Tag Archives: English

English’s foreign plurals

The monetary unit of Swaziland is the lilangeni. English speakers are helpfully reminded that the plural is emalangeni: one lilangeni, two emalangeni.

But why?

I don’t mean “Why does SiSwati, the language of the Swaziland, pluralize that way?” That’s easy: as with other Bantu languages, its nouns are in different classes, identified by prefixes, and plurals are a different class from singulars. No, I mean “Why do we feel obliged to use the SiSwati plural when we’re speaking English?”

It’s not normal, you know. It’s not normal for languages, when they borrow words from other languages, to borrow the morphology: the different forms for plurals, possessives, etc., and the different conjugations for verbs.

It’s not even normal for English to do that. We don’t borrow conjugations when we borrow verbs: we don’t say “They massacreront them!” instead of “They will massacre them!” We don’t borrow possessives when we borrow nouns: we don’t say “The radiorum length” instead of “The radiuses’ length” – oh, sorry, that should be “The radii’s length.” Right?

Because sometimes – just sometimes – when we borrow a noun we also borrow the plural form. This is especially true with newer borrowings and with borrowings in specialized areas (science, food, the arts). We’re not very consistent about it, so it can sneak up on you, like so many other ambush rules we have in English.

And there are so many borrowed plural forms – because there are so many plural forms to borrow. Read 9 confusing ways to pluralize words (by me) on TheWeek.com for details on ways and reasons.

But if we’re going to talk about pluralizing things the way we always have in English, there’s one other issue: we haven’t always pluralized using –s in English

Nope. In fact, a thousand years ago, when English nouns had three genders, only the masculine ones got –s (actually –as), and not all of those did either. Other ways of showing the plural were to add –u, –a, –e, or –n, or change the vowel, or do nothing. English has changed a whole lot since then. Noun and verb forms have gotten much, much simpler – thanks to interaction with speakers of other languages, especially Norse and French. You can really thank the French for the fact that we use –s/–es on most words now for the plural.

But since that’s what we do now, should we do it with all new words we steal, I mean borrow? Well, it’ll sure make life easier if we can settle on octopuses. But it might just sound kind of wrong and blah if we order paninos and look at graffitos on the wall. And it would be less fun if we couldn’t jokingly say to a bartender, “I’ll have a martinus. No, not martini – I only want one.” It’s the eternal struggle of English: do you want it easy, or do you want it fun?

A Word Taster’s Companion: Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

Today: the fourth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades (and nuclear warfare). Well, there’s somewhere else it counts: phonemes.

As I explained in “The world speaks in harmony,” phonemes are target sounds that we get variously close to. To put it another way, they’re the sounds we think we’re saying.

Say Yeah really slowly, moving your tongue down and lowering your jaw gradually and smoothly. You have just moved quite smoothly through sounds with no sharp border between them, but though you can hear that, you will probably have a sense more of fading from one distinct sound to another than of moving through sounds that are not quite one or the other. This is because you unlearned all those intermediate sounds when you were first learning English, and you learned targets – phonemes – that you’re matching what you hear and say to.

Different languages have different sets of phonemes, and may draw different boundaries between the same phonemes. Think of your mouth as a big lot of land divided by fences into smaller parts. Everyone has the same size and shape of lot, but different languages put the fences in different places. If you’re learning a different language, you have to learn new sound boundaries. For example, our vowels in beat and bit are fixed in our minds as two different sounds, but they register as the same phoneme to speakers of Spanish, Russian, and quite a few other languages. They don’t have the fence between those two sounds that we have.

The same goes with consonants. For instance, several South Asian languages have a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops. We make both kinds of sounds in English, but most of us don’t even notice – consciously – that we do. Put your hand just a short distance in front of your mouth. Say spit (don’t spit it, say it). Now say pit. Did you feel a puff of air on the p in pit? We aspirate /p/ when it’s the first consonant in a word but not when it’s the second – in other words, as linguists would write it, the phoneme /p/ is realized as the phones [p] and [ph] in different contexts. In Hindi and Thai, both versions of the sound are used in the same contexts and they’re considered as different as, for instance, b and p. On the other hand, in some languages, such as Spanish, /p/ is never aspirated – one of the factors that make a Spanish accent sound different from a standard Anglophone one.

