Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling





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.)

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I love digressions, and the textbook’s topic of photography turned into a discussion of cute animal photos on the internet. The page of photos I quickly found had a wide range of animals, which doubled up as a bit of extra vocabulary learning (sloth is not usually included in vocabulary lists). One of the photos was of a baby hippo, so I said ‘It’s full name is hippopotamus‘. Several students tried to pronounce that and generally failed, so I said ‘Don’t worry, you can always say hippo‘. One student from the Philippines then said ‘In Tagalog, we say hippopoTAmus’. I know just enough Greek to know that, by itself poTAmus is closer to the original pronunciation than POtamus. Greek Wikipedia’s page for river is titled Ποταμός and the one for hippopotamus is Ιπποπόταμος (the ‘single accent or tonos (΄) … indicates stress), so Ποταμός is actually potaMOS, but the stress shifts to PO in the compound word. I said to the student ‘In English, we say hippoPOtamus, but you can always say hippo‘.

Many students say PHOtographer and PHOtography, and it is impossible to get them to say phoTOgrapher and phoTOgraphy. When they try, they say phoTOEgrapher and phoTOEgraphy. As far as I know, no native speakers say PHOtographer, but it may come about that in the future, driven by second language speakers, it is recognised as a general alternative pronunciation. I hope not.

Five years ago, I had two students from Greece. As their vocabulary developed and more Greek-derived words crept into lessons, readings and word lists, the more advanced of the two would say ‘ooh, is Greek word’. (But he was stumped by kaleidoscope, which is not a Greek word, but was coined in English from Greek.) (I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned those two – I’ve got many stories about them.)


On a wet weekend, while recovering from a perfectly ordinary but nonetheless annoying cold, I was catching up on some language and linguistics blogs I rarely read, possibly because those bloggers are far less active these days than previously. One of those is David Crystal. One of his posts relates the story of Gerard Manley Hopkins contributing Irish words and phrases for the English Dialect Dictionary, published between 1898 and 1905. Some of the items don’t sound dialectal at all, some are amply attested elsewhere, and some were new to me.

My eye was caught by

bodach, sb, an old man; a churl

Ireland. GMH [no example]

I immediately flashed back 40 years to my last year or two of primary school in country Victoria, when and where the word bodack (however spelled – it was rarely written) was used as a one-word reply to express disbelief or derision at someone else’s statement. (The exact level of disbelief or derision depended on the exact amount of inflection in the pronunciation.) Are the two words connected? It’s impossible to say now.

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Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus!

Today is the 1st of March (at least where I’m sitting, but not where WordPress’s clock/calendar is located), which is commemorated in some parts of the Christian Church as St David’s day. It is a date of some significance in our family. This year it falls on Wednesday, indeed on Ash Wednesday, which is commemorated in most parts of the Christian Church. This is coincidental, as Ash Wednesday, which is linked to the lunar calendar calculation of Easter, can fall anywhere between 4 February and 10 March. 1 March 2006 also fell on a Wednesday, which is not surprising, as the calendar repeats every 11 + 11 + 6 years. 1 March 2006 was also Ash Wednesday, which is surprising, as the date of Easter jumps around the calendar seemingly randomly. (If there is a pattern, it certainly plays out over longer periods than 11 years.)

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I have written before about strings of words borrowed from (and through) English in Korean: Maxim mocha gold mild coffee mix. It happens in English, too. Walking to the venue for dinner with colleagues last night, I saw TRUMPS ALTO EGO HOMMES FEMMES COIFFURE SPA, which contains no native English words (that is, attested in English before 900). Some of them have become (more) ‘English’ while others remain less so.

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Mary’s Boy Child

My first exposure to a non-standard variety of English was probably the Christmas song Mary’s Boy Child. One of my grandmothers had the sheet music and various members of the family sang it in various combinations when we visited at Christmas.

I vaguely remember vaguely thinking, ‘oh, this is different English’, not ‘oh, this is bad English’. Researching for this post, I found that Jester Hairston was born in a rural community in North Carolina, but grew up in Pittsburgh and later studied at Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston) and the Juilliard School (Manhattan, New York). An obituary in the Los Angeles Times refers to his Boston accent, which he had to ‘lose’ for (stereotypically Black, at the time) radio and tv roles.

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