In the meantime, here’s an interesting seventeen-minute talk on dictionaries and contemporary language change by the language historian Anne Curzan (Professor of English, Michigan University). Well worth a listen …
In the meantime, here’s an interesting seventeen-minute talk on dictionaries and contemporary language change by the language historian Anne Curzan (Professor of English, Michigan University). Well worth a listen …
What happened? Well, a slip of the tongue …
And within minutes it was being reported on Italian media and had been posted on YouTube.
So what was all the fuss about? A single phoneme!
Intending to say caso, the Pope accidentally said cazzo. The voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ was replaced by a voiced alveolar fricative /z/. Apparently, an easy slip for native Spanish speakers to make when speaking Italian.
The problem was that the apparently insignificant change of sound – so easy to do unintentionally in connected speech – had a rather significant semantic impact. The noun caso means ‘example, instance, case’, but cazzo is used as an expletive and a vulgar term. Calmly self-corrected, this epic moment has added to Pope Francis’ reputation as a man of the people.
Change a phoneme and you change the meaning … ‘bin’, ‘sin’, ‘pin’ (initial phoneme) … ‘bet’, ‘bat’, ‘bit’ (medial phoneme) … ‘sit‘, ‘sip‘, ‘sir ‘ (final phoneme). Usually, we take these sound changes for granted because they are central to the construction of meaning, but the results can be humorous!
In June 2009, the BBC weather forecaster Tomasz Shafernaker had to contain his amusement after accidentally replacing the alveolar fricative /s/ with palato-alveolar fricative /∫/ – the ‘muddy site’ he was predicting for the Glastonbury festival became something rather less formal!
If you’d like to hear the slip for yourself, follow the link:
To start, an anecdote … (thank you Leah) ….
Approaching each speed sign, a driving instructor’s mantra was “It’s a limit, not a target.’ One sign – two meanings. Does the number in the red circle tell us what to aim for? Or, does it define a boundary? A driver who always drives at the speed indicated on the sign, hitting the target like an elite bowman, interprets the sign as a goal; the driver limiting speed to below the 30mph in urban areas or the 70mph on motorways is perhaps recognising the boundaries set to ensure the safety of pedestrians or other road-users.
This example is not really ambiguous since we all understand the function of a speed sign, but the principle holds for poetry. One word – two fields of reference. Two fields of reference – semantic ambiguity that engages the reader in a dramatic tension.
A poem like the short lyric ‘Spellbound’ written by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) provides a perfect example …
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me:
I will not, cannot go.
Having read through the poem from beginning to end, try to answer the questions below. After each question, a sample paragraph will explore some of the ideas you may have considered. The important thing to remember is that the interpretation offered here is just one possible reading. If you come to different conclusions, try writing your own sequence of paragraphs in order to explore your personal response to the poem.
The content of ‘Spellbound’ focuses on a storm, and the repetition of the first person pronoun”I” suggests that the poem offers a subjective account of a personal experience. We see the scene as the narrator sees it – the poem is a very private expression of one individual’s response. The writing is powerful and intense, reflecting both the external physical landscape and the internal emotional state of the narrator.
Brontë gives the landscape a physical presence with the concrete nouns linked to the natural world (“trees”, “boughs”) and the weather (“winds”, “snow”, “storm”, “clouds”). The atmosphere, however, is created through adjectives like “wild”, “bare” and “drear”, and the adverb “coldly”. These words tell us something about the literal scene, but also reflect the narrator’s mood. The use of pathetic fallacy helps us to understand that the poem is about more than just a description of a place at a certain moment in time.
The theme of vulnerability is developed in the perspective of the poem. The attributive adjective “giant” and the contrasting adverbs “above/below” make the narrator seem insignificant in the landscape. This is reinforced by the parallel noun phrases “Clouds beyond clouds” and “Wastes beyond wastes”, which define the vast scale of the natural world. The abstract noun “wastes” contributes to the bleak tone because its negative connotations enhance the apparent isolation and loneliness of the narrator. She has no control over her surroundings and is motionless while the present tense verb “blow” and the present progressive verb phrases “are darkening” and “is … descending” create a sense of on-going movement around her.
