The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Lexical layers 2: connotation

In my last post, I talked about the importance of delving beyond the surface meaning of new vocabulary to try and help learners understand where and when it's appropriate to use a particular word or phrase. I looked at the concepts of register and genre, and how certain words are more typical of particular contexts and stand out as odd (or 'marked') when they're used elsewhere.

A couple of the comments on that post questioned how teachers can find time to cover all this extra information when there's already so much else to fit in. To which my first reaction is perhaps that quality is as important as quantity – there's no point memorizing a whole load of words if you don't know how to use them appropriately! But also, I realized that it's easy when you focus on a specific aspect of learning for it to get blown out of proportion. While I'm saying that understanding beyond the surface of meaning of vocab is really important, I'm not saying that learners and teachers need to go into all this detail with all the words they come across and certainly not all at the same time. Lots of words are fairly neutral and uncontroversial, so it may only be the odd word or phrase here and there that comes with a 'health warning' and needs some extra explanation. And those layers may be peeled back gradually with repeated exposures, adding in a note about register or other kinds of usage as vocab starts to shift from learners' passive to active vocab (pointing out a new aspect of a word is a great way to make revision seem less repetitive). Nonetheless, for those words which are marked in some way, exploring those extra layers can be really key to vocab development.

In this post, the layer I want to explore is connotation or the feeling and attitude of the speaker that particular word choices convey. Take a look at these words and phrases that all refer to a person who's physically larger than normal – what images do they conjure up, who could you apply them to and how would they feel about it?
A word cloud containing the words and phrases: statuesque, well-built, fatso, overweight, big-boned, fat, plus-size, imposing, plump, flabby, obese, hench, chubby and built like a brick shithouse

Adjectives like these tend to be at the more obvious end of the connotation scale, but all kinds of words reveal something about the user and their attitude towards the person or thing they're talking about. To take an example in the news fairly recently, would you describe a person at a climate strike event like the one below as an activist, a campaigner, a protestor, a demonstrator, an agitator, a militant or maybe a troublemaker or even an uncooperative crusty*? 

Photo of a teenage girl holding a banner at a climate strike event

All these words have slightly different connotations, both in and of themselves, and also depending on who they're used by and applied to. The learner who looks up the equivalent in their L1 on Google translate and randomly picks one of the options they're offered could find themselves getting across a very different message from the one they intended. Incidentally, I looked up activist on Google translate and, ignoring the translations, it offers the English synonyms militant, zealot, protestor, radical, extremist and netroots … the last of which I'd never heard before but apparently comes from a blend of grassroots and internet to describe campaigners who communicate their message online (check out definitions here and here)  … which is a neat word, but clearly has layers of meaning (not to mention lexicogrammar) that you'd need to decode before using it.

Teachers and learners often love the idea of a thesaurus to help expand their vocabulary, but as the example above illustrates, it's a path fraught with danger. Many of the thesaurus tools available online are aimed at L1 speakers of English who are looking for inspiration. It's assumed they'll be familiar with most of the synonyms that crop up and have some idea when it's appropriate (or not) to use them. They are not designed for learners of English and even if they link through to definitions, they'll likely again be written for L1 speakers in a style that won't be of much help to the average learner. Many learner's dictionaries also have thesaurus facilities of some kind, often in the form of clickable synonyms at the bottom of an entry. These can be more helpful, in part, because they're likely to focus on more useful, high-frequency words rather than the often obscure results of L1 tools. What's really important though is that learners understand the importance of clicking through to the definitions to check how the synonym may differ in usage from their starting point. Learner's dictionaries often show connotation through labels such as disapproving or offensive or humorous. Alternatively, these restrictions may be incorporated into the definition itself, e.g. "used to describe someone you disapprove of …".  Or subtler differences may be shown through the choice of examples. I suspect, however, many learners skim over these important caveats, focusing only on the basic meaning (or denotation). Which is why work in class on noticing and understanding the significance of this kind of information is so important.

Of course, though, dictionaries and other reference sources can only give very general guidance on typical usage. People all use and understand language differently. If you're female, for example, how do you feel about people referring to you as a woman, a lady, a girl or a bird? Does it depend on who they are? Have your feelings, like mine, shifted slightly over time? Whether or not you perceive a particular word or expression as formal, informal, slang, old-fashioned, offensive, condescending, complimentary, humorous, appropriate or inappropriate will come down to your social, cultural, regional, educational and professional background, your age, your gender and potentially a whole host of other factors … which I'll talk about in my next post.  

