Friday, 18 December 2015


German is famous for its compounds. I'm not sure this is fair, really, because as far as I can tell it just doesn't write the spaces (I'm being facetious - but there is a conceptual issue here). No matter. It is famous for them. I said to my first years the other day that while English can't have plurals within compounds (eg it's toothbrush, not teethbrush, even though it's a brush for your teeth), German can. And this is true: bookshelf in German is B├╝cherregal, literally booksshelf. But it's not that simple. This is language we're talking about, after all.

German and English can both have irregular plurals in compounds, as well as singulars. English can have teethmarks, for instance (although personally I would prefer toothmarks). But neither language can have regular plurals in compounds, so we have mice eater but not rats eater and B├╝cherregal but not Autosberg ('cars heap'). (Links go to articles testing this idea.) The difference is that German has many more irregular plurals: their default (=regular) plural is the -s suffix that I mentioned in my Euros post. All the others, which put together are way more common, are in effect irregular.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

German suddenly makes Esperanto make sense

As you know, I'm learning German and dabbling in Esperanto. Esperanto is primarily based on romance languages as far as the vocabulary goes, with a bit of English and German thrown in, and its cases are a bit like German. One thing that was bugging me about Esperanto was that when I learnt about subordinate clauses, there was always a comma after the main verb. Like this:
I hope, that I get something nice for Xmas. 
This is weird to me, as it's just not the way we do it in English and I can't help reading it with a strange Shatneresque style. But I have discovered that German does this (romance languages do not, at least in my experience), so it appears to be another aspect of Esperanto borrowed from German rather than the romance languages.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Grainy painies

For some reason, the other day I remembered a thing that happened on TV years ago. Frank Skinner had a chat show at the time, and Britney Spears was big, so I suppose it was probably the late 1990s. Britney was on Frank’s programme, and she at some point used the term ‘granny panties’ to mean ‘big knickers’.

Normally, we translate effortlessly between accents, so much so that we don’t even notice that we’re doing it most of the time. If someone tells you their name and they have an accent different from yours, you repeat it back in your own accent, not in an imitation of the way they said it. Let’s say you’re from London and your friend is from Vancouver, and her name is Martina. She’s probably got a ‘rhotic’ accent so she’ll pronounce the ‘r’ in her name, but you probably won’t. When you say her name back to her to check you heard it right, you aren’t going to pronounce the ‘r’ just because she does.

That’s why it’s weird when this doesn’t happen. When Britney said ‘granny panties’, it wasn’t a phrase Frank had ever heard before. Britney’s accent is also very different from Frank’s, and when she said it, what he heard (and repeated back to her) was ‘grainy painies’. If you can’t relate the sound string you hear to a known word or phrase, the only thing you can do is approximate the way it sounded. What you say sounds just like the phrase but you don’t know what it is you’re saying.

I see something like this in my first year seminars. One week, we do an exercise where they have to work out what phrase is written in phonetic transcription. The way to do this is to ‘sound it out’. Often, they are literally saying the exact phrase perfectly, but they can’t hear the words or extract the meaning from the string of sound. It’s fascinating and completely hilarious.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Francis Nolan and Parseltongue at UKC

We had a talk from Francis Nolan of Cambridge University yesterday. Actually, we had two. He did a research talk on the unintelligibility of sopranos, which I unfortunately had to miss, and he also did a talk for our undergraduate student society on Parseltongue, which he created. I sneaked in and live-tweeted it.