November 26, 2008
by Graham
1 Comment

Confusion of constructions

An article in The Independent on 22 November 2008 includes this sentence:

“The US is in a sitting duck administration until Barack Obama can take office in January.”

Yesterday I heard a broadcaster say that someone would have to “pay the sacrifice”.

These are examples of the confusion of two constructions,which it is easy to do in speech, although the “sitting duck” for “lame duck” should have been removed when the writer read over what he’d written (do journalists ever do that any more, with the time pressures that they’re under?)

Many style guides now accept that “between … to” and “centre around” are acceptable English, as they are so frequently met with (the second has been around since at least the 18th century). However, surely they are no more than a confusion between(!) “between … and” and “from … to”, and “centre on” and “revolve around”, just as “pay the sacrifice” is a confusion between “pay the price” and “make a sacrifice”. I think most thoughtful English teachers would still point out to their students that this last one was muddled, so why not continue to be critical of “between … to” and “centre around”?

Today I’ve heard “stepping into a hornet’s nest”. Is that what I’m doing by raising this subject?

November 20, 2008
by Graham
9 Comments

Spanish historical phonology/phonetics

Athel Cornish-Bowden asks, in a comment under the post on English spelling reform, if Spanish spelling has remained constant over hundreds of years, as his Spanish host claimed a few weeks ago. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We have to distinguish between changes in the spelling, and changes in the pronunciation which may or may not be recognised by the spelling.

If I may return briefly to English, we can read Shakespeare relatively easily, because modern editions adopt modern spelling, while leaving the words themselves unchanged. The same is true of Spanish – Golden Age playwrights such as Lope de Vega are published with modern spellings, and they are fairly straightforward for us to read.

English has changed its vowel system drastically since the Norman Conquest, while the consonants have remained remarkably stable. This is why most of the difficulties with English spelling are to do with representations of vowels: Middle English had two phonemes written as <ea> /ε:/ and <ee> /e:/. These have merged in many cases into /i:/, but some <ea> words have shortened to become /e/.

Spanish, on the other hand, has kept the same vowel system (i.e. phonology) since the Middle Ages, but its consonant system has undergone some radical phonetic changes as well as some less radical phonological ones. The spelling has changed to some extent to reflect this. There is evidence to suggest that in Cervantes’ time,  the letter ‘x’ represented the sound /ʃ/ – as it does in Catalan and Portuguese today. This is reflected in the way that French has borrowed Quixote – spelling and pronouncing it Quichotte. Medieval Spanish also had a phoneme /ʒ/ (written as ‘j’), which devoiced to /ʃ/ some time before the end of the sixteenth century. In the course of the 17th Century, the point of articulation of this merged consonant (/ʃ/ from /ʒ/ and original /ʃ/) moved back from palato-alveolar, or even perhaps palatal, to velar, becoming /x/. Because the change did not affect the distribution of the phoneme, merely its phonetic nature, it was unnecessary to amend the spelling, but eventually, because there were now two possible spellings for /x/, the letter ‘j’ became the norm in Spain, while elsewhere, ‘x’ remained (cf the Spanish spelling Méjico versus the Mexican spelling México, both pronounced /ˈmexiko/). There have been other changes, but this is enough to show that Athel’s host was not quite right in his assumptions.

October 26, 2008
by Graham
56 Comments

English spelling reform

This year has seen the centenary of the Spelling Society, formerly the Simplified Spelling Society, and inevitably there has been a lot of comment in the press, mostly uninformed criticism of anyone (particularly John Wells, as its President) who supports even a modicum of reform as an abandonment of “standards”.

Proposals for reforming English spelling go back way before the Spelling Society was founded, but the momentum for change increased in the 20th century. Robert Bridges, as Poet Laureate, had enough clout to persuade Oxford University Press to reprint a series of his essays with ever increasing numbers of reforms, which included new or adapted letter shapes for particular sounds; Bernard Shaw went a step further, by leaving an immense amount of money in his will for the formulation of a new writing system for English, which would not be based on the Roman alphabet, and would not simply be a new form of shorthand. He wrote several letters to The Times on this subject in the 1930s and 1940s, using the economic argument that the only way of achieving success was to persuade politicians of the saving in terms of both money and time: an alphabet that contained a single symbol for each of the phonemes of English, thus obviating the necessity for digraphs and eliminating ambiguities (e.g. row, lead), would use up less space on the page, therefore less paper, therefore be cheaper; and quicker to both write and read, therefore saving much time, and therefore money. (The elimination of superfluous hard signs in Russian is said to have reduced the length of “War and Peace” by over 90 pages!)

Shaw’s will was overturned in the courts, but a competition to devise a new alphabet was held, and the winner was rewarded not only with a cash prize, but with the satisfaction of seeing his alphabet published by Penguin in a dual-text edition of “Androcles and the Lion” (1962). (One of the adjudicators, who also helped refine the winning entry, was Peter MacCarthy, who lectured in phonetics at several universities, and was my external examiner when I took the undergraduate course in phonetics at Edinburgh in the 1960s.) Right enough, this alphabet did save space – roughly one third of the page containing the Shaw alphabet version is blank, but there was no way that it could ever become a success: the Roman alphabet has now more-or-less conquered the world, and to expect anyone, native speaker or, perhaps especially, foreign learner to take the trouble to learn this new writing system is beyond belief.

