English Morphing

By Donna Dello Bueno, VEP Tutor and Program Outreach Coordinator

A word is a word is a word…..or is it?  In the online newspaper, The Guardian, David Shariatmadari, a freelance journalist from the UK and a student of Arabic, Persian and Linguistics at Cambridge University as well as Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has a pretty good handle on why it’s not. According to Shariatmadari, mispronunciations (“expresso” instead of “espresso”) and malapropisms (using an incorrect word in place of one with a similar sound, such as Yogi Berra’s statement: “Texas has a lot of electrical votes,” rather than “electoral votes”) are fairly common.

This author claims that, although the Oxford English Dictionary considers the number of words in common use to be 171,476, drop that by tens of thousands for the average individual. And, he adds that “Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm.” Think of the currently-popular “selfie,” which would have been “photo of myself.”

The technical terms (and their definitions) used by linguists for the gradual morphing of the English language are explored in Shariatmadari’s article. He talks about metathesis, rebracketing, epenthesis, and synscope….oops, I mean syncope. But although these linguistic terms are confusing, the examples are pretty understandable. Then there’s velarisation and affrication. WHAT?!

More important for us to remember as tutors of this ever-changing animal is that we have to meet it where it is. We tutor what we know and use. When it changes, some of that will become incorporated into our daily language, and we will teach it as such. We all tend to speak in the vernacular, which Vocabulary.com defines as “everyday language, including slang, that’s used by the people. The vernacular is different from literary or official language: it’s the way people really talk with each other, like how families talk at home.” And isn’t that the basic goal of most of the VEP-learner population? Even when my student and I encounter an Olde English word from Mother Goose rhymes, she learns to pronounce it, I define it and then say, “Don’t worry about it….we don’t use it anymore.” Then we move on.

Trust your instincts, teach what you know, investigate those items about which you are unsure, and enjoy the experience. Every tutor is not an English major or Linguistics expert, but each of you must be pretty solid or you wouldn’t have had the desire to teach our complex language in the first place!