Questions and Answers
Interesting questions on language and linguistics, answered by staff from the Department of Linguistics and English Language here at Lancaster University.
Focus on English
Where does English come from?
Answer by Jonathan Culpeper
If you wound the clock back 2,000 years and were listening to some people in Britain having a conversation, you would not hear the English you are familiar with, nor even an old-sounding form of English. This is because you would be listening to a Celtic language (to give yourself a rough idea of what this would sound like, think of today's Welsh). So, where does English come from? If you were standing in northern Germany, the chances are that you would recognise the odd word. English has its roots in the Germanic dialects of the tribes of north-western Europe.
How did this 'English' end up in England? According the Venerable Bede, a monk writing at Jarrow, the year AD 449 saw the arrival of three Germanic tribes - Angle, Saxon and Jutish. The problem is that Bede made this remark about three hundred years after the event, so we must treat it with some caution. It is unlikely that there were three distinct tribes. Moreover, it is not the case that that particular year saw some kind of dramatic conquest by the Anglo-Saxons. Prior to that date, Britain had had trading links with northern Europe and some settlement had taken place; after that date, although the influx of Anglo-Saxons increased, there was no instant conquest, but a rather slow movement from the east of Britain to the west, taking place over some 250 years.
What happened to the native Celtic-speaking tribes of Britain? Where the Anglo-Saxons settled there is evidence of some integration with the local population. However, the Anglo-Saxons never got as far as the northern and western extremes of Britain. The Celtic languages - notably Cornish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic - proceeded relatively independently of English in what are now Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.
So, can one say that the English spoken today comes from the Germanic dialects of those tribes from northern Europe? Not exactly. In terms of the structure of English (its grammar and sound system) and also its most commonly used words, one can trace a clear line back towards those settlers and one can draw parallels with other Germanic languages. But the English we speak today has been influenced by many other languages. This is most noticeably true of vocabulary, where English has assimilated a multitude of words from other languages, but particularly from French and Latin.
Which is the most popular language in the world?
Answer by Paul Baker
The language which has the most native speakers (e.g. people who speak a language as their first language) is Chinese, which accounts for about 1 in 5 speakers on the planet. After that, come English, Spanish and Hindi-Urdu (two languages which are written down differently, but sound similar enough to be understood by both sets of speakers when heard) - each of these account for about 1 in 20 speakers at the moment, although it's predicted that English is likely to slip to 5th place and be replaced by Arabic at some time in this century.
However, as well as first-language speakers, we can also count people who learn a language as a second language at school (second-language speakers). If we consider these people, then Mandarin Chinese is still at the top, with 1,052 million speakers, English comes second with 508 million speakers, Hindi-Urdu is third with 487 million speakers and Spanish is fourth with 417 million speakers.
We can also consider the number of countries across the world that use certain languages. So while English doesn't have more speakers than Chinese, it's spoken in many more countries than Chinese. As well as been spoken as a first language in the UK, the USA, Ireland, Australia, it's also the "official language" of countries like India and Singapore. And it has a special status in countries like China, Russia, Japan, Greece and Poland, where it is often taught as a foreign language.
English also has a special status in that it's used as a "world" language in lots of different ways. So about 80% of internet communication is in English, many global satellite television channels broadcast in English (CNN, Sky News, MTV), certain products (McDonalds, Coke, Pepsi) bring the English language to many places in the world, about 99% of European organisations use English as an official language, and the universal form of language used across the world by air traffic control centres is a simplified version of English. Therefore, English has impacted on the world more than any other language, even though it doesn't have the most speakers.
Whether English will continue to be known as the closest thing to a global language we have though is another matter.
See the Learn English website by the British Council for more information.
Do people speak less correctly now than they used to?
Answer by Gerry Knowles
People have always spoken their own language perfectly, but vary in their ability to speak someone else's. During the time of the British Empire, there was a widespread belief that polite Londoners spoke correctly, and that everybody else got their English wrong. This view culminated in the early 20C in "Received Pronunciation", the accent of English public schoolboys, which was adopted for broadcasting by the BBC. Up to the 1970s there was intense social pressure on educated English people to modify their speech to make it closer to RP. In the modern world, global English is spoken in many different ways, and British English is one variety among many. Even in England the speech of young people is influenced not by RP, but by Estuary English, a less exclusive accent spreading from the South East of England. Young people today do not speak 1920s English, but do speak perfect 'noughties' English.
