Monthly Archives: March, 2012

Which English are You Speaking?

We speak in registers all the time, moving between them like upper and lower case on a keyboard. A register is simply a variety of language that differs from dialect in that it’s not a discrete regional sub-class or an ethnic variation.

The more obvious distinction in English is between formal and informal usage. Informal doesn’t mind using contractions; formal scorns them.  Informal tends to the shorter words, often those of Anglo-Saxon origin. Formal favours the Latinate, the elegant and the precise. But we mean the same things. You say ‘tomato’; I say ‘solanum lycopersicum’. It’s a question of audience. When we’re speaking to a group of high school students or parents, we may use some formal language but mostly we will use the informal. When we address a symposium of academics, we usually employ the formal. In certain social settings, we might keep our formal and informal apart. Attending a football match, we drop the formal. Meeting a head of state, most people will stick to the formal unless the monarch or president tells them to relax, slipping into the informal register for a chat.

But are there other registers?

The ‘professional’ register can include a combination of formal and informal but its purpose isn’t necessarily the exclusive preserve of people working in a particular profession. More often it’s a sub-set of language that people drop into when discussing an esoteric topic. It doesn’t only include the nouns and verbs of a profession but also a way of expressing. It can include legalese, medical terminology, finance, economics, politics, science, theatre, music, welfare, education, hospitality, and building trades—to name but a few. The same words and phrases from one sector can mean something entirely different in another. Yes, the people involved are all speaking English but their words choices take on different connotations. To illustrate: the word ‘settlement’ means something entirely different for someone in a legal context to someone in geology, real estate, immigration services or the study of history. A reader has to make register adjustments, based on the context. Is the word referring to a courtroom result, a transfer of land ownership, a repatriation of refugees or the establishment of an agrarian society? What about the term ‘marginal’? Depending on the context, does this adjective refer to a writer’s handwritten notes, an electorate finely balanced between major political affiliations, a profit and loss variable, or a type of farm?

As for the formal register, it has two sub-categories: fixed and evolving. The ‘fixed’ might be said to be a ritualised register, used by churches and other institutions preserving an older and increasingly archaic form of English, replete with ‘thee,’ ‘heretofore’ and ‘thou shalt not’. The ‘evolving’ register keeps pace with the evolution of standard English, though retaining some older forms (e.g. ‘millennia’ instead of ‘millenniums’) and long forms (e.g. ‘refrigerator’ rather than ‘fridge’).

‘Non-standard’ is closely related to the informal register but hardly ever used with formal English, except for purposes of irony, caricature or humour. Expressions like ‘ain’t,’ ‘you’re darn tootin,’ ‘gonna’ and ‘nothing doing’.  Mild obscenity can also feature in the non-standard register, with ‘bloody,’ ‘damn’ and (lately) ‘bugger’ used with a casual and only mildly offensive impact.

But what about private language registers? There are special registers used in family contexts, especially by new parents or pet owners, whch may include terms of endearment hardly comprehensible to outsiders. Children have long used private or secret language registers that comprise code words and phrases. There have been also argots of English such as the so-called ‘flash language’ of early Australia, which was inherited from the slums of London’s east end. In 1793 Watkin Tench, an officer serving in the New South Wales officer corps, wrote A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson which included a description of thislanguage register used by early waves of convicts. This thieves’ argot was a form of slang designed to help those in the know communicate amongst their subculture without raising the suspicion of authorities. Examples of such language registers have been recorded in many English-speaking and other countries.

But can ‘ethnic’ English be described as an argot, a different language register, a form of slang, a dialect, or a blend of several? Anyone from a non-English speaking background will be familiar with the language differential available to speakers of a non-English mother tongue. Whether a person grew up in a Mandarin, Greek, Hindi or Gaelic speaking household, he or she may have recourse to another register. This can include an amalgam of languages, or else translated phrases or word references to some cultural rituals or practices. These elements distinguish the register from Standard English in the same way that shifting into a minor key, a time-signature change or a bridge can alter the mood of a song.

Yes, we all speak the same language. But it’s not always the same English. We can move home from Manitoba to Melbourne or Mumbai to Manchester but just because English is the official or shared official language does not guarantee uniformity of expression. Not only do we need to consider the context of our job and our neighbourhood but the multiplicity of Englishes spoken. As we speak our different registers we may not even be conscious of shifting gear but that doesn’t mean our lingusitic engines will stall, only that the more comfortable we are with register shifts, the easier we make the changes.

Thus endeth the sermon. Innit?


