Tuesday 5 December 2023

The 'Oh yes it IS' Bill

 In last Sunday's The Week in Westminster they were discussing the rights and wrongs of the Rwanda 'policy'...

(less of a policy, it seems to me, than a gamble on the possible outcome of a tiny symbolic gesture)

.... Sir Robert Buckland ...

(any relation, I wonder, of Graham Buckland, with whom I used to sing in Corpus Chapel Choir?)
... repeated the view reported in the Evening Standard last week:

“The ECHR [HD: European Court of Human Rights] underpins the very fabric of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement,” he told the BBC Sunday Politics programme.

He added: “To ignore that reality in the context of a debate about migration would be to threaten and endanger the Good Friday/Belfast process and once again undermine the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

“I think it would be a foolish or rash move… the wrong step and a very un-Conservative step for colleagues to take bearing in mind it was Conservative lawyers and politicians who helped draft the convention in those years after the war.

The 'Oh yes it IS' Bill responds to the Supreme Court's ruling that the policy would be illegal because Rwanda was not safe, by hastily throwing some more money at Rwanda...

(Of course the official line is that they're not spending any more. But there are new procedures and restrictions that will inevitably mean more money is spent – not to mention the ongoing legal costs (millions) foreseen by Geoffrey Robertson KC in a recent World at One.)

 ...and decreeing that oh yes it is, so that's all right

But this one will run and run; it's a moving target. Latest news is that the Immigration Minister...
(whose name I can't dissociate from the smell of pilchards, because of a near-pun: 



... having introduced the Bill, has disavowed it as insufficiently inhumane and done a runner to the back benches to plot with Attila the Hen.

It's hard not to agree with Alastair Campbell in last week's The Rest Is Politics that the Tories have given up on governing and are spending their inevitable last few months laying political traps for an incoming Labour administration.

<image authorship="mine not Campbell's>
(Not unlike the Wagner group pulling out of Ukraine but leaving behind a devil's brew of booby traps and landmines)
But I've got better things to do than chart the hissy-fits of HMG, notably, preparation for this:

It's already selling well, and should be a blast. Hokum all ye faithful.


Monday 27 November 2023

So farewell then, Twittter

 I have had a presence on Twitter since 2009.  I wrote about it here:

I came late to Twitter, though late is relative (I followed Stephen Fry ...

Don't judge. I'm not just a star-struck celebrity-stalker. we are fellow near-contemporaries (a few years apart) at CU Footlights, and have a number of connections and interests in common.

...before he reached 20,000 followers and he's now at about 13 million). At the 2008 Language Show I saw a talk given by the amazing Joe Dale, and he recommended it. But I resisted until I saw him again at the 2009PPS Language Show, and since then I've been an aficionado and a user (rather more than some might wish....) 
PPS With some regret, I have cancelled my @BobK99 account (because of Twitter's new Ts&Cs, the gist of which is "Everything you write or link to is ours to do with as we will, and we have the right to pass it on willy-nilly to third parties of our choice"), keeping my toe in the water ...
That 'toe in the water' was an account called @leBobEnchaine. (Sadly, twitter tags couldn't handle diacritics.)
A cheap alternative to a guard dog is a chained duck, which makes a fuss when anyone comes near. 
Hence, I realized when coining this monicker, Le Canard Enchaîné (which shouted out a warning whenever poiticians did their usual thing). Maybe there was a tradition in France of using chained ducks like this, or maybe the satirical periodical just thought it would be a good idea. For Further Study...



<aha2 type="totally irrelevant”>    
It's just struck me that the dunnock is the original 'Little Brown Job', as birders say; dun means brown and  -ock is a diminutive suffix. They don't come littler or browner than a dunnock.

Then along came Elon Musk, wantonly (not to say wastefully) changing the name and disturbing his neighbours' sleep patterns with a garish sign that trumpeted his wastefulness. NBC News reporrted:

The flashing “X” sign above the San Francisco building formerly known as Twitter’s headquarters has been removed, video shows, days after it went up and caused complaints about the nighttime display.

