Llengües i llengua
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Language and class. English in Great Britain.

Toilet or lavatory? How words Britons use betray national obsession with class
January 7, 2016 10.59am GMT

Simon Horobin

Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

Dinner is not served. Luncheon, on the other hand…


Few things are as British as the notion of class – and little betrays it as effectively as how you speak and the words you use.

Usefully for those keen to decode this national peculiarity, 2016 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of Noblesse Oblige, a slim collection of essays edited by the notorious author and socialite Nancy Mitford, which investigated the characteristics of the English aristocracy.

The volume opened with An Essay in Sociological Linguistics by Alan Ross, a professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, in which he set out the differences between “U” (Upper-class) and “non-U” (Middle Class) usages, covering forms of address, pronunciation and the use of particular words.

It was the last of these categories – how to refer to the midday meal, the lavatory, the living room – that captured the interest of the class-conscious of 1950s England. Indeed, if the use of dinner (U form luncheon), toilet (U form lavatory), lounge (U form drawing room) and other non-U markers were not so explicitly marked before the publication of Noblesse Oblige, they certainly became so after it. Despite the Oxford English Dictionary attesting to the use of serviette in English from the 15th century, a headnote to the dictionary entry warns that it has “latterly come to be considered vulgar”.

Fish-knives? How vulgar!

Given his academic credentials, you might assume that Ross’s essay drew upon extensive scientific research. But in fact his claims were based on personal observation and anecdote. When he did draw upon textual sources, these are literary fiction of earlier generations such as the works of Jane Austen. The only contemporary source he cites is – somewhat circularly – Mitford’s own novel The Pursuit of Love (1945).

But while Ross invented the terms U and non-U, the idea that the words we use betray our social origins can be traced back to the early 20th century. In her essay on “Social Solecisms” (1907), Lady Agnes Grove lamented the middle-class use of words such as reception, couch, serviette (instead of the “honest napkin”), and expressions including going up to town (meaning London) and inviting people for the weekend.



Napkin or serviette? Be careful how you answer.

For Lady Grove, the use of such words was the unrefined linguistic equivalent of employing napkin-rings and fish-knives – and putting milk into the tea-cup before pouring the tea. The middle-class fondness for fish-knives and milk-in-first were mercilessly satirised by John Betjeman in his contribution to Noblesse Oblige: How to Get on in Society, with its memorable opening line: “Phone for the fish-knives, Norman”.

Perhaps most influential, however, was the discussion of “Genteelisms” included by H.W. Fowler in his Modern English Usage (1926) – the 20th century’s bible for linguistic purists. Fowler defined “genteelism” as the substitution for the natural term of a synonym that is “thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebeian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind & our nobility”. For Fowler, the genteel offer ale rather than beer; invite one to step (not come) this way; and assist (never help) one another to potatoes.

The seven deadly sins

Even though they are now effectively a century old and based on little more than upper-class snobbishness combined with Mitford’s teasing sense of humour, U and non-U distinctions continue to be cited as contemporary class markers. Kate Fox’s bestselling study of English behaviour, Watching the English (2004), warns her readers against the “Seven Deadly Sins” which will immediately reveal you as a member of the middle class, or resident of “Pardonia”: pardon, toilet, serviette, dinner (to refer to the midday meal), settee, lounge, sweet (instead of pudding).

Despite living in a more egalitarian and less class-conscious society, we continue to find a fascination with such linguistic dividers. When Prince William and Kate Middleton split up in 2007 the press blamed it on Kate’s mother’s linguistic gaffes at Buckingham Palace, where she reputedly responded to the Queen’s How do you do? with the decidedly non-U Pleased to meet you (the correct response being How do you do?), and proceeded to ask to use the toilet (instead of the U lavatory).

In his contribution to Noblesse Oblige, Evelyn Waugh observed that while most people have fixed ideas about proper usage, which they use to identify those who are NLO (“not like one”), these are often based on little more than personal prejudices and an innate sense of one’s own superiority. The cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, who supplied drawings for Noblesse Oblige, satirised this view through his creation Lady Littlehampton, who confidently pronounced: “If it’s Me, it’s U”.

Meanwhile, in America

How far do such categories resonate with speakers of English throughout the world? Attempts to identify US equivalents have suggested parallel distinctions between the U words mother, gal, fellow, thanks much and the non-U mom, woman, guy, thanks very much. While toilet is an acceptable way to refer to the object itself, delicate euphemisms such as restroom or bathroom are preferred ways of describing the room in which it is found.

