The world’s smallest language has only 100 words — and you can say almost anything

ces china newspapersThere are over 100,000 characters in Mandarin Chinese, how could a language exist with only 123? 

In Chinese, the word computer translates directly as electric brain.

In Icelandic, a compass is a direction-shower, and a microscope a small-watcher.

In Lakota, horse is literally dog of wonder.

These neologisms demonstrate the cumulative quality of language, in which we use the known to describe the unknown.

“It is by metaphor that language grows,” writes the psychologist Julian Jaynes. “The common reply to the question ‘What is it?’ is, when the reply is difficult or the experience unique, ‘Well, it is like —.’”

That metaphorical process is at the heart of Toki Pona, the world’s smallest language. While the Oxford English Dictionary contains a quarter of a million entries, and even Koko the gorilla communicates with over 1,000 gestures in American Sign Language, the total vocabulary of Toki Pona is a mere 123 words.

Yet, as the creator Sonja Lang and many other Toki Pona speakers insist, it is enough to express almost any idea. This economy of form is accomplished by reducing symbolic thought to its most basic elements, merging related concepts, and having single words perform multiple functions of speech.

In contrast to the hundreds or thousands of study hours required to attain fluency in other languages, a general consensus among Toki Pona speakers is that it takes about 30 hours to master. That ease of acquisition, many of them believe, makes it an ideal international auxiliary language—the realization of an ancient dream to return humanity to a pre-Babel unity. Toki Pona serves that function already for hundreds of enthusiasts connected via online communities in countries as diverse as Japan, Belgium, New Zealand, and Argentina.

In addition to making Toki Pona simple to learn, the language’s minimalist approach is also designed to change how its speakers think. The paucity of terms provokes a kind of creative circumlocution that requires careful attention to detail. An avoidance of set phrases keeps the process fluid. The result, according to Lang, is to immerse the speaker in the moment, in a state reminiscent of what Zen Buddhists call mindfulness.

Screen Shot 2015 07 16 at 4.40.43 PMThe humble, minimal homepage of

“What is a car?” Lang mused recently via phone from her home in Toronto.

“You might say that a car is a space that’s used for movement,” she proposed. “That would be tomo tawa. If you’re struck by a car though, it might be a hard object that’s hitting me. That’s kiwen utala.”

The real question is: What is a car to you?

As with most things in Toki Pona, the answer is relative.

“We wear many hats in life,” Lang continued, “One moment I might be a sister, the next moment a worker, or a writer. Things change and we have to adapt.”

The language’s dependence on subjectivity and context is also an exercise in perspective-taking. “You have to consider your interlocutor’s way of understanding the world, or situation,” the Polish citizen Marta Krzeminska stated. “For that reason, I think it has great potential for bringing people together.”

To create her new language, Lang worked backwards—against the trend of a natural lexicon. She began by reducing and consolidating the specific into the general.

colors powder pigmentEnglish attempts to describe the diversity of color with intense verbiage, creating a different name for virtually every hue. 

“I think colors are a good example,” she offered. “You have millions of shades that are slightly different from one another, and at some point someone says, ‘Well, from here to here is blue, and from here to here is green.’ There are these arbitrary lines that people agree on.”

Toki Pona has a five-color palette: loje (red), laso (blue), jelo (yellow), pimeja (black), and walo (white). Like a painter, the speaker can combine them to achieve any hue on the spectrum. Loje walo for pink. Laso jelo for green.

Numbers are also minimal. Lang initially only had words for one (wan), two (tu), and several (mute). Many Toki Pona speakers have expanded the word luka (hand or arm) to mean five, and mute to mean 10. The terms are repeated additively until the desired number is reached.

“There are some mathematician-like people who insist that they want to be able to say 7,422.7,” Lang laughed. “I say, ‘That’s not exactly the point.’”

“What would it have been like to be a person in nature, interacting with things in a primitive way?”
The point is simplicity. And in Toki Pona, simple is literally good. Both concepts are combined in a single word: pona.

“If you can express yourself in a simple way,” Lang explained, “then you really understand what you’re talking about, and that’s good. If something is too complicated, that’s bad. You’re putting too much noise into the equation. That belief is kind of hardwired into the language.”

pi math numbersMath is its own language, Toki Pona attempts something different.

The polyglot Christopher Huff agreed, noting that Toki Pona had made him more honest. “I’m more comfortable now with the things I don’t know.”

“I didn’t realize how complex other languages are until I started speaking Toki Pona,” Krzeminska added. “There are so many different things you have to say before you actually get to say what you want, and there are so many things you’re not allowed to say even though you mean them.

Take politeness markers for instance: If it’s not too much of an inconvenience, would you please consider possibly bringing me a cup of coffee? In Toki Pona you would just say: Give me coffee. Either do it or don’t do it. There’s no word for please or thank you. I mean, maybe if you really wanted, you could say pona, but then why would you overuse a word that’s so big and powerful?”

Ultimately though, as many Toki Pona users discover, powerful cultural conventions are not so easily discarded. Speakers are often quick to find clever substitutes, especially in the realm of the non-verbal. “I definitely find myself relying more on body language,” Krzeminska admitted. “We’re so used to saying please and thank you that we tend to do a little Japanese-style nod now instead. It’s so weird not to say anything at all.”

Despite compromises in etiquette, Toki Pona still manages to convey a culture of its own. Through omission and inclusion, the vocabulary itself is rooted in the basic material of life. “I was inspired by hunter-gatherers,” Lang noted. “I thought, what would it have been like to just be a person in nature, interacting with things in a primitive way?”

Accordingly, there are several words denoting different living organisms, and none for specific modern technologies. All technology is essentially subsumed by the general term for tool (ilo) and augmented, if desired, by other words describing distinct functions. Addressing this choice, Huff spoke of a divide in the Toki Pona community. “There is one spirit that says Toki Pona is able to talk about these things, so we should talk about these things. There is another spirit that says maybe there are things we just don’t need to talk about.”

Apple Samsung phones iphone galaxy note 4 edgeTo discuss the differences between smartphones, Toki Pona may not be the best language. 

Along with the previously noted biases, the lexicon also exhibits an acknowledged propensity for positivity. Krzeminska, who speaks the language with her best friend, noted that they tend to slip into Toki Pona for pleasant conversations. “That’s one of Sonja’s principles. It’s a language for cute and nice things. It’s also great for talking about feelings. There are limited concepts, so one word can mean everything. The word pona is everything that’s good in the world: pineapples, bananas, cute kittens. If I call my friend a jan pona, I’m calling him a good person. Often, if we’re both tired and everything is too much, we just say, everything will be pona. You’re a beautiful person, and everything is beautiful, and everything will be beautiful. And then, everything is better.”

For a different perspective, I spoke with John Quijada, the creator of Ithkuil. The former DMV employee spent three decades perfecting what he calls, “an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression.” By combining 58 phonemes within an exacting grammatical framework, Ithkuil is designed to precisely express all possible human thoughts. It is so complex that even its creator often requires 10 minutes or more to assemble a single word.

Aistlaţervièllîmļ, for example, is the term for “a situation where one lets a normally unavailable opportunity pass by because it is not seen as being the optimal instance or form of that opportunity, despite the likelihood that such an optimal instance/form of the opportunity will likely never come (e.g., letting a bottle of expensive wine go past its prime because one can never decide when would be the optimal time to drink it; or letting slip by an opportunity for true love because one hopes someone even ‘better’ may come along.)”

Screen Shot 2015 07 16 at 4.50.52 PMThe wordier, more technical and complex homepage of Ithkuil.

