Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2011

Parents often complain that they and their teenage kids don’t speak the same language. They mean it jokingly, figuratively, but from a linguistic point of view it’s true in a literal way. Every generation of speakers has to create their native language anew from the little of it they hear. The language they end up with is like a starfish whose body has been regenerated from just one or two cut-off legs. (The analogy breaks down when you try to compare the language of the previous generation to the original starfish that has to regenerate its lost legs, but still.) When you think of it that way, it’s no surprise that language changes from generation to generation. The amazing thing is how close to the earlier generation’s language the regenerated language manages to come.

I’ve known this intellectually from the first class in historical linguistics I took, but it’s still disconcerting to find myself realizing that Doug and I speak different languages. Sure, I’ve enjoyed observing his acquisition of English and how it differs from what I speak, like when I heard him say, “That’s what he was like” to mean, “That’s what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, I’ll break it into separate tabs for Doug and for Adam.) But the differences have been building up, and when he talks on the phone with his friends, and laughs at dirty jokes I thought would go past him (all in his cracking voice that I hope will settle into its final form soon), I continually have to acknowledge how much of his language he’s getting from sources other than his family.

A couple of tweets I sent out last month:

Defiance! When I told my 10yo son singular of “biceps” is still “biceps”, my 12yo son dared to say he’d continue to call it “bicep” ANYWAY! (link)

More filial defiance! Son unapologetically says he will continue to call “(” a parenthesee. “Parenthesis, parenthesee, whatever.” (link)

Of course, these overgeneralizations are well-established in prior generations of English speakers, too, but the point is that while they’re not in my English, they’re entrenched in Doug’s.

Other differences between Doug’s language and mine reflect more recent developments in English. No matter how many times he says that something is “jacked up“, whether it’s a glitch in a video game or an unfair grade his friend got, I keep thinking of changing a car tire, and want to tell him, “Say ‘messed up’!”, or even the tabooed synonym that I’m almost certain must be the source of jacked up.

Need I even mention that he doesn’t use random the way I do?

But what really brought home the differences between Neal-language and Doug-language was a discussion I had with him about my most recent Visual Thesaurus column, on the possessive relative pronoun whose. Near the end, I mention the innovative form that’s, as in:

the only one that’s title has been released

That was from Doug in 2009, talking about upcoming volumes in a series of novels he was reading. I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.

Doug and I are speaking different languages.

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15 Responses to “We Don’t Speak the Same Language”

  1. [...] (bicipite) ha la stessa forma per singolare e plurale ma alcuni parlanti lo rendono *bicep al singolare (altri invece hanno creato il plurale [...]

  2. Well, I call “(” a bracket, but that’s because I speak Australian, which is the same as British in this respect.

    If you need a dialectal refresher (or Doug does), we have round brackets (), square brackets [], and curly brackets {}, and brackets by itself normally means round ones because they’re the most common.

    • nike said

      Hey Flesh-eating dragon,

      I’m also Australian, and have never used bracket to describe a parenthesis. To me a bracket (in typography) is a square bracket [], while a brace is a curly one {}.
      :)

  3. Beth said

    Reminds me of similar interchanges with my mother when I was a teen. She found “screwed up” and “sucks” to be vulgar sexual taboos yet I’d never even thought of them that way. To me, these had no taboo to them at all. “Freaking” was also disallowed because, to her, it just stood for “f**king”. Somehow, I think taboo changed quite a bit in the 25 years between us. (Coming into adulthood in different areas of the country may also have had some effect.)

    Last week, my mother asked me what it means when something is called “so gay”. I did my best, but I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure how my mother made it to 2011 without hearing the phrase being applied (for example) to the inanimate. I told my mother that if someone says something is “gay”, that generally means they don’t like it for whatever reason (because the reason varies), that it’s something that is/was derogatorily applied to people and is now likewise applied to things; that “That’s stupid!” has a meaning pretty close to “That’s gay!” except that the latter is worse (or was in my day). The phrase wasn’t one I ever used and it’s one I think is wholly unnecessary, mean-spirited, and indicating of bigotry… but it’s one that’s in my language to the extent that I understand it. Evidently, it wasn’t in my mother’s language at all.

