gong hay fat choy and gong xi fa cai

From the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s to about 1989, most Chinese people who came to Australia were from the southern provinces and spoke Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka. I can remember seeing Lunar New Year decorations and advertisements saying gong hay fat choy (or variations thereof). 

About nine years ago I started teaching at a college which overwhelmingly catered to Chinese students. It being February, I started with gong hay fat choy! and no-one understood me, because they all spoke Mandarin (and/or because my Chinese pronunciation is so bad). Finally one student understood what I was trying to say.

Especially post-Tiananmen Square, more people from the northern provinces came here and Mandarin gradually overtook Cantonese as the most-spoken kind of Chinese. The 2016 Australian census reported that 2.5% of Australians speak Mandarin at home, alongside Cantonese at 1.2%, and Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek (with between 1.4 and 1% each).

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eak, nouce and beaurocratic

When I’m not working, I don’t set out to find typos in what I read, but sometimes I just can’t not. I’m re-reading some old books before deciding whether to keep them or sell, give, donate or throw away (I can’t stand throwing away books!). One of these is the story of the British comedy team The Goons. In one chapter, there were three instances of one mis-spelled word and one of another, and I found a third while I was skimming through to find them before drafting this post.

Spike’s time spent eaking out unperformed scripts on his old typewriter would not go to waste.

‘Now most of those tapes lie gathering dust at the BBC. You’d think they would have the nouce to broadcast [them].’ (quoting Spike Milligan)

‘I’m not surprised at the way the BBC eak out an occasional Goon Show recording rather than broadcast a whole series on radio.’ (Milligan)

’Now a Goon Show is being eaked out for a miserable once-a-year airing on cassette. Blind, misguided, beaurocratic BBC.’ (Milligan)

This is a quality production, edited by a woman who used to be Milligan’s personal assistant. It’s easy to say “Haha, you made a mistake in a printed book”, but it’s more interesting to explore the linguistic issues behind them, and I don’t want to name and shame the editor and publisher. Eke and nous are very rare words, bureaucratic is moderately rare, and all three have very unusual spellings. Continue reading

Afraid of what?

A few days ago the chapter of the textbook was about comparative and superlative adjectives, and one question was something like “What are you most afraid of?”. One student said “I am afraid of ” something that sounded like duck or dog. Was she afraid of ducks (the bird) or duck (the meat), or dogs (the animal) or dog (the meat, in some countries, see later)? I might have asked for clarification then, but decided to let her keep talking. She said that when she was young, the toilet was accessed from outside, so she always asked one of her parents to take her. So did they have ducks or dogs in their backyard? I finally said “I don’t know whether you said duck or dog”. She said “No – daakk”. Aha. “Afraid of the dark.” Why do we say “the dark” rather than “dark”. Would Dracula say “I am afraid of light” or “I am afraid of the light”? Google Ngrams shows that afraid of the light is about twice as common as afraid of light. Continue reading

The first post for a while

I haven’t posted much recently for several reasons. In September my new job (as a magazine subeditor) unexpectedly came to an end. On my way home, I contacted the academic manager of my previous English language college, who said she’d arrange some classes for me, but that took some time. That afternoon, I looked at job advertisements, saw one for a subeditor position with another magazine, and applied. That also took some time, but I have now done two days casually, with a view to part-time ongoing then full-time permanent from next year. 

Around the same time, we were in the process of selling our existing house and buying a new one, which we have now done.

Then last week, my father died, so there were many things to be organised, most of which were done by my two sisters who live in that city. My wife and I, and another sister and her family, flew to that city for the funeral on Wednesday. 

I got a lot of my interest in English from my father. He was a regular crossword puzzle doer, preached in church almost every week, and would often go and get the dictionary if we challenged him over Sunday lunch about something he’d said. This did not extend to other languages, though; he failed Biblical Greek multiple times. One of his grand-daughters/my nieces has great interest in and aptitude for languages, but that might be through her father, not our side of the family. Continue reading

“My name’s David and I like …”

Many years ago, in the first lesson of one class at high school, we did an ‘introduce yourself’ activity which consisted of saying “My name’s [name] and I like [food starting with that letter]”. The first D in the class (I can’t remember his name) said “I like duck”. The second (Debbie) said “I like dates”, which provoked a few light-hearted comments. When it was my term, I couldn’t think of any other food beginning with D. The teacher finally suggested dill pickles. Some of my classmates started calling me that as a nickname, but fortunately I changed class soon after, for unrelated reasons.

I am now teaching English again part-time, and the first lesson in the textbook was about food. In one lesson I did a similar activity in which students say “I went to the market and bought an apple, a banana etc …” through the alphabetic (vocabulary, pronunciation, countable and uncountable nouns etc). Duck was one of the items in the vocabulary list, so I was expecting the student whose turn it was to say that, but instead she said … Continue reading

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