Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him before

Globe Theatre


A fascinating discussion of Shakespeare and Original Pronunciation.  Against the backdrop of the glorious Globe Theatre, David Crystal and his son Ben talk about Early Modern English pronunciation and its importance in our understanding of Shakespeare’s plays. They explore what performing Shakespeare in OP brings to the text, and the semantic word play that is lost in RP. Well worth a listen!William_Shakespeare_1609 (1)


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Should I watch it? – Tell me in a (noun) phrase …

It’s really useful to understand the structure of noun phrases. Along with verb phrases, they form the backbone of all our written and spoken language. They can be short and concise (a single word – yes, even a single word can count as a ‘phrase’ because there is always the opportunity to add extra detail …) or they can carry huge amounts of information.

Looking at the brief film descriptions you see in television listings is a great starting point for learning about noun

Simple Noun Phrases

So, we’re going to start with a single word. We call this the head of the noun phrase.

Film genres wordle

Simple noun phrases consist of a single noun (or pronoun), or a determiner + noun.  Each of the genre nouns above is the head of a simple noun phrase. From the denotations and connotations of each word, we can get a good idea of what a film will contain.


a film designed to horrify, usually through the depiction of the supernatural and violence [DENOTATION]

dark tone; monstrous happenings;  associated feelings such as fear, shock, loathing, dread [CONNOTATIONS]


a film based on the biography of a well-known public or historical figure [DENOTATION]

true, but dramatised with some fabrication or manipulation  [CONNOTATIONS]

Complex noun phrases: pre-modification

While a single head noun will give a broad sense of a film’s type,  TV listings will often use words in front of the head to give readers a more precise understanding of a particular film. We call these complex noun phrases because they contain modifiers.

Pre-modifiers come before the head noun in a noun phrase. They can be adjective phrases, nouns or non-finite verbs (usually -ing present participles and -ed past participles).defining film words

The examples above are defining modifiers – they limit the range of reference of the head noun by specifying something distinctive about the film genre. For example, a comic film could be defined as

a slapstick sports comedy

 a battle-of-the-sexes comedy

a fashion-industry satirical comedy

a culture-clash comedy

A Western could be defined as

an epic western

a Spaghetti western

a spoof western

a Civil War western

Each of the modifiers provides additional information refining our expectations: the adjective ‘spoof’ suggests a film that  will mimic the features of a traditional western for comic effect; the noun ‘Spaghetti’ suggests a western in the style of the Italian director Sergio Leone. The words tend to be objective, reflecting qualities that are easily observable or quantifiable.

Modifiers can also be added to communicate a reviewer’s opinions. We call these evaluative modifiers – the examples below have positive connotations.

positive evaluative film words

 These modifiers come before the defining modifiers and are subjective – they reflect a particular person’s point of view.

technically-brilliant, occasionally harrowing war drama

a thought-provoking period drama

a beautifully-rendered animated adventure

a spectacular fantasy adventure

victorian-couple-mdEvaluative modifiers may comment on the physical features of filming (technically-brilliant, beautifully rendered), or may reflect the reviewer’s emotional response (thought-provoking, spectacular).

Evaluative modifiers can also communicate negative opinions.

negative evalutive film words

 an uninspired teen romance

a plodding spy thriller

a rather simplistic action adventure

a heavy-going biographical drama

From these examples, you can see how to build up strings of words before the head noun in a noun phrase to shape the meaning. Non-finite verbs like uninspired, intriguing, plodding, affecting and heavy-going, and  adjectives like enjoyable, dreary, stylish, watchable and crass control our response to the head word. We can use degree adverbs like very, rather, quite, incredibly to refine the modifiers.

Compound modifiers are common because they communicate a lot of information in a small space. For example, effects-heavy, stop-motion, Flintstones-esque, part-animated.  Coordinating conjunctions are also often used to link strings of modifiers, or to create contrasts. For example, crass, gross and witless; frantic but fun.

