A kind of affliction

Last Tuesday was an interesting day linguistically, even if it was a slow day work-wise. I noticed three separate issues twice each in different contexts. The first time each, I thought “Oh, that’s interesting” and the second time I thought “Hang on, I’ve seen that before”.

During a lull in my work, I was browsing through some of Geoffrey Pullum’s old Language Log posts. In one, titled ‘Another victim of oversimplified rules‘, he discusses a sentence which he found in a free newspaper on Edinburgh’s buses:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months.

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rugged v ragged

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a setting of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My country’. On the first few times through, I stumbled on one word, which I then realised was “ragged mountain ranges”, not “rugged mountain ranges” as I vaguely remembered. When I got home, I looked online. Wikipedia has an image of Mackellar’s original notebook, which clearly has ragged. Many sources, printed and digital, have rugged, though. Two rehearsals ago, our accompanist said she’d always thought it was rugged, and at the rehearsal this week, one singer brought a book of Australian poems for school children, which has rugged. The accompanist said there is a recording of Mackellar reciting it, which I found (one of the available videos). She clearly says ragged. Very noticeable is her Sottish-tinged accent* (her grandparents had come to Australia almost 50 years before she was born). Continue reading

이민자

My wife has a very good friend named Min-ja Lee (이민자). I was suprised to see her name on the front page of one of Sydney’s Korean-language community newspapers. Except it wasn’t. 이민자 (i-min-ja) is also the Korean word for immigration, and the story was about how the number of visa holders to coming to Australia has fallen in the wake of new regulations brought in by the Australian government recently.

I asked my wife about this, and she said that all Koreans are aware that this rather common name is a real Korean word. I am trying to think of a real English name which is a real English word. This Buzzfeed article (your sensitivity and sense of humour may vary) doesn’t provide any, and joke names like Amanda Hugginkiss aren’t ‘a’ word.

I previously knew the related Korean word 이민 (immigrant), which is often used to advertise migration services; they are immigrant agents rather than immigration agents. Although the surname 이 is pronounced Lee in English, it is pronounced ee in Korean, for reasons I’ve never been able to discover. Continue reading

What’s in a sound?

Several days ago, Niall O’Donnell, who blogs at English-Language Thoughts, posted a very long story about playing a computer game “in which you travel across a pseudo-medieval fantasy land battling various undead creatures”. He usually played alone, but it’s possible to “summon” another player (who has made themself available to be summoned) to assist if required.

(Moderate strong language warning)  Continue reading

Who would know?

Some time ago, I encountered the sentence:

Who would know aught of art, must learn, act, and then take his ease

as an example of the vowel sounds of English.

A few days ago, for no apparent reason, I got thinking about this again, specifically “Hang on, there aren’t enough words/vowels in there”. It has 14 words and vowels. Most varieties of English have more (though the number and exact line-up varies). My generally standard Australian English has 20, which matches the Macquarie Dictionary’s count. Further, the six which are missing are all diphthongs, but know and take are there. I searched online and found a blogpost by Lauren Gawne (a fellow Australian) from last year. She quotes a post by John Wells (an Englishman), who says he doesn’t know its origin, then (among other things):

[It] is sentence that not merely contains 14 [different] vowel sounds, but has the sound in a particular order (going clockwise more or less round the periphery of the vowel area) … to work properly the sentence requires the speaker to use RP [received pronunciation, standard British English] or something similar, with strong forms of would, of, and must, which in ordinary speech are usually weakened, but a weak form of and … the sentence covers only the monophthongs and narrow diphthongs. To complete it with the remaining diphthongs aɪ aʊ ɔɪ ɪə eə ʊə we would need something like “My loud voice nears their moors”. Or has someone got something better?

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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.