... San Francisco's Department of Building Inspection issued a notice of violation Friday after the "X", which did not have a permit, was erected on the roof, department spokesman Patrick Hannan said.

There had been 24 complaints made about the sign over the weekend, including because its lights, he said
Not only conspicuous consumption but conspicuous waste. 'I've got money to burn and I don't care if the great unwashed can't get to sleep.'

But much worse than this was his evisceration of the staff that kept the lid on the most flagrant hate-speech, generally firing the starting pistol on a race to the bottom. This has made it less and less comfortable to be a part of the community.

Meanwhile, Newscast has for several months been espousing an extension to its community, based on an app with the unpromising (not to say unappetising) name discord; so unappetising is it that until now I have resisted Newscast's repeated invitations to sign up. I don't want discord (the abstract noun, not the app); that's what the new Twitter is about – discord and trollery and unbridled misinformation and ill-informed reflex pile-ons.

When I first met this neologism (fairly recently) I tried to make the meaning of pylon fit; and I think the term 'neologism' is justified. The verb 'pile on' has been around for over a century: Etymonline says 

'Figurative verbal phrase pile on "attack vigorously, attack en masse," is attested by 1894, American English

But this excerpt from  Collins suggests that the noun (hyphenated if you don't mind) is a much more recent coining: 21st century, I'd say.

So I'm leaving Twitter to its own devices and dipping my toe in discord (the app, not the abstract noun)


Wednesday 22 November 2023

Easy enough for YOU to say

Many years ago I wrote here about an interesting experiment involving speakers of a second language (and newish readers may want to catch up there. But since that post several more reports have appeared, notably these three:

  • One in 2017 (which I mentioned in an update to that old post). It asked:
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your native tongue? 
Psychologists at the University of Chicago found in past research that people facing such a dilemma while communicating in a foreign language are far more willing to sacrifice the bystander than those using their native tongue. In a paper published Aug. 14 in Psychological Science, the UChicago researchers take a major step toward understanding why that happens.
"Until now, we and others have described how using a foreign language affects the way that we think," said Boaz Keysar, the UChicago psychology professor in whose lab the research was conducted. "We always had explanations, but they were not tested directly. This is really the first paper that explains why, with evidence." 
Whether you’re speaking in your native tongue, or in another language, being understood and believed is fundamental to good communication. After all, a fact is a fact in any language, and a statement that is objectively true should just be considered true, whether presented to you in English, Chinese or Arabic.

However, our research suggests that the perception of truth is slippery when viewed through the prism of different languages and cultures. So much so that people who speak two languages can accept a fact in one of their languages, while denying it in the other.

If you speak multiple languages, 
which words get lost in translation
Um... This is a bugbear (and one that I'm not proud of, but Hier stehe ich; ich kan nicht anders...
<silly, moi?>
(Luther's way of denying all knowledge of anyone called Andrew? [Note: kan/kann pun.]
</silly, moi?>
...) I don't speak 'multiple languages' (sic). I speak SEVERAL. I know I'm swimming against the tide here, and many dictionaries disagree; but in my view a 'multiple pile-up' is one that involves several vehicles. It seems to me lazy and irresponsible to take one word, meaningful in its own context, and pass that meaning willy-nilly onto a passing word that just happens to be in the vicinity. The dictionaries are licensing Humpty-Dumpyism. (I know...).
But luckily I managed to ignore the sub-editor's contribution and read about the actual research:
A new study has demonstrated that while words for emotions such as “fear”, “love” or “anger” are often directly translated between languages, there can be differences in their true meaning, depending on the family the language belongs to. 
For example, while the concept of “love” is closely linked to “like” and “want” in Indo-European languages, it is more closely associated with “pity” in Austronesian languages.

This looked worthy of note. But unfortunately the article was just a filler, and was simply a vehicle for a vox pop inviting speculation about the difference between heraeth (Welsh nostalgia) and saudade (Portuguese nostalgia)

Pacete Welsh and Portuguese separatists, I KNOW. I just find all this 'Fifty words for snow' stuff rather tiresome. Natural languages are uniquely expressive, each in its own way. End of. If you want to amass examples, immerse yourself in one (or more).