What’s U today?

What are the linguistic markers that Britons use today to identify those who are non-U, MIF “milk-in-first” and – that most heinous of all crimes – NLO?

At the beginning of 2016, U terms such as looking-glasses, drawing rooms, scent and wirelesses are quaint archaisms and the province of period drama – think of the Dowager Countess’s disdain for the word weekend in the ITV drama Downton Abbey.

A recent article by Flora Watkins in The Lady magazine titled “Pardon: that’s practically a swear-word” extends the list of non-U terms with others to be avoided if you want to mix with the right sort in Britain today: cleaner (U daily), posh (U smart), nana (U granny), expecting (U pregnant) and passed (U dead). While expecting and passed capture the U preference for straight talking over the non-U genteel tendency towards euphemism, others seem more debatable.

Having guests to your house (not home or property) for dinner, supper or an evening meal (never high tea) remains a minefield of linguistic etiquette: do you serve them pudding, sweet, dessert or afters; show them to the lounge, sitting room, front room or living room; offer them a seat on the settee, sofa, or couch, direct them to the toilet, lavatory, loo or WC?

Such apparently innocent choices are still likely to prompt people to make judgements about your class, though it’s likely that the rules will just keep on changing. Sorry – or should I say, “pardon”? – the class conscious will just have to keep up.

When languages die, we lose a part of who we are

Vanuatuans live in one of the world’s most diverse linguistic environments

Lecturer in Psycholinguistics, Bangor University

Climate change is again on everyone’s mind. It conjures up images of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, threatened habitats, endangered species, and displaced people. We know it threatens biodiversity, but what about linguistic diversity?

Humans are the only species on the planet whose communication system exhibits enormous diversity. And linguistic diversity is crucial for understanding our capacity for language. An increase in climate-change related natural disasters may affect linguistic diversity. A good example is Vanuatu, an island state in the Pacific, with quite a dramatic recent rise in sea levels.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. These languages exhibit enormous diversity, from the number of distinctive sounds (there are languages with as few as 11 different sounds and as many as 118) to the vast range of possible word orders, structures and concepts that languages use to convey meaning. Every absolute that linguists have posited has been challenged, and linguists are busy debating if there is anything at all that is common to all languages in the world or anything at all that does not exist in the languages of the world. Sign languages show us that languages do not even need to be spoken. This diversity is evidence of the enormous flexibility and plasticity of the human brain and its capacity for communication.

Studying diverse languages gives us invaluable insights into human cognition. But language diversity is at risk. Languages are dying every year. Often a language’s death is recorded when the last known speaker dies, and about 35% of languages in the world are currently losing speakers or are more seriously endangered. Most of these have never been recorded and so would be lost forever. Linguists estimate that about 50% of the languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years. Some even argue that up to 90% of today’s languages will have disappeared by 2115.

Why languages die

There are many reasons why languages die. The reasons are often political, economic or cultural in nature. Speakers of a minority language may, for example, decide that it is better for their children’s future to teach them a language that is tied to economic success. For example, the vast majority of second-generation immigrants to the United States do not speak their parents’ languages fluently. It is economically and culturally more beneficial to speak English.

Migration also plays a large role in language change and language death. When speakers of Proto-Indo-European migrated to most of Europe and large parts of Asia between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, they probably brought about massive language change and language death. In Western Europe, Basque could possibly be the only modern language that survived the influx of the Indo-Europeans.

‘The King and the God’ in what linguists think Proto-Indo-European sounded like.

In the coming centuries, we may experience an increase in climate-related migration. It is already clear that climate change influences modern migration patterns. Climate-related disasters displaced an estimated 20m people in 2008.
Vanuatu and diversity

The areas affected by climate-related disasters are often ones that exhibit great linguistic diversity and include languages with small numbers of speakers, which are especially vulnerable. The threat facing islanders in Vanuatu is not just due to rising sea levels.

Recent tectonic movements have also caused parts of some islands to sink. As a result, a whole coastal village had to be relocated further inland from 2002 to 2004. This prompted a 2005 United Nations Environment Programme press release to call these villagers the world’s first climate change refugees. These climate change refugees happen to be living in a country that has one of the highest levels of linguistic diversity in the world.

