The Schwa: A Native Speaker Feature

The schwa sound is a revelation that comes to learners of English as they progress to higher levels. Considered as a ‘native speaker feature’, it helps both pronunciation and understanding by changing the stress of words and sentence.

Often referred to as a reduced, weak or unstressed sound, the schwa doesn’t involve the lips or tongue, and is merely the noise emitted when we engage the vocal cords. However, it is an essential concept to grasp for any learner of English as a foreign language.

The Schwa and Stress

Being a stress-timed language, English relies on the schwa sound to avoid sounding robotic with overuse of stress, or sounding monotone through under use of stress. To achieve anything like native level speaking skills, the use of the schwa is essential.

When it comes to words being stressed or unstressed, generally speaking, words in English can be divided up into two groups:

Stressed: nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs. These communicate the main message of the sentence and are therefore stressed.

Unstressed: auxiliary verbs, pronouns, articles, linkers and prepositions. These are often referred to as grammar words and are, in general, unstressed.

“We are Going to the Shops?”: Looking at the example sentence of “we are going to the shops”, the words marked in bold are the ones that would use the schwa sound, being an auxiliary verb, a preposition and an article respectively. The other words are the ones that are necessary to communicate the main message. Essentially, they could stand alone and the message would still get across: “we going shops”. Many elementary learners of English would use this exact structure, as would young children learning to speak their mother tongue.  However, grammatically this is incorrect.

Pronunciation, Understanding and Production

As already stated, grasping the use of the schwa will not only work towards achieving more native-like speech skills, but will also improve understanding. In turn, having more advanced understanding skills will lead to more accurate production.

Before understanding the use of the schwa, learners of English often just don’t hear it in sentences, and therefore reproduce those sentences incorrectly, as in the example given above. Other examples could be:

  • What are you talking about?  –  What you talking about?
  • They are arriving tomorrow  –  They arriving tomorrow
  • Come to my house – Come my house
  • I like the black one – I like the black one

The top two examples omit the auxiliary verb, the third drops the preposition and the fourth misses out the article.

More to Explore

There is a lot more to explore about the schwa, such as it being used for clusters of letters and also for stressed and unstressed syllables, but as a first insight the general concept of its use with stress in a sentence is key. Another angle of the schwa to look at would be its use in different accents as some use stress in different ways.

Is the comma on its way out?

comma use

It’s probably one of the most difficult forms of punctuation to get to grips with and, for some, it’s starting to be more and more unnecessary. The question is, will the comma will eventually die out completely in the future? Let’s take a look at the arguments…

Linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter is certainly in favor of putting commas to rest forever. His analysis of the subject falls into two broad categories. Firstly, according to McWhorter, it seems pretty fair to say that there’s no list of definitive rules that explain exactly when and why one should place a comma in a sentence.

William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style is one of the most popular texts for comma use, still in use today. One of the rules laid down in this 100-year-old publication is that commas should “enclose parenthetic expressions” and come “before and or but” when introducing an independent clause.

Even so, as McWhorter quite rightly points out, Strunk was wandering around in a pair of spats when he wrote The Elements of Style and so little of what’s written in the publication needs to have very much to do with how we communicate today in our modern and highly technological society. With that in mind we can move on to the second category of analysis as laid out by McWhorter, that of the use of text messages, tweets and other kinds of conversational-style communications.

There’s simply no need for commas (indeed they take up valuable character space) in tweets. Even top-notch journalists who write for national and international publications choose to tweet without commas. It seems that there isn’t a need for the comma, because the essence of what one’s trying to communicate in 140 characters is conveyed with or without them.

For example, a couple of years back Gmail went down – shocking! – and the entire world began tweeting sarcastic comments about the issue. Many of the snarling remarks came from professional journalists and few of them felt the need to use a comma. They were all more interested in getting their tweet out there into cyberspace for all to read.

An editor at BuzzFeed tweeted “whoa whoa guys I can’t respond to all zero gmails at once.” Writer and biographer Rachel Syme published a joking jibe that read: “I rubbed my genie lamp and wished for one of those Freedom programs that keeps you from email but I wished TOO BIG sorry guys sorry.” And writer Jen Doll brought the entire Gmail nightmare to and end with: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”

Did you see any commas? Did you need them to understand what you read? No!

This is exactly the point that McWhorter is trying to make when referring to the outdated nature of the comma in our super advanced technological world.

Having said all that, there are obviously a band of comma fanatics out there that continue to worry about what might happen when people start writing sentences like, “Let’s eat grandma” and not, “Let’s eat, grandma”, which are clearly two different things. But unless we all happen to be living in a version of Little Red Riding Hood, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll confuse the first sentence with the second anyway.

