How language shapes our perception of reality

The many subtle differences across languages might actually change the way we experience the world.

Does an English speaker perceive reality differently from say, a Swahili speaker? Does language shape our thoughts and change the way we think? Maybe.

The idea that the words, grammar, and metaphors we use result in our differing perceptions of experiences have long been a point of contention for linguists.

But just how much impact language has on the way we think is challenging to determine, says Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University. Other factors, like culture, meaning the traditions and habits we pick up from those around us, also shape the way we talk, the things we talk about, and hence, changes the way we think or even how we remember things.

Consider the below examples of how language could impact experiences:

● In Russian, there are multiple words for differing shades of blue. Would having a word for light blue and another for dark blue lead Russian speakers to think of the two as different colors? Possibly. Birner says that this could be compared to red and pink in English, which are considered two different colors even though pink is merely a light shade of red.

● If there isn’t a word–and attached meaning–to something, can speakers experience it? The Dani of New Guinea categorize colors as “dark”–which includes blue and green–and “light”–which includes yellow and red. Some studies say that people don’t actually see color unless there is a word for it, but other studies have found that speakers of the Dani language can see the difference between yellow and red despite only having one word for them.

● The Pirahã people of the Amazonas, Brazil, do not keep track of exact quantities with their language.

● The language called Guugu Yimithirr spoken in a remote community in Australia doesn’t have terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, words like “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” are used to describe locations and directions. So if you ask where something is, the answer might be that it’s to the southwest of X, which requires speakers to have spectacular spatial orientation. Because of the vocabulary, English speakers might organize things left to right, whereas a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr might orient them in a mirrored position.

● It’s possible that you would think about events differently depending on the question you’d have to ask yourself when deciding on a verb tense. For instance, English speakers focus on whether the event has happened in the past (“Sarah talked”) or is happening in the present (“Sarah talks”). The Hopi language doesn’t require past or present tense, but has validity markers, which requires speakers to think about how they came to know a piece of information. Did they experience it firsthand (“I’m hungry”) or did someone tell them about it, or is the information common knowledge (“the sky is blue”)? Turkish speakers would also need to think about the source of the information since they’re constantly asking themselves, “How did I come to know this?” Speakers of Russian would have to decide if the event was completed or not when considering the verb tense.

● Numerous studies have shown that people who speak languages with gender markings might categorize non-gender items, say a table or a chair, based on its gender markings. This may differ the way English speakers would categorize items, which is typically by shape or size.

● Cross-linguistic differences may impact how people remember and interpret causal events, and even how much they blame and punish those connected to the events. One study conducted by Stanford researchers found that Spanish and Japanese speakers didn’t remember who is to blame for accidental events as much as those who speak English do. However, speakers of all three languages remember agents for intentional events the same. In the study, participants were given a memory test after watching videos of people popping balloons, breaking eggs, and spilling drinks both intentionally and accidentally. In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped in accidental events, so instead of “John broke the vase,” like an English speaker would likely say, speakers of Spanish and Japanese would say “the vase broke” or “the vase was broken.”

There are also factors so subtle that it’s hard to say whether or to what extent they impact our thoughts. For instance, English speakers think of time as something that can be counted, saved, wasted, and even lost. This would be impossible for a culture where tomorrow is viewed as a day returned and not so much another day.




Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet

No language in history has dominated the world quite like English does today. Is there any point in resisting? By 
“Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.”
“For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Görlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English – he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes – published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include “last-minute”, “fitness”, “group sex”, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.”
German explorer
…Looking again at Sapir-Whorf…
“The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt was among the first to articulate it in a complex form. After studying Amerindian languages in the New World, he came to the conclusion that every language “draws a circle” around its speakers, creating a distinct worldview through its grammar as well as in its vocabulary. In the 20th century, the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf elaborated this idea into a broader vision of how language structures thought. Both drew inspiration for their work from their study of North American languages such as Nootka, Shawnee and Hopi.This idea – now usually known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – has had a checkered history in academia. At different times, it has been hailed by it proponents as foundational insight for modern anthropology and literary theory, and blamed by its detractors as the source of the worst excesses of postmodern philosophy. In recent decades, sociolinguists have arrived at a few startlingly suggestive findings concerning the influence of language on colour perception, orientation and verbs of motion – but in general, the more expansive notion that different languages inculcate fundamentally different ways of thinking has not been proven.

“Nonetheless, some version of this idea continues to find supporters, not least among writers familiar with shifting between languages. Here is the memoirist Eva Hoffman on the experience of learning English in Vancouver while simultaneously feeling cut off from the Polish she had grown up speaking as a teenager in Kraków: “This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo described something similar in her recent memoir, writing about how uncomfortable she felt, at first, with the way the English language encouraged speakers to use the first-person singular, rather than plural. “After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? … But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.”

