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Updated: 2018-02-20T20:18:04.169+00:00


Day Courses in 2018


One of the outcomes of my August 2017 weekend on the English language was a request to have further days focusing on topics in greater depth. As most enquiries have been made in relation to the following topics, I will now host the following series for 2018. I haven't ruled out the possibility of repeating the general course, or covering other themes, but will wait for interest to be expressed before doing so.Friday, 16 February (during half-term), 9.30--4.00Grammar DayIntroduction to English grammar; grammar in child language acquisition; grammar in relation to reading and writing; grammar clinic (dealing with questions raised by participants).Wednesday, 30 May (during half-term), 9.30--4.00History of the Language DayIntroduction to the history of the English language; Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English; change in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary; change and variation today.Saturday and Sunday, 28-29 July, 9.30--4.00 with an evening film or performance eventShakespeare's Language WeekendIntroduction to Shakespeare's use of vocabulary, grammar, metre, orthography; his linguistic creativity; his influence on modern English; the second day will be an introduction to original pronunciation, followed by a workshop in which participants will be trained to use the accent for themselves (and receive a certificate affirming they have taken such a course).Cost: per day £150; Early Bird £125 - includes morning and afternoon refreshment and buffet lunchCertificates of attendance will be provided if required.BookingBecause of the limited size and facilities of the venue, places are limited to 50, so early booking is advised. An Early Bird discount is available, up to two months before the event. People should book by mail to the Ucheldre Centre, Millbank, Holyhead LL65 1TE, or directly through, or by phone 01407 763361. They will be sent a registration form (via email or post, as requested) to be returned to the Centre along with payment.One- or two-day bespoke courses at mutually convenient times can be programmed upon request (cost: £5K per diem), with the content decided by the group (maximum 25 people). Six months notice is usually required. All events are held in support of the Ucheldre Centre, a community arts venue in Holyhead, and a registered charity.[...]

English language weekend update


One never knows, with a new idea like this, whether it will appeal, or whether the people who have asked for it will actually come, given all the uncertainties in life that have to be managed. The purpose of the Early Bird registration was to establish whether, as they say, we have a 'goer'. That period is now over, and I'm pleased to report that we do.I'm told by the Ucheldre Centre that enough people took advantage of Early Bird registration to make the event viable. So it's definitely on, and I'm very much looking forward to it. It looks to be a very mixed group, with attendees coming from as far away as Japan, along with several English-language teachers from the UK. The variety of backgrounds will I think add greatly to the occasion, and I'm really looking forward to it.Details about the event can be found in the previous post. Places can be reserved by contacting the Ucheldre Centre Box Office: boxoffice@ucheldre.orgphone: (+44) 1407 763361 (10 am - 5 pm weekdays, 2 - 5 pm Sundays) post: David Crystal Summer Weekend, Ucheldre Centre, Mill Bank, Holyhead, LL65 1TE, UK[...]

On an English language weekend


I've frequently been asked to put on a summer course for people unable to attend the various lectures I give to schools, literary festivals, and the like, and an opportunity has now arisen to do so. The Ucheldre community arts centre in Holyhead (the name means 'high town' in Welsh) is having a fund-raising campaign, and I've agreed to present a weekend in support. I paste below the flyer that has been produced for the event, which includes contact details.David Crystal Summer Weekend on the English LanguageFor anyone interested in the English language and how it worksSaturday and Sunday 19-20 August 2017David Crystal presents a series of his talks on the structure, use, and history of the English language in this two-day event, to be held in the Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead, Anglesey, North Wales. See for the setting. Day 1, 9.30 - 5.00 Language Structure - talks (including Q&A) on the structure of English, pronunciation, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.Saturday evening is free, with the option of booking for dinner at the Ucheldre Centre and an evening musical concert.Day 2, 9.30 - 5.00 Language Variation and Change - talks (including Q&A) on accents and dialects, the internet and texting, child language acquisition, the future of Englishes, language play and literature, and original pronunciation (with particular reference to Shakespeare).Cost: £150 a day, to include buffet lunch, coffee and teaEarly Bird booking by 1 June 2017, £125 a dayReserve a place by contactingboxoffice@ucheldre.orgphone: (+44) 1407 763361 (10 am - 5 pm weekdays, 2 - 5 pm Sundays) post: David Crystal Summer Weekend, Ucheldre Centre, Mill Bank, Holyhead, LL65 1TE, UKOn receipt of your reservation, you will be sent a registration form which will include a place to inform the Centre of any dietary/access requirements and whether you want to take up the dinner/concert options, as well as details of local accommodation, restaurants, and (if you want to bring family members) a list of Anglesey attractions.Places are limited, so early booking is advised.Nearest airports are Liverpool or Manchester; direct train service (3-4 hours) from London Euston; by road, at the end of the A55; ferry from Dublin. The Ucheldre Centre has free wi-fi.[...]

On myths and the making of the OED


I've been pulled out of blog semi-retirement by a correspondent who watched the BBC TV show QI last week. It had a sequence on difficult-to-understand negatives, at which point one of the panellists (Gyles Brandreth) made a number of assertions about the size of vocabularies in languages, which my correspondent thought were wrong. She was right.How many words in English? He said there were 500,000 in the OED. Wrong. There are well over 600,000 in the OED. And of course the OED doesn't claim to include every word in the language; it has, for example, always avoided including the most arcane scientific terms (see further below). The new presenter of QI, Sandi Toksvig, chipped in with 'a million' or more, but the point was drowned out. In fact, the only correct answer to the question is 'we don't know'. Once all the abbreviations, slang, regional dialect, global English lexicon, and specialized scientific vocabulary are added, we are talking about an unknown number of millions.He then went on to say that English vocabulary is larger than that of other languages, which may well be true, given its global reach and its status as the first language of science, but then asserted that French has only 200,000 words and German half that. Again, absurd notions, based on the naive assumption that the words contained in the largest dictionaries equal the words in the language.It's sad to see such errors still being trotted out. Still? See my post back in April 2009, 'On the biggest load of rubbish', when somebody claimed to have found the millionth word in English. But to be more positive: the most wonderful book has just come out. I hate to use the word 'definitive' about any book, but this one justifies it. It is by Peter Gilliver, and it is called The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In its 625 pages we get a blow-by-blow, at times even day-by-day account of the way the dictionary was conceived, planned, and implemented, from its origins in the mid-19th-century to the present day. He has trawled through all the correspondence in the Press's archives, and manages to weld everything he found into an engaging story of all those involved - not just the senior editors, but including everyone associated with the project, and not forgetting the secretarial assistants. He has actually written two books in one. Beneath the maintext is a footnote series that at times is a story in itself. It is fascinating, because what comes to light is a tale of such human and dramatic character that it's amazing the dictionary was ever completed at all. I had no idea, for example, just how much the project was affected by illness, throughout its development. An attack of flu might cause a serious delay in the production schedule - and that was just one of the minor illnesses. Nor was I aware of how many differences of opinion there were between the editors (eg over how many scientific terms to include), between the editors and their academic advisors (including the Philological Society), and between the editors and the managers of the Press (over policy, deadlines, and, of course, money). Money is a recurring theme - from the Press's point of view, a hugely expensive project that needed to pay for itself over time, and, from the editorial point of view, a demanding schedule where salaries were dependent on productivity - a situation that inevitably took its toll on health and family life. Add to this concerns about reputation, both within the University and abroad, and the inevitable personality clashes, and we get a riveting story that Gilliver writes up brilliantly, even to the extent of giving us chapter-ending cliffhangers. I can easily imagine a television drama coming out of it. Along with John Simpson's equally fascinating memoir, The Word Detective, it has been a great year for the OED. I'm making my own additional contribution next May, following up my book on the historical thesaurus, Words in Time and Pl[...]

