Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling





So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.

Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)

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goodest and baddest grammar

Most English have adjectives have comparative (-er or more/less) and superlative (-est or most/least) forms. The three major irregular adjectives are good-better-best, bad-worse-worst and far-further-furthest. One student wrote farer and farest. I said ‘Those are clear and fit the pattern, but we’ve got these special words further and further’. No-one wrote or said gooder, goodest, badder or baddest. I commented that those are clear and fit the pattern as well, but badder and baddest sound slightly better than gooder and goodest. Jim Croce calls Leroy Brown ‘The baddest man in the whole damned town / Badder than old King Kong’, not ‘The worst man … Worse than King King’. The spell-checker in Pages for Mac accepts badder and baddest, but not gooder and goodest. (It also accepts farer. I assume that’s related to fare (farer – ?a paying customer/traveller) not far. Compare wayfarer. The spell-checker in WordPress accepts badder and baddest, but not gooder, goodest or farer.) (Possibly, the regular adjective forms of far should be farrer and farrest, but it’s not necessary to decide.)

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the sewer of Armageddon

My fear of heights began when I climbed down the sewer of Armageddon during a thunderstorm.

Every language user has the ability to create sentences which have never before been spoken or written in that language, and every other user of that language has the ability to understand them (assuming linguistic competence, performance and cooperation by all).

Yesterday, one of my nieces, who is studying linguistics, wrote the sentence above as part of a Facebook post about the pipe organ she’s practicing on. Yes, she really did visit Israel, yes, she really did visit Tel Megiddo, yes, she really did climb down the former sewer/emergency escape route / current alternative route (with metal steps) for tourists, yes, there really was a thunderstorm at the time.

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“David smells”

After I posted the previous post, in which I mentioned the words tasty and smelly, I remember that I own this book, which I bought in Korea on 24 December 2006 (there’s a date stamp on the underneath edge of the pages). Looking through it, and thinking about meanings and usages of words, it is apparent that smell works in different ways than the other senses.


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Official languages

In his book The language wars: A history of proper English, Henry Hitchings states that there are eight countries which do not have an official language: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Costa Rica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Somalia, the UK and the USA. Throughout the book he provides extensive references, but not for this one. My spider-sense is tingling: Australia does not have an official language.

The most convenient and authoritative source I can think of is the CIA’s World Factbook. It lists Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian as official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Spanish in Costa Rica, Tigrinya, Arabic and English in Eritrea, Amharic in Ethiopia, Urdu and English (‘lingua franca of Pakistani elite and most government ministries’) in Pakistan, and Somali and Arabic (‘official, according to the Transitional Federal Charter’) in Somalia.

For the UK, it lists ‘the following … recognized regional languages’: Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, Cornish.
For the USA, it states that ‘the US has no official national language, but English has acquired official status in 31 of the 50 states; Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii’.
And for Australia, it simply lists languages spoken: English 76.8%, Mandarin 1.6%, Italian, Arabic, Greek, Cantonese, Vietnamese (each with 1.1-1.4% of the population).

To be fair on Hitchings, he does preface his list with ‘At the time of writing’, and his book was published in 2011. Those six countries might have declared their official languages since then (the World Factbook was last updated last month), but he should have known about Australia.

Seon-mi / Sonmi

I have a student named 선미 (Seon-mi). Her name reminds me of the character Sonmi in Cloud Atlas (novel by David Mitchell, movie written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lilly Wachowski – trailer, spoilerific final sequence (subtitled in Turkish, of all things!)), but the names aren’t necessarily the same.

Korean ㅓ approximates to the English ‘short o’ (as in John) and ㅗ to ‘long o’ (as in Joan). There is no indication as to how the book/movie character’s name is spelled in Korean: the book doesn’t include any hangeul (and very few Korean words) and the movie has hangeul only on buildings and vehicles in the background. (Korean Wikipedia’s page on the movie doesn’t transliterate the names of the characters.) The difference in pronunciation is sometimes small or non-existent: a ㅗ followed by a syllable-final consonant sounds very much like ㅓ – a suburb is a 동 (dong), which is always pronounced with a short o. Continue reading

spoilerific, spoilerful, spoileristic

In yesterday’s post about a Korean movie I saw the day before, I used the word spoilerific. A reader/online friend asked if I’d created that word. No. I’d encountered it in the course of spending too long browsing through discussions of movies on the internet.

Google shows ‘About 125,5000’ results for spoilerific, including the Urban Dictionary and Wikitionary, and ‘About 619’ for spoilerifically, including yesterday’s post on this blog.
In comparison, there are ‘About 3,830’ results for spoilerful and none for spoilerfully (there are false positives in phrases such as ‘Rear Spoiler Fully Adjustable’), and ‘About 553’ for spoileristic and two – count them – for spoileristcally. One of them, regarding Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (‘Near the novel’s end, Pip has what I will non-spoileristically describe as “a holy-shit kind of experience”.’) raises the question: how soon is too soon? Great Expectations was published in 1861 and Dickens died in 1870.