Daily Archives: January 15, 2012


Put the palm of your hand right in front of your mouth. Say skill. Now say kill. Do you notice a difference? Try still, then till. Now spill. Now pill. Feel it that time?

It’s a feature of English phonology that we aspirate our syllable-initial voiceless stops. What that means is that when a /p/, /t/, or /k/ is at the beginning of a syllable – the very beginning, not after /s/ – and especially when it’s at the beginning of a stressed syllable, we puff out a little breath of air, like a short /h/ added after it – actually, like devoicing the start of the vowel. We do this even if the stop is followed by a liquid (/r/ or /l/). Try it with tree and plea.

Most languages don’t do this. (It’s a good way to sound like an Anglophone when speaking Spanish or French, for instance.) In fact, in some languages, the two sounds (aspirated and unaspirated) are considered as different as /p/ and /b/. This is why, in a language such as Thai (when you see it transliterated into the Latin alphabet), you see things like ph and th that seem to be said like p and t.

One quite marked bit of evidence of these aspirations is the sound they make when you’re speaking into a microphone. Most of us have had an occasion at one time or another to discover what “popping the p” means, possibly by doing it ourselves and possibly by hearing it at someone’s wedding or a high-school assembly. And you may have noticed spongey things that go over microphones to help prevent this effect. What are those things called?

That’s what Stephen Fry said, or words to that effect, when he and Hugh Laurie were in a recording studio some years ago: What’s that thing called? And Laurie said that it’s called a spoffle.

Several years after that session, Laurie and Fry were in the studio again, and the engineer came over to the microphone and said he was just going to adjust the spoffle. The what? Laurie asked, incredulous. The engineer explained. Laurie laughed and declared that he had made the word up on the spot.

So there it is. It popped into his puckish pate and he spat it out. Stephen Fry says so in his book Paperweight, and why would we doubt his word? It’s a perfectly plausible explanation, and there’s no other proposed etymology.

But if it’s just a word he made up, then it’s not a real word, is it? Well, it is now. It’s an industry-standard term, even.

It’s simple. There was a thing that needed a word, and someone made one up. (Well, it’s also called a pop-shield, but, really, spoffle is better. Anyway, we know that just about any absurdity about language, confidently asserted, can be very convincing; there’s a lot of rubbish – and some rather good stuff, now and then – floating around out there just because someone decided it should be so.) And spoffle seems a perfectly suitable word for a soft baffle to muffle the pop and spit of aspirations, given its sound and the words it sounds like.

Most people, remember, are not all that aware of the various meats that go into the sausage that is a word, and don’t really think about them that much even when they do; they just bite in and see how it tastes. Would we have words like chocoholic if etymological morphology were a primary consideration for the average user? Every now and then a made-up word just sounds right. Like blurb. Or grawlix. Because while words don’t always wear their sources on their sleeves, they always have the flavour their sounds give them (unless you can’t hear them, of course). And sometimes a word just, you know, pops.


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Question: from GoLeefs95
OK so my friend dragged me to see this opera movie thing today called Saythagr or sumthin like that and it was dum, they just stood around singing for like OMG FOUR HOURS, but anyway it was all in sandscript, and the interviews were talking about how hard it is to learn and sing this language because it’s like, from nowhere and ancient and everything. And it had no verbs or someting. So what is it? And why do they call it sandscript?

Answer forum:

Its not sandscript you dumb blond its sans script cuz it has no writing. OK? Sans, like not have. Script, like writing. Learn French. Duh.

It too is Sandscript! They wrote it in the sand. India is a desert country and all they had to write in was sand. So they would take their notes in sand and then at the end of class they would open the door and it would all blow away. Which is why it took them so long to learn anything. I saw this in a movie about the Dolly Llama, called Sanddune.

Actually, it’s Sanskrit. It’s a really ancient language. A lot of world wisdom was written in it. It was the language that the Buddha and Gandhi spoke. The word Sanskrit is a Sanskrit word for “written together,” because it was written all joined up. If you learn it to perfection you get to see Nirvana.

OMG Aleeshya21 ur so dumb! Nirvana sang in English and Kurt Kobain is dead. Learn some music!

