Quickly improves English pronunciation!

  Issue 115, page 4

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From Richard Timberlake:

Here's the Latvian for Monday: Pirmdiena -- "first day".  How do I know this stuff? I'm married to a native speaker of Latvian. 

Ah, yes, and this is quite interesting as Latvian is an Indo-European language.  They see Monday as the first day of the week (or did, when the word arose).

From Nancy Friedman:

Your proposed etymology of Albuquerque ("white oak") is interesting, but I believe it's just a theory. Most Spanish nouns that begin with al- are derived from Arabic, in which "al" is the definite article "the." (Alcazar = "castle", alforja = "saddlebag", alcatraz = "pelican".) English has a few of these Arabic carryovers as well, e.g., alcohol and albatross. The latter comes from Arabic al-ghattas, "the white-tailed sea eagle" -- not from alba (Latin for "white").

Part of the problem with Spanish etymology is that for centuries after the 15th-century Reconquest of Iberia -- when the Moors and Jews were driven out by Catholics -- Spaniards were in total denial of their Arabic past, which had lasted seven centuries. Until the 1960s no history of Spain by a Spanish author even acknowledged this long and distinguished heritage. It was common for words with Arabic derivations to be painted over with Latinate meanings so that they would seem "pure Iberian," whatever that means.

Buque, by the way, is Spanish for "the hull of a ship." Spanish words related to sailing are frequently Arabic imports; albuquerque might well be an Arabic-derived occupational surname, "the hullmaker."

We certainly agree that some Spanish nouns beginning with al- are  of Arabic origin, but we can't agree that most of them are.  However, not being Spanish etymologists (or etymologists of Spanish!), we must defer to one of our readers who also happens to be a Spanish linguist, for the final word on the derivation of the place name Albu(r)querque.  We must add that the word albergue means "shelter" in Spanish; that would be another conceivable source of the place name.  If that particular reader is not available or not familiar with this issue, perhaps we have another Spanish etymologist, or native speaker with knowledge on this issue, in the house who can help.

One correction: albatross is thought to be an English or Dutch invention formed on alcatras "pelican" with the alba "white" being a conscious change as the albatross is white while the alcatras is black.

From Brad Daniels:

Now that we know where the word dunce came from, what about the dunce cap? Did Dunsmen once wear pointy hats?

[We discussed dunce in last week's newsletter.  If you aren't on our mailing list, you can find last week's newsletter in the archives at http://etymology.listbot.com .]  That's actually a good question.  The dunce cap first appeared in writing in the mid-19th century.  Even then, it was a tall, conical hat marked with a D for dunce.  The term fool's cap was used a few years earlier to mean the same thing.  Prior to that, a fool's cap was a jester's hat (the type you see at Renaissance fairs, with bells on all the pointy bits).  

The fact that the term dunce's cap doesn't appear in the written record until the 19th century makes the following explanation of its origin somewhat doubtful (as dunce itself dates from quite a bit earlier), but we'll give it to you anyhow, as it comes from one of our favorite columnists, Cecil Adams, who writes The Straight Dope:

Well, one of the more mystical things Duns [Scotus] accepted was the wearing of conical hats to increase learning. He noted that wizards supposedly wore such things; an apex was considered a symbol of knowledge and the hats were thought to "funnel" knowledge to the wearer. Once humanism gained the upper hand, Duns Scotus's teachings were despised and the dunce cap became identified with ignorance rather than learning. Humanists believed learning came from internal motivation rather than special hats, and [they] used the public shame of having to wear a dunce cap to motivate slow learners to try harder. 

From Scott Swanson
Program Manager for English as a Second Langauge and Foreign Languages
Scott Community College
Bettendorf, IA:

The change from "couldn't" to "coun'nt" [Curmudgeons' Corner, Issue 114] is a logical evolved form, though not necessarily a "good" one.

What we have at the end of should, would, and could is the "d" sound, or a voiced alveolar stop, in phonetic terms. The "d" is articulated with the tip of the tongue touching the alveolar ridge behind the teeth. It's a stop because no air passes through the lips. 

The "n" is a nasal alveolar stop. Although it's called a stop, the airstream passes through the nose, hence the "nasal." The "t" is a voiceless alveolar stop. 

Soooo, what you have is a three consonant cluster, all at the same point of articulation, with basically a stop-release-stop pattern. I think the "d" is assimilated by the preceding vowel and the following nasal.

Want a similar effect to look for? Listen for the "t" at the end of "what" in "what kind" or "what can I do?" The "t" is replaced by a glottal stop; think [of the phrase] "Scotts English".

Thanks, Scott.  Yes, as Malcolm suggested last week, this is language evolving, but Malcolm's a curmudgeon so he has to complain, anyhow.

We must clarify for our non-prescriptivist readers that Malcolm is a curmudgeon, as is Barb Dwyer.  It's their job to complain.  Most of us have a little bit of curmudgeon in us so we can relate to what Malcolm and Barb say, even if we know that we shouldn't complain because the subject of such curmudgeoning is often simply the "evolution of language", and to complain and object to it could be construed by some as elitism.  Let's take Malcolm and Barb for what they are - curmudgeons having some fun - and not take them too seriously!  Scott's letter above is a good example of the spirit in which we should take Malcolm and Barb's tirades.

We (Melanie and Mike) try not to be prescriptivist; the notion of etymology is diametrically opposed to prescriptivism, if you think about it!  However, every so often we do slip into curmudgeonly moods (from having Barb and Malcolm around a bit too much!).  Bear with us, you non-curmudgeons (actually, we could call you curmudgeons of a different color).!


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike: melmike@takeourword.com
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Last Updated 03/06/01 05:36 PM