English


Just saw this word on an online forum and was so impressed, I thought I’d share it with the blogosphere:

Tweemo: n. derog. Of or pertaining to Twitter and Emos, i.e., immature and whiny.
Eg: Walking backwards is such a tweemo form of ‘protest’! (source)


I read today that Macquarie Dictionary have named their Word of the Year for 2010: Googleganger.

The word is immediately understandable; a googleganger is someone that has the same name as you, whom you find when egosearching on Google. Quite obviously it is a blend of Google and doppelganger.

However I have a few apprehensions about calling it the word of the year.

  1. It’s been around a lot longer than a year, as this timeline will attest1. The earliest instance appears to be from August 2004, in an article written by Geoff Boucher for the Lifestyle section of the South Florida Sun.
  2. It’s use since Geoff Boucher first used it appears to have waned by the end of 2008 and has only been used a couple of times per year or so since then.
  3. It was never in natural use anyway. If you look closely at all the instances of the word, they’re all much like the following in that the writers felt they had to define the word when using it.

    But for some people there’s a problem When they Google their names someone else comes up That person is a Googleganger It’s someone with your very name but often a totally different life.

    That to me indicates that people were trying hard for the word to become accepted, but still it could never quite find its own legs.

  4. I’d never heard of it before today, and neither had anyone else I asked.

  1. Ignore the single instance from 2000; that’s due to Google’s method of attributing dates to web pages. This particular page, from Stephen Fry’s QI, is actually from December 2009. It’s only listed as 2000 because Google have apparently opted to pay attention to a date mentioned on the page rather than the page header itself.

This week, an argument has been being waged in the Opinion section of the Sydney Morning Herald about the effect of the internet on language. It started with an article on Tuesday about Australian author Cate Kennedy, who fears literature is being threatened by the internet. She’s referring specifically to writers who become addicted to being online and therefore cannot put as much effort into their art.

Fair conclusion.

On the Wednesday, the following letter appeared.

English mangled

I agree with Cate Kennedy’s criticism of the effect of the internet on literature, but it spreads further than that, with technology affecting the entire English language (“A click too far: the internet’s toxic effect on literature”, April 13). The internet and its ease of communication has shaped English into a pseudo-speech characterised by grammatical errors and inaccuracies in syntax, punctuation and commonsense. Where is the line drawn between beneficial advancement and irreversible side effects? Will our desire for progress come at the sake of our language?

Anna Pavlakis Greenwich

I read this and thought ‘enough is enough’, and replied with this letter which appeared the following day:

Loose language is not the end of civilisation1

Every so often a letter appears decrying the demise of English due either to some generation younger than that of the letter writer, or to technology such as mobile phones and the internet.

When these letters appear, I read them aloud to my colleagues, always to their amusement. But on reading Anna Pavlakis’s letter (April 14), I decided it was about time we put an end to this nonsense.

English is not becoming a “pseudo-speech”. Technology is not causing its demise. Young people who cannot accurately place an apostrophe, or who think “should’ve” is a contraction of “should of”, will not bring about the inevitable destruction of Anglophone civilisation.

The easy way to respond to these ludicrous claims is to cite the continual evolution of living languages. Such change is neither good nor bad; it just is.

Second, most people have always had difficulty with English – ask any high school English teacher. Such difficulties were not created by technology, they are merely more visible.

For most English speakers this doesn’t matter. Advanced skills in such a horrible language as English are necessary only for a small percentage of people, and only then because we arbitrarily attach prestige to a standard form of the English language that retains a plethora of irregularities and archaic forms and is therefore very difficult to master.

With this in mind, the internet is actually the great democratiser, allowing many more people than ever before to gain access to privilege by removing the arbitrary barrier of English linguistic mastery.

Aidan Wilson Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney

And this morning, I opened up to the letters page to find no less than three responses to my letter.

Nothing can come of nothing2

I can just see my year 9 English class when I tell them Aidan Wilson thinks most of us don’t need advanced English skills (Letters, April 15). Even better when I mention hopefully that the internet makes for a more democratic society. “Fantastic,” they will say and toss away their quaintly “archaic” novels that I make them read, to feast instead on the dross online.

Yes, language is not static and can accommodate the influence of technology, but “lol” and (: will not cut it when my students need solutions to problems requiring complex and precise language skills. By having no standards we are reduced to the lowest common denominator. How depressing. What’s wrong with trying to master complex things? Are we becoming dumber? Maybe it is the end of civilisation as we know it.

Cathy Hooke Ashfield

As a former English teacher I take umbrage at Aidan Wilson’s diatribe. Has Mr Wilson ever read Chaucer or Shakespeare? The wealth of vocabulary, beauty and “infinite variety” of the English language are evident in the magnificence of our literary tradition, which is sadly being lost because of the widespread use and abuse of modern technologies.

For shame! Mr Wilson is promulgating superficial and base ideas about the English language.

