English as she is not spoke

Hacks and gibberish.

I’m reading an article on The Independent’s website about British forces taking quite a few casualties this month. I read the following (my italics):

In all, 113 British forces have died.

Forces? Shouldn’t it be “military personnel” or “personnel” or some variation on that? I don’t remember the word “force” having a meaning like “member of a military unit”. Is this an Americanism? A militarism?

The previous paragraph uses the phrase “service personnel”, so perhaps the hacks (yes, there are two of them) or the sub-editor were trying for a little variation. On the plus side, forces is used correctly in the first part of the article.

In this sense, the British Expeditionary Force which was sent to France at the start of World War II would’ve been a disappointment. One man against the whole of the German army?


Will the real China please stand up.

It’s not that simple.

An entry over on ESWN reminded me of something someone said to me about three years ago about the real China. The person, who was as dull as he was dull-minded – let’s call him Mr Pooter –, claimed that Beijing wasn’t the real China. In other words, the real China should be full of peasants toiling in the fields, or living in squalid hutongs and riding bicycles everywhere. The real China wasn’t really something trying to resemble the 21st century.

In my view, the real China is both of these places. It’s the peasants living subsistence-level lives, and it’s the nouveaux riches in their black Audis hurrying to their next bribe earnt off the backs of the migrant workers. Neither place is any less real than the other.

It’s also worth reading this blog entry over on the Telegraph’s website and the comments with it. Have a look at Du Yisa’s first comment especially. I’m surprised Nanny hasn’t blocked the Telegraph, ‘cos I’m sure her snoops will be well aware of the kind of content that makes it onto ESWN.

On the bus

All aboard.

Now Bus Uncle has reached Language Log with this entry. So, go learn some Cantonese and catch up on the catchphrases that have caught on in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, another attempt to watch Bus Uncle has stalled. Thirty-five seconds in. Might’ve been a Friefox problem because I switched to IE and saw the whole thing. Bus Uncle might not much like the guy who interrupted him, but he seems dead keen to get it on with his mother. Next thing you know, Bus Uncle is Bus Stepfather.

Bus Uncle comes across as another inconsiderate git with a mobile who thinks that it’s all right for him to annoy everyone else, but not for anyone else to point it out.

Now, what’s the deal with that?

The strange case of Now.

In the Sicilian grammar that I downloaded I found the sentence

Iddu vinni ora di la casa ‘He came now from the house.’

That’s the original translation. Obviously, now is in the wrong place. We’d more naturally say “He now came from the house”.

As we all know, the more you think about a word and say it over and over, the stranger the word becomes. I started thinking about now, and couldn’t help but feel that it was somehow wrong, not because it was in the wrong place, but because there was something about the time.

You have now which indicates present time, but a verb which indicates past time. The more I looked at the sentence above, the more I wanted to turn the translation into “He came from the house just now”. By adding just, a past event has relevance to present time.

Out of context, the original sentence sounds like it’s part of a story and now makes the narative feel vivid, sort of like the historic present, but set in the past.

Down but not out

The World of Film

I went into town on Thursday for the first time in a few weeks to buy some more DVDs. In truth, there wasn’t much on offer, but I did buy Ultraviolet and V for Vendetta, as well as the Indiana Jones films in DVD-9.

Ultraviolet is Milla Jovovich playing the same part she’s played in just about every film I think she’s ever been in. She’s sort of the MTA version of Arnie. She certainly seems to have dibs on the girls-with-guns (or swords) genre. And it’s money for old rope. All Jovovich has to do is a bunch of ‘kewl’ things against a CGI background. I’m not sure she’s ever had to act.

V for Vendetta is long. Really long. A certain amount of trimming might not’ve hurt, but I didn’t feel that the movie palled – at least during the parts when I was awake. I’d describe it as an ironic film because the graphic novel on which it’s based is a satire on Thatcherite Britain. We now find ourselves in 2006 and the ideas in the film are no less relevant now. Possibly they’re even more relevant than they would’ve been during Thatcher’s reign.

[07.08.14. Having read the original graphic novel, I now realise what a piece of com­plete arse the film is.]

I shouldn’t have looked

A disorganised crime.

I went through the pdf of that Sicilian grammar bookmarking the various sections to make the document easier to navigate. That meant that I was exposed to its full disorganisation, which doesn’t recommend its exposure to a wider public.

The author’s aim is laudable enough. Sicilian is a minority language in Europe. It might be of interest to anyone of Sicilian descent, or linguists. But if you’re going to get people like me (i.e., linguists) near it, you need to to have done QA first.

