A question

Being a woman in public life is not without challenge. Female MPs, athletes and actors are subjected to abuse on and offline.

I know why actresses are now called actors but I’m not sure why, in the past, we didn’t use the word athlettes. Is it just because we didn’t have any back when we were coining words?

This isn’t actually useless research

That doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate use of lottery money etc, but this isn’t useless at all:

A study carried out to investigate the so-called ‘Portsmouth accent’ spent more than £30,000 of lottery funding before it concluded there was nothing to discover.

Researchers at Havant and South Downs College spent 10 months examining the dialect of people in Portsmouth and any differences it has from surrounding parts of Hampshire and Sussex.

But in announcing the end of the project, the college conceded that had “not unearthed anything”.

The college was given £34,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund last year to investigate the city’s accent and discover why it was so different to the ‘country’ dialect spoken in nearby areas.

The Pompey dialect includes words such as ‘squinny’, which means to constantly moan and whine, and the insult ‘dinlo’, which infers stupidity.

Hmm, dunno there, I use squinny and I don’t think I’ve ever been there. Sisters were born there (Naval families, eh?). A reasonable assumption, one I’d offer absolutely no proof for, would be that some of those words move over into standard naval speech.

However, how the accent differs will be obvious enough. Urban accents tend to be faster versions of the surrounding rural ones. Tend note, tend. Twerton is a very fast version of Somerset etc.

As to the value, those students have learnt a great lesson. The vast majority of all research projects find nothing notable. This applies wider – the vast majority of all business adventures fail dismally. Failure is the modal outcome for all human adventures. That’s worth learning, no?

Fun question

Is there a poor country that speaks English?

Not Indian style English, bit flowery. But something akin to either English or American but is also a poor place with low incomes?

Can’t really think of any myself. Anyone?


As it turned out, Roosevelt had things almost perfectly backwards. A century of immigration has done little to dislodge the status of English in North America. If anything, its position is stronger than it was a hundred years ago. Yet from a global perspective, it is not America that is threatened by foreign languages. It is the world that is threatened by English.

What conceivable threat is there to the world that people have a common method of communication?

Other than whitey – you know, us – imposing himself again.

And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.

Which is to misunderstand how languages work. English is splintering into those dialects as we speak. Because that’s what languages do, they’re not only methods of communication they’re markers of in and out group.

Every day English spreads, the world becomes a little more homogenous and a little more bland.

And every time some kid uses it in a slightly different manner – which some hundreds of millions of kids do each and every day – the lexicon and the language becomes more heterogenous and diverse.

Blimey, anyone would think we’ve not already seen Latin become French, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian (Florentine, Venezo and Sicilian at least being different languages themselves) and so on.

As usual, nothing so conservative as a lefty with a grudge.

Well, no, it doesn’t work that way

Even the sticklers who can spot a stray apostrophe a mile off may struggle over when to use a hyphen.

But help is at hand for those who are unsure of where to put one.

A study of more than 10,000 words, including hyphens, has found that four basic rules will work 75 per cent of the time.

No, not really

If word is a verb, adjective or adverb, it probably needs hyphen (like chain-smoke)

If second part has more letters, it should be spelt as one word (like coastline)

Line has more letters than coast does it?

But more than that, what requires the hyphen changes over time. Two separate words, then with the hyphen, then the migration to the one word. Sure, English doesn’t quite do as German, sticking old words together at the drop of a hat to describe some new thing. Nor does it do as Russian (say) seemingly inventing a new word for every new occurrence. Rather, we do a bit of both, and that agglutinating (?) is something that happens over time, decades.

You know, market system, try things out, see what flies, adopt what works?

And that’s why poetry of course

Gupta leads a group of 20 female “change agents” in Purabgaon. Each of the 360 villages in Amethi covered by the scheme has a team of 20 agents – local women trained to educate other women.

Gupta sometimes changes the lyrics of romantic folk songs to refer to iron supplements, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and breastfeeding. “They find it easier to remember what I’ve told them if they sing it,” she said.

Things are indeed easier to remember if there’s a structure to what you’re trying to recall. Songs work. So does poetry. Indeed, that’s rather the point of rhyme and rhythm in those long pieces like Homer and Beowulf. To aid the teller of the story in recalling it. The need for the two acting as a prompt to memory.

Making the song part of this education not a new thing at all, but rather the very thing which has preserved ancient, pre-literacy, culture for us.

This isn’t going to work, is it?

