Surfing the shabaka

No Comments » Written on April 16th, 2014 by
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The world’s fifth-most-spoken language lags online

THE Arab world from Rabat to Baghdad likes to surf. The proportion of Arabs online grew 30-fold between 2000 and 2012. Shaking off their stuffy image, 41% of Saudi internet users are on Twitter, the highest rate in the world. But Arabic speakers have far less content in their native language than others do. By some estimates, fewer than 1% of all web pages are in Arabic.

Back in the early days this was because the internet could only support Roman scripts, so Arabic-speakers had to transliterate into a web language using a combination of letters and numerals. But by the late 1990s that had been fixed. In 2000 Maktoob, an Arabic internet-services firm founded in Jordan but now owned by Yahoo, launched the first Arabic e-mail. Facebook added an Arabic-language interface in 2009. But content in the world’s fifth-most-spoken tongue is still patchy, as is quality. Searches in Arabic often lead you to a forum rather than a well-designed website.

The reasons for Arabic’s lag are many. For international companies, English is an easy lingua franca, while the burgeoning Chinese- or Spanish-speaking markets are a higher priority than the Arab world, much of which is still poor. Even in the Middle East, Arabic was not always the number one choice. Bloggers frequently chose to write in English to reach a bigger audience abroad or to try to evade censors at home. Five of the 14 countries where Freedom House, a lobby group based in Washington, considers the internet “not free” are Arab states; in no country in the region is the web fully uncensored.

As more Arabs go online (and get richer), enthusiasm for creating Arabic content is rising. Beirut and Amman have become regional tech hubs. Entrepreneurs are creating Arabic e-books and search-engines, as well as Arabic smartphone apps to find local restaurants or a dentist. Some reckon more bloggers are now opting for their native tongue.

But Arabic-speakers’ “second-class experience of the internet” will end only when users can navigate their way around websites in Arabic script too, says Yasmin Omer of Dot Shabaka, a company that aims to do just that; shabaka means network in Arabic. Since February, companies can now buy addresses that end in “dot shabaka”—in Arabic script—rather than, say, .com or .org. International hotel chains are among the first to have signed up.

Article taken from The Economist on 16 April 2014.

The Little Book of Transcreation – excerpt #28

Idioms should be handled with caution. If translated literally, they often make little sense!

Take the English phrase “to kill two birds with one stone”. In other languages, the equivalent idioms are rather different.

Germans “hit two flies with one blow”.

Chinese “shoot two hawks with one arrow”.

Burmese “get two pieces with one cut”.

Koreans “catch a pheasant and its eggs as well”.

And Italians “snare two pigeons with one bean”.

The Little Book of Transcreation – excerpt #27

Brand names too sometimes need transcreation.

The Mitsubishi Pajero SUV was named after the Pampas Cat of Argentina (scientific name: Leopardus pajeros).

However, in Spain and Latin America, it is called the Montero (meaning “mountain warrior”).

Why? Because “pajero” is a derogatory sexual term in Spanish.

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Great Scots!

No Comments » Written on April 7th, 2014 by
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The Scots language gets some powerful boosters

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Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie

AMONG the publications that the Scottish Book Trust, a charity funded in part by the Scottish government, sent to bairns last year was “Katie’s Moose: A Keek-a-boo Book for Wee Folk.” In this tale, Katie hunts for a menagerie of beasties, locating a pig “ahint the chair, daein a jig” and a “broon bear” whose “airm looks gey sair.” The Scots language, long derided as bad English with a thick accent or merely a northern dialect, now enjoys the backing of the state.

In 2011 the Scottish census asked for the first time whether people spoke Scots. Some 1.5m said yes. The true number may be higher, reckons Christine Robinson of the Scottish Language Dictionaries, a research centre, since not all Scots speakers describe themselves as such. Defining it is tricky. A study by the Scottish government in 2010 found that 64% of adults did not think of Scots as a language, “more just a way of speaking.”

Boosters point out that Scots has been officially recognised since the British government ratified the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages in 2001. And Scots has its own distinct history, grammar and lexicon. But it is not standardised: Ulster Scots, spoken in Northern Ireland, is among the varieties. As part of a project to translate “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into as many languages as possible, eight versions are being produced in Scots.

