Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Esperanto 2: Warning, contains meat

Esperanto has certain suffixes for various grammatical purposes, and others that add some extra meaning. One of the latter is -aĵ, which you add to the name of an animal in order to get the word for its meat. Some examples:
Chicken (the bird) - koko, chicken (meat) - kokaĵo
Cow/bull - bovo, beef - bovaĵo
One of the sentences I had to translate was kokaĵo estas viando, which means 'chicken is meat'. Now obviously the word for 'chicken' in that sentence has the 'meat' suffix already in it, so there's a certain redundancy here. It's a bit like saying chicken meat is meat in English. (Incidentally, I don't know if any other language has a suffix specifically for 'meat', and I don't know if it can be extended to fruits, for instance, as in the flesh of a peach, which I'm sure does exist in other languages.)

I was thinking about this redundancy and its counterparts in English. We don't have exactly the same thing, of course, as our words for meat are either the same (chicken, fish) or a different word entirely (beef, pork). So I suppose what we have is a kind of semantic redundancy: 'meat' is part of the meaning of beef. In other words, beef is a hyponym of meat. But someone might not know that beef is a meat (say they were learning English and you were explaining what the word meant, for instance). That wouldn't happen with Esperanto because the meaning is right there in the word if you know what the parts mean. It's 'compositional'. 

That said, people are not always that conscious of the grammatical parts of words, especially if the word is common. It's pretty usual for me to discover that many of my second and third year students can't correctly identify clauses as past or present tense, for instance. (Sorry students, if you're reading, but it's true.) They know as a native speaker what it means, but it's subconscious knowledge. 

And we have comparable redundancy in English. Imagine if you said I've been hurt in the past. Well, I've been hurt is past tense so in the past isn't necessary. It is possible that it might remove the 'immediate past' meaning that we would normally understand from the perfect tense if it's uttered out of the blue, but in context it is definitely redundant and still perfectly fine to say. Similarly, a little duckling doesn't normally mean a duckling that is particularly small compared to other ducklings, and the -ling tells us it's little anyway. 


I might need to find a fluent Esperantist to give me some 'native' speaker judgements on whether the sentence I had to translate has the 'explaining the meaning of the word' interpretation or not. 

Incidentally, Esperanto is literally the only language that uses the character ĵ, which means it's not on my computer's keyboard and is hard to type and that's annoying. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Titles again

I wrote a while back about the absolute stupidity of having a choice of Mr, Mrs and Ms. Normally I don't get called by my title and it's only on forms that I ever use it, but lately I've been called by it a lot, because I've been interacting with banks and estate agents and so on. It turns out that estate agents are an extremely conservative lot.

Estate agents are not capable of using Ms - it simply doesn't exist for them. You have to be Mrs or Miss. OK, well, then I'll be Miss, I suppose. But, distressingly, they've been tending to opt for Mrs (which makes me feel old). OK, so I'll correct them. Normally, even call centre staff are capable of switching to Miss when given a sharp reprimand after the first Mrs. Not so estate agents.

OK, well then I'm Dr. This has provided estate agents across Margate with the most scandal they've seen in a while. Every one that I've corrected has then made a big point of using it frequently. One, who had written 'Mrs' on a bit of paper told me a number of times that he'd get it changed in the computer system, and also decided that I was unlikely to like the place he was going to show me (which was insulting in itself, actually - am I not living in an appropriate place for my job?). Another called me 'Doc' and appeared most amused about the whole thing. And with another, I had this conversation:
Her: Is it Miss or Mrs?
Me (embarrassed): It's Dr, actually.
Her: Oh, I'll just put it in your name [rather than your husband's??] *writes Miss*
I mean, OK, there probably aren't that many people with a PhD in Margate, and the real doctors probably all live in St Peter's or somewhere, but... but.

And I'm pretty certain that the mortgage affordability calculator discriminated against me on the grounds of my gender, but I can't prove it.

Anyway, this is becoming not-linguistics, so I'll just mutter something here about the odd power-imbalance created when one person in a conversation (the bank person) uses your title+surname and you use their first name.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Still here

Sorry for the non-posting lately. Things have got a bit manic as summer draws to an end and I try to finish off all my various research projects before I have to begin thinking about teaching again (plus some personal life things).

Sometimes (often) people outside academia ask me if I'm on holiday, or what I'm actually doing. I don't get too annoyed by this, because admittedly it does look very much like I'm on holiday when I'm in the pub on a Tuesday afternoon (for instance). But it's simply that the work we do over  the summer is a different kind of work from term-time work.

There are basically three things lecturers do: teaching, research and admin. The idea (I think) is that the proportion should be 2:2:1. My contract is fairly teaching-heavy, so during term time I do a lot more teaching than anything else (and by teaching I mean the actual contact, preparation such as writing lectures and working out module outlines, marking, responding to students, etc). However, I want to remain employable so I still have to do research, and the best time to do this is during the long summer 'holidays'.

We finish teaching in April at my university, and don't begin again till the end of September. There's a lot of admin to be done during that time, and plenty of marking, but there are a good few clear weeks to focus just on research projects in a way that's not possible in term time. Some of my colleagues go off for the whole summer and either work from home or go abroad, maybe to do fieldwork or just to get away. I tend to mix working from home and going into the office, and I allow my working hours to be more flexible so that I can take advantage of what sun we do get if it turns up on a weekday.

This summer, I set myself a few projects that I wanted to work on. Some of these are collaborative, and I've been having regular research meetings with three different people about three different projects. These are all just coming to the point where we have results to analyse and discuss, so now is the time to try and get our teeth into that before there's no more time to think about it.

One thing that I think is essential is not to start on teaching preparation too soon. If you begin it, it can take up the whole summer. That can wait: the 1st of September is when I begin doing it. This is tricky (and there are a couple of little things that have to be done sooner) but it helps me to get more research done. This is a lesson it's taken me a while to learn. Teaching-related tasks are typically more focussed and manageable than 'doing research' so the temptation for me is to 'just do that one thing'. I've learnt now to leave aside those small, easy tasks because otherwise the big, scary ones never get done.

And this year, I've been pleased with what I've done over the summer. It'll take a little bit more effort to get us to the point of having a paper to submit, but a lot of the work has been done.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Esperanto 1: Duolingo

I've been learning Esperanto. I'm doing this not because I have too much free time, but because I'm a big language nerd but don't feel like I have time to practice languages as much as you need to to get good, so Esperanto allows for quick progress and no need to actually speak it.

I'm also interested in it because I'm interested in invented languages generally: given that they can have any rules their inventors choose, why do they have the rules they have? So I'm keeping one eye open for the grammar quirks as I learn it.

You'll notice I've put a numeral in the title of this post; that's normally a death knell for a series of blog posts but I will attempt to follow it up with more.

I'm using Duolingo to learn it, as the much awaited option to do so became available a while ago. I find Duolingo pretty good. It's not perfect, but it's easy to use and does the trick well enough, and is free on all my various devices. I'm supplementing it, though, when I feel that it doesn't give me enough information. It likes to drip-feed grammar, but I like having the full paradigm so I can see the patterns more clearly. And sometimes something it teaches me raises a question: it told me, for instance, that the -in- suffix marks a noun as feminine, and bebo means 'baby', but it didn't tell me if bebo has a feminine form or is used for any kind of baby (cultures differ over whether a baby can be an 'it' or not). I looked it up and in this case, bebino does also exist.

So, for now, just my first impressions: I like it, I suppose, as an intellectual exercise, but I'm not loving it. Maybe because I'm not actually using it? Or maybe I haven't got into it yet - so far it seems more like a cobbled-together mishmash of Italian and English than its own language, which I'm certain is not the case.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Bumpf

Yesterday, quite coincidentally, two of my colleagues sent me electronic communications and used the word bumf. (This is not a reflection of their opinion of my work, of course.) But what was interesting was that both of them mis-spelt it bumpf.

Bumf is a 'clipping' or shortening of the word bumfodder, and both used to mean 'toilet paper'. I always thought it was Dutch and have just this very moment discovered that it is not. It's dated back to 1889 and is given as 'British schoolboy slang'. This mis-spelling as bumpf might come from mixing up the two spellings: it can also be bumph.

Bum-fodder is three syllables, with the first two divided between the /m/ and the /f/. This is unremarkable: if you have an /m/ and an /f/ together in English, they're normally either side of a syllable boundary. Ham-fisted, chamfer and bumface are all other examples of this. But when it's shortened, it's just one syllable, so that single syllable ends in the consonant cluster /mf/. This is a bit unusual in English. Try and think of other words that end in this combination. There's a few, but they're rare. The OED has nymph, galumph, wumph, triumph and harrumph, among others. And they're all spelt with a 'ph'. I don't have an explanation of this spelling quirk (some come from Greek, which is where most of our 'ph' spellings come from, but not all). I can tell you why that rogue 'p' gets into bumpf though.