Why do people swear and should we stop them?
Answer by Paul Baker
It's thought that swearing first began as a form of 'word magic', connected to religion, in early civilisations. People were more likely to believe in divine beings who had the power to punish them. So people called on divine beings in order to curse people they didn't like. This became a tabooed use of language, and sometimes, just saying the name of the divine being was tabooed.
In Norse cultures, swearing, or 'flyting' as it was known, was a form of ritualistic entertainment. People would show off their creative skills, inventing clever insults for each other, in front of an appreciative audience.
There's also a theory that swear-words are kept in a different part of the brain to other words, and these words come out automatically when we're very angry or emotional in some way - for example, if we hit our finger with a hammer. Some people who have damage to a part of the brain which means that they can't use language, can still swear. Tourette's syndrome, which is associated with people swearing uncontrollably, is also connected to damage in a part of the brain which is to do with control and inhibition. If our brains do have this special place which is reserved for swearing, then perhaps we have evolved swearing in our brains for a useful purpose - as an alternative to responding with violence when we get angry.
Campaigns to stop people from swearing in the past have only really had short-term successes - we now have more swearing on television than we did in the 1960s, despite campaigns by people like Mary Whitehouse and the NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) to regulate language in the media. Increased exposure to swearing may mean that some swear-words lose their power to shock us, although it's likely that they will be replaced by newer words. It's certainly the case that many of the words that the NVLA disapproved of in the 1960s, no longer have the same power to shock or upset people. It would certainly pointless in banning swear-words altogether. Most people are aware about what sort of language is appropriate in specific contexts and self-regulate their swearing accordingly.
Why do people use slang, and how are slang terms created?
Answer by Paul Baker
Slang is one of the most creative forms of language in existence. Many slang terms originate within small social groups of speakers and gradually spread out to the wider population. Many innovative slang terms are created by young people, and are connected to various fashions or interests that are shared by social groups. The media (newspapers, television and the internet) help to spread slang terms. However, once a slang term is known to lots of people, it has usually lost the qualities that made it so attractive in the first place - its exclusivity and way of marking its users as different from everyone else. Therefore, slang words have a very high turn-over - groups of slang users constantly need to invent slang terms as the old ones are discovered and appropriated by a wider audience. Slang is very similar to fashion.
Successful slang words usually have something unusual about them, which will make people notice, remember and reuse it. Rhyming phrases such as easy-peasy and hells-bells are popular because they are easy to remember. While rhymes are one of the most common forms found in slang, there are many others, pararhymes: (flip-flop), repetitions (fifty-fifty, yoyo) and blends (which combine the meanings or sounds from two words together: ginormous, fantabulous). Alliterations are phrases which begin with the same letter of the alphabet: face-fungus, silly sausage, while consonances contain the repetition towards the end of each word in the phrase: happy bunny, hunky-dory. Assonances employ a repetition of the central vowel sound: hen-pecked, hit-list and reverse rhymes have an identical initial consonant and vowel sound: muscle muffin, yum-yuk.
Another popular method of creating slang terms involves truncating the word to a single syllable (tats, tache), or by using an abbreviation format (TTFN, TV). The success of such forms of slang can be partly explained by Zipf's Law which states that the shorter a word or phrase, the more likely it is to be found in verbal discourse. Short items are easier to remember than long items, and the process of chunking, by reducing longer items to memorable chunks allows them to be retained more easily in memor
Words, Words, Words
What is the difference between a phoneme and a morpheme?
Answer by Francis Katamba
PHONEME The term phoneme refers to a segment of sound that is used to distinguish the meanings of words in a particular language.
Example: In English the sounds the sounds /b/ and /m/ are distinct phonemes. (Conventionally a phoneme is written between slant lines.) How do we know? We know that if you substitute /p/ for /b/ you change the meaning of the word. For instance, 'bat' and 'mat', 'rib' and 'rim' etc., are words with different meanings.
Note that phonemes are not the same as letters in the writing system (cf. 'lap' and 'lapp' (native of Lapland) , which are spelled differently but pronounced the same) and the 'ough' sequences in 'cough' and 'bough' which are spelled the same but pronounced differently.
MORPHEME The term 'morpheme' refers to the smallest linguistic unit that carries some sort of meaning or is used to indicate that a word has some particular grammatical function. For instance, the word 'uneventful' has three morphemes un- 'not', 'event' and '-ful' and the word 'pets' has two, namely 'pet' and 'plural', which is indicated by '-s'
To find out more read:-
- Crystal, D.1991 The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
What is a word?
