Posts Tagged ‘English’

A-Z is for alphabet

It’s Wednesday and it’s over to my guest blogger, Rambler5319, to sum up the last month’s blogging challenge with a fascinating look at the alphabet as we know it….

Given that LLM has been doing the letters from A to Z through April, I thought it might be an idea to close the whole thing with a look at the alphabet as a concept. How many letters do you think are in the English Alphabet? I’ll tell you – it’s 18. Now before you start shooting me down…. Think about it!

How did we get our letters? Who said eventually there should be only 26? Why 26 anyway as opposed to 25 or 27? Were there more or less at any time during its history?

Even the word alphabet itself, as you know, is made from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: “Alpha” & “Beta”. (I do wonder why we don’t use a term like A-Z to represent it as they are the first and last letters and kind of encompass what the whole thing is. What about the revolutionary phonetic 8-2-Z or just 82Z? Following the Greek it would of course come over to us as the “Alpha-ome” or “Alpha-omeg” as “Omega” is their last letter not “Z”.

I suppose one thing is difficult to comprehend is how do you think outside of this set of letters which we have all known since we learnt them in primary school and from early reading books at home. We can express all our thoughts using these 26 so why would there be more? What use would they be anyway?

Of course it does make a difference which country’s alphabet you are referring to. Think of Germany where they have 30 letters in their alphabet; Albania has 36; Greece 24 and so on. It’s interesting to ponder how all the different alphabets developed and how time has changed what is deemed useful and what not.

Apparently it all goes back to an alphabet from around 1600BC from ancient Phoenicia from which many of our modern day alphabets derive. It was made up of consonants and didn’t have any vowels. Now already, if you’re like me, you’re thinking how can you write without vowels? It can’t make sense. However if you grow up never using vowels in their written form you don’t have a problem. You learn the way to write that the culture you’re in writes. Put simply, it means you make a sound with the letters which is taught to you. So if, for example you learn the word dg but you hear it as “dog” when spoken by others you will simply say “dog” when you see the letters dg and so the “o” is not needed. The problem comes if you need to represent “dig”. It might be “dg” again but you would have to tell correct pronunciation by the context. Just think of “refuse” and “refuse” in English: one sound is “reff use” for rubbish, one is “re fuse” for turn down or deny. I remember years ago I did write a number of letters to various people and did just that – missed out all the vowels. Surprisingly there was very little problem. The most issues came when using the short words like an which would appear as just “n” (so could also be an, in, on or even one and so on) but often the context would enable correct interpretation. The single letters I and a were just not shown so would require a bit of reasoning to see if they should be in at a particular point. Try this paragraph below – each group of letters is actually one word so single letters need something adding in front/behind or both:

Th s f twnty-sx lphbt lttrs n r nglsh systm nbls s t rprsnt ds, cncpts nd snds sng wrds md p frm ths

dffrnt lttrs. Ths s why lrnng t rd s s mprtnt s t nbls cmmnctn; t nbls s t ndrstnd wht smn ls s syng nd

wht thy wnt. t s ssntl fr s t b bl t pss n nfrmtn frm gnrtn t gnrtn, frm tchr t ppl, frm mnngr t shp flr

wrkr nd s n. f w mss t th vwls t shrtns ll r wrds (s lss ffrt nvlvd sm wld sy) bt ls my prdc msndrstndngs.

I’ll give you the full version at the end but, seriously, just stop for a moment and see what you can make of it.

English didn’t really standardise until printing came along (late 15th century) which required people to use a particular method of spelling for the presses. There are a number of letters (symbols?) now defunct but which explain some of the oddities in English pronunciation.

As an example, one letter pronounced “yog” but written “yogh” looks like a number 3 but is actually like a copperplate “z” with a tail. One of our current Liberal Democrat MPs is called Sir Menzies Campbell. Hands up everyone who thinks his name is pronounced “Men-zees” (and yes that was me when I first saw it). When he appeared on TV he was introduced or mentioned in the news as Sir “Ming-iss” Campbell. How did that happen? Well apparently it’s all down to this letter “yogh” which is written like the “z” but pronounced with a “g” sound; it’s a bit more complicated than that but I reckon the detailed phonetics explanation may bore you. You have the same with the surname “Dalziel”. (There was a UK detective prog called “Dalziel & Pascoe”.) Again you want to say “Dal-zeel” or “Dal-zee-ell” but it’s pronounced “Dee-ell”. In my youth I visited a place spelt Cholmondeley and I said “Chol-mon-dell-ee” to the telephone operator and she said “Oh, you mean “Chum-lee”? Think of the surname “Featherstonehough” – Feather-stone-huff? Nope – It’s “Fanshaw”.

