An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ’ear it.

November 19, 2013

The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced “aitch” /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as “haitch” /heɪtʃ/. In my biology years I would always have said “a HLA marker”, never “an HLA marker”. This haitching is a distinctive feature of Hiberno-English, one that may have originated as an a hypercorrection but is now the norm in most Irish dialects.

A search on IrishTimes.com returned 1,946 hits for “a HSE” and 92 for “an HSE” (HSE = Health Service Executive), excluding readers’ letters and three false positives of Irish-language an HSE “the HSE”. Even allowing for duplications, this shows the emphatic preference for aspirating H in standard Hiberno-English. Haitchers gonna haitch.

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Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

October 29, 2013

Warren Maguire, a linguist lecturing at the University of Edinburgh, has told me about a survey he’s conducting into accents of English in Britain and Ireland. It’s been running for a few years, and you can see some preliminary results mapped here.

Maguire is looking for more respondents, especially from Ireland, but you don’t have to be from Ireland or Britain to take part: though other varieties of English aren’t the main research focus, all information will be gratefully received. The more data, the better.

So if you have time, do answer the survey here. It’s not a test, and there are no wrong answers (so long as you’re honest!). It took me about 10 minutes, and it was fun. You’ll be given pairs or sets of words and asked if you pronounce them the same, or if they rhyme to you.

The survey is expected to be completed next year, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the results.


Grammatic innovation, dramatic pronunciation

May 29, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to report. First up, LOL slash grammar, knowmsayin? looks at recent innovations in how people use LOL and slash, among other terms:

Sometimes . . . existing words get repurposed, switching grammatical classes or incorporating new ones: verbs and adjectives are converted into nouns, and vice versa. This attracts predictable criticism, but it’s a thoroughly ordinary process; nounings and verbings are a large part of the everyday formation of new usages.

Other switches are more unusual.

Linguist John McWhorter has noted that the phrase (Do) you know what I’m saying? is not usually the question it might superficially seem to be,

but rather is “a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does”. Given its frequent informal use, the phrase is often compressed into a syllable or two for efficiency. If you search Twitter for nomsayin or knowmsayin, you’ll see how common this is.

I offer a brief synopsis of the broader implications for language (hint: harmless; positive), then the comments extend the discussion: OMG is cited as showing similar semantic drift to LOL, while dot dot dot and full stop are further examples of verbalised punctuation.

You can read the rest here.

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I now pronounce you … Wait, how do I pronounce you? steps back from the recent pavlova palaver over the pronunciation of GIF, to look at other examples of phonological confusion and controversy – and do we place the stress on that word’s first or second syllable?

Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.

A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself.

Since I began with an anecdote from my school days, readers have joined in by sharing stories of pronunciation-related embarrassment and epiphanies (and, included in the post, one of violence). Feel free to add your own.


Two linguistic questions

June 14, 2012

1. By email, Colm O’Brien asks:

Where I used to say things like

“I think this is a good video: http://youtu.be/BhsTmiK7Q2M”

in IM conversations/on Twitter/etc, I’m now finding myself more likely to phrase it as

“I think http://youtu.be/BhsTmiK7Q2M is a good video.”

Is there a name for this kind of substitution — for using a link as a noun? I think it’s interesting because it can’t really be read out loud (especially for longer, more elaborate urls), and also because (unless I’m overlooking something) it only really works with yer moderd’n shtyle of electronic communication. I’m sure there’s probably some kind of older equivalent, mind, just not one I can think of. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

The question interests me, but alas, I didn’t have much of an answer for Colm. I said it was a kind of embedded direct referral, but that this was just me throwing words together and was not a technical term.

When we include a web link in online text, we can embed it in different ways and to varying degrees. For example:

A. I think this is a good video: http://youtu.be/BhsTmiK7Q2M
B. I think this http://youtu.be/BhsTmiK7Q2M is a good video
C. I think http://youtu.be/BhsTmiK7Q2M is a good video
D. I think this is a good video

Obviously D is what’s commonly known as hyperlinking. C is the construction Colm was wondering about. If anyone can suggest (or invent) terms for the practice, or describe what’s going on grammatically, I’d love to hear it.

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2. An artist friend, Annie Silverman, regularly visits Ireland and Denmark, and spent a few years living in the latter country. She asks:

Do you know if there is a name for that small intake of breath that I have noticed some Irish people make and also Danish people make when they are listening and agree and want you to continue talking? At first it sounds like the person is surprised, but it is an affirmation that might be called a “completion probe” like a nod or “ah ha”.

I think I know what she’s referring to, but it’s not something I can remember hearing in a while. It sounds like something I’d call a prompt rather than a probe (and I would transcribe her “ah ha” as “uh-huh”).

On a Language Hat post about click consonants, AJP Crown made the following comment about the same or a similar phenomenon:

I wonder if it [the click] falls in the same linguistic category as the short loud intake of breath that some German & Scandinavian women (but hardly ever men) use, sometimes habitually, instead of saying “yes”.

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Your thoughts on either matter would be much appreciated.


Online IPA keyboards

July 25, 2011

Tomasz P. Szynalski, an English-Polish translator, has created TypeIt, a useful website for typing phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Text can be entered in a range of fonts and with special characters, marks and glyphs from other languages.

/’vɛri ‘hændi ɪn’diːd, ɘnd fʌn tɘ juːz/

I don’t know when it was developed – recently, I think. There are many websites with charts, explanations and audio files of IPA, but few that are designed for immediate online transcription. I like Richard Ishida’s, Weston Ruter’s, Paolo Mairano’s and this Phonemic Chart too, but it’s good to have options. Another: i2Speak.

Thanks to Lauren Hall-Lew, who brought TypeIt to my attention on Twitter.

