Monthly Archives: April 2011

Wilhelm und Katharina, Guillaume et Catherine…

Hope you are all enjoying your extra Bank Holiday.

Here are a couple of linguistic curiosities I noticed while idly trawling foreign news sites about the royal nuptials:

On I encountered the following description of the wedding:

Moderne parce que les Royals étaient très décontractés. La tape du prince William sur l’épaule de son grand-père l’atteste. A la limite, le court baiser au lieu du French kiss témoigne de la pudeur très anglaise de ces épousailles.

[Modern because the Royals were very relaxed. The slap of Prince William on the shoulder of his grandfather attests to this. And the short kiss instead of a French kiss witnesses to the very English modesty of this wedding.]

Is there no French term for ‘French kiss’? And surely ‘les Royals’ should be ‘les Royaux’?

I then turned to, a German tabloid, where I found a video report of the day’s events. The commentator talked breathlessly about ‘Prince Herry’, the ‘Erzbischof von Kenterbury’, ‘Kefferine Middleton’, ‘Westminster Ebbey’, ’Backinghem Pelace’ and ‘Queen Elizabeff’. The conversion of the dental fricative into a dentolabial one is understandable enough, I suppose, though it is strange that the Irish change the manner of articulation but keep the place (the fricative becomes a plosive th>t), whereas Germans and Cockneys change place of articulation but keep the manner (one type of fricative becomes another type of fricative th>f).

But why, oh why, do they have to change the vowels so egregiously?

Dear German-speaking world, please henceforth pronounce ‘Abbey’ exactly like you say your own word ‘Abi’ (the German equivalent of A-level) and you’ll be just fine (it may not be exactly right but it’ll be a darn sight better than ‘ebbey’). There is no need to change the vowel! Where did you get this strange rule (convert English short a into German umlaut a) from? I have been told it is because of American English, cf. the infamous ‘Harry Baals’, but the Germans don’t have enough of the American drawl to pull it off, so they just sound South African. (Actually I think many German accents sound closer to the English RP in their clipped, ‘refined’ sound than American, French or Scottish accents: perhaps this is because of the historical kinship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans and their languages).

The poor commentator on was obviously trying so hard to sound English though, carefully cultivating her w’s to the extent that they even appeared where they are not wanted (apparently there is a famous English footballer called ‘Dawid Beckham’).

Why, though, do speakers of other languages feel such a need to bend over backwards to conform themselves to English? Why was it ‘die Queen’ who arrived at Vestminster Ebbey and not ‘die Koenigin’? And why is it ‘Prince William’ and not ‘Prinz Wilhelm’ or ‘Prince Guillaume’? After all, in English we talk of ‘Frederick the Great’, not ‘Friedrich der Grosse’.

The only language I know that defiantly translates foreign names as far as possible is Scottish Gaelic. So ‘Prince William agus Catherine Middleton’ would be ‘am Prionnsa Uilleam agus Catriona Middleton’. On the BBC Gaelic news service, we here regularly about ‘Daibhidh Camshron’ (David Cameron – Camshron is actually a Gaelic surname and means ‘crooked nose’) and his sidekick ‘Seoras Osborne’ (George Osborne). The Queen is ‘Banrigh Ealasaid’ and Prince Charles is ‘am Prionnsa Tearlach’. The notorious mutation rules are applied ruthlessly too, so ‘the BBC’ is ‘am BBC’ but ‘on the BBC’ (in the dative case) is ‘air a BhBC’ (pronounced ‘VBC’).

The lesson of all this? Stand up to English, but if you insist on using it, speak it properly! (A bit prescriptivist I know, but it is a Bank Holiday…)

Last comment: on the theme of German and big events, isn’t it strange that the Germans call Eurovision the ‘Grand Prix’? Lena in an F1 car, now that would be interesting… Talking of which, why in Germany’s entry this year does she sing ‘stranger things are starting to begin’? What does this even mean? Is it an oxymoron, or a tautology??? Rebecca Black makes more sense…

Revision Session

Monday 09 May | 17:00 – 20:00 | Room 2, the Chaplaincy Centre

The exams are approaching, so come along to our revision session to get some more revision done, get answers to your questions or just help others.