Native French speakers comprise little more than 1 per cent of the world’s population, leaving it 18th in the global league table beside Korean and the Indian language Marathi.

But President Macron, well known for his ceaseless political ambition, has turned his attention to making French the first language of Africa and even the most spoken tongue in the world.

As it happens a cousin is a translator at The Hague. French being one of his languages. And he will wax lyrical about exactly why this will not happen. Academie Francaise. For the French spoken not in France is, as with Singlish and all the rest, diverging from that on the Mainland. To the point that trials are translated by people who have proven competence in, say, Congolese French, or CAF etc, rather than “French.”

His point being that the AF is trying to nail the language to one version, something that just doesn’t happen with dispersed languages.

You know, I don’t think much of Babbel

Con questa app creata da più di 100 esperti linguistici riuscirete a parlare una lingua straniera in 3 settimane

Negli uffici di Babbel c’è un team di esperti linguistici che lavora per voi per creare la migliore esperienza di apprendimento possibile. Siete curiosi di sapere perché funziona?

That’s an ad which Salon has shown me. For those without Italian, a very rough translation.

100 experts have created this app which will teach you a foreign language in 3 months. The official Babbel team of linguistic experts have worked for you to create the best experience possible. And so on and blah blah.

OK, fair enough. But then, well, a reasonable assumption is that they’re looking at where I am and then showing me the ad in my local language. There’s not much point in showing an ad in Italian to someone who doesn’t speak that language (and no, recent surfing hasn’t taken me anywhere that might indicate I do speak Italian).

The local language where I am is Portuguese, Italy is 1,000 miles away.

And how much weight should we put on the value of a language app that cannot even show ads in the right language?

Punctuation matters

Pompous Stupidity

Oliver Kamm…….

Not the best opening for a piece complaining about word redundancy there T Newman. However:

Now the article he links to is a bit crap, but so is Kamm’s dismissal of it. The biggest error the columnist makes is equating stylistic preferences with grammar, which despite Kamm’s complaints about people doing this has nonetheless gifted him a regular column with which to share them.

Regardless of the other points the columnist makes, he is right to advise against using the term “very unique”. If I saw such a pairing I’d think the author ought to have found a better description, or – if it was unique – to drop the “very”. Kamm’s argument seems to be that if a famous writer has used it, then everybody else can too. This is idiotic. In Charlotte Brontë’s case, the overall quality of her output allows her to use pretty much any term she likes. But not everyone is Charlotte Brontë and if their work does not match her standard, they have less leeway.

Well, yes, but:

“That’s very unique”


“That’s very, unique

Have rather different meanings. Punctuation matters….

The Germans do indeed have a problem here

One of Germany’s most prominent politcians has launched an oustpoken attack on the increasing use of the English language in every day life, and called for a crackdown.

“Co-existence can only work in Germany if we all speak German,” Jens Spahn, seen by many as a potential successor to Angela Merkel, said. “We can and should expect this from every immigrant.”

Mr Spahn, currently junior finance minister, reserved his greatest anger for the growing number of people who work in the German capital despite speaking no German.

“It drives me up the wall the way waiters in Berlin restaurants only speak English,” he told Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper.

Comparing Germans’ often relaxed attitude to the fierce French protectiveness of their language, he added: “You would never find this kind of lunacy in Paris.”

The thing being that the very idea of “Germany” is based on language. Hitler took it all a little far with that talk of “Volk” but there really was a strong 19th century movement that people of the same language were the natural national unit. As with Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and so on. Germany rather became Germany, with a lot of help from Prussian designs, as a result of that underlying idea.

To find that language isn’t quite working as the binding force must hurt to some extent therefore.

That Indian English

At least five ministers from Karnataka have announced plans to tour the state to gather opinion about separate religion status from community leaders and mutt pontiffs.

Eh? Mongrel Popes?

Il Papa in Rome probably would think that any plural would have to include some dodgy breeds, yes.

Turns out that a mutt is a religious community, akin to a monastery, a pontiff the leader of one such. That is, we’re talking about abbots here.

Might I learn something new here?

Petroleum Minister Pradhan felicitates Kashmiri students

Felicitates……is this some interesting sexual practice special to Kashmir? Or Kashmiris? Possibly a threesome involving a Hindu, a Moslem and A Han? Sex while wearing cashmere? While listening to Led Zep (in which case it’s neither very new nor interesting, is it).

Yes, yes, I know, congratulates. But it does sound more interesting, felicitates, doesn’t it?