[Note: I've edited this post slightly to add a couple of IPA tools that were mentioned in the comments.]


Silbo Gomero and whistled languages

June 20, 2011

Whistled languages are found around the world, but they are rare, and few are likely to survive in the long term. A casual listen might suggest little more than a basic code with a modest vocabulary, but whistled languages are rich and complex surrogate languages seemingly capable of expressing just about anything that can be said in the languages from which they derive.

Whistled languages transpose some of the phonetic features of their source languages. Silbo Gomero, based on Spanish, is one of the better known. It is used on La Gomera, a small island of the Canaries with many hills, woods and ravines – terrain well suited to whistles. ‘Silbadores’ can transmit news and other intelligible information over distances of several kilometres.

A silbador whistling down a Gomeran hill

For centuries, Silbo Gomero has served social, practical, and ceremonial functions. Its origins are uncertain, but it is thought to have come from north Africa. Where other whistled languages of the Canaries have died out, Silbo Gomero enjoys a protected status with UNESCO and was recently added to the island’s school curriculum.

Ramón Trujillo, who wrote a book about the Gomeran whistle, said it “has the basic structure of a natural language and serves as its substitute” (translator: Jeff Brent). This point is echoed by Meyer and Gautheron, whose “Whistled speech and whistled languages” (PDF) tells us the whistle is “a vehicle for articulated language in the true sense of the word”. Their paper is a very useful introduction, offering a concise overview of where and why whistled languages arise, how they work, their phonological features, and so on:

Whistled languages have naturally developed in response to the necessity for humans to communicate in conditions of relative isolation (distance, night, noise) and specific activities (social information, shepherding, hunting or fishing, courtship, shamanism). Therefore, they are mostly related to places with mountains or dense forests. Southern China, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon forest, subsaharan Africa, Mexico, and Europe encompass most of these locations.

The ability to use a whistled language is passed down through countless generations as part of a particular region’s oral culture. The whistling, though perplexing to outsiders, is taught, used, and experienced as a natural language by its adepts. Even at a neural level,

areas of the brain normally associated with spoken-language function are also activated in proficient whistlers, but not in controls, when they are listening to Silbo Gomero (Carreiras et al., 2005).

Another fMRI study showed that Silbo Gomero

activates left posterior temporal and inferior frontal regions in persons familiar with the use of this speech surrogate. . . . For subjects unfamiliar with Silbo, language regions are not activated. Our results provided further evidence for the flexibility of the human capacity for language to process a wide variety of signal forms.

Non-profit research association The World Whistles has a website offering audio samples of various whistled languages, along with a wide range of publications. The whistles sound so much like birdsong that I was unsurprised to find an anecdote on Linguist List that “some of the commonly used silbo introductions have been picked up and repeated by birds”.

This page from SIL in Mexico transcribes a whistled conversation about oranges and coffee plants in Sochiapam Chinantec.

Update (Jan. 2013): The BBC reports on Silbo Gomero’s revival.

Finally two videos: a short cheerful clip about Silbo Gomero, from Busuu.com:

And UNESCO’s 10-minute film, which is well worth a look:


Babbling twins

April 8, 2011

Some of you will have seen these videos already: Sam and Ren, fraternal twins, engaged in a conversation of very animated babbling. Regardless of your tolerance for cute-baby videos, the chat is great fun and quite fascinating to watch – especially the second video, which has been watched many millions of times in just a few weeks:

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The boys’ mother is a twin herself, and she shares her family’s adventures here. (After the footage went viral, it wasn’t long before parodies popped up, but I’ve yet to see one worth linking to.) Some of the media coverage suggests the possibility that the twins have a “secret language”, but this is improbable. As Mark Liberman writes in a comment at Language Log,

It seems unlikely that material as phonetically unmodulated as this recording actually contains any communicated lexical material (as opposed to acting out conversational interaction without any propositional content). The “private languages” of siblings are not like this, for an obvious reason: it’s hard to develop an effective human spoken language with only one syllable. . . . It’s possible that variations in timing and pitch are carrying some quasi-lexical information here . . . but I rather doubt it.

Sam and Ren’s discussion might be minimal in its selection of syllables, but the twins show great range of tone, timing, and gesture. They deploy all sorts of conversational skills, and the fact that they are twins means each has a peer at a similar level of development with whom he can practise.

Many of their vocalisations take the form of reduplicated or reduplicative babbling (e.g., da-da-da), but there’s far more communication taking place than just repetition of simple utterances. Hope Dickinson, of the Speech-Language Pathology Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, says the twins are

demonstrating great mimicking of multiple aspects of conversation. . . . One thing they are using wonderfully is turn taking, as in first one “talks” and then pauses and the other responds. . . . There is fantastic rise and fall to their pitch and tones. Sentences or exclamations end loudly and emphatically, and there is also some questioning (rising) intonation. They are using gestures to supplement their talking, much like adults do. Their body distance is even very appropriate for most Americans; not too close, but not too far either.

Already, these twins have a greater command of turn-taking than some adults I’ve encountered, to say nothing of their infectious enthusiasm for, and delight in, simple conversation. Or not so simple. As the great computer intelligence Golem remarked, in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, “Babble can be highly complex!”

Update:

The blog As a Linguist has two excellent posts on the subject: “This just in…babies make noises!” and “I guess you had to be there“. Here’s an excerpt from the former:

We can’t say if the twins at that stage of development really can understand that the behavior they are practicing is language which communicates a very specific meaning. It may very well be that they are simply mimicking the entire behavior – intonation pattern, gestures, and turn-taking – and gaining an understanding that these actions and sounds produce certain results or behaviors when these large, lumbering adult creatures in the house perform them, and maybe they should learn to do the same.


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