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  • Sandeep Prasanna 8:00 am on June 14, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: currency, dollar, english, euro, hip hop, money, plural, rand, singular,   

    One euro, two euro, many euro 

    South African rand(s)

    The currency here in South Africa is the Rand, named after the Witwatersrand, which means “white waters ridge” in Afrikaans.  (Witwatersrand refers to the area where Johannesburg was first built. A prominent university here shares the name.)

    It’s a matter of contention whether the plural of “rand” is “rand” or “rands.”Articles 13, 14, 15, 55, and 57 of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1961 use “rand” as the plural. Many currency exchange sites, such as this one, state that “rand” is the plural form. Most of the South Africans I’ve asked say they use “rand,” but I’ve also seen “rands” in some places, like the meter at the local gas station. I’ve also heard “rands” in conversation.


    Other currencies have nonstandard plural forms, too. For example, the European Union has designated in several places that “euro” is the official plural form of “euro” in English. This guide delineates the singular and plural forms of “euro” in all the official languages of the EU and says that one writes “100 euro” in English, not “100 euros.”

    However, another official publication of the EU—the English translation style guide—says that, “where appropriate,” “euro” becomes “euros” in the plural: “This book costs ten euros and fifty cents.” In Ireland, the only English-speaking country to use the currency, most of the media, as well as the Department of Finance, uses “euro” for the plural, an issue that has raised a few hackles, such as here and here.

    According to Google Ngram, “euros” seems to be more common than “euro” for the plural in English-speaking countries, with the difference slightly more pronounced in American English compared to British English. (Unfortunately, there’s no filter for Irish English.)

    “million euro / million euros” | American English | British English | English
    “billion euro / billion euros” | American English | British English | English

    This note says “10 euro,” but it’s also intended to be multilingual.

    And why should “euro” be the plural in English, anyway? Other languages have adapted the currency to fit their own standard plurals—in French, for example, one would say euros (although it’s usually still pronounced the same as the singular euro) and in Spanish it’s the same—euros. In German, it’s 100 Euro, but they did the same thing for their previous currency, the Mark (100 Mark). The point is, we have “dollars” and “pounds” and “shillings” in Anglophone countries, so why shouldn’t it officially be “euros”?

    Hang on—there are currencies in English-speaking countries that take a nonstandard plural. The South African Rand is one example, but there’s also the Pula in Botswana and (possibly) the new Gambian currency, the Dalasi.

    But what about other currencies? Why do we say “10 yen,” “100 baht” (Thailand), and “1,000 renminbi” but reserve the usual English -s plural for “10 rupees,” “100 rubles,” and “1,000 francs”? Why is it pounds in proper British English but quid in slang?

    Surely pop music can set us right. In the immortal words of Chris Brown in “International (Serious)” (on Estelle’s new album):

    My stock grown in Stockholm
    Dough heard in Joburg
    F— the SoundScan
    I left with 3 million rand
    So I don’t want to pound it
    Unless we talking pounds
    Yeah, I take euro – plural
    Estelle, your girl

    Sorry, C.Breezy, but that didn’t clear anything up.


    Perhaps currencies tend to take a standard –s plural when native English speakers are historically familiar with dealing with the currency. This would explain why we have dollars, pounds, and shillings (from direct use), francs, rubles, and pesos (from geographical proximity and frequent historical trade), and even rupees (from the British Raj era, which presented a combination of direct use and frequent trade).

    Even though the EU attempted to legislate the plural for “euro,” they have had questionable success. It seems that, given the chance, native English speakers will revert to the standard English –s plural. This would explain the popularity of “euros” as the plural form in English-speaking countries.

    This pattern might explain why it’s officially and usually “5 rand” but occasionally “5 rands” here in South Africa, a country where native English speakers constitute merely 8% of the population. And that might also explain the persistence of the singular as plural in Botswana and The Gambia, where English is an official language but spoken natively only by small portions of the population.

    However, it doesn’t explain why we still have “yen” and “renminbi” as both singular and plural—surely English speakers are now familiar with these currencies. But perhaps sustained, large-scale trade with Japan and China is too relatively recent to have instigated the change, or perhaps (more convincingly) there isn’t a large enough population of native English speakers dealing directly with the Yen and Renminbi on a daily basis, unlike the Euro, to adapt those words into English and create the change.

    I leave you with a stirring quote from Jay-Z’s verse in “Mr. Carter” (Lil Wayne):

    I see euros, that’s right: plural
    I took so much change from this rap game it’s your go


  • Sandeep Prasanna 11:40 am on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , english, , language policy, , rwanda   

    The costs of switching to English 

    French was the official language in Rwanda until 2008, when the government decided to transition to English in a bid to increase Rwanda’s viability in the global market. The government at the time stated that English, not French, was key to ensuring economic success and establishing Rwanda as a tourist destination, IT hub, and business center in Africa following the violence of the 1990s.

