People and words

It’s uncanny

It’s uncanny when a bank launches a promotion campaign for an ISA account aimed at “the canny saver” just after you’ve published an article about the word canny.

You’d think that somebody’s ripping off your idea. But it was probably more like two people coming up with the same thought – what a lovely word, let’s see how we can use it. In any case, here’s a reproduction of my article.

How it started

One of the first recordings of canny dates from the late sixteenth century, when people in Scotland used it for shrewd, related to can and meaning knowing how to. Hence, a canny lawyer. In England people later adopted this use as in a canny Scot – a thrifty guy with an eye for a chance to make money.

It also became a loaded term, meaning cunning or wily. But then something funny happened.

What changed

During the early eighteenth century canny also came to convey nice or good in northern English. From there it was only a small step to she’s a right canny lass – an attractive girl.

Canny lassies
Canny lassies

Further north, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–1796) used it to express quiet or snug and cozy: But gie me a cannie hour at e’en / My arms about my dearie, O (from Green Grow The Rashes).

New uses

In the late nineteenth century Scots started to ca’canny, but that was going slow at work. There are more uses of canny, one of them too vulgar too mention.

Confusion arises when people in Scotland say cannot. It can sound very much like canny, as in: you cannae shove your grannie aff a bus.

Meanwhile, uncanny means strange, especially in an unsettling way with a hint of malice. Like when you feel that someone’s watching you – it makes you uncomfortable.

People and words

But it’s wrong

Here’s a question. Which of the following two sentences do you prefer?

1. But I’ve always written like that.
2. However, I’ve always written like that.

Many people believe 1. is wrong, because they say you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, which is a word such as ‘but’ that’s used to connect parts of a sentence, clauses or words. ‘And’ is another conjunctive word.

But is it really wrong?

The idea that you’re not allowed to start a sentence with a conjunction comes from what linguists call prescriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar

Prescriptive grammar goes back a long time. The seventeenth century poet and playwright John Dryden was one of the first to make prescriptive pronouncements. Other early rule-makers were Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth.

These men wanted to fix the form of the English language. Their ideas laid the groundwork for grammar textbooks. As result, you may have been taught prescriptive grammar at school.

Prescriptive grammar says you cannot start a sentence with ‘But’ or ‘And’.

But why not?

There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest you can. The Bible, as early as Genesis 1.2 in the King James Version of 1611, starts sentences with “And then …”.

You can get modern arguments too. For example from Harry Ritchie or Steven Pinker. In his 2013 book English for the Natives Ritchie argues that the classical dictates of grammar are voiced less and less. And in his 2014 guide The Sense of Style Pinker says there’s nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Other, and perhaps less controversial language experts that preceded Ritchie and Pinker, such as Henry Fowler and Robert Burchfield, have also rejected what they called the apparently unshakeable belief that conjunctions must not be used at the opening of a sentence.

So, according to these specialists, it’s all right to start sentences with ‘But’. For example, it can be used to introduce an exception, objection, limitation or contrast.

Graceful or forceful

Placing ‘But’ as the first word can actually make a sentence more graceful as the novelist Iris Murdoch has done: “Of course they loved her, the two remaining ones, they hugged her, they had mingled their tears. But they could not converse with her.”

Starting with ‘but’ can also make your writing less formal or more forceful. Just think about Sherlock Holmes’ powerful reply “But, my dear Watson …”

Personal preference

So there’s nothing wrong with ‘But’ at the start of a sentence. It’s a matter of personal taste or individual preference. And that’s what the use of language is about: finding the right words for what you’ve got to say and the people you’re talking to.

Finally, playing with language can be fun. For this post I asked a linguist for an expert opinion. This is what he put in the subject box of his email reply: “Does my BUT look big in this?”

History People and words

What’s the use

Front cover image of This Cannot Happen Here.In my book This Cannot Happen Here – Integration and Jewish Resistance in the Netherlands, 1940-1945 (published by Amsterdam University Press) there’s a small section on the ways in which Jews used language. Here’s that passage.