On Mundolingua


Last week I finally managed to get to see the amazing Mundolingua - the language museum in Paris founded by Mark Oremland a couple of years ago. I don't use the adjective lightly. He has managed to pack into two floors of a small building a remarkable array of pictures, books, artefacts, and interactive facilities relating to language, languages, and linguistics, all presented in a user-friendly and multingual way.
I had a personal interest in making my visit, as Mark describes his museum as a three-dimensional representation of my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. That may have been the starting-point, but in its range of illustrations the museum now goes well beyond what is in my book. And the ingenuity of the presentations has to be experienced.
Mundolingua is a must-see. It's on the south bank, and easy to find. Aim for the church of Saint Sulpice. Stand in front of it and Rue Servandoni is just around the corner on your right. A few metres down and Mundolingua is on your right. At the other end of the street are the Luxembourg gardens.
The museum is open every day between 10:00 and 19:00, with a modest entrance fee of just a few euros. Don't rush the visit. There is so much material that a language buff could spend a whole day here - or even two - exploring the collections in detail. The day I was there a group of visitors was sitting around a sociolinguistic exhibit with headphones, happily listening to usages in various languages. Another couple was by the phonetics chart copying the IPA sounds represented there.
I spent some time trying the braille quiz: a chart in front of you gives you all the braille letter codes, and then you place your hands under a cover and feel the message hidden there. I thought it would be easy and found it really challenging.
Mark has succeeded where other language museum projects, conceived on a larger scale, have failed. In a post on this blog in 2013I described some of them, all of which have not gone ahead, usually for lack of financial support. Mundolingua is the exception, and it needs all the support it can get. The day I visited there were quite a few people looking around, but there are days, I was told, when there are no visitors at all. So spread the news. Tour Eiffel? Tick. Louvre? Tick. Mundolingua? Tick.

On a dialect labour of love, and a Hopkins illustration


The Disappearing Dictionary (2015) has just been published in paperback. It was my attempt to celebrate the amazing English Dialect Dictionary compiled by Joseph Wright over a century ago - a dictionary that has been unjustly neglected. But not any more. Wright has been brought into the internet age by a team from the English Department at the University of Innsbruck (Dr Reinhard Heuberger, Dr Manfred Markus), who have put the whole work (all six volumes of it) online in a beautifully presented searchable website at EDD Online. It has taken them ages, but what a resource we now have! Anyone interested in English dialects will revel in it. I revelled, a few months ago. I was asked to give the annual Gerard Manley Hopkins lecture at Liverpool Hope University, so I chose as my subject to follow up the clue seen in a letter written by Hopkins to his mother on 13 March 1888: 'I am making a collection of Irish words and phrases for the great English Dialect Dictionary, and am in correspondence with the editor.' No copy of what he sent has been found in his collected papers. Several scholars, as a consequence, have tried to find them all, but with around 117,500 senses in the Dictionary as a whole, many of which take up many columns, it was not an easy task. Norman Mackenzie was one who began to wade through the EDD, but gave up. Norman White, in English Studies 68/4 (1987) found 89 locations. Did he find them all? Hopkins must have impressed Wright, for he is not listed in the lists of voluntary readers or correspondents, but in the 'list of unprinted collections of dialect words quoted in the dictionary by the initials of the compilers'. A member of the dialect elite, in other words. And an early one: Wright wasn't approached to be editor until mid-1887 (there's a letter from Professor Skeat, 13 June, reprinted in his wife's biography, The Life of Joseph Wright), so Hopkins must have been one of the earliest contributors if he was in correspondence just nine months later. Thanks to EDD Online, it proved an easy matter to find a named contributor. I simply typed the string G.M.H. into the appropriate search box, and up came the answer. There are 92 entries attributed to him. Norman White was almost right. Wright used 49 of Hopkins' examples; the rest are shown simply as G.M.H. In one entry (become) it's unclear just how much of the preceding text came from Hopkins. In (chiuc) and (uncared), Hopkins is the only evidence for the entry. Other points. The list shows an awareness of dialect grammar (containing grammatical words such as and, be, but), as well as lexical items. Two entries are observations rather than illustrations: avail of, hockey. Three entries show his personal background very well: bloody wars, boy, and especially (and amusingly) craw. And most of the entries relate to words beginning with A, B, and C. Evidently other events in Hopkins' life soon took him away from dialects. able for, fit to cope withIreland. Ah, he'd never be able for the attornies, Paddiana (1848) I.28 admire at Limerick. 'Tis to be admired at - such a long distance traversed between Ireland and America so fast. afraid, conj, lest, for fear thatDublin. Run indoors, God bless you, for afraid the cows'd run over you [said to a child by a man driving cows] after, prep, behindIreland. I left him after me. after, when used with a progressive tense to indicate a completed action. Ireland. I am after dining [I have dined] to be after, (5) the word also conveys the idea of a state or condition in the immediate future, and (6) of a recently completed action(5) Ireland. The child is after the measles. (6) I am after my dinner. again, adv, at a future time, by-and-byIreland. I didn't do it yet, but I'll do it again. alannah, sb, Ireland. my childAlana, properly 'my child'; used as a friendly or affectionate word of address, especially to the speaker's junior all out, adv, completely, altogether, fullyIreland. Not far [...]

