Category Archives: General

A Prepositional Tale


December 16, 2012

Once upon a time, we used the preposition “upon”. Alas, its days are numbered.

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales this month, which is inspiration enough to look at the changing nature of prepositions.

Those little words have an important function, usually locating us in time and space. As the way we relate to time and space changes, we reduce our use of words like upon, add others, and modify meanings. Because prepositions morph so much, they can seem confusing.

Robert Lane Greene, who writes The Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language, says it comes down to how these words evolved.

“For example, behind has a hint of the old word “hind quarter” – the hind – so it was something near your rear end, essentially,” says Greene. “So they start very literal [and] they become pretty concrete but still spatially literal. Like behind is a location in space, and then you can say I’m behind in my work and that’s a more abstract meaning.”

So they can be grounded in the physical or the abstract.

But often, the prepositions we use don’t make the most sense. We say in debt, when under debt might be more appropriate. We open up a store in the morning, and close it up at night. An alarm goes off by going on. Even varieties of English differ; we say on the weekend where Britons say at.

“Whether a single preposition is correct isn’t established by a logic; it’s usually just by convention,” says Greene. “We dream about something in English. You say soñar con in Spanish: to dream with something. The speech community itself gets to establish what random preposition out of the bag might go with certain phrases or certain expressions.”

Since preposition use isn’t obvious or even logical, it can be challenging when we have a new spatial relationship. Like moving from physical, to digital.

“Do you say on or in a website?” Greene asks. “For example, Slate calls itself a magazine; it’s a news and commentary website. But people will tend to say on Slate, or in Slate. In some cases, the correct preposition takes a while to shake out [but] usually it will. People say on Twitter, not in Twitter.”

And with research studies proliferating in the news, the media have taken to saying a study out of such and such university, versus by particular researchers.

Over the past half century, we’ve actually added a number of new prepositions, according to Brett Reynolds, an English professor at Humber College. One of them is post, as in: How is the water, post Walkerton? I used it myself the other day: Post vacation, I always feel a little blue (but then I quickly bounce back!).


 So, if we’re continually adopting new ways to use prepositions, why do we cling to the old idea that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition?

We avoid it. Or we do it, but quickly cover up. Or we try to avoid it, and do it anyway.

The idea of preposition “stranding” dates back to the 1600s to poet and essayist John Dryden. He liked to compose his writing in Latin then translate into English – more sophisticated, apparently. And in Latin, a preposition must precede its object. The idea was condoned in an influential grammar book in the 1700s, and stays with us today.

“One linguist I know calls it a zombie rule,” says Greene. “It’s dead and everyone knows it’s dead and yet it keeps on coming at you.”

But in fact, it’s often more natural to end with a preposition. As in: She likes being fussed over; He relishes the project he’s taking on; Who are you talking to?!

If we just moved on from that old-fashioned rule, we would all live happily ever after.

 Listen here:

The Winning Words of Candidates


November 2, 2012

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been posturing and pontificating for what feels like forever; not even superstorm Sandy could slow them much.

Their speeches are wildly applauded (by supporters, at least), closely analyzed and assiduously fact-checked.

With good reason. Campaign speeches can play an important role in determining whom Americans will elect. But some researchers feel that may be due not as much to content or delivery as to the particular words they contain.

They can tell that by using the cool world of mathematics to cut through the blustery bombast of politics.

Chetan Narain, who has a degree in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton and now works for Google, says the actual words in a candidate’s speech are more important than you might think.

“One thing that I think words do, especially in the modern world of Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, is that they stick with you long after the speech is over.”

Think of, ahem, Romney’s comment from a recent presidential debate of having received “binders full of women.”

Narain created a mathematical model that he says can predict who will win a presidential race, based on campaign speeches alone.

This might seem a bit crystal ball-ish. But hang on. What Narain did was analyze more than a thousand speeches from 12 presidential campaigns between 1952 to 1996, as well as 2008.

From that, he created a model that predicted whether a speech came from a winning candidate or a losing one.

Winning words

Speeches clearly can’t encapsulate all the factors that can decide an election. But they can pick up on some interesting intangibles that can help predict a victor.

Mitt Romney likes to emphasize his five-point plan for the American economy. Plan seems to be winning word. 

Narain’s model, for example, highlights three areas: a candidate’s speaking style, the most important issues of the day, and the candidate’s position on those issues.

