Category Archives: Linguistics

The foop-baw World Cup

A FIFA World Cup themed post on phonetics today.

The first unit in the applied linguistics post-grad course I studied through Monash University was an introduction to the basics of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and so on, because the course was designed for people like me who had not necessarily studied any linguistics at undergraduate level.  I really enjoyed it. It’s quite interesting to listen closely to how we really say things – and the difference between how you speak when you are paying attention to it and when you are not. As an example,  most Australians I know will swear blind that they always say ‘advance’ with a long ‘a’ sound like the British pronunciation. But in a quick off the cuff question asking for the name of Australia’s national anthem, at least half said it the Australian way with the vowel sound being /æː/.

In American English, typically football is pronounced with the two syllables /fʊt/ and /bɑl/. It really made me laugh when I read how most Australians say /fʊp/ /boː/ instead – we say a ‘p’ sound instead of the ‘t’ and omit the ‘ll’ on the end. Listen next time you hear the commentators say it on TV. I particularly love how we say ‘international football’ – it’s like ‘innernashunl foop-baw’.

And while we’re on the World Cup, I just read a phonetics blog post about those vuvuzelas and why it might be hard for broadcasters to screen out their noise!

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Linguistic weeds

I really like the ABC TV show ‘Can we help’? Obviously other people do too, because other TV networks have ripped off some of the segments on the show and turned them into new programs, for example the ‘Lost and found’ segment where they track down long lost relatives and friends became ‘Find my family’ on Network Seven. One of the regular panelists on the show is linguist Kate Burridge, the Chair of Linguistics at Monash University, who was one of the lecturers in the Masters of Applied Linguistics program that I completed last year. I love how she talks about words and language.

One concept I particularly liked in a paper she wrote about language change called ‘Linguistic Purism: The Tug-of-Love between Standard and Nonstandard’ was the idea of ‘linguistic weeds’. What makes a weed a weed and not a plant? Most definitions come down to them being ‘plants growing where we do not want them’, aside from other criteria such as whether they are noxious or extremely fast-growing. Similarly, linguistic purists often take great exception to new or morphing words being used ‘in the wrong place’, demanding to know which word or usage is right or wrong, or even whether something is a ‘real word’ or not. Some examples of changing usage in English that rub people up the wrong way include:

  • He never did it.
  • What you doing?
  • That’s so much more better than…
  • ‘Bought’ as past tense of ‘bring’ (as well as ‘buy’)
  • ‘Me’ instead of ‘I’ – “David and me were late”

These could be considered ‘weeds’ in our language, at least in Australia in 2009. As Kate Burridge writes:

They are structural features of the language whose virtues have yet to be realized. They are the pronunciations we don’t want, the constructions that are out of place, the words we create but we hate. Like weedy plants they are entirely location and time specific. One speaker’s noxious weed can be another’s garden ornamental. Whether they are in gardens or in languages, weeds are totally centred around human value judgements.

Linguistic weeds today can become cherished garden contributors tomorrow… What many see as slipshod pronunciations, sloppy grammar, irritating coinages and new-fangled meanings are what provide the basis for real change. Some of them will drop by the wayside, it is true. Some will remain as variation. But there will be others that catch on, are used more and more and eventually become established.

Whether we like it or not, English is changing. It always has and always will. In this context arguments about which usage is right or wrong are futile. In many cases, there is no one correct expression, but a range of possible options. Just relax and go with the flow.