Category Archives: Vocabulary

The Dudes Do ASHA 2015: Day 1 – Of Snow…

So it had been snowing in Denver. Not a lot. But snow there was. Just one week ago in Ohio I’d been able to wear a T-shirt and ride my motorcycle in unseasonably warm 70 degree temperatures. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact.

The charm of a snow-brushed Denver was somewhat offset by the accompanying bitter chill that my jacket was having a hard time fighting off. The Super Shuttle service, for those who haven’t used it, it located at the extreme edge of the transport area, beyond which appears to be nothing but plains for miles and miles. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to work out that if the wind is blowing in across freezing snow, the wind chill by the bus stand takes on a negative value and unless your willing to snuggle up to lots of folks like chickens in a roost, it’s cold. Another way to tackle the frosty air is to focus you thoughts on something else.

Like snow.

Allegedly, one of the special things about snowflakes is that no two are alike. Every single snowflake is different. In fact, a common metaphor used by the kumbaya brigade [1] is that people are like snowflakes and unique in their own special ways, and all of us are beautiful and special. What the one-world tree huggers fail to include in their metaphorical use is that snowflakes are also cold and short-lived; and while one snowflake might be exquisite, ten billion of the little buggers moving at 50 miles an hour is a blizzard.


Putting my curmudgeonly cynicism aside, what’s more interesting is that I suspect all of us happily accept the “all snowflakes are different” statement as a fact. But based on what? How many snowflakes do you need to look at before you can conclude that no two are alike? Or no three? Surely, you may think, that given the total number of snowflakes that have fallen to the earth since the dawn of time, at least TWO flakes have been the same. Doubtless one of our statistically oriented physics buff readers can supply some mind-bogglingly big numbers regarding snowflakes but math aside, let’s just think a little about what we mean by same and different.

As a Speech-Language Therapist, I’ve been teaching same and different as words and concepts probably from the first time I ever worked face-to-face with a kid. Like most SLPs, I’ve used objects, pictures, symbols, gestures, words, and any number of ways to reinforce what we mean by same and different because it’s a distinction that is critical to how we look at and talk about the world.

In language, “difference” is what marks fundamental distinctions at various levels of a communicative act. For example, at the sound level, whether you use the sound [p] or [pʰ] in a word is not going to make a difference in meaning if you are an English speaker. You might hear a slight variation but folks will not misunderstand you. However, in Hindi, using [p] or [pʰ] can make difference in meaning; [pɑl] means “care for” but [pʰɑl] means “knife.” These types of meaningful differences in speech sounds are what we all “minimal pairs” in Speech and Language Pathology and working with minimal pairs is bread and butter stuff to speechies [2].

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made the following statement in his Course in General Linguistics [3];

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system.  Their most precise characteristic is in being what they other are not. (p.17)

In other words, it’s differences within a language that are the stuff of speech, not the similarities.

Like all words, same and different are a little grey around the edges; they are not absolutes but “more or less.” Things are only the same so long as we using a pragmatic definition of same that works for us. If I open a can of peas and pour them into a pan to cook, I’d be very likely to say that they are all the same. We even have the expression, “as alike as peas in a pod.” But should I decide that my life is so devoid of meaning that measuring each pea using a micrometer seems like a good idea, I’m going to change my mind as say that the peas are all different. Equally when I say that the great thing about the McDonald’s Big Mac is that it’s the same wherever I buy one, in an absolute sense that’s false because no two Big Macs will ever be “the same” or even taste the same – they will be similar.

Most dictionaries define similar as meaning “resembling but not being identical to.” Logical positivists would probably be happy to argue that the word same should be replaced by the word similar, and hence forth when we’re teaching same and different to kids we should be honest and teach similar and different. Fortunately, most of us work at the level of pragmatic sense rather than absolute scientific truth. The inherent fuzziness of words within a language actually helps us to get on with life rather than banging our heads against a stack of dictionaries trying to find the REAL meaning of a word or the ABSOLUTE TRUTH of a proposition. Sure, they may be some mathematical truths out there, such as 2 + 2 = 4, but in the world of linguistics, imprecision is an inherent feature.

So as I got on the bus for the hotel, I was satisfied to look around and realize that we were all different but in the same profession, and we were all heading for the same conference center but then to different bars for different drinks.

Philosophy can be so comforting at times.

[1] The origin of the word kumbaya is still something of a mystery. In a recent article (The World’s First “Kumbaya” Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song) the author Stephen Winick suggests it originated in the American south as an African Spiritual, with “kumbaya” being a corruption of “come by here.” It’s plausible but there is no solid evidence. The way in which I use it is in a more modern incarnation where it has a pejorative meaning of wishy-washy or naively optimistic. You can even find examples of the phrase “kumbaya moment” in the Corpus of Contemporary American” being used political to deride the actions of the opposition.

[2] For the non-SLPs and non-linguists who follow the Dudes, it can be surprising to learn that the sounds we all use to make words vary across languages and that even a single sound such as a “b” can change depending in where is it being used in a word or phrase. It’s as if a speech sound isn’t a single thing but a cluster of “near enough” sounds. As long as the “b” you say is “near enough” to the “b” I’m used to hearing, then we’re good to go. If you actually record someone speaking a list of words with “b” sounds scattered around them (such as “bottle,” “cabin” “abstract” and “cab”), when you look at the words using speech sound analysis software, you will find that the “b” looks different in each case! The reason that we all think the “b” is always the same is because our brains are actually very good at interpreting “near enough” sounds, which makes life a lot easier.

[3] The original French version, Cours de Linguistique Générale was first published in 1916 after de Saussure’s death, based on the notes he had used for his taught course. It wasn’t until 1959 that an English language version, A Course in General Linguistics was published. It’s generally regarded as a landmark book in linguistics but unlikely to be recommended as an essential read – unless you’re studying the history of Linguistics.

Retronyms: We Only Get ‘Em When We Need ‘Em

I learned a new word this weekend. Retronym. For me, learning new words is simultaneously exciting and depressing; exciting because it’s something new, but depressing because it serves to remind me of how much I don’t know. If my vocabulary were to be measurable and I turned out to have a 60,000 word lexicon, you can bet your life I’d be miserable that it wasn’t 60,001. And if I learned a new word, I’d be equally bummed that I didn’t have 60,002.

My psychological issues aside, the word retronym is also fascinating to me because it serves to describe a phenomenon that we all know and use but without actually knowing the word to describe it!

Back in the 1970’s, when phones were not smart and coffee was not decaffeinated, clever inventors at the Hamilton Watch Company designed a new timepiece that eschewed such primitive things as “hands” and “winders” in favor of a using something called light-emitting diodes that would light up and show numbers. Imagine that – actual light-up numbers! So instead of learning that “the little hand is between the 2 and the 3, and the big hand is on the 30, so it must be two-thirty,” you just saw a 2 and a 30 and said. Two-thirty.” Brilliant!

