All posts by Gina

About Gina

Edinburgh University, on exchange at Auckland University twitter @G1n_a

Making sense of words that don’t exist

Some days ago I had a sensation in my eyes which I referred to as ziepen (tweaking) when I told a (German) friend. She got what I meant even though she didn’t actually know the word and it would not normally be used in this way. I wondered:

How did I come up with ‘ziepen’ if it wasn’t meant to be used in such a context?

Ziepen describes ‘the brief pain through pulling of hair’. The meaning of ‘brief pulling pain’ can probably be transferred easily, e.g. in my situation to my eye.

How did she know what the word meant for me, i.e. what kind of sensation I was trying to describe, without actually knowing it?

New words are often deduced from words with similar meanings, giving them a similar sound pattern, which belongs to the study of phonesthemic patterns. A phonestheme is a sound (sequence) that suggests a certain meaning and has the tendency to show up in neologisms. Phonesthemes are often initial, but can also be final or even medial. The remainder of the word may not itself be a morpheme. (Waugh, 1994) Some examples:

  • fl– (often expresses movement): flick, fly, flip, flourish, flee, flop…
  • sn– (found in nose-related words): sniff, snore, snot, sneer, sneeze…

The German cluster zw (cf. tw in English) is generally related to the number two: zwei (two), zwischen (between), Zwilling (twin)… However, there are several exceptions, e.g. zwirbeln (twirl) and zucken (twitch). Although these don’t carry the specific meaning (two), they do seem to be somewhat semantically related.

Studies have shown that when asked to invent/interpret new words, participants look at phonesthemes in their language to follow a predictive pattern. This could explain why my friend was able to tell what I meant without actually knowing the word: She might have associated ziepen with zucken which describes a brief, usually involuntary movement.

In general, how do we agree on words for particular sensations while we can’t tell what they feel like for anyone else, and how do we learn them?

When we learn new words we understand their meanings by, for example, being pointed at the ‘thing’ or the ‘action’ they (nouns and verbs) describe. When it comes to internal experiences like perception it all gets a lot fussier.

How do you know that the pain I experience is actually painful? This touches upon linguistics, philosophy and biology. All our knowledge comes in through our senses which are subjective and unreliable (as revealed by the many ways in which they can be manipulated and deceived, e.g. hallucinations and optical illusions) and truth is defined by language which is more of an agreement than an objective state.

Pears (1971) explains that an empiricist view on sensations involves accepting that the general meaning of e.g. ‘pain’ involves two aspects: 1) the set of teaching links 2) the inner reference (private sensation). Only a primitive empiricist would think it only involves the latter – a language only about private sensation would be unteachable. He says that “our language of sensations is not really teachable, and we do not ever really communicate about such matters” (p.158). So, while we can ‘teach’ nouns and verbs that can be pointed at in the world, we cannot teach words that have their meaning lying within ourselves. We all live in our own worlds, we can never know for sure about other people’s sensations, so I guess instead of being ‘taught’ we can only infer such information from cues: When I bleed, I’m hurt and I’m in pain. So when you bleed, you are probably experiencing pain too.
Yet it is to note that pain comes in a whole lot of different forms, as you may notice when you see your doctor and try to find words to explain what’s hurting you. That’s where neologisms and phonesthemic patterns might come handy…

It is incredible how we manage to communicate things we don’t have words for, by using common words or inventing new ones. Life is miraculously mysterious and mysteriously miraculous!


  • Oxford handbook of Wittgenstein (2011). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pears, D. (1971). Wittgenstein. London: Fontana.
  • Waugh, L. (1994). Degrees of Iconicity in the Lexicon. Journal of Pragmatics, 22(1), 55-70.

Half Time

Four months at the other end of the world. I must say, I still haven’t seen a lot of the country (been to Rangitoto, Coromandel Peninsula including Hot Water Beach, and the West Coast including Whale Bay), pretty much Auckland-bound during term, but well, uni is part of the deal and I’m looking forward to three and a half months of holidays!

