Step by step grammar 1: Nouns

It was suggested to me that I should write more about basics of the English language, particularly the grammar as sadly, many of us, including native English speakers, struggle with terminology that is used in grammar books of various shapes and forms. This is the first of a series of articles which aim to make you familiar with terms describing elements of English grammar. We will start off slowly and discuss one term only in each article. Today’s question is: What is a noun?

Noun is an arbitrary word that we use to name a person (doctor), animal (giraffe), thing (shoe) or abstract idea (hatred). They are the words that little children learn first when exclaiming mummy, daddy or poo. Basically what you need to remember all the names are nouns. Words in bold in the following sentence are nouns:

I met Jack at school and he mentioned he was going to walk his dog with Susie.

Nouns can change their forms to indicate quantity/number. It means, that if Jack had two dogs rather than one dog, we would add –s to indicate that. In the same way we create other plural nouns (plural indicates there are more than one) e.g. school – schools, book – books.

Easy! If you haven’t subscribed to yet do it now as there’s more to come. Next Wednesday we will explain what a verb is.

Both a borrower and a lender be

I have written an article on word formation processes in the past and the topic has been always close to my heart. I recently tried to do a little research on borrowings and particularly English borrowings in the Polish language. Although I haven’t yet finished, here’s a few points I made so far.

Borrowings assimilate in new languages on phonological, graphic, morphological and semantic levels. The first question that came to mind was: Why is it that borrowings are mainly nouns, verbs to a lesser extent and relatively few adjectives, prepositions and other parts of speech? Is it because there are more nouns than other parts of speech in total? Or is it because we only borrow words we can't do without - the ones that are therefore essential and often arbitrary? We didn’t have, for instance, a word anywhere close to joystick in Polish so we borrowed the term from English. As I am wondering about it on Twitter, @talkclouds suggests:

The book I'm reading on vocabulary learning also says that nouns are easier to remember, too. Plus we import STUFF more. We don't import actions and ideas as much.

Manfred Gorlach asserts in A Dictionary of European Anglicisms: A Usage Dictionary of Anglicisms in Sixteen European Languages that modern borrowings from English aren’t assimilated into European languages on the morphological level. That certainly isn't true, not in Polish anyway. Practically all the nouns in Polish borrowed from English are assigned the grammatical gender and are declinated AND take Polish marker of plurality so... what on Earth do I get confused here? Take the aforementioned joystick. We have in Polish plural form from masculine joystick -  joysticki  and appropriate declinated forms: joysticka, joystickowi, joystickiem, joysticku. Gorlach’s book is available on Amazon for £33. Money well spent… I think not!

International English

English as a global language
English is often referred to as a world language or global language. It isn’t, however, an official language in most countries across the world and its status was brought to it as it is most often taught as a foreign language and is, therefore, widely spoken. No surprise then that English is an official language of the United Nations and other internationals committees and organisations. Books and newspapers written in English are available around the world and even though it has no official status of being the universal language on the Internet I think most of us realise this is how things look in reality.

Why English?
There’s one major reason why English has attained its position as a global language and it’s the economical and political importance of today’s English-speaking countries with the huge, world-scale domination of the US. At the same time it doesn’t mean that linguistically English is suitable as a universal language. I would even go far enough to say it isn’t.  Due to the fluency of native speakers whilst speaking English problems arise with non-native speakers not being able to understand and the former having an unfair advantage when discussing things orally or even in writing. Also,native speakers get misunderstood easily as they tend to use rare words, idioms, speak fast and have varieties of accents. Even amongst native English speakers there are skirmishes over dominancy as there are numerous regional accents and variations.

Not the easiest at all…
There is a myth about how English is supposedly the easiest language one can learn. A seemingly endless repertoire of idioms, synonyms with totally different connotations, an immense number of words with irregular spellings and grammatical forms, complex grammatical tenses, rich vocabulary resulting from word borrowings… the list goes on. Look at the following:

The bandage was wound around the wound.
I subject the subject.
Soldier wants to desert his dessert in the desert.
I’m too close to the door to close it.
It comes to the point when you as a student wonder about how ridiculous English is.

Present Simple Tense

Present Simple Tense describes actions in the present that take place once, never or several times and repeatedly or habitually, actions related to schedules and timetables as well as well-known facts and general truths. We use it when giving directions and instructions or when we talk about travel plans as well as when we express feelings with verbs such as like, hate, love. The words that often go with Present Simple Tense (signal words) are: always, never, sometimes, rarely, normally etc. Study the following: The Earth isn’t flat rather than The Eart isn’t being flat.

