One of the first and most basic points to consider in the lore of language is the question: What is (a) language? The parentheses in the previous sentenced are there to recognize the distinction between looking at “language” as a concept or phenomenon versus looking at individual languages and saying why German and French, for example, are different languages.

The question – What is language? lies squarely within the purview of the linguist. The linguist studies a language to learn what it has to say about language in general. The fact that a person can speak five languages does not make them a linguist. The speaker of several languages is a polyglot, not a linguist. A linguist is rather unlikely to speak several languages fluently. In fact, the linguist is more likely to know how verbs function in Palauan (a language of Micronesia) than how to order a croque monsieur in Paris.

The question of how we can say two languages are separate, similar, or different is best answered by determining where those languages differ on one or more basic dimensions of language. What are some of the basic dimensions/components of a language? (These are linguistic terms used to describe any/all languages).

When most of us think about languages – especially those “foreign” languages we are struggling to learn – we usually emphasize words. The study of a language’s word structure is called morphology.

Phonology is concerned with the sound structure of a language: How sounds are put together to convey meaning. It is a broader concept than phonetics which deals with how individual sounds are created using the human vocal apparatus.

Syntax involves rules for sentence structure –- word order, etc. This is probably what most of us think of as “grammar” – although grammar involves much broader sets of rules about how to use the language.

To further expand our vocabulary of linguistic terms (a linguist would call this our lexicon) Let’s look at some language-like frameworks that don’t quite qualify as a stand-alone “language.”

We all know what a dialect is – at least we think we do. A dialect is widely seen as an inferior, stripped-down version of a full-fledged language. That’s why when a somewhat pompous person brags about speaking several languages, we try to label one or more of those languages as “really just a dialect.” Clearly, dialects deserve better day-to-day treatment and respect. (Within linguistics there is even a specialty field known as dialectology.)

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language defines a dialect as:

A language variety in which the use of grammar and vocabulary identifies the regional or social background of the user.

In addition to dialects, there are other variations arrayed around a standard language.The first is known as a pidgin – a language with limited vocabulary and greatly simplified grammar. Although a pidgin may be used by a number of individuals, it has no native speakers. Chinese Pidgin English and Melanesian Pidgin English are examples.

A creole is a grown-up pidgin; that is, when a pidgin becomes the standard language of a community it is called a creole. Examples include Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole.

A lingua franca is a sort of compromise language. I once did business with a German expatriate living in Chile. Given my level of Spanish and his level of English, we found it more effective and comfortable to speak German. In this case German was our lingua franca.

It is important to remember that these terms refer to nonstandard language, which is not the same as substandard language. Simple grammar does not reflect simple minds. A pidgin or creole can be used by an intelligent person to make a sophisticated and important point.

We will look at many aspects of language in future issues of Language Lore. We should learn a lot together. We must, however, remember not to become language snobs.

I hope you have enjoyed this first issue of Language Lore.


Imagine you are a detective with the Canadian Mounties investigating the theft of a Christmas tree from a cabin in northern Alberta. No surprise – it’s snowing – so you start by looking for footprints. That’s also how the verb “to investigate” got started – by looking at footprints..

If you find the thief’s footprints, they will represent your first trace or vestige of the scoundrel. A vestige is a trace of something (or in this case someone) – often something from a prior time. In biology, vestigial generally refers to an aspect of a plant or animal that is atrophied, residual, or without function. A vestigial organ is one that no longer performs a function it previously performed.

Investigate combines the Latin prefix in (= in) and vestigo – from vestigium – Latin for “footprint.” The word vestige also emanates from the same source. Vestige entered English through French. Modern English and French both use the word vestige in the same way and with the same spelling. They are true cognates – words that are similar in spelling and meaning in two languages that are being compared. We will discuss cognates and how to use them effectively in future issues of Language Lore.

.. Mastering new words and using them accurately, confidently, and without pretension will make you a more interesting and influential communicator.

It took me a while to choose the word to highlight in this first issue of Words that Work. Words were literally dancing through my head. Ultimately, I decided to find a word that started with the letter Q, The letter Q seems to be under-represented in all things alphabetical. Q just doesn’t seem to get much respect.
I also vaguely remembered having encountered the same
Q-word on entrance exams for both college and graduate school.

