04 January 2011

Ellipsis and Privilege

By way of an introduction I'm going to geek out a bit here. One of my favourite things about learning foreign languages is getting to grips with a different system of ellipsis - different conventions about what can and can't be omitted. This can be words, as in Wikipedia's example - John can play the guitar and Mary (can (play (the guitar))) too. But we can also omit information, and especially in English we frequently do. The word 'have' can be used for anything from 'possess' to 'eat' to 'do' to 'conceive and give birth to'. It gives the bare minimum of information, but, when you say "I'm having lunch", does anyone really need to be told what you're doing with it?

One way this differs in German is if you take the sentence "I drink a cup of coffee in the morning"/"Ich trinke morgens eine Tasse Kaffee". The usual (but by no means only) way to say this in English is "I have a cup of coffee in the morning", whereas in German, you get "Ich trinke morgens einen Kaffee" - "I drink in the morning a coffee". Germans aren't idiots. They don't need to be told about the cup, as if you might drink your coffee out of a shoe or something. Similarly, we don't expect you to pour it down your trousers, and there's no need to specify drinking in English.

That's cups of joe. With cups of char it's a whole different matter. You don't even need to mention the drink in English. Say "a cuppa" to anyone in Britain and we'll know you mean tea. Say "brew up", "put the kettle on" or "milk, one sugar?" and we'll know what to expect. It's quite obvious that, so entangled are Britain's routines with our quaint leaf-drink, that in any situation with a hot drink, tea will be assumed. Bearing this in mind, only a complete fucking idiot would believe that we say "cuppa" because we are embarrassed about our culture, hate tea and have given over our heritage to pro-cocoa extremists.

Which brings me to the Daily Mail. Winterval getting old, they've got a little bee in their bonnet about "Season's Greetings" now. Despite being no strangers to ellipsis themselves, the Mail and its arsewit readers have eagerly laid into John Reid, David Cameron and the world at large. In the last one, we see the process in action:
Would anyone dare tell the Hindu and Muslim minorities that they can't say 'Happy Diwali' or 'Happy Eid' but have to say 'Season's Greetings' as well?
The question though, is not could you tell them not to, but could they if they wanted to? If a Hindu says to you, in Britain, around mid-November "Season's Greetings", are you really going to assume he means Diwali? The reason Christmas can be omitted from greetings and cards, the reason you can take pretty much all of the Christ out of Christmas and still have the secular festival everywhere from October onwards, is because everyone knows what season merits the greetings.

There's a festival this season that has a monopoly on seasonal festivities. Clue: It's not Hanukkah. Failing to state something outright is not a sign of hate, discrimination or embarrassment, or else Christian Voice would never even mention gays. We ignore things we take for granted. The fact that straight, white, C of E males, with fully functional bodies and minds, the genitals they were born with and the sexual identity to match, the fact that they're so often omitted is proof positive of their privilege, because no-one's favourite crisp flavour is fried potato and nobody talks about wallpaper.

Hope you had a good one.


  1. hi, I found your blog via twitter (when the trending topic was #thingsconservativeshate or something like that); I think your blog is really interesting. would you be down to write a post sometime that's like "british politics for americans 101"? if not that's cool, but if that's something you want to do i'd be excited to read it.

  2. Umm, thanks. I don't really know if I'm the person to explain British politics to Americans though. My actual grasp of all the party/parliament/front-bench/back-bench/cross-bench stuff is pretty basic, this is more cultural politics, linguistic nit-picking and explaining jokes. There's probably a much better one on google, and if you like I could maybe pull it to bits and swear at it for you.

  3. What's left out is such an interesting topic because there are so many different reasons for the omission. You could leave something out because you consider it to be awkward, assumed, important, or not worthy of consideration. The possibilities are endless.