Totes amazeballs

I had never previously said totes amazeballs and don’t ever expect to again, and in fact the sooner it dies the better, but a lesson on ‘extreme adjectives’ was good much of an opportunity. The textbook had several synonyms for ‘very good’ and I elicited several more, then mentioned that people make up their own, including totes amazeballs. (Another is fantabulous.) One student expressed great doubt that such an expression exists, but I was able to show her on Google. (Most sources on the internet cast scorn on the expression and the people who use it.) She couldn’t figure out how a word ending with ‘balls’ can be an adjective. Basically, it can be an adjective because people use it as an adjective.

Another point is that terrific, terrifying and terrible, and horrific, horrifying and horrible should mean the same thing, but don’t. I didn’t mention Latin – I just said “Be careful about these words – they are different”. (Horrific didn’t occur in the lesson – I just mention it for the sake of completeness here.

I’m not quite sure exactly how I know this expression. No-one I know uses it. I’ve just read it on the internet enough times for it to sink in. The downside of being passionately interested in language.



When I press the button at the bottom of my mobile phone, the first screen has the time and date at the top and the instruction ‘Swipe screen to unlock’ at the bottom. In the middle are various bits of information, including notifications of missed calls or voice messages, and news from Google. Earlier today, the new was “New LPA to boost rains from habagat”. I have no idea what that means and equally no idea why Google would think I was interested. Some research was necessary.

Searching Google found the article on, the headline of which had one extra, even more baffling word “New LPA to boost rains from habagat, ‘Falcon’”. The first paragraph makes almost everything clear:

MANILA, Philippines — A new low pressure area west of the Philippines will further enhance the southwest monsoon and Tropical Storm “Falcon” (international name: Danas).

So an LPA is a low pressure area (is this really commonly used in Filipino news headlines?), a/the/- habagat is the south-west monsoon (“characterized by hot and humid weather, frequent heavy rainfall, and a prevailing wind from the west” and lasting May/June to Nov/Dec – Wikipedia), and “Falcon” is an officially named tropical storm. (For the rest of the year, the prevailing weather is the amihan – “moderate temperatures, little or no rainfall, and a prevailing wind from the east”.)

What it doesn’t make clear is why Google thinks I would be interested.

PS I can imagine an Australian news source using “low” and “high” in a headline, but not LPA or HPA.

Languages spoken

I have just finished teaching a colleague’s class while she’s been visiting her family overseas. I was meant to finish last week, but we’d reached the end of the textbook, so it made sense for me to give the final test and mark it. My previous post about two Nepalese students (in my own class) speaking regional languages as well as Nepali prompted me to ask the students in my colleague’s class what other language(s) they speak. Their answers, as well as their current level of English (intermediate to upper-intermediate): Punjabi, Urdu and some Arabic; Punjabi and Hindi (x2); Vietnamese and ‘okay’-level Cantonese; Nepali and a little bit of Hindi; Korean and a little bit of Japanese; Visayan and Tagalog/Filipino.

Languages of Nepal

(Note: I am not an expert on the languages Nepal. The following has been gleaned from teaching Nepalese students, especially recently, and Wikipedia.)

I have mentioned that Nepali is an Indo-European language (here and here), and therefore has some words which are cognate (or might be) with English. Yesterday a Nepalese student said that he and another Nepalese student speak different first languages (alongside standard Nepali as a second language), but don’t understand the other’s language. I caught what one said his language is, made easier by the fact that he uses the ethnic group/language name as his surname. For privacy I won’t tell you which one. I looked at Wikipedia’s list of languages of Nepal and found that that language is actually Sino-Tibetan, and thus more closely related to the languages of China.

Today I asked the other what his first language is, and it is the name of his his ethnic group, but he doesn’t use it as his surname. It is Sino-Tibetan as well, but saying that two Nepalese languages are both Sino-Tibetan says as much about their mutual intelligibility as saying that Romanian and Bulgarian are both Indo-European does (they are from different branches of Indo-European – Romance and Slavic respectively). There is comparatively less information about Sino-Tibetan languages on the internet, and what there is is dominated by Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese, being three national-level languages. (Possibly the two students’ languages are from the same branch (Wikipedia’s article on Sino-Tibetan languages colour-codes them as ‘other’), which might make them as mutually intelligible as Norwegian and Swedish, or Serbian and Croatian, but this seems not to be the case.)

So, three of my current students (an Indian student in another class), speak an ethnic or regional language, their national language (Hindi and Nepali) and their current level of English. And I speak approximately 1.1 languages. Luckily, people want to learn my language, otherwise I’d be out of a job.

Wikipedia’s article on the languages of Nepal states that the 2011 census lists 123 languages spoken in Nepal, but some of those are Indian and others are completely foreign (for example, 8 speakers of Arabic, 16 of Spanish and 34 of French). Slightly fewer than half are Indo-European, but they have larger numbers of speakers each, including the top four, accounting for over 66% of Nepalese between them (adding second language speakers of Nepali totals more than 100%, because many speakers of languages 2-4 also speak Nepalese as a second language (it is a compulsory subject at school, and the medium of instruction in most)). Slightly more than half are Sino-Tibetan, but they have fewer speakers each, under 10,000 in most cases and under 100 in some others. Wikipedia’s article on the demographics of Nepal lists 26 ethnic groups with more than 100,000 members, then combines the rest as ‘more than 100 caste/ethnic groups’, so in effect each caste/ethnic group has its own language.

“Could you tell me why?”

One grammar activity required students to place the given jumbled words into the correct order. One of them involved an indirect question, approximately “Could you tell me where the station is?”. All the students wrote “Could you tell me where is the station?”. This fits the pattern for a direct question (“Where is the station?”) and is perfectly understandable, but no native speaker over the age of three ever uses that structure, or is ever explicitly taught the rule.

It sounds a bit wishy-washy to say “In this kind of sentence we use this order and not that order” without giving some sort of reason, especially when there’s such a strong pull towards that order (viz, the subject-auxiliary inversion of a direct question).

But grammar books and websites don’t give a reason. Even the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (which I have just bought, so I’m likely to quote more, in order to get my considerable amount of money’s worth, says only:

The main structural difference between subordinate and main clause interrogatives is that subject-auxiliary inversion does not generally apply in the subordinate construction.

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Indo-European clothes

In 2015, many of my students were from Pakistan. Some of them wore traditional Pakistani clothes, especially on Fridays, when they went from class to prayers at a mosque. I asked them what those clothes were called, and they said “Shalwar kameez”. The shalwar is the trousers and the kameez the top. It’s a long way from Pakistani men to the chemise and camisole, but the garments and the words are related. 

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When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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