English Is Hard: When Your “Yes” Isn’t “Yes,” and Your “No” Isn’t “No”

December 16, 2017 § 5 Comments

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I’m glad I don’t have to learn English as a second language. Not only are there complex sentence patterns and odd figures of speech to figure out. But even the simple and basic things can be problematic. I’m talking about things such as yes and no. That’s about as simple and basic as you can get, right?

Well, my English-learning friends, here are six examples that say otherwise.

• Yeah, no

You hear it a lot. Maybe you say it a lot. It’s pure contradiction, yet it rolls off the tongue. (I caught myself saying it a few days ago and immediately thought, “Where in the world did that come from?” Then I washed my mouth out with two kinds of soap.)

Yeah, no. It comes about in conversations such as,

Do you like pumpkin pie?

Yeah, no, I think it’s great!

Here the meaning of the phrase is “yes,” but in other contexts it can mean “no.” It can also mean “yes” and “no,” with one part answering an actual question and the other answering an implied question. And then there are No, yeah and Yeah, no, yeah and all sorts of other variations. It’s enough to confuse even the most native of speakers. But no worry. You can pretty much ignore it, if you’d like. It doesn’t amount to much. Or does it?

The root of the matter: If you want to chew on the lexical meat of Yeah, no, take a look at Mark Liberman’s post at the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Log, where he analyzes its usage by sex and age and discusses it’s meanings. Also, “Steve at Language Hat” emailed Liberman and pointed to a 2002 article in The Australian Journal of Linguistics, in which the authors say that Yeah, no

serves a number of functions, including discourse cohesion, the pragmatic functions of hedging and face-saving, and assent and dissent.

Further thoughts from Kate Burridge, chair of linguistics at Monash University and coauthor of the aforementioned article, are referenced in The Age (another hat tip to Steve). She says that the phrase’s usage “falls into three main categories, each determined by context”: literal, where the speaker agrees in general with an idea and then adds something else; abstract, where a person accepts and then defuses a compliment; and textual, where someone agrees with what has been said but then goes back to an earlier point.

Kathryn Schulz, in The New Yorker, adds to the analysis, and the variations, with her look at No, totally. She calls the no in this phrase a contranym—a word with two, opposite, meanings—that came about through amelioration—where a negative word develops a second, positive, meaning. Another example of a contranym is dust, which can mean “to remove dust,” as in “dusting a shelf,” and “to add dust,” as in “dusting a cake with powdered sugar.” An example of amelioration is bad taking on the meaning “good,” as in, “I love that song. It’s really baaad!”

So does that mean that no can mean “yes”?

No, yeah, I guess it does.

(Mark Liberman, “Yeah No,” Language Log, April 03, 2008; Kate Burridge and Margaret Florey, “Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English,” Australian Journal of Linguistics, volume 22, number 1, October 1, 2002; Birdie Smith, “Slang’s ‘Yeah No’ Debate Not All Negative,” The Age, June 11, 2004; Kathryn Schulz, “What Part of “No, Totally” Don’t You Understand?” The New Yorker, April 7, 2015)

• Yes, he isn’t.

Have you ever asked a non-native English speaker a negative question and gotten a simple “yes” as the answer? For example:

Is John not going to the movie?

Yes.

So now tell me about John’s plans. Are you sure?

For native English speakers, a one-word “Yes” answer isn’t clear (Is it “Yes, he is” or “Yes, he isn’t”?), while a simple “No” most often means “No, he is not going.” I say “most often” because it’s easy to be confused. Therefore, we often follow up the “yes” or “no” with a full-sentence explanation.

The root of the matter: This hasn’t always been a problem. Gretchen McCulloch writes in The Week that things were different around the time from Chaucer to Shakespeare (about 1340 to 1580). Back then, English speakers showed agreement or disagreement with positive statements or questions by responding with “yea” or “nay,” respectively. But negative statements or questions got a “yes” or “no” response. Having the four options helped with clarity. But reduce the possibilities and you increase the potential for confusion.

(Schulz also refers to yes/no/yea/nay in her discussion of No, totally. She writes that totally [or certainly or exactly] may serve as the needed explanation following a no that harkens back to no/nay times and answers a real, or implied, negative question.)

So where is John going? The yes for many English learners would mean “Yes, he isn’t going.” But while that technically makes sense, it doesn’t sound too well to the native-speaker’s ear. That’s because English is a “truth-based” language, which means that speakers answer a negative question with the same particle (yes/no) that they would use for a similar positive question, and the particle agrees with the positive/negative value of the sentence answer (“Yes, he is” or “No, he isn’t). But many other languages are “polarity based.” This means that speakers use the particle that shows agreement or disagreement with the negative proposition of the question (“Yes, he isn’t” or “No, he is”).

