A “let’s circle back” guy

A “let’s circle back” guy

As everyone knows by now, for the foreseeable future we must all stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the burden on our health services – which has already been substantial, and will soon be enormous even in the best possible scenario.

This shift in the way we operate as a society will have a wide range of effects on our lives, which are already being noticed. Some of these were the kind of thing you might have thought of in advance – but others less so. For example, soon after the advice to work from home really started to bite in the US, a substantial thread developed on Twitter, all started off by the following tweet:

https://twitter.com/inLaurasWords/status/1240687424377720835

The thousands of responses that appeared within a few hours of this tweet shows how deeply it resonated: many people must have been through their own version of the same surprising experience, some of them presumably in the last few days. But what happened here, and why was it so surprising? And why, as a linguist, am I sitting at home and writing a blog post about it now?

This single tweet, which people found so easy to identify with, in fact brings together a number of issues that linguists are interested in. For one thing, it works as a clear illustration of a point that people intuitively appreciate, but which has endless ramifications: the language you use is never just an instrument for communicating your thoughts, but is also taken to say something important about your identity, whether you intend it to or not. If a guy uses the expression “let’s circle back”, meaning to return to an issue later, that makes him a “let’s circle back” guy – that is, a particular kind of person. In a jokey way, the tweeter is implying that she already had a mental category of ‘the kind of person who would say things like that’, and she takes it for granted that we do too. In this case, the surprise for Laura Norkin was in suddenly discovering that her own husband belonged in that pre-existing category: the way she tells it, hearing him use a specific turn of phrase counted as finding out important new information about who he is as a person, which she was not necessarily best pleased about.

Making a linguistic choice: a bilingual road sign in Wales

Since the mid-twentieth century, the field of sociolinguistics has drawn attention to the fact that this kind of thing is going on everywhere in language. Consciously or unconsciously, people are making linguistic choices all the time – whether that means choosing between two totally different languages, between two different expressions with the same meaning (do you circle back to something or just return to it?), or between two very slightly different pronunciations of the same word. Any of these choices might turn out to ‘say something’ about how you see yourself – or how other people see you. And the social meanings and values assigned to the different choices are likely to change over time: so understanding what is going on with one person’s use of language really requires you to understand what is going on right across the community, which is like an ecosystem full of co-existing language diversity. How do linguistic developments, and the social responses to them, propagate and interact in this ecosystem? That’s something that researchers work hard to find out.

The tweet also picks up on the importance of the situational context for the way people use language. Laura Norkin had never heard her husband use the offending expression before because it belongs to a particular register – meaning a variety of language which is characteristic of a particular sphere of activity. Circling back is characteristic of ‘full work mode’, something which had never previously needed to surface in the domestic setting.

Why do registers exist? Partly it must be to do with the fact that different people know different things: for example, lawyers can expect to be able to use technical legal terminology with their colleagues, but not with their clients, even if they are talking about all the same issues – because behind the terminology there lies a wealth of specialist knowledge. Similarly, anyone would modify their language when talking to a five-year-old as opposed to a fifty-year-old.

But this cannot be the whole story: it doesn’t help you to explain the difference between returning and circling back. Should we think of the business/marketing/management world, where terms like circling back are stereotypically used, as a mini community within the community, with its own ideas of what counts as normal linguistic practice? Or is everyone involved giving a signal that they take on a new, businesslike identity when they turn up to the office – even if these days that doesn’t involve leaving the house? Again, working out the relationship between the language aspect and the social aspect here makes an interesting challenge for linguistics.

The medical profession is well known for having its own technical register

But this was not just an anecdote about how unusual it is to be at home and yet hear terms that usually turn up at work. We can tell that “let’s circle back”, just like other commonly mocked corporate expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “push the envelope”, is something we are expected to dislike – but why? The existence of different registers is not generally thought of as a bad thing in itself. You could give the answer that this expression is overused, a cliché, and thus sounds ugly. But really, things must be the other way round: English abounds in commonly used expressions, and only the ones that ‘sound ugly’ get labelled as overused clichés. And there is nothing inherently worse about circle back than about re-turn – in fact, when you think about it, they are just minor variations on the same metaphor.

