Howard's Blog

This is Howard C. Park's blog. Interests: live music, simulations and modeling, languages, iPod, social and business networking, systems thinking, history of science, management, BBQ, trivia, good coffee, organizational learning, traveling, personal histories.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Speaking English

I often find that when I speak English to a non-native speaker, my English accent changes. I find myself using a different set of semantic rules in communications.

Perhaps it's because I've had several "American-English doesn't work here" incidents. Also, the subtleties in English (true in other languages as well) can lead to ambiguities and unintended miscommunications. Consider the following examples.

International crowd discussing a project plan. One person says, "As for the project plan, we are behind". What does he mean? Does he mean that he's behind schedule? Or did he accidently omit the small syllable "it" after the word "behind". Two completely different meanings.

There's a silly old SNL skit about someone who retires from a nuclear power plant. His last instructions to his crew as he leaves, "Remember, you can't put too much water in the reactor." He leaves. The rest of the skit revolves around trying to figure out what he meant.

Korean restuarant in Houston. Katheryn and I wonder if the weekday lunch specials are available on this Memorial Day Monday. We ask, "The lunch specials are not available?". Waitress responds, "yes". There's a brief pause... What does the waitress mean? Standard (American) English takes a positive response to a negative question to mean that, in this case, "yes, the lunch specials are available". In many Asian languages, the response is literal to the question being asked: "yes, the lunch specials are NOT available". This makes me very hungry.
|| hcpark, 6:09 AM


I'm not sure your Korean restaurant example is so easily explained as an English / other-language dichotomy. I read, "The lunch specials are not available?" and didn't really know how I would respond either, assuming I knew something about the lunch specials. I find that, in American English, it's altogether better to avoid use of the overt negative in questions like that. I'll give some examples:

It's clear that if you ask someone, "Are you listening?", a "yes" answer means they're listening, and a "no" answer means they're not.

And it's almost as clear that if you ask, "Aren't you listening?", the responses map the same: "yes" means they're listening, "no" means they're not. There's just a connotative difference in the question. It's more scolding.

But if you take the negative out of the contraction and make it overt, things get confusing.

If I ask you "ARE you not listening?", with emphasis on the first word, it sounds like I'm trying to be Shakespearean, but asking the same question as above, where a "yes" means they're listening, and so on.

However, if I ask, "Are you NOT listening?", then at best, it's a toss-up as to how people will respond. Some may find this a more emphatic version of, "Aren't you listening", with the same response mapping. But others may find that the emphasis clearly calls out the negative that usually goes ignored in American questions, and so the answer must take this negative into account. In the latter case, a "yes" response would mean, "Yes, I'm NOT listening", and a "no" would be, "No, I'm not NOT listening" or, "I am or might be listening".

Or at least, those are my readings. I guess it's clear there's some confusion here.
Blogger Todd Stadler will consume all blogs!, at 3:40 AM  
hmmm... all good comments.
BTW, does "Todd Stadler will consume all blogs!" mean that you will dominate over any blog in your way, or does it mean that you will read just about anything? Not sure where the emphasis is...
Blogger hcpark, at 6:22 AM  
Howard: a little from column A, a little from column B. I had originally intended it as a vague, unkeepable threat against the "blogosphere", but in terms of accuracy, it more likely speaks to my omnivorous desire to keep myself from doing anything productive by reading about other people who are, if not themselves being productive, at least writing about how they're not doing anything. None of this should be construed as particular to your blog. I just chose the name when I found myself responding to a friend's Blogger blog and was told, to my dismay, that I needed an account. Thus my wonderful Blogger blog
Blogger Todd Stadler will consume all blogs!, at 8:38 PM  
Here's another example of what you are talking about. A couple days ago I was watching Fox News covereage of Hurricane Dennis when the following text scrolled across the bottom of the screen...

"Millions flee Huricane from FL to LA."

I pondered this a moment. Why are all these Floridians fleeing to Louisiana? Why not head north to Georgia or the Carolinas? Did they really have to go all the way to Louisiana? Wouldn't Alabama or Mississippi suffice? Then it finally dawned on me what the message meant to say. "Millions from FL to LA flee Huricane" would have been much clearer.
Anonymous Steve E., at 5:03 PM  

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