Tuesday, 23 February 2021

You say tomato...

This week I heard Emma Barnett, the new presenter of  Woman's Hour pronounce "mores" to rhyme with "whores," rather than with "forays." It jolted me a bit, as temporarily I had no idea what she meant. Then, on Facebook, someone asked what pronunciations annoyed people and opened the floodgates.

This got me thinking about pronunciation (it has a "nun" in the middle of it, btw; it's not "pronounciation).

I'm not talking about accents; that's different. I have a friend in Liverpool who is very annoyed by the long 'a' of Received Pronunciation (RP) and to him it sounds as if southerners are putting an "r" in "masks" and "France." 

The top hate in the Facebook thread was "chester draws" for "chest of drawers" but I'm not sure I would hear the difference in RP. The two I chose were "lasanyer" for "lasagne," as if it were French and not Italian, and "longeray" for "lingerie." I realise these are both non-English words. For the same reason, I changed from dubbing to subtitles to watch Lupin on Netflix because it was distracting the way the American dub artists said "Lupon" and not "Lupan."

Americans and Brits (and doubtless Aussies and Kiwis too) pronounce the same English words differently, as in the famous Gershwin song, Let's call the whole thing off (though I have never heard anyone say "pohtahto" or "ersters").

Just think about "vitamin," "schedule," "vase," "leisure" and "missile." When there was an American audiobook of one of my titles, I was amazed to discover "shone" pronounced as "shown."

What pronunciations feel "wrong" to you?

Words of the week: Irreversible and roadmap

For a start, "irreversible" does not mean what members of the cabinet think it does!  It means "unable to be reversed or undone," such as (most) vasectomies and tattoos. What politicians are expressing is a desire  not to have another lockdown. Most things are reversible and this government should know this more than most after all the vacillations, U-turns and policy changes.

"Roadmap" is interesting. A Guardian reader pointed out on their Letters page that hardly anyone uses one any more; everyone has a SatNav, on their smartphone if not actually in their car. But anyway, a map is not a route, even if politicians are using them to mean the same.


Monday, 15 February 2021

Falling out of love

This is a terrible subject for the day after Valentine's! But I meant to post it last week when the dangers of blogging over a house move were brought home to me by BT being about to cut off my phone, email and Internet, because they had confused the new address with the old one! Many hours on the phone later and it is resolved and everything works.

What we have this week is book- or CD- shelves being installed in five rooms. Huge quantities of material have arrived and two men are laying sheets of cardboard in the hall and plastic on the stairs. This makes for somewhat distracted posting but at least the electrician is not here today, cutting off power or broadband.

I am currently without a study and working on the dining table (brings back memories) but my garden office is being painted this week and its bookshelves installed the week after. Perhaps by the spring normal service will be renewed at Grandma's.

Anyway, back to falling out of love. You may have seen recently reports of a study, which used couples' messages to each other on Reddit to analyse if you could tell a relationship was breaking up months before it actually disintegrated. (I have tried to gain access to the original research paper as all the print media are clearly working from a Press Release, but it wasn't to be. I need a user name and password which my "institution" could provide if the London Library were answering the phone, but instead it is getting on with the more important business of sending me books).

Sarah Seraj is an Psychology PhD student at the University of Austin in Texas, who, together with Kate G. Blackburn and James W. Pennebaker, looked at a million messages between couples on Reddit and saw how the language of them changed over a period before a break-up (the team found 6,803 people who admitted going through a breakup, on the subreddit r/BreakUps. They then tracked their other Reddit posts a year before and after the breakup to see if there were any hidden signs of what was about to happen - looking at posts where they talked about all types of subject matter, not just the posts about their relationships).

I wish I could say that their findings would enable the more apprehensive of you to look at text messages, WhatsApps or whatever and have your fears confirmed or rebutted that things in your relationship were not going well. But it's not as straightforward as that.

Seraj says the main changes are in the use of prepositions, pronouns and articles but these changes can be so subtle that even the poster, let alone the recipient, might not know yet that the relationship was heading for the rocks.

So - to the changes. There is an increased use of "I" and "we" pronouns. "Would," "should," "result" and "because" also become more common. There is an increased use of "very," "really," "no" and "never." But other "functional words," like “a”, “the”, “in” and “at” fall off, indicating a loss of logical thinking.

You could try plotting these changes against recent communications from a loved one but the research offers no advice on how to reverse the changes. Maybe you need to keep an eye on the pronouns and start putting the articles back in?

