Monday, 20 December 2010

On me/my being right

A correspondent writes about an earlier post headed 'On Shakespeare being Irish', worrying about the grammar rather than the content. Shouldn't it be 'On Shakespeare's being Irish', he asks? 'Has grammar changed?', he adds.

No, it hasn't - at least, not in the last 200 or so years. As with many issues of this kind, the arguments go back to the 18th century and the rise of prescriptivism. The construction without the possessive is the older one, and can be traced back to the Middle Ages. But the one with the possessive was felt to be more elegant and grammatically correct, and it was given the strongest possible support by Fowler (in his 1926 Dictionary). Indeed, rarely does Fowler attack a usage more intensely than in his entry on what he calls the 'fused participle'. A brief quotation:

'It is perhaps beyond hope for a generation that regards upon you giving as normal English to recover its hold upon the truth that grammar matters. Yet every just man who will abstain from the fused participle (as most good writers in fact do, though negative evidence is naturally hard to procure) retards the process of corruption; & it may therefore be worth while to take up again the statement made above, that the construction is grammatically indefensible.'

Not surprisingly, then, the issue rumbles on.

The two constructions actually express slightly different meanings. The non-possessive one highlights the verb phrase, whereas the possessive one highlights the noun phrase. In 'On Shakespeare being Irish', it's the 'being Irish' that is the focus. It's thus more likely to be used in a context where the implied contrast is with some other verb phrase, such as 'being Welsh or 'being English'. In 'On Shakespeare's being Irish', the person is the focus, so it's more likely to be used where there is a contrast with someone else. I used the first construction in my post, because the content was on the interpretation of original pronunciation, not on the person using it.

However, the prescriptive attitude has had an effect, in that over the years the use of the possessive has come to be associated with formal expression. There's therefore a stylistic contrast involved, with the non-possessive form sounding more informal. This is especially the case when the participial form is used as the subject of a clause, as in 'Going by train is out of the question', where we have the choice of:

John's going by train is out of the question.
John going by train is out of the question.

The stylistic contrast is especially noticeable when there's an initial pronoun:

My going by train is out of the question.
Me going by train is out of the question.

The contentious character of the non-possessive construction is lessened if it is 'buried' later in the sentence:

It is out of the question, my going by train.
It is out of the question, me going by train.

This is presumably why my post heading was noticed. The style I use ('On X') keeps the usage in initial position. If I'd headed the post 'On discussing the argument about Shakespeare being Irish', I wonder if my correspondent would have picked up on the point?

Friday, 17 December 2010

On culturomics

Another day when the phone won't stop ringing from correspondents because of a newly reported project involving language. This time it's the so-called Culturomics project, reported on 16 December in the journal Science and picked up in a half-chewed state by several newspapers and radio stations today.

What has happened is that a team of researchers have collaborated with Google Books to present a corpus of nearly 5.2 million digitized books, which they think is around 4 per cent of all published books. The corpus size is 500 billion words, 361 billion being English (the others from six languages - French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew). The time frame is 1800 to 2000. This is now available for online searching, and there's a site where you can type in your own words or word-sets and see how they have developed over time. There is a report on the project here. The full report can be read in the journal Science, though you have to register first.

The name culturomics is an odd one, presumably based on ergonomics, economics, and suchlike. They define it as 'the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture'. Most people in this business I imagine would normally talk of 'cultural history' or 'cultural evolution'. The language side of the project is familiar, as an exercise in historical corpus linguistics. The new term may catch on, as it blends the two notions (culture and language) in a novel way. We'll just have to wait and see.

The news reports have homed in on an analogy the authors make in their paper. They say: 'The corpus cannot be read by a human. If you tried to read only the entries from the year 2000 alone, at the reasonable pace of 200 words/minute, without interruptions for food or sleep, it would take eighty years. The sequence of letters is one thousand times longer than the human genome'. This has led to such headlines as 'Cultural genome project mines Google Books for the secret history of humanity' or (in today's Guardian) 'Google creates a tool to probe "genome" of English words for cultural trends'. But it isn't anything like the human genome, which is the complete genetic account of an individual. Culture doesn't work in that way. The authors themselves don't use the phrase in their paper, and rightly so.

We mustn't exaggerate the significance of this project. It is no more than a collection of scanned books - an impressive collection, unprecedented in its size, and capable of displaying innumerable interesting trends, but far away from entire cultural reality. For a start, this is just a collection of books - no newspapers, magazines, advertisements, or other orthographic places where culture resides. No websites, blogs, social networking sites. No spoken language, of course, so over 90 percent of the daily linguistic usage of the world isn't here. Moreover, the books were selected from 'over 40 university libraries from around the world', supplemented by some books directly from publishers - so there will be limited coverage of the genres recognized in the categorization systems used in corpus linguistics . They were also, I imagine, books which presented no copyright difficulties. The final choice went through what must have been a huge filtering process. Evidently 15 million books were scanned, and 5 million selected partly on the basis of 'the quality of their OCR' [optical character recognition]. So this must mean that some types of text (those with a greater degree of orthographic regularity) will have been privileged over others.

It's still an impressively large sample, though. So what can we look for? To begin with, note that this is culture not just lexicology. No distinction is made between dictionary and encyclopedia. Anything that is a string of letters separated by a space [a 1-gram, they call it] can be searched for - including names of people, places, etc. They also searched for sequences of two strings (2-grams) and so on up to five [5-grams]. Only items which turned up more than 40 times in the corpus are displayed. So, to take one of their example, we can search for the usage of 'the Great War' [NB the searches are case sensitive], which peaks in frequency between 1915 and 1941, and for 'World War I', which then takes over. Note that, to achieve a comprehensive result, you would have to repeat the search for orthographic variations (eg 'The' for 'the' or '1' for 'I'].

A huge problem in doing this kind of thing is punctuation. I know, because I had to deal with it when carrying out a very similar string-related project in online advertising a few years ago. You have to deal with all the ways in which a punctuation mark can interfere with a string - 'radio' is different from 'radio,' for example. The culturonomists have collapsed word fragments at line-endings separated by a hyphen - though there's a problem when a non-omissible hyphen turns up at a line break. And they have treated punctuation marks as separate n-grams - so 'Why?' for example, is treated as 'Why' + '?'. They don't give details of their procedure, but it doesn't seem to work well. I searched for 'Radio 4', for example. The trace showed the usage taking off in the 1970s, as it should, but there were many instances shown before that decade. I found examples listed in the 1930s. How can that be? There was no Radio 4 then. When you click on the dates to see the sources, you find such instances as 'stereo with AM/FM radio, 4 speakers' and 'RADIO 4-INCH BLADE'.

The other big problem is homographs - words which look the same but which have different meanings. This is the biggest weakness in software which tries to do linguistic analysis, and it was the primary focus of the ad project I mentioned above. A news page which reported a street stabbing had ads down the side which read 'Buy your knives here'. The software had failed to distinguish the two senses of 'knife' (cutlery, weapons), and made the wrong association between text and ad inventory. I solved it by developing a notion of semantic targetting which used the full context of a web page to distinguish homographs. The Culturomics project has to solve the same problem, but on a larger scale (books rather than pages), and there is no sign that it has yet tried to do so. So, type 'Apple', say, into their system and you will see a large peak in the 1980s and 1990s - but is this due to the Beatles or the Mac? There's no way of knowing.

The approach, in other words, shows trends but can't interpret or explain them. It can't handle ambiguity or idiomaticity. If your query is unique and unambiguous, you'll get some interpretable results - as in their examples which trace the rise and fall of a celebrity (eg Greta Garbo, peaking in the 1930s). But even here one must be careful. They show Freud more frequent than Einstein, Galileo, and Darwin, and suggest that this is because he is 'more deeply engrained in our collective subconscious' thanks to such everyday phrases as 'Freudian slip'. But which Freud is being picked up in their totals? They assume Sigmund. But what about Lucian, Clement, Anna...?

Linguists will home in on the claims being made about vocabulary growth over time. Evidently their corpus shows 544K words in English in 1900, 597K in 1950, and 1022K in 2000, and claim that around 8500 words a year have entered English during the last century (though of course only some achieve a permanent presence). These totals are pointing in the right direction, avoiding the underestimates that are common (and incidentally showing yet again how absurd that claim was a year ago about the millionth word entering English). The real figures will of course be much higher, once other genres are taken into account.

They point out that their totals far exceed the totals in dictionaries, and - one of the most interesting findings reported - say that over half the words in their corpus (52%) are what they call 'lexical dark matter'. These are words that don't make it into dictionaries, because they are uncommon, and dictionaries focus on recording the higher frequency words in a language. Their figure is probably a bit high, as (as mentioned above) this project includes proper names as well as nouns, and nobody would want to say that knowledge of proper names is a sign of linguistic ability. (I am reminded of the old Music Hall joke: 'I say, I say, I say, I can speak French'. 'I didn't know you could speak French. Let me hear you speak French.' 'Bordeaux, Calais, Nice...')

This 'cultural observatory' has given us a fascinating tool to play with, and some interesting discoveries will come out of it, especially when one types competing usages into the Ngram Viewer, such as the choice between alternative forms of a verb (eg dreamed/dreamt). There's nothing new about this, of course, as other corpora have done the same thing; but the scale of the enterprise makes this project different (though limited by its academic library origins). For instance, I typed in 'actually to do' and 'to actually do' to see whether there is a trend in the increasing usage of the split infinitive, and there certainly is, with a dramatic increase since 1980. The spelling of 'judgment' without an 'e' has been steadily falling since the 1920s, with the form with an 'e' having a stronger presence in British English [it is possible to search separately for British and American English]. Enough, already. As with all corpora, it gets addictive.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

On being a champion of - what?

