The Nuances of Language


When I met my husband, he barely spoke any English; he was very much at the beginning/pre-production stages of ELL development. The longer we were together, the more he developed out of necessity–my Spanish is just enough to roughly survive life in Mexico as a recluse. His use of the English language was based on me as his model, as I was the only person who spoke English to him with any regularity.

For the most part, my being his language model was not a problem. He frequently impressed other English speakers with many of the words he would use, thanks to my love of big words and reading, and became quite the hit amongst his friends. However, as time went on, one hitch became apparent–he was using the language of a woman.

It isn’t something that I had given much thought to, despite my background in linguistic studies, but men and women use language differently. It can be debated whether or not the differences are nature or nurture (likely both), but the fact is that they are there. Just as breaking any other social norm, it can be awkward when someone unexpectedly breaks the wall of linguistic gender roles.

It is socially acceptable for women to use the word “cute” quite frequently. Men can, and do, use the word as well, but there are more restrictions on their use. They might use the word to refer to a female, a child, or a baby animal, but they are more likely to be reserved in using the term. Additionally, even across gender lines there are restrictions on what can be cute, usually based on the gender associations we have with whatever object is being assessed.

As my husband’s proficiency grew, I began to notice that he used the word cute a lot–which was like turning a mirror on me so that I could see just how often I employ the word in my everyday speech. I was cute, my clothes were cute, the song was cute, the tv show was cute, the restaurant was cute. Everything–according to Sal–was really, really cute.

I still did not think much of this, besides making a resolution to myself to stop saying cute so much. However, one day we were sitting in traffic when he turned to me and said, “Wow, look at that. That truck is soooo cute.”

“No,” I said to him. “No, trucks are not cute.”

“Yes they are. Trucks are very cute. My truck is cute, yes?”

“No, trucks aren’t called cute.” I began to picture him going up to a hillbilly at Wal-Mart with truck nuts dangling from wherever one attaches such things and telling him what a cute truck he has.

“What do you call a truck?” he asked me.

“Nice. Good looking, maybe,” I replied.

“Are cars cute?”

I thought about it for a second. “I guess some are. Like a VW Bug.”

We went on discussing this for a while, what can be cute and what never is. He came to the conclusion that if it is small or “girly” then it is allowed to be cute. Which is actually a little too narrow of a definition, but it would serve him just fine until he could feel out the nuances for himself.


9 responses »

  1. Sounds very familiar. When Javi and I met he spoke almost no english at all. There were things he would try and tell me and I would have to think about it for awhile before responding. I think the first thing he asked me was for a mop for my house. “Oh you mean you need a map to get to my house”
    I realized that I was doing things like this too, all the english he was learning was from me or tv and movies. I had to tell him not to say certain things at work with all the guys, especially in construction.

    • I have kept a file on language mistakes (both his and mine) since we began dating. I have used them a lot in my linguistics and ELL classes while at MU. Now that I am out of school, I love going back and reading them because they are often very funny.

  2. I can’t tell you how much I heart this post! My husband also got into the habit of calling things “cute” too much. (He’s Salvadoran and learned English mostly from me.) — I came to the same conclusion you did but never said anything in this particular case because… it’s cute! ROFL. I think he realized himself that other men at work don’t go around calling things “cute” so he doesn’t say it as much.

    It’s kind of selfish, but sometimes I don’t like to correct him. Over the years his English has improved so much that some of those sweet nuances and mispronunciations unique to him that I love, are fading. It’s kind of like how our youngest son doesn’t make grammatical mistakes as often anymore because he’s growing up. It’s kind of sad in a way.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog. Mucho gusto!

    • Thank you for stopping by! My husband had been losing a lot of his mistakes when he left for Mexico. Having been gone from the US for more than a year, they are pretty much all back. Now it is my turn to mess up in Spanish all the time.

  3. My husband also used to call everything “cute” back when we first started dating. He shed it quickly when I told him it was girly. Then he started using the word “girly” frequently – in the correct context. 😉

      • I apparently love the word so much that I even use it in Spanish, (“¡Qué cute!”) lol

        Having a husband who speaks English as a second language plus children really opens your eyes to over-used phrases in your own speech

        Again, loved this post and your writing. Saludos!

  4. Loved your story! It was cute! (no pun intended…LOL) We’ve gone through similar times as well. For my husband trying to get him to understand the term “redneck” (we live in the south and it is used a lot here, although I stressed it’s not good to go around calling people rednecks) took quite a while. One day it’s like a lightbulb went off and “he got it.”

    I hope you blog about some of the linguistic errors that you may make in Mexico so we can learn along with you!!!!

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