Sunday, 30 December 2012

Ice and a slice

'A slice of what? - of lemon, of course if you're a 20th or 21st century barkeeper in an English-speaking country. Not so in the Greek-speaking enclave on the Mediterranean coast of Gallia Transalpina, or the South of France as we say nowadays. There it would have been a τόμος (cf our 'atom' - 'that which can't be sliced') and it would have been a slice of cheese - OK, the 'ice' was a bit of a red herring, but you get the point: foods (and other things, but food is what I'm thinking about at the moment - food tends to weigh heavily on the mind [not to say the stomach] in certain households at this time of year) can get named after the shape they come in. And the French tomme is a case in point.

The shape they come in, hmm. It seems that cheese (not a staple of the early Roman diet) was imported from Germanic 'barbarians'; hence Eng. 'cheese', German käse ... etc on the Germanic side of the tree, but also Sp. queso, Portuguese queijo ... etc on the Romance side. But that last 'etc' doesn't include all the mainstream Romance languages. The Catalan is formatge, the Italian is formaggio, and the French is fromage (courtesy of that 'metathesis' that I've mentioned elsewhere). Where did they come from? (You might like to refer back to my first paragraph and think awhile. The key word is 'shape'....)

...Time's up. The Latin for 'shape' was forma, and - eschewing the punning bellum, with its irregular plural when it was the noun meaning 'war' (well not the irregular sort of irregular, just a plural that didn't end in -i or -ae or -es - the sort of thing that makes a foreign language easier to acquire) - the Vulgar Latin word to describe a form that we might describe as 'shapely' was FORMOSU(M). (I'm using the Vulgar Latin convention of giving what a classicist would  call 'the accusative case marker' in parentheses, as the nominative rarely had much influence on the Romance languages.) Bellum was not displaced throughout the Romance-speaking world, There are still beau (sometimes bel) and belle in French (and their many derivatives in English, 'beau', 'belle', 'beautiful' ... etc.), bell -a in Catalan, and bello -a in Italian. But in Portuguese there is formoso -a and in Spanish hermoso -a. (And that f/h thing, incidentally, is at the root of Ferdinand and Isabella's royal emblem - the fennel plant: Aragonese had a word starting with f and Castilian had an h for the initial letter of the word for 'fennel'. But that's a whole nother kettle of red herring.)  Provençal has a foot in both camps, with both bel and formós.

Cheese 'made in a mould' was CASEU(M) FORMATICU(M), and the shape became the noun in some parts of the Romance-speaking world - so fromage was interspersed with tomme.

More generally it could be said that things come to be known either by their shape or by an adjective that describes them - so one might go to 'the Orthopaedic' to have a cast taken off, punters bet every year on 'the National', cinemagoers go to the nearest 'multiscreen' and have a drink after the show at 'the local'. After your cheese you might have some fruit - and I'm not going to get into an argument about the order of courses at  a Roman feast: that 'after' was a literary device, dammit. The new-fangled import that was de rigueur in all the best Roman fruit bowls was an exotic fruit shaped a bit like an apple - imported from Persia. And it was the adjective (PERSICA) not the apples (MALA) that gave many Romance languages their name for this fruit. It's quite heavily disguised by the vagaries of French phonology in the word pêche, but it's more clearly visible in the Catalan préssec (there's that metathesis again) and in the Portuguese pêssego; the Italian pesca, similarly,  is fossilized evidence of the disappearance of the r, warned against in an early word-list:
W D Elcock, in The Romance Languages, says of this list:
We...incline towards the idea that the list was compiled by a [ed. third-century] schoolmaster, much as a teacher of English today might draw up a list of common errors in spelling culled from the exercises of his pupils; but in a Roman class-room, just as they would nowadays, many such errors had their origin in current pronunciation.
 That's from p. 29 of the first edition (as given in the link). At the time, the 'Roman' view was rather leading-edge. Previous scholars had favoured Carthage. And in the new edition (1992, I think 1975*, in fact) the Rome versus Carthage debate may have been settled. Next time I'm passing a decent library I'll check. (Maybe - I'm considering a New Year's resolution about not saying things like that.)

But in Spain they avoided the pessica/persica problem - having flirted with the Castilian prisco - and stuck with the MALA root, or possibly the Greek μήλον, with another word appended to describe the texture of the skin: melocotón, 'a cottony sort of fruit'.

Right. I must go and think about that resolution....

Update: 2013.01.31 *Went to a university library, and checked the details. Sadly, the book was out on loan.
Update 2013.07.15: 'Tempus', as my old maths master used to say as we neared the end of another lesson, 'has fugitted'. See below for the latest.
Update 2013.07.25: ‡Catalan should be in the 'foot in both camps' camp.  See the first comment.

