January 1, 2010
by Graham

Dictionary of Blunders

I’ve recently been given a copy of this little book, which appears to have been published about 1880 (no author’s name is given, and it’s undated) by Whittaker & Co., London. In fact even the title is in some doubt as the cover gives the title as above, but inside it appears as “A Dictionary of Daily Blunders, containing A Collection of Mistakes often made in Speaking and Writing”. It can’t be earlier than 1880, because there is a reference to the Queen’s Speech of 20 May in that year: “I invite your careful notice to the important questions of policy connected with the future of South Africa”. This usage is deprecated, correcting it to “I invite you carefully to notice …”

The most interesting thing about the book is not in many cases the actual usages criticized (as we do not know the author, we cannot know what authority he – I don’t expect for a moment that it was a ‘she’ – had for his statements, other than his personal likes and dislikes), but the fact that the same usages that are heavily criticized today, as if they were recent solecisms, also appear in this book. For instance,

Aggravate has not quite the same meaning as irritate, though sometimes used for it, as “Don’t aggravate me”.

Allege is not properly spelt alledge, though the error is common.

And one I often received when I was at the BBC:

Americanisms are errors, and as such should be avoided. For instance, vise for vice, center for centre, Savior for Saviour, fiber for fibre, etc.

(I’m surprised that the writer is not critical of the use of etc following a list started with ‘for instance’!)

There are some interesting comments on pronunciation, one of which in particular caught my attention:

Byron. The poet called himself Birn, not Byron.

This ties in with the post about Gordon Brown’s pronunciation of iron which John Wells wrote a few weeks ago, here. My late wife, who was Scottish, distinguished the metal from the flattening implement by her syllabification. To my shame, I cannot remember which was which, but perhaps a reader of this has a similar experience to share …

December 28, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

English stress – again

Jack Windsor  Lewis has sent a comment to my post on “two names and a word” which dealt with an unusual pronunciation of sedentary:

This morning, 28 Dec 09, also on Radio 4 but on Andrew Marr’s ‘Start the Week’ discussion programme, I he’rd Cambridge Professor of Neuroscience Barbara Sahakian, use the stressing ef`ficacy inste’d of the usual front stress which is the only one recorded in the three big pronouncing dictionaries and in M’Webster Online. Her speech sounds int’restingly slightly transatlantic. The Internet gives no info on her speech-formative years. I’ve no definite memory of hearing it so stressed before but I think I have he’rd the also unrecorded in`tricacy.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard ef’ficacy before, although it doesn’t surprise me (but maybe it does in someone so well educated as Professor Sahakian). Like Jack, I have heard in’tricacy. These are yet more examples of words taking on an antepenultimate stress pattern, perhaps in order to avoid three unstressed syllables in a row. They follow the pattern of con’troversy, frag’mentary, tra’jectory (which I am old-fashioned enough to still pronounce ‘trajectory – although I do split infinitives!) All these have changed, or are in the process of changing, from initial to second-syllable (= antepenultimate in these cases) stress.

John Cowan commented on my “sedentary” post that in the US, the -ary suffix of sedentary and fragmentary does not reduce to /-əri/. In the words that I was assuming it was being stressed by analogy with – elementary, complimentary, even US English reduces -ary to /-əri/, so this would not be a bar to the stress pattern changing in American accents as well. One more example among many of the conservatism of US English (that’s not meant as a criticism, by the way).

December 24, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

A rary bird

I’ve been following John Wells’ thread on nursery rhymes, and have found this rare example from a French one:

“Oui, oui, choux!” un maire y crie, “ça masse!”