It took me a while to get used to Auckland  – never had I lived in such a big city before. It’s hillier than Edinburgh, and can’t compete with Edinburgh’s unique flair and atmosphere. The weather is finally getting warmer and sunnier, I already had my first sunburn :/ and it’s not even summer yet!

This semester I did Advanced Phonology, Historical Linguistics and two Psych papers (Clinical Psychology and Research Methods). We had heaps of assignments during the semester and one exam per course at the end (I had my last one the day before yesterday)! Besides the classroom, I founded a linguistics society (LLS, the first linguistics society at any Kiwi university! –websitefb) and so far we’ve had Jason Brown and Quentin Atkinson give talks, and are looking forward to our first talk by Miriam Meyerhoff next semester in March.

Contrary to what I usually like to do – plan everything way in advance, I didn’t plan my summer holidays in that much detail. I’ve dreamt of this for quite a while, to just go out there and live kind of à la Into The Wild, which is not really realisable in most parts of Europe but more so in NZ with all its uninhabited, untouched places. I’ve got a sleeping bag, a tent, and I’m preparing a bag full of food and water plus some pieces of clothing. In about two weeks my adventure will begin; first I’m going up the Northland, spending NYE with friends on ‘the Island’, then down to the South Island to be back in Auckland at the end of February. I’ll mainly hike and possibly hitch-hike now and then. I’m not a big fan of spending money if it’s not necessary (i.e. public transport), and while it would be quite convenient, a car is out of the question too (not only that I wouldn’t have the money for petrol and over-expensive parking, but I don’t even have a driver’s licence ;P). I’m looking forward to this experience, being free, unbound, on an adventurous journey to the unknown. Yet, I have to admit, I’m somewhat scared too. A girl, alone (couldn’t find anyone to tag along, most of my friends are Kiwis who have/want to work during the break), into the wild. Tbc how that goes…

To lift up your mood in order to not leave you with worrying thoughts about my upcoming wellbeing, here a list of some NZ peculiarities I’ve come across:

  • Sometimes when I roam around I’m surprised as to how much NZ/Auckland resembles any other ‘1st world’ country/city in Europe, advanced technology and everything you know, despite this being at the other end of the world! They even have flapjacks here (but they call them ‘bumper bars’)…
  • Maybe that’s the case in other big cities too, I don’t know, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it: the street lights at main crossings in town have a countdown, showing the time left until the colour changes to red.
  • I feel like people here are shorter. Hobbit culture maybe?
  • There are water fountains all over town – pretty sweet!
  • Alcohol is very expensive! (well, as almost everything here 😉 )
  • Eating culture. Hm. There are lots of Asians here so they definitely influence kiwi eating habits; every second shop is a Sushi place. Btw, to make the distinction between the three meanings of ‘kiwi’ a little more clear, ‘kiwi’ refers to New Zealanders or the kiwi bird, and kiwifruit to kiwifruits.
  • There are penalties for everything! If you want to get special circumstances, you have to pay. If your phone rings during an exam, you have to pay. I’d suppose the list to continue.
  • The trees here are amazing! Gigantic, really absolutely massive!
  • Birds.
  • They keep reminding me of Snow White. There are so many, they come so close,   think they’d even eat out of your hands  I actually tried that yesterday but it didn’t work…).
    They’re really cute! Well, people who’re used to them find them annoying. They’re even in our uni buildings!
  • Finally, if someone says ‘sweet as’  common kiwi expression) to you, it does not refer to your ass being sweet 😉

Many greetings from sunny Auckland, already wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year 2013!


Correctly speaking, Gin ‘n Tonic. While most people probably know that the ‘n stands for ‘and’, eggcornishly it could also stand for ‘in’, after all, the gin end up in the tonic water, right!?

Now, when I heard the drink’s name for the first time, I thought it was ‘Gin a’ tonic’. Well, connected speech and perception (and maybe even ‘nativisation’ in my case, i.e. making it sound more like ‘the perfect drink for me’ (note my name)) can do wonderful things to word sequences, in this case even clarify that the connective is and, and not either and or in… 😉

(Urban Dictionary for ‘ginatonic’: This state of being is induced by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and becoming non-responsive to any external stimulus…)

{[(<‘«/...,.!? - ;»’>)]}

Apostrophes, brackets, colons, commas, dashes, ellipses, exclamation marks, full stops, guillemets, hyphens, question marks, quotation marks, semicolons, slashes. In brief: Punctuation.