Answer by Francis Katamba
The word is the smallest grammatical unit which is capable of occurring on its own as an utterance. In speech it can be preceded and followed by a pause; in writing it can be preceded and followed by a space.
That is a very bare answer. I suggest you follow it up by reading one or more of the following sources:
- Crystal, David The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987. p. 91.
- Katamba, F. English Words. London: Routledge 1994. Chapter 2.
- McArthur, T. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. (Abridged edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1996 pp.1024-33.
Learning To Talk
What is the easiest language to learn?
Answer by Mark Sebba
All children seem to take approximately the same length of time - around five years - to learn their first language to a point where it is almost the same as the adult language. So for children acquiring a first language, none of the world's languages seems to be easier than any other. Learning a second language is a different matter. Individuals vary widely in how successfully they learn a new language after acquiring their first. However, these differences seem to be mainly due to factors like the learners' motivation, their method of learning (for example, whether they have a teacher or learn by themselves), and the extent to which they have contact with the language (it is easier to learn Russian in Russia than in England). The target language (the one the learner is trying to learn) probably is less significant than the factors just mentioned. However, the learner may make more progress, at least at the beginning, if the target language is similar in some ways to his/her own. So some English learners of French may find it helpful that many French words are already familiar from English, while English learners of Norwegian may be helped by grammatical similarities between the two languages.
Where languages have different writing systems (for example, English and Japanese) this may present an additional barrier to learners who want to learn the written language, especially if they depend on written materials for learning the new language. Once this barrier has been overcome, the new language should be no harder to learn than any other.
One group of languages - pidgins, are always easy for the learner. This is because they develop in situations where no common language is available and speakers have to learn a language quickly in order to bridge the communication gap. Pidgins characteristically have small vocabularies, short words and simple, regular grammars. Languages which are not pidgins sometimes have one or two of these characteristics but very rarely have all of them.
If children try to learn two languages simultaneously, i.e. to grow up bilingual, will this mean that they don’t learn either language properly?
Answer by Sally Johnson
The answer to this question depends very much on what you mean by learning a language 'properly'. Does this refer to the ability to speak both languages with a native speaker-like accent and/or without grammatical errors? Is it the ability to discuss complex specialised topics in both languages such as computers, marine biology, or aeronautical engineering? Or do you mean the ability to speak and write both languages equally competently? These kinds of questions are important because most people who use more than one language tend not to be able to do all the same things in each language. In addition, many bi-/multilingual people reserve one language for certain purposes (or 'domains of usage'), e.g. talking to friends or family, use at school or in church, or when dealing with authorities etc.
But to try to give a more direct answer to your question, research seems to suggest that growing up bilingually does not really lead to the inability to learn either language properly (so-called 'semilingualism'). How well a child learns each language will depend on many factors, e.g. which family members speak which language to the child (and how often), in which language/s the child is formally educated, whether there are frequent visits to a country where the other language is spoken, and ultimately the extent to which the child itself identifies personally with each language. Whatever happens though, as I said before, it is usually the case that bilinguals will have differing abilities in each language - but this does not have to mean the inability to learn either language properly.
If you would like to know more about raising children bilingually, you could read one of the many books or articles by George Saunders such as 'Bilingual children. From birth to teens' (1988), which outlines many of the theoretical issues and also describes the author's own attempts to raise his three children bilingually in English and German. There is also a quarterly international magazine called the Bilingual Family Newsletter which acts as a forum for bilingual families to share their experiences and get in touch with one another. (For details contact Multilingual Matters, Victoria Road, Clevedon, Avon, BS21 7SJ, UK.)
Finally, it is worth noting that the idea of bilingualism as a 'problem' or potentially harmful to a child's learning is particularly prevalent in cultures which consider monolingualism to be the norm (which includes many parts of the English-speaking world). The majority of the world's population, however, uses more than one language on a daily basis, and does not consider this to be anything unusual or problematic. Nor do such people worry particularly about whether they speak each of these languages 'properly'.
What is the best way to learn a language?
Answer by Jane Sunderland
People learn languages in different ways. There is no one best way. Most people find that living in the 'target language' country, and doing things like shopping, watching TV, and talking to speakers of the language is the best way. However, most people can't do that, and have to learn the new language in the classroom. You need to make sure you get enough 'input', i.e. exposure to the target language, in both written and spoken form if that is what you want, including language which is a little more difficult than you feel you can cope with.
