June 23, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

By or for?

Interviewed on this morning’s BBC Radio4 ‘Today’ programme about the election of John Bercow as the new Speaker of the House of Commons, the MP Nadine Dorries (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire) claimed that this was a vindictive act on behalf of the Labour Party. I wonder who committed it, then. I think she meant to say ‘on the part of’ the Labour Party.

‘On behalf of’ is increasingly used where ‘on the part of ‘ would be better. In fact, the traditional meanings of the two phrases are diametrically opposed: ‘on behalf of’ means acting in someone else’s interests, while ‘on the part of’ means made or done by the person or group mentioned.

The two expressions could be replaced by the simple ‘for’ (on behalf of) or ‘by’ (on the part of), but these carry less ‘weight’ than the longer phrases and so might more easily be missed.

If ‘on the part of’ disappears from the language, we shall have lost a useful way of distinguishing between what we do and what is done for us.

June 18, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

Weak form loss

John Wells has been talking (here and here) about the loss of weak forms from English. Two more that have disappeared for an understandable reason are the weak forms of penny and pence.

Before decimalization of the British currency in 1971, any amount of money ending in -pence was pronounced /… p(ə)ns/: twopence (usually spelt tuppence) (/ˈtʌp(ə)ns/), threepence (/ˈθrɛp(ə)ns, ˈθrıp(ə)ns, ˈθrʌp(ə)ns/, fourpence (/ˈfɔːp(ə)ns/) etc. The adjectival forms ending in -penny were also reduced, to /p(ə)nı/, with the same reductions of the numeral, including halfpenny, which became /ˈheıpnı/ (final /f/ elided) (the pronunciations of tuppence and threepence show just how longstanding these forms were: tuppence must represent the shortening of /uː/ to /u/ and predate its split into /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ – spelt tuppens, the OED has an example from 1514).

Once we decimalized, it became necessary to distinguish between the old penny and the new (the coin worth 6d in ‘old’ money was retained for some years, but was now worth 2½p in the new). The way we all did this, I suspect without thinking much about it, was to use the strong form for the new value. I had half expected that when the new currency became familiar, we would all go back to our old ways, and the weak form would re-emerge, but this has not happened. I tested it in the early 1980s by asking for some 10½p stamps at a post office, and pronouncing the value as /ˈtɛmpnsˈheıpnı/. The counter clerk – older than me, and so well able to remember pre-decimal money – asked me to repeat my request, and it was only when I eventually said /ˈtɛn ənd ə hɑːf ˈpɛns/ that I got the stamps.

I started with two weak forms lost, but I think that makes three: unless someone can correct me, I think that half was only ever weakened when followed by -penny or -pence as an amount of money (i.e. not the family name Halfpenny), so that it is no longer heard.

June 11, 2009
by Graham

Loss of anglicizations

T Morris, in a comment to this post, asks why there are no English ‘translations’ of French place names, such as there are in other languages (Parigi in Italian) or as there are for English names in other languages (Rome rather than Roma).

In fact, there are English spellings of French place names that differ from the French originals, but they seem to be reducing in number over the years. We used always to write Lyons and Marseilles for Lyon and Marseille, and going further back in history, Calais used to be written as Calice. ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims‘ (one of the best-known Ingoldsby Legends) provides another example. As a (very) small child, I imagined that Dunkirk must be in Scotland, and Ushant never seemed to me to refer to a place in France (I think it is now usually seen in its French spelling – Ouessant).

The same thing is happening with other foreign place names – Saragossa is now usually Zaragoza, and Corunna has become La Coruña. As we travel more, we become aware that our spelling and pronunciation of foreign place names has got out of step with the native, and we adjust our version to make it more similar to the original. With spelling that is easy, but the pronunciation will still be an approximation, better or worse according to our individual ability to imitate, or willingness to do so. The changes take place particularly for those place names that have dropped out of our consciousness, and then come back to us – Flushing became Vlissingen when car ferries started to use the port more regularly, and Leghorn became Livorno when it became an easily accessible tourist resort.

