Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Discussing language over a coffee...

Back when I was an A-Level student, I thought I had the concept of borrowings worked out. The textbook definition (as given by my teacher) was that a borrowing must either fill a gap in the borrowing language (usually an abstract concept), or it should name some kind of phenomenon that has gripped the culture of the borrowing language (a more concrete notion).

I suppose words like the German-derived abstract noun 'schadenfreude' (finding pleasure in the misfortune of others - usually a friend) and the Georgian abstract noun 'Shemomedjamo' (eating beyond the point of fullness because the food tastes so good) are fine examples of the first part of the definition because to find an English equivalent to describe such ideas would be too cumbersome. The second part of the definition is more straightforward. The borrowing of the Japanese noun 'karaoke' was beneficial as it gave a name to a new innovation on western shores. 

Where am I going with all this? Well, arguably the traditional circumstances related to borrowings no longer hold true. They appear to have become a cultural issue, designed to fit in with the British class system. Let me give you some examples. 

Two friends are having a tête-à-tête over their suburban garden fence, with one foreshadowing a juicy bit of gossip with the phrase "Strictly entre nous..." The first bit of French means 'head-to-head' (in a friendly sense) and the second means 'between us'. Can English express these ideas without recourse to the Romance languages and without ambiguity? Yes, ultimately making this a middle-class affectation. The late, great comedy writer, John Sullivan bestowed 
such character flaws(?) on Del Trotter as he described attractive women as 'fromage frais' and 



used exclamatives such as 'Chateau Neuf du Pape!' Del always had those middle-class yearnings and Sullivan captured them with warmth and incisive accuracy. 

But let's get to the real point. Return with me to my childhood...

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, my family often popped into a traditional cafe for a drink. Usually, they had tea or coffee but, when feeling extravagant, they would opt for a milky coffee or, in moments of utter recklessness, a frothy coffee! Although you can still ask for such beverages in small tea shops, we know these drinks  better as lattes and cappuccinos today. That's right, I'm about to propose that coffee culture is proof of the changing nature of borrowings. 

Rewind 30 years, enter a cafe and ask for a tall, skinny macchiato with an extra shot to go. What kind of response would you receive? A look of incredulity followed by immediate arrest. Today, however, it's the norm. We speak a different language to many of our grandparents. What's wrong with requesting a small macchiato, made with skimmed milk with an extra drop of coffee thrown in that you wish to take away from the cafe? What's wrong is that, despite its clarity, it sounds like you don't understand; it isn't snappy enough; you're not part of the club - and belonging is everything in today's society. 

And who said size doesn't matter?

If we take the so-called big three coffee chains, we see huge variations in their use of Italio-American jargon to reference the size of drinks available. In Starbucks, you can have (from smallest to largest) short, tall, grande and venti. Meanwhile, Costa limits the choice to primo, medio and massimo while Caffe Nero offers just regular and grande. How do these sizes correlate? I reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that grande, venti and massimo must all be Italian synonyms for 'large'. I put this to two friends, both fluent in Italian, who laughed at me explaining that the choice of size names were all style over substance. 

Therefore, There exists a reasonable possibility that social class and a desperation to be part of something (moderately) elite has become a factor in why the English language continues to borrow words - even though they don't necessarily mean what we think they do. Isn't it sufficient to ask for small, medium or large? Oh well, c'est la vie!

3 comments:

Grace Grimmett said...

Hello!! Your blogs are so interesting and are helping me so much starting AS. Just wondering if you have anything to do with graphology and generally how to analyse using this in exams I'm so stuck! Thankyou

Kinguistics said...

I'll make it my next topic to discuss, but graphology must always link with audience and purpose. On its own, it's the least important (and lowest scoring) of the frameworks/constituents of language. I'll look for some good examples for my next blog.

Kinguistics said...

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