Imprisoned in English 

Imprisoned in English 

“In the 1970s, Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist who found herself marooned in Australia after a long career in Polish academia, stood the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on its head. Instead of trying to describe the worldviews of distant hunter-gatherers, she turned her sociolinguistic lens on the surrounding anglophones. For Wierzbicka, English shapes its speakers as powerfully as any other language. It’s just that in an anglophone world, that invisible baggage is harder to discern. In a series of books culminating in 2013’s evocatively named Imprisoned in English, she has attempted to analyse various assumptions – social, spatial, emotional and otherwise – latent in English spoken by the middle and upper classes in the US and UK.

“Reading Wierzbicka’s work is like peeking through a magic mirror that inverts the old “how natives think” school of anthropology and turns it back on ourselves. Her English-speakers are a pragmatic people, cautious in their pronouncements and prone to downplaying their emotions. They endlessly qualify their remarks according to their stance towards what is being said. Hence their endless use of expressions such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I suppose”, “I understand”, “I suspect”. They prefer fact over theories, savour “control” and “space”, and cherish autonomy over intimacy. Their moral lives are governed by a tightly interwoven knot of culture-specific concepts called “right” and “wrong”, which they mysteriously believe to be universal.

A brief history of singular ‘they’

xe he sheSingular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves his mother.

But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular they was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well. You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and teachers used singular you when their students weren’t lookingAnyone who said thou and thee was seen as a fool and an idiot, or a Quaker, or at least hopelessly out of date.

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool. And singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the formThe New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010)calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Not everyone is down with singular they. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular they for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use everyone  their in their papers, though he probably uses singular they when his students aren’t looking. Last Fall, a transgender Florida school teacher was removed from their fifth-grade classroom for asking their students to refer to them with the gender-neutral singular they. And two years ago, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ because some students might prefer an invented nonbinary pronoun like zie or something more conventional, like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.

It’s no surprise that Tennessee, the state that banned the teaching of evolution in 1925, also failed to stop the evolution of English one hundred years later, because the fight against singular they was already lost by the time eighteenth-century critics began objecting to it. In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no ‘honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.’ To which they honourably reply that they used singular they on purpose because ‘we wished to conceal the gender,’ and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much. More recently, a colleague who is otherwise conservative told me that they found singular they useful ‘when talking about what certain people in my field say about other people in my field as a way of concealing the identity of my source.’

Former Chief Editor of the OED Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is ‘irreversible’. People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as wellEven people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

Language Change Myths


Spreading the Word – by Jean Aitcheson – Language Change Progress or Decay (1981)


The central topic of this essay is about conscious and unconscious change in language and how changes actually spread and become adopted into language.


  • The essay uses the simile “as obscure to the majority of linguists as the sources of disease still are to primitive communities” which can help to highlight the point that language change is an obscure thing and although it can be viewed over a long period of time it is also difficult to find.


  • Along with language change comes the idea that although we know it changes “we are unlikely to know who started them or where they began”. This suggests that change is often unconscious and a natural thing as language is dynamic and not a static thing.


  • The essay states that it is “not always possible to categorize changes neatly”. The idea of categorizing things “neatly” is a rather strange one which may actually suggest something about society too wanting to categorize everything. It also reinforces the idea that language is changeable and so is changing even now.


  • The idea of language changing is a quite natural thing, however the essay brings up the idea of differences between things “affect the way a change spreads”. This shows how as language is so broad and diverse multiple things can affect it and the changes which occur.


  • The essay brings to light the fact that “we are now in a position to observe changes” in language. This implies how just as language has changed so has the world and society and that actually the changes all affect each other, and furthermore that over time these changes in our language have become more and more visible.


  • Finally, the essay describes the change in the sound of language as to have “seemingly mysterious origins”. This furthermore implies the idea of change happens unconsciously and is adopted into language quite seamlessly and easily.


Conflicting Loyalties – Opposing social pressures – Jean Aitchison

What is the central contention of the essay?

  1. Elements that already exist within a language are used in a context where they are not considered the norm. These occurrences are then borrowed and exaggerated. Language change occurs when this process happens in two opposing directions as the differing social pressures on men and women tug against one another, thus drawing language apart.
  2. The author argues that language change is a social phenomenon and does not occur without presence of prestige. He argues that change occurs as men are pulling away from the overt prestige and women are pulling towards it.




  1. Language change is a social phenomenon which reflects the changing social situation

Author highlights that language change occurs as the context changes, its changes can’t be described in isolation of society.

  1. Men are pulling away from the overt prestige and the women are pulling towards it

Author argues that gender plays a key role in affecting language change

  1. The progress or regression of a change represents the state of the struggle

Language change can be used to analyse the state of a current social situation – the pressures on men and women.

  1. Social factors provided the answer

Sums up the authors view that language change is influenced by the social context.

Idea that language cannot sufficiently be analysed as a sole entity, contextual factors in particular social factors have to be considered.

  1. (Changes) originate from elements already in the language which get borrowed and exaggerated

Language changes diffuse into society and become more frequently used which enables them to be picked up by others as relationships are enacted.

  1. A change occurs when one group consciously or subconsciously takes another as a model, and copies features from its speech

Idea that the spread of change occurs through enacting relationships with different individuals in different settings.