But those aren’t hard-and-fast rules. To make matters even more complicated, whether English speakers use yes or no can also depend on whether the question uses notor the contraction n’t (“Is John not going?” vs “Isn’t John going?”), on the questioner’s tone, or even on body language.

Now, is that not interesting?

(Gretchen McCulloch, ‘The Problem with Positive Answers to Negative Questions,” The Week, March 10, 2014; Feifei Li, et al., “Is Mandarin Chinese a Truth-Based Language? Rejecting Responses to Negative Assertions and Questions,” Frontiers in Psychology, December 20, 2016; Anders Holmberg, The Syntax of Yes and No, Oxford, 2016)

• Do you mind?

When we ask a question such as “Do you mind if I sit here?” or “Do you care if I use your pen?” many will answer as if the question were “Is it OK if . . .?” So if you don’t mind, you’d answer “Yes.” But, as above, a one-word answer can be confusing and often needs an explanation—because some people answer the meaning of the question while others answer the actual grammar. While related to the negative-question above, it kind of turns that discussion inside out, since “Do you mind?” and “Do you care?” are actually positive, but the ideas behind mind and care are negative.

I think I’m starting to get confused, here. Do you mind if we move on?

• Double negatives

We all know that logic tells us a double negative makes a positive. Or at least that’s what we’ve been taught. But the truth is, when we hear a double (or triple or quadruple) negative used in colloquial speech, we know that the meaning is most assuredly—and emphatically—negative. So while the prescriptivist grammarian (one who prescribes the way English should be) would say that using double negatives to express a negative thought is incorrect, a descriptivist (one who describes the way English actually is) would disagree, and might say, “That doesn’t make no sense at all.”

The root of the matter: It used to be (back to Chaucer and Shakespeare again) that people didn’t have a problem with negative concord—using more than one negation word in a sentence to express a negative meaning. But in the 1600s, when grammarians decided that the free-wheeling English language was getting out of hand, they used rules from Latin grammar to keep it in check. Not only was Latin the language of the learned, but because it was no longer spoken, it was immune to the conversational transformations of the masses. Therefore, because double negatives were not found in Latin, they should not be present in English.

I do, though, need to insert a caveat here. While this Latin-rule theory is supported by most linguists (see Linda Mitchell and Dick Leith), there isn’t 100% agreement. Amel Kallel has written an entire book arguing that the loss of double negatives was not the cause of Latin-inspired grammarians, but rather came about naturally, on its own.

Regardless of why double negatives have fallen out of favor in modern formal English, they’re not completely absent, especially in the form of litotes. Litotes is saying something by using the negative of its opposite, often with ironic understatement. Therefore, “good” becomes “not bad,” and World War II can be described as “not a small battle.” To make the meaning more clear in spoken English, a double-negative-as-litotes is often expressed by stressing the second negative, as in “Finding happiness in life isn’t nothing.”

I really hope that’s clear, because I ain’t gonna explain it no more.

(Stan Carey, “Ain’t Nothin’ (Grammatically) Wrong with No Double Negatives,” MacMillan Dictionary Blog, April 13, 2015; Linda C. Mitchell, Grammar Wars: Language as Cultural Battlefield in 17th and 18th Century England, Ashgate 2001; Dick Leith, A Social History of English, Routledge, 1983; Amel Kallel, The Loss of Negative Concord in Standard English: A Case of Lexical Reanalysis, Cambridge Scholars, 2011)

• I can’t hardly

If someone says, “I can hardly reach the shelf,” it means that person can barely reach it, or almost can’t, but can. The phrase “I couldn’t care less about what’s on the shelf” means that someone doesn’t care at all, so cannot care to a lesser extent. But we often hear people say “I can’t hardly” and “I could care less.” But rather than having the opposite meanings of their counterparts, they mean the same thing. We could say that these second versions are “wrong,” but in a way, the phrases have become idioms, where the meaning of the entirety stays the same, even if the parts are altered.

The root of the matter: Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, says that could care less shows up before couldn’t care less, appearing in the 1867 serial novel, Birds of Prey as “O, believe me, there is no one in the world who could care less for that than I do.” Notice that no one adds a negative to the sentence, so the speaker is more or less saying, “No one else could care less than me because I, myself, could not care less.”

Now my linguistic research abilities are no match for the folks at Merriam-Webster, but I was able to find an earlier occurrence of could care less. It’s in the April 1, 1864, issue of The Gospel Magazine and Protestant Beacon, where we find,

No living man can write more disinterestedly than I do on this matter; few men in the diocese could care less who are the lucky recipients of Church gifts.

But here too, notice the negation effect of “few,” allowing that while some may be able to care less, the author’s lack of caring makes that difficult.

Stamper then adds that the first couldn’t care less she and her colleagues found is from 1886: “Ralph couldn’t care less for us if he wanted to ever so much,” where, oddly enough, Ralph could not care less not because he didn’t care at all but because he cared so much that he couldn’t stop himself—it wasn’t in his power to not be that caring. (I’ll give you a moment to work through  that one.)

