Tuesday 23 December 2008

On discovering Shakespeare

A correspondent to this week's Spectator has just read a book which he thinks demonstrates the true identity of the works of Shakespeare, based on a decoding of the dedication to the sonnets: 'to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets mr w h all happinesse'. Brenda James, in The Truth Will Out (2005) shows that it is an anagram of 'the wise thorp hid thy poet, Henry Nevell writer'. Thorpe was the publisher. Henry Neville was a contemporary.

It's amazing what you can do with anagrams. To take another one, Robert Nield's Breaking the Shakespeare Codes: the Sensational Discovery of the Bard's True Identity (2007) shows you can twist the letters around to make it read: 'Bringe help to William Hastings the unseene poet of these sonnets'.

There's always a bit of cheating going on in these exercises. The Brenda James solution requires you to take a vowel (the 'u' in 'insuing') as a consonant (the 'v' of 'Neville'). The Nield solution requires that you miss out one of the letters (the 'r' of 'mr').

If you keep all the letters in, and maintain their values, you can find all sorts of things. 'George W Bush' is in there, for a start. I have spent months of research (well, five minutes, actually) to make the following sensational discovery about who the real author of the Sonnets was, and what he thought about all those who would later be unable to believe that a glover from Stratford could be a genius.

onlie he wiliam shagsper is the sonnet begetter
flee nonstop hunts

'Shagsper' is one of the attested spellings of the name, at the time.

By the way, the dedication also contains the words 'best wishes in the happie festiue season'. Which seems an appropriate way to end this pre-Christmas post.

Sunday 7 December 2008

On the, again

A correspondent writes to say he is puzzled by the corrections he intuitively made to a sentence from a French-speaking colleague, who wrote:

All aforementioned features appear in the same location and with the
comparable amplitudes.

He rewrote this as follows:

All the aforementioned features appear in the same locations and with
comparable amplitudes.

Is there a simple rule he can tell his colleague to follow?

It's a difficult area of grammar - with complications arising from differences between British and American usage (such as go to hospital vs go to the hospital). Large books have been written on the English article system. Certainly, there's a lot of interference from languages which follow different rules - and French is one which often uses articles where English would not (as in les informations, and suchlike).

The following sequence of examples show the basic options. Uncountable abstract nouns with generic meaning have no article: I'm studying philosophy. We do not say: I'm studying the philosophy. This applies even with premodification (Greek philosophy). If an article is used, it immediately turns the generic meaning into a specific one: I like the Greek philosophy has to mean 'the specific way of thinking found among Greeks'.

Note that when used with postmodification, the is fine, because the of-phrase in effect acts as a way of identifying a subclass, and thus changes the noun into something specific: I'm studying the philosophy of Aristotle. This only works with postmodification: premodifying genitives disallow the: we can't say I'm studying the Aristotle's philosophy.

The same point applies to plural nouns when we want to express a generic meaning. We say I'm studying trees not I'm studying the trees (that's ok if you mean the specific trees you're looking at, of course). And with postmodification the situation is as above: I'm studying the trees of Australia.

But with plurals there is a stylistic alternative: many people have no problem with I'm studying trees of Australia. This is because they're thinking of the noun phrase as a kind of professional ellipsis - like the heading you might find for a course:

Friday 10 a.m. Trees of Australia.

Friday 10 a.m. The Trees of Australia is also possible, of course.

A similar stylistic point applies to the other correction made by my correspondent: All aforementioned features became All the aforementioned features. What's happening here?

The choice is again one of generic vs specific. If the meaning is generic, the article is not used: All guests are welcome at this hotel. As soon as an article is used, a specific meaning emerges: All the guests have been accounted for. But, once again, stylistic alternatives exist. In a more elliptical style, the specific meaning obtains even without the: All guests have been accounted for.

The reason the is privileged in All the aforementioned features should now be clear. It is because the phrase is undeniably specific: features is already specific in meaning, but aforementioned makes it even more so. In addition, the is motivated by the fact that the features have evidently received some prior mention in the text (the so-called 'anaphoric' function of the definite article).

That leaves just the stylistic point. There's nothing ungrammatical about All aforementioned features appear in the same location, but I can't see any reason for introducing an elliptical style here. The word the is always a candidate for omission when a telegrammatic style is required, but then we expect all instances to go: All speakers please leave handouts on chairs. It would be stylistically incongruous to have:

All speakers please leave the handouts on chairs
All speakers please leave handouts on the chairs
All the speakers please leave the handouts on chairs

and so on. Omitting it before aforementioned but retaining it before same location is stylistically uncomfortable.