    Choosing English and aligning with the Anglophone world for economic reasons seems pretty innocuous, right?  It makes sense—English is the most spoken second language in the world and the primary language for international relations and business.  But observers note that there were historical wounds that contributed to the decision, and critics allege that there were political motives at stake.

    Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009—becoming one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that weren’t former British colonies—under the pall of diplomatic intrigue: Rwanda was still a member of La Francophonie (the international alliance of French-speaking nations), but an official Rwandan commission in 2007 accused 33 prominent French officials of being directly involved in the 1994 genocide and relations soured soon afterwards.  In addition, Rwandan officials suggested that colonial-era ties to France and Belgium contributed toward the ideology that resulted in the 1994 genocide, and the government wanted to eradicate ethnicity-based identities, according to researchers Beth Samuelson and Sarah Freedman.

    Many Tutsis who lived in exile in Anglophone countries (e.g., Uganda) during the Hutu-Tutsi violence of the 1990s came back into power after the violence slowed, and they brought with them an English-speaking culture and an English-based power structure, wrote Canadian PhD student Izabela Steflja last month.  Steflja writes that despite Rwanda’s nominal efforts to foster a unified Rwandan identity—based on English (the language of 4% of the population), rather than French (~8%) or Kinyarwanda (~88%), the native language that straddles both Hutu and Tutsi peoples—are misguided and serve only to reemphasize existing power conflicts.

    As for education on the ground, Rwanda gave up trying to teach young children English last year, choosing instead to teach children in Kinyarwanda for a few years before switching to English.  Critics decried the instability in the education system while others praised the attempt to preserve Kinyarwanda, the first language of about 15 million people. But some commentators have questioned the quality of English-language education in the country, especially because there is a dearth of teachers fluent in English.

    The group I work for in South Africa doesn’t normally deal with issues related to Rwanda. But one of our focus countries, Mozambique, a country with a Portuguese colonial past, has also joined the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique hasn’t adopted English as an official language—an fact made abundantly clear as I tried to Google Translate my way through the Mozambican Constitution last week—but I’m curious to see whether it’ll follow the example of Rwanda and ditch its colonial past (… to adopt another colonial language) in the name of economic advancement.

    • John Cowan 1:14 pm on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      It’s been said that although Mozambique is not a colony of England, it is a colony of a colony of England.

    • Katie 8:31 am on June 14, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Having visited both Mozambique and Rwanda in recent(-ish) years, the effect of any governmental efforts to institute English education is negligible at best (as far as I could tell). In Mozambique in particular, VERY few people spoke English (or at least were willing to admit they spoke English). Many people outside of Maputo, especially the young kids, didn’t even speak Portuguese.

      In Rwanda, I had fun one night getting very lost and trying to find directions back to my guest house in Mzansi, and finding that almost everyone spoke only French and/or Kinyarwanda. I did eventually find one teenage boy who was eager to practice his English with me, but it was almost incomprehensible. But it was Kinyarwanda phrases that I learned over the next few days that helped me, not English (or French).

  • Sandeep Prasanna 10:39 am on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afrikaans, english, , , xhosa, zulu   

    Wading into language politics in South Africa (uh, Suid Afrika? iNingizimu Afrika? uMzantsi Afrika?) 

    I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days ago to begin my work with a human rights litigation group for the next two months. I came to South Africa cold—I knew little about its languages. It’s also very cold here.

    But I knew I was in for an awesome experience when I hopped aboard the Gautrain commuter rail to the center of the city and watched patiently as the electronic sign reading “Stops at Rhodesfield, Marlboro, and Sandton” slowly cycled through five or six different languages, none of which looked familiar to me. (Yes, the city names were even different! Cool! Wait—where does the train stop? Come back, English text!)

    The linguistic diversity of South Africa is overwhelming. With 11 official languages–in order of native speaker proportion: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele– South Africa has the second most officially recognized languages in the world after India.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    According to the 2001 census, Zulu had the greatest proportion of native speakers but still only clocked in at 23.8%. Although only about 8% of South Africans speak it as a first language, English emerged as a politically neutral lingua franca, used in business, politics, and the media, during Apartheid. Choosing English was a politically and racially charged move. The conflict came to a head when the Afrikaner (white Dutch-descended South African) government attempted in 1976 to make Afrikaans, a linguistic descendant of Dutch, a main medium of instruction in all South African schools. That didn’t end well.

    While Afrikaans was seen as the “language of the oppressor” (in the words of Desmond Tutu) and virtually useless outside of southern Africa, English offered broader horizons and opportunities in the international community.

    Before I started preparing to come to South Africa, I overestimated the role of Afrikaans in Johannesburg and even wondered whether I would need to learn a few Afrikaans phrases to get by. I didn’t—nearly everyone in Johannesburg at least understands English. Of course, Johannesburg isn’t representative of all of South Africa, and there are certain areas of South Africa where Afrikaans is commonly spoken.