Can’t hardly figure it out . . . or could you care less?

(“Is It ‘I Could Care Less’ or ‘I Couldn’t Care Less’?Merriam-Webster, January 18, 2017; Mary Elizabeth Braddon, “Birds of Preey,” October, 1867; Belgravia: A London Magazine, ; S.G.O, “Abuse of Church Patronage—Family Arrangements,” The Gospel Magazine and Protestant Beacon, April 1, 1864; Ethel Karr, The Australian Guest: A Novel, Remington, 1886;

• Irregardless and inflammable

Simply put, regardless and irregardless mean the same thing: “despite that” or “no matter” (though most consider irregardless nonstandard).

And flammable and inflammable share a meaning, as well: “able to burn easily.”

It doesn’t matter that both pairs look as if they’re made up of opposites.

The root of the matter: Irregardless most likely came about (in the mid 1800s) from combining irrespective with regardless, even though the ir- of irregardless on its own means “not.” In a letter to the editor of The Telegrapher, dated 1869, some Cleveland telegraph operators describe the poor situation in their office by writing about their office manager: “In fact, he is ‘irregardless’ of our comfort.” In this case, irregardless of means something like “uncaring about” or “pays no attention to.”

The Cleveland operators also close with

We do not intend to find fault unnecessarily, but whenever such a spiteful and petty spirit is shown by a sub-official, we shall consider it our duty to inform the fraternity generally, “irregardless” of the result.

It’s interesting that the authors put irregardless in quotation marks, as if the word hasn’t quite come into common usage yet.

In regards to inflammable, lexicographer Ammon Shea tells us that the word can be found in print as far back as 1574, while flammable first shows up in 1655. Both mean “burnable,” because the in in inflammable means “in/into” (as in inflammation), rather than having the meaning “not” (as in incombustible). In the 1920s, the National Fire Protection Association became worried that inflammable would be confused with nonflammable, so they promoted the use of flammable for warning labels, to save us all from lexical confusion . . . and fire.

You say flammable. I say inflammable. Irregardless, we mean the same thing.

(Cleveland Operators, “Petty Tyrany,” The Telegrapher, April 14, 1869; Ammon Shea, “Why Do Flammable and Inflammable Mean the Same Thing?” Dictionary.com)

So, in conclusion, after all this, I offer you, dear English learners, my sympathy.

Thank you very much.

Oh, think nothing of it. Now, to help your confidence, repeat after me: “I can do this, in spite of all the discourse cohesion, contranyms, ameliorations, negative concord, and litotes.”

OK, here goes. I can do this, in spite of all the disc . . . disc . . . I’m sorry, what was that?

Don’t worry. Simply put, English is hard.

I know, right?

Uhh . . . way to sound fluent, but don’t even get me started on that one!

[photo: “Yes or No,” by Quinn Dombrowski, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Language Learning for a Small World and a Big Introduction

December 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

Most commercials make me hit the mute button or click “Skip this Ad.” But some I like so much that I search them out on Youtube for a second, third, and fourth look. Here are two of those.

The first one, from Rosetta Stone Language Learning, begins with this: “Imagine the world if everyone learned just one more language. Imagine the stories we’d share.”

The second one, my favorite of the two, is from the American Heart Association. It opens with the words “Hello, Jack. Hello, Jack. I am your grandfather. I waited so long to meet you”—and ends with a nice surprise. (By the way, from what I can tell, the grandfather is learning his English from a Langenscheidt pocket dictionary.)

Pick a Name, Any Name (Well, Not Any Name)

September 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

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For two years in the late 90s, Peter Hessler taught English in Fuling, China, as part of the Peace Corps. His experiences are the subject of his best-selling River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.

In one passage, he writes about the interesting English names that his students had chosen for themselves, including a girl who was named Keller, after Helen Keller:

This was a common pattern; some of them had taken their names from people they admired, which explained why we had a Barbara (from Barbara Bush), an Armstrong (Neil Armstrong), and an idealistic second-year student called Marx. A few had translated their Chinese names directly—House, Yellow, North. There was one boy whose English name was Lazy. “My name is Lazy,” he said, on the first day of class. “I am very lazy. I do not like to play basketball or football or do many things. My hobbies are sleeping.”

Other names made less sense. There was a Soddy, a Sanlee, a Ker. Some were simply unfortunate: a very small boy called Pen, a very pretty girl named Coconut. One boy was called Daisy . . . .

Not all of the “unfortunate” names came from the students themselves. When the students asked for surnames to pair with their English given names, Adam, Hessler’s fellow teacher, gave Nancy the last name Drew. And when Mo asked Hessler for a surname, he became Mo Money.