Update: 2015.01.18.12:40 – Further thought on queso/queijo, in blue.

PS Looking again at this piece  – in the aftermath of a conversation I had yesterday with a Flemish-speaker about the derivation of the word flamenco [watch this blog... I hope... soon...] –  it's occurred to me to wonder why, among all these FORMATICUS-based Romance examples, it's only Spanish and Portuguese (and maybe some other Iberian dialects) that use the CASEUS bit†. It seems to me possible that this may have something to do with Spain's imperial links with the Netherlands (and nearby parts, which use the Flemish kas [Flemish transcriptions dodgy – for lack of Google Translate support].

Bonggg. So much for my thought.
Here's an extract from Meyer-Lübke's Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch:
I don't know what all those abbreviations mean (specifically tergest. and vegl.) But the others offer several counter-examples: Romanian, Italian, and Logudorese (spoken in part of Sardinia)
Update: 2018.03.23.18:10 – Deleted old footer.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A capella

I was singing a capella last night in a church - the best place for such singing, next to a chapel (capella, geddit?), and we sang, among other things, a piece that underlines that derivation. It was Rachmaninov's Vespers - our selection including that movement that Rachmaninov required to be sung at his own funeral, Bogoroditse Devo (a diacritic or two would improve that immensely, but The List  of Christmas preparations won't allow the research needed). The Orthodox Church still maintains the proscription of any but vocal music in church, so that music meant to be sung 'as though it were for or in a chapel' (a capella) does not have an instrumental accompaniment - a far cry from the godlessness of Paul Simon's 'Late in the Evening' - on the One Trick Pony album:
Down along the avenue some guys are shootin' pool
And I heard the sound of acapella groups, yeah
In my preparation for the concert I was juggling my Post-It bookmarks, so that old favourites not on the programme would not make their presence in the book felt (and with that 'book' I'm reminded of yet another metaphor., the Greek biblos, that Book which
If I don't read, my soul be lost
Ain't nobody's fault but mine
but that's another story) 

And I moved out of sight the marker for Personent Hodie. At one time I thought, mistakenly (but quite creatively), that  the voces puerulae were 'putting in a personal appearance'; I felt it was a bit of a stretch to make a voice put in an appearance, but hey.... The story of personent is far less of a stretch than that. The OED  traces it directly to the Latin persona - a mask such as those worn in Roman theatres, and possibly incorporating (or at least constituting) some means of amplifying the voice - making it ring out - per sonare. But some scholars, Klein for one - author of A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language - point out that the length of the 'o' in persona is at odds with this supposed derivation; their espoused root is the Etruscan phersu, 'mask'. Klein traces it ultimately to Greek, with a possible connection to 'Persephone'.

So it seems that the idea of  a 'mask-cum-amplifier' is an attractive coincidence, a bit like most English-speakers' assumption that an 'ear' of wheat is a metaphor for something that is 'ear-shaped' - whereas it is derived from a quite different root from the listening appendage, with which it was brought together accidentally by the movement commonly known as the Great Vowel Shift. But the fact remains that what the voces puerulae are being exhorted to do is to 'sound out'.

Let them!

Merry  tale from the word-face:

As a result of a hasty cut&paste in the Search field of the dictionary software on my laptop, I searched the other day  for the string "yeastyweatherbeaten" (yes, I'm reaching the end of the -EA- words).
It thought for a little while, but not wanting to admit defeat it finally asked 'Do you mean weatherboard, weatherboards, masturbating?' The search algorithm clearly keeps some dark secrets.

Update: 2013.10.02.16:15
HeadFooter updated:
Update: 2014.
Footer updated again , in response to a coincidental surge (more of a surg-ette) of visits in the last day. The coincidence is that I was singing the same two a capella pieces (and several more excerpts from Rachmaninoff's All Night Vespers) last Saturday, with two incomparable soloists. The hundred or so extra people who would have fitted in All Saints' Wokingham missed a treat!

Update: 2014. – Added this note:
<autobiographical_note date_range="mid-sixties">
One of the more critical entries in the Rachmaninoff piece reminded me of the first line of the Song of the Volga Boatmen. It wasn't exactly the same, but it reinforced the idea of a suitable Slavonic butchness.

My brother and I used to collect series of numbers: trains, planes, buses ... all enjoyed spasms of enthusiasm. The book of bus numbers (published by Ian Allan, as were all such books it seemed) included a few 'service vehicles' – seldom seen things like breakdown vans or fuel tankers. On a long car trip we saw one, and – having no pencil and paper – remembered the registration number by singing it to the tune of the Song of the Volga Boatmen. I don't think I'll ever forget that  number: JXC 1.

Update: 2016. – Removed  old footer.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Go placidly...

