Monday, 17 September 2018

Veja o que fiz

That's Look what I did – and it's my way of introducing the idea  that the Brazilian magazine Veja has a title that means Look. This might go some way to extenuating the carelessness about verbs in a newspaper correction noticed by the News Quiz the other day:
"Eduardo Jorge likes to spend his time reading Tolstoy, not Toy Story as originally reported"
You don't read Toy Story.

This feature threatened the News Quiz's claims for topicality.  Pragmatismo reported the correction on 5 Oct 2014. Veja's gaffe was committed two days earlier – making the News Quiz‘s spot nearly 4 years old.
(not that that is a bad case of déjà news – someone at the end of the same show read a report from a listener who claimed to have seen an old chestnut [the one about washing teapots and standing in the sink with bottoms in the air] that I first saw in the pre-WWW days of the Internet when bored office workers polluted the environment with pages and pages of "jokes"...
A thousand curses be upon the inventor of Reply/All.
...; and I‘ve since seen many variants ["hot bottoms on the draining board", etc], all based on the same old mis-related clause gag.
The News Quiz editors really need to  exercise  some quality  control.
But what struck me most about the slip was that it was a particularly Brazilian one. I know next to nothing about Brazilian Portuguese (which differs much further from its Old World antecedent than American English does from British English), and not  much  more about its phonology. The /l/ phoneme*, however, sticks out a mile, because of something known to students of phonetics as labialization. As the word suggests, labialization involves the lips – so that the continental Portuguese /brɐzil/ becomes the Brazilian Portuguese /brɑzilʷ/.

And "Tolstoy" becomes /tɔlʷ.../ – sorry, can't do the second syllable. In the first syllable something almost entirely (in some speakers, entirely) vocalic happens after the /t/.

Now we come to the "Toy..." (the non-English speaker's expectation of how it will sound). Learners of English as a Second Language (in this case, non-English speakers of a borrowed English word) have trouble with sounds that don't have a 1:1 correspondence with written letters. They learn that English doesn't work like that, but the written letters still intrude in the speech. In many interviews with non-English speakers, for example, you will hear "who" pronounced /wu:/.

In the English /ɔɪ/ diphthong there are not two vowels, although the transcription may seem to suggest there is. There is no /ɔ/ vowel in English in any case, but the end of the diphthong is not the equivalent of the /ɪ/ phoneme. So when a non-English speaker hears /tɔɪ/ it doesn't sound like a representation of "Toy"; that would be, in their mistaken expectation, more like /tɔ + <something>/. Maybe that <something> might be /lʷ/ (which, as I've said, can be entirely vocalic).

There are quite possibly other  languages that would predispose listeners to mistake "Tolstoy" for "Toy Story". I'm acquainted with only about .1% of the world's 7,000-odd natural languages, so couldn't say that Brazilian Portuguese is a uniquely favourable linguistic background for this mistake; but it's the most likely one that I've met.

Ho hum. Things to do (just less interesting things)...


Update: 2018.09.19.09:10 – Typo fix and added footnote

* A guitar concert I went to yesterday evening, which included pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, alerted me to this over-generalization; it is not the /l/ phoneme that is labialized. An /l/ in a certain  phonological context (closing a syllable, as in Brasil or Tolstoy) gets this treatment.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Frites or crêpes? Who cares?

A few days ago the usually unruffled calm of French grammar was rudely disturbed by a pair of teachers in Belgium, who wanted a change:
Currently, the rule is that the past participle of a verb does not agree with the direct object of a sentence if it comes after it, but it does when the object comes before the participle.

So for instance, in the sentence j'ai mangé des frites (I ate chips), mangé remains the same. But in the sentence les frites que j'ai mangées (the chips that I have eaten), the participle agrees with the word chips, which is feminine and plural.

...The rule was imported from Italy by pedants in the 16th Century and is being dropped in everyday use, the pair argue.

