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.

October 27, 2009
by Graham

Evenin’ All

Many of yesterday’s British papers (e.g. here, here, here, here and here) reported on Warwickshire Police’s handbook “Policing Our Communities”, with headlines that were critical of the Political Correctness inferred from statements such as “Don’t assume those words for the time of day, such as afternoon and evening, have the same meaning [in other languages as they do in English]”. They go on from there to assume that this prevents any Warwickshire police officer from saying “Evenin’ all” in the way that the character George Dixon did in the long-running BBC TV series “Dixon of Dock Green” (the articles all had a picture of Jack Warner, the actor who played George Dixon).

All linguists know that the day is divided up differently by different languages – I have been wished “Bon soir” in French at 1 p.m., and Spanish has no separate word to distinguish “afternoon” from “evening”, using tarde for both. Even within English, I doubt if everybody agrees on when the afternoon turns into the evening – certainly from summer to winter the time will vary. I’m writing this at 5 p.m. and the sky has a slight blueness in the west, but otherwise it is now night. I think I would call this “evening”. But in summer, I might well consider this to be “late afternoon”, with “evening” starting considerably later. By 8 p.m. today, it will definitely be “night”, but again, in summer, that will be just as definitely “evening”.

I think the instruction in the Warwickshire handbook is to remind officers that they need to be precise about times when taking evidence or asking questions, and not to rely on subjective judgments. Other items in the handbook may be ridiculously over the top, but this one may have some sense in it.

I couldn’t find articles from the Times, Guardian or Independent – probably the three most serious of our national dailies. Does this mean they quite sensibly didn’t cover it, or have I just missed them?

October 20, 2009
by Graham

Fixed and Free

Stress in English is often said to be “fixed and free”, by which is meant that for each word it is fixed, but that there is no fixed position in the word where it must occur, unlike Czech, Finnish or Hungarian, for instance, where it is invariably on the first syllable of a word, or Polish, where it is (with very few exceptions) on the penultimate.

However, the ‘fixed’ part of this statement has to be hedged around with all sorts of caveats. The stress placement on individual words can change over time,and one of the most frequent complaints made by older people about ‘the young’, is that they mispronounce words by putting the stress in the wrong place. Continue Reading →

October 4, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

Latin for choirs

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to pronounce Latin when you’re speaking English, the next problem comes up for singers.

It’s not only English that has its own version of Latin pronunciation, but every language in Europe has its idiosyncratic ways as well. In German, for instance, they pronounce C before E and I (and AE and OE) as /ts/, while G is always /g/. Consonantal U~V is /v/, like Italian.

Should English-speaking choirs pronounce the text of masses written by Beethoven or Schubert (the question never seems to come up with Haydn or Mozart) with the Italianate Latin, or a more German-sounding pronunciation? Likewise, should Fauré’s Requiem be sung in the way that French choirs sing it? (French  composers often set the words with final stress, as French, rather than keeping to the Latin pattern.) In my experience as the rehearsal accompanist for a Choral Society, it depends on the knowledge of the conductor. Our present one knows how Germans pronounce Latin, so he likes the singers to use /ts/ and /g/, and the other quirks, when they sing Schubert, but he is less sure of how the French pronounce Latin, so for Fauré they sing the Italianate style. However he also likes Italianate Latin for Bruckner. The English composer Douglas Coombes was commissioned to write a Requiem for a French choir. They took so long to rehearse it that our choir gave the first performance, using Italianate pronunciation. The work sounded very different when the French choir came to England to sing it with their French pronunciation.

This conundrum of what to do with Latin could be carried on to other languages: should Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem be sung with a Hamburg accent, while Schubert’s songs have a Viennese accent, and Richard Strauss’s lieder a Bavarian one? Taking it even further, should we sing songs using Burns’ words with a Scottish accent, or in the accent of the composer? I have heard Spanish singers distinguish between Castilian and South American pronunciations within the same recital.

This could all get very silly, but actors reading stories aloud often adopt the appropriate accent.

Getting back to Latin pronunciation, Harold Copeman wrote a comprehensive study (Singing in Latin) of the ways in which Latin is pronounced in the various European languages. This was self-published by Mr Copeman in 1990, together with a separate “Pocket” version of the same work. I don’t know whether it’s still available new, but the only copy I can find on Abebooks is now priced at £225!

September 22, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

More on Latin in English (2)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, following the great strides made in philology, the teaching of Latin in schools began to use a reconstructed “Classical” Latin pronunciation. This ‘restored’ the long and short vowel sounds of Latin to /iː, ɪ, eɪ, e, æ, ɑː, ɒ, ɔː, ʊ, uː/ and the diphthongs AE, AU, OE to /aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ/. Among the consonants, C became always /k/, G was always /g/, consonantal I~J became /j/, and consonantal U~V, /w/. S was now to be pronounced /s/ wherever it occurred, and not as /z/ in final position or intervocalically, as it had been previously (See John Wells’ posts). This pronunciation has been taught in English schools ever since.

As if this was not sufficient confusion, the Roman Catholic Church uses a third version, the so-called “Italianate” pronunciation. In this, the vowels are the same as the reconstructed “Classical” pronunciation, but two of the diphthongs are treated differently: AE and OE become /eɪ/. Among the consonants, C is /k/ before consonants or A, O, U, but /tʃ/ before AE, E, I, or OE. Similarly, G is /g/ before A, O, U, but /dʒ/before AE, E, I, or OE. Consonantal I or J is always /j/, but consonantal U or V is /v/. Intervocalic S is /z/, but final S varies between /s/ and /z/. T before I and another vowel (e.g. penitentiam) is affricated to /ts/.

No wonder there is confusion in the minds of English-speaking people when they have a Latin phrase or name to pronounce. Consistency is almost impossible. In the BBC TV series “I, Claudius”, the familiar names – Claudius, Nero, Caligula, Caesar, etc.  were anglicised in the old way: /ˈklɔːdɪəs, ˈnɪərəʊ, kəˈlɪgjʊlə, ˈsiːzər/, but less famous names were pronounced in a more ‘Latin’ way: Agrippina, Messalina /ægrɪˈpiːnə, mesəˈliːnə/.

Minutiae is a complete mixture – the most frequent pronunciation that I hear is /maɪˈnjuːʃiaɪ/, while a full-blooded traditional pronunciation would be /maɪˈnjuːʃiiː/ and a reconstructed ‘Latin’ one would be /mɪˈnuːtɪai/.

Veni, vidi, vici:

traditional: /ˈviːnaɪ, ˈvaɪdaɪ, ˈvaɪsaɪ/

reconstructed: /ˈweɪni, ˈwiːdi, ˈwiːki/

Italianate: /ˈveɪni, ˈviːdi, ˈviːtʃi/

All three as spoken with English phonology, of course.