Here is the promised -MENTE post; in my last I mentioned the link between Latin ACUTE and Spanish agudamente, and the excitement was too much for me - like the Wife of Bath I had to tell someone. You are my reeds.

 A few months ago, a student asked, in's Ask a Teacher forum, our views of the question 'How do you think of the plan?'

Someone posted a simple answer, with which I agreed. But I couldn't resist the temptation to imagine a cock-eyed context that would justify the question in ... er ... question.
In that question, 'How' means 'In what way?'. The answer to 'How do you think of the plan' would be 'Constantly', 'optimistically' - any possible adverb (often one that refers to a state of mind*)
And (as one does, when one is in two minds [or three or ...] about how much information to give to a student) I added a PS:
PS This probably doesn't apply to Korean, so you can ignore it keannu. But some readers may be interested to know that in the Romance languages this (the mind) is what, historically, was the basis of the standard mechanism for forming adverbs: initially, it worked only with adjectives that referred to mental states - placida mente is Latin for 'with a placid mind'. But more recently, in French, Spanish, Italian and so on, adding -ment[e] turns any adjective into an adverb.
The source of this tit-bit was Elcock's The Romance Languages:
In  the formal development of the adverb the most notable innovation of western Vulgar  Latin was the creation of the periphrasis formed from the ablative MENTE (ed: 'with a mind')  preceded by an adjective that agreed with its feminine gender.
1st edn, p 145.
In my UsingEnglish post, I had not mentioned that 'western' restriction - not because I edited it  out but because it either slipped my mind, or - more likely - never entered it. A mistake that is easily slipped into is to say 'in Vulgar Latin....', because the examples that spring most readily to mind are from the west - French, Provençal, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian ... and a myriad regional dialects (I know one word of Gascon). But anything eastern is easily ignored, even though the very word 'Romance' is derived from a way of forming an adverb ('the way the Romans speak') that doesn't use this MENTE periphrasis.

Anyway, in the Reichenau Glossary, a document of which the earliest copy dates from the early eighth century - already mentioned in another post - SINGULARITER is glossed as solamente.

Elcock goes on
The congealing of the periphrasis in such a way that -mente became an adverbial suffix indicating manner probably took place very gradually.
The Romance Languages, 1st edn,  p. 145
In fact, the congealing is still underway - or has reached a half-way house that speakers are happy to accomodate in a grammatical rule. In modern Spanish, and Portuguese, when two adverbs appear together the first one has no -mente ending but a femininine adjectival ending: clara y distintamente - 'clearly and distinctly', or (if you prefer to read an adjective into the first bit of the last word) 'in a clear and distinct way'.

OK, that 'one word' of Gascon before I get on with my day, Chaucer, as with the Wife of Bath's reed, is my springboard:
Lordynges, quod he, in chirches whannes I preche
I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche.
I forget the details - and indeed the spelling - of the Pardoner's description of this act , but one thing I do remember is his face: 'thanne bekke I forth'*. He is strutting about like a cockerel. And the Gascon word for 'cockerel' - bigey - is based on the basis of a metaphor: 'vicar'.

Guy Deutscher's 'reef of dead metaphors' again .


Update, 12.12.17:14.00 * Ha - so much for the italicized do. My four-word memory (Pardoner's Tale quotes Best Before June 1968) was an extreme conflation of three lines:
Thanne peyne I me to strecche forth the nekke
And est and west upon the pepl I bekke
As dooth a dowve...
It was that 'bird' image (with the echo of bekke and 'beak') that made my memory do some furtive editing, and it is this that made me think of the Pardoner and the Gascon for 'cockerel' in one thought.

Update: 2016.05.12.18:05 – trivial typo fix, leaving the unfortunate hyphens (where I should have used "–" for when I'm not about to leave for a rehearsal. But I did delete the superseded  footer.)

Update: 2016.08.25.14:10 – less trivial correction in penultimate para.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Letters playing leapfrog

... or 'metathesis' as we say in the business - it's what relates 'wrought' ('strong' past form of) to 'work' (displaced in more recent English by the regular  past form 'worked'), and is why Chaucer called birds bridde and a widow a widwe. On the radio this morning (or yesterday morning, by the time I publish - and OK, it was Woman's Hour) Nigella Lawson pronounced 'mascarpone' à la Delia Smith - /ma:skǝpǝʊni:/. And this pronunciation accounts for all the 'mask a pony' jokes - if you haven't heard any yet, you can easily add to the corpus (delicti?).

Now I'm not a stickler for pretentiously 'correct' pronunciation of foreign words. But even with purely British English phonemes the word would be /mæska:pǝʊni:/. So I'd expect Nigella Lawson, who studied for a year in Italy (many years ago - but she has recently given live TV/radio interviews in Italian to at least ('when I split an infinitive it stays goddam split') use an English pronunciation that respects the Italian spelling. 'Jumping Jesophohat', I thought, 'so Delia Smith's not the only one, she just happened to be the first I heard - maybe this is metathesis.'