Of course, there are different accents within a language, too. English has a large number of dialects, each with its own accent. Not everyone can learn to produce the accent of a different dialect, but most of us can get used to hearing the sounds done differently. Try saying (or imagining) the sentence “That’s a rather good bit of tea” in as many accents as you can imitate: east coast US, southern US, upper-crust British, working-class British, versions of Scottish and Irish, whatever else you want to try. Some sounds will vary quite a bit – compare them word by word. And yet somehow, because you know what the targets are in those accents for those phonemes in those contexts, you can understand it.

There are some snags, of course. If we hear rather in another accent there aren’t any other words it could be mistaken for – if a South African sounds like he’s saying “retha” we can mentally adjust the targets to fit it to the expected phonemes without wondering if he was saying something else. But when there are other things the word could sound like, confusion may ensue. A woman named Anne from Buffalo may risk having her name written down as Ian by someone from elsewhere hearing it over the phone. For that matter, if the sound is too different from what we expect, we may not recognize it even if there aren’t alternatives. One time when I was working in a bookstore a British bloke asked for the “hudda” section. At first I couldn’t at all understand what he wanted. He was looking for the horror section, as it turned out.

There is also the issue that we don’t all have exactly the same set of phonemes, even among English speakers. Get people from different places in Canada, the US, and England to say cot, caught, court, and you will find that most Canadians say the first two the same, most Brits (the r-dropping ones at least) say the last two the same, and many Americans say all three differently. Canadian English has merged the two vowel phonemes we hear in cot and caught. The Brits use the same vowel phoneme for caught as for court, and in court the r is dropped.

By the way, the vowel Canadians and Americans use in court is different from the one in cot, but most Canadians and many Americans may think of it as the same vowel – the same phoneme, in other words. The key is that that sound is only used before /r/, and the other one is never used before /r/. They’re in what’s called complementary distribution, which doesn’t mean they’re being handed out for free (though they are). Since they’re different sounds but are thought of as the same sounds, they’re what are called allophones of the same phoneme.

By now you should have a clear sense that phonemes often have different allophones that we may not realize are different. And yet somehow we maintain those differences. You can even have an allophone difference in one dialect that other dialects don’t have, and the speakers of the dialect with the difference may not notice that there’s a difference – and yet still maintain the difference.

For one example, most Canadians say the vowel in ice a little higher than the one in eyes, while few other English speakers do the same, and even though Canadians think of the sounds as the same and may not be consciously aware of the difference, it nonetheless persists. Many Canadians also say the vowel in out different from the one in loud. As with eyes/ice, it’s because the consonant after is voiceless in one case and voiced in another. (I’ll get to consonants soon enough, don’t worry.) But that out vowel that sounds the same as the loud vowel to Canadians trespasses on the territory of a different phoneme for Americans: the vowel in loot. This is why Canadians can say out and hear out while Americans hear the same thing and hear it as oot: for them, it’s on a different phoneme’s turf – it’s on the other side of the fence.

It gets even better, though: we actually make an at least slightly different sound each time we say a given phoneme, even in the same word repeated. Linguists draw diagrams showing the entire area in which a phoneme is made at different times by a speaker or by speakers of a specific dialect, with dots on them like holes on a dart board. But we are still able to match the sounds to what they’re intended to be. (This is helped by the fact that the fences aren’t really so much fences as fuzzy boundaries – what you hear a sound as is affected by what sound you expect to hear.)

It’s like having hand grenades going off in your mouth. They may not hit their targets right on, but they get close enough.

Next: The vowel circle

Hyphe-nation? Hyphen-ation?