The Girl with Colitis Goes By

 Girl with colitis

Sometimes word worrying can be a matter of toying with words and their connotations rather than working oneself into a lather. It can even be fun.

When I was still in short pants, one of the records my mother used to play was a collection of Scottish ballads sung by that fine tenor, the late Kenneth McKellar. The album included such stirring tunes as ‘McGregor’s Gathering,’ ‘The Wee Cooper of Fife’ and a plaintive lament known as ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray,’ sometimes transcribed as ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Moray’ or ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Murray’. The song tells of political intrigue in seventeenth century Scotland, and the Earl’s murder by a rival aristocrat, the Earl of Huntly. It was not a wise move on the assassin’s part, and he won no favour from King James VI (who later became James I of England). But the most remarkable aspect of this old ballad has nothing to do with any of the above. The lyrically lamented Earl is now mostly remembered as the encapsulation of the ‘mondegreen’, or misheard song line.

Grammatically the mondegreen is closest to an oronym or homophone. But this fanciful term was coined by author Sylvia Wright and made popular by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. As a child, young Sylvia had misheard the words to this old ballad which should be sung as:

Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands,/
O, whaur hae ye been?/
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,/
And laid him on the green.

Unfortunately young Ms Wright heard the last line as ‘… and Lady Mondegreen’. And so the Mondegreen was born. We all know the phenomenon. Popular music has been a fertile ground for misheard lyrics, from Hendrix to Nirvana. Here are some of the better known ones:

Excuse me while I kiss this guy. (Excuse me while I kiss the sky.) ‘Purple Haze,’sung by Jimi Hendrix

There’s a bathroom on the right. (There’s a bad moon on the rise.) ‘Bad Moon Rising,’ sung by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival

Crimean River. (Cry Me a River.) ‘Cry Me a River,’ sung by Julie London, later version by Joe Cocker

Bring me an iron lung. (Bring me a higher love.) ‘Higher Love,’ sung by Steve Winwood

I got no towel, I hung it up again. (I get knocked down, but I get up again.) ‘Tubthumping,’ sung by Chumbawumba

I’ll be your xylophone waiting for you. (I’ll be beside the phone waiting for you.) ‘Build Me Up Buttercup,’ sung by Colin Young of The Foundations

Hope the city voted for you. (Hopelessly devoted to you.) ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You,’ sung by Olivia Newton-John

Cheap wine and a three-leg goat (Cheap wine and a three-day growth) ‘Cheap Wine,’ sung by Jimmy Barnes of Cold Chisel

Here we are now, in containers. (Here we are now. Entertain us.) Smells like Teen Spirit,’ Sung by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana

You’ve been outright offensive. (You’ve been out riding fences.) ‘Desperado,’ sung by Don Henley of The Eagles

And there is one band—no, let’s be specific—one performer, who has occasioned more confusion on account of his mangled diction, than any other. I speak of James Reyne, lead singer of Australian Crawl, that fine band from the ‘80s.

Beautiful people, they got a rubber politician in their travel bag (They’ve got a Robert Palmer T-shirt in their travel bag) ‘Beautiful People’

You, you could be bald (Beautiful people) ‘Beautiful People’

Beach ball, sex is gonna shake ya (People, they just wanna take you) ‘Beautiful People’

You’ve been hangin’ with the monkey sex people (You been hanging with the nicest people) ‘Hammer Head’

She don’t like backgammon behaviour (She don’t like that kind of behaviour) ‘Reckless’

Not all of these misheard lyrics can be blamed on poor diction. Sometimes the listener is at fault. Children mishear things all the time. As a child, my mother misheard the line from a prayer, ‘thanks be to God’ as ‘Thanks, Peter God,’ assuming that the said Peter was some relative of God who needed acknowledgement. And as a young boy I misheard a line from ‘Jackson’ sung by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. I’m not sure what I imagined a ‘ginann’ was but it sounded like a kind of insult: ‘Go play your hand, you big tough ginann’ (Go play your hand, you big talking man). I didn’t get as far as deciding how to spell ‘ginann,’ or should that be ‘guernann’?

Reports of mishearing are just that: reports. And they are often fun. For example:

Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (Gladly the Cross I’d Bear), a traditional hymn

I’m a pool hall ace (My poor heart aches), from ‘Every Breath You Take,’ sung by Sting of The Police.

But sometimes they are plainly bizarre:

Just brush my teeth before you leave me (Just touch my cheek before you leave me), ‘Angel of the Morning,’ sung by Merrilee Rush, and later by Juice Newton.