On the reported death of the full-stop / period


It's amazing how a small point (literally) makes the headlines. Last week I gave a talk at the Hay Festival about my book on punctuation, Making A Point. Towards the end, I illustrated the way the use of the full-stop (period) was changing in fast-moving dialogue settings on the Internet and in short-messaging services - being omitted at the ends of statements, and used only when the writer wanted to add an emotional charge to what's being said. This sort of thing: John's coming to the party [statement of fact]John's coming to the party. [Oh dear!] My general point was to warn people against accepting uncritically the kinds of definition often made when children are being taught punctuation, such as 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'. It's important to draw their attention to the limitations of such a definition. To start with, it should be 'A statement...', contrasting the full-stop with other forms of sentence-final punctuation (?, !, ...), but it's also important to acknowledge that there are many exceptions. Look around you: public signs (WAY OUT - elliptical for the statement 'This is the way out'), for instance, typically don't end with full-stops. Headlines in newspapers don't end with full-stops (these days - a different story in Victorian times). Abbreviations such as BBC and Mr dropped their full-stops during the last century. And on the Internet, in certain settings where it's obvious from the layout that a sentence has ended, they are being omitted. As John Humphreys once said, in the Spectator, the job of a journalist is to simplify and exaggerate. And that's what happened. My point got reported on the front page of the Telegraph - front page, no less - and the online site had the headline 'Full stop falling out of fashion thanks to instant messaging'. Note the generalization. Whereas I was saying that the full-stop was changing in instant messaging (and the like), the paper reports it as changing everywhere because of instant messaging. Unsurprisingly, as papers and radio programmes steal from each other all the time, Chinese-whisper-like, the drama increased. And when it got to the New York Times - the front page again - the headline read 'A Full Stop for Periods?' and the opening paragraph made a summary that then spread all over the globe: 'One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying'. And the writer went on: The period ... is gradually being felled in the barrange of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age He used no full-stop at the end of his paragraph, or elsewhere in the article. It was a clever trope, but it went well beyond what I was saying, for there is no evidence at all that the full-stop is being less used in conventional writing, such as in newspaper articles. The writer's joke worked because he restricted his piece to single-sentence paragraphs. If he had used more than one sentence per paragraph he would soon have had to rely on the full-stop to make his writing easy to read. So the full-stop is not dying, outside the circumstances I mentioned above. But in journalism, who cares about qualifying comments like that? Death always makes a good story, so why mess it up? And thus, in the last 24 hours, we see these headlines: The period is dead - but so what? (Bostom Globe)Period coming to a full stop (The Straits Times) Has the period reached the point of no return? (San Diego Uninon-Tribune) The period is dead. Long live the period. (Huffington Post) Full stop? There is no point (The Telegraph, Calcutta) Doubtless many more in the next 24. And my in-box is filling up with people who are wanting to draw my attention to the fact that the change in usage is context-restricted - which is of course what I was saying in the first place. I'm hugely impressed by the fact that punctuation makes front-page news in a way that other aspects of language don't. But the journalistic treatment reinforce[...]

On Philomena Cunk, the name


A correspondent writes - having just watched Ben et al on Philomena Cunk's programme on Shakespeare - to ask why the name sounds so funny. Her name, that is, not Ben's.

This is all to do with the phonaesthetics of English. I've written about it before, such as in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and about the general topic of sound symbolism in the Language encylopedia. There are two opposing trends:

Short vowels, plosive consonants, and monosyllables tend to be used when you want to give someone a funny or quirky (and meaningless) name - Plip, Togg, Puck ... I remember Blackadder having great fun with the name Bob once. If the sound sequence has echoes of taboo words, so much the better. Cunk inevitably brings to mind ... well, you know.

Long vowels, continuant consonants such as /l/ and /m/, and polysyllables (three or more) tend to be used when you want to give someone a gentle or romantic (and meaningless) name - Lamonian, Manderley, Ramalini ... Real names include Mariana, Valentine - and Philomena.

So it's the juxtaposition of the opposing phonaesthetic effects that provides the effect my correspondent has sensed in the name Philomena Cunk. It's a well-tried literary trick: Roald Dahl's Amanda Thripp, J K Rowling's Arabella Figg, Dr Seuss's Bartholomew Cubbins...

On a multilingual library


I really want to head this post 'on multilingual libraries', plural, but I don't know of any others apart from the one I visited last Thursday in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There ought to be one in every city where there are multilingual communities - which means all of them. (So if you know of another, do say.)I was there because I'd agreed to become patron of the library, which was set up by the Kittiwake Trust and which opened last August. I gave a short talk about the need for libraries in general and for multilingual libraries in particular. I paste it below. It includes some of the points I made in an earlier post (January 2011) about the need to save libraries, and adds a summary of the research into the benefits of bilingualism. (For those especially interested in bilingual myths and realities, there's no better place than François Grosjean's blog, 'Life as a bilingual' .)I paste below a couple of pictures Hilary took while we were there, which I hope hint at the scale of the project and the diversity it contains. They have books in over 60 languages so far, aimed at all ages. Many can be loaned out. Membership is a fiver a year - and for those who would find even that cost too much, they operate the beautiful 'pay it forward' system, where those who can afford it pay in advance for those who can't, such as people belonging to local refugee support groups. Parents with children are welcome to drop in, and there's plenty of space to sit, read, and play, That was one of the most noticeable things about the library: its welcoming, colourful, playful atmosphere. There's more than just books here. Artefacts from other cultures are sprinkled about, and I imagine these will grow as the project develops.A particular delight was to see that the library doesn't restrict itself to language diversity but to dialect diversity as well. The Newcastle project has books on Tyneside dialects and other varieties of English, as well as local history - an important piece of PR, as many people unfortunately still can't see the point of bilingualism, but they begin to get an inkling when they realise that their own local dialect raises precisely the same issues of identity, pride, and cultural history.The library is on the upper floor of the Eldon Garden shopping centre, in the centre of Newcastle. If you travel by car, the entrance is on the seventh floor. That sounds like a long way up, but from the inside it's just an escalator ride up, round the corner from John Lewis. Its phone number is 07776 684940. Its website is here , and it's on Facebook. So, if you're in or around Newcastle, my recommendation is to call in and become a member or a volunteer. And if you have any spare books in other languages taking up space at home, a donation is very welcome. Why multilingual libraries matter I spy, with my little eye, two words beginning with ... L.It's a languages library. L proves to be an interesting letter in English, because it introduces so many words strongly associated with the venture you have launched here: Literature. Languages. Living. Loving. Lending. Learning. Leisure. Legacy ... How best to capture the spirit, the ethos, the value of libraries? Over the centuries, people have marvelled at them. They have been called a temple, a refuge, a second home, a leisure centre, a discovery channel, an advice bureau. It is a place where you can sit and draw the shelves around you like a warm cloak. When we gain a library we gain a source of wellbeing. The inscription over the door of the library at the ancient city of Thebes read (in classical Greek): 'The medicine chest of the soul'. The lauding of libraries crosses centuries and cultures. First and foremost they are seen as repositories of knowledge, windows into history. 'A great library', said Canadian scientist George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901), 'contains the di[...]

Further observations on the Hamlet H Quarto.