In a not-so-recent discussion in the UsingEnglish forums. We were discussing the expression the dog's b@llocks. I suggested:
I've heard from a fairly reliable source (Stephen Fry I think) a derivation for 'dog's bollocks' that is not mentioned on that Phrase Finder page. Some commodity (it may have been the toy construction set, 'Meccano') was listed in a catalogue as '<whatever> - Box (standard)/ Box (deluxe)'. From this we get two idioms; "bog standard" and "dog's bollocks".
Two for the price of one - neat! I'm not sure I believe, but I'm impressed.
This was questioned: one contributor said the idea involved 'a linguistic jump', and I replied:
'Linguistic jump'? Speaking as a student of philology, I can say that it's hardly a jump at all. Consider the French guirlande and the Spanish grinalda. We can ignore the u, as it just keeps the g hard.

So we've got French

G + I + R + L + A + N + D + <unstressed final vowel>
versus Spanish

G + R + I + N + A + L + D + <unstressed final vowel>

The beginning and the end are the same, but four of the middle five phonemes are in different positions, and the only 'stable' one changes in quality (it's nasalized [in French, because the consonant that follows it has changed - clarification for blog]). In language development, phonemes jump about.
I first noticed this, before I embarked on this field of navel-gazing, in a sea shanty, Bring 'em down:
Up the coast to Vallipo,
Northward to Cally-o
Them Vallipo girls I do admire,
They set your riggin' all afire!
Them Vallipo girls puts on a show ...
I shall draw a veil (sail more like) over the details of the show.
e g of CANOE - the 'Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything').

In a sea battle, the part of a ship where you could do most damage to an enemy ship was the poop (Spanish  popa) - the seat of 'intelligence'. A ship whose poop you had blown off could be said to be con ninguna popa - 'with no poop' - directionless, not unlike a dumb barge. Just give that phrase to the sailors who used 'Vallipo' for Valparaíso, and Bob's your hare-brained philologist.

However this is unproven, and - I think - unlikely. The n separated from p by an unstressed vowel could easily assimilate to the p, giving -mp- (because p is bilabial and so's m: there are about 400 English headwords* that  include the consonant  cluster /mp/ and few  - fewer than 100, more than half of which are 'un-' + <initial-p>' - that include /np/. [That volume of my dictionary - consonants - is a long way off but consonant clusters starting with a sonorant will be fairly high up the priority list.] Also, a few of the ones that have the spelling '-mp- don't have the phoneme 'p' - for example 'emphasis', 'emphysema'..., which have /mf/. And if an accident of word-building throws up such a cluster [as in 'unpleasant'] in informal speech the assimilation takes place, giving that word the same first syllable as 'umpire'; similarly a phrase like 'in present company' often starts with an /ɪmp/.) If anything, the derivation is suspect because there is too little change in the sounds. And g>c - that is, /g/ to /k/, is a change in the wrong direction.†

But I'll leave anyone who's that interested to do some research - starting from that Wikipedia link to Lenition  and pursuing this line of thinking to a more reliable source. In short, as in Latin acute ('sharply') being at the root of Spanish agudamente, a /k/ 'should' become a /g/ (and a /t/ a /d/ etc etc...), not vice versa - as for the -mente suffix, that would be a meta-digression. When I've got some reasonable progress on the book under my belt,'s extraordinarily interesting and well worth waiting for.  This digression (which doesn't involve metathesis) has already gone on far too long. As has this post - Christmas tree to light.


Update:1212.13:17.15 A few tweaks to the 'nincompoop' digression.)

Update: 2013.10.02.16:20
Footer updated.

Update: 2013.10.27.19:25
Added PS: 
.... in my dictionary of choice (but only because it is installed and lets me do useful wildcard searches): the Macmillan English Dictionary.

Update: 2014.04.22.15:05
Added PPS: Metathesis crops ups all over the place: I've been thinking recently about the derivation of Simnel Cake. Here's what Etymonline says:
"sweet cake," c.1200, from Old French simenel "fine wheat flour; flat bread cake, Lenten cake," probably by dissimilation from Vulgar Latin *siminellus (also source of Old High German semala "the finest wheat flour," German Semmel "a roll"), a diminutive of Latin simila "fine flour" (see semolina).
Just thought I'd mention it...

Update: 2014.09.29.14:15
Here's that -MENTE digression...

