The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Posts Tagged ‘language

Timespeak: Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind

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TIME magazine used to have a famously distinct style, a precursor of some of today’s awkward journalese (which Dan Brown foisted upon the world at large). Dubbed “Timespeak”, it consisted of some favourite adjectives, a disdain for articles, coined nouns of a type of which “Timespeak” is itself an example, and a sentence order famously parodied by Wolcott Gibbs as “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”.
(Those days are finally over: in 2007, the New York Times had an article titled With Redesign of Time, Sentences Run Forward.)

I just found the complete text of Wolcott Gibbs’s article, which is an unflattering, biting, full-length profile of Henry Luce, Time’s co-founder, written entirely in “Timese” and published in The New Yorker, 1936. The section where he describes the language:

Puny in spite of these preparations, prosy in spite of the contributions of Yale poets Archibald McLeish & John Farrar, was the first issue of Time on March 3, 1923. Magazine went to 9,000 subscribers; readers learned that Uncle Joe Cannon had retired at 86, that there was famine in Russia, that Thornton Wilder friend Gene Tunney had defeated Greb.

Yet to suggest itself as a rational method of communication, of infuriating readers into buying the magazine, was strange inverted Timestyle. It was months before Hadden’s impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language, crystallized into gibberish. By the end of the first year, however, Timeditors were calling people able, potent, nimble;  “Tycoon”, most successful Timepithet, had been coined by Editor Laird Shields Goldsborough; so fascinated Hadden with “beady-eyed” that for months nobody was anything else. Timeworthy were deemed such designations as “Tom-tom” Heflin, “Body-lover” Macfadden.

“Great word! Great word!” would crow Hadden, coming upon “snaggle-toothed,” “pig-faced.” Appearing already were such maddening coagulations as “cinemaddict,” “radiorator.” Appearing also were first gratuitous invasions of privacy. Always mentioned as William Randolph Hearst’s “great & good friend” was Cinemactress Marion Davies, stressed was the bastardy of Ramsay MacDonald, the “cozy hospitality” of Mae West. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

It ends with a flourish:

Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprises long across the land, his future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!

Preparation is all this for this post on the A Roguish Chrestomathy blog (On the lucidity of Yoda), where followed up are various prior analyses of Yoda’s syntax, including relations to Irish and whether use the past tense Yoda does.


Written by S

Mon, 2010-05-24 at 21:50:42

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Reading aloud

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There’s this poem, which you can read comfortably but trying to read which aloud is torture:

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Alternative last verse:

A dreadful language? Why, man alive!
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five.

So this poem is about spelling not corresponding to pronunciation and vice-versa. Wikipedia cites it as “From a letter published in the London Sunday Times in 1965 […] The author was only listed by T.S.W.”, but it’s at least as old as 1961, possibly much older.

The other poem is called The Chaos, and it’s by the Dutch teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité, illustrating how impossible it is to deduce pronunciation from spelling. It makes you doubt the pronunciation of many words you think you know. :-) He first published it in 1920, with 164 lines, and revised it many times until his death in 1946 (274 lines). It’s quite painful to read, so skim when it gets unbearable and save the rest for another sitting. Prof. David Madore has a version here, with the first few verses in IPA for AmE and BrE. What follows is a random excerpt only!

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say—said, pay—paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess—it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.

Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Mind the O of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
Pronunciation—think of Psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying ‘grits’?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?

Hiccough has the sound of sup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

There’s another version here. More poems here.

All of which reminds me of the following story about reading aloud. In the 4th century, where apparently it was common practice for everyone to read aloud, St. Augustine encountered a man (Bishop Ambrose) who read silently! He didn’t even move his lips! You couldn’t hear his voice while reading even if you stood very close to him! As Augustine reports (and it’s a matter of debate whether in amazement or in distaste):

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.

(Might want to take a look at this chapter from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.)
But James Fenton disagrees: see The Guardian, Saturday 29 July 2006:

It is a myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud – a myth we appear to want to believe, since the evidence against it is strong. […]
Manguel shamelessly fudges the argument.