Several years ago I was working on a newsletter that had French and English versions. Our client contact spoke English but was a native Francophone. She complained that the hyphenation in the English was wrong.

Now, I was laying this newsletter out in InDesign, using its automatic hyphenation. It has a thorough hyphenation dictionary. I am a very, very fluent native Anglophone. I knew the hyphenation was right. But she was quite certain that it was not.

What did she think was wrong with it? Well, you see, it’s this: not everyone who speaks English realizes it, but we, like the French and speakers of many other languages, will as a habit say a consonant at the beginning of a syllable rather than at the end of the previous one if we can. For instance, we actually say the word breaking as [bɹe kɪŋ] (like “bray king”). Of course, there are some consonant pairs we won’t put together at the start of a syllable; we don’t say “da-mnation,” for example. Now, as it happens, in French, hyphenation occurs between syllables as they are actually said. By this rule, you would hyphenate at brea-king. That’s what she wanted

Does that look a little off? Would you say it should be break-ing? You’d be right.

In English, we have two different ways of hyphenating. In the British style, we aim to break at morpheme boundaries. What that means is that if a word is made up of a root and some prefixes and/or suffixes, you break at the boundary between the parts. So when you have break plus ing you break between them. And when you have hyphen plus ation you break it as hyphen-ation even though you actually say it like hyphe-nation.

We break those two words the same by the American system, but for a different reason. There is another very important fact in English that affects not just how we hyphenate words but how we read them and think of them generally. When you read a word, the quality of the vowel can be affected by the consonants, if any, that come after it – so we break at bus-ing rather than bu-sing – and the quality of a consonant can be affected by the vowels or consonants that come after it, so we will hyphenate Angli-cism rather than Anglic-ism because that c would look like a [k] sound. The American approach aims to make sure that when you read the first part of a word before the line break, you don’t have to rethink it once you see the second part. So it has to look as though it sounds like it actually does sound.

We just don’t write words exactly as they sound. English spelling is so perverse as to be almost ideographic at times. We have to recognize whole syllables or even whole morphemes, like break and breaking (as opposed to bread and breading, for instance – you only know what the vowel sound is when you see the letter after it). This results in some further traditions that couldn’t possibly make any sense from a strictly phonetic perspective.

Take a word like hotter. We actually say it with the /t/ at the beginning of the second syllable. But we have to think of the first syllable as ending with a consonant. If we spelled it as hoter, that would mean the syllables were ho ter, and that would make the o into a “long” o. So we write it with a double t to make it clear that the first syllable is a closed syllable, meaning its vowel is “short” – even though the syllable isn’t actually closed when you say it. It’s how you think you’re saying it that matters. Welcome to the wonderful world of phonemics!

But we also don’t break it as hott-er. As everyone learns in elementary school, we split it between the double letters: hot-ter. Never mind that there is no second [t] sound; that extra t isn’t part of the first syllable. But it’s not that we always break up consonant letters when the second one is unspoken: it’s dumb-er and smack-ing, not dum-ber (which could read as though you say the [b]) and smac-king.

There’s actually a little more to all this even than what I’ve already said. A favourite “gotcha!” in intro linguistics courses is to ask students where the syllable break is in Christmas. Now, we know right away that we don’t actually say a [t] in there. But we also know it’s a compound with a clearly identifiable first part, Christ, and we know that we would never start a syllable with [stm], so not only would we always hyphenate it as Christ-mas, it just makes sense that we must actually be breaking the syllable right before the [m]. Otherwise the i might stand for a different sound, as it would in an open syllable.

But nope! Gotcha, says the professor: the real break is [krɪ sməs] – that is, “Chri-s’mas.”

Except… Try this. Shout “Clover!” emphasizing each syllable, as though to a person hard of hearing and some distance away or in a noisy club. You hear what you do: “Clo! Ver!” OK, now try “Christmas!”