So what is really going on here? The popular reaction to circle back, and other things of that kind, seems to involve lots of factors at once. The expression is new enough that people still notice it; but it is not unusual enough to sound novel or imaginative. It is currently restricted to a particular kind of professional setting that most people never find themselves in; but it does not refer to a complex or specific enough concept to ‘deserve’ to exist as a technical term. And we do not tend to worry too much about making fun of the linguistic habits of people who have a relatively privileged position in society: certainly, teasing your husband by outing him as a “let’s circle back” guy is not really going to do him any harm.

Spelling it out like this helps to suggest just how much information we are factoring in whenever we react to the linguistic behaviour of the people around us – and this is something we do all the time, mostly without even noticing. We are social beings, and cannot help looking for the social message in the things people say, as well as the literal message: establishing this fact, and working out how to investigate it scientifically, has been one of the great overarching projects of modern linguistics. Right now, for everyone’s benefit, we need to learn how to be less sociable than ever. But as the tweet above suggests, people’s inbuilt sensitivity to language as a social code is not going to change any time soon.

Arabic based scripts

Arabic based scripts

Scripts spread like bad news. Look at the Latin script, which is the ultimate winner considering the hundreds, if not thousands of languages that use it today. Political power and religion have caused the Latin script to serve as the basis for this proliferation of written languages, first in Europe, and then almost everywhere else, including many languages that had no written tradition before the Western influence. The exceptions are the scripts that have a strong enough tradition that keeps them going.

However, the Latin script is not the only prevalent one. Wikipedia lists 95 languages that are using, or have actively used the Arabic script. In this post we will be looking at how they do it.

The way different languages use a script can vary significantly. Some can invent new versions of letters that express the peculiar sounds of a language, such as the long vowels in Hungarian: á, í, é, ó, ú, ő, ű. Others, like English, combine existing letters to do the same job, like th or ch. Some will get rid of the letters that are not useful enough. Next time you visit Turkey, look at the taxi signs.

A Turkish taksi

One way we could classify writing systems is how helpful they are, if someone intends to read them. Chinese is famously not very helpful. Even though some characters will give a hint on how to pronounce the word, or what it means, generally you have to learn thousands of characters, that refer to separate “words”. English is rather helpful in the sense that the letters generally help the reader figure out what sound is supposed to be pronounced. Not always, thouGH. Sometimes it is touGH to determine how to pronounce GH, for example. Is it /f/, /g/ or /nothing/? Learners have to learn the differences individually. The most helpful scripts represent a speech sound with a single letter consistently. Look at Turkish! Nobody needs an X if you have KS, that perfectly does the job at all times.

Arabic is similar to English in this classification, but in a completely different way. In order to understand what is going on, we must know what templatic morphology is. When creating new words, most languages add meaningful bits to the beginning, or to the end of a word. Or both, like in the case of my favorite Metallica song, the Un-forgive-n. We can say that English, in most cases, uses a word as a base for such operations. Arabic, on the other hand, uses two or three consonants, as a base. They are not words; they rather represent a broad concept. The schoolbook example is K-T-B, which represents the broad concept of writing. Arabic, then, adds things before, after and in between (i.e. applies the three consonants to a template). The templates also have meanings and thus narrow down the concept’s meaning to a word, that can actually be used in the language. There are only two rules when inserting the three consonants into a template: 1) Do not skip any consonant, and 2) keep their order. Let’s see a few examples, how these templates work. The capital letters are the base consonants, and the small letters fill in the template.

Template meaning K-T-B ‘write’ M-L-K ‘rule, possess’
place where happens maKTaBa ‘library’ maMLaKa ‘kingdom’
person who does it KāTiB ‘writer’ MāLiK ‘king’
passive (being done) maKTūB ‘written’ maMLūK ‘slave’

Long story short, templates are extremely important in Arabic. This is combined with the unfortunate fact that Arabic has lots of consonants and very few vowels, namely, /a/, /u/, and /i/. They all contrast long and short versions, that gives a total of six vowels. On the contrary, there are 28 consonants. Here is a really nice introduction to Arabic speech sounds.

The facts above have led to a writing system where vowels are so ‘underrated’ that they are basically not marked. In fact, the long vowels are marked, but by specific consonants, that may be pronounced as a consonant, or considered as a sign that marks a long vowel. To illustrate this, let’s see some Arabic words, the raw information you get from the letters you see, some possible pronunciations, just for fun, and how you actually need to pronounce them.

