Tag Archives: language

Squozen language — fun stuff our family says

This recipe for canning salsa* will forever live in my heart for its use of the word, “squozen.”

baby squirrel holding onto the fingers of a hand

You must be squozen! — CC image “Charlie the hugger” courtesy of novocainstain on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“Squozen” is a family word. As in my aunt announcing to me or my brothers or cousins, “You must be squozen.” A term of endearment and affection.

My family has also been known to “shniggle,” to drive each other crazy by “gussifying” (“please stop gussifying!”), and to discuss “buppos” in public.

Nephews and brothers must be liberally “goosed” by an authority figure, and references to anthropopagi are regularly made in conversation. “Do not sit at the table like one of the anthropopagi, the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” my father liked to intone, as we sat at the dinner table.

One of many reasons to be glad to be part of the clan.

Ours is of course not the only family to have family-specific terminology for things. I do think, however, that being a bilingual family has added a special flavor to our adaptations on language. Anyone can snuggle, after all, but not everyone abuses German in English by shniggling.

snippet of recipe text for salsa

Courtesy of PickYourOwn.org

As a group, we have been caught punning nearly constantly, and having our way with various sayings. “Like water off a duck’s foot!” has become standard, as has “open foot, insert mouth…” The dog is a “hairy beast” while minds are terrible things to lose. (All true, by the way)

Sometimes I use family terminology in a non-family environment. Occasionally, hearers will look confused. Other times, they congratulate me on my language creativity. I smile and accept their admiration, not bothering to set them straight.

The family dog is now multi-lingual, being fluent in Dog, as well as proficient with English, German, and family-speak (though sometimes he pretends he doesn’t know what we are talking about). He is particularly attentive when we illustrate points with food, or with small kittens. So far, he has not attempted to eat the kittens.

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What are some fun words your family or friends use or have invented?

*yes, I did indeed make that salsa. Many tomatoes were squozen, and the result was delicious!

Writing with IPA (and not in the snow)

We got your Shakespearean OP -- Yeah you know me!

confused-looking woman holding a notebook

CC image “Confused” courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

M paused as he explained the definition of the word. “You know that weird string of letter-like symbols when you look it up in the dictionary?” he said. “Do any of you have a clue what that’s all about?”

The nerd in me took .02 seconds to pipe up. “That’s the International Phonetic Alphabet,” I said, equal parts proud and embarrassed.

“Of course it is,” said M.

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short (not as tasty as certain fermented beverages that also go by the same name, but at least as interesting, in certain circles) is a kind of symbolic spelling that linguists use to represent how a word is pronounced without stumbling over spelling conventions. The IPA applies across all known languages or dialects. IPA spelling shows up immediately after the boldfaced entry of every word in the dictionary, between two backslashes, as with this example from Merriam Webster:

dic·tio·nary: noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē\

Since I was a somewhat nerdy child, and did use the dictionary while I was growing up (going through the pupae stage of my bookworminess, I guess you could say), I had long wondered about those symbols myself. Although I supposed they were related to pronunciation, I was never quite sure how until I took my first phonetics class.

The sounds of language

Ahh, phonetics. The study of the sounds of speech. Typically, when we’re talking about how a writer renders a particular dialect or language, we’ll say “s/he wrote that dialect phonetically” to mean that the spelling evokes sound rather than writing conventions. “I’m gonna” versus “I’m going to,” for example. The thing is, every author has his or her own idea of what that dialect actually sounds like, and all kinds of spelling variations can be used. How do I know what I’m hearing in my own head is what the writer intended?

This poses a problem just among English-speakers. Try to get an American English speaker or a Welsh English speaker to write “phonetically” for an Aussie or a Kiwi. They will just look at each other curiously. The vowels for all our varied English dialects are totally different.

Enter the IPA. Every symbol is assigned one sound. Additional notations known as diacritics add details such as whether the sound is voiced or voiceless, aspirated (followed by a puff of exhaled air) or not. Although based on the Latin alphabet, IPA contains plenty of other funky symbols to keep digital transcriptionists busy.

To the layperson, IPA looks like a bunch of hieroglyphics. Learning IPA is the equivalent of learning a new written language. It’s most useful in academic circles and for students of language. (I did say I was a nerdy child, right?)

IPA in daily life and in Shakespeare

We could use it to represent the sounds of English today. All of us, native speakers or not, have at one point complained about how English spelling and pronunciation don’t seem to have ANYTHING to do with each other sometimes.

But there was a time when English writing was much more “phonetic” than it is today. And scholars say Shakespeare captures a lot of that language.

The fruits of research into the language of Shakespeare have even taken the stage at The Globe Theatre in London, where a number of productions were performed in what is called OP, “original pronunciation.”

Original pronunciation, you say? How do they know what Shakespeare’s compatriots actually sounded like?!

For a fuller discussion, watch this video. In brief, according to the noted historical linguist David Crystal, there are three main types of evidence researchers use to determine the pronunciation of historical dialect. First, they look at what people writing at the time have to say about how their language is spoken. Second, they use the written evidence (since English used to be much more phonetic, spelling gives us helpful clues). And third, researchers look at poetry and rhyme, on the concept that poetic stanzas were meant to rhyme, and not look strange as they do to the modern eye.

