“Never, dear. Men don’t say that”

London Underground subway

The London Underground. Public domain photo by Maria Molinero.

A few days ago, I was on the Tube — the London Underground subway. Somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square on the Piccadilly line, I apologized to a fellow passenger for being in front of the doors when she wanted to get off at her stop: “sorry, I’m in the way.”

I wasn’t expecting her response. She put her hand on my arm and, in a North American accent, said emphatically: “Never, dear. Men don’t say that.”

It made me smile because it was one of those brief interactions with strangers that you don’t expect, and also because her words rang true. I tend to apologize a lot and I probably say “sorry” too much. But I’m not sure that it’s entirely a result of being a woman. Continue reading

Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies


Disney Orlando castle at night. By Veryhuman (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion KingPocahontasBeauty and the Beast… I didn’t. To this day, I’ve seen a grand total of two Disney animations: Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t seen The Lion King, or Bambi, which is sometimes marked out as an oddity if it comes up in conversations with friends, as though I’m confessing an eccentric habit.

Disney’s movies are a fond presence in millions of childhoods throughout the world, and beyond (last year, a friend asked me if I wanted to go and see Cinderella with her. I suggested Far from the Madding Crowd instead). But these movies aren’t as child-friendly and full of innocent wonder as they seem. In fact, they have some symbolism in them that is pretty downright disturbing.

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The beginnings of language

In this post, I talk about some of the processes that take place in a child’s first year of life, leading up to their first words.

In 2013, when I was in my second year of studying linguistics, I took a class on language acquisition. This class provided me an overview of how children learn to talk. How do they go from being babies who coo and babble to children who start talking in full sentences, all within a remarkably short space of time?

mother talking to child.jpg

Public domain photo by London Scout

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Like It Or Not, Language Is Changing

Last night, I was idly browsing online on my phone while waiting for some friends to join me, when I stumbled across this issue which was submitted to an agony aunt column in The Guardian: My daughter sounds uneducated because she says ‘like’ so much. The parent who contacted the agony aunt is concerned that their daughter’s use of the discourse marker, ‘like’, is making her sound ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducated’.

As a linguist, the parent’s question immediately caught my interest because it is representative of common folk linguistic judgements, i.e. “beliefs about language held by non-linguists” (Hartley & Preston, 1999: 237). Perceptual dialectology is one of the many fascinating subfields of linguistics and it elicits folk linguistic attitudes and judgements about language. Preston’s (1989) work in the U.S. found that judgements are commonly based on the ideology of the ‘standard’, in other words, correct vs. incorrect language. This type of judgement is exactly what we see in the concerned parent’s question to an agony aunt column.

It could be argued that one of the most pertinent questions about language attitudes is how these judgements are entrenched within us. No language or dialect is inherently wrong, it is simply that a particular phoneme (a unit of sound) or a word has become “enregistered” as a marker that is associated with certain characteristics. The concept of enregisterment has been discussed by Barbara Johnstone, Professor of Rhetoric and Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, who has focused on enregisterment in the variety of American English that is spoken in Pittsburgh (e.g., Johnstone et al., 2006; Johnstone, 2009). However, enregisterment is a concept which we can apply to any variety of language: it refers to the way in which “indexical meanings get attached to linguistic forms” (Johnstone, 2010: 31).

The use of the discourse marker ‘like’ is a prime example. Take a minute and think about the characteristics you associate with someone who uses ‘like’: “and then he was like, ‘I said no’, and then I just like laughed and it was really like awkward”.

We know that users of ‘like’ are more likely to be young (Dailey-O’Cain, 2002). Perhaps the teenage girl in the photo is a ‘like’ user. Also, ‘like’ is commonly associated with the stereotype of the Californian Valley Girl, i.e. vapid, materialistic young women who do little more than shop and obsess about their appearance. From this, we can deduce that attitudes toward ‘like’ are often unfavourable because it has become enregistered as a marker of the speech of a social group which is considered to be young, ‘airheaded’ and unintelligent. A study by Dailey-O’Cain (2002) concludes that “the use of like is associated with more negative perceptions of the speaker” and found that “Informants perceive [people who use like] as less educated” (p. 73).

