Monday 31 December 2007

On 'word of - ' what?

A flurry of activity on an earlier post, anticipating the International Year of Languages, which starts at midnight tonight, has presented me with a linguistic conundrum. With reference to Wikipedia and Facebook (et al) spreading news about something, I wanted to say that this kind of 'word of mouth' can be very effective - but that phrase seems inappropriate for an e-medium. We need a new locution. 'Word of eye' doesn't feel quite right. I rather like 'word of click'. Anybody got a better idea?

Friday 21 December 2007

On words shrinking

A broadcasting correspondent from Canada writes to ask if the use of English vocabulary is shrinking - by which she means the following: 'Perhaps we're using fewer complex words in favour of more, smaller words that can be cobbled together for the same meaning? Technology is certainly pushing us to shorten words and use fewer words, as we try to fit text onto smaller and smaller screens. I also wonder if - in a multicultural society such as Canada - we're using fewer complex words in consideration of non-native English speakers? (I know my friend feels this way with her Spanish boyfriend, for instance).'

I don't know of any survey on this issue, though impressions abound. Vocabulary (by comparison with grammar and pronunciation) remains a hugely neglected topic of linguistic study. Even in child language acquisition, generalizations about vocabulary peter out as the child passes age 2 or so. It's the scale of the exercise which is so off-putting. We're talking about tens of thousands of words.

Because studies haven't been done, there is no benchmark from years ago (or however long my correspondent is thinking) to make a comparison. And any comparison would have to be very careful to match people in terms of - what? social background? age? gender? regional background? occupation? subject-matter? Which of these (and other) variables have most influence on vocabulary size and range? We all have our impressions, but how many of these relate to fact is a quite different matter.

What we do know is that people tend to underestimate vocabulary sizes. Most people think that the average size of a person's vocabulary is a few thousand words, whereas it is tens of thousand. Also, we know that a distinction would have to be made between spoken and written vocabulary. Whatever is happening on screen is going to be very different from what is happening in the air.

You have to compare like with like. I did a quick test. BBC News Online started in 1997. The oldest article I have managed to trace is for 22 October that year: a health article, 'Teenager gets gift of colour from scientists'. This consisted of 261 words and 1225 characters: 4.69 characters per word. I took another health article from BBC News Online yesterday, with a similar content of report and interview: 'Facing a very different Christmas'. That had 3471 characters and 745 words: 4.66 characters per word. Virtually identical.

That's my impression, actually. I've not noticed any particular change in word length in the contexts I've heard and read, over the past decade. Yes, sentences have got shorter (in such settings as instant messaging and texting), but one of the consequences of shorter sentences is that more reliance is placed on the selection of the words they contain, which can actually get longer. The opposite effect can be seen in dictionaries which rely on a restricted defining vocabulary, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporay English. If you have to create definitions but have only 2000 words to choose from, your sentences inevitably get longer.

The non-native case is a separate issue. It's well-known that native speakers adapt (accommodate) when talking to non-native speakers (eg avoiding or explaining certain idioms) or speakers of English from other parts of the world than their own. As countries become increasingly multi-ethnic, doubtless more of this kind of thing goes on. But this tells us nothing about how native speakers talk to each other.

I think the bottom line, as far as technology is concerned, is that it hasn't been around long enough for trends to be clear. The new small screens may have an effect, but it's too soon to say. For most people, the exeperience of using the Web, chat, email, and so on, is less than a decade. That's not even an eye-blink in relation to language change.

On being a book's godfather

A correspondent - presumably filled with Christmas spirit - writes to ask what my most unusual experience has been this year. Normally I would have no idea how to respond such a question, but as it happens an event a few weeks ago provides me with an answer.

I was in the small Czech town of Uherske Hradiste, as part of its British film festival. My role was to introduce a series of British films and to give a couple of talks on language in relation to the task of adaptation from book to film. (That's an interesting field, which has attracted very little research, from a linguistic point of view. A couple of examples: Roman Polanski's Tess adapting Hardy's Wessex dialect; Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility replacing Jane Austen's complex and mannered sentences by a modern-sounding elliptical dialogue.)

Anyway, I was in the Hvezda cinema before one of my events. It was the cinema's fortieth birthday, and an illustrated memorial book had been published to mark the occasion. Along with the festival director and one of the sponors, I was invited to be a godfather for the book. I thought something was being lost in translation, for the only concept of godfather I have is to do with baptism. But no, nothing was lost. It was to be a baptism.

We stood at the front of the cinema while a copy of the book was brought on, resting on a tray. On top of the book were three glasses of white wine. After a few words from the director, we each took up a glass and then - poured it over the book.

I have never delibereately poured wine, or any liquid, over a book before. Inadvertently, maybe. But I found it curiously moving. Godfather of a book, eh? I asked what my responsibilities were towards the future well-being of the book. Tell the world about it, they said. So I do. Go, little book...

I have never come across such a ceremony before. Does any reader of this blog know of it in another country?

Saturday 8 December 2007

On to or not

A correspondent writes about the use of to in such constructions as:

(1) I shall have to do more than (to) speak to him
(2) The new scheme will have to do more than (to) allow all women to....
(3) What I want to do is (to) go to Australia.
(4) (To) go to Australia is what I want to do.

He finds the to-less versions odd, especially in writing.

I don't have a problem with any of the to-less versions, actually. What we do have, I think, is a contrast of formality, with the to-ful versions more formal - and thus more likely to appear in writing. (A similar kind of contrast operates with the presence or absence of that in such sentences as I said (that) it would rain.) But the situation is complicated here by phonological factors. There is a euphony issue with a repeated to: many people don't like to do more than to speak and suchlike. Also there is a rhythmical issue with to do more than to allow, as the than to brings two unstressed syllables together, and this goes against the preference for iambic stress-timing in English, which is better preserved in more than allow. So I would expect acceptability intuitions to vary a little with respect to these examples.

If (4) feels odd (and I do find it a bit so), it is probably because of the unusual nature of the construction, seen in isolation. Within a discourse, with an appropriate intonation to express the emphatic contrast involved, I don't think the to-less version would attract attention. The version with to would be less likely, as (4) is plainly part of an informal exchange, and this would motivate the elliptical alternative.

On looking how you sound

A New Zealand correspndent writes to query a point I make at the beginning of By Hook or By Crook, when I meet my supposedly Welsh shepherd and he turns out to be Scottish. I said 'From a phonetic point of view all faces look the same'. My correspondent cites examples like the following:

'I attended a lecture just this week, and as the speaker approached the chair of the meeting she said "hello". I could not hear her, but I could tell from the way her mouth worked she had a strong Scottish accent.'
'In my travels as a boy, in a holiday camp in Devon I met an old man who reckoned to be able to place any person within ten miles of their place of birth just by their accent - and he was stone deaf !'
'When Mike Yarwood impersonated Harold Wilson or Ted Heath, in part his face (and posture) adopted a similar appearance to theirs.'

How does this experience tie in with my statement, he asks?

Because I was talking about anatomy, and my correspondent is talking about physiology. When the mouth is in action, then you can often get a few clues (such as the long pure vowel in the Scottish speaker's hello being visible in the rounded lips being held for longer than in other speakers) - but not when it is static. There is no evidence for anatomical differences in the external mouth, within a racial type, even between languages, let alone dialects. But there is a great deal of difference in physiology (i.e. in the way the mouth and jaw move). And even when there are external differences between racial types (such as Africans and Europeans) this tells us nothing about how the speaker will sound - as is common experience on London buses, when you hear a Cockney voice behind you and then see that the speaker is plainly from Jamaica, or somewhere.

In phonetics there is a conceptual apparatus which has been developed to handle this aspect of speech: it is called 'articulatory setting' - the way we habitually 'set' our vocal organs in preparation to speak. Phonetician John Laver has written a lot about this, as indeed did I, way back in the 60s.

Citing a few anecdotes isn't persuasive. Yes, there are faces where you look and you can guess from the way the face falls that the person very likely speaks in a certain way; but when you take a large enough sample, these instances turn out to be isolated cases, and probably explicable for other reasons. There are always clues in the context which help you reach a conclusion about the linguistic origins of speakers before they start to speak.

On and after if

A US correspondent writes to ask if I've come across modern dialect variations in if/then clauses, especially in Early Middle English. He cites If you go and I'll go meaning 'If you go, then I'll go' and biblical-sounding cases such as If he should command the stone to move, and it will move.

A linking adverbial use of and is certainly attested in Early Modern English, with a range of meanings such as 'therefore, and so, then' - an example from Shakespeare is 'Tis a good dullness, And give it way' (Tempest). I can't think of an instance after an if-clause, offhand - maybe a reader of this blog will dig one out.

These conjunctions shifted meaning a lot in Middle English, so that there are all kinds of overlaps. For instance, the overlap in meaning between if and and is well attested in Early Modern English, especially in initial position: 'An't be not four by the day, I'll be hanged' (Henry IV Part 1), 'I'll tell you when, and you'll tell me wherefore' (Comedy of Errors). Compare also 'so it please you / if it please you / and it please you', which we find throughout the period - as early as 1205, according to the OED.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find the usage still around in modern English dialects. Uses of and as a subordinating conjunction have some interesting parallels with Celtic languages. The first place I'd look would be Irish English, where you can still hear today such sentences as There was lots of land for sale and I a young lad meaning 'when I was a young lad'. Anyone heard an if... and construction out there recently? Or anywhere else?