What would we do without those little symbols that organise our words on paper, that indicate intonation and thus meaning, essential to disambiguate sentences?

Earliest alphabetic writings had no capitalisation, no spaces, no vowels (i.e. today’s Abjad writing system) and very few punctuation. In ancient Greece and Rome, symbols were used to mark where speakers should pause; the longest section (the period) was divided by the ‘period’ pause – hence a ‘period’ mark –, the shortest section (“that which is cut off”) was divided by a ‘comma’.

When the Christian Bible started to be copied and translated (around 400AD), an early punctuation system was developed. Only when printing was introduced in the 15th century however, punctuation became more common and systematic.

Nowadays, punctuation varies across languages, register, and authors may (not) use it for a specific stylistic style.
While punctuation may facilitate comprehension, the lack of it may facilitate ambiguity – which must not be a bad thing at all.

Imagine you had a fight with your boy/girlfriend and you’re mad at them but don’t want to show it; you leave them a note saying ‘Have a good day’ without any punctuation. Many ways to read it:

Have a good day! – you fool
Have a good day… with me? Surprise me with some chocolate and apologise
Have a good day. There’s nothing more to say, just give me time to breathe.

Well, something along those lines. Makes the whole story much more interesting, don’t you think!?

Some readings:

Dale, R. 1991. The role of punctuation in discourse structure. In Proceedings of the AAAI Fall Symposium on Discourse Structure in Natural Language Understanding and Generation, 13 14. USA.

Lee, S. 1995. A syntax and semantics for text grammar. MPhil. Dissertation, Engineering Dept., Cambridge University.


Few consonants and mixed up vowels

Kia ora!

On one of our first days here at the University of Auckland (NZ) we had a Maori welcome: a haka (war dance) and a Maori greeting us in Maori. It more or less sounded like “hakamuto…”, a string of just a few sounds. Indeed, Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language, has only 10 consonants: h, k, m, n, p, r (rolled), t, w, ng (velar nasal), wh (pronounced as f), and 5 vowels (vowel length is phonemic): a, e, i, o. u.

At the end of the 19th century, Maori became a minority language. Fewer people spoke and learnt to speak the language. Only at the end of the 20th century, the dangers of the language loss were recognised and recovery programmes were initiated, and Maori became New Zealand’s second official language in 1987. After a brief revival, however, the language has seen another decline in speakers – only about 9% of the Maori population is fluent in the language (about 4% of the population).

Maori words have their place within Kiwi-English. Many place names have not been translated into English and tell of the landscape’s properties, for example ‘Aotearoa’ means ‘cloud white long’ (land of the long white cloud, the Maori name for New Zealand). More examples can be found here.

Kiwi-English is similar to Australian English. What I notice most is the shift from ‘e’ to ‘i’. Further differences are that the short ‘i’ has centralised towards schwa, and the short ‘a’ sound has moved towards the short ‘e’. I was a bit scared I wouldn’t understand a thing, but I haven’t had any troubles yet.

So much for the linguistic side of down down under. I’ve been here for a week now, lectures start tomorrow, so there’ll be more to tell soon.


(-wait for it-) If you haven’t heard of How I met your mother yet… you’re missing out. I’m not an addict of the series (as some of my friends) but I really enjoy watching it, it’s fun, a wide range of people can relate to the different characters and it even deals with more serious issues such as racism. But the main reason for a linguist to watch it is… the language, of course. Just take this scene – wouldn’t it be awesome if people came up with such an amazing wordplay in everyday life, rather than reading it off a script!?