At this point, considering that studies have shown that ‘like’ is often negatively evaluated, you might think that the parent has valid cause for concern. However, if I were the agony aunt who responded to this letter, I would have answered it very differently. I would point out that language has changed for centuries and it will continue to change for centuries after you and I leave this earth. The increasing use of ‘like’ as a quotative in phrases such as “I was like…” is simply an example of language change. Next, I would suggest that if we spent less time viewing language as we think it should be (the prescriptivist viewpoint) and more time observing language as it is (the descriptivist perspective), perhaps we could attempt to sidestep these stereotypes and snobbish biases about people who use particular varieties and dialects.

We all speak differently….and that’s okay. If everyone spoke in the same way, linguists wouldn’t have any fun!


Dailey‐O’Cain, J. (2000). The sociolinguistic distribution of and attitudes toward focuser like and quotative like. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(1), 60-80.

Hartley, L.C. & Preston, D.R. (1999). The names of US English: Valley Girl, cowboy, Yankee, normal, nasal and ignorant. In Bex, T. & Watts, R.J. (eds.). Standard English: the Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 207-238.

Johnstone, B., Andrus, J., & Danielson, A. E. (2006). Mobility, indexicality, and the enregisterment of “Pittsburghese”. Journal of English Linguistics, 34(2), 77-104.

Johnstone, B. (2009). Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech, 84(2), 157-175.

Johnstone, B. (2010). Locating Language in Identity. In C. Llamas and D. Watt, (eds.). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 29-38.

Preston, D. R. (1989). Perceptual Dialectology: Nonlinguists’ Views of Areal Linguistics. Dordrecht: Foris Publications Holland.

Poll results – How do children learn language?

A month ago, as part of a discussion about linguistics and language acquisition, I asked my readers what they think about how children learn language. You can read that post and view the poll by clicking on the link here: We Need to Talk About Language.

Language Acquisition wordle. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

Language Acquisition jargon. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

In the poll I asked the following question: “How do children learn language?” It seems simple, doesn’t it? But there are no simple, straightforward answers. In order to give you some background information before I discuss the answers of the poll, I’ll outline three main approaches to language acquisition, with reference to another linguistics post I wrote: The Language Instinct. I wrote about the behaviorist and nativist theories at greater length in that post if you would like to read a more detailed explanation.

1. Behaviorist theory = based on Skinner’s experiments in the 1950s where rats learned to press a lever when they received positive reinforcement. Skinner said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward.

2. Nativist theory = the ground-breaking linguist, Noam Chomsky, proposed that we are born with an innate ‘Language Acquisition Device’. A key part of the LAD is Universal Grammar: the concept that “children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains” (quoted from my previous post which contains a more detailed summary of Universal Grammar).

3. Constructivist theory = as its name suggests, constructivist theory hypothesizes that children learn the grammar and syntax of their native language by acquiring a set of constructions, e.g. nouns, pronouns, verbs etc, based on the input around them (note that it is not the same as imitation). These components of language can then be formed into sentences. The constructivist theory does not agree with the concept of an innate language device.

It was very interesting to see the outcome of the poll.


41% of you chose the option that children begin by imitating the language they hear around them. While it is true that imitation plays some part in language acquisition, the exact nature of it is disputed. As I wrote in a previous post, “this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of [imitating others], their lexicon would be extremely limited”. The book, Language Acquisition, by Jill and Peter De Villiers explains that “The child…needs to extract the rules of the language in order to produce sentences appropriate to his changing situation” (De Villiers & De Villiers, 1972:199). Therefore, language acquisition is much more than simple imitation.

The second most popular option, with 35% of the vote, was the constructivist approach. The least popular option, at 25%, was the theory that we are born with innate linguistic principles. There is a lot of discussion and debate about these two theories. There aren’t any conclusive answers because each theory has advantages and disadvantages and it is very hard to disprove either theory for definite. I wonder if we will ever find definitive evidence on how we acquire what is arguably the most important component of our daily lives.

Thank you to everyone who voted in the poll. I hope you have enjoyed the linguistics posts I published here during the past couple of months. Let me know if you would be interested in more linguistics posts (but not about language acquisition – I think I’ve said enough on that topic for now) here on the blog.


De Villiers, J.G. and De Villiers, P.A. (1972). Language Acquisition. Harvard College: United States of America.