Speakers of Scottish Gaelic, who number just 58,000, have received more attention: money has been lavished on radio stations, schools and bilingual road signs. But politicians in the devolved Scottish Parliament are now encouraging Scots too. The government is setting up a network of Scots co-ordinators to help teachers. Children are no longer scolded for using Scots at school, according to Michael Hance of the Scots Language Centre. “Studying Scotland”, a new online education resource, will “ettle tae place Scots on an equal fittin wi the ither Scottish elements o the curriculum”. The first “Scots Toun” prize will soon be awarded to the place judged to have encouraged Scots most vigorously.

All this sits a little oddly with modern Scottish nationalism, which is civic and inclusive rather than cultural and ethnic. Those who want independence for Scotland tend to argue that the country would be richer alone, not purer. But James Robertson of Itchy Coo, which publishes “Katie’s Moose” and 44 other Scots children’s books, argues that the renewed interest in Scottish culture, literature and language has pushed the politics of independence, not the other way round. If nothing else, a Scots revival would be something to fall back on if, as still seems likely, the independence vote this September is lost.

Article taken from The Economist on 7 April 2014.


Johnson: Different tongues, common homes

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IT’S not easy being a multilingual country. But that is no excuse for making it harder on yourself. Shortly after taking power following the ousting of Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s new government made the unforced error of revoking a 2012 law which granted the Russian language an official status (alongside Ukrianian) in regions where Russian-speakers predominate.

That was rash and unnecessary. There were already unsavoury right-wing goons alongside more decent Ukrainian nationalists calling for an end to Russian domination. The abrupt change in the language law—one of the interim government’s first acts—gave Vladimir Putin a convenient propaganda point: fascists are bent on eliminating all traces of Russian people, language and culture from Ukraine! This outrageous exaggeration was more effective for having a grain of truth to it. The next thing Ukraine knew, Russia was invading under the cover of protecting fellow Russians. Russian-speaking Crimea is now in Russian hands, and all eyes are on eastern Ukraine, where Russian also predominates. Russia assembled troops near the border before pulling them back recently.

Multilingual countries have it tough. GDP per person is roughly correlated with the proportion of a country’s citizens that speak the predominant language. With a few outliers, you’re more likely to be rich if your country lacks what is sometimes known as a “stateness” problem: the Icelands and Japans of the world have a very clear identity and a dominant language. If your country’s citizens feel comfortable in its borders, your country is stable. If it is stable, it is more likely to be a functioning democracy, and if it is a decent democracy, it is more likely to be rich.

This is all correlation. It is not clear which way the causation runs. It is possible that as a country industrialises and gets richer, the benefits flow to the biggest national/ethnic/language group, to the eventual cost (and perhaps even to the death) of other languages through assimilation. Or it could be that it is simply easier for a country to become a wealthy, stable democracy with just one language. At any rate, there are outliers on either side: mutilingual countries run from rich to poor (say Switzerland to India), as do monolingual countries (say Iceland to Haiti).

Regardless of which way the causation arrow runs, and as much as everyone might like to live in a country with only their linguistic fellows, it won’t do these days to let the majority simply trample the minority. The list of countries that have done so and created enduringly resentful minorities is sadly long: Franco’s Spain and Kemalist Turkey, just to name two examples in modern European history. Back to the post-Soviet region, Latvia’s language law has privileged Latvian, but has been criticised for alienating the country’s large Russian-speaking minority.

It is legitimate for a newly independent country with a good claim on nation-statehood to promote its language. Many such countries come out of multiethnic states where their language was repressed. To build the language up, making it official, requiring its teaching in schools, subsidising radio and television and so forth—these are all a part of healthy nation-building.

The problems happen when this looks zero-sum, and a large minority speaking another language is told, in effect, to get with the programme or get out. Many people cannot or will not move to a friendlier country. And easy partition is rare: there’s a reason most people can name only one “velvet divorce” (Czechosolovakia) in which a multiethnic country peacefully becomes two monoethnic ones. National splits are usually much uglier.

There are three ways to handle multilingualism besides squashing minority languages or splitting the country. The first is generous national multilingualism. Canadian politicians routinely switch between English and French, and in Brussels absolutely everything is in both Dutch and French. This can be expensive and unwieldy: the visitor to Brussels must know that Rue de la Science is also Wetensscaapsstraat. But without this policy, Wallonia and Flanders would have long since gone separate ways. (They may yet.)