I have some friends from Taiwan with less than mainstream English names. But who can blame them? Aren’t a lot of American names just a combination of letters, with no real meaning or heritage? And don’t people sometimes take common words and turn them into names for their children? Yes, both are true, but for some reason, some names seem to sound less right than others. Why not Mray? Why not Cabinet?

But who am I to judge? Before I moved to Taipei, I asked a friend from China for a Chinese name. He gave me Ke Lai, based on the sound of Craig. I liked it. And even after my new friends in Taiwan said it wasn’t a great name, I hung on to it, even going so far as to come up with a tortured defense for it. Ke means “overcome” and lai means “come,” so I figured that my name could match up with the first words spoken by the Master in The Analects of Confucius: “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?” (overcoming?) and “Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?” (come).

“Okaaaaaay . . . ,” said my my gracious friends, “but maybe it’s not quite right. It doesn’t sound Chinese.”

I didn’t want to give in—it was my name—until I realized that the Chinese for Chrysler is Ke-lai-se-le. I didn’t mind that my name sounded foreign, but sounding like a foreign car company was a little too much.

So how would you help an international friend who’s looking for an English name? Maybe you’d like to point them to the Bible as a good source for names. According to the Social Security Administration, during the first decade of the 2000s, 8 of the top 10 baby-boy names came from the Bible. But the Bible isn’t failsafe. Not every biblical name should be considered a good candidate. Some names have bad backstories (think, Judas and Jezebel), and some just don’t pass the sound test (for example, Shammua and Abishag).

To help out, below is my contribution to the cause. It’s a list of over 170 biblical names that have, over the years, often been used in the US. Following each name is its designation for males or females, its meaning (if it’s known), and some of the more well-known people (or in a few cases, places) in the Bible with that name.

By the way, this list makes up an appendix to Putting Words in Our Mouths: A Look at Biblical Expressions in American English. I started in Genesis, and I’ve made it through Revelation, explaining over 150 entries along the way. If you haven’t already, please drop by. You’ll probably be surprised at how often we quote the Bible without even knowing it.

So from Aaron to Zachariah, here we go. (Sorry, Zuriel didn’t quite make the cut.)

Aaron (m), possibly “teacher, lofty, mountain of strength”—Moses’ brother, first high priest

Abigail (f), “father’s joy”—King David’s wife

Abraham (m), “father of a great multitude”—father of the Hebrew people

Adam (m), “earthy, red, human”—the first man

Alexander (m), “defender of man”—member of the Jewish ruling council; man expelled from the church

Amos (m), “carried, burden, weighty”—Old Testament prophet who wrote the Book of Amos

Andrew (m), “manly, strong man”—Jesus’ apostle

Anna (f), “grace”—New Testament prophetess

Bartholomew (m), “son of Tolmai”—Jesus’ apostle

Benjamin (m), “son of the right hand”—Jacob’s son

Bethany (f), “house of dates, house of misery”—village east of Jerusalem

Caleb (m), “dog”—one of the Israelite spies sent to bring back a report about Canaan

Candace (f) possibly “one who is contrite”—queen of Ethiopia

Claudia (f) possibly “lame”—follower of Jesus in Rome

Dan (m), “judge, judgment”—son of Jacob

Daniel (m), “judgment of God” —Old Testament prophet and writer of the Book of Daniel

David (m), “beloved”—king of Israel who wrote many of the Psalms

Deborah (f), “bee”—nurse of Rebekah, Isaac’s wife; prophetess and judge of Israel

Eli (m), “lifting up”—Old Testament high priest

Elisabeth (Elizabeth) (f), “God is her oath”—John the Baptist’s mother

Ethan (m), “enduring, strong”—descendant of Judah; descendant of Levi

Eve (f), possibly “life, giver of life”—first woman

Gabriel (m), “God is my strength, champion of God”—angel

Hannah (f), “grace”—mother of Samuel, the Old Testament prophet

Isaac (m), “laughter”—Abraham’s son

Jacob (m), “one who grabs the heel, supplanter, deceiver“—son of Isaac, father of the Israelites

James (m), “supplanter”—Jesus’ apostle, brother of John; Jesus’ apostle, son of Alphaeus; Jesus’ brother and writer of the Book of James

Jared (m), “descent”—ancestor of Noah

Jason (m), “one who heals”—Thessalonian Christian; Paul’s relative

Jeremiah (m) “raised up by God”—Old Testament prophet who wrote the Book of Jeremiah and Lamentations (and possibly 1 and 2 Kings); Old Testament priest

Jesse (f/m) possibly “gift, wealthy”—King David’s father

Joel (m), “the Lord is his God”—Old Testament prophet who wrote the Book of Joel

Joanna (f) “the Lord’s grace”—manager of King Herod’s household and follower of Jesus

John (m), “the Lord’s grace”—”John the Baptist,” prophet who announced the arrival of Jesus and baptized him; Jesus’ apostle and writer of the Gospel of John, Revelation,  and 1, 2, and 3 John; “John Mark,” companion of Paul and Barnabas, writer of the Gospel of Mark