    I also underestimated the role of other languages: 62% of Johannesburg residents speak Bantu languages at home, a fact that blew my mind but really shouldn’t have.

    Not knowing about the sheer diversity of languages in Johannesburg is partly due to my own ignorance, of course. But I also wonder the extent to which representations of South Africa and South Africans in American popular media, and the racial and cultural implications of those images, influenced my previous impressions. I’m still trying to slowly piece a more accurate picture together. For example, I know next to nothing about Bantu languages and I can’t wait to learn more while I’m here.

    And the more I talk to people, the more complex the language politics of Afrikaans seems. What does using Afrikaans convey about the speaker? (Is it still the “language of the oppressor”?) When do people decide to use it? (My housemate, who learned Afrikaans as a first language, says he sticks with English, a politically safe choice, unless he’s positive from a person’s name that they know Afrikaans.) Who decides to learn it? (After expressing a passing interest in taking Afrikaans classes, another friend advised me not to tell others that I was learning Afrikaans. As part of her rationale, she pointed out that the relationship between Indian South Africans—who number over 1 million today—and black South Africans is not easy.)

    Lots of questions, but so little time!

    • Lane 1:00 pm on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I believe the Soweto riots were kicked off by the government’s insistence that *half* of instruction be in Afrikaans – so hated was the language that that was what did it. Looking forward to hearing more about what you find – I vastly enjoyed my own trip there as I went through the same questions…

      • Sandeep Prasanna 5:03 am on June 2, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Right– my mistake! Hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to share over the next weeks.

    • Seumas 6:07 am on June 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      It’s made even more complicated that Afrikaans doesn’t belong exclusively to Afrikaners, it’s also the first language of some rural black and coloured communities in the Cape, younger people from Bushman communities and so on. The ANC’s pro-English policy of trying to erase Afrikaans ignores the needs and plight of non-white South Africans who speak Afrikaans and not English. Language politics in South Africa is fiendishly complex on all levels: politically, historically, racially, geographically and economically.

  • Sandeep Prasanna 2:25 pm on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , english, english only, foreign language, german american, , mexican american, nebraska, , tucson   

    “Inimical to our own safety”: regulating heritage languages 

    With the country waiting for the Supreme Court to release its decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I thought it would be fun to revisit an older Supreme Court decision — one where the Court directly considered the benefits and disadvantages of foreign language learning.

    I was inspired to check out this case, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), by a section in Lane Greene’s fantastic book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, where Greene described it in the context of fervent “English-only” activism in the US.

    The suit in Meyer v. Nebraska was brought against a teacher who had been caught teaching German reading skills to a 10-year-old child in a parochial school in Nebraska. This was back when German was still commonly spoken in the Midwest by recent immigrants. The relevant statute read in part as follows:

    Section 1. No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language than the English language.

    Section 2. Languages, other than the English language, may be taught as languages only after a pupil shall have attained and successfully passed the eighth grade …

    [The statute discusses penalties.]

    Section 4. Whereas, an emergency exists, this act shall be in force from and after its passage and approval.

    Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the case, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the validity of the statute. They wrote:

    The Legislature had seen the baneful effects of permitting foreigners … to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land. The result of that condition was found to be inimical to our own safety. …

    It was to educate them so that they must always think in that language, and, as a consequence, naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country. …

    The obvious purpose of this statute was that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state.

    The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Nebraska Supreme Court, holding that the statute infringed on the rights guaranteed by Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (“… [n]o state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law…”). Specifically, the Court held that the statute unfairly infringed on the teacher’s right to teach, as part of his occupation, as well as the right of parents to engage that teacher in instructing their children.

    Moreover, they noted that the sole purpose of the statute was to inhibit the teaching of modern languages alone, even though, they note, “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. Heretofore it has been commonly looked upon as helpful and desirable.” Later, they write that foreign language learning is “not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.”

    But, lest you think the Supreme Court was being too progressive, they still warn:

    The desire of the Legislature to foster a homogeneous people … is easy to appreciate. Unfortunate experiences during the late war [World War I] and aversion toward every character of truculent adversaries were certainly enough to quicken that aspiration.

    Still, the means used were too intrusive, they concluded.

    I’m in Tucson, Arizona, right now, working on a handful of legal projects with U.S.-Mexico border human rights organizations. The small-town reasoning evident in the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision — foreign languages are bad, and they are dangerous for our youth and for American ideals — are alive and well today, not least in Tucson, where many people regard the exercise of Mexican-American pride as an assault on the US itself.

    The Tucson Unified School District board recently decided to remove its Mexican-American studies courses in response to a finding by the Arizona Schools Chief that the program promoted racial disharmony. Regulating identity in our schools and fostering homogeneity with dire warnings of a multicultural dystopia don’t seem to have gone out of vogue yet, 89 years after Meyer‘s implicit remonstrances.