To have a winning speech, he says, “it’s important to sound urgent, it’s important to sound positive, it’s important to sound confident that you’re going to win and it’s important to make sure that your plans are getting out there.”

There are some key words that often show up in these so-called winning speeches. One of them is very which Obama likes to wing around, as in this phrase: “Citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy.”

It’s a word that invokes a sense of urgency, a call to action.

Other winning words are president and win. Obvious, perhaps, but saying those words seems to make them ring true.

It’s also important, it seems, for a candidate to repeat Republican and Democrat to differentiate and set the tone for a speech. And mentioning Medicare is often applauded, as are the words issue and plan. It seems voters do value ideas — or at least nod to them — after all.

Rhetorical losers

However, throwing around the word Washington does not a winning speech make; it sounds insidery.

Americans also don’t care so much for the words per cent and rate, perhaps because the message can get lost in the numbers. Who wants to do long division when you just want to be inspired?

And while words like vote and elect are winners on some occasions, that is not so much the case when used in the negative, or double-negative, as Romney did here: “To the majority of Americans who now believe the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this — if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”

Narain analyzed almost 100 campaign speeches by Obama and Romney this election. In addition to piling up the winning words, Obama employed verbs 20 per cent more often than Romney, who tends to use clunkier nouns.

Verbs are winners. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that verbs can indicate optimism or enthusiasm.

(He also found that using I denotes someone who is personal, honest, and more humble than someone who says we, which creates distance from the audience. And the research indicates Obama seems to be embracing his I-phrases more often this time around.)

Parties or personalities

All of this winning talk pushed Obama over the top in the first of Narain’s analyses. Sixty per cent of his speeches were classified as winning versus only half of Romney’s.

Sometimes words can fail even the best politicians.

But that was before the two parties’ conventions at the end of the summer.

Since then, Romney has gained swagger, as his rally in Ohio last week attested: “We want real change, we want big change. We’re ready. This is our time. I need your help. We’re going to win on November 6.”

More recently, Narain has found that about 80 per cent of Romney’s speeches are now deemed to be winning, versus only 40 per cent of Obama’s.

“We have gone from a commanding Obama lead to pretty much a dead heat,” says Narain. “I think it’s really interesting to see that swing, and it’s even more exciting to see that swing roughly correlates with what we’re seeing in the polls.”

Interestingly, the model shows that until the convention, Obama uttered Democrat twice as often, and Republican seven times more than Romney.

It appeared he was the one attempting to make the campaign more about differences between the parties.

For his part, Romney has emphasized personalities, by saying Obama’s name 20 per cent more often than is the reverse.

More recently, however, Romney’s name is on the president’s tongue much more often, suggesting the race has become a bit more personal for both of them.

Listen here:

The Desperate Synonyms of Fashionspeak


I took a break to create/produce Babel, a CBC Radio program about the changing English language. Check it out at:

May 18, 2012

Prowling down the catwalk this season is something called “tribal chic” with its khaki jackets, wooden bangles and animal prints.


Images from left: Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Diane Von Furstenberg.

Tribal is just the latest vogue word to describe a fashion trend. In the last while, we’ve been presented with any number of chics — athletic, street, pajama, granny, geek, eco, even Hitler chic.

We’ve also been hit with steampunk, gothic Lolita and boho grunge.

Fashion can indeed be a strange land. And the people who live there speak a curious language with rules of its own.

“You adopt a certain vernacular when you’re part of the fashion world,” admits Canadian fashion journalist Adrian Mainella, currently editor-in-chief of online style magazine The

“It’s a way of thinking and expressing yourself, and there are certain colloquialisms that people use within the fashion world that sometimes makes sense only to the fashion world.

“That’s something that happens because people typically spend a lot of time with one another, both in work and socializing. In a lot of ways, it becomes a tribe.”

So in the spirit of cross-cultural understanding, let’s try to translate some of this language.

‘Flatforming’ the merch

In the industry itself, there are words for the folks who make the fashion world whirl.

One of them is a Jolie Madame, which originally referred to a fashionable Parisian lady, but has since crossed the pond to mean any immaculately elegant, perhaps somewhat aloof woman. You could even tack on Angelina.

The jolie-laide (pretty-ugly) is a woman who will turn heads because she is striking, though not conventionally pretty. And the petite mains (little hands) are the people who actually put all those stylish garments together.

Speaking of throwing things together, the tribe also loves to blend words, as in swancho (a sweater/poncho), and shootie (a shoe/boot).

