Once a pun a time …

One of the problems with listening to music for most of the day as I work from home is that most free music platforms support themselves with advertising revenue, so the music is regularly interrupted by ads which have nothing to do with the music, and often nothing to do with me. That’s the price I pay for not paying the price.

One assiduous advertiser on one major video hosting site enables shoppers to get significant discounts on purchases from many major retailers. (I’m not sure how this works – I can’t figure out how the company and the retailers both make money from the retailers selling at a discount). These purchases are illustrated by “everyday Aussies” holding their purchases, where [Name’s product] makes a pun on the name of someone famous. Some of these puns are better or worse, depending on your taste in puns. I think Camilla’s pasta bowls is better and Kim’s car dash cam is worse. 

Two are particularly noteworthy, because the possessive ’s’ becomes part of surname of the famous person: Sylvester’s cologne and Jack’s barrow. But while ‘scologne’ is still distinguishable from ‘Stallone’ because of the difference between /k/ and /t/, ‘sbarrow’ is almost indistinguishable from ‘Sparrow’ because the differences between /p/ and /b/ are almost neutralised following /s/. By itself, /p/ is unvoiced and aspirated; following /s/ it is non-aspirated. By itself, /b/ is voiced and unaspirated; following /b/ it is devoiced. 

(No names, no free adversing. Search and you will find.)


vowed their heads

According to an article in the Korea Herald, people “vowed their heads” at a paying-respects site for the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon. I hope not. Google found three other instances of “vowed their heads”, at least two of which relate to actual vowing of heads, and the third probably a error for bowed

A seemingly self-published novel set in Norse saga times includes:

And therewith they vowed their heads for ever to the infernal gods if ever one of the blood brothers should desert the other, in danger or in need.

A very serious history of ancient Rome includes:

[S]o far did some strain in their expressions of their affections, that they vowed their heads and lives for [Caligula’s] restoring.

Another seemingly self-published novel set in fictionalised/fantasy medieval Roman Catholic Europe includes:

“We will serve you and your god, your holiness.” his servant vowed.
“We will all serve you master” affirmed by all while they vowed their heads before him.

Phonetically, it is more likely that a Korean will say or write bow instead of vow than vice versa, because there is an equivalent of b in Korean, but no equivalent of v; compare 비디오 (bi-di-o) for video.

The Korea Herald’s writer’s English is way better than my Korean, but she also refers to “a grassy plaza outside City Hall”. I would unhesitatingly write “the grassy plaza outside City Hall”, because there is only one grassy plaza outside City Hall. In fact, I would say and write “City Hall Plaza”, given that most of the Korea Herald’s readers know Seoul City Hall and its grassy plaza. The fact that the plaza is grassy is, in fact, irrelevant to this story.

Saw Thor

The topic in the textbook was emotions and one of the questions was ‘Do you enjoy horror movies?’. One student said yes, so I asked for an example. He said ‘Saw’. Another student said ‘But that’s an action movie’. He and I looked puzzled. He quickly searched for an image of that movie and showed it to her. She said ‘Oh, I thought you said /sɔ/’, then quickly searched and showed us an image of Thor.

/θ/ is one of the last phonemes which native English speaking children acquire (indeed, some don’t acquire it (and /ð/) at all – dis, dat, tick and tin are part of several established varieties of English), and it is probably the hardest phoneme for second language learners (/ð/ is at least far more common, in higher-frequency words like this, that, these, those, there, then, mother, father, brother).

I’m surprised that this misunderstanding happened this way around. I would far more expect the first student to mispronounce /θɔ/ as /sɔ/. Anyway, the misunderstanding was cleared up, and I was able to give them a brief explanation.

The Commonest Speech Sounds

Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic posted without comment a graphic by Suzy Styles, of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, of The Commonest Speech Sounds: Prevalence Rates for Phonemes of the World. Styles, in turn also doesn’t comment on it, beyond stating that she compared the speech sounds of 1672 languages on a certain online database. What follows are my own thoughts about the graphic, primarily as an ESL teacher and not as a linguist.

(There’s a large space under this graphic – keep scrolling.)

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Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus!

