Archive for August, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Cheap Present of Reef Fish for Ronny

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Can you figure out by looking carefully at the title of this piece what my topic is this week? (I’ll give you a hint: It’s something to do with pronunciation.) Go ahead . . . Say the title out loud a few times and see if you can figure out the topic.

Have you got it? Are you still clueless? Okay, I’ll let the cat out of the bag. The topic of this piece is a little something that I think is often overlooked when pronunciation lessons are planned, much to my chagrin. It’s called juncture, the joining point of two sounds. This is an area of pronunciation that’s problematic for people learning English. It happens when the final consonant sound of one word and the initial consonant sound of the following word are identical or closely related. When you have this situation, native speakers basically connect or join the two sounds, creating what sounds like one word instead of two.

Take, for example, the phrase a sad dog. Most English language learners will try to pronounce sad and dog as separate words like this: a sad dog, but native speakers will join the final sound of sad and the initial sound of dog and say a saddog. When native speakers do this, they hold on to the conjoined sound just a fraction longer than they normally would. That’s juncture!

To get you into the swing of things, here are more examples to demonstrate juncture at work when we’re dealing with either voiced or voiceless sounds in both words. Say each pair out loud and you’ll see what I mean:

Bob_Barker / half_full / a big_girl / pick_cotton / clean nails / a ripe_pear /
the bus_stop / sweet_tomatoes / both_thumbs / bathe_the dog / too much_sugar

Did you hear juncture at work in each of these pairs when you said them out loud? And did you notice how you held on to the conjoined sounds just a little bit longer than normal? Now you’re cookin’!

Ah, but what about the words first and student? The final sound in one word and initial sound in the other word is the combination [st]. How does this work, you ask? Well, when we combine such sounds, it’s the [s] that’s held and the [t] in the first word is dropped, so we end up with She’s the firs_student to win that award. The same disappearing act happens with words like past and dances: I’ve enjoyed all the pas_dances at our school.

English has exceptions to lots of its rules, so why should juncture be any exception? Yep, there are a couple of exceptions to the rules that deal with juncture. The first exception is when we have the sound [ch]. If one word ends with [ch] and the next word begins with [ch] or [j], we have no juncture: a rich chowder, a rich janitor. Interestingly enough, this doesn’t happen when the first word ends with [ch] and the next word begins with [sh]. We saw that earlier in the phrase too much_sugar.

The other exception to our rules is when we’re dealing with the sound [j] in both words, as in orange juice. Once again, there’s no juncture.

But we’re not quite finished yet! There’s one more thing to mention. What happens if the two words have closely related sounds, but one ends in a voiced sound and the other begins in a voiceless sound, or vice versa? For example, what about if we have rob and Peter? Both [b] and [p] are related because they’re both bilabials produced by quickly closing and opening the lips. So what happens in this case since the final sound of rob is voiced, while the initial sound of Peter is voiceless? In this case, instead of combining the two sounds into one and holding the sound for a split second longer, the two sounds actually remain independent. The final sound of the first word is held a little longer, and then it glides into the initial sound of the next word. So getting back to rob and Peter, we say They’re going to rob_Peter.

Here are a few more examples of this neat little phonological trick:

a bad_temper / big_cats / a great_decision /
pick_grapefruit / a tough_vampire / his_slacks

So there you have it. As you can see, there’s quite a bit to say about this neat occurrence called juncture and why it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked in teaching English pronunciation. I rest my case. Oh! Just to get back to the title of this piece for a moment, how should we say it out loud? This is how: A cheap_present of reef_fish for_Ronny. That’s how!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sometimes Reform Can Spell Disaster!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Can you spell /pyu-sә-læ-nә-mәs/ the way it’s normally written? I can’t ― unless I look it up in a dictionary. I mean, why should I know how to spell it? I never use the word. Well, okay, it’s spelled pusillanimous, and it means “afraid to take even a small risk” or “cowardly.” Talk about a low-frequency word!

But what about /ne-bәr/ or /saI-ka-lә-ji/? Can you spell those the way they’re normally written? Oh, you feel better now, don’t you. You know I’m talking about neighbor and psychology, right? Did you have trouble spelling those two? I have a hunch you didn’t. They’re high-frequency words, so you’ve seen them and used them many, many times. That’s why you had no trouble spelling them.

So how would you feel if I told you that from now on they should be nebr and sykaluji? How would that grab you? (I think I can see you grimacing.) That first one looks like it could be a kind of phonetic transcription of an ancient Egyptian word, and the other looks like it belongs to some Turco-Mongolian language. They certainly don’t look like English anymore!

