Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A few notes on my language errors II

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Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm

A few notes on my language errors

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When proof- or re-reading my own texts, I am often annoyed by the number of language errors that I make, even discounting those relating to ignorance* and sloppy typing**. Below, I will discuss some issues that I have seen repeatedly recently.

*I am not a native speaker, and my understanding of the rules of English can have weird holes. For instance, it was only fairly recently that I realized that “one’s” (“someone’s”, etc.) takes an apostrophe (as opposed to “ones”, “someones”, etc.) in standard English. I also often rely on my spell-checker to find problems with words that I have only used actively on rare occasions. To boot, my own opinion on certain less regulated language questions develops over time, e.g. in that I earlier used “may” quite often to indicate a “might”, “could”, or similar—but now consider this poor style, because of the loss of precision.

**While I only very rarely pick the wrong character, I can get characters turned around (e.g. “on” instead of “no”) and occasionally pick the entirely wrong syllable (e.g. “-er” instead of “-ing”). And, yes, I would count the latter as sloppy typing in my case, because it is not a conscious choice but more of “crossed wires” at some point in the transfer from brain to computer—I pick the wrong set of keys where a less experienced typist might pick the wrong individual key. On occasion, my fingers type an entirely different word than I had in my mind.

The influence of pronunciation* is particularly frustrating, e.g. in that I might mix-up “two”, “too”, and “to”—despite having a firm grasp of when which should be used. It seems that the influence of the similarity in sound often tricks my fingers when typing and my eyes when proof-reading. This is likely an area where being a fast typist and reader is actually a disadvantage, because I spend less time on each word (compared to someone slower) and am less likely to notice such differences. Generally, proof-reading is hard for me**, because of the problems with keeping myself concentrated and suppressing the temptation to read faster.

*Beware that I might be more vulnerable to this as a non-native speaker, because different languages have different rules for pronunciation and phonetical “minimal pairs”.

**Here I found myself writing “more” instead of “me” in an example of the crossed-wire issue mentioned above—somehow, a spurious “or” was inserted.

Late stage changes and additions to a text are often stumbling blocks: The parts of the original draft that remain until publication have been proof-read at least twice (often more)—but the changes made during proof-reading, the new thoughts added after the first draft, the reformulations made because the original was too clunky,* etc., will have gone through fewer stages of checks. Factor in how boring proof-reading is, and a last-minute change might even end up with a single skimming in lieu of proper proof-reading. Sometimes these errors can distort the text, as with a recent use of “net”**: I originally wrote an example in terms of net income/profit, but decided that it made more sense to start with revenue, re-wrote the example correspondingly—and left a “net” in. This causes the numbers used in the example to seem incompatible with each other. In German, with its more complicated grammar, I often have problems like a change of words leading to a change of gender, which would require different suffixes on other words in the same sentence or the use of differently gendered pronouns (possibly, in other sentences)—but where I fail to make all of the secondary changes.***

*Yes, even I have a limit…

**The error is still present at the time of writing, but I might edit the text at a later date. I have refrained from doing so, so far, because I do not trust WordPress’ editing functionality. The same applies to other examples.

***Consider the differences between “Ich habe ein kleines Tier gesehen. Es war braun.” and “Ich habe einen kleinen Hund gesehen. Er war braun.”, and contrast this with the identical English surroundings: “I saw a small [animal/dog]. It was brown.” (However, something similar can happen with at least “a” vs. “an” in English too, e.g. “a dog” vs. “an animal”.)

The imitative character of language learning (see excursion) has often led me astray—to the point that I might find myself unconsciously making the same mistakes that I criticize in others. For instance, I have condemned linking on the word “here”* as naive (and stand by that text!), but found that I have myself made this mistake on a few occasions. (E.g. in blogroll** updates, where I have repeatedly used formulations like “That link was first described here.”, with a link on “here”.)

*Which I would see as a part of language use in the context of hyper-text.

**Originally, I wrote “role” instead of “roll”.

While I have repeatedly complained about how people screw up the “linguistic logic”* of their sentences, I am not infallible myself. For instance, I recently wrote “not entirely unsurprisingly” in a context where “not entirely surprisingly” was the actual intention. I should have stuck with a plain “unsurprisingly”, which had been less likely to cause confusion for writer and reader alike.

*E.g. through screwed up negations (as above), use of phrases like “fast speed” (a car is fast; its speed is great), or some examples from an earlier discussion.

A quite surprising problem area is line-breaks: If a line-break takes place after a (usually) one-syllable word, I often type this word again after the line-break. Likely, the end-of-the-line suffers some variation of “out of sight, out of mind”, with the result that I fail to recognize that I had already typed the word once. More rarely, the opposite happens and the word is left out entirely; however, this could be unrelated to the line-break, as it happens in other parts of the text too*.

*Just wrote “two”…

Excursion on imitation:
Human language is naturally learned by imitation, and humans seem to be strongly geared towards such imitation. This to the point that I have occasionally found myself correctly using words that I did not know (at least, on a conscious level). This imitative character can have many negative effects, including that people make incorrect assumptions about what a word means (e.g. “decimate”, “discriminate”, “petrified”), use words in a manner that causes a drift in meaning over time (e.g. “discriminate”; possibly, “decimate”); or pick up weird language errors that would have been obviously incorrect to someone who had stopped to think (e.g. “I could care less” or “literally” to imply the exact opposite of what is actually said). Correspondingly, those whose language reaches a greater number of people should see it as their duty to speak and write as correctly as possible, be they authors*, teachers, journalists, politicians, … Similarly, parents should take care when speaking to their children, lest they pick up poor habits from the beginning. In particular, they should avoid deliberate “baby words” like “doggy” and “bowwow”.

*A complication is the compromise between correct/standard/whatnot and realistic speech by fictional characters. Unless the author wishes to put heavy emphasis on some quality of a character (e.g. that he is unusually stupid or belong to a different dialectal/sociolectal/whatnot group than the main characters), I recommend erring on the side of the correct, e.g. through assuming that this particular member of a certain group is one of the more well-read and educated—the variation between e.g. construction workers on the same building site can be quite large.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 11:44 pm