I love digressions, and the textbook’s topic of photography turned into a discussion of cute animal photos on the internet. The page of photos I quickly found had a wide range of animals, which doubled up as a bit of extra vocabulary learning (sloth is not usually included in vocabulary lists). One of the photos was of a baby hippo, so I said ‘It’s full name is hippopotamus‘. Several students tried to pronounce that and generally failed, so I said ‘Don’t worry, you can always say hippo‘. One student from the Philippines then said ‘In Tagalog, we say hippopoTAmus’. I know just enough Greek to know that, by itself poTAmus is closer to the original pronunciation than POtamus. Greek Wikipedia’s page for river is titled Ποταμός and the one for hippopotamus is Ιπποπόταμος (the ‘single accent or tonos (΄) … indicates stress), so Ποταμός is actually potaMOS, but the stress shifts to PO in the compound word. I said to the student ‘In English, we say hippoPOtamus, but you can always say hippo‘.

Many students say PHOtographer and PHOtography, and it is impossible to get them to say phoTOgrapher and phoTOgraphy. When they try, they say phoTOEgrapher and phoTOEgraphy. As far as I know, no native speakers say PHOtographer, but it may come about that in the future, driven by second language speakers, it is recognised as a general alternative pronunciation. I hope not.

Five years ago, I had two students from Greece. As their vocabulary developed and more Greek-derived words crept into lessons, readings and word lists, the more advanced of the two would say ‘ooh, is Greek word’. (But he was stumped by kaleidoscope, which is not a Greek word, but was coined in English from Greek.) (I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned those two – I’ve got many stories about them.)


Earlier this week the main topic in the textbook was music. Among other questions, I asked the students if they played a musical instrument or sung. None does, but one said she learned piano as a child. I asked if they ever went to karaoke with friends. Perhaps surprisingly for young Asians, they said no. One student from Taiwan looked puzzled and asked ‘What is ‘carry-okey’? (echoing my pronunciation). I’m 99.99% sure they have karaoke in Taiwan, but it might be known by another name. I explained and he said ‘Oh, ka-ra-o-ke’, which I understand is closer to the Japanese pronunciation. (I currently have two Japanese students, but neither was in the room at the time.)

I have known for some time that the English pronunciation of karaoke is very different from the Japanese. Are we lazy? Are we disrespectful? Or, having adopted a foreign word, can we do with it whatever we like? Would it sound strange if we said ‘ka-ra-o-ke‘ instead of ‘carry-okey’? But clearly, in the opposite direction, the Japanese do whatever they like with their pronunciation of English loanwords. I have known for some time that karaoke means ‘empty orchestra’. It took me a long time to figure out that the kara of karaoke is the same morpheme as in karate (‘empty hand’). It took me even longer to figure out (in fact, I found out when I checked a dictionary before drafting this post) that oke is quite literally ‘orchestra’, which was adopted into Japanese at some earlier time and given a Japanised pronunciation and spelling.

Fumer tue

This evening while I was walking home from the station, I saw a discarded cigarette packet, of a plain, dark colour with the manufacturer’s name at the top and the words Fumer tue at the bottom. I know fumer from signs (usually ne pas fumer) and I could take a guess at tue. So are Australian cigarette packets required to have warnings in other languages (but the overall design was different from Australian packets), or does France also have plain packaging laws?

Yes, it does – last year France became the second country in the world (after Australia) to enforce plain packaging laws, but its laws are less stringent than Australia’s. They allow the manufacturer’s name and logo at the top and require a warning (or possibly encouragement to quit) at the bottom. Australia’s require the warning (or encouragement to quit) at the top, a graphic photo in the middle, and the manufacturer’s name in small, plain print at the bottom. (You can search for examples of both if you want.) Fumer means ‘smoking’ and is the third person singular form of tuer, kill. (I had to look that up – French verbs are not my strong point.)

None of this explains what a discarded French cigarette packet was doing on the footpath in my suburb, and why I should particularly notice it. (There’s not much else to do while walking home!)

‘I live in a pig house’

One lower level student was writing some answers to basic questions about her and her life. Her answer to ‘Do you live in a house or a flat?’ was ‘I live in a pig house’. I demonstrated ‘p-pig-b-big’ a few times, and she understood and changed her answer. I then told her to look for ‘pig’ on her translator app. I said ‘It’s a big difference, isn’t it?’.

But this is not just one student making one mistake – there’s a genuine linguistics/ESL teaching point her. This student’s language does not have voiced consonants like /b/, but rather unvoiced unaspirated consonants like /p/ (as in spin) and unvoiced aspirated consonants like /pʰ/ (as in pin). She is (and other students from her country, and many others, are) just not used to processing the difference between /p/ and /b/, just as I’m not used to processing the difference between /p/ and /pʰ/.

frock off

This morning one of the segments in the textbook was on collocations with get, one of which was get married. As an example, I showed a photo of my wife and me on our wedding day. Various students said ‘How beautiful’ about her and ‘How handsome’ about me, then the student from Italy asked ‘Are you wearing a …?’ something that sounded like /frɒk/. I certainly wasn’t wearing a frock, so I quickly searched for images of ‘frock coat’, but I wasn’t wearing one of those, and that’s not what he meant anyway. He tried again and it sounded more like /flæk/, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a flak jacket. There was only a limited number of possibilities: the first sound was /f/, the second was /r/ or /l/, the third was /ɒ/ or /æ/ and the fourth was /k/ or /g/, and it wasn’t frock, flock, flak or flag. I continued with the lesson, and fortunately he found frac, which I certainly wouldn’t have figured, but which is the perfectly good Italian word for ‘morning dress, white tie and tails’ (Wiktionary). I was wearing a tail coat, but with a black tie. I don’t naturally use the term morning dress. (Among other things, it has always sounded too much like mourning dress. I remember my father referring to the funeral director wearing morning dress for an afternoon funeral.)
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