Sunday 18 November 2007

On interacting with Beckett

My OP correspondent (see previous blog) also asks about interactivity between actors and audience. He was thinking about OP and the Globe, but today I am still getting over my most recent experience of audience/performance interaction, namely, last night at the Capital Centre at Warwick University. Fail Better Productions concluded a Beckett study day by presenting a brilliant production of two Samuel Beckett shorts. No failing better at all, here; indeed, I can't imagine them succeeding worse.

You might not have come across the Capital Centre, as it only started in May of this year. It's a great idea - a partnership between the University of Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company, established to use theatre performance skills and experience to enhance student learning and to draw on University research and resources to shape the development of the RSC acting companies. It's already done some exciting work, as I discovered yesterday.

The two pieces were Rough for Theatre 2 and Ohio Impromptu. The first is a duologue in which two men, 'A' and 'B', review the life of 'C', who is standing motionless, with his back to the audience, ready to jump out of the window. The second is also a duologue, but of a rather different kind, between two characters, a Reader and a Listener. The Reader reads from a book (with blank pages, in this production) telling the Listener's story. The Listener says nothing, but controls the reading by knocking on the table with his hand, thereby making the reader go back over parts of the story.

I had seen both before on film - and indeed, apart from Waiting for Godot, the only Beckett I have ever seen has been on film (I have the Beckett on Film DVD), and therefore very much as a passive observer. In an intimate space, such as the Capital, with the actors just a few feet away, I was enthralled by the way Beckett's language sucked me in, so that it felt that I was almost a part of the action, and I was surprised by the number of places where the Rough for Theatre 2 dialogue invited me to react. I had never felt that when watching on film, where the experience was (for me) primarily an intellectual one. It was a delight to discover so much humour in the play - not least because it was so well brought out by the actors and the director, who it appears - from comments in the talkback afterwards - were reinforced, energized, and sometimes surprised by the audience's reactions. For the record, the actors were Jonathan Broke ('A' and Listener) and Ben Crystal ('B' and Reader) and the director was Jonathan Heron (who also played 'C').

The whole thing reminded me so much of Shakespeare's Globe - which is what prompted this post in the first place! - where an audience can take a while to realize that it is allowed to be dynamic in its relationship to what is going on on stage, but once it does, it takes off! There were several moments in the OP productions when the use of the distinctive accent triggered a specific response - the one I remember best was the pronunciation of the name Ajax as 'a-jakes' (where jakes is the Elizabethan word for 'pisshouse'), which always got a laugh when normally the line would have been heard in silence. I would try and remember some other examples, but my head is full of Beckett today, and once he is inside your head it takes a while for him to go away.

On OP (the latest)

A correspondent writes to ask whether there have been any further productions of Shakespeare in 'original pronunciation' (OP), following the Romeo and Troilus at Shakespeare's Globe in 2005 and 2006 respectively - and whether there are to be any more.

The last question I can't answer - though I hope so. Every time I turn a piece of Shakespeare into OP I find something new - a rhyme that now works, a piece of unexpected wordplay, a fresh metrical reading, or just a general frisson that comes from hearing familiar lines read in an accent that is as close as we can get to how it would have been in 1600. So with only two plays done and (depending on what you include) 37-odd more to go, there is plenty of opportunity for doing something new.

The interest is continuing. In July this year an American director, Alex Torra, put on a performance of extracts from various plays in OP at a theatre in New York, which was evidently very well received. He is one of several expressions of interest I've had from people in the US, some of which I expect will turn into productions in due course. Also earlier this year I did an OP transcription and recording of the Sonnets for the sonnet marathon-man, Will Sutton. Maybe we'll hear them at the Rose one day: that would be electrifying. I'll keep readers of this blog posted, as soon as I hear of anything happening.

Monday 12 November 2007

On having lunch/dinner

A correspondent writes as follows: 'When I came across nouns for meals in my teaching I faced a problem because I belong to a non-Western culture. Dinner is the main meal of the day, I believe, in Western societies. It is usually eaten in the evening. What about lunch? It is usually a midday meal and people often have it at work. In Eastern societies, however, the main meal is usually in the afternoon [like lunch]. So, should we call it lunch or dinner?'

Dictionaries define dinner as a main meal, and leave open the question of time of day. This is because there is a great deal of regional and social class variation. In some parts of the UK (and also in some other parts of the English-speaking world) when people take their main meal in the middle of the day (eg in some farming communities) then that is called dinner. They wouldn't use the word lunch at all; and for them an evening meal would be called tea or more likely supper.

My own usage has changed over the years. When I lived in Liverpool, as a teenager, the meal I had in the middle of the day, whether at school or at weekends, was called dinner. Today, after a few decades of eating in the south of England, I call this lunch.

The standard word for a meal taken in the middle of the day is lunch. For many people, lunch is a light meal - it might only be a sandwich. Note that there are several ways of expressing variation at lunchtime, such as light lunch, big lunch, heavy lunch, and working lunch, which don't usually apply to the word dinner. After some publisher's lunches I've attended, I don't feel like eating for a week.

As always, there are exceptions. In schools, the traditional phrase for the lunchtime meal was school dinners and the people who serve it were called dinner ladies - and still are, in many places. And on Christmas day, most people sit down to a Christmas dinner - at lunchtime.

The two elements influencing usage, therefore, are the importance of the meal and the time of day. The main factor seems to be the importance of the meal, and so dinner would seem to be the solution, in the case of my correspondent. But he needs to listen out for the way others use the terms in English in his part of the world, for that will be more important than anything.

Monday 5 November 2007

On being high up

A correspondent from Italy writes to ask if there is any connection betweeen speech and altitude. Do languages spoken in the mountains have a distinctive phonology?

I don't know of any correlation between speech and altitude environment - and, indeed, I wouldn't expect there to be any. I can't think of any reason why a sound system of a language should be affected by height or, for that matter, by any other physical environmental factor. I know there are popular views which argue to the contrary - for example, saying that people who live in mountains will have a higher and more sweeping range of intonation patterns, whereas people who live on low plains will have a flatter intonation, but phonetic investigations give no support. I've also come across such views in relation to the accents within a language (eg from dialect coach Joan Washington in a BBC4 TV programme earlier this year called 'How the Edwardians Spoke'). Another example is the belief that people who live in coastal districts have a lot of back consonants or a nasal twang because the sea mists cause more nasal catarrh - this has been claimed with reference to the Liverpool accent, for example. Again, there's no basis: back consonants and nasal twangs turn up in non-marine environments and lots of accents on coasts don't show these features.

The only language phenomena I can think of which relate to physical environment are the speech surrogate systems - the so-called 'drum or whistle languages', used to cope with the need to communicate across distances (such as mountain valleys). I give a brief account in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, but there will be several references online.

Monday 29 October 2007

On whilst

A correspondent writes to take up a point in an earlier blog, where (in relation to a question about authorship and Shakespeare) I say I always write while and never whilst. He claims he does make a distinction, as follows: 'Fred danced while Ginger walked tells us that they were doing separate things at the same time. Fred danced whilst Ginger walked suggests that Ginger's walking was in distinction to Fred's dancing.' And he feels that 'This meaning of whilst is perhaps a synonym for whereas, except to me it conveys a clearer sense that things are happening at the same time.'

The problem is a local one, in British English. Whilst is virtually unknown in US English. But I can easily believe, because of the ambiguity in while/whilst - words which express both a temporal and a contrastive meaning - that some speakers have introduced a semantic difference, and it sounds as though my correspondent is one. I've heard while/whilst being contrasted in some regional dialects (eg Yorkshire), so he certainly isn't alone. But it isn't a feature of standard English - or, at least, not yet! Dictionaries (such as the OED) treat them as straightforward synonyms. Those who want to make a distinction, then, face a problem, in that they would need to ensure that the context was very clear, to avoid a risk of being misunderstood.

I do share my correspondent's intuition that the contrastive meaning is stronger in whilst than it is in while. But with whereas competently handling that sense, I have no motivation to use it in my idiolect.

Sunday 28 October 2007

On liking

An ELT correspondent writes to say he thinks he has a problem with the verb like. He has been interpreting such sentences as I like reading mind-tickling books as an expression of an ongoing habit, but I like to read a good book as an expression of current want, and not as a statement of habits - equivalent to I'd like to read a good book. He thinks that 'the would like form is simply more polite or perhaps putting more stress on the "want" aspect of the verb'.

His suspicions are right. Both constructions after like are habitual, though in slightly different ways, for there is a potential contrast of aspect here. ELT books tend to concentrate on tense rather than aspect, and often say little or nothing about cases like this. It's a major theme of the reference grammars, though, and readers wanting to follow up the point should take a look at, say, section 16.40 in the big Quirk grammar (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language).

Usually the infinitive form gives a sense of potentiality for action whereas the participle gives a sense of actual performance. To adapt one of the Quirk examples:

Sheila tried to bribe the jailor [but he took no notice of her offer].
Sheila tried bribing the jailor [but although he took the money she didn't get the result she wanted].

In the first example the jailor didn't take the bribe; in the second example he did.