Aleeshya21 is right that it’s Sanskrit. The word Sanskrit comes from the roots sama “together” and krta “made” and means not just “put together” but “well put together”, i.e., perfected. Sanskrit is basically the Latin of India – it’s even related to Latin. Its grammar is quite similar in many ways to that of Latin, and was analyzed and refined into a formalized standard by Panini, who was really the first linguist. There was, as you say, a school of thought that it was the language of the divine and proper usage was a path to divinity; similar attitudes can be seen towards modern English in some quarters. And, like Latin, Sanskrit is the classic language of many sacred texts and religious observances. Just as Latin developed more common forms that eventually became modern Italian, French, Spanish, etc., Sanskrit had common forms called prakrits, among which was the language the Buddha spoke (Pali), and many modern languages are descended from Sanskrit, including Hindi. It originally evolved as a purely oral language, and its great texts have traditionally been passed down orally, but it has been written in all the different writing systems of India, and is commonly written now in the devanagari alphabet, which is what Hindi is written in.


WTF OMG ur so dumb. Panini is a kind of samwich, not samscratch. Learn Italian!

How can you say something so racist as that Sanskrit comes from Latin! Sesquoitic you need to learn some things. You think that all knowledge has to come from the Europeans. Well, I’ve been to India, and it’s nothing like Latin. They have a deep wisdom that no one in the west understands. That’s the whole point of Satygrha and what Ghandhi was saying. You have to have freedom of the spirit and be who you are and follow your desires and stand in the way of western racism.

Sanskrit is not descended from Latin; they come from the same source, as do Greek and of course all the other Indo-European languages. Sweden is nothing like Italy, but Swedish and Italian are both Indo-European languages. There is a lot of great wisdom to be found in Sanskrit literature, although there is much in it and in Hinduism in general that probably does not match your values, for instance the caste system. The Bhagavad Gita, which was very important to Gandhi and which is used as the text for Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha – which I also saw today, and I really loved it, but different people like different things – has a central lesson that you must be who you are, yes, but that means doing your duty and surrendering the ego and desire. Your duty done poorly is better than another’s done well. It, and Gandhi’s following of it, has played an important role in many movements for freedom and equality; Martin Luther King Jr. was also influenced by Gandhi, as Satyagraha indicates. At the same time, the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita can be read in a few different ways. But there is far, far more in Sanskrit than just that one text.

Sesquotic you are such a hateful racist. How dare you invent this Indo-Europan idea. Sanskrit isn’t from Sweden! Look it up! How dare you say I value the caste system! It’s things like that that Sanskrit works against. You haven’t been to India. You need to go and see. And how can you talk about grammar when you write such bad English. You need to take a couse in grammar. GoLeefs95 Sanskrit is so hard to learn because it’s like no other language. It is sans kriteria, which means unequalled. It is the language of the divine. You need to find the divine in yourself and put yourself first. And by the way Buddhism uses Tibetan which is not the same.

It’s sam’s skirt cuz the guys wear skirts and the girls don’t.

Rachelle u need 2 get laid.

Sanskrit isn’t actually that hard to sing for the most part, though it does have some sounds Anglophones will have to put some effort into learning. Russian is at least as hard for Anglophones. If, at any time, you would like to stop screaming at people and start reading things, start with something like this useful brief run-down of the connections between Sanskrit and European languages and how they were discovered. And if you’re interested in the English versions of the texts from the Bhagavad Gita that were used in Satyagraha, the Metropolitan Opera has a nice PDF of them. Here’s one great quote: “Let a man feel hatred for no being, let him be friendly, compassionate; done with thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘mine,’ the same in pleasure as in pain, long suffering.”

Sesquitic you should know you can’t trust everything you read on the web. And thanks for the sexism “let a man.” You should go to India and open your eyes. HedKrushr: DIE.

Responses closed.

Favourite responder chosen by GoLeefs95: RachelleJrnl.

Favourite answer chosen by GoLeefs95: “Sanskrit is so hard to learn because it’s like no other language. It is sans kriteria, which means unequalled. It is the language of the divine.”

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