And that’s my point. For years and years there have been many people calling for a drastic reform of English spelling. They claim that the majority of even US high school students can’t spell well, and that too much time is spent trying to teach English speakers how to spell their language. I can’t argue with them about that; I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure that we’re stuck with the spelling system ― if it is a system ― that we’ve got, but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.

True, if you look over the history of English spelling, you can’t help but laugh out loud at times when you find out what people did to make the system illogical, awkward, and somewhat inconsistent. Part of the problem comes from the fact that monastic scribes, and later on, printers, had a great deal of influence on how we spell words.

Do you know why so many words contain the combination ck? Some scribes decided that spelling could show it’s necessary to maintain a short vowel sound if that vowel is separated from another vowel by doubling a consonant. That’s why we know how to pronounce pinning vs. pining, or robbed vs. robed. But those scribes didn’t like the look of kk ― it just wasn’t esthetically pleasing to them, I guess ― so they arbitrarily decided to write ck instead. They thought that looked prettier. That’s why we now write picked instead of pikked and won’t confuse its pronunciation with piked. Hah!

And do you know why we spell the word lamb with that silent b? Well, those scribes kept the b in comb and tomb and climb as a reminder of their older forms in which the b was pronounced (camban, tumba, and climban). So when they wrote that word that means a baby sheep, they automatically added that b even though in its original form the word never had a b. We should still be writing it lam, not lamb! And the list of oddities like these goes on and on.

But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s all right ― or alright ― to scream for spelling reform, for a more phonetic way of writing English. But has anybody come up with a system that will work? Not the way I look at it. One big question I have to ask is, with so many variations in the pronunciation of English words, whose pronunciation will we choose to use as the standard for sound/symbol correspondence? If you want to make the system more or less phonetic like we find in Spanish or Russian or German, whose pronunciation will each vowel or consonant represent? Will it be that of the Australians, or New Englanders, or Cockneys, or the British who use “received pronunciation,” RP? Take the word path. If I’m American, I say [pæθ]. If I’m British using RP, I say [pa:θ]. And if I’m a Cockney, I say [pa:f]. So how can we be true to a phonetic way of writing when one word can be pronounced so differently by people who are all native speakers of English? I think you see my point. It just won’t work!

At any rate, we don’t learn to read and write one letter at a time, not after the very beginning. We learn sight recognition, looking at a whole word all at once and recognizing what it is. We don’t sound out each letter of a familiar word when we read it, not if we’re normal readers. To me that’s akin to how Chinese characters are read. They, too, are in a system that relies on reading by sight recognition. So this is one more reason I can’t take those spelling reformers seriously.

And one other thing ― a very important thing ― that they overlook is the personality and unique identification that our spelling system gives to the written language. Take a look again at how I suggested we spell neighbor and psychology. For me there’s something special, almost mysterious, about why those words are spelled as they are. And if I choose to, I can find out the reasons by learning more about the history of the language, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Neighbor comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, neah and gebor, which mean “near farmer.” I like seeing the remnants of those ancient words in the spelling. And psychology is really interesting, too. The p was pronounced in the original Greek word psychos, which means something like “soul.” The Romans incorporated that word into their own language, but they had a problem. Greek had a sound similar to the Scottish or German ch that didn’t exist in Latin, so the Romans chose to represent that sound as ch even though they pronounced it more like a k. Our one word is really from two Greek words, psychos and logos, which mean something like “the study of the soul.” I find there’s a romance in such spellings that I don’t want to lose. Is it impractical? Perhaps, but it adds a character, a personality, a charm to English that I think well worth keeping.

Of course, the most compelling argument for not reforming the English spelling system is this: What will happen to spelling bees? Would you want to take away the fun that so many children have competing in those contests? Would you want to be that spoil-sport? Not I!

Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Okay, I know you’re not supposed to do something like this, but let’s eavesdrop on a conversation:

A: I hear your brother’s in a correctional facility. Is that true?
B: Yes, I’m sad to say.
A: What happened?
B: It was all a misunderstanding. He worked for a large clothing retailer. He was let go after he was caught with pilfered goods. My brother didn’t know what they were. The guy who gave them to him said they’d fallen off the back of a truck.
A: Oh, I see. Hmm … And how’s your younger brother doing?
B: He’s between jobs right now. He’s returned to the nest, so that’s good for him financially, but he’s got payments to make on a pre-owned car he bought recently.