Interesting word usage

Kashmir separatist leader Asiya Andrabi arrested from her residence in Soura

English English would have “arrested at” as that’s the place where the arrest took place. Indian English “arrested from” presumably as that’s where she was carried away from, kicking and shouting all the while maybe. Which is right is obviously just a matter of local usage. But at a deeper level, which should be right?

I wonder, I wonder

The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic.
‘Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field,’ Jonsson said.
Icelandic ranks among the weakest and least-supported language in terms of digital technology – along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese and Lithuanian – according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages.
Iceland’s Ministry of Education estimates about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.

This is all done by machine learning. Feed great vast gobs of stuff to the machines until they start to recognise it.

Languages which don’t have vast great gobs of stuff aren’t going to get recognised…..

I’ve heard that we’re seeing the same in machine translation. There needs to be a critical; mass of stuff in the language pair to be able to teach the machines.


Van Heusen to enter men’s inner wear, athletic leisure market

Inner wear? Are Indians in the grip of some terrible new fashion? Wear clothes on the inside of your skin?

Ah, no, all is revealed. Inner wear is Indian English for underwear.

There’s a reason for this you silly cow

It is hard not to connect British linguistic reluctance with our endemic national weakness: island arrogance and a half-conscious memory of the days when we were an imperial force. It creates a pleasing but dangerous conviction that our islands are the natural centre of the world, and that we speak a uniquely rich and wonderful tongue which absorbed the best of all others to make something special (there’s a scintilla of truth in that, but no call to be smug). The result is a vague feeling that English is the natural default language, the “normal” one. So if the world wants to speak with us, it will do so in English. We gloss over the fact that the practical truth of this is due to the global dominance of America.

I caricature: but that attitude hangs around like a Channel fog. It’s in tourists assuming that the locals will parlano inglese or habla inglés because they need to sell us stuff, in gap-year interrailers relying trustfully on smartphone translation apps, and in businesspeople who attempt a few halting words of German (possibly in Oslo or Amsterdam, but what the hell) and then relax when their client replies in smoothly excellent English.

Because largely, they do.

And forgive me for this but I am a reasonable case in point. My French is that traditional schoolboy French. I’ve deployed it twice in the past three years. Once to order a sandwich, once to buy a map. And I got it right both times – I think getting the French for “Have you a map?” right at 6 am in some rural French town deserves a medal in fact, given that I really don’t speak the language. My Portuguese takes me shopping as that’s what I need it for. My Czech similarly. My Italian is atrocious but I once found myself with the Czech Radio correspondent to Italy, who had no English, and we chatted amiably for 20 minutes in that Florentine.

In terms of lessons I have none except for that O Level French. And then there’s the biggie – when in Russia it was necvessary to learn Russian well enough to be able to conduct business in that language. So, I did.

But always this has been just by listening to people and repeating – the way we naturally learn languages. Yes, it’s entirely true that with one Romance language the next beomes easier – some words change, lavoro in Italian becomes trabalho in Portugee but a lot of it is just accent. Same with slavic ones, pajalista becomes prosim, some others change properly, krasne becomes chervenyi.

But the real point here is that there’s no point to doing the intense mental work to learn another language unless you need to. Not if your native language is English that is. Even that’s not quite exactly true – most of us have two Englishes, the local and something akin to BBC, we can certainly all understand BBC and near all speakers move closer to it when addressing someone outside that local accent group. (One party trick is to introduce foreigners to a proper Bath accent, well weighted towards the Twerton end of it, at which point even the most fluent English speakers go rather quiet.)

At which point the actual advice that I would give a native English speaker about foreign languages. Learn the damn grammar of your own language first. I don’t – I struggle mightily with the difference between a noun and an adverb let alone anything more complex. I write just from experience, hmm, yes, that looks about right. I know the language, obviously, but I don’t know the structure of it. And it’s that structure which is going to aid you in learning other languages much more than anything else.

To begin with, passing through a place, you can just pick up 20 or 50 or 100 words, that’s just not tough. And if you decide that you’re going to stay in a place then yes, obviously, you’ll want to learn that one language better. But the first thing all and any books are going to do is start with the grammar. This bit of the sentence will change as this bit does and this ending means this tense and that that and so on. And if you don’t already have that mental stucture in place in your own language then you’ll just never, never, get it.

That is, the best preparation for learning any other language is to know English grammar. Because, believe me, the first thing all the books do is assume that you do know grammar as they then try to teach you Portugee, Czech or Russian grammar.