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Linguistically Mistaking Phrases

I've been back from my vacation and the Preserving Software summit at the Library of Congress for more than a week now, but still haven't blogged about anything, and I recently didn't blog too much at all, mostly because I always fear it takes up too much time. In the last few days, I decided I'll do shorter posts but do them more often, so I hopefully get to communicate more of what's going around in my head (thoughts on that summit will follow as well when I get around to them). Here's the first installment of this, let's see how it goes.

I just listened to a "Fireside Chat" (sorry, only available to Mozillians) with Brendan Eich, conducted by Pascal Finette. One thing that did strike me there was the use of two phrases, by each of them, and their chances of being mistaken from the point of view of English/German crossover.

Pascal, a native German (his accent gives that away as well), is using "a couple" (e.g. "of times", etc.) in many questions in this interview. Now, the interesting thing there is that in German, we're using "ein paar" (which literally translates to "a couple") a lot, usually meaning "an undetermined amount larger than one but smaller than 'a lot'". We are very tempted to use this the same way in English, as it comes very naturally to us - but in US English, I notice that "a couple" usually means "(more or less) exactly two", so when we mean "some probably between 4 and 7 times", we may end up saying "a couple times" and the US English native speaker understands "twice". Oops. We better had said "a few times". I learned this in detail when I requested to stay "a couple weeks" in the office around a work week and thought there would be later discussion of how many weeks exactly, when the other side was "OK, he wants two weeks, he'll get two weeks". Note that in German there is "ein Paar" (different capitalization) which means the same as "a couple", but in most cases we just say "zwei"/"two" so it can't be mistaken.

On the other side, Brendan starts the reply to some questions with "that's a good question" - which, as I learned over the years, is a usual phrase to compliment the person the question came from and say that this is an important issue to ask and talk about. Now, in German, this literally translates to "das ist eine gute Frage" - which we usually say when we recognize that it's an interesting question but we still need to think about this and don't have any really fitting answer, often coming up with one as we go on this. If you're a native German speaker, be aware that English speakers don't usually have that connotation to this phrase, actually they're often happy someone asked this because it's something they have thought about long and hard and have come up with a really good answer for already. If you're not a German speaker, be aware that those who are might understand it this way and be surprised or take your answer as weaker instead of stronger as you intended.

I'm sure there's tons of other misunderstandings between phrases in different languages for sure, I'm mentioning those two because I heard them in this "chat", it's (the) two languages I know quite well, and they're even in the same language family (in linguistics called "Germanic languages") - and still run into things like that.
I'm always interested about such nuances, if you have any to share, feel free to comment here or blog about them yourself, here in this global Mozilla community, it's always nice to learn from each other! :)

Entry written by KaiRo and posted on June 12th, 2013 17:41 | Tags: English, German, languages, Mozilla | 8 comments | TrackBack




Perhaps "several" suits?
I'm British and I generally accept "a couple" being an indeterminate number between 2 and 5 usually. Though when someone is talking about units of alcohol I tend to assume a higher number!

I believe the word "several" is more what you are looking for. It is more suited to describing indeterminate numbers ranging from 2 upwards. I personally would consider it to mean between 2 and 10.
2013-06-12 18:31

Stephan Sokolow

from Canada

Something to keep in mind regarding English...
Never forget that English isn't your typical Germanic language by a long shot.

We had a large portion of our lexicon replaced with French words during the Norman conquest of 1066 and, while our core grammar is relatively intact, that did have a big effect on how we use the language.
2013-06-12 19:16


from Glasgow, UK

I'm also British and I'd accept (and say!) a couple to mean more than one but fewer than lots. Maybe a US/UK difference?
2013-06-12 20:09

Mysterious Andy

As a native speaker of en-us (Southern California), unless you are referring to people using the phrase "They are a couple," I take "couple" to mean at least 2, possibly more. Where "a couple of X" becomes "several X" depends on the nature of X and the speaker. "A couple of elephants" is probably fewer than 6, while "a couple of grains of sand" could be a few dozen.

"That is a good question" can also match your expectation. In my experience, modification that expresses surprise ("Wow, that's a good question.") clarifies that the respondent didn't previously consider the question. An immediate launch into an answer usually means the phrase was intended as the equivalent of "Thanks for bringing that up."
2013-06-12 20:34


from US

Agree with others here
My understand and experience in US culture is that the way we use 'couple' corresponds to the German usage you described.
I googled and found the definition: an indefinite small number

As for "That's a good question."
When someone asks me a question and I think it was good, I'll say so. I may or may not have the answer. There's a different connotation in either case of course ("That's a good question. I don't know." or "I appreciate your understanding/insight in asking.")

It is also used frequently in US politics when answering questions. Start with flattery, hope they miss the fact that you don't actually give an actual answer. It's very general and can be taken in more than one way.
"That's a good question and I'm glad you asked it. Somebody's got to ask it and there you go being awesome and asking it. That reminds me of <insert unrelated story>..."
2013-06-12 22:21

Anonymous guest

reminds me of the Episode "Big Brother" of the BBC Series Yes, Minister:

Jim: You know, I'm glad you asked that question.
Bob: Well Minister could we have the answer?
Jim: Well yes, of course, I was just about to give it to you, if I may. Yes as I said I'm glad you asked me that question because it's a question that a lot of people are asking, and quite so, because a lot of people want to know the answer to it. And let's be quite clear about this without beating about the bush the plain fact of the matter is that it is a very important question indeed and people have a right to know.
Bob: Minister, we haven't yet had the answer.
Jim: I'm sorry, what was the question?
2013-06-12 22:50


Relevant xkcd:

2013-06-12 23:02



Interesting to read those statements on "a couple". I for myself have made the experience that most of the time it's used for "two", as I described in the case of those "couple weeks", or in my watching of e.g. NFL Network in terms of "he needs a couple yards" or "he's been with the team for a couple of years" where it always was meant as "two" (plus/minus less than a half) - and the xkcd comic supports that as well. Apparently the usage expands from that up to the German usage. Thanks for the comments!
2013-06-13 00:26

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