John Maidment's Blog
Tuesday 11 March, 2008
A 1906 postcard of Lostwithiel Bridge
One of the nicest Cornish place-names is Lostwithiel,
I think. The
pronunciation is [lɒsˈwɪðjəl], although the dental fricative could also be voiceless, I guess.
There is some dispute about the meaning of the name, the most likely
derivation is lost (=tail) + gwydhel (adj. from gwydh=trees).
Lostwithiel is situated on the River Fowey,
hence the bridge, and on the main railway line from Penzance to
Plymouth. It was once the capital of the Duchy of Cornwall and was a
stannary town, important in the production of tin, which was brought
here to be weighed and stamped, before being exported by boat down the
Fowey to the sea.
Lostwithiel features (well sort of) in a
novel called Harvest Home by the American author Thomas Tryon.
It is the story of a writer who moves from the city to a New England
village called Cornwall Combe, where the inhabitants are mainly
descendants of immigrants from Cornwall. The village is approached
by crossing a bridge called Lostwhistle Bridge. It's a
pretty scary book, by the way.
Sunday 9 March, 2008
Chinese alveo(lo)palatals etc. -- the final
frontier (I hope)
As we saw, Gwoyeu Romatzyh treats the alveolopalatals
and the retroflexes as allophones of the same phonemes. From the
table in part 1 you can see that Wade-Giles does too...well sort of.
So does the Yale University transcription, except for the voiceless
fricative, which it seems to identify with the corresponding alveolar
consonant. This needs a bit of explanation. What Yale
actually writes for the alveolopalatals is: jy, chy, sy, but it
could just as well have gone the whole hog and used dzy, tsy, sy
instead, because the alveolopalatals are in complementary distribution
with the alveolars, as well as with the retroflexes.
Now there is yet another transcription system (groans
all round) known as EFEO, which was developed during the latter part of
the 19th century and published in the early 20th century by the École
française d'Extrême-Orient (a slightly French organisation). The
Wikipedia article on the EFEO system is
Now what EFEO writes for Pinyin j, q, x is......yes, you've
guessed it...ts, ts', s, just the same as for the alveolars, but
of course the immediately following sounds are different for the two
places of articulation.
There is, however, a final twist in the dragon's
tail. EFEO has an alternative way of representing the pesky ap's,
to wit: k, k', h, because they are also in complementary
distribution with the velars! (h represents a [x], by the way.) It
isn't clear to me whether the difference between the two ways of writing
the alveolopalatals is simply arbitrary and at the moment I haven't got
the ambition to find out. Also I suspect that spellings like Peking,
Nanking (Pinyin: Beijing, Nanjing) etc. originated with EFEO.
I am not sure about this. It may be the case that the relevant
syllables were actually pronounced with velar consonants at one
time, or in some dialects. This is beyond my ken at the moment.
So there we have it! Maybe the developers of
Pinyin just threw up their hands and said: "Blow this! We'll give
'em separate letters!"
I have always thought, and must have said to students
a number of times, that if Jan Niecisław Baudouin de Courtenay and all
the other developers of the phoneme concept had tried to apply their
theory to MSC, they might well have abandoned the idea pronto.
Now come to think of it...there was once a man called
J R Firth.
But I need a cup of tea.
Saturday 8 March, 2008
Kāi Tahu Māori
A rest from the MSC alveolopalatal saga. The picture
to the left is of the town of Akaroa, which is on the Banks
Peninsula on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
It's about 50 miles from Christchurch. The name means "long
harbour" in the Kāi Tahu (KTM) dialect of Māori. In the
Māori of the North Island the name would be Whangaroa, and in fact there
is a county of that name close to the northernmost tip of the country
KTM has lost the distinction between [ŋ] and [k],
using the latter for both. As you can also see, the consonant
represented by wh, sometimes [f] sometimes [ʍ],
has gone AWOL. As far as I
know, the letter k used to write KTM is unique in two
respects. (1) it is the only orthographic symbol which
incorporates underlining. (2) it is used to reference two different
dialects of a language -- in effect it means a [k] sound, which in
other types of Māori is an [ŋ] sound.
