Lies your English teacher told you – Second language edition

Hi there! Remember how we go on and on about prescriptivism, and how these weird language norms are stressed in classrooms despite them having no basis in how we actually speak?
Well, language attitudes and norms do not only affect native English speakers, but also interferes with the way English is taught as a second language.

If you’ve read my posts about Standardisation and Bad English, you will be familiar with the idea that some varieties of English are perceived to be better than others – standard British English is usually considered particularly desirable. When I started learning English, 15-20 years ago (gulp!), it was still the norm in Swedish schools to teach this variety. This lead to some interesting prescriptive teaching: Being brought up in Sweden, where foreign-language tv and films are subtitled rather than dubbed, we primary-schoolers were already quite proficient in American English lexicon and expressions. However, we were taught that some of the things we had learned were not correct, for example that we should say flat instead of apartment or trousers instead of pants (although, we did not know yet that the latter meant underwear in British English). We were given these British words not to use as an alternative, but to use instead of the American words we already had a comfortable grasp of. This even stretched to pronunciations; instead of pronouncing the weekdays in the, for us, intuitive way, ending with a diphthong, as in Monday (/mʌnd/), we were told to use the, now quite archaic, RP pronunciation Mondi’ (‘mʌndi’).

Image source.

Some other things taught could be plainly wrong. A friend from Germany was told to not use constructions like “I’ll give you the book” but always use the construction with a preposition “I’ll give the book to you”. This is, of course, bonkers: the first construction is a double object construction, perfectly grammatical and frequently used in English! In fact, double object constructions have been a feature of English going back to the time when nouns still had cases and could go just about anywhere in the sentence.

Another friend from Hong Kong (where English is actually an official language and many are bilingual), recalls being told in English class that you must not use the expression ‘long time no see’ as it is “Chinglish” and therefore not proper. Of course this expression is well established in English, even if its origin is likely to be a mapping of English words onto some Chinese variety1:

好久 = long time
不 = no
见 = see1

This example shows some of the problematic attitudes towards post-colonial English varieties, and how these attitudes can even be internalised by the speakers themselves; the fact that this expression has its origins in Chinese overshadows how fixed the expression is in standard English, so much so that this English teacher wanted their students to distance themselves from it. In general, post-colonial English varieties such as Chinese or Indian English do not have the same status as, for example, British or Australian English, and this is often due to mere ignorance: linguistic innovations in such varieties are often seen as imperfections, features of foreign accents, because many do not understand that they are spoken as a first language.

Image source.

Even if American English is much more accepted in Swedish schools today, the idea that one form of English is more appropriate to be taught still remains. Sure, there is a point in teaching one style of English when it comes to formal writing, but this is a much later stage in most people’s English education. Teaching English-learning children that certain forms of English are wrong, despite that they’ve heard them being used and already have acquired them, might affect their confidence in speaking English – and may have more severe confidence effects for those who speak a post-colonial English variety as a first language. As always, prescriptivism disallows variation, and thus makes languages way more boring.


1The expression first appears in American English.

2Thanks Riccardo for providing the Mandarin translation! The mapping works on Cantonese as well, and it is unclear which language is the origin.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Planet

Hello good (and not-so-good, we don’t judge) people!
It’s Tuesday and it’s time for our appointment with the history of the English vocabulary.

Today’s word is “planet”.

Everybody in the modern world knows of planets, whether it be from astronomy classes in school or science fiction, and we all know what a planet is, right?
Well, it turns out that amongst astronomers, the actual definition of “planet” is still a bit controversial. The currently accepted definition is the following: “an astronomical body massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity (which excludes asteroids), not massive enough to initiate thermonuclear fusion (which excludes stars), and which has cleared its orbital neighbourhood of planetesimals (i.e. small rocky bodies)”. The addition of this last clause to the definition famously resulted in the “demotion” of former planet Pluto to “dwarf planet”, or “Kuiper belt object”, a decision that was made firstly because of its very small size (it’s smaller than Russia!), and secondly because the cascading discovery of similar objects would have made the Solar System have thousands of planets. You don’t want to memorise thousands of names at school, now, do you?