The potentiality/performance contrast is clear with emotive verbs such as dread, hate, love, loathe, prefer - and like:

I like to visit Mary [whenever I can, but I don't actually get the chance very often]
I like visiting Mary [and manage to get to see her most weekends]

Transfer the contexts, and the sentences - especially the second - don't work so well:

I like to visit Mary [and manage to get to see her most weekends]
I like visiting Mary [but I don't actually get the chance very often]

It's because the infinitive has this strong implication of potentiality that the would like construction uses it for hypothetical situations: I would like to visit Mary. Here, I would like visiting Mary is much less likely to occur, and for me it's ungrammatical. The contrast is even more marked in interrogatives: Would you like to visit Mary? is OK, but Would you like visiting Mary? isn't.

Notice that the aspectual nuance varies with the kind of verb. With a verb like read (which lacks the iterativity implicit in visit) the notion of continuity implicit in the act of reading reduces the contrast, so that the following two sentences are as close to being synonymous as you'll ever find:

John likes to read a good book
John likes reading a good book

In both cases, you do read good books regularly. To get a hypothetical sense, you have to alter the construction, and that is where the would form comes in. In John would like to read a good book he has not yet done so.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

On big letters in dictionaries

A correspondent from the Czech Republic, having noticed that the amount of space devoted to individual letters in a Czech dictionary is different from what is found in English, writes to ask why some letters of an alphabet contain more words than others.

It's an interesting question, which it's possible to answer in general terms but not always in detail. The basic point is that writing systems reflect phonologies, and the individual vowels and consonants of a sound system occur at different frequencies (there's a list of the frequencies for English in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language). So, when an alphabetic orthography is first developed, the letter frequencies are likely to reflect the sounds. That is why, for example, in English the 'largest' letter in the dictionary is /s/ - this is because English phonology allows more clusters of consonants (C) in which /s/ is the first element than for any other sound - sing with C-, sting with CC-, and string with CCC-, this last sequence being the most complex you can have in initial syllable position in English.

The complication is that, over time, other factors intervene, so that the original phonological system becomes obscured. In English the arrival of the Normans meant that French spellings complicated the originally clear relationship between sounds and letters. Classical spellings caused further complications in the 16th century. And it only takes an influx of loan words to alter the balance of letters in a language or even to introduce a letter which was not there before. There is no native w in many languages, for example (such as Spanish), but loan words (such as World Wide Web) have meant that there is now a W section in a modern Spanish dictionary.

Friday 28 September 2007

On ful(l)

A correspondent writes to ask why we write full and not beautifull, etc.

There's been vacillation between -ll and -l for the suffix since Anglo-Saxon times. The suffix derives from full, but that word was often spelled with a single -l in Old English. As time went by, that -l became more frequent, perhaps because it was in an unstressed syllable and people were losing their sense of its original meaning of 'fullness'; but -ll remains the commonest spelling in the Middle Ages.

There is no clear pattern. Each word has its own history. Wonderful had -l in Old English and alternated with -ll until the 18th century. Beautiful had -ll until the early 1700s. Graceful was mainly -ll to begin with, sometimes -l, then settled down with -l from the mid-17th century.

The uncertainty isn't restricted to this particular suffix. Many other kinds of word were affected, such as natural and angel. And the uncertainty was still there even in Dr Johnson's time. In his Dictionary (1755) we find downhill and uphil, as well as downfall and pitfall and several others. The variation is still with us today, especially between American and British English: compare fullness / fulness, distill / distil, enroll / enrol, and so on.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

On less months

A correspondent writes to say she had read the sentence 'She resigned after fewer than 14 months in the post', and she comments: 'I can see that, in theory, "fewer" is correct here because it refers to the number of months; but, in practice, it sounds completely wrong to me. My explanation, for what it's worth, is that what "fewer than 14 months" communicates is a number of months smaller than 14; whereas what the writer really meant was "just under 14 months" - i.e. an amount of time, not a number of months. Does "fewer than 14 months" sound wrong to you? And if so, why?'

It certainly does - but not for the numerical reason given. It's not so much the fact that there's a number but how we view the number which is important. '14 months' here isn't being viewed as a series of separate months but as a holistic period of time. It's really 'She resigned after a period of less than 14 months in the post'. The usage is therefore uncountable rather than countable, which is why 'fewer' sounds odd and 'less' would be the preferred option.

There are lots of alternations which depend upon how we view the noun. The standard examples are 'more cakes' vs 'more cake'. But virtually any noun can vary in countability, if the context is right. 'Tables' and 'chairs' are countable - but in a story about a hungry termite family, we might encounter someone asking for 'some more chair' for pudding, or one termite complaining that he had been given 'less chair' than another.

Monday 27 August 2007

On Mlabri

Coincidentally, having mentioned the splendid film about endangered languages, 'In Language we Live' in yesterday's blog, now arrives through the post the latest film from the Danish company who made it, Final Cut. It is called 'The Importance of Being Mlabri'. The Mlabri are a small tribe of about 200 living in Northern Thailand. They figured briefly and memorably in the first film - memorable, from a linguistic point of view, for the way they use striking leisurely high-to-mid falling intonation patterns on the last syllable of their sentences. The effect gives the language an entrancing appeal, which I'd not heard in other languages - almost as if they are singing to each other, at times.

Now directors Janus Billeskov Jansen and Signe Byrge Sørensen have devoted a whole film to the Mlabri, who are desperately trying to preserve their way of life within a society where other groups, notably the Hmong (Outsiders, as they call them) are dominant. The film is an extraordinary portrayal of the community. It is told entirely in Mlabri, with English (or Danish) sub-titles. The people seemed totally unconscious of the camera, and it is as if we are part of their village. The film was motivated by the fact that the language is endangered, but languages are people, and what we see here is the threat posed to the tribe as a whole.

Language preservation depends on several factors. It is partly a matter of economics, and we see the difficulties the tribe has in finding jobs and making ends meet. It is partly a matter of marrying within the tribe, and we see the difficulties young men have in finding a wife, when there are so few single girls in their own community. They have to travel to other Mlabri villages to see if there is anyone there. It is also a matter of inter-generational transmission, and in a hugely moving sequence we see a group of Mlabri children leaving the village and going away to boarding school in the nearby city for the first time. We follow them there and see them in their classroom learning English. And we see them return to their village at the end of term, and sense the uncertainty of their (relatively uneducated) parents and elders as they try to come to terms with what is happening to their (newly educated) children. Will they retain their Mlabri language and identity? It would seem so. Throughout all the difficulties emerges clearly the spirit and sense of identity of the people, who in this film symbolize the plight of hundreds of communities round the world.

Anyone concerned about endangered languages should see this film. Beautifully shot and edited, it is one of very few attempts (so far) to tell an endangered language story in real detail. Final Cut Productions is based in Copenhagen: Forbindelsesvej 7, DK-2100 Copenhagen. Contact Signe Byrge Sørensen: I wish it well.

Sunday 26 August 2007

On not being on TV

Someone has just asked me why they hear me often on radio but never see me on TV. Well it's not actually never, but it's certainly rare. If I recount my TV experiences this year, you'll see why.

About a year ago I was approached by the UK office of ABC, the Australian TV network, wanting to do a profile for a series. This is the filming that took place: an hour's talk followed by discussion and an interview at last year's Hay winter litfest; a morning at Shakespeare's Globe, talking about Shakespeare with Ben; a blustery half-day walking around locations where I live; a couple of hours of interview at home. Oh, and because they wanted a more personal public talk than the ones I usually give, they asked me to put together a special bio-talk which was recorded at a local venue, the Ucheldre Centre - that took a couple of days' preparation along with the performance.

And the result? A piece lasting some six minutes, called War of Words, in which I was set up as part of a confrontation with Lynne Truss, whom they had also interviewed. Nobody had told me this was going to happen. I must admit I had wondered why the interviewer kept asking me for my thoughts on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but thought this was going to be just one topic among several much more important ones - such as endangered languages. There are editorial cuts which make my position seem more extreme than it is. I actually think there's a lot of good stuff in Lynne's book, and say so, in these talks. None of that was left in - well, it wouldn't make good television, to have people agreeing with each other, would it. Somebody has put it up on YouTube, though I can't imagine why.

Four days for six minutes? I doubt whether anyone would think this was a good use of time. If it were a one-off, it wouldn't be so bad. But it is par for the course. Also earlier this year I agreed to take part in 'The C-Word'. A whole morning's filming in Caernarfon. I was sent a list of about 20 questions in advance which they wanted me to answer. I was told this would be a major part of the programme, because they wanted to give this sensitive topic a serious treatment. The questions were good, and the interviews - taking well over an hour - allowed me to explore the history and phonetics of the word in some detail. The result? About a minute, on just one point, in an hour-long programme.

So why do I do it? Because it's part of the job. If you're keen on popularizing language ideas, then you can't ignore TV. And I'm an optimist. Each time I think it's going to be better than last time. And mostly I'm wrong.

I guess it's the occasional good result that keeps me optimistic. For instance, I was pleased with the result of the documentary on English accents and dialects in Wales, made for BBC Wales as part of the Voices project in 2005, called 'The Way They Say It'. You can see a few clips at BBC Wales. But the problem was the same: for that 50-minute programme, we recorded well over 30 hours of material.

So I much prefer radio, which on the whole gives you a fair return for the effort you put into it, and isn't scared of 'talking heads'. And as I have a studio at home (the nearest BBC studio is 25 miles away) it's easy to do quick interviews on topics, as they come up.

