11 Sep 2009

It's A Funny Thing, The English Language.

Can the word's we use say more about us than we realise?

North East language expert Vivian Cook certainly seems to think so.

The Newcastle University linguistic professor has made studying the evolution of the English language his passion for the past 30 years and he believes the words we choose could give away how old we are.

He's devised a simple test for his new book, called It's All In A Word, which shows how the words we choose can betray our age.

"Some words do not die out, only the people who use them," said Professor Cook. "To a certain extent we are labelled by the words of our generation and carry them with us, but this explanation does not always work.

"For example, to me a word like 'chap' is very much an older-generation word, but it has been going strong since 1716 and is still used by many people today, of all ages."

Professor Cook suggests that many of us adopt the words we think are suitable for our years and therefore constantly adapt our vocabulary as we grow older.

The words we use can also define our heritage long after we have moved to another part of the country.

Whether we 'hoy', 'cob' or 'bung' something when we throw it shows roots in either the North East, Midlands or the South respectively. As a Southerner moving up to Newcastle, Professor Cook said it took him some time to adjust to 'stotties' (a kind of bread bun), 'chares' (alleyways) and 'slippy' (slippery) pavements, not to mention the weather forecaster who warns viewers to look out for the 'skitey' bits (icy patches).

His book, which is published on September 17th, covers many different aspects of words, ranging from their meanings and how new words are created, to how they organise society and help us think.

"English is a voracious language," added Professor Cook. "For centuries it has gobbled up words and meanings from all kinds of sources and cultures as well as being a magnet for originality and invention.

"However much we know about words, there's always something new to learn, which makes it fascinating.

"Words and language are crucial in everything we do and the underlying message of this book is to encourage a wider interest in vocabulary."

It's All In A Word shows how English has travelled across the world and what language says about us, including practical linguistics tips such as how to learn new vocabulary.

SOURCE: Nicola Juncar, The Chronicle - nicolajuncar@ncjmedia.co.uk


Choose the word out of each pair that you use must often. This should give an indication of how old you seem from your vocabulary. (Points scored are given in brackets).

1. Great (0) .......... All right (1)
2. Bike (1) ............. Cycle (0)
3. L.P (0) ................Vinyl (1)
4. Grotty (1) ......... Bad (0)
5. Chap (0) ............ Bloke (1)
6. Telly ( 1) ............ Television (0)
7. Sozzled* (0) ......... Slaughtered* (1)
8. Fab (1) ................ Excellent (0)
9. Drunk (1) ............ Tipsy* (0)
10. Granny (0) ........ Nan (1)

Score over 5 and you're speaking like a young person,
Score 5 or less and you're more likely to be over 30.

(It should be noted that this is not an entirely scientific test, but is designed to give an idea of generational language use. For example parents with teenagers might find this takes years off their vocabulary age)

PETTYWITTER SAYS: I don't know how well anyone from outside of the North East Of England will cope with this test, probably not very well and for this I apologise.

* Sozzled/Slaughtered = Extremely drunk. Tipsy = Slightly drunk.


Kelly said...

Language is a funny thing, especially "English". I live in the American south, but.... depending on where in the south one lives their use of words and accents can vary widely. Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana: they're all southern states, but folks sound quite different in their speech. Then, travel to the mid-west, northeast or other areas and it's even more different!

I won't even get into what it's like to plop one of us down in another english speaking country like the UK or Australia! I've made several trips to England and my Arkansas accent was quite a novelty. Often hard for others to understand.

Petty Witter said...

I know just what you mean Kelly. We have lots of friends in different parts of the country and many of them have great difficulty with my 'geordie' accent. Funnily enough though every single American I have ever met hasn't had a problem with it even if they do insist I'm Scottish.

Swapna Raghu Sanand said...

What an informative, interesting post. In India, English is mostly spoken in cities, particularly among little tots, students, and professionals.

I agree with Dr. Cook's statement about how we tend to adopt the words that we believe is apt for our age. Today's Indian teenagers say "cool" when they like something or "fab" to indicate something was fabulous or "wassup" to ask what is happening.

Those were not spoken when I was in my teens. We used words like "Wonderful" and "Terrific" and "Stunning" and "How charming." When we say these words now, we get the 'you are so old' looks. So, now we endeavor to adapt our vocabulary so that it isn't out of sync with our young kids.

What I particularly love about English is that it always offers us something new to learn. Recently, I came across a word 'light bulb moment' which indicated how visual we've become even in our writing.

Thank you so much for writing such a thoughtprovoking post. Would love to read similar posts more often. So, keep writing, please.

Dorte H said...

"English is a voracious language," added Professor Cook. "For centuries it has gobbled up words and meanings from all kinds of sources and cultures as well as being a magnet for originality and invention.

Yes - which is why I love your language. The test makes me come up as very old (a hundred, probably), but then foreigners are always conservative when it comes to vocabulary ;)

Great post!

susan s. said...

Yes, I find some of the choices not applicable. For instance, Chap and Bloke are strictly "English" English, as are the ones in #7. I scored only 2, so I guess I am totally old!

Petty Witter said...

Thanks for your kind words Swapna and Dorte - I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Nice to see you again Susan. I didn't do too badly in the quiz, scoring 5 so I must be a border-line oldie.

(M)ary said...

I watch a lot of British TV so even though I am from the Midwest in America, I say "bloke" and "telly".

GMR said...

Entertaining and informative! Great job!

I enjoyed the "word age" quiz...I scored a 6....hmmm, so I'm borderline both categories...interesting.