Is it “Chris! Mas!” or is it “Chri! Smas!”? Or is it more like “Chri! ss, Mas!”? Your results may vary, but for at least some people the [s] will fall squarely in the middle, a phenomenon called ambisyllabicity – something not all linguists agree exists. Try some other words such as breaking and dumber and hotter and see where you put the consonant in the middle. The natural tendency is for it to attach to the following syllable, but we think of it as part of the previous syllable, and it affects how we pronounce the word too, so it may not entirely let go of the previous syllable.

In English, we just don’t read one letter at a time. We just can’t! Consider the effect of breaking according to when we actually start saying the next syllable, separating vowels or consonants from the consonants that affect them:









and so on.

How did I resolve the issue with the newsletter? I just turned off hyphenation, which made the right edge of the text more ragged (don’t do it if you have full-justified text, especially in narrow columns) but quite readable and not susceptible to imposition of inappropriate hyphenation standards.

Blarney, baloney, and etymology

I’m about to tear a strip off a guy who died in 2008. That may not seem fair, but what he did lives on, in his work and in the work of countless others who do the same damn thing. He presented his work as etymology, but it’s just plain baloney – or, as Daniel Cassidy would have said, béal ónna.

Daniel Cassidy would have said that because he was in the habit of saying that all sorts of American slang came from Irish. Slang can be very hard to etymologize, because it tends to originate in oral tradition, and so to show up rather late in print. But Cassidy was sure he had the skeleton key. He wrote a book: How the Irish Invented Slang. In it he looked at a variety of American slang terms, and explained how every last one of them really came from this or that Irish phrase. Stool pigeon was from steallaire béideánach (steall béideán being the related verb phrase), but stoolie was from steall éithigh, jazz was from teas, eighty-six from éiteachas aíochta, bunkum from buanchumadh, spiel from spéal… yes, really.

Cassidy’s method was fairly straightforward. He would seize on some slang expression and toss around for an Irish Gaelic phrase that sounded something like it (as the above do; teas is said rather like our chass, for instance) and had a meaning that could be tortured into supporting the connection – teas means “heat”, steall éithigh means “spout a false oath” – and then he would note that there were Irish immigrants in the area during the time that the phrase seems to have arisen, so it must be true. Never mind if the Irish source was never known to have existed as a stock phrase or cliché; never mind if it includes a rare word or an uncommon usage of the word; never mind if there was no reference made anywhere in history to an Irish origin; never mind if the phonological transformations he posited go beyond the expectable; never mind if there is a persuasive etymology pointing to a different source (as with bunkum, baloney and spiel). It makes a good story, it fits together, so it must be true.

Does this seem like shoddy methodology, nothing but hooey and blarney? Well, it is. A saying among linguists is “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.” Think of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding coming up with an etymology for Japanese kimono from Greek kheimon. Pure “below knee”—oops, baloney. Give us a smoking gun: citations. A clear connection.

But why should it matter, if it’s a good story? Well, for one thing, it’s bad history. For another, the real stories are often more interesting. For a third, if you want facts, don’t you want facts? And fourth, sometimes it’s done maliciously, as with the claim that picnic and nitty-gritty are racist terms, in spite of more-than-ample evidence to the contrary.

So enough with the blarney and baloney. Sound coincidences can be the spark of an investigation, but never more than that.

Are Latin words bad?

Eric Koch, in his lively blog “Sketches,” posted the following snippet from a talk by William Zinsser to foreign students learning English – he’s talking about words derived from Latin:

In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion – like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!) – or that end in -ent – like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture – somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

The post has already accumulated a variety of comments, some of which inveighing against those heavy, unnecessary Latin words. I added my own comment, which I will also post here, because it’s germane to my blog and why shouldn’t I? Here’s what I said:

Fix and money also come to us from Latin: fix from fixus, from figere, and money from moneta. Those who are interested in knowing which of the words we use come from Latin (or Greek) rather than from Germanic roots, and many of them do, can easily check for free at, for instance, dictionary.com. (Just in that last sentence, for instance: interest, use, easy, check, and instance all come from Latin, some by way of French or Spanish.)