So the word is…

Quidnunc (KWID nunk)

A quidnunc is a gossipybusybody. Quidnuncs are zealous in acquiring information (possibly false) about what’s going on with everybody and everything. The word comes from two Latin words Quid (What) and nunc (now). You might use it this way:

He was the village quidnunc – always looking for juicy gossip.*

The appearance of quidnunc on multiple entrance exams indicates we should know the word. Quidnunc doesn’t sound too pretentious, but you may want to consider whether it is suited to the audience and occasion. You definitely don’t want to use it in reference to a friend you want to keep.

*Please note I used the male subject pronoun. I think women are too often and//unfairly characterized as the gossipy ones.

About Dr. Becker and Language Rocks

I am John C Becker, a marketing professor with a Ph.D. in international marketing and a research emphasis on intercultural communication.

I have also been a senior marketing executive for three global companies. I have traveled to over 60 countries as a student, teacher, tourist, and businessperson. I have studied languages formally in England, France, and Germany. I have also been learning about language and languages informally almost every day of my life.

I honestly and humbly believe you will be fascinated and rewarded as you think and learn about words, languages, and communication. And, of ours, I want to learn from you. So it is with enthusiasm and pride I invite you to join others in the experience that is Language Rocks.

What will you find here?

A major feature of Language Rocks is the on-going series of Word Safaris. Each one is an overview of the history, use, and fun aspects of one or more English words. On a Word Safari, you delve into a word’s history and personality, as well as its definition, That word becomes a close friend.

You can make some powerful friends by using Words that Work to expand and enrich your vocabulary.

Language Lore explores some of the most interesting aspects of language. These aspects range from formal linguistics to silly sayings in different languages.

There are other features from time to time, such as A Little Latin Goes a Long Way and I’m a Stranger Here (dealing with cultural sensitivity and intercultural communication).

Language really does ROCK. And it’s all right here!

Pensées I

This is a new feature in “Pensées” means “thoughts” in French. “Pensées” has been used by several outstanding French writers as the title of a work of self-revelation. Loving everything French as I do,  I have always wanted to publish “My Pensées.”

The original plan was to write this first Pensées solely about my thoughts on the seemingly endless stream of accusations  of sexual harassment coming from “Hollywood,” Washington DC, Academia and elsewhere. Later I decided it necessary to preface those thoughts with a brief look at the personal philosophy from which those thoughts emanate. The following quote (French of course) is sort of a bedrock of my philosophy:

La plus grande chose du monde, c’est de savoir etre à soi.
(The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself)

This Mihichel de Montaigne* quote pretty well describes how I try to live life. The philosophy is based on three rules discussed below.  Am I confident of these three rules? Among adults, there are two groups that are sure they’ve got everything right – the very young and the very old. I have managed to move from the first group into the second – so I’m doubly sure of myself.

Rule #1 is Know Thyself. As Montaigne says, you have to belong to yourself. Is that a self-centered philosophy? Not at all. We all want to be loved. And to be loved you must give a piece of yourself to others. You can’t give away something you don’t own thus you must own, or belong to, yourself. To achieve that goal, you must know yourself. To quote Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Rule #2 is Go First. The surest way to get the things you most want in life (things such as trust, respect, recognition, etc) is to first give those things to others without regard for their return. This requires courage because typically you would prefer the other person go first in defining a relationship. That’s a mistake. Why? Because he or she is waiting for you to go first.

You must summon the courage to go first and risk being vulnerable. The fear of being vulnerable is a big cause of inaction – especially in situations where there is a lot at stake and a perceived disparity in power. But in those cases especially you must act quickly.

What are things we all want? Love would be high on nearly everyone’s list. Higher still would be respect. Again, we must go first. We must communicate respect for everyone we interact with from the moment we meet them. When we fail to communicate respect for a person we are denying our inherent kinship and diminishing the dignity incumbent in their humanness.