This became the first ever digital watch. and it was called that to distinguish it from the original watch. But the next thing to happen was the use of the new compound analog watch as a way of being more specific about the difference between the two timepieces. Analog watch thus becomes an example of a retronym; a word that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “a neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous.” Clearly there was no need for this word prior to its coinage because all we had was a watch [1]. Digital watches became cheaper and cooler to the point that it was pretty naff [2] not to have one.

Digital LED watch

Is this cool of what?

Of course, like all such fashion accessories, they eventually became so ubiquitous that folks began to stop wearing them in favor of analog watches – what we used to call watches but can now also be called analog watches to distinguish them from digital. I for one love my Accurist MS832Y Chronograph and always recommend that a dude should have at least one real watch in his collection of fashion accessories.

Accurist watch

Real watch

But now we have the smart watch. Here’s another retronym we now need because it contrasts with the previous stupid watches; you know, the ones that only tell you the time – duh!

In general, technological advances are a spur to the creation of retronyms. I have a wired headset and a bluetooth headset (I used to just have a headset) to listen to music from my wireless radio or my satellite radio (we used to have radios); I see both American football on TV and European football (because we used to just have football until the Americans decided to use it for their version of rugby with padding), and get calls on my landline phone as well as my cell phone (all phones were landlines 40 years ago); and I prefer to read paper books (thought more people now read e-books) and avoid non-alcoholic beer (because we all used to drink just a beer). Fortunately we don’t yet have a retronym for non-alcoholic beer as there seems to be no ambiguity about it.

As you can see, a retronym is typically a compound noun where the original noun is preceded by an adjective or noun that modifies it. The word e-book is a step ahead of other retronyms in that the full form, electronic book, has quickly been shortened to the e– prefix [3], as have many other electronic devices such as the e-cigarette, e-mail, and perhaps e-learning. However, only e-mail seems to have gained any real traction as a “real” word, with hopeful monsters such as e-zine, e-banking, and e-reader still left struggling for acceptance.

Just for completeness, the original word from which a retronym is derived can be called a protonym. So e-book is the new word (or neologism), paper book is the retronym, and book is the protonym. Similarly ballpoint pen was a new word, with the retronym being fountain pen, and pen the protonym.

Learning a retronym is also another lesson in aging. Most frequently, the retronym represents something that is on the way out or outmoded. I guess that’s why I cling so dearly to my paper books.

[1] The first watches were designed to be carried on a chain and kept in a pocket. Then when a watch was designed to be worn of the wrist, we suddenly found we had a wristwatch and a pocket watch. But in this specific case, eventually the word wrist was dropped from the new word, leaving us with a watch and a pocket watch. The word watch was originally a protonym for a timepiece you kept in your pocket, but it became a protonym for a timepiece you have on your wrist. Essentially, it changed its meaning. So we didn’t see the new word *digital wristwatch versus *analog wristwatch but digital watch and analog watch.  Well, at least I find that interesting ;)

[2] The British English word naff is relatively recent (1960s) but of uncertain origin. It means, “unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty.” The phrases “Naff off” or “Naff all” are euphemisms for “Fuck off” and “Fuck all” and may be a nod toward one suggested origin of naff as being Polari slang for “Normal As Fuck,” but this is hard to substantiate. And Polari is “A form of slang incorporating Italianate words, rhyming slang, cant terms, and other elements of vocabulary, which originated in England in the 18th and 19th centuries as a kind of secret language within various groups, including sailors, vagrants, circus people, entertainers, etc.” It was used extensively by the gay community of London in the 1950s and 1960s but has pretty much faded out now.

[3] The modern e-prefix is a shortened form of the word electronic. The older e-prefix (as in eject, egress, eviscerate) comes from Latin and means “out of,” “from,” “without,” or “former.”

Language on the Move: The Case of the Flat Adverb

In a not-so-long-ago ad, Apple asked us all to “think different.” Even longer ago, Elvis Presley asked us to “love me tender. And when I was a wee bairn, my mum used to tuck me in at bedtime with the phrase, “Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

I wasn’t a particularly precocious or bright toddler, so my response to mum was simply to smile and stick my head under the covers to check for insects, rather than, “But mum, surely it should be sleep tightly because you’re using the word as an adverb and therefore the correct formation of the word is to take the adjective as the base and use the –ly ending as an adverbial morpheme?” I suppose if I has said that I’d have been called a “clever clogs” [1] and told to “just go to sleep.”

drive slow sign

Adverbs, by definition, are used to describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. With Elvis, if the question to him was “How do you want me to love you,” he should reply “tenderly”; with Apple, if the question was “How would you like us to think,” the reply would be “differently”; and with mum, she should be telling me to sleep “tightly.” We might also find we’re “talking loudly,” “laughing heartily,” “arguing vehemently,” “working quickly,” and “complaining bitterly” whenever the occasion demands it.

So why isn’t Apple thinking differently, Elvis being loved tenderly, and I sleeping tightly? Well, it’s all to do with something called flat adverbs and the appeal of the –ly ending.

The commonest way to create an adverb is to take an adjective and add an –ly to the end of it. You have a “hungry cat” and a “thirsty dog” but the former will “eat hungrily” and the latter “drink thirstily.” Similarly your “perfect day” should “end perfectly” and a “generous patron” will always “give generously.” It’s regularity like this that should make the lives of teachers of English easier, and the possibility for artificial intelligence more likely. Alas, consistency and continuity seem to be in short supply when it comes to language. In fact, just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, the lexical world starts to wobble on its axis and, like tectonic plates on a bed of molten rocks, words slide around and rearrange themselves in all sorts of non-standard ways.

Flat adverbs are an example of these slippery words that want to have it both ways – adjective and adverb. It’s like Bruce Jenner wanting not to become just Caitlyn but both Bruce and Caitlyn at the same time! They skip and jump around like frogs on a hot plate, not pausing long enough for anyone to get a grip on which is right or wrong – or perhaps more accurately which is better at any particular time.

One situation where you can take a stab at which to choose in when you’re writing songs or poems and meter is important. When mum told me “Night night, sleep tight,” she was simply adhering to the underlying stress pattern of the phrase, along with the rhyme for night and tight. The form “Night night, sleep tightly” would be judged grammatically correct but poetically wrong. Similarly when Johnny Cash sang about how “the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home,” using brightly would have buggered up the timing [2], forcing the Man in Black to slip in an extra syllable that really doesn’t want to be there. And try singing “Love me tender-ly, love me do…” to get a feel for why Elvis flattened his adverb.

Our confusion over flat adverbs is comes primarily from those that are identical to an adjective. If you consider the pair fast and slow, the former presents less of a problem because it doesn’t have an –ly form. I can “run fast” (adverb) or drive a “fast car” (adjective) and not worry about whether it’s an adverb or an adjective because there simply is no *fastly. However, although I can drive a “slow car” (adjective) it’s less obvious whether to “drive slow” or “drive slowly.”

As you might suspect, the bastard nature of English also plays a part in spreading confusion [3]. Way back when Old English was the current flavor of the language, changing an adjective into an adverb was done by the addition of a final -e; fairly simple, eh? So if we had the word glaed (OE for our modern glad) then you could add an e to make glaede meaning gladly. So far so good.