Jonathan (m), “the Lord’s gift”—son of King Saul and friend of David

Jordan (m/f), “descender”—river in Israel

Joseph (m), “increase”—Jacob’s son who was sold as a slave by his brothers and who gained great authority in Egypt; husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother; Jesus’ brother; “Joseph of Arimathea” in whose grave Jesus was buried; one of two Christians presented as possible replacements for Judas as an apostle

Joshua (m), “the Lord saves”—leader of the Israelites after Moses died, writer of the Book of Joshua

Judith (f), “of Judea”—Esau’s wife

Julia (f), “downy, soft hair”—Christian in Rome

Leah (f), possibly “weary”—Jacob’s wife

Lois (f), possibly “better”—grandmother of Timothy, who was Paul’s companion

Luke (m), “light giving”—a physician and Paul’s companion who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts

Lydia (f), possibly “woman of the province of Lydia”—the first European to become a Christian

Mark (Marcus) (m), possibly “polite, shining”—companion of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter and writer of the Gospel of Mark

Martha (f), “lady, bitterness”—sister of Mary and Lazarus

Mary (f), possibly “rebellion”—Jesus’ mother; Martha and Lazarus’ sister who anointed Jesus feet with perfume; “Mary Magdalene,” follower of Jesus who was first to see him after the resurrection

Matthew (m), “gift of God”—Jesus’ apostle who wrote the Gospel of Matthew

Micah (m), “who is like God?”—Old Testament prophet and writer of the Book of Micah

Michael (m), “who is like God?”—angel

Miriam (f), possibly “rebellion”—Moses’ sister

Moriah (f)—possibly “chosen by the Lord”—region where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac; “Mount Moriah” where Solomon built the temple

Naomi (f), ”lovable, my delight”—mother-in-law of Ruth

Nathan (m), “gift, given”—Old Testament prophet

Nathaniel (Nathanael) (m), “gift of God”—Jesus’ apostle

Nicolas (m), “conqueror of the people, victory of the people”—one of the seven chosen to serve the church in Jerusalem

Noah (m), possibly “rest” —man who built the ark and whose family was saved from the flood

Paul (m), “little”—Jesus’ apostle who wrote 13 books of the New Testament

Peter (m), “rock, stone”—Jesus’ apostle who wrote 1 and 2 Peter

Philip (m), “lover of horses”—Jesus’ apostle; one of the seven chosen to serve the church in Jerusalem

Rachel (f), “sheep, ewe”—Jacob’s wife and mother of Joseph and Benjamin

Rebekah (f), possibly “ensnarer”—Isaac’s wife and mother of Jacob and Esau

Ruth (f), possibly “friend”—non-Jewish woman who married Boaz and became an ancestor of Jesus, subject of Old Testament book named after her

Samuel (m), “heard of God, asked of God”—Old Testament judge and prophet, and possible writer of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel

Sarah (f), “princess”—wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac

Seth (m), “compensation, a substitute”—son of Adam and Eve

Sharon (f), “a plain”—coastal plain in Israel

Simon (m), “he hears, hearing”—original name of Jesus’ apostle Peter; “Simon the Zealot,” Jesus’ apostle; Jesus’ brother; man who carried Jesus’ cross

Stephen (m), “crown”—one of the seven chosen to serve the church in Jerusalem, first Christian martyr

Tabitha (f), “gazelle”—Christian woman with a reputation for helping others, she died and Peter brought her back to life

Thomas (m), “twin”—Jesus’ apostle

Timothy (m), “honored by God, honoring God”—companion of Paul, who wrote 1 and 2 Timothy to him

Titus (m), “honorable”—companion of Paul, who wrote the Book of Titus to him

Zachariah (Zechariah) (m), “God remembered”—king of Israel; Old Testament prophet; father of John the Baptist

(Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Harper, 2001)

[photo: “This is not my name,” by Jasper Visser, used under a Creative Commons license]

Noel, Missouri: Small-Town America and International City

August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

10928762_e1b81e1c18_zFor many, strongman J. D. “The Ice Man” Anderson put Noel, Missouri, on the map. Leading up to his quarterfinals performance on America’s Got Talent this week, he talked about how the people in his hometown “wouldn’t even fill up the balcony at Radio City Music Hall.” He then went on to snap baseball bats in two, smash cinder blocks, and run headlong into blocks of ice.

Ask your grandparents and they might remember Noel’s heyday as a place to send holiday mail for its “Christmas City” postmark. With the help of singer Kate Smith telling the “Noel Story” on the radio in the 40s and 50s, more than half a million pieces of mail passed through Noel each year in the days leading up to Christmas.

Noel’s high point as “Christmas City” is probably behind it (the high point for mailing Christmas cards anywhere is probably in the past), and Anderson didn’t make it to the semifinals of America’s Got Talent.