Messages continue to pour in since the publication of the 'H Quarto' (see the examples following the comments of the first post on this subject), proving beyond doubt that octolitteraphilia is contagious. Here is a selection from a linguist, a Shakespeare scholar, and a novelist: 'How heavily hawked? Hope highly heeded Handschrift halfway hoodwinks whole host.' Professor David Denison'Hugely hilarious - hope highly honoured.' Professor Michael Dobson'Higher-order hypothesis hilarious! Here's hoping H Hamlet huge hit.' Jean Hegland ... whose novel, Still Time, incidentally, is a must-read for Shakespeare-lovers. And from Professor Keith Johnson, who - in a post to the Shaksper website - introduces an issue that is now attracting considerable interest. 'David Crystal’s Unbelievable Hamlet Discovery hits on heavy and heretofore hidden hints about Hamlet’s history. Huge happenstance. 'Crystal’s H Quarto has implications for various areas of Shakespeare scholarship, including the field of Original Pronunciation, in which Crystal himself has been the guiding spirit. He has pointed out that in Early Modern English, an initial ‘h’ was often unpronounced. The first few lines of his H Quarto might then have read: BARNARDO ’ark!FRANCISCO ’o! ’enchman? BARNARDO ’e. FRANCISCO ’ey, ’our ’eedfully ’eeded. BARNARDO ’orological ’alfnight’s ’appened. ’op ’ome. 'Taken as a whole, there seems no doubt that the H Quarto gives us the longest stretch of uninterrupted h-dropping in the entire canon of English literature, including in the works of Dickens, with all his various Cockney h-droppers. 'There is, however, more to the h-dropping than phonetic quirk. The following thoughts occurred to me a couple of days ago (it is today 3rd April). The hero’s name, and the play’s title, start with a dropped h, so would have been pronounced ’Amlet. There is, however, a little-known vowel change (known as the ‘Quite Small Vowel Shift’) that took place in just a few streets in Stratford-upon-Avon for a few months in the 1600 period. It is one of the few sound changes in English that took place retrospectively. In it, today’s vowel came to be pronounced as the one in hot. It was not ’Amlet at all, but ’Omlet. 'The word omelet first appeared in the language at around this period, and there is a little-known Elizabethan Cookbook entitled Chippes Withal (a title which, as it happens, the twentieth-century English playwright Arnold Wesker took for one of his plays). On the topic of omelets the book (written in verse) has this to say: Who wolde an omelette make, Perforce must egges brake. But this is just what the play previously known as Hamlet is about. In the process of becoming a fulfilled man, Hamlet creates mayhem. In culinary terms, eggs get broken. 'When Crystal next feels like a walk, one can only urge him to return to New House, and give his full attention to other broken drains. There may be other H Quartos to discover: The Happy Housewives of Henley, perhaps, and Hiems’ Homily (pronounced ’Iems ’Omily: the play about Leontes and ’ermione).' It is entirely possible. And I suspect that the disturbed earth recently shown to be present in the radar scan of Shakespeare's grave is not an indication of a removed skull, as has been claimed, but of stolen manuscripts that were buried with the body. Some scholars have sensed that Shakespeare's disorder was more deep-rooted than I claimed. Other letters may have been affected. This from Professor Tim Connell: 'And of course Love's Labours Lost bears out your theory, as does an early ms (doubtless amended by Condell and Heminge) of the Wicked Wives of Windsor.' Peter Holland adds: 'David Crystal is to be congratulated on his remarkable discovery. I take it that the fact that the only non-h word I have ide[...]

On HHamlet by PoD


I've been really surprised by the number of enquiries I've had over the past day or so asking me to explain what PoD is and how it works. I thought it had become a well-known expression: 'print on demand'. But it seems that a lot of people aren't yet aware, and certainly have never bought a book in that way before.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. It took my website platform team (Librios), along with the printers (Clays of Suffolk), over a year to sort out the issues for The Unbelievable Hamlet Discovery. To begin with, there's a design issue to be solved. At the end of the day, the book has to look like any other printed book you'd see in a bookshop. So it has to go through the same stages of design and copy-editing and proof-reading as any other book submitted to a publisher. It has to have its ISBNs (plural, note, as printed book and ebook have to have different identifiers). Just because we (Hilary and I) are the publishers doesn't mean we can cut any corners. Fortunately we both have had plenty of editorial and design experience over the years. But it still needed a final look-through by a professional designer. And we learned an important fact: Clays are unable to PoD if a book is less than 80 pages.

A bigger problem, which took ages to sort out, is how to handle the postage. Once the book is given a price, the story isn't over. This is the biggest difference with buying a book at your local bookstore. The purchaser is typically going to buy just one copy, but the order can come in from any part of the world. This is what makes PoD so attractive to authors: their readership is worldwide. But how is the printer going to handle an order that comes in from the UK, or Germany, or Africa, or the USA...? The postage rates vary greatly. So all this has to be worked out so that orders can be processed automatically. Along with the further complications of VAT (where applicable).

Anyway, it's all sorted now, so if you order a copy, at, and pay via Paypal, it should arrive on your doorstep a couple of working days later. And those who prefer an e-copy will be able to do so directly, at the same site. (Here too there have been delays, as there are different design issues that have to be addressed.)

Actually, I would far rather have had the book published by a conventional publisher and sold in a conventional bookshop. I am very conscious of the need for authors to support the book-trade. So I would never self-publish without going down the usual publishing routes. I offered the Hamlet manuscript to two of my usual publishers and they turned it down - amazing, really, considering the significance of the discovery, but there we are. Similarly, when Hilary self-published her first children's novel, The Memors, it was only after we had explored possible publication with three houses. The only other books we self-publish are those in my backlist that are out-of-print, and where people are still interested in them.

Having said all that, we do find self-publishing an enormously exciting experience. We like being in control of all aspects of book production. Maybe, in another life, we would have been a publisher.

On an amazing Hamlet disovery, and other matters


It's been a busy few months, and the blog has suffered. But finally, two results have appeared, both intended to celebrate the Shakespeare anniversary - and I'm not sure which is the more significant.

The first, out on 24 March, is The Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation - the result of a decade of work presenting all the words in the First Folio in OP (original pronunciation), along with the relevant evidence of rhymes and spellings. An associated website will have some extra material and an audio file, accessed by a special code that comes inside each copy of the book.

And then, on 1 April, The Amazing Hamlet Discovery - my finding in a Stratford garden of a hitherto unknown early quarto of Hamlet, showing conclusively that Shakespeare suffered from octolitteraphilia. A most moving document, published in its entirety for the first time. An oulipian experience.

