On Tuesday a student about the difference between lay and lie. I gave a brief explanation to the effect that lay is transitive. It needs a direct object – hens lay eggs and humans lay tables. Lie is intransitive. It does not need, in fact it actively resists, a direct object – hens do not lie eggs and humans do not lie tables. (But some people use lay intransitively – Bob Dylan invites a lady to lay on his big brass bed and Gloria Gaynor’s ex-boyfriend thought she’d lay down and die, to varying degrees of horror from the purists.) I said to the student that it is very easy to get these two verbs mixed up, and many native English speakers do. (It does not help that the past simple form of lie is lay.)
By coincidence, Wednesday’s listening included the adjective laid-back, which I didn’t comment on at the time, because I knew Thursday’s lesson expanded on hyphenated adjectives. But it struck me that laid-back is built on the transitive lay-laid-laid and not the intransitive lie-lay-lain. If you are laid-back, then presumably it’s because someone or something has laid you back somewhere, and not because you have lain back somewhere. I’ve consulted several dictionaries and searched generally online, but I can’t find anything about this. Maybe the concept is reflexive: you have laid yourself back. Or maybe informal words don’t have to follow the rules of grammar.
In yesterday’s class, I briefly mentioned this to the student, then said ‘The word is laid-back, whether it comes from lay or lie’. Another student then asked about the other lie, to tell an untruth.
I am currently filling in for my colleague who teaches the weekend class, which is working from the advanced textbook, so I have suddenly been confronted with words like ‘multitasking’ and ‘mindfulness’, which I haven’t taught about for a long time. The reading about multitasking says ‘Multitasking is a natural everyday occurrence … we can talk to a friend while walking down the street without bumping into anyone’. One of the comprehension questions (true/false) is ‘It is often dangerous to chat to a friend while walking down the street’. (This can possibly be answered from real life, without even looking at the reading.) In one pair, one student said ‘false’ (the ‘correct’, or at least ‘expected’, answer) and another said ‘true’, and they were deep in conversation about what kind of ‘chat’ this sentence meant. The first student and I thought that it meant actual talking, which would make the sentence false, but the second student was adamant that it meant text/email/video chat, which would indeed make the sentence true. If this was a test, and I was marking his answers, I would have to mark it incorrect. Fortunately for him it was a lesson, so we were able to talk about it. For me, ‘chat’ is, all else being equal, actual talking. Both of the students are about the same age (?late 20s), and the first first is from a country largely associated with electronic communication, while the second isn’t.
I recently stumbled on a song with the questionable grammar ‘the way I are’. (Any resemblance to ‘the way we were’ in my last post is purely coincidental.) If this is part of any recognised variety of English, I haven’t encountered it before. In searching for more information, I found another song with the same grammar, and those two appear to be the only occurrences on the internet, so I must conclude that it’s not part of any recognised variety of English which has ever been posted on the internet. The first few pages of search results were references to one or other of these songs, then came ‘about 897,000,000′ results of one, two, three or all of those words in some combination or order.
One writer wrote ”Cause I like you just the way you are … Can you handle me the way I are?’, the other ‘Don’t matter who you are, just love me the way I are’. This is not a ‘mistake’, because both writers chose to do it, and I’m sure they’re aware that it’s ‘wrong’. For every other verb in English than be, you and I are followed the same verb form: ”Cause I like you just the way you eat … Can you handle me the way I eat?’ or ‘Don’t matter who you eat, just love me the way I eat‘. (Sorry, I’ve still got eating pizzas on my mind from two posts ago. (There are increasingly risqué and indeed outright rude alternative verbs.))
Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic posted without comment a graphic by Suzy Styles, of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, of The Commonest Speech Sounds: Prevalence Rates for Phonemes of the World. Styles, in turn also doesn’t comment on it, beyond stating that she compared the speech sounds of 1672 languages on a certain online database. What follows are my own thoughts about the graphic, primarily as an ESL teacher and not as a linguist.
(There’s a large space under this graphic – keep scrolling.)
Languages can be divided into syllable-timed (where each syllable takes approximately the same amount of time and receives approximately the same amount of stress) and stress-timed (where the stressed syllables (longer, louder) fall at approximately regular intervals and the others are shorter and softer).
Many of my students speak syllable-timed languages, and tend to pronounce English in much the same way. The textbook and tests include sections on word stress, but I’m not sure that they understand it, or that I’m explaining it so that that can.
It doesn’t help that many English words have different stresses, for grammatical reasons, for example ex-PORT (verb) and EX-port (noun), or for British v American variety, for example of-FENCE (Br) and OFF-ence (Am) (some students from some countries watch American basketball).
So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.
Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)
I love digressions, and the textbook’s topic of photography turned into a discussion of cute animal photos on the internet. The page of photos I quickly found had a wide range of animals, which doubled up as a bit of extra vocabulary learning (sloth is not usually included in vocabulary lists). One of the photos was of a baby hippo, so I said ‘It’s full name is hippopotamus‘. Several students tried to pronounce that and generally failed, so I said ‘Don’t worry, you can always say hippo‘. One student from the Philippines then said ‘In Tagalog, we say hippopoTAmus’. I know just enough Greek to know that, by itself poTAmus is closer to the original pronunciation than POtamus. Greek Wikipedia’s page for river is titled Ποταμός and the one for hippopotamus is Ιπποπόταμος (the ‘single accent or tonos (΄) … indicates stress), so Ποταμός is actually potaMOS, but the stress shifts to PO in the compound word. I said to the student ‘In English, we say hippoPOtamus, but you can always say hippo‘.
Many students say PHOtographer and PHOtography, and it is impossible to get them to say phoTOgrapher and phoTOgraphy. When they try, they say phoTOEgrapher and phoTOEgraphy. As far as I know, no native speakers say PHOtographer, but it may come about that in the future, driven by second language speakers, it is recognised as a general alternative pronunciation. I hope not.
Five years ago, I had two students from Greece. As their vocabulary developed and more Greek-derived words crept into lessons, readings and word lists, the more advanced of the two would say ‘ooh, is Greek word’. (But he was stumped by kaleidoscope, which is not a Greek word, but was coined in English from Greek.) (I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned those two – I’ve got many stories about them.)