  1. Changes do not occur unless that have some type of prestige

Author argues that language change and identity are interwoven – how an individual wishes to be perceived.

  1. People either do not notice a minor deviation from the norm, or they over-react to it

Language change is influenced by the personal perceptions of different individuals.


Conflicting Loyalties, Jean Aitcheson, 1981

* “The men are pulling away from the covert prestige form, and the women are pulling towards it.”

* “[Changes] usually originate from elements already in the language which get borrowed and exaggerated”

* “People tend to conform to the speech habits of those around them.”

* “Conscious changes are usually in the direction of speech with overt prestige”

* “desirable masculine attributes”

* “social pressure are tugging against one another”

* “surprisingly, perhaps, the varying vowel sounds turned out not to reflect a straight clash between protestant and catholic, but a subtler tagging, primarily between men and women.”

* “status-conscious”


The Media are Ruining English by Jean Aitchison


In my piece Jean Aitchison is attempting to persuade the reader that it isn’t in fact the media that are ruining English, they’re just portraying changes that are occurring. Aitchison argues against the idea that newspapers are the ones “rotting” the language, and argues that the language isn’t getting worse it’s just changing.


  • “But the media didn’t initiate these changes; they were reflecting current usage.”
  • “The media are therefore linguistic mirrors: they reflect current language usage and explain it.”
  • “If he (Samuel Johnson) looked at a newspaper today he would learn both about the modern language and how to use it clearly.”
  • “They (media) do not invent these forms, nor are they corrupting the language.”
  • “Competition rather than metamorphosis is at the root of language alterations.”
  • “perhaps worriers are working with an outdated view of language,”


The central contention of this essay is the idea that the media doesn’t corrupt language, it reflects words being used in a subsection of society and is able to send it out to a wider spread audience. The media doesn’t create this language that leads to corruption, they reflect the language being used to a wider range of impressionable people, quickly and easily.

  1. “The older words get used less and less often and gradually dwindle away. But the media did not initiate these changes; they were reflecting current usage.”
    • This expresses the view that words become old when they are no longer used, this can mean in the media and real life. When the media stop using certain words, they are reflecting the words relevance in society and incorporating them into an article, for example. They aren’t not using certain words to ruin English, but to reflect on its current use.


  1. “The media are therefore linguistic mirrors they reflect current language usage and extent it.”
    • Again, the central contention that the media is a metaphoric mirror of our society’s language, reporters in no way create new language.


  1. “Journalists are observant reporters who pick up early on new forms and spread them to a wider audience. They do not invent these form, nor are they corrupting the language.”
    • Within this, a positive view of language in the media is taken. This is as it’s conveyed how the media is a quick and useful tool to spread new forms of language as a majority of people have some sort of media source.


  1. “Disliked usage (of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary) are frequently assumed by grumblers to be new, a sign of modern decadence.”
    • This conveys that people dislike new language as it’s different to what they usually use and understand. An example of this is older generations commonly not understanding and disliking slang so, they become “grumblers.”


  1. “In the twentieth century, complaints about the media language have escalated about all because of the advent of radio and television. This has added concern about spoken speech to that about written ‘we are plagued with idiots on radio and television and who speak English like the dregs of humanity’ ”
    • People have the view that the media corrupts our language as there are “idiot” on television and radio. However, this isn’t entirely true and against the central contention of the article as the media doesn’t invent these “wrong” forms of language, simply makes them known.


  1. “According to the ‘dirty fingernail’ fallacy, journalists do not pay sufficient attention to language details: they never bother to scrub their linguistic fingernails clean, as is were. On closer inspection, this is untrue.”
    • This again, expresses people’s negative views on journalists language use/ them inventing language but, they don’t do this within the media.


The Meanings of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill


The central contention of this essay is that certain people, mainly prescriptivists, think that the meaning of some words are ‘too far gone’ and that they have changed from their original meaning to something very different. An example of this would be the word “nice”. Many of these people would argue that the word should mean “not cutting” due to its Indo-European roots, but in reality, the majority of people will use “nice” to mean “agreeable”.


  • “[change] is a universal characteristic of human languages” – The idea that change is needed for languages to grow and develop into a greater from is much more useful than the idea of keeping words to be similar to their original meaning.


  • “the real meaning of a word” – Again, it argues that there is no right or wrong answer as to how to interpret certain words due there being a possible number of interpretations, it just all depends on the context.



  • “emotive words tend to change more rapidly” – An example of this being the word “awful”. The word originally meant “inspiring awe” but in the 21st Century, it is now known as “very bad”. Also, in the example of “awfully good”, the adverb is simply there to mean “very”. This goes to show that the word has lost all connection with its original definition and that emotive words may have a habit of changing more rapidly.


  • “the context will normally make it obvious which meaning is intended” – This is referring to words with two different meanings, and the example given was the word “interest”. Simply, if I were to say, “I’m very interested in Hollywood films”, someone would understand that I mean I enjoy watching films and not that I am an academy award winning actress, because there would be context to the statement.