    But, as Lane Greene writes, there’s nothing to fear from the teaching of heritage languages — because they’ll probably be lost within two generations, anyway, through the inexorable march of the American monoglot machine. As an Indian-American, I can offer anecdotal support — for better or worse, few among my cohort speak our heritage languages fluently, and those who do still speak English fluently. Of course, anecdotes aren’t data, so here are hard numbers: Hispanics in America today are learning English more rapidly than German Americans at the turn of the century — 95% of surveyed second-generation Hispanic children located in the heavily Hispanic areas of San Diego and South Florida spoke English fluently, and 40% spoke no Spanish. Hardly the bilingual disharmony English-only activists warn of.

    Greene writes:

    It is, to put it simply, nearly impossible to raise a child in the United States without the child learning English; it would require isolation from the outside world bordering on child abuse. Children born in America, and even those arriving at a young age, inevitably pick up English.

    This fact, of course, does little to quiet the English-only activists.

    • johnwcowan 4:23 pm on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      There’s a deeper question, though: can you be a real American and not speak English? Civic nationalists say “of course”, ethnic (which often means racialist) nationalists deny it.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 9:30 pm on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Surely even the most fervent “ethnic nationalists” can’t deny that Native Americans who don’t speak English are American? (Or can they?) Also, a frequently debated question: can a monolingual person who doesn’t speak one of the languages that government documents are regularly translated into (e.g., Spanish, sometimes French, sometimes Chinese) fully participate in American civic life?

        • Dani 10:02 am on March 31, 2012 Permalink

          Plenty of native, English-speaking Americans do not participate in American civic life.

        • johnwcowan 12:36 am on April 2, 2012 Permalink

          Ethnic nationalists don’t care about Native Americans; most of them speak only English anyway.

    • Dani 9:59 am on March 31, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      During my time teaching in a heavily Hispanic (>85%) high school, I noticed that the only students who did not speak English were those who had immigrated to the US within the previous 5 years. Students who had arrived earlier spoke passable, if not fluent, English. Students born in the US to immigrant parents spoke English fluently and unaccented, even if their parents spoke only Spanish.

      As you said, if a problem exists, it is that so many of my students barely knew Spanish.

    • Peregrin 5:52 am on April 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      From my own experience I’ve found that first/second generation immigrants and their children have a much easier time learning the English language in America than, for instance, here in the UK. Although there is also a presence of ethnic “ghettoes” in the US, it seems to be more prevalent in some of the larger cities in England and Scotland. For example, here in London, especially the inner-city, it is possible to be born in an area or neighbourhood and never actually attain a full grasp of ‘native’ London English or British English. Cockney has been largely replaced by what’s called Multicultural London English (MLE). So while such individuals do learn a form of English, this variation is one based on the evolution and development of local varieties and ‘second-language’ English. Although many do understand the difference between the registers and can switch accordingly, there are those who, chiefly in the more impoverished areas, can only speak this variety with any real fluency.

      A similar situation can be observed in Sweden. Speaking from personal experience, I found that some of the neighbourhoods and suburbs of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo, with large immigrant populations tended to exhibit this ‘second-language’ trait. There are men and women in their twenties and thirties who have been born in these suburbs having only a tentative grasp of Central Swedish (or Rikssvenska). A famous example is that of Rinkeby Swedish (Rinkebysvenska), named after the Stockholm suburb; it borrows heavily from Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Serbo-Croat, Syriac, and Kurdish.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 7:34 pm on April 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        This is really interesting. I wonder to what extent the political structures/laws regarding immigration and immigrant communities influence those patterns.

  • Sandeep Prasanna 12:34 pm on January 17, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academy, english, , precision   

    The English literature academy’s glorification of “elegant variation” in which one attempts to vary one’s nouns and adjectives when referring repeatedly to the same thing is anathema to the law. Kuney and Lloyd. Contracts: Transactions and Litigation. 2011: 40.
  • John Stokes 9:15 pm on January 8, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: E.B. White, english, , , quote, , taxes, White   

    Advice from E.B. White (especially good for aspiring lawyers…) 

    “Some day I mean to have a fireside chat with my government, that we may come to know each other a little better, for it is by a better understanding of the other’s traits that a government and its citizens must fulfill their mutual destinies. In my chat I want particularly to take up the first sentence under Section G of Form 1040, which is called ‘Items exempt from tax’ and which starts this way:

     ‘The following items are partially exempt from tax: (a) Amounts received (other than amounts paid by reason of the death of the insured and interest payments on such amounts and other than amounts received as annuities) under a life insurance or endowment contract, but if such amounts (when added to amounts received before the taxable year under such contract) exceed the aggregate premiums or consideration paid (whether or not paid during the taxable year) then the excess shall be included in gross income. . . .’

