Friday, 21 April 2017

The little things of life

I have mentioned diminutives before; and they're always lurking quite close to the surface when you think about words. In my last post, for example:
...bacilli  [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive...]
Spaghetti are little spaghi ["strings"]; cigarettes (and cigarillos) are little cigars. A scintilla is a little piece that's been cut off (from the irregular verb scindere [whose part participle is scissus, recognizable in the English scissors]). Often, their meanings diverge widely from the mother-word: a tabernacle) ultimately from tabernaculum doesn't have much of an obvious link with a tavern (> taberna); the altar wine doesn't even go in  the tabernacle...
 (at least not in my day, when catering was easier [just a mouthful for the celebrant]).

The reason for this focus (on diminutives) is a chance reading of the title of an Italian board game: Il gioco dell'oca.  In Italy (and much of the Romance world) they don't have Snakes & Ladders (although Google Translate says that Snakes & Ladders is an English "translation" of Gioco dell'oca. Un' oca is thought to have derived from the Vulgar Latin *AUCA(M) (the preceding asterisk signifies that the word is not attested, but is the source of other Romance words that require it to have existed).

On the right is a rather mangled excerpt [cobbled together from the foot of one column and the top half of the next] from the Romance philologist‘s bible Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. The book was compiled more than a century ago, when the centre of the philological universe was in Germany, (Grimm's Law, remember)  so it's not a light read. And it says so much about auca, avicella and avicellus that I missed out an elision after the first four lines on avicellus: Section 828 goes on, but my interest ran out after the French oiseau.
<tangent status="just thrown out there">
I wonder if Pooh's Woozle owes anything to A.A.Milne's knowledge of Chaucer's ousel... So little time, so many speculations.
Anyway, oca means "goose", and there are diminutives in its back-story. But when I first (knowingly, as I imagine I may have come across the word before I saw that Italian board-game) saw the word I wondered whether it might have any connection with the English word ocarina – this odd-looking musical instrument:

I went to my usual source for this sort of information, Etymonline:
ocarina (n.)
1877, from Italian ocarina, diminutive of oca "goose" (so called for its shape), from Vulgar Latin *auca, from Latin avicula "small bird," diminutive of avis "bird" (see aviary).
My guess was right (though I'm not sure I buy the so-called for its shape. The instrument comes in all sorts  of shapes, but the most common one doesn't remind  me of a goose; perhaps the noise it makes comes into  it).

Returning to the game, its instructions were in Italian; and I suspect  – my command of Italian is more of a comma – they claimed a millennial origin for the game, though Wikipedia suggests that the author of this pooh-poohs the idea with a rather curt sniff:
[The games]...are unlikely to have been the same
Geese figure elsewhere in much language. The rather dated silly goose, cooking someone's goose, wild goose chase...
<digression theme ="goose".
In my partial soon-to-be-released new vowel book, the *IL* section says this of the expression wild goose chase:
When Shakespeare put this expression in the mouth of Mercutio (in the first recorded use), he was probably referring to a certain kind of horse-race, with a leading horse being followed by other riders in the V-shape typical of migrating geese. When used today, it refers more directly (although figuratively) to the notion of chasing after wild geese. (It seems to me that this change in meaning may have been influenced, in days when Latin was more widely studied, by an awareness of the fact that a mission to find the solution to a question that has no anser [=Latin, "goose"] was vain; but there is no documentary proof of this – which, I admit, smacks of folk-etymology.)

...what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander....[I'm not sure where that "good for the goose" in the UsingEnglish version comes from. Both BNC and COCA prefer sauce as a noun in that context {before "for the goose"}... Oh I get it. I was searching specifically for a noun . BNC prefers the noun, with only a single good; but COCA has much closer balance (indeed, an ABSOLUTE balance, in its corpus – alliteration trumps gastronomy )] Geese certainly get about. But things need doing. Further reflection on ocarinas and goslings will have to wait, sine die].


