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.
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.
So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.
Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)
A task in a test was to write an “email” (that is, with pen and paper) to a friend about a recent holiday. One student wrote about his holiday in Continue reading
Students’ mistakes sometimes surprise me in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. One section of the weekly test was about feelings. The questions had two sentences outlining a scenario then prompting a feeling by providing the first one or two letters of the word (in a sentence such as ‘I [am/feel/am feeling/was/felt] [a bit/very/really] (adjective)’.) The mistakes fall into a continuum of wrongness: from a simple spelling error to the wrong part of speech to a wrong but existing word to a wrong and non-existing word. (I’ll paraphrase the scenarios to disguise the source slightly.)
A moment ago I saw the word affinity on a website, which jogged a memory from all the way back in grade 1 of primary/elementary school. The teacher had told us about infinity. Soon after, a female classmate (my only serious rival as the most advanced student in the class) drew a picture of a dancer with a large number of streamers, with the caption effinity streamers. I managed not to say anything to her, but I was inwardly scathing that she had misunderstood the concept and mis-spelled the word. Or maybe she hadn’t misunderstood: the first dictionary I checked just a moment ago includes the definition ‘indefinitely or exceedingly great’. There was certainly an exceedingly great number of streamers. (If I’d had to draw a picture illustrating infinity I would have drawn stars.)
Another definition is ‘unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless’. Most internet service providers talk about unlimited connection (previously dial-up, now broadband). One ISP is currently advertising limitless broadband. English allows for negative adjectives in the form un-N-ed and N-less (and also non– and il-/in-/im-/ir-). Unlimited is the earlier form and is still used almost four times as much as limitless. On the other hand, boundless has been (slightly) more used than unbounded since 1820.
There doesn’t seem to be any difference in meaning (though mathematics may have specialised usages of limit-related words). In terms of the internet, Google Ngrams records unlimited internet from 1991 and unlimited broadband from 1992 (which may be a glitch in the data – the rate for 1993-1997 is identical) and limitless internet and limitless broadband not at all up to 2008 (when its data finishes).