“I have a great deal of respect for ambiguity. That’s why I tried to defeat it.”One student of the language claimed that it allowed her to “see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.” Tweak a single phoneme and arrive at a strange new variation of a thought. Tweak by tweak, a speaker could wander forever through an endless landscape of unique thoughts in a kind of linguistic dérive.

I was curious about what a man who had dedicated his life to accuracy thought about a language in which a word for floor (anpa) also means defeat, and the noun for head (lawa) is also the verb for control.

“I’ve always been so fascinated by ambiguity,” Quijada admitted. “I have a great deal of respect for it. That’s one of the reasons why I tried to defeat it—to see if it could be defeated.”

As for the disparity between Toki Pona and Ithkuil, the music-lover was predictably succinct. “It’s the difference between John Cage’s 4’33” and a Beethoven symphony.”

So, let’s bid farewell to 2016’s most annoying and overused word

‘So, we undertook this research and we discovered the following…’

farage-victory.jpgIn 2016, the redundant use of the word “so” has infiltrated politics, celebrity and the media

Goodbye to 2016 and hopefully we can bid good riddance to the most annoying word in the English language, a short tag which serves absolutely no function except to illustrate the linguistic shortcomings of the speaker in question.

I refer to the word “so” used at the beginning of a sentence, as in, “So, the government has decided…”, or “So, we undertook this research and discovered the following….”

In the past year, “so” dumped at the start of any sentence has become a blight which now afflicts politicians, official spokespeople, news reporters and social commentators. Not to mention all people under the age of 40 discussing anything from shopping to sports results. In any one day I reckon you will hear a redundant “so” many thousands of times, replacing “to be honest” or “like” and “it is what it is” as the most annoying verbal tic ever.

This inappropriate and superfluous use of “so” is said to have been started by inarticulate Silicon Valley techies, more used to tapping keyboards than holding meaningful face-to-face conversations. Back in 2014, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg managed to use the word “so’” FOUR times in one answer during an interview with the New York Times. Techies use the word to buy time and pretend that they are filling us in with a detailed explanation and including us in their world, whereas the opposite is generally true.

Some academics claim that so is a sign our language is becoming friendlier, but I disagree. “So” signals that our vocabulary is inexorably shrinking and become threadbare.

The only positive thing you can say about Donald Trump is that he speaks in short sentences, rarely using words of more than two syllables at a time. He is too old to have been afflicted by the So Bug. In 2017, please try to wean yourself off the S-word.

Janet Street-Porter  –

Gubbins and mosey: Eight old words and their meanings

What’s a gubbins? What is your dander, when it’s up? And what could it possibly mean if somebody asked you what you’re having for your snap?

Michael Rosen and linguist Esther Asprey have been answering questions about the origins of old words and phrases. They have come up with a few surprises along the way…

1. Gubbins

“It’s not working because the gubbins have fallen out.”

Do you get some funny looks when you use the word gubbins? Well, it means bits and pieces, or paraphernalia.

It comes from an old French word for a bite of food or a piece of something. When the word crossed over to use in English language it was translated as ‘gob’ associated with the mouth.

2. Mosey

“To mosey along…” Or, “Come on, get a mosey on!”

Quite a strange word because it can mean to go slowly or to hurry up. It has two polar-opposites in the dictionary.

When it originally appeared around 1836 in a public ledger it was a verb meaning to go away quickly. The leisurely version of the word surfaced later around 1960.

3. Snap

“What are you having for your snap?”

Snap stands for your dinner! As featured in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, snap was a word that originally came from mining.

Miners used to take a tin box down into the mines with their food in it. The sound of the tin snapping open and shut led to the meal itself being referred to as snap.

4. Dander

“Ooh me dander’s up!”

What on earth is your dander when it’s at home? Well, it’s an expression that means you’re cross. But why?

It was a word first seen in writing in America, 1831. Dander stood for dandruff. So when your dander’s up it means you’re so angry it’s brought the dandruff off your scalp! Not too different from raising somebody’s hackles.

5. Like a house on fire

“They’re getting on like a house on fire.”

This is a curious phrase – for something that’s so positive in meaning, the phrase has got very negative connotations.

It’s a powerfully bad image that came from the days when people’s houses were made of wood and burnt very quickly. People like to play with words and the reason for its popularity over the years is probably down to the irony in the phrase.

6. Mardy

“Don’t be mardy!”

The Sheffield band the Arctic Monkeys are partly to thank for the resurgence of this word thanks to their song ‘Mardy Bum’. Young people all over the country have picked up the word that stands for a grumpy person.

Mardy was originally recorded in Sheffield and Yorkshire in the 1890s. The idea came from a marred, or spoilt, child, who would then misbehave and be grumpy and sulky.

7. Bone to pick

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

Similar to a ‘bone of contention’. This phrase has a long history in English language, going right back to 1565. The first source recorded the term as: “A bone for YOU to pick on.” So it was something for you to sort out, not the other way around as it’s now used.

It’s thought that the phrase comes from Latin origins, translated by members of the religious profession into English. This is because many of the first known records of the phrase were written by clergymen.

8. Twitten

“You need to go down the twitten.”

A twitten doesn’t have anything to do with social media. It’s an alleyway.

There’s a manuscript printed in 1831 in local Sussex dialect which says that a twitten is the word for a narrow path between two walls or hedges. It is a regional version of betwixt or between, but used as a noun.

The death of dialect?

Regional differences are disappearing as northerners increasingly use southern words

  • The word splinter has now become dominant across the British Isles
  • Words like backend, used instead of autumn in the north, have died out
  • The way words like ‘arm’ are pronounced has become more southern 
  • Surprisingly saying ‘last’ with short vowels has spread from the north

They cause a surprising amount of pain for something so small and can be infuriating to remove.

But the slithers of wood buried under skin are also revealing something dramatic about the way we speak.

A team of researchers has discovered that the once rich and varied dialects used around the British Isles are gradually merging into one.

Where once there were many different words used to describe an injury sustained while handling timber – spelks, slivers, shivers, speels, spools, spiles, spills and splints – most have now vanished.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have mapped out how dialects in Britain have changed since the 1950s. They found that many regional words for a piece of wood under the skin have vanished, with most of the country now using the word splinter, apart from a small part of the north east that still say spelk (illustrated)

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have mapped out how dialects in Britain have changed since the 1950s. They found that many regional words for a piece of wood under the skin have vanished, with most of the country now using the word splinter, apart from a small part of the north east that still say spelk (illustrated)

Instead, most people around Britain now use a term that was traditionally only found in the south of England – splinters.

Only those in the northeast continue to use the word spelk.

The findings are just one example of the changing use of language within the British Isles as increasing movement of people and television has altered regional dialects.

Researchers at Cambridge University have found that pronunciation and dialects across England are becoming more like those spoken in London and the south east.

In the 1950s there were distinct regional differences in the words used to describe a piece of wood under the skin, particularly in the north of England (pictured left) but today these have almost totally vanished (right)

In the 1950s there were distinct regional differences in the words used to describe a piece of wood under the skin, particularly in the north of England (pictured left) but today these have almost totally vanished (right)


Backend – Used instead of autumn that has vanished from the north of England

Shiver – Once common in Norfolk and Lincolnshire but now replaced with splinter

Sliver – Used in Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Kent but now replaced with splinter

Speel – A regional word used for splinter found Lancashire and Carlisle but now no longer used

Spell – The middle English for splinter, it was still being used across the North of England in the 1950s but has now vanished

Spile – Used instead of splinter in Blackburn and Bolton but now replaced

Spill – Seen in just a few places on the welsh border in the 1950s but now totally vanished

Spool – Used by people in Huddersfield in the 1950s but now replaced by spliter

Fifteen per cent of people pronounce three with an f compared to just 2 percent in the 1950s

The southern pronunciation of ‘butter‘ – with a vowel as in put – has spread north

They used data gathered from a free app – the English Dialects App – to study examine how people in different parts of England used certain words and pronounced phrases in different ways.

