Beauty and the beasts

‘I’m loving it’ my friend and former student Jörg said after he’d read  my first post of this blog. I smiled.  Then he said ‘it’s your duty to protect your students from this sort of English!’ and I stopped smiling. I realised he wasn’t speaking about his reading experience. He was telling me to warn others about the public abuse, in this case perpetrated by Ronald McDonald, of the language he’d learnt so well.

Now Jörg is one of those wonderful people who you can always count on to help you to get a grip, no matter what shit life throws at you. He never takes anything too seriously and is always able to make fun of whatever it is that gets us down. This is very contagious. For this reason, I know his warning was said tongue in cheek, but it nevertheless made me think how the language our students learn from their teachers can be so different to the language they experience in the real world. The question is, how do we deal with this?

Language is a beautiful thing – sculpted for centuries, charmed by writers, studied by linguists and contemplated by philosophers. The more we study its beauty and understand how it works, the more we are offended, just as Jörg was, when we see it attacked by what I regard as the beasts.  Forgive me if I’m wrong, and I often am, but as yet there is no proper linguistic term to describe the following in other terms.  Even though we’ve always known them to be there, we’ve hardly dared speak their name.

The ‘it’s wrong, punkt’ beast:

This beast typically lurks in the graffitied messages of those who are not afraid of the grammar police. It can also be spotted, to hilarious effect, in the world of English as a second language where it is born out of error, due to a lack of sufficient language skills of its creator and perhaps his/her poor choice of translation tool. It can be so funny, however, that I sometimes suspect a linguistic practical joker has been at work.Try google-imaging the words ‘funny English sign’ to see what I mean.
If you’re a Facebooker, the Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape (MULL) group has more examples of such signs and messages.

Antequera, Spain

The world is our (Antequera, Spain)

Illegally parked cars will be fine

Illegally parked cars will be fine (MULL Group)

The ‘looks wrong, but I can’t be sure’ beast: :

The McDonalds slogan that Jörg referred to is the perfect example of this beast. I should add that my friend is a father of three sweet kids who are just starting along their own paths to learning English. For them the language is still a funny, new code. As they progress from counting one to ten to using more complex structures, their linguistic exploration is just beginning. Their father wants them to do well, of course, but he is well aware of the extremely popular beast of ‘sloppy’ habits: the acronyms of text speak, the informal contractions of song lyrics (wanna, gonna and their ilk) or perhaps catchy and clever advertising wordplay. In this instance, he has no choice but to trust his kids’ teachers to make sure they do not fall victim to this.

You'll never wok alone

You’ll never wok alone (Hamburg, Germany)

Don't stink and drive

Don’t stink and drive (Reykjavik, Iceland)

The ‘doesn’t belong… yet’ beast: :

Denglish, Swenglish, Franglais and Spanglish – I’m a speaker of them all! I can’t help it, I’m surrounded by languages. They are the consequence of continual exposure to more than one language and can be both trendy and lazy. As soon as there is a free space in the vocabulary of one language the beast is born. It jumps out from the unlikeliest of places and, while I cringe when I hear someone complaining that something is ‘bourgoise’ or that they need to make a call on their ‘handy’, I know I am also its victim! Perhaps of all the beasts,  this one has the highest chance of being accepted – often appearing as a false friend, it sneaks into our language relatively comfortably.

All Year Long!

All Year Long! (Athens, Greece)

Hottest worscht of de city

Hottest worscht of de city (Bonn, Germany)

The ‘big no no’ beast:

This is the beast that many teachers and publishers dare not go near. Often born as a euphemism but quickly jumping onto what Stephen Pinker calls the dysphemism treadmill, it is the language of swearing, impoliteness and offence. At times it might look like a loan word, hosted by another language to mask and replace their own equivalent, to somehow make the speaker sound clever. Repugnant to many, to others it is acceptable, even tame.

Lithuanian cow shit

Lithuanian cow shit (Kaunas, Lithuania)

EatBeef fuckaupp
We are all aware of these beasts. Many of us, however, are not comfortable with them invading our classroom. We close our eyes in the hope that they will go away but know that they will not, and that at any time our students could be their victim. Publishers too, have stayed well clear.  I am also NOT suggesting that we encourage our students to adopt and use them, but before we judge and dismiss them altogether, consider this: if we are the brave ELT sentries that Jörg expects us to be, rather than banish them I think we should invite them into the classroom to make fun of them and help our students recognise the good from the bad.

On a final note, I know I’m shooting an arrow into my own foot here, but like them or loathe them, it is the beasts I have identified that have led to the evolution of language and made it the beauty that it is today. By limiting the exposure our students have to them, do we not limit their understanding of how English is used in the real world?

© 16 Jan 2015



  1. To see how language teachers disagree about I’m lovin’ it read the ‘Grammar guru: I’m lovin it’ discussion on Anne Hodgson’s blog:

  2. MULL have just published a new blog. Visit it at:

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