John Maidment's Blog

The blog has moved to

16-31 Oct 1-16 Nov 17-30 Nov 1-17 Dec 20 Dec-15 Feb  16 Feb-11 Mar
13 Mar-8 Apr 9 Apr-26 May 27 May-12 Jun 13 Jun-12 Jul    


Tuesday 5 February, 2008

Gerard Manley Hopkins


Perfect imperative

My blog of 31 Jan reminded me of a morphological rarity that occurs in Goethe's poem Der Zauberlehrling. In this, you may remember, the sorcerer's apprentice, while his master is away, decides to practice a bit of magic of his own.  He puts a spell on a broom and orders it to run to the well and to fill a tub with water.  His spell is successful, but he can't undo the spell and stop the broom.  In fact, he makes matters worse by breaking the broom in two and both parts continue fetching water. Finally, the place is swimming in water, when the sorcerer returns and saves the situation.  These are the words he uses to turn the brooms back to what they were:

In die Ecke,
Besen! Besen!
Seid's gewesen.

In the corner
Broom! Broom!
Be what ye were.

The last line of the quotation consists of the plural imperative of the verb to be, followed by the contracted form of es (="it"), and finally the past participle of to be.  So literally Be it been, or better: Have been it.

I know of one, possibly two, instances of this present perfect imperative in English.  The first is again in a poem.  Here are the first lines of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins in which he addresses the departed spirit of the composer:

Have, fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,

In a letter to his friend, Robert Bridges, Hopkins comments: ‘“Have fair fallen.” Have is the sing. imperative (or optative if you like) of the past, a thing possible and actual both in logic and grammar, but naturally a rare one. As in the 2nd pers. we say “Have done” or in making appointments “Have had your dinner beforehand”, so one can say in the 3rd pers. not only “Fair fall” of what is present or future but also “Have fair fallen” of what is past.

One other possible instance of this construction is the phrase: "Have done with it!" i.e. Quit it!


About my query on the voicing at the end of Knab' in Heidenröslein, Nigel Greenwood writes:

My immediate reaction was that it must be [b].  By googling "Heidenröslein audio"
you can find several versions, including one by Fischer-Dieskau, which clearly have

Friday 1 February, 2008


The Pāli text of the Dhammapada



The Dhammapada

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.  If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

Thus begins The Dhammapada, a Buddhist text written in Pāli in the fourth or fifth century.  The translation is by F. Max Müller.  The text is a collection of 423 sayings attributed to Buddha gathered into 26 categories, such as Evil, Earnestness, The Wise Man, The Fool. Most of these categories have to do with living an ethical life.

Having studied Chinese Philosophy as part of my undergraduate degree, at one time I knew something of Buddhism.  Over the years with the pressure of modern living I guess I forgot some of the things that impressed me about it.  Now, perhaps, I shall have time to re-acquaint myself with this.  It seems to me that The Dhammapada is a good place to start.

Here is verse 3:

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me," -- in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.

Thursday 31 January, 2008





This and that

Yes, I know the "Avete capiti?!" in the last blog is wrong and should be "Avete capito?!".  It was just my little joke.

Now here is a thing that suddenly occurred to me about the pronunciation of German.  It's a question to which I do not know the answer.  Gasp! Shock! Horror!

We all know, do we not, that word-final obstruents in German are always voiceless, even when the word is a non-final element of a compound.  However, what is the situation if a word-final vowel is elided, leaving an obstruent exposed?  This can happen in poetry.  Witness the first line of Goethe's poem Heidenröslein

Sah ein Knab' ein Röslein stehn

Now, is the consonant at the end of Knab' a [p] or a [b]?  Any information gratefully received.

Finally, on last Monday's University Challenge there was actually a question involving (rather out-dated) phonetics!  The question was:

What word means both a voiceless consonant in phonetics and in mathematics an unresolved mathematical expression of an nth root or an irrational number that can be expressed as such a root of a rational number?

The answer is: surd.

Tuesday 29 January, 2008





Tutti pazzi!

I went to Truro today and on arrival made a beeline for Costa's coffee shop in Waterstone's bookshop. (It used to be Ottakars.  Are there no bookshops other than Waterstone's now?).  I ordered a double espresso.  Why can't people in this country attempt the word espresso?  If I hear expresso once more, I shall weep.  To make things worse, I picked up a sweet thingy to have with my coffee.  The server took it from me and put it on the tray, saying: "One biscotti."  Oh please, pleaaaaaaaaaaase.  Biscotti is plural.  Panini is plural (or possibly a half-hearted attempt at the name of an ancient Indian phonetician).  What next?  Pizzi? Tagliatelli? Saltimbocci alli Romani?

It is NOT the case that every Italian word ends in -i. 

Avete capiti?!

Mi sento meglio addesso.