In other examples words like backend – used instead of autumn – were once common in the north of England but have vanished from use entirely.

Pronouncing the letter ‘r’ in words like arm has also changed over the past 60 years.

While there was once a definite divide between the south of London and Shewsbury – where the ‘r’ was dropped – and the rest of the country that has almost completely vanished.

Instead almost the entire country now pronounces the word arm without the r.

The study found that those in Scotland and Ireland, however, still use the important central letter in arm.

Dr Andrian Leeman, a linguist at Cambridge University who led the study, said: ‘When it comes to language change in England, our results confirm that there is a clear pattern of levelling towards the English of the south-east.

‘More and more people are using and pronouncing words in the way that people from London and the south-east do.’

The researchers analysed data from more than 30,000 people from over 4,000 locations around the UK who had used the English Dialects App.

Sixty years ago a splinter (pictured) may have been known as a spool, a spelk, a sliver, a shiver, a speel, a spile, or a spill, depending on where in England you were. Now, most of these words have disappeared

Sixty years ago a splinter (pictured) may have been known as a spool, a spelk, a sliver, a shiver, a speel, a spile, or a spill, depending on where in England you were. Now, most of these words have disappeared

The use of somewords like backend instead of autumn has vanished completely in the past 60 years (pictured)

The use of somewords like backend instead of autumn has vanished completely in the past 60 years (pictured)

The free app asked users to select which words they would use to describe an item and listen to different pronunciations to select the one closest to those they used.

It then attempted to guess a user’s regional accent based on their pronunciation of 26 words and colloquialisms.

Scientists used the data gathered from this and compared it to the Survey of English dialects – a ten year field study conducted during the 1950s by the University of Leeds.


The free app, available for iOS and Android, was built by researchers from the University of Cambridge.

It attempts to guess a user’s regional accent based on their pronunciation of 26 words and colloquialisms.

Users can either select which word they use to describe an item, or they can listen to how different words are pronounced and select the most appropriate.

For example, one question asks what word the person uses to describe a small piece of wood that becomes lodged in a finger.

Another question features audio clips of a man saying the word ‘bacon’ in various different ways, and asks the user to select the clip that sounds most like their own pronunciation of the word.

The app then generates a heat map and tries to guess where the user’s accent is from using three possible locations.

They can rate how accurately the app determined where they are from and give feedback to improve the app’s accuracy.

The app also allows users to view which areas of the country use the different variations of each word or colloquialism at the end of the quiz.

While they found many regional words appear to have been slipping from use, there are others which still show the old divides across the country.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the pronunciation of the word scone – something which causes many dinner table disputes – still shows a strong regional differences.

Pronouncing the word to rhyme with gone is still much more common in the north of England and Scotland while rhyming it with cone is still more common in Cornwall and the area around Sheffield.

However, for the rest of England, there seems to be a great deal of variation even with in communities.

This might, in part, be a reflection of the movement of people around the country. As ‘scone’ has always been a highly disputed word with regards to the way it is said, the divides may persist despite this mingling of people from different regions.

The researchers, who compared the responses given by 30,000 people in the UK to a survey conducted in the 1950s, found even the way words like arm are pronounced have changed with many more people now dropping the 'r' compared to 60 years ago when it was common for it to be pronounce ion the south of England

The researchers, who compared the responses given by 30,000 people in the UK to a survey conducted in the 1950s, found even the way words like arm are pronounced have changed with many more people now dropping the ‘r’ compared to 60 years ago when it was common for it to be pronounce ion the south of England

Surprisingly the pronunciation of the word last, with short vowels instead of long vowels, has moved south from the north (pictured), against the trend of most dialect change

Surprisingly the pronunciation of the word last, with short vowels instead of long vowels, has moved south from the north (pictured), against the trend of most dialect change

Saying words like ‘last’ with a short vowel – a northern pronunciation – instead of a long one has also remained surprising robust.

Here the pronunciation from the north has spread southwards, into the Midlands and the West Country.

Professor David Britain, another of the researchers involved in the study, who is based at the University of Bern added: ‘People in Bristol speak much more similarly to those in Colchester now than they did fifty years ago.

‘Regional differences are disappearing, some quite quickly.

There is still a great deal of variation in the way people say 'scone', even within communities. However, pronouncing the word to rhyme with 'gone' is still much more common in the north of England and Scotland while rhyming it with 'cone' is still more common in Cornwall and the area around Sheffield (illustrated)

There is still a great deal of variation in the way people say ‘scone’, even within communities. However, pronouncing the word to rhyme with ‘gone’ is still much more common in the north of England and Scotland while rhyming it with ‘cone’ is still more common in Cornwall and the area around Sheffield (illustrated)

The researchers used the English Dialects app (pictured) to ask 30,000 people about the way they pronounced different words. They were asked to select words (left) of listen to different recordings (right)

The researchers used the English Dialects app (pictured) to ask 30,000 people about the way they pronounced different words. They were asked to select words (left) of listen to different recordings (right)

‘However, while many pockets of resistance to this levelling are shrinking, there is still a stark north-south divide in the pronunciation of certain key words.’

Tam Blaxter, a PhD student who helped conduct the research, added that many of the reasons for the changes lie in the movement of people around the country over the past few decades.

He said: ‘There has been much greater geographical mobility in the last half century.

‘Many people move around much more for education, work and lifestyle and there has been a significant shift of population out of the cities and into the countryside.

‘Many of the results have confirmed what language experts might predict – but until now we just didn’t have the geographical breadth of data to back up our predictions.

‘If we were to do the survey in another 60-70 years we might well see this dialect levelling expanding further, although some places like the north-east seem to have been especially good at preserving certain colloquialisms and pronunciations.’

Read more:

Studying English language in the age of “Post-truth”

post-truthWith all of the misinformation that seems to be circulating online nowadays, it is said that we are living in a “post-truth” world, a world where facts don’t matter, and where people make important political and personal decisions based on “fake news”, rumours, and their own feelings. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries has named “post truth” the 2016 word of the year.

In an era of “post-truth”, it may be tempting to dismiss the importance of studying language. After all, if nothing is true anymore, what’s the point of paying attention to what people say or write. But actually, the decline of truth in mainstream and social media, and in political discourse makes studying language more important than ever before. This is because current theories in English Language Studies and Applied Linguistics can help us to understand why people are inclined in believe seemingly outrageous things they read online, and can help us to spot fake news stories and recognise the strategies people use to try to trick us into engaging with them.

Propaganda and fake news are not definitely not new phenomena. They have been with us for years. And it doesn’t take the Internet to spread fake news. In fact, one of the most influential recent pieces of misinformation, the claim that Brexit would result in £350 million being channelled to the NHS, appeared on the side of the bus. What is different about misinformation on the Internet is the way the information architecture of digital media affects both what we read and how we read.

Scholars of reading have found that when people read online, they are more easily distracted, and spend less time on a particular page. This can make us less critical when we are reading online, because we are less likely to follow an argument to its conclusion. Online we are used to reading short form texts, such as tweets and status updates, rather than long form texts which present reasons and evidence for statements. When it comes to fake news, most of the time, people simply read headlines as they scroll down their Facebook Newsfeeds. They usually don’t read the news stories themselves, and of course headlines are usually just assertions which are difficult to verify without more information.