The result is something that doesn’t sound at all the way most of us are used to hearing Shakespeare pronounced (watch for examples). To my ears, it even sounds sort of Irish. I swear it’s not the apostrophe in my name talking.

I’m pretty sure The Globe’s production staff put together a pronunciation guide for the actors who had to learn the script in OP. I doubt it was an IPA guide, though.

 

Bi-ˈkəz ðæt wʌd bi ˈkɹe-zi!1

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What’s your favorite nerdy discovery?

 

1 With apologies for any mistakes I may have made, or any dialectal offenses I may have incurred.

Sweating the small stuff:

how to get creative work done

golden retriever makes a snowman

But I like making stuff! — CC image “Chevy Worked Hard Building His Own Snowman” courtesy of Chevysmom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Going to the library should not have been a big deal.

It’s pretty small stuff. Question: where will I do my writing today? Answer: the library.

Done.

It’s like the dilemma about changing the channel on the TV when you can’t find the remote. Truly, not worth thinking about for more than 2 seconds. Library: quiet, air conditioned, no distractions. [1] A good place to do thoughtful work.

Except I questioned that should take that step, and almost got zero writing done that day as a result.

The easy way out of creativity

Have you ever known you needed to do something, but were looking for the easy way out?

Like most creative people, I’m fairly bruised from falling off and jumping back on the wagon of disciplined work. On a recent foray into more structured creative behavior, I came across this article from the Huffington Post outlining five bad habits that freelancers fall into. Number 5: Working From Your Bedroom caught my eye particularly.

“Working in your bedroom is only one step away from doing the laundry, two steps away from taking a nap, and three steps away from cooking in the kitchen,” #5 says. “Studies also show that working from your bedroom can cause you to have problems sleeping and resting when you’re not working.”

Hmm.

I’ve written before about the benefits of literally taking a new perspective — sitting in a new seat in your room or office when you work, for example. So I responded to the common-sense nature of Voakes’ advice right away. Great, I thought. Today I’ll go to the library!

Then I thought, If only it wasn’t 90 degrees outside…

Artists’ no. 1 excuse: If only…

Beware this phrase. Have you ever caught yourself using it? “If only” is the number one way our Inner Procrastinator brainwashes us. “If only [XYZ condition were met], I’d have this all taken care of…”

Which really translates into, “I’m letting myself off the hook by choosing a precondition that I know won’t be met. Sorry, art!”

Who cares if it’s 90 degrees outside? The library is air conditioned! Staying at home, faffing on the computer, would have been just as absurd as refusing to change the TV channel because I don’t want to get up out of my chair and the batteries are dead in the remote.

I had a goal to do creative writing work. I had decided to take both my own good advice on changing my physical perspective, and the accepted wisdom of freelancers everywhere that sometimes, we really do need to get out of the house to get things done. Going to the library would accomplish both goals.

Except getting there meant walking for nearly half an hour in the heat, getting even more hot and sweaty than I already was.

Now, I ask you, is that really a bad thing?

Work should make you sweat

Michael Phelps didn’t become an Olympic swimmer by sitting on his hands. Charles Dickens didn’t publish more than 30 books (but who’s counting?) by fretting about the temperature. And neither will you or I ever get where we want to be, creatively, if we’re afraid of a little sweat.

Which is why I think sweating the small stuff is a great strategy for getting creative work done. Working at the library versus working at home? Not a big deal, really…

Getting zero words on paper versus three hours of focused, dedicated writing and nearly two completed drafts?

Definitely worth the sweat.

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What did you sweat creatively this week?

1. Unless you count books, of course. Those distract me all the time, but ironically, the otherwise siren call of literature becomes a soothing hum when I’m doing my own work surrounded by hundreds of tomes.
Back to the text

Euphemisms and Doublespeak: Here to serve you

Sometimes, my work space looks like this:

desk and tables covered with books and notes

Creativity at work

The space is like a notepad version of “Where’s Waldo.” Find the stationery with the story brainstorming list on it. Go ahead, take your time.

I call what you see here “creative chaos.”

What you can’t see in the picture is a lot of the floor. The floor gets very creative. At the epicenter of the creativity you can usually find my chair, unless it’s been a breezy day.

Merriam-Webster defines a “euphemism” as follows: “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also: the expression so substituted.” The word comes from the Greek euphēmismos, basically, speech that sounds good.

Another (accurate) description of my work space is, sometimes: an unholy mess. But that doesn’t sound nearly as nice as creative chaos. A good friend of mine used to joke about her messy room by plucking a desired item from an otherwise indistinguishable heap on the first try and announcing: “there’s a method to my madness.” I like that. The statement suggests intent. A plan. Decision-making.

As a writer, I like “creative chaos” for additional reasons. The phrase conveys dashes of artistry, productivity, and a possible relationship to cosmological Big Bang ideas. All very nice, indeed. My creative chaos underlines the fact that I am very busy and important (thanks, Bridget Jones).