The second method is linguistic federalism, also seen in Belgium, as well as Switzerland, India, Canada and today’s Spain. Local territories should be allowed latitude to make locally dominant languages official, for teaching, broadcasting, dealing with the local authorities and so forth. There is no sure-fire solution to language conflict: sometimes local authorities (Quebec and Catalonia come to mind) promote the regional language so aggressively that those that speak the national-majority but regional-miniority language (English and Spanish, in these examples) have their own cause for grievance. But done decently, linguistic federalism gives minorities in big and diverse countries a stake in the status quo.

There is only one truly non-zero-sum way to ease the conflict between languages: to encourage, celebrate and teach multilingualism. Johnson has beaten this drum before, and also acknowledged its cost. It reduces the zero-sum nature of conflict between languages, but is zero-sum with other educational priorities. So be it. The solutions here can all be cumbersome and costly. But compare them with the cost of instability or partition, and they start to look a bargain.

Article taken from The Economist on 4 April 2014.

Chineasy peasy: Noma Bar brings fun and colour to Chinese characters

No Comments » Written on April 2nd, 2014 by
Categories: China, UK
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When ShaoLan Hsueh realised her children didn’t have the patience to learn Chinese, she wanted to simplify it for them – so she worked with graphic artist Noma Bar on a new book that turns a fiendish world into a visual treat

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Chineasy peasy … A new book by ShaoLan Hsueh and Noma Bar brings beautiful graphic clarity to the process of learning Chinese characters. Photograph: ShaoLan/Chineasy

“Two’s company, three’s a crowd” may be a proverb for those scared of groups, but it’s also a handy way of remembering your Chinese. The character for person looks a bit like someone walking in profile: 人. Take three of these, huddled in a little group, and you’ve got a crowd: 众

Such is the beautiful graphic logic revealed in a new book, Chineasy, which shines a spotlight of childlike clarity on the seemingly impenetrable world of Chinese ideograms. For anyone who’s tried to learn Mandarin (and I am one of them), the painful hours of repeating stroke after stoke, until those tiny knots of random scratches are carved into your memory, can be enough to make you give up – particularly given the daunting fact that an average Chinese adult will have mastered around 5,000 such characters. Never mind the 50,000+ that await.

But in the hands of author ShaoLan Hsueh and graphic genius Noma Bar, the process is broken down into a visual story, depicting exactly why these mysterious bunches of lines are the way they are, and how they combine to form different words. It doesn’t quite make Chinese easy, but the prospect of learning it has never been so visually appealing.

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The character for ‘fire’ can be used to make ‘burning hot’, ‘flames’, ‘group’ and ‘to eat’. Photograph: ShaoLan/Thames & Hudson

“It was all driven by a frustration that my kids just didn’t have the patience to learn Chinese,” says Hsueh, the Taiwanese daughter of a calligrapher and a ceramicist, who struggled to keep the attention of her UK-born children with the usual language tapes, books and games. “I realised none of the teaching aids out there would work, so I decided to make one myself.”

With a background as a dotcom entrepreneur, she used a computer algorithm to break down thousands of characters into their constituent parts, in order to determine which were the most commonly recurring “building blocks”. These blocks, of which there are around 70 in the book, form the basis of the Chineasy method, each one beautifully illustrated in Bar’s trademark style with bold colours and a simple economy of means, followed by an explanation of how they can be modified and combined to create new words.

Add a horizontal line to the character for person, like someone stretching their arms out wide, and you have the word for big: 大. A big person, 大 人, is an adult.

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A person leaning against a tree makes the character for ‘rest’. Image: ShaoLan/Chineasy

Or take a tree: 木. Two trees make a wood: 林. Three trees make a forest: 森. And of course a person leaning against a tree is having a rest: 休.

“By understanding the origins of the characters, which date back thousands of years, to cavemen scrawling on their walls and drawing lines in the dirt, you can learn a lot about the development of Chinese culture,” says Hsueh. “But it’s not always a happy story.”

Characters involving women, in particular, reveal a lot about their secondary status in ancient China as possessions of their husbands (the word for madam is literally a man’s person: 夫人), and as sources of both pleasure and aggravation. “The character for female (女) was originally a woman kneeling on the floor, showing obedience to her man,” says Hsueh. “Put two women together and you have an argument (奻), because with three or four generations living under one roof, the mother- and daughter-in-law would be bound to argue – along with the many wives and mistresses.” Three women, however, was thought a step too far, hence the character for adultery, three women piled up together: 姦. A good woman, meanwhile, was only one who bore a son, so the character for good is a woman and a boy: 好.