But that doesn’t mean Noel’s time in the spotlight is gone. In fact, the small Ozark town can now stake a claim as an international city, with more per-capita cultural diversity than most metropolises hundreds of times its size.

The Joplin Globe reports that it all started when the Hudson Foods chicken plant in Noel recruited Hispanic workers from along the US-Mexican border. After Tyson bought the plant in 1998, more and more immigrants arrived, including refugees from Africa. Today, nearly two-thirds of the plants 1,500 workers are “minorities,” representing such places as Mexico, Somalia, Sudan, Micronesia, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar, and Ethiopia.

But the influx of immigrant workers to this town of 1,800 hasn’t always gone smoothly. A 2002 article in The Kansas City Star focuses on the difficulties—the graffiti, the stares, the shouted slurs. James Carroll, mayor of Noel, tells The Globe that when the Somalis came to town, a Mexican resident said to him, “I now know how you felt when we came here.”

According to a broadcast from Harvest Public Media, which was aired by NPR, in August of last year the tires on more than a dozen cars owned by Somalis were slashed. And Somali workers say they don’t feel welcome at Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen on Main Street, where servers wear t-shirts that say, “I got caught eating at the KKK.”

While it’s clear that some in the Noel community wish the immigrants and refugees hadn’t come, there are also many in Noel open to the changes and helpful to the new arrivals.

“If you want to know what America is,” Angie Brewer tells Harvest Public Media, “come sit in front of the feed store and watch people go by in a turban, in an island skirt and in their overalls, and they’re all just going to work.” Brewer is principal at Noel Elementary, where about 11 languages are spoken by the school’s 400 students. She says that the schools are the “government agency in town.” “People come here if they need shoes, if they need clothes, if they’re hungry. We send 37 backpacks home every weekend with kids that just don’t have enough food.”

The schools play a big part in the lives of the immigrant children because of the opportunities that education provides. This is a theme that we hear in comments, recorded by Harvest Public Media, of the children of the immigrant workers:

Soe Soe, 18, from Myanmar, grew up in refugee camp in Thailand. Instead of going to high school, he works at the plant to support his family, taking English classes in Noel offered by Crowder College. “I have problem,” he says. “I cannot speak English. I think one day, when my sister already 18, I can go school. She say, ‘Don’t worry my brother. I gonna support you.'”

Eighteen-year-old Oscar is from Mexico. He came to Noel with his mother when he was two and was a senior in high school at the time of the interview. “Right after high school, I will be going to college. I will be the first of my family to go to college. That’s what motivates me, right now, to finish high school.”

Brewer and her colleagues want to make sure that none of the children miss out on the benefits of a good education. They want to make sure that none miss out on having any of their needs met. “No one’s going to fall through a crack in Noel, Missouri,” she tells Harvest Public Media.

It’s not going to happen. I mean some of these are my own children’s friends and these are my friends. They’re real people and you’re not reading about them on TV or hearing about them. They’re people that I know. I’ve been to their house. I’ve sat on their couch. I’ve held their hand. They’re real people and they deserve the best.

(“Noel Christmas Postmarks,” Noel, MO; Wally Kennedy, “Somali Refugees Follow Mexican Immigration to Missouri Community,” The Joplin Globe, May 7, 2011; Donald Bradley, “In Small-Town Missouri, a Collision of Cultures,” The Kansas City Star, June 11, 2012; Abbie Fentress Swanson, “Noel, Mo.: Schools Build Safety Net for Immigrant Children,” Harvest Public Media, October 27, 2013; Peggy Lowe and Abbie Fentress Swanson, “Their Dreams, in Their Own Words,” Harvest Public Media)

[photo: “Immigrant Nation,” by Ruby Sinreich, used under a Creative Commons license]

A New Blog: “Putting Words in Our Mouths”

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

2250062732_5d9670fba0_zThe Bible has been called the most quoted, most translated, most published, most sold, and most shoplifted book of all time. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of its ideas on Western culture. And, particularly in the translation completed under the direction of King James I of England in 1611, it has had a leading role in shaping the English language and English literature. Alister McGrath, in his book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, writes,

No other book has so permeated and penetrated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible. . . . The King James Bible, along with the words of William Shakespeare, is regularly singled out as one of the most foundational influences on the development of the modern English language.

I wrote Putting Words in Our Mouths: A Look at Biblical Expressions in American English with English learners in mind, to teach them the meanings of commonly used phrases and to familiarize them with the stories and concepts of the Bible. Familiarity with the Bible leads to a better understanding of the art, history, music, politics, and customs of English-speaking peoples. The authors of The Bible Literacy Report II state, “Almost without exception, English professors we surveyed at major American colleges and universities see knowledge of the Bible as a deeply important part of a good education.” The report quotes a professor from Northwestern University who calls the Bible the “most influential text in all of Western culture.”