The regions of France still retain their English names – Brittany, Normandy, Burgundy, Gascony show no signs of becoming Bretagne, Normandie, Bourgogne or Gascogne.

If we turn the question around, it seems odd that the French have so few spellings of their own for place names in the British Isles – after all, (Norman) French was the language of government in England for about three hundred years. I can find a handful – Londres, Douvres, Cantorbéry, Edimbourg, Cornouailles, Tamise (the Thames), and the names of the constituent parts of the islands – Angleterre, Ecosse, Pays de Galles, and Irlande, plus Grande Bretagne itself. The French pronunciation of English place names without different spellings is, however, just as gallicized as our pronunciation of French names is anglicized – as is to be expected.

June 5, 2009
by Graham

Heavenly Peace

Throughout the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and for some years afterwards, the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace was frequently mentioned in the news.

Then at the time of the student democracy protests in 1989, with no explanation that I can remember, we were told that they were concentrated in Tiananmen Square (which most people had great difficulty in pronouncing). It was only some time later that I realized that these two names referred to the same place (I know nothing of Chinese apart from how to anglicize its pronunciation).

The New China News Agency had already decided that from January 1979 all Chinese names would henceforth be reported by them in their Pinyin spellings, and this has gradually filtered through to all English news reports, although in 1989 we were still hearing about Peking rather than Beijing, but this doesn’t seem to me a reason for a translation of a place name to be abandoned in favour of an incomprehensible Chinese name. Could it have had anything to do with the contradiction between its name and the actions of the Chinese government?

For the record, Tiananmen has three syllables, and is most accurately anglicized as /’tjɛn æn mən/ with all four nasals clearly articulated.

May 26, 2009
by Graham

Gender and Sex

In a comment on my post Gender in French, Pat Franczyk shows the danger of confusing the meanings of these two words.

It has often been said that “language has gender, but animals and plants have sex”. The ambiguity of the second half of this aphorism shows why gender is often used to mean ‘sex’. The OED gives examples as early as 1387 of gender in which the meaning is obviously ‘sex’ , but to my eyes, most if not all of the examples can be interpreted as being ironic, and the first edition says that this meaning is ‘now only jocular’ (published October 1898).

In the course of the 20th century, gender came more and more to mean ‘sex’ in the sense of the biological assignment to either male or female, probably because sex was being increasingly seen solely as what the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines as “the physical activity that two people do together in order to produce babies”, leading to the joke answer to the question on a form requesting personal information: “Sex? – Yes, please!” rather than “Sex? – (fe)male”. Continue Reading →

May 13, 2009
by Graham

Henry Purcell

This BBC programme about Henry Purcell is available on line for the next couple of weeks. In it Charles Hazlewood claims that we know so little about the composer that we are not even sure how to pronounce his name.

It is true that many people (including Mr Hazlewood in this film – although he is not consistent) stress the family name on the second syllable, but all the evidence points to this being wrong.

Dryden, a good friend of the composer, wrote an Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell, in which the name appears twice. On both occasions, the metre of the line demands that the name be stressed on the first syllable: “So ceas’d the rival Crew when Purcell came” and “The Gods are pleas’d alone with Purcell’s Lays”. Similarly, and two centuries later, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet to Purcell, the first quatrain of which is:

Have, fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Better even than these examples is the evidence of contemporary spellings of the name: John Evelyn’s Diary has the spelling ‘Pursal’ or ‘Purcel’ (30 May 1698 – different editors have the different spellings); Henry ‘Persill’ appears as a member of the cast of “The Siege of Rhodes” (1656); Henry ‘Pursall’ in the Will of John Hingston (12 December 1683). The variation in the spellings of the second syllable indicate that this cannot have been the stressed syllable.

Americans frequently stress Andrew Marvell’s name on the second syllable and (in my experience at least) always stress Lawrence and Gerald Durrell in the same way, although I have never yet heard anyone British make this mistake.

