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French Pronunciation

May 1st, 2014

Jan Collins raised a question today about French which all French learners (and some speakers) might be interested in:

“Can you please tell me when people stopped pronouncing final consonants in French? When I see the historical words I never know how they would have been spoken.”

In the Early Modern French Period, which began about 1700, French passed through an “open syllable” stage, when all syllables had to end on a vowel and could not end on a consonant. That is why those ending on consonant sounds, always are spelled with a “silent e”, e.g. l’homme, pronounced [lOm], because the [e] at one time was pronounced, and still is in some songs.

However, few words—only new ones—end on consonants that are pronounced; otherwise they are silent unless they appear before a word beginning with a vowel:

  • muet [mye] “mute”
  • nez [ne] “nose”
  • mot [mo] “word”

French opened all the syllables ending on nasal consonants, [n, m], by nasalizing the vowel. That is why French has nasal vowels, e.g. temps [tã] “time”, grand [gRã] “large”.

Tables of Differences

April 23rd, 2014

Prof. ir. Max Peeters recently brought up the following question:

I noticed that the word for butterfly is very different in almost all languages, but for table very similar (see table below), even Gaelic, Turkish, etc. Can you explain this?

 English  butterfly  table
 French  papillon  table
 German  Schmetterling  Tafel
 Dutch  vlinder  tafel
 Spanish  mariposa  tabla
 Italian  farfalla  tavolo
 Czech  motýl  tabulka
 Turkish  kelebek  tablo
 Polish  motyl  tabela
 Hungarian  pillangó  táblázat
 Irish  féileacán  tábla
 Latin  papilio  tabula

It is a matter of (1)  borrowing and (2) the two senses of table: one that you eat and work on and a presentation of data in a publication. Usually languages borrow table in the latter sense, since by the time people got around to data, they already had a word for table in the first sense. This is why the words for table in the second sense are so similar: they are all borrowed from Latin, the language of science in so many European languages.

So, the word in German for the first sense of table is Tisch, in Czech it is stůl, and in Spanish it is mesa—just as different as the words for “butterfly”.

Hope this helps.

Books that Should be Written

April 2nd, 2014

New! Books that Should be Written (and by whom) in our linguistic fun section. Just click the link and you’ll be there.

Eve Blunt Created a Poem from “Dodder”

February 25th, 2014

Dodder

To walk with an unsteady gait,
as if from old age or other frailty.
To shuffle, teeter, hobble.
To move forward feebly and unsteadily.
To muddle, stumble.

Travelling as touteren: to waver or swing.
Totter, toddle; an unsteady walk.
Did dodder produce doddle, which ended up dawdle?
This word wanders haltingly in circles within circles within circles.

–Eve Blunt

Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages

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.

Mincemeat

January 13th, 2014

George Kovac shared this memory with me on the occasion of the publication of the Good Word mincemeat:

A childhood memory of  Thanksgiving is that my mother would always make a pumpkin pie and a mincemeat pie. The filling came from the store in a box labeled with the word “mincemeat.”  I asked my mischievous older brother “What is mince meat?”  He cruelly told me that a “mince” was a small monkey, and I was horrified.

That brand of filling is still sold in grocery stores, but several years ago they started calling it “mince” instead of “mincemeat.”  I guess the marketing folks decided small boys and ordinary consumers are unable to digest the etymology.

A Letter from Australia

January 5th, 2014

I recently received this message from Sally Dunkerly in Australia:

Dear Dr Goodword,

My name is Sally, I’m fifteen years old and clearly not the best with the English language. However, I have recently finished reading your incredible book, The Hundred most Beautiful Words in English and fell in love with it right from ailurophile. I loved the words you put in there, and the examples you included of how to use the words, sounded so nice that now I can’t wait to read more of your books!

I also want to tell you my favourite word. It’s not very pretty or interesting and we use it all the time without thinking about it. My favourite word is if, I just love it because it hints at a possibility, some sort of unknown and we might have to make a choice. ‘If the house burns down’ or ‘If i win the lottery’, ‘if he’s lying to me’—it is just one of those words that is so commonly used that people don’t understand it’s mysterious beauty. It’s such a dainty word, additionally, it doesn’t contain a single ugly sound, maybe because it only has one syllable, but it’s still beautiful to me!

