Should English spelling be reformed?

Did you catch much of the Spelling Bee last week? It finished up last Friday. The winner, Anamika Veeramani, knew how to spell nahcolite and stromur. Do you? Yes, you caught me: the correct spelling for a rheometer that measures arterial blood flow is actually stromuhr. Well done.

English spelling is full of oddities and inconsistencies. Humorists and reformers alike love to string together non-rhyming orthographic siblings like “The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough“.

Tough Coughs book

The humorist pauses for the laugh, but your true reformer plows (ploughs?) ahead with serious mean (I mean mien). Joe Little, my buddy from high school, is a true reformer. He puts his money where his mouth is too. Not only is he the director of the reform-oriented American Literacy Council, he actually traveled to Washington DC for the recent Spelling Bee so that he could protest its very existence. Not that he has anything against clever kids like Anamika Veeramani. It’s just that he thinks that, as his sign says: “English Spelling Spells Trouble”. Listen to what he has to say in this sympathetic USA Today video. By the way, that’s Joe in the bee costume.

Where do you come down? Are you convinced? Should English spelling really be reformed? The ever-informative Language Log has a good discussion about the relationship between spelling vs. rate of learning. But it all seems to be fairly equivocal. On the face of it, English spelling IS nutty. But who gets to reform it? And what gets left behind?

As I see it, the simplification of Chinese characters is a good historical lesson to learn from. In the name of stamping out illiteracy, Chairman Mao pushed through a set of drastically simplified characters. It’s easy to see the motivation, but the old characters didn’t go away, and as a result, some 2000 new (simple) characters have been added to the traditional set of around 50,000 characters. Is Chinese better off or not? The debate rages on.

Finally, now that you’re wound up about spelling, would you risk a wound to your pride by attempting the Spelling Bee’s sample test? If you take it, let us know how you did.

Headline copy-editing crash blossoms

Suppose you saw a headline like “Maine harbors concern over Bangor landing.” The story is about an airplane that lands in Bangor and ultimately causes distress among Maine politicians. But you might get four words into the headline with the mistaken impression that someone is concerned about the harbors of Maine. Then you hit the word “over” and stop short… Maine harbors concern over… huh?. You might get all the way to the last word before you fully realize a verb/noun parse error with the ambiguous word “harbors”.

Some headlines are so spectacularly ambiguous that you might read them through three or four times and still have no idea what they mean. As you might expect, the wordheads over at the Language Log have come up with name for this kind of headline parsing problem: crash blossoms. Why? Here is the story behind the name.

At Testy Copy, a worthy colleague, Nessie3, posted this headline:

Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

(If this seems a bit opaque, and it should, the story is about a young violinist whose career has prospered since the death of her father in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985.)

It’s just a new name for an old problem, of course, but it’s still fun to collect them. Two more from the Language Log.

McDonald’s fries the holy grail for potato farmers. Yum! said Sir Galahad as he licked the ketchup and grail grease from his lips.

This one is not so much amusing as truly vexing to fully unwind: Scottish National Party signals debate legal threat.

Can you add any?


Font designer Mark Simonson does an occasional blog piece called Typecasting (or more recently Son of Typecasting) in which he skewers films for the anachronistic foibles in their fonts. Did you know, for instance, that the steam pressure gauge on James Cameron’s Titanic was set in Helvetica? Crikey! That font was sinking 45 years before it was invented!

It’s a professional hazard. Just as Mark Twain could never look at the Mississippi the same way once he became a riverboat captain, Simonson can’t look at the tombstone in a Western without thinking How did Helvetica (1957) and Eurostile (1962) end up on a tombstone in the year 1885?

When it comes to language, regular readers of the Star Chamber will know that frequent contributor Alan Kennedy is the local expert. This week he has a few thoughts to share about actors and accents.

Continue reading “GIMME SOME CAW-FEE!”