I generally agree with clarity and straightforwardness in language, but one of the glories of a complex language with a large and somewhat redundant vocabulary is that we can set the tone and attitude quite easily and distinctively, and make it clear in a few words what genre a text is situating itself in. We don’t want to toss out the big words altogether; we just don’t want to hide behind them. We should use them judiciously, not reflexively.

And at the very least, any sort of nativist attitude towards English usage is a non-starter (and not just because nativist also comes from Latin). Although our most basic function words, and most words for the most basic things, are from English’s Germanic roots, no less than 80% of our general vocabulary comes from other languages, especially Latin (often via other romance languages) and Greek. It behooves a person who wishes to make pronouncements and prescriptions for a language to know whereof he or she is speaking. To which end I offer a quick course in the subject: An appreciation of English: A language in motion.

And, incidentally, not all the stuffy words are Latin – behoove and whereof are both straight from Old English, for example – and (as we have already seen) not all of the plain-sounding words aren’t. But what William Zinsser was really talking about is derived abstract nominalizations. Which is a separate matter from the Latin-versus-English issue.

Incidentally, one language that has managed generally to keep its word stock “native” is Icelandic. When a new word is needed for something – the automobile or the computer, for instance, both of which use Latin words in English (car also has a Latin source) – they have a sort of national debate about the right word to use; suggestions are made mainly on the basis of adaptations and syntheses of other Icelandic words, and ultimately one prevails: in the cases in question, bill for an automobile and talva for a computer (formed by a merger of an adapted word used for “electricity” and a name of a mythical prophetess, if memory serves).

My veil of tears: an eggcorn poem

Herewith a poem (and following note) from my book Songs of Love and Grammar, which will be forthcoming if and when I find a publisher or give up and publish it myself with an on-demand web publisher. The poem is about eggcorns. What are they? Read on…

My veil of tears

Oh, woeth me! I’ve fallen hard,
hosted by my own petard!
In one fowl swoop, my just desserts
have been served up – and, boy, it hurts!
I have betrayed my love, but plead
compulsion by deep-seeded need!
Whole-scale short-sided wrecklessness
has got me in an awful mess.
My Jane was straight-laced; I was cursed,
chalk-full of need to slack my thirst.
Although our lives were going fine,
I just couldn’t tow the line.
When on a small site-seeing tour,
I took a pretty southmore’s lure:
jar-dropping beauty, looks to kill –
with baited breath I stood stalk still.
“I have a view that’s quite unique,”
she said. “Let’s go and sneak a peak.”
Why did I heed her beckon call?
Free reign of passions leads to fall,
but what I thought led straight to hell:
“She’ll tie me over – my as well!”
We didn’t buy our time that night;
we cut straight to the cheese on sight –
I won’t mix words: our will to dare
just grew like top seed then and there.
As if possessed of slight of hand,
in never regions we did land
(to name a view would be too course
and put the cat before the horse).
When all was done, I had the sense
I’d face cognitive dissidence,
but thought I’d pawn off bold-faced lies.
At last I had to realize
my power mower was not one-of
when I got news that caused my love –
a note a few months later: “Soon your
southmore will produce a junior.”
I got a mindgrain; I could see
a storm in the offering for me.
My Jane was cued in, bye and bye,
and she raised up a human cry
in a high dungeon. “You’ve done wrongs!
Let’s go at it, hammer and thongs!
The chickens have come home to roast!
I won’t lie doormat now! Your toast!”
She caused a raucous with abuse
and anger I could not diffuse.
Her words were nasty – so profound,
my vocal chords can’t make the sound.
She was a bowl in a china shop,
beyond the pail. I said, “Please stop!
The dye is cast! It’s not the place
to cut off your nose despite your face!
Don’t get your nipples in a twist!
You give me short shift! I insist
I’m utterly beyond approach!
Don’t treat me like a mere cockroach!”
She cried, “My cause for consternation
is not a pigment of the imagination!
There’s a bi-product of your lust!
Get out! You fill me with disgust!”
The point was mute; my chance was past,
so I gave up the goat at last.
Fate accompli, forgotten conclusion –
my morays were my dissolution.
And so, without further adieu,
here’s some advice that’s trite and true:
It would be who of you to trust your gut;
nip wayward passions in the butt.
Don’t sow your wild oaks around –
the eggcorns might just bring you down.

