Tag Archives: English

Brn wrkt

m tryng t prf pnt hr tht ppl wh knw nglsh r prfctl (r s) cpbl f ndrstndng txt wrttn wtht ny vwls. hv lrdy wrttn pst rltng t ths r n rthgrphy (hr). Snc w’r t t tryng t ‘mprv’ nglsh rthgrphy, whch s n f th lst phnmc ns, t s rgbl whthr rthgrph nd phnlgy shld b cmbnd t t lst sm xtnt n ths pst s .g. y s phnlgclly vwl, bt n th bc t s rgrdd s cnsnnt. D t smplcty, wll nt dlt t hr thgh.

Tr, t s qt hrd t ndrstnd shrt wrds tht, thrgh vwl dltn, nd p s sngl cnsnnts nd nly th cntxt mks clr wht s mnt (bt t my stll rmn mbgs), nd sm wrds lk th ndfnt rtcl r cmpltly rdctd. Hwvr lnggs sch s rbc shw tht t s pssbl – nd nglsh lrdy mks s f t n fr xmpl txts.

Wld vwl dltn llw rthgrph t rprsnt nglsh nd ts dlcts bttr? ftr ll, th dffrnc n th prnnctn f vwls s mjr chrctrstc f dlcts nd ccnts. Frthrmr, ths sstm wld shrtn txts lt. Nvrthlss, t lst whn y’r nt sd t t, t tks mch lngr t wrt nd rd.

wll kp ths pst shrt (s t s tkng m whl t tp nd prbbl y w bt t fgr t). hp cld 1) mk y thnk bt nglsh rthgrphy (phnlgy nd th PA), 2) shw hw mzng th hmn brn s n bng bl f dcphrng (hpflly mst f) ths, nd 3) gv y lttl prcrstntn brk frm wrk 😉

(shd hv smply wrttn p ths pst ‘wth vwls’ nd thn dltd thm, nd nt wrttn t strght wtht vwls (=tkng lngr nd pssbly csng (mr) mstks), bt t ws gd brn xrcs!)

Brain workout

I’m trying to proof a point here that people who know English are perfectly (or so) capable of understanding text written without any vowels. I have already written a post relating to this area in orthography (here). Since we’re at it trying to ‘improve’ English orthography, which is one of the least phonemic ones, it is arguable whether orthography and phonology should be combined to at least some extent in this post as e.g. y is phonologically a vowel, but in the Abc it is regarded as consonant. Due to simplicity, I will not delete it here though.

True, it is quite hard to understand short words that, through vowel deletion, end up as single consonants and only the context makes clear what is meant (but it may still remain ambiguous), and some words like the indefinite article are completely eradicated. However languages such as Arabic show that it is possible – and English already makes use of it in for example textese.

Would vowel deletion allow orthography to represent English and its dialects better? After all, the difference in the pronunciation of vowels is a major characteristic of dialects and accents. Furthermore, this system would shorten texts a lot. Nevertheless, at least when you’re not used to it, it takes much longer to write and read.

I will keep this post short (as it is taking me a while to type and probably you a wee bit to figure out). I hope I could 1) make you think about English orthography (phonology and the IPA), 2) show how amazing the human brain is in being able of deciphering (hopefully most of) this, and 3) give you a little procrastination break from work 😉

(I should have simply written up this post ‘with vowels’ and then deleted them, and not written it straight without vowels (=taking longer and possibly causing (more) mistakes), but it was a good brain exercise!)


Making off

I have quite a few Eastern European friends, and sometimes I use English words that they don’t know, and I have to explain them. They are usually the more literary or figurative words, which may not be included in a beginner’s or even intermediate language course. The problem is that many thousands of such words, even if they are quite infrequent, are nevertheless entirely appropriate to use in everyday conversation when called for, and all native speakers know them.

 Because of its peculiar history of having Germanic, French, Latin and sometimes Greek or other strata in the same lexical fields, and because of its worldwide dominance and use in a vast array of fields, it is far from unlikely that English has the largest and richest vocabulary of any language ever known. Royal, regal and kingly stand side by side and are not entirely interchangeable in meaning and ‘feel’, whereas a language such as German has just königlich. Languages such as French and Hindi have two main strata, the native development and then forms based on older, classical versions of themselves (Latin, Sanskrit), but English is unusual in having three such strata, and in having gone from a position of subjugation that it was semi-creolized with French to such a position of prestige that it can dominate and influence with loanwords almost all other languages on the planet, while still retaining its cheery promiscuous ease in taking its pick of words from those languages, from zeitgeist (German) to wiki (Hawai‘ian).