A widely traveled friend of mine tells me that there are dozens of countries that pride themselves on having the hottest cuisine in the world. You think you’ve had hot peppers before, my friend? That’s only because you’ve never been to _____. Similarly, people like to believe that their native tongue is the zaniest, most mixed-up and implausible language on the planet. And why not? All languages have their weirdness, and local chauvinism is a satisfying brew. My friend Mike lived in Japan for a few years and got used to having the locals tell him Japanese is wicked hard because, get this, the words for bridge and chopsticks are the same: hashi. He had very little luck explaining that homonyms can be found in English too. Mike liked to point out that, while the writing system and politeness levels are tricky, simply learning to speak Japanese well enough to be understood actually isn’t that hard.

Does it make sense to try to figure out which language is truly the hardest? This is the question that an entertaining essay in the Economist by Robert Lane Greene tries to answer. As you might expect, he doesn’t produced a single answer, but he does give some remarkable facts about languages with difficult sounds (!Xóõ in Botswana has more than twenty clicking sounds) and grammars (Bora in Peru has 350 genders).

My friend Alan, the famous Star Chamber guest author on all matters linguistic, forwarded the article to me with a note that he’d come across it on the Language Log. I recommend reading both the article and the Language Log commentary, because watching linguists argue is almost as much fun as watching statisticians argue, and there many fine points here up with which for discussion to be put.

I especially liked Greene’s comment on long words: “Agglutinating languages—that pack many bits of meaning into single words—are a source of fascination for those who do not speak them.” I am certainly guilty of this. Language Log commenter Bill Poser elaborates as follows.

A point that frequently arises is the idea that languages that pack a lot of information into words are difficult. Is it really self-evident that it is harder to deal with complex words than with multi-word phrases that convey the same information? If a language puts a lot into a word but does so in a transparent way, so that words are easy to parse, interpret, and construct, why should this be difficult? It may well be that the perception of difficulty here merely reflects unfamiliarity, which is likely true of quite a few of the features often cited as leading to difficulty.

Doubleplusgood pointgespoken! Nothing is more contemptible than familiarity, nor more exotic than something that is exoticnessful. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be tickled by a comment from a reader of the Economist article that in Inuit, one can say “it can be very slippery on the deck” with the assertion Quasartupilussuusinnaavoq.

Font puns & font quizzes

Mark Simonson is a type designer. I enjoy reading his blog and have found a number of fun typophilic web publications through his site. I was tickled by his wicked punning in this compact piece.

I Rotis for Typophile a few years back…

I Meta man once. I said, “Avenir seen you somewhere before?”

He replied, “I was elected Centaur once. Joanna know what happened? Italia what happened. The Air Force took a Janson me. They put me in charge of Arial maneuvers. But the DIN was terrible. I lost my Tempo and stormed out Didot. I shouted, ‘Avant Gardes posted Ronda clock! To Helvetica Mandarin chief! Peignot attention to him!’

“They said, ‘This Stymie went too far.’ Well, no more Beton Ronda bush. I admit I made some Eras. It cost me my Courier. Univers see it until it’s too late.

Bodoni hurts when I laugh. Now, I spend my Times Roman the streets.” He walked away singing Myriad a Little Lamb.

I wondered Weidemann was saying all these crazy things.

Franklin, I don’t give a Dom.

(My sincerest apologies. Please don’t bother to Melior complaints to me.)

Taken from Mark Simonson Studio / Notebook: Groan Extra Bold Extended. I added the font hyperlinks.

The punning style reminds me of Howard Chace’s masterful Anguish Languish (see also a related digression on this site).

Now that you’ve reviewed all your fonts, you’re ready to tackle Sporcle’s Name That Font game. Or if you’d rather relax, sit back and watch Helvetica, the movie about the font. It’s good.

Desperately seeking “Qatar”

Last year I was talking about Forvo, a nifty pronunciation site. Via Steve Crandall’s blog (can you pronounce açaí?), I just learned about a related site called inogolo. But inogolo, which derives its name from a Latinate construction meaning “not butchered”, is specifically targeted at English pronunciations. As site owner Stuart Yoder puts it: “The goal is not to mimic Spanish, German, Chinese, and Polish accents, but to provide a tool so that names are not completely butchered.”