If you wanted to turn a noun into an adjective, you could add the ending -lic; again, not to tricky. The word craeft (meaning skill) became craeftlic, an adjective meaning skilful. So guess what you did to say skillfully? Yup, you added the e-ending to get craeftlice.

This meant we had some adverbs ending in a very weak-sounding –e and others with a more pronounced-sounding –lice. Gradually over the years, the weak –e disappeared and the stronger –lice became the slightly weaker –ly. Equally, those adjective ending in –lic also wore down to take on the sound of –ly. By the 14th century, we had adjectives and adverbs ending in –ly but this ending became the more commonly used to mark adverbs. Folks then started adding it willy-nilly to adjectives and this is pretty much how we do things in Modern English.

It’s not surprising that folks have some trouble working out whether adverbs should have an ly at the end or not, and those fossilized flat adverbs don’t make it any easier. Strang (1970) [4] expressed a sentiment that is as true today as it was in the 20th century:

…the sense of unease about adverbs homophonous with an adjective […] has been felt at all periods, and there has been a steady progress from plain to –ly forms (p.273).

Apart from my earlier suggestion that you can use poetic meter to decide which word to use, another guideline you might want to consider is that flat adverbs are more likely to sound right in short, imperatives. So “sleep tight” and “drive slow” are fair enough. As is “think different.” As always, if you’re unsure, use a dictionary or better still an online corpus. But don’t get too wound up about whether to use an ly form of not; if it’s taken a thousand years to get to this point where no-one is sure, you’re not going to find the definitive answer from reading this one blog post!

[1] I’m something of a fan of the UK cartoon series Peppa Pig, and in an upcoming post I’ll explain in some detail precisely why but for now, just take this as a snippet of information that gives you a peek into what makes me tick. In several episodes, the phrase “clever clogs” is used, and although I had to explain this to my American family, folks over in the UK have no difficulty with it. And why not, seeing as it appears to have been around since 1866 at least! Joseph Wright’s 1898 English Dialect Dictionary also includes the phrases “clever-breeches,” “clever-clumsy,” “clever-dick,” “clever-head,” and “clever-shanks.”

[2] When I was a kid in the 1960s, the word bugger was a swear word that would get me a clip round the ear for using. In the hierarchy of swear words, bugger was about as profane as bloody, with bloody hell being a tad more shocking. In the more liberal 21st century, bugger and bloody are now little more than quaint Britishisms, especially to the American ear because they never crossed the Atlantic as curse words. It’s a little known fact – but allow the Dudes to enlighten you! – that the word bugger comes from the Latin Bulgarus, which means Bulgarian, and was used to refer to a group of 11th century heretics who came from Bulgaria. As often happens when people talk about any group with which they disagree, the orthodoxy ascribed certain “practices” to the Buggers, one of which was sodomy. By the 16th century, the word was being used to describe anyone who committed the crime of buggery (engaging in sodomy), and by the 19th century it was being used as a general term of abuse or insult. By the end of the 20th century, it had become less profane and could also be used in a more affectionate”blokish” way, such as “He’s really quite a decent bugger when all’s said and done.”

[3] An interesting article on the development of the ly-ending in English and its parallels in other languages is:

Hummel, M. (2014). The adjective-adverb interface in Romance and English. In P. Sleeman, F. V. d. Velde & H. Perridon (Eds.), Adjectives in Germanic and Romance (pp. 35-72). Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

There’s also some information in the highly entertaining book:

Burridge, K. (2005). Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Strang, Barbara M.H. (1080). A History of English. London: Methuen.

But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

The English language is a glorious bastard child. Like the English themselves, its words and grammar are the result of the promiscuous and incestuous interbreeding that has been going on since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes decided that they’d like an island vacation rather than sprawl out topless on the beaches of 5th century Europe – just as their current descendants do. Add to the mix the vocabulary of the Picts and Scots, along with a smattering of the ancient Welsh and Irish, and you’ve got yourself a language that turns out to be more wanton and debauched than a Roman orgy hosted by Caligula in a particularly creative mood.

As a result of this linguistic licentiousness, speech pathologists and English Language teachers find themselves having to teach a host of irregular, eccentric, and downright capricious words and grammatical structures. And there’s no finer example of this than something we call “the irregular verbs.” In fact, the very name “irregular verbs” tells us all we need to know; that here is a bunch of words so odd that we’ve just given up on them and tossed them into a huge bucket labeled “irregular.”

Irregular verbs cartoonOccasionally, you might hear the uncomfortable question…

“But Miss, Miss, Miss, why is it went and not goed? Why is it saw not seed? And why can’t I say taked instead of took?”

As pragmatists, 99% of us will just say, “Because it is” and then focus on the job at hand – teaching the exception to the rule. But 1% of us – and I count me as “one of us” – really does wonder “But why IS it went and saw and took rather than goed and seed and taked?” After all, when we invent a new verb such as to google or to tweet, it only takes a few weeks until folks have googled and tweeted or maybe even Facebooked. We know the rules; we apply the rules; we’re done!

Well, much as we all like to think we are hip, modern, trendy, and capable of being innovative game-changers who think outside of the box and shake up current thinking, as far as language goes, we’re tied to our undeniable linguistic history – the ghosts of the philological past are still haunting our etymological present. And like prehistoric flies trapped in amber, some of the words we use are really just fossils from an earlier age.

Back in the mid 1990s, Eva Grabowski and Dieter Mindt published a paper [1] that listed the most frequently used irregular verbs. They didn’t just sit in an office and google “most frequently used irregular verbs” but went back to basics and used the data from two pretty big (at the time) corpora: The BROWN corpus of American English [2], and the LOB corpus of British English [3]. Using real data rather than the “best guesses” of lexicographers was a huge step forward. For those of you who like FREE STUFF, you can click below to get a PDF copy of the top 100 irregular verbs by frequency. And why would you want it? Well, if you’re going to teach irregulars, starting with those used most makes a lot of sense.

Link to 100 most frequent irregular versb100 most frequently used irregular verbs

So let’s take the top of the list item, the verb to say, and crack open the amber to extract its etymological DNA.

Old English, and its Germanic predecessors, had more verb forms than modern English. Today, if you invent a new verb, such as to twerk, you only need to add three different endings to make it sound right: +s, +ing, or +ed.

“Miley can twerk, She twerks too much. Yesterday she twerked, I think she’s twerking too much.”

But Old English was a much tougher, with most verbs having around 14 different forms. And some verbs were strong while others were weak. It wasn’t that the strong ones would bully the weaker ones but the strong verbs would change their forms in a much more dramatic fashion than the punier weak ones. A strong verb would change its base form by muscling in new vowels. A commonly cited example of a strong verb is to sing, where you get sing, sang, and sung, with each form differing by the vowel [4]. Similarly ring, rang, and rung, or swim, swam, and swum. In contrast, the reason weak verbs are so-called is because they merely add an ending to their base form rather than man-up and ram those new vowels between the consonants.

I’m over-simplifying a little. There’s something of a sliding scale from “very strong” to “milquetoast weak,” and Old English scholars talk about 7 classes of strong verbs and 3 classes of weak ones. You have to think that with such a complex system, being a grammar teacher back in the 5th century CE must have paid more than it does today.

