How many sheep?

My mother’s father was fond of wordplay and was an important influence on my love of language. I remember one of the riddles he told me, which is difficult to render in print: A man had twenty-si/kʃ/heep and ten died. How many did he have left? This is impossible to answer correctly. If I interpreted twenty-si/kʃ/heep as twenty-six sheep and answered sixteen, he would say, “No, I said ‘twenty sick sheep’, so he had ten left”. And vice versa.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when a lesson in the textbook included the linking of words in normal speech. One example was first of all, and one student said that it sounded like festival. In isolation, maybe, but not in a sentence like “Festival, I would like to welcome you all here today”.

The pronunciation issues are slightly different but similar enough that I told them the riddle and wrote the two interpretations on the board. Another student thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. In English, at least. I’m sure they have silly puns in that language.


Korean consonants

In October 2015 I wrote about the consonant sounds of Korean, especially the three series ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅ (plain, or unvoiced and unaspirated), ㅍㅊㅌㅋ – (unvoiced and aspirated),ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ (tensed). Yesterday I found a video by Talk to me in Korean which explains and demonstrates these. Even if you are not learning Korean, can you hear the difference? Bear in mind that English p and b, t and d, and k and g sound as alike to some speakers of some languages as these sounds to do us. 

By the way, I met Hyunwoo at an English teachers’ conference in Korea in 2015.

gugak and gagaku

Many years ago, possibly before I went to Korean the first time, I came across a reference to gugak, or Korean traditional music. In the Korea the first time, I saw and heard various performances of traditional music, but did not encounter the word. In Korea the second time, I wandered around the regional city I was living in on various occasions. One day, I saw a museum of traditional arts and crafts. I had always thought that gugak was gu+gak, but the hangeul at the museum read 국악 or gukak. (One advantage of hangeul is that it tells you where the syllables are.) Guk by itself means (among other things) nation (most often found in words like 대한민국 (dae-han-min-guk, the official name of the Republic of Korea), 한국 (han-guk, the short name) and 외국 (oi-guk [way-guk], any foreign country). Ak by itself is related to 음악 (eum-ak, the general word for music) (which I incorporated into my Korean name, which I rarely use). So gugak is literally “national music” (국가 음악).

Last night I came across a reference to gagaku, or the classical music of Japan. Are the words gugak and gagaku related? Possibly, but after some research this morning, it’s impossible to be sure, working across Chinese characters, Japanese kanji, hangeul, pronunciation, transliteration and translation of all three language into English, and dictionary and encyclopedia entries. Gagaku is 雅楽, literally “elegant music”. The syllabification seems to be ga+gaku, because there is a related word bugaku, or “dance music”. Gugak includes court music, folk music, poetic songs, and religious music used in shamanistic and Buddhist traditions. Gagaku is primarily court music and dances, but also Shinto religious music and folk songs and dance. Continue reading


English syllables can start with a cluster of up to three consonants and end with a cluster of up to four (but rarely do). It follows that two adjacent syllables (less likely in the middle of one word, more likely between two words) can conglomerate a cluster of up to seven consonants (but rarely do). Clusters of six or five consonants are not uncommon. This morning’s anthem contained the cluster /mftgl/ (or really / in the sentence ‘Sing ye to the Lord, for he has triu*mphed gl*oriously’.

It is possible to construct a sentence which conglomerates a seven-consonant cluster across two words. There is a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes deduces someone (?Watson/a client)’s life story by examining his pocket watch. Part of his deduction was based on the fact that he gli*mpsed scr*atches around the hole into which the winding key was inserted.

Grammarbites part 10 – determiners

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 10 – determiners

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

A determiner goes before a noun to make a basic noun phrase, usually giving information about which one(s), whose, how many and how much? The most basic are a, which can be used with any singular countable noun, and the, which can be used with any noun: a/the pizza tastes good (singular countable), (-)/the pizzas taste good (plural countable), (-)/the pizza tastes good (uncountable). 

Pronouns can replace noun phrases, usually giving information about who or what? The most basic are I~me, you, she~her, he~him, it, we~us and they~them. Any singular and most uncountable noun phrases can become she, he or it, and any plural and a few uncountable noun phrases can become they: it tastes good, they taste good. Continue reading

The correctly spelled wrong word

Some years ago I read a book which I won’t identify for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help noticing two correctly spelled wrong words: elicit instead of illicit and principals instead of principles. I’m currently re-reading it, and unfortunately have noticed two more: bell-weather for bell-wether and born for borne.

I won’t identify the book or author because 1) I know the author, who is one of Australia’s leading broadcasters and writers on one of my favourite subjects and 2) it is otherwise a very well-written and presented book. Unfortunately, the author and editor both had brain freezes at exactly the same moment. Continue reading

Chung Hyeon, or Hyeon Chung

The Australian Open tennis tournament is currently being played in Melbourne. I’m not particularly a tennis fan, but the tournament, players, matches, results, future matches and extreme weather conditions are in the news.

Last night my wife came home with the news that a South Korean player Chung Hyeon, or Hyeon Chung had beaten former champion and world number one Novak Djokovich.

Korean names are given family-name first. Chung’s family name is Chung. Korean given names are usually two syllables, but one or three are not unknown. In fact, Wikipedia reports that there is a law requiring given names to be no longer than five syllables. I have never encountered a Korean with a five-syllable given name, or even a three syllable one. In one class at a Korean high school, I had one student with a three syllable given name and another with a one syllable name. (There are also a handful of two-syllable surnames.) Continue reading