On grammatical facts, fictions, and The Spectator


A correspondent writes to ask if I’d seen the silly test from the grammar pedant N M Gwynne in The Spectator (17 October), as she’d had a problem with it. Not only had I seen it, I’d already written a letter to the magazine about it - but they didn’t publish it. The Spectator seems to be only interested in opinion, not facts, linguistic or otherwise. I’m not at all surprised my correspondent had a problem. The test asked readers to ‘give the parts of speech, including the grammatical part of any verbs, of “boiling” and every instance of “washing” in the sentence, “She is washing in boiling water yesterday’s washing in the washing machine that she uses for washing clothes”.’ Gwynne provided the answers in the letters column of the 7 November (I give his exact words): Boiling: present participle (verb-adjective) First ‘washing’: taken with ‘is’, continuous present tense, active voice and indicative mood. By itself, present participle. Second ‘washing’: either gerund (verbal noun) or gerundive. Third ‘washing’: noun acting as an adjective (‘noun-adjective’). Fourth ‘washing’: gerund, acting both as a noun and as a transitive verb. A letter in the issue of 14 November tells us that only 29 people attempted it and only one got the above answers. This didn’t surprise me either. I suspect most readers of the Spectator were sensible enough to see through the artificial nature of the exercise, with English being forced into the categories devised for Latin. Gerunds and gerundives have no place in an English grammar. And doubtless there were those, whose grammatical knowledge is better than Gwynne’s, who were marked wrong because they didn’t conform to Gwynne’s own misanalysis of ‘washing machine’. This, of course, is a compound noun - recognized as such in every dictionary - so the first element shouldn’t be classed as a separate part of speech at all. Heaven knows how people are supposed to make sense of the jumble of terms in the answers. A present participle is a verb-adjective. One ‘washing’ is either a gerund, or a gerundive - though it can hardly be both at the same time. Another is apparently both a noun and an adjective. Another is both a noun and a verb. No wonder people are put off grammar when presented with this kind of thing. Fortunately, modern approaches - as opposed to these resurrected Victorian ones - present English in a much more straightforward way. ‘Boiling’ is an adjective; ‘washing’ in ‘yesterday’s washing’ is a noun; ‘washing’ in ‘washing clothes’ is a verb; and so on. That is all that needs to be said, when first introducing word classes. Introducing imagined parallels - for instance, that ‘boiling’ is an adjective that reminds you of a verb - is an unnecessary confusion when identifying parts of speech. Gwynne is so out of touch with what is actually happening in schools today. He says on his website that grammar ‘has by now been almost entirely abolished’. Tell that to Buckinghamshire teachers, with their splendid Grammar Project - to name just one of many initiatives taking place around the country. Yes, the kind of grammar presented in Gwynne’s Grammar has indeed been almost entirely abolished in schools, and that’s a very good thing. But it’s been replaced by an approach which respects English for what it is, and doesn’t try to treat it as if it were a bastardized form of Latin. By the way, while I’m in this mood, I have a second piece of evidence to support my contention that the Spectator isn’t interested in facts. A few weeks earlier (24 October), a writer penned a travel piece on Anglesey, where I live, praising its natural splendour but denying that that there [...]

On a one-word reaction to reports about drunken Aussie accents


So the phone rings and it's a journalist from the Daily Mirror, wanting me to comment on the story circulating in the press this week, that the origin of the Australian accent lies in the drunken speech of the first convicts. I commented, all right. I used an ancient linguistic technical term: it's complete bollocks. Rubbish, I added, helpfully.

That wasn't enough, it seemed. I then had to spend the best part of an hour doing my best to persuade the journalist, who had obviously fallen for this story hook, line and sinker, (a) that it had come from an Australian academic, Dean Frenkel, who, though described as a 'speech expert', doesn't seem to have any backround in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics (one web site describes him as a 'left field artist' among other things), (b) that it wasn't especially new - it turns up regularly, along with similar myths from other parts of the world (such as that the Liverpudilian accent is the result of fog in the Mersey, or the Welsh rising lilt is because they lived in the mountains, or that the Birmingham accent arose because people didn't open their mouths very much to avoid the dirty air), all equally rubbish, (c) that there isn't actually any evidence to show that convicts 200 years ago spoke drunkenly to their children on a regular basis, (d) that drunken speech actually has very little in common with the examples cited of the Australian accent, and (e) that if she examined those examples, she'd soon see that they don't support the case at all.

For instance, standing pronounced as stending is described as 'lazy'; but [e] is higher up in the mouth than [a], and actually takes more muscular energy to produce; it's the very opposite of lazy. The characteristic [ai] in words like day is similarly said to be the result of lazy drunkenness - in which case all Cockneys are drunk, for this diphthong is found in that accent too (among many others). (Cockney, along with some other British accents, is actually one of the real influencers of Australian pronunciation.) To call the accent a 'speech impediment' or the result of 'inferior brain functioning', as he's reported to have said, is absolutely extraordinary. On that basis every accent is an impediment - apart, of course, from the one Dean Frankel holds in his mind as some sort of speech ideal. It's the kind of thinking that was common in the early days of prescriptivism, and it's surprising to see it surfacing again now. And appalling that the media should so readily believe it.

Was my long conversation with the journalist worth it? Not in the slightest. When the article appeared, she quoted a couple of lines from me about the diversity of accents in the UK, and allowed the story to come across as if it were gospel. 'So if the Aussie accent is down to booze, why do other parts of the world speak English so differently?' The word 'rubbish' didn't appear at all. Nor the other word.

It's yet another example of how the tabloid media masquerades fiction as fact, in the interests of what they think is a good story. The Guardian, for example, ran a piece debunking the myth, but that will hardly have an impact on the many readers of the Mirror and the Daily Mail (which also ran the story prominently) who will have read it, believed it, and repeated it. It's really depressing. This kind of journalism makes the job of a linguist so much harder.

On the latest Lingo


I'm aroused out of a period of bloglessness (explained below) by the arrival of the second issue of Lingo - the language magazine for young readers. This is the little sibling of Babel, that was aimed at older students, or indeed at anyone who has an interest in language and languages. It's not at all easy to present linguistic content to an age-range that is roughly top end of the juniors and low end of the seniors - Key Stage 3, as it were. But the editorial team at Huddersfield University have cracked it.

I got to appreciate the scale of the problem a few years ago when I was writing A Little Book of Language, aimed at young teenagers. To check I'd got the level right, I had my first draft read by a 12-year-old. She gave me a right beating up! 'Underline any bit you find unclear', I told her. And she did. She drew my attention to words and content that I had never dreamt would cause a problem. For example, in my chapter on professional pseudonyms, I had included examples like John Wayne. She underlined John Wayne. When I asked her why, she said she'd never heard of him. I had to find different examples (eg Eminem).

I see the Lingo team will be at the Language Show in Olympia, London, 16-18 October (stand 804). Well worth a visit, I'd've thought, if you are in the area. But if you're not, I would recommend anyone who's involved with teaching language (or languages) to youngsters to take a look at Lingo. I don't normally use my blog to advertise things, but I have to make an exception in this case, as it's the kind of product I've long been hoping to see getting into schools. It's visible online at

And now, back to a blogless life, caused by a killer project - a dictionary. There's nothing like dictionary compilation to take you away from the real world. It's not like any other kind of writing, where you are in control of your content. In a dictionary, the content controls you, in the form of the alphabet. The object in question will be out in March, The Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation. It's at the copy-editing stage, and next month I have to record the audio version and soon after go through the proofs. Believe me, there's nothing more blog-destroying than a set of dictionary proofs.