Having just explained the distinction between strong and weak verbs [5], take a look again at the verb to say. Is it strong or weak? Well, it’s so weak I’m surprised it hasn’t locked itself in a bathroom for fear of being hassled by to begin and to go! All that happens is that a /d/ sound gets added to the base form of /seɪ/, and the vowel changes ever-so-slightly by getting a tad shorter to leave /sɛd/. It’s technically from an Old English Class 3 weak verb that began life as secgan, meaning “to say,” and now has the pitiful pair of say/said left.

Number two on the list of irregulars, to make, is really pretty similar to to say, and so we should skip hastily on to the much more interesting to go, which has the disarmingly bizarre went as one of its forms. Why not, indeed, *goed?

Well, Old English did, in fact, have a *goedeode. But there was also another verb around in the 5th century that meant “to wander around or go slowly,” and that was wendan. You still hear people talk about “wending their way around” but other than that, the word wend is pretty rare. So between Old English and Middle English (that’s between the 5th and 15th centuries) the word oede got pushed out by wend, the past tense of wendan, and the devoicing of that final /d/ sound to a /t/ gave us the now-familiar went. For those who are geekily curious, this is called suppletion in the world of historical linguistics, and it’s where one word is used as the inflected form of another, but where both words come from different origins. Ever wonder why things go from bad to worse – or worst? Suppletion. Or why things go from good to better and best? Suppletion. Hey, it’s not just a verb thing!

Before I wind up this work and wend my weary way to bed, there’s one other question that might still be nagging at you; why is it these particular irregulars that are irregular and not others? Why say, and make, and go, and come, and take, and see…? It’s because of their frequency! When we started shifting from using those many different types of strong/weak verbs in Old English to the more relaxed syntax of “+s,” “+ing,” and “+ed,” the words that were used most  often had a built-in inertia – a resistance to change. We very easily – and perhaps it’s better to say unconsciously – take new verbs like tweet and twerk and add those three endings to them, but if we wanted to change went to goed [6] or see to seed, we’d have a harder time because it just sounds so wrong! So although we know that many new words are coined and used every day, there’s a core of  thousands of other words that are protected from change by a lexical inertia that anchors them firmly into our language and presents a formidable resistance to change.

So next time you’re focusing on teaching the irregulars, just remember that you’re also providing a small but fascinating lesson on the history of the English language!

[1] Grabowski, Eva & Mindt, Dieter (1995. “A corpus-based learning list of irregular verbs in English.” ICAME Journal 19, 5-22.

[2] Francis, W. Nelson, Kucera, Henry, & Mackie, Andrew W. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage : lexicon and grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Hofland, Knut, & Johannson, Stig (1982). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computing Center for the Humanities, Bergen, Norway: Longman.

[4] Using vowel variation as a form of morphology is called ablaut. It’s from the German prefix ab- meaning “out of” or “away from” and laut meaning “sound.” So it refers to that notion of taking a sound away and replacing it with another.

[5] In today’s era of political correctness with the insistence on not hurting anyone’s feelings – ever, I can see the day coming when there will be pressure to re-define strong and weak verbs as robust versus relaxed. In that way, verbs like to chant and to hum no longer have to feel threatened by to sing.

[6] As every parent knows, kids will, in fact, quite happily “regularize” irregular forms when they are learning to talk. It is not unusual for kids to actually use irregular forms like went before they use regular, but erroneous, forms like goed. This overregularization is, in a sense, a good thing because it shows that a kiddo is learning to apply the more common rules of morphology – even if the words are technically wrong.

Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Mark Durham, we made a couple of corrections to the original text on 5/14/15; n two instances. we originally published tweak and here instead of twerk and hear. Both of these illustrate that relying solely on the built-in WordPress spell checker has some risks. It is, of course, better than not using it at all, but because both tweak and here are “good” words, the spell checker happily leaves them alone. So the teachable moment is “treat your spell checker as a friend who offers suggestions but not necessarily all the answers.”

A Twitter of Speechies – and other Terms of Venery

As I write this, the 2015 Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists conference has just come to an end, and happy delegates are taking trains and boats and planes to wend their merry ways home. Some are taking an extra few days to enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the wonderful city of Dublin, a name derived from the Old Irish dubh meaning “black” and lind meaning “pool” – a reference to a point where the rivers Poddle entered the Liffey, giving the appearance of a dark pool.



Sadly the Dudes were unable to take the time out to make the trip but experienced it vicariously via the magic of Twitter and the hashtag #IASLTCon. And our sole contribution to the conference was in the form of a discussion that has been vexing Speech and Language professionals for years: what do you call a group of Speechies?

Being the sort of guys who care deeply and passionately about things of no great importance (if triviology [1] were the study of trivial things, we’d be Professors) we suggested that an appropriate collective noun would be “a twitter of speechies.” This has the advantage of tying in to a word already in use with an international acceptance. In contrast, a “natter of speechies,” while being perhaps my favorite after twitter, is not as universal. The word natter, meaning “to chat aimlessly, idly, or at length” is common enough in Scotland and Northern England (from where I hail and so I know it well) turns out to be less common outside the Sceptered Isle. I checked the Corpus of Global Web-based English (a corpus of over 1.9 billion words from 20 countries) and found natter scored highest in the UK at 161 instances, with Ireland and Australia lower at 32 and 37 respectively. In fact, it only scores a total of 333 from the entire 1.9 billion word sample, so that’s hardly “universal,” as opposed to twitter, which has a rollicking145,604 instances. Evidence-based vocabulary indeed!

A “decibel of Speechies” is yet another good candidate but seems a little clinical or scientific, whereas a twitter has a sense of humor and bonhomie about it. The same might be said of “an utterance of Speechies,” which while being another great candidate uses a term that means a lot to we clinicians but maybe less to folks outside the field – unless you’re a linguist or psycholinguist.

Whatever the outcome of a vote might be – and we’ve include a poll for you to take! – the “teachable moment” here relates to the idea of these things called collective nouns, which are essential phrases used to describe a group of things. More specifically, it’s typically a way of describing groups of animals (and SLPs are animals, are we not?) and it’s a descriptive form that’s been used in the English language for hundred of years. To be more specific, they can be traced back to a list of formal codifications found in a document from 1450 called The Egerton Manuscript. This contained a list of 106 terms to describe groups of animals for the purpose of hunting. They were called “terms of venery,” not collective nouns, and the word venery comes from the Old French venerie meaning “hunting,” and that in turn comes from the Latin venari meaning “to hunt [2].

These “terms of venery” were expanded upon in what might be the definitive volume called The Boke of St. Albans, a magnificent tome published in 1486 and dedicated to the Art of the Gentleman, who needed to be proficient at hunting, hawking, fishing, and heraldry; a sort of 15th century version of GQ  or Esquire for the sophisticated, urbane, man-about-town – and country.

Here we find such classics as “a school of fish,” “a pride of lions,” “a swarm of bees,” and “a barrel of monkeys.” There are also lesser known terms such as “an exaltation of larks,” “a rope of pearls,” “a run of poultry,” and “a shrewdness of apes.”

