language usage

Noblesse Oblige - Pattern & Brief Thoughts on Language

I have been collaborating with my good friend, the marvellous Susan Crawford, and Noblesse Oblige is my contribution to her "Knits in a Cold Climate" collection.


When I was given the design brief by Susan, I knew I wanted to use the wonderful colour range in Susan Crawford Fenella. Inspired by my recent forays into knitting archives, I began sketching Fair Isle bands but it was not until I uncovered a photo of a 1930s knitting pattern that I decided upon the colour scheme. The jumper is charming, but I fell in love with the red/green/yellow motif. Could I use these colours in a more traditional setting?

After several attempts, I hit upon a 1930s inspired hat and scarf using that red/green/yellow combination, but also tempered by a soft porcelain blue and a delightful creamy white. The jaunty beret features two Fair Isle bands that counteract each other to create a sense of dynamism.

The scarf comes in three sizes - you can make it a neckerchief, a small scarf or a full-sized shawl. To optimise knitting pleasure, the scarf does not use Fair Isle bands but features narrow stripes in a colour sequence that calls back to the beret. After much discussion, Susan and I agreed that small, felted pompoms would add a delightful finishing touch.

Naming the pattern was harder. I wanted to use one of Nancy Mitford's book titles, but neither Christmas Pudding nor Pigeon Pie seemed appropriate! Finally, Noblesse Oblige seemed to suggest itself - it is a collection of essays and I rather enjoyed Nancy Mitford's essay on the English language. So, Noblesse Oblige. A lovely hat and scarf set. I hope you will enjoy knitting it.

But let's talk about Nancy Mitford's essay briefly.

Found in Noblesse Oblige, "The English Aristocracy" is her most famous essay. Nancy Mitford had recently read an academic article by a British linguist and was inspired to write her own examination of how the British upper class ("U") and the middle class ("non-U") spoke. The essay is very much of its time - apparently only non-U people would speak of telephones! - but that is also part of its appeal. It is a snapshot of a world in transition where old notions of class and importance are slowly eroding. It is particularly interesting to compare Mitford's essay to Grayson Perry's TV documentaries about Class in Britain. The economic barriers between the classes may have eroded, but cultural markers such as language and taste have not.

"The English Aristocracy" is an early example of what we know today as sociolinguistics. A "sociolect" is a type of language associated with one socioeconomic class, age group or gender. The British 1990s sit-com Keeping Up Appearances uses Mitford's little U vs non-U markers and sociolects to great comic effect. The main protagonist, Hyacinth Bucket, insists her surname is pronounced Bouquet, and she keeps grasping at big, fancy words in her attempt to sound more refined (something Mitford notes is the true mark of a social climber - why use the word "lavatory" when "loo" is perfectly adequate?). The underlying class anxiety so evident in Mitford's 1950s essay is very much visible even forty and fifty years on.

If you have half an hour to spare, I suggest you read Mitford's little essay in Noblesse Oblige - I assure you that you will notice amusing little things about how you and the people around you speak.

Now for the important pattern details: you can buy the pattern from Ravelry here. It is £4 and the pattern uses five shades of Fenella. Susan is planning on offering a kit which you will be able to buy from her shop.

It has been marvellous working with Susan on this pattern - she understands my shorthand descriptions so very, very well and has an incredible eye for details, style, and colour. I also really enjoyed working with Fenella which has a such lovely bounce in its step.



"These Charming Knitteds Will Flatter.." - A Brief Look At Knitting & Language


When Caroline posted this photo to her Instagram account, I don't think she expected the discussion to revolve around the language usage in the caption.

Lately we have had some great discussions about knitting language at the great round-table of Twitter. What is the right past tense of the verb "to knit"; is it more correct to say "I knitted a hat last night" or "I knit a hat last night"; why"knit/knitted" but not "knat"? Susan posted a lovely poem from 1915 as part of that discussion.

Caroline's photo didn't spawn as big a discussion, but several people noted the odd phrasing. "Larger sized knitteds are so often.."


I was sure I could explain this odd word, but first let's cast an eye at the word itself. A Google search throws up about 10,600 results, most of which refer to an outdated way of referring to knitted items (particularly baby items). Geographically I mostly get referrals to Antipodean knitting sites. My favourite dictionary tool gave me many results, but all of them gave "knitted" as an adjective or as a verb - not as a noun.

So, what is my explanation for this curious language usage? I am not saying it is necessarily the right explanation but it is a likely explanation. Please add your thoughts in the comments!

First, we need to look at figures of speech. Everyone has heard of metaphors:

Martha is a gem.Martha isn't actually a precious stone, but the word "gem" is used so we can all see that Martha is precious and valued.

