (and failing to understand it)? The writer is trying to be clear.
  2. Distinguishing one sense (meaning) of a word from another. Yes, the plural of pencil is pencils, not pencil’s. But DP doesn’t sell pencils you write with; it sells pencil skirts. Minis – they’re cars, aren’t they? The writer forms the plural with an apostrophe to make sure that the reader understands that the word is being used in a different sense, and that DP hasn’t suddenly branched out into selling automobiles and stationery. Again, it’s about clarity. (Note that dresses and savings are pluralised without apostrophes, as these words are used in their primary (normal) sense.)
  3. Maxi’s, mini’s, pencil’s and skater’s are actually abbreviations of noun phrases: maxi dresses, mini dresses… So the apostrophe indicates something missing (which is, incidentally, a well-established use of apostrophes that is drummed into EVERYONE at school. Why not extend this to mean more than just a letter or two being omitted?).

In fact, it’s possible to see this as linguistic innovation, rather than fall-of-the-Empire type lassitude. In my first year at university, we were told to keep an eye out for this kind of stuff, as it might indicate ‘a linguistic change in progress’. So, in a couple of hundred years, when apostrophes are routinely used to distinguish one meaning of a word from another and style guides have whole sections on when to use pencils and when to use pencil’s, you’ll put aside your harp, look down from the clouds, remember this blogpost and smile.

P.S. Yes, yes. I know hundred’s shouldn’t have an apostrophe. I can’t explain that one. Sorry.

P.P.S. I’m not saying these choices are made on purpose – just that they are made for a reason, even if the writer her-/himself isn’t aware of that reason.

P.P.P.S. I should say that I am in no way arguing that this use of apostrophes is beautiful, stylish, or shouldn’t make you want to shave your head, climb a lamppost and start picking people off with a crossbow. I’m just saying it’s interesting.

* For a lovely, cogent, witty explanation of the arbitrariness of grammatical ‘rules’, see The Stroppy Editor.

Merrily we cycle along

February 27, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Posted in language | 2 Comments
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In this newspaper article,  a motorist describes a cyclist as ‘merrily cycling along’ on the M25.

This led @Doctor_Hutch to wonder

Right. The motorist could mean the cyclist was riding along going ‘Hallo, birds! Hallo, trees!’ I’ve done this myself in the past, though it seems a bit unlikely on the M25. Was the motorist (dare we say it) taking the mick? We might suspect this, but could we be sure?

I put my linguist hat on (it looks a bit like this ô) and got to work.

First stop, the OED. I love the OED. If you have a library card from pretty much anywhere, its riches are yours for the absorbing.

Anyway. According to the OED, ‘merrily’ has more than one sense. There are some fairly literal ones:

  1. With exuberant gaiety, joyously; cheerfully, happily. Also, in early use (esp. of song or speech): †pleasantly, agreeably; brightly (obs.).
  2. With alacrity; in a brisk and energetic manner.

There’s an obsolete one:

  1. † Jokingly, facetiously; wittily, cleverly. Obs.

And there’s a disparaging one:

4. Blithely, heedlessly; with disregard of possible consequences or future implications.

Senses 1-3 have been in use since the 1370s. Sense 4 is a more recent addition: the first citation is from 1906.*

So does the motorist mean the cyclist is riding along joyously? Or is he implying blithe and heedless disregard of possible consequences? Now I was wearing my linguist hat, I wondered whether we could tell from the construction whether sense 4 was intended. Or do we need to be there – to hear intonation, maybe? Do we have to rely on clues from the context (a particularly joy-inducing section of the M25 – South Mimms to Potters Bar?)?

I went off to search the British National Corpus.**

My search gave me 160 sentences using the word ‘merrily’ which had been spoken or written by English speakers in natural contexts (i.e. no-one sat them down and told them what to say/write).

I mucked around for a LONG time looking at the meanings of verbs that co-occur with ‘merrily’, finding out all sorts of interesting-but-fairly-tangential things (e.g. that it’s frequently used to describe how people talk – people are always answering merrily, calling out merrily, chatting merrily, etc – and also that fires blaze, burn and crackle merrily quite a lot, and things tinkle, ring, whistle and chirp merrily (and no doubt quite irritatingly) too.) Verbs describing movement are often used with ‘merrily’ – people swing, skip about, dance and sail along merrily.

I also looked at which of the OED’s senses ‘merrily’ was being used in. (I ignored sense 3, as it’s obsolete, and rolled senses 1 & 2 into one, so I was just looking at whether ‘merrily’ was being used literally or not.) There was some overlap between these groupings and verb meanings – ‘merrily’ is generally used in a literal sense with verbs describing people’s speech and the sounds things make, and generally in sense 4 (non-literally or mick-takingly) with non-action, more abstract verbs like ‘accumulate’, ‘divvy up’, ‘go about your business’). But usage with verbs of movement (where ‘cycling’ should show up) followed no clear pattern.