Since then, more and more of these collective nouns have been created, many of which are delightfully fanciful and brimming with wit and humor. “A parliament of owls,” “a peep of chickens,” “a prudence of vicars,” “a pity of prisoners,” and ” a kindle of kittens” are just mere drops in the collective bucket.

But assuming you don’t want to slog your way through the free PDF version of The Boke of St. Albans because Medieval English script is not your thing, if you want just ONE book on your shelf that can become you go-to reference on collective nouns, you can do no better than James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. At the time of writing, you can get a used hardcover in good condition from Amazon at the bargain price of $2.89 – and even with the $3.99 shipping it’s a marvelous investment.

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Once you get passed Lipton’s rather flowery, almost purple, prose, he does a great job of documenting over 1000 collective nouns (he prefers “terms of venery” but I’m happy with “collective nouns”), tracing them back, where possible, to their sources. And as Speechies were not around in the 15th century, alas there is no “definitive” label. However, other medical/educational professions get mentioned. some of which Lipton has coined himself, others he’s gotten from other people:

“A handful of gynecologists”
“A stirrup of obstetricians”
“A rash of dermatologists”
“A herd of otologists”
“A passage of rhinologists”
“A tray of dietitians”
“A gross of pathologists.”

He offers a set of six criteria into which collective nouns can be subdivided:

1. Onomatopoeic: Where there is a sound relationship, such as “a murmuration of starlings.
2. Characteristic: Where there is a relationship between the thing being described and its characteristics e.g. “a paddling of ducks” or “a destruction of wildcats.”
3. Appearance: Where there is a relationship based on how something looks e.g. “a knot of toads” or “a skulk of friars.”
4. Habitat: Where something lives, such as “a nest of rabbits.”
5. Comment or Point-of-View: Where the relationship is based on the perspective/opinions of an observer e.g. “a threatening of courtiers.”
6. Error: Where the word used is a corruption of something else, such as “a school of fish,” which comes from shoal.

I’m not sure this is necessarily the best way of categorizing but unless I find enough free time to collect all 1000 of Lipton’s examples and create a new set of criteria, I’ll bow to his suggestions.

So before you leave, help us out by taking our poll, where all you have to do is pick one out of four options. Doubtless you may have another collective noun in mind but we’re just going to focus on the four we’ve mentioned. There’s no right or wrong, and no prizes, just the satisfaction of taking part ;)

POLL: A group of Speechies is…

[1] A search for triviology on Google returned 8,850 hits (or ghits as they are sometimes called), which is pretty trivial. There’s a writer called Neil Shalin who has a series of sports-related books such as Red Sox Triviology and Steelers Triviology; there’s someone with the twitter handle @triviology; and there’s the nearest thing to a dictionary definition in the Urban Dictionary by way of the word triviologist, which reads “A triviologist is someone who specializes in trivia or who loves trivia for trivia’s sake.” Oddly there was no definition for triviology.

[2] Yes, this is indeed the origin of the word venison, which refers to the meat of animals killed by chasing and hunting. Although the modern-day usage tends to be specific to dead deer, originally it applied to deer, boars, hares, rabbits, and all other such cute, lovable little beasties that hunters want to shoot, skin, and eat. Yum.


“A” is for Apple®: Phonics for the Technological Toddler

It’s clear to most people that apples , balls, cats, and dogs are no longer the images of choice for alphabet primers. So here for the 21st century is a newer offering for your Technological Toddler.

A is for “Apple®,” whose products we need, and
B is for “Broadband” for downloads at speed.
C is for “Cursor” for drag, point, and click, while
D is for “Drop-down” with things we can pick.
E is for “Ebooks” we download for pleasure, and
F is for “Facebook®,” that most use for leisure.
G is for “Google®” a web-searching titan,
H is for “Hackers” who just love to frighten.
I is for “Ice-cream” – for Androids and toffee, and
J is for “Java™” – that’s software AND coffee!
K is for “Kindle™,” a popular reader, and
L is for “Linux™,” an Open Source leader.
M is for “Microsoft®,” still a big player, and
N is for “Nike®,” a sports goods purveyor.
O is for “Outsource” for work on the cheap, and
P is for “Playstation®,” stealer of sleep.
Q is for “QWERTY” where writing can start, while
R is for “Reading,” a fast-dying art.
S is for “Skyping” that’s video chat, but
T is for “Texting,” to type “where u @?”
U is for “Unfriend” for people you hate, while
V is for “Vote Up” for people you rate!
W for “Warcraft®,” a virtual land, and
X is for “XBox®,” a Microsoft brand.
Y is for “YouTube®” where egos are fed, and
Z is for “Zombies,” the flesh-eating Dead.

And as a special treat, you can download a FREE copy of The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium [1], a PDF version with pictures that you can print out and read to your kiddos!

The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium

Let us know what your young readers think.

[1] Oh yes, it’s a real word. An abecedarium is “an alphabetical wordbook or wordlist, usually elementary; esp. a primer for teaching the basics of reading and spelling.” It dates from 1440, along with its alternate form, an abecedary (1475). It’s one of those words that deserves its day in the sun now and again, and today is a sunny day!

Quinoa Salad and Literacy

Over the past month of so, the written word quinoa has been popping up in my life more than usual. Or should I say, in the interest of accuracy, my perception of the frequency of appearance of the word quinoa has been that its incidence has increased. For those of you who care about evidence-based assertions – and I like to think that’s almost all of you who read the Speech Dudes’ posts – there is a difference in those two statements. For example, if I mention to you now that the number 23 will haunt you mysteriously for the next few weeks, there’s a very good chance that it will. And is that because there is a spooky, paranormal force at work? No, it’s because I’ve just turned on your “Number 23 Detector” and from here on in, your awareness of it has been activated. In other words, the real frequency of occurrence of 23 hasn’t changed – you attention to it has [1].

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

The number 23 aside, what’s become apparent is that I’ve been able to read the word quinoa quite happily for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never made the link between how I think it sounds in my head and how it is really pronounced by the rest of the world! Up until now, I’ve imagined that the word is pronounced /kwɪ’nəʊə/ when it’s actually /’ki:nwa:/ [2]. This boils down to that other than the /k/ and the /n/ sounds, I’ve had everything else totally wrong. In my defense, the Merriam-Webster dictionary also includes the variant /kɪ:’nəʊə/, which is closer to my imagined pronunciation; but it’s still without the /w/ as part of the /kw/ blend.

So apart from learning that I’m wrong – a condition that causes me no end of shame and batters my already fragile ego – what else can I learn from this? How much lemonade can I squeeze from this mispronounced lemon?

Well, we can try to work out why I imagined the pronunciation that I did, and that goes back to the process of reading. When you see a word with which you are unfamiliar, you use your current knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to make a “best guess.” In this case, clearly when I look at the “qui…” I think of words such as quick, quibble, quiet, quirky, quins, quintuplet, quit, quip, quill, quintessential [3], quincunx, and the list goes on. In ALL of these words, the letters “qu” represent the blend /kw/, so when faced with “quinoa,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think /kwɪ’nəʊə/ is OK.

