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.

Advertisements

A patient patient

I have posted before about the dangers of students picking the wrong meaning from a dictionary or translator, because many words have multiple meaning or senses. Sometimes the two words are related, sometimes they’re not.

Today, a sentence included patient as an adjective. One student used his dictionary/translator, then about a minute later said “What does this sentence mean?”. I said “You wrote down that word. You tell me what it means.” He said “A sick person”.

Interestingly, patient-noun = a sick person and patient-adjective = bearing with fortitude without complaint are related, through Latin pati, patiens to undergo, suffer, bear. A patient is someone who is suffering illness or injury. They are patient if they do so without complaint, but a patient can be very impatient (and many are). Conversely, a doctor can be patient (and, at times, a patient) or impatient.

The relationship between patient-noun and patient-adjective may not be obvious, but the two words share the same form. Also today, another student said that the adjective related to happiness is happen (and immediately realised their mistake). Happen is not an adjective, but, surprisingly, is related to happy and happiness. The connection is the very old (1150-1200) noun hap, meaning one’s lot or luck – something that occurs for some reason. Happen dates from 1300-1350 and means the actual occurrence of a hap. Happy emerged at the same time and means the feeling resulting from a fortunate occurrence – not the feeling resulting from any occurrence. Finally, happiness dates from 1520-30. Generally speaking, the more basic form came first and the more affixed form came later (though there is also the opposite process of back-formation). Hap is now a very rare word, alongside mayhap, but perhaps (by lot or luck) and maybe are very common.

You should join his class.

I took some of a colleague’s classes while she was overseas. A student from that class is now coming to mine. She said she likes my teaching. She said she told her brother about me, and:

[1] He said you should join his class.

I was confused. Where is his class and why should I join it? I asked her something along those lines, and she said either:

[2] He said, “You should join his class”.

or

[3] He said I should join your class.

One of the rules of changing direct quotations into indirect ones is pronoun changes, especially I and you. Another is that direct quotations are usually indicated in speech by a slight pause before the quoted words. She hadn’t paused, or hadn’t paused long enough. 

Interpreting [1] as an indirect quotation, as I did, gives:

[1’] “He [brother] said you [teacher] should join his [brother’s] class”. 

This is the equivalent of:

[4] He said, “He should join my class”.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?”.

Continue reading