But this doesn’t mean that all English speakers are aware of or understand the Bible’s influence. In fact, serious English-language students who gain a basic knowledge of the Bible may find themselves ahead of many native speakers.

Today, biblical words and phrases—including idioms—appear in informal conversation, news articles, blogs, television shows, movies, popular songs, and literature. Even the word bible itself has a place in modern English as any “authoritative book on a particular subject.” Bible comes from a Greek word meaning “books.” This is because the Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by at least 40 men over about 1500 years. And on the pages of these books are written many well-known stories, some of which take place on a grand scale or involve huge groups of people—such as Noah and the flood, the 10 plagues of Egypt, and the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Therefore, something that is “enourmous or extremely extensive” can be said to be of biblical proportions or on a biblical scale.

I invite you to join me on a journey through the Bible, using common English expressions as our stepping stones.  We’ll start at the best place possible . . . in the beginning.


The format of Putting Words in Our Mouths is simple. Each word or phrase is introduced with its definition and a sample sentence showing how it can be used in conversation. Then an explanation of the word/phrase’s origin follows, along with the biblical passage from which it comes. Where it differs from the more modern translation, I’ve included in brackets the expression in its King James version.

I will be adding expressions as time permits, moving from Genesis to Revelation. You can view all the posts in order by clicking on Browse All Entries in the right-hand column. You can also look for specific topics by using the search field.

(Wachlin, Mary, and Byron R. Johnson, The Bible Literacy Report II: What University Professors Say Incoming Students Need to Know, Bible Literacy Project, 2006)

[photo: “Used Bible,” by Doug 1021, used under a Creative Commons license]

Senior Citizens Teach English, Food Photogs Feed the Hungry, and Coca-Cola Makes a Rainbow

May 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

When teenagers teach senior citizens about the internet, cultures are crossed.

When the two groups use the internet to communicate between countries, the culture crossing is even greater . . . and the results are very cool.

The global advertising agency FCB and the Brazilian English school CNA have teamed up for the Speaking Exchange, a campaign that matches English learners in Brazil to retirement-home residents in the US, using video chat.

The idea is based on the premise “Students want to practice English, and elderly people someone to talk to.” CNA calls it “an exchange in which everyone wins.” Using the Speaking Exchange program, students find seniors looking to talk and begin their interaction with guided topics. They progress to free chatting and their conversation is uploaded to a private YouTube channel where it is evaluated by a teacher.

Currently, the Speaking Exchange is in a trial period, but retirement communities can sign up at the program site to be notified when “official activities” begin.

Brazil’s Speaking Exchange is just one example of the creative campaigns produced by FCB, which operates in 90 counties. Here’s another.

Food Photos: Share and Share Alike

Next time you snap a pic of your Caesar salad, you photo may just get “liked” by Chamissidini from Niger. This Chamissidini isn’t a real girl, instead her profile is one of many, created by UNICEF New Zealand and FCB, to represent needy children in the developing world. When food photos are uploaded to Instagram, they’re liked by the UNICEF profiles. And when the photographers look to see who their new fans are, they’re invited to visit foodphotossavelives.org.nz. There they can purchase meals for the hungry and download Instagram-style images of emergency aid items to share . . . and continue the conversation.

And here’s one more.

The Colors of a Country

To celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa last month, FCB Johannesburg helped Coca-Cola create an actual rainbow in the capital’s downtown—a skyline-sized symbol of what Desmond Tutu dubbed “the Rainbow Nation.” “In South Africa I’m a person because of other people.” says one resident. “We call it ubundu.”

If You Could Talk to the Animals . . . You’d Know They Have Accents, Too

February 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

3256530575_3b4016287d_nLooks like my See ‘n Say needs a regional update.

When a woman from Nevada asked the folks at How to Do Everything, “How would a person moo in a British accent?” the hosts of the podcast looked to none other than Sir Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek and X-Men fame). He turned out to be a good choice, as discerning between cattle accents seems to be one of his areas of expertise. “In England,” he says, “we’re dominated by class, by social status, and by location.” And, according to Stewart, it’s the same for cows, too.

But while Stewart’s imitations of cows from West Oxfordshire, cows from Yorkshire, Cockney cows, urban cows, and well-bred cows were done with a mock earnestness, animal accents is a legitimate field of study. And there are no shortage of specialists—particularly in Great Britain—who take animal accents very seriously. Seriously indeed:

Goats say . . .

[Researchers] found that a goats’ “accent” changed as they grew older and moved in different groups, disproving claims that their voices were entirely genetic.

The team, from Queen Mary University of London, said their findings are the first to suggest that most mammals can develop an accent from their surroundings.

The findings have caused great excitement in the science community amid suggestions that “if goats can do it, maybe all mammals accents can be affected by their surroundings.”

(“Goats ‘Can Develop Their Own Accents,’” The Telegraph, February 16, 2012)

Dogs say . . .

