There was some press recently about a new study which seems to claim that you can’t become fluent in a second language if you start learning it after age 10. In fact, the study* did not talk about fluency at all. As this article in the Conversation UK by Prof. Monika Schmid points out, the media misinterpreted what the study showed. I’m glad Schmid wrote this piece, which not only clears up the media’s confusion with the study, but also explains some other things about fluency in linguistics. I read the study in question and it seemed pretty legit. I have some misgivings about the idea of nativeness in language learning and about how the questionnaire says that India isn’t a “traditional English speaking country”. And also how the quiz said that “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept I’m finished my homework instead of with my homework,” when this is also very common in and around Philadelphia**.
But all in all, it seems to be an interesting linguistics study that got blown out of proportion by the media. File it with the rest.
* The title of the study is “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers”. Does anyone else find “2/3 million English speakers” ungrammatical?
**It might just be me, but the phrase “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” also seems ungrammatical. “Canadians accept X” is ok, but “Irish accept X” and “Scottish accept X” are not, at least not in my variety of English. The latter two need articles before them or the word people after them: “The Irish accept X”, “Scottish people accept X”. I don’t know of any variety where “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” is correct. This is just a bit of irony in a quiz about the grammaticality of different clauses.
John McIntyre, an editor at the Baltimore Sun, has an excellent blog post about linguistic discrimination called “English without shame”. The whole post is great, but this paragraph stands out:
The Language Police, the Grammar Nazis, and the SNOOTS are, in fine, snobs, and I find it impossible to believe that language snobbery is nobler than snobbery about wealth, fashion, or family. It’s just one more method to score points against other people and prop up one’s self-regard.
The Alice Cooper song “Poison” features lyrics rhyming the words hot and caught:
Your mouth, so hot
Your web, I’m caught
Rhyming these words is an example of the cot–caught merger. In linguistics, a merger is when the vowel sounds of two words move together to become the same sound. If you say the words cot and caught the same way, or if hot rhymes with caught, then you have the cot–caught merger. The cot–caught merger is sometimes described as if it’s a yes-or-no phenomenon, but in reality – like in all things in linguistics – it’s more of a continuum.
Alice Cooper doesn’t really pronounce the vowels in hot and caught the exact same way. That could be because Alice Cooper is from Detroit, Michigan, a place which doesn’t have the cot–caught merger. Or maybe the other two writers of “Poison” were taking poetic license with the rhyming of these words. The other writers are Desmond Child, who’s from Gainesville, FL (a place resistant to the cot–caught merger) and John McCurry – but I don’t where he’s from. Either way, the merger is more of a yes-no-maybe-so kind of thing. That means there are speakers with the merger who live in areas where most speakers do not have the merger and vice versa. And there are speakers who have the merger only in certain words or environments, such as before nasal consonants so that the vowels in Don and dawn are merged.
Here’s Alice Cooper singing “Poison” live in 1989 (video starts at the hot/caught lyrics, but rewind it to listen to a flaming guitar solo straight outta the 80s):
You can read more about the cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (some online info here). Wikipedia also has an article on it.
Vaux is now conducting the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes with Marius L. Jøhndal. If you’re interested in world Englishes, head on over to that site, where you can also see the results without taking the survey.
Vaux also has a new survey of American English dialects available at https://www.dialectsofenglish.com/. The survey takes about 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you choose to answer and how long you spend looking at the heat maps it shows you. There are some very fun questions in there.
In my linguistics classes, I ask students to define what a word is. They usually come up with some traditional definitions (more or less what you’re thinking right now). And that’s fine. This is not an easy question. Our department has a course devoted to the topic. But I’m going to start asking them if K is a word.
Consider the following exchange. It could appear on the internet or in texting.
Person 1: Maroon 5 is a great band.
Person 2: K.
Person 2’s response does not mean “OK”. On the contrary, I think K means roughly “I disagree with you but I’m not going to try to argue with you. I’m just going to drop it. My brusqueness, however, points out that your opinion is bad and I have won this battle by barely competing.” I’m not sure if the period is necessary (in written communication) or if it can be spelled in lowercase. But I’m sure these options carry meaning for some people: