Abbreviation on the menu

Two items on the menu of almost every Australian pub are schnitzel (veal unless otherwise specified, or chicken) and parmigiana (chicken unless otherwise specified, or veal). Partly because of lack of space on signboards, and partly because Australians abbreviate almost everything we can, these are often abbreviated to schnitz, schnitty or schnittie, and parmi, parmie, or parmy. Google reports:
schnitz 337,000 – schnitty 104,000 – schnittie 5,490
parmi 233,000,000 – parmie 166,000 – parmy 1,990,000

The result for parmi are skewed by the fact that it’s the French word for among. In fact, the translation appeared at the top of Google’s search results, before any reference to food.

For plurals, schnitz must become schnitzes, schnitty can become schnitties or schnittys, and schnittie must become schnitties. Parmi can become parmis or parmies, parmie must become parmies and parmy can become parmies or parmys:
schnitzes 4,5000 – schnittys 4,730 – schnitties 5,190
parmis 200,000,000 (again skewed by the French word) – parmies 241,000,000 (I can’t explain this result) – parmys 1,670,000 (there’s something very strange going on here – the results for plural schnit– are much lower than for the corresponding singulars, but the results for plural parm– are way higher. 

We have to take these numbers with a large amount of caution. I was prompted to write this post because I spent a wet weekend sorting through old documents, and found a piece of note paper with numbers from approx 2(?) years ago, which are way different from these. 

Does anyone know? No (partly because both words are borrowed from other languages). Does it matter? No (but I can imagine some people getting pasDo I have a choice? If I had to stick my neck out, I’d go for -ie(s) in both cases, if only because these spellings are more common in Australian abbreviations.

(By the way /ʃn/ is another initial consonant cluster not found in English which English speakers encounter in other languages. We generally have no trouble with it, partly because of familiarity and partly because it is phonetically very similar to /sn/.)

PS some Facebook friends mentioned parma, which I hadn’t included because I’d never heard or seen it. Google’s numbers for that are skewed by the Italian city. Some of the sources I read while preparing this post also have parm, which is just wrong. The first result for parm is parmesan cheese, which I have never heard or seen, either.


hues and cries

A document quoted a witness saying that some people were making “hues and cries” in a certain situation. It’s usually make a hue and cry, but hues and cries is used just enough (Google Ngrams and a general Google search) to accept it as standard, if very rare. English has many (linguistic) Siamese twins: two words joined by and or or, which cannot be reversed. We can’t say a cry and hue. In some of these pairs, one word is archaic and is rarely or never used by itself. We can make a cry, but we can’t make a hue, at least not in this meaning. The colour-related hue is unrelated. One news source online deliberately mixes the meanings, talking about the colours of protests around the world.

incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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Brethren and sistren

Last weekend I got a card for our new local library and borrowed a book about language and the DVDs for the tv science-fiction series Firefly, which I have read small amounts about over the years but never seen. The series mixes futuristic science fiction with wild west settings, as the outer planets and moons of a complex solar system (or an inter-related group of solar systems; it isn’t fully explained) were terraformed to a basic level but the settlers are otherwise expected to fend for themselves.

In one episode the lead character unexpectedly finds himself married by local custom to a young woman who may or may not be what she seems (semi-spoiler: she isn’t). At one point she refers to “my sistren” in “the maiden house”. 

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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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“A glass on her head”

I wish I could draw, but I can’t. Sometimes I draw very simple stick figures and sometimes those leave my students even more confused than before.

A few days ago, my students were doing a communicative activity. The book provided two sets of drawings of six people with small difference between them, the activity being to describe each person accurately enough that their partner would understand that the drawing was different. One of the people was wearing sunglasses on her head. One student said, “She has a glass on her head”. I asked “What has she got on her head?”. She replied “A glass”. I quickly drew these stick figures:


I repeated my question and the student answered correctly. It turns out that the sunglasses were not one of the differences between the two sets of drawings. (The same often happens with “She has a long hair”.)

Glass can only mean “the substance”, and “a glass” can only mean “a drinking vessel”. But “glasses” can mean “two drinking vessels” or “spectacles”. But in this context, “She has glasses on her head” is going to be interpreted as “spectacles”. In the context of a circus performance, we’d have to say “She is balancing glasses on her head”.

inning and innings, outing and outings

On  Saturday evening I went for an outing to a baseball game. This is slightly unusual in Australia (there is a baseball competition, but it is almost unknown) and very unusual for me (I would not otherwise go to a baseball game, except …).

Last year I semi-did a course in photography on Coursera (I watched the videos and did the standard quizzes, but didn’t pay money to do the assessment quizzes and submit my photos for peer review). A few weeks ago one of the lecturers (a professor of photography at a university in the USA) emailed people in Australia who’d done the course, saying that he would be in Australia in late Dec-early Jan and was planning a trip to the baseball. (Which makes about as much sense as me travelling to the USA and going to a cricket match, but his son is involved with the baseball team here.) Seven photographers and three hangers-on attended. We had a short session together, then wandered around taking photos before and during the game. After some time, we each had a one-on-one with the lecturer, and he said some seriously nice things about my photos.

Photos first, then language: Continue reading

Grammarbites ch 5 – Nouns

Part 1 – introduction

[when I put the whole thing in order, Nouns will come here]

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

I am currently wading through many explanations in grammar books and online of countable and uncountable nouns. Many sources have too many examples, many have too few. My challenge is to provide you with a good amount of representative examples, with some rhyme or reason.

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The Blue Mountains v Blue Mountain

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).

[edit 6 Oct: after I posted on Facebook about another photo-hike to the Blue Mountains, an online friend from Canada told me that there is a Blue Mountain in Ontario (the name of the mountain and a ski resort), as well as nearby town named ‘The Blue Mountains‘.]