I imagine there are some post-pandemic contributions to this issue, but there are things to do, so they'll have to wait for an Update.


Friday 17 November 2023

We'll see about THAT

Writing in an online forum for learners of English (usingenglish.com) earlier this week I asserted "the subjunctive is much less common in British English than in American English". I was supported by people whose views I have learned to be sound, but I still felt that an assertion like that needed some quantitative support.

As usual my first port of call was the British National Corpus. The search string I used was that there be – a fairly crude choice, but an unquestionable one. The BNC is a 100 million word corpus, and in all that text (mostly written...

BNC has 90% writtten sources, and only 10% spoken. But my guess is that the subjunctive is more common in formal writing rather than in speech. This search in the (very much bigger) Hansard corpus supports this preference:  
....) it found only 69 instances:

There are various ways of making up for this uncommonness, but probably the most popular is the interpolation of 'should'  – which yields nearly 8 times as many hits:


That's the picture for British English. The Corpus of Contemporary American English is much bigger than BNC – 10 times the size, and more recently updated – but the figure is impressive:

The 'should' workaround, on the other hand, is less common (just over twice as many hits in a corpus 10 times the size): 

So speakers of American English use the subjunctive more readily than speakers of British English, and use an interpolated 'should' to avoid it much less often.

Translation News

Winners of the Stephen Spender Translation Prize 2023  have been decided and will be announced next Thursday. Winners have already been notified, but my letter seems to have been lost in the post. I shan't be attending the online announcement shindig next week, not because I'm washing my hair but because it's the first rehearsal with my choir's new MD. (Our old MD's swansong is tomorrow, and there are still tickets:

To judge from lasr night's rehearsal it'll be well worth a visit.)

Right, I know the notes; now it's just the words (and where to put them) ...


Saturday 11 November 2023

How do you solve a problem called Suella

What can Rishi do with her? Thursday's Newscast was all about the Home Secretary, who – I was disappointed to learn – is pleasant and personable. I say 'disappointed' because her views and interventions and general vitriol are so odious.

First ...

(this week; her trail of destructive stupidity goes back much further including such ridiculous populist nonsense as the wasteful and self-defeating [not to say illegal] Rwanda policy)

... it was 'hate marches'– an irresponsible ...

There are a few hate-filled people on the Palestinian side, but it takes two to tango and they won't get to exercise their hatred (in terms of actual violence) unless there's a counter-demonstration (which Braverman, for self-serving political reasons, is taking care to stir up).
...and bare-faced attempt to foment disorder. And fomenting disorder isn't in the job description of Home Secretary.

<stop-press reason="just heard the news">
It worked. She must be proud of herself.

Then it was 'a lifestyle choice'  – a heartless and stupid contribution to the politics of homelssness. And heartless stupidity isn't in the job description of Home Secretary.

Then came the kicker: her unconstitutional attempt to undermine Mark Rowley, in her letter to The Times on Thursday. The  editor of GB News, speaking on that edition of Newscast, said he had received numerous phone calls from people who couldn't understand what was wrong with what she had said. What was wrong with it  was that she is Home Secretary and it's not her job to stir up trouble by undermining the police force who have an incredibly sensitive situation to police. The fact that consumers of GB News don't see what's wrong with it is simply a reflection of the degree of political naivety of those consumers. Not surprising really: the politically naive express politically naive opinions.

Nick Robinson, although not always entirely convincing in his  expressions of shocked propriety,  had some interesting things to say about who was sending what coded messages to whom in Thursday's The Today Podcast. 

She's behaving like a  spoilt teenager, pushing the envelope of tolerability further and further in order to get a reaction form the people who have her best interests at heart: "Aren't I awful?". She wants to be sacked, to become a martyr on the back-benches and whip up support from her extreme right-wing chronies.  And for her it's Win:Win: if she's sacked she becomes more of  a right-wing pin-up; if she's not sacked after so bare-facedly defying No.10's authority (by trampling on the ministerial code ...

