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Tag: English

Dearest creature in creation, English pronunciation

Wednesday, 1 June, 2016 0 Comments

Gerard Nolst Trenité was born in Utrecht in 1870 and died in Haarlem in 1946. A writer, traveller and teacher, he was also, and this is our favourite, “a Dutch observer of English.” Trenité is best known for his poem The Chaos, which exposes the eccentricities of English spelling and pronunciation, and which appeared in his 1929 textbook “Drop Your Foreign Accent: Engelsche Uitspraakoefeningen.”

The Chaos

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870 — 1946)


Glossolalia: Parsey McParseface

Thursday, 19 May, 2016 1 Comment

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things syntactical, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with decacorns, continued with Euro English and today we’re venturing into open-sourced language parsing, which is central to creating better voice recognition technologies for our mobile devices.

Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, began yesterday and the focus is on machine learning and VR, and how these technologies are being used in its core products. For example, Allo is a new app that merges text messaging with a virtual assistant. When it launches this summer, Allo will “monitor” your conversations and offer relevant information. So, if a friend in Manchester invites you out for an Indian meal, Allo would suggest a nearby Balti house. Useful, innit?

In the build up to I/O, Google released SyntaxNet, its open-source neural network framework, which includes Parsey McParseface, an English language plug-in. SyntaxNet provides a foundation for Google’s Natural Language Understanding systems, such as the voice recognition capabilities of the Google Now intelligent personal assistant. Parsey McParseface is based on machine learning algorithms that analyse sentence structure to understand the role of every word and grammatical element.

parsing

“One of the main problems that makes parsing so challenging is that human languages show remarkable levels of ambiguity,” Google explained in a blog post. “It is not uncommon for moderate length sentences — say 20 or 30 words in length — to have hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of possible syntactic structures. A natural language parser must somehow search through all of these alternatives, and find the most plausible structure given the context.”

Google claims Parsey McParseface has achieved 94 percent accuracy interpreting English language news articles. Although not perfect, that’s good enough to be useful in a range of applications, it says.

Note: Despite its popularity, Boaty McBoatface did not became the name of the British government’s new polar research vessel. But it lives on, kind of, in Parsey McParseface, Google’s wry name of its English language parser. Where there’s humour, there’s hope.


Glossolalia: Euro English

Wednesday, 18 May, 2016 2 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things philological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with Valley vocabulary and we’re continuing with Euro English.

On Saturday night in Stockholm, 18-year-old Jamie-Lee Kriewitz became a footnote in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest by achieving last place for Germany with Ghost. This indignity has prompted Die Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the Association for the German Language) to demand that Germany be represented next year in Kiev by a song in German. Making the case, the association’s managing director, Andrea Ewels, said that the Eurovision Song Contest does not reflect the linguistic diversity of Europe and that there are lots of fine German singers of German songs.

Note: The last year a German-language song represented the country was 2007, when the late Roger Cicero sang Frauen regier’n die Welt. It ended up in 19th place from a list of 24 entries. Germany last won in 2010, when Lena sang Satellite, in English.

Only three of the 42 entries in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest were not in English. Back in 1956, when the event began, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the contest, didn’t specify which language singers could use as it was expected that each nation would use its own. And everyone did until 1965, when Ingvar Wixell represented Sweden with Absent Friend. France protested. Charles de Gaulle, the French President, who had vetoed Britain’s application for EEC membership in 1963, argued that English “hegemony” would damage the cultural variety of the contest and the EBU was forced to stipulate that each country’s entry to be in an official language of that land.

The turbulent Swedes struck back in 1973 and persuaded the EBU to drop the “official language” rule, which resulted in a run of English-language winners, including ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974. The Élysée Palace was not pleased and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing used his power to compel the EBU to restore the language restriction in 1978 and it remained in place until 1999. Since then, only one non-English song has won the contest: Serbia’s Molitva in 2006. To show how far the wheel has turned, the French and Italian entrants this year had choruses in English and the Spanish song was totalmente in English.

