28 December 2006

I must warn all readers of the dangers of electronic study aids for language.

If the same electronic course is available in more than a handful of languages, it's most probably not worth using.


The cheapest way to produce a series of tools is a colour-by-numbers approach. Produce a list of items and a manner of displaying them, then send this list to speakers of various languages in order for them to translate it to their respective languages.

This misses a very important point: languages are all different -- otherwise we wouldn't need to learn them, would we?

What do you do when presented with a list of words where a single word in one language could be any of two or more in the other?

The first time I came across this problem was in a Scots Gaelic course TeachMe!. The two terms garden and yard are both covered by gàradh in Gaelic, but this is also spelt gàrradh. TeachMe! Scots Gaelic arbitrarily had one spelt one way and the other differently, and I was never able to remember which was which, so I spent a heck of a lot of time "revising" this because the computer thought I didn't know the words.

The approach handled by EuroTalk's TalkNow is interesting: ignore it. I have the version for Kannada a language for which there are two words for "no": beda (used to refuse an offer) and illa (used to deny, disagree or contradict). The standard template doesn't provide any space for an explanation, so they just binned one. Friends who have used the Scottish Gaelic version have highlighted the same problem. (In Gaelic, and the other Celtic tongues, there is no word for yes or no -- instead you must say something equivalent to is, is not, saw, did not see etc, appropriate to the verb used in the question.)

Most recently, I encountered this problem with the Transparent Language "Before You Know It" (BYKI) flashcard program. I downloaded the free cut-down version of their Polish flashcard package. The Poles have no concept of a city, only of towns. Both words, then, translate to a single word: miasto. As a result, when prompted with the word miasto and asked to translate it to English, you've got at best a fifty-fifty chance. Also, there's the whole matter of English vs US English. Having to type grey as gray really doesn't feel right, and I haven't seen any courses on the net explicitly stating which English they use.

In recognition of these problems, they have given you the ability to add in alternative forms. All well and good, but if the learner makes a mistake and enters incorrect alternatives, the value of the program as a teaching aid is lost.

There are other problems with grammar and idiom. To mention two:

TeachMe! Uses good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night and good luck as a simple lesson on adjectives. All well and good... madainn mhath, feasgar math, feasgar math, oidhche mhath... until you hit Gura math a thèid leat which doesn't fit the pattern at all. But good luck is in the template, so it's in the lesson.

And how to do you handle phrases that have multiple forms in both languages? If you define different translations for Bye, Goodbye and Bye-bye, your choice will be pretty arbitrary.

This style of material will be with us for a long time. There are 43 languages in the TeachMe! range, and 41 in the Before You Know It series. EuroTalk offer a total of 113 different languages. Each of these ranges includes rarer languages, so there's not a lot of competition, and that which there is is generally highly priced. They're cheap to produce, so they produce as much as they can, knowing that lack of competition means that quality is not an issue.


21 September 2006

Recently, on one of the Gaelic forums I frequent, someone requested a translation of "To thine own self be true." He wished to get this on a tattoo.

Is this not the most beautiful irony? In Hamlet, Polonius said this to his son, warning him against assuming false airs and pretending to be someone he's not. Yet a man who can't understand Gaelic choses to wear these words, trying to align himself with a language and culture that he is not a part of.

01 September 2006

OK, time to admit I was wrong.

My last posting, on the borrowing of words, failed to get to the core of the problems of word borrowing.

The crux of the matter is publishing. As soon as a word comes into our language today it is written down, printed and seen by millions of people. That makes it very hard for the spelling to change. This is the reason we have curious spellings like niche in our language. Of course, this wasn't the situation in the past. After the vikings were expelled from England, it took hundreds of years for the words they left behind to appear in writing. As a result, the original foreign spelling was long forgotten and the words were written as they pronounced them. The pronunciation probably changed too, to better fit the cadences of English.

These problems with borrowing do not only occur in English; this is a current problem in Scots Gaelic and the strong viking influence in the Hebrides makes the two languages quite comparable.