To the ancient Greek, though, the definition of planet was very simple: it was a star which moved instead of staying still. This is why they gave them the name “planetes”, which in Ancient Greek means “wanderer”, and from which our modern word “planet” comes.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Concert

Hello, my smart followers!
It’s Tuesday and as (somewhat less than) usual, it’s time for our weekly Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is “concert”.

When we think of concerts today, we mostly think about music. Whether it is a roaring rock or metal concert, or a refined classical concert, most of us have probably taken part in and, hopefully, enjoyed at least one of two.
The story of the word, however, is pretty curious, and at one point its meaning even flipped 180 degrees.

The word “concert” ultimately comes from Latin “concertare”, from “cum”, ‘with’ + “certare”, ‘fight’. The original meaning was ‘fight against’. How did it go from that to a music get-together? Well, in medieval Italian, the meaning of the word unexpectedly flipped to mean ‘to work together’, the exact opposite of its original meaning! We don’t really know how this happened, but the most likely explanation is that the first switch happened due to confusion between the two meanings of Latin “cum”: ‘against’ and ‘together with’. The word would then have switched from meaning ‘fight against’ to ‘fight alongside’.
From there it moved to English in a musical context through the influx of Italian musical vocabulary that accompanied the formalisation of musical theory in the late 17th century.

Don’t never use no double negatives

Multiple negation? I ain’t never heard nothing about that!

“Two negatives make a positive,” your friend may primly reply to such a statement. Even if you’re not exactly fond of math, you surely remember enough to acknowledge the wisdom and veracity of such sound logic.

But the funny thing about languages? They have a logic all their own, and it doesn’t always play by the same rules as our conscious minds.

Take, for example, this phenomenon of the double negative. Like the other formal, prescriptive rules we’ve been exploring with this series, the distaste for double negatives is relatively new to English.

Back in Old and Middle English (roughly AD 1000-1450), English wasn’t particularly fussed about multiple elements of negation in a sentence. If anything, they were used for emphasis, to drive home the negation. This trick of negatives supporting each other (rather than canceling each other out) is called negative concord. Far from being frowned upon, some languages crave it. Spanish, for example, regularly crams several negation words into a single sentence without a second thought:

¡No toques nada!
‘Don’t touch anything!’

This isn’t merely the preferred method of negation. In languages like Spanish and French, negative concord isn’t for emphasis; it’s mandatory. That’s just how they express negation.

The idea that two negatives grammatically make a positive in English was first recorded in the 1700s along with most of the other prescriptive rules. Unlike the other rules, there is some evidence to suggest that negative concord was naturally beginning to disappear in mainstream varieties of English even before the early grammarians codified the rule. This really isn’t too surprising. Languages like to change, and among the other moving parts they scramble around, they commonly go through phases of double negation (we linguists know this as Jespersen’s Cycle).

Math has naught to do with language, but it’s certainly true that in our Modern English, double negatives have the potential to leave a lot of ambiguity. Do they cancel? Do they intensify each other? It’s all about that context. This is one rule that might be here to stay1 (at least in formal English).

1 At least for now!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Paper

Hello, my sweet, sweet followers. I hope you’ve been well!
After a rather baffling two-week hiatus, we bring back what you’ve all been craving for: our weekly instalment of Fun Etymologies!

Today’s word is “paper”.

Paper is a wonderful material. Invented in the 2nd century by the Chinese Han imperial court eunuch Cai Lun, this humble wood fibre byproduct has revolutionised the world.
Thanks to paper, writing became immensely easier, no longer being dependent on laboriously curated animal skin, or fragile clay, or intractable rock. And writing is just one of its uses: it can be used for cleaning, packaging, art and much much more, and it ushered in the paper money revolution.

The word “paper” comes to English from Old French “papier”, itself derived from Latin “papyrus”. That’s right: the same as the modern English word “papyrus”, the name of a plant native to Egypt whose fibres allowed the creation of a material very similar to paper, which made the Egyptians the undisputed masters of ancient writing.
The origins of the word “papyrus” itself are uncertain.

So next time you find yourself writing a letter, or an essay, or a novel, or whispering your most intimate secrets to a padlocked diary, remember to stop and appreciate paper, that most versatile and useful of materials.