Saturday, 5 February 2011

What are words worth?

A friend blogged (or rather vlogged) recently about a linguistic experiment looking at dialect. As you'll see if you click across to her blog, it involved reading out a list of words and was examining how different dialects say different words. The experiment involves videoing yourself saying the words and while I'm not going to do that - my webcam is nowhere near good enough and in any case I hate hearing/seeing myself on video - I was taken by the second part of the experiment, which was a list of questions about terms used for everyday items - I suppose the point is to examine vocabulary as well as sounds.

As I scrolled down the list, I was reminded just how confusing language can be. We can use the same word but mean completely different things, or we can see the same thing and use completely different words. It gets even more dangerous when you bring abstract notions into the equation  - is your definition of fear, happiness, shame the same as mine? If I'm not explaining that very well, try this little test - get a group of people to imagine a dog playing in the garden and then ask them questions about it and you'll soon see what I mean. What colour is the dog, how big is the garden, what is the dog doing? I promise you, you'll never say 'I know what you mean' with conviction again!*

Anyway, to get back to the experiment - I thought I give the second half a go. The first few questions completely flummoxed me however. I've never come across the idea of throwing toilet paper over a house let alone realise that it had its own special name (teepee in case you're wondering, apparently). I also didn't know there was a bug that rolled up when you touched it (a roly-poly it seems**), although I did know there was a plant that closed all its leaves up when you touched them.

As for the other questions. well...

  • What is the bubbly carbonated drink called? In North America it tends to be called soda as a generic name. I would probably call it lemonade, fizzy juice or fizzy pop. If I was pretending to be more Scottish than I am, I might call it ginger. But definitely not soda!
  • What do you call gym shoes? Sneakers or trainers - Of those two choices, it would definitely be trainers. But I might actually call them gym shoes. When I was younger it was plimsolls, and again, a more Scottish choice might be gutties.
  • What do you say to address a group of people? - It depends how formal the setting is. In a formal setting it would probably be - Good Morning, Good Afternoon or Good Evening; less formally it would probably be Hi.
  • What do you call the kind of spider that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs? - I think this means Daddy Long Legs (sometimes called a Jenny Long Legs in the UK) but if it's really some kind of spider, I wouldn't be calling it anything as I would be out of the room in a flash!
  • What do you call your grandparents? - I called my grandparents, Granny and Grandad followed by their surname to distinguish between maternal and paternal sets. Interestingly, my Mum and Dad have chosen Nanna and Granpa as their labels of choice for my nephew.
  • What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket? - Shopping trolley. I thought this was a strange question until I reflected that they're called carts in North America.
  • What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining? - I can't think of a special name for this, although it does create a rainbow if you're lucky. Otherwise I think we just call it summer here in Scotland!!
  • What is the thing you change the TV channel with? - I guess I would call this the remote, or if I was being formal, the remote control. I do also call it the doofer, particularly at work for the one you use with the projector (and that never works!). It's quite sad really that I'm guessing no-one will think of a button or their finger as their first answer to this one. 
The interesting thing about this experiment is that often, unless someone makes you think about it, you're not conscious of local dialect words you use, or the fact that not everyone uses them. It would be interesting to know if you use different words - is it just a North America/UK thing or are there differences even within one country?  

* - credit to coaching tutor Andy Vass for that example, used to warn us of the dangers of assuming we understand what the other person is thinking without checking it out first 

** - having checked this out on Wiki, it seems that we do have roly poly bugs in the UK after all. Here we call them variously Woodlice, Slaters or Gran'fers, plus probably some other names too. I didn't realise they rolled up when you poked them. Must be a North American pastime; I always thought they were strange folks over there!!

1 comment:

ebbandflo said...

i am so surprised you didn't know slaters rolled up when poked ;)