Comma fanatics are also worried that we won’t be able to distinguish the difference between style; that we won’t be able to produce content suitable for formal essays and articles as well as tweets and texting. The concern is that we’ll end up having to read articles in the New York Times without commas, but maybe the future’s not going to include long, formal articles in the NYT anyway. Let’s face it, tweets, texts and other digital publications have already started to turn print journalism into a thing of the past.

What do you think? Should the comma stay or should it go?

When an English Rule Deserves to be Broken – Part I

Unlike Spanish, which has the Royal Spanish Academy that – together with the other twenty-one national language academies in Spanish-speaking nations – ensures a common standard for Spanish, English has no such body. Instead, there are a number of rule books or “style guides”, each with its own set of rules and guidelines. The Oxford Manual of Style is one of the most popular for British English, as are style guides from The Economist, The Telegraph and The Guardian. For American English, The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style are commonly used for most texts, while the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing is the standard for academic publications, especially in the humanities.

English grammar rulesThis lack of standardization has led to conflicting rules – some of which have no historical linguistic basis – and the perpetuation of what can only be called “grammar myths”, with the concomitant confusion about what “correct” English actually is.

Given this reality, what’s a writer to do?

For the first of this two-part blog post, we’ll examine three of the more common “commandments” that have no historical linguistic basis.

1. Never start a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” or “but”.

Inculcated in school children from the time they first pick up a pencil, this rule is useful for youngsters learning to organize their thoughts on a page, but has been repeatedly “broken” by some of the finest writers in the English language, including Shakespeare:

“And your large speeches may your deeds approve
That good effects may spring from words of love.”

King Lear

2. Never end a sentence with a dangling preposition.

Latin does not place prepositions at the end of sentences and, because Latin was considered at one time to be the “perfect” language and thus the model to be emulated, English grammarians applied this rule to English. Though first articulated by 17th-century English poet John Dryden, it became popularized in Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar published in 1762.

Unfortunately, he seemed to be unable to follow his own rule, writing in the book, “This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to.”

3. Do not split an infinitive.

Once again, Latin grammar rears its ugly head. Since Latin infinitives comprise a single word, they cannot be split, unlike English, whose infinitives comprise two words: “to + verb” (or the bare infinitive, the form used with modal auxiliary verbs) and, once again, prescriptivist grammarians applied the Latin rule to English, despite there being no logical reason for English infinitives to not be split. Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury popularized this notion in his 1864 book The Queen’s English. Perhaps one of the most widely known examples of a split infinitive can be found in the opening sequence to the famous Star Trek series:

“…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

If you’re looking for a more traditional example, Robert Burns wrote in The North Briton, published in 1766:

“Is this the cue given him in his instructions, to boldly assert, that Englishmen are all born to be slaves to a few persons.”

Unfortunately, there are still a few diehards who insist on applying this senseless rule, including United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who unilaterally changed “will faithfully execute” to “will execute faithfully” when swearing in Barack Obama for his second term as president, causing Obama to mix up his words. This inevitably led to charges that his presidency was not legal because he had not uttered the Oath as written, and thus to the two repeating the ceremony – this time, word for word, the following day in the White House.

It is important to remember that many things taught as “rules” are nothing more than stylistic choices, usage conventions or, quite simply, preferences.

Our next post will debunk some more long-standing grammar myths.

Spanish Takes First Place as the Happiest Language

Are humans naturally positive thinkers? Does human language reflect this positivity? Are some languages more positive than others?

happiest language

The Pollyanna Hypothesis suggests that humans enjoy socializing with each other and that their communication reflects this.

This idea was first posited by University of Illinois psychologists in 1969. Their research found that human languages exhibit a clear positive bias, and that human beings had “a universal human tendency” to use positive words more frequently than negative ones, regardless of geographical location, culture or educational level.

New research in this area was recently carried out by Peter Sheridan Dodds, from the University of Vermont, and colleagues, that not only confirmed this hypothesis, but also showed that some languages are more likely to embody happier and more positive emotions than other languages.

Project researchers first gathered billions of words in 10 languages: Egyptian Arabic, Russian, Indonesian, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, French, Spanish, English, Korean and German based on their appearance in 24 different sources including song lyrics, television and movie subtitles, Twitter, and Google’s Web Crawl and then identified approximately 10,000 of the most frequently used words in each of the 10 different languages. Their next step was to contract a translation service which, in turn, hired some 2000 native speakers of these 10 languages to rate the words using a nine point scale of emotion based on a range of faces from deeply frowning to broadly smiling. Five million individual scores were collected.

The scores for each word were tallied using a computer program and the researchers discovered that in all 10 languages speakers used positive words in a wider range of forms than negative words. For example, in English, the word laughter had an average score of 8.50, food was rated 7.44, truck 5.48, greed 3.06 and terrorist 1.30. As might be expected, neutral words (like the) scored in the middle in all the languages studied.