Jerry: So, Saturday night? Time to cut loose, right? Who wants to split a beer?
Barney: Oh, we’re not drinking here. Tonight, we’re going big. Let’s see, what club should we hit first? There’s club Was, there’s Wrong…
Marshall: Um, those places shut down a long time ago.
Barney: Oh no…
Marshall: Oh No shut down too.
Ted: There’s Where.
Jerry: Where’s Where?
Lily: Where’s where Was was, isn’t it?
Barney: No, Was wasn’t where Where was, Was was where Wrong was, right?
Jerry: Ok…
Ted: Not OK, that place is lame.
Robin: OK is Lame? I thought Lame was a gay bar… or is that wrong?
Marshall: That’s Wrong. That’s not wrong.
Barney: Guys, focus.
Robin: Oh, I like Focus! Let’s go there.
Ted: Where?
Robin: Not Where. Focus!
Lily: I thought Focus was closed.
Barney: No, Was was Closed. Once Was shut down, it re-opened as Closed.
Marshall: So Closed is open.
Robin: No, Closed is closed.

Apart from scenes like that, the series has brought quotes into some of my friends’ lives that they could no longer live without 😉 (mostly Barney-phrases)…

And more – find out for yourself! 🙂

therewith I conclude



Time flies and soon I’ll fly away…

Since I am now(-ish) one of LangSoc’s Foreign Correspondents and I just booked my flight, I thought I could just go ahead and write my first FC blog post. I will try and post something now and then during my year abroad, to introduce you to (Linguistics at) another institution and of course, also a little more to the country. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

For those of you who don’t know it yet; I’m Gina, in my second year at Edinburgh studying Linguistics and Psychology, and I am going on exchange to the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

The application process started quite a long time ago, in November, and just before Christmas I received an email telling me that I had been offered a place at the University of Auckland. I had to complete an online application, upload some documents and send them a pile of hard copies (well, this is still in progress and it’s not me but the International Exchange Officer doing it (hopefully)). I booked my flight yesterday (one-way 540 Pounds), can apply for accommodation in April and as soon as I get a definite offer from Auckland I will get my head around filling in the 16-pages VISA form. Hurray.

Not only are the seasons different in New Zealand, but also the structure of the academic year. Thus I’ll start semester 2 in July, my summer holidays are from December till the end of February, and then semester 1 begins. I haven’t decided on my courses yet, though I’m quite interested in second language learning and it seems like at least 80% of the professors at Auckland do related research. Not being much of a sociolinguist, I will still definitely sneak in some lecture by Miriam Meyerhoff 😉

I’m really looking forward to this adventure, an opportunity to broaden my horizon, see more of the world, and discover another culture which will enrich me in and beyond my studies.

The New Committee for the Academic Year 2012/13

After yesterday’s AGM we proudly announce the new committee:

  • President: Alasdair MacLeod
  • Vice-President: Aara Cleghorn
  • Treasurer: Shyla Hossain
  • Secretaries: Ryan Hamilton and Signe Jorgensen
  • Social Secretary: Jamie Sutherland
  • Talk Organisers: Lauren Tormey and Jennifer Heyward
  • Academic Families Organiser: Peter Owen
  • Web Masters: Gina Bruckner, Richard Littauer
  • Librarian: Pippa Shoemark
  • Ordinary Members: Samantha Goodrick, Amie Fairs, David Arnold, Christopher Lewin
  • Foreign Correspondents: Gina Bruckner, Richard Littauer, Amy Goodwin-Davies, Kajsa

Brn wrkt

m tryng t prf pnt hr tht ppl wh knw nglsh r prfctl (r s) cpbl f ndrstndng txt wrttn wtht ny vwls. hv lrdy wrttn pst rltng t ths r n rthgrphy (hr). Snc w’r t t tryng t ‘mprv’ nglsh rthgrphy, whch s n f th lst phnmc ns, t s rgbl whthr rthgrph nd phnlgy shld b cmbnd t t lst sm xtnt n ths pst s .g. y s phnlgclly vwl, bt n th bc t s rgrdd s cnsnnt. D t smplcty, wll nt dlt t hr thgh.

Tr, t s qt hrd t ndrstnd shrt wrds tht, thrgh vwl dltn, nd p s sngl cnsnnts nd nly th cntxt mks clr wht s mnt (bt t my stll rmn mbgs), nd sm wrds lk th ndfnt rtcl r cmpltly rdctd. Hwvr lnggs sch s rbc shw tht t s pssbl – nd nglsh lrdy mks s f t n fr xmpl txts.