In Paris, Rome, Madrid and Moscow, the reality that English is the language of global music has finally sunk in. International audiences want to listen to songs they can understand and they’re used to hearing songs in English, not in Russian or Ukrainian.

With an audience of some 200 million, the Eurovision Song Contest is the goose that lays golden eggs annually for the EBU. It’s now the most-watched non-sports live television event in the world, and Asia and America are knocking on the door. The idea that participating countries would compete with songs that cannot win, to satisfy a linguistic policy, is ludicrous. It’s an international song contest, sung increasingly in the language of popular culture. Competing nations are not being made to sing in English; they want to because they know the fate of songs that are not in English.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a success and its linguistic issue has been settled, but the debate about the role of English in Europe is far from sorted. On Thursday, 23 June, a referendum will be held on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. If “Brexit” were to happen, the 450 million citizens of the EU would find themselves using a lingua franca spoken officially only in the Republic of Ireland (population 4.6 million) and co-officially in Malta (population 450,000). How will this affect Euro English? More on this during our Brexit week in June.


Glossolalia: Singlish

Monday, 16 May, 2016 3 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things etymological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language and we’re kicking off with Singlish, a hodgepodge dialect of Singapore’s official state languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — as well as bits of Bengali, Cantonese and Hokkien.

To “talk cock” is Singlish for “to talk nonsense” and the definition can be found in The Coxford Singlish Dictionary by Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, which was published in 2002, and has sold more than 30,000 copies since. “Bo hee hae ma ho” is the Singlish equivalent of “Beggars can’t be choosers,” and means “When there’s no fish, prawns are good too.” The latter example is courtesy of Gwee Li Sui, the Singaporean poet, novelist and literary critic. “Do You Speak Singlish?” is the question he posed yesterday to readers of the New York Times. Singlish, he said, “is one of Singapore’s few unique cultural creations” and it seems to be thriving, despite official attempts to outlaw it:

“The government’s war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently. The compulsory national service, which brings together male Singaporeans from all walks of life, has only underlined that Singlish is the natural lingua franca of the grunts.”

To an outsider’s ear, Singlish sounds like verbalized text messaging: concise, energetic, abbreviated, playful, elastic. Here, Gwee Li Sui tok the tok.


Housman in the happy field of hay

Saturday, 30 April, 2016 0 Comments

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

On this day in 1936, the poet A. E. Housman died. He’s best known for A Shropshire Lad, a lyrical cycle of poems that celebrates and mourns a rural English way of life that has disappeared. The beauty of the poems is captivating; their simplicity is deceptive and Housman’s epigrammatic observations about the fleeting nature of life and love are wistful and wise. Note: The image that accompanies poem XXIII is of the painting “Haymaking” by the Irish artist John Morris.

XXIII

In the morning, in the morning,
In the happy field of hay,
Oh they looked at one another
By the light of day.

In the blue and silver morning
On the haycock as they lay,
Oh they looked at one another
And they looked away.

A.E. Housman (26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936)

Haymaking


Surreal English/Japanese phrases

Tuesday, 26 April, 2016 0 Comments

“What a nice barbed wire.”
“Thank you. I knitted it myself.”

While that’s the kind of surreal exchange one could imagine happening in a bar on Mars run by Salvador Dali, it’s actually an example of conversational English as presented by English Vocabulary Not on Any Test, a book that’s big in Japan. And that’s not just an idle phrase, either. The Twitter account has 88,000 followers. The book depicts ordinary people doing ordinary things, using English and Japanese. The target market is Japanese speakers who want to learn English as it is used in conversation across the Anglosphere. Well, an Anglosphere where HR managers convey the bad news by saying, “I’m afraid to say this, but you are passed your best-before date.”

Japanese English

Note: “octopus wiring” is authentic Japanese English and the term is used internationally to described hazardous arrangements of electrical cables.