But the more important way that the Internet affects reading is the way it changes whatwe read. The difference between reading news in a newspaper, and reading it on a social media site, is that on the social media site, the news that you read has been selected for you by your friends, many of whom may have similar opinions to you. The algorithms of sites like Facebook and Google are also designed to select which status updates appear at the top of your newsfeed or which websites appear first in a list of search results based on your past behaviour: the kinds of posts that you have “liked” or the kinds of search results you have clicked on in the past. And so what you read on the Internet is often likely to reinforce opinions that you already have rather than introduce information that challenges those opinions. The writer Eli Pariser calls this phenomenon “the filter bubble”. What this means is that the information we get online is “filtered” based on our pre-existing beliefs.

So what does this have to do with “fake news”? First of all, we are more likely to believe news that confirms our existing opinions about a particular issue, particularly if it appears in the context of a whole lot of other news which also confirms that opinion. Psycholinguists, people who study language and the mind, have shown how the way we comprehend what we hear and read can be affected by what we have heard and read immediately beforehand. They call this “priming”. Sociolinguists, people who study language in society, talk about how people who belong to particular groups develop not just particular ways of using language, but also particular ways of interpreting what they hear or read, and when they interact, they reinforce these “norms of communication”. When you read a piece of “fake news” on Facebook, you might be more likely to believe it, because it fits in with the opinions of the group to which you belong (in this case, your group of Facebook friends), you may also be more likely to share that piece of fake news with those very same friends, thus reinforcing those opinions. Some people might even argue that we are being “brainwashed” by the algorithms that govern what we read on social media sites and by our “like-minded” Facebook friends who keep sharing stories that reinforce the group ideology.

But we can’t blame it all on Facebook and Google, or even on our friends. New research by applied linguists Carolyn Tagg and Philip Seargeant reveals that, for many people, the problem is not that all of their Facebook friends believe the same thing, but that their friends include people from different parts of their lives (classmates, relatives, co-workers), who might have lots of different opinions. They argue that the prevailing ideology of social media sites is conviviality; people want to be friendly, and avoid conflict. Because of this, people are much less likely to challenge what they might think is “fake news” posted by one of their Facebook friends. In other words, if you think something is true, you are likely to share it, but if you think something is not true, you are not likely to challenge it.

So how can we tell if something we read online is “fake news”. Of course, the best way is to read the article carefully, consider its source, and cross-check the “facts” in it with other sources. But there are also some clues in the language of “fake news” headlines. One field of English language studies called discourse analysis can help us to notice these clues. Discourse analysis is the study of the way different kinds of texts are put together. It can be used to reveal common patterns across texts. Texts that have similar patterns and similar purposes are called genres. “Fake news” headlines can be said to belong to a particular genre of headlines called “clickbait”. Clickbait headlines have a common purpose – to get you to click on them so that their creators can earn advertising revenue. These headlines also have some common lexical and grammatical characteristics.

One thing that characterizes clickbait headlines is that they tend to contain words chosen to trigger an emotional response from readers such as epic, amazing, incredible, unbelievable, and shocking. for example:

Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement. 

Internet researchers from Brazil and Qatar conducted a study in which they measured how likely people were to click on different kinds of headlines. They found that people were much more likely to click on headlines that expressed extreme (either positive or negative) sentiment, which they called “sentiment polarity”.

Apart from emotional words, writers of clickbait headlines also sometimes personalize the content of headlines by using pronouns like you or your, as in the following headline:

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton To Be Indicted… Your Prayers Have Been Answered.

Another way clickbait headlines get people to click on them is by creating some kind of mystery or ambiguity. Many of us are familiar with clickbait headlines like:

Someone Gave Some Kids Some Scissors. Here’s What Happened Next.

 A Gorgeous Waitress Gets Harassed by Some Jerk. What She Did Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.

Such headlines normally consist of two sentences. The first sentence expresses something that happened or some state of affairs, usually involving some undefined person such as “some kids” or “a gorgeous waitress”. The second sentence can be called the “hook”. This sentence is designed to raise a question about what happened in the first sentence (e.g. “what she did” or “ what happens next”) and to promise the reader and emotional payoff if they click to find out the answer to the question.

As it turns out, many fake news headlines use this structure. Here are some examples:

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!

 IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined

Both of these headlines begins with a statement about something that supposedly happened, and ends with an ambiguous statement which adds mystery to the first statement. Of course none of these statements are actually true. But because of the emotional way in which they are expressed, the fact that they might confirm the worst fears or fantasies of people who belong to particular groups, and, the way they are grammatically constructed to manufacture curiosity, people are more likely to click on them or share them with other people.

The important thing to remember about fake news is that sometimes it doesn’t even pretend to be real. Often, the purpose is not to get you to believe that the Pope supported Donald Trump or that Hillary Clinton is a member of ISIS, but rather, to create confusion and undermine your faith in all news. If we are living in a media environment in which so much of the news is fake, that makes it easier for politicians and public officials to dismiss any news that is unfavourable to them as “fake news”.


Professor Rodney Jones – Professor of Sociolinguistics

How Donald Trump’s language works for him



Almost every political commentator in America has now written at least one piece attempting to explain the mystery of Donald Trump’s appeal. Most have dealt with the man’s demeanor, his talent for attracting media coverage and his disdain for party and intellectual elites. Some of these I find cogent.

The thing I find most distinctive about Trump, though — and perhaps it’s at least a component of his success so far — is the structure of his language.

Everybody senses that Trump doesn’t speak like other politicians. But how is his speech different, exactly? Is it just the swagger, the dismissive tone and clipped accent? Maybe in part. Trump does seem emotionally engaged in a way none of his competitors do; he is perpetually annoyed — exasperated that things aren’t as they should be — but somehow also good-humored about it. (Chris Christie and John Kasich seem perpetually annoyed, too, but there is nothing funny or cheerful about their versions.)

To get at what makes Trump’s language different, take a look at the shape of his sentences. They don’t work the way modern political rhetoric does — they work the way punchlines work: short (sometimes very short) with the most important words at the end.

That’s rare among modern politicians, and not simply because they lack Trump’s showmanship or comedic gifts. It’s rare because most successful modern politicians are habitually careful with their language. They are keenly aware of the ways in which any word they speak may be interpreted or misinterpreted by journalists and partisan groups and constituencies and demographic groups.

And so in important situations — situations in which they know a lot depends on what they say or don’t say — their language takes on (at least) two peculiar characteristics. First, their syntax tends to abstraction. They speak less about particular things and people — bills, countries, identifiable officials — and more about “legislation” and “the international community” and “officials” and “industry” and “Washington” and “government.”

Second, their sentences take on a higher number of subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases — “over the last several years,” “in general,” “in effect,” “what people are telling me,” and so on. This is the kind of language you use when you’re aware that your words might be misinterpreted or used against you.

When used well, it conveys competence and assures listeners that the speaker thinks coherent thoughts and holds reasonable positions. It suggests that the speaker cares about the truth of his claims. But politicians are frequently too careful with their language, and this conscientiousness can begin to sound like deceit or cowardice. When they rely too heavily on abstractions, when they avoid concrete nouns, when all their statements seem always hedged by qualifying phrases, they sound like politicians, in the worst sense of the word. To my ear, anyway, Hillary Clinton sounds this way almost all the time.

Whether used well or poorly, however, the language of a typical modern politician has a distinctive sound to it. It sounds complex and careful — sometimes sophisticated, sometimes emotive, sometimes artificial or over-scripted, but always circumspect and inevitably disingenuous.

