Tag Archives: language

Why do people mangle the language?

confusedAt the recent Australian STC conference, Neil James was asked why people write Manglish, or mangled English. I very much like what he had to say.

(As quoted in Sarah Maddox’s blog, ffeathers. Emphasis mine.)

  • At school, we imbibe the notion that complex writing is better writing. Waffle gets reasonable marks, provided it’s elegant waffle.
  • Early in our careers in the professional and technical workplace, mastering and using the technical jargon of our field gives us a stronger feeling of belonging.
  • When we learn the tech vocabulary of a particular industry, it’s difficult to adjust to communicating with a lay audience.
  • Institutional culture reinforces the language patterns. Large organisations move slowly. It’s hard to change their processes. When you do successfully introduce change, the organisation moves steadily along the new path.
  • Language is used as an expression of power. Sometimes, people deliberately use jargon to protect their financial interests or to manipulate public opinion. An example is from the airline industry, when people use the term “loss of separation” of two planes, which means the two planes collided.

What do you think? Have you experienced a “loss of separation” with some mangled English lately? What might’ve caused it, do you think?

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Sorry – je ne suis pas circumflex

What’s going on in France?

I’m talking about the way some people are reacting to the modest spelling reforms put forth by the Académie Française. According to a New York Times report, no sooner had the Académie proposed removing the circumflex from some words (only in cases where there would be no ambiguity), than Je suis circumflex became a thing on Twitter. It’s a nod, of course, to last year’s Je suis Charlie [Hebdo] meme.

academie

We don’t need an Academy of English. But if we ever get one I hope it has a classy building like the Académie Française. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

You might think that I, a lover of language, would join the movement. But I won’t. Here’s why.

I grew up in an orderly home. There were rules. There were right ways and wrong ways to do things. As a result, life was pretty predictable. I liked that.

At school I learned the rules of grammar. I didn’t just learn them — I soaked them up. There was a right way and a wrong way to speak and write. I liked that.

Those rules became ingrained. Never split an infinitive. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never use a plural pronoun (they) when talking about just one person.

Then a funny thing happened. As I grew older, I watched the English language evolve. I had a ringside seat, in fact, because I made my career in writing.

English evolved, because that’s what languages do. They evolve. Continue reading

Living and Learning

I firmly believe that if you’re not learning, you’re not living. With that in mind, let’s look at some things I learned in 2015:

Robot reading a book

That new technologies can tell stories — and what that might imply for the future

How not to enhance a brand — whether it’s your company’s or your personal brand

Sound advice on the art of estimating projects for technical communication (I especially recommend the two articles that are linked in the postscript)

The importance of connotations: of using words in the way your reader understands them, not in the way you think your reader should understand them (or as Mark Baker might phrase it, writing in a way that makes use of the stories you share in common with your reader)Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression "No way!" prominently displayed

An amusing example of how languages evolve and interact with each other

The need for patience, and resisting the impulse to jump in and do it now

Pluto as seen by New HorizonsTwo essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves

Making mistakes, and learning from them

 

My most-read article this year, by far, posed the question What should a Technical Communication course teach? The responses to that article proved the need for a profession-wide conversation on this topic, but (alas) I don’t think the conversation has gotten off the ground. Yet.

Perhaps that’ll change in 2016 — a year in which I look forward to lots more living and lots more learning.

What was the coolest thing you learned in 2015? The most surprising thing?

Don’t offend anyone — and don’t communicate either

Today’s news brings word that Harvard University is allowing its students to pick the gender pronouns by which they would like to be called.

Humpty Dumpty

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

In addition to the traditional he and she, students can select the now commonly accepted they. Or they can select other, less well known options like ze, hir, and hirs.

According to a Boston Globe story, the move by Harvard “is aimed at increasing inclusion on the campus.”

I’m all for inclusion. Yet, as the old maps used to warn navigators when they approached unexplored territory, here be dragons.

Why? Based on what I know about human communication, I’d say that Harvard’s new policy will increase, not decrease, the odds of someone taking offense. And the long-term effect might be to shut down, not enhance, communication.

Communication depends on everyone having a more-or-less shared understanding of the language they use. If I use a word, I expect you to know what I mean, and vice versa. I don’t use obscure meanings — unless I’m trying to confuse or mislead you, which is the opposite of communication. I also make a good-faith effort to interpret your words in the way you intended to use them.

But unless I know all the nuanced rules for using words like ze, hir, and hirs, the risk of misunderstandings — and hurt feelings — increases. Will I need to learn a special argot just to communicate with people on the Harvard campus?

Sounds like a lot of trouble. Maybe I just won’t bother.

By seeking to create an “inclusive” atmosphere, by building a cocoon in which no one’s feelings are hurt, Harvard is actually increasing the likelihood that someone will take umbrage. And they might be discouraging people from trying to communicate at all.

Shocked at how languages evolve? No way!

As a native speaker of English, I’m often impressed by how much influence our language has throughout the world, especially in business and technology.

Other times I’m not so much impressed as embarrassed.

If you ride the subway into downtown Stockholm you might see this advertisement:
Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression
That’s right. No way, the flippant, emphatic expression of denial, has made its way into the Swedish vernacular. I shudder to think what might be next.

Yet I shouldn’t shudder, and I certainly shouldn’t be surprised. Languages have been influencing and enriching each other for millenia. Case in point: knowing English and a bit of German, I had no trouble finding the subway station in Stockholm. I just followed the signs to Tunnelbanan.

Now that no way has entered the Swedish language, I’m willing to bet that — unless it soon falls out of vogue — it’ll evolve new shades of meaning in Swedish that it never had in English. Just like smorgasbord has evolved a metaphorical meaning in English — it now refers to any large and diverse collection — that it doesn’t have in Swedish.

Having gotten over my initial surprise and embarrassment, I realize that the Swedish no way is just another example of the eternal interplay between languages. It’s a reminder that language is dynamic, that it often goes in directions surprising and whimsical. It’s a fascinating and marvelous process. And if anyone thinks it’ll ever stop, I have two words for you:

No way!

Easy translation: a double-edged sword?

Google Translate word lens feature

Image source: Google

Big news from Google Translate: you can now point your smartphone camera at French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish text — and immediately get an English translation. (Thanks to Danielle Villegas — @TechCommGeekMom — for pointing me to the original article by Pete Pachal on Mashable.)

As Pachal writes, “Star Trek‘s universal translator is here, and it’s on your phone.”

It’s very cool, and incredibly useful.

However, as someone who used a slide rule before pocket calculators came into vogue, I have a question.

Just as calculators (and then personal computers) eroded people’s skill at doing long division, will easy translation software make people less likely to learn foreign languages? If I can navigate around Lisbon or Moscow using my smartphone, will I bother to learn anything at all of Portuguese or Russian?

And if that’s true, won’t something be lost? After all, learning a language is more than just learning vocabulary and syntax. It’s gaining a bit of insight into the culture that produced the language, and it’s opening up a way for me to connect with people in that culture.

So, hooray for easy translation software. In the short run it’ll certainly make our lives easier. But will it prove to be a double-edged sword?

Tell me what you think in the comments.