Consonant clusters

Posting about Sprite recently, specifically mentioning consonant clusters, reminded me that I have not fully explored these in this blog. Some time ago I posted a list of common words with the possible clusters of English, but didn’t analyse the clusters themselves.

All of the two-phoneme initial consonant clusters in English start with /s/ and/or finish with /w/, /l/, /r/ or /j/ (the ‘y’ sound in you, not the ‘j’ sound in jewel). Starting with: 
/sw/ switch, suede
/sl/ sleep, slow

The other ones starting with /s/ are:
/sm/ small, smile
/sn/ snow, snap
/sp/ speak, spend
/st/ state, still
/sk/ school, scale, skin
the rare, Greek /sf/ (sphere, sphinx)
and the very rare, Greek /sθ/ (sthenic (I don’t know what this means, but it appears on lists of consonant clusters)

The ones ending in /w/ are:
/tw/ twenty, twelve
/dw/ dwell, dwarf
/kw/ question, quite
/gw/ guava, Guam
/θw/ thwart

The ones ending in  /l/ are:
/pl/ place, play
/bl/ black, blood
/kl/ close, clear and scientific words starting with chl
/gl/ glass, glance
/fl/ floor, flat

The ones ending in /r/ are:
/pr/ problem, provide
/br/ bring, break/brake
/tr/ try, train
/dr/ draw, drive
/kr/ create, cross and many Christian and scientific words (chrome, chrono-)
/gr/ great, group
/fr/ from, phrase
/θr/ three, through
/ʃr/ shrug, shrink

Finally, the ones ending in /j/ are:
/mj/ music, museum
/nj/ new/knew, nuisance
/pj/ pupil, pure
/bj/ bureau
/tj/ tune, tube
/dj/ during, duty
/kj/ queue/cue, curious
/fj/ future, fuel
/vj/ view
/hj/ huge, humour

In table form:

switch, suede sleep, slow

m small, smile

music, museum
nsnow, snap

new/knew, nuinsance
pspeak, spend
place, playproblem, providepupil, pure

black, bloodbring, break/brakebureau
tstate, stilltwenty, twelve
try, traintune, tube
dwell, dwarf
draw, driveduring, duty
kschool, scale, skinquestion, quiteclose, clearcreate, crossqueue/cue, curious
guava, Guamglass, glancegreat, group
fsphere, sphinx
floor, flatfrom, phrasefuture, fuel

three, through

shrug, shrink

huge, humour

(I tried to make a table unambiguously showing which combinations are possible and which aren’t, but couldn’t make one that is both complete and clear.)

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photopic, biopic, photography

An article mentioned photopic vision, which I guessed was pho-topic, which turned out to be correct, but I commented to our editor that it might just be photo-pic. Photopic is photo, light + opic, relating to sight, or the vision of the human eye under well-lit conditions, compared to that in low light.

One word that is often mentioned in many discussions of ‘words which I though were pronounced somehow until I found out that they aren’t’ is biopic, which many people think is bi-opic, no doubt influenced by bionic, biology and biography. The common meaning is bios, life, but bio + pic is blend of biographical picture (movie), with the ‘pic’ representing a real word rather than simply being a suffix like -(o)nic, –logy and –graphy. Speaking of which, another article mentioned bionic design, that is, “the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology”. I just had to have the headline “We have the technology”.

In my other job, I’m fighting a losing battle against photo-graphy. In the medium-to-long term, this word may develop two pronunciations, one by native speakers and the other by second language learners. 

For whom, Who … for?

My wife has said a noticeable number of times:  “What are you looking?”. I think this is interference from Korean, which uses the direct object marker 을/를 instead of a preposition. Maybe I just give a short answer, eg “My glasses”, or say “I am looking for my glasses”, or say “For.  I am looking for my glasses”, depending on how much like an English teacher I feel at the time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene “For whom are you looking?”. This is not directly equivalent, because of the switch between what and who/whom. Google Ngrams shows that basically no-one says For what are you looking?

With who/whom, there are four choices: Who are you looking for?, Whom are you looking for?, For whom are you looking? and For who are you looking? Google Ngrams shows usage in that order. Despite the ‘rule’ that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, W/who are you looking for? has always been more common, and must be regarded as normal, standard English. I was surprised to find that Whom are you looking for? is more common than For whom are you looking?. The former sound very awkward to me. If I had to be formal, I would say/write For whom are you looking?

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The justice of scales

A few days ago, I mentioned that hadn’t seen the bathroom scales since before we moved house in early October. My wife replied that “it is in the kitchen cupboard”.

For me, scales are ‘uncountable plural’; that is, they always take are, were, these, those etc. Google Ngrams shows that the scale is/was is more common than the scales are/were. But this is complicated by the fact that there are three kinds of scales: snake/fish, weighing and music/map. Snake/fish and music/map scales are countable and therefore can be singular or plural, and’s entry for weighing scales is “scale2 noun 1. Often scales”.

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The Axe of the Apostles

At church this morning (Easter Day), the first reading was from The Axe of the Apostles – sorry, The Acts of the Apostles. English allows final consonant clusters of two, three and four consonants, but almost everyone simplifies these in some way (natives speakers probably only the three- or four-consonant clusters; second language speakers/learners even two-syllable clusters. I have even noticed that some students tend to drop any consonant at the end of a word.). Acts = /ækts/. I suspect that most native English speakers reduce to this to /æks/ = axe most of the time, even in the very formal setting of a major historic parish church on Easter Day. (The reader was otherwise impeccably enounced.) Many second language speakers/learners, on the other hand, drop the s, especially if plural marking is optional or non-existent in their language and/or it does not allow many/any final consonant clusters and/or /s/ is not permitted at the end of those which are allowed.