Trump’s language is from another rhetorical tradition entirely. Consider his hour-long media availability on Sept. 3, just after he’d signed a “loyalty pledge” that he wouldn’t run as a third-party candidate if he loses the GOP nomination. Some of his answers last only a few seconds, some are slightly longer, but almost all consist of simple sentences, grammatically and conceptually, and most of them withhold their most important word or phrase until the very end. Trump’s sentences end with a pop, and he seems to know instinctively where to put the emphasis in each one.

Business mogul and presidential candidate Donald Trump announced he signed the loyalty pledge that the Republican National Committee has demanded of its candidates during a news conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan. (Reuters)

Near the beginning of the news conference, he says: “I don’t need money. I don’t want money. And this is going to be a campaign, I think, like no other. I’m not controlled by lobbyists. I’m not controlled by anybody.”

This is not the language of a typical politician.

Someone asks Trump about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) remark that he, Christie, didn’t need the chairman of the Republican National Committee to meet with him in order to beg him to sign a loyalty pledge. Another politician — a politician wanting to take a shot at Christie — might have answered, “Well I’m not sure why anybody would need Gov. Christie to sign a loyalty pledge, given his standing in the polls right now.”

That would have gotten a chuckle. But Trump worded his answer far better:

“Well, you don’t have to be met when you’re at 2 percent.”

His comedic instinct, I think, told him it was worth some awkward wording at the beginning of the sentence (“you don’t have to be met”) in order to put the words “2 percent” at the very end. Pop. Hardy laughter.

Trump’s lengthier answers, too, involve mostly short, grammatically uncomplicated sentences, with very few of the complicating phrases you hear from an ordinary politician who’s trying hard not to say something obviously false or stupid. Oftentimes his answers, when transcribed one sentence per line, read like free verse poetry. Asked a question about Jeb Bush, for instance, Trump replies:

Jeb Bush is a very nice man.

I’ll be honest; I think he’s a very nice person.

I think he’s a very low-energy person, and I don’t think that’s what the country needs.

I hear that he’s going to spend a lot of money on negative ads on me, and honestly — look, he’s getting the money from special interests.

He’s getting the money from lobbyists and his donors.

And they’re making him do it because he’s crashing in the polls.

So I don’t know what’s gonna happen.

If he spends $20 million or $25 million on negative ads, I don’t know.

I know that my life will continue.

I just don’t know.

I mean, nobody’s ever spent money on ads against me.

But he probably has to do that, although it would not be the way I would do it.

Our country could be doing much better.

We have deficits that are enormous.

We have all bad trade agreements.

We have an army that the head [Gen. Raymond Odierno] said is not prepared.

We have a military that needs help, and especially in these times.

We have nuclear weapons that — you look at “60 Minutes” — they don’t even work.

The phones don’t work.

They’re 40 years old.

They have wires that are no good.

Nothing works.

Our country doesn’t work.

Everybody wins except us.

We need victories in this country.

We don’t have victories anymore.

Our country will be great again, but right now our country has major problems.

The words themselves are mostly preposterous. Other than “We have deficits that are enormous” and the one about Odierno, they range between laughable exaggeration and nonsense. What makes them effective in their way is that they don’t sound like political speech. Politicians in modern democracies just don’t talk this way.

Trump makes no effort — or seems to make no effort — to measure the effect of his propositions on different constituencies. He seems genuinely unaware that anybody might try to pick them apart. He makes no effort to hedge his statements or phrase them in such a way that they are at least defensible. Indeed, you don’t feel you’re listening to a politician at all. You feel you’re listening to a man who has rejected the conventions of electoral politics altogether — someone who’s opted out of the whole charade.

The result, for probably the great majority of people who follow politics, is alternately comical and horrifying. But for people who’ve grown weary of politicians using vague and convoluted language to lull or impress their listeners, to preserve their options and to avoid criticism, Trump sounds refreshingly clear and forthright. I don’t share their view, but I find it hard to blame them.

Totes annoying: words that should be banned

The internet is the source of many crimes against language – and these are among the worst offenders

Illustration of all the feels

We all have a watershed word – the word that tells us it’s all over, that the internet has won, and our youth is gone for ever. For me, it was Yolo, or You Only Live Once. It was born, I used it, and rooms fell eerily silent as soon as it left my mouth. Yolo belonged to the others, the younger people; it carbon-dated me and I was envious.

You might call it snobbery but, for me, every delicious new bit of slang reminds me I’m being left behind, along with VHS cassettes, legwarmers and Lady Gaga. Susie DentCountdown’s resident lexicographer, tells me I should lighten up. “Slang has always moved this way,” she says. “From Cockney rhyming slang to codes swapped among highwaymen, they’re tribal badges of identity, bonding mechanisms designed to distinguish the initiated, and to keep strangers out.” The linguist and author David Crystal agrees: “Remember the old maxim – the chief use of slang is to show you’re one of the gang.”

Fine: I’m not one of the gang. But surely even the experts would admit there are some words that urgently need to be retired, or at least restricted to people under 25? “If a term becomes too popular, its irritant value is ramped up,” Dent agrees. “The impulse is then to replace it with something else.”

This, then, is my highly subjective glossary of words that should be binned in 2017 – the most annoying, the most misused, the most broken. Is one of these your “Yolo”? It’s a hotly contested field.

Because internet

“A lot of purists hate this one, but I think it’s quite inventive and useful as a shortcut,” Susie Dent says. The main issue here is a fake sense of guilt. We’re allowed to enjoy cat gifs, videos of people falling over and animations of a horse playing with a chicken without blaming it on the internet. That’s what the internet is for! You’re not above watching a 10-minute supercut of every time Alexis Carrington from Dynasty walked into a room and said “Krystle!” and you shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Because internet? Because you.

Krystle vs Alexis 


Here lies the body, but not the soul, of “totally”, bastardised beyond recognition from a gorgeous, absolute adverb into an uber-chilled shrug or nod of the head. Not only that, it has a tendency to take other words down with it. “Totes emosh”, “totes cray”: no syllable is safe. All is not lost, however: so omnipresent is “totes” that your grandmother says it to mean “yes”, which means it should be getting measured up for its wooden overcoat pretty soon.

That thing when

A shortcut to starring in your very own scene from Seinfeld, “That thing when” attempts to glitter the very dullest of all the concrete: our everyday lives. “That thing when your five-year-old sees Donald Trump on the TV and says he looks like a walnut whip.” “That thing when a girl hits on you in the gym, but you’re married to the weights and gotta say no.” It’s easy to see why it’s popular – “that thing when you sit staring into your phone for hours at a time praying for something, anything, to happen until finally you just make something up” doesn’t quite cut it.

Amaze, or awesomesauce

Awesomesauce may sound like a ketchup business started by the dullest, most bored and married of your friends, but it’s actually a cutesy way of saying something is great, that you like it. It’s an uncomfortably long hug from an overfamiliar stranger, or a double thumbs up from your manager on a team-building day, at the exact moment you decide you never want to join in. “Amaze” is the same, but has wider, more enthusiastic eyes, which it rolls very hard at you when you’re not looking.

Sorry not sorry

This is the battlecry of the wilfully unapologetic, who see themselves as edgy mavericks while they go about their daily business dropping truth bombs (being rude), taking no prisoners (being rude again) and making baristas’, waiters’ and shop assistants’ lives a misery because they’re too important to be polite.