When presented with a new dictionary, I always look up the word haruspex. Similarly, when presented with a new pronunciation site, of all the difficult words I could choose, my mind immediately turns to Qatar. Inogolo has it (KAH-tur), but then again, this is intended to be an American English version of the country name. Can we find a native version of the same name? Here’s Slate dedicating a page to the problem: How Do You Pronounce “Qatar”? It’s got some lovely linguistic jargon… The middle “t” is perhaps the trickiest part. It is known as a velarized consonant, which means the back of the tongue must be pressed against the mouth’s roof to achieve the requisite effect. The page even features a recording by an Arabic professor. But the prof’s name is Terri DeYoung. Nothing against the good Doctor, but I’m guessing she didn’t grow up on the Persian Gulf.

I was despairing of finding an instructive native when I came across this segment from the Daily Show. It’s both painful and funny to watch John Oliver correct the Qatari ambassador to the UN on HIS pronunciation of Qatar. And sure enough, when you hear the ambassador say the name, it is an ear-opening experience.

Oliver is a brutal straight man, and when his subject doesn’t want to play funny, things get tense.

Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

French and English have been tied together since William the Conqueror made French the language of royalty in England. Traces of that linguistic shotgun marriage persist. For example, when the peasants fetch the beast from the barnyard, it’s pig, cow and sheep, but by the time Monsieur sees it spiced and steaming on the table, it’s pork, beef, and mutton. This low-rent/high-rent juxtoposition can be striking, as with house and mansion, horseplay and chivalry, freedom fries and french fries, and so on.

Now sit back and enjoy as our very own Star Chamber Language Maven (quick: maven… what language is that from?) Alan Kennedy regales you with still more language yarns, this time on borrowed words in English.


Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

by Alan Kennedy

Linguists use the term “borrowed” to refer to words that come into one language from a second, and get used frequently enough that they become like a first language word. As an example – we don’t really feel like we are speaking Swahili when we say we went on a safari (even though that is a word borrowed from Swahili; it means “journey”). You can often tell that a word has been borrowed from another language because the spelling seems non-English (e.g. tsunami, gesundheit, déjà vu) – but sometimes the non-English origin is not as evident.

When I first mentioned the linguistic notion of “borrowed words” to my wife Karen, she pointed out that it’s kind of a stupid term, because the language users are not planning to give the word back, nor have the originators been left without the word. [Queen Elizabeth to the President of Tanzania: “thanks awfully for letting us use the word safari. It has been ever so useful, but we’re quite done with it now, you may have it back”.]

Similarly, another term for this phenomenon, “loan words” is inaccurate. [We like saying karaoke, and we refuse to give it back to Japan, goddammit! Take baseball in exchange. You’re welcome.]

Nevertheless, linguists use the term “borrowed word” or “loan word” this way, and it is a useful concept, despite the misnomer.

The term borrowing is not usually applied to words with roots from other languages (like Latin and Greek). It refers more to words that not only didn’t come from Old English (a Germanic family language) but which have been taken, whole hog, from some other language and eventually find their way into English dictionaries. Sometimes the words are borrowed just as they are, and sometimes they are modified in spelling or pronunciation to make them more “English-like”. Let’s take cocktails as an example. Vodka comes to us directly from Russian, водка, pronounced quite similarly in that language, and letter-for-letter transliterated into English letters. Whisky, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic word uisge which means “water” and is pronounced “oosh-kyuh”. (I will make no jokes here about how Scots drink/consider/treat whisky like water, in deference to my hard-working immigrant ancestors).

