It’s not grammar

Last year (I think), a friend fulminated on Facebook that an ABC newsreader had said something like “The robbers took money off the people”. She asked rhetorically “Where’s your grammar?”. I replied that there’s nothing grammatically wrong with saying off instead of from; it’s a matter of semantics (meaning) or usage.

The father of another friend died recently. The funeral was livestreamed, which I missed, but it’s still available to watch. My friend said that his father was insistent on grammar. Asking “Can I have a glass of wine?” would be answered by “I think you mean ‘May I have a glass of wine?’”. Again, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with Can I have.

Google Ngrams shows that take money from people is used far more commonly than take money off people (for all inflections of take), so my first friend may be worrying unnecessarily. In any case, her time might have been better spent sending an email to the ABC than posting on Facebook. On the other hand Can I have and May I have have a mixed history. According to Google Ngrams, Can I have was more common  until about 1900-1910, at which point it lost favour to May I have. The latter reached its peak about 1940-1950, then suddenly lost favour again, and was overtaken by Can I have about 1980. (The results vary with case sensitive, but the overall trends are clear.) The horse has bolted, and you can shut the barn door if you want to. The peak of May I have corresponds to my friend’s father’s school years, and the rebirth of Can I have corresponds with my friend’s school years.

Most comments about (other people’s) grammar are more often about meaning, usage, variety, formality/informality, spelling or punctuation. Speaker English native make rarely mistake grammatical.

Like it or not, when older (usually male) people (including me) say X is wrong, you should say x or Y, they are almost always on the wrong side of linguistic history.

I remember teaching a lesson about this during my first stay in South Korea. I said (to summarise) that according to formal English, can means ability and may means permission, while according to normal English, can means either ability or permission and may means permission. I’m sure my friend’s father wouldn’t have agreed with me.


Sunday 순대

Before I moved to Korea the first time I read up about the country, people, language and culture,  but somehow missed out on the food 순대 (sun-dae (soon-day, not Sunday)), a sausage made of steamed cow or pig intestine stuffed with some combination of meat, blood, vegetables and rice or noodles.

Within a few weeks, a student told me she’d just eaten soon-day. I should have just asked her to explain, but I thought she meant and was mispronouncing the American English sundae (Sunday, not soon-day), so I wrote it on the board and asked “Is that what you mean?” and she said yes. I said “What flavour?”. She looked puzzled and said “Pig flavour”. Sunday and (English) sundae are (probably) related, but Korean 순대 isn’t.

This evening my wife cooked 순대국 (sundae soup). I said that it isn’t my favourite, and she asked me if I know what 순대 is. I said “Of course, it’s Soonday today”. She looked puzzled. I said “Soonday, Moonday, Tuesday …”. Our niece then had to explain. I doubt if I would understand a corresponding joke in Korean, so I shouldn’t have expected her to understand that. 

Maybe I should call 일요일 simply 요일 because, for me, 일요일에 일 없어요. Bilingually, a lawyer’s favourite day is obviously 수요일 and a pedicurist’s is 토요일. 

Korean proverbs

Some time ago I posted that during a lesson based on English proverbs, a student claimed that there weren’t anything similar in Korean, only for another student in another lesson a few days later to spontaneously say “Well, as we say in Korea: ‘The ship with a hundred captains ends up in the mountains’”. 

Recently I posted about a series of videos of slow, repeated listening in Korean. One of the sentences I heard a few days ago was 일찍 일어나는 새가 벌레를 잡아먹습니다 (early waking bird beetle catches and eats), obviously the direct equivalent of ‘The early bird catches the worm’. (Google Translate translates it as ‘Birds that wake up early eat insects’, which is rather more prosaic.)

Later in the same video was 부부싸움은 칼로 물 베기이다, which is approximately ‘A couple’s fight is like cutting water with a knife’, that is, it does no lasting harm. I can’t think of any direct equivalent in English, and can only suggest the mixed ‘A lover’s quarrel is a storm in a tea-cup’. I think it sounds remarkably optimistic of Koreans to say so at any time, let alone to enshrine it as proverbial wisdom. (Google Translate possibly misses the point with ‘Marriage fight is a knife cut’, which might actually be closer to what English speakers might say!)

PS an example of a page of ‘Korean proverbs’. I can’t guarantee the authenticity.

It’s rather hard

I spent my childhood in various country towns in the Australian state of Victoria. My last year there was my first year of high school. Even now I remember that our science teacher pronounced graph as /gra:f/ (with the same vowel as in palm), in contrast to the prevailing pronunciation of /græf/ (with the same vowel as in trap). The next year we moved to a country town in South Australia, where I quickly discovered that absolutely everyone said /gra:f/ and absolutely no-one said /græf/, not even me after a few days.

