Link love: language (6)

July 31, 2009

Phonemic chart, with sounds.


Language in the brains of bilingual people.

Forgotten bookmarks (thanks to K.M. for the link).

A moment of truth in the life of a word.

Watergate’s linguistic legacy.

What begins with “eight” and ends with “two hundred and two”?

A good short review of one of my favourite books about writing.

If language is instinctual, how should we write and teach?

Anthropologist Wade Davis on the destruction of cultures and the loss of languages (video, 22 min.).

Orient or orientate? Either, but…

July 28, 2009

…be aware that some consider orientate non-standard in U.S. English.

Orient (v) and orientate (v) are all but interchangeable. Even the OED entry for orientate is “=orient”. Both words have a literal meaning: “position or align to face east or, by extension, in any specified direction or relative to some other defined data; or ascertain the bearings of”; and a figurative meaning: “bring into a defined relationship to known facts or principles”. There are also technical meanings which have to do with molecular and sub-molecular alignment. Here are some examples:

History orients us to the present.
In the thick fog, only sounds helped him orientate himself.
They began to orient to their new environment.
Plant leaves and stems orientate themselves towards the light.
If the bee orients her waggle* 90° to the left of vertical… (Mark Ridley, Animal Behaviour)
Pressures on management are orientated towards shareholder rather than employee welfare… (JE Parkinson, Corporate Power and Responsibility)

* So far, my favourite phrase of the week.

The shorter verb dates from 1727; the longer one came later, in 1849, when it was printed in the very same journal that seems to have introduced orientation. Since then, orientate has been used by writers such as Aldous Huxley, Margaret Mead, Tennessee Williams, and Randolph Quirk, but this has not stopped it from being criticised.

Bryan Garner calls it a “needless variant”. Other sources are more disparaging still. But Robert Burchfield, after describing the words’ parallel development towards what became in the late 20C a “competition” and a “contest”, tolerantly concludes that “one can have no fundamental quarrel with anyone who decides to use the longer of the two words”. In other words, it is perfectly standard — at least in British English.

Bee waggle dance s

[Image: a bee’s waggle dance, which helps them collectively orient(ate) themselves towards floral cues.]

But as Kenneth G. Wilson writes in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English:

American commentators continue to object to orientate (used more frequently by the British), mainly because orient is shorter but also because the figurative use is outstripping the literal one.

Ernest Gowers anticipated this when, in the revised second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, he wrote that orientate “seems likely to prevail in the common figurative use”, while in The Complete Plain Words he remarked that the figurative use was “passing all reasonable bounds”. The subjects of his scorn — a “client-orientated” service, a “purpose-oriented” building — are of a type that seems even more common today.

Both words are often used — and often interchangeably — as participial adjectives (oriented and orientated). Burchfield cites the OED’s examples of each being preceded by adverbs:

environmentally oriented
psychologically oriented
vertically oriented
politically orientated

and by nouns:

performance-oriented or -orientated
user-oriented or -orientated

For a fuller flavour, have a rummage through the British and American corpora.

The antonyms disorient and disorientate date from 1655 and 1704, respectively; again they are virtually synonymous. The OED states that while both can mean “cause (a person) to lose his or her sense of direction; make confused as to what is true or correct”, the longer verb can also mean “turn from the East, give an alignment other than eastern; change or vary the alignment of”.

In most cases, though, this slight differentiation seems likely to be increasingly eroded, if the development of orient and orientate is anything to go by. Some decades ago, Eric Partridge noted in Usage and Abusage that orientate is correct as an intransitive (“to face in a particular direction”), but that orient is preferable in all other senses. It may be too late for such a distinction.

The Cannibals of Galway

July 24, 2009

At the risk of sensationalising this blog beyond the bounds of credibility – if I ever had any in the first place – this sign was too good to miss. It’s behind a hot-food counter in a supermarket in Galway. Readers of a nervous disposition are advised to look away quickly, before their eyes are drawn to the blood-red sign now only centimetres away…


Stan Carey - cooked hand sign in Dunnes Stores


If you are deeply disturbed by the sinister implications, both corporate and gustatory, imagine my shock as I reeled out of the supermarket, my mind awhirl with the grisliest of possibilities, only to come upon this terrible scene at the docks, mere minutes away (click to enlarge):


Stan Carey - skulls in boat in The Docks, Galway


If I had any doubt, after seeing the contents of the boat, that something gruesome and unspeakable was afoot, it was dispelled by those dark threatening clouds. Even as the sun sparkled on the water in the port, the ominous shapes overhead portended doom and dread. But what does it all mean? Where is Nancy Drew when you need her? And what’s that strange scratching noise coming from next door?

Their puzzling devoutness

July 23, 2009

Two caveats: the law is not my strong point, and structure is not this post’s strong point – I wrote it in a hurried state of discombobulated semi-disbelief – so corrections and points of information are welcome.