You also need to make sure you produce enough 'output', i.e. speaking and/or writing, so that you are using the language yourself. Don't worry too much about making mistakes, but try and make sure you get feedback from the teacher or another student on what you say or write. Use grammar books and dictionaires too, if you like, but try and work out the rules of the language yourself too.
What is the difference between a language and a dialect?
Answer by Mark Sebba
This question is as much a political as a linguistic one. Linguists have a saying: "a language is a dialect with an army". What this means is that there is no systematic linguistic difference between a language and a dialect. Both are linguistic systems with grammar and vocabulary and are or can be learnt natively by their speakers. There is nothing inherently better, more systematic or more logical in a "language" than in a "dialect", or vice versa. However, if we go to the dictionary to see how these words are generally used, we find there is a clear notion of a difference between "language" and "dialect": "language" always has associations of statehood or nationhood. "Dialect" on the other hand is defined as a "subordinate variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation, or idioms." (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1982), or "a form of a language that is considered inferior." (Collins Concise English Dictionary 1985) or "a peculiar manner of speaking." (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary 1972).
The association of language with a "country" or "nation" and of "dialect" with an inferior or non- (i.e. sub-) standard variety of speech is very strong. This is what is meant by "a language is a dialect with an army." We can see from this that what are called languages are often standard languages, which are associated with nationhood, with centralised power, with statehood. Nonstandard varieties of language are often termed dialects, implying that they have less status and prestige. But historically, standard languages are just dialects which have acquired a special status, and nonstandard dialects were just language varieties which lay far from the centres of power. Looked at as linguistic systems, languages and dialects have the same characteristics; but looked at from a social point of view, we can say that a language has higher status than a dialect.
I am not clear on the development from a pidgin to a creole. If I am correct I think this process is called creolization, but does it happen to all Pidgin languages?
Answer by Mark Sebba
Creolisation definitely does not happen to all pidgins. Some pidgins just go on being pidgins for a long period or even a short period, and then die out because there is no further use for them.
Creolisation is the process whereby a pidgin becomes a creole. For this to happen there has to be a stable community (i.e. one where children are born and grow up) where the creole is spoken. The pidgin becomes a creole at the point where children grow up speaking it as their first language (usually because their parents have no other language in common, and sometimes because the whole community already use the pidgin as their main language, even though they also know other languages.) For example, in Papua New Guinea, there are now urban communities of people who originally came from villages in different parts of the country.
Pidgin is the main language in these communities because the original languages of the adults are completely different from each other. While the adults are still pidgin speakers (because for them, it's a second language) the children who grow up with the pidgin as their first language are actually creole speakers, and the pidgin has turned into a creole. If they have children, the children will learn the creole as their first language and so it will go on, just like any other language passed from generation to generation.
You can find out more from my book Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles (Macmillan, 1997).
Some people have told me that "dining room" can be spelled as "dinning room". Not only the spelling changes, but they say this would be the correct way to do it. Is this true?
Answer by Mark Sebba
Since the word ‘dining’ in ‘dining room’ is from the verb ‘to dine’ the spelling ‘dining’ reflects the pronunciation of the verb, while the spelling ‘dinning’ does not – it would have to derive from the word ‘din’.
Spellings do not always reflect pronunciation and although English spelling is very conservative, changes do take place, so it is reasonable to ask whether there could have been a change from ‘dining room’ to ‘dinning room’ – in fact I have seen this spelling once or twice myself.
A quick way to check whether popular usage is changing is to do an online search for both forms. Google produces 187 million results for ‘dining room’ but only 7 million results for ‘dinning room’, which suggests that only a small minority of people use the spelling ‘dinning room’. Also a quick look at these web pages shows that some of them are written by people for whom English is not a first language, while others use both spellings, suggesting that ‘dinning room’ might just be an error. On the other hand there are pages where ‘dinning’ has been used several times and ‘dining’ is not used at all, suggesting that the writers feel this is the correct spelling.
In conclusion, although there seems to be overwhelming agreement that the correct spelling is ‘dining room’, there are some people who write ‘dinning room’ and are not aware that this is regarded as wrong from a normative viewpoint (e.g. dictionaries). This might mean that there is some acceptance of this form although generally it is regarded as a misspelling.