Eglinton, glint

EGLINTON

Look at the glint on that photo. That’s no tingle. Perhaps it’s non-legit – it’s actually from the little flash on my iPhone. But at a glance, it is a glint – and indeed since it glances off the surface, moving quickly and perhaps obliquely, it does glint, even if lacks the éclat of, say, lit gelignite.

Those who live in Toronto will surely know where I took the picture: standing on the platform of Eglinton subway station. Eglinton station is at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, a neighbourhood once and occasionally still jokingly called “Young and Eligible” (it helps that there are high-rise apartments thereabouts that house many young and eligible people, but then that’s true for several places in Toronto). More often it’s just said “yunganeg,” the intersection of two of Toronto’s most important – and most misspelled and mispronounced – streets.

Easy to see how one might get Yonge wrong (it’s pronounced like young). But Eglinton? Well, it’s like this: there are many people in Toronto and area who will swear it’s Eglington and always say it that way. This is, in my analysis, a hypercorrection – everyone knows, after all, that “-in’” is a casual way of saying “-ing,” so the inference is that “Eglinton” is sloppy for “Eglington.” On top of that, there is a Toronto street of some note (meaning it has a subway station) named Islington, with that g before the t. So it’s not so surprising that people think that “Eglinton” drops the g.

Even though there’s no g to drop. By which I mean not only that the word is actually Eglinton but also that in going from “-ing” to “-in’” you do not drop a [g]. There is no [g] sound in there. Listen to the difference between finger and singer. The former has a [g]; the latter, not. What is the difference between singer and sinner (I mean just the pronunciations!)? Not a [g] but rather the difference between back and front: the place the tongue touches the roof of the mouth. So people who think that Eglinton is dropping a [g] have it back to front. As it were.

The street name, by the way, is after Eglinton Castle in Scotland (no longer standing – there was an old small castle that was replaced circa 1800 with a Gothic-style castellated building, which was abandoned in 1925 and was finished off by army posted there in WWII), which was the seat of the Earls of Eglinton (the first Earl of Eglinton was Hugh Montgomerie, elevated in 1508); the name Eglinton was first recorded in 1205 as Eglunstone, and is seen in various spellings such as Eglytone and Egglington over the centuries. As an odd aside, there was a chair in Eglinton Castle that had the full text of Robert Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter” on it, a poem that I have referred to in my note on skirl. Well, why not? The castle was in Ayrshire, and Burns was an Ayrshire man.

Does it seem strange that some Torontonians might see Eglinton so many times on such a regular basis and not notice that it’s not Eglington? I bet even fewer people notice that it has a glint right in the middle of it. It’s right there, but it’s across syllable boundaries. Eg. Lin. Ton. It shows at best as an oblique flash.

Which is what a glint is. But where do we most often say we see glints? In someone’s eye. It’s one thing to see a glance of an eye; it’s another to see a glint in an eye. Literally it would seem to be a reflection, not really volitional therefore, but somehow what it really is is a muscular set expressing a certain attitude (of mischief or desire) that is conceptually synaesthetized as an oblique flash of light. It’s not there, but you see it as being there. Gee.

Glint started out as a verb, probably a variation on glent; it meant first “move quickly, especially obliquely; glance aside” – in the “glancing blow” sense of glance, which is to say the original sense: to glance was (and still is, in one of its uses) to strike obliquely, to turn aside. The two words don’t appear to have the same origin, but they do seem to have cross-influence. Interestingly, the “flashing light” sense of glint doesn’t really show up until the 1800s. (The “quick look” sense of glance is attested from the 1500s.)

But you know that both seem destined to be applied to something to do with light, shining, flashes, or vision. Look: glass, glimmer, glitter, glamour, glow, gleam, glare… add your own to the list. We have a /gl/ phonaestheme: a sound combination that is associated with a certain sense, even in the absence of a common etymological basis. It just shows up in a flash.

3 responses to “Eglinton, glint

  1. …in going from “-ing” to “-in’” you do not drop a [g]. There is no [g] sound in there. Listen to the difference between finger and singer. The former has a [g]; the latter, not. What is the difference between singer and sinner (I mean just the pronunciations!)? Not a [g] but rather the difference between back and front: the place the tongue touches the roof of the mouth.