The grammar, as I noted, doesn’t get off to a good start, but you suddenly hit a section called ORTHOGRAPHY (yes, in capitals) where a whole bunch of stuff gets buried, including Gender, which kind of marks the beginning of the section on nouns. In fact, most of the non-verbal morphology is here.

You eventually get to verbs on page 32 and, almost immediately, the conjugations of avìri “have” and èssiri “be” for no particular reason. It’s not until you get to page 36 (and scan with care) that you learn there are three conjugations in Sicilian. The section on verbs tails off into a few more sample conjugations followed by a couple of irregular verbs.

The 3rd person pronoun is iddu which, apparently, does service for “he, him, she, her”, but the text is also littered with instances of idda “she, her” (e.g. Idda cci avìa iutu a scola “She had gone to school”; S’innamurò di idda “He fell in love with her”). A search of the text for examples reveals no examples of pronouns as direct objects, which usually gets a note or two because they’re proclitics in the Romance languages (well, the ones I have some vague knowledge of; e.g. Anna lo/la odia [Italian] “Anna hates him/her”).

Although the aim of the grammar is laudable, the organisation is deplorable, and this is a good example of how not to write a grammar. It’s easy enough to go to the library or a bookshop and have a look at how grammars (as opposed to self-teaching books on language) are organised.

The Riddle of the Sands

Pass the brandy, Timkins.

We entered the Burami Oasis at about 5 o’clock yesterday evening. The camels, dusty and exhausted from the long trek across the Ba’oul Massif, made a beeline for the watering hole. “I’d swear they were wateroholics,” said Timkins who was dun-coloured all over, making him look like an extension of his camel rather than a separable entity. Perhaps you meanhydraulics‘, I replied. He laughed and said that Tuareg phrase he likes so much, although I suspect that he has been misinformed about the translation.

The ubiquitous Tuareg were already camped out in the oasis. One of them looked at us and said something. Later I learnt it was, “Camels? Dude, that’s, like, so 19th century.” They were lucky, though. The Burami Oasis Hotel had valet parking, just not for camels. In fact, we had to hide the camels behind some date palms before they would let us into the hotel. In fact, we barely got into the hotel because they have a no-burnoose policy. Of course, we blended in well against the tan-coloured steps of the hotel, so the doormen barely noticed us.

When I got to my room, the first thing I did was to have a shower. It was so long since I had last been in contact with water that I was wondering whether it had changed in some way. But no. It was still wet and still came out of taps. Half the Ba’oul Massif went down the plughole, and when I got out of the shower and saw myself in the mirror, I was shocked to see just how much weight I had lost. It just goes to show that eating MacDonald’s can be part of a weight-loss diet.

I sat down in one of the chairs and instantly fell asleep. Really instantly. I thought that I was made of sterner stuff, and in all my life I’ve never dropped off so suddenly. I don’t know how long I would’ve slept if Timkins hadn’t come knocking on my door with some news:

“Hotmail is still not working.”

[03.08.14. Just to explain. In May 2006, Hotmail was having some major problems, which is why my main e-mail address these days is gmail. I don’t think it was ever explained why Hotmail had such problems. For one of my current colleagues, Hotmail is still problematic from school.

I’ve been weeding out some trivial old entries which would’ve been better off as posts on Facebook.]

The Sicilian Gambit

La lingua nostra.

Another tale of linguistic hijinks, this time from Sicilian. This site has a course in Sicilian which starts with the following

a is pronounced as in the word palm parma
e is pronounced as in the word echo leccu
i is pronounced as in the word ring aneddu
o is pronounced as in the word lost persu
u is pronounced as in the word foot pedi

Now normally, I’d expect the example to be in Sicilian and the gloss to be in English; but here the example is in English and the gloss is in Sicilian.

Further on we have

Some words in Sicilian change meaning by the addition of a consonant that they have in common, that is with a certain consonant they have one meaning and by doubling that same consonant the word has a different meaning:

The author is really talking about minimal pairs which illustrate that geminates are phonemic, but the description makes it seem that this might be a process of derivation so that scanàri “to knead” actually becomes scannàri “to slaughter” by doubling the [n]. It doesn’t.

Once we get away from the phonology of the language, the rest seems safe enough. Well, almost.

