January 3, 2012
by Graham

Breast implants

I thought that would get your attention!

The substance that these controversial objects are made from is causing some confusion. There are two separate materials: silicon and silicone.

Silicon is a non-metallic element, symbolised by Si, used for its properties as a semi-conductor in electronic circuits, and therefore in the insides of whatever device you are reading this on. It is a gritty sort of material. Its pronunciation is /ˈsɪlɪkən/ with a neutral schwa in the final syllable.

Silicone is a polymer: a material composed of long chains of alternate silicon and oxygen atoms, which is generally inert (i.e. it doesn’t react easily with anything). This makes it suitable for use in medical applications. In its gel form it is used in such things as breast implants. The pronunciation is /ˈsɪlɪkəʊn/ – note that the final syllable has the GOAT vowel.

Many commentators on BBC Radio today have been talking about the present situation, and discussing whether women who have had /ˈsɪlɪkən/ implants should have them removed. If any woman has really had a/ˈsɪlɪkən/ implant, I should think she has a very good case to sue for serious medical malpractice.

December 9, 2011
by Graham

Ejectives again

John Wells’  blog post yesterday deals with ejectives in English. He’s kind enough to mention my own post on this subject some time ago, but I’m surprised he believes that I think it’s a recent phenomenon. I wrote then “I suppose I first became properly aware of ejectives being used in English about twenty years ago”. I put this down to my own lack of attention to what’s going on. Later in the post I wrote “My impression is that they must have arisen some time ago”.

I didn’t suggest that they were new then, and I went on to mention the earliest I was aware of being Lionel Jeffries in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which was filmed in 1968. I suppose it depends on how recent you mean “recent”  to be: some years ago it was suggested that I give a repeat talk to a local organisation. Someone on the committee asked if it wasn’t a bit soon to ask me back. My proposer said “if 17 years is a bit soon, then I suppose so.” Lionel Jeffries was not a young man in 1968, and we can assume that he had been using ejectives in the appropriate position for most of his life by then.

I remember David Abercrombie saying that he believed that pre-glottalisation started with people born after 1926 (the year that Lionel Jeffries was born, by coincidence). How he could be so certain about that as an absolute date, I have no idea, but if he was right, then it would follow that the ejectives appeared some time later. Is this recent? In terms of the whole history of the English language, of course it is, but 1926 is now before most of us were born (except the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, of course), so in that sense, not recent at all.

I’m delighted that John is bringing out a new edition of Accents of English. Thirty years between editions is far too long!

November 25, 2011
by Graham

Garrow’s Law

For the benefit of those who can’t receive BBC1 television, I shall start by saying that Garrow’s Law is a period courtroom drama, set in late 18th entury London. Garrow is a young barrister intent on improving the quality of justice for poorer people, and he is based, apparently, on a real person.

The developing plotline concerns his relationship with the wife of Sir Arthur Hill, and here is my problem: the BBC takes great pains to get the period detail correct in costume, stage setting and the like, but obviously this can’t be carried to the lengths of having everyone speak in 18th century London accents (in the same way, both British TV series of Maigret, starring Rupert Davies in the 1960s, and Michael Gambon in the 1990s also accepted that it was unrealistic to affect French accents). We’re now getting to my linguistic point.

The wife of Sir Arthur, who is either a knight or a baronet (which is hereditary), is regularly referred to as “Lady Sarah”. She has been thrown out of her home by Sir Arthur, on the grounds of her supposed adultery with Garrow, and deprived of her child (who although claimed by Sir Arthur to be  Garrow’s, is being brought up by Sir Arthur). The correct usage for the wife of a knight or baronet is not “Lady Sarah”, but “Lady Hill”. For her to be “Lady Sarah”, she would have to hold the title in her own right, as the daughter of an Earl, Marquis or Duke. If she is the latter, where is her family? Shouldn’t they be defending her against Sir Arthur? If she is so aristocratic, I think we should be told. If she has no family, and was ‘elevated’ to her position simply by marriage to Sir Arthur, then she is being wrongly addressed and talked about by the whole cast.

Whichever is the back story, something is missing.

Sad, aren’t I?

November 11, 2011
by Graham
1 Comment

Clever Scientists

A report on BBC’s regional news programme for East Anglia yesterday evening (10 November 2011), and unfortunately not available for watching again after 6 o’clock GMT on 11 November (so you can’t check what I’m about to say after that time) drew attention to a potential breakthrough in the treatment and prevention of malaria by using the properties of a protein. The research is being carried out at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

The reporter said “Carried in the blood, scientists have been struggling to find a way of stopping that parasite invading our red blood cells.”

