October 1, 2012
by Graham
1 Comment

New coinage or resurrection?

John Simpson of the OED was interviewed by Evan Davies on last Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme, about ‘new words’ in the OED.

One of the words mentioned was medal, used as a verb, which Evan had noticed for the first time this summer, in connexion with the London Olympics, meaning “to win a medal”. John pointed out that the word had been current with this meaning since at least the 1960s, the earliest reference in the on-line OED being from the Valley News (California) on 9 June that year. Like Evan, I had never heard it until this year, so it may be that it has taken some time to cross the Atlantic, probably with those athletes who have trained in the US.

Another example of a new word – to me at least – is de-arrest: my local paper carried a news story about some suspicious individuals who tried to collect used cooking oil from a restaurant, apparently claiming to be from the council. A police spokeswoman said “He and another man were arrested on suspicion of theft while we tried to check out who they were. They have now been de-arrested.” Is this a different procedure from what would have been carried out if they had been merely released? I can see a nice distinction being made between the two, rather like marriages being dissolved or annulled (the one admitting their previous existence, and the other denying that they had ever been contracted).

The OED says of de-arrest: obsolete, rare. The only quotation given dates from 1791: “A ship dearrested or released by order of Council”. It adds “= dis-arrest”. The most recent quotation for dis-arrest is from 1693, so even more obsolete than de-arrest.

Since writing this, I’ve found an article in the Guardian from 1 March 2006 in which this paragraph appears:

“According to section 30, subsection (7) and (7A) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to ‘de-arrest’ is to allow that ‘a person who has been arrested under any act of law at a place other than a police station, shall be released before reaching a police station if a constable is satisfied that there are no grounds for keeping him under arrest’. Unlike being released with no further action, being de-arrested means that the record of the initial arrest is removed.”

So, de-arrest is officially not obsolete!

September 8, 2012
by Graham
6 Comments

Annecy

The awful events near Lake Annecy have brought this place name into prominence. At first sight it is a straightforward French name, with no problem for people needing to pronounce it, such as British radio and TV newsreaders and journalists, and yet over the past week I have been hearing three anglicised pronunciations: /ˈænsi/, /ˈænəˈsiː/ and /ænəˈsiː/. The pronunciation given in the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation, edited by Olausson and Sangster, both of whom have since left the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, is yet a fourth: /ænˈsiː/. From the variations heard, I can’t work out which is the Unit’s current recommendation.

So, which one is ‘correct’? Of course, the answer has to be, “all and none”, as to speak of a correct anglicisation for an unfamiliar name is nonsensical. However, my preference would be for the first of these, on the grounds that in French the medial schwa would be omitted by the law of three consonants (a schwa is only retained, or indeed may be inserted, if there are three successive consonants in a word or phrase, which is not the case here); and that initial stress seems more ‘natural’ for British English speakers. American English may prefer final stress, as it does in many French names (and even some thoroughly anglicised ones such as Christine).

August 3, 2012
by Graham
5 Comments

IPA versus Respelling

Dictionaries which try to show the pronunciation of words can basically use one of two methods: either they can use a respelling system (this was the only possibility for dictionaries compiled up to the middle of the 19th century), or they can use a phonetic alphabet. To all intents and purposes nowadays, this means the IPA. Is one of these better than the other?

Writing about the presentation of pronunciation seems to be flavour of the month among linguists and phoneticians at the moment, and the latest edition of Language and History (the journal of the Henry Sweet Society) is devoted to it. One of the articles claims that IPA is gaining the upper hand, and that this is the system used by a majority of current dictionaries. I dispute this: even the Oxford family of dictionaries uses a respelling system in the Little, Pocket and Paperback versions, the IPA transcription not going ‘below’ (in size) the Concise. Similarly, Chambers Dictionary still uses a respelling, as do the Penguin English Dictionary, Collins’ Dictionary and Thesaurus of the English Language, and Cassell’s English Dictionary, all reputable dictionaries. US dictionaries have never favoured IPA.

These are all dictionaries intended for native speakers, as opposed to the ever-proliferating dictionaries aimed at non-native learners (the Oxford Advanced Learners’ being the best known). One justification given for using the IPA in learners’ dictionaries is that while we British are unaccustomed to seeing the IPA, and so easily confused by it, the rest of the world has been using it happily for many years. Another reason is that the IPA gives a consistent and accurate representation of the pronunciation, while a respelling does not. Is that true?

All the dictionaries that use IPA still transcribe the words phonemically, or phonologically, rather than phonetically, so that the letters used are an approximation to the actual sound value, and may differ quite a lot from the value given to the same letter in the transcription of other languages. It is notorious, for instance, that almost all the phonemes of French are articulatorily different from their apparent equivalent in English, so that where a French dictionary will write, for instance, /də/ for orthographic ‘de’, English will use the same schwa symbol in /ðə/ for ‘the’; but the two schwas are articulatorily, auditorily and acoustically quite distinct. The German schwa is different again. Also, IPA transcriptions tend to become as fixed as any traditional orthography, even when the phonetic detail changes: Danish, for instance, is still written with symbols that may have been appropriate in the 1940s, but are not so today. When I visited Denmark in 1982, an eminent professor of phonetics, now deceased, told me that had he spoken Danish as a child like the current (i.e. in 1982) television newsreaders, his father would have beaten him to within an inch of his life, and yet this 1982 version of Danish had become the norm. It may be argued that the introductory material can deal with this, but how many people actually read the introduction?