And finally a gem from the John Menzies own website (

Can you read this correctly:

A lively young damsel named Menzies

Inquired: “Do you know what this thenzies?”

Her aunt, with a gasp,

Replied: “It’s a wasp,

And you’re holding the end where the stenzies.”

Remember the Menzies to Ming-iss and do the same for the other “enzies” endings. Got it?

The other area which is already producing additional letters to our alphabet is the whole text-speak thing. Think of some of the abbreviations which are replacing phonetic sounds from our words: gr8 for great mean 8 = ”eat”, 4 means “for” or “four” (context to decide) and so on. I even thought of one which I don’t think is out there yet (and probably not likely to be) –


Have you got it? It’s lol written as capital LOL: move O left into L and flip the other L through 180⁰ and move left to make the square and there you have it. I’ve invented a new letter! You saw it first here, you are looking at the future.

And, of course, if you want to finish a message an “x”, you could maybe get


Now back to that paragraph with the challenge. Here’s how the full version reads:

The use of twenty-six alphabet letters in our English system enables us to represent ideas, concepts and sounds using words made up from those different letters. This is why learning to read is so important as it enables communication; it enables us to understand what someone else is saying and what they want. It is essential for us to be able to pass on information from generation to generation, from teacher to pupil, from mananger to shop floor worker and so on. If we miss out the vowels it shortens all our words (so less effort involved some would say) but also may produce misunderstandings.

Hope you got it ok.

PS I’m standing by for some tricky replies/comments as I’m sure some of you will want to have a go at me.


Signs of the times?

It’s that time in the week again, time for the guest blogger to take over….

“Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.”
(Keep reading to find out where these lines are from if you don’t already know.)
I went on holiday recently; it turned out to be a real assignment. Congratulations to the weather which had been very wet for many weeks but which gave me a rain-free, hot, sun-filled week. I visited Norfolk, in a part of the UK called East Anglia, and stayed in a cottage in a small village called Ringstead: it’s a few miles inland from the seaside town of Hunstanton popular with traditional holiday makers. I soon became aware that there are many signs which are meant to give info but sometimes don’t actually say what they mean or don’t say it correctly. On day one (actually a Friday), I took a walk round the seafront there and, in the fairground which had closed because of earlier bad weather, I was surprised to find the following:

Can you see the mistake? Go on, look again if you missed it.
A short distance away was this one:


Apart from the obvious danger of getting into a barrel, can you see the (4) mistakes in this one? Not too hard, eh? Easy to see how kids pick up the bad habits when they do their own writing.
By the way, did you know there is an Apostrophe Protection Society in the UK? It’s actually been featured in a prog on TV some years ago. Here is a quote from their site:
“We are aware of the way the English language is evolving during use, and do not intend any direct criticism of those who have made mistakes, but are just reminding all writers of English text, whether on notices or in documents of any type, of the correct usage of the apostrophe should you wish to put right mistakes you may have inadvertently made.”
Although I am not a member I do think they’re making a very valid point and if they don’t highlight the issue who else will? Check out the “Examples” tab on their site ( and look at some of the howlers – including stuff written by teachers!
Back to the pics. Well, clearly I was on a roll. I’d been going for only 10 mins and had two signs bagged already. I could see another one on a fence in the distance so ran over to see what it said:


Doh! No mistakes and after me eagerly running all the way over.
Then further along the Promenade was this one:


Now I know some people might say you should beware of Cliff Richard but after asking the locals it seems no-one knew who this Cliff Falls guy was. Anyway we had a lovely walk along the beach under the overhanging red rocks and we waved back at all the people who were shouting and waving at us from over on the promenade. We couldn’t tell what they were saying but we thought – this seems to be a really friendly town.
A couple of days later I was in a Craft Centre and came across this one:


