360°

After sixteen weeks of classes, I scrolled down my blog in order to see the evolution that I have made thanks to this course. And as I was reading my first post, I actually felt ashamed and wanted to delete it straight. I actually don’t recognize myself through it, at all, and I barely remember writing it…

Instead of deleting it, I think I can do something much more useful. Now that the class is over and that I have spent a whole semester questioning myself about style and language, I think that I have enough skills to criticize my own work.

Through these 4 months of classes, we have been thinking a lot about the question of how to adopt an interesting perspective and more specifically to

ANGLES

Looking for an angle has been everybody’s quest, and I assume that I have been pretty lucky due to my “foreign eye” on English language. I didn’t find it right from the start though, which (partly) justify the mediocrity of this first post.

Thus, to correct myself, here is what I would do after. I won’t change my arguments because surprisingly, I still have the same opinion: Style and substance, to me, are tightly connected. However, I would definitely use a more personal perspective, especially by illustrating what I say with concrete examples of my experience in this class. To talk about the choice of words for instance, I would have provide examples like this: saying “the scent of her skin” has another effect on the reader than saying “the smell of her epidermis”.  Yet there is one point in my argumentation that I would review. I wrote, at the very end that “style is used to make the content understood by the reader”. This is partly true, and I still think that split up form and content is risky. However, I would talk about some writers of the “Art for art’s sake” movement, who think that style should, in a way, only remain aesthetic; and I would possibly quote Charles Baudelaire and talk about my awful experience of Les Fleurs du Mal as a junior high school student who had to deal with his absolutely gorgeous (but) meaningless poetry.

I am not saying that this review is the right one, but at least it is a personal one and it is faithful to my angle as a foreign and little-experienced girl.

Finding a good angle is essential to captivate the reader. I don’t know if that works for my own work, I guess that I don’t have enough experience to step back that far on my own writing. However, I have experienced it when I take off my writer’s hat and put on my reader’s one. Reading my classmates’ blogs is a very good exercise. Don’t ask me which one is my favorite: I won’t be able to choose. At the moment, I haven’t any particular favorite style, but it’s true that some enthrall me more than others. And to the first question of my teacher (« what is style? ») I would say that I still have no answer, but that clicking any link in this list would give him a good impression of what style – whatever its definition is – can do.

Publicités

Language Interference

As most people my age, I own a smartphone. And more specifically a smartphone which includes emoticons in its keyboard. As most people my age, especially as an exchange student, I have to text my parents on a regular basis to tell them how wonderful the weather is here in New Hampshire (which is not even a joke anymore!), or how different the food is here and how many pounds I have been gaining. But, as most people my age again, I have parents that own a normal phone, a phone that does not have any emoticon in it and – worse – that translates the emoticons that people sent them by approximately this : ∅∇¤∗ÕΔØ

Texting without using them was then a NECESSITY.

Just like foreigners arriving in a new country, I had to adapt to this old-fashion way of texting used by every single older relatives that I have. And the numerous misunderstandings that I have been facing just made me realize that texting without any emoticon is actually harder than I thought.

Emoji have made us lazy and have even replaced, at some point, not only words but also punctuations. Thus, to me (and I think most of my generation is in the same case) a simple “Ok” without any smiley face sounds rude or cold. In the same way, an “Ok!” would either sound very enthusiastic or very sarcastic. This is actually very stupid and I think that we can only blame ourselves. Now that we have the opportunity to add those little faces, we just put them everywhere because it makes the message easier to understand. We have the choice between a hundred of different faces, which means that we can express a hundred of different emotions and make our text sound either funny, sad, over-dramatic, sarcastic and so on. Actually, we tend to use them as substitutes to normal punctuations or extra words that we would normally use to precise our thoughts. The problem of this is that when we need to go back to traditional writing (writing for academic purposes for example, or, just like me, to text people that cannot even read them), we don’t even know how to convey our meaning anymore. Who has never been tempted to put a little “ 🙂 “at the end of a sentence in an essay? We have been so used to them that, in a way, we have forgotten how to use punctuation marks and how to exploit the richness of our own language.

This isn’t a blog post about how harmful technology is or how texting makes young people bad at writing and I don’t think any of assumptions is true. Nevertheless I agree that it is affecting the way we write because our brain makes less effort to find the right word or the right nuance. Clicking on a smiley face is so much easier…

In Vino Veritas

These days, as I am thinking about languages, some memories of myself at school have resurfaced inside my head. One in particular is actually at the root of this blog post. I was entering the second year of what we call in France le collège (which should not be mixed up with the American College). In other words, I was a 7th grade pupil in what would be Middle school here. The first day of any pupil of my grade, at that time, is basically animated by this so-feared question:

The teacher: “Who is going to take Latin this year?”