Rule #3 is Do Good Now. One day, after having made a spontaneous, potentially hurtful remark to somebody I said   to myself “I’m going to regret my thoughtless and unkind words and actions someday.” Then it occurred to me that likely a bigger regret would be the good, kind, and supportive things I might have said or done but did not say or do. That was one important lesson learned. Remember: You will feel better if you do it now.

Can these three rules lead us to intelligent observations and useful conclusions about how to detoxify the current distrustful and vitriolic climate created by persons who don’t know or care about the rules. I am convinced that these rules are an important part of becoming the person you want to be and that they are part of the last, best solution to the problem of sexual misconduct.

I cannot and do not assert that my thoughts on sexual misconduct should command more attention or carry more weight than anyone else’s. Yet this is an issue about which no one should remain ignorant, indifferent, or silent.

An incident of sexual harassment typically involves a woman and a man who are interacting within the context of a definable relationship (boss: subordinate; doctor: patient; police officer: citizen; professor: student, et. al.) I will share my thoughts on the three elements: the context, the woman, and the man.**

I have never been a woman, which undoubtedly limits my understanding of how a woman might feel in situations involving unwanted sexual overtures. Hopefully my efforts to be empathetic will minimize the problem. Despite my perhaps limited male perspective, I will venture to express my concerns about how, when, and where some recent public accusations were put forth. This may sound like criticism,  and it is. But I hope it doesn’t sound like “blaming the victim.” Nothing “you say, do –  or wear – should invite unwanted sexual attention.

My first concern is with waiting years to make an accusation. This can seem like part of an effort to ladle on layers of additional accusations for political, vindictive, or self-promotional purposes. Memories also change with time. Details get added, subtracted, and moved around. A one-time lover becomes a panderer, and consent once given is retroactively withdrawn. Delay in such cases is unconscionable. If something demands to be brought to light: Do it now. And do it in private and proper channels.  It bothers me when the most private of issues are laundered in the most public of places.

I can completely understand why a woman might be fearful of the impact of bringing the serious wrongdoings of a powerful man to the attention of someone (potentially another powerful man) in an organization “run by” powerful men. To that woman I say:  Their power is illusory.

In thinking about how to respond in such situations, I recommend  a woman recall our three rules.

Rule #1 Know Thyself can help you realize  that – armed with the truth –  you are the powerful one. You have more power than they do. If the need arises, you should tell them that in no uncertain terms.

Rule#2 Go First reminds us that the fear of being vulnerable can lead to temporary or long-term inaction which jeopardizes the ultimate outcome for you and for other victims. Delay does not really serve the miscreant well either.  It simply encourages arrogant insouciance or pathetic unawareness.

If you don’t bring the truth to light immediately you are ignoring Rule #3 Do Good Now. Save your sisters. Report the incident. Liberate yourself and future victims. You may also be doing good for the harasser. Perhaps he “learns his lesson” and seeks counseling.

In the end, I would say to a woman who is the victim of unwanted sexual overtures:“Give ‘em Hell.” Let them know you know you have more power than they do and you’re prepared to use it. Don’t let them intimidate you or try to blackmail or bribe you. After all, no job – or even career – is worth your dignity and self-respect. Besides that, it won’t happen, you are the one with the power. The bad is going to happen to them.

To women outraged by the extent of male impropriety, I say: “We’re not all bad.” And we’re not all guilty. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of recent accusations are essentially fair and accurate. (You only have to look at the number of –  often lame – confessions and “apologies” of perpetrators to convince yourself of that).

Nonetheless common sense and everyday experience tell us that not every accusation ”tells it like it was” Recognizing that not every allegation tells the entire story,  I’d like to see a bit more “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty” type thinking evident in the reporting of, discussion about, and response to all accusations.

To men who are unconcerned about, prone to, or engaged in harassment I want to say:   Get ready for some big changes. Retribution is coming ande it will be painful. Women are stirred up. You could feel the extent of that stir in the audience reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, where he accepted the lifetime achievement award. She said Sidney Poitier, the first African-American recipient of the award, is  the most “elegant” man she could remember.