On feeling closer, via Henry, to Shakespeare


The original pronunciation (OP) production of Henry V by Ben Crystal's Passion in Practice company went ahead on 26 July, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. It was a sell-out, and warmly acclaimed by one of the most enthusiastic audiences I've ever encountered there. There were three more performances to enable those who couldn't get tickets to get a taste of the production, held in The Loft at Tanner Street, 3-5 August. The company used the occasion to launch a Passion in Practice patrons appeal, to help take the company forward, so if anyone fancies becoming a PiP well-willer, shoulder-clapper, bully-rook, complice, or yoke-fellow - a rather more appropriate set of funding names, I feel, than the usual boring bronze, silver, gold, etc acknowledgements I encounter in appeals - they can get information about it via the company website - or, for that matter, from me. But, to the play... The production displayed the dramatic possibilites of OP in all sorts of fresh and unexpected ways. OP, it needs to be remembered, is just a tool, as any other original practice, and its effect on a production needs to be judged in terms of the vision of the play as a whole. Ben adapted his innovative production to suit the intimacy of the Wanamaker playhouse. Not for this space the Olivier-style fortissimos of 'Once more...' and 'Crispin's day', but an exhausted muted appeal for the first and a quietly executed cameraderie for the second, with the OP underscoring these famous speeches to make them unexpectedly moving. Nothing in the Shakespeare canon matches the stylistic variability in this play, and the company brought the OP to life in ways I'd never heard on stage before. At one extreme, there is the colloquial banter of the Eastcheap characters, with lots of elided sounds; at the other, the rounded and resonant tones of the bishops. And in between, we have Henry himself, who we know from Henry IV has the ability to code-switch - able to talk to tapsters in their own language as well as to match diplomats in their linguistic games. Henry also knows that kings set fashions - he says as much to Kate - so his OP reflects a formal style - for example, with word-initial h's pronounced - that the other English nobles emulate. The military scenes demand a different set of OP choices. We hear the articulatory exaggerations of the Celtic captains, which add a novel comic dimension to OP, with an energetic Welsh r-trilling Welshman, an explosively palatal Irishman, and a comically incomprehensible Scot whose speech left the other captains baffled. Then, when Henry walks around the camp, the night before the battle, he stumbles across a group of soldiers (Williams et al) being told a story to keep their spirits up: in an ingenious addition, we hear the Rumour speech from Henry IV Part 2, told in a mesmerising OP by a Caribbean performance-poet who had joined Passion in Practice for the occasion. Chorus is distributed around members of the company, displaying OP in a wide variety of accents, from Lithuania to California. People sometimes forget that OP is not a single accent, but a sound system that allows many accents - just as there are in Modern English today - and it is important to hear it in all its variation. From a dramatic point of view, the vocal diversity to my mind strengthens the role of Chorus as a universal observer. Several other innovations inform this unusual production. The quarrel between Nym and Pistol has the two men shouting at each other with their speeches overlapping - a technique used to great effect after Duncan's murder in Ben's Macbeth at the Wanamaker last year. Henry's mind wanders as he list[...]

On being a pedant with power


'Michael Gove is instructing his civil servants on grammar' said the headline in today's Independent. And Mark Leftly went on to describe how instructions posted on the Ministry of Justice intranet, after Gove was appointed Lord Chancellor last month, warned officials about the kind of English they shouldn't be using. Nicholas Lezard in the Observer made a similar point. His headline read: 'Has Michael Gove dreamed up these grammar rules just for our entertainment?'

It would take a book to go through every point. Here is just one example of the bizarre and self-contradictory recommendations being reported.

Recommendation 1
'Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.'

Recommendation 2
The Lord Chancellor has told officials that they must not start a sentence with 'however'.

So, let's take a look...

However, they must obtain food from the outside world somehow. (Orwell, Animal Farm)
However, helped by the smooth words of Squealer, she assumes that she must have been wrong... (Orwell, Animal Farm)

It is her nature to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, Mr. Wickham's account seems to leave no doubt that Mr. Darcy is intentionally unkind. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
Mrs. Elton is disappointed. However, she decides not to put off her plans. (Austen, Emma)

Celia, now, plays very prettily, and is always ready to play. However, since Casaubon does not like it, you are all right. (Eliot, Middlemarch)
When I was a girl, I was more admired than if I had been so very pretty. However, she's reason to be grateful... (Eliot, Adam Bede)

Laugh? I should have bust my pants. However, they've fixed things up without that. (Waugh, Scoop)
However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 17 francs a night. (Waugh, Decline and Fall)

However, a problem presented itself at once. (Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger) However, let us not repine. (Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian)

I'll leave you to find examples in Matthew Parris - or, of course, in any modern writer.

Oh, and we mustn''t forget this one - one of several tracked down by the Independent journalist:

However, I was nudged out of my reverie by the reminder that it was indeed possible to send something through the post on Tuesday and be sure it arrived on Wednesday. (Gove, 2008)

It's linguistic hypocrisy. Do as I say, not as I do. It's usually not difficult to show how pedants use the very constructions they condemn, and normally one can quickly see through the hypocrisy and disregard them with impunity. But it's difficult when you're being paid by a pedant with political power. I pity the poor civil servants who have to waste their time (and taxpayers' money) trying to implement such unreal and eccentric prescriptions.

On becoming a language teacher


The National College for Teaching and Leadership, part of the Department for Education, have just sent me an informative briefing document about their latest campaign to attract high-quality graduates into the language-teaching profession. It included several points I didn't know, and made me feel more optimistic than I was before about the future of modern language teaching in the UK. Some extracts...

The Initial Teacher Training census from 2014 showed that 73 percent of language teacher trainees had a 2.1 degree or better; 20 percent had firsts. It seems to be a myth that only low achievers go in for language teaching. And the numbers are more than I thought: over 1100 postgraduate trainees were recruited last year. The NCTL say they are keen to recruit both new graduates and experienced industry professionals who are looking for a fresh challenge and may be open to a career change. And - another thing I didn't know - they say that if trainees specialise in teaching languages at secondary level, they could qualify for a tax-free bursary of up to £25,000 while training. There's more information about the training options here.

Their document mentions in passing that the number of children taking a language GCSE in 2014 was almost a fifth higher than in 2012. Several leading organizations, such as the British Academy and ALL (the Association for Language Learning), have over the past few years been emphasizing the importance of multilingualism. Is the message at last getting across, that learning a foreign language puts you in a really strong position in an increasingly competitive marketing world? I really hope so.

On archaeodialectology


Two dialect stories: one bad news, one good news.

Let me start with the bad. I read in the Guardian a little while ago that funding for the Dictionary of American Regional English - DARE, as it's known - is going to dry up this summer, unless something dramatic happens. This splendid project has been going since 1962 - a unique window into the lexical past of the USA. I gave it a double-page spread in my English Language encyclopedia. People have been fascinated by what it has already uncovered. Dialect words and idioms have universal appeal.

It would be tragic if the ongoing systematic recording of current US dialect change were to cease. People might not notice DARE's disappearance now. But in one or two generation's time, when people ask 'how was it in those days?', as they will, they will feel the loss keenly. For nobody will know. Like undocumented endangered languages, when dialect words die, if they've never been audio-recorded or written down, it is as if they have never been.

Dialect surveys are not that expensive, by contemporary standards. DARE's annual budget is $525,000 - tiny, compared with, say, the billion-dollar-plus daily profits of the world's oil companies. So I very much hope that funding will come from somewhere to safeguard the project. I don't want DARE to end up a distant memory, known only to archaeodialectologists.