To form the Present Simple Tense we use the verb’s base form as given in a dictionary without the preposition to and remember to add -s/-es in 3rd person singular (i.e. he, she, it). E.g. I eat but he eats. Auxiliary verbs be, do and have can be used as main verbs in the Present Simple Tense but they’re exceptions and their declination looks different (she is, she does, she has).

How to form the 3rd person singular in the Present Simple Tense?
If the verb ends in –ss, -ch, -sch, -o or –x we add –es to the base form e.g watch-watches, mix-mixes
If the verb ends in consonant followed by –y we change y into –i and add –es e.g. study-studies, vary-varies

Different types of sentences
·         Affirmative form
I study, you study, he/she/it studies, we study, you study, they study

·         Negative form
Do not = don’t & does not = doesn’t
I don’t study, you don’t study, he/she/it doesn’t study/we don’t study, you don’t study, they don’t study

·         Interrogative form
Do I study?, Do you study?, Does he/she/it study?, Do we study? Do you study?, Do they study?

·         Questions and short answers
Do you like it? – Yes, I do/No I don’t
Does he like it? – Yes, he does/No, he doesn’t

Examples from today’s news
The following examples of sentences come from and were taken out of actual articles. The underlined clauses are in the Present Simple Tense:

President Obama leads the US in a silent tribute to six people killed in a shooting in Arizona.

Labour leader Ed Miliband urges the government to extend the tax on bankers’ bonuses.

The government argues that the militant group has been seriously weakened by the arrest of most of its key leadership in recent years.

The project represents the culmination of five years of political and diplomatic negotiation at the highest level and it is anticipated the giant pandas will arrive in their new home as soon as a date is agreed.

What’s the difference between Old English and Anglo-Saxon?

There is no difference at all between Old English and Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxons were the people who spoke Old English in parts of what we know today as England and south-western Scotland thus we sometimes refer to Old English as Anglo-Saxon. The term Old English, however, is often informally used to refer to other historical forms of English such as Early Modern English/Renaissance English (Shakespeare), Middle English (Chaucer) and in the strict historical sense this is not the right terminology. The Present-Day English is the term we use to describe Modern English and is the language as spoken today.

Old English is a West Germanic language. Danish and Norwegian settlers in Britain spoke Old Norse language that influenced Old English and reduced in time the number of inflections originally occurring in Anglo-Saxon which similarly to modern German had endings indicating words’ roles in the sentences, their grammatical gender and number. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 the large number of Latin-based words influenced Old English and further resulted in the temporary dominance of French. By 1150 Old English was no longer used.

Jumbling up words

I highly recommend reading The Mother Tongue Study Guide by Bill Bryson who, in chapter 15, describes the history of word games. Personally I love of all of these and I’m hopelessly addicted to my iPad Scrabble app which I also recommend to all of you. As long as we come across crossword puzzles, palindromes (look up one of my previous articles titled Palindromes) and rebuses in newspapers and magazines, not all of us know what holorhymes, anagrams and cryptograms are and all of these often get mixed up. (blimey, Microsoft Word underlined holorhyme in red not recognising the word)

A holorhyme is a form of rhyme in which two lines are phonetically identical. Pretty extreme really, isn’t it? E.g. For I scream – for ice-cream.

An anagram is a type of word play based on rearranging the letters of a given word, phrase or sentence  in order to create a new word, phrase or sentence Mary – army, debit card – bad credit, World Cup team – talcum powder (whoever invented that one must have had some stroke of genius).

A cryptogram on the other hand is a word, phrase or sentence consisting of encrypted text where respectively letters get replaced by different ones. Those get really difficult to solve and were originally used for encryption of military secrets and nowadays for entertainment purposes.

I have come across a very good cryptogram online.

Here’s my cryptogram for you: C wzkm gzh mjqzgma bg nyicfsm. Umms uymm iz rhdrfycdm iz bg omdrcim. You may want to try and solve it yourself first but if you struggle try the solver I recommend.

Have fun creating and solving anagrams and cryptograms! Thanks for reading.

Glottal stop, clipping and elision

I got into a conversation with somebody on Twitter yesterday about the phonetic processes. To be truthful, it wasn’t much of a conversation and rather a question asked by them followed by my monologue with possible answers. They wanted to know ‘’what term refers to the process of dropping the last letter of one word when it is the same beginning letter of the following word’’. Now, the question itself confused me slightly since we don’t really omit letters but sounds. That led me to think that they aren’t aware of very basics of phonetics and suggested glottal stop which wouldn’t strictly answer their question (glottal stop doesn’t really have much to do with whatever sound that follows it) but then again nothing would answer their question since like I said it’s all about sounds rather than letters. Thinking, on the other hand, that perhaps they really meant letters I walked away from phonetics suggesting clipping (I explain the term clipping in one of my previous posts but will remind you shortly what it is). It turns out, as somebody else finally got it, the term they were looking for was elision. Now, what do these three terms mean and what processes are there associated with them?