An eggcorn is a misconstrual of a word or phrase on the basis of an inaccurate (but seemingly sensible) analysis of its parts or origins. It uses other existing words or word parts in place of the originals. The term eggcorn is of course one such – the word should be acorn. The six dozen eggcorns in this poem have all been observed “in the wild” – used by real people in earnest, not as jokes (see eggcorns.lascribe.net). The eggcorns (and their proper forms) are veil of tears (vale of tears), woeth me (woe is me), hosted by my own petard (hoist with my own petard), one fowl swoop (one fell swoop), just desserts (just deserts), deep-seeded (deep-seated), whole-scale (wholesale), short-sided (short-sighted), wrecklessness (recklessness), straight-laced (strait-laced), chalk-full (chock full), slack my thirst (slake my thirst), tow the line (toe the line), site-seeing (sightseeing), southmore (sophomore), jar-dropping (jaw-dropping), baited breath (bated breath), stalk still (stock still), sneak a peak (sneak a peek), beckon call (beck and call), free reign (free rein), tie me over (tide me over), my as well (might as well), buy our time (bide our time), cut to the cheese (cut to the chase), mix words (mince words), grew like top seed (grew like Topsy), slight of hand (sleight of hand), never regions (nether regions), to name a view (to name a few), course (coarse), put the cat before the horse (put the cart before the horse), cognitive dissidence (cognitive dissonance), pawn off (palm off), bold-faced lies (bald-faced lies), power mower (paramour), one-of (one-off), caused (cost), mindgrain (migraine), in the offering (in the offing), cued in (clued in), bye and bye (by and by), human cry (hue and cry), high dungeon (high dudgeon), hammer and thongs (hammer and tongs), come home to roast (come home to roost), lie doormat (lie dormant), your toast (you’re toast), a raucous (a ruckus), diffuse (defuse), profound (profane), vocal chords (vocal cords), bowl in a china shop (bull in a china shop), beyond the pail (beyond the pale), the dye is cast (the die is cast), cut off your nose despite your face (cut off your nose to spite your face), don’t get your nipples in a twist (don’t get your knickers in a twist), short shift (short shrift), beyond approach (beyond reproach), a pigment of the imagination (a figment of the imagination), bi-product (by-product), the point was mute (the point was moot), gave up the goat (gave up the ghost), fate accompli (fait accompli), forgotten conclusion (foregone conclusion), morays (mores), without further adieu (without further ado), trite and true (tried and true), be who of you (behoove you), nip in the butt (nip in the bud), sow your wild oaks (sow your wild oats), and of course  eggcorns (acorns).

What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match. Continue reading

If I were using the subjunctive…

The subject of the subjunctive came up in a recent email discussion. English does have a subjunctive – or, I should say, some versions of English do have a distinct subjunctive. Some people will say “If I was you,” meaning right now, and they’re not using a special subjunctive form. But others (me included) will say “If I were you,” because I couldn’t possibly actually be you, and they are using a special subjunctive form. And I will be addressing the kind of English that does use these forms.

There are actually a variety of places where the subjunctive gets used in English, although rather fewer than there used to be, and I’m not going to go into detail about all of them, but they all involve a posited alternate reality – one that is desired (as in “I ask that he come to see me”) or merely posited as possible (“If music be the food of love, play on”), or one that is  definitely expressed as other than the current state (“If I were a rich man…”).

The discussion began with the sentence “He felt as if he were at a crossroads.” And the question: The character is indeed at a crossroads, so should it be “was”? Continue reading