In my previous post, I said that for words like bath, the pronunciation with /a:/ is more common in Australia. Between trap and palm is a spectrum of words which some people pronounce with /æ/ and others with /a:/. Graph is one example, but not graphic, which everyone pronounces as /græfɪk/, as far as I know. 

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Eff it!

Yesterday one of my colleagues said something close enough to ineffable, which led to me paraphrase Douglas Adam’s line: “Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency)

We got talking about this strange word, and soon after he quoted the hymn O worship the King, all glorious above, the last verse of which begins O measureless might! Ineffable love! Today he added Crown him with many crowns, which contains the lines Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime.*

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Could you read this blog post, please?

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was polite requests and responses, which reminded me of an incident which happened when I was teaching English in Korea in 2006-2009. I didn’t post it on my travel blog at the time or even record it in my diary, for no particular reason.

For part of that time I taught at a government high school. The students had varying levels and interests in learning English. One day I introduced the grammar or vocabulary point, set the students going on the practice task and wandered round checking their progress.

One student was sitting by herself, not doing the task and instead applying copious amounts of makeup. I asked, “Could you please put your makeup away and do your work?”. She smiled sweetly and continued applying her makeup. 

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said, “Please put your makeup away and do your work”. She replied in Korean, so I said “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean”.

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said “Put your makeup away and do your work!”. She looked at me, smiled sweetly and said

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My dog has no nose

A; My dog has nose.
B: How does it smell?
A: Terrible!

At the risk of over-explaining a venerable joke (your mileage may vary as to how funny it actually is(n’t)), this joke relies on the fact that smell means both emit an odour and perceive an odour. B means How does it perceive an odour?. A’s response means It emits a terrible odour. But you knew that.

The same thing happens with taste, which means both emit a flavour (for the want of a better, short description) and perceive a flavour. Because dogs are more famous for their sense of smell than their sense of taste, and because we are more likely to smell dogs than to taste them (even in Korea), the following joke would not work (unless as a bizarre parody):

A: My dog has no tongue.
B: How does it taste?
A: Terrible!

(Actually, there are taste buds elsewhere in the mouth, so it has a reduced sense of taste.) Continue reading

Afraid of what?

A few days ago the chapter of the textbook was about comparative and superlative adjectives, and one question was something like “What are you most afraid of?”. One student said “I am afraid of ” something that sounded like duck or dog. Was she afraid of ducks (the bird) or duck (the meat), or dogs (the animal) or dog (the meat, in some countries, see later)? I might have asked for clarification then, but decided to let her keep talking. She said that when she was young, the toilet was accessed from outside, so she always asked one of her parents to take her. So did they have ducks or dogs in their backyard? I finally said “I don’t know whether you said duck or dog”. She said “No – daakk”. Aha. “Afraid of the dark.” Why do we say “the dark” rather than “dark”. Would Dracula say “I am afraid of light” or “I am afraid of the light”? Google Ngrams shows that afraid of the light is about twice as common as afraid of light. Continue reading

498th post – Last day as English language teacher

Today is my last day as an English language teacher, after more than eleven and a half years at a language college, provincial government high school and university in South Korea and language colleges in Australia. I am making this move for a wide variety of reasons, related to the ESL sector in general (an Australian student visa requires attendance at classes for 20 hours per week, so most teachers are engaged for 20 hours per week, and there is very little opportunity to advance to a full-time position), the college and colleagues (some classes at some colleges are run as courses – the students start at the same time, do the course, and finish at the same time, but our English classes have been ‘start and finish when you need to’, and I’ve had to share a small office with up to four other people of various degrees of loudness in various languages, as student of various degrees of loudness in various languages come and go), the students (who have different levels of English, life experience and personal and study backgrounds, some of whom attend way less than 20 hours per week, and come and go, use their phone, chat in their own language or sleep when they are there), and myself (basically, dealing with all of the above, and commuting). 

Through English language teaching, I’ve lived in South Korea for two periods totalling three and a half years, met my wife, travelled to Hong Kong and Japan, met all kinds of other people in South Korea and Australia, gained my masters degree (and may yet go on to doctoral study), attempted to learn Korean (하지만 아직 잘 못 해요), developed a serious hobby of photography and started this blog. On the other hand, I’ve had to largely give up my other serious hobby of classical choral singing. (I can and will return to that, but it remains to be seen whether I will ever again perform at my peak.) So now it’s time for a change. From tomorrow …

Harry Potter and the Overworked Translator

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was books, especially translating books between languages. Most of the students I’ve ever taught read very few books, and this class was no exception. Some of them had read books in English. I asked about Harry Potter, probably the most famous set of novels in English in the recent past, and available in many languages. Some had read at least some of the books either in their language or English, but not both. I asked about the titles. The first book is usually either ‘magic stone’ or ‘magician’s stone’, but the Korean word translates as ‘wizard’. The Nepalese students conferred, then said ‘shining stone’. Continue reading