It can sound like a simple and innocent question. But it is NOT. And although our elders had warned us many times, we were still petrified by it. Even today, I wouldn’t be lying if I said that some of us are still traumatized and have regular nightmares about the choice of this elective. Let me explain a little more:

  • According to teachers, Latin is fun to learn and is offered to pupils in order to discover the roots of the roman languages; and thus, the origins of French. According to students, Latin was a waste of time and a direct pathway to depression and suicide in middle school.
  • According to teachers, taking Latin was a “wonderful” opportunity for students to better their skills in French vocabulary and avoid grammatical mistakes. According to students, checking “Latin” on the sacrosanct form was tantamount to sign your own death warrant.
  • According to teachers, Latin made you smarter and brighter than the other students, it made you a “young detective of French language”, it made you a cool teenager, a leader! According to students, and in real life, Latin just made you a busier student, it made you a nerd, a highbrow, and the kind of person at whom the other pupils would throw paper pellets.
  • According to teachers again, choosing Latin was a “choice for life” because it is “useful in everyday life and will help you forever” (this is basically the translation of what was written on the chalkboard this day. It goes to show how obsessed they were with that). According to students, Latin was the second biggest lie adults had ever come up with (the first one being Santa Claus).

I probably sound pretty experienced, and indeed, I unfortunately am. The first months in my Latin class were dedicated to Latin mythology and ancient civilization. I cannot even count the number of presentation I had to do about Gods and Goddesses and heroes and magical creatures, and how society was organized in the Latin societies… This had two main effects: first, it made pupils happy because it was fun to do; second, it gave them easy good grades (because pasting pictures on a presentation poster and reading a summary from Wikipedia are not the most difficult things to do.). But under those misleading appearances was actually hidden a real war strategy. Just like propaganda during the Nazi era, teachers wanted us to THINK that Latin was fun, to get us involve to the full. They wanted to turn the terrified little students into nice and docile pupils. And once our guard was completely lowered, the trap started to close on ourselves. It was too late. Followed three years of wandering in hell, forcing us to deal with malicious and cruel grammar, crazy syntax, and repellent vocabulary. Just like the Germans, we had our own dictators: Marcus Tullius Cicero was the worst of them.

In the end, Latin didn’t teach me anything useful. The only thing that I barely remember is the 1st declination, and I still don’t know how it will help me with my life. However, I found my own reference language that helps me understand French:

English

To me, English is somehow easier than French and more logical because of the way the words are built. Some of them work by mixing two meaningful units like “a bookshelf” or “a chalkboard”. This does not exist in French because our vocabulary is an adaptation of Gaulish and Latin, and to understand the meaning of our words, dividing them into units might help but is not enough and far less logical than in English. A “handbook” for example is called in French un manuel. The English word is logical and its etymology makes perfect sense. In French, I had no clue why, one day, someone decided for some reason to call it un manuel, it sounded very random to me. I tried to decompose it and I realize that “manu” is the Latin word for “main” (hand in French). But I have no idea what the other part of the word means. But the only thing that I notice is that, as I am learning more and more English words, I make the link between the two languages, and that helps me analyze them. In spite of finding the meaning of French words through Latin, I found it easier to find it through English. But that’s a very personal choice, and I guess that someone that has a great knowledge of Italian or Spanish would use it instead of Latin.

It is actually very hard to take a step back from your own language. You are born learning it almost unconsciously, without asking any questions about it, just because it was the way it was. We are not taught the how and the why. But when you learn a new language, you suddenly have this ability to see things from a completely new perspective and the words begin to make sense to you because you have this unique chance to compare them between others. And, sometimes, thanks to that, you can even discover more about your native language. I had this chance thanks to English, and I highly recommend to anyone who wants to have a new approach of their mother tongue to learn a new language.

When Harry met Jimmy

Accents are the first obstacle that come to my mind when I think of communication problems. Every region, every special geographical area has its own accent. I, myself, am from an area which is famous for having a very strong – and somehow “ugly” – accent that only we can understand. People tend to make fun of it, because the Northern-France accent is, I must admit, not the most elegant one. Moreover, it happens that some regions also have their own little dialects and have their own words, but there are usually very few of them and they don’t constitute a barrier at all. Thus, I have thought for a long time that pronunciation was the only note-worthy thing that can prevent you from understanding one another.

