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Category: speaker variation

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.

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Have you ever felt that you needed to nip something in the butt, or had the misfortune to witness a damp squid? And what can Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi and Freddie Mercury tell us about language change?

Well, if you know Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze”, you surely remember the moment where he interrupts his train of thought with the unexpected request, ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Or perhaps you recall “Living on a Prayer”, where we hear that apparently It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not. And who can forget the revelation, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard?

Wise words from Celine Dion

If you do remember these lyrics fondly, you are not alone – lots of people are familiar with these exact lines. There is just one problem, of course: none of those songs really say those things. Instead, the lyrics involved are ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky; It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not; and Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. And yet thousands of English speakers the world over have had the experience of listening to “Purple Haze” and the others – and of misunderstanding the words, entirely independently, in exactly the same way.

Mishearings of this kind are common enough that they have been given a name of their own, mondegreens – a word invented by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a poem containing the following lines:

For they hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green

and assumed that it listed not one but two victims – the unfortunate Earl himself, and “Lady Mondegreen”, a plausible character who happens not to feature in the real poem.

Why does this kind of thing happen? One reason has to do with the nature of spoken language. On the page, English sentences come pre-packaged into words, each of which is made up of distinct, easily-identified letters which look pretty much the same every time. But pronounced out loud, they are not like that! Instead, a continuous, mushy stream of noise makes its way into our ears, and it is up to our brains to work out what speech sounds are actually in there, where one word ends and the next one begins (think the-sky versus this-guy), and so on. Obviously this process is not exactly helped when there are rock guitars competing for your attention too.

Obama’s elf….. don’t wanna be… Obama’s elf… any more…

But another reason is that we are never ‘just listening’ passively. Instead, behind the scenes, our minds are busy trying to relate what we’re hearing to our existing knowledge – not only our linguistic knowledge, but our general knowledge about the world. For example, the common-sense knowledge that people tend to kiss other people, rather than intangible abstractions like the sky. This is obviously very useful most of the time, but in the “Purple Haze” case it leads us astray, because the more implausible meaning is the one that Jimi Hendrix intended.

What has this all got to do with language change? Well, the crucial point is that what I’ve just said – interpreting sounds is complicated, and to navigate the process we engage our common sense as well as our knowledge of the language – applies just as well to normal conversation as it does to song lyrics. We don’t always hear things perfectly, and even if we do, we have to square the things we’ve just heard with the things we already knew, which provide a guide for our interpretation but may sometimes take us in the wrong direction.

So if you hear someone referring to a really disappointing experience as a damp squib, but are not familiar with squib (an old-fashioned word for a firework), what is to stop you thinking that what you really heard was damp squid? A squid is, after all, a very damp creature, and not always something that people are hugely fond of. Similarly, the expression to nip in the bud makes sense if you latch on to the gardening metaphor it is based on – but if you don’t, well, nipping an undesirable thing in the butt does sound like a very effective way of getting rid of it. So, people who think the expressions really are damp squid and nip in the butt have made a mistake along the lines of “kiss this guy”; the difference is that here they may end up using the new versions in their own speech, and thus pass them on to other speakers. And the process doesn’t have to involve whole expressions: individual words are susceptible to it too, for example midriff becoming mid-rift or utmost becoming up-most.

It’s beautiful, but undeniably damp

Misinterpreted words and expressions like these, which have some kind of new internal logic of their own, are known as eggcorns. This is because egg-corn is exactly how some English speakers have reinterpreted the word acorn, on the basis that acorns are indeed egg-shaped seeds. And the development of a new eggcorn may not involve any mishearing at all, just reinterpretation of one word as another one that sounds exactly the same. Are you expected to toe the line or to tow the line? Are people given free rein or free reign? In each case the two expressions sound identical, and each brings with it some kind of coherent mental image. For the moment, toe the line and free rein are still considered to be the ‘correct’ versions of these idioms, but perhaps in the future that will no longer be the case.

As words and expressions are reinterpreted over time, the language changes little by little: in speech and in writing, people pass on their reinterpretations to one another, in a way which may eventually pass right through the language. The underlying factors producing eggcorns are the same as those producing mondegreens. But unlike the lyrics of “Purple Haze”, words and idioms don’t generally have a fixed author and don’t belong to anybody, meaning that if everyone started calling acorns eggcorns, then that just would be the correct word for them: the previous, now meaningless term acorn would be no more than a historical curiosity, and English as a whole would be very slightly different from how it is now.

So this is how we get from Jimi Hendrix to language change – via mondegreens and eggcorns. Have you spotted any eggcorns in the wild? And how likely do you think they are to catch on and become the new normal?

How to break an impasse

How to break an impasse

Have Brexit negotiations met an impasse (where the first vowel sounds like the vowel in ‘him’), or an impasse where the vowel is like the initial sound in the French word bain /bɛ̃/? Or is it something in between?

If it is the former, congratulations! This borrowing from French has been successfully integrated into your native phonology, whilst simultaneously making a nod to its orthography.

If you opt to French-it-up then you have recognised that this word is not an Anglo-Saxon one, and that it should be flagged as such by keeping the pronunciation classic. Or you are French.

If you are somewhere between these two extremes, you are in good company. This highly topical word has no less than 12 British variants listed in the OED, reflecting various solutions to integrating the nasalized French vowel /ɛ̃/ and stress pattern into English:

Choosing which pronunciation to use for impasse is both a linguistic and social minefield, with every utterance revealing something about your education and social networks. No pressure then.

Recent news reports are providing a very rich corpus of data on the pronunciation of this specific word, with many variants being used within the same news report by different speakers, and perhaps even the same speaker.

For those yet to commit, choosing which to pick may be bewildering. So how do we avoid this impasse? Perhaps unsurprisingly, one tactic speakers use is to avoid using a word they aren’t confident pronouncing altogether. It might be safer to stick to deadlock.

Watch BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg translate deadlock into German, Spanish and French.

Ultimately, our cousins across the pond may have some influence in resolving this issue in the long term. The OED lists only two variants for U.S. English, with variation based on stress, not vowel quality, and U.S. variants of words (e.g. schedule, U.S. /skɛdjuːl/ vs U.K. /ˈʃedʒ.uːl/) are widely adopted in the speech of the UK public. But this will not necessarily be the case and the multiple UK variants may continue for some time.

The impasse goes to show that languages tend to tolerate a whole lot of diversity, even when the world of politics doesn’t.