 So if I say ‘dastardly’, ‘ominous’ or ‘cower’ or ‘hold sway’ or ‘teeter’ in conversation with my friends, I suddenly see a look of incomprehension and have to stop to explain, which is sometimes very different. Living with non-native speakers of English is probably good training for being a lexicographer though!

 It is sometimes daunting and depressing when one considers how vast the vocabulary of English is, especially when I try to learn other languages (at the moment Russian fills me with despair…). I am studying Gaelic and know it fairly well, but reading old poetry I sometimes have to look up half the words: the traditional bards had enormous vocabularies, and they lived in a world where everyone was immersed in these words all their lives and knew what they meant. Such richness in Gaelic is fading fast, it is hard to find in any speaker under 60 years old, as the language gives way to English. But if it is any comfort (agus is beag an sòlas a th’ ann dhomhsa—nach eil de dh’eanchainn ann an ceann duine a dh’fhòghnas airson dà chànan beartach taobh ri taobh? — cha jean ee cosney ping dhyt, agh chamoo nee ee coayl ping dhyt), they are replacing Gaelic with a language that probably has the richest and most fertile idiom ever known. (This is not to say Gaelic is inferior; it is still very, very rich: but a language that has millions of speakers all communicating with each other by new-fangled means never dreamed of in other ages, and drawing from so many sources, will inevitably be off the scale as regards fertility and richness of vocabulary). Of course, Anglophones often boast about their language, and claim it is the most expressive on earth: but in certain respects there may be a grain of truth in it. English is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing language to me personally (Gaelic or Welsh would be at the top of the list), and other languages may be more expressive than English in certain contexts—for example, I find Celtic languages much better for poetry than English, because in the latter the Romance and Germanic elements jar with each other in verse unless the author is very careful*—but I nevertheless maintain that English is probably the all-round most expressive and subtle language in existence. The language capacity in all humans is equal, and languages all have equal potential, and a base line of expressiveness that is the same for all languages (probably the level to which children automatically take pidgins when they make them into creoles), but nonetheless it is possible that because of various external circumstances, languages may not actually be equal in all respects.

 (*For example, I love John Donne but still think he would sound much better in Welsh or German, or even French.)

 Anyway, to get back to my L2 English-speaking friends. One of them is currently reading The Lord of the Rings (a wonderful book for demonstrating one facet of the greatness of English—Tolkien has a very good grasp of the beauty, subtlety and simplicity of earthy native and low-register or register-neutral English words and expressions. His language is generally not consciously archaic, but neither is it modern: it is timeless, as if the author was trying to capture an element of the genius of English which runs all the way through it synchronically and diachronically). My friend says he learnt the expression ‘make off’ (as in ‘depart’) from LOTR.

 This made me think about this expression and related ones. It is a phrasal verb, another thing that strongly characterizes English (and also German and Gaelic, but not Romance). There are many different types of phrasal verbs in English, including ones formed with prepositions and adverbs, and ones that are separable and inseparable. Incidentally, I have a book called The Oxford Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs, which classifies and lists thousands of such verbs. I found this tome in a small bookshop in another town where it had been sitting so long on a shelf near the sunny window that the red on its spine had been bleached to a sickly pink. After eyeing the book on several visits over several months, I finally could not resist any longer and purchased it. One of the stated aims of the book is to be a guide to L2 learners, since phrasal verbs are one of the trickiest parts of English for foreigners.

‘Make off’ is not very frequent, and has a slightly jaunty air, and may be a tad archaic; though it is often used to mean ‘steal’, as in ‘He made off with the cutlery’. More commonly, one says ‘set off’, or ‘set out’, which are more or less synonymous except that ‘set out’ is more purposeful, and can be used in a non-literal sense: ‘He set out to kill his wife’ can mean either literally that he moved from one place to another in order to kill her, or else figuratively that he had the intention to kill her and began planning how to do it, whereas ‘he set off to kill his wife’ can only have the first meaning. Also note that ‘set about’ means almost the same as ‘set out’ in this non-literal sense, but they are syntactically different in the complement they take: one can say ‘he set about ruining my life’, but not ‘*he set about to ruin my life’; and one can say ‘he set out to ruin my life’ but not ‘*he set out ruining my life’. No wonder it’s confusing!

