Pockets of Joy

I don’t appear to have done a fat lot this week. Mostly it’s been work and tidying the house, because Christmas was still being celebrated here, even well after the twelfth night.

This means I have no exciting new adventure to tell you about, and I haven’t finished any books, and to be honest, being back at works means I have little brain for flights of fancy. And so I’m gonna tell you about some stuff that’s made me happy this week. ‘Cause the word needs some more joy in it.

  1. Snow

Photo from One_Small_Beth

Yes, it snowed in the UK. Admittedly, in Birmingham we weren’t exactly fighting our way through huge snow drifts, but exciting none the less. It meant pulling out all of the hat, scarf and glove combinations and figuring out the perfect cold weather outfits .

2. Linguistics

This article has a great linguistic analysis of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. While I don’t hugely enjoy hearing about Trump,  I’m a massive linguistics nerd, and I really enjoyed reading this on the train to work.

3. Eat, Pray, Love

So I bought Eat, Pray, Love in the January Sales and thought that it would be a bit of light reading, that probably wasn’t any good. Facts: I was wrong. It’s hugely enjoyable and at points deeply thought provoking. Expect a fuller blog post at some point when I’ve finished it.



When Science meets Languages

We live in a world built on binaries. And one that is seen so frequently at university is the Sciences versus the Arts. Most degrees at a British university are split between BScs and BAs. There are a few others, but the vast majority of students will be getting a qualification in the Sciences or the Arts.

I do German, and in about a month and half they’re going to give me a BA. Languages are an Arts subject and I often feel I can’t argue that. With literature and history often heavily on the menu, it does seem a very Arts end of the spectrum subject. But then there’s linguistics, which feels like a Science. My linguistics essays always had an awful lot of tables in them considering it’s an Arts subject.

In my house, there are three Science students and two Arts students, and when there’s discussion of various degrees in the living room, you would probably agree that the Science people do Science and us language students definitely do Arts. But like I said, linguistics blurs that line a little. And now thanks the American Museum of Natural History that line doesn’t really exist anymore.

Like most museums, the AMNH has lots of stuff in storage that visitors never get to see. I mean, I’ve never been to America so I’ve not seen any of their stuff but that’s besides the point. And to show off their collection to its fullest potential as well as showing off research their scientists have done, they’ve started monthly videos called Shelf Life.

The Shelf Life series trailer

I found out about this because a publicist for the AMNH emailed me (guys, a publicist emailed me! It shouldn’t be as exciting as it is), and I’m really glad did she did. Not just because having a publicist email me makes me feel like my blog is doing okay, but because otherwise I might not have seen this. And it’s really interesting.

This month’s episode is called “The Language Detectives”, and it’s a collaboration between an anthropologist (Peter Whitely) and a computational biologist (Ward Wheeler) in order to study ancient languages. More precisely, they work together to trace the evolution of Native American languages, specifically the Uto-Aztecan languages. I can’t lie – I’m really interested in language change. No matter what the language, I find it ridiculously fascinating. So I was always going to think this video was great.

The super interesting Episode 7.

But the interesting part about it is that they treated language like DNA, drawing a parallel between phonetic sounds and the A C G T building blocks of DNA. Six minute video short, they apply scientific principles to linguistic data in order to create language family trees and then narrow it down to the most likely evolution of the Uto-Aztecan languages and where they probably originated from.

Everything is explained simply though not patronisingly, and there’s some really cool research in the video. It’s subtitled and the choice of pictures and videos are well done, helping to aid understanding. But the video isn’t all there is.

If you go to the web page, rather than Youtube, there’s an article underneath, whose headline “From A(ztec) to Yaqui” had me from the wordplay. Again, I love it. The article briefly outlines the video before going on to talk about 12 objects, picked by Peter Whitely to brush the surface of the cultures who spoke and still do speak Uto-Aztecan languages. From moccasins to medicine bags to a photograph of Chief Severa and his family of the Ute people, the objects are an introduction into the life of the people who used and use these languages. Using the video as a touchstone, the article allows the museum to share objects that may otherwise be buried in storage for decades.

As I said, Shelf Life was brought to my attention by a publicist, but I’m really glad that it was. It was a fascinating ten/fifteen minutes, and now I have six episodes to catch up on. I’m hoping they’ll be just as good.


Punctuation: Ridiculous and Magic.

My grandma got a new phone this week. Thankfully she’s fairly tech savvy, so don’t worry – I’m not about to regale you with tales of being IT support for older relatives. But she was texting me and every text ended with ?? Which meant I was reading everything as very questioning. Particularly when texts were just ‘ok??’.

It turns out my phone couldn’t cope with the emoticons she was trying to send me. But it got me thinking about punctuation and how ridiculous it is that. I can? Add some symbols! And you’ll read – the sentence completely…differently in your head.