This is my term for the study of past dialects through the systematic analysis of their material remains. I adapt the definition from the one given by my archaeology contributor to The Cambridge Encyclopedia, and - as with that subject - it explores not just old artefacts (linguistic, in this case), but the people, places, and methods used in the past to discover them. My own exercise in archaeodialectology is out this month, so for me that's the good news. It's called The Disappearing Dictionary, published by Macmillan, and it's an anthology of some of the words recorded by Joseph Wright in his amazing six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, published between 1898 and 1905. You can find more information about the book here.

Wright's dictionary, and the story behind it, has been forgotten by all but a few dialect specialists, which is a shame, as it's a treasure-trove of fascinating words and phrases. I tweeted last night that I was 'mortaciously betwittered' by the Waterstone's display of Crystalia in Gower Street, and I now see my message being retweeted and favourited all over the place. Mortacious - extremely, exceedingly. Do you know it? It was recorded by Wright in Cheshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Sussex, but I bet it had wider usage. Is it still being used anywhere, I wonder? The associated Macmillan website will give people the chance to say, when it's launched in a week or so. But already it seems to be obtaining a new lease of life. 'Mortaciously is now my favourite word', tweeted one. That's capadocious, I say (Devon, Yorkshire).

On cups and mugs


I wake up from a period of bard-hibernation to find a fascinating debate going on in social media about the distinction between cup and mug. It was started by Heinz, who used the word cup in its product name Heinz Cup Soup, and then cleverly got a PR campaign going by asking the question 'did we give it the wrong name?' A large survey of UK opinion showed that there is indeed a great deal of mixed usage. I wasn't surprised. Fuzzy boundaries between lexical items have a long history of study in linguistics. I have two examples in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language - one about the definition of chair (in the Semantics chapter) and the other about the distinction between a cup and a glass (in the Semantic Development chapter). The PR company asked me for a comment about the sociolinguistic history of the two terms, and this is what I wrote. In the beginning, there was only the cup. The Anglo-Saxon word was cuppe, a borrowed word from Latin cuppa, which entered many European languages (such as Spanish copa and French coupe). The original meaning was simply a drinking-vessel. The form of the vessel developed in two directions: without a stem (as in the modern tea-cup) and with a stem and foot (as in a wine-cup or chalice, sometimes with a cover), reflecting an increasing diversity of functions. It first developed a strong religious connotation in Christianity, being used in the sense of 'chalice' in Wyclifffe's translation of the Bible (14th century), later in the Book of Common Prayer (16th century), and thus into modern usage (eg as communion cup). In the 17th century it also developed an ornamental sense, being used as a prize in a contest - initially, in horse-racing (the Doncaster Cup), which is the commonest modern application. Cup then developed a very wide range of senses, in which its shape was applied to any rounded cavity, such as in plants (an acorn-cup), human anatomy (the cup of the hip-bone), golf (a depression in the ground), and clothing (in bras). The linguistic result was the formation of many compound words, such as cup-holder, cup-final, and cup-cake. Colloquially, it became a replacement for the liquid a cup might contain, as in cuppa (cup of tea) and to drink a cup (Auld Lang Syne), and that in turn led to further everyday usage. 'That's not my cup of tea.' 'He's in his cups.' It even generated a proverb: 'There's many a slip between cup and lip'. The history of mug is totally different. The word arrived in English much later, in the Middle Ages. Nobody is quite sure where it came from. There are similar-sounding words in German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages, all referring to some sort of open can or jug. It may be an adaptation of a Latin word for a measuring vessel (modius), because the notion of measurement is found in the earliest recorded use of mug in English in 1400. From the outset it seemed to be used more to refer to the physical object than to the content it might contain. It comes to be used with such adjectives as large and half-pint, and with words that describe its material, such as silver or stone. The fashion for ornamental and collectible mugs also drew attention to the mug as a physical object. We are also much more likely to find the word mug used in relation to a location - a steaming mug of tea was left 'on the bench', 'by the fire'... Cups weren't so often 'located' in this way. The early use of mug was mainly in regional dialects, and especially in Scotland, for any earthenware bowl or pot. It began to be used routinely for a drinking vessel in the 17th cent[...]

On bard-induced bloglessness


A few correspondents have asked what has happened to my blog, as there have been no posts for a while. The answer is simple, and consists of two words: Shakespeare dictionaries. It was rather unkind of Shakespeare to have two anniversaries in such close proximity: the 450th of the birth in 2014 and the 400th of the death in 2016. The result was an astronomical growth in the Shakespeare industry, with publishers vying to get their books out in good time. The interest will disappear on 24 April next year, I imagine - until the next big anniversary comes along (2023, the First Folio). I was caught up in this flurry, and still am, having accepted commissions for two new dictionaries. The first is almost out: an Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary for schools, co-written with Ben Crystal and stunningly illustrated by Kate Bellamy, published by OUP next month. This contains some 4000 of the words students find difficult, taken from the 12 most popular plays studied in schools. We've devised some new thesaural features for it and spent a lot of time creating contextual explanations, adding theatre notes, and the like. It's been a lot of fun. And later in the year, I will say that the second dictionary was a lot of fun - but not right now, while I'm still slogging through it. This is going to be the Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation (also OUP) - a response to the extraordinary demand for OP materials that has emerged over the past couple of years. At least three plays are being performed in OP this year - Pericles (just happened in Stockholm, performed by Ben's Shakespeare Ensemble), The Merchant of Venice in Baltimore in March at the Shakespeare Factory, and Henry 5 at the Globe in July (Ben's Ensemble again). I've had hints of other productions from correspondents. And everyone is clamouring for help, in the form of recordings or transcriptions. The aim of the OP Dictionary is to enable people to cope with OPs for themselves. It will contain every word in the First Folio, along with the evidence from spellings and rhymes, so that people can see how I arrived at my recommendations. It's been a project that, on and off, I've been engaged in for the past ten years, but the last year has seen it come to the boil. And when dictionaries approach boiling point, everything else that is optional stops. Dictionary compilation (and, I recall, encyclopedia compilation) is unlike any other kind of writing, as you are in the hands of an impassive and uncaring force: the alphabet. With an 'ordinary' book, the author is in control. I can choose how much to include or exclude. With a dictionary, you have to reach letter Z before you are done, and leave nothing out. If the aim is to include all words in the First Folio, then that is an absolute: no tolerances are possible. So, as one slogs through the big letters - C, P, and the gigantic S... - there is no time or energy available for luxuries such as blog posting. It would perhaps be different if I were blogging casually, on everyday topics. But my blog has always been a reactive one, responding to linguistic questions that I am sent. I choose topics where the answers are not already easily available online or in the literature, and so the posts are mini-research projects, with some taking many hours to write. That luxury disappeared towards the end of last year - in the middle of letter S, as I remember. All being well, I hope to finish the OP Dictionary around Easter-time, and expect to resume posting then. In the meantime, for those who no[...]

On saying potato


You Say Potato is out today.


The associated 'record your accent' survey is gathering pace, with over a hundred recordings up already at this website. My idea is to collect as many versions of the way people say a single word ('potato') as possible, on a worldwide scale, so that we can hear the subtle gradations that occur from place to place, and of course even within a place.

