That's What They Say

Sunday at 9:35 AM

Funner, snuck, and LOL are all things that we're hearing people say these days.

That's What They Say is a weekly segment on Michigan Radio that explores our changing language.University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan studies linguistics and the history of the English language. Each week she'll discuss why we say what we say with Michigan Radio Weekend Edition host Rina Miller.

That's What They Say airs Sundays at 9:35 a.m. on Michigan Radio and you can podcast it here.

Calling speech “rhetoric” nowadays is often viewed as an insult, rather than as a compliment. Especially in relation to politics, “rhetoric” is used almost exclusively as a negative term.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan, and host Rina Miller discuss the confusion with the word “rhetoric” in public discourse.

According to Curzan, the historical definition of rhetoric is “the art of using language effectively in order to persuade others.” Rhetoric is viewed today as positive in some circles. It’s an art form for those who can speak well, and persuade others with conviction. However, more and more this former art has been viewed in a more negative light.

“By the 17th century, we start to see some use where people are using ‘rhetoric’ to talk about sort of overblown speech, speech that is big words, but maybe not backed up...from there it gets more and more negative, and I think now you’ll hear people use it to talk about words that seem empty to them. It’s just rhetoric," explains Curzan.

So when did “rhetoric” become so closely, and negatively tied with politics? Anne Curzan says:

When you give someone "leeway" or tell someone to "pipe down," you may not realize you're using the language of sailors.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan talk about all that sailing has given to the English language.

The more obvious ones for example are: “taking the wind out someone’s sails, being dead in the water, rocking the boat.”

But, did you know the term “to bail something out” is actually a nautical expression?

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan discuss the irksome “ess” added to the end of nouns to indicate a female in words like authoress, actress and governess.

These “ess” words are ubiquitous in the English language. But do we really need them? And does the distinction in fact diminish the word’s meaning? This practice in linguistics is called markedness.

Markedness is about an asymmetry in, for example, a pair of words where one is a more neutral term - the dominant term, and one is marked somehow - it’s specialized,” says Anne Curzan.

Examples include authoress versus the unmarked author, or actor versus actress. In these examples, there’s arguably no difference between the marked and neutral term beside the "ess" added to indicate the noun is female. However, as Curzan explains, history has had a pejoration of the marked word due to sexism in the past.

Do you say “a historical event,” or “an historical event?”

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan and host Rina Miller discuss this confusing speech convention. As Professor Curzan points out, the inclination to use either “a” or “an” depends on the pronunciation of the “h” at the beginning of “historical.”

“Most American English speakers pronounce ‘h,’” says Curzan. “We’re not ‘h-droppers.’ In Britain a lot of the urban varieties of British English drop the ‘h,’ even in words like house you get ouse. But at the beginning of words in American English we tend to pronounce the ‘h’… so we’ll say a history.”

The issue when pronouncing historical, however, is that the stress has moved to the second syllable. This makes for a lighter-sounding “h,” and can change the article of the word.

“For speakers with a lightly pronounced ‘h,’ they will say ‘an historical,’” says Curzan. “It may be seen as a more proper pronunciation.”

It’s very interesting to consider some people add an extra syllable to certain words when speaking.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss how this difference in pronunciation is fairly new - linguistically speaking.

The word "interesting" is pronounced today with either three or four syllables. Anne Curzan explains the four syllable pronunciation, which often annoys the three-syllable camp, is actually the more traditional pronunciation.

“If you look in the online Oxford English Dictionary…it only has a four syllable pronunciation. If you look in modern standard dictionaries from the last ten years, they will show multiple pronunciations, three and four syllables," says Curzan.

The process of losing a syllable is not rare  in the English language.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan revisit regional variations in spoken English and offer up even more fun and often puzzling expressions. 

“For people who are from parts of New York or New Jersey, they will stand on line rather than in line...and for the people who say that makes no sense, the answer is that prepositions don’t always make sense and this is just regional variation," says Curzan.

Another expression that may not make sense to most of us is: drinking a cabinet.

“If you’re from Rhode Island you can drink a cabinet…in Rhode Island, a cabinet is a milkshake," Curzan explains.

Okay, so what to you call those balls of dust hiding underneath the bed? Dust bunnies or woofinpoofs?

