Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Speech acts and conversation

The topic of speech acts and conversation is an often overlooked aspect of linguistics. People use language as a tool to do things, such as asking questions, offering greetings, and performing many other verbal actions in everyday life. Mastery of language is not limited to just grammatical competence. If that were the case, then every sentence would have only one interpretation.

Compare the following situations:

Case 1: A police officer stops you, and informs you that you've driven through a stop sign. You reply, "I didn't see the stop sign."

Case 2: A friend is throwing a party and has given you directions to his new house. The directions mention to take a left at the 2nd stop sign. You arrive about an hour late and reply "I didn't see the stop sign."

Notice that the context has a huge role in determining the meaning of the sentence uttered. In case 1, you are uttering an explanation for failing to stop. In case 2, you are making an excuse for your lateness.

Upcoming posts on this blog will cover more on this topic of speech acts and conversation.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Unpaired words: always use a negative prefix?

There are some words that always have a prefix, you don't see their unprefixed form being used much, if at all.

Here are examples:

unkempt: You always hear about a workplace being unkempt, but can something be kempt? Kempt is actually a word, however it is a rarely used antonym of unkempt. The word kempt comes from Old English kemb, meaning "comb". In the 18th century, the negative form unkembed came to mean "uncombed or disheveled".

inert: Derived from the Latin word art meaning "skill". Adding the negative prefix gives us the definition of inert as "inactive, sluggish".

disgruntled: The root word here is gruntle. As in the previous example with kempt, it is a rarely used form. The meaning is "expressing discontent". In this case, the dis- prefix is meant to intensify the root word.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How negative prefixes are determined in English

Ever wonder why certain words use im- and others use in- for their negative prefixes?

This topic requires a bit of knowledge on phonetics and phonology, which was initially discussed in this post about phonetics.

Example words: impractical, imbalance, improper, impressive

Notice how words that take the im- negative prefix start with p and b. The p and b sounds are made with the lips, and this is the same place of articulation as the m sound. This is known as assimilation: the place of articulation of the final sound of the prefix ("m") matches the place of articulation of the initial sound of the root word.

Example words: inaccessible, involuntary, insincere, infamous

In most other cases, the in- negative prefix is used. This is because n is an alveolar consonant, pronounced with the tongue against the area just above the upper teeth. Unlike the p and b sounds, this is a central area, and thus the in- prefix can "handle" many other sounds.

il-, ir-
Example words: illogical, illegal, irrational, irresponsible

The l and r sounds are known as liquids. Just like the im- prefix, assimilation happens here. In this case, the l or r is simply doubled up in forming the prefix.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Negative prefixes adding no meaning?

There are words in English that can take a negative prefix, such as in-, and the meaning of that word will remain the same. Is there really a difference in meaning between these such pairs of words? Let's examine a few:

valuable vs. invaluable - These words can have slightly different meanings depending on the situation, although they can be used interchangeably without much difference. Valuable things have a known value, and invaluable things are those "of value too great to be estimated". A good way of remembering this: invaluable items have value that is inestimable.

flammable vs. inflammable - These words have identical meanings. Inflammable actually comes from the root word inflame, and it is not supposed to be a negative prefix. The word inflammable is being phased out, and rightly so; it just isn't worth the safety risks involved.

regardless vs. irregardless - Again, no change in meaning. Considered nonstandard as it is a double negative; the -less suffix already puts it in the negative, no need to add a negative prefix.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Simplify wordy expressions

Here are examples of wordy phrases and how they can be simplified.

  • "in today's modern society" -> today, nowadays
  • "in spite of the fact that" -> although
  • "in order to" -> to
  • "has the ability to" -> can

These expressions are acceptable to use (they are not ungrammatical), but you shouldn't overuse them. You can see this phenomenon happening both in professional and amateur situations.

Why use wordy expressions?

Wordiness is used by professionals to make them sound more intelligent (in the marketing world, there is a tendency to think "more words = smart person").

Wordy expressions are often used by students to "fill up" their required word count up for an essay assignment!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Common English misspellings and errors

Here are some English words which are commonly misspelled and/or mispronounced. Words that appear in red are considered incorrect.

mischievous: This words is pronounced with 3 syllables and does NOT rhyme with "devious", but is often heard with an extra "i" added, as in mischievious.

realtor: Another case of an extra syllable popping in, it is not pronounced realator.

nuptial: Pronounced using 2 syllables only, not 3 as in "nuptual". The -ual ending is prevalent in English, so it is only natural that this word is commonly mispronounced.

espresso: Is it made expressly for you? Or is it made at express speed? Nope, we are used to words starting with ex- so we also apply it here incorrectly. Its misuse is so common that even some dictionaries are starting to list expresso as an entry.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Misleading acronyms

Sometimes acronyms can be misleading even though common usage may suggest otherwise.
The previous post mentioned acronyms that had to be changed later on, like DVD.

In contrast to the above situation, some acronyms didn't have a meaning at first, and later on throughout popular usage, a meaning was then coined. These are sometimes referred to as "backronyms". Here's an example:

SOS: Save Our Ship ?

The letters which make up this acronym were chosen since they are easily recognizable in Morse code: 3 short beeps (S), followed by 3 long beeps (O), and then another 3 short beeps (S). It originally didn't stand for "Save Our Ship", but that is what most people think nowadays.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Acronyms and back formation

Acronyms are abbreviations that are formed by taking the first letter(s) of each of the words they stand for. Some insist that acronyms must be pronounceable (such as NATO) but this isn't always the case (as in OK).

Sometimes an acronym was first created and then had to be changed in the future because the original meaning isn't valid anymore or is too restrictive. These are sometimes referred to as "anacronyms".

Here is an example:

DVD: Digital Video Disc ?

It started out as Digital Video Disc, but later on, there were other uses for these discs besides video. An interesting situation arose: what would be an appropriate word that starts with V and would convey the meaning of multi-purpose? The word "versatile" was thrown around for a bit, but never entered common usage.

However, according to the official DVD specifications, it doesn't stand for anything, it is just the letters "DVD". Now with DVDs in the mainstream, they will be thought of as always standing for digital video disc, especially with the popularity of movie rental services such as Netflix.