School night

If you wear an itchy uniform, have chemistry in the morning and your alarm clock is a parent, then fine. If you’re kidulting through your 30s and don’t want to stay out for another drink, just say you’re tired: everybody else is, too. But also: live a little, go to work hungover. Again, everybody else is.

Man crush

This is alpha masculinity’s rare nod to homosexuality, which might come after watching a Ryan Gosling film, realising how cool he is and kind of wanting to be him and marry him all at the same time. Still, it’s better than “no homo”, I guess.


Illustration of methinks

Words you love are dying all over the place, yet this centuries-old signaller of faux-intelligence and an incoming garbage opinion prevails. Used by people who want to come across as clever, authoritative or interesting, but actually sound argumentative and pretentious. And old. “I’ve used this one for years,” Dent admits. Awkward.

The Boy

This sobriquet for the man of your dreams would be charming if he were the lead in a romantic novel. It tends to lose its lustre quite quickly when it becomes clear he’s a crashing, bumbling bore who can’t tuck his shirt into his pants, misses the bowl when he uses the loo, and forgets your birthday every other year. The trouble with The Boy is that he’s mythical. In reality, he’s all grown up; he’s just A Man.


The moth-eaten cape of respectability afforded to demeaning words, teasing, bullying or harassment. Banter is a secret handshake that permits you to say just about anything you want and nobody can get offended. Anyone who doesn’t fall into line is just being a buzzkill, mate – they’re not even worthy of your bantz. If banter had a face, you would never tire of punching it.

Food baby

Pain is pleasure’s natural pudding, and your eager forays into “nom nom” and #foodporn territory can result in only one thing: a food baby. Parents-to-be proudly pat their distended midriff like nobody ever ate before, but unless that burger is going to somehow pop out of you and demand both your attention and the entire contents of your bank account for the next 18 years (more like 40, who are we kidding?), then it’s not a baby, baby.

I can’t even

Pity the poor “I can’t even” crew – continually presented with situations that render them dumbstruck, able only to react with hands clamped to their face and a wide-eyed stare. Nothing trumps “I can’t even”; not “outraged”, “disgusted” or “horrified”. Once you can’t even, you can’t anything – you’re unmatchable.


“Just two more sleeps until my birthday,” Timmy says as you tuck the covers in tight. There’d be no problem were Timmy a freckly youngster in cartoon pyjamas. Timmy, however, is a middle manager in his 30s and, predictably, his birthday is set to last a whole week, because these things always do. But this isn’t just infantilisation, according to David Crystal, it’s a very old English usage, proving that basicness is one genetic trait we can’t breed out.


The disturbingly cold trend for describing your mum and dad as a pair of androids isn’t actually as space age as you might think; this usage was recorded by the OED in the 16th century. “Mothership”, however, when talking about your dear old mum, is newer, but still unacceptable. If she knew you’d said that, she’d be bundling you into an escape pod and shooting you right out into space.

All the feels

Anger, joy, love, pain, misery, shock, excitement: they’re all present and correct, but in between the nerve endings and the mouth, or the typing fingers, they become a rush of something conveniently indefinable. “The feels” is almost an embarrassment, as if you can’t believe something is making you emotional, so you explain it away as “the feels” and hope it will pass. The feels can strike at any time: looking at a baby polar bear, mourning a dead relative or reading about Aleppo – as long as you’ve got your feels handy, there’s no need to, well, say how you actually feel. On the internet, the fact you’re feeling something is usually enough.


“I want the good things in my life to look like a happy accident and I also have an overwhelming desire for you to envy me. If we were next-door neighbours, I’d own everything you do, only one price point up.”


Most husbands have names – John, Dave, Benoît, even – but if someone really wants you to know they have one, that dude will be known only as “Hubby”. It’s used by those recently wed and bizarrely anxious to show they’re settled and sorted. First recorded in 1600, in 2017 “Hubby” is wrapped in “I have one, you don’t” smugness, a fast-forward to the kind of cosy resentment only 20 years of marriage can bring you. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear Hubby’s slippers shuffling towards you – even though he’s only 29.


“Pretentious maybe, but quite poetic,” Susie Dent says, “and another move on for lit and its meaning of drunk or high.” Yep, it’s brilliantly expressive when used by cool teens describing the illegal rave they’re at, and definitely works when you’re talking about Beyoncé’s post-Grammys party packed with A-listers. But your dreary barbecue or gathering of thirtysomethings in a conservatory with a leaky roof? Lit it most certainly is not. Bring accelerant.


Cheeky illustration

Struggling very hard to come out the other side of a huge identity crisis in recent years, is the adjective “cheeky”. It belongs to impudent young rapscallions in the playground, buttocks, Carry On movies. It should not be a conspiratorial wink while you enjoy a gin and tonic, a holiday, a trip to the shops, getting up to something illegal in a cubicle or eating some bloody chicken.


Envy masquerading as ambition can be quite the driver when it comes to careers, travel or even a “squad” – a bunch of celebrity mates you covet. But when your “goals” relate to a stranger’s bacon sandwich, it might be time to think bigger. Going to the supermarket is not “grocery goals”. Come on.

 Justin Myers blogs as


Dr. Evil

It’s a linguistic truth universally acknowledged that any story worth telling must be in want of a very British villain. It’s a familiar trope, as evidenced by this US-made Jaguar ad in which Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong, and a tea-sipping Tom Hiddleston embrace the inevitable dark side of their national identity.

Whether it’s Nazis, Romans, countrymen, or other bad guys of yesteryear (regardless of actual country of origin), it seems the prestige accent of villainy (unless it’s a terrible death whinny) has typically had something in common with the Queen: namely, the Queen’s English, a dialect that is at the same time both terribly posh and deliciously evil. As Julia R. Dobrow and Calvin L. Gidney point out in a study of villains in children’s animation, American programming in particular seems to have a general ambivalence about British English, as “speakers of British English are portrayed dichotomously as either the epitome of refinement and elegance or as the embodiment of effete evil.” This crystallizes the love-hate part of the two nations’ special relationship. Considering other studies have shown that American speakers might have a mild inferiority complex about their own dialects compared to British English, this is telling. (But things are slowly starting to change in Hollywood. Now other British accents are getting a turn; in Deadpool the accent of villainy is Cockney).
Why is this so? Is there something inherently villainous about British-inflected speech (at least to Americans)? Are they just more capable of dastardly deeds than the rest of us, through the magic of their plummy accents alone? Who would have thought mere accents could be so powerful? It’s actually a curious fact, according to Davis and Houck, that speakers of the prestige Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) are regularly evaluated by non-RP speakers as more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class. At the same time, in terms of social attractiveness, those same posh RP speakers are consistently rated less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly than speakers of non-RP accents. Sounds like a good start for a villain.

Accents, seemingly a habit of mere sounds, have an insidiously powerful effect in our daily lives.

Meanwhile across the pond, there’s also a different prestige accent at work in many forms of popular music. The desirable accents of pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and so on, as many have noted, are almost always some flavor of American English. Not even the most British of villains would try to deny the power of pop, as countless Brits, from Adele to Led Zeppelin (among others) seamlessly code-switch into American accents when performing and then back into their regular speaking voices when not. When non-Americans perform in regional accents (sometimes not even their own), such as Billy Bragg or Mockney artists like Kate Nash, Blur, or The Streets, it’s definitely marked and can even sound “off” to some listeners.

Many who consider accent as a marker of authenticity and personal identity may wonder why some would “fake” an accent, but many performers may not even realize they’re code-switching, as they unconsciously adopt the language stylings of the modern song—it’s just the way you’re supposed to sing in that particular genre. (Similarly, consider the early pseudo-British vocal work of American pop punk bands, such as Green Day, following the lead set by the Sex Pistols or the Clash). So is it weird to change your authentic accent to fit in with your day job?