By the way, I would not trust the Wikipedia article
on KTM. There are some obvious errors. For instance, it lists the
"phonemes" of KTM and then adds that there are reports of "extra
phonemes" in this dialect. The list of these contains a number of
symbols which appear in the original list! Also it lists /f/ for
KTM. I am not 100% sure, but I think this is tosh. If I am
right, and /f/ has disappeared from KTM completely, and the extra
Wikipedia phonemes are phantoms of a phevered imagination, then KTM has
only seven consonant phonemes. Watch out
Friday 7 March, 2008
Chinese alveo(lo)palatals etc. (sort of) (Part 3)
The pause was brought about by a number of things,
one of which was my efforts to re-acquaint myself with another
transcription system for MSC, namely Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR).
Way back in the 60s when I started learning Chinese at SOAS, my
introduction to Classical Chinese was via a book called Fifty Chinese
Sories by Y C Liu, who was one of my teachers. The stories
were helpfully transliterated, but using GR, by which I and all
of my fellow students were utterly bamboozled. I had spent the
first term happily chugging along with Pinyin, with the odd
excursion down the mystical paths of the Wade-Giles transcription system. I
mean, what \/were those guys | \on? However, W-G was
necessary if you wanted to use about the only available Chinese-English
dictionary -- a work which, to filch Michael Ashby's memorable phrase,
is itself a vale of worms and a can of tears. And now...GR!
This appeared to us to come from the Planet Zog. However, in the
end we made some kind of sense of it, and then forgot it as soon as we
I do not intend to let the the merest thought of
explaining GR even look like crossing my mind. If you are
interested and of a strong constitution, go consult the
article on it. So why have I been masochising???? The answer lies in a
communication from Nigel Greenwood:
Re your interesting series on alveolopalatals, you
may be familiar with the much-derided Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization due
to YR Chao et al. GR takes the view, as you do, that the sounds
written j, q and x in Pinyin are indeed in complementary distribution
with zh, ch and sh: it therefore uses j, ch and sh for both series.
GR happily writes Ching Chaur for the Ch'ing Dynasty, whereas in the
prevailing Pinyin it becomes Qing Chao.
You might at some stage like to mention GR in your blog -- not only in
this context but because of its ingenious tonal spelling. I should
declare an interest, however, as I was a principal contributor to the
Nigel is right and of course my rant about GR was largely
tongue-in-cheek. The Wikipedia article is worth checking out.
Today's Chinese trivia. The banner to the right
is a Chinese equivalent of those "had had had had had....", "that that
that that that..." sentences in English. It relies on the fact
that the character pronounced zhǒng means both "seed" and
"variety, sort" and when it is pronounced zhòng, it means
"to plant, to grow". So here is a transliteration of the thing (in
Pinyin mark you). The combination zhóngzhǒng
(the second tone is due to tone-sandhi) means "all sorts", "many
zhòng huā zhǒng, zhòng zhóngzhǒng.
zhòng zhóngzhǒng huā, zhēn měilì.
When planting flowers seeds, plant many
different kinds. Growing many different sorts of flowers is really
Sound advice! By the way, if anyone needs a
good design for a Chinese banner, I do very reasonable rates. Just
Tuesday 4 March, 2008
Chinese alveo(lo)palatals etc. (Part 2)
In the table in yesterday's blog, the Pinyin
row contains nine different letters/digraphs: j q x z c s zh ch sh.
This would suggest that all these sounds are phonemically distinct from
one another. But, as we shall see, Pinyin is far from a
phoneme-based transliteration system. Let us concentrate on the
first three: j q x, which represent the alveolopalatals.
Here are some interesting facts about these three and their differences
from the rest:
they are only ever
followed by the letters i or u
the other six can be
followed by any of the five vowel symbols i e a o u
when u follows
j q or x, it represents the sound [y] or the sound [ɥ] ,
elsewhere it represents [u] or [w]
follows j q or x, it represents the vowel sounds [i]
or [ɪ] or the sound [j], but after the other six letters it represents
some other sound and never an approximant
Clearly, something interesting is going on here. The
obvious inference is that the alveolopalatals are in complementary
distribution with both the alveolars and the retroflexes, and instead of
nine different phonemes we have only six. The factor which
conditions the occurrence of the alveolopalatals is a high front tongue
position for the following vowel or approximant.