But this is based on an assumed etymology of “quinoa” being Latin, because in the Latin alphabet, the letters “qu” were used to represent the sound /kw/. English is heavily influenced by words of Latin origin, and its alphabet is also derived from the Latin alphabet. So if you were a betting person, when you see a word that starts with “qu,” you’d win more than you’d lose if you guessed it sounded like /kw/ at the beginning.

Unless the word comes from the South American language called Quechuan, pronounced /’kɛt͡ʃwən/ and not with a /kw/. And quinoa does.

The word quinoa comes from a grain plant native to South America and the grains from this have become popular in the Western world as a health food during the late 20th century. When Spanish colonists moved into South America in the 16th century, they not only brought with them a generous amount of guns, horses, and diseases, but their alphabet. And what’s special about the Spanish alphabet’s letter-sound correspondence it that the sequence “qu” is pronounced as /k/ and NOT the original Latin /kw/. So when they heard the word /’ki:nwa:/, it was a no-brainer to spell it using a “qui” and not a “k” at the beginning. Thus the word quinoa made its way into text along with its /k/-not-/kw/ pronunciation.

Quechuan in South America

Quechua in South America

This incidence of my public shame also serves to remind us of that the relationship between letters and sounds is not always as clear-cut as we might want or imagine. Whether the string “qu” is pronounced /kw/ or /k/ depends not just on the letter themselves but the history and origin of the word [4]. So if I’d known about the Quechuan language, my pronunciation error would never have happened [5], and servers in restaurants wouldn’t be giggling and pointing at me after taking an order.

I should have paid more attention to languages at school.

[1] This type of effect is called Selection Bias, Observational Bias, or, more memorably, Cherry Picking. It can happen both unconsciously, such as my believing that “quinoa” has suddenly become popular, or consciously, such as when I only read articles that support my long-cherished beliefs and ignore/trash those that challenge them. Only in the fruit distribution industry in “cherry picking” a good thing; in Science, it’s bad.

[2] I sometimes forget that some of the folks who read the Speech Dudes blog are unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or at least don’t use it very often. So here’s another way of writing those pronunciations using a different type of phonetic spelling: [kwih-noh-uh] versus [keen-wah].

[3] I can’t resist this but the word quintessential derives from the Latin quintessence, which translates as “the fifth element,” and which in turn is the title of a delightfully campy and visual stylish sci-fi movie with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. In classical and medieval philosophy, the fifth element was the stuff of stars and something hidden within all things. I guess Moby had the same idea when he produced “We Are All Made of Stars” back in 2002. Once again, you learn the quirkiest of things on a trip to the Dudes’ site!

[4] My modest obsession with etymology as a hobby (and yes, I carry around a little notebook and scribble words down when I hear them – or use Evernote if I’m in a digital mood) is actually usually pretty helpful when it comes to deciphering new words. It’s also a source of pleasure when looking at how words evolve and change over the years. For example, did you realize that the word amazing originally meant “causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay; stupefying, terrifying, dreadful,” and not “wonderful and astonishing.” From 1600 to today, it’s pretty much flipped its meaning from something bad to something good. I find that amazing!

[5] In a last-ditch effort to dig myself out of the hole, I should point out that the Oxford English Dictionary does, in fact, include my [kwih-noh-uh] articulation along with the more common, “correct” version. Alas, I suspect this merely reflects that I’m not the only Englishman whose attitude to foreign language is that if English were good enough for God, it’s good enough for the rest of the world. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a polyglot in so far as I can speak British English, American English, and a smattering of Canadian English, Australian English, and possible South ‘Efrican and New Zealand English.

The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 2 – Of Powwows and Portmanteaus

The day before the Dudes left for the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference happened to be Lewis Carroll’s birthday. Folks who know me well – and maybe some who just happened to have heard me in presentations – will be painfully aware that I recommend Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to anyone with the slightest interest in language. In fact, both books should be on the required reading list for all Educators and Speech and Language Therapists/Pathologists – seriously. Read the following single sentence as spoken by the Duchess in Wonderland and savor the complexity:

Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

Now parse it. There’s glory for you [1]. The books are just overflowing with words, phrases, and sentences that can provide enough material for several seminars on morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Time for a Powwow

Time for a Powwow

Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, on the same day a Twitter colleague, @TactusTherapy, posted that she was about to take part in an appathon, which is clearly a blend of the words application and marathon. This is commonly referred to as a portmanteau word, a term first used by Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty is explaining what the words in the poem Jabberwocky mean:

“Well, slithy means ‘lithe and slimy.’ Lithe is the same as active. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

He then gives another example of a portmanteau with mimsy, which is a jamming together of miserable and flimsy. Linguists call these blends, or perhaps more specifically lexical blends – as distinct from, say, phonological blends where two or more sounds run together to end up as one. Other examples include positron (1933: positiveelectron); guesstimate (1936: guessestimate); skort (1951: skirtshorts); modem (1958: modulatordemodulator); metrosexual (1994: metropolitanhetero/homosexual); and hacktivist (1995: hackeractivist). My @TactusTherapy colleague also pointed out that she’d just come across a new portmanteau, listicle, to refer to one of those “5 Ways to Drive Your Lover Wild” or “10 Words Guaranteed to Get You a New Job” articles, where it’s basically a list modified into prose. Hence it’s a portmanteau of list and article.

ATIA15 Powwow 1

Moving ahead to Day 2 of the conference, I spent some time over lunch with a group of AAC/AT folks who had at some time attended one of the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series, or PALSS [2]. It’s a good excuse to get together with a group of like-minded folks for an informal powwow. Curiously enough, the word powwow (or pow-wow) may be another example of a portmanteau except from a non-English source. It can be traced back to the Narragansett language and pawwaw meaning a priest, shaman, or healer. It’s suggested that this in turn came from an earlier language, Proto-Algonquian [3], and the phrase *pawe-wa, which means “he who dreams.” The two words were blended into one by the elision of the middle syllable, and became the portmanteau, powwow.

During this powwow, yet another new portmanteau made its way into the discussion: the spamference. It’s clearly derived from spam and conference, and represents a relatively new concept in the field of academia – the junk conference. Basically, it’s a conference created not for the “free exchange of ideas and research from leaders in the field” but “a way of generating revenue for conference organizers by way of inviting folks to exotic and faraway places for a good time.” The typical invite goes along the lines of:

“Dear Speech Dude

As a recognized leader/expert/authority in the field of AAC/Linguistics/Toad Husbandry, our panel of professionals invite you to chair a session at our upcoming prestigious conference in Maui/Maldives/Vegas/Fiji (insert name of any place in which you’d love to spend a week).

As a conference chair, your registration fees will be discounted by 75% and hotel rooms by 25%. You will also be acknowledged as an Editor/Reviewer in the conference proceedings.”

And so on, and so on. The first hint of bogosity is the unsolicited nature of the invitation from someone who you’ve probably never heard of, and also that slightly hard-to-avoid-but-it’s-probably-true realization that you are maybe not quite the leader/expert/authority that you’d like to think you are!