This is not to say that pop singers have to sound American and villains have to sound British, but that accents, seemingly a habit of mere sounds, have an insidiously powerful effect in our daily lives and we often don’t even notice it.

The truth is people really love accents. Whether listening to accents, learning about their oddities, or sometimes even imitating them in front of complete strangers, the different ways to say the words that we’re so familiar with has us all fascinated. Do you say “PEE-can” or “pe-CAN“, “caramel” or “carmel?” Do you speak Oirish or Strine, Scouse or Brummie? Or are you one of those blessed few who “have no accent?” But there’s more to it than a simple enjoyment of the ways people speak the same language. We often share the same language attitudes. Some accents we love and some accents we love to hate with a passion (and for no particular reason). Some are mellifluous and others ugly, harsh, or grating. We hold tightly to what we’ve learned about different accents and what they might mean for us. Accents can say so much about a person, some of it good, and some of it rather dubious, and depending on where you’re from, it changes. We start absorbing this information early, as children, often through depictions of the accents of different characters and archetypes we experience in children’s shows, before carrying it over into real life.

British villainy as an amusing stereotype for entertainment is one thing. How about your regular, everyday criminal? Can we, Minority Report stylepredict and weed out the criminals in our midst as soon as they open their mouths? What about detecting other personal characteristics, such as how often someone bathes or brushes their teeth, from the way they talk? Can you tell how physically attractive they are, how tall, how smart, how funny or how friendly, just by their accent alone?

Just like the old school, pseudoscientific methods of phrenology and graphology (feeling the bumps on a head or the flow of a person’s penmanship and tying these to their personal or mental traits), it starts to sound pretty farfetched. How on earth can you tell whether someone’s dirty or clean or tall or short or itching to be a criminal from the sound waves they make? A person’s accent can’t possibly predict all these attributes. And yet, we act as though this is entirely possible—and even reasonable.

It turns out many of us believe, often without realizing it, we can predict social and personal traits about a person, simply by the accent they use. We may be wrong, but we do it anyway. What’s more, we frequently make prejudicial judgements and decisions based on these underlying beliefs and stereotypes about a person and the way they speak regardless of the reality. It’s the  “last acceptable prejudice” in part because people are generally not even aware they’re doing it. We may even legislate for and against certain modes of speaking and allow for discriminatory acts based on accent alone that we wouldn’t dream of allowing based on race, say. Yes accents, mere sounds, are apparently that powerful.

Linguists and psychologists have long been aware, through multiple studies on the perception of different dialects and accents, that people’s language attitudes and social stereotypes can affect how certain speech communities and their speakers are viewed, often triggered by just the accent. Since the 1960s these studies have used what’s known as the “matched guise” technique, in which one person or stimulus can present two guises to listeners, such as code-switching between two accents, or using two pictures of different ethnicities as a visual for the exact same audio recording of a single accent. Listeners can then rate and evaluate the personalities of each guise for things such as intelligence, competence, physical attractiveness etc.

Some interesting findings have come out of these studies. For instance, more prejudiced listeners can have a harder time cognitively processing and understanding what was said if the purported ethnicity of the speaker (even if it’s just a photo) doesn’t match the standard accent as they might expect. Similarly, in another well-known example, a university lecturer gave exactly the same talk in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) and again in a Birmingham accent. Students rated his intelligence and his talk more highly in his guise as a posh RP-accented lecturer than the students in the exact same talk he gave using a Birmingham accent.

While there is certainly an accepted standard form of the language, it’s by no means the only linguistically legitimate form of English.

In fact the poor Brummie accent has been rated as even less attractive and less intelligent for British speakers than just some random person staying completely silent. Even worse, a study has shown that matched guise “suspects” were rated as significantly more guilty of a crime when they spoke with Brummie accents than when those same suspects used their RP voices. So obviously some listeners believe they can predict the criminal element through accent alone. It’s a tough life being from Birmingham, clearly. Yet American listeners, not having access to the same common social stereotypes, often rate the Brummie accent as pleasant-sounding. So it’s nothing innate in the sounds of these stigmatized accents themselves that make them so despised by certain listeners but simply a shared social attitude that as a non-standard accent, they’re somehow less worthy than the prestige accent.

Rosina Lippi-Green’s work on accent and discrimination has pointed out how the ingrained concept of “Standard Language Ideology” has allowed accent discrimination to flourish and thrive, even as there are laws against overt discrimination on other similar bases such as race. While there is certainly an accepted standard form of the language, it’s by no means the only linguistically legitimate form of English. The standard language ideology that we’ve all been taught insists that there’s only one correct form of language. Speakers of the standard form are considered the ones that “have no accent” and any dialect that strays from from that is stigmatized in one way or another. Believing in this concept legitimizes the institutional discrimination of those who don’t use or didn’t grow up with the standard language. The reality is of course that everyone has an accent.

Because of how they’re judged by other speakers, accents have a palpable effect—taught in schools, broadcast and policed by the media and further reinforced by how we work. Thanks to the wrong accent, people have lost jobs or promotions or civil rights court cases, despite being able to perform their jobs perfectly well. Yet to most, it doesn’t seem at all weird that, just like pop stars “faking” an accent, in order to get a job, large segments of the population are being advised to completely change the accent that they grew up with, from Birmingham to Brooklyn. Speakers of non-standard dialects are often assumed to be incapable of learning the “correct” forms and therefore evaluated as less intelligent and so on it goes. Accents viewed as attractive garner attract personal qualities for their speakers, such as height and beauty and intelligence, while speakers of unattractive accents are judged, one supposes, to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Such is the life of accents, a more powerful and villainous social force than you might have imagined.


The Good, the Bad, and the Foreign: The Use of Dialect in Children’s Animated Television


The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 557, Children and Television (May, 1998), pp. 105-119

Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Prestige Dialect and the Pop Singer


American Speech, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 234-237

Duke University Press

Children’s Linguistic Attitudes: A Study and Some Implications


Language Arts, Vol. 56, No. 2 (February 1979), pp. 132-140

National Council of Teachers of English

Accent, Standard Language Ideology, and Discriminatory Pretext in the Courts


Language in Society, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 163-198

Cambridge University Press

Can She Be Prestigious and Nice at the Same Time? Perceptions of Female Speech in Hoosierdom


American Speech, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 115-122

Duke University Press

Britain and the United States: Two Nations Divided by the Same Language (and Different Language Ideologies)


Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 1 (June 2000), pp. 56-89

Wiley on behalf of American Anthropological Association

Language and Success


College English, Vol. 43, No. 8 (Dec., 1981), pp. 807-812+817

National Council of Teachers of English

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time

Occasionally you will encounter someone with an etymological axe to grind. They insist that a certain word has to mean just what it meant hundreds of years ago when it was first spoken: For example, that decimate has to mean “kill exactly one tenth.” This is what’s known as the etymological fallacy. If you don’t feel like arguing with the person, here are 11 reasons you can just respond with “Nice!”

1. Nice

These days, we often say “Nice!” sarcastically to mean “That’s really ignorant!” If we traced the word nice back to its source, though, it wouldn’t be sarcastic at all. Today’s bland sense of “good” comes from the meaning “precise, fastidious” (still sometimes used, as in “a nice distinction”), which in turn came from a use in the 1400s to mean “overrefined, excessively delicate,” which was a narrowing down of the broader sense “foolish,” which is the meaning it had when it came into English via French from Latin. But the Latin original was nescius, which literally means “unknowing, ignorant.” And here we’ve all been using it without knowing where it came from. Nice!