The researchers were also able to rank the languages based on their linguistic happiness. All the languages were skewed toward the use of happy words, and this was true across all 24 sources. They also discovered, however, that despite the fact that all languages scored above the neutral rating of five on the one-to-nine scale, some languages did, indeed, have higher average word happiness than others: Chinese scored lowest, followed by Korean, Arabic, Russian, Indonesian, French, German, English, Portuguese, with the top spot going to Spanish.

The research seems to confirm the Pollyanna Hypothesis but – as the authors caution – it does so only if our words actually do convey our emotions.

Italianisms in Lunfardo – Part I

The Lunfardo dialect of Spanish arose in the last quarter of the 19th century among petty criminals living with immigrants and native Argentines in the conventillos – sheet metal tenements – of lower-class neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Because so many of these immigrants (some ten million between 1821 and 1932) were poorly educated or illiterate Italians speaking their regional dialects, and because of the pressing need to communicate with their Spanish-speaking neighbors and associates, a fluid and linguistically unstable macaronic language called Cocoliche was formed among these first-generation, mostly rural, immigrants, and it is this imperfect form of Italian-flavored Spanish that is the direct cause of most of the non-Spanish words as well as of other lexical changes such as suffixes found in Lunfardo. The very word “Lunfardo” itself is, in fact, an Italianism derived from the word lombardo (someone from Lombardy) in various Italian dialects.

Italianisms in Lunfardo - Argentine Spanish

Conventillo in Buenos Aires – 1914

Today, Lunfardo is no longer associated with petty criminality and the lower social classes, and its Italianisms have earned their own place as part of the dialect, elements of which have spread to other Latin American countries such as Uruguay and Chile.

Following is a sampling of some lexical Italianisms in Lunfardo.

chitrulo (from citrullo) –  the original citrullo means “stupid” or “silly” in several southern Italian dialects and derives from cetriolo, which means “cucumber”

atenti (from attento or attenti) – interjection meaning “to take care”

encanar (from incaenar) – the Italian word means “to chain”, leading to its meaning of “arrest”, “detain” or “incarcerate” in Lunfardo.

furcazo (from forca or fùrca) – This word describes a technique for beating someone up with a blow to the back, the right knee on the kidneys and an elbow holding the neck under the chin, which is its connection to the original words’ meaning (gallows).

morfar (from morfa or morfilar) – The original word means “eat”, and still does so in Lunfardo, although it has expanded to include “to rape”, “to suffer” and “to kill”.

parlar (from parlare) – Unlike standard Spanish, where this word means “to chatter”, parlar retains the original Italian meaning of simply “to talk”.

posta (from Latin appositus to Italian posta) – The original Latin meant “appointed” or “assigned”, which gave rise to the Italian posta (“a place to stay”, “the place for a horse in a stable” and, finally, “set of horses for mail and transport service”). This was adopted into Spanish with the meaning “a soldier standing guard”, which generalized into “to be somewhere on purpose”, which led to the form “aposta”, meaning “on purpose”. It is unknown whether the Lunfardo word derives from the Italian or the Spanish, but it originally meant “comprehensive” or “precise”, from which its current meanings of “good”, “excellent” or “beautiful” arose.

We’ll continue with more Italianisms in Lunfardo next week!

Which language is most “important”?

To determine which language is the most “important” globally, we first must define the term “important”. Does it mean the language spoken by the most people, or the language spoken in the most countries, or the language of the most economically-developed nation, or…?

Global Language Network. Credit: S. Ronen et al., PNAS 2014. Interactive version:

Global Language Network. Credit: S. Ronen et al., PNAS 2014. Interactive version.

MIT Assistant Professor César Hidalgo and his team have come up with a way to answer this question in today’s globalized context: it’s the language that connects the most people. And, not surprisingly, they’ve discovered that “being born into a highly connected language is a better predictor of whether that person is going to be important or not, than being born into a language that is very populous, or that is spoken by people who are very wealthy.”

So, how did they determine which language is “most-connected”? The team used the Web and various repositories of data that enabled them to connect information and map languages spoken with others. They used Twitter, books (over 2.2 million volumes representing over 1,000 languages) and Wikipedia, connecting books translated from one language into another, articles on Wikipedia edited by humans (not bots) to see if editors were writing in multiple languages, and over a billion tweets sent by 17 million users in 73 languages, noting a connection each time a tweet was sent in more than one language.

Being able to communicate with a wider number of people gives one a certain amount of power because of the greater number of people who can be influenced. The team discovered that, after controlling for the income and population of language speakers, “[t]he centrality of a language in the global language network is a significantly strong predictor of whether that language produces a large number of successful people,” says Hidalgo.