December 22, 2009
by Graham

Two names and a word

Nicholas Glass, in his report for Channel 4 News yesterday on the arrest of five men charged with stealing the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from Auschwitz, named two other places: Gdynia and Wrocławek. He can be excused (as we are talking about Channel 4, not the BBC, here) for being unable to pronounce the second of these, which he rendered as /ˈvrɒkləvek/ (I assume that the BBC Pronunciation Unit would have recommended /vrɒtsˈwævek/), but he sounded dyslexic with his attempt at the first, which he called /ˈgɪdnɪə/. Admittedly, the unfamiliar initial cluster /gd/ is not easily managed by an untrained English speaker, but he has the example of Gdansk which has been well known for the last thirty years at least, or does he call that /ˈgædənsk/? The easiest way to deal with Gdynia is to put a schwa between the /g/ and /d/, which is what I would expect most people to do without thinking about it: /gəˈdɪnɪə/.

This morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 had a report on children’s fitness levels. The university professor responsible for it spoke of the decrease in fitness being caused by a more /səˈdentəri/ lifestyle. This pronunciation is recognised by John Wells’ LPD as “British non-RP”, but not by the other pronunciation dictionaries. Presumably it comes about by analogy with such words as elementary, complimentary, parliamentary. These words are all derived from nouns with first syllable stress, followed by two unstressed syllables. Since English tends towards alternate stressed and unstressed syllables in longer words, it is quite usual for the main stress to be shifted  to the third syllable when the suffix -ary is added. Two-syllable words do not normally show this tendency: momentary retains its first syllable stress. However, fragmentary is in the course of succumbing to the antepenultimate stress – and Wells does not even note this as “non-RP”, although he does not give it as a US pronunciation. Sedentary appears to be going the same way.

December 12, 2009
by Graham

How many words?

It’s often said that English has more words than any other language. I’m not aware of any bona fide linguist who’s said this, but the statement crops up in newspaper articles from time to time.

Is it true? How would you start to count? I suspect that one reason the idea has arisen is that English has the largest dictionary (at least I don’t know of a language that has a bigger dictionary than the OED), and so people make the assumption that the biggest dictionary must represent the biggest vocabulary.

English certainly has an awful lot of different words – but even then, at what point do we separate vocabulary items into different words, rather than different meanings of the same word? Flour and flower are now indubitably two words, but etymologically they both derive from Latin FLOS.

An enormous number of English words are borrowed from other languages. Is this a proof that English has more words than other languages, or is it an admission that English is so word-poor that it needs to borrow to fulfil its purpose as a means of communication?

December 1, 2009
by Graham

Eva Sivertsen

The death has been announced of Professor Eva Sivertsen, at the age of 87. She was born in 1922 in Trondheim, Norway, and was Professor of English there from 1961, first at the then Norges Lærerhøgskole, and then, when this became part of the University of Trondheim, in the English Department there.

Her doctoral thesis was published by the University of Oslo Press with the title Cockney Phonology, and colleagues in London from that time remembered her cycling off into the East End each morning gathering data. It was said that she never went into a pub, as if this would prevent her from accessing the best sources of information, but the work was highly praised for its rigorous presentation of the dialect, using Hockett’s model of phonology.

As well as her work in phonetics and phonology, Eva Sivertsen was a tireless administrator, heading the department in Trondheim for many years, and in the 1970s she became the Rektor (the Norwegian equivalent of a British Vice-Chancellor) of the University. She also worked in the national and international fields of university and educational administration, serving on many committees.

True to her nationality, Eva was a fitness fanatic, and A.C.Gimson told the story of arriving in Trondheim by boat at 6.30 am and being met by Eva who had just run up and down a mountain, and was still wearing her tracksuit. In winter she spent as much time as she could on skis.

On a personal note, I have to thank Eva for chairing the committee which appointed me to my post in Trondheim in 1973, when I was a young phonetician part way through my research into the rhythmic structure of Spanish. The fact that I was not studying English did not bother her at all. Her confidence in my ability at that time gave me much-needed confidence, and I hope that I did not disappoint her.