Glottal stop plosive – type of sound used in numerous languages in their spoken versions that is produced when the flow of air from our lungs is stopped by the closing glottis. It can be represented for example by the apostrophe but it is not a written phoneme in English (to see what a phoneme is look up one of my previous posts Phones, phonemes and allophones). In English glottal stops occur before a tautosyllabic (when two or more phonemes occur in the same syllable) voiceless plosive (in English the following sounds are voiceless plosives: /p t k/) in words such as tha’t, ca’t, ro’t, sto’p (sounds, yes sounds rather than letters, /t/ and /p/ in those examples are glottal stops and can’t be heard when words are pronounced).

Clipping – word formation process based on reduction of a word to a part of it, also known as shortening. There are different types of clipping depending on what part of word remains (back clipping, middle clipping, fore-clipping and complex clipping). E.g. advertisement – ad, information – info.

Elisionomission of a sound (consonant, vowel or syllable) in words where doing so makes them easier to pronounce or sometimes used as a stylistic device in poetry and suchlike.  E.g. ‘cause rather than because and who’s rather than who is.


Avoid common mistakes in English - Part 2

Lurking from within Twitter a vicious little creature gazes into my eyes and provokes me to fight it. I have stumbled across him twice today already and many, many times in the past. The misuse of homonyms, my old friend whom I partially hate and partially await to see, almost expecting people to fire it at me. To read about homonyms look up one of my previous articles. One of numerous examples of homonyms are the words affect and effect. Even though they’re similar they carry different meanings.

Affect or Effect?
To affect is a verb and means to influence something or somebody. Effect is a noun which means something that was brought by a cause. A synonym for effect is result. Look at the following example:

Princess Diana's death affected me deeply or: Princess Diana’s death had a deep effect on me.

To effect on the other hand is a verb too although used rarely and means to accomplish something e.g. I’m trying to effect a change in the way we use English.

Two/to/too and There/their/they're
Other examples of homonyms are two/to/too and there/their/they're.Two is a quantifier and simply means 2. To is a preposition and toomeans as well as. Look at the following: I have two brothers who go to school and I go to school too. There indicates location, their means belonging to them and they’re stands for they are e.g. Their sandwiches are there and they’re going to eat them.

Do you speak Simlish?

The Sims
A strategic computer game developed by Maxis, designed by Will Wright and published by Electronic Arts has become not only the best life-simulation computer game ever produced but also the best-selling PC game in history. The Sims, first released in early 2000, has since then published seven expansion packs and 2 sequels selling over 6.4 million copies worldwide in total. Being a fan of The Sims myself I could go on about how unique it is, explain the gameplay and so forth, however, I am here to talk about a very specific aspect of it all - Simlish.

Why not a real language?
The characters you play with, Sims, perform only certain actions and talk about only certain things with other Sims. Presumably they would sound very repetitive if spoke a language known to the player. Also hiring translators and voice-over actors for the players from other parts of the world would result in higher production costs. Nevertheless communication between the Sims is the crucial part of the game and so they needed to speak. A fictional Simlish was born.

Language influences
It is said that the Native American code talkers of World War II inspired the creators of the game who then started experimenting not only with Navajo language in order to create Simlish but also with Ukrainian, French, Finnish, Latin and English. As a result, however, Simlish ended up as total gibberish that can’t be possibly translated and is often referred to as nonsense language. Personally I hear elements of the English-like flow in Simlish, this probably resulting in American voice-actors, Gerri Lawlor and Stephen Kearin recording their voices for the game.

Not only talking
You can hear Simlish not only when Sims are talking but also when they’re listening to music. A number of real artists have recorded versions of their songs in Simlish, including Black Eyed Peas, Depeche Mode, Lilly Allen, Katy Perry, Natasha Bedingfield, Paramore, Nelly Furtado, My Chemical Romance and many more. At high zoom levels text on book covers and magazines can be seen. The Simlish alphabet seems like nonsense characters. Any resemblance to real characters is unlikely.

Do you speak Simlish?
There are people who claim to have learnt some of the Simlish language after noting phrases they heard while playing the game and then guessing their meaning based on the situation those were said in. I highly doubt this is a task possible to complete. Perhaps Simlish is deliberately vague and people with an imagination more fanciful than mine are reading more into it than they should.