The Romans did not know the cardinal numbers and they used the ordinal numbers for every need. for this reason they used to write even the dates with ordinal numbers. here are some examples of how the years are written with ordinal numbers:

The author doesn’t appear to be confusing cardinal and ordinal numbers (which is a pair of labels I constantly mix up), but the problem appears to stem from the use of Roman numerals. It starts with

If the ordinal number refers to title, it follows the name:
Fidiricu II Frederick the II
Erricu VI Henry the VI
Luigi IX Louis the IX,

but in truth, this is mere convention. We’re then told

The ordinal numbers are written with special capital letters:

which is followed by a list of Roman numerals. Although we’re given the Sicilian ordinals (the actual word), it appears that the Roman numerals are some sort of Sicilian peculiarity which need explaining. It means that I once owned a Sicilian watch. No wonder I could never work out what the time was.

But things do get a little worse.

The Romans did not know the cardinal numbers and they used the ordinal numbers for every need. for this reason they used to write even the dates with ordinal numbers. here are some examples of how the years are written with ordinal numbers:

I would assume that Roman numerals were originally conceived of as cardinals (I homo; II homines etc.), but the Romans may not have had some sort of written marker for ordinals (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc.). However, I can assure worried readers that the Romans did know cardinal numbers.

If you remove these unfortunate statements, the rest of the course seems to be a decent, basic description of Sicilian, but don’t look too closely.

Is it a “b”? Is it a “d”?

Everything’s smooth.

I’m looking at an online grammar of Catalan. The author says

b / v (which in Catalan have the same sound) and d sound like in Engl. b or d, except when they are placed between two vowels; in this case, the pronunciation is “smoother” (e. g. baralla / roba, valor / cava, dia / cada). In the Valencian dialect, the intervocalic -d- even has a tendency to disappear (e. g. vesprada = vesprà ). We represent the “smoother” b or d as [bh] and [dh].

Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, I’m left trying to interpret what the sounds actually are. The problem isn’t so much d, which would would appear to be [d] word-initially (and post-consonantally?—yes) and [ð] intervocalically, but b/v. These “have the same sound”, apparently [b] word-initially, but a “smoother” pronunciation between vowels.

Like Catalan d, which is probably an approximant between vowels, b/v is probably a bilabial approximant [β] in an intervocalic position.

The problem is cleared up by going to this site. b and v are [b] word-initially, and [β] between vowels.

I find that value descriptions of sounds in a language (e.g. “smoother”) are irritating because they tell no one anything. If you say, “bilabial approximant”, I know what you mean. If you say a sound is smoother, I might as well assume that it’s a spiv with a pencil moustache who does jobs for Fat Boy Malone’s mob.

Oh dear. I think I’m turning into Language Log.

It just doesn’t add up

Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the other one.

I was just reading this article over on The Guardian. It includes the following paragraph

Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician at Ochanomizu University, said: “The most important thing during primary years is Japanese and maths. It is important that children first learn their own country’s culture and traditions.”

Presumably this is an accurate translation, but has the grammar gone squonky [Hey! I’ve warned you about using techie terms in your blog. –ed.] with “The most important thing… is Japanese and maths”? Shouldn’t it be “The most important thing[s are]… Japanese and maths”? I don’t feel the original sentence as it stands is glaringly bad, but something seems a little off one way or the other.

[06.09.14. On second thoughts, a dual subject with a singular verb doesn’t always break English grammar. I assume that such subjects are regarded as a unit, although that may be more usual with things that naturally go together. In this case, I don’t feel that Japanese and maths form a natural set, not even “school subjects”. I’m sure Language Log has had a post about this.]

But that’s not the only thing that isn’t quite right. Language may have an intimate connection with culture and tradition, but I don’t remember maths ever being part of that. I’m saying this from two perspectives. One is that maths is universal in that π is π, i is i, and e is e whether you know about these things or not. The other is that most people don’t seem to need for maths beyond the four basic functions (helpfully noted in this post’s subheading). Except for a few occasions when my curiosity has been piqued about something mathematical, most of the maths I did at school never got beyond the gates of the school when I left.

This is not to say that numbers don’t play a part in culture. When I was at primary school we used to chant, “First the worst; second the best; third the lucky number; fourth the dirty dishcloth” when we were in line. Three is a special number; so are seven and nine. Thirteen is unlucky in the West, but here in China four is unlucky (because it sounds like the word for “death”). The lucky numbers here are six and eight. There are various special birthdays and anniversaries.

I’m sure that whatever Fujiwara said in Japanese, it wasn’t meant to be about the teaching of culturally significant numbers. To me, the alleged importance of maths in Japan sounds like China’s obsession with science. Both are a means of producing new generations of robots lacking the capability for independent thought.