Pointing to the sign, I suggested to the Craft Centre lady that perhaps Harry could help. She was not amused. Oh well…
However, was wondering if LLM might want to apply. Why? Well, it seems she might be good at it. If you read her blogs regularly you will have come across the following examples (there are more):
31.7.12 – An Admission – “I pottered over, friendly mission face on….”
27.7.12 – I came, I saw, I passed – “After work, I pottered off home….”
20.7.12 – To Aslan’s Mountain with a wisdom stick – “As we pottered along, admiring the views….”
13.7.12 – Searching For Agatha – “…and potter about in the countryside for a while.”
I like that expression “to potter” or “potter about”. It gives a real sense of relaxed meandering; while others frantically push and shove or drive manically you are in no rush, plenty of time to look around and take in the landscape (or townscape). It speaks of a detached air, of being happy in oneself, unconcerned with the normal daily grind. Yes, pottering about is good. I must have a go at it.
Just across the road was this:

You know what happened? I went in and…… that’s right, there were no ancient mariners! Fancy having a pub just for ancient mariners. I reckon they’re probably a dying breed! (By the way the verse at the start of this post, if you hadn’t guessed, is from Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.)
On the Sunday, we went to a Flower Festival in a nearby village. At the entrance to the church we saw this sign:


Yep, you’ve guessed it…….. inside there were no guide dogs….. just loads of people!
There were a number of historical displays inside. This one was about the Norman Conquest. I approached with caution believing it might be one of those things which when people get close it suddenly jumps out at you (and shouts something scary) because there’s a real human being inside who was just keeping very still. There wasn’t……so it didn’t. (I suppose if a person had had an arrow stuck in his eye it would have been quite hard to stand still):

Now apparently the idea that King Harold II (Harold Godwinson) was killed (1066) by an arrow in the eye comes from the pictures on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. However, it also shows what some believe to be another figure also representing Harold being killed by a sword. So it might have been arrow, might have been sword or could have been both.
Another display sign was this one:


Can you spot the mistakes this time? (I count three. Did you get them all?)
Towards the refreshment area and other stalls was this one:


Just one this time. (Apologies to American readers who, I know, do spell it this way).

On Tuesday we went on the Wells to Walsingham Light Railway. The sign told me this amazing fact:


I was impressed – the longest 10¼” gauge in the world! Where did the idea for that width come from? You might think it must be one of those Victorian oddities from long ago but surprisingly this one was built only very recently (1982). You probably won’t be surprised to know that there is actually a Ten and a Quarter Inch Gauge Railway Society and there is a website if you’re really interested.
Thanks to the Wells & Walsingham Light Railway for permission to use the following two photos from their website (as mine didn’t really come out that well).
We travelled on the blue engine. It was called the Norfolk Hero (began in service in 1987 & named in honour of Admiral Lord (Horatio) Nelson. He was born in 1758 in Burnham Thorpe, just 5½ miles west of where the railway starts & 9½ miles east of the village where I stayed):


There is a second engine (new in 2011) called Norfolk Heroine. It is named in honour of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who worked in Belgium during WW1, born 1865 in Swardeston near Norwich in Norfolk. She was shot, in Oct 1915, by the occupying German forces, for helping prisoners escape.


Also nearby was the following warning sign:

You might have to enlarge it but it’s typical of the signs organisations like this have to put up because of the (blame and) claim culture which infects everything these days. It’s a steam train, it runs on coal, it puffs out smoke – what do people expect? However what I didn’t expect was to get hit by one of “the smuts” in a very painful place. Just 15 mins into the journey I suddenly found myself blinking like mad as a piece of smut (prob coal dust) blew into my eye causing me to rub like mad to try and get it to the corner where I thought it wouldn’t hurt as much. Apart from that it was a really enjoyable day out on the little train.
Here’s another ‘spot the mistake one’:


Easy that one? Hope the art was going to be better than the spelling. (I wouldn’t still be there to find out though.)
I like this one because it’s a good pun-like trade name:


Check out the barber’s name in line 4. Hair salons and barber often do call themselves distinctive names. An unusual one I remember from some years ago was called – “Curl up and Dye”.
I’ll finish with one from the main road in the village where I was staying:


It gave me a good laugh anyway. Again you’ll need to enlarge it to see the small text but noteworthy bits are: the price – one quacker, published by – Eggsactly Newspapers and the motto (top right) – “Out for a duck, not run down”. And there are two of them near to the pond. What wags these local rustics are, eh?
I’ve decided – I like signs, especially when sometimes they DON’T say what they mean, sometimes when they’re just fun to read and sometimes when your response is tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t intend to take pics like this but, after the initial spots on day 1, looking for more just became routine. You’re probably asking yourself what assignment was he on about at the beginning of this post? He’s not mentioned it at all. Can you see it now? What assignment? (Do you see what I did there? What a sign meant – haha).