Euphemisms are great. Politicians and corporations use them a lot. My favorite corporate-related euphemism comes up all the time in the avaricious consumerist holiday season replacing Christmas every year. If you turn on the radio or your TV, or the YouTube video you are trying to watch gets hijacked by some ad, you’ll hear a version of this doublespeak. It goes something like this:

“Do you like to SAVE? Shop XYZ Company this holiday season!”

No one has yet clarified for me how purchasing something involves simultaneously saving my money. But maybe that’s why I’ve never had more than one credit card.

Job descriptions are great for euphemisms, too. Here are a few, along with their real-world translations, that make the rounds occasionally in an email forward (one of my former co-workers had the full list pegged to the corkboard above her desk; I love people with a sense of humor):

  • Competitive salary
    “We remain competitive by paying less than our competitors.”
  • Must be deadline oriented
    “You’ll be six months behind schedule on your first day.”
  • Must have an eye for detail
    “We have no quality control.”
  • Seeking candidates with a wide variety of experience
    “You’ll need it to replace three people who just left.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be recognized for my broad range of experience and ability to meet deadlines, than tasked with balancing a row of spinning plates while not earning much money.

The same kind of language manipulation happens a lot in the food space. “All natural” is one of my favorites. What does “all natural” mean? If you ask a flavor scientist, you might conclude that their answer has no bearing on your question.

I could write a lot about the ways we parlay language like a shield — which is kind of the point. Euphemisms are great. Not just for job interviews and food marketing, but also for Jane Austen and George Eliot. (What is the society in Pride & Prejudice if not one giant euphemism pond? Mr. Bennett: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you.” One sentence encompasses conflict, character motivation — and humor).

Euphēmismos — the tension between what’s said and what’s really meant. Which is the place that a lot of good stories and jokes come from.

Therefore, I deduce that I have some great stories coming out of this writing work space. If I can locate them in the pile of papers.

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Is there a method to your madness?  Let’s hear some of your favorite turns of phrase below.

Words like to hang out together

using language chunks to our advantage in speaking and writing

statue of a jester in avon England

Listen to my words! CC image “Stratford Upon Avon” courtesy of Jig O’Dance on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A couple of months ago, at Voice & Speech class, I asked about a tricky thing regarding my first speech as a Toastmaster: The Icebreaker Speech.

I was trying to figure out how to balance the need to practice my speech and know it well, with the desire to maintain spontaneity and engagement, and fluidity while I was presenting it — in other words, I wanted it to sound effortless, but not rehearsed.

My teacher pointed out that that was very much acting… what an actor would do. She encouraged me to keep the following in mind in working with this situation:

At first read-through, we know a piece pretty well.  As we continue to memorize it, she said, we all go through a patch of badness, where we just tank. She referenced the experience of voice-over artists, who usually hit badness when they’re asked to do too many takes of the same piece. There is a line where repetition becomes too much… but, she insisted, if we persist through the badness and continue working with the material, we will come out the other side, knowing the text much better and having left the badness behind.

So, number one, persist through the badness.

On a mechanical level, for practice, my teacher suggested breaking down the speech by taking the whole thing, if I’d written the presentation out in full sentences, and:

  • breaking the sentences into phrases
  • breaking the phrases down into bullets

Then practicing the speech using the bullets only.  As a species of mile marker. Until (theoretically) I could discard the bullets (I haven’t gotten that comfortable yet).

We all think that we speak in full sentences, she said, but in fact, no one does. We speak in chunks.

Linguists call this “lexical chunking” and you can read an interesting article about it here. (If you’re a real linguistic nerd, like me, you might enjoy the video discussion between McWhorter and Zimmer, here.) Lexical chunking has become a big part of the discussion in language learning and teaching, because harnessing the way our brains naturally process language should provide advantages over memorizing vocabulary lists (remember that, anyone? those pop quizzes were the best).

A lot of what the casually interested reader can find when googling “lexical chunks” pertains to language learning, specifically learning English as a second language. This deals mostly with spoken language. A lot of the rest of what the reader will find has to do with reading, or processing written language. We don’t read word for word, either. In both cases the argument is that “chunking” enhances the ease of our understanding. The theoretical underpinning to this argument rests on the role and limitations of short-term memory. At its most basic: we don’t have much room in short-term memory, so multi-word language units that come as a prepackaged whole mean less work for the brain.

Hooray, less work! As far as my speech was concerned, chunking should provide advantages both for me, who was trying to remember everything I wanted to say, as well as for my audience, who I hoped would understand and remember my speech!

The other good news about my Toastmasters presentations is that I have leeway with my choice of words. Unlike actors working with a script, I don’t have to hit the same exact lines every time, as long as I keep the sense of the talk where it should be. Instead, I can focus on persisting through the badness, keeping my eyes on the mile markers.

Language chunks at work.

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What are your tricks for remembering what you want to say? Does writing your ideas down hurt or help you?