The Blue Mountains v Blue Mountain

Yesterday I went driving, exploring and photographing in part of what some of my students call Blue Mountain, and what I insist on calling the Blue Mountains. There’s no place in Australia called Blue Mountain, but there are genuine linguistic reasons why some of my students (and, I guess, many others) change the Blue Mountains to Blue Mountain. Many languages do not have the equivalent of English a and the, and many speakers of English as a second language just aren’t used to saying those two English words. Many languages also do not have the equivalent of English plural s (or, as in Korean, it may be optional). English plural s often makes a double, triple or even quadruple consonant cluster with the final consonant(s) – here ns, which many second language speakers find difficult and want to simplify.

The Blue Mountains cover a large area, and people usually go to only a very small part of them. The officially defined geographic area covers 11,400 km2, almost as large as the Sydney metropolitan area (12,367 km2) and larger than 37 sovereign states. The local government area and the state electorate are, respectively, the City of Blue Mountains and the Electoral district of Blue Mountains, respectively.

And they aren’t blue. The sun filtering through evaporated eucalyptus oil gives the scenery a very slightly blueish tinge, but the trees are otherwise green and the rocks brown. I hope tourist books explain that.

The same linguistic issues arose when a student told me that she’d gone to Southern ’Ighland (viz, the Southern Highlands) the previous weekend. This sounded either like Southern Island (there is no Southern Island anywhere in the physical world) or (in my non-rhotic pronunciation) Southern Ireland (ooooh, a lot of Irish history and politics there).


grammar summary sheets (version 4)

Across the years, I’ve created a number a grammar summary sheets (and am still working on more). I’ve posted about this three times before, but I keep tinkering. I hope this will be the last version of these ones.

The last time I posted about these, I added some grammatical explanations. I won’t do that this time. Continue reading

Hurricane winds: D, S, H and M

The US National Hurricane Center’s forecast maps show wind speeds as D, S, H and M. There is the explanation that D winds are less than 39 miles per hour (63 km/h), S winds are 39-73 mph (63-117 km/h), H winds are 74-110 mph (117-177 km/h) and M winds are more than 117 mph (177 kn/h). I’m sure that people in the forecast path of M winds don’t stop to wonder what these letters mean, but I’m safely on the other side of the planet, so I do. I can’t think of any set of four words beginning with these letters which would describe hurricane-force winds, In other contexts, and by themselves, S might mean strong, H high and M moderate, but that can’t be the definitions here (moderate winds are certainly not the highest category, and what’s the difference between strong winds and high winds?) The US National Weather Center’s website doesn’t have an explanation, and I can’t find anything anywhere else. Any guesses?

I can’t imagine any emergency authority saying ‘Evacuate the area immediately. M winds are forecast for the next 48 hours.’

right and left or left and right

This page of the textbook just keeps on giving. It is on what the authors call ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I am not convinced that those are the best terms. It says “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. I have blogged about this page twice before. The first time I picked up about combinations of colours. After the class, I researched on Google Ngrams and found that ‘black and’ is most followed by white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey and green. Further, ‘black and white’ is most followed by photographs, stripes and marble (among and/or, is/are and in/of/on).

The second time I picked up about the textbook saying “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. That simply isn’t true. Google Ngrams shows that ‘white and black’ is used, though, obviously, much less than ‘black and white’. I researched each of the pairs they give and found that most of them can be reversed – butter and bread and breakfast and bed being the two exceptions (those two are recorded, but are very, very rare). I concluded “If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.”

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Ugly congratulations

Yesterday my wife posted birthday greetings in English on Facebook. One of her friends wrote something in Korean which Facebook automatically translated as ‘Ugly [smiley face]’. ‘Congratulations’ in Korean is 축하해요 (chuk-ha-hae-yo) normally and 축하합니다 (chuk-ha-ham-ni-da) formally. The verb ‘[subject] am/is/are ugly’ is 추해요. An unaspirated stop like ㄱ followed by a ㅎ is always pronounced as the corresponding aspirated stop, in this case ㅋ, so 축하해요 is pronounced 추카해요, which is what the friend actually wrote. Facebook’s translator (and Google Translate when I experimented) interpreted 추 as the verb stem of ‘ugly’ and ignored the 카, which is meaningless if 추 is interpreted as ‘ugly’. It also ignored the verb conjugation.

PS I asked my wife about this. She said that people sometimes write 추카해요 in text messages or social media posts, but 축하해요 is definitely the correct spelling, and people would never write 추카해요 in any formal context.

C’mon, it’s only 16 years ago!

Oh now I feel old! The topic in the textbook was science, and as a filler I showed the students some science-related movie trailers, starting with the ‘based on a true story’ movies Hidden figures, The theory of everything and The right stuff. Then I showed some science fiction, starting with 2001: A space odyssey. I said ‘How many of you remember 2001’? I was expecting a few hands. I don’t know how old my students are, but I would guess late 20s or even early 30s for some of them. (Others are much younger, possibly late teens or early 20s.) No-one (but me) remembers 2001???? At least they could have said ‘Oh, that was the year I started school’ (as indeed one of my nieces said when I posted on Facebook about this later.)

Then I showed them Back to the future 1 & 2, and 1989’s imagining of 2015 made much more sense to them than 1968’s imagining of 2001. (In general, BttF got more right than 2001.) Along the way I found 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Right, 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Wrong and a parody by CollegeHumor made in 2015 with the benefit of nowsight. I also tried to find the American talk/comedy show which snared Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd as guests on 21 October 2015, but I couldn’t find it and couldn’t remember whose show it was on. A Facebook friend later told me it was Jimmy Kimmel.

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Merry birthday

I have a friend who habitually writes ‘merry birthday’ on our mutual friends’ Facebook pages (and mine, when it comes around). There’s nothing grammatically or semantically wrong with ‘merry birthday’, but it just sounds so weird. An internet search returns approx 353,000,000 results for ‘happy birthday’ and 2,650,000 for ‘merry birthday’, so it’s by no means unknown, but used less than one percent as much as ‘happy birthday’. Some of those are references to people whose birthday falls near Christmas. (I know two people born on Christmas Day. One is named Christa. I also know a father and daughter born on leap day.)

Google Ngrams shows many results for ‘happy birthday’ and ‘merry Christmas’ (of course). ‘Happy Christmas’ is used about 1/6th as much as ‘merry Christmas’ but ‘merry birthday’ yields only one result.

In the course of my research, I found this short extract (from a movie I watched more than 20 years ago, but didn’t remember this scene). The Wikipedia page for the movie says that the song was written for this movie ‘to avoid potential licensing issues’ (ie paying royalties to Warner/Chappell, at the time – for more information, see here).

(For thoughts about the song in Korean, see here.)

(PS after I posted this, the friend wished me a ‘happy birthday’ this year.)