My all-time favourite—so bizarre that it might as well be true—is a misheard lyric of the Beatles:

The girl with colitis goes by (The girl with kaleidoscope eyes) from ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ sung by John Lennon.

Exactly why a girl with inflammation of the colon should attract such comment, let alone occasion a song, is a mystery known only to the alleged mis-hearer. Who cares? It’s poetry. Or do I mean ‘poor tree’?


Turn and face the strain. Our language is not fixed. Some simpler words have remained mostly unchanged for centuries; others at one time accepted as standard varieties of spelling have altered drastically. Some are still recognisable, yet how archaic they look: ‘doctour,’ ‘governour,’ ‘clerke,’ ‘publique,’ ‘musick,’ ‘proude,’ ‘Englysshe,’ ‘aboutte,’ ‘lerne,’ and ‘knyf’.

After the conquest of Anglo-Saxon England by the forces of French Normandy in the year 1066, William the Conqueror’s scribes imposed their mother tongue onto Anglo-Saxon (later to be known as ‘Old English’), which became a second-class language for servants and peasants. The ruling French-speaking elite even reformed the way certain English words were written. ‘Cwene’ became ‘queene’ while ‘cwik’ became ‘quicke,’ fitting in with French orthographic customs. This process continued throughout feudal times, contributing to the development of what we now call Middle English: that phase of language evolution in which thousands of French words were assimilated with Anglo-Saxon. Some specific French and English words persist in parallel to this day, especially those relating to law: ‘cease and desist,’ ‘breaking and entering,’ ‘peace and quiet,’ ‘will and testament’.

Who were the chief trend-setters of change? The first spelling reformer could be said to be English monk Ormm, at the beginning of the thirteenth century. During the Renaissance (meaning ‘rebirth’), scholars of classical works in Latin and Greek chose to reform English spelling by introducing silent letters that suggested their classical origin. Crazy? Perhaps. Intellectually trendy? Yes. Scholars slotted a ‘b’ into ‘doubt’ and ‘debt’, and a ‘g’ into ‘reign’. Illogical, but that was the fashion.

Others reformers followed, pursuing political, scholastic or commercial aims. For the next half-millennium, enthusiasts proposed methods of standardising or ‘fixing’ our chaotic and contradictory spelling. For example, nineteenth century reformers in Britain and the United States—among them, long-lived George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)—attempted to rationalise the spelling of ‘irregular’ words. Noted lexicographer Noah Webster from Hartford, Connecticut (1758-1843), publicised his modernised versions of certain words (e.g. color, harbor, honor, theater, center) so successfully that they became standard North American practice. One unfortunate consequence has been that, as software from Microsoft and Apple originates in the USA, computer dictionaries have a default USA spelling that requires effort—and patience—by non-Americans to circumvent.

Prominent among the change merchants was William Caxton (1415-1492), a pioneer English printer. He needed a common written version of our language, so he settled on conventions of the time that favoured the commercially and politically powerful triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Therefore those dialect words came to prevail over other regional varieties. In the year 1490, shortly before Columbus reached the Americas, Caxton recorded his dilemma about a particular common word. He knew that whichever version he chose to print would alienate a section of the reading public:

A mercer came into a house and asked for meat, and especially he asked after eggs; and the good wife answered that she could speak no French, and the merchant was angry, for he could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not. And then at last another said, that he would have ‘eyren’; then the goodwife said that she understood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren?  

Language refuses to sit still. Settlers in the Americas developed—and have continued to develop—idiosyncrasies and habits divergent from the mother country, such as ‘mad’ for angry and ‘aluminum’ (the earlier form of aluminium). We have seen the disappearance of the second person singular pronoun (thee and thou), and the consequent need by some people to introduce a plural (e.g. ‘youse’ pronounced ‘yews’ and ‘you all’). These remain non-standard but persistent. We have seen the coining of portmanteau words like ‘infotainment,’ ‘agitprop’ and ‘guesstimate’. Crossovers from specific brands have entered the language to describe particular phenomena, words like ‘McMansion’ and ‘to google’. We have seen backformations like ‘landline’ and ‘snail mail,’ to distinguish the old fashioned telephone and postal service from the mobile (cell) phone and e-mail respectively.  We now refer to ‘microeconomics’ to explain the discipline we used to know as economics because the advent of an interdependent global economy has given birth to macroeconomics. There are technology puns for new phenomena such as emoticons and netiquette. And ‘viral’ has metamorphosed from the exclusive domain of microbiology to spheres as diverse as marketing, entertainment and sociology. Viral has gone viral.