    I really think you’re arguing with the wrong thing here (and since I’ve admired many times when you’ve argued with the right things – like excessive prescriptivism, and pronouncing “Cairns” like an Australian if you’re not one (my mother does and it drives me bonkers!) – I think I can say something about this).

    Most people do not think linguistically, because, well, most people are not linguists*. So, when people talk about “dropping the g”, they aren’t referring to the sound. No one thinks that if they pronounce doing as doin’, they are leaving out a hard [g] sound.

    However, they do know that the spelling difference between sin and sing is a ‘g’, and that if you leave it off, you read (pronounce) the word differently.

    Despite the severe inconsistencies in English orthography, most people (i.e. not linguists) do not – or at least rarely – mentally differentiate between the sound of a word and its spelling. They internalize the spelling rules (and exceptions)** and don’t even think about things like the fact that there isn’t a glyph for the sound that we represent as ng***.

    But, not being linguists, they don’t know the technical way to say that – all they know is that when a word ends with ng, it’s pronounced one way and when it ends with n, it’s pronounced another way. To the eye, it simply looks like the g is … dropped. So, that’s what they say happened, even if it only ‘happened’ orally.

    What they mean is that the pronunciation changes from that represented by ng to that represented by n. But frankly, that – and every other way that I can think of to express the same thing – is a pain in the ass to say (even for people who know enough to do so), so people aren’t going to bother. They’re going to say what they see (or ‘see’), which is that the (virtual) g was dropped. Really, it’s a lovely example of the brain’s ability to create abstract connections.

    If the sound that we write as ‘ng’ had its own symbol in English (a sad lack in our alphabet, as well as a symbol for a voiced sh sound, along with the tragic loss of thorn and edh), or if we used a different combination of existing letters to express that sound, people wouldn’t talk about “dropping the g”. But it doesn’t, so they do.

    But it’s just an abstraction (though most are not conscious of it).

    * By ‘linguist’, I’m referring to the set of people who think about the relationships between written and spoken language, know all of the technical names for the ways the human mouth produces sound, etc. I realize that this encompasses a number of different disciplines, and in fact that ‘linguist’ may even be on the fringes of the names of such thinkers, but it’s a convenient shorthand and I beg you to accept it as such.

    ** Well, most of them, in most cases. However, I suspect the rule “write ng for the sound created when you voice while touching the back of your tongue to your palate”, while it would almost never be expressed that way (except by linguists : ) ) is one of the most deeply ingrained ones.

    Except for words like ‘ingrained’.

    *** Well, kids learning to read might, but when they ask about it, they either get told, “That’s just the way it is,” or, if their parent/teacher is a linguist, a technical explanation that, to a child, boils down to “That’s just the way it is,” and unless they grow up to become a linguist, never think about it again.

    [Unrelated site admin question: would you consider using a plug-in that allows commenters to preview their comments? Although perhaps I’d be the only one who uses it, since most people don’t include so much – if any – HTML code in their comments.]

    • My experience is that people really often do equate spelling with pronunciation that much. I’m sure there are plenty of people who say “drop the g” as a matter of convenience, but I have indeed encountered people whose sense of spelling as primary and speech as secondary is such that they are conceiving of ng not as a convenient way of spelling a sound that we have no other way of spelling but as an n and a g that are pronounced the way they are pronounced together.

      The big point, as always, and this is a point most non-linguists don’t really seem to carry in their thoughts about language, is that speech is primary and writing is first of all a way of representing speech. Of course there is feedback between them, and some things can now be represented in writing but not in speech, but when someone talks about “dropping the g” there is a very good chance that they think of it as first of all a dropping of a g and secondarily a change in pronunciation that they may very well not have ever stopped to think about the articulatory details of.

      Let me see if there’s a widget or setting of some sort that lets people preview their comments…

  2. Cool – thanks! (I believe there is something; I’ve seen such on other WordPress sites.)

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