Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Croiffle: The verdict

On my way home from the Linguistics Association of Great Britain annual meeting last week, this advert on the train (too late, I was already on my way to Kent at this point) offered me a free speciality coffee with purchase of their new 'croiffle'.

Advert offering a free coffee if you buy a 'croiffle'
A croiffle?, you might ask. And what is a croiffle? Using my linguistic skills, honed over the course of the last fifteen years of intensive linguistic training, I intuited that it is a croissant of some kind (see image) with something unspeakable done to it. Obviously this is a blend, or portmanteau, of croissant and, I assume, waffle, as it's apparently been toasted in a waffle machine. Why you would do this, I do not know.

But how do you pronounce it? While I and a friend both went with the vowel of croissant (slightly different for each of us, with his being more similar to the French than mine (/ɒ/ vs /ʌ/)), another friend said it as she saw it and used the oi of, well, Oi!. And a portmanteau that no one knows how to pronounce is an unsuccessful new word, especially if it's also just a toasted croissant that's a bit bumpy.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Spotting a fake

Fake news is big news these days. Mostly, it's in the context of Donald Trump complaining about it, or alternatively being supported by it. There are millions of fake twitter accounts all tweeting away in support of something or other, or to try and scam something. Last week, Marc Owen Jones described his lengthy relationship with someone who was probably not who he claimed to be:
I tried a quiz recently to see if I could tell which product reviews were real and which were fake; I did terribly, no better than chance. I had read that you might see too many technical details in fake ones, superlatives, or lack of personal detail, and still I couldn't pick the fake from the real. It's actually put me off online shopping a bit.

This is something that you'd think linguists ought to be good at. It's something that linguists sometimes end up working in, at least: forensic linguistics is the analysis of texts to detect or solve crimes, and it's all about looking for (in)consistencies, patterns and giveaways in the text to tell you who did or didn't write it. Therefore, linguists have turned their hand to various genres of fake news, reviews and tweets to determine how we can spot them. (I should note, you do need a postgraduate qualification to work in these areas, and/or experience - you don't just magically learn how to do it by being a linguist in general.)

The best I've done is with these emails that have been arriving lately, the kind that look like they come from someone you know. In my case, it's nearly always either David Adger or my Head of School, because I think they pick on someone who sounds like they're senior to you, and then the email says something like 'Are you free? I need a favour urgently'. But they're on to a loser here, because at the very least, I can recognise the writing style of people I know. I also know that these highly educated people would not make the kinds of mistakes that these emails contain, even if they were typing in the midst of great angst and favour-needing. Their emails might be short, lacking capitalisation, or be sentence fragments, but they wouldn't have odd exclamation marks, strange spacing or ungrammatical wording.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Practice is nicer than practise

This exchange appeared in my facebook the other day. I don't know any of the people involved, and as always, I'm just commenting interestedly, not making fun or criticising them.

The image shows a conversation in response to someone mentioning 'practicing', with that spelling. Assuming that things haven't changed since I learnt this, that's a valid spelling in American English. British English would traditionally prefer 'practice' for the noun (as in We went to practice tonight) and 'practise' for the verb (as in Are we practising tonight?). In practice (ha!) this is very variable and it's probably one of those things that's on the way out really, and both spellings can do both jobs.

What interested me about the above, though, is that even though 2 out of the 3 people having this discussion obviously care about this spelling rule (otherwise they wouldn't be discussing it), they don't seem to be very clear on which it should be.

Person 1 says 'practicing with a c, though' indicating that they know it's spelt incorrectly, and sharing a link to that effect. Person 2 doesn't really notice the spelling comment (unless I'm missing some more subtle joke?) and comments on the content of the original post, spelling it with an 's' for both the noun and the verb (Some sides don't practise [verb] wilst half drunk, so it could well be 'intoxicated dance practise [noun]' for a newbie...). Then Person 3 brings it back to spelling and quotes the rule, presumably in response to Person 2 as much as the OP, to which Person 1 replies, agreeing, and saying I think it's nicer to think of it as morris 'practice' rather than 'practise'. I realise it's incorrect :)

But it's not incorrect! Both spellings are right depending on which 'morris practi{c/s}e' is intended (noun or verb).  And here, the commenter is probably actually correct, because with the pre-modifying 'morris', it is far more likely to be the noun, so 'practice' is the right spelling to use.

And – most baffling – why is it 'nicer to think' of it with a 'c'??

Monday, 15 July 2019

Fusilli bolognese

I had the good fortune to be on a train full of children, maybe about nine or ten years old, the other day. I mean, literally full, there were two of them in the seat next to me.

They were off on a residential visit somewhere so meals were involved, so they started talking about their various fussy eating foibles. One said she couldn't eat steak, to which the teacher responded with admirable restraint 'It's OK, we're not having steak'.