    • Neal said

      Regarding so gay, see this post.

      • Beth said

        I considered offering Mom the comparison, but I have cognitive disabilities (which don’t show up so much in text) that would make it more awkward.
        FWIW, some people I know that are my age and younger countered claims of something being “so gay” by saying something like “Yeah, that’s so homosexual!” It effectively communicated the message of I don’t accept that language in a way that tended to get a much better response than simply saying the language was offensive and asking it not be repeated.

  4. EP said

    Living in Germany, but speaking English at home with my kids, you get some pretty wild Denglisch combinations. They often have trouble with the English prepositions and tend to use the German ones instead (you live in Elm Street in German, for instance, and not on it).

    And concerning vulgar sexual taboos, the Germans have (long ago now) introduced the word geil (horny, hot) for cool. It is ubiquitous now and no one really cringes anymore when using it. Young people out there clearly don’t make any taboo connection here either.

  5. When I taught math (in your old bailiwick of Austin, by the way), I would try to get the kids who said parenthesee to stop saying it, but usually I didn’t succeed. For most of my students the regular singular/plural pattern of English was so strong that they refused to adopt any of the Latin or Greek patterns that have made their way into formal English.

  6. Scott Catledge said

    I am aware that my English represents how both my parents talked, how my father preached, how Mother spoke to ladies groups, how people talked at the pastorium, and how I was taught in small-town FL in the 40s. I have abandoned ‘draught, plough, and cheques’ for more modern spellings; however, I was very strict with my students insisting that they should write much more formally than they spoke and that they speak correct formal English in class. It got to the point that when someone would ask,”Can I do thus and such?” the class would reply in unison, Yes, you can but no, you may not.” and many other such distinctions no longer made (I taught HS and University in the 60’s). The good students loved the sentences “I walked between the two shrubs; I walked among the shrubs; I walked amidst the shrubbery.” They also loved unusual plurals–one even corrected his pastor when he said ‘cherubims.’

  7. The Ridger said

    And of course he could have started saying “bicepses”.

    Did you catch the teenagers on Modern Family last week when one of them “left my shoes at your uncles’s”? Uncleses, quite clearly, several times – from them both. (In case you don’t watch it, her uncles are a gay couple.)

  8. Dw said

    Doug should gave countered by asking why you say “pea” instead if “pease”.

  9. May be we don’t speak the same “modern” language but we still speak an “ancient” one mixed-up since the neurolinguistic trauma that happened at Babel. In our research we call this language “Edenic” (pre-Hebrew). There are more than 6000 + languages in the world, it’s difficult to learn all of them. But our research makes the point that words have kept in them the same roots, sounds and senses from old times. For instance ארץ EReTS, earth, has been kept beautifully in English EARTH, but there is more, Latin has TeRRA, Spanish TieRRA and French TeRRE, but in a reversal way. There are more than 23 thousand English words that are connected to Edenic. This amount of data reveals that we are still speaking the same language but in a distorted way.

    May be we are not speaking the same “modern” language, but we still speak an older one. There is Ingelligent Desing behind language. Language is not the result of chaos and evolution. when we pronounce a letter or a simple word a whole mechanism in our body starts to move, allowing us communication. You are welcome to visit a new alternative about the Origin of Speeches at XXX. It is time to make the world change the perception of language.

    Best regards.

    Fernando Aedo

    • Neal said

      Handpicking a few shared sounds in words across a few handpicked languages is of no value. You need to show that the similarities are not due to borrowing or simple chance. You need to show regular sound correspondences across *many* words; this is how the Indo-European and other well-established language families were mapped out. Furthermore, there are various kinds of sound changes that are well-attested: kinds of assimilation, kinds of dissimilation, final devoicing, etc. There is even metathesis, the swapping of individual sounds, but flipping entire words backwards is not a believable regular sound change. Also, even if this were a serious sound correspondence, why even bother to mention French and Spanish, since they are already known to descend from Latin?

      I will look at your site, but unless I see more familiarity with the basics of comparative historical linguistics than I see here, I will come back and deactivate your hyperlink.

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