  • “languages are self-regulating systems” – words constantly change their meanings especially once the younger generations get their hands on them, “sick” used to mean “ill” yet now means “good”, however due to the context in which a word is said, it’s not difficult to understand what someone is trying to convey.


  • “When is misuse not misuse?” “When everybody does it.” – The take away message of this whole essay. As soon as the majority of people use the word “nice” to mean “agreeable”, you can hardly argue that it should mean “not cutting” because I can almost guarantee that no one would listen and said prescriptivist would most likely be called pedantic.


Spreading the Word – by Jean Aitcheson – Language Change Progress or Decay (1981)


The central topic of this essay is about conscious and unconscious change in language and how changes actually spread and become adopted into language.


  • The essay uses the simile “as obscure to the majority of linguists as the sources of disease still are to primitive communities” which can help to highlight the point that language change is an obscure thing and although it can be viewed over a long period of time it is also difficult to find.


  • Along with language change comes the idea that although we know it changes “we are unlikely to know who started them or where they began”. This suggests that change is often unconscious and a natural thing as language is dynamic and not a static thing.


  • The essay states that it is “not always possible to categorize changes neatly”. The idea of categorizing things “neatly” is a rather strange one which may actually suggest something about society too wanting to categorize everything. It also reinforces the idea that language is changeable and so is changing even now.


  • The idea of language changing is a quite natural thing, however the essay brings up the idea of differences between things “affect the way a change spreads”. This shows how as language is so broad and diverse multiple things can affect it and the changes which occur.


  • The essay brings to light the fact that “we are now in a position to observe changes” in language. This implies how just as language has changed so has the world and society and that actually the changes all affect each other, and furthermore that over time these changes in our language have become more and more visible.


  • Finally, the essay describes the change in the sound of language as to have “seemingly mysterious origins”. This furthermore implies the idea of change happens unconsciously and is adopted into language quite seamlessly and easily.


Language Change: Progress or Decay by Jean Aitchison
1. “As obscure to the majority of linguistics as the sources of disease still are to primitive communities”
* Can be difficult to spot/ find change as it occurs over a long period of time
2. “Did not come out of the blue”
* Language has been influenced by something
* Changes within society may be why language has had to have been adapted
3. “Standard dialect in the area”
* Immigration will have led to more people integrating and adopting their language
4. “Affect the way a change spreads”
* Multiple influences on language due to a variety of factors
5. “Not always possible to categorise changes neatly”
* “Neatly” may suggest that within society we have to have things a certain way
* Enforced the idea that language can change
6. “Consciously adopting the speech”
* People may desire to speak a certain way so want to try and talk like others

Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language

Baffling slogans have become the new norm in advertising, with such grammar-mangling examples as ‘Live your unexpected’, ‘Find your happy’ and ‘Eat more amazing’

Experience amazing misuse of language, thanks to Lexus’s advertisment.
 Experience amazing misuse of language, thanks to Lexus’s advertisment.

It’s taken a millennium and a half for English to develop into a language as rich and complex as a character from your favourite multi-part Netflix drama series – and just a few years for the advertising industry to batter it into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party.

Baffling slogans have become the new norm in adland. Perhaps Apple laid the foundations in 1997 with its famous Think Different campaign, but things have since gone up a notch: in 2010, Diesel blurted out perplexing offerings such as “Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid”. Then came Zoopla with its “Smart knows” campaign. Now we’re informed by Ireland’s flag carrier that “Smart flies Aer Lingus”. Who are these people called Smart and how can we avoid sitting next to them on our next flight?

Today’s language-mangling ad campaigns run the greasy gamut from the somewhat confusing “Live your unexpected Luxembourg” to the head-scratching “Start your impossible”.

“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”

Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.

Clearly these odd turns of phrase are partially derived from the language of social media, while pandering to the notion of being easily turned into hashtags. But wouldn’t your English teacher have thrown a copy of Mansfield Park at you if you showed this much disdain for adjective and noun deployment?

When you see half-baked slogans – such as Hitachi’s “Inspire the next” – taking a mallet to the accepted rules of English, it can seem as if adland has taken a lesson from George’s Marvellous Medicine, and boiled a random concoction of leftover words and ideas together in a pot. Experience gibberish.


Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’taren’tweren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

Amn’t I talking to you? (Anne Emery, Death at Christy Burke’s, 2011)

Amn’t I after telling you that, said Donal. (Sean O’Casey, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, 1949)

Amn’t /’æmənt/, though centuries old, is not part of standard English. But it is common in Ireland, used especially in colloquial speech though not limited to informal registers. It’s also used in Scotland (alongside amnae and other variants) and parts of England – the OED says the north, and west midlands – and occasionally elsewhere, such as Wales.

How amn’t came to be so geographically limited is not fully clear. Another variant, an’t, probably supplanted it in general usage because speakers wanted to avoid sounding /n/ immediately after /m/; see Michael Quinion and Robert Beard for brief commentary on this. David Crystal says it was therefore:

a natural development to simplify the consonant cluster. The final /t/ made it more likely that the simplification would go to /ant/ rather than /amt/, and this is what we find in 18th century texts, where it appears as an’t.

