February 27, 2013
by Graham


A headline in the Daily Mail reads “Richard III’s ancestors demand a York burial”. Really? How have they got in touch? Through a ouija board?

The article begins “The living descendants of King Richard III have joined the campaign to demand that his remains are reburied in York.”

So the writer of the article, as opposed to the sub-editor writing the headline, knows what is “up” and what is “down” in genealogy. However, the sentence is still wrong, because to the best of my knowledge, Richard III has no “living descendants”. He had one legitimate child, who died before Richard (who was himself only in his early thirties when he died). There were also at least two illegitimate children of whom, again, at least one pre-deceased Richard. The current disputants are actually descended from Richard’s sister. If anyone wants to claim that this is a distinction without a difference, consider whether your own brother or sister’s children are your descendants. I don’t think we want to go there!

The online version of the Daily Mail story has changed “ancestors” to “descendants”, so one cheer for semi-accuracy.

February 25, 2013
by Graham


I’ve just been listening to Nick Robinson’s programme about the BBC and the General Strike of 1926, and noticed that he referred to “listeners-in” throughout. In fact this was something that Reith thoroughly disapproved of. In 1924 he had written a book called “Broadcast over Britain, in which we find

“An objectionable habit is to refer to the listener as the ‘listener-in’; this is a relic of the days when he actually did listen in to messages not primarily intended for him; now he is the one addressed, and he accordingly listens. Only the unlicensed listen-in.” (page 162)

February 12, 2013
by Graham

A crooked pronunciation

We’ve all come across words that when read quickly can appear to have one pronunciation, but in fact have a totally different one, because the wrong one shows that the structure of the word has been misread. Two famous such words are “misled” and “underfed”, pronounced /ˈmaɪzÉ™ld/ and /ÊŒnˈdɜːft/ respectively. Because they look like perfectly well-formed past tenses, small children may well misinterpret the division of these words into their constituent parts as ‘misle’ and ‘underf’ + past marker, instead of ‘mis’+’lead’ and ‘under’+’feed’.

Well, I was surprised this morning to hear the well-respected Julie Meyer, CEO and founder of Ariadne Capital, say on the “Today” programme, that the reputation of the banking industry had gone /ˈɔːri/. Again, the word is a perfectly well formed adverb or adjective, like many others that end in ‘-y’, but it has nothing to do with ‘awe’: the structure is ‘a’+’wry’.

February 9, 2013
by Graham

Radio 3

So Patricia Hughes has died, aged 90. She was one of the team of fairly eccentric announcers that Cormac Rigby gathered for Radio 3, and who were some of my first colleagues and ‘customers’ when I joined the BBC. Most of them have gone now – Robin Holmes, blind in one eye, who at least twice put Radio 3 off the air as he knocked his coffee cup over into the works, Victor Hallam, Donald Price, Tom Crowe, who although he sounded immaculate on air, used to give a fair impression of a hedgehog as he snuffled his way through our card index when preparing his scripts. All now, sadly, dead, including Cormac, who left the BBC to become a Catholic priest. Of the older generation of that team, only Peter Barker is still with us, although his mellifluous voice hasn’t been heard on air for many years now.

Tempus fugit.

February 2, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

New words for BBC News

The unfortunate pollution in the English Channel (at least that’s where it’s assumed to be), that has caused the oiling of several hundred seabirds, means that two new words have been added to the vocabulary of BBC Radio News. Friday (1st February)’s 5 pm bulletin included “goo” and “gloopy”. The presenter of the “PM” programme seemed a little taken aback by this ‘descent’ into the vernacular – he commented on it about 15 minutes later.

January 21, 2013
by Graham
1 Comment

Is’t confusing?

The tragic events in Algeria have once more brought the words Islamist and Jihadist (should they be capitalized or not?) into the news.

Two things strike me – first, where is the stress on Islamist? The ‘rule’ in English is that the suffix –ist does not change the stress position of the stem to which it is added, so bal’loonist, ‘physicist, ‘naturalist (stressed one, two, or three syllables before the suffix, respectively). For Islamist, this, then, gives the alternatives ‘Islamist and Is’lamist, depending on how the individual pronounces the word Islam. I’ve heard both from BBC newsreaders and journalists, with a preponderance of initial stress – one Radio 4 newsreader changed from second to first syllable stress between bulletins during the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 one morning. To my ear, initial syllable stress sounds more euphonious, but that is a totally unscientific observation, and inadmissible as evidence! Jihadist, on the other hand, is always stressed on the second syllable, in conformity with the ‘rule’ stated above – at least that is what my ears have been telling me, although maybe someone can give me a contrary example? The confusion (if that is what it is) over Islamist is not helped by the frequent use of the word Islamic, which is stressed on the penultimate syllable in accordance with the normal treatment of adjectives ending in -ic. (There are exceptions, such as catholic and lunatic, but most ‘exceptions’ are nouns rather than adjectives – arithmetic, arsenic, rhetoric.)