In order to read aloud well, especially when a text is written without breaks between words (as was classical practice), it seems important to possess the gift to read ahead simultaneously. Silent reading is a necessary adjunct to the kind of reading aloud for sound and sense Nietzsche admired. What shocked Augustine was that Ambrose read silently in front of visitors and refused to share his reading matter, and his thoughts, with them. But Augustine was perfectly capable of silent reading, and describes a key moment in his conversion as a moment of silent reading with a friend.

Finally, if I may rant again about spelling pronunciation: the character ~ is written “tilde”, but I wish people would stop calling it “till-day” or “tilled”! It is pronounced “til-duh”, as in the Australian ballad: “Waltzing Ma~, Waltzing Ma~…” or the name of the actress ~ Swinton (literally?)

TODO: Read about “the very notion of silent, individualized reading is scarcely known prior to the advent of the printing press (Goody and Watt: 42)” That’s Goody, Jack, and Watt, Ian, 1968, “The Consequences of Literacy.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies, edited by Jack Goody, pp. 27-68. Cambridge University Press. This is from Thomas Coburn, “Scripture” in India: Towards a Typology of the Word in Hindu Life, p.437. He goes on:

there has never been a happy marriage between the holy words of India, composed and transmitted orally, and the writing process. Particularly in contrast with, say, China, scribes in India have been of low social standing (Lancaster: 224-25), and the very act of writing was held to be ritually polluting: a late “Vedic text, the Aitareya Aranyaka (5.5.3) states that a pupil should not recite the Veda after he has eaten meat, seen blood or a dead body, had intercourse or engaged in writing” (Staal, 1979:122-23). The profoundly spoken character of India’s holy words is a matter on which we will reflect below, but for the moment it will suffice to note that we should not be misled by the fact that most of these words have eventually found their way onto the written or printed page. This is not their primary home, and Staal is not simply being mischievous in discerning a symbolic significance to the fact that Indian books “still tend to fall apart” (1979:123).

Written by S

Fri, 2009-05-29 at 23:14:07

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Giving credit

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V. I. Arnold, On teaching mathematics:

What is a group? Algebraists teach that this is supposedly a set with two operations that satisfy a load of easily-forgettable axioms. This definition provokes a natural protest: why would any sensible person need such pairs of operations? […]

What is a smooth manifold? In a recent American book I read that Poincaré was not acquainted with this (introduced by himself) notion and that the “modern” definition was only given by Veblen in the late 1920s: a manifold is a topological space which satisfies a long series of axioms.

For what sins must students try and find their way through all these twists and turns? Actually, in Poincaré’s Analysis Situs there is an absolutely clear definition of a smooth manifold which is much more useful than the “abstract” one.

(Interesting talk, do read.)


Bill Poser at the Language Log:

Sir William Jones is incorrectly viewed as the discoverer of the Indo-European language family and founder of modern historical linguistics […]

The second and more important point is that Jones cannot be considered the founder of modern historical linguistics because he did not use the comparative method, the crucial innovation that distinguishes modern historical linguistics from its predecessors.

Sigh. Let’s not forget people who actually caused us to perceive the world differently, and leave it to pedantic types to define who invented what.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Sun, 2009-03-22 at 23:05:50

Windows semicolon

XP came and went (sure nobody likes Vista, but how long do you think anyone will have a choice?), but this doesn’t seem to have received enough attention:

A semicolon in Windows XP’s shutdown screen:
"Do not turn off or unplug your computer; it will turn off automatically."

The last time a semicolon was sighted, the New York Times made a big fuss of it, and included a baffling comment by Noam Chomsky.

Written by S

Mon, 2008-10-06 at 06:32:30

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Have you been high today?

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If not, you need to see this (besides needing a bun to bite Benny Lava): [Make sure you read the subtitles before, not after the corresponding sounds.]