Don’t you love the way English can soften reality, or help us avoid directly facing ugly facts, or help us to be more tactful? In an earlier entry also entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name,” we started delving into the wonderful world of euphemisms, and that’s what we’ll continue to do right now.

Speaking of which, how many euphemisms can you find in that conversation? Go ahead, count them. Let’s see what you get. I’ll wait . . .

All done? So how many did you find? I found nine. And here they are:

1. I hear Translation: Somebody – I won’t say who – told me that . . .
2. correctional facility Translation: jail
3. It was all a misunderstanding. Translation: My brother really screwed up.
4. He was let go. Translation: He was fired.
5. pilfered Translation: stolen
6. They’d fallen off the back of a truck. Translation: They’d been stolen.
7. between jobs Translation: unemployed
8. has returned to the nest Translation: living at home with momma and poppa again
9. a pre-owned car Translation: a used car

It says a lot about a culture that uses euphemisms in such a way. Sometimes euphemisms soften a not-so-pleasant truth, as we’ve seen in this conversation; at other times, they can be used to show respect or deference to a group of people. Just look at all the euphemisms English has created ― and I’m sorry to be so blunt ― for old people: the elders, the elderly, the aged, people in their golden years, retired people, mature people, and the ever popular seniors or senior citizens. Why is it, I ask you, that the word old has such a negative connotation? It’s not inherent in the language, is it? It’s a cultural thing, of course. But that’s the whole point: Euphemisms are completely culture-bound.

Sometimes we can see two totally different ways that segments of our population view something by the euphemisms they choose. For example, what about the dead? We can be reverent when talking about somebody who’s dead, or we can be flippant. I wonder which group has the sillier ways of telling you that somebody’s dead.

So let’s be reverent for a moment.

A: Did you hear about poor old Mr. Mertz?
B: No, what?
A: He’s passed/passed away/passed on/passed over/deceased/expired/gone to meet his maker/resting in peace/in a better place/crossed over/defunct/departed
gone/been taken/succumbed/no longer with us/given up the ghost.
B: Oh. Do you mean he’s dead?
A: Yes, poor thing.

And now let’s be a little flippant.

A: Hear about Billy-Bob?
B: No, what?
A: He’s pushing up the daisies/bit the dust/bought the farm/cashed in his chips/

checked out/kicked the bucket.
B: Oh. Ya mean he’s dead?
A: Duh!

I suppose both ways of imparting such news are equally effective in the long run. I just think it’s fascinating that we’d rather opt for one of those euphemisms rather than just come right out and say the poor guy croaked . . . er, died. And then we have this quaint way of letting you know that somebody’s dead by saying the late so-and-so. How bizarre is that? Late? Late for what?? If Mr. Mertz’s time was up, how can we say he’s the late Mr. Mertz? That’s a head scratcher, if you ask me!

Of course my favorite area for euphemisms deals with that always popular sport, sex! In a culture that still has trouble dealing with this topic, euphemisms abound. Just look at some of the ways we can talk about having sex: have carnal knowledge of/have (intimate) relations (with)/make love (with/to)/have an affair (with)/sleep with/sleep together (with)/go to bed with/make whoopee/there was some hanky panky/fooling around/monkey business/playing around. And the beat goes on!

Yes, euphemisms definitely serve a variety of purposes. One thing’s for sure, they certainly enliven the language! But on a more serious note, we also use euphemisms to deal with delicate subjects, especially politically correct ones such as handicaps. People who are sensitive to the handicapped have a lot of credit coming to them, especially those people who insist that proper terminology be used when discussing different kinds of handicaps and the individuals who deal with them. If you’d like to see something very interesting and meaningful, the Life Span Institute of the University of Kansas has set up an online site where you can familiarize yourself with the current terminology that should and should not be used when talking about handicaps. Visit the Life Span Institute and see what I mean. It’s a great way to teach ELL students this very important vocabulary. On that Web site, just click on “Appropriate Terminology.”

And if you’ve got any favorite euphemisms that haven’t been covered here and you’d like to share them with us, please leave a comment for all of us to see. Now that I’m feeling a bit knackered, I think I’ll go to the bedroom to rest ― even though I still think it should be called the restroom! I mean, after all, isn’t that what we do there? Hmm?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Assistance! Assistance! My Manse Has Ignited!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Just picture this: a nice, mild, forest-covered island 1,000 years ago. The people were your quaint, average peasants doing what all average peasants did 1,000 years ago: eking out a living from the land, poaching deer from their feudal lord’s woodlands, picking lice off one another. And these people happened to speak something we now call Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. One Germanic language, one vocabulary, and for those relatively few who could read and write, one easy-to-learn phonetic spelling system. Ah, those were the days! A house was a house was a house. It wasn’t a hut and it wasn’t a manse. It was a house, or more accurately, a hus.

