Category Archives: Language

English spelling 101

By | English, Grammar, Language, Translator Talk | No Comments

“But everybody speaks English now!” If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, whether on holiday or away on business, the presumption that the whole world speaks English is pretty common. If, horror of horrors, the person with whom the holidaymaker is speaking doesn’t immediately understand, many resort to the “I’ll just talk louder” plan, as though English must be spoken at a certain volume to be understood.

English Spanish phrasebook

Apart from the fact that this attitude is at best naïve, and at worst horrendously arrogant, I don’t think many people consider just how difficult English is as a language. It’s full of irregular verbs, tricky conjugations and pronunciation quirks, and, just as you think you’ve mastered it, another word comes along which bucks the trend again. Of course, all languages have their difficulties. This week on the Silver Tongue Facebook page, I posted a link to a Language Difficulty Ranking system, which rates languages on their perceived difficulty, along with the approximate time they take to learn. This was based on how similar to English the languages were, as judged by the Foreign Service Institute in the US. Obviously many things contribute to the ease with which an individual learns a language, and the similarity to their native language is just one small part of this. For fun, I’ve copied out a poem written by Bennett Cerf, a publisher and one of the founders of Random House – he also had the reputation of being one of the most prolific punsters of his generation, which is probably why I like him so much. There’s an audio file for this too, so you can listen as you read it – essential for fully appreciating the (wonderful) strangeness of the English language and its spelling quirks!

The wind was rough
And cold and blough
She kept her hands inside her mough.

It chilled her through,
Her nose turned blough,
And still the squall the faster flough.

And yet although,
There was no snough,
The weather was a cruel fough.

It made her cough,
(Please do not scough);
She coughed until her hat blew ough.

Bennett Cerf (May 1898 – August 1971)

Audio: Bennett Cerf poem

 

The Prince & The Passive Voice

By | Grammar, Language, Latest News, Translator Talk | No Comments

In case you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll be aware that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge yesterday afternoon welcomed a baby boy into the world. The arrival of their bundle of joy was announced by Kensington Palace; stating the sex, weight and time of birth. This was followed by an official announcement of his birth, placed on an easel outside Buckingham Palace – the same easel used 31 years ago to announce the birth of his father, the Duke of Cambridge. For fellow language geeks, the announcement would have been interesting, given that it used a slightly unusual phrase:

“HRH the Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son at 4.24pm today. Her Royal Highness and her child are both doing well.”

Most of the time, when talking about the miracle (or marathon!) of childbirth, we use the more common “gave birth to”, “delivered” or plain old “had”. The phrase “was delivered of” is in the passive voice, which we use all the time in English, however, the use of it in this context received a bit of criticism online.

Many people hadn’t seen this particular formulation of it in action before, whereas others felt that it was too anonymous a phrase to use. Indeed, its very name “passive voice” is a bit of a contradiction when we think about childbirth, what with it being a fairly…active process for the mother. Its use, many people reckon, could be an attempt to protect the dignity of the Duchess (I guess the tabloids didn’t get the memo) and, historically, would have made the whole process sufficiently vague, lest we dwell on the more unpalatable images that childbirth might bring to mind. Grammar, English, Cambridge, Passive Voice

It also provides a handy grey area for the doing of the action to hide in, seeing as “was delivered of” also has the meaning “was relieved of”, with the assumption (rightly or wrongly) that the relieving was done by someone else. Grammatically speaking, the passive voice is often used when the actor (i.e. whoever is doing the action) is unclear or irrelevant.

In the Bible, Hebrews 11:11 tells of the beautiful, but barren Sara, the wife of Abraham:

“Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.”

This use of the passive voice here seems to indicate that it was through her faith that Sara was able to conceive her child, rather than anything more traditionally…biological. Although this example isn’t related to childbirth specifically, but rather the prequel,* it does highlight the use of the passive voice to signal a certain ambiguity.

This got me thinking about grammatical oddities, obsolete words and old-fashioned phrases that make the English language such a treasure trove (and minefield) for language aficionados, so I’ve put it out on Twitter to get some favourites from fellow language geeks! I’d like to say “Tune in next time for more language lols**..” but I haven’t figured out how to do vlogs yet…so instead “Make sure you read the next blog!” (Hmmm. That’s not very catchy).

*I do apologise for the cheesy video, but I can’t help myself.
**Ironic use of “lol”.

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