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Written by S

Sat, 2008-08-09 at 16:29:57

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From time to time, I encounter people on IRC saying “ta” in contexts that suggest they mean “thanks”. I had assumed “TA” was an acronym for “Thanks Again” or some such thing (some acronym site suggests “Thanks Awfully”), but I found out today that this is not the case: “ta” is not an acronym, it is a full word (interjection).

do people actually say “ta”?: It is apparently common in Northern England and parts of London, but it is colloquial, dial. etc. It is pronounced like “spa” or “tar” without the “r”.

Theories of etymology include Scandinavian origin (Viking remnant?) “The online The English-to-American Dictionary also suggests the possibility of Scandinavian origin.” Also, someone on Yahoo Answers (um…) says “The Danish word for “thanks” is “tak”. In Scotland and upper England it was common to drop the “k” at the end because of the way words were pronounced during the time of old English and Middle English.” The same on UrbanDictionary.

[Origin: 1765–75; by infantile shortening and alter.]

Online Etymology Dictionary:

1772, “natural infantile sound of gratitude” [Weekley]


An infantile form of ‘thank-you’, now also commonly in colloq. adult use.

So I guess that settles it, and the Scandinavian story is just a folk etymology.

Lynneguist says “The Urban Dictionary is a hive of folk etymology.” thus ending any credibility UrbanDictionary might have had :)

Written by S

Mon, 2008-04-28 at 20:53:11

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One who continually bemoans the ‘loss’ of the word ‘gay’ to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn’t use it any more.

Before encountering computers, I had always seen the word ‘deprecate’ in contexts from which I understood that it was synonymous to disparage, deplore, condemn, belittle, derogate, and so on.

The computing world uses “X is deprecated” to mean that the feature X is discouraged, often because a recommended replacement has been found for it — thus X is obsolescent, and while using it will work currently, it is expected to stop working in the future, so one is recommended to avoid using it.

With the rise of technology and the decline in reading, many people have encountered the word solely in the latter context, and have taken it to mean something that is “old”, and for which a newer replacement exists: Thus I see people announcing, with no sign of self-deprecation, that “This blog is deprecated”.

Written by S

Sat, 2008-04-26 at 18:17:02

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Word censoring

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Written by S

Sun, 2008-03-02 at 20:26:28

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Web phrase occurrences

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Quick post while I get back to work. Someone please help me here…

There are two things I mainly use Google for:

  1. Searching for pages related to a particular something. This is the most common, and intended, use of Google.
  2. Searching for all occurrences of a particular phrase, or more generally a pattern. This might be to compare numbers and compile statistics, or to find what context the phrase is most often used in, or find what are the most common phrases using that pattern.

For example, I just thought of the “My dad can beat up your dad” phrase, and searched Google for “my * can beat up your *”. (Click on link, and see results for yourselves.)

Someone should already have developed a tool/library for using Google (or any other search tool) for doing this, right? Why haven’t I found it yet? Maybe I should contact the “X is the new Y” people… Tell me if you’ve found such a tool.


X is the new Y:
Original(?) diagram,
Updates, Updates on updates,

Written by S

Sun, 2008-02-17 at 15:51:48

Douglas Adams describes… me?

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Words from The Meaning of Liff:

One who continually bemoans the ‘loss’ of the word ‘gay’ to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn’t use it any more.

Also, this unnervingly accurate series of corrie-words:

The moment at which two people approaching from opposite ends of a long passageway, recognise each other and immediately pretend they haven’t. This is to avoid the ghastly embarrassment of having to continue recognising each other the whole length of the corridor.

To avert the horrors of corrievorrie (q.v.) corriecravie is usually employed. This is the cowardly but highly skilled process by which both protagonists continue to approach while keeping up the pretence that they haven’t noticed each other – by staring furiously at their feet, grimacing into a notebook, or studying the walls closely as if in a mood of deep irritation.