Of course, if you want to beef up your resume and can get someone to fund you for your trip to Hawaii for “the conference,” then there’s nothing actually illegal going on here. Nothing. Like the whole “Open Access Journals” discussion – where you can get published so long as you stump up some cash – it’s a fundamentally grey area with advocates both for and against.

But spamference is definitely a portmanteau.

[1] This comes from a discussion between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass about unbirthday presents. It ends with a classic definition of “the word” that’s beloved by linguists around the globe:

“There’s glory for you!’

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

See what I mean about great seminar material?

[2] The Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series is a 2-and-a-half day event run by Semantic Compaction Systems in, no surprise, Pittsburgh. It’s focus is on implementing the Unity/Minspeak language system, with each seminar having a nationally recognized guest speaker. The seminars are monthly and registration is free but there are limited numbers – only 24 folks per seminar. It’s pretty cool because food and lodging is free AND you can get $150 towards your flight or mileage. Oh, and you get to meet me on Thursday morning – and that’s gotta be worth the trip! If you’re curious, here’s the link:

[3] A proto-language is one for which there is no direct evidence but can be (re)constructed, hypothesized or inferred on the basis of the structure and behavior of words that are verifiable. Algonquian is a genus of languages spoken primarily by Native American in north-eastern regions of North America, and Proto-Algonquian is thought to be the version spoken around 3,000 years ago. Here’s a link to a map of the family of Algonquian should you be curious – and if you’re still reading, you are ;) THE ALGONQUIAN FAMILY

28 Words to Boost Your Client’s Vocabulary – Maximum Bang for Buck

When developing a vocabulary set for an augmented and alternative communication (AAC) system – or indeed when deciding on what vocabulary to teach anyone – one of the most fundamental of measures you can use is frequency count; how often is a word used in a language? No-one can predict with 100% accuracy which words will be “best” for an individual, but if you’re going to take bets, you’re pretty safe to assume that words such as that, want, stop, and what are going to be used by everyone from ages 2 to 200. By the same token, you’d not be missing much if you didn’t spend too much time on words like ambidextrous, decalogue, and postilion [1].

In the field of AAC, this type of high frequency vocabulary that is used (a) across populations and (b) across situations is referred to as core vocabulary and it’s often contrasted with the phrase fringe vocabulary, which refers to words that are typically (a) low in frequency and (b) specific to isolated activities or situations. For a refresher on core and fringe – and an introduction to keyword vocabulary – check out my article entitled Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary from two years ago.

The core/fringe distinction is now so embedded in the world of augmentative communication that it is rare to see any new app appear on the market that doesn’t use the phrase “core vocabulary” somewhere in its marketing blurb – even if it isn’t actually making good use of the core! And as core vocabulary is, by definition, common across ages, activities, situations, and pathologies, it’s not surprising that many AAC software offerings look the same, particularly with regard to the words being encoded [2].

But it’s worth taking a look at another level of frequency measurement, and that’s at the phrase level. Specifically, one area of research that seems to me to offer some value to Speech and Language pathologists and Educators working in vocabulary development is in the study of how phrasal verbs (PVs) are distributed.

PV 3

So what’s a phrasal verb? Well, simply put, it’s a phrase of two to three words that are yoked together, which include a verb and a preposition and/or adverb. Examples include, “I ran into Gretchen at the ATIA conference,” “I backed up my hard drive,” and “I came across an interesting article on phrasal verbs.” The English language is stuffed to the gills with these type of verbs, and a feature of them is that they tend to have multiple meanings.

To find out how polysemous a phrase can be, you can use the excellent WordNet online tool, a huge database of words and phrases that let you check out noun, verb, adjective, and adverb meanings. For example, would you believe that the simple phrase “give up” has 12 different meanings? Or that “put down” has 8 variations? It’s not surprising that learners of English find phrasal verbs quite challenging.

The other fascinating feature of phrasal verbs is summarized in a 2007 paper by Gardner and Davies, who point out that of you look at the 100 million word British National Corpus you find that;

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Read that again and see if you get the same tingle I did seeing those numbers. Over half the entire phrasal verbs found in the corpus can be accounted for by combining 20 verbs with 8 particles. In short, if you learn just 28 words, you’ve learned 50% of all the phrasal verbs you’ll need to use.

Let’s take a look at those Top 2o verbs first:

20 most frequent verbs in phrasal verbs

Table 1: Top 20 Verbs in PVs

And now the Top 8 particles:

Eight most frequently used particles in phrasal verbs

Table 2: Top 8 particles in PVs

All the verbs and prepositions as individual items are already high frequency, with the exception of perhaps the verbs point and set, which wouldn’t be on my list of “first words to teach.” However, the real bonus here is that not only do you get the benefit of teaching your client 28 high frequency words in isolation but if you then use them as phrasal verbs, your “bang for buck” is significant!

Here’s a link to a PDF of those 28 words:

This frequency analysis of phrasal verbs by Gardner and Davies has recently been supported by and extended upon by Dilin Liu (2011) and by Mélodie Garnier and Norbert Schmitt [3] (2014). In their paper, The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, they point out that a limitation in Gardner and Davies’ analysis is that they failed to take into account the polysemy inherent in the phrases – like the 12 meanings of “give up.” In fairness to Gardner and Davies, they did, in fact, talk about the polysemous nature of PVs but didn’t offer any measure of the different frequencies with which the various meanings are used. They wrote that:

For instance, the list-high 19 senses of the PV break up … could be arranged from highest to lowest semantic frequency, thus prioritizing them for language learning. We acknowledge, however, that corpora of this nature are much easier talked about than constructed. (p.353).

Garnier and Schmitt are interested not just in identifying the frequency with which a phrasal verb occurs but also the most common senses of those PVs. They say that;

…our main purpose for creating the PHaVE List, which is to reduce the total number of meaning senses to be acquired to a manageable number based on frequency criteria.

On a pragmatic level, they want a learner not to have to learn every meaning of each PV but just focus on the most frequent, and therefore most useful meanings. Using the original list from Gardner and Davies, along with additions by Liu (2011), and including data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008), the duo created the PHaVE List; a list of the 150 most frequently used phrasal verbs, and 280 of the most frequently used meanings. So on the 12 potential meanings for “give up,” they use the following:

Stop doing or having something; abandon (activity, belief, possession) (80.5%)
Example: She had to give up smoking when she got pregnant.

The general entry starts with a rank (in this case, 16th out of 150); the basic phrasal verb; a definition; a percentage frequency; and a specific example use. The complete list is made available as a download from the Sage journals website [4]. If you can get access to it, it is well worth the read and the download. And all the articles referenced in this article are good examples of how we can use corpus linguistics to help guide our practice of developing the vocabulary of our clients with language challenges.

Davies, M. (2008-). The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available from Brigham Young University The Corpus of Contemporary America English, from Brigham Young University

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2007). Pointing Out Frequent Phrasal Verbs: A Corpus-Based Analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 339-359.

Garnier, M., & Schmitt, N. (2014). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 1-22.Published online before print

Liu, D. (2011). The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination. TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 661-688.