The developers of Pinyin seem to have taken the
opposite view -- that it is the place of articulation of the consonant
that determines the quality of the following vowel or approximant.
This solution just does not work, however. The vowel [y] also
occurs directly after both [n] and [l] and is written in Pinyin with the
letter ü. The vowel [i] and the approximant [j] can also
occur after all of p b m t d n l and the approximant can also
Things get curiouser and curiouser, as you will see in our
next thrilling episode.
For those of you who found the above less than enthralling,
here is a bit of Chinese trivia. The number 4 is regarded as
unlucky in China, much in the same way as 13 is in many (most? all?)
European countries. The reason is, or so I have been told,
that it sounds like the word for to die, but with a different
Monday 3 March, 2008
Chinese alveo(lo)palatals etc. (Part 1)
John Wells, in his
blog for today, gives an excellent summary of the phonetics of
alveolopalatal consonants, together with the difference between these
and post-alveolars and/or palatoalveolars. I agree with everything
he says about the phonetics of the sounds concerned. He also gives
examples of their occurrence in Polish and Modern Standard Chinese
(MSC). There is one statement he makes that I think needs a little
more caution: We must also bear in mind that the symbols
are only needed in languages that have a phonemic contrast between them
and a darker type of
ʃ ʒ (e.g. Polish,
The problem of the phonemic status of what we might
term coronal frictionals in MSC is a very thorny one. Let
us start with a look at how some transliteration systems deal with
hs (or s)
So what are we to make of that? Watch
this space! By the way, I have left out the sound which in Pinyin
and Yale is represented as r and in Wade-Giles as j.
It is not clear whether this should be classed as a voiced retroflex
fricative or as a voiced retroflex approximant. Sometimes it has
friction, sometimes not.
Sunday 2 March, 2008
How to say hello
Oh, welcome March with wintry wind!
I would not thou wert so unkind!
It's certainly come in like a lion down here, folks.
Apart from the almost ubiquitous Hiya! of
those of more tender years, I wonder how many different ways there are
of saying "Hello" in English and whether some of the old local
expressions are surviving. Certainly in this part of Cornwall you rarely
hear local people use the word Hello. The approved West Cornwall
manner of greeting is All right! I have to admit that, even
after my long association with Penzance and environs, I still sometimes
do a double-take when someone cheerily greets me with: All right, my
Where I grew up, in Derby, the traditional way of
saying hello was Ey up! For a good friend it was Ey up,
mi duck! I'm sure it is still used, but I'm not sure how
often, and whether it is only used tongue-in-cheek now.
Do Londoners ever greet each other with Wotcher
these days? Or Australians with G'day? I
certainly hope so.
Thought for the day: Everyone is entitled to be stupid, but some
abuse the privilege (Anon)
Friday 29 February, 2008
A hosted rant etc.
Nigel Greenwood writes:
Q: Now that all London bus stops are de facto Request stops, what is
the purpose of
designating some of them Compulsory stops? In fact the current
system has evolved
because it is more sensible for the driver to stop only if someone
either rings the
bell or hails the bus from the stop. It avoids the patent
absurdity of the bus
stopping unnecessarily at every empty Compulsory stop.
Words of one syllable
There are a number of contemporary works written with similar or even
challenging limitations. A number of them are lipograms, the
being Perec's La Disparition (brilliantly translated by Gilbert Adair
as A Void), in
which the letter "e" (in French, of all languages!) is entirely
absent. To make up
for this lack, Perec later wrote a companion novel called Les
containing no vowel other than "e".
Happy Leap Day.