Some simple reforms would be easy: the initial w and k of words such as wrong or knife could be dropped with no problem: they are pronounced in no variety of English that I have ever heard (an exception is the word acknowledge, where the /k/ is carried over from knowledge with the Latin prefix AD > AC by assimilation). This would be parallel to the change from Old to Middle English, when initial h of such words as hnutu (“nut”) stopped being written as well as pronounced. Most changes, however, would founder on arguments about which variety was to be the basis of the new spelling. The most obvious division is between rhotic and non-rhotic accents, but there are many others, such as the non-distinction of the THOUGHT and CLOTH vowels in Scots (Knots and Crosses is the punning title of Ian Rankin’s first Inspector Rebus novel), or the different distribution of the GOOSE and FOOT vowels in both Scots and Northern English, or, in Northern England, the lack of a split between STRUT and FOOT, which rhyme in many varieties. If each variety’s speakers were allowed to develop their own version of English spelling, life would be made very difficult for publishers!

It is noticeable that almost all the advocates of spelling reform use traditional orthography in their own writings (Jack Windsor Lewis is an exception in his blog, but not elsewhere). This is presumably because they do not wish to risk the anger of the general public, or politicians (such as David Cameron who attacked John Wells in a speech recently), who do not understand the arguments.

English is not the only language to have a difficult spelling system: French is notoriously difficult, and even Spanish, as I have written here before, is not totally transparent. Reform is possible – Norwegian, for instance, has undergone several spelling reforms since the late nineteenth century, mainly aimed at reducing its similarity to Danish. However, it is the ingrained attitude of the English-speaking public that will have to be changed before any progress can be made in simplifying the world’s premier language.

September 21, 2008
by Graham
1 Comment

Boulogne, Gdansk and Spain

A post on Languagehat (18 September) about the variant spellings of Boleyn (as in Anne Boleyn), and its origin in the place name Boulogne reminds me that I’ve been thinking about the anglicization of this name and others for some time.

Going back to the early 1980s and the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the name of Gdansk became prominent in this Polish form rather than its then rather better known German form, Danzig. It seemed obvious that the anglicization should be as it looked: ‘g-dansk’, but there were a few people who suggested that it would be closer to the Polish pronunciation to call it /gdaɪnsk/. Poland and Polish names were constantly in the news at the time – Lech Walesa (so spelt in the British press) and Karol Wojtyla (likewise) became familiar to everyone, and although the spellings in the papers did not change, it was soon accepted that ‘Walesa’ was pronounced /vau’ensə/ and ‘Wojtyla’ /vɔɪ’tɪwə/. The reason of course was that the Polish diacritics were not being used, and the native spellings were Wałęsa and Wojtyła. Similarly, in Gdansk, the <n> is really (in Polish) <ń>: Gdańsk: /gdaɲsk/. Those advocating an anglicized pronunciation /gdaɪnsk/ were transferring the palatalization of the nasal into a preceding close front vowel.

Perhaps we should have listened. This is exactly what has happened to give us the English pronunciation of Boulogne and Spain. French /bulɔɲ/ has become English /bʊ’lɔɪn/ or /bə’lɔɪn/, and Latin/French/Spanish Hispania/Espagne/España gave older English /spaɪn/, which through the Great Vowel Shift became /speɪn/.

The same development has given us the family name Gascoigne from Gascogne, but the place name has developed differently into Gascony.

An exception is Cologne, which by the rule “ought” to be /kə’lɔɪn/, but is actually /kə’loʊn/.

September 12, 2008
by Graham
7 Comments

Two squibs in reply to other blogs

First, in yesterday’s blog entry, John Wells claims of “agrément”: “You read it here first”. Perhaps you did, but John has not read Word for Word, pictured in the column to the right of this, which Stewart Clark and I published in 2003:
agrément, borrowed from French, is found on a product’s label to show that it has been approved by the relevant EU authority. Hence its meaning in English is ‘approval’.
Stewart and I included an approximation to the French pronunciation as we could find no evidence of an anglicized version, and considered it to be a word more likely to be encountered in print than in speech. John may well be right in saying that you saw an anglicization in his blog first.