Knitting with this yarn is like knitting with butter. The yarn isn't actually a greasy dairy product, but its qualities are likened to the softness or pliability of butter. This is a specific type of metaphor that is called a simile (note: although I have seen the butter simile used often in knitting contexts, I must admit it still baffles me).

Then we move to a figure of speech that fewer people have heard of - metonymy. While metaphor draws comparisons between two very different things (Martha & a gemstone; yarn & butter), metonymy refers to something already associated or related.

Jane downloaded Arcade Fire last night. Jane did not download an entire Canadian band last night, you know. Here the band name does not refer to the actual, physical incarnation of the band but their music.

And via metaphor, simile and metonymy, we get to the figure of speech known as synecdoche. Synecdoche is when a part of something is used to refer to the whole. Confused? I promise you use synecdoches all the time without realising it.

I'll get my needles. Any knitter will know that actually means "hang on, I'll get my knitting project which comprises yarn, knitting needles, and possibly a pattern".

Harriet put on her woollies. This is a quaint British English phrase which essentially means that Harriet is putting on a woollen jumper. The jumper's material becomes short-hand for the jumper itself

Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song .. even the Beatles understood the value of a good synecdoche. They just want you to listen, not do a Van Gogh (and "to do a Van Gogh" is a metonymical figure of speech!).

But where does all that leave us? When Caroline posted her photo, I began wondering if "knitteds" is not a synecdochical noun phrase (!). Much like Harriet's jumper, the material quality of the item becomes short-hand for the item itself. A hand-knitted cardigan or hat become "knitteds" - the adjective "hand-knitted" is shorted to "knitted" and is turned into a noun which can become pluralised whenever needed.

And suddenly something that looked like very strange grammar in an old knitting magazine can suddenly look like charming shorthand for discerning knitters.

I love language.

On the Kitchen Table & Beyond

AprilHow much, do I love Sirri 1ply? It's uneven, slightly overspun and reeks to high heaven of sheep. It's absolutely fantastic. Oh, I LOVE it. I pulled out my hibernating Aestlight shawl last night. I started it over the Christmas holidays last year and it was promptly put into hibernation on Boxing Day. I now remember why: I find all the garterstitch deadly dull. I now have to decide whether to pull out all that garterstitch or find some inner backbone to get those last twenty rows done before I pick up stit... aghr, I think I'll just call it a day.

The Kidsilk Haze in Jelly was just sitting randomly on our kitchen table. I really like those two colours and textures together. Hmmm..

BookAlso on the kitchen table: my needle book made by Chookiebirdie, aka Lorna Reid. This little book has kept me company for a few years now.

I have visited Lorna's studio many times (she is just a few doors down from my very good friend, Ms Old Maiden Aunt) and eventually decided that I would love her to make me a small needle book. I did not give Lorna many guidelines - just that I loved moss green. Lorna promptly delivered this lovely needle book: moss green and aqua and orange and an owl. Everything is so beautifully finished.

ContrastI spot something in the background too. I wonder what that could be? I'll hopefully get you a proper shot of that "mystery object" later this week if the notoriously fickle April weather complies. For now, let's just say I cast off last night and I'm ever so slightly oh my word.

A few links for you:

  • The Art of Fashion. Exactly what it says on the tin. I could happily read an entire book on this topic.
  • Most Underappreciated Films of the Last Decade: a nice run-down which provides inspiration for our DVD nights.
  • Hugh Grant(!) - yes, that Hugh Grant(!!) - steps right into the fray with an excellent article about British politics, British media, Rupert Murdoch, whistle-blowing, and phone-tapping. A must-read if you have the slightest inkling what I'm on about. Hugh, I loved you in Maurice (especially with your moustache-of-repression) and forgive you for everything you've done since.
  • This little girl knows her Star Wars (YouTube link) I especially like her bow and the Storm-Trooper's fist-pump. Made me grin like an idiot.
  • And speaking of videos and me grinning like an idiot, let me recommend When Harry Met Sally 2. Does the very thought strike fear into your heart? You should be first in line to watch this.
  • The Dumbing Down Of Quilting. Also, take time to read the comments. The arrogance displayed by some of the people (including the blogger) is astounding. My jaw hit the floor, so it did*

(* does anyone know if the "so it did" emphatic subclause in a declarative sentence is particularly Glaswegian?)


A linguist friend once told me about a second language acquisition theory: different people store languages in different ways. Some brains work like a giant filing cabinet: words, phrases, idioms and syntax are all neatly filed away so the brain goes to the cabinet, looks in the Spanish drawer, cross-references this with the English drawer and consults the syntax section before proceeding. Other brains have languages stacked on top of each other and perform advanced archaeological excavations every time they need to switch from one language to another. Guess which type of brain I have.