And abbreviations such as boho (Bohemian) and merch (merchandise) are as common as stilettos and big hair on the runway. Those never seem to go out of style.

Fashionspeak serves a couple of purposes, according to Erin McKean, lexicographer and author of The Secret Lives of Dresses.

“One is to give a ‘handle’ to concepts so they can be discussed easily,” she says.

For example, why say “flat platform shoes” when you can say flatforms?

Another is that, like any jargon, once you’ve mastered it you’re in the tribe. It helps maintain the exclusivity.

Desperate synonyms

Of course you could also say that fashionspeak is really aimed at getting people to buy in to the latest styles.

Designers and retailers put out the same clothes every year — pants, shirts, dresses — but to keep them trendy, they have to sound different from the clothes that were trotted out last season.

And this is where the linguistic gymnastics begin. Nouns get converted into adjectives as in Banana Republic’s explosional florals (what is that?), statement necklace and boyfriend jacket.

Some fit what McKean calls a “yet-but” construction (originally coined by fashion writer Erika Kawalek). A new outfit is a little bit this, yet it’s also that. As in boho-yet-classy, or sumptuous-yet-sporty.

Creative suffixes abound such as “—eggings” to describe, well, anything shaped like a legging. Like jeans, and here’s hoping these jeggings will quietly go away.

There is also the kind of branding that Nancy Friedman labels “fashion singular.” That would be pant instead of pants; a kitten heel instead of heels with an ‘s’, if you please.

Friedman also lays out the “desperate synonyms” used for jeans. They used to be stonewashed, then distressed. Now they’re busted, destroyed and damaged.

And still, people buy them!

“Fun words and colourful words and puns and plays on words — others in the literati think it’s a bastardization of the English language,” says Mainella.

“I think if the consumer connects to that word and that idea, that’s what you’re ultimately trying to achieve.”

Expanding the range

While fashionspeak is probably meant to be the lingo of the in-crowd, there are signs that it’s opening up to a broader audience.

Fashion words, for example, have been burbling up in the blogosphere.

LBD famously stands for Little Black Dress. There’s also VPL (Visible Panty Line), VBS (visible bra strap). Not to mention: LSD (the dangerous little sequinned dress) and TFFF for the too-fat-for-fashion. My, it’s a catty world.


It was actually a blogger who coined a current buzzword. The Man (which brandishes stylish clothes that men just don’t get) thought up arm party for the jangle that a stack of bracelets makes on a woman’s arm.

McKean says fashion bloggers are contributing more to the lexicon these days because they have more “at-bats”. They’re constantly writing about the latest fashion, from what celebrities wore last night, to what they saw on the street this afternoon.

High-end fashion magazines, while they may have regular blogs, tend to save the big splashes for their monthly publications.

As McKean puts it, “you can limit the number of invitations to an in-person fashion show, but you can’t police the internet.” And so the tribe expands.

Now, you likely won’t hear too much of the fashionspeak blog-talk in the haute couture world. But the democratization of the lingo may be a sign that the fashion tribe is willing to take some of those tribal chic bracelets and throw a little arm party —despite themselves.

Silly Sayings


March 8, 2012

We all have words or phrases we use that we know are superfluous, ones that add nothing to what we’re saying, that annoy us when we hear them too often (especially from others).

Mine is “going forward.” Life was grand when it was confined to the boardroom, but it’s the kind of mindless phrase that’s crept into the workplace, the streets, pubs, even coffee lineups.

It’s become so ubiquitous it’s been called the adult version of “like.”

My main quibble is that the phrase simply isn’t needed. It’s redundant.

For example: “our strategy going forward.” What is a strategy if not forward-looking? Would you ever say “going backward?” (You’d probably want out of that situation pretty fast).

What’s more, it’s often randomly tacked onto ends of sentences, as in: “Let’s talk about that tomorrow, going forward.”

The folks at the Institution of Silly & Meaningless Sayings in the U.K. grew so peeved at the phrase that they created the Going-forward-ometer to monitor its use in the hope of expunging it from the English language. But they gave up in frustration.

The value of redundancy

Alas, “going forward” is just one of many redundant words sprinkled throughout our speech.

Think about them: (advance) warning, (ir)regardless, (final) conclusion, (new) innovation, (unexpected) surprise — as opposed to one of those expected surprises. And everyone’s favourite: “at the end of the day.”