    I want to ask my government what it thinks would become of me and my family if I were to write like that. Three sets of parentheses in one sentence! I’d be on relief inside of a month.

    That sentence, above, was obviously written by a lawyer in one of his flights of rhetorical secrecy. There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences. The contents of Section G of Form 1040, I am perfectly sure, could be stated so that the average person could grasp it without suffering dizzy spells. I could state it plainly myself if I could get some lawyer to disentangle it for me first. I’ll make my government a proposition: for a five-dollar bill (and costs), I will state it plainly.”

    -E.B. White. “Fro-Joy.” One Man’s Meat.

  • The Diacritics 11:43 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chaucer, english, language and gender, new york times, on language, , singular they,   

    They, their, and them 

    (posted by John)

    We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

    And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

    -Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular 'they.'

    This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

    “And every one to rest themselves betake.”

    -Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

    “Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

    -Lord Byron, letter, 1805

    “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

    -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

    Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

    “She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

    -Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

    “. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

    -C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

    Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

    Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

     “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

    On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

    For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

    However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiser or shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

    One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

    Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know! 

    • johnwcowan 11:54 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “Man is the only animal who menstruates.” –old biology textbook

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , email, english, , , grammar b, , , , written language   

    The effects of txt 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

    We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

    Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

    Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

    Winston Weathers.

    It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

    But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

    So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

    Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

    Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

    World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

    If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

    So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.


    I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

    In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

    This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

    But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

    For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

    What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

    Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

    We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)

    • Lane 10:58 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In my book I argued that really successful prescriptivism, which enforces the rules of “Grammar A” religiously in writing and encourages them sternly in “proper” speech, leads inevitably to diglossia in the long run. My exhibits are Arabic, with its early, successful prescriptive grammar tradition freezing Classical Arabic while spoken Arabic changed normally over the centuries; and French, where nearly 400 years of a French Academy has also frozen a formal version of the language that no one speaks. (An alien linguist would give the French verb paradigm as “je parl, tu parl, il parl, on parl, vous parlé, il parl.” Our alien would conclude that one negative particle, “pas”, is sufficient in nearly all cases. Etc.)

      So I think even those who value stability in formal language must either let Grammar A (I’d just say “writing”) change gradually in line with natural change in Grammar B (“speech”), or watch diglossia take root, with its inevitable plaints that “nobody speaks real Arabic anymore.”

      • The Diacritics 3:35 pm on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Fantastic. Is that “You Are What You Speak”? Can’t wait to read it over winter break.

  • The Diacritics 11:10 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: brad pitt, english, , inglourious basterds, , movies, tarantino, , west wing, world war II   

    Language in the movies 

    (Posted by John)

    Check out this clip of an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt.  They’re talking about Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds.  If you don’t know, the movie is a World War II revenge fantasy in which a group of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, undertakes a plot to kill Hitler.  It’s a pretty fantastic movie, especially for the way it uses language as a tool. While most World War II movies avoid the language issues that might arise (everyone speaks English—their accent reveals where they’re actually from), Inglourious embraces language as a means both to drive the plot and to develop suspense. (watch from 12:06, where the clip starts, to about 13:45)

    In his movie, Tarantino’s talking about building suspense in particular in a couple of scenes. The first one is the opening scene of the movie, in which the movie’s Jewish heroine is hiding under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house in France.  An SS agent comes in search of Shoshana and her family.  He is able to draw out a confession from the homeowner without alerting the hidden family that he’s found them out. And he’s able to do it because he switches from French, which the Jewish family understands, to English, which they don’t. Here’s a clip from part of that scene, after Landa has switched to English.

    Here is the exchange that happens a bit later:

    SS Col. Hans Landa: You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?

    Perrier LaPadite[softly] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: You’re sheltering them underneath your floorboards, aren’t you.

    Perrier LaPadite[tears forming in his eyes] Yes

    Col. Hans Landa: Point out to me the areas where they are hiding. [LaPadite points with his pipe; Landa walks over and stands on top of that area, gesturing with his own pipe for confirmation] Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English.

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes.

    Col. Hans Landa: I’m going to switch back to French now. I want you to follow my masquerade, is that clear?

    Perrier LaPadite: Yes

    Col. Hans Landa[in French] Monsieur LaPadite, I thank you for the milk and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done. [walks over to the door and opens it] Ah, ladies. I thank you for your time. [booted Wehrmacht soldiers troop inside and position themselves] We shan’t be bothering your family any longer. So, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, I bid farewell to you and say: adieu!        [Soldiers open fire on the floorboards, killing the Dreyfuses]

    Another scene, probably the most suspenseful of the whole movie, is at a German bar behind enemy lines. A group of Allied soldiers are meeting an informant (Frau Hammersmark) there, but they’re interrupted by a nosy SS officer.  He becomes suspicious of the undercover Allies by detecting subtle differences between the accent that the British officer speaks German with. He doesn’t ultimately discover the man’s nationality, though, until the Brit asks for “three glasses” using the British/American hand signal for “three” (index, middle, ring fingers), instead of the German one (thumb, index, middle).

