Thursday, 22 August 2019

Rules run amuck

I‘ve mentioned before the way that people learning a language (particularly people acquiring their mother tongue) tend to take a newly-learnt rule and test it to destruction:
It's fairly obvious to a  native speaker that the most common way [of forming a plural] is to add an s. In fact, this rule becomes apparent whenever a young language learner mistakenly adds an s to an irregular plural – sheep becomes sheepS rather than sheep, for example; and when an adult corrects mouseS to mice, the compulsion to keep faith in the add-an-s rule is so strong that the next attempt is quite often miceS.

More here
But a similar source of error is frequently met, particularly in a singer's life, with respect to the rules of foreign languages, and particularly (as in that add-an-s case) the rules of phonology.

The two that spring most readily to mind (I was going to call them "my favorites", but  favorite is not quite the word) occur in French and in German (both languages that I have studied). And although my O-level German knowledge,  as I have admitted before, is Best Before November 1969 [or whenever it was in that winter], I had to resurrect it in order to study Romance philology...
<EXAMPLES type="German scholars of Romance languages" need-to-know="0">
  • Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales fame); the brothers made a crucial observation, known as Grimm's Law.
  • Meyer-Lübke, compiler of Romanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch
    the bible of all students of this area – the one necessary reference
  • Gerhard Rohlfs, editor of Sermo Vulgaris Latinus
    a collection of very early texts – including, for example, graffiti from Pompeii
  • and many others

1 Thirteen waters

This error is so common that I have given it a name. The rule here is

When there's a written s at the end of a word, it isn't sounded 
unless the following word starts with a vowel.

There are provisos and exceptions, but that's the gist.

This is the rule that gets out of hand in the Thirteen Waters Error. One of the exceptions applies to a word that starts h+<vowel> (but not just any old h).  There is, in French, the hache aspiré, which the LawlessFrench site explains thus:

This error oftSuch a false liason often  occurs in the first line of the sublime Cantique de Jean Racine, composed by Gabriel Faur
é ...
when (as programme notes insist on saying he entered it for a "school prize". Sometimes they even say 'when he was only a schoolboy!!!' [if you'll pardon the screamer-orrhea]. But he was not a schoolboy in the Just William sense; he was nineteen, studying at the 
École Niedermeyer de Paris,)
....which has the basses alone – as exposed as a choral singer can be. And this howler occurs between the fourth and fifth words:

Verbe égal aux très haut

I'm not sure about the transcription in that  LawlessFrench excerpt. (Note: that's my way of saying I am sure and am not impressed.) But it makes the point clearly enough :
 Some hs don't block elision
when they precede a vowel, so the s isn't sounded:
the h in haut is one such: so /trɛ.ɔ/ not /trɛzɔ/.
(and Les Halles, while we're at it: /
There is no rule for remembering which hs are aspirés and which are muets.  Dictionaries* mark it in some way, but that's no help for regular speech. You can't carry a dictionary around everywhere you go.
As a matter of fact, my brother did during an exchange visit, in his early teens. He was not a great linguist, but he was always very keen on communication.
You just have to know which is which. Just over a hundred words start with  an hache aspiré, so it‘s not a huge undertaking  to just learn them – which is all very well for people who hate hammocks; personally, I prefer a more humane approach to language learning.

I complained about this to a native speaker of French once, but he was not sympathetic  – particularly as people learning English have to grapple with a not dissimilar rule, telling honest with initial /ɒ/ from honk with initial /hɒ/.

But, returning to the Cantique, "aux treize eaux" (which the rule over-appliers seem to be singing) makes it sound as though the Cantique is being addressed to someone with thirteen waters (with the aux analogous to the aux in La dame aux Caméllias), or perhaps to a  Native American called 'Thirteen Waters'.

2 Sturm und wrong

The errant rule here, in German now, is this:

In some cases an s that precedes
another consonant becomes /ʃ/

(or "sh" if you must, but for more on my feelings about sounds-like transcriptions, see here; regular readers will already be accustomed to this fad.)

An obvious case is a word like Sturm (as the st occurs at the  start of a word – habitual home of examples of this phonological rule); but the /ʃ/ remains even in mid-word, as in the derived word Regensturm

But often  this change is not applied . And in the musical world a common habitat for the misapplication of this rule is Liebestraum, Liebestod or Liebesliede (any word, I now realize, that starts with Liebes- – not to suggest that it doesn't happen after similar-possessives (it's just that all the examples that spring to mind use that word). In a week of not unusually dedicated monitoring of the airways, I've noticed two cases: the first was on Desert Island Discs (no names, no pack-drill; but it was the guest – young Lauren got it right after the excerpt from Liebestod).

In the second case there was no error – my life, like that of many another survivor of an RC education, is plagued by an eternal vigilance for what the Penny Catechism ...
<GLOSSARY further-info="autobiographical">
(the RC equivalent of Mao's Little Red Book. [If you're interested I can still reel off "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost" or "The Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost"])
... used to call "occasions of sin" (situations that invite misbehaviour). But the presenter of the same piece at the Proms (a supporting piece in the Mozart's Requiem concert) knew her stuff.

But this has gone on too long. There's an urgent bio-mass crisis in the front garden.


Update: 2019.08.23.10:20  – Typo fix

Update: 2019.08.26.20:20  – More typo fixes, and a couple of clarifications in blue.

Update: 2019.09.06.16:10  – Added footnote:

*A dictionary is of  limited (usually no) use with names.  Often (in  English-language news broadcasts) the French politician François Hollande was the unwilling recipient of trans-gender treatment (Françoise).  In such cases the best advice is to listen to a native speaker: if there‘s no liaison  before it, the h is aspiré.

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