familiar language in the news

A report in the Times today about the riots in France said this:

Magid Tabouri, 29, leader of a group of youth workers at Bondy, next to Aulnay, said he was suprised that the eruption had taken so long. “It has been simmering with all the exclusion, mistreatment and social misery and collapsed education,” he said. “These families have been forced to the margins and are being kept there. It’s a gangrene that has grown for years. We will soon be seeing urban guerrilla war.”

M Tabouri reserved his harshest words for M Sarkozy and his campaign against the “scum” of the estates. He also deplored the failure of left-wing governments to confront the rejection of the immigrant generations. He suggested a small start: the police should be barred from using the informal and disrespectful tu that they routinely apply to young residents of the estates.

That reminded me of a story from Australia a few months ago (the Guardian). A senior civil servant made a rule that security staff at the parliament in Canberra should address visitors as ‘sir’ rather than ‘mate’. Naturally, there was a national outcry, protesting that this struck at the very heart of Australian identity. If a bloke’s not free to address another bloke as ‘mate’, why did all those men die at Gallipolli? And so on. Former PM Bob Hawke came out with this gloriously punchy soundbite: “In a sense we’re living in an age where the concept of mateship has been damaged to a fairly large extent by a lot of the approaches of this government.”

Obviously the situations aren’t comparable in all sorts of ways, not least that the power relationship between a gendarme and a young man in the banlieues is rather different than that between a security person and an MP. But I still have some sympathy with that Aussie civil servant, and for basically the same reason that I have sympathy with M Taboury. Someone who is asking you to let them search your bag, empty your pockets and walk through a metal detector is impinging on your privacy and being a nuisance. That’s a good reason why they should make a special effort to be respectful when they do it. They can still be friendly and chatty; “G’Day, Sir” strikes me as a perfectly reasonable compromise. The fact that they’re just ordinary blokes doing their job seems to be beside the point; their job is intrusive and I think a little bit of extra politeness serves as an acknowledgement of the fact.

But, on the other hand, I’m not Australian. When in Rome, horses for courses.

The French tu/vous thing is interesting, but I’m not going to comment because I can’t speak the language.

Language whinge

Yup, it’s negative karma all round, today. I promise my next post will be a glowingly positive comment about something.

An article in the Times explains how a government-commissioned report on CBBC (the BBC’s children’s TV channel), as well as criticising the “crass” presentation, “tastelessness and cruelty” of some programmes also criticised the frequent use of bad grammar, citing “ain’t” and “you was” as examples. OK, fair enough, let’s leave aside the question of whether the BBC should allow children’s presenters to use colloquial English, and move on to the rest of the Times article.

Joyce Watts, a retired teacher, complained of “fast, loud speech” where “all the words run into one and cannot be understood”. Ms Watts said interviewers would ask guests, “What d’ya like best” and, “What’s ya faverit number?” Children’s written work suffered as they began to spell words as they believed they should be pronounced.

Ms Watts may not be able to understand English spoken quickly, but it’s something the kids are going to have to get used to if they’re going to be functioning members of society. It is of course the norm for ‘all the words to run into one’ as anyone who’s ever heard a foreign language spoken will know. But more to the point, ‘what d’ya like best?’ and ‘what’s ya faverit number’? strike me as pretty good attempts at writing how those sentences would be pronounced in perfectly normal spoken English. She seems to be bothered by the fact that unstressed vowels are not given their full value – but that’s normal. Perhaps she should record herself speaking to find out.

To be fair, the way those sentences are written may be down to the journalist who spoke to her. Perhaps if one heard the recording it would be more obvious what her gripe is – though I suspect it’s simply that she objects to accents that sound a bit too working class.

As for the statement “children’s written work suffered as they began to spell words as they believed they should be pronounced” – well, the mind boggles. I hardly know how to put this, it seems like such a truism – English spelling is not reliably phonetic. However ‘correct’ your spoken English is, if you try to write things down the way they sound, you’ll often get it wrong. That’s just a difficulty with learning to write. If students believe that words should be spelt as they are pronounced, someone isn’t teaching them properly, because it isn’t true. You don’t learn to spell by learning to speak properly – you earn to spell by learning spellings and, above all, by reading. I suppose it’s too much to hope that Ms Watts taught some other subject than English.

Language pet hates

I’ve just been trying to avoid the temptation to stir up an edit war at Wikipedia. The ‘tea’ article mentions the fact that the word ‘tea’ is sometimes used for herbal infusions other than those made from the tea plant, before stating that the article is about teas made from tea.