With the rise of internet communication and social media, we are constantly using written (or typed) language, and punctuation is hugely important to that. Whereas when you speak you automatically do the pauses and intonation and whatnot, that’s not how it works in written communication. It’s how I can write:

I’m fine.

I’m fine!


And while all three have the same two words in them, you know (mostly) exactly how they’re being “said” and thus the meaning behind them. What makes this even more ridiculous is that some of you reading this blog have never heard me speak. Not even once. And yet, you can still infer meaning and tone from the words I use, in part due to the punctuation I use.

What’s the most ridiculous thing about punctuation is that sometimes we use it to make pictures to represent out emotions/attitude/facial features to make up for the lack of face to face contact inherent in written communication. Yes, I’m talking about emoticons.

Emoticons are nothing new. People have drawn pictures in letters since the first time someone put writing instrument to durable surface. But now that we use computers (and yes, I’m including phones in this) we have a key board and our options are more limited. So we make pictures out of punctuation – or at least we did before the makers of our methods-of-communication clocked this and gave us pictures to choose from. The first emoticons, as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, were 🙂 and 😦 and the variations thereupon. [EDIT: So WordPress automatically changed colon end bracket and colon open bracket to pictures. I told you they’re onto the emoticon use :P]

What is so fascinating about emoticons is that you can use them to mean a ridiculous amount of things. And these uses aren’t necessarily universal. Take the winky face for example  😉

I have a friend who uses it to denote sarcasm, my cousin uses it when she’s teasing me, I’ve met people who use it to indicate flirting… And then in Germany, it’s just the standard smiley face. Which was very weird when I first moved out there. I thought everyone was either being sarcastic or flirting which was just….so confusing.

What I’m trying to say in this blog post, is that punctuation and the way that it influences how we read written communication is ridiculous and amazing. Punctuation has always been used to indicate tone, and while that in itself is interesting, the way we can use it to reflect emotions and attitudes as well is just…It makes my head spin. Ain’t linguistics great?  😀


Cockadoodledoo vs Üüürüü

At tutoring we’ve been doing about languages and countries, and today we coloured in maps to represent which countries we’ve been to and where we’d like to go. Because I was well aware this was going to result in questions along the lines of “where’s this country?” and because my geography is appalling, I raided the library for atlases. One book I borrowed is called ‘Ich lebe in Europa’ (I live in Europe) which I thought would be perfect seeing as the kids I tutor have never left the continent. What I didn’t bank on was the fact that the book was published in 1998, and a lot has changed since then. For one thing Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore.

But non-existent countries aside, it’s a pretty awesome book. It tells you how big the countries are in km2, the main language of each country, the currency, the main religion, the population and the capital city. There’s also other information but I’m not gonna go into that right now. What this book does tell you though, is what a cockerel says in each language. As in cockadoodledoo in different languages*. Which, personally, I am very excited about. So behold, a list for you to peruse, arranged by language groups, because I am a huge geek.

Germanic Languages

English – Cockadoodledoo

Flemish – Cocoricoo

German  – Kikeriki

Danish –  Kykeliky

Swedish – Kykeliky

Norwegian – Kykeliky

Dutch – Kukeluku

Icelandic – Gagaglagu

Romance Languages

Moldavian (Romanian) – Kukareku

Romanian – Kakareku

French – Cocorico

Spanish – Cocoroco

Portuguese – Cocorocâ

Italian – Chicchirichi

Slavic Languages

Slovakian – Kikiriki

Slovenian – Kikiriki

Serbian – Kukuriku

Croatian – Kukuriku

Polish – Kukuriku

Bulgarian – Kukurigu

Russian – Kukareku

Czech – Kykyryky

Finnic Languages

Finnish – Kukkokiekuu

Estonian – Kukeleegu

Baltic Languages

Latvian – Kikeregu

Lithuaian – Kakarieku

Ugric Languages

Hungarian – Kukuriku

Hellenic Languages

Greek – Kikiriku

Albanian Languages

Albanian – Kikikiii

Turkic Languages

Turkish – Üüürüü

Arabic Languages

Maltese – Iquaqui


* These are taken from a German book (‘Ich lebe in Europa’ by H. Brosche, A. Rösel and C. Ruoß [1998: Ravensburger Verlag, Germany]) so all spellings are German phonetics.


Comfort Blankets: An Analogy

So I never had a comfort blanket as a kid.  I had a comfort gorilla, because I hate conforming to societal norms. That and the zoo gave me nightmares. It’s a long story. I’d also like to point out that it was a stuffed toy – child me wasn’t dragging a full size silver back gorilla everywhere.