Update: 2014.10.02.14:25 – Added this PPPS
†PPPS I've come across what looks, on the face of it, like a counter-example (to the tendency of a /k/ to evolve into a /g/, rather than vice versa). When she was about a sixth of her present age (though she's never allowed to forget it –  aren't families wonderful?)  my daughter used to call spaghetti /pəsketi:/ (another case of metathesis, as it happens). The /g/ has become a /k/ though, not by a magical reversal of that lenition I linked to before but by another linguistic process – assimilation: briefly the voicing of the /g/ assimilates to the voicelessness of its new neighbour, /s/, and so becomes /k/.

Update: 2015.08.10.15:45 – Added this P⁴S

P⁴S A common source of metathesis in everyday speech is in the bastardization of borrowed words. People who should know better (#GBBO passim) often call crème pâtissière 'crème pâtisserie' , and you  don't have to listen to Classic FM too long to hear Cavallería Rusticana called /kævǝ'li:ri:ǝ.../. In both these cases, and often elsewhere, liquidity of phoneme-position (appropriately as /r/ is a liquid in the argot of phonologists) tends to favour phonemes near /r/.

Update: 2018.06.08.11:25 – Added this P5S

† This imaginary body is mooted in the penultimate paragraph of that piece on the derivation of brass monkies.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The dawning of crepuscular understanding

A while ago., a work-mate (and I haven't had one of them since 2003, so it was quite a long while ago) asked me 'Where does the word "crepuscular" come from?' I thought a while before admitting I had no idea, so we both went to an on-line source (probably Webster's which has the tempting words 'Origin: see crepuscule' - the  entry for which says only that it came from the Latin creper, meaning 'dark'). I didn't know that key word, so thought I had no idea. But if I'd thought in less of a defeatist way, I could have worked back to creper and even maybe (more likely in my philological pomp...) guessed what it must mean.

Let's start with the ending '-ar'. Anyone with a reasonable command of English knows that this ending is the common marker of an adjective, derived usually from a Latin-based word. So circle => circular but not round => roundar, column => columnar but not prop => propar... The less Latinate words often (not always - 'round' doesn't, for example) take the suffix '-like' instead:   prop-like....  But '-like' is a very catholic device, and can be suffixed to almost any noun, as in column-like.

Next, '-ul-' . Latin had the diminutive suffix -ulus/a, which we still see in quite a few words we use in English: 'cumulus', 'homunculus', 'tumulus' [that's one for the map-readers in the audience - 'a little swelling' - think of the word 'tumor'], 'Ursula' (which means 'little bear' - don't mess with an ursa protecting her ursulam!), 'formula'... We can also see it in a word like 'regular' (regula 'little stick', cf our 'yardstick'). Another adjective - one of my favourite derivations and demonstrating again Guy Deutcher's 'reef of dead metaphors' idea (mentioned in another post) - is 'muscular', from mus ('mouse')/musculus ('little mouse'), which is the way muscles looked to Early Romans - at least the ones who didn't get within gawping distance of auspice-reading: a little metaphorical mouse scampering about under a carpet.

Finally, '-sc-'. This leads us to the concept of the infix. Most English speakers know about suffixes and prefixes; so even if you haven't met the word until now you can probably guess what an infix does. David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language cites, in English, only - not entirely relevantly, I think (as what is introduced is a complete word rather than a syntactical nut or bolt) - the possibility of introducing an emphatic word into another word - tmesis. He gives the rather strait-laced example 'abso-blooming-lutely' (at least, he did in the first edition; he might have changed it by now to my favourite: 'un-f*cking-believable').

In Vulgar Latin there was -ESC/ISC- , known as an 'inchoative infix' (although more influential as a basis for the formation of Romance language verbs [Fr.  finissons/finissez/finissent/etc from  finir, etc - where there is no sense of 'inchoateness', and the infix just introduces this 'regular irregularity' to French -ir verbs; in Spanish and Portuguese they didn't use it as an infix at all, and used -ESCERE as a rather long suffix. to create verbs such as aparecer - 'appear' - presumably distantly related to Latin aperire - 'to open' (as in French, careful readers will notice that it happens only to -IRE verbs). In fact Elcock, in The Romance Languages says 'of all the innovations in the active verb of Vulgar Latin, perhaps the most noteworthy is the extension of the -ESC/ISC infix'. But  I digress: 'Life is one damn thing after another'? - one digression  after another, more like.

In many word-pairs, though, it can be seen as a truly inchoative infix: 'adult/adolescent', 'pubic/pubescent', 'native/nascent'.... other -sc- words have only one half of a potential pair: the image of a crescent moon is growing, but if the moon's full it's not crent. And if a fluorescent light comes on the moment you flick the light-chance'dBeAFineThing-switch (hmm, there are limits to this tmesis thing), instead of flickering for a few seconds, it's not fluorent.