The crucial moment of false recognition in a long passageway encounter. Though both people are perfectly well aware that the other is approaching, they must eventually pretend sudden recognition. They now look up with a glassy smile, as if having spotted each other for the first time, (and are particularly delighted to have done so) shouting out ‘Haaaaaallllloooo!’ as if to say ‘Good grief!! You!! Here!! Of all people! Will I never. Coo. Stap me vitals, etc.’

The dreadful sinking sensation in a long passageway encounter when both protagonists immediately realise they have plumped for the corriedoo (q.v.) much too early as they are still a good thirty yards apart. They were embarrassed by the pretence of corriecravie (q.v.) and decided to make use of the corriedoo because they felt silly. This was a mistake as corrievorrie (q.v.) will make them seem far sillier.

Corridor etiquette demands that one a corriedoo (q.v.) has been declared, corrievorrie must be employed. Both protagonists must now embellish their approach with an embarrassing combination of waving, grinning, making idiot faces, doing pirate impressions, and waggling the head from side to side while holding the other person’s eyes as the smile drips off their face, until with great relief, they pass each other.

Word describing the kind of person who can make a complete mess of a simple job like walking down a corridor.


Written by S

Fri, 2008-01-11 at 23:43:18

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Prepositions are one of the toughest areas of English for non-native speakers to learn correctly. (In my experience, mistakes involving prepositions are among the most common from Indian learners who have learnt to use articles :-))

The Language Log wonders today about prepositions, starting with In or on? Experience the power of splash screens by Mark Liberman, At that second, on that day, in that year by Geoffrey Pullum, an anecdote Preposition day at Language Log by Roger Shuy, a more detailed look In the car, on the bus by Geoffrey Pullum, and finally an attempt at a “logical” explanation, Dimensions, metaphors, and prepositions by John Lawler.

English is hard :)

Written by S

Mon, 2007-12-17 at 01:43:53

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Murray Gell-mann

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Talks. See TED video.

Notice him pronouncing Coulomb, Yang, and even Einstein.

Update: Some context: A NYT article.

Even Murray Gell-Mann’s credentials — a director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, adviser to the Pentagon on arms control, collector of prehistoric Southwest American pottery, amateur ornithologist, to name a few — can’t prepare a visitor for the full extent of his erudition. He pronounces “Chagas” as it is heard in Brazil. He has been known to correct the Ukrainian pronunciation of native Ukrainians and disparage the Swahili of Kenyans.

Written by S

Sun, 2007-12-09 at 08:27:46

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The Wikipedia article is not very good; this reference says it can’t be taught, only imitated, and this is an excellent article.

Written by S

Thu, 2007-12-06 at 20:23:00

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Hindi history

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I had a vague idea, but wasn’t aware of the extent:

Wikipedia has an article (version I read); it freely injects opinion into the page and is amusing to read.

Ramachandra Guha’s historical summary from The Hindu

Articles like this are alive and well, I see…

Written by S

Thu, 2007-12-06 at 20:17:37

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Students write about LaTeX

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There is an article in the PracTeX journal with the first-person accounts of three people who attended a course in LaTeX. There’s nothing special about the article, but it is always nice to read us Indians write in what I call vernacular Indian English. I don’t mean this in any elitist way (I know “prescriptivist!” is a bad word, etc.); it’s just amusing to observe.

The three of them took the course at different times and are from different backgrounds, but all three essays have the same structure and share some sentences almost verbatim. They also contain gems like this one:

After that I had prepared a manuscript in LATEX (on the seventh day) and showed it to our revered teacher. He really appreciated my work and showed it to the class and above all it was surprising that the paper was accepted in the Current Science.

Written by S

Sun, 2007-11-25 at 05:26:52

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Obliged and obligated

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First things first: I prefer obliged, always.

“Obliged” is always correct, and “obligated” sometimes is. Both have been in the language for several centuries. In “classical” literature, here’s obliged, and here’s obligated. Of course obliged is more common there.