In case you’ve not come across the term comfort blanket, let me elucidate. A comfort blanket is a blanket that you, as a small child, took with you everywhere because it made you feel safe. For some people, the ragged remains of a blanket they wouldn’t let their parents wash is still a treasured childhood possession. There’s a Wikipedia article on it  if you want more information, though I fail to see what else you’d need to know.

Now, to make what seems like a random jump in topic, when I was in year eight, I went to Germany for the first time. Shortly before we went, our teachers taught us useful phrases, one of which was “Ich bin Engländerin” (I’m English). I swore to myself I would never use that phrase, especially in conjunction with “entschuldigung” (sorry). What my twelve year old self didn’t take into account was how little German she actually knew. And when a stranger decided to try and explain in German how gem stones are polished and buffed up (yes, that happened), “entschuldigung, ich bin Engländerin” made its first appearance.

And that my friends, is my linguistic comfort blanket. Being in Germany I don’t need to carry Fred the gorilla round with me, because I have a comfort blanket tucked away in my head. It’s with me at all times. I do realise that at this point I do kinda sound mad, but I’m going to keep running with this tortured analogy.

“Ich bin Engländerin” has always done me proud. If I don’t understand or just can’t be bothered to understand, whipping out that particular sentence has always been of help. Either people have massively slowed down their German or they’ve switched to English. And this is the problem with this comfort blanket. It’s very easy to use it. It’s very easy to just fall into a habit of telling people I’m English and making them adjust their language.

So I’ve been making a conscious effort to not use it. I guess it’s the equivalent of letting your parents wash your comfort blanket over night while you face down the nightmares. I mean, it’s still my best thing to say to charity people or overly chatty people on the train, but in actual life, I’m trying really hard not to use it. Because if I always make other people adjust their language, then mine’s not going to get any better. And judging from the fact I’ve used comfort blankets as an analogy, my language could probably do with getting better – my English as well as my German.


Don’t Mark My Words

Marked language, according to Wikipedia, is language that has been altered (aka ‘marked’) as being different from the norm. So with ‘honest’ and ‘dishonest’, ‘dishonest’ is marked by the prefix ‘dis’ as being an irregular form of ‘honest’. I’d like to talk about marked language with regards to gender. Waiter vs waitress. Manager vs Manageress. Actor vs actress.

In all of the above examples the feminine form of the English word is marked as other using the suffix ‘-ess’. Other examples include changing ‘man’ to ‘woman’, like in ‘policeman’ and ‘police woman’ or ‘fireman’ and ‘firewoman’. These words are gender specific despite people doing the same job. Other than the gender, there is no difference between a waiter and a waitress. So why are there different words?

There are a few issues with gendering words like this. One, what about those who don’t fall into the binary gender system that is accepted as the norm by the majority? Anyone who is agender, bigender, genderqueer – where do they fall in this black and white gendering of jobs? Two, if a man and a woman are doing exactly the same job, why does their job title have to specify their gender? I’ll give you a clue: it doesn’t. Three, it’s a linguistic inequality. As much as people hate to admit it, there is still gender inequality, and this differentiation of words, while not the most important battle to fight, is a battle that needs to be fought nonetheless.

So the solution is simple. Use one word for the same job. Yes, great. Except…when we start to remove the marked term in favour of the unmarked term, we leave many jobs now only being described with the male term for that profession. How many times have you heard of people asking to see the manager, demanding to speak to him, when it turns out the manager is woman? And I’m not saying that using the unmarked term is a bad thing – I just wish that language change were fast enough that everyone would take it as read that a manager could be female or male or maybe not identify as either.

And I know I’m not perfect either. Despite having these objections to marked language, I still find myself using it. Instead of the gender neutral ‘server’, I still say ‘waiter’ or ‘waitress’. I find it difficult to say police person, though police officer (another gender neutral term) rolls off the tongue more easily. However, the thing that makes it really difficult for me is learning German.

German is one of those languages who decided everything has to have a gender. ‘The chair’ is masculine, ‘the door’ is feminine and ‘the window’ is neuter. English, in its wisdom, got rid of the genders, though we too used to arbitrarily gender everything around us. But this emphasis on gender spreads to jobs as well. ‘Teacher’ is no longer simply teacher but ‘der Lehrer’ or ‘die Lehrerin’. ‘Lawyer’ is either ‘der Rechtsanwalt’ or ‘die Rechtsanwältin’. Even your nationality isn’t safe. When I say I’m from England, I say ‘Ich bin Engländerin’, announcing my gender as well as my homeland.

This constant highlighting of gender grates on me. It really does. It’s possible that native German speakers don’t even notice it. I never noticed the number of jobs English has two names for until it was pointed out to me. But it is 2013. Almost 2014, in fact. Why do Germans and some English people have to declare their gender along with their job? And why aren’t more people concerned about it?