The English eat their words!

If only I could have a euro for every time I’ve heard this complaint – that ‘the English eat their words’.  In fact, my usual reply, since I live in France, is to reference the French expression:

‘Shais pas’.

Yes, the French eat their words too. Probably all nationalities do.  Know warrai mean?  So, to write this French expression out in full.  It’s simply a contraction of:

‘Je ne sais pas’.

But how do I know this?  I’ve never seen it explained in a French language book and I don’t recall anyone explaining it to me.  Well, my language learning ability is not so hot, but I can proudly say that my little ol’ brain worked it out by itself.  No, I’m not really so smart.  I don’t have a super-charged intellect that can decipher language by pure logic.  Nevertheless, there is an element of mental reasoning involved in language learning, and using a degree of logic is something we all do, consciously or subconsciously, when figuring out what a foreign language speaker is saying.  I’m not alone in this.

Now if you really want an example of an English person eating their words, watch this.   I have, several times, but still don’t understand everything the girl is saying!!

O.k.  That’s for laughs.  No-one really eats their words to that extreme!

So – to return to the French ‘shais pas’.   Imagine I pose the following questions to someone (in French):

– Qui à gagné la coupe du monde de football en 1954?   (Who won the football world cup in 1958? )

– Combien coûte, par kilogram, le gorgonzola? (How much per kilogram does Gorgonzola cost?)

And imagine that each question elicited the answer ‘shais pas’,  perhaps with a shrug of the shoulders and a negative visual grimace.  What, then, would you imagine ‘shais pas’ to mean?    Well,  it  seems pretty logical to me that it means: ‘ I don’t know’ (je ne sais pas).  Doesn’t it to you?

Hence, context is of prime importance for language learning.  It helps the brain work out what’s happening linguistically and solve linguistic problems.   On meeting someone for the first time, should  that person hold out their hand, smile and say ‘Nice to meet you’,  most non-English language speakers would understand that to be a friendly greeting.  And if you were meeting a Chinese man for the first time who, after making similar friendly gestures, announced:  ‘ 为满足您尼斯’, you’d probably interpret that as a friendly greeting too.  You might even try and remember the sound you heard spoken in order to repeat it the next time you meet another Chinese man for the first time.

And so, learning French through a pedagogical guide (a book) we learn that the expression ‘je ne sais pas’ means ‘I don’t know‘ in English’.  Through active listening the expression we ‘may’ (i.e. not always) hear is ‘schais pas’.  That’s just one simple example of a French ‘eaten word form’.  There are many more.   Just as many as in English.  They might also be described as the ‘informal, inarticulate, every-day, street, slang, sloppy or bad forms’, depending on one’s readiness to use such language oneself.   It’s exactly the same story in English.  Personally, I’d call them the ‘natural forms’.

So – try this English phrase

‘Iza bowta gowowt wemmi mayt caldrownd’.              (an exaggerated example)

Probably, especially if you’re not English, this looks nothing like the English language and if you heard it spoken you’d probably think it an extreme example of ‘eating our words’.  It is.   Problem is, though, that in this example there’s no context to help decipher the expression.  Remember:  Even with the simple ‘schais pas’ example we needed context.  Also, I could have written this in international phonetics, but deciphering phonetic symbols is a linguistic exercise in itself; for most people anyway.  So I’ve written the expression just as I personally hear it.   Anyway,  let’s give it some context and see if that helps:


John:  Did you go out last night, Mark?

Mark:  No, I didn’t.  I stayed in.

John:  But you said you were going to go out!

Mark: Yes, that’s true.  In fact, I was about to go out, but then I changed my mind.

John: Why?

Mark: Well, you know my mate Peter?

John: Yes.

Mark:  Well, ‘Iza bowta gowowt wemmi mayt caldrownd’ – so I didn’t go out.


Got it?  Maybe not yet?

Of course, a grammar book would explain this phrase as:

past simple       when         past simple

(I was……..)         when            my mate called round

And we’d need to understand the phrasal verb, ‘to call round’ (to visit someone informally), as well as understanding that ‘mate’ is a familiar word for ‘friend’.  Now, if we  perfectly articulated the phrase: ‘ I was about to go out when my mate called round’ – well, it’d be very good English, but perhaps not so natural. Rather robotic in fact.  But at least you now know what that phase meant.

