Friday, 28 June 2013

Tortoise again

  People are telling me that the -oyze tortoise pronunciation is not AmE or AusE but just a spelling pronunciation. Happy to hear that, in a way. We, or I, probably do ascribe too much to US influence. But I feel that there is a growing "international pronunciation", often following or at least strongly influenced by spelling. BrE seems to be losing confidence, perhaps regarding RP pronunciations as old-fashioned. The change of "wonder" and "wander" back towards spelling seems another example. And I certainly don't blame AmE for that one - haven't noticed Americans say it yet.

Known knowens

  Talking as we were of "unbeknown", with or without -st, has anyone else noticed (yes, I should have checked all the blogs, N-Gram or pronunciation equivalent etc, I know) the pronunciations of "known", "grown" (etc?) as "knowen" and "growen"? I have a feeling that Australians are leading this change. Any comments on that?

Taught us? What? BrE jokes

  Another thing strikes me about "new" pronunciations and usages, especially those that seem to come from overseas, Australia, let us say, or the US. I am just listening to "Book of the Week" on BBC R4. It is "The Reason I Jump", a book about autism.

  A young actor, I think, reads the words of a Japanese boy. He does it very effectively, movingly, even. But I am distracted: he has an RP accent but he several times pronounces "tortoise" with           "-oyze", rather than "-us", or rather schwa. This probably seems natural for people under, say, 40 (suggestions?), or those from most of the English-speaking world. Do the BBC feel they have to do this sort of thing to sell the programme world-wide? No, I doubt they notice that much nowadays or, if they do, individual producers would hesitate to "correct", or even query, an actor's pronunciation. If it is not particularly Aus or US, is it a sign of what I think of as "international pronunciation", which often seems to move towards spelling, or selective bits of it?

  What is wrong with this? Well, it is not just a loss of tradition, which could be a benefit, but more of a loss of continuity, especially of humour. Lewis Carroll's Alice books are a foundation of this tradition of humour. Are we now to lose all those jokes, puns mostly, or explain them to death? "We'll, you see the teacher was a turtle, which is a bit like a tortoise and 'tortoise' used to be pronounced like 'taught us.'" What, you guys think that is funny? Puh-lease!

   Well, perhaps most of those Alice jokes are just out-dated and we will have to explain everything soon: "So, 'lesson' used to sound like 'lessen'. Well, that means get less. Get it?"

 Ok, I know the academic, linguists' response will be that language change is inevitable and I am just moaning about what is important to me now but isn't in any historical perspective. After all, they will say, Shakespeare's pronunciation was very different and you need notes to understand a lot of it. Yes, and that is why, sadly, the comedy scenes are usually pretty dire! Is it that the pace of change is quicker? What was the common currency of British humour for  hundreds of years, the puns and wordplay, has changed, it seems to me very quickly, in the last twenty, in the era (pronounced "eara" for BrE, "erro[r]" for US punsters) of the web.

  Ok, just another rather petty, niggling cause of slight resentment among BrE speakers? Along with Harry Potter, and Monty Python - not pronounced "PyTHON"? Just being honest: there is often a sense of resentment both ways in online correspondence about AmE/BrE. Reactions?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

I might have beknown

  I've had helpful comments on "unbeknownst" from people in the US and UK who know such things, linguists, editors and so on. Henry Fuhrman, in charge of copy editing at the LA Times, tells me via Twitter (@hfuhrman) that the "-st" form is the commonest in their articles, if not the usual one. Other US correspondents confirm this.

  Still seems curious (though not unusual, I have been told) that quite a rare dialect word should establish itself in standard, "quality press" AmE. Was it a 19C British and Irish dialect form which caught on there more strongly than here? Comments from Scottish and Irish contributors on Lynne Murphy's (@Lynneguist on Twitter) excellent and comprehensive blog, which covered this, I find, several years ago, say that it has always been the usual colloquial form for them. And it seems to be established in the UK press now too.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Unbeknownst to me

  Where did "unbeknownst" come from? And why has it become popular in the media in recent times? Is it some sort of superlative from "unbeknown"? But what is the advantage of that over "unknown", anyway?

  The OED only notes the words from mid to late C19 so they are not, as one might say, part of the basic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. "Beknow" is said to be "Long arch. and dial."  and to mean "be or become acquainted with; recognise, acknowledge, know." I wonder what makes "unbeknown" seem superior to "unknown"?

  Perhaps I can see some usefulness in a sentence like "Unbeknown to me, the package had already been delivered." "Unknown to me, the package" might seem some sort of dangling participle. It wasn't the package that was or wasn't known but the fact of delivery. Maybe the use of the "unbeknown" is some sort of signal that we are thinking of awareness of facts, rather than knowledge or acquaintance with things. But to object to "unknown to me" would be to get pretty pedantic, wouldn't it?

  And then what further advantage comes with the -st? Suggestions and comments, please.

Friday, 21 June 2013

A post wot I wrote

  I forgot to mention two other possibilities to consider in the #WhichvsThat debate. If you are still not sure, you can always try your sentence without a relative. Ok, hold it there, Uncle Jim, I mean use no / zero relative pronoun. So you could say just, "The piece I prepared earlier wasn't really finished." Yes, that works as a defining relative clause. Or "The piece, I prepared earlier, wasn't really finished." No, something missing and doesn't sound right with pauses. (Unless you mean it as non-defining and add a "which".)

