When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

The first issue is that the student pronounced colour and collar identically. I infer that his language (Nepali) doesn’t distinguish between those two vowels. There are many lists of minimal pairs in English (that is, words which differ by only one sound) but I don’t remember seeing colour and collar on any of them. (But I just found them on this site, which is a speech therapy site, not an ESL site.) I demonstrated the two words several times, but he was obviously struggling to make the difference, and it wasn’t a pronunciation lesson, so I had to pass on.

The second issue was that neither student knew either jester or collar. I often emphasise the importance of getting as much information as possible from the text (and/or picture) before reaching for a dictionary/translator. A word ending with –er is likely to be noun, and to be a job (compare teacher, manager, worker etc). The only job in the picture (unless you count king and queen as a ‘job’) is the person standing at the front doing something. The person’s word is likely to be another noun. Look for some part of him, or something associated with him, that is a particular colour. 

They still didn’t know what collar was, so the student answering the question used a mobile phone translator app to translate it into Nepali. Looking over his shoulder, I saw that it’s  कलर Kalara (if the first part of that doesn’t reproduce correctly, it’s that word spelled in the Nepalese alphabet). I asked all the Nepalese students about this (at the moment we’ve got more Nepalese than anywhere else). They all knew the word, but couldn’t tell me whether it’s a genuine Nepali word, or whether it’s the English word pronounced in a Nepalese way. If it is a genuine Nepali word, is it cognate or is it a crazy coincidence? Nepali is an Indo-European language, and I have posted before about name and नाम Nāma. Collar is from Latin collare, from colllum, neck, but collar is an unlikely candidate to be a core Indo-European word. Most core Indo-European words cover people, kinship, body parts, the natural world, agriculture, animals, physical and mental states and functions, daily activities and time. Wikipedia’s list of core Indo-European words doesn’t include any clothes at all, let alone something as non-core as a collar. 

Because Nepalese is a comparatively smaller language, there’s very little information on the internet about it, so I’m going to have to shrug my shoulders over this last issue. I just hope that the students can remember the words jester and collar the next time they encounter them (unlikely and possible respectively). And something about pronunciation, figuring the meanings of words from the way they are used in a sentence, and Indo-European languages. Maybe that’s all too much information, and I should have just told them what collar means.

The answer was ‘red’, by the way.

This post has nothing to do with the song American Pie. I just couldn’t resist.

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