Second, what is the meaning of –ist? Bear with me while I make an apparent digression.

When the OED 2nd edition was first published, I was struck by the number of obscure words mentioned on the spines of the twenty volumes: Volume I: A to Bazouki; Volume II: BBC to Chalypsography; Volume IV: Dvandva to Follis. I took down volume 1, and looked at Bazouki. This was described as an error for bouzouki (and bazouki doesn’t appear in the online version of OED3). The preceding entry was bazoum – jocular for bosom. One of the examples was from the ”Washington Post’ (spelt ‘bozoom’ in this case), which also included the word titism. Needless to say, I looked up titism (after all, the first rule of lexicography is that every word used in a definition should itself be defined). There was no such entry. As it was presumably being treated as a nonce word (i.e. created for this specific newspaper article), this was understandable. But neither, under -ism, was there any definition that covered (if you’ll excuse the word) such an occupation(?), attitude(?) or whatever.

Now you can see where I’m going with this. –ist is in the same situation: there is at present no definition of this suffix which accounts for titist, or even sexist or racist. The definitions so far given are

1) Forming a simple agent noun derived from a Greek verb in -ίζειν, and often accompanying an English verb in -ize.

2) Designating a person who practises some art or method, or who prosecutes, studies, or devotes himself to some science, art, or branch of knowledge (the meaning of Jihadist).

3) Designating an adherent or professor of some creed, doctrine, system, or art (the meaning of Islamist).

4) One whose profession or business it is to have to do with the thing or subject in question.

The online OED says that the entry for –ist has not been fully updated, and was first published in 1900. I think we can assume that when the letter -I is reached, this lack will be addressed.

December 31, 2012
by Graham

Another proposed new spelling system

I’ve just found this on the BBC website. In case anyone has problems linking to it, it says

‘Learning a language is often tricky, particularly when it comes to spelling new words. “The Spell As You Pronounce Universal Project” (SAYPU) wants everyone to spell words the way they are pronounced – and for the world to spell in Latin script.

‘School children in English-speaking countries have difficulty spelling words such as ‘people’ and ‘friend’. They contain the odd vowels which are not pronounced. SAYPU suggests it is about time we started spelling what we pronounced and not just in English, but in all languages. Say, for instance, the word ‘oui’ – or ‘yes’ in French – would be spelled WEE and the word ‘Leute’ in German – meaning ‘people’ – as LOITE. The director of Logos Capital, Jaber George, who is launching the programme today, insists their aim is to help raise worldwide literacy levels by making spelling easier.

“One of the reasons why, in some cultures and in certain languages, there is [sic] higher illiteracy rates than in others is because of the difficulty in learning how to read and write, and by having, actually, a phonetic alphabet, then you don’t have this problem anymore; everyone will be able to read and write much more easily. So Esperanto, basically, is to have a single language spoken by everyone; here, what we are trying to do is just to have all these languages written using the same alphabet.”‘

The obvious objection to this is that the Latin alphabet has only five vowel symbols (six if you include ‘y’), but English has 11 monophthongs before we get to schwa. French also has 11 plus schwa, and also 3-4 (depending on dialect) nasalized vowels. Unfortunately, the 11 monophthongs are not identical in the two languages, so the same symbols, which I assume in this new system are supposed to represent the same ‘sounds’, do not do so. For instance, if we use ‘e’ for the sound in English get, this is most similar to the French vowel in tête, and then what do we do for the second vowel in abbé? This is something like the English diphthong in they, which we could write as ‘ey’. But then if we adopt this spelling for French, what do we do with the words abeille and abbaye? According to my Petit Robert, all three of these words are pronounced differently, so we need three different spellings for them.

I can find no information about “Jaber George” except that he is a director of Logos Capital, as mentioned above. I assume he isn’t a linguist, and I think we can safely dismiss his plans as ill-thought-out. After all, if they don’t work for two major languages such as English and French, then they fail at the first hurdle.

December 20, 2012
by Graham
1 Comment

The Dark Ages – An Age of Light

Further to my comments about Mark Lawson and his programmes about European crime writing, and his expertise, which some readers of this blog thought inappropriate as he was not setting himself up as an expert (a view I cannot share), we now have Waldemar Januszczak as not only the presenter, but also the writer and director of the TV series on The Dark Ages.

