Category Archives: Linguistic Musings

Me like I

I noticed a strange phenomenon in the speech of a friend: Instead of “let my friend and me know” she would say “let my friend and I know”. So instead of the accusative case, she’d use the nominative case. I wondered why that was the case, where exactly she came from and whether this was a common phenomenon in her region.

My friend told me that she’d been taught English grammar by an old nun at a Catholic School in Connecticut who had insisted on the students using “I” instead of “me”. She said, after observing herself speak, she didn’t use “me” all that often, in conjunction with another noun she would almost always use the nominative case (as for the dative, she would use “(to) me” though).

Most data I could find (online) in terms of Connecticut-English was on accents and dialects. One website made me hope for an answer to my question whether this was the ‘norm’ for Connecticutians. However, the transcripts didn’t offer any utterances that could have suggested a (dominant) use of the nominative in the objective case.

Generally speaking, the use of the nominative in place of the accusative is either seen as very formal (more likely if then followed by a relative clause) or simply as ungrammatical (e.g. 1). It is more common to use the objective pronoun instead of the subjective one in various dialects (e.g. 2).

  1. Standard: They went to see Lucy and me.
    Nonstandard: They went to see Lucy and I.
  2. Standard: We are reading.
    Nonstandard: Us are reading.

I observed the latter one in a song the other day. Take “Me like the way that you hold my body” (thanks for not singing “me like I”).
Richard posted twice about ‘different’ constructions in songs (here and here respectively). Maybe some pop stars are trying to get a more friendly or whatsoever image by integrating dialectal speech in their music? Remembering that I kind of started learning English by listening to English songs, i.e. trying to understand the lyrics, I’m glad that back then not too many such songs existed, or at least that I didn’t come across them (no offence, but I think it might me more beneficial for foreigners to (at least first) learn ‘standard’ English 😉 )…

La Gina

I’ve been wanting to write this post for more than three months, and I wish I had done it earlier because now I have not only less time than before, but it’s also longer ago so remembering the details is a little harder. Well, let’s give it a try…

I spent part of my summer holidays on a farm in Spain. Among other things, I looked after the kids, Kata (2 years) and Pippa (9 months). As soon as Kata had grasped my name she would call me “La Gina” (my name is Gina and “la” is the feminine definite article in Spanish) even though no-one else ever called me so, and generally no-one ever used the definite article with a personal pronoun (at least in my presence). She didn’t use the article for any other personal names. She never simply said “Gina”, she used the article throughout until I left. How come?

The usage of the definite article with a personal name is fairly common in some languages; a couple of German dialects use it in colloquial speech, sometimes when talking to children, or to clarify or emphasise (e.g. “Ich bin die Gina” (I’m the Gina), “Nein, das ist der Klaus” (No, that’s the Klaus)), Austrian German uses it pretty much all the time and in Catalan it is not only used for forenames, but also surnames. In Spanish however, it is not very common (Demello, 1992). So this doesn’t really explain Kata’s usage of the definite article with my personal name.

Possible explanations then…

  • Articles generally precede given names (especially female ones) in northern Italy (Meyer-Lübke, 1890), Kata’s left over universal grammar made her use the article with my Italian name.
  • Her parents or other people around her did/do sometimes use the article with personal names and she just spontaneously decided to use it for my name, cos it just sounds fancy!
  • She thought my name was not a ‘personal name’ but a ‘proper noun’ (such as ‘computer’, ‘internet’ etc)… does that mean she saw me more as a ‘thing’ than a human being? Oh dear… well, or
  • She found me particularly nice and wanted to let me know how special and unique I was for her by equipping my name with a definite article.

Any more suggestions?

Obviously, I’d go for latter point.



Demello, G. (1992), El artículo definido con nombre propio de persona en el español hablado culto contemporáneo. Studia Neophilologica, 64(2), 221-234.

Meyer-Lübke, W. (1890). Grammatik der romanischen Sprachen / von Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke. Leipzig: Fues’s Verlag (R. Reisland), 1890-1902.

I can’t understand you. Really. And no, I don’t speak English.