Michele Linkiewicz Caringbah

One must admire the confidence of the linguisticians3 of Sydney University that they can “put an end to this nonsense” (moral panic about civilisation being destroyed by slovenly English expression) by anything so simple as a letter to the Herald. Nevertheless their reassurance is convincing. I don’t suppose they would accept my observations as scientific evidence, but, over 40 years as a seconary [sic] school teacher, I have noticed that pupils’ written work was always superior to their parents’ writing, as evidenced by the standard of absence notes. Indeed, excellent English in an absence note was a pretty good indication of a forgery.

Raymond McDonald Stanmore

Perhaps Raymond McDonald is right; I am probably jousting with windmills by writing a letter, but you can’t blame me for having a go!


  1. The titles of the letters, by the way, are the creation of the letters page editors, and not the letter writers.
  2. I’m not even sure what this is meant to mean!
  3. Linguisticians. Nice.

I read in this morning’s Herald that a school in Victoria has been trialing the use of iPods for facilitating school work. iTouches1 are being used to research and submit assignments, to download music and for students to communicate with their teachers over email. The results so far suggest that students are much more likely to interact with school work over the medium of an iPod than more traditional methods, and are more likely to use the iPods than laptops.

This story ties in with James and my work over the past year, which will continue throughout this year, into the use of mobile phones for the maintenance of endangered languages. It also overlaps with the government’s ‘education revolution’ promise of the last election, in which each student receives a laptop.

So far the government’s plan has been marred by cost blowouts – although I’m almost certain this is due to the ‘Government letterhead’ effect2 – and concerns about the long-term technical support of the computers. The iTouch wins hands down on both counts, as they’re much cheaper – about 300 bucks as opposed to a grand at least – and they can be easily supported by Apple’s existing technical support infrastructure, especially if the iTouches come with the extended warranty.

Another issue raised here is the future of personal technology – though this is getting considerably geeky of me. I’ve long thought that there was too much increasing overlap between personal portable computers and mobile phones. More and more, mobile phones are internet enabled (although costly, as you have to go through your telco), support more data, can run programs, and generally operate like mini-computers. My prediction has been that mobile phones will get bigger and more functional, and laptops will get smaller and more portable, until they meet in the middle with personal PDA-style touchscreen computers with phones in them. Obviously such things have already been created, like Blackberries, iPods and, until recently, palm pilots, but the market is only beginning to catch on.

In addition to mobile phone applications for dictionaries of endangered languages, we think we can probably make downloadable programs for other devices, like iPods, and mobile phones that run Android (Google’s open-source and free answer to Apple’s iPhone). And we dont just mean dictionary viewing programs, but dictionary creation tools as well.

Imagine, for instance, if students of outback schools were equipped with iTouches pre-loaded with bilingual Kriol-English learning programs, and were pre-configured with a Kriol language pack, so that the iTouch’s menus and options started out in Kriol, until such a time as their English literacy reaches the point where they can switch it over to operate it in English.


  1. I’ve written right to the end of this post and realised that I’ve said ‘iTouch’ way too many times. I should point out right from the start that the device may as well be any of this new breed of mobile phone – though preferably something developed by the Open Handset Alliance and running Android. But for ease, I’m just going to refer to ‘iPod’ and ‘iTouch’ all the way through.
  2. The Government letterhead effect is when a private contractor increases their prices exponentially when they receive a quote request with a government letterhead. Remember the guys that wrote ‘No War’ on the Sydney Opera House in red paint? It cost $100,000 to clean.

    As if.

I’m sneakily writing this during afternoon tea of the first day of Australex on the lectern’s computer, which has an unrestricted internet connection, because I just heard a great New Zealandism that I thought I’d share.

The talk was by Tony Deverson from the University of Canterbury, talking about creating a dictionary of New Zealandisms and one of those that yhe brought up was to turn to custard, which is basically equivalent to Australian English to go pear-shaped. That, however, is not the New Zealandism that I want to share. When he was trying to gauge from the audience the wider use of the term, specifically whether it was used in Australia, he refered to Australia as The West Island.

In other news, I present tomorrow, so I’ll post something afterwards about how it unfolds. This will be my first time presenting anything, ever! And now someone needs to set up for their presentation, so I’d better go!

Something was said tonight that piqued my linguistic interest and, as I’ve been pretty light on linguistic content of late, I thought I’d share it.

We (my housemate, a few friends and I) were at the pub tonight, when we met an Irishman, from Clare county. My housemate is named after a capital city of a country just north of Australia, which is a non-typical Anglo-Australian name. When he introduced himself to said Irishman, he said his name was [‘mo:sbi]. Upon hearing this, the Irishman repeated it back, to make sure he understood correctly, and said [‘moɹsbi], with a clear rhotic segment. I am sure he didn’t know the name beforehand, just to mitigate against any possible priming effects.