Several correspondents, having read Michael Rosen's generous piece about me in this week's Guardian, have asked what I think about being called, as the headline put it, 'the champion of the English language'.

Well, my first thought was: not just English. If I try to champion anything, it is language, and specifically languages, and most specifically, endangered languages. English is a language, so it gets championed. It also happens to be the language which I chose to specialize in, years ago, so in that sense I guess I'm identified with it more than any other. But I'd be sad if anyone thought to interpret the headline as if it meant that I was supporting English at the expense of other languages. In fact I probably spend more time these days making the case for the importance of modern languages, and trying to get endangered languages projects off the ground. The Threlford lecture I gave a few months ago to the Institute of Linguists, was entirely on that subject, for example, as will be a lecture to the British Academy next February. And we are still a long way from the goal of having 'houses' of language(s) presenting global linguistic diversity in all its glory. The first to open, as regular readers of this blog know, will be the 'House of Languages' in Barcelona (see the website at Linguamon) - a project I know very well, as I've been chair of its scientific advisory committee from the beginning. I've tried, and failed, twice, to get a similar project off the ground in the UK. One keeps trying.

Another first is the event with which Michael ended his piece: the 'Evolving English' exhibition at the British Library. This is indeed an amazing exhibition, and it was a privilege to be associated with it. It is like having the history of English brought to life. A significant number of the important texts always instanced in histories of the language are in the same room. You are greeted by the glorious Undley bracteate. You find yourself within inches of the Beowulf manuscript. In one cabinet you can see, side by side, the Wycliffe Bible, the Tyndale fragment, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible. The curators have been ingenious, not to say cheeky: in another cabinet you will see the first English conversation, Aelfric's Colloquy; next to it is a manuscript of Harold Pinter. Everywhere you look there are headphones. A visit is not just a visual experience. The Library has an excellent collection of sound recordings, and great efforts have been made to provide an analogous audio experience for the texts of the past. If you are passing through London between now and 3 April 2011, visit this exhibition. There won't be another for a long long time.

I was the lead consultant for the exhibition - not the curator, as some online sources have put it (the three curators are British Library staff) - and wrote the accompanying book. This isn't, incidentally, a 'catalogue' of the exhibition, as some reports have suggested. It did begin as an attempt to reflect what would be in the exhibition, but it had to go to press some six months before the exhibition opened, and in the interim other decisions were made about what it was practicable to show. There were some very large display items that it would have been silly to try to fit into a book (World War I posters, for example); and conversely, there were some items that worked well in a book but which were simply too fragile to put on public display. Also, none of the audio items could go into the book - though several are available online, in the Timeline section of the Library website. There's about a two-thirds overlap in content between book and exhibition.

What's really noticeable, when you enter the exhibition, is the lack of a single chronology. Rather, what you see is a series of themes - the evolution of Standard English, local dialects of English, international varieties of English, everyday English, English in the workplace, English at play. The message is plain: there is no one 'story' of English, there are many, each of which has its own validity. It is the driving force behind my The Stories of English, which I used as the guideline for my initial proposals to the Library as to what should be in an exhibition, when the project was first mooted three years ago. What I hope, more than anything else, is that the exhibition will, through its physicality, demonstrate more than any textbook could, the way the language thrives through its multifaceted character. We see Standard English strongly represented - the prestige dialect of the language, the criterion of linguistic educatedness and the means of achieving national and international intelligibility, especially in writing. At the same time, we see regional dialects and other varieties of nonstandard English strongly represented - the varieties which express local, national, and international identity, and which are actually used by the vast majority of English speakers around the world. The atmosphere in the Library is one of mutual respect.

It would be nice to think that this atmosphere will remain after the exhibition is gone, and perhaps it will, through the book and the website. Linguistic climate change there still needs to be. The comments that followed Michael Rosen's article clearly indicate this. There is a great deal of mythology still around - for example, the unfounded belief that linguists say that 'anything goes', when it comes to language teaching in class. Readers of this blog with very long memories will recall that this was something John Humphrys said about me. He eventually apologised, in The Spectator, saying that he was only a journalist, and the role of the journalist was to simplify and exaggerate. But such simplifications and exaggerations do a great deal of harm. So, for the record, once again, and hopefully for the last time: I have never said that 'anything goes' when it comes to language. Read my lips. I have never said that 'anything goes' when it comes to language. Nor do I know of any linguist who has said such a thing. The whole point of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and the other branches of linguistics which study language in use is actually to show that 'anything does not go'. The only people who use the phrase 'anything goes' are prescriptivists desperately trying to justify their prejudices.

If people want to find out about my educational linguistic philosophy they will find it expounded, for example, at the end of The Stories of English and in various chapters of The Fight for English. It can be summarized as follows. It is the role of schools to prepare children for the linguistic demands that society places upon them. This means being competent in Standard English as well as in the nonstandard varieties that form a part of their lives and which they will frequently encounter outside their home environment in modern English literature, in interactions with people from other parts of the English-speaking world, and especially on the internet. They have to know when to spell and punctuate according to educated norms, and when it is permissible not do so. In a word, they have to know how to manage the language - or to be masters of it (as Humpty Dumpty says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass). And, one day, to be champions of it - all of it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

On shellacking

A correspondent (from Radio 4's 'World At One') rings up to ask me about the origins of shellacking, which has received a new lease of life thanks to President Obama's use of it yesterday. How did shellac develop the meaning of 'thrashing, beating'? There's no obvious link, she said.

True. To see what happened, you have to know the intermediate stage in the development of this word. The original meaning of the verb 'to varnish with shellac' (a type of resin) is known from the late 19th century. Anything that had been 'shellacked' would have a nice rosy tinge. By the 1920s, in the USA, this effect had evidently been enough to motivate a slang use of the word meaning 'drunk'. Rosey, illuminated, and plastered show similar developments - all early 20th-century slang.

At the same time, drunks were also being described using such words as busted, bombed, crashed, and thrashed. So it's not surprising to see these words sharing their associations. The connotations of thrashing transferred to shellac, which then developed its later slang sense of 'badly beaten'. I've only every heard this used in US English - but all that is about to change. I predict it will turn up in the House of Commons within the next few days.

So, drink is the link.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

On plays, parrots, and plurilinguals

A correspondent has just sent me details of a new play on endangered languages. In fact, two. It's like London buses. None come for ages, and then two come along at once.

Kamarra Bell Wykes has written Mother's Tongue, being staged this month by the Yirra Yakin Aboriginal Corporation in Perth, Australia. And Julia Cho has written The Language Archive, currently being staged in New York. You can see the post, from Peter Austin, here.

It's great to hear of these initiatives. I last posted on this subject on 8 January 2007, when I continued to bemoan the lack of arts projects presenting the theme of endangered languages and language death. My own play, Living On, was on its own then. Happily, no longer.

And another correspondent has added a fresh dimension to the famous story about the parrots speaking an extinct language, the inspiration behind Rachel Berwick's living sculpture that I mentioned in the 2007 post. You'll find that here.

And while on the subject of language diversity, another two-bus situation. Bilingualism, this time. Despite bilingualism being the normal human condition, a huge mythology has grown up around it, with monolingual communities being a bit scared of it and certainly not understanding it. Earlier this year, Madalena Cruz-Ferreira wrote a lovely little book, aimed at the general public, about the myths and realities of being bilingual, called Multilinguals are...? (Battlebridge Publications). And now she has started a blog on bilingualism. So has François Grosjean, whose fine book Bilingual: Life and Reality (Harvard University Press) also came out earlier this year. His blog is here. It seems to me that we are seeing a new climate slowly being formed.

Monday, 1 November 2010

On Shakespeare being Irish

A correspondent writes to ask what I think of Rod Liddle's piece in this week's Sunday Times. It was headed 'Irish bard? You're taking the mick'. I'd put a link in here, except that the paper now charges you a pound for the opportunity to read something you've missed. I can't believe their journalists are happy with that, as it must lose them so much readership, but that's another story...

Anyway, Rod says that 'A brilliant American academic called Paul Meier has decided that William Shakespeare spoke with an Irish accent', and he then develops the theme in his inimitable way, referring to earlier claims that Shakespeare 'had initially entitled his plays As You Like It, To Be Sure, To Be Sure; A Midsummer Night's Craic; O'Thello; and The Merry Wives of Windsor Park. Not to mention the famous Merchant of Ennis'. I love it.

But I don't love the new myth that's developing here. Paul Meier hasn't said any such thing. I know, because I've just returned from Kansas University, where I've been working with Paul on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in OP ('original pronunciation') - a reconstruction, as close as we can make it, of how the play would have been pronounced in Shakespeare's time. I've posted earlier about this (see 2 January 2010), and you'll find some of the relevant history of OP in my post of 10 January 2007, as well as articles on my website, such as in Around the Globe, which is where you'll get answers to the usual questions that arise in relation to this topic - like 'how do we know?'.

Note, first, that this isn't anything to do with how Shakespeare himself spoke. I speak with a British English accent, like millions of others do. It's possible to describe the main features of this accent without saying anything at all about the idiosyncrasies of one of its speakers. When foreigners learn, say, Received Pronunciation, they are learning a system of sounds. They aren't learning to speak like any one individual RP speaker. In technical terms, they're learning the phonology of English.