<ministerial-code relevant-section="8.2">

Media interviews, speeches etc

8.2 In order to ensure the effective coordination of Cabinet business, the policy content and timing of all major announcements, speeches, press releases and new policy initiatives should be cleared in draft with the No 10 Press and Private Offices at least 24 hours in advance. All major interviews and media appearances, both print and broadcast, should also be agreed with the No 10 Press Office. 


...and not making the required edits before submitting her letter for publication) then the PM is shown to be weak. Either way she has a head start in the post-election race to ba leader of His Majesty's Opposition.

The last word goes to Dominic Grieve, a good man thrown out of the party by a brainless nincompoop who should never have got his hands on the levers of power. Grieve wrote, in the Independent: 

Suella Braverman must resign now

The home secretary has undermined the independence of the police and weaponised Remembrance commemorations for her own political ends. She must not be allowed to represent us at the Cenotaph on Sunday, writes former attorney general Dominic Grieve

In haste


Update: 2023.11.14.12:30 –  Added PS

PS Well, she didn't; I don't think it was ever likely that she would; yesterday she was sacked (by telephone, according to Jacob Real-Smug, speaking on last night's News – Bad Form, he thought).

Taking his cue from Gordon Brown's Government Of All the Talents Rishi Sunak has announced another GOAT, but with a twist that makes it all his own: it's a Government of the Absolutely Talentless, starring the author of the Brexit debacle and the pointless and self-defeating austerity programme..

Friday 3 November 2023

The sound of leather on willow

Four years ago I took advantage of the ODI World Cup to write this, about the uneasy cohabitation of speakers of one language with athletes whose names don't use that (monolithic? monoglottal?) language's phonology; the chief stumbling point was the name 'Phelukwayo' (which doesn't start with a /f/):

... Which brings me to /p/, which (in most English speech I've met) is aspirated in some contexts (the allophone ...

Slipped that one in. An allophone is a context-specific alternative way of articulating a phoneme (minimal meaning-bearing speech sound). The so-called "clear l" and "dark l" of 'leek' and 'keel', for example, are allophones of the /l/ phoneme.

...can be transcribed as [ph]) but not in other contexts. It's something speakers of English as a mother tongue [henceforth "FLES" for "First-Language English Speakers"] find hard to hear: "  A p is a pisn't it?". But if they know what to listen for, most FLESs can be taught. 

Wet a finger and hold it in front of your lips as you say "pin". You should detect a little puff of air.
When I first met this test, when the Cambridge Linguistics Department was a converted cricket pavilion in the early 1970s, no-one suggested wetting the finger. That's my own addition. The water makes the puff of air have a cooling effect, making the finger more sensitive.
Next say "spin". There's next to no puff of air  (I say "next to no" because the sound of the word involves the passage of air; but aspiration after the [p] is not a contributor).

When a FLES sees "ph" at the beginning of a word, it obviously represents /f/ (as it does in English words). This brings us to Phelukwayo (not an English word). When, in early June 2019 cricket commentators started to meet it most days (he had been in South African teams before then, but June 2019 – the Cricket World Cup in England and Wales – was the moment when it first started to register on my mentions-per-day meter) the English commentators had to learn from the South African ones. Some were quicker than others. For example, in early June Jonathan Agnew was saying /felə'kwejəʊ/ (with the /fel/ of *phel [except that there's no such English word] and the /wej/ of  English "way", but by mid-June he'd learnt. Some of the Test Match Special team have insisted on their Little Englander pronunciation. (No names, no pack-drill, but I bet they voted for Brexit.)

Phelukwayo is still part of the South African team, but is less crucial in 2023 than he was in 2019; in most 2023 games he has just carried the drinks. But those presumed Brexiteers still haven't learned; I don't believe they ever will. And I don't think it's worth banging on about it; so I won't. But I reserve the right to DIE A LITTLE whenever this man's name is abused.

So this time around my linguistic focus is not on phonology but on etymology. I was struck last week when Steven Finn used the word 'juggernaut' with reference to India. I suspect that the word is unusually common in a cricketing context...