Basically, /m/ and /f/ are very nearly as different as two sounds can be. This means that when we say them next to each other, we add in another sound that's halfway between them to make the transition a bit easier. /p/ is made with the same lip-shape as /m/, and the airflow is the same, but the vocal folds are like they are when we say /f/. This insertion of a sound is called 'epenthesis' and we do it all the time: adding a 'p' in 'hamster' is a famous one, showing that this isn't because the cluster comes at the end of the syllable. It only occasionally shows up in spelling mistakes (like bumpf or hampster), and this is a really cool insight into what we say and what we are aware of when we say it.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Ribenary

I saw this advert last week:



It's an advert for Ribena. It's got some wordplay around the suffixes -y (which makes nouns into adjectives) and -est (superlative) and the combination of both of these. So in the slogan at the top, we have tastiest and fruitiest, both of which are common enough words, but also blackcurrantiest. That's the kind of word that people might ask 'is that a real word?' and of course it is, because it's made with perfectly legal word-creation processes, but it sticks out because it's new. Blackcurranty isn't normally an adjective, but of course we can make it easily (I just did) by sticking the -y suffix, which turns nouns (like blackcurrant) into adjectives. And then once you've got an adjective that ends in -y, you can make the comparative blackcurrantier and the superlative blackcurrantiest. With a word this long, we'd normally use more and most instead, though, so this word is eye-catching because it sounds unusual.

At the bottom, we have one the fact of it the exact same thing: it says 'You can't get any more Ribenary'. Again, just stick a -y onto a noun (Ribena) to get the adjective. Unfortunately here there is a spelling issue. Ribena, unusually for English words, ends in an 'a'. You can't stick -y onto the end of that, because Ribenay doesn't look at all like the word it's meant to be. So they've spelt it the same way we say it: with an 'r' that wasn't there to start with. This is called 'intrusive r' and all it does is make it easier for us to say two consecutive vowels.

Intrusive 'r' is closely related to 'linking r', which is the one that is there in the spelling but that people who speak dialects like mine wouldn't normally pronounce - like at the end of computer. When that word is followed by a vowel, like in the phrase my computer is switched on, the 'r' comes back again. For me, these two types of 'r' are so similar that I usually have to look them up to check I've got the names right.

Now, I believe that rhotic speakers don't have this intrusive 'r'. Rhotic speakers are the ones who would normally pronounce the 'r' at the end of computer. For those people, linking 'r' isn't really a thing because the 'r' is always there anyway, and the problems we might solve with intrusive 'r' are solved another way. So for those people (and that's most of Scotland, Ireland and North America, for instance), is this advert just weird? Does the word Ribenary work?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Obviously

In the Guardian, ages ago now, Stephen Poole defended 'basically' against the charges brought against it by Harris Academy in Upper Norwood:* 
The case of "basically" is similar to that of "obviously", also regularly dismissed as vapid huffery. I once worked at a newspaper where an editor sought to eliminate all use of "obviously" from the pages, on the grounds that, as he wrote: "If it's obvious, there's no need to say it."
This sounds pithily convincing until you consider common rhetorical strategies. Very often, it helps to state the obvious before moving on to more debatable claims that you will argue follow from it. To signal this, one may preface the statement with the word "Obviously", as an economical way of saying: "I know you know this, for it is obvious, and you are no fool, but the rest of my argument depends on our agreeing on this, so I beg your indulgence for stating it at the beginning; if you can be patient just a little longer, I promise I will at length have something more interesting to say." In this way, the use of "obviously", like that of "basically", is a little show of deference, a drop of conversational lubricant.
This kind of thing catches my eye when I mark essays. I always, without fail, cross out words like basically, obviously and so on, for the same reason Poole attributes to his editor. In my opinion (and it is just my opinion, as it's a style choice, even though I'm obviously right), these words do not belong in formal academic writing at all. I wonder if this is a reflection of linguistic style. In some disciplines, I think rhetorical flourishes are prized but linguistics likes a very pared-down, spare style, with no fiddle-faddle. To linguists, elegance means simplicity. That means that everything included is there for a reason, and so you don't need obviously in the way Poole describes it.

*For a comment on the idiotic and unnecessary re-spelling of woz in their poster, see this post.