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...
<autobiographical_note>
 (at least not in my day, when catering was easier [just a mouthful for the celebrant]).
<autobiographical_note>

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.
</tangent>
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.)

</digression>
...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].

b

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 ...
<digression>
See rant here (the bit in red) if you're interested in my feelings about this wronged word.
</digression>
...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.

b


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.) 
<meta_digression>
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 they used to say in the ISO world: "FFS" [meaning "interesting, but don't hold your breath"])
<meta_digression>
</digression>
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.
</digression>
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).

b