Really, we just need to accept that all native speakers do this with their native tongues.  It involves using contractions, liaisons, a bit of familiar language, then speaking the phrase at speed, and with regional dialect.  In fact, it’s quite virtuoso language usage.   Learning the phrase by the book, then, is not the same as hearing phrases said by a native English speaker.  The book’s one place to start, for sure, just as learning piano scales written down on a musical score is one place to start learning piano.  But from there we build up complexity and fluidity.  It’s also why taking English lessons with a trained native English teacher works best.  You’re introduced to the language as naturally spoken, when you’re ready for it.    If you’re not ready for more complex structures with all the contractions and liaisons, the language just sounds a meaningless noise.  Little- by-little.  We don’t give babies meat to eat, now, do we?

Hence, we start with easier structures, such as:  I’m English = I am English, or I haven’t got a car = I have not got a car

-and then slowly move to slightly more complex form, such as:  I wouldn’t’ve gone if I’d known = I would not have gone if I had known

Then we introduce liaisons, such as: Ho(w)ould you like to go(w)up to Paris tomorrow? = How would you like to go up to Paris tomorrow?

And discuss the famous ‘schwa’ (or ‘uh’) sound, to make:  Ho(w)ould yuh like tuh go(w)up tuh Paris tomorruh?

And we may even drop our ‘H’, to sound a long way from ‘correct English’:           O(w)ould yuh like to go(w)up tuh Paris tomorruh?

Yes, some people may now start calling this bad English, and I agree there are limits.  (BBC radio4 discussion: Language and social class).  But I also believe that English language students need to acquaint themselves with such sounds, even if they don’t go to these colloquial excesses, in order to understand ‘real English speech’ as spoken by 90% of the mother tongue English population.  Yes, the so-called ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘received pronunciation’ (RP English) is actually spoken by quite a small percentage of English people.  Regional dialects are many and even ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair doesn’t always speak ‘correct’ Queen’s English.  But then:  ‘He ‘aint bovvered’.   (He isn’t bothered)

Now, for fun, try these:

(Greeting): Greytuh meetyuh, Paul, whadjuh finkuh vee-y-otel?      (Great to meet you Paul.  What do you think of the hotel?)

(Saying goodbye): Iwus goo-tuh meetyuh. Hava goo tripak?    (It was good to meet you.  Have a good trip back)

(Booking Hotel room): Ayuh gotuh room wivuh view fuh two furrah week?   (Have you got a room with a view for two people for a week?)

Yes, these examples are for fun, but on a more serious note they are intended to show how the brain makes sense out of ‘meaningless noise’.  It makes sense out of what it hears (expressions in bold) by creating the logical understandable form.  To get from ‘A-to-B’, however, is an acquired skill requiring time and practice.  Writing down what one hears, during a listening exercise, is a listening training technique commonly employed by language teachers.  It’s a good one.  But there are others up the English language teacher’s sleeve.  As previously mentioned, understanding context and using a degree of logic to understand what’s being said is also an important skill to develop.

Seeing forms and structures, then, and giving them coherence, is a step in the right direction of understanding what one hears.  When the noise forms (such as those above in bold) begin to make ‘sense’, then comes the ‘eureka moments’ of realization and the structures and language become clear.  I’ve seen this occur thousands of times in my years of teaching English.

This is the moment, then, when students understand particular structures clearly.   In consequence, they then stop blaming their lack of comprehension on the English speaker eating his/her words, and advance in their English language listening skills.  But these skills come in stages. A good teacher will take you through them step-by-step.


2 comments on “The English eat their words!

  1. Hello Phil, I like your very varied articles. Listening to a foreign language may be a thorny problem for understanding it is out of the power of will. We can learn the vocabulary, the grammar and the approximate pronunciation voluntarily and use them to read, write and speak, but recognizing spoken words is another and quite ‘magical’ ability. Only long practice allows it, unless one is very talented, which is not my case.

    • english13 says:

      I absolutely agree. Interestingly, however, those people who have developed (or inate) musical talents, seem to develop foreign language listening skills quicker than those who haven’t. In fact, there is now software available aimed at those with particular difficulties in developing language listening skills that involves starting a listening skills exercise by listening to certain pieces of classical music. I understand that this is in order to ‘massage’ and ‘activate’ particular areas of the brain/neurones. It’s quite a recent concept, but it does seem to have it’s followers.
      As an English teacher, I do moderate my English according to my students. Hence, I slowly increase speed, clarity, contractions, liasons as well as complexity of language as lessons progress and students advance. But I appreciate that learning a language is a long process, sped up (in my opinion) through dialogue and discussion.

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