The other point, as I've mentioned in a previous post, is that TV isn't as interested in language as it should be. I would certainly do more documentary stuff if I were asked, but that rarely happens. I've tried half a dozen times, in collaboration with various producers, to get a major series about language onto television, but none of the proposals have ever been taken up. The commissioning editors I've encountered think that language is abstract and boring - a consequence of bad experiences in school, I suspect. One actually said to me once, 'You can't possibly think that parsing would make good television!' I pointed out that language is people, and people make good television. But the suspicion was too great.

So it hasn't been that I haven't tried. I tend to respond best to enthusiasm from others, so I've spent much more time in recent years working with film documentary producers - mainly in relation to endangered languages - who have a proper respect for the subject. A good example is 'In Languages We Live' . And as some of these films end up on television anyway, maybe I'm on it more than I think.

Which is where we came in.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

On the H Quarto of Hamlet

A further follow-up to my recent Edinburgh talk is a query about the previously unknown 'H' Quarto of Hamlet, which I discovered in a drain in Stratford earlier this year. I uncannily anticipated this when I wrote By Hook or By Crook, where I included a few lines as an example of language play, not realizing that I would have the good fortune to discover a genuine manuscript a couple of years later. The manuscript demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Shakespeare suffered from octoliteraphilia - a loving obsession with the eighth letter of the alphabet.

I include an extract from this amazing work in my talk about the book, which has led someone to write and ask if there could ever be an opportunity to read the whole play, or is it still the subject of scholarly analysis. The answer is yes to both questions. An edition of the H Quarto is available (as print on demand or e-book) via my website, - see the Crystal Books Project.

On HarryPotterlinguistics

One of the bonuses of giving talks at book festivals is that you add vastly to your range of examples. I've been taking By Hook or By Crook around the litfests this year, and I always come away after each event with new stuff - personal stories about inventing words, puns, dialect usage, and so on. And sometimes a new (to me) source of data. This has just happened after the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I was talking last weekend. One of the things I discuss in the book is the linguistic contrast between the British and American editions of Harry Potter. I had no idea that there was a website devoted to such a thing - but there is. Someone who was at the talk has just told me about it. The URL is at Harry Potter British English .
I've just had a browse and it is a very interesting site, identifying all kinds of points of linguistic difference. The forum responses are pretty accurate, too, judging by the ones I looked at.

I describe By Hook or By Crook as a linguistic travelogue, and - as I say in the preface - it is the side-roads that produce some of the most enjoyable encounters with language. The Web is full of brilliant side-roads - if you can find them. So, thanks to my correspondent Susi for the signpost.

Saturday 11 August 2007

On you know

A correspondent from Armenia writes to ask about the origins of you know as a parenthetical conversational 'filler'. Is it recent?

No. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations from the 14th century - though it isn't always clear whether the words are being used parenthetically or with their full meaning. I've just had a look at Shakespeare's usage (by typing 'you know' into the Glossary box at and found several apparently parenthetical instances, but the meaning isn't always clear. Which is it, when the Countess says 'You know, Helen, I am a mother to you' (All's Well, 1.3.133)? But it's clearly a filler when Falstaff says 'to serve bravely is to come halting off, you know' (2H4. 2.4.49). So the usage has definitely been around for a long time, and probably evolved as a weakening of the literal meaning, in contexts such as the one used by the Countess.

On bus

A South African correspondent writes to tell me of a nice noun/verb conversion. Evidently, someone who had graduated 'cum laude' told her that she had 'cummed her degree'. I hadn't come across that one before. And she asked about the unusual use of bus as a verb. Is this a new usage?

It certainly isn't. The Oxford English Dictionary has a first recorded usage of bus as a verb from 1838. But the word itself is unusual. It derives from omnibus, which is the dative plural of the Latin word omnis, so it means 'for all' - a 'vehicle for all'. I can't think of another instance where an old inflectional ending has risen to such English linguistic heights.

On informality in dictionaries

A correspondent writes from Brazil to say that it is his impression that the usage label Colloquial has virtually disappeared from English language dictionaries, being replaced by Informal. Is this true, and, if so, why? He notes that colloquial is still very much alive in Brazilian lexicography.

It does seem to be true. I can't remember the last time I saw colloq in a dictionary. I think the reason is that many of the early terms changed as stylistic labelling in dictionaries became more sophisticated - a consequence of the more linguistically informed lexicography of the past few decades. In the old days, it was assumed that the only words worth including in a dictionary were words from written English, assumed to be formal and standard. Anything from speech was then conveniently dubbed ‘colloquial’.

But once it was realized that both speech and writing contained both formal and informal varieties, the term colloquial was not so effective, because it lacks an antonym (apart from non-colloquial, and the like). Formal and informal, however, made a neat terminological contrast, and allowed in the notion of a scale of formality. I remember opting for this change myself, in some early stylistic work in the 1970s. In Investigating English Style (1969) Derek Davy and I used (in)formal mainly, with some reference to colloquial, but by the time we wrote Advanced Conversational English (1976), (in)formality was our norm.

Informal is also wider in its application, being equally at ease in relation to both speech and writing. Colloquial is very much bound up with speech: could one talk of 'colloquial writing'? And even in relation to speech, informal is more useful, as it enters more readily into collocations - one can easily say informal conversation, but colloquial conversation is a bit odd. So I'm not surprised really to see the terminological shift in dictionaries - at least, in monolingual English dictionaries. I've just looked at some bilingual dictionaries, and I see colloquial and formal used in a few cases, perhaps because the choice of terms has been influenced by a different terminological tradition in the other languages.

Friday 10 August 2007

On being the

A correspondent writes to tell me about an argument at a cocktail party recently. Evidently there was a NY Times wedding announcement stating: 'Jane is the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Jones of ...', and somebody was arguing that this would be an improper usage if the Jones's had more that one daughter. My correspondent argued that it wasn't necessarily so: ' Something about the special nature of the announcement suggests that to me. Any thoughts on the "right" answer?'

I think my correspondent is right: context is everything, when it comes to the use of the definite article. There are occasions when the usage the daughter would be misleading, if the parents had more than one daughter. If I say 'I'm going out with the daughter of Mr and Mrs Jones', it does suggest that the Jones's have only one, and if you knew that they had more than one you would be well within your linguistic rights to pick me up on it: 'Which one?' A more appropriate sentence would be 'I'm going out with one of Mr and Mrs Jones's daughters'. When the situation allows a choice between one and more than one, then the regular distinction between the and a applies.

But this is a wedding announcement, where the focus is on this particular bride, and nobody is thinking of the other twelve daughters that are in the Jones household. It is a fact that she is 'the daughter of Mr and Mrs Jones'. And here, at her wedding, she is the daughter, indeed, who they must be feeling very proud of. There is no choice between one and more than one here. So there is no ambiguity.

In any case, what would be the alternative? 'Jane is a daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Jones'? That sounds to me as if she's being given away rather casually. Of course, one could always avoid the issue altogether: 'Jane, daughter of....

There is probably a larger linguistic issue here, to do with the way articles are used with family members. I just asked my wife who she was, in relation to her mother. She said: 'I'm the daughter of Audrey Norman'. She is the only daughter. I then asked her about her brother Martin's relationship to her mother, and she said: 'He's the son of Audrey Norman'. But she has two brothers. Family members seem to ask for definite treatment, regardless of how many they are. 'Come and meet John. He's the uncle of Jane'. How many uncles has Jane got? We don't know. Nor do we know in the more natural 'He's Jane's uncle'.

I wonder if the usage developed early in kinship language as an extension from those family members who are necessarily unique - the mother, the father, the mother-in-law, the father-in-law - and where sentences such as 'Let me introduce you to a mother of Jane' are definitely anomalous!

On liking being

A teacher of English from Hong Kong writes with a grammatical question. 'I have spent many years teaching students the difference between stative and dynamic verbs and telling them they can't use stative ones in the continuous. However, I'm quite delighted to hear that you obviously can, as so many native speakers are now doing so. Thus I'm hearing (you see!) 'I'm not believing you.', 'I'm not understanding.', 'I'm liking it.' as well as the ubiquitous 'I'm loving it.' This seems a very positive change which I shall teach my students. To me 'I'm not understanding.' implies 'I might understand if you keep trying to explain.' 'I'm not believing you.' 'Keep trying and I might.' 'I'm loving it.' 'Whatever 'it' is is not of permanent concern to me.' I have two questions: Is this a permanent change and, if so, when are teaching materials going to catch up with it?'

Many grammarians (see, for example, the big Quirk grammar) emphasize that stative and dynamic are best viewed not as two types of verb but rather as two potential uses of a verb - much as countable and uncountable nouns are best viewed as two uses of nouns, in view of examples like 'some cake vs a cake. The idea is that the norm is for verbs to be used in both ways, with the appropriate change in aspectual meaning taking place. Those which disallow one use or the other are then seen as the exceptions, such as *I'm owning three cars.

Why is this sentence odd? As your examples illustrate, the sense expressed by the continuous form is one of 'activity in progress', and as own is a notion which doesn't have any sense of progress, it would be contradictory to use a grammatical form which suggests that it does. The meaning of the verb has got to allow a dynamic meaning before it can be exploited in this way.

