Say What? Edition 8: When Native Speakers Sound Like They Aren’t

My roommate my first year in Russia told me that English was an easy language to start speaking and make yourself decently understood but near impossible to master because of all the idioms, nuance, unexpected pronunciations, and multiple ways of saying everything. No matter how long you speak it, you’re always going to encounter something a native speaker says or writes that baffles you. Russian is the opposite. It has a dense grammar with lots of irregularities that tongue ties you for a long, long time after beginning, but once you’ve got it, you just fly into proficiency. Today, I thought I’d focus on a few of the intricacies of English grammar that I’ve come across recently that I think wouldn’t be so obvious to fluent, non-native speakers or to native speakers, for that matter.

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Say What? Edition 7: More Than Words

No, this post is not an ode to that old Extreme song, although it’s still a great one! The post is a little bit about “code switching,” I started hearing about everywhere a few years ago. Code switching refers to the verbal portion of the many personas we all have. The words we choose, the way we say them, the tone of voice, affected accents, and sometimes even the language itself. It was weird to me that suddenly code switching was a phenomena because it’s something I’ve recognized myself doing, often consciously, forever. More on that later in a minute. But this post is also about much more than code switching. It’s about all sorts of language choices and language differences that help us relate in specific ways to the world around us and reveal a lot about us.

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Haven’t we all been adapting our speech since we were children? I know I have. I spoke one way at home with my family and one way at home with my friends. I spoke another way with my teachers and even another with people at church. Later, I had various sets of speaking mannerisms for work relationships: waitress talk, teacher talk, tour guide talk, boss talk. In my “performance” jobs (teacher, tour guide) my code switch was so strong that I felt quite self-conscious of people who knew other the other versions of myself hearing me in that role. While the degree to which I code switch now is less—for example, I’m now an adult who lives on her own, so I don’t feel I need to bend to my parents’ rules of acceptable speech nearly as much any more when I’m around them—I’m more conscious of it when I do engage in it. For example, sometimes I realize my speech is too casual with my manager orI feel like I’m crossing some line, so I’ll stop using certain words and will hold back expressing certain ideas.  Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 6: Where Are All the Words?

Auxiliary verbs are falling out of favor. Particularly, to be. I’ve seen or heard all of the following lately:

  • My car needs washed.
  • My shoes need repaired.
  • This couch needs gone this weekend.

When did this form of speaking start? Does this sound normal to you? I’m itching to put to be in all of these sentences. Continue reading →

You’ve Got Skills

And so do I. Our skills aren’t they same, but they are equally valuable. This is what I’d like people I work with to understand.

Part of being a technical writer or editor means being invisible and vastly underappreciated. We don’t get a byline or an author credit anywhere. People often toss our creations aside, preferring to figure out how the product works on their own. And for the most part, we don’t mind. We wouldn’t do what we do otherwise. But being devalued by your own co-workers and collaborators, the people who do the “real” work—the subject matter experts (SMEs), the engineers—can really get under our skin. Continue reading →

Struggles of the Wannabe Grammar Police

On my neighborhood Nextdoor site, I recently saw a post about a lost dog that was found. In response, one person wrote, “Glad this tale/tail has a happy ending.” I started to roll my eyes at her seemingly unnecessary decision to clarify that she was making a pun, but then I stopped. The truth is, I can easily put myself inside her mind. I’m constantly making calculations in my head about whether I should speak “correctly” or speak like most people around me do.  Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 5: What Not To Say

Don’t say donzerlyThe Christmas season, which thankfully is over, always reminds me of my first neologism. While I never flubbed these lyrics from what is probably the most sung song in the country, I did spend a good portion of my childhood wondering what wilkenspire was, as in “Later on wilkenspire. As we dream by the fire.”

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Don’t say in order to.  Or should you? In my day job, I often have to decide whether to use “to” or “in order to.” The more succinct version generally suffices, but I sometimes opt for the longer because somehow it seems to provide clarity, though I could never articulate exactly why or how. Then I stumbled across this on the Write the Docs Slack.

I need John to answer the question. (He has to do it. No one else can.)
I need John in order to answer the question. (I need something from him so that I can answer the question myself.)

Ah, sweet relief. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 4: Thoughts From Italy

A collection of random linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Italy four weeks ago.

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Language can provide anonymity in a crowd. One of my biggest linguistic pleasures when in Europe is hearing half a dozen languages spoken around me at any one time. I enjoy it partly because you feel a buzz, an energy around you, without having comprehension interfere with your own thoughts. But also, there’s a certain anonymity in being in a multilingual place. I could be anyone. Of any nationality. In any life situation. No one knows a thing about me until I speak. This makes me feel exciting and mysterious. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 3: Thoughts From Switzerland

A collection of random, linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Switzerland five weeks ago.

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Going abroad makes you realize that your language skills aren’t nearly as good as they should be. How did I used to be fluent in German but a few weeks ago I couldn’t even understand what the Swiss shopkeepers said when I walked in the door? Swiss German is quite distinct from Hochdeutsch, but still, I feel I should have been a little more competent. Continue reading →

But Is That Butts or Butts?

English has no shortage of homonyms that can easily cause confusion for someone trying to learn this language. But they can almost as easily cause confusion among native speakers as well.

On our way into mountains last Sunday to hike Grays and Torreys peaks, my two girlfriends and I saw a sign on I-70 just like this one.

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All three of us had the same thought – we need to bring the car from 75 mph to a complete stop in the middle of the highway and get out of the car right now to see what we are missing! Surely if CDOT felt the need to tell us (in such a cheeky way) that we should remain in the vehicle, something important and exciting must be happening along the roadside. And then 20 seconds later, we non-smokers realized we had all misunderstood which “butt” the sign meant. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 2: The Foreign Language Edition

I used to speak four foreign languages at a high intermediate level. Now I can still hold my own in Spanish, but that’s about it. I went to a French conversation group a few weeks ago to attempt speaking French for the first time in about three years and was mortified that I could barely even get Je m’appelle Jennifer to come out of my mouth. But the problem wasn’t that I could only speak in English. Words were tumbling out in all sorts of languages in an unstoppable Babelfish short circuit. The word between would only come to mind in Russian. The word very was relegated to German. I haven’t spoken either of those languages in over six years. It was like I was having some kind of stroke.

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So, I signed up for my first ever language lesson via Skype. Make that my first real video chat ever. I used Google Hangouts in my last job and I taught online for a few years, but never with video turned on. Mon Dieu! C’est bizarre! This lovely French gal was right there, 18 inches in front of my face, practically in my home even though she lives in Manchester. It was quite uncomfortable at first. Never mind that I was trying to communicate in a foreign language; the whole experience was strangely intimate. I’ve made some small strides in the last few weeks but still, it’s a bit depressing to have spent all that time and money on lessons and yet be reduced to speaking like a four-year-old (who would undoubtedly start speaking fluently sooner than I will). Continue reading →