PS A clue:
  • Reportedly Spooner's porcine challenge for a sympathetic cure (3, 4, 2, 3, 3)

Friday, 14 April 2017

My old man said Follow the lobster...

... and don't Dili-Dali on the way.

'You couldn't make it up' – said the John Waite in this week's Pick of the Week, introducing  a BBC report on a self-styled Grammar Vigilante. This masked crusader roams the streets of Bristol righting the wrongs done to Milady the Blessed and Inviolate Language of Our Forefathers the Way Mrs Thistlebotham Taught It. [Mrs Thislebotham was a stickler for proper English who inhabited Dave Barry's Mr Language Person columns, one of which observed that an apostrophe just meant Here comes an S.], The Apostrophizer's special interest was the wayward apostrophe, and the arcane/arbitrary rules governing its "correct" application. I wrote a  few years ago (here) about this:
... my late twentieth-century sightings of apostropho-clasm are far from original. GBS wrote
I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli. [ed, 2017: the source I originally gave had papering for peppering, but this is obviously wrong: peppering is the perfect choice, whereas papering makes no sense at all; I suspevt the finger of blame points at Optical Character Recognition]
(Isn't that bacilli marvellous? Bacilli were in the news at the time, because of discoveries in connection with these stick-like [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive, as noted in a previous post microscopic objects. Shaw was a contemporary of Fleming [HD 2017: I have no idea why I mentioned Fleming. The reason is probably a circumstantial link now lost on the cutting-room floor.] – who was born before Shaw but outlived him. One can imagine Shaw reading a newspaper or scientific leaflet illustrated with a slide covered with these things looking like chocolate vermicelli - and there's another metaphor, 'little worms', but that would be a digression too far). You can read more about apostrophes here [ed, 2017: this source is no longer there. Here's an option], if you're that way inclined. I really can't get awfully excited about this sort of thing. [HD 2017: I'd like to include a contemporary picture {mid-late 19th cent.} but for the time being you'll have to make do with this:
A better one is TBS, but breath retention is not advised.]
The Pedant column in The Times, responding to the BBC's story, layed into the Apostrophizer in a column entitled ...
See rant here (the bit in red) if you're interested in my feelings about this wronged word.
...The Apostrophiser should Apologise. I'm not convinced the writer came up with that title; maybe a sub-editor was just attracted by the assonance
For a start, the grammar vigilante has misunderstood his own moniker. Grammar encompasses syntax ...morphology ... and phonology .... Mr Vigilante is concerned instead with orthography, the conventions for writing a language, which has nothing to do with grammar.

The distinction matters. [HD: Well yes. I thought as much when I first heard the BBC report but dismissed it as a bit of typical dumbing down; and eternal vigilance in this sort of thing strikes me as almost as anal as the malefactor.] Whenever you hear a complaint about “bad grammar” levelled at a native speaker it will almost invariably be untrue. We know how the rules of grammar go (real rules, I mean, like word order or inflection for tense) and don’t get them wrong. But the conventions of spelling and punctuation have to be learnt. Mr Vigilante believes it’s a “crime” to get these wrong. [HD: Well, again, yes. The self-styled Apostrophizer was making a rhetorical rebuff of the interviewer's question (about the legality of his efforts), without weighing his words more carefully, so ...] What nonsense [... it was indeed pretty silly. He needs a PR training course. But his use of "It's a crime" to refer to something not strictly criminal is fairly standard hyperbole and hardly merits this put-down. Sledgehammers and nuts spring to mind.].
Though agreeing with a lot of what Oliver [Pedant] Kamm writes, I fear this article was not his finest hour. He talks about the history of orthography, giving loads of detail. I sympathize with his objection to being corrected by an ignoramus who thinks English should be pickled in aspic.