More linguistic discussion!

Cultural Life has become very language-focused recently. This wasn’t entirely planned by me, it simply seemed to happen! I promise I will soon start writing about something other than language because variety is the spice of life, as the cliché says, but bear with me for the moment! I’ve had a great response to my linguistically themed posts and I’m glad you’re all enjoying them. Within the next few days, I’ll publish a follow-up post discussing the results of the “How do children learn language?” poll in my previous post. If you haven’t voted yet, now is the time to vote!

Public domain image source

Public domain image source

This post is a Zero to Hero blog challenge post: day 12. It is slightly later than planned because it involved research and research takes time. But it doesn’t take very much time when you simply can’t find anything about the thing you are researching, unless you are me, in which case you are frustrated by the lack of information and persist in researching and trying to find something, even when it’s past your bedtime and you really should be turning out the light.

Public domain image source

Public domain image source

What was I researching? Let’s start at the beginning. Our day 11 Zero to Hero challenge was to leave three comments on three different blogs which we hadn’t read before. Our day 12 challenge was to take one of these comments and write a blog post about it. So, off I trotted into the great blogosphere and it didn’t take me long to find something which made me stop to investigate: this post at jblblog, about the usage of “at all” at the end of a question. For example, the author of the post, JBL, has come across this feature “in the context of a cashier or waitperson asking the question “Would you like a receipt at all?”” (quote from linked post: “At All”).

I have never heard “at all” used like this before. It interested me and I wanted to find out more about why it is being used and what (if anything) it signifies, where it is used (JBL comments that it is common in Minnesota but apparently in Arizona too) and whether there are any linguistic studies of its use.

Unfortunately, I’ve drawn a blank and found nothing. Despite searching Google Scholar and various different academic journals and trying various keywords I haven’t found a single study about this use of “at all”. I even sent an email to one of my linguistics teachers; she said that although she has heard it used in this context and suggests that it “sound[s] like something you would associate with service speech“, she isn’t aware of any papers about it.

Having thought about it, my theory is that “at all” used in this type of way could be a linguistic device used to signal politeness. That theory would fit, considering JBL’s observations of it being used by service providers such as cashiers and restaurant staff. However, for now there isn’t a concrete answer about this interesting discourse feature.

Have you heard “at all” used at the end of a question? Do you use it at the end of questions yourself? If you do use it or have heard it in use, it would be great to hear from you in the comments section.

We need to talk about language

I am catching up with the Daily Post’s Zero to Hero blog challenge today. One of the great things about the Zero to Hero challenge is that you don’t have to take part in every single task. It isn’t a blog challenge where you have to publish a post every single day; some of the challenges are about working behind the scenes on your blog, such as personalizing your theme.

I am unsure about changing my blog’s theme. Maybe it’s because I like routine but I also like my blog theme. It is clean, fresh and it works well for me. Additionally, because my theme is a fairly old one I am unsure whether I could change back to it if I changed my theme and decided I didn’t like it. Fortunately, WordPress allows you to preview themes before clicking the final button so I will do some experimenting with different themes today and who knows? Maybe Cultural Life will get a new look soon, or maybe not, depending on what I decide!

The assignment for Day 6 of Zero to Hero was to “publish a post that includes a new-to-you element”. I have chosen to do something which I have never done before: include a poll in my post. I always appreciate readers’ comments but this time I am interested in seeing your votes, although I would also love it if you left a comment as well. The poll is at the bottom of this post. As you have probably guessed from the title of this post, I am going to talk (albeit briefly) about language.

Language Acquisition wordle. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

Language Acquisition terminology. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

Last weekend I read an article written by Harry Ritchie in The Guardian which talked about the lack of discussion about language. I think about linguistics a lot but that is unsurprising, considering I am studying it! But there are no news reports or Oscar-winning documentaries about language and one of the points that Ritchie makes is a suggestion that the world should be told about the amazing and fascinating discoveries made within the field of linguistics. Although, like every academic discipline, linguistics can seem dry and dull, it is a science and so much of it is fascinating, all the more so because we all use language every single day.