Returning to 'crepuscular'.... Knowing as much I've said so far, but not what creper means (in fact that Webster's link points to 'crepuscule' for a derivation, which goes straight to Fr crépuscule - but I have a feeling that when I first looked at it, about 10 years ago, it mentioned creper) we can work out that it means 'getting (inchoative infix) a little bit (diminutive suffix) <something>-er'. It doesn't take  too wild a guess, knowing what 'crepuscular' means, to conclude that the <something> must be 'dark'. My failure to guess at 'dark' all those years ago rankles to this day. I coulda been a contender.


Update: 2014.10.21.17:10
And while we're on the subject of early evening, a man on Radio 3 the other day said Gershwin had written a piece after 'finding himself being serenaded at 4.00 in the morning by a band of street musicians in Havana' [or somewhere like that] Shouldn't that have been aubaded, or has the word not been invented yet? Well it has now. 

Update: 2018.04.22.18:00 – Deleted old footer.

Monday, 10 December 2012

'Dream a little dream of Wayne'

Platanaceae Platanus occidentalis
American Plane

Well, it rhymes with 'Birds singin' in th' American Plane', and one of the first recordings of 'Dream a Little Dream of Me' was by Wayne King and his orchestra, who was beaten by 2 days in 1931; the first was by  Ozzie Nelson on 16 February. Since  then there have been about 60 other recordings, and I imagine hundreds of live covers.

But the 'birds singin' in the sycamore tree' were nowhere near the sort of tree that we know in British English as a 'sycamore' - acer pseudoplatanus. The American Sycamore, sometimes called 'American Plane' - platanus occidentalis - though also known as the 'American Sycamore' is a closer relation of the London Plane - platanus acerifolia. 'American Plane' is eleven times more common in COCA than 'American Sycamore', though 'Sycamore tree' wins over 'Plane tree' by a ratio of about 5/2 (69/27, to be precise). Interesting numbers - but I don't know what they indicate (if anything).

This post was going to be about misnomers, of which the lexicon is full. The only one I've written about so far - apart from the above - is the cor anglais -  in which anglais may  be a long-entrenched typo for anglé [a reference to its bent crook]. This may itself be a folk etymology; it depends on a mistaken equation of [e]  and [ɛ] - which, though true, isn't a strong counter-argument: mispronunciations are a common feature of etymological relations, and this one is not unlikely  - especially in the mouth of a speaker of a language that has no phonemic distinction of this sort.

This instrument is known in American English as the 'English Horn', although I know of nothing particularly English about it - except perhaps that it may be associated by some with music by English composers. And its name may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: perhaps a composer, wanting to sound English, might use an 'English Horn'. But the two most notable pieces that come to mind are not English at all: it is the solo instrument featured in the slow movements of the New World Symphony ('Hovis') and the Concierto de Aranjuéz ' ('Orange juice').

But I'm rushing to press with an update on When Vowels Get Together - progress that I'm afraid is glacial. I'm coming to the end - as I fear I've said more than once - of the -EA- section. This is a very rich combination of vowels. Whereas in all the combinations starting with a, the average number of possible pronunciations is 7.6 - ranging from 2 to 11 - the number of possible pronunciations of -EA- is 22. That's very nearly three times the average for -A*-, and twice as many as the highest (-AE-) so far published.

I'm just reaching the stage where I put in the external links. Now, I know that for some users this is of no importance. On a bog-standard Kindle, for example, the links presumably don't go anywhere. (When I open the .mobi file in my simulator what I see looks like a Kindle, but when I click on an external link the simulator fires up my browser and displays whatever it is there.) But on some other platforms the device may do something useful, which some users might value.

So I've set up a new Twitter handle - @WVGTbook. If you're interested in the progress of the book, please follow this account, which will return the compliment. Then you can DM me about your needs. If you're happy to brave the full glare of publicity, just use the tag #WVGTbook. In particular, at the moment, I want to know whether you need the external links.

Update Removed reference - no longer true - to the @WVGTbook icon.Update 
 Updated TESconnect stats. EA is long gone. I'm about to release V3.0 (AA-AU, EA-EU, and IA-IU).
Update: 2013.10.02.16:20
HeadFooter updated

Update: 2015.06.13.12:30 – 

Added picture

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
Nearly 49,100 views  and  8,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,700 views and nearly 1,100 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A horse of a different colour

Today's title was provided by 'amigos4', a long-term participant in the UsingEnglish forums. We were discussing hair colour, and the reference set me off on another reverie about where words come from (which I didn't indulge there, for fear of 'scaring the horses').