2. Silly

So okay, nice comes from “ignorant.” Well, ignorance is bliss, right? Sure, and so is silliness… historically, at least. Silly started out as Old English sælig, “happy, blissful, fortunate” and by the 1200s it had gained the sense “blessed, pious,” which expanded to “innocent,” and then shifted to “pitiable” and so also “insignificant, poor.” By the 1500s it was being used to mean “ignorant, foolish,” and from there we got our more innocuous modern senses of “inane” and “giddy.”

3. Warp

Boy, meanings can really get warped, huh? It can really throw a person. Like the word warp, which comes from Old English weorpan “throw” (modern German has the related worfen). Something, perhaps the twisting motion your body makes when you really hurl a thing, led to this the modern sense of “twist, torque.” Well, warped is “thrown out of alignment,” right?

4. Throw

So why didn’t they just use throw to mean “throw”? Because — wait for it! — throw originally meant “twist.” Yeah, that’s right. That twisting motion your body makes when throwing? It may have led to this word for “twist” coming to mean “toss” — trading places with warp. If you’re wondering how people clearly spoke of the throwing motion while throw and warpwere twisting around each other, the answer is that they mainly used cast.

5. Cloud

Is this all beginning to look clouded, in an “up is down” kind of way? Fair enough — cloud has gone from down to up. The original word, clud, meant “hill, mass of rock” (incidentally, in some parts of England rolling hills are called downs). The related word clod still shows something of this origin. But people looking up at hilly masses in the heavens decided that cloud was a good word to use on them. And now cloud can only mean that lofty mass of water vapor, while we have various other words for humps of earth.

6. Awful

If down is up, good is bad, right? Well, awesome is awful, anyway. The word awful originally meant something rather like “awesome.” Its Old English form, egefull, meant “causing dread”; as ege became awe and came to mean not just “dread” but “profound respect,” awful came to mean “commanding profound respect or fear.” In the 1600s, it could mean “sublimely majestic” and was uttered as high praise to such things as a great cathedral. But a slang usage of awful to mean “monstrous, frightful, very ugly” caught on in the 1800s, and now it’s the only way you can use the word. A shadow of the original sense can be seen in our use of awfully to mean “very.”

7. Dinner

What next? Well, how about “breakfast is supper”? Sure. Dinner comes from French disner, which was digested down from Latin disjejunare, which meant “break the fast” — that is, start eating. It originally referred to the first meal of the day, but it came to refer to the main meal of the day. In some circles and contexts, dinner can still mean a main meal around noon or early afternoon, but, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the professional and fashionable classes” took to eating the largest meal in the evening — at the time, that meal was often called supper (which has always referred to the last meal of the day).

8. Jaunty

Next question: If you’re invited to a formal dinner, can you wear something jaunty? That might seem inappropriate for a white-tie sit-down, but a trip down etymology lane will save you again. Jaunty‘s meaning of “lively, brisk” comes from a sense of “airy, easy, unconcerned,” referring to the manners of the rich nobility. Go a bit farther back and, referring to the same people, it means “genteel.” Which is fair enough, because jaunty and genteel come from the same French word, gentil, which also gives us gentle (don’t forget gentleman). They all come from the “high-born, noble” sense and trace back to Latin’s gentilis, meaning “of the same family” — which, by the way, also gives us gentile and is related to a whole bunch of other gen words.

9. Surly

Not everyone was always impressed with the manners of the nobility, though. We may retain a certain respect for the kingly and lordly, but if we expand “ly” to all those called “sir” we run into sirly, which was respelled surly. At first it meant “lordly, majestic,” but then it got resentful and went downhill into “haughty, arrogant” and from that to “ill-tempered.”

10. Travel

If you’re finding it torture and hard work to keep up with how much the meanings of some words have traveled over the years, you’re on the right track. Travel traces back to a word meaning “hard work”: travail. That, in turn, traces back through French to Latin trepalium, which was an instrument of torture made of three stakes. From torture to hard work is an easy enough step in meaning. From hard work to voyaging? Today we might wonder why anyone could call going on vacation hard work, but a journey used to be an arduous thing.

11. Doubt

Does all this make you doubt that there is any constancy in the meanings of words over time? Have no fear: Many words have gone unchanged in sense over the ages. One such is doubt… well, almost. Its source, Latin’s dubitare, meant “be uncertain in opinion,” and to this day, doubt is a state of uncertainty. But the orientation of that uncertainty has not stayed exactly the same over time. These days, if we say “I doubt that it’s so” it means “I feel it is unlikely to be so.” In former centuries, it could mean “I am uncertain whether it is so” or even “I am afraid it might be so.” So, for instance, in Sheridan’s often-performed play from 1777, The School for Scandal, when Sir Peter says “the worst of it is, I doubt I love her, or I should never bear all this,” he means the opposite of what you or I would mean: He means he is afraid that he probably does love her.

So remember: Whenever you encounter a word with a long history, it’s safe to doubt that the meaning has changed… or that it has stayed the same.

verbal overshadowing

Why words bend can the truth: the disturbing fact about memory

If you witness a mugging, then scribble a record of what you’d seen, you’d be more prone to misremember than if you’d written nothing

Illustration by Thomas Pullin

One of the most quietly unsettling findings in psychology, for my money, is “verbal overshadowing” – a weird fact about memory that’s liable to make you wonder if anything you believe about your life is really true. The finding is this: putting your experiences into words – talking about them with others or writing them down – makes you less likely to recall them accurately. If you were to witness a mugging, say, then scribble a record of what you’d seen, you’d be more prone to misremember than if you’d written nothing. Or think of all those times you’ve told friends about that ridiculous thing your boss said, or how you felt when you heard the presidential election result, or what it was like when you went into labour: in all likelihood, none of those conversations fixed the experience more vividly in memory. They probably distorted them, so your recollections may bear little resemblance to the truth. This has consequences far graver than the accuracy of your anecdotes: Elizabeth Loftus, a leading researcher of verbal overshadowing, advocates for those wrongly convicted as a result. It’s a horrible irony: in trials we need eyewitnesses to give statements. Yet the act of giving a statement undermines your value as an eyewitness.

On closer inspection, this psychological oddity starts to look less strange. Language, as the linguist Nick Enfield points out, pretty much exists in order to categorise things – to sift the chaos of reality into the pigeonholes provided by our pre-agreed words. (He chose verbal overshadowing as his answer to the Edge website’s annual question this year: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”) And putting something in a pigeonhole means not putting it into others, by definition. To describe someone as having three dogs is to focus on what the animals share – they’re dogs – and to disregard the fact that they’re a great dane, a sheepdog, and a yorkshire terrier; or old or young, excitable or placid. The research on verbal overshadowing, Enfield writes, suggests this pigeonholing overwrites the previous memory: “When words render experience, specific information is not just left out, it is deleted.” Even the best writer must unavoidably misrepresent the world – we couldn’t communicate otherwise – and the work of Loftus and others seems to show this misrepresentation can be permanent.

Yet this annoying feature of our brains is surely the flipside of an extremely useful one: the way that verbalising your problems – by keeping a journal, or just talking to yourself – renders them more manageable, whether or not you come up with solutions, or share what you’ve written. To put worries into words is to categorise them, and thus get them under control: the very fact you can express them means they haven’t entirely got the better of you. I’ve never managed to keep a diary, in the sense of a record of events, and verbal overshadowing implies it would warp my memories anyway. A journal, on the other hand, harnesses that effect: it works because it transforms the material. Words change things, and thereby us.