Quickly improves English pronunciation!

  Issue 128, page 4

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From Phil:

One beef. Your Laughing Stock page. As easy as it is to make fun of poor usage by non-native speakers, I wonder how much more amusing would be your attempts to speak any other language, especially one not of European origins. Few enough native speakers of English even attempt to learn, let alone master, a foreign language. The fact that English currently has a strangle-hold on communications is no reason to stoop to cheap disparagement of those forced to learn our own convoluted and highly irrational tongue. Stick to knocking those who should definitely know better (starting with me , if you like).

Well, for one thing, we aren't making fun of the people who write "Engrish".  We're laughing at the results.  For another thing, our "attempts to speak any other language, especially one not of European origins" would be just fine.  Mike speaks Sanskrit, Hindi, Tibetan and Chinese, and Melanie can get by in Lakota.  We won't mention the Indo-European languages that we can each speak, read, etc.  Additionally, most, if not all, of the examples of "Engrish" we have used in our Laughing Stock section are very clearly the products of translation programs like Alta Vista's "Babelfish" - in goes your native tongue, and out comes a horrible translation.  If you look at last week's Laughing Stock, you'll see odd French words within the English ones - if a translation program doesn't understand a word, it leaves it as is.  Finally, we would expect to produce amusing results if we tried to write a letter in a language we did not know, or put an English letter into a translator and got Finnish out the other side.

From Mark Loudon:

Where I come from (in England), we don't say, "Your fly is undone." We say, "Your flies are undone." (Of course, this is if us Brits can break through our natural reserve enough to say anything at all. One common euphemisms being, "There's egg on your face.") 

We were taught at school that the word "flies" in this context derives from the appearance of several small bows used to closed the opening, which had the appearance of flies. 

As a child I heard this from several sources. Is there a possibility that there is some truth in both origins? 

Flies must have been really awkward in the restroom... nearly as bad as the buttons on Levi 501's! 

The bows you mention may have influenced the change from fly to flies.

From Daniel A. Kelber:

I just got done reading the connection you make between the Indo-European root *mer- and checkmate by way of the Persian shah-maat. While I was aware that checkmate was from Persian, and that Persian is an Indo-European language, I also know that these words are found, almost identically, in Arabic and Hebrew as shiekh-meit, meaning "the sheik is dead". These latter languages being Semitic, I was wondering if this was borrowed from the Persian during a time of Persian dominance. If so, is there a word in Hebrew and/or Arabic for dead that predates the occupation. 

Thanks for giving me something to look forward to every week!

Great question, Daniel.  Hebrew scholars out there - can you answer this?  (Our Hebrew-scholar friend has been unavailable of late...)

From Joshua Daniels:

In American spoken English, the heightened tone at the end of the sentence tells you whether it's a question or a request. When interpreting the spoken to the written (I'm thinking of the court reporters, here), the only mark we have to indicate that heightened tone is the question mark. Accurate transcription requires that it be used if the tone went up at the end of the sentence, no matter what words were used. This is one cause of an ongoing battle between attorneys and the general public on the one side, and the court reporters' union on the other. Many good cases have been destroyed or unjustly influenced by the court reporters' insistence on stupid things like that.  

Imagine the following conversation without the question marks (from the movie, My Cousin Vinnie). 

Kid: So we paid for our stuff and left. 
Sheriff: And that's when you shot the clerk? 
Kid (eyes widening in surprise): I shot the clerk? 
Sheriff: That's when you shot the clerk? 
Kid (deeper in shock, as he realizes why he's been arrested): I SHOT the CLERK? 

When that was read back in court, some months later, the question marks were missing, and it sounded like this: 

Kid: So we paid for our stuff and left. 
Sheriff: And that's when you shot the clerk? 
Kid: I shot the clerk. 
Sheriff: That's when you shot the clerk? 
Kid: I shot the clerk. 

See the problem? I'm a team lead. Sometimes, I say to one of my people, "Would you..." and it's a question, and my use of my voice shows it. Sometimes I say, "Would you..." and it's a command, and they act on it. 

Technically, if you use would, you are not issuing a command.  However, there is a habit, especially in America, of avoiding direct commands for fear that they sound rude, so the question "Would you do something?" has become a soft command.  Still, technically, such usage is a question.

In another part of your letter [that we omitted for space constraints] you mentioned speakers in Texas who raise their tone at the end of every sentence, not just questions, causing ineffective communication.  There are many others who do this - it is called uptalk.  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if a court reporter, reporting the speech of an uptalker, used a question mark at the end of every sentence that ended in a raised tone!

Regarding your example from My Cousin Vinny, above, such ambiguity rarely survives in testimony if the attorneys involved are doing their jobs.

From Brian Shelton:

We may not have to discuss the etymology of jewfish anymore. The association of ichthyologists who are responsible for naming fish has decided (or at least discussed) changing the name to something less offensive, possibly hebrewfish.  I know this sounds like a joke but I read it in a FoxNews.com report on political correctness a month or so ago. I've tried to search their site for confirmation but to no avail. I put this one right up there with the fellow fired for using the word niggardly.

Hmm.  While we acknowledge that you haven't been able to confirm this report, we would like to comment anyhow.  Melanie would not find a fish called a cherokeefish offensive, especially if she learned that it was so named because it was favored by Cherokee Indians (she's part Cherokee).  Mike would have no problem with welshfish.  Have any Jewish folk complained about the name jewfish, or is this association of ichthyologists just being hypersensitive?  Any comments from our readers of Jewish background?

From Anke:

My mother is of Bessarabian origin, the Bessarabians are Germans who lived (until WWII) in colonies near the Black Sea, which is either Rumania, Moldavia or Ukraine, depending on the point in history when you look at it. There, in the hot climate, people grew eggplants in their gardens. Whereas today, in Germany, the thing is always called Aubergine and has a bluish colour which is also called aubergine , at the time when my mother was a kid in Bessarabia, the plant was called Eierfrucht (eggfruit) and, which is most interesting, had a whitish colour (just like eggs). Later I have read that there always existed two types of eggplants, the white one and the blue one and that the white type was the predominant one. Since the white one gets spots easier and, which is worse, more visible, they were less and less traded and became replaced by the blue ones, where you find it much harder to identify rotten parts. They just sold much better. This should explain the two different sources of the names aubergine and eggplant.

Well, it doesn't exactly "explain" the sources of the different names, but the white color of some species of eggplant, coupled with its shape, is certainly the source of eggplant.


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