What Was That Name Again?

Do you know – or have you ever heard of – any of these names?

  • Lacey Green
  • Stanley Wrenthorpe
  • Rodney Stoke
  • Mavis Enderby
  • Cherry Willingham

Well, I propose a little quiz for those of you who don’t know them. Are these

a) Musicians
b) Fictional characters
c) Actors
d) Places
e) Ships 
f) Artists

What do you think? Have you made an educated guess? Here are some more names in the same category:

  • Compton Martin
  • Burton Joyce
  • Askham Richard
  • Lach Dennis
  • Thornton Curtis

Getting warmer? Can’t you just imagine the dulcet tones of Lacey Green and Cherry Willingham performing their duet at Covent Garden Opera House, or Rodney Stoke’s unforgettable interpretation of Hamlet with the RSC? Mavis Enderby must surely be the heroine of a tragic Edwardian novel and didn’t you see those impressive paintings by Stanley Wrenthorpe at the Tate Modern? You probably heard about the disastrous cruise a few years ago when the Burton Joyce ran aground.

Has that jogged your memory? Or have you already resorted to Google and Yahoo, or asked Jeeves? Well, maybe you need another clue to put you out of your misery. Here are some more:

  • Catherine de Barnes
  • Wentworth Woodhouse
  • Clifford Chambers
  • Bishop Norton

And if that hasn’t done it for you, these must:

  • John O’Groats
  • Ben Nevis
  • Juan les Pins
  • Alice Springs

Got it? Bishop Norton has lots of relatives – Brize, Chipping, Midsomer and Hook to name but a few. Perhaps I could – at a pinch – add Mable Thorpe and Ashby de la Zouch?

Most of these places are in England, two in Scotland, one in France and one in Australia. I’ve always been intrigued by the name of the village Catherine de Barnes, seen on motorway signs near Birmingham airport, and which sounds like a Jane Austen character.


Photo credit: Wikipedia

A few years ago I was amused when I drove past Rodney Stoke near Bath, Somerset. Then as I searched for long dead ancestors in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, up popped Stanley-cum-Wrenthorpe, Wentworth Woodhouse and Mavis Enderby. I reaiised that many villages include Christian names that don’t have “St.” in front of them and started looking out for them consciously.Rodney Stoke

I suppose you could say that Ben Nevis is cheating, as it’s a mountain and not a village or town, but check out any large-scale map of British counties showing villages and hamlets, and among the very picturesque sounding names you’ll probably find a whole lot more that sound like people. Let me know if you do.

Students And Nelly Sachs

All of a sudden yesterday there were over 500 hits on my Nelly Sachs site, and more than a dozen comments. Intrigued, I checked to see what was happening and discovered that the comments were clearly by students in the USA who must have been given an assignment by their teacher to choose a poem and comment on it.

Whilst I am pleased to see that my versions of Nelly Sachs’ poems are being read and the students are trying to figure out what they are about, it is also rather disappointing to see how facile and wide of the mark most of these comments are. My knee-jerk reaction was to trash them, but then I decided to click the “approve” button after all: not that I approve of the comments themselves, but of the intentions behind them. Thank you to the teacher who found my blog and pointed the class to it, and thank you to the students who actually sat down and struggled through these poems until they found one that appealed to them.

Mine are translations, not interpretations. I am no wiser than the next person about what was going on in Nelly Sachs’ head when she wrote her original works. Naturally I have my ideas, and since I also wrestled with her words, symbolism and ambiguity as I sought to render the German into English, I have perhaps delved more deeply into them than these teenage students are able to. Plus I am so much older than they are, and have so much more experience of life, as well as having been alive – though a small child – at the time of the Holocaust. I have met survivors of those horrors, and am thus much closer to them than sixteen or seventeen-year-old American High School students. So I apologise to my young readers for my hasty judgement and initial dismissal of their comments.

I don’t know why they have posted these on my blog: it would have made more sense – assuming this was a homework assignment – to present them in class so everyone can express their views, and the teacher could guide them into a better understanding of the aspects they have missed. Perhaps they are doing that, too, and it is simply a courtesy on their part to have shared their reactions with me? Is the generation gap simply too wide between us? I am, after all, old enough to be their grandmother.

I would like to be able to enter into a real discussion with them and their teacher (who has all my sympathy in her desire to acquaint her class with Nelly Sachs and the Holocaust: it can’t be an easy task) and point out a few things that to me are as plain as a pikestaff but which they have missed. Alas, any exchange of comments on my website is going to remain very superficial, and would I fear be even more frustrating for all concerned. I want to encourage my young readers, not deter them from making the effort to get to grips with difficult poetry or to understand what went on in the Third Reich. So perhaps I should, after all, respond individually to each one and offer a little food for thought, more easily digestible than the morsels they have chosen. I just hope I don’t end up making Nelly Sachs even more unpalatable.

Alphabetical Musings

Where does alphabetical order come from? It’s a question that has haunted me ever since I first started school, and typically, when I inquired in my infant innocence, I was told not to ask silly questions so eventually I realised my teachers didn’t know everything after all. It didn’t stop me wondering though, and I have never found a truly satisfactory answer. There are theories, of course. But the origins of our alphabet are lost in the mists of time, probably somewhere in Egypt, and it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure. It may have been a poem, a series of musical notes, a mnemonic, or a numerical sequence. Or something entirely different. Whatever the reason, apart from Sanskrit and futhorc runes, the earliest alphabets from which our modern abecedaries have developed also appear to place the letters in the familiar order. Very puzzling. It must have been something very powerful to have made such an impact.

A serious English language usage website states:” a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BCE preserve the alphabet in two sequences. One, the ABCDE order later used in Phoenician, has continued with minor changes in Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin; the other, HMĦLQ, was used in southern Arabia and is preserved today in Ethiopic. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.“

Our modern English alphabet, like our language, has a rich and interesting history, with many ancestors contributing to it. Wikipedia informs us: “In the year 1011, a monk named Byrhtferð recorded the traditional order of the Old English alphabet. He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet (including ampersand) first, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note () an insular symbol for ‘and’:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & Ƿ Þ Ð Æ”

Tironian notes, if you are wondering, are a form of shorthand allegedly invented by the Roman Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was Cicero’s scribe. If you have ever tried to read Cicero’s longwinded speeches, you will understand why a stenographic system was needed to record them.

This alphabet omits letters j, u and w but y and z have been tacked on at the end before the 5 we have lost.

We still use the ampersand (&) today, derived from the Latin word ‘et’ and more of Tiro’s notes that still survive are v. = versus and the ‘z’ in the abbreviation viz, meaning videlicet. The “insular symbol” (⁊ ) survives in Gaelic and Irish, serving the same purpose as the ampersand, and designated “insular” because it’s used on our islands.

The letters that Byrhtferth added last are called thorn, wynn, eth and ash. Another vowel, ethel, is missing from this eleventh century alphabet, although it survives under a different name in French in worlds like cœur and sœur. (You surely didn’t expect the French to call it by a name they can’t pronounce?) These letters that were borrowed or adapted from futhorc runes have disappeared in modern English, though the sounds they represent live on and are mostly nowadays symbolised by digraphs like th and gh as well as w (originally rendered as uu or vv). Some Welsh writers also still use the eth (ð), though others have replaced it by ‘dd’.

At the risk of being told to stop asking silly questions again, I wonder why we have “progressed” to using two letters instead of one, especially where we use ‘th’ to represent both the voiced and the unvoiced consonants which in the past were clearly distinguished by thorn and eth? And if we could now reinstate our lost ancient letters, why not add a couple more to replace the digraphs used for the sounds of ‘sh’ and ‘ch’?

A final thought. I know people called Bea, Kay, Jay, or Dee. The obsolete letters also have very pleasant sounding names that you could easily give to your children. I’d love to meet a family consisting of Thorn (þ), Eth (ð), Wynn (ƿ), Yogh (ȝ), Ash (æ), and Ethel (œ). Double-barrelled surname, of course: possibly Futhorc-Rune?

And if you are wondering about futhorc runes, here they are:



Lamb Shanks Abroad

My son-in-law has pointed out that a lamb shank goes under the truly fanciful name of souris d’agneau in French: rather a large mouse, I must say, but Wikipedia tells me it’s because of the oval shape of the meat around the tibia.  I suppose the bone sticking out represents the tail.