Then, I experienced people that are “supposed” to speak the same language but don’t. I am majoring in English language and civilization in France, and before going to America, I honestly thought that American English and British English were only different in their accent and the way that they spell words (color vs. colour; theatre vs. theater). I never imagined, for example, that my British suitemate could have difficulty in communicating with her American neighbor. Have you ever attend a “fight” between two girls that spoke a different English about how “ridiculous it is to call a hoodie a jumper, because “for god’s sake” you “just don’t jump inside it!”, but at the same time how absurd it is to call trousers “pants” because “pants” actually designate “underwear” ? If you get bored one night, I highly recommend you to attend this kind of scene; living with exchange students can’t be more entertaining. At least entertaining when you look from an outsider perspective. However, when you are involve in one of this language battle, it immediately ceases to be funny.

I went to Montreal two weeks ago with some students for a cultural trip. I’ve always heard how funny it was to listen to a French Canadian because they have a very awkward accent that people like to imitate when having a meal washed down with wine. I can’t hide that I had numerous laughing fits over there when I would just overhear a conversation in the streets, passing by these “northern-cousins” as we call them back home. Yet, little by little, it just turns into a sour laughter when one of them point out that YOU have a funny accent. (Excuse me? Did you even hear yourself talking?).

Follow then a rather aggressive conversation about how the other is actually butchering your language, which launches a debate about how ridiculous their vocabulary are and how they absolutely make no sense!

From a metropolitan’s point of view, French Canadian have a huge collection of absurd words that come from NOWHERE! I am not even going to attempt to give you an example because, first I still don’t know what it means, and then, there is no way I can translate it so that you can understand. But I guess the worst would be when I realized that they actually take French words and give them a different meaning of the one we (in France) are used to, which can potentially be useful to know… You should have in mind, for instance, that when asking how are their children (in French: les gosses), a French Canadian would think that you are asking about their family jewels… Small detail, indeed. As a comparison, imagine that you meet a British guy who asks you the permission to stroke your dog, or to borrow your rubber. (to stroke (UK)= to pet (US); a rubber (UK) = an eraser (US) )

These kind of changes within languages are more obvious for us as we live in the present and we experience different dialects. However, the main changes are measured across the ages. Languages are always in a state of flux. If people from different places have difficulty in understanding each other, it’s a safe bet that people from the same area but born in a different time would not even be able to have a conversation.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

― Dorothy Parker

The Grammarian

As I was reading my classmates’ blog post today, I was inspired by a very interesting one that you can read here.

Jessica points out the fact that, reading Pinker’s prologue of The Sense of Style, she just had no idea what the Passive Voice was, though she is an English major and, I guess, has been speaking English for her whole life.

The first time I faced this kind of situation was actually a few months ago, when I was still in France. I am taking a translation class that involves as many French students (who are learning English) as English exchange students (who are learning French). At the beginning of the class, the teacher hands out a text and we have to “cooperate” altogether to produce the best translation possible. Very interestingly, we usually find ourselves explaining that this or that tense would suit better in English as a translation of this or that French tense, why you should use the present perfect in this case and the passive voice in this one. Most of the English students would look at their French partner with incredulous eyes. Present what? Why the heck do these French teenagers know better than us how to use our own language?

Inversely, I am presently working for the French department as a language assistant. I assist a French teacher in his class. I feel that I am losing all credibility when I found myself unable to explain the students how to use the subjunctive mood. Err.. I mean, we use it because it sounds better in some sentences, there is no explanation, it’s just the way it is! Stop annoying me with these questions!!! More seriously – I might get fired if someone repeat that so I rely on your discretion here – I just don’t know! So instead, I secretly grab my phone and look it up on Google, learn new things about my own mother-tongue, and then pretend I knew that from the beginning (whereas it’s a big lie and I actually feel very stupid and ignorant for the rest of the class).

The process of learning your native language is not based on learning rules or naming what you use to communicate. You learn by listening to it constantly and your brain naturally deduce in which case to use such and such tense or mood. When you are learning a foreign language however, you NEED to know these things for they are probably different from your own language. You cannot use the language that you learn the same way you use the one you speak, and this is basically the reason why your language teacher annoy you so much with those exercices that aim at turning you into a grammar expert.

Thus, I can easily name any English tenses and list their functions. However, I am absolutely unable to do it in French. So I might knew what the passive voice was, but Jessica is much more of an expert than me when it comes to mastering English.

Reconciliation

As far as I remember, I used to hate language when I was in primary school. Grammar and spelling were my worst enemies. Take a look at your grandparent’s primary school notebook and you’ll see that dictation has always been everybody’s pet hate. In Microstyle, Johnson clearly depicts this situation when he says that people usually associate language with “a potential source of embarrassment, rather than pleasure”. In his book, the linguist tries to make people understand that they should look differently to language, which should be a source of amazement instead of frustration. The manifesto he delivers at the beginning sum it up:

Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity.