So, which language was found to be the most highly connected? No surprises here: English, with over 50% of all Internet communication. Other language hubs (though to a far lesser extent) include Russian, German and Spanish.

Bad translations are not always a laughing matter

A professional translator is far more than someone who speaks a couple of languages; a professional translator not only has native-level skills in both languages; he or she will consider both the terminology and register of the message to be interpreted (the text), and also the target audience to which it is directed.

Errors in register, terminology and culture can result not only in a garbled or inaccurate message, but can cause PR and legal nightmares as well. A poorly translated contract or tender may lead to faulty business decisions with enormous financial and PR fallout. Cross-cultural translation blunders can confuse or even offend target audiences, especially in new markets, resulting in negative financial consequences and damage to a company’s reputation. And while some of the translation mistakes you see below are funny, it should not be forgotten that inaccurate translations of medical prescriptions and medical information have actually resulted in the injury and death of patients.

Bad Marketing Translations

 Translation errorsSource: Rudy.Keysteuber @ Flickr.


Bad TranslationSource: Heima001


Bad Restaurant TranslationSource: raquelseco

Funny translationSource: Acula 

Bad TranslationsSource: Quinn.anya @ Flickr

New dictionary words for 2014

New words are born and become part of the English language all the time. Sometimes these words are entirely new, though it is more common for already-existing words to morph into new ones, often by adding a new definition, or through processes such as clipping (the shortening of a longer word), blending (the combination of elements from two words to create a new one) and reducing phrases to acronyms, which is particularly common on the internet. As might be expected, many new words have their roots in activities associated with today’s technology-driven society.


Vape: word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries.


Below, in no particular order, are some of the newest words to be officially recognized by the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries and their meanings.

catfish (noun): A person who sets up a false social networking profile for deceptive purposes

Deep Web (noun): The part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by means of standard search engines

listicle (noun): An internet article presented as a numbered or bullet-pointed list

dox (verb): To search for and publish private or sensitive information on the internet about an individual, usually with malicious intent

binge-watch (verb): To watch multiple episodes of a TV program in rapid succession, usually via DVDs or internet streaming

hate-watch (verb): To watch a TV program for the sake of the enjoyment derived from mocking or criticizing it

humblebrag (verb): An ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud

neckbeard (noun): A growth of hair on a man’s neck, especially when regarded as indicative of poor grooming

bro hug (noun): A friendly embrace between two men

steampunk (noun): Science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology

turducken (noun): A boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey

tweep (noun): A person who uses the Twitter online message service to send and receive tweets

vape (verb): To inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device

cray (adjective): Crazy

amazeballs (adjective): Very impressive, enjoyable or attractive

adorbs (adjective): Cute or adorable

SMH: Shaking my head (to express disapproval, frustration, etc.)

WDYT: What do you think

YOLO: You only live once

ICYMI: In case you missed it

Croqueta, azotea and coco: Some lunfardo words for head

Lunfardo is a rich and often slyly humorous dialect, and nowhere is its imaginative use of language more evident than with the plethora of words it has for “head” (cabeza in standard Spanish).


As can be expected, many of these terms are related to its shape:

coco – coconut

mate – the hollowed-out gourd used for drinking yerba mate

calabaza – pumpkin

sandía – watermelon

cucusa/cucuza – from the Italian cucuzza (pumpkin)

croqueta – croquette

marote – from the French marotte (dummy head used to display wigs or hats)

bocho/bocha – the wooden ball used to play the game of bocce.

Others relate to the head’s position on the body:

azotea – roof terrace

cúpula – cupula or dome

chiminea – chimney

bóveda – dome

terraza – terrace

altiyo – variant spelling of altillo, attic or upper cupboard

capiya – variant spelling of capilla, cowl or hood

coroniya – variant spelling of coronilla, crown or bald patch on the head

Some make reference to the head as the seat of wisdom:

sabiola/sabiondo – from sabio (wise)

And some to its function or action:

sesera – from sesos (brain)

caspera – from caspa (dandruff)

sombrerera – hat holder

rompepeines – comb-breaker

Or to its appearance:

aceitosa – from aceitoso (oily, as in the hair oil formerly used by men before the advent of hair gels)

Other terms refer to it as some kind of mechanical or electronic calculation device:

computadora – computer

carburadora – carburator

I.B.M. – brand of computer

registradora – cash register

Finally, we have the word “testamento”, a play on the words testa (head) and testamento (will and testament)

These words are also found in a number of expressions:

Hacerse el bocho: to have sexual fantasies about someone

Tener gente en la azotea: to be crazy

Estar de la cucuza: to be crazy

No te hagas la croqueta: don’t overthink it

Ser un bocho: to be smart, to be a “brain”