If you’ve got another related exam (English Word-Formation, Psycholinguistics, Historical Linguistics, Speech Synthesis, Second Language Acquisition… ), feel free to come along as well to revise with others who’ve got the same exam. You can also sign up to our forum ( and start a thread for your course to see if anyone else is interested in studying with you (or respond to one of the threads already there).

Language Revision – get motivated

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. (Nelson Mandela)

This has been one of my favourite quotes ever since. Languages are about communication, connecting people and different cultures.
Years ago I met a businessman on a train. He told me that when he went abroad, he made sure he knew at least a couple of phrases in that language. Even if he ended up mispronouncing them or using them in wrong contexts, people would still immediately feel at ease with him. Indeed, I noticed it myself; When I came to the UK, not knowing anyone, just the attempt of my teacher to greet me in my mother tongue made me smile and feel more welcome and comfortable.

You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once. (Czech proverb)

The limits of my language are the limits of my universe. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

I’m also strongly agreeing with these two quotes. Every time I started to learn a new language another door opened for me, allowing me to discover a different culture or world. This simultaneously gave me the chance to reinvent myself… (see this article!)

Now if you’re feeling unmotivated to learn for your language exam(s), read some inspiring quotes! :)



Sing away your accent

A couple of days ago when I was walking around with a friend I started to sing and she noticed that my accent had suddenly disappeared. Back home I listened to some French and German musicians singing in English, and indeed, you can hardly tell they’re not native speakers! So do people lose their accent when they sing?

Professor David Howard, who works on singing and human voice production at the University of York, explained:

The answer lies in the way people are trained to sing. We learn vowel sounds, particularly in singing, in a way that allows us to project them to a loud audience. That means that the front of the mouth needs to be more open than it is in speech so it’s a bit like a megaphone. The vowels take on a different sound in terms of their timbre which is really what accent is. Therefore the vowels are being placed in a position for singing which is not the same as speech

(Listen to the podcast on Loss of Accent when Singing or read it here)

However, when a friend made me listen to some music by a Japanese band I could hardly recognise that they were singing in English (at least at the beginning of that song). So it seems a general truth with some exceptions that when people sing, their accent diminishes, no matter what their native language is or what language they try to sing in. So next time I don’t want to be recognised as a foreigner, I’ll just sing!


If you know me, you’ve probably already been one of my subjects.
When I meet someone, usually one of my first questions is: “What are your favourite words (in any languages)?”

I’m a linguist. You’re probably one, too. So you should understand my fascination for words :)
When I hear a new word, what really matters to me is not its meaning but how it sounds. So a reason for me wanting to learn English, French, Spanish and Arabic was because I love how these languages sound. Sometimes when I’m talking to someone and the content seems rather uninteresting to me, I seem to ‘switch off’ my brain areas dealing with semantics and simply listen to the sounds. The same happens when I listen to music.  Some of my friends find that a little odd, they say they’re not able to ignore the semantic parts of the lyrics, i.e. focus on the phonological ones alone (read this Research Report “Singing in the brain – Independence of Lyrics and Tunes” by Besson, Faita, Peretz, Bonnel and Requin).

Anyway, to come back to my initial question; here are my favourite words:

  • German: Kugelschreiber (ballpoint pen), Schlibradoni (apparently a German swear word)
  • English: sophisticated, subsequent (I generally like s-words), malicious, mellifluous, superstitious
  • French: parapluie (umbrella), magnifique (magnificent)
  • Spanish: duda (doubt), susurro (whisper), pepino (cucumber), pequeño (small)
  • Arabic: as-sayaara (car)
  • Italian: zanzara (mosquito)

I’m always on the hunt for new words. What are your favourites? (leave a comment)

The Key to Understanding Animals (and a job advert)

Watch this!

Isn’t that great? All we ever wanted – understand our dear non-human friends. So we were wondering about animal communication? All our questions can now be solved thanks to Google Translate for Animals.

Translate for Animals is an application for Android phones that recognises and transcribes words and phrases that are common to a species, like cats for example. To develop Translate for Animals, we worked closely with many of the world’s top language synthesis teams, and with leaders in the field of animal cognitive linguistics, including senior fellows at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

And did you know that people, who find themselves often finishing people’s thoughts before they can and who are able to type incredibly fast, can now get a job as Google Autocompleter?