I already knew that it bears the vaguely aristocratic name of Haxen von Lamm in German – for those unfamiliar with this language, names with a “von” in the middle indicate the higher ranks of society – or the more humble term Lammschenkel. This led me to google the cut in other languages, and to my delight I found the wonderfully unappetising stinco d’agnello in ItalianLam skank (Danish) and lamschenkel (Dutch) bridge the gap between English and German. It’s a cordero in Spanish and a ramushanku in Japanese – a clear attempt at reproducing the English name with a Japanese accent that has inadvertently turned the lamb into a ram. None of these can compete  with the French though: what a poet that butcher must have been who first thought to compare a lamb’s leg to a mouse.

Mocking Mandela?

As the world watched the memorial celebration for one of the greatest statesmen of our time, our attention was caught be a solemn-faced little fellow waving his arms around beside whoever was speaking.  Yes, the sign-language interpreter, even to those unfamiliar with signing, didn’t seem quite kosher: no change of facial expression, slow simple movements, and the same movements constantly repeated. My initial feeling as I watched, and realised that only one lone interpreter was acting for all those who spoke, was one of pity.

I have worked as a simultaneous interpreter, and can imagine that interpreting into sign language is not much different from interpreting into a spoken language. Many people don’t realise how tiring simultaneous interpretation can be. Unlike consecutive interpretation or written translation, there is no time to think consciously of what you are saying as you listen to a speaker and repeat the message in a different language.

The brain goes into a kind of overdrive, and you can mentally make up your grocery list while speaking about automotive engineering, much in the way an expert copy typist can type a document without registering what she is writing,  After half an hour to an hour of by-passing conscious thought, you need a break, which is why simultaneous interpreters usually come in teams of two.  I would expect the same to apply to sign-language interpreters, whose arm, wrist and facial muscles must also ache after an intensive 30 minutes or so of work.

An interesting article in the Guardian makes the valid point that although Thamsanqa Jantjie made a fool of himself before millions, he may have done deaf people a favour by highlighting the problem of poor sign-language translation. What is more worrying, though, is the fact that with very little probing eNCA have found that this same Thamsanqa Jantjie, who is being treated for schizophrenia, has also faced rape (1994), theft (1995), housebreaking (1997), malicious damage to property (1998), murder, attempted murder and kidnapping (2003) charges.  Many of the charges brought against him were dropped, allegedly because he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

How on earth he was selected for this job will probably remain a mystery, although no doubt a scapegoat will be found. My guess is that someone suddenly thought at the last minute, “Aha, we need a deaf sign language interpreter!” turned to the next down the pecking order and said, “Find one!” This person, being already overworked with delegated tasks, then despatched some minion who googled deaf sign language interpreters in Johannesburg, and picked Janjie at random. Jantjie himself was likely so flattered and overawed by the honour that he didn’t dare say he couldn’t do it.

All the same, where was Security? My neighbour who works as a dinner lady at the local school was subjected to more stringent investigation than this man appears to have undergone. Was Madiba watching all this with a huge grin on his face?

I wonder, when all is said and done, and the dust has cleared, is this débacle really just a reflection of the state of the world we live in nowadays?

Strange Syntax Mine It Is

I hope I’m not breaching any confidence by reproducing – anonymously – this heartbreaking plea for empathy:

hello everyone. not normally post as courage takes. worried muchly i am. not able place post upon wall mine as not wanting for to worry children mine bless. stroke suffered 2008 please forgive words mine as not alwasy come right. ileostomy formed to save life mine. problems many since too gallbladder now removed. health mine deteriorating too.  have go for hysteroscopy as new problems have arisen. tummy so very swollen too painful. painkillers given thanksfully helping. tearful very at moment yet smiles i do for family. wanted for to share here as see daily i do posts so very loving too caring when members suffering. want for to comment yet alwasy worry not able understand words mine. so here say i will hugs too love sending for those need them as i do muchly at moment. Xx

This message brought tears to my eyes and I believe I responded appropriately; it was perfectly clear, everyone understood and sent their love and best wishes. Yet it also brought a smile to my lips, evoking as it did the mental image of the much-loved Yoda and his twisted syntax.

That sent me off to google Yodish, which has been much analysed, and even to one interesting site (here) which examined how Yoda’s English syntax was rendered in other languages. Was Yodish based on the speech of a stroke victim? I haven’t been able to find the answer to that, as George Lucas, its originator, has refused to explain why Yoda speaks backwards. We occasionally hear strange stories of how brain damage due to strokes can impact linguistic ability, and a person might suddenly start speaking Welsh, for instance,  which he may have heard in early childhood but then forgotten.