Wld vwl dltn llw rthgrph t rprsnt nglsh nd ts dlcts bttr? ftr ll, th dffrnc n th prnnctn f vwls s mjr chrctrstc f dlcts nd ccnts. Frthrmr, ths sstm wld shrtn txts lt. Nvrthlss, t lst whn y’r nt sd t t, t tks mch lngr t wrt nd rd.

wll kp ths pst shrt (s t s tkng m whl t tp nd prbbl y w bt t fgr t). hp cld 1) mk y thnk bt nglsh rthgrphy (phnlgy nd th PA), 2) shw hw mzng th hmn brn s n bng bl f dcphrng (hpflly mst f) ths, nd 3) gv y lttl prcrstntn brk frm wrk 😉

(shd hv smply wrttn p ths pst ‘wth vwls’ nd thn dltd thm, nd nt wrttn t strght wtht vwls (=tkng lngr nd pssbly csng (mr) mstks), bt t ws gd brn xrcs!)

Brain workout

I’m trying to proof a point here that people who know English are perfectly (or so) capable of understanding text written without any vowels. I have already written a post relating to this area in orthography (here). Since we’re at it trying to ‘improve’ English orthography, which is one of the least phonemic ones, it is arguable whether orthography and phonology should be combined to at least some extent in this post as e.g. y is phonologically a vowel, but in the Abc it is regarded as consonant. Due to simplicity, I will not delete it here though.

True, it is quite hard to understand short words that, through vowel deletion, end up as single consonants and only the context makes clear what is meant (but it may still remain ambiguous), and some words like the indefinite article are completely eradicated. However languages such as Arabic show that it is possible – and English already makes use of it in for example textese.

Would vowel deletion allow orthography to represent English and its dialects better? After all, the difference in the pronunciation of vowels is a major characteristic of dialects and accents. Furthermore, this system would shorten texts a lot. Nevertheless, at least when you’re not used to it, it takes much longer to write and read.

I will keep this post short (as it is taking me a while to type and probably you a wee bit to figure out). I hope I could 1) make you think about English orthography (phonology and the IPA), 2) show how amazing the human brain is in being able of deciphering (hopefully most of) this, and 3) give you a little procrastination break from work 😉

(I should have simply written up this post ‘with vowels’ and then deleted them, and not written it straight without vowels (=taking longer and possibly causing (more) mistakes), but it was a good brain exercise!)



There are numerous terms to divide males and females in different groups in terms of their characteristics, e.g. gentleman, dandy, lad and lady, tomboy/girl, gamine.

When it comes to age classes though the list is exhaustive. Males can be divided into ‘boys’ and ‘men’, the term ‘guys’ somewhat allows the denotation of males in-between, maybe of around 16-25 years. The female ‘equivalents’ for ‘boy’ and ‘man’ are ‘girl’ (“usually a child or adolescent, calling a grown woman a ‘girl’ may be a compliment or insult, sometimes used as an euphemism for virgin”) and ‘woman’ (“adult female”). However, despite ‘guy’ not being completely gender-neutral, there is no such word that can be used for females that are ‘not a girl, not yet a woman’ (sorry if you now have Britney Spears stuck in your head).

Seems this phenomenon isn’t uncommon (at least in Germanic and Romance languages)

  • German: Bub/Junge/Kerl/Typ/Mann vs Mädchen/Frau
  • French: garcon/type/mec/homme vs fille/femme
  • Spanish: chico/tipo/hombre vs chica/mujer

I asked friends what they associated with the words ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. ‘Girl’ was said to rather refer to very young females and ‘woman’ was associated with more mature, experienced and wise females. So calling myself a girl feels wrong because I am no longer a kid in that sense, but referring to myself as a woman doesn’t feel quite right either as I am not that …’wise’ yet ;). But maybe that’s just me? Time for a neologism!? Any suggestions?

For the purpose of this post’s title, why not Wogi (woman+girl) (you get it, right?)…



 dedicated to a good old feminist friend; you know who you are… 🙂