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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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Worksheets for immediate use in the classroom. Ideal for students' language journals, it's all part of our commitment to the study of English Language.
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Wording Worksheets

 These language and argument worksheets are ideal for Year 10, 11 and 12 students
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I just think I'm absolutely sorta sorry

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The end of last year saw the release of a new Chrome app called “Just not sorry”. Designed largely with women in mind, its purpose is to seek out any hint of weak and powerless language in emails. Like a grammar or spell checker, it highlights for correction such hedging expressions as just, sorry, actually, sort of, I think and so on.

Information (in the form of a quote from a consultant or life coach) then pops up over the offending phrase to explain its place on the hit list: “‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power. It’s time to say goodbye to the justs” (Tara Sophia Mohr); “Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership” (Sylvia Ann Hewlett).

In the spirit of smiling, frowning, winking, crying emoji and other graphic devices, it seems curious that there’s now an app to remove phrases in writing that attempt to make up for the lack of expressive devices available to us in speech.In fact, there’s so much that’s disturbing and flawed about this app, it’s hard to know where to begin.

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Dr Seuss, haitch and The Great Australian Spelling Bee

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Like Dr Seuss’ Star-Belly Sneetches and Plain-Belly Sneetches, there are two types of creatures — those who have h at the start of the word they use for the 8th letter of the alphabet, and those who have “none upon thars”.

That aspirate’s not so big. It’s really so small

You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.

But it does — as some reactions to the The Great Australian Spelling Bee have recently been demonstrating.
Venise Alstergren writes in The Age  “each child pronounced the letter “H” as “haitch” instead of “aitch”, a sure way to display ignorance. Why are teachers encouraging the misuse of the language”? Another asks “[a]re we to have yet another generation of children mispronouncing this letter. It sounds so uneducated to me”.


The pronunciation of this letter name has become a shibboleth — a linguistic marker that indicates identity. The use of shibboleths is both to include and exclude. Like belly stars, they serve to mark members of the same group and reject those who don’t belong (and of course it’s the ones with the social power who set the standards for whether belly stars are going to be "in" or "out"). In-group favouritism leads to value judgements. Ways of speaking become “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, “superior” or “inferior”. Aitch gets the stamp of approval, and haitch is denounced.

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Pollie perks

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Recent shenanigans in the Australian political arena have inspired me to revisit a couple of expressions that have been key words in all the drama of late — politicians and perks.


First I was interested to see whether mainstream dictionaries had got round to revising their entries for politician, finally acknowledging that definitions like the following are no longer “obsolete” (if they ever were!):

Politician:  A politic person; chiefly in a sinister sense, a shrewd schemer; a crafty plotter or intriguer.  Obs. [Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition]

This negative description grew out of earliest senses of politic that saw a rapid decline from earlier ‘prudent, sagacious’ to ‘scheming, conniving’. This development is not surprising — words to do with intelligence typically acquire overtones of deceitfulness. Crafty, cunning and artful were once favourable too, but they deteriorated spectacularly (and clever is well on the way to joining them). It seems we are mistrustful of those who demonstrate advanced thinking powers— or is it more that dishonest tendencies lurk in smart human beings? Something is driving this shift.

Now, with time words can acquire a kind of “semantic halo” (to use novelist C.S. Lewis’ term), and like many I’ve used politician as an example of this process. As the story goes — the shift from permanent monarchies to democratically elected representative governments triggered an elevation of terms like politician and democracy. Hence the second neutral sense:

Politician:  One versed in the theory of science of government and the art of governing; one skilled in politics; one practically engaged in conducting the business of the state; a statesman. [Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition]

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Orangutangs and Pengwings

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By now some of you will undoubtedly have come across references to Benedict Cumberbatch’s wonderful voice-over for the BBC documentary South Pacific, in particular the part where he repeatedly pronounces the word penguin incorrectly. It comes out as something like “pengwing”:

"So why are these woodlands so attracted to pengwings? A fresh water stream through the forest makes a handy highway for a parent pengwing heading home from a fishing trip …".

You can listen to the clip here:

I’m thrilled by this example because it illustrates a rather rare phonological process called “long-distance assimilation”.  Ordinary assimilation is commonplace. It’s where sounds change to become more like other sounds close by. Most of us will pronounce pancake as “pangcake” [pæŋkeik], assimilating the [n] to the following velar [k]. (Nasal harmony is very common — like chameleons of the phonological world, nasals are forever altering their appearance and blending into their environment in this way.)

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Minionese - WTF!

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Macca stores all round the world have been handing out talking yellow Minion toys for children to enjoy with their Happy Meals. Apparently these Minions are speaking something called Minionese.  But many parents think otherwise. What they hear when the button is pressed are swearwords — “Well I’ll be damned”, “WTF” (but not in this disguise!).

The most interesting thing about this story is the fact that people are hearing cusswords here, when clearly all that’s coming out of the Minions’ mouths are random sequences of sounds and nonsense syllables. It’s a kind of auditory inkblot — people hear meaningful patterns in meaningless bursts of noise, just as they perceive meaningful images in meaningless blobs of ink. The psychological term for this I gather is “pareidolia”.

Judge for yourselves. Click on this link and join the millions of others who have listened to the Minion Caveman Happy Meal toy (could this have been a clever marketing ploy all along I wonder):

The problem with this sort of exercise is that once you’re told what to listen for or look out for, then the brain is primed and that’s precisely what you recognize (ever since my mother pointed out a young woman in an old-fashioned sun bonnet, I’ve never been able to see the man in moon). 

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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).