It's the same when we work on OP. It's Early Modern English phonology, and it allows all kinds of phonetic variations, reflecting the individual speakers who must have used it. Shakespeare probably spoke it with a mixed Warwickshire/London accent. Robert Armin, one of his fellow-actors, probably spoke with a mixed Norfolk/London accent. When we did an OP Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe in 2004, the actors came from various parts of the UK. All were taught OP, but this was tinged with their regional backgrounds. So you could hear traces of Scots in Juliet, Northern Irish in Peter, Cockney in the Nurse, and so on. It would have been like that in Shakespeare's day.

So where has the Irish myth come from? Mainly from YouTube. A clip of the OP production and its background has been receiving thousands of hits. You can see it here. Several people who have watched this have said that in their opinion it sounds like Irish. And before we know where we are, this cluster of opinions has become a fact.

Certainly there are some features of OP which are like modern Irish (such as the pronunciation of any like Anny), but there are also features of OP which remind the listener of the West Country of England, or Scotland, or Virginia, or virtually anywhere. When we were doing the Globe production, I used to walk around the audience in the interval and ask people what they thought of the accent, and everyone, without exception, said 'We speak like that where I come from'. There are echoes of most modern accent phonologies in OP - which is hardly surprising, as this is the phonology that lies behind them. It went across the Atlantic in the Mayflower, and to Australia, and elsewhere. If you asked me which modern accent is closest to OP, I'd have some difficulty saying. It's easier to identify the differences. No modern English accent, for example, says words like musician as 'mjooziseean'.

If you don't get your OP exactly right, then it's easy to slip into a modern accent. This is one of the things I have to focus on, when working with a company. The word for 'I', for example, is pronounced with a central opening to the diphthong - with the vowel sound of the word the. If you inadvertently lip-round that vowel, it comes out as 'oi', which is a classic feature of Irish English, often spelled that way in representations of Irish speakers ('Oi'm sure'). I think a lot of the YouTube listeners are reading that in.

OP isn't Irish. If you use or are familiar with Irish accents, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Ireland. If your background is Scottish, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Scotland. An Australian homed in on the pronunciation of yet as 'yit'. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? If so, OP is partly in the ears. But not entirely, as the many examples like musician illustrate.

I'm delighted to see that the Kansas OP project has generated such interest. It's the first full-length production of a Shakespeare play in OP since the Globe experiments of 2004 (Romeo) and 2005 (Troilus). I hope there will be more. Each time a play is done in OP, I discover fresh insights into it - new puns, new rhythms, new possibilities of expression. In Dream, for example, suddenly all the rhymes work. We've all been used to such painful modern dissonances as here, where the lines by Puck don't rhyme any longer:

Thou coward, art thou bragging to the stars
Telling the bushes that thou look'st for wars,
And wilt not come.

But they did in Shakespeare's day. The vowel in wars sounded like that of stars. Multiply this by the dozens of cases in the play where lines now rhyme, and you can begin to sense the cumulative auditory effect of an OP production.

Paul Meier is planning to make recordings of the production in due course (its first night is 11 November at the university theatre in Lawrence, Kansas), which will add immensely to the still rather limited database of OP available online (at Pronouncing Shakespeare). There may also be a live stream of a performance. I'll keep readers of this blog posted.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

On a review of biblical proportions

A correspondent has just written in with a puzzling remark. The message was from the American composer David Lang, and he wrote like this:

I just read on an american website that I am quoted in your new book 'begat' for messing up a biblical reference, when I was interviewed after winning the pulitzer prize for music.

It left me totally baffled, as I never would have said any such thing. So I looked it up in my book. I found it in the section where I review ways in which the idiom touch the hem of his garment has been adapted. I list several examples, and then say:

'These days, the expression has been extended even to things that don't have hems. When Bob Dylan got a Pulitzer prize in 2008, the New York composer David Lang, who was also a prizewinner, commented: I am not fit to touch the hem of his shoes. And popstar Bono is once reported to have said that his group U2 was not fit to touch the hem of the Beatles.'

To my mind, these are clever and daring extensions of the idiom. My book is full of examples of this kind. This was one of the reasons why I wrote it: to see just how far people have actually taken such idioms to heart and adapted them in everyday life. It is usually a totally conscious and creative process, and it certainly applies in David Lang's case. How do I know? Because he told me so:

'the ridiculousness of my comment was completely intentional. the interviewer laughed when I said it, which was of course the intended response. I am not sure if in your book it is better to be a voluntary bible mangler or an involuntary one but I wouldn't want you or any of your august readers to think I am any more of a dunce than I really am.'

Absolutely not. But where on earth did the notion of mangling come from?

It remained a puzzle for only a few hours. From OUP in New York I was sent a review of Begat in The Nation, the American weekly periodical which has described itself as 'the flagship of the left'. It was by a poet called Ange Mlinko. And there is the offending passage:

'Crystal even quotes the bungled puns of unfortunate individuals like David Lang, the composer who said, on winning the Pulitzer alongside Bob Dylan, "I am not fit to touch the hem of his shoes."'

Bungled? Unfortunate? Note that this is the reviewer speaking, not me. But in a tweeting world, the source of the opinion can easily get blurred.

However, how extraordinary to see such a narrow-minded attitude appearing through the pen of a poet! I always thought poets were supposed to enjoy other people's creative use of language. Apparently not in her case. All the adaptations of biblical expressions - and I give hundreds of examples in my book - are called by her 'so trite and corrupted as to necrotize the language'. Wow. Her generalization, incidentally, includes lots of creative writers - my examples include adaptations from Byron, James Joyce, and Henry James, to name just three - but that doesn't matter. They all, in her words 'mangle common biblical references'.

Mangle. Doesn't that tell you everything about where she is coming from? But what a shocking shocking thing to hear from a poet.

I'm quoting there. From this paragraph:

'He [Crystal] has come not to praise good style or blame bad style but merely to cite usages and round them up in a bean-counting exercise that ultimately comes to a shocking, shocking conclusion: "Very few idiomatic expressions unquestionably originate in the language of the King James Bible."'

Well I don't see what's so shocking about stating a fact. And beans are worth counting when so many other people get the totals wrong. I've heard people say that 'thousands' of idioms in English come from the King James Bible. That's a long way from the truth. MP Frank Field has quoted Melvyn Bragg as saying that the KJB is 'the DNA of the English language' - in other words, it's there in every word we say or write. Mlinko would probably agree. She says, in one of those vague statements that sound good but which mean little, 'The influence [of the KJB] ... runs deep in the weave of things'. Interpret that, if you can.

When she does give a few examples of what she means by 'style', I see straightaway that she is talking about something which I expressly omit from my book - and spend a few pages discussing why: quotations.

'Abraham Lincoln used locutions from the King James Version in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural to lend theological resonance to his vision of justice and reconciliation. Herman Melville's biblicisms, particularly his references to Job, invoke the Bible in order to subvert the standard Christian interpretation of it ("Christ's redeeming love of antithetical to the truth about the world").'

Yes, indeed, these are quotations and explicit allusions, and they provide a very important strand in the history of English literature. But this is not what my book was about. I always think it's bad reviewing practice to criticize an author for not writing the book the reviewer wishes he had written. Mlinko knows very well I am limiting my project. She actually says, at one point:

'Idiom, Crystal acknowledges, is not the only measure of linguistic influence, and he limits the scope of his conclusion accordingly.'

But that doesn't stop her dismissing me - and all linguists, it transpires - as being uninterested in style. Ah, there's the hidden agenda!

'The "gloriousely writen" text [her allusion is to Langland in Piers Plowman] doesn't seem to be the bailiwick of linguists. If there's an offense that unites scientists and post-structuralists against a common foe, it's belle-lettrism. Yet the concern with text as texture--what we've come to call its style--is fundamental not only to the pleasure of reading but to the understanding of what is written, which at its best is a fabric: composed of many strands. Discerning those strands requires knowledge--and judgment. Style is an apotheosis: it is the revelation of any author's "construction of reality."'

I totally agree with those last three sentences. But the first is breathtaking in its ignorance of what has gone on in literary stylistics over the past forty years, much of which has been concerned with exploring the notion of texture. She's obviously had some bad linguistic encounters of the third, or even fourth kind. For my part, having written two books on style, in the broader sense Mlinko hankers after, and tried to disentangle the many strands that make up the style of the most glorious writer of all in English, it's a bit disturbing to find someone writing off a domain of critical experience so dismissively.

If the review had been just about me, I wouldn't have bothered to respond. I appreciate every review I get, positive or negative, but life's too short to reply to them all, even given the marvellous opportunity provided by blogging. But when a reviewer starts calling my quotees bunglers and unfortunate, trite and corrupted, somebody's got to defend them. I'm not expecting emails from Byron and Henry James to complain about their misrepresentation, but I hope this post will prevent others being misled in the way that David Lang was.

Monday, 20 September 2010

On highest mountains

A correspondent writes to ask about the difference between tallest and highest in such sentences as Everest and K2 are the two tallest mountains in the world, which he has found on a BBC site. He quotes Michael Swan as an example of a grammarian who says that it has to be Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and not . . . the tallest mountain, and is understandably confused.

Usage is undoubtedly blurred, because we frequently see such listings (very common online) as 'The Tallest Buildings in the World', 'The Tallest Mountains in the World', and so on, alongside 'The Highest...' Tallest is four times more common than highest for buildings on Google. Highest is over ten times more common than tallest for mountains, but tallest still attracts a healthy 60,000 hits.