The viking word for hall was halla (as in Valhalla). This was borrowed into Gaelic, but over time the pronunciation changed to better fit Gaelic and became talla. This is due to a process called delinition. (Under certain circumstances an initial T is lenited to the form TH and pronounced like the English H. As this sound cannot occur at the start of a true Gaelic word, this sound was retained for the lenited form and the root form of the word had the delinited T.)

Modern borrowings, however, are taken as close as they can be, eg bhuruca for verruca. This is inappropriate for two reasons:
1) It's a lenited form and should be delenited.
2) The stress in Gaelic words is on the first syllable, whereas the stress in the English verruca is on the second.

No-one wants to engage in artificial language change, quite understandably; languages can and should change of their own accord. However, when we put a newly borrowed term in writing, we are fixing its spelling before it's had time to "bed in" with its new host language. The spelling encodes a pronunciation which is therefore enforced by the use of the dictionary as an authority. By fixing things in an alien form, you force this new form to be accepted as part of the host language. As such, a written borrowing is a form of language change.

We are now at a stage where we understand language change enough to model the changes that have occurred in older borrowings. I concede that consciously applying these models is not a natural form of language, but I contest that it is a naturalistic form of change. If writing borrowed words down is a language change then it must be considered artificial, as language is first and foremost a spoken system.

In the absence of natural language change we must embrace the naturalistic.

29 August 2006

Borrowing books, borrowing words

I was doing my semi-regular trawl through the bookshelves of charity shops yesterday, when I stumbled across a book on the "correct" pronunciation of commonly mispronounced words. I didn't buy it, in no small part due to the fact that I pronounce the letter R in many places where it said you shouldn't.

Anyhow, I did have a little flick through it and one example that caught my eye was the word niche. The book duly informed me that the common pronunciation was now neesh, although it used to be nitch.

This illustrates one of the biggest classes of historical mistakes in the development of modern English: inappropriate word borrowing.

Niche is a direct borrowing from French, with the spelling unaltered. But on the face of it, it's unpronouncable. The consonant cluster CH doesn't normally occur inside words unless it's part of TCH -- eg. itchy, ratchet etc. It occurs at the start of a word (chat, change, Charlie). The only words I'm aware of with CH (no T) at the end are sandwich and place-names ending similarly -- Norwich, Harwich etc..

The other problem with niche is that final E. Is it "Magic E" or not -- nih-tch or neye-tch?

Well what is magic E? It's that silent E at the end of a word that changes the sound of a vowel earlier in the word, but there's really no such thing. The rule is a little broader than that. Where the pattern is vowel-consonant-vowel, the first vowel is modified to sound the same as its name, so A goes from ah to ae, E from eh to ee, I from ih to eye etc.. However, where there are two or more consonants between the letter, this change is blocked -- eg to fit becomes fitting to preserve the original sound.

However, is CH really two letters? Linguistically, it's a digraph: two symbols representing one phonetic letter. As CH only occurs without T at the start and end of words, it's not something that we'd normally have to face. Thinking it through logically, words like fishing and without show us that similar digraphs are considered two letters, but the brain doesn't think like that.

Your brain cannot resolve the word niche on first sight against rules learned from other English words. That's why the pronunciation has reverted to neesh: it's a French word with a French spelling, so it only makes sense with the French pronunciation. Unfortunately, linguistic elitists saw fit to borrow the word whole-heartedly -- lock, stock, spelling and pronunciation -- rather than borrowing the pronunciation and writing it as though it was English: neesh.

21 August 2006

Say it right first time

I'm putting a lot of money into Polish lessons so that I can do it right. I have to take private lessons -- when you've done a bit of language learning before, classes tend to go too slowly for you. There are so many concepts that I already understand that most English-speakers don't, so I'd just sit there, bored and miserable, as the teacher tried to explain grammatical gender or something basic like that.

I could, of course, learn off my own bat with a book. Why don't I do that? A copy of Teach Yourself Polish or Colloquial Polish, a Polish dictionary and a Polish reference grammar would all come in at the same price as half-a-dozen private lessons.

