How language works, foot by foot

photograph of bare feet
What is your name?

People tend to assume that the way things are done in their world—their family, their community, their country—is both right and natural.  Yet someone around the corner may have an entirely different concept of what’s right and natural.

A brief passage in Alexander McCall Smith’s novel The Full Cupboard of Life illustrates provides a delightful example of how that human bias operates in the realm of language.

Though Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, and her assistant use mainly English, both grew up speaking African languages. One day when Mma Makutsi uses the Ikalanga word for foot in the middle of an English sentence, the odd juxtaposition takes her boss by surprise. Mma Makutsi  explains,  “Gumbo is foot in Ikalanga. If you speak Ikalanga, your foot is your gumbo.”

“I see,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That is a very strange word. Gumbo.”

“It is not strange,” said Mma Makutsi, slightly defensively. “There are many different words for foot. It is foot in English. In Setswana it is lonao, and in Ikalanga it is gumbo, which is what it really is.”

Mma Ramotswe laughed.  “There is no real word for foot. You cannot say it is really gumbo, because that is true only for  Ikalanga-speaking feet. Each foot has its own name, depending on which language the foot’s mother spoke. That is the way it works, Mma Makutsi.”

Photo credit: Feet uploaded by rett

Grant money to start, continue middle school newspaper

The Newspaper Association of America Foundation is accepting applications for grants for public or private middle schools. The NAA grants can be used to start either a print or online newspaper or continue support for an existing middle school  newspaper.

The grants can be used for teacher training and technology, among other things.

To qualify for the $2000 grants, schools must use the NAA’s curriculum  High Five: The Integrated Language Arts and Journalism Curriculum.

Deadline is fast approaching: Applications are due May 20, 2011.

[Broken links removed 2/26/14]

SEE the best writing conventions

One big problem with being a writing teacher is that people expect you to observe the conventions of writing every time you put a word on paper or pixel.

A second big problem with being a writing teacher is that people expect you to teach your students to observe the conventions of writing every time they put a word on paper or pixel.

For you and your students to come anywhere near meeting those public expectations, your need to know which writing conventions your readers expect.  That is easier said than done.

While I’m sure you know that not every audience has the same expectations, your students may not. Students’ most frequent interactions are with other students. As a result, students can fail to notice communication standards among other population groups.  A tenth grader in  Pine Bush, NY, may find it easier to make himself understood by another teen in Paris or Pyongyang than to write so he can be understood by the 57-year-old owner of the local coffee shop. However, if that student wants a job in the local coffee shop, he needs to meet that employer’s expectations.

In general, written communications with people outside one’s immediate family and friends should observe five conventions of standard edited English (SEE):

  • Thoughts should be presented in full sentences.
  • Sentences should begin with capital letters.
  • Proper nouns should be capitalized.
  • The only abbreviations used should be those in a standard dictionary.
  • Texting spellings (like uR for you are) should not be used.
  • Language that might offend others should not be used.