When we look for the reason, we enter a world of technical definition. Mountains are actually measured in three different ways. (1) Sea level to the peak. (2) Base to the peak. (3) Distance from the centre of the earth to the peak. The differences are significant. Under (1), the title goes to Mt Everest. Under (2) the title goes to Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which has only 4,245 m of its 30,000 m above sea level. Under (3) the title goes to Chimborazo volcano in the Andes, only 6310 m high but (thanks to the equatorial bulge caused by the earth's spin) further away from the centre than anything else. In this approach, (1) is referred to technically as the highest mountain, and (2) as the tallest mountain.

Most people would never need to refer to (3), and few to (2). We normally think of mountains as being above sea level, so this motivates the use of highest. But the fact that tallest is also a permitted collocation will have reinforced its appearance in everyday usage, resulting in the overlap noted by my correspondent.

Other domains raise similar issues. People normally talk about tallest buildings, referring to the dimension of the building from base to roof. The highest building in the world could be a single-storey house on some mountain-top somewhere. But again there is an overlap, and there are complications, well known in the field of encylopedia listings. Does the radio mast on top of a high building count as part of the height of the building or not? It can get quite controversial when competing claims are being made for the world record. And the complications reverberate linguistically when we encounter such usages as The highest part of the tallest building is well above roof level.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

On gonna

A correspondent writes to say she had read an interview in Rolling Stone with the cast of AMC’s Mad Men, where one of the actors said they had to be very careful with their pronunciation. 'There was no ‘gonna’ or ‘shoulda’ back then [in the 1960's].' Could this be true?

It certainly couldn't. It's easy enough to check the point. These two forms actually get separate entries in the OED, and there we find gonna with a first recorded use in 1913 and shoulda with a first recorded use in 1933. (Also woulda, 1913, coulda 1925.)

Both usages are undoubtedly much older. Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary has a separate section under go giving examples spelled ganna, gauna, gaunna, and ginnie. The earliest is 1806. And under have there's an example of should ha' from 1899.

Why stop there? In the 1602 Quarto edition of Merry Wives of Windsor we find Nym saying 'I should ha borne the humor Letter to her', and there are several similar examples in the literature of the period.

When it comes to linguistic mythology, it's seems it's a mad Mad world.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

On updating and the OED

Several media correspondents have been in touch this week to discuss the report that the OED may not have a further print edition. Whether it will or not I can't say, but I do know that I've not looked at my print edition for years, and use the online edition pretty well every day. It includes an amazing amount of new lexical information. There are updates of various sections of the alphabet at regular intervals, as the OED team slogs on. And one of the unspoken messages to scholars that comes across from the updating is: revise.

Like many people, I've used the OED repeatedly for information about the earliest use of words. The first recorded date for a word is of special interest. One knows that such dates are artificial, because they're only as reliable as the sources that have so far been examined, but they're still the best information we have, and they point in the right direction. So I always look with extra interest when I find the OED has discovered earlier citations for words. It's especially important when people are discussing such matters as the originality of Shakespeare's vocabulary or the number of new words in an early edition of the Bible.

It's not just earlier citations that can change the totals. A different dating chronology can wreak havoc with statistics. For example, the dates of Shakespeare's plays used by the original lexicographers are now hugely out of date. Nobody these days would place Love's Labour's Lost in 1588, as the OED does; most people would opt for 1593-5. Similarly, Titus Andronicus is given as 1588 (probably 1590-91) and A Midsummer Night's Dream as 1590 (probably 1594-5). The day they revise these dates, the whole of the 'Shakespeare invented words' industry will have to be reviewed, as in many entries the Shakespearean usage will leapfrog over another citation into second place.

The totals already need serious revision, in the light of the earlier citations that have emerged. I spent a lot of space in my Stories of English reviewing the evidence for Shakespeare's invented words, based on the OED entries, and for years now I've written a regular piece for Around the Globe (the magazine of Shakespeare's Globe) on what we can deduce from such 'Williamisms', as I call them there. We now know that several of the first recorded usages assigned to Shakespeare have been antedated. Not all are in the OED files yet. Lonely isn't, for example. The OED still gives Coriolanus 1607 as a first use, but, as I point out in Think on My Words, Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, talks about ‘lonely ghosts’ in her Tragedie of Antonie, and that is 1592.

I don't know when will be the best time to do a complete revision of the Shakespeare assignments. It's going to be a long job, and best done, perhaps, when a bit more OED revision has taken place. But I have taken a look at an easier topic: the number of first recorded uses in the King James Bible. In Stories of English (pp. 328-9) I say there are 55, and give a list. I've now gone through that list and checked against the latest OED entries, and the total now stands at 47. There are some additions and some deletions. For the record, here is the current list. Three of of the items (marked with *) also appear in the translations to entries in Randall Cotgrave's 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English tongues:

abased (as an adjective), accurately, afflicting (as a noun), almug ('algum tree'), anywhither, armour-bearer, backsliding (as an adjective), battering-ram, Benjamite, catholicon, confessing (as a noun), crowning (as an adjective), dissolver, dogmatize, epitomist, escaper, espoused (as an adjective), exactress, expansion, Galilean (as a noun), gopher, Gothic (as an adjective), grand-daughter, Hamathite, infallibility*, Laodicean (as a noun), lapful*, light-minded, maneh (Hebrew unit of account), miscarrying (as an adjective), Naziriteship, needleworker, night-hawk, nose-jewel, palmchrist, panary ('pantry'), phrasing (as a noun), pruning-hook, rosebud, rose of Sharon, Sauromatian, shittah (type of tree), skewed, taloned* (as an adjective), way-mark ('traveller guide'), whosesoever, withdrawing (as an adjective)

I say 'for the record'. This is one of the less-publicized benefits of a blog. There's no way I'd be able to draw the attention of Stories of English readers to the update otherwise. There may never be a second edition of the book, and Penguin isn't going to publish an updated edition just because some new facts have emerged requiring revision on pp. 328-9. So, all hail to blogs, as an updating procedure.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On looking well

A correspondent writes to say that she has found such sentences as these on the internet:

Keeping these things in mind, you can look well in black dresses.
Peasant tops look well on small busted girls.

She goes on: 'I was always taught that to look good is to be attractive, while to look well is to appear healthy. According to that rule, this use of well would be incorrect. Is there any time when this use of well is acceptable? Is it a regional usage?'

The examples - and there are indeed quite a few of them - suggest that this is an area where usage is changing. I share my correspondent's intuitive preference for good (or great, smart, etc.), and so do three female informants (in their 30s, 50s, and 80s) who happened to be in my house when the email came in. The interesting question is why the change is happening.

I think that well is shifting because of a change in the usage of good. In the early 20th century, look good and listen good emerged in American English in the sense of 'look/sound promising'. The OED has a first recorded usage of 1914. This developed into a general sense of good to mean 'in a satisfactory frame of mind', 'coping well with life', and suchlike. It's most often heard these days in response to a How are you? type of question. I'm well means 'well in health'. I'm good means something like 'things are OK right now'. It's a new semantic distinction in English.

However, it's colloquial, youthful, and originally American, so many older people, especially in Britain, don't like it. (Ironically, pedants who are the first to complain when a semantic distinction is lost - such as the distinction between uninterested and disinterested - are the first to complain when a fresh semantic distinction appears in the language.) And because good has taken on this colloquial resonance when used adverbially, it has made some people sensitive about its use. They may even sense a parallel with such criticized expressions as go slow, where more formal usage requires go slowly. So they look for a more formal alternative expression, and find well available and already being used in a general sense of 'successful'. Indeed, locutions such as go well and do well date from Anglo-Saxon times, actually predating the 'sound in health' sense by a few centuries. So I don't find it at all surprising that people are beginning to say and write It looks well on you, and so on, and would expect it to become more common as time goes by.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

On insulting Brits

Radio 4's 'PM' programme get in touch today to ask for a comment about insult language. Apparently an Iranian minister has described the British as 'not human' and 'a bunch of thick people', eliciting an angry response from our ambassador out there. What did I think about it?

My first thought was that the minister wasn't trying. What an unimaginative pair of insults! The English language has an excellent insult record. He would have done better to look up some Early Scots examples of flyting (insult exchanges) or taken some lines from Shakespeare. He could have used one of those online Shakespeare insult generators which combine real examples into new strings, such as 'villainous reeling-ripe deformed clapper-clawed hornbeasts'. That would have been much more impressive.

I find political insults interesting as an illustration of language change. They invariably reflect situations of conflict or unequal power relations between peoples (as when colonial masters describe those they have subjugated or indigenous majorities talk about immigrant minorities). What intrigues me is their longevity, or lack of it. Most are likely to be temporary, going out of use when political relations change, but some gain a permanent place in the language. Many of the following examples are either unknown today or have lost their sting. A few are still with us, with usage wavering depending on the sensitivities of the users to political correctness.

The 17th-century conflicts with the Dutch were the original stimulus for dozens of expressions, such as a Dutch widow (a prostitute), a Dutch auction (where the prices are initially high), a Dutch reckoning (a lump sum without a detailed breakdown), a Dutch concert (several tunes played together), a Dutch bargain (made in drink), and a Dutch feast (where the host gets drunk before the guests do). I could go on - Dutch courage, double Dutch, Dutch comfort... Similar lists could be compiled about the Germans, the French, and so on, depending on the point in history when they were enemies. Analogous expressions circulated about the English in the other languages, of course.