So why should people care about it now, whereas they have always hated it? Johnson’s answer is actually very convincing. Why should we suddenly change our hate for grammar? Simply because the world of language around us has changed. With the apparition of the Internet, mainly, people’s behavior towards language has been affected. As an answer to people that would say that people in general tend to read less and less, Johnson argues that people are simply reading differently. Less books doesn’t mean less opportunity to read, quite the opposite! The content which we can access now thanks to these new technologies is unlimited and so broad that it even scares some of us. We are still reading, words are everywhere if you open a computer. But the way we read is different, scrolling instead of turning pages. Our ability of writing has also been challenged. Thanks to the same new technologies, we are not part of a simple readership as we used to be when it came to books. This medium has no audience anymore, it has users, people that participate actively in it. Each word that you type on your keyboard turn you into a writer.

Johnson argues that such a change also implies the necessity to pay attention to language in order to be more efficient in your communication, and to be introduced with microstyle rather than big style. Microstyle is what you should use when it comes to small messages; it’s about “grabbing that attention for a moment and communicating something quickly”.  Big Style, on the other hand, is associated with formality and long messages.  I think people definitely need instruction when with microstyle, because that is the way most of us communicate, because we finally understood that language belongs to us, and that words can have a stronger impact in society that we may think.

Fish’s descriptive approach to the sentence is also noteworthy. He deals with the importance of the words in sentences and their impact on the whole meaning and impression it conveys. The tense and mood used in a sentence can change the whole impression on those who read or listen to this sentence. If Fish deals less with microstyle that Johnson does, I think both approaches encourage people to act like linguist and to analyze deeper the messages to which we are confronted with, whether it is a sentence or three words painted on a wall.

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.
– Robin Williams

I have always been a little skeptical about this quote, but when I think deeply about it, I realize that everybody is actually able to change a little something thanks to the way he uses language.

Excuse my French…

After slang and jargons, the next step in someone’s process to learn a new language is to be introduced with idioms.

An idiom is an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own, and is usually proper to one’s language or culture.

If you think about them, you’ll find out that some are logical, and you might think that the image and metaphor that is used would be the same in the other language. For example, “Take the bull by the horns” mean the same thing in both languages.

Some of them, though they might use a different image, are alike in a way.When something costs a huge amount of money, the English say that it costs “an arm and a leg”, while the French say it costs the eyes in your head. Same idea when it comes to be short of money, the English say that “money doesn’t grow on trees”, the French say money does not fall from the sky. When it comes to drinking, idioms are quite transparent in both languages as well. Where English people would use “drink like a fish”, French people on the other hand would say that they drink like a hole (which makes it clear in both cases that they are drinking far too much). They also talk about “green hand” instead of “green thumb” to talk about someone who is good with gardens and plants.

Nevertheless, it would be far too easy if everyone in this world had the same references. Let’s make it a bit harder now.

I, once, attempted to translate word by word one of these idioms. I was trying to make someone understand that two of my friends had a “strike of lightning”. Yes, a strike of lighting. I guess most of the non-French speakers that have just read this sentence are a bit surprised. But that is the image we use to express love at first sight, or the phrase “to fall head over heels”. Either way, when you think about it, you’ll find the same idea that love destabilizes people and “hits” them despite themselves.

But what interested me the most in this research about idioms was the ones that leave you absolutely no clue in guessing what your foreign peer is talking about.

French language has a couple of very ridiculous phrases that fit this category. Here is a list of some that sounds completely absurd:

  • When they want to express the fact that someone suddenly changed the subject in a conversation, they’ll say that they jumped from the rooster to the donkey.
  • When they want to say that they slept in, they say they had a fat morning.
  • When they want to say it rains a lot, they say it rains ropes. (It may sounds ridiculous to you, but you should admit that replacing those ropes by innocent cats and dogs isn’t very smart either, is it?)
  • When they want to say they stand somebody up, they say they put a rabbit on them.

Now that you had fun mocking French language, I’ll ask you to detach yourself from the English one and try to imagine how hard it can be for a foreigner to understand people that talk about flying pigs, that cage cats in bags and butterflies in their stomach, that carry chips on their shoulders, that have apples in their eyes and that encourage people to break their leg because it is supposedly, a sign of luck…

Fun fact: Sometimes language can bear the marks of history, such as the passionate love story between France and England back to the old days. While working on this blog post, I found out that the English language has a few expressions that my friend Wikipedia considers as part of « Francophobia ». The tittle of this article is a clear proof of it and need no further explanations. But consider this: “Take a French leave” is the English phrase to express the idea that someone leave in a very rude way, without saying goodbye. In French, the equivalent is “Filer à l’anglaise” (literally: Fleeing like an English).