True. Poitier is an elegant man. He is also a gentleman. Elegance is probably something few men will achieve. We should all aspire, however, to be gentlemen. That would pretty much eliminate sexual misconduct. That’s where the real solution lies  – in honoring, raising, becoming, and remaining gentlemen.  Women should demand and expect gentlemanly behavior. A gentleman does not take advantage of anyone – especially no t someone less powerful or experienced than he is. He does not impose himself on other people in any way; and he does not lose control of himself.

Gentlemanliness may be growing scarcer but women appreciate it and find it attractive. As do other men, children, and small pets; nearly everyone responds positively to gentlemanliness. Applying Rule One Know Thyself is the best way to follow the gentleman’s path. It’s better to become the man you want to be earlier rather than later. Honest introspection will help you know where you stand now and where you need to go.***

You will be rewarded throughout your life for following Rule#2 Go First. You must give others those things you most want to receive with no strings attached and with no guarantee the other person will respond in kind. This leaves you vulnerable. But let’s face it: vulnerability is a large part of life, and the ability to deal with vulnerability graciously and effectively is a sign of emotional maturity.

Remember that the desire for respect is nearly universal and of huge importance. Unwanted sexual attention is perhaps the most disrespectful behavior possible. It also does not simulate love. There is no closeness or tenderness involvedThe victim has feelings of disgust, violation, and retribution. Hardly a romantic outcome.

The female victim  is very likely fearful she lacks the power the male harasser has. She is worried about her future. Actually, a man who commits sexual improprieties has very little power and is seeing his power diminish as he continues his misbehavior.

Women really are stirred up. I hope and trust this means they.are becoming less fearful and more inclined to use their power: the power of the truth.

We should not deem pitiable the outcomes that befall the most egregious offenders. The outcomes are severe. The perpetrator destroys his reputation or builds a new worse than the old. He loses his job, his family, even his freedom. Perhaps the worst punishment the harasser suffers is the self-inflicted ignominy that will last a lifetime. The best way to avoid such pathetic outcomes is to follow Rule#3 Do Good Now. Strive not to take advantage of-  but rather to help, honor, mentor and promote women.

The power we think we have can be illusory. Power, like every important thing we might seek, is best acquired by giving it away. The powerful leader is one who gives power to others and uses his own power to good purpose. Empowering and mentoring women serves us all. It will also earn their respect and possibly even their genuine affection.

* Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) was a prominent French philosopher and essayist.

**This is the pattern of the most recent public accusations. I am certain that women do harass men and that sexual harassment exists in the gay and lesbian communities. Not addressing such cases reflects a lack of space – not of respect or concern. In any event, I am certain Rules 1, 2 & 3 will provide some guidance in all cases.

*** I found Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son on how to be and remain a gentleman interesting and useful. (I have no current reference – but I am sure Amazon has it).

Do you like to flirt?

Of course everyone likes to flirt. For some of us flirting is our preferred method of communicating. We flirt constantly and confidently. Others among us flirt reluctantly, being too unsure of our flirting skills to display them publicly. Oftentimes we hope that the “flirtee will go first. I am not going to try, in this Word Safari, to develop a program to improve your flirting skills. That would take us on a totally different sort of Safari. Instead we are simply going to trace the origins of the word flirt. Simply is perhaps not the right word since tracing the origin of flirt will involve some minor complications  and detours*

Flirting, courting, and wooing often involve flowers. So it is not surprising to find that flirt comes from Old French fleureter which comes in turn from fleur, the word for flower. Fleureter was a verb meaning to move from flower to flower like a bee. Another related word was fleurette which emerged around 1200 and meant “little flower.”  By the 1600’s, conter fleurette à une femme meant to whisper sweet nothings in a woman’s ear.

In the 1800’s, the noun flirt and the verb flirter were widely used throughout France, having been recently adopted from English. The verb flirter is used the same way in  contemporary France as it is in the United States.  There is a slight difference in how the noun flirt is used. In France un flirt is not a person; it refers to a brief romantic relationship. Although brief, this relationship typically goes somewhat beyond mere flirtation.