Nuff said.

November 5, 2011
by Graham

Wrest or Wrestle?

Caroline Hawley, reporting from Libya for the BBC has a couple of times recently said that the new rulers had “wrestled” control of the country from Gaddafi.

She is not, of course, the only person to confuse the two words wrest and wrestle, to the extent that it can’t be long before the OED has to recognise that there is a phrasal verb to “wrestle from”. However, at the moment, there is no entry under wrestle which quite fits the bill here, and the meaning “To usurp, arrogate, or take by force (power, a right, etc.); to assume forcibly (a dignity or office); to seize, capture, or take (lands, dominion, etc.) from another or others” is limited to wrest(4) where we read “In very frequent use (esp. with from) since c1820″.

Wrest is not a common word in other contexts, whereas wrestle is a word that we see most days, with one use or another, but it would be a shame if wrest were to disappear completely, when it has existed since Anglo-Saxon and Viking times alongside wrestle, which originally implied ‘wresting’ on a continuous basis – wresting was a single action, wrestling a process.

October 15, 2011
by Graham

This is a must-have thing

Standing in the check-out queue at my local supermarket yesterday afternoon, I noticed that the person behind me was buying a Jamie Oliver knife block set.

Like many products these days, it is labelled in several languages. The German, however, was easier to understand than usual. Why does it say that the product is “must-have”, and why is it a “set”? What’s wrong with the word “unentbehrlich”, or some other equivalent, and wouldn’t “Garnitur” fit the bill for ‘set’? My German is not very good, so there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the use of English words in this context, but if someone English were to use foreign words in such a way, then they would be considered to be very uppish, and the reaction would be “Oooh, get you!”.


October 1, 2011
by Graham

An unusual ‘intrusive’ r

We’re all used to the so-called intrusive r in English – the ‘r’ pronounced after a word ending in /ɑː, ɔː, ɜː, ə/ when the following word also begins with a vowel. A few days ago, I heard one which was new to me, although perhaps it has just passed me by until now. Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Editor, was talking about the possible eviction of travellers from Dale Farm in Essex, and he used the phrase ‘dénouement of …’

The intrusive r between these two words was unusual for me, as he clearly used a French-type nasalized vowel at the end of the first word: /deˈnuːmãrəv/. (Apologies for using /ã/ – I’m not sure how to add an accent immediately above a vowel.) I’m not aware that I’ve ever heard a nasalized vowel followed by an intrusive r before. If he had used a final /ŋ/, which the EPD allows as a possible English pronunciation – although neither ODP nor LPD gives this option – then an intrusive r would have been impossible.

I haven’t examined any of the literature on English pronunciation, but I don’t recall this possibility being mentioned. No doubt someone reading this will be able to point me to a reference.

September 27, 2011
by Graham

Political language

The newspapers and news and current affairs programmes this week are full of Labour “apologising” for the mistakes they made during their period of office between 1997 and 2010. I do not remember politicians ever apologising for their own actions in government over the time when I have been taking an interest (about 50 years). They may apologise for slavery, which ended in Britain in the 18th century, although the slave trade went on until 1806, but that is an easy thing to do – no one can even remember a family member who was involved, they all died so long ago; but to apologise for things you did, or didn’t do, ten years ago – that is something new in my experience.

But something else changed when Labour came to office in 1997. Ministers when interviewed about their policies always insisted that this was the “right” thing to do. From Tony Blair to, especially, Gordon Brown, and all their subordinates, they one and all arrogantly suggested that having considered all the alternative policies, there was only one right course of action, and this was it. However arrogant the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major may have been, my recollection is that they only ever claimed that their policies were the best options, wording which allows more wriggle room if they subsequently need to be changed.

Perhaps if Labour had stuck to this less definite phraseology, they would not now be apologising for getting it wrong.

I’m surprised that no political commentators seem to have picked up on this.

September 13, 2011
by Graham

A “new” word

They say (whoever ‘they’ are) that travel broadens the mind. In my case it’s just broadened my vocabulary. I’ve come back from a fortnight’s holiday in Germany with a new word in my armoury – cater-cornered. I had never come across this before, but it appeared in two separate guides, one in Munich, the other in Nuremberg. I was mentally pronouncing it to myself as /ˌkeɪtəˈkɔːnəd/ – by analogy with the word I was familiar with: the verb cater, and worked out by comparing the wording in the books with the evidence on the ground (“A is cater-cornered with B”) that it must mean ‘diagonally opposite to’, but I was totally bemused by this usage of what to me was a completely unknown word in a guide book translated from German, by a German (and I was telling myself yet again that you should never ever translate anything for publication out of your own language, but only into it), and that he/she was using a strange sort of dictionary.