An’t, also spelt a’n’t, is the “phonetically natural and the philologically logical shortening”, writes Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage. It too fell from favour, but not before morphing in two significant ways. It gave rise to ain’t, which has its own lively history, and it also began being spelt aren’t (by “orthographic analogy”, in Crystal’s phrase), which is pronounced the same as an’t in non-rhoticaccents.

This explains aren’t I, which would otherwise seem a grammatical anomaly. Indeed, Gabe Doyle notes that its irregularity “earns the ire of the accountants” of English. But it has steadily gained acceptability in major English-speaking regions. Irish and Scottish dialects are the exception in retaining and favouring its ancestor, amn’t I.

icanhascheezburger - amn't i just cute enough to eat

Despite its vintage, its logic and its convenience, not everyone likes amn’t. It’s dismissed as “ugly” by Eric Partridge and as “substandard” by Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman describe amn’t I as “clunky” in Origins of the Specious.

Garner is incorrect, and the other pronouncements are subjective or prejudicial. Amn’t is not part of standard English, but it is standard and thoroughly normal in Hiberno-English. There’s nothing intrinsically unsound or deficient about it unless you prize minimal syllabicity, or prestige. It’s often called awkward, but it doesn’t feel awkward if you grow up with it. Even aesthetically amn’t has unique appeal.

Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl? (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922)

Ye don’t want me, don’t ye? And amn’t I as good as the best of them? Amn’t I? (Patrick MacGill, The Rat-pit, 1915)

So how is amn’t used? Commonly in questions: straightforward interrogative (Joyce, above), tag (MacGill), and rhetorical (see post title). These are the structures typically noted by lexicographers: Robert Burchfield’s revision of Fowler says it’s “used as part of the tag question amn’t I?”, while Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2nd ed.) associates it with “negative first-person questions”.

Neither Burchfield nor Dolan mentions other uses, but amn’t is not so confined. It’s used, for example, in declarative statements of the form I amn’t. Though even Irish people, in my experience, usually say I’m not in such cases, some of them also say I amn’t.

I amn’t sure I should go on at all or if you’d like a line or two from your bad old penny. (Joseph O’Connor, Ghost Light, 2010)

And you, my poor changling, have to go to Birmingham next week, and I, poor divil, amn’t well enough to go out to far-away places for even solitary walks. (J.M. Synge, Letters to Molly, 1971)

A bit odder is the double negative question amn’t I not, which I’ve come across in both tags (I’m not drunk neither, amn’t I not) and more centrally (amn’t I not turble [terrible] altogether). A straw poll I held on Twitter suggests, unsurprisingly, that it’s a good deal rarer than other uses of amn’t, but several people still confirm using it.

My Twitter query also showed that amn’t occurs in more than just tag questions in Scotland, disproving a claim I’d encountered earlier. It prompted lots of anecdata and discussion on the word’s contemporary use in Ireland and elsewhere, and is available on Storify for interested readers.

If I amn’t mistaken, the pinch is here. (Athenian Gazette, May 1691)

Oh, Peader, but amn’t I Dublin born and bred? (Katie Flynn, Strawberry Fields, 1994)

Amn’t may grow in frequency and stature or it might, like ain’t, remain quite stigmatised in formal English. At the moment it’s undoubtedly a minority usage, with just four hits in the vast COHA corpus, five in COCA, and one in the BNC. Even GloWbE, with its 1.9 billion words from informal sources, offers a mere thirty-one hits.

Last year I retweeted a comment from @Ann_imal, a US speaker who said she had “started saying ‘amn’t I’ instead of ‘aren’t I,’ and no one (except AutoCorrect) has questioned me”. A search on Twitter suggests she’s not alone: amn’t has modest but undeniable currency in Englishes and idiolects around the world.

infoplease dictionary amn't error

Social attitudes are decisive. Language Hat has noted that children acquiring language sometimes use amn’t – it is, after all, an intuitive construction – only to lose it along the way; a search on Google Books returns similar reports. LH used the word himself, and says, “I don’t remember when or why I stopped. The pressures of ‘proper English’ are insidious.”

In a neat inversion of the usual pattern, a commenter at Language Log recalls using aren’t I as a child and being corrected to amn’t I. More of this kind of parental guidance, or at least less proscriptive regulation in the other direction, may help amn’t gain more of a foothold outside Ireland and Scotland.

Not that I’ve anything against aren’t Ior ain’t for that matter. But if anyone felt they wanted to adopt amn’t and got past the social barrier, they would likely find it a handy, pleasing contraction. And that counts for a lot these days, amirite amn’t I right?


But for more of both, visit the official website or browse the #grammarday tag on Twitter. Don’t miss John E. McIntyre’s wonderful pulp pastiche Grammarnoir.

‘Innit’ will one day be acceptable in written English

It’s very common for people to assume there is a “correct” variety of English that follows grammatical rules, whereas informal speech relaxes those rules. In effect, we can let our hair down when we’re among friends and not worry too much about the rules of grammar.