* uncooperative crusties was an expression used by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to describe people at a climate strike event in London in Oct 2019 (link to BBC news report here)

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Friday, December 13, 2019

Lexical layers 1: register and genre

One of my pet hates when it comes to vocabulary teaching is when I see materials that don't venture beyond the basic denotational meaning of a word or phrase – that is, the thing or idea it refers to in the real world. So, we could say that purchase is another word for buy, that wonga is money or that built like a brick shithouse means large. But that's really only the first layer of meaning peeled off and in many cases, is not enough to really understand what the speaker intends by their choice of word(s) and is nowhere near enough to know when and how you can use it yourself.

I especially come across this on social media with posts from all kinds of sources (trusted and less so) offering fun words of the day or sets of useful phrases or lists of synonyms, all aimed directly at learners but invariably explaining nothing at all about when or where or to whom the words would be appropriate. And, to be honest, conventional published materials don't always fare much better either, with the teaching of idioms being an area liable to see me sinking my face into my hands in despair.

In ELT, it's an issue that tends to get increasingly relevant as students work their way up the levels. A lot of the vocabulary we teach at the lowest levels is the very high-frequency words. Many of these tend to be fairly neutral; there's not much more to say about table, pencil, car, walk or blue. As students expand their vocabulary beyond the basics though, the picture gets less clear. Yes, there are still plenty of neutral words, especially simple concrete nouns like tunnel, stadium, fennel or sieve, but there are many more words with multiple layers of meaning that we really need to be getting across to students so that they properly understand the language they read and hear, and perhaps more importantly, so they don't go around inadvertently giving the wrong impression or making dreadful faux pas.

Register and genre

The concept of register in language teaching, if it gets covered at all, tends to get reduced to 'formal' and 'informal'. You might come across a lesson on formal and informal messages in which Yours faithfully is labelled as formal and love from as informal. Register, though, goes much further than that. Here's a definition from Oxford Dictionaries:

register: linguistics
A variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and standing of the user.

Let's start off by just focusing on words that are typically used in particular contexts or genres (types of text or speech). The most obvious of these are labelled in learner's dictionaries. So, you'll find that purchase is labelled as formal because it's not a word we typically use in everyday, informal conversation. At the other end of the scale, wonga is likely to be labelled as informal or slang. How far learner's dictionaries go with other register labels varies, but you might come across a word like herewith labelled as law/legal, kinetic might appear as specialized or technical or have a science label, and elegiac will likely be shown as literary. Of course, you could dig around in any genre and turn up a whole host of typical vocab that would seem odd used elsewhere:

Business jargon: core values, scalable, going forward, think outside the box
Tabloid journalism: mum-to-be, blonde bombshell, love rat, (jobs) axed
Football commentary: play to the whistle, against the run of play, hit the woodwork, handbags
Academia: epistemological, existential, ibid, give rise to, allude to
Official announcements: Kindly refrain from …, Bags must be stowed …, Please proceed to …, Alight here for …

As proficient speakers of English, we mostly don't notice these choices until there's an obvious mismatch. My favourite example of this (apologies if you've seen me quote this before!) is from a television advert from a few years ago for a job search website. A primary school teacher is seen speaking to a class of five-year-olds … name that register!

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

Then there's the distinction between language in current use and words or phrases that are falling out of use or have become 'marked' because they no longer feel contemporary. In a dictionary, you might find labels indicating language that's dated (used within living memory, but not current: phone box, discotheque, groovy), words that are old-fashioned (the fair sex, gramaphone, wedlock) and old use (only really found in literature from centuries past: thou, smite).

Of course, these are very broad distinctions which any proficient English speaker could refine into scales of formality, of datedness or of specialization. And exactly where the boundaries lie are grey areas that will vary between speakers – a point I'll return to in a later post.

In the classroom, I think the thing to remember is that context is key. If you come across a new word or phrase in a reading or listening text, by all means look at the (denotational) meaning to help students understand the text, but don't then take it out of context and slot it into a productive activity or add it to a words-to-learn list without considering any restrictions on its use. Encourage students to note who used it and where it came from, to look out for it in future and again, notice the context. Help them avoid rushing to use newly-learned vocabulary where it doesn't really fit. To take a recent example I came across online offering alternatives to please for asking for things politely, just adding kindly to a request probably isn't going to go down well. As most learner's dictionaries note, it's either used in very formal, usually official instructions - We kindly request you read the following information carefully - or it's actually a tetchy, passive-aggressive show of annoyance – Kindly move your car immediately!

In my next post, I'll be looking at another lexical layer: connotation.

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