So far, so frustrating. Then suddenly, in the shower, I thought: What about the placement of the adverb? Many adverbs are pretty flexible about where they go in a sentence. You can cycle merrily, or merrily cycle.

I ran downstairs, dripping, did the analysis, and you won’t believe this, but it’s the answer. Simply put:

  • If you put ‘merrily’ after the verb, you’re being literal.
  • If you put ‘merrily’ before the verb, you’re taking the mick.

So if someone says you were ‘cycling merrily along the M25’, you’re all right (if a little misguided). If they describe you as ‘merrily cycling along the M25’, you’re not.


The author and companion, merrily cycling/ cycling merrily* somewhere in Calderdale (*delete as applicable)

This works for 80 out of the 93 examples I ended up analysing. (Many of the others are phrasal verbs***, whose syntactic behaviour is less predictable. I may go back and look at them, as I like phrasal verbs: in fact I’m a bit obsessed with them, to the extent I wrote an academic paper on them).****

I was almost too scared to go back and look at the original article. But there it is: ‘merrily cycling’. (I did actually leap from my chair with both arms in the air shouting YES! when I saw this.) So the motorist *was* taking the mick. Yeah, yeah, I know. Like we’re surprised.

So, on your way. Merrily. The lot of you.


* This makes sense, of course, as it leans heavily on everyone already knowing the more literal uses of ‘merrily’, and understanding that it is now being used to create a different effect.

** If you want to search the BNC, I suggest using the Lancaster University interface ; you can sign up for free, and search the database in all sorts of exciting ways. As I only got 160 hits, I did my analysis by hand, but there are plenty of ways of doing clever searches with query syntax. Let me know if you want to do this – I’ve got LOTS of handouts.

*** Phrasal verbs (also called multi-word verbs, particle verbs, and a couple of other things I can’t remember) are combinations of a verb plus something that looks like a preposition, but isn’t. They’re distinguished from true verb + prepositional phrase constructions by having a non-literal meaning (i.e. the meaning is more than the sum of its parts). So ‘run up the stairs’ is verb + prepositional phrase; ‘run up a dress’ is a phrasal verb, ‘run up’, plus a noun phrase. Other examples: ‘look up (in a dictionary)’, ‘look after’, ‘think over’, etc.

**** There are also a lot of repetitions of ‘Ding dong merrily on high’ and ‘Row, row, row your boat, merrily…’ which I ignored.

Bringing up a bilingual child

January 28, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Posted in language | Leave a comment
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The second in my vanishingly-rare series of language/ linguistics podcasts. Prompted by a conversation with @festinagirl and @broomwagonblog on twitter this morning, I ramble on fairly non-technically for a bit about bilingualism (my first love and erstwhile research obsession), and general factors that support or hinder child bilingualism. I do try to keep it brief.

Download podcast: Bringing up a bilingual child

Grafikofis Animals Bilingual Books "Milet Publishing"

Here’s a bit of information about the linguist who spoke Klingon to his son for three years.

Further reading

Baker, C. 2000. A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

(Readable, non-technical introduction in a Q&A format. Mostly focuses on elite bilingualism but some other contexts are covered too.)

Pearson, B. Z. 2008. Raising a bilingual child. New York: Living Language.

(A kind of how-to manual, also non-technical in nature. Again, the main focus is on an elite bilingual context but Pearson brings in a good deal of the wider research into bilingual communities.)

Hoffmann, C. 1991. An introduction to bilingualism. London: Longman.

(Oldie but goodie. More academic in tone but still readable, a good general introduction to bilingualism with a useful chapter on bilingual families of all sorts.)

Romaine, S. 1995. Bilingualism. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

(Again, a bit old now, but I keep coming back to it. An academic textbook; I used this with second year undergraduates. Comprehensive discussion of many aspects of bilingualism, thoroughly referenced.)

The now-defunct Bilingual Family Newsletter archive is good for a browse, too.

Something different… I ramble on about language for a bit

February 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Posted in language | Leave a comment
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Well. I had a couple of requests* for a podcast about language. Ooh. I can’t promise a series, but I have done one. I KNOW. Blimey.


My idea was mostly to talk about the differences in meaning between two words – ‘inspiring’ and ‘inspirational’ – but I get there via a number of other (maybe more interesting) musings about language.

It’s very non-technical (mostly because I don’t talk very well about technical stuff), and I hope it’s entertaining.

It’s about 15 mins long, so get a cup of tea.

Podcast: ‘Inspiring’ and ‘inspirational’ (this links to a dropbox file for download)

(If you get all inspired (haha!), have a play with the British National Corpus: you can read about what it is, and do sample searches, here. If you want to do more structured searches, use the BNCWeb at Lancaster University. You need to register to use it, but it’s free.)

* Really! It was @lardychap ‘s idea, and @danoh1 said he’d sign up, too.

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