I feel really bad for not having posted anything in ages but I am veeery busy at the moment (with, like, LangSoc for example 😉 ) so not enough time to write a “proper” post at the moment. When I came across this (well, I’ve had it among my youtube-likes for quite a while already…) I thought I’d share it with you on this blog so something happens on here again! 🙂

Morocco needs (better) translators (so if you need a job…)

Dear me, I haven’t blogged on her in ages (travelling, working, little time, bad internet access). Having a free minute now, so here some linguistic musings from Morocco 🙂

“Weschel” is just completely wrong (meaning it doesn’t mean anything in German). It should be “Wechsel”. I guess sch is more common than chs (obviously they rather know that than the right word for which they’d just need to open a dictionary)…

Well and “agreable moments” does not sound quite right, does it. As you can say “des moments agréable” in French, I suppose they thought you could say the same in English…

“Exchange”. Right. They should have sticked to literally translating from French to English.

Simple English. Maybe not.

Quite a few times when I passed those ever-so-boring-never-changing notes on our kitchen walls (student flat), I wondered about the following:

“…and switch the cooker off”. Why not: “…and switch off the cooker”? At least in this case, the latter one sounds better to me (and this even though the German (my mother tongue) equivalent is a verb that needs to be split (“… und schalte den Herd aus“)).

Switch off, hand sth over, grow up, run away, put sth into… are examples of so called “phrasal verbs” (PV) – combinations of verbs and prepositions/adverbs/prepositions and adverbs. Transitive PV can be either separable (also “splittable”) or not, while intransitive PV are inseparable.

Transitive PV containing adverbs are called “particle verbs” (PaV). If the object is a simple noun it can go on either side of the adverb, so both, “to switch the cooker off” and “to switch off the cooker” are acceptable. Long NP on the other hand tend to come after the adverb, so if the NP in our example was “the dirty, smelly cooker” you’d rather not split the verb and say “to switch off the dirty cooker in the kitchen” (instead of “to switch the dirty cooker in the kitchen off”).
According to the entry in “Simple English” (I didn’t know such a “language” existed until now. haha.) on wikipedia, if you do not know if a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable ALWAYS use a noun or noun phrase and do not try to separate the verb. (Maybe this could lead to the language change of simply not separating any verbs? We’ll (not) see in many years.)
I started a (fb) poll asking people what they would rather say… so far 3-2 for “to switch off the cooker” (I will keep you updated). (Even though there’s no right or wrong here, it’s still interesting to see whether there might be some tendency (not to split the verb? Maybe Edinburgh University’s Student Accommodation should revisit their signs… 😉 )).

Apart from those a little more “flexible” transitive PaV, there are also inseparable ones (e.g. “to break up”, “to come apart”…) and such that require a split (“to take sth apart”, “to let sth through”…).
A rule governing all transitive PaV is that if the object is a pronoun, the verb has to be separated so that pronoun precedes the adverb.

If you want to know more about phrasal verb patterns (there are, for example, also prepositional verbs (verbs containing a preposition that is always followed by the object, e.g. “look after sth”)) I suggest having a look at Wikipedia (maybe not the “Simple English” entry. After all, grammar is simple anyway. Isn’t it!) 😉 (oh and I can’t believe that they have this entry in only 9 languages (which don’t even include German, French, Spanish… (but “simple English”… right.))! Multilinguistis, that has to be changed! 🙂 )

Link: Simple English Wikipedia

Foreign Language vs £££££

Students applying to universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for entry in September 2012 will be facing tuition fees of £6,000 to £9,000. How could they possibly avoid this? By studying abroad! The next best option would probably be Scotland – it’s not too far away and most courses are taught in English. However, if Scottish universities accept the proposal to charge students from the rest of the UK between £4,500 and £6,500 a year from 2012 in response to the rise of tuition fees, it won’t make much of a difference.

So an alternative would be to study abroad abroad, i.e. in a non-English speaking country. Some universities (e.g. France and Germany) only charge a few hundred Euro per semester or year, many European countries (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden…) don’t charge tuition fees at all, others (e.g. the Czech Republic) only if the course is taught in a language other than the country’s official one. The latter is still rare and usually only applies to business-related courses. So knowing the country’s official language would be rather necessary…

Just a shame that foreign language teaching (FLT) is rather poor in the UK. For a research paper that I had to write a year or so ago I looked into FLT in England; a foreign language (usually French) is only mandatory in Key Stage 3 (3 years) (FLT is being introduced in primary schools – but it’s costly and some people doubt its effectiveness) and a high proportion of students stop right afterwards.