There is a mistake I commonly make in Gaelic: I drop the second n in urrainn. This is because I'm comfortable enough with the relationship between sounds and letters in Gaelic to write what I say. However, when I started learning to use the term, I wasn't. I learned the term from a book and used it at a conversation circle with a group of other adult learners. I learned the pronunciation wrong, and this has led to misspelling it. Now that I'm aware of this, I'm trying my best to change it, but changing is not just a matter of learning something new -- it means unlearning the mistake and it's really very difficult.

I'm taking Polish lessons because I know that, contrary to the beliefs of some teachers and learners, pronunciation is not a "minor detail" that can be "ironed out" at a later date. I couldn't learn the accent from a book -- I need a person there. My advice to all learners is not to worry too much about written details, but focus on the spoken. Language didn't begin on paper -- it began in people's mouths.

19 August 2006

The easiest language to learn.

Dzien dobry.
This week I took my first Polish lesson. Why Polish? Because it may just be the easiest language to learn right now. This may surprise you. Doesn't everyone say that Polish is a difficult language? Yes, they do.

However, my philosophy is fairly simple.

Q. What is the best way to learn a language?
A. Use it every day.

Q. What is the easiest language to learn?
A. One you can use every day.

With such a large Polish population in Scotland at present, that would be Polish.

Do widzenia.

31 July 2006

Burns: clues to Scots

Fair fa' yer honest, sonsie face
Great cheiftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

I've never really been keen on Burns, I always felt he wrote too much in English with Scottish words inserted. His disregard for Scots as an individual language is evident in the title of his anthology: Poems, chiefly in the Scots dialect Given that the history of Scots ended abruptly when James VI ascended to the English throne and moved to London one-hundred and fifty years before Burns' birth, it is hardly Burns' fault. However, Burns is promoted so high above other Scots literary figures that he is assumed by many to be the be-all and end-all of Scots literature.

Ever since I was asked to address the haggis at a Burns Supper, I've found myself pondering the curious final rhyme of the first stanza of Address to a haggis. thairm and arm. Why the English arm as opposed to the Scots airm, which The Concise Scots Dictionary (Abdn Uni press, 1985) lists as the main headword demoting arm to the status of an alternative spelling? It must be assumed that in his day, in Ayrshire at least, the Scots ai was the same as as the English vowel a.

But what was that sound in Burns' time? I recently took a trip by train from Edinburgh to Inverness. As the train pulled into Blair Atholl, I noticed the Gaelic spelling on the platform sign: Blàr Athail. Gaelic was not uncommon in Perthshire -- I have heard that there are still a few elder native speakers further into the glens. I find it unlikely then that the Scots pronunciation could have become much different from its Gaelic source before it was first written down. The modern Gaelic a is much like the a in Aberystwyth, so I am drawn to the conclusion that this is the sound represented by the Scots ai, rather than the sound in words such as dairy, which your average Scot would use when reciting Burns.

So what is the sound of the Scots a? The great question in trying to define a standard spelling for modern Scots has always been how to deal with words like the Scots form of all: is it a', aa or aw? Or indeed can we write it as all, and simply state that the double-L is not pronounced in Scots if it doesn't precede a vowel? I propose that the correct way to phonetically describe this word is with the one letter, a.

We have numerous examples of Old and early Middle English words which even today make this sound with the letter a: was, ball, jaw all were in common usage around the time when Northumbria fell into Scots hands bringing with it the Anglo-Saxon dialects that evolved into the Middle Scots tongue. By the time Scotland and England were united, we can see plenty of new words containing a different a sound, such as the sixteenth century balloon, a borrowed word originating in Italian.

We can also look inside Scotland for evidence. Even today, in the Northeast of Scotland, speakers of Doric have a very different set of vowels from the middle-classes of the lowland cities (such as myself). Just this evening, I was watching a program on Peterhead fishermen. Their a pronunciation fell somewhere in between all and Aberystwyth. We know that it a diverse linguistic environment, people tend towards a norm, which we must assume to be Aberystwyth, not all. Thus it must be that even a hundred years ago, before TV, radio and talking cinema, the Doric accent would have been closer to all than it is today.