Then there’s “the first time ever,” as in the United States’ soccer victory over Italy last month. Although, come to think of it, I can see why you’d want to draw that one out as long as possible.

Not so acceptable is “the reason why,” a furiously debated redundancy that critics say amounts to saying reason twice.

Indeed, people can get really worked up about those needless, niggling words. And yet, we use them all the time. Why?

Well, it could be because “redundancy isn’t inherently bad,” says Gabe Doyle, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, who has given considerable thought to the subject.

“Where we get annoyed is when language is redundant and awkward, redundant and confusing, redundant and long,” he says, throwing in the example of the good old Department of Redundancy Department.

But Doyle does make a convincing argument why redundancy is an essential part of language.

Your PIN number

One reason is that the excess words can stress a point: “This idea, for all intents and purposes, will save us from bankruptcy.”

Here, the words have what is called a paralinguistic meaning: they’re not meant to be literal, but rather conversational.

Redundant words can also clarify. Saying pre-recorded emphasizes something was recorded before the current taping, just as “surrounded on all sides” explains there is no way out. With free gift, well, it’s the “free” that gets people running!

And chew on this sentence: “The coach smiled at the player tossed the Frisbee.”

All the essential words are there but it’s hard to understand the meaning until you add two more words. “The coach smiled at the player who was tossed the Frisbee.”

(The phrasing probably also marks the difference between spoken and written English. If you say the sentence with the right intonation, it’s completely understandable.)

In addition, redundant words can add weight. We tend to say ATM machine, even though the “M” already stands for machine. The same for other acronyms, like PIN.

“PIN doesn’t have that much weight to it, it’s a single syllable so it’s not necessarily going to be stressed,” Doyle says. “When you say PIN number, you’re getting that extra weight.

“If somebody says ‘Can I have your PIN number?’ then that makes sure that PIN gets enunciated better — you hear number, you have additional information.”

The noisy channel

So don’t be afraid to say the GOP party, the SAT test and 8 a.m. in the morning. You never know when people need that extra clarification.

Doyle says our need for repetition can be explained using the “noisy channel model.”

“The idea of a noisy channel model is that you have somebody who’s speaking, and somebody who’s listening,” says Doyle. “But in between the person speaking and listening, there’s a bunch of noise — whether it’s from the environment or the listener being distracted or whatever could be causing this.”

“And so redundant information helps you overcome that noise and helps you make sure that what you really intended to say gets through to your listener.”

It reminds me of what my mom has always said: Repeat things three times if you want people to remember what you say.

Doyle says it’s hard to predict, but we could see more verbal redundancy in the future as the way we communicate changes, and we get more noise in our daily lives.

Like when you’re on your cellphone in a car and the connection is fuzzy, or out on a loud, busy street, shouting above the hissing busses and the other cellphone users shouting their own conversations.

In those situations, you tend to repeat words, saying them again and then maybe again, just to be sure. And you avoid complex words like quandary, and just say problem.

But it’s not like we’d be problem-free without redundancies. Imagine a world where we all spoke in text messages. Stripped down to essential words, texts can be simple and clear. But as we all know, they can also be easily misunderstood.

So it seems that it can be helpful to use redundant words, just not the ones that somehow mushroom into mindless buzzwords, going forward.

Listen here:

The Great Typo Hunt


Feb. 6, 2012

Amazingly, in this abbreviated, punctuation-challenged, acronym-littered world, some spelling mistakes — especially in public spaces — still get people riled up enough to want to fix them.

Take Jeff Deck, a writer and copy editor. “A sign in my neighbourhood [‘No Tresspassing’] had a typo in it,” he says.

“And I realized that I had always been noticing typos, had a peculiar radar for them, and that I could actually do something about it.”

So he and his friend Benjamin Herson grabbed some markers, chalk and correction fluid and scoured the U.S. to find and correct as many typos as they could.

Then they wrote about it in their recent book, The Great Typo Hunt.

The authors focussed on mistakes made by native speakers of English, on signs in public view.

For instance, the sign at the Space Needle in Seattle brags how the building is Seattle’s “crowing” glory. Oops. Eating crow, indeed, over a missing “n”.

Aside from the addition or deletion of the rampantly misused apostrophe, the authors found all manner of misspellings.

For instance: restuarant and restarant, hellicopter (which promises a rather hellish ride), Thrusday and meterological missing the first “o”. That one was engraved into a sign at a federal courthouse, victim to the age-old struggle with vowels and double letters.

