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 …

February 14, 2009
by Graham

Snow terms

England has had far more snow this winter than for many a long year – 18 according to the Meteorological Office.

When snow falls and does not immediately melt, what is it doing? In Scotland, it is said to be lying. In many parts of England it settles, but in the North West of England – and maybe elsewhere – it sticks. And in Wiltshire at least, it pitches. At first sight, this last seems the oddest, but we pitch a tent when we set it up, so this is a similar use of the word.

When we think of dialectal variation, we usually think of the unusual words that occur in one area but not others. Most speakers of English would not consider their use of ‘lie’, ‘settle’, ‘stick’ or ‘pitch’ in this sense as dialectal, but it is just as much part of local dialect as is Glaswegian ‘yin’ for ‘one’, or North Staffordshire ‘purvet’ for ‘rummage’.

February 5, 2009
by Graham


Last week, Birmingham City Council announced that it was no longer going to put apostrophes in its street names. This caused an outcry in the press. I can only assume the council needs the publicity, because the placing of apostrophes in place names has been inconsistent in many places and for many years, and without anybody, apparently, noticing.

Take the London Underground. The Piccadilly Line has stations at King’s Cross and Earl’s Court, but next door to Earl’s Court is Barons Court.

Then there’s the East Coast main railway line out of King’s Cross. It has stations at Brookmans Park and Potters Bar. King’s Cross itself, and also King’s Lynn, at the other end of the First Capital Connect line, are both seen with and without the apostrophe.

There is an ambiguity in one of the Piccadilly Line’s northern stations: Arnos Grove. How is this pronounced? Does it depend on the name’s origin? If there is potentially an apostrophe in the name, then it is /ˈɑːnəʊz/, but if not, then presumably /ˈɑːnɒs/ is better. I can’t recall having heard an announcement that would clarify it for me. Perhaps both pronunciations are used indiscriminately.

January 29, 2009
by Graham

Today’s “Today”

The Today Programme on Radio 4 has this morning once again demonstrated the ignorance of journalists about the nature of language – the main tool of their trade. This was particularly deplorable this morning (Thursday 29 January) as both its presenters claim some expertise in the subject: Edward Stourton has proclaimed himself a linguist, as I have mentioned before, and John Humphrys is well-known for his forthright views on language and its usage, including having written the book Lost for Words. On a day when a report claimed that “the number of people in England who cannot read, write and count properly is unacceptably high”, Stourton introduced a piece by saying that children find the language harder to learn because of its spelling. It cannot be said too often that spelling is an artefact, arbitrarily decided upon; that letters are not sounds, and cannot accurately represent sounds; and that the problems of learning a language and those of learning to spell are totally different. Children who, for whatever reason, leave school without having learned to read and write adequately can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, speak English as well as those whose reading and writing are excellent.

In the interview following this introduction, Stourton went on to say that other languages may be easier to learn because they have rules. Can he really believe that English has no rules? Later mention was made of Finnish as being a language whose spelling system is totally consistent. Whenever the question of the difficulty of English spelling is raised, the ‘perfection’ of that of another language is always contrasted with it. However, one of the other languages that have vied with English for world domination, which has an equally difficult spelling system, is French. What is the functional illiteracy rate for French speakers in France? Do we know? If it is very low, then presumably it is English teaching that is at fault. If it is as high as that for English, perhaps something should be done about the spelling of both languages.

January 19, 2009
by Graham

Where do you shop?

In Britain the answer might be at ASDA, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Marks & Spencer’s, Debenham’s, Harrod’s …

But some would say “Tesco’s”, and I’ve also heard “Waitrose’s”.

The ‘regular’ treatment of shop names is to add the genitive to a family name (i.e. ‘Mr Sainsbury’s shop, Mr Morrison’s shop’ etc.), but not to a company name that is not originally a person’s name, so “at ASDA” (an acronym from “Associated Dairies”.

Tesco and Waitrose also come into the latter category, Tesco being an acronym from “Tessa Cohen” (the founder’s wife), or perhaps from “T.E.Stockwell” (a tea supplier back in the 1920s) and “COhen”, and Waitrose likewise being an acronym of two of its founders’ names (Messrs Waite and Rose).

Increasingly, however, the ‘rule’ appears to be breaking down. Not only is “Tesco’s” frequently used, and Waitrose starting to become “Waitrose’s”, but there is real uncertainty about how to treat the newer budget supermarkets that have come in from Europe – Aldi, Lidl and Netto. On the other hand, does anyone shop at “John Lewis’s”?