The narrator seems trapped – not just by the approach of night and the storm, but by something more intangible. This is clear in the abstract noun “spell”, with its connotations of bewitchment, and in the attributive modifier “tyrant” with its connotations of control and manipulation. It is also evident, however, in the very form of the poem itself. The tight rhyme structure mirrors the narrator’s feelings of being imprisoned: long vowel sounds (“blow/snow”) and even the words themselves (“me/go”) recur in an inescapable cycle. The grammatical structure of the sentences is cumulative: the comma splicing (ll.1-2) and the patterned sequence of initial position co-ordinating conjunctions (“But … And … And yet … But …”) drive the reader inescapably onwards. The mood of oppression is underpinned by dynamic verbs like “bound” and “weighed” as the poem builds to a climax in the repetition of the negative modal verb “cannot” (ll.4, 8). The initial position conjunction (“And”) and the caesura (l.4) make this an emphatic statement: the narrator feels physically and emotionally helpless.
The poet has built up a negative tone through her choice of words and the structure. The last line, however, moves us in a new direction. Instead of repeating the modal verb “cannot”, Brontë replaces it with “will not”. The change in meaning is significant – suddenly there is a sense of personal choice. The tone is emphatic: the positioning of the personal pronoun at the beginning of the line and the sequence of three consecutive stresses on the monosyllabic words reinforce this unexpected certainty. The change in tone is not sustained since “will” is quickly replaced by “cannot”, but for a moment there is an ambiguity that adds another dimension to the poem. The narrator both desires and fears the literal and figurative storm that envelops her.
It is at this point that we have to consider the title of the poem. The adjective phrase “Spellbound” repeats the meaning of the simple sentence “(But) a tyrant spell has bound me” in an intensified form. As a grammatical fragment, it is a dramatic introduction, drawing our attention to an idea that is clearly going to be central to the poem’s meaning. The poet’s implicit repetition is a signpost that we need to pay particular attention to this. On first reading, we inevitably interpret the simple sentence as evidence that the narrator has been bewitched against her will because of the connotations of the words and the repetition of the negative modal verb in the next line. In the light of the final line and the title’s repetition of the idea, however, we need to reassess. There is an important ambiguity: as well as bewitched (negative), we feel that the narrator is also mesmerised, enthralled (positive). “Spellbound”: one word – two fields of reference. Some part of her finds a sensual pleasure in the physical and emotional storm. It is as though the passion of feeling, however painful, is better than the cold detachment of being numb.
As a Romantic poet, Brontë draws on the natural world as a means of exploring her inner state of mind. She shows awe in the face of the storm’s natural magnificence and the tone is heightened by the intensity of her private experience. In a traditional lyric poem, we may expect the weak-strong iambic metre to be dominant. In Brontë’s poem, however, there are only three entirely iambic lines (ll.1, 5, 7). Since iambic metre is closest to the rhythms of informal speech and is often described as harmonious and lilting, Brontë chooses something more in keeping with the mood of her poem. Her experience is extraordinary and the disrupted metrical patterns reflect this. In some lines, the iambic rhythm is broken by a medial (ll.2,6) or initial spondee (ll.8, 11); in others, the dominance of trochees inverts the song-like melodies of iambs to create a harsher tone (ll.3-4, 9-10). The unpredictable metrical patterns result in an ecstatic expression of a profound experience as the poet tries to record something that is almost beyond words.
Brontë’s presentation of the natural world reflects the nineteenth century interest in the ‘sublime’ – an idea associated with an almost religious awe for the vastness and magnificence of the natural world, and with the expression of strong emotion. The Greek teacher Longinus (born around 213 AD, although very little is known about him) first explored the concept, describing the immensity of natural objects like stars, mountains, volcanoes and the oceans in his treatise ‘On the Sublime’. His work, translated into French in the seventeenth century, influenced the Romantics of the nineteenth century when Edmund Burke wrote a treatise entitled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. This put a new emphasis on the element of violence in the natural world and Burke describes the power of experiences which are:
capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror … Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment; the subordinate degrees are awe, reverence, and respect …
Brontë’s poem creates a sense of the natural world’s majestic grandeur and its violence. She is subsumed in the moment, immersed in a physical and emotional storm which does both horrify and delight. As readers, we are drawn into the world Brontë creates, experiencing the physical and emotional storm through the stark simplicity of her lyric.
For those of you who are sitting examinations, this account of the poem fulfills the requirements of the main Assessment Objectives.
It is organised into paragraphs which logically develop, and it is written accurately. It uses a range of terminology at word class (abstract/concrete noun, adjective, dynamic/modal verb, adverb etc), phrase (noun phrase, present progressive verb phrase, adjective phrase) and sentence level (comma splicing, simple sentence, grammatical fragment). It also applies relevant concepts from literary frameworks (pathetic fallacy, tone, theme, narrator).