This was what one of the introductory paras said when I found it:

The expression “herbal tea” or simply “tea” is frequently used for any fruit or herb infusion, even if it does not contain Camellia sinensis (such as “rosehip tea” or “chamomile tea”). The proper term for these beverages is tisane, although this is very rarely used. This article is concerned with the “true” teas; that is, those made of Camellia sinensis.

I changed that to this:

The expression “herbal tea” or simply “tea” is also used, by extension, for any fruit or herb infusion, even if it does not contain Camellia sinensis (such as “rosehip tea” or “chamomile tea”). This article is concerned with the “true” teas; that is, those made using parts of the tea plant.

which someone has changed to this:

The expression ‘herbal tea’ is often used to refer to fruit or herb infusions containing no actual tea (such as ”rosehip tea” or ”chamomile tea”). A more precise (though less common) term for this is ”tisane”, or ”herbal infusion” (both bearing an implied contrast with ”tea”). This article is concerned with preparations and uses of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which is the etymological origin of the term ”tea”.

Although this bloke has made the concession of saying ‘a more precise term’ rather than ‘the proper term’, he clearly feels, really, that it’s just plain wrong to call something a ‘tea’ if it doesn’t have tea in it. This is despite the fact that many native English speakers who drink herbal tea regularly have probably never even heard the word ’tisane’, and despite the fact that the word ‘tea’ has been used in English to refer to both kinds of drinks for 350 years (1655 is the earliest citation for both meanings in my Shorter OED).

I’m not disputing that the word ‘tea’ is derived from the tea plant, or even that there’s some potential for confusion – but I still think that ‘herbal tea’ is the normal modern English term for a hot drink made by steeping leaves, and if I was teaching English as a second language it’s the vocab I would teach. There’s nothing to stop people using the word ’tisane’ if they prefer, as long as they don’t insist that their pedantry is evidence of intellectual or linguistic superiority.

There seem to be such a lot of people for whom some usage or another is like fingernails on a blackboard, and who really care about trivia like split infinitives and singular they. I feel sorry for them when they’re not annoying the hell out of me. Their shibboleths may be arbitrary and wrong-headed, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it must be terribly wearing for them to be constantly chafed by this stuff. I think the most stupid argument I’ve ever encountered was when someone at university told me that the ‘correct’ plural of ‘octopus’ was ‘octopodes’ – because it’s from the Greek, not the Latin.

My very own eggcorn

An eggcorn. Joseph Massey, when he commented on my comments on the New Sincerity, titled the post ‘Nevermind the bullocks, here comes The New Sincerity.’ Which I assumed was a cattle-related joke of some obscure kind, since the Sex Pistols album is in fact Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols.

‘Bollocks’ is slang for testicles, while ‘bullock’ is a castrated bull. But then another online American used the term, in the phrase “I think that’s bullocks”. So perhaps the misunderstanding is a common one. ‘Bollocks’ is used in Britain to mean something rather like ‘bullshit’, so that may have influenced people.

As a side-note, Rochester used ‘ballock’. From A Ramble in St James’s Park:

[…] Did ever I refuse to bear
The meanest part your lust could spare?
When your lewd cunt came spewing home
Drenched with the seed of half the town,
My dram of sperm was supped up after
For the digestive surfeit water.
Full gorged at another time
With a vast meal of slime
Which your devouring cunt had drawn
From porters’ backs and footmen’s brawn,
I was content to serve you up
My ballock-full for your grace cup, […]

I wonder if after/water was a true rhyme in the C17th.

Radio Cymru

Languagehat led me to discover Morfablog. I have no idea what any of it is about, but several of the pictures on the front page feature waterproof clothing, which chimes with my experience of Wales.

It reminded me of being at university in Bristol and listening to Radio Cymru. Since Welsh takes quite a lot of words directly from English, it was a bit like the Gary Larson cartoon:

The first panel is titled 'What we say to dogs.' A man is scolding his
dog. The man's word-balloon says this: 'Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You
stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage,
or else!?'

The second panel is titled 'What they hear.' The drawing is exactly
like the first panel, but this time the man's word-balloon says 'Blah
blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah
blah blah blah.'

except it would be things like “blah blah blah blah blah Phil Collins blah blah blah blah supermodel blah blah cannabis blah blah blah blah blah blah television…”

And because of the limited Welsh-language music available, one moment they’d be playing Welsh folk tunes, and the next a Welsh-language cover of Wet Wet Wet. I haven’t been to Wales for ages, actually. I’ve always wanted to go to the Pembrokeshire coast and see choughs.

food idioms

The Language Log points towards this article in the LA Times which lists some food-related expressions in French, and gives some English examples as well. My own favourites: the English expression ‘fine words butter no parsnips’, and from Peasants into Frenchmen ‘pigs and moneylenders – you never know how much they’re worth until they’re dead’.

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