Can I have a word? Part 4

Our regular guest blogger tackles the subject of ‘Portmanteau Words’ today.

It’s back to that subject of words and, in this case, some very special words. As you’re probably aware English is a kind of “made up” or mongrel type of language. The purity of whatever language the inhabitants of our island spoke has been watered down (improved?) over the centuries in a number of ways. It’s become a mixture of so many words that have come to us from other cultures and languages around the world. Since the Romans invaded brining their Latin words, more influences have come in from a number of other conquerors: Danes, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Normans have all been responsible for changes in our language (and place names in particular) over hundreds of years. Immigration has provided more foreign flavours to the mix. Other words have come from the days of the British Empire and the countries it traded with. Some words we’ve taken in without modification (e.g. précis & fiancée from French, apartheid & trek from Afrikaans, ashram from Sanskrit and hundreds more); others have a kind of anglicised version but betray foreign roots. It’s estimated, for example, that 30% of English words have a French origin & 60% have a Latin origin; some duplication because of the Latin origin of some French words. A recent arrival into English (late 19th cent.) is the word safari which comes directly from Swahili where it means “long journey”; more recently Wiki (as in Wikipedia) from the Hawaiian “wiki wiki” meaning fast; Baboushka (also a 1980 song by Kate Bush) from the Russian for grandmother and Gulag which is actually an acronym in Russian for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i koloniimoped from the Swedish and short for motor and pedal. And there are, of course, hundreds more.

One of the things you might not have realised is that a word like moped is actually called a “portmanteau” word because it is made up of two other words or shortened versions of them. In fact, if you think about it, the French word porte-manteau is itself made up from two other French words: “porter” (meaning to carry) and “manteau” (meaning cloak). Apparently it was first used, in the context of joined words, by Lewis Carroll in 1871 (Alice Through the Looking Glass). Remember Freedom Literature, when I quoted, from Jabberwocky, these words “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” – I wonder did you know that “slithy” means lithe & slimy? LC was also responsible for the following portmanteaux: chortled a combination of chuckled & snort; frabjous for fair, fabulous & joyous; mimsy for flimsy & miserable. In 1964, when the country of Tanganika joined with the islands of Zanzibar the new nation was called Tanzania, a portmanteau of the two original names; similarly when Europe and Asia are combined to describe the whole land mass they become the portmanteau Eurasia. If you look back to LLM’s blog, Z is for, you will see the word zonkey – a portmanteau of zebra & donkey; also there is a zorse, a zebra/horse crossbreed and her very own, but rather difficult to conceive (think about it), catterpony. LLM’s blog, Attempting ‘sporty‘, mentioned having started NaNoWriMo which looks very “portmanteau-ish” to me. There was the interesting quidnunc from the K is for knowledge blog: that’s actually a Latin portmanteau taken directly into English. There are, of course, many others along these lines. (Btw, the French though, in their own language, don’t use the word porte-manteau this ‘joined-up words’ way).

Older residents of the UK will remember ‘O level’ exams called G.C.E.s; later came the exams for those not as academically clever – they called them C.S.E.s. Then in the rush to get everyone “on a level playing field” both exams went in the dustbin and the first portmanteau exams arrived in 1988 – the G.C.S.E.s

Probably one of the most recent – anyone heard of a turducken? (Not me!) It apparently arrived into the English language officially in 2010. It’s made by inserting a chicken into a duck, and then into a turkey. (Why would you do that?).

One of the most useless portmanteaux has to be guesstimate – it simply doesn’t help. When would you use it instead of estimate or guess both of which do the job of saying something or some figure is not exact? If you can help me out – please do.
As an aside, I suppose you could call this whole process LLW – lazylanguagewords. Why? Because it means the language (i.e. me & you) doesn’t have to come up with an original new word as such. You need a new word? Just grab a few existing ones and with a bit of welding & a few twiddles – hey presto! (You want to drive and travel – you dravel or drivel.)