We can see even more evidence for this in the name Aberdeen. You may say that this Aber is the same as in Aberystwyth, but this would only be correct insofaras they come either from a common Celtic root, or in that Gaelic borrowed it from an older east coast tongue more closely related to modern Welsh. However, it is extremely unlikely that the modern spelling of Aberdeen is taken from any tongue predating Scots Gaelic in this area, and the Scots Gaelic spelling of Aberdeen is Obar Dheathain. The Scots Gaelic o is pronounced very much like the a in all, so this adds weight to the suggestion that the lowland Scots a is pronounced in such a way.

I am of the belief that in the last hundred years or so, educated people have made the critical error of reading Scots off the page as though the rules of English pronunciation were fixed and unchanging; and any linguist that in English, more than most languages, this is quite definitely not the case. I have been no less guilty than any other for this. I have taken the word faither and pronounced it with the ai of dairy, while when I read the English father aloud, I pronounce it as faither should be pronounced.

But those who would seek to return Scots to active literary life do no better, and still they try to define Scots in terms of English phonology.

The University of the Highlands and Islands give their mission statement in English, Scots, Gaelic, Orcadian and Shetlandic. Below are the English and Scots:

In English:
To establish in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland a collegiate university which will reach the highest standards and play a pivotal role in our educational, economic, social and cultural development.

In Scots:
Ti foond a collegiate university in the Hielands an Islands o Scotland at can growe as guid as the best, an tak foremaist tent to biggin up oor laer an gear, an the fowk an thair tocher.

Throughout history, we appear to have had ou in Scots representing a sound approximating the modern English oo, thus I see no need to change this now, and would suggest that the oos above should be ous.

By defining ourselves in terms of English, we tie ourselves to a language of vast international variety that is in a state of major change. In a hundred years, do we rewrite our language again, or do we let our pronunciation follow the changes in English?

If Scots is worth preserving, it must be able to preserve itself, and also to preserve our identity.

26 June 2006

Well seen ye stay yersel

After lunch, I went for a walk up Arthur's Seat to study in the sunshine. I was walking home down Easter Road with two plastic carrier bags with the books and the remnants of my hillside snack when a cheery guy just out of the pub said something to me. I didn't quite catch it. "Sorry, what wiz that?" "Well seen ye stay yersel".

Eh? What? "Yer bags -- ye dae yer ain shoppin." I said we probably wouldn't say it like that in Stirling. After a short exchange, we both went on our way.

On my way down the road I thought about how we would say it in Stirling. "Well seen ye stay on yer ain." But would we? Well, ah wid, but then ah ay kent mair Inglis nor Scots. I think that it would be an anglicism on my part.

Why couldn't I understand such a simple piece of Scots?

First (embarrassingly enough), I didn't immediately recognise the verb "stay" -- he pronounced it with a Scots "ay", rhyming with "aye" (yes) -- so I tried to work it out from the context.

Next, I misunderstood the role of "yersel", trying to interpret it as a true reflexive object, as it would be in something like "prepare yourself". (Oh dear -- very anglocentric of me.) What choice did I have? The only other use of "yersel" I could think of is in a construction such as "Thon Stevie isnae hauf bad on the guitar." "Aye, de ye play yersel?" (english equivalent: "do you play", where extra stress is placed on the word "you") where "yersel" is used to tie to an action already referenced or obvious from the context. We didn't have a shared context, so it couldn't mean that, so I was stuck. Didnae hae a clue whit he wis sayin.

The more I think about it, the more I think my "on yer ain" form is just a translation from English, and the more I feel that "ye stay yersel" is pretty much standard Scots. And the more I fear that my personal variation of Scots has been irreparably Anglicised.

25 June 2006

Well, if the Loch Ness monster were dead, she'd be turning in her grave this weekend.

Why? Festival season is continuing with the event dubbed "Rock Ness".

"Rock" does not rhyme with "Loch". Aye, right enough, thae Sassenachs cannae say "Loch" right. They say "Lock" -- nae problem, if that's the best they can dae, it's the best they can dae. However, by rhyming "Rock" with "Lock", they are implying that their pronunciation is right, and that really winds me up.

Is this what would make Nessie turn in her grave? Well maybe, but Nessie's not the Loch Ness monster I'm referring to.

