Tag Archives: English language

Water sports

Or, The Duck Olympics.

The word on the street yesterday afternoon was that we’d be teaching today. It started raining last night and while it was not so bad first thing, the rain has increased since then. Thus I came into school expecting to be facing classes, but about morning exercise time, there was a hubbub of voices outside and students from the main school came streaming out of the big lecture theatre.

We were then told that the sports days were back on although this announcement was greeted with some scepticism, and the rain, which did ease briefly, has since got heavier. Nonetheless, the little darlings are out sitting in the school stadium, sheltering under their umbrellas; but as far as I can tell from the silence, nothing would appear to be happening, and I’m reluctant to go because someone might just see sense and cancel the entire business.

Also, on a more practical level, I’d be sparing myself at least one outing if I stayed here until lunch­time.

In other news, I read an article online about the rating of Chinese students’ proficiency in English, which placed them quite far down the international rankings. If I had to estimate the average proficiency of Chinese students once they reach the 高考, I’d guess it’d be IELTS 3 to 4, perhaps buoyed up by their writing. As I’ve mentioned before, for most students here, English is a book language which is soon forgotten once students have left school.

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Hu bai wan?

Wu bai wan.

While I was waiting to cross 解放路 yesterday, I was serenaded by music coming from the branch of 东方电器 on that corner.The shop sells white goods and often plays music, but yesterday, the lyrics caught my ear and unless I was much mistaken, the singer was rendering the English “You buy one” as “Wu bai wan”. I’m not sure whether this was being prefaced by some attempt to produce “Why don’t” because I could hear a “wai”, but nothing which sounded like “don’t”.

This afternoon I needed to buy water from the shop at the main gate. The grounds staff have been doing quite a bit of watering and when the hose pipes are at full pressure, I’ll go bouncing over them. As I passed across the lane between the ponds, there was some girl on one of those bikes with really small wheels. She approached the hose pipe which was lying across the path with some caution, hit it, and stopped dead, which sent her off the seat. Even if she had been going a bit faster, I’m not sure she could’ve ridden over the hose pipe. I might’ve tried to do a wheelie, but then again, I wouldn’t be seen dead riding such a ridiculous bike.

English as she is wrote

Who listens to whom?

I note the following rather odd phrase from a BBC Radio 7 web page:

Sorry, this programme is not available to listen again.

Now as I understand the phrase, “programme” is the subject of “listen”. Wouldn’t it be better to say “It is not possible to listen to this programme again”?

The phraseology is odd to me, but seems reminiscent of the Old English hæteþ gretan “orders [sc. someone] to greet” where we would use a passive infinitive in the modern language.

(Cross-posted from Green Bamboo LJ.)

Literally doesn’t literally mean literally

Tales from the fun and exciting world of the armchair linguist.

I finally literally got round to literally checking out the Guardian website where I literally found a review for On Tour with the Queen by Sam Wollaston. It literally isn’t a programme I’ll literally see any time soon, which is, literally, a pity because it literally sounds literally quite interesting. Wollaston literally pulls up the presenter, Kwame Kwei-Armah for his use of “literally”.

Literally indicates that something should be read in its literal or primary sense, rather than metaphorically.

Except as Chaucer literally put it, “In form of speche is chaunge”. These days (and literally long before them), literally is literally being used as an emphatic adverb which literally means something like “in fact” or perhaps “almost”. I don’t literally disagree with Wollaston that the word may literally be being overused or, at least, literally used often enough to literally be noticeably annoying.

Of course, literally still literally retains its older meaning, which should literally be used on any appropriate occasion.

Normally, I wouldn’t literally care about literally, which is literally not a word that I literally use that much, although I’m literally sure that I’ve literally done so in the past without literally distinguishing its older from its more recent senses.

[16.08.13. I assume that the reason why this post has surfaced again is a peevish article in The Guardian (?) recently about the use of “literally” as an intensive adverb because the hack who wrote the piece is too literal-minded about what she thinks the word should mean. (I do recall that the author was female, but I can’t immediately find the article.)]

A travesty of travestie

Why the hell do I do that?

It’s a serendipitous combination of how to pronounce “Ossetia” and the chance discovery of John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie that lead me to this point. 

Travestie is merely an old spelling of travesty, yet for some reason I’ve always read the word as *travéstie with stress on the second syllable and not as trávesty. The word is a little peculiar in that stress falls on the initial syllable (i.e., the antepenultimate), skipping a heavy penultimate syllable which ought to be stress-attracting. 

My next question is whether the word was stressed on the penultimate syllable in the early Modern English period. Unfortunately, there’s no database of early Modern English (poetic) texts which I can peruse to find out. At a guess, stress may have shied away from the penultimate syllable because if the original pronunciation roughly corresponded to that of the French past participle travesti with emphasis on the final syllable, stress of the ággravàte pattern might’ve been applied. In other words, travestie was never assigned penultimate stress. 