Rosenthal uses the following translation to illustrate the use of un flirt:,/p>

Elle a eu un flirt avec Jean. C’était son premier flirt. =>  She had a romantic relationship with Jean. It was her first such fling.

There are no French equivalents to the English words flirtation or flirtatious. Don’t try using them in French.

In English there are other uses for the word flirt:

  • You can flirt or you can flit from flower to flower (remember the verb fleureter and the bees)**

There are other uses in French too, Here’s one:

  • Flirting can lead to more serious situations – Thus un flirt can sometimes refer to a randy man or woman.

Remember this: Flirting is Fun

*You may want to consult Saul H. Rosenthal’s French Words You Use Without Knowing It. The book goes into greater depth in discussing the etymological history of flirting and is the principal resource used in researching this Safari..

**Butterflies also flit from flower to flower. The French word for butterfly is le papillon.  Although fleureter is no longer used in French you can use the verb papillonner which means to flit from one thing to another

*** I added this footnote because I wanted to express my opinion that papillon is one of the most beautiful words in French. Similarly the Spanish and Italian words for butterfly: la mariposa and la farfalla are among the most beautiful words in those languages. This reflects the fact that something as beautiful as a butterfly should have a beautiful name. It also reflects the beauty of romance languages.

Love thy neighbor but keep the fence


Neighbor is a simple word -–-no Greek, no Latin  no fuss. Neighbor is also a powerful word, its strength coming from its simplicity and Germanic origin. It is the modern  version of the Old English neahGebür, which meant a nearby farmer. Neah is seen in English nigh and modern German Nahe, both meaning “near.” Although nigh is not an everyday English  word, we could  write and understand:

The word neighbor has been a bona fide English word for nigh onto 1500 years

Gebür is related to the modern German Bauer which came into English through the Dutch word boor. Boor no longer means farmer but generally refers to a person of poor circumstance and unrefined manner.

Our relations with neighbors are so important that almost every language has several proverbs and sayings dealing with the subject. Here  are a couple I like,

Brothers, rivers, and priests are three bad neighbors (Sicily)

Judge a man not by the words of his mother, but from the comments of his neighbors.(Hebrew)

A recurring theme across the proverbs of many countries is the idea that a nearby neighbor may be more helpful to you than a distant relative in time of need. This Danish proverb is typical:

A good neighbor is better than a brother far off

If you assembled all the proverbs about neighbors in a particular language you would repeatedly find the word for  fence. Worldwide, there is much agreement with the thought that “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Whether they be physical, social, or imaginary maintain your fences. It’s easier to maintain them than to mend them


Joseph Joubert on Teaching & Learning


What he said:

« Enseigner c’est apprendre deux fois » (“To teach is to learn twice”)

What I think

I think of teaching as a sort of “learning out loud.” When you prepare to teach a course you must master the material on l well enough to be able to present it clearly and simply. That’s the easy part. The challenge is to stimulate and foster learning. Get students excited. There’s reciprocity here. Teachers learn from students all the while the students are learning from them. It’s probably the greatest perk of teaching

Below is what I would say to someone asking about the long-term value of education.

There is no more noble, challenging, or rewarding journey than that upon which you embark in pursuit of an education. Learning brings freedom. In some ways your education is the only thing you will ever truly own. No one can take from you the knowledge, skills, and creations of the mind made possible by a lifetime commitment to learning. These creations of the mind will amuse you when you’re bored, console you when you’re down, and give you confidence when you falter.

We are each of us architects of our own education. All learning is ultimately self-learning. SELF-learning both because we must do it ourselves and because through the process we will learn a great deal about ourselves. (Re) read my April 3 post in which I assert you cannot give yourself away – to spouses, children, friends, and lovers – unless you OWN yourself. I assert here that your education is the only thing you will ever really own.

Combining these points of view I think raises questions about whether failure to educate oneself potentially leads to isolation and lack of fulfillment.

What do you think?

*Joseph Joubert (1754 -1824) A French moralist and essayist best known for his Pensées

Language Learning Tip – Pronunciation

Language Learning Tip

Very soon after beginning your study of another language you’re going to want to have a bilingual dictionary. There are online dictionaries as well as software apps. Some of these are “talking” dictionaries -the advantage of which is you get to hear the word pronounced by native speakers. I am very big on learning to pronounce a language well – achieving something at least close to native pronunciation. All in all I prefer a dictionary in book form.