This is all wrong. Whether we use formal or informal registers, we always follow complex grammatical rules. This is true of standard English and also non-standard dialects, which follow slightly different rules. For example, many non-standard dialects allow multiple negation — You ain’t seen nothin’ yet — whereas standard English doesn’t.

This is where tags come in. Tags are short interrogatives that come after an affirmative or negative declarative clause. There are lots of tag questions in English, aren’t there? You do understand this, don’t you? I’ve made this clear, haven’t I? Tags are characteristic of speech, where we generally want confirmation that the person we’re talking to has understood and is following the conversation (and they’ll usually give a nod of assent as a response). They’re also used in relatively informal edited prose. …a newspaper columnist will generally adopt a conversational style rather than a formal register.

While being informal, tag questions exhibit complex grammar. I haven’t remotely got space to give a comprehensive account of these rules, but here are one or two characteristics of tags. A tag has the same auxiliary verb as the one in the declarative clause. The subject is a personal pronoun orthere. It involves subject-auxiliary inversion (isn’t it, not it isn’t). And in the most common form of short interrogative, there is what linguists call reverse polarity. That means negation of a modal or auxiliary verb, or removal of the negation if it’s already negative. (There is a less common construction that uses constant polarity, but it generally implies irony or indignation: “So you’re a world authority on grammar, are you?”)

Moreover, there are irregular structures in the grammar of interrogative tags. You can’t say amn’t I: it’s got to be aren’t I. However, you can’t say I aren’t, or indeed I amn’t: it must be I am not. If you’re a native English speaker, you will automatically follow these grammatical rules. And if, like many Times readers, you’re a fluent non-native speaker, you’ll have had to painstakingly learn them.

Now, while English has many possible tags, there is one that’s quite recent in the language. It’s innit. Having originated in London, it’s become widespread in speech among young people. Formally innit is a reduction of isn’t it but it doesn’t strictly mean that, as it’s also used as a replacement for any tag question, negative or positive, and with verbs other than be.

Do you hate innit? That’s OK; it’s not part of standard English and there’s no need to use it. It follows grammatical rules too, though. As a tag that’s invariant to tense and semantically empty, it’s analogous to n’est-ce pas in French, which is a standard construction. Perhaps in another 50 years Times and Sunday Times columnists will be writing innit and no one will bat an eyelid. Rest easy: English will survive just fine.

Have we reached peak English in the world?

One of Britain’s greatest strengths is set to diminish as China asserts itself on the world stage

Illustration by Mark Long

In China last month, Theresa May attended the launch of the British Council’s English is Great campaign, intended to boost interest and fluency in our national language. This might sound like Donald Trump’s notorious “Make America great again”, but comes in fact from a stronger position. Beyond doubt, the use of English is greater than ever, and far more widespread than any other language in the world. All non-English-speaking powers of our globalised world recognise it as the first foreign language to learn; it is also, uniquely, in practical use worldwide. The British Council reckons that English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population. It is taught from primary level up in all China’s schools; it is the working language of the whole European Union.

On the news service France 24, English is used more prominently than French. Its use is required of all airline pilots and control towers, 24/7. And it is seen as an essential cachet for progress in some amazing places: for example, 14 years ago, the prime minister of Mongolia – a country with no historic links to an English-speaking power – decreed it should replace Russian in all schools as part of his aspiration to make Ulaanbaatar a centre for telephone call services. One in six Russians claims to speak it. English is clearly the language of choice for those with global aspirations, whatever their political stance towards Anglo-Saxon powers.

This global acceptance of English, now far beyond the zones of influence of the British empire or the United States’ backyard, has effectively grown up in just a century – neatly, and a little paradoxically, since the 1919 treaty of Versailles. In deference to the US, this was the first international treaty written in English; but it also turned out to mark the incipient decline of the world’s greatest English-speaking institution, the British empire. From a language point of view, however, British power had the good fortune to be succeeded by its cousin in North America, so that the usual historic lag, as political command leads on to linguistic imitation, was disguised. Even as Britain began to decline economically, its established position was reflected by increased take-up of English as the language to learn.

But all this while, especially from the 1920s to the 1990s, the focus of US expansion was changing, moving from North America to the world, leading to influence on trade, engineering, telecommunications, mining, media, science and finance, as the dollar moved to replace sterling as the world’s reserve currency. This was followed by the digital information revolution, creating new fortunes based in Silicon Valley at the turn of the 21st century. These were all positive for the world role of English (a role founded by Great Britain), but should have been expected to peak later, in the growth of soft power and the increased popularity of American culture.

It is this lagged growth of English, reflecting US influence hitherto, that we are now experiencing. Yet it is happening in a 21st century when other nations, particularly in Asia but also in South America and Africa, are far outpacing the US (let alone Britain and the European Union) in economic growth rates. This is an amazing juncture in world history. And two questions arise. Is the position of English a real asset to the states that speak it natively? And is the language likely to hold this position in the pecking order indefinitely?