[1] A postilion is the driver of a horse-drawn carriage, who sits posterior to the horses. The sentence “The postilion has been struck by lightning” is the basis of a wonderful little paper by the linguist David Crystal, published in 1995 in the journal Child Language Teaching & Therapy. Simply titled “Postilion Sentences,” Crystal defines a postilion sentence as “one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote.” In the design of AAC systems, using pre-stored sentences may have some limited value but many “pragmatic utterances” turn out to be nothing more than postilions; unlikely to be used. This is why teaching sentences is neither language nor therapy.Download Postilion sentences article

[2] The now-common practice of using core vocabulary also makes it much harder to prove plagiarism – or as we Lancastrians would say, “nicking someone else’s ideas.” People, of course, don’t “steal” ideas – they are “inspired” by the work of others. But such inspiration inevitably leads to systems appearing almost clone-like in their structure. It’s only when you get to the fine details of how words are organized and encoded that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff out there.

[3] If I haven’t mentioned it before, Norbert is the author of an excellent book on vocabulary research methods. Here’s the full reference: Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary : a vocabulary research manual. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. It’s full of useful information and lots of web links worth exploring, and worth the $30 you’ll spend on Amazon US – or the £20.99 in the UK.

[4] Just a reminder to all members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that you membership benefits includes access to a number of Sage journals online, and Language Teaching Research is one of those. In fact, you have access to over 700 (yes, count ’em!) titles, including my personal favorites Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, English Today, and the riveting Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. OK, so I lied about the last one being a “favorite” :)

The State of the Union Address 2015: “We Are Family…”

Within seconds of a President turning off the autocue, political pundits stop trembling, wipe the drool from their lips, and spend the next 2 years talking incessantly about what was said. A single speech that clocks in at just under 6,500 words can single-handedly generate more web pages than the callipygian [1] Kim Kardashian can generate page clicks. Being a dude, you might think that this post is now about to become an excuse to share a picture of the ample Ms. Kardashian’s gluteus  maximus in all it’s shiny glory – but you’d be wrong! What I’m actually more interested in doing is taking a more detailed look at the vocabulary that Barack Obama used from the basis of corpus linguistics and concordance software. At this point, 90% of the guys who found this post by googling “Kim Kardashian’s ass” will leave. Sorry, dudes.

The data came from a transcript available from, which I then used as input for WordSmith 6.0 software, a corpus analysis tool. Of the many things this software will let analyze, the ones we’ll look at here are word frequencies, keywords, and concordances.

Keywords are those words that appear in a sample as being used significantly more or less than they are typically used in the general population. In the case of WordSmith, the “general population” is a list know as the British National Corpus, a sample of some 100 million words used in British English (BrE).

The “teachable moment” here is to think about why I chose this sample. Now I know – because I have a ear for these things – that Barack Obama does not use British English; his accent is also a bit of a giveaway. However, for the purpose of this analysis, I don’t think the frequency differences between BrE and American English (AmE) are significant enough to warrant worrying about it. I could have used a different sample called the American National Corpus but that’s only good for 14 million words, which is much smaller than the BNC. Therefore, I chose to go for the larger corpus, knowing that there may be some variations between the two but not, in my opinion, enough to skew the analysis.

Top 25 words by frequency

Fig 1: Top 25 words by frequency

If we take a look at the most frequently used words in the speech, you’ll see that they are pretty much what you might expect on the basis of typical distributions. The word the is the most frequent in the English language and seeing it atop the President’s list is uninteresting. What is interesting is that the pronouns we and our are right up there above I and you. Pronouns regularly score high on frequency lists, and it’s one of the reasons practitioners in the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) should make sure these words are targeted. But the fact that we and our appear so high up the list (at #4 and #8 respectively) made me wonder; is this what we might expect to see in general? And that, my friends, is why we turn to a keyness list.

Top 25 words by keyness

Fig 2: Top 25 words by keyness

Take a look at that keyness column and notice how both we and our are way up there at #2 and #3. Ignoring for now the intricacies of how those keyness figures are calculated [2], what is significant is that the Pres is using those two pronouns significantly more than how anyone else would use them in general, and that reflects a conscious effort to come across as one of “us” and not an “I” or “me” who is doing things. He’s appealing to a “Spirit of Unity.”

You can see more evidence for this appeal if you simply look at the keyness of # 4 and #8 – America and Americans. He’s certainly using the words with more frequency than you’d find in a regular sample but we can perform one more kind of analysis in order to see just how he’s using them; and that’s to create a concordance.

A concordance is a list that shows instances of a word in context, along with the words that go before and after it. Below is a concordance for the word Americans as used alongside our:

Concordance of instances of the words americans and we

Fig 3: Concordance showing WE and AMERICANS

Given that there were 19 instances of the word Americans being used in total, this pairing accounts for over 30% of the use of Americans and we. So as well as using the pronouns themselves to paint a picture of unity, he’s yoking one of them with Americans to further that underlying message.

Casting your eyes just a few more lines down the keyword list you’ll see the words jobs and the economy coming in at #11 and #12, not too far above families (#14) and childcare (#16). Here we see Obama invoking notions of family and economics, both of which are important to voters because we are all involved at some level with both! But take a look at the concordance for how the word family is being used and see if you can spot some familiar words:

Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Fig 4: Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Notice how our and American are also used along with families, further reinforcing that Spirit of Unity. In fact, Obama even makes that relationship between families and the United States in the following few sentences:

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.

So not only do we hear this explicit appeal to family but by analyzing the words he uses throughout the speech using keywords and concordances, we can tease out those subliminal nods and pointers toward an underlying message: We are family [3].

[1] Callipygian is one of my favorite words and, like many of them, deserves to be used much more than it is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as, “of, pertaining to, or having well-shaped or finely developed buttocks,” which in turn comes from the Greek words kalli meaning “beauty” and pygi meaning “buttocks or rump.” Incidentally, an old word for someone who engages in anal intercourse is a pygist, and the adjective dasypygal means “having hairy buttocks.” Try using the last one next time you want to insult folks – especially if they’re making asses of themselves!

[2] So for that one person out there who has less of a life than I have, you basically count the number of times your target word occurs out of a sample of X words in total, then match that against the number of times the same word occurs in your reference corpus of Y words in total. Here’s the word we in a little 2 x 2 box:
Measure of usage of the word WEBecause I always prefer an easy life when it comes to all things numerical, I used an online calculator to take these figures to calculate a “log-likelihood” figure – the “keyness” number. You can find that site here:

When the site works its magic, you see the score expressed as G-Squared below:

SOTUA2015 LogLiklihood
Take a look at that G-Squared figure and then look back at the Fig 4 and you’ll see the keyness figure is (almost) the same. You can try this with any of the value in Fig 4 and you’ll see that the online calculator scores match those of the WordSmith software.

[3] It was the end of the 70s and tight spandex leggings were all the rage – for the ladies – and Sister Sledge had a monster hit with “We Are Family” from the album of the same name. Apparently the Sisters are still touring to this very day – although I’m not sure if they’re still wearing spandex.