But one generations's insults can be the next generation's orthodoxy. In the 17th century, a Tory was a really offensive term - a type of Irish bandit or outlaw. The name came to be applied to those who in 1679-80 supported the exclusion of a Catholic James to the English throne. And gradually it entered the political mainstream. Of course, depending on your political allegiance, you might still consider it an insult.

(If you're thinking of listening to the item, don't bother. It was dropped, as a dead donkey. That's often the way, with newsy language topics. They tend to be placed at the very end of a programme, viewed as light-hearted pieces whose role is to fill a minute or two after the 'serious' items are over. They are therefore prime candidates for being cut, when other items over-run or something more important crops up. For every one piece I've done on the radio, another has been dropped in this way.)

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

On the distant future

A correspondent writes to ask if the English present progressive with future meaning can be used to talk about the distant future. As an example, he cites his father getting retired ten years from now. Can he say: 'I’m setting up my own business when I get retired'?

All the standard accounts stress the imminence of the future event, when using this tense form. Quirk et al (§4.44) do give a non-imminent example:

I'm leaving the university in two years' time.

They stress the need to have the more distant time explained in the context (e.g. when I've finished my studies). But the notion of imminence applies here too. To say I'll be leaving the university in two years' time is a straightforward statement about a future event. To turn this into the present suggests that the speaker sees this event as having some sort of current relevance. The notion of 'current relevance' is usually found with reference to the meaning of the present perfect; but it applies here too.

How to define this relevance? The critical point is that the use of the present progressive implies an element of forward planning. Quirk et al describe it thus: 'future arising from present arrangement, plan, or programme'. It refers to actions brough about by human endeavour. So it isn't possible to say The grass is growing next week. And to say He's dying next week could only refer to an execution. Rodney Huddleston makes a similar point about this form, in the Cambridge Grammar (§4.2.4): 'the future is determinable from the state of the world now'. In other words, there's always an element of scheduling.

So, with these considerations in mind, there's nothing at all wrong with my correspondent's example. The planning element is very much in the forefront of his father's mind.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

On long time no see

A correspondent, having encountered the idiom long time no see, writes to ask what its origin is and if there are any more like it in English.

Nobody knows exactly where it comes from. Earliest reference in the OED is 1900, the context indicating a simplified English being used in conversation with American Indians. It probably caught on through cowboy movies. Certainly it was in US usage long before it arrived in British English. But the same pidgin expression has been noted in several other contact situations, such as Chinese/English, so it may have multiple origins.

Any more like it? Well it's rare to find pidginized expressions becoming part of standard English idiom, but it's not alone. For a start, there's the analogous long time no hear. Then there's the fictitious me Tarzan, you Jane - 'fictitious' as it doesn't actually turn up in the Tarzan books. And this one has a clearly Eastern source: softly, softly, catchee monkey (also heard as slowly, slowly...). I can think of a few others:

monkey see, monkey do
dog eat dog
no can do

and maybe also no go, as in a no-go situation. Any more?

How unusual are these constructions? They're not so far away from the traditional two-part elliptical constructions often heard in proverbial utterances, and still being created today. Some examples:

the more, the merrier
once bitten, twice shy
out of sight, out of mind
penny wise, pound foolish
more haste, less speed
like father, like son
first come, first served
here today, gone tomorrow
waste not, want not
no pain, no gain
garbage in, garbage out

Nor are they far away from those colloquial expressions where the impact relies greatly on ellipsis, such as:

been there, done that
hail fellow well met
twenty-four seven
how come?
yah boo sucks

These can be the stuff of grammatical nightmares.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

On antinyms

I've been asked a couple of times what one calls a situation where a word is used to mean the opposite of what it normally means. I've usually interpreted the question to be about euphemisms, where the aim is to obscure or hide a reality. When people talk about 'passing away' instead of 'dying', or 'collateral damage' instead of 'war casualties', the reality stays the same, but the word alters. But an experience this week has made me think that my correspondents might have had in mind a different category of usage, where the word stays the same but the reality alters - and, moreover, alters to the extent of becoming the opposite of what it originally meant.

My wife and I returned from a trip abroad this week, flying Club World on British Airways. This allows one's luggage to be given a bright orange PRIORITY label, which means that it should be among the first bags to be offloaded at the destination. We arrived at Terminal 5 in Heathrow and waited for our bag. The luggage started to arrive, with priority labels randomly dispersed among the items. The term priority was beginning to lose its meaning, and I'd encountered this many times before. But this time it was different. Regular readers of this blog will recall a previous post about new words, one of which is bagonizing. We bagonized. All other passengers came, took up their bags and went, until eventually we were the only ones left at the carousel. We were just about to leave and file a complaint about a lost bag when, lo, alone and looking rather dejected, our bag stumbled through the portal, waving its PRIORITY label triumphantly. So there we have my example: this was as far away from priority as it was possible to get. The word was the same, but the reality was the opposite. For this linguistic relief, much thanks.

What to call such a phenomenon? I'm inclined to coin a term: antinyms. This was, I hope, a nonce-antinym - though others have now told me of similar experiences. They are of course the life-blood of satirical books, of the kind made famous by Andrew Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, such as apologise 'to lay the foundation for future offence'. I have a feeling there is an airline glossary just waiting to be written.

So: antinym - a word whose referent becomes the opposite of its original sense. There are many examples of this happening over long periods of time - such as wicked or wonder moving from 'bad' meanings to 'good' meanings. What I'm wondering is how often this sort of thing occurs synchronically. Maybe synchronic antinyms only occur in contexts of bad vs good practice or incorrect data. The railway station sign that says the 8.32 is 'on time' when it is now 8.40. The electronic road sign that says 'congestion' when there is congestion no longer. Such phenomena are transient, yet they recur to the extent of becoming expected events. I'd be interested to see some more examples.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

On since/ago

A correspondent writes to ask whether it is possible to use sentences like I've been studying English since four years ago and Since three years ago, I've had several accidents.

It must be possible. The question wouldn't be coming up at all if people weren't being heard to use such sentences. What has happened, of course, is that there is a clash between the usage and the rule that is widely taught in grammar books.

The rule says that since and ago are incompatible, because since refers to an event that has current relevance whereas ago refers to a completed event in the past. Another way of putting it is when teachers say that ago is looking from the present towards the past, whereas since is looking from the past towards the present. There appears to be a clash of logic: people can't be doing the two things in the same sentence, goes the argument.

But of course they can. It's the same issue that arose when I discussed ago with present perfect have in an earlier post. It's perfectly possible to switch or conflate different points of view in a single sentence, especially in speech. And people have been doing this with since/ago for ages, both in phrases and clauses. In As You Like It (2.7.24) we hear Jacques reporting Touchstone saying 'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine'. In 1633, a character in John Ford's play The Broken Heart (3.5.63) says 'Tis long agone since first I broke my heart'. There's also a parallelism between ago and since which dates from the Middle Ages. Here's an example recorded in the OED, from Caxton (1489): 'Long time since... shee fell sick and died'.

The usage isn't as illogical as traditional grammars suggest. The logic goes something like this:

I haven't seen John since 2009.
2009 is a year ago.
Therefore, I haven't seen John since a year ago.

And this is how we most commonly hear the usage.

Every day, since a year ago today, I've been writing in my diary...
I haven't been this happy since a year ago.
Retail sales figures show consumer spending trend at highest since a year ago.
Costs have halved since a year ago.

There are over 2 million hits for 'since a year ago' on Google, several in quite formal written contexts, such as financial reporting. So, I have to conclude that there are two rules in English relating to ago and since, not one:

I want to say that a completed event in the past, expressed through ago, has no current relevance: I don't use since.

I want to say that a completed event in the past, expressed through ago, does still has current relevance: I do use since

Monday, 28 June 2010

On needed words

A guest appearance on BBC Radio 4's 'Saturday Live' last week has initiated a flurry of correspondence, and the only place to focus it seems to be this blog. Once again it is the ludic propensity of language that has grabbed the popular imagination - in the same way that the 'foreign catch-phrases' theme (see my last post) has done.

As always, it is a passing remark that sparks the interest. The presenter asked me whether there were lost words in the language that ought to be resuscitated. That brought to mind the examples I encountered when I was editing an edition of Dr Johnson's Dictionary a few years ago, so I mentioned one: fopdoodle, meaning a foolish dandy, or prig. Well, everyone thought it was a wonderful word - even the continuity announcer at the end of the programme, who described the producer as a fopdoodle.

And one thing leads to another. Inevitably, it was 'words that the English language needs that we don't currently have'. This is a very familiar one, for me. When I was doing English Now back in the 80s this proved to be the most popular competition of all. There was no shortage of suggestions then - I put a selection into my Language Play - and it seems there is no shortage today. Of all the suggestions in those days, the one I thought the language most needed was the word which describes my state of mind when waiting for my luggage to appear on the airport carousel. Everyone else's turns up straight away. So, one is - 'bagonizing', to my mind.

Do such words ever get into the dictionary? Some such spontaneous creations have - such as blurb, invented during a dinner party. And bagonize has 600 entries in Google now! So, who knows?