I wonder what someone in the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare or Pepys or Pope or Dickens or Wells or Orwell might have made of ‘couch potato,’ ‘dot com,’ ‘macho’ or ‘babelicious’?

Turn and face the strain.

‘You’re speaking complete gibberish, sir.’

‘Who, sir? Me, sir?’

‘Yes, sir. You, sir. Complete gibberish. Like a damned Hottentot, sir.’

And what gibberish will we be speaking in another hundred years?

Big distance, little difference

Your origin in the Anglosphere may well dictate how you pronounce this blog title, in time-honoured Henry Higgins fashion.

On my first visit to England, the proprietor of a bed and breakfast establishment in Lyme Regis asked where I was from, as she couldn’t place my accent. When I said Melbourne she answered: ‘Ah, I have friends in Auckland.’ I explained how that city belonged to a separate country, across a sea more than ten times the distance of the English Channel. She replied: ‘Oh, it’s much the same thing.’ I pointed out that it took three hours by air to travel to Auckland from my home airport. But she didn’t get it. I could have pressed my advantage. Had I wished to be a memorably rude guest, I might have asked my ignorant host if she’d ever visited Moscow, which is closer to London than Melbourne is to Auckland. Athens isn’t as far from London as that distance, and nor is Istanbul. Last time I checked, not one of these cities belonged to Great Britain; so, yes, it made a difference. I thought so then. Now I’m not so sure.

On reflection, I think my host might have had culturally valid reasons for her misapprehension. Part of that woman’s ignorance stemmed from a Euro-centric mentality, a syndrome not helped by Gerardus Mercator’s famous Mercator projection of 1569. A revolutionary way of representing the Earth on a flat plane, and a handy invention for navigators, it did distort the relative size of continents, giving Europe a geographic bulk and a global centrality that later projections revealed as inaccurate. So it’s hardly surprising for someone educated in a country that was once a naval superpower to have a Euro-centric view of the world, e.g. ‘Americans and Canadians are interchangeable’, and ‘People across Australasia are much of a muchness’.

This cultural and linguistic myopia is reinforced by our region’s language differences; or more accurately, lack thereof. The entirety of Europe could fit snugly within Australia’s landmass, with Great Britain and Northern Ireland taking up less than half the Northern Territory. There are hundreds of indigenous languages spoken in that area but only one variety of English. Compare this with the minute variations of English even in a single county, such as Yorkshire. And compare it to the near uniformity of English spoken the length and breadth of the world’s sixth largest nation and its trans-Tasman neighbour. So perhaps from the vantage point of my host’s green and pleasant land, the view of Australia and New Zealand did look linguistically homogeneous. And not much has changed.

Western Australia is bigger than the combined land mass of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Queensland is larger than the entire Iberian Peninsula or the combined countries of former Yugoslavia. But apart from varieties of accent, Australians all speak the same English. Yes, there are a few regional variations. Queenslanders carry ports while the rest of us carry suitcases. New South Wales beer drinkers order a middy instead of a pot. It’s hardly Scots versus East Anglian in the dialect stakes. Indigenous languages and non-English tongues aside, our differences are cultural and social rather than linguistic. We pronounce words with a broader or softer emphasis, depending on our region, our schooling and our upbringing. Some of us sound ‘broad’ like Dave Hughes, Paul Hogan or Julia Gillard. Others sound more ‘cultivated,’ like Geoffrey Rush, Barry Humphries or Cate Blanchett. The majority are somewhere in the middle. A few of us may say ‘brahnch’ and ‘dahnce’ but nobody says ‘grahnd piahno’. There is an urban myth that people from Adelaide and Melbourne pronounce ‘school’ as ‘skool’ while people from elsewhere say ‘skirl’ but I’ve heard far too many exceptions to take that one seriously. I know many people who say ‘Malbourne’ and who pronounce ‘celery’ as ‘salary’ but an equal number who don’t. A former girlfriend used to tease me for my pronunciation of salt as ‘sawlt’ instead of her ‘solt’. But this hardly counts as major linguistic variation. So what if a few South Australians say ‘miwk’ instead of ‘milk’ and people from Balmain say ‘cassle’ while their compatriots from Mosman say ‘cahstle’. There are greater pronunciation differences up and down the north bank of the Thames than all the differences between speakers in Perth, Hobart and Brisbane, which are geographically as disparate as Portugal, Crete and Warsaw.