During the 1930s Jews in the Netherlands were becoming part of a changing Dutch society. They contributed to some of the changes, but during the process of their integration into Dutch society Jews did not necessarily lose all characteristics of their Jewish identity. However, less than in the past Jews defined these characteristics in terms of religion such as congregational membership, synagogue attendance, observance of Jewish rituals and participation in organised Jewish education and activity. More than before, Jews in the Netherlands maintained and further developed Jewish identities in other aspects their daily life. This was expressed, for example, through the way they spoke.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century most Jews in the Netherlands spoke Dutch, which had replaced Yiddish as their everyday language. This had been a slow process, with Yiddish being diluted with Dutch, but the development accelerated after changes in education, where Jewish children increasingly took part in general, not specifically Jewish education. By 1900 some families still spoke Yiddish at home, but this was regarded as uncivilised by the establishment. Not only Jews changed their language – the general population also altered language use. Like other living languages, Dutch was constantly changing. Significantly, several Yiddish words were introduced into Dutch and used by non-Jews. For instance, the phrase het was een sof to indicate that an event had been bad or the use of the name Mokum for the Dutch capital Amsterdam showed that language change was part of a process of mutual cultural transfer.

The historian M.H. Gans has made several observations about the language spoken by Jews in Amsterdam. He noted their patter had certain characteristics that distinguished it from the Dutch spoken by non-Jews in that city.

Traditionally, the Jews of Amsterdam lived in and near a quarter on the east side of the city centre. It was not a restricted area or ghetto and was also inhabited by non-Jews. The old Jewish quarter in Amsterdam belonged to the part of the city that had some of the worst slums. Demolition of slums forced their inhabitants to move. Some individuals who were successful in business or employment also moved voluntarily to neighbouring and further outlying districts. However, such moves were by no means permanent. Sometimes people moved on, at other times they returned to the old neighbourhood, for example because they preferred living there as they had remained outsiders in the new neighbourhood or because they were forced to return as they could no longer afford the usually higher rents of their new homes. In any case, by 1930 only about 18 per cent of all Jews in Amsterdam still lived in the old neighbourhood. In 1941 there were four neighbourhoods in the capital where more than 50 per cent of the inhabitants were Jewish. In other neighbourhoods Jews often lived in clusters.

The population of Amsterdam used numerous language variants, some of which were specific to neighbourhoods. Jews had their own accents in the neighbourhoods where they were concentrated or they adapted the accent of the neighbourhood in which they lived or to which they moved.

Overall, Jews in Amsterdam pronounced some letters less sharp, their intonation was dissimilar, and they gave words extra endings, changed syntax and word order, and made different word choices and combinations. To some, this language sounded more melodious, others found it exaggerated or even vulgar.

Linguists have pointed out that it is common to have several speech communities within one city, which show differences in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation or intonation. These sometimes long-lasting differences can be caused by real or perceived ethnic origins. While this is a group phenomenon, individuals within one family can use different spoken variants of a language, not always depending on their education, and one person can use various language forms at different times, often in relation to the people he or she is addressing. The language Gans heard from Jews in Amsterdam can be best described as a non-standard variety of Dutch. For example, the feature he mentioned of wij bennen instead of wij zijn (we are) is characteristic of non-standard language.

Jews may have used language variety for several reasons. An overtly flowery word choice could have been typical for persons who were uncertain about their language use, for example, working-class people who thought their language use was improper or incorrect. This relates to what linguists call striving for overt prestige (in the eyes of users of the standard language) rather than covert prestige (in the eyes of users of non-standard forms). It suggests that the Jewish users of standard and non-standard Dutch wanted to express a sense of belonging, either to the group that apparently spoke the standard variety – ‘proper Dutch’ – or to the group that did not. As such, how Jews spoke and what they said could have been knowingly or unintentionally a response to attitudes about Jews in the general population, a wish to hide or express a Jewish identity or a desire to participate in or abstain from certain activities, both Jewish and general activities. However, the use of a non-standard variant could also cause misunderstandings between Jews and non-Jews, which set Jews apart within the general population.

People and words

Where angels cycle

This story takes you from Scotland across the Atlantic, then to the Netherlands and from there to who knows where.

It starts a few years ago, when I get involved in a project for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Arts & Business. They’re based in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. As a selected copywriter, I’m teamed up with graphic designer John Tafe.