Vanuatu is the third most linguistically diverse country in the world, as measured by the Greenberg index. The index shows the likelihood that two randomly selected speakers in a country have different native languages. Vanuatu’s Greenberg index is a staggering 97.3%. Vanuatu has 110 indigenous languages spoken in an area of about 15,000 square kilometres (about 6,000 square miles) – that’s about one language for every 136 square kilometres. Half of the languages spoken on Vanuatu have 700 speakers or less.

Losing languages to natural disasters

Some of the countries affected by the earthquake and tsunami that killed about 230,000 people in 2004 are also very linguistically diverse. India has 447 indigenous languages and a Greenberg diversity index of 91.4% and Indonesia has 706 indigenous languages and a Greenberg diversity index of 81.6%.

Researchers had just discovered the Dusner language, which had only a handful of remaining speakers, when flooding in 2010 devastated the Papua region of Indonesia, where the Dusner village is located. Luckily, some of the speakers had survived, and the language could be documented.

Often, we do not know precisely what effect natural disasters have on the languages spoken in affected areas. What we do know though is that environmental pressures increase mobility and migration and that migration affects language change and death. A further increase in climate-related disasters may further accelerate the disappearance of languages. This would be a tragic loss not just for the people and cultures involved, but for cognitive science as well.

Q&A: Addresses in Barcelona

July 28, 2010

I’ve just arrived and have been having problems understanding how addresses work here. Can you help?

There are some key differences between the way that postal addresses are written here and in other places, and sometimes the task of working out where you are trying to go is made even harder because of the two official languages.

To start with the basics, a typical address in Catalunya would be written like this:

Enric Granados 48 entlo 2ª

08008 Barcelona

The street name comes first and may or may not be preceded by the type of road it is (eg avenue, street, square, etc; for more on this, see below). The street name is followed by the building number and, if it is an apartment, the floor and door number. The next line is for the post code (codi postal in Catalan and código postal in Castilian) and the name of the town or city. In addition, the name of the province sometimes appears in brackets after the town name—eg 17257 Torroella de Montgrí (Girona).

In the address shown above, ‘entlo’ stands for entresuelo in Castilian (in Catalan, the word is entresol, abbreviated to entl.); this literally means ‘between floor’ and usually describes what English speakers call the first floor. The ground floor is bajos (bjs) in Castilian or baixos (bxs) in Catalan. Some apartment buildings also have the principal floor (often shortened to ‘pr’ or ‘pral’); this is also a name for the first floor. Another feature is the àtic (Catalan) or ático (Castilian), which, despite the name, is not the attic, but the penthouse flat. To make matters even more complicated, some buildings also have a sobreàtic, which usurps the àtic to the top floor. If in doubt, check the buzzers at the entrance to work out where to go.

Depending on the size of an apartment building, there may be two ‘staircases’ (escales). This means that the building is divided in two parts, each with its own stairs, usually indicated as Escala A and Escala B. Floors are written in ordinal numbers: in Castilian, 1º, 2º, etc; Catalan is more complex: 1er, 2on, 3er, 4rt, 5è, 6è, and so on. Flats are identified either by a number or letter. If the former, it is written in both languages as the number followed by ª.

As already seen, addresses here have a lot of abbreviations in them. What follows are the main types of road (Catalan / Castilian) and their abbreviations:

Carrer / Calle (abbreviated to C/)—street

Avinguda / Avenida (Avgda, Avda)—avenue

Plaça / Plaza (Pl)—square

Carretera (Ctra)—main road

Passeig / Paseo (Pg or Pº)—boulevard

Travessera (Trav)—these were originally streets that would cross from one side of a town or village to the other, and the name comes from the word to cross, travessar.

Another abbreviation you might see is s/n (sin or sense número), which literally means without number, and is common on big buildings that are hard to miss.
– See more at: http://www.barcelona-metropolitan.com/living/qa-addresses-in-barcelona/#sthash.UUQZBdgt.dpuf

França i les llengües de l’escola

Joan-Lluís Lluís: ‘Tres coses útils a saber sobre França i les llengües de l’escola’

Quan Alícia Sánchez-Camacho afirma que pel que fa a l’ensenyament de les llengües Catalunya s’hauria d’emmirallar en el model francès, sento com les cames, de sobte, em tremolen. Déu Nostre Senyor ni el poble de Catalunya no ho vulguin, dic, i tot seguit explico breument els motius principals d’aquest tremolor.

