Thursday, 31 January 2013


There was an unassailably logical answer to one of yesterday's 'Queries' in the Guardian:

Why do pests never eat weeds?
Because they are pests. If they ate the weeds we'd have to call them "usefuls" or something.stooze 

Monday, 28 January 2013

Women in public

This is a blog about linguistics and language, but I do occasionally stray into academia (which is where I do linguistics). This is one such post, so feel free to skip it if you're here for the linguistics.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Ian McMillan and arse

Ian McMillan, the poet, does a lot of stuff on the radio about language. He's keen on accents, particularly Yorkshire ones, and recently I listened to a programme from August in which he tootled about in search of an isogloss; specifically, the house/arse isogloss.

As the blurb notes, an isogloss is 'a kind of linguistic boundary line where accent and dialect changes'. Of course isoglosses are not fixed and absolute, so McMillan's early desire to hear someone stand on one side and say 'house' and stand on the other side and say 'arse' is doomed to remain unfulfilled.

The main point of the programme is that (according to McMillan) in some parts of South Yorkshire they pronounce 'house' as 'house' and in others they pronounce it 'arse'. That's /haʊs/ versus /a:s/, in the International Phonetic Alphabet that linguists use to represent sounds. (In fact, when McMillan says 'arse', it's more like /ɑ:s/, as it is for most southerners. However, he consistently pronounces it with a long version of the vowel in 'man' when he's imitating the pronunciation. Think Jim in the Royle Family.) You'll note from the symbols used that although the two words seem very different, all that's happening is that the 'standard' version has a diphthong (two sounds) and the 'arse' version simply ditches the second sound of the diphthong. We can call it monophthongisation, if we want to win at Scrabble.

McMillan is off, with a musician friend and a local linguist in tow, to try to find these people with 'one of Britain's strangest linguistic features' (I can assure you, it's not even close to that honour). What follows is a lot of highly unscientific questioning of bemused pensioners outside the post office as they turn up to collect their pensions. One, when McMillan asks him if he says 'arse', says 'no, I wouldn't like to swear'.

Anyway, there's a bit of linguistics in there, as we learn about isogloss maps (though it would have been good to follow up with an explanation of how they're drawn and why the line on the map is an idealisation of reality, and why you can't really find it in the real world). McMillan gets a bit mixed up at times, thinking that at the isogloss he should find people who say 'arse', whereas the isogloss is the border. It's precisely there that he might not find them - if he wants those, he needs to look in the heart of the area enclosed by the isogloss. The linguist says that it's likely to be old people who have this pronunciation, and it would have been nice to have been told why that is. But McMillan is a powerful character and most of the time must necessarily be given over to his impressions of other Yorkshire accents, which he clearly enjoys doing.

Something that struck me was that when McMillan was taking care to say the two different pronunciations properly, he would pronounce the /h/ on the 'house' version, and yet when he said it in his normal speech he very often didn't pronounce the /h/ (as is common all over Yorkshire). Even more interestingly, he sometimes merged the two vowel sounds a bit, and sometimes sounded very much like he was in fact saying 'arse', despite claiming to say 'house'. I'd really like someone with a bit more phonetics ability than me to check that he really does say 'house' when he thinks he does.

In the end (spoiler alert), they end up finding people saying 'arse' much further north than they expected (Hillsborough), and McMillan is happy he's found them and all is well. It's an entertainment programme, not a documentary, and we should take what we can get when it comes to linguistics on the radio. Worth a listen, if you're at all interested in poets from Barnsley saying 'arse' at pensioners, peppered with gobbets of linguistic stuff.

As an aside, I noticed an interesting pronunciation of 'house' the other day. McMillan is a Yorkshireman so he wouldn't set foot in the north-west, of course, but Stuart Maconie happened to say the word in a conversation with Mark Radcliffe on their BBC6Music radio programme. They were discussing the MediaCityUK complex in Salford, from where they broadcast, and mentioned the television building, which Stuart called 'Telly House'. He pronounced 'house' like 'ice' (/ɑɪs/ in IPA). I don't know where that's from. According to Wikipedia, Stuart's from Whiston in Merseyside, hung out in Wigan as a youngster, and now lives in Birmingham, and of course he spends every weekday afternoon with a load of Lancashire folk. It could be any of them. Perhaps if I tweet him this link he'll let me know what he thinks.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Three type

I wrote the following phrase in my PhD thesis:
"the following three general types of component" 
It would also be acceptable to write 'components', in the plural. I don't know if there's a prescriptive rule on the matter but speakers seem to feel that both are OK. So I ended up with having 'types' in the plural and the type of thing I was talking about, 'components', in the singular, and that's the way it stands. I think it sounds more academic or formal that way, whereas perhaps I'd use the plural in speech. I don't know; I'd have to check. 

But I was tempted, just for a moment, to write this:
'the following three general type of component'
Here, 'type' is singular, and so is 'component'. In combination with 'three', indicating that I'm not talking about just one type of component, this is definitely not grammatical for me. Nevertheless, my little addled brain wanted to write it and really thought it was all right for the moment. I don't have a reason why, and maybe there isn't one because after a little consideration I dismissed it. Certainly, having 'general' intervening between the number and 'type' made it easier to do, and leaving it out makes the singular 'type' sound much worse.

But it is also true that singular/plural agreement with 'type' (and related words like 'kind') is hard.

(If you're interested, this Stack Exchange thread discusses it, and doesn't come to any conclusion other than that maybe the one with agreement where both are either singular or both are plural is more natural.)

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Wine is a great mixer but very calorific

Joan Collins (who I don't follow, though maybe I should - I got it via Jennifer Saunders @ferrifrump) tweeted this today. I thought Joan Collins was being hilariously Mae-West-ish:
It turns out not. You're supposed to drink vodka or tequila (with ice & water) instead of drinking wine, not drink vodka or tequila with ice & water instead of with wine. Subtle but very important distinction.

It can't be only me that's used wine as a mixer before though.