[For the Oxford Words blog:] Lost in translation…so I was: adventures in Irish English

Cliffs of Moher fort

We were lost – having turned off a brand new and completely empty motorway that cut across the lush green hills of the West coast of Ireland in a quest to visit my Irish mother’s third cousins twice removed. So we finally pulled up next to an old road sign, which confusingly said:

 Knockroe           Knockroe

My English sister turned on the satnav and said “OK, tell me the name of the street.”

“Sure Knockroe hasn’t any street names,” said my mother.

“Postcode? Everyone has a postcode!” tried my sister, frantically tapping the satnav which was largely blank.

“There are no postcodes in Ireland!” said my mother.

“But how do you find anyone?” said my sister, with all the exasperation of someone born in Generation Y who now finds themselves inexplicably without a signal.

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Can the Académie française stop the rise of Anglicisms in French?

Paris bridge tower

 

It’s official: binge drinking is passé in France. No bad thing, you may think; but while you may now be looking forward to a summer of slow afternoons marinating in traditional Parisian café culture, you won’t be able to sip any fair trade wine, download any emails, or get any cash back – not officially, anyway.

How so? Are the French cheesed off with modern life? Well, not quite: it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” terms themselves that have been given the cold shoulder by certain linguistic authorities in favour of carefully crafted French alternatives (see the quiz below). And if you approve of this move, then here’s a toast to a very happy journée internationale de la francophonie on 20 March. But just who are these linguistic authorities, and do French speakers really listen to them?

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10 British animal idioms and expressions

Dogs in window

Think you’re the cat’s whiskers – or even the dog’s bollocks – when it comes to knowing your animal idioms in British English? You’re probably right – so the next time you’re listening to your friend rabbiting on, why not try dropping one of the following common British expressions into your conversation? You’ll soon sound like you’ve been speaking British English for donkey’s years.

1. Make a pig’s ear of something

Dictionary definition: handle something ineptly

Have you ever seen a pig’s ear? While in Britain these fatty, hairy appendages have traditionally been given to dogs as a treat, their use in international cuisine is starting to have an impact on the London restaurant scene. It’s quite possible, however, that pig’s ear was originally pig’s rear – which perhaps makes more sense.

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From silhouette to leotard: more everyday things named after French people (2)

France lavender

Inspired by the anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, we’re looking at more everyday things which bear the name of the French person who discovered, invented, or inspired them…

A shadow of his former self

1759: France was in the grip of a financial crisis, fighting Britain in the Seven Years’ War and running up a deficit. The country’s newly-established (and rather academic) finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette, decided to introduce tough new austerity measures. Partly inspired by his research trips to London, he proposed the English practice of subjecting the wealthy to taxes from which they had traditionally been exempted. He introduced the “subvention générale” (a tax on external signs of wealth, such as doors, windows, and servants) and ordered the rich to melt down their silverware, but unsurprisingly his proposals did not go down well and he was hounded out after just eight months in the job, retiring quietly to work on his chateau.

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From pralines to pasteurized milk: everyday things named after French people (1)

Nice glass of wine

On March 31 this year, Gustave Eiffel’s tower – arguably the most iconic symbol of France – celebrated its 124th birthday. Incidentally, the world’s most visited paid-for tourist attraction is the same age as other famous French creations such as the Moulin Rouge and Herminie Cadolle’s first modern bra… – anyway, with all things français in mind, let’s have a look at some other things that were named after the French people who inspired, invented, or discovered them. (You can also explore more in my second post on French eponyms.)

Snuffed out

We can trace the entire tobacco phenomenon back to a single moment in 1561: when Jean Nicot de Villemain, a young French ambassador, went to dinner at a friend’s house during his diplomatic stint in Lisbon, and was shown a garden plant from Brazil that apparently had incredible healing properties.

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10 common mistakes with prepositions made by learners of English

Grammar

A preposition is a very common little word like at, for, in, on, and to, which the dictionary defines as

a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause.

For example:

PREPOSITION:
Thida works at the market.
This coffee’s for Luca!
Alejandro lives in Peru.
Agnieszka’s on the bus.
Mika’s listening to J-pop again.

Native English speakers rarely make mistakes with these very common prepositions. However, non-native speakers frequently get them wrong, often because they translate directly from their own language rather than listening to native English speakers (and yes, you always listen to something or someone).

The best way to improve your command of prepositions is to:

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10 mistakes made by learners of English

Banana skin

Do learners of English make particular mistakes in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary depending on their mother tongue? (While linguists distinguish between an error, made by a student who doesn’t yet know the correct rule, and a mistake, made by a student who knows the rule but momentarily forgets it, I’ll use mistake to cover both cases.)

It makes intuitive sense that some (particularly lower-level) mistakes are more likely to be made by speakers of certain languages. One well-known example is that speakers of Slavic languages, such as Polish, often miss out articles (*she bought new car) while speakers of Romance languages, such as Italian, occasionally drop in too many (I love the my sister!). These kinds of mistakes reflect the nature of the students’ mother tongues, and are arguably fairly minor, but other kinds – such as the greater tendency among speakers of certain Asian languages (like Khmer or Japanese) to mix up he and she – may lead to real communication difficulties.

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Relational language: the language of cousins

Trees

It would always throw people when we told them. The four of us – my sister and I, and the two boys – spent all our school holidays together, and we all had dark hair. So when people asked if my “brothers” wanted an ice cream too, I’d have to take a deep breath and explain – in the long-suffering way that only a ten-year-old can – that they weren’t actually my “brothers” but my “second cousins once removed”. Typically, the reaction would be one of deep befuddlement (particularly from other children: “removed from what??”) Meanwhile, anyone vaguely familiar with the workings of kinship would hazard tentatively, “But if they’re once removed…why are they the same age as you?” (If you can guess why we were all more or less the same age, check your answer at Age is just a number.)

So this article is an attempt to help you fathom out your family tree, or at least the lower branches. First, though, let’s look at the pedigree of the word cousin itself.

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Chasing the rainbow connection

Rainbow at Pauanui

Reflect and refract

When was the last time you looked out the window and said, “Oh look! There’s a many-coloured refraction of light from drops of water!”? Well – OK, if you said that last week then feel free to skip the next paragraph, but most of us refer to the sudden splash of colours in the sky as a rainbow, an eye-catching natural phenomenon which has been rich in cultural significance throughout human history.

The science behind rainbows is reasonably straightforward: when sunlight hits a raindrop, it slows down and is refracted, or made to change direction. The raindrop acts as a tiny prism, splitting the white light into all its individual hues. Some of this light is reflected back and further refracted on entering the air again, dispersing outwards to create the spectrum of shades whose names we probably all remember from the school playground.

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The language of leap years

Leaping

What have Italian composer Rossini and American rapper Ja Rule got in common? A number of possible answers may leap to mind here, but the one I’m looking for is that the two musicians were both born on a date that is mysteriously elusive: 29 February. Except that 2012 is a leap year, and so this year the estimated 5 million or so leaplings, leapers, or leap-year babies around the world actually get to blow out the candles on the cake for their quadrennial celebration. During the intervening common years, however, the timing of their birthday festivities depends on the laws of whichever land they’re in. In New Zealand, a leaplings official birthday is deemed to be 28 February, whereas in Britain it’s 1 March. If you timed it right, you could fly from one country to the other for the world’s longest birthday.

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