Second, Jack Windsor Lewis disagrees with me here about the function of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit. He would like it to be a purely advisory body, while I would like to see its recommendations made mandatory on those whom the public perceive as BBC personnel (presenters, newsreaders, journalists). Continue Reading →

August 28, 2008
by Graham
5 Comments

False Friends

Anyone learning a foreign language soon becomes aware of false friends – those words that look alike in both the languages. One of the most obvious false friends in English for anyone learning it is actual. Most European languages seem to have a word that looks very much like it, but which means something different, usually ‘current’, or ‘present day’. But what about words that mean something quite different in different varieties of the same language? I’m thinking of words like alternate, that in British English means ‘every other’ – “He works on alternate days”, but in American English is an alternative word for – alternative. Many British airline passengers are disconcerted when an American pilot tells them they will be landing momentarily: they are expecting to be able to get off the plane. In British English, momentarily means ‘for a moment’, but in American English, ‘in a moment’. Warning signs on level crossings in Britain had to be changed after the authorities discovered that while has a different meaning in some parts of England. “Stop while the lights flash” was intended to mean that if the lights are flashing, stop, because a train is coming. But in some forms of English, the sign meant ‘stop until the lights flash’. Does this sort of false friend have a name?

August 21, 2008
by Graham
4 Comments

Ejectives in English

I suppose I first became properly aware of ejectives being used in English about twenty years ago, when I noticed a couple of my colleagues at work (non-linguists both) using them. I don’t know of any systematic study of their use, although a poster paper was given at BAAP in 2006, here, dealing with their use among Scottish pre-school-age children.

Daniel Jones (An Outline of English Phonetics, 9th edition, reprinted 1969) mentions ejectives only because, he says, French speakers sometimes use them when speaking English. Gimson (An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, 2nd edition, 1970) says they occur in “Northern types of British English” (p.34). John Wells’ Accents of English, although I have not re-read it to confirm this, seems not to deal with ejectives at all – they do not figure in the index to any of the three volumes.

To my ears, ejectives, particularly [k’] are occurring with ever increasing frequency.

My impression is that they must have arisen some time ago, whenever it was that the glottal stop first started to replace the alveolar plosive. My assumption is that the progress of the sound change is as follows:

glottal reinforcement > glottal stop > ejective. The ejective arises in order to distinguish more clearly between the various plosive phonemes. It occurs mainly at the end of phrases, usually, but not always, to add emphasis to a stressed syllable.

The earliest example that I’ve heard is in the original film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and was used by Lionel Jeffries (1968). There are probably examples in earlier British films of the 1950s but more likely 1960s, such as The Wrong Arm of the Law, when non-RP accents started to appear spoken by genuine non-RP-speaking actors, rather than non-RP parts acted by RP-speaking actors.

August 14, 2008
by Graham
12 Comments

More on BBC Pronunciation

It’s been very noticeable over the past week or so that almost all BBC broadcasters, from whatever department, are now saying ‘bay-jing’ for the Chinese capital. It’s been confirmed today by “a BBC employee” that a directive has been sent out by senior management that everyone must toe this line. Continue Reading →

August 9, 2008
by Graham
4 Comments

Anglicizing Spanish (3)

And finally, the vowels.

Conveniently, the traditional five vowel letters, <a, e, i, o, u> correspond to the five Castilian Spanish vowel phonemes, /a, e, i, o, u/. <Y> can also represent /i/. The two mid vowels, /e/ and /o/, have two positionally determined allophones: [e, ɛ] and [o, ɔ].

/e/ is [ɛ] adjacent to /r/ (written either <rr>, or, in initial position, <r>), before /x/, as the first element of a falling diphthong /ei/ or /eu/, and in closed syllables except before /m, n, s, θ/. Otherwise [e].

/o/ is [ɔ] adjacent to /r/, before /x/, as the first element of a falling diphthong, and in all closed syllables. Otherwise [o].

In addition, the close vowels, /i, u/ usually form diphthongs with another adjacent vowel, as [j] or [w]: Palacio [pa’laθjo] (phonemically /pa’laθio/); Huelva [‘welßa] (/’uelba/). /iu/ or /ui/ are usually rising diphthongs. Exceptions occur when the /i/ or /u/ are stressed, as in Paraíso /paɾa’iso/ or El Baúl /el ba’ul/. In these cases, there will always be an acute accent above the <i> or <u>.

Any other two consecutive vowels form separate syllables, e.g. Bilbao /bil’bao/ has three syllables.

Continue Reading →

August 1, 2008
by Graham
3 Comments

Anglicizing Spanish (2)

Now we come to the consonants.

Castilian Spanish is one of the few European languages to include a voiceless dental fricative /θ/ in its phoneme inventory. As this is a very common sound in English, it should present no problems whatsoever for the English speaker. Unfortunately, orthographically, it is either <c> or <z>. This leads non-Spanish-speaking native English speakers to associate it with a lisped /s/, and many will refuse to use it, on the grounds that “it sounds cissy”. Try telling a madrileño taxi driver that he sounds cissy, and see where it gets you! However, certain names seem to have beaten this: Olazábal for one. When the golfer of that name first became prominent, the mispronunciation used as an anglicization put the stress on the wrong syllable, but included the /θ/ correctly (despite the consistently correct stress in the BBC Pronunciation Unit’s recommendation from the day he hit the news, it was only when he insisted in a press conference that this was right that anyone took notice of it. So much for the influence of the Pronunciation Unit).

Continue Reading →