Europe will continue to speak English after Brexit

Monday, 8 February, 2016 0 Comments

What will be the role of English in the European Union if the British vote for Brexit? To use one of those phrases that most speakers of English do not understand, with one fell swoop English would change overnight from being the community’s unchallenged lingua franca to a minority language spoken natively only by the Irish if the British decided to leave. Naturally, English would remain essential for doing business in Brussels, but its prestige would be tarnished and its authority questioned.

Or would it? There is a counter-argument that even if Brexit were to happen, English would expand its role as the EU’s working language because of its growing global influence, which is powered by the dynamism of North America, the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere. As well, it’s preeminent position in science and business remains unchallenged and, on a practical level, its lack of genders and related conjugations, unlike Germanic and Latin languages, makes it attractive to millions of learners looking for jobs in a world where the universal English “you” offers a practical way of avoiding those social minefields caused by formal modes of address in other languages. Yes, the spelling system is inconsistent, but this is balanced by the incredible depth and breadth of the English vocabulary.

Brexit Question: In a post-Brexit EU, would UK English be replaced by US English? This is a tricky one because anti-Americanism is the only form of racism that’s acceptable in Europe and the speaking of UK English or “Oxford English”, as some affectedly like to say, is seen as a form of superiority. But this is silly because US English, with its preference for structures such as “He didn’t do it yet”, is simpler than UK English with its preference for the more complex present perfect tense: “He hasn’t done it yet.” This is not to say that US English is a pidgin unworthy of sophisticated Europeans. Far from it, but it is an uncomplicated language, with simplified spelling and reduced vocabulary, that has demonstrated enormous value for a nation that has successfully absorbed millions upon millions of newcomers from a of broad spectrum of linguistic groups. And now that Europe is receiving vast wave of migrants, the need for a basic, continent-wide language makes more sense than ever.

Should Europeans be unwilling to learn US English because it would represent to them the ultimate acceptance of American supremacy, there is an alternative: Hiberno-English. The English spoken in Ireland manages quite well without the intricacy of the present perfect — “How long are you in Brussels?” — or the nuisance of pronouncing “th” in words such as this, that and those. In this way, it is actually nearer the original pronunciation that lexicographer David Crystal is now championing. Another advantage of Hiberno-English is that its speakers use the entire UK English vocabulary and enhance it with colourful coinages of their own: “yoke” (thing), “craic” (enjoyment), and lively alternative meanings — “cute” (clever), “savage” (excellent) and “bold” (naughty). What’s not to like? And then there’s the spelling: “reigns” for “reins”, and so on.

Sunday World

A Brexit would rattle the already shaky EU structure and it would pose a severe crisis for the island of Ireland, but it need not be all downside. Hiberno-English could be the light at the end of the tunnel and it might not be long before Martin Schulz is saying, “C’mere to me, Jean-Claude. Where’s the feckin’ yoke for opening the bottles? Tisn’t in the press, anyway. The turnout was desperate last night, wasn’t it?”


Barry Lyndon

Tuesday, 3 November, 2015 0 Comments

On this day in 1844, the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray completed his novel “Barry Lyndon,” a comic-tragic story about the vertiginous rise and fall of an Irish adventurer in 18th-century Europe.

Synopsis: Redmond Barry of Bally Barry flees to Dublin after a duel with an English officer. He falls in with bad company, loses all his money and, pursued by creditors, enlists in a Royal regiment headed for Germany during the Seven Years’ War. Hilarious complications ensue and the “hero” finds himself in the company of the enemy:

“At our table at the inn there was a Prussian officer who treated me with great civility, and asked me a thousand questions about England; which I answered as best I might. But this best, I am bound to say, was bad enough. I knew nothing about England, and the Court, and the noble families there; but, led away by the vaingloriousness of youth (and a propensity which I possessed in my early days, but of which I have long since corrected myself, to boast and talk in a manner not altogether consonant with truth), I invented a thousand stories which I told him; described the King and the Ministers to him, said the British Ambassador at Berlin was my uncle, and promised my acquaintance a letter of recommendation to him. When the officer asked me my uncle’s name, I was not able to give him the real name, and so said his name was O’Grady: it is as good a name as any other, and those of Kilballyowen, County Cork, are as good a family as any in the world, as I have heard.”