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The character for woman – originally conceived as a woman kneeling on the floor before her man. Image: ShaoLan/Chineasy

“One of my favourites is the traditional character for horse,” says Hsueh, pointing out how the ideogram features four little legs and what could be a tail dangling down at the end: 馬. “But it lost its legs under Mao.”

Chairman Mao may well have presided over a tyrannical period of forced labour, re-education and mass starvation, but surely he didn’t go around chopping horses’ legs off? Well actually he did, sort of, as far as characters are concerned at least. In the 1950s, as part of an ambitious plan to increase literacy rates among the vast rural population, the entire alphabet underwent a simplification – and in the process the horses legs became a single horizontal line: 马.

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The traditional Chinese character for horse features four legs and a tale – later chopped off during the simplification process. Image: ShaoLan/Chineasy

Ever keen to retain meanings, Hsueh always includes both the traditional and simplified forms in the book, as well as occasionally referring back to the ancient seal and clerical scripts, and the mysterious “oracle bones” script, originally drawn by shamans on fragments of shell and bone – dating back to the 14th century BC.

“A lot of the meaning has been lost in translation since then,” she says. “The character for ‘to come’, in traditional script, looks like two people inside a tree (來), but in fact it derives from the ancient character for wheat (麥), because wheat had been brought to China from Europe.”

In some cases the graphic clarity of the book belies such subtleties, although Hsueh is always at pains to clarify these hidden meanings in the accompanying notes. But some characters still remain utterly baffling. Take the compound form of flesh (月) and sunrise (日). Together they make 胆 – a fleshy sunrise? Actually, that makes gallbladder, which is also the character for courage, of which you will need a lot if you’re ever going to master this language. Still, Chineasy – which will soon be available as an interactive app as well as a series of flashcards – is one of the least intimidating places to start.

Article taken from The Guardian on 2 April 2014.


Germans try to get their tongues around gender-neutral language

Justice ministry’s edict that state institutions must use ‘gender-neutral’ language is forcing the country to confront change

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A schoolgirl in a sex education class in Hamburg in 1968. Many believe German will simplify its gender articles, just as English has done. Photo: Alamy

Derdie or das? For centuries, the seemingly arbitrary allocation of masculine, feminine and neutral gender articles in German has driven non-native speakers to despair. “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has,” the American writer Mark Twain once complained. “Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

But hope may finally be in sight. Changing attitudes to gender are increasingly transforming the German language, and some theorists argue that scrapping the gendered articles altogether may be the most logical outcome.

Predictions vary: one suggestion is that Angela Merkel will eventually no longer be die Bundeskanzlerin but a neutral das Bundeskanzler, as she would be in English. Others believe that the feminine gender, already the most common fallback form used by non-native speakers, will become the default article: a policeman would no longer be der Polizist but die Polizist.

The changing nature of German is particularly noticeable at university campuses. Addressing groups of students in German has been problematic ever since universities stopped being bastions of male privilege. Should they be sehr geehrte Studenten or sehr geehrte Studentinnen?

In official documents, such as job advertisements, administrators used to get around the problem with typographical hybrid forms such as Student(inn)en or StudentInnen – an unfair compromise, some say, which still treats the archetype of any profession as masculine.

Now, with the federal justice ministry emphasising that all state bodies should stick to “gender-neutral” formulations in their paperwork, things are changing again. Increasingly, job ads use the feminine form as the root of a noun, so that even a male professor may be referred to as der Professorin. Lecturers are advised to address their students not as Studenten but Studierende (“those that study”), thus sidestepping the gender question altogether.

In the long run, such solutions would prove too complicated, linguists such as Luise Pusch argue. She told the Guardian that men would eventually get so frustrated with the current compromises that they would clock on to the fundamental problem, and the German language would gradually simplify its gender articles, just as English has managed to do since the Middle Ages.

“Language should be comfortable and fair,” said Pusch. “At the moment, German is a very comfortable language, but a very unfair one.”

Many linguists question whether language can be changed through human will. “It’s hard to transform grammar through legislation, and even if so, such changes often happen over centuries,” said Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguist at Berlin’s Free University.

But he also points out that some dialects, such as Niederdeutsch (Low German), have lost the cumbersome distinction between der and die already: in Low German, for example, both men and women are simply referred to as de.

Article taken from The Guardian on 26 March 2014.

Johnson: What is a foreign language worth?