Another was alarmed when she heard one of the meals would be spaghetti bolognese (or 'skabetti', as the teacher called it, which I always find an adorable pronunciation), because she doesn't like spaghetti. Fortunately for her, it turned out that the spaghetti to be used was in fact fusilli (the spiral one), which she did like. For me, spaghetti is specifically the long, thin, solid, cylindrical ones, and any other pasta shape has to be called by its own name (or just 'pasta'). But spag bol is special, because it's the pasta meal most British people encountered first, so it's kind of a meal in itself. I'm not quite sure how to describe its cultural role, actually, for people that don't already have the same cultural knowledge of it. I mean, Heinz sells it in tins, is probably the most meaningful thing I can tell you about it. So I suppose for her, spaghetti isn't a thing in its own right and it could be used as the generic term for pasta as long as it's with that particular sauce.
Image result for spaghetti bolognese tin
Tin of Heinz spaghetti bolognese

Pasta words are one of those semantic fields where there's a lot of overlap and variation, by the way - 'noodles' for me has to be in an Asian dish, like chow mein, so even though they're long and thin, I couldn't call spaghetti noodles. For some people 'noodles' covers all kinds of pasta-type foods. 

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Yo, Samity Sam!

Brilliantly, the tweet I am going to be famous for (at 200+ likes at the time of writing), is one in which I present myself as an idiot.
Lane Greene said that American kids learnt how to pronounce 'Yosemite' because of the Looney Tunes cartoon character 'Yosemite Sam'. Despite plenty of exposure to this character, I did not similarly acquire the correct pronunciation of the word, because I interpreted the name as 'Sammity Sam', a sort of reduplicated nickname form of the name Sam. This is not unreasonable, as I'd not seen it written down and never heard of the place Yosemite. Other people did the same thing, and basically heard it as 'Yo, Sammity Sam'.

But here's the thing: I didn't interpret that first syllable as anything at all. 'Yo' wasn't specially in my vocabulary as a child in 1980s UK. So I just kind of heard it as a meaningless syllable. I'm not an acquisitionist so I could be wrong here, but I'm pretty sure this is NOT how language works. There are not meaningless syllables that consistently occur adjacent to a specific word. I should have definitely called on my pattern recognition skills and interpreted that sound as part of the name, or as being part of the phrase, as others did ('Yo!'). But I didn't.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019


Hooray! Another article about how 'textspeak' is bad for kids is out! (Daily Mail link, so don't click it – you can get the idea from just reading this post.)

It's really a shame that the experts they asked were not experts in the thing they asked them about. They're experts in children's potential and curriculum development, both important things, but not actually language, which is the thing we're concerned about the harm of here. It seems comparable to asking experts in primary education if mobile phone masts are harming children's concentration or something. They'll have relevant things to say about concentration but they won't actually have the expertise to say if it's the mobile phone masts that are the problem.


In the image above, Prof. Mellanby says 'these sentences do not contain grammar', of the following:
OMG ikr
Yo dude r u still coming to party Friday
I'm just going to take the second one. It contains, among other things, the following grammar:

  • a vocative (Yo dude)
  • subject-verb agreement (r for 2nd person singular)
  • question inversion (r u rather than u r)
  • a verb phrase with a prepositional complement (to party) and adverbial (Friday)
  • present tense (r rather than were)
  • progressive aspect (coming)
  • pre-verbal adverbial (still)
  • knowledge of which words can be omitted in this context (the, on)
It also has 100% correct spelling, if one allows that r u is an abbreviation rather than an error.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Southern privilege

One of my favourite writers is Justin Myers, who among other things writes The Guyliner. He reviews the Guardian Blind Date every week and I look forward to it eagerly. It's funny, but it's also clever and insightful and often poignant. This week, he threw in a comment about 'doing funny accents' that was so spot-on in its identification of the problem of centring privilege.

Just to take a step back: we normally think about male privilege, white privilege, or straight privilege. It doesn't meant that (say) men don't have problems, or never face discrimination, but that they don't face the kind of systematic discrimination that those who aren't men face, while of course they may face systematic discrimination of other kinds (e.g. you might be a gay man, or a black man, and have male privilege but not straight or white privilege). In the grand scheme of things, northerners aren't who you think of as facing the worst discrimination, but nevertheless, there is a sort of 'southern privilege'. (North and south here refer to England, by the way - in itself this minimises the existence of the other UK countries and especially Scotland.) This shows up mostly in accent discrimination, which can be a proxy for class discrimination.

Justin talks about the way that people frequently imitate a 'northern' accent when he tells them that he is from Yorkshire. (UGH by the way - 'the north' is a big place with a lot of different accents.) He specifically mentions the way that they say 'oop north', and the way they think this must pronounced like 'poop' because they don't realise it's just the vowel like in 'book' but written with a double 'o' to emphasise the difference from the southern pronunciation. And here comes the part that I'd never even thought about before, which is that having this special spelling to indicate the northern pronunciation is in itself a staggeringly southern-centric way of doing things. As Justin points out, there is no northern equivalent of an approximation of the southern pronunciation (he writes it as 'ap', which is pretty close to the IPA for the RP pronunciation). The word 'up' spells both the southern and the northern pronunciation; the letter 'u' represents both the sounds /ʌ/ and /ʊ/. To write 'up' as 'oop' leaves it as representing only the southern pronunciation, ignoring the northern one altogether.

In this situation, as always, the people in the position of relative power fix the language in a way that positions the less powerful ones as 'others', not the norm.