There is more about Eva by John Wells and Jack Windsor Lewis

November 29, 2009
by Graham

Pity poor Belgium

Not only do most people find it difficult to name ten famous Belgians without falling back on Tintin and Hercule Poirot, but Belgium seems to be the only country name that English-speaking people get mixed up with its adjective. From The Independent on Saturday 21 November 2009:

Sweet treats are available at Marks & Spencer this week with half-price Belgium chocolate selections. Both a 480g Belgium chocolate selection and a 1kg tin of Belgium chocolate biscuits are reduced from £12 to just £5.99.

So, not simply a slip of the fingers in typing, but a belief by the writer that this was the correct form. The BBC refers to its “Scotland correspondent” and its “Rome correspondent”, and it would be appropriate to talk of a “Belgium correspondent”. Using the adjective in these cases would imply that the correspondent was Scottish (in the case of the Scotland correspondent, he/she usually is), Italian (from Rome) or Belgian respectively, as opposed to a correspondent writing about that country. However, there is nothing similar in the use of the country name when referring to chocolate, so the adjective is the one to use.

November 21, 2009
by Graham

Pronunciation spelling – or not?

One of my voluntary jobs is proofreading a local newsletter. In this month’s offering, I have just changed the following description:

Beautiful singing and top draw musicianship in the English folk tradition

My immediate reaction – and the one I have acted on – was to change ‘draw’ to ‘drawer’, but on reflexion, ‘top draw’ might also be appropriate in this context. Perhaps these musicians are among those who attract a better than average audience, and so are a ‘top draw’, as well as being very good – ‘out of the top drawer’.

No rhotic speaker could ever have written the wrong word here, but I live in a non-rhotic part of England, and there will always be some doubt about which word is intended for the pronunciation /drɔː/.

November 15, 2009
by Graham

Ground Floor

“An elderly woman was the victim of a street robbery which netted the thief just £10. … The offender walked behind the victim for a short time before grabbing her handbag, causing her to fall to the floor.” (My local paper this week)

In this context, I should have written ground rather than floor, as the event took place outside. The Oxford Reference Dictionary gives, as section 7 under floor, “colloq. ground”, but the usual formal meaning of ‘floor’ is a surface under cover, and ‘ground’ is a surface covered only by the sky.

This wording explains why ‘floor’ can also be the surface of a forest, cave or ocean, all of which have a covering that is not directly the sky.

Interestingly, although I can accept either ‘cave floor’ or ‘floor of the cave’, and ‘sea/ocean floor’ or (less easily) ‘floor of the sea/ocean’, for ‘forest floor’ I can’t accept the alternative ‘floor of the forest’. And although wood is more-or-less synonymous with forest, I can’t accept ‘*wood floor’ at all.

Do others agree? or is this simply a part of my idiolect?

November 9, 2009
by Graham

Film biographies

In this morning’s (9 November 2009) Start the Week (BBC Radio 4, 9 a.m.), there was a discussion of a new film biography. In introducing it, Andrew Marr, the presenter, used the word biopic, and pronounced it to rhyme with “myopic”.

I assume he was reading from a script, in which case it might simply have been a spelling pronunciation which he failed to spot in time to self-correct, but it might also have been his normal pronunciation of this word (but it would still be a spelling pronunciation).

Biopic is a blend word formed from the first syllables of the words “biographical” and “picture”. Many phrases are written in the first place as two words. Then with familiarity, they turn into a hyphenated phrase, and eventually, if they become fixed enough, the hyphen disappears, leaving a new compound word. For instance, we have offshore – no hyphen, but off-peak. Similarly, there are two different treatments of positions on the cricket field: mid-off and mid-on, but midwicket. There seems no logic to these, other than a desire to emphasize where the division of the two elements occurs (‘midoff’, ‘midon’ look a bit odd – but that could simply be their unfamiliarity).

In the case of biopic, it might have been preferable for the word to have retained a hyphen for the same reason: so that its etymology, and meaning, were more obvious, leading to no “mistakes” in pronunciation – /baɪˈɒpɪk/ seems to me to be much more likely to be an adjective than a noun, and /ˈbaɪəʊpɪk/, as given in all the standard pronunciation dictionaries, is quite clearly the one intended by whoever first coined the word.