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March 14, 2012

What's A Yankee?

Learning a language is tough enough, but when meanings change over time and locale, it can be a strange experience to...

...know how to use a certain word and then find that when you use it, other people either don't understand what you said or take it a whole other way.

Here are only a few examples; I live in the Pacific Northwest corner of the United States - the upper left corner if you are looking at a map.

In my region, I almost never hear or use the term "yankee". If I hear it in conversation, it usually refers to someone from New England - which is the far right-hand corner of the USA. But it usually, or maybe even almost always, refers to a person from that part of the country over two hundred years ago.

But if I hear it in a national or international news program, it refers to all Americans - so, I suddenly become, at least for the moment, to someone thousands of miles away, a "yankee" or even a "yank".

But it doesn't fit very well, so I would never introduce or describe myself that way.

As always, definitions depend on the context. Who is asking? How specific do they want to get? What kind of answer are they expecting?

For example, when I was living in Beijing, China, a common question I faced was "Where are you from?"

Of course I knew where I was from, but the difficulty lay in trying to figure out what kind of answer the asker really wanted. Sometimes "America" was good enough, sometimes "The West Coast of the USA" fit, but sometimes the person asking me had experience or family in the USA, so this person would want a more precise answer. For that person I might say "Washington state" or "Near Seattle" though sometimes, especially for a Chinese person, "Near San Francisco" was close enough.

At some level, it didn't really matter, but it did make me think more about who I am and where "home" really is.

For more detail on this idea of how contextual language is, take a look at this article - http://busyteacher.org/10112-teacher-contextualizing-language-learning.html.

I confess to being a word nerd, and I love the many possibilities and contradictions in a language as flexible and fluid as English.

Send us any words or phrases that make you crazy and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


P.S. I might be available this coming summer, so if you would like me to work with your school or program, please contact me at mmorf@mail.com.

Posted by mmorf at March 14, 2012 10:31 PM


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