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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Wonderful World of Language

Language contains nuance. As a writer, I understand that different words/phrases carry different shades of meaning and I'll write and rewrite a sentence until it conveys what it needs to show and does it in the character's voice.

When I speak, though, I'm not this precise. For one thing, we don't really have time during a conversation to edit and re-edit what we want to say until it's exactly right. If I did that, the person I was talking to would finish and walk away before I said anything. :-) But I've learned one thing working with engineers. They are nothing if not precise.

For example, if I use a sentence with the words: you have to they don't take it the way I mean it. In fact, they immediately stop listening and I get the I don't have to do anything reply. Sigh. As if I give orders and expect instant obedience. When I say you have to, I usually mean, wouldn't it be funny if. Totally different meaning.

I was talking to one of my tech writers about it last week and we started wondering if maybe it was a Minnesota way of speaking. Both the engineers that respond so negatively to that phrase are not from the state originally and I haven't had any of the others get their backs up when I say it. Which of course, led to a conversation on regionalisms. This is something I find fascinating and I'd love to take an in-depth class just on this one topic. I've already done the linguistics in college, and while the diphthongs and what all were interesting enough, they weren't riveting like local speech.

So what are some Minnesota/Twin Cities things?

Will you borrow me a pencil?

Of course, we really mean will you loan me a pencil, but that's not what anyone says, and hey, everyone (pretty much) understands it even if it isn't technically correct.

We're also really good at not finishing our sentences and understanding each other. I have a friend who's originally from North Dakota and she said to me one time how frustrating it was for her because she never understood what we were saying. Until that moment, I didn't realize we didn't finish our sentences, but she has a point. It's very typical to hear:

Do you want to go with?

This is what gave my friend problems. We very possibly could have meant: Do you want to go with John, Jane, and me to the bookstore? Everything is implied in the simple, shorter, and quicker: Do you want to go with? I mean, hey, if the 4 of us are having a conversation about buying books, what else could that sentence mean, right? LOL!

Um, I've kind of noticed I sometimes don't finish sentences in my books either, although since I'm aware of it, I do try to keep an eye out for that. But hey, people take shortcuts when they talk, and a couple of engineers aside, we as English speakers can't get so caught up in each word that we lose sight of the communication. But despite this, I am going to to try to not use you have to to any of my engineers again.