Sunday 24 February, 2008
The essential kitchen towel that is very absorbent and really strong,
even when wet! Because of this, Bounty is ideal to use for everyday spills
in the kitchen but it can also handle other jobs that you might not have
thought of, for example you can use Bounty instead of your cloth or sponge
- washing pans, greasy surfaces or even the oven
- cleaning the sink, bath and outside of the toilet
- scrubbing on a carpet
- cleaning large surface areas like windows
- cleaning off the dog's feet after a walk
- polishing and buffing shoes
- cleaning the car
Bertrand Russell once said: "It has been said that
man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence
which could support this."
Here is some random evidence that his search was
entirely in vain:
Notice in a Florida maternity ward: "No children
Notice in a department store in London: "Bargain
On a church door in London: "This is the gate of
Heaven. Enter ye all by this door. (This door is kept locked because
of the draft. Please use side entrance)"
The fact that in order to shut Windows down you
have to click on the START button. At least, that is true
of Windows versions up to XP. I have no experience of VISTA. The
GO GET LOST button maybe?
There is a brand of paper kitchen towel on the UK
market with the name BOUNTY. I thought Bounty was a chocolate
Notice in a dry cleaner's window in London: "Anyone
leaving their garments here for more than 30 days will be disposed
Notice in a safari park: "Elephants Please Stay
In Your Car"
The fact that recently a social worker was driving
his/her client to court to face a charge of actual bodily harm.
S/he was observed by somebody to throw a cigarette out of the window.
S/he was fined 75 GBP for this offence. The client was fined 50
I rest my case, M'Lud.
Saturday 23 February, 2008
In Words of One Syllable
Another book written entirely in monosyllabic words
is a version of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel De Foe. The
monosyllabic version was published in 1867 by Mary Godolphin. Here
is the Preface:
The production of a book which is adapted to the
use of the youngest readers needs but few words of excuse or apology.
The nature of the work seems to be sufficiently explained by the title
itself, and the author's task has been chiefly to reduce the ordinary
language into words of one syllable. But although, as far as the
subject matter is concerned, the book can lay no claims to
originality, it is believed that the idea and scope of its
construction are entirely novel, for the One Syllable literature of
the present day furnishes little more than a few short, unconnected
sentences, and those chiefly in spelling books.
The deep interest which De Foe's story has never failed to arouse in
the minds of the young, induces the author to hope that it may be
acceptable in its present form.
It should be stated that exceptions to the rule of using words of one
syllable exclusively have been made in the case of the proper names of
the boy Xury and of the man Friday, and in the titles of the
illustrations that accompany this work.
And here is a brief extract from the beginning of the
I was born at York on the first of March in the
sixth year of the reign of King Charles the First. From the time when
I was quite a young child, I had felt a great wish to spend my life at
sea, and as I grew, so did this taste grow more and more strong; till
at last I broke loose from my school and home, and found my way on
foot to Hull, where I soon got a place on board a ship.
When we had set sail but a few days, a squall of wind came on, and on
the fifth night we sprang a leak. All hands were sent to the pumps,
but we felt the ship groan in all her planks, and her beams quake from
stem to stern; so that it was soon quite clear there was no hope for
her, and that all we could do was to save our lives.
The first thing was to fire off guns, to show that we were in need of
help, and at length a ship, which lay not far from us,sent a boat to
our aid. But the sea was too rough for it to lie near our ship's side,
so we threw out a rope, which the men in the boat caught, and made
fast, and by this means we all got in. Still in so wild a sea it was
in vain to try to get on board the ship which had sent out the men, or
to use our oars in the boat, and all we could do was to let it drive
Apparently, Mary Godolphin was the pseudonym of Lucy
Aiken, who, as well as being a well-known writer and translator under
her own name, was interested in the education of the young. Quite
why she thought that restricting her version to monosyllabic words would
make it easier for young readers I don't know.
Thanks to Karen Chung for the information on this and
to Michael Ashby for passing it on to me.
It strikes me that a much tougher proposition, which
might turn out to be impossible, is to (re-)write a novel exclusively in
words of two syllables.
