John Maidment's Blog

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Tuesday 11 March, 2008

A 1906 postcard of Lostwithiel Bridge



One of the nicest Cornish place-names is Lostwithiel, I think.  The pronunciation is [lɒsˈwɪjəl], 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 cole franaise d'Extrme-Orient (a slightly French organisation).  The Wikipedia article on the EFEO system is here. 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 Rotokas.

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 could.

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 Wikipedia 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 Wikipedia article.

Nigel is right and of course my rant about GR was largely tongue-in-cheek. The Wikipedia article is worth checking out. However... (WTS!)


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 zhng, it means "to plant, to grow".  So here is a transliteration of the thing (in Pinyin mark you)The combination zhngzhǒng (the second tone is due to tone-sandhi) means "all sorts", "many different sorts".

zhng huā zhǒng, zhng zhngzhǒng. zhng zhngzhǒng huā, zhēn měil.

When planting flowers seeds, plant many different kinds.  Growing many different sorts of flowers is really beautiful.

Sound advice!  By the way, if anyone needs a good design for a Chinese banner, I do very reasonable rates.  Just kidding.

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]

  • when i 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 .  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 occur syllable-initially.

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 tone.

Monday 3 March, 2008

z         (your) own

xīn       mind

sh       is

f         Buddha



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 ɕ ʑ are only needed in languages that have a phonemic contrast between them and a darker type of ʃ ʒ (e.g. Polish, Mandarin Chinese). 

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 these:

Alveolopalatal Alveolar Retroflex
[tɕ] [tɕʰ] [ɕ] [ts] [tsʰ] [s] [ʈʂ] [ʈʂʰ] [ʂ]
Pinyin j q x z c s zh ch sh
Wade-Giles ch chʼ hs (or s) ts tsʼ s ch chʼ sh
Yale j ch s dz ts s j ch sh

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.  However....

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 lover!

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

Georges Perec



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 more
challenging limitations.  A number of them are lipograms, the best-known probably
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 Revenentes [sic],
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 for:

 - 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




Homo Sapiens?

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 allowed."

  • Notice in a department store in London: "Bargain Basement Upstairs"

  • 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 bar.

  • Notice in a dry cleaner's window in London: "Anyone leaving their garments here for more than 30 days will be disposed of."

  • 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 GBP.

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 novel

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 to shore.

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




Motor Bus

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 Lmh 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




Knock, knock

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:

Knock, knock
Who's there?
A tish.
A tish who?
Bless you!

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:

Toc, toc
Qui est l?
Losse de.
Losse de qui?
C'est pour a 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, Polish.....?

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 LITTLE SNOWDROP

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, dont use both feet. (Chinese Proverb)