Respelling is often justified because it is easier to interpret by reference to traditional orthography, and also because it can be read by speakers of different accents, and so is less prescriptive than IPA. (It is ironic that phoneticians, who may advocate IPA, and are certainly descriptivists, should be accused in this way of being prescriptive.) However, in many ways, respelling is just as prescriptive: most systems do not allow for the accents of that triangle of England in which there is no velar nasal phoneme (all occurrences of ‘ng’ are pronounced /ŋg/ – finger and singer rhyme). Likewise, whatever vowel letter or combination of letters is chosen to represent /ɑː/ is generally used in John Wells’ BATH set, even though in the northern half of England, and also in many parts of the US, it is the TRAP vowel that is used in bath and its like. At one stage in its history, the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary had a symbol that allowed for this: ‘â’ could be pronounced ‘long’ or ‘short’ in bath, while ‘a’ was always ‘short’ (as in hat), and ‘ä’ was ‘long’ (as in calm), but unfortunately, in later editions this innovation was dropped, and the dictionary became more prescriptive again. No dictionary that I know of deals satisafctorily with the complex of STRUT, FOOT and GOOSE: northern England never carried out the STRUT~FOOT split, and Scots has a different distribution of FOOT and GOOSE from England. Some words even in southern England may vary in their FOOT~GOOSE realisation: room is a well-known example.

Both systems have their advocates, and both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t see the demise of respelling coming any time soon.

July 7, 2012
by Graham
11 Comments

What do you call someone?

The question has arisen this week particularly because of the behaviour of Bob Diamond towards the MPs on the House of Commons Select Committee questioning him about the LIBOR scandal. He consistently called them by their first name, while they equally consistently and ostentatiously called him “Mr Diamond”. Is he genuinely on first name terms with all of these people, or was he following the recent internet tradition of calling every one in that way? Whatever, it came across that he was being arrogant, patronising, and insolent, while the MPs were deliberately distancing themselves from him by their formality – in what was, after all, a very formal situation.

I had a similar experience myself a few years ago when there was a public controversy over the circumstances of my brother’s death. I received an email from a Sky News producer wanting to interview me. It began “Hi Graham”. I didn’t reply for two years, by which time I reckoned that I was no longer of interest. My reply was scathing: “How dare you address me as a long-term friend when you had never heard of me until two days before, and during a period of acute stress for my family” (I paraphrase – I can’t remember the exact words I used). I wrote about this in an earlier post, and Stewart Clark and I had a complete section on writing letters and emails in our book Words: A User’s Guide.

The question arises, would Mr Diamond talk to the Queen and Prince Philip in the same way: “Liz” and “Phil(ip)”? I suspect not, but if you can address a perfect stranger by their first name, why not? I remember that when I lived in Norway, there were raised eyebrows among my Norwegian colleagues when they heard a Swedish television interviewer use the familiar “du” form to the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. And this was in Scandinavia, a much more relaxed society than Britain.

It is one of the signs that politicians and journalists are becoming too close that the BBC’s Evan Davies, interviewing for the Today programme on Radio 4 frequently teeters on the brink of overfamiliarity with his political interviewees, and non-politicians are almost always given the first name treatment. Do they ask for that, or is it put like this: “Do you mind if I call you …?” to which it would seem churlish to answer “Yes”.

Another question of naming occurs regularly in “The Archers” (Radio 4 soap opera for those outside the UK). It may be to introduce new listeners to the characters so that they can sort them out, but in my experience it is not normal British English usage. The characters frequently refer to other members of the cast by their first name, even when talking about them to close members of the family. Thus “Ruth”, the wife of “David”, and mother of “Pip”, “Josh” and “Ben”, often calls “David”‘s mother “Jill”, even when talking to these characters. In my experience, which may now be old-fashioned, the correct form of address is “your Mum” or “your Gran” (or whatever term is used for the grandmother). The same mis-use (if it is that in 2012) applies across the programme. My own daughter calls her mother-in-law by her first name, but when talking to my son-in-law, she calls her “your Mum”, as I do in talking to my son-in-law. Perhaps my daughter is as old-fashioned as I am.

Now that I’ve displayed my low taste in radio, I’ll stop.

June 30, 2012
by Graham
3 Comments

The tentacles of spelling pronunciations

Tentacle, barnacle, manacle: all words that are stressed on the first syllable.

But now, in a Today programme interview on BBC Radio 4, our erstwhile Foreign Secretary, brother of the current leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, has brought us a new one in all seriousness: debacle /ˈdebəkl/. He was referring to the current situation in the eurozone , and it took me a few seconds to decipher what he was actually saying.

Can David Miliband really have gone through his life never having heard this word pronounced?