No Comments » Written on March 25th, 2014 by
Categories: USA
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 172_Johnson - What is a foreign language worth

JOHNSON is a fan of the Freakonomics books and columns. But this week’s podcast makes me wonder if the team of Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt aren’t overstretching themselves a bit. “Is learning a foreign language really worth it?”, asks the headline. A reader writes:

My oldest daughter is a college freshman, and not only have I paid for her to study Spanish for the last four or more years — they even do it in grade school now! — but her college is requiring her to study EVEN MORE! What on earth is going on? How did it ever get this far? … Or to put it in economics terms, where is the ROI?

To sum up the podcast’s answers, there are pros and cons to language-learning. The pros are that working in a foreign language can make people make better decisions (research Johnson covered here) and that bilingualism helps with executive function in children and dementia in older people (covered here). The cons: one study finds that the earnings bonus for an American who learns a foreign language is just 2%. If you make $30,000 a year, sniffs Mr Dubner, that’s just $600.

But for the sake of provocation, Mr Dubner seems to have low-balled this. He should know the power of lifetime earnings and compound interest. First, instead of $30,000, assume a university graduate, who in America is likelier to use a foreign language than someone without university. The average starting salary is almost $45,000. Imagine that our graduate saves her “language bonus”. Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe (a statement dubiously attributed to Einstein, but nonetheless worth committing to memory). Assuming just a 1% real salary increase per year and a 2% average real return over 40 years, a 2% language bonus turns into an extra $67,000 (at 2014 value) in your retirement account. Not bad for a few years of “où est la plume de ma tante?

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Second, Albert Saiz, the MIT economist who calculated the 2% premium, found quite different premiums for different languages: just 1.5% for Spanish, 2.3% for French and 3.8% for German. This translates into big differences in the language account: your Spanish is worth $51,000, but French, $77,000, and German, $128,000. Humans are famously bad at weighting the future against the present, but if you dangled even a post-dated $128,000 cheque in front of the average 14-year-old, Goethe and Schiller would be hotter than Facebook.

Why do the languages offer such different returns? It has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of Spanish, of course. The obvious answer is the interplay of supply and demand. This reckons that Spanish-speakers account for a bit more of world GDP than German-speakers do. But an important factor is economic openness. Germany is a trade powerhouse, so its language will be more economically valuable for an outsider than the language of a relatively more closed economy.

But in American context (the one Mr Saiz studied), the more important factor is probably supply, not demand, of speakers of a given language. Non-Latino Americans might study Spanish because they hear and see so much of it spoken in their country. But that might be the best reason not to study the language, from a purely economic point of view. A non-native learner of Spanish will have a hard time competing with a fluent native bilingual for a job requiring both languages. Indeed, Mr Saiz found worse returns for Spanish study in states with a larger share of Hispanics. Better to learn a language in high demand, but short supply—one reason, no doubt, ambitious American parents are steering their children towards Mandarin. The drop-off in recent years in the American study of German might be another reason for young people to hit the Bücher.

And studies like Mr Saiz’s can only work with the economy the researchers have at hand to study. But of course changes in educational structures can have dynamic effects on entire economies. A list of the richest countries in the world is dominated by open, trade-driven economies. Oil economies aside, the top 10 includes countries where trilingualism is typical, like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore, and small countries like the Scandinavian ones, where English knowledge is excellent.

There are of course many reasons that such countries are rich. But a willingness to learn about export markets, and their languages, is a plausible candidate. One study, led by James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff Business School, has estimated that lack of foreign-language proficiency in Britain costs the economy £48 billion ($80 billion), or 3.5% of GDP, each year. Even if that number is high, the cost of assuming that foreign customers will learn your language, and never bothering to learn theirs, is certainly a lot greater than zero. So if Mr Saiz had run his language-premium study against a parallel-universe America, in which the last half-century had been a golden age of language-learning, he might have found a bigger foreign-language bonus (and a bigger GDP pie to divide) in that more open and export-oriented fantasy America. And of course greater investment in foreign-language teaching would have other dynamic effects: more and better teachers and materials, plus a cultural premium on multilingualism, means more people will actually master a language, rather than wasting several years never getting past la plume de ma tante, as happens in Britain and America.