(Maybe being this specific is fanciful – perhaps a footbal team could be described in this way – but I'd guess that the cultural context of Indian religious practice (read on) favours the use of this image: which is not to say that India is the only team that can be a juggernaut. This India-based article from a previous World Cup makes Australia the juggernaut:

Colonial history introduced cricket to India, and India returned the favour by applying this metaphor in the cricketing context.


This extract from Etymonline shows both the derivation and the fact that the 'inevitable winner' sense is quite distant from the current 'idea, custom, fashion' definition:

I'm also intrigued by the 'apocryphally' bit. Hobson Jobson, primary source for information about Indian English during the Raj, seems quite unequivocal:

JUGGURNAUT, n.p. A corruption of the Skt. Jagannātha, 'Lord of the Universe,' a name of Krishṇa worshipped as Vishṇu at the famous shrine of Pūrī in Orissa. The image so called is an amorphous idol, much like those worshipped in some of the South Sea Islands, and it has been plausibly suggested (we believe first by Gen. Cunningham) that it was in reality a Buddhist symbol, which has been adopted as an object of Brahmanical worship, and made to serve as the image of a god. The idol was, and is, annually dragged forth in procession on a monstrous car, and as masses of excited pilgrims crowded round to drag or accompany it, accidents occurred. Occasionally also persons, sometimes sufferers from painful disease, cast themselves before the advancing wheels. The testimony of Mr. Stirling, who was for some years Collector of Orissa in the second decade of the last century, and that of Sir W. W. Hunter, who states that he had gone through the MS. archives of the province since it became British, show that the popular impression in regard to the continued frequency of immolations on these occasions—a belief that has made Juggurnaut a standing metaphor—was greatly exaggerated. The belief indeed in the custom of such immolation had existed for centuries, and the rehearsal of these or other cognate religious suicides at one or other of the great temples of the Peninsula, founded partly on fact, and partly on popular report, finds a place in almost every old narrative relating to India. The really great mortality from hardship, exhaustion, and epidemic disease which frequently ravaged the crowds of pilgrims on such occasions, doubtless aided in keeping up the popular impressions in connection with the Juggurnaut festival.

Perhaps my view of Hobson Jobson as authoritative is misplaced, or perhaps the Etymonline article meant its 'apocryphally' to apply to only that one occasion in Puri. An update may appear in the fullness of time. Not tonight though.


Update: 2023.11.05.10:25 – Added PS

PS: A final word about Etymonline's "(apocryphally)", which I don't think is justified (perhaps there is in it a tinge of the Etymological Fallacy – early accounts of the devotions at Puri share some of the characteristics of The Apocrypha [but that doesn't mean that nothing of the sort ever happened]).

Wikipedia holds that

Since the Middle Ages, Europeans had been fascinated by accounts of the Ratha Yatra ("Temple car procession") at Puri, which claimed that pilgrims threw themselves under the temple cars

Stories of the fanatical self-sacrifices date back to the account given by a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone.

The article goes on to say:

His account was an important source for the account of John Mandeville. Many of the incredible reports in Mandeville have proven to be garbled versions of Odoric's eyewitness descriptions. 
...At least part of Mandeville's Travels and the life of John Mandeville is mere invention. No contemporary corroboration of the existence of such a Jehan de Mandeville is known. Some French manuscripts, not contemporary, give a Latin letter of presentation from him to Edward III of England, but so vague that it might have been penned by any writer on any subject.

OED says that by 1825 

"That excess of fanaticism which formerly prompted the pilgrims to court death by throwing themselves in crowds under the wheels of the car of Jaganath, has happily long ceased" 

As the OED is a major source for Etymonline, I think this explains Etymonline's "apocryphally" – which seems to me to be an assumption too far. Accounts of the devotees' fanatical suicides were embroidered, but this doesn't mean there isn't a germ of truth in them. Fanatical followers of religions do fanatical things.

But it's a lovely day, and there's still some end-of-season destruction to be wrought in the garden, so that's all.


