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.

April 13, 2009
by Graham

More on the case of in case

I’m sorry I’ve been ‘absent’ for a couple of weeks, but pressure of other work has meant that this blog had to take second place. However, …

As John Wells says in his comment to my last post, we are dealing with two constructions here: in case, and in case of.

In case, followed by a clause, is unambiguous, and could be replaced in very formal English by the obsolescent or at least highly literary conjunction lest: “Don’t run lest you fall over”.

It is the in case of construction which causes the problems. I wonder if we see here not merely a difference between American and British usage, but a generational difference. I have been asking my friends about the original example sentence that I used, and without exception, those of my age and older are uncomfortable with it, and would prefer my alternative “In the event of fire, do not use the lift”. Adrian Morgan’s suggestion that the ‘knowing smiles’ are from an acceptance that “highly formal language can be funny sometimes” is not the case in my experience.

I’m indebted to Jack Windsor Lewis for reminding me that the OED, 1st edition, has two British examples of in case of meaning ‘in the event of’ (Vol 2, page 143: case: II, Phrases, 10 d). Admittedly this was published in 1889, but the later of the two quotations is dated 1745. There is also an example from Washington Irving, dated 1832. This seems to me to imply that the usage may have become obsolete in British English, but has now crossed the Atlantic again, like so many other usages, and is accepted by the younger generation of British English speakers as quite unexceptionable.

Burchfield’s edition of Modern English Usage has one example each of in case and in case of, (‘Take your umbrella in case it rains’ and ‘In case you want me, I’ll be in my office’) and this example of in case of (meaning ‘if’) confirms ds’s and Philip Taylor’s view that the clause containing in case of should precede the main clause of the sentence. I think this may actually be a ‘rule’ of English, and would explain ds’s feeling that it is more ‘elegant’. It’s strange that while dictionaries and books on English usage give examples, they don’t make this word order explicit, but it seems to work, and could be the reason why the ‘wrong’ order on European notices is so noticeable.

March 18, 2009
by Graham

In case …

Wherever I go in Europe, I seem to see signs outside lifts that say “Do not use the lift in case of fire”. Inevitably, one of the British people standing waiting for the lift to arrive then says “We shouldn’t use this lift, because it might catch fire”. Knowing smiles are exchanged, meaning “Foreigners can’t get English quite right, can they?”

This is another example of the ‘same language false friends’ that I wrote about in another post. In US English, there is nothing wrong with the sentence, where “in case” means “if”, so the whole sentence means “Do not use the lift if there is a fire”. In British English, however, “in case” means “against the possibility”: “Do not use the lift because there may be a fire”.

The British English warning should read “In the event of fire, do not use the lift”.

February 28, 2009
by Graham

Crossword puzzle

Jack Windsor Lewis’ blog 151 mentions the fact that ‘ch’ is counted as a single letter when alphabetising Welsh, Spanish (but not Portuguese) and Czech. Double ‘ll’ is likewise a single ‘letter’ in both Welsh and Spanish (as an example, lomo comes before llegar in a list of Spanish words), and ‘aa’ (increasingly old-fashioned alternative to ‘å’) in Danish and Norwegian, where it is given the last place in the alphabet.

This leads me to ask: how are these letters treated in crosswords compiled in the relevant languages? Do the ‘ch’ ‘ll’ or ‘aa’ occupy a single box, or are they spread over two boxes as they would be in English crosswords?

Some years ago I had a dispute with a very reputable linguist on the question of whether Korean orthography was a syllabary or an alphabet. I maintained that it was an alphabet since each ‘block’ making up a syllable was transparently made up of individual strokes whose phonological value was constant. His counter argument was that in Korean crosswords, the whole syllable is necessarily placed within one box, and that therefore the writing system is a syllabary.

We agreed to disagree.

February 19, 2009
by Graham

Language, Variety, Dialect

In a comment on last week’s post about ‘snow terms’, John Cowan takes me to task for comparing apples with lemons (a ‘malo-citrine’ comment is how he puts it) when I wrote that ‘lie’, ‘settle’, ‘stick’ and ‘pitch’ were alternative terms in use in various dialects of English. He maintains that while ‘pitch’ is a dialectal word “in this sense”, ‘lie, ‘settle’ and ‘stick’ are “part of the standard dialect”.

This raises the question: where is the boundary between two languages, two varieties or two dialects? To me, if the use of a word with a particular sense is restricted to one or more discrete geographical or social areas, then it is evidence of a particular geographical or social dialect. ‘Stick’ is a case in point: Amy Stoller, in another comment on the same post, admits that she had never thought any other word could be used, because that is what she is used to hearing in New York. To me this is good evidence that it is part of New York dialect, as it is of several North Midland dialects in England. I’m not sure why John thinks that “pitch”, on the other hand, is dialectal: it is a word I’m familiar with, and this sense is simply an extension of that for putting up a tent.

We generally speak of British English and American English as being the two major varieties of the language, but each of them comprises a large number of dialects. To me, a dialect is distinguished by its phonetics, phonology, grammar and vocabulary (including the semantics of individual words). British and American English might be considered “super dialects”, but they certainly have different phonetics, phonology, grammar and vocabulary from each other, some features of which are common to all or many of the dialects within that variety. I am not sure where I stand on the question of when two dialects become separate languages: the famous difficulty is for Swedish, Danish and Norwegian – three languages or one? They are intercomprehensible, but generally reckoned separate languages. The old saw about languages having gunboats determines that they are three, but then British English and American English are still one language despite both having their own gunboats …