The more you look into our language the more examples you can see. It got me thinking about how economical these words are: as I mentioned before, instead of saying something “is a cross between a zebra and a donkey” you just say “it’s a zonkey” – neat eh? Now I think we could use some more of these to save space and time when either speaking or writing. What next? ………Yes, you’ve guessed, I’ve been working on a few.

I was thinking of transport and how easy it would be to describe your journey with some new portmanteau words. Take this sentence for example (when you arrive at a friend’s house and they ask how you did you get here?) – “I came by bus, train and taxi.” This can be “portmanteau-ed” (see how I made a noun/adjective into a verb there?) into “I came bybutratax”. Do you see what I did there? A triple portmanteau! But it’s also very adaptable because if the journey was by train, bus & taxi it becomes trabutax. Switch it round for any combo of the words. If you wanted to include the walk to the bus stop (so walk, bus, train, taxi) you could make wabutratax (a quad portmanteau). If you’re a cyclist and you ride then travel on the train and ride again you could make bitrabi and so on. If you’re going abroad you could add the flight by plane into the mix – so taxi, plane, taxi would be taxplatax.

Now you may want to say how each leg of the journey went: good, bad, rough or whatever. I’ve had some thoughts on this too. So, for example, “I came by trabutax and the journey was gobaro. Did you get it? The journey was good, bad & rough on each of the corresponding legs by train, bus & taxi. If all three legs were good or bad you’d getgogogo or bababa.

Suppose someone serves in a café (or deli) and a customer could ask for alatchesanchoca which is a latte, cheese sandwich & chocolate cake. (Imaginary scenario: Customer to LLM – Can I have a latchesanchoca without the sandwich? LLM grits teeth & thinks: “But then it’s not a latchesanchoca!”) When four friends, each wanting a different drink, come in they could ask for an escaplatam – you got it didn’t you? An espresso, a cappuccino, a latte & an Americano. (Eseseslat = three espressos and a latte and so on.) Easy eh? Imagine the questions you’d get if those were on the menu on the wall: what’s that? Why is an escaplatam so expensive? Are they all mixed together in one cup? Are they definitely all separate? We’re definitely in LLM nightmare territory here? Where was that café again? …..Oh yes, ELM St!

Now, strictly speaking of course, the grammar-savvy among you will know that these words of mine are actually neologisms (that is words that may be in the process of entering common use) rather than actual portmanteaux (plural as per French not portmanteaus as would be in English) because they haven’t actually entered the language yet. (Therefore, to be precise, you can say that I’m making some speculative forays into the world of neologisms rather than inventing actual portmanteaux.) However just as it’s a fine line between genius and madness so it’s also a fine line between neologism and portmanteau! A definitely blurred, but possible, final frontier between invention and reality.

I wonder if you’ve thought of portmanteaux as a kind of ‘final frontier’? Out there on the edge? Are you ready to boldly go where no blogger (linguist?) has gone before? Such an ‘enterprise’ would be quite a trek wouldn’t it? Lots of stuff to Chekov the list and some old stuff to Klingon to. Also you’d need to make sure with the doctor that your “bones” are the real McCoy. Still, no space to go into all that here. (See what I did there?) Remember, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard said to his daughter, “Seize the time, Meribor. Live now; makenow always the most precious time. Now will never come again” — (from the episode calledThe Inner Light). I’m just off to scan those transport suggestions again – “beam me up, Scotty!” (To the Starship Bloggerprise – of course).

But you can see how the language could develop? It’s exciting isn’t it? (Perhaps LLM could revisit her “Things to get excited about” mood before becoming too sporty? New items on menu in café perhaps?) And it’s happening right here! And you read it first here!

Now it’s over to you – perhaps you could have a think and post some of your suggestions in the comments. It would be great to see some readers’ inventions. I’m sure you can come up with some better efforts than mine. (I can speak to Messrs Chambers, Oxford, & Collins once we’ve collected our suggestions.) Let’s get on board the E.S.S. Bloggerpriseand take our language forward to that final frontier– together! (This entry – using the most recent calculation method – is from the Captain’s Log: Stardate 2012.178)