The language from which English has borrowed the most, by far, is French. A quick glance at a selection of fairly common words which we all know, and which are in the dictionary, makes the case:

adjectives nouns expressions
petite rendezvous debris bon voyage c’est la vie
blasé ballet entrepreneur bon appetite double entendre
gourmet debut mirage déjà vu en masse
beige cliché memoir en route ménage à trois
macabre entourage coup faux pas tour de force
unique genre entrée avant-garde film noir
chic ensemble buffet au contraire carte blanche
risqué> encore protégé cul-de-sac à la carte
sautéed niche boutique encore! nouveau riche
brusque chauffer mystique maître d’ savoir faire

… and this is just a partial list. Note that in almost every case, we English speakers are not pronouncing these words using usual English pronunciation rules. No one rhymes “buffet” or “chalet” with “get” by mistake (or “Chevrolet” for that matter); no one rhymes “corsage” or “sabotage” with “luggage”. We know these French rules so well, that they have become almost like alternative English pronunciation rules. Why do we English speakers borrow so much from French? Well, the Norman Conquest of England has a lot to do with it. And besides that, look at a map – France is England’s close neighbor. In that situation, linguistic borrowing frequently results.

Like all languages, English has borrowed many food words. The reason is perhaps self-evident. Which is easier to say: “I like sliced raw fish placed atop portions of sticky vinegared rice” or “I like sushi”? If people in some foreign locale have created an awesome dish with many ingredients or a specific recipe, it’s convenient to just take their word. Like any other words, some food words are borrowed fully (spaghetti, croissant, baklava) and some are modified a bit as they come into English (pretzel comes from the German bretzl; saffron from the Arabic زعفرانza’faran“). Because food words are so culturally rooted, English speakers have a sense that that they are using borrowed words when they say things like shish kebab (Turkish), smorgasbord (Swedish) or dim sum (Cantonese).

For non-food words, English speakers (according to my informal poll) tend to be less clear about where a loan word has come from. I’m not talking about obvious ones like karaoke or boomerang or aloha. I’m thinking more about words like cobra (Portuguese), robot (Czech), and boondocks (Tagalog). Even if you know a word is a loan word, you may not be able to guess which language. Can you guess where we get the words maven, chimpanzee, or yacht? Give yourself a minute.

O.K., the answers are Yiddish, Bantu (Southern Africa), and Dutch. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. This stuff is really not considered common knowledge.

Native American Indian languages have contributed many words – not just in place names, but in words that seeped into American English and then became part of English at large. Aside from the culturally rooted terms like moccasin, teepee and tomahawk that we all tend to know, there are many words for animals (e.g. chipmunk, moose, coyote, possum, raccoon, jaguar, cougar) and foods (e.g. pecan, squash, persimmon, avocado) that English speakers did not likely know about until they came to the Americas. Well-known concept words from native American languages include totem (Ojibwa), kayak (Inuit) and pow-wow (Narragansett).

Here’s a little story using borrowed words. Take minute to read it and, if you want, underline words that you think probably came into English directly from another language.

I’m going on vacation next month, and this time I’m really gung-ho to head northward to satisfy my wanderlust. I have visions of cruises in and out of icy fjords, maybe stopping to sled across the tundra. I’m staying in an ice hotel – which even has an indoor health center; I can’t imagine a sauna in an igloo! The last trip I took was a fiasco, really a catastrophe. We went to Bali, thinking it would be a relaxing, angst-free time. The brochure for our resort showed guests in turquoise silk pajamas, eating caviar, shopping in colorful outdoor bazaars and feeding orangutans and giraffes. The reality was a run-down place which bordered a kind of jungle canyon. We had a feeling there was something less than kosher about the place as soon as we drove up. For one thing, it was covered with graffiti. The little kiosk which sold shampoo and things was always closed. Our bungalow was tiny; the bed was more like a futon with a saggy mattress. The room was stuffy but we couldn’t go out onto our patio to get a breeze because the weather seemed to veer between monsoon, typhoon and tornado the entire time.

