Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Our minds might be able to find the right word quicker than Google and yet we rarely pause to think about how language shapes everything we do.

One person who has delved a little bit deeper is Applied Linguistics Professor Vivian Cook, of Newcastle University, who has been intrigued by the subtle nuances and ever-evolving nature of the English language for the past thirty years.

He suggests that the words we use say much more about us than we might realise. For example, we can do a great deal to appear younger or older than we actually are, but our instinctive use of language often gives away our real age.

He devised a simple test for his new book, It’s all in a Word (published 17 September 2009), which shows how the words we choose can betray our age.

“Some words do not die out, only the people who use them,” explained 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.

And it’s not just what we say about ourselves, but how we address others that says a great deal about how much respect we have for them and how comfortable we feel around them.

“In politics, where being in touch with the public is seen as vitally important, we can learn a lot from how politicians are addressed by both the media and their colleagues,” said Professor Cook. “When Tony Blair was in Number 10, no one ever referred to him as ‘Anthony’, preferring the more informal ‘Tony’, but I can’t imagine anyone calling Gordon Brown ‘Gordie’.”

Shortening someone’s name or adding ‘ie’ or ‘y’ on the end gives away your attitude towards them. Short forms show familiarity, where adding an ‘ie’ or ‘y’ can show a layer of condescension.

In his book, Professor Cook’s ‘Mateyness Scale’ asks readers to think about how accessible politicians, both past and present, appear by rating them according to how they are often referred to by a particular version of their name. For example, is the former American president George W (distant), Dubya (fairly friendly) or Georgie (friendly) Bush?

The words we use can also often 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 Midlands, South East/West or North East respectively.

Alleyways also offer a diverse amount of options depending on where you are in the UK, ranging from a snicket (West Midlands), a wynd/lane/close (Scotland), a jetty (East Midlands) and a folly (East Anglia) among others.

“Surprisingly little is known about everyday dialect words such as these as most researchers have collected the vocabulary of people living in the country, known as affectionately as NORMS – non-mobile, older, rural males - rather than ordinary people living in towns,” explained Professor Cook.

As a Southerner moving up to Newcastle, Professor Cook said it took him some time to adjust to stotties (a kind of bun), chares (alleyways) and slippy (slippery) pavements, not to mention the weather forecaster who warns viewers to look out for skitey bits (ice patches).

His book covers many different aspects of words, ranging from their forms to their meanings and how new words are created, to how they organise society and help us think.

“English is a voracious language,” said 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 so 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 and a bluffer’s guide to sounding like a wine expert.

(Photo: Newcastle U.)

Newcastle University

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