nineteenth-century wifi

I was showing my students about using Google Ngrams to track the rise or fall of words over time. As an example of a modern word, I chose internet, which, not surprisingly, started being used about 1990. I then chose wifi, and was surprised to find that it was used more in the first half of the nineteenth century than since 2000. It’s obviously a scanning/processing error by Google Books, but I can’t think of any word which would be mis-scanned/mis-processed that much. The closest possible word is wife. Other than that, I’m pretty much flummoxed. (That’s possibly the first time I have ever typed the word flummoxed (1830-40; origin uncertain).)

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‘The cleverest person alive’

Today’s chapter of the textbook focused on ‘brain games’, IQ tests and genius of the past and now. As an example of the latter, it said:

Kim Ung-Yong, who is generally regarded as the cleverest person alive, has an IQ of 210. He was made famous when he appeared on Japanese TV at the age of four, solving complex mathematical problems. He attended university between the ages of four and seven, and at the age of eight, he was invited to the USA to join NASA. At the age of 16, he chose to return to Korea, because he missed his mother!

I had never heard of him, despite a general interest in ‘brain games’, IQ tests and geniuses of the past and now, and neither had a Korean student and my wife, so he’s not even famous in Korea. I searched for his name and got his photo and other information, and … Guess Who Else’s photo crops up in a search for the name of ‘the cleverest person alive’? I tried this on two major search engines on three computers at work and at home, and got the same result.

Guess, or maybe try it yourself.

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‘Wilt thou leave me so dissatisfied?’

This week’s chapter of the textbook contained a lot about changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa using suffixes, and modifying adjectives using prefixes, including making negative adjectives. English has rather too many ways of making negative adjectives, including a-, dis-, il-, im-, in-, ir-, –less, non– and un-. Of these, a– is the most restricted and the textbook didn’t even mention it. il-, im-, in– and ir– are fairly restricted (compare illegal and unlawful), and –less can only be added to a noun. The three most general are dis-, non– and un-, probably in that order of restriction: we can say ‘uncool’ and ‘non-cool’, but we can’t say ‘discool’. (There are restrictions on the root adjective as well: we can say ‘unhappy’, but probably not ‘unsad’ and certainly not ‘unmiserable’.)

We have sets of words like comfort (verb), comfort (noun) and comfortable, but discomfort and uncomfortable. uncomfort and discomfortable exist, but are vanishing rare. Sometimes two adjectives sit side by side. Some combination of dissatisfying, unsatisfying, dissatisfied, unsatisfied, dissatisfactory and unsatisfactory cropped up in one lesson. dissatisfying and unsatisfying seem to be more subjective and dissatisfactory and unsatisfactory seem to be more objective: a movie might be unsatisfactory because of the picture or sound quality, but unsatisfying because of the story or acting.

Dictionary.com lists unsatisfactory, dissatisfactory, unsatisfying and dissatisfied, but dissatisfying redirects to dissatisfy, and unsatisfied to satisfied. On the other hand, unsatisfy and unsatisfaction don’t exist; the verb and noun are dissatisfy and dissatisfaction. Google Ngrams shows unsatisfactory and dissatisfied considerably ahead of unsatisfied and unsatisfying, slightly ahead of dissatisfying and dissatisfactory. So unsatisfactory and unsatisfying are clear choices, while dissatisfied is the better choice, but unsatisfied is not ‘wrong’. But there are two differences. The first is grammatical: Google Ngrams shows that dissatisfied is standardly followed by a function word (dissatisfied with, and, that, in, as, at, because, than, by and to) (and is therefore standardly used predicatively), while unsatisfied is followed by a noun more often than not (unsatisfied with, and, demand, desire, in, by, desires, longing, longings and curiosity) (and is therefore used attributively and predicatively). The second is semantic: people and demands, desires, longings, and curiosity can be unsatisfied, but only people (and maybe larger animals) can be dissatisfied.

Shakespeare has Romeo ask ‘Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?’, but we can hardly draw any conclusions from on random example from more than 400 years ago.

Pronouns, Chinese

Yesterday a student mentioned that she sometimes has trouble understanding “my boss’s” workplace instructions. To get more information, I asked several follow-up questions. I didn’t want to assume that her boss was either female or male, in order to say “she” or “he”, so I had to say “your boss” in several questions in a row. She finally said that her boss is a woman. (Actually her bosses are a married woman and man, but she interacts with the woman more.) I asked “Does she speak to you in English or Chinese?”. She said “She’s Chinese, but she speaks a different (long pause) Chinese than me”. I briefly mentioned ‘language’, ‘dialect’ and ‘topolect’, then said ‘The easiest thing to say is “She speaks a different kind of Chinese than me”‘.

conshienshus

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.

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‘.]