Here is my poem for yesterday:

Roses are red

Violets are mauve

We go together

Like Brighton and Hove


Word of the week: (vaccine) passport

There are much talk of a "vaccine passport" at the moment. It seems a bit of a misnomer, since this document on its own would not get you across any border. The word comes from Old French "passe-port" (c.1500), a document that would enable the holder to pass through a seaport. 

The vaccine passport, on the other hand, might grant you access to shops, festivals and other venues. There is confusion in the Cabinet about whether such a thing will ever exist but there is an App in development and I wouldn't be at all surprised.

So if we ever get to travel abroad again, we might be asked for both our passports, the one to confirm our identity and the one that shows we've had - presumably two - vaccinations.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

No post this week

 Grammar Grandma is not posting this week, owing to a string of domestic crises and problems with BT.


Monday, 1 February 2021

School Grammar

Not Grammar Schools but the kind of grammar being taught to Primary School children, which is different from the grammar taught to their parents and grandparents. (Actually, if my experience of raising three daughters in the 1980s and 90s is anything to go by, parents probably weren't taught any grammar at all). It is also different from anything a linguist would recognise.

Last week Michael Rosen wrote an article in the Guardian in the form of an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Now, Michael Rosen is a recent survivor of the Corona virus; he nearly died and suffers from a range of Long Covid symptoms and side effects. There has been an overwhelming wave of love and support for him during and after his illness and, though he might hate the idea, this accomplished, versatile and prizewinning writer is now something of a National Treasure - a sort of literary Captain Tom Moore. As well as producing his bestselling books, poetry and memoirs and  YouTube videos with a huge following, Mike presents Radio 4's Word of Mouth programme and is already back in the metaphorical saddle doing that again.

All this could mean that Williamson might take note of what he said but, whether he did or not, Mike makes some excellent points: It's only now that so many parents are home schooling their children that they are realising how "the primary curriculum now includes all this so-called grammar, which to many of us is a package of outdated, rigid, misleading, prescriptive, disputed terms, all based on the false assumption that “grammar” is either right or wrong."

"So-called grammar" is spot on and one of the most made-up things about it is the dreaded "fronted adverbial," the meaning of which many much-published and highly-educated people do not know. (Does Gavin Williamson know?)

There is nothing wrong with having a language-with-which-to-talk-about-language. It is, after all, what this blog is about. There is Descriptive Grammar, which is what the discipline of Linguistics is about and Prescriptive Grammar, which tells you what is right and what is wrong. 

It is worth re-stating here that Grammar Grandma is concerned with what is used in Standard English, while acknowledging the many differences in dialect, slang, register and idiolect. If you use those variants, that is completely OK,  but you might find it useful to know what SE does differently, for occasions when you want to use the formal language of a job application, UCAS personal statement, etc.

(It's the same as "translating" a family word in a context outside the family. I have to remember every week that Sainsbury's will not understand "squinges" or "nubbles" if I type them in my order).

Michael Rosen's point is that Primary Schools are not only teaching Prescriptive grammar but are then going further and pretending that this will make you a better write: "Somewhere along the line – have you noticed? – these grammatical features turned into instructions to children on how to write. So now, I gather, they have to create sentences using fronted adverbials, relative clauses and expanded noun phrases – preferably after a preposition."

It seems to me there is nothing wrong with teaching what an adverb is and noticing that where it appears in a sentence might change its emphasis but why on earth make up a new name (I have the same problem with "phonics") and then ask children to use lots of them in their writing?

Wouldn't it be better to look at how interesting writers make a book inviting and exciting by choosing a superbly right word or making up a new one or yes, even putting an adverb right up there at the front? I would place a large bet that no good writer every wrote a good book - or even a good sentence - by thinking "I must put in lots of fronted adverbials."

This is why children thrill to the poems and stories of Michael Rosen and no-one has ever felt the slightest frisson while listening to Gavin Williamson or any other Education Secretary (Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, Kenneth Baker? - we've had a few doozies)


Word of the week: vaccination

On Saturday, I went, an hour after my husband, to our new local GP Practice to be vaccinated against Covid-19. And a very well-organised procedure it was too. But I started musing on the word, which clearly begins with a cow. Apparently it is because the first "vaccine" (for Smallpox) was developed from cowpox and "vacca" is Latin for "cow."

You could use "innoculation" or "immunisation" instead but "vaccination" is certainly the popular word for it now and "vaccine" a useful word for what you are vaccinated with. I saw no cattle at the health centre.