It addresses meaning in terms of the connotations of words and the groups of words which develop central themes. It explores the semantic effects of structural features (rhyme, caesura, metre) and form (lyric).
It considers the poem in its context in terms of changes to traditional genre (lyric), contemporary literary movements (the Romantic poets) and ideas (the sublime). It addresses reader-response.
One important thing to remember is that the title of a poem cannot always be taken at face value – and it’s not always a good starting point for understanding the semantic richness of a poem. A title can be a defining limit, but it can also be a target. Having analysed a poem, therefore, it is important to revisit the title to see whether it can be reinterpreted. Think about its relationship with the poem as a whole, and look out for any semantic ambiguity.
If you’re interested in the English language, or studying a language course, it’s worth making time to catch up with Fry’s English Delight on Radio 4. In this week’s programme, Fry looks at the emergence of English dictionaries and the ever increasing number of words in the English lexicon. There’s a useful introduction to the first single language dictionaries, a maha-sketch on Indian English written by Nina Wadia (based on a list of Indian-English words which may make it into the English language in 20 years time), and a discussion of the effect social networking is having on language.
As the title of this week’s programme suggests, the number of words in the English language continues to increase dramatically. Fry cites the number of entries recorded in the first and second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to demonstrate this, but going back further reinforces the point he is making.
A post exploring the key English dictionaries in more detail will follow soon.
Editors are now working on a third edition of the OED (begun in 1993) with revisions published online every three months since 2000. New words are being added and entries revised so that definitions, derivations, and pronunciations are accurate. Follow the link below to find out more:
If you’d like to listen to Fry’s English Delight, use the iPlayer Radio link below. The programme and additional clips and related links are available until 10 pm Monday 16th September.
If you were wondering, maha is an Indian prefix meaning ‘great’. It’s used in familiar expressions like Maharaja (‘Great King’) and Maharishi (‘Great Rishi’). In Nina Wadia’s sketch maha is used as an adjective for comic effect (maha-pleasure, maha-damage).
The internet is changing traditional spelling patterns of words with silent letters. Simpler versions of commonly misspelt words are becoming acceptable because they appear online so frequently. David Crystal has been exploring these changes looking at the spelling of words like ‘rhubarb’ and he concludes that within the next 50 years the new simpler forms will probably be standard. If you’d like to read more, follow the link:
I decided to carry out some research of my own …
The ‘h’ in yoghurt is also in the process of disappearing. Typing yoghurt into a search engine gives 28,700,000 hits, but typing yogurt produces 154,000,000 hits. This reflects the kind of findings Crystal has reported for ‘rhubarb’.
This may be an indication of a USA-centric online search engine, but a trip to the local supermarket suggests that change is most certainly afoot. A quick scan of the chilled shelves reveals an array of yogurt products. Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Yeo Valley, Onken, Ski, Rachel’s Dairy, Danone, Alpro, Weightwatchers, Müller. All the products marketed by these companies have no ‘h’ – the only pot with the traditional spelling was the brand Chobani. This American company uses the simplified American version, but adopts the ‘h’ for their UK products.
The straightforward relationship between the phonetic and the orthographic probably appeals to marketing departments, but the fact that yogurt is the standard spelling in American English will no doubt play its part in the choices made by global companies.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the Tesco aisle marker, the hanging sign which can be seen from a distance, still uses the traditional yoghurt. This is concrete evidence of language change in action. Producers regularly redesign packaging which means it’s easy to reflect linguistic changes as they happen. The signage of a store is a fixture, however, staying the same over a long period, replaced only when it’s time for a re-fit. In this case, the store appears to be heroically flying a flag for a spelling which is no longer considered standard by its suppliers.
Looking at a sample of the search engine hits, it would seem that the traditional spelling is adopted by traditional institutions, distinctively British companies, or international retail outlets responding specifically to their British markets:
And then there are those who seem to be mid-change … The BBC ‘Good Food Guide’ uses both forms, as does the UKTV ‘Good Food Channel’.
If we track the orthographic history of yoghurt, we can see that there have always been spellings without the ‘h’. What is new is the fact that until recently these forms have always been in the minority.