No, I mean The Loch Ness Monster, the official name for the festival on all the posters and ticket sites. Do a websearch for "Loch Ness Monster" -- there aren't many related URLs left and any websearches for the festival would be lost in the mist. So some marketing bright spark came up with the idea of Rock Ness -- rockness.co.uk was still available.

However, not only is this name demeaning to and dismissive of both Scots and Gaelic, but Rock Ness? It's a dance music festival, for pity's sake.

22 June 2006

Correcting the Correctors

In this modern post-Lynne-Truss era, it has seemingly become fashionable to hold an élitist view of language. Everywhere we turn, we are being presented with a view of "right" and "wrong" ways to speak. From published authors such as the aforementioned Lynne Truss, and established TV figures like Julian Fellowes on Never Mind The Full Stops, through to innumerable websites and blogs, everyone sees fit to express their view of what really constitutes "proper" English. But how right are the people who call us poor misguided mortals "wrong"?

Without addressing the issue of whether there is such a thing as proper English (yet), I will look at some of these self-appointed authority figures and demonstrate the failings in their arguments.

Today, I'll pick an easy target -- an amateur site.

English Niggles state their gripe plainly:
The niggle is not with the English itself. The niggle is about the ease with which we, the English speaking public, make a complete mess of our own language.
Surely there is a problem with the language if it allows us to do this? However, that's a topic for another day. Today, let's just see if they can help us clean up this mess.

At present, the grammar section is headed Getting the right words in the right order and the first post reads thus:
Our son is nearly 12 and was recently diagnosed by a "proper" consultant with Neurological Dysfunction Disorder. The two sides of his brain don't work together properly, so his whole thinking process is compromised.

Poor consultant. I am amazed that he is continuing to work, despite him having the disorder.

Source: Page 66, Daily Mail, Friday 17 February 2006

Contributed by: Contributor 6

Are these words in the right order? The contributor clearly thinks that this should read Our son is nearly 12 and was recently diagnosed with Neurological Dysfunction Disorder by a "proper" consultant. This is, of course, the most natural syntactic arrangement. However, just because something is not presented in the most natural manner does not make it wrong. Indeed, we use reorderings every day in order to stress a point. By moving the phrase by a "proper" consultant beside the verb diagnose, the original speaker/writer has stressed that the credentials of the consultant who gave the diagnosis are central to the point that he or she is trying to make. Had a comma been inserted before and after by a consultant, I doubt that any complaint would have been made about word order. So is this a punctuation error? Did you understand the original text? I did. Had the phrase been put in commas, it may have been read as though it was in brackets -- not central to the argument. In that case, the emphasis gained by moving the phrase forward in the sentence could have been completely lost. Besides, this was probably spoken and a transcription will be missing all the intonational queues that help disambiguate language.

The sentence as stands is surely the quickest way to convey the intended meaning.

And another grammar one from English Niggles, this time featuring the wonders of the passive voice:
Prison Death Probe Begins

He was found hanging by a bedsheet and was pronounced dead in hospital

Clever bedsheet!

Source: Page 332, ITV Teletext, 21 January 2006

Contributed by: Contributor 6

There's nothing wrong with this, but dealing with the passive voice can be tricky, so let's put this into the active voice.
A warden found a prisoner hanging by a bedsheet
I doubt anyone objected to me inferring that it was a warden who found him. Why not? Because we could all work that out from the original. What we couldn't know without being told was whether he had used his belt, his shoelaces or a bedsheet. If the bedsheet follows the preposition "by" in the active, why shouldn't it in the passive? And if we can work out that it was a prison warden who found him, then we don't need him at all.

Last one for today:
When makers of adjustable therapeutic beds and reclining chairs, Willowbrook Ltd., refused to do anything about a recliner for his sister that hadn't been made to the right specification Alan Bowden threatened to sue.

Has anyone ever seen the right specification for making a sister?

Source: Back page, Which, January 2006

Now that's just silly. If it was the sister who hadn't been made properly... well, exactly, who; but in the original it says that. As that only applies to non-humans, we automatically associate it with the last inanimate object in the sentence -- the recliner.

All languages are to some level ambiguous, and English is no exception. With selective reading, we can twist the words of others any way we desire.

English niggles? Yes, I suppose it does.