Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Language’ Category

Carefully Crafting Headlines and Barfing Up Titles

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There’s a distinct difference between writing headlines for advertising or marketing copy and writing titles for fiction. Here is that difference:

Writing headlines is an interesting, challenging process where I get to try different techniques
to craft an engaging line to elicit a specific response.

Writing titles sucks.

Oh, I know they’re both in my job description. As a freelance copywriter, I often write multiple headlines in a day. (Here’s an old post on what it is a copywriter really does, just in case you’ve forgotten.) And as a fiction writer, every piece I write needs a title.

So why the big difference? Read the rest of this entry »

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January 7, 2013 at 9:02 am

Can Your Hands Speak 40 Languages?

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I’m always reading and doing research for any number of projects, and occasionally something sticks with me that just continues to be fascinating.

This post is about one of those fascinating things … but prepare yourself.
The more you think about this one, the more interesting it gets.

Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s Better at English? Swedes or 6-Year-Olds?

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Ever go to plan a vacation (somewhere … anywhere but here!) and wonder where your English will be of the most use?

Of course, I’d advocate learning at least some, if not a significant amount, of any local tongue. But let’s face it: learning all of the world’s estimated 6,500 languages is hard. Like, really hard.

So what countries speak English the best?

This blog post from The Economist highlights a new study that examines the fluency of foreign English speakers.

According to the post:

EF Education First, an English-teaching company, compiled the biggest ever internationally comparable sample of English learners: some 2m people took identical tests online in 44 countries. The top five performers were Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The bottom five were Panama, Colombia, Thailand, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Among regions, Latin America fared worst. (No African country had enough takers to make the lists’s threshold for the minimum number of participants.)

The post, which is fairly short and contains lots of other intriguing tidbits about the whys and hows of foreign fluency.

But one thing in particular caught my eye:

Starting young, while it seems a good idea, may not pay off: children between eight and 12 learn foreign languages faster than younger ones, so each class hour on English is better spent on a 10-year-old than on a six-year-old.


All right. I guess I can buy that, especially from a financial standpoint, but I would like to point something out.

Even though children may be able to learn more quickly at a later age, it still may be a good idea to start a second language younger so that by age 10, they’re already working with a good foundation and can grow from there.

An often-cited study by K.A. Ericsson and A.C. Lehmann shows that expertise in almost any field requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

If older children really soak up languages better than their younger brothers and sisters, think how much more and how quickly a ten-year-old would learn if he’d already had four years of instruction.

Written by Nathanael Green

April 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

“Bimbo” Lost in Translation?

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Hennes the billy goat loves 1. FC Köln!

So, I like soccer. When I lived in Germany, I lived near Cologne, and naturally my Bundesliga team was the local 1. FC Köln. Even now, I’m still a fan of die Geißböcke, though games are hard to catch on TV.

(Left is Hennes, their mascot. As if you needed another reason to love Cologne.)

Here in the States, though, soccer is much less prominent, but despite that, I recently got a local team of my own to cheer for. And that, dear friends is Philadelphia Union.

Read the rest of this entry »

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January 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm

The Alot and the Close-Talker Solution

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According to Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half, the appropriate action to take when confronted with a close talker is:

This image alone made me laugh so hard I thought I’d ruptured a lung. Wheezing and hacking. Tears. Literally.

What’s this have to do with the usual word-nerdery on this blog? Well, this is from a post entitled “The Awkward Situation Survival Guide.” And one of those situations is encounters with close talkers. And talking (close or otherwise) is linguistic. Or something.

Whatever. It’s funny and I couldn’t keep it to myself. But even better news is that I browsed through more posts and found one that actually (no really, I mean it) has to do with grammar and apostrophobes!

Here it is: The Alot is Better Than You at Everything.

Thank you, Stacey, for alerting me to this blog, and thank you, Ms. Brosh for teaching me how to act in public.