Anyway, the point of this post is to offer a location for anyone whose urge to create a new word in a language (not just English) is uncontrollable. Already my email inbox has a flood. Here's one, to illustrate. Adrian writes to say 'When I wake up in the morning my hair sometimes points upwards in a curled peak as in the cartoons of a boy detective. I have realised I suffer from tintinnitis'.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

On foreign ludicity

A correspondent from the US has sent me the list of winners in a recent New York Magazine contest in which you had to take a well-known expression in a foreign language, change a single letter, and provide a definition for the new expression. A few years ago, the Washington Post did a similar thing for English words, which I reported in my Language Play. It's good to see ludic linguistic ingenuity alive and well, and engaging with foreign languages - though I wonder, in this day and age, what proportion of the population will get the jokes.

Here's my top ten selection from the winners.

Can you drive a French motorcycle?

Lost in the mail

I came, I'm a very important person, I conquered

The cat is dead

Honk if you're Scottish

The king is dead. No kidding.

Support your local clown

Our cat has a boat

Fast French food

Out of any group, there's always one asshole

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

On plural adjectives

A correspondent writes to ask why we say a drinks cabinet and not a drink cabinet, given that people use the singular form of nouns when they function as adjectives - a price list, a shoe box, and so on - even if the entities involved are more than one. He adds: 'As a teacher, I have always taught the rule that there are no plural adjectives in English - the big men, the young ladies, etc. - and therefore when a noun acts as an adjective it should not take an s.'

It's true that attributive nouns are normally neutral with respect to number; so we say Toothpaste protects against tooth decay, even though we're talking about all our teeth, I sat in an armchair, even though the chair has two arms, and a five-pound note, a three-year-old child, and so on, even though in postmodifying position the expressions would be plural - a child of three years, a note worth five pounds. But there are several kinds of exception, which are very common in British English and unusual in American English.

When people talk about a concept that is an institution or organization, the tendency is to keep the plural form, and this is especially so when there's a semantic contrast with the singular form:

an examinations committee
a prints and drawings exhibition
the heavy chemicals industry
the Obscene Publications Act
an arts degree [vs an art degree]
a careers administrator [someone who looks after careers in an institution] vs a career administrator [someone who has gone in for administration as a career]

The plural is also likely when there's a contrast between generic ('kinds of') and specific meanings. This is where drinks comes in, for a drinks cabinet means 'a cabinet in which various kinds of drink are to be found'. Other examples are entertainments listing and savings bank. And nouns which don't have a singular (in a particular sense) keep their ending:

clothes basket
arms race
Commons decision
honours degree
mains adaptor
contents list

Stylistic factors are also involved. Newspaper headlines in particular like to use adjectives attributively, as it saves space. So we encounter such headlines as:

Strikes issue back on the table
Recordings compromise reached

There's quite a bit of individual variation, though:

grassroot(s) level
saving(s) account
system(s) analyst
wage(s) freeze
communication(s) network
archive(s) administrator

And, actually, drinks cabinet is a further example, with some firms advertising drink cabinets these days (as a Google search quickly shows). It's an interesting area of language change, especially with American English usage influencing British English.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

On useful tautology

A correspondent from the Guardian has asked what is to be made of David Cameron's reported comment that 'Our success will be the measure of our success' - also reported as 'This will succeed through its success'. Reporters have picked on this, and other remarks such as 'All the questions were rather subjecty subjects', as evidence of a new linguistic style, dubbed 'Cameronisms'. In fact, there's nothing new about them at all.

Let's take the 'success' example first. Tautology is usually thought of as something to be avoided. But there are occasions when saying the same thing twice actually has a purpose. We need to 'state the obvious', and in so doing, say something that is not obvious at all. If I return from a restaurant, and somebody asks me what the food was like, and I say 'You get what you get', that is saying more than what the words suggest. The food was pretty ordinary. There are dozens of cases like this.

It's as long as it's long.
It takes what it takes.
A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
I'll be ready when I'm ready [and not before!]

Why do we say such things? The usual intention is to halt a dialogue. The speaker doesn't want to go into any further detail. There's no more to be said.

Depending on the context, these remarks can be interpreted in various ways (which in linguistics would be part of the subject of pragmatics). They could be an avoidance strategy: 'I don't want to go into this any further'. They could be an assertive strategy: 'Don't ask me pointless questions when I've got a job to do'. And there are other possibilities. A lot depends on the tone of voice in which the words are said.

We learn the value of tautology at an early age. Children encounter it all the time.

'Why is it time for bed, mummy?' 'Because it's time for bed.'
The beanstalk was as big as big could be.

The success example reminds me a little of the kind of word-class conversion which is such an important part of English grammar, and which is an important feature of Shakespeare's style. 'Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle', says the Duke of York to Bolingbroke (in Richard II). As the Guardian reporter put it, rather cheekily, Cameron may have more in common with Shakespeare than George Bush. I'd rather say that what Cameron is doing here is echoing a proverbial strand of the language: 'Nothing succeeds like success' - one success will lead to another.

Nor is there anything new about the formation subjecty. A -y suffix means 'having the qualities of' the noun to which it is added, or 'full of' the noun. Rainy and wintry date from Anglo-Saxon times. Among dozens of later examples we find milky, leafy, and noisy. Modern coinages include doggy and horsy. Some are awkward: skyey, treey. Again, there are echoes of Shakespeare, who liked to coin words such as vasty, steepy, and plumpy.

So, a 'subjecty subject' would be a subject that is characterized by a recognized subject-matter, or one that has already been explored to the full, or one that requires more exposition than there is currently time to go into, or other such meanings. We'd have to explore the context to determine exactly what Cameron meant. But, whatever he meant, the novelty of the phrase may guarantee it a place in the catch-phrases of the next decade - much as Donald Rumsfeld's 'known unknowns' did for him a few years ago.

Friday, 23 April 2010

On the M Quarto of Macbeth

Following the amazing discovery of the H Quarto of Hamlet (see the post for 21 August 2007), I now use the occasion of Shakespeare's birthday to reveal another startling find: fragments of the M Quarto of Macbeth, which were reported at the annual meeting of IATEFL in Harrogate earlier this month. Two fragments of what seems to have been called Macbeth's Murderous Mayhem have so far been discovered - the opening witches scene, and the speech which begins 'Is this a dagger that I see before me...'.

Act 1, Scene 1
Enter magical menage-a-trois
Magus 1: More meetings, magic-mates,
Maybe mid meteorological monsoons?
Magus 2: Moment melee-muddle's managed,
Military match mediated.
Magus 3: Momentarily.
Magus 1: Mise-en-scene?
Magus 2: Moorland.
Magus 3: Meet Macbeth.
Magus 1: Metamorphosing, Mousy-Malkin.
Magus 2: Magician-mate murmers.
Magus 3: Minute!
All: Marvels manifest malodorousness, malodorousness manifests marvels;
Meander midst mist, mucky medium.

Act 2 scene 1

Enter Macbeth
Machete meeting me?
Midpoint marking my mitt? Manipulate...
Merde! Missed! Mirage maintaining mien.
Maybe mortiferous manifestation masterable?
More merde! Misapprehension, mistake,
Molten medulla manifesting mental mirage.
Mm? Marshall'st me? Motivating my movements?
Mamma mia. Mistaken madness. Mighty misconception!
Macabre monarch-murder makes me muse.
Mistrust melodramatic mirage.
My mind, make me militant, martial.
Mucho manslaughter, mortal massacre.
Bell rings
Move, Macbeth. Melody manoeuvres me.
Mishear, Monarch. Mayday, Mayday!
Maybe marvellous merriment, maybe miserable moan.
Make my month, monc!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

On being orient(at)ed

A correspondent writes to ask if it should be disoriented or disorientated.

The answer partly depends on where you live. If you're American, you're in no doubt that it must be the shorter form; and according to Pam Peters (in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage) the same preference is found in Canada and Australia. Some US style guides go so far as to say that orientate is simply incorrect. That's going too far, as British English uses both, with a noticeable preference for the longer form. However, overall (globally speaking), the dominance of the longer form is evident: Google has orient 65 million vs 4 million, disorient 1.2 million vs 0.2 million.

The usage issue is relatively recent. For quite a while there was only the shorter form: the OED gives a first recorded usage for disorient in 1655, and for orient in 1728. The first recorded use of the longer forms is 1704 (for disorientate) and 1848 (for orientate). The new verb probably arose as a result of the associated nouns. Orientation (1839) and orientator (1844) preceded orientate, and the new verb usage would have been reinforced by the arrival of disorientation (1860). Certainly, by the end of the 19th century both verb forms were available.

Fowler has no separate entry on either word in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). We might think he would favour orient, because in his entry on 'Long Variants', he advises the use of shorter alternatives, as in prevent(at)ive, cultiv(at)able. On the other hand, in The King's English, orient is criticised as a 'Gallicism'. In his revision of Fowler's Dictionary (1965), Ernest Gowers (thinking of British English) suggests that orientate 'is likely to prevail in the common figurative use', i.e. with reference to goals rather than physical direction. This is an important distinction. We are more likely to say The course is orientated towards linguistics than The basilica is orientated towards the east.

On speaking music

A correspondent writes to ask if singing is ever used in speech. She isn't thinking of intonation, sometimes described in a metaphorical way as the musical property of speech - ‘metaphorical’, of course, because our voices don't need to be tuned to concert pitch before we begin a conversation. She has in mind something rather less obvious - musical quotations or catch-phrases, where a musical extract is given a generalized linguistic interpretation.