Typo corrector Jeff Deck. 

Beefstake tomatoes and sweet papyas were found lurking in grocery stores. The proud Milwuakee Furniture people unfortunately misspelled their own namesake, and the Dream Jamb Band was clearly waiting for its own jamboree.

You also have to wonder how successful this sign could be: Lonley? You got a friend in booze. And let’s not forget the misspellings pregnacy test and Atlanta souviner — on the same sign, no less.

Overall, the guys found more than 400 typos, and were able to correct about half of them.

Lost revenue

Why bother, you might ask? It’s not like these mistakes are causing traffic jams or riots.

“In a lot of cases, typos will actually not interfere with whatever someone is trying to communicate, but there’s still damage being done,” says Deck.

“Whether it’s fair or not, when people see mistakes in signs, they’ll automatically make assumptions about the amount of care the person who created the sign puts into their products, and the level of education someone has. It can have kind of a ripple effect.”

Deck says that is especially the case with small, independent businesses that don’t have the editorial resources of a large corporation.

One analysis last year claimed that poor spelling is costing Britain’s internet businesses millions of pounds in lost revenue, and that a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half. People just click off the website.

I thought that analysis might be overstating things until I came upon an online profile, written by someone I’ve done business with for a while. The spelling was atrocious.

It flummoxed me because she’s such an articulate woman. But as I read, I could hear the click, click, click as my impression dropped a few notches. I didn’t want it to — it just happened.

Whole language

Maxine Ruvinsky says spelling errors also hurt the credibility of newspapers and books. She’s the author of Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource and teaches journalism at Thompson Rivers University in B.C.

There are all kinds of reasons why. Newspapers are outsourcing editing or having copy editors do more than just detect errors.

Then there’s the fact that we rely so much now on spell-check, which automatically corrects our documents and makes us a little less fastidious.

When you think about it, we’re actually rewarded for spelling incorrectly. Ever notice when you Google a word that’s misspelled (like Caribbean), it’s automatically corrected?

Ruvinsky, though, says we’re still living with the effects of the whole language movement, which teaches students to look at the whole word for meaning, rather than breaking it down into its components, a system that puts more attention on spelling.

She also says we can get young people to care more about spelling simply by getting them to write more.

“The best research says that when students are engaged in the topic, when they write about what they care about, they will make fewer errors of all kinds, grammatical and spelling, simply because they’re engaged.”

How to fix mistakes

For now, when you see a mistake on a sign, menu or other public space, should you fix it?

The 'crowing' glory of the Seattle Space Needle. Not something you can fix with a felt marker.

Typo Hunter Jeff Deck says it’s OK to want to correct something, but don’t just scrawl on every sign or poster that has something amiss. Go to the source. That way, you can prevent future mistakes.

And avoid making it personal — use the passive voice. Say: “I noticed there was a mistake in this sign,” instead of “I noticed you made a mistake in this sign.”

That strategy helped Deck in a popular tourist area in South Carolina. He noted that the word sweatshirts had been abbreviated to “sweats” with an extra “t”. So he went in and asked to fix it.

“The guy inside said ‘well, I can take care of it, but you’re going to have to hold the ladder.’ So I held the ladder,” says Deck. “I think sometimes even if you can just have a support role in helping people fix their spelling and grammar mistakes, it can be empowering.”

As for fixing a Twitter typo, well, many argue there are no spelling rules in the Wild West of social media.

But that may depend a bit on who you are and what message you’re trying to get across.

When Treasury Board President Tony Clement recently used the word “tonite” in a tweet, a teenager tweeted back that if he can’t spell properly, how can he run a government department?

The minister may have just been trying to be social and tweety, but it would seem that if you make a high-profile spelling slip, you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

Listen here:

The Secret to Learning Languages


Jan. 3, 2012

On a trip to Costa Rica, I marvelled at how a fellow traveller could flip so easily between languages. She would go from English to Italian with her friend, to French with someone else.

And then she picked up Spanish. Just picked it up as if it were an empanada at a street stall.

But this woman’s prowess still can’t compare to someone like Alexander Arguelles, an American polyglot who averages about nine hours a day studying dozens of languages.

A typical daily regime: writing and reading in Arabic, then writing at least two pages each of Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Latin, followed by reading Persian and writing two pages of Russian grammar before composing in Latin, doing grammatical exercises in Turkish, trying out a bit of Swahili, and reviewing Irish conversational dialogues.