BBC source

There are three things about the original Libération article  that struck me:
  • Those Italian pedants in the 16th Century had a name, and it started with only one:
    Au XVIe siècle, Clément Marot, constatant le même phénomène en italien, en fait la promotion à l’aide d’un joli poème, ce qui fera dire à Voltaire : «Il a ramené deux choses d’Italie : la vérole [HD: smallpox] et l’accord du participe passé. Je pense que c’est le deuxième qui a fait le plus de ravages [HD: I think the latter did the most damage]».
    This is reminiscent of the history of English, which is littered with pedantic attempts at "tidying up" by introducing rules that cause more trouble than they solve.
  • The "80 hours of teaching time" claim looks very odd, not to say iffy. I suspect some strange extrapolation of Wallonia's version of OFSTED accounting methods. Before anyone believes this, or worse still acts on it, I recommend a closer inspection of this figure. (On a related topic, I wonder what proof there is of the "being dropped in everyday usage" claim. It seems credible, and should be easy enough to prove, but I'd be happier not relying on what a couple of Belgian teachers ARGUE [I wonder what universe the BBC plucked that verb out of]).

  • The example has changed. This is not a serious counter argument; indeed, it's just not a counter-argument – simply an object of passing interest. The writer of the BBC article seems to have decided that frites was a more telling example than crêpes:
    «Employé avec l’auxiliaire avoir, le participe passé s’accorde en genre et en nombre avec le complément d’objet direct quand celui-ci le précède (les crêpes que j’ai mangées). Mais si le complément suit le participe, il reste invariable (j’ai mangé les crêpes).» [HD: my underline, just to make navigation a bit easier.]
This sparked off an irrelevant memory:
<autobiographical_note date="1968">
After my O-levels [HD: fore-runner of GCSEs] I went hitch-hiking around Europe with a friend. When we arrived outside Paris (at the Auberge de Jeunesse in the unpromisingly-named Châtenay-Malabry [surely bon abri would have been a more attractive-sounding name]), we ate from a stall that sold crêpes. The crêperie was set up a bit like a fish-and chip stall. But this apparent similarity was  a faux-ami. The bottle on the counter, tipped with a pouring spout, was not for free use of the customer.

While I'm on the subect of "false friends", an ongoing cycle repair has alerted me to fact that rubber solution is not solution de caoutchouc but dissolution de caoutchouc; not exactly a false friend, but something that's just not friendly at all.
I ordered and paid for a crêpe and reached for a bottle of Grand Marnier, standing on the counter like a vinegar bottle in a fish and chip stall. The stall-holder was not amused, and gave me an earful. She no doubt agreed with de Gaulle, who for some years had remained obdurate about keeping la perfide Albion out of the EEC.
I'm glad that the English have avoided this sort of wrangling by the simple expedient of not having a supreme arbiter of correctness. If the rule is being used in practice less and less, that will be it. The Académie (or some more relevant body, as the Académie doesn't really do syntax) can keep its finger in the dyke if it likes, but it won't have much bearing on the linguistic facts.  We are left with a twale twold by a twidiot:
The BBC article translates this: "why not also drop the offside rule in football? That way ... schoolchildren will be able to spell phonetically and football players will be able to play with their hands.

I'm not sure about the "that way", but la règle du hors-jeu will make a useful new entry in my Vocab. Book.


Monday, 3 September 2018

Teachers must fight computers

So said the Ottawa Citizen in a feature ironically included  in the "Science" section of that paper nearly 50 years ago (30 November 1981):
This jeremiad is reminiscent of reactions to many other enabling technologies and newly discovered ways of behaving.
  • Committing ideas to paper will make us lose the ability to memorize things.
  • Teaching people to read and write, especially with the introduction of printing with movable type, will give them ideas above their station.
  • Teaching people to read without moving their lips is an invitation to social unrest.
  • Letting people in school use paper will decimate the slate industry.
  • The use of typewriters (that is, manual typewriters) will make us lose the ability to write longhand.
  • Giving learners access to a world of information through the Internet (particularly the World Wide World Wide Web, but this Ottawa Citizen piece pre-dates that by 10 years) will hobble a child‘s ability to glean information from books.

And so on, ad nauseam. Whenever  a development threatens the old way of thinking, obscurantists decry its imagined impact on education.

But this link was posted on Twitter by the Pessimists [no apostrophe, of course – this is Twitter] Archive Podcast, who may not have been entirely at one with its message. And later in the article Dr Smith starts to talk sense:

Trusted. This is a crucial word, that should be noted by the Goves (sic) of Academe. IT, and particularly the World Wide Web,  gives access to a world of realia [that's the language teacher's jargon for actual stuff] – in text, images both still and moving, and sounds).