1800s yahourt, yaghourt, yogurd, yoghourt, youghort, yughard, yughurt, yohourth
1900s yoghurt, yoghourt
If David Crystal is right, within 50 years, yoghurt will be a thing of the past … We will all still know exactly what we are eating, but the word will have lost its orthographic link with the word borrowed from the Turkish yōghurt in 1625!
A suffix is an ending we can attach to a word to express grammatical relationships (inflectional suffix) or to create a new word (derivational suffix).
Inflectional suffixes can be used to mark:
These endings carry grammatical information. They usually change the form of a word rather than its class – although the -ly suffix is added to an adjective to create an adverb e.g. slow → slowly.
We use derivational suffixes to create new words which often have a different word class to the original word or base.
But enough about the general cases, the source of this post was a radio discussion about the lack of older women on television news. The presenter used the word lookist to describe our society and it seemed a great place to start …
The OED cites its use as an adjective in the phrase ‘an unrepentant lookist pig’ (i.e. relating to discrimination on the grounds of appearance’), and as the noun lookism (i.e. prejudice or discrimination on the basis of appearance) as early as 1978. In 1990, the noun lookist (i.e. a person who discriminates on the grounds of appearance) is recorded.
This word formation follows a well-worn pattern using the Greek suffixes -ism (i.e. ‘belief in’) and -ist (i.e. ‘one who believes in’).
Many of our traditional -ism nouns use a Greek base, often loans which have entered English through Latin and French borrowings.
aestheticism: belief in or pursuit of what is beautiful or attractive to the senses, rather than appealing to the ethical or rational (first use 1840)
From the ancient Greek αισθητικòς (= aesthetic i.e. ‘of or relating to the senses’) + -ism (i.e. ‘belief in’)
amateurism: belief in or pursuit of the amateur (first use 1868)
From the French amateur and the Latin amator (‘lover’), amare (‘to love’) – from the 18th century, a person who does anything as a pastime rather than as a profession (now often disparaging)
From the 16th century Spanish Canibales, originally one of the names for the Carib tribe of the West Indies, who are recorded as being ‘anthropohagi’ (Latin plural of anthropophagus, from the Greek ανθρωποφαγος, ‘man-eating’)
The -ism suffix can be used to denote a range of meanings:
baptism - the act or ceremony of being baptised (first use 1377; from ME bapteme from Old French baptesme, Latin baptismus and Greek βαπτισμος)
plagiarism – the act or practice of taking someone else’s work without acknowledgement and using it as one’s own (first use 1621; from Latin plagiarus = ‘person who abducts the child or slave of another’, also ‘literary thief’)
bicyclism - the activity of riding a bicycle (first use 1870, but now rare; from French noun bicycle)
heroism – action and qualities of a hero (first use 1667; from French héroïsme)
hooliganism – action and behaviour of a hooligan (first use 1898; eytmology uncertain – the name ‘Hooligan’ appeared in an 1890s music-hall song about a rowdy Irish family, and as an Irish character in a series of stories)
patriotism – quality of being a patriot (first use 1716; from Middle French patriote, Latin patriota and Greek πατριωτης)
albinism - condition of being an albino (first use 1827; probably from French albinisme 1806)
autism - condition marked by difficulties engaging with other people and abstract concepts, often accompanied by impaired speech development or unusual speech patterns (first use 1912; from Latin autismus and Greek αúτòς ‘self’)
colloquialism – informal, conversational language (first use 1834; from Latin colloquium, ‘speaking together, conversation’)
Latinism - language using a distinctively Latin idiom or expression (first use 1570; from Latinus, area of Italy containing Rome, adopted into Old English as læden, reflecting Celtic pronunciation of ‘Latin’)
neologism - words that are newly created (first use 1772; from French néologisme, 1734)
malapropism – words that are used mistakenly in place of another similar word e.g. ‘punctuation’ for ‘punctuality’, or ‘distressing’ for ‘de-stressing’ (first use 1830; from the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character in The Rivals, a play by Sheridan in 1775)
Pollyannaism - behaviour characteristic of Pollyanna, i.e. persistent and often irrational optimism (first use 1924; from the name of Pollyanna Whittier, a character in Pollyanna, a children’s novel by Eleanor H. Porter written in 1913)
Whiteboyism - the principles and practices of the Irish Whiteboys (first use 1777, now historical; from the name for members of a secret agrarian association in Ireland, who wore white shirts over their clothes so they could see each other at night)
Blairism - political policies and principles advocated by Tony Blair, Prime Minister 1997-2007 (first use 1994; from the name)