Perhaps Purcell started to be stressed on the second syllable when Unilever started to market ‘Persil’ washing powder in the UK, in 1909.

Footnote: On 25 November 2010, Steven Connor, Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck, University of London, and clearly British, consistently used the pronunciation Mar’vell in the Radio 4 programme “in Our Time”.

May 9, 2009
by Graham

Colombia ~ Columbia ~ Colombo

Colombia is a country in the extreme north of South America, pronounced with the second syllable like the surname of the actor Herbert Lom.

British Columbia is a province of Canada, and the District of Columbia is where the US capital city is to be found. These are both pronounced with the second syllable like the Scottish word for a chimney – lum.

However, the capital of Sri Lanka is spelt with -o- like the South American country, but pronounced as if spelt like the Canadian province and American District.

No wonder they are so often confused.

May 2, 2009
by Graham

New words or old?

I’ve recently come across two words I’d never seen before. The immediate reaction is to think that the writer has either mis-remembered another word, or simply made it up on the hoof:

“To cut this delay, the control unit briefly richens the fuel/air mixture fed to the engine and at the same time causes air to be injected in the exhaust port.”

“Smirke’s front hall was repristinated, so that it looked once more like the entrance to a great museum, not a railway station waiting-room.”

What is wrong with enriches in the first case, and returned to its original state in the second? Admittedly, the latter uses five words instead of one, but what is this word?

The Simpsons cartoon has introduced the word embiggen to the language (“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”), but has it?

In all three cases, these lexical items have occurred before. The OED gives three separate 19th century examples of richen, and one 17th century and one 19th century example of repristinate. According to Wikipedia, embiggen appears in an 1884 publication Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc by C. A. Ward.

They are all well-formed words: adjective + en (e.g. darken); -ate, verb-creating suffix (e.g. hyphenate); re-, prefix meaning ‘again’. Even embiggen has the equivalent embolden.

On the other hand, when Edna Krabappel says she never heard embiggens until she came to Springfield, Ms Hoover (Lisa’s teacher) replies “It’s a perfectly cromulent word”. The meaning of cromulent is less clear: does it mean “ordinary”, “normal”, or instead “well-formed”?

April 24, 2009
by Graham

Blaenau Gwent

Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Editor, reported on the employment situation in this constituency on Wednesday, 22 April, Budget Day here in Britain. However, he did not do his homework properly, for he made the classic mistake of non-Welsh speakers by pronouncing the first word of the place /ˈblaɪnaʊ/ instead of /ˈblaɪnaɪ/.

Yet again, 2 million people in Wales will be accusing the BBC of being Anglocentric. As so often, either a call to the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, or nowadays a couple of clicks on the pronunciation database, which he has as part of his BBC desktop, and he would have avoided this error.

Why is it too much trouble for journalists to check such an obviously difficult name?

April 20, 2009
by Graham


John Wells’ blog of 13 April deals with the inability of many BBC reporters to pronounce the unfortunate earthquake-stricken Italian town. As he says, the Guardian’s Alexander Chancellor takes the Pronunciation Unit to task for not doing its job properly. Later in the week, on 16 April, John quotes Jo Kim’s reply: that the Unit is an advisory service, and cannot enforce its recommendations.

The BBC has done itself no favours by abolishing the post I held of “Pronunciation Adviser”: the Unit is now managed by a non-linguist, who cannot argue so forcefully with the Corporation as a linguist would be able to. One of my duties was to monitor the output, and I would send short memos to those who persistently failed to follow our advice, particularly when our sources were unassailable. Inevitably there were those who chose to ignore me, but on the whole broadcasters are keen to get it right, and not make fools of themselves, especially when they are on the spot.

Watching the reporting from L’Aquila, I got the impression that because George Alagiah was calling the town something like a Mexican liqueur, as Alexander Chancellor said, the regular BBC correspondent, Duncan Kennedy, was more-or-less forced to follow suit – earlier in the day, on radio as the news was breaking, he had been pronouncing it correctly.