    (The most relevant parts are the first 3 minutes and  ~10:20-11:00. The whole scene is there though–it gets graphic at the end, so beware.)

    The idea of using linguistic data as a sort of defense goes back to biblical times and the story of the Shibboleth. One side in a war couldn’t pronounce the sh sound at the beginning of the word shibboleth, pronouncing it instead as sibboleth. This alerted the other side that they were dealing with their enemies.

    Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
    —Judges 12:5-6, NJB
    Of course, things like this are always easier to explain with a West Wing clip:
    Anyway, I think that Tarantino makes a good point–as he says, I don’t buy that Clint Eastwood speaks perfect German. Those differences in language should be exploited to make a better movie…though I hope our military isn’t taking any cues from Brad Pitt as Aldo, trying to speak Italian.
  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bushel, customary system, english, english system, gallons, , imperial system, kilometers, league, liters, metric system, miles   

    Stop! Don’t move a centimeter! 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    “You know I’d walk 1609.3 kilometers if I could just see you tonight.” – Vanessa Carlton’s famous ballad, A Thousand Six Hundred and Nine and Three Tenths Kilometers

    A few reasons why we need to keep the customary system of measurement in America:

    • That’s a nice 37.9-liter hat!
    • It hit me like 907.2 kilograms of bricks.
    • He’s buried 1.83 meters under.
    • Give a man 25.4 millimeters, and he’ll take 1.61 kilometers.
    • I’ve got 907.2 kilograms of work to do tonight.
    • He didn’t feel 28.3 grams of regret for his actions.
    • He went the whole 8.23 meters.

    Okay, okay, to be fair, I should use nice, round numbers in these phrases. But does “You know I’d walk a thousand kilometers if I could just see you tonight” sound any better? “Stop! Don’t move a centimeter!”

    There’s something about the customary system that lends itself better to flowing rhetoric. What is it? Maybe it’s that the metric system is so closely tied to science, a decidedly unpoetic field. Maybe it’s similar to the general Germanic-Latinate perception distinction in English (although the metric system is mostly ultimately derived from Greek), where Germanic words are perceived as simpler and earthier, whereas Latinate words are perceived as haughty and highfalutin. Maybe it’s something else altogether.

    There are plenty of reasons to adopt the metric system in the US. But will we lose these expressions if/when the US finally switches over? The United Kingdom partially adopted the metric system in 1965. However, the imperial (customary) system remains widespread. Today, official signs use the imperial and metric systems side by side.

    Does full metrication mean the eventual loss of these great, useful English phrases? If our children and grandchildren only learn the metric system, would a phrase like “Don’t move an inch!” even carry any meaning?

    Would we even be aware of units like “peck” (“a peck of pickled peppers”) or “league” (“20,000 leagues under the sea”) if they weren’t used in common phrases?

    In the UK, where the customary system is supposed to exist side-by-side with the metric system, more obscure customary units are well on their way out (via Google Ngram):



    But more common customary units seem to be hanging on pretty robustly:

    miles vs. kilometres

    gallons vs. litres

    Google Ngram gets its results from the Google Books collection, a corpus that doesn’t include scientific journals (which would be bound to use the metric system, at least for the last hundred years). So despite partial metrication in the UK, customary units like miles and gallons are still widely used in non-scientific written works. Still, you can see a sharp down-tick in the use of “miles” and “gallons” (and a sharp uptick in the use of “km”) around 1965, when the UK officially adopted partial metrication.

    It’s conceivable that units like “miles” and “gallons” could be considered obscure, generations from now, after full metrication in the US and the UK. Maybe then we’d substitute in “kilometers” and “liters” in our figurative language. But I’m more inclined to think that they have more staying power than “bushel” or “peck” or “league,” if only for the volume of common phrases and ideas that they’re used in. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, a premature nostalgia.

    Questions I don’t have the answer to, but hope that somebody does:

    • Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?
    • Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.
    • The Diacritics 9:30 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It’s pretty common in swimming and diving. we say 100m pool and 3m diving board–we especially wouldn’t say that a pool has a 3 yard diving board.

      • The Diacritics 10:58 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Sorry — I should have clarified. Common figurative or poetic phrases that use the metric system. -Sandeep

    • Mark 10:23 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m British. As far as I know I’m typical of British people, at least those of my age (I’d expect older people to use metric less – though my 60 year old parents learnt only metric at school)

      I use miles and mph when driving, because I have mph on my speedo and road signs are all in miles and mph.

      When walking I sometimes use miles and sometimes km – km are handy because maps have 1km grid squares. Altitudes always in metres.

      Pints to me are what you drink in the pub. They’re not really a measure of volume otherwise. I don’t think I’d ever use gallons.

