Thursday 12 September 2013

On a not very bright grammar test

An English-teacher correspondent in the UK writes to tell me a very worrying - but totally to be expected - story emerging from the Key Stage 2 grammar test marking earlier this year. Question 16 asks children to complete the sentence 'The sun shone ________ in the sky.' and the mark scheme reads 'Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully'.

A child presented the answer 'The sun shone bright in the sky', and this was marked wrong, on the grounds that it is 'not an adverb'.

This is the kind of nonsense up with which nobody should put. It is the response of a marker who is insecure about his/her grammatical knowledge, and who has a half-remembered history of faulty learning based on unauthentic prescriptive principles.

The devil, of course, lies in the detail - here, in the word 'appropriate'. If you interpret this word to mean 'appropriate to the rules prescriptive grammarians think operate in English', then brightly would of course be privileged. It has been the norm in formal written standard English for the last couple of centuries. But if you take 'appropriate' to mean 'in a way that makes sense', then bright is a perfectly normal alternative, used by hundreds of millions all over the English-speaking world, in writing as well as in speech. It has been a part of English since Anglo-Saxon times. You'll find an adverbial use of bright in Beowulf, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare (repeatedly - 'The moon shines bright', 'teach the torches to burn bright'...), and right down to the present day. Prescriptive grammarians took against it in the 18th century, but they were unable to stop the progress. The adverbial use of bright is used even by prescriptively minded people, when they say such things as 'I got up bright and early'. It is unequivocally an adverb when used in Question 16, and anyone who can't see this needs to take grammar lessons.

Even Fowler, beloved of prescriptivists, saw the nonsense. In the entry in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage on 'unidiomatic -ly' we find: 'much more to be deprecated ... is the growing notion that every monosyllabic adjective, if an adverb is to be made of it, must have a -ly clapped on it to proclaim the fact', and he condemns the 'ignorance' that leads people to think in this way. A 'growing notion'. That was in 1926. Topsy sure has growed now.

What is much more worrying is the marker who rejected dutifully as an appropriate answer. What on earth is wrong with 'The sun shone dutifully in the sky'? Now, we don't know why the child who gave this answer used this particular adverb. One of the ways in which the grammar tests would be made more meaningful and exciting would be if there was a space for kids to give explanations about why they made the choices they made - a pragmatic perspective. Context is ignored in these grammar tests, which is one of the basic problems with them (as I remarked in an earlier post). But, looking at it cold, dutifully to my mind is a lovely creative way of expressing a situation in a narrative where, for example, after a period of rain, someone begs the sun to appear and it 'dutifully did so'. If this turned up in a story by a well-known author it would be appreciated as an imaginative use of English and considered as perfectly appropriate. To reject it here is to convey to children and their teachers that the only kind of English that Mr Gove and his markers want to see in schools is of a predictable, cliched, and uninspiring kind.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

On OP place-names

A correspondent writes to ask about place-name pronunciation in OP. In the late 16th century, would the letters, silent today, have been articulated in such names as Norfolk, Warwick, Gloucester? The issue is important for Shakespearean OP, as these names are common in the plays.

The problem with place-names is that they tend to be highly conservative in their spelling, unlike common nouns, so that it's never clear exactly when a sound may have dropped out. Just occasionally there is orthographic evidence, and a good example is Gloucester. Was the modern pronunciation there in Shakespeare's time? The answer is definitely yes.

In the First Folio, Gloucester is spelled in three ways: as Gloucester (33 times), but much more often as Glouster (38), and Gloster (109). Sometimes you get the variant spellings within a few lines of each other. Similarly, Gloucestershire is spelled thus (3) alongside Gloustershire (2). And the fact that it was a disyllabic pronunciation is evidenced by the metre, as in Richard II (2.1.128), where we read: 'My brother Gloucester, plaine well meaning soule'.

No such evidence in the First Folio for Warwick, Norfolk, and Suffolk, unfortunately. Here one needs to look at other sources to see if there are spellings without the w or l. Certainly folk (as a common noun) was being spelled without the l from as early as 1400. Old place-name derived surnames, such as Worrick and Worricker, date from the Middle Ages. Informal texts, such as transcriptions of statements in court, are likely to show everyday pronunciations in the spelling. For instance, in Text 57 of Bridget Cusack's Everyday English 1500-1700 - a splendid resource - we find a 1628 presentment made by churchwardens from Stratford-upon-Avon where Warwick is spelled warrick.

Any other examples welcome.

Monday 9 September 2013

On a burning poetic question

A correspondent writes to ask for an opinion about the pronunciation of the last word in the opening stanza of William Blake's 'The Tyger':

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is, he says, a puzzle that has nagged at him for decades. Should it rhyme or not?

It's not just him. The couplet has generated quite a lot of ink. Some commentators say it is simply an eye-rhyme. That to my mind, is the lazy solution. At a time when the spelling system was becoming standardized, eye-rhymes were certainly a possibility, and some poets used them a lot, but why have just one eye-rhyme in a poem where all the other rhymes are exact phonological partners?

To my mind a phonological explanation is much more likely. Blake is recalling an earlier pronunciation of final -y which did in fact rhyme with words like eye. A classic example is Oberon's speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream (3.2.102), where we find dye, eye, espy, sky, and by intercalating with archery, gloriously, and remedy. Eye rhymes are not a viable explanation in Shakespeare's time, as the spelling system wasn't stable enough to guarantee them, and the writers on pronunciation at the time (the orthoepists) are always stressing the auditory value of rhyme.

Some of these writers actually try to capture the phonetic quality of those -y words. John Hart, for example, writing in the 1570s, transcribes boldy as boldlei, certainly as sertenlei, and so on. Clearly he is trying to convey some sort of diphthong here. In my work on Shakespearean Original Pronunciation, I transcribe this as a schwa + i. It is a pronunciation which lasted into the 18th century in educated speech, and of course can still be heard in some regional accents today.

By the time Blake was writing, the everyday pronunciation had shifted to its modern form, like a short 'ee'. This is how John Walker, for example, describes symmetry in his Pronouncing Dictionary, published just three years before Blake's poem: he rhymes it with me. The pronunciation with the final diphthong would have sounded distinctly old-fashioned by then. But wouldn't that suit someone who begins a poem with a spelling of tyger that was also archaic?

The phonaesthetics of the stanzas adds further support for a phonological rather than an orthographic explanation. That schwa + i diphthong turns up in Tyger, and is then echoed at the end of all eight lines of the opening two stanzas: bright, night, eye, symmetry, skies, eyes, aspire, fire. To my ear, this adds the same kind of mystical atmosphere that we hear when Oberon's speech is read in an OP way.

People do remember long-gone pronunciations. If I pronounce the word 'lord' as 'lahd', perhaps in a parody of upper-class speech, I am actually producing the normal pronunciation of this word as it was a century ago. Daniel Jones, writing in the 1910s, locates it in the place where today (in RP) we would find the vowel of far. Nobody says 'lahd' any more, but if I were to write a rhyming poem in which I had the following lines, I think readers would have no difficulty in 'hearing' the old pronunciation despite the modern spelling:

The butler looked all round the yard:
'There's no-one in the grounds, my lord'.

Some writers would opt for a nonstandard spelling here (such as 'lahrd') but such alternatives are not often available in the orthography - as in the case of symmetry. There was no archaic spelling for Blake to fall back on, in this case, to help the reader. And so we have the spelling that has come down to us.