Horses? In David Crystal's The Stories of English he discusses (on p.  58) the word 'blank'.
In Old High German there is a form blanc, which means 'white, shining'. In Old English, blanca turns up meaning a horse, presumably white or grey in colour. In Beowulf (l. 856) we read of beornas on blancum  'warriors on steeds'. It is easy to deduce what happened. Roman soldiers or merchants in Europe encountered the word used by the Germanic peoples and borrowed it.
Those Roman soldiers or merchants spoke Vulgar Latin, and so many other languages descended  from Latin have similar words. ('Romance languages' is the accepted term, which I have been hesitant about using since an encounter I had with a young lady's father - whom I proudly told I was studying Romance Philology. He was not impressed: 'Romantic philosophy won't put bread on the table.') Anyway, apart from French blanc, there is  Catalan blanc, Italian bianco, Portuguese branco, Spanish blanco ...

But if blanc had Germanic origins, and was indirectly borrowed into French in a reference to horses, the story does not stop there. French returned the favour, sending the word to English in a rather different guise.

In English, there are several differences between /b/ and /p/ (which are articulated in the same place - using both lips [bilabially, to use the $10 word].) The most obvious one is voicing, the feature that distinguishes g from k, z from s, and so on). But there is another feature in our pronunciation of /b/. The onset is preceded by a little puff of air, confusingly known as 'aspiration'. The /p/ and /b/ in French don't; it's little things like this that make it difficult for us to speak French with a convincing accent - we often wrongly assume that their b is the same as our b.
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).
(The following explanation comes from a half-remembered 1972 lecture - given, perhaps by John Trim, perhaps by Joe Cremona [see others of my posts, the first one being this].) First World War Tommies, hearing the word blanc (used to refer to a drink of wine - which, in that part of France, was typically white), heard no aspiration after the b and heard p. When they returned home it was just 'wine', which - in 'San Ferry Ann' pronunciation - was 'plonk'. They showed little respect for its precise colour meaning, in a way strangely reminiscent of those Roman soldiers' or merchants' disregard for the original equine application - the Germanic blanc referring to 'a white or grey horse'.

The history of languages is full of such tangles, where etymological paths criss-cross, with echos and pre-echoes of common themes.

Ho hum. So many words, so little time...


PS * To quote from an article based on that study:
"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.
 From the Science Daily article mentioned in my main text.

Update: 2018.04.06.12:30 – Deleted old footer. I've left the original "-"s in my text, where there should have been "–"s (as in the previous line), out on unaccountable feeling of nostalgia for my former, pre-&ndash; blogger .:-)

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

I blame the parents

One reader of yesterday's post has presented 'canine' as a counterexample to my
The spelling of <consonant> + 'anin' is rare in English, according to my dictionary of choice (the one I have installed, the Macmillan English Dictionary ['MED' in my comments], which allows me to do 'clever' searches), especially where the a is stressed (as in caning, waning and so on); where the a is unstressed there are a few words such as melanin). 
Here's some more detailed reference to my source dictionary. Words of this sort are:

Stressed a:
  • canine
  • caning
  • craning
  • planing (and the derivatives 'aquaplaning' and [pardon me!] 'deplaning'; also 'replaning', I suppose, though The MED doesn't mention that explicitly)
  • profaning
  • waning

Unstressed a:
  • melanin
  • mezzanine
  • pickaninny
Only a handful; I think my 'rare' is justified. MED gives the pronunciation of all the words with stressed a as having the diphthong /eɪ/. When I was young (mid twentieth-century, middle-class, West London) I gave that stressed a in canine an /æ/. Often today I hear (and probably say, such is the power of 'proximal assimilation' - or 'copying people nearby', to give it its less academic title) /eɪ/. I suspect online dictionaries can be found with either {or both} pronunciation{s}. My guess is that in a couple of generations, the /æ/ pronunciation will be confined to a few grey-hairs. But, having just read David Crystal's closing words in The Story of English in 100 Words [and that may be my last quote from that book for a little while, though  not from other Crystal books!] I wouldn't bet on it.

As for Twitter [the word under discussion is Twittersphere] if you had asked me as recently as 2005 whether I thought there was anything interesting about the consonant cluster tw, I would have said 'nothing at all'. If you had suggested that one day it would be the basis for coining hundreds of new words [he has previously mentioned 'twitterhea', 'twitterati', 'twitterholic', 'celebritweet', and many others, listed in full here], I would have said you were mad. Moral: word buffs should never try to predict the future.

Update: 2013.10.02.16:20
Header updated:

 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Tipping the scales

On Twitter recently (I can't find it, so the perp can breathe easy - but it was a retweet from the sort of authoritative-sounding handle under whose cover so much misinformation is spread on social media sites... hang on, I've got it. @OMGFacts) I met that old canard about TIP  being an acronym for 'To Insure Promptness'. I asked them for a reference, but I'm still waiting. They would probably, if they bothered that much (inventing 'OMG facts' must keep them so busy that they can't have much time to spare for old-fashioned values like accuracy) have cited one of the 'sources' demolished here, which says:
The word “tip” is often inaccurately claimed to be an acronym for terms such as “to insure prompt service”, “to insure proper service”, “to improve performance”, and “to insure promptness”. However, this etymology contradicts the Oxford English Dictionary and is probably an example of a backronym.
There are a few more-or-less plausible alleged sources, but it's pretty clearly a backronym., although when that article goes on to say
Moreover, most of these backronyms incorrectly require the word “insure” instead of the correct “ensure”. 
it is being anachronistic. What it says is true of the ensure/insure meanings today but the first claimed sighting dates back to a time when the meaning/spelling relationship wasn't fixed.