Much, much more could be said on this topic, but this is enough to show how complicated English is (and all other languages), and what a chore it is to learn all the subtleties. At the end of the day all you can do is keep an ear out for new things, and read, read, read a wide range of text types and look things up in dictionaries, no matter how dull or tiresome that is. However you do it, reading The Lord of the Rings is no bad place to start. I must remember to start reading The Hobbit in German again…


Me like I

I noticed a strange phenomenon in the speech of a friend: Instead of “let my friend and me know” she would say “let my friend and I know”. So instead of the accusative case, she’d use the nominative case. I wondered why that was the case, where exactly she came from and whether this was a common phenomenon in her region.

My friend told me that she’d been taught English grammar by an old nun at a Catholic School in Connecticut who had insisted on the students using “I” instead of “me”. She said, after observing herself speak, she didn’t use “me” all that often, in conjunction with another noun she would almost always use the nominative case (as for the dative, she would use “(to) me” though).

Most data I could find (online) in terms of Connecticut-English was on accents and dialects. One website made me hope for an answer to my question whether this was the ‘norm’ for Connecticutians. However, the transcripts didn’t offer any utterances that could have suggested a (dominant) use of the nominative in the objective case.

Generally speaking, the use of the nominative in place of the accusative is either seen as very formal (more likely if then followed by a relative clause) or simply as ungrammatical (e.g. 1). It is more common to use the objective pronoun instead of the subjective one in various dialects (e.g. 2).

  1. Standard: They went to see Lucy and me.
    Nonstandard: They went to see Lucy and I.
  2. Standard: We are reading.
    Nonstandard: Us are reading.

I observed the latter one in a song the other day. Take “Me like the way that you hold my body” (thanks for not singing “me like I”).
Richard posted twice about ‘different’ constructions in songs (here and here respectively). Maybe some pop stars are trying to get a more friendly or whatsoever image by integrating dialectal speech in their music? Remembering that I kind of started learning English by listening to English songs, i.e. trying to understand the lyrics, I’m glad that back then not too many such songs existed, or at least that I didn’t come across them (no offence, but I think it might me more beneficial for foreigners to (at least first) learn ‘standard’ English 😉 )…

Simple English. Maybe not.

Quite a few times when I passed those ever-so-boring-never-changing notes on our kitchen walls (student flat), I wondered about the following:

“…and switch the cooker off”. Why not: “…and switch off the cooker”? At least in this case, the latter one sounds better to me (and this even though the German (my mother tongue) equivalent is a verb that needs to be split (“… und schalte den Herd aus“)).

Switch off, hand sth over, grow up, run away, put sth into… are examples of so called “phrasal verbs” (PV) – combinations of verbs and prepositions/adverbs/prepositions and adverbs. Transitive PV can be either separable (also “splittable”) or not, while intransitive PV are inseparable.

Transitive PV containing adverbs are called “particle verbs” (PaV). If the object is a simple noun it can go on either side of the adverb, so both, “to switch the cooker off” and “to switch off the cooker” are acceptable. Long NP on the other hand tend to come after the adverb, so if the NP in our example was “the dirty, smelly cooker” you’d rather not split the verb and say “to switch off the dirty cooker in the kitchen” (instead of “to switch the dirty cooker in the kitchen off”).
According to the entry in “Simple English” (I didn’t know such a “language” existed until now. haha.) on wikipedia, if you do not know if a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable ALWAYS use a noun or noun phrase and do not try to separate the verb. (Maybe this could lead to the language change of simply not separating any verbs? We’ll (not) see in many years.)
I started a (fb) poll asking people what they would rather say… so far 3-2 for “to switch off the cooker” (I will keep you updated). (Even though there’s no right or wrong here, it’s still interesting to see whether there might be some tendency (not to split the verb? Maybe Edinburgh University’s Student Accommodation should revisit their signs… 😉 )).

Apart from those a little more “flexible” transitive PaV, there are also inseparable ones (e.g. “to break up”, “to come apart”…) and such that require a split (“to take sth apart”, “to let sth through”…).
A rule governing all transitive PaV is that if the object is a pronoun, the verb has to be separated so that pronoun precedes the adverb.

If you want to know more about phrasal verb patterns (there are, for example, also prepositional verbs (verbs containing a preposition that is always followed by the object, e.g. “look after sth”)) I suggest having a look at Wikipedia (maybe not the “Simple English” entry. After all, grammar is simple anyway. Isn’t it!) 😉 (oh and I can’t believe that they have this entry in only 9 languages (which don’t even include German, French, Spanish… (but “simple English”… right.))! Multilinguistis, that has to be changed! 🙂 )

Link: Simple English Wikipedia