Yes, there are instances. I've heard people sometimes say Hallejuah! when a satisfactory outcome has been achieved, but instead of saying it they sing it as the opening bars of the chorus from Handel's Messiah. I can't think of many like that. Rather more common is the vocal rendition of orchestral fragments. A contemporary example is the theme from Jaws. The jocular expression of an approaching dangerous social situation is often conveyed by people sounding out its ominous low-pitched glissando quavers. It forms part of a dialogue that is otherwise speech, and it's meant to be judged by the same standards. Nobody thinks of it as an attempt to artistically render the original musical score.

I've collected several examples of this kind in conversational settings: the theme from the Twilight Zone, Dr Who, Dragnet, the shower-room scene in Psycho, Laurel and Hardy’s clumsy walk music, the riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The extract is usually highly stereotyped and brief. It may be just a couple of notes. Someone who arrives in a room with something special to show may accompany it with ‘Ta-raa’, or the fanfare from a racecourse. I've heard people use the whistled motif from Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western films and the chase music from a Keystone Kops film. Devotees of The Prisoner cult TV series (the original one, not the Hollywood remake) introduce its brief musical motifs into their speech to the point of boredom. TV ads can prompt the use of a tune. I'd be interested to hear of other cases.

What is linguistically interesting is that some of these excerpts make sense even if the participants have never encountered (or have forgotten) the original version. The Jaws theme, for example, has taken on a life of its own - a musical idiom expressing mock danger. In such cases, the semantic interpretation is clear. On the other hand, in cases such as the Dr Who theme, the function seems to be pragmatic rather than semantic - to build rapport among people who have shared a cultural experience. Some of the examples may be very transient, therefore, and (as in the case of TV ads) may not make sense outside of the regional setting in which they were first heard.

Phoneticians have problems with these things. They aren't easy to transcribe, not least because they use an absolute musical scale, whereas speech uses a relativistic scale. It doesn't make sense to think of people as speaking 'out of tune' (though some prosodic disorders in speech pathology might aptly be described in that way). Try transcribing the theme from Jaws, and you'll see the problem straight away.

Friday, 2 April 2010

And now for something completely different

A correspondent writes: 'I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding beginning sentences with the coordinating conjunction and. I see it being used more and more regularly in the media and in texts. As an English Language teacher I am wondering if I should just accept it? I was always taught never to start a sentence with this word. Am I being too 'prescriptive'?'

Well, yes, in a word. But 'used more and more regularly?' Not a bit. It's always been used in that way, from the very beginning of the language. It's one of the most noticeable features of Old English. We find sentences beginning with and in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Macaulay, and in every major writer. Take this sequence from the opening chapter of King James:

1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

It goes on like that. All but two of the verses in the first chapter of Genesis begin with And.

So where on earth did the distaste of initial and come from? It was during the 19th century, when some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children often overused them. It's certainly a common feature of early story-writing style, because the children are replicating in their writing the style of everyday spoken narrative, which is full of ands. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, the teachers banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should 'never' begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some evidently still are.

There was never any authority behind this condemnation. It isn't one of the rules laid down by the first prescriptive grammarians. Indeed, one of those grammarians, Bishop Lowth, uses dozens of examples of sentences beginning with and. Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, went so far as to call it a 'superstition'. He was right. Joining sentences in this way has been part of the grammatical fabric of the language from the very beginning.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On having done something yesterday

An Australian correspondent writes to say that he's encountered sentences like I have been to the cinema yesterday which, he says, would be 'completely out in British English'. It seems like a natural development, he adds, but asks: 'isn't this against the "rules" of simplicity, which languages are so keen to comply with? Isn't it more "economical" to use simple structures than complex ones and aren't languages prone to such economy?'

I don't think economy has anything to do with it. Simplicity is only one factor in promoting language change, and is not always the determining factor. Issues of identity and clarity, for example, can motivate the maintenance of a more complex construction.

'Completely out' in British English? Not so. I use this kind of construction regularly. All that has happened is that the aspect has shifted, which is perfectly normal in spontaneous speech. At the beginning of the sentence, the notion of current relevance is in the forefront of the speaker's mind; at the end of the sentence, it isn't, thus allowing the use of such adverbs as yesterday. One can even renew the current relevance meaning, as in a response to Have you been in touch with John about what he owes me? It could begin: Yes, I've spoken to John yesterday, and ... Now, what will come next? I've told him what you said or I told him what you said? It all depends on whether the have spoken bit is in the forefront of our mind (in which case we'll probably stay with the present perfect) or whether the yesterday bit is (in which case we'll probably switch to past).

All this is for spontaneous colloquial speech, of course, where sudden changes of thought are normal, but I think people are more likely to follow the traditional constraint in formal speech and in writing. I would myself. But even in everyday speech a lot depends on the semantics of the adverbial.

I've seen him yesterday.
I've seen him a day ago.
I've seen him a week ago.
I've seen him six months ago.
I've seen him last year.
I've seen him 10 years ago.

For me, these are increasingly unacceptable because increasing strain is being placed on the notion of current relevance.

The system does seem to be slowly changing. Or perhaps I should say 'reverting', for there are examples of ago with a present perfect in Middle English -in Chaucer, for instance. And there's probably some pressure coming from the modal construction (I should have done it yesterday).

Friday, 19 March 2010

On the dangers of Facebook

A correspondent writes to ask if linguistics has anything to offer in relation to the recent Facebook paedophile scandal and all the current discussion about panic buttons.

Of course it does. Indeed, the point has already come up on this blog, when I was talking about internet applications a few years ago (March 2007). In 2003 I developed an application called Chatsafe, using a technology I call a sense engine, which carried out a linguistic analysis of a conversation in order to identify dangerous or sensitive content. It worked fine. It processed a conversation in real time, and as dangerous content built up it would warn the user (or the user's parents) that there was a potential problem. The system needed a lot of testing, using real paedophile conversations, and as it's virtually impossible to get this kind of research done safely without clearance, I approached the Home Office. They said they'd get back to me but didn't. I approached a UK university department that specializes in such things and had a meeting with one of the researchers. No subsequent interest. I sent the idea to a mobile phone company after a scandal there. No response. A couple of years ago I sent it to a US child protection conference. Never heard anything further. I had hoped that someone somewhere would be following up the leads, but the Facebook disaster suggests not. I'd send it to Facebook now if I could work out how, but they hide their senior management contact procedure very well.

It's all very well offering a panic button, but how do you activate it? It's not enough to leave it up to the individual recipient, who may not be aware of a problem until it's too late. One needs an independent method. And as it's impossible for all conversations to be checked manually, it has to be done automatically.

Maybe that lass would be alive now if a system like Chatsafe had been used. That's why I'm writing this post. Maybe someone out there knows how to alert the social networking agencies to the relevance of a linguistic approach. It hasn't been for want of trying, on my part, and why the organizations most closely involved in this awful subject are ignoring the potential that linguistics has to offer is quite beyond me.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

On a forthcoming exhibition

A correspondent, having noticed February bloglessness, asks if I am still alive. Yes, but a combination of travelling and deadline has kept me out of the blogosphere for a while. The reason for the deadline is interesting, though, and readers of this blog might like an early alert to a forthcoming exciting event.

The British Library is presenting its first English language exhibition later this year. It will run from mid-November to early April. In fact, I don't know of any similar exhibition anywhere else in the world. This seems to be a genuine first.

'Similar' is the operative word. How could anything be 'similar' to the BL? I've been helping to curate the exhibition, and am putting together the book which will accompany it (hence the deadline), and one of the amazing perks has been the chance to go deep inside the Library, visiting areas that one normally never gets a chance to see. And seeing at first hand what an extraordinary collection it houses. The collections in the lower floor strongrooms seem to go on for ever - boxes, books, and box files of all shapes and sizes containing most of what you've ever heard of in British literary history.

It became surreal after a while. What did I think should be in the exhibition and the book? I reflected on all the major literary and linguistic moments in the history of the English language, such as the ones I talk about in The Stories of English - Beowulf, Aelfric's Colloquy, Caxton, Chaucer, Paston letters, Tyndale, First Folio... - and they are all there. I prepare a wish-list with one of the brilliant BL staff, and he makes arrangements for a visit to the relevant collection. There I meet the curator, who seems to know where everything is. 'You don't also happen to have...?' 'Oh yes that's over here somewhere...' and he is there unerringly. Moreover, he is able to take me through an old text with an awareness that saves huge amounts of time. Many early manuscripts have been bound into huge volumes, and he knows exactly where the particular text I'm interested in (such as the medieval poem 'The Owl and the Nightingale') is located. He also makes suggestions about pages of particular interest - pages which, as far as I know, have never been seen in public before. Several of these will be in the exhibition and the book.

Curators love a challenge. See a First Folio of Shakespeare? Bo-ring. A first edition of Caxton? Oh come on, ask me something difficult. All right, then, the unique copy of Tyndale's fragmentary bible, the one that survived the fires that burned all the others? That required a journey into the huge middle tower of the BL containing the King's Library (of George III), which is what visitors to the library see in front of them when they enter the building. But it was there, fragile, silent, open to view. I like to think I have molecules of some of these books on my hands still. I don't want to wash them off.

It's not just the famous items that are of interest, of course. The BL has amazing collections of ephemera, such as the Evanion collection of 19th century posters and advertisements. People sometimes forget that these are just as important, as a guide to linguistic history, as are the classical works of literature. They also have great collections of regional and world literary history, and, with such topics as dialects and global English important themes of the exhibition, it was important to explore some of those resources too.