However, where there’s a will there’s a way. The web offers millions of language-learning resources and spending the summer holidays in the country the student would like to study in should equip him with some essential language skills…


Some interesting papers:

An animal hospital or a people one?

A linguist friend recently asked me if I thought it grammatical to say ‘Is it a medical hospital or a dental one?’. He wanted to know whether ‘medical’ and ‘dental’ are adjectives in these cases, or parts of compounds, in which case *‘dental one’ would be ungrammatical in the same way that you cannot say ‘Is it a watch maker or a clock one?’

(‘Medical’ and ‘dental’ are interesting because they do not behave like normal adjectives; for example, you cannot use them predicatively: *‘this hospital is medical’.)

I said I found nothing wrong with ‘dental one’. I then asserted that even with nouns, it seemed acceptable, at least in some circumstances: ‘Is it an animal hospital or a people one?’ He was adamant that this is impossible, but it felt OK, if informal, to me.

On the other hand, ‘watch maker or clock one’ definitely seemed totally beyond the pale to both of us, even though the structure is theoretically the same as in ‘animal hospital or people one’.

Somehow ‘watch maker’ feels differently. It is not a type of ‘maker’, it is not just a compound. It feels like more like an inflexional than a derivational process, a fully grammaticalized paraphrase of a verb phrases ‘makes clocks’. ‘Watch’ still feels like a direct object in ‘watch maker’, as if ‘maker’ is closer to being an inflexion of the verb ‘to make’ than to being an independent noun. While ‘hospital’ is indisputably an open-class noun, ‘maker’, which can be compounded with any noun that the verb ‘make’ can take as direct object, feels more like a function word.

In addition, even if ‘people one’ is ungrammatical, it would be understood, and I think  speakers often use ungrammatical utterances quite deliberately but for no obvious reason and with no predictable pattern. We could call these ‘as it were’ utterances. E.g. ‘Is it an animal hospital or a people one, as it were?’. Someone I know sometimes describes wooded areas as being ‘very treey’, even though ‘treey’ is not a possible word of English’ due to its phonological bizarreness. The speaker, I am sure, is fully aware that ‘treey’ is not grammatical, you can even tell from the ironic tone of voice such items are uttered in, and these things are not the same as nonce words, which may well obey the grammar of the language and which are generally made out of necessity when no suitable word is available: one could easily say ‘The valley has lots of trees’ or ‘Is this an animal hospital or one for people?’

Of course, people love to play with words and often do all sorts of ‘abnormal’ things in their language, for various purposes, such as talking in a different accent, speaking telegraphically, using Pig Latin etc. However, the ‘as it were’ items do not seem to appear simply when conversation participants are openly using abnormal fun language, or when the things that are referred to by the ‘funny’ phrasings (trees, hospitals), are a subject of fun in the conversation: they appear fairly random. I wonder if they are a strategy of self-deprecation to get put one’s interlocutor at ease by making deliberate ‘mistakes’ and inject a little lightness and humour into an exchange which might not have any in its actual topic. The fact that you can abuse language in this way also shows that you are a creative and lively user of language, so increases your worth in the eyes of interlocutors, whilst the fact that it is random and only on a grammatical level, rather than making clever jokes at the level of meaning, means that it is unthreatening to the other person: using ‘as it were’ utterances makes you sound self-deprecatory and witty at the same time, but not too witty.

Perhaps some of the things I have been rambling about in this post have been investigated properly; if any of you can elucidate any of this stuff more clearly, I would be gratified to hear from you.

A wengerl ondas*

*ein bisschen anders in Standard German (a bit different)

I remember me sitting in front of Dr Bert Vaux and another professor in my interview at Cambridge. I told them that I had lived in Austria for some years and they subsequently asked me about the differences between Standard German (SG) and Austrian German (AG). I replied with ‘different pronunciation, some different words and also the grammar differs a bit’. When they asked for examples, I had to pass. I never really got my head around really looking at the differences. So why not now, might come handy for those of you going on exchange to Austria next year.

AG is a standard variety of SG used in Austria. In everyday life, most Austrians speak different dialects of AG. AG mainly differs in lexicon, pronunciation and grammar from SG. Here some differences that I noticed myself.