You have to watch the grammatical context, of course. While it is perfectly possible to say I'm liking it, you can't do so with a clause complement (*I'm liking to visit libraries). So it's important not to give students the impression that they can use continuous forms willy-nilly. Having said that, some varieties of English (especially Indian English) have long been distinctive in the extent to which they use continuous forms, even in contexts which would be ungrammatical in British English.

The usage is by no means new. It seems to have grown in frequency during the early Modern English period. Very early usages include Jane Austen 'it was being very deficient' (in Emma, 1816) and Keats 'I was not existing' (1820), and the usage seems to have become more widespread during the 19th century and after. There's a nice discussion in the essay by David Denison in the Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol 4, p. 143ff.

I can answer your first question: It's definitely a permanent change (for the forseeble future, at any rate). But how long it takes for teaching materials to reflect such changes is well beyond my ken.

Sunday 5 August 2007

On schwa

A correspondent from Brazil writes to ask about the origins of the phonetics term schwa, used to identify, for example, the English mid-central vowel sound of unstressed the or the final vowel in sofa, and written with an inverted e.

The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary is very good on this. This establishes the origin in Hebrew grammar, where sheva was the name of the sign placed under a consonant letter to show the absence of a following vowel or, in some positions, the sounding of a neutral vowel. In this sense, there are citations in English from as early as 1582. The term was adopted by 19th-century Germanic philologists to identify similar sounds in Indo-European languages, and the symbol was included in the International Phonetic Alphabet when this was devised in the 1880s. The first OED citation for the word in English is 1895, and subsequent usage spells the word both as schwa and shwa, though the former is much more common.

The etymology seems to be that sheva develops a usage as shva in German, and then becomes spelled as
schwa, and thus arrives in English.

Thursday 2 August 2007

On Pitmatic

A Radio 4 listener writes to ask if I can provide details of the dictionary which has been compiled on Pitmatic. She heard me talking about this on the Today programme this morning, and didn't catch the title - which was hardly surprising, as the Today presenter, curiously, didn't bother to give it! It's by Bill Griffiths, and it's called Pitmatic: the Talk of the North East Coalfield, and it's published by Northumbria University Press at £9.99.

Pitmatic is the name given to the dialect which was used by the miners. It was originally called Pitmatical - someone, doutbless thinking of the craftsmanship and precision involved in the work, thought up an analogy with mathematical. It's a fascinating dialect, all right, preserving usages that have been lost in the standard language and illustrating coinages from the miners themselves. I suppose pits everywhere developed their own dialects in this way, but it's rare to see someone bothering to document them, and there's something about the north-east which is special - after all, we talk about 'carrying coals to Newcastle' and not to any other part of the country.

The publicity surrounding Bill's dictionary says it's the first compilation of this dialect. First modern compilation, certainly - but it's always dangerous to claim a first in anything to do with the lexicon, given the thousands of word-buffs who made collections of words in the 18th and 19th centuries. And indeed, I found a few years ago in a Hay bookshop an earlier collection - A Glossary of Terms used in the Coal Trade of Northumberland and Durham, published by John Bell in Newcastle in 1849. It'll be interesting to compare this with Bill's collection, to see what sort of changes have taken place. Here are some examples from the 1849 booklet:

kenner an expression signifying time to give up work, shouted down the shaft
kibble a wooden tub used in conveying rubbish
kirving a wedge-shaped excavation
kist a chest
kitty a piece of straw filled with gunpowder

It's nice to see dialect collections given such publicity - in the press, radio, and television this week. And doubtless this is not the only blog to refer to it.

Mind you, having said that, I know it doesn't take much for a language item to be dropped from a programme. Readers of this blog might be interested to know how interviews of this kind are set up. It usually starts with a phone call from a programme's researcher, who wants to talk about a possible topic for inclusion. Usually these people have spotted a media piece and think it's good for radio or tv treatment. That's what happened in this case, for a piece on Pitmatic appeared in the Guardian on Monday. (It often happens the other way round. I'm sure that in some papers tomorrow there will be a reference to Pitmatic as a result of some journalists having heard the item on Today. The media are always stealing from each other.) This preliminary discussion is often a complete waste of time, because in my experience for every initial contact that turns into a piece on air there are five which don't. Still, it's part of the job, if you're a language popularizer.

The researchers explore the topic with you, basically trying to get an angle which would be of interest to the programme, working out what kind of contribution it might be, who else might be involved, the sort of questions that the programme presenter might ask, and seeing if you are available. They then take the information to a production planning meeting and promise to phone back. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. In this case they did, and the result was an early-morning call. I have a radio studio at home, so I didn't have the problem getting to a studio. (That's why I invested in an ISDN line and reporter's box years ago, to allow easy access. Previously, it would have meant an hour's trek over to the nearest BBC studio, in Bangor.)

Even so, despite all the preliminaries, you have to be ready for changes of plan. For instance, I was told that Bill would be on the programme first, talking about his book - but (I learned later) he was on breakfast tv instead. So when the item was introduced I was taken aback when the presenter came immediately to me. Nobody had bothered to tell me he wasn't going to be on. And then a couple of minutes in there was some interference from another channel (this sometimes happens when you do something down the line), so the interview came to a premature end, and Thought for the Day started early. Hey ho.

Fortunately this morning we didn't have a major piece of news (such as Paris Hilton breaking a fingernail) taking up all the time available. I've lost track of the number of times I've been asked to do a radio piece, and then the producer calls and says sorry, but something more important has cropped up. 'Drop the dead donkey' is the expression. I remember being stopped in full flow when a local radio station decided that covering the start of Mr Blair's resignation speech live was much more important. Really! In this case, I had a feeling that they would keep the item, as they had found an archive piece of Geordie miners talking to each other, and radio loves to present that kind of thing. But still, I have fantasies that, one day, language will take priority as a media topic. 'Postpone that interview with George Bush announcing his resignation because we have DC talking about dialects.' Yeah, right.

Saturday 28 July 2007

On bloglessness

Having noticed that my blog was silent during most of July, a regular reader has asked me whether I am still alive. I am. So why the bloglessness? Two reasons.

One is that my blog - as I mentioned in my very first post - is reactive not proactive. I am always happy to respond to messages sent in, but for some reason July was very quiet in that respect. Possibly the end of term left bloggers exhausted, or maybe holidays offered new non-blogging opportunities. The other is that I've been away myself, and it's never easy to maintain a blog when you're belting about abroad.

Especially when you're at a festival type of occasion. I was in Uherske Hradiste, in the Czech Republic, where they hold an annual international film festival. What's that got to do with linguistics, I hear you ask? Well, one of the organizers is a film-maker, Michael Havas, who is making a film on endangered languages - to be specific, on one such language, Krenak, spoken by less than a dozen people in Brazil. I've been acting as a consultant on this film, and the festival was an opportunity for Michael to show the pilot footage he has already shot, and to bring together the main people involved. And one of them was one of the last speakers, Ailton Krenak, an activist who had been flown over for the occasion. So that was special. I learned a few Krenak words. Erehe - good.

As part of the occasion there was a reading from my play 'Living On', which I've talked about in earlier posts. The plot involves an encounter with a last speaker, and explores his feelings about having his language documented by western linguists. It was an unusual experience reading from the play knowing that there was a genuine almost-last speaker in the audience, and I was eager to hear his reaction. We had a surprisingly meaningful chat about it, in a mixture of Brazilian Portuguese (which I know a bit) and English (which he knows a bit). He told me that he was used to westerners talking to his head, whereas my play had reached his heart. The thoughts of my character, Shalema, it seems, had been his too. I was delighted, and not a little relieved, to hear this. I had based my Shalema dialogue on many reports of real-life interactions with speakers of endangered languages, but this was the first time I had received feedback of this kind. I was also pleased that our bit of live theatre went down well with a film audience. It confirmed my belief (which I argued at length in a UNESCO paper in 2004 - you can read it on my website) that the arts are the best way of getting a message across to the general public.

Actually, I'm not sure what the usage is, in my first sentence above. Is one 'silent' when one does not blog for a while? Or 'quiet'? Or what? I don't know what the best collocation is.

On sounding British, not

A correspondent writes from Tehran worried about his English accent. He speaks English fluently, he says, but with a Persian accent which he finds 'very funny', and he goes on: 'is there any hope for me to speak English with an English or American accent? I am 26 years old and I am young enough to change my accent. I would really like to speak English with a good accent and not a Persian accent.'

Well I don't find the Persian accent - or any foreign accent - 'funny'' or 'bad' at all. If the sound system of a language has been mastered to the extent that speech is intelligible, then that suffices. I love hearing the range of identities that manifest themselves in English through foreign accents - a French accent, a German accent, a Persian accent, and so on. The accents convey the speakers' identites, and that is an important element in knowing who I am talking to. Exactly the ssme sort of thing happens to me when I go abroad. I speak whatever language it is in a distinctly British accent - and why not?

Why should anyone want to lose their identity so completely, in speaking a foreign language? Surely the only people who want to merge so totally into a new language that their ethnic origins cannot be noticed are spies? In fact it is very rare indeed for someone to develop a phonetic ability to the extent that their foreign origins are totally masked.

I can understand where my correspondent is coming from, of course. There was a time, in imperial days, when Received Pronunciation ruled (in British-influenced parts of the world) and foreign accents were risible. So were local UK regional accents. Speakers of such accents were often made to feel embarassed or inferior. It is only in the last 20 years or so that we have entered a new era of interest, tolerance, and respect for non-RP varieties of English. In 1980 the BBC's Radio 4 tried out a Scots-speaking presenter and hastily withdrew her when complaints built up. In 2005 the BBC celebrated all British accents in its Voices project. That is how far the climate has changed. Mocking accents, in an increasingly multi-ethnic world, is slowly being seen to be as anti-social as is mocking colour or dress.