There are some differences:

  • Obligated means only a legal/physical (etc.) constraint, while obliged is used for both legal/physical and moral “constraints”. Rather, someone feels obliged, and an obligation is more explicit, like an oath or the law:
    • I feel obliged to help her ≈ I thought I should help her ≈ I feel as though I ought to help her
    • I was obligated to help her ≈ It was my duty to help her ≈ I had promised her I would help ≈ I owed her a favor ≈ She kept her end of the deal and now it is time for me to uphold my end.

    Note that the sense of “obliged” above is only a possible sense that “obligated” doesn’t have; obliged covers both senses.

  • AHD says: “Oblige and obligate are interchangeable in the sense of genuine constraint, but not in instances involving a sense of gratitude for a service or favor. A person is obliged (not obligated) when he feels a debt of gratitude and nothing more; he is obligated (or obliged) when under a direct compulsion to follow a given course.”

[From an alt.usage.english thread.]

The plain and simple difference is that “obliged” is always correct, and “obligated” is sometimes correct but it grates on my ears and those of several others.

Written by S

Sat, 2007-11-24 at 15:51:30

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Vulgar language

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[This should have been another “Film I saw” post, but I don’t think this deserves one.]

I saw the fifth Harry Potter movie on Sunday night. It was awful.

Also, I’m not sure I heard this, but I think at some point in the movie, Cho Chang said “Anyways”. Which reminds me…

I have (or had) a theory about Indians and a cultural linguistic inferiority complex. We see a fair bit of hypercorrection when it comes to English — and many (too many!) misinformed, well-intentioned people finding fault with perfectly cromulent words and often offering invalid replacements. In addition, there is a tendency, upon hearing a “foreigner” say or use a word differently, to change one’s own usage; it disturbs me how frequently I hear “skedule”. And I nearly cried when I heard “soccer” even on DD.

This brings us to “anyways”, a “word” that has successfully leapt from illiterate, rustic Americans (“dial. or illiterate” — OED) into India’s fashionable shopping malls. I literally cringe every time I hear it, but I promise that it has nothing to do with my considering the film awful.

[I used “vulgar” in the title; am wondering if I could have said villainous, or would that have been too much of a stretch?]

[Non-update: Need to find some place to put this article!]

Written by S

Tue, 2007-10-23 at 10:06:15

Postfix operators we learnt in kindergarten

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I don’t know about your school, but in our school we kids went through several years without ever realising what the multiplication table we were saying actually said. As a result, we were all familiar with at least one postfix operator — the postfix multiplication operator “zar” (pronounced “zawr”). As we recited our “tables”:

Two one zar two,
Two two zar four,
Two three zar six,

and so on (always ending with a singsong, triumphant, “two ten zar twenty”.)

“Zar” was routinely treated as an operator (“what is six seven zar?”), and it was quite an epiphany to me (in class seven I think) when I suddenly realised what had been going on; I suspect many of my classmates still haven’t caught on. (BTW, what is the technical name for this, where “ones are” → “one zar”? Closest I know is Allomorph.)

Also, our “into” (for multiplication) is used for division in the US (at least), so our “five into twenty is hundred”, but their “five into twenty goes four [times]”. And the “by” — “thirty by forty is 0.75”, but a thirty-by-forty site is 30 × 40.

More to ponder — which parts of India say “by” in fractions and which say “over”? (Is “3/4” “three by four” or “three over four”? Of course it’s “three-fourths”…) Which ones say “aitch” and which ones say “hetch”? We always learnt it with the aspirated “h”, and that’s the way it seems to be in Chennai too.

“Pronunciation /heɪtʃ/ (and hence spelling haitch) is […] standard in Hiberno-English. In Northern Ireland it is a shibboleth as Protestant schools teach aitch and Catholics haitch.”

Meanwhile, I’ve always wanted to slaughter the (incorrect) Hindi-inspired “give exam” speakers, but it looks like the battle is being lost (in CMI, it had spread to even proper Bangalore/Chennai types). Maybe I should also find and resurrect my old zedzee and emptyset-not-phi rants while I’m in the mood…

Written by S

Wed, 2007-10-03 at 09:24:15

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