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)  has documented over 170 different variations for those balls of lint. And, some variations take on hilarious names.

For most of us, the Microsoft Word spell checker is a godsend. It helps correct our failed attempt for spelling words like vinaigrette or renaissance.

However, Word's grammar checker is a whole different story. Mostly because of that cursed green squiggly line under a word that signals we've made a grammar error. One of the most frequent and frustrating corrections involves the correct use of that or which.

University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan and host Rina Miller discuss these unspoken grammar rule snafus on this edition of  "That's What They Say."

"The grammar checker is trying to enforce a rule about that and which, which English speakers have never followed, as far as we can tell," says Curzan.

The comma problem

May 12, 2013

The comma may be a very small  punctuation mark, but people often have very strong feelings about how it should, and should not be used.

On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan discuss the Oxford comma, semicolons and breaking rules.

Listen to the full segment above.

Graduate, then commence onward

May 5, 2013

Where are you graduating from? Or are you just graduating? On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss the mishaps with the proper use of "graduation."

There's been a good amount of change around the verb graduate, explains Curzan.

"It used to be that the University was supposed to graduate you...in the nineteenth century we started to get that students could graduate from the university."

Before you graduate from a university, or just graduate, you've got to matriculate. But what does matriculation actually mean?

"Matriculation technically means, 'to enroll in or at,' and you'll often see it used that way, but there appears to be some confusion. People sometimes use matriculate to mean graduate," says Curzan.

Redundancies in everyday speech

Apr 21, 2013

If a gift is "inherently free," isn't it just free? On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss those often annoying redundancies in the English language.

Other redundancies include the clunky "hot-water heater" in your basement, or perhaps that "plan going forward" that you've been anticipating. It's obvious that this trait in the English language just isn't logical, and Anne Curzan agrees.

"They aren't logical, and I'm not going to sit here and make an argument that they are logical," explains Curzan. "But what I am going to say is that languages aren't always logical, that I think we sometimes think they should be completely logical. But human languages are sometimes logical, and sometimes not."

So we know that our language is rife with illogical redundancies in both grammar and speech, but can these redundancies actually be helpful?

Are you a 'pop' or 'soda' person?

Apr 14, 2013

Maybe you're the type that likes both in conjunction, or perhaps not at all. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan talk about variations of speech based on region, called distinctive regionalisms, and how the lines between these colloquial regions aren't as blurred as you may think.

Perhaps the most noticeable of these distinctive regionalisms, especially for Michiganders, regards the phrasing we use when referring to soft drinks. Here in the Midwest, a lot of people say "pop," explains Curzan.  "A lot of the rest of the country says 'soda.' You're going to find that on the East Coast and on the West Coast."

But distinctive regionalisms don't stop at fizzy beverages. Based on where you're from, telling time may even be different.

According to Curzan, "New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware: we're the "quarter-of" speakers. The "quarter-till" speakers: West Virginia, western Virginia, North Carolina, parts of Georgia."

When dealing with big meat and veggie filled sandwiches, "much of the U.S. calls that a sub," explains Curzan. "But in New England, it's a 'grinder.' In much of New York and New Jersey, it's a 'hoagie,' or a 'hero' in Pennsylvania."

Amid all these different variations, a distinctive regionalism dictionary, if one exists, might be needed.

Enormous ambiguity when using 'enormous'

Apr 7, 2013

In talking about size, should one use "enormity," or "enormous"? For most of us, these two words used to describe the large scope of a situation seem synonymous. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses with Professor Anne Curzan how these supposed synonyms differ in their meanings.

So if "enormity" and "enormous" are not synonymous, can "enormity" still be used to describe a big problem? According to Curzan, "You can, if you use 'enormity' to describe a problem, and are making some sort of moral judgment about it. It's another thing if you're talking about a topic or a building, and you're talking about size without making a moral judgment."

It comes down to the enormity of the moral implications of a situation, versus the enormousness, or the size or scope of the situation itself. The two words, however, have the same linguistic roots, and both definitions have remained similar throughout history.

"Enormity" and "enormousness," says Curzan, go back to the same root in Latin, meaning "unusual."

"And when both words come into English in about the 16th century, they refer to something outside the ordinary," Curzan explains.

The modern distinction then comes from the current usage of the two words, right?

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