July 18, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

Moon Landing

This has nothing to do with language, but this weekend, the world commemorates the 40th aniversary of the first moon landing.

In the US, it is celebrated as 20 July. This is correct (in UTC) for the landing, but I remember clearly staying up until three in the morning of 21 July to watch Neil Armstrong make his giant step live on television in the UK.

When things happen on Earth, the date and time when they happen can be decided by the longitude of the event, so that Columbus reached the Americas some five hours earlier than the simultaneous time in Europe. Captain Cook sighted Australia some hours later than the time would have been in Europe, and possibly a day later than it was at that moment in America. Each New Year creeps up on Earth gradually over the space of a whole day.

But when an event happens elsewhere in the universe, whose terrestrial time zone is the one to use? While 20 July is correct for the Americas, much of the populated world will have watched the moon landing on 21 July local time – Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia.

July 3, 2009
by Graham
1 Comment

More on money

Following on from my previous post on money, it occurred to me that 1½d was almost always pronounced three ha’pence, and less often a penny ha’penny while 1½p was always one and a half pence. The abbreviation for the old penny was d, standing for the Latin denarius, just as s stood not for shilling but solidus, and £ for libra. We have kept the pound symbol, but substituted p for the penny. As a result, its most frequent pronunciation is /piː/. Does any other nation abbreviate one of its major currency units to its first letter?

Apparently oddly, we often hear about a one pence piece. I’ve even been told quite firmly that the coin says ‘one new pence’ or more recently ‘one pence’ on it. No it doesn’t: it says either ‘one penny’ or (on the coins dated for the first few years after 1971) ‘one new penny’. However, I was once told that shortly after decimalization, a sign appeared in the Ladies toilets in Harrod’s store, that said ‘Please use one new pence pieces’ (the cost of ‘spending a penny’ had now rocketed by 240% overnight!). When a customer remonstrated with the attendant that it ought to have said ‘Please use one new penny pieces’, the reply was that /ɪts ˈwɜːf ˈtuː ən ˈɑːf jə ˈnoʊ/.

June 29, 2009
by Graham


With this word in the news almost every day at the moment, we are hearing two pronunciations from British broadcasters: /ıˈreınıən/ and /ıˈrɑːnıən/. The first of these is, I think, the majority pronunciation, but the second is heard from many who would probably consider themselves better informed about the country and its people – for instance John Simpson. He and I crossed swords over this, and he alluded to our disagreement in one of his articles nearly thirty years ago, ending “He [i.e. GP] walked on, a disappointed man”. His arguments in favour of /ıˈrɑːnıən/ were two: that it was the pronunciation used by Iranians themselves (but as I pointed out, they are speaking English as a foreign language, and so not to be completely trusted on this – just as a Frenchman speaking English but pronouncing his country name with a nasalized vowel would not be copied by native English speakers); and second, that as the country name is /ıˈrɑːn/, then he was simply adding /-ıən/ in the normal way. I countered this with the example of Panama, which also ends in /ɑː/, but whose derived form is /pænəˈmeınıən/.

I was not trying to persuade him because of a belief that /eı/ was intrinsically the ‘better’ vowel to use, but so that he would conform to the one being used by the majority of his colleagues, and so be less conspicuous to listeners and viewers, who would otherwise start asking themselves (and me!) questions, and stop listening to the content of the report, which is far more important.

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.