Un: França i les llengües dites «regionals». França és un estat lingüicidi, no el primer ni potser el més cruel, però sí el més racional, aquell que ha posat entre els deures patriòtics la necessitat de matar totes les llengües autòctones que no siguin el francès. I que ha tingut la idea de fer-ho en nom del progrés humà i sota el famós lema republicà de la llibertat, la igualtat i la fraternitat. Aquest lingüicidi s’ha dut a terme sobretot gràcies a l’escola, que ha utilitzat la por, l’amenaça, la humiliació i la delació per liquidar unes llengües que feien nosa simplement perquè existien. I si avui ja no fan tanta nosa és només perquè estan totes a la vora de l’extinció. Els cadàvers, encara que continuïn remenant una mica, ja no són una molèstia.

Dos: França i les llengües estrangeres. Els francesos encara no s’han consolat del fet que l’anglès hagi guanyat la batalla planetària. Pensen de bona fe que el francès és l’única llengua moralment susceptible de ser internacional i, per tant, existeix una tendència forta entre ells ha rebolcar-se feliçment en el monolingüisme. Aquesta és la primera raó per la qual el sistema francès d’ensenyament de les llengües estrangeres és objectivament desastrós. La segona raó és que els francesos han sacralitzat tant la llengua francesa, la seva puresa i el deure de parlar-la perfectament que tendeixen a transferir aquesta mateixa sacralització a les altres llengües: una llengua s’ha de parlar com cal o, si no, millor no parlar-la. Per això una multitud de francesos passen anys aprenent anglès sense ser capaços de tenir una conversa bàsica en aquesta llengua quan arriben al batxillerat. Si les faltes no es toleren en francès, tampoc no es toleren en d’altres llengües i com que és impossible progressar sense fer faltes, els francesos no progressen. Yes?… Sorry, I don’t comprends pas.

Tres: França i el francès. Quan es va instaurar l’escola pública obligatòria, l’objectiu d’aquesta escola era que tots els infants de França sabessin com a mínim llegir, escriure i comptar. Objectiu important però bàsic al qual els mestres podien dedicar tot el temps i els carxots necessaris, i així els alumnes acabaven dominant les complicades regles ortogràfiques franceses. Avui, es demana a l’escola que integri molta més matèria (i sense carxots) i, per tant, el temps disponible per ensenyar les mateixes regles ha disminuït molt. Conseqüència: una part molt important de l’alumnat francès té un nivell de francès escrit catastròfic. L’Acadèmia Francesa i el ministeri d’Educació es neguen a simplificar les regles —la grandesa és la grandesa— i es tapen els ulls per no veure com es va eixamplant el fossar que separa les classes socials. Avui, la població francesa es divideix en dues parts, en funció del tipus de francès que domina: el francès acadèmic o el francès del carrer. Com ho deia un humorista: per culpa del tall imposat per la llengua francesa, l’ascensor social és bloquejat al subsòl i fa olor de pixat.

Languages and worldviews

How the language you speak changes your view of the world

German speakers think more about their goals. German speaking via FuzzBones/www.shutterstock.com

Bilinguals get all the perks. Better job prospects, a cognitive boost and even protection against dementia. Now new researchshows that they can also view the world in different ways depending on the specific language they are operating in.

The past 15 years have witnessed an overwhelming amount of research on the bilingual mind, with the majority of the evidence pointing to the tangible advantages of using more than one language. Going back and forth between languages appears to be a kind of brain training, pushing your brain to be flexible.

Just as regular exercise gives your body some biological benefits, mentally controlling two or more languages gives your brain cognitive benefits. This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals – and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.

Germans know where they’re going

In research we recently published in Psychological Science, we studied German-English bilinguals and monolinguals to find out how different language patterns affected how they reacted in experiments.

We showed German-English bilinguals video clips of events with a motion in them, such as a woman walking towards a car or a man cycling towards the supermarket and then asked them to describe the scenes.

Is she walking? Or walking towards the car?Walking via Radu Razvan/www.shutterstock.com

When you give a scene like that to a monolingual German speaker they will tend to describe the action but also the goal of the action. So they would tend to say “A woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles towards the supermarket”. English monolingual speakers would simply describe those scenes as “A woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”, without mentioning the goal of the action.

The worldview assumed by German speakers is a holistic one – they tend to look at the event as a whole – whereas English speakers tend to zoom in on the event and focus only on the action.