Nonetheless, why would I read the word as *travéstie in the first place? (Thinks for a bit. Can’t find decent excuse. Exits stage right.)

Derivational morphemes

I want a little list.

I would’ve thought that some altruistic person might’ve posted a list of English derivational morphemes and their functions on line, but I haven’t been able to track down such a list. Possibly Andy Spencer at Essex has such a list in a PDF document, but I get nothing when I click on the link. [What linki? –ed.] I don’t know whether the document [What document would that be? –ed.] is only viewable within the university, because I don’t get some message asking me to login.

I may have to do this the hard way, which would mean trawling through my etymological dictionary of English which does at least list them and their functions. I’m sure there should be a list on the Internet somewhere, but it’s a matter of finding it and avoiding all the ESL stuff which lacks the intellectual rigour or completeness.

18.06.13 Edited HTML, added comments to the text, and added tags. This has to be about the least useful entry on the derivational morphology of English ever. Try some of the following instead:

But six years on, and there appears to be no particular page or pdf document with a comprehensive discussion of English derivational morphology, which suggests that this sort of information is only available in university libraries.

Open the vents!

Pope’s head overheats.

I’ve just seen this headline over on Google News UK:

Only in welcoming God can mankind find humanity and peace.

The European world did that some time ago. But look what happened – intolerance; schisms; Crusades; Reformations; Counter Reformations; Northern Ireland; In­tel­lig­ent Design… The party never ends.

The Pope is right, of course, but not in a good way. I am reminded once again of the Borg from Star Trek.

The pain! The pain!

And then there’s this from The Scotsman newspaper (my italics; probably because it depends on how the theme renders quotations).

BRITAIN’S digital music revolution will be increasingly driven by the over-50s as the affluent “silver surfer” generation migrate their music col­lect­ions onto MP3 players, industry experts said today.

I hope that’s a more-or-less direct quote from some semi-literate record company exec and not some sub-editor letting such an abomination pass through without comment.

The correct verb is transfer. Migrate is an intransitive verb, and thus un­gram­matical in this sentence. But I predict that eventually in American English (which is the most likely source of such a usage), all verbs will be used transitively or in­trans­itively without due care and attention, and there will be no passive voice because MS Word tells people not to use it.

A couple of theories about language.

About once every 500 years, the changes in the English language ac­cum­ul­ate to a sufficient degree for the language to enter a new phase. In the early 21st century, we’re at the start of the new phase (not that we can see it, of course, since language change is an on-going process) because it’s 500 years since the start of the Modern English period. The 500 years before that was the Middle English period, and the 500 before that, Old English. Before that, we spoke various dialects of West Germanic and English didn’t exist.

Anyway, that’s my theory.

My other theory is that the Old English period is the period when the in­sular dialects of West Germanic (i.e., those spoken on the damp and fog-bound isle of Britain), became increasingly separate from their Continental cousins. In other words, the English language as a language (and not just a dialect of someone else’s language) didn’t really exist before about AD 1000.

Thinking man’s crumpet from late Antiquity.

I was doing some reading about Hypatia of Alexandria yesterday. I found a reference to her on a website about Epicurus, although she wasn’t an Epicurean. She was born in Alexandria some time in the second half of the 4th century (perhaps between 455 and 470). her father, Theon, was the last director of the museum in Alexandria. She herself was a mathematician and philosopher, and both popular and well-connected. She may have been married, but that’s uncertain.

She was murdered by Christian fanatics in 415. It was rumoured that she was preventing the city’s Prefect, Orestes, from being reconciled with Bishop Cyril. According to Socrates Scholasticus, she was taken to the church of Caesarion, stripped naked, and beaten to death with tiles. Her body was then removed to Cinaron and burnt. Although Socrates was a Christian, his account is basically sympathetic to Hypatia.

John, the Bishop of Nikiu, sensationalised the story somewhat. Hypatia is now a witch, and she was first taken to the church before being dragged through the streets until she died.

Socrates’ account may have been coloured by his attitude towards Cyril, and that may explain why Hypatia’s death has all the hallmarks of Christian martyrdom.

The account in The Suda follows the same sort of line. It mentions her beauty and chastity. It also adds a tale about one besotted admirer whom Hypatia “cured” by waving some used tampons in his face.

The version by the Bishop of Nikiu seems to be aimed at the groundlings. Hypatia is taken to the church before being dragged around the streets until she died. If she’d been murdered in the church, the church would’ve been despoiled by the blood of an unbeliever. It may also be being implied that Hypatia was given the chance to convert.

Hypatia’s death was never avenged. The emperor “was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed” (The Suda). Not long afterwards, Orestes left Alexandria and Cyril had won the day.

No one knows what part Cyril played in Hypatia’s death, but he’s unlikely to have been upset. There had been human rights violations on both sides. According to The Suda, Cyril was jealous of Hypatia’s popularity.

[H]e was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that.

But her death in this version is mere assassination. Well, it is The Suda after all.