So, stylistic and semantic factors reinforce each other here, making my correspondent's addition of the an appropriate one.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

On a meeting meeting

A correspondent writes to say he has encountered this sentence: there'll be a pre-council meeting for the monthly assembly this Wednesday at 9:00 a.m and wonders what pre-council means. He can't find it in dictionaries.

It is an odd usage, indeed. But it's common enough. Here's an example I just found on the Web:

The City Council of the City of Irondale, Alabama met in Pre-Council Session at the City Hall at 6:00 p.m. on the 2nd day of September, 2008. The Council reviewed each item on the Agenda and decided that the following item should be added to the Agenda: Item #3 Consider Resolution No. 2008R58 to define boundaries for Downtown Redevelopment Authority area. The City Council then met in Regular Session at the City Hall of said City on the 2nd day of September, 2008, at 7:00 p.m., the regular time and place for holding such meetings.

So clearly it means 'a council meeting which takes place before the main council meeting'. It seems to be shorthand for pre-council meeting meeting. People don't like that kind of repetition. Compare PIN number, which I don't suppose would ever be said personal identification number number.

So we'll never hear or read a pre-council meeting meeting? Wrong. I just looked in Google and found three instances. The first uses hyphens to get round the awkwardness.

Apr. 10--So what will it be -- roller-skate, ice skate or cheapskate? And in what order? Columbus Council will ponder the possibilities Tuesday in an 8 a.m. pre-council-meeting meeting in a little conference room on the north side of its plaza-level chambers in the Government Center.

But the contributor to a forum discussion in Nebraska is evidently worried by it:

Thanks to all that made it to the pre-council meeting meeting (huh?) last weekend to help get organized, as well as those that made it to the city council meeting last night.

And in another American blog we get:

monday - pre council meeting meeting. hmmm, i need an explanation for that man.

So, just one example without a comment. Doesn't look as if it's going to catch on.

Monday 1 December 2008

On Kitchen Table Lingo

A correspondent has just sent me this link to a YouTube creation:

Kitchen Table Lingo

It's a nice piece of footage to go with a new book, Kitchen Table Lingo, which has just been published to publicize the English Project - a scheme to have a permanent English language exhibition at a new centre in Winchester, which I very much hope will get off the ground in a few years. You can find more details of it, and of the project in general, at its website:

The English Project.

The book has collected a fascinating group of the private and personal word-creations that are found in every household and in every social group, but which never get into the dictionary. Nobody knows how many such words there are. Everyone has been a word-coiner at some time or other - if not around the kitchen table, then in the garden, bedroom, office, or pub. The words in this book are the tip of an unexplored linguistic iceberg.

I might as well repeat here the 'afterword' I contributed to the book, pointing out that linguists have long studied these neologisms as part of research into children's acquisition of language. Anyone with young kids knows how fascinating their playful word coinages can be. The rest of the family then pick up these cute forms, and they become part of a domestic tradition. As you'd expect, linguists have devised a technical term for these dialects of the home: they call them familects.

But it isn't just children who invent such words. As this book shows, coinages can come from anyone, of any age and background. Indeed, no species is exempt, as Tigger (of Winnie the Pooh fame) illustrates with his penchant for such blends as prezactly ('precisely + exactly'). Lewis Carroll was a great inventor of neologisms, especially in 'Jabberwocky'. It is even possible to make a showbiz living out of them, as Stanley Unwin did: remember his 'Goldiloppers and the Three Bearloders'?

Some newspapers and radio programmes have competitions for invented words. The Washington Post has a famous one, and I remember one on the Terry Wogan show years ago. When I was presenting English Now for Radio 4 in the 1980s, I held a competition in which listeners sent in their favourite examples of home-grown words. The producer and I expected the usual postbag of a couple of hundred cards. That week we got over a thousand. It confirmed my belief that everyone has a linguistic story to tell.

The words in this book may be new, but the processes of word-formation that they use are not. Forms such as bimbensioner ('a superannuated bimbo') illustrate a standard way of making new words - by blending existing words. Some (such as bimble, 'travel idly without purpose') tap into the ancient phonetic properties of the language. Most inventions will stay private, personal, and unknown. Very occasionally, one or two will prove popular and end up as a permanent addition to the language - but, of course, only if people hear about them. That could be one of the surprising consequences of reading this book.