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Zeroing in On the Issue

A discussion of word histories and origins.

Zeroing in On the Issue

Postby Alan M. » Tue Nov 01, 2005 7:04 pm

So here's an interesting one:

My family are language fanatics, and thus we rarely have a gathering where linguistic pet peeves don't come up. And inevitably, my mom will mention hers: "The thing that bugs me is when people say 'oh' when they mean 'zero.' 'Oh' is a letter of the alphabet; 'zero' is a number!"

My dad, always one to have an answer (correct or not) on hand, then always explains that that particular peccadillo comes to us thanks to the phone company. "You see," he explains, "when they decided to use '0' to dial the operator they needed an easy way for people to remember it, so they started an advertising campaign telling people to think of '"Oh" for "Operator."' And ever since then," he concludes, "people have used it that way."

This may very well be true, but I've so far been unable to find evidence that it's so. To me, though, it sounds like a linguistic version of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories." So in an effort to find out if my dad is full of answers or just full of it, I figure I'll put it to y'all: Has anyone else ever heard this theory, and can you point me to anything that might make it possible to verify or refute it? It's a silly thing, but darn me if it doesn't drive me nuts!
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Re: Zeroing in On the Issue

Postby Stargzer » Tue Nov 01, 2005 8:49 pm

Alan M. wrote: . . . So in an effort to find out if my dad is full of answers or just full of it, . . .


This man shows promise . . . :lol:

We'll have to find him an answer!
Regards//Larry

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Postby badandy » Mon Dec 05, 2005 3:57 pm

there seems to be convenient answers for just about everything if one searches, but in reality, especially in language things are never very clean or easy.
Some of my favorite language myths:
everyone in Spain has a lisp because some king did.
Any language is more complicated than another
Speaking more languages makes you smarter
Habentne Gallinae Talones Acerbos?
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Postby Andrew Dalby » Fri Dec 09, 2005 2:35 pm

Quote: ' Speaking more languages makes you smarter' ...

OK, Badandy, not exactly, but I would argue that speaking more languages equips you better for lateral thinking. Each new language gives you a slightly different way of looking at the world.
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Re: Zeroing in On the Issue

Postby M. Henri Day » Sun Dec 11, 2005 1:28 pm

Alan M. wrote:...

My dad, always one to have an answer (correct or not) on hand, then always explains that that particular peccadillo comes to us thanks to the phone company. "You see," he explains, "when they decided to use '0' to dial the operator they needed an easy way for people to remember it, so they started an advertising campaign telling people to think of '"Oh" for "Operator."' And ever since then," he concludes, "people have used it that way." ...



Your dad sounds like a perfect candidate for the Agora why not invite him (and welcome to the Agora yourself, by the way) ! But his suggestion reeks, to my mind, of so-called folk etymology ; I strongly suspect that the use of «O» for «zero» (this latter an Arabic word to illustrate an Indian concept) antedates both the invention of the telephone and the establishment of telephone companies. I did a Google search of «O for operator» and received 586 URLs, but am far too indolent to go through them all. What I suggest you do, Alan M., is to write to World Wide Words' Michael Quinion, who can be reached at wordsquestions@worldwidewords.org. My experience is that he is pretty good on this sort of thing....

Henri

PS : With regard to the vexed question of whether speaking more languages makes you smarter, my own experience is that the greatest advantage of doing so is that one thereby gains the faculty of repeating one's favourite idiocies in several languages. But I don't know of any serious research that has been done on this matter (the methodological problems would be daunting indeed) ! Here I think it important to remember that a majority of the people of the world - with the exception of those residing on large portions of the North American continent - are, in fact, multi-lingual. Thus multi-lingualism is the norm, not, as some suppose, the exception....
曾记否,到中流击水,浪遏飞舟?
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Postby Brazilian dude » Sun Dec 11, 2005 1:34 pm

my own experience is that the greatest advantage of doing so is that one thereby gains the faculty of repeating one's favourite idiocies in several languages.

So true.

Brazilian dude
Languages rule!
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Postby anders » Sun Dec 11, 2005 2:28 pm

All the digit names 1-9 (with the possible exception of sebn) are one syllable only. Rhythm and consistency calls for a one-syllable zero. For you Glenn Miller fans, can you imagine "Pennsylvania six five zero zero zero"?
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Postby badandy » Thu Dec 15, 2005 3:57 am

a majority of the people of the world - with the exception of those residing on large portions of the North American continent - are, in fact, multi-lingual. Thus multi-lingualism is the norm, not, as some suppose, the exception....


so are speakers of both Norwegian and Swedish multilingual? How about Hindi and Urdu? What about Louisiana English and New Zealand English and South African English and Singapore English and New Delhi English? My claim is that to speak and understand 'English' is not necessarily as monolingual as it sounds.
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Postby badandy » Thu Dec 15, 2005 3:58 am

And....