Look for a dictionary with correct pronunciation indicated using the international phonetic alphabet (the IPA is a valuable tool in language learning)..

You want a dictionary with as many example phrases and sentences as possIble showing formal and idiomatic usage. When we talk about vocabulary building in a  future posting, I will suggest learning words in the context of a phrase or sentence rather than as an isolated word. This makes the new word easier to remember

I prefer a dictionary with the New Language: English section first. Followed by English: New Language section. I just feel it’s more polite that way – sort of giving their language top billing.

Regardless of their order, you will often benefit greatly from looking up the same word in both sections of the bilingual dictionary

Let’s use the Italian verb badare as an example. If we look it up in my Collins dictionary it tells us that badare  means to look after/mind/ take care of/ and to attend to. A busy little word. We also find several  useful idiomatic expressions

Bada a fatti tuoi means  “mind your own business.” How could we live without that one?

Nessuno gli ha badato means “ nobody paid any attention to him.”

The badare entry also shows four more useful expressions that might well fit into an everyday conversation and be useful to learn. “

If we want to use the idea of paying attention, we’re going to look up “pay attention” in the English: Italian section. Here we find attenzione, stare attento, and, fare atternzione. Since we don’t find badare  we might decide it’s not the best choice for asking someone to pay attention.

I know you’re not going to look up every word every time in both sections of the bilingual ldictionary but sometimes that pays off. Of course the best thing you can do is to ask a native speaker to explain how a word is used and the nuanced differences among words with broadly the same meaning.

Worldly Wit and Wisdom

What They Say
Author: Michel de Montaigne*
<< La plus grande chose du monde, c’est de savoir etre à soi>>
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself

What I think
I agree with this quote which pretty much sums up my personal philosophy. I seldom read fiction – generally preferring textbooks. However a book I read in my early teen years had a lasting impact on my thinking. The Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C Douglas pointed to the magic that comes from giving a piece of oneself to others.
I figured I should try that.- give away pieces of myself. I recognized that you can’t give away what you don’t own. Thus I agree with Montaigne -it’s important to belong to oneself.
What do you think?

* Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) was a leading French Renaissance philosopher and essayist.

Word Safari XXII – Three with P

Word Safari XXII
Let’s take the P …

The letter ‘P” is the first letter in the spelling of four very interesting words. I like these words: all four can be used to describe human characteristics, traits, or talents. The first two words would seem to describe people with whom we would enjoy interacting- the last two perhaps less so.
To say that a person is perspicacious is to say that he or she is blessed with superior insight, intuition, and judgment. This reflects its basis in the Latin word specio, which means “to see clearly.” I would think a perspicacious person (one possessed of great perspicacity) would have an advantage in life. To tell a person that he or she is perspicacious would be to pay them a compliment.
The perspicacious person is also likely able to present his or her ideas in a clear, perspicuous way. We can say that a person is perspicuous; however, that adjective is more often applied to his or her clear writing or clear presentation. If we tell the person that he or she is perspicuous or possesses perspicuity, we would again be paying them a compliment. I think we would agree that perspicuity is an advantage in life
A pertinacious person is persistent in pursuing his/her plans and goals.* Such persistence will probably assist in achieving those goals but along the way their pertinacity may annoy and alienate others. So telling a person they are pertinacious may or may not be a compliment and they may not take it as such (if they know what the word means).
The adjective precocious has something to do with being cooked. Indeed, coquere is Latin for “to cook.” The prefix prae means “before”, so praecoquere means precooked. Originally the term was a botany term where coquere meant to ‘ripen’as well as to cook. So precocious means ripened early or premature. Having been a precocious child may or may not be an advantage in the person subsequent adulthood. I don’t think we often intendit as a compliment when we label a child precocious.
I think it is probably better to be perspicacious and perspicuous than it is to be precocious and pertinacious.

*How do you like all the P’s in this sentence, uh?