Incidentally, Kamm obviously knows but has over-simplified the story:
The apostrophe didn’t enter the English language till the 16th century. It was adopted from French as a printers’ convenience to denote an elision or contracted form. From that usage, [HD: Here's the missing bit, expanded below.]  it was adopted to denote singular possession and then plural possession. But this was no logical stepwise progression. The conventions fluctuated and they didn’t settle down in their current form till around 1800, with mechanised printing.
The printers' convention was applied, in a case of a possessive usage, to a missing letter or  letters that had been part of the possessive inflexion. Chaucer's Pardoner inveighs against the casual use of oaths such as

"By Goddes precious herte," and "by his nayles"...

and the possessive ending is necessary for the metre. So those compositors weren't just inventing a convention for denoting possession, but using a trick used in other contexts (such as ñ for nn); it was just a convention for making the artisan's work easier. The apostrophe came to denote possession more-or-less by accident, by marking the elision of a possessive ending.

Anyway, I must start on the picnic bench in the gaps between rain showers and neighbours' bonfires.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Crossed wires

Not for the first time, my Tai Chi class has set me off on what might politely be called a tangent (less politely another hare-brained reflection).
<digression theme="hare-brained">
Interesting metaphor, that; presumably not unrelated to the Mad Hatter: darting about, with random changes of direction. (They're not really boxing;  something to do with mating, I think. Wikipedia would know.) 
And another thing. In Western culture we have the association of the moon with lunacy (which does what it says on the tin, as it were), but many Eastern cultures see  not a Man in the Moon  but a Rabbit in the Moon. I wonder... (For Further Study, as the used to say in the ISO world: "FFS" [meaning interesting, but don't hold your breath])
My teacher often teaches in mirror image, and refers to our bodies: 'Your right hand,' she says, demonstrating with her left. This is easy enough to understand, once you know the convention and have practised a few hundred times: the body just gets used to reproducing (or, at least, trying to reproduce) the movement demonstrated. But to a newcomer it‘s not so easy. What Wordsworth called our meddling intellect gets involved, willy-nilly.

This is reminiscent, I thought, of the Stroop Effect
...a demonstration of interference in the reaction time of a task. When the name of a color (e.g., "blue", "green", or "red") is printed in a color that is not denoted by the name (e.g., the word "red" printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color.
More here
In short, red is easier to make sense of than green. Presumably, colour is processed in a different part of the brain than writing, and the translation of writing to meaning in yet another, and the translation of writing to sound in yet another. So there's a huge amount of processing going on here, and if two  of those domains overlap (the written glyphs' meaning and their cognitive content – R-E-D) the brain has life a bit easier.

This crossing of wires, the interference of the intellect with a motor skill, is often apparent to a language teacher. Many years ago, when I was teaching Portuguese to a group of adults (people who've been taught at school the stifling and confusing and just plain WRONG lesson that the way to solve a problem is to turn the intellect loose on it) I drew this diagram to show what I wanted them to do:

There are many more steps on the left-hand route, each being error-prone. So there's a Chinese Whispers effect, which means that there's next-to-no chance of the sound output of the two routes matching.

The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to other motor skills (and speaking is unquestionably a motor skill).
<digression theme="Underhill talk">
I missed a recent talk by Adrian Underhill, in which he talked about decognitvizing the teaching of pronunciation to ESOL students. I must catch up with the transcript. Watch this space.
So a teacher has to beware of the interference of intellect. On the other hand, though, it's easy (and fashionable) to go too far in what has been called, in another context, the romanticization of ... illiteracy (that "..." represents the one word musical, which is what I meant by another context.
See this letter  to the Guardian from many leading musical lights).


Friday, 31 March 2017

the pencil-sharpenings of journalism

Last week I was reminded of my intense dislike of rolling news (although to call it news is an unmerited compliment: EVOLVING RUMOUR might be nearer the mark). During the BBC's ravings, the phrase the pencil-sharpenings of journalism occurred to me (building on the first draught of history trope.Pencil sharpenings look like a mess, but one made of discrete chunks of apparently innocuous bits; at a first glance, one doesn't notice the dark bits at the end of each shaving. But the shavings are good for nothing; they just indicate that something, involving a pencil, has happened. It's not clear from the shavings even if the effort of sharpening worked. There's no telling what the sharpened pencil, if it was sharp in the end, was used for.

