Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Reading the journals for yesterday's class was fun, as much as any sort of grading can be fun. One of the things that made it interesting was seeing how a few students chose words, and how the connotations of those words did or didn't fit.

For example, there are words in English that we use almost exclusively in certain circumstances. When we use them outside those circumstances, then they carry the overtones of those circumstances with them, and make us think. Or they seem awkward and out of place. Without using the example my student used, the best I can come up with is "denizen." A denizen is an inhabitant. But we'd rarely use denizen, UNLESS we either using archaic language for a reason, or working with fantasy or something, because it's pretty much used for that. So if you used "denizen" to talk about the cat lying on your sofa, you'd get all sorts of overtones, archaic, high-falutin', whatever. And that could be effective, or funny, or fall flat.

So one of my students used a word like that, except it's a word that has connections to death and such, and so tends to feel negative to most native English speakers. But it wasn't WRONG to use, per se, just not what a native speaker would use unless s/he were making a special point.

And it was interesting and fun to try to explain that to the student after class.

I'm pretty sure she found the work in her electronic dictionary, but still, she's advanced enough that she's choosing interesting words.

I'm sure T/ESL folks are really familiar with this, and have effective ways to help students learn well, but for me, it's a bit different, and so interesting.


  1. Heh, I think I've used denizens in my book, but mainly to distinguish them from citizens, which, as I'm sure you know, is something different in the Middle Ages than today.

    We were just talking about connotation vs. denotation in Middle English class today, particularly the way native Germanic words and loan words which have the same or nearly the same denotation necessarily pick up different sets of connotations. Think work and labor, for example. Anywho, such a nuanced lexicon must be frustrating for ESL learners, especially if theirs is not a language with a lot of loan words.

    But if it's any consolation, explaining *register* is difficult even to native speakers.

  2. I'm not so sure about 'denizen.' I often call myself a Denizen of Hibbard.

  3. I don't have many ESL students, but I often see native speakers make these kinds of connotation errors when they are trying to sound more - academic, maybe? They rely on MSWord's thesaurus function, and don't realize that not all of the choices given really mean the same thing. Occasionally, I'll see a student who doesn't realize that the word below the line on the thesaurus list is an *antonym*, which usually good for a laugh, until I have to explain it to the poor kid!

  4. I have three non-native speakers working for me and frequently there are some very funny emails between them. One word that I seem to hear frequently from people whose native language is Hindi or Erdu is 'auspicious'. It's never misused, but just isn't quite right in context and leaves the native English speakers puzzled. Makes me wonder if in their native language there is a very distinct difference between good fortune and luck, as they seem to understand 'lucky' in similar context but never use it in their speech.

  5. I used to have a roommate at UofC who studied biblical Hebrew and left me the oddest notes. I could figure them out but the words were so strange, just barely retaining some of the idea of the original concept.

  6. Anonymous4:41 PM

    My native speaker students also have issues with this, and I totally agree that the thesaurus is to blame. I find myself writing comments like "you can't boil a book. That just doesn't work." (fake example, because I can't even get my brain to operate in a way that will come up with a real example.)