There is a movement in language teaching that has borrowed the name of the DOGME '95 movement in film,  which Wikipedia describes like this:
Dogme 95 was a filmmaking movement started in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who created the "Dogme 95 Manifesto" and the "Vows of Chastity" (Danish: kyskhedsløfter). These were rules to create filmmaking based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology.

 A few years later (so dropping the "'95" bit of the name) a language teaching movement adopted similar principles
Although Dogme teaching has been seen to be anti-technology,[6] Thornbury maintains that he does not see Dogme as being opposed to technology as such,[14] rather that the approach is critical of using technology that does not enable teaching that is both learner centered and is based upon authentic communication. Indeed, more recent attempts to map Dogme principles on to language learning with web 2.0 tools (under the term "Dogme 2.0") are considered evidence of Dogme being in transition[15] and therefore of being compatible with new technology.

Not everyone agrees with the "compatible with new technology" bit; there are language teachers who insist that the teacher must go "naked into the classroom" (as Nye Bevan so nearly said). But the Wikipedia article on Degme '95 goes on to say that the movement was "an attempt to take back power for the director". Replace director with teacher, and the arguments about technology become insignificant. What matters, as Dr Smith said in that Ottawa Citizen article, is trust in the practitioner.
And if, like dear old M. Baring-Gould, he is armed with a magnétophone (reel-to-reel, given that we are talking about the mid-'60s) that doesn't make him any less trustworthy.


Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Tambora Effect

Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo caused in part by Indonesian volcanic eruption

So said an article published in ScienceDaily on 22 August 2018. The next day, BBC Radio 4's Inside Science interviewed the author (well, I doubt if Dr Genge had much to do with it in that format but it was regurgitated more-or-less [probably totally, but I haven't checked] verbatim from an article that appeared on the Imperial College London site on the same day). 

Hmmmph? I wondered. Wasn't all this Year Without a Summer stuff old hat? Hasn't it been debunked, as far as Waterloo is concerned?  Surely, the Belgian rainstorm couldn't have been caused by a volcano that happened just two  months earlier? But have a look at that article, particularly where it says
"Previously, geologists thought that volcanic ash gets trapped in the lower atmosphere, because volcanic plumes rise buoyantly. {HD – which accounts for the lack of  a Northern Hemisphere summer in 1816, but doesn't explain a freak rainstorm in Belgium so soon after the eruption.}  My research, however, shows that ash can be shot into the upper atmosphere by electrical forces."
So this was The Tambora Effect, involving the delightfully named electrostatic levitation.
The paper shows that eruptions can hurl ash much higher than previously thought into the atmosphere -- up to 100 kilometres above ground.
And once in the ionosphere (troposphere schmoposphere, this is tens of miles higher than the volcanic ash was originally supposed to get) the disruption caused by the charged volcanic dust particles , as Dr Genge said in that interview "...can go round the planet in 100 seconds." This YouTube video published by Imperial College London says more.

But enough of volcanoes. I'l leave you with a pretty picture.

Tambora Caldera
Image and and English description: Mount Tambora Volcano, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, NASA Earth Observatory. 2nd version: Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons.; originally from

But as it happens, those words (tambora effect, not electrostatic levitation) have a different significance for me (and especially for practising guitarists – which I haven't been for over thirty years).  The most-widely accepted term, says Wikipedia, is the Tambour effect:
Tambour (also called tambortamboro or tambora, written in music as tamb.), is a technique in Flamenco guitar and classical guitar that emulates the sound of a heartbeat. The player uses a flat part of the hand, usually the side of the outstretched right thumb, or also the edge of the palm below the little finger, and sounds the strings by striking them rapidly just inside the bridge of the guitar. 
I first met it in its Hispanic form, though, on the sleeve notes of a Paco Peña album...
I had been a fan since a concert I went to in Guildford, where my big sister was a student at the University of Surrey. That university was twinned in some way with Battersea Tech, who ran a free minibus service between Battersea and Guildford.