I apologise because this won’t be the most exciting thing you read today, and that my fifteen-year-old English and typical Australian laziness with my words may annoy you. I know it’s far-fetched, but I’m aspiring to be a novelist some day, and the beautiful words you have shown me in your book are really going to add life to the pages I’ve written so far, so thank you for helping me with my biggest dream.

Yours sincerely,

Sally

As a former teacher, I love to receive letters like this. I have never had any desire to influence people; I prefer affecting them. This note seems to indicate I’ve done that in Australia. My response was this:

Your letter was exactly what I love to receive. I was a teacher for 36 years and, as you might know, teachers do not work for money, but moments like the one you gave me. As I usually say to someone who offers gratitude for my work: “All appreciation is appreciated.”

You have a good sense of words. That’s good if you plan to be a poet, but if you plan to be a novelist, you will need to be a good story teller. There is a movie you should see: Wonder Boys (2001) with Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas. They do an imagination exercise in which they visit restaurants and bars, select someone there, and make up a story about him or her based on how they are dressed and how they comport themselves.

There is another movie with an imagination exercise, called The Magic of Belle Isle with Morgan Freeman (2012). He takes an aspiring novelist onto an empty street and asks, “What don’t you see?” She, of course, says, “Nothing,” immediately, but by the end of the film, she can see things that are not there.

I never taught creative writing and was never a novelist. (As expectable I was a passable poet, who published a poem in the last issue of the New York Times that carried poems back in July 1971. I’ve often wondered what my role was in replacing the poetry in the Times with a paid ad from Mobil Oil. I was never a good story-teller. I hope these two films help you; you can get them from Netflix.

Good luck, and thank you again for your lovely letter.

I ran if January 6, 2014.

Starting First

December 12th, 2013

I heard a TV talk show host say recently, “I want to talk to all of you but starting first with [John Smith]“. My question is, could we start second with someone? Starting sort of implies first, right?

Language is full of redundancies like this. We simply write this one off as one of the many idiomatic phrases that haunt English, or any language for that matter. How often have you heard (or said) “Let me start first with . . . ?” “ATM machine” is another that bugs me. What do we think the “M” stands for?

The Fate of English Plurals

December 10th, 2013

Jan Miele sent me the following note today:

I’ve just this MOMENT received an email with this subject line: “Hurry, there’s only a few hours left to pick your offer.” Shouldn’t this read instead as: “Hurry, there are only a few hours left to pick your offer.”

I’m seeing this sort of thing all the time now! What’s up with that?

My response was as follows:

If you are a linguist, read Lorimor, H., Bock, J. K., Zalkind, E., Sheyman, A., & Beard, R. 2008. “Agreement and attraction in Russian.” Language and Cognitive Processes 23, 769-799, and the works on English listed in the references by Kay Bock. She thinks there is some change in the grammar of English taking place, whereby agreement marks the last word in the subject noun phrase, for example “a group of girls have arrived” instead of “a group of girls has arrived”.

I disagree with my former student. I think that English is losing the category ‘plural agreement’ in verbs and there is no consistency or pattern in verbal agreement. The tendency for the verb to agree with the final noun in a noun phrase is just a logical speech error in the transition. Bock’s position doesn’t make sense grammatically; it would defeat the purpose of agreement, which is to show the head of a subject noun phrase.

Your example confirms my position, since there is no noun phrase involved here. Actually, I’ve heard the example you sent so often, I sometimes catch myself making the same mistake, if it is a mistake in a transitional stage of development.

High Dudgeon but not Low Dudgeon

November 30th, 2013

George Kovac asked about the idiomatic used of the Good Word dudgeon, to wit:

“Why is it always high dudgeon? Does no one (but me) ever say just dudgeon or low dudgeon or even medium dudgeon? Some words are always paired in usage, and I guess I should get over it. For example, have you ever heard of something being boggled other than a mind? And if someone is always in a state of high dudgeon, why can’t we describe them as uneven keeled?”

Well, George, the rules of language are strewn with linguistic rubble. Sometimes it results from the lack of a reference (what else besides a mind could be boggled)? Sometimes we simply don’t know. How to you explain the rubble left from grinding out rules that are always changing?

Did you read the wonderful article that appeared in a 1957 edition of The New Yorker called “How I Met my Wife“?