While I was researching the spelling ough for the previous batch of Grammarbites, I saw in the Wikipedia article on that spelling a list of four poems highlighting the inconsistencies. I easily found them on the internet and gather them here for your convenience. Two of them are written in the voice of an English language learner, the second one possibly the writer’s own experience.
Hooray for computer files and searches. After I decided that the next batch of Grammarbites would be about pronunciation, specifically consonant clusters, I remembered that I’d done a lot of research about this about five years ago, and never finished. I found the file, with most of what appears below in it.
For reasons I might explain sometime, I needed to know the spelling of argh. Or arrgh. Or arrrgh. Or aargh. Or aarrgh, Or aarrrgh. Or aaargh. Or aaarrgh. Or aaarrrrgh. Or possibly multiple gs and/or multiple hs.
Dictionary.com gives ‘argh or aagh’. Google Ngrams shows argh, aargh, arrgh, aaargh and arrrgh, with no results for aarrgh, aarrrgh, aaarrgh or aaarrrrgh.Multiple as emphasises the length of the vowel, while multiple rs emphasises the throatiness of the rhotic. Multiple gs and/or multiple hs are also possible: Ngrams has arghh, and a general Google search has arghh (1,330,000), arggh (242,000) and argghh (148,000). aarrgghh is also possible (151,000), but the combinations grow exponentially, so I’ll stop there.
There are two meanings: the pirate sound, which is most commonly written as arrr, and the frustration sound, which is most commonly written argh or aargh.
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.)