Disguised as a student, in my brother's VI form scarf (though the shortness of my hair was probably a giveaway) I bummed a lift to use the argot of the time. [I've been expecting a tap on the shoulder for the last 50 years, but I reckon it's now safe to admit this peccadillo.]
...I read in the late '60s. He used it to marvellous instrumental effect, and in my troubadour days I borrowed it for a setting of Moondog (based on [i.e. lifted from] a version sung by Terry Cox, drummer with Pentangle, with accompaniment on bongos.)
Now I come to think of it, though, the two may be related. According to Wikipedia's article on Tambora Culture:
The language of the culture was wiped out. The language appears to have been an isolate, the last survivor of the pre-Austronesian languages of central Indonesia.
But IF the name of the volcano was borrowed from a Romance language (as certainly looks possible), it could refer to the drum-like sound of the seismological rumblings – not the "heartbeat" mentioned in the article on the "technique in Flamenco guitar and classical guitar that emulates the sound of a heartbeat", but a less life-affirming sort of beat.

But the blackberries aren't going to pick themselves...


Thursday, 23 August 2018

What's in a name?

"Inc." (that's A Thing – sort of news/media/comment/coaching Thing) just published

A Study of 600,000 People Shows the Secret to Managing Millennials Is to Quit Thinking of Them as Millennials


Hmm –  Well, yes, in a trivial sense.
I dislike being called a Baby Boomer – as if I had been conceived in a frenzy of post-war optimism more than 5 years after VJ Day  Of course the term has a certain statistical value, but calling me a Baby Boomer says no more about me than – say – that my father was a Daily Mail reader: true, but lazy and misleading. (Besides, the context is very different – the Mail, last time he read it (1961) was... not the same (not to put too fine a point on it).

But that Inc. piece starts 
I just did a Google search for "manage Millennials." I got 28 million results. That's total overkill...
I struggled to avoid an automatic lip-curl reflex (LCR)  at the abuse of the word overkill (which has a particular political/military/economic sense –  a world away from the almost meaningless Jolly Big sense evoked by the author, 'Contributing Editor' Jeff Haden), but  life's too short to get upset about  this sort of illiteracy...
... especially since a recent study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology
shows there are much greater attitude and behavior differences within generations than between generations.

I tried out the first of Mr Haden's links, hoping to see further evidence of that Google-based finding. But no ... it's a link to another Inc. article.
For the record, when I search for manage Millennials (two separate  words, no quotes) I get just over 23 million hits, and when I search for "manage Millennials"  I get fewer than 17,000.  I suppose Mr Haden's overkill figure is based on the first of these (with the extra 5 million being attributable to poetic (that is, lazy/Internet) licence.
In other words the link does not lead to relevant information. Vannevar Bush (inspiration for Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext [that's what the H and the T stand for in  HTML]) would turn in his grave; what it does is irrelevantly drive traffic to another Inc. page.
Which I've just done. Oh well...

Bu the grass has started growing again. Nunc est MOW-endum, as Horace might have written (if only Latin had a W.

PS: A couple of clues –

  • Plunge into millpond, say, making for fortunate coincidence (11)
  • Christian? About time for a trouble-maker. (4-6)

Friday, 17 August 2018

Hoist with his own "favoletta"

In the aftermath of the terrible events in Genoa on the eve of Ferragosto...
Ferragosto is the heathen name of the feast known to the One True Church as the Feast of the Assumption...
I was once asked 'What do Catholics assume on 15 August?' Well, lots of things. But the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a belief in an extraordinary end to the extraordinary life of the mother of Christ. Not for her the messy business of dying and rotting (before, of course, being raised incorruptible); she was assumed (i.e. taken up) into Heaven. I forget the details, but there were probably various meteorological shenanigans at the time (as there were when Elijah 'went by a whirlwind to Heaven'...
<text source="Excerpt from Mendelssohn's Elijah">
... A bit like Dorothy going to Oz, except not in Kansas of course.

This tourist site , though, suggests that (like most 'Christian' festivals) Ferragosto has deeper roots.:
Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC [PS – HD: a good half century before the end of Mary's earthbound phase], probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals . These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period - intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.
... La Stampa reported that Beppe Grillo, not inappropriately for a clown, had got egg on his face by a remark in his blog lampooning public infrastructure spending.