(Always find the SG word first, then the AG one. Bold = what I would usually say. Cursive text following (AG) bold word(s) = why I might use this variant)

There are several words in AG that German people will most likely have troubles with understanding, for example:

  • langweilig > fad (maybe cos it’s shorter?) (boring)
  • Hefe > Germ (yeast)
  • Sahne > Obers (cream)
  • Januar > Jänner (January)
  • Kartoffel > Erdapfel (potato)
  • Rührei > Eierspeise (scrambled eggs)
  • Quark > Topfen (curd)
  • Guten Tag > Grüß Gott (depends where I am) (“Good Day” > “Greet God” Hello)

AG commonly inserts consonants (epenthesis) in compound words. For example “Zugverspätung” (train+lateness) becomes “Zugsverspätung”.
When constructing the perfect tenses, AG uses the auxiliary verb ‘sein’ not only for verbs of movement but also for verbs expressing a state; so instead of saying “Ich habe gesessen” they’d say “Ich bin gesessen” (“I have/am sat”).
Grammatical gender varies little, but there are a couple of differences, like: das vs der Gummi, das vs der Brösel, das vs die Cola, das E-Mail vs die E-Mail, der vs das Spray. There are occasionally also dialectal differences; e.g. der/die Butter, der/die Zwiebel

Many Austrians do not distinguish between p and b, t and d and sometimes also k and g.
The suffix –ig is not pronounced // but /ik/ or/ig/ (can’t decide just now, I think my pronunciation varies. Nevertheless, it feels ‘nicer’ to produce the // sound at the end of a word).
Loanwords often differ in stress and pronunciation (e.g. /çi:na:/ > /ki:na:/ (probably because I connect /çi:na:/ a little more to my name)).
Some Austrians pronounce the prefixes st- and sp- /st/ and /sp/ instead of /scht/ or /schp/ (I remember me and classmates being really annoyed by my Austrian teacher saying ).

So yeah, now you know a bit (about) Austrian German (so next time you’re in Austria you can show off/make people like you/make people laugh at you 😉 )

Appendix: I grew up in Germany and moved to Austria at the age of 11 and lived there until I was 17. I speak SG, at least in terms of pronunciation and lexicon (mostly). However, it seems that AG had quite an effect on my grammar. I wonder what my German will be like after a few more years in the UK (>the effects of English)…


A new word is born.

You do that sometimes? Hang around somewhere, not really doing anything, just observing, watching, looking at, fantasising about other people, wondering what their lives might be like and whether your thoughts reflect reality…? So that was a rather long description of a concept that could be explained with one word, right? Be happy to hear then that now there’s a word for this watching-wondering about-observing-looking at-fantasising about-peeping at-other-people: to wolp. Yes. to wolp. (intransitive verb. or maybe you could use it transitively, too (“to wolp at someone“)…!?)



May 11, 2011. The Chaplaincy. Two students. (Linguistics students, obviously.) Procrastinating. A list of words (watch, spy, observe, look at, imagine, thoughts, wonder, peep…), a list of ideas (woslait, slowait, plowsay, sloyay, sloway, soway, owai…) and one outcome: wolp


The best thing about wolp: It works cross-linguistically! (there are only some slight differences in pronunciation)

  • English: to wolp
    I wolp, you wolp, he/she/it wolps, we wolp, you wolp, they wolp
  • German: wolpen
    ich wolpe, du wolpst, er/sie/es wolpt, wir wolpen, ihr wolpt, sie wolpen
  • French: wolper
    je wolpe, tu wolpes, il/elle wolpe, nous wolpons, vous volpez, ils/elles wolpent
  • Spanish: wolpar
    wolpo, wolpas, wolpa, wolpamos, wolpáis, wolpan
  • Italian: wolpare
    wolpo, wolpi, wolpa, wolpiamo, wolpate, wolpano
  • Slovenian: volpati
    jaz volpam, ti volpaš, on/ona volpa, mi volpamo, vi volpate, oni/one volpajo
  • Russian:
  • Arabic:
    w(u)lb(a), yaw(u)lb(u), al-w(u)lb (yes, it is a weak verb but we want to keep it nice and simply, right? so ‘regular’ conjugation it is!)

(and the list goes on… (!))


Spread the word. Literally.


(co-“word-inventor”/writer: Jan Savinc)