To be sure, everything has an opportunity cost. An hour spent learning French is an hour spent not learning something else. But it isn’t hard to think of school subjects that provide less return—economically, anyway—than a foreign language. What is the return on investment for history, literature or art? Of course schools are intended to do more than create little GDP-producing machines. (And there are also great non-economic benefits to learning a foreign language.) But if it is GDP you’re after, the world isn’t learning English as fast as some people think. One optimistic estimate is that half the world’s people might speak English by 2050. That leaves billions who will not, and billions of others who remain happier (and more willing to spend money) in their own language.

Article taken from The Economist on 25 March 2014.


8 pronunciation errors that made the English language what it is today

No Comments » Written on March 20th, 2014 by
Categories: UK
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Think hyperbole rhymes with Super Bowl? Don’t worry, it could be the start of something beautiful

171_8 pronunciation errors that made the English language what it is today

Not a nadder any more. Photograph: Natural England/PA

Someone I know tells a story about a very senior academic giving a speech. Students shouldn’t worry too much, she says, if their plans “go oar-y” after graduation. Confused glances are exchanged across the hall. Slowly the penny drops: the professor has been pronouncing “awry” wrong all through her long, glittering career.

We’ve all been there. I still lapse into mis-CHEE-vous if I’m not concentrating. This week some PR whizzes working for a railway station with an unusual name unveiled the results of a survey into frequently garbled words. The station itself is routinely confused with an endocrine gland about the size of a carrot (you can see why they hired PRs). Researchers also found that 340 of the 1000 surveyed said ex-cetera instead of etcetera, while 260 ordered ex-pressos instead of espressos. Prescription came out as perscription or proscription 20% of the time.

The point is malapropisms and mispronunciations are fairly common. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words as being in common use. But the average person’s vocabulary is tens of thousands smaller, and the number of words they use every day smaller still. There are bound to be things we’ve read or are vaguely familiar with, but not able to pronounce as we are supposed to.

The term “supposed” opens up a whole different debate, of course. Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm. There are lots of wonderful examples of alternative pronunciations or missteps that have become standard usage. Here are some of my favourites, complete with fancy technical names.

Words that used to begin with “n”

Adder, apron and umpire all used to start with an “n”. Constructions like “A nadder” or “Mine napron” were so common the first letter was assumed to be part of the preceding word. Linguists call this kind of thing reanalysis or rebracketing.

When sounds swap around

Wasp used to be wapsbird used to be brid and horse used to be hros. Remember this when the next time you hear someone complaining about aks for ask or nucular for nuclear, or even perscription. It’s called metathesis, and it’s a very common, perfectly natural process.

When sounds disappear

English spelling can be a pain, but it’s also a repository of information about the history of pronunciation. Are we being lazy when we say the name of the third day of the working week? Our ancestors might have thought so. Given that it was once “Woden’s day” (named after the Norse god), the “d” isn’t just for decoration, and was pronounced up until relatively recently. Who now says the “t” in Christmas? It must have been there at one point, as the messiah wasn’t actually called Chris. These are examples of syncope.

When sounds intrude

Our anatomy can make some changes more likely than others. The simple mechanics of moving from a nasal sound (“m” or “n”) to a non-nasal one can make a consonant pop up in-between. Thunder used to be “thuner”, and empty “emty”. You can see the same process happening now with words like hamster, which often gets pronounced with an intruding “p”. This is a type of epenthesis.

When “l” goes dark

A dark “l”, in linguistic jargon, is one pronounced with the back of the tongue raised. In English, it is found after vowels, as in the words full or pole. This tongue raising can go so far that the “l” ends up sounding like a “w”. People frown on this in non-standard dialects such as cockney (“the ol’ bill“). But the “l” in folk, talk and walk used to be pronounced. Now almost everyone uses a “w” instead- we effectively say fowktawk and wawk. This process is called velarisation.


Your grandmother might not like the way you pronounce tune. She might place a delicate “y” sound before the vowel, saying tyune where you would say chune. The same goes for other words like tutor or duke. But this process, called affrication, is happening, like it or not. Within a single generation it has pretty much become standard English.

What the folk?

Borrowing from other languages can give rise to an entirely understandable and utterly charming kind of mistake. With little or no knowledge of the foreign tongue, we go for an approximation that makes some kind of sense in terms of both sound and meaning. This is folk etymology. Examples include crayfish, from the French écrevisse (not a fish but a kind of lobster); sparrow grass as a variant for asparagus in some English dialects; muskrat (conveniently musky, and a rodent, but named because of the Algonquin word muscascus meaning red); and female, which isn’t a derivative of male at all, but comes from old French femelle meaning woman.