The word is in none of the editions I have of Chambers’ dictionaries – my first port of call for ‘obscure’ words like this, but the 7th edition of the COD has it, without comment, pronounced as I have shown it above. The 8th edition however, specifies it as US, and changes the pronunciation to /ˌkætəˈkɔːnəd/. It’s not given in the 5th edition, and I don’t have ready access to the 6th. (The 9th-11th editions have gone back to /ˌkeɪtəˈkɔːnəd/, by the way, although OED3 retains /ˌkætəˈkɔːnəd/).

The most recent British English example given in OED3 is from The Listener in 1959: “A square cat, going cater-cornered among the leeks.” If I had read this sentence, I wouldn’t have had a clue what it meant.

Have I been missing something all my life, or is this an example of a word that has travelled to the US, dropped out of use completely except in dialectal British English, and unlike so many words, not yet come back? It does not, after all, make an appearance anywhere in the British National Corpus.

August 17, 2011
by Graham

Prescriptive and Descriptive

These days, any linguists who claimed to be prescriptivists would find themselves cast out of the linguistic community, and yet to a greater or less extent, we are all prescriptivists, in private at least, and those of us who teach a language to non-native students are necessarily prescriptivist – languages do have rules, and it is essential to at least try to inculcate them into the heads of learners (and anyone who complains about my splitting an infinitive in this sentence should read the original edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, published in 1926).

Descriptive linguists work with language as it is actually produced, and not like prescriptivists – who tell you what they would like it to be. The prescriptivist position is logically untenable – the first time a language is analysed, the analysis must be descriptive of the state of the language at that time: there is no previous analysis with which it can be compared, and so no “it must be”s or “it ought to”s are possible. So this has to have been the position that the first Greek grammarians found themselves in, and also the first Chinese, or Sanskrit, or any other linguists. In our own day, it is also what happens when linguists work with previously ‘uncontacted’ groups in places such as the Amazon.

Prescriptivists also do not seem to realise that their own use of whatever language they may speak is also vastly changed from that of their ancestors: they tend to accept their own usage as ‘correct’, even when it can be shown that their own grandparents must have had a different one (what was their grandparents’ attitude to change?). This is particularly easy to demonstrate with pronunciation, where they frequently point to the ‘mis-stressing’ of contribute and distribute on the first syllable, while themselves considering the stressing of the second syllable of vagary or quandary, which was normal 100 years ago, to be laughable.

These thoughts have come to me after reading Jack Windsor Lewis’s blog post on disputable pronunciations, where he describes /ˈerənəs/ for erroneous as an ‘undeniable mistake’. It could be that the eminent biologist who used this pronunciation (and I heard it too) believes that this is the correct pronunciation: after all homogeneous is often pronounced /həˈmɒdʒənəs/, even though there is a word of a different meaning spelled homogenous, and while this pronunciation is not yet given by EPD, ODP or LPD, the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation does have it, with no condemnatory comment: “Less commonly also pronounced huh-moj-uh-nuhss”. In my recent experience, the only thing wrong with this statement is the two words “less commonly”, because I now seem to hear it far more often than the ‘regular’ pronunciation /hɒməˈdʒiːnɪəs/. Are these people also making “an undeniable mistake” in Jack’s words, or as descriptivists, must we now say that it is a part of the language? The editors of all but the BBC dictionary seem to be saying that it is not acceptable – they must have heard it, and yet even John Wells, who marks all sorts of pronunciations as “not acceptable” (and this is another example of a great descriptivist being prescriptive), denies it an entry. If Olausson and Sangster are correct, on the other hand, then /ˈerənəs/ must be considered a “less common” pronunciation of erroneous.

I have heard another of our greatest linguists telling an audience that it is impossible for a native speaker to make a mistake. This must surely be wrong – mistakes are made by accident, and we have only to consider spoonerisms, which are inadvertent, to realise that we all make mistakes in our speech every day of our lives.

Prescriptivists are clearly losing a fighting battle – as I once said – in trying to stop all change that they happen not to like, but descriptivists too will correct what they consider to be mistakes. The problem is: when does a mistake happen so often that it ceases to be a mistake, and becomes an acceptable alternative, or even drives out the older version altogether, as has happened with vagary and quandary ( and /bælˈkəʊni/ a hundred years earlier)?