Just saying…

The earth is blue like an orange

This week, the whole Internet community had been quarreling because of the color of a dress.

Don’t worry, this post is not an umpteenth explanation of what is happening to your eyes when seeing the picture. And in case you were not aware of this phenomenon, this is an article about it.

I was attending a very bad argument between my friends at lunch time, last Friday, because of this dress. One of them, totally panicky, raised a question that has stuck in my head since then.

What if people have actually different perception of the world? What if my neighbor doesn’t see things as I see them?

After a while, trying my best not to be influenced by what was happening on the web, trying not to be victim of the general paranoia, I decided to analyze the problem from another angle.

Misunderstanding in general can also be a matter of language and words. For instance (staying in this color problem), let’s say that your mother told you that, considering a cloudless sky in summer, what you see as blue is called “red”. You are going to say that the sky is red, yet you see it as blue. Just a problem of association between a word and the idea or concept which it conveys. There would then be a misunderstanding between you and others that called blue “blue” (or any other name).

Let’s make the problem a more complicated now: Let’s imagine that our language has simply no word to describe something that can be easily described in another. This hypothesis is actually a statement. Some languages make a difference between things that our words identify as the same thing. For example, in English (and in French), we use the word “wood” to describe both the tree fiber and a small forest. In Danish, these two different concepts are named differently, which makes it clearer to identify. Some other languages, such as Russian, has absolutely no homographs, everything can be named by a different word, and when they are spelled the same way, there is usually an accent on one of them, so that the word is not pronounced the same, in order to enable the distinction.

Yet, these homographs are not a problem for us: there is always a way to distinguish them according to the context. This is because we clearly identify different concepts hidden between a word.

However, some languages and cultures don’t distinguish concepts that are distinguished in our “world”. Welsh and Breton for instance don’t make any difference between the idea of the color “blue” and the idea of the color “green”. Therefore, they have only one word to describe what they considered as the same color. That’s because the solar spectrum is divided differently by cultures. Thus, we chose to divide it into 7 colors whereas some chose to divide it into fewer. This sounded weird to me at first… How can people see only one color when there are actually two distinct ones?

Conversely, some chose to divide it into more colors. How can it be, you should be wondering : the Inuit people has no less than 12 words to describe what we called the color “white”.

Some words have just no equivalent in other languages. Each idiom organizes by itself the data that are given by their own experience. It conveys a different way of representing reality, constituting a prism through which reality appear to us in a very peculiar way. Learning a language is not about labelling differently things that you already know. Learning a language is about analyzing and interpreting differently reality.

… by the way, this dress is definitely blue & black !

404 ERROR

While having lunch with a new group of American friends the other day, I found out that there was something worse than the language barrier:

Jargons

Though I am used to it, I felt concerned about not understanding a single word of the conversation they were having: those friends were computer science majors.

Then, I realized that everyone outside the conversation was as lost as I was; and I was actually very happy that English speakers could understand how I feel every day.

I hate being seen as an ignorant person so I discreetly browse every foreign word possible. That is how I figured out that Linux was an operating system which is basically what enables your computer to work; such as Windows or Macintosh.

I was actually ashamed not to know all these words, because my father happens to be a computer software engineer. Knowing this, I had no excuse not to know what they were talking about; so I just pretended that I was not assimilating the French computer science vocabulary with the English one (which is completely ridiculous: most of the computer science words remain in English everywhere in the world).

Speaking of languages, I was asked later in the conversation which language my dad was working in. Knowing the answer, I proudly said: “English”; but I quickly noticed that they were laughing at me. Yes, in the computer science jargon, a language is not those we naturally think of.

“No, Amélie, I meant, which language is he programming in? Python, Cobol?”

“Wait, What?”

I had no clue what he was talking about. I asked my father about it, but don’t expect any explanation from me; I still do not know what this is all about.

If, just like me, the word « coding » make you think of people spying for the C.I.A.; if you see no harm using Internet Explorer, or if in general you cannot understand Computer Science jokes, there is a glossary you should consult before hanging out with nerds.

I found an interesting and funny video that actually turns the problem around. As a matter of fact, if it is often hard for us to understand their jargon; people who belong to this special world are often facing our ignorance and find it hard to make themselves understood and explaining to us what is actually obvious for them.

This short comedy sketch show shows us how Information Technology experts can feel when facing people – like us – who know nothing about computer science.