Friday 25 January, 2008

The Legend of St Eustace
Painting in Canterbury Cathedral



Riddley Walker

I have just been re-reading, for the I-don't-know-whichth time, the novel Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.  It is a nightmarish tale set in the far-distant future in Kent.  Society is just beginning to emerge from a long post-nuclear-holocaust dark age.  The novel was partly inspired by the legend of St Eustace (See Wikipedia entry) and the original impetus came when Hoban saw the painting of the St Eustace legend in Canterbury Cathedral.

The novel entwines and confuses the legend with the search for the ingredients of gunpowder, with Punch and Judy, and with vague confused memories of the nuclear disaster which took place at least 2000 years before the time of the novel.  Its most striking feature is the language it uses.  This is mostly comprehensible (with a little effort), but is certainly not like any English you've seen before.  There are all sorts of puzzles and jokes played with language.  My favourite is exemplified by the sentence:

We vackt our wayt out of there and roading for Cambry.

This is based on a wonderful misunderstanding/mishearing of evacuate as vack your weight or something like that, so  I vack my weight, he vacks his weight  etc.

Other examples are: a nylan (an island), party cools (particles), galack seas (galaxies), parbly (probably), persoon (pretty soon).



Friday 18 January, 2008



The Scholar & his Cat

Here is a wonderful poem, written in Irish in the 9th or 10th century AD.  The manuscript was found in St Paul's Benedictine monastery on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance in Austria.

And here is a translation:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.



Saturday 5 January, 2008





Goodbye P & L

On 1 January this year the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at UCL ceased to exist.  Details of this piece of academic vandalism can be found in John Wells's blog.  I think it best I keep my opinions to myself for the time being, but I am sure you can imagine that I am not overjoyed at the demise of the department where I spent most of my working life.

Instead of a rant, however, here is a little anecdote told to me by A C Gimson (Gim), who was head of department when I arrived in the 70s and whose research assistant I was for a year, helping him with the proofreading of the new edition of his Introduction to the Pronunciation of English.

Gim came to the department at a time when Daniel Jones was the head.  In 1938, J R Firth decamped from the Department of Phonetics (as it was then) at UCL and moved to The School of Oriental Studies (as it was then), taking a number of UCL staff with him. Firth had become firmly opposed to Jones's view of phonology and the concept of the phoneme and set about developing his own theory -- Prosodic Analysis -- which was a fore-runner of the modern theory known as Auto-segmental Phonology.  As you may imagine, after this Jones and Firth were not the best of friends.

One Christmas, Gim told me, he was in Heal's department store close to UCL doing some Christmas shopping, when he saw Firth striding towards him.  Gim was expecting a seasonal greeting, but instead Firth grabbed him by both lapels and bellowed: "GIMSON! THE PHONEME IS DEAD!!!" and then strode off.  Obviously, J R Firth was not a man for trivialities like politeness.

Wednesday 2 January, 2008

St Martin's



The Isles of Scilly

One place quite close to Penzance that I haven't visited in many years is the Isles of Scilly.  This is an archipelago of around 140 islands lying 28 miles off Land's End.  Only six of the islands -- St Mary's, Tresco, St Martin's, St Agnes, Gugh and Bryher, are populated.  According to the 2001 census, St Mary's has a population of 1,666 and Gugh has a population of 3.

At this time of year, the only way to get to and from the IOS is by helicopter, but from March/April to November a passenger ferry called Scillonian III runs from Penzance to Hugh Town on St Mary's.  My only visit to the IOS was before this ship was in service and I travelled on the Scillonian II, a much smaller and less stable vessel.  The journey out was fine, but return journey was the only time I have ever felt seasick.

Although the islands are not far off the mainland, their climate is quite different.  The gulf stream means that they are practically sub-tropical, and indeed on Tresco there are the Abbey Gardens which contain only sub-tropical plants.  However, the islands are also very exposed to the Atlantic and suffer some spectacular storms.  They were, in the past, a well-known danger to shipping.

The area of sea between IOS and Land's End is the supposed location of the legendary land of Lyonesse, which has disappeared beneath the waves.  There is little doubt that the sea level has risen and parts of the islands have been submerged.  Ancient field walls are visible below the high tide line on some islands, notably Samson.

Sunday 30 December, 2007




A Survey of Cornwall

I have been reading A Survey of Cornwall by Richard Carew.  This was published in 1602 and is fascinating.  It is a wonderful mix of detailed fact about life in Cornwall in Elizabethan times and fantastic tales and wild theories.  It is written in the most beautiful English with a complete disregard for consistency of spelling.  Below is an extract about the attack of the Spanish on Mousehole, Newlyn and Penzance in 1595.  The Spanish were still pretty upset about the defeat of the Armada, I guess