  On the other hand, if unsure, just use "what / wot" à la Ernie Wise.
[****Joke - NB reinstate Irony Warning System (IWS)****]
Um, sorry, little Ern, should that have been "au"? I never know.

  Anyway, thanks (and apologies) to Eddie Braben (I think) for writing those marvellous "the play what I wrote" Morecambe and Wise skits. Yes, that is Morecambe with an A, for my overseas audience - or actually for many non-Lancashire home fans, too. Thanks to my loyal UK follower also for the prompt.

  And be careful with your commas, that's the important point. Now, I know, Muphry's Law holds that I will have made several punctuation and other errors by this stage. But this is an amateur blog, for love only, not a newspaper or a legal agreement. And I use a deliberately informal, colloquial style here - even using lots of dashes! (And afterthoughts in brackets.)

WhichvsThat - Blast it!

  I love the USA and many of my heroes, artistic and otherwise, are American. I know that sounds like the suspect  "some of my best friends" defence and preamble, but it is true and I spend a lot of my life enjoying all that music, literature and culture.

  But I do sometimes feel the need to resist US domination of the English-speaking media, especially the Twittersphere. Resentment can bubble up, like those clouds on the weather forecast, with thoughts about cultural imperialism and even about the "can do" attitude. This positive, but often combative, approach is admirable in many ways, I'm sure. But, don't you sometimes think, "Oh, why can't they leave well alone?" rather than their saying, "We can fix it, zap it with something." I think I am peeved this week because the BBC News style guide website has just adopted what seems to me yet another AmE usage.

  Consider the long-running #WhichvsThat debate - yes, it has its own Twitter hashtag. Journalists and lawyers, for example, may sometimes have problems with punctuation, especially if they are under pressure. (Perhaps also with relative clauses, but it is less a question of that, I feel.) The solution in the US media - and the UK always seems to follow nowadays - seems to be zap the difficulties on this point by instituting a clear, prescriptive (and proscriptive) rule, at least in usage and style guides: "That defines and which adds information" or something similar. I suppose it might seem to simplify things if you have an urgent deadline.

 The problem with simplifying and then blasting problems is that this may seem to help in that moment but it leads to other difficulties you haven't thought of. ("Unknown unknowns"? What great philosopher said that?) In this case you might think you have dealt with it and so don't have to worry about it any more (anymore? No, not yet!). The "guidance" might help you write faster but probably reduces the likelihood of your reading the sentence aloud, or even internally.

  In fact, that is all the problem comes down to. Do you read with a pause, to add extra information (comma needed) or read on in one phrase (no comma, defining)? It is not really a choice between
"which" and "that" at all. "Which" is fine as long as you know what you mean. "That" isn't, but if
your English is good it should come naturally.

  The trouble is (is is) that even "wordsmiths" seem to be losing what used to be called their "native speaker performance/competence" - my double or treble is is another example.  This may be a result of both the huge volume of unedited language, much of it from admired or, at least, celebrity figures, available on all sorts of media. But also, strangely, partly as the result of "rules" which seem to be authoritative but are simply made up for convenience, against the feel and sounds and even instincts of the English language.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Gaza - scores of casualties

careless reckless fearless
ruthless pitiless heartless
voiceless limbless eyeless


Both glamourous and humourous

  I've noticed what I have "dubbed (as)" - minor peeve there - "US / BrE hypercorrection", as in book shops having a "Humourous" section. I first noticed this in a UK Borders and wondered if there was any significance in this being a US chain.

  But is it really hypercorrection going on here? Or just co-incidence that these two examples have US connections? An American writing BrE might be tempted to overdo the humor / humour change. Brits in the US might lose touch a little or momentarily "over-egg" it, too. I noticed it in the recent article by, I think, a British 'Telegraph' correspondent in the US. The example in this case was "glamourous". A trend or just a common spelling mistake by BrE speakers? Comments, please.

Scores of casualties

100 - 2

  Last year, 2012, a snippet of a poem came to me, partly prompted by the daily scores of casualties in Gaza, with a vague (contrasting and possibly inappropriate) memory of Milton's "Samson Agonistes". The numbers of dead and wounded were reported each day and they were very unbalanced. A heavy defeat in sport is often put in war-like or violent terms - a beating, a thrashing even a massacre. Sometimes a rugby or football / soccer match is said to be approaching "a cricket score", which could be, say, a hundred runs for two wickets lost, or 100 - 2. Whatever the true numbers, this is the impression the Gaza figures made, a reflection and memory of a great imbalance and injustice.

  This comparison of sport to war and vice versa reminds me that some people do consider violence very coldly or perhaps as a game, as long as it doesn't directly affect them, totting up casualties, assessing impact and even PR factors. And of course many soldiers and civilian fighters (the distinction is often now blurred) seem to be trained and to spend their off-duty time on simulations / computer games in which deaths are kept as a running score. As I say, in a fantasy game or in a foreign country it doesn't seem that real human beings are involved. Or at a computer, controlling Drone strikes in Pakistan, perhaps.

  Lurking in the sporting comparison is the English phrase "It's just not cricket." No, war certainly isn't, or shouldn't be, any type of sport, but this sometimes satirised phrase has the basic meaning of  "It's unfair." This is not to trivialise, I think, but to say that we all recognise injustice when we see it.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Disappointed as usual by summer, / we settle for autumn...

People are saying that the two-day sunny spell we had the other week was the summer and that it feels like autumn has set in. I wrote a poem about that years ago, also looking at ways of settling. I won't publish it here now in case it is needed for my Collected, but I think that was how it began.