The linguistic basis of this tendency appears to be rooted in the way different grammatical tool kits situated actions in time. English requires its speakers to grammatically mark events that are ongoing, by obligatorily applying the –ing morpheme: “I am playing the piano and I cannot come to the phone” or “I was playing the piano when the phone rang”. German doesn’t have this feature.

Research with second language users shows a relationship between linguistic proficiency in such grammatical constructions and the frequency with which speakers mention the goals of events.

In our study we also found that these cross-linguistic differences extend beyond language usage itself, to nonverbal categorisation of events. We asked English and German monolinguals to watch a series of video clips that showed people walking, biking, running, or driving. In each set of three videos, we asked subjects to decide whether a scene with an ambiguous goal (a woman walks down a road toward a parked car) was more similar to a clearly goal-oriented scene (a woman walks into a building) or a scene with no goal (a woman walks down a country lane).

German monolinguals matched ambiguous scenes with goal-oriented scenes more frequently than English monolinguals did. This difference mirrors the one found for language usage: German speakers are more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people’s actions, but English speakers pay more attention to the action itself.

Switch languages, change perspective

When it came to bilingual speakers, they seemed to switch between these perspectives based on the language context they were given the task in. We found that Germans fluent in English were just as goal-focused as any other native speaker when tested in German in their home country. But a similar group of German-English bilinguals tested in English in the United Kingdom were just as action-focused as native English speakers.

In another group of German-English bilinguals, we kept one language in the forefront of their minds during the video-matching task by making participants repeat strings of numbers out loud in either English or German. Distracting one language seemed to automatically bring the influence of the other language to the fore.

When we “blocked” English, the bilinguals acted like typical Germans and saw ambiguous videos as more goal-oriented. With German blocked, bilingual subjects acted like English speakers and matched ambiguous and open-ended scenes. When we surprised subjects by switching the language of the distracting numbers halfway through the experiment, the subjects’ focus on goals versus process switched right along with it.

These findings are in line with other research showing distinct behaviour in bilinguals depending on the language of operation. Israeli Arabs are more likely to associate Arab names such as Ahmed and Samir with positive words in an Arabic language context than in a Hebrew one, for example.

People self-report that they feel like a different person when using their different languages and that expressing certain emotions carries different emotional resonance depending on the language they are using.

When judging risk, bilinguals also tend to make more rational economic decisions in a second language. In contrast to one’s first language, it tends to lack the deep-seated, misleading affective biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived. So the language you speak in really can affect the way you think.

Llengües i educació. Per una escola inclusiva

L’escola primària inclusiva a Irlanda.

Com fer sentir els nous alumnes benvinguts?


Quan trobes a faltar un peu de foto

llengües grec

Entendre el grec, quina falta ens fa?


Jocs de llengües

L’avi que buscava un esquimal per la ràdio: un cas real o una campanya de màrqueting?

Un vídeo aclareix què hi havia darrere la història d’en Pere, que buscava algú que l’ajudés a aprendre el kalaallisut a través d’una falca radiofònica

“Hola, em dic Pere, i això és un missatge per a qui conegui el dialecte esquimal kalaallisut”. La petició d’aquest avi que volia sorprendre la seva néta –que estava a punt de casar-se amb un groenlandès– fent un discurs en l’idioma del noi durant el casament, ha encuriosit durant els últims dies molts oients de ràdio catalans, que es preguntaven si es tractava d’una història real o bé de la primera part d’una campanya de màrqueting que es resoldria més endavant.

I la resposta és que tant els uns com els altres tenien raó. La recerca d’en Pere és una història real, però alhora formava part  d’una campanya de l’Associació Catalana de Ràdio (ACR) –una entitat que agrupa les emissores privades catalanes– per demostrar l’eficàcia que tenen les falques de ràdio, que han estat capaces de trobar solució per a un cas aparentment impossible. La mateixa entitat explica en un vídeo que, un cop es va començar a emetre l’anunci, en Pere va rebre “desenes de trucades intentant ajudar-lo” i que, finalment, va entrar en contacte amb el Jan, un esquimal que viu a Vic i que parla el kalaallisut.

Segons el vídeo, en Pere ha estat capaç d’aprendre’s un petit discurs en aquest llengua, alhora que l’ACR ha demostrat que anunciar-se a la ràdio “pot aconseguir impossibles”.

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