Considering the windfall benefits of English as one’s own language, some immediate advantages are undeniable. It has given direct access to the world’s principal medium of communication: good for having an inside track on “news we can use”, as well as facilitated access for well-educated anglophones to influential jobs. It has also put us in a position to charge some kind of rent for allowing others admission to this linguistic elite: hence the massive earnings from teaching English as a foreign language (now well over £2bn in the UK alone, reaching £3bn by 2020), and global markets for English-language publishing (£1.4bn in exports in 2015). This is another spin-off from Britain’s recent history of dominance, like the siting of the Greenwich meridian, giving daily opportunities for global trades between Asia and America, or the association of investment, and hence global finance, with the City of London.

But special knowledge of a language is an asset that wastes all too soon when it becomes global property. World English will have just a historic connection to Britain or the US, and knowing it well is no longer exclusive to native speakers. Even the short-term windfall advantages came with a moral hazard. Presumption of entitlement can breed complacency at home, as well as resentment abroad – all too evident in the current “negotiations” on Britain’s divorce from Europe.

It is hard to credit the vulnerability of a language such as English – which has spread, unbidden and unplanned, far beyond its homeland, and is even claimed to be the “language of freedom”. But this in itself is nothing new. Transnational lingua francas, once established, always give off an aura of permanence. Yet when circumstances change, they fall. And the change is clearly coming.

And so the natural expectation will be that after the new powers, such as China, India or Brazil, establish themselves economically, politically (and probably militarily), their linguistic and cultural influence too will come to be felt, among those who want to do business with them, and then with one another. But as with all newly dominant languages, there will be a lag.

If centred on China, say, the world may be less enthusiastic for “the hidden hand” of Adam Smith’s free markets. If other centres emerge, the result may be more mixed, asserting local Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu traditions. Evolving translation technologies may make languages largely interchangeable, pushing national cultures into the background. Whatever, there will be no special deference to the current English-speaking tradition.

Something like this, after all, is what happened in the 17th century, when the newly global power France won a role for French as a common language for civilised Europe: French – with strong Enlightenment overtones – replaced Latin itself, which had held that role for 15 centuries. In a different way, it is what happened in the 19th century, when the imperial interlopers Russia and Britain abolished Farsi in their Asian domains. Before that, Farsi had been pre-eminent for 800 years as the language of Muslim culture, trade and politics.

For English, therefore, its current peak is likely to be as good as it will ever get, its glory as a world language lasting just a couple of centuries – almost a flash in the pan, not yet comparable with those forerunners Latin or Farsi. And on present form, its fall is likely to coincide with the latest rise of China, whose documented history has run for three millennia. Chinese, too, is great.

Grammar gripes: why do we love to complain about language?

Grammar gripes

People sure get mad about words. Every month for a few years now I’ve been a “grammar enthusiast” guest on ABC Radio Melbourne. We do talkback and people call in with their grammar-related comments. Sometimes they ask questions. Last month Chris from Northcote, aged 10, wanted to know whether he should write “Chris’ cricket bat” or “Chris’s cricket bat”, but mostly the segment is an airing of grievances. A catharsis. A blood-letting. It is public therapy and I’m pleased to be part of it.

But often I feel I’m not the adviser they’re looking for. People want me to bang the grammar gavel and solemnly rule that “irregardless” is not a word, and that it’s wrong to say your team is “versing” another team, and that sports commentators who start sentences with “for mine” must be driven from our towns and cities. (There are lots of complaints about sports commentary.)

So really it’s a segment about language change. And I love language change! Thus, I disappoint the listeners. Change is the thing they revile.

“Some Method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever,” wrote Jonathan Swift in 1712. His instinct was to preserve. But languages evolve – like viruses. English has been a very successful virus, now spoken by 1.5 billion earthlings thanks to its wily shape shifting. And these days, our human desire to somehow fix the language in place is being thwarted at a faster pace than ever.

“The internet has REVOLUTIONISED language change,” enthuses former AP Stylebook editor David Minthorn, in one of the most gloriously nerdy videos on YouTube. A few weeks ago, Dictionary of Slang author Jonathon Green gleefully tweeted: “… the lexicographer’s challenge was always: ‘where do we find our data’. Now it’s where do we dare allow ourselves to stop looking. Because there is always more on offer.”

Now that every English speaker in the world can talk to every other English speaker in the world, the virus is mutating vociferously. The modern grievance airer must keep pace. So I have compiled a list of changes for which to watch out in 2018.

1. Semantic change thanks to the internet

Trolls are not just bridge dwellers anymore, a cloud isn’t always a visible mass of condensed watery vapour and a mouse is sometimes a mouse. Computers have given us so much. But mainly they have given us the internet, where we can wake to a new definition of woke. Definition expansions happen when usages spread from small language communities to larger ones. “Spread” being the key word because, as we know, “fetch” never happened.

My colleague recently tweeted to apologise that her posts were “so thirsty tonight”. The next day I asked what “thirsty” meant and I have never felt so old. She did, in fact, act quite extra about it. I’m usually the goat at knowing words so I was salty. And her outfit was snatched, which made things worse. The whole thing was not lit and I have receipts.