The three & twentieth of July, 1595. soone after the Sun was risen,and had chased a fogge, which before kept the sea out of sight,4. Gallies of the enemy presented themselues vpon the coast,ouer-against Mousehole, and there In a faire Bay, landed about two hundred men, pikes and shot, who foorthwith sent their forlorne hope, consisting of their basest people, vnto the stragled houses of the countrie, about halfe a mile compasse or more, by whome were burned, not onely the houses they went by, but also the Parish Church of Paul, the force of the fire being such, as it vtterly ruined all the great stonie pillers thereof: others of them in that time, burned that fisher towne Mowsehole, the rest marched as a gard for defence of these firers.  The Inhabitants being feared with the Spaniards landing and burning, fled from their dwellings, and verie meanely weaponed, met with Sir Francis Godolphin on a greene, on the West side of Pensance, who that forenoone comming from his house, for pacifying some controuersies in those Western parts, and from the hils espying the fires in that towne, Church, and houses, hastened thither: Who foorthwith sent to all the Captaines of those parts, for their speedie repaire with their companies, and also sent by Poast to Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Iohn Hawkins (then at Plymmouth with a fleete bound for the Indies) aduertisement of the arriuall of these foure Gallies, and of their burnings, aduising them to looke to themselues, if there were any greater fleete of the enemies at Sea, and to send West with all haste, what succours by sea or land they could spare.  Then Sir Francis Godolphin aduised that weake assembly, to retire into Pensance, and to prepare it for defence, vntill the comming of the Countrie forces that hee had sent for.  But they finding themselues in number something aboue a hundred, wherein were about thirtie or fortie shot, though scarce one third of them were seruiceable, insisted to march against the enemies, to repell them from farther spoyles oftheir houses.

But while they were marching towards them, the Spaniards returned aboord their Gallyes, and presently remooued them farther into the Bay, where they anchored againe, before and neere a lesser fisher towne, called Newlyn.

There againe with all speede they landed, and imbattelled in the slope of a hill, about foure hundred pikes and shot, sending about two rankes of soldiers, three in a ranke, vp to the top of the hill, to discouer what forces or ambushes of the Countrey might lye in view: who espying none but those that were returned with Sir Frauncis Godolphin, from their forementioned fruitlesse march, gaue notice thereof to their imbatteled company.  Wherevpon they forthwith marched towards Penzance.

Vpon their moouing, Sir Frauncis Godolphin moued also, to enter Penzance before them: and as soone as that weake number were entred into the open greene being of three quarters of a mile length, the Gallyes ceased not to ply them all that way with their ordinance from their prowes, as busily as they could.  Of which shot, though none were hurt, but onely a Constable vnhorsed without any harme, sauing the shew on his doublet of the bullets sliding by his back, yet many in fearefull manner, some fell flat to the ground, and others ranne away.

The Spanish caused havoc in Penzance and then left after a couple of days.


Friday 28 December, 2007

The Mad Hatter




As X as Y

In an idle moment it suddenly occurred to me how odd some phrases of this form are.  Some of course are transparent:

as dead as a Dodo
as light as a feather
as meek as a lamb
as quick as a flash

but what about

as dead as a doornail
as deaf as a post
as fit as a fiddle

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable was no real help with these.  It did however suggest a couple of reasonably plausible explanations for:

as mad as a hatter: (1) Mercurous nitrate was used in the making of felt hats and could cause trembling diseases such as St Vitus's Dance (2) Robert Crabb, a 17th century hatter living at Chesham, gave up all his worldly goods to the poor and lived on dock leaves and grass.

By the way, Lewis Carroll did not invent the phrase.  It appears in Pendennis (1850) by Thackeray and Alice in Wonderland did not appear until 1865.

I wonder also if there are many regional variations in these phrases.  One phrase I have only ever heard from New Zealand speakers is as mad as a meat-axe.

Monday 24 December, 2007


A Happy Christmas
to you all
a peaceful New Year




Thursday 20 December, 2007

Nanci Griffith



A Texas accent

The hiatus was caused by a heavy cold.

Lately, I have been listening to a CD of country/folk music by the Texan singer Nanci Griffith and have noticed a couple of interesting things about her accent.  These may not be new to you, but they are certainly new to me.  By all accounts she grew up in Austin, TX.

The first concerns the GOAT vowel.  When she is singing, and most of the time when she is speaking (there a couple of spoken introductions to songs on the CD), the quality of this is a clearly monophthongal [o:].  However, in a few words, such as Coke the quality is a diphthong, something like [ʌʊ]  I am not yet sure if this is part of a consistent pattern, but possibly this is a case of allophony with the diphthong triggered by the the following velar consonant.

The second thing concerns /l/.  Her distribution of [l] and [ɫ] is the same as mine, that is, clear before a vowel and dark elsewhere.  However, in one of the spoken introductions there is the following:

She was afraid that the dust would blow so hard one night that she would wake up of a morning and find herself living in Oklahoma, and she by God didn't wanna \[ɫ]ive in Oklahoma.

The /l/ in blow, Oklahoma and living is clear.  That in herself is dark.  The /l/ in live is very dark indeed.  This must be the use of velarisation for emphatic purposes, I think.  The placement of the nucleus on live, so soon after the occurrence of living is also interesting.  I think I would have to place the nucleus on wanna.

By the way, Nanci Griffiths' songs are very good.