مورد
raw information [m] [w/ū] [r] [d]
possible pronunciation mawarad, mūrad, mawrad, miward, muwarrid, muwarad…
actual pronunciation mawrid
meaning supplies

مدينة
raw information [m] [d] [y/ī] [n] [a]
possible pronunciation midayna, mudayna, madayna, mudīna, midīna, madīna…
actual pronunciation madīna
meaning city

Arabic has a way of signaling how a word should be pronounced exactly, but these additional signs above and below the main letters (diacritics) are only used in children’s reading books and in the Qur’ān. Nothing above and below the red lines actually appear in every-day texts or in handwriting.

Arabic script

In essence, instead of marking vowels with high precision, Arabic marks the consonants and in most cases, you can figure out the template as well. And if you know Arabic, then you know all the templates, so you don’t even really need those unmarked vowels.

The Arabic writing system fits the Arabic language really neatly, but what about other languages? Persian uses the Arabic script, but it has no templates. It is an Indo-European language with word formation rules that are very similar to the ones we find in European languages. So, how did they deal with this situation? Well, they did their best to mark vowels with a bit more precision. At the ends of words, Persian uses the letter /h/ to mark the vowels /e/ and /a/. The consonants that can signal the presence of a long consonant in Arabic, are used much more consistently, so when you see one, you can be almost sure that there is a long vowel. Apart from the vowel problem, Persian has also added a couple of consonants, that Arabic lacks, such as /p/, /g/ or /ch/.

Urdu is spoken mainly in Pakistan, and it is quite similar to Hindi, but let’s stick to the fact (there is a political debate), that it has retroflex consonants (the tip of the tongue curls backwards). Those are the speech sounds in many Indic languages that make them sound so recognizable. Urdu’s strategy is similar to what we saw in Persian, with the addition of the retroflex consonant. There is also an additional, second form of the letter h, that signals aspiration (the h-like sound after consonants, like in the words dharma, makhani or bhaji). The last addition is a differently shaped letter y, that marks /ay/ or /ey/, as opposed to a long /ī/. In Persian and Arabic, there is only one letter that represents these three sounds.

Urdu is also special in that the Urdu printed texts use a type of calligraphy, called Nasta’liq. This makes Urdu texts look very different from Arabic, but it is only a matter of fonts.

Arabic newspaper
Urdu newspaper

Lastly, let’s discuss a language that has completely reformed the Arabic script. Uyghur is a Turkic language spoken in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. As all Turkic languages, Uyghur has a large number of vowels and relatively few consonants. This makes the Arabic script a rather difficult choice for this language, unless some modifications are done. In the Uyghur script, every speech sound is represented in a consistent way, i.e. there is no ambiguity whatsoever. The set of consonants is essentially the same as in Persian, but there are nine additional letters that allow for a precise marking of vowels. For anybody else from the world of Arabic based scripts, the resulting text may appear somewhat weird. The following image illustrates how different this script is from the previous ones. The parts circled are the Uyghur innovations that would be incorrect in Arabic, Persian or in Urdu. Notice their proportion.

Uyghur script

The cherry on the cake is the Thaana script. It is used to write Dhivehi, an Indo-European language spoken in the Maldives. This script is based on Arabic, but in a unique way. Thaana started off as a secret script for sacred, religious texts. It was considered a way of encryption, and therefore the letters originate from Arabic letters, as well as Arabic numbers and Indic numbers (!). Imagine that you code a message that looks like this: 7q۳۶gt55۹۴. All speech sounds are precisely marked, as in Uyghur. Notice the vowel-marking diacritics above and below the main letters, and their similarity to the Arabic diacritics (in the picture above where the diacritics are separated with a red line). But of course, this script looks really different from the other ones we have seen.

Dhivehi newspaper

Linguists believe that only a handful of writing systems appeared independently around the world. Most languages had to adopt the script of another language, and due to different needs and strategies, we have ended up with a myriad of historically related, but still, different scripts. Linguists consider writing systems negligible, since they are just the representation of language, which we are truly interested in. I think, however, that the backgrounds of different scripts are amazing.