      I use inches and feet for rough estimated sizes in conversation. I would never measure anything in them (it annoys me that most tape measures are dual unit, you can get metric only ones but they’re hard to find)

      • The Diacritics 11:45 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        In the US, our speedometers have both miles and kilometers, but the kilometers are much smaller (and pretty hard to see) than the mile markers. Presumably it’s for drivers who travel to Canada and need to check their speed against metric road signs. What do the speedometers in Britain look like — are mph and kph the same size, or is one larger than the other?

    • sscandel 12:27 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’ve often thought it funny that here in Canada, where we’ve been officially fully metric since the late ’70s, standard measurements still dominate the common language. When we talk about our weights or heights we talk in pounds, feet and inches, but the doctor will measure us in kilos and centimetres. Odd as it may seem, this is now only sometimes confusing. Imperial measurements have a way of holding on. Many industries still use SI measurements, and most of the phrases you mention are still used here.

    • 456 5:14 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In Germany (fully metricated for ages), the words for old measurements are still well-known and are used in set phrases, most people know more or less what they mean (i.e., they know a pint is about half a litre, rather than knowing it’s 568ml(UK)/493ml(US)). But they don’t get much poetic use, maybe a parallel to your Vanessa Carlton example would be this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmUjoQ8rS-Y

      As for common English phrases, I think anything involving ton(ne) could be seen as ambiguous, especially from a UK/Aus/NZ/etc speaker. And there’s always the phrase “metric fuck ton” which is unambiguous. I have heard “he didn’t feel a gramme of remorse”, and “two metres under”. The general rule about metric units flowing naturally in speech in the UK seems to be that you have to use the basic form, so metres, grammes (and sometimes kilos), litres – phrases involving the milli-, centi-, bits wouldn’t be idiomatic. The phrases with imperial measurements remain much more common though, even when the units aren’t precisely known (e.g., my partner who grew up in the UK always has to look up how heavy a pound is in kilos, but has plenty of phrases with pound in them in his active vocabulary (“pound for pound”, etc).

      I think “league” at least might stick around for a while in the UK, because most school children seem to end up studying The Charge of the Light Brigade (“Half a league onward, into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”).

      • The Diacritics 11:44 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for the insight, especially for that song — it gives Vanessa Carlton a run for her money.

    • Licia 6:57 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Italy is fully metric and yet we still use some idiomatic expressions with the Italian equivalent of "mile”,  e.g. sentire/vedere/capire lontano un miglio (hear/see/understand from a mile off), which however coexists with lontano un chilometro. Another expression, essere lontano mille miglia (literally, "to be one thousand miles afar", meaning to be very far away / to be miles apart) is unlikely to be replaced because the alliteration /’mille ‘miʎʎa/ works well in Italian (mille and miglia are actually doublets).

      • The Diacritics 11:46 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        It’s interesting that the two idiomatic expressions coexist. Is one more appropriate in certain situations?

    • Danielle 8:44 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sandeep!!!!!

      a) I take issue with your statement that science is “a decidedly unpoetic field”. Whatever happened to fractals and Fibonacci sequences in nature? Or the concept of convergent evolution?

      b) Expressions are great. But the metric system has so much utility. Expressions <<<< not having to memorize a bajillion conversion factors.

      c) On I-89 in Vermont, there is one highway sign which shows distances to control cities in kilometers. (Update: Wikipedia says those signs were replaced in 2010. Bummer.) Do you know anything about why this is? Other than that Washington County, Vermont, is relatively close to Canada, why would this particular sign in this particular location mark distances in metric?

      • The Diacritics 8:55 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Hi Dani!

        a) Science can be poetic. But science doesn’t present itself as a field concerned with aesthetics — it’s just a natural consequence of the subject matter that things end up being beautiful. On the other hand, poets and writers are deliberately concerned with aesthetics.

        b) For those of us pursuing careers in science (e.g., you), and even to many of us who aren’t, the metric system is far more appealing than the customary system. But that doesn’t mean the customary system is useless — we grew up with the system, so you and I know how much a gallon contains, how much a pound weighs, and how many miles we just ran. It’s a useful skill for us to be able to think in terms of pounds and inches because we’re surrounded by those units. Until the US fully metricates — a massive task — it’ll still be useful to understand these units.
        Also, for the same poets and writers I referenced above, expressions >>>>>> having to convert a bajillion conversion factors.

        c) Interesting! I want to instinctively point to Vermont’s proximity to Canada. To me, that seems like a satisfactory explanation for that one sign. But maybe there are also a lot of Canadian immigrants in Vermont.

        • Danielle 9:01 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink

          c) But there are 13 Northern-more exits and 2 Northern-more counties between this sign and Canada. All of the Northern-more signs display distances in miles. So I’m not sure proximity to Canada is a satisfactory explanation.