When he goes running, it’s a different “story.” Literally. He hooks up his headphones and simply listens to an audio book in a foreign language, to exercise his brain as well as his legs.


Arguelles is featured in a new book by writer Michael Erard called Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

The ability to listen. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a conference in Berlin.  

The brightest of these super-learners is the 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, believed to have spoken 72 languages!

Legend has it that Mezzofanti picked up Ukrainian in two weeks, and that he learned the language of two prisoners overnight so he could hear their confessions and grant them forgiveness before they went to the gallows.

While that’s obviously not normal, Erard says that polyglots and hyperpolyglots (people who speak more than six languages) can teach us something.

“The hyperpolyglots are people who have learned how they learn,” says Erard. “They know their cognitive style, they know the strategies that work better for them, they know their environment, and the resources they have access to.”

The challenge for the rest of us is figuring out how we learn languages best.

You may spend years working on Spanish grammar exercises only to find you can barely stitch together a sentence, and that a conversation is a match of linguistic tennis you’re watching from the sidelines.

The way I learned French in school was completely ineffectual: the same grammar rules year after year, marginal increase in vocabulary and minimal dialogue, and unhelpfully taught in English. By the time I finished high school, all I could really do was ask where the train station is.

It took a year in France (and a lot of train travel) for me to become fluent.

Meanwhile, a few years later, a rigorous diet of German every morning, where I was taught in German and repeated everything I heard, had me speaking the language somewhat fluently within three months.

I thought there must be a way of recreating this rapid language learning back at home.

Turns out there is.


Some polyglots, as well as Erard who is not but writes about language, recommend a method called “shadowing.”

Erard says that when he tried this technique with Hindi one afternoon, “the heavens opened” and that he can still remember the Hindi words he learned that day.

The method is simple: go outside, put on headphones and play a bit of the language you’re trying to learn.

Then walk briskly, staying upright and, in a loud, clear voice, try to repeat what you hear, simultaneously. Hear, repeat, hear, repeat and march around.

Odd, yes, but effective.

Erard says shadowing has a number of things going for it. It gets you used to people looking at you when you’re doing something new, so it reduces the embarrassment factor.

It also hooks up kinetics to the language, so it engages those gross motor skills and makes you less focused on what’s going on with your mouth and tongue. Plus it exercises your working memory, which is key to learning a foreign language.

Another key is making the experience enjoyable.

To acquire any language, you need to repeat words and phrases often, so repeat things you like. When we do something pleasurable, dopamine is released in the brain and that makes us want to do it again.

Et voilà

The underlying element to this, though, is to try to figure out something about your own style of learning. Is it easier for you to remember written material? Or is audio or video more effective?

Figuring out your neurology — how your brain is wired — can also help you learn a foreign tongue.

Erard says tests such as the Modern Language Aptitude Test can help determine your strengths and weaknesses by assessing your memory recall, executive (organizational) functions and ability to discriminate among sounds.

It can also measure the strength of your phonological loop — the ability to keep a string of spoken sounds in your brain while you figure out how to pronounce them.

Of course, these tests don’t measure motivation or commitment or the cultural aspects of language learning, but they can give you valuable knowledge.

For instance, if the test shows your working memory isn’t strong, you could do memory exercises while you learn Spanish grammar and vocabulary. And ya está! Before you know it you will be booking a trip with an off-the-beaten-track tour agency in Guatemala.

A test could also reveal that you are the type that tends to reach an intermediate level in a language, but then plateaus.

If that’s the case, you can reset your goal: you won’t be an ambassador, but you’ll be able to travel with ease, or watch TV and read a magazine in that other language. It’s a good reminder to be patient when people here speak English with a heavy accent or incorrect grammar. They may have been trying to improve for years, and they’ve simply plateaued.

We all have different language learning abilities; we just need to figure out what each of ours is.

When it comes to picking up new languages, we’re not all hot tamales.

The slinky, seductive sound of brand names


Dec. 2, 2011

The name Mazda zips off the tongue, especially if you add that zoom zoom bit. Rolex rolls. Ferrero Rocher melts. Nokia clicks. And L’Oreal somehow makes you feel that you’re worth it.

Let’s face it: some names just work. And companies are knocking themselves out to get just the right one because big names that people connect with can translate into big bucks.

One company in particular is leading the charge, and it has a secret weapon: Linguistics.