Star MakerIn 1937, British historian and philosopher Olaf Stapledon published a science fiction novel called Star Maker. It is a book so imaginative, thoughtful and beautifully written that the great wonder is that it never achieved the same public renown as the works of, say, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells or Arthur C. Clarke. Certainly Star Maker is acclaimed as a masterpiece of science fiction, but its crossover success has been limited: it does not seem to be widely read by people who are not fans of the genre. (I would love to hear reports to the contrary.)

I was recently reminded of Stapledon’s story by the exasperating senselessness of those who saw fit to criminalise blasphemy in Ireland. As the Defamation Bill staggered through the Oireachtas (Irish national parliament), John Naughton examined the constitution of what he called a “backward statelet”, Bock described it as among other things a waste of the Garda Síochána’s time, Jason Walsh offered further analysis and historical context, and Martyn Turner’s satirical cartoons encapsulated the absurdity. In the Irish Times, Eoin O’Dell explained the bill’s dubious constitutionality; in the Guardian, Padraig Reidy observed that “Irish law has now enshrined the notion that the taking of offence is more important than free expression.” Despite an eleventh-hour twist and the best efforts of a newly formed lobby group, the defamation bill was passed today, including the aforementioned provisions on blasphemous libel. The links above are but a small selection of the critical commentary on the matter.

[continue reading]

Swanlike boat, boatlike swan

July 20, 2009

Swanlike boat:

Stan Carey - swanlike boat in Galway

Boatlike swan:

Stan Carey - boatlike swan in Galway

These two photos and the next one were taken last weekend in Galway, Ireland. Photos no.4 to 6 are a bit older. Post edited to add two more photos, one from yesterday and one from March.

Here’s where the boat was (view from Nimmo’s Pier):

[click for more]

Link love: language (5)

July 18, 2009

Arnold Zwicky on the re-nouning of fail.

The role of Google Books in saving texts from oblivion.

And they say it is a capital offence.

Ben Crystal discusses Shakespeare’s accent (mp3, 7 min.).

The language of birds.

Well, um, y’know, it’s, uh, I mean like…

Julian Jaynes: Consciousness and the voices of the mind (PDF, 286 KB).

Pedantry as “an insistence on reasonable accuracy”.

Stephen Fry bubbling and frothing with joy at language (mp3, 33 min.).

[Previously on Link love.]

Unnatural ‘preternaturally’, naturally

July 14, 2009

Last Sunday night I was reading a story called Oke of Okehurst by Vernon Lee in an old Penguin edition of The Supernatural Omnibus, Volume 1: Hauntings and Horror, a terrific collection of occult stories edited and introduced by the enigmatic Montague Summers. (Many of its stories are available online here.)

Lee’s tale is terrifically told, extravagantly descriptive yet precisely controlled, and with a mounting sense of inescapable doom. There is a wonderful passage wherein the narrator, a painter, describes the unconventional beauty of the central character, Mrs Alice Oke:

I don’t believe, you know, that even the greatest painter can show what is the real beauty of a very beautiful woman in the ordinary sense: Titian’s and Tintoretto’s women must have been miles handsomer than they have made them. Something – and that the very essence – always escapes, perhaps because real beauty is as much a thing in time – a thing like music, a succession, a series – as in space. Mind you, I am speaking of a woman beautiful in the conventional sense. Imagine, then, how much more so in the case of a woman like Alice Oke; and if the pencil and brush, imitating each line and tint, can’t succeed, how is it possible to give even the vaguest notion with mere wretched words – words possessing only a wretched abstract meaning, an impotent conventional association? To make a long story short, Mrs. Oke of Okehurst was, in my opinion, to the highest degree exquisite and strange, – an exotic creature, whose charm you can no more describe than you could bring home the perfume of some newly discovered tropical flower by comparing it with the scent of a cabbage-rose or a lily.

This excerpt can be found on pp. 122–124 here.

Further along is a line that remained with me for a less romantic reason: I wasn’t sure whether it was a mistake or an unusual usage:

It was Mrs Oke, her eyes prenaturally bright, and her whole face lit up with a bold, perverse smile.

Here is a photo:

Stan Carey - prenaturally and preternaturally in Oke of Okehurst

It seemed to me that the word prenaturally ought to have been preternaturally. The word prenaturally was unknown to me, and seemed a strange formation, while preternaturally would make sense in the context. In other words it appeared to be a publishing error. (I have seen worse.) However, I was prepared to delay judgement until I could confirm the matter either way. For one thing, the story was written in the late 19th century, and many a word has changed its form since then; for another thing, I was tucked up in bed.

The next day I searched several dictionaries for prenatural(ly), all in vain, while various Google searches returned only a small number of obscure or anomalous usages. It didn’t take long to find several online copies of Oke of Okehurst, and sure enough they all contained the phrase “her eyes preternaturally bright”. Maybe I ought to have searched for that phrase in the first place, but I did want to give Penguin Books the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, in a book full of mysteries it was a pleasure to find a bonus one to solve by myself, even if it was less lurid and more mundane than the others.