Here are some questions and topics which Billy Clark (Northumbria University) and Laura Bailey (University of Kent) prepared for Schools Day at the British Academy Summer Showcase on 17 June 2022

One reason we love linguistics is because language is being used and people are communicating wherever there are people. So we notice interesting things to discuss all the time

Here are some prompts we’ve prepared to illustrate the kinds of things we have in mind (with some more info on each lower down the page)

Each of these represents a question we’ve thought about:

  • Why do (some) people (sometimes) say aye?
  • Is a fake diamond a diamond?
  • Why do some languages (like Tagalog) not have a word for book?
  • Is cereal a soup? (What makes a soup a soup?)
  • Why do we (well, some people) sometimes use care to mean not care (as in ‘I could care less’)?
  • What is the plural (or what are the plurals) of the word text?

We’re looking forward to talking to visitors on the 17th of June about these

We’ve made some more notes about them which we’ve added below

Why aye?

Some people (like Billy and many people in Scotland and northern England) often say aye rather than yeh or yes. We can think about this as a way to start thinking about how languages change and vary. This can lead on to other interesting discussions. For example, why do people in the UK hardly ever say ‘yes’ but much more often say ‘yeh’ (and why can this be spelled in more than one way)? Why do English language teachers often encourage second language speakers to say ‘yes’ much more often than first language speakers say it? Why doesn’t saying ‘yeh’ always mean you agree with something (especially if you don’t nod your head or say it in a particular way)? Why do people often say ‘yeh’ when you haven’t asked a yes-no question, e.g. when asked how there day has gone, many people will say something like ‘yeh, it went pretty well’? And what about utterances like ‘yeh yeh’ (rather than just ‘yeh’) or ‘yeh no’? And what makes speakers vary? Billy recently noticed that he uses aye ‘aye’ more often in Scotland than in Newcastle even when the people he speaks to in both places would usually say ‘aye’ to him?

Is a fake diamond a diamond?

A red shirt is the subset of shirts that are red. But a fake diamond isn’t the subset of diamonds that are fake – or is it? If you own a fake diamond, do you own a diamond? Can it really be a diamond, if it’s fake, and fake means that it’s not real? We can ask ourselves ‘is this diamond fake?’, which implies that we can include it in our category of diamonds. But we can also say ‘A fake diamond isn’t a diamond’, implying that it shouldn’t be called a diamond if it’s not real. Perhaps, then, we need to say that words can have a broad meaning, including things that are only fake versions, and a narrow meaning, including only the real ones. 

Why doesn’t Tagalog have a word for book?

Tagalog is the most widely spoken language of the Philippines. This is sort of a trick question, because obviously it does. If you have the thing, you generally need the word to talk about it. But in Tagalog, the word for ‘book’ is ‘libro’, which comes from Spanish. So it has borrowed this word from the language of the people who colonised the area where Tagalog is spoken. Sometimes, we borrow words because we borrow some new item of technology (like a book), so we need to name it. Other times, we use both words for a bit and eventually settle on one. Either way, the borrowed word becomes just as much a part of the language as any other, and can even change its sound to be more like that language. In Japanese, the word for ‘ice cream’ is borrowed from English but it includes lots more vowels because you can’t have two consonants together in Japanese: aisukurimu. English got lots of its loanwords from French (mainly as a result of the Norman conquest of England), but it also got plenty from the people who were colonised by English speakers. We wear pyjamas to bed, wash our hair with shampoo (both Hindi), and eat bananas (which is probably borrowed originally from Wolof).

Is cereal a soup?

Soup is a liquid food that may have chunks of food in it, so cereal certainly counts as a soup on that definition. And you eat it from a bowl, with a spoon. Got to be hot? No, there is gazpacho and vichyssoise, and oatmeal and porridge are warm. Got to be savoury? Weetabix isn’t sweet. And cereals are definitely found in soups: rice is a cereal grain. The answer could lie in the preparation: soups are usually boiled, even when they’re ultimately eaten cold, not just put together and eaten straight away. So our next question, then, is this: is a hot dog a sandwich?

How can care mean not care?

You might have heard people say ‘I could care less’, and that they mean the same thing as when they say ‘I couldn’t care less’: that they don’t care at all. But normally, could and couldn’t mean the opposite! So how can these two opposite sentences mean the same thing? This can sometimes happen when the sentence becomes an ‘idiom’, a chunk of meaning that we don’t really think about as its single words. A similar example in French is the utterance t’inquiète which literally means ‘worry’ (or worry yourself’) but is now usually intended to mean the same as ne t’inquiète pas, i.e. ‘don’t worry’ (yourself). Once again, we have a sentence where the negative words have been taken out and it hasn’t changed its negative meaning.

What’s the plural of text?

OK, this is an easy one, right? If you get more than one text, it’s ‘texts’. But if you listen to how people say this, you’ll find they actually don’t usually say that. Firstly, it’s really hard to say because it ends in a cluster of sounds like this: ksts. So they’ll probably simplify it to ‘tex’. But then that doesn’t sound much like the plural, so some people will add on another bit of plural and say ‘texes’ or ‘texties’.

PS Here’s another question to think about: what did you think about the paragraphs above with no full stop at the end of them?