When a stranger travelling under Austrian protection arrives in Berlin, Redmond is asked to spy on him. This older man, Chevalier de Balibari (Bally Barry) is, in fact, his uncle, who disappeared many years ago. He smuggles his nephew out of Prussia and the two Irishmen wander around Europe, gambling and living by their wits.

Thinking that there must be easier ways of making money, Redmond seduces the wealthy and beautiful Countess of Lyndon. He moves into Hackton Castle, which he has completely remodelled at great expense, and spends his new bride’s wealth freely. The novel ends with (Redmond) Barry Lyndon lodged in Fleet Prison, where he spends the last nineteen years of his life, eventually dying of alcoholism-related illness.

Stanley Kubrick’s elegant, elegiac film of the book is a masterpiece and a perfect antidote to most of what passes today as romantic costume drama.


Huxley forgets

Sunday, 26 July, 2015 1 Comment

On this day in 1894, the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley was born. He is best known for his novel, Brave New World, set in a dystopian, futuristic London, and for The Doors of Perception, a non-fiction book that recalls his experiences when taking the drug mescaline. In his poem, Social Amenities, Huxley confronts forgetfulness, a condition associated with, but not limited to, ageing.

Social Amenities

I am getting on well with this anecdote,
When suddenly I recall
The many times I have told it of old,
And all the worked-up phrases, and the dying fall
Of voice, well timed in the crisis, the note
Of mock-heroic ingeniously struck —
The whole thing sticks in my throat,
And my face all tingles and pricks with shame
For myself and my hearers.
These are the social pleasures, my God!
But I finish the story triumphantly all the same.

Aldous Huxley (26 July 1894 — 22 November 1963)

Aldous Huxley


English vs. Chinese

Thursday, 20 November, 2014 0 Comments

Sarah Fay interviews Ha Jin for the Paris Review. His books are banned in China because he writes about “taboo subjects”. And there’s another reason he’s unpopular with the authorities: “I write in English, which is viewed as a betrayal of my mother tongue.” Talking of language, here he compares Chinese with English:

“English has more flexibility. It’s a very plastic, very shapeable, very expressive language. In that sense it feels quite natural. The Chinese language is less natural. Written Chinese is not supposed to represent natural speech, and there are many different spoken dialects that correspond to the single written language. The written word will be the same in all dialects, but in speech it is a hundred different words. The written language is like Latin in that sense; it doesn’t have a natural rhythm. The way people talk — you can’t represent that. The accents and the nongrammatical units, you can’t do it. You can’t write in dialect, like you can in English, using a character to represent a certain sound, because each character has a fixed meaning.

When the first emperor wanted to unify the country, one of the major policies was to create one system of written signs. By force, brutal force, he eliminated all the other scripts. One script became the official script. All the others were banned. And those who used other scripts were punished severely. And then the meanings of all the characters, over the centuries, had to be kept uniform as a part of the political apparatus. So from the very beginning the written word was a powerful political tool.”

Read the whole thing and give thanks for the freedom that allows you to read it.


Vape? There’s a magazine for that

Tuesday, 18 November, 2014 0 Comments

vape, verb: “Inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device.”

vape, noun: “An electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device.”

Those are the definitions advanced by the Oxford Dictionaries in explaining its International Word of the Year 2014. Vaping is so cool that there’s a magazine all about the trend. There’s an app, too, of course. Among its selling points: “unlock achievements at important milestones” and “keep track of your progress with the Vape homescreen widget.” Talking of words, TIME will release the results of its “Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?” poll tomorrow. The only four-letter word on the list is “kale”. Our money, however, is on an eight-letter word winner.

Vape