But then 1066 came along, and all that bucolic Anglo-Saxon simplicity went the way of the Neanderthals. William and his Norman French just couldn’t resist the real estate on the other side of the English Channel and decided the Saxons needed better governing, better education, and better language. So they controlled everything, and when they weren’t speaking their form of French, they were speaking Medieval Latin while the peasants were still muttering away in Anglo-Saxon. Well, that didn’t last for too long. The languages started getting mixed together in some very odd ways. You could eat some cow, or you could eat some beef. You could get some help, or you could receive some assistance. You could work the land, or you could work the soil. You could live in a town, or you could live in a village. And the funny thing is, there were these extra words now that basically had the same meaning. Things were starting to get complicated.

Here’s a short conversation* as it might be spoken by descendants of those Norman French:

(Knock! Knock! Knock!)
A: Enter!
B: Salutations, Griselda! It’s five o’clock, time to invest yourself in your chapeau and coat and remove yourself from the office. A group of us are contemplating descending to “The Blue Dragon,” removing some victuals from the premises, and returning to Maria’s to have dinner.
What do you say? Want to join us?
A: I really don’t have the desire to because I’m trying to recuperate from this terrible catarrh I’ve had for days. Oh, and could you please extinguish that cigarette? It’ll cause another one of my famous coughing attacks to happen.

Did that seem a little strange? You can bet the ranch that native English speakers think so! Okay then, how might the very same conversation sound if spoken by descendants of those poor Anglo-Saxons?

(Knock! Knock! Knock!)
A: Come in!
B: Hi, Griselda! It’s five o’clock, time to put on your hat and coat and take off. A group of us are thinking about going down to “The Blue Dragon,” picking up some food to take out, and going
back to Maria’s to have a meal together. What do you say? Want to go with us?
A: I really don’t feel like it because I’m trying to get over this awful cold I’ve had for days. Oh, and could you please put out that cigarette? It’ll bring on another one of my famous coughing spells.

Quite a difference, wouldn’t you say? And yet it’s exactly the same conversation. A native English speaker will probably start grinning if he listens to the first conversation. Why? Because many of the words used in that conversation are not considered “appropriate” for an everyday, casual chat. The words and some of the phrasing seem too “high class,” too “uppity.” The vocabulary used in that conversation draws unnecessary attention to itself, whereas the vocabulary in the second conversation doesn’t. Is this something unique to English? It may very well be. It’s said that English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. Well, if these two versions of the same dialogue don’t help to prove that assertion, nothing will!

One of the most daunting challenges that ESOL students have is trying to figure out and then remember which words are the typical ones used in everyday conversation and which ones are used in very formal or highly academic situations. Of course, an ESOL student coming from a Romance language background has the hardest time doing this. Many of the words that are obviously the same in both languages are considered “uppity” by English speakers when used in everyday conversation, but just considered the regular, “normal” words by students who speak a Romance language. I don’t know how many times I, for one, have had to correct students who come from Romance languages when they’d say something like, “I have to go to the airport to receive my brother” (as if he’s coming in a box or something). That sounds so odd! I’d jump right in and say, “You have to go to the airport to meet or greet or pick up your brother.” Well, what about this sentence: “The Queen received the new American ambassador at St. James’s Palace yesterday.” Aha! See what I mean? Receive just doesn’t work in the student’s sentence, but it certainly does okay in the sentence about the Queen. And don’t we traditionally have receiving lines at events like weddings? Hmm??

Because the Norman French controlled the government, the Church, and the universities for quite some time, a great many of the words they introduced into English are associated with high society and higher learning even to this day, while the Anglo-Saxon words we still use, coming down to us from the peasants of a thousand years ago, are considered the casual, everyday language that we use most of the time. Quite a legacy! Who would think we could have such historical, linguistic baggage to carry around for so long? Well, we do. But we ESOL teachers love a good challenge, don’t we? Or don’t we? Perhaps this is food for thought when planning out vocabulary lessons. At least it’s something worth pondering.

*Richard Firsten with Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide. Alta Book Center Publishers. 2002