          Maybe Waterbury, VT, just has a lot of Canadian immigrants, as you suggested.

          Do you ever think we’ll go fully metric? Somehow, I think our current politicians would find metrification “un-American”.

        • The Diacritics 11:55 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink

          I think the ghost of that metrication attempt in the 70s will continue to haunt any wishful metrication attempts in the near future.

    • Lauren 10:12 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here in Australia we happily embraced the metric system but still kept all the old phrases. I know exactly what it means to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, go the full 9 yards and make sure I don’t give an inch – but we don’t make our children sweat through learning an irregular and outdated measurement system just because of some kind of historical issue with England and France. Perhaps meter-based phrases will eventually and naturally come into existence but there’s no use fretting about losing the old ones while they’re still so deeply ingrained – even in those of us who don’t even know how many feet are in a mile.

      • The Diacritics 11:47 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        5,280, but who’s counting? (It’s sad, but I actually had to look that up!)

    • David 8:50 pm on November 12, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      From an American perspective, the post makes sense. As an Australian, growing up speaking English in a purely metric environment, the post makes no sense at all.

      I would have no qualms saying to someone “don’t move a millimetre” or “the car was leaking litres of oil”. It is really just a question of what you’re used to.

      For vague distances we still say things like “miles away”, but it would be considered a set phrase, and that’s about the extent of imperial measurements in everyday language here.

      • The Diacritics 11:48 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        You’re right that it’s probably a question of what you’re used to. I think to hear “don’t move a millimeter” would be quite jarring to an American.

    • Mats 2:27 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In Swedish, expressions with pre-1875 units are alive and well. Also, the Swedish mile was redefined as ten kilometers, so that’s not an issue either.

      • The Diacritics 11:49 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Interesting! Is there a different word for that? Do you have to qualify it as a “Swedish mile” or is it just “mile” in Swedish? Do you instead have to qualify the imperial mile as being specifically imperial? (Perhaps similar to how Americans have to qualify “tonne” as a “metric ton” to avoid confusion with our unit ton.)

    • Phil 4:52 am on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Question asked, question answered. Phrases involving leagues and pecks survive quite comfortably despite the fact that hardly anyone is able to quantify the measures involved any more. Ditto for the vast majority of people reading the Bible who have no idea what a ‘cubit’ or ‘shekel’ is.

      In Czech, phrases like ‘ani centimetr’ (literally: “not even a centimetre”; figuratively: “Don’t move an inch”) are the norm. I cannot think of a single phrase or idiom involving customary units, though the language has a somewhat uniquely prescriptivist history (esp. in the 19th c.), so perhaps this isn’t quite the natural consequence of metrication.

      The Australian situation is outlined above quite aptly – the nation having metricated in the early 1980s. The phrases are alive and well, even as many of us can only guess at the exact distances involved. But, honestly, is knowing that 9 yards is ~8.25m really that essential to understanding the phrase “go the full 9 yards”? Personally, I find it rather inconsequential.

      • The Diacritics 11:53 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        The case of Czech seems to run counter to our “leagues” and “pecks,” doesn’t it? Maybe the difference is indeed inconsequential — but at some point, some writer has to ask himself why he’s using that phrase, right? And then, presumably, he would discard it altogether and move onto a more commonly understood unit.
        I wonder if it’s America’s fault, due to its role in global media, that customary units have stuck in our language. Maybe English is just itching to move on, like Czech, but it’s being held back by the US.

    • The Diacritics 11:42 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for the responses, everyone — especially the insight from abroad!

    • Kit Grose 11:21 pm on November 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m from Australia. We had converted completely to metric by 1988, with the process starting in 1970.

      I grew up and was taught entirely in the metric system. My knowledge of imperial measurement extends only to conversations with older people who might still ask for 6 inches of something or with landmarks like 7-mile beach.

      The interesting point is that in Australian English, you wouldn’t ever say “don’t move a centimetre”. You’d say “don’t move an inch” or “don’t move”. Its also interesting that (as you mention) we wouldn’t say “907.2 kilograms of bricks”—we’d use “tonne” and be referring to 1,000kg. If we were referring to some number of kilograms, though, we’d almost always say “kilos” (as in “I weigh 80 kilos”).

      Since Australian English is driven by slang we’re often inclined to abbreviate and modify the words we use a lot. If you need to extend something a specific but tiny bit, you might say “give me 5 mills” (referring to millimetres). Since we use “kilo” to refer to weight, we often shorted kilometre to “kay” (as in “50 kays up the road”), or to “click”. We can use both terms to refer equally to distance or speed (since the “per hour” part is inferred; “I was doing 120 clicks” would mean 120 km/h). Just as often we’d drop the unit altogether (doing 120).

      So to answer your questions:

      “Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?”

      No, but we would use (and/or understand) most of the American English phrases you mention.

      “Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.”

      Can’t help here, though.

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