Our task is to respond to sampling an unidentified malt whisky. We have to use our senses to guide the creative response. Our response has to take the form of a new name and a unique label, which will be used to bottle the whisky.

Sipping our whisky reminds us both of summers at home, that is our homes before we settled in the UK.

John is from Boston, Massachusetts. He remembers the taste of a refreshing rain shower on a muggy American night.

The whisky flavour makes me think back to when I was a young boy in Delft in the Netherlands.

In Delft we often visited my aunt. She lived on the edge of town. Behind her house was a play park. A local association ran it. The old men of the neighbourhood met each afternoon in the wooden shed of the caretaker. They usually played cards. On a warm day, they kept a bucket with ice and bottles of beer beside their card table.

As my brother, cousin and I walked by the shed on a sunny afternoon, I saw one of the men quenching his thirst. Then he said something I didn’t understand. It sounded like “It’s as if an angel is …”

I ran back to my aunt’s house to ask what he meant. Mum quickly answered: “Ben, he says ‘It’s as if an angel is cycling on your tongue.’” It kept me wondering for days. How can angels cycle on your tongue?

Later I learn the actual saying. It’s about something tasting really good. In fact, the Dutch say ‘t Is net alsof er een engeltje op je tong piest (It’s as if an angel is peeing on your tongue). Clever mum, wanting to protect my innocent ears, used the Dutch word fietst, which means cycling, instead of piest, which is peeing.

Drinking my whisky with John, a name starts forming itself in my mind. I suggest it out loud. We take another look at our glass, noticing the whisky’s extraordinary colour, and decide – Heaven’s Leak.

John comes up with ideas for the label. And designs it. Following a showing at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the project’s artwork moves to the London Design Festival. It’s also included in 26 Malts, Some Joy Ride, published by Cyan Books. Meanwhile, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society starts selling Heaven’s Leak. It goes down a treat.

Picture of the label of Heaven's Leak


People and words

“You’ve got to go”

The following story was written for the Nework in Newark project. The photo above was taken by Norma Braber-McKinney.

You could say violin making runs in the family of Pauline Riteau: “It was Dad’s first love. He has made violins for as long as I can recall. When Dad heard I too wanted to make violins, he said ‘You’ve got to go to Newark’.”

I tell you this story not because I want to talk about Pauline’s father, although he’s an interesting character from Angers in western France. Nor do I tell it to talk about the Newark School of Violin Making, where Pauline studies, although it’s one of the top three schools in the world, up there with the schools in Mittenwald and Cremona.

No, I tell it only because I’m asked to come up with an idea to make people feel good about Newark. That’s Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, England. My idea is to tell stories about people in Newark – their life, family, home, work, talent, skill and success. It’s one of those stories.

For Pauline’s father violin making remained a hobby. “Dad was unable to do it for a living. When my brother and I were born, he had to forget his idea to study violin making. He had to get a job. Put food on the table.”

You were luckier?

“Yes, I could start studying instrument making in France. But that didn’t work out. The problem in France is that they only teach you the French way.”

Is Newark any better?

“It’s good. I learn a lot and I’m happy here. Mind you, I sometimes miss my family and friends and get a little homesick.”

What will you do when you’re qualified?

“I’m going to get work experience. And I’m talking to a famous violin maker about a job. But my ideal would be to have my own workshop.”

One of Pauline’s fellow students is Younjoon Chung. He’s from Seoul in South Korea.

There’s a moment in your life when you have to say: “This is what I want to do and I’m going to do it.” For Younjoon the moment came when he was studying for a PhD in robotics.

“My Dad is an army general who became professor at the military academy. In Korea the oldest son is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But that wasn’t what I really wanted to do.

“I loved my cello. I’ve played it ever since I was young. What I really wanted was to build such a beautiful instrument. Wouldn’t it be great to earn a living by making a cello?”

But why study in Newark?

“I spoke to students from different schools. The guys from Newark had a better attitude.

“I love it here. I play in the Trent Chamber Academy (an orchestra that consists mostly of students from the Newark School of Violin Making who make music on instruments they’ve built themselves).

“I’ve also joined an electric cello band.”


“Yeah. We play heavy metal.”

And your next step?

“I’ll open a workshop, so that I can do what makes me happy – I just want people to enjoy playing my cello.”