Ready? here’s the answer:

Word Language Origin
gung-ho, typhoon, silk Mandarin
wanderlust, angst German
cruise Dutch
fjord Norwegian
tundra Russian
sauna Finnish
igloo Inuit (Eskimo)
fiasco, graffiti Italian
catastrophe Greek
turquoise, caviar, kiosk Turkish
bazaar Farsi
orangutan Malay
giraffe, mattress, monsoon Arabic
pajamas, jungle, shampoo, bungalow Hindi
kosher Hebrew
futon Japanese
patio, breeze, canyon, tornado Spanish

I leave you with this final thought: hakuna matata.

No, that saying was not an invention of the Disney Corporation. It’s real Swahili language.

But you knew what it meant, didn’t you?

Greek to you, Chinese to me

Strange Maps had a lovely map of mutual incomprehension among languages last week: Greek To Me. It’s reminiscent of the old X-is-the-new-Y diagram I wrote about a while back.

Read the commentary under the map. There’s some good stuff in there. Most poignant to me is the Esperanto taunt Estas Volapuk al mi! (“It’s Volapük to me!”). Volapük is another made-up language, and it’s so uncool that even the Esperanto speakers make fun of it. Man, if you can’t sit at the same lunch table with the Esperanto speakers, you are one sad wanker.

What is it about the Carmina Freakin’ Burana?

Carl Orff succeeded spectacularly where so many composers have failed. In the twentieth century he wrote a piece of music in a classical style, a secular cantata with Latin lyrics, in fact, that went on to be a modern pop cultural phenomenon. The Carmina Burana sounds ancient, but it was composed in 1937. The opening number, O Fortuna, is the one that everybody knows. It’s the one that they used for beer and Gatorade commercials. It’s the one they used in no fewer than ten movies, including Jackass and Cheaper By The Dozen.

I don’t mean to sound glib. I like O Fortuna as much as the next drinker of sugary beverages. I do. But what is it about the piece that inspires so much schlock? Maybe it’s because it delivers pretense, bombast, and orgasmic payoff in one incredibly compact package.

Anyway, from Steve Crandall’s blog I came across this helpful explanation of the puzzling lyrics of Orff’s chef d’oeuvre.

Fun stuff, and it puts me in mind of mangled and misheard lyrics of all kinds. Kiss This Guy is a site dedicated to misheard lyrics. The title comes from the well-known Jimi Hendrix riff from Purple Haze, “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

The idea of garbled prose acting as a proxy for a real story is the basis for Howard Chace’s masterpiece, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut (Little Red Riding Hood). Upon seeing the wolf in Grandma’s clothing, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut was moved to remark on the size of her nose:

O, Grammar, water bag noise! A nervous sore suture anomalous prognosis!”

Chace’s efforts are justly famous. But in his epic Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames (Mother Goose Rhymes), Luis D’Antin van Rooten shows us that the effect also works across language barriers. How’s your French? Read this out loud.

Un petit d’un petit s’étonne aux Halles.

This is either the story of a little man finding surprise in the famous old Parisian market, or the story of a giant egg man astride a battlement. The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

The forgettable decade

On New Year’s Day, I speculated (via Twitter) that we’ve now made it through the better part of this decade without giving it a single clear name. And not for lack of trying… we’ve seen suggestions ranging from the Noughties to the Zeroes. The point is that none of these has stuck in the popular imagination. VH1 has a series of TV shows variously called “I Love the 80s” and “I Love the 90s”. What do they call the show about this decade? I Love the New Millennium. This name, I feel, will reveal certain flaws over time.

Martin Wattenberg replied to my Twitter message, “And lacking a name for the decade, no one talks about it. Sapir-Whorf redux?” I had just been pondering this. Sapir-Whorf says that the nature of our thinking is colored by the nature of our language. So, if the linguistic “handle” for the First Decade is particularly slippery, perhaps it will transitively render the things that happened that decade as less memorable.

It’s been a newsworthy decade by any measure, but I can’t help but wonder if, historically speaking, George W. Bush will get off easier than otherwise because he had the good fortune to stumble into an exceptionally forgettable decade.

Does anybody know of languages where the First Decade doesn’t present any linguistic difficulties? Presumably in such a language the first decade of each century would show to better effect in the history books.