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Lingofile Blog

Lingofile is here to appeal to your passion for language. Professor Kate Burridge posts musings about language - please join the discussion below.
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Because grammar

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As you know because is a conjunction (created out of the glomming together of members of an original prepositional phrase by + cause). An example of this use might be: I love grammar because it always comes up with surprises. It’s also part of a compound preposition, so one that occurs in a sequence with another preposition, as in because of grammar.

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Grammar and gendered language

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How relevant is grammatical gender to the notion of a gendered language?

Many languages classify nouns — some very elaborately. German, for example, has a gender system (der Hund ‘dog’is masculine, die Katze ‘cat’ is feminine and das Mädchen ‘girl’is neuter). The label ‘gender’ is a confusing term (as suggested by the German word for ‘girl’!), but if you forget the sex associations and concentrate on its original meaning of ‘class’ or ‘kind’ (Latin genus), its grammatical application becomes clearer (and bear in mind that languages can have up to 20 genders). Gender here refers to a classification of nouns into groups for the purposes of agreement. A thousand years ago, English nouns also fell into one of three classes: masculine, feminine and neuter. True, these might have roughly corresponded to the sex or sexlessness of objects, but not necessarily (Old English ‘woman’ was masculine and ‘girl’ was neuter). English has now lost this system of grammatical gender. It has biological gender, and even then this only comes into play with the pronouns he, she or it. Mind you, English speakers often assign a gender to objects they are emotionally involved with (my hurdy gurdy is definitely ‘he’). In fact, this practice goes way beyond she for boats and cars and curiosities like she’s apples. Is it the genesis of a full-blown gender system, or a hangover from Old English grammatical gender? It’s not clear — but it’s certainly something to watch!

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Expletive deleted

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Young Australia makes a specialty of swearing. High and low, rich and poor, indulge themselves in bad language luxuriantly; but it is amongst the rising generation that it reaches its acme. The lower-class colonial swears as naturally as he talks. He doesn't mean anything by it in particular; nor is it really an evil outward and visible sign of the spiritual grace within him. On the prevalence of larrikinism I wrote at length in a former epistle.

So wrote Richard Twopenny in his book on every day life in Australian towns in the early 1880s. Nothing much has changed! Colloquialisms and “bad” language clearly flourished in the early days of English-speaking settlement in Australia — and have remained an earmark of Australian English ever since.

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Wackadoodles, empaths and conscious uncoupling

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It seems to me almost impossible for printed dictionaries to keep up with the changing nature of vocabulary these days. It’s not just new expressions, but old expressions are constantly changing their appearance, their meaning, even their grammatical behaviour — and it’s all happening at breakneck speed.

The Oxford English Dictionary has just published their March list of new words, phrases and senses. Here’s a link to where one of the editors discusses some of these words (with a link also to the list of more than 900 additions):

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What sort of grammatical beast is 'however'?

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When it comes to “contrastive however”, there are two groups of speakers out there — those who treat it as an adverb (of the linking type) and those who treat it as a full conjunction. The first group will only accept examples such as:

I am not going to bombard you with all sorts of rules and regulations for working with chocolate; however, there are just a few things to keep in mind about chocolate in general.

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).