The clever people of DEC (RIP) - in the days when they were clever, recognized the attraction of backronyms and named a new (at the time) systems programming language in an un-backronymable way. BLISS was the System Software  Implementation Library Backwards. Some years later, this self-referentiality was developed by the namers of GNU, a Unix-like language, whose name stood for GNU's Not UNIX.

David Crystal, in The Story of English in 100 Words, says acronyms are typically three letters long, with a few exceptions such as WYSIWYG. He was presumably not involved with the pre-www Internet, in which a search engine called Gopher (in which the daemon 'went for' information) was superseded by VERONICA; in fact, VERONICA was launched shortly after the World-Wide Web , but just in time to meet overwhelming competition from more user-friendly web-search engines. That article is a 'stub', so I can't check the precise meaning of the name; but I remember the RO bit stood for 'Rodent-Oriented'. (There is a new generation of VERONICA, released in the late noughties as part of the OverBite Project, which '...[brings] gopherspace back to modern operating systems, browsers and mobile devices [their bolding]'.)

Back with acronyms, there are many true acronyms that are well-attested: RADAR, SCUBA...; sadly,  there is little evidence for POSH meaning 'Port Out, Starboard Home' (supposed cabin-choice for effete heliophobic (is that a word? Anyway, it is now, and means 'sun-shunning') P&O travellers on the voyage to and from India). But some of them were so successful that the word became fully 'domesticated' and developed spellings and derivatives of their own (ignoring the derivation). LASER (note the s) is "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation", which spawned its own verb, 'to lase', in 1962. 'Laser' has 625,000,000 hits on Google; but 'lazer' has 152,000,000.

FLAK too has 'naturalized'. It started life as a near-acronym for the German Fliegerabwehrkanone, referring to anti-aircraft guns. But in 1963 it became more generally used to mean 'criticism'. I wonder whether it predates or post-dates the management concept of 'air-cover' (protection from hostile criticism while getting on with the job, and no doubt 'driving profits to the bottom line going forward'). The spelling a before k, typically, in English words, makes the sound /eɪ/ in a stressed syllable, as in 'flaking', 'faking', forsaking'... .  So, to normalize the word in a non-German context, it is often spelled 'flack'. In fact, the non-German context and anglicization of the word is so strong in the case of a sort of PR person who repels adverse criticism that it seems to me that the added c is perfectly defensible - and many dictionaries agree. Allowing for this, and the surname 'Flack', there must still be among Google's 17.3 million hits for flaCk - easily enough flack misspellings to outweigh the just over 4,000,000 hits for flak.

On the subject of this 'vowel preservation by changed spelling', I'm reminded of a word that is not an acronym but is dear to my heart, as at the age of 9 I was despatched by my mother - GBH [that's Gawd Bless Her, stupid boy!] to a Roman bakery to get quattordici panini and asked by mistake for quaranta (a sophisticated and improbable mistake for a 9-year-old, but I was there). More recently - it seems to me to have happened in the last 20/30 years - panini have become commonplace in England, and have been anglicized to the extent of the plural marking (the final -i) being ignored; most English speakers would order 'a panini' - a solecism which I resist myself, although I have often taken the coward's way out ('One of those').

The spelling of <consonant> + 'anin' is rare in English, according to my dictionary of choice (the one I have installed, the Macmillan English Dictionary, which allows me to do 'clever' searches), especially where the a is stressed (as in caning, waning and so on); where the a is unstressed there are a few words such as melanin). Returning to the previous digression (pronunciation of panini in English) a few years ago I saw in the window of a Reading café the abomination panNini, where (as in canning. planning and a number of similar words) the double n differentiates the words from the unrelated caning and planing). Of course, the double n in banning isn't involved in any such differentiation; but what concerns the present argument is that when there are such pairs the double n marks the difference. So that one can understand the Reading restaurateur's (and dear God save us from people who think there should be an extra n in that word) mistake, preserving the short /æ/ by doubling the n.

Anyway, where was I?

TTFN. BRB (OK. there's a difference between acronyms and initialisms; but not everyone observes it - and what, anyway, is CD-ROM?)


Update 3 December 2012, 16.10 - corrected Google counts for fla[c]k. 

Update: 2013.10.02.16:20
Header updated:

 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.