Today is the 1st of March (at least where I’m sitting, but not where WordPress’s clock/calendar is located), which is commemorated in some parts of the Christian Church as St David’s day. It is a date of some significance in our family. This year it falls on Wednesday, indeed on Ash Wednesday, which is commemorated in most parts of the Christian Church. This is coincidental, as Ash Wednesday, which is linked to the lunar calendar calculation of Easter, can fall anywhere between 4 February and 10 March. 1 March 2006 also fell on a Wednesday, which is not surprising, as the calendar repeats every 11 + 11 + 6 years. 1 March 2006 was also Ash Wednesday, which is surprising, as the date of Easter jumps around the calendar seemingly randomly. (If there is a pattern, it certainly plays out over longer periods than 11 years.)

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I scream for eyes cream

Yesterday the topic in the textbook was money and shopping, and one of the questions was about what men and women (stereotypically) buy. One (male) student said that women buy cosmetics, such as make-up and (what sounded like) ‘ice cream’. I figured that he meant ‘eyes cream’.

There are two issues – turning ‘eye cream’ into ‘eyes cream’, and turning ‘eyes cream’ into ‘ice cream’. In English, cream for your eyes is ‘eye cream’, not ‘eyes cream’. ‘eyes’ has a /z/ at the end and if I had to say ‘eyes cream’, I would emphasise the /z/ and make a little break after it. However, it is very easy to devoice a final plural noun /z/, especially here because the next sound is the unvoiced /k/ of ‘cream’.

From ‘ice cream’, it’s just another small step to ‘I scream’, but that’s been done before. (That’s the first time I’ve actually heard that song.) (More information.)

‘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/.


The last lesson in the textbook was unexpectedly boring. I tried to put it across my Wednesday class and failed miserably, so I thought I’d do something different with my Thursday class. I have an educational resource called ‘Brainbox’ – a set of cards about 10 cm square, with a map of a country and pictures of representative people, places and things on one side and eight questions relating to them on the other. Students work in pairs – one asks the questions and the other answers. It’s a good way to practice clear speaking and careful listening, looking for information and sometimes attempting to pronounce very unfamiliar words, and maybe they’ll learn something about the world along the way.

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‘a large crap’

One class was practicing the ‘verb + infinitive’ construction. One sentence prompt was ‘I really want to’. One student wrote ‘I really want to eat a large crap’. If this had been spoken, I would have tried not to bat an eyelid, but it was written, so I couldn’t ignore it. The problem is that Korean doesn’t have voiced oral stop phonemes (eg English /b/, /d/, /g/). Some of the equivalent unvoiced phonemes become (more) voiced in certain contexts. For example, 밥 (bap – rice) has a (more) voiced sound at the beginning and a definitely unvoiced one at the end. As a result, Koreans speaking English are more likely to use an unvoiced sound at the end of a word than a voiced one; hence ‘crap’ instead of ‘crab’. Once I’d explained all this as simply as I could, the student claimed that coprophagia (sensibility warning) for therapeutic purposes was a traditional practice in Korea. The other students were unable to confirm or deny this.

added 20 Nov: one of my several regular readers (to whom, thanks) pointed me to this Wikipedia page, describing ‘Korean feces wine‘ (obviously, sensibility warning). This being Wikipedia, I can’t guarantee the accuracy, but it is soberly written and extensively referenced. Maybe someone is taking the piss.

later: I saw a restaurant offering Blue Crad Soup.


While I was drafting the previous post about voiced and unvoiced consonants, an incident happened in class which illustrated some of the difficulties that the distinction between these sounds causes to English language learners (and to teachers!). The theme in the textbook was ‘wishes’, and one of the sentences to be completed by the students was ‘I wish I was more ____’. One student said ‘I wish I was more punctual’. Another student said ‘What does that mean?’. I often answer questions like that with a series of questions of my own: ‘Does he (the first student) come to class every day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does he come to class on time every day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Should he come to class on time every day?’ (Sideways message to the first student!) ‘Yes.’ ‘Should he be more punctual?’ ‘What does that mean?’ She then said to the first student ‘How do you spell that?’ and wrote it down as he told her. She then typed it into her electronic dictionary/translator and said ‘It’s not here’. I glanced at what she’d written and saw ‘buncdual’ – she’d heard ‘pee’ as ‘bee’ and ‘tee’ as ‘dee’. Not only are the two pairs of sounds  – /b/ and /p/, and /d/ and /t/ – differentiated by voicing, but so are their names – ‘bee’ and ‘pee’, and ‘dee’ and ‘tee’. (While /g/ and /k/ show the same voicing distinction, the letter names ‘gee’ and ‘kay’ are unlikely to be confused). Unfortunately, I had to leave this digression and return to the textbook lesson.

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