Strange sounds in Korean

Almost all learners of a second language have to produce sounds which are not found in their own language and which they may not have even heard before embarking on learning that second language.

Korean has three series of oral stops (sounds like English p, b, t, d, k and g), affricates (sounds like English ch and j) and fricatives (sounds like English s and z), but the differences between them are sometimes confusing for learners of Korean as a second language. Definitely, one series (ㅂㄷㅈㅅㄱ) is unvoiced and unaspirated (sometimes called ‘plain’ or ‘lax’), another (ㅍ ㅌ ㅊ ㅋ) is unvoiced and aspirated, but every source I’ve read has a different explanation for the third (ㅃ ㄸ ㅉ ㅆ ㄲ). These are not just ‘double letters’ like English spelling has; they are distinct (but obviously related) sounds which make distinct (and usually totally unrelated) words.

For an English speaker, there are issues with the first and second series of sounds (which I may write about at some future time) but during my masters study I wrote a short summary of the explanations I had found for the third, which I copy, paste and slightly edit here. Continue reading

Boastful braggart

My writing of Korean is good enough that I can compose simple text messages to my wife’s family and friends, but my reading of Korean is not good enough to understand everything in theirs. Sometimes when I am writing and more often when I am reading, I use Google Translate to check words I think I know or  find words I don’t. My typing in English is fast enough that I can type a whole word before it starts translating it into Korean, but my typing in Korean is painstakingly slow, and it translates, or attempts to translate, each ‘word’ as I add each letter. Some of the translations along the way bear no resemblance to the final meaning.

Yesterday evening I attended my first Korean class, offered through the university (all my previous learning has been self-study). I came home demoralised at what I convinced myself was my failure as a student (based on my inability to understand Absolutely Everything, Absolutely Immediately). There was, in fact, nothing that being in a pre-intermediate class (instead of the intermediate class I was actually in) wouldn’t go a long way towards fixing (but there isn’t a pre-int class; I poked my nose into the beginner class, and the teacher was explaining 아, 우, 어 and 오, which I taught myself nine years ago, so I certainly don’t belong there). It would also help if the teacher didn’t talk non-stop and very fast, and if we got the chance to practice along the way.

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‘I playing’ and ‘I am play’

During the week one of my classes had the topic of ‘Staying Healthy in the Modern World’. Although there were examples in the textbook at city, country, continental and global levels, most of the examples, and the statements produced by the students, were at the personal level, starting with ‘I eat …’, ‘I drink …’ and ‘I play …’. Along the way, both in written and spoken work, several students produced sentences in the patterns ‘I playing …’ and ‘I am play …’.

It is safe to say that ‘I playing …’ and ‘I am play …’ are simply not part of standard English. The Corpus of Contemporary American English contains 13 examples of ‘I playing’, but 10 of these are in the form of questions: ‘am I playing …?’ / ‘what part am I playing …?’ / ‘why I am playing …?’ /  ‘what was I playing …?’, and the remaining three might be charitably classified as slips of the tongue in speech: ‘I remember doing an interview once, and it was when I playing a sociopath …”, “Bob Taylor and I played brothers. Bob Taylor and I playing brothers”, and “But his head’s so fucked up by all those years of I playing God that he really thinks he created the heavens and the earth”. It has no examples of ‘I am play’.

The British National Corpus contains six examples of ‘I playing’, generally in line with the COCA results: “Aren’t I playing …?”, “What part am I playing …?”, ‘What the hell am I playing at?’, ‘There was I playing so well …’, ‘am I playing some deep game?’ and the highly idiosyncratic “Don’t know well sometimes I playing like and this girl, Oh that’s stupid doing all this and, you know and she just like …”. Likewise, it has no examples of “I am play”.

The question is: “Where do second language students get these non-standard or even non-existent patterns?”. Students have not been exposed to any examples in text or speech by native speaker of English, and any exposure to examples by second language speakers must be few and far between.

Competence v performance

Linguists distinguish between linguistic competence — what we know, consciously or unconsciously, about a language (our first or a second) — and linguistic performance — how effectively we put that knowledge into producing or comprehending speech, which is influenced by all sorts of factors about the speaker, the listener(s) and the context.

Last night, I had to do some photocopying for this morning’s lessons. I went to a PC-bang (computer café). The employee guided me to a computer, and I set about opening and printing files. (As it turns out, there was a technical problem, which is not relevant to the story.) I didn’t have to say anything at this point, but managed to blurt “내일 대학교 사무실 있어요. 오늘 없어요” (“Tomorrow university office have. Today not have.”) As the employer fixed the technical problem, I though “Hey, I can do better than that” and by the time I left had come up with “내일부터 대학교에서 사무실을 있을거옝요. 오늘 없어요” (“Tomorrow-from university-at office-(object) going-to-have. Today not have” (the omission of “I” is acceptable in Korean, and there is no “do-support” for negative statements). This may not be perfect Korean, but it’s a darn sight better than what I actually produced. But by the time I left, it was too late to say it again.

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‘Mind your language’

In the late 1970s I watched a British tv comedy called ‘Mind your language’, which about ‘a motley crew of foreign students’ (Wikipedia’s words) in an  English language class in London, but had almost forgotten it until I started teaching English. I decided not to show it to my students in case they took offence at the blatant racial stereotypes (which would probably not be allowed on tv now). Some time last year I came into the classroom after a break to find one of my students watching an episode on the computer. After I explained the premise to the students, they enthusiastically agreed to watch it and not get offended. The Pakistani students love the Pakistani character and his rivalry with the Indian character, but the Chinese students are perplexed by the now-superseded Mao-quoting Chinese character. I play an episode every now and again as a special treat. We are meant to seriously analyse the language points. (On the recent CELTA course, one of my fellow trainees mentioned watching and loving it. She wasn’t born when it was on tv.)

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