Conservatism - believing in the political principles of the Conservative Party (first use 1832; from French conservateur 1795 i.e. focus on maintaining traditional institutions and promoting individual enterprise)
Humanism – believing in human rationality and capacity for free thought, secular rather than religious/spiritual (first use 1853; from Anglo-Norman humeigne and Latin humanus)
Chartism – believing in the democratic principles of the Chartists (first use 1839; from Latin charta)
jingoism – bragging about a country’s readiness to fight or to behave aggressively towards foreign powers, an extreme form of patriotism (first use 1878; from the expression ‘by Jingo’ in a music-hall song which became the theme of the supporters of Lord Beaconsfield who wished to send the British fleet to fight Russia in 1878)
opportunism – exploiting circumstances and opportunities for personal/political advantage (first use 1870; from Italian oppportunismo and French opportunisme 1869)
racism – prejudice against people of other races (first use 1926; from French race and Italian razza)
sexism - prejudice typically against women based on stereotyping (first use 1934; from Middle French sexe, ‘the genitals’, and Latin sexus, ‘the state of being male or female’)
ageism – discrimination on the grounds of age (first use 1969; from Anglo-Norman aege and Old French aé and Latin aetat-, ‘the length of time a person has lived’)
lookism - discrimination against people because of their appearance (first use 1978; from Old English lócian)
Following the Latin and Greek models, this helpful little suffix has been used to form the names of religious and philosophical systems, and to describe distinctive ways of looking at the world. We can trace its use over centuries:
Christianism (1576, now obsolete)
prepperism (i.e. the belief that we need to make advance preparations in order to be able to cope with any disaster, or the end of the society as we know it – not yet in dictionaries, but being used on the internet 2012)
-ism words chart changes in our scientific and technological capabilities, in our attitudes, and in our broadening experiences of other cultures and belief systems.
Evidence that the -ism suffix continues to be linguistically central to our ever-growing word stock can be seen in words like obeseism and gingerism. These are recorded in Wiktionary, are used in the media and can be found in all kinds of contexts online, but have not yet made it into an up-dated entry in the OED. The suffix even became a noun in its own right as early as 1680: ism, any distinctive doctrine, theory or practice (often used disparagingly).
Our -ist nouns correspond to the French -iste, Latin -ista, Greek ιστης. Initially, these were endings attached to -ize/ -ise verb stems to form an agent noun (e.g. antagonize → antagonist; ), but in English the suffix is now used more widely. It can be used with -ism nouns (e.g. pacifism → pacifist), with adjectives (e.g. fatal → fatalist), and by analogy (psychiatry → psychiatrist). These -ist nouns can name the followers of a particular group or principle, or the practitioners of a particular process, art or skill. As a noun in its own right, ist was first used in 1811.
baptist: a person who baptizes (first use 1200); member of the religious body that practises baptism by total immersion for believers (first use 1654)
From the Old French baptiste, the Latin baptista (‘lover’) and the Greek βαπτιστης
chemist: a person who practices or studies chemistry (first use 1559)
From Middle French chimiste and Latin chimista + -ist
Marxist: a person who believes in the theories and principles of Karl Marx (first use 1873)
From the name of the revolutionary thinker and philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883)
The -ist suffix can be used to denote the following meanings:
Methodist (first use 1593; from Latin methodus, ‘mode of proceeding’, and Greek μεθοδος, ‘pursuit of knowledge’)
Darwinist (first use 1864; from the name of Charles Darwin)
victimologist (first use 1971; from French victimologie, 1956)
ophthalmologist – someone who diagnoses and treats diseases associated with the eyes and defects of vision (first use 1826; from Greek οφθαλμος, ‘eye’)
archaeologist – someone who studies archaeology (first use 1824; from the Greek αρχαιος, ‘ancient’, and λογια, ‘discourse’)
theorist – someone who is skilled in the theory of a subject (first use 1594; from Latin theoria and Greek θεωρια)
journalist – someone who earns a living from editing or writing for a journal, magazine or newspaper (first use 1693; from Old French jurnal and Latin diurnal, ‘of or belonging to a day’)
environmentalist (first use 1903)
escapologist (first use 1926)
consumerist (first use 1944)
hypnotherapist (first use 1958)
ergonomist (first use 1959)
bioethicist (first use 1973)
racist (first use 1926)
sexist (first use 1949)
Watch out for additions to the language – like Ecopreneurist (a blog about sustainable business) and WebUrbanist (a website focusing on global art and design).