I skipped over to my cyberpal Taxi Dog, who has many answers – some to questions nobody else has thought to ask – and links to fascinating sites. Taxi Dog suffered a stroke, with subsequent aphasia, and I thought he might have addressed this matter of altered syntax after brain damage.

Location of two brain areas that play a critic...

Location of two brain areas that play a critical role in language, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know that Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are mainly responsible for speech, and I seem to recall that syntax is located in a different area of the brain from lexis, which partially accounts for the different effects that strokes have on speech. However, although he suffered from aphasia, Taxi Dog now writes very fluently with perfectly normal syntax, and I couldn’t find anything about this on his site, although I spent over an hour thoroughly enjoying reading all his older posts that I had previously missed. Thank you, TD!

Finally, I stumbled upon this page (PLEASE click – it’s worth it!). Good old Huffington Post!

I’m sure that some neurolinguist somewhere has devoted time to investigating this phenomenon, and made a connection between the syntax of proto-human language and that of stroke victims, whether by way of Yoda or not. If not, why not?

Twin Towers Of Pedantry

There are two little schoolmasters inside my computer, with a ruler they use to rap my knuckles. Over and over again, my spelling checker and its spouse the grammar checker insert wiggly red or green lines under what I have written. And over and over again I click ‘ignore’.

What’s this all about? I write correct Standard English – the form of the language used by educated speakers and writers, a group to which I know I belong – but those who programmed these cyber editors have applied sweeping general rules which are not always appropriate.

There is, for instance, the restrictive and non-restrictive use of ‘which’, perfectly acceptable in both the British and US versions of our language. Yet every time I use ‘which’ in its non-restrictive sense, up pops that green line and the suggestion that I either follow it by a comma or replace it by ‘that’ (there it goes again in the last sentence of my first paragraph).

I do not want to do that. I want to use ‘which’ as it has been used for centuries, in a manner which is grammatically correct. I know it’s correct and so I ignore that green finger, but thousands of people probably think, “My computer knows best” and they make the suggested change.

In a similar vein, every time I use a passive construction, I see that little grass snake sneaking in with a proposal for an active construction that is often far more unwieldy than my passive, and – what is more important – shifts the emphasis of my statement.  That little beast also shouts ‘cliché!’ on occasions when I am deliberately using a hackneyed phrase for a particular effect.

The red line appears regularly when I use the Oxford rules for words ending in  –ize and –ise . Someone somewhere has decreed that “British English should use –ise and American English should use –ize”. That is very simplistic. I assume it was an American who had the idea. Mr Horace Hart’s rules have been my Bible for decades, and I’m relieved to note that the newest edition maintains its original distinctions. (I have to admit to a shudder when I see ‘analyze’ and ‘paralyze’ even though I know these are correct in American English). Worse than this, however, my spelling checker has occasionally criticised something that was correct and demanded an incorrect spelling, like changing ‘lying’ to ‘laying’ in the sense of being in a supine position.

Why am I making all this fuss? Why not just continue ignoring what I know is wrong and be thankful that, as my sight deteriorates, there is a handy little widget helping me up now and then when I trip over a typo? Be grateful, Woman!

My rant is fired by the fear that this prescriptive and proscriptive pedant is changing general usage. Why should that bother me? I don’t really know. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Shakespeare and Donne weren’t worried about spelling or grammar, so who am I to moan? Probably there were scholars in Caxton’s time who complained that he was spelling words wrong and maybe he was, but he carried on regardless. Are these software editors merely following Caxton’s lead?

Still, I am not alone. Out there is a new Don Quixote tilting at linguistic windmills, an editor, a  language-loving scholar called Jonathan Owen, who shouts from the rooftops what I am muttering about in my chamber. He has a blog called Arrant Pedantry and has just finished a Master’s thesis on the subject of how far narrow-minded editors are enforcing changes in usage. How it comforts me to find a kindred spirit!

PS: WordPress editor wants me to write ‘wrap my knuckles’,and ‘giggly green line’. It  finds  ‘over and over again’ redundant and also doesn’t know ‘proscriptive’. Please, WordPress People, programme your editor for British English according to OUP! (Oh dear – programme is another one …)