2. Syntactical change thanks to the internet

I am tired because life. I am angry because the internet. “Because” is a preposition now! Ewww. But also I love it. If I were a 2014 Facebook user, I’d comment: “This.” Because “this”, as a demonstrative pronoun, can be useful in place of an approving clause or exclamation. Those who use the “This” sentence, though, are a dying breed. So if you haven’t started on that, skip straight to an emoji for your emphatic enjoiner.☝️

3. Semantic and syntactical change thanks to television

Is this a thing? Yes it is. In fact “a thing” is a thing, thanks to television show The West Wing. And another thing is “re-gifting”, a verb birthed from a noun by Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes. Annoyed much? Hardly anyone stuck the terminal adverb “much” on things before Buffy did. These changes are old news in 2018, though. I think television might be losing its edge.

4. Inflection change led by Kanye West

“Real rappers is hard to find.” If anyone can eliminate verb modification from English, it’s Kanye. About time!

5. Conversion thanks to advertising

In grammar, “conversion” refers to a word’s shift into a different role or part of speech. It’s what happened when Facebook converted “friend” from a noun into a verb (and gave us the vital new infinitive “to unfriend”) and when corporate memos did the same thing to “action”. These changes were actioned a while ago, however. The new thing is turning adjectives into nouns. Use Nutella and you’re “spreading the happy”; shop at Sephora and you’re “celebrating your extraordinary”; connect to the internet with AT&T and you’re “rethinking possible”. If you cannot keep up, La Trobe University will help you to “find your clever”.

6. Word and phrase coinages from the internet meme factory

New words! New phrases! Sure, they’re annoying, but if they’re useful, they stick.

One of them stuck hard late last year when the Macquarie Dictionary named “milkshake duck” its word of the year. Noun: a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but is then discovered to have something questionable about them that causes a sharp decline in their popularity. The term was coined in 2016 by Australian Twitter user Ben Ward, aka @pixelatedboat: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”

Twitter seems to invent words faster than any other social media platform. Not that they all catch on. In 2015 I cheered for brave user @murrman5 and his new noun: “‘I came downstairs for a zip of juice and noticed the TV was gone so I called you guys’ [cop stops writing] did you say zip of juice?” Retweets: 3,293, but I haven’t heard a peep about “zip” since. For a brief moment, though, to use a phrase coined last month by the Victorian roads minister, Luke Donnellan, it was “better than a kick in the dick”.

7. Punctuation change led by smartphones

If you’ve ever typed “apple” into your phone and been autocorrected to “Apple”, you’ll know that small-screen communication is causing George Orwell to spin like a beachball in his grave. But punctuation seems to be the real victim of our incessant texting.

A small storm blew up in 2016 when senior grammarian David Crystal observed a change in the character of the full stop. He put forward, at a British writers festival, that in text messages the full stop has ceased to be a humble and simple ender of sentences. Instead, it now turns what might otherwise be a friendly “Fine!” into a passive-aggressive “Fine.” Interviewed afterwards, Crystal explained: “It is not necessary to use a period in a text message, so to make something explicit that is already implicit makes a point of it. It’s like when you say, ‘I am not going – period.’ It’s a mark. It can be aggressive. It can be emphatic. It can mean, ‘I have no more to say’.”

Is texting putting the full stop out to pasture? In its report on the incident, the New York Times included not a single full stop – and truth be told I didn’t notice [And did you notice the absence of one here?]

8. ‘Meaning leakage’ thanks to politicians, bureaucrats and business writers

There’s a dark side to hating change. Self-appointed language gatekeepers are often attempting to enforce a central English. This sort of intransigent rule-booking reaches its stinky nadir in the refusal to accept a word’s semantic shift into slur-dom (as in “fag”) or a word’s reclamation by the slurred themselves (as in “queer”). It’s grammatically blinkered and, I feel, a failure of the human spirit.

But some gatekeeping comes from a generous place, the place where words are valued for their meaning-carrying powers. These grievers rage against the kind of language change that allows people to communicate less. To obscure truth, as Don Watson would say, in a weaselly way.

In US political reporting we now have “alt right”, a term that paints a benign sheen over a white nationalist branch of conservatism. In its topical guide for the 2016 election, AP Stylebook ruled alt right “a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience”.

In bureaucracy, we have people noun-ifying verbs to distance themselves from any clear action: “Consideration will be given by the committee to the provision of advice on this policy issue in the near future.” (The advising is in there somewhere, but it’s a long way from the main verb.)

In business, as ever, we have people making things up to sound, as they might say, “leading-edge”. Projects are “moving forward” and “synergistic”, and people are “unpacking” “the takeaway”.

But let’s take this offline. The real intention of such jargon is to make others feel like lesser human assets. So if you want to stay ahead of the curve this year, definitely keep an eye out for “coopertition”, “change agent”, “de-skilling” and “invitation to leave (ITL)”. Or gouge your eyes out. Either way, some grievances deserve to be aired.

Penny’s Melbourne-based writing school The Good Copy is holding Word Alert!, a festival of crossword spelling and grammar at the NGV’s Melbourne Art Book Fair on 16, 17 and 18 March