Every day people start typing more than a billion searches on Google and expect Google to predict what they are looking for.
As a Google Autocompleter, you’ll be expected to successfully guess a user’s intention as he or she starts typing instantly. In a fraction of a second, you’ll need to type in your prediction that will be added to the list of suggestions given by Google.

Hasn’t google come up with some great linguistic-related stuff recently!

Well, this might be disappointing now: only another two April Fools’ Day pranks by google. I know, it’s not the first of April any more, but it’s still April and just a good laugh!


This is brilliant: Bzzzpeek – Collection of animal onomatopoeia from around the world

“That’s so Gay”…Opinions of a Gay Linguist

Language is communication.
More specifically, language is communication between a speaker and an audience (the audience may be a crowd, a individual, or an imagined entity).
Both speaker and audience think of things in terms of “concepts” – e.g. ’round spherical object’, ‘small mammal that says meow’ etc. Language works by using a pre-determined set of symbols to represent those concepts for both speaker and audience (e.g. ‘ball’, ‘cat’ etc).

Many advocate that saying something is “gay” is not offensive, that language changes its meaning, that people should have a sense of humour, that they didn’t mean it in whatever way its been taken – and to be perfectly honest I agree with a lot of these people. However, these people are failing to take into account that language is not just the symbol-concept relationship of the speaker, its also the audience.

Amongst my friends I freely insult things (including them, and myself on occasion) by calling them gay, queer, faggy, etc. But I would never use these words in a formal situation, or in fact any situation in which I did not know the symbol-concept relationship of my audience. Because even though to me and my friends the word “gay” is somewhat synonymous with “bad” and has nothing to do with sexuality, to a lot of people it is an insult so it should never be used until it is certain that it won’t be taken that way, whether intended to or not.

Perhaps in the future the meaning of the word will change, and grow to mean only one of these – and that will be the naturual evolution fo the language and shouldn’t be hampered. But until then it has a duality of meaning, and it is ignorant to use it in either sense without at least being aware that the other exists.

TL;DR: “That’s so gay” can just be an insult, but don’t use it as such unless you know that that’s how it will be taken

Another kind of poem

In this dinosaur comic, T-Rex says: “Maybe if you’re writing poetry, you could write a poem with only female nouns and then one with only male nouns, and that could be something, right?

In response to that, I wrote a “German Gender Poem”. Lucky me if you don’t understand it, because it really is not that outstanding (in terms of meaning… I suppose…). According to T-Rex though, alone the fact that it only uses (in this case) masculine nouns should make it kind of brilliant!

Der dahinrottende Mann
Der Hut saß schief auf seinem Kopf,
denn sein Rücken war nicht grad’.
Mit den Zähnen biss er auf ’nen Knopf,
denn er wusst’, bald würd’ er liegen in einem Sarg.
Der Kummer schlug in Schauern zu,
denn sein Abschied nahte rasch.
Sterben würd’ er gar im Nu,
und aus seinem Körper würd’ werden Asch.

Not a massive amount of nouns, but anyway, I tried to use at least one per line.

der Hut, der Kopf, der Rücken, der Zahn, der Knopf, der Saag, der Kummer, der Schauer, der Abschied, der Nu, der Körper, Asche.

Conclusion: Sure, it is possible to write a poem devoted to some ‘gender’. However, I do not believe that even the best poet in the world could write an exceptional poem with only using nouns of one particular gender group…

And for those of you who speak (some) German and are now utterly confused, I should probably admit that I did cheat with that very last word. Die Asche, feminine noun. Eek.

OMG – Other Musing (by) Gina

If you haven’t heard of it yet; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added abbreviations (‘initialisms’) such as omg (“oh my God”), lol (“laughing out loud”) and fyi (“for your information”) to their lexicon. I have to admit, lols have become quite frequent in my own speech and omgs are getting there bit by bit, too (never used fyi before though). Some people argue that this is bad for the English language. I disagree. Life changes, language changes, and people will always come up with new words. Putting a whole idea into one ‘word’ is a great thing! Maybe soon there’ll be the word medfosem for the concept “malicious enjoyment derived from observing someone else’s misfortune (best definition found for the German word Schadenfreude to make a word of) (instead of simply borrowing Schadenfreude). Furthermore, it allows us to get that wee bit of information in a text message limited to 160 characters  :)