The woof guide found Scouse and Scottish pets have the most distinctive growl—but there were differences in tone and pitch across the country.

Tracey Gudgeon, of the Canine Behaviour Centre in Cumbria, said: “It seems dogs are more able to imitate stronger, more distinctive accents than softer ones. It’s one of the ways they bond with their owner.” Idea for the research came with today’s re-release of 1955 Disney classic Lady and The Tramp on a special edition DVD.

The study even found some dogs have “posh” accents—just like Lady in the animated film. A delighted Disney spokesman said: ‘It seems we were right all along.”

(“Exclusive: Experts Say Dogs Growl with Regional Accents,” Mirror, February 13, 2006)

Cows say . . .

Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.

They decided to examine the issue after dairy farmers noticed their cows had slightly different moos, depending on which herd they came from.

Farmer Lloyd Green, from Glastonbury, said: “I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl.

“I’ve spoken to the other farmers in the West Country group and they have noticed a similar development in their own herds.”

(“Cows Also ‘Have Regional Accents,'” BBC News, August 23, 2006)

Apes say . . .

Gibbons have regional accents, a new study suggests. While not a sexy Southern drawl, these accents can help scientists identify the species of gibbon singing and where they are from.

“Each gibbon has its own variable song but, much like people, there is a regional similarity between gibbons within the same location,” lead researcher Van Ngoc Thinh, from the Primate Genetics Laboratory at the German Primate Center, said in a statement.

(Jennifer Welsh, “Singing in the Rain Forest: Gibbons Have Accents,” LiveScience, February 7, 2011)

Bats say . . .

Researcher Brad Law of the Forest Science Center found that bats living in the forests along the east coast of the state of New South Wales had different calls.

He said scientists had long suspected bats had distinctive regional calls—as studies have shown with some other animals—but this was the first time it had been proven in the field.

(“Australian Scientists Find Bats Have Regional Accents,” Reuters, September 13, 2010)

Whales say . . .

Dalhousie Ph.D. student Shane Gero has recently returned from a seven-week visit to Dominica. He has been traveling to the Caribbean island since 2005 to study families of sperm whales, usually spending two to four months of each year working on the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. One of the goals of this project is to record and compare whale calls over time, examining the various phrases and dialects of sperm whale communities.

When they dive together, sperm whales make patterns of clicks to each other known as “codas.” Recent findings suggest that not only do different codas mean different things, but that whales can also tell which member of their community is speaking based on the sound properties of the codas. Just as we can tell our friends apart by the sounds of their voices and the way they pronounce their words, different sperm whales make the same pattern of clicks, but with different accents.

(“Whales Have Accents and Regional Dialects: Biologists Interpret the Language of Sperm Whales,” May 12, 2011)

Dolphins say . . .

Dolphins on the east and west coasts of Scotland have different “accents.”

White-beaked dolphins use a complex system of tail slaps, whistles and clicks which were believed to be common among the species. But expert Olivia Harries said: “They use different clicks on the east coast than those on the west coast.”

(“Study Reveals Dolphins on Scotland’s East and West Coasts Have Different ‘Accents,'” Daily Record, November 9, 2013)

Birds say . . .

The [yellowhammer’s] song differs in terms of pitch and tone, especially in the final part, depending on where an individual bird is found. Birds can also add in various “phrases” to their song, according to their dialect.

Experts believe that dialects can be so thick they may hinder the chances of birds breeding with partners from other areas.

(Jasper Copping, “Britain’s Birds Boast a Colourful Array of Regional Accents,” The Telegraph, May 19, 2013)

City Birds say . . .

A group of scientists from Aberystwyth University studying the great tit’s dulcet tones have discovered that the birds sing their songs at a higher pitch in built-up areas to help them travel further. . . .

Researchers from the West Wales university, working alongside colleagues in Copenhagen, have found that it is the buildings that are changing the way birds sing in cities. . . .

“Our cities are packed with reflective surfaces, open spaces and narrow channels, which you just don’t get in woodland,” said researcher Emily Mockford. . . . “The higher notes mean the echoes disappear faster and the next note is clearer.”

(“Urban Birds Find Their Voice with a New Kind of Twitter,” Wales Online, December 13, 2011)

and Ducks say . . .

“Cockney” ducks from London make a rougher sound, not unlike their human counterparts, so their fellow quackers can hear them above the city’s hubbub. But their Cornish cousins communicate with a softer, more relaxed sound, the team from Middlesex University found.

(“Ducks ‘Quack in Regional Accents,’” BBC News, June 4, 2004)

So, what are the practical ramifications of all these findings? I’m not quite sure, but I have come up with one thing: Whenever you’re faced with that crucial question of our time, “What does the fox say?” you should reply, “That depends on where the fox is from.”

[photo: “See ‘N Say,” by Chris Murphy, used under a Creative Commons license]

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