More than words

A glimpse into a hybrid language

An image of metal press letters

Contact sits down with UQ Emeritus Professor and author Roland ‘Roly’ Sussex to talk about the ever-evolving English language and his new book, Word for Today.

Growing up, Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex was immersed in languages.

“My dad was a Professor of French, who knew five languages pretty well, and our household was full of talk about language,” Sussex said.

“I got interested in how languages work when I was at school, partly because English was presented as a series of locked-down rules that you had to obey, and yet the language around us was fermenting all the time. I wanted to discover what was making it tick.”

Sussex (pictured) has been broadcasting on ABC Radio for the past 23 years, and his popular segment Word for Today (or Woofties) focuses on the use of slang words, Americanisms, mistakes and their origins. His book of the same name is a witty must-read for all ‘word nerds’ and features the best of the Woofties, reflecting on etymology, neologisms and misuse.

“It’s serious material, but I wanted to present it in an engaging way that would get people thinking about English,” he said.

While much of Sussex’s material is gathered from his encounters with everyday words and phrases, it is also gathered from issues his listeners raise during his radio programs.

“What’s the difference between elder and older? Elder is greater in age in a group of connected or related people. Older means greater in age in any sort of group. So, there’s a small difference that people aren’t aware of, and that makes enough for an interesting and whimsical little piece,” Sussex said.

Word for Today features an amusing but educational section about the origin of words and the way their meanings have changed, known as etymology.

“In English, if you go to a barbecue with friends you might have a hearty greeting. But, if you go to a cocktail party, you might have a cordial sherry with someone. Then, if you have a heart attack, you have a cardiac arrest. The ‘heart’ bit is English, the ‘cor’ bit is Latin and the ‘card’ bit is Greek, and we have lots of groups of words like this that show the technical ones tend to be Greek or Latin,” Sussex said.

“This [etymology] tells us something about the internal workings of the language, as well as how multiple words for one thing makes sense.” 

With the English language constantly changing, there appears to be a strong interaction between language, culture and technology. Over the past 25 years, Sussex has seen an explosion of new words, or neologisms.

“Language lays down a kind of layer of words, which tell you what people are interested in or thinking about. If that happens, there are new words that pop up and sometimes they’re remarkably creative, and sometimes they’re borrowings."

With COVID-19, the English language has changed again with the emergence of slang terms such as ‘iso’ and ‘rona’. Sussex said these terms were consistent with diminutives, which are distinctive in Australian English.

“There are interesting ones [diminutives] like ‘quazza’, where R becomes Z. This is an Australian thing, and ‘quarantine’, sooner or later, is going to produce ‘quazza’. It popped up about a month ago and is a creative reaction,” Sussex said.

“An interesting thing about diminutives is that we can use them to make ominous things less scary. So, with ‘quazza’ and ‘iso’, we’re almost adding humour to make words like ‘quarantine’ sound less formidable.”

Sussex said three quarters of the English vocabulary was borrowed from elsewhere and, while English has shown it can be creative, it is also rife with mistakes and misuses.

“I do a lot of Woofties about mistakes: flout and flaunt, nauseous and nauseating, disinterested and uninterested. These are words that people frequently get wrong and I think it’s quite important that we become more aware of them.”

Sussex is still actively undertaking academic research at UQ's Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, and is clearly passionate about sharing his knowledge.

“Language for me is infinitely intriguing, and I want to share my fascination and enjoyment. I suppose Sir David Attenborough is a kind of model here: a man who knows enormously much and has such pleasure in sharing it with others.”

An image of Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex in his radio studio.

Word for Today is published by University of Queensland Press (UQP) and will be released on 29 September 2020.

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