One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Two days ago, he posted about a BBC quiz show which asked contestants to name countries ending with two consonants. He didn’t discuss the actual answers, but rather the fact that the show officially categorises y as a consonant, regardless of context.
The most obvious set of answers are the countries which end with -land, namely Fin, Ice, Ire, New Zea, Pol, Swazi, Switzer and Thai. (I thought of most of those on the train on the way home.) There is also the Netherlands and four sets of Islands, namely the Cook, (Faroe), Marshall and Solomon, but it might be argued that these do not end with two consonants. (I put Faroe in brackets – although it was on the list of ‘sovereign states’ I consulted, it is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.)
At the beginning of 4th grade of primary (elementary) school, our teacher gave us a big spelling test. One of the last words was one I spelled conshienshus. He marked it wrong, of course. He gave us the same spelling test the next year (I had the same teacher two years in a row). Either he’d told us that it was going to be the same spelling test, or I’d decided that I’d swot up on that word just in case it was going to be in it. I got it right the second time. Even now, I often have to mentally say con-ski-en-ti-ous, in order to remember the spelling. The etymology is Latin con + scire – conscience comes with knowing.
sci- pronounced /ʃ/ is a rare occurrence in English. I can only find conscience, prescience (which I knew), nescience (which I didn’t, but which I could guess (WordPress’s spell-checker doesn’t recognise it)), conscious, luscious and their derivatives. All other -science words are actually about science. -ti pronounced /ʃ/ is a very common occurrence. Without doing too much research at this time of night (just after 11 pm), I think that all -tion and -tious are pronounced /ʃ/. (There’s a technical term for this.)
I was reminded about this during class, when one of the words on a list of adjectives of personality was conscientious.
Yesterday I went driving, exploring and photographing in part of what some of my students call Blue Mountain, and what I insist on calling the Blue Mountains. There’s no place in Australia called Blue Mountain, but there are genuine linguistic reasons why some of my students (and, I guess, many others) change the Blue Mountains to Blue Mountain. Many languages do not have the equivalent of English a and the, and many speakers of English as a second language just aren’t used to saying those two English words. Many languages also do not have the equivalent of English plural s (or, as in Korean, it may be optional). English plural s often makes a double, triple or even quadruple consonant cluster with the final consonant(s) – here ns, which many second language speakers find difficult and want to simplify.
The Blue Mountains cover a large area, and people usually go to only a very small part of them. The officially defined geographic area covers 11,400 km2, almost as large as the Sydney metropolitan area (12,367 km2) and larger than 37 sovereign states. The local government area and the state electorate are, respectively, the City of Blue Mountains and the Electoral district of Blue Mountains, respectively.
And they aren’t blue. The sun filtering through evaporated eucalyptus oil gives the scenery a very slightly blueish tinge, but the trees are otherwise green and the rocks brown. I hope tourist books explain that.
The same linguistic issues arose when a student told me that she’d gone to Southern ’Ighland (viz, the Southern Highlands) the previous weekend. This sounded either like Southern Island (there is no Southern Island anywhere in the physical world) or (in my non-rhotic pronunciation) Southern Ireland (ooooh, a lot of Irish history and politics there).
(PS I don’t like giving any free publicity to corporate entities, but in this case it’s impossible not to.)
Some years ago (soon after I returned from Korea the first time, I think), I bought a quiz game made by a company called BrainBox. The shop had several in stock, but the one which I bought was of the countries of the world, which seemed most applicable to English language classes.
I have used it several times a year since. On Tuesday I was browsing through a local shop and saw another game from the same company, about Australia. I went back and bought it on Thursday morning and used it that evening in class.
I can’t decide whether it’s more interesting to find out that two words are actually related, or actually not. Every textbook has a section on parts of the body, in increasing amounts of detail. One previous time, I got to wondering whether the words knee and kneel are related. Sure, the concepts are, but are the words? Yes, they are. You may have known that, but I had never consciously thought about it.
This week the topic came round again, and I suddenly thought about whether ear and hear are related. No, they’re not. Dictionary.com gives the history of ear as ‘Middle English ere, Old English ēar, æhher; cognate with German Ahre, Old Norse ax, Gothic ahs ear, Latin acus husk’ (the Latin word for ear is auris cf aural), and that of hear as ‘Middle English heren, Old English hēran, hīeran; cognate with Dutch horen, German hören, Old Norse heyra, Gothic hausjan; perhaps akin to Greek akoúein [cf acoustic]’ (the Latin word for hear is audite cf audience – those who are hearing). For most of linguistic history, the words ear and hear have not rhymed or been spelled similarly.
Two days ago I bought Alex through the looking glass by Alex Bellos, an exploration of ‘how life reflects numbers and numbers reflect life’. His previous book was Alex’s adventures in Numberland (which the bookshop didn’t have, otherwise I would have bought it as well; I’m going to inquire at bookshops near home or work, and if they don’t have it, order it online [edit: I bought it at a bookshop in the city on Monday]), so he’s obviously got a thing for Lewis Carroll. (Unlike Alice, these books are entirely non-fiction.)
The first chapter is about numbers, and he starts with an account of a retired taxi driver with Asperger’s, whose hobby is to divide every number he sees into prime numbers. (The fundamental theorem of arithmetic states that every positive integer has a unique prime factorisation). The examples the man provides are 2761 = 11 x 251, 2762 = 2 x 1381, 2763 = 3 x 3 x 307 and 2764 = 2 x 2 x 691. (I don’t know how often one of the prime factors is so big; Wikipedia’s example is 1200 = 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 3 × 5 × 5. The bigger and the ‘odder’ the original number, the bigger any one factor might be, but the comparatively rarer prime numbers get.)
At a railway station in central Sydney, I saw a door marked EMERGENCY EGRESS ONLY. I guess that at least 99% of such doors in the English-speaking world are marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.
Egress is the slightly earlier word, dating from the 1530s. Exit as a stage direction (technically, a verb) as in ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ dates from the 1530s, but from the 1590s it was used as a noun, as in ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances’ and (occasionally) a ‘real’ verb.
From about 1650 to about 1850, the two words were used more or less interchangeably, but then the use of exit grew and egress declined, probably corresponding to the growth in public railway travel. Then in the early 1970s, the use of exit skyrocketed, for reasons I can’t think of, but curiously declined from 2000 to 2008. Most of this was due to the use of exit as a noun; exit really only began to be used as a verb in the 20th century.