At Westminster on that day, something happened. What it was is beginning to become clear. I imagine in a month or two we'll have a better idea.

This reminded me of the afternoon of 11 September 2001. I was working in an open-plan office, recovering from the Y2K jollities.
<rant flame="low-mid">
Which reminds me of all the smart a*s (=ALECS, of course) who say things like "Remember all that Millennium Bug nonsense. The IT sales people used it as an excuse to sell a load of new kit. And what happened? Nothing! Not a thing, except that we all have to fill in 4-digit dates. I mean who needs to scroll down through dozens of 21st century dates when they're opening a new bank account, say?.... Er... maybe that's not the best of examples."

Well no, you bozo, I think. Nothing happened, not a thing, because for the last two or three years of the 20th century IT engineers were busy making sure it didn't.
A colleague was following rolling news on one of his many devices (he was the early adopter's early adopter – adoptio praecox was his thing, perhaps). A report (possibly the BBC, though they're not by any means the worst ...
<digression type="mitigation">
In a recent Media Show [correction, Feedback] a  caller compared the BBC's coverage with Channel 4's. He referred to a scoop the BBC had "missed". The presenter came back with what to me – and to Humpty Dumpty, probably – seemed like a knock-down argument: the "scoop" was a mistake.

But the complainant was not remotely disturbed: the BBC's job, it seemed, was not only to jump on any passing bandwagon, however unroadworthy, but preferably to start its own: Nation shall speak cr@p unto nation.
...) and he passed on the "news" there had been several casualties and AT LEAST A DOZEN deaths.
So, as far as I'm concerned, rolling news can just keep rolling. It seems to me interesting that – among the many possible "first uses" investigated in that Slate piece – one, Phil Graham's (not the Ur-text, it turns out), came from a speech addressed to correspondents for a weekly. Let us not get our fingertips dirty with the pencil-sharpenings.

But I must go and learn some words, ready for Sunday's Johannes-Passion. (That story's more than two millennia old, and still people are arguing about what really happened!)


Update: 2017. – Correction and typo-fix

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Johannes-Passion, Take N

("Take N", because I've had the good fortune to sing it several times.)

As I have said before, more than once, when talking about music:

(This is an open goal for musicologists – my theoretical knowledge of music is minimal. Please comment if this needs another update.)
When I first discussed Bach's St John Passion here I recalled many hours standing listening to the Passion story during mass;  it was standing room only in churches around Easter  (in the One True Chorch, that is):
... on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday ([ed. there were] dramatized readings on that day, to the extent of having separate voices for the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, Peter et al., but without Bach's extraordinary music).
Later in the same post I mentioned this pelagic pun:
from Rick Marschall's biography, p. 99 
[I imagine the English word 'beck' – now for the most part reserved for dialects and crossword puzzles–is related.]
Beethoven's pun ...

I am reminded of a venial sin of mine, which I feel the need to confess. At a quiz held by my choir a few years ago, this pun was background to a question about the meaning of Bach. At the time, I didn't know; but I guessed that there might be some link between the consonants in the two languages (German and English). I scrawled my guess: book. My reputation as someone who sometimes knows stuff about language may have influenced the marker on the neighbouring table  – assuming that I'd got it right because it was the sort of thing I get right,

The situation was quite competitive, and I accepted the ill-gotten point. (Stupid really. We didn't win – divine retribution, no doubt.)

...came to mind as I listened to the recit before Peter's Ach, mein Sinn, with its excruciating chromatic keening – a mixture of grief, fear, and self-pity. Not long afterwards the dramatic writing is no less oceanic when the veil of the Temple is rent 'from top to bottom' [cascade of  little black notes] and 'the earth did quake' [another three bars of frenetic black notes], until an uneasy peace is restored when 'many bodies of saints arose'. 
(Ed: My memory here was at fault. Ach mein Sinn isn't sung by Peter; it's a reflection sung by an unnamed tenor after Peter's denial.)