The BL doesn't have everything. Cawdrey's 1604 Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is in the Bodleian at Oxford. But it will be borrowed to be a part of this exhibition. In some cases, though, borrowing isn't possible. The Exeter Book, which contains so much Anglo-Saxon material, has to remain safely in Exeter. But at least I'll be able to use a photograph of a page in the book. And a good-sized picture, too. That's the point of the book, to provide full-colour large illustrations of these iconic works, so that they can be read and used in a practical way by those wanting to really read them, or to study them as part of a course in the history of the language. I never saw pictures of most of the texts I was studying, when I was an undergraduate. Just the occasional black-and-white example, or a thumbnail size picture. I could only imagine what an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle really looked like. Or all the faces of the Franks Casket. Or a Paston letter. Things can be different today. There'll be an online presence too, whose character is still being decided.

English language scholars, students, and enthusiasts - which means most people - will be indebted to the British Library for its initiative in developing this exhibition. Yet I understand the Library is soon going to suffer from the same crazy preoccupation with cuts that is devastating the universities right now. Staff are going to go and services chopped. Any government that allows this to happen to a library service of such huge public significance has, to my mind, undoubtedly lost its way.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

On linguistic dreams

A correspondent writes to tell me of a linguistic dream he just had. As follows:

'I had a dream the other night with Significant Linguistic Content. It started out as the standard nightmare (mercifully infrequent these days) that I was teaching in a secondary school, as was the case long ago. But things improved and softened: the kiddies (11-year-olds, I’d say) were nice, and their music teacher, a fiftysomething German lady, came in and asked me would I mind if they practised the song that they were working on. I assented readily, and they sang a couple of verses of a song in German, about which I can remember nothing save that it was very sweetly done. I thought they deserved complimenting and encouraging, so I said to them “Ihr singet sehr gut auf Deutsch”.
I should explain that my German is far from good (I came to it very late), but they seemed to understand, and smiled and giggled pleasedly. I followed that up with “Wie heißt das Gesang?”.
Quick as a flash, the music teacher corrected me. “Der Gesang”, she said, entirely amicably; and I remember nothing after that.
Now, I was under the impression that German nouns that start with Ge- were uniformly neuter, so when I woke up I thought I’d better check it out in a dictionary; and, blow me, it is der Gesang. Now, what I can’t understand is how it’s possible to dream a person who knows the rules of a language better than one does oneself! Any thoughts?'

Not really - which is why a blog post might help. The only thing I can think of is that my correspondent must have encountered this correction before, and it impressed him at the time (as it did in his dream), and he's now forgotten all about it.

It's certainly possible to forget whole chunks of one's earlier linguistic life. I remember meeting an aphasic patient in his 70s who had lost his English very largely but who was able to produce some words in a foreign language. He himself denied he knew any of this language, and his wife had never heard him speak it, nor had they ever been to a country where it was spoken. But it eventually transpired he had lived in such a country for a while as a young child. And there was an interesting paper in the Journal of Child Language last year suggesting that some components of early childhood language memory can remain intact despite many years of disuse.

Sad to say, I don't recall ever having had a linguistically interesting dream. I can't be trying. But I'd like to hear of any others. I can't think of anything in the literature on this topic. Do phoneticians dream in accents? Do grammarians dream grammatically? Do lexicographers dream alphabetically? It's a whole new research domain: dreamlinguistics.

There's a thought. All those students who fell asleep in my lectures, over the years. Maybe they were doing research all the time.

And maybe that's what Chomsky's 'sleeping furiously' really meant.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

On language and colic

A correspondent writes to ask whether singing to her baby will help when it's colicky.

The power of song over babies has long been recognized. The word lullaby has been in the English language since the Middle Ages - one of several, such as rockaby and hushaby, which show how generations of mothers and caretakers have helped their children fall asleep through music.

But music has greater power than this. As any adult knows, music has the power to engage all the emotions - from excitement to relaxation, from tears to laughter. Its power to calm is well recognized. The dramatist William Congreve summed it up in a famous quotation: 'Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak'. But if the breast of adults, then why not the tummies of children?

Why does music have such a power over us? And why, in particular, does it have such an influence on tiny babies? A huge amount of research in infant perception over the past few decades has begun to reveal the answers. And it begins before birth, in the womb.

The womb is actually quite a noisy environment, and from around 30 weeks gestation the ears of the foetus are sufficiently well formed to enable it to hear what is going on. Indeed, the tiny little bones inside our ears, which transmit sound to our brain, are already fully formed by the time we are born. During some types of gynaecological examination, researchers have inserted a tiny microphone, called a hydrophone, into the uterus, enabling them to hear what the foetus can hear. And what the foetus hears is a great deal of background noise - the mother's heartbeat, the blood sloshing around the arteries, tummy and intestine rumbles, voices and loud noises from outside - and, above all, the mother's voice resonating through her tissues, bones, and fluids. The foetus is asleep a lot of the time, but when awake, its heart rate slows when the mother is speaking - the first evidence of a calming response.

It can't hear everything perfectly, of course. The effect is a bit like listening to a voice with cotton wool in our ears. The voice sounds distant and muffled. But there are certain things the foetus can hear very clearly. It can hear the intonation, or melody, of the mother's voice, and it can hear the loudness and rhythm of her speech. Sound and movement combine: when she laughs, the foetus can be seen to bounce around.

Once the baby is born, people have performed experiments which demonstrate just how much the foetus has heard. Researchers monitor the baby's heart-rate, the amount of cortisol in its saliva, the way it turns its head, the length of time it looks in a certain direction, or the rate at which it sucks on a special kind of nipple. The idea is that if a baby recognizes something, or is specially interested in something, then its heart-rate or saliva cortisol content will alter, or it will turn its head towards a stimulus, or it will look at a stimulus for longer, or it will suck faster.

And this is the sort of thing they've found. Newborn babies, even just a day old, prefer their mother's voice to that of a stranger. The show more interest when hearing their native language as opposed to a foreign language. And if the mother has told the foetus a particular story, during her pregnancy, they show a preference to that compared with an unfamiliar story.

The effect of music emerges too. One study played the same tune to a group of mothers every day throughout pregnancy; another group of mothers didn't hear the tune. When all the babies were born, the tune was played to them. The changes in heart-rate, movement, and general alertness of the 'musical' babies showed clearly that they recognized the tune. To check that it wasn't just a general response to music, the researchers played the babies a different tune, but they didn't react to it. Nor did they react to it when they heard the same tune played backwards!

There seems to be something special about the music of the voice. From the moment the baby is born, the mother - and other caretakers too - start talking to the baby in an unusual manner. That's what we call 'babytalk'. One of its most noticeable features is the way the voice ascends and descends throughout its whole pitch range - almost like singing in speech. And the exaggerated tones stay throughout the first year of life. The mother's voice is higher in pitch, and she speaks more slowly, when addressing the baby than when talking to others, and she is emotionally much more expressive. The effects can be clearly heard when playing simple games, such as peep-bo or round-and-round-the-garden. Games like this also draw attention to the importance of sensory reinforcement - sound, vision, touch, and movement all combine to create the maximum effect - 'and TICKLE him under there!!!'

Not surprisingly, then, the first features of the mother's language that the baby learns to reproduce are its intonation and rhythm. If we record babies' early vocalizations, at around a month or so of age, we cannot tell which language they are learning. Nor can we tell from their cooing or babbling. But at around 9 months the vocalizations start to sound 'shaped', and it's possible to distinguish babies who are learning English from those learning French from those learning Chinese, and so on. This is long before they learn any words, so what is it that we notice? The rhythm and intonation of the languages. The English baby is vocalizing with a 'tum-te-tum' rhythm. The French baby with a 'rat-a-tat-a-tat' rhythm. The Chinese baby with a sing-song rhythm. Why intonation and rhythm? It's no coincidence that these were the very features first perceived in the womb.

Melody, whether of speech or music, seems to be especially significant. Singing holds a special place in the emerging world of babies. They notice it. In one study, six-month-old infants were presented with pictures of their mother while she was singing and while she was speaking. They looked for longer at the singing one, and were less active while they did so, suggesting that they were paying more attention. Other studies show that infants can recognize melodies, even when they are presented at different pitch levels (sung higher or lower) or sung at different speeds. The melodic contour is the thing. Maternal singing, especially, is critical. It's different from normal singing, in that it is slower, higher in pitch, and emotionally more expressive - just like maternal speech.

Singing also simplifies vocal behaviour: words tend to be shorter, sounds are clearer and repeat more often, and they often rhyme. The value of repeated sounds and rhyme is well established, both for children's speech development and also later on in relation to reading. Repeated sounds are a major feature of babbling (babababa, dadadada); early words use them (mama, papa); and parents instinctively repeat syllables (doggie, bunny). Nursery rhymes work so well because they combine several effects - clear rhythm, repeated sounds, and rhyme. The effect of rhyme on babies can be measured from around 7 months. Primitive spontaneous singing can be observed in babies from around 9 to 12 months. When combined with vision, touch, and movement - as when telling a nursery rhyme while rocking a child in a cot or playing on a knee - the effect is extremely powerful. If the baby can see the singer, the effect is even more enhanced.

Maternal singing has a moderating effect on the emotional state of the baby. There are now many reports of music being used to calm sick babies. Music therapy is routine in many premature baby units. It seems to provide them with a safe and positive sensory experience. There is a bonus in that maternal singing seems to have a calming effect on the mothers too. Exploiting the melody and rhythm of song and speech would thus seem to be an ideal way of helping mothers to soothe their babies when need arises.