I have no complaints about Mr (or is he Dr?) Januszczak as an art critic and historian, but someone really ought to have told him that an alphabet is not the same as a language. In the fourth programme in the series he referred to the futhark (which he mis-pronounced /ˈfÊŠthɑːk/ by the way) as a language. How can we linguists get it into the heads of non-specialists that this is not the case? A presenter of a serious programme who confused elements with molecules would be howled down – and quite rightly – but because everyone can speak a language, everyone is therefore considered to be an expert, and not to need any help with the terminology.

Someone in the BBC must have commissioned this series, but it is very clear that no one editing it was any more knowledgeable about language than the “expert” presenter.

Despite his name, by the way, Waldemar Januszczak is English.

Perhaps we need a media-friendly linguist (not an all-purpose ‘egghead’ like Stephen Fry or Melvyn Bragg) to put forward a plan for a sensible series on language. Are there any volunteers?

November 24, 2012
by Graham

Back to English spelling

One of the problems with English spelling is the number of borrowings there have been from other languages. It is often said that English should follow the lead of languages like Spanish, that spell as they are pronounced. Leaving aside the fact that this is not strictly true of Spanish in any case, English adopts a different policy to borrowings. Spanish tends, where possible, to adapt the spelling of foreign words to Spanish orthographic conventions. Football, for instance, is borrowed as “fútbol”. This allows an approximation to the English  pronunciation to be represented and copied.

English does the opposite: the original spelling is maintained (when the source language uses the Roman alphabet), with the result that English readers are expected either to know the spelling conventions of all these languages, or to ignore them and develop new pronunciations based on the English interpretation of the letters used.

In practice, of course, we get a mishmash. People use what they think is the appropriate letter-to-sound correspondence, and more often than not, get it “wrong”. Take the sequence -au- in words borrowed from German. The electrical goods manufacturer Braun is generally pronounced as /brɔːn/, taking no notice at all of the German convention for -au-. On the other hand, the beer, Löwenbräu, is pronounced /ˈləʊənbraÊŠ/. Perversely, here the -au- is pronounced as it would be in German if there were no umlaut above it, so while many people probably think they are being quite clever, because they ‘know’ that -au- is pronounced /aÊŠ/ in German, they are still “wrong”.

Similarly, the Italian product bruschetta is most often heard as /brʊˈʃetə/, because people think they know that -sch- is pronounced /ʃ/ in foreign words. They would do better to think of it in the normal English way of school, scheme, etc (and increasingly schedule in Britain as well as America).

The letter “z” is a particular problem: the prefix “schizo-” is itself fairly schizoid. Here the sch- is ‘correctly’ pronounced as in Greek, but the -z- is given a German (or Italian – but in this word German) pronunciation /ts/. The same ‘wrong’ foreign interpretation is put on the -z- in words such as chorizo (Spanish, and so originally either /θ/ or /s/), and the style of curry called dopiaza /dÉ’piˈætsÉ™/. The last two are presumably based on memories of the Italian pronunciation of -z- rather than the German.

Chorizo demonstrates -ch- pronounced as it is in both Spanish and English, but the adjective macho is often heard as /ˈmækəʊ/. Is this because it is assumed to be originally pronounced /x/ as in German or Scots, a sound not in the inventory of ‘English’ English, and replaced by /k/?

Any revision of English spelling would have to find a solution to these problems. Perhaps using the Spanish way, giving us Brown, Lervenbroy, skizofreenia, broosketta, choreetho and matcho for the words discussed above.

November 13, 2012
by Graham

Politics alert!

I don’t often comment on BBC politics or indeed any BBC matters apart from language use, but here goes:

In the now notorious interview that George Entwistle gave to John Humphrys on the Radio 4 “Today” programme last Saturday morning, Mr Entwistle admitted to not being aware of the front-page article in the Guardian newspaper on the subject of the ‘Newsnight’ report on child abuse.

When I worked at the BBC, there was a department called “News Information”, which seemed terribly wasteful, but served a vital purpose. Every British national daily newspaper was cut up overnight, and every article (with very few exceptions) marked for its subject matter. This entailed the full attention of several people – the markers, and the cutters, who did nothing but physically cut up the papers. Some articles were necessarily marked for several topics. The end result was a formidable cuttings collection. Every morning, by 9.30, a copy of every article relevant to the BBC was on the desk of all top management. Once newspapers were available on line, this may have stopped, but in those days no executive could claim that (s)he was unaware of a contentious issue.

Even if Mr Entwistle was engaged in meetings on other matters constantly on the day the Guardian published its report, surely his PA should have alerted him to it? I imagine that it was Mr Entwistle’s candid admission on air that led to his resignation later that day.

The economics of cutting up newspapers may be crazy, but the old system would surely have led to a different result in the current case.