Anyway, the St John Passion is uppermost in my mind at the moment, because of my choir's forthcoming concert (oo-er, on Sunday week):


Don't miss it.

Update 2017. – Added PS


In my subject line, both here and on the occasion of my Cambridge rendition , I said Johannes-Passion. This isn't because of snobbery (though elitism does come into it – so bite me, as I believe they say in some parts of the world). It's because the German is part of the music.

There are, in the piece, two choruses with more-or-less identical settings. But what is matched is not just the notes. In one the mocking words are

Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüden König!

In the other, the corresponding words are

Schreibe nicht der Jüden König!

The last two words are (trivially, of course) a perfect match, but consider the vowel sounds in the first three syllables: two are identical (Sei/schrei-, ge-/-be) and the third is similar: nicht has a front vowel and grüßet has a vowel that, though not strictly a front vowel, is fronted (the lips are forward); the same applies to König. All the stressed vowels are either front, or fronted,  or in the case of the first diphthong the tongue position is moving forwards (from [a] to [ɪ])

The first version, which I sang (in  English) with a previous choir about 30 years ago, had "Write thou not..." for Schreibe nicht... The first syllable is a close match; not so the others. My present edition has both German and English and goes for a strangled and outlandish version: "Write Him not as our king of the Jews"; how glad I am that we're not singing that... :-)

There's more to be said, but tempus is fugendum (or whatever). My point is that the original language adds to the drama of the original, forcing facial antics in the singers to indicate mockery/anger/hatred... as appropriate. And the sounds are part of the musical picture.

Update 2017. – Tiny correction to PS, in bold.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Here we go steadily nuts in May

...Or perhaps it was April.

Last Saturday's Times announced a revival of the National Theatre‘s original(-ish production of Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. At least, I assume it's a revival; the 50th anniversary can't have escaped the notice of the publicity department. I say -ish because the first production of the play under this title took place on the Edinburgh Fringe in the Summer of 1966

The following Spring the play  opened at the Old Vic (because at the time there was no bricks and mortar [or rather slabs and mastic, I suppose] home for the National Theatre). For a few weeks before the opening, the doors were open for Press Previews, at reduced prices – reduced enough for a school trip.

The school minibus accommodated about fifteen passengers. Priority bookings went to the VIth form, and any seats left were offered to the years below. At the time I was in the fourth year (which, in new money, is Year 10), so it was a rare treat for the likes of us to be given the chance. But in the March or early April of 1967 I had such a chance. Some of us were self-assured enough to be amused by the bar-room talk at the interval, with pseuds ....
<explanatory_note type="suspected neologism">
(some of us read Private Eye, home of the Pseuds Corner column).

Until writing this I assumed that the Eye had created the word. But it  turns out that it has been around since the turn of the 18th century, peaking in 1930. Then there was a lesser peak in 1953, 8 years before Private Eye was founded. The second of these mini-peaks, which the Eye might claim some credit for, was in 1967 – the year of my visit. So the word was popular at the time;  just not as popular as I once supposed (or for the reasons I imagined):
Frequency graph from this Collins site
(though the graph is generated from scratch when your browser loads the page,
so you may want to have a cup of tea while you wait)

... who, having no reviews to bone up on, didn't know what to think). Some of us, though. were too shocked at the prices (4/6 for a bottle of Double Diamond! [bought for us by the older boys while Mr Crawford's back was turned]).

Another visit, one that I didn't go on, was to see The Royal Hunt of the Sun – also at the Old Vic. But I did witness its fruits, as it became the school play (once in my time, but with many revivals since*).

When, a few years later, I started to learn Spanish, I smugly laughed at the pronunciation of Pizarro with a [ts]. Though on reflection my school play's pronunciation no doubt mimicked that of the National Theatre; and they, very probably, had a dialogue coach who had done their homework.