I first heard about this faux pas in a BBC news report, hedged about with the sort of weasel words that suggest it is dealing with mere rumour; but it should be a simple matter of fact, I thought – Did he write it or not?

This page was no help either, at first :
"We have been told about the little fairy tale of the imminent collapse of the Morandi Bridge." That is how Five Star Movement co-founder Beppe Grillo reportedly referred to warnings about the collapse of the bridge on his blog. [My emphasis]
 But the same page goes on:
The blog post was apparently removed yesterday but a screenshot of the post has been published by Ligurian local daily Il Secolo XIX.
Aha. "I think the little legal department knows something about it", as they used to say (more or less) at the end of Bill and Ben. He wrote it, but events on Tuesday made it a bit of an embarrassment, so he unwrote it.

I'm not convinced he should have, though. On the face of it, it was a bit... tactless. But the administration of the bridge maintenance looks like a bit of a gravy train; and money spent on the administration of maintenance  does seem not to have gone exclusively into actual maintenance. And, as always with the Internet, someone somewhere was bound to have kept a screenshot. So rather than trying to hide his embarrassment, only to be caught red-handed – shamefacedly, with his finger on the <Delete> key: "Who me?" – I reckon he should just have toughed it out, with an update to the blog.

I'm glad about one thing, though – the whole sorry issue has introduced me to the word for "a little fairy tale": Una favoletta. Take away the diminutive suffix and you're left with una favola (stressed on the first syllable). Screw your eyes up and you can see the word fable. You live and learn.


PS And a couple of clues:
  • They're polar opposites, capisce? (7)
  • Set values anew or make a bit clearer (11)
Update: 2018.08.18.17:20 – Inline PS, in red.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Calling a spade a bloody shovel

Petroc Trelawney caused a stir the other morning on Breakfast (about 5 minutes before the end) by asking:
Why is a boatswain a /bǝʊsǝn/ but a coxswain is still a /kɒksweɪn/?
Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we expose an area of ignorance to the Twittersphere. The Radio 3 twitterfeed was swamped by corrections, some more and some less gentle.

My first thought was that it was a dysphemism (antonym of euphemism, like fall off the perch, pop your clogs, push up the daisies in place of die). Dysphemisms like this are often a sort of "whistling in the dark": I'm not going to pop my clogs for a good few years yet.

But another common use of dysphemisms is as a signal of membership of some specialist group. In some circles, fiddle rather than violin is a term of disparagement. But among violinists it's the norm – except when a violinist makes a principled stand ...
(as, I seem to remember, Biggles did when he told his group not to use the dysphemism kite instead of aeroplane. But the fact that this fictional hero did forbid it shows that real-world pilots used it.
This is reminiscent of a regular tool in the philologist's armoury: lists of mistakes not to make. Entries in such lists prove two things:
  1. The mistake was being made
  2. Somebody thought it mattered
They call attention not only  to what was thought to be a mistake at the time, but also to a turning point in the history of a word. The Reichenau Glossary is the example that most readily springs to mind, and in an earlier post I traced the French chauve-souris to a supposed (and deprecated) Vulgar Latin "owl-mouse".
But I digress...
Anyway, a crash was still a prang, and a pilot who died bought it).

Similarly, players in the finest of symphony orchestras  refer to it with the dysphemism band. Showing such irreverence is a way of ironically suggesting real reverence – while also signalling membership of the in crowd.

Another example which I have no direct experience of (maybe I heard it in a forgotten lecture, maybe I invented it – though it's unusually specific for a flight of fancy) is archæologists' pronunciation of ceramic with a /k/; this is not unlike the original meaning of shibolleth (pronouncing it one way indicated which side you were on).

Which brings us back to Petroc's "error". Presumably he knows and speaks to people who row in Cornish racing gigs. It seems to me not improbable that a coxswain in such a boat calls himself a /kɒksweɪn/,  quite intentionally thumbing his nose at the "correct" pronunciation laid down by they furriners from outside Kernow. In that case it was not a dysphemism, but a pure and simple gesture of defiance against linguistic hegemony.


PS A couple of clues:
  • Queen tucking into a Dubonnet and lemon? How refreshing! (10)
  • Higher octane propellent for this incendiary energy source? (7,4)