It will take longer for these new attitudes to influence speakers abroad, but it will come. One reason for the lag is the existence in many parts of the world of an expat community of older citizens whose attitudes were formed a generation or two ago, and they inevitably influence local opinion. Another reason is that the phonetic norms and attitudes taught in many ELT institutions, especially in universities, are still focused sharply on RP - often displaying a conservative kind of RP which has long since disappeared from the UK - and I have often encountered there a reluctance to accept that other types of accent, and especially the local accents of the community, have a value.

Things are changing, though, as a result of new regional norms emerging around the English-speaking world. When millions of people speak English in a locally distinctive way - educated people alongside uneducated - then it does not take long for a tipping-point to be reached, and it becomes as pointless to condemn an accent in India or Nigeria for being non-RP as it would be to condemn Australians or Americans for speaking in the way they do. One needs to achieve a standard of international intelligibility, but that still leaves enormous scope for accent variation. In the end, it is a matter of confidence and pride.

When people adopt a language as a medium of communication, they immediately adapt it, to suit the new circumstances. A local accent is an inevitable and natural consequence. So I say to my Iranian correspondent: do not think of your Persian accent as being 'bad' or 'funny'. By all means move towards a British or American norm if you want to, but do this for positive reasons (eg a desire to identify more closely with those cultures) and not for negative reasons. However, as long as your accent is sufficiently clear that you are capable of being understood by people from outside your country, I wouldn't bother trying to change it at all.

Sunday 24 June 2007

On undesirable alignments

A correspondent writes to enquire about the typographical phenomenon in which pieces of identical text - single words or phrases - appear exactly above each other in a column of print. She gives an example from a BBC website of 22 June - a remark by Gordon Brown: 'It is a good thing he is out, it is a good thing Iraq is a democracy, it is a good thing people are able to vote' - in which the first and third examples of 'It is a good thing' are exactly aligned. She comments: 'To an experienced reader these occurrences shout out like a bad spelling' and she asks 'Has this phenomenon ever been questioned, or analysed? Are there any logical or mathematical reasons or is really down to randomness?'

This is a consequence of repetitive content in a narrow measure. I notice it regularly when editing my general encyclopedias, which have a two-column setting and quite a bit of repeated text. An example would be a family of artists. If each person has to be expounded using the same house-style, as is typical with encyclopedia entries, the likelihood of alignment is strong. It is difficult to reproduce the effect in a blog, but the following is an approximation:

[The leading mambers of the]
family were John Smith (1800-1880), born in Dundee, Scotland, and
his two sons Allan Smith (1830-1910), born in Plymouth, Devon, and
the prolific James Smith (1835-1891), born in Plymouth, Devon.

In a first typesetting, alignments of this kind can occur every few pages, and because they are so intrusive the typesetter usually takes pains to avoid them. I pick up any that haven't been noticed, and make minor changes to get rid of them, such as taking back or taking over a word from one line to another, or hyphenating, or making a stylistic change in the text. For example:

[The leading mambers of the]
family were John Smith (1800-1880), born in Dundee, Scotland, and
his sons Allan Smith (1830-1910) and the prolific James Smith (1835-
1891), both born in Plymouth, Devon, UK.

Alignments of this kind are generally a consequence of narrow settings, such as newspaper or website columns. They are much less likely to occur in a full measure line on a reasonably wide page. And if they do appear, it is a consequence of poor typographical editing - or no such editing at all, in the case of many websites.

Just occasionally, in my experience, it proves impossible to get rid of the alignment, and one ends up having to live with it. One can do very little with a quotation, for example, as in the Gordon Brown instance. Playing about with the inter-word spacing is possible on a printed page (though not usually with much effect). This isn't an option on web pages.

Thursday 14 June 2007

On simplifying English

A grad student from the US writes to ask if there have been other attempts to provide a simplified English apart from Ogden & Richards' Basic English and Quirk's Nuclear English. She wonders why these attempts never prospered. Is it, she asks, because linguistic simplification is impossible to achieve, as an end in itself (as opposed to the simplifications introduced when teaching English as a foreign language, as a stage towards students achieving command of the full language)?

There certainly have been other attempts to provide a simplified English for special purposes. One was devised for the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA), for simplifying maintenance manuals. The Voice of America has a 'Special English' project, with restricted vocabulary and simplified grammar, which has been going since 1959. And there have been several constructed languages based on English which aim to facilitate international communication, such as Seaspeak, Airspeak, and Policespeak.

I suppose you might include under this heading the kinds of simplification introduced by the UK's Plain English Society (or the equivalent in other countries) in their campaigns to increase everyday intelligibility. These are an end in themselves, and on the whole very successful too. But they had to fight to get their proposals adopted, and the battle against gobbledegook is by no means over. Plain English campaigns are only a partial simplification, though, being focused for the most part on formal written English intended for the general public.

An arbitrary simplification of the entire language is unachievable, in my view. All artificial or constructed languages come up against the same problem: how to bridge the gap between the simplified form and the reality of English as it is spoken and written (and, now, used on the internet) in its full range of unsimplified varieties? One needs to preserve continuity (with the non-simplified language) and to provide motivation. The logical arguments are all on the side of those who argue for a simplified English spelling, for example, but the pragmatic arguments are not - and pragmatics always wins. The only simplified spelling movement to have succeeded was Webster's, in America, and that was for a special set of reasons (coinciding with US independence). There have been dozens of proposals for simplified spelling since, and none have made much headway. Progress would be even more difficult to achieve if proposals were made to simplify grammar and vocabulary. The usage brigades would be on the streets fighting to defend the language's expressive richness.

Simplification is actually complicated. It sounds easy, for example, to reduce vocabulary to a core set of words. But as soon as you do that, if you want to maintain your expressive power, you have to increase sentence length. Look at the way the Longman Dictionary of Contemporay English handles its defining vocabulary of 2000 words. All the entries restrict themselves to those words, but as a result some of the definitions get quite long. The whole point of 'long' words is that they compress into a single unit what it often takes many words to say.

A distinction has to be made between artificial and natural simplification. I don't think artificial proposals are likely to succeed, outside of special circumstances (such as Seaspeak), though they might achieve a fashionable status for a while. But natural processes of simplification are certainly possible - and visible today on the Internet. If one looks at the kind of language used in chatrooms, instant messaging, texting, and other genres of language where the technology or the nature of the interaction requires short and speedy responses, then we find shorter sentences, reduced vocabulary, and simplified spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. I give some statistics and illustrations in my Language and the Internet - the second edition in 2005 includes instant messaging and blogging, which weren't around when the first edition appeared. It's too early to say whether any of these simplifications will have a long-term impact on language; they remain special varieties at present. But when you type rubarb, for example, into Google and you get 85,000 hits, it makes you wonder. Maybe English spelling will simplify, in the long term, as a result of Googlonian democracy.

Sunday 10 June 2007

On imaginary pronunciations

A correspondent writes to ask if there is a term to describe the situation when someone insists that two words should be pronounced differently because of the spelling. She recalls a case from her childhood when a teacher told her to pronounce the words threw and through differently because they are spelled differently. She remembers the teacher haranguing the class: 'an educated person pronounces the letters in a word'. And she has since come across it many times (she writes from the USA) - people who believe they pronounce the l in half or the b in debt, and so on, even though they do not.

My correspondent suggests the term 'Holofernizing', after the pedant in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost - which is not a bad idea. She worries about the legitimacy of using Holofernes' name in this way, for he was someone who (judging by the text) really did pronounce the b in debt. But I wonder if he did. Certainly I have never seen a Holofernes on stage where the actor took that character-note seriously, and spelling-pronounced all his words. It would probably produce an unintelligible performance.

I don't know how much Holofernization there is among teachers in Britain, but I imagine it is there. It is unfortunately quite common to find people whose beliefs about language run contrary to their practice. Even more common, of course, is the reverse situation to the one described by my correspondent: people who condemn a usage which they do unconsciously practice themselves - such as those who condemn an 'intrusive r', and take pains to avoid introducing one in law and order, but do it all the time in such less noticeable cases as Africa and Asia. I don't have a term for that either.

Is there an alternative term to 'Holofernization'? I don't know of one. Linguistic terminology focuses on language realities, not imaginings. There are very few terms for states of mind about language - hypercorrection is one, when people over-compensate for an uncertain usage (as in the case of between you and I). It would be good to formally identify this problem - for, according to my correspondent, many American children are being berated by teachers for failing to make distinctions which have no basis in reality.

Perhaps a reader of this blog will come up with a better one.

Monday 21 May 2007

On a nother matter

A correspondent writes: 'Can you confirm/deny that 'an' used to be 'a' nother etc? If I am right, when did the n migrate?'

I can certainly confirm that a nother existed in English, from around 1300, as a variant of an other. Chaucer has an example: 'And saw a nothere ladye'. It was definitely a variant: there are earlier examples of both an other and another. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary also gives examples of no nother, no notherways (i.e. 'no otherwise'), and the notheren (i.e. 'the others').