In my loft there may well be a moldering copy of  "The De-voicing of Mediaeval Sibilants", mentioned in a similarly Latin-American context here. A written z, which had in Old Castilian been pronounced [dz], came to be pronounced [ts]. I don't know how long this process took, or when the subsequent progression to [Ѳ] heard in some parts of mainland Spain (and on the lips of learners – of whom, at the time of the aforementioned smugness, I was one) started. But with my usual magnanimity I'm prepared to give that National Theatre dialogue coach the benefit of the doubt; besides, as Pizarro's men were adventurers, it's reasonable to imagine that they were early-adopters of the linguistic trend.

Thassall – I must try to catch the last of this glorious weather.


* Many years later, a contemporary of mine (and the other half – though much the more vocal half – of The Simon and Garfunkel of North Pinner), who had taken the leading part of Pizarro in 1969, visited the old school unexpectedly and unannounced. One of the directors of the play was still there. And when Albert interrupted his class he said to the boys "This is the original Pizarro".

This is a sample of the duo's work – not precisely contemporary, but from  1969.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Out of the mouths of babes and ducklings

Some time ago, here,  I wrote this:
To learn to speak a foreign language, we must regress to our infancy and learn to make speech noises the way a baby does. Even infancy is a bit late*; there is evidence that growing familiarity with speech sound starts in the womb. Here is just one such study).

* To quote from a recent article:

"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation," said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany.
I've just come across a much more recent source via this NY Times article .  The immediately relevant issue (language-acquisition in the womb) is summed up here:
In the latest study, published in January in Royal Society Open Science, Jiyoun Choi, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands... and her colleagues looked at Dutch-speaking adults, some of whom had been adopted from Korea, but none of whom spoke Korean. The researchers found that people born in Korea and adopted as babies or toddlers by Dutch families were able to learn to make Korean sounds significantly better than the Dutch-speaking controls who had been born into Dutch families.

It was especially interesting that this effect held not only for those who had been adopted after the age of 17 months, when they would have been saying some words, but also for those adopted at under 6 months. In other words, the language heard before birth and in the first months of life had affected both sound perception and sound production, even though the change of language environment happened before the children started making those sounds themselves.

This is impressive, though I‘m not sure the NY Times‘s last sentence (in that excerpt) is entirely justified: "under 6  months" is not the same as "before birth"; and how could they possibly test anything to do with sound production...? (That's a rather immature question: I need to read the original paper – although the title

Early development of abstract language knowledge...

doesn't inspire confidence. The continuation does though:

...: evidence from perception–production transfer of birth-language memory

... is more  promising though.)
During last Saturday's Purcell concert – which, sadly, many of you missed – I was struck by two pre-echoes of our next (perhaps the little MD knows something about it, as  veterans of the original Bill and Ben series might think
<digression type="cultural background">
Bill and Ben were flower-pot-men (don't ask – it was a children's TV programme in the days when [in the UK] the BBC's Watch with Mother was more-or-less the only source of children's TV) . They caused various sorts of mild mayhem; and the narrator often finished with the words "... and I think the Little House knows something about it").
         Where was I...? Oh yes, pre-echoes:
  • The trumpets in the canzona in the overture to Come ye sons of art play a phrase remarkably similar to this tune from a very different context (J. S. Bach's St John Passion):
  • The words "Haste, haste to town" in Dido and Aeneas, which are similar in both sense and melody to this passage::
Enough. Onward and upward: next on the agenda (perhaps that should be canenda –  from Latin cano [="I sing"]) needs work:

PS Quite incidentally (not a COincidence, it just happened), I wonder if Evan Davies in last week's The Bottom Line knew what he was doing when he produced this glorious mixed metaphor:

Is the white van your bète noire?


Update: 2017. – Added PPS

PPS And here‘s a clue:
  • Switch prison guard‘s allegiance and increase metaphorical pressure. (4, 3, 5)
Update: 2017. – Added PPPS

PPS: On the subject of my last point, I wonder how a white-van man might become an eminence grise. Oh, and that clue: TURN THE SCREW.

Incidentally, for the benefit of anyone expecting sense from my subject lines, ... no, it's gone. There was a reason though.