Friday 22 February, 2008
The Babel Fish
The Need for the Babel Fish
Please do not ask me why, but I have just remembered
a wonderful instance of mishearing. I read it in a newspaper many
years ago. I wish I could remember who the writer was. Maybe
it was Miles Kington, or Clive James. Anyway, the writer was in
New York at a banquet. He heard a waitress coming down the long
table, asking the guests a question. As she got nearer, he heard:
How dya like your flamin yonkert? Panic, panic!!!!!
What \/was he | going to \say???? What on
earth is a "flaming yonkert"? Suddenly, relief came. He
understood! What the woman was asking was: How do you like your
filet mignon cooked? Whew!
I had a similar experience some years ago at a dinner
in UCL. Again a waitress was approaching me, asking people whether
they would like brandy or ???? with their coffee. Just before she got to
me, I realised the mystery word was Armagnac. Poor woman.
Somebody should have told her how to approximate the pronunciation
before she set out.
As you probably know, what you have to do with a
Babel Fish is, in the immortal words of Bob Newhart, stick it in your
ear. Then, all will become clear. Thanks to Douglas Adams.
Thursday 21 February, 2008
What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo---
Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:---
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.
How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!
A D Godley
While googling around to find some more examples of
macaronic verse, I lighted upon a site dealing with Celtic Cultural
Studies. There I read the story of a Rev. Innis, a
protestant minister from Lisburn in Northern Ireland, who wrote
songs for inclusion in an 1847 collection
Song and Ballads for the Use of Orangemen. Innis was
apparently a staunch anti-catholic and took the nom de plume
Leamh Dhearg, thinking he was naming himself after the ancient
symbol of Ulster: The Red Hand.
Unfortunately for Rev Innis, leamh does
not mean "hand". It means "impotent". Innis should have
called himself Lámh Dearg.
Thought for the day:
If a stone falls on an egg --
Woe to the egg!
If an egg falls on a stone --
Woe to the egg!
Wednesday 20 February, 2008
I was having lunch in a wholefood cafe yesterday (hummus, pitta and
salad, for the curious amongst you). At the next table was a family
with a boy of about three, who was being initiated into the mysteries of
the knock-knock joke:
A tish who?
Although most knock-knock jokes are stupendously
groan-worthy, I suppose if you are three they must be great. My
favourite is slightly more sophisticated than the above and is macaronic:
Qui est là?
Losse de qui?
C'est pour ça que je frappe.
Apparently, knock-knock jokes are common in France and in
most countries that are predominantly English-speaking - the USA,
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Canada... They are
practically unknown in Germany, apparently. According to Wikipedia,
they have recently migrated to Hindi and become Khat-khat jokes.
Does anyone know if they are known in Chinese, Japanese. Russian,
Saturday 16 February, 2008
G K Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday
I have just finished reading The Man Who Was
Thursday by G K Chesterton. Strictly speaking, I should say \re-reading,
but as it is getting on for 50 years since the first time, you may imagine
that my memory of it was somewhat vague.
What an extraordinary book! It is full of
surrealist humour and sometimes quite scary passages. If it were not
too glaring an anachronism, I would call it almost Pythonesque. Take
for instance the description of a chase through London, quite as wild as
any of the car chases in modern films, but performed in hansom cabs.
The members of the anarchist council, named by the days of the week, are
chasing Sunday (the President of the Council), who keeps throwing
scribbled notes at them, with the most ridiculous messages:
What about Martin Tupper now?
No one would regret anything in the nature of an
interference by the Archdeacon more than I. I trust it will not come
to that. But, for the last time, where are your galoshes? The thing
is too bad, especially after what uncle said.
Fly at once. The truth about your
trouser-stretchers is known -- A FRIEND.
The word, I fancy, should be 'pink'.
Your beauty has not left me indifferent. --From
None of these messages is explained, and none seems to
have anything to do with the plot of the novel at all.
My favourite bit of information about Chesterton is
that he was, amongst other things, outstandingly absent-minded. He
is reputed to have once sent a telegram to his wife:
Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?
And here is my thought for the day, which, in the
spirit of the above, has absolutely nothing to do with Chesterton:
When you want to test the depths of a stream, don’t
use both feet. (Chinese Proverb)