Across the Tasman Sea, the same debate goes on. Linguists have yet to find significant regional variation in English, but New Zealanders insist that the differences are there, and not just between North and South Island. The kiwis have a handful of regional terms, as in Australia, but it’s mostly their accent that distinguishes New Zealanders from other English speakers. And like their counterparts across the western water, there are degrees of difference between ‘broad’ and ‘cultivated’ (as in Australia, the latter often sound more English than the English). In like manner, setting aside the fact of indigenous languages and languages other than English, there isn’t much variation, attributable to many communities settling at a similar time period instead of hundreds of years of overlapping overlords as in Britain. There are minor regional variations in vocabulary from British, American and Australian English (e.g. ‘dairy’ for a milk bar, ‘bach’ for a shack, ‘jandals’ for thongs) and Māori people use a distinctive accent for some words in common speech. Nevertheless, to many other English speaking people around the world, voices from Australasia are indistinguishable. Sam Neill, Peter Jackson and Neil Finn are proud New Zealanders but to British or American ears they may well sound Australian. We all know who Flight of the Conchords are and why their jokes work. But it’s not language so much as a distinctive attitude and dryness of delivery that brings out the humour.

So perhaps my ignorant host from Dorset wasn’t entirely off the mark. Sure, she had her facts wrong but linguistically speaking, we are much the same thing. It’s jealousy of course. Our weather is better, like our wines and our beer and our food. Also we’re better looking, more fun and vastly more talented than those folk from the old world. No worries, bro.

Frankly, I’m jacked off with sallying forth and petering out

Names are powerful. Names are magical, mystical and dynastic. Names rule.

Many first names—at least in English—are also applied to varieties of animal, vegetable and mineral, not to mention behaviour and personal qualities. Sometimes parents attribute aspects of the universe to their offspring as objects of veneration or states of being devoutly to be wished. Sometimes such states of being or actions have come about as a result of people’s names. And sometimes it’s just coincidence, an opportunity for puns, double-entendre and not infrequent causes of confusion (‘Just bill Bill for the bill’ or ‘Will Will’s will be challenged?’).

When I write of name confusion, I’m not talking about recently coined names like Jewel, Apple or Sky. I refer to traditional names, those familial favourites that may have been passed down the generations.

I know this from personal experience. Short forms of my name are both a noun and a verb. And some people I know are adjectival, in company with my noun and verb friends. Isn’t that right, Frank, Rod, Mark, Peter, Sally, Sandy, Carol, Bob, and John? In English some of us are parts of speech, and our namesakes have been that way for decades, even centuries.

There are plenty of noun names, such as Rod, Brad, Beryl, Pearl, Ruby, Jade, John, Mike, Tom, Grace, Charity, Faith, Art, Penny, Carol, Dawn, Dot, Cherry, Sherry, Amber, Crystal, Fanny, Glen and Ken.

We even have a subset of nouns for girls, named after flowers, such as Rose, Jasmine, Lily, Marigold, Hyacinth, Iris, Ivy, Daily and Violet.

There are also a few adjectival names. I can think of Sandy, Fawn, Frank and Randy.

And verb names are legion: Peter, May, Bob, Sally, Mark, Chuck, Guy, Grant, Hector, Hope, Roger, Harry, Lance, Pat, Pierce, Rob, Ward, Sue and Bud. Some of these are also nouns.

You may have noticed a few obvious ones missing. A small number of (mostly male) names boast a long history of multiple uses.

Let us consider Nick. The word ‘nickname’ derives from ‘an ekename’ (Middle English version of an older term). Nick is also a euphemism for the devil (Old Nick) or prison (‘the nick’), to cut or chip off, to be arrested, or to leave in a furtive hurry (‘nick off’).

How about Bill? He can be a payment, a theatrical pecking order, a London institution (The Bill, named for an old slang term for the police–there no less than thirteen possible linguistic claimants to the source of this term) or a verb for invoicing.

His brother nickname, Will, can mean determination, a legal document (last will and testament), or a wish (as in ‘what you will’), and these can also be verbs.

There’s the highly versatile Jack, who can be a car hoist, a heist (‘high-jack’), a card or other game designation, an all-purpose plug or a scoundrel. Like Nick, he can become part of a compound verb (‘jacked off’) but he doesn’t leave so much as express his nausea.

As we all know, ‘Dick’ can be slang for a male member, a related term of scorn for someone we don’t like, or a private detective.

Molly is a surprisingly multi-talented name, being a familiar term for Mary, a gangster’s girlfriend, a prostitute (Moll Flanders) or a medieval term for a homosexual (as in ‘Molly’ Meldrum).

So, if you want to avoid loading up your children or pets with any name that has historical or linguistic association, best stick with Britney,  Sting or Summer. Or there’s always Epponnee-Rae.