Also, the article mentioned the fact that child language acquisition, specifically environmental influences on it, is something which is not being researched as much as it could be. Theories and hypotheses abound as to the exact nature of how children acquire language because no one knows for certain how they do it! Some of the theories, concepts and terminology are floating around in the Wordle above. And that brings us to the subject of the poll: “How do children acquire language?”

I would like you to vote in the poll without referring to any other sources, for example, doing a Google search for the question. There isn’t a single right answer – simply pick the one you feel most drawn to – and I am simply interested in seeing the outcome of the vote. The poll is anonymous but it would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments section below this post. Now, what are you waiting for? Get voting!

The Language Instinct

Do you ever wonder how you began to learn to speak? When you think about it, it is really quite astonishing. Rapid changes take place in the first year of life. Until the age of six months, an infant can distinguish between any sound contrast in any language. By the age of twelve months, this remarkable ability is lost as the child tunes into the language being spoken around him or her [1].

In the field of language acquisition there are many different theories about how children take the first steps on the journey of language learning. In the 1950s, the behaviorist theory was popularized by Skinner who said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward. He carried out experiments with rats who learned to press levers in a box in order to obtain an edible reward. These experiments provided the basis for Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning which focuses on behaviour and consequence. An action which is positively reinforced will be repeated (for instance, the rats repeatedly pressed the levers because they were rewarded when they did) and actions which are negatively reinforced will not be repeated [2].

But if you think about it logically, this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of operant conditioning, their lexicon would be extremely limited. Imagine if you could only utter a word or a sentence which you had heard someone else say. It sounds crazy, right? Language contains infinite possibilities, for example, there is the often-quoted sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. The linguist and theoretician, Noam Chomsky, composed it to demonstrate that a sentence can be grammatical yet nonsensical.

language acquisition wordle

Chomsky argued against Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Language is not something which can be neatly cut and pasted from one person to another. When children learn a language, they make unique mistakes. Take, for example, the sentence “We holded the baby rabbits” [3]. The child is using the morpheme, -ed, to mark that the verb is in the past tense. Although the verb is incorrect, this example shows that children learn the rules of their language and then apply them to unique utterances. This evidence strongly goes against Skinner’s hypothesis because, according to the behaviorist approach, children imitate what they hear around them and do not create unique sentences themselves.

So, if language acquisition isn’t a case of imitation, how do children learn to talk? Chomsky’s groundbreaking approach is that we are all born with an innate capacity for learning language: a Language Acquisition Device. A key part of the LAD is the concept of Universal Grammar. It took me a while to get my head around this fairly abstract theory but it is actually quite straightforward.

Fundamentally, Universal Grammar refers to the hypothesis that children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains. Our brains are literally programmed to acquire language. Therefore, because children are born with these principles, they simply have to note which setting their native language uses and “Huge chunks of grammar are then available to the child, all at once, as if the child were merely flipping a switch to one of two possible positions” [4]. The nativist approach hypothesises that language acquisition is like an instinct. Birds have an instinct to fly and humans have an instinct to communicate via speech. In the book The Language Instinct by the psycholinguist, Steven Pinker, he expands on this idea in an accessible and fascinating way.

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started? Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started?
Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

As well as a thought-provoking discussion of the nature of language acquisition, Pinker debunks common misconceptions surrounding language. Do you believe that Inuit people have umpteen different words for snow? Before I read Pinker’s book, I did. However, according to Pinker, this is nothing more than an urban myth. He mentions an essay written by the linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, who talks about how this myth became so widespread. If you are interested in reading Pullum’s paper, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, I have provided a link to it in the references section at the end of this article [5].

The field is constantly expanding as more and more research is carried out. There are debates and disagreements, conversations and collaborations. This post mentioned only two of the theories but Chomsky’s nativist theory is certainly one of the most influential and well-known approaches. Language acquisition is a fascinating and lively area of academia because there are numerous ideas, theories and hypotheses about language learning. How do we acquire language? As infants, how do we learn to break the continuous stream of sound down into sentences, phrases, words and syllables? As the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it”.


[1] Kuhl PK et al. “Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age”, Science, vol. 255, no. 5044, pp. 606-608, January 1992.

[2] McLeod S. Skinner – Operant Conditioning [Internet]; 2007 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

[3] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 21

[4] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 112

[5] Pullum G. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax [Internet]; 1989 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/EskimoHoax.pdf