Ten days in Denmark. The longest I have been back since my big move some four years ago. Today I was standing in my local supermarket wondering why an elderly couple was speaking Danish. As it turned out, they were not - but right now my brain automatically assumes background noise must be in Danish and I have to makes a conscious decision in order to recognise the language as Scots English. Likewise, I'm searching for words: what's English for parabolantenner or 'Bare på beløbet, tak'? I know these words, of course, but I have to dig deep before they pop into my head.

Interestingly enough, I only have these problems with spoken language, not written. I'm sure there is a perfectly good (neurological) reason for this.

However, I refuse to believe there is a valid neurological explanation for the way the Danish language is being mangled by people who really ought to know better. Danish is being invaded by English - and it is not even correct English in many instances. I have never been a militant language purist (the way I acquire and use language prevents me from being too holier-than-thou) but I think I am becoming an old grumpy lady. WHY write "den perfect carwash du altid har drømt om" when the correct phrasing would be "den perfekte bilvask du altid har drømt om". WHY WHY did my gran's woman's weekly write about "en crunchy banankage" when Danish already has several words meaning "crunchy" AND most of the magazine's readers do not understand English in the first place? WHY WHY WHY would a major national newspaper gleefully write "livet er one long bundy jump" in the middle of an interview with a Danish designer thus mangling BOTH Danish and English? I nearly cracked when I was sitting next to a bunch of Swedish golf-buddies on the plane back to Scotland who kept shouting "EXACT!" but I'm told that is a valid Swedish expression which admittedly feels a bit deflating after I've been foaming at the mouth since Monday night.

Last day of my holiday today. I shall celebrate with some knitting and some tidying. I finished reading David Mitchell's latest novel last night but I need to mull over it before writing anything about it.

On Languages and Blogging

"It is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where Tree huggers and Whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable... while no one embraces the last speakers of a language." -Werner Herzog

Found here which looks at whether we should preserve languages and whether a world with monolithic language usage would be a bad thing? More on this later.

Mooncalf left an astute comment on my last entry wherein I had a mini-rant about Danish lifestyle blogs being smug and self-satisfied. She linked two blog entries, both of which reacts to the Martha Stewart-ness of some blogs. I really enjoyed reading the entries and I have taken some of their points to heart. I think it is important to remember that all blogs are edited in one way or another. We all have messy tables, bad days, sweaters that do not fit, unread books and frozen pizzas. I tend to shy away from confessional blogging (and I'm also notoriously private for someone who has blogged continuously for almost nine years), but I do attempt to create a fairly realistic picture of my life whilst leaving out things I would feel uncomfortable sharing.

So, bearing all this in mind, please ask me a question.

And, going back to the idea of language, notions of identity etc etc, I found this little tidbit in one of my commonplace books:

"As there is no selfhood without some other, a national canon -- whether attached to land or language -- is constituted in such a way that its identity has both intra- and intercultural aspects. In other words, it is mediated by the memory of the other and its development always involves at least two cultures. The court of Louis XIV, English Classicism, or the Weimar Klassik defined itself with reference to Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Thus, it is possible to argue that national canons reveal an interacting with other creeds. They are intercultural manifestations, conflictual as well as mutually complementary, configurations that are, in relation to each other, not only powerfully reciprocal but also strongly oppositional." -Mihály Szegedy-Maszák

I think that pretty much reveals my stance on whether we should preserve* languages or not.

(* I'm not of a prescriptive bend, mind.)


I had to laugh when I saw this little news story: Company seeks Glaswegian interpreter.

Today Translations spokesman, Mick Thorburn said: "Over the last few months we've had clients asking us for Glaswegian translators.


"Usually, the role would involve translating documents but in this case its more likely to be assisting foreign visitors to the city whose 'business English' is not good enough to understand the local dialect."


He added: "We're not necessarily looking for people who are particularly skilled in linguistics, just candidates who can help out clients who may struggle with native Glaswegian."

I remember arriving in Glasgow and not being able to understand most of what was being said around me. While getting some Glaswegian colleagues helped (although I have never found a use for the phrase "that fake bake is pure dead brilliant, hen"), I struggled until I twigged that Glaswegian is basically akin to my Danish uncles attempting to speak English. There is a certain flatness to Glaswegian intonation that is very, very similar to mid-Zealandic intonation and some words spoken with a broad Glaswegian accent sound more like their Danish counterpart than the actual standard English word: home becomes hame which sounds quite like a slurred mid-Zealandic hjem. For a girl who has tried to escape rural Denmark for most of her life, all this feels a bit like a cosmic joke.

Thanks to my friend Lise, I spent most of my lunch reading about the 16th best football team in the word ever. The most recent incarnation is through to next year's World Cup which bodes well for the amount of (tense) knitting I'll get done. Huzzah!