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Archive for the 'Good Word' Category

Nouns Modifying Nouns

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Today Alleen-Marie Coke asked two interesting questions which I thought deserved a broader audience.

Today’s word, yes, is tricky. In your example, “yes vote”, wouldn’t yes be an adjective?”

“When I taught ESL, I taught the response, “Yes, I do”, “Yes I can”, etc. I have noted, however, that these days many people respond with a simple, “I do”, or, “I can”, abandoning the use of the yes altogether. What do you make of this?”

My response was this:

In the phrase the “yes vote”, yes is not an adjective. English is a language that allows nouns to appear in attributive position without an adjective suffix. In Russian you would have to add an adjective ending if you want a noun to modify another noun. While English allows machine language, Russian requires a “relational” adjective suffix: mashin-nyi yazyk. Whenever doubt arises whether an attribute is a noun or adjective, noun is always chosen if the attribute may be used—without a suffix—as a noun.

Yes in English is first and foremost a “sentence adverb”, which means it may replace an entire sentence. An appropriate response to the question, “Will you do that” is simply, “Yes,” which replaces “I will do that.”

Another way of shortening the answer, is to repeat the subject and the auxiliary, “I will”. You may combine the two answers to affirm that you will do it as “Yes, I will,” though there is no penalty if you don’t.

In Britain, by the way, this response requires the default verb do. This is also the proper response in Britain to any yes-no question, “Did you bake the cake?” : “(No, but) I will do.” This is why do is called the default verb (or pro-verb); it can replace any verb.

Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Paul Ogden, one of the editors of the Good Word series, responded to my etymology of the word amorous and we engaged in an e-conversation I thought might interest the readers of this blog. Here it is.

Interesting etymology. Something similar happened in Hebrew and some of the other Semitic languages. The Hebrew word for mother is emm, the Aramaic word is immah, and the Arabic word is umm.

The liturgical word amen, which at its core means “confirmation, support”, is derived from the words for “mother”. Another derivation from amen is oman, Hebrew for “artist”, from the days when artists made faithful representations of what they saw. A slew of additional Hebrew words that mean loyalty, trust, reliability and so forth are in turn derived from amen.

I replied:

Fascinating. Mother and father started out the same way. Ma and pa are usually the first two “words” settled on by an infant in referring to its parents. So to these utterances were added the suffix marking members of a family: ma-ter and pa-ter. Compare brother and sister, which started out with the same suffix and—voila—the words for “mother” (mater) and “father” (pater).

Paul replied:

But there’s more:

Av is Hebrew for father. Abba is Aramaic for father. Ab is Arabic for father. I know that P and B are considered pretty much the same in historical linguistics, so we’re not too far here from papa, pappas, and the like. [The only difference between [p] and [b] is that we vibrate our vocal cords when pronouncing the latter. –RB] The noun abbot, referring to the Christian religious authority, comes from Aramaic abba.

The word abu that you sometimes see as an element in Arab male names means “father of”, e.g., Mohammed Abbas is sometimes referred to as Abu Mazen, meaning he has a son, probably his firstborn, named Mazen.


Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Part of Speech: Article, Conjunction

Pronunciation: dhê (before consonants: the dog), dhee (before vowels: the apple).
Hear it!

Meaning: 1. (Article) The definite article marks nouns referring to things the speaker expects the listener to be familiar with. “A dog” refers to any mutt, while “the dog” refers to one the listener sees or knows about from a previous conversation. 2. (Conjunction) Comparative conjunction: “The more the merrier.”

Notes: An interesting fact about the is that it is used differently in different dialects. Everyone says “in school” and “at work” without the, but the British also drop it from “in hospital”, “in future”, and elsewhere. If you watched the popular British television series All Creatures Great and Small, you probably noticed that in Yorkshire people also say things like, “I’ll go to kitchen and put kettle on.” Actually, there is a barely audible glottal stop where we expect the, the remnants of the final [t] in that.

In play: When an object is unique, the is usually required: “the sun”, “the moon”, and others. In German the equivalent of the is used before proper nouns under certain circumstances, e.g. der Hans “(the) Hans”, die Grete “(the) Grete”. Greek does the same. In Swedish, the definite is expressed by a suffix on nouns: en dag “a day”, dagen “the day”. Bulgarian does the same: student “student”, studentêt “the student”. That [t] at the end of the Bulgarian word is not coincidental; it comes from the same root as English that.

Word History: Relatively few languages in the world have definite (the) and indefinite (a) articles. English a is a reduction of Old English an “one” (compare German ein “one, a”) and the is a reduction of that (compare German das “that, the”). In French (le, la), Italian (il, lo, la), and Spanish (el, lo, la) all come from Latin ille “that”. The equivalent of a in all these languages also comes from the word for “one”. (Great gratitude today is due Paige Turner for not overlooking the fascinating world of the minuscule.)

The 100 Funniest Words in English

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

 100 Funniest Words in English

Well, the book is out and available at

Abe Books
The Kindle version at Amazon.com