Monolingualism (especially in a country as big as the US) is far greater an asset than a detriment.
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Postby anders » Thu Dec 15, 2005 8:47 am

badandy wrote:so are speakers of both Norwegian and Swedish multilingual? How about Hindi and Urdu?

I think it is most unusual to find people who speak Norwegian and Swedish; it would however be rare that Norwegians or Swedes don't understand the neighbour language.

Most Norwegians and Swedes know English, and a high proportion of us takes at least third language in school. My youngest sister, who is the one among my closest relatives with the least amount of formal schooling (9 years), now has Swedish, English, German, French and Spanish on at least everyday conversation level. (And she of course, living in Western Sweden, understands Danish and Norwegian.)

I'd argue that Hindi and Urdu are one language, the difference being mainly the script used. But in India, multilingualism is very common. I stayed for a month in a smallish town in the Himalayas, studying Hindi. I was too lazy to try the language in shops etc., because practically everyone could interact in English, and lots of them probably had at least one other Indian language.

My impression is backed by this site:
Multilingualism is the norm in the world, monolingualism is an exception. Language and nationalism, language dominance, language loss and shift are characteristics of multilingual nations, in particular those with a colonial history.
...
Societal Bilingualism is quite common in Indian states where the majority of the people will have at least two languages / dialects in their speech habits e.g. Hindi and Panjabi in the Panjab. Among the educated it would be Hindi, Panjabi and English. Economic migration and mobility has resulted in transforming the metropolitan capitals of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi truly multilingual.


And it is not unusual for people in Mainland China to speak more than one language. "Mandarin Chinese" (Modern Standard Chinese, MSC) is spoken by at least 70% of the people, but all receive education in MSC. That's a huuuge number of bilinguals. And China is going for teaching English in an immense effort before the Olympics. In the city of Guangzhou ("Canton", far from the Beijing Olympics), all public servants must be able to make themselves understood in English, and from what I've heard, it would be rare to find a person there who besides Cantonese doesn't understand MSC.
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Postby M. Henri Day » Thu Dec 15, 2005 3:48 pm

In discussions like the present one, we necessarily run into the question of what degree of proficiency in the languages concerned must a speaker possess in order for a claim of bi/multilingualism to be sustained - thus, in badandy's example from differing versions (does he wish to go so far as to call them different languages ?) of English, is it enough for a speaker of one to understand the others sufficiently well to make a conversation possible, or must he or she be able to speak all the versions with near-native fluency in order to make such a claim ? And again, how do we here distinguish between distinct languages, the mastering of two or more of which would presumably allow us to claim multiliguality, and different dialects of the same language, the mastering of which would presumably not (or at least not with the same degree of confidence) ? Norwegians, by the way, are by law required to be bilingual - at least if they are to successfully complete their obligatory schooling : they must demonstrate competence in both bokmål (the school language of a majority (70 %) of Norwegian speakers, mostly concentrated in the eastern regions around the capital, which historically can be regarded as a sort of Norwegianised Danish dialect)) and nynorsk (the school language of the southwest of the country, considered to represent the descendents of local dialects of the region prior to the 500-year union with Denmark). Perhaps for this reason, Norwegians are generally much better at understanding the spoken languages of their neighbours than Swedes and Danes are (written material in any of the four languages is generally not a problem for anyone who has received a halfway-decent education)....

Henri
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Postby Stargzer » Fri Dec 16, 2005 12:31 am

Technical Digression:

anders wrote: . . .
Here are some nice examples of young Indians who are at least bilingual, and road signs in English (the site defies copying).
. . .


Try the brute force method: in IE, click View/Source, delete the extraneous HTML, and save the file somewhere. You might have to change <BR> tags to Returns and do some other editing.

Although, when I tried to highlight the page and copy, it highlighted more than I wanted and wouldn't let me right-click to copy, but I was able to do a CTRL-v to copy and paste into Notepad and delete the unwanted stuff:

It is far more than just vocabulary, as the following items illustrate, all seen on the 132-km of road between Pune and Mumbai


OVERSPEEDING AND TYRE BURSTING CAUSE ACCIDENTS
DO NOT CRISSCROSS ON EXPRESSWAY
DO NOT LITTER ON YOUR EXPRESSWAY
SPEED BREAKER AHEAD (road bump)
PAY 'N' PARK
LANDSCAPING AND BEAUTIFICATION
ROAD IN CURVE AHEAD
PLEASE DRIVE SLOW
PARKING INSIDE THE LAWN IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED
NO 2-/3-WHEELERS (approaching an expressway: 2-wheelers - the generic term for motorbikes and scooters; 3-wheelers - auto-rickshaws)


"Where there's a will, there's a hack."

We now return you to our regularly scheduled discussion.
Regards//Larry

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