The usage stayed a long time in English. It isn't surprising to see it at a time when spelling conventions had not been established, and people wrote more or less as they spoke. But the OED has found an example from as late as 1782, in a Lincolnshire glossary, suggesting that this word division stayed in people's minds, at least in some dialects. In jocular use, I still hear similar usages today: 'Got a napple?' - and you see this kind of thing written sometimes in representations of regional dialect. That people still play with article word-division is shown, in reverse, by graffiti of the type 'Be alert. This country needs lerts.'

Friday 18 May 2007

On the International Year of Languages

In a plenary session at the UN this week, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. The text affirms that this year will serve to promote unity through linguistic diversity. The Assembly called upon States and the Secretariat to work towards the conservation and defence of the world's languages. They also requested the Secretariat to appoint a coordinator for multilingualism. The idea of devoting a whole year to languages arose two years ago. It came up at the 33rd UNESCO General Conference, held in Paris at the end of 2005. It's great to see that it has been taken on board at the highest international level. There was a European Year of Languages in 2001, which did some fine things. I hope next year will do much more.

But do we in the UK have a government that is able to see anything else but the Olympics? I have my doubts. Already new arts development programmes in my area have come to a dead stop. Generating top-down interest in new language projects is going to be very hard, therefore. It's a shame, for it would be an ideal moment to resuscitate the proposal to build a 'House of Languages' in the UK - a project which nearly got off the ground in the late 90s, but which was killed off by another brilliant government idea, to build a Millennium Dome.

I think it will be up to individuals and individual institutions to do something. My own first priority will be to try to find sponsorship to get a full production of 'Living On' (see earlier posts) on stage next year. But I'm sure all kinds of unpredictable things will crop up. That's what happened in 2001, anyway.

Getting the news out is the first step. The UN has never been very good at publicising its 'years'. Hence this post.

Wednesday 16 May 2007

On answering asap

A correspondent writes from the USA: 'Here in Orange County, California, 11 to 13-year-olds are increasingly using acronyms in their conversations. Text message shorthand is now everyday talk. Instead of exclaiming, "Oh my god," kids will say, "OMG!" Instead of "Just kidding," they will say, "JK." I would like to know what you think of this development; is it good or bad for language? Why is it happening? Has it happened before?'

Yes, I've heard it in the UK too, where it's been around for a few years. (Text-messaging took off in the UK before it hit the US.) There's nothing intrinsically new about the process. I remember my Uncle Bill saying TTFN ('ta-ta-for-now') when he went off to work - and that was in the 1940s. And I say ASAP all the time. Abbreviations of this kind (i.e. colloquial ones, as opposed to the abbreviations of names, such as CNN, BBC, M&S) have been in English for ages - some for decades. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a first recorded reference to ASAP as 1955. PDQ is recorded from 1885.

Having said that, colloquial abbreviations are unusual, and what is interesting about the current text-messaging vogue is to hear so many of these (like OMG, LOL) being spoken. Some might end up with a permanent home in the language, but I doubt that most will. It's too early to say. It feels like a fashion, which might disappear as quickly as it started. It certainly isn't a big deal, as far as language is concerned. We are talking about a tiny number of uses.

As for the 'good vs bad' question - it's neither. That's like asking whether it's good or bad for the tide to come in and go out each day. It's just another manifestation of the remarkable ways in which people use language creatively to show social networks.

Monday 7 May 2007

On modernizing or not modernizing Shakespeare

A correspondent writes in relation to a point I make in an article (on the Penguin website) on whether Shakespeare should or should not be modernized, where I quote ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ as a line whose meaning is obvious to everybody. He comments: ‘But does it really mean what most people think it means? Dr Johnson in his Notes on Hamlet interprets this line as asking whether or not we will continue to exist after death. This interpretation certainly fits the context and Johnson was presumably as good a judge of Shakespeare's language as anybody. It seems probable then that the bard's most commonly quoted line is misunderstood by almost everybody and thus supports the arguments of those who wish to modernise.’

It’s an interesting point, but this isn't so much translation, to my mind, as interpretation. There's nothing in the meaning of the word be which offers this alternative. This is Johnson reading in possibilities which fit in with his mindset - someone who condemns the tragedies for their 'lack of moral purpose', and leads him to such statements as:

'In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.'

Likewise, I'm not sure I would agree that Johnson is as good a judge of Shakespeare's language as anybody. He holds an 18th-century view of literary language which leads him to such observations as: Shakespeare's narration has 'a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few'. And again: 'his declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak'. While not denying that ‘Shakespeare sometimes sleeps’, I think we would take a different view today.

I would be interested to see a modern translation purporting to make Shakespeare's language easier which actually succeeds with the line 'To be or not to be'.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

On mixing metaphors

A correspondent from Brazil cites the sentence 'It was clear that the germs of a compromise policy would have to be sown', commenting: 'Such mixed metaphors can easily slip out in unplanned English, but in careful writing you must be on guard against them. Replacing germs by seeds would repair the metaphor. He then adds: 'I would interpret such sentence as evidence of users´ linguistic creativity', and wonders if I would agree.

Mixed metaphors have certainly had a mixed press. Fowler was strongly against them, calling them an 'offence', and getting especially angry when people asked permission to mix - 'if I may mix my metaphors...'! Some of his quotations are indeed highly incongruous or semantically obscure, and that is when the stylists have a point. But most everyday mixing is not like this. In speech, I doubt whether anyone would notice the 'germs' example, because the close semantic connection between germs and seeds conveys the user's intention well enough. Nor in speech do people really have trouble handling famous examples (i.e. often quoted in style books) like 'He had his head so deep in the sand that he didn't know which side of the fence he was on'.

Note that it's the juxtaposition in a single sentence construction here which causes the judgement of mixing. If the utterance had been 'He had his head deep in the sand. He didn't know which side of the fence he was on', we would talk instead of a sequence of metaphors. We might or might not like the sequence, but that's a different point.

Stylists don't like mixing in formal writing, where they prefer people to have taken more care in their thinking. But a blanket condemnation of mixed metaphors in writing is absurd - for if one does so, one ends up banning a great deal of Shakespeare. Dozens of examples come to mind. Here are just three:

'Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself?' (Macbeth)
'all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries' (Julius Caesar)
and, most famously,
'To take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them' (Hamlet)

If this isn't linguistic creativity, I don't know what is.

Saturday 28 April 2007

On Christian vs christian

A correspondent has come across a book written by an American Christian priest who has used a small 'c' for Christian. Finding this 'odd, if not slightly disrespectful', she asks: 'Is there a rule for writing Christian or is it personal choice?'

The dictionaries are generally scrupulous about matters of capitalization, making such distinctions as 'cap'(italized), 'sometimes cap', 'usually cap', and so on. I've just looked at half a dozen: the OED, Longman, Chambers, and Collins all give it with a capital, and make no qualification. There is a hint of variation in US dictionaries: Random House gives it only with a capital, but Webster (which lists all its headwords in lower-case) says 'usu cap'.

None of these dictionaries distinguishes between the adjective and noun use: to my intuition, I would find a christian person more acceptable than a christian. With some people, intuitions are probably being affected by the Internet, where a general trend towards lower-case usage is noticeable.

But the norm is clear: Christian. And as publisher copy-editors tend to follow dictionary practice, what is surprising is to find a lower-case version allowed through in a book. This suggests that the author is making some sort of point. If so, I would expect to see it reflected in other, related usages, such as bible for Bible, or protestant for Protestant. However, my correspondent says that the author writes Episcopal priest, with a capital. So it does rather look as if some point is being made, consciously or unconsciously. There are many possible interpretations. For example, I can imagine a Dawkinsian writer lower-casing certain religious names to make a cheap point; I can imagine a denominational writer lower-casing all names bar one to make a point about identity; and I can imagine a mystical writer lower-casing names to make a point about humility.

It would make an interesting stylistic exercise to work out what was going on in this case. Or, of course, one could just ask the author.

Friday 27 April 2007

On me, me, me

An American correspondent, working in sales, notes that 'salespersons think too much of themselves and use I far more than they use you (the person to whom they are selling', and asks if I have any comment as to why it is so overwhelming? (I take it that 'I' here includes 'me', 'mine', 'my', and 'myself', and 'you' likewise, 'your', 'yours', and 'yourself'.)

I think this is a question more for psychologists than linguists, actually. But it's a commonplace of discourse analysis that a conversation doesn't work so well if one of the participants keeps talking about himself/herself; and hardly works at all if both do. The point has often been discussed in relation to such issues as gender roles - I seem to remember it coming up in Deborah Tannen's writing, for instance.

Certainly, I outranks you in all the frequency charts. I've just looked in the British National Corpus and find that I is the 11th most frequent word, whereas you is the 14th. But this hides an important distinction: in speech I is 2nd and you is 3rd, whereas in writing I is 17th and you is 21st. The contrast is greater in US English, it would appear: in the Brown University corpus, I is 20th and you is 33rd. Does this reinforce the stereotype of the British being more self-effacing, I wonder?

It's difficult to compare corpora, as they are based on very different samples and genres. And genre is critical. In the Brown corpus, for example, Romantic Fiction was the top genre for the use of I, followed by Belles Lettres and Biographies. Romantic Fiction was top for you, too (I guess because everyone keeps saying I love you), but second was Skills and Hobbies (the 'you' of instruction, I suppose).