Spelling it like it is

As we’ve mentioned, English spelling can be a pain. That is mainly because our language underwent some seismic sound changes after the written forms of many words had been more or less settled. But just to confuse matters, spelling can reassert itself, with speakers taking their cue from the arrangement of letters on the page rather than what they hear. This is called spelling pronunciation. In Norwegian, “sk” is pronounced “sh”. So early English-speaking adopters of skiing actually went shiing. Once the rest of us started reading about it in magazines we just said it how it looked. Influenced by spelling, some Americans are apparently starting to pronounce the “l” in words like balm and psalm (something which actually reflects a much earlier pronunciation).

My head is spinning now, so it’s over to you. Which words do you mispronounce, and which common mispronunciations do you think we should resign ourselves to? And please share your most toe-curling linguistic gaffes below.

Article taken from The Guardian on 20 March 2014.


Which English? One that promotes understanding between countries and cultures

No Comments » Written on March 18th, 2014 by
Categories: Australia, UK, USA
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Finding the right words to communicate effectively to a global audience is much more important than whether you put an ‘ise’ or ‘ize’ on the end

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - Sri Lanka

 For readers unfamiliar with them, the man on the left is Tony Abbott, prime minister of Australia, and the man on the right is David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

As the Guardian discusses the most effective ways to write for a global audience that includes readers of different varieties of English, a lot of emphasis is being placed on the differences between adherence to “British English”, “Australian English”, or “American English”.

But more important than spelling or differences in grammar is that we all think about writing in a way that makes our work comprehensible and accessible to the broadest potential audience, rather than saying “We’re in New York/Sydney, so we’ll do it our way – London, you do it yours.”

We have a global site with tremendous reach and surely any Guardian writer wants to get maximum mileage for his/her piece. The reporter in Sydney should be considering that a British person reading about the Queensland anti-bikie laws will probably know where Queensland is, but a US reader might not. But the writer obviously doesn’t want to alienate the local readership by writing “in the Australian state of Queensland”. So, find a subtle way of getting “Australia” into the mix in the opening pars – maybe by a prominent early mention of a statutory authority that includes “Australia”, or something else that makes things clear.

This is often just a matter of tweaking, and helps to settle the reader into a story that might contain some unfamiliar names and places. “Tony Abbott said … ” in one sentence, followed in the next sentence by “The prime minister added … “. On the other hand, a Guardian US reporter can probably get away with just naming an individual state or a prominent politician without having to explain it’s got to do with America.

In terms of style and grammar, “Obama met Putin on Tuesday” is understood by everyone, with no loss of meaning despite the fact that an American writer might leave the preposition out. “Obama met Putin Tuesday” is potentially jarring for a significant part of the audience, I feel, and might make those readers less likely to continue with the story.

There are other tricks, like writing “two and a half miles” instead of 2.5 miles – the former is broader, not as formal and makes you dwell less on the fact that you might live in a metric jurisdiction, and you are more likely to plough on with reading rather than pull up and try and perform some mental arithmetic. The aim is to draw as many people as possible into the content and have them feel comfortable reading it right through.

I really do think if we work thoughtfully we can weed out a great deal of localised, exclusive language, without having to bleed the writing of all colour or get too wound up about whether it’s “realise” or “realize” in an individual piece. It seems a very Guardian thing to do: presenting our work in a way that promotes understanding between countries and cultures, with Americans reading important Australian stories that they might not otherwise hear about – while we also capitalise on Brits’ and Australians’ mutual and enduring fascination with each other.

I worked in Canada for a good while and I thought the Canadian Press stylebook did a fairly good job of treading a middle ground between “American” and “British” English in newswriting – it’s worth a look. I’m sceptical about the idea that the AP stylebook should be accepted as a benchmark for how “US English” should be accommodated at the Guardian.

When I started working at the Guardian and the Observer in London I found the newswriting quite wordy compared with the copy I was used to handling, and thought it could have done with being a good deal more terse. After a while I realised that the style of writing was important to getting across the subtlety and nuance in the topics we cover, the way we cover them. I’m concerned that when we decide to deviate from our established style to fit in with “local differences” we risk losing some of that, as well as the differentiation that attracts people to the Guardian. However, with careful thought, and by thinking about the whole audience that exists for everything we write, I reckon we can arrive at the right international mix.

Article taken from The Guardian on 18 March 2014.