Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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Country, country

Today is Saint David’s Day. He was an early Welsh bishop and is the patron saint of Wales. No doubt many renditions of Mae hen wlad fy nhadau will be rendered from Cardiff to Holyhead. I am not an expert in Welsh, so I will keep this to my own experience.

When I was young, one of my piano tutor books had many songs from many countries, including this one. I remember that the title was given as O land of my fathers and the words entirely in English. The first line was O land of my fathers, O land dear to me, but I can’t remember enough of the rest of it to attempt to reproduce it, and the internet doesn’t seem to have it.

The first two words of the chorus were Great land. I now know that the original is Gwlad, gwlad, meaning country, countryside, nation.

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O great mystery

One of the choirs I’m singing in is rehearsing the motet O magnum mysterium by Tomas Luis da Victoria.

The text is:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.

One more-or-less standard English translation is:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Every time I’ve sung it, I’ve been struck by how many of the Latin words have engendered English words. English is officially classified as a Germanic language, but many of its advanced words are derived from Latin. In fact, two of the words are Greek and two are Hebrew through Greek. Some words came into English via French rather than directly from Latin. Continue reading

Strenuous laboratory

Two snippets from this week.

1) My class was practicing changing verbs into nouns into adjectives and vice versa. One word was strength, to be changed into an adjective. Most students wrote strong, but one wrote strenuous. To the extent that I have ever actually thought about it, I have never thought that strenuous is related to strong, so I had to check it quickly. No – it’s not. Online dictionaries didn’t give quite enough information, but Etymology Online shows the derivation of each, slightly confusingly, but convincingly.

Strong is from Proto-Germanic *strangaz and Proto-Indo-European *strenk-. (An asterisk with an etymology means that word has not been directly attested, but has been reconstructed by comparing forms in related languages.) Strenuous is from Latin strenuus and is possibly related to stern.

The student happily accepted his classmates’ answer of strong, but I told him that if he’d written strenuous in a test, I would have given him a mark. Continue reading

What rhymes with axolotl?

Not a lotl, I would have thought.

A few days ago someone posted on Facebook The Axolotl Song (earworm warning), by a music/video/comedy group called Rathergood, which consists of Joel Veitch and unnamed others. They quickly rhyme axolotl with bottle and lotl, and also with mottled, which doesn’t quite rhyme.

There is a surprising number of English words ending with -tle. Morewords.com lists 104, but there are several derived forms; for example, bluebottle is listed alongside bottle. Eleven of these have a silent t in the cluster –stle, for example, castle. There are also a few with –ntle, for example, gentle, in which the n is part of the previous syllable, and one with –btle (subtle), in which the b is silent. The one which goes closest to rhyming with axolotl is apostle, but I can’t imagine anyone fitting both of those into the same song. Otherwise, there are bottle (and bluebottle), throttle, wattle and mottle among relatively common words and pottle (a former liquid measure equal to two quarts) (why not just say ‘two quarts’ or ‘half a gallon’?) and dottle (the plug of half-smoked tobacco in the bottom of a pipe after smoking) (does anyone really need a word for this?). Continue reading

death by overwork (no, not me)

From How your job is killing you by James Adonis in the Sydney Morning Herald (I try to avoid giving free publicity to companies, but I’ve got to credit my sources):

The Japanese have a word, karōshi, to describe people who work themselves to death. … In China the word used is guolaosi. … South Korea, too, has a term for this pervasive condition: gwarosa.

A little bit of linguistic knowledge shows that those are actually the same word, in the pronunciation systems of those three languages. Japanese and Korean have borrowed a large number of words directly from Chinese, and have also created new words themselves from Chinese characters.

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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.