I reckon I would be especially common in blogging, and you much less so. I remember the other day consciously avoiding a use of you in an initial post. But - having just looked back at a couple of my blogs - I see I do use you quite a bit to mean 'one', and just occasionally address 'you-all out there' as you. When the blog gets a comment, then you probably becomes more frequent. There's a thesis waiting to be written here!

The crude stats don't tell us anything about the functions of the pronouns, though. In the sales situation, I imagine there are important differences between the I of exposition ('let me tell you my experience of this product') and the I of egotism ('let me tell you about me'). You also has several functions - apart from its conventional second-person use, it can mean 'one' ('you see it often...') or even replace an I (someone who says 'It makes you sick when you see something like that' usually means 'It makes me sick when I see something like that'). If a salesman has personal experience of how a product works ('I have one of these at home...'), then it would be relevant to tell me about it. And too much use of you might be intrusive. A pronoun balance, I suspect, is what's needed.

On Living On's staged reading

The rehearsed reading of Living On took place last Monday in front of a large crowd at SOAS in London, and was warmly received. It was followed by a discussion with the director and cast, but as time was short I said I'd put up a fresh posting to allow anyone who was there the chance to provide some feedback. Personally, I was delighted with the way the evening went. Director Robert Wolstenholme had assembled a fine cast. Joseph Marcell (remember the butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?) played Shalema, and brought a hugely moving presence to the role. Emma Swinn, Ben Crystal, and Scott Ainslie were really convincing in the roles of Miranda, Derek, and Jason, respectively. And four other actors - Karl Kelly, Simon Manyonda, Rhoda Ofori-Attah, Nick Oshikanlu - took on the various Tamasa people roles with great energy and enthusiasm. As they had only one day of rehearsals before the show, I was hugely impressed by the way they managed to get their tongues round the Tamasa language - an artificial language, which I had tried to create as naturistically as possible - and which they made sound as if it had always been on the planet. There was some further discussion after the play about its future, and some thought that we might aim for a fully staged production some time next year.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

On repeating oneself. On repeating oneself.

An unusual question from a correspondent: 'Do I ever repeat myself?' He was referring to an earlier post ('On writing how many books?') and wondering whether repetition presented me with a problem. It's an interesting question.

In a sense, I'm always repeating myself. That's what all lecturers do, as they present their courses, year after year. But of course, the lectures are never exactly the same. The subject changes. New facts emerge. And you think of better ways of saying the same thing. Even if your lecture is totally scripted, it's never quite the same. I asked actor son Ben once how he coped with the same thing, night after night, in a play run. 'It's never the same', he said. There's not much difference between lecturing and acting, from a performance point of view.

But the question is not so much about speaking as about writing, where repetition usually gets a bad press. Do I repeat myself there?

I think you have to make a distinction between research writing and popular writing. With the former, it is the nature of the beast not to repeat. There are new findings, new methodologies, new interpretations, always. And it would be a pretty poor journal editor who failed to spot that the content of an article was a repeat of something that had been published already, either by the same author or by others. Indeed, when I used to edit journals, that was one of the commonest causes of rejection - that a proposed article didn't actually say anything new.

But when you write for general audiences, you repeat all the time. The important word to note is 'audiences'. If you look in my website list of my publications, you'll sometimes see that an article written for one readership is then adapted for another, because the interests or level of the new audience differs. That's been a basic principle in the study of written language since the 70s: writers should always bear the needs of their audience in mind. An article written for students will differ from one written for teachers, and both will differ from one written for the general public, and differ again if it is to be presented as a broadcast talk, and differ still more depending on the channel. When I did a lot of Radio 4 broadcasting in the 1980s, a regular comment made by my producer, Alan Wilding, about my scripts would be: 'This is Radio 4, not Radio 3, David'. He usually meant my sentences were too long!

Often, a magazine or journal asks for permission to republish an article without change, or to cut it slightly. When I wrote an article on endangered languages a few years ago, it was picked up by half-a-dozen different publications and adapted in several different directions. But the article wasn't rewritten from scratch each time. What would be the point of that? I had given the first version my best shot. I couldn't think of a better way to say what I wanted to say. And if an editor felt that the piece was going to be of interest to a readership, then who am I to say otherwise? Anyway, if you have something that you think is worth saying - and there is nothing more worth saying, to my mind, than to draw attention to the issue of language death - you don't mind how many times you say it. You want the point to be recognized, and the more opportunities you find to make it, the better.

Having said that, when I do read over a piece for republication, I usually find myself changing it in some way. It might need updating. I might have fallen out of love with an earlier phrasing. I might think of a better analogy. There is an excellent English word for what one does: tweaking.

Does the notion of tweaking carry over into books? Yes. You will often see a reprint of a book with a phrase such as 'reprinted with corrections' on the publication data page at the front. It usually means no more than the correction of typos, ambiguous phrasings, cross references that don't work, and the like. It might be the correction of factual errors. There might be a minor updatings. It doesn't mean the wholsesale reworking of a text, or the addition or deletion of significant chunks which would affect the pagination. If that level of revision is required, we are talking about a new edition.

But there's another sense in which repetition is relevant for books. I have written several introductions to language or linguistics, and each one is an attempt to do the task better. The analogy here is with painting. I know an artist who spends his life trying to capture the quality of a landscape he likes to paint. In his studio you see the same scene, over and over, and yet it is never the same. I don't know - he doesn't know - whether he will ever be satisfied. I feel the same when I'm writing about language and linguistics. If that is what is meant by 'repetition', then it's an intriguing, positive thing.

Other factors affect the situation. Publishing fashions change; readership interests change; the subject itself changes; the angle changes; the author changes. I sometimes find myself reworking earlier material to satisfy new circumstances. Here's an example. The kind of publishing that Penguins were doing in the 1970s led me to write a straight textual introduction: Linguistics. The kind of publishing which Cambridge were doing in the 1980s led to a book at the opposite extreme - with full colour illustrations, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. But then the wheel turned full circle. When Penguin approached me in 2003 to write an introduction to language, the idea the commissioning editor had in his mind was 'the Cambridge encyclopedia without the pictures'. That would have been deadly boring, and the only way I could think of to make the project worthwhile was to think up a wholly new slant - which is why the book came to be called How Language Works. The emphasis on 'how' gave the new project some life, but I have to admit that I did not enjoy this kind of reworking of material, and I think it shows in the writing. I shan't do it again.

Otherwise, no, I don't like repeating myself. I don't.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

On a problematic(al) issue

A correspondent from abroad writes to express his puzzlement over the difference between such linguistic terms as alphabetic and alphabetical, analytic and analytical, diacritic and diacritical. He asks if these are synonyms, and if so, is there a way of deciding which to use?

The issue goes well beyond the terminology of linguistics: examples from other domains include mystic(al), poetic(al), ironic(al), philosophic(al), rhythmic(al), astronomic(al)... Usually there's no difference in meaning, but there may be a stylistic or regional preference, and only an up-to-date dictionary or usage guide (such as Pam Peters' Cambridge Guide to English Usage: see the entry at -ic/-ical) will help. Where the two forms are synonymous, people generally opt for the shorter alternative; but the extra -al syllable can sometimes produce a more euphonious utterance, avoiding a clash of consonants or promoting a better rhythm (compare geographic contours vs geographical contours).

In a few cases, the meanings have diverged: electric and electrical now have different ranges of usage, as do comic and comical and some others. The -al ending usually suggests a broader meaning - more things are 'comical' than are 'comic'. Occasionally, the meanings are very different - notably economic and economical, historic and historical, politic and political. Usage essays in dictionaries and usage guides often focus on the differences.

In a specialist domain, the only thing one can do is identify and follow majority usage. In linguistics these days it is phonetic, phonological, grammatical, and semantic (but you will find the alternatives in older usage). It is sometimes possible to tell the difference between a specialist and a non-specialist by the ending: those who talk about syntactical structures or semantical problems or linguistical issues are hardly likely to be specialists in linguistics.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

On hyphenating, or not

A correspondent asks whether hyphenated or non-hyphenated forms are the norm in such linguistic terms as phrase marker, form class, word class, and so on. How to find out which is the norm?

There is no absolute rule. Some publishing-house style-guides recommend hyphens and some don't. This isn't just a matter of technical terminology, of course. We find both flower pot and flower-pot (and flowerpot). Generally, the tendency over time is for English compound words to begin spaced, then to be hyphenated, and then maybe to be written solid (no space or hyphen). The more familiar the term becomes, the more likely it is to be perceived as a unit, and hyphenated. So we are much more likely to see terms hyphenated which have been around a long time, such as word-class and phrase-marker. But a lot depends on the extent to which the expression is perceived to be a semantic unity, as opposed to two separate notions. Word root, for example, is less likely to be hyphenated.

Usage is strongly influenced by legibility. There is a big difference between these two cases: 'X is a word class' and 'X is a word class analysis'. In the second case, there is uncertainty as to whether the writer means 'word-class analysis' or 'word class-analysis' , so a hyphen resolves the matter. Look at the sentence I used above: if I had written ' Some publishing house style guides', it would have been much more difficult to read. So one factor is whether the compound is being used attributively (before a noun) or not. Many style guides insist on a hyphen in attributive position.

How to find out which is the norm? The best way is to look in an up-to-date (that's important) dictionary. Alternatively, an online check in a search-engine will give you a quick impression about frequency.