What interested me was the fact that the Irishman, who speaks with a rhotic accent (that is, with post-vocalic ‘r’) managed to extrapolate the correct phonemic form of my housemate’s name, including the ‘r’, even though the way it was presented to him was entirely r-less.

Is it the case then, that some long vowels in r-less Englishes are assumed by r-full speakers as being a short vowel followed by an /r/?

This is an area of linguistics that I know very little about; how speakers  of different dialects and accents of English manage to overcome the accentual differences between the ways in which they speak and deduce the right form. The same goes for the North-American pronunciation of my nickname; I pronounce it [hɔs], yet North-Americans have no trouble at all converting that directly to [ha:s].

On the other had, it may be a neutralisation effect; if I were to hear the name [ha:s] in a typical rhotic North-American accent, I may permissibly take it to translate into my accent as either Hoss, my nickname, or Haas, as in Mary Haas, for instance.

</stream of consciousness>

In checking out some of the news this morning, I noticed the following as one of the ABC’s main headlines:

Petrol rise to limit emissions unsustainable: economist

Before I go on, I think it’s worth explaining how I interpret this headline, and why. The noun phrase petrol rise need not refer to a policy decision to raise petrol; it may simply be a matter-of-fact observation that the price of petrol is increasing. But the embedded verb phrase to limit emissions makes the volitional interpretation clear; the price of petrol is being raised for a purpose; to limit emissions.

Moreover, the predicate unsustainable confirms this, as sustainability is a characteristic usually attributed to something over which someone, at least somewhere, has some control. You can talk about (un)sustainable economic growth, (un)sustainable agriculture, but you can’t really talk about (un)sustainable reptilian skin shedding. The reason for this, I’d contend, is that sustain is an ergative1 verb; it requires a volitional agent as much as murder does.

Okay, that said, I can talk about the more interesting pragmatic aspects of this headline. As far as I’m aware, there is no policy to raise the price of petrol in order to limit carbon emissions. In fact both government and opposition plan to lower the price of petrol instead of doing anything proactive to mitigate justifiably high fuel costs.

So why the headline? It seems to me to imply that there is currently a policy, to raise petrol prices, that would be unsustainable.

I think the ABC are violating one of the key Gricean maxims of conversational implicature. The ABC has not been as informative with this headline as required by the context. Further on in the article however, we find more information:

[The economist advising the Federal Government, Ross Garnaut] has rejected any notion that petrol should be exempt from a future carbon emissions trading scheme and suggested higher petrol prices could help mitigate carbon emissions.

But Professor Garnaut says in the long term, hiking petrol prices to control emissions is unsustainable.

So the fact that Garnaut warned about prolonged petrol price rises is in fact meant to be taken in the context of his suggestion to raise them in the first place. This, I believe, is a violation of the maxim of quantity; the reader is not given enough information in the headline to know the context in which Garnaut is warning us about prolonged petrol price rises. Also, since we’re told about the warning without the context behind it, this is also arguably an example of the converse of this maxim; we’re told too much information than is required by the circumstances.

A much more conversationally optimal headline, in my humble opinion, would have been something along the lines of Raise petrol prices to limit emissions: economist.


  1. For want of a better term. I don’t want to use traditional terms like ‘active verb’, but I think you get the idea.

…and I might just use them when teaching syntax in a few weeks’ time.

Via the Speculative Grammarian.

Seen in this morning’s Herald, in the letters section:

The dreaded use of “absolutely” seems to have abated. Can we now get rid of the lazy linguists’ use of “in terms of”?

Garrett Naumann, Cammeray

But what on earth is he talking about? Do linguists overuse the expression in terms of? Even if we do, is its use considered ‘lazy’? I’ve never heard any such sentiment. Can anyone shed some light on this? I’d be absolutely interested.

A discussion tonight about my nephew and his linguistic development at 1 year and 11 months, gradually turned to the broader issue of child language acquisition. Apparently, and this is new knowledge to me, infants learning English (we didn’t discuss any other languages and I’m not enough of a Chomsky to presume to speak for all languages) latch onto first person possessive pronouns before nominative or accusative, and will then use them in sentences. That is, they’ll say my do it before they say I do it.

Now, I have no expertise in child language acquisition and will defer to anyone who gives even the slightest impression that they do, so I’m perfectly happy to accept the above. But I thought I’d offer the discussion to my knowledgable and erudite readership to enlighten me.

I suppose there may be some reasonable foundation to this theory. Infants probably learn possession quite early (my pencil, my car and so on), and then later, when constructing sentences with subjects and verbs (and perhaps objects, though I doubt the ‘it’ is segmentable from the verb at this early stage) they may draw analogy from the possessive constructions that they’ve practiced with every noun they know. Furthermore, the fact that “I” [ai] and “my” /mai/ are rather phonologically similar wouldn’t do a great deal to constrain this generalisation.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has any more expertise in child language acquisition than I do – that is, anyone at all.

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