My thanks especially to Stephen Fry, Michael Rosen, John Humphrys, Benjamin Zephaniah, Nicholas Parsons, Brian May, and Pam Ayres, who were among the first to let me know how they say potato - often with some unexpected additional remarks!

On word-cloud calligrams


My correspondent this time is Nicola Burton of Oxford University Press, who's been looking after the publicity for my recently published Words in Time and Place, and who has come up with a novel way of presenting the word-clusters in the book. She's taken the word-cloud motif on the cover - all the words for nose formed into the shape of a nose (with more than a passing resemblance to my own hooter) - and extended it to the other thematic categories covered by the book. You can see them here, but this is an example, using the words covered in the category 'terms of endearment'.

I've been wondering what to call them. They clearly fall into a tradition of visual poetry, sometimes called 'altar poems' (after the poem by George Herbert), and they are the hallmark of concrete poetry. But the practice of making words or sentences visually resemble entities in the real world goes well beyond poetry. Lewis Carroll's famous mouse-tail is an example. The term that is most obviously applicable is calligram - from calligraphy. I have examples in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language of some of Apollinaire's. But word-cloud calligrams are so distinctive that I think they deserve a term of their own. Any suggestions?

Since the OUP blog post went up (yesterday), the calligrams have entered social media, and have been significantly retweeted. I sense a new art-form here. My book was commissioned to provide a general introduction to the enormous Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and any semantic category of that work, large or small, could receive this treatment - and there are tens of thousands available. They can all be accessed through the OED online site, where there's a button allowing any word to be related to its location in the HTOED lists. Concrete words like nose or lavatory are likely to be relatively straightforward to handle (though they still need artistic ingenuity to be appealing). It'll be the abstract words that present the real challenge. But seeing as Nicola managed effectively to deal with death and endearment, I doubt whethere any word will be beyond the reach of the new generation of word-cloud calligrammers.

On a question that (it) is hard to answer


A correspondent writes to ask about the use of it in relative clauses, in such sentences as the following (taken from Fowler and also a modern textbook). He finds its use unidiomatic in examples (3) and (5) in particular. Is the it omissible, he asks?

(1) This was a conference which it was my duty to attend.
(2) The debate on the bill produced a tangle of arguments which it required all Mr. Chamberlain's skill to untie.
(3) This is a thing which it is easy to say.
(4) The heaving and turbulent centuries which at one time it was the fashion to characterize the 'Dark Ages' have long had a peculiar fascination for historians.
(5) That is a question which it is very hard to answer.

These are quite complex syntactically, as they all have a nonfinite clause inside a cleft construction inside a relative clause. To see what's going on we need to simplify. Let's get rid of the clefting first.

(1) My duty was to attend (the conference).
(2) Mr Chamberlain's skill was required to untie (the tangle of arguments).

The semantic links are clear: duty goes primarily with attend, not conference. Skill goes primarily with untie, not arguments. If the it were omitted in the original examples, the force of the relative pronoun would be to point the listener/reader semantically backwards, towards the head noun. Duty would now seem to go with conference, and skill with arguments. The it restores the right semantic connection. So, in short: we avoid a potential ambiguity - though the fact that there's so much usage variation (the it often being omitted) suggests that it isn't one that causes much communicative difficulty.

The ambiguity is there in (3) and (5), but the shortness of the sentences, along with the clear meaning of the elements, makes the presence of it less needed - which is why my correspondent has noticed it when it's inserted.

It is easy to say (this thing).
It is hard to answer (the question).

It's obvious that things don't do the speaking or that questions don't do the answering, so semantically there's no need to reinforce the point when the clefts are restored.

This is a thing which is easy to say.
That is a question which is very hard to answer

Only someone ignoring the semantics would say there's a genuine ambiguity here. But traditional grammarians, obsessed with making a rule work in all cases, did regularly ignore semantics. And anyone following those rules will insist on inserting the it in these cases, probably on the grounds that it helps avoid a possible momentary distraction. From a psycholinguistic point of view, there may be a point here, but it's hardly one that's likely to cause communicative interference. I doubt whether most people would ever even notice that an it was omitted in (3) and (5). And some, such as my correspondent, evidently find the usage with it intrusive.

(4) is a special case, as it's a badly constructed sentence, which could do with being rephrased anyway! Try reducing the sentence to its basic form and you'll see what I mean.

On courtly OP


Following on from my last post, I've had several emails from correspondents asking the same question. Did the Elizabethan court have an upper-class accent like today? If not, how did the upper-class characters in the plays show they were different from the lower-class ones, if they were all using the same accent. The actor playing the Prince asked exactly the same question, when we were mounting the Romeo production in 2004. Director Tim Carroll had a simple response: 'act'! Indeed, if actors rely on their accent alone to convey a character, something has gone badly wrong. That's one of the irritating stage legacies of Received Pronunciation: I've often been told about actor 'laziness' - that all one has to do to convey a posh character is to sound posh, and the accent will do all the work. And conversely, of course, that all an actor has to do to play a lower-class character is to sound rustic. There's so much more to it than that. The question betrays a misunderstanding of what OP is. OP is a phonology, not a phonetics. In other words, it represents the sound system of an earlier period in the history of English. Just as Modern English phonology has an indefinite number of phonetic realizations, so does Early Modern English phonology. In other words, there are several accents in OP. When we performed Romeo at the Globe, we had a Scottish-tinged Juliet, a Cockney-tinged Nurse, a Northern Ireland-tinged Peter, and so on. But everyone reflected ths OP system in the way they spoke - for example, saying musician as 'mu-si-see-an', or pronouncing /r/ after vowels. So of course there would have been differences between different parts of the country, and between the way the court and city people spoke and the way people spoke in the countryside. Indeed, Shakespeare says as much, in As You Like It, when disguised Orlando notices the way Rosalind speaks: 'Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling' (3.2.329). But what was that court accent? Was it 'like today'? It was nothing like RP. RP evolved as an upper-class accent towards the end of the 18th century. In Elizabethan times, you could have a strongly regional accent and still reach the highest levels in the kingdom. We don't know exactly how Elizabeth spoke, but Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh were from Devon, and the judge Thomas Malet observed of the latter: 'he spoke broad Devonshire to his dying day'. When James brought his court down from Scotland, suddenly Scottish accents were everywhere. Francis Bacon describes James's speech as 'swift and cursory, and in the full dialect of his country'. And we know from observations such as occur in John Day's satirical 'The Isle of Gulls' (1606) that people would copy the discourse of the court. That play may even have been presented with both Scottish and Southern accents, judging by the observation of Sir Edward Hoby, in a 1606 letter, that 'all men's parts were acted of two diverse nations', and that - evidently King James didn't like it - some of the actors ended up in prison for their pains. At the same time, we know from a famous quotation in George Puttenham's Art of English Poesie (1589) that poets were recommended to use 'good southern' - 'the usual speech of the court' or of the surrounding area to about 60 miles, and to avoid those from the north and west who used 'strange accents or ill-shapen sounds'. If there was no RP, what might this [...]