June 26, 2012
by Graham
4 Comments

Rhotic/non-rhotic spelling problems

This weekend’s papers have brought up (quite inadvertently on their part) a problem caused by the development of non-rhotic accents:

“High Street banks are often reluctant to invest in what they see as risky and uncharted territory” (Mail on Sunday, 24 June 2012)

“We’re in somewhat unchartered territory in 2020.” (The Independent, 23 June 2012).

My non-rhotic pronunciation is such that I could never confuse these two words: (un)charted /ˈtʃɑːtɪd/ versus (un)chartered /ˈtʃɑːtəd/. But the version of non-rhotic English espoused notably by Tony Blair, but also by many others, uses schwa in both words (/ˈtʃɑːtəd/), leading to the mis-use of ‘(un)chartered’ for ‘(un)charted’ in such contexts.

A similar problem arises with formerly and formally.

“The artist /ˈfɔːməli/ known as Prince” could be interpreted as either, with totally different meanings. Prince intends, and as a rhotic American, spells, formerly, but if “Prince” was his official name, then formally would be equally appropriate.

I don’t believe that any amount of spelling reform could eliminate this problem.

June 17, 2012
by Graham
8 Comments

Ukraine and other anglicisations

On Saturdays, The Independent newspaper has a column called “Errors and Omissions”, which discusses infelicities in the language used in the paper over the previous seven days.

Yesterday it discussed the use (or not) of the definite article with “Ukraine”. Guy Keleny (writer of the piece) seems to be against omitting the article on the grounds that what Ukrainians do, even when speaking English, is irrelevant – they are not native speakers of English, and their usage, while it should be noted by us, ought not to determine our linguistic behaviour.

There are other country names whose definite article has been lost – Lebanon and Gambia are two that immediately come to mind. In the cases of Ukraine and Lebanon, these are names for places which used to form part of larger countries and have become independent: Ukraine from Russia, and Lebanon from Syria. In the case of Gambia, this is the name of a river, and river names are usually preceded by the definite article – The Thames, The Rhine, The Potomac. Geographical areas are also usually given an article – the Caucasus, the Maghreb. And in English, the Netherlands, though in Dutch the name is simply Nederland, neither ‘articled’ nor plural.

Many island groups also carry the article – the British Isles, the Maldives, the Philippines.

I have some sympathy for Mr Keleny – I used to argue against John Simpson that the adjective formed from Iran was Iranian, pronounced /ɪˈreɪnɪən/, not /ɪˈrɑːnɪən/, regardless of what Iranians themselves say when speaking English,  just as we say /bəˈheɪmɪən/ for the adjective from Bahamas. I also argued that just because the Chinese were now insisting on spelling the name of their capital Beijing, we had no need to change our well-established anglicisation Peking. After all, the French and Spanish call London ‘Londres’, and we have our own spellings for many European cities, and almost all country names. Must we change them as well?

However, time moves on, and we do abandon some of these established anglicisations, as has happened with Saragossa, Flushing, and Leghorn over the past century.

One thing Mr Keleny has got wrong: the Chinese have not changed the name of their capital, simply its spelling in Roman letters. The Indian cities of Mumbai and Chennai, on the other hand, have had not just the spelling, but the names changed to eradicate supposedly colonial connotations.

June 4, 2012
by Graham
9 Comments

Queen’s English Society, RIP

Two years ago, I wrote a post on the Queen’s English Society as it set up an “English Academy”, and I ended my post “Who will prove the futility of the Queen’s English Society’s efforts to its members?”

We now have the answer: its own members. BBC News has just reported that fewer than twenty bothered to turn up to the AGM, and that it has been decided to wind up the Society.

There’s nothing more to be said, I think.

May 9, 2012
by Graham
2 Comments

What is iconic?

It seems that anything can be “iconic”. I’ve collected all of the following in just a few weeks:

The turtle is an iconic species.

The beauty of a traditional radio telescope is iconic.

Al-Qaeda targets iconic buildings.

The Roundhouse, in London, is iconic, as are the ruins of Greyfriars at Dunwich (both obviously to be targeted by Al-Qaeda!)

Terence Conran is Britain’s most iconic designer.

The gull-wing doors of the Mercedes 300 are iconic.

Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes in “Now Voyager” is an iconic image.

The OED has no earlier quotations than 1976 for what one has to assume is the meaning in all these cases:

“Designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context”.

How quickly meanings can spread.

April 24, 2012
by Graham
3 Comments

News Corporation

This Murdoch company is in the news again today with the most recent appearance of James Murdoch before the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World.

The name of the company is usually abbreviated to “News Corp”, and it’s interesting how many people pronounce this without the final ‘p’ – /’njuːz kɔː/. The pronunciation /kɔː/ is normal for the word corps, as a military unit, but I don’t remember ever having it heard as an abbreviation for corporation except in this context. Some BBC reporters are ‘guilty’ in this respect, but presenters such as Martha Kearney on The World at One are keeping to the longer pronunciation, which is the only one given in both the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation. The latest edition of the EPD that I own doesn’t give the abbreviation at all. I wonder how long it will be before the innovative pronunciation finds its way into the dictionaries.