Complex noun phrases: post-modification

Noun phrases can also be post-modified by adding information after the head noun. The most common linguistic structures are prepositional phrases (starting with a preposition), relative clauses (starting with the relative pronouns who, which, that, where i.e. ‘in which’), and non-finite clauses (starting with non-finite verbs: usually -ed past participles or -ing present participles).

a charmless sports comedy based on a true story 

(non-finite -ed clause)

a spectacular adventure brimming with breezy black humor

(non-finite -ing clause)

Low-budget action movie about a daring escape from a PoW camp

(prepositional phrase)

a compelling thriller that paints a devastating picture of the global finance industry

(that relative clause)

a nail-biting creepy classic horror which is a spine-tingling delight

(which relative clause)

 As you can see from these examples, the post-modifiers can also include defining modifiers (true, global finance) and evaluative modifiers (breezy, devastating, spine-tingling). This is because there are also noun phrases embedded in the post-modifying structures:

  • post-modifying prepositional phrases are made up of a  preposition + noun phrase

special-effects-laden sci-fi comedy about a teenager who travels back in time

film-noir horror with a mean and moody landscape

quirky animation for the discerning 

uplifting fantasy from the makers of the award-winning cartoon

  • post-modifying non-finite clauses are made up of a non-finite verb (+ preposition) + noun phrase

tremendously exciting action thriller showcasing amazing martial arts skills

decent romance featuring A-lister Hollywood stars

period drama telling a tale of doomed love in 19th-century New York

brash musical adapted from the hit Broadway show

  • post-modifying relative clauses are made up of a relative pronoun  + verb + noun phrase/adjective phrase

classic western which exploits the tragic resettlement of the Cheyenne by the US government

whimsical comedy that becomes increasingly thought-provoking


relative pronoun + noun phrase + verb 

comedy where the new girl struggles to find her way in an American high school 

dreary adventure in which an assassin is hired to hunt down a girl in witness protection

 A noun phrase can carry a huge amount of information – by carefully selecting the type and tone of the pre- and post-modification, TV listings can help us to choose whether we will enjoy a particular film .

Are you going to watch?

Use the examples below to test your knowledge.  Find the head noun; work out what kinds of modification have been used; and finally, think about the semantic effects created. Which films would you want to see?

Well-played but predictable comedy in which an uptight 30-something reconnects with her hippy mom

Commendable mystery

Tedious zombie-slaying adventure

Stylish and gritty drama based on a true story

Misfiring fantasy featuring four interconnected stories

Warm-hearted animation for the whole family

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Are you hangry? Do you think Sheldon Cooper is adorkable? And has someone defriended you recently?

I must apologise for the lack of activity in recent months, but other commitments have prevented me Smiling Face Clip Artfrom posting. I promise to do better soon and to get back to more regular updates …

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 …


 TED is a non-profit organisation which spreads ideas through short talks on all kinds of topics linked to science, business, language, global issues etc. Their aim is to get you thinking …


[PS Thank you Karen Turner for tagging me]


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When a phoneme matters!

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Earlier this month, Pope Francis was delivering his weekly Sunday blessing from the Vatican, when people listening in St Peter’s Square and around the world were taken by surprise.

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!

686px-It_came_up_from_the_mud_(323809965)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:

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It’s a limit not a target – or the art of analysing a poem

To start, an anecdote … (thank you Leah) ….

13167190531844420519Mandatory Speed

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.

So how do we begin our analysis?

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.

1. Introduction

What is the main focus of the content?

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.  

2.  Key ideas: nouns and modifiers

What do the nouns and modifiers tell us about the content?


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.

3. Key ideas: themes

How does the poet use the words, the rhyme scheme and the form to develop her central themes?

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.
418px-Shishkin_na_severe_dikom1   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.

4. Change of direction

Where does the poem change? What has changed? What effect does it have?

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 Miranda_-_Frederick_Goodallmeaning 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. 

5. Conclusion

How does the context of the poem relate to its meaning?

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.  Caspar_David_Friedrich_032_(The_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog)
   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.

Writing for exams

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.

And finally …

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.

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Stephen Fry on dictionaries

Stephen_Fry's_BirthdayIf 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.

‘Words without end’


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.

  • 1604 Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall – 2,500 words
  • 1755 Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language – 40,000
  • 1928 Oxford English Dictionary (1st edition) – 400,000
  • 1989 Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) – 600,000

A post exploring the key English dictionaries in more detail will follow soon.

Oxford English Dictionary

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:

Tune in before it’s too

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.

And finally …

479px-Maharaja_mysore1895If 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).

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Language change in action

File:Rhubarb in Borough Market.jpg

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 …

You write yogurt and I write yoghurt

 yogurt-mdThe ‘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. 

So who does still go the extra mile to add the silent ‘h’?

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:  

  • UK newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and The
  • Thorntons (“Yoghurt Coated Strawberry Pieces”)
  • Brown Cow Organics
  • Starbucks UK (“Creamy Natural Yoghurt”)

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.

yogurt-md (1)1600s    yoghurd, yogourt 

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!

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