Sunday 29 October 2023

My take on 'take on'

Five years ago I was writing (here) about separable verbs, and bravely undertook not to pursue an error in a pop song. I should have known better; this sort of nit won't be ignored

... I'll record here a totally unrelated observation, from the first part of a recently televised spy thriller. It was set in Berlin...and most of the key characters had the decency to speak English. But  there were bits of German dialogue that had English subtitles – one of which reminded me of an exercise we did in my CELTA course, to raise awareness of the problems caused for ELT students by English's predilection for phrasal verbs.

<autobiographical_note date="2006" subject="Phrasal verb exercise">
The students sat in a circle, and each in turn constructed a sentence using the phrasal verb pick up with a meaning that differed from all the previous examples.

I expected that with a class-size of 14 it would become increasingly difficult after the first half dozen, and impossible before the end. But the lecturer had done his homework and knew that the Collins Cobuild Dcitionary (a favourite at the time) lists 15 separate meanings (some of which can easily be sub-divided: for example it gives one meaning for what "a microphone or radio" does, and it seems to me that processing an audio signal that is clearly part of the soundscape  [as in "We're picking up the traffic noise in the background"] is quite distinct from being able to detect at all a radio signal that just doesn't get there [as in "We can't pick up channel X when we're <somewhere>"). So in other dictionaries I imagine the total is more than 15.
And to add to the difficulty, some phrasal verbs are separable (the verb and the particle can straddle the object), or not, or either... 
This Saturday's The Times gives an example of this. There's an M&S advert that says                                                                                                                            
It's time 
to switch on 
If the designer had had to set 
It's time 
to switch 
Christmas on 
the line lengths wouldn't have been so amenable. Fortunately for them, there was a choice; so – whatever the text means (if 'means' is the mot juste) – the flexibility of this phrasal verb made the text designer's life easier. 
...And in one of the local-colour subtitles the translator had got it wrong. At a service desk of some sort a German-speaker said "I want to pick up something" (sorry – no time to check the original German). What the subtitle should have said was "I want to pick something up"*,†. 
And in later updates I added two footnotes, * and †.
<footnote index="*">
Last night I witnessed another instance of that separability problem. In a subtitle to the Danish thriller Follow the money, towards the end of the first episode, one character said "We need you to take on this one."  What he meant, of course, was  "We need you to take this one on." ... But I had known the translator was less than perfect ever since, earlier on, he had used the expression "big fry" instead of "big fish".  Fry are small; that's the point.

This is not unlike a piece of family language we still use, ever since my son – then knee-high to something quite small [HD: Do grasshoppers even have knees? Granted there's a bendy bit between the upper and lower leg, but is that enough for knee-ness? This is getting silly...] – asked "Are we having a dark lunch today?". A dark lunch (obv.) is the opposite of a light lunch.
<footnote index="†">
I've  just noticed another instance of the separability problem, in an error message:

I've been getting this annoying little error for some time now – so often that I've only just noticed it; and noticed how apt it was, in view of my feelings about the device in question.
At last, here's my take on ...
(! – thank heavens I don't have to learn this stuff as a second language)
...the Aha song Take on me.

The sense of 'take on me' is 'undertake a relationship with me [even though it may be risky and/or burdensome]'. The writers of this song were presumably...
Attribution is unclear, though I admit I haven't given it my usual laser-like focus. My attitude is not unlike Rick's to the Peter Laurie character in Casablanca: 'You despise me don't you Rick?'/'I guess I would if I gave it much thought.'

...the singers in Aha (a Norwegian band), and – to their credit (?) – they hedge their bets, as the words are 'Take on me/take me on' (as though they're not sure whether the phrasal verb is separable or not (or either); like many an uncertain second-language user, they do something that, while parading their uncertainty, they know will at least be partially right).

And so the language moves on. Aha knew there was something tricky, but native speaker covers (by, for example, Take That) cement the optionality of this phrasal verb (either separable or not, as the speaker wishes). Purists will huff and puff, but the tide of spoken usage will eventually wash over them.