One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Two days ago, he posted about a BBC quiz show which asked contestants to name countries ending with two consonants. He didn’t discuss the actual answers, but rather the fact that the show officially categorises y as a consonant, regardless of context.
The most obvious set of answers are the countries which end with -land, namely Fin, Ice, Ire, New Zea, Pol, Swazi, Switzer and Thai. (I thought of most of those on the train on the way home.) There is also the Netherlands and four sets of Islands, namely the Cook, (Faroe), Marshall and Solomon, but it might be argued that these do not end with two consonants. (I put Faroe in brackets – although it was on the list of ‘sovereign states’ I consulted, it is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.)
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).
(PS I don’t like giving any free publicity to corporate entities, but in this case it’s impossible not to.)
Some years ago (soon after I returned from Korea the first time, I think), I bought a quiz game made by a company called BrainBox. The shop had several in stock, but the one which I bought was of the countries of the world, which seemed most applicable to English language classes.
I have used it several times a year since. On Tuesday I was browsing through a local shop and saw another game from the same company, about Australia. I went back and bought it on Thursday morning and used it that evening in class.
Yesterday’s topic in the textbook was ‘crime and criminals’. As an extension, I used an activity from the teachers book of another series on strange laws and social customs from around the world. There is a list of 20 laws and customs, four of which are false; the students have to talk in pairs or groups to identify those. (One is “In Australia, woman are not allowed to sit on the top floor of buses.” When I first used this, there were no double-deck commuter buses in Sydney (there were and are double-deck long-distance and tourist buses, and there are now a few on commuter routes), so I changed that to ‘trains’.)
One of the items was “In Japan, women mustn’t wear trousers to work”. Students argued both true and false, for various reasons. The book gives the answer ‘true’. I said that it might be a social custom or a workplace rule rather than a national law.
During the break, I tried to find more information. I searched for ‘japan women trousers office’ and it was quickly apparent that a fair sprinkling of the first 20 results were pornographic. At home, I tried again, with a different OS (Mac at home, Windows at work), possibly a different search engine, and the slightly different search term ‘japan women trousers work’. Among ads for trousers for Japanese women, the Japanese Business Resource website says “Women should also avoid wearing pants in a business setting due to the fact that sometimes it is considered offensive” and the Language Trainers UK & Ireland blog says “trousers on women are not generally viewed as acceptable”, both of which make it sound like a social custom rather than a law.
Searching for ‘japan women trousers work’ returned very similar results. I don’t know whether the pornographic results were due to using Windows rather than Mac or using one search engine rather than another, or whether a former or current colleague has been searching for pornography on the computer I use. (I can’t really call it ‘my computer’.)
In 2000, the chamber choir I sang in and one other similar choir were invited by Sydney’s biggest concert choir to join it to form the choir for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. We got the best deal of any of the performers – we got to see the whole ceremony from high up in stands. (We sang one verse of the national anthem and an excerpt from the Te Deum by Berlioz during the entry of the flame and the lighting of the cauldron. RIP Betty Cuthbert (d 6 August 2017).)
There were two rehearsals – a closed one, with some stops and starts, the previous Saturday, and an open one, essentially continuous, on the Wednesday. The entry of the flame and the lighting of the cauldron were omitted, and the parade of nations was represented by the placard and flags bearers only.
On both occasions I noticed that South and North Korea were missing from the parade. They weren’t filed under ‘K’ or ‘N’ and ‘S’. (This was six years before I went to South Korea, but I have always been interested in the countries of the world.) There was an announcement for ‘Individual Olympic Athletes’ immediately before Australia (the host country always enters last) and I vaguely thought the Koreans would be marching there.
On the night of the ceremony (15 September 2000), after Kenya had entered, I noticed a lot of people standing at the entrance who obviously weren’t Kuwaiti. (Kosovo now also comes in between.) The announcements were given in French first, then English. There was a long announcement in French, and the digital screen was filled with writing. My French was just good enough to get the gist, but I wasn’t sure until the announcement in English came:
The delegations of the Korean Olympic Committee and the Olympic Committee of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, marching together as Korea.
I have occasionally said to people that I’ve taught students from more than 30 countries. I think the list below is accurate, but I might have missed one or two. Overwhelmingly most of my students have been/are from Asian countries (esp PR China, Hong Kong, RO China, Thailand) at my current college, South American countries (esp Colombia, Peru, Brazil) at my previous college, and South Korea in South Korea. I’ve had only one or two students from most of the African, Middle-Eastern and European countries.
Mongolia PR China Hong Kong RO China South Korea Japan
Thailand Cambodia Vietnam Malaysia Singapore Indonesia Fiji
Mexico Colombia Peru Brazil Argentina
Tanzania Kenya Egypt UAE Jordan Israel Lebanon Turkey
A fast food restaurant we drive past occasionally (I can’t remember the name, and given my ‘no free advertising’ policy wouldn’t tell you even if I could) has the slogan ‘A taste that’s bigger than Texas’. Which might sound impressive except that … New South Wales is bigger than Texas. So the slogan, in fact, equates to ‘A taste that’s as big as New South Wales’.
Texas isn’t all that big; it’s not even the biggest state of the USA, it’s smaller than three provinces and two territories of Canada, four states and a territory of Australia, and assorted country subdivisions in Russia, China and Brazil (and, surprisingly, Denmark). It’s just got good PR. ‘A taste that’s smaller than (choose one) Amazonas/Xingjiang/Alaska/Nunavut/Greenland/Western Australia/Sakha’ just wouldn’t have the same impact.