Image: Allie Brosh

Written by Nathanael Green

November 29, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Controlling Your Tongue

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Just one of many

If you’ve ever taken college English, you know something about styles of writing. And you know there are different ones with different rules.

MLA, Chicago, AP … and those are just a few established style guides in the US. Then you’ve got spelling differences between American English and British English (color and colour).

But what if there were a central agency to regulate English spelling, usage and grammar? Other languages have them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nathanael Green

May 24, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Go into a Coma, Speak Fluent German?

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In a previous post about language disorders, I mentioned Foreign Accent Syndrome. That’s where  a person who’s suffered a brain injury suddenly  sounds as if they have a foreign accent, usually due to a specific speech impediment.

Something seemingly similar, but actually quite different, happened recently in Croatia. This article talks about a recent instance when a girl awoke from a coma unable to speak her native Croatian. Instead, she was fluent in German.

Of course, being in a coma didn’t impart any miraculous lessons ala Phenomenon; she had been studying German already.

Still, it’s interesting to think about how the brain handles language if her first language (Croatian) is suddenly inaccessible and her facility with a second language she’d been studying is enhanced.

I don’t know how much follow-up there will be in this case, though I’d be very interested to learn if her Croatian returns, and if so, will she still retain a high-level of German proficiency?

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April 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Thesis Snow Aye Twos Tart Able Log

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Back in college, we used to play an amazing game at parties. This game was Mad Gab. And it can be hilarious and frustrating … especially after a few drinks.

For those of you unfamiliar with this little orange box of mind-gnarling cards, Mad Gab is a game for at least two players, usually more, broken into teams. You flash a card, and one team reads the words on it aloud and tries to guess what it says.

The trick is that each card has a bunch of recognizable words already on it, but when they’re spoken together, they’ll form another word or phrase that isn’t immediately clear. For example, a card might read:

Eighty Fin Sat Earn He


Bed Chirp Autumn Doll Her

(Go ahead. Read them aloud. They don’t work subvocally.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nathanael Green

February 10, 2010 at 11:57 am

Green J’s and Salty Wednesdays

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Today, I’ve been prompted to think about speech and language disorders. It’s a broad category that ranges from stuttering to completely unrecognizable speech, but here are just a few conditions that I found interesting:

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Imagine you woke up one morning and could only speak with a Boston accent. (I can imagine how Gregor Samsa felt.)

Usually brought on by a brain injury, FAS can alter how people speak so much so that they seem to suddenly take on a foreign accent. For instance, one English woman mentioned in this article suffered a stroke and when she woke up sounded like she had a Jamaican accent.

Read the rest of this entry »

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February 1, 2010 at 6:00 pm

See? English isn’t So Hard.

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A lot of people complain about how difficult the English language is.

Its spelling is crazy (see my earlier post on “ghoti” pronounced “fish”). English is full of contradictions with words like cleave being its own antonym–it means to cut off or sever, and also to cling or adhere.

We have a right to complain how hard our language is, don’t we? Well, considering some of the complexities in other languages, our complaints are like whining about too-tight  diamond rings and too-fat wallets.

Sure, English is a complicated language, but all languages are complicated. And this recent article in The Economist takes a look at some of the world’s most difficult languages and what makes them unique.

To be fair, I think the difficulty of any language is dictated by your own native tongue. So sure, Spanish is relatively easy for English speakers to pick up because of their similar histories and structure. But to a native speaker of Ainu, Spanish might seem just as mind-bogglingly unfamiliar as their language does to us.

And to an infant, English and the article’s most difficult language (I won’t spoil the surprise) are equally easy to acquire.

So whether it’s really the most difficult language or not is up for debate. But still, the article is well written and explores some fascinating aspects of different languages. One language discussed even causes a lump to form on each speaker’s larynx as they attempt to pronounce its sounds. Fun!

So definitely check out the article. And next time you complain about English – just remember that there’s no laryngeal disfigurement required.

Written by Nathanael Green

January 7, 2010 at 7:33 pm