Will Leben is the director of linguistics for Lexicon, a firm that’s created billion-dollar brand names such as BlackBerry, Dasani, Pentium and Swiffer.

Leben knows of what he speaks. He studied under the famed Noam Chomsky and taught linguistics at Stanford University for 35 years.

His view is that how a name sounds can determine its success in the marketplace.

Slinky sounds

“There were signs from past research that certain sounds convey certain meanings,” Leben says.

The shiny bull's horns are fine but linguists would say it is the zoom zoom that makes Mazda move. 

In the linguistic world, that’s called sound symbolism. And to discover which sounds convey which meanings, Lexicon has done two big studies.

The company’s Sounder I study in 1995 tested objective qualities such as how fast or luxurious a word sounds.

What it found was that consonants made with the tip of the tongue, like t, tend to make names sound faster. Think of Toyota, Total, Toshiba.

Sounds like p and b, made with more massive articulators — the lips and back of the tongue — are deemed more luxurious.

No surprise then the names Burberry and Porsche practically slink out of your mouth.

That’s because “voicing is the vibration of the vocal chords while the sound is being made,” Leben explains. “Voicing weighs down a sound. If a sound is voiced, it’s more likely to sound heavy. If it sounds heavy, it’s more likely to sound luxurious.”

He says that when Lexicon named Dasani, they started with “san” for sanitation. Then they added a D, which sounds relaxed because it’s voiced. Tasani wouldn’t have been the same.

Some sad words

In their follow-up Sounder II study in 2001, Lexicon linguists tested emotional qualities to try to determine whether words sounded alive, daring, sad or insecure.

One of the questions was: Which sounds more alive, Sekka or Zekka? (Which do you think?) Zekka was the winner.

They found that sounds like k, b and z were deemed more alive and daring. And the noisier the better! And that r, l and n sounds were smoother and mellower, even sadder.

So now it makes sense why Mazda zooms, Rolex rolls and L’Oreal makes you want to curl up on a white sofa and eat bonbons all afternoon.

Repetitive sounding names can also pack a punch. A University of Alberta-led study last year found that names such as Kit Kat, Coca-Cola and Lululemon have a positive effect on consumers.

Names that use haplology can work too. That’s when a word is contracted by omitting one or more similar sounds or syllables, as in Toys “R” Us or Crunch ‘n Munch.

An added punch can be had from names that rhyme, contain alliteration or onomatopoeia.

Name Changes

All this to say that a bit of linguistics knowledge can make for a successful name.

What's in a name? Lady Gaga accepting a Bambi media award in Germany in November 2011.

It can also explain why companies bother to switch from one name to another. The folks at Google clearly made the right choice ditching their original name, BackRub (yikes!).

But of course some companies get it wrong, like when Blackwater converted to Xe (did anyone think about the pronunciation factor?); or when Andersen Consulting became Accenture (“accent on future” which just sounds like a fake word created by a bunch of managers); or when Comcast became Xfinity, criticized for sounding like a porn company.

Actors, singers and sports stars have long known the importance of creating a zippy name, but it’s more hip than ever now to create your “brand.”

For example, the bubbly-sounding Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), the rebellious K-Os (Kheaven Brereton), down-home Shania Twain (Eilleen Regina Edwards), upscale Portia DeRossi (Mandy Rogers) and feisty Tiger (Eldrick) Woods. Hmm, maybe nix the last one.

I’ve dabbled with a name change myself. My running friends used to call me the rather jaunty-sounding C.Ro because I share J.Lo’s birthday. But it never really caught on.

Next frontier

Needless to say, many people feel a brand name itself is much less important than the marketing that surrounds it. Microsoft and IBM have done pretty well despite their blandness.

But tell that to the folks at Lexicon. They have a 77-member geo-linguistics team spread around the world that covers 53 languages. They’ve been busy researching how English names are perceived in foreign markets.

Now they’re onto the next frontier: researching how foreign brand names are perceived in an English market.

When you hear Chanel, you think French, seductive and ooh-la-la. It adds to the cache of the brand.

But what about the Chinese car Sunny? A pleasant name to be sure. But would you buy a car that sounds more like a weather report than a lean, mean machine?

And how do people feel about the Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and the Korean Hankook tires, which are making inroads in the West.

In our globalized world, it’s more important than ever to have a name that not only connects with people, but translates across borders.

Linguistics may be the not-so-secret weapon that can give you that edge.

Listen here: