May 30, 2016
by gpointon

Some data on criteria for plural phenomena in English

In response to Matthew Phillips’ comment on my last post, I thought I should add more on Latin and Greek plurals in English. He raises the question of consortia being used as a singular noun in English, but is relieved to find that retaining consortium as the singular is not yet a lost cause, as a Google search finds roughly eight times as many hits for “We are a consortium” as for “We are a consortia”.

However,  both media and data are now regularly used with singular verbs, and this weekend I’ve heard strata as a singular. Criteria and phenomena are frequent singulars. Is this something to do with –a being a Latin feminine singular ending? All these nouns now appear to be treated as invariable, with the same form for the singular as the plural. At least, I have not yet consciously come across examples of *medias, *datas, *criterias, *phenomenas (and a Google search for the latter two distinctly discourages their use). This puts them in the same category as sheep and deer.

The word referendum, on many British people’s minds at the moment, has two plurals, the Latin referenda, and the anglicized referendums. At the time of the 1974 referendum in the UK on the then Common Market, my predecessor as Head of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, Hazel Wright, put forward the proposition that they could usefully be distinguished, the English plural being used for the process, for which an alternative word might be plebiscite, so that we can say that there have been two referendums in Scotland recently: in 2014 for separation from the United Kingdom, and in 2016 for staying or leaving the EU. The Latin plural is then retained for the actual question being asked, so that when a referendum is held in Switzerland, for example, there may be several questions on the voting paper, and these questions are the referenda. Wikipedia (sv referendum) seems to confirm this distinction, and says that the OED does not like referenda as the English plural.

Memorandum also has both forms for the plural in English: memoranda and memorandums, although the abbreviation memo is the most usual form seen (how long will it be before some bright spark decides that memo is a Latin word, and needs the plural memi?) Both referendum and memorandum are technically Latin gerundives (adjectives formed from verbs), which decline like BONUS (i.e. the feminine forms are like 1st declension nouns, e.g. REGINA, and the masculine and neuter forms are like 2nd declension nouns, such as DOMINUS and BELLUM). Hence the plurals of words ending –um in –a. One such Latin plural is confidently singular in English, and forms its own plural in the English way with –s: agenda.

Now, does anyone plant nasturtia in their garden?

May 21, 2016
by gpointon

A Dangerous Thing

It’s not only the pronunciation of Classical names and words that has changed as a result of the pseudo-knowledge of Latin and Greek by British people. Grammatical forms have also been affected.

As ‘every skuleboy no’, Latin nouns that end in -US have their plural in -I. So, for instance, ALUMNUS gives ALUMNI, and DOMINUS gives DOMINI.

But every schoolboy is wrong. I have recently seen the word “omnibi”. The writer felt it necessary to explain that this was the plural of “omnibus” (and I don’t think he was joking). Even more shocking was my experience at a meeting of professional phoneticians a few years ago, when two separate presentations were given in which the speakers explained that their results were gained from analysing “corpi”. Clearly the Latin education of these people had never stretched as far as the third declension. If it had, they would have known that the plural of CORPUS is CORPORA, and that OMNIBUS is already plural – the dative and ablative plural of the adjective OMNIS. It would be better if we just attached the ordinary English plural to all these words, as we do with CENSUS (4th declension), whose Latin plural is CENSUS. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that as the plural in an English sentence – censuses is the regular thing. And since we abbreviate omnibus to bus, and give that the plural buses, what’s wrong with ‘corpuses’, ‘alumnuses’ and all the rest of them? We could stretch this to Greek plurals as well, and have ‘phenomenons’ rather than what we get now – phenomena as a singular. Referendums and referenda are already alternative plurals, and when it comes to words from other languages, we are happy to simply add ‘s’ – cellos, not ‘celli’; opuses, rather than opera -which has been hijacked to mean something different as a singular, and has generated the regular plural operas. Rarely do we obey Italian plural rules – has anyone seen the Italian plurals of gondola, piazza, pizza, in an English context? Where we do use Italian plurals, in the names of the various pastas (‘paste’, anyone?), they are treated as we treat hair, sugar, wheat, rice, advice, as uncountable nouns that are singulars (“This spaghetti is very nice – where did you buy it?”).

May 11, 2016
by gpointon

A Little Learning

Until the end of the 19th Century, when, in Britain at least, we began to have universal education, most people, however intelligent they were, didn’t have access to as much knowledge as we have today. The ‘educated’ classes tended still to learn Latin, and in many cases Greek, to a reasonable level (whether they retained what they were taught is a separate matter). Consequently, the only people who would get to pronounce Latin and Greek names would have an inkling of the standard way of doing it, using the traditional English pronunciation. In the book (and films of the book) “Goodbye Mr Chips”, old Mr Chips bemoans the replacement of the traditional pronunciation of Latin with the reconstructed Classical pronunciation because, as he puts it, it was easy to teach VICISSIM as ‘vie-SISS-im’, but caused nothing but hilarity in class if you were compelled to teach ‘we-KISS-im’.

Now we all know so much more, and we know – or think we know – how to pronounce Latin and Greek. Even those of us – the majority – who have never learned either of the Classical languages at school. But we don’t. Returning to my last post, on Palmyra, we can see that this Classical name for the place in Syria was obviously to be stressed on the second syllable, pronounced like the word ‘mire’, because “that’s the way you pronounce a long ‘y'”. Any other way would have been thought pretentious. The Arabic name is totally unrelated to it, so the Arabic pronunciation is irrelevant.

A similar misapplication of ‘rules’ of Classical pronunciation is applied to the port of Athens in Greece: Piraeus. This is the only spelling ever seen in English, and the traditional pronunciation is ‘pie-REE-us’ (think -AE as in Caesar – even today no one talks about a SAY-zar salad). Most people now seem to call it ‘pi-RAY -us’. This is neither good traditional English, nor good Greek – the Greek pronunciation is ‘piREFs’; so making -ae- represent the ‘ay’ diphthong is not even a spelling pronunciation. The only justification I can think of is the Roman Catholic, Italianate, pronunciation of Latin, which most British choirs use for singing Latin texts. When the word ‘caeli’ appears, it is pronounced ‘CHAY-li’. Most words borrowed from Latin with -AE- that have become English, such as paediatrician, are so well established with ‘ee’ that the American spelling has dropped the -a- altogether.

A little learning …


March 28, 2016
by gpointon


All three of the current standard pronouncing dictionaries of English give only one pronunciation for this historic Syrian place name – /pælˈmaɪrə/. I assume that this is still the recommendation of the Pronunciation Unit, and yet today, almost every commentator, reporter or newsreader that I’ve heard on either BBC Radio or TV – including those on Radio 4 who I can usually rely on to follow the Unit’s recommendations – has said /pælˈmiːrə/.

Is it time for a rethink?

March 24, 2016
by gpointon

Return to Bosnia

The wheels of international justice grind exceeding slow, and eight years after his arrest, Radovan Karadzić is eventually being sentenced today. I commented in 2008 (here) on the confusion between at least two pronunciations of his family name, and it is continuing today. Where does the pronunciation /ˈkærədɪtʃ/ come from? Both Sarah Montague (Radio 4 Today programme) and Edward Stourton (Radio 4 World at One) have used it, and yet every BBC reporter who covered the story from Bosnia at the time of the genocide and has been quoted today, and also every native speaker of languages from the former Yugoslavia that I have heard commenting on the story today has used what the Pronunciation Unit recommended from the early 1990s onwards: /ˈkærədʒɪtʃ/. You would have thought that the presence of a -z- coming between the -d- and the -i- would be enough to make them think, but obviously not. Of course, the two transcriptions I have given reflect anglicised pronunciations rather than a native Serb version.

March 3, 2016
by gpointon


A Franco-British summit is being held in Amiens today. The name is pronounced in French /amjɛ̃/, which is often misinterpreted in English as /ˈæmiɑ̃ː/. The BBC’s recommendation is the closer /æmˈjæ̃/. Chris Aldridge, Radio 4’s Chief Announcer, had obviously not had time to check before he read the 7 o’clock news this morning, because he used the /-ɑ̃ː/ pronunciation. By the time of the 7.30 summary, he had had a chance to look it up, and was on track with /-æ̃/. This is exactly as the system should work, and perfectly acceptable to the audience. The point of this post, however, is not Chris Aldridge’s pronunciation, but that of the reporter more-or-less on the spot in Calais, Anna Holligan. I see from her online profile that she is the BBC’s correspondent in The Hague. This may explain why she said /əˈmiːnz/. Is this the usual pronunciation in Dutch?

February 20, 2016
by gpointon


Whether it is the cardinal sin, or the (cuddly?) slow-moving animal, there is a question mark over its pronunciation. On this morning’s edition of Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4, the well-known ‘sloth-woman’, Lucy Cooke, was interviewed. She always says the name to rhyme with ‘moth’, because, as she says, there is a moth that lives on the sloth, and this is the /slɒθ mɒθ/, not the /sləʊθ məʊθ/. Obviously this is a silly argument, as we all know that spelling in English is so apparently inconsistent that there is no reason why it should not be a /sləʊθ mɒθ/. She further said that she distinguished it from the sin, which she pronounced /sləʊθ/. A listener texted, or tweeted, that as the animal was named for the sin, this argument was also unsatisfactory. Then Sir David Attenborough got in on the act, letting the programme known that he always called both the animal and the sin /sləʊθ/. The Oxford English Dictionary was also quoted, and this has /sləʊθ/ as the usual British pronunciation, but /slɔθ, sloʊθ, slɑθ/ the American (given in that order, presumably of frequency heard).

I have always said /sləʊθ/. The etymology of ‘sloth’ is the adjective ‘slow’ plus the nominalizing suffix ‘-th’, as in ‘width, breadth, depth, length, warmth, coolth’. It seems that the vast majority of these  have a short vowel which is derived from a long vowel in the root adjective. Whatever the form in Middle English, therefore (the OED’s earliest example is from ca 1175 – ‘slauðe’), there must be a strong analogical pull in ‘sloth’ towards shortening its vowel too. Added to which, more of the words ending in –oth have a short vowel: broth, cloth, Goth, moth, the Egyptian god Thoth, while both and loth are the only other words to come to mind immediately with /əʊ/. The loss of the letter ‘w’ has made us forget the word’s compound morphological origins.

January 22, 2016
by gpointon

Prisoners interred in Russia

Back in 2007, I wrote about the confusion of the words inter and intern, in the context of going to a funeral. This week, the confusion has surfaced again, but this time the other way round. In her BBC series on the Romanovs, Lucy Worsley has reached the end of her story, and told of Tsar Alexander III “interring” 68 prisoners in Shlisselburg. I’m not sure how many of them either escaped or were released, but it seems quite likely that at least some of them really were interred there. I also wonder if “intern” was the correct word in any case. Chambers defines the verb to mean “imprison, detain, as a precautionary measure”, without a trial, but because the detainee is thought likely to offend in the future. Did Alexander’s victims go through any form of legal process before their incarceration? If so, they were imprisoned, not interned. Or perhaps Dr Worsley intended to say “interred” all along, because they were never seen again?

January 3, 2016
by gpointon


My friend and co-author Stewart Clark has drawn my attention to this BBC blog, which discusses the ‘correct’ pronunciation of the dinosaur’s name. Apparently the Natural History Museum, which is moving its model, stresses the third syllable: /ËŒdɪpləʊˈdÉ’kÉ™s/ on the grounds that the word is derived from the two Greek words “diplos” (διπλόος) and “dokos” (δοκός). This is no doubt true from an etymological angle, but in the 19th century, when the word was coined, all scholars of whatever subject would have been thoroughly trained in Greek, and would have known that this is not a sufficient reason for choosing where to place the stress. After all, humans are omnivorous, a word derived from ‘omni’ (all) and ‘vorous’ (eating) to show that we eat both plant and animal food, but we do not say */ˌɒmnɪˈvɔːrÉ™s/. The traditional rule is that if the penultimate syllable of a Greek or Latin word contains a short vowel, then the stress is thrown back to the antepenultimate syllable. It is only the linguistic ignorance even of otherwise eminent scholars in the modern world which can lead to this discussion. When scholars first described this creature, there would have been no doubt whatsoever about its pronunciation: /dɪˈplÉ’dÉ™kÉ™s/, as the BBC’s own Pronunciation Unit recommends.

For anyone unfamiliar with IPA who may come across this, the traditional pronunciation and BBC recommendation is ‘diPLODokuss’.

November 14, 2015
by gpointon

What’s brown and sticky?

As every British seven year old knows, the answer is “a stick”.

We can add -y to almost any word to make it mean something like ‘like a …’ or ‘quite …’, rather like -ish. Generally we add just the letter -y to do this, even when it creates an otherwise unfamiliar sequence of letters: yellowy, for instance, which doesn’t mean exactly the same as yellowish, or bluey. We don’t usually add -ey, because this is already an ending with other uses: monkey does not mean ‘like a monk’, and I’m not sure what a ‘donk’ would be. In fact, we may even delete a final e, as in poky, meaning small, presumably derived from the (now mostly dialectal) word ‘poke’, meaning a small bag, so that a ‘poky room’ is a very small, cramped, space.

However, sometimes we do have to make this ending -ey, for clarity, and an advert I’ve seen this week had the word ‘tomatoey’, to describe a pizza particularly rich in tomatoes. If this had been spelled ‘tomatoy’, the immediate reaction would be to pronounce the last syllable as ‘toy’, and the reader would be confused – not the aim of the advertiser. The latest advert